Students in the primary school next door to La Casa Pastoral where I live began their new academic year the second week in February. I have missed hearing them since before Christmas reciting in English, doing multiplication tables, and having band practice, all of which I can hear from our kitchen window. I missed them calling out ‘Hello, Teacher!’ as they walked by, and their parents who often call out ‘Good morning, Teacher’ at 5 pm!
February 24th marked the one year anniversary of my first ever hospitalization. I came to Costa Rica for a 4-day visit in 2018 to attend the synod assembly of Southwest Texas’ sister synod, La Iglesia Luterana Costarricense. After landing I couldn’t catch my breath and on the second day our now Bishop Sue Briner Uber’d me to the closest hospital where I had hoped to get some oxygen and get back to the synod assembly. I had no breath to speak and she managed very well to get me checked in. I stayed a week for treatment of a pulmonary embolism. I lost a dear friend to this at the age of 47, so I know how serious it is. When I hear people down here say ‘Pura vida!’ this is what their national motto means to me. Although I had met hardly anyone in the day and a half after arriving, my hospital room was filled with pastors, bishops, synod staff, and those whom I had met in the Diversity worship service. Some visited, some bought books and newspapers, one ran out for post cards to mail home. One student figured out that if he arrived at 2:45, he could have free coffee with pastries with me every day at 3pm! Because I could not fly for ten more days our president Gilberto (he would be called bishop in the US) offered me his mother-in-law’s mountain cabin so I could heal. Yes, Pura vida! is the best Costa Rica has to offer. For some it is coffee, or the scenery, but for me, it will always be her generous and authentic people. I thank God for complete healing and for friendships forged while wearing ghastly hospital gowns with oxygen tubes in my nose.
In preparation for Lent I explained to my congregation what Mardi Gras is and how some of us celebrate it. The adults had not heard of this celebration, so it was a cultural lesson from the Caribbean, Brazil, and Louisiana. The children made masks but we had to postpone the pool party because of rain. You can tell that they enjoy arts and crafts!
A huge fallen palm fan leaf provided ashes for Ash Wednesday, Miércoles de Cenizas. This is the beginning of the Lenten season. I remember as a child our family ate less meat, eating more tuna casseroles than usual. The nuns encouraged us to give up something for Lent that we really liked: candy, gum, tv, comic books… pretty much everything my parents didn’t allow us to have anyway. It is very different to reflect on those days when my reality is that people in my church community struggle to put rice and beans on the table. Many do not even have the privilege of eating fish or meat, or having so much they could ‘give up’ something for Lent. Instead we are doing things to help the environment, like avoiding plastic, picking up trash, etc.
In March Bible study, we are looking at the women in the Bible. I am struck once again by the huge gaps of information missing in the lives of those who cannot read. I’m not just referring to Bible stories, but also History. I once made a reference to the Holocaust and not one adult had heard of it. I am encouraged that the women show up to learn, and after teaching many years I learned that it takes different skills to teach those who cannot follow a written outline, notes, or much less follow along with a text. I need to watch my vocabulary, that it is not out of their reach. If they appear not to understand, I ask them to help me with my ‘mistake’ and they usually give me options that they understand. I am grateful for the lesson in humility and that these women’s thirst for knowledge is greater than their shame of not being able to read.
Almost a year ago I arrived in this town in the rainforest, with no library, no newspaper, no bookstore other than the one that sells textbooks for high school students. Since then I often dream of opening a library and one day I ran it past the owner of my favorite secondhand bookstore 2 ½ hours away in the capital. He shared my dream but made it real by reminding me that it would have to be raised above ground level because of flooding, and would have to be temperature controlled or mold and mildew would destroy the books. Very few places have air conditioning so it is expensive to install. Then, of course, we’d need books. My friend only sells books in other languages so it wouldn’t help to ask for donations. There are retired people here who could help staff, and maybe offer literacy classes. If I ever (even played) won the lottery, I would make this happen!
I am stunned at how many adults cannot read, and over this past year I have realized how this impacts their lives as well as society. In the US we have restaurants with picture menus for those who cannot read, or for whom English is not a first language. Pretty much of our information comes to us in written form. When we were children my sisters and I would watch the scrolling list of school closures due to snow every winter. In the US we depend on ribbons of information across the bottom of our TV screens to find out election results, weather, disasters, and news that cannot wait. Here, vans with huge speakers on the roof move slowly down the streets telling about local events and sales in stores because not everyone could read advertisements. Also, there is no mail service to homes so we do not have hundreds of fliers and ads filling mailboxes and/or blowing down the street. In Puerto Viejo, we often have scheduled water or electricity outages and this is their way of notifying the town. At first I would get angry at the noise pollution because I live a block from the medical clinic and next door to a grade school. I know now that this is the only way some people get their news.
I tried offering a literacy class for adults both in my town and in the community around my church. First, it is not easy to advertise since those in need have trouble reading—or cannot read—signs or the handouts I had prepared. I was hoping family members would encourage those in need to come, even accompany them in support. Second, perhaps it is the stigma of reaching adulthood without a skill that their children and grandchildren already have. Perhaps they have reached a comfort level with asking others to read for them. Third, I am always aware that although I feel comfortable in Spanish, others may not feel comfortable with a foreigner, with someone with an accent, or someone who speaks ‘textbook Spanish.’ I do have a 10 year-old girl with problems reading and I meet her once a week for an hour or so. I have no idea why she cannot read because I am not privy to her diagnosis, if indeed she has one, but we’re both trying and she shows signs of improving week to week. Instead of getting depressed that my plan did not seem to work out, I am happy to work with this young girl and see her grin when she can spell longer words. Maybe this small success will encourage a local person to reach out and teach another.
Another rather large difference in education systems has to do with Special Education. One of my evening students has a 12 year-old who barely crawls and is incapable of speech. While he attends a Special Education class, the mother must also be there. She told me this goes for all children in these classes. While it might be a comfort to have a familiar face in the room with the child, these parents miss work or have to hope their employers are sympathetic.
I went to Panama on the Caribbean side in December. There was construction that made us almost two hours late to the border, which closed at 5 pm. It was a scramble to pay the exit tax and haul my suitcase straight up a rocky hill because the foot ramp would have taken too long. After going through customs the taxis were long gone. It rained every day but my photos remind me of the beauty of yet another country I have been privileged to visit. These are from the Caribbean side, close to the Costa Rican border.
I just made another short trip to Panama. This time I traveled to the Pacific side and we had blue skies, blue ocean and no rain for the whole time! Most of the photos are of the South of Costa Rica along the coast, as I arrived in Panama at night.
I spent part of the next day at a beautiful, clean beach which had very few shells because the tide was all the way out. I was in awe of the expanse of beach with fewer than ten people walking on it. In the distance I could see the mountains of Costa Rica. The young man who drove me is half Latino and half Indigenous and very proud of his heritage, his region, and he stopped frequently so I could take pictures. The bottom left is a field of rice.
I took a few photos from behind of an Indigenous family, whom we later saw at the beach. The women were wearing beautiful long embroidered dresses and did not seem to be affected by the 97 degree temperature. It was dry, a welcome change from the intense humidity of my region (the dry season seemed to last about two weeks; we’re back to daily rain). Behind me is a volcano, which from the top gives a view of both oceans on a clear day! I stayed outside of David, in Puerto Pedregal, whose specialty of course is seafood. I stayed in a small hotel that is as charming as its owners: a Panamanian woman and her Italian husband. The huge tree behind the hotel is a mango tree, with some close-ups. They weren’t ripe so we had pineapple and papaya for breakfast with yet another fruit juice I had never tasted. The other guests were German and I remembered enough travel German to greet and introduce myself and share plans for the day. Two of them were Lutheran and seemed surprised that I was pastoring a church in Costa Rica. Germany and Costa Rica have a long and close relationship through the church. This has been a wonderful experience, meeting people from so many places and sharing what we have in common and learning about what is different about us, our countries, and our lives.
I realize that I take for granted the intense greens and lush vegetation, thanks to the constant rain. I take for granted the vivid colors of the houses and the flowers that adorn them and their yards. I take for granted that I have never worn socks, a long-sleeved shirt, or long pants in Puerto Viejo. If it is cool in San José I will (sweating the 2 hour bus ride each way) and then change when I get back home. The roosters across the street that crow all day long (it’s not just a morning thing!) have become part of my daily sound loop. I am used to the iron grills in front of homes and on windows realizing it is necessary for people to have a way to cool off and remain secure. Many people in my communities do not even have fans to deal with the year-round high temperatures and high humidity. I actually enjoy sitting on our patio watching the foot traffic go by. During the day I offer prayer with and for the sick and injured who are headed to the clinic at the end of the block. At night I can hear music, people laughing and singing. Someone plays a saxophone around 10 every evening, which is a lovely sound for winding down.
I wanted to share with you this amazing country, her people, and the many treasures she offers. This has been an extraordinary year. I will need a direct pipe line of Costa Rican coffee and I will definitely miss the fruit! Some I can find in the US, but nothing beats eating a naturally sun-ripened pineapple. I have one month more in this paradise (except for the mosquitoes!) and then I’ll see what plans God has for me back home.
Lutheran pastor and missionary serving in Costa Rica