La Llegada: Arriving at El Coco

I’m sharing the following excerpt from my book manuscript to give you a glimpse of what it was like for me to arrive in Costa Rica when I was a little girl.  I tell it in the voice of my little girl self, so be prepared for it to have a child-like feel.

Before there was only ocean and clouds, but now I can see great green mountains and yellow flowering trees. We have been flying for about five hours, but I am excited because we are flying low, so I know it is only a few more minutes before we are on the ground. It’s been a long trip.

First, we drove for two days to get to Miami. We spent the night in a motel near the airport, and I had to get up really early this morning. I don’t remember much about this part of the trip except that my daddy was sad when he waved goodbye to us as we got on the Lacsa plane and he got ready to drive back to Tennessee.

The hard landing at the new El Coco airport (later named Juan Santamaría) is bouncy because of the strong wind, but it doesn’t scare me. I’m only five, but I’ve been making this trip every year since I was a few months old and I love plane trips.

My face is pressed up against the cloudy plastic covering the little airplane window. I’m searching for my Abuela’s smiling face in the crowd that’s waving from the airport’s outdoor decks and I can hardly wait to get off the plane.

The stairway is rolled up to the plane and we step out into blinding sunshine. I squint my eyes as I go down the stairs and across the tarmac. Everybody is looking for their own families. Mama holds on tightly to my hand as we are funneled inside with the other passengers. It’s darker in here but it’s really hot and noisy. Men are putting the suitcases in a row along one side. We find ours and a man picks them up and takes them to a counter for us. After mama shows our passports to another man, we head for the doorway and make our way outside.

There are so many people shouting in Spanish, offering taxi service, calling out names, carrying suitcases and packages. It’s hard to get through. Everybody is hugging and kissing and chattering loudly, too excited to wait a single second to start catching up with loved ones who have been gone too long.

We push past them and into loving arms. My mother and I have arrived in San Jose, Costa Rica to spend a month with my grandparents, Abuela Mencha and Abuelo Carlos.

My great aunt, Tía Carmen and her husband, Mingo brought my Abuela to the airport to pick us up, and we all pile into their little car for the ride home. Abuela pulls me onto her lap and I lean happily into her shoulder and look out the window. It’s been a year since our last visit, and everybody’s talking at once. My mama is happy to be back home, and I am happy to be where it’s always summer and I have lots of cousins to play with.

Mingo drives slowly on the winding roads from the airport through San Joaquín de Flores, Heredia, and Santo Domingo, so it takes a while to get to Abuela’s house in San Juan de Tibás.

We can see people on the sidewalk watching for us many blocks before we pull up to the house where my Abuelo Carlos and other relatives are waiting. After all the hugs and kisses, and “you’re so big” greetings, I manage to get into the house.

While everyone is coming in the front with our luggage, I go out the back door into the walled-in garden to the little open sided, tile-roofed casita where I like to play. It contains a small table flanked by two Adirondack chairs and it’s usually my Abuelo’s outdoor reading room, but to me, it’s a playhouse.

Around the edges of the patio there are lots of red impatiens with their fat little seed pods called chanchitos, or little pigs. I squeeze a couple of them to see if I can make them pop and scatter their tiny brown seeds. Then I pick some petals, lick them, and stick them on my nails to make it look like I have long red fingernails. I can’t do all my fingers, though, because it’s hard to put them on both hands by yourself. I run back into the house to show mama my red nails. Lunch is almost ready, so after everyone admires my “nails”, I skip through the dining room and back down the hall to wash up.

I always sit in the same place on the side of the table and I pull myself up onto the cushion that someone has placed on my chair.

I am suddenly starving! I want some of everything! I start with a fresh tortilla from the pile that is wrapped in a square of soft plantain leaf in a napkin-lined tortilla basket. I love the faint leafy smell on the warm tortilla. These aromas mix with those of rich garlicky black beans, red pepper flecked rice, plátanos maduros (sweet plantains), and cilantro laced picadillos (chopped vegetable dishes). I always have hot agua dulce at lunch time, which I make by pouring dark cane syrup into my cup and topping it with hot water, both of which are on the table in little pitchers on a small tray. Mmmmm. I love agua dulce and sigh happily as I drink it. Abuela laughs at how much dulce I use but nobody scolds me.

Everybody’s still talking, but it’s just the four of us now so it’s much quieter. Phone calls are expensive and only made on holidays or when something really important comes up, so my mother and her parents haven’t really talked for a long time.

Mama asks about different cousins and friends, and Abuela tells her all she can about the new marriages, new babies, and so on. Since my abuela has nine siblings, there are dozens of cousins and plenty of family news to catch up with.

Abuelo Carlos is a very quiet man and says little. After he finishes his lunch he hugs and kisses us all good-bye because he has to go back to work at the electric company where he is an accountant.

By the time lunch is finished I’m sleepy and ready for a nap. An hour and a half later I wake up to the delicious smell of fresh coffee. I smile when I see mama waking up from her nap in the bed beside mine. We share a few moments of sleepy contentment before we get up and head back to the table for afternoon coffee.

A rectangular tin of assorted galletas Pozuelo (Pozuelo brand cookies) is on the table, and I take a long time to pick out the ones I want. Galletas María are my favorite. I like to dunk them in my café con leche (that is really mostly leche con café), and it makes my Abuela laugh when I have to use a spoon to get cookie pieces out of the bottom of my cup.

When I finish, I ask to go out and see who I can find.

I head toward a house only two doors down. I can’t reach the doorbell, so I knock as loud as I can and call out “upe!” which is sort of a “yoo-hoo–anybody home?” equivalent.

One of my mother’s cousins opens the door and swoops me up in a combination hug and tickling attack. This is her standard welcome and I know to expect it. I squeal again and again, begging for a moment to catch my breath. I finally escape into the great room toward the back of the house where everybody else is.

Not many people have televisions in those days, but there’s one here, so as the afternoon cartoon shows begin, several of my cousins who live nearby arrive. They’re surprised to find me here. It has been a long time since we last saw each another and we’re all a little shy, so at first we are unnaturally quiet. We pretend to pay close attention to the cartoons, but before long we’re all laughing and acting silly together, and the time I’ve been gone melts away.

This was how I spent most of my afternoons for a month each year, and unsurprisingly, the stage was being set for me to associate travel with excitement and joyous anticipation, and Costa Rica with feelings of love, family, and contentment.

Pura Vida!

The images above are of me with my mother and scenes from the airport of the 1960’s