***This article was originally published in a local newspaper in January 2013***
It was like sticking my head in the freezer on a hot summer afternoon.
You know the feeling – when you’re looking for that refreshing burst of air to take your mind off the excessive heat. You know you’re in for a climate change when you open that door, and even though your sweat glands pucker right back up the second you close the freezer, that moment in time feels forever etched in your mind.
Or, like in my case, it’s frostbitten to your forehead. That moment in time, that’s exactly how I feel whenever I touch down in Costa Rica.
I returned to Costa Rica in late December after a Wisconsin winter holiday and from the moment I arrived I unconsciously began to savor every moment, just like if it had been my first time.
Stepping out of the terminal I welcome the warm burst of tropical air. I sense the full moon as it illuminates the surrounding mountain ranges of the central valley. Traveling home my ears are tuned to the salsa and bachata beats coming from the radio, as well as the incessant chatter from the taxi driver about how his team should have won the national soccer championship.
That night I fall asleep, paralyzed with glee knowing that I’d left the wind and grind, ice and snow, and sub zero temperatures behind.
The next morning I spend what feels like an hour just sitting in the yard basking in the sun. Everything feels refreshingly new to me. Taking in the aroma of the orchid plants, drowning out my thoughts with the chatter from the parrots in the nearby trees, and blinding the neighbors with the glare of the sun off my ghostly pale vitamin D deprived skin.
Had my dog, Ruffo, not awakened me I’m sure I could have been harvested as a tomato that same afternoon.
Ruffo seemed to be telling me that it is time to go visit my 86-year old adopted Costa Rica grandmother who lives tucked away in a sleepy, countryside home. I set out by bus to pay her a surprise visit. We take a shot of tequila (her customary greeting for any visitor) and I tell her the news and adventures of everyone in my extended family. She follows along intently, despite knowing very few of them personally, as if they were her own children.
I sit down with her for a typical lunch of rice and beans and instantly long for a slice of pizza, a hamburger, or even pasteurized milk. It’s going to be awhile before I can savor those tastes again.
Fortunately, there are plenty of other delights to keep my taste buds happy: starfruit juice, freshly harvested coffee, fried plantains, and of course salsa Lizano.
Now on the move, I am filled with the inexplicable desire to explore Costa Rica all over again, as if I were seeing it for the first time. I go to a traditional “tope,” or horse parade. The next day, I take a hike in the largest private rainforest reserve in Costa Rica, the Children’s Eternal Rainforest and finally, I spend an afternoon picking coffee for 50 cents an hour at one of my friend’s plantations. To top it all off I even managed to bring in the New Year in a swimsuit (a first for me) by viewing a fireworks show on the beach.
I have always loved visiting Costa Rica, since my initial volunteer abroad experience, in 2006. I always feel the spark of curiosity and adventure when I arrive here. There is always something new to see and experience.
Whether its a short or long stay, volunteering or touring, alone or in a group, I still feel as giddy as the first time (and even more so especially if coming from winter in Wisconsin.)
So now I have since stopped visiting Costa Rica and have made it my primary residence. With each stay here, I’ve become immersed in the culture, made more friends, and developed stronger relationships.
The love and affection shown by Costa Ricans is second to none and thanks to my adopted grandma I’ve been introduced to my girlfriend, which has allowed for even more cultural immersion.
Now I am dedicate to duplicating this experience for other visitors to Costa Rica. I love being at the airport to greet them. To see their initial reactions and then watching as they develop and change over the course of their stay is really gratifying to me. When they go from the “this is strange” expression to the “I could get used to this” expression then I know I’m doing my job.
With January being the start of the tourist season, I couldn’t think of a better way to have prepared for this than by returning to Costa Rica myself.
I encourage everyone to open that freezer door. The initial shock might leave your senses tingling and put you on edge, however once the vapor clears you’ll find yourself adjusting and comfortable again. Whether that door is open for only a week or as long as six months you’re certainly headed for climate change both literally and figuratively.
No doubt, it will leave you awake, refreshed and renewed.