by Allyson Latta
I’m sitting at Juanita’s, a rustic beach-front restaurant, sipping a foamy piña colada as the departing sun drifts shades of pink over the Pacific. We arrived early to watch the sunset and for just one drink, and it was quiet then, but with the Latin-rhythmed Costa Rican music pumping from the speakers and the aroma of garlic-sizzled sea bass wafting out to the street, other patrons have been enticed and the place is filling up. Several tables draped in bold orange clothes are pushed together for our group, and looking down the line at the smiling faces of exuberantly chatting writers, I think, not for the first time, how remarkable it is that we’ve found our way to this place.
Many of us met only a week ago. And when these women and men first stepped down from the airport shuttle in front of Namaste Gardens — a small yoga retreat in Playa Herradura on Costa Rica’s Central Pacific coast — they were all slightly rumpled and sheened, visibly tired from travel, unsure of what to expect, and a tad shy with me and one another. One whispered to me as I showed her to her room, “I don’t want to be here,” which startled me, until I realized what she meant. She was worried about fitting in, about whether she belonged here with “real” writers.
But as a writing instructor of mine once said, and I took this to heart, “If you are writing, you’re a writer.” And everyone who’d come to Namaste Gardens Writing & Yoga Retreat was here to write. They were also here to experience a bit of Costa Rica: the rich sunsets, lively music, beaches and cuisine.
Oh yes, and ”Tico time,” an extremely relaxed view of clocks and schedules subscribed to by Ticos (informal for Costa Ricans) that, depending on the circumstances, can delight travellers or drive them crazy. Trust me: delighting in it is the best way to go.
My partner in organizing the retreat was Canadian Jamie Wood, a vivacious blonde wisp of a yoga instructor who used to live and work in Costa Rica. She’s back in Vancouver now and teaches yoga there, but still owns her home in Playa Herradura and returns whenever she can.
Together we conceived the idea of a program combining writing and yoga in the belief that yoga-inspired mindfulness and restoration would feed and complement literary creativity. (It’s not a new concept. See, for example, a great blog post on the subject by JC Peters of Vancouver, “Creative Flow: How Yoga Can Spark Your Creativity.”)
The challenge: to invite a group of people, most of whom had never met, to a foreign country I’d never visited (though I speak a little Spanish), and to ensure that they were comfortable and safe and fed; that they not only wrote but felt by the end that they’d progressed in their writing; that they were entertained with a variety of activities but didn’t feel too busy; that they got along (or better, began to feel connected); and that they came away with a taste of Costa Rican culture.
“You know, Allyson, there are easier ways to host a party,” a friend of mine said after hearing my plans.
But in 2011, with the help of Tucson-based host Gail Rudyk, I had organized a writers’ retreat in Tucson, Arizona, and the year before I’d spent several weeks in Santiago, Chile, leading workshops at Susan Siddeley’s well-structured and memorable Los Parronales Writers’ Retreat. Now Costa Rica, a country I’d always dreamed of visiting, beckoned.
My Costa Rica workshop participants numbered thirteen when Jamie joined us, as she often managed to do despite her other duties (everything from slicing fresh fruit for breakfast to dealing with maintenance issues). Writers hailed from Ontario and British Columbia, ranged in age from 30 to 65, and boasted backgrounds in fields as diverse as graphic arts, marketing, teaching, finance, astronomy, business management, Gestalt psychology, photography, mathematics, teaching, legal training, accounting, and visual arts. Ten were women, three men.
Four were former students from my University of Toronto SCS online course “Memories into Story.” One guest had taken workshops from me in Chile in 2010 (Los Parronales Writers’ Retreat). Another had participated in my Tucson, Arizona retreat. Some knew me through other spheres of my life, and others had found me through my website, or through Jamie. Together they represented a range of writing experience and, regardless of what writing they’d done, a range of confidence in their abilities.
About half had never tried yoga, but they were in good company: I’d timidly begun yoga classes myself only six months earlier.
We were quite the mix, and that was the beauty of it.
Namaste Gardens was the “quiet” hub of the retreat, reserved for yoga practice, meditation, writing and massage.
The pretty, Costa Rican–style three-bedroom bungalow features a cultivated-jungle of a backyard (thanks to Juan, the talented gardener) brimming with tropical flowers such as heliconia and cascading orchids and set around an inviting pool. The garden lured hummingbirds, butterflies, yellow-bellied flycatchers and even the occasional iguana. The first morning I was there with my husband, before retreat participants arrived, we heard a raucous cawing and looked up to see two scarlet macaws flash overhead, brilliant and multihued against blue sky. They seemed almost cartoonish, larger than life — like creatures escaped from an artist’s imaginings.
Some guests stayed at Namaste Gardens, while others had a room in one of two traditional houses, two cabinas (one-person cabins), or one modern condo, La Reserve, all clustered near the end of a quiet residential cul de sac about 20 minutes’ walk from Herradura beach and six kilometres north of the town of Jaco.
Jamie dubbed the two houses and two cabinas on wrought-iron-gated, joined properties the “retreat compound.” And that’s where we gathered on a shaded poolside patio for morning writing workshops, lunches and dinners, and most of our evening reading salons.
Despite occasional inconveniences that are part of this kind of travel, and about which guests were understanding — sporadic Internet, a toilet not flushing, a small scorpion that didn’t live long enough to regret having met up with Gina — things went well. And all we had to do was look up at that endless blue sky or at the lipstick palms with their vivid orange stalks and lush green leaves, or spot a tropical bird or an iguana, to remember that being here was about being “away.” About experience as well as writing.
The Rhythm of Our Days
Mornings began leisurely with breakfast at our individual houses, usually on patios: fresh tropical fruit (papaya, bananas, watermelon, pineapple), yogurt, bread, cereal and of course earthy, rich Costa Rican coffee. Jamie’s gentle and restorative yoga practices followed at Namaste Gardens with its cool ceramic tiles, ornate plaster ceilings, and a breeze sneaking through from the back garden.
Mid-morning we met by the compound pool for writing. The joined yards offered tucked-away spots where in twos and threes writers could move off to tackle small-group exercises. The workshops combined instruction, discussion and group work, and participants were assigned ten-minute freewriting exercises to explore in solitude between workshops — a few per day.
Five evenings during the retreat we gathered after dinner for reading salons, usually outside because temperatures were much the same as those during daytime, and writers took turns volunteering to read. Whatever the theme or tone, ranging from humorous to heartwarming to heart-breaking, the results of freewriting were unexpected and often powerful.
Two guest speakers came from other parts of Costa Rica to share their insights on writing. Canadian William Deverell, who winters in Manuel Antonio, is author of seventeen books and creator of the widely syndicated television series Street Legal. He spoke to our group about his writing path, which involved breaking away from his father’s literary expectations for him (see some tips from his presentation here). Sandra Shaw Homer, who hails from the U.S. and is now a Costa Rica citizen, has penned two memoirs currently being considered by publishers. Finding her “truth” and combining it with keen observation and a clear point of view, she told us, allowed her to write more honestly and from the heart. You can read an excerpt from her talk here.
Food, Fun, Flora and Fauna
Outside of writing time, we made the most of the glorious sunshine and our surroundings.
We were spoiled for choice with four swimming pools among the properties, though after dipping into these like so many Goldilockses, we proclaimed three to be “just right,” and the fourth, slightly cooler pool went unused. Individuals and smaller groups took walks to the beach or to nearby Los Sueños Resort and Marina, or grabbed a five-minute taxi into Jaco, a colourful surf town with a variety of restaurants and shops. Some days masseuse Xenia was on-site, offering massages in a curtained-off oasis near the Namaste Gardens pool. A couple of intrepid writers even took a surf lesson. One culinary highlight was our dinner out at Poseidon Restaurant in Jaco, with its mouth-watering tuna steaks (best enjoyed seared).
Zenejda, our talented cook, was Jamie’s lucky find. She’d recently closed down her own soda — a small street-side restaurant — and was used to catering to a crowd. She arrived each mid-afternoon, graciously declined writer Rick’s daily proposal of marriage, and then set to work over massive cooking pots to produce traditional meals (casado): rice and beans along with meat or fish, fresh salads and, often, pan-crisped tortilla chips or plantain. One night she barbecued whole fish, another she treated us to ceviche (fresh fish marinated in fresh lime juice and spices). We soon became fans not only of Zenejda but of Salsa Lizano, a traditional (popular since the 1920s), slightly sweet and spicy Costa Rican sauce. At our farewell dinner, we gave a beaming Zenejda a standing ovation.
Costa Rican jungle and wildlife was all around us, in the backyards and during excursions to Manuel Antonio National Park (or Isla Tortuga, for those of us who’d already been to Manuel Antonio) and Carara National Park: monkeys, sloths, iguanas, tree frogs and more. Those who took a day trip by catamaran to Isla Tortuga were excited to see dolphins skimming alongside. About twenty minutes’ drive from Namaste Gardens was the Rio Tarcoles, with its toothy crocodiles, safely viewable — thank goodness — from a high bridge.
Christine was the only one to spy her “Literary Iguana,” who showed up by the compound pool in the early morning, but she was smart enough to snap a photo to prove it.
Alchemy and the Element of Surprise
What I enjoy most about workshops and retreats is encouraging writers to come out of themselves. But the alchemy is as much about the group, sharing experiences and thoughts in a warm and supportive environment, as anything I do or say or teach. I don’t expect I’ll ever tire of watching it happen.
Participants are often amazed that they’re actually writing (a lot) and reading their work to others (at least a little), and amazed, too, at listeners’ responses to their stories, at the power of their language even in unpolished freewriting. There’s no question that the universal themes that emerge quickly bring people together.
“I made people laugh and cry with things I wrote! People that I didn’t know, and they reacted to my writing,” one participant wrote me later.
Many found the exercises, a perhaps demanding thirty in all, led them in unexpected directions — and that’s as should be. Robert Frost’s oft-quoted line “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader” is completed by “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”
Through the exercises, a number of writers — including me — found that what we poured onto the page was quite different from what we’d planned to write about. For some, this changed, or expanded, our writing focus. One writer realized that a childhood activity she hadn’t thought of in some time had touched her more profoundly than she’d known. Others, based on one Character exercise, wrote moving profiles. Several, each using a different exercise, wrote revealingly about a loved one and decided to share their work with that person when they got home. One writer used cluster technique and developed a concept for a book based on tales of an ancestor. One humorous piece led to unexpected revelations about the childhood “inner thief” in all of us. (But what happens in Costa Rica stays in Costa Rica.)
Some writers furthered, in one way or another, manuscripts in progress ranging from memoir to family history to fiction. Not everyone arrived with a major WIP or left with one, but everyone wrote, and thought about writing, and discussed writing, and most important, came away with a notebook full of ideas — new writing (and reading) trails to explore. And that’s what it was about.
More than one writer later described the retreat as therapeutic, which was not one of its promoted goals, though it often happens. “In a way it felt like a healing journey,” said one, “to hear other people’s pain and insight, to share my own….”
On our last night together, a woman who had shared only once before with the group volunteered to read last. She cleared her throat, took a deep breath, and read a poignant prose poem she’d written that morning, an unexpected and heartfelt twist on one of the assigned exercises. In it she offered life advice, some of it funny, some wise, to her sister’s newborn. By the time she was done, there were no dry eyes.
I never know where the writing in these retreats will lead those who take part, or me as a writer or instructor for that matter. The surprises along the way, and the tears and laughter, are part of the adventure.
Many thanks to my workshop participants for sharing so generously of themselves during the retreat.
Thanks to Jamie “In Costa Rica There’s Always Got to Be a Plan B” Wood for opening her home and introducing us to Costa Rica, and for being a wonderful yoga instructor not to mention an excellent organizer; Mary E. McIntyre for help in designing my pretty Costa Rica bookmarks; Mercedes, Jamie’s studio organizer, for her all-round support; Carol Bikker for her tropical flower arrangements; Dena Quick for her occasional baked treats; Xenia, for her dreamy massages; Juan, the gardener, for his magic touch in creating that oasis; and Erick Camacho, Oscar, and the rest of the friendly drivers for making sure we got where we needed to go — on real time, not on Tico time.
And a special thanks to driver Jonathan and his cousin Gloriana (whose mom owns the fabulous Wahoos Restaurant in Jaco) for making the vacation part of my stay in Costa Rica so carefree — especially for sharing their favourite snorkelling spot, and introducing us to Lorita, their cheeky green parrot.