Friday, March 13, 2009

Change We Don't Want to Believe In

By Louise

Many years ago, my older brother and I were walking around the town where we grew up. We headed to a local bar that neither of us had visited for years. Pushing open the door, I immediately noticed that the place had changed. I don't know what I was expecting, but I was disappointed. “See, you can never go back,” my brother said. At the time, his comment struck me as incredibly pessimistic. I had returned to many places, from New York to California to South Africa, and loved each subsequent visit.

Four years ago, we took the kids to the Osa Peninsula, a remote spit of land on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, near Panama. It was a magical two weeks. We rented a home built of bamboo; it was essentially a two-story tree house. At night, bats flew through the kitchen, hoping to sample uncovered fruit. Mornings, we woke to the sounds of howler monkeys as they moved through the trees outside our bedroom windows. We swung from hammocks as scarlet macaws cracked open fruits from the trees that circled the house. Walking a few yards in one direction took us to the beach. The opposite direction put us in the middle of the jungle, with its butterflies, birds, lizards, and monkeys.

The road leading to our house was atrocious. The closest town was miles away. We didn't have access to a car, only a taxi that had to be ordered (along with our groceries) by radio. We felt remote. Alone. Special. The experience made such an impression we vowed to return when the children were older.

While planning for this trip, we were excited to end our travels in Costa Rica again. With images of our previous trip burned in our memory, we decided to spend two months exploring the country. We planned science lessons around volcanoes, rainforests, tropical fish, and coral reefs. Because we had been there before, we decided not to return to the Osa Peninsula.

When we arrived in Costa Rica we were surprised. The Pacific coast, even the southern Nicoya Peninsula, was too developed for our taste. The northern plains around Volcan Arenal were wonderful, but, if I’m honest, it felt like Adventure Disney. Too many Americans and Europeans. Too many zip lines, resort hotels, and tour operators. Whereas in Ecuador we had felt like travelers, here we were just more tourists. I probably shouldn’t even pass judgment on Costa Rica’s Caribbean Coast. Terrible floods in December and January meant that the beaches were covered in dead trees, the water was polluted, and there was trash everywhere. Around Cahuita, swollen rivers had turned the ocean brown, killing our dream of snorkeling over the area’s coral reefs. And what of our plan to learn Spanish in five months? With English practically the first language in Costa Rica, the plan was swirling straight down el baƱo.

We were mulling over our situation—during our 10th consecutive day of rain and overcast skies—when Andrew received an email from his mother in Cape Town. His father, Malcolm, had suffered another in a series of small strokes. Over the past year Malcolm’s memory and speech had been on a decline, but the latest stroke had seriously affected his ability to care for himself. Pat, who is Malcolm’s sole caretaker, sounded a bit overwhelmed. We weren’t expected back in Virginia for another month, so there was no doubt in our minds about our next move. Three days later we were on a plane heading to Cape Town. Everything happened so quickly that the flight and our first few days here felt surreal. One minute we’re wondering how we got it so wrong in Costa Rica and the next we were seeing how Malcolm’s health has gone so wrong in Cape Town.

Our decision to cut our trip short was the right thing to do. Cape Town continues to be a wonderful place, but things have changed. While the city, flanked by beautiful mountains and the Atlantic Ocean, will always hold a special place in my mind, the most important thing about it—our family connection—has changed forever. My brother was right. I hate that.

Inflight Movements

By Graham

I broke out in a sweat. Bleegh...! My mouth filled with the airline's disgusting meal of chicken in cheese sauce.

We were on a flight heading from Atlanta to Dakar, Senegal. It had been smooth flying up until the pilot exclaimed we would be hitting major turbulence. Groans escaped from people all over the plane, including me. What is going to happen to me? Will I vomit or not? When we hit the turbulence, the plane shook. It felt as if an elephant had just rammed into us. Every time we bounced up, my stomach dropped. I felt like a soda being shaken up. Up, down, left, right, we were flung.

I started searching for vomit bags, but there were none. Luckily, my mom had saved some of the plastic bags from the blankets we received. She hurled them at me, and I hurled into them. She called a steward to bring more plastic bags. When we got out of the turbulence, the bags weighed as much as a melon. When we touched down I still felt sick. But since I had vomited up all my food, I could not vomit any more.