For my 40th birthday last year, I traveled to Costa Rica. A friend of mine owns a house and she invited several of us down for a visit over Easter weekend, which happened to coincide directly with me transitioning into another decade.
Although we had started planning the trip in October (and my birthday was in April), I wasn’t fully sure that I was going to make the trip until very near the end. Money was incredibly tight and I just didn’t think I could swing it. My desire to go was so much stronger that I told myself there had to be a way to make it happen.
I had been selected as a speaker for Alt Summit, the creative & influencer community version of summer camp (but better) and I invited a couple of my dear friends to join me. One of them was invited to a private dinner that was hosted by Alaska Airlines, and she chose me as her plus one.
The dinner was the stuff of dreams. It was an intimate engagement, set up in the back yard behind the Gene Autry House at the Parker Hotel in Palm Springs. We had a watercolor portrait artist (also named Eunice!) doing our portraits as we arrived while the cocktails and conversations flowed.
Dinner was amazing. It was a four course meal, served by butlers in white coats. I had never felt so bougie in my life. My friend and I kept trying to understand why we had been selected for this very intimate event because it seemed like everyone there had made it already, and here we were, just getting started.
The conversation was just as delightful as the food. I sat next to a couple of women from Phoenix, where some of my family lives, and across from another who grew up in the neighborhood I live now. The coincidences were uncanny.
But the best part was our third course meal: a plane ticket to anywhere that Alaska serviced. I immediately thought of the trip I was hoping to be on just a month away. As soon as I got home, I checked the terms on the ticket and to see if by any chance, Alaska flew to Costa Rica. They did.
There were a few small hiccups. The blackout rules meant that I could only fly Monday through Thursday and our vacation was planned Saturday-Saturday. I also had to fly on segments that were operated by Alaska and not one of their partners, so I had to fly DEN-SEA-LAX-LIR. I left at 4 pm on Thursday and arrived in Costa Rica at 7 pm the next night (btw, I hate layovers that are long enough to need some sleep, but too short to leave the airport and come back). In the true spirit of Pura Vida, I didn’t care. I was headed to Costa Rica for 12 days and it cost me almost nothing.
I stayed at an Airbnb just outside of Liberia on Friday night, and met up with my friend David at the airport the next morning. We spent my birthday taking a long, leisurely drive down to Tambor, where we stopped for pipa fría, chicken wings, and a candlelight Easter procession (we didn’t really have a choice about that last one—they blocked the entire road and we had to wait for the whole thing to pass). We arrived at our host’s house and so began my Costa Rican adventure.
The week we all spent together was a blast. We got to meet the local friends that Amy had made, eat amazing food, go on some fun excursions (except spelunking, I did NOT enjoy that as much as some of the others did), and enjoyed plenty of beach time. It was a great week. By the time David dropped me off back in Liberia a week later, I was beat.
I had picked a different Airbnb to stay my last two nights, partly because of the cost, and partly because this one was closer to town and I wanted to explore Liberia my last day in the country. Unlike my first host, Marlene spoke almost no English. And my Spanish leaves much to be desired. She met me in the town square, and had a friend pick us up in his cab to bring us home. I was grateful because it was hot and humid and I was beat.
I got to my room mid-afternoon and laid down to take a short nap. I woke up close to noon the next day. Marlene had gone to church and I saw a text from her that said she’d made me breakfast, but didn’t want to wake me. I felt awful.
Alone in the house, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. Walking the ten blocks back to town no longer seemed enjoyable. So I curled up in the hammock on the porch and read until she returned home.
Mid afternoon, she and a friend came by, and she warmed up the breakfast she had prepared. They sat and chatted while I ate awkwardly, not sure if it would be rude to open my book and keep reading. They hurried off again a while later and I decided to walk into town. I made it about two blocks and stopped in a bodega for some ice cream and a soda and then I went back to her house and up to my room for a nap. It was too hot to do anything else.
I woke up a few hours later, after it had gotten dark. I started in on my usual ritual of repacking my suitcase for traveling home, trying to move as much from the oversized purse I travel with as possible.
I went downstairs to say goodnight and she was squeezing mangoes into a blender. She told me that she’d made me a smoothie and I couldn’t go to bed until I sat down with her and enjoyed it. (It took me about 15 minutes to understand this is what she was telling me.)
As she worked, she told me what she was putting in it—mangoes from her tree in the yard out back, some oatmeal, milk, and some essential oils. She’s a soapmaker by profession, so this cocktail sounded like she knew exactly what she was doing.
We sat together, in silence for a moment, and we each pulled out our phones. I opened Google Translate and asked her about herself. She lit right up. She opened her Google Translate app and started to tell me about herself.
She’s a single mom with two daughters, and has never been married. The girls have different fathers. When she was still pregnant with her first, her fiancé was killed in a car accident. A few years later, she got pregnant again and that guy took off as soon as he found out. She had raised the girls all on her own.
The older one had severe weight issues as a child and ended up with an eating disorder. She said it was the hardest thing to watch her child go through because she felt so helpless. Her daughter has recovered and is an artist and teaches yoga and lives near San Juan, CR.
The younger one is a spitfire and was motivated to get a degree in immigration law after the 2016 election. She goes to Georgetown University and Marlene was certain that her daughter’s boyfriend planned to propose on their upcoming trip to Italy.
Marlene is an esthetician by trade and started soapmaking when she realized how many toxic chemicals were in the products she was using. She’d committed to getting into clean beauty before it was even a thing. She didn’t have a website or I would have become a loyal customer. She gave me a small brick of soap for my face and it was delightful.
I shared my story about being a single mother and we talked about deadbeat dads and how hard it is to do this on your own. She beamed with pride about her girls and gave me a free pass to take a yoga class with her oldest on Udemy.
I told her about being a writer and sent her a couple of my stories from Kindred that I had written about Alissa. She lit up to learn that, and asked me to keep sending them to her so she could learn English.
She talked about doing Airbnb to make extra money, but she wasn’t sure if she’d keep doing it because she was trying to sell her house to move closer to her daughter. She enjoyed meeting the people, but it was getting to be a lot of work, even if it was her main source of income.
On my final night in Costa Rica, we spent two hours talking and laughing, enjoying our smoothies and connecting as women. If not for our phones telling us what to say, you never would have known that we didn’t speak the same language. I spent 12 days in Costa Rica and that last night was, by far, the most memorable. My only regret is that I didn’t take a picture with her.
I’ve tried to stay in touch with Marlene since I left. I’ve texted her a couple of times on WhatsApp, but haven’t yet gotten a response. I guess I’ll just have to go back and see if she still lives in that little blue house next to the school, making soap and connecting with her visitors.