One warm evening in Puerto Viejo, a small beach town on the Caribbean coast, I walked down the street with a couple friends. We had set out in the hopes of exploring the town before dinner, and we soon spotted an outdoor artisanal market. I was excited not only to see the variety of crafts that were for sale, but also to speak with the locals. Though I spoke Spanish before studying abroad, I had never had quite so many opportunities to practice as I did in Costa Rica. A market was the perfect place for a little conversation.
Before I even had the chance to look around, I was stopped by a tiny girl. Her eyes were filled with wonder as she looked up at me, stretching out her hand in my direction. “Gracias,” I replied as the two-year-old proudly dumped a handful of pebbles into my out-stretched hand and bent down clumsily to scoop up more. Instantly, our little game became far more important to me than any conversation. For the next ten minutes, we danced, collected handfuls of gravel, and arranged the rocks into little pictures. The girl giggled as I shuffled the rocks into the form of a smiley face. The face of her mother, who had approached to see what was happening, showed the same display of happiness. “Carita Feliz,” she said –happy face- as she pointed to the pebbles. And there we stood, three people from two completely different worlds, understanding and smiling.
I previously viewed language as a divisive tool, used to draw borders and separate cultures. Now, I understand that it holds no weight in comparison to our capacity to understand what remains unspoken. The curiosity of a child, the smile of a stranger, and the tears of a friend are all words in the lexicon of human language. My grasp of this idea strengthened during my time abroad, as my vocabulary was reduced to only a few Spanish words that I knew. While I may not have caught every detail of my teachers’ story, I could read the passion on her face. I felt the same excitement as my host father as he proudly announced his upcoming retirement. I was almost brought to tears by my host mothers’ recount of her Mamá’s death. Even when I was at a loss for words to express my condolences, I was filled with sadness, and my mamatica, recognizing it in my face, thanked me for my sympathy.
It fills me with hope to experience something so constant – while borders can be redrawn and languages can evolve, the depth of human emotion lasts forever. No matter the circumstances, humans will continue to seek each other out; to understand one another against all odds. When we take the time to truly see our fellow man, words like division, hate and fear become just that: words. And who needs those anyway?