As I watched Malu in various settings: enraptured by the sloth bears, her mouth open as she looked through the spotting scope, delicately picking through new tastes and flavors, questioning guides about conservation and history, I caught myself smiling and sighing at the same time. A large part of parenting grown-up children is matching reality with nostalgia. In Costa Rica, freed from our roles, I could observe them without the usual judgement that I foisted as a parent.
Monteverde was cooler than La Fortuna. On our first hike through the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, our guide pointed out tiny wild avocados that bell birds pollinated. And then suddenly, as birds do, a three-wattled bell bird appeared high up on the trees, surreal and otherworldly. “It’s beautiful,” muttered Malu, enraptured. I hugged her. “Isn’t it?” I said, hoping, maybe, she’d one day become a birder like me.
I know that engineering ‘quality time’ is a fool’s errand. Connection and memories happen during unexpected, snatched moments: a hug while facing a volcano, or an eye-lock in the midst of a rapid. But it doesn’t hurt to create the conditions for them. We were due to go ziplining the next day at Sky Adventures park—where, to my luck, there was a supposed to be a quetzal nest.
“Over 50 percent of Costa Rica is returned to nature,” said our ziplining guide. “The official figure is 25 to 30 percent but even commercial reserves like this one leave large parts of the land untouched.”
Ziplining above a cloud forest is, theoretically, not as scary as ziplining over a canyon because of the dense forest cover below. If I fell, the trees would catch me, I told myself. But on the last, longest zipline, both girls took my hand, their eyes worried. As I strapped up, Malu high-fived me. “You can do it, Mom,” she said, before I took off.
I didn’t see the bird that day—but I did manage to slip out the next morning while the girls slept in, and after scarlet-thighed dacnis, guans, and yes, lots of hummingbirds, I finally got my quetzal: two, actually, a glimmering emerald green female, and a transfixing male.
All too soon, it was time to go home.
As a family, I realize we have been fortunate enough to take good trips together. Morocco was one; New Zealand, another. Costa Rica, I have a feeling, will be among the top three. It was for me. As a mother to two strong-willed fiercely independent girls, I walk the line between pride and sorrow. The geographical distance is hard, and I miss their dependence on me. Costa Rica helped me change my perspective: they weren’t slipping away; they were forging ahead. Sometimes I’ll be there, and sometimes I won’t.
As I watched them move gracefully in the forest, giggle with each other, and peruse menus, I realized that trips together would have to be the way that we overcome the continental separation that I feel acutely and daily. Costa Rica connected us in the way that a trip in a new land does. You are all in it together—as a family. Yes, my girls were all grown up. But they were still mine. As Malu said on the last day, “Ma, we aren’t children any more but we are still your kids.”