The wisdom of a travelling ‘super-tramp’

Doug Firby and Lisa Monforton’s month-long adventure continues with the rambling road to our beach-side paradise. 

DAY 8 – Matapalo

MATAPALO, Costa Rica – This little hamlet is special, but our report on it will have to wait a day. Today’s blog will go back to Lisa’s recollection of our struggles to reach the Kura resort, high in the hills above the little beach town of Uvita:

We get to the near south west coast of Costa Rica for our next adventure. But we can’t get there. Well, not without a lot of will and walking.

We were told to “call ahead” when we got close to the Kura Design Villas – one of the swankiest resorts of the Cayuga Collection, which graciously hosted us. It’s located about 1,000 feet above sea level on a twisty gravel road with a pitch that in some places is 30 degrees.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t call ahead because we couldn’t get cell phone reception. We were officially unplugged.

Our rental Hyundai Tucson claimed to be 4WD but it was not up to the task. We were sliding backwards halfway up this crazy, steep road. I said to Doug, “I’ll get out and start walking.” The GPS indicated it was just another 700 metres to our destination. That’s not far, I thought, but 40 minutes later in 35C heat there was no sign of Kura but plenty of beautifully perched casas along the way.

Finally, I spotted a gate with the distinctive symbol of the resort – I’d finally arrived.

The reception looked at me aghast. “You walked?”

And there I was in white flowy pants and flipflops, now dusty from the road. My hair was pasted to my head; my face was dripping with sweat from the effort in the midday heat.

I’d arrived at one of the most posh resorts in Costa Rica.

They looked like they felt sorry for me as I explained the problem. Doug was back down the mountain, waiting for the driver who was supposed to meet us. We couldn’t tell him where we were.

They gave me a cold lemongrass-infused towel and a delicious tropical drink, which I asked to include “alcohol, please.”

As I stood looking out at the exquisite view over the infinity pool that blended with the ocean below, surrounded by birds in song, I concluded the arduous journey up the road was worth it. This is one of the most amazing resorts I have ever stayed in.

Created by a Costa Rican architect, this was a modernist-meets-minimalist paradise.

The next two days, we felt like movie stars. I even thought I spotted Billy Bob Thornton leaving the pool as I arrived. Whoever he was, he never graced us with his presence again, but we were happy to take his spot on the leather chaise lounges and soak up the pura vida in this posh perch.

| Lisa Monforton

DAY 9 – Matapalo

When you’re unplugged, you’re unplugged. It happened to us in the figurative and literal sense.

This tiny hamlet midway up the west coast of Costa Rica is great for helping visitors unplug.

Initially, however, it appeared that our selected destination was a mistake. As we turned off the Costanera highway and drove through the hamlet, our hearts began to sink. It appeared we were headed down a cow path to nowhere. Yet, a couple minutes more driving toward the beach yielded a magical little world, rich in tree cover, eclectic homes and one of the largest expanses of beach to be found anywhere.

There is a sense of community here that you can feel in your bones. It’s the sort of place where you believe you can leave your doors unlocked without having to worry about the consequences. In the backyard of our little B&B, Casa Aba, Capuchin monkeys leaped from tree to tree, as though entertaining on cue.

Naturally, we were warned to keep food out of reach of these clever little thieves.

The staff, too, seemed unplugged from the basics of the tourist industry. A lovely older woman who didn’t speak a word of English seemed flummoxed when we arrived, was unable to show us to our room and was ready to send us on our way. It took a few quick phone calls to get the reservation sorted.

It was a stay worth fighting for. A trip to the beach just after 5:30 revealed one of the most stunning sunsets to be found anywhere. I looked at Lisa and said, “I think we have found our home in Costa Rica.”

Such beauty comes at a price, of course, part of which was Internet that pretty much didn’t work. The browser window spun and spun for minutes at a time trying to load even simple email messages. In frustration, we finally admitted that there would be “no work today”. It is surprising to admit how good that made us feel.

I’m not ready to admit I could be unplugged for a whole month. But for one day? No hay problema!

DAY 10 – Samara

SAMARA, Costa Rica – Between us and another stunning Costa Rican beach ran a small estuary. At first glance, it seemed an easy ford, not even knee deep. Except for one thing.

To our right was a small hand-painted sign: Advertencia. Cocodrilos en el estuario. You don’t need to be proficient in Spanish to figure out what that means. The sign, at least, suggested a trip across the estuary could risk an encounter with a creature that has an appetite for anything with red blood running in its veins.

As we paused and considered our options, I tried to assure Lisa the sign was a marketing gimmick created by the tourism bureau to add excitement for touristas like us. She wasn’t buying it.

She asked me if I really wanted a one-legged wife. I told her the prospect sounded kind of interesting.

Frozen at a standoff, we noticed an older, thin man approaching on a beat-up bicycle. In halting English, he explained that yes, there were crocodiles in the vicinity but if we crossed at a certain point, we had little to worry about.

Not surprisingly, Lisa encouraged me to go first. I did, keeping an eye out for any tell-tale movements in the water. It felt like a scene out of a Tarzan movie.

Then, it was Lisa’s turn. Encouraged by our sun-baked rail of a new friend, she gingerly stepped into the water and picked her way across. Courage, John Wayne once said, is being scared out of your wits and charging ahead anyway.

The trip to Playa Beuna Vista was worth the worry. It was deserted, except for three fishermen continuously casting lines into the churning surf, a dog that seemed to love charging into the waves, and a tourist at the far end of the beach taking a surf lesson. As the sun dipped in the west, we could tell this would be yet another jaw-dropping end-of-day spectacle.

Our friend told us he was a cartographer who had been educated at the University of Alberta. Now retired, he spends his days exploring the beaches. He bid us buenas tardes, and pushed his bike on down the beach with no destination that we could see. We had asked his name and then promptly forgot it.

It was another lesson in pura vida. This is the life, as one translation goes. You just have to stop and take it in.

DAY 11 – Samara

Pura vida. People say it when they run into each other in the street. It seems to work as “hello” and “goodbye”, “thank you” or a show of affection. It’s the all-purpose catch phrase.

Which got us to wondering where the heck it came from. It turns out the words pura vida find their roots in a 1956 Mexican movie of the same name.

The movie tells the story of a kind of modern day Don Quixote. A luckless man named Melquiades Ledezma, played by comedian Antonio Espino “Clavillazo”, is being expelled from his village for being the source of bad luck. His misfortunes continue in his new neighbourhood, where he ends up being branded a thief and accused of provoking a fire.

Melquiades, however, is optimism personified, constantly uttering the phrase pura vida as a way of expressing his positive outlook on life. Eventually, his luck turns when he gets a winning lottery ticket worth a million pesos.

This B-movie eventually worked its way under the skin of Costa Ricans, and by the 1970s use of the term pura vida had become widespread – even among people who had never heard of the movie.

Indeed, a recent article in The Tico Times (tico means “local”, as in Costa Rican) exposed the roots of the phrase as though it was a national scandal – scandalous because the movie originated in Mexico. Costa Ricans are sensitive to the Mexican influences on their culture.

By the 1980s, the idiom had come to reflect the peaceful atmosphere of the country, which stood in sharp contrast to other Central Americans nations that had been rocked by wars and other suffering, according to Victor Manuel Sánchez Corrales, a researcher at the University of Costa Rica.

Today, as I encounter ticos using this now familiar greeting, I look at them and wonder how many know where it came from. It doesn’t seem to matter – it’s taken on a life of its own.

DAY 12 –Samara

The penny finally dropped at approximately noon today on a playa beside the heart of downtown Samara, a hamlet so small it only takes a couple of days before you start to recognize people.

Folks like Bob and Jennifer, from upstate New York. Bob left us with a little joke so we wouldn’t forget his name. “What happens when you have no arms and legs in the ocean?” he asked. “You bob.”

This momentarily confused me because this Bob was in full possession of all four. However, as I write this, I realize that I will likely remember his name long after I forget about his double chin.

My personal thunderclap happened after nearly three hours of luxuriating under a palm tree, occasionally cooling off in the ocean and making talk that was deliberately small.

As would-be inductees into the Cult of the Unplugged, this is what we’re supposed to be doing. Nothing.

Sunny, off-the-grid vacations are all about this: wasting time. Doing absolutely nothing to improve your social media standing or cater to your impulse to work or to ease your sense of guilt over your studied idleness. (And studied it still is.)

I looked at Lisa and uttered my epiphany, so superficially obvious and yet simultaneously profound. She allowed that exactly the same thought had occurred to her.

Perhaps when I was 16, combing the beaches around Grand Bend, Ont., I knew this – too long ago now to say for sure. But a half-century on, I had forgotten that doing nothing is a perfectly acceptable way to behave. Of course, it means that you won’t be maximizing your income-earning potential or padding your LinkedIn profile. On the other hand, it also means your blood pressure may go on a vacation as well.

Lisa and I made a pact this afternoon. This will be our new daily pattern of behaviour. Get up. Have coffee. Pack some snacks and head for the beach. Come back. Jump under the outdoor shower. Hit the pool. Read. Maybe finish the day off with just enough energy to write a short blog post, like this one. Rinse and repeat.

Can we bar the hounds of work-guilt at the door? It’s worth a shot.

DAY 13 – Samara

Rachel and Hannah are friends who met as baristas at the Heine Brothers Coffee chain in Louisville (which, they correct us, is pronounced “Lew-ville”), Kentucky. On an adventure-seeking whim, they bought plane tickets to Central America and planned a whirlwind tour of Guatemala, Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

The day we met them was the first time in their two-week adventure that they planned to stay in one place for more than one night. They were feeling pretty good about it.

Rachel and Hannah are the types of travellers Lisa and I have typically been but are trying hard not to be this time. They are packing so much into their travels that they now realize their days are filled with planning, fretting and engineering transportation. That leaves relatively little time for relaxation, sightseeing and cultural indulgences.

“We were going to go to El Salvador, too,” says Hannah. “But then we thought it might be a little too much.”

Hannah admitted that her mom is anxious about this Central American tour. To help ease her mom’s mind, she downloaded an app called Life 360, which reports (via cell phone) where you are anytime you’re within Wi-Fi reach.

Vacations, in our view, take two forms: the lay-on-the beach all-inclusive sort in which you just go to soak in some antidote to Canada’s interminable winters; and, the adventurous see-all-you-can visits to bucket list destinations.

This trip to Costa Rica aims to be a bit of both: a lot of down time, soaking up the sun and riding the waves but also an exploration of an environment and culture we know only from what we have read. The reality of any destination is always much different than the image in your mind. Costa Rica is no exception to the rule.

The biggest and most pleasant surprise is how comfortable Canadians (and Americans) can feel here – relatively safe, able to communicate (because Costa Ricans speak some English) and laid back.

Rachel and Hannah are spending 10 days here. Perhaps that will be an opportunity to discover the deeper meaning of pura vida. We’ve been here for two weeks and we’re making slow and steady progress.

DAYS 14 and 15 Samara

Living the super-tramp dream

Thomas has been a tramp since he left home in the Netherlands at age 20. He was by his own description a super-tramp, inspired by Welsh poet and writer W.H. Davies who published an autobiography in 1908 called The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp.

In his book, Davies recounts his adventures between 1893 and 1899 when he travelled the roads and railroads of the U.S. (and later Canada) learning how to survive on a bit-work and begging from the hardened men who had done it for years.

Thomas’s friends, who followed his exploits, gave him the same tag: Super-Tramp, as he wandered from places as distant as South America and Asia. Eventually, it struck him that he did not want to be “that guy at 40 working at a bar.” Instead, he decided he would open a hostel that would incorporate the best features of the hostels he had stayed in around the world.

At a friend’s suggestion, he travelled to Samara on the west cost of Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula and found the chill spot to fulfil his dream. In 2013, he bought a house a kilometre outside of town, planted 300 trees, and by 2014 opened Camp Supertramp.

Camp Supertramp is not just a cheap place (US$14 in low season) to bunk. Thomas deliberately located it outside of the town core, so that guests could wake up to the sound of roosters crowing and monkeys howling, rather than trucks roaring down a street. There is a sociable atmosphere in which guests immediately bond as friends and do activities together.

Thomas describes the hostel on his website as “a bohemian basecamp for surfers, surgeons, students, dropouts, professors, nappers, slackers, backpackers, artists, musicians, scientists, engineers and all other travellers (who) want to hide from reality, their parents or their children.”

On the day I visited, if there were surgeons and professors in the crowd, they were well-disguised. Instead an American in his 30s sat on the front porch strumming his guitar. Inside, a couple of volunteers in their early 20s were handling the bookings (volunteering in exchange for a break on rent is de rigueur). At the entrance sits a dusty 1971 VW bus which Thomas vows he’ll get running again one day, to take guests around town. A half-dozen gas-engine assisted bicycles are also parked near the front, used for tours of nearby beaches.

Leo, from Sweden, says the appeal of the hostel is its homeyness.

“It feels like you’re stepping into someone’s living room,” he says. “It has a very nice vibe.”

Thomas takes me on a tour of the house, equipped with 16 beds – including hanging bunk beds in the Monkey Room – two kitchens, two bathrooms and all the basics budget travellers need. Outdoors is a volleyball court and a site for what Thomas hopes will one day be a pool.

Starting a business in Costa Rica was easier than it might be in Asia, he said, but there have been personal losses. One of them was his beloved dog Jukebox, which became “a snack” for a crocodile while it was swimming across the estuary at nearby Playa Buena Vista. It happened while Thomas was back in the Netherlands.

Thomas, now 37, is happy to declare he has “no wife, no girlfriends and no mortgage,” but he is not just a world-wandering tramp. In the Netherlands, he is a writer for television projects; he goes back for months when he needs to recharge his supply of cash. Nor can he see himself ever being a permanent resident of this laid-back beach community. In his dreams, there will be a Camp Supertramp on every continent.

“It’s a good base,” he says, “but I don’t think I’ll ever want to settle here.”

Once a world-traveller, it seems, always so. This may be the ultimate manifestation of the unplugged ideal.

Doug Firby and Lisa Monforton are partners in Big Tree Communications. Firby is also President of Troy Media Digital Solutions and Publisher of Troy Media.