Retirees learn Spanish in Costa Rica
Tico folk dance on campus
Learning Spanish the fun way...
A pleasant exchange in Spanish class
Enjoying a 'baile típico'
Sunset from the lodge
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Spanish for Retirees

By Frank MacMurray

Gray panthers, you may have retired from work. But would you like to retire from winter as well? You could throw your snow shovel away and stuff your parka and mittens back in the closet. You have nothing to lose but your chains. Why not hunt for your shorts and bathing suit and go where they never heard of antifreeze?

What's that you say? You're not made out of mondy? The Nassau Hilton or the Acapulco Marriott may be alright for millionaires, but a month there at poolside would put a bad dent in the budget"

Here's a solution. Go back in time to the carefree but modest life of a student! Mornings you could study Spanish with a tutor. Afternoons you could admire the orange flowers of the poro or the yellow blossoms of the corteza amarilla trees and catch the songs of the birds on their branches. Or you could try out your newly acquired tongue with bargaining at the local market over guavas and guanabanas and a basket to put them in.

Every February for the last five years, I have left the Washington DC area in what Miami headlines like to call "winter's icy grip". I go back to college, so to speak, in Costa Rica on the campus of a school run by former Peace Corps language teachers. There I explain in halting Spanish what I did yesterday to Martha, a soft-spoken professor of around fifty. She gently corrects my errors and uses blackboard explanations to improve my tenses and genders. The class hours fly by, especially with a midmorning break for coffee and fresh pineapple and comparing notes with colleagues.

After lunch, I may do my homework at the pool, punctuating now and then by sidestroking a few lazy laps or by taking time to gaze out over the sweep of the Central Valley to the volcanoes that sleep in the far distance. Or I may decide to hop a free ride to the little village of Santa Ana, ten minutes away. Often, however, for the exercise, I will hike with classmates up over the forested hill behind the administration building and down a country land that leads to Santa Ana from above. Once there, we buy ballpoints or notebooks, check e-mail at the Internet Café, and exchange greetings with fellow students who board with families in the town. We end up with successful efforts at communicating in thirsty Spanish with the proprietors of Coco's Bar.

All too soon it is time to go back to the campus for supper at the Casona, the dormitory with individual rooms and a dining hall, where anywhere from two to ten students live at a time. There, at evening and morning meals, a sobremesa (bull session) continues, as lively as anything at college. There are gray panthers like myself who return each year, greet each other like a band of brothers and sisters and gossip and dance together at the Rancho de Macho. There are university students on semesters abroad, high schoolers on Rotarian scholarships, social workers, doctors and nurses, and those who aspire to sell computers, cheese, plastic dories, or pipelines to Hispanic America. They come from different ages and careers and for various motives. The conversation is refreshingly unexpected. A wisp of a Canadian girl entertains us with the story of her animal census job consisting of wriggling into wolves' dens, hoping against hope that nobody's home. An adventurous Kentuckian describes his weekend in Cuba, where he lost his passport and his wallet, but successfully begged on the street for cash to bribe his way out, only to end up in a jail in Panama for entering without a passport.

And there are local weekend happenings to relate. Four classmates hire a van and drive to make the three hour trip to Manuel Antonio National Park, stopping halfway at a bridge to observe a family of crocodiles luxuriating in their river home. Once arrived at the seaside jungle the travelers swim and then picnic at a white sandy beach under the shade of eucalyptus trees. A half dozen iguanas approach tentatively, in hopes of a handout of breadcrumbs. Later, lying on their backs for a siesta, the companions are treated to the sight of a troupe of white-faced Capuchin monkeys swinging from branch to branch overhead, one mother soaring into space with a baby on her back, and another leaping with a fearful young one tucked under her arm.

The bird enthusiasts take their binoculars to the misty cloud forest of Monteverde. They glimpse wild turkey, toucans, mot mots, and scores of hummingbirds. And they even catch views of a pair of those legendary birds, the elusive quetzals, their blue and red finery shining high among the topmost leaves of wild avocado trees. They succumb to the lure of a nocturnal tour with a biologist, to encounter creatures of the night…owls, bats, and perhaps a kinkajou. Far down a forest path they find the flashlights beginning to fail, one by one, and they wonder what will happen when the last one blinks out and leaves them in midnight blackness a mile from the nearest gleam of night. It is a blessing that the batteries in the final torch are particularly long-lived and last until they stumble out of the jungle.

Another group spends a morning guided by a native into the green mansions of the rain forest to see the occasional shaft of sunlight reflecting off the bright blue wings of a morpho butterfly and hear howler monkeys roaring in distant groves of cacaos. In the afternoon, they cruise the Sarapiqui River in a motorboat and spot iguanas sunning themselves on tree branches and a lazy sloth hanging upside down, seemingly fast asleep and oblivious to the music of the oropendolas.

Once we have shared the events of the weekend at Monday breakfast, we are off to our classrooms, fifty yards away, to repeat the process. But this time we must speak "en español" to our ever vigilantly correcting professors.

You will return from your month in the sun with more than your sunburn. You will have grown to know with fondness some of your teachers as well as other citizens of your temporarily adopted country. You will have feasted on fresh pineapples, papayas and mangoes. You will have admired the brilliance of newly encountered butterflies, blossoms and birds. And when you arrive back home, you will have the pleasure of enlarging your acquaintance of the Spanish speakers who play an ever more prominent role in your community.

Those are quite some accomplishments to gain in return for the price of an airline ticket and eighty dollars a day per person for tuition, food and lodging.

And there is one more benefit. You will have outwitted the worst of the winter, and spring will be near.

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