Of course I did Costa Rica differently. Although, I can’t actually say I’ve done Costa Rica at all. Spent most of my 5 nights in San Jose, leaving the hotel at 8am to our corporate office, and then heading back to the hotel at 6-7pm after a full day of meetings and work; most nights too tired to do anything besides have dinner with my fellow Area Managers and pass out.
That being said, Tuesday was a holiday in the country. It was the day of the patron Saint of Costa Rica Virgen de Los Angeles, also known as La Negrita, a mulatto representation of the virgin. I arrived on Monday afternoon, and after working till around 9pm, went back to the hotel. I pestered my friend and operations coordinator Dani not to let me take a lame touristy tour to the Poaz Volcano- besides being a full day tour (and I needed to get at least half a day’s work in,) the tour looked to have me saddled with fellow gringos snapping pictures at the gorgeous verdant mountains and hoping for a clear day at the top of the volcano. I wanted culture, locals, hikes and waterfalls.
Around 10pm on Monday night Dani messaged me. “Do you want to go to my family’s house in the mountains?”
“Ok. I’ll message you around noon.”
That was the extent of our planning, but I was not complaining. If anything I felt bad for pestering Dani on his day off to show me around his city. Around noon the next day I escaped my hotel room after getting 5 hours of work in, and took a taxi to into downtown San Jose where I was to meet the boys.
San Jose is hardly the gem of Costa Rica, the really beautiful parts and the images conjured at the name are not found in this sprawling city. As a visitor it is not easy to navigate, and even the locals are highly dependent on the unreliable bus service (a private bus Mafia I’m told) and the recently introduced uber is causing ripples in the equally problematic Taxis Rojas service. As I left this morning, there were concerns about a citywide strike due to Uber. The other rising concern is the heavy flow of traffic as vehicles become more and more accessible to the people. 1 million of the 4 million inhabitants of Costa Rica live in San Jose to give some idea of the traffic issues if everyone starts driving.
That being said, spread out in the central valley, surrounded by and enclosed by the mountains all around, the city has a very pleasant climate, not to mention the character given by the unplanned streets, and the lush green of the tropical vegetation. A more than pleasant change from my typical views of New England; this girl is not complaining.
It felt good to be in a place that was as hot as the hot-blooded, passionate people who inhabit it. The Costa Ricans (or Ticos as they refer to themselves), give kisses hello, and give kisses goodbye. They talk a very fast, but clearer version of Spanish than most of the Spanish I have been exposed to so far. They do however occasionally, swallow parts of words (like saying “Porfa” instead of “Por favor”) and their version of dude “Maaii” (Sp) identifies them as Costa Rican from other Latin American nations. The other most endearing mannerism of the people is this finger snapping, hand waving motion they do when they are excited.
Teatro Nacional is a gorgeous building, located in one of the centralities of the city. San Jose reminds me of one of the smaller towns in Sri Lanka. There wasn’t an area (that I saw) of high risers, financial center, but more of a mixture of residential and commercial areas spread throughout the valley. I didn’t have much time to explore the square before Dani and his cousin Allan picked me up. We drove, chatting and getting to know each other, to the outskirts of the city, into the town of San Isidro. On the way Allan and Dani explained how they were related and where we were going. Allan’s dad (a chartered accountant) bought a piece of land on the mountains on the outskirts of San Jose. San Isidro is an area populated (according to my local experts) by more Caribe (Caribbean) people, and as such the town was known to have an island vibe. I also learned that in Costa Rica a Church, a football field and a bar located in close proximity would constitute a town. We stopped in San Isidro to pick up some sweet breads from a bakery, and a couple of six packs of the local beer- Imperial.
We continued out of the town, up into the mountains, Allan telling me, between chuckles, the story of bringing a “couch surfer” up to the cottage, and her growing anxiety, as the road became less paved, and the forest got more dense. We pulled up along side 4 other SUVs, and in front of us we could see the entire valley laid out- ominous gray clouds moving in over the valley. The property was asymmetrically laid out, a meandering path of rough stone steps leading up along a slope (passed the miniature playhouse with tiny chairs and a table- built for Mariana the spitfire 4 year old), with a smorgasbord of tropical fruit and flower plants hiding the small wooden cottage from view.
Cottage isn’t the right word, but I can’t quite describe it as a house either. Made entirely of wood, the cottage was a single large room that served as kitchenette, dining room and living area, with a small bedroom (with room enough for a single double bed) in the back- there was no electricity, and the single tap ran water, that was brought down by gravity from further atop the mountain. There were 3 large open squares on each of the 3 walls that served as windows, the one in the front opening out onto a narrow porch/balcony. The front part of the house was on stilts, while the back rested on the slope. You could see that very little had been done to the natural environment to accommodate the house. It sort of fit right in.
As we walked up I was greeted by Dani’s aunt Patricia, who was into her 4th glass of wine, exuberant and amused by the fact that “Pavi no habla espanol, y Patricia no habla ingles!” I couldn’t help but laugh and smile with her, excited to get on her level. I could tell it was going to be a fun afternoon. I met the other characters, Allan’s siblings, and Dani’s cousins, Mariana the fiesty 4 year old and Chef Gilligan-a close friend of the family who owns a restaurant in town and was responsible for the meal that would get us through the day.
Olla Carne (correctly pronounced in Spanish as Olla de carne or pot of meat) was a stew/soup like pot, cooked outside on a wood fired stove, full of roughly cut vegetables, massive pieces of pork served with rice. Foregoing the rice, for starchy vegetables I had never heard of before, Dani informed his family of my love of spice (Picante!) and Chef Gilligan brought me a ghost pepper to add a little flavor to my personal, generous portion of the sopa.
After a late lunch, and several beers, Dani took me for a hike. We passed under and over several different barbed wire fences, mindless of crossing into and out of other peoples land. The demarcations of property clearly meant very little, as there was a well worn path over the hills and through the woods and the barbed wire had been held up by many hands before ours creating perfect arches for a wriggling human. We took the tough path down, scaling the cliff along the side of a small waterfall. It was steamy in the woods, and soon my t-shirt clung to my back, and my yellow shorts were caked with mud. Ah how I relish being hot and dirty! It just inspires such a sense of accomplishment. We took pictures at the Waterfall, named it the Dapanivi Falls (mixing Dani and Pavi,) added to someone else’s rock tower, and then began the hike back.
Dani picked me some Santa Lucia- a pretty purple flower weed that I’m meant to keep in my wallet to get more money and good luck. Allan joined us half way back up, and they told me the story of going on this same hike, stepping on a wasp nest, and their 10 year old cousin getting stung, but manning up for his older cousins. I remember walking with my cousins in the woods in the knuckles range, being gone for hours until its dark out, creating stories and living fantasies. I’m so not a city girl.
When we got back to the cottage, Allan’s dad Francisco (the Accountant cum farmer nicknamed Chico) was back. He took me on a tour of his garden, being playful and flirtatious, wearing a guajiro hat, and a knife on his waist. Not a lick of English, but Dani helped to translate for me, and I got the opportunity to eat delicious mini guavas, blackberries and a type of yellow blackberry right off the tree. At one point when I told Chico he had a beautiful garden, he says, “The most beautiful flowers in my garden are the people who visit it.”
Then it was time for Coffee and Dominos. Gilligan, who is a champion at reading the tiles, joined Dani, and me and we worked as a team to beat the old man as often as possible. It was tough going. Allan warmed up some of the sweet bread, and as the mosquitos devoured my legs, I watched the light drain from the sky. The coffee in Costa Rica is phenomenal. Nothing fancy, just a straight up, excellent, strong cup of hot coffee. There is a lot to say here about the development of Costa Rica due to the Coffee plantations, not to mention the reason San Jose became the capital of the country. But right now, I just want to talk about delicious coffee. As the sun went down, we helped to bring the chairs, and hammocks into the cottage. The Olla Carne, was heated up again, the kerosene lamps and candles lit, and the family sat around for dinner.
It was beautiful, watching and listening to the ebb and flow of conversation, spurts of jokes, occasionally more serious conversations, but just the normalcy of family. What a privilege to be a part of their day! I could feel the beer growing warm, and my heart growing heavy with gratitude for Dani to bringing me to this place. After quick goodbyes, and broken Spanish gratitude, we head home, and I thanked Allan and Dani for my day. I told them that for me this is what it means to visit a place. It’s not the sights, it’s not the monuments, it’s not the history even… it’s the people.
Now I know what it really means, I know why it’s spoken in greeting, I know why it defines Costa Rica… because one Tuesday in August I lived La Pura Vida.