. . . Sounds like the beginning of a joke or a mystery novel, right? Not really. It was the beginning of my vacation.
I do not believe in happenstance. The people who cross our path, for better or for worse, are usually supposed to be there. Yes, I leave room for doubt and the possibility of error. But, I prefer to believe there is a divine dance we all follow, unbeknownst to us, that leads us to our lessons as well as our good.
So when I found myself at the top of a Costa Rican mountain with nine strangers, four guides and my two sons, I should have been paying attention. I wasn’t. Perhaps too focused on the task at hand, safely navigating my body hurtling at 35 M.P.H. down a small steel cable, thousands of feet above the rain forest floor. Understandable, right?
We began as total strangers, grouped in twos and threes, all of us looking like gringos who spend too much time on cell phones and e-mail. All a bit stressed, a bit pale and a bit more than just a little nervous about how much we actually comprehended of the 10-minute lesson on how not to get stuck in the middle of a zip line with no way out (sans rappelling backwards to the next tree platform).
We rode the tractor up the mountain in near silence, taking in the scenery and lost in our own thoughts. As they harnessed my youngest up for the first line, the nervous joking began. I was the first adult to take the leap after him. Just before I jumped off of the platform, I looked back and said to my compadres, “Remember, the first one who laughs if I scream has to face me on the next platform. I’ll be waiting for you.” My eldest tells me after I’d made it halfway down with nary a whimper, one of the men said, “I’m really surprised. I thought she’d scream.” We were bonding already.
The first adult to come after me was an IT specialist from Boston, on a guys’ trip with two of his friends. His face pale as a sheet, with a look of sheer terror, he exited the first line with a sigh of relief. Until he saw the second line. They lull you with a rather calm first line, close to the tree canopy. The second line crosses a chasm at least three times as long and with a view down that seems to stretch for miles. I, on the other hand, was feeling pretty good—exhilarated even. But, all too familiar with being a scaredy cat, I engaged him in conversation to calm him. Found out he was indeed, terrified. But had come from Boston to “do it all” in Costa Rica. I applauded his bravery, and my boys and I cheered him on before we took off for the next stop.
With only room for three to four people on each tiny platform, we zip lined in shifts. But, we met in the middle on an outcropping of land, halfway down the mountain. They gave us water and a few minutes to regroup. Each of the men coming off of the line asked my boys in chagrined fashion, “Which one of you zip lined upside down and backwards?” As my eldest proudly raised his hand, the men shook their heads. Our Latin guides were teasing them about being bested by a thirteen-year-old. A woman in our group chose to do the same as my son, a mother herself on vacation without her kids. We gave her a standing ovation.
By the time we reached the bottom of the mountain, we had braved more than a few severe cases of nerves, a hornets’ nest with hundreds of angry insects, and a couple of stalled runs by beefy guys who choked and hit the brakes too early. I’d learned that our guide, Ronnie, had a two-year-old son with only 40 percent brain capacity. That the couple who had come on vacation together didn’t quite know each other as well as they’d thought. By the time we finished our ride, he was ready to throw her camera down the mountain and she was frustrated by his slow, lumbering ways. That the three friends on a guys’ trip had known each other since they were twelve years old.
But we weren’t done. Minutes after finishing the zip line runs, we all hopped on horses for a ride up the muddy mountain. My boys and I kept getting separated (due in large part to El Capitan, my horse, who lived up to his bossy name). Our fellow travelers, feeling a bit like family now, helped guide my boys and keep an eye on them.
I got riding tips from a woman on vacation with her husband who owned a horse farm in the States. Her husband dove in to catch my son as he slid down a waterfall and came up sputtering. The daredevil mother who had braved the zip line upside down stopped me at the falls to ask me if I was traveling alone with my boys. I was. Her words still touch me: “I did the same with my boys after my divorce, but I was not brave enough to bring them on my own. I came with another mother and her kids. You are amazing for having the guts to do this—and they’ll remember that for the rest of their lives.” She turned to my boys and said, “You have a rock star mother. She’s just about the coolest I’ve met.” I teared up, thinking how nice it would be if they could hear that from their father—but took it from a total “stranger” nonetheless. We encouraged our less than adventurous IT specialist to take the plunge down the falls, particularly after my nine-year-old did it. With much encouragement, he finally did—and beamed when he was done. I stayed behind to hike back up from the waterfall to our horses with him, as he cursed himself for not being in better shape.
When we returned to the ranch, there were no long goodbyes. We all smiled at each other and hopped into our separate vans for the rides back to our respective hotels. And yet, there was a magic about that day. A sharing that doesn’t always happen in our city lives, where we work and play with select groups of our own choosing, too busy checking our phones to pay much attention to the people we are in line with, sit on the bus with, eat dinner next to.
We ran into the couple who owned the horse farm at the airport. We smiled and wished each other a good trip, but our reserve was back in play. We were heading home, no longer on a Costa Rican mountain sharing a daredevil adventure.
Such a shame.