This essay first appeared in The Tico Times 20 years ago as Pensamientos Navideños.
The coffee pickers are in the fields full-time now. I can see them on my morning walk, both in our neighbor’s field and in the giant cafetal that climbs the steep hill on the other side of the river: small human forms balancing their baskets in front of them, reaching deep into the dark foliage, stripping one branch after another, moving steadily along the rows, sure-footed on the steep slopes. As hard as this work is, it is a cheerful time. At dawn, I hear their voices calling to each other, and this bantering goes on all day, sometimes punctuated by a line of song.
Coffee season means we are approaching Christmas. For the pickers it means a few sheets of galvanized metal for the roof of the new house, school uniforms for the coming year, a new ceramic or wooden figurine for the crèche (portal), a pair of shoes.
As the coffee baskets are rapidly filled, they are dumped into sacks, and the pickers drag or shoulder their sacks to the collection point where the coffee is weighed and the colones are paid. Men, women and children – whole families – pick coffee, and these few weeks out of the year are enough to ensure relatively good economic times . . . at least for a while.
When I first came to Costa Rica I was amazed at how labor-intensive these crops are, but on such precipitous terrain no machines could do this work. Now I have grown accustomed to seeing people in the fields, and it is their cheerful calling to each other that first puts me in mind of the coming holidays – a better reminder than the sudden appearance of Salvation Army Santa Clauses on slushy city street corners, I’m thinking.
Year’s end always makes me pause and reflect on the changes in my life since moving to Costa Rica. Over the years I have learned some important lessons – far beyond losing my fear of driving on mountain roads with no guard rails, discovering the joys of communicating in a new language or adapting to the courteous ways of the people around me.
I suppose you don’t have to move to a foreign country to rewrite a life, but you do have to get away from everything familiar that binds you to your old self. Another culture is so different that it forces this rebirth much more dramatically. It is often painful, but if you choose to be open to it, let go your defenses, take joy in what’s around you, you’ll find it reflecting back at you something new, something you never knew was there, a self you never had time for before.
Here in Costa Rica I have learned that I believe profoundly in the power of family; that I can be a generous person; that a single orchid or a new-hatched hummingbird can fill me up; that being a good neighbor is better than guarding my privacy; that I have more patience than I ever thought I did; that to welcome a stranger is not a waste of time; that charity is personal; that connection with others is the most important thing in life; that personal growth is a choice and, once it starts, it will not be stopped; and that, even though what remains to me of life is less than it was when I first arrived here, I have all the time in the world.