Maximo Nivel’s “headquarters,” so-to-speak, were an oasis in the midst of the bustling, hot, sorta-smelly streets of San Jose, Costa Rica. Iron, prison-like bars enclosed many of the more, shall we say, important buildings in San Jose. Houses of the wealthier classes, schools, libraries, some high-end shops. When the stores closed up at night there, they really closed up. Short of setting something ablaze or possessing an extremely anorexic friend with a knack for thievery, the buildings were impenetrable. Maximo Nivel was no exception. White bars surrounded the outdoor courtyard and the popular snack bar that offered free coffee to members of our program. Plenty of wanderers learned of this luxury and stood to ruin it for the rest of us. I always kept a watchful eye. As far as I’m concerned, there’s never going to be enough Costa Rican light roast to go around.
Once you passed through the gated terrace into the building itself, you were standing in the middle of a massive navy-and-white-themed rectangle. To the left, a series of classrooms, computer labs, round tables and lounge chairs for perching with free wifi to post your latest bathing suit selfies. To the right was the room where they assessed, on a scale of one to Evita, how well-versed you were in Spanish. I minored in college (ten years prior), but aside from drunk conversations with the guys who make my 2AM burrito at Anna’s Taqueria, I wasn’t exactly a practicing Spanish speaker. Lucky for me, my two newfound amigas were a Swiss who spoke German and a Canadian who spoke whatever Canadian people speak. When the tape recorder began to blare a conversation for us to paraphrase, they opted out to discuss the likelihood of playing hooky for an all-inclusive catamaran cruise to Isla Tortuga the next day. Being the teacher’s pet I’ve always been, I quietly shushed them while shaking my head in agreement about Tortuga. I didn’t necessarily need to teach any English the next day, I just needed to be the best Spanish-speaking person on that catamaran. “Mas vino, por favor!” My high school Spanish teacher, Senora Ramos, would be muy, muy orgulloso!
All in all, we found that Maximo Nivel was a sanctuary for us well-meaning souls who needed to escape our lives for a little bit; and not just geographically. Anyone with a credit card could vacate to Costa Rica, but choosing to live with host families behind hot, iron bars in the landlocked part of a country known for its coastline (Costa Rica literally means “The Rich Coast,” for those of you who aren’t Spanish geniuses), we all knew we were kinda weird. We wanted to make enough of a difference to tell stories of our benevolence for years to come, but we weren’t about to sign up for the Peace Corps or anything. We had lives. Real jobs. Responsibilities. And that’s why Maximo Nivel was declared sanctuary. Not just because it was clean, cool, bright and barred up from the madness, but because the madness wasn’t our day-to-day lives.
What with being situated in the center of some of the most beautiful mountain ranges and beaches in the world, San Jose still has it pretty damn good. A forty five minute taxi cab (always take the commissioned, red cars…) gets you right over to the Pacific ocean where you can plunk down on some driftwood and watch hot surfers crush their final waves of the day beneath a fuchsia sunset. I got so many two-for-one frozen margaritas I needed an intravenous supply of coconut water the next day. This would’ve actually been pretty doable, considering the coconut-to-person ratio there. Have you ever seen somebody grab a coconut from a bed of ice, machete it open with one clean swipe and hand it over for a whopping 25 cents? I like to think that’s what heaven is: 25 cent coconuts on ice. Minus the hangover.
I digress. San Jose is close to Coconut Heaven but really only because it’s a gateway. A portal. People show up to San Jose, greeted by a hundred screaming cab drivers, clutching their anti-theft-wallets with their rectal muscles and they depart immediately with whatever placating tour company signed a contract to keep them fed, sheltered and entertained for a week or two. Not me. I landed in San Jose with a giant suitcase filled with the exploded remnants of my skin and hair care regimen. I was greeted by a stringbean of a man with leathery skin and a mullet holding a black flag with a yellow smiley face on it. The first words out of his mouth were “tip?” If I had only figured out how many thousand colones there are in a quarter. Or whatever the conversion is. I’m pretty sure I gave that guy 25 bucks to hold a smiley face flag.
Nevertheless, I was in San Jose to stay. Guy Smiley ushered me over to an empty SUV and marched himself and his flag right back to the automatic door for another pickup. This man’s sole job was to wave people down with vigor and walk them over to a waiting vehicle. When I originally tipped him, I assumed he’d be driving me home as well. I was actually relieved to see it was a boisterous little Tica with booty shorts and Koolaid red highlights. Much to my combined relief and onset anxiety, Elena stuck her hand through the passenger side window, grabbed the blue folder I was instructed to carry from my hand and frantically thumbed through the paperwork. “You’re staying with Carmen Araya. She’s a nice lady.” The car ride was a bit of a blur after that, with Elena on and off of a steady influx of phone calls. Some sounded professional, most sounded personal, but overall I was able to deduce that her sole job was to chauffeur people like me around San Jose. And there were loads of us. Over thirty voluntourists arrived every Monday, and just as many came early to sightsee before their projects started. Elena was basically a well-paid cab driver with an ironclad schedule she never adhered to.
Our first stop was to pick up two sisters who would be volunteering at a local construction project, except when we arrived at the front desk of their hotel, we were told they hadn’t checked in yet. Elena immediately began to rifle through her paperwork, only to realize they weren’t scheduled to arrive for another three hours. It seemed like she spent a good portion of her day slipping up like that, because she just laughed and said “aye dios mio” a few times before we got back into the car and she sped off like Cruella Deville. There’s no real concept of punctuality in Costa Rica—a well-known cultural norm that has led to the term “Tico-time.” It’s completely acceptable for the public busses to run thirty minutes late. Scheduling an airport pickup? Better make it six hours before your flight takes off to be safe. And if you dare inquire as to someone’s tardiness, even the scheduled public transportation system, you’ll be met with an exasperated “tranquilo” which basically means “chill out.”
So there we were, Elena and I, burning rubber on those sweltering San Jose streets. What little English she knew was already used during the initial pickup pleasantries, so we settled right into an upbeat conversation in which I tried to describe things in broken Spanish until she guessed victoriously as to what word I was looking for. After each right answer we’d be back to basics, struggling to find something else to discuss besides the fact that I was 31, single and traveling alone to Costa Rica. Oh and that I had a cat, of course. Elena had three daughters who drove her completely insane. You could tell she loved them to pieces, judging by the way her voice went up twelve octaves when one of them called her cell phone (every five minutes), but there was no denying they were locas. One of my favorite things about Latino cultures are their terms of endearment. “Mi corazon” means “my heart” and “mi alma” means “my soul.” Mi vida” means “my life.” They strip down all the most powerful and vivid symbols of love and use them to call one another by name. I find it beautiful. My father called me “durlin,” which was his way of combining the word “darling” with a southern twang. Except we’re from New England. It’s still an endearing little nickname, but not nearly as meaty as someone calling you their soul.
Over the course of an hour I had gone from an airplane to a customs check to a currency exchange to an automatic door that vomited me into self-inflicted chaos. I say self-inflicted because I had chosen this voyage. I had opted to use two of my four allotted weeks of vacation time to cruise around in an SUV speaking Spanglish to an erratic Tica named Elena. It wasn’t so much that I was having culture shock, it’s just that I was completely underprepared. I let the Intermediate Spanish for Dummies book rot on my nightstand for about a month. And now, here I was, having entire conversations using the 50 or so words I actually remembered, tenses and grammar ablaze. Somehow, though, Elena got it. She got me. She was laughing. She could actually hear me struggle to say why in God’s name I decided to spend a week of my life in San Jose. In both English and broken Spanish, it would seem, it’s very easy to explain that you’re alone, you’re bored and you’re winging it. And so, I did just that.
After the Spanglish road trip with Elena, I was dropped off on the sidewalk in front of a gated-up, pale pink hacienda with a two story walk up, tucked well away from the street. A tiny, short haired, older Costa Rican woman appeared on the porch high above us and pressed the buzzer to let us in. Elena and I both eyeballed my ginormous, blue suitcase and, before I could dive over it to thwart her attempt, she was completing the final leg of her assigned duties, hell-bent on lugging my 100 pound bag up the staircase. The program coordinators had informed me that vitamins were in high demand at the school where I’d be teaching English, so I bought out the entire Flintstones Gummies section of Target. In their fight for suitcase real estate, those vitamins reigned supreme over my poor, perished face creams. They were heavy and uncontrollable, just like most things from America, but they were no match for Elena.
I’ve always had issues accepting help. I’m an Executive Assistant, so the thought of anyone else but me performing Cinderella-level labor doesn’t sit well. Thus, there we were, Elena and I, hobbling our way up the staircase awkwardly, trying to evenly distribute the weight of all those goddamned vitamins and hair products without falling on our faces. She let out one final “aye dios mio” when we reached the top, hugged my new host mom Carmen, hugged me, wiped the sweat off her forehead and told me I was in good hands. And just like that, she was off… scrambling to arrive less than an hour late to her next pickup. I groaned meekly as I heaved the bag up one last step into the front door.
Carmen informed me, in Spanish, that she didn’t speak any English, so the good times kept right on rolling. She led me and my (physical and emotional) baggage through her living room which was endearingly decorated in pale pink decor (I sensed a theme), the walls dripping with family photos, glazed plates, rosary beads, giant crucifixes and Virgin Mary statues of varying shapes and sizes. The second door on the right of a long, dimly-lit hallway was my humble, new abode. Complete with not one, not two, but three twin sized beds dressed in top-to-bottom ruffles. She ushered me in and asked if I needed anything. “No gracias,” I said with an unconvincing smile as she shut my door and excused herself to the kitchen.
Around that time, a crippling and confused sense of what the fuck am I doing with myself? washed over me. Why couldn’t I just take a normal vacation like the rest of my peers? Was I immature? Restless? Delusional? There’s some level of blind conviction you have when you volunteer to do something outside your comfort zone. At signing time, you are unstoppable and brave and already half way there in your mind. Safe in your perfect vision. But when you actually arrive, get situated and stand still for a moment, an overwhelming sense of panic takes hold. My fight or flight instincts were pretty damn high at that moment, but I had a feeling bolting through the tabernacle living room and cascading out onto the streets of San Jose wasn’t a sane plan. Plus I’d have to basically throw my bag back down those stairs.
Everyone around me was getting married, getting promoted, getting pregnant or getting a mortgage and I was over here in Central America, sitting on a forty year old twin mattress with, quite literally, not a single clue about what would happen next. At least when I studied abroad, I was twenty years old and could justify going from one shitty dorm bed in Connecticut to another one in Madrid. I was beginning to have one of the single-most dreaded thoughts you have in your thirties. It springs up out of nowhere in your mid-late twenties and then weasels into your life once you hit the big 3-0. Am I too old for this? Was I going to have direct roommates? What if they were 18-year-old girls? God what would we even talk about? They don’t even need eye cream yet. Maybe I’d be blessed with another eccentric, eclectic, fearless youngish lady in her thirties. Or a sage old woman who does stuff like this all the time and can confirm it’s amazing and fulfilling and normal (although that scenario in and of itself is not normal). It was time to play the only card I had left. I used my Jedi yoga mind powers to yank myself out of negativity and into the kitchen to see what good ol' Carmen was up to. Food always helps.