The first time I went to Costa Rica, my daughter and I did what most tourists do: we ran around the tourist track, stayed in hostels and rode in tourist vans. We enjoyed it all -- the giant turtles on the Tortuguero beach, snorkeling at Manuel Antonio, the lava at Arenal, the night hike at Monteverde.
My next trip to Costa Rica, I went alone, and I did something different: I studied and lived with a Costa Rican family.
An Internet search led me to a Spanish language school in San Isidro, a bustling town tucked into a mountain valley south of San Jose. I enjoyed the school and my homestay so much that I went back the next January for six weeks.
I was hooked.
This winter I tried out a new part of the country -- Nicoya, a country town in Guanacaste. Nicoya is not a tourist town, though tourists stop by on their way to the beaches on the Pacific Coast to stock up on supplies or visit the ATM machines. There's just one real tourist draw in Nicoya: a colonial church on the main square. I dropped in a couple of times to soak up the centuries. It was, as Costa Ricans say, "tranquila."
That was what I wanted out of Costa Rica: tranquilidad. For that, Nicoya was perfect.
I stayed with a family on the edge of town and walked every morning to class in the bougainvillea-draped Instituto de Guanacasteco de Idiomas. At some times of the year the school hosts groups of college students -- among them, students from IU-South Bend.
But in February, there was only one other student -- a researcher from Texas. She left after the first week, and then there was only me. I had the full attention of my teachers. Our conversations went wherever I wanted them to go -- from the Central American Free Trade Agreement to the lives of our children, with pointers on grammar and idioms along the way.
After class, I walked (slowly) through the 90-something heat into the center of town for lunch at my favorite "soda" -- a tiny restaurant, open to the street, serving inexpensive plates of rice, beans, salad, plantain, chicken, fish and wonderful fruit smoothies.
After lunch, I sometimes stayed on there for a losing game of chess with my teacher's son, an 18-year-old college student, home on vacation from university. Or I nursed a cappuccino frio in a local cafe while I studied. Or I took a siesta in my little house behind the family's house.
The Nicoya Country Club was just around a bend from the house where I stayed, and often in the late afternoon I paid $4 to swim around the little island in the pool, paddling on my back and watching clouds drift across the sky. Just beyond the pool, mangos drooped in bunches like grapes from towering trees and attracted Congo monkeys, who howled like banshees in the night.
Before and after dinner dished up by my hostess, I sat on the front porch and listened to the conversation of whoever had gathered there. Three households of extended family live on the block, and old and young drifted in and out of each other's lives. I heard Spanish as it is spoken in real life -- tumbling fast and furiously by.
These Costa Rican interludes have been for me such pleasant, inexpensive ways to learn Spanish and spend a winter month or two in someplace warm that I am surprised I have run into so few North Americans doing the same thing.
For someone traveling alone, the schools and homestays (available throughout Latin America) provide the security of knowing that if you run into problem, someone is watching out for you. They also provide temporary membership in a community. Teachers have gone out of their way to introduce me to other people in the community who shared my interests -- in my case, other writers and historians.
The families, for their part, have taken me into their lives. I have seen the love they lavish on the children, the pleasure they take in each other's company. When I leave, I take more than pictures with me. I take home a fresh perspective on how life can be lived. And I leave something behind: a little piece of my heart.
Carol Polsgrove is author of Ending British Rule in Africa: Writers in a Common Cause and professor emerita at the Indiana University School of Journalism. Her website features an interview with Costa Rican writer Fernando Contreras Castro. She can be reached at email@example.com.