Finding Courage in a Foreign Language

by Wynne Brown

His email started out: "It's been a hard day." And ended, "I'm afraid the Costa Rica trip's no longer an option for me."

Mike and I have shared a warm platonic friendship for 40+ years and have wanted to travel together for decades. Last year we finally booked a trip to Costa Rica with the ecotravel company Naturalist Journeys since we'd both always wanted to see Resplendent Quetzals, Morpho butterflies, and—with luck—the exquisite lemon-yellow eyelash viper. 

We also wanted some independent exploration, so we'd arranged to stay in San José for two days before the group tour. 

Ah, yes, best-laid plans...

The week before our departure came Mike's message: "At 9:30 this morning, my right eye went crazy—I had big oil spill 'floaters' that were black with red edges (blood) moving across my eye, and my vision turned cloudy, as if I were looking through a gauze curtain..."

The diagnosis: His right vitreous humor had separated from his retina.

The treatment: Rest—and no airplane flights. 

The result: I'd be flying to Costa Rica without him and spending two days alone in San José. 

I'm no stranger to international destinations but have always traveled with family or friends. My college Spanish is barely functional, but I'd planned to practice it on this trip. 

The flight to Dallas was easy compared to the previous days' scrambling wildly to pack and prepare. The San José leg was pleasant, as was my unfamiliar but jovial seatmate.

So, the full impact of traveling solo, even if only briefly, didn't fully hit me until arriving at the terminal—and realizing I couldn't understand the Customs signs.  

Uh-oh. Here I am, 62 years old, a woman alone, and I'm in a totally strange country where I don't know a soul.

And I barely speak the language, much less understand what anyone says. 

Now what??

Well, I have books and my laptop, and the hotel has wi-fi. Maybe I'll just hole up in my room until the rest of the group gets here.  

Transport to the hotel turned out to be unexpectedly easy when a harried young man with a clipboard appeared at my side, saying, "Señora Brown? The rest of your group comes in two days, but the driver is here to take you to the Don Carlos hotel." 

Even at 10 p.m., the roads were jammed. But Achilles ("Si -- like the ankle!") maneuvered through narrow streets, while kindly correcting my limping Spanish and providing a crash course on Costa Rica, its 5 million residents ("We're called 'Ticos'") in seven provinces, and gesturing toward the Gran Hotel ("Many Americans stay there"). 

"And there," he said with obvious pride, pointing at a handsome building, "is our Teatro Nacional!" 

Several blocks later, he ushered me into the hotel lobby where the desk clerk greeted me—in English. 

I registered and climbed the stairs past walls lined with Costa Rican art to a large cheerful room and collapsed gratefully, after emailing Mike that I'd arrived safely and missed him. 

Morning brought rooftop pigeons and a cacophony of traffic noise. I sat on the verandah, fortifying myself with excellent café, casado (rice and beans) with papaya and pineapple. Then, armed with a map and the "Spanish Anywhere" app on my phone, I ventured out to explore.

The first great find was a used bookstore. I returned to the hotel, reassured that I could actually find my way back, dropped off my purchases, and headed out again, ready to go farther afield. I spent several hours ambling through various parks and wandered into an all-Costa Rican art gallery that featured exquisitely painted Brunka masks and quirky sculptures of insects made from discarded auto parts. 

I learned that even in a big city, Costa Ricans smile easily and greet tourists with a friendly "Buenos!" rather than "Buenos dias!" that I'd heard in Mexico.

Everywhere I went, people were wholeheartedly kind as I attempted questions, mangling their melodic mother tongue. 

The ticket-taker at the Museo de Oro beamed when I said I was practicanda mi español, and we shared a lively bilingual giggle as she practiced her English, and I responded (sort of) in Spanish. 

By early afternoon, I'd walked off breakfast and made my way through the crowds to the Mercado Centrale. It's an entire block of covered, dark, warren-like corridors, winding between booths selling fish, beef, chicken, medicinal herbs, souvenirs, flowers, pets (including full-grown chickens), leather goods, and every possible kind of vegetable. In the center of the market are sodas: inexpensive counter eateries, where staff call loudly to every potential customer. 

Sopa de mariscos, seafood soup, seemed to be that day's hot item, so I joined several Ticos at the counter and dove into a rich broth of clams, shrimp, fish, and potatoes, with rice and plantains on the side, all for CR 2900, about $5. 

If there were other American tourists there, I never saw them. 

I emerged from the mercado, explored more shops, and was ready for something cold to drink. After checking out the Gran Hotel, I decided against sharing the patio with the raucous crowd of Americans discussing basketball. Instead, I walked across the plaza to the staid and lovely Teatro Nacionale, where I read the menu, ordered a fruit smoothie, and worked out the price—without resorting to English. 

That evening, I was back on the verandah, sipping a glass of Sauvignon Blanc while watching the traffic pass under the street mimosa trees and savoring an empanada con pollo, then Casado Tipico con carne with chayote, mais, cibollas, and cilantro, all with black beans, white rice, and Lizano salsa and Guilpipi hot sauce on the side.

My email to Mike that first day in Costa Rica: "Buenos! Great day scouting for our next trip ... and I'll be able to show you San José—in Spanish!"


Wynne Brown is a freelance writer, editor, and graphic designer based in southeastern Arizona. She blogs at Just North of Paradise, and her website is She's looking forward to more extensive solo travel.


[photo credits: (1) by Sahumerio Love via Flickr common license ; (2) by dingatx via Flickr common license; (3) by Wynne Brown]

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