A conversation with Joe Baur on ‘Without a Path’

Without a Path InterviewTravel writer Joe Baur interviewed me on the latest episode of his fascinating podcast, “Without a Path.” We share not only a love of Costa Rica but an obsession with Costa Rican slang, to the point where we both wrote books about it – check out his, “Talking Tico” – and it was great fun to shoot the breeze with him.

Listen in to our conversation about reasons travel is particularly important for U.S. citizens, why “the greatest country on Earth” is such a ridiculous concept, the immigrant secret identity and more.

Also, subscribe to Joe’s podcast for weekly interviews with “creative types, adventurers and the occasional hope for humanity about the travels that have helped define their lives.”

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A tale of two Costa Ricas: hope, inequality and an hour on the train

170925TrainCartago.jpgConsidering how much I love the idea of trains in general, and San José’s Tren Urbano specifically, it’s embarrassing how long it took me to hop aboard for a ride to and from Cartago. I’d ridden the train eastward from games at the National Stadium – by far the best way to get away from the jam-packed streets surrounding Sabana Park after any major event – but never from my home, just east of San José, to the former capital.

I finally remedied this on a recent Saturday, along with my husband and daughter. As we waited for the train at the station in Cipreses de Curridabat, it was inevitable, given my obsession with Costa Rican slang, that I would wonder aloud whether there are any choice costarriqueñismos related to trains.

My husband considered this. “Not that I can think of right now,” he said.

“¿Que no le deje el tren?” I suggested.

“Sure,” he said. “That’s in general, for not being left behind in some way; or, in the past, it was often used to describe women who hadn’t yet been married. ‘La dejó el tren’ meant that she’d never gotten hitched.”

As I pondered the lovely linguistic gifts bestowed upon unmarried women in many languages, our particular train trundled up to our stop. We were off: up the hill to Cartago, off the train for a short visit to the Mercado Municipal and the Ruins, and then back.

The journey was a bit of a revelation – or, rather, a heightened view of everything I consider the essence of Costa Rica. Everything I love, and love to hate, and thoroughly dislike about my adopted country flashed by outside the open windows (why is it that when it comes to Costa Rica, I can only seem to use the word “hate” in the phrase “love to hate”?). I returned to the source.

Most any journey by car or bus in greater San José is, well, less than life-affirming. You’ll see traffic, fast-food chains, pedestrians risking their lives as they sprint across streets, big-box stores holding court in increasing numbers. And thanks to the tendency to live “del portón pa’dentro,” as one person once described it to me – hidden behind a big front gate or wall, and probably a series of locks – there are precious few of the glimpses of family life that can enliven travel through the streets of some other cities I’ve known.

The train, however, cuts through these barriers. You chug through graffiti-heavy underpasses and peer into lush backyards. You gaze into someone’s kitchen window right next to the tracks and wonder how on earth the woman pouring coffee into her mug, so close you can see the steam, has gotten used to the sound and vibrations.

We saw a man and his son buying chips at the pulpería; a semicircle of bare butt-cracks where a group of workers were squatted around the back of a pickup for an impromptu lunch in a vacant lot; breathtaking views of ravines and cafetales; the backsides of some very ugly new buildings; mounds of trash here and there; people waving to us as we passed by; a child whirling, for some reason, in a cimarrona costume in his family’s back patio.

At many points along the route, we saw glimpses of Costa Rican life that haven’t changed much since my husband, now 39, was a little boy.

We also got a unique view of the drastic inequality that was not the same back then, when he played among these coffee plants. Not to the same degree we see today.

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Just minutes after leaving Cartago on the last train of the day, headed back to San José, all the riders in our car were startled by an object that seemed to drop from the ceiling at top speed. We looked at each other in momentary confusion. After a second or two, we realized that it had been thrown in through one of the open windows.

“This is a slum,” one well-groomed señora explained to the rest of us, gesturing at the neighborhood passing by outside our windows: garbage, kids on bikes, rusty roofs and slanty tin walls. “Es un precario.”

I pictured a skinny boy jumping up and down on a dusty slope, realizing that he had hit the target. Even though we were rumbling along fairly slowly, it would be deeply satisfying to aim just right and get something through that little window.

“It’s one thing to be poor. It’s another to be a good-for-nothing,” said a man across the aisle.

Es que esta es la chusma,” said the lady. This is the riffraff. She rose to close the window next to the four-top she shared with what appeared to be her husband and granddaughter. The man across the aisle did the same.

The object rolled to a stop at my feet. It was a small, tan, plastic container of West Country deodorant.

Our fellow passengers opened the windows about ten minutes later as the train pulled into the extraordinary decadence of the suburbs past the town of Tres Ríos. There, as Tres Ríos turns into Curridabat, train riders get inside glimpses of houses that are more like castles, homes whose luxuries are normally hidden behind massive gates and armed guards. There are crystalline pools ringed by world-class landscaping; broad, inviting tennis courts; rolling lawns.

I watched all of this and thought: Costa Rica, que no nos deje el tren.

I didn’t mean some shiny bullet train on the fast track to the developed world – not that that’s necessarily on the horizon. I meant this very train, clunky and slow, with its faded seats and scratched windows.

May we not be left behind by this train and all it sees during its brief voyages through the Central Valley. May we not miss the opportunity it represents.

The opportunity of this car, where people of many walks of life – not all, but many – filed into the same seats and experienced the same things, with all the annoyances and friction and humor and real, human interactions that come when we emerge from our social circles, from our little boxes made of ticky-tacky.

The opportunity to ride shoulder-to-shoulder on public transportation, instead of in the plush isolation of the cars that are choking this city.

A reminder, however fleeting, that this country’s extremes of wealth and poverty are actually close neighbors, whether or not we care to see this. A tiny open window between these realities many people work very hard to isolate – even if, on this trip, all that came through was a deodorant container.

A reminder that exuberant green and exuberant, sometimes foolhardy development are also close neighbors. Balance, somehow, must be achieved.

These are massive challenges, all of them: giving San José room to breathe, alleviating its transportation nightmares, integrating development with the environment, finding economic and social solutions that can somehow slow and reverse the accelerating concentration of wealth in a country that long boasted of its strong middle class.

It’s an uphill climb, but as I alighted from the train with a tired four-year-old Tica hanging from my arms, I realized one thing gives me hope. It’s the fact that so many of the smartest, most creative and most passionate people I know, often driven by a natural sense of solidarity, all with an underlying, even if unspoken, commitment to peace – so many of them, so many, are Costa Rican. And I’ll hitch my car to theirs anytime.

The power of immigrant vision

Founders’ Day remarks delivered at The Derryfield School, Manchester, New Hampshire, May 19, 2017.

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Thank you, Dr. Carter, the Founders, Mr. Sanborn, and everyone who played any part in helping me get me back to Derryfield today, including my parents, who made the drive from Eastport, Maine. The list of reasons we love Derryfield is very long, but one I have been thinking about lately is how much I was allowed to try when I was here. Middle and high school are always going to be scary – but I got to experience that part of my life in a place where I felt able not only to do the things I was naturally good at, but also to do things I was clueless about. I mean, they let ME on the soccer team! Mr. Holland let ME through the door of his classroom every day for years! Breakthrough Manchester let ME teach a total immersion Latin class to sixth-graders.

I was not great at any of those things. That means that Derryfield helped me start to learn what it felt like to enter new spaces where I did not quite belong. Those small experiences of awkwardness in a safe place build up little muscles that help us deal with bigger uncertainties later on. Those muscles, that practice of cluelessness, have been crucial for me as an adult.

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Why a Costa Rican Holy Week is a treasure to be savored

Nature Landings Cover Screenshot 2017-03I’m pleased to be writing a new column for Nature Air’s magazine, Nature Landings: “Word on the Street.” The magazine is full of fascinating travel stories, cultural information and more, and I’m proud to be a contributor. With permission from Nature Landings, here is a look at this month’s musings as published in the April-May edition. Look for the column the next time you’re in the skies enjoying what truly is the most spectacular way to see Costa Rica.

Oftentimes in Costa Rica – a country that lacks the spectacular Holy Week celebrations of, say, Antigua, Guatemala – Holy Week seems best characterized by a long list of things you can’t do. Drinking is one of them, since dry laws prohibit the sale of alcohol on key religious dates (ineffectively, as demonstrated by a popular nickname for Semana Santa: Semana Tanda, or Drunken Week).

Shopping is another, although much has changed since the days when you could barely find a place to buy bread on high holy days. Each year, more and more shops keep their doors open, increasing convenience but eroding tradition – all the more reason to embrace Holy Week while we can.

There is a whole host of activities that are forbidden on Good Friday, for religious reasons or by long-standing superstitions. Don’t eat meat. Don’t go swimming in a river or ocean, or you will turn into a fish. Don’t hit your children, or your hand will fall off; there’s one superstition we can all wish were fact. Don’t wear red, since it implies support for the devil. And since it’s a day of mourning, don’t run, play or work.

But alongside all the can’ts, what you can do during Holy Week in Costa Rica, especially in its town and city centers, is slow down, reflect and relax as at no other time of year.

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Courtesy of Nature Landings. Photo by Mónica Quesada.

 

It is a hot season, and very still. Streets empty; miel de chiverre, or squash jam, is lovingly prepared over stovetops nationwide; painstaking preparations are made for local processions. Regardless of your religious affiliation, something about Semana Santa invites reflection – or, at the very least, peace and quiet.

It’s worth seeking out this national pause. It’s worth leaving behind the rush of everyday life, or even, for the tourist, taking a detour from the beach to experience Costa Rican town life at its finest: with stores shuttered and schools locked, people of all ages can come together in the street behind the solemn beat of the Romans’ drums.

Walk with them, and you’ll be reminded why we want traditions to survive in the first place: because they connect us to history, even when that history isn’t ours.

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Waiting for gray (bochorno)

IMG_7086.JPGDear E.,

The longer I live in places where you can wear flip-flops 12 months a year, the more obsessed I become with seasons.

It’s not as simple as missing them. If I could choose right now, I’m not sure I’d wish the seasons of my childhood back into my current life. But I’m fascinated by the way those memories find us at odd moments, and how we reconfigure them among the smells, sounds and sensations of entirely different climes.

Last week I was telling you your favorite bedtime story, the same one you ask for every night. In it, you discover a set of keys that unlocks little doors hidden in the nooks and crannies of our house, doors that go unnoticed until you discover them one rainy day. There is one key and one door for every color of the rainbow, and each door reveals a different landscape: an orange grove, a blue Maine lake, green hills that we run across and roll down.

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Traveling while parenting (juntos pero no revueltos)

Every time I get to New York City, the first thing I want to do, right after I set down my suitcase, is run. INYCt seems like the only appropriate response to a place with so much gorgeous ground to cover, so much energy steaming up through the grates. Twenty minutes after I got off the subway this time around, I was huffing and puffing my way through Central Park in the fresh, sunny sweetness of a spring I hadn’t earned, happy as a clam. The words bouncing through my head like a mantra as my feet slapped Stateside sidewalks were “juntos pero no revueltos. Juntos pero no revueltos.”

Juntos pero no revueltos is an egg-inspired expression: together, but not scrambled. Together, but still independent. It’s used to describe that need for breathing room and independence in a romantic relationship, friendship, or most any situation. It’s been on my mind because I’ve been dreading this trip, only my third of any kind away from you, and the longest. I’ve been dread our un-scrambling, however temporary.  Continue reading