Sandra Benedetto: Pura Vida

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The first time I thought I was about to die was on a small plane in Costa Rica when I was eighteen.

We were on a family vacation that my parents had been planning for the better part of a year.  We spent some time in my aunt’s hometown, visited the Mount Arenal volcano, and went to the Monteverde cloud forest.  We swam in hot springs and went white water rafting.  We slept under mosquito netting in some places or hid under sheets from nightmarishly large insects in others.  Everything people said about Costa Rica was true — it’s breathtakingly beautiful and the people are friendly.  When our rental car died on a mountain road, some local people helped my dad figure out what to do.

The last part of our trip was in a remote part of the country in Corcovado National Park.  To get there we took a small plane with about 30 passengers to a taxi to a boat.  We spent a few days exploring the rainforest, snorkeling, and swimming.  I saw my first nurse shark up close and other animals that I’d never heard of before, like the coatimundi, exotic cousin of the raccoon.

When it was time to go back to San Jose we did the reverse transportation relay with the boat and taxi but when we got to the airport found out that we’d missed our flight.  Our only other option if we wanted to get out that day was to take an even smaller plane, a six-seater.  I’m sure there was some back-and-forth about it, but in the end that’s what we decided to do.  As we stood around on the ground waiting to board we asked our dad if he was nervous about flying in such a small plane.  I could tell from my mom’s expression that she was worried, but it’s best to calibrate these things against my dad because he’s more level-headed than Abe Lincoln, at least as immortalized on Mount Rushmore.  He thought about it for a second, said “No”, and I felt better.

Once we were on the plane and getting belted in I looked around at the cozy interior and thought, Well, this should be interesting.  We were the only passengers other than the pilot and copilot, who were partially visible behind a curtain.  The takeoff went fine, but after we’d been flying for a while we ran into some ‘weather’ in the mountains, the benign term pilots use to describe storms.  I’m convinced that in an apocalyptic mother of all storms the pilot would say, “There seems to be just a little bit of weather up ahead, so make sure you fasten your seat belts and stay seated. The flight crew will be by to pick up your trash and keep up the charade that everything’s just fine, thanks.”

I don’t know that there’s any difference where the laws of physics are concerned, but for some reason the turbulence in that plane was a lot scarier than turbulence I’d experienced on jumbo jets.  I felt vulnerable as we rattled around.  We were Jetsons passing through a spacequake in their little car.  The windows were grayed out by storm clouds, which made me wonder what kind of visibility the pilots had.  By this point the pilot was on his radio and speaking in a tone of heightened anxiety.  I could see him sweating from where I sat.

I looked at my mom, who was gripping her armrests.  She smiled at me the way people smile at each other at a wake, like This is awful, but I’m here for you.  I looked at my sister, who mirrored my expression of Am I right to be alarmed? Wtf is going on?  I looked at my dad, whose demeanor was that of someone riding the Metra, comfortable and a little bored.  He still maintains that he wasn’t at all scared that we were going to die.  I was sure that we would.

Once I came to terms with the fact that our plane was going to crash into the side of a mountain, I hoped for death upon impact.  I’d read Alive and wasn’t keen on deciding whether or not to eat my loved ones in order to survive.  I thought about how much this sucked, but at least I was with my family and at least I’d seen a howler monkey up close.  I thought about my boyfriend and felt comforted by how sad he would be to hear of my tragic demise, as an eighteen-year-old girl is wont to feel.

As you know, we didn’t die.  Eventually we made it past the storm and landed safely in San Jose.  We deplaned wobbly-kneed and green-faced, but no worse for wear.  You might expect that I had a new lease on life, carpe diem and all that.  But I wasn’t transformed by the experience because I could look back and say, “We were never really going to die”.  In truth, I’d been closer to death when my appendix ruptured when I was fourteen.  Our near-death was more a construct of my mind than reality, or at least I can say that because it turned out the way it did.

What the experience did instill in me is the idea that travel is worth the risk.  From our car breaking down in the mountains to the possibility of getting malaria to our scary plane ride, it wasn’t the most comfortable or easy trip, but it was amazing.  You’ve heard the expression, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs”?  Well, you can’t hang with monkeys without a few complications.  Would I still feel the same way if I’d died?  Probably not, but I’d be dead, so there’s no telling.

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4 Comments

  1. Oh, my god! I can relate. We took a regional flight from the Pacific coast to San Jose. I knew it would be a bumpy ride over the mountains, but was unprepared for the plane to be tossed to and fro in some mighty winds. For better or worse, it was clear, so I wasn’t worried about slamming into a mountain. Falling from the air, yes. What a wonderful post!

    1. Very similar experience, yikes! I haven’t been on a small plane since. Have you? Glad (I guess?) that you can relate 🙂

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