“Alajuela” – c’mon, say it with me: ALA-HU-ÉLA.
This is where we are, an old town of sugarcane fields and coffee plantations. Caffeine and rum. Pura vida Costa Rican style. About 20 miles northwest of San Juan, in the foothills of a volcano, Poás, still active and looking for virgins.
We linger in an eco-friendly resort called Xandari, where they grow their own vegetables and lay their own eggs. There are exotic birds by the breakfast patio, pools, real waterfalls, orange groves, and – off the beaten path – a majestic grove of chattering golden bamboo – sky high.
But that is not all: After only a couple of days in Xandari my pain is gone.
Same for my wife Jane, who is very much in touch with her body. Actually, she notices it first, as she informs me at the breakfast buffet. Fruit, homemade yogurt and granola for her. Scrambled eggs mixed with black beans and ham for me.
“You know,” she says, “my neck feels better.”
She tilts her head sideways and front-to-back hearkening for that potential ‘ouch’.
“Good,” I say. “You have been complaining about your neck for some time now.”
“Well …” she says.
“I don’t mean complaining complaining,” – soothingly – “but asking for neck-rubs and shoulder rubs …”
“I shouldn’t have to ask,” she says.
The night before, out on our patio, I had ground my thumbs into pressure points left and right of her upper spine until they started to dislocate – the thumbs – guided only by little groans and moans rather than by osteopathic know-how.
“What about you?” she asks. “Does your arm feel any better?”
We’d had had a massage on our second day in Xandari and ever since, people have been inquiring about its benefits.
“Your husband arm, it feel good, yes?” the spa lady asks every time we stop by for green tea after a round of birding. I then rotate my arm, shoulder to ear, and make affirmative noises.
“But what about your neck?” my wife persists. She wants me to book another massage. Turning my head to check on intersecting traffic had become a bit of an issue lately.
I crane my head left, then right, and other than some little popping noises there seems to be a little more rotation as the pros call it. “I think it’s better,” I say.
For days now, I have been getting up at 5:30 a.m. to go birding with Jane and her mom. We share one set of binoculars, and I am getting pretty good at aiming. Walk a few steps, stop for a while, look about, purposefully. Listen… Minimal conversation – birding is right down my alley.
I don’t worry about names. Back in Massachusetts we don’t have Gray-blue Tanagers, speckled tail-bobbing Wrens or those orange-red jobbies down in the orange grove.
“I think I’m having a delayed reaction to the massage,” I say a few days later. A tentative roll of the shoulder. My lower back seems more flexible.
“Good,” Jane says. “Also could be the hot tub.”
We are standing down by the ‘sunset pool’, Jane in birder’s-stance. She is looking for the Blue-crowned Motmot she saw there earlier. “You’ve got to see them,” she says. “There were two of them.”
I stand next to her, scanning the canopy with my naked eye. A noisy flock of green parrots zooms by, and we both pivot to follow their course. Swallows – to me the most elegant of flyers – hunt way up in the evening’s pink and azur. Even higher – too high for Turkey Vultures – there is glint of silver underbelly, a Hawk maybe, banking into the sunset.
A group of youngish Swiss look up from their phones. Were we too loud or too enthusiastic for their alpine tastes? They don’t return our greeting, but dive right back into their messages as if choreographed.
Jane spots a very large goldfinch who is not a goldfinch at all, it’s a Great Kiskadee. Now I am the one hunched over my phone. I am consulting Merlin, my bird app. Kiskadee…
When I look up after a few minutes of navigating the site, I can’t help but notice that my neck hurts again.
Some of the Swiss move around, trying to maximize signal strength, one supposes, in an abject slouch; the all-too-familiar hang-dog pose.
“Tut euch auch der Hals weh?” But, of course, one does not ask Swiss if their necks also hurt.
The swallows have come down to skim the pool.
Swoop – skim – bank, and then up and up they soar. Twenty, thirty of them – what effortless elegance, what exuberance!
I watch, mesmerized, and for a fragment of time it’s as if I know what it feels like to inhabit such an acrobatic, sleek miracle of a body.
Minutes later – whoosh – one of them jolts me back to reality. So close to my face she flies that I can feel the slipstream of her wings.
And I realize: my neck doesn’t hurt anymore.
And then I realize I might be experiencing what you could call an insight: It is not (only) the massage or the hot tub – it’s the hours of looking for birds. Looking heavenward, uncurled. That’s what got me unkinked.
My mind reels, swallow-inspired. Actually I can’t think of one single activity that asks for bending-over-backwards, literally, other than birding.
Birding, my friends, looking diligently for Motmots – hard to spot but worth hours of birders’-arch. Birding is the remedy for that pandemic pain-in-the-neck osteopathic nightmare – checking phones!
This I know: Keep checking that phone and you’ll never experience the thrill of coming eye-to-eye with a Blue-crowned Motmot.
And eventually – mark my words – you’ll spend more money on chiropractors than even a week in Xandari would set you back.