I raced out to the airport from downtown San Jose, with bags packed in case my sister wanted to go straight to go the Caribbean coast, rather than staying in the capital of Costa Rica.
I explained this situation to the taxi driver in my stunted Spanish and assumed I was given a fair price for the journey which would cover both eventualities. He was a friendly chap and tolerated my poor Spanish.
The verdict was to head straight for the coast, so I relayed this to the taxi driver and off we went to the bus terminal.
But there was one problem. We couldn’t go yet. There was one more thing we had to do.
The good folk at our eventual destination, Punta Mona Finca Organica, had advised us to bring a machete. After all, we’d be cutting and chopping and digging and working for our daily bread as volunteers for the duration of our stay.
Thus, we set off for the markets in San Jose. Two middle class, suburban white kids whose exposure to fancy knives had previously extended to Leatherman’s or Swiss Army knives, but not machetes – it felt all very ‘ghetto’.
I jumped out of the taxi confident that I could quickly secure a machete in a country in which they are commonplace and highly necessary.
But it wasn’t that easy.
I didn’t know how to say the word in Spanish and I saw none on display.
In my haste I’d shoved my dictionary in the bottom of my bag. I hadn’t looked up the word the night before and I was definitely not going to be an ignorant gringo wandering around a market barking at people in English – getting louder and louder until someone understood. No thanks.
Instead I harassed vendor after vendor with a conversation that went something like this;
Got that bit right.
“Yo busco …. Ah… un cochillo…”
“Si” replied my patient victim
“…cuchillo… que no es cuchillo pero como cuchillo…”
“Siiii” and by now my poor victim realised, I think, that I was looking for something that is a knife but is not a knife but is like a knife…
“…es como cuchillo y cortar … plantas…”
Yes, it cuts plants, but lots of things can cut plants, depending on the size of the plant. Be specific gringo.
“…es grande cuchillo”
Ok. So it’s a big knife.
One poor vendor, who I think was my third victim, produced a large kitchen knife and seemed shocked when I didn’t take it. After all, I’d said I was looking for a big knife, and it resembled the knives wielded by the staff at the neighbouring fresh fish section.
So I bumbled and stumbled my way through very embarrassing conversations asking for ‘cuchillos’ which were ‘grande’ and could be used to cut ‘plantas’ in the ‘jardin’ but not in the ‘cocina’… until one sympathetic vendor took pity on me and said;
“Aaaah, quieres machete!”
Before producing a machete from under the counter.
You’re kidding. It was the same word all along. All I’d had to do was change the word stress.
So, 20 minutes after entering the market, with the friendly taxi driver and my jet lagged sister waiting patiently outside, I finally purchased two machetes about 30 centimetres long and sauntered from the markets feeling very hardcore.
The machetes found their way into our packs and only emerged once we had arrived and settled into our lodgings at Punta Mona.
Then I proudly revealed the two machetes, and their leather cases, which I had tracked down using my vast linguistic prowess.
“Oooh, so cute…” said one of the permanent staff
“…they look just like butter knives.”
Images: Rachelle Blake.