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I am sorry, but Spain is bad.

Eight years ago today in a Costa Rica jungle, I practice my Spanish. December 19, 2009

The shop boy at Super Mora is dumbfounded and so am I. I have asked him where to find the best chocolate in Colon and he has escorted me to the Nestles Quik. So I try to explain my awkward communication by apologizing for the badness of Spain. I will top this later in the day by soliciting the hours and Gods of the swimming pool. No one really seems to mind the bastardization of their language by yours truly. Estoy intentando, I tell them, and they nod and smile and reward my good intentions with staccato bursts of words, many of which I understand. Making an attempt gets you far here, and they always tell me: at least you are trying.

And I am trying. I have leftover daylight hours every day to fill with my adopted December town in the hills. The road to town from the pista, or highway, is a two-lane bumping curving joyride that splits into a one-way street in town; Calle 1, on which the church is located, along with one edge of the town square. It rejoins itself a few blocks later and continues up the hills, around to the other side of the valley to Puriscal and beyond. As far as I can tell, the assurance of paved roads is limited to about a dozen or so square blocks here in the town center, the square of which is bordered by Avenidas 0 and 1, and Calles 0 and 1. Very tidy.

Calle 0 is the secondary one-way splinter of the pista that leads down the hill to the real highway. Here is where I get reacquainted with the bus to Escazu and the great American modeled Multiplaza Mall where I hope to find a shower comb for my big hair – the one thing I forgot to pack. It’s a high-end, hideous place that I won’t spend time on except to say that the highlight was hearing my name called in the middle of this giant eyesore and turning to find the bright smiling face of Maia, my hosts 19 year-old daughter who is there to meet friends. We pass some time with Dior before she leaves, I find my comb and the bus stop. Amazingly, a pair of Eastern European fellows ask if I speak English then beseech me to help them get on the correct bus to Santa Ana. I do so. The nice Tico lady sitting next to me, and who has adopted me as her own idiot gringa, makes sure I get onto my own.

So I’m finished with buses for the next little while. It just isn’t fun standing in a packed aisle with forty of your closest friends groping for a handhold while negotiating the road home. It’s not the kind of immersion I was planning on. But walking the roads of town is, and this by far is the best immersion possible. I get lost frequently outside the paved roads and asking for directions is necessary and filled with misunderstanding and I learn more everyday. Estoy intentando.

I walked the treacherous road out of town looking for a pool with laplanes, overshooting it by a mile because it looked like a cantina the first time I passed it. I stop at roadside hole in the wall grill to ask for the agua where people <insert ridiculous swimming mime movements>. I studied the beer posters and empty kegs when I hiked back, covered in dust from passing vehicles. I don’t understand the correlation between pool and bar, but I’m sure it makes sense to someone. $1000 colones for a swim, 10-5, seven Gods a week.

Closer to home, I have successfully negotiated the purchase of pineapples, cilantro, dental floss, and beer that is priced per bottle, rather than six packs. In one whirlwind day I managed to find the small, blue-walled one-story bank whose rifle toting guard gave up on trying to converse with me, but assured I got into the right line, which is the only line with a teller. Apparently, this is also City Hall. The teller exchanged my dollars for colones and gave me cryptic directions to a place I hoped sold stamps: “de la iglesia. 25 este. Correo.”

To me this translates to: “of the church. This 25. Run.”

I wanted to run considering I now had $56,000 colones on my single tourist person. But I forget I am in the town of the University for Peace, which is an international institution of higher education for peace with the aim of promoting among all human beings the spirit of understanding, tolerance and peaceful coexistence, which seems to have infiltrated this town. I shrug off my paranoia and start walking. Six stops for directions later, flashing my postcards, I discover the postal office – which is called a Correo, solving the mystery of "run" - purchase my stamps and mail my Christmas postcards. As I walk to Calle 0 the church is right before me and I realize that it is indeed 25 meters from the post office, and that while este does indeed mean “this,” it also means “east.” Viente cinco metres este de la iglesia, Correo Costa Rica. I get it now.

But my absolute favorite immersion by far was here in my own small cottage down the hill.

The little dirt road off which my hosts estate lies is an interesting mix of Costa Rican country lavish and poverty. There are well-groomed walled estates behind high stucco walls, and little corrugated tin shacks that perch on the lip of this valley. Ana, the housekeeper, lives a few houses beyond the gate to our Finca in one of the lesser homes. She walks down the hill each Wednesday to tend to our needs, as she has been doing for the last sixteen years. I know that she makes approximately $200 US dollars a month for her work here. Yesterday she arrived with her daughter, Magda Elena, to rid the cottage of dust and leaves, to search for nests, as I’m told. I leave them to work and walk into town for errands, one of which is to find a place that I know makes pizza. My eating habits here are not a far departure from those at home – although I brought my own giant bag of Trader Joe’s Brown Jasmine Rice; the very same bag the young TJ’s clerk in Atlanta gave me gratis, just so I could see if I liked it. It cooks well in Costa Rica, and I like it. But I am sick of eating home-grown black beans, rice, English muffins made by using the leftover whey of cheese, hen-house eggs – which sounds ludicrous as I type it. Still, I hunt down Pizzareia D’Alga on one of the narrow calle’s, mangle my way through ordering a medium pizza, run around the corner for some cartons of milk, and begin the long embarrassing walk home with a hot and heavy pizza box (this is not a dainty pie) balanced in hand. I am caught in the wake of several cars along the dusty road, I look like chalk. Tranquilo. Ana and her daughter meet me at the cottage with my fresh laundry. I offer them pizza. Ana waves away the plate, she doesn’t need one, she says. And so we hang over the gutter at the back of the house eating cheesy "rico" pizza in companionable satisfaction and silence. Ana, who doesn’t speak a word of English, is fascinated by a foreigner with whom she can converse. I apologize, as always, for the inferiority of Spain, but she waves it away con gusto. She gives me a lesson in cutting and preparing a plantana she has given me, here in my own little kitchen on the hill.

When we are finished, she wishes me a good day and says that no matter how the plantain turns out, that at least I have tried, and that really, my Spain is not so bad.

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