Learning Spanish in Costa Rica: How to say is passed around in Spanish, rainforest in Spanish
By: Jeff Booth (justin) 2012.01.06
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We woke just after dawn to the sound of an itinerant rooster strutting around the Costa Rica farmhouse. Magda had already been awake for several hours, bustling about the immaculately clean, simple wooden frame home. The children set about getting ready for the hike into the rain forest to reach the one room schoolhouse on the other side of the river. I rolled my sleeping bag and packed my gear up. Emma shyly handed me a glass of hot coffee. Ah, Costa Rican coffee - a strong brew makes any trek seem easy. "Gracias", I said, practicing my incredibly limited Spanish. "De nada", she replied, and skipped down the dirt path with her brother Jesus, rounded the corner into the valley, and disappeared into the lush, green forest.
I came to Costa Rica to learn Spanish, and some might say that a simple "gracias" isn't exactly fluency. No one would say that, actually. I did not learn more than a few phrases of Spanish, a fleeting sense of understanding at the conversations that flowed around me, but I did learn communication. The difference is immense. Communication, with the local Ticos (as Costa Ricans call themselves), with the rain forest, with myself.
Costa Rica Rain forest Outward Bound (CROOBS) organizes courses, from week-long treks to three month sojourns that branch out of Costa Rica and reach as far south as Peru. They focus on topics like Spanish (my course was not a Spanish emphasis, though it was part of what we learned), rain forest ecology and leadership skills. They differentiate themselves from many other programs because they are not a tour - you carry your own pack and gear, the physical challenge is real, yet they are not a traditional classroom bombarding you with facts - you learn as much about yourself as you do the rain forest, or language skills.
My group had an auspicious start. From Volcano Irazu's sulfuric crater lake we took a truck to the drop point, skirting around crumbling cliffs, where our truck slipped out of control and dangled over a precipice, one tire spinning uselessly. After gingerly crawling through the back cab, the thought of hiking on good, solid ground was more than inviting. My wish was promptly fulfilled with forty miles of solid, torturously twisted and steep ground. For the next week we hiked, climbed and kayaked our way from the cloud forest down to the Pacific Ocean.
Two days into my course with CROOBS and already I knew that this was nothing like any class I had ever taken before. The classroom, for one, was alternately cloud-laced coolness filtering like a ghost through the canopy, or green-filtered sunlight beating down on our hunched backpacks. The 13 students and I knew that grades were a thing of the past. Whether you passed or not depended on whether, at the end of the day, you were still standing, and had enough wherewithal to thank the Tico villagers for the food, preferably in Spanish. Kate, one of our CROOBS leaders, said that they were here to push us physically, which leads to pushing our mental boundaries. At times, I wondered if holding my fifty pound pack above my head with one hand, bracing against the current with a towline, and slogging across the chest high river was helping me with my language skills. How to ask "I'm drowning" in Spanish? Of course, the point was to never have to expand your vocabulary that way.
I did learn to say "pinto de gallo", the staple diet of rice and black beans we feasted on daily. Said it one too man times, some people thought, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Learned what "ohahlia" is, as Guillermo hiking in front of me plucked the velvety, reddish lead off the side of the trail and handed it back, telling me to eat it. Rather citrus tasting, actually. Orlando, Emma's father, showed me a maize-flecked grinding stone from the now extinct Boruca Indians. In Spanish, he explained how they would grind the corn on the shallow indentation. We talked for twenty minutes, the entire time without me able to purely translate a single sentence, yet I understood him completely. I understood not only his words, but his smiles, demonstrations, history and laughter.
The language of the rain forest is not only Spanish. It is in the cries of cicadas as dusk sets, the sharp bark of a toucan high in the trees, the rustle of wind through a canopy of Poor Man's Umbrellas, their huge, green leaves whispering. The language of the rain forest is silent. Sunlight breaking through storm clouds, evaporating the rain and fog rising up the valley sides in response. The dance of leaf-cutter ants by our trail, silently passing on.
I could go to East LA to learn Spanish. I could take courses at my university. But no where else would I learn the lilting curves of that beautiful language under the cool light of the moon, sitting atop a large boulder still warm from the day's sun, talking with my teacher, ten year old Hormidas. I was writing in my journal up there, some quiet time away from the group, who were bedding down and slipping into sleeping bags. Hormidas clambered up the rock. His family had built their spacious, simple home around the stones like a Frank Lloyd Wright design, but without architectural theories, simply an honest expression of how they co-existed with Nature. Hormidas spoke simple Spanish for me, telling me of his 22 brothers and sisters. I tried to explain that I had a little sister the same age as his. I think he understood me. He gestured towards the valley that spread before us, an ethereal silver-green from the moon light, telling me the name, Piedras Blancas. I wanted to ask how he felt living so isolated from towns, several days hike to the nearest road, but as a I stumbled along in broken phrases, I realized the answer was obvious. We laid back on the rock, and counted fireflies together. Uno, dos, tres ...
Photos by Jeff Booth