Chronicle of Life

La familia on the corner

At the end of a long, winding dirt road in Monteverde, Costa Rica there is a small orange house. It sits discreetly on the corner.

Saturday, May 20. My hands tremble as I clutch the handle of my small black suitcase and walk to the front door of my temporary home. UGA Costa Rica naturalist Jeremy knocks for me, but he has scarcely done so when the door springs wide open, presenting two grinning faces. I am taken aback, for my host mother, Kathia Leitón, is far younger than I expected. Her skin has a lively glow, her hair is in dozens of tiny blue-tinged braids, and she wears a beautiful smile that lights up her eyes. She is flanked by her eldest son, Gustavo, who is only nine and grins sheepishly in my direction.

Kathia Leitón

Kathia welcomes me in with warm hola’s and cómo está’s and directs me to my room off the main living area. I rather arbitrarily choose the more colorful of the the two beds, noticing with alarm the large scorpion adorning the wall. Kathia swoops in with scissors, coming to my rescue. She clamps the beast between the blades and flings it outdoors. Crisis averted, I pursue Kathia to the back of the house, where I hear the sundry clanks and scrapes of dinner preparation. I offer to help — ¿puedo ayudarse con algo? She has already filled chipped ceramic bowls with potatoes, chicken, beans, and rice. Together we chop lettuce and tomato for salad then dress it with mayonnaise, an odd but tasty Costa Rican technique.

My bed, dressed in its Mickey Mouse blanket and Superbowl sheets.

As Kathia and I eat together, the other family members temporarily absent, my anxiety to speak with her in español slips away like the last of the daylight. I realize that she doesn’t mind my mistakes at all — in fact, she has seemingly endless patience for my rusty speaking skills. When she asks about my classes on el campus, I tell her of all the movies we have watched for Spanish class and am astonished to learn that she has seen many of them herself. We fall deeply into an easy conversation.

Kathia tells me of her desire to see the world and her interest in foreign cultures. I learn that she studied French in school. We laugh when I tell her in French that I study it as well. She describes her fascination with eastern cultures, India, China, and the Middle East. Bollywood, henna tattoos, mandala tapestries, Arabic, Hebrew, and Mandarin Chinese are among her many curiosities. How mind-boggling it seems to find a fellow dreamer with goals of language-learning, culture-study and travel, deep in the mountains of Monteverde, Costa Rica.

As the night wears on, our dialogue diminishes. Weary, Kathia and I retire to our respective bedrooms. I call goodnight to Gustavo and fall asleep to the content realization of being in the company of someone so much like myself.

Sunday, May 21. I wake suddenly and in a panic, thinking from the lightness of the sky that I am late for my first trek back onto campus. Checking the time on my teléfono, I realize that it is not yet 5:00; it is merely my suburban ears that are unused to the sounds of goats bleating and cattle lowing at break of day. I wiggle my toes against the rough fleece blanket and catch a few more winks.

When my alarm officially beeps me to consciousness at 6:30, I pause and revel in the cool mountain air that seeps through a crack in my window. It caresses my forehead and nose, and I inhale deeply. Already the house is full of the aroma and delicate sizzle of something frying in a pan. I leap from my bed and dress hastily, only to find Gustavo clothed and ready for school, red backpack at his side. I smirk at his Georgia Bulldogs sweatshirt and the cellphone grasped firmly in his hand that bathes his face in bluish light.

Gustavo Ramírez is never parted from his cellphone.

A second Ramírez child toddles from behind the main bedroom’s curtain, well-dressed in Minnie Mouse garb — Dana, age two. We three sit side by side at the lace-clad kitchen table, which happens to be found in the living room, and munch on our cheese empanadas. They are unbelievable, the oozing queso perfectly complimented by crispy exterior. Que rico, I comment to Gustavo, and he nods in agreement.

Gus’s escuela starts at 7:00 Tico time, so around 7:08 he wanders out the front door. Kathia’s yet elusive husband, Paolo Ramírez, makes a cameo appearance as he leaves for work. He apologizes for his absence with a broad, contagious smile that peeks from behind a large mustache. I feel sure that I will have time to get to know him better. Shortly, I follow after Paolo and make the scenic, potholed hike to campus for the first time.

Though the path through it is long and uneven, the Monteverde countryside is a sight to behold.

I knock on the Ramírez’s dusty front door soon after dark sweaty and rain-drenched, arms laden with an overstuffed bag of clean laundry. I am welcomed back in by a minuscule snoopy face, a tiny canine who Gustavo presents as Draco. Where this precious perrito has been hiding I do not know, but Gustavo and I sit and abet his frenzied puppy biting before dinner. Afterwards, I watch Gus attempt to wrestle Draco into a makeshift bed to no avail, everything is a game to this toothy beast. At long last, Gustavo succeeds, and I bid the Ramírez family buenas noches.

Draco is finally convinced to remain in his bed.

Monday, May 22. The clanging of my alarm at 6:30 celebrates that I, by some miracle or excess of fatigue, have managed to sleep through the goats’ and cows’ morning racket. I emerge to offer Kathia help with breakfast preparations, only to find that another new face has appeared in the household.

Nicolas, who I learn to be age six, has been at his the house of his abuelos in San Luis, and for this reason our meeting was delayed. Nico seems bashful in meeting me, but a wicked glimmer in his eye tells of a momentarily suppressed energy. We sit side-by-side at breakfast eating our gallo pinto and eggs with Kathia and Gus, while Dana and Paolo are nowhere to be seen. I wash my dish, and Nico offers me a lively ciao while I don my bookbag. “Hasta luego, Nico.”

Nico, the wild child.

That evening, seated at the dinner table, I finally get a moment to converse with Paolo. But after only a brief of discussion of futból americano and basketból, Nico seizes my arm — “do you have games on your phone?” “¿tiene juegos en su cél?

Paolo laughs a booming belly laugh and tells me we’ll continue our conversation later.

Nico pulls me towards a well-worn corduroy armchair, and I open Candy Crush Soda Saga on my laptop. We become an unstoppable team, beating every level we attempt.

Nico’s attention span is short, however, and he demands access to my cellphone. I offer it to him, and he plays half a dozen games in 20 minutes before asking if I have any more. I apologize to him — no, no tengo más. Unbothered by my inadequacy, he squishes himself back into the armchair beside me, drapes his gangly limbs all over, ignores my homework-in-progress, reopens Candy Crush, and plays on until bedtime.

Tuesday, May 23. My alarm has only just begun to ring and I am already out of bed. The promise of my host family’s grinning faces is a wonderful motivator in the early morning. As usual, Paolo reclines on the couch, already tuned in to some soccer game from somewhere in the world. He flashes me broad smile, his bushy mustache dancing — ¿cómo está?

Paolo’s preferred habitat.

I find Kathia in the kitchen and help her carry plates of gallo pinto to the table. She tells me that today when I return from campus, Paolo will be waiting with one of the family’s two motorcycles to take me to his father’s 50th birthday party. My heat skips a beat. The thought of being surrounded by dozens of Tico’s, needing to use my best Spanish, is off-putting. I plaster a brave smile on my face and tell her I can’t wait — no puedo esperar.

At dusk, I am nearing the Ramírez house. My feet slip in the mud but the lurching, antsy feeling in my stomach has an entirely different cause. Paolo greets me at the front door with his typical, 1000-watt smile, asking if I have ever rode a motorcycle before.  — I tell him — two times before on my boyfriend’s Harley. I am bemused when he apologizes, acknowledging that his rickety red motorbike is no Harley Davidson, but I assure him that no hay problema.

I clutch the metal handholds on the back of the bike with sweaty palms as we bump down the road at 25 miles an hour — any faster is dangerous, Paolo reveals. We pass several of my classmates and I wave, beaming. Paolo and I discuss a spectrum of topics as we go, from how old he was when he had children, to what Georgia is like in summer, to how old my parents are and what they do for work. We exchange vocabulary — fog, niebla; waves, olas. Paolo’s jovial tone and infectious sense of humor warm my heart.

Paolo and I whizzing down the road.

My heart is hurling itself against my rib cage. I am in the midst of a genuine Tico celebration, miles from my comfort zone. As I meet aunt after cousin after abuelo, I ask Paolo how many generations are present at this gathering. Cuatro, I learn. Four. From two-year old Dana to a señora in her early 70s. Paolo’s father, the birthday boy, is a comical figure like his son. He wears his white t-shirt rolled up above his pot belly and grins at all present, while weathered old men and strong matrons abide.

An abundance of food and several rounds of storytelling later, I follow the Ramirez family out the door. Back in casa, Paolo returns to his usual position on the couch.

Paolo Ramírez snacking in front of the TV.

As I drift off to sleep, watching a lightning bug flirt with my ceiling, I ponder the blessing of those intimate moments with the extended Ramírez family. I, a nondescript foreign visitor, to encounter these humans in their realness and their fellowship.

Wednesday, May 24. As has become routine, I fly out of bed right as my alarm goes off, ready to greet the Ramírez’s and the day. Dana, rubbing her eyes and with braids a mess, shuffles into my room the moment I open the door. I salute her with a bright buenos días. I gobble down breakfast — banana arepas — while Dana plucks bite-sized pieces her mamá tears up for her. Then once again, I’m off for a full day of classes.

Dana, seeking me out early in the morning,

When I return, little Dana has lots to say. She may lack the words to express herself, but she is unhindered by this linguistic obstruction. She babbles away, eager to explain to me her most profound desires and thoughts. Dana has a particular affinity for mimicking my actions, and the clacking of my laptop keyboard draws her in. She points at my screen, murmuring este, este— this, this. As her tiny, onesie-clad figure climbs onto my bed, I ask her what she has to say about the matter: “¿quiere escribir algo?” Her commentary is as follows:

nm hj ,fj;
tt y hg//////uubhkjhkkkkkk
////v b ct vb,bvb , [f. frgf/ h hg t vv vvm,s,”vffbnlmvh
h8h \\\1 4

Quite eloquent, if you ask me. We goof around until Kathia calls her to bed.

The little fiend hard at work writing her first novela.***

Thursday, May 25. A large grey van pulls up on the narrow street in front of the Ramírez household. Its five family members gather in the living room to bid me farewell.

There stands Paolo, whose spirit is as young as his children’s. He leads his household with booming laughter and unmatched joy.

There poses Kathia, who remains youthful and lovely despite the constant demands of her three hijos. She is endlessly gracious, patient, and devoted.

There sits Gus, who balances his family’s exuberance with shy pensiveness. He perches on the sofa, his cellphone lighting his face.

There prances Nico, who rejoices in bouncing off the walls and generally wreaking havoc. His thirst for life is unquenchable.

There toddles Dana, whose persistent babble and sassy body language surely speak to her potential. She is tiny and tenacious, beautiful and brilliant.

And there is Draco, biting my feet with needle-like teeth even as I pat him goodbye.

At the end of a long, winding dirt road in Monteverde, Costa Rica there is a small orange house. It sits discreetly on the corner. 
It is full of love.
A parting view of la casa Ramírez: weather not indicative of the sentiment within.

***Click here for video footage of little Dana Ramírez hard at work!