The other day I was chatting with a Tica friend about cultural adjustment. Though Costa Rican, this friend lived in California for decades. In her first months there, she cried every time a plane passed overhead, wishing she were in the air, headed home. Eventually, she enrolled in school, got a job, and had a family in the States. San Diego started to feel like home.
The surprise came when she returned to Costa Rica. Friends and family told her she sounded like a Mexican (her Mexican-American friends’ accents had rubbed off on her, apparently) and aspects of Costa-Rican culture felt foreign to her. Twice she tried moving back to Costa Rica, and both times failed to feel at home. In the end, she moved to Monteverde and finally found a match. “Monteverde’s a mix, like me,” she says.
The hybrid nature of Monteverde is perhaps most apparent in the community’s use of language: kids readily switch between languages on the playground; seminars at the Monteverde Institute and Quaker Meeting for Worship routinely offer translation into Spanish and English; and the community choir we sang in during our first semester here performed a blend of English and Spanish songs. The benefit of living in a community so attuned to language differences is that someone is always willing to translate. The drawback for us adults, particularly given that we spend our days working on computers at home, is that we haven’t been immersed in Spanish as much as we’d like.
On the heels of a month of intensive Spanish language lessons in Guatemala last July, I found my Spanish slipping during our first few months here in Costa Rica. I resumed listening to my favorite Spanish podcast–Notes in Spanish–but soon felt frustrated. Here I was in Costa Rica, and my primary point of contact with Spanish was through podcasts produced in Spain?
I had options for resuming formal Spanish instruction: several of my gringo friends speak highly of their private Spanish lessons at the Monteverde Institute, but at that point, I was looking more for a window into Tico culture and the opportunity to talk informally in Spanish.
I explored the idea of volunteering in the area, but ran into a major challenge: my goal in volunteering was to speak exclusively in Spanish, though the primary skill I could offer to local organizations was my English. I admired an affable gringo friend who solved this conundrum by seeking out physical work he could do with Ticos: cleaning his house with the family’s housekeeper, volunteering regularly at his local mechanic’s shop and helping with trail maintenance in a reserve.
In the end, Tim and I settled on a solution for keeping up our Spanish that has worked really well for us: we asked a bilingual Tico friend, whom we already knew to be a great conversationalist, if we could hire him as a Spanish conversation partner. Since then we’ve met with Allan Vargas for one hour, twice a week, and we haven’t looked back.
Allan (pictured above) is one of the most well-read people we know, so he always has something in mind to discuss. Our topics of conversation have included U.S intervention in Costa Rican affairs; religion and spirituality; the emergence of Costa Rican socialism and environmental policy; the role of foreigners in Costa Rica; gender roles and norms in our two cultures; and Costa Rican sayings, riddles and bombas, which are traditional, often witty, verbally-delivered poems.
Together, we’ve also read excerpts from a variety of publications: Costa Rican tabloids, the newspaper La Nación, an essay by Isabelle Allende, the NPR podcast Radio Ambulante, and a novel set in a Costa Rican trash dump, Única Mirando al Mar. We’ve shared our own writing: Allan devoured A Girl Called Problem in a weekend and showed up the next Monday with pages of notes and reflections; he’s read a few of Tim’s academic papers and applied Tim’s conservation theory to a Costa Rican context; and most recently, we delighted in reading and discussing a short story written by Allan. These bi-weekly exchanges have been a highlight of our year and are an experience we recommend to anyone thinking of living in the multi-cultural, multi-lingual oasis of Monteverde.