Strawberry Pancakes

My housemate Izzy and I popped downstairs for breakfast at 7:15am last Friday. Cecelia, our mama tica, or Costa Rican host mom, had laid out two pancakes for each of us, peanut butter, jelly, and maple-flavored syrup as toppings, and pineapple chunks on the side. She always puts each breakfast item on a separate little plate – even our coffee mugs get small china saucers.

“These pancakes are strawberry,” she told us, in Spanish. “I got two boxes of mix; one is strawberry, and one is banana because I know you girls like banana.”

“How sweet!” we responded.

To further prove her point, she brought the pancake boxes from the kitchen, proudly showing us her selections. I immediately realized both boxes were in English and both had a large photograph of a stack of pancakes on the front. On one box, they were garnished with strawberry slices. On the other, banana rounds. Both boxes read, “Original”.

“There were some other mixes, but I didn’t know what kind they were because they didn’t have the drawing on the box, y eran en inglés,” she told I smiled big at her, and on the inside, I crossed my fingers that no one would ever tell her the pancakes she had bought were all just regular pancake flavor with pictures of fruit. She is such a sweet, well-meaning lady, who, just like me, struggles to understand when things are not in her native language.

In the three weeks I’ve been studying here, there have been countless signs, labels, comments, and conversations that I misunderstood due to my lack of Spanish fluency.

Last Thursday, I went out with my friends and one of them tried to order a tequila soda. The bartender was confused and asked if she wanted a tequila with Coke. After a few more attempts to explain, my friend gave up and ordered a margarita (which turned out to be bright blue).

Once I accidentally ordered what was essentially a frappuccino when what I wanted was an iced coffee. Apparently at my favorite sandwich place, that’s as close as you can get.

Even my and my housemate’s nightly dinner conversations with our mama tica involve countless lapses in understanding between us. Izzy and I have a little debrief session on the way back upstairs after eating. Basically, we compare notes on words we didn’t understand or whether we both followed one of Cecelia’s long stories (she likes to go on tangents about the state of the world and how her sons and daughters are doing). I think collectively we normally process about 80% of what’s happenin

As becoming more fluent in Spanish is arguably my biggest priority while I’m here in San José, I put a lot of pressure on myself to understand and to be understood. Our plain/strawberry/banana pancake breakfast was a reminder that learning any language is not a fluid process. There will never be a full jump from “intermediate” to “fluent” or some point I reach where there are no more mistakes and no more to learn. Communicating outside your native language is messy, and if I’ve realized anything from the ticos I’ve spoken to so far, most are more than willing to patiently work with you to reach mutual points of understanding.

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Cecelia showing us around the neighborhood.
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La Fortuna

This past weekend I visited La Fortuna, a small town in Costa Rica famous for its proximity to inactive Arenal Volcano. I went with my study abroad program, which consists of around 25 students, mostly women.

We left early in the morning on Saturday, around 6:30 a.m. and stopped around eight to  use the restroom and grab a snack from a small convenience and souvenir shop. Across the road from where our giant tour bus stopped was a tranquil little lookout point facing lush green hills and mountains in the distance. The view reminded me a bit of my home state, Wisconsin, because of the visible farmland and grazing cattle – even though most of Costa Rica is a dense rainforest far from the American Midwest.

Our journey continued and our next stop was La Fortuna waterfall. A little sleepy still, I changed into my swimsuit in the restroom and followed my friends down the 500 stairs to the pool below. Along the path a small family of monkeys darted between the trees and I nearly tripped trying to get a better glimpse of their small, furry baby.

The view of the waterfall when I made it to the bottom looked like something out of a highly edited Instagram photo. The only thing that ruined it slightly was the dozens of tourists doing the same thing I was: marveling at the scene before them and preparing to dip a toe into the frosty water. I did more than dip a toe; I made my way down the jagged, rocky shoreline and  jumped in. This was the most refreshing experience thus far in Costa Rica. The sun was shining, I wasn’t wearing sunscreen, and I hoped to see a sloth, or at least another monkey.

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The weekend passed by in a similar fashion. The hotel was beautiful. Palms lined the roads between our rooms and bushes with bright red, orange, and yellow blossoms greeted us as we made our way down to the pool. The volcano was always visible to the East, and had a perpetual circle of clouds obscuring its jagged mouth – due to, as I learned, condensation from human activity during the hot hours of the day. Our gaggle of study abroad kids spent the night drinking spicy margaritas at the hotel wet bar (accessible right from the hot springs – what could be more luxurious) and taking turns rocketing down the steep waterslide that has likely never passed a safety inspection.

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Arenal Volcano from outside our hotel room

I had tons of fun and returned home exhausted and tan. However, part of me wondered if it was a packaged, tourist version of La Fortuna that I had just experienced. Our comfy tour bus was essentially a bubble from which to experience a town and resort where many of the staff spoke English and were used to Americans parading in and out. I felt embarrassed, and a little guilty. These thoughts were not new to me after living in San José for two weeks, but I have not yet learned the best way to navigate feeling like a spoiled outsider. I came here to step outside of my comfort zone and practice a second language, and I’m finding it much harder to do both than I expected. I keep asking myself, “am I being too cynical?”

In the coming weeks it might be up to me to push myself to experience some less-touristy spots and spend time with non-English speakers who are not in my program. Updates are to come, but right now I have mixed feelings about if I’m experiencing Costa Rica the “right” way.