Traveling to Costa Rica with Three Women, a Crocodile Killer, and Bambi

The travel story of how one man and three women leave USA to conquer their jungle of traveling fears

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Costa Rica Travel Stories | by Trevor Huffman | photo by Deva Darshan on Unsplash

“You commonnnn man or what?” Bambi says, waiting impatiently. “The crocooo-dile is outta-the river, you no worry man.”

Bambi confirmed earlier the crocodile was in fact from the Rio Suarez, as the bottoms of our knees hit the scarlet-brown water that flowed into the Caribbean. His large black and brown dreads crawl out from beneath a garbage bag on his head, while his black and yellow marijuana socks look like Slinkies on top of his black Adidas shoes. There are holes where the rubber toes used to be. Bambi is our Rastafarian, homeless host and friend in the minuscule town of Cahuita, Costa Rica, the gregarious leader of our two-mile trek through the jungle. We are a few miles from the Punta Cahuita, where you can see the mile-long white foaming barrels of point break waves. Truthfully, I didn’t care about the waves as much I wanted to see a Fer de Lance, the snake that could kill a man with a drop of venom or better, this crocodile Bambi had told us about that had eaten two full-grown men and crept away back into the Rio Suarez.

I look down the basin of black water flowing towards me, studying the surface. Behind me, Chey is cracking up, her white teeth and blue eyes gleaming and pinching in a backdrop of shadows. Jules and Bailey, well, to put it nicely, are not smiling. They stand frozen, their chests not moving. Breath guys, I want to say. Just breathe. Jules nervously glances up at me as big glops of tears form in her eyes and Bailey scrubs her hand through her orange-brown hair. She is perplexed.

“He wants us to walk where?” Bailey says sarcastically.

“Guys, listen, there is no crocodile,” I say confidently, scanning the river for red, glowing eyes. You know those eyes, the ones you see in the movies or National Geographic Planet Earth documentaries where for two seconds, two sets of magma eyes glow and then disappear under the water to come to hunt you down, whirl-dervish-spin-and-then-death-twirl-murder-you with 10,000 pounds of vice-like pressure as you’re clutched underwater between their three-inch T-Rex incisors.

Thanks, but no thanks.

Seriously though, death by suffocation by a 20-foot crocodile sounds like a fucking horrible way to go. I mean, what, I survive the initial attack only to be dragged unconscious to a crocodile den to be eaten at their leisure?

This is actually my worst nightmare— where are those fuckin’ magma eyes?

I kick my foot violently as a small, slimy fish slides between my toes. I realize true fear comes at the silliest of times, or when you think you can actually, (like literally) be eaten by a man-eating crocodile.

“Follow me guys,” Chey says confidently. “We got this.”

Stay present, Trevor. Stay present. She’s right, I can’t let them die out here, I think to myself — I promised them that much.

Six Months Earlier Before Traveling to Costa Rica

“You want to invite Jules and Bailey to Costa Rica?” Chey asks me smoothly over the phone.

“Are you serious? You can’t be serious — wait, you aren’t serious are you?”

There is silence.

She is serious.

Chey is short for Cheyenne, and she is one of my best friends — an adventure traveler and a woman confidante — I had met eight years earlier. Many people were friends with Cheyenne, but few knew her. I understood how her Cheyenne-tology worked and why she was able to save people from themselves — in 15 minutes or less. She is an enigma and has an encyclopedia of experience outside the American bubble, while getting her PhD in Educational Leadership. She, her mother Gayle, and stepdad Bruce had built the jungle cabin in the south of Costa Rica near the Panama border. I had met her outside Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she had spoke to me like no other woman had — authentically, to the place inside me that wondered why I was who I was, why I thought the way I thought, and acted the way I acted.

Basically, she got to the root of me. Chey saved me in many ways, not just from a jungle snake (*she did actually save me), but from myself; from the demons of my own habits, narcissism, lack of awareness, choices, and fears. She was magical in this sense, in getting me to think outside myself, and mostly, grow.

That’s part of the reason why I love traveling with her now, because she makes you peel in layers like an onion, removing the old, stale plies and outdated folds you didn’t know existed inside you. Chey understood I was okay with being nothing at one point of my life, to live as a shell of the man I once was as a pro athlete.

I think back to how I had traveled the world for 12 years doing what I loved and how once I stopped, the truth hit me: change your identity and your adaptability to uncertainty, your positive mindset, and life’s momentum diminish exponentially. And that shit is really fucking hard to get back once you lose it.

I asked myself constantly: what’s the point of living a life with no connection or passion?

I had done everything I wanted to. I had loved. I had dreamt. I had achieved. I had enough money to last me for twenty years, especially if I lived in Costa Rica or Mexico on a sailboat. If a fucking plane went down with me in it, I’d smile and thank the Universe for blessing me.

But Cheyenne-tology taught me why not giving up matters. And she did it by reminding me that little things do matter. And then, they don’t matter. We have a brutally honest friendship, which is why her Traveling-with-Jules-and-Baily-for-the-Friends-Make-A-Wish-Foundation was a huge stretch.

I knew Bailey and Jules would try to bring some colossal 50-pound baggage on rollers, a set of pumps, and maybe some kind of shimmer night dress made for Vegas. And all I know is Cahuita, Costa Rica barely has paved roads.

“Chey, you know they will hate it.”

“They may, but we can take care of them. Think of how much fun we will have with those two weirdos knocking knees and dancing into the sunrise sipping our Costa Rican rum?”

I chuckle, thinking back — the vivid memory of Jules slamming her knees together to some 190 beats per minute salsa music in an Ann Arbor nightclub. And then Bailey, her worm dance down a gravel pathway, her toes smashing into the ground or how her eyebrows danced like candle flames as the black and Latin men circled the wagons to catch them by their hips, whipping their arms up and around and over and down and watching the salsa giggles happen.

“We are four whiter than white suburbanites. We stick out wherever we go and we usually go where we shouldn’t. Chey, seriously, I love them, but they will hate this, and us — forever.”

“But Trev, those knees will be fucking rocking won’t they?” she says, laughing. “You really think they won’t have fun?”

“True,” I say.

Our group, “the wifeys,” and I had so many hilarious nights over the years. My heart starts tugging towards yes.

“But Chey, they can’t bring big bags, or guns, or mace. I’m going to be inside a big estrogen bomb for a week.”

“You’ll be fine.”

“Chey, have Jules and Bailey ever been out of North America, and no Cancun doesn’t count, nonetheless into a third world country where you roll up your paper mache-shit-stained toilet paper and throw it into a plastic bin next to you?”

Chey bursts out in laughter.

“Jesus Trevor, you worry too much.”

In Costa Rica, you can actually get seriously hurt, or die if you wander into rip tide or don’t watch where you step on a jungle trail, because you may or may not have a brown recluse in your shoe, a black widow dangling in your shower, or a Fer de Lance sunbathing on your path. What if this isn’t the right place for “the wifeys,” I think to myself. Maybe a plush resort, but not the jungle life. Not Cahuita.

“Trevor, seriously — what do you think?”

I exhale loudly and snort in the phone, “They won’t be comfortable Chey. You know they won’t. Plus, where are we all gonna sleep? My back is made for beds. What if they hate it? We won’t even fit in James Brown’s taxi.”

“Hmm, they’ll be fine.”

I look at my hands, the skin is filled with generous sunspots, wrinkled, and the pores look like minuscule golf ball divots. I think about time. About my life. About the fact that I’m not getting any younger. About how lucky I am to be able to travel. Even with the ladies, I know there is something special about the sound of this trip, about the journey of traveling to Central America to test our comfort zones.

“Okay.”

“Okay, let’s?”

“Let’s do it, Chey. Let’s show them the goddamn time of their goddamn lives.”

Six Months Later in San Jose Airport, Costa Rica

I sip slightly burnt Lavazza coffee above the departure gate area, awaiting the ladies. I watch outside and notice the tourists lines with different types of people — from pastel ironed Polos to Louis Vuitton bags to dirty jeans and sandals that barely discern cement from the pads of grungy feet. I look for our taxi driver, someone named James Brown, a black man with thick wrists and sausage fingers, a crowning white head, and golden-ringed brown eyes that talks with a Jamaican accent. Instead, I see Bailey high-stepping it towards me with a smile on her face.

“Bailey, why do you have orange hair?” I want to ask, but she beats me to it.

“I know, I KNOW — my stylist just overdid it! I’m going to change it when I’m back. In fact, I actually went out and made it better with some brown color from Walgreens. It was actually like Neon Orange, like the actress from Fifth Element,” she says grinning, opening her arms to give me a hug. “Bring it in T-daddy. Give yo momma a hug.”

“Shit, I love that movie,” I say laughing. “I’d totally bang that girl — .”

“Oh Trevor, so good to see you again,” she says, both laughing in unison.

Bailey is one of the most thoughtful people you know, the type of person that actually makes you feel guilty for not thinking or doing any of the nice things we all think about doing, but she actually does, with ease. She hands me a t-shirt that reads, Costa Rica 2018: Hubby #1. Bailey is full of thoughtfulness, walks semi-pigeon toed, and has jokes, wit, and sarcasm for days. She also finds dating extremely hard and openly talks about her disastrous online dates as much as I do. She listens to 80’s music and lives in Detroit and is very close to her parents.

“Are you nervous? You guys ready to face some fears?” I ask her, as she settles into her seat.

“I am. But excited, mostly.”

I prune through my carry-on. I have everything I need. My Bob Marley sandals. A pair of running shorts. Two pairs of swim trunks. A t-shirt. Three tank tops. A pair of running shoes. Three pairs of Nike socks. A leather travel writing journal. A book titled, Mindset — The New Psychology of Success.

“Actually, now that I think about it. I’m more nervous about this drive through the rainforest mountain you guys keep talking about. Does he really drive like a maniac?”

“You’ll be fine. James Brown is the best driver in Costa Rica.”

Bailey knows I’m lying and she is sweating, and the airport is air-conditioned, and the white and pearl marble glints as the thousands of people shuffle by ambling through the corridors. A few minutes later, I see Jules coming, her wavy black hair bouncing like it’s been pressed through an Italian spiral maker. She is lean, tall, and she yells her fucking luggage is already lost with Avencia Air before she even gets to us. She is trying to laugh, but Jules is the one I’m worried about the most. I know the thought of spiders, snakes, and third world travel scare the living shit out of her.

But I’m so proud both of them came. I’m proud because I didn’t know if they actually would. It’s like we are celebrating our friendship in a way that feels like we are letting go of something we’ve all held onto for too long.

“It’s all right, we’ll get it Jules. They will bring it to us.” I say, actually full-on lying to her. “Do you have anything in your carry-on?”

“Yeah, my goodamn makeup kit. What the hell is that going to do for me in the jungle?”

Bailey and I laugh, yet I know there are no addresses in Costa Rica. There is actually a legitimate chance her luggage is being carried away by some short, stout Caribbean woman named Juanita that doesn’t speak English and will never be seen again. I envision the airline baggage guy looking for us in Cahuita, walking along the giant palm trees and corner shacks and restaurants that have stood the test of time. Telling them 300 feet past Coco’s Place is the best chance she has at ever seeing her luggage again. I give Jules a big hug and sniff her hair and she belts out a cry. “Stop it you creepo!”

“God, your hair is like an angel’s armpit.”

“Stop it. You sick bastard,” she says laughing. I hug her tight. She feels like the sister I never had.

Yet, Jule’s laugh is one-of-a-kind, so full and genuine, almost compelling you to laugh with her. She makes me belly laugh with ease. And I can tell she is trying to hold her composure about not having her bags. I tried to tell her while traveling through third world countries, you must understand you’ll almost always see or have something happen you’ve never seen or happen before — meaning you can never fucking anticipate what will ever truly happen next.

That you have to let go of what you think is supposed to happen and accept what is actually happening.

Jules shrugs and sits down with us. I feel the “travel tingles” in my soul. The light feeling that feels like you are falling in love over and over again. I fucking love this travel stuff. Fifteen minutes later, Cheyenne strides up to us. She is last, which is odd. Usually, the mother hen is always first, but not today. Chey is short and blonde, her curly hair cutting across her neck in a straight line. Her small body, even fully extended, is packed with muscles. Her shoulders, legs, and thighs bulge and ripple as she walks toward us like a racehorse, moving in gracefully quick steps. She tilts her head side to side as she walks, bites her thumbnail, and moves her magnetic blue eyes to us. For as long as I’ve known her, she chews her fingernails to a pulp, until they bleed red and she has to suck on them to stop.

“HOLA AMIGOS!” she yells. She has a leather satchel over her arm, and a backpack that looks as tall as her. I immediately smile and feel my cheeks burn.

Chey is here.

Six Days After James Brown Drives Us Through the Costa Rican Rain Forest

The morning we leave for the National Park, everything feels normal. Life is good. I felt good about the trip so far. Yeah, it was a few days in, and I had been slightly overwhelmed by estrogen and women and all the things that they talk about (the boys, the boys, the boys!), but I was still having a fucking amazing time. Plus, I could always retreat into the silence of the cabin’s mosquito net beds and listen to the ocean storm into us on the edge of the jungle nestled 20 feet away. From the second floor, I could see black volcanic sand and frothy white waves rolling through leafy green palm leaves the length of cars that spread out past the rainbow teak trees a hundred feet up. This beautiful, dense jungle, wildlife, and ocean reminded you nature was the all-omnipotent God.

“Bambi, you sure we’re good?” I ask halfway through our crawl into the dark river. I notice a ripple in the water and point at it. “Shhh. Shhhh. Don’t move.”

Jules grabs my arm and hides on my left shoulder. “Do you see it guys? Is that moving right there?” I ask quietly.

“Ohhh c’mon mannn,” Bambi shouts. “Ain’t nuttin’ at all. I can’t see — “

“SHHHHHH. OH SHIT. OH SHIT!”

Something has my leg and I push Jules out of the way. It’s the least I can do to save her. It’s the least I can do before I go and live my nightmare in the crocodile den.

“NOOO. WHY ME? WHY ME?”

Something grabs my ankle and clenches down on me. I am sucked into the water. The strong current takes me. I push off one last time.

“HELP. HELP CHEY!”

But it’s over. I close my eyes float towards the bottom of the river. I see black, and feel the cold, dark water swallowing me whole. Then just as I think I’m my lungs are going to explode, I put both feet on the sandy bottom of the riverbed and throw myself out of the water like a whale breaching the ocean. My head explodes through the surface and I gasp for air.

“JUST KIDDING WIFEYS!” I scream. Jules and Bailey were already high step sprinting towards the beach. Maybe this wasn’t such a good prank after all.

“You fucker Trevor,” Chey says looking back at me, grimacing. “You know they are scared, now they are never getting in the water again.”

“GUYS! I’M KIDDING. SORRY. COME BACK!”

Bambi moved the garbage bag from his head, fully bent over in a giggling fit. “Trevoooh, you ah funny man. You have dem jokes for dem ladies all of da time dontcha?”

“Yes, Bambi. I learned from you my man.”

I walk towards them. It was wrong, but felt so right. As I near them, their faces are murderous. They are ready to kill me. “Hey guys, I’m sorry, I mean, what is life without a little crocodile adventure, right?”

Why Our Fears Traveling in Costa Rica Matter

When I was a kid, I used to know when something was wrong with my mom. My mother, whom I thought was the eternal optimist, used to cry on her bed during the day when my father was away and I never knew why. I could just sense when she was sad; when something wasn’t right. And when I would ask her what was wrong she would say, “Because life isn’t fair sometimes honey.”

A diatribe about why traveling off the beaten path to third world countries is much like life wouldn’t really tell you the whole Costa Rica story. Yes, we all know life is uncertain. Life can be unfair and just like travel, it teaches you how to adapt and accept certain uncertainties. But travel is more than acceptance. It’s actually an experiential way to question your own beliefs, your lifelong judgements, your idea of faith, of God, of nature, of culture, of philosophical differences, of life outside the American bubble, and how life’s joy is mainly dependent on what mindset we have and practice, regardless of poverty, or environment, or circumstance.

Maybe it is easy for me to say that because I’m white, college educated (barely), and privileged to see the world. But the basic premise of travel for me remains the same, that giving our love and kindness to friends and strangers alike, in daily life, while questioning what value the things, people, and lifestyles we have give back to us matter more than what happens or things we collect in this life.

Today is actually always changing and whatever was fair yesterday, may not be fair tomorrow.

That night, after the crocodile prank and a long evening of dancing, and drinking rum under the moonlight and blinking stars listening to reggae, the four of us sat on the stoop and talked about our lives. I’ll never forget this night, proudly beaming after seeing Jules and Bailey conquer so many of the fears they once had (and ones that I never knew existed). The horse back rides. The jungle walks. The bike rides on dirt roads. The simple living and outdoor showers. The rice, guacamole, and black bean bowls that I could eat for an eternity (no seriously, my last dinner on Earth is that bowl of heaven).

“Why did Chey get that wild mustang?” I ask laughing. “Did you guys see her hold onto that saddle horn like she was being ejected by a jackhammer?”

“Oh my god. The bucking gallop. The hilarity — ,” Jules says, laughing. “I can’t believe we made it out of there with no one getting hurt.”

“Amen,” Bailey says. “A to the MAN.”

“I’m really proud of you guys. You’re doing wonderfully. I love you guys so much,” Chey says quietly. “The fact you crossed that river after what Trevor did was a feat in itself.”

“FACT,” I yell. “You ladies should be proud. So many firsts already accomplished on this trip, how do you feel about them so far?”

Bailey rubs her fingers through her hair, then puts her hand back on her leg as Jules shakes her wavy black hair. She is staring at me and an odd feeling comes over me. “Well, Trevor. You’re an ass for that prank, but am glad you’re here. It’s nice to have at least one dude with us. I feel so lucky to have you guys pushing me to do things I usually wouldn’t — or normally shouldn’t try.”

“Yeah,” Bailey says. “I’m really enjoying this, other than James Brown making me want to puke plantanes on that drive, I feel fortunate to have said yes to this amazing trip.”

“Great,” Chey says. “I’m glad we get to do this. I feel lucky to have friends like you where you can pick up where you left off, even after months of not seeing each other. It’s rare you know, to go out and travel and be uncomfortable while you explore the world with friends?”

Everyone shakes their head in agreement.

“So what’s next? What’s on tap for tomorrow, Chey?”

“Do you guys want to go horseback riding again?” she jokes.

We break into a cackle of giggles, swearing under our breath, “Yeah, fuck that,” Jules says.

“My taint ain’t gonna be right for months,” I say flatly. The idea of getting pummeled by a saddle for three hours while galloping along the beach is the last thing on my mind.

“I literally can’t feel my legs. I’ve never galloped that much,” Bailey says and I sadly realize we only have two days left. Our trip is coming to end, which means getting my phone out and checking emails and catching up on business calls and being back in the states living the fast life.

I already miss the simplicity. I wonder if they feel the same way.

“You guys know I haven’t checked my phone in four days. It’s beautiful isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Jules says, standing up suddenly. “I’ve actually been waiting, but I wanted to tell you guys this now, while I feel good.”

Chey looks down, a crease forming in her forehead. Something has been on her mind. She hasn’t been her usually chippy self today, and it isn’t like her.

“What’s up?” I ask, looking at Jules. I see my mother in her eyes, something is hurting her on the inside.

“Yeah, what’s going on darling,” Bailey asks softly. I sense the moment descending upon us as the slow vacant sound of Caribbean waves crash in the background.

“Well, I know this isn’t really great timing, but I thought while we are out here conquering fears… I have something else to conquer now and I’d like your help doing it.

“Sure,” we all say in unison.

“Guys, I have breast cancer and I’d like you to help support me and fight it.”

*Actually, the year before Jules and Bailey came with us, Chey and I saw two vicious looking snakes near the same trail in the same jungle. One green vine snake came sprint-slithering at us from the middle of the jungle in attack mode and I nearly shit myself. This thin vine-like snake was literally in a non-gravity state with it’s head hovering over the jungle floor as it slither-rushed us. For the record, Chey pushed me, and I ran and then left Chey in the dust.

As the rule goes in the jungle, you don’t have to be the fastest person to survive, just don’t be the slowest. The other snake was a hog-nosed pit viper resting on a log near the trail. It’s said to be one of the smallest, most poisonous snakes in the world. I wanted to pet it before Chey told me it would kill me. I wisely chose not to.

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“Do it or don’t do it.”

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