Lessons Learned From Traveling – How Ziplining In Costa Rica Taught Me To Live In The Present

COSTA RICA

Heather Markel, Writer, Speaker, Photographer, Traveler, Business Strategist

I never expected this experience.

It was the scariest, most exhilarating feeling I’ve ever experienced. Sliding above the trees, like some sort of superman-vampire simultaneously took my breath away and scared the shit out of me. It was almost as scary as everything that led up to that moment.

Mere weeks before deciding to hang from a cable high in the air, I quit my job. Talk about plunging in to the unknown. The irony is, I had a safety net of savings when I quit, but if I fell off this cable, there was nothing to save me.

Paihia at sunrise

A beach on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica. Photo by Heather Markel, Copyright 2020. All Rights Reserved.

I thought the moment of quitting my job would be a defining moment in my life. After ten years of talking about it, and having braved telling my mother my plans, telling my boss ended up surprisingly anti-climatic. The real drama started when I realized I could go anyplace on earth, and had to choose one place, to start. Weeks of torment followed. Eventually, realizing I had to return six weeks later for jurty duty, I decided to start in Costa Rica. In typical American-vacation style, I planned two weeks there, and then figured I’d hop off to Peru and Argentina for two weeks each. Instead, I was transformed by my travel experiences. For the next while, I’ll be attempting to relate my travel experiences to the meaning and transformation they have taught me. I’ve realized for a while now that what truly inspires me about travel, more than seeing some of the most amazing places I have, are the people I meet, the feelings I have, and the lessons I take away from it all. These are all the feelings and lessons that were missing from my corporate job. The ones I didn’t know I was looking for, but ended up finding me. And so I begin with my first travel adventure!

Up until this moment, I only took one or two week vacations. So, it hadn’t yet dawned on me that this wasn’t, in fact, a vacation. Before I knew what happened, I had booked up the first two weeks of hotels, shuttle buses and activities. I had to stop myself from booking more, and only did by remembering I wanted to try “go with the flow” travel. I flew to Costa Rica’s Liberia airport from New York, via Atlanta. On the flight from Atlanta, I felt like I hit the happy jackpot. I could literally feel the high vibes drifting around all the passengers. I felt like I was finally in the right place, at the right time. I sat next to Courtney and Jakim (the first couple on my Cool People page!) A short while into the flight, I realized I had left my wallet on the chair I was sitting on in the Atlanta airport. I momentarily flipped out. Then I realized there was nothing I could do about it (thank you Buddhism for teaching me that if you can’t do anything about it, there’s no point worrying!). Then I decided I couldn’t possibly have been that silly. I dug deeper into my bag and found my wallet. Phew. Epiphany in that moment: “Everything you travel with can be easily replaced, except the credit cards, which you need to replace everything. Try not to lose them!

Standing on line to clear immigration in Costa Rica, my heart leapt. I had never felt that before. A voice that sounded like it came from my heart, thanked me for following it to this moment. 

Thank goodness, I had done some resesarch beforehand, and knew that the immigration officer would want to see proof I planned to leave Costa Rica within the time my tourist visa allowed. I showed her the printed bus ticket I had purchased from Costa Rica. I did not tell her that I probably would’t be on that bus. (Pro tip – research, in advance, whether the countries you’re traveling to require an exit visa. It’s called “proof of onward travel.” A simple Google search for the countries you’re traveling to with the words “does XX require proof of onward travel” should put you in the know.)

My passport was stamped, and I ignored all the various taxi drivers since I had pre-booked a shuttle service. Once outside, I realized it was January and really hot. If I had been in New York, I’d be freezing. Another good decision I made! The driver took me all the way to Guanacaste. Along the way I spotted lush vegetation, cows, and something called ziplining. I asked the driver what that was. When he explained about the hanging from a thread really high up, I scoffed at people’s stupidity. I declared that I would never do that! I later ate those words…

A sloth at a sanctuary in Costa Rica. Photo by Heather Markel, Copyright 2020. All Rights Reserved.

I met Maggie and Lloyd on the Interbus from Guanacaste to La Fortuna. We became fast friends and ended up doing a Hanging Garden tour together. While following our attractve male guide for the day (I’m not sure what it is about traveling solo and tour guides, but, it’s a thing) we heard howling overhead. It seemed to happen in regular intervals, and was distinctly human. The energy cascaded through us as they passed. Such deep happiness and accomplishment and confidence beamed around us. I looked at Maggie and Lloyd. We agreed, we had to try ziplining. Shit, I was really going to be that stupid. I didn’t tell my mom.

Maggie, Lloyed and I at the Hanging Gardens in La Fortuna. Photo by Heather Markel, Copyright 2020. All Rights Reserved.

We decided on Selvatura Park in Monteverde. It seemed the least “extreme sports” of all our options. Plus, it has a hummingbird park where you can feed the hummingbirds and we all wanted to see it. We were suited up, which was basically a strap around us to clip a pulley, and a heavy glove so we cold grip the cable as we slid down. Oh, and a helmet. I wasn’t too reassured. In fact, as we drove to the first cable, I got really shaky and thought about turning back. Except, I was told, I couldn’t. The first cable was low enough that I realized I’d only break a few bones if I fell. So, I did it. Then the second, then the third cable. By this point, I couldn’t lift my arms anymore because I had been gripping the cable so tightly out of fear. I literally couldn’t go any further. 

Down the first cable! Photo by Heather Markel, Copyright 2020. All Rights Reserved.

That’s when Andre stepped in. All of maybe 17, and adorable, he offered to be my boyfriend for the day. He attached himself to me, sometimes in poses that seemed vaguely like something I saw in the kama sutra, and we soared past tree tops. At some point around the 11th cable (of 17) I began to relax. When I dreamed of quitting and traveling the world, I never imagined myself soaring high above it, apart from airplanes. Yet here I was, doing just that. I braved several cables by myself and found I was leaning back, barely holding on to the cable. In fact, I was relaxed. I was, perhaps, doing the most dangerous thing I’ve ever done in my life, at that moment, and yet, I felt strangely safe, and at ease. This one moment changed so much for me. I felt, for the first time in a long time, alive. Fully present. And I loved it. The gift of travel was teaching me, quite literally, to relax into my present, and enjoy the experience of the moment. There was no need to focus on the past or worry about the future.

On my final cable – 1 kilometer long – with the wind swishing, my loose hair blowing, and Andre attached to me in one of those poses, I howled. That primitive sound, gathered up from all over my body, expressing a deep satisfaction. I took a risk, I survived, and it brought parts of me that had been asleep, back to life. My dream was no longer a dream, it was my present. 

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