“It has been a whirlwind week for me- after 25 years of never once stepping foot onto another country’s soil, I now have 3 whole stamps on my passport- Mexico, Guatemala & Costa Rica! Who’s a big girl now?! (Me. I’m a big girl now.)” – My 2010 blog, Let’s Call a Gringa a Gringa*
When I think of Costa Rica, I think: beaches, hostels, cheese sandwiches and navigating a city with no street-names. This is where I try to summarize a time that was rich in experience. There are many details and stories I want to add, but I figure they’ll pop up again one day. Like the time that girl got really baked and peed on our love-seat. Or the time I made-out with that chunky Italian man while Cameron politely salsa-danced with her Spin instructor. Anyway, here’s the Cliff’s Notes:
My first stops before Costa Rica were Mexico and Guatemala, where my best friend, R, gave me a quick “Life in Latin America” tutorial. She lived and worked in San Cristobal de las Casas in Mexico’s southernmost state of Chiapas. It was a vibrant, bustling and beautiful town nestled between green mountains. The architecture, the dancing, the food, and her friends were wonderful. I was invigorated and I was on track. I was also now well-versed in tossing toilet paper into the trash instead of the toilet.
After a few days in Mexico, we took a combi to Guatemala’s stunning Lago de Aititlan, a freshwater lake surrounded by volcanoes. On our second day there, I stalled on a cliff above the lake, legs locked. R was treading in the water below, “Duuude! This is like a metaphor for your whole life! Jump!!!” She was right. Plus, there was a line of people behind me and my pride couldn’t take that shame, so I jumped. It wasn’t as far down as it seemed. Metaphor indeed.
I headed to Guatemala city on my own and caught a plane to Costa Rica. I landed in San Jose, more anxious than excited. I was alone now. Just me and my basic Spanish skills. The training program I had enrolled in told me there’d be someone to pick me up at the airport, but standing at the baggage claim, I had started to convince myself that this whole program was a sham and no one would actually be there to pick me up. I grabbed my bag, and headed to the curb, where a pretty Costa Rican woman stood with a sign with my name on it. Okay, fine. Not a sham.
We headed to my host home and I met my “Tica Mom” (unoriginal nickname I created). My Spanish was only slightly better than her English. I would be staying there for a month, the duration of my teaching certification program. After that, it’d be up to me to find housing. In the meantime, I’d enjoy a clean home with three meals a day, most of which turned out to resemble Hamburger Helper. I was grateful nonetheless.
In the time leading up to this trip, I had tried to limit my expectations. I didn’t want to go into this experience expecting it to be totally amazing and life-changing. But that night, on the concave bed in “my” room, I cried for approximately 10 seconds. I was mid-jump and I was scared. What if this was a bust? What if I was better off back in Chicago with TDHM and my people? This had better be worth it.
The next day, Tica Mom took me to the Mall San Pedro for some essentials. It looked straight out of 1994. Turquoise handrails and skylights abound. There was a food court there with a Wendy’s and Sbarro and there was a Hooters down the street. Before going to Costa Rica, I heard it was “Americanized”. I took comfort in that. I didn’t know what that meant, but once there, I figured it out pretty quickly. America was everywhere and I didn’t love it. The idea was to get somewhere a lot different from where I’d come from. San Jose was different, but also familiar.
That Monday, I started my program. The trainees compiled were open-minded, interested in culture and carousing. I sat next to a girl from Kentucky named Cameron. She was sharp, funny, crass and intimidating. There was Lisa, the youngest of the bunch, our silly Alabama virgin*, Stefanie from England, who was there living with her boyfriend who ran an online poker company, there was Johnny Garibaldi, who hailed from San Fran, had spent time in Juvie and who said “hella” every other word. There were plenty other characters too. Our first weekend there, we each got a $5 bus ticket and headed to the beach in Manuel Antonio. We stayed at a hostel and sufficiently bonded. It was like summer camp. It is always a wonder to me how people can get so close in such a short period of time. I got closer with those people in a month than I did with my coworkers that I’d spent the previous 3 years working beside.
Once the program was over, we dispersed, but not before spending 8 days in the jungle. We took a bus a boat and another bus to Montezuma and then we took a bus down a long dirt road to a town called Cabuya, where our friends had moved to. We spent our days exploring, and hitchhiking to town. Our nights were spent back at the house, cooking, drinking, smoking, rocking in hammocks and telling stories.
Amidst all that, I also learned how to teach English! Turns out, I was a natural. So natural, in fact, that the school where I’d been taking the ESL certification classes had offered me a job before the course was even complete. (Okay, so maybe they were desperate for teachers or maybe I was a natural. Either way, I got a job.) Kentucky Cameron was offered a job too, so we were the lucky ones staying on. Before the program began, one of the perks was that they guaranteed job placement after the program was complete. It turns out what they really meant was that they guaranteed they’d try to help you find a job once the program was complete. Some people made do, some went home. To this day, I thank my lucky stars that I got that job. It made my life and the transition so much easier and it opened doors to places I’d never considered.
Cameron and I found a clean, furnished apartment walking distance to the school. Our lease and our Costa Rica contract was 3 months. While training, we learned about the company’s other school in Cusco, Peru. After having visited Chiapas and Aititlan, I knew I wanted to be somewhere like that, somewhere without Wendy’s, Sbarro and Hooters a few blocks away. Turns out, they needed teachers 3 months down the line, so we’d get some beach time in Costa Rica and then head south into the Andes.
Our time in San Jose was worthwhile. We taught mostly adult students who were our age and we quickly befriended many of them. Cameron was eager, curious, and fluent in Spanish. Most importantly, though, she was hilarious. We did the 22 kilometer Walk to Cartago one day and we got to the coasts whenever we could. We spent one weekend in the mountains in Monte Verde, when we zip-lined through the jungle, toured coffee plantations, and watched a castrated bull make sugar (poor guy).
On our last weekend before heading to Cusco, we took the bus to the Caribbean side of CR and went to a small town called Cahuita. It was our farewell to Costa Rica trip. We spent two days on the beach alternating reading and swimming. On our last night there, we got a little baked and walked 3 minutes to a place called Coco’s where we devoured a plate of fajitas surrounded by fries. We ordered the Costa Rican grain alcohol, Caicique, mixed with ginger ale (my favorite CR cocktail). We got good and tanked and as always, told stories about back home. Cameron was from horse country, I was from the Midwest suburbs. She went to undergrad on the beach in Charleston, I went to undergrad in downtown Chicago. There were enough differences in our stories to always keep the other person entertained. That trip to Cahuita is one I still think about now when it’s cold and gray for too long or my life feels too adult. I had no idea how relaxed I was or how rare an experience like this would be in my future. I did know it was good, though.
Looking back now, I know I was too hard on San Jose. My attitude was like, “UGH! Not interesting ENOUGH! Let’s bolt!” I was an uncultured cultural snob. As it often tends to happen, I started to warm up to it just before leaving. Looking at the green mountains on our way to the airport, I felt a tinge of sadness. We had our friends, a regular yoga studio, we found new bars and restaurants and we had our choice between the Pacific or Caribbean coasts. Costa Rica means “rich coast” and having been there, it’s the most obvious choice for a name. It is gorgeous, relaxed and inviting. If I would have stayed, it would not have been a waste.
We flew into Lima for a layover and waited for our flight to Cusco. Spending the night on the hard cold, floor of the airport, covered in beach towels for blankets, I realized this was another jump. But this one felt easier.
* If you want more details of trips, etc., you can visit my Gringa blog by clicking here. If you’re looking for seedier details, they ain’t there. This was something I sent to my mother and great aunts.
** Lisa, the Alabama virgin, did not leave the trip a virgin. One night, we crashed at our friends’ place in San Jose and I slept in the living room, while Lisa and Juvie Johnny Garibaldi slept in the guest room. The walls were paper- thin and I heard everything. As far as I could tell, it was a lovely experience for the both of them.