Breaking rules and cultural barriers in Costa Rica
By Tava Hoag
“Con su tricky, tricky, tra! Entiendes Chiquita?”
No, not at all! I thought. I shrugged my shoulders and gave a small smile.
“Un poco” I admitted.
It’s New Year’s Day. I am in Alajuela, Costa Rica spending a few weeks with Gustavo and his family. All of his cousins sit crammed around the small wooden table in his Abuela's cozy house on Calle Loria playing games. The tantalizing aroma of rice mixed with spices cooking in the cast iron pot waft in from the kitchen. The aunts are making a feast, their swift chatter can be heard all through the casa.
Tia Flory continuously comes out of the small kitchen offering “cafecito” to the gathering crowd. The sun is setting outside over the sugar cane field across the dirt road. There are no glass panes on the windows, rather three metal bars allow the light breeze to pass through the house, cooling us down as the sun fades from the horizon. A stray cat christened, Luisito squeezes in through the hole in the front gate. He purrs and nuzzles each of the family members until he finds Abuela, who bends down, affectionately scratches behind his ears, and offers him a small sliver of meat. I can hear the pan sizzling in the kitchen as the food is placed in it, my mouth is watering.
Suddenly, I’m brought back.
“Ok, listo?” one of the cousins says.
And in one swift motion, she begins passing the cup around the circle with skilled purpose as she chants the song. My stomach is in knots, how am I going to manage this one?
I am in a different place and a different culture. Aside, from a few years of Spanish in high school and college, I don’t have much experience speaking the language. For the most part, I understand what is being said, but I am in desperate need of more practice.
“Tricky tricky tra” was explained and the inside of my head was playing volleyball. I heard the words and quickly tried to serve over the English translation in my head. However, I couldn’t keep up and I was falling behind.Yet, I smiled and kept nodding, watching the demonstration before me.
Basically, the game was to sing a song while passing a cup around the circle. When the song ended the cups would be tapped against the table once and then the cycle would begin again. During the next song cycle, the cups would be tapped two times against the table. With each additional cycle, the number of taps would increase. Whoever messed up first had to take a shot of Agua de Pipa (fresh coconut water.)
Anxiously, I peered around me.I didn’t want to look like a fool in front of all these people. Everyone was watching, to see if the “macha” (an affection term used to describe a blonde, white girl) could figure it out.
So what did I do?
I took a deep breath and stopped worrying about messing up. I watched as the cups began to be passed around me. Quietly, and cautiously, I began singing the song along with the others. I figured out how to bounce my own cup, pass it, and collect the next one, without pausing or messing the song up. I forgot my insecurities, let myself be in the moment, and had fun.
“Eso!” We finished all at once, laughing, as the food was served.
We all came together, joined hands, and a prayer was said. Then we broke apart and began loading our plates with rice, beans, platanos, cabbage salad, and thinly sliced steak cooked with garlic, cilantro, and onion. I sat between cousin Fernanda and cousin Cinthia. They praised me for playing the game and continuously patted my arm or touched my hair throughout the meal. It was a sign of affection and appreciation that I welcomed warmly.
Gathered together eating the scrumptious meal I couldn’t stop smiling. Who cared if my Spanish wasn’t perfect? It was the effort that became appreciated. It was then that I realized how breaking cultural and language barriers was really very simple. Especially, if you stop worrying about being judged and simply let yourself have fun.
The next day I woke up still feeling confident. I would say that I am definitely the type of person who prefers to observe rather than engage in a conversation. Here in Costa Rica, I was being forced out of my comfort zone. The family wanted to speak to me, get to know me, understand how I felt about certain situations and so they were not letting me get away with staying quiet. At first, I dreaded it, I didn’t want to sound stupid, but after the previous night, I was ready to continue having conversations and overcome the language barrier. On this day we were all traveling together to Poas, an active volcano in Central Costa Rica. This would be my second visit to Poas. Each time I had visited Costa Rica we would make the journey to the volcano with the hope of seeing the lake in the crater, but typically there is a thick fog making visibility less than 30 ft.
This time we were a little more hopeful. The weather in Alajuela was sunny and 80 degrees, but once the car climbed up the steep mountains, winding through towns filled with fresh strawberries, milk, and coffee the temperature had dropped to almost 55 degrees and a light rain was falling. Our possibility of seeing “Laguna Caliente” seemed slim. Still, we all walked together through the park to the entrance of the volcano. For the second time, I had no such luck. The clouds were too thick, we stayed for about 10 minutes and then we moved on through the park’s jungle. Then less than an hour later as we were all making our way towards the exit a passerby told us that the fog was lifting and you could see the lagoon. The excitement was electric, it surged through the group and we all headed back towards the crater.
Gustavo and I led the charge. We were running because we knew we only had so much time before the clouds returned and we had to be in a good spot to take a picture. The clouds began to lift and we finally saw the turquoise lagoon. It was incredible to see it suddenly appear before our eyes. There is a barrier surrounding the crater, but I only needed to jump over it for a second, just so we could get the picture. By then the cousins were all there surrounding the spot we were standing in. They knew that what I was about to do was not allowed, but still, they encouraged us, even stood watch so that if the Rangers came our way they could warn us.
I placed one foot on the first rail, hoisted myself up and made the jump over the top of the fence. I stood at the very edge of the crater and looked down into the blue water swirling in its center. Gustavo snapped the picture, the wind began to pick up, and in a matter of seconds, the crater disappeared once more into the clouds.
“Hey!” someone yelled in English.
“You can’t be on the edge like that! Get back to the other side, now”
I immediately did as I was told fearing that this man would go and inform one of the Rangers and I would be charged a hefty fine, but the cousins would not let that happen. They approached the man, who also spoke Spanish and had a short conversation with him. I don’t know what was said, but when they returned they all smiled at Gustavo and me.
“Esta bien, Vamos.” They said.
We walked back to the car arms around one another smiling and laughing at our good fortune.
Costa Rica from then on felt like a second home to me. I have family there, people who care about my well-being and who would selflessly protect me if I needed it. It made me realize that relationships can always be built, no matter the differences in culture, language, country, or religion. As long as you stay true to yourself, and respect the differences that surround you traveling to a place where you cannot fully speak or understand the language will always be worth the risk.