Note: The following is an excerpt from the forthcoming travel memoir, Talking Tico.
Despite the research, casual reading, following local news and boning up on the language – I still had no idea what to expect. Traveling in of itself can be the most stressful portion of any trip or move, let alone to a foreign country where you fumble through basic sentences at the speed of a 1985 Macintosh computer.
I tried to picture everything from landing at the airport to arriving in Ciudad Colón. The airport, I imagined, looked like any other capital city airport. Clean, modern and relatively easy to navigate. In other words, I’m wasn’t expecting chickens to be running around as I had seen in a certain airport that shall go unnamed.
(Truth be told, I rather enjoyed the livestock presence at the aforementioned airport. It brought some aspect of character to the experience. I’m still not quite sure what exactly that character was, but it was definitely something.)
Still, I was left with a blank canvass when it came to the actual drive from Aeropuerto Internacional Juan Santamaría to our final destination in Ciudad Colón. Would we have to snake through clogged city streets or would this be a mostly rural jaunt as the airport is actually located outside San José in the city of Alajuela? Come to think of it, what is Alajuela and why are we landing in a city we have never heard of when a perfectly good capital city whose existence we are at least vaguely familiar with is right there?
These are the types of innocuous questions that can drive any traveler crazy with stress. Unfortunately, that tends to happen when approaching a life-changing move or trip. That is, continuously thinking of odd scenarios where something can go unimaginably wrong. Usually my mind skips the more horrific scenarios and instead imagines the more inconvenient ones, such as getting screwed over on cab fare by being driven around in circles or realizing that my level of Spanish was even more useless than I had expected.
I realized, however, that we simply needed to keep reminding ourselves that everything would be okay. We’d toss on some ruby red shoes and click our heels together if worst came to worst. If nothing else, my wearing ruby red shoes would give any passersby a good laugh.
However, I had some mixed feelings about starting our journey, our new life at an airport named after Juan Santamaría. This is nothing against Ticos. They have a perfectly good reason for naming the airport after him. After all, Mr. Santamaría is recognized as the national hero of Costa Rica and was born in the city where the airport sits. He served in the military and died for his country in a valiant manner worthy of a Hollywood production (please, cast a Tico and not Jake Gyllenhaal with a tan).
Santamaría’s heroism came on April 11, 1856 when facing a foreign invader attempting to overthrow the Costa Rican government who had already successfully taken over Nicaragua in an incredible attempt to turn the whole of Central America into a slave state. Take a wild guess as to where this foreign invader, with aspirations of empire and profiting off of slave labor, came from.
That’s right, folks. One Mr. William Walker of Nashville, Tennessee is the villain in the story of one of Costa Rica’s most prolific national heroes. It seemed Mr. Walker had the idea of establishing English-speaking colonies in Central America for the sole purpose of committing all sorts of morally reprehensible deeds.
Luckily for the sake of the collective American conscience, Walker committed his atrocious conquest with private military expeditions. This wasn’t the Union general trotting around on a horse through Central America. This was, to use a more modern example, Cliven Bundy and his band of mustachioed gun collectors assuming authority where none was given. Just as Cliven Bundy was forced to exit stage right, so too was Walker. Except his demise came in a more grisly manner, appropriate for the time period and perhaps even more so for his crimes and intentions.
As Walker succeeded through Nicaragua, Costa Rican president Juan Rafael Mora Porras called upon the populace to take up arms against the filibusteros or filibusters – then a term for anyone who underwent unauthorized military expeditions rather than today’s use for Senators with the uncanny ability to hold their urine while reading the dictionary or a cookbook for an ungodly amount of time.
The Ticos met Walker on March 20, 1856 at La Casona ranch in Guanacaste and routed his army in about the span of a Super Bowl commercial break. They continued to chase him to Rivas, Nicaragua for another battle on April 11, 1856. Does that date look familiar? It does for a Costa Rican, because it was Santamaría’s day for immortality. In the militaristic sense of romance, of course.
Santamaría, a 24-year-old soldier who joined the army as a drummer boy, volunteered to set fire to a wooden hostel where Walker and his men took refuge. The Second Battle of Rivas was bloody and the Ticos were unable to force Walker’s band out of the hostel, which was an advantageous firing position. Soldiers, under the command of Salvadoran General José María Cañas, attempted lighting a torch and storming the building. But again, Walker’s men were set up nicely for picking off attacking soldiers.
Despite the likelihood of death, Santamaría volunteered to attack under the condition that someone would look after his mother should he indeed perish. Sadly, Santamaría was mortally wounded during his advance. But before passing, he was able to set fire to the hostel, drive Walker’s men out and give Costa Rica a decisive victory.
Of course with most things ripe for legend, historians argue over the veracity of the story. Most accept Santamaría’s legend as just that — a legend. Unfortunately there were no iPhones around to capture the shaky vertical footage, upload it to YouTube and tweet out the heroism with hashtag “UnaAntorcha,” but the larger point still stands. That is the fact that many Costa Ricans continue to celebrate the story of a young Juan Santamaría rising from the ranks of a poor laborer and the stigma of an illegitimate son to become a national hero. His story inspired a level of nationalism previously unseen in a nation of loosely connected provinces.
Today, El Erizo or “the Porcupine” as soldiers called him on account of his spiky hair, is commemorated during the national holiday of Juan Santamaría Day annually on April 11 in Costa Rica. Walker, on the other hand, fell to the custody of Commander Nowell Salmon of the British Royal Navy who had his own nefarious interests in Central America. Rather than return him to the United States, he simply gave Walker over to Honduran authorities who promptly executed him by firing squad.
Needless to say, considering the interloping stories of Santamaría and Walker, some Ticos still have negative connotations associated with the United States and anyone holding an American passport. Gringo is an occasionally disparaging term that comes to mind as well as the phrase “the ugly American.” Truth be told, Walker is hardly the only reason some Ticos are justified in holding a skeptical eye toward the United States.
Regardless of the legend’s veracity, I still found a lovely touch of ironic humor in the fact that countless relocating and vacationing gringos — myself included — must begin their journey through the gates of an airport named after a man whose legend exists thanks to his heroic efforts of dispelling a nefarious gringo. Though I was of course traveling with noble intentions, so thankfully the Ticos never held that unfortunate national connection against me.