This is it. The end of the road. I'm posting this blog from the airport in Chicago, awaiting my flight home (or, more accurately, my flight to San Francisco where I will get my flight home). I'm glad I had this last week in Puerto Rico to have a few final experiences - walking through Old San Juan and visiting its ancient forts, hiking in the El Yunque National Forest, snorkeling the waters off Culebra Island, touring the Bacardi factory and sampling a few rum cocktails, of course. I also had some time to reflect on everything I've gained - and lost - during my travels the last several months. It's hard to distill the entire experience into just a few paragraphs, but I'll do my best.
First up, surfing in Nosara. I learned that stability and balance - in both mind and body - isn't as easy as it looks. It takes effort and practice. Even with steady focus, wipe outs are to be expected - in both mind and body. Nosara is where I gained my first experience in expecting the unexpected and where I lost my expectation that everything would go exactly as planned.
Next, Quepos and Manuel Antonio. I got to spend time on one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. It was there that I also coined a few terms that would stay with me throughout my trip - "Costa Rican washing machine" (my invention - fill a plastic bag with detergent and water, add a few items of clothing, swish around a few times, and voila, Costa Rican washing machine) and "clean enough." These two expressions were frequently used in tandem. For example, "I just washed this t-shirt in my Costa Rican washing machine. It's clean enough." I gained an appreciation for a simple, uncomplicated lifestyle. I had my first couple of weeks of Spanish classes, and I lost my preconception that learning Spanish would be easy.
Then Monteverde and Arenal. I hiked through beautiful forests and took in spectacular scenery. The birds and sounds of the cloud forest are etched in my memory. It was there that I gained a realization of Costa Rica's diversity - incredible for such a small country. It was also there that I lost my fear of heights - at least partly - as I ziplined through the tree canopy. I think I was so distracted by all of the sights and sounds that I momentarily forgot I was perilously close to certain death. Whatever it was, it was an unforgettable experience.
On to Tortuguero. I had a small part in helping to protect sea turtles and their beaches, and I also had a truly incredible experience living in the jungle amidst all the critters that call it home - macaws, toucans, geckos, caiman, snakes, the list goes on and on. Living at this remote biological station was a bit like being on Survivor - oppressive heat and humidity, ever-present mosquitoes, no hot water… It was amazing - and survivable - for two weeks, but I am in awe of the people who live and work there for an entire season or the full year. While I was there, I gained insight into the efforts of these dedicated conservationists, and I lost the conviction that I would not be sweaty all the time or that my ankles would not be covered in bug bites.
Next up, San Jose and several side trips from there. I got to experience more of Costa Rica and appreciate the easy-going, friendly, warm character of the Costa Rican people. As I rode the buses on longer trips to weekend destinations and as I walked around the towns, I realized that no one was on cell phones, no one was walking at more than a casual pace, no one was angry. I'd read and heard that Costa Ricans don't like conflict or confrontation. It's considered rude to slam a door. I gained an appreciation for this quiet, understated lifestyle. And I lost my hesitation about spending multiple hours on a bus. My 5-hour bus trip to Puerto Viejo was just a prelude to my 20-hour bus trip from Buenos Aires to Bariloche.
Speaking of Buenos Aires, it was the next destination on my itinerary. From tiny little Costa Rica, I arrived in a giant bustling city. Although even in the big city, there was a friendliness and openness to strangers that I think is often absent at home. On my own and with Andrew too, if we were standing on a street corner, staring at a map and looking perplexed, people would stop and offer to help us without even being asked. I'll remember the beautiful architecture, plentiful parks and green spaces, and multitudes of dog-walkers, negotiating their canine herds through the busy city streets.
In between my two visits to Buenos Aires, I had my extended 2-month stay in Mendoza. I feel like I experienced the "real" Argentina with the "real" customs and traditions of the country in full effect there. Small family-run stores selling particular goods - fruits and vegetables, breads, eggs… just eggs. Mid-afternoon siestas from 1-5 when everything closes down. Families having picnics on roadsides. During my entire time there, the country was in a full-blown World Cup frenzy, and it was extraordinary to be a part of it.
Throughout this entire adventure, I gained countless memories, one check-in bag full of souvenirs, and at least 10 pounds (damn you, empanadas! Why must you be so tasty?). I lost any reservations I may have had about traveling alone, navigating unfamiliar places, and one camera. (I also "lost" (i.e., threw away) one pair of shoes and 2-3 shirts that, despite the Costa Rican washing machine's best efforts, were too heavily stained to be worn in public.) I may not be coming home with the clarity I'd hoped for with regard to my path ahead, but I know I'll draw upon everything I've learned over the past 5½ months in whatever I do next.
Lastly, I want to thank all of you so much for sharing this adventure with me. Thank you for offering words of support and encouragement from the beginning, and thank you for making me laugh with your comments along the way. Thank you for playing a big part in my latitude adjustment.