Spring break is a cultural phenomenon in the United States. Students from elementary school through university are free from classes. Many families take advantage of this time to go on vacation. Countless outlets of mass media from magazines, to newspapers, websites, and T.V. feature lists recommending top spring break destinations. For those not interested in the MTV Beach House style of party, there are even “Alternative Spring Break” trips centered on volunteer service. When I studied abroad in London, I once referred to my school’s three week long vacation in April as spring break. My English friends quickly corrected me, however, reducing it to “boring Easter break.”

At sixteen years old, my homebody parents inadvertently turned me into a traveler when they allowed me to go on a spring break trip to Costa Rica through my high school.

The trip was packed with incredible experiences. On land we rode horses, climbed a volcano, hiked through the rainforest, and toured a banana plantation. In the water we rafted, swam at the base of a waterfall, soaked in natural hot springs, ocean kayaked, and snorkeled. I even held a puffer fish.

During a pre-departure information meeting, one of my teachers told my father that she planned to sell me into human trafficking in Costa Rica. He still let me go. There are dangers everywhere. A sense of humor and awareness of the environment are two of the greatest weapons to combat fear and to stay safe.

Both “Ticos” (Costa Rican people) and other travelers impacted my trip. At our first hotel, I befriended Mia, an American girl who was also there with her school. Mia misinterpreted my kindness and made a moonlight confession of her love to me. Fortunately, I avoided further awkwardness since her group departed the next morning. Yet before leaving, Mia slipped a lengthy love letter under the door to my room. For the rest of the week and really the rest of high school, my friends and the teachers who were on this trip teased me about Mia.

Jimmy, our excellent tour guide whose real name was probably “Jaime,” led us around his beautiful country. In the rainforest, he identified every plant and animal, and he allured various species of monkeys and tropical birds to come near us by perfectly imitating their calls. He was like Mowgli from The Jungle Book incarnate.

Surrounded by thousands of year old trees and shaded by the canopy above, Jimmy invited everyone to be quiet for one minute and simply listen. Completely absorbed in the environment, I forgot myself as I focused on the natural life around me. Birds chirped, wind rustled the leaves of the trees, and I seem to remember a mist in the air making the moment all the more romantic.

Back at the airport after the trip, in the middle of the arrivals gate, I collected one of my souvenirs from a friend’s suitcase – a sparkling, two-foot long machete. Along with a large wooden bowl, this seemed like the perfect Costa Rican souvenir to sixteen year old me. However, I was a bit nervous to pack a weapon in my bag, so I asked one of the boys to transport it in his checked luggage.

Eight years ago, I partook in the spring break tradition. Although tropical beaches were involved, this trip was a formative rather than a wild experience. Going to Costa Rica taught me to travel with a sense of humor and an open heart. I realized the joy of meeting different people and trying local food, such as gallo pinto. I discovered “Pura Vida.” This Costa Rican saying literally means “pure life” but it encompasses the Tico values on being happy, relaxed, and enjoying a simple life. Anywhere I travel today, I strive to emulate Pura Vida and that experience in the rainforest – to lose myself, listen, and fully absorb my surroundings. And finally, I learned to have someone else carry my questionable items in transit.