8/26/11 - 8/28/11
Because this tour was being headed by a brother and sister it often felt like the rest of us were tagging along on a family vacation - never more than in Tres Equis. The pair of them had been visiting this town for years, and while it was the portion of the trip I was the most ambivalent about, it was the part they glorified the most. "It's such a unique town, these are the friendliest people in Costa Rica. When you stay there, you become part of the family. This is really an amazing treat." Frankly, the more a person tells me that I'm having an amazing time, the less likely I am to actually feel like I'm having an amazing time. You know, let me experience it and I'll decide for myself.
The reality is, Tres Equis is just a small town. You can walk around the main area in about 15 minutes. There's one supermarket which is small, but modern - they take Visa and sell Doritos. While the people are not rich (especially in comparison with the US lifestyle), they are not impoverished. My host family owned a house, (3 bedroom, one bath, large laundry room in the back) a newish car, and a flat-panel TV. The parents have cell phones and the kids have Disney Princess t-shirts, and Toy-Story pretend laptops. The town may be sleepy but it's no Brigadoon - it's well and truly part of the 21st century.
My host family's home.
My host 'mom' (who is 10 years younger than me) and her two girls. The dad works long hours so I only actually saw him twice.
Apparently there are no building codes in Costa Rica - if you've got some land you're free to knock together whatever you'd like. While I understand from some home-owning friends, that building regulations in the US have gone completely overboard.... I think there's a a sweet spot somewhere in the middle. Sure it's liberating to be able to do whatever you'd like with your house... but it's also comforting to know that one strong wind isn't going to send the whole thing crashing down on top of you.
In this house, for example, the walls inside don't go all the way up to the ceiling. In fact - there is no ceiling, just the tin roof. I've been told that this may be intentional - a way to allow air to circulate through the house and keep it cool. That may very well be. But it also means that you can hear anything going on in any of the rooms in the house - can tell if someone has a light on, and the roof as it was had a bit of a leak when it rained. Also, it had a 'suicide shower' - there are no water-heater tanks, just an on-the-spot heater right there in the shower. I'm not opposed to the technology, but the exposed wires wrapped around the shower nozzle did make me a bit nervous. I think I'm going to come out on the "pro" side of building codes.
My host mom cracked me up when she told me that there were people of different religions in Tres Equis. Apparently, they have Catholics *and* Evangelicals (Protestants). This is the Catholic church, beautifully situated on top of a hill in the center of town.
While in Tres Equis we participated in a 'community project' which involved going to the local Elementary school and doing an art project with the kids, and then reading to them from Spanish/English books we'd brought with us.
Those who know me well will not be surprised to learn that this was my least favorite part of the trip. In part because I have pretty strong opinions about 'volunteer-tourism' which I won't get into here. But also because hanging out with 30 unruly kids in an overheated classroom is not my idea of a magical vacation highlight. The most I will say is that it was fine. It was a chance to see that school kids all over the world are about the same, you've got the smart kids, the bossy kids, the noisy kids.... it's the same everywhere.
One of the main objectives of our time in Tres Equis was Spanish immersion. My host mom, for example, spoke no English beyond "Hello" and "OK", so I had to put into practice all the Spanish I'd been studying. Of course.... more often than not I ended up speaking in riddles like "Yesterday, near the river, I see, in the tree, an animal that is not fast." and learning new vocabulary words like 'perezoso` (sloth). I managed to entertain her with stories of my travels abroad - using a random combination of present tense & infinitives and occasionally a past tense verb conjugated for the wrong person. She must have understood though, because she laughed in all the right parts. Although it's possible she was just laughing *at* me and my extremely poor grasp of the language. But one way or another, I'm sure she got plenty of entertainment value from me staying there.
And if I hadn't already earned my keep - the older girl had an English exam on Monday, so I was put into service as her English tutor. That part was really fun actually. I got to give tips on pronunciation, and run her through vocabulary exercises. The mom sat with us and practiced with her. It's always nice when you can turn the tables and recognize that it's just as difficult to learn the other person's language as it is for them to learn yours.... and hearing the other person make mistakes makes you feel a little more comfortable struggling through your own. Being put on the spot like that, it wasn't exactly my best lesson ever... but I'm hoping that the opportunity to listen to a native speaker will help her do just that much better on her test.
It was my host mom's first time hosting a student. But the other hosts had had many students before, and from what I heard from the other students, they did a much better job of correcting their Spanish and actually teaching them the language. I don't feel like my Spanish improved at all... but it was definitely good to get to use what I could in real life situations.
In addition to practicing Spanish with our host families, we borrowed one of the high school classrooms and held a couple of Spanish classes. It was a bit of a challenge for teacher given that Jill and Misty had both been in her class - and had completed Spanish 203. I'd been in a different class and had only finished 201, and Jack (Jill's boyfriend) had taken no Spanish at all. We spent a bit of time going over words and expressions we'd heard with our families which was really helpful. But then the tour guide started chiming in and teaching us a variety of local expressions, slang, and alternative words used specifically in Tres Equis.
While entertaining... this was about the least helpful kind of language lesson for me - not applicable to any other parts of the world, and very limited in communicative content. I mean, really, how many ways do you need to be able to say "How are you / How's it going / How have you been / What have you been up to / Have you been well?" etc. Not to mention the seven different slang terms we can use to refer to a child (brat, snot-nosed kid, hoodlum, etc). I guess my linguistic MO is to find a phrase that's easily understood by the widest range of people and stick to it. Were I to settle down and live in Tres Equis (or, visit a couple times a year) I could certainly see the value of learning to talk like a local. But in my world travels, it's unlikely that I'll ever need to sound like I'm a from a tiny village in Costa Rica. Fortunately, the tour guide eventually got bored and went outside to play frisbee with one of the local kids, so the rest of us could review the past tense conjugations of irregular verbs, and a few common reflexive phrases. You know, silly little obscure phrases like "I went to Costa Rica last summer." and "Where is the laundromat located?"
After our class, we ended up going to the one bar in town and I got to dance a little Merengue and Salsa with some local guys. The next day we actually crashed a wedding. Well.... the tour guide managed to get us invited to the party after the wedding - the groom was the cousin of one of the host families, and actually the bride's family was hosting a student from Germany - so really, what's the addition of a few more gringos? We picked up some ice and top shelf rum... and ended up being a welcomed addition to the party. The groom's dad remarked to one of the other students "I had no idea that white people liked to drink, and dance, and eat like we do!" so although I initially felt it was the height of rudeness to crash the party - in the end I think there was a positive cultural exchange. And well - the crazy gringos showing up with booze and dancing with all the old men - if nothing else we gave the happy couple a great story to tell.
The students, guides and all the host families.
All told, I was very glad we stayed in Tres Equis. The opportunity to practice day-to-day Spanish was invaluable. Also - my host mom cooked me the most amazing traditional meals. Gallo pinto (beans and rice), arroz con leche (a kind of rice dessert with milk), casado (the married man's dinner), empenadas, and patacones (fried plantains). Was it the amazing time promised by the tour guides? No, it was actually kind of boring. Small towns are great - knowing all your neighbors can make it feel like one big extended family, the pace of life is slower, a bit less stressful. But when you're in a small town - that's all there is, the same people, the same places, the same petty disagreements. I didn't see much in the way of arts or culture- at night, all the families just watch TV. I was happy to grab my knitting and sit in the living room with the family at the end of the day. But I guess the reality is - I'm a city girl. I need a bit more variety, a bit more opportunity.
But rather than leave on a down note - here are some of the absolutely glorious flowers that grow just everywhere in that little town. Truly, it was an incredibly beautiful little town.