El Salto

When I moved to Costa Rica, it was a conscious decision to change my life.

A lot of expats I meet got here almost by accident. They came for something finite, short-term. They came for vacation, or to volunteer, or to learn Spanish. They came, they fell in love with the country, and they decided to stay.

I’m the weird one who knew I was moving here long-term from the beginning.

I finalized my divorce and changed my name with all the various government agencies. I quit a job I had held for seven long years. I sold my half of my mortgage. I sold my car. I kissed two of my amazing dogs goodbye forever, and the other two I snuggled close, not having any clue when I would see them again. I put my remaining belongings in storage. My friends threw me a farewell party. I packed my suitcase. And I LEFT.

I knew not one single person in Costa Rica. I did not speak Spanish. I had zero job leads. No idea what city I’d settle in. I just… moved.

The first ten days, my mom joined me. We traveled around doing the touristy stuff. Ziplining, horseback riding, swimming in waterfalls, getting massages, that kind of thing. About nine days later, though, I dropped her off at the airport, and my new life really began. Although I had already made a couple of Tico friends, for this next stage, I was utterly alone.

I took a shuttle down to Quepos. It was supposed to pick me up at 9:00 AM. I waited until 9:30 before calling. They told me my school had forgotten to pay for my shuttle. So I waited at a Denny’s in Alajuela for four hours for the next shuttle. It sucked. I was anxious, and uncomfortable, and a little sad from watching my mom walk into the airport with tears in her eyes. It was a very long four hours.

Finally the shuttle arrived and I sat next to a charming girl from Canada with roots in India. Her name was Alisha and she was going on a yoga retreat. We were both quiet for the first hour, but soon became chatty. We exchanged information when she got out an hour before my stop. The road got darker and darker, and I was the only one in the shuttle. The road climbed a hill and then BOOM. Pacific Ocean to the right, glowing with all the colors of a blood orange in a spectacular sunset. The driver asked if I’d like a photo. I grinned and said, “¡Por favor!”

Standing there looking at the Pacific Ocean for the first time since I was 13 years old, I suddenly realized why my shuttle was late. It had been late so I could experience this one perfect, breathless moment. I snapped a photo with my camera, and it promptly broke.

When I arrived in Quepos and got out, a smiling lady and muscle-tee-clad gentleman were waiting for me. Oh, god, it was so hot. I wilted within 30 seconds. The lady said my name, “Jessie?” with a question mark on it. “Sí,” I said, and with that almost exhausted my conversational ability. This was my host family for the next four weeks, then.

The man, Rolvin, took my suitcase and the lady, Mileidy, began chattering happily in Spanish as they led me through the deepening gloom. I looked around with trepidation. Quepos is, at a cursory glance, a little ugly. Rusty corrugated tin roofs are tossed together over piecework construction. The roads are pitted and the ocean isn’t visible from town even though it’s on the water. We crossed over a smelly creek choked with plastic bags and styrofoam cups, and turned down a nondescript road to arrive at a house locked tight with metal bars and barbed wire (this is typical all over Costa Rica, to keep out burglars). She handed me a set of keys, led me up a very narrow staircase, and showed me my room. It was one of 5 doors off a balcony, but there was no one else around. The room contained a desk, a chair, a floor fan, a bed, and a shelf. That’s all. Rolvin deposited my suitcase and they told me what time breakfast would be. They left, shutting the door behind them.

I stood still, holding my arms and legs apart so they wouldn’t touch. It was so HOT. I was completely drenched in sweat and had only walked five minutes. There was no air conditioner. I locked the door, turned on the floor fan, stripped down to my panties, and stood in front of the fan. I was completely alone. I may have hyperventilated a little, standing there and letting the insanity of what I had done with my life finally drizzle down my skin along with the never-ending sweat.

By morning, I was less panicked, but only somewhat. I took a cold shower in a shared bathroom, dressed, and went down to breakfast. There, I met two of the other boarders, a girl from Germany and a girl from Switzerland. Mileidy served a lovely breakfast of fresh pineapple, papaya, eggs, toast, and gallo pinto, along with coffee. She sat at the table with us and talked pleasantly. She was remarkably easy to converse with despite never saying a word in English. The girls were friendly, and I overheard them mention a waterfall.

Let me be clear. In the States, I was a very shy person. Not among friends, but I was paralyzed when it came to introducing myself or trying to meet new people. It was agony. I was married to an extrovert who loved attention, so I was never challenged in this. I was allowed to wallow in my shyness.

I asked the girls, “Did you say you were going to a waterfall today?”

“Yes,” they said. “We’ve never been there but just heard about it.”

I steeled myself and just came out with it. “Do you mind if I join you?”

“Of course! Just grab your things and meet us in the street in fifteen minutes!” They both smiled, and we exchanged names–they were Chrissy and Daniela. We put away our dishes together.

Elated, I rushed upstairs and packed a daybag and put on a swimsuit. I had ASKED! And they said YES! This was HUGE. The old Jessie I left behind in the States would have never done that. Never.

At the bus terminal, we met up with more of their friends, a guy from Germany and another girl, I think also from Germany. They were all studying together at a local Spanish school. (Bonus side note: I am now a Director at the headquarters for that school.) Everyone introduced themselves to me and tried to remember to talk in English for my sake instead of German, which they all knew. We grabbed a bus and paid 375 colones to ride. We got off just five minutes later at an unmarked bus stop.

It was only 9:00 in the morning and already blistering. None of us had any idea where we were going. We walked down the steep hill for a while, looking for a trail, then back up. Finally we asked a shirtless man hammering away on a roof, “¿Dónde está la cascada?” He pointed vaguely back the way we had come. We were pouring sweat. God, it was hot here.

Finally we found the trailhead and entered the blessed shade of the jungle. It was forest that quickly melted into jungle, no slow petering out of civilization, no neat trail maintenance, just a footpath through the jungle. The sound of rushing water was near.

It became apparent that my newfound companions were not big-time hikers. After twenty minutes, they started wondering if they had it right, and were debating turning around. And I, the shy girl, took to cajoling them, saying, “I’m sure it’s just around the next bend. Just a little farther.”

The trail abruptly ended at a river, where there was a guy sitting on the bank messing with his walking stick. We introduced ourselves around. His name was Dago, and he was from New York with Cuban roots. “Do you know where this place is?”

“No,” I said before anyone else could. “But it can’t be far now.”

We left him there and started walking in the riverbed itself, calf-high in water. My broken camera chafed at me. I ached to capture this glorious rainforest in a photo or two hundred. The bright morning sunlight streamed in perfect golden beams through the thick, verdant canopy, and the water was oh-so-clear. My new friends were laughing and joking and we were all asking each other questions about who we were, where we came from, why we were here. It was amiable and easy. Not at all awkward or stilted for having just met each other.

And all of a sudden we came upon the waterfall. It wasn’t much, really, a fifteen foot drop off a cliff into a clear blue pool. Dago caught up with us then, and together we discovered the only way down to the swimming hole was a ratty nylon rope tied to the cliff. One by one, we rappelled down and stripped to our swimsuits and delved into the icy pool.

I’m happy to say I’ve lost about 15 pounds since this photo was taken.

So refreshing! Soon the area rang with our shrieks and laughter. We explored the pool carefully, deemed it safe enough, rock climbed back up the rope, and leapt repeatedly off the waterfall into the pool. When it got too cold, I slithered up onto a rock in the sun and rested, surveying the scene. Dago climbed up next to me and we began chatting. It was real talk, about how different it was here, and how no one back home really understood what life was really about, and how much we appreciated paradise, and how paradise was not just a bunch of stuff. By noon, we were fast friends.

We had the place to ourselves; not a single other hiker interrupted us all day. We all laughed together when the ants attacked our backpacks—and my unfortunate flatmate Chrissy. We all shared snacks when we got hungry. We all cheered each other for giant leaps off the waterfall. One of my jumps ended poorly and for the next week, I had a massive black bruise on my inner thigh from my knee allllll the way up.

I pushed into the water and employed a dead man’s float. The water in my ears silenced the world save for my steady breath, and I stared at a sky so blue it made my heart hurt. Exotic birds occasionally flitted across my field of vision. In less than twenty-four hours, I had gone from blind panic to the deepest, most serene, most content peace I have ever felt.

That feeling has never really left me henceforth. Oh, I’ve had bad days, faltered, felt lonely or lost sometimes. But really all it took was one perfect day at the waterfall (“El Salto”) with five people I had never met before, and the knowledge, sure and unshakable, that I was capable of doing this crazy thing. Everything was going to be all right.

Everyone in that picture but me has since left Costa Rica. But they left behind a shimmering memory that will never fade.

All photos except the sunset and the homestay taken by my friend Dago.