On Rainforests, Rappelling and Reflection

March 22, 2018

There were 35 of us: nine families with a total of 19 kids, from 20 years old down to nine, living in three vacation homes for a week in Costa Rica. This was our third annual trip with multiple families coming together in an adventurous place. Each year this great group of friends gets a little bigger. First, twenty of us hung out on the North Shore of Oahu, then two dozen rafted Oregon’s Wild and Scenic Rogue River, and now we played in rainforests and on beaches, in the place of “pura vida.”

On day three of our vacation we piled into two mini-buses and headed into the rainforest hills, to spend hours zip lining, rappelling down towering waterfalls, and “monkey dropping” into idyllic pools, all in the canopy of towering Coconut, Ceiba and Gumbo Limbo trees, some of which reach over 150 feet tall. After a thorough safety presentation at the remote Quepo Canyoning headquarters—a talk that gave us an appropriate scare and respect for what lay ahead—we geared up with climbing harnesses, carabiners, figure-eight belay hardware, and helmets. We climbed aboard jeeps and four-wheel drive trucks and motored on rutted rollercoaster roads deep into the wilderness. At a river’s edge we hopped out of the rigs and waded across. Our Costa Rican—“Ticos” as they call themselves—guides led us into the woods as we nervously snaked up slippery steep slopes to the base of a huge tree with a zip line platform overhead.

The first to climb up the rickety twenty-foot ladder to the five-foot wide deck cabled to a Ceiba tree 120 feet above the forest floor was the smallest among us, my intrepid nine-year old daughter, Delaney. At four-foot zero-inches and 55 pounds, “Laney” is a munchkin of epic proportions. When she was three she slammed her fingers in the car door, clean shut, without my realizing it. As I stepped out of the car she quietly said, “Daddy, my hand is stuck in the door.” I quickly opened it and saw that she had creased her fingers to the point where most kids would have shrieked in pain. She didn’t draw a tear. I was again reminded of her toughness 15 minutes after getting home from this Costa Rica trip. Before even walking in the front door, this perpetual gymnast did a few flips on her treasured trampoline and then walked barefoot across the lawn towards our porch. “Dad,” she said. “I think I stepped on a bee.” Sure enough, she had. After a few minutes of ice on her arch she headed back to the trampoline.

Now, she was getting “binered” on to the zip line cable and given a thorough “how to” by one of our guides, my wife and I and others drop-jawed at the height and distance of the run and her pioneering spirit. We cheered her on as she inched to the edge of the planks. She stepped off in to space and slid at the speed of fun around and through tree branches with leaves as big as she.

After a several eternal seconds she was grabbed on the other end of the line by another guide, and stood up on the distant platform. We all hooped and hollered and followed her on this and another and another ride. How could we not? Who among us would not match her will, borne of single digit years of life experience?

This day of adventure and the entire week—filled with body surfing, scuba diving and snorkeling, hiking in torrential rain, and more—provided everyone on this vacation with opportunities to face fears and move forward. Most found the 100-foot rappel down a thoroughly soaking rainy-season waterfall the scariest. To say that the cataract’s spray got in our eyes would be an understatement; the water was so powerful and frightening that it got under our skin.

After the zip line, waterfall, and rappel day I asked Laney which activity had made her the most nervous. Her answer was the same as mine; walking across the v-shaped cable bridge suspended over a deep canyon with only a ½ inch wide wire underfoot and two thin lines at shoulder height to help us balance. I have long been afraid of heights (maybe that is why an ex-girlfriend who loved to rock climb left me for her climbing instructor!). I was able to inch my way across the thing by focusing on the other side without looking down, my heart climbing in my throat with each sloth-like step. Laney said she got scared about half way across the 100-foot span. I asked her how she managed to keep going. “I was really afraid and almost stopped,” she said. “But then I just starting singing a song to myself, and I made it to the other side.”

Many mornings on this trip, before others awoke, I would head up to the open air palapa at our rental house, lie down in the hammock, marvel at the Pacific below and birds and monkeys around, and read. The sound of the ocean rolling in and the toucans greeting the day sometimes lulled me back to sleep. I would read a few pages and peacefully drift off and then come back to life and read some more. The new book that I serendipitously brought—The Space Within—was written by a friend of mine, Michael Neill.

I was Michael’s liaison and advisor for his TED talk, where he shared one of my all-time favorite quotes: “You are never more than one thought away from a whole new experience of being alive.” Since I first heard those words I have tried, but often failed, to live by this credo. In Costa Rica, I read his new masterpiece filled with insights into how thoughts control our actions and emotions. I took to heart his lessons on how I can be and do more for me, those around me, and the universe we each create and call home. One of the ideas he conveyed in The Space Within that I applied on this trip helped me realize “a whole new experience of being alive” on this vacation, and to this day. That idea was to consider one simple sentence when I cower, am overly concerned or harsh, or may be limiting myself or others by overthinking: “I don’t have to think that.”

It was the morning of the zip line day that I first read that line in Michael’s book. When Delaney explained to me that evening that she just started singing, I realized where her zest for life comes from: when she has thoughts that frighten her, make her mad or sad, or keep her from fully experiencing life, she chooses not “to think that.” When she was too scared to take another step she recognized that she did not have to think that she was petrified. She changed her emotions by thinking of and singing a song. My favorite quote of Laney’s is “Happy makes me happy.” With this as her underlying approach to life it is easy to see how this old-soul youngster changes her thoughts to make life better.

Delaney’s mom, Danielle, used to love the ocean and big adventure until she almost died in Costa Rica 20 years ago. After living together in bush Alaska for two years, where I taught at a K-12 school with only 90 students and she finished her Master’s thesis, she pursued a lifelong dream and joined the Peace Corps. She had been in Costa Rica for a month, training for her assignment in Panama, when she and two new Peace Corps friends from the Midwest decided to enjoy a rare day off. They took a bus from the bustle of San Jose, the capitol city, to Jaco, a west coast beach town. She dropped her towel on the sand and ran into the water, the former Huntington Beach, Southern California kid seeking a rebaptism of ocean water.

In an instant, Danielle was swept 200 yards out to sea in one of the notorious Central American rip tides. She treaded water as the shore faded away, dove deep every time another and another and another five-foot wave crashed down on her, and felt the presence of her father who died when she was only seven years old. Between the swells that swallowed her, she frantically waved and screamed at her month-long friends who were sunning on the beach and thought she was just being a kid in the waves again, not hearing her pleas over the water’s roar. She swam in and out and sideways for thirty minutes, cried in fear of never again seeing her mom, brother, and me, kept coming back to the surface by believing she could fight through one more dunk, one more dunk, one more dunk. She finally kicked and clawed herself ashore with the help of locals who dragged her out of the ocean. One week after she saved herself eight tourists died at the same beach from those same rip tides. Today, lifeguards sit watch over these waters.

Danielle is a magnificent mom. From Dawson, our 12-year old son who kayaks wild rivers and first flew a plane at ten years old as part of his pilot’s license lessons, to Dari, who is learning how to jump big horses over increasingly higher fences as a nine-year old equestrian, and to Dari’s twin sister, Delaney, our kids and I are blessed to have her. Danielle has also put up with me and my “idiosyncrasies” (that’s a fancy word for “smart mouth and pain in the ass behaviors”) for decades. With my witness to a few potentially fatal accidents on wilderness expeditions and her near-death experience, we tend to be overly cautious at times with our kids. But we let them try to do adventurous things as much as our etched-in memories allow.

The bravest among us on this trip was not Delaney or another youngster, or the forty and fifty-something year-old friends, who ranged from shivering scared (I am speaking for myself here) to super excited. It was Danielle. I saw something in her that I first fell in love with, that she understandably had closeted away for a while; her free and adventurous spirit. In Costa Rica, again, she quieted her thoughts and faced her fears by screaming across zip lines, watching her kids getting gentle-cycle washing machined in tropical waves, and yes, plunging head first into ocean waters that once stripped bare her soul.

“Pura vida” directly translated means “pure life.” But the direct translation does not convey the heart of the phrase as felt by Ticos. The smile on their faces and the light in their eyes as they say these words express how peaceful, grateful and content they are, and how they want you to be the same, moment after moment, in their rapturous country. Costa Rica is a place aplenty of food, sunshine, fun, nature, and great company. It is a country where thinking too much can get in your way. It is where Ticos and tourists find themselves in beautiful feelings, in what Michael Neill calls “the white space between thoughts.” On this trip, the scars of the past unblemished and were replaced with here and now existence. Bliss advanced as thoughts receded, allowing Danielle’s memories to rest and her pura vida heart to shine through.

Up high in the hammock on the eve of our return trip home, I reflected on Delaney’s wisdom, Danielle’s emergence, and the pattern and challenges of my thoughts on this trip, and beyond. Even though I once led dozens of people at a time down rivers and up mountains, I struggled with opening up in this large group, believing that what I had to say didn’t much matter with all of the ideas and plans presented by others. I grew impatient with Danielle’s fretting over little things like how to split the cost of dinner with all of us diners or it being unsafe for our kids to walk along the road through town. With a lifetime of experience handling logistics for international adventure expeditions, I got frustrated with good friends who over-planned walks along the beach from our oceanfront vacation homes. There is more than a little irony there: I thought way too much about companions who thought way too much.

But by grace and the lessons I learned from a great author, a wife who washed away worries, and a mighty mite who simply started singing, during this vacation I often changed my experience of being alive by not thinking limiting things. Instead I marveled at the beauty of 35 beautiful people who collectively and individually found joy—and peace of mind—in a wild place.


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