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"Hello, my name is Fernando and I’ll be your tour guide on this trip. Welcome to Costa Rica," he says. "Live the pura vida!" He is a dark-skinned, cheerful man, who helps us onto the bus tall as my house and painted shiny red and white like a Coca-Cola billboard. "Gracias, gracias," we murmur in unison, except for Sylvie who takes French and does not know any better.
When we pull out from the airport this country springs out at us like a pop-out book. Solo motors, the signs read, ceda el paso, and we translate them aloud just because we can, excited to be headed to the volcano on our first day. This is not like Washington. This is nothing like Washington.
This is a break.
A break from being a ninth-grader, juggling society and hobbies and academics, three blazing torches of fire. Pushing limits, toeing at the rules.
Not here though. Everything in Costa Rica is green, bright and thick and living, the moisture collecting on our skin. The air is humid, the sky blue, ten degrees north of the equator. The intense sun beats down on us. We sit on the bus, sleep-deprived, feeling the bumpity-bump rhythm of the gravel below us. Sylvie sleeps. Carlos sings and Sylvie sleeps, her head nodding down to my shoulder like a tired pendulum.
My friends have followed me to this particular paradise, friends who have quite a bit of history with one another, so perhaps it will not be much of a break after all.
"Los pollitos dicen, pío pío pío," hollers Carlos, sounding more like a patito.
"Shut up," says Sylvie, countering with her own lovely tune of "mais il m’aime encore, et moi, je t’aime un peu plus fort." Then she blushes as an afterthought and adds, "Carlos that does not apply to you, you know. No girl would say that about you."
See. Life simply does not offer breaks.
"Here, the café," drawls Fernando, and we stop to see the café plantations in the sweltering early morning sun. On the side of the road, there is a little old man with a swatch of grass and a straw hat, offering two white oxen that pull a fancy pink cart. "One dollar," he says, "only one dollar," and the flies swarm in the heat.
As we near the top of Poaz Volcano, climbing past the café, the cyprus trees make like a living fence around us. We see little greenhouses in the distance - "marijuana, you know marijuana," says Fernando - "just kidding, it’s not marijuana. It’s ferns and flowers."
"Aww," we groan in collective disappointment, a sound both Spanish and English.
We climb and we climb. Cuando tienen hambre, cuando tienen frío, Carlos hums enthusiastically. Cuando tienen tired, that is what we are Carlos.
And then we finally get there. The top of the volcano.
The ground yawns beneath our feet as we trek up to see the crater. It’s a massive crater, so far below us and so grey with streaks of red and black color, and a massive cloud of steam billowing like a big white gum bubble. We are high now, higher with each step, almost enough to really escape the gravities of life, almost enough to feel free. Higher, and more exhausted. Can we just get there already?
Then we do get there, and it’s not like we thought. We see all the rolling hills spread below us, dotted with cows and shady trees. Perhaps children play down there, perhaps there are older ones, ninth-graders like us. It’s a whole country. A whole country. And in it there are people. People, yeah, people like us. It sounds dumb but it’s different when you see a new world all laid out like that.
Perhaps it was worth the climb.
There is a lake in the valley of the hills, which is as blue as the crater was grey, and picture-perfect. So we smile and we smile because that is how it goes.
We want lunch after the walking, and Fernando takes us to a cozy-feeling restaurant at the very peak, bright and colorful and surrounded by houle trees. See, each word is like an adjusted dial in Photoshop, shifting the mood, balancing each other out. It wouldn’t be the same without the “bright” and the “colorful” and the “surrounded by houle trees” because then it would be just a drab old restaurant and who wants that? That is why I play with words like some people do with fire.
But then again, the restaurant wouldn’t be drab, not here, because in Costa Rica there is no drabness. It’s true. There is no drabness and your eyes dance with colors and each house is a home of its own, not like in Washington where there are neighborhoods of equal size in shades of structured pastel. Here the houses are small, but they are painted like chickens or like sailboats or like spicy spicy food, one pink and the next red and the next green with a blue roof. Some have iron fences, or clothes on a line to dry.
Vamos says Fernando, and we get back on our bus.
I love this country, this Costa Rica. I love its beauty. And Fernando, what makes this country beautiful? La gente, he tells me. The people.