I was looking back over my journals and came across an entry about my leaving Costa Rica after my third visit. It was July 1991.
Hector, the taxista who gave me a wake-up call at 5 a.m. and picked me up at 5:20 to take me to the airport in Alajuela, shook my hand and said it had been a pleasure talking with me. He gave me his card and told me to call him when I returned. During the ride to the airport we had chatted about my moving here, and perhaps teaching English.
On the plane I met a young Tica, Lillian Valerin, who was studying English and visiting friends in the United States. She said she would help me if I wanted to rent or buy a house or property, because “people give my family one price and you another.” She shrugged apologetically as if to say, “That’s the way it is.”
We talked about differences between American and Costa Rican behavior and values. Our conclusions: Costa Ricans are cooperative and will do just about anything to maintain peace. Americans are competitive and will fight to prove their point. Costa Ricans value peace over freedom. Americans value freedom over peace. Costa Ricans stay close to their families, and children stay home until they marry. American children move out as soon as possible. Costa Ricans pride themselves in having no army. Americans pride themselves on their willingness to go to war to defend what they think is right.
Those, back then, were the comparisons we made. While I was waiting in the Los Angeles airport for my connecting flight to San Jose, California, I ordered a Millers Lite beer. It cost $3.25. In Costa Rica a beer, with service included, was 63 cents. Of course, this was the airport and that was then.
In 1992 I spent a month in Chapala, Mexico with my friend Ann, who had insisted I test the water there. I was not comfortable in Mexico. I felt as if violence was just under the surface, even in Chapala. So taking three bags and a carryon, I made my destination Costa Rica.
I had signed up for Spanish lessons at a school in San Pedro. Marvin, who was giving me the placement exam, asked what I meant by “kitchen Spanish,” which I had put on my application, and then said that, in fact, I could discuss many more topics, and he put me in an advanced class, where unfortunately, they were concentrating on the subjunctive.
Out of class I noticed that not many people used the subjunctive, and never a command! I really needed thepreterit, (and still do).
I suppose there is something positive about always living and thinking in the present, especially as one gets older. But referring to the past in Spanish, I am dependent upon that wonderful auxiliary verb, haber, to have.
My first weeks in Costa Rica as a resident rather than a tourist made me think that it was much like being married after a romantic engagement. I began seeing the drawbacks, the warts, if you will. Much of San José, I found, was dirty and smelled from the traffic. I was sure it was the noisiest city I had even been in, but the people and the weather were still great.
I immediately got the knack of riding the buses. I managed to ask directions in Spanish of a young man, who turned out to be German.
On my first bus ride, an obviously poor man carrying a box boarded the bus and asked for our attention. He talked at some length and then passed among us. The teenager sitting next to me fished into his pocket for some change and bought what the man evidently was selling. I looked at the small wrapped item. “Chocolate?” I asked. The boy opened it and tasted it and made a face. I asked him what had transpired.
He said the man was poor and needed the money and that we should buy the candy, but not eat it. (Vendors still board the buses with their tales of sickness and bad luck. People continue to buy what they have, and so do I, if their story touches me.)
The bus was crowded but there was not the slightest odor of enclosed humanity that I would have expected from past experiences in other countries. I rather wished they smelled a little bit of garlic. The food so far has been pretty bland. I have since decided that Ticos shower and brush their teeth more than any other people in the world.
I found my way to the Banco Anglo, across the street from the Gran Hotel and the beautiful Teatro Nacional. There I cashed $120. I was soon to open a savings account there. They were paying 10 percent on colons and 3 percent for dollars. The exchange rate was 138 colons to a dollar.
The Banco Anglo has since closed in the midst of a scandal involving the officers. I was sorry to see that because it made banking so easy for me.
But times change.