I can’t believe how well our first week and a half in Costa Rica has gone. By all accounts, the “settling-in” part of our 3-month stay here has been a success. We have rented a beautiful home in an exclusive (what an accident that was!) and safe neighborhood. We have a general knowledge of how to get around town and where basic needs like grocery, bank, school, and playground for Addy are. We’ve even made friends with both locals and expats. Plus, the sun is shining, the birds are singing, and every one of the Heddermans is healthy. So then why am I feeling blue?
Well, I might be just a wee bit homesick.
When we did this last time—this family sabbatical thing of staying for months at a time in a foreign country—I had a few moments of anxiety at the beginning of the trip. I suppose it’s a natural thing to feel when you first leave the comfort of your home culture. I hate feeling this way because my intellect unfailingly reminds me that I’m extremely fortunate to be here and to have this chance for cultural immersion and world schooling for my children. But, at the end of the day, when the darkness sets in and I think back to how the foods are all different and the water is not hot and I can’t understand anything from people’s conversations, I just feel lonely and miss feeling confident about what to do, where to go, and what to say.
The biggest issue for me is the language gap. I can’t speak Spanish really at all (although I tell people un poco when they ask) and most people around me here in Grecia can’t speak much English. I have my family to talk to but other than that, I feel like such a foreigner in a strange land.
Yesterday I came face-to-face with my lack of Spanish when we went to the huge farmer’s market that Grecia is famous for. It made the one in Englewood, Florida look like a couple of kids playing “farmer’s market” by comparison. I wanted to take a photo of it but I already felt like such a freak show walking down the middle aisle with my whole, white family, that I didn’t want to look like more of a tourist than I already am. Kevin calls us “The Pennsyvlania Snowstorm.” He has a knack for succinctness.
Anyway, when I walked up to the first vendor to buy some carrots, I realized with a quick jolt of panic that I had a problem. In the stores, when they tell you the total, you can look at the cash register to see how much they’ve said you owe. At the farmer’s market, there is usually no cash register. So, unless you know your numbers (which I do, to 20! I swear!) and the Costa Rican currency really well, it’s totally possible you will not understand how much they’re saying you owe. This happened to me when I bought the carrots… and then the onions… and then the celery. Damn that chicken and rice soup I planned to make tonight! I got through it but I felt like an idiot. I’m sure feeling like an idiot on occasion is a great way to get rid of that pesky ego, but it’s not comfortable when you’re going through it.
One simple way I feel awkward is the people dress differently, especially the women, who wear jeans and dress clothes even though I’m roasting in shorts. I tried wearing jeans one day when it was only supposed to be 70 degrees—I thought, “Here’s my chance to fit in a little better and not look like such a tourist.” Then it ended up being blazing hot and I only looked like a roasting tourist. One of my neighbors is a college girl who speaks great English. She told me that they always know a North American by fact that they are wearing both shorts and hats. And smell like sunscreen. People here don’t even wear sunglasses. I imagine you get used to the equatorial sunshine but I’m not there yet.
Another difference is the fact that we don’t have a car here. I don’t know too many suburban U.S. residents who don’t own a car. It’s not absolutely necessary to have one here in a pretty walkable town, as long as you don’t mind walking. We don’t mind walking—even the kids are good sports about trekking to buy groceries, play at the park, or recharge the minutes on our cell phones. The worst thing about walking all over town is not the walking itself but rather the fact that we’re always public.
We’re always public. Walking along the sidewalk, a gang of six white people, we feel like The Gringo Parade. The only way we could emphasize our American-ness more is if we would all belt out a rousing rendition of Yankee Doodle Dandy as we march along. We stand out because we’re obviously not from these here parts. We stand out because we’re a large family. And we stand out because we’re wearing shorts, hats, and sunglasses. And we smell like sunscreen. I can’t say anyone has been rude to us–in fact, it’s been quite the opposite–but we just don’t want to stand out quite so much. It’s disconcerting.
But the good news is, the sun is shining, the birds are singing, and my mood is just a mood and not worth trusting. I love the soaring feeling of traveling, the heady elation I feel when I conquer a challenge. I love exploring new vistas and figuring out how things work in another culture and then analyzing how that fits into the way I know to live life. And I love meeting person after person in various cultures and realizing that we are really all more the same than we are different. I know that every aspect of this thing we call life has a dark side and that travel is no exception. Feeling lonely, foreign, stupid, and afraid is just part of the gig. But other parts are learning, excitement, and freedom.
In the final analysis, I’ll look back at my life and be grateful I struggled in Spanish to buy vegetables on that hot January afternoon in Grecia, Costa Rica, instead of sitting on my couch with a cup of tea wondering what it would be like out there. But just now, while I’m struggling, it’s scary and lonely and I want my mommy. I guess there’s nothing wrong with the occasional slump.