I’ve never had much of an age complex. Throughout childhood my mother would often remind me, “Either grow old or die young, those are your only options.” The bluntness of her statement sunk in, and I decided that if I was lucky enough to lead a long and full life, there was no point in dreading the inevitable.
Despite those intentions, I couldn’t help falling into that common downward spiral of thought as my 30th birthday drew near. Many of us view it as a landmark age, often having youthful aspirations attached to it. As children, when 30 seemed galaxies away, we envisioned multilevel beachfront properties and bank account balances with endless zeros. I assumed I’d be living like The Jetsons by this point. Ultimately, I think it’s the expectation that we’re supposed to slow down, that our impulsivity and occasional bad habits will magically melt away, that really make us dread growing old.
I had mostly come to terms with the big 3-0, but my well-meaning younger friends kept pressing me, asking, “How does 30 feel?” They thought, like I once had, that some cosmic personality shift occurs once the clock strikes midnight on that fateful day, that 30 would have a texture all its own. So, to appease them, and rid myself of whatever remaining age complex I might be repressing, I set out to find the answer. Known as a haven for free spirits seeking alternative lifestyles, I decided that a week in Costa Rica, including a few days spent at a transformative arts and music festival, would provide me with some clarity. I wasn’t quite brave enough to go at it alone, so I convinced my boyfriend and expert in all things wilderness, Jon, to join me.
Insanely, I thought a four-hour layover in Houston would give us time to rest so that we’d land in Costa Rica feeling refreshed. I should mention that our initial flight out of Los Angeles left at midnight. Needless to say, we arrived in San Jose grumpy and disoriented, so much so that we barely took advantage of the duty-free alcohol, which would be the cheapest we’d find our entire trip.
Perhaps invigorated by lack of sleep, I became resolved as I wrestled on my 25-lb backpack after exiting customs. With concern in his eyes, Jon had cautioned me as I was packing that I would be responsible for my own weight. I’d laughed him off, insisting that seven swimsuit cover ups were absolutely essential. Privately, I had been counting on him to help me when I inevitably got winded.
Something changed as I stepped through those automatic doors though. My eyes eagerly lapped up the green hills in the distance, the uninterrupted cerulean sky above me, and a decision was made
“I’m just going to do it,” I told myself, allowing the ill-fitting luggage to sink into my shoulders (it was borrowed from one of Jon’s friends). “I’m not going to complain, and I’m not going to let this slow me down, and I’m just going to deal with it.”
Though initially directed at my backpack, that determination would come to define our entire trip.
We arrived at Envision Festival at dusk, and a rainstorm followed us in. It was hard not to feel discouraged, especially after nearly a day of traveling, but we trudged through the thick mud, searching for a place to erect our tent. In the process of setting it up, a frog snuck into Jon’s jacket and all of our belongings got wet. As a result, our tent would reek of mildew for the duration of the festival.
I didn’t sleep well that first night, but got a front row seat to a tribal drum circle that began at approximately 4am, and a mother who, hysterical from exhaustion, screamed at the amateur drummers to shut it down and let people sleep. After a few more hours of tossing and turning, I awoke to the sounds of a couple bickering in the tent next to us. From what I could overhear, this was their first camping festival and they were wildly unprepared. They had become dirty from the rain and lacked essential toiletries. When Jon got up to find the restroom a little while later, I handed him an extra packet of baby wipes, insisting without further explanation that our neighbors needed them. From there, a friendship was born.
Amber and Josh were fresh out of college, and came to Envision with a cousin who no one ever seemed to be able to locate. Whenever we ran into Patrick (which admittedly was rare), we’d always tell him, “Someone was looking for you!” Shrugging it off, he seemed to have long ago accepted this as fact.
The mud from the previous night’s storm quickly hardened, and Jon and I set out to explore Envision in the light of day. The first thing we noticed was more children than any other festival we’d been to. It wasn’t uncommon for children to chase each other through the rows of tents barefoot, or to see a woman walking with an infant casually attached to her breast.
I’ve always been adamant that I don’t like children I’m not related to. Though I’ve supposedly reached an age where motherhood becomes a priority, I am not one to coo at infants. Whenever co-workers bring in their new babies to show off at work, I wonder aloud why we can’t do the same with pets. After all, my dog can do a lot more tricks than your two-week-old.
That changed at Envision. Something clicked, and although I still have no plans to enter motherhood anytime soon, I realized how much joy there is to be found in simply watching children play. There’s also a lot to be learned.
As adults, we often become so consumed with work, paying bills, and saving money that we forget that life is meant to be experienced in the moment. There is a disconnect between our bodies and our minds, and even when we do have time off, we are unable to pause the inner chatter long enough to appreciate it. We have forgotten how to play.
It was something I relearned during my time at Envision. I chased waves at the beach. When a bubble machine whirred near me, I jumped up to pop them. I lazed in hammocks and took afternoon naps, allowing the pressures of time to escape me.
From yoga to surf lessons to their spectacular artist line-up, Envision was never short on things to do. Although I took part in and enjoyed many of these activities, what really set the festival apart for me were the people in attendance. Cultures from all over the world were represented, and I quickly learned that English was not the festival’s mother tongue.
Jon and I only knew Spanish in passing, but eager for connection, we cobbled together conversations with gestures and facial expressions, taking advantage of the fact that laughter always translates.
On our last morning at Envision, Jon wasn’t feeling well so while he rested I set off to take a final tour of the grounds. I sat in the village where the food vendors were and spread out my tarot cards to give free readings. I dawdled for a couple of hours, observing as people said their goodbyes and the various food stands closed up shop. On my way back to our tent, I noticed a young woman standing to the side of the pathway holding a sign that offered, “Free Hugs!”
“I just want one really good one,” she told her friend, seeming to be losing hope. “Then we can go home.”
How could I resist? I turned around and stepped into her open embrace. I am not normally a touchy-feely person, but I went against my instinct to quickly pull away and hugged her like I would a long-lost relative. It was then I realized not just how therapeutic touch can be, but that hugs don’t start getting really good until after the five-second mark.
How many moments of true connection have I missed out on because I pulled away too soon? What lessons exist in those few seconds of resistance? Envision taught me that pushing past discomfort rather than avoiding it altogether is the best way to learn and grow.
As we broke down our tent and contemplated our next destination, it became clear that Jon was falling ill to the same stomach bug that had incapacitated me a couple nights before. We had planned on getting a ride to Jaco and then a ferry to Montezuma, but opted to visit the nearby beach town of Dominical instead.
We weren’t the only ones with this idea. The first few hostels we visited were at capacity, and the streets were bustling with other backpackers easily identifiable by the Envision bracelets dangling from their wrists.
We finally found a hostel, and at Jon’s insistence booked a private room. At first I puzzled over the two full beds set up in opposite corners of the room, but with Jon’s condition worsening, it ended up being a blessing in disguise. I took my first real shower of our trip (although we were still several days away from the luxury of warm water) and after a nap, left Jon sleeping peacefully to explore Dominical on my own.
My experience as an international traveler is limited, and nonexistent when it comes to traveling alone. For the first time, I got a taste of the independence and thrill that comes with getting intentionally lost. There was no one to vet decisions with, no preferences to be considered other than my own.
I ordered dinner at a beachfront cafe and nursed a glass of wine. I watched people stroll up and down the boardwalk and spent some time journaling. The sky was beginning to darken, so I quickly paid my check and headed to the beach.
As I sat alone on the shore watching colors blend in the sky, I became overwhelmed with gratitude. I thought about the incredible people I’d met over the last few days, the lush green jungles that had provided me shelter, the brave and spontaneous man who hadn’t hesitated to take this journey with me when asked. I let tears fall freely from my eyes. I am not religious by a long shot, but over the next hour, as I watched the sun take a slow dive into those crystalline waters, I murmured heartfelt prayers to the universe, thanking whatever stars had aligned to allow me to experience this firsthand.
So how does 30 feel? Terrifying and new and uncertain and my right knee is a little weaker and sometimes I worry that I won’t have enough money saved for retirement, but my heart is more open than it’s ever been and never have I held a greater appreciation for my own mortality. I have less patience for bull shit and no longer babysit behaviors that do not serve me. Occasionally I act irresponsibly and pursue childish impulses. I wake up most days feeling lucky, ready to live bigger, extend my reach a little further.
There’s a reason why cultures all over the world revere their elders: they have wisdom beyond their years, watched history unfold, and gained valuable insight into human nature. If anything, the wrinkles, sunspots, and grey hair should be worn as badges of honor, evidence of experience that we can’t yet comprehend.
As with most things, when it comes to aging my mother was right, our options are limited. Instead of resisting the inevitable, we should cherish these years we’ve been given, that many are not blessed to have, and use that time to explore, learn, and create a more prosperous tomorrow. The choice is ours.
Photos by Jon Haloossim and Jess Bernstein