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SIGNS ALONG THE ROAD by Jennifer Holden Ward

My plane touched down late. I’d spent most of the flight scouring Lonely Planet, searching for Hostel Bekai in Costa Rica where I was to meet Nick, a pierced, truck-driving Englishman I’d met backpacking in Australia in 1999.  We’d traveled together briefly Down Under, mostly short jaunts to scenic places or bus trips to the next big city, and our meet-up in Costa Rica was a lark recently planned over pints of ale at a London pub.

An hour after arriving in San Jose, I was still at the airport asking anyone who would listen, “Do you know Hostel Bekai?”  I could only remember the Spanish words for popcorn (palomitas) and step-grandfather (abuelastro), so I held up a scrap of white paper with the hostel name.  Everyone shook their heads until one taxi driver, Jorge, suggested I visit a hostel with a similar name to see if the staff there could help me.

I arrived at Hostel Bekuo after riding shotgun with Jorge at breakneck speeds through the city, and Nick was waiting for me.

“Where have you been?” he asked.

“On a plane,” I said.

“But you were due in two hours ago,” he said.

“My flight was late.  The pilots wouldn’t let me in the cockpit to make it go faster,” I said, trying to lighten the mood.  Nick had booked the rooms and sent me the name of the hostel.  But Bekai was actually Bekuo.

“So I messed up two letters. Big deal,” said Nick.  And with that, we were off.  I plopped down my stuff in a room dubbed The Extreme Room on its neon hallway sign.  In it were four sets of bunk beds, two snoring Irishmen, and a cockroach.  Nick and I set off on foot to find food and catch some English soccer on TV.  That night we ate at a Chinese restaurant and listened to Bob Marley and drank Red Stripe at a reggae bar.

By the morning of day two, I’d still experienced little to no actual Costa Rica.  While waiting for Nick so we could catch our bus to the volcano at Arenal that second morning, I wandered Hostel Bekou’s common areas, mesmerized by the Pearl Jam murals on every door.  I took some pictures and tried to avoid eye contact with the European men who appeared to be living on the couch.

On the trip to Arenal, the bus went up and down like a horse on a carousel as we passed through the mountainous countryside.  One minute we’d be up watching the clouds reach down from the sky to kiss the mountains.  The next we’d be down in a valley riding along next to wooden fences, glimpsing tiny villages with white-roofed houses and cows in the fields.

“Wow, look at those mountains,” I said.

“It all looks the same,” Nick said, barely looking up from War and Peace, “if you’ve been to South America.”  South was pronounced souf.

The next seventy-two hours passed much the same: me in wonder at the active volcano, him less than impressed.  Me on a night hike searching for indigenous creatures by flashlight, him drinking beer before noon while watching soccer.  Over those three days he asked me to split my cash with him due to his “banking problem,” we bickered while watching a Spanish-dubbed version of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and had a stand-off about the safety of staying at one seedy hostel whose security guard was a legless woman laid out on a mattress by the door.

Then, while hiking the Cloud Forest in Monteverde on my fourth day in the country, I remembered a sign I’d photographed back in Hostel Bekuo.  Its letters, etched in a celadon piece of wood, read: “Travel only with thy equals or thy betters.  If there are none, travel alone.”

I returned to the Monteverde hostel, went to the front desk, and paid the clerk.  Then I booked bus journeys for the remainder of my trip as a party of one.  On the final leg of my trip, I sunned myself on white sand beaches on the Northern Peninsula and gave thanks for signs that guide a traveler when she’s lost her way.

3QR Author Note

3QR Author Bios

2 comments on “SIGNS ALONG THE ROAD by Jennifer Holden Ward

  1. So proud. Do you ever feature family members in your pieces?

  2. Well done, Jen.

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