International Studies & Programs

A Balancing Act

A Balancing Act

By: Jackie Guzman

Through my fifteen-week stay in Costa Rica, I quickly learned the importance of balance in all aspects of life – something that Ticos (the nickname Costa Ricans have affectionately given themselves) know all too well.

I can recall so many instances where being more balanced would have been valuable. For instance, when planning my first trip. We didn’t have a free weekend until a full month into the program, and my friend Morgan and I decided we would pack up for the beach. The week leading up to our trip was full of planning: how to get there, where to stay, how much spending money to bring, what to pack... the list of considerations seemed endless, only made worse by our anxiety from having to navigate the public transportation system by ourselves for the first time ever in a foreign country.

The one thing that we promised ourselves would not be the cause of any stress was food. We went to the market before our weekend trip and bought all the fresh fruit we could carry: mangos, berries, pineapple, bananas... we were set for a weekend of relaxation and did not want to spend big bucks on touristy restaurants. We woke at 7am that Saturday morning, gathered our belongings, and began our trek to the bus stop, dragging our heavy bags of fruit behind us. We took two taxis and two buses before we got to our final destination. We entered the kitchen of the beach house where we were staying, ready to finally unwind after a long day of travel. We opened our bags that we had been lugging around all day and, lo and behold, our fruits had turned to mush! They were warm and sticky and we had a hard time separating what was edible from what was not. We salvaged what we could and decided to cut some pineapple and mango

before they got any worse. We vowed never again to waste so much time and energy on something as fragile as fruit and laughed after realizing there was a grocery store up the block and rows of mango trees along the sidewalks.

The longer I stayed in Costa Rica, the more I recognized the importance of achieving balance. This idea was especially illuminated as I worked on my senior thesis on Costa Rica’s goal to become carbon neutral. My job was to travel around the country to interview community leaders to discover what their strategies were to achieve greater environmental sustainability. One answer that resonated across the board was trying to achieve balance in all ways: relying on fossil-fuel transportation while trying to use the least of it as possible, providing quality service while minimizing the use of natural resources, making a living while prioritizing the environment over money. Quickly I realized that trying to balance opposites was not just the concern of a few, but something that has been ingrained into Costa Rican culture.

Take the concept of a lazy Sunday: this idea could mean many things to an American, namely sleeping until noon, staying in PJs all day, maybe binge-watching Netflix and ordering in pizza. This serves as a stark contrast to my experience in Costa Rica.

On Sundays my host mom, Lilly, would go to the farmer’s market and I accompanied her whenever I could. We would wake up at 5am to the sound of roosters (mostly just coming from her pet parrot, Lola). We would quickly get ready and wait for her sister – I guess you could call her my host-aunt, Ana. The two women would meet in the street and begin wheeling the same mini-carts they’ve been using weekly since the market first opened 20 years ago.

Normally, we would spend an hour or two there, buying our groceries but also socializing with all the neighbors that Lilly might not have seen since last Sunday and may not see again until next. Here, they get their local news, taunt each other for supporting this week’s losing

soccer team, congratulate each other on their latest feats, or send condolences to each other’s loved ones. Some ask if I’m related to Lilly (“she has that one dimple just like your cousin, doesn’t she?” they say). Lilly jokes and says yes, I’m her American daughter.

We exchange light conversation for heavy produce and finally make our way back home with loaded carts and empty stomachs. Together, we put away the groceries and Lilly instantly gets to work in the kitchen. When breakfast is ready, she calls down her son and family, who live in the complex above us. There are four of them: Andres and his wife, Arleth, along with their two kids. The kids come down in their PJs, eyes still droopy from having just woken up.

Pretty soon, all six of us (seven if you count Lola – remember that parrot?) are gathered around the table, talking, laughing, and eating until our stomachs can truly hold no more. Sundays are the only days that we are all able to share a meal together, so we each have at least a week’s worth of stories to share.

One by one, we all start to clean up our dishes and put away the leftovers. Afterwards, with an empty afternoon still ahead of us, Arleth and I decide to join her kids in playing games. We spend three or four hours playing Jenga and teaching each other card games. The front door is left open and we take breaks whenever something interesting passes by: maybe bulls carrying traditional carriages or a neighbor stepping in to say hello.

As the afternoon lights begin to fade, Arleth’s youngest brother, Roy, stops by to see what we’re up to – with an additional card player we’re able to launch into even more rounds of games. This goes on until the sun has almost set, about 5pm, and it’s now time for dinner. Lilly has already begun to prepare the next meal; today, it’s thinly sliced steak topped with a fresh passion fruit sauce, next to a salad sprinkled with farmer’s market strawberries and topped with a homemade anise dressing. Also on the table are fried yucca and roasted peppers. Lilly was probably a gourmet chef in another life and this is the best meal I have had in Costa Rica – maybe the best meal I have ever had.

We all eat, talk and lounge once again, and with the added company of Roy we’re able to keep the conversation going for a little while longer. Even when we think we’ve run out of things to say, they start to ask me questions about the US and I ask them about Costa Rica. Pretty soon, we realize that it’s already time for the Sunday soccer game (but don’t worry, even the TV runs on Tico Time, meaning that it’s behind schedule). Slowly, the night winds down and we each head off to bed to get ready for a big week ahead, knowing that the next Sunday won’t be too far away.

The family that I lived with were pros at living in balance; they work while resting and rest while working and their leisure time is purposefully spent building close relationships. They grocery shop with family, get to know their local farmers, support sustainable agriculture, soak in the sun while getting a morning walk, and catch up with their neighbors all in one go.

American culture often teaches us to live in extremes. We work to max productivity then find every excuse to overindulge because we deserve it after all the hard work we’ve done. Sometimes living to the extreme means trying to plan every detail of your weekend trip, down to the exact food you’ll eat and when. And sometimes those plans crumble and you’re left with an accidental smoothie in your backpack. Living in balance can show you that sometimes it’s better to let go and trust that things will work out – maybe things will go as planned, maybe they won’t, but it’s easier to adapt after the fact than it is to waste time planning for every possible outcome. As long as you have what matters most: family and friends to surround you, a place to sleep, and some food to eat – everything else will find a way of working itself out.