By Anna Adami
I wake up from a nap disoriented and sweaty. The ceiling fan beats at the highest level, but the air it moves is hot. My bed is covered in sand. Downstairs voices talk over the television. I roll off my dirty pink floral sheet. I throw my homework in my backpack; shove in a bathing suit between textbooks. I splash some water on my face and work up the courage to walk downstairs.
“Â¿EstÃ¡ cansada?” my host mom asks me. Are you tired?
I answer too fast. “Yo tambien,” I say. Me too. Because that makes sense.
Outside the sun beats strong. Men call to me on the street as I walked to school. “Que linda,” they say. How lovely. “Where are you going?” “Hello?” “Sexy.”
What am I doing? I think.
I am out of my element.
I trip over my flip flop.
And then I laugh. Because that’s the fun of this. The uncomfortable. The unknown. The challenge.
I think back to my bedroom in Texas, in disarray as I prepared for a semester in Costa Rica. Nostalgia always seems to linger when I’m leaving. It watched me pack and hummed to my music and reminded me of everything and everyone that makes a place home. It reminded me of wide skies and familiar roads. My little brother, sitting in my suitcase, asking if he can come with me to college. My dad bringing home boxes of donuts on Sundays. My mom listening to classic rock in our twelve-passenger van. My high school friends laughing in coffee shops, singing in cars. It reminded me of Dayton, Ohio. The student neighborhood. 60 Chambers Street. Hung-over mornings. Dancing for study breaks. Kayaking on the Great Miami. Living with friends that became family.
What are you doing? Nostalgia asked me as I packed. You are leaving all the people you love. You make a place your home and then you move.
Sometimes I think Nostalgia’s got a point.
But I’ve learned that anywhere can be home if you let it.
Currently I live in Puntarenas, Costa Rica. We call it the Dirty Punt. The air here sticks to our skin. The smell of fish travels with the humid breeze. Trash litters the beach and sand muddies the water. I spend free days fighting with jellyfish and sunrays. Catcalls poke and prod me, send me walking fast. There is an abandoned lot next to my school. It’s inhabited by a homeless man. My first week here I went on a run. I nearly tripped over a dead bird rolling with the waves to shore. This place has taken some getting used to. But the sunsets brag that even pollution can be beautiful.
Puntarenas is a good home base. It’s a small peninsula town, about six blocks wide. I can walk to El Centro in ten or fifteen minutes, to school in three, to the beach in five. The Punt is a launch pad for a slew of other places. Ferries bumble in and out daily. A string of buses send us away and back again. The Punt moves slow, as every beach town should. Bikes are the preferred method of transportation. The hottest hours of the day are reserved for siestas. I bungee cord my ten dollar hammock between palm trees and read for class. The shade has never tasted sweeter.
I live with a host family. I have a Mami Tica and a Papi Tico, an Abuela and two intimidatingly bad ass sisters. Both of my sisters are married, so the host brother-in-laws are always around too. On weekdays my host mom babysits a one-year-old named Santiago. “NiÃ±os traen felÃz para la casa,” my host dad says. Kids bring happiness to the home. A man with only one hand lived in our house for about a week. Once I walked downstairs at 7 a.m. and a woman in spandex cycling gear washed her coffee mug in the sink. My host mom’s sisters come over for lunch sometimes. She has eleven sisters. I have grown accustomed to semi-silent meals with strangers.
The language barrier keeps me guessing. Spanish words swim through the air around me. I try to catch them. Eat them. Make them mine. Miscommunication laughs at me. A couple weeks in, I came home for dinner at 8:15. An unwelcoming glance from my host mom triggered my nervousness. “Do you know what time dinner is?” she asked me in Spanish. I panicked.
“Â¿QuÃ©?” the word was a squeak.
“Seis o siete.”
“Â¿Seis o siete?” I repeated.
“Seis o siete.”
“Lo siento,” I babbled in apology. “Una de mi profesores tiene un…” shit… “Un… No sÃ© la palabra in espaÃ±ol.” I grabbed my phone, opened Spanish Dictionary, looked up the word for “meeting.” “Un reuniÃ³n.”
I haven’t come home late for dinner since.
My host fam and I watch a lot of Spanish television together. We drink cafÃ© con leche in the mornings. They keep me updated on the soccer games. They giggle when I doze off watching the news or when Becky the chihuahua jumps onto my lap. My Papi has a collection of baseball hats in a glass cabinet. He’ll take out a hat, look at it with admiration, show it to me with pride. The windows are curtained to keep the living room cool, but a welcome mat of sunlight sits with Abuela between the open door and the gate. Abuela and I communicate purely in smiles. My host parents call each other “mi amor.” People are always in and out of the house. They are embraced with hugs, cheek kisses and smiles. They are showered with food and conversation. My host dad once brought a homeless man a cold bottle of coke at the door. This family is rich in love.
On the weekends I pack a bag and I go. My host mom tells me “Ten cuidado.” Be safe. I trade the confusion of living with a host family for the confusion of unreliable buses, new places and haphazard plans. I sleep on cheap hostel bunks or rocky tent floors. I am attacked by mosquitoes, cut by rocks and bruised by waterfall jumps. The wind carries my dirt covered feet from one shore to another. Home becomes the earth itself.
My first weekend in Costa Rica, two friends and I made a five-hour trek to Tamarindo. We found a hostel with six open bunk beds. We claimed three. We went out that night, drank cacique and chased the sound of reggae music. It was the kind of music I want to melt into. When we came home to the hostel, we saw surfboards propped against the wall in our room. Bunk mates. We woke up Saturday to strangers in the beds around us.
We got in a car with these Tico strangers, drove an hour back woods and passed the day at two tourist-less-traveled beaches. The first beach: Marbella. We practically had the place to ourselves. The sand was bright white and hotter than coals. The surf was perfect; the water clear and the waves big. Luis and Carlos surfed and Jose read The Hunger Games under palm trees. I walked along the beach with Morgan and Theresa, swapping stories and gathering shells. When the sun got too hot, we swam. The cool water fueled our laughter. There was one bar-restaurant on the beach. We sat on wooden stools under an awning of shade. The bartenders were kind to us gringos. I got a piÃ±a colada for free.
Luis and Jose told us we’d go to a second beach for sunset. “More beautiful than here,” they said. We weren’t sure how that could be. “We have to wait for Carlos,” they told us. We passed time under palm trees with gaps of silence between stumbled Spanish words on our part, English words on theirs. Carlos emerged from among the trees with his surfboard tucked under his arm. His eyes shined like he found Nirvana in the waves.
Second beach: San Juanio. I strung my camera around my neck and accepted a canned Imperial Light from Jose. I couldn’t stop smiling. We were chasing the sunset. I’ve always been in love with the sky. It blinks at me. It knows. It remembers me from rooftops and driveways, truck beds and gravel roads. It remembers how I used to lay down, wherever I was, just to watch it. I offered the sky my agitated soul and it taught me how to breathe. When I saw my first shooting star I thought the sky was giving me a special key to some secret understanding of the universe. I’ve struggled to understand the universe since.
At San Juanio beach fishing boats speckled the gulf on the left. Steep hills sunbathed on the right. Silvery-black rocks jutted out from the beach and into the water. Light pooled between the rocks. It sparkled in the foam of crashing waves. I sat in the middle of a rock a little ways out from shore. I sat engulfed in the sunset. My heart was warm, full, at home within the sky.
“Have you seen a shooting star?” Jose asked.
“No,” I said, “Not in Costa Rica.” But there would be time.
Living abroad is taxing. People forget to tell you that. Nowhere is entirely comfortable and everything is a question. Lost is a method of navigation. I am reminded I am far from the U.S. when Spanish words fly over my head, fleeting as firecrackers. When I am told I’ve been eating horse meat for breakfast or I squash a scorpion with my textbook before I go to sleep. When I hitchhike in the car of a man named Jorge who keeps machete under the passenger seat. There is a quote from a Cuban film that goes something along the lines of “Los caracoles son casi perfectos.” Snails are almost perfect. “Porque solos Ãºnico que puede vivir en extranjero, sin sentir nostalgia por su casa.” Because only they alone can live abroad without nostalgia for their home. Snails carry home on their backs.
My friend Theresa traveled with me here from Dayton. She’s my go-to Partner in Crime. Absurdity follows us wherever we go. One weekend, by a fluke we ended up in Samara. We’d hiked to the caverns in Parque Nacional Barra Honda that morning. We’d sat in the caves and turned our headlamps off. Black darkness wrapped around. Our guide “Meditar” said, “En el corazÃ³n de la tierra.” In the heart of the land. We sat silent, still. At peace in the darkness of the Earth, in the forest hiking, in the hotel pool tucked between the shadows of mountains.
But by noon we were in the backwoods of Guanacaste with nothing else to do. Our breakfast of soggy peanuts was fading fast. The bus didn’t run on weekends. We stopped at a Pulperia run out of the front of a house. It wasn’t much, but it was everything we needed. Chickens clucked around the house and dogs lazed in the shade. We chose from slim pickings–got three loaves of bread, two avocados and a tomato. We relished that food, ate like kings. One of the women who lived in the house came out with a plate half way through our meal. “Comida tÃpica,” she said. She had a kind smile and shaky hands. She handed us a plate of cornbread treats. Her hospitality gave us a surge of strength. We set off walking. The sun was hot on our shoulders and the road rocky and hilly. We were prepared to trek to Nicoya. With a good pace, we could make it. It would be dark when we got there, but we could make it. We kept up our stamina with good conversation and Powerade.
Then the universe sent a sweet soul with a pick-up truck our way and we hitchhiked to Nicoya with the wind whipping through our hair. From there we caught a bus to Samara.
The beach town of Samara was a stark contrast to the rural mountains of Santa Ana. Samara hosted a sprawling expat community. White people in flowy pants dominated. People talked to us in English before Spanish. We were running low on money. We decided to camp. We pulled on our backpacks and walked along the shore of the beach. Beaches are often public property in Costa Rica, so any spot was fair game. The sky had faded to dark at this point. It sparkled with stars. The sky is infinite and the stars are old. They’ve seen it all. The sky sits still, patient, suspended. The stars wait. They watch the world change, people change, me change.
The water was cool on our roughened feet. In that moment, there was no place I’d rather be. I didn’t want to stop walking. Could’ve followed that shore to the edge of the world. . Theresa looked at me and said, “I’m so proud of us.” We searched the sky for shooting stars. “We’re becoming snails.”
From the corner of my eye, I saw a streak of light fall through the moonlit ceiling.
Snail: Dave Huth via Flickr
Hammock: Christoffer Undisclosed via Flickr
Grandfather and Boy: Pablo Contreras via Flickr
CafÃ© con Leche: JesÃºs Dehesa via Flickr
Woman in Puntarenas: nateClicks via Flickr
Woman with Costa Rican Children: Rebecca Garcia via Flickr
Samara: Peter Wilton via Flickr