I got out of the Uber at the San Francisco airport, and the minute I walked through the doors, rain and wind blowing and pushing me forward, I felt like I was finally home. I handed my passport to the check-in agent, and suddenly everything felt peaceful. For a brief moment, the stress of the proceeding weeks had vanished from my mind.
It’s a terribly stressful and emotional time of year for so many people. I know that. And I’m not alone in writing these words. I hated that I couldn’t be perfect through the entire holiday season. But it’s a time of year that is emotionally grueling in so many ways. It’s harder for families with divorced parents. It’s harder for multi-cultural families. It’s harder for families with geographic limitations. Combine these together, and it’s asking for doomsday, especially for someone who is already prone to seasonal depression.
I had tried for two weeks to keep it together, trying to just let the time pass, knowing that once all of the ‘family time’ had passed, I could go back to my life. But there were still weeks ahead of visits and pressure and expectations from me. There were weeks ahead where I was expected to be ‘perfect.’ I snapped. I broke down. I hit rock bottom. I suddenly was not well. It’s like a bad case of the flu had hit me, except it wasn’t visible.
It was just a few days after I broke down that I found myself staring at my computer screen from the bed of my best friend’s apartment in San Francisco, a therapist on the screen, listening and coaching me. I knew I could get to a better mental space – I always do – but it felt like all of the personal work and emotional growth I had done on this journey for the last eight months had been wiped clean. And I was struggling to get back on course, depression and expectations holding me captive.
I spent the next few days at her apartment, moping and drowning in my own misery, hating that the dynamics of the various relationships in my life felt so hard. I hated that I was so imperfect.
A few days later though, after a tearful good-bye, I was on my way to Central America. As the wheels lifted off the runway, I thought to myself, “This is where I need to be.” And then I thought again, “I can’t keep running away from life when it gets hard.” I made a decision right then, in seat 3A, that I would do the work to get back on course, to be healthier, to improve. After all, aren’t we all striving to be perfect?
I landed in Costa Rica mid-afternoon, exhausted from two overnight flights. I found the free shuttle to my hotel and crawled into bed for the rest of the day and night, knowing that, for me, one of the keys to getting healthier is rest. I slept for 15 hours, and when my alarm went off at 4:30 am the next morning, I was excited for the day ahead. I was going to Nicaragua – country number 117!
Being a bit off kilter, I hadn’t thought to pack my day pack where I would normally put my passport, sunscreen, battery pack, and so on for the day. I found a plastic grocery bag and headed down to the lobby where a shuttle van met me a few minutes later, already filled with about a dozen people. I loaded myself in, the driver put my wheelchair in the back, and we drove off. Not a single word was exchanged with anyone. Not a ‘Good Morning,’ or ‘Now we will go to…’ We just drove, in complete silence, towards the border of Costa Rica and Nicaragua.
Oddly, I wasn’t even a bit afraid of this trip. I suppose since I was on a guided tour I felt safe, but many people would argue that Nicaragua is an unsafe place for a tourist. I suppose the random security stops along all of the roads, with officers holding AK-47s is a bit intimidating. Or the fact that the US government has suggested that Nicaragua is one of seven countries where they cannot help a US citizen should they be held captive. I knew all of this, but for some reason, it didn’t faze me. I was high on the rush of something adventurous…if you want to call it that.
We unloaded at the border crossing, where we would be walking across by foot. Once we met Juan Pablo, we were on our way again, although we had lost about half of our group. It turns out that about half of the original group was coming to the border simply for a ‘visa run.’ These individuals were non-residents of Costa Rica who were staying long-term in Costa Rica and needed to leave every 90 days to maintain their visa requirements. For $65 USD, this tour company would drive them across the border simply to comply with government regulations. (This happens in many, many places around the world.)
I noticed instantly that the roads in Nicaragua were in much better shape than in Costa Rica. Tony (who grew up in Costa Rica) tells me it’s because there is less money in Nicaragua, and as such, less vehicles to damage the roads. Perhaps a myth, but likely the unfortunate truth.
We drove by a half dozen ‘gas stations,’ which Juan Pablo explained are simply a place where an individual can buy a barrel of gasoline. There are no pumps, no cash registers, no attendants. The way to get gasoline in Nicaragua is from a barrel. By hand.
We passed by several horse drawn carriages and ox carts, still commonly used in Nicaragua today, proving that poverty is still quite rampant. As we drove into Grenada, one of the larger cities, we smelled what appeared to be something burning. We learned that 60% of Nicaraguans still use wood to cook. Yes, 60%!! It is used mostly for their beans, which is a staple, and the wood creates just the right flavor, but 60% of their people cook everything with wood.
I want to write and tell you that there was one profound moment in Nicaragua for me, like there have been in so many of the places I’ve visited. But what I walked away from that trip with is that there are still places that will give me adventure. And there are still people that will warm my heart.
As we were driving back to the border at the end of our tour, about a two-hour drive, I asked Juan Pablo where he learned English. It was perfect and I was in awe. He explained to me that in the 80s, there was a war in Nicaragua and his family had fled to Honduras. They stayed there for a number of years until they were granted war refugee status in Miami. His grandfather had won one of two scholarships for a university there, and he got to go along. He was there for two years – his tenth and eleventh years – and he practiced English the entire time. He told me that he stored it in his memory forever, because it was such a prize for him.
He’s back in Nicaragua, obviously, but his family is all over the Americas, each striving for a better life. I suppose much the same way I am, they are striving for perfection.
Maslow’s hierarchy, the hierarchy of needs, is so real for me. While I’m at the top, striving for the absolute perfection of mental and physical health, his family and loved ones are striving for the perfect location where they can stay safe. Perhaps that’s why the AK-47s didn’t scare me. I am the lucky one.
I spent the next morning driving across the mountains in Costa Rica to a town called Ciudad Quesada. The literal translation is ‘Cheese City.’ I mean, who doesn’t love that? I met Tony and some of his family here. It’s a place I have always loved to visit, high up on the mountains with only the sounds of nature and trees blowing in the evening, and sunlight shining in perfectly as the morning sun rises. It’s a place where I am able to let go of so many things for a few days, and just be.
I drove about four hours through the mountains, just me and the radio, only crossing paths with another car once or twice an hour. It was full of ups and downs, rain and mist, roads that appeared to go straight up and straight back down, through the rainforest and then back to flat land.
At one point, just as the sun was peering through the clouds after the rain in the rainforest had fallen, a rainbow appeared in front of me. The last time I had seen a rainbow like this was in the Maldives. I was instantly brought back to that moment, where I remember writing that I was at the highest point in my life, so happy and fulfilled. Perhaps this rainbow now, in Costa Rica, was simply a result of sun shining through mist and creating a scientific prism of colors, or perhaps it was a sign – a gentle reminder – that like a rainbow, life has highs and lows, and all times – good and bad – pass. Like in the Maldives, I was suddenly filled with peace.
I spent the next week in Costa Rica visiting with Tony’s family and friends, spending time at the beach and also some time in San Jose. Three days before my scheduled flight back to the US, my best friend, who I had seen just a two weeks earlier, called and told me she needed to get some sunshine. For the first time in my life, I was able to say, “When and where?” I was pretty exhausted from the emotional month I had, but this was an opportunity for me to just get out and live. When else in my life would I be able to cancel my flight and go somewhere else on a whim? And so three days later, I found myself in Mexico.
Did I do anything adventurous there? No. Did I have some profound cultural experience? No. I did get lots of sunshine. I did get to be spontaneous with my friend. Oh, and I did get to sing some Spanish karaoke and salsa in the street with complete strangers.
I’ve spent the last six weeks trying to be perfect. In recent days, I’ve realized that I will never be able to say ‘I’m Perfect.’ I’ll never be able to parenthesize the ‘im’ in (im)perfect. I am human, and thus, I am simply imperfect.
I hate that it’s taken me six weeks to write a new blog. I hate that I reached a low point in my journey. I hate that I allowed myself to feel worthless. I hate that in everything I try so hard to do well, there are people in my life who are hurting. But…I am imperfect.
So I backslid a bit on my emotional journey. I suppose that’s life. The Costa Rican rainbow I saw only spanned half of the sky. I’m going to work to fill the entire sky, just the way the rainbow in the Maldives spanned the entire sky on the day I was happiest. I won’t give up until that rainbow is complete again.
As I wrap this up and think about what my message really is, I suppose I want to express that even the most profound journeys in our lives come with deep emotion. We are imperfect creatures, and accepting that is hard. For me, I am incredibly grateful to my support system – Tony, Nicole, my family – and that I have access to mental health care.
This year is going to be awesome – I have so much in store – and I cannot wait to share it with you all!
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