I feel like I am getting accustomed to being here and am losing that feeling I had of everything being new. It’s not that I won’t always be a foreigner here, that is not going to change. But I feel like I know more or less what to expect as I go through my daily routines.
This has advantages and disadvantages. The advantages, of course, are that I’m not needing to go through my day on a constant state of high alert, watching and paying attention to every single thing just to get by. That was mentally taxing and made for some silly mistakes!
When you are needing to pay strict attention to everything, sometimes you miss the obvious. Your brain just can’t process everything at that level of intensity. But there is so much to take in at the beginning that you do your best. You have to watch out for big things like where you live and how to get back there, and little things like what a telephone sounds like when a call is going through compared to not connecting. Big things like which way to look to see if traffic is coming your way, to little things like how to keep your coins and bills organized when you’re working with a new currency.
One of the first things I needed to do here was to buy shampoo and conditioner, because I had only brought enough to get me through the first couple of days. At the time, I was proud of myself because I had figured out the location of a supermarket that I could get to on my own. But when I walked in, I was instantly mesmerized by all of the different products that were there and how they were organized. Both the similarities and the differences were fascinating. I walked up and down the aisles checking out everything.
What it meant, though, was that I accidentally bought two bottles of shampoo instead of shampoo and conditioner! It’s not that I didn’t know the word for each, they’re pretty much cognates. I think it’s just that once I was finally doing a familiar task, like grabbing a product off the shelf (after quite a long time reading labels, comparing brands, and figuring out prices), my brain gave itself a little break and went into autopilot. I grabbed the bottles that were side-by-side on the shelf, not even noticing that they were both identical. Since I have heard that conditioner doesn’t help much here anyway because of the humidity (and the desire to get out of the shower as quickly as possible), I have just been going without conditioner. But I have more shampoo than I need!
The early days were filled with those kind of mistakes. Right before I left, I had listed to a This American Life podcast that had an old episode with David Sedaris, when he was living in Paris. He said something like being a foreigner means suffering countless little humiliations as you go through your day. It means altering what you do sometimes in favor of routes, products, or people that are easy, familiar, or nice. This is exactly what I felt like at first, and I had to remind myself that it was totally normal.
Riding the bus had me in a constant state of high alert. I had this borderline panicky feeling that I was being whisked off at high speeds to parts unknown. This was made worse because I didn’t know what the different places were called, or where any one place was in relation to another. Even if I asked somebody, I might get an answer that was full of locations that means nothing to me. I had to remind myself all the time to relax, because even if I was on the wrong bus and heading in the wrong direction, I could always get back on a bus heading the other way, or at worst get in a cab and get back home that way. But I studied, studied, studied all of the landmarks as they went by, and then went home and studied Google maps.
Compare that to yesterday. I had to get out to Sabanilla, and then to Pavas, and I hadn’t been to either place before. First of all, I counted it as a victory that I knew I needed to get to Sabanilla at all. The student’s “cantón” was listed as Montes de Oca. And even though I haven’t been there before, I knew enough to look at the “address” to find a more specific location. In this case, the house was within a kilometer of the iglesia de Sabanilla. And every little town has a catholic church and a park more or less at the center. So I was heading towards the center of Sabanilla, clearly. Google helped me out, because somebody had uploaded a picture of the church so that I would recognize it when I went by (we were likely to go past several different churches, and they don’t all have signs).
So I knew that I would need to get downtown and board a bus to Sabanilla. I couldn’t see any Sabanilla stops on the map, but I knew it was close to San Pedro, and I was familiar with those buses. Also, the local buses that are going to a similar part of town all tend to leave from the same general area. So I went to the San Pedro bus stop. I noticed that none of the buses on that block said Sabanilla, so I asked the bus monitor guy. Sabanilla buses were around the corner – easy!
I am getting familiar enough with the area that I can watch for my own landmarks, I recognized San Pedro, of course, and knew enough about scale that I had a sense of when we should be getting into Sabanilla. Because of that, I hadn’t asked the driver anything when I got on the bus, and wasn’t needing to count on anybody to tell me when to get off. I did have a minor feeling of panic that maybe the bus wouldn’t go past the church (which is utterly silly, since that would be the center of town), or that I had missed it somehow, but I was able to push that feeling aside fairly easily and trust that I knew what I was doing.
Sure enough, some of the businesses started having “Sabanilla” in their name, and after a few more minutes the church came into sight. Then, the landmark that I had decided would be my cue to get off the bus. I was there! I did need to call the family to get directions from that point, but I think that’s par for the course when visiting anybody around here.
Getting to Pavas later was a similar experience. I knew what direction it was from downtown, and figured that the buses would leave from the area of the Coca Cola bus terminal. So I headed over there, and asked when I got close. Again, I was a block away from the bus stop when I asked. On the next block, there was a line of people at the bus stop. I asked the woman in front of me, and it wasn’t a Pavas bus, but a Lomas bus.
I still don’t know where Lomas is, because I haven’t needed to, but I know that I’ve seen both bus lines in the same general area, and I also knew that the place I was going wasn’t that far away, so they probably split off after my destination. With that knowledge, I was content to just get on the bus. I could always get back off if I needed to. But the woman wanted to check in. I wasn’t trying to get to downtown Pavas, was I? I described my destination by the closest landmark I knew, and she nodded. As I had suspected, this bus would work just fine.
So, it’s not that I don’t need to do my homework as I am planning my trips for the day. I still study the maps at home, just not as much, and I bring my notepad with little notes in it so that I have a reference when I need it when I’m out. But once I am out and about, I don’t need that super high level of concentration to do what I need to do. I am not as likely to sit down on a seat with gum stuck to it because I am so busy studying the dynamics of bus seating that I am paying attention to every little thing about the bus other than the condition of the seat.
That’s not to say I don’t miss my stop sometimes. On Monday I went past my home bus stop by accident, and it’s not the first time I’ve done that. When it’s dark and rainy and the windows fog up, sometimes it’s hard for me to tell the difference between the stop where I need to get off and the one right before it. And getting off too soon means that I have to walk past a busy gas station with lots of cars turning in. So I waited, and ended up going too far. That’s a pain because I then have to walk back down and up a hill, and over a bridge to get to where I need to go. But it’s also not the end of the world either.
Of course, now that I’ve said all of this out loud, I may be setting myself up for getting completely and hopelessly lost. That’s the way things work, right? Overconfidence can lead to trouble! Today, I need to head to San Rafael de Arriba, and I am pretty sure that I know how to get there, even though I’ve never been. We will see!