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About to Drive From the US to Costa Rica

Most people are too scared to do anything any more. That’s why we like Samantha.

People keep telling me it’s suicide. They insist that I’ll be kidnapped or encounter a gang of carjackers or rot in jail after cops frame me with a bag of ganja. Sometimes they even say, ‘And I even know Mexicans who’ll advise you not to do it.’

But, then again, the majority of said people would never go for a drink in a bar alone and can’t even imagine why anyone would want to. I have experienced enough adventure in my 24 years for it to become part of the blood that fuels my mind, body and imagination. I just can’t imagine being too scared to take the bus in Cleveland, let alone do something truly risky. The way I see it, compared to other journeys, driving through Central America, from Cleveland, Ohio, to Sabalito, Costa Rica, doesn’t seem too bad. And the horror stories, far from deterring me, just amp me up even more.

On November 1, I will cram myself and my gear into my trusty Japanese SUV and drive southwest, staying with friends along the way, until the Mexico-U.S. border. There, I’ll meet up with a Costa Rican friend who will make the drive with me from Monterrey and the Pan-American highway will be our home for a week or three”depending on who and what we meet.

We’ll cruise through Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and the northern part of Costa Rica, until we reach El Nidito Guesthouse, the bed and breakfast I oversee near Lake Arenal. I’m aiming to arrive by November 25th, just in time to clean and make the beds before my first guests of the season drive in on December 1st.

My plan is motivated partly by the need to transport my new (used) car, bike, and kiteboarding equipment to El Nidito, and partly by the desire for the Road after waitressing day-in and day-out for the past few months in a suburb of Cleveland known for its WASP-y homogeneity. With gas so expensive, people tend to stare at me in disbelief that I dare to take an SUV on the road. Gas may be the most bank-breaking part of the journey, but camping, staying at the cheapest hostels, and eating food from markets and family-run joints will help offset the cost.

The desire to do this type of thing began with the thrill of sneaking away from home to explore my family’s temporary neighborhood in Okinawa, at the age of five. From then on, I’ve embraced the Risky Voyage: at 12, I was rescued by a stranger on a jet-ski after drifting out to sea on a windsurf board; at 20, I gashed open my leg while cruising on a boogie board down the rapids of Rio Mendoza in Argentina; at 22, I gripped on tight to the boda-boda drivers as they weaved between trucks on the crowded avenues of Kampala, Uganda.

Writing and traveling have always existed together in my life, so, naturally, I plan on writing about my experience. But there will be no race-to-the-finish, conquer the Pan-American plotline; nor will I be searching out the cleanest restaurant bathrooms. Traveling without meeting people on the way isn’t travel, its tourism.

I want to experience the music of a place, get knee-deep in the smells that make home Home in El Salvador, speak Spanish with street kids in Guatemala, and savor every home-cooked taste made in Honduras. Fortunately friend-finding has always come easily, to the point that when Swahili-speaking, financial-advising, professional-chef travel partners were asked what I contributed to the group, they answered “She makes friends for us.”

In Paul Theroux’s essay collection Fresh Air Fiend, he quotes the long-distance rower Gerard d’Aboville as saying, ‘Only an animal does useful things. An animal gets food, finds a place to sleep, tries to keep comfortable. But I wanted to do something that was not useful, not like an animal at all. Something only a human being would do.

The way I see it, the suburban life that I am familiar with is a step below that of the useful life of the animal because there is no need even for instinct. Instead, people fall back on habits and avoid risk or change at all costs.

I recently left an advertising job in Manhattan in order to run El Nidito Guesthouse in Costa Rica, but, right now, I still have a steady income and I live among friends with comfortable lifestyles and cushy jobs. I know myself enough to realize how easily I fall into routines—even if that routine involves either serving pancakes to rich businessmen in Ohio or making breakfast for Italian windsurfers in Central America—and how difficult it can be to jumpstart myself again.

Thus, I’m heading back to the road to infuse my life with a big dose of danger, and to reawaken my ability to live strictly by instinct and common sense. Jane Hirshfield said ‘Habit, laziness, and fear conspire to keep us comfortably within the familiar.‘ This adventure aims to destroy these three crutches and I want to write about this journey for your publication.

[You can keep up with Samantha’s trip at her blog the traveling derelict Sensibly, Samantha Walters graduated from Ohio University with a degree in creative writing. But, more often, she can be found doing more irresponsible things like wandering at night through Mozambique in search of a place to sleep, hitching a ride to a house party in rural Jamaica to sing karaoke, and “borrowing” a raft to watch the sunrise in Ushuaia.

Samantha Walters