Winner of the 2016 Upper Division Arts & Sciences Writing Award from CU Boulder
Pura Vida Wanderlust
by Jim Pavlick
Do you remember the first time you were away from your parents? I’m not talking about the first of many times your parent let you at home to deliver some mail or the first night you went to spend the night at a friend’s house. I mean completely away; in other words, isolation. I remember the first time I was away and isolated. That’s how I felt when I first travelled. From the seconds after the wheels of the plane leaving the tarmac, I had the sinking realization that I was not only leaving the state of Colorado but the United States entirely. I was on my very own island; you may as well have called me Chuck Noland. The parental units with whom I had relied upon at least on a weekly basis were going to be thousands of miles away. If I were to need anything from my parents, they weren’t there. In a plane filled to capacity with people, I was isolated and away.
My parents are the cornerstone from which I have built myself as a human being. I had decided well before my parents had that it was time for me to leave the nest. Sure I would come to miss my father’s simple but fantastic Italian cooking paired often with tiramisu and my mother’s daily rants about PTA, celebrity scandals and needle-pointing but this was for my own good. It was for my own sanity. I was constantly nagged by a sensational feeling in my heart. I could feel it pluck at the strings attached and eventually I was consumed with this burning desire. This desire had me search for anything that would soothe and cool the burning within me. I needed something pure, something that would invigorate my life and expose me to adventure. I realized that I needed to travel.
I blame Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway always wrote about what he had seen and what he had experienced. Though his main characters bore little physical resemblance to Hemingway, it was well known and discussed to death in every literature class that it was Hemingway who ran with the bulls, drove that military ambulance and he who had caught that big fish only to have sharks gnaw it away. His life was so full of travel, danger and adventure; it was so exciting for me to read about his life and accomplishments that I couldn’t wait to get started on my own. One problem I encountered was that I had no idea where to start. The second problem was the fact that I lacked the funding to leave the state let alone the country. The third problem was that Pamplona was months away, I am a terrible driver and terrified of sharks and large fish.
I figured my parents wouldn’t foot the bill. So I resorted to saving. The horror! I scrimped. I scrounged for every quarter, begged for every dime and nabbed every nickel and placed it in a five-gallon water jug piggy-bank. I even had time to pick up pennies. I was saving; saving for seemed to be an impossible budget to afford such a trip. So I managed to mostly solve the second problem. I wish I could say that I unfolded a map of the world and flung a dart at it for my destination but that would be a lie. Had I actually done that and knowing my rotten luck, it would’ve landed squarely on Pyongyang.
I heard good things about Costa Rica. There were no bulls, no wars requiring ambulances and I hadn’t planned to go fishing. Problem number three solved. In Costa Rica I had heard, they’re laid back, they don’t mind tourists and they love American money. Winner winner, chicken dinner. It was meant to be discovery-of-self trip. My parents were astonished that I was able to save a single dollar. I had enough money to survive but things would be tight. I would have to downgrade from the ramen-noodle lifestyle I subjected myself to saltine crackers and ketchup in order to afford this trip but I could manage. The plane ticket would be the single costliest part of the trip. Then one day, along came a surprise.
My father handed me a tall and slender white envelope. My father is a trickster and anything could be in that envelope. Could it be money? A plane ticket? A coupon for a ‘free’ slap to the head like it was the last time? Who knew? My father knew and by the way he was smiling, it made me wary. Then I opened the envelope and immediately dropped it in shock. My father went on to inform me that he had intended to buy a one-way ticket to Costa Rica and ‘screwed up’ at the online checkout by ‘accidentally’ buying me a round-trip ticket instead. I wore on him, he said. It was about time; sweet victory never felt so good. I wondered why he told me not to buy a plane ticket just yet.
That feeling of victory quickly faded. When the wheels had touched down on the tarmac at Juan Santamaria Airport in the capital of Costa Rica, I was in full panic mode. I had uncontrollable heart palpitations and shortness of breath despite the weak gin and tonic prepared for me by the flight attendant. Fly the friendly skies, they said. It’s funny how they never mention turbulence. My head was floating in a quinine tainted fog; I wanted to deplane as quickly and cautiously as possible without making a fool of myself. Weak drink or not, I’m still a lightweight.
Everyone around me seemed to be speaking an alien language. I could recognize and understand the Spanish and the English well enough but even then I had a difficult time understanding just about everything. Then I met the woman sitting politely next to me. Her name was Elaine. She had a house in Limón, a city on the Gulf of Mexico and came down whenever she could. The conversation was pleasant and she invited me to dinner, to get to know one another she said, once the plane landed. I gave her proposal some thought and realized she maybe meant to invite me for something more than just dinner. She was a cougar stalking her prey and found me, a young who’s strayed from his herd. I was in no mood to slake the appetite of a predator so I politely declined. I’m committed to my mission. Little did I know just how much I would learn on this mission. Upon this rock, I shall build my church and this church shall be me. It was time to figure out what I was made of.
I can speak and understand Spanish. But I spoke in that high school Spanish pacing and in that high school Spanish accent that makes me stick out pig among guinea pigs. My words were slightly slurred as I asked for directions to the main exit. Juan Santamaria Airport is smaller than Denver International. It’s still as confusing as D.I.A., but just not as big. Everything is written in Spanish save for a few pronouns. I realized quickly that despite being able to read and speak the language, I had no idea what anyone was saying. I was used to that high school Spanish drawl, that slow sort of Spanish speaking you get when you know the words but don’t know how to say them properly.
I say ¡Hola! and before I can ask ¿Cómo estás Usted? they’re asking me about where I came from, where do I need to go, what would I like to see first, my first pet’s name, favorite color, if I though the los equipos de fútbol de Costa Rica were going to the FIFA World Cup and then finally introduced himself as Alejandro.
Well Alejandro, I managed. Then Alejandro went on to talk about how he’s lived here all his life, he had a family of three including the wife, how his brother got him this job and never lets him forget about it at the weekly familia dinner. I would like a taxi, I blurted out.
Alejandro was the concierge of sorts and out of the hundreds of people milling from gate to exit and vice versa, he found me. His concierge spider-sense must have detected a wayward traveler, honed in on me and figured I needed assistance. To his credit, he was absolutely correct. He escorted me beyond the baggage claim and to the nightmarish world outside the airport. Everyone was shouting. Why were they shouting? I have no idea. I asked Alejandro why everyone was shouting. Because they’re cabrónes, he answered with a wry smile and escorted me to a taxi.
This is where Alejandro saved my life. I started walking over to a red car. To me it looked like a death trap on wheels. It looked to be a car stitched together with old car parts by duct tape and spit. As it turned out, it was a death trap on wheels but not for the reason you’re thinking. Alejandro swiftly scooped me away and politely scolded me. In Costa Rica, it is sometimes difficult to determine what’s a legit taxi and what’s a fake designed for nefarious intention. A taxi usually has a yellow triangle painted all over their car. Alejandro escorted me to the yellow triangle-painted car and I gave the driver the motel name that which I would be staying. The Kidnapper Deluxe I almost took had no triangles anywhere. Before Alejandro could slam shut the door, I gave him $20 American. I’ve never seen a man’s eyes light up before like Alejandro’s did. For what he had done for me, it was the least I could do in return.
Suddenly there was a bolt of lightning that lit up the dark and cloudy sky. Before the thunder could make contact with my ears, the heavens opened up and unleashed hell. I was within the safety of the taxi to protect me from the deluge of rain pelting everyone. For now, I was relatively safe from the rain in this taxi that reeked of an interesting combination of good incense and bad beef jerky.
Okay call me Chico, Chico said in broken English with a snaggle-toothed smile and slammed his foot on the gas pedal. The tiny engine whined and the tiny car rocketed forward and I was blasted backwards. Only after Chico took the first turn and me sliding across both seats did I realize that this taxi didn’t have any seatbelts. The cracked vinyl lining of the backseat helped arrest my slipping and sliding. I had never seen raindrops the size of quarters until that afternoon. I could barely see outside the windshield. I wondered how on earth Chico could see. In retrospect, he probably couldn’t see. There’s a saying that there are no atheists in foxholes. Well, this was my foxhole and you better know I was believin’ and I never stopped. Journey would be so proud.
¡Derecha! ¡Izquierda! ¡Alto! Chico narrated as he drove as if he was the suspect of a high-speed car chase. ¡Estamos revirtiendo! ¡Iquierda! ¡Izquierda! ¡Alto! Okay, we here! Esto no es mi motel. It was a veterinarian clinic. I could tell by the dog and cat silhouette on the sign. I told him no, this isn’t my motel again in Spanish. Chico blushed and apologized. ¡Derecha! ¡Derecha! ¡Izquierda! ¡Alto! Okay, we here! Wrong again Chico. Este es un supermercado. This went on for an hour and several more wrong stops. I was beginning to suspect that Alejandro had played me like in the movie Taken and Chico was taking me to a warehouse where they could sell me. Lucky for me, my parents had Liam Neeson’s phone number on speed dial. He does have a particular set of skills, after all.
I eventually got used to his erratic driving. I had to keep my wits about me because Chico was now pulling up to my umpteenth stop when I recognized the sign. It was my motel! Holy sweet mother of God we had finally arrived. I kissed the rain stained street and inhaled deep the throes of the alien jungle surrounding the city. I gave Chico a $10 and bid him farewell. He gave me his card and told me if I ever needed a driver, Chico was my man.
I wobbled into the clean, well air-conditioned and static lobby and plopped my passport down onto the counter. A beautiful and svelte blonde woman manned the desk and was surprised hearing a slap against her counter. An expatriate in her own right and she was an American studying at the local university. Her name is Julianna. We exchanged pleasantries before checking in. I was exhausted and wanted nothing more than anything resembling a bed. Julianna remarked that it had been a while since she’s been able to speak English with anyone so she invited me to dinner. An invitation I accepted. No feelings of being stalked this time around. I had a feeling that good food and good conversation were going to be on the endangered species list while I was there.
Julianna was an incredible cook; her room had a kitchen as it was her apartment attached to the lobby. The motel belonged to her tia. Julianna was her ward, receptionist, turn-down service attendant, chef, and pool cleaner when the pool was in season. She cooked for me ‘simplicity’: fish, rice and beans and some funny looking bananas called plátanos and some vino to take the edge off. The smells were incredible and indescribable. And for dessert, she had prepared tres leches con pasas. Made from scratch by her earlier that day, she told me. It was sweet, delicious and simple. It was all I could ask for. I was to be the only guest at the motel that night so she rolled out the frayed red carpet for me.
After the pleasant dinner and polite conversations, I was escorted to my room. When the door opened I dropped my backpack in surprise. I paid for some hay in a manger and I received the presidential suite. One hell of a bargain, I thought. Julianna bid goodbye with a wink Everything inside was huge and I suddenly felt very small. I took in everything that had happened that day as I laid down on the bed stuffed full with clouds. I sought to summarize the day in a sentence or even a few words. I started with impossible. It was impossible to condense the day into a single sentence let alone a handful of words. Then I thought about Hemingway. WWHD? Drink alcohol, bed a good-looking woman, travel somewhere exotic, write a short story about it, and win another literary prize, not necessarily in that order. I could strike one thing off that list and I started with that. This is my second strike off that list:
To travel to a destination never been explored is to experience purity in its finest form. To be consumed by experience of alienation is to invite a metamorphosis of self. Never before had I had been consumed by wanderlust. And when I did travel, I desired nothing more than to go back home. My ambitions began with boredom and bled into anxiety. Isolation in a world full of people blended well with my growing confusion and doubt. Flirtation and flattery by Elaine inflated my confidence. A terrifying taxi trip by Chico would aggravate my anxiety and created a dense, disconcerting fog around that island of mine. Wilson? Wilson!
Kindness by Alejandro and Julianna were my guiding lights out and away from this fog. There is no cure for homesickness but there are ways to ease it. Little did Elaine, Alejandro, Chico, and Julianna know how much of an effect they had on me. I had gone from becoming an appetizer for dinner, paying for a family’s dinner, compelled to provide and provided to with compassion by a traveler for a traveler.
My travels within the world at large was less about the destination and more about experience. This was what Hemingway was all about. I wanted to be like Hemingway but be myself simultaneously. I had no idea who I was. I want to travel and subject myself to danger and adventure and chronicle it all. It took me travelling to Costa Rica to realize this. I still don’t know fully who I am, but I knew this was my start. In Costa Rica, they say pura vida, meaning pure life. Without my lust for travel, this story could not have come to fruition; I didn’t know how to live until I left home.
I wanted to leave home and when I did, I wanted to come back. I realized that balance between both worlds was the key; it was the only way to unlock the secrets of self. Pura Vida Wanderlust is my thirst for purity, for travel and for my life. If you ever have a chance to discover who you are, take it. Doubt be damned. Trust in yourself. We’ve only one life to live and this is our chance to enjoy it. So go. Find your Elaine, your Alejandro, your Chico or Julianna. Find your pura vida wanderlust within yourself.