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“Hola, ¿Dónde esta el éxito oeste?” Hi, where is the west exit? At least, that’s what I thought I said. However, based on the utterly confused look on the butcher’s face, I had already displayed my lack of Spanish language expertise a mere twenty-four hours after landing in Costa Rica.
Since the plane touched down, uncountable moments had flown by, each as unique as the next, like snowflakes in an endless blizzard. The next morning, I found myself in the dining hall for typical Costa Rican breakfast of gallo pinto, eggs and fresh fruit, eagerly awaiting the day’s adventures with my twelve other groupmates. When our group leaders cleared their throats and stood up to explain what was in store for us, an enraptured hush fell over the dining room (with the exception of the tourist couple in the far corner chatting away). It being the first day, I had no idea what to expect, but I was excited to find out. However, my nervous excitement turned to pure anxiety when I heard, “You will be split up into groups of three or four today, and each group has a few things to find, such as a type of food. It’s like a treasure hunt!” As a kid, I had not taken part in a multitude of treasure hunts, but those that I had participated in certainly did not involve being thrust into a marketplace in the capital city of Costa Rica with a disappointingly small Spanish vocabulary and no outside assistance. The day’s task certainly was not encompassed in my comfort zone. My feelings of apprehension about the day’s mission were reflected on the faces of my peers; their wide-open eyes displayed worry, shock and even fear.
After being given explicit directions to meet at the west exit at noon, Hannah, Raya and I set off. My shorts were weighed down by my Spanish dictionary and Costa Rican phrase book. We roamed around the market, poking our heads down the impossibly thin hallways. The view was astounding: each booth was colored in completely different style with a completely different hue, a patchwork quilt of vegetable stands and souvenir shops. A middle-aged woman wearing a dark blouse sold strange fruits from a dull red table next to a green and blue stand with Costa Rican flags and magnets on display. Our trio was able to find and purchase the first item on our list, chayote, fairly quickly. I would love to say that I whipped out unexpected linguistic expertise and single-handedly completed our checklist, but the truth is that our success was mostly due to Hannah’s Spanish experience (in fact, perhaps more than mostly). For the majority of the time, my face was buried in my phrase book, attempting to assist in the treasure hunt; more than once I looked up, only to find myself already several steps behind my partners who were moving on to the next task.
“Do either of you know what a batidor is?” Hannah asked.
“I’m not sure, but didn’t Chris say to check in a kitchen store? It might be some kind of utensil,” I replied, remembering our group leader’s advice. Following that idea, we strolled through the market trying to find a tienda de cocina. A kitchen store. We finally found the store we were looking for tucked behind a less-than-luxurious restaurant that was dimly lit with a dirty tile floor and drab brown curtains.
“¿Discúlpame, podemos ver un batidor?” Excuse me, can we see a batidor?
“Si, si. Un momento.” Yes, yes. One moment.
As the shop owner turned to find whatever a batidor was, I glanced around at the market, absorbing the atmosphere. A group of young Costa Ricans were being seated around a small dingy booth at the less-than-luxurious restaurant. At the stand across from us, two middle-aged men bargained with a shop owner for unfamiliar vegetables. Brightly coloured miniature guitars hung suspended by fishing line from the ceiling of a nearby store.
The woman faced us again, holding up a silver whisk. Thanking her, we turned and started down the street to complete our checklist. Fortunately, we only had one item left. Unfortunately, that item was to write down the words of the Costa Rican national anthem and then translate them to English.
After what felt like hours, we found a man outside a pet store that was willing to write down the words for us. His sloppy handwriting was illegible at times, but by that point we were so tired of trying that we didn’t care. Using Raya’s iPhone translating app, my phrasebook, and Hannah’s brain, we were able to translate most of the national anthem. When the work was done, we started to head back to the west exit to meet our group. Anxiously turning left and right, we looked for an exit, but couldn’t find one. Costa Ricans hustled by us, shopping for produce or fabric and giving our confused trio strange looks as the passed. Painted signs covered in Spanish writing and pictures of Costa Rican children hung above the colourful booths that filled the crowded market, but there were no exits to be found.
Eventually, Raya pointed to a big open door in the distance. “There’s an exit!” We walked towards it, stepping past a butcher’s shop and out into the sunny street. Wondering where the rest of our group was, we turned back to the entrance to the market and saw a sign reading “Entrada Este.” East Entrance. We were in the opposite corner of where we wanted to be, the furthest possible point from the meeting place. After walking back and forth all morning, certain stores and shops seemed familiar. Crossing the market, I recognized the kitchen store where we found the whisk, and several food stands. We were nearly to the designated exit when we were stopped by a Costa Rican man who wanted to help us. In choppy English, he asked where we were going. When he heard the reply “The west exit,” he set off, limping slightly as he chatted away, practicing his English. However, when we reached the “west exit” it became evident that we should have been more careful in selecting a guide: the man had brought us back to the butcher’s shop by the east exit that we had just left. Checking my watch, I was startled to see that it was nearly noon. We were supposed to be meeting the rest of the group right now! I decided to take matters into my own hands. I approached the counter and asked, in my best Spanish accent, “Hola, ¿Dónde esta el éxito oeste?” The butcher replied with nothing but a blank stare and the response, “¿Qué?” What?
I repeated the question. “¿Dónde esta el éxito oeste?” After several more repetitions and increasingly frantic hand gestures, the workers seemed to understand what I was looking for.
“¿La salida oeste?” The west exit? How could I forget? Exit was salida, not éxito! I felt a bit stupid for simply adding the “o” at the end of exit and assuming that it was the correct translation. Although I felt embarrassed that I had made such a simple mistake, I was nevertheless extremely excited that I had semi-successfully maneuvered my first independent contact with somebody who spoke absolutely no English. I knew throughout the next month I would have many more experiences like this one, and likely more difficult ones, but making my way through that particular situation gave me the confidence that I needed for the rest of the trip.
We followed the directions given by the butcher, passing vegetable stands and souvenir shops as we trudged toward our destination. Just when I was wondering what would happen if we were ridiculously late meeting our group, I looked up and saw a sign hanging from the dimly lit ceiling. La salida oeste. The west exit.