Livin’ The Dream and Waking Up Sweaty
Part 1: Na Zdravie!
|My new-found Slovakian friends, painting Na Zdravie on the wall.|
It’s true, I live in paradise. The jungle is my front yard and when I wake up some mornings to the sounds of howler monkeys in the trees above me and exotic birds of all varieties singing songs as I make my local, shade grown, fair trade Costa Rican coffee which I buy from my coffee shop that is a one-minute walk from my house, you may get the impression that my life is heaven on earth. The sun illuminates over a hundred shades of green on the thousands of leaves that fill my vision in any direction and while the air is always warm, the canopy of trees provides a cool shade that makes it almost the perfect temperature, all the time. And yes, I live here. Yes, I am livin’ the dream.
But there are days, weeks, where reality comes in a whole new form, and the dream starts to look more like a nightmare. Where large spiders and scorpions take up residence in what I imagine is my home, because the truth is, the jungle is not my home. I do not live here, no matter how much I think I do, no matter how much time passes, I am not of the jungle, I am merely a long term guest. Snakes, bullet ants, cleaner ants, and about 50 other species of ant that can leave a bite almost as painful as a snake, rats, toads, cockroaches of all shapes and sizes, mosquitoes, bats, and other creatures which I cannot identify may all find their way into my house, any day or night. I share this space with them. This is one of the, at times, harsh realities of life in paradise. Another is the rain.
We’ve just finished a 5 day rain spell, which my friend will tell you was due to the full moon. I realize there are parts of the world in serious drought and I understand the predicament of the situation, after all I grew up in California during one of the driest times the state has seen, until now. But, when it rains, and not just your average rainfall, but tropical-downpour-rains for 5 days at a time, life can become challenging. The roads flood, mud covers everything; the storm can knock down trees and branches which in turn take out the power for hours at a time. All of this is normal life for me now. And while at times it is challenging, I do love living here.
To know what it’s like to live in the jungle, you’d simply have to live in the jungle. There is no amount of reading or preparation you can do to feel as though you have a grasp on this scenario until you arrive and stay for awhile. Not just a two week or two month trip, but really stay, long enough to know when termites are eating your house, long enough to change your own gas tank, long enough to identify the sound of death at night and sometimes the lingering smell of death if the event took place near or even in your house. If you stay that long, you might start to have a feel for what life is like in the jungle.
So, yes I am livin’ the dream, but at times I am waking up sweaty, uncomfortable, scared, and out of my element. Luckily there are reminders of why this place is so special, why I dreamed of living here for so long, and why I am still here now.
The other day at work, while the rain fell and I stared at a mostly empty street outside of my bar, I was counting down the minutes until I was off work, dying of boredom. Less than 10 customers had come in during the first 5 hours of my 6 hour shift and I couldn’t wait to be released from my liquor-filled cage. Around that time my British friend, Aisha, stopped by. She’s lived here for some years now, has built her own house here and is now pregnant with a child who will soon be born here. As she sat waiting for some food, she and I discussed various bits of nonsense when a car pulled into the driveway. The car had been by earlier in the day, filled with 4 men of Eastern European origin, although from where I could not say. The first trip had been for 4 beers for the beach and nothing more. Now, returning from the beach, the men were back and with only 45 minutes on my shift I was ready to ride it out.
The men came into the bar and ordered 4 beers. Aisha and I continued our conversation and the men drank their beers, speaking a language that, to me, sounded Polish or in that realm. Four more beers, and then 4 more, until finally the inevitable shots of guaro were requested. The men offered to buy a shot for me and now with only 30 minutes of work remaining I accepted but under the condition that they teach me to say cheers in their language. Well, it turns out the men were not speaking Polish and were not from Poland, rather they were Slovakians, speaking Slovakian. In all my travels around the world in the past 15 years, I cannot remember ever meeting a Slovakian and with this first encounter I was excited. I leaned the cheers, Na Zdravie!, after much practice and vocal coaching from my new-found friends. After several rounds of guaro (they wanted to make sure I had the pronunciation just right) my new Slovakian friends asked if they could play a Slovakian song on Youtube. I set them up on our iPad and they found the song and video they were looking for, leading to a whole new strange and small world.
The song they played is by a Slovakian band and the theme of the song is home. The video shows different small villages throughout Slovakia and references these locations as great places to call home, a la 2Pac and Dr. Dre's “California Love”. When each man’s home town was referenced, a celebration ensued. The video also shows the Slovakian band performing at a festival, the largest festival in Slovakia. Well, remember my British friend Aisha, who is still sitting at the bar with us? It just so happens that when she is not living in Costa Rica, she is building festival stages throughout Europe and she built the festival stage where this music video is taking place! Talk about a small, fucking world.
So here we are, a Brit, a Californian, 4 Slovaks, at a bar in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica, drinking guaro (Aisha has water, come on now, she’s pregnant) saying Na Zdravie to reinforce our new-found and of course, short lived friendship and I remembered why I wanted to live here in the first place. While it may seem in-congruent with my current profession of part time Caribbean bartender, I actually hold a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Global Studies with an emphasis on Socio-economic and Political Issues in Africa from the University of California and there was a time where I believed my path in life would lead me to work at The United Nations or with an international NGO such as Oxfam or Doctors without Borders. While things didn’t quite go as planned (but really, how often does that actually happen) my desire to surround myself with people from all over the world, to constantly learn new customs, new cultures, and new ways to say cheers, did not fade away. I have an unrelenting passion to know more about this world we live in, to meet more of the people who live here, to ask them where they are from, what’s it like there, to understand the billions of different possibilities for life that are all happening simultaneously at this very moment. And that’s why I first fell in love with this place.
When you travel you are exposed to new places, new people, new experiences, but to constantly travel takes a lot of money and can start to get lonely. For me, I can be on the road for about 2 months before I long for a familiar bed and some shelves to set my belongings on. But, by living in a place that continuously has travelers passing through, I can continue to meet new people and have new experiences while standing still, at least for a while.
The experience I had at work the other day was so strange and beautiful and hilarious that it had to be real. There is no way to make up a scenario like that, I don’t care how good you are at writing fiction. Something like that is unique and I got to live it, the perfect moment of worlds colliding, a brief glimpse of connection, a reminder that we all do share something that unites us, that makes us partners in this human roller coaster of life.
As I lived the event, I was happy, truly happy. As I told the story of the event to my friend last night, I was laughing at the absurdity of it all. And as I write the story now I find myself crying a bit because I know I will never see those men again. And it’s beautiful and sad and poetic all at the same time to know that these fleeting moments are what make up life. Each moment is like a butterfly, passing by you, beautiful and right in front of you for just a moment, and then gone, forever, unattainable, unique, and mysterious.
So, while the men are gone now and the moment has passed, I am left with the memory. Another to add to the archives of this strange life that I’m living. This life that so far, has taken me to over 20 different countries, introduced me to people from all over the world, taught me that you never stand still in the jungle for too long, you never cage a river minnow, and you never know what’s coming next.
At some point today, take a moment, raise your glass and say Na Zdravie (just try your best) to honor this weird little thing we call life.
Here’s to livin’ the dream and waking up sweaty!