May 13, 2017
By Jillian Bright
I’ll Always Go Back to Costa Rica
Our dust-covered 4Runner bounced down the jungle road, my friend behind the wheel and her two little boys sleeping in the back, who, when I left hadn’t been born yet. I’d been traveling unfamiliar roads for nearly a year from South Asia to Scandinavia, seeing old friends and chasing new adventures. Not like here. This road I knew by heart. And I knew exactly what waited for me at the end.
“Are you nervous?” she asked me.
“Terrified,” I replied.
“How long has it been?” she cocked her head, thinking.
“Four years,” I said as I stared out the window, watching lush green vines sweep by.
She held the wheel like a pro as the car lurched out of a pothole.
“Geez, that long?”
When I left that little beach town, I thought I would never go back. Six years there and what did I have to show for it? My life in Costa Rica felt like a string of failures: failed friendships, failed relationships, a failed business. I wanted to leave it behind. I wanted to leave the person I was when I was there behind. So I found a new life, worlds away from the tropical beaches and swaying palm trees, deep in the fog and the redwoods. I didn’t leave for three years.
The fourth year, I started traveling again. Though I was far away from Costa Rica and Central America, the whispers grew and tugged at my heart. Every new place and every old friend that I visited brought back more memories. Most of them glittered like sunshine on seawater but others were painful and frantic, and they made me feel excruciatingly vulnerable again. I wasn’t sure that I really wanted to go back, but deep down I knew I had to.
My heart raced and my palms sweated as we rounded the curves in the dirt road, edging closer to town. Hot afternoon sun pierced through the dust that billowed up into the air, dry and choking like the fears I was determined to purge by going back.
When I first arrived in that little town, nothing could have seemed more perfect to me. What should have been a few days turned into years. I spent my afternoons on the beach, evenings at the beachside restaurant where I worked, and nights at the open-air bar in town. But time passed, I knew I needed something more. I started my swimwear business and life shifted. Or perhaps I should say irreversibly transformed. Shifting feels easy. Transformation on the other hand, that’s fire.
In such a small town, I knew what people said, that I started to think I was better than them. And honestly, maybe I did. Maybe I thought what I was doing with my life was better than what they were doing with theirs and they saw straight through my smile. Or maybe that smile was a way of trying to show them that even though I didn’t want to drink liters of beer and partake in other activities until sunrise anymore, I still cared about them. Maybe it was a little bit of both. But it didn’t matter. I felt judged no matter what I did and I lost friends anyway. In the end, I quit making swimsuits and left, heavy with loss and dejection. Four years and more than a dozen countries later and I was still carrying it with me.
By the time we pulled into my friend’s driveway, the boys were awake, the softer late afternoon sun was filtering through the jungle canopy, and I had begun to question what it was I was truly afraid of: that people might still heap judgments on me or that I, after all these years, hadn’t grown out of my own insecurities enough not to care.
Neither, it turned out, were true. When I walked into town, I did see a few cold faces of former friends. But mostly what I found were people I had once called family, embracing me and welcoming me back. The broken friendships paled in comparison to the ones I’d forgotten I still had. We lounged on the beach and swam in glittering turquoise water. I played with their kids that when I left had been babies and held the new ones in my arms. I felt light and happy, like I finally stopped carrying around the heavy ghosts of what I thought I’d lost.
This place, these people were part of my life, not part of my past. Somehow, they were still family and this place was still home. A month later waiting for the early bus, I caught a glimpse of the sun pushing its first thin, orange rays over the Pacific in Costa Rica. I smiled as I climbed on board. This time, I knew I’d be back.
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About the Author
Jillian Bright is a travel and nature writer who splits her time between Northern California and everywhere else. She's currently writing a book about her journey around the world that led her back to her second home in Costa Rica.