[**Guest Post by my husband Kevin**]
I really can’t say that much about today has been run-of-the mill. I awoke to some clanging and skittering in the kitchen, and the smell of something cooking. I rolled over and looked out the window a bit. The sun was already busy doing its thing, bright as noon-day back home, although it was only first-thing early here.
I glanced at my phone to check the time, 6:07 a.m., probably an hour or more before first light and noticed I had a text message from my new amigo Giovanny. He was telling me he had arranged the van rental for tomorrow’s trip to the coast. He’s a pleasant, gentle guy (as many Ticos are), probably 5 years my senior. He’s got an easy smile, a reassuring tone, a characteristic rice-and-beans belly, and he is muy tranquilo (calm). He is maestro (teacher) of English in the private school, Nuevo Milenio we just enrolled our kids in so they can immerse in espanol and meet some kids for the couple months we will be here.
Then Laura came in our room, smile brimming, announcing that breakfast was ready. I looked around for some clothes as she insisted we “come in the kitchen together.” She had cooked us breakfast burritos, complete with home made, hand patted flour tortillas with eggs, salsa and cheese. She had the plates all set, set out some picante sauce and ketchup (which is ungodly sweet here), and even some ice water. I guess that’s not earth-shattering until you step back and realize that she: a. is only 9 years old, b. she’s only 2 weeks into a developing nation in a sparsely equipped kitchen, c. didn’t use a recipe, and d. was up at the crack of dawn when typically she needed hit in the head with a 2×4 to get out of bed before 8 a.m. at home! The first I learned to cook was at 15 years old when my mother died after a brief illness. And by “cook” I mean more like “heat”.
After breakfast and a cafe negro, I opened the front door excitedly. I had good news to share. There were 3 extra van seats for our beach trip and I wanted to invite the next door neighbors. They were kind enough to invite us to their house on our 3rd day in town for empanadas and a night of laughter and butchering of both of our native tongues!
I saw Ronaldo in his front yard just getting into the car. I stuttered in my halting espanol something about 3 seats and we go to the beach. He smiled, and quickly summoned his son Ronny to translate. Ronny is a lovely kid, with a big heart 3 years into university studies on his way to become a history teacher. But English wasn’t his forte so we had to summon little sister Francini who had really good English. I explained that we had extra seats and would love for them to join us for a picnic at the beach, complete with van, driver, food, and guitar. She lit up like I just asked her to senior prom, stuttering out a confirmation of what I said somewhat in disbelief. After the requisite permission from Mama, and a few calls to some friends, she agreed to go, and brought out some seashells in a little bag from the beach she wanted us to go to.
Then as I was headed back into the house for another coffee and a shower, Ronaldo pops out again and invited me to join him and his son to work in San Carlos. I was told during our empanada dinner that he “sells jeans” but his real love is preaching the love of the Lord. So I had to take a second to figure out whether I was spending the day in some tienda (store) or at the tent-revival a la Grecia! Turns out he is a wholesale salesman for the largest jeans manufacturer in the country and he had a sales appointment with a client.
Brenny and I crammed a backpack with 3 little cookie packs, some water, a couple apples, and my pocket knife (just in case San Carlos is a little shady…) As I reviewed my packing, I recall thinking to myself “Just how do you plan for a day in a foreign country with people you’ve talked to twice in your life?” Turns out I was right on the money with my list but around here you never know.
Now a side note. Everyone here behind a wheel drives like a 16-year old teenager on a learner’s permit. Sure you have some who ride the brakes, but most go like a bat out of hell. Add to that some really horrible road conditions with what I call “baby stealer” potholes the size of a grown man, crazy twists and turns due to the rugged terrain, a complete and total lack of any signage or painted lines that conform to any system that I know, no street names (none), no street numbers (read “it’s red with a big porch on the corner”) and tiny roads meant for ox carts not Land Rovers and you have a real mess. But like everything else here, no matter how unlikely or untidy, somehow everything gets done and everyone ends up ok.
We start out through the crazy main drag in Grecia, which looks a lot like any big metro area internationally—stores crowded tightly and close to the road, pedestrians everywhere, construction barrels, scraggly street dogs, delivery trucks parked impossibly, and a vague stressed look on everyone’s face. Add to that the unpredictable and lengthy delays when someone ahead of you sees a long lost friend or cousin and stops traffic to catch up in an unhurried fashion very typical of Ticos. Within a few minutes we were hauling it through the suburbs and the space started to open up. Stores, auto repair shops, houses, utility poles began whizzing by.
Driving here is really not for the faint of heart. It’s not uncommon to whip out in the oncoming lane to scoot past a semi full of sugarcane precariously loaded to the brim. The problem is I don’t think there exists a straightaway long enough to constitute a passing zone in the whole country. So you’re forced to just make the sign of the cross, gun it and whip out, even though you’re going up an 8% grade, rounding a bend, and they haven’t discovered guard rails apparently.
During the course of about 2 hours we traveled through just about every elevation in the country, with everything from warm sunshine, thick cloud forest, and pouring rain. It may as well have been Mars we were headed to as the terrain was all over the place as well. This is certainly a country of “micro-climates.” The temperature ranged more than 20 degrees Farenheit as we climbed and descended, twisting and turning through oh-my-god vista after vista. So beautiful, so raw, but definitely inhabited by a make-do population who are just doing their best to get by for today and live their “Pura Vida” or pure life.
We turned off the main drag and judging by the dirt road we were approaching our destination. As we swerved left and right to avoid potholes and pedestrians and the occasional street dog, we pulled up to our destination. A simple cement home, very tidily kept, with no bars on the windows like the city homes in Grecia. All the windows and doors were closed and at first it looked like no one was home. Then we saw little 2 year-old Isaac peeking his curious face through the curtains. The door opened and we were greeted by a lovely woman about my age. She grabbed her guests quickly offering the requisite cheek kisses and ushered us in. We were encouraged to sit in the small but well-kept living room. We chatted a little with Ronny in English as the business was being negotiated in the kitchen. Ronaldo appeared again after a short while and told us our host’s husband would take us to the rio, or river Tigre. He was a reserved guy, short on words, but with kind eyes and an occasional reassuring smile.
He balanced little Isaac on his knee as he chomped on a chunk of cooked carrot the size of his fist, eyes twinkling and drooling down his mouth and shirt in a way that would make his kid union steward proud. After grabbing absolutely everything he was gently forbidden time and again not to, we arrived down the short lane at the end of the line. Apparently there used to be a bridge until the river rose 2 years ago and carried it away. It is slated for replacement manana, which could be tomorrow or could just mean not soon. So now they just use the huge tree trunk bridge, complete with shaggy lengths of concrete rebar hanging off the edge like fringe. We walked down the far side of the road for a few hundred meters past an empty newer looking house and one older home that sits up on stilts whose simple farmer owner outwitted the fancy engineer who designed the bridge that is no longer his neighbor.
As I sit and think of how to describe the scene in front of me, I’m at a loss as I so often am here. At a loss to explain how a life so simple can be complex as I confront it. At a loss because even though my iPhone has a mega camera I can’t capture a fraction of the majesty of this place. And at a loss to describe what my senses take in as I saunter past the little wooden house on stilts. The distant simmer of more rice and beans, hushed tones of strangers familiar with each other, the croaking of the tree frogs, a distant occasional blaring muffler from a motor bike. The taste of familiar foods prepared in unfamiliar ways. The lazy look of a careless dog as he sits like a Buddhist monk transfixed on something I can’t see.
We make our way back to the car for the return trip. We pulled in to the driveway and out pops Mama from her home out back. A stout woman with deep happy lines around her eyes and mouth, her dark hair framed with streaks of gray. She walks up to me blubbering something with a goofy grin on her face as she grabs me like a sailor new in port and smacks a fat kiss on my cheek. She reaches for Brenny and he stutter steps a little but is no match for Mamacita. She nails him too and we all sit there a minute basking in an awkward no comprendo glow. We sit back down on the couch and someone flicks the tv news on for a few minutes.
Ronaldo pops his head out and beckons us into the kitchen where the host has somehow dug lunch out of the backyard, prepared it, plated it, and serves it up looking like she made no effort. It’s a simple soup base, something-verde, served in a bowl. It has a couple pieces of beef poking up out of the grayish milky soup. I’m told to take what I want of the big plate of rice and just load it into the bowl along with the vegetables I want. There was yucca, which is like a potato that won’t give up and release the spoon when you cut it. Also carrots, potatoes, chayote (green pepper-esque), and a few more I inquired about and don’t think I ever will remember. It came together very nicely and no matter how much I piled on my bowl, somehow there was broth left to help it slide down.
We talked a little about what we’re doing here, and how long we’ve been here. I tried to complement our gracious host and ended up saying how it tastes like she cooked all morning and I liked how tender and flavorful the beef was and up she goes up to the pressure cooker and returns with extra beef on a little plate. Such a kind gesture, full of heart. Of course the significance of this doesn’t escape me. Protein here is expensive-more than you’d think, and that’s me with my gringo budget talking. And the gringo may just have had half of the host’s supper.
As things wound down, our host hops up and gets a handful of rice and tosses it on the floor, which is odd, since she’s obviously a fastidious housekeeper. In comes a chicken who just hatched chicks to snap up the rice. We finish up as the chicken gets the last of the rice and make our way to the doorway where Grandma once again appears in a flash this time talking about how she hosts travelers in her home who want to see what real country living is. Our hosts ask if we’d like some of the veggies we had with our supper and I shrug out an ok to not be rude. A couple minutes later she comes back with a bag full of freshly-dug yucca. Gradma takes the hint and runs to her yard and returns with some other mystery citrus and regales me in Spanish with just the proper way to peel and eat it. There was something very important in those words, and I’m not sure at all what it was. Maybe the kids will eat them for me.
We’re having trouble pinching all these good times off, and I feel like an inmate’s girlfriend getting that one last goodbye kiss from Grandma, along with an offer to return and swim in the river whenever we want. Just call Ronaldo and he will make the arrangements.
We finally reach the car, climb in, wave goodbye, and we’re back down the zig-zag dirt road. I tell Ronaldo that I’ve never been treated so well on a sales call and he really has a dream job. He says he follows the Dale Carnegie idea of doing business with friends. He said they always prepare lunch for him when he calls. I think of how I’d love my work if it was with such people and in beautiful surroundings.
It wasn’t long before we hit the paved road and we start doing a full-belly roller coaster ride, with me looking back from the front seat to talk with Ronny in back. Then the phone calls began. Rapid talking, two different cell phones ringing, twisting and turning, up and down we go, passing sugar cane trucks, getting stuck behind produce vans. Something’s wrong, but the activity is too fast and the driving too tricky for me to try asking. Eventually it comes out that Ronaldo’s brother is gravely ill in a nearby town hospital. The phone calls and back and forth kept going strong for the next hour, with tidbits slipping out in English. It’s apparent that these folks are tight knit in a way that I couldn’t imagine, but wished I could.
By the time the calls wound down, I gathered that the brother was only 55, but had an alcohol problem that was pretty bad and didn’t really have a good life. He was pronounced dead, but later we heard that he took a breath after the doctor thought he had passed. Their mother had just had a surgery so there was some extra drama unfolding about what and if to tell her. Ronaldo was obviously upset, but the Latin macho man kept holding back, only digging in to the twists and turns and hitting the steering wheel a few times. He turned up the christian rock he had playing a few different times and seemed to take comfort in it if only briefly.
The next half hour of 45 minutes home was a little hard. I felt like we shouldn’t have been along for the ride or listening in even though I had no idea what the hell anyone said even when it was directed at me and in English. We made our way nearer our home and I felt more relieved the closer we got. The only thing I could really do is try to sell my “I’m sorry” as hard as I can as I thought that was all anyone could offer at the time.
We got home, opened the iron gate that surrounds all city houses in Grecia, and pulled the car down the front patio to it’s resting place. Fittingly, Ronaldo nudged a little too close and popped the flower pot in front of the house, but it didn’t break. We said our goodbyes and I offered him a pat on the arm which I intended to be supportive but who knows in another culture. We turned to walk back next door after a long day and his wife, Francela pops out with a small sack in her hands. She explains that she picked up a little something for mi esposa for the playa (beach). It was a tank top shirt and a pair of flip flops that were muy guapa or lovely. It was a gift to reciprocate our thank you gift of taking her daughter to the beach. Which was our thanks for their kind offer of dinner when we arrived.
I thought for a minute as we passed through our gate how unusual this simple gift was. If it was us and we were at home, we would have obsessed with what to buy, how much to spend, where to buy it—is she more of a DKNY or a Claiborne girl?—what size is she, what if she didn’t like it, what if, what if, until we talked ourselves right out of our kind gesture altogether.
Sitting here writing in the kitchen under the glow of the bare early-generation CFL bulb that casts off the hardware-store-esque glow, I feel like I’ve been all over the place today. Feeling good, glad for the friendship, the slice-of-life. Feeling good to have my family along for the ride. And feeling honored to be spending time with people who restore my faith in humanity, if only for a time.
I hope that I long hold onto these feelings-the comfort of simple home cooking, the sights and sounds of the drive, the sincerity in the generosity pouring out from strangers, and yes, I’ll admit, even the leathery lips of my new Tica Grandma!