Two months ago I posted my last blog confessing all of my fears about my upcoming trip to Costa Rica. I did not in fact get lost in the rainforest or provide a snack for a large crocodile. I did almost get diverted to Nicaragua, but the weather goddess lifted the fog in San José just in time for us to land.
My Costa Rica trip was a small group tour through Overseas Adventure Tours. Fifteen of us put our lives into the hands of our guide Alfredo Scott and our driver Sammy for eleven days. This is the first guided tour I’ve been on since a high school tour of Europe with America’s Youth in Concert, and I actually had more freedom on that tour to explore on my own. This one was highly scheduled and very social. I found myself, therefore, appreciating moments of solitude and seeking out opportunities for quiet reflection, in order to fully appreciate the fantastic experiences I was having. I noticed a few others doing the same. Here, then, are a few tips for taking a solo retreat during a group tour:
Take an early morning or evening walk. Nearly all of our lodging was in beautiful surroundings, perfect for a meditative mindfulness walk. I’ve never been a birdwatcher, but Costa Rica opened my eyes to the fact that birds appreciate the sunrise. The sunsets were spectacular on the Pacific side of the country.
Find a solo seat on a bus or boat occasionally. If that isn’t possible, remember that silent meditation with eyes closed looks like napping. No one will think anything of your occasional five or ten minute “rest.”
Hike “alone” between clumps of conversing walkers or a few feet behind the group. Doing this for a few minutes at a time is not antisocial and allows you to look at the wonders around you more closely.
Stagger time alone in the room with an understanding roommate. Mine was a woman in her seventies who had lived alone for many years; we both respected each other’s needs for quiet and privacy. She usually awoke earlier than the birds and silently did her morning exercises, then went for a walk. (I didn’t.) She drank neither coffee nor alcohol, so I left the room early for both breakfast and dinner, and we tended to return at different times. I usually stayed up later reading quietly or journaling.
Spend time each day journaling. Thinking during each day what you will want to record helps you stay more aware of each moment. I kept an unofficial notebook for scribbles during the day, then wrote a more polished account in my travel journal.
Photograph details, not just scenes. Train yourself to look for unusual bits of beauty or whimsy. Use your camera as a journalist to record events, but also as an artist. Like leaves which have arranged themselves in a spiral to catch every bit of available light, focus on truly seeing and understanding what is around you.
Just Say No once in a while. My mantra for Costa Rica was to say yes to every opportunity, especially the activities I was afraid of, but I drew the line once at an environmental craft activity making paper bags or placemats out of old newspapers. (I’ve already paid my dues as a Girl Scout leader.) I used the time for a walk around the gardens and a session reading Martin Chuzzlewit.
Let unpleasant moments be a learning experience. The talkative companion who interrupts and finishes your sentences, not in the way you might? Notice when you do the same thing to others. The rice and beans two and three times a day? Notice that Costa Ricans have fewer weight problems than Americans. The heat and humidity? It’s free; we pay for time in a sauna at home. The horse that makes your inner thigh muscles ache? There’s a reason for that machine at the gym–now you have inspiration. The gecko on the ceiling of your room? You’ve intruded into his habitat, not the other way around!
Finally, let these moments of solo relaxation and contemplation be only part of your tour, which refresh you and let you enjoy the company of the people around you. I will always treasure these eleven days of traveling with enthusiastic, friendly people, a driver who always knows where the next clean bathroom is, and a guide with expertise in everything from rhinoceros beetles to international diplomacy.