L: Oh my goodness. What HAVE we done? It’s so hot!
D: (getting out of the car with a grimace) And sandy. I hate sand. Why didn’t you tell me that there would be sand?
L: We’ve been planning to base ourselves here in Samara all along. On the Pacific coast. I told you. The idea of the heat seemed blissful when sitting in a cold English winter in the rain. I’m sure we’ll get used to it.
D: (doubtfully) It all looked less itchy on Google Earth.
L: Just look how gorgeous it is! The blue sea, the palm trees. It’s like a postcard. We’re going to love it. You can learn to surf.
D: I suppose….
L: And I can see rocks at the far end of the bay.
D: (perking up) I like rocks. Rocks means no sand.
L: We are incredibly lucky to be able to do this.
D: Yes, we are very lucky. (He mutters) And sandy….
L: So. D’you think you might be able to bear it here in paradise? As we’ve paid for two months’ rent in advance. And for a week of Spanish classes to start us off.
D: I can try….
L: That’s very brave of you. Here’s the school. Shall we go in?
The Intercultura Language School campus in Samara has an enviable waterfront location, only separated from the beach by a triple row of tall palm trees. In reception they are greeted with a smile, in Spanish, and hesitantly respond, managing to introduce themselves and confirm that they have signed up for one week. The school’s approach is total immersion, and it is taken seriously. There are pledges to be chanted and signed promising to speak only Spanish within the grounds, and notices up around the place sternly reminding people that they could be expelled for not complying.
L: (in Spanish) Err…there is very heat today?
Reception: Today? It’s what? 37C (100F) degrees? No, that’s about normal. It’s like this every day. Except in the rainy season when it’s humid too. Today, we’re lucky – there’s a breeze to cool things down a bit.
Like most of the students, they have opted to enhance their immersion experience by taking homestay accommodation with a local Spanish-only speaking family. The receptionist makes a phone call, and before long two young women arrive on a moped, bouncing down the dirt track with a toddler balanced between them. They disembark and introduce themselves.
Woman: (in Spanish) Hola! We’re your hermana-ticas (tica-sisters), and this is my niece. Are you ready to go? You have a car? Follow us.
They all get back on the scooter. D gets busy reversing the car in order to turn around. L looks towards the beach, from where appears a goddess walking towards them: a deeply bronzed, impossibly long-limbed dudette with a surfboard under one arm, wet hair streaming down her back. She passes the car, which swerves suddenly and very nearly hits a wall.
L: What the….? We have to give the car back in an hour. Don’t crash it now!
D: Sorry, got distracted. Lost concentration.
L: Sigh. Why don’t I look like that?
D: You do. You’re just a bit paler. And quite a lot shorter. And of course you’re much older than her. But otherwise you look just like that.
A kilometre west of town, Samara’s tarmac ends and they unwillingly throw up a cloud of dust as they approach. The house is squeezed between its neighbours on both sides, but stretches a long way back. It has a tin roof, which doesn’t seem to always meet the top of the walls. The enclosed front yard leads to a comfortable open-sided living area with sofas and TV, dining table, and kitchen. Whilst providing shelter from the seasonal rains, the design efficiently takes advantage of any breezes, and allows the heat of the day, and of cooking, to escape quickly. Beyond, they are led through a warren of dim rooms, to their base for the week at the back of the house. It is furnished with a double bed, a single bed, and a large fan. Unlike many homestays, it also has the luxury of a private bathroom. They look around.
L: It’s lovely and clean. I’m going to unpack our clothes into piles on the smaller bed.
D: There are nails around the wall that we can hang things on too.
L: Open the curtains. What’s our view?
D: Ummm….it looks into another bedroom.
L: Oh – better keep them closed then. Never mind – we’ll only be in it when it’s dark anyway.
D: Without an outside window, the bugs and mozzies won’t get in.
L: Good point. And the room’s well lit.
They glance at the bulb hanging from the ceiling which is swinging gently in the breeze from the fan.
L tests the shower.
D: Remember we were warned that houses here don’t tend to have hot water.
L: In this heat, I can’t even imagine needing hot water. The pressure’s good. The water comes straight out of a pipe which is far better for washing my hair than all the half-blocked shower-heads that we’ve come across recently.
That evening, they are given an orientation tour of the school and the village of Samara, and warned of the frequency with which to expect to be fed gallo pinto (rice and black beans) by their host families. Once daily, at the very least. The school itself is well equipped, with small air-conditioned classrooms (maximum class size is 6 students), a large garden with plenty of shady seating, lockers, and outdoor showers for those coming to lessons straight from the beach. There is WIFI throughout the grounds, and one small designated outdoor area where students are allowed to speak in their mother-tongue to make a phone call or skype. There are free daily activities, in Spanish: yoga, Latin dance, Zumba, cooking, jewellery making. On a tour of the village they are shown where to find the bank, the cheapest supermarket, the doctor, the police, the tastiest tapas, and the best value surfboard hire.
They walk back in the dark. The road is teeming with unlit cyclists, pedestrians, free-range dogs and the occasional grazing horse, in addition to vehicle traffic tearing past with alarming urgency. Miraculously, it seems, there are no incidents.
Back at the house, they meet their mama-tica who has been attending a local council meeting about litter. She speaks quick-fire Spanish at them. Their hermana-tica gently interjects, slowly and clearly, whilst entertaining her tiny niece who is tapping away at a tablet with dazzling proficiency.
Mama-Tica: The weekenders are the worst. They come down from the city, spend one or two nights, leave rubbish all over the beach and then leave again. The kids are educated in school about litter nowadays, but the parents are a real problem. Fines don’t work. Nobody cares enough. But they should. The beach is our livelihood. If it’s covered in litter, what will the tourists think?
She produces freshly squeezed fruit juice, large bowls of spaghetti, and garlic bread. Not a black bean in sight. D eats hungrily. She sits at the table and watches him with evident satisfaction. The family dine separately, later.
The hermana-ticas find bicycles for them to use, to shorten the commute to and from the language school. D’s is new-looking, black and shiny. L’s is pink and child-sized with a little white basket on the front. They have no gears, and no brakes.
L: How do you stop?
D: Back-pedal. Like this.
D: It might take some getting used to.
L: Do I look ridiculous?
D: Of course not.
L: Are you ashamed of me?
D: No, I am proud of you.
L: Tell me the truth.
D: I am proud. And you look ridiculous.
On their first morning at the school, their Spanish skills are assessed separately, and they are pleased to be put into the same group. They are directed into a classroom. As they enter, D trips over a chair leg, knocks a side table and overturns a plastic tub of coloured pencils which cascade onto the floor.
L: What the…..?
D: Sorry, got distracted. Lost concentration.
There, at the whiteboard, welcoming her class for the week with a broad smile, is their profesora, the surf-goddess.
The profesora proves to be as engaging as she is beautiful. Everybody loves her, and they work hard. The classes are fun, interesting and varied – nevertheless, the week is intense. Four hours of lessons each day with two 15-minute breaks. Only Spanish is spoken in class. And during breaks. They have lunch in the school gardens and sit in the shade of the palms doing homework, speaking Spanish laboriously to each other and their fellow students throughout. It works – they learn, they practice, they remember. They progress. Their heads are stuffed so full of Spanish that there is no room for anything else.
One morning, for an exercise, they collect images from magazines. They are working together, but D has a problem.
L: (in Spanish) What’s up?
D: (in Spanish) Give me a minute. No. It’s gone. How is that possible? Oh, I’m so embarrassed.
Profesora-Goddess: (smiling supportively) “Embarazado” means pregnant. What are you trying to say?
D looks understandably startled. The class laugh gently.
D: (in Spanish) Sorry, wrong word. Look, I can’t remember their names.
L: (in Spanish) Who? Those two? That’s easy. Oh. Hang on. Errr….
They stare earnestly at their cut out pictures of two of the best known faces on the planet. Spanish whirls through their heads. No names come. They stare. They think. They open their mouths as though the words will come out. They don’t. They dig deep, and eventually excavate one, and then the other. They write them down: Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama.
Mama-Tica feeds them delicious and healthy meals throughout the week. Quantities of fresh fruit for breakfast, and a continued – almost disappointing – absence of the Tico staple of rice and beans. She returns from another council meeting, peppering them with sharp and rapid Spanish. They are getting better at grasping her words as they fly past, concentration running at full pelt to keep up with her.
Mama-Tica: The water supply is a real problem. There’s enough for now, but it hasn’t rained for two years.
They gape. Two years without rain is inconceivable to the English.
L: But the rainy season…..
Mama-Tica: Hardly any rain. Not like it’s supposed to be.
D: So where does Samara’s water come from?
Mama-Tica: Wells. There are wells. But they won’t last forever. We need to be careful, plan, conserve water, stop watering lawns and dirt roads to keep the dust down.
This they are familiar with, as in the UK, despite around 150 days of rain per year, there are regular hose-pipe bans. Mama-Tica’s attention is drawn away to her grand-daughter.
Mama-Tica: Come here, mi princesa. Come to your grandma, you beautiful treasure.
She scoops the child onto her lap.
They turn the Spanish conversation to their hermana-tica, who tells them that her sister returned to work eight weeks after giving birth. And that it was tricky – for the next three months, they had to take the baby to her restaurant for hourly breast-feeds. There is a pause. Breast-feeding is not their area of expertise. She changes the subject, and asks how they slept.
L: Very well, thank you. The bed is very comfortable.
L wants to say how unexpectedly bug-free their room is, but stays silent in case the comment would be impolite. She considers, and decides against, saying that the school had warned them to expect scorpions, but there have been none. Or relating a rather horrifying tale overheard today, of a student who woke in the night because she felt she might be being tickled by an insect. Or possibly more than one. So she turned on the light, to find her room swarming with thousands of termites who had broken through from a nest in the roof.
D: But there was a dog.
Mama-Tica: Oh yes, barking at the mapache. There was a mapache, on the roof.
They are puzzled by the word, ask for clues, make some guesses, and then look it up. In the process, D notes with dismay that their dictionary is gritty with sand from the beach.
L: Oh, right! A raccoon!
Mama-Tica nods, rocking in her chair, crooning her grand-daughter to sleep.
Mama-Tica: (softly) Mapache viene por bebé. Mapache viene por bebé.
The baby nods off happily to the murmured threats of a raccoon coming to take her away, accompanied by the rhythmic sound of D, in the yard, fastidiously brushing sand from between the pages of his book.