Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Nov. 9, 2012

Do I know the way in San Jose?

"Ah, San Jose at last," I thought as our plane touched down.

Our flight had left Dallas an hour later than scheduled, and I was anxious to get to my destination.

Then the pilot announced we had actually landed in Liberia, Costa Rica because of heavy rain in San Jose. Rain poured down on the runway in Liberia, too, but the terrain is flatter and not as dangerous for landing. He told us he thought we would be delayed about an hour.

A collective groan could be heard. But soon we began introducing ourselves to our fellow passengers.

An hour later, the pilot said we were okayed for take-off.


Then he said we'd be delayed again - this time for at least an hour and a half.

More groaning.

And more talking with seatmates.

But before we knew it, we took off and then landed in San Jose a short 30 minutes later.

Clapping followed!

I was there to discuss possible exchange programs with the University of Costa Rica and the Technological Institute of Costa Rica. I would be spending the weekend with Eve, a friend from 32 years ago, and her husband Charles. I had a cell phone, but without the international "card," I hadn't been able to let them know we were running late. Usually I have a "Plan B," but not this time, and so I had no clue what I would do if they weren't there to meet me.

I went through customs and wound my way to the baggage claim and past the currency exchange booth. Much to my relief, Eve and Charles were waiting.

"I don't know whether I would have recognized you if your hair had been longer," Eve said.

I told her she looked the same as the last time I saw her. We laughed.

She and I worked together from 1978 through 1980 on The San Jose News, an English-language newspaper. I had seen her briefly again in 2000, when I returned to Costa Rica with a delegation from Kansas State University and the University of Kansas.

Charles drove over bumpy, winding roads to their home in Atenas, a village northwest of San Jose. I had forgotten how bad the roads could be. By the time we got to their place, it was almost midnight.

The next day, we caught up on each other's family news and reminisced about our time together on the newspaper. We spent Saturday in town and drove to Sarchi, the home of an oxcart factory, on Sunday. The drive took me back to when I lived in Costa Rica. The hairpin-turn roads were adorned along the edges with red, yellow, pink and white bougainvilleas and other tropical flowers. Our way wound through the mountains where coffee and bananas were planted on the slopes. It all felt and smelled so familiar.

But the real test of my memory would come when I went into San Jose Sunday night. The driver went past high-rise apartment buildings, new hotels, an Ashley Furniture, a Walmart and all sorts of fast-food restaurants - McDonald's, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Subway and Popeyes. When I lived there, there was a downtown McDonald's and a Kentucky Fried Chicken near my home. I was astounded by all the new businesses.

Over the course of the next few days, I met with university professors and their students. I also accompanied them to various restaurants. I met Eve's brother Javier and his girlfriend Ana Maria, who took me out to eat a couple of times.

Wherever I went, I strained my brain trying to remember what it was like when I lived there. The names of neighborhoods and nearby villages - Alajuela, Guacima, Moravia, San Pedro, Los Yoses, Heredia, Escazu - all sounded familiar. And for some reason, I remembered the directions I gave people when they wanted to come to my apartment: 100 metros al sur de La Pulperia La Luz - 100 meters south of La Luz, a small corner grocery store. But La Luz had been torn down and was replaced by a Bagelmen's.

Try as I might to connect, the city seemed like a stranger to me. I have a terrible sense of direction, so that could have been part of the problem. Or maybe it was because noise and congestion bother me more now than when I was younger.

But it may have been because in some way, I was trying to remember a sweet time of long ago - a time that can never be recaptured. First husband Jerome and I met and fell in love in San Jose. I didn't know, of course, that he would die of a brain aneurysm seven short years later.

Whatever the reason, it was disconcerting - as if my older brain were trying to connect with what my younger brain experienced those many years before.

Still, there were familiar sights, smells and tastes. The apartment building where I lived is still there. The Antojitos restaurant, where Jerome and I had our first date, still stands. Rice and beans - what locals call "gallo pinto" and literally translates as "spotted rooster" - is still a staple in Costa Ricans' diets. The fresh fruits and vegetables are as tasty and colorful as I remember them to be. The balmy climate felt delightfully familiar.

And the best part? Costa Ricans - Ticos - are still among the nicest people on the planet - as long as they aren't driving an automobile.

So did I find my way in San Jose? Not really ... not in the few days I was there. But I have a hunch that if I could spend more time, it would again seem like home to me.

Left, Charles and Eve before her nephew's recent wedding; right, Eve decorating our office Christmas tree at The San Jose News in 1978.

Gloria spoke to students in an Introduction to Journalism class at the University of Costa Rica on Oct. 30. "Community media in the U.S." was the topic.

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