To a Land of Simpler Life and Spanish

I didn’t know I was adaptable. (But I was.) For me, moving was a way of life.

When I talk about the places I’ve lived, the usual question is, “Wow, how was that?” My usual response is, “I don’t know—my life is all I’ve ever known.”  Since I was a child, I’ve been moving back and forth from Joplin, Missouri to a land of simpler life and Spanish. Honduras, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Panama; I’ve never known a sedentary life, so I really have nothing to compare.

My earliest memories are of traveling back and forth on ‘Mr. Continental’ and ‘Mr. American’ from Honduras to Illinois, to see Grandma and Grandpa at Christmas time and feed the cows. When we were there, we spoke English and ate Krispy Kreme donuts. When we were back home, we spoke Spanish and ate beans and tortillas. The United States meant long drives on smooth roads, stopping every few hours to eat along the I-44 corridor as we made our way down to the Missouri Ozarks. I was less than 5 years old, but I grew to recognize the McDonald’s stop outside St. Louis and the looming red insurance building that let me know we had almost made it. We would see my dad’s family in rural Kansas and spend our Sunday mornings at a massive church in rural Missouri, just across the state border. We’d sing in English and meet with friends I hadn’t seen in two years but somehow still remembered. Eventually, somebody would help load our things up into a big, white van and drive us back to the airport where we’d hop on ‘Mr. Continental’ or ‘Mr. American’ again and do the reverse. We would be greeted by friends on the Honduras side, and mentally, a switch would flip. “I’m here now.”  

There was a whole new set of things that made Honduras, Honduras. I remember red ceramic floors and wrought-iron staircases. I remember going to Kindergarten and using my lack of language to my advantage. I would do what I wanted and cause all sorts of trouble for my teachers. (My apologies to those kind women.) I remember speaking in English at home and Spanish everywhere else. I remember spending our Christmas and holidays with other missionary friends, often staying up late into the night to the sound of fireworks being set off all over the country. I remember going to a grocery store called “Yip,” and I remember showing up after Hurricane Mitch and hearing that Yip wasn’t there anymore—at least not for a while. I remember going to churches with dirt floors and wooden benches. I remember the dark-haired, brown-skinned women who would make us bean sandwiches with natilla, a kind of salty sour cream that you just can’t replicate. I remember eating those and sipping on banana soda in a bag. Or maybe there wasn’t banana, so we drank Coke instead. We called it “Coke in a baggie.” It was a favorite. I don’t know what my Joplin friends were doing, probably sitting on carpets, going to church with soft, cushy chairs, and drinking regular Coke—from a cup.

I remember bringing in the New Year the night of December 31st, 1999. I didn’t understand why the hundreds of people who had gathered with us were so excited. I didn’t know what a millennium was, but I guessed that it was important. I watched them ring it in with cries of “Brindis!”, and I remember looking up at the night sky in a cracked-tile, open-air courtyard and knowing that my family would be moving back to the United States soon, this time in a different kind of way.

I remember feeling leg pain around that time. And I remember hearing from a specialist that we would have to move back to the US to receive treatment for my hip. So we did.

But that wasn’t weird. That was just life. You moved. I’d been moving almost every year since I could remember—Christmas, birthdays, summer vacation—you name the occasion and we had probably flown back for it. The only difference was that this time, we didn’t fly back. Home changed, and it relocated to the USA. That meant a new school, new faces, new routines, new languages—but really, what had changed? New was what I was used to. (I’ve counted how many houses I’ve lived in—it’s over 15, and that’s not counting quick stays. The record time in one house? Three years.)  

It came as no surprise to hear that, in the summer of 2004, we’d be moving to Costa Rica.  

This is where the questions usually come in.  

“Was that hard for you?”

No, it really wasn’t. Moving was all I knew. I remember asking my mom if there would be turtles. (I liked turtles at the time.) She told me there would be, and I was content. You didn’t have to ask me if I was ready to leave my 4th-grade life behind. At this point, I went where my family took me. Airports were my home. Flying was my most familiar activity. I wasn’t leaving anything behind. I was already living it.

Life would continue to be fluid, and we would keep making the hop over the pond, this time between Joplin and Costa Rica. In Costa Rica, we drank coffee and ate fresh bread and cheese, purchased just minutes ago from street corner bakeries. We went to shopping malls with terraces overlooking lush green mountains. We made friends who spoke Spanish and learned all of the little tiquicias that made the people unique. We learned to shrug off months of unrelenting rain, and to gloat in the months of warm, unending sunshine. We went to beaches on day trips, and visited volcanoes when we felt more adventurous. I fell in love with Spanish and mastered it like it was my mother tongue. Costa Rica quickly became home. And it wasn’t hard. Because unbeknownst to me, making any place home was something I’d been wired to do from the very beginning.

I’m living in Joplin now, where I teach English as a Second Language to kids who are growing up just like I did. I never knew I’d be the one to look at 5th-grade boys who had picked up and left everything and say, “I know how that feels.” But I do every day. As I watch them learn English I think, “I’ve been there.” As I watch them adapt, I think, “I get you.” My heart swells with pride, and in a world where it may feel like no one understands, I want to tell them, “I understand,” because I do.

I didn’t know I was adaptable. (But I was.) For me, moving was a way of life.

*Brindis: Cheers! In Spanish
*Tiquicias: Costa Rican sayings and customs