Culture is an easy word but a complex concept. It’s one that we all know and readily use, but one that is not easily defined. I have been learning how much sound is connected to culture and am having to adjust to a place that is much louder, where people seem far more comfortable sharing intimate space, than what I am used to at home. So far, my brief time here has been punctuated by sound, and on my first night in Samara, I was quickly introduced to some of the profound cultural differences between my life at home and my life here.
I arrived in this small, somewhat sleepy, and dusty town after a five-hour bus ride over crudely paved roads and across mountainous terrain. The bus driver deposited me in front of my motel, Sol y Mar, and I looked at a rustic and empty restaurant that is ringed by small guest rooms tacked on to it. No one was around except two young Ticans, cleanly dressed and lounging in chairs watching an old TV. I rolled my huge suitcase along the dirt and wondered where to check in to my room. One of the young men slowly grabbed my bag unenthusiastically, handed me a key and pointed me toward room number one. No hellos, no smile, no information, no imprint of my credit card, and no “Have a Nice Day.” Having almost no Spanish at my disposal, I felt confused but could not form the questions I wanted to ask. It was as if I had walked into a movie set from an old western. This section on the outskirts of town was deserted, the buildings covered in a layer of orange film and I half expected to see a tumbleweed blowing down the road. On cue, I went into my room, a fairly bleak little space that has since grown on me, and sat on one of the bunk beds. I spent five hours on a bus to get to this? Was this where I’ll spend the next month living while I study Spanish? I looked at my luggage, the empty walls and questioned the three fat flies that cruised about the ceiling. Unfortunately, they were not talking to me either so I unpacked, washed off the travel grime, gave myself a pep talk and went out to explore the town.
I wandered down roads filled with back-packer types sporting deep tans and long dreadlocks, local mothers followed by a gaggle of kids, lone cats, and dogs cruising the outdoor restaurants hoping for a scrap of food. The sun was merciless but the beach, once I found it, was worth the walk. The waves crashed upon the shore and brightly colored towels and sunbathers dotted the landscape. Vendors were set up along the beach road, hawking everything from bottled water to macramé anklets to henna tattoos. I spent several hours meandering the unmarked roads and finally found a local soda stand to grab a beer and plate of chicken and rice. With the appropriate amount of hot salsa thrown on for good measure, my first meal in Samara passed my lips and slid easily into my empty stomach. Now, after a full two days of travel, a few hours of exploring, and a piquant meal inside me, I was ready to crash, so I made the slow walk back to my motel, ready to hit the sheets even though it was still early, about 9:00 p.m.
I usually find it hard to sleep in new places so I was lucky to slip into unconsciousness easily. The AC was blowing semi-cool are on me and the bed, while narrow and high (I chose the top bunk), was not too bad. I’m not sure what roused me initially, whether it was the sound of singing or the dull throb of a bass. All I know is my sweet, deep sleep was rudely taken from me. My bed was literally moving in response to the noise outside my door and the window and doorjamb were rocking. Dios Mio! What was going on? I sat in my bed for a moment, trying to get my bearings. Multi-colored lights played in the window and danced across my wall, keeping time with the shaking bed frame. I finally jumped down and looked out my small window onto the courtyard of the restaurant just ten feet from me. The place was packed and someone had brought in stereo speakers six feet tall in the back of a flatbed truck. It was Saturday night and my quiet, family-run pension had turned into a churning karaoke fiesta. The floor was filled with people of all ages, clapping, laughing, and shouting at the person holding the microphone. The music reverberated through my walls, wrapped itself around my tired brain, and settled in for a long night of heavy percussions, a throbbing baseline, and endless rounds of would-be singers eager to take over the makeshift karaoke stage.
Far be it from me to deny anyone a good time. I love a party as much as the next person and, on another given night, I just might have joined them. But my first night in a new place where I don’t speak the language and am exhausted from travel … well, I was not feeling very generous. With every new voice that took over the mic, I felt my frustration grow as the sound not only filled my tiny room but also penetrated my very being. How long would this party go on? And, more importantly, did this unimposing Tican cabaña turn into a pulsating singing hall every night? The thought crossed my mind, lingered in its recesses, and sent a wave of panic through me. I wondered if I had made a huge mistake. After all, I booked this place sight unseen online because it was cheap and near the school. Would every night be like this? Being a poor sleeper even on a good night, I had visions of myself a month from now, hallow-eyed, sleep deprived and slightly loco from lack of sleep and bone-searing heat. What had I gotten myself in to?
Alone in a strange place, tired beyond reason, I curled up into a ball in my new bed and closed my eyes. I tried to turn up the AC for more white noise, I wrapped a pillow around my head, and I whispered mantras to myself like “nothing lasts forever.” I let the music have its way with the room, with my mind, for there was nothing else to do. For several hours I found myself mentally checking off each new voice that began to sing (and as the night progressed, the singing got worse, due largely I think to the ratio of time to beer) and praying that bars closed at 2:00 a.m. in Costa Rica.
I don’t know what time I finally fell back to sleep or what time the music and yelling stopped. My night was one of broken dreams, sweat, and groggy confusion. I awoke to a bright sunny Sunday feeling sore and cranky. When I walked out my door In search of some dark Costa Rican café con leche to bring me back to life, there was no evidence of the night before. The restaurant was once again empty, the ceiling fans moved sleepily in circles and the dogs of the house splaying on the smooth floor tiles attempting to cool themselves. Did I dream it? Had the relentless heat gotten to me? I still didn’t have the language to ask anyone, so I drank my coffee in silence, my eyes and mouth both feeling gritty. I left the pension and started the fifteen-minute walk to the beach in search of a quiet sandy spot to rest, hopefully to sleep, far away from the noises of my home for the next month. I felt jittery and overwhelmed, a bit scared of my decision to stay in this place alone for so long. All I could do was hope each day I’d feel more at home, more tolerant of and less sensitive to the new sounds in this world, in this Latino culture, and more able to communicate with the people who inhabit this place with me.