At 5am on our last morning, I crept upstairs with first light to the porch where I’ve been going nearly every morning to write. The familiar early morning sounds filled my ears: the deep rolling growl of howler monkeys calling to each other, little birds having little conversations, a rooster crowing, fat drops of water leftover from last night’s rainstorm rolling off leaves and falling to the ground.
Listen to morning sounds:
I wrote some in my journal, but it wasn’t long before I saw movement on the bridge that leads to our house and a small head bopping down the path in our yard. I stood up and waved from the balcony, “Hola, Lerin.” Bilingual Baby’s little friend waved back and stood smiling, waiting. I closed my computer and headed downstairs. We had hugged and said goodbye to our neighbors the night before, but here was Lerin, bright and early for one last visit before school started at 6:30am. Lyon and Jo were still sleeping, but Lerin didn’t ask for them; I think he mostly came to see me. We sat side by side on the porch and he asked if it didn’t scare me to fly on a plane. I told him I still got a little scared sometimes, but that I’d flown on so many now that I was used to it. He nodded as if that seemed like a reasonable answer. The furthest he had traveled was when his family moved from bordering Nicaragua. He told me about his father and his grandmother (his “Mamita”) in San Jose and how long the trip was to see them. It was a long trip, but I knew it was much longer for him because he had to take the public bus while we would be taking a private shuttle.
“Adivine cuantas mochilas tengo (guess how many backpacks I have),” he challenged. I guessed three. “Cuatro,” he told me, beaming. Then he started describing all the pockets they had for holding various things and which cartoon characters they featured. He would stay forever sitting and talking with me, I knew. But he had to get to school and I had to wake up my family and finish packing before the shuttle arrived. “Es hora (It’s time),” I told him. We planned to leave our bicycles with his family, so I told him I’d see him in a few minutes when I walked them over. He jumped up and ran off, like he’d done a hundred times before. But I wouldn’t see him again. He’d already be gone for school by the time I dropped off the bicycles.
It would be disingenuous to say that this place is paradise. It is, actually, a bit of a mess. The infrastructure is marred by rapid growth and corruption. There’s tension between the foreigners and the locals. There’s tension between the Ticos (Costa Ricans) and the Nicaraguans, who come here in search of safety and jobs. The rivers are polluted, and there are tiny pieces of plastic scattered about the beach. The dust from the only road in town is a health hazard to the people who live here and breathe it every day. If you can afford it, you drink filtered water. If you can’t, you drink from the tap. A hamburger at Banana Beach costs twelve dollars; in contrast, the going wage for a maid is about three dollars an hour. The beach is not safe at night: a twenty-five-year-old woman was murdered at 3am a few weeks ago a fifteen minute walk from our house. Paradise it is not.
How would you know that from my blog posts? From anyone else’s blog about Costa Rica? You wouldn’t.
I’ve thought about it a lot, and the questions facing this small, touristy community are the same all over the world. Can we come together as our population multiplies, as we literally run out of space and resources, and treat each other fairly? This place, and its problems, are no different from the place we’re going home to.
In San Jose, where we would spend the night before taking an early flight the next morning, we found a park with an incredible, multi-level playground. As I watched Jojo and Lyon play, a man and his little boy approached me. “¿Hablas Español?” He was from Nicaragua and wasn’t asking for money, but things were hard. Sometimes, he said, they ate, and sometimes, he said as he looked at his little boy, they didn’t. He opened up a plastic bag and showed me the coloring books and puzzles he was selling. I thought of Bilingual Baby and the long flight ahead of us, and I knew I would buy one. “¿Cuanto son (How much are they)?” “Mil colones (one thousand colones).” About two dollars. I didn’t have any colones left—since we were leaving the country, I’d spent them all. So I gave him a five-dollar bill. He was hesitant to take it. He looked at me with strange, big eyes. I assured him I knew it was too much but I wanted him to have it. He gave me an extra coloring book, and when I tried to refuse he said “No, usted me regala algo y yo le regalo algo (You give me something and I give you something).” I accepted.
Not five minutes later, I felt the ground sway beneath me. I looked around to see if someone was bouncing on the ledge I was sitting on. No one. I figured there must be a train passing underneath us—San Jose was a big city, there was probably a subway. Then I noticed a girl not far from me say to her friend, “¿Está temblando?” She caught my eye and I nodded, then she nodded as if to say “You feel that too?” I looked back at the playground and noticed parents were starting to call out to their kids and gather them up. By the time I reached Lyon, the earth had stopped moving. Lyon hadn’t even felt it. Bilingual Baby was on the second level of the playscape and couldn’t figure out how to get down. The dad next to me was calling out to his older daughter to take Jo’s hand and help her down, but it wasn’t working. Lyon and I were pacing back and forth trying to find a way up, trying to find a way down. Before throwing my backpack at Lyon and ducking into a netted tunnel that led me to Jojo, I took in what was happening. There had just been a miniature earthquake and my baby was stuck at the top of a playscape. This was ridiculous.
When I made it to the top, the little girl, Brenda, as her dad had called her, was still trying to help a stubborn Jojo. I thanked her, and once we were on the ground Brenda’s dad smiled and assured me there was nothing to worry about— these tremors happened all the time. I told him that at first I’d thought it was a train, and he said San Jose didn’t have any trains: above or below ground. We talked a while longer and he explained the reinforcements that most people put into their homes when building them. “Pero no se preocupe, es normal aqui.” The main thing you have to worry about, he said under his breath, is la migracion. There are a lot of Nicaraguans coming over he said, eyeing the man who had sold me the coloring books and puzzles. I think he expected me to bond with him over how terrible the influx of “illegals” was, how much crime there was now.
“Pero lo estan pasando muy mal en su pais ahora (But things are really bad in their country right now),” I said. He agreed that their government was oppressive and left them with few options but ended with a comment about how Costa Rica had its own problems to deal with and couldn’t absorb more. I thought of how familiar that phrase sounded. How easy it was for a group of people to spread that kind of thinking among themselves. It was much harder to do, I thought, when you knew people from the “other” category. When you gave yourself the chance to know them and care about them.
I thought of Lerin and how he had told me the other day about the kids at school who pushed him. In the back of my mind I had wondered if it was because he was Nicaraguan. “¿Y Que haces cuando te botan?” I asked him. He told the teacher, he said, and added that he would never push anyone ever. “Yo se que nunca harias algo asi. Te conozco y eres muy buena persona (I know that you would never do something like that. I know you, and you’re a really good person).” Then we got out soap and water and cleaned his skinned knee so it wouldn’t get infected. I know that there are few friendships formed between the hotel owners and the people who clean them and build them in Santa Teresa. I hope that the impact of our friendship with Lerin and his family is as long-lasting for him as it will be for us.
That evening, after the park, when we got back to our hotel in San Jose, we had three voice messages from Lerin, each eagerly asking if we were in San Jose or if we were on our plane already. With each message his little voice gave away his urgency, curiosity, and concern for where we were on our journey.
Listen to little Lerin:
We came to have an adventure, to meet new people, to immerse Bilingual Baby in Spanish, to interrupt our day-to-day, to rejuvenate. We did all those things. Closing this chapter. Onward.