I wasn't able to give much thought to my own vacation until Simone was on the bus to summer camp, headed into two-and-a-half weeks of adventures. Adventures I'd only learn about via the occasional letter and by scrolling through hundreds of photos on the camp's web portal, looking for hints that she was enjoying herself.
The days before she left were fraught with preparations — gathering up the needed clothing and equipment for the session; coordinating with her mom to make sure we'd made the right purchases and had collected sufficient underwear from both houses; pre-addressing and stamping envelopes to make it easier for her to write to me, her grandparents, her aunts and friends. There really wasn't time for me to start compiling my own pre-vacation to-do list.
But after she was finally on the bus, both of us waving nervously to each other, with me suppressing tears until I was walking through the emptying parking lot, I pointed my car to Target, and spent the next half-hour gathering up travel supplies. By the time I got home, I finally got to work building out a list of stuff that had to happen before I hit the road. It was extensive.
The plan for my trip stemmed from a conversation I'd had with the Peach in late spring, actually. We hadn't spoken for several months, and decided we were past-due for a catchup. The Peach and I are still friends, and we enjoy meeting up every once in awhile to share the latest stories and developments. This time, the plan was to meet for tea at one of my favorite spots, then go to a yoga class with her favorite teacher.
I was thrilled to see her as she came into the shop, and I jumped up to give her a hug. After the usual pleasantries and updates, we got to talking about Simone's latest exploits, and I mentioned her upcoming trip to overnight camp.
"What are you going to do with yourself while she's gone?" The Peach asked.
I told her I hadn't come up with anything satisfactory yet. I knew I wanted to run away somewhere, but the thought of another solo trip didn't really appeal to me, and I'd been stalling. I told her that I didn't mind traveling alone, but I wasn't the kind of guy who makes small talk in some bar with a group of like-minded travelers. So that meant, no matter where I went, I'd share a lot of meals with a book and beer.
The Peach smiled, not really believing that I'd be very long without making new friends, but made a suggestion — to attend a yoga retreat center in Costa Rica. She and her sister had been there a couple years ago, and she thought it would be perfect for me.
"The meals are communal, so you'd be able to eat with people and get to know them if you wanted to, but you could also have your alone time. You'd get to do yoga everyday, and really have some time to unwind!"
My email inquiry was answered within an hour of sending it, and I was presented with a package that was truly irresistible — a yoga and surfing vacation, with three vegetarian meals per day, and a daily shuttle into the seaside village of Puerto Viejo. I paid my deposit and used miles to book my ticket before I had time to over-think it and talk myself out of the trip.
So there I was, two days away from an 11-night solo getaway, and I hadn't done crap to get ready. I was only interrupted from my flurry of activity (finalize work stuff and take care of requisite deadline deliverables, shop for a raincoat and wicking clothing, arrange pet care, do laundry, pack, get recommendations for the couple of days after my time at Samasati ended) when I took a moment to browse through the aforementioned web portal and found a photo of Simone, smiling with her new bunkmates. I broke down, the sob escaping my chest involuntarily, and I couldn't stop weeping for a good twenty minutes. By the time the heaving and sobbing tapered off, I was sitting on a dining room chair with my head in my hands. I was so relieved to see that smile, and so heartbroken to miss her so much already. It took me a few more minutes to launch myself out of the chair and get back to it.
And, damn, the trip was a stunner. I'm still processing the time I spent in Central America — I've returned with the sort of existential questions that only an extended period away from the familiar and mundane can bring.
I spent the first week at the retreat center, in the jungle above the Caribbean. Samasati is both rustic and refined; although my bungalow was elegant and beautiful, there were still geckos running along the ceiling and the occasional prehistoric-looking insect crawling on the wall. Where there wasn't wood paneling was open air, except for screens instead of glass.
So basically the whole little hut was a giant screen from waist level on up.
It took me longer than I would have liked to fall asleep that first night. I was super-conscious of the sounds of the jungle, and laying there in the darkness, I couldn't get comfortable. The loud buzzing of insects and spooky calls of night birds was louder than pleasant white noise.
Every once in a while a faint breeze would just barely cool what little exposed skin I allowed out from under the white sheets of the bed, and a thin film of perspiration made the pillow stick to my face. A couple times in the night, I'd wake up with a start and pull the flashlight from under my pillow, flipping it on and shining it around the cabin. But waking up early that first morning, to the lion's roar of howler monkeys in the trees above me and the smell of rain and leaves and earth washing through the screens, I was filled with a sense of contentment.
Of course I made friends the very first day — it felt almost like I was at my own grownup summer camp. I shared meals with a fun, diverse crew of travelers, went to sunset yoga every night, and did some decent surfing. I didn't go on most of the excursions with the group of guests that fell in together (except for one night of carousing in the little beach town), and though I felt like I was a bit of an outsider for that, I also knew I'd made the conscious choice to do my own thing. Some mornings, I'd write my next novel for hours at a time, watching the rain fall in sheets all the way down to the ocean.
On one of my surfing days, I met a French woman and a Spanish guy, and ended up drinking beers over a delicious fish taco lunch with them. The Spanish dude and I even spent a day hanging out; the morning chilling in the courtyard of his hotel in town and then riding bikes down the coast to spent the afternoon on a pristine white sand beach, splashing around in the waves.
When my time at Samasati was over, I took a shuttle back to San Jose, then navigated the gritty Coca Cola bus station to purchase a bus ticket to the Pacific Coast. I'd expected a painful, sweaty 4.5-hour ride to the beach city of Quepos, and when my assigned seat turned out to be next to a mother with her wiggly toddler on her lap, I sighed, took out my book, and hoped for the best. But the trip was easy, and a mere three hours, and of course the little boy and I got along great. By the time I hit Quepos, I was feeling pretty happy with my decision.
Because that was a big takeaway for me — traveling alone can be a blessing and a curse, when it comes to making decisions. Sure, you get all of the autonomy you want; which means the freedom to just do the things that appeal to you. You don't have to answer to anyone else's needs or travel quirks, which can be extensive sometimes.
But you also don't have anyone helping you decide what you want to do. And, as a classic Libra, I can be pretty indecisive, over-thinking my options, and second-guessing my final decision. When a group of my new friends at Samasati invited me to join them on a horseback riding excursion, it just sounded sweaty and buggy, and I declined. But they came back that evening with hilarious stories and a sense of camaraderie that I missed out on. I don't regret taking that day to write another chapter of my next novel, but I do wonder what I missed.
The other thing about having a travel companion is that you're less likely to make stupid or unsafe decisions, like wandering through a large city late at night trying to hunt down some dinner. Or leaving your raincoat on the bed of the hotel before heading into a national park and getting drenched through, underwear and all, when the torrential downpour comes out of nowhere.
Overall, the trip was good for me, mostly because of the things I was missing — someone to enjoy and share the trip with, hugs and the human touch, meat, vodka, a steady flow of data and communication via phone and computer. I came home wondering how I could take some of the healthy living that I’d been forced into and build it into my daily life.
I’m struggling, because it was too easy to fall back into pre-vacation patterns. But I’m awake and aware, and though the changes may not come all at once, I can still strive to regain elements of that zen contentment and lifestyle, and to integrate them into our lives.
Simone starts middle school in a week. We’ll both need all the help we can get.