No one was listening when Vlad told us what to do if it started raining. My fight or flight instinct had kicked in and I ran with an urgency I hadn’t felt since I was a child being chased on the playground. Behind me, I could hear a combination of nervous laughter, cursing, and Vlad yelling instructions in his heavily accented, affable voice.
“You wan be careful in stream now. You don want tha snakes angry, ha!”
Poisonous snakes. In the water that I was running through.
The day before, when Jason had suggested we do a tour during our Costa Rican getaway, I thought it all sounded lame. I didn’t usually opt-in for tours. Our relationship was still new, though, and I didn’t want to seem like a snob, so I agreed.
Jason and I had met five months earlier on a blind date. I’d moved to NYC for a job after 20 years in California, raising my then 13-year-old son. I wanted to shake up my life, to have a fresh start. I hadn’t had a truly intimate relationship in almost ten years and I was ready to be vulnerable again. The challenge was that I’d been on my own for so long that I had a fiercely independent attitude that could come across as, well, prickly.
Jason was not who I imagined I’d fall in love with. Not because of his choice in restaurants on our first date (Dos Caminos) or what he was wearing (an oversized suit with shoulder pads, with a funny briefcase and granddad shoes.) It was the fact that he is a more conservative minded, practicing Catholic and moderate Republican, while I am a tree-hugging, hippie-liberal-spiritual Democrat. Despite those differences, we fell in love quickly and deeply. And after a few months, we were planning our first real getaway.
I was thinking somewhere in South America like Nicaragua. I’d been to Brazil and Mexico, and I wanted to show Jason that I was adventurous. I wanted him to know that I could take care of myself in a potentially crazy situation. Maybe I even wanted him to think that I was cool. Jason, however, was thinking of the well-known confines of tourist-safe Costa Rica. It seemed everyone I knew had already been there, as it was the safest of the Central American countries.
So I read up on Costa Rica and was pleasantly surprised to discover its history. According to my internet searches, Costa Rica developed independently, which resulted in an individualistic, egalitarian society. They decided their own fate. Apparently, there was even a point when the governor tended to his own farm, with his own hands! I felt this was a country I could get behind.
Jason found us a boutique resort on a cliff in Jaco. While there was a part of me that hoped to be roughing it with locals, I decided not to complain when I saw our very own infinity pool overlooking the ocean. I instinctively reached out to try and touch the ocean but was snapped back to reality by a squawking parrot. We were constantly surrounded by movement and noise… the ocean, monkeys, birds, frogs, and other critters I couldn’t identify. Yet amidst the environmental chaos, I felt a sense of calm that I hadn’t known before.
That being said, I was starting to feel a little blue about not experiencing the ‘real’ Costa Rica. We spent our time close to the resort and had all of our meals there. I think Jason sensed my restlessness and told me about a flyer he’d seen at the concierge desk for a waterfall hike. It was a 30-minute mellow hike through the rainforest to a waterfall that you can jump into from the top. The brochure looked Disney-tame but I went along because Jason was excited to have a little adventure and I didn’t want to push him out of his comfort zone too quickly.
Our fellow tour-mates and resort-goers were four young women from the southeast U.S., sorority sisters a few years out of college, and another American, a big guy who we kindly referred to the whole time as Sad Jim. Not to his face, of course. Although, that was sad, too. Jim wasn’t sad for traveling alone or even for signing up for a tour. Jim was built for sad. We discovered only that he was from the Midwest and was single, but he didn’t say anything else for hours. He was about 6’ and 250 pounds, had short, thinning brown hair, and a few days worth of facial hair growth. What was most distinct about him was the weight of his unhappiness. That guy didn’t crack a smile. Jim’s polar opposite, our guide Vlad, had been born and raised in Costa Rica. He considered college, then began helping a family friend with his hiking/tour company. His love for all things pura vida, toothy grin, and warm personality made him a natural.
On our way to the waterfall, Vlad pulled the old Land Rover off to a dirt road lined with trees and low hanging fruit. We stopped and all hopped out. From a tree, he pulled off a piece of orange fruit that looked like a bell pepper.
“You know nut? You like nut? E’rybody like nut! You take one.”
We all did as we were told and picked this mysterious nut fruit. Vlad took a big bite out of the fleshy fruit and everyone followed suit. I admit my anxious survival instinct prohibits me from fully embracing these types of scenarios so I only took a small bite. It was sweet and tangy.
“Now, don touch tha thing dat look like a nut! Shape like a nut, on top. Watch. I do it first.”
He proceeded to rip off the stem of the fruit, rub it on his arm, and then peel it open to expose a cashew that he dropped into his mouth. A few seconds later, we all watched as Vlad’s arm developed a hive the circumference of the fruit itself.
“Urushiol oil! Madre Naturaleza made cashew fruit like so – poison ‘round nut, grey, no good to eat! Orange flesh, a-ok!”
He calmly walked to the truck and got out some Costa Rican version of calamine lotion, dabbed it on his arm, and hollered at us to “Vamanos!” Jason stared at him like he was crazy, and possibly his new hero.
We drove south another 20 minutes or so on the single-lane paved highway, then pulled off on a bumpy red dirt road. We must have stayed on that, driving through farmland and low jungle, for another 15 minutes until we turned off at a tiny waterfall sign that could easily be missed. A few minutes further down a narrow road, passing a shack here and there, I began to ask Vlad why the dirt was so red. But as soon as he turned off the engine, he hopped out enthusiastically and told us to “Vamanos!” again.
It was a hot, sweaty 30-minute hike. Vlad said we were taking the long way, through farmland and forest, to avoid walking through the streams that ran parallel to us. Didn’t make much sense to me, since the water would have cooled us off, but he was the boss.
Once we arrived, I realized that the brochure did not do this waterfall justice. Jumping off into the pool meant climbing up a 25 foot rocky cliff.
“Oh, when you jump in, swim, kick your feet ‘round because tha fish, dey bite.”
Conveniently, I’d been blessed with my period that morning, so the idea of plunging rapidly into a pool of water with biting fish didn’t sound appealing. I was hot, crampy, and now that we were in the jungle, slightly nervous.
Jason, however, joined the ladies in climbing to the top. It required hoisting themselves on a branch that acted like a bridge across the pool. Once on the other side, they began the climb by using the roots on the ground as ropes. The options were jump off the waterfall into the pool or slide down a cascade of rocks into the pool. Jason did both with enthusiasm, which left me surprised, and strangely proud of him. So cautious in his day to day, and then, there he was, jumping into a waterfall with a bunch of strangers, while Sad Jim and I took turns standing in the shade.
And then it came. It was violent and sudden and loud. Puddles enveloped my feet in seconds. If I think back now, I recall Vlad saying something about how it felt like it might rain, how we might have to cut our trip short, and then maybe something important about what to do in such a scenario. At the time, however, my instinct was to get out, pronto.
As soon as I heard Vlad say we needed to move quickly, I was first in line and took off through the jungle, a steady run in the direction of the car. About twenty feet in, I looked down and saw that I had a passenger on my leg – one of the green and blue poisonous frogs we’d read about. I shook my leg like a mad woman and made a mental note not to touch that spot before taking a shower.
I heard Jason behind me, telling me to wait up, but I had a good clip going. My self-preservation was strong. And then I heard what sounded like cracking baseball bats that was actually breaking bamboo falling from the sky. I turned around in time to see a branch land on Jason’s forehead. I felt a wave of conflict within me – do I go back and check on him or keep high-tailing it for the car? I kept thinking of the airline safety videos where they tell you to put your oxygen mask on first. I looked back again and saw that the hollow bamboo only left a small scratch so I felt ok moving on. But I paused long enough to hear Vlad say something about not pissing off the snakes at which point I jumped into the twisted branches running alongside the rising stream.
When we got back to the Rover, we all jumped inside quickly as we were soaked to the bone. When Vlad stepped on the gas, the engine revved but we stood still. Apparently, Costa Rica’s red dirt turns to red clay when it’s raining and the Rover, well, she wasn’t going anywhere.
Vlad instructed us all to get out, gather the ropes in the trunk and help him tie them to a neighboring tree. We’d use the winch to pull while we pushed from behind. Vlad, Jason, the four girls, and I were all ready to push when we realized that Sad Jim hadn’t moved from his seat. We asked him if he was getting out to help and he just looked at us blankly before turning his head and casting his eyes down. The rain poured, a new bucket of water dropping directly on our heads every second. Irritation mounting, I leaned into the back seat next to Jim and asked him what he was doing. He looked at me and I could see that Jim had no intention, no ability to force himself out of his comfort zone. His idea of self-preservation was to stay in the car and let others bring him to safety. He was both motivated and crippled by his own fear. So we shared his weight and began pushing. After a few minutes of getting sprayed by chunks of red mud, the Rover began to move forward and Vlad directed her slightly off-road toward brush. We all hopped back in and kept quiet until Vlad pulled over in front of what looked like someone’s carport.
“And now, we drink!”
It was a bar owned by a nice lady named Priscilla, who graciously let us use her hose to spray off our coats of clay. We sat down with our bottles of Imperial and started to recount the day’s events, reimagining bits and pieces for dramatic effect, though the day certainly didn’t need any. Even Jim, who finally felt safe back in civilization, let himself smile at our survival tales.
I have a video from that day of Jason washing off his sneakers, recounting the falling bamboo incident, deliriously happy. He thanked me, then Vlad, then everyone. I decided right then that I would marry him. I didn’t need to prove anything to Jason. He didn’t need me to depend on him, he only wanted to be my witness, my partner, my equal. He wanted to run with me through the jungle, to get unstuck from the mud together. I realized that Jason had seen my independence and my fear, and still said OK, do what you have to do, I’m not going anywhere.
And he hasn’t yet.