Random Life As I Know It

They Called Me “Gringa”

I’m currently working on my portfolio that is required of me to graduate with a degree in Rhetoric/Writing. This is one of the pieces I am including. It has been over 25 years since I set foot in Costa Rica, but the memories I had of that summer will stay with me forever.

When I first went to college straight out of high school, I was a Spanish major. Don’t ask me what I planned to do with that degree. I have never wanted to be a teacher. By the time I dropped out of college I had been studying Spanish for 6 years; 4 years at a high school level, 2 at a college level. I was at a fairly fluent level.  But you know what happens when you don’t use a language? You lose it. I didn’t lose it completely, but I lost a lot.  Although I don’t speak it nearly as well as I used to, I can still understand quite a bit. (Those Spanish speaking janitors in the break room at work had no clue that I knew that they were talking about me that one time. Ha.)

Regaining my fluency is on my bucket list of things to do.

Anyways, here’s my story:

It was the summer I was sixteen. I had just stepped off a plane in another country, thousands of miles away from the other country, and I was lost. I was in the United States, and everything felt foreign to me.

Eight weeks earlier I had taken a similar trip, in an opposite direction; in a country where everything was in a language I did not understand. My two years of high school Spanish had not adequately prepared me for this experience. Looking back now, I realize that it could have been likened to a 3 year old child going straight from preschool ABC’s into a college level English class. But back then, I naively thought that my Spanish would be so flawless that no one would recognize that I was a “Gringa.”

Rather, I was the girl who wore long skirts with tennis shoes in the streets of a small town that wasn’t too small or too traditional for people to wear jeans and t-shirts like I was used to seeing. I stuck out like a sore thumb. I was the girl who didn’t realize that the bill of currency I was using to buy a small bag of chips was equivalent to using a $20.00 bill on an item that cost 5 cents. I was the girl who on the first of 42 out of 56 days of rain needed to buy an umbrella, but was unable to ask where I could buy an umbrella because I didn’t know how to say the word umbrella.

On my first morning with my host family Marisol approached me in my room and asked me if I wanted “desayuno.” She could have been saying anything to me and I wouldn’t have known the difference. I must have stared at her with a blank enough stare. If I had understood the pronunciation of the word I might have looked it up in my Spanish dictionary that I never used the entire 8 weeks I was in the country. After a few minutes she suddenly said in her Tican accent, “Breakfast.”

Whenever I spoke, the natives would gather around me and listen with an intense fascination. The town I was in never saw tourists, and many of these people had never seen an American, let alone hear one speak. I was the novelty.

The entire time I was there I was homesick and I missed my family terribly. I missed other things, too. I missed my bed, peanut butter, hot showers, and iced tea; things that were not available to me in Costa Rica. I made a list of things I missed the most. At the top of my list was “Reading Words I Can Understand.” Above all other things, I missed the English language.

I made it through the summer better than I ever thought I would. By the time it was time to go back to the US I had learned how to read the bus schedule and find the correct bus to ride into the city. I could flag a taxi driver and give him directions to where I needed to go, and get to the right place. I could go into a restaurant and order something to eat that wasn’t horse meat (which I had unknowingly ordered and eaten all summer long). I could barter with a street vendor. I could communicate, at the very least, on a level that allowed me to function.

This is me in the mountains of Costa Rica when I was 16 years old

This is me in the mountains of Costa Rica when I was 16 years old

A week after I returned back to the US I randomly sat down on my mom’s lap and I started to cry. Everything that I had known and loved my entire life now seemed so foreign, including the fact that everything was in English. Return culture shock-they warned us that after being completely immersed in the Tican culture that we might experience it. Mine was in full force. I missed the people. I missed the food. I missed the cold showers. I missed the language.

For weeks after I returned home I’d sometimes randomly start speaking in Spanish without really thinking twice about it. Or I’d find myself translating English to Spanish in my head. If I was out and about and heard a random stranger speaking Spanish, I would strain to see if I could understand what was being spoken.

It’s been years since I’ve been able to fluently speak Spanish, but I am still amazed at my ability to understand a lot of what I overhear. I can also recognize much of it by sight. A professor once challenged me to read Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” in the Spanish translation, and someday, I know I need to. The words seem to have stayed with me somewhere in my mind, ready to be used again, when the situation is right.



3 thoughts on “They Called Me “Gringa”

  1. Interesting that you were homesick going there and coming back. Were the people in Costa Rica helpful to you? I don’t understand why someone did not help you get an umbrella or tell you about the horse meat.


    • The people in Costa Rica were very helpful towards me when I was there. I think someone eventually gave me an umbrella but for a long time my volunteer partner and I walked around wearing ponchos. As for the horse meat, we ate it all summer long thinking it was fried bologna. I never thought to question it. It wasn’t until towards the end that someone told us that it was horse meat. I ate a lot of questionable things that I still don’t know really what it was. Seeing as we were fully immersed and doing volunteer work in the poorest parts of the country it probably would have been rude to question what we were eating. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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