I keep an embroidered bracelet I bought in Costa Rica on my nightstand. It’s a token of our recent 11-day family adventure, infused with the balm of sandy kids, surf lessons and seaside meals. This trip we did not just take the show on the road. Costa Rica felt like a true vacation; one that reminded me of who I was before 2013. I sniff it every morning when I wake up to remind me of being there.
Arriving in Costa Rica was our own personal miracle. The week before our trip my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and spiraled into depression so deep we hospitalized him. My brother flew in from L.A. and insisted we go. The night before leaving, two out of three children threw up. We went anyway. We were dropped off at the airport with 4, not 5 passports; a near miss. Within hours of arriving in Tamarindo we were informed that the Pacific coast was being evacuated for a tsunami. Hardened against the other shoe dropping, we waited it out in our bungalow.
2013 had rolled that way. We lost my Uncle, we lost our dog, my mom had a stroke, my son broke a vertebra, we moved my mom and dad out of their thirty-five year home after both endured multiple hospitalizations. I hadn’t realized how maladapted to stress we’d become until we spent some time at peace.
The genesis of the trip was our inner knowing that we needed to refocus our attention on our kids, revisit the baseline of our stress levels and release our fears of what wicked was to come next. In January, on our way home from cross-country skiing with the boys, my husband suggested a cheap and easy vacation in spring. In my post-ski glow, I looked at my surfer-husband and wondered what it would feel like to have left behind a skill that lights me up, for decades? Landlocked, he’s only dabbled in an hour’s surf here or there every few years. We had been talking about “surf camp” since our 9-year-old was travel-worthy. It was time to go big. I offered Jason the vacation reigns and he gleefully, skillfully planned a family surf trip to Costa Rica (read: he picked out a beach and bought plane tickets). Once we arrived, it took me about a week to stop asking what we were going to do next and had he really not planned ANYTHING other than the flight. After about a week of detox from our harried life at home, I could see the ABSOLUTE WISDOM to his plan; we were there to catch a good wave. Nothing else.
Unfortunately, we were forced to bring ourselves along on vacation. We were as fried as folks can get in a polar-vortex. We brought our worries and our arguments, our hurts and defenses. The first three days I jonesed for my phone, the kids demanded screen time, and our schedule felt listless. I continued to wear anger like a shield and crave busyness to distract me from grief. After about five days of warming our collective skin, paying attention to each other, delighting in our remoteness, and disrobing on the beach, familiar people resurfaced; us. Four 10-hour sleeps, beach yoga, surf lessons, many meals I did not cook or clean up, and much laughter later, I realized how much I had missed feeling like myself.
Here are some of the specific things Tamarindo offered that made our vacation healing…
Immersion. When I first visited the tropics, Ecuador; circa 1994, the new context had a percolating effect on me. After six months, I left a bolder, richer me (and not just the parasites). I relived this watching my 9-year-old as we drove from the Liberia airport to our destination. His senses were barraged with banana trees, thin cows, cement homes, grass fires, barren hillsides, wooden trucks, Spanish billboards and lush riverbeds. He questioned, processed, stared. My younger boys’ responses were fascinatingly age-appropriate as well. My 5-year-old listened. He heard birds the rest of us missed, he picked up Spanish and readily spoke it and delighted in marimba music. My three-year-old made friends with locals, played, swam, and napped in my arms like an infant again, so new to THIS world.
Hotel Luna Llena. This is not only the site of the Salve Monos project that builds bridges for the local Howler monkey population, it is a tico hotel with a warm, helpful staff that made us feel at home. We had our own bungalow equipped with a 3-kid loft and kitchenette. The bungalows surrounded a pool with a bar where Lourdes served smoothies and made unsolicited phone calls on our behalf. “I could use a massage.” She rings in a therapist. “The kids want to try a zip line.” She rings in a tour guide. “Is there a tsunami coming to end it all?” She rings a friend and says honestly, “I will let you know.”
A very responsible teenager named Jailene sat at the front gate and adored our energetic 3-year-old. Maria made us coffee and breakfast every morning. Jason and I could do awkward-feeling things, like sit still, drink cocktails, talk to each other, read books and occasionally SHUT OUR EYES while our kids swam and played. I even peed when I feel like I had to pee and not hours later. Unreal.
Black Stallion Ranch. While still coming down from 2013, I signed us up for some scenic tours (read: scheduling-addiction behavior). But in this case, it was time well-invested. One of the highlights of our trip was our canopy tour of the dry coastal tropics. Our charming guides suited us up, even Wesley, and our kids took to the trees like monkeys. They giggled across the divides and never once expressed fear. They squealed with joy and looked at us with sparkly eyes that said, “I can’t believe you are letting us do this!” Jungle gyms will never be the same.
Friends. We met wonderful people in Costa Rica. I thoroughly enjoyed speaking Spanish again, a language I had no idea still ran threads in my brain. Aside from the lovely people at Lunta Lena, we were welcomed to Tamarindo by an old college friend and his amazing family. They own a beautiful home in Tamarindo and live there part of every year. He and his wife write a blog, Ten Feet Traveling. We had long conversations on the beach and caught up at their poolside table while watching the monkeys play–honest-to-goodness monkeys swinging in branches–and our kids. I began to feel the stress-monger I had become fade back into a more familiar me.
Surfing lessons. I could spend hours soaking in the scene of my husband riding waves with small blond boys of various sizes perched on the tip of his board. Even better, I actually got to surf with Jason. Still now, imagining he and I sitting on surfboards together while the boys played in the sand nearby, I am transported:
The water is a silky turquoise. The sun is warming our backs. It is day three of our trip; I am still toxic with stress. “It seems like we do a lot of waiting,” I share. Jason, who was fully detoxified by his first sniff of salty air, recants, “this is surfing.” I have IMAGINED Jason on waves in Florida, Baja, Fiji and Maui for most of our lifetime together, but I have witnessed very little. The instant he explains to me, “this is surfing,” the “Jason–surfer” file in my brain emptied. The massive waves, muscled boys, bikinied hotties and thrilling rides I had imagined were replaced with new images. He sits on a surfboard at age twelve, watching for a good wave, as the pain of his parent’s divorce awaits him on shore. He is nineteen on Jupiter Beach, watching for good waves with his childhood friend Mike, who is dying of cancer. Jason is twenty-three in Baja with his beefy college buddies, sitting on surfboards, laughing, eyeing the horizon for a wave to catch. He is twenty-five and alone in Maui, torn between homesickness and adventure, waiting in sizable tide for a wave he can master. And now he is forty and balancing the board with his son on its tip, offering him his first ride on foam and power. Surfing is a physically demanding and dynamic sport. But in those first three words, he taught me its meditative purpose: mastery of a skill, partnership with the water and patience for the right time.
I arrived in Costa Rica with chronic worries feeding off my bitterness. Being still felt painful. The pace of our life at home, however, was eating away at my soul. I desperately needed to slow down and regain peace. On our last morning there, I did my yoga workout alone on the beach. When I opened my eyes after Savasana, vultures were circling me.