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Travelling bilingual: an extra layer of Costa Rica


This is a travelers’ tale of Costa Rica’s landscape, though it’s not about the country’s natural scenery, but it’s human landscape. I could effortlessly write about our recently concluded trip exploring the seductive pull of mountain villages in central Costa Rica’s Chirripó range; the mist and mysteries hidden in Monte Verde’s cloud forest park; tell readers about hidden waterfalls in the remote southwestern Osa Peninsula or recount our being startled awake in the dead of night by the cacophony of an overhead troop of howler monkeys in Santa Elena in northern Puntarenas Province.

No, this is not a contemporary traveler’s tale about the irresistible pull of Costa Rica’s scenery but a story about the magnetic tug of a Costa Rican landscape of endless spontaneous acts of kindness, cordiality, information sharing, and personal genuineness instinctively extended to two bilingual strangers by Costa Ricans, who through their actions in this retelling shall stand for Costa Rica’s human landscape.

Costa Rica pic

On this trip we have an advantage. I am a native level speaker and my wife is an intermediate level speaker of Spanish. Often because of our language skills, we feel like insider traders, tourists guilty of the crime of using a linguistic code to take advantage of access to native information about a country that other travelers cannot. For monolingual tourists, a visit to Costa Rica or, for that matter any foreign country where the traveler doesn’t speak the native language, is a kind of surface exploration. One is limited to observing the singular, physical features of this Central American country; of impressions of people, of observations made about buildings, customs and manners, of being exposed to the cadences of an unfamiliar language, and of the tasting of unfamiliar foods.

I don’t mean to arrogantly ascribe to my wife and me abilities that other travelers cannot acquire. Rather, I wish the reader to understand what privileges are bestowed on bilingual travelers when they enter the deep, not surface culture of another society; in this case Costa Rica.

Through casual and intimate Spanish-language conversations, through participation and adaptation to local day to day activities, we became aware not only of the local rhythms of daily life in social settings, but of the civic, cultural, political, and social history of the villagers and of Costa Rica as well.

We are able to do this because our language skills and cultural knowledge allow us to engage, participate, observe and adapt almost as if we had blended into the deep, hidden contours and contexts of the daily activities in the communities we visited and sojourned in this unique Central American country. For example, after strolling the almost 4,000 square feet of the exuberant foliage of a virtually hidden, but public, orchid and epiphyte garden near the central mountain town of Herradura, we were invited by Denis, its affable and serious creator, and Isabela, his lively and engaging mother, into the study of their finca (property or farm).

They shared with us not only the history of Denis’ ten-year project to preserve and maintain the orchids and epiphytes of this region in his singular sanctuary but of Costa Rica’s modern social and political history. With a framed Certificado de Honor (Certificate of Honor) from the Partido de Liberación Nacional (The National Liberation Party) in the name of Denis’ paternal grandfather and photos of his uniformed abuelito (the affectionate way Denis referred to his grandfather) watching over us, we also began to understood why we had seen and been slowed down by so many Zonas Escolares (School Zones) as we traveled the main highways and trunk roads throughout Costa Rica. The warning signs to slow down and the raised policias dormidas (literally sleeping police but actually speed bumps) appear seemingly almost every 1.5 miles or so throughout Costa Rica.

Isabel and Denis told us that perhaps the central achievement of the 44-day Costa Rican Civil War of 1948, was the abolition of the Costa Rican Army and the reapportionment of a good chunk of its budget to education. Unlike its low literacy rate Central American neighbors, Costa Rica is virtually 100% literate. Even in the most remote areas of the country from its capital San José to the influential southwestern business center of San Isidro de El General, as we traversed the aptly-named Carretera de la Muerte (The Highway of Death) in fog and treacherous stretches of unlit, endless switch-back curves, Zona Escolar signs appeared, even though there were no visible signs of human habitation. All this we learned and so much more about the personal values and the daily unconscious rhythms of Costa Rican life from Isabela and Denis as we chatted together like friends. My wife Dale and I were deep inside Costa Rican life.

Costa Rica, in spite of its high literacy rate and untainted democratic, electoral politics, freedom of expression and assembly it is still an emerging market country. That means for the surface travelers or even the deep culture travelers like ourselves, they will frequently encounter unequally developed communications grids, uneven food distribution networks, inadequate hot water supply systems, and obstacles in the travel infrastructure. For instance, there are fewer operating railroad tracks (176 miles) in Costa Rica than in the tiny African nation of Benin.

Yet, here’s an example of the living contradiction of being in such a country. When my wife and I reached Picagres at night and couldn’t find our rented home on the labyrinthine intersecting roads, we slowly retraced our route and made a turn towards the only visible source of light in the wolf’s mouth darkness of this tropical landscape. To call Picagres a hamlet though is a misnomer. It is really what Costa Ricans call a caserío, a collection of houses rather than a hamlet. At the cross roads of National Highway 136 and an unnamed dirt road is La Jarra, a bar/restaurant, with a tiny attached pulperia (the Costa Rican word for a market).

Costa Rica pic

I put two wheels of our indispensable doble (Costa Rican word for a 4 x 4) onto an uneven patch of grass in front of the source of the light we had followed to get here. The colored glow was from a rotating disco ball hanging from the ceiling of La Jarra. As a loud and painfully off-key karaoke singer’s voice wafted out of the bar into the star-studded blackness, I politely asked a group of cinco compadres (five pals) seated at the bar for help in locating our rental in Picagres. After exchanging ceremonial greetings, queries about my national origin and hometown; and a disjunctive reference to one of the compadre’s relatives in Paterson, NJ, I was offered but caballerosamente (in a gentlemanly manner) refused a bottle of Costa Rica’s flavorful Imperial beer.

So here Dale and I were now 150 miles southwest of Costa Rica’s Liberia International Airport, 50 or so miles east of the coastal Interamericana Highway in Picagres, a caserío with no street lights, no street names, and no house numbers, and from all appearances, at least 50 or more years technologically and industrially behind the United States. To my amazement, instead of guessing who and where the rental might be located, the five drinking buddies and the La Jarra’s owner quickly pulled out their i Phones and asked if I had carefully checked WAZE or Google Maps to help me locate the house I was looking for. So here I was, having a worldly discussion about WAZE and GOOGLE MAPS in this bar/restaurant in this pebble-sized caserio surrounded by impenetrable riotous tropical greenery, cow pastures, and roads more like dried out river beds than automotive thoroughfares.

When I mentioned the name of the home owner, no one knew it. She seemed to be an absentee owner. Then as Dale impatiently waited in the car, a long sometimes comical, sometimes off-color, sometimes technologically sophisticated back-and-forth took place between me and the cinco compadres. Though I didn’t learn exactly where the place we were looking for was located, what I did learn, however, by momentarily stepping into someone else’s weeknight reality, was an appreciation of their spontaneous linguistic dexterity and their instinctive personal warmth toward a stranger.

Eventually Dale and I found our rental house but not by using WAZE or Google Maps. In spite of the compadres’ best efforts, we were still driving around in circles. Deeper under the surrounding tree canopies of this village we drove. With no light pollution, it was getting even darker than when we had first arrived in Picagres. Suddenly there was another source of light. I parked our doble in the middle of the dirt road we had been driving on and called out to the three people visible in the house’s side yard.

They, a husband, wife, and a teenaged son, were doing yard work in the relative cool of the evening. They responded and did so unsuspiciously, politely acknowledging our Spanish language greetings. Once again, because we were able to use the common currency of Spanish, the vecinos(neighbors) had immediately and courteously responded to our query. We told them of our bewildering predicament. When we showed them a picture of the house from airbnb’s website, they seemed to recognize it. Using our web page information, the son called the airbnb owner for us. She then gave him directions for us to unerringly drive the remaining half mile or so to our airbnb.

Costa Rica picWe had not only just chatted with our temporary neighbors but were able to observe the bonds between parents and a child through the caring language of parent to child and child to parent as well as from the smiles and pride on the faces of the parents as their son was able to casually scroll the web page we had handed him and then to politely and respectfully engage with someone, who might presumably be from another social class. We had not only merely chatted with these welcoming strangers, but observed the tender bonds between each of them by being able to understand their use of certain expressions in the Spanish language.

Up a relentlessly steep, rock strewn, deeply rutted driveway off of the somewhat less unfriendly trunk road that we had been traveling on, our Nissan, manual shift doble, axles intact, delivered us to our next rental in Chimirol, a high plains hamlet near southern Costa Rica’s Talamanca mountain range. Dale and I again inserted ourselves into the daily vaivén(flow)of our host’s family life. When the owner’s twelve year-old son told us of a rough-hewn hiking path from our house to the nearby village of Canaán, we were thrilled. We had planned to spend the late afternoon in that inviting village for the opening activities of the Fiestas Patronales (Patron Saint’s Day) celebrations.

These are typically three days in which include a soccer match, a child’s beauty contest, bingo games, and a shared evening meal. On Sunday, the last day of the Fiestas, a sloth-like, two-hour parade makes its way through the surrounding mountain villages finally reaching Canaán. The painted oxen carts, the floats, the town’s marching band, and mounted vaqueros(cowboys) arrive in front of the modest Canaán church for blessings and prayers.

However, even though we are parents and grandparents, we had forgotten about the slow development of a 12-year old male’s frontal lobe. When we asked the host’s son how long he thought the hike would take, he unhesitatingly said no more than an hour and a half at most. This would be time enough, we thought, to explore the area’s forest, find the path to the local natural aqueduct springs, listen for and take photos of territorial birds and butterflies, reach the outskirts of Canaán and then retrace our steps to our house and return later by car to Canaán for the late afternoon Fiesta celebrations.

After four and a half, not one and a half hours, of labored and harrowing pathfinding, sometimes along ribbons of dirt and mud, many, if not all, overgrown with tropical foliage and some no wider than a quadruple EEEE men’s shoe, we came to a barbed wire fence hidden by the foliage blocking our path. With some effort, we found a crudely made pole fence gate, unhitched it, re-closed the fence and continued.

Suddenly we were in a populated cow pasture pock marked with deep muddy depressions made by the behemoth milk cows who busily chewed their cud and were not at all curious about our presence. If hiking in the narrow foliage-choked forest paths was difficult, walking in the open, boggy cow pasture, filled as it was with cow patties and holes that seemed to have been made by mortar shells, was exhausting. It was now too late to return to Chimirol. We headed down hill into Canaán and the village church where the evening’s events were taking place. Following the rural wisdom imparted to us here on previous journeys, that quien busca encuentra (Seek and ye shall find!) we were certain that in spite of Canaán having no taxi service, we would meet someone that evening who could take us back to our airbnb after the evening’s events, even though that meant navigating that daunting battlefield of a driveway in the pitch dark to our house.

We arrived in the church’s dining hall for a supper prepared by local villagers. We chose beef empanadas (a fried half a moon of dough filled with local beef) and the hearty home-made Costa Rica dish called the casado (a married man) probably so called because it was the meal usually prepared by women at home for their husbands. This dish of rice, plantains, black beans, boiled cabbage, and beef, pork, or chicken is typical of rural cooking, not only in Costa Rica but in most Central American and Caribbean countries.

As we ate, we spoke to other attendees who wanted to know where we were from. They were intrigued that we spoke Spanish. Quickly, however, our country and language of origin were forgotten. We just became another married, if unfamiliar couple, members of the community. We spoke of their children and ours, about the local and national economy, a bit about Costa Rica’s recent elections; and comments about changes in the village since our last visit three years ago. We were and would be the only foreigners present for the evening’s events—inside cultural traders gathering unforgettable details of lives lived and hopes expressed for the future. While Dale continued talking with one of the women we had just met, I searched for two seats for the next activity, the Reinado (a beauty paegent for young girls).

I found two vacant seats and asked the muscular, forty-something gentleman seated next to them, whether they were taken.” No, please sit down, they’re yours” he said. “I’m Marvin.” For the next two hours, Marvin and I shot the breeze about anything and everything. Like two old high school friends who hadn’t seen each other in years, we riffed on politics. He joked that his country, unlike the United States, had already elected an English-speaking female President ( Laura Chinchilla 2010-2014). We reminisced about the good old days before the Internet. We exchanged anecdotes about the founder of Costa Rica’s modern democratic society and political culture, Jose “Pepe” Figueres. We spoke of our children and our hopes for them. We summoned up memories of los Inmortales (the Immortals) the never-to-be-forgotten athletes of Costa Rica’s 2014 National Soccer team. A squad that reached the quarter finals of that year’s World Cup.

Our wives joined the conversation. They had been standing nearby and conversing. Marvin’s wife had remembered us, she told Dale, from our last visit here in 2017 when we had made a number of purchases in the hand-made locally sourced chocolate shop she managed. Dale spoke of our hiking misadventure and of winding up in a large cow pasture at the edge of town. Marvin and his wife both laughed. “That’s our family farm!” Dale quickly scrolled through her i-Phone photos and showed them several portraits of their cows, which made them laugh again. They said they had never ever considered taking pictures of their cows.

Costa Rica pic

When the evening’s events had concluded, I asked Marvin if he knew anyone who might be able to drive us the 2.5 miles back to our rental house. “Hermano,” (brother) he said, “I’ll take you.” Joined by his 14-year old daughter Naomy, with whom my wife had already been chatting in Spanish and English. Dale had exchanged email addresses with her and learned that Naomy was studying English in her high school, and was very eager to practice speaking it with an American.

We walked the short distance to Marvin’s sturdy 4×4. Uncertain that WAZE or Google Maps would be able to locate our house, I told Marvin the names of the husband and wife French expats who owned the place. He smiled and said he knew exactly where it was. He told us that on several occasions, other visitors to the house had made the same hike we did that morning, but, unlike us, neglected to close the barbed wire pole fence. Marvin’s milk cows had escaped and walked along the trails all the way back to La cima del mundo (Top of the World) the name the ex-pats had given their mountain top compound. Then, with the nimbleness and certainty of a mountain goat, Marvin drove, without hesitation, along the tortuous unlit roads directly to our house. Abrazos( hugs) were shared all around and a parting, “No se olviden de escribirnos mis hermanos. Buenas noches”(Don’t forget to write us my brother and sister. Good night). Language had made us family.

On the morning we left our cabin on the Osa Peninsula, we were driving on the washboard-flat, bumpy, gravel road to Puerto Jiménez, the largest town on the peninsula’s southeastern coast. In front of us, almost in the middle of the road, was standing a dark-haired man with a tripod next to him. We slowed down from our prudent twenty-mile an hour speed stopped the car, rolled down the window, and called out to him, “Todo bien?” (Every thing ok.”)

Sí. ¿Van para Puerto Jiménez? (Are you going to Puerto Jiménez?) he replied.

When we told him that we were headed that way, he motioned for us to get out of our car and join him where he was standing. Once out of the car, he introduced himself. He said his name was Randall; and that he’s been a bird and wildlife guide for almost 30 years. To our query about the camera, he said that the object mounted on his tripod was not a camera but a special type of binocular, called an angled spotting scope. He used it, he said, for bird location, identification, and close observation of birds’ features.

Qué anda usted buscando aquí?”(What are you looking for in these parts?), I asked.

He said he was tracking several bird species indigenous to the flat, relatively open scrub plain that extended in front of us. He said two of the birds, the potoo and the fantasma had eluded him for a long time, but he had recently found one of them, which thrilled him. Dale and I are amateur birders. We had been disappointed thus far on this Costa Rican trip at the small number and variety of birds we had spotted and photographed. All that was about to change.

Randall immediately and excitedly pointed his scope in the direction of a distant stand of trees and told us to look. To our astonishment staring back at us straight into the lens was a pair of barn owls. Excitedly we snapped off several pictures through the lens of his scope. For the next hour, Randall generously treated us to a master class in locating, identifying, and photographing birds of the scrub forest through his spotting scope’s lens. To our question about where he had studied to become an ornithologist, he told us that he had learned everything by himself–reading and asking questions.

We would never have seen any of the birds without his help. We walked a short distance from the spot where we had exited the car, Randall, all the while, telling us in a whispered voice about the habitats and habits of the local birds, stopping again and again to set up his tripod and letting us peer through his scope. Occasionally, he would make a hauntingly accurate bird call to see if he could engage in an avian conversation to help us pinpoint a bird’s location. We’d roll down the road in first gear and then on Randall’s command, we would all jump out with Randall pointing to a spot on either side of the road . He’d set up the tripod. We would log, another invisible-to-our-eyes, bird.

In the car, out of the car, back in the car we went, Randall, giving us a running commentary on the birds’ calls, the common, the Latin name, and local names for the birds we were viewing. There was no mistaking Randall’s infectious enthusiasm for birding. We spoke of his life, of his years as a guide; of his hopes and aspirations—professionally and personally. At one stop, we heard a clunk. Randall and I looked under the rear of the car. He identified the problem as one of the hangers of the catalytic converter having come loose from its fixed position. Without hesitation, he took a rubber mat from the back floor of our car and before I could say, let me do it, he had kneeled on the mat to protect his knees from the stones that made up the road, reached under the car and reattached it. It remained in position for the rest of our trip.

Costa Rica pic

Finally, we were in the outskirts of Puerto Jimenez where there was no longer easy and leisurely viewing of avian movement. Randall directed us to a street of modest homes off the main road. Sadly, we parted company with this generous, self-educated ornithologist whose passion for the natural world, his instinctive kindness towards outsiders, and his willingness to share a lifetime of acquired knowledge with strangers, reinforced everything that this trip to Costa Rica had offered us as bilingual travelers.

Traveling bilingual amplifies and intensifies travel. It allows the visitor access to the unnoticed cultural attitudes, values and perceptions of a people among whom one travels.

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