A Peace Corps Volunteer Returns to Costa Rica 40 Years Later: Part Three
“Hola, Don Marcial! Hola. Hola.”
When my wife, Barbara, and I visited Golfito on our recent trip to Costa Rica, I had two families in particular that I wanted to see. One was the family that I lived with when I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 1974 and 1975, and the other family lived nearby. Fortunately, we were able to see them both.
After my 40-year absence, only one of those families still lived in Golfito, so we visited that family first. When I was teaching sports to the young people, Don Marcial and his wife, Dona Odette, lived next door to where I lived, and though only a few years older than I, they were well ahead of me in life experience; they were married with two young children. Like many Costa Ricans, they also wanted to learn English, so Odette asked me if I would be willing to teach them one night per week. At first, I was a bit reluctant to commit because I felt like I should be working at the lighted basketball/volleyball court, but the kindness of my neighbors and their passion for learning won me over. Thus, every Wednesday night after dinner, and after they had put their little ones to bed, we practiced conversational English in their dining room. Did I mention that we always shared dessert afterwards?
Naturally, I really wanted to see these two lovely people again and learn more about them and their children. When Barbara and I approached their new house on a Saturday morning, we didn’t see any signs of life, however, so we had to call out to see if they were home because the gate was locked, and no one was outside. After a minute or so, Don Marcial approached the gate and greeted us, but he had no idea who we were. I had tried to contact him on Facebook previously to no avail, so this surprise visit startled him a bit.
Back then, to fit more easily into the Costa Rican culture, I called myself “Diego,” so when Don Marcial greeted me at his gate, I used my best Spanish to explain, “I am Diego, your Peace Corps friend from 40 years ago.”
Stunned and speechless, he looked at us for a few seconds, trying to determine, no doubt, if this big, old white-haired Gringo could, in fact, be the same thin and fit young man he remembered from 1974–75.
“De verdad?” (Really?)
“Si. Si. This is my wife, Barbara. How is your wife, Dona Odette, and your children?”
Finally convinced, Don Marcial unlocked the gate and greeted each of us with a big hug and invited us in. Once inside, he offered us a seat while he went upstairs to tell his wife. Within minutes, the four of us were sitting together, recalling old stories, telling new ones, and sharing pictures of our children on our cell phones. Then, we moved from the living room to the kitchen to taste some fresh melon from their back yard, and, they invited us to go out to eat with them that evening at the only air-conditioned restaurant in town. Naturally, we consented, and though my Spanish was rusty, and their English was pretty shaky — they obviously had a poor instructor — we had a wonderful time. Barbara felt a bit out of place at first, but gradually, she recalled some of her high-school and college Spanish, and she used the “Translate” app on her phone to fill in the blanks. The whole experience was magical and surreal as if the 40-year gap had melted away, and we were all young again, enjoying the day God had given us, the only one that mattered at that point.
When we left Golfito and returned to San Jose, Barbara and I shared a similar experience with Enrique and his family. Enrique was only 15 when I arrived as a 22-year-old, and I rented a room in his family’s home and shared meals with him, his parents, his two brothers, ages 13 and 11, and his younger sister, age 3. (Two older siblings had already moved to San Jose for school and work.)
Fortunately, Enrique and I had been in contact a bit during the previous four decades. He had attended college in Indiana, Pennsylvania, and I visited him one weekend during the spring of 1986. Then, once Facebook became available, we became online friends and communicated sporadically. And once our travel plans to Costa Rica were finalized, we began to communicate regularly.
Enrique helped us find a place to stay in Golfito, he helped us locate Don Marcial’s new house, and he reserved a room for us in the bed and breakfast that he managed (and lived in) in San Jose. This young man, who seemed so young when I first met him, was now approaching 60 and had the grey hairs to prove it.
During our week in San Jose, Enrique was the perfect host. Not only did he work with Barbara and me to prepare some meals for us, but he also educated us on the finer points of gallo pinto (rice and beans) and platanos (fried bananas) among other Costa Rican specialties. In addition, he drove us to a couple different restaurants/bars, so we could experience a bit of the nightlife (believe me, we were pretty tame), and he even took a day off from work, so we could drive out into the countryside and see colorful birds and flowers at the Botanical Garden. Then, he saved his best planning for the weekend.
On Saturday afternoon, he organized a “family” reunion with his parents, three of his siblings, and some of the spouses and children of those siblings. Enrique’s mom and dad are 90 and 93 respectively, but his mom prepared most of the meal — a chicken and rice dish — and the desserts, and his dad, looking a lot like Ernest Hemingway, presided over the meal and participated in the conversation and the laughter. And we did a lot of laughing.
We recalled soccer games in the front yard, hikes into the nearby mountains, adventures with their puppy, and parties for numerous occasions: birthdays, graduations, and holidays. We even recalled how Enrique’s dad had taught me how to cook when he and I stayed behind when the rest of the family departed for San Jose near the end of my tour. Then, just as we had with Don Marcial and Dona Odette in Golfito, we caught up on one another’s lives.
How did you and your spouse meet?
How many children do you have.?
Where do they live, and what are they doing?
The questions were exactly what one would expect at any family reunion. Yes, we talked a little bit about the athletic work I had done in Golfito so long ago, but the focus was not on the sports themselves, but, rather, on the people who had played those games. We recalled fondly many athletes who performed well and other who entertained us with their passion and personalities, and we lamented one excellent basketball player who had died prematurely.
Our Saturday reunion continued with a small portion of the family on Sunday as well, and, then, Barbara and I flew home on Monday morning.
Now, as I reflect upon the entire experience, I finally realize that my work in Golfito was not as important as the personal connections I had made back then. When I returned home in late 1975, I had a much better perspective on the world and my place in it. Yes, I still need to be reminded periodically today, but I know in my heart that people are always more important than projects.
My favorite Bible verse is from James 4:14. There, the brother of Jesus says, “You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” Looking back over my almost 67 years of life, I know that my two years in Costa Rica were also a mist, but I feel so blessed to have shared that mist with these wonderful people, and I am so grateful that I was reunited with them for one more short visit before we all eventually go home to our eternal resting place in heaven.