On Loneliness, or, I Got A New Bike

Loneliness is a combination of circumstance and choice. At least for me it is. There are moments in which, as an expat in a still-strange land (even after seven years), I find myself about as far removed from my previous reality as ever. I frequently feel alone. After white-knuckle drives, shaking potential thieves, or even in seemingly simple transactions. For example, last night I was in a bar in San Pedro, and I ordered a rum and coke. The bartender punched some numbers into a computer, and pulled out a can of Cuba LIbre, a foul swill of a beverage if I’ve ever had one. So I intervened by stating, “could you make me a mixed drink instead of that can?”

She looked at me agast, eyes wide open and whispered “What?” as if I had casually asked her to drop her trousers, defecate in a glass and allow me to lick it like an ice cream cone. So I tried from another angle. “Well, I don’t like that kind of canned rum and coke. I would prefer a mixed drink, with some Centenario rum, please.”

“I can’t do that. I’ve already punched the can into the computer.” This, she informed me, was a permanent action which could not be changed. “Besides,” she said, “the can and the mixed drink both cost the same.” I looked to the other two bartenders standing next to her, pleading that someone have some sense of reason. All I got was some blank googly-eyed stares, like Muppets peddling beer to college students.

In earlier days I would have argued, then gotten all riled up, then stormed out of there, leaving my friends at the table, without their cans of rum and coke. But now, weathered by years of not being able to make myself understood, by thousands of failed transactions, I acquiesced, paid for the can, and returned to my table.

That moment at the bar made me reflect on past experiences, on the days when I was buying that drink for myself, sitting by myself, wondering how the hell I could ever begin to understand the local idiosyncrasies.

I also reflected on how the hell I still haven’t figured it out, after all this time.

Of course, there are many other aspects of culture and language that make an expat feel like a fish out of water here. Dating is a tragic series of misunderstandings and conflicted values. Friendships are formed and fizzle like a dancing Roman candle. And even the expats come and go. Most people use Costa Rica as a temporary springboard, a resting place, a transition between Before and After. Many stick around for six months, a year, some for two or three. But inevitably, they leave. So friendships with expats down here always leads to the going away party, a relationship fleeting like a summer love but without searing passion, like a slow handjob that stops halfway through: better not to even get that started.

So this is what I was feeling as my birthday approached last weekend. This being the start of my fourth decade, a proper celebration was in order, but the truth is I did very little to organize anything. I told a couple of friends a couple of days before the day, and expected to be sitting on my friend’s couch, drinking beer, watching a football game.

So when I arrived and saw my friend Phil in a toga, complete with sprigs of vegetation behind his ears, I was a bit surprised. OK, so we can watch ESPN in togas. That’s cool.

People started filtering in, and before I knew it, the house was full of revelers, and an improvised band complete with guitars, bongos and accordion, was playing House of the Rising Sun, which I belted out with the uninhibited aplomb of the happily inebriated. The crowd laughed and sang, a boisterous international mix of cool people. Then, Happy Birthday, and Phil gave me a sheet of paper which listed contributers to the Stolen Bike Fund. If you’ve read previous posts, you’ll know that my investment in a mountain bike lasted less than 48 hours before it was pried from inside my locked car. So when the song ended and Phil came up behind me rolling a brand new mountain bike, I just about lost it. Or maybe I did. I really don’t know. I was awash in the moment, welling with the realization that I do have a community of people who understand and care about me. For the first time since leaving my family 5,000 miles behind, I felt at home. Entre familia. It was, without a doubt, the best gift I have ever received.

And so the ride continues. I will continue to (mis) order drinks, to unwittingly commit irrevocable faux pas, to embody the boorish gringo. But now, at least, I know I’m not alone.


4 Responses to “On Loneliness, or, I Got A New Bike”

  1. bodyinmotion Says:

    It all sounds so familiar:

    “But you said there wouldn’t be an extra charge!”
    “….” (shrug)

    Glad you had a happy ending this time around and happy belated.

  2. aweb Says:

    New York Magazine’s take on loneliness in a big city:


  3. lelandcedar Says:

    Whew, I’m glad there was a happy ending. About halfway through, I was starting to feel bad about stealing your first bike.

  4. Katherine Stanley Says:

    Man, the whole bit with the bartender and the shitting in a glass just made me break down laughing at a very embarrassing moment at work. Beautiful. The vacant stare, the look of horror.
    The Negrita who washes your dishes is definitely one of the odder cleaning products around, although I would also nominate Baby Aroma-scented Terror! disinfectant for cleaning floors.

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