Anonnas, Zapotes, Maracuyas, Carambolas, Guanabanas! They were on a table in the small living room—a welcoming gift from Don Tino. Later, Raquel told us her father had been at a meeting raising money for a symphony. Before coming home, he had detoured to the market to purchase tropical fruits he suspected we had never tasted. That was April 1989, our first visit to Costa Rica.
My wife, children, and I had been in the country less than two hours. An hour previously, as we were exiting Immigration, we wondered. Would someone meet us? Were the arrangements understood? All we had to go on was an awkward phone conversation. Even now that our Spanish is far better, phone calls, because of the lack of non-verbal communication, remain difficult. Raquel, waiting with her brother Alfredo and sister Margarita, her husband and three children, told us she also had wondered if we would arrive.
We met Raquel in September 1988. She was leader of a group of teachers who visited Grand Junction by means of a grant from USAID (US Agency for International Development). We had interest in Costa Rica. I had read it was safe to visit and had marvelous sights including wonderful birds. Recognizing this as an opportunity to learn more about the country, we volunteered to be a host family and provide some meals and a room. We have often said being assigned Raquel from that large group of ladies was how we won the lottery
We were sitting quietly on our porch one evening. Thus far, Raquel’s visit had consisted of polite meals with brief but futile self-conscious attempts at communication. I turned to Raquel and said Cerveza? Oh Si, she said with a big smile. Sharing that beer led to laughter as we relaxed and learned how well mutual understanding could be accomplished with a combination of “Spanglish” and hand gestures. We fell in love with Raquel’s uninhibited warmth and immediate acceptance of everyone. Decades later, we look back at the friends and relatives we have brought with us to Costa Rica. We always advised them to expect to meet their new best friend. That’s how it always goes.
One of those evenings while chatting on the porch, Raquel, unmarried at the time, described her large family and the nieces and nephews who were the same ages as our children Ann and Adam. She encouraged us to visit and insisted we bring our children. That was the genesis of our first Costa Rican evening and the table of strange fruits.
Raquel’s father, Constantino Bolaños Valerio, or Don Tino welcomed us graciously when we arrived at his home. Most of the immediate family were present as were two of Raquel’s best friends, Saida and Hilda—two wonderful ladies whose company we have enjoyed many times since.
Indeed, as Raquel generously showed us her country, we met more friends and were usually accompanied by one or more of Raquel’s siblings and their children as well as her mother–the winsome Doña Corina. Corina was a hoot—always exhibiting an expansive smile, an exuberant laugh, and having hugs for all. Don Tino was reserved, but when he entered a room, he was always a presence. Everyone was deferential to the patriarch.
That first night descended into chaos. Besides our two children, Ann and Adam, there were six more ten and under (Mario Federico, Marco, Ana Sofia, Mauricio, Natalia, Patricia). I remember one toddler walking up to me during that first evening’s bedlam and forcefully and conspicuously making sounds of gibberish in my face. It was her way of expressing how the words coming from our mouths sounded to her. (Four years later when we visited, she greeted us with “hello, how are you?” Raquel told us before that visit, the now seven-year-old, had asked Cuantas palabras? (How many words?) she needed to talk with us. This young lady is now a lawyer, and consistent with her siblings and cousins, speaks excellent English.) Of the thirteen adults, only two, Raquel’s brother Alfredo and his wife Viviana, spoke both languages.
There was, however, a significant amount of beer which lowered inhibitions enough to facilitate frequent attempts at communication—many of which resulted in a feedback loop of more attempts and louder laughter. That night fashioned an indelible sense of inter-cultural solidarity. Afterwards, Mary and I marveled at our good fortune.
As it became loud, Don Tino retired to his room. We did not see him until the next morning. We awoke to find him making tortillas. They were devoured so greedily by Ann and Adam, extras had to be made. Don Tino was so pleased, tears welled in his eyes. He walked over to me and said in thickly accented English: I am sorry. I do not speak English. I wish I could converse with you. What an extraordinary sentiment! We were the strangers who came to his country and invaded his home without knowing the language. I tried to tell him how grateful we were for his generosity. My Spanish was terrible, I hoped he knew what I attempted to say.
Besides the tortillas that first morning, Don Tino enjoyed making a variety of traditional sweets. I recall candied or sugared grapefruit and a concoction of coconut with milk and sugar. Raquel was amused saying he usually did not cook anything, but we gave him an excuse so he could eat ‘las dulces’ (the sweets) too.
Mary and my familial backgrounds were reserved. In my immediate family, company was rare. I do not recall a single time when a visitor spent the night. Accordingly, we worried about being an imposition and had planned to leave the next morning to visit the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. It was an adventure both renting the vehicle and navigating the countryside. Raquel led us to the highway to prevent us from being lost.
Not surprisingly, with this being before Google Maps and Waze, when we returned to Heredia, we became confused in the maze of streets. At that time, Ticos (as Costa Ricans refer to themselves) scoffed at the idea of addresses, house numbers and highway routes. All directions were based on landmarks. Fortunately, we were able to explain ourselves to someone at a gasoline station and he dialed Raquel’s number and explained where we were. Raquel showed up with a carful of family. I can still see the full vehicle with everyone laughing. They found our plight hilarious. We followed them back to the house to another party—this time with a meal of ceviche and Olla de Carne. The latter is a tasty soup or stew with pieces of meat, and a variety of vegetables including yuca and corn on the cob. We recognized we were being honored with a traditional holiday meal when we heard the others jokingly wishing each other Feliz Navidad and Feliz Año Nuevo.
The next day was Mary’s birthday. Raquel’s youngest sister, Marta, had conspired with our daughter, Ann to make a cake. Then most of us went to El Castillo, a club with a pool, skating rink, and beautiful grounds. There were folk dancers and a traditional meal. Raquel had tipped off the master of ceremonies and the entire crowd sang to Mary. Later at the house, we found that Eduardo, Raquel’s much-loved, younger brother, who has Down’s Syndrome, had licked the icing off the cake. Fittingly, no one said a word and the cake was sliced and eaten as if nothing had happened. What an unforgettable 40th birthday for Mary.
Also, unforgettable was our departure. Raquel could not take us to the airport because of a work conflict so we went with Margarita, her husband Mario, their son Marco, and Corina. As we exited the car and walked to the door, we saw they were crying. Perhaps, they thought they would never see us again. Little did they know!
I feel sheepish to admit that, now more than 30 years later, we have stayed with them on at least 30 different occasions. Our acceptance was so complete, however, that Raquel said we became known as “Los Nics” to be consistent with the other families, “Los Chavas” (for the Chavarrias), “Los Freers” and so on.
Indeed, the second time we arrived, again with trepidation about how well we had communicated, we were met by seventeen people who showered us with confetti. We felt like rock stars. Back at her home, an even larger group was waiting, this time augmented by Raquel’s sister Eugenia and her husband and four children. Once again, it was a party!
As before, Don Tino supervised our sampling of authentic foods. One morning, he and Corina were up early making us a traditional campesino breakfast which included agua dulce—a hot drink made from sugar cane because the campesinos could not afford coffee.
On this visit, we spent more time in the city. I have a particular memory of a rainy evening following a rainy day. Raquel’s father and I were standing at the entryway to the house. Don Tino began a conversation about the rain (Lluvia, Lluvia). Our conversation, because of the language difficulties, was not very deep, but it was lengthy. I told Raquel how much I enjoyed it. She replied that her father did too and that he spoke slowly and did not mind doing so.
Our travels always included considerable time enjoying the tropical jungle, learning about the wildlife and looking for birds. To avoid traffic, we usually left the city before 6AM. I marveled at how busy everything was. People going to work or already working. Street vendors setting up their wares. People walking everywhere.
On that trip, however, Raquel introduced us to another aspect of Costa Rica’s “wildlife.” Our children had been invited to spend the night with one of the other families. Raquel had suggested previously that we go to the disco. This time we had no excuse! We had a sensational evening followed by an early morning, going to several night clubs. The last stop was at the “Ciudad de Noche,” a mall of night clubs that closed at 5AM! It was a weeknight, but it was packed. One area had several mariachi bands. The songs were familiar to the crowd because many were singing along. I recall one man, standing alone, beer in one hand, but arms spread wide apart singing passionately. There were no gringos in sight. What an amazing experience. Raquel might have had staying power for the 5AM closing, but not us. We arrived back at her house about 4. Sans children, we were able to sleep until about 10. After seeing the early morning busyness of the streets and then experiencing how many people were at night clubs so late, we wondered Do Costa Rican’s sleep?
A day or so later, we embarked to Rara Avis, our first visit and the setting for much of my book, TEN JUNGLE DAYS. Although we loved it there, we missed the fun we were having in the city and shortened the trip by a day so we could return early—something we did more than once. It was too much fun! This time, it was Good Friday. Waiting for us was a dish of palmito (heart of palm), with rice and chicken—a traditional meal for the season.
Raquel’s parents were busy decorating a small shine on their street in preparation for a procession, one of eight in Heredia, Raquel informed us. The shrine, representing one of the “stations of the cross,” was blessed by the parish priest when he came by in a procession. Raquel was amused because this priest was “muy gordo,” and unable to walk very far. He was solemnly blessing the shrines as he rode in an open-topped limousine.
We then walked to the nearby church, built in 1797. Here, a crowd had gathered around 2-meter-tall puppets of Mary, and the apostles Peter and John. There were prayers and singing. Then the puppets left the area to “look for Jesus.”
On the following day, we encountered a very solemn procession. At the front were clergy, a cross, banners and a large group of drummers. Rhythmic and repetitive drumming reinforced the somber mood. Behind the clergy, the banners, and the drummers, was a large group of penitents taking turns carrying a heavy statue of the Virgin Mary. Raquel explained that participating in the procession and, especially carrying the statue, was done to request Mary’s intercession with her son to have prayers answered. It was heart-rending to see elderly women who had difficulty walking begging for turns and attempting to carry the heavy statue. The expression of faith was impressive.
The last night of the trip, I was honored when Don Tino walked from his room into the large gathering, and slowly asked me, Will you drink whiskey? Con usted? I replied, Claro! Raquel told me later this was a ritual of acceptance for suitors of his daughters. I was flattered. He gestured to the big gathering and said they would charter an airplane, and all come to visit us. Then, with Alfredo translating, he said our visit was not for Raquel, but was special to all of them. Once again, we were awed by our good fortune to have been embraced by this family.
A significant earthquake occurred a few days later. Not only were nearly fifty people killed, but a restaurant we had gone to with Raquel in the Atlantic coastal city of Limon had been flattened. I have related that phone conversations were an adventure in those days, but we worried about our friends. We called and only don Tino was home. A few moments were necessary before we recognized each other. My house, he said, good! We could tell he was pleased with our concern.
I must take an aside to mention that we were surprised on our following visit to notice that many government buildings in Heredia had suffered severe damage, but little else. The old church in Raquel’s neighborhood, lost one of its numerals from its construction date of 1797 but was otherwise unscathed, We asked Raquel about it, and she laughed, only the buildings built by ‘Low-Bid’ fell down.
This third trip, in 1993, followed what became a familiar pattern, arrival and a party, a few days at Rara Avis, then back to the city for more family visits and parties. Sometimes we had only a week with adjoining weekends, sometimes two weeks.
Back in the city, Marta had prepared a candlelight dinner because we had mentioned it was our anniversary. Such thoughtful people. We learned to be careful with our words because our friends would do anything to please us. Once, I admired a beautiful new painted plate on the wall at Raquel’s house. No amount of protesting could overcome her desire that we should have it. It now hangs beautifully in our home.
Then it was a picnic on land owned by Raquel’s brother Tino, her father’s namesake. Several memories persist from that day and the next. Mary and I admit we were “uptight” parents—raised that way and by temperament. The kids started a fire and were running around with burning sticks. They were watched, but no one said anything. Mary and I looked at each other, wondering why no one intervened. We were convinced something terrible would happen. Nothing did.
Later the children were taken to an amusement park. We rode along with Margarita and Mario to retrieve them. Along the way, they became lost. So many couples bicker and blame one another in such circumstances. Mary and I do well, we think, but still become testy and tense. Instead, Margarita and Mario thought it was a grand joke and giggled like a couple of teenagers. How much there was to learn from our “Familia Tica.”
The next day, we had lunch with Raquel’s sister Eugenia and her family—husband Eduardo and their four sons. I was surprised. They had a basketball hoop. I love basketball. I received awards for playing at my tiny high school and played intramurals in college and in the city league in Grand Junction. Adam and I played quite a bit in our backyard. “Futbal” is Costa Rica’s national sport. Why was there a basketball hoop at the Chavarrias? I was soon to learn that Eugenia’s husband Eduardo had been on the national team. I noted a wry smile when he saw me shoot a couple of times and realized I could play. Then, even though he was now a smoker and a bit overweight, he stood there and sank shot after shot. I wrote in my journal that he missed only two out of about 30–a level of accuracy of which I could only dream.
The next day, we were back at their house. I do not recall the specifics, but Raquel, Mary, Corina, and Eugenia were inside chatting and cooking. Everyone else was gone but me and Raquel’s youngest brother, Eduardo, the one with Down’s Syndrome. He picked up the basketball and took a shot. I rebounded. He shot again. I rebounded. Soon I was thinking, of all the things I could be doing. I should be writing in my journal. I should be cleaning up the photos on my camera. How can I get out of this? He shot and I rebounded. Mi amigo Nic, said Eduardo as he made a basket, pumped his fist, and yelled happily. It was too long before I realized. There is nothing better for me to do. This is exactly what I should be doing. Eduardo continued to shoot, and I continued to rebound. It was two peaceful hours before we were interrupted. I had a wonderful afternoon.
That night, our last of the trip, Raquel’s father gave me a razor as a gift. He seemed embarrassed by the act, but I very much appreciated it. I understood he wanted to give me something but did not want to add to our collection of t-shirts and souvenirs. I enjoyed talking with him and appreciated his careful annunciation and the slow pace of his words. Then the mothers and the children came to say a quick goodbye and had small gifts for Ann and Adam. When they all had left, Adam was sobbing because we had to leave in the morning. Marta went into her room and came out with another gift, a shepherd’s pipe, for him.
By 1995, Raquel had married, now giving the immediate family a third “Mario.” Because she and her new husband lived in a small apartment, we stayed with her brother Alfredo, his wife Viviana and their two children, Patricia and Carolina. Leaning about their lives, their agricultural research, and their time in the US was fascinating. Viviana, a native of Argentina, introduced us to maté and the traditional stainless steel bombilla for drinking it.
When we saw Don Tino on that trip, sadly, he said “Estoy enfermo,” (I’m sick), although his children were quick to tell us that, although his complaining was considerable, he still went to his “club” in San Jose every day.
Raquel had shown us the “club,” My father love! she said. It was an elegant building. While we were never certain of his job title, Don Tino had retired from a position of substantial importance within the government. Raquel has a photo of he and Corina going to a formal event. Tino is regal, standing above Corina, on some steps—black tie slightly askew. We could imagine what was happening inside that club: the now-retired former leaders of the country drinking coffee and solving Costa Rica’s and the world’s problems.
As usual, we had rented a car and visited some forest reserves. Back in the city, we planned a daytrip to a beach resort favored by the family, Punta Leona. Two of the “cousins” went with us, brothers Daniel and Eduardo. Raquel was surprised they could go, saying her sister, Eugenia, was very protective. She told us it was another example of how we were part of the family. Of course, Raquel herself made us promise we would not let the boys enter water more than knee deep. Right!
Four teenagers? I would have liked to have seen her try to accomplish that sort of control.
Our next visit, three years later in 1998, did not begin well. Our daughter Ann was already in Costa Rica participating in an intensive Spanish course. At the time we thought the reason no one met us at the airport—they were all at a family party, including Ann—was my fault. Anyway, the dates had been confused. Mary and I endured the entreaties of numerous taxi drivers and travel agents in the vain conviction someone would arrive. Eventually, we took about the last ride from the airport that night and went to the Hampton Inn.
We were still confused about Spanish surnames and how to spell them. Raquel and Mario had recently moved into their new home. We had no idea what his surname was. We went to a pay phone, perused a phone book, and called several names we thought were correct. No answers. I remember Mary leaving one message saying, We do not know if this is right or not, but if you know Nic and Mary from Colorado, please call us at the Hampton Inn. Soon the phone began to ring. The most humorous was from Raquel’s brother Tino. He and his wife Gisela did not understand the call and were about to erase it when their children, who already knew a lot of English, began insisting, Estan aqui! (They are here!). Tino was eventually convinced and called us, as did Raquel, Ann, and Alfredo. The latter was often enlisted because of his excellent English. Raquel would sometimes be afraid something was missed so she would have us talk to Alfredo just to be sure.
That next morning was a Sunday and we walked to Heredia’s central square where there was a weekly band concert. The square was always crowded with families. Several generations were frequently in attendance. I will never forget the song that brought the most applause—it was introduced as swit yarja brown. The pronunciation of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” was humorous to me, but it emphasized how bad my Spanish sounded to my friends. To this day, Raquel’s Mario usually has an expression of intense pain when he tries to decipher my speech.
We experienced many memorable incidents on this trip. We had gone to Tortuguero National Park and, again, had wonderful experiences viewing the wildlife on the small island on which we were staying as well as on boat trips on the canals. We had flown there but arranged to have a rental car delivered to a certain dock north of Limon to which we were delivered by boat. There was no dock, only a pile of dirt. The car was delivered without any paperwork by a man who spoke no English. His bus was leaving so he practically ran from us. Well, we had the keys and the car, so it was no problem.
The area was in the middle of bananas and bananas and more bananas and as we were driving, we soon saw people looking at us strangely and children laughing. We were lost again. We came to a small store and sent Ann inside for directions. Adam accompanied her. As they came out, they were sniping at each other. Adam was insisting the men who gave the directions were laughing at Ann’s bad Spanish. She, who had been studying intensively and living with only Spanish speakers, was indignant.
We soon knew the reason for the men’s mirth. Following the directions led us to a bridge that would have connected us to the main road if it had not collapsed in that earthquake three years previous. That incident remains the only time anyone we have asked for help did not deliver.
That trip ended with another family barbecue. The entire family was there at least part of the time. The remarkable thing was that don Tino came. Raquel said he had not been out of the house for months. She said the reason he came was to see us.
He needed much help climbing in and out of the car and even going to the bathroom–sad for a man with such distinguished bearing. He gave me a great smile of greeting. We sat and talked as best we could for a long time.
This time there was no escape once the party became boisterous. The adults were all talking, eating, and interacting with the fifteen children from the combined families. Don Tino asked that his chair be moved so that he could sit amidst the children—a gesture we all noticed. Perhaps, he was prescient. He died ten days later.
Mary, Adam, and I had returned to the US, but Ann was still there and was included in the family activities. We were pleased we could have a representative of our family present. Ann felt conspicuous as heads nodded toward her asking who is that? She met many people, including two former presidents of the republic.
Ann described the funeral as spectacular. There were flowers everywhere—all through the house, where visitation occurred, and at the large church. The casket, bedecked with flowers, was taken from the house to the church in a procession. The music and singing were beautiful and there was a celebratory ambience. Afterwards, there was a New Orleans style procession to the cemetery, led by music, a choir, and the flowers. Then nine days of masses were held in Don Tino’s honor and attended by the entire family. It was a fitting finale for a gracious man who generously accepted foreigners into his home, made them feel welcome in his country and left such a fine family as his legacy.