I rise on my first day in Manzanillo feeling rejuvenated and deeply alive. Slivers of sunlight reflect off the white mosquito netting surrounding my bed, and there is a quiet and peaceful stillness in the air. Something has shifted internally for me and the dark blanket of fear has finally lifted. I can easily sleep another several hours and the idea is tempting, but my eagerness to explore these new surroundings in the light of day propels me from bed and into my khaki shorts and brand new tevas. I remember that breakfast is only served until 9AM, so I run towards the open air restaurant where I find Jesse smiling brightly, her ebony eyes radiating warmth and love. Jesse is in charge of the restaurant here. She is of Jamaican descent, born and raised in a small town near Limon on the southern Caribbean coast.
There is something magnetic about Jesse; she has a rare gift of genuine warmth that immediately draws people into her spiritual embrace. Jesse speaks English, Patwa, fluent Spanish and some conversational French. Her bright smile and kind demeanor are contagious. A full breakfast buffet at the Almonds and Corals resort includes coffee, orange juice, eggs, fresh fruit, gallo pinto, , toast, bacon and ham. To my surprise and delight, breakfast and dinner are included at Almonds and Corals along with a special evening cocktail. The service is superb and the food is satisfying and plentiful.
After breakfast I settle myself into one of the plush green sofas in the open air restaurant and fire up my laptop computer to begin my daily writing. What an incredible privilege it is to write surrounded by such natural splendor in the dense, moist rainforest and soothing sounds of the jungle. My creative juices flow easily here and my heart swells with joy and gratitude. Joy at the prospect of nearly five weeks to focus on nothing but my two greatest passions- travel and writing; gratitude for the opportunity to experience such a special gift of freedom and adventure.
Unfortunately, my bliss is only short lived on this first day in Costa Rica. It seems I have forgotten two important travel lessons. First, when traveling through a foreign country, things rarely proceed as planned. Second, when visiting a remote jungle location in a third world country, the concept of time (or lack thereof) differs considerably. Simple tasks that you might expect to perform in several minutes or less, like placing a telephone call or sending an email, can in fact require a full day or longer to perform, due to a myriad of reasons such as weak telephone signals, language barriers and inexplicable power outages.
The things I love the most about such an exotic and remote destination are the very same things I detest. Of course, I do not expect to travel to the same beat here, but the logistical obstacles I face on this first day seemed to border on the absurd, resulting in part from my own lack of careful logistical planning and in part due to events outside my realm of control.
I am traveling through this country on a writing mission. My goal is to share the spiritual lessons of my journey with as many folks as possible; through my Mercury columns, website blog, and the book I intend to write. I arrived here with a full arsenal of modern technology including a new laptop computer, Skype capability, blue tooth, and digital camera. I planned to post a daily blog to my website depicting my travel adventures, accompanied by striking photography. I intended to maintain meticulous control over this project.
Suffice to say, I forgot to research whether Almonds and Corals offers Wi-Fi access or cell phone signals (negative on both counts) and I thought the hotel receptionist was just being gracious by allowing me unlimited internet access via the single computer located behind the reception desk. When I received la cuenta (the bill) for my computer time and my face conveyed a mixture of shock and disbelief, the receptionist smiled and pointed to the tiny sign hanging above her desk. This was the sign that I somehow missed, the one that outlined the charges for internet access. Strike one for the ignorant gringo, I thought to myself, and reached for my rapidly shrinking wallet. Travel lesson#1: If you plan to travel to a remote jungle location on a writing assignment, carefully research Wi-Fi capability.
The next dilemma unfolds when I attempt to place a telephone call to the states and the international operator informs me that my visa debit card is rejected. Strike two for the ignorant gringo. The hotel telephone system only accepts credit cards for placing international calls, even to toll free numbers like Wachovia customer service. When I attempt to place a collect call to my bank from my hotel room, the operator informs me in broken English that I cannot place a collect call to a toll free number. I return to the reception desk and request permission to use the computer to search for a regular contact number for my bank. The dial-up connection at the hotel operates at snails pace but I finally locate the number and attempt to place a collect call to my bank from the phone at the reception desk. Again, I am informed by the operator in broken English that I must use a credit card. Travel Lesson #2: Notify bank prior to leaving the country in order to prevent a security block on your debit card.
I inquire at the reception desk about purchasing an international calling card with pre-paid minutes. I am informed that the hotel does not sell international calling cards. The nearest option is the town of Puerto Viejo, located 15 minutes from the hotel. I do not have a car, and I am too stubborn to take a taxi to the neighboring town to purchase an international calling card. Surely there must be an easier way to notify my bank that it is in fact me attempting to use the card in Central America, and not a Columbian drug lord. I embark on a frantic search for a person with a cell phone. With no good results, I return to the reception area to inquire about how I might reach a toll free number in the United States. The receptionist stares at me blankly. “Toll free number,” I repeat in broken Spanish. “Uno, ocho, zero, zero?” I continue, praying for a glimmer of recognition.
Now growing increasingly exasperated, I decide to switch gears and inquire about the possibility of borrowing a cell phone from a hotel staff member. “Hay una persona aqui con un telefono cellular?” I inquire, in a pleading tone. The polite young receptionist replies in rapid fire Spanish and the only phrase I manage to translate is mucho arboles; in English this translates to many trees, and necesitas caminar el calle. Translation: Due to the many trees surrounding the hotel, you need to walk to the street to access a cell phone signal. Strike three for the ignorant gringo. This is wonderful in theory, particularly for honeymooners in love but not so much for the solitary travel writer. Travel Lesson #3: If you plan to travel to a remote jungle location on a writing assignment, anticipate absence of cell phone signal.
Now it is close to 4PM, and being so close to the equator I am aware that I have a little over an hour remaining before dusk. I locate my new friends Chantal and Rachel, a delightful mother/daughter duo from France. I am relieved to learn that Chantal and Rachel have a cell phone. Chantal is preparing to embark on a zip line excursion, and Rachel is happy to accompany me on a ten minute walk to el calle, far enough away from los arboles, to (hopefully) obtain a cell phone signal.
Just as we are preparing to leave Rachel’s foot is attacked by fire ants and I must return to my room to retrieve my emergency supply of Benadryl. Ah, the joy of life in the jungle. PURA VIDA!!!! I reflect longingly on my peaceful morning relaxing in the open air restaurant, gazing out at the jungle as I sip my delicious Costa Rican coffee. Several minutes later, Rachel and I head towards the main street. On the way we encounter a young boy holding a very large rodent in one hand and a marijuana cigarette in the other. Chantal yells down to us from somewhere high above the treetops. Seconds later she goes careening above our heads, suspended in mid-air strapped inside a harness, releasing a high pitched shriek in the process. I’m not in Kansas anymore, I think to myself, and then burst into a fit of hysterical laughter.
We arrive at the main street and Rachel’s phone chirps intermittently, alerting us to a dying battery. Rachel holds her phone up towards the sky and gazes at me apologetically, as there is still no signal and the battery is about to die. Dusk is rapidly descending upon us and the mosquitoes are coming out in full force. Feeling defeated, I return to the hotel and head towards my room in need of a hot shower. Here I encounter an American woman traveling with her teenage son. They are painfully bored at the hotel, and they cannot imagine spending another day in the midst of a rainforest jungle with little to amuse them aside from a group of howler monkeys. They are headed back to San Jose, and upon listening to my story, she nods sympathetically and hands me her pre-paid international calling card.
I race back to my room feeling as if I were just handed the Olympic medal for endurance. I read the tiny digits on the back of the card and follow the instructions which indicate to first dial 199, and then enter the special code number. It takes me approximately 45 seconds to discover that the telephone in my room does not accept international calling cards, only personal credit cards. I am beyond incensed as I return to the reception desk to inquire about the nearest phone that will accept my international pre-paid calling card. The receptionist points to a dilapidated looking pay phone hiding behind a patch of foliage in the hotel parking lot. I proceed to the phone and place my hand on the rusty receiver, when I notice swarms of fire ants taking up residence beneath my feet. Each ant appears to be carrying a tiny green object on its back. Morbidly amused, I try to decipher whether the tiny object belongs to the animal, mineral or plant family. Wachovia sends me into an automated system where I am placed on hold, classical music blaring in my ear. I blurt out a string of obscenities as I dance the fire ant jig, alternating from one foot to the other as the cluster of ants approach my teva clad feet.
I recall my lesson about surrender from the prior night. My first night in Manzanillo I lay alone in the darkness, enveloped in blackness deeper than Jesse’s soulful eyes. I could barely detect the faint outline of the mosquito netting billowing wildly around me in the balmy breeze as I listened to the sound of the driving tropical rain beating against the thatched roof of my bungalow tent and howler monkeys calling out in the distance. Lying there on the brink of terror, I made a choice to surrender to the inevitable. Beyond the fear, I found a new appreciation for the incredible laws of nature and the harmonious balance of the jungle- a three dimensional illustration of the circle of life. Today, as I struggle to re-gain my sense of control over the world of doing, I nearly forget this valuable lesson.
Standing there pressing the rusty receiver against my ear, I recall the phrase Hakuna Matata from the Lion King, which in essence, means no worries. A fire ant reaches my big toe. I find myself wondering why it is so important for me to reach my bank today anyway. I have cash in my wallet, I am not faced with imminent danger, I am safe and I am not starving. I reflect on the phrase Hakuna Matata. I remember the jungle and the circle of life. I take a deep breath. This is to be my mantra here in Costa Rica, as I travel alone through the ring of fire- Hakuna Makata; no worries. I guess I have a lot more to learn about the gift of surrender.
Last night as I lay alone in the darkness listening to the beat of the rain and the eerie sound of howler monkeys calling out in the distance, I experienced my introductory lesson on fear surfing. Fear surfing is my new term for pushing through the fear and looking beyond, to discover what lies on the other side. I return to my room for a hot shower and head straight for the open air restaurant, where I prepare to spend my second night in the jungle.