Open-ended Experience Trumps the All-Inclusive

A little more than a week ago, I married the girl of my dreams and soon I found myself in Panama City, lounging next to her at the pool, sipping mojitos and working on my tan.

I could smell the sirloin steak coming from the kitchen; it will be my dinner in a few hours. After that, perhaps I’ll go down to the casino or ask the concierge for a good nightclub to go to.

There is no doubt in my mind that it will be a classy night. After all, Donald Trump has a building named after him in this city.

Three days later, back in my home in neighboring Costa Rica, I counted all the luxury hotels, five-course meals, room services, and $10 drinks and wondered if I had made a mistake. No, Mom, don’t panic… I definitely married the girl of my dreams, but our honeymoon was totally out of character.

Ahhh Panama City

It was the height of luxury, but we didn’t learn anything about the culture or the country. We never ate the regional food. We didn’t wander off into residential neighborhoods. Besides my wife’s innocent chatter with the taxi driver about why people don’t swim in the ocean (it’s contaminated), we hardly spoke to the locals.

Instead, we spent a lot of time in shopping malls and nice restaurants, and without a friend to show us the ropes, we felt fairly restricted to the superficial tourist area. In effect, we treated ourselves to the all-inclusive package, yet it was probably the most exclusive thing either of us had ever done.

My honeymoon reminded me of why I chose to live in Costa Rica: so I could continue to relive and share the experience of authentic travel that swept me off my feet so many years ago.

Most of us know the joy of experiencing a baby’s firsts: first words, first steps, first tooth, etc. Well, what if I told you that I get to live that euphoria of firsts every single day with people of all ages?

Almuerzo por Don Miguel
Mmm casado…

I have seen a 50-year old’s first words in Spanish, a 12-year old’s first gallo pinto breakfast and countless others’ first realization that the world of Latin America is not half as scary as people think it is. People here are quick on the smile, generous with laughs and eager to help – and real travel has nothing to do with nightclubs and luxury hotels.

Every once in a while, this constant, privileged euphoria slowly gets lost in my day-to-day routine until a special group comes along and gives me another injection. Last January, in fact, I came dangerously close to an overdose.

First, a group of University of Minnesota students came down for two weeks during their winter break. I didn’t really begin to understand the depth and impact of their experience until the final night, when their professor proceeded to give a 15-minute bilingual speech in a pizza parlor – and he is not bilingual – where he reflected on his experience and expressed his gratitude to all of the Costa Ricans.

A few days later, I received an email from this professor with a link to his 38-page journal that he had been  keeping since he arrived. It was complete with pictures, diagrams, and reactions – practically ready for publishing.  It wasn’t just about good food and comfortable beds, but rather a cultural immersion in Costa Rica had inspired him in many new ways. It reminded me of why I am here.  Then, my extended family flew down for an exciting week of adventure that culminated in my wedding day.

Every day was filled with an amazing energy to share and to embrace different cultures. Every effort was made so the events took place in both languages, and when communication broke down, people got creative. (Well, not so creative; we just uncorked more wine!)

I got to watch my family’s first attempts at dancing salsa and cumbia, first cracks at Spanish pronunciation, and unfortunately, first exposures to extreme sun. People were eager to organize, record and document every aspect of their newfound Latin American family, and our Costa Rican counterparts were delighted to share and learn, as well.

Many notebooks were filled with memories, countless photos were taken, and everyone agreed that whatever just happened was a blurry, amazing, heartfelt, unforgettable experience.

It’s sometimes hard for me to fathom how what I consider to be my daily life now is the experience of a lifetime for others.

I do remember that feeling some eight years ago though, and it still comes back to me on occasion: the insatiable curiosity, the sense of adventure, the relaxed pace of life, how the tropical climate is different and intoxicating when you come from a fast-paced, extreme-driven society.  Even though that seems so long ago for me, it is good to have that reminder of where I started.

My trip to Panama ended up being a refreshing experience, as it reminded me of what I’ve got. At this point, I don’t see myself trading in the open-ended for the all-inclusive anytime soon.


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