The Tica Recipe

By Caitlin Grady, 2018 McCall MacBain International Fellow (Costa Rica)

After more than a month living in Costa Rica, I have learned a few lessons about this very special country that I will call home for the next year. Here are a few of my key ingredients to surviving in the land of the Ticos:

A Cup of Pura Vida

Pura Vida is a very popular expression in Costa Rica which basically translates to “pure life”. No matter the situation, Pura Vida is appropriate. Don’t know what your host mom is saying to you? Pura Vida. An angry bus driver doesn’t want to take your eticket? Pura Vida. Can’t take another bite of white rice and beans? Pura Vida. It’s not so much an expression to me as it is a social survival technique.

A Teaspoon of Humiliation

Learning a new language is an exercise in patience and humility. It’s the ultimate opportunity to embrace constant failure, overcome frustration and practice laughing at yourself. Language school is a perfect protected environment to make mistakes, but out in the real world, language mishaps seem to occur too often and get more awkward than I hoped.

My most embarrassing language faux-pas so far happened in a grocery store one night when I was buying ice cream with a friend. I had taken the last tub of chocolate and I saw a local Tico looking for the same flavour. I wanted to offer my ice cream to him by asking “Do you want this?” or “Quiere este? but instead I came out with “Te quiero” or “I want you”. Thankfully I didn’t realize what I had said until I got home, although I think his partner standing nearby was more perceptive than I was. Oops.

A Pinch of Drama

I really wanted to bond with my homestay family when I arrived. I was keen to practice my Spanish, but also to build a solid support system for the lonely moments that were sure to come. Before I left Canada, I made a list of common interests we might share, like cooking or soccer. But, ultimately, my juvenile enjoyment for overly dramatic TV shows was the key.

I quickly learned upon arrival that my family loves watching telenovelas at meals. My first coherent conversations with my host parents involved them explaining plot lines to me, getting me up to speed about who cheated on who, why the main character was crying or how a lost lover had been resurrected in the last episode of their favourite show. There’s no bonding agent better than a shared love for melodrama!!!

A Sprinkling of Pleasant Surprises

While strengthening my relationships with my homestay family and local community, I have also been trying to maintain my connection to home. Like many a traveller can attest to, this balance can be challenging. Through the process of preparing for my Central American adventure and living the first weeks, the only insight I have gained on managing relationships from afar is that you will be happily surprised.

Before leaving for Costa Rica, I imagined many unpleasant future relationship scenarios, whether it was losing touch with my best friends, missing my significant other too much or the strain of interrupting my happily-retired parents’ gardening routine with my constant FaceTime calls. I departed Canada with a mental picture of just how poor the state of my relationships at home could become during my year abroad. But lo and behold, since arriving in Costa Rica, I have found juggling regular contact with my favorite people in Canada with enjoying my life in Costa Rica to actually be manageable. I still feel lonely at times (much like my mother’s tulip bulbs when I call home) and wish I could be closer to those I love, but these feelings are not nearly as frequent or intense as I had anticipated.

These are but a few of the contributing factors to this memorable experience so far, but they have been sufficient for me to begin feeling like a Tica too. I cannot imagine myself making embarrassing mistakes or being pleasantly surprised at the ease of connecting with others anywhere else.