Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

¡Pura Vida!

Monday, March 12th, 2012

I dedicate this blog to my familia tico in Costa Rica: Flora, Mayi, Jessénia y William, and Gaudy.

Pura vida literally means “pure life.” It’s similar to the Hawaiian word, “aloha.” The ticos, as Costa Ricans call themselves, use it as a greeting and sometimes as a goodbye. It’s also used as an exclamation of celebration and joy.

I met my Costa Rican family in 2003. I took my two daughters, Kellini and McKenna (then ages 11 and 9) to a language school in Heredia, Costa Rica to study Spanish. I wanted a total immersion experience and opted to stay with a host family.

The Hidalgo Family

We won the lottery when the school assigned us to the home of Flora and Nicolas Hidalgo. We called them Mama and Papa Tico.

Mama and Papa Tico have three accomplished daughters. The young women were in their twenties, unmarried, and lived in the family home. Rounding out the family were four dogs, two talking parrots, an aquarium of fish, and miniature hens in the back yard.

When our airport shuttle pulled into the front courtyard, lush with vegetation and an avocado tree, I thought the school had made a mistake. The home looked like a hotel. It had two stories, six bedrooms, three bathrooms, two kitchens, a formal dining room, three living rooms, a combination chiropractor office & massage therapy room, and a beauty shop.

The family has remodeled the home over the years to accommodate life-style changes. And now the house is even bigger. The massage therapy room is gone since the middle daughter, the chiropractor, married, and then moved away with her husband, the young judge. The hair salon moved next door when the youngest daughter, who had been a financial analysis for Coca-Cola decided to balance her life and spend all her working hours managing her hair salon. Recently, that daughter married and moved to Mexico with her husband.

The eldest daughter, Mayi, still lives in the home. She earned a law degree, but decided she liked teaching better and became one of the many marvelous teachers at the school, Centro Panamericano de Idimoas, affectionately called CPI.

Mayi is the only person in her family who speaks English and my girls started referring to everything as Mayi’s. Mayi’s house. Mayi’s street. Mayi’s avocado tree. Now, Mayi’s job is as the assistant director of CPI.

Mayi and I have become good friends. She visited the U.S. for the first time in 2004, and stayed with us. We look forward to her return in October for her second visit. She’s an extension of the Omaha Chamber of Commerce as she asks all the students who stay with her family, “Have you ever been to Omaha? It is the most wonderful city in the United States.”

Sadly, Papa Tico has passed away. Mama Tica still hosts students who attend CPI. Only the luckiest of all students are assigned to Mama Tica. She and I quickly became good friends. Because we were close in age, she asked me to call her Flora.

Our Costa Rican Adventures

We had many marvelous adventures in Costa Rica. My younger daughter, McKenna, helped gather eggs from the miniature hens every morning. One day she sneaked a pecan-sized egg to school in her shorts pocket. Playing at recess, she accidentally smashed the egg. The teachers comforted “Mickey” as she cried and cried, proclaiming (in Spanish) she had lost her future baby chick. She learned a new phrase that day. Estoy muy triste. —I’m very sad.

Another day, on our walk home from our morning classes, we stopped at a small mom & pop grocery store. The girls picked out some snacks, while I snagged two cold bottles of Pepsi from the cooler for Flora and me. At that time, Pepsi was rare in Costa Rica. I marveled at the bottles, the likes of which, I hadn’t seen since I was a child. Instead of the plastic, 20-ounce bottles we have in the U.S., the Pepsi came in tall glass bottles reminiscent of the 1960s.

I was pretty darned proud of myself for being able to converse with the shop owner in Spanish. I set my Pepsi bottles on the counter. When he asked if I wanted the sodas in a bag to go, I casually answered, “por supuesto,”—sure.

While I helped my daughters on the other side of the store, the owner bagged my sodas. When I returned to pay for our items, my Pepsi bottles weren’t on the counter. Instead, he handed me two slender plastic bags filled with the cold drink. He’d stuck a straw in each bag, and closed them tightly with rubber bands.

Later, at home, Flora and I laughed as she explained one of our several cultural differences. Many of the school children cannot afford to pay the small deposit for the recyclable glass bottle, so the owner puts the soda in a “to-go bag.”

In Costa Rica, most of the streets remain unmarked which made it a challenge for me to navigate. There are no house numbers in Mayi’s neighborhood or the surrounding towns. Instead, their addresses are a form of description. For instance, Mayi’s address is “150 meters east of the church in San Lorenzo. The house with the avocado tree.”

I couldn’t tell you what happens if the church burns down or the avocado tree dies.

Comida Típica

The food is wonderful in Costa Rica. Students gather with the family around the table for meals complemented with plenty of home-grown pineapple, guava, papaya, and avocados. The comida típica, or “national dish,” is called gallo pinto. It’s a combination of rice and black beans seasoned with fresh cilantro and other spices. It’s delicious. And versatile. It’s appropriate to serve at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Flora, who has never learned to drive, buys her fruits, vegetables, meat, and fish from vendors who drive regular routes through the neighborhoods. Many times, she bakes the family’s breads. Mayi has a side business making special-occasion cakes, which are beautiful, as well as delicious.

Costa Ricans like to take showers in cold water. Yes, cold water. To accommodate the students, Mayi’s family has installed an instant hot water, on-demand system in the bathrooms. Mayi and Flora still prefer cold showers.

In the central valley, where Mayi lives, houses do not have air-conditioning. It’s not needed. Daytime temperatures in the summer reach 85ºF, falling back to 70º at night. Most of the time the windows remain open and there are no screens. Occasionally, a gecko climbs the wall, but flying insects aren’t a problem in the cities. I never found out why.

Once, when we walked home from school (a mile from Mayi’s house) we got lost and encountered a roadside Colombian bakery. The pastries were light, sweet, and yummy. My daughter, Kellini, claimed they came straight from Heaven. The panedería remains one of Kellini’s favorite places.

On the same route, we saw a Nebraska Furniture Mart delivery truck parked in the back yard of a small home. I never knew the Mart had such an expansive territory. Flora couldn’t explain that weird coincidence.

Souvenir plate

Life Lessons

In our month-long visit to the Central American country, we learned many things:

1) Costa Rica disbanded their army in 1948, putting their tax revenue into education, healthcare, and the arts, instead.

2) Their secession from Spain was bloodless. One of the few Latin American republics that can claim that.

3) They have the most diverse eco-system on the planet and many biologists come to study their plants and animals.

4) They have dozens of active volcanoes.

5) They grow the best coffee in the world. Okay, that’s my opinion, not necessarily a fact. Still, it’s true to me.

6) They are quick to point out, rightly, that they are also Americans—Central Americans. They call us, estadounidences—meaning “people from the United States.” Wish we had a simple word like tico to call ourselves.

7) Oh… and we learned Spanish.

White-faced monkey at Manuel Antonio

Iguana, sunbathing at the beach

We took many tours:

1) We descended on a narrow path to the pool of a twenty-story waterfall. The girls swam. The climb back up was murder.

2) We saw Costa Rica’s most active volcano, Arenal, and swam in the thermal springs below it. When the volcano erupts, it sounds like thunder.

3) We toured a butterfly farm. It’s a huge industry in Costa Rica. The farmers harvest chrysalis from many butterfly species for export to zoos all over the world.

4) We toured a coffee plantation and learned the history and process of growing coffee for export. Brit coffee is the premium brand. Papa Tico was a coffee farmer and he sold his beans to Brit.

5) We visited the Pacific coast and toured the National Park, Manuel Antonio. In the wild, we saw monkeys, parrots, caimans, and iguanas. Along our path, in the trees overhead, we took photos of a sloth and a python.

6) On later trips, we zip-lined through the jungle canopy and McKenna bungee jumped off a bridge into a fifteen-story river gorge. Three times. Yes, she is courageous.

On our flight home, I asked my daughters, separately, to name their favorite part of the trip. I expected to hear “swimming in the ocean,” or “laughing at the monkeys.”

Without hesitation, both girls said the same thing. “My favorite part of Costa Rica was staying with our familia tico.”

That sealed it for me. Our trip was a complete success.

Until next time….¡Pura Vida!

Te amo, Mayi. Abrazos a todos.

For information about studying Spanish in Costa Rica, click CPI. It’s listed under My Favorite Websites–at the top right.