the first night (and day)

I’ve just turned 18 years old, and I am on my first trip abroad. (Or perhaps my second, if you count the spring break seven months earlier that I spent in Cancún, which I don’t, because back then you didn’t need a passport to go to Mexico, and I didn’t speak a word of Spanish either at the resort pool or at the local bars, the only places I went the entire week.)

I’ve just gotten off the plane in San José, Costa Rica. I should be at college, but six months earlier I had collapsed, a sobbing mess, on the floor of my bedroom when my mom told me that she and my dad couldn’t afford my dream of Brown University. Through my tears, I cursed the college counselor who had gotten me excited about Brown but had never warned me that the financial aid package might fall short — even after my mom’s negotiations with the admissions office.

I had earned a National Merit Scholarship to the University of Texas at Austin, where both my parents and my maternal grandparents had matriculated, and I had been accepted to its prestigious Plan II Honors Program. The award covered tuition and fees for four years. But I was 17 and wanted to get as far away from my parents as possible — not to mention not do anything remotely like what they had done.

Declaring it “unfair” that they were unwilling to pay $20,000 a year for my education, I announced that I wasn’t going to college after all — at least not right away. I deferred acceptance to UT and Plan II and arranged for my scholarship to go into effect the next fall. Then I used the earnings from my summer job as as administrative assistant at an oil and gas company — at a rate of $7.50 an hour, which I remember seemed like a fortune at the time — to sign up with a program called Interim.

Interim was a fairly unsophisticated, family-run program when I got involved, led still by its founder and his daughter. They connected me with the Centro de Educación Creativa, which accepted me as a volunteer for three months. The Centro was then a bilingual elementary school (it now goes up to grade 11) in Monteverde, a small mountain town in the country’s famed cloud forest. Upon arriving in San José, I was make my way to the Hotel Aranjuez. The next day, I would take the twice-daily bus to Monteverde, where a man named Chris, the school’s executive director, would meet the bus and take me to my new home.

But I’m still in the airport, paralyzed by the tasks that lay before me: I have to exchange money, and find a cab, and communicate my destination to the cab, and then spend the night by myself in a hotel. My mom later told me that putting me on the plane to San José was the hardest thing she had ever done. Of course, I was blissfully unaware of her concerns. Hell, I didn’t even know enough to be concerned myself. I was too excited about leaving Houston, about doing something different. It was only as the plane began to descend in Central America, a place I had never been and where I knew no one, that I began to wonder what exactly I was doing.

I don’t remember exchanging money and only vaguely recall the cab ride, which seemed to take forever (and to wind through some sketchy neighborhoods). Since I had no idea where the hotel was, I could only fervently hope that the cab driver was actually making his way to it.

I checked in — that Chris fellow made good on his word and had made a reservation in my name, as promised! — and was shown to my room. I remember the feeling of utter terror that I felt when the door closed and I was all alone in a foreign room in a foreign country. What had I been thinking?

I called my mom with her credit card and tried to hold back my tears — and my desire to beg her to let me come home again that night. I fell asleep crying into my pillow.

My bus wasn’t until 2:30 p.m. the next afternoon, and I spent the entire morning in the hotel. I tried to talk myself into at least walking around the neighborhood, but I was too scared. (It was a sketchy neighborhood!) I ate breakfast in the lobby/dining area and read until it seemed reasonable to call a taxi to take me to the bus station. I arrived an hour before the bus was scheduled to depart, and I waited, still terrified. (Did San José have nothing but sketchy neighborhoods?) The time of departure came and went, and there wasn’t even a sign of the bus. I began to panic. What if I had missed the bus? What if Chris had gotten the time wrong? What if everyone in Costa Rica was having a laugh at my expense and there was no bus to Monteverde?

At about 3, a taxi deposited at the station what was obviously another American student, and he seemed to be waiting for the bus to Monteverde, too. He had with him only small duffel bag and a guitar, and he sat down and began to pluck at its strings, totally unconcerned with a) the fact that he was late to the bus and b) the fact that there was no bus! His cool, collected calm grated on me in my disquiet. He noticed me and introduced himself. “You going to Monteverde?” Relieved, despite myself, to be able to talk to someone about my bus concerns, I opened the flood gates, confiding in him my theory that in all likelihood, the bus to Monteverde didn’t even exist!

He stared at me for a long second before snorting and bending back over his guitar. “We’re in a different time zone now,” he said drily. “It’s only 2 o’clock.”

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