Hogar Means Home
By Abby Bowen
I felt like I was suffocating that first night. The ache that seared through every nerve in my body screamed doubts into my mind. I wanted to buy the next plane ticket out of that place and go home. Back to my house in Colorado where my family used words I knew, and I could eavesdrop on conversations without getting a headache from the effort of translating.
I thought back to the day I had bought my ticket down to Costa Rica for this semester abroad. I had nearly had a panic attack as soon as I hit purchase, wondering if I was making a huge mistake. My Spanish was that of a toddler, I had never lived away from home, and I once got lost going to a mountain that was literally right behind my house. How was I going to survive in another country all by myself? I’d been out of the country before for mission trips, but that was always with a group I knew, with translators and people who had better navigational skills than I did. I was my own translator now and failing miserably.
In spite of my internal struggles, I appreciated the fact that my host family had been incredibly welcoming to this girl who could hardly speak their language. They lived in a small, white, and blocky house with a red metal security gate that opened into the tiny yard. The language barrier stuck its foot out to trip me as soon as the family started greeting me in Spanish and I fumbled with my suitcase and my words as I walked into their house for the first time. Thankfully, my hermano tico knew some English, so he helped translate between my mamá tica and me.
We sat down at the tall table crammed into the small kitchen near an old TV that I later realized was always playing the news or, more importantly, a soccer game. I fought back yawns and exhausted tears as we limped through introductions. I had spent the previous night in a cold airport in Houston, and exhaustion was making its home on my tongue. Even English felt like a rope that would have tangled itself around my words. Finally, they asked if I wanted to rest, and I nodded my answer and forced a pathetic response out of my lips. I locked myself in that little room barely big enough for the twin bed and freestanding closet. The tears fell fast and heavy like rocks rising from my gut that forced their way out of my eyes.
Once my roommate for the semester, Naima, arrived a few days after me, I felt like a lifeline had been thrown to me. She was practically bilingual and acted as the thin rope that connected my tin can to my host family’s on the other side of the language wall. Naima and I quickly became friends and spent most of our evenings and home laughing until we cried about everything and nothing. She not only helped me with my Spanish, but also taught me endless lessons about life. We still had our miscommunications, but these resulted in fits of laughter that spoke a thousand times more than any language ever could.
I became particularly fond of my papá tico and his antics during my stay with the family. He had a quirky sense of humor that kept us giggling throughout dinner and made me feel like I was home. He was tall, especially for a Tico, with full head of gray hair, a smile that filled the room, and the gentle demeanor of a man who works hard to provide for a family he loves. Papá tico worked for a tourist company and was gone most of the time. When he was home, though, we had our best moments as a little mixed-up family. He knew English pretty well but made sure to speak to us in Spanish unless we were having too hard of a time with it. He and our mamá tica treated us like their own.
Mamá tica was as petite as she was sassy. Her laughter echoed throughout the house after she made a joke about Papá tico, or when Naima and I would inevitably say something incredibly dumb in Spanish. She learned to talk slowly for my sake, but normally her conversations with her kids would flash through the air, and I’d be lucky to catch the tail end of a phrase before it was consumed by a response.
This little family loved so well. Fiorella, my hermana tica with a heap of dark curls, always wanted to hear about our days and our adventures on the weekend. One night, I was sitting on the step that separated the kitchen from the “upper” floor where my bedroom was located, when Papá tico put on Spanish radio. He took Fio’s hand and they twirled around on the white-tiled floor of the living room on the other side of the kitchen. Despite this intimate moment between father and daughter, I never felt like I was intruding. They spun and stepped around in perfect harmony. Fio was letting out little giggles and Papá tico promised to teach Naima and me how to dance like Ticas. Suddenly I couldn’t imagine leaving that home where love spun in circles around every inch of the interior and decorated the otherwise plain walls with its fingertips and toe-taps.
Hogar. Home. That’s what that house morphed into as the days and months passed. I found my place in their home, a place they opened up just for a couple of girls from the United States. Naima and I would spend the weekends exploring all that Costa Rica had to offer with our friends, but we always ended them with a sigh of relief as we walked into the house and Mamá tica greeted us with a motherly smile, a big hug, and “¡Mis Princesas!” 
Naima’s arrival had provided the bridge that let me cross into a sense of “home” with our host family, but it took a little more effort to find the connections between myself and so many other students. The ache that had locked me in my room the first night in Costa Rica returned when I felt alone amid the group of people alongside whom I would be spending the next four months.
I was wracked with nerves the first day I met everyone else in the program. That day passed by in a blur of names and first impressions as my brain ran in dizzy circles. I had high hopes for my progress, but as the week went on I felt more and more alone. I Skyped with my parents or best friends back home every night because I wanted someone familiar to talk to, someone who I knew. I didn’t know anyone here; they were all strangers. And strangers that I never thought would accept me for who I was or let me in enough to see who they were.
Those belly-of-rocks tears came back time and time again as the four walls of my bedroom got smaller and smaller. I struggled so desperately against these feelings of loneliness, determined that my time in Costa Rica would not be characterized by tears and claustrophobia. I didn’t fly all the way down here to be miserable, to count the remaining months until I would be home, or to wonder why I was even there.
All the optimism that had been locked away saw its open window and came sneaking back in when I determined not to let my fears and insecurities be the jury by which this trip was judged. I told myself that I would find the good in every day, that I would embrace this culture and the people I was experiencing it with, and not focus on my fears and insecurities.
It wasn’t an instant change from that I-am-an-island feeling. It took a lot of courage to step out and know those people. Part of the challenge came from the fact that I thought I was one of only a few devoted Christians in the group, and I didn’t know how my faith and beliefs would be received. I was scared to find out. Eventually, that became a known fact, and it didn’t result in the scenario of stoning and persecution I had worked up in my anxiety-filled mind. The people in the program were wildly accepting of everyone and too kind for a scenario like that to actually happen. In fact, once the word was out, it opened doors to conversations with people who were curious about my “lifestyle.” That in turn led to the connectedness I had felt was as foreign as the language I was trying to learn.
One of my new friends, Tess, asked me those deep questions every Christian wishes they had the answers to. She was unabashedly curious about Christianity, having grown up in a very unreligious home. Much of our time together was spent in theological debate, but it always ended with us having a deeper appreciation for one another. She once said something to me that made me question why I had ever been so afraid that people would know me as “The Christian.” It was after one of our many “explain-why-God-is-God-and-how-can-I-believe-that” talks, when she told me that I had changed her perspective on Christians. She said something to the effect of, “I used to think Christians were stuck-up and close-minded, but you listen to what I have to say.” Even now, when we FaceTime, it doesn’t take long for her to start asking all those questions.
Tess made me feel known. She was the bridge I needed into the rest of my relationships with people there.
The first round of Spanish classes was rough, especially for those of us in the lower levels. Our professor would say something to us and we would look around at one another, down at our books, back up at her, and make a wild guess about how to respond. We were more or less successful depending on the nonverbal cues we picked up on: A statement followed by a nod was usually a question; one followed by a gesture towards the board was usually a concept we needed to understand; and one repeated multiple times with hand gestures was definitely something we were supposed to do. Many times, we would misinterpret those cues and smile and nod instead of answering a question or doing something she asked us to do. It would take a few repeats for us to finally catch on.
Every morning before class I would run through conversations I knew would take place and rehearse my response (or Google Translate it if I didn’t know something). It was frustrating when people didn’t follow the script I had written out in my mind and asked me a different question. I needed someone holding up a cue card to give me my next line.
It was a relief to escape almost every weekend, as different groups of us students (up to 20 at a time) visited another part of Costa Rica. Our little breaks during the school day were spent scheming about where we would go and figuring out bus schedules. By the end of our time, we had made it to all seven of the country’s provinces.
The buses we took ranged from brand new to on their last wheel. We would often spend five or more hours on the bus, so we prayed hard for the good ones that had air conditioning and decent seats. Of course, one of the longest bus rides we took landed us on a bus that didn’t have air conditioning or enough seats. Despite the torment of sitting on a hot bus in black leggings with the sun beating through the window, it was one of my favorite experiences. I was surrounded by the friends I had grown close to: Brenna was squeezing out refried beans from a foil bag and munching on a red bell pepper; Jay and Tomás were dancing to some gringo music and making a general scene; and a few other “Sol-mates” were spread throughout the bus standing out against the local Tico culture.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw two local men point to Brenna and then laugh to each other. When they noticed I was listening (force of habit, I was just trying to see if I could understand), they said, “We’ve never seen anyone just eat a bag of beans like that.” I honestly don’t remember if this remark was made in English or if I have just translated it that way in my memories. They laughed again when she brought out the pepper, ripped a big chunk off of it and offered me some.
At various stops, street vendors would hop on the bus and walk up and down the aisle selling home-baked goods. The man sitting in front of us bought us some breads and said we had to try them. They had cheese in them, so Brenna, a vegan, respectfully declined the offer. The man would not have her miss out on his culture’s food, so he waved down the lady again and bought Brenna some cookies that he claimed were vegan. I guess he just really wanted her to eat something he considered normal, besides the bag of beans and the pepper.
That generous Tico summed up the attitudes of his countrymen in one simple act. Costa Ricans are known for their laid-back and helpful nature. They eagerly answered our questions about directions and would transition into broken English if they could see we didn’t understand. They showed us a way of living completely different from the one we had all grown up with in the States.
On another trip, we heard about a ratty rope swing that hung off a tree below the deck of our hostel. At midnight, a fellow hostel guest led us down to the promised rope. We had to walk down the slope that the hostel was perched against, navigating in the dark around bits of glass, rocks, and slippery mud in our bare feet. The swing hung dauntingly from a tall tree that was leaning against the constant tug of people using the rope. We took turns holding on for dear life, despite the burning of our hands, and swinging over the dark abyss that opened up underneath our feet.
The guy who showed us the rope swing was from Argentina and he was speaking Spanish with us, but he also wanted to learn English. For some reason Jay let me take the lead on trying to teach this Argentinian man some English. I spent a solid hour trying to explain why we use the words the way we do in English, using my broken Spanish to give correlations. Afterward, I realized how much my situation had changed from my insecure early days in the classroom. It was a satisfying test of how my Spanish had progressed.
Leaving the hostel that weekend was just a glimpse into how hard leaving at the end of the four months would be. When I had first arrived, I couldn’t wait to go home. I thought about it obsessively. Now, I was nearly in tears every time I thought about leaving because I wanted to stay. I wanted to keep exploring Costa Rica with these people. I wanted to keep struggling through conversations until my head hurt and I eventually had to pull out the good ol’ Google Translate app. Now, thinking about going back to a life where these 40 distinctly different people weren’t braving buses and hostel bunkbeds to see every adventure this country had to offer was unimaginable.
Forty people, four months, and a foreign language. I am still working to wrap my head around the whole experience. Home strung itself between those strangers, placed pins in places like the beaches of Manuel Antonio province, and linked together endless bus rides. The little country of Costa Rica had become a home to me. Home had started where it should, in the house with my Tico family, and then it cascaded out of those walls and spread to the 40 people who were with me when we explored new places that also became home. Leaving this hogar was just as difficult as leaving home four months earlier had been, and I poured out just as many tears.
I thought all of my communication struggles would end once I was hearing and speaking my native language again in the States with the people I knew. Yet I found myself suffocating again, but not because I was scared. No, this time it was because my words were lodging themselves in my throat and I felt like I was learning a whole other language once more.
My welcome back to the States in the Florida airport was news of a cancelled flight because the pilots were on strike. I was only one flight away from my family in Denver, but now I was stuck in an airport line for six hours while other passengers stormed the counters and demanded flights out. I felt the stress of the United States seeping into my bones and chasing away the calm mindset I was trying to keep with me. The contrast between life in Costa Rica, where every inconvenience was met with a “Pura Vida,” and the United States, where a minor mishap sent people into riot mode, left the air in my lungs feeling like cement.
The chaos of the airport was eventually reined in, and I was sent to a hotel for the night. The next day I flew out of Florida in the evening and was back home with my family before midnight.
I thought I would ease right back into the sense of “home” that I had left, but that wasn’t the case. Leaving complicates things. You realize that the you-shaped hole you stepped out of looks a little smaller when you return to it. I no longer fit because now I was carrying around bits and pieces of other people and places. Trying to communicate all this newness I was carrying with me was on the same level as trying to understand my mamá tica those first few weeks. No one would listen. I wanted to sit them down for an hour with a corkboard and red string and explain the messy journey I had just been on for the past four months. But interest usually stops after a few bits of the fun stuff like: “Here’s the time we learned how to surf, and this was the volcano that fed the hot springs we swam in for hours.” What people rarely have the patience to sit through is: “I cried this night because I missed home, but later I didn’t want to leave my new hogar.” Or, “This was the seemingly insignificant moment that spilled its remnants in my journal like it was the 8th wonder of the world.”
I eventually did find willing ears and filled them up to the brim with information. Some of the pastors at my home church were intentional with their questions and asked about everything I had been trying to explain to people since being home. That helped me figure out how to deal with the constant ache of missing my host family, while I tried to enjoy the presence of my family that I had missed so much while away. Just as I had needed Tess to truly listen to me in Costa Rica, all I really needed back in the States, I guess, was someone who was willing to sit with me while I figured out how to piece together my previous meaning of home with the new and expanded meaning I had discovered: Hogar.
© 2018 by Abby Bowen. All rights reserved.
Abby Bowen reports that her parents raised her four brothers and herself on road trips, camping trips, and family vacations. She says, “They took me across seas for the first time when I was eight years old and never discouraged my plans to be elsewhere. They really only have themselves to blame for this stir-crazy desire I have to see the world and know its cultures. I am majoring in English, with the hopes that my words will carry me across the world. I want to write in a way that allows people to understand people and places they, themselves, have never interacted with.”
 The locals in Costa Rica are called Ticos or Ticas. We added it to the end of brother, mother, sister, and father to distinguish between our host families’ and our home families’.
 My Princesses (one of many words she used to refer to us).
 His real name is Trevor, but in favor of embracing the culture, he asked us to call him by his Spanish name.
 The program was called Sol (Spanish word for sun) Education Abroad, so we were all SOLmates - bilingual pun for the win.
 Pure Life. The Costa Rican saying used for everything from a greeting to a response to a negative circumstance.