A Year in Costa Rica and Beyond
by Ethan Rogol
Everyone knows that Costa Rica is a paradise. But how does one find one's way around when streets have no names and houses have no numbers? When does one shake hands, and when does one kiss one's friends? "Tropical Immersion" is the wry and very personal story of a year in Costa Rica, the overland journey there and back, and side trips to Nicaragua and Ecuador. It details navigating the rough, narrow, busy Costa Rican sidewalks and learning to see doing so as a sport, eating fruit that smells like bodily fluids and discovering that it tastes delicious, and learning to respect "reckless" Mexican bus drivers, whose driving could be described by the uninitiated as "terrifying"— by deciphering their clever use of turn signals. The book offers a feast for the senses: rich, earthy aromas, warm wind on the skin, the bitter taste of dust in the air, the sound of birds, insects, children laughing, mothers calling their names, and laborers working the land. Its focus is not sightseeing but "culture-diving"; not ogling or conquest, but participation and integration. It is part travelogue, part cultural primer, part memoir, part romance and a treatise on the being present, wherever one is.
Read an excerpt.
"Tropical Immersion is uproariously funny and tender in its honesty, as well as forthcoming with insights into the social nuances of life as an outsider.... Rogol... recounts tales of an angsty youth [and] compares and contrasts the idiosyncracies of his own country's political systems and social norms with that of Costa Rica's, always with a keen sense of awareness and humor."
—Giovanna Marcus, Olympia Power and Light
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P.O. Box 792
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Contact us here. Excerpt:
As I mentioned at the start, we felt like we'd had our asses kicked, so we spent a couple of days recovering. But on the third day, we started right in calling everyone we knew in Costa Rica to reconnect and look for a room. At first, we were attracted to the thought of saving money by renting a room. But the more we thought about living under someone else's roof and rules, the more it became clear that we needed our own apartment. For two weeks, we stayed at a house in Canoas, near Alajuela, one of the capital's satellite cities, provided by an old "friend." She lived on about an acre on which she had coffee, oranges, and guayabas growing. It was nice to see our old friend at first, and we stayed the first night in her guest bedroom. But she quickly dropped all pretense of welcome or support and insisted we stay in a separate, unfurnished, two-bedroom apartment she had on her property. We improvised a bed on the floor and set up camp there for a couple weeks while we looked for a place to rent in Heredia (another satellite city). Lots of light came in through the apartment's windows and through the metal French doors to the south. But these same French doors sat one half inch above the floor. Through this gap entered a parade of four-, six-, and eight-legged visitors the size and shape of which were sometimes rather intimidating. I used an empty peanut butter jar to catch and escort them outside where they would stay, we hoped, for at least a little while. We spent our days traveling hither and yon by bus, checking the newspaper for vacancies, roaming the streets of neighborhoods we liked, investigating possibilities, hoping to find someplace to live. It took a lot of energy. Meanwhile, our hostess demanded that we thoroughly clean, sweep, and mop the vacant apartment every day, even though all we did there was sleep. And she impatiently tried to pressure us to rent the house, chastising us for not cleaning to her satisfaction.
This lasted two weeks. Then we realized we should just stay at a hostel instead of putting up with our "friend." So we escaped to El Toruma, the Hosteling International hostel in San José. It occupies a colonial mansion with a profusion of rooms. It has towering white ceilings, immense, heavy wooden doors, and a mosaic floor of black, gray, and yellow. There is a disused porch with grand white columns and an accompanying balcony above it that are both splendid places to sit, watch the traffic along one of the busiest streets in town, and breathe great lungfuls of soot. Most of the rooms have two or more beds and provide dorm-style accommodations, but the hostel does have a couple of rooms with full beds so that Isa and I could sleep in the same bed without being crammed on one single mattress.
It was good to be in the city: there was so much to do and eat! We changed our minds about looking in Heredia and decided to look closer to the capital. Compare it to looking for something in a Seattle neighborhood instead of the suburb of Issaquah.
It was smoky and crowded in San José but we thought we were in heaven. We dreamed of teaching Spanish to tourists, and thought we could do it outside of the crowded areas; I had a lot of great ideas about teaching through field trips.
We spent a couple of weeks at El Toruma while we looked for an apartment. At first the quest was fun: we felt excited, and we were becoming very familiar with the layout of the city and the character of its neighborhoods that otherwise could have taken years. But the sheer quantity of phone calls, bus trips, and disappointments caused by the collision of high hopes with expensive dumps started to take its toll on our physical, emotional, and spiritual resources.
Then one of the cleaning ladies at the hostel told us about an apartment in the Vargas Araya neighborhood of San Pedro, near the Universidad de Costa Rica (UCR, commonly called "La U," pronounced "lah-OO"). We were attracted to living near La U, thinking that there'd be a lot of art, music, and intellectual stimulation around there. We went and saw the apartment and were really excited. The owners, Doña Alicia and Don Luis, had built it in their backyard, where there were citrus, guava, and banana trees; it was a little sanctuary in the city. But it wasn't ready: they still needed to paint, hook up the sink and shower, and install lighting and electrical outlets. So we kept looking in the paper, making phone calls, and taking buses, and we saw a lot more rundown or expensive rentals, hoping we could find something better than the one in Vargas Araya. But it was so much work! We did this for another week, then gave up and convinced Doña Alicia and Don Luis to let us move in to the Vargas Araya apartment even though it still wasn't ready.
This was mainly due to how exhausted we felt from all that traipsing around looking for apartments. In addition, we were really sick of living at the hostel and they were weary of us, too. We'd had to change rooms every couple of nights because we wanted to stay in the room with the full mattress, and many times that room had been reserved. The women who ran the desk started to get impatient with us and we were fed up with all the young travelers from the U.S., Germany, Quebec, and Argentina leaving their garbage in the bathroom, laughing and talking loudly, watching loud programs in English on the TV in the lobby or the dining room, smoking, and eyeing us as if we should return to the nursing home from which we had escaped.
We moved into the apartment. The next day the kitchen sink and shower were finally hooked up, and the day after that the electrical outlets were wired. Like most rentals in Costa Rica, the place came without a stove or a fridge. And forget about a washer. We wound up shopping for these things for months. We had looked for apartments for weeks; then we were doing the same for appliances.
Despite the fact that we could not yet cook or refrigerate anything (except for the stuff that Doña Alicia let us put in her fridge), we felt very fortunate. The apartment was brand spanking new and we had just one apartment next door, duplex style. The building was very blue on the outside and set in the middle of what I estimate to be a half acre of green space. There were guava trees, mandarin orange trees, bananas, mangos, sour orange (for orangeade), mandarin lemon, eucalyptus, sweet lemon, cypress, and a plethora of green, orange, yellow, and pink ornamentals. (In Costa Rica there are probably eight different kinds of lemons and twelve distinct kinds of oranges.) The landlords' house was between the apartments and the street and they let us eat all the fruit we wanted.
The apartments had a kitchen/living room, a bedroom, a "sink room" (with a special bi-level sink for hand-washing clothes), and a shower/toilet room. (While anybody who's not dirt poor in Costa Rica has a washing machine, houses still commonly have one of these specially designed sinks for washing clothes by hand. In fact, these sinks, usually made from formed concrete, painted red, with a deep portion and a shallow, serrated portion, are still churned out and sold by a number of small Costa Rican companies. Washing machines I have seen in private homes are often small ones from Japan or Korea that fit about a quarter of the amount of clothes that fit in the washing machines I'm used to. Many of these smaller machines have two compartments. One is for washing, at the bottom of which is a little disk with raised wings on it that whirl, but do not churn, a person's clothes. You have to manually transfer your clothes to the other compartment for the spin "cycle.")
The floor of the apartment was finished with white, square-foot ceramic tiles, faintly mottled with brown and gray. The concrete walls and pressboard ceiling were white and the molding was black. The windows that opened had slats that pivoted to let air in.
The first night we spent there, I was lying facedown on the mattress we had just bought, reading something to Isabella, who was lying face up. Suddenly, the calm expression on Isabella's face changed to horror and she let out a moan of fear, quickly covering her head with the sheet. I was concerned but had no idea what had caused her dismay until I turned around and saw that a bat was fluttering around our bedroom! I let out a yell of my own, mostly out of shock. Generally, I like to think well of bats, but I'd never been so close to one.
As our hearts audibly raced, the little brown creature clasped a section of the frame of the ceiling and peered around nervously. I leapt to my feet and opened the bathroom door. The bat flew in there and I shut the door. I knew that in the bathroom was an open window. But above the door to the bathroom there was an open space. (In many Costa Rican homes, inner walls do not reach the ceiling for purposes of ventilation.) The bat easily could have flown back into the bedroom to unintentionally terrorize us some more—I'm sure it was at least as traumatized as we were. Realizing this, I opened the bathroom door again, planning to do what, I do not know. I briefly spied the bat clutching the rear wall but it instantly flitted to the area beneath the window and hopped out. I quickly shut all the windows. I felt sort of sick with all the adrenaline and with the moral unease posed by the dilemma of intellectually respecting bats and instinctively fearing them.
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