Karolyn Sherwood, Author

Vacationally Challenged

(March 2010, Costa Rica)

When my husband asked me, “How would you like to spend two months in paradise?”  I said, “Define ‘paradise.’”

It’s the second time around for both of us, married for six years now, and before I met him I didn’t think true love really existed. It does. However, when it comes to the perfect vacation, he likes to relax on a sandy beach; I like museums and theater and energy. Just the mention of remote villages, hot sun, and high tide makes me start searching for sunscreen and Wireless Internet signs. And sympathy. Few people understand my reluctance to leave our home in the upper-Midwest for two of the coldest months on record for a villa in Costa Rica that overlooks the Pacific Ocean.

My husband is older and wiser and retired. Together we have seven children, ages 19 to 29; now official empty-nesters. With record snowfalls across the country, it is the perfect winter to get away. And, being a writer, I can, theoretically and according to The Dream, write from anywhere. Writers long for the day they can sit perched on a mountain top, overlooking the deep blue sea. So, one might ask, what’s the problem? Go, relax, enjoy!

The problem is I don’t want to relax. I’m a city girl with goals and an agenda. Scratching through each entry on my To Do list makes me happy. And what about family, friends, kids? I will not have access to my omnipresent iPhone, my ancillary brain. Even if we can Skype occasionally, it won’t be the same. Writing, reading, working out, watching the stock market, lunching with friends … I love my life no matter what the temperature is outside my window. Now I’m supposed to find time to learn Spanish and explore a new country?

My husband has a different perspective on life. He turns sixty this year, a milestone he never thought he’d see. Twenty years ago he was diagnosed with a rare disease. In 1995, he received a liver transplant. He quit working and eventually sold his company. Now, each day is a gift he opens at sunrise, never to be taken for granted. Not a day goes by that we don’t laugh. Not a day goes by that he doesn’t tell me how much he loves me. Going to a third-world country for two months is the least I can do for him.

I admit I’m wound rather tightly. (Play laugh track from kids here.) It’s not that I want to be high maintenance, I just like what I like. And I don’t know how to say, “Just cover the grays,” in Spanish. So, in my extra-large suitcase, I pack a few sundresses, shorts, t-shirts, swimsuits, and flip-flops. No heals, no Prada, no diamonds. Instead, I have a box of hair color, sixty days worth of vitamins, basic pharmaceutical supplies, face products (Please, no wrinkles!), and a full-size Pilates mat with five workout videos. Four thick novels, two Spanish phrasebooks, my iPod, camera, various chargers, and most importantly, my laptop. I am prepared for paradise.

When we board the plane, it’s two degrees outside, twelve below with wind chill. It’s ninety-five and sunny when we land. My husband stretches his body, soaking in the warmth. I break out in a cold sweat, panicked that I might have forgotten my clinical-strength deodorant. It’s late, I’m tired, and culture shock begins swirling through my body like venom. Just as we find our car, a lizard slithers by my feet, and I jump onto the hood. The look in his eyes says, “Ah, you’ve arrived …”

The first week is a sneak peak into my personal hell: sunburn, heat rash, dripping sweat, three showers a day, dusty winds blowing hot air through the house. Tarantulas, scorpions, geckos, monkeys, and vultures surround our villa; a few rudely invite themselves inside. Carved into the steep cliffs, the streets are so rough they put the average roller-coaster to shame. My husband thinks it’s heaven.

By the third week, I learn to navigate the potholes and that the geckos that scamper through our bedroom, down the walls, and into our kitchen are really our friends; they eat bugs, I’m told. I try to smile so they don’t realize I am more afraid of them than they are of me, the Giant. I take tree-top tours and natural mud baths and devour juicy ceviche sprinkled with just-picked mango while watching salmon-colored sunsets.

After a month, I finally start to relax. Once, I actually fell asleep on the beach for almost ten minutes. My new challenge is remembering what day of the week it is. (If it weren’t for my pill box, I’d really be lost.) Thankfully, this is the twenty-first century and our villa has Internet access so I’ve been able to keep in touch and even accomplish a few goals. I’ve learned to focus like never before. “Efficient work, efficient relaxation” is my new motto, leaving me more time to spend with my happy husband.

And so we sit on our balcony, enjoying the evening breeze, drinking club soda, suddenly the final week of our stay. My husband is contemplating life. I’m not quite that far down on my To Do list yet, but the good news is, having the perfect marriage means I get to choose the next vacation.  Paris anyone?

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