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Fourteen hours. It took 14 hours to get to Costa Rica from my modest home in California to the town of Heredia. I had no expectations of what I would find there. I was told of the lack of infrastructure, small windy roads, and beautiful landscapes crafted from mountains and oceans.
It took weeks to prepare for our vacation in Central America, not because we were planning to stay in hotels and visit the sites – but because we were spending our entire two weeks with family and friends. Gerardo carefully chose gifts for everyone – something I didn’t fully understand until I arrived. We didn’t rent a car; we didn’t rent a hotel room – we simply showed up, and family and friends filled every moment with love, kindness, and so much more.
And my life is forever changed.
Papi y Vicky
We were greeted at the airport by Papi y Vicky, who came to take us to their home for the evening. We had dinner, conversation, a bit of coffee – and a place to put our things and rest our heads before the early morning break for the beach.
We traveled before sunrise across the windy roads in a truck that was handmade by Papi’s son. Can you imagine such a gift as a custom made truck – crafted from two different vehicles? A stick shift made from a gun barrel, door locks made from bullet casings, and a turbo engine under the hood. It was a 4×4 lover’s dream, a cross between a Toyota Land Cruiser and a Land Rover.
Papi was proud of his truck, and in it, we passed the hours through the Costa Rican landscape: small homes, schools, fútbol fields, trees of all kinds, and birds singing through the morning haze. The smells coming in my window took my mind and my heart back to Puerto Rico – if I didn’t know that I wasn’t on my childhood island, I could swear I was 16 again and traveling to a volleyball game.
Papi y Vicky took us out to breakfast. I was prepared for lots of beans and rice, and that was my breakfast, Gallo Pinto, with a warm, sweet cup of coffee. We continued on our drive and arrived at a little patch of land near the beach. We set up camp – two tents and a kitchen. It took hours, but I soon discovered why we put a canopy over the kitchen.
We explored the beaches, took a walk at sunset, rested, and had dinner. And that is when the winds came, and the rain fell from the skies that were blue only a few hours earlier. But we sat and talked for hours under the canopy Papi carefully placed above the branches in the trees. I watched as Papi y Vicky held hands and kissed. It was clear that in the years they have been together, there were struggles, highs and lows, but through it all, they loved each other, adored each other.
With Papi y Vicky at Our Campground at the Beach
I followed the conversations the best I could. It was the end of my first day, and my brain hurt from converting everything from Spanish to English so that I could understand about 10% of what was said. They were so patient with me. And Vicky made the best tortillas from scratch, grilling them in the kitchen in our campground paradise.
The next day I was taken on a tour of local beaches and views that were incredible. Large houses in resort areas – I was so glad I wasn’t staying there. I loved our tent right on the beach and falling asleep to the sounds of the ocean and waking to the sun’s warm glow on my face. It felt good to live simply. To let go of all of the stress of my life and immerse myself in needing nothing more than to rest, eat, and spend time together.
It was clear just how much they loved Gerardo and how much they missed their dear friend. And I could see it in Gerardo’s face, just how much he missed them too. He was like a 5-year old in a candy store, eating every fruit that wasn’t available to him in the states, and telling stories of his past lives when Costa Rica was his home. I saw a smile on his face I had never seen before – and laughter in his voice that had been masked – living in a country not his own. In just two short days with Papi y Vicky – there were warm hugs and kisses. And I now had a father in Costa Rica. And he drives a really cool truck.
For this family, who opened their hearts and home – we gave a hat from Bass Pro Shops, a left-handed reel to fish, and bottles of fragrance from Bath and Body Works.
Our next adventure took us to the Finca – a resort that had yet to be built, lots of houses with majestic views of the skyline. The hopes of Gerardo’s childhood friend Asdrubal were to sell the plots and homes to Americans, and I think we were beta testers of their sales pitch.
The owner took us on a grand safari – a drive across the fields with no paths or tire tracks. He spoke of all the wild animals, the picturesque landscapes, the opportunity to invest in a piece of land away from the tourists, apart from the bustle of the city, and away from the beaches. If I closed my eyes, I could see the potential.
The drive through the unbeaten paths of the Finca soon made me car sick and irritable. I did not travel here to buy a house; I came to spend time with family and friends. We didn’t see any animals, and they were a long way from building paradise. But again, we were given a meal and a place to rest our heads. How could I complain? We ate dinner at Playas del Coco, in a tourist region with backdrops of beautiful beaches.
At 1:30 am, I sprung out of bed in our safari plantation home – the sweltering heat of the night, the lack of breeze, and being eaten alive by bugs had tested the limits of my patience. I was determined to find a towel and take a shower – anything to help the hours pass – while not showing my frustrations for the momentary hijack of my romantic vacation in Central America. I tried my hardest to make light of it all. The shower and fans from the camping gear soon allowed me to sleep – and then it was morning.
We were due to spend more time on the Finca but plans soon changed, and we headed back to Heredia and to the home of Papi y Vicky. Everything inside of me was yelling at me not to complain, but I was miserable – and covered with 1/2” bites all over my body. But back in the truck, with the wind in my face – I soon centered myself – and tried to find the positive in the day. It was my safari adventure, with a story to tell at some campsite in the years to come.
For our safari captain, we brought a new pair of sunglasses and walkie talkies.
Headlights and Model Planes
Next, we headed into the city of Heredia. We picked up a car from Paulo, a childhood friend of Gerardo’s. We stopped at this quaint little home behind gates with a beautiful garden in the front yard. Gerardo wanted to say hello to Paulo’s mother, Doña Ligia. We entered into the small house at the back of the garden and into Doña Ligia’s bedroom. She was sick and lying in bed, and when she saw Gerardo, she lit up with the biggest smile on her face.
Parque Central de Heredia
I was introduced to Doña Ligia, and I was so surprised at what happened next. She grabbed my hand, looked into my eyes, and began speaking to me in Spanish. I know that she was telling me what a wonderful man Gerardo is. Every time she wanted me to understand the importance of her words, her weak shaking hands squeezed harder. Doña Ligia said so many beautiful things, and it brought tears to Gerardo’s eyes. I will never forget how hard she pressed my hands while speaking slowly and with purpose – so that I would understand her every word.
Gerardo offered to make her some soup. He asked what she would like: a little meat, some vegetables, and broth. At first, she resisted, but then she gave in – she would love some homemade soup.
Gerardo drove for hours, taking me to all the places he lived. We walked along broken sidewalks and into alleys, visited schools and parks where he played. We even visited the Mercardo when Gerardo carefully chose the meat and vegetables for Doña Ligia soup, and fruits to enjoy. He bought two of everything, hoping I would try some of the delicacies from his home country.
We went to a nephew’s house to cook Doña Ligia’s soup. By the time we had finished, the day was nearly over. We dropped off the soup and the car and picked up another car from Paulo’s brother Tali. We stopped and visited with Tali, stopped by Leidy’s (Tali’s wife) store, and ate ice cream. We returned to the nephew’s house and settled into a new bed in a new place.
For Paulo, we brought car headlights, a model airplane, and razor blades. For Tali and Leidy, cheeses. And for their mother, homemade soup.
Our next stop took us to the home of Alberto and Nela, Gerardo’s nephew and niece. As life goes, it doesn’t stop to take a vacation just because your uncle comes to visit. Alberto was headed to Spain for six weeks for training, and Nela’s dad had just gone into the hospital. And in the chaos of their lives, they opened their home to us. Not only did they have a room, but they also had a fridge full of food, and they said to us, “our home is your home.” And they meant it.
We spent almost every one of our remaining nights there. We had keys to let ourselves in, lots of food to eat, and coffee to drink. They didn’t even mind that I made homemade popcorn and sometimes burned it in the pan.
Alberto and Nela have such a great relationship. They support each other, and they are on the journey together – through everything. They had a carving made that represents their commitment to helping each other: two bulls tied together with a Yugo, pulling a cart filled with wood. Neither can move by themselves but instead must move together. I hope that my journey with Gerardo will be the same. Two people working as one.
The Carving of Two Bulls
Every time I opened the front door to their home – it felt like I had shown up with nothing to give in return for such incredible hospitality. Instead, we did lots of chores around the house. Gerardo jumped right in, did their laundry, washed dishes, swept floors – I fell in love with him, even more, seeing how he found small ways to help around the house. With all the chaos in their lives, I’m sure that the little things Gerardo did were significant gifts of love.
I only got to see the family together briefly before Alberto headed out for six weeks, but I could once again see how much everyone missed and loved Gerardo, and I could see it in his eyes how much he missed his family.
For Los Bru (their nicknames of endearment), we had chocolates and cooking spices. We didn’t bring anything for Bruno, the dog – may be on the next trip. It seemed like such a small offering for such generosity.
Nephews, Nieces, and Aunts
Gerardo and I drove around Heredia, visiting as many family members as we could. We were invited over to the home of Roci and Emma for a family get-together with Gerardo’s mom, two of his sisters (Flory and Lidieth), and their daughters (Silvia and Roci) and husband (Emma).
(From Left to Right) Emma, Roci, Lidieth, Flory, Doña Flory, Gerardo, Julie, and Silvia
By now, I was more acclimated to Spanish and could follow more of the conversation. I think what I loved most about the visit with the nieces and aunts was how Gerardo’s mom and Gerardo laughed and joked with each other. We enjoyed a good meal and hung out for a while to catch up on everyone’s lives.
I gave a letter (that Gerardo helped me to translate) – to his Mom – telling her how happy her son made me and how I would cherish him every day of my life. She came back with something like, “He’s your’s now.” And we all laughed. I could see it in her face how much she loved him.
My Letter to Doña Flory
A few days later, we stopped at Diego and Julie’s house for breakfast. I met the rest of Gerardo’s nephews and nieces (Diego and Laura) and their spouses (Julie). I am so happy to be calling all of these wonderful people my family. Gerardo is so very proud of all of you and loves you so very much. Thank you for welcoming me into your homes, and letting us spend the night.
(From Left to Right) Julie, Gerardo, Nela, Diego, Julie, Flory, Laura, and Doña Flory
For the nephews, nieces, and aunts, we brought scented oils, spices, perfumes, moisturizers, and a food processor.
If you had told me before I left, never in a million years would I have believed that I was going to play basketball while staying in Costa Rica. Gerardo had coached basketball, and his former players have formed a group chat in What’s App called Mejenga (pickup game). While there, they arranged to play basketball not once but twice. And the real treat…..they let me play. It seems strange to say it that way – but at 55 and a woman playing basketball with men in their 30’s…not too many guys would be up for that – but they accepted me, and we had a fantastic time.
At one point, I was knocked to the ground, going toward the basket, and I did a perfect karate roll popping back up to my feet – and ready to play. The next day, my shoulder had a bruise that matched the flooring on the court. I guess it was my reminder of being treated like an equal. If they had taken it too easy on me, I wouldn’t have enjoyed myself. But it was just enough of a challenge, and I surprised even myself.
We didn’t bring gifts for the team, but one of the players gave us a gift. Two shirts from Costa Rica – to remember our time there. I can’t believe how much something so small meant to me – but playing basketball until I could barely walk – that is a memory I will never forget. So thanks to the Mejenga for making my trip so memorable.
Outside of family, we also visited so many people that I call Gerardo’s forever friends. We went horseback riding in the mountains in Alajuela with Maco, and then we were treated to an amazing meal at his wife’s traditional Costa Rican restaurant, Chubascos. They even hosted us for the evening in one of their romantic cottages.
The Fuego Cottage at Chubascos in Alajuela
We visited with Roberto on many occasions. We met with Roberto’s parents too. I sat on the couch with Doña Teresita and Don Guibe and listened while the Spanish words slowly left her lips. Doña Teresita spoke with purpose and at a languid pace. She was the only person I met here that I could understand nearly everything she said.
(From Left to Right) Gerardo, Julie, Roberto, and Maco
We also visited Roberto’s sister, who lives in Sarapiquí, a remote part of Costa Rica in her romantic cottage hideaway. The house was complete with a creek, bridge, and a chapel to pray. The garden was filled with the most amazing flowers and plants. It was like spending a day in a botanical garden. We had a light meal outside on the patio while listening to the spring water pass.
Ana’s Cottage in Sarapiquí
Gerardo’s forever friends welcomed me. I heard lots of stories of life before Gerardo left for the states. How rich to have such deep friendships that span decades.
For the forever friends, we brought shoes, shirts, cheeses, arts and crafts, nuts, and other gifts.
From Friendship to Sorrow
As our time in Costa Rica was coming to an end, we were invited by friends to join in a kind of celebration. Tali, Leidy, and their son Andrés were celebrating with Papi y Vicky, and we were their guests at a burger restaurant downtown. We ate a wonderful meal and even stopped for ice cream afterward. It was a gorgeous day. The sun was out, it was warm, and we were all happy to be together.
Before heading home after the celebration, we stopped back at Tali’s parents’ house to pick up the pot we used to make soup earlier in the week. Tali’s mom had since gone into the hospital and was recovering from her illness. I stood in the beautiful garden and admired the geese and ducks. Tali went inside and soon returned with the pot. We said our goodbyes, and each of us headed in a different direction. Gerardo and I returned with the pot to Los Bru and settled in for the evening.
The Front Garden at Doña Ligia’s Home
Gerardo and I were snuggling, watching a TV show when his phone started buzzing. There were lots of phone calls and Spanish words I had never heard before. I could tell something was happening, but I had to wait for Gerardo to get off the phone so he could translate.
The house that we had visited just a few short hours ago had burned down to the ground, and Tali and Paulo’s father lost his life. We rushed to our friends to help in any way that we could. I knew it was nighttime, it was cold for me, so I grabbed my coat and a blanket, and we jumped in the car.
We stood on the street for hours while the fire trucks put out the fire. We stood and watched as investigators and judges arrived to assess the scene. We were finally allowed to join the family and comfort in any way that we could. It was cold. It was dark, and we were all in shock. How quickly things in life can change from sunny days to cold dark nights. From friendship to sorrow. We had no gifts left to share; the suitcase was empty. I only had a blanket to share.
I wrapped it first around Vicky and then later around Leidy. It seemed so trivial. But it was cold, and no one knew what to say or what to do. It was hours before we returned home and to the comfort of our bed. I was numb with the reality of how quickly life can change.
Funerals and Goodbyes
When you leave on vacation, you never plan to take clothes suitable for a funeral. But the next evening, Gerardo and I headed back into Heredia one more time. Family and friends again surrounded us, but everything was so different. Roberto and his parents were there. Andres, Tali, Leidy, Paulo were all there. I didn’t know how to express my feelings in English, let alone try to find the words to console the family in Spanish.
As I close my eyes on my last night in Costa Rica, I feel the cool evening breeze upon my skin and hear the faint sounds of church bells ringing, birds that sound like rusty hinges, dogs barking, and motorbikes buzzing on the streets nearby. In this quiet and peaceful country, I found a family rich with the love of each other, and friends who would go to battle for one another.
The suitcase that we filled with small gifts of appreciation was now empty. We came with little treasures for everyone, and nothing remained. As I packed that night I thought, it isn’t really an empty suitcase. Instead, it is filled with memories, laughter, smiles, hugs, generosity, tears, and love. It was filled with compassion.
Returning to the US with a Suitcase Full of Memories
I wonder how long it will be before I return to this amazing place. I wonder how long it will be before I see Gerardo smile and laugh again as he does here. It is clear to me that he had to give up so much when he came to the US. Family and friends such as these are a gift in life, and giving them up cost him so much. He is anchored here in this small country of big hearts. I will forever look back at my time here as a life lived in two short weeks. I experienced all the emotions that life brings.
My suitcase is full.