Isabel Zarate-Chacon is my host mother in Costa Rica. In a couple of days, that “is” will change to “was”.
She was born in Barrio Jesus, a tiny town in Heredia (a region in Costa Rica) where she grew up with 5 other brothers and sisters. She was the oldest of the bunch, which is why when her father died when she was nine years old, she felt a great sense of responsibility to take care of her family. Her mother, Martha, worked two jobs and after finishing 7th grade, Isabel left school and began cleaning houses to help her mother with the bills
When she was 18 years old, she married Johnny Chacon, who had been her neighbor in since she was a little girl. Not long after, they had a daughter and later a son and Isabel stayed home to take care of the children. Now, she is 48 years old and her days are always the same. She wakes up at 5:30 AM to make breakfast and pack lunches. Johnny leaves for work at a telephone company, where their son (also named Johnny) works as well. Then Isabel washes the clothes by hand before hanging them up to dry outside. She sweeps and mops the floors, wipes the counters, cooks lunch, washes the bathroom, tends to the garden, walks the dog, makes the beds, dusts the furniture and scrubs the dishes. And every morning, it starts over again. During the day, she always has the news on in the background as she works. It comforts her and helps her feel well-informed.
When I began making weekend plans to go to Monteverde and La Fortuna, she would say something like, “I heard that’s a very nice city” or “People say that’s a lovely place.” She has never been out of Heredia. It’s a 4 hour bus ride from here to the beach in Manuel Antonio or to the Arenal Volcano and she has never been. She’s never been out of Heredia. I asked her where she has always dreamed of going and she said the Vatican City in Italy. She is a devout Catholic and was ecstatic to see my pictures from Rome.
Language wasn’t really a barrier for us. We found ways to understand each other and we bonded over our love of reading and lack of appreciation for partying. It was almost as if she was hand selected to be my host mother. A perfect match. I got to hear stories from other volunteers about how they went out clubbing the night before or had a crazy weekend in Puerto Viejo (the Miami of Costa Rica) and Isabel and I would look over at each other and laugh. Our own secret language. We would make hand gestures that stood for, “When will these crazy kids grow up?” and “One day, they’ll understand.”
Everyday, even when she knew I would have nothing new to share, she would ask me about my day or about my weekend and put down what she was doing so that she could give me her full attention. I was especially proud if I could make her laugh at my jokes. She would say, “Ayos Mio Julia…” and shake her head laughing if I’d forgotten my key or woke up late. And I would say, “Ayos Mio Isabel,” and run out the door.
If she said something that I didn’t understand, I never told her. I just nodded as if I understood and she would squint at me and try explaining it another way. She always knew when I was pretending. And even though it’s unlikely that I will run into her on the streets of Hong Kong or New York City, I will always keep an eye out for her whenever I am in Rome.