I didn’t know why I went. I figure most don’t. Tired of the American dream. Held to inklings of a richer existence. We leave with few expectations beyond getting there – at least away from here. Open to accept foreign places as home. Little attention to time beyond the next bus, another sunrise. No plan to return.
And many of us don’t. I am just another vagabond who has made a habit of moving. What follows are the impressions a strange life left on a young mind. Maybe the words will incite within you the same excitement that bore their creation. That of gaining novel and expanded perspectives of the world for oneself.
Santa Barbara had been home. I was rooted in good friends and the north Pacific swells that wrap waves around those lovely pointbreaks. But I had finished school and finished a relationship. I had already begun living a transient life, switching apartments every few months. I felt restless.
I wanted to travel. To live a strange life beyond the horizon. To gain new perspectives of the world, maybe find where I fit into it all. Maybe not. Central America had been drawing me. Warm waves. Tropical lands. The Spanish language. I worked at a local gear outfitter and ate a diet of rice and beans to save what I could. I knew I would go. What I did not know was why those desires, from among the many, had made me move.
Under the clouded skies of a February morning, I got a ride to the Tijuana camionera. I got on a bus.
The pay phone ate my colones. On the second try, I got through to Guido. I was in Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui, Costa Rica. A typical Tico town. Small, metal-roofed buildings radiate out from a soccer field alongside the Rio Sarapiqui and jungle. Guido was a man who, up until that moment, I had only communicated with through email. It was strange: that moment. When something that had only existed in a pseudo-chimerical realm of finger-taps over the Internet suddenly manifested into a tangible reality. Manifested into my life.
Manifested into beers and drunken hours in a flatbed truck on a dirt and cobble-stoned road deep into the forest and farmland. Deep into the night. Getting off the truck into darkness and into a small canoe to cross a river under the moonlight. Tipping the canoe. Involuntarily taking my first of many swims in the river. Me, backpack and all. Wet but warm. We were there. It had been over three weeks alone on buses, trains, and boats, through Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, but now we were there.
Bosque Tropical del Toro. An ecological reserve. I had arranged to work for a few months in exchange for food and a place to stay. While the majority of the property was swampy, virgin jungle, the piece of land closest to the road had in the past been cleared and farmed just like the neighboring lots still were.
Around 60 years ago, Costa Rica had turned to cattle ranching to save a flailing economy. The financial gains of exporting beef to the USA equated to huge losses of forest turned to pasture. Now eco-tourism is providing an incentive to restore this land to forest. Guido began reforesting this land some years ago and is a pioneer for conservation in the area.
Coming from the urban sprawl of southern California, this was an escape I needed. A bucolic life. A strange life. No use for the only language I knew how to use; confined to Spanish. The house I lived in was simple and built of wood cut from fallen trees on the reserve. We had to cross a river by hanging basket or canoe to get to the couple of houses selling goods and a soccer field that served as civilization. Living by candlelight after dusk, collecting rainwater off of the roof, eating tropical fruit off of the trees, buying cheese from the farm across the way, saying hello to everyone we passed on the road – these seemed to be familiar human ways that I had never known. And while these people killed most any animal they had a shot at, and liberally liberated their trash to the ditch that lined the road, their lives were far less resource consumptive and far more resourceful than my life up north had been.
I worked with a machete building trails through the jungle most days. I watched the social interactions of spider monkeys and learned the calls of green ibises. Alone in nature I saw how there are many marvels to be seen when you only care to look. The days passed.
Time became intangible and I found that my contentment depended on filling this perception of time with things of worth. And what was of most worth to me was being in raw natural settings doing work that respected our place within them. By June, I ended up on the south Pacific coast of Costa Rica working for Amigos de Las Aves, a reintroduction project for scarlet macaws. The species had gone extinct in that region due to trapping for the pet trade and loss of habitat.
Now I spent hours a day hiking the lush seaside hills, watching birds within hands-reach eat sunflowers from the feeding stations, keeping binoculared watch on nest cavities high in the trees. I lived with an international mix of biologists a couple hundred meters from the beach and a short bicycle ride from some of the longest waves in the world. I acquired a board and surfed impossibly long waves whenever work allowed.
I found what many others find: paradise. Both local Ticos and foreign transplants alike. It was not that these people had much money or many possessions. They lived in a place they loved and needed only simple things to sustain their contentment. Some were travelers who desired no more than to work just enough to live on a shore where good surf breaks. Some were natives who ran small enterprises within communities they rarely left. Many appeared genuinely happy. I wondered how I appeared to them.
Fall mornings are cold in the mountains of Mexico. I stood on the open balcony of a big adobe house. I watched the sun rise and light the conifer forests that floated in the mist over Lake Patzcuaro. I watched my breath float away as mist. Hot yellow and pink melted over the clouds and hills. I pulled on a knit cap and headed for the fields. Another morning. I had been working at Las Canoas Altas for a few weeks. A biodynamic farm that produces food, honey, and medicinal herbs from a few hectares of gardens and fields. Biodynamics is a branch of anthroposophy. I thought it a peculiar mix of spirituality and science applied to growing plants and animals. And I thought it holistic care for the land.
I thought it an art; the ability to produce a living using only the natural sources around us. We ate as much food from the garden as possible and when we occasionally ate meat it came from fowl whose blood spilled on our own hands. I learned of the medicinal plants we harvested, such as the toronjil with which we would brew a soporific tea each night. I learned to bake bread and make cheese. I learned to don a bee suit and care for the hives. And I learned that as we ourselves increasingly pose the biggest challenge to the natural world, there are ways we ourselves can tread mindfully.
The drive was scenic. Sunny. Beautiful lakes. Mountains. All dripping with so much sun that my eyes hurt. I wouldn’t wear the sunglasses in my pack as I thought wild hair and blue eyes made me stand out enough. After walking hot miles along the side of the road I had come to a rest stop and hitched a ride. We were moving along the autopista towards the coast of Michoacan, Mexico.
We were moving around half the speed of the other cars. This worried me because I wanted to reach the coast with some light. But it soothed me as the two men up front were both drinking scotch heavily and seemed to retain control at this speed. We chatted. I could now impress people with the fact that someone as gringo as me could speak Spanish. I had left the farm that morning and was not sure where I was going. I had left Santa Barbara almost a year earlier in a similar condition. But things had changed.
I knew why I went. I went to surf in tropical waters during downpours. To sit as still as possible studying monkeys howling in the canopy. To do good work and expand my consciousness of what it can be to live. But I didn’t know these things until after I went. I had started traveling with the noble, albeit naive, intention to save the world. I discovered that everyone lives in their own world with their own concept of what it is to be saved.
Perhaps to save the world one must first change oneself. Travels changed me. I had felt restless and let myself be moved. And as I moved, the landscapes and the faces I passed began to mold me. From the rustic and rural, I learned to be content and communal. From observing the complexity of human interactions within nature, I learned that the healthiest might be the simplest. And the more I found I knew, that much more I found I didn’t know. But I know why I keep going. To beckon existence where I did not know it could exist. To sacrifice common comforts for strange struggles. For it is from within a strange life that one recognizes the good of the world that is to be nurtured.
David Kramer continues to travel and teach in Central America, posting as time allows on his blog at vidaextrana.com. Since the initial sojourn described in this essay, Bosque Tropical del Toro is serving as a rustic lodge on the Costa Rican Bird Route. Amigos de las Aves changed its name to The Ara Project and has begun a new program reintroducing the endangered Great Green Macaw. And Las Canoas Altas continues building its big adobe house and farming the hills above Erongaricuaro.