We are back in Costa Rica and much more in the groove than when we left Canadian soil for who knows how many months abroad. We took the red-eye from Calgary to Liberia, a city in western Costa Rica, arriving early in the morning on November 13, 2016, with four backpacks, a few hundred U.S. dollars, and not a clue as to what we’d do next.

We didn’t plan not to have a plan, you understand. It just worked out that way. I told myself I was taking a page out of our modus operandi when Mark and I travelled through Southeast Asia in 1995–1996: We’d arrive at a new locale and just figure it out. Easy. What I’d forgotten is that for the first city in the first country, you’re green. It can be unnerving to make a decision. This sense of uncertainty is compounded when you are a visible minority who hasn’t slept and who doesn’t speak the language and who has stepped out into the whopping heat and a fray of taxi drivers and who can’t even remember what the local currency is called and who didn’t exchange any in the first place . . . and who now has two kids whining “I’m hot” and “My pack is heavy.”

We had seen currency exchange booths before customs, but I had assumed there’d be more opportunities in the main terminal. Liberia is “a major gateway” to Costa Rica. It was sure to be a happening place.

Well, it’s not.

Our fellow passengers climbed into their shuttle buses and taxi cabs—they had planned their trips—while we enjoyed a bit of air con and tried to think intelligently. On this Sunday morning in this Catholic nation, the airport was downright deserted. I had the feeling we were keeping someone from locking up. Literally no other passengers were milling about.

I began to rue our lack of preparation. We saw a bank—closed. An info booth—closed. No currency exchange, but even so it probably would have been closed. The only sign of life was a convenience store.

We had U.S. dollars, but we weren’t sure how widely they were accepted. We didn’t know what the local currency was called or what the exchange rate was. I’d read this general country info weeks ago but couldn’t remember the details. Why hadn’t I pounced on this information? What an idiot. We had cell phones and could do a bit of online investigating, but we were loath to pay the roaming charges. Both phones were on airplane mode until we could get local SIM cards.

Mark and I peered at each other through tired eyes. We could take a taxi into town, but somehow it seemed wrong to start this trip as tourists. We had to watch our expenditures. And anyway, it was important to calibrate the kids’ expectations from the start. This was not a vacation. A taxi into town might be reasonable by Canadian standards, but it would be many times the cost of a bus. But what bus?

“I’ll buy a drink,” I say to Mark, “and then ask the clerk for help. I’ll try to get change in the local currency.”

I take a moment to review “Where is the bus to Liberia?” in Spanish. I can’t think of anything else to pre-think. Lucas comes with me, and my heart swells that my trusty translator isn’t going to let me falter alone. As it happens, he is thirsty, and he wants to choose the drink. So much for twelve-year-old translators.

The drinks are priced in the thousands of C-somethings. Airport-expensive, probably, but I have no frame of reference. While Lucas chooses a Gatorade and a bottle of water, I think how to say, “Can I pay in dollars?” Why didn’t I study more Spanish? What an idiot.

“Hello,” I test my Spanish on the clerk, “can I pay in dollars?” I give her a ten-dollar bill, which is—huh?—not enough, so I give her another ten dollars and get some thousands of C-somethings in change. The receipt shows U.S. and local currency: two drinks cost twelve dollars (sixteen if your dollars are loonies).

Reeling, and more committed than ever to not taking a taxi, I ask if there is a bus to Liberia.

“Yes,” she says, followed by something that might mean, “and you’d better hurry, because once it’s full, it’s leaving.”

Uh . . . okay. I cannot remember how to say “currency exchange” in Spanish, which, you’ll recall, was a key component of this little excursion. I stand there stupidly, my new persona. I should be trying to think of how to say, “Where is the bus stop?” or “What do you call these C-somethings?” All I can think is, “Twelve U.S. dollars? Geez.” She points behind her and to the left. Presumably there’s a bus stop that-a-way.

“How much?” I manage to ask.

“Blah-bladdity-blah-blah.”

Lucas, trusting no doubt in the competence of his parents, is fixed on the Gatorade, not the substance of the conversation. His unquestioned confidence in my ability to get us from A to B should be heartwarming, but instead is rather jarring. I thank the clerk and make my escape.

Handing the water to Mark, I tell him to enjoy it. That is one valuable bottle right there. I also tell him I think the bus is out to the left, and although I have no idea what it costs or whether the change I have received is enough, we need to get a move on. We hoist our packs. I remember standing outside the airport that morning, aware of the heat more than anything, thinking, “Please let there be a bus to the left.”

I wrote in an earlier post of the cascade of decisions we had to make prior to leaving. The sheer number of tasks compressed into those weeks was overwhelming. I knew we had to make trip decisions. Decisions like, “Where the heck are we going, anyway?” We read books and clicked around websites but seemed unable to nail down a choice. Mexico beckoned. Panama. Costa Rica. Meanwhile, we were bombarded by pressing house decisions, school decisions, business decisions. Trip decisions languished. I was confident we’d have time for everything. After all, weren’t we organized? Weren’t we good at planning? Didn’t we pay attention to details?

In late September we were offered WestJet buddy passes, which, by dint of available destinations and likelihood of getting seats as standby travellers, narrowed the decision for us: Liberia, Costa Rica. By the last weekend of October, we were out of our home. We had two weeks at a friend’s house prior to departure. Instead of researching Liberia or looking up exchange rates, we ploughed through our tangle of loose ends. How could so many ends be loose at once? One might think we weren’t organized, good at planning, or aware of details at all.

There is a bus to the left. Small mercies. Mark is first, though, and ends up paying the driver in U.S. dollars. He gets a bunch of C-somethings in change. The C-somethings in my wallet turn out to be no use whatsoever. At least the drinks were cold. We are the last to board, and the bus is so crowded I’m practically in the doorway. The driver indicates I need to step behind the safety line, which is not going to be possible, but since I try he decides that’s good enough and puts the bus into gear. In other small mercies, he is able to get the door firmly closed.

Standing in the aisle with our packs, only Lucas doesn’t have to hunch over. It’s hot and uncomfortable, and I can feel people’s eyes on us.

“How long is this bus ride?” Syd complains.

In my tiredness, I quibble. “Oh, the last few times I’ve taken this bus the time has varied between ten minutes and an hour. Depends on traffic.”

“Really?” It’s as though she hasn’t lived with me her entire life, has no idea I’ve never been to Costa Rica.

“No, not really.” I give her my mom stare. “It’s going to be as long as it’s going to be.”

I’m still convinced that once we get to Liberia’s bus terminal, it will be a cinch to figure it out from there. We’d arranged for accommodation near Montezuma beach from November 15, which meant we had to figure out two nights somewhere.

Twenty minutes later, we arrive. This can’t be right. Liberia is a major international gateway. This is small town nowhere. The terminal has a covered seating area and is closed along part of the back and side by small eateries. I don’t see anything resembling a town centre or a business district—or even a two-storey building. A taxi driver angles toward us; we are fresh, plump meat.

“Taxi?” He is all smiles. “Where are you going?”

“No, gracias,” I say. I do not say, “We have no idea.”

He hovers nearby, as taxi drivers are wont to do. It’s hot hot and dusty dusty. We’re all sweating beneath our packs. I can see that on a regular day, this place might have a bit of action, but on Sunday morning it’s languid. Think, brain. What now? I don’t want the taxi driver to know we don’t have a clue, never mind a hotel. My brain kicks in to help: Perhaps Liberia has no hotels at all. Of course, that’s ridiculous, but that’s how middle-of-nowhere this bus depot feels. My brain tries again: You are standing around stupidly.

Across the street I notice a little sign for a hostel nailed to a post. An arrow points left. I can practically hear the chorus of angels. This moment encapsulates for me the fascination of travel: You never know what’s around the bend, who you will meet, what will happen. For better or for worse, it’s an adventure—where even the bad times eventually turn into a good story.

I point it out to Mark. Thankfully, with two unhappy children, the hostel is not far. The host is a friendly fellow who speaks fluent English. He’s full, but his mother has a place just up the road, and he’s pretty sure she has a room available. Come back if we have any questions. (We did. He helped us in a number of ways while we were in Liberia, even though we were not his guests; we highly recommend Hospidaje Dodero. We recommend his mom’s place, too: Pura Vida Hostel.) His mother does not speak English, but he has clearly called to let her know we would be coming. She has a family room with a private bath—and air conditioning! Liberia starts to grow on me. The next day, calculating exchange rates, we learn that nobody has shortchanged us on colones.

In the end, our modus operandi from 1995 is resuscitated successfully. It works as well now as it did then—better and better, in fact, the more it is flexed and the more we relax into the knowledge that it is all going to work out, one way or another.