A summer away: Simple pleasures = biggest punch
Editor’s note: Andrea Chacos of Carbondale writes a monthly column for the PI; this is a special installment about her family’s summer in Central America.
I left home for the summer. I needed to soak up something new and I told the universe and anyone who would listen that life’s too short for endless routine. So I insisted on bringing my family along for a little adventure.
I dared to flirt boldly with the cherished moments summertime provides. I rented out our house for a couple of months and it felt exhilarating. I didn’t care that we’d be leaving all the comforts of home risking experiences that would drive us apart because I was banking on the moments that would serve to ultimately bring us closer together.
Our destination became the plan by what was accessible only through direct flights. I recommend flying nonstop and with a healthy dose of good humor because that’s the least you can do if you don’t give your kids access to iPads. Most importantly though, before we boarded our midnight flight to Liberia, Costa Rica, my husband and I each tossed back a cocktail with the ease reminiscent of those funnel contests back in college.
Feeling adventurous but edgy is how I expected to step foot into a humid, sleep-deprived queue in a foreign land with no real plans. I loved telling myself that my kids were going to be learning some important soft skills not tested in school. Different cultures, people and uncomfortable experiences will fill us with grit, resiliency and compassion, I reasoned. Eight hours into a five-week trip, though, all I wanted was a good cup of coffee and a decent shower.
I needed to put some serious effort into my summer crush if I was going to make the most of our time away. As we waited to exchange our favorable currency, I pondered my lofty, sometimes-hypocritical goals. I wanted my children to do more than just acknowledge the silver spoon of American abundance they unknowingly inherited. I wondered if they’d be able to feel genuine gratitude when we live in a culture steeped in over-the-top absurdity and false grandeur.
My first move needed to set the tone, and it didn’t disappoint. Two pigs and a few stray dogs greeted us as we approached a modest hostel in La Fortuna. We shared one towel after bathing in the Tabacón River with hidden thermal pools reserved for mostly in-the-know locals.
Dinner for seven consisted of traditional beans and rice I made in the tiny kitchen that set me back only a few dollars and a bucket of sweat. I even allowed one of my children to go it alone early one morning to search for food in town armed with only a few coins and a handful of Spanish words. I hoped that his risk was worth the skills I wanted to reinforce in him. Of course I had him carry his dad’s iPhone just in case.
The locals genuinely seemed happy, so I knew there was something important to learn here. For example, I know we all felt something powerful driving through the steep mountain passes early one morning. We waited for the first signs of activity and then stopped at an open-air breakfast stand sprinkled with men who looked like they shouldered a lifetime of hard labor. We watched our empanadas being handmade and eventually received them all with the utmost care. I didn’t even have to say, “Savor every bite because you’ll feel the effort that went into preparing this for you.” The words were simply unnecessary.
Hours of tight turns squished in a tiny rental car rewarded us with the sighting of a sloth that I didn’t have to pay to see in a zoo. We stared in delight as it just sat motionless. Stopping on the side of the road gave the kids time to regain equilibrium and fill our emotional tanks. My husband and I quickly glanced at one another, silently confirming that sometimes the simple pleasures pack the biggest punch.
A couple of wrong turns doused with a spattering of unsavory exchanges between pilot and copilot pierced the short-lived harmony. Many hours later we finally arrived to a sprawling coffee farm and were greeted with a warm handshake, kind eyes and a much-needed bathroom. The day consisted of walking the hills, talking about climate and the environment, learning about the effort that goes into producing quality coffee beans for world consumption and ended with a home-cooked meal with the plantation owners.
ON THE CHICKEN BUS
When the opportunity presented itself, I coyly played the next move, posing that seeing struggle from the outside is not the same as being forced to endure it. So we took a chicken bus up to the border and through Nicaragua. I am aware that is a choice I made for my family and not a requirement for travel. That’s a big difference. I don’t ever want to live in the poverty I see on my travels, but I also want to get close enough to feel, breathe and understand its hardship.
We could have just taken a private taxi across the border or hired a guide to walk us to the front of the line, but I just didn’t want to emotionally indulge. I figured it was time to put in some real grunt work. I was on a mission to feel the weight of daily struggle — but only on my first world terms.
So we made a day out of local travel. We were hot, uncomfortable and waited at a border-crossing queue that took over an hour to navigate. On one cramped bus ride an older woman sitting inches from me set out her three-course meal. Afterward, she casually washed it down with a hot cup of coffee as we rambled along the Nicaraguan coast. We eventually rode three buses, walked a couple of miles with our heavy backpacks and navigated a ride to our remote beach locale.
I had to acknowledge that a few weeks at a Nicaraguan paradise with surf, sunsets and sand would be considered luxurious. However, the next move was just not going to be mine, and I anticipated something big in return for my extravagance. Sure enough, a few days later I was gifted with an experience that unequivocally leveled me.
We spent most evenings walking into the sunset enjoying the warm ocean water and flat, fine sand that comes with perfect rolling waves at low tide. Returning to our condo one evening after a picturesque stroll on the beach, my husband and I grabbed a cold beer, sat down and toasted life.
Moments later there was a tiny tug on my shirt. I thought little of it as I already resigned myself to the flies, ants and beetles that constantly invaded my personal space. Playing my odds, I hesitated to look down. Eventually curiosity got the best of me and my moment of bliss fizzled. A huge cockroach lay squarely on my chest. I. Froze. In. Horror.
Now I was beginning to understand how this summer love wanted to operate. For every action there would be an equal an opposite reaction. Three more cockroaches blessed us with their presence that night. I became obsessed with their demise and toyed with absurd ways for them die. I was cursing this summer experience at full throttle while reluctantly falling in love with it at the same time.
A few days passed before my summer crush and I interacted again. At this point one of us needed to step up the game and make a bold, flirtatious move. After my overly ridiculous fear of cockroaches was put on display for my family to use at their whim, I was obviously reluctant to put myself out there so easily again.
CHANGE OF SCENERY
We headed north to Ocotal and the nearby mountains on the Nicaraguan-Honduran border. We walked an open-air market looking for machetes, ate mangoes off trees, petted the local stray cats and swam in the hot springs nestled in the woods. We ate tacos one night made in the concrete kitchen just a stone’s throw from the warm pools that were dusted with large, loud frogs.
The next morning we ate among the locals. We idly watched the flies circling our plates of seasoned meat, beans, rice and pineapple. Later, we hiked the highlands of specialty coffee farms and rode the 4×4 roads with the farmers who lived in this remote part of the country. We walked barefoot in town and soaked up the local flavor.
I knew it was just a matter of time before that raw, real and fulfilling experience finally caught up with us physically. I was given sage advice as my overloaded senses temporarily got the best of me. “Allow your experiences to do their work. Pay attention, embrace your time away and soak it all up.” So we continued to eat like the locals and I told myself to get some potent anti-worm medication for the entire family as soon as we returned the USA.
Next we visited Granada. I shelved some of the more rustic activities only after my masochistic tendencies played out first. I made everyone visit the market during the heat of the day. We strolled the stalls and navigated narrow aisles of raw meat, fruit, vegetables, shoes, grains and all sorts of housewares. Now I had some cranky, unbearable kids in my possession, so we opted to visit a chocolate factory where they roasted cacao beans over an open fire and eventually made their own chocolate bars. For the time being things were back in balance.
Another day I was looking forward to some tranquility and romance after reading Mark Twain’s 1856 quote “Out of the midst of the beautiful Lake Nicaragua spring two magnificent pyramids, clad in the softest and richest green, all flecked with shadow and sunshine, whose summits pierce the billowy clouds. They look so isolated from the world and its turmoil — so tranquil, so dreamy, so steeped in slumber and eternal repose. What a home one might make among their shady forests, their sunny slopes, their breezy dells, after he had grown weary of the toil, anxiety and unrest of the bustling, driving world.”
Safe to say Twain didn’t travel on a tiny ferry to the island of Ometepe with young children in tow. One of my offspring turned green halfway through the ride, riddled in bug bites; the middle one had been complaining of hunger since the last meal concluded; and the youngest had an insulin pump malfunction. By 10 a.m. we were all slurping sodas anxiously awaiting some respite from the rain that never seemed to end.
Still we managed to hike around a crater, swim in a clear blue lagoon, follow howler monkeys and cross a parade route celebrating a national holiday. I began to feel a bit selfish for visiting a country that received me with open arms and a kind heart armed with little knowledge of its culture and history. So before I went to bed that night, I read up on the Revolution of 1979 in an attempt to learn a bit about the this land and its people.
Being in love had me all heady, and I couldn’t mainline it enough searching for more of the real Nicaragua. We soon found it in the rural community of El Tambo with its rutted out dirt roads, rolling hills and modest blue and white schoolhouse missing half of the swings on its set. I was told electricity arrived only three years prior, which explained the refrigerator comfortably parked alongside the bucolic wood-burning stove.
As I placed a chicken on a stump prepping for my first kill I couldn’t help but pause thinking about the blood spatter that may stain my overpriced knit shirt. Moments later I was handed a machete, so I brazenly made a mental note to buy a new skirt when I returned home. Ultimately one of my children received the day’s honor, taking the life of an animal that would later be served in a soup that fed my family and about 15 hungry Nicaraguans.
Later the kids all played ball, wandered around the farm and stomped along the stream. I muddled through the day in another language dancing with the women who invited me into their kitchen proudly sharing their heritage through their finely tuned cooking skills. I watched my kids trying to find answers to their most important questions: Do you have sleepovers? What grade are you in? Where is your movie theater? Why does your butter smell funny?
We rode home exhausted. The heat, humidity, lack of fresh water and the multitude of emotions just completely drained us. I worried that I’d pushed my kids too far or may have asked too much of them far too soon. I selfishly took them out of their easy, predictable life and made them question another nation’s poverty, nutrition, education, government and way of life.
WHAT YOU NEED WHEN YOU NEED IT
The next morning my kids all woke up asking for a day of doing nothing. So we crouched around my small laptop watching movies and eating popcorn. We played music we all knew the lyrics to by heart. Over our comforting dinner we talked at length about El Tambo. I found out that my children gave away their spinners and gifted other small items. When pressed for their motivation, I was given a shrug and simply told they just wanted to do it. I guess that’s the conversational depth and limited introspection I should expect from a 9-, 11- and 12-year-old. Clearly there was nothing I needed to teach or talk about over our meal that wasn’t already tapped on some level.
I lay in bed that night unable to sleep as I worked through our recent emotional experiences. I tossed and turned and then accepted that my summer love was coming to an end. I was both relieved and sad. Love hurts when you accept that it gives you what you need when you need it. It can also be incredibly humble when trying to exit gracefully when the time is near.
Yesterday another cockroach had the nerve to saunter across the floor of our place. I swear it paused to smile and wave. I just placed a glass over it and resumed my meal. I cringed but held my fear and my heart got heavy.
Tomorrow we’re leaving our beach paradise heading to Masaya and its nearby active volcano. I’ve found this country isn’t litigious and risk is ours for the taking as we’ll be inches from hot lava. I’m giddy with anticipation. Then we’ll visit a nature reserve with a tall dock that overlooks the pristine, warm lagoon that I’m told is worthy of jumping.
On the eve of our departure to the United States I’ll sit and have a serious conversation with my kids. We’ll need to discuss how we plan on getting through Nicaragua, over the border and to the Costa Rican airport for our flight home. I wonder if we’ll decide to endure the chicken bus or just comfortably take a taxi?
Both sound perfect.
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