I’m in a little corner of paradise in the wildest part of Costa Rica, and I just keep having to pinch myself to believe that I am where I am. I just got here, and I’m already sad because I don’t know when I’ll get to come back. I’m on the Osa Peninsula on the South Pacific coast of Costa Rica at a little ecolodge called Iguana Lodge. October is the rainiest month in Costa Rica, so most places have ridiculously low prices this time of year. I think it might be my favorite time of year here because things are much quieter, and it only rains a few hours each day in the afternoons, which can make for a really peaceful afternoon! Another lady from Colorado and I are the only two guests at the moment, so we kind of have the place to ourselves! I’m torn between just wanting to play on the beach all day and wanting to see all that this beautiful place has to offer. It’s whale season here, so there are plenty of tours you can take to go whale watching or kayaking or waterfall rappelling or ziplining or surfing!

So far the whole trip to Costa Rica has been so lovely and peaceful. I wasn’t sure what to expect because it’s been nearly four years since I was here last and this country and I have so much history!

I first came here when I was 19 to study Spanish. I studied at an institute in the mountains of Santa Ana called Conversa and lived with a host family in the town of Santa Ana. I was only here for three weeks but fell so much in love with the country. I hadn’t been back in the states for a day when I called my host mom crying because I missed everything so much. I love the outdoors and outdoor adventures so incredibly much that it really was the perfect place for me to keep working on my Spanish. I’ve always struggled when I have to sit still or be indoors for long periods of time, so to be in outdoor classes that consisted of hiking or ping pong or swimming was my perfect learning environment. After returning to the states, I talked with my advisor in college and worked it out so I could come back to spend the summer here that same year and get school credit for it. That summer I started dating a “tico” that I had stayed in touch with from my first trip to Costa Rica. Between my love for him and the beaches and mountains and waterfalls, I never wanted to leave. I tried unsuccessfully to find a job down here and return the next semester, but when that didn’t work out, our relationship fizzled.

In the meantime, I had found a small community of ticos in Birmingham that could ease the pain of being so far away from my little paradise. I still came back whenever I could to visit and explore new parts of the country. Then a couple of years and a few Costa Rican boyfriends later, after I returned from a five month trek around Europe, I started dating my future husband. We met at a party that my Costa Rican friends hosted and would then see each other and dance together every Friday night at Assagio for Latin dancing. I tried my best not to date him, having sworn off all latin men, but after about six months of him insisting, I gave in!
We came to Costa Rica a few times while we were dating, and I had so much fun with his gigantic family of 11 brothers and sisters and countless cousins and nieces and nephews.
It was such a welcome contrast to my white middle class America that seemed to want to lead me down such a conventional path.

After about two years of a tumultuous courtship, partly because we thought we could love each other forever and partly because of logistical reasons such as immigration, etc, we decided to get married. Our marriage was one of extremes, things seemed to swing back and forth from extremely happy and good to horrific and unbearable. One month he would seem to love me more than he’d ever loved anyone and the next month he’d seem extremely distant, ready to pack his bags and leave. We both struggled to adapt to each others’ expectations and cultures, and after 4 years of marriage, because of so many different reasons, we separated. It was extremely difficult, but after crying nearly everyday for several months, I was able to see things with more clarity and trust that it was the best thing for both of us.

After we split up, I wasn’t sure if I would ever come back to Costa Rica, but I’ve discovered since then that my love for this country was not at all dependent on my ex-husband. He now lives part of the year next door to my goddaughter with his wife and 5 month old baby. He let me borrow his car and his cell phone for the time that I’m here, and something about being here and holding his baby and laughing with his new wife has brought me a strange sort of peace and happiness. Even though I’ve felt peaceful about our divorce for a long time, it’a strange thing to feel so happy and sad at the same time. I’m still sad for all that was lost, but I know that it’s better now that we aren’t together. And I’m so incredibly grateful that we can all spend time together without feeling any anger or resentment towards each other. It means the world to me to be able to stay next door to each other and have that be ok.

It’s also strange because in some ways it feels like the country hasn’t changed at all and in other ways things are different. The machismo is still very present here. Women are expected to stay home, clean, take care of the kids and cook three meals a day- and to ask the man in their lives permission for everything. I’ve been asked repeatedly, “your boyfriend let you come here alone?!” I still haven’t found a very good answer to that question, and every time I’m asked that, I feel so grateful to come from a place where I have the freedom to carve out my own path. But at the same time, at least in the rural areas, there is still so much poverty here that the machismo almost makes sense. There’s not enough demand for both spouses to work so the only way they can afford to get by is if the wife stays home, raising the children, cleaning and cooking rice and beans over and over again. Most people seem to have enough money to buy food and to pay their monthly water and electric bill, but not much else. Marita, my goddaughter’s mom, is an awesome seamstress who makes most of their clothes because she can’t afford to buy any. All the toys the kids have are decades old and look like antiques- in many ways it’s kind of refreshing. And it’s definitely been a good reminder of how little we actually need. Most of the trash at their house is compost so they just throw food scraps into the jungle behind their house. Of actual trash, they may have a small plastic Wal-Mart bag full each month. For many years they had a big hole that they had dug themselves to bury the trash. Marita was excited because I made some cookies and brought them in a tupperware container- she was thrilled to have a container to put her husband’s lunch in everyday! Many people here still use banana leaves to wrap their lunches in!

Marita’s family used to raise pigs, and they would use the methane from the pigs’ waste to cook and heat their water. But Marita says that since the free trade agreement with the US was passed, the meat from the factory farms in the US can be imported so cheaply, that it no longer makes economic sense for them to raise their own pigs. A similar thing seems to be happening with coffee. My ex’s brother has a coffee plantation, and he says that the price off coffee dropped over 60% this year because it can be imported so cheaply from other places. With the current price of coffee, they can barely afford to pay the workers to harvest it and then have it transported to the co-op.

I don’t know if the free trade agreement has benefited the country in some ways or not. Marita says that people have more access to technology than ever before, which could be a good and bad thing! Nearly everyone has a cell phone with prepaid plans- most people text here because it costs less than a penny to send a text message.

I’ve also noticed a shift in the mentality of Costa Ricans with regard to conservation efforts in this beautiful country. When I first came to Costa Rica, I was struck with how reckless people could be with such a gorgeous place. Piles of trash would line the streets and river banks. People didn’t think twice about leveling primary rainforests to create pasture land. Then they would douse the land with chemicals that went straight to the rivers to keep weeds from growing. But those practices seem to be changing, due largely to the influence of foreigners.

In some ways, all the foreign influence and immigration from the US and Europe has made the country a lot more expensive for the locals. But at the same time, the tourism industry has created so many jobs and has helped people understand that they need to protect their country if they want it to continue being a prime eco-tourism destination. I think when people come from such poverty, it’s easy for them to only focus on what money can buy. They take this beautiful paradise for granted because it’s all they’ve ever known. So it’s really nice to see that now many schools are teaching kids about recycling and conservation.

As I navigated around potholes on the five hour trek to reach this lodge, I was struck by how alive I felt. And after I reached the lodge, I sat down to listen to the crashing of the ocean waves and three macaws flew over my head. I felt a familiar pit in my stomach that usually happens when I’m afraid. And I thought to myself that maybe I was afraid of being in a place so unfamiliar and so wild, but then I realized that I was afraid of just the opposite. I’m afraid of leaving. This is the place where my soul can rest, and I can feel alive at the same time. And I’m scared of going back to a routine and a life that flattens me, that I’ve tried so hard to mold into a life that I love but that still doesn’t let me feel totally alive. And I feel so sad and trapped when I think about leaving this little paradise. At home I get consumed by responsibilities, to-do lists and trying to “be somebody” or achieve something.

But for now, I’m going to try and be here while I’m here, knowing that I’ll leave here a slightly different person than when I came. And trusting in the fact that life unfolds at its own pace and that the answers will come to me as I’m ready for them.

Here are a few photos from this lovely place, the school where I studied, my goddaughter and the peninsula (I haven’t figured out how to caption photos from my phone yet!)










From One Steel City to Another

It’s a rainy night in Costa Rica. I’m in a town called Santa Ana visiting the family that I lived with when I studied here nearly 14 years ago. After a couple of weeks away from the busyness of work and the responsibilities of home, I’m feeling pretty peaceful.

I just finished reading Orange is the New Black, and after reading about the author’s experience of a year in federal prison, I feel humbled to be a part of this mess we call life and all of its uniqueness. In her book, Piper Kerman describes humanity and the importance of connection so well. Her experience shows how resilient we are as humans and that we can survive most anything as long as we’re able to love and connect with other human beings.

The centering thought from one of the guided meditations I did last week was about “cherishing every connection.” And that’s mostly what the last couple of weeks have been about for me- connecting with other people, myself and the world around me.

On a road trip to Pittsburgh for the annual Passive House conference last week, after camping near Cumberland Falls, I got to spend some time in Kentucky and share ideas with Ginger Watkins, a new friend, architect and a great advocate for Passive House. I’m excited about the possibility of us working together- it’s so helpful to have the support of someone who’s experienced in working with Passive House. After our meeting, I headed to Westerville, OH to visit some cousins and my great uncle, all of whom I hadn’t seen in 10 years or so. It was really fun getting to know my cousins and their spouses a little more, catching up, sharing stories and looking at old pictures. My great uncle lost his wife (my grandmother’s sister) on the day of their 59th wedding anniversary last year, so I wanted to know that he was doing ok. It was really special to spend some time with him and to see all the projects he and my grandad had worked on together in his home. He was an architect who designed some beautiful buildings around Westerville, and he and my grandad were experts in working with what they had. He turned a bottom drawer into a step stool in the kitchen to reach things on the top shelf, made a countertop from a bowling alley floor, used motor oil to flatten out his cupped cedar shake siding and made a ventilation system with a box fan and a hole in a door with an insulated panel to cover it in the winter. It was really fun and meaningful to connect with him and my cousins and to see what they have all been up to for the last decade! They all sent me on my way with a delicious brunch!

With many hours on the road, as I drove to and from Pittsburgh, I had time to catch up with some old friends by phone who have moved out of town. I also had plenty of time to listen to some inspiring talks. One of the talks was from a guy named Neale Donald Walsh who wrote Conversations with God. In this talk he summarized what I’ve come to believe about life. I told my friend Nuo the other day that if someone held a gun to my head and asked me for the meaning of life, I’d have to say “to experience it.” Neale went on to talk about how each of us is a unique expression of the divine. We are a piece of divinity in physical form so that divinity can have the unique experience of what it means to be each one of us. And at the risk of sounding like a faux-spiritualist (as my friend Aaron calls it!) or of over-romanticizing ordinary life, I really believe that’s true. He says that our only job in life is to be who we are and to experience the depth of all that entails. It seems that so much of our pain and suffering comes from denying our experience and trying to be something other than who we are.

Then I thought about the movie the City of Angels, where Nicholas Cage decides to fall from angel hood and experience the pain of becoming human again just so he can touch Meg Ryan. And I remembered what it was like in high school when I had developed an eating disorder as a coping mechanism, as a way to avoid feeling pain that I feared intolerable. I became so numb that I couldn’t feel joy or pain. I remember looking at sunsets with glazed over eyes and half-heartedly saying, “oh that’s pretty.” But they were only words because no part of my being was able to experience the beauty of a sunset. So I began the arduos journey of recovery because I decided that feeling lifeless forever was worse than feeling pain. And although often I don’t feel or act very divine- I can easily fall into the awkwardness of trying to be someone I’m not or trying to fabricate things to validate myself or existence- but after just a few minutes of meditating, I’m reminded of the priceless stillness, peace and beauty that I’m made of- that we’re all made of. And now I can look at the sunsets and the sky on a daily basis and be truly moved by their beauty. Every time I do, I’m so thankful that I’m able to experience them.

Once I got to Pittsburgh, I stayed with my friend Claire, who moved there with her husband a few months ago. We explored Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, did some rainy day yoga and had some fun dinners with her husband Miles!

At the conference itself, I felt inspired and overwhelmed at the same time. I heard some amazing talks that reminded me why this matters to me and to the world. Every time I go to a Passive House training or a conference, I understand things a little more completely and leave with a broader perspective of how everything works together. It’s so great to be among a community of people who are passionate about what they’re doing, learning from their mistakes and sharing their experiences.

Building a Passive house still feels like a scary mysterious thing, but I think that’s only because I haven’t actually built one yet. Yesterday I visited the institute in the mountains of Costa Rica where I came to study Spanish 14 years ago, and as I looked at the beautiful mountains, I was reminded of how similar the learning curve is with Passive House. I would spend hours and hours in the classroom learning and studying, reading books and living with families who only spoke Spanish, and even after a year or so of near immersion, it sometimes felt impossible. I felt like it would always be hard. But at some point, a few years down the road, it started to feel pretty natural. I still am continually learning new things about the language, but the language is almost second nature to me now. So remembering that experience was very comforting because Passive House is just learning another construction language, and hopefully a few years from now, it won’t seem so hard.

After the conference, I started back home, and as I crossed the border into Ohio, I called my dad to tell him about the conference, thinking he would probably be out hiking somewhere near his Seattle home. He answered and when I asked what he was up to, he said, “Oh, just hanging out in Ohio at a physical therapy meeting.” I couldn’t believe we were in the same state! So as an added bonus to a great week, I got to walk along the Ohio river and have lunch with my dad- such a welcome surprise!

I made it home and flew to Costa Rica 2 days later (which was due mostly to poor planning- it’s been a welcome rest, but I didn’t quite realize I’d have to take 3 1/2 weeks off work when I planned these trips!) Tomorrow I’ll head down to the south of the country to visit my goddaughter and my ex-husband’s family. Then even further south a few days later to the Osa Peninsula, the wildest part of Costa Rica. I’ve never been, but it sounds absolutely beautiful. Hopefully, I’ll have some time to write while I’m there!

Below are some images of my sweet family, Cumberland Falls (the Niagara of the south), my dad near the Ohio River, my friend Claire, Fallingwater, the view from the Conversa institute where I studied in Costa Rica!