Bryony Perks - Spanish in Costa Rica
Stumbling off the plane in San Jose, having somehow had 5 meals and no sleep in the space of 24 hours, I was feeling pretty rough on arrival. Even so, when I saw the smile of the Projects Abroad coordinator that greeted me from the daunting sea of faces, I couldn’t help but smile back.
Stunning scenery, a couple of volcanoes and an endless blur of palm trees later, I arrived at my house for the month. As soon as we pulled up, my nerves dissolve almost instantly - mainly because I was too preoccupied with the tiny ball of fluff pelting at me which soon to be introduced as ‘Goofy’, the host family’s dog.
My Costa Rican Host Family
I fell in love with my host mum from day one. She was the grandmother of a huge family, whose members all seemed to be based in the 3 houses surrounding ours, connected by a central courtyard. Shouted conversations from house to house, clattering of pots and pans, laughter, crying, barking, singing: I was enveloped in the bustle of their lives from the moment I stepped through the front gates. Not that I had much chance to absorb it that evening as I was already being bundled into another car on its way to a whole family gathering.
The family routine took a few days to adjust to, mainly because I’ve never been good at mornings. This definitely wasn’t the case with my family. Everyone seemed to burst into life at 6am: slicing fruit, preparing lunch, washing clothes, scolding children - going back to sleep was never an option. Once I realised that tropical fruit salad was a regular morning starter, though, I rarely wanted to close my eyes again.
It quickly turned out that breakfast was the best meal of the day, with lunch consisting of chicken, rice and beans, and supper consisting of chicken, rice and beans. The chicken phenomenon is still a mystery to this day, as not once did I ever manage to spot the real thing outside the dish it was prepared in.
As my Spanish became more confident, I grew to love the quiet moments just as much as the lively ones. Some of my favourite memories are just of sitting at the kitchen table with ‘Mamis’ (the family’s pet name for ‘Granny’) while she waited up for me, listening to stories about her life. As their shyness wore off, I also seemed to acquire regular little visitors to my room by the two youngest grandchildren in the family, in search of sweets, stories, and my iPhone! I do have to admit I ended up looking forward to those visits just as much as they did.
I loved the evenings the most, when I’d come back from classes and everyone was sitting outside catching the last gentle rays. I was also so lucky to be living amongst lots of other volunteers in the surrounding houses. Once we realised there were so many of us, we’d often catch a bus into Heredia for the evening, or just relax on sofas in the courtyard chatting. There’s something brilliant about sharing your experience with different people from all over the world, who all have something in common.
The absolute immersion you receive from living with an entirely Spanish-speaking family is an invaluable experience. In terms of the language, it becomes almost instinctive to pick it up, but in terms of the connections you make, they stay with you forever.
Having never had the opportunity to learn it in school, Spanish was one of my first missions for my year out before university. I’d already launched into a 4-week course in Spain a few months before, so I did know the basics before I ventured to the other side of the world, but there was still so much to learn.
The intensity of teaching you receive in Costa Rica is pretty incredible. I had 4 hours of lessons a day, one-on-one with my teacher, Maikol, from Monday to Friday. I realised pretty quickly that this kind of opportunity probably wouldn’t come round again, so I really strived to make the most of our time.
As there were only two of us, I was able to direct the lessons towards what most interested me, so by the end of it we were giggling over old Spanish films and bursting into song in turn. In my last week, all the Spanish students had an outing to Poas Volcano, on the one condition that we didn’t stop speaking Spanish. Once we got there, I was so stunned to be gazing into the mouth of a smoking crater, casually wondering when the next eruption was due, that I can’t be totally sure I kept that promise.
I was lucky to have my lessons in the hub of the Projects Abroad office, which was perfect. I grew to love the staff there as much as my Costa Rican family – a bit of friendly banter never goes amiss. I have to admit, I may have shed a few tears when it was time to say goodbye.
Obviously my time out there didn’t just consist of rice, beans and verbs. At the weekends, the volunteers got together to do what the tourists do: travel. One weekend we were relaxing on an impossibly perfect beach, bathed in music, watching a surfing competition, and the next we were flying headfirst over the canopy on a zip wire, transfixed by our tiny shadows below.
There is so much to do in Costa Rica, it’s impossible to do it all, but we certainly tried. Scaling a cliff to get to the top of Montezuma’s triple-tier waterfall is definitely a firm favourite, but the National Park in Manuel Antonio was something else.
Exploring a real rainforest is an incredible experience: ducking under vines bowing with the weight of spider monkeys, trying not to look at the snake you think you just saw, that embarrassing rush of pride when you finally spot the snoozing sloth - and that was just the walk to the beach. Once there I seemed spent the majority of the day protecting my Pringles from an army of iguana thieves, only to lose them to a family of sloths. The word ‘surreal’ didn’t even cover it.
A Lasting Impression
Everything in Costa Rica is about the here and now. The people, the wildlife, the rainforests, the mountains; there’s a richness to it that no amount of description can convey. So if it’s not Spanish, or dancing, or surfing, or exploring, Costa Rica truly teaches you to live in the moment.
My top tip for Costa Rican Spanish? If in doubt, ‘pura vida’ is always the answer.