Time is different here in Costa Rica. The sun rises between 5 and 5:30 and sets around 6:00. It has to do with being closer to the equator. I am a night reader so it has been a challenge getting up earlier, even though the sun is streaming into my room! Businesses, except for a few stores and the supermarket, close early so that by 8pm my street is very quiet. Psychologically I still think dark is almost bedtime, then realize that if I don’t have an evening class, I’m ready for PJs and a book and it is only 8:30pm. Then I am amazed at folks who call about business at 6:15 in the morning.
The concept of time is also different. For those of us who learned Spanish from a textbook, we learned that ahora is ‘now’ and ahorita is ‘right now’. Not so much down here. I have waited for two hours for someone who said they would meet me ahorita! There is no way to determine this hour; it is relative. The locals call it la hora Tica. Tico is a nickname for Costa Ricans, coming from their habit of ending the diminutive very often with tico or tica. Cat is gato. A kitten or a term of endearment for a pet is gatico or gatica. ‘Just a moment’ is Momentico. Nicaraguans are Nicas and Nicos. I answer to la gringa because I don’t sense that it is used derogatorily. It is a constant reminder that in the U.S. we refer to ourselves as Americans, yet actually everyone living in the Western hemisphere is North, Central, or South American.
The last bit about time that I’d like to share is that while there was no commercial crescendo leading up to Christmas, the season lasted until the first week of February. Christmas decorations had been taken down, but the Nativity scene in the town plaza, the one in front of the grade school next door, and even the one in the tourist hotel in town were left on display until after Candlemas, February 2. Children just returned to classes on Wednesday, February 7, and the next day I heard them singing Christmas songs for the last hour. It’s all different, and all good!
We had several retreats for pastors and la Diaconia, our lay leaders. We have met in a hotel on a steep hill, with meals and coffee breaks on top, then we passed all the cabins going down to reach the huge circular conference room, mostly open from floor to ceiling, looking out into a thick forest where we could hear but not see running water. What an inspirational place to have prayer, workshops, and to have quality time with other pastors. The purple is fallen petals of the water apple tree.
We had another retreat in coffee country, right near a volcano (sadly, no time to visit it). I am in constant awe of the sheer beauty of this country and how people use local woods for building, furniture, and decorations, and local food in season to eat. When fruit or vegetables are out of season, we eat something else and wait. You understand what I mean if you buy an orange tomato and it is tasteless by the time it turns red. I wanted you to see these settings because they are so different from the rainforest. The furniture is made from local woods (mostly bamboo, which is extremely hard). The vertical part of the stairs is a mosaic of bits of pottery and glass.
We have two avocado trees just flowering now, and I am hoping that the fruit will be ready before I leave. I will miss the avocados that fill my whole hand and taste like butter. It has been fun tasting such different fruits as dragon fruit, water apple, guava, star fruit, guanabana, and many that are delicious but people don’t know their names. Some are delicious in a juice, but then I find out they are naturally sour and the juice is loaded with sugar. A month or so ago someone tossed the seeds from a papaya underneath a tree and now we have an 7 foot papaya tree, flowering and promising fruit in a couple of weeks!
In celebration of the Christmas season and the end of the year, the synod had a pool party at a huge water park. It was in the 90s so everyone was in the pool! Not your typical Christmas party in the U.S.
We had a Christmas party for the children in the community around my church. Some helped me to fill the piñata and moms had helped to wrap presents for each one. They had a grand time, although I was worried about the huge stick they are armed with for swinging at the piñata. They have much more experience than me, so I wasted that worry! One mother said she was so grateful that we did this every year because that was the only gift her child received. She was probably not alone. Some in my community have a dirt floor. Children often come to the church barefoot, out of necessity. What they blissfully don’t know is how commercialized Christmas is in the U.S. They were so excited to get one gift and have a decorated bakery cake, and enough candy to make their teeth hurt. Joy to the world!
So, Christmas was very low key. Most of my congregation left to celebrate with their families in other towns, so attendance was sparse. Another big difference is that several adults read minimally, mostly memorizing the Liturgy and favorite songs. I wanted to save them the embarrassment of being asked to sing Advent and Christmas songs when they couldn’t remember past the first verse, so we decided to sing just the first verse of songs that they chose. What a difference between this humble group and the lavish programs that are often heard on Christmas Eve and Day. I was perfectly happy to have our few but confident voices, accompanied by children playing instruments (in their own key and time!).
In preparation for the day of the Three Kings, the children decorated crowns. They are great fans of arts and crafts, but they are also good listeners. I am amazed at what they remember while they are talking, laughing, gluing, cutting, and coloring at the same time they are listening.
After nine months here I finally had two visits from friends and a colleague from the U.S. within two weeks. JoEllen and Joy came down from Philadelphia, happy to escape the snow and ice. JoEllen is a seamstress extraordinaire who had sewn a set of stoles for me in all the liturgical colors. She got to see at least one in action when they worshiped with us on Sunday. Joy speaks Spanish and was a hit down here, especially with the young children. She has fallen in love with Costa Rica and might well come back to volunteer/work and live!
Then we had a visit from Pastor Carmen Retzlaff, who leads a congregation that worships outdoors under 100 year-old oak trees in Dripping Springs, Texas. She is here for a 3 week intensive visit to our congregations to see how we do ministry with children, in Indigenous communities, in outdoor ministries, and in our Diversity communities. I am proud that this relatively small number of pastors and lay leaders in seminary training have really reached out to God’s people in need of community, of acceptance, of unconditional love, and of spiritual growth.
I enjoyed going on tours that I had been waiting to do with friends. We had breakfast in a local eco-hotel where the staff puts out fruit for the birds and you can eat breakfast while watching toucans swoop down and grab a banana and fly off, or a number of small, multicolored birds who chirped while establishing the pecking order of breakfast.
We all did the Chocolate Tour, which is everything you could hope for plus seconds and thirds of samples! The second visit I made there was magical because we saw a sloth way up in an almond tree (only his backside) and we heard the howling first, then saw monkeys way up in the tree tops! The guide gave us a complete explanation of chocolate production with a great sense of humor and samples every step of the away. My congregation is going to plant six cacao trees on the church property. We will get fast-growing, mold resistant varieties and in two years members can start harvesting and selling to the local producer we visited. This will be a fun way to practice sustainability.
Cacao pods grow out of the bark. The seeds are removed and allowed to ferment. Next, they are dried, then roasted, at which point you can crack open the seed and the interior tasted like bitter chocolate. The seeds are pounded to remove the husks, then pressed with a mortar and pestle until smooth. Next the guide added sugar to some, sugar and powdered milk to some, and we got to taste along the way. They prepared hot chocolate that we could flavor with vanilla, chile powder (try it!), cinnamon, etc. This was extraordinary! Here is Pastor Carmen grinding cacao beans. The bottom photo is of my two U.S. friends and two women from my congregation. No, I am not standing on a box!
And the wildlife. First is monkeys in the tree tops. I wish I had a good zoom camera… Then a beautiful small but poisonous frog.
In my collection of crawlers and leapers…. a black grasshopper and a rhino beetle.
I have missed my many grade and high school students because they have been on their summer vacation since before Christmas. Now they are back, joining the college students and adult learners who have been faithfully attending English classes. For many of them, finishing high school and mastering English will get them good jobs in the tourism industry, which sustains many here in Costa Rica.
Having lived for almost 30 years in the snow, I never take for granted the hot weather and the breathtaking scenery only found where it rains 9 months of the years and drizzles the rest. It is a blessing to be able to eat fresh fruit still warm from the fields or trees. Some of my students bring me fruit or coconuts when they come for lessons. They all bring brilliant smiles and hugs and so much joy! My little ones from church were so excited on Saturday telling me about their first days of school. I pray for their protection, for their health, for their families, and for good direction in life.
I hope this gives you a better idea of life in Costa Rica, although most of my experience is limited to the rainforest. It is 5:30 p.m. and the birds are singing their way back to their trees to sleep. Time to close the iron grill front door to keep the toads from hopping into the house. Time to put on natural mosquito repellent and then slap myself silly because they just sting me anyway. Time to thank God for the privilege of serving here, among such beautiful people who have enriched my life and my ministry. I pray that those of you in severe winter weather are staying safe and warm. We do have a guest room here!
Pastor and missionary, Sarpiquí, Costa Rica