It was the summer of 2008. I was just barely legal to drink in the United States. I’ve flown on a plane once, but it was a domestic flight to Hawaii. I’ve never been to another country before besides Canada, but really if you ask any Michigander, Canada never counts. I finished the winter semester at college and decided now is the best time to go somewhere completely unknown to me; somewhere with a jungle. But I just didn’t want to go and sight-see, I wanted to immerse myself in the culture and I figured the best way to do that right out the starting gate is to volunteer in a community.
For some reason, I had Guatemala on my mind. So I went ahead and booked everything for it. Those first few clicks on the computer were scary, but exciting. I’m actually doing this! A few days later I received a phone call from the volunteer agency telling me there were some problems within Guatemala and that I could switch to either Costa Rica or the Galapagos Island. It was an easy pick: Costa Rica!
My family and friends would ask me why I’m going and I’d just respond casually saying “Just to do something fun. See the world!” or something like that. I did extensive research on Costa Rica because I knew nothing about it. I bought a guide book, new clothes, a new pair of swimming trunks, toiletries, hiking boots, and tons of other items for the trip. Looking back now, I definitely overpacked but at the time I didn’t know any better. I applied for a passport which I remember being relatively cheap at the time. Once I received it in the mail, I opened to find a photo of me smiling (something you’re not supposed to do on passports nowadays) with multiple crisp, clean blank pages waiting to be filled out. Also at the time, I never thought I would actually fill out an entire book. Did that.
Going on a flight by myself was a little scary for me. I really hated to fly and feared it to a degree. My family and friends wished me farewell and to be careful, they didn’t know exactly where I was going in Costa Rica but I made sure to leave my mom my itinerary and was sure to stay in contact the best I could. Nowadays, I don’t have itineraries anymore. I just go with the flow! When I boarded the plane from Detroit to my connection in Miami, I was filled with all sorts of emotions. The hardest part was over; booking everything. Now that this was actually happening, there was no turning back now. I applied to spend a month in Playa San Miguel, a beach on the west coast of Costa Rica lending a hand with the sea turtle rescue project. The aspects of it sounded cool but I couldn’t concentrate properly because my fear of flying was all that was on my mind. Once I get to Costa Rica I can relax. But once I did finally arrive in San Jose, I was hit with culture shock. They guy who picked me up from the airport was nice but spoke no English. The ride to my hotel was a memorable one. I’ve never seen homeless kids on the streets before. I saw one sleeping in ragged clothes on the sidewalk as flies ravaged all around him. Car horns were honking everywhere, strays dogs to the dozens bruised and withered, and there was no sense of uniformity on the streets of San Jose. Daniel, what are you doing here? That was the first and only time I’ve ever experienced culture shock. I practically trapped myself in my hotel room and relaxed for a bit.
The next morning I was scheduled to take a bus from San Jose to my placement in San Miguel. At the hotel, I met two other volunteers, brother and sister Elliott (US) and Abby (US). These two are the very first volunteers I’ve ever encountered amongst the hundreds I’ve met to this day. The three of us rode on a long bumpy public bus to San Miguel where I did get sick. I wasn’t entirely aware of my motion sickness at the time either. I went unprepared.
Upon arriving at the beach, we met our coordinators Stephanie and Claudia. We were some of the first volunteers there and at that moment, I was excited for what was in store. Our new home was amazing! I had my own little cabana just a football field away from the beach. I’ve never seen so many waves before. The beach was lined with tall tropical trees, shrubs, and in the distance you could see a large structure which I dubbed “The Rock” which I knew as soon as I saw it that I had to climb it! I was happy with my decision to come to Costa Rica.
A few more volunteers arrived that week but I bonded best with Elliott and Abby. Every night we would walk a couple of kilometers on the beach searching for sea turtles but we always came up short. Most nights were fun but then others were miserable. It was the rainy season so sometimes I’d get soaked, almost to the point of hypothermia. Even though I came here overpacked I was still underprepared. I waited for the night when we’d see our first turtle.
One day, I convinced Elliott and Abby to come with me to The Rock. It looked easy; just follow the shore all the way there. Though the further we progressed the more dangerous the trek became. We came to a point where we decided to stop and turn around. I’d try again another day during low tide.
Elliott and Abby only stuck around for two weeks and on their last night as they waited for their bus to pick them up, I finally saw my first turtle crawl up shore. As I helped to collect the turtle eggs, I paused to run to say farewell to them and then ran back to the turtle eggs. Literally, 40 eggs about the size of a golfball plopped out of the turtle into our bags. We’d take the eggs and put them into our own hatchery to protect from poachers and wild dogs.
Upon their exit, a few more volunteers arrived. Stacey (Canada), Taylor (US), Tia (US), Thom (US), and Sarah and her mom (US) among others. One night, Stacey, Taylor and I ventured along the beach and met a group of surfers who rented out a house near the coast. We hung out with them for a couple of days and they even drove us around near the beach after nights of sharing their spirits with us. I’ve seen one of the guys before everyday on the beach but we never spoke to each other because he assumed I was a local. When he found out I spoke English he was thoroughly surprised.
Now that another group was here, I thought I’d attempt to go to The Rock again. We trekked out during low tide this time and made it a little further than before. But the further we went, one by one volunteers began to feel uneasy and stayed behind to wait. There were just a few of us remaining when we reached a cliff with ferocious waves crashing within it. On the other side of the cliffs was the path straight to The Rock. My stupid naive self thought that if I jumped into the water and stayed near the wall, the waves would just push my against it not hurting me at all. Boy was I WRONG! Thom suggested I shouldn’t do it but I assured him it would work. This was how oblivious I was to danger.
I jumped in the water and immediately was sucked out from the wall and grabbed by an oncoming wave. That wave picked me up and slammed me into the wall behind me. THANKFULLY I had a giant backpack full of gear and supplies to absorb most of the impact. I uncontrollably slammed against the wall two or three times before professional climber Thom reached out, somehow grabbed my bag and pulled me back to safety. He literally saved my life. Lets turn around! Since then I never attempted The Rock again. The others were scared for my life, as was I but everything was okay in the end. We were now trapped from high tide and had to climb or way back to the beach.
The coordinators were concerned and gave me a talking to afterwards. “Don’t do dangerous things!” they would say. “You’re putting everyone at risk!” I got lucky that day. Of course these days I still linger on the side of danger but I’m a lot smarter about it now!
My time in Costa Rica consisted of beautiful waterfalls, hikes, beaches, turtles, and simply an amazing experience.
At the time, blogging never crossed my mind. In fact, I wouldn’t have even considered it if it was an option. Heck, I didn’t even have a Facebook yet either. It was those first volunteers I met who convinced me to get one so I could stay in touch with them and it’s amazing that I can still see what some of them have been doing to this day! Hi guys!
I left Costa Rica a new man and with the travel bug. I’ve been at it ever since! Costa Rica was the start of the growing process into the adventurous beast I am today. But I wasn’t sure as to when I would ever return there…
I was anxious to get back to San Jose but the road there was going to be long. Luke, Deb, and I took a ferry back to the mainland of Nicaragua, took a cab to the border, walked through immigration and then hopped on a bus to San Jose. It wasn’t nearly as long as I expected it to take. We then found a shabby hotel near the city center that we settled into. I was in San Jose for one reason and one reason only: to visit a few friends that I’ve met over the years that I haven’t seen in a very long time. 🙂