Costa Rica! Part 1: San José

This is Part 1 of 2 describing my trip to Costa Rica, April 17–28, 2012. This post covers the first leg, when I was working in the capital San José, with some exploring on my own but mostly touring with university folks. Part 2 focuses on my solo trip to Limón Province on the Caribbean Coast.

There aren’t many librarian positions for which you routinely travel. I wager none send you to Costa Rica… until now. 😀

We usually “set up campus” in US cities for a few days to teach research skills to doctoral students. By now, a trip to Atlanta or Miami’s old hat. The international destinations occur less often, though, and while we take turns, I had little seniority amongst fellow librarians, bummed when colleagues took off for Madrid or Hawaii (which we consider sufficiently exotic to designate as “international”).

No use getting too jealous, though, or even too excited, as destinations may be canceled with little notice. I didn’t even know where I stood in line when suddenly Costa Rica fell into my lap.

Do I want to go?
Hell yes.

While I’ve been running all over the United States lately, it’s been a long time since I’ve stepped a bit further, out of my culture and comfort. I’d never been to Central America, or even Mexico. I signed up for a community education Spanish class and started drilling my siblings; a couple years ago, my brothers Ben and Sam and their wives Kylee and Amy honeymooned in Puerto Viejo, on the Caribbean side.

In San José and beyond, many spoke English; many did not. I consider my Spanish proficiency quite low but was consistently surprised by what I did know, vocabulary culled from workbooks, phone apps and Cormac McCarthy nightmare-scapes in new, useful contexts, undeniably rudimentary but enough to get by.

Additionally, importantly, most of the “work portion” of the trip was structured, in English, safe, and dull. I didn’t mind. I was working, learning and teaching new sessions, slowly easing into the idea that after a few days, I’d be off on my own, alone, in a foreign country with a toddler’s grasp of the language and a pack that, let’s face it, was way too shiny and new.

Work was conducted at a suburban Ramada, positioned between the airport and downtown.

The interior was lush and resort-like,


…while a higher vantage revealed a gated community feel, plunk in the middle of industry. Meh. It worked.

As always with me, anything unfamiliar becomes instantly fascinating. Palm trees! Rusted metal rooftops superclosetogether!

The hotel’s signature decor was silly reimaginings of famous artwork. A+

I was also quickly exposed to the Cult of Imperial.

The mall across the street had a food court with KFC and Mickey D, clothes that wouldn’t fit and books I couldn’t read (but, of course, worth checking out anyway. I bought a bottle of water todos en Español and crowed for hours). Coworkers and I trekked about a bit for supper and such, but otherwise, the Ramada was Life for much of five days.

One exception was a bus tour with all students, faculty and staff. We careened through rush hour downtown while our guide tried to tell us about the soul of his country.

san jose theater

Though very much contained, the tour was far from controlled, from what we saw to what we thought and felt about it.

Someone said the razor-wire was decorative, a symbol of prestige, or faking it. If you wrap your home in barbs, you must be guarding treasure, riches a thief would need to shred flesh to see, to believe that you made it, you’re a success.

Taken from a moving bus, this shot is far from stellar, but I can’t help but marvel at the carrion.

Encouraged to ask questions by our guide, I requested he tell us a Costa Rican myth or superstition. He was older, late sixties, miffed. Why would I want to know about that? Mostly because he said he’d studied, among other things, folklore at university, but I was genuinely interested.

What does your soul look like?
What haunts people here?

If you stay out late, drinking with your frens, you might hear a clank sound of metal.
It is a dog with legs out of metal. He will get you.
If you stay out late, drinking with your frens, and maybe you see a woman but who is not your wife, there will be a priest, but he won’t have a head.

He will get you.

At last we arrived at the top of a mountain, the city sparkling below.

After an amazing dinner, we saw a traditional dancing show. In my Spanish class, we had to do a group presentation on a country of our choice. Naturally, I strong-armed my mates into Costa Rica. My culture segment was on dance, none other than the one I was about to see live: Punto Guanacasteco, a flirtatious courtship couples dance. I knew all about it, could even talk about it in Spanish.

Las mujeres toman sus faldas con sus manos y bailan! Los hombres les gustan las mujeres, pero las mujeres son timidas!

I was thrilled—and it was hokey to be thrilled, but it was so fun and so dorky and cool, the teen- and college-aged dancers with a tinge of chagrin this ain’t really what we’re like, ya know? but sucking it up and owning it all anyway.

san jose tour dance

Coworkers and I spent a good portion of the evening speculating on the life and times of the suave but rakish, somewhat aggressive emcee:

san jose tour suave MC

Members of the audience were eventually pulled onto the floor, first by the traditional dancers and later by giant paper-mache head cultural figures (which jarringly included a blackface minstrel character. Eep). I danced with, I think, an Aztec, to resounding cheers and the bafflement of my students the next morning (“Wait… you’re the librarian?“).

There is allegedly photographic evidence of this, but I do not have it. I was later personally complimented by the owner of the restaurant / mountain, whom I’m given to understand is a ridiculously rich man. “You dance very nice!” Gracias, amigo! El mundo está de acuerdo!

The festivities later spilled outside, complete with fireworks that threatened to burn down the mountain while the band kept jamming and the costumed kids twirled and jumped and photobombed every shot possible.

It was one of the moments where my piecemeal, garbage-mess Spanish amazed me.

La bruja! El soldado! El campesino! La muerte! El diablito!


Go to Part 2: Limón, where I travel to the Caribbean Coast!



  • Bree

    June 20, 2012 at 11:01 pm

    “El mundo está de acuerdo!”

    Ahhahaha…did you say that?

  • megh

    June 21, 2012 at 6:54 am

    I can’t think in Spanish that quickly on my feet. 🙂

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