freedom in anonymity: ode to Palmares

by: Tara Ruttenberg

"i've been around the world... TWICE..." i raised an eyebrow at my sort-of friend in the line-up on a small day at the tree, thinking to myself, "really, dude? you're gonna try to make that claim right now?" my silence didn't stop his bold statements, as he continued: "...and Palmares is the coolest thing i've ever seen..."  

while i highly doubted he'd actually been around the world ever, let alone twice, i was definitely intrigued, and i knew i had to verify his words by seeing it for myself. plus, i had lived in Costa Rica for seven years now and i figured attending the infamous fiestas at Palmares was nothing short of a rite of passage. i also had an adventurous new friend who lived up there and said his cousins had a tent party all set up and i could stay at his grandma's house if i made it there. and let's be real, i was still unemployed and desperate for new and exciting experiences, so technically there was absolutely no reason not to. it was all set, i'd make the 2 hour drive up to Palmares for the opening day of the fiestas, getting there in time to check out the tope, the most exciting part of any local celebration when tons of cowboy-clad drunk dudes on horses parade through town before the scene erupts into full-blown party mode: free-flowing beer, blaring cumbia and merengue, dirty street food, live music and rickety carnival rides.

it's Thursday morning and i'm raring to go. got my feather earring and badass new belly shirt complete with knee-length fringe, a screen-printed bandana-wearing smiley face, and the words "pura vida costa rica" written on it. if i was taking on Palmares, i was going HAM and doing this shit for real. i packed an overnight bag and stashed an adorable local surfer in the passenger seat to keep me company on the ride up. we were supposed to park at grandma's house but after driving in circles of traffic for an hour and asking random neighbors on the street for directions, it turns out grandma's house may or may not exist. we ditch the car in an overpriced lot and head toward the blaring music and screaming drunkards. it's 3pm and apparently we are more than fashionably late and completely sober. on a mission to find our friend's cousins' party tent, we wander ourselves through the maze of horse shit and inebriated half-naked teenagers drooling and grinding on eachother between rounds of vomiting in the street, what we might refer to in Costa Rica as the epitome of haciendo feo. we only have our senses and intuition to guide us, since cell phones are of course unreliable; there are dozens of thousands of people in a half-mile radius all making calls to try and find their own friends' party tents.

we wait for the policemen to part the endless river of horses dancing and prancing down the barricaded street, allowing us to shove our way to the other side. after what feels like forever, we miraculously run into a mutual friend who leads us to the party tent we've been looking for, an oasis of chill in a sea of sloppy chaos. thank god we finally made it; it's a freaking intense jungle of party people out there. our tent is a covered stage on stilts with a makeshift dj and a cooler full of pick-your-poison. i'm grateful that our more mellow surfy tunes somehow drown out the blaring reggaeton beats blasting the crowd from dozens of similar second-story tents on either side of the street overlooking the horse and human parade. it's sensory overload to say the least and i'm all but regretting my decision to be here.finding solace in our uncrowded party haven, i take a breath and look around. i barely know 3 people in this giant mess and have very few words to say to any of them at this point. there are no waves around, so we can't talk about that, and the music's too loud to talk anyway, so we just start awkwardly dancing in place, looking out to observe the scene we have for some reason chosen to make ourselves a part of. what on earth am i doing here? i'm a low-key yoga surfer chick who doesn't even really drink anymore and i'm definitely feeling way too old for any and all of this. what have i gotten myself into this time? contemplating making a smooth exit and running back to the car, driving the 2 hours back home and into the arms of someone who loves me, i somehow muster up the courage to commit to being there; maybe it wouldn't be so bad after all. it's just one day, i'm already here, i will survive.   

i grab a Pilsen from the cooler, my newfound 'if you can't beat 'em, join 'em' mentality running through my veins at 5% alcohol. so i was in, doing the things that people do at Palmares, bouncing from tent party to tent party, dancing in circles with new friends and total strangers, screaming a few lyrics of bad songs here and there, wearing Captain Morgan pirate hats and mardi gras beads and drinking whatever they put in my hand and being like, so excited, to run into anyone i even sort of know as if they are my best friend ever, ditching out every hour or so to use the filthy port-o-potty out back, climbing up tall things cuz it seems like a good idea at the time, rocking broken ice-cream cone sunglasses i find on the floor, and just generally being content to play the fool and call it a good time. because that's what everyone's doing. because that's what you do at Palmares.

we take a break for churros and pizza, sitting on the shoddy grass near the trash can, watching people trip over themselves and projectile vomit behind the bumper cars. we make moves over to the imperial beer party tent now; a two-level monstrosity i'm dying to climb up or sneak into without paying the $25 cover charge. not because i can't afford it; just because it feels like an exciting challenge. i sneak in with no bracelet and disappear, knowing that the security guy won't go through the trouble of scouring the crowd just to find little old me, the girl who thinks she's too good to pay at the door. i look around now and realize that in my narrow escape and subsequent disappearance into the intoxicated masses, i had lost the friends i was with. i was completely alone in a two-story tent full of thousands of people i didn't know.

and i liked it.  

instead of turning around to search for my crew, i buried myself deeper into the crowd, hoping they wouldn't find me and i could just be there all by myself all night long, having a great time being lost and doing mostly nothing and feeling absolutely free. it's the same feeling you get in airports and big cities, the overwhelming freedom of anonymity, where no one around you knows you or even cares that you exist. where you can be nobody or anybody all at once. there's no past to who you are or where you come from or any expectation of who you should be. in those fleeting moments in space you are you through the eyes of you and you alone. and the possibilities are endless. and you have never felt more free. 

between rounds of live latin rock and drunken dance contest hilarity on the giant stage in front of me, i meet my partner in crime. he's ecstatic that i'm wearing the crazy shirt he almost bought in Jaco as a gift for his mom back home. he dances over to me and buys me a beer; he's the gentle giant type and either quite effeminate or just foreign, i never really figured it out. either way, he's completely benign and i feel comfortable enough to steal him from his friends and enroll him completely in my impromptu shenanigans. we do a lap around the place and make our way up to the second floor. i find some banister to dance on for a minute until the security guard taps my leg and tells me to get down, initiating the new game of how long can i dance on the banister until the security guard either a) kicks me out; or b) stops caring and looks the other way. eventually, i win and banister dancing lasts another fifteen minutes or so until i get bored. then my new friend teaches me our signature dance move for the night. it's a mixture of hold-on-to-the-railing booty pop and circular hip swivel, complete with nonchalant glance to the right, then check the time on the fake watch, topped off with sexy face and eyebrow raise to the left. the perfect combination of moves to start attracting a crowd keen on joining in the fun.

"i lost my friends!!" he screams at me about 30 minutes into our solo mission. "i know!" i say, reassuring him: "that's the best part!!". then we probably high five or fist-bump or something and get back to teaching strangers our signature move. my 'friends' find me a few times, expressing worry that we lost the rest of our makeshift crew, one of the girls stressing that she can't find her phone. i obviously can't be bothered with that kind of buzzkill, so i basically blow her off and get back to having the time of my life.

"we're having the best time of anyone here!!" Robin to my Batman is loving it and stopped caring that he lost his friends, too. "i know!! isn't it the best!!?" i respond with my arms up and some semblance of a "wooooooo" noise. at this point the security guards have realized we're too ridiculous to actually pose any real issue or fall off the banister or anything, so they've lightened up and are just laughing at the spectacle before them that is us - the tall chubby guy and the little gringa letting their hair down, soaking up Palmares in all of its glory, without a care in the world. we had found our own version of the sacred in the otherwise very profane. 

at some point, the music dies down and the ugly lights come on - the universal party signal for get the fuck out. our cheeks hurting from smiling and laughing too hard all night, we know this is goodbye. "uh, i need to go find my friends..." he says almost frantically. "shit, yeah, me too..." and with one sweaty hug and absolutely no pleasantries or talk of 'let's be friends on facebook', our fleetingly perfect relationship is over. 

...then, without warning, the loneliness creeps in as i desperately search the crowd for a familiar face. it's the subtle type of homesick and longing-for-connection loneliness when you feel suddenly and completely alone despite the thousands of people surrounding you, many of whom are just as lonely as you are. i feel invisible and yet totally vulnerable all at once.

i follow the stumbling herd down the stairs and out the doors, magically reuniting with my people as if the party gods have brought us back together through some cosmic serendipity. we celebrate our reunion. except of course for the guy whose grandma's house we're supposed to be crashing at, who remains m.i.a. for the next hour and counting. now that it's 2am and i'm past sober again (luckily i had stopped drinking hours ago and had been dance-sweating beer all night), we make the executive decision to go home. my curly haired, honey-skinned, surfer babe co-pilot snores next to me as i eventually get us home after making every possible wrong turn imaginable. the drive is strangely peaceful as i replay the events of the Palmares experience in my mind.    

i'm still buzzing with that unique sense of freedom i felt being lost in the crowd. yet, i'm also very aware that feeling that free is both temporary and context-specific, and that i may only experience it a number of times in my life. the sense of adventure of being totally on your own, no one expecting anything of you, and no pressure to be the person you've always been, you are free to be whoever you happen to be in that very moment, and you can do anything your imagination can create for you. and it feels really good. it's the lure of travelling solo to exotic places, surfing a new spot among total strangers, doing things you would never do if surrounded by the people you've always known in the places you've always been. it becomes almost an obsession, the need to feel that free. it's a unique high with an eerily predictable low: your fleeting freedom fades to a deep loneliness that tears at your heart, a loneliness you will exhaust all avenues to remedy. and you recognize that your freedom in pure solitude comes at a hefty price. and you are totally and overwhelmingly alone. 

"happiness is only real when shared". Into the Wild's prophetic message warns wanderlust travelers and roaming vagabonds of this same sentiment: losing yourself to find yourself ends with you alone and gasping for breath in the wilderness; a lonely soul dies in a dark sea of  regret that it has sacrificed a lifetime of shared happiness for those fleeting moments of absolute freedom. it's a thin line, that between free and lonely, and you only know it when you've felt both extremes - one has you soaring, and the other, clawing at the sand, crying.

but i think Palmares has me at a different conclusion: that it's only once you've experienced such an intense sense of freedom and its inevitably ensuing loneliness that you can truly appreciate the relationships and places that comprise the familiar happenstance of your everyday reality, the people and settings that have made you you. and it's not a choice of one or the other - escape to an eventually lonely freedom or resignation to a suffocating familiarity forever - but rather a constant dance between the two, finding our own personal balance by living each extreme every once in a while to wake us up to what really matters in our lives. while extreme freedom helps create space for personal evolution and renewal through liberation from societal or self-inflicted expectations as the means to be and express our ever-changing authentic selves, the loneliness reminds us of our need for connection to others as beings in this shared human experience. in the end, we might not have to choose all or nothing when it comes to freedom or familiarity; perhaps we just need to feel both to different degrees at different times in our lives to keep us sane. 

and for many of us, maybe all it takes is getting lost in the crowd once a year at the fiestas in Palmares.