By Carol Malthaner
My memory is that my daughter and I spent the summer after my husband’s death sitting in the living room with the dog and cats doing nothing. One friend cooked for us weekly. She also helped me do the necessary paperwork that seemed impossible to navigate under the circumstances. But mostly we sat. Or I sat and my daughter stayed curled in a fetal position on the couch.
However, come September, five months after my husband died, my daughter and I unfurled from the living room couch and went back to our schools: me to teach and she to resume high school. She lasted four days before returning to the couch for quite some time. I kept teaching. One day, I was eating lunch with a fellow teacher, a dear friend. She listened to what was going on with my daughter, gave our situation thought, and then prescribed Costa Rica. She had been there herself. She knew Serena loved animals. Why not?
On my way home from school that day, I stopped at my favorite book store and bought every paperback travel-book they had on Costa Rica. So began my therapy. This involved a year of intensive poring over these books, planning how we would navigate this foreign country in order to see everything possible. Without really thinking, I assumed we’d travel the way I had in college, winging it as we went. That had been the trip of a life-time hitch-hiking through Europe with a friend. Why not pick up where I had left off only this time with my teen-aged daughter in Costa Rica? No set itinerary. No organized tours. Not even any reservations past our first night in San Jose.
We would be free to go to where we were drawn. Every night, following a day of teaching, I would collapse in bed with my travel books, a pad of sticky notes and a pen in order to figure out our options. Which places were the most magical? Which spots would we both enjoy? What would spark her reconnection with the world around her? What would inspire my soul? Would we be brave enough to try a zip-line? Would we bring or rent our snorkel gear? Where could you ride a horse on the beach? How would we get from place to place? I became obsessed.
Over the course of the year, I bought our plane tickets to San Jose, the capitol, and booked our first night in a hotel there. Those remained our only advanced reservations. But at this point, my daughter had never been out of the country except to Canada. I felt I needed to prepare her for what I expected would be the culture-shock of a poor, tropical country. I got her inoculated and outfitted with rain gear. I helped her plan what to bring for entertainment during down times and prepared her for spotty electricity and internet access and drinking only bottled water. For her part, she consulted with her on-line make-up communities about make-up for the tropics. Language, though, would not be a problem. Before high school, she had attended a Spanish-English bilingual school for nine years. She would be the translator!
But it was me who initially experienced culture shock as the long reach of U.S. ubiquity enveloped us while riding in the cab from the airport to our hotel. All billboards were in English, featuring blond sponsors of American products. Justin Timberlake belted out “My Love” over the radio. My daughter paused in her English conversation with the driver to comment to me, “Good thing you got us so prepared for a foreign country, Mom.”
“Just wait. We’re still in the city,” I told her. She rolled her eyes.
But sure enough, the next morning we took a tiny, rattling plane that placed not only our luggage but us as well onto a scale and then set off for Montezuma on the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula. From this point on, no one was blonde except us. Few spoke English. There was tropical rain forest instead of billboards along the road. And that road from airstrip to hotel was not paved. But when we stopped along it, an exquisite stone archway allowed us to enter the magical resort of the Hotel Amor de Mar where we would stay for a few days, one of those spots I’d selected for my wounded soul. From the archway, we took a short path to a tiled veranda with tables and chairs and lined with tropical plants in full bloom. Beyond that, a well-tended lawn stretched down to a barricade of blue rocks holding the ocean at bay. Brightly-colored hammocks hung invitingly between palm trees. And off to the left, a stream flowed energetically past a wing of small stuccoed rooms down to meet the sea. Our room was at the very end. I instantly felt I could do some healing here. How could it possibly get any better?
“Well, for starters,” my daughter explained while eyeing me settling into a cushioned chair with my writing journal, “it would help to have something to do.” But the real need for improvement, from her fifteen-year-old perspective, made itself apparent in the middle of the night. A piercing shriek would have sent me leaping from the bed if she had not jumped in on top of me.
“Good God! What’s the matter?”
“Mom, there is the most humongous spider in the bathroom that I ever knew existed. You have to see it.”
I crawled out from under her and out of the bed and asked where in the bathroom I should look. “Mom, I don’t know where it is. But it’s gigantic. You can’t miss it.”
I went over to the shut door, put my hand on the knob and prepared myself to face something the size of a German Shepard puppy. Opening the door, I peered in, but didn’t see anything even when I turned on the light. Then I heard some clicking and clacking from behind the shower curtain. Could a spider do that? I tried to stand near the door so I could exit speedily if necessary, and I reached towards the shower and pulled back the curtain.
Oh, my God! It WAS big! But I didn’t think it was a spider. It waved some sort of protuberance at me, and then clacked across to the other side of the shower. It was a crab! A good-sized crab. And it was scared to death. I explained this to my daughter who wanted me to get rid of it, nonetheless, so she could go back to sleep. Well, I didn’t have a clue as to how to do this, but I explained that I would close the door and stuff a beach towel (unnecessarily) into the crack at the bottom so that she was convinced it could not get into our bedroom. Amazingly, this satisfied her, and we lived to see the morning and to watch the maid use a broom to nonchalantly chase the pesky thing out our door.
Yes, my daughter, after some grumbling, found things to do: Walk in the stream as it flowed past the hammocked lawn and into the ocean, its sandy waters creating a fan out in the crystal sea. Look for monkeys on our walk into town. Visit the American bookstore. Play video games. Change her nail polish. But this spot had been on our list of possible stops for me. Oddly, I can’t really remember everything I did there, but it was wonderful. A red hammock, fresh fruit on the veranda while I wrote, walking alone on a dirt road, the ocean on one side and rain forest on the other, enormous blossoms, a sautéed fish lying, still sizzling, on a bed of rice and beans, naps, a guitar playing off out of sight. I thought I had come to Costa Rica with my daughter to help her heal. I hoped that would happen. But even if it didn’t, I still felt a shift in my own soul, a new awareness of beauty, goodness. I often breathed in deeply and felt awe.
But I had planned other destinations with my daughter in mind. So after reveling in the Hotel Amor de Mar for several days, I had the office call ahead to book us reservations in Tamarindo and arrange one of the ubiquitous, cross-country cabs to drive us there. It was a long trip on dirt roads involving detours around flooded stream beds and swerves around canyon-like ruts and winding roads over the mountains. The views were spectacular and often the driver stopped to let me out to take pictures, assuring me in English we were in no hurry. He remained patiently in the cab with my daughter who was not impressed by scenery. Later, I learned that these stops were a pretense for him, in Spanish, to try and romance her, a story she loved to tell with an attitude indicating, “Why do you think he was stopping, Mom?”
We did make it to Tamarindo unscathed, and my daughter was immediately happy. Its three streets ran parallel to the ocean and were lined with young adults hawking beaded chokers, woven friendship bracelets, and necklaces with dangling tiny shells. Just behind this commerce were taco and pizza huts, outdoor bars, and many surf shops. And when we approached our “hotel”, I realized I needed to be more alert in the future to the messages encoded in the guide books. I should have known that any place boasting a well-equipped, communal kitchen caters to those not more than two or three years past their adolescence. In fact, when we went to check in, we did so at the window of a little shack. I was requested to agree to and sign a list of rules I had not considered breaking in a very long time, if ever. So many “don’ts” about where not to wax my surfboard, about not bringing any towels of theirs to the beach, and about the fact that any “new friends” I met were not allowed to spend the night with us. I also was asked to put a deposit on the key which came on a chain that I was not allowed to get rusty by wearing it while I surfed. I could live with these restrictions, but what was I going to get in return?
It turned out that I was going to get a tiny, ceiling-less, room with two saggy twin beds and a plywood board that did not go all the way to the roof in separating the bathroom from the sleeping area. But as I said, Tamarindo was a stop aimed at my daughter. It was clean and there were no crabs. What more could she want on vacation?
Well, TV. This place had none, and it was raining out and her iPod needed to be charged. Also, she had a million bug bites and none of the creams I had brought relieved the itching, and she had a headache from all the jouncing in the cab. But the final blow was that her hair wasn’t right. Was I sure the back was even with the front? Maybe she should have gotten it cut at an angle, shorter in the back. At any rate, she couldn’t stand the way it was not straight, but not really curly either. She was so going to get an expensive hair straightener when we got back. By the way, did I know where her purple eye-liner was? I did. She thanked me.
We were just settling in our beds to relax with our skinny pillows folded and propped, when suddenly there was an urgent pounding on our door. What now? My mind went to the list of rules, wondering how I could possibly have already broken one, but when I opened the door, I was greeted by a large woman with wild dyed-blond hair, a bikini top, and a towel tied precariously around her voluptuous hips. She was in a hurry. She spoke to us with a German accent and urgently explained that she was the proprietor and that we needed to immediately hurry to the beach across the road. It was almost sunset. We did as we were told.
It turned out that sunsets in Tamarindo are an almost religious experience shared by the whole town, much as I picture the prayer rituals of various religions. In Tamarindo, we didn’t have to kneel, but everyone did stop whatever they had been doing and walked over to the beach side of the street to stand in the sand, facing west, and watch the sunset. Children stopped playing. A small group of teens stopped flirting. Some younger adolescents got off their bikes. Truck drivers pulled over to the side of the road and left their trucks running unattended. Shop keepers emerged through their doors until there was quite a crowd of us there on the beach, watching. No one spoke. No one moved. Even a group of stray mutts collapsed in the sand and lay still, gently panting while the first half of the shimmering red orb slipped below the horizon. My daughter leaned in towards me almost tenderly, in a manner I thought represented the comradery of this special shared moment and whispered, “Do you think they have an internet café around here?”
The sun set, and we all dispersed. And yes, there was an internet café. I sat and read my novel while my daughter consulted her hair communities. Afterwards, we wandered the little streets, looking for a place to have dinner, and spotted Pasta Y Pizza a Go-Go. “Oh, Mom, we could take it back to our room, and you could get in bed and read. Wouldn’t that be cozy?” she suggested?
“And what would you do?” I asked.
“My iPad’s charged by now. If you’re not in the mood to read, we could share my earphones and watch one of the SVU episodes I brought for us.”
And that’s what we did. We shared not an hour of cultural enrichment here in this foreign country that had so much of that to offer. But we did share an hour of what we have since come to call our “mother-daughter bonding”, an intense moment of enjoying each other’s company.
This time, arms linked, her head on my shoulder, we watched Olivia tackled the dark side of New York City. Of course, she won. And so did we. Our physical snuggling was only a visual symbol of what was happening between my daughter and me. We were starting our journey together in life without the man we both loved. We hesitantly and erratically were starting to reach out again to what life had to offer. We tentatively allowed ourselves to feel happiness, not a lot, but enough to remember what it was. We even started to have moments of laughing at what he would think of us down here in our surfer shack. We moved on to share stories of how each of us had separately and discreetly bonded with him to laugh at the unwitting third other. He had done that. He’d given us humor and laughter and joy. And here, down in Costa Rico, we were learning he still had the power to do so.
Copyright Malthaner 2022