After three short weeks in Guatemala, I made a last minute decision to cut my Spanish lessons short and book it down to Costa Rica to attend Envision, a festival in Uvita that evolves around art, music and food. I had met several people on my travels that were all making their way to Envision soon, and when I met Sebastien and Kajsa on a boat one day on Lago Atitlan, the spontaneous decision to attend the festival was made, as was a bond of friendship between my new Swedish partner in crime, Kajsa and I. I wrapped up my affairs in San Pedro, let the school and my lovely homestay family know that I was leaving early, and began the preparations for the mad dash south. We decided to take the cheapest route possible, as the tickets for the festival were quite expensive, so we opted for the chicken bus from Guatemala City to Managua Nicaragua for $25, instead of paying $80 for a Tika bus. This is not a bus trip I would have ever decided to take alone, but I figured since I had a friend that it would be easier and safer.
We first had to get to Guatemala city from San Pedro, so we scheduled a shuttle for Monday morning at 5am. We spent the evening packing and excitedly practicing festival face painting on each other until well past midnight. After only a couple of short and broken hours of sleep, we crawled from our beds and made our way to the street to catch our shuttle. I was hoping I could sleep on the five hour ride, but the roads were so bumpy it was out of the question. We took a much different route than the one I took on my way to the lake so the landscape kept my fatigue at bay with its exciting views.
We climbed into the mountains on a small one way dirt road, but inevitably kept meeting other vehicles along the way trying to share the one way road. I understood now why there was always a second driver in the front seat of vehicles- they constantly had to get out and guide the driver to ease as close as possible to the edge of the road, hugging a 1000 foot precipitous drop into a deep valley still filled with mist that had not yet dissipated in the morning sun. The other passenger guides as close to the mountain side as possible without scraping the vehicle against it, the mirrors of the vehicles a mere half inch from brushing into each other as they squeezed past one other. Sometimes vehicles would get stuck on rocks, or wedged into the side of the road and cause a traffic back up. The fact that full size chicken buses took this route was baffling. The drivers here are incredibly skilled and have wickedly high stress thresholds to do this driving day in and day out.
We cruised through these winding narrow dirt roads slowly, bumping along with each dip and hole in the poorly maintained road. The vehicle in front of us was a transport truck with the gate open- it was filled with women and baskets, laughing hysterically at what was surely just another day on the road for them. Soon we’re driving through the middle of a corn field clinging to the mountain side. A small boy stands staring at the spectacle of yet another traffic jam on his long walk to school- it’s only 7am and yet the mountainside is alive with the locals bustling about their lives in the cool morning air. Avocado trees with huge ripe fruits hanging heavy from their branches line the roadside. Sparsely flowered cherry blossoms dot the landscape occasionally, seeming strangely out of place in the high dry mountains.
We finally break out from the switchbacks in the mountains and traffic jams with chicken buses onto the paved high way and begin speeding along at questionable speeds on the winding downhill roads. I have to admit, after being in one place for over two weeks, it felt good to be on the road again. Perhaps I’m feeling for the first time what Kerouac describes over and over in his classic novel On The Road: ‘the road is life’. I felt light and elated, excited about what lay ahead as the landscape whirred past me in a blur, as I moved on to my next adventure.
And what an adventure it turned out to be.
We were dropped off at the airport by our flustered driver who told us he was late and needed to drop us here to take a cab to the buses, which he paid for. We hopped in the cab and expected to be taken to a bus depot of sorts. How very wrong we were. We stopped on the side of a street in downtown Ciuadad de Guatemala. The second we opened our doors we were swarmed, in the very literal sense of the word, by locals hawking their bus service. At least 10 people crowded in and began grabbing our arms, waists, wrists and hands, pulling us this way and that way, literally fighting over us. I was so startled that I was in a bit of shock and couldn’t react with more than utter surprise and nervous laughter; I had no idea what was going on. Kajsa was being pulled in the opposite direction as I felt all too many hands on my body grabbing me, voices yelling over each other half in Spanish, half English promising the best rate.
I got ahold of myself after a minute and then began pushing back and making my way towards Kajsa and grabbed her arm and made sure I didn’t let go. The yelling kept increasing and our cab driver still hadn’t opened the trunk to get our bags. In retrospect I wonder if he was waiting for us to change our minds and ask him to take us elsewhere- like to a real bus depot. But we stuck to our guns and I asked for our bags. As soon as he opened the trunk they began reaching for our bags and trying to take them from us so we would have to follow them. I asserted myself, my protective instincts for my backpack and my entire life inside of it kicking in, and grabbed my bags telling them to back off. Kajsa and I talked to each other by yelling over the rest of them, even though we were standing right next to each other, and picked one of the yelling hawkers and went with him as he promised the lowest price. We walked across the street and saw the ghetto chicken bus we would be taking. It looked nothing like the beauties we saw in Antigua, with their shining chrome, beautiful names and bright paint jobs. This was an old bus, faded and worn.
We had 4 hours to kill before we left, so we decided to go to a raunchy looking restaurant beside the bus- our huge load of bags was too heavy to haul around and we were walking targets in downtown Guatemala city with our packs. Looking back, I can’t believe we ate there. We were starving though, and needed to remove ourselves form the aggressive man trying to get us to buy our tickets and decide if we were making the right decision. We were flustered and anxious after the intense encounter outside the cab. The strange hands grabbing us all over our bodies and pulling us in both directions, the yelling, the aggressiveness- it set us on edge and we needed to calm down so we could think straight.
Kajsa decided to go and look at the other bus, our only other option, and ask prices. The other bus was a bit nicer, but more expensive. The guy we chose to go with outside the cab showed up in the restaurant and lowered his price from $25 each to $20. We decided to stick with our original decision and take the lower price. Kajsa went to buy our tickets while I stayed in the shop with our bags. We ate a simple breakfast of beans and rice, eggs and plantains. I got a coffee and asked for sugar. The bowl came to the table with yellow chunks, brown stains, black bits and other strange things mixed in. I tried to drink the awful coffee without sugar, as I was desperate for a pick me up. I watched one woman chopping chicken on the counter while another tried to chop carrots on the same counter with a dull knife, nearing hacking her hand in the process. We both needed to use the bathroom and almost gagged when we used the facilities. They were filthy and smelled of warm, old urine. I am still in shock that we didn’t get violently ill from eating there. Desperate hunger does strange things to a person…
After breakfast, we loaded our bags into the back of the bus and took the very back seat so we could keep an eye on them. I was so thankful I had locks on my bags, as I didn’t feel safe with them on the bus at all. Our joined seat was wretchedly uncomfortable but you get what you pay for. We sat for two and half hour in the bus watching our bags, practicing our Spanish, waiting for the bus to finally leave the city. We were promised an 18 hour direct ride, and that we would leave at 1pm. We left at 2:30, and ended up taking 22 hours to get to Manauga. The ride was awful. I couldn’t sleep at all. The seat was so hard and uncomfortable, the bus was terribly hot even with the windows open, and the sun pounded in on us. The only saving grace was that we were not packed in like sardines as they usually are on chicken buses- everyone had their own seat and there were even several empty spots. They blasted loud Spanish music over poor speakers and stopped at one point (I’d lost track of what country we were in by this point) and stayed there for two hours, not telling anyone what we were doing or when we would be leaving. We rationed our water as there was no bathroom on the bus and we had no idea how often the bus would make stops, so we ended up a little dehydrated.
We had to cross 3 borders on this bus, which was the most stressful part of the journey- from Guatemala into El Salvador, El Salvador into Honduras and Honduras into Nicaragua. We had no idea what to do at border crossings, and the drivers spoke only in Spanish to us- thank god Kajsa was with me and has a good grip on her Spanish because I was lost. The driver continued his aggressive manner of rushing us on and off the bus at each crossing, yelling at us and herding us like cattle. He took our passports from us, as with all of the other passengers and this left us paralyzed with fear and feeling completely at his mercy. We had to pay entry and exit fees at each border, wait in lines, walk to cross the borders, get sent back and forth from booth to booth, and sometimes open our bags to be searched, all the while being yelled at in Spanish by our crazy driver. Having only 3 hours of sleep the previous night and getting none during the 24 hour trip made the border crossings stressful and frustrating. After the last border crossing into Managua we finally relaxed a little knowing we would soon be off this beast of a bus.
We got in several hours later than expected and luckily a local helped us hail a cab and told us it would cost about $4 to get to bus station- we decided while we were on the chicken bus that there was no way we would take another chicken bus for the remainder of the journey to Costa Rica. There was only one seat left on the last Tika bus out of Managua to San Jose, so we hopped in the cab to the other bus station and luckily there was a bus leaving in an hour and half to San Jose that would get us into town around 10pm. It was $40, double what we paid for half the distance, but we didn’t even think twice. With our tickets in hand, we used the stations wifi and booked a hostel in San Jose so we had somewhere to sleep when we arrived late at night.
The TransNica bus was a dream. It was huge and beautiful, with plush comfortable seats that reclined, air conditioning (unfortunately it’s so hot in Manaugua that air conditioning during the day time hardly makes a difference, yet works only too well in the evening!) tv’s and movies; they even served us dinner and a chubby coke! We were in heaven, so wildly appreciative of the luxury being showered up on us for the last leg of the journey.
At the border into Costa Rica, we looked around at our fellow bus mates and began making assumptions as to who was coming to Envision. We starting chatting to some of them and proved our assumptions right. I met a guy named Greg from Toronto and when he heard I was from Yellowknife he jokingly asked if I knew a girl named Aaliyah. I said her last name and he was shocked that I knew her. He told me he went to Bonaroo with her and so I asked if he also knew my best friend Jahliele and her boyfriend Jeff who also attended that festival last year with Aaliyah, and he of course knew them- once again I learn what a strangely small world we live in. We all hit it off and decided we were definitely going to the festival together.
At the border office, we went to get stamped and ran into an issue- they wouldn’t let us into the country without proof of a return ticket leaving the country. We began talking to others in line behind us about this issue, realizing we all had the same problem. Luckily we were able to book a return bus ticket from San Jose to Managua for $24 just outside the border gate and leave the dates open so we could enter the country.
Arriving in San Jose was a massive relief. We checked into our hostel with our new friends, but I ended up spending most of the night feeling ill. I had the shakes and chills and couldn’t sleep more than two hours all night. I was a wreck. I desperately needed sleep and hydration. I only had about 3 hours of sleep in the last 48 and had hardly drank any water. We had two days in San Jose, so we spent it resting, getting to know our new friends, hitting up the mall down the street, and taking the bus to Wal-Mart for a fun three hour adventure to load up on supplies for the festival.
I went to bed early our last night and got about 4 and half hours sleep – I was up at 345am to shower, pack and catch a cab to be at the bus station for 5am again. We wanted to be an hour early to ensure we would get a ticket as the buses would be slammed with all the festivalgoers. Luckily we got seats one of three packed buses and settled in for the 5 hour ride to the coast to Envision Festival near Uvita. Kajsa and I passed the time quickly by giving each other hair thread wraps, learning how to do them on each other, and before we knew it we had arrived.
Unloading our massive amount of gear, our crew of four headed down to get in the long waiting line. The heat was heavy and humid. Massive palm trees towered over us offering highly sought after shade. The line was endless and we spent over 5 long hours in the heat of the day, rationing our water, meeting new people and making new friends that we ended up camping with for the festival. As hard as the line up can be, with the heat, the sun, and the anticipation of just wanting to get inside the grounds, it’s an integral part of the festival. It allows you to meet new people easily and bond with others who are here for the same reason you are- to spend a few days in the jungle dancing to marvellously loud electronic music all night long, to take part in workshops, practice yoga, and swim in the ocean at sunset.
Envision was a dream. I have high expectations for festivals of this genre- electronic music, on site camping, workshops and art. After attending Shambhala in BC, Canada, anyone would have high expectations that are hard to beat! But Envision stood up well to the test.
The grounds were amazing. We were in the jungle, but much of the land had been cleared and it was mostly grassy with huge trees scattered around, most of them on the outside acting somewhat as a border for the grounds. Everything was lush and green, and the ocean was a one minute walk through a rabbit hole like pathway. There were 2 huge main stages, and two smaller stages. The main stage, Luna, was encompassed by a structure of a jaguar sitting in lotus position, with two sets of hands in chin mudra. There were intricately built jungle like gym structures of wood that you could climb atop to reach platforms to watch the stage from or listen to the howlers monkeys from, a plank like walkway with railings connecting one to another, with hammocks strung here and there on the lower sections. The bathrooms were compostable outhouses who’s walls were built from black mesh material that helped keep the smells down. The main street where the food market and vendors were was nicely laid out with another structure in the center for people to play in. Acro yoga workshops were offered here so you could fly and then grab a smoothie and life changing falafel afterwards. A huge slide made of wood and bamboo was erected and you had to climb up the jungle gym like structure stairs on one side and make the long walk across the thin plank structure to get the slide. You grabbed a potato sack and sent yourself flying down the slide squealing with delight while the yogis practiced putting their flyers into throne position below.
A hanging trampoline swung ever so slightly in the breeze from a tree with lazy festival goers snoozing on it in the shade of the branches above. Two shaded areas acted as yoga spaces for workshops, which were held daily, from hatha to shamanic, hoola hoop classes to meditation.
The days were long and stiflingly hot. We were driven out of our tent each morning the second the sun made contact, the heat of it creating a sauna inside the thin nylon covering us. After crawling out and gasping for fresh air, pounding back a litre of water, we headed to the festival center to drink fresh coconut water as the staff cracked them open for us with their expert machete skills. It dribbled down our chins as we greedily gulped it down and felt it instantly rejuvenate our hot, tired bodies. A trip to the beach to swim in the ocean and attempt to cool down became a daily ritual after the coconuts. The ocean was warm, but still slightly refreshing. We ran as fast as we could into the tepid waters and dove under the waves. We played sometimes for hours without noticing the time pass; the waves providing endless entertainment for us. After long hours spent swimming and body surfing on the waves, the growling of our tummies lured us back to the festival center where we inhaled falafels- I’m telling you, it’s the best falafel any of us have ever had in our lives. We attempted once to try other food but soon realized it was in vain- nothing could compare to the heaven that was the falafel. At four am one day, as I was waiting in line to get another falafel, I struck up a conversation with a man who was devouring the one he just ordered. The conversation was of course about how delicious they were, and he informed me that it was his 5th of the day. This didn’t even shock me. That’s how good these were.
The afternoons were spent practicing acro yoga or attending one of the workshops (usually yoga). To keep cool, we would cover ourselves in blue clay brought in from a spa an hour away. Letting the thick mud cover our naked bodies, we laughed at each other in our avatar like skins. We would lie on the beach in the sun letting it dry and crack before rubbing it off and exfoliating our skin. Diving into the ocean we would let the huge waves wash the clay from our bodies, leaving them silky soft.
Before you knew it, night would be descending on the festival. You could feel the energy shift from day to night as the crowds rushed through the rabbit hole to the beach for the sunset swim and drum circle. Swarms of thousands of people filled the beach as bongos, congas and other hand drums pounded heavily into the tangerine sky filling the beach with a tribal sound as people splashed in the waves and others let the beat of the rhythm take their bodies and danced, swinging and swaying their bodies wildly. Fire poi, staffs and wands burned brightly, dancing among the bodies, spinning to the rhythm of the drums, their bright light matching the burning orange of the sky as the sun sunk beyond the horizon. As darkness descended, the hoards- dripping with salt water and sweat, vibrating with the energy of the dance- blindly made their way back through the rabbit hole to get ready for the night.
The drums and dancing acted merely as a catalyst for the shift in energy from the day time, and the sunset was but a strong metaphor for the transformation that takes place as day melts into night at the festival. With the heavy heat of the sun now gone, people’s energy picks up. Anticipation for the music and dancing builds as people head back to their camps to get dressed up in their festival clothing and face paint, to truly become one with the music and dance of the evening. They take time painting strange lines and dots, tribal like inspiration coming from deep within their subconscious as they drag the paintbrush across their cheeks. Finally ready, as the crowds move from the camps back towards the stages, the energy becomes palpable. It sizzles in the air and vibrates with the bass of the music thundering off in the distance. It simmers inside the souls of us, bubbling through our blood; manifesting in our feet as they hop and shuffle to the music the closer we get to the stages. Everyone gets a little weird when night sets in- we let our inhibitions go and surrender our bodies and minds to the music and the madness.
With our painted faces, slippery, sweating bodies, huge smiles, and full hearts, we dance our way through the crowds, looking back at each other between wild flailings, laughing hysterically, encouraging each other with our smiles. This is what we came here for. This is why we traveled across 4 countries. This is why we attend festivals. This is why we dance: to attempt to satiate the insatiable desire within us to move fluidly, uninhibited, wildly and freely. For the exquisite feeling of complete surrender. For the blissful ecstasy of freedom from ego, self, society and all their restraints. For the euphoric feeling it releases within us when we simply let go and move.
Envision was a dream. It brought together a group of souls from all over the world and bonded them through dance, sweat, music, salty ocean waves, mud baths, falafels, and yoga. We spent 5 days in that jungle, entering her humid embrace as strangers, and leaving as life long friends, a tribe of our own.