Immersion and Conversation in Costa Rica
I had a number of anxieties about traveling alone to Costa Rica, especially with my somewhat mediocre Spanish. I didn’t know what travel-related barriers I would encounter or how people would respond to my dog guide.
Moreover, due to some last-minute schedule changes, I didn’t have a regimented plan for the trip, which is unnerving for a rigid planner such as myself. Fortunately, I managed to contact a few Ticos (Costa Rican residents) before my trip, some of whom were contacts through Mobility International USA and some through friends of friends. In any case, it was comforting to have a few touchstones—a handful of people who knew I would be visiting the country and traveling around for a week.
Once I arrived in Heredia (a city close to San Jose), there were so many opportunities to meet people and have conversations that I no longer felt anxious. I stayed with a married couple who was active in the disability community, and it was lovely to learn about their experiences and hear their perspectives on social justice. I also met a friendly taxi driver who introduced me to his daughters, who spent some time playing music and walking in the park with me.
Centro de Idiomas Intercultura, a language school in Heredia, was closed for the holidays, so I hired a Spanish professor for some part-time tutoring. Each morning, the professor and I met in a café or a city park and practiced conversation. He was an excellent instructor and helped me greatly with my grammar.
My dog guide, Tammi, did very well in Costa Rica. She was clearly confused when people spoke to her in Spanish, which was amusing for me to watch, but she was able to navigate the broken or missing sidewalks of Heredia with relative ease. The traffic in the city was extremely busy, and the cars drove dangerously close to the side of the road. Occasionally, in areas without sidewalks, Tammi and I had to scramble up onto mounds of earth or down into ditches to stay out of the way of oncoming traffic. In my experience, there was a lot of awareness around access, and people were welcoming of Tammi and me. I also brought my white cane, which was useful indoors and when my route became confusing. And I didn’t hesitate to practice my Spanish by asking for help.
As a self-imposed final exam, I decided to journey north to the town of Bijagua to visit the cloud forest. I have always wanted to experience a rainforest! My professor and I practiced phrases and vocabulary that I might need during my trip, such as: “Be careful of the tree roots”; “Duck your head, there are low-hanging branches”; and “Look out, it’s poisonous!”
To get there, I squashed onto a very crowded bus and traveled north for five bumpy hours. I sat next to a wizened old farmer named Walter. What with his thick, country accent, I only understood about 30% of what he said to me; but I could tell he was very sweet and grandfatherly. He asked me “Would you like me to describe the countryside to you?” When I accepted, he launched into lengthy and detailed descriptions of everything we passed: “We’re passing thick trees with grapefruits…here are some farms…now we’re getting up into the mountains…oh look, here’s a little town!” He also told me stories about his farm and his family and smilingly offered to be my Costa Rican boyfriend.
When I arrived in Bijagua, I checked into Heliconias Lodge, which was beautiful, rustic, and nestled into the rainforest itself. I scheduled a guided hike in the forest the following morning. Jorge, my guide, was wonderful!
We walked for hours through the thick, muggy vegetation and listened to the birds and howler monkeys. Jorge knew how to recognize all of the birds by listening. The nightingale wren had the most beautiful song and the toucan sounded most like a frog.
We also stopped regularly to touch the plants and tropical flowers. I have never touched such interesting leaves in my life! There were furry leaves, fuzzy, velvety leaves, and leaves that felt like corrugated plastic. Jorge showed me which plants had medicinal properties, and we tapped on the resonant tree trunks that the native peoples used to communicate.
He also allowed me to touch a variety of animal life, asking me to hold out my hands for a giant ant, centipede, silkworm, and an enormous rhinoceros beetle. On our way out of the forest, Jorge said: “Hey, there’s a tiger snake in the bushes. Would you like to hold it?” Excited to practice my new vocabulary, I asked: “Is it poisonous?” Jorge considered and said: “No, it’s not poisonous. You won’t love it if it bites you, but you’ll be fine.” With a big smile, I held out my arms for six feet of black and yellow snake. It was the perfect way to end the day.
I found it easier to be a pedestrian in Bijagua than in the city. One evening, I was walking into town with Miley, one of the women who worked at the lodge. As we walked down the gravelly road, everybody said hi to us. People were sitting outside on their porches, and as we passed, they called out to Miley: “Hello, who is your new friend?” We stopped each time so Miley could introduce me. One family picked a big, orange flower from the garden, offered it to me, and wished me a pleasant stay in Bijagua. Even the animals wanted to greet us. The local dogs rushed out from each yard to bark and sniff and circle excitedly. At one farm, A cow wandered out of the gate to give us a curious nuzzle, and a small horse followed us down the road until we stopped to pat her neck.
I definitely enjoyed staying in the rural community and preferred it to the big city. I met an Australian woman who runs a small English language school, and she invited me to return to Bijagua to teach classes to children and adults in the community. I hope to return to Costa Rica and to Bijagua to live in the community—next time for a few months.