Excited doesn’t begin to describe the feeling we had prior to leaving for vacation in Costa Rica. The culmination of years of research and savings plus months of planning and working with a travel agent, we were primed to achieve a bucket list twelve-day vacation.
We specifically chose Costa Rica for the natural beauty, commitment to the environment, cost of living, and diversity of eco-systems. Our research also indicated that the pura vida lifestyle and commitment to the general welfare of their citizens attracted retirees. In addition to a vacation, we considered the trip a scouting mission for a potential retirement destination.
Our journey began on Valentine’s Day, taking us from Cincinnati to San Jose by way of Atlanta. In the morning I checked Twitter and retweeted a USA Today tweet about Shirley Chisholm, trailblazing Congresswoman who was known for saying, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” I found this interesting given the current American political climate and the venom being used to attack women—particularly progressive women.
As we flew over Georgia and Florida, I took advantage of the free in-flight movie selection to watch American Made, a film about CIA Operative/Gun Smuggler/Drug Smuggler Barry Seal. My interest in this movie stems from research I did years earlier for a short story I wrote, and I wanted to see how the movie depicted his life. I have always been struck by how often our government justified terrible decisions which adversely impacted the lives of the multitudes to achieve what the administration in power considered, “the greater good.” In this case, allowing someone to smuggle drugs into the country in exchange for this person flying guns to rebels fighting Communists in Nicaragua; the rationale being that massive amounts of cocaine being smuggled into our country was far better than the specter of communists in Central America.
But thoughts of malfeasance evaporated like the morning mist when we landed in the sun-drenched beauty of San Jose. Our vacation was off to a great start as our agency arranged for someone to meet us at the airport, assist us with customs and then whisk us to our ground transportation. The driver had snacks and beverages waiting in the air-conditioned vehicle, encouraged us to take advantage of the wi-fi and then acted as guide, pointing out the various well known international companies operating in Costa Rica.
Arriving at the Hotel Grano De Oro, we were greeted by the wonderful staff, checked in and shown to our room before taking a short walk in the immediate vicinity while waiting for our first in-country event; a gastropub tour of San Jose.
As we waited in the hotel lobby, I retweeted Karen Abbott, author extraordinaire and self-proclaimed purveyor of odd history. Karen had posted a vintage photo from the St. Valentine’s Day massacre. Neither of us knew at the time that a new St. Valentine’s Day massacre was about to occur in our country.
I posted on Facebook, “Relaxing in the lobby, awaiting our gastronomical tour. Three local restaurants for appetizers and back here for what we have been told is the best restaurant in the area. So far, everyone has been very nice and the ride from the airport allowed us to see the many vibrant flowering trees. This promises to be our best Valentine’s day ever. Pura vida!”
The tour lived up to its promise. Wonderful food and craft beers, an amazing guide who was engaging, entertaining, intelligent, and deeply passionate about his country. Amaral Sanchez, actor-director/guide, pointed out the beautiful and diverse San Jose architecture, regaled us with stories of Costa Rican history and culture, informed us that he was one of the “top five Santa Claus in Costa Rica” and was working on a plan to direct the first full length feature film in Costa Rican history.
Amaral also told us about the U.S. financial and tech companies that operated call centers in Costa Rica as well as explaining the healthcare system. It is the Costa Rican philosophy of preventive health care through healthy living and reducing stress, that he claims are the key. He told us that most Costa Ricans work thirty-six hours per week, however those in more stressful jobs work less. “It’s only right,” he told us, “that someone working in a more stressful position should not have to work as long.” Pura vida.
While my wife and I excitedly discussed all that we had seen and learned on day one of our dream vacation; as we basked in the best Valentine’s Day of our lives, seventeen people lost their lives at Stoneman Douglas High School. Seventeen others were wounded. President Trump offered prayers and condolences and survivor Sarah Chadwick responded with, “Do something instead of sending prayers. Prayers won’t fix this. But gun control will prevent it from happening again.”
Day 2 of our Costa Rican vacation brought another amazing guide, Jose Nacho Barrantes “Call me Nacho,” who took us on a walking tour of San Jose. We took a deeper dive into Costa Rican history and culture, learning about a government that abolished the army in 1949, channeling the money formerly spent on armed defense to educate and provide healthcare for its citizens. With a little research I was able to learn that the literacy rate and the quality of healthcare in Costa Rica were both higher than that of the United States. Incredible.
It is not a coincidence that Costa Rica has had a stable democracy since making that decision. In speaking with the guides throughout our vacation, it is clear they believe the key to a stable and sustainable democracy lies in the good health and education of its citizens and they take great pride in that fact.
San Jose has a population of 288,000 which would place it 71st if it were a U.S. city; between Greensboro, N.C. and Lincoln, NE. As we toured the city, I was amazed at the constant flow of foot traffic. This was something I might expect in a major U.S. city but not something I experienced in my hometown of Cincinnati, which has about 11,000 more people. Sure, on an average work day in Cincinnati there were people on the street, but mostly during times immediately before and after work and during lunch. This constant flow was new for us. What was also new for us was the pleasantness of everyone. It was not uncommon for our tour group to be blocking the sidewalk as our guide pointed out various points of interest. When this occurred, the pedestrians would smile at us and walk around us. E-v-e-r-y T-i-m-e.
We were also treated to the most delicious coffee I have ever tasted, before enjoying time with Nacho in San Jose National Park with the amazing sculptures by Edgar Zuñiga Escultor. It was during this time that Nacho talked about the various jobs he worked in addition to being a guide (and an Uber driver). He passionately spoke of wanting to set up tours for the LGBTQ community because “Everyone should be able to come to Costa Rica and enjoy themselves as they are,” which he said was not always possible in a country that is predominately Roman Catholic.
Our last tour with Nacho was the market, where we were treated to fresh local fruit, gelato, and a delicious meal at a soda, which is a small café that serves inexpensive food and beverages, but no alcohol. Our guide then picked out a selection of fresh fruits for us and told us, “Pura Vida,” before sending us back to the hotel.
“Pura Vida.” It’s a Costa Rican saying translated as “Pure Life.” More than a saying, it’s a greeting, a slogan, a mantra. Live well.
Live well. What does that mean? I felt that I was beginning to understand the Costa Rican definition of the phrase, but what would that mean in the United States? If I asked my conservative friends would they answer the same as my progressive friends?
That night at the hotel, I once again read the social media posts of a divided country after yet another mass shooting at yet another school. I retweeted a post reminding us that even after the Vegas shooting, Congress had not taken action to ban bump stocks and that change in law would only occur with a change in lawmakers. Then I retweeted a post by a comedy writer who listed the campaign contributions from the NRA to each GOP lawmaker calling for “prayers.” Finally, before turning in for the night, I posted pictures of our beautiful Costa Rican vacation, day 2.
And while I slept, parents grieved and students had nightmares, unable to sleep. Unable to sleep because a former student, member of the school’s varsity air rifle team and decorated Junior ROTC member had “allegedly” killed seventeen and wounded seventeen others at their school. But their lawmakers offered prayers…and I offered tweets.
Day three took us from San Jose, northwest to Arenal and its famous volcano. Side note: Costa Rica has six active volcanos and many more dormant or inactive volcanos. All packed into an area the size of West Virginia. Transported by guide Tom (Tommy) Guzman, we were treated to a stop at Cafe Tres Generationes, located on La Luisa plantation. Tommy told us that this plantation provided fifty percent of the coffee used by Starbucks, and a short drive up the road, lo and behold we passed a Starbucks plant.
The coffee sample was amazing and worked as designed when we purchased several bags to bring home. The plantation itself is beautiful and Tommy was kind enough to point out other items of natural beauty such as the rainbow eucalyptus tree, and a little further down the road, dramatic waterfalls. He stopped so that we could get up close and personal with a coati, an animal from the raccoon family that resembled a cross between a raccoon and giant squirrel. Tommy was adamant about keeping it out of the tour van, calling them “the Costa Rican mafia.” Tommy said the coati would send a cute baby one to the side of the road, and while tourists were taking pictures and marveling at the baby, eight others would be inside the van, stealing food, phones and cameras. “Coati and monkeys, those are the Costa Rican mafia,” he said again as we continued our journey.
For lunch we stopped at a soda/bird sanctuary that offered a spectacular view of the waterfall we had passed. It also attracted a diverse population of beautiful birds; hummingbirds to parrots and several other beauties, all in vibrant reds, greens, yellows, blues and oranges. While we were taking in the natural beauty, we were treated to a delicious and filling traditional Costa Rican lunch. Rice, beans, plantain, tortillas and a meat or fish are staples and often served with a salad and fresh juice. Full and happy, we continued our journey to Arenal.
At one point, Tommy pointed out his window at a man selling fruit on the side of the road. “See that guy? He has some great pictures of strange lights around the volcano. That guy has some stories.”
“UFO’s?” I asked.
Tommy shrugged. “Maybe. There was a lot of activity around the volcano when it was seismically active.”
The truth is out there.
The remainder of our five-hour journey was relatively uneventful—until Tommy pulled over and pointed out a sloth, sleeping about 20 feet up in a tree at a construction site. It was cool to see a sloth in the wild, and my wife was particularly stoked but seriously, after a few minutes of watching a sleeping animal in a tree, I was bored.
Five minutes after getting back on the road we arrived at the Tabacon Thermal Resort and Spa, to learn that our room had been upgraded to the honeymoon suite. Sweet suite. The bellhop told us we had a spectacular view of the Arenal volcano, but we had to take his word for it because all we could see was the mist surrounding it.
We spent a few minutes checking out the suite before heading to what would prove to be an underwhelming and overpriced buffet dinner, followed by a stroll around the grounds, checking out the fauna surrounding the hot springs. Eventually we settled into our room and got lost in social media as my wife created amazing FB posts of our vacation and I linked them to my Twitter account, because truth be told, she’s the better writer.
From the comfort and safety of our resort suite, I boldly retweeted posts from former military members who claimed that military grade weapons should not be available to the general public and added my own voice to “follow the money,” from the NRA to various politicians. This public service I performed was interwoven with various sincere shout outs to a plethora of writers celebrating various accomplishments because they are amazing and I endeavor to be a good citizen of the literary community.
The next two days were spent exploring the rainforest via a “Hanging Bridges” tour, kayaking, and visit to a wild animal sanctuary, followed by a cooking lesson with a local family and of course, relaxing in the hot springs. On our last evening in the area, I gifted our guide, Kimberly Castro, with a copy of my anthology, “Nine Lives,” and posted a picture of that on social media. Pura Vida.
While we basked in the natural beauty and luxurious comfort of Arenal, friends and family of 15-year-old Peter Wang, a JROTC cadet at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, petitioned the White House to provide him with a military funeral, due to heroic actions he took during the mass shooting.
The next stop on our dream vacation was Monteverde, and the gorgeous cloud forests which we explored at night, sighting sleeping birds, a sloth with her baby, and several tarantulas. During the day, we experienced mountaintop ziplining, a tour of the Don Juan coffee plantation and enjoying the amazing food and breathtaking scenery compliments of Belmar Hotel. When not otherwise basking in the splendor of Costa Rica, I indulged in my passion for reading, focusing primarily on “Red Clocks,” by Leni Zumas.
It was in the hotel library that I discovered a copy of Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts, a wonderful book that I had thoroughly enjoyed. I posted a picture of this on Twitter and was thrilled when the author retweeted and commented on my post.
That evening while my wife created her social media journal of our day and I basked in the glory of an Erik Larson retweet, we began our “What if…” conversation about retiring in Costa Rica. It was a beautiful country with wonderful people, a stable government and economy and in many ways, values that were aligned closer to ours than those currently prevalent in the U.S. So, while I considered leaving my country, Emma Gonzalez began to fight for hers. In a ten-minute speech at a gun control rally in Ft. Lauderdale, she demanded action, leading chants of “No more BS.”
Costa Rica has things you should definitely fear: tarantulas, venomous snakes, and jaguars to name a few; but nothing scared me more than the ride from Monteverde to Playa de Coco in Guanacaste, Costa Rica. The transport was by small bus, which arrived early (according to our itinerary) demanding that we leave right away. Apparently there had been a change that was not communicated to us, but we were able to get on the road earlier than we had expected, but apparently later than the transport operator had intended. In what I believe was an attempt to make up for lost time, we traversed the narrow, winding dirt and gravel mountain roads at speeds that made God wince. Moore than once it appeared likely we would plummet over the side of the mountain, and the bumpy curvy ride felt like a poorly assembled carnival ride, at one point inducing the dry heaves.
One thing to note about Costa Rican drivers—they are fearless. Apparently, all have some super power that allows them to calculate the distance between vehicles, pedestrians, animals, and plummets, to the millimeter. With my heart racing and my dignity at the bottom of the trash can I was heaving into, my wife implored me to look out the window. In front of us was the most vibrant rainbow I had ever seen. I asked her if this was going to be the last beautiful thing we saw in Costa Rica before our deaths, or if this was a promise from God that we would live to see another day. “It’s just a rainbow,” she said before muttering, “always so dramatic.”
A few minutes later the bus stops at a random house and picks up another person, apparently an employee, before returning to the practice run for the grand prix. The roads were now paved and no longer mountainous, though still hilly, and I began to relax. Then the driver pulled onto a side gravel road in an uninhabited area and instructed us to get off the bus. I looked out the window and saw a black SUV waiting for us. “You go with him now,” the passenger told us. My wife leaned close and whispered, “Don’t give up your passport. If they ask for it, run.” My look said—now who’s being dramatic?
We transferred to the SUV with no issues and without surrendering our passports. The driver was a polite and well groomed young man which is what we came to expect from all the professionals in the hospitality industry. I attempted to engage him in conversation but his limited English and my nearly non-existent Spanish made it difficult, so we finished the remaining thirty minutes of the trip in silence and without incident.
We were now at the Pacific Ocean and our first adventure in the region, before even going to the hotel, was whitewater rafting. It was this particular adventure that was a catalyst for our decision to travel to Costa Rica now instead of waiting for retirement, as the age limit for the excursion is sixty, which didn’t allow me a lot of wiggle room if I wanted to participate.
The drive to the river provided another example of the fearlessness of Costa Rican drivers. Fortunately, this time we were able to watch from the safety of our bus as a truck loaded with cattle passed an oversized piece of farm equipment. The road was clearly not wide enough for two vehicles of that size, which didn’t deter the truck driver in the least. We all watched, wide-eyed as it became apparent that the driver had committed to his maneuver. As the truck began passing, it tilted precariously and everyone on our bus cried out, expecting a spectacular overturn of vehicle and livestock. Instead the driver was successful, we let out a collective cheer and a silent prayer that our driver would not attempt the same maneuver. Thank you, God.
The rafting adventure was invigorating, and we survived the class IV rapids, though I spent close to fifty percent of my time in the water. It was actually quite pleasant in the water, though I briefly considered the possibility of piranha (not possible), what snakes might inhabit the area and whether or not there would be crocodiles (which do inhabit the waterways of Costa Rica but not where we were rafting).
At the outfitters, we were treated to a wonderful lunch followed by more bus rides and eventually we reached our hotel, the beautiful Villa Buena Onda, an eight-room boutique hotel. This hotel was occupied exclusively by Americans and each evening we would gather at the poolside bar for happy hour and share stories of our day as well as witness the howler monkeys, iguanas and large birds that visited. It was cozy and intimate and felt like a family gathering where you actually liked your family members. The meals were simply the best I have ever had, the view of the Pacific was spectacular, the rooms luxurious and the excursions perfect. While my wife shared pictures and prose with the world and I basked in the glow of unaccustomed luxury, Parkland, FL residents attended the funerals of the murdered students.
While I explored the possibilities of becoming an expat, “good internet availability—check,” Tyra Heman took a stand in front of her school, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, with a sign calling for gun control. On the day of Peter Wang’s funeral, students—hundreds of them, walked ten miles from West Boca High School to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School to honor the seventeen murdered students. Two of the marchers held a sign, “Protect Kids, Not Guns.”
With our dream vacation over, we returned to our normal lives, managing to navigate over flooded roads to reach our home. We returned to work, reconnected with friends and family and continued to consider the possibility of a return to the Pura Vida lifestyle of Costa Rica. But for the students, the survivors of the St. Valentine Day’s Massacre of 2018, life would never again be normal.
Tired of rhetoric and prayers, students organized and called for “policy instead of prayers.” They traveled to Tallahassee and Washington, D.C. to demand an assault weapon ban and protest the influence of the NRA on politicians. They participated in a CNN sponsored town hall meeting with Senator Marco Rubio and an NRA spokesperson. They took a stand and paid a price. While Tyra, Emma, Sarah and many others courageously called for action, they were attacked online by pro-gun pundits, often in venomous, vile ways.
In the NRA video, “Time is running out,” spokeswoman Dana Loesch threatened, “To every lying member of the media, to every Hollywood phony, to the role model athlete who use their free speech to alter and undermine what our flag represents…Your Time is running out. And the clock starts now.” This prompted Sarah Chadwick to respond, “To every spokeswoman with an hourglass who uses free speech to alter and undermine what our flag represents…Your Time is running out. And the clock starts now.”
I sat up and took notice. These kids are not backing down. Soon they were organizing national walkouts, participating in nationally broadcast radio programs, and creating the March for Our Lives. In the months since, there have been voter registration efforts in the hope that change can occur through the polls via the democratic process. Time will tell. But if they can do it…if they can change the country…
My wife and I will continue to consider the expat possibility, but no longer because we have lost faith in the future. Sarah, Emma, Tyra and the thousands of others who are showing courage and determination to create positive change, I thank you. We’ll see where you take us, and maybe we’ll decide to stay.
Operations Manager by day and daydreamer by nature, Tom Gumbert co-authored the anthology, Nine Lives, and is the winner of the Sunlight Press 2017 Spring fiction contest. Tom is honored and humbled to have previous work published in a host of fine publications, including Déraciné Magazine, Five2One, Dodging the Rain, Porridge Magazine and Fictive Dream. When not reading or staring at the Ohio River, Tom works on his writing.