People and the Culture:
Before I continue my descriptions of our time in Costa Rica, I have a few confessions to make. I’ll start with a big one: I don’t speak Spanish. When I was in middle school I was given a choice between learning Spanish and learning French. At the time, Hispanic immigration into the States had yet to become the prominent demographic force it is today. More to the point for a 12 year-old, my older brother had recently taken a trip to France with his ninth grade French teacher, and I wanted to do the same. I wound up taking six years of French (and taking that six week journey to France); I never got around to studying Spanish.
I should also admit here that I have spent too little time exploring cultures other than my own. My wife, daughters, and I lived for a year in Australia, and while Down Under we found a culture that was different from American culture in a number of significant ways. But language is a formative and powerful force in our lives, one we neglect to consider at our peril. I know that I sometimes underestimate the importance of language in shaping societies — for a writer, that might be the most difficult confession of all. My point is this: Before I return to Costa Rica — and I will be going back — I need to learn to speak Spanish, at least in a rudimentary way.
As we travel through Costa Rica, my inability to speak or to understand what is said to me — the opacity of everything from road signs to food menus, of snippets of conversations overheard in coffee shops or on street corners, and questions and statements directed at me — soon becomes deeply frustrating. It creates what feels at times like an impenetrable wall between my wife, my younger daughter and me on the one hand and so many of the people we encounter on the other.
Yet, while I am constantly aware of the language barrier, and feel very much the “ugly American” because of it, I never sense any hostility from anyone. We are clearly in a Third World country. Some of what I touched on in my last entry — the narrow roads, the corrugated steel structures, the one-laned bridges and preponderance of dirt roads — make that clear. While we don’t see abject poverty anywhere we go, we do see people living modest lives and doing without many of the comforts that we Americans take for granted. Hot showers are a luxury. Toilets cannot handle toilet paper without clogging, and so beside every toilet we see, there is a small, plastic-lined garbage pail. But we encounter no manifest resentment, no anger toward American wealth. We experience no political discomfort. Indeed, in this respect, our week in Costa Rica is more comfortable than an hour spent in some of the more conservative towns near our home here in Appalachia. Our lame attempts at linguistically appropriate niceties — “Hola,” “Gracias,” “Buenos dias” — are always met with “Hola!” in return, with “con gusto” (with pleasure), with genuine smiles. The hospitality of strangers, the kindness and generosity of mere acquaintances, is as constant as the mist and the rain and the greenery.
If language is one entry to understanding a people and their culture, then food is another. And we find interesting foods in abundance during our stay: Beans and rice, pan-fried plantain, palm hearts, mango, the best pineapple juice you’ve ever tasted, empanadas, arroz con pollo (chicken and rice). We eat at a few nice restaurants while in Costa Rica — a couple are surprisingly good, really. But my favorite food again and again is the “comida tipica,” the typical Costa Rican food. It has an earthy, rustic taste, and yet at the same time it is exotic, rich in flavor, clearly healthy. I could eat it at every meal and not grow tired of it. The fruit is amazing. We eat the best mangos I’ve ever had. Bananas, both normal-sized and miniature, are far more flavorful than those we buy in markets here in the States. Pineapples are huge and beautiful and incredibly cheap. And then there are the mamon chinos (literal translation: “Chinese suckers”), also known as Rambutan: red, spiny; they look like something you would pick up off a lawn and throw away. They are endemic to Southeast Asia, but are grown widely in Latin America, too. The skin is softer than it looks and peels away easily, leaving a soft pearly fruit surrounding a hard, inedible seed. Their taste and texture are reminiscent of lychees. We eat our way through a large bag of them in a matter of minutes.
And then, finally, there is the coffee. I mentioned the coffee plantations in my last post — they are everywhere, and they can actually be quite beautiful. The best coffee, we are informed, is exported. What remains in the country is of a lower grade. But it’s fresh. One morning we visit a coffee shop that is roasting its own beans while we’re there. Richly fragrant smoke billows from the roaster out into the misty air, an aromatic siren for passersby. When the beans are ready, they are swept into a metal drum, still smoking, literally crackling with heat, and smelling divine. Roasting the beans, we are told, actually increases their size by as much as 100%. A dark roast has more flavor (that we know already); a medium brew retains more acidity and more caffeine (that is news to us). When they bag the beans for us, they are still warm. We’ll give them as gifts, but we’ll also keep some for ourselves.
Next time: Monteverde and the Costa Rican Cloud Forest