H is for Hacerse Bolas

Costarican idioms (loosely interpreted)

  Hacerse bolas is to become confused, which is easy to do if you don’t speak Spanish very well. Like me.

But for a long time I didn’t have to learn the language.

The area where we live, the Atlantic coast, was first populated by indigenous natives and then by West Indian blacks, who came to Costa Rica to work for Minor Cooper Keith, the American who built the railroad from San José to Limón in the 1800s. The government gave him vast tracts of Caribbean lowland as a form of payment, and eventually he founded United Fruit; Costa Rica is the original Banana Republic.

These people of color stayed after the railroad was completed and called Limón home. They worked on Keith’s plantations or fished along the Atlantic coastline or farmed cacao here for many generations.

All that changed in the late 1970s when a mildew blight infected their cacao crops, With their harvest and income depleted, they sold the land to people like us. Now the area is filled with European and North American expats and Spanish descendants from the Central Valley– a cultural melting pot– but for many years the primary language here was either English or patois.

Being a lazy person, I consequently didn’t learn Spanish and still do not speak it fluently. I still get lost in a rapid-fire or highly complex conversations. One drink and I’m articulate. Two and I’m expressive, communicative, and eloquent, or think I am. Three, and I revert to being like a two-year old who asks for things with gestures, rudimentary words, and temper tantrums.

So, for years this was our routine when we were looking for a shop or a business in San José. Alan drove and I would tell him pull over when I saw someone I thought looked friendly and might know the area. I’d ask if they knew the place we were looking for. Depending on which way they pointed, we drove in that direction until I found another person and repeated the drill. It took Alan years to realize I hadn’t understood a jot of what they’d said.

“You always looked like you knew what you were doing,” he told me one day when it became obvious I had no clue. We backtracked a lot in those days, were lost more often than not, but we eventually found our way.

There is less hunt and peck these days. Now I know San José and many of its shortcuts. Alan still drives, but I can navigate at least three blocks ahead of us. I work on my Spanish, even though their verbs drive me insane, and I’m only caught scratching my head a few times a year. I can even use the telephone to inquire about things. Now that is progress.






Published by SC Morgan

I grew up in Oregon and learned not everything is black and white. Now I live in the jungles of Costa Rica where the shades of gray cover the full spectrum. I shoot my mouth off on my blog, social media sites, and sometimes I get published. You can find my blog here: https://scmorgancom.wordpress.com/

2 thoughts on “H is for Hacerse Bolas

  1. Sarah, I love these posts of life in CR and can sympathize with the study of Spanish. For a few years, we traveled to Mexico, Guatemala, and Peru for the summer. Each time, I would study Spanish very religiously over the summer, moving nearly to past-tense verbs by the end of our stay, only to start over again the next summer. Reading, yes. Speaking, not so much. But you are immersed in Spanish culture . . . and have hope!


    1. Learning foreign languages is always hard and the older we get the harder it gets. Yes, it is those verbs that drive me crazy; my vocabulary is really quite broad. I use ‘ir’ a lot to indicate future tense, but past is more difficult. My mother once had a friend who spoke Spanish by speaking only in the infinitive, then pointed forward to indicate future, or jabbed a thumb over shoulder to indicate past tense. At least I’m a little better than that.


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