I had often wondered how I would react if charged by a wild boar while hiking. I never actually expected it to happen, but it just did. The charge was only a bluff, so I didn’t get to test my premeditated “side-step-at-the-last-second” strategy. Instead, the boar halted mid-charge and decided to meander away after some final threatening grunts. I now take a few tentative steps forward to watch him disappear into the dark understory.
The stunning beauty of this place—Corcovado Rainforest in Costa Rica—has held me transfixed for the past two days. But only now, at kilometer 28, has this close encounter finally awoken me to its hostile side. I now set my eyes behind a bifocal lens, able to view both of its personalities. A stone’s throw to my left, the stoic trees and blossoming vines converge and lock arms, forming a shadowy green wall that restrains the mountain of rainforest behind it from tumbling into the sea. A stone’s throw to my right, the sparkling ocean licks its lips on the sandy beach, occasionally revealing a rocky tooth that juts above the restless waves. So here is the confrontation of towering forest and hungry sea, with only myself standing frailly in between.
As I continue walking, my mind continues wandering. I wonder how the first human inhabitants of this rainforest must have felt. The sense of smallness I now feel, but magnified from this West coast all the way to the East, across a hopeless expanse of untamed, rugged rainforest. I can only imagine the long-lost intricacies of Ancient Mesoamerican culture that once flourished here, and the complicated history that morphed them into the smiling-faced, Spanish-speaking Ticos that I have befriended in various towns. I am reminded of how much I have yet to learn about this place.
That is why I travel: to learn. My quest for knowledge took me to Vietnam one summer before, where I made a friend who shared my passion. While exploring downtown Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), a woman approached me in a park and introduced herself in English, with some difficulty, as Trang. She had been studying English for some time and was excited to find a friendly American tourist with whom to practice. In exchange for my company in conversation, I received a private tour of the park and the surrounding attractions. As we strolled, she pointed out her favorite place to sit and read: a concrete bench in a quiet alcove surrounded by bamboo and banana palm. Broad leaves drooped above, providing a pleasant parasol against the tropical midday sun.
As we shared the bench, I paused to admire this peaceful refuge of green, nestled in the center of a restless city of nine million. We then continued our walk, and she told me of life in Vietnam while I tried to provide a vicarious taste of America. She knew friends who moved to America, and wanted to visit herself, but had never traveled outside Southeast Asia. She enthusiastically devoured all I could tell her about where I lived, went to school, what foods I liked to eat, and other such details of life on the opposite side of the world. I recognized Trang’s appetite for knowledge; it was the same as mine.
She next led me across the street and into Diamond Plaza, a window-covered tower containing palatial offices, apartments, restaurants, and a luxury shopping mall. I had seen this building from the street earlier in the day, but without Trang’s lead, would have never ventured inside. We perused the Diamond Plaza Department Store, which resembled a glamorous slice of New York City, only now transposed into this developing country. I admired the brightly lit, polished glass displaying designer coats and dresses that I could only imagine movie stars ever wearing, and I gawked at price tags that I would never consider paying even in the States. Trang enjoyed window-shopping far more than I; her eyes gleamed with the reflection of diamond-studded shoes and gold necklaces as she fancied how they would look on her, though she knew she would never afford them. My interest did not hold as long as hers, so I wandered to a window.
Gazing down at the city, I could see several blocks away, where a sand-colored, dilapidated building peered above the maze of tin roofs. This was one of so many buildings like it, where people subsist in single-room, open air apartments with crumbling walls and sagging floors. From within my giant glass case, I marveled at the disparity.
Trang touched my shoulder and said it was time to move on; she had more to show me. So we returned past the glittering luxuries and descended the escalators until we were again walking on the street. We soon stood in the courtyard of the Saigon Notre Dame Basilica, a relic of the French colonial era, modeled after the original Notre Dame de Paris. A 40-foot, granite Virgin Mary graced the front courtyard. Mary’s hands held a sphere topped with a cross, and her face rose perpetually toward heaven. As we stood beneath the statue, I noticed a glint of admiration in Trang’s eyes, and she must have seen the same in mine. She asked if I was religious, and I told her of my church back in the States. She confessed that she was not Christian, but nevertheless seemed fascinated with this bastion of faith in the midst of her Communist city. She explained how, a few years before, traffic stopped and a crowd gathered in front of the church because onlookers witnessed a tear on Mary’s cheek. Some called it a miracle while others denied the tear entirely. This majestic white statue, framed in red brick by dual gothic bell towers, stood in staunch contrast to Diamond Plaza, shining in the background, and the Communist metropolis surrounding it. The juxtaposition would soon be seared further into my mind by my visit to the Vietnamese countryside, where I would witness destitute villagers of ethnic minorities, deprived of all rights to religious practice. Trang was from a rural village, and I would later wonder if her hometown was similar, and hope that it was not.
Trang moved to Ho Chi Minh to start an education and a career. She was in school to learn English and earn a degree in higher education, but worked as a grade school teacher. She wanted to become a professor, to share her joyful knowledge with the world while earning money to travel. During our stroll in the park that day, she succeeded in being more than a grade school teacher, whether she knew it or not. She had taught me to recognize true motivation for experiencing the world—not just to gain knowledge for myself, but also to share this knowledge with others. I should be like Trang, a student as well as a teacher.
Just before parting ways, Trang removed from her wrist a red and black yarn bracelet and handed it to me. She said she had bought the bracelet on her trip to Thailand. According to her, this was all she could give me by which to remember her, but she had already given me far more than she could realize.
Now, as I look at this simple handmade bracelet on my wrist, I am reminded of Trang, others I met in Vietnam, and everything I experienced in that country. But I quickly snap back to Costa Rica at the chatter of a spider monkey above my head. I stop walking, raise my camera, and focus for a picture.