Outrunning a Hurricane

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Colonial San Jose, Costa Rica

Jimmy was the driver that drove us through a hurricane in Costa Rica.

My family and I departed for Costa Rica blissfully unaware that hurricane Otto had pointed itself directly into the path of our intended destination. The US media was focused on a certain President-elect so nothing else made headlines for weeks. The fact that Central America had already felt the punch of this storm was realized only just before we left Atlanta for the last leg of our journey to San Jose. A change of plans at that stage seemed ill advised, so onto the plane we marched.

Our arrival into the capital city was all that good travel ought to be: one part chaos, one part humidity, one part joy. Our late night entry meant we were late to dinner, and badly needing a drink – quickly obtained at the only restaurant open within a reasonable walk from or hotel. Restaurant Chelles was the kind of place you might only find when it is the only place open. During regular hours that same street would be bustling and peppered with many seemingly better spots for dinning. But at 11:30 p.m. on a Tuesday after 12 hours of travel, it was perfect. And charming in its eccentricity, with crooked shelves and doorways, an ancient wooden bar and oddball clientele – four weary Americans included. But the food was hearty and the service from the lone waitress brought frequent laughs. Her eyes sparkled as she practiced her English while we stumbled through our halting Spanish to order. She was the kind of woman who was as welcoming to late night tourists as she was to homeless wanderers seeking rest and a glass of water.

We spent our first and only full day in San Jose wandering streets with no real objective in mind but to experience a new city. We managed to find excellent local markets and coffee shops before a quick trip through the stunning Museo del Oro. When we emerged from the subterranean museum, the first few bands of Otto had begun to reach the mainland. Costa Rica doesn’t regularly fall into the hurricane track, and almost never in late November. Even locals seemed unsure of what the storm might bring. But we were assured the large mountain range that divided the country would probably subdue the worst of it. It was scheduled to make landfall the next day, the day we were to drive across that mountain range to a beachside retreat for a family wedding.

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A hidden entrance to a beachside bar in Tamarindo.

Jimmy met us promptly at 8 a.m. as our now party of six packed into the van. The rain was still not heavy and as we raced out of town, it seemed less likely to be a problem on this journey. We took a brief break for lunch at a crossroads, which also doubled as a wild parrot hangout. Seeing birds so exotic to our sensibilities flying around like the owned the place was a rare treat.

The rain seemed to get heavier as we neared the mountain ranges, then all but disappeared as we turned toward the coast. By the time Jimmy delivered us to Tamarindo, we were pulling out sunglasses and hats as the sun beat down.

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Sunset on the beach, after the hurricane.

As it turns out, you can outrun a hurricane, if you have some nerve and a willing driver. At least for a time. By late evening, when we were safely locked away in our condo, the rain began in earnest. The already muddy roads turned to rivers as the sheets of water pummeled the roof and patios around us. Strangely, there was very little wind. Or less than you expect when a category 2 hurricane passes overhead. Parts of Costa Rica were hit very hard by the storm, but in our little beach town we awoke to someone carefully sweeping the patio and watering the plants, like any other Friday. And so, after the hurricane, we headed straight to the beach.

At home in any city

The mystery of travel is that at some point on the journey, when I can pause long enough to breathe in the air of a place, I will feel at home – even for a brief moment. When I was walking along Cape Town streets, heading toward dinner on a now-familiar block, I felt it. When I spent an entire summer in Chile and knew how to order only one thing in Spanish from my favorite lunch spot, I felt it. And when I was standing at a tram stop in Amsterdam, telling the Italian tourists how to pay the fare when the train came along, I also felt it.

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Street life in Amsterdam

I think one of the tricks, or maybe results, of a lifetime of world travel is the ability to quickly become familiar with a new place. Part of this trick involves careful studying of maps before any departure – easy for me since I’ve always been fascinated by maps of foreign places. But it also involves a willingness to be uncomfortably lost long enough to become comfortably lost. Because then I’m not lost at all, only wandering streets at will until I decide to return to where I first began.

Every city has a different beat, an unseen pattern to its own madness. Sometimes that beat changes from neighborhood to neighborhood, but the chorus stays the same. Finding out what drives that beat means getting to know a city in an intimate way, through the less-trafficked streets, the small shops and street vendors; even the largest art museums and popular cultural attractions add to the rhythm. They are all things a city can be proud of, and the people tend to reflect that pride.

Being “at home” doesn’t mean I feel like a local, or even pretend that my American clothes and accent don’t stand out immediately to everyone. I realize I look every part the tourist most places I go, with my giant backpack and camera clicking away. But that doesn’t mean I can’t also feel a sense of familiarity and comfort in a new place, even if it’s only the few blocks around my hotel. It’s looking for the familiar in unfamiliar places that keeps me traveling.

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Steel, concrete and nature align in New York City

Africa Behind My Eyes

I can’t stop thinking about Africa. The sights, the light, the sense of adventure that is sadly lacking in my day to day life. I think about the wind-blown coastline of the Cape Peninsula, the blue waters of Camps Bay, the nail-biting switchbacks on the mountain pass outside of Franschhoek. And the animals who greeted me so generously, showing a peace and grace with nothing more on their minds than survival and rest.

Hout Bay, Cape Peninsula, South Africa

There were no suitable pictures to capture the full beauty of this coastline.

It was a trip that I fear will never leave my system. Like a silent addiction that keeps pulling me in just when I feel I am free of it, Africa is a travel destination unto itself. I only saw a small fraction of its beauty, in the most pedestrian and tourist of ways, and I am still enchanted. I am determined to explore further, to leave the comfort I may desire, and to venture out – away from the fine cities and sparkling lights. To the rural red dirt roads, to the people who do not know my language but who will understand my smile.

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The dashing and exotic Kudu.

In the same way that my first trip presented itself, I believe I will know the right time to return to that continent. To a new country, a different horizon, a hotter temperature. Oh, the stories I will tell.

Wanderlust in the DNA

I am a traveler from a long line of of travelers. I was raised to look at the world through a lens of all the places I could see, one day. As soon as I could carry my own bag, my mother took me by the hand to visit places I had never heard of before- Puerto Vallarta, Guadalajara, Bangkok, Singapore, Santiago, Sydney.

It was an unusual upbringing, made no less strange living in a small rural community where most were farmers and ranch hands. Ah, but there are blessings to be had with a single mom raising an only child. Live cheaply, save religiously, travel boldly. I continue to live that motto. After all, there are still wilds I have yet to wander. The more I travel, the more I want to write. To share what I see and feel is in the spirit of a place.

Several months ago, I was awakened by a very vivid dream, and this is what I wrote:

I had a dream of Africa. South Africa to be exact. Cape Town, or so it would seem. Sunset, large ocean bay, tall coastal rocks, a community by the sea. Maybe I will go. Maybe I will see Cape Town. What an adventure on the other side of the world! And all because I dreamed of a road that led to the ocean where it met a town I had never seen before.

In a few short weeks, I will step off a plane in Cape Town. I can’t wait.