El primer día como chiquita

El Blog de San José #4

Monday December 28th, 2015

Local Time: 22:04

Last night was really weird. I fell asleep within half an hour or so and woke up quite a bit later. It felt like 5:30am so I lamented the ringing of my alarm clock. I tossed and turned trying to steal those last precious minutes of sleep. When some time passed to yield only silence, I decided to check my phone for the time. It was midnight. Strange, but gratifying. I did not sleep well at all, but by the time 6am rolled around, at the very least I was no longer the zombie I’d become the night before, made undead by exhaustion.

My morning shower was warm. Score! I forgot I couldn’t flush the toilet paper. Crap!

Breakfast was a ham and cheese sandwich with tea and juice. As far as I’m concerned, I doubt I’ll have much of an issue adjusting to the food. Allegedly the buses here in Costa Rica run on “Tico Time” (like Taco Time except less delicious and without tater tots). “Tico Time” is the word used to describe the phenomena of Costa Rican lack of punctuality. That is, while there may be a written, de facto bus schedule, good luck finding a bus that keeps to it. And we are not talking about the Madison fashionably 5 minutes late either, oh no, this is straight up a lack of schedule. Carmen told me to show up at the bus stop 30 minutes before I actually need to because that’s just about the only way to somewhat guarantee catching one.

She handed me my butterfly tagged house keys on our way out the door. With baby in arm, she lead me down the street towards the bus stop through a crowd of Ticos (Costa Rican men) and a chorus of “Buenos Días.” Carmen explained that they work in the Coffee fields on the other side of the road across from the house. The bus costs 340 colones, so about 75 cents or so. Carmen rode with me and it took a few stops before we started picking up other Madison students headed to Maximo Nivel.

Orientation involved the scanning of passports, a brief overview of Costa Rican culture, and mostly just lectures regarding the reality of theft and sexual assault.  In fact, of the hour and a half of orientation, we spent probably more than half of it discussing ways to avoid being a victim. Never walk anywhere alone. Take buses after 6 and taxis after 8. Don’t carry anything of importance including but not limited to your passport, wallet, cash, credit card, debit card, laptops, cameras, purses and backpacks. By the end, I think they had everyone in the room thoroughly freaked out.

While the Spanish 325 Advanced Conversation students were taking their placement tests, the few of us left broke off into groups to do a little exploring. RuiXue, Tenten and I ended up walking a ways around the block taking in the mountains, the park, the small houses in rows with rusting rooves and the closed store fronts. The most amusing part of the trip was perhaps due to the fact that RuiXue hasn’t learned how to speak Spanish yet, so we spent the entire conversation speaking instead in a loose form of Chinglish (Chinese and English).

When our solo excursion was finish and we’d rejoined our group, our program leader, Erica, gave us a tour of the 8 or so block strip of road near Maximo Nivel, complete with no less than a church, super market, hardware store, gym, hamburger joint, several closed restaurants, an even greater number of closed bars, gas station, mall, bank and chocolate shop among other store fronts. After our official tour, we were free to roam for three and a half hours prior to the start of classes.

Tico Hamburguesas
Tico Hamburguesas

Our little group of five started with the little outlet mall across the street. Nearly all of the stores in the mall were closed although some of the kiosks were open, as was one of the restaurants in the food court. By far the most interesting feature of the mall was the nativity scene made from mannequins on the main floor.

El Outlet Mall
El Outlet Mall
Mannequin Nativity Scene
Mannequin Nativity Scene

As we became a bit peckish, we decided to hit up the street Erica said was known for its restaurants. Big surprise, everything on the graffiti-filled calle was closed, so we walked to the end of the street to find la Universidad de Costa Rica, which was, of course, also closed and empty as the rest. But the architecture was beautiful as were their sculptures out front. All the while, the four of us who spoke Spanish were yammering away in it, although I felt bad because RuiXue looked as if she didn’t understand a word. But I suppose for the sake of learning, immersion is the only way to go.

La Universidad De Costa Rica
La Universidad De Costa Rica
Cd Tree At La Universidad De Costa Rica
Cd Tree At La Universidad De Costa Rica

Since we were struggling to find any open restaurante in which to dine for lunch, we headed back to the main drag by Maximo Nivel to find a little hole in the wall that had only two walls and a lack of menu. Kolin and Tenten were the only two in our group brave enough to order the empanadas there. Tenten would later proclaim it one of her worst decisions considering the food was “asco” gross and had chicken bones in it.  The rest of us returned to the strip mall to the sole open restaurant in the food court, which happened to be TicoMex (Like TexMex except Costa Rican and Mexican). Ordering food is easy with hardly any evidence of language barrier. I didn’t feel much up for a Casado (the traditional dish of Costa Rica containing meat, beans, rice, fried plantain and salad) so I was lame and bought a few Mexican tacos. The price? 2000 Colones, AKA four bucks. After lunch we wandered to the supermarket just to check it out and then wandered back again to encounter the fruit cart with better prices. One pear each later, we were back at Maximo.

Los Tacos Mexicanos En Costa Rica
Los Tacos Mexicanos En Costa Rica

My favorite aspect of Maximo Nivel isn’t the fact that the wifi always works, because that would be a flat out lie. Instead, I rather appreciate the fact that at all hours the serve free coffee and tea. So, I can hydrate right at school all day long on several fresh cups of chamomile.

Water in Costa Rica is safe to drink from the taps, so I won’t need to sweat the water situation like I did in China.

I had my fourth lovely cup of chamomile in hand when our professor, Don Alex, convened our Spanish 224 Spanish Literature class. Don Alex is a short, comprehensible, good natured man from Venezuela who came to Costa Rica for University and later to teach, attracted by the laid back culture, including but not limited to the Tico Time aspect. The first hour of class was devoted to question and answers time in an effort to get to know each other, all in Spanish of course. Don Alex was also not shy at all about asking more personal questions like whether or not we each had a significant other and the description of that person if they existed. Two students in the class are homosexual and currently in relationships. They were obviously made more uneasy by the boyfriend/girlfriend question then the other three of us since none of us are particularly sure how homosexuality is perceived here. When one girl admitted to having a girlfriend, Don Alex didn’t betray what he thought of it. Our conversation after class guessed at while Costa Rica seems rather conservative, asking invading personal questions is acceptable and people aren’t quick to be vocal about judging you, if, that is, they are actually judging you at all. The general consensus is, we’re not quite sure.

The four hours passed relatively quickly although we did way more talking and presenting than reading. Our tarea is a few readings and the construction of a concept map. By 6pm and the end of class it was dark. Next challenge of the day, how in the world do I get home? I knew that my host families house was the last bus stop on the route of the bus that goes through their neighborhood, but I had no idea which bus and which house if I were to miraculously hitch the right autobus.

When in doubt, ask the people in charge. I explained my confusion and the fact that my host mom was in the hospital. Erica agreed to look into it. She called my host dad who said that my host family still really wants me to stay with them. She also called Carmen who explained she’d leave the kitchen lights on so I could identify their house.  There was a salsa class most students were attending until 8pm, but remembering the Taxis-after-8pm-rule and being tired, I wanted to get home earlier. Besides that, I was really hungry, so I with two other Madison students headed to the bus stop. My host family address card said I could take the “Cerdos-Saltrillos” bus to the Saltrirllo neighborhood. The other students lived in the Cerdos neighborhood, so we figured we’d be taking the same bus. What is somewhat unfortunate about Costa Rican addresses is that there are no street names and numbers. Instead addresses are merely descriptions using landmarks and colors of buildings. Not super helpful to a foreigner who knows were no landmarks are.

We waited for a very long time. Probably 20 minutes or so. Several buses passed, none going to Cerdos/Saltrillos. The students with me began complaining about the fact that our host families weren’t coming to help guide us home the first night. We joked that of course they wouldn’t because they know it’s too dangerous to be out and about at night. A beggar came by hitting up everyone at the bus stop for spare change. I wasn’t about to open my backpack full of my laptop, purse, passport, wallet, etc…. to give him anything and neither were my compañeros.

Finally, a bus showed up headed to Cerdos, but I didn’t see anything about Saltrillos. The other two badger students hopped on and I asked the driver if he was going to Saltrillos and he became angry saying of course not asking if I could read at all. Jeez, sorry, my bad I don’t know how your bus system works. It’s not as if I’ve been in your country less than 24 hours or anything.

Now I was all alone. I thought about going back to Maximo and asking for more help, but as suerte would have it, the next bus was the one to Saltrillos. I figured it was now or who really knows when thanks to Tico Time, so I boarded the bus, paid my Colones and stood in the crowded aisle.

Buses are a great place to just watch how local strangers interact with one another. By far the most interesting observation I made was a firsthand account of the Machismo culture they’d discussed with us in orientation.  A man was sitting next to a woman he knew and they were chatting away until the woman and her son disembarked at a stop.  With the seat next to him vacant, the man called to one of the women standing in the aisle and offered the seat to her, which she politely declined, as did all the other women standing in the aisle and I followed suit. I recalled from orientation that men in Costa Rica are very flirtatious, very macho and that many actions taken by a woman in a man’s presence could be misconstrued.  For example, if a woman gets into the front seat of a car or taxi with a man driving, this is a very suggestive gesture. Apparently this also goes for bus seats.

The bus slowly emptied until we reached el ultimo stop, my stop. It was dark, but at the very least not as dark as I recalled it being the night before. The street was punctuated with some street lights. A teenage tico couple had disembarked the bus with me and I just sort of followed them up the street to give the impression I wasn’t walking home alone.  My next issue was the fact that I couldn’t remember which house was the correct one and the description of red gate and bright kitchen lights was not helpful, because that could describe any of several houses on the row. I wandered a bit looking in each house trying to catch a glimpse of familiarity. There were people milling about in the roads. I was starting to silently cuss out Maximo Nivel for requesting I bring my passport to class, scaring me about theft and rape and then sending me off home alone in the dark by myself. Just when I became slightly panicked I saw Carmen coming down the road with baby in arm, beckoning me.

Dinner was rice, beans, salad, plantain and sausage, so essentially a Casado. I am going to get really sick of rice and beans at some point here for sure. Around 8:30pm, Carmen’s father who is supposed to be my host father came home. He’s a taxi driver, according to the host family description I was given by Maximo. They didn’t mention that unlike his daughter, I would find him nearly impossible to understand. During the ten minute conversation, I caught two things:

“Please feel that this is like your own house” and “Pura Vida” pure life which the Costa Rican catchphrase, an equivalent to Hakunah Matata. My host mom is still in the hospital recovering from back surgery.

Now, I have to do tarea. Ew. Also, I encountered unidentifiable bug in bathroom just now. It was medium to fairly large in size and reddish in hue. The body looked like that of a beetle. I’m not entirely sure it’s not a cockroach. I’m just going to pretend I didn’t see it.

Buenas Noches.



2 thoughts on “El primer día como chiquita”

  1. Your day and night sound challenging. I hope each day gets a bit smoother. It sounds like you have lots of info to digest re safety and caution. Make good decisions. Be safe. Love, Cathy

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