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Slowing down in ‘Tamagringo’

The locals call it “Tamagringo”. With all the retirees, surfers, yogis, and 30-something who gave up the rat race to start anew, the small Northern Costa Rica town of Tamarindo, has quickly garnered a reputation as an expat haven.

So how did I end up in this touristy town? It all began last year when I took a solo trip to Amsterdam. A city I had been to before, but alas I was in my early 20’s at the time and much of my memory is ensconced in a hash-induced haze. I had backpacked solo across Europe, Israel, India, and had a few Bonnie & Clyde road trips under my belt. Whereas when I was younger I often traveled sans schedule, happy to cavort with other backpackers, I decided this time I would live like a local and take in all the sights like any self-respecting adult traveler.

But after a week of bar-hopping solo at neighborhood pubs, hanging out in cafes, museums, and historical sites, I was exhausted from my itinerary packed trip and yet to make one friend. OK so I might have lived like a “local” for a week, shopping at the grocery store, bike riding everywhere, and I had actually managed to knock off all the sites on my list all while remaining perfectly sober. But I was alone and miserable. And all I had was a butter cake and a few pictures from the Anne Frank House to show for it. All of my “rules” were beginning to weigh me down.

So next year, I knew I need something different. Costa Rica. No itineraries, no trying so hard to see everything, or to make like a local. What I was giving up in infrastructure, fine dining, timely buses, and shoe shopping, I hoped to make up for in rest, relaxation, and if nothing else a chance to turn off the incessantly “Type A” voice in my head that insisted I do something and be something every waking moment.

Yet my dog-eared, sticky-noted guide book said otherwise. Volcano-hunting, snorkeling, hiking, ziplining, animal-watching, it all seemed too enticing for a fast-paced city girl like myself and my original plan to relax and do nothing flew out the window.

Upon arriving at my hotel, I immediately bombarded LB, the friendly receptionist, with price and time requests for the various excursions I planned on taking. This was in addition to all the yoga and bike riding I planned on doing every day. He promised to look into all my questions and get back to me. Costa Rica was going to be mine!

However LB was taking a little too long for my tastes, so on my way to the beach I signed up for a snorkeling trip the following morning. I had heard Costa Rica was not the best place to go snorkeling, due to lack of visibility at times, but the tour operator assured me it was fine. And besides, it was on my list of things to do. Pushing aside my hesitation, I forked over my credit card. What could go wrong?

Well apparently some exceptionally sharp rocks, zero visibility, rough waves, and an instructor who was more interested in snorkeling himself than paying attention to his customers. The voice in my head had been trying to warn me, yet I ignored it. The forceful waters ended up tossing me into a large rock formation, gashing my knee open, and inducing a frightening panic attack as I desperately tried to swim back to the boat while the waves pushed me back and underneath.

After finally making it on board, and thankful to be alive, I examined the damage. I wasn’t in any pain, but I knew without a doubt I needed stitches. Thankfully the girls I went snorkeling were completely understanding and were OK to cut the trip short to get me back to land. I didn’t think it would be so bad, until the doctor broke the news to me.

“After I stitch you up, no biking, no yoga, no hiking, and you can’t go into the water.”

“WHAT?! NO! But I had all these things planned!”

“If you move your knee too much, your knee is going to re-open.”

“Goddamn it.” I momentarily thought of forgoing the stitches so I could do all things I wanted to. But upon realizing that risking infection and gangrene just so I could ride a bike would be idiotic at best, I caved in. “Fine, stitch me up.”

When he was finished, I resigned myself to the fact that the rest of my week would be spent sitting on the beach. I know, hardly a life sentence doing hard labor, but nonetheless a hard thing to accept. I gathered my books and iPod and headed to the beach to join the girls with whom I had gone snorkeling. I struggled for awhile, staring out into the ocean I wish I could go into. While they frolicked in the waves, I sat on my beach chair feeling like an athlete who had been sidelined. That’s when it dawned on me. Who cares?

I wanted so badly to “fight” against my situation. Just as I did at home, I wanted to wrestle against something the clearly wasn’t going to go my way and never was. Like a job, a relationship, or a friendship that just isn’t working anymore, I always refused to accept what was, insisting on bending things to my will. And as someone who was constantly swimming upstream, I finally realized how exhausted I was. So I gave in. I accepted the fact that I had no power whatsoever to change my situation. No longer wanting to struggle, I let the stream take me where it wanted to.

“Alright knee, you win.”

And that’s when the fun began.

While the girls were in the water, a young, charming, local surf instructor with rock hard abs sauntered over.

“Oh honey, what happened to your leg?” he said.

“I got into a little snorkeling accident,” I replied.

“Mind if I sit next to you? My name is Alex by the way.”

“Nope not at all,” I said with a smile.

And although Alex and I had little to discuss, as he had a predilection for saying “awesome” and “dude”, (yep the surfer stereotype still abides, even when the surfer is Costa Rican), it was just the beginning. One person would lead me to another, one situation to another and before you knew it, I had an entire posse of new friends; a goofy do-gooder from NYC, three uber-manly police officers from Cali, a hilarious Dutchman, a fun loving surgeon from Florida, an Israeli surfer, and of course Alex.

Would I have encountered them had I been busy plotting my itinerary? Would I have sat down next to the cops by myself? Or invited myself to hang out with the guy from New York? Probably not. Once I dropped my itinerary, my need for control, and my attachment to the idea of a “perfect” vacation, and let myself go, people came to me. Even without a cell phone, I somehow managed to connect with everyone I needed at just the right time. The funny thing about travel is that by getting you out of your comfort zones, you become well… uncomfortable. And that discomfort is what causes you to rethink what supposedly made so much sense at home and open up to new people and possibilities. Or as the Costa Ricans say, “pura vida”.

More by Rachel here.

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