La Despedida

El Blog de San José #3

Sunday, December 27th, 2015

Local Time: 20:28


Well, it would appear that I have somehow found myself in Costa Rica. Today was a rough mixture of exhaustion, nerves and excitement that began at 4am when my phone’s annoying excuse for an alarm aroused me to some last minute packing and hasty French-Onion-Soup-for- breakfast eating. Checking my bag and clearing security was quick and painless and I was pleased to pass the gate I’d gone through to Shanghai on my way to having but in seat in my new gate exactly half an hour since I’d reached the airport. I should have practiced my Spanish then to pass the next 1.5 hours. I really should have. Instead, I read my algorithms textbook.

Being just my luck, my flight was delayed an hour do to maintenance and air traffic control issues. I was, however, during that time delighted to discover a handful of other Madison students sharing my flight. Just prior to boarding, a noticed a frantic Mexican woman trying to get help from a few non Spanish speakers. I offered my lingual assistance in helping direct her to her gate and mostly all she said in reply is that she had no idea what I was talking about, so a gentleman offered to walk her to where her plane was awaiting her departure. Hm… not much of a confidence boost in the language I will be immersed in for the next three weeks.

I slept virtually the whole plane ride with the exception of our fly over the southern tip of Florida, our fly over Cuba and our entrance to Nicaraguan airspace

which bled into Costa Rica’s. Customs was quick. Actually getting our bags took forever. I pulled a bit of money out of the ATM, but having no idea of the cost of living in comparison to the exchange rate, I think I withdrew too little. The USD will buy you roughly 500+ colones. From what I can tell from the highway’s billboards, 1165 or so colones will buy you a McDonald’s chicken sandwich.


The End Of Florida

The bus ride to my host family was interesting. I was with about a half dozen or so Madison student and one girl from China who will stay in Costa Rica for a week to do volunteer work. As we worked our way from road to road into the heart of San José and beyond into San Pedro, I was inundated with cultural differences and similarities just beyond the van’s window. Coca Cola advertisements, Denny’s, McDonald’s, TCBYs, subways and even a Taco Bell sporting its Live Más motto were pretty much everywhere. The sky was a web of puffy nimbus clouds that skirted the tree speckled mountains as the sun began dipping low behind them. Sunset. We’re late.

TCBY To Greet Us At El Aeropuerto
TCBY To Greet Us At El Aeropuerto
Costa Rican Fast Food
Costa Rican Fast Food


As we approached San José, we tossed aside the more highway-like roads in favor of winding roads without lane markers, but an overabundance of speed bumps and small red stop signs on which was printed boldly “alto,” whatever was meant by that. My guess was it’s not a derivation of “stop” since our driver hardly even treated it as a yield sign. I suppose that like those of Shanghai, San José’s traffic rules are really more of just friendly, often ignored suggestions.

Stop If You Feel Like It Sign
Stop If You Feel Like It Sign
Hay Trafico
Hay Trafico


The streets became narrower, lined with bared window houses on either side. The sidewalk had barely enough space for single occupancy and worse yet it was complete littered with garbage on all sides. I suppose that while Costa Rica is one of the pioneer countries for environmental protection, San José missed the memo about bothering to pick up its trash.

Religion is absolutely everywhere down here. It’s like all nineteen years of my Catholic upbringing just surfaced and hit me in the face with a solid 2×4. Christmas decorations from nativity seasons to “Jesus is the reason for the season” equivalent signs were just about everywhere. Amongst decrepit, decaying houses towered massive churches with doors open wide displaying marvelously painted scenes of the crucifixion. Each cemetery we passed displayed great mausoleums and extravagant above ground tombs with intricate statues of angels, crosses and other symbols. We must have passed at least three or four cemeteries, most likely because each family’s plot takes up so much room. I don’t doubt the speculation of the Madison student sitting next to me that families may spend more on their tombs than their homes. I guess they invest in the long haul.

The number of students in the van dwindled to two before I was finally dropped off. A brief conversation with the drivers revealed that I would be the student living farthest from Maximo Nivel, our school. They also complimented my Spanish followed by a back handed reminder: “No necesita comprender todo, solo bastante.” You don’t need to understand everything, just enough. Uh… thanks dude.

The street was hardly lit as the gate to my host’s house slid carefully open. At first I thought there must be some mistake because the woman greeting me was young and didn’t at all match the picture of the elderly lady who was to be my host mom. The woman’s arms were occupied by a plump, drooling and mildly adorable baby girl with tufts of curly dark hair and the deepest brown eyes you ever did see. For all those out there who have ever mistaken my mother for Latina, nuh-uh, this pair of ladies were the real deal. You stand corrected.

Unsurprisingly, the woman, whose name I believe to be Carmen, but don’t quote me on that, speaks exactly three-four words of English: “hello,” “bye,” and “thank you” (I’ll leave it to you to determine whether thank you counts as one or two words). So, it was on me to understand what in the world she was talking about as she explained that Daysi, my host mom, was in the hospital having back surgery and so Carmen, her daughter, was here to take care of me until Daysi and her husband returned. Is it too early to determine that I jinxed my host family situation yet? Ah well, at least the baby is cute. Carmen introduced her as “Allison,” although her real name must be Ariana, because that’s all Carmen calls her. Maybe she wants her daughter to have an English name in addition to her Spanish one.

Dinner was simple: rice, beans, salad and fish. Seems no matter where I go abroad in the world, I can’t escape the rice. Also included was this light citrusy juice stuff that I’m fairly certain came from a powdered mix and tastes almost identical to the orange flavored Metamucil my parents used to drink for fiber. Who knows, maybe it is Metamucil.

Carmen and I didn’t talk too much although she is not terribly difficult to understand. We just didn’t have all that much to talk about. Her accent is fairly clear and similar to northern Mexican I am used to. She has been to the US before and is clearly familiar with how English speakers learn Mexican Spanish. I think she is avoiding words and phrases that are Costa Rica specific. Mostly, with a Spanish dubbed version of Fast and Furious playing in the background, we just sat and played with the kid, during which I learned my new favorite Spanish phrase, “que feo eso,” which literally translates to how ugly is that and really means that’s a terrible thing to do. This phrase was learned rather quickly since she says it to the baby all the time, since the kid has the curiosity of a cat and the energy of a Chihuahua.

Y ahora, estoy cansada y quiero dormirme muy temprano. A las seis necesito despertarme para ir a la orientación a las siete y media. It may be way too early to sleep, but 6am is going to roll around way to quickly so to bed at 9pm I go.

3 thoughts on “La Despedida”

  1. Hi there. Hope you’re enjoying your trip. I’m looking forward to your trip back to Wisconsin. Maybe some Thai food and iced tea. Keep the blogs coming as they are very interesting. Love you Papa.

  2. What a charming introduction to Costa Rican culture and reality. You write beautifully Heather; every word captured my interest and kept my attention.
    I await further updates about your adventures. love, Cathy

  3. I hope your host mother can come home soon. Thank you for letting us know what is going on. Love you. Grandma

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