Of Loss and Laughter, But Never a Loss of Laughter: A Tribute to Don Sergio

Last Update: 6/4/2014 11:03 PM

By John Hoban

“¡Tú eres camote!”

An argument broke out between a tall and slender gringo and wily mustachioed local at a small rural market in Costa Rica. And now the argument was escalating. Calling someone a camote was not a very nice thing to say.

“¡No! ¡TÚ eres camote!” the gringo replied with a sly smile.

Stephen Lanning and Don Sergio

But it wasn’t an argument at all. The gringo, Peace Corps volunteer Stephen Lanning, was receiving an impromptu lesson on Costa Rican slang, or pachuco, and the local was Stephen’s host father, Don Sergio. It was moments like the pachuco lesson at the market and many others that formed a strong and lasting bond between Sergio and Stephen. It was a bond formed over not only laughter and more than a few cups of coffee, but also of a shared sense of loss that brought Stephen and Sergio so close together during his Peace Corps service.

Stephen Lanning served in Costa Rica 2011-2013 with his wife Melinda Lanning as Rural Community Development and Youth Development volunteers respectively. During Pre-Service Training (PST), Stephen and his wife were placed in two separate locations with two separate host families about an hour and a half apart. While his wife was placed down in the hot and buggy suburbs of San Jose, Stephen was up in the highlands. “Coffee country… really beautiful,” Stephen recalled fondly. They went through training separately during the week, but reunited over the weekends. They split weekends staying at one another’s training sites, but soon found themselves spending more time with Stephen’s family. This wasn’t just because of the more beautiful scenery, but Stephen’s amazing host family as well. As Stephen explained, they were just “special.” He continued, “This was a town of 120 people or so, and only 3 volunteers in my town. These towns really loved the exchange they got of hosting these trainees. It’s something they looked forward to. They were families of modest means. In my instance, I was certain they were losing money hosting me. But they were just extremely generous.”

Through their generosity and excitement, Stephen experienced a wide variety of Costa Rican tradition and culture. He experienced romería, a pilgrimage to celebrate the Virgen de los Ángeles. As many as two million men, women, and children from all over Costa Rica traveled by car, bus, ox cart, or on foot to a basilica in the former Costa Rican capital city of Cartago to pay their respects to their patron saint. Stephen walked 30 km with his host family to take part in the celebration. He recalled, “It was really kind of cool… You get there at the basilica, and you pay your respects, and there’s a ton of people. Just all this camaraderie. People open up their homes as you’re walking, giving food and water and rest.”

Stephen also was shown the importance of coffee in Costa Rican culture. It was not uncommon to drink four to five cups of coffee a day, and any social gathering or occasion served coffee. He learned the tradition of cafecito. “It was your neighborly thing. Just going over and having coffee with your neighbors. Even the most humble households, they would always find something to offer you and almost always offer you coffee, even if it was expensive for them,” Stephen explained. Stephen even began waking up at 5AM with his host father Don Sergio, who would make a small thermos of coffee every morning and deliver it to his elderly mother a few houses down. “She always liked it. She would greet us with a kiss on the cheek and ask how I was doing. I think she was really touched I would come by. She was just a really warm spirit the way she treated people,” Stephen remembered.

Although Stephen became very close with his host family, he formed the strongest bond with his host father, Don Sergio. “Costa Ricans are really warm generally, but have a little bit of reservation. But [Sergio] was warm from day one. He was also different than most Costa Rican men. He was rare in that he was not afraid to show his emotions, to speak of his caring and love for his family members and those around him. That was very, very different,” Stephen described. Within the first couple of weeks of PST, they already had found a lot in common. “He really took me under his wing, tried to always make me feel comfortable… He would teach me a lot of jokes in Spanish, and then he’d want me to share these jokes with my language instructor or people around the village,” Stephen said. That is how he learned about calling someone a camote, which translates to sweet potato but can be used to describe someone who is especially problematic or crazy. Don Sergio had a sharp sense of humor and a very “gregarious” personality.

At a party for training host families, he tried to throw Stephen in a hotel pool. Sergio also added a little humor to Christmas celebrations. “They were one of the very few houses that did an American-style Christmas display. [Sergio] dressed up as Santa Claus and he would sit out in front of his house and watch people go by. He put out these speakers with Spanish Christmas music, just telling people ‘¡Feliz Navidad!’ And then my wife told him about the movie Bad Santa, and so he got a bottle of liquor and acted like he was drunk and dancing out front,” Stephen described with a hearty laugh.

But what brought Stephen and Don Sergio closest was a similar experience of tragedy and loss. “My host mother’s brother had passed away, and I could tell it really affected his wife and [Sergio]. I told them about my father, who also had a sudden death. It really set the stage for the closeness we felt,” Stephen explained. They both could identify with similar feelings of sudden shock and heartbreak.

Stephen also saw the difficulties and struggle of growing older. “As you get older, you take stock of what you did in the world, and for Sergio he built his house and he picked coffee. That’s his legacy. But that’s not going to be followed up. It has to be extremely painful,” Stephen said. Sergio had been a coffee farmer for most of his life, but his son was now a high school teacher and like many younger Costa Ricans wanted less grueling and better paying work. Sergio also had to contend with another threat to his livelihood: la roya. It is an orangish fungus that had recently invaded his coffee plantation and reduced harvests. Stephen explained, “[Sergio] is 56 now, and it’s hard work. He has a really bad ankle and just carrying these bags of coffee up these really uneven hills, and not to mention being outside all day picking or planting or just doing maintenance… You got to be working and working hard almost seven days a week [especially] around coffee picking season.” Stephen spent one day picking coffee beans with Sergio, experiencing the grueling work but also finding the “meditative” rhythm of picking beans. Stephen could see that all the hard work Sergio put into his coffee plantation, and he also felt the sadness of the situation that it may not be able to continue much longer. But Sergio dealt with this sadness in his typical fashion when he explained to Stephen, “It’s better to laugh than to cry.”

After completing training, Stephen and his wife were placed far away from Don Sergio and his host family, but they found as many opportunities as they could to return and visit. When it came time to finishing their service in Costa Rica, Stephen and his wife made plans to visit one last time. But their plans were thwarted by a strike of bus drivers, so they were unable to get to Sergio’s village. “We were really thankful that we had already visited a month before, but it still would have been nice to get that closure. I called him and it was sad to tell him how we wanted to say our last goodbyes, because who knew when we’d see each other again… It was kind of a bummer,” Stephen said. Since returning to the U.S., Stephen has also found it difficult to keep in contact. “I struggle having time with my job and my wife, so it’s hard staying in touch. But I’m really trying to make more of an effort to stay in touch,” he said.

But the bonds he created with his host family and especially his host father Sergio will always endure. This desire to maintain his connection with Sergio and his host family has only increased with time and entering into new stages in life. Stephen smiled when he said, “My wife and I are about to have a child, and I recently called Sergio and his family with the good news: ‘You’re going to be a tito de una gringita!’  Despite the cultural and physical distance, I want him to know that he will be an honorary grandfather to my child. I want to bring her down there someday and show him the changes and I know he’d be really touched.”

Stephen Lanning and Don Sergio

The special bond of Stephen and Don Sergio is one of many that are formed between Peace Corps volunteers and their host families. It is what makes Peace Corps such a unique and extraordinary program, and shows the promise and potential of creating deep and lasting relationships around the world. As Stephen warmly recalled, “Mi padre. Mi madre. They were my mother and father. I knew if something really did happen, I knew [Sergio] would have driven to the corner of Costa Rica, because he was that committed. And he did so unconditionally. He didn’t owe me anything. But he treated me like an extension of his own family.… He said because they didn’t have an opportunity to travel to other places, [hosting a volunteer] was a way to travel and experience other cultures. I don’t really have a lot of elders to look up to, but he would be one of my top five.”

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