Learning Spanish in Costa Rica Rainforest, Learning a language with adventure
By: Jeff Booth (justin) 2012.01.02
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We woke just after dawn to the sound of an itinerant rooster strutting
around the farmhouse. Magda had already been awake for several hours,
bustling about the immaculately clean, simple wooden frame home in Costa Rica. The
children set about getting ready for the <a href="http://www.studenttraveler.com/mod-Pagesetter-viewpub-tid-10002-pid-550.html"target="_blank">hike into the rainforest to
reach the one room schoolhouse on the other side of the river.
Search and compare tours to Costa Rica
I rolled my sleeping bag and packed my gear. 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 about me, but I did learn communication.
The difference is immense. Communication, with the local Ticos, with
the rainforest, with myself.
Costa Rica Rainforest Outward Bound School (CRROBS) is very proud of
the fact that the "school" part of their name is well earned. Jim Rowe,
the founder of the Costa Rica branch of the worldwide Outward Bound
program sternly corrected me when I asked about our "guides" for the
trip. "We prefer the term Instructors," he said. By the end of my stay,
I understood the difference. CRROBS organizes courses, from weeklong
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 course, though it was part of what we learned),
rainforest 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 rainforest, or language skills.
My group had an auspicious start. From Volcan Irazu's sulfuric crater
lake outside San Jose, we took a truck to the drop point, skirting around
crumbling cliffs. Swinging wide on a turn, our truck slipped out of
control and skidded to a halt, dangling over a precipice, one tire spinning
uselessly. After gingerly crawling thought the back cab and watching
the vehicle totter, seemingly held in place only by some thick undergrowth
by the edge of the drop-off, the thought of hiking on good solid ground
was more than inviting. My wish was promptly granted. Moments later
we swung our CRROBS issue, army green packs onto our back, and started
on the first of 40 miles of solid, torturously twisted, 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 CRROBS and already I knew that this was
nothing like any class I'd ever had 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 packs.
The 13 students 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 CRROBS instructors,
said that they were here to push us physically, which leads to pushing
our mental boundaries. At times, I wondered if holding my 50 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 say, "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 many times, some people thought,
breakfast, lunch and dinner. Learned what "ohaglia" is, as Guillermo
hiking in front of me plucked the velvety, reddish leaf off the side
of the trail and handed it back, telling me to eat it. Rather citrusy,
actually. Orlando, Emma's father, showed me a maize-flecked grinding
stone from the now extinct Boruca Indians. We sat on his porch in the
early morning, and in Spanish he explained how they would grind the
corn on the small, gray, three-legged table, while six-year-old Angelica
rolled the grinding stone in the shallow indentation. We talked for
twenty minutes, the entire time I was unable to purely translate a single
sentence, yet I understood him completely. I understood more than his
words - also his smiles, demonstrations, history, and laughter.
Spanish is not the only language of the Costa Rican rainforest. It's
also 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 rainforest is
silence: sunlight breaking though 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, carrying their green leaves
like we carried our green packs.
Only a few among us spoke any Spanish. Other than shouting "vamanos!"
at each other to get going, or begging, "un minuto" for a rest, we spoke
English to each other. We did learn to communicate to each other in
different ways though. Eight hundred meters deep in the Cave of the
Virgin, holding on to each other's belts and hands, headlamps off, we
talked each other through the cave in pitch black. Bats swarmed around
us, probably laughing at our lack of radar. We learned the language
of the Sevegre River together too. Screaming instructions at each other
in our kayaks, calling which of the rapids to take, trusting your kayak
partner, and everyone around you, to keep a clean line and paddle hard.
There's a language that develops between people in adversity together,
often unspoken, but a sense of communication that is crystal clear.
Whether talking by candlelight about that rough spill climbing in the
tree canopy earlier that day, or matching the splashing strokes of your
kayak partner, you're developing a new vocabulary.
I could go to East L.A. 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,
10-year- old Hormidas. No where else could I learn what Hormidas had
to teach me. I was writing in my journal up on the rock, some quiet
time away from the group, who were bedding down and slipping into sleeping
bags. Hormidas clambered up beside me. 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
moonlight, telling me the name, Piedras Blancas. I wanted to ask how
he felt living so isolated from towns, several day's hike to the nearest
road, but as 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...