new year. happy or not, here it comes.

30 December 2011 § 1 Comment

well, okay, not yet. but I’ve been thinking about my past holidays recently and found something amazing: on new years three years running, I’ve found myself on the blue coast of a beach town in some part of the world where, not too long ago, I never, ever, thought I’d visit. Miami brought in 2010, post travel. Zadar introduced 2011 to me in an Irish pub tucked into the depths of a Croatian castle, a New Zealander across the table from me and a Mexican tequila between us. Now, I don’t want to pretend I’ve got any sort of foresight, but I’m in Playa del Coco, Costa Rica right now, Sonambulo is about to play, and I’m not planning on going anywhere before next week. (The Sonambulo thing is a sidenote made to promote a great band and a little jealously, because once you hear them, you won’t want to stop). It’s kind of hard to put into words right now – which is why I’m silently sitting at a computer in an American bar, where I’m sure not to say a word to anyone, typing in a font I can’t even read, but – life is wonderful. And it is what I’ve made of it. Somehow, with all that _____ and _____, that I did _____ with and wanted ______. There’s no room for those words, not right now, not here.

I know what I’m still missing, or at least I have an idea. The boat ride up to Witch’s Rock in Santa Rosa told me some things I needed to know:

quit the expectation.
learn to communicate better, because otherwise you’ll never know what you’re agreeing to.
if you want to do something, fucking do it already.

and the seacave around the corner from the infamous Four Seasons where high class celebrities (whom here will go unnamed) pay boatmen two hundred dollar tips like yesterday, and did I really need to know that she’s here? I don’t care,.but I hope she’s having a good time, it told me some things, as I underscord the island with a poem to listen to its echoes and waves, it put me in the middle of the crashing waves, the ones which take the crabs away, wash them to somewhere, else, where the algae lives, where the Life is, where only the day before on another set of outcropped lavarocks I sat above, on the safe and secure and lifeless surface where no tide reached but in the first signs of spring, which is ambivalent and might not exist here.

Recently as yesterday, I was watching life below me happen, watching the struggle and the swell come in, and sometimes it seemed like forever before it went out again. Life under it could have been happening, or drowning. It didn’t matter which. I wasn’t in it. And yesterday, in a place I thought was somewhere else, I walked through that tunnel and found my untakencareof foot hurt yet again under the strong sun, and when I came out of it, at my tico brother’s  polite request, I’d rid myself of the frustration of not being able to understand people who spoke only to me.

on stage a couple of months ago, I read a piece to a crowd which contained people whom I’d hoped to graciously insult with one line:

some things don’t break when you throw rocks at them – like people who talk because they never learned how to listen.

Only under the heat of the spotlight and feeling the blood rushing to my face did I realize that I hadn’t written any of that about any of them. The crowd was quiet until I pointed to myself, humbled by my own comment. Then they made a noise which sounded like either agreement or empathy. It didn’t matter which.

I have some resolutions, I do. But I don’t measure life by years. Dates only help as they relate to others. however. I will learn how to listen. starting now.



comparing home.

29 December 2011 § Leave a comment

Last night, a friend of my tico family, Ingrid, in whose place we’re staying on our classic family vacation (a great way to0 learn about a local culture, and the people with whom I’ve lived for three months), asked me in Spanish what the differences between Costa Rica and Alaska were. It has long been my most defining fact here – that Sean is from Alaska, or all the places on earth, and when I talk about the little more that I can talk about fluently – work, school, travel – the discussion leads to the show Deadliest Catch,and I’m usually the center of attention until I run out of vocabulary to keep up with the conversation, which is usually about 45 seconds or so. I don’t have the proficiency to be poetic in Spanish yet, so I wrote out my answer to her in English, and later tried to translate it in real time, much to the frustration of everyone present. Anyway, here it is.

I wanted to find a place and a culture that I knew nothing about and to learn about it. And I found this place, where people generally care for each other but fear those they don’t know, so they put up bars and security fences to keep those things at bay. In the street.

This place, like Alaska and everywhere else, depends on the climate to do what it always does. In Alaska, that dependency keeps people inside for most of the year, because of the cold. Everyone wants to be warm and comfortable.

In Costa Rica, the people depend on the climate to be more or less the same throughout the year, and want to be comfortable also, so being outside is just like being inside, and many houses’ construction reflect this. In many places in C.R., though, you can be outside, but still behind bars.

So much goes unsaid in this culture. Perhaps even more than what is said, which is saying a lot because the people here talk a lot. But it also speaks to the great amount of context, complexity, and respect in a culture where even the cokeheads and schizophrenics are listened to, instead of being written off as waste, or worse, ignored entirely.

The mountains, the sea, the sky – these things are important to me in every place that I visit, but can all be more or less compared with one another.People, on the other hand, and what they create, cannot be so easily. It is true, in my experience, that people are generally the same everywhere in that we want the same things – happiness, love, respect, a safe place to live, good food, etc., but we all have very different ways of obtaining them. This pursuit is what creates culture, and in that respect we are dependent on what we have – the environment; people, natural resources, etc. – to obtain these things we need, and then want. And of course because geography determines these resources, some have different levels of needing to meet these requirements.

Using the most obvious example, in the city, relatively few people have massive networks of trustworthy individuals, as opposed to in rural areas where everyone knows everyone else, and the area thrives not necessarily from a stranger-induced economy, but from its relationships.

In Alaska, it’s much the same. Many towns are isolated from one another. The road system, relative to the size of the state, is not very extensive. But somehow, people survive. Why? How?

One answer is that they laugh. That’s something your home and my home have in common. And coffee. Everyone drinks coffee.

Both of our homes are also very beautiful. Sometimes to the point where, in order to keep balance and order, we must ignore the beauty, or feel we must, because it takes so much energy to be in awe all the time. But when someone visits our home, and falls in love with what they see and hear and feel there, it sparks a new love in us for the place that we’re from, the place we call ‘home’, and perhaps that’s why the tourism industry makes everything seem better than it is – because the denizens see the wonder around them and want to emphasize what they themselves love about their home.

After the translation, mamatica, ever vying for the upper hand and last words in the conversation, told me that I’d told her nothing, essentially, and that she wanted to hear about the physical characteristics of Alaska, and how different they were from Costa Rica. I have a feeling that if we spoke the same language, she and I wouldn’t get along as well as we do. But that’s okay.

reaching new heights in selfdiscovery.

29 December 2011 § Leave a comment

(I think there’s something in the air that’s going to rocket me somewhere weird and full of overtanned American expats with backpacks and yachts. Yes, that’s it: a family vacation. What have I got myself into? What was going to be a chill few days in Peninsula de Osa turned into a full-scale tico family vacation, on which I am officially the guest, instead of the cohort. Plans change. That’s travel, right?

I’ve spoken less English in the last few days than in the past few months, when I was “immersed” in a study abroad program, in this family’s home, in San Jose. This is Playa del Coco – Coco Beach, Costa Rica – at peak tourist season, and I’m sort of in love with Guanacaste. Two days chillin’ on the beach, nursing blisters and other wounds, hearing from someone who was kind enough to rock my world that I cannot be scared anymore – not of myself, not of Cristo Rey, and who does she think she is to say what’s worth what when the apocalypse comes? I’ve got to get up to Guatemala and check with the Mayans about that business, quick.)

the sun glares off the palm leaves like reflections from rippled glass. the morning is humid and warm, the sky mercilessly blue. there’s just enough wind to keep the heat from overtaking the town. until noon. if there were an ideal weather for a relaxed family vacation at the beach, this would be it.

the 8 a.m. surf at Playa del Coco reminds me of mornings on Kodiak Island, when all there was in the day ahead was work and fish and good food. utter tranquility, albeit a more remote sort than one can find here – shopping baskets at the beach full of pipas for sale, policia kickin’ back at their sandfront office. half the town seems to be a beer and a half in, and it’s not even breakfast time yet. music blares from american-owned hostels and restaurants, and the 2 a.m. crowd still recovering from last night’s streetside foray, trash lines the streets like a well-decorated party. the internet is free, what as long as you buy a cup of the best coffee in the world for a buck. I don’t even like coffee, but to hell with you, Starbucks.

because my brain is still in dream mode, with the tour of the Kenai apartment in tow, I’m going to give you a few things from the notebook instead:

Traveling has historically been where I face my challenges: the things I don’t like or haven’t tried – showers, for example; when I was a kid I took baths until I was twelve or so, only showering when I had to. After a three week road trip, however, which was little more than a string of hotels and the blistering summer heat of the West, I never took a bath again. Same with mustard and New Mexico highway rest areas, milk at any place but home (I don’t know, it just tasted weird), the humidity in Costa Rica which I so despised those years I lived in Florida, and frequenting bars alone (as a patron instead of an employee) in Budapest. I like being outside of the comfort zone of my ‘home’, because bey9ond those walls I’m a stronger and more understanding person. Or so I’d like to think.

We had smoked and talked of buying more. Of course, my tico friend would have to do it because the price was always higher for gringos. Much higher. We walked toward the Caribbean knockoff spot where out favorite waitress Suiring (24 going on 17) worked, and short man with a strpired shirt and goatee offered the third person in my party a roach. He was quick to point out that it was marijuana, though the truth was that there was more paper than mota, and I could tell my friend was at least interested by7 the time the guy let me smell it. It was paper and ash, and I told him so.

Es basura, I said flatly.

He backed off immediately, and looked at me in submission. He had known perfectly well what he was trying to sell (for god knows what price; no one had inquired yet, and most of his efforts so far (in quick Spanish, of course) were in trying to convince us that what he was selling was in fact what he was selling), and he was called out, by me, who only calls people out when I have something to lose from the transaction.

I felt powerful and envied. It didn’t matter that no one else thought twice about it – my comment had settled the matter indefinitely, and even my friend chuckled a small I-knew-it-all-along laugh upon hearing what I’d said. The guy had disappeared in a quartersecond, and when we returned that way not five minutes later (the Caribbean spot was closed) he was gone, though I was thinking that if I was ever going to pay for what I said, that blatant insult to his nighttime dignity, to his very manhood, the sort you seek out your friends to reinstate, it would be then, when I was with at least one person who would fight for me, with me, and M would fight for his brother if not for me. But I carried my pridefear through the living streets of Playa del Coco, over the one paved road there was, through crowds of people whom I thought unfortunate for never having met me.

I wonder how much more arrogant or selfish or ignorant I could be than to think that instead of how unfortunate I was for not having the courage to go and meet them, to see what they had to offer, what their stories were, when mind is but on in a pile of US American travelstories that began, more or less, with dumping most everything I had and setting off into the wide world with everything I cared to own in my backpack and with pockets full of crumpled cash (usually the wrong sort for the country I was in) inside pants which hopefully didn’t smell terrible after three weeks of movement at a time. For all, we know nothing. I know nothing. Perhaps we’re both losing out, but think that before assuming anything. Take Amanda for example, and apply it: I passed her off with my first impression of her when she gave me an argument, a counterpoint, a snide remark to some unnecessary digging into the symbolism of one thing or another (“I don’t think it was that deep,” she’d said, annoyed and dismissive.)And look what happened.

You have reason to assume nothing, Sean. And proof that when you do anyway, you just haven’t seen enough.

climb over this.

21 December 2011 § Leave a comment

she’s convincing enough to wait for.

I was too far ahead on the trail to Chirripo to head her, to fast to listen – but when I wasn’t, and when I did, I was happier than when I had my solitary way of quick pace and quietude. We spoke less when we walked, trading looks instead, to cherish forever – we knew we were writing our personal and together histories, because the night before, humiliating, prolific, learned from us things that we ourselves hadn’t known we were capable of discovering. True to her word, she swept her judgments aside to keep things the same with me, because we hadn’t finished evolving in that stage yet. But she didn’t get her way either; we just chose a different door to open.

And walk through, we did, twenty kilometers at a time, to the top of the nation at sunrise after the moonlit valley walk under the upside down Big Dipper, Polaris hiding under the mountainous horizon.

I was just following the stars. I didn’t want to be any less enduring without the need to reinvent light as reassurance, like the spotlightmoon is going to go out in the middle of the show.

We spoke of Middle Earth and Narnia and were reminded of the true definition of epic. Our journey was more than 20 kilometers to 3820 meters in the sky ‘ it was months, a semester of school where we learned more about ourselves than we ever did in the small and mercilessly hot classrooms for four hours at a time, sponging up Spanish like spilt beer.

Songs that reminded me of another time came up like virtual realities which sent me reeling or stumbling through the mess I was Before, and the choruses hit home like long night drives on icy highways in Alaska.

This is a new sort of Missing that I have for her. It feels good, like I did the right thing somehow , perhaps in meeting her, or in letting her go. It feels ‘healthy’ to some extent. But we will see each other again. There was truth enough in that tired conversation to glean, and eventually, hopefully soon, this longing will fade into a tolerant patience to pick up wherever we left off, ideas blazing from the east and headed west, at least until later in the day.

whizzing past the window of cultural insight

19 December 2011 § 2 Comments

Being a traveler guarantees a certain distance from the inner workings of the cultures one is out to experience. Unless one spends a good deal of time living amongst the locals, learning the language and paying due attention to customs and the subtleties of people in a specific place, they likely will not find the cultural intimacy we tend to romantically, idealistically claim we want to experience while spending three or four days in a city of millions, exhausting museum tickets agents while they are at work as opposed to spending the evening in their home, two blocks away, building the bricks of culture we think we will find in the corridors of ancient buildings and in the art of long-dead painters.

If we see the local reality for one moment in the time that we pass through a country, we are as lucky as he who drinks blood in Kenya as if it were the fruit of the earth, or who beds down on the couch of a kind stranger and his family in rural Ireland.

But we must remember these as gestures, and therefore as the result of culture as well as contributing to it. For culture is not merely what a group of people make of themselves, but also what others make of them. The differences which separate these groups, the space in which we communicate and stumble between the seams of our respective worlds, hoping that the correct answer will appear as suddenly as we found ourselves wanting a better grasp on what our counterparts are thinking, and when it doesn’t, learning from the confusion and asking what tradition is when it comes to informal futbol games, for example, on basketball courts on lazy sunday afternoons. They’ll tell you, just like you would tell them if they looked as bewildered as you.

A small part of me wants to detach from what I know here, and become a cityhopper again, the one who learned little but the names of the streets he was crossing, or the birth year of an old poet. There is an ethnocentric safety in that distance, like looking into a telescope and seeing a red dot, and being told that what I see is in fact the planet Mars, the closest it will be to Earth in so many years, or ever has been, and then stepping down from the telescope seat and going out with your friends for pizza.

Sometimes I really miss that pizza. But my curiosity endures it; I want to make sure that what I am seeing is Mars, and then go there, and breathe the air and shop in the markets and learn how to ask not just where is the bathroom, but also may I join you for a drink also, and finally discover the secret behind your accent, or find out what filmed formed you, if that’s how it goes here. Or was is a farm, or a ghetto, or a pompous beach town on the Pacific coast?

Right now, my tico brother Jorge is standing out on the second-story balcony and watching the sunset. He had to check with me about that word. The new Blink 182 album is blasting, from his bedroom where I type, out the always-open door and into the gasolinescented city, which is surrounded by small mountains just daunting enough to cool the air off as it makes its way from the seas. He does this every day, as soon as he gets home. I’ve lived with him for three months and have never known this.

We’re always learning new things.

pura vida.

18 December 2011 § Leave a comment

I realized that I’ve been so quiet about my tico family that I’ve myself not written much about them, or thought about it, because up until recently the host family business felt like a business, a semi-formal transaction, and now that the house has emptied of university pretension, it feels more friendly now. there’s more peace in the fresh december air, the motnh of rest and drunkenness for costa rica, so I’m told by the guys I played a game of futbol with earlier, between early afternoon beers and conversation and now that I can’t speak english anymore, for who would understand me but one roommate Jorge, who leaves back to Germany in the morning, or Rainier, my awesomely drunk professor of spanish, from the southern nation of Boone, North Carolina, via Guanacaste?

Rainier pulled me out of my selfpity yesterday – he banged on my door with a bottle of beer, knocked the door open. what the fuck are you doing in here, he asks, in a snarling drawl unmistakably redneck. Of course I say these things with the utmost amount of affection and kindness, for I lived in western North Carolina for a day less than two years of education in life and other things not so glamourous. you see, the problem starts when we glamourize things and make them bigger than they are. then they get all out of proportion and distorted. addiction sets in. then it’s a desperate search for the unattainable, when before it was just a nice thing to have now and again. anyway. I digress.

He pulled me from the concrete cave that has been my pseudocell for nearly three months, and demanded I get a beer and sit down and talk to the people there whom I didn’t know, that no, I could not continue my letter writing or contemplate finishing the second chapter of Madame Bovary. It is estaba, not estuvo, he tells me sometimes, or corrects my pronunciation of some swear word I’d never use in English. And that’s saying quite a bit, because I like to swear almost as much as I like to talk.

wait. that doesn’t follow.
whatever. logic is flawed. this is Costa Rica. todos son pura vida aqui. it’s time to start traveling. like i keep saying. but I’m halfway done and where have I gone, what have I done? I have three notebooks, a novel and a blog to speak my words for me, while I do myself while walking through safer neighborhoods and towns up in the mountains. time to find the next thing. keep going. leave, too.

I thought I had a lot to write. Like I said, I’ve been doing a lot of that lately. But I think that I’m just going to live for a little while, and see what happens next.

Los últimos días

14 December 2011 § Leave a comment

there’s a girl whose name I do not know singing in the next computer lab. I see her at school often, and even more on the road many of the students walk to and from their tico host family’s homes. Their homes. Our homes. I see her at night at school, long after most people have gone home, coming out of the bathroom with a sad look on her face, or walking out of the mac labs  with the same look. I never know if she’s happy or sad or ambivalent or suffering or having the time of her life. I’ve never asked. But right now she’s tapping her long, skinny fingers on the desk and singing at the screen with the sort of abandon most of us reserve for the shower, or the car on the highway during a road trip through a state where no one will write home about how badly we sing. She reminds me of someone I once knew well, someone whose insecurities were as apparent as that she hadn’t looked in the mirror that morning, and if she had, she didn’t like what she saw. The sad thing is that nearly everyone I know in Costa Rica is flying back to the States in the next 48 hours, and come Saturday afternoon, I’m going to be on my own again, melting into the travelmode I’ve balanced with everyday life for the past couple of months.

Mamatica told me that I could stay until New Year’s, if I wanted to, and I thanked her and said I’d at least be around until the Osa Peninsula trip I’m taking with Rainier, my semi-formal Spanish teacher, and Mel, my tico brother, with whom I’ve seen a couple of hammering metal shows so far, and with whom I would like to return to San Jose in February to see Dimmu Borgir. It’s been some years since I’ve seen the black metal outfit that defined the beginnings of my love for metal, and things are cyclical, so I wouldn’t mind doing a so-many-years-later reunion show. Club Pepper’s, in San Jose, is my favorite venue since The Culture Room in Fort Lauderdale, or The Launchpad in Albuquerque, in terms of sound quality. The guys running the desk and stage at Pepper’s are efficient and consistent.

These last few days of school, typically known as Finals Week where I come from, Universidad is all but haunted by stressghosts of rich art students and nervous Americans missing home. The labs shut down promptly at 8 p.m., so the tall skinny girl and I will have to bail soon, to find some going-away party in the sidewalk cracks with free beer and Aesop Rock spinning records and wheels in the dead-end streets. We’ll have to forget about all the nonsense and the filtering of friends, because everything has been in a reluctant fast forward, but for a few weeks in the middle where things finally started to seem normal and settled and some of us actually started to like it here. We’ll pick apart the segments and the people we like, and gently dismiss those we met but never took the time to get to know, or wrote off immediately because they walked into our room during a party with their bad energy and arrogance, introduced themselves and sent a text, all from the foot of our paperscattered bed. Whatever the case, it’s a small school where everyone has seen each other and said hi at least once to everyone else, the ticos and the international students and the thick bold line between them, and the few brave souls that reached over with their respective foreign languages, however undeveloped, to form something tangible, even if it was for only a few minutes, or over a few beers, to communicate. This is not the end of an era: this is just the beginning.

The kids will go back home, to their winters and their families and what boyfriends and girlfriends they may still have, if they didn’t betray them with the sin of blind or drunk adventuring in faraway Costa Rica, and see then what they learned in the tropics. Some will talk about all the beer they drank, about how, one time, when a girl refused to take another shot, he kicked her in the knees (it was a joke, I promise!) and in her surprise, poured tequila down her throat. Others might remember a waterfall, and wonder if what they felt at the bottom of that cliff in Arenal was really real, or still applies to them at home. It does. Maybe some people learned a bit of Spanish and will take it home and never speak it again. After all, they might live in Minnesota or South Dakota and may never need it again. And that’s okay.

A few of us are straggling behind, hesitant (or just plain scared) to return to the culture which raised us, the one we’ve found so many flaws in since we’ve been gone from it, ready to partake in some serious traveltime, or with our families, or simply because we don’t know if we’ll ever return here, and we need an extra week to say goodbye. I have four months to say my goodbyes. I’m at my halfway point, an arbitrary destination where I have to gather up my things and move again to yet another, and another, until I find something that I find joy in, or someone else to spend a mountaintop sunrise with. There’s thrill in that, and the uncertainty that it will ever happen again is what drives me out of my dreams and onto another bus from the dirty city to the great heights and tranquil beaches and the jungles in between them. One person’s projected fear might keep me out of a certain country until someone else tells me that it’s beautiful. How can I then pass it up? How can you turn your back on beauty? Is the world full of it, or is there only so much, so you’d better take the opportunity as it comes? According to Trap City Real Estate, Every Thing Is Beautiful. I’m willing to accept that. I’ve seen a lot lately.

Tomorrow night is my program’s farewell dinner, likely at some expensive restaurant in Curridabat, to send us off in style, to talk about what we did and who we liked and who we didn’t and what we’re going back to, and how different it may be from what we left. But likely, it’ll just be a dinner between a few students whose friendships may or may not have survived three months in a country where we’ve all coped with not belonging in different ways.

There’s a small number of people I care to see before they leave, and even fewer who I care to spend time with before we’re to say goodbye. It’s been a good time. It hasn’t been great. But I’m one more semester down, halfway through my sophomore year in university, and taking a break for the spring to do some exploring. Figure out what I want. Find myself. you know, all that average-white-U.S. American-traveler cliché. But some of that’s me, and I feel right doing it, so let me. Eventually I’ll come around, and settle in to a city where I have a good job and a good relationship and a car that works and a credit card and a dog and a box of granola next to the flax seed and the vegan recipe book, which I’ll have bought as a joke on myself, and listen to an ipod during the day and check my facebook to tell you what I’m doing that day and upload pictures of my meals and my drinks and start writin lk ths bcuz i mis b-ing 13 n i 4got evrythin i lrnd in scool. I’ll go to work every day at 9 a.m. and eat Applebee’s for lunch and grab a Coors at the bar on the way home to my happy little family behind the picket fence in suburbia.

And one night, I’ll light a match, and leave again by moonlight, because that world is not the one to which I will belong, or have ever (though I couldn’t yet name you the one to which I do). I’ll go and look for it again, whatever it is I haven’t yet found, in the Congo or Malawi or Bali, Nepal or Bhutan, maybe another trip to Iceland, or by then I’ll be able to travel to the Hindu Kush and hike around until my eyes go blind from the epic landscapes that photographs couldn’t capture without a time machine and a sense of forever clipped onto the outside of my backpack.

Then I’ll be home again, hoping that you won’t worry if I’m doing okay or not, because I’m great, and this is what I needed, but hoping too that you will worry a little bit, because I do remember what you said, and I think about it sometimes, and don’t have to shake the thought from my head because it doesn’t hurt anymore to think about it, in fact it’s kind of nice to remember where I started from, and call it home, or something like it, and know that as long as I spend enough time away from the northern lights and mountains’ majesty, they’ll be there for me when I return, in the form of a high spring tide or midnightsummerlight, a fire up in the pass, or a chance to see the rapids that almost killed me once again. And then I’ll pick up the phone, and do something extraordinary.

until then.

Where Am I?

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