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131 Miles: Liberia to San Jose, Costa Rica

I tried to write about my adventures in Costa Rica in one post. I swear I did. But as I explained here, something extraordinary happened on that trip, and I can’t fit the whole story into 1000 words or less. For those of you just catching up, in December I went on a five-day, 700-mile road-trip across a third-world country. Throughout this month, I’m going to write about each leg of the journey, starting with the first 131 miles. Thanks for reading.

Dec. 7, 131 Miles: Liberia to San Jose

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have angst about my trip to Costa Rica, not stress but a sense of uncertainty. Sure partly, I had the normal anxiety about flying to a foreign country. Did I have enough cash? Would my plane be on time? Would my stuffed bag fit into the overhead? Did I have my passport?

But above all, I was concerned about traveling with women. I know that sounds strange, but I’m not around a lot of girls daily. I live with more dogs than humans and work in an industry with a male to female ratio of five to one. Also, I’m a tomboy who wears cargo shorts instead of yoga pants and board shorts instead of bikini bottoms. I live in my Penn State baseball hat. So, a five-night girl’s trip in a third-world country was a completely new experience for me.

I was traveling with two sisters from North Carolina, Nora Gabriel and Rita Southard. We were headed to the Osa Peninsula, a biodiversity hotspot, to volunteer for a sea turtle conservation group. Nora was the inspiration behind the whole trip. She’s a sea turtle advocate with a mane of black curls and an infectious laugh. I’ve known Nora for years but only met Rita a handful of times. Rita is younger than her sister, thirty something, tall with soft pale skin and brown hair that sways against her waist. Since we were starting our journey in the northern region of Costa Rica, and needed to venture to the southern end, we planned on splitting the first part of our trip into two days.

My first hour in Costa Rica went exactly as planned. I landed in Liberia during the late afternoon. Nora and Rita were waiting for me outside of immigration. We were spending the night in San Jose, 131 miles away, and taking a shuttle van to our hotel. Between the three of us, we knew a few phrases in Spanish, but none of us could have a conversation in it, and our driver didn’t speak a word of English. On the curb outside the airport, Nora pointed out the address of our hotel on her phone. He nodded, and that nod was the only assurance we had that he knew our destination.

About thirty minutes into our ride, my stomach started feeling weak. I’m prone to motion sickness, so in retrospect I should have sat in the front seat. But I didn’t. I sat in the very back because up until I got in that van, my stomach gave no indication it was upset.

Costa Rica doesn’t have many roads, so traveling takes a lot longer than it does at home. If we were driving 131 miles from one major city to another in the Southern United States, it would take two hours. In Costa Rica, it takes double that time. The two-lane roads were paved but winding, weaving back and forth, back and forth. Sometimes, we drove behind public buses or tractors pulling hay, and we moved at a snail’s pace. Sometimes, the road cleared and the driver would pound on the gas for a few manic kilometers before slamming on the brakes. The van had seen better days, faded red interior, chipped paint, windows that didn’t roll down. Plus, it didn’t have any seatbelts, so every time the driver slammed on the brakes, we lurched forward.

About an hour into the trip, my stomach was turning like a carousel. About three hours into the ride, it was spinning. Through sheer willpower, I was able to control it because I wasn’t going to be that girl, the one who causes problems, the one who shows weakness hours into a rugged five-day trip. Unfortunately, my stomach didn’t care about my reputation.

I said, “I’m going to puke.”

Nora and Rita looked at me, then at the driver, then at each other. At the same exact second, we realized nobody knew enough Spanish to ask him to pull over. Nobody knew how to tell him I was going to be sick. And that if he didn’t pull over, it was going to happen all over the van’s floor. It’s an odd feeling not being able to communicate at the height of an emergency. Granted, I had played around on language apps for the past year, but I never took learning Spanish seriously, not really. And I never regretted my apathy more than at that moment.

Since I get motion sickness and travel a lot, I’ve developed a habit. Consciously or not, I identify a puke bag the moment I get on any plane, subway, bus, or shuttle van. Luckily, I had packed a few Ziploc bags in my backpack. I don’t remember thinking about those bags beforehand, but when my stomach rose into my throat, and then into my mouth, I dug for those bags like a dog hunting a mole. As the orange haze of San Jose, the biggest city in Costa Rica, glowed through the van’s windows, I puked into a Ziploc bag, not once but twice.

After my retching concluded, I was embarrassed and humbled. I had been worried about traveling with girls, and I was the one who couldn’t hang. But if Nora and Rita felt that way, they never let it show. Instead, Nora handed me a wet wipe, offered water, medicine. Rita shrugged off my apology. “Please,” she said in a nonchalant way, as though she was totally accustomed to people puking into plastic bags, as though it was no big deal.

Now, almost six week later, I wish I could remember more about my first 131 miles in Costa Rica. But, in retrospect I only learned two things. First, I need to work on my Spanish, no more excuses. Secondly, I learned something about Nora and Rita. Nora’s nurturing and Rita’s feigned indifference had been the perfect remedies for my embarrassment in that van. Within minutes, they had made me feel okay again. That was the first but not the last time I realized that traveling with women, particularly these two women, was going to be a special experience.

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