Alana Solimeo, KF9, Costa Rica

I am a seasoned gringa-tica.  I have made it through the rainy season and now enjoy the warmth of the sun…much deserved.  It’s a hard thing to reason with your expectations of a big life event, such as a 3 month placement in America’s favorite destination, the happiest place on Earth, because we know we’ll deal with the good and bad, fun and scary, beautiful and horrific.  The only catch is that just as the beautiful is more enlightening and refreshing than you could ever dream, the scary is darker and more lonely than you’d prepared for.

I spent a long time trying to blend in, to feel more safe navigating through the Coca Cola  district of San Jose, described as the red light district and “not safe either during the day or at night” by wikitravel, every morning and night with a laptop that’s worth more than  anything else I own and would be gold if in the hands of the wrong person.

 It’s here that I have to switch buses twice a day, and I want so desperately to fit in, walk cool and calm but quickly, not look people in the eye, to appear as though I know where I’m going because I never do– the buses drop you off wherever they feel like. I try to fit in as I scurry past drug dealers and homeless people; cars full of men pulling up to me, following me as I walk; I see people passed out, face down in the streets that are lined with garbage.  There are youth getting beat and arrested and transgender prostitutes that don’t wait till dark to start work.  I’m in shock.  I would feel so much safer if I just fit in.  

 I would feel so much more comfortable if I just fit in.  But my bright orange Patagonia rain coat I’ve had to wear through the rain every day won’t let me.  Add the fear on my face, the horror in my eyes, and the big backpack I wear on my front, hugging it like I would hold on to a small child, and the fact that I have brown hair and brown eyes and might be able to fit in becomes irrelevant.

 But that’s only 1 hour of my day, 5 days a week.

 On the flip side I’ve experienced the warmth of Costa Ricans.  I’ve been welcomed into families and homes of strangers who asked me not to leave and invited me back for Christmas.  They snuggle up to me on the couch when we watch Latin American Idol and CSI Miami in Spanish and they share beds with siblings so I can have theirs.  They’re all ears when I want to talk about my family because the family I am with is making me miss my family in the US so much.   

 When I stay with older women we wake up in the morning and drink coffee, nibble on cookies, and talk about what it’s like to be a woman in this world, in the US, in Costa Rica.  We share what it’s like to be a woman in a family.  Comparing and contrasting strengths required of women and the machismo here and abroad.  I’m transported back to my safe place, at home with my mother and grandmother, when we wake up the morning after a holiday and sit around drinking coffee and chatting, laughing, so content to be sharing the moments.

The weeks staying with my surrogate families I see how I could fit in, how I could belong here, because we’re really never that different then the person looking us in the face, just born in different places.

 My favorite part of tico culture is that they dance– I mean shake it.  Men move it like Shakira, no joke.  It’s so fun and what’s even better is that they love teaching us how to dance.  Within two weeks of arriving here I had a dinner party with 10 new friends, none of whom knew each other before that night.  We represented 6 countries: US, England, Estonia, Panama, Peru and Costa Rica.  We shared food, wine, jokes, games, and dances and the night did not end until we were thoroughly danced up.

 I’ve also been amazed by infinite shades of green in the mountains, and sunsets on beaches that begin mellow gold dusting the light blue sky, shimmering off the sea.  It intensifies transitioning the calm into a fiery uproar of dark pink orange and yellow until the sun drops below the horizon, leaving the audience in wonder, silent waiting for someone to break the ice…

I’ve seen monkeys that grabbed my finger like it was a banana and iguanas scampering all around the beach towns with as many colors as the sunset.  

 I spent a morning floating down a river that leads into the ocean, no boat or log or anything, just free floating, to find out a week later that the reason no one else had my genius idea was because it was inhabited by crocodiles– the kind that wait at the mouth of the river for all the fishies (read: slightly naive gringas) to get swooped into their hungry mouths.  What’s better is how excited I was floating down the river to get to the place where the river meets the ocean, or where the humans meet the crocodiles.

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It’s been nothing like I expected.  I didn’t know I would be so scared to walk around a city or so happy to dance with new friends, watch sunsets and swim in the ocean.  But springtime is here, my bright orange Patagonia raincoat remains hidden at the bottom of my backpack, no longer being used.  I may not belong everywhere my steps take me in a day, but I know at least at the end of the road there’s a sunny day and some warm loving friends awaiting me– whether at the end of the bus route, en el campo, or back to my comforting memories of home.

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