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The International Writers Magazine: Paternal Travel

Tranquilo Or How I Learned to Trust My Son (Sort of)
• Paul Michelson
“We’ll be in Montezuma by tomorrow afternoon,” I told my son. “Our reservation’s tomorrow night through Thursday.”
“Okay,” he said, “but I might get there tonight. I’ll find a hostel.”

Costa Rica

Fat chance, I thought. Max was calling from somewhere on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast. My wife and I were supposed to meet him the next day in Montezuma, a beach town on the Pacific coast. No way he’d get there before us. He’d be lucky to get there the day after us.
“You’ll have to get a bus to San Jose first,” I said. “Then it’s another twelve hours to Montezuma. You could try the gringo bus. It’ll take you right to the hotel.”
“That’s okay. I’ll take the regular bus.”
I started to explain where the hotel was. “If you get off near the center of town . . .”
“Don’t worry. I’ll find it. If I get there before you I’ll stow my pack at the hotel.”
“Okay. If you want I could call them and . . .”
“Don’t worry about it.” He sounded irritated.

It all seemed pretty flakey to me. How was he supposed to get a bus from some backwater on the Caribbean to Costa Rica’s capital, San Jose, and then from there to the Pacific coast, all in one day? Connections never worked that smoothly. And what were the odds he’d be able to store his pack at the hotel when the room wasn’t even reserved under his name?

Then again, he and I were so different. I was cautious, conscientious. I liked to nail down details beforehand. Max’s philosophy, if he had one, was, “Relax, tranquilo, I’ll figure it out as I go.” Me, I had to know people awhile before they felt like friends. Max had a friend as soon as he met someone. It was a great quality, but I wasn’t sure it was a great quality for a traveler.

He’d spent fall quarter of his junior year studying plants in Costa Rica’s Monteverde Cloud Forest. When the quarter ended, he and some friends had bussed to the rainy Caribbean coast. That was a week ago. He liked it so much that when his friends continued on to Panama, he stayed put. Now he was supposed to meet us in Montezuma for some sun before we headed back to the U.S. together.

The next afternoon the gringo bus dropped me and my wife off at our small Montezuma hotel. While I was signing the check-in ledger, I said, “We have a son who might . . .”
The young desk clerk interrupted me. “Max left his things here this morning.” She gestured toward the backpack in the corner of the office.
“Oh . . . great,” I said.

My wife and I found our room and dropped our packs on a bed. I flopped on the other bed with a guidebook, and my wife disappeared into the bathroom. After a couple minutes, there was a knock on the door. I opened it. “Hey,” Max said with a grin. He dropped his backpack and gave me a hug. “Where’s mom?”
“In the bathroom.”
“Oh. Hey, I got something for you.” He dug into his pack, hauling out dirty clothes. He pulled out a pound bag of Costa Rican coffee and handed it to me. “My mentor said that was the best.”
My wife came out of the bathroom. “Hi honey,” she said.
“Hey,” he chuckled, and gave her a big hug. “I got this for you.” He handed her a pretty turquoise necklace.

We hadn’t seen him in months. A lanky, sandy-haired kid in rumpled beige shorts, dilapidated Crocs, and a gold “Alejuela” jersey he’d bought at a soccer match, he looked even scruffier than usual, partly because he hadn’t shaved for a week.

We talked awhile. He told us about his week at the Caribbean and the soccer match he’d attended in San Jose where the losing team’s fans had rioted. Then he showed us some pictures of Monteverde. It was a cool, rainy place, but in almost every picture he was wearing shorts. I asked him if he’d ever worn those lightweight zip-off pants we’d bought him. “I might’ve lost them,” he said. “But they might be buried somewhere in my pack.” Attentiveness, I gathered, still wasn’t big on his list of priorities.

Montezuma Beach After the long bus ride, I was eager to loosen up. I asked Max if he wanted to run. “Yeah,” he said. We put on our gym shorts and running shoes and headed down the gravel path that wound though the hotel grounds.
Just as we reached the dirt road that fronted the hotel, a voice rang out behind us. “Hola, Max.” I turned and saw the desk clerk waving.
“Hola,” Max yelled back.
“She knows you?” I said.
“Um hmm. I left my backpack with her this morning. Esmerelda. I told her it was a nice name.”
We started jogging. “How long you want to go?” Max said.
“I don’t know. Forty-five minutes? You have your watch?”
“I don’t know where it is. I think I loaned it to a girl at Monteverde. She goes to Santa Cruz, though. I’ll see her when I get back to school.”

After a few hot, humid days in Montezuma, we climbed on the gringo bus to Alejuela, a small city adjacent to San Jose airport. That evening we walked to a tiny cafe across from our hotel. The eight or ten tables and were full, but one was emptying as we arrived. While we waited for our order, a group of customers gathered at the plate-glass window, talking and peering out at the sidewalk. One of the women came to our table and said something in Spanish. I was clueless. “Oh,” Max said, and got up to join the group. They all seemed to be jabbering at him at once and gesturing toward the street. “Oh, no, no,” Max said, laughing. He came back to the table. “Somebody’s car is parked in the no parking zone and the street cleaner can’t get in. They thought it was ours.”

The next morning we hailed a cab for the short ride to the airport. My wife and I climbed in back with Max in front. The driver, a trim guy in his thirties, asked Max something in Spanish and they launched into a nonstop conversation. The driver spoke rapidly and turned frequently to Max as he threaded his way through Alejuela’s streets. Max answered, “Sí, sí, sí.” I could make out only an occasional word—“Monteverde,” “fútbol,” “horrible.” In school, Max had barely scraped by with Cs in Spanish; now he sounded pretty fluent.

When we got to the airport, my wife and Max grabbed their packs and started toward the terminal while I paid the driver. As I was counting out the money, the driver looked up and, smiling, yelled something to Max. “Sí, amigo,” Max said, waving.
“What’d he say?” I asked Max when I’d joined them.
“‘Come back soon.’”

I asked what they’d been chattering about. “He asked me where I learned Spanish. I said mostly at Monteverde. I told him I took it in junior high, but I was horrible.” He paused. “He saw my Alejuela jersey. I told him I bought it at that Alajuela-Heredia match in San Jose where Heredia’s fans rioted. He saw that match,” he laughed. “He’s a Heredia fan.”

During most of the hour-long flight to San Salvador, I dozed. When I woke up Max was talking to a heavy-set man sitting next to him. He was munching on part of a sandwich the guy had given him and looking at family pictures on the man’s smart phone. “He runs an auto repair shop in Mexico City,” Max told me. “He gave me his name and number and said to call him if I came there.”

I can’t say my doubts were completely assuaged, but by the time we landed in San Francisco I felt a lot better about how Max would do traveling on his own. I admit, though, that my optimism wasn’t totally rational. It was based partly on a cartoonish mental image that kept popping to mind: Max bobbing along over perils and pitfalls on the shoulders of people he’d met and friends he’d made. I was still a little worried, too, that he might lose half the stuff he started out with and that he’d end up making friends he’d be better off without. But then I’m his father. I’m supposed to worry. If you asked him, I know what he’d say: “Don’t worry about it. Tranquilo.”

© Paul Michelson June 2013

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