With 5% battery left on my phone, it was surprising how relaxed I was given that I hadn’t realized during the 6+ hour bus ride to Puerto Viejo that I didn’t know where I was going upon arrival. A bit of a “whoopsie” moment though it turned out to be nice as I quickly found my smile during that extra time sitting there once pulling into town and waiting at the Rasta-themed bar/bus station next to the ocean. Soaking in the sounds of the surrounding palm trees rustling in the light breeze and taking in the smell of the blue water a few feet from me, I reveled in the sunshine of about 80° with mild humidity and knew as soon as I had taken note of all the stray dogs who not only looked as if in impressive health but also as if smiling that I had found my kind of place.
It was a nice couple hours though I was ready to leave once finally reaching one of the hostel owners where I was to be volunteering via a traveler networking website called Workaway. Fifteen minutes later, with my phone at 1%, a sweetheart of a man from Spain, on the smaller side and with a head full of black hair that reminded me of the slightly longer styles surfers wore back home, drove up flashing a dazzling smile and charming wide-eyed expression. A feature that I was to quickly find out always made it seem as though he was excited and paying attention, though the reality was that a lot of the time he was more caught up in his own intensity and thoughts. I instantly liked Hector and soon would also his darling and much more laid back (though worldly and experienced) tico wife, Mary.
Sadly, what happened from there in regard to the “volunteering” I was to do was upsettingly opposite of that first impression. As Hector gave me a quick rundown of what was expected of me, it became apparent that they had no interest in honoring the terms I came under in regard to food being provided and volunteering expectations set to be five hours a day, five days a week. Instead they expected six days a week, often for six hour shifts, and no food. Even worse, they had no interest in at at least meeting halfway when I pointed it out. I was instead told that they needed me to be happy and that if I wasn’t, they “understood” if I needed to move on. AKA: smile and take it or get out. No lube provided.
An unintentionally insulting comment from Hector about how there were plenty of volunteers who wanted the work was a lovely touch, as was the convenient ignoring of my comments about how I had already structured the rest of my trip around staying at that hostel and, as such, had already invested the time and money to get there, but did unfortunately prove to be true. Something I was quick to learn after asking around to other “volunteers” whose responses opened my eyes to how it really did seem to be a part of the lifestyle of how some backpackers traveled. Strange to find out given that the cost of a bed for the night was less than I’d make in an hour back home.
I did debate leaving. I had even gone to check out another cool-looking treehouse hostel down the street by the name of the Blue Butterfly Hotel with my tail between my legs. My bigger-picture goal of cultural immersion and to give back to the local community had been shattered. Reality at Kinkaju (and other hostels using free traveler labor) was that I was not only being taken advantage of but also taking much-needed work away from locals. Harsh reality check of my ignorance. Whoopsie.
I did end up staying there after all. The reasons being, besides the details I had mentioned to Hector above, that there was a new litter of kittens that had been born two weeks before. No surprise and nothing new that I’m a sucker for fur-babies. The second reason was friends I made starting with a wonderful French woman named Alexandra who was staying as a paying guest. Telling her I’d at least hang on as long as she was there, we soon made friends with many other Frenchies who randomly came to stay as well. I also bonded with a sweet little Brazilian chica named Andressa who was to come on as another volunteer a few days later to replace an Argentinian woman named Kinga whose hair was long and interestingly almost fully grey on top at 32 years old. A drawer and artist, on her last night we had the kind of refreshing chat over a bottle of wine (that is arguably my favorite part of travel) about the challenges in life of being an artist and traveler. Also about how she was supposed to leave a couple weeks earlier but aslo hadn’t wanted to take off on the mama kitty, Kinka, before the kittens were born and settled. Cute.
Reality from that point was that I just got comfortable.
Stepping back to that first day of my arrival, I had been exhausted and deliriously thankful when Hector had told me to take it easy before starting work the next day. A time I happily used to get out an (forever behind) blog post and to try to get a grip on groggy moments of sleep-deprived silliness such as momentary panic over incorrectly thinking I had lost all my makeup and sunscreen. A level of disorientation that made even more sense the morning after, as I had experienced a few of the strange episodes (focal seizures, anxiety attacks…who really knows what they are) in my sleep that always made me pretty fuzzy-brained the day before. An uncommon addition to those episodes was nightmares that included my dad taking over when I was trying to drive a motorhome and my sister taking the food I was trying to eat. Sister syndrome!
It wasn’t ideal but it was real. I was learning. And finally at a spot I could settle into for the next couple weeks. A time when I was to dance more, both metaphorically and physically, than I had in years. Especially after one of those happy stray pup’s crawled right up into my lap.