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Learning Spanish in Costa Rica Rainforest, Learning a language with adventure
By: Jeff Booth (justin) 2012.01.02

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We woke just after dawn to the sound of an itinerant rooster strutting around the farmhouse. Magda had already been awake for several hours, bustling about the immaculately clean, simple wooden frame home in Costa Rica. The children set about getting ready for the <a href=""target="_blank">hike into the rainforest to reach the one room schoolhouse on the other side of the river.

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I rolled my sleeping bag and packed my gear. Emma shyly handed me a glass of hot coffee. Ah, Costa Rican coffee - a strong brew makes any trek seem easy. "Gracias," I said, practicing my incredibly limited Spanish. "De nada," she replied, and skipped down the dirt path with her brother Jesus, rounded the corner into the valley, and disappeared into the lush green forest.

I came to Costa Rica to learn Spanish, and some might say that a simple gracias isn't exactly fluency. No one would say that, actually. I did not learn more than a few phrases of Spanish, a fleeting sense of understanding at the conversations that flowed about me, but I did learn communication. The difference is immense. Communication, with the local Ticos, with the rainforest, with myself.

Costa Rica Rainforest Outward Bound School (CRROBS) is very proud of the fact that the "school" part of their name is well earned. Jim Rowe, the founder of the Costa Rica branch of the worldwide Outward Bound program sternly corrected me when I asked about our "guides" for the trip. "We prefer the term Instructors," he said. By the end of my stay, I understood the difference. CRROBS organizes courses, from weeklong treks to three-month sojourns that branch out of Costa Rica and reach as far south as Peru. They focus on topics like Spanish (my course was not a Spanish emphasis course, though it was part of what we learned), rainforest ecology, and leadership skills. They differentiate themselves from many other programs because they are not a tour - you carry your own pack and gear, the physical challenge is real, yet they are not a traditional classroom bombarding you with facts - you learn as much about yourself as you do the rainforest, or language skills.

My group had an auspicious start. From Volcan Irazu's sulfuric crater lake outside San Jose, we took a truck to the drop point, skirting around crumbling cliffs. Swinging wide on a turn, our truck slipped out of control and skidded to a halt, dangling over a precipice, one tire spinning uselessly. After gingerly crawling thought the back cab and watching the vehicle totter, seemingly held in place only by some thick undergrowth by the edge of the drop-off, the thought of hiking on good solid ground was more than inviting. My wish was promptly granted. Moments later we swung our CRROBS issue, army green packs onto our back, and started on the first of 40 miles of solid, torturously twisted, steep ground. For the next week we hiked, climbed, and kayaked our way from the cloud forest down to the Pacific Ocean.

Two days into my course with CRROBS and already I knew that this was nothing like any class I'd ever had before. The classroom, for one, was alternately cloud-laced coolness filtering like a ghost through the canopy, or green-filtered sunlight beating down on our hunched packs. The 13 students knew that grades were a thing of the past. Whether you passed or not depended on whether, at the end of the day, you were still standing, and had enough wherewithal to thank the Tico villagers for the food, preferably in Spanish. Kate, one of our CRROBS instructors, said that they were here to push us physically, which leads to pushing our mental boundaries. At times, I wondered if holding my 50 pound pack above my head with one hand, bracing against the current with a towline and slogging across the chest-high river was helping me with my language skills. How to say, "I'm drowning" in Spanish? Of course, the point was to never have to expand your vocabulary that way.

I did learn to say "pinto de gallo" the staple diet of rice and black beans we feasted on daily. Said it one too many times, some people thought, breakfast, lunch and dinner. Learned what "ohaglia" is, as Guillermo hiking in front of me plucked the velvety, reddish leaf off the side of the trail and handed it back, telling me to eat it. Rather citrusy, actually. Orlando, Emma's father, showed me a maize-flecked grinding stone from the now extinct Boruca Indians. We sat on his porch in the early morning, and in Spanish he explained how they would grind the corn on the small, gray, three-legged table, while six-year-old Angelica rolled the grinding stone in the shallow indentation. We talked for twenty minutes, the entire time I was unable to purely translate a single sentence, yet I understood him completely. I understood more than his words - also his smiles, demonstrations, history, and laughter.

Spanish is not the only language of the Costa Rican rainforest. It's also the cries of cicadas as dusk sets, the sharp bark of a toucan high in the trees, the rustle of wind through a canopy of Poor Man's Umbrellas, their huge green leaves whispering. The language of the rainforest is silence: sunlight breaking though storm clouds, evaporating the rain and fog rising up the valley sides in response; the dance of leaf-cutter ants by our trail, silently passing on, carrying their green leaves like we carried our green packs.

Only a few among us spoke any Spanish. Other than shouting "vamanos!" at each other to get going, or begging, "un minuto" for a rest, we spoke English to each other. We did learn to communicate to each other in different ways though. Eight hundred meters deep in the Cave of the Virgin, holding on to each other's belts and hands, headlamps off, we talked each other through the cave in pitch black. Bats swarmed around us, probably laughing at our lack of radar. We learned the language of the Sevegre River together too. Screaming instructions at each other in our kayaks, calling which of the rapids to take, trusting your kayak partner, and everyone around you, to keep a clean line and paddle hard. There's a language that develops between people in adversity together, often unspoken, but a sense of communication that is crystal clear. Whether talking by candlelight about that rough spill climbing in the tree canopy earlier that day, or matching the splashing strokes of your kayak partner, you're developing a new vocabulary.

I could go to East L.A. to learn Spanish. I could take courses at my university. But no where else would I learn the lilting curves of that beautiful language under the cool light of the moon, sitting atop a large boulder still warm from the day's sun, talking with my teacher, 10-year- old Hormidas. No where else could I learn what Hormidas had to teach me. I was writing in my journal up on the rock, some quiet time away from the group, who were bedding down and slipping into sleeping bags. Hormidas clambered up beside me. His family had built their spacious, simple home around the stones like a Frank Lloyd Wright design, but without architectural theories, simply an honest expression of how they co-existed with nature. Hormidas spoke simple Spanish for me, telling me of his 22 brothers and sisters. I tried to explain that I had a little sister the same age as his. I think he understood me. He gestured towards the valley that spread before us, an ethereal silver-green from the moonlight, telling me the name, Piedras Blancas. I wanted to ask how he felt living so isolated from towns, several day's hike to the nearest road, but as I stumbled along in broken phrases, I realized the answer was obvious. We laid back on the rock and counted fireflies together. Uno, dos, tres...

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