Sweet Serendipity

What Matters Most

After nearly ten months of travel, I still love beaches and waterfalls and volcanoes and rainforests, but those things are all pretty common in this part of the world. What feels truly special is connection. Some people go to Costa Rica for the surf, some go for the sloths, but the highlight of my visit was a chance encounter in a little town called Grecia and the week that followed.

Uprooted and Disgruntled

My last couple of months in Colombia were really low-key. Hanging out mostly with locals, speaking a lot of Spanish, and generally living a pretty ordinary life. But after five months, it was time to continue moving, so I packed up my backpack and headed to Costa Rica. I spent the first couple of days in a beach town called Uvita. Costa Rica is a lot more popular with foreign tourists, and it was jarring to suddenly be surrounded by people on vacation from the US and Europe. Uvita felt like Latin America Lite.

When I left Colombia, I was just starting to feel really comfortable speaking Spanish, so the idea of speaking English with my countrymen wasn’t too appealing. On top of that, I hurt my knee in a minor bike accident during my last week in Colombia. It was still healing for the whole time I was in Costa Rica. Hiking is normally my activity of choice, but I wasn’t able to do any. To add insult to injury, everything costs about three times what it would in Colombia. Within a couple of days, I was feeling frustrated and fatigued.

Please don’t take my whining as a complete dismissal of Uvita, it’s actually quite nice.

It was interesting to notice my dissatisfaction, and to have a conversation with myself. What is this feeling? Disconnection, a salty attitude. Where’s it coming from? I’m in a setting that doesn’t feel genuine, and isn’t lining up with my values and goals. I’m spending more money than I want to, and I can’t do my favorite free outdoor activity in a place renowned for its natural beauty. What can I do about it? Change up the scenery, get off the tourist track. Where can I go next that would feel more aligned with my goals and my needs? Small towns.

So I kind of arbitrarily chose a pueblito to visit. I had read that Sarchí is known for its artisans, and the name looks like Sachi, and it was located in the general path I planned to take up north. But when I looked for accommodations, there was nothing inexpensive available, so I booked a hostel dorm room in a nearby town called Grecia.

The Big Influence of Small Choices

In my long-term solo travel life, each decision I make presents me with a whole web of new decisions and experiences. Everything I choose puts me on a specific route through time and space. This entire trip has been me stringing that route together like an intricate, delicate necklace. Sometimes I’m constructing it based on plans and research, like assembling jewelry based on a design I’ve drawn out, but sometimes it’s all whims and gut feelings, like finding a really special bead on the ground and incorporating it just because it feels right. It’s not always orderly, but it’s definitely beautiful.

Even when a decision seems small and inconsequential, I’ve found that it can put me in exactly the right place at the right time to have an out-sized impact on what follows. The confluence of a string of small decisions and sprinkle of pure chance have been responsible for some of the most meaningful connections and special experiences I’ve had. I wrote about this briefly when I was reflecting on how I ended up spending Christmas with a Colombian family because of a chance meeting on the other side of the country. Having encounters and making connections like that makes me feel so fortunate, and I’ve learned to lean into that luck and follow the rabbit hole whenever I get the opportunity.

The Unique Joy of Coincidence

As I arrived at the bus station to leave Uvita, I ran into an Australian-Greek traveler friend I’d met in Colombia three months earlier. We’d first met in December on a bus from Medellín to a small town called Jardín in Colombia. We spent a few minutes catching up in the Uvita bus station before he had to go. As I sat on my bus to San José, I was thinking a lot about how special a run-in like that feels in the context of my necklace of travel decisions. I’ve had a couple of other similar encounters on this trip. In July in Guatemala, I made friends with a couple from the UK, and I ran into them three months later in a shopping mall in Perú. In Colombia in March, I spotted a guy I’d met in a hostel in November.

I love these. They feel so improbable. But maybe they aren’t. When I was nineteen, I ran into a classmate from Hawaii on the street in Amsterdam. It was so exciting. Relating the story years later to my then-boyfriend, he pointed out that maybe it isn’t so crazy that people who have certain things in common would make similar choices that put them in the same places. After the Uvita bus station encounter, I realized that what’s really improbable is that the two of us even noticed each other. I bet these coincidences happen all around us all the time, but we usually don’t look up at the right moment, and we pass right by, like ships in the night.

Delighted to see a familiar face in Amsterdam 2011

More recently, I learned about the concept of “luck surface area,” which says that we essentially have the power to make ourselves more “lucky.” We can intentionally position ourselves to encounter more serendipitous things. Travel is exactly that kind of luck creation. I’m doing more things in more places, and meeting more people than usual. So it follows that I’d have more opportunities for unlikely encounters and experiences. So, while I’m traveling for an extended period, it’s not so surprising that I’d cross paths more than once with others who are living the same kind of life. But understanding the logic doesn’t make it feel any less magical. In fact, it kind of makes me feel like I’m magical. Beautiful things are happening because I’m making them.

When Paths Converge

I arrived in San José in the afternoon, and took an Uber to another bus station, where I arrived just in time to catch a local bus to Grecia. I’d been sitting on the bus for a few minutes when someone got on who I thought I recognized. “Mari?” Mari did a double take, looking as surprised as I felt. It had been about 15 years since I’d last seen her, when we were in high school together in Hawaii. There was a lot of traffic on the way to Grecia–where it turns out Mari has been living for 7 years–so she and I had a lot of time to talk.

Mari and I weren’t friends in high school, but the school we attended was really small, so everyone knew everyone. We’re friends on Facebook, so we had some awareness that we’d also gone on to attend universities a couple of hours apart on the East Coast of the US. We talked a little bit about our reasons for making that choice, and found that they were similar. So perhaps we have some essential commonalities. And maybe that’s why, more than a decade later, we found ourselves on the same rush hour bus headed into rural Costa Rica.

Warmly Welcomed

Mari invited me to come over to her mother-in-law’s house for dinner. I happily accepted, and an hour later, I was making sushi rolls with a Costa Rican twist (plátanos and chicken), hanging out and speaking Spanish with Mari, her husband, his brothers, and their mom. On the bus, Mari had told me that Costa Rica is supposed to be one of the easiest places to make friends as a newcomer, and I believe it. I had planned to spend a night or two in the area, but I had such a good time in Grecia that I ended up extending my stay in my hostel, day by day, for a whole week.

Sushi costarricense

Mari, her husband, and their family took me in immediately and completely, and they all made me feel so welcome. These people didn’t know who I was and had no prior notice that I was coming. Nonetheless, without batting an eye, they had me over every day for meals and family hangouts at their house. All my earlier frustration and dissatisfaction quickly melted away when I was tucked into the fold of their family life.

They included me in all their plans. We made art, watched sunsets, sang karaoke, harvested vegetables, and had weird, deep, silly, philosophical conversations (in Spanish!). In a week they showed me so many wonderful things about Grecia and the surrounding area that I would never have found on my own. I felt comfortable and at home. The landscapes in that area even look like my actual hometown of Waimea. And though Mari and I barely interacted in the time we spent together in Waimea, it was incredibly special to cross paths again and find ourselves so compatible, having developed so many things in common in the intervening years.

Let’s Not Say “Fate”

I’ve been thinking a lot about free will and determinism lately, concepts I’ve found really intellectually challenging in the past. I think my understanding of them has shifted quite a bit recently, and maybe that’s a topic for another time. Suffice it to say that I have a hard time believing there is any intentional force guiding us into these situations. We might very well be living in a deterministic universe, but I still hesitate to call anything “fate.” Nonetheless, I love coincidences, and the electric feeling they produce in my pattern-hunting homo sapiens brain.

And though I don’t believe that there’s someone pulling the strings, I’m not a spiritual vacuum. I’m quick to acknowledge how powerful it is to follow my needs, intuition, and whims. It’s like cracking the code to living, and suddenly everything snaps into harmony and resonance. I had been feeling out of sorts, so I did some introspection, made some intentional adjustments, and immediately had an extraordinary encounter. Then I leaned into that luck, followed the rabbit hole a little, and I ended up with a whole family of new friends.

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Inspiring! Mahalo!