I landed in San Jose in May of 2011 two days after finishing finals for what, in my youthfulness, I expected to be the first step to saving the world! Upon arriving, I attempted to use my eight years of Spanish education to start some playful banter with the elderly taxi cab driver about his grandchildren and medications. In place of “que pena”, “que pene” spewed from my lips, and I sat in calm ignorance while the driver’s face slowly morphed into something menacing. That’s what happens when you tell a man he has a nice penis. So much for learning Spanish in Pittsburgh.
When I was accepted to do a fieldwork program in the Costa Rican countryside during the summer of 2011, I was also commencing on my first experience abroad, aside from the time my family ventured to the Bahamas for a wedding and I emerged with cornrows. **Authentic**.
We worked with San Jose-based institutions like Casa AMES: Asociacion de Mujeres en Salud and WEM: Instituto de Masculinidad, Parejas, y Sexualidad on the topics of domestic violence, women’s health, and drug abuse in rural Costa Rica. In San Jose, every building is gated with thick metal bars and barbed wire to remind you of where you are, in contrast to the smiles each tourist is showered with. There is a noticeable absence of skyscrapers and the roads are heavy with motor scooters moreso than Hummers.
As a member of a unique and diverse group of passionate students, I led workshops in the communities of Ortega and Bolson, in the Guanacaste province. Assisting in the research being conducted by Professor Clara Haignere of Temple University’s Public Health Department and her graduate students, I was able to develop my Spanish speaking skills through a brief language crash course and then conversation with the community about these sensitive topics during our charlas. During this time, I also conducted my own research on the effects of the Central American Free Trade Agreement on the agricultural sector in Guanacaste. And so my Spanish vocabulary blossomed with words absent from my textbooks, while I took care to absorb instead of respond. Life in Ortega offered eight weeks of cold showers, getting every vein sucked clean by mosquitos, breathing in debris from burning trash, and rice and beans and beans and rice. But it also taught me of “pura vida”. Which translates to: “I wouldn’t want any other kind of shower” / “maybe I have enough blood to share” / “Now anywhere can be trashcan!” / “Yo, rice and beans make a complete protein and I got super fit eating it instead of my college meal plan”. Hella enthusiasm.
During this experience, I was placed with a highly supportive host family, who welcomed me as one of their own. The real challenge came in the form of a painful and persistent antibiotic-resistant stomach illness. Aside from all of my horror as a guest, I had hardly the energy to apologize for monopolizing their outhouse as I crawled around s@#%ting my brains out. It is because of my family that it was possible for me to remain in-country for the remainder of the planned duration of the trip in order to complete my fieldwork. This included contributing a variety of local herbal medications, and introducing me to the Costa Rican perspective on life, death, and time. (And to my family at home, they are now learning the oncoming love paralysis that is hearing that your daughter is in the hospital in a developing country via Viber text.) Luckily, the healthcare system in Costa Rica is highly developed, though most care centers, even tertiary, seem to have prominent funeral homes within a block’s range. All the same, when someone warns you to not drink the water, drinking it with every meal is probably not the best idea.
On weekends, we trekked to the surrounding locations like the volcano Arenal, or the Monteverde Cloud Forest for ziplining and surprise bungee jumping (where I blacked out from fear until five minutes after my feet had hit the ground and I cleared the area, so don’t ask about it). We found surf camps in Tamarindo and played futbol with our host families on Playa Hermosa. We encountered crocodiles and lizards and monkeys and insectazoids beyond my wildest imagination. We met transvestite prostitutes who gave us directions and laughing fishermen and hippie transplants from Oregon who opened a smoothie shop so good I thought it was a heat hallucination.
Most important of the things I learned there, is the Costa Rican perspective, as manifested by “pura vida”. It is a phrase without linguistic equivalent, existing as a talisman of good will among a culture sometimes overwhelmed by the pace of change, attempting in a humble manner to retain tranquility born incomprehensibly of its nest of chaos. Pura vida means that you may have to tighten your belt when you stand to dance bachata, but that you will dance. It is the infinite expectation of the dawn. The faith. The loss. The rebirth. The blood. The source. It signifies that, despite the fences and struggling economic climate, the conditions are brimming with the potential of life and ought to be revered and celebrated. So more than anything I brought out of that country, coffee beans and potential parasites aside, I brought pura vida!