More Field Notes From Costa Rica

I was a part of the Latin American studies program, studying as an international student for second semester beginning in January of 1993. My host mother greeted me. She was a “morena”, tanned and brunette, and her face carried the placid gaze and the high cheekbones characteristic of her native ancestors. She was tall in comparison with the other women in the room, but still a couple inches shorter than me. She dressed in the same style of clothing the grandmothers at my church wore — a dress of pale yellow, with pleats in the skirt, lace at the collar, and long-sleeves. Her sandals were a rusty bronze and black with fat, gold buckles. She was heavy, but carried her weight proudly with an imposing stance, shoulders back.

She looked me over. I felt this was the time to use my mother’s training to be warm and friendly to everyone and gave her a hug. I said my name in Spanish, and she said her name but I didn’t catch what it was. Even though I had read it on the papers, I had forgotten it. I felt awkward at forgetting it.

I gathered my suitcases and we walked to the edge of the curb to flag a taxi. As we waited, two girls helped me carry my things and introduced themselves as the nieces of my host mother. They said her name again. This time I caught it — Bertalia. They said more but I couldn’t understand. I nodded and smiled, vacantly. I felt my mother’s scrutinizing gaze and sensed she could tell I was faking it. Finally, the girls asked me a question I knew. I answered how old I was and they returned with a flood of words I didn’t understand. My hands began to sweat.

The taxi arrived and we stuffed my things into the trunk and crammed into the taxi. Bertalia and I were silent, though I sensed her watching me. We passed by the cemetery. I pointed to it and asked, “Como se dice?”

She answered, “Cemetaria.”

Duh, Danielle, I thought. “Muy bonita,” I said. Bertalia nodded her head.

The driver turned into a gravel driveway. The buildings lined the left side of the dirt road and were made of the same corrugated metal of my barn back home. In fact, I mistook them for barns and looked for the animals beyond, grazing in the pastures, when the driver stopped. Bertalia got out.

I thought, This can’t be it. She must have some errand to do. But she motioned for me to get out and I realized this was home.

I tried to reconcile the image of the corrugated metal as a home and I recalled playing in the barn as I listened to the patter of rain on the tin roof while we played with a new litter of kittens in the hay. Yet, I was to find out much later that the rain did not sound the same here. And the cats did not meow from the recesses of the hay, but yowled as they copulated on the roofs. I was not home. I was far from home. It was a petty attempt at transferring what was familiar to me here and was quickly squashed.

The house was situated at the corner of the long row of tin buildings. Beyond the house, there were large garages for big trucks and busses. No pastures. The next day, when I walked back toward the main street, I passed a workshop, a house, a large barn-red building with a large sign written in Chinese, and an empty building. Later, I realized this building was used for an Alcoholics Anonymous group to meet every night. A small cafe sat at the crossroads at the beginning of the lane.

On the opposite side of the lane, a low wall partitioned the driveway from the large parking lot of the Pali supermarket. A public telephone booth stood just beyond the wall.

Across the main street, another driveway of barn-like houses extended down another lane. Along it, a passerby would pass a “pulperia” which is a Tico-American clothing store, and a “taller” where they copy “llaves” or keys for 100 colones. In 1993, Costa Ricans, or Ticos, didn’t have addresses. They followed directions by way of landmarks. My landmark was the Catholic Church, La Iglesia Catolica de San Francisco de Dos Rios and San Francisco de Dos Rios was the name of my barrio..

My home seemed almost seemed pretty in comparison to the tin garage beside it with its cream siding and maroon trim. A tiny porch extended from it with plants about it and an iron fence surrounded it — all were of the same reddish-brown. The gate swung between two cement pillars crowned with concrete balls.

To the right of the front porch, another narrower gate lead to the back door and various other houses. When I opened the gate, I walked by the tomatoes growing along the small concrete path. I was then greeted by a bright green parakeet in a tall, bird cage which was flanked by a pile of wood scrap and a tall water tank. Next, I passed the laundry strung between the house and a gigantic wall. Beyond, I could see an electric blue house with piles of scrap and garbage beside it.  The walkway was very private, enclosed by the houses, the wall, and the iron gate.

The inside of the house glared red. I don’t know why I got that impression but that is how I will always remember it — it is perhaps more accurately described as blood-colored. It is very “costaricence.” Almost every house has the same reddish-brown cement throughout it.

The kitchen was cramped and cluttered. There was a short refrigerator, a stove in the corner, and a red, cement sink with dishes piled on the back of it. Fruit flies swarmed everywhere, especially around the sink. A jumbled assembly of assorted items one would find in a junk drawer covered the top of the fridge: coins, wilted flowers, leftover notes, pens and bits of pencils.

Bertalia showed me my room. I liked it right away. I assumed I would have to share a room, but I was happily mistaken. My room was long and narrow with a little window at the end that looked out to the narrow walkway I had just walked through. From it, I could see the cement wall and anyone who was entering the house.

My bed had a heart-shaped headboard with the name “Evelyn” painted on it with two Mickey Mouse stickers on it. The walls were painted white with purple trim. And the ceiling was white. My wood floor covered the unsightly blood-red cement and my dresser was painted merrily like they painted their busses, trucks, stores and signs — red, yellow, green, and blue. Orange flowers dotted my off-white curtain.

My bedspread recalled my childhood — Holly Hobby — faded over the years. I remembered my sister clutching her Holly Hobby doll tightly to her chest as she exited the school bus. The driver wasn’t paying attention and shut the door before she was through. The doors pressed her, but the little doll cushioned her and protected her. She became all the more beloved because Holly Hobby had “saved” her. It was nice to have a touch of home, of family.

I turned and saw Bertalia peeking around the corner to gather my impression. I thanked her profusely and with real joy. And she seemed a little surprised, and perhaps softened, at my enthusiasm. She was very different than my small, bubbly, active mother. Yet, she possessed that special something that all mothers have — that demeanor which draws lost children to them because they know they will be nurtured.

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