IMG_3514Each time we travel we have a choice. We can be a tourist or a traveler. In my younger life I was always a traveler. I backpacked through South America, teaching English along the way, exchanging room and board for language lessons and trying my best to speak Spanish.

Later, even on short vacations, I’d find ways to weave myself into the fabric of the local communities. A catalyst as simple as a bike would open up a  conversation that would lead to a beer, a ride, and maybe even a friendship . Once in Ireland, my bike started a conversation that landed me at the home (converted from a church) of a local Irish chef for wine and cheese. During that happy hour, we learned about the Irish economy, government, development and famine.

In the past 12 years, I haven’t traveled a ton. I look at old pictures and I envy the girl I see in them – the freedom she has and openness to possibility and new experiences. But, earlier this month, I had the chance to not only relive that life, just for a brief two weeks, but to share it with twelve high-school students.

With the Telluride Mountain School’s ninth and tenth graders and two colleagues, I traveled to Costa Rica. The students were immersed in Spanish language and the local culture. We met the people, shared stories and meals, and learned about the country’s rich biodiversity and ecosystems as well as controversial economic issues that both work to protect and destroy the country’s natural beauty.

While there, a colleague read an essay entitled Wanderlust by Kent Nerburn which reflected beautifully IMG_4911what we, the adults, had learned through our travels and what we were trying to impart on the students. Nerburn contemplates the transformational effect the experience of traveling can have on individuals and explores both the challenges and rewards a traveler experiences when she is able to immerse herself in the world, culture and people where she is visiting.

Nerburn writes, “To be a real traveler you must be willing to give yourself over to the moment and take yourself out of the center of your universe. You must believe totally in the lives of the people and the places where you find yourself…….Become part of the fabric of their everyday lives and you will get a sense of what it means to live in their worlds. …..Embrace them rather than judge them – and you will find that the beauty in their lives and their world will become part of yours. 

When you move on, you will have grown. You will realize that the possibilities of life in this world are endless…..”

As a litmus test for ourselves, I asked the students to reflect on what they remembered about the trip — to write about what they wanted to “keep”. I joined them in their journal writing. This is what has stayed with me.

I remember the dirt roads, walking everywhere without a worry about time. I remember savoring every moment. I don’t remember a “to do” list or a tendency to be effective and efficient. Costa Rica was like a big Jacuzzi in which I sat in so I could absorb it all, letting each experience wash over me like hot water softening hardened muscles.

I remember the school kids in their white shirts and navy blue pants then I remember how fast they changed out of them to play futbol at the end of the day. I remember the confidence in their eyes as we taught them English and the trepidation in their voices as they spoke.

I remember the canchas or soccer fields, and I remember the kids. The ace near Cirenas in orange shorts and the one in Esperanza with no shoes. The heat did not matter to them nor did the cow patties in the middle of the dirt field. All that mattered was the soccer ball; all I remember are their smiles.

I remember our zip line guides and practicing Spanish with any Tico I could. I asked one how old he was. He was nineteen. He was a zip line guide during the day and went to the local colegio at night. He was studying environmental studies.  “Paga bien?” I asked him inquiring if a job in that field would pay well. He replied that the money was not important, what was important was that he was happy.

I remember the olas (waves). Those that were kind to me and those that pummeled me. I remember swimming everyday at sunset and that sunset was everyday at six. A perfectly spherical red ball descended IMG_4924on the horizon into the ocean each evening.

I remember eating ripe papaya with a spoon straight from its skin as its juices dripped down my face. And eating lots of beans and rice, arroz con pollo or pinto gallina (spotted rooster).

I remember the words the Ticos used as a salutation, the words anyone who has visited Costa Rica knows best —  Pura Vida.

I remember what it’s like to be a traveler.

1 Comment
  • kim havell
    Posted at 07:31h, 20 May

    Great post, Jesse. Wonderful read.