We stood in the center of Plaza de la Cultura, in the center of San José, in the center of Costa Rica. Surrounded by the venerable buildings of the country’s early 1900s history, the plaza burst with the hubbub of modern life. Behind us, where we spent the previous night, rose the elegant Gran Hotel, its flags flapping like an aging diva’s fluttering eyelids. Before us paraded shoppers, businessmen, jugglers, schoolkids, families—all scurrying, trotting, prancing, cycling, or bustling across the square. Only the tourists ambled. Hundreds of them, all searching for a bargain and a memory.
“We’ve got about ten minutes,” Rich said, glancing at the watch that, even on vacations, he never abandoned. “Let’s wait by the fountain.” We settled into the midst of the scattering pigeons and the hawking vendors, the hand-blown bubbles and the savory aroma of sizzling tortillas.
It was week three of our Costa Rican journey. We had peered into the craters of volcanoes deep and wide enough to conceal a city block, hiked steamy lowland jungles where moss-covered sloths slogged through the trees, slept in a walk-in freezer-of-a-room atop Cerro de la Muerte (the Mountain of Death), and awoke to the silky call of the Quetzal. The country had more than lived up to its reputation as a nature and adventure-lover’s paradise.
Now another travel experience awaited us: The Tour Group. We were waiting for a van to take us to a bus, to take us to a boat, to take us to Jungle Lodge for a weekend in the remote region of Tortuguero.
Tours have never been our thing. Rich and I prefer the freedom that comes with a rental car. But Tortuguero can only be reached by water, so the company that runs the ecolodge arranged for us to join a tour group to get there.
“You know,” I said, eyeing the circus swirling around us, “the downside of traveling on our own is that it’s solitary.”
“No-o-o.” I struggled to find the words. “But right now, in a remarkable setting like this, somehow I feel disconnected from it. In it, but not part of it.”
“Well, don’t expect to get connected to anything on a tour,” Rich announced from his usual position on the introverted side of our partnership. We tried a tour once, ten years earlier, to Trinidad—our first major foray out of the country. Inexperienced at international adventuring, we had assumed we wouldn’t be able to navigate the foreignness of it or discover all the birds we wanted to find. Except for spending days in a van with complete strangers, the trip was pleasant enough, an easy way to travel. But we were left wanting, as though we had experienced a journey the tour company had contrived. We had faced a different kind of estrangement—the illusion of being part of something, while actually being shielded from it.
“You’re right. I’m the stranger in a strange land,” I said. “I guess I’m looking for a more genuine connection.”
Our new companions turned out to be three dozen elderly Canadians thrilled to be on holiday. They may have been strangers to each other at the beginning of their trip a few days earlier, but already they had assumed a group identity—robust, jolly, enthusiastic. An attractive Costa Rican couple, probably mid-thirties, dressed more for town than country, hovered at the fringes. Like us, they appeared to have been deposited in this curious situation.
The tour company promised an “authentic tico experience,” using the generic description for all things Costa Rican. Their version was to stop for a lunch of gallo pinto at a sprawling, bus-friendly resort along the way—far removed from the staple of our trip, the roadside cantinas the ticos call sodas.
From there, we headed to a banana plantation. As we bumped along a rutted dirt road, banana plants in precise rows towering over our bus, Gabrial, our guide, kept up a lively commentary on the biology, economics, and politics of the country. Paraíso, he called it—Paradise—even when disparaging the fruit conglomerates. Everyone laughed heartily at his jokes, except the young couple that seemed content whispering to one another. I wondered if they felt like strangers, only a few miles from home.
The bus ride, and the road, ended at a rickety wooden dock on a wide river, flanked by a jungle of massive trees. I tugged Rich’s arm.
“We could be in the Amazon!” I whispered.
The Sarapiqui’s current flowed swiftly under a canopy so dense it almost obscured the sky. White-faced monkeys swung by spindly tails from the tangle of vines. Great-green macaws—flashing emerald, scarlet, and blue—screamed overhead. Tiny mysterious songbirds flitted in and out of the lush orange and crimson heliconia.
The Canadians amused themselves with their cameras while we waited for the boat. Rich wandered off to identify the herons stalking the mangroves, and I was left alone with the Costa Rican couple on the dock. They looked a bit bewildered; with an odd sense of tables turned, I felt compelled to reach out to them. I mustered my best, but limited, Spanish.
“My name is Cindy. My husband, Richard, and I are from the United States and we are traveling around the country. We are bird-watchers.”
They introduced themselves as Daniel and Veronica Morales, adding shyly, "Somos ticos." I leaned in to catch a few more words: “anniversary,” “small vacation,” and “never visited here.”
I made a stab at conversation. “I think the boat to Jungle Lodge will arrive in ten minutes.”
“Si, gracias, gracias!” they said, nodding to each other and smiling in what appeared to be relief. Ohmigod, I thought, these folks speak absolutely no English. They have understood nothing of the tour up to this point.
Heading down the river, watching a forest falcon perched on a giant palm tree high above the boat, I asked Rich why the guide—their own countryman—would totally ignore the tico couple.
"A busload of gregarious vacationers or a local couple just hitching a ride," he said, holding both his hands in a balance. "Where do you think his tip is coming from?"
“That’s not fair,” I said, glancing over my shoulder at the couple who, like us, stood alone. I wondered how I could keep them in the loop.
Jungle Lodge was like a playground for grownups, rainforest version. We tromped through tropical wilderness to a windswept beach, paddled stiff wooden canoes along a labyrinth of canals deep into the jungle, and lounged on the porch of our rustic cabin to the chatter of parrots, while howler monkeys roared like lions in the distance. The musty fragrance of orchids hung in the humid air.
Every now and then we encountered Daniel and Veronica walking hand-in-hand along the trails or with heads bent over a meal in the dining room. When I inquired about their visit, they would smile. “Bonito,” one would say.
At breakfast our last morning, I noticed them at the corner table and asked if we could join them. We shared a breadfruit and some simple conversation. Rich nodded a lot, having no Spanish to offer while I tried to steer the conversation to accommodate my vocabulary—the trip was fun, the weather was lovely, they had left their three children at home with the abuela. I wanted to ask if they were seeing their country with new eyes, but I didn’t have the words.
Too soon the entire group crammed on the dock, waiting for the boat. The Canadians, having lost none of their energy, chatted about the next phase of their Costa Rican adventure. Rich lingered on shore, quietly stalking a tiger-heron to discover if it was the one we had yet to see. Veronica approached me and I switched into intense listening mode to follow the conversation.
"Thank you for being so friendly to us," she said, knowing I had a better chance of understanding her Spanish if she carefully pronounced each word. "We would like you to come to dinner at our house."
I was struck by her sweetness. "Gracias, gracias," I said. "We would love to come, but we are headed south for a few days. We won't be back to San José until Thursday. And we leave the next morning."
"Then you must come on Thursday," she said, her dark eyes sparkling in affirmation. "Here is our number. Call us when you get in, and Daniel will come to your hotel."
The following Thursday, back at the Gran Hotel, I perched on the edge of the bed, staring at the phone, rehearsing a few phrases, then dialed la familia Morales with that edge I feel when a challenge awaits. An older woman answered—Grandma, I assumed. I told her my name and explained that we were invited for dinner that evening.
"¿Hoy?" she asked. I could hear doubt in her voice.
"Si, el viernes," I replied, confirming, as far as I was concerned, that we were invited for today, Thursday.
"No es el viernes. Hoy es el jueves." Her tone was stern. I stared at the phone, struggling to comprehend her words, a sinking sensation in my chest.
“What’s wrong?” Rich mouthed the words.
I covered the mouthpiece and whispered, “El viernes means Friday.”
Just then I heard Veronica’s voice, and Grandma, handing her the phone, trying to explain about the woman on the other end who didn’t know what day it was.
“Lo siento, lo siento.” I tried to express my embarrassment for mixing up the words.
Veronica seemed to understand. "No, no, no! There is no problem. You must come today!"
Daniel greeted us at our hotel, and we walked in silence to his BMW parked around the corner. From the sleek black interior, gliding through narrow streets, we peered at rows of battered shops and buildings grimed with diesel fumes. Everywhere, tattered-looking children and dogs darted in and out of the rubbish heaps. Except for language, I thought, Daniel is no more a part of this setting than I am. Then, suddenly, we were in a pleasant neighborhood lined with trees, stopping at a trim ranch-style home surrounded by an intricate wrought iron fence.
The family welcomed us, lined up at the door: Grandma, short and stocky with no trace of the sternness I heard on the phone; six-year-old Pamela, a pixie with her mother’s sparkling eyes; Danny, whose handsome face contrasted with his pre-teen wiggles; and stately, fair-haired Andrea, who greeted us with perfect English and a confidence beyond her eighteen years. As Andrea smoothed over the introductions for all of us, I noticed Veronica slip into the kitchen, fussing with aluminum pans of frozen food. With a twinge of guilt, I imagined her that afternoon frantically trying to pull together a meal she could serve with pride to her North American guests.
Andrea led us on a tour of the house, the younger ones jostling behind. In her room, Pamela patted the pale pink bedspread for us to sit for introductions as each doll was pulled from the shelf to perform a silly dancing motion in the air. Danny stood at the door of his room and announced “Mi cuarto,” then pointed to items for us to peer in and see—“mi cama . . . mi almohada . . .” When he reached his soccer ball, his interest in the tour was over, and we left him practicing his chip shots onto the bed.
Back in the living room, we tried some conversation with Daniel while Veronica and Grandma created dinner. We started slowly: how was your day . . . what did we do in the south . . . what are your hobbies . . . do you play any sports . . .?
I paused at intervals to catch Rich up on the conversation. “Tell him about Scuba diving,” he suggested.
My confidence building, I began a story about Rich going Scuba diving. Es-coo’-ba, I pronounced it, remembering my tenth grade Spanish class.
“Claro.” Daniel said enthusiastically, and then something that sounded like “Mi favorita es-coo’-ba!” which I took to mean he enjoyed it as well.
Encouraged, I launched into last year’s trip and all the fish Rich saw.
“Did you go as well?” Daniel asked and looked puzzled when I replied that it is too cold and too frightening for me.
Just then, Andrea poked her head in, and although I felt good about our conversation, it was reassuring to know she could help us over the rough spots. She stood at the doorway, her head rotating slowly from side to side as though engrossed in a tennis match, following our sentences as we lobbed them earnestly back and forth across the room.
I heard a soft snicker, and her hand flew to her mouth to stifle it.
“I’m so sorry to interrupt your conversation,” she said in English. “But the two of you are talking about entirely different things!” She was giggling now and gasping out the words. “You are talking about scuba diving. Daddy is talking about going to Cuba!” There was an odd moment of delay while she managed the translation for her father. He glanced at me, smiling tentatively, waiting for a clue to my reaction. I grinned, and soon we were all laughing—that tears-in-your-eyes laugh of awkwardness turned to sweetness and relief.
Veronica called us to the dining room where we gathered around flowered china on a white plastic tablecloth. No matter that the meal was store-bought lasagna, it tasted tico. Rich and I gushed about the parts of the country we had seen. I sensed the family slowing the pace of their chatter to include me in whatever I could possibly grasp. Pamela showed off her English by counting to ten while Danny swore he would never learn a single word. With Andrea’s help, I advised him that learning a little, and thinking you know it, causes more problems than learning nothing at all, and we all had another laugh at my mistakes.
Good-byes were another line at the door with a breath of a kiss on both cheeks, right then left, and a jumble of words probably no one understood.
“We must stay in touch,” Andrea said as she handed us the family address.
“Amigos para siempre,” all the ticos said. Friends forever. At that moment it felt true, all of us giddy with the feelings of connection. Across language, across culture, across country.
We rode in silence back to the hotel, Daniel navigating effortlessly through the darkened streets. Shop owners had pulled the aluminum doors down across their storefronts. Iron gates stretched from their accordion storage positions to lock across windows. I thought about the complexity of this country already wedging its way into my heart. The scenery in the wild areas was breathtaking, yet the tropical fruit I enjoyed for breakfast was killing the landscape. Tourism supported an emerging economy, yet ticos remained stratified into classes and could, as easily as we could, be isolated from their own countrymen. Like the windows of a tour van, language had held the power to distance us from our authentic tico experience, but even feeble attempts to bridge that divide held the seeds of friendship. A tour group had granted us a connection after all.
Daniel dropped us off in front of the Gran. This was our last night; we weren’t ready to go in. I slipped my hand over Rich’s arm and we ambled into the plaza. The crowd was thinning. A couple of pigeons cooed softly from a jacaranda tree. We settled onto the stone bench by the fountain. It had been a week since we last sat there. The square felt cozy, familiar. Almost intimate. Like we belonged.
About the Author
Cindy Carlson grew up in the snowbelt of western New York, and, when not traveling and birding with her husband, has spent most of her adult life along the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia. After a long career in youth development, publishing in numerous professional journals, she is spending retirement with her first love—creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared in Birding, The Quotable, Litro NY, Lowestoft Chronicle, and damselfly press.