Exactly one mile. One mile of uneven sidewalks, painted different colors depending on whose house you are passing. Some sections mossy and slippery, some cracked, some with green peeling paint. In the mile walk between my house and the language school there is an entire social hierarchy, an entire little economy and order. I walk early in the morning, and again in the early afternoon, every day since September, and until April. On the way there, bright eyed and fresh faced, ready for the day and grateful for the cool (though sometimes thickly humid) morning air. My afternoon walk is much slower, with my brain melted like a bowl of butter in the microwave, trying to process the verbs and sentence structures we went over in class. Mornings are walked with a classmate, and now also a roommate. Afternoons are unpredictable and sometimes solo–much more time for thinking and observing.
There’s our street. 8 houses between ours and the corner. Red tiles, then yellow bricks, then a green painted cement. The man with the white house yelled at me one morning to stay off his section of sidewalk because he was repainting it, but then another morning yelled his friendly greeting just as loudly. Maybe he’s just hard of hearing and not angry at all.
The “soda” (cafe) on the corner is yellow with red rolling garage door windows. They have a sign that says they open at noon, but I’ve walked by at around 12:30 many times and the door is only rolled up slightly while someone is sweeping. Time is all relative, right? Besides, it’s not until much later in the afternoon and evening that they get busy anyway, with the park being right across the street. Ice cream, fried chicken, all sorts of snacky dishes that are unfamiliar to me still. Lots of teenagers with boyfriends and families with small children and sticky fingers grasping ice cream cones.
The teal house is next, with the most rich and perfect shade of paint in the whole neighborhood, in my humble opinion. Some day, when my hair looks good and my outfit coordinates, I want my photo with their wall as my background. Then walking through the neighborhood, there’s the normal morning bustle. Women coming from their early morning Zumba at the neighborhood gym, morning runners and dog walkers. The old men going to the panadería for their bread, newspaper and coffee. Cars driving too fast to work, but slowing down quickly for all the speed bumps that are typical in residential areas here.
Speaking of the panaderia, that is the next delight. While our corner soda may be bustling later in the day, the “Pan Por Kilo” is the hub of all the action in the early hours of the day. Oh, the sweet scents of apple pastries and pineapple turnovers and freshly baked bread and empanadas wafts to me a block away. We wait at the crosswalk, as I look longingly past the white lines and into the front door of the bakery. All I want are the coconut macaroons…the chicken empanadas…a loaf of warm bread…every morning of my life. This is the place to be, this is the place to quickly visit, to get the news, to grab some orange juice if you happen to be out. Some days I do stop, I can hardly resist. I eagerly count out my coins and hurry to join my “compañera” for the rest of our walk.
Halfway down the street is my very very favorite house. Well, not the house itself, it’s orange with black gates and colorful tiles, but is nothing remarkable. I have never once seen a human about the place. However, there is the most precious old golden retriever who lives there, and seems to just wait for people to walk by his gate. He often sticks his nose out and lets me scratch it and does that thing with his eyebrows that goldens do better than any other dog…I call him “Boo Boo” and have a little chat every morning.
There are various guards on street corners. These are not official, government or city employed guards of any sort. They are more self-appointed, and claim a street of their own and watch over it faithfully for as much of their lives as they can. In our mile to school (although in most of the surrounding neighborhoods too), the guard we happen to pass is a rather old man who carries a stick and a whistle. He’s tall and skinny and moseys about the street, visiting the neighbors and keeping an eye on things, and he kind of casually swings his stick about as he walks. Could he defend a homeowner from an intruder? Maybe? Possibly? Could or would he defend me from a mugging? No idea. But he is there every single day without fail, rain or shine, and is a predictable figure.
Then there’s the cat lady. Well, really, she’s the cat/dog/rabbit lady. My classmate and I had an entire commentary on her house all last semester. Some days there’s 14 cats upstairs on her patio and 8 dogs downstairs in the front yard. Sometimes there’s 3 cats and 10 dogs. There’s most often this super old and decrepit looking chihuahua, who just kind of looks at us sadly. Although there is a strange influx of creatures (I sometimes wonder…Chinese food? Empanadas? I don’t know the rules about that kind of thing here), there is always, without fail, a white rabbit looking forlorn and lonely in his one little perch in the corner of the yard. That brother is not getting turned into egg rolls any time soon.
And what else? There’s the Costa Rican “black ice”, which is really just the slick moss that blends in well with the old sidewalks and capable of breaking your leg just as much as real ice. There’s the pot holes that are often times so massive that people just put entire trees in them so as to warn drivers to not lose an axle. There’s a few hoarder houses, although a much rarer thing to see here than in the States. There’s always women cleaning their patios and sweeping their garage spaces, as clean floors are one of the most important things to be aware of culturally. There’s the old ladies sitting out in their chairs to watch the passersby, and the families bustling to get their children out the door and to school. There’s the tropical flowers that grow as roadside bushes, nothing special, just everyday things! Nothing special, pshaw. That’s a hibiscus. Those are gardenias. And jasmine. My mom would be proud that I recognized flowers other than roses.
Alas, we reach the back gate at school too, along with several dozen other families and students all pouring in for another day. If it is a humid morning, I am surely drenched in sweat by this time, with extraordinarily curly hair. I am just brushing the crumbs of my empanada off my shirt and adjusting my book bag and greeting my classmates. I write this, not to give a guided tour of my walk to school. I write as an act of choosing joy, of searching out the life and beauty that surrounds me daily. I am no city dweller, and often feel crowded and overwhelmed by all the sounds and smells and cement. But in my one mile twice daily, like a vitamin or a dosage dutifully taken, I practice observation, I practice gratitude, and I practice being present where God has planted me.