Ten Years of Fig Trees (el antiguo higuerón)

Little Duck.

Dear Small Busy Person: It’s typical of parenthood that one of the reasons I started this project was to mark my ten-year anniversary in Costa Rica, but the date itself blew by in a bleary-eyed blur three months ago and I never posted what I had written about it. But you’re asleep now, with Minnie Mouse under one arm and Little Duck under the other, so I’d better get it out before ten years becomes twenty.

Ten years ago today, I sat on an airplane listening to the “all right” chorus of Float On by Modest Mouse, and hoping it would be. All right, that is. In the belly of the plane just beginning to break through the clouds, revealing the damp green valley below, was a suitcase holding some clothes, two paperback books, and a few other sundries. The damp green valley held no reliable work prospects and only a temporary place to leave through a former colleague. For once in my life, I had no idea what I was doing. 

Only three years before, I’d watched bug-eyed from another plane window as I caught my first glimpse of the desert landscape of Phoenix, Arizona, home of my first job. There, in a place that looked to me like the surface of Mars, I found dear friends and carved out a place for myself. Now I had uprooted everything again for no clear reason, and as I sat there on the plane, it occurred to me that maybe I was a bit of a moron. It was one of my stranger ideas, this one-way ticket I’d bought to a place I really didn’t know that well. As I sat there, I told myself: it’s ok. I can buy another ticket just as easily. Tomorrow, even. I only have to stay a little while. I’ll be here six months, tops.

Ten years later, here I am. And why? Is it because I haven’t been able to find my way back to the airport? Well, no, but that’s a fate that can be imagined, because one of the many things I didn’t yet realize about the city I was rapidly approaching was that there were no street names or numbers. As most any casual tourist quickly learns, the country is full of paragraph-length directions full of phrases like “200 meters south of such-and-such church,” or “100 meters southwest of the place where don Quincho killed that one-legged chicken that one time.” As I mentioned here before, I learned this a few days after my plane touched down, when I foolishly ventured into San José armed only with a street name, when what I needed was a Tico-style address (and possibly a set of brass knuckles, since I ended up wandering aimlessly through cracktown). It didn’t take me long to realize that I was lost, on many levels. I missed my friends. I missed my family. I missed my job and the life I had built. I had no sense of direction – but then again, that was precisely why I’d gotten on that plane on the first place. When in doubt, roll the dice. I hoped that maybe, taking a leap of faith would show me where I needed to go.

The house we live in, your first home, can be found through various landmarks. One of them is, or used to be, the Super Sindy, which was our neighborhood grocery store and a spectacularly odd place. It had a gym above the produce section (creating an uncomfortable proximity between my lettuce leaves and thickset guys dripping with sweat and Plastigel), a video store above the cleaning products, and very odd seasonal displays that once included a Santa Claus mannequin stuck into a tent and surrounded with empty beer cans to promote a summer camping-goods sale. One fine day, the Super Sindy was bought out by the national chain, and shortly afterwards, when I gave our address, the taxi driver corrected me: “el antiguo Super Sindy.” I was elated. The old Super Sindy! I had ARRIVED! I had stayed here long enough to see something become “el antiguo”!

The most famous “old” address in our neck of the woods is the higuerón. When I arrived in this part of town, it had recently been cut down, so everything was given in meters from the old fig tree – el antiguo higuerón. But then it grew back again, so we’re back to “del higuerón 150 al sur.” The higuerón looms large in Costa Rican postal lore. I once set up interviews for an reporter doing a story on this very issue for the L.A. Times. She quoted the Correos de Costa Rica director as saying that Costa Rica needs to transform its system, to modernize, to change with the times: “We have to stop thinking about the fig tree.”

Stop thinking about the fig tree. He has a point, of course, and Costa Rica certainly deserves a working postal system, but one reason that changes are so tough to implement is that the old way is dearly beloved – and I understand that, too. The Super Sindy and the fig tree made me feel at home. To this day, when a taxi driver makes fun of my accent, I comfort myself by pulling out all the stops and giving him an old-school address, referencing sodas and pulperías that were demolished long before I ever arrived here. It’s a language, an insiders’ code, and when you’re an outsider, these things ease your homesickness in a unique way.

So, to paraphrase Rent, how do I measure ten years? In cups of really good coffee, certainly. In a decade-long, slow, eventually delicious relaxing. In aguaceros, dichos, trámites, presas and epiphanies. I have lived here long enough for that one suitcase to sprout, like one of those magic sponges, into a houseful of books and photos and an Obama chia pet and tiny baby socks and Minnie Mouse and Little Duck. Long enough for a potato field and a blue river to clear my head. Long enough to fall in love, and out of love, and in again. I’m not talking about your father, which was a gradual but unidirectional fall, no backsies. I’m talking about the country. I adored its gorgeous surface, then discovered its seamy underbelly, then came to love it again in a way that’s real, like a marriage. And it is a marriage. It is the conscious choice of another. It is a choice that, to survive, must go beyond the uninformed thrill, must take into account the potholes and bureaucracy and keep on keeping on. It is a choice whose rewards are incalculable and astonishing.

Long enough for Santa Claus to pass out in a tent and, presumably, recover (although if Christmas ever falls short of your expectations, I’m telling you it’s because Santa Claus got drunk at the Super Sindy).

Long enough for a fig tree to be cut down, and to grow again.

Long enough for you to arrive. And that’s the thing. If the girl on the plane could have seen you coming, way off in the distance, she would have forgiven herself her foolish one-way ticket, which is why every life needs one of those (including yours, someday). As the wheels touched down, she would have thought: well, all right then. All right. All right.

2 thoughts on “Ten Years of Fig Trees (el antiguo higuerón)

  1. I just found your website (via Tico Times) and am an instant fan! I also came to Costa Rica almost 10 years ago and many of your reflections are such duplicates of my own! I think I should start memorializing (in an orderly fashion – I have little notes and posts on Facebook, post-its everywhere!) what it has meant to leave the states and become part of this wonderful Tico culture. Thanks for the inspiration! Sallyrose Nava aka Grintica as my friends in Alajuelita call me!!


    1. Thanks so much, “Grintica” (great nickname). If you do anything online to share your thoughts and reflections, please let me know so I can follow you! I really appreciate the comment…


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