Since our previous blog we have begun to taste the flavor of Costa Rica. We have eaten more gallo pinto (rice and beans), seen more smiling Ticos (Costa Ricans), and heard more “pura vida” as we pass by towns on bicycle. Pura vida, which translates directly to “pure life,” has become the slogan of Costa Rica, the small country of 4.8 million whose inhabitants supposedly rank among the happiest in the world. Here the locals sport mustaches and more Caucasian complexions, owing to their primarily Spanish roots. And indeed, they seem to be happy; spending time outside, walking hand-in-hand, laughing, exercising, enjoying fresh fruits and vegetables from their lush countryside.
We took note of these cultural themes and more as we made our coastal exit the day after Thanksgiving, leaving the Pacific behind us and climbing a small mountain range before entering Pérez Zeledón. In the valley rests the small city of San Isidro, which for its lack of tourists and strong local roots David dubs “a totally Tico-Town.” Here we found familiar company with bomberos, firefighters. Before we knew it, we were offered showers, coffee, bread, pinneapple jam, rice, and lots of good company.
The next day Isaac Mena picked us up. Isaac is a convicted Christian with Mennonite roots who is part of a church community near the small town of Santiago de San Pedro. We heard about him through Jon and Lars, 2 bike tourists who went down to Mennonite World Conference in 2009. They met him coincidentally while stopping at a market in Quepos and striking up a conversation with the plain-dressed Mennonite guy (Isaac) selling sweet breads, pies and rolls. Isaac and his wife Gloria fed us with a scrumptious mix of Costa Rican rice and beans and US-American-style chicken and mashed potatoes. That night our conversation led us to compare our Mennonite backgrounds in very different contexts. In the fresh morning following, with blue sky and gentle breeze, we drove to their small church overlooking the valley. What a refreshing worship time! It was the first time we had sang 4-part harmony in worship since Paraguay. The timbre of the voices reminded Levi of some childhood hymn sings in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The sermon was spoken slowly and clearly, so we understood everything. We were impressed by the open attitude of discussion and biblical study during the service.
For the other half of that Sunday, we biked halfway up the Cerro de la Muerte, or “Death Road.” The next morning the alarm rang at 4 AM and we crossed the high mountain range to enter the Costa Rican central plateau, which entailed climbing up to the highest point on the Pan-American highway at 3,300 meters above sea level (11,000 feet). It was chilly, and we felt the affects of altitude, which reminded us of our months in the Andes Mountains. Our afternoon was one big downhill, which we enjoyed thoroughly, and we arrived in Cartago about mid-afternoon. There we were met by Marisa Smucker, a Goshen College alumni who cleared the floors of her apartment at the very last minute in order to host us. Marisa has lived for more than five years in Costa Rica, and we had a good time hearing about her everyday, cross-cultural adventures while sharing cups of Abe’s special plantain milkshake. Marisa, a native Costa Rican, was adopted by a Mennonite family from Goshen, Indiana, and grew up going to Bethany School and Goshen College.
From Cartago we biked down the hill to the capital to meet more new faces and greet some familiar ones. Michael’s parents, Elena (Ellen) and Birón (Byron), as well as uncle and aunt Don and Shirley Kempf had come for a week to visit us. The four planned on jettisoning the snow and cold weather of Iowa and Nebraska for the constant spring of Costa Rica, as well as perhaps reining in their prodigal son and friends. Don and Shirley also came to visit Liliana, a committed Colombian Mennonite peace and social activist whom they had worked with in Ecuador. She now lives in San José with her Tico husband, Leonardo, and studies at a recently formed Institute of Anabaptist Theology at the University of Costa Rica. She has studied and worked with domestic violence and human trafficking for years. Her perspective was invaluable in understanding both positive aspects of Costa Rican culture (no military and widespread social services) and the underside of depression and abuse that haunts the pura vida. Meeting such people working for social change out of a commitment to Jesus’ new kingdom is always an inspiration.
It felt a bit like a Christmas family reunion when we all met at Liliana’s house in San José. We sampled the applesauce from the tree behind the Miller house in Iowa as the bikers were able to hear stories from back home and the visitors were able to hear more detail about a biking life in South and Central America. Strolling around downtown San José, Michael’s parents were able to reminisce about their Goshen College Study-Service Trimester experiences forty years ago studying Spanish in the very same modern capital city. Some of their Spanish ability resurfaced on the trip, notably when Byron was sent out across town sólo to rent a bicycle and made a few friends on the bus who helped him find his stop. Ellen got a chance to see the area where she had worked and lived in Puntarenas, and Byron got close to his old host family’s farm near Ciudad Quesada in San Carlos. The next few days were a dreamlike vacation from the sometimes harsh conditions of the road. We settled in to the comforts of family and rest on the beach and tropical forests of Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio. Those landlocked farmer-types weren’t used to the beach, however, and a big wave swept the hat and thick eyeglasses right off the surprised face of Byron. He said he had also lost his glasses in the Pacific while visiting the Costa Rican beach as a Goshen student 40 years ago, but this time there weren’t any Costa Rican kids running around to find them in the tide. Thankfully Shirley had brought another pair that were about half-strength for the man, and Byron was able to see all right and sport a feminine flair the rest of the week. But Abe, used to vacations on the beach in North Carolina, spent blissful hours riding waves and realizing his dream of befriending a Tico surfer who let him use his board. After 20 minutes of paddling and getting rocked by waves on the board, he discovered that getting to stand up and ride the surf is harder than it looks. The sloths, lizards, butterflies and damsel flies were plentiful in the humid forest next to the park’s beach, and Don, Shirley, Byron and Ellen also got a chance to see white-faced monkeys throw coconuts from trees.
While Shirley, Don, Ellen and Liliana visited Café Britt’s coffee farm, Byron changed into gym shorts to test out his commuter legs and join the bikers. The day’s ride was 95 km north from San José to where a Beachy Amish family had invited us to stay. Climbing out of the Central Valley was rough on the old man. The grade was steeper than the rolling Iowa hills his legs were used to; every break up the mountain found him guzzling water, laying down and nursing his jelly-like leg muscles. But nobody can’t say he isn’t determined, and 1300 m higher we crested the ridge and started down the mountain to the flat farmland of the Beachy Amish. Byron just wouldn’t wear out, and even on the last 14 km of bumpy gravel, he led the pack of us youngsters coming into the Nisly house in Pital. And nothing felt more like home than biking into a place and having Ellen Miller wave happily from the front porch.
It takes a special type of family to welcome in seven strangers, and Duane, Ruth, Vincent and Karol were just that welcoming type. Duane is a church leader and editor of La antorcha de la verdad, a Mennonite publication with a circulation of about 220 000 in more than 40 countries. Duane, born in Hutchinson, Kansas, first visited Costa Rica in 1979 with Mennonite Voluntary Service and fell in love with the place (and with Ruth, daughter of Beachy Amish missionaries in the area). The Anabaptist-based community there has about ten churches and is especially active in its summer Bible institute for youth. Different from a colony structure, they engage with the surrounding Costa Rican culture. They actively invite any and all to their churches, using their difference in dress and lifestyle as an opportunity to give testimony to their Christian commitment. You can find more about this community in this Mennonite World Review article by John D. Roth. Duane and Ruth’s son Randall and his wife Cristina came over to talk long on the front porch about biking in the country (a growing recreational activity), feeling earthquakes, catching snakes, sharing their church identity, growing pineapple, and their one chance sledding while visiting the US.
We gave a heartfelt goodbye to Ellen, Byron, Shirley and Don at the Nisly house–the next time we see them will be back in Indiana. Forthcoming on the blog is a parents’ perspective on the visit in their own words.