Kevin’s Field Trip to San Carlos
What a full weekend for us here in Costa Rica! We’ve felt the natural friendliness of Ticos but in richer, deeper ways than before.
On Friday, Kevin stopped next door to ask the neighbors if two or three of them, maybe their teenage kids, would be interested in going to the beach with us the next day. We’d rented a van along with our friend, Geovanny, and his family and had three extra seats. We figured there was no point letting them go empty and this would be a good way to thank our neighbors for their kind hospitality the night they invited us over for empanadas.
Their teenager, Francini, was extremely excited and couldn’t wait to call two of her friends. So it was a date. As Kevin was still standing there, the dad, Ronaldo, asked him if he wanted to ride along with him and his son to San Carlos for a work trip. We knew Ronaldo was a pastor, and thought he’d said something like he sold jeans or clothing, too, so figured this was a ministry trip.
Kevin happily accepted the invite since he’s always up for a party. He ran back over to our house to change and get ready. They’d said they had two spots, so Kevin and Brenny went.
It turns out Ronaldo is a wholesale salesman for a jeans manufacturing company in Costa Rica and therefore had an appointment for a sales call. I won’t tell you the whole story of Kevin and Brenny’s trip to San Carlos, but you can read it here. Trust me, it’s a great story and you’re going to want to read it!
As they were driving home from their great visit, Ronaldo got an emergency call from someone and learned that his brother had died in the hospital in Alajuela. What began as a pleasant drive and an exchange of broken English and broken Spanish became a hair-raising ride through mountain passes with Ronaldo using two phones to get the whole story and beating his hands against the steering wheel, saying the Spanish equivalent of, “Why, why, why??”
When Kevin came in a few hours later, he told us the story of what had happened. He also handed me a gift bag. He said it was from the mom, Francella, for me. ME? “She said it’s for our trip to the beach tomorrow. I guess she’s thanking us for taking Francini and her friends.”
I opened the present with a surprised smile and saw that it was a pair of sandals, very cute and Tico-looking and unlike any of the American things I had brought, and a tank top that looked two sizes too small but said it was “one size.”
I couldn’t believe she’d given me a gift in light of what their family must have been going through that day. All I could think was she must have bought it before the whole saga with her brother-in-law had started to unfold.
The Feria: Abundance in Downtown Grecia
Kevin and I left took a few minutes to run out to the feria (farmer’s market) before it closed and got bags and bags of good stuff, including bread and lemon pound cake from an expat, guanabana yogurt smoothie, cilantro and other salsa makings, mozzarella cheese, chicharrones (translates literally to “scraps” and is very crunchy strips of pig skin or the carne version–little chunks of fried fatty ham), and tons of vegetables.
Since the bags were too heavy for the two of us to carry, we found the taxi stand at the market and took a taxi home. It cost about $2.25 and saved us quite a bit of sweat and time walking back.
We’d also bought some pretty flowers for the neighbors to express our condolences. After we put our bags in the kitchen, the two of us stepped next door and knocked (meaning, called hola from the gate). Francini and Ronnie appeared at the door and we could see a lot of relatives sitting inside. We knew it would be busy and didn’t intend to intrude or stay longer than it took to stutter lo siento—I’m sorry. Both kids looked red-eyed and straight-faced, their usual happy-go-lucky smiles missing for once. We gave them the flowers, received hugs and kisses all around, and told Francini we’d see her in the morning at 6:15.
When we got back in, we unloaded the groceries and Kevin threw two chicken thighs in a pan with some peppers and, when it was done, I removed the skin and chopped it up, draining off most of the fat, and adding rice, veggies, and cilantro to the pan to make a probably very gringo version of arroz con pollo—rice with chicken. It was very tasty and, afterward, we had guanabana smoothies and lemon pound cake.
The Beach: Living Saturday Like A Tico
In the morning, I’d like to say we woke up with the roosters, but I’d heard them at 3:30 a.m.—morning apparently starts muy early here. Instead, we got up at 5:15 and finished packing our bags for the day trip to the beach. While we were grabbing bites of the remaining lemon cake, we realized that the corpse of a palmetto bug that Kevin had killed the night before and left had been carried all the way across the kitchen by a band of very productive ants. That’s life in the tropics.
At 6:15 sharp, just as the light of the new day was dawning, the van was waiting for us outside our gate.
The van ride started a bit rough, as I was sitting in one of the few backwards-facing seats. I realized my mistake in seat choice soon into the journey as a headache and queasiness set in. Kevin mentioned that I was quiet and I muttered, “Backwards.” He got it right away and offered to switch with me, though he’d felt quite queasy himself the day before in Ronaldo’s traumatic ride of death on the Central Valley Roller Coaster.
Once I turned around the right way, I felt a lot better. The ride took just under two hours. We realized that this is the way you go to the beach, if you don’t have a vehicle but live in Costa Rica. We were not any different than most people, riding along on the highway, squished into a rental van.
We’d been planning to go to Manta Beach, which is more of a local beach than some others, and Ronnie and Francini’s grandmother had a house nearby and had said we could use her house to change, shower, use the bathroom, get water, or whatever. But as we were driving down the country, dirt road to Manta Beach, another taxi bus coming from the coast stopped us and told us there was a tree down so we couldn’t get through. Everyone was turning around and coming back.
We were disappointed since Manta sounded like a nice and natural beach. Kevin overheard Francini say that Jaco Beach, our Plan B, was sucio—dirty. When we arrived there 20 minutes later, I saw what she meant. The sand itself was very grey-black and stuck to your skin. Even the water was a little murky. The beach area was also crowded and touristy and didn’t feel very natural. It was still beautiful, though. And this excursion was more about the visit with our new friends than it was about having the perfect beach.
Our friends, Geovanny and Carmen, took good care of us. They, too, had their family with them. Luis and Miguel, who were about Laura’s age, 9 and 10, and Stephen, who was 15.
Carmen has a little side business selling ready-made food to gringos and others in her local area of San Isidro (not to mention aspirations of opening her own restaurant), and so we’d suggested she bring the food and we’d pay her the going rate. She provided breakfast (pico de gallo, which is rice and beans mixed up with a slightly spicy sauce and served with sour cream) and lunch, which was typical Costa Rican food: beans, arroz con pollo, beet salad, green salad, a few chunks of some kind of vegetable that I can’t remember the name of (even though Laura asked Carmen what it was and told me), and some papas tostadas (potato chips) thrown on top of everything. The lunch plate was huge and I had to finally give in and donate my last few bites to my always ravenous 12-year-old, Brenny, who also cleaned up after Addy.
After lunch, we dodged the waves some more. I stayed in the shallow area with Addy, while Kevin and the boys went all the way into the 10-foot waves to play. Laura stayed in between with Francini and her friends and they took good care of her. In between time in the water, we sat and relaxed on our towels with Carmen and Geovanny and their kids. We had plenty of beer and sweet drinks, too, as did just about all the other Ticos around us. It was definitely a fiesta atmosphere. And it seemed perfectly fine just to sit and do nothing. Tranquilo.
For the most part, I was pretty quiet. I feel so out of my element here because I can’t speak Spanish. With Geovanny, it’s easy: he not only speaks English to us, but even when he does speak Spanish, he speaks slowly and carefully and helps us learn. He’s actually going to start tutoring me and Kevin tomorrow afternoon. With people who don’t speak English, though, I feel like I am missing just enough vocabulary to get my point across fully. I don’t want to butcher their language, so I end up seeming quieter than I really am. I just smile a lot. 🙂
Kevin doesn’t seem to mind at all that he doesn’t have much Spanish. He just barrels through and somehow holds everyone’s rapt attention as he tries words that aren’t really words and gestures a lot. Even though he can’t speak Spanish very well, everyone seems to love him and love listening to him. It’s the weirdest thing. On the way back home in the van, as he was making everyone laugh by putting a balloon Addy had gotten under his shirt and pretending he was pregnant, I told him that now he can say he’s loco in two languages. I don’t think anyone would ever think my feisty redhead was a Tico but he has fun trying!
At the end of the afternoon, as we were getting ready to leave, Geovanny pulled out his guitar and the boys pulled out their ukelele. Everyone who could play took turns playing and singing. Geovanny sang some traditional Spanish songs, including La Bamba, and Kevin played a few from his repertoire: Simple Man by Lynrd Skynrd, Drunken Sailor (an Irish drinking song), Poison’s Every Rose Has Its Thorn, and Collide by Howie Day. Then Esteban, Francini’s friend, played a bit but he usually plays electric guitar, so his surprising choices were Metallica’s Enter Sandman and some Pink Floyd. Kevin sang along in a grungy, raspy voice and had all the teenagers giggling like crazy. (As I said, everyone loves him.) It dawned on me that laughter is a bridge between cultures.
We got home around 7, took much-needed showers, and threw some sandwiches together. Then we immediately hit the hay. It was only 9 p.m. but we were all exhausted.
The Funeral: An Unexpected Invitation Our Third Week in Costa Rica
Today we got up after a long night of much-needed sleep and talked about our beach day. We talked so long about life and the transition we seem to be in that we found ourselves rushing for church. Our neighbor Ronaldo had told us that the funeral for his brother would be at the red metal church at 11 a.m. and Kevin had promised him we’d be there.
So we got ready in a hurry, throwing on our best clothes, which isn’t saying much since we packed so light that didn’t really bring any nice clothes. We hustled out of our gate at 10:35 and walked the 6 or 7 blocks to the church.
We’d been too chicken to go to church up until this point, so this was the first time we walked in the doors. It was beautiful, very Central American-looking, and packed. By the time the show got started, there were probably about 600 people sitting and 100 people standing.
Strangely, competing with the very peaceful and yet modern guitar and vocals at the front of church was a carnival happening right outside the doors at the back of the church. Whoops and giggles from what sounded like a troupe of clowns was turned up full-blast on the speakers for whatever show the parks committee was putting on today. I thought it sounded disrespectful, especially as the men carried the casket down the aisle, followed by deceased’s family and weeping widow, but everyone else seemed to take it in stride. I guess even in the midst of death here, life goes on.
Before mass got started, Ronaldo found us where we were hiding at the back of the big, crowded church, and came to tell us Muchas gracias!! and give us all hugs and kisses as though we’d known him for years. His son, Ronnie, also found us mid-way through mass—he must have been standing at the back—and gave us hugs and kisses and said Gracias.
We felt we’d done the right thing in going, even though it seemed weird to go to a funeral for someone we never met and the loved one of people we’d only met a couple of weeks ago. But it just seemed normal and they seemed genuinely glad to see us.
Other than the procession with the casket, mass went on just like any normal mass. Only one time did our neighbor get up and say a few words to signify that it was a funeral.
Of course, everything was in Spanish, but I still felt that it was a deeply moving experience. It doesn’t seem to matter what language a Catholic mass is—it’s always the same. Different culture but shared customs. In this, we speak one language. The sitting, standing, kneeling, signs of the cross, and timing of the responses are so similar that I felt right at home even though I technically couldn’t understand a word. I was left with a feeling that people are generally very good at heart and that, in sitting in the pews together, we can all share the searching, hopeful, life-giving part of our humanity.
Birds who’d gotten lost were circling around overhead inside the church, not knowing that they had to fly downward to get back out of the doors. My eyes followed them as they flew above, smacking into walls and windows in their search for freedom. I calculated how many people sat in the pews below and what my statistical likelihood of getting my head pooped on was as I was certain eventually one of them would come to the end of their digestive cycle while in flight above us. A dog trotted in the aisle beside us during the Preparation of the Gifts, just as though he belonged there. Well, dogs are people, too.
All in all, our weekend was very full and made us feel like we really have friends here in Costa Rica. I think part of the reason is the neighborhood we chose. On our block, everyone is family, so maybe that’s why they welcomed us right into the fold. They didn’t have to do this but they did. This makes our stay here feel personal and reminds us that people are good. Especially people native to Costa Rica.