I had no idea it could rain so much, so many days in a row! The upside is that everything is shades of brilliant green, with flowers of every shape and color cascading from roofs, covering trellises, flowering in trees, giving shelter to colorful birds and food for bees and hummingbirds. Having grown up in Chicago with four seasons, it is strange having the same weather for seven months so far. Leaves don’t change color and fall at once. Fruit and nut trees have their seasons staggered throughout the year. Our avocado looks pretty sad but the limes and bananas are doing well! I did find a log with some fall-colored mushrooms on it. The children I teach and even some adults have questions about snow: how does it taste? How long does it last? Are schools closed for the winter? They cannot imagine long sleeves or long pants, let alone winter coats, warm hats, scarves, and gloves. The only boots they have seen are some cowboy boots and the knee-high rubber boots worn to work in the banana and pineapple plantations. Hardly any businesses or homes have air conditioning, so they cannot even imagine cool, let alone freezing cold. No one in my congregation and many in my neighborhood don’t even have a fan to keep cool.
Looking at holidays in Sarapiqui, the region where I live, August 15 is a holiday especially for Catholics, but the whole town benefits from a day off. No classes for the children participating in a parade to celebrate the Virgen Mary. September 9 is the Day of the Child and we got a couple of soccer balls for the children to play at church, one for the girls, one for the boys. Sometimes they’ll play together, other times the squealing is too much. September 15 is Costa Rica’s Independence Day. I missed it because I went to the wedding of dear friends in Philadelphia. I know the children in the school next door were practicing overtime for their band and marching numbers for the parade. What I really wanted to see were the ‘faroles,’ handmade lanterns with different shapes like boats, houses, and torches. People make their own and join the parade as it passes their house, so the lights become a long trail snaking through the streets. Of course they had national dances and fireworks, as we do in the US.
The children of La Esperanza Lutheran Church, where I serve, helped me distribute fliers to the community announcing a Blessing of the Animals on October 6 in remembrance of St. Francis, the patron saint of animals. We had a couple dozen dogs and cats show up with their people. It was pure chaos because I realized too late that folks who are financially challenged do not make a collar and leash a priority. We had mad dashes of children and fur as they chased each other, hid, jumped in and out of windows! In the end we had a good but exhausting time. It was a good opportunity to meet some of our neighbors, both 2- and 4-legged. We didn’t see the cows that day; they usually pass by the front entrance in the middle of worship. No one could catch the roosters and chickens, so they were blessed at a distance.
They don’t celebrate Halloween in Sarapiquí, the region where I am serving, but I heard they did two hours away in San José, the capital. I chose not to even mention it because the area around my church is very poor, nothing like most of us have ever seen. It would put stress on families to provide costumes and candy, and trick or treat is only fun if others participate. Also, there are no street lights. When it is dark around the church, it is dangerous to walk. The streets are filled with huge rocks—not gravel, and mud puddles. There is no Thanksgiving holiday, although we are all thankful at all times for the gifts and grace we encounter in our daily lives. Our next big event will be in preparation for Christmas.
We recently had a retreat for pastors and congregational leaders. We were at a ranch in the mountains of Puriscal, the town where I stayed to heal after my hospital stay in the beginning of March. It was a delightful setting, with beautifully kept grounds, with trees and plants labeled for visitors (thank you!). I saw my first coffee beans in situ! They are various shades of green, and when they turn red, they are picked, sorted, roasted and head to your coffeepot.
There was a cinnamon tree and I chewed a leaf and stole a tiny piece of bark. I saw a lemon tree, the first lemons I have seen since I arrived. It’s funny that there are limes, grapefruits, oranges, but no lemons where I live. I found one on the ground and showed it to my English students for a week before we used it in cooking. Down here they are called ‘Creole limes.’ On the property were poinsettias, and other incredible tropical flowers I had never seen before. There were many bromeliads, plants that attach themselves to bark or nest in crooks of trees, using the rainwater falling on the tree, and taking advantage of the protection from the direct sun or too much wind.
I am not a camper so not very happy with ice cold showers, or the bat flying around our bedrooms at night. Another first, I had never eaten rice and beans for every meal for six meals straight. Of course there was another meat or eggs, but rice and beans are a staple here. Everyone else thought it was normal! I have lost over twenty pounds walking instead of driving, and eating fruits and vegetables without rice, beans, bread, everything that adds calories.
On November 23, the International Day Against Violence Toward Women and Girls, the Lutheran Church of Costa Rica participated in a march in downtown San José. Once again, I was very proud that our bishop Gilberto, most of our pastors, church leaders, and almost the entire synod staff all marched behind our banner. It was great to see so many men turn out and march in solidarity! We have a ministry, a program for Sexuality and Gender, and we are constantly speaking out for justice in Costa Rica and as part of the Lutheran Church worldwide.
No rain; these are sombrillas, used for shade.
I have to admit that I much prefer the low-key approach to Christmas here. Whether it is cultural or a question of money, very few people have any visible decorations outside their homes. Stores have very little. The children in the school next door are practicing a few songs for their Christmas concert, or a parade, but I have not heard any Christmas music in other places. I do love the music, and some decorating, but there is something refreshing about not clouding the humble birth of Jesus with commercialism. It’s funny that the children are playing songs about reindeer and snow; the temperatures are still in the 90s and we are in shorts, tank tops, and flip flops!
Before I arrived I naively thought I would see sloths and monkeys in trees, toucans eating bananas off the trees, and see parrots everywhere. I have yet to see these up close. Sometimes I see the birds flying so fast that I cannot catch a photo. When it gets cooler, say in the mid 80s, I’d like to go where I can find these birds and animals and share them with you.
I have seen other wildlife up close—sometimes too close! The flying insect that has scorpion-like pincers came to my outdoor evening English class. The spider was in church, found during a deep clean and quickly hid herself again. The beautiful green iguana was lying on top of my bedroom curtains. When it was coaxed down with a broom, it took off running on its hind legs with its little front legs churning like a sprinter! The giant toad apparently walked in the front door when we weren’t looking and I found it at 5am one morning. Not as cute as a sloth, but this is my world and the wonders that live in it. I am so happy to report I have NOT seen a snake yet.
My classes are varied: Bible study for adults, English for all levels, sewing, and of course I have the children on Saturdays for Bible stories and coloring, crafts. I love teaching so this fills my heart with joy. Some of my English students do well in school, high school, and university and want to improve. Many want to be able to communicate with the tourists who visit or shop on their way to tour the rainforests. My pharmacist just joined us, so I will be tailoring a lesson for her. Others want to be tour guides. Two work at the clinic and wanted vocabulary to help address the needs of patients. It makes me happy to know there are people who want to learn just to be able to serve and welcome others!
Many students have dropped out, many children because their parents have sent them elsewhere while the strikes are still going on in many schools. Mostly people drop out or miss a lot because they cannot afford to miss work days or an unexpected opportunity to earn a little overtime. Some of my adult students have not finished grade school, or only have an 8th grade diploma. There are so many needs here, but there is even more faith. People know it can get worse, but never impossible. They are very aware that God is the source of their joy and that they will always have what they need, if not what they want.
As I waited with over 50 of my closest friends outside in line in the simmering heat to use the only 2 ATMs close by, I noticed how easygoing people were. Of course, they are used to this, but still. They ungrudgingly move to the side and gesture older people, a woman in a wheelchair, pregnant women, and people with babies toward the front of the line. When I could not walk well for several weeks following an accident with my foot, I was pushed to the front, which I dearly appreciated. Some people worked their way to the front explaining they only had a few minutes free during work. People did not snarl. They smiled at the babies, squatted and spoke to little children, turned to the person next to them and started conversations. I could feel the sweat dripping between my shoulder blades, and then down my face. While I could be absorbed by the weather, I chose to look down the Boulevard toward the South where I could see mountains looming in the distance. I thanked God for the blessing to live among such easygoing people, used to seeing tall tourists, and still surprised to find one who speaks Spanish! It must be easier to keep spirits up when the official dress is shorts, tee shirts, sandals, and sunglasses.
I also love how people help one another. Within five minutes one day two men came by the grill separating our front patio from the public sidewalk. They were asking for food—not money. I gave them what I had: tuna and garbanzo beans. They blessed me with tears in their eyes and my students who were with me gave them each some money. No snide remarks after. No judgement. Just a short prayer to send them on their way. I notice that people say ‘Adios’ to say good-bye, but also as a greeting: to God! I love the simplicity and the friendliness.
This summer I spent a few days in Guatemala City, the capital. It was eye-opening as I saw people dressed in familiar clothing alongside women dressed in brilliant colors and traditional weavings of their ancient culture. Some of the architecture is colonial, some more modern. We especially loved the tiny restaurants with women cooking on open fires in the doorways. Sadly I saw many people begging, some with obvious physical problems. At the airport there were many women holding a child, with another clinging to their skirts, begging for money for food. These children belong in school, but I think this is how they get tourists to help them. I pray for a day when there will be no hunger, no homelessness, only the pure love Jesus taught us to share.
Have a beautiful holiday season with family and friends and please remember those who go without, who are lonely, and in mourning. Blessings to you, your families, and friends.