Cows, Clouds, and Canopies

My alarm went off at 5:45am. To spare you the details, I had only been asleep for three hours and I wasn’t feeling at my best…due to my activities the night before.

I lurched out of bed and threw the last few things I needed into my backpack, forgetting several things in the process. The bus left at 6:30. An Uber ride later, my two friends and I were standing in a long line in the terminal, breathing sighs of relief that we had just barely made it. That relief was quickly squashed when Izzy boarded the bus first. The driver took one look at her ticket and wagged his finger at her. “That bus has already left,” he told us.

I can laugh about it now, because it’s been four days, but at the time we were completely crestfallen. The lack of sleep and dehydration did not help.

Our second attempt went much better, and I didn’t forget anything this time! At 2:30 that afternoon we were finally on our way to Monteverde, Costa Rica. You may have heard of it – the Cloud Forest Reserve is likely the country’s most popular and most advertised ecotourism destination. It’s higher in elevation and therefore colder than San José, and while walking through the Monteverde Biological Preserve you feel enveloped in clouds – hence the name. The area is home to dense rainforest, beautiful rolling hills, and farmland. I had booked an Airbnb a few days prior. It was located a bit outside of Santa Elena proper (the small town near the reserve) and unlike in more urban areas here, Ubers were not available. Thanks to our bus fiasco that morning, we were arriving much later than anticipated and I was worried about finding transportation from the bus station.

We ended up calling a few phone numbers for taxis that we found online, and finally struck gold. Little did we know that the man who answered the phone, Jorge, would become our best friend for the weekend (though we were initially nervous getting in his car late at night). It was drizzling as he took us up a steep, pothole-riddled road and eventually turned off into a dark gravel driveway. This was the entrance to Finca El Paraíso (or Paradise Farm). A woman who we would later know as Yolanda waved him down towards a cabin at the bottom. Jorge paused when the path turned to grass and became even steeper, but then barreled down and stopped with a jerk at the front door. Orlando, our Airbnb host, met us there.

“If I had seen you coming down, I would have told you to stop at the top,” he told Jorge. After we all introduced ourselves and brought our luggage in, we realized that that it was going to be a huge task getting that van back up the muddy hill. We ended up all piling into the back row as he revved it – apparently it just needed more weight and more traction in the back. That’s a strategy I might need in the future.

After calling him several different times to drive us to and from the town and the farm where we stayed, my friend Taylor saved Jorge’s WhatsApp number and he became essentially our on-call Uber. He still took care of us even after the hill incident, and even after Taylor left her phone in the backseat and made him drive all the way back. Shout out to you, Jorge.

The Airbnb was on a sustainable farm, hosted by a family that consisted of an elderly grandmother, her daughter and her husband, and their two children, Orlando and Carolina, who were both in their early 20s. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner were all available to purchase for $6 a meal, and they were prepared by Orlando’s mother, Yolanda. She poured her heart into that food. It was delicious. Every meal also came with great conversation with the family. The son and daughter spoke English, but we practiced our Spanish as much as possible.

We also paid to take their farm tour and cheesemaking class. I milked one of their cows, Matilda (who is three months pregnant!!) and got to bottle feed a calf. If you know me, you know that I am just a bit in love with cows – so this was a dream come true. Orlando walked us over to their pasture area and told us all about how they had once used pesticides that negatively affected his father’s health, and how Orlando had pioneered the switch to organic farming. He learned everything via YouTube and Netflix. Now, he said, the animals and the family were healthier and they were able to repopulate their land with native trees and vegetation.

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Roberto, their farm cat, looking out at the view.

Hanging out on the farm was the highlight of the weekend, but my second-favorite adventure began Saturday morning. While Izzy and some of our other friends who were staying at a hostel went bungee jumping (!!), the two other girls and I decided to go slightly safer and zipline instead. There are several ziplining canopy tours in the Monteverde area, but we chose the “original” one – which also happened to be the cheapest. Four guides took a group of us into the rainforest canopy, and we zoomed along cables VERY high over the forest floor. The view was incredible, and I felt secure even though at times I was literally dangling from one caribiner.

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I’ll skip over the rest of our stay, but it all went better than planned or expected. While some of my other weekends have left me feeling disappointed that I wasn’t able to fit in more activities, I felt fulfilled by every moment in Monteverde. After ziplining, we had lunch and then hiked in the cloud forest. Sunday, we did the farm tour, then shopped a bit in Santa Elena and that night went on a night tour to see wildlife. Early Monday morning we left the Airbnb early this time and hopped on the bus back to San José.

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Sunset our last night at Finca El Paraíso
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Halfway

My sixth week in San José is coming to an end, meaning that my time here is halfway up. It’s bittersweet to grapple with my simultaneous homesickness and the sense of comfortable normalcy my life here now holds.

“Ay, el tiempo pasa muy rápido,” my host mom says nearly every week as she realizes how long we’ve already been staying with her. I feel the urge to tick as many things as possible off an unwritten bucket list but I try to remind myself that every moment here is valuable, whether I’m on the beach in one of Costa Rica’s most beautiful spots or simply sitting with my friends at school, drinking coffee and studying, as I’m doing right now.

As I reflect on the last six weeks, here is what I’ve learned so far:

Look up. When I go to Thursday night dance classes on campus, I’m always reminded to take my eyes off my own feet and look at my partner’s face. Dancing salsa comes a little easier when you’re focused more on moving together with the music rather than not tripping. This is a good tip for hiking, too. Costa Rica is famous for its dense rainforests – meaning that animal species here are usually high above your head in the canopy. Ironically, its hard not to trip over your own feet or a tree root when you’re walking through the jungle trying to spy a sloth, but it’s well worth it if you do see one.

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Sloth we spotted at Cahuita National Park.

Let go of some of the things you usually rely on as part of your routine. I love a scalding hot shower at home, but that’s rarely an option here. I’ve learned to accept tepid but not freezing. Costa Ricans are also not fond of iced coffee – it’s not Europe, so it can be found in some more Westernized restaurants, but seven times out of ten you’re going to have to settle for a steaming hot mug. Ticos don’t throw ice into everything like we do in the States.

Don’t be hard on yourself when learning a language. This one is much easier said than done, but as a perfectionist I truly had to learn this the hard way. I’ve gone many times with my mouth shut rather than attempt to say something I fear will be conjugated incorrectly, or that I lack the vocabulary for. Not anymore – I try to start speaking first and figure out the rest later. It helps that here I often don’t have the option to speak English or to not speak at all, especially when trying to order food or get around the city.

Learn to be okay spending some time alone. This one is from my friend Krissy, who doesn’t have a housemate at her homestay, but I think it’s applicable more generally. Living in another country requires a certain level of independence and resourcefulness that can be uncomfortable at times. Everything is unfamiliar here at first – even just figuring out where to buy soap can be a thousand times more complicated than it is at home. You need to navigate language barriers and differences in cultural norms, and oftentimes you learn by trial and error, and often you navigate those learning experiences by yourself. However, I will say that I love my community of friends here and I’m never truly alone.

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My friend Izzy and I at Irazu Volcano

I’m not trying to impart any life-changing realizations here, but I do feel like I could tell my pre-study-abroad self some things I didn’t know before I got on the plane. Everything feels a little higgledy-piggledy here at times and it feels good to remind myself that every day I’m doing hard things, and succeeding.