The people of Costa Rica call themselves Ticos, an affectionate nickname originally derived from the diminutive suffix ic. The term, Gringos is not quite as uniformly affectionate, but in and of itself is not derogatory and is widely used in Costa Rica for North Americans. As a Gringa living in a Tico neighborhood I have had a unique opportunity to become close friends and even ‘family’ with my neighbors. I interact on a daily basis – certainly more often than with my birth family, though Skype helps a lot with that. I also have fellow Gringo’ family’ members here – chosen sisters and brothers.
“Pura Vida” is an often heard expression by Ticos that means literally “pure life” but the saying goes beyond its simple translation. It is a way of life symbolizing the idea of simply enjoying life and being happy. It is used as a greeting, a farewell and as a way to express gratitude. That is how I describe my Tico family. Pura Vida!
Anita and family
I met Anita when I first saw the old, Tico house painted in scarlet red and jade green. Her boyfriend, Carlos was selling the house and she had the key to the front door. As she offered her hand to help me walk up the steepest part of the road from her house, she said to me in Spanish, of course – ‘If you buy the house I will clean it for you and paint your toenails!’ I laughed. It sounded good to me – and she continues to clean my house and paint my toenails and be my surrogate daughter here in San Rafael Norte. She proves to me that one can have a strong, emotional conversation in spite of language deficiencies – and I continue to learn and perfect my Spanish with Anita and her family – her partner, Carlos, her brothers, sisters and children, Melany and Ronaldo.
I was introduced to the Melrost Inn family when I moved to Costa Rica in 2008. Jane Gregson arranged my first stay and now I can think of no other place I’d rather be. They have become my family in the San Jose area – Alajuela, to be exact. Located just 5 minutes from the airport, they see me off and welcome me home each time I travel or need to stay in the San Jose area.
Katia and Rolando founded Melrost together and began ‘from scratch’ with an older apartment building near their home – first saving up enough to buy it and then remodeling it room by room and section by section over time. All my students, friends and family members stay at the Melrost – and come to love the people and place. Knowing that Barnaby will get me to the airport and bring me back to the Melrost clears my mind and any apprehensions I may have about travel – at least on the Costa Rican side.
Katia is always warm, always welcoming and ready with the latest tale of her family or guests. She is a gentle reminder of the stoic beauty in Costa Rican mothers and women.
Rolando, husband of Katia is a strong, sensitive man with an eloquence to his thoughtful words about living and the meaning of life.
Karol, Katia’s sister and married to Barnaby is generally at the front desk and helps with everything, including bringing breakfast to a guest’s door at exactly when you want it. And always with a smile. I so depend on her quick email responses to questions I have.
Barnaby, named actually after Barnaby Jones on TV by his mother who loved the show – is Melrost’s driver, Barnaby – picking people up from the airport, greeting them, always up and on time for whenever they want to leave for the airport. Barnaby’s job is to be ready to help people who stay at Melrost – and he does it with a great smile and willing spirit. Plus – he is an awesome driver!
Francisco is Rolando’s ‘baby brother’ with a smile as big as his heart and full of stories about his life growing up as the last of eight siblings – six girls and Rolando ahead of him. He has developed his own tour business, Ecotours over the last 18 years – beginning by renting a taxi to drive from the airport. He and his family now own two vans and he is my driver for workshops and intensives. Students often extend their time in Costa Rica with customized tours with Francisco and all rave about their unique experiences, sightings and adventures. Francisco can spot a sloth high in a tree as he drives toward it, pull over and hand you binoculars in a few easy minutes! One in particular wrote about her time with Francisco after the February workshop, 2014. You can read about it here on my blog. When asked, Francisco responds that his favorite places to take his ‘new friends’ to include: Poas Volcano, Arenal, Monteverde, Flamingo Beach, Manuel Antonio National Park, the central valley area (San Jose, Alajuela, Sarchi, Cartago) and the La Paz Waterfall Gardens.
Billy and family
My first meeting with Billy was in 2008 when I managed to back my car into a ditch behind La Princesa hotel, just down the road from my new house. The then owner, Charlie shrugged and said simply, ‘I’ll call Billy’ – and he did. I’ve been calling Billy ever since and have needed him 3 times for getting me or a friend out of ditches! Billy typifies the amazing ability of Ticos to figure out how to do something that needs doing – always finding a way, often a new one. Billy is a Tico Renaissance Man – with skills that range from speaking fluent English and gourmet cooking (learned while working in the states in a French restaurant), gardening, tree cutting, tour guiding, building, managing, farming and horse training – and he keeps learning more! Billy maintains my yard and gardens keeping them cleared and growing well – and always with a ready smile. Plus he leads tours to some great, little known places here in the southern zone.
Oscar and family
Anita introduced me to Oscar, another neighbor who has done most of the building here at Casa de Corazon. Like all the others except Billy, he speaks only a few words of English, but the most important –that always make me laugh are, “No problem, Jan” – his ready response for the many times during the course of 5 years of building and remodeling that I have tweaked a project, altered a plan or clarified an idea. Always Oscar stops and thinks and then smiles broadly. Sometimes he doesn’t have an answer and off he goes to think about it – and generally comes back saying, ‘Tengo idea!’ and points to his head – again with a broad smile. This gentle giant is someone I trust completely – along with his family. Again, amazing that we can have conversations about life when he speaks no English and my Spanish is hardly fluent…. Oscar’s son, David was the young boy who rescued Sage when he escaped. Read about Sage’s Escape
My Tico Family
I guess I must be considered family now, too since I was recently ‘treated’ to a family squabble in my own living room.
Awhile back Billy explained to me that Ticos learn how to get along with family members and others in the neighborhood by completely accepting each others’ idiosyncrasies. He gave an example of one neighbor who cannot be trusted with money. No one in the neighborhood will loan him money because they know that he is not going to pay them back even if he says he will. But that doesn’t stop them from being friends with him – essentially valuing and appreciating the qualities of him that are good and true while accepting those parts that aren’t. It isn’t an ‘all or nothing’ thing. It seems to me to be a more amiable way to live with family and neighbors and as close to ‘unconditional’ as many of us can come.
I was put to the test recently when both Anita and Oscar told me separately about some believed misdeeds of the other. I told each that the other was my friend and I didn’t want to talk about it and suggested that they talk it over between themselves. What I didn’t expect was that they would do it in my living room. The at times heated argument went on for about 20 minutes, with the door wide open so that either could walk away. Neither did. I sat with my dogs on the couch and just watched, not understanding much of what was said in such rapid fire Spanish. But what was impressive with was that each listened to the other and gave time for the other’s response. From my sideline position all I offered was that I hoped for a good solution for everyone. And that is what happened. At the end, everyone hugged and shook hands and we all went out to Frank’s Casita (still in process) to admire Oscar’s work and laugh together. Pura Vida indeed.