When I first arrived in the Caribbean, I cried.
Mum seemed a little offended by this, and I was quick to explain that they were not sad tears – although exactly what kind of tears they were I couldn’t say.
I think part of it was stress and exhaustion from a long day’s travelling. Our bus from San José to Cariari was three hours long, and once there, a man with a strong Caribbean accent and no official uniform stuffed me and our luggage in a taxi with a French couple and whisked Mum off on foot to the bus station on the other side of town, from where our next coach left. Turns out he was legit, but at the time I was less than at-ease. From this other bus station, it was another 90 minutes of bumpy, non-air-conditioned journeying to La Pavona where we waited an hour for a boat to come along and take us on the two-hour ride to final destination Tortuguero.
When I say it like that, it doesn’t sound so bad. That’s summarisation for you. But yes, I was a little exhausted (so, I’m sure, was Mum). Plus, there had been a great deal of confusion on the boat when we pulled up next to a sign reading “Welcome to Tortuguero”. The driver and some others at the front of the boat began calling “La roja, la roja” and gesturing to the back of the boat where Mum was standing. They also pointed to our suitcase, repeating, “La maleta” (the suitcase). As ‘roja’ is the feminine form of ‘red’, and my mother is a female redhead, I caught her eye and gestured for her to come down to the front with the other couple who were squeezing past to disembark. “It’s our stop!” I mouthed at her, but she disagreed. While everyone around me continued to insist “La roja”, I addressed the tomato-delivering policeman and explained that “La roja es mi madre y la maleta es nuestra” (“The redhead is my mother and the suitcase is ours”).
He gave me a blank look. The boat began to pull out of the dock. I started to panic; the policeman started to laugh. The other roja-repeating people joined in and I looked on, baffled, until someone asked me where we were staying. “El Icaco,” I replied. “Falta, falta,” assured a large black woman draped in fabrics who, minutes before, had been chattering away to her friend in a fantastic accent and, I think, in creole.
As it turns out, La Roja is the name of the hotel we were stopping at, where the couple got off the boat. The men had simply been asking if they were taking the suitcase with them.
This was one of those situations where I would have been better off not speaking Spanish. Mum didn’t make an idiot of herself, did she?
So yes, I was still a little stressed out about that, too. But I think it was mostly to do with what Roger had said.
Roger is a Dutch man I met on the second bus. He is a consultant in the field of European education policy (no, Dad, I’m not pulling your leg, and no, Dad, he doesn’t know you – I asked). I didn’t like him. When he told me that his family loves to travel so much that their eldest daughter’s first trip to Thailand was at the age of four; I got the impression that everyone unfortunate enough to spend five minutes in conversation with Roger as I had, had probably been enlightened to this piece of information, too. Yes, he was THAT guy.
Once Dutch Roger was done singing his own praises, though, he asked me if I travel much – outside of Europe, he means, of course. Ha! I thought, and explained that even though I was only 19, I had already visited Asia and I’d travelled alone to the USA four times. “Oh,” he said with a dismissive wave of his hand and gestured around towards Costa Rica; “Well then this will be a real culture shock for you”. I was thinking, who does he think I am, some Brit living in a bubble? Costa Rica hadn’t been much of a culture shock for me at all, and I’d been there for a week already.
Of course it hadn’t been a culture shock – I’d been in San José! Costa Rica is the self-proclaimed (or proclaimed by Freddie the hostel guy, on Costa Rica’s behalf) most Americanised country in Latin America behind Puerto Rico, and nowhere is this more evident than in the capital. But when I arrived in the jungle to the east of the country, in this removed community only accessible by boat or plane, where people speak creole and make a relaxed and easy living catering to the tourists; I was out of my depth. There were no cars here; no city sounds of honking horns and sirens and street lottery-ticket sellers screaming out prices. It was as though that lifestyle was dead, part of some other age. Instead, I heard grasshoppers and parrots and the sound of children playing. Instead of diesel fumes and public bathrooms, I smelled savoury ocean air and, every so often, a whiff of pineapple from a nearby tree. And the only unsavoury experience I had in Tortuguero was when I was shot by a four-year-old boy who stowed away his (literally) hand-gun amidst screeches of laughter and delighted calls of “¡Mentira! ¡Mentira!” when I played along and clutched my gaping chest-wound, staggering into Mum’s side and whispering “Muero; estoy muriendo” before strolling off down the path and smiling to myself at the thought of their wee cherub faces, brimming with glee because of my games.
I just couldn’t believe there were places like this in the world – where people live so calmly and simply and naturally. And the idea that San José and the USA and Edinburgh were still out there with their lights and their sounds and their rushing – that they weren’t just a bygone era or a different planet, they were right here, right now – was the most incredible of all.
Chill out, man.