Sunday, December 5, 2010

Companerismo, manual labor and RE-learning my body

I like more than anything to feel useful and to feel capable. I know how to write essays and I know how to play sports but growing up I never learned how to use knives and shovels.

Here, at the lecheria, I wanted to do the work that the other workers were doing, but I didn’t know exactly how, and if I could, or if they would let me. I wasn’t sure quite what I was doing there and they weren’t quite sure what I was doing there. “Hi, I am Spencer, can I work with you?” I show up one day. “Si, si quiere.” Victor and Roger hang onto the back of the pick-up, speeding by with machetes strapped onto their belts: “Mejor que el se queda con Carlos. Este trabajo es feo. El es un turista,” they joke. The stench of the carrot, papaya, and pina cascara compost is strong and thick. “Can I load the wheelbarrow with pina?” “Mejor si se queda adentro para no se moja.” 

They seemed to not let me do something because they didn’t think I was strong enough or capable enough or thought that I was “above” this work. Usually, a combination. Slowly, though, day after day, misunderstanding and distrust faded. The obstacles didn’t appear to be about class (and gender), about not being used to manual labor or not knowing how to use certain tools, so much as they also revealed culture. And these obstacles didn’t always turn out to be obstacles.

 One day, after I had gotten accustomed to the satisfaction of echar pina to the 38 cows, (after asking repeatedly, I need to build muscle, I say), Victor and I got into an argument. There were four buckets available to fill. Victor said, “I’ll fill the buckets and then you bring them to the feeders.” And I said, “Yes, but I can walk there and back faster than you can fill the buckets, so wouldn’t it be better if we both fill our own buckets and carry them to the feeders?” Victor looked confused, and said, “Que? You don’t like carrying the buckets? Okay, you fill the buckets and I will carry them.” I paused. Clearly, shoveling was the more difficult task, but I knew that he could fill them much faster, and again protested: “But it’s faster if we each do both. Llenar y echar. Igual.” And he said smiling, “Why is quickness the most important?”

The shovel has become my arm now. I don’t notice its iron weight or the strain of pushing a flat nose into dense, wet matter. I shovel, foot forward lunging, one hand driving the blade, bicep clenched back twisting abs back arms shoulders engaged. The diving, rising, twisting has become one motion, one sweep, like my movements are automatic, continuous, easy. Kuch, the blade splices a papaya in two, black seeds spilling out orange flesh raw.  I turn the shovel over to deposit the fruit slosh into a quickly filling wheelbarrow and row the shovel back across my body. I switch sides and hands to even myself out. It is no longer awkward. My body feels strong and full. I know that angles work best, and that the edges are looser, and sometimes I can slide the shovel along the bottom, along the slick wooden boards to slip into the pile and lift an orange mountain. This I did not know I could do before.

We are off on the far mountain today. I watch for a few minutes as Victor and the boss hack away at the hillside, clearing brush to make pasture. Are they going to give me a machete too? Christian is amarando wire to the hose. I eye an extra machete in the truck and ask if I can join. Quincho grins and yells to Victor, “El dice que quiere chopear.” Victor sharpens the blade. “Be careful not to swing through to hit your foot,” the boss says. I raise the machete high and swing it down hard, slicing through the thick shrub stem. “Ooooh,” Victor says, “Suave. Cuidado. Here, here is a smaller one.” I smile but insist that I want to use the bigger one. “Mas facil,” Victor exhorts. “No, pero yo quiero esta. I can manage it.” The boss hovers by my side. “You can hold the shrub with one hand like this,” he says, “That way you don’t have to use so much force.” “Vea, like this,” Victor says. I check myself in my I-can-do-it-myself mindset, and try out their tips. “Like this?” I confirm.

Three abreast, we are slashing away the brush like bandits. I am grinning like an idiot as the knife slashes through the wooden knob at the base in an elegant, angled strong stroke. I wack the ground and the roots multiple times to finish it off, to feel like I am a kid out loose, unleashing my pent-up energy. It is this balance of composed strength and unruly energy that I crave, seek out, and am slowly fed here. My raw blisters have closed and hardened. “Mira,” the boss says to Victor. “Look at Spencer’s hands.” He is smiling.

Knowing the “other”: what is real and true among unlikely relationships

Yes, we are different.

We have different classes, races, genders, and sexualities. You don’t have a debit/credit card and I have over 10,000$ in the bank. You are brown and I am white. You are a cis-guy and I am somewhere between butch and trans. You are “straight” and I am queer. You are from the poorest Central American country and I am from the rich north. We have different histories and languages and cultures. You are 17 and have been working at the lecheria for two years, 72 hours a week, 120$ per week, one day off per month. You are a Nicaraguan immigrant. You left when you were 15 by yourself to cross the border in the mountains and find work here. You finished primary school but haven’t started colegio. I am a gringo finishing a private college paid for by my parents. I work 10 hours a week at school.

I am reluctant to admit that I went to Manuel Antonio for the weekend with my friend. Maybe the ocean is universal? “I like to swim a lot,” I say. You nod. “It´s bonito to know how to swim, verdad?” And I realize that this is a privilege too. Do you feel jealous? I wonder. I leave the subject for the lack of understanding, my lack of words.

It is past 1pm but we haven´t finished automizando to stop for lunch, and you say you’re hungry. “you aren´t?” you ask. I say, no, that I ate a big breakfast. “What do you eat for breakfast?” I ask. “Ud. es delgado” slips out of my mouth. “CafĂ©,” you say. “That’s it?” “You get used to it.” I am silent, frozen by never having known an immediacy of hunger.

 But we share things too. We are both foreigners to Costa Rica and miss our family and friends. (You have 13 siblings and I have 5). We share language. You teach me what chulear means and I teach you what “under the sky” means. I understand most of what you’re saying, and when I don’t you have other ways of communicating with me. I know what you mean when you talk to me up close and when you use vos I know you are being caring and that we are close, and the tone of your voice is soft and sweet. We share bread and avocado and whiskey. We share smiling and laughing, especially when the boss holds the camera backwards to take a picture, and especially when I jump away as the toro grunts, and tambien when you are joking with me or when I don’t understand and I smile and you smile and we search for actions like charades or use roundabout words. We share work too.  You start at that end of the row recogiendo el pasto, and I start at this end, and our armfuls of grass finally meet in the middle and we are carrying the same bundle to the truck. We feed the calves milk side by side and we chat and we chat and we chat. You teach me how to hold the shovel like this, and throw the sawdust onto the stall floor in one sweep so that a thin layer covers evenly. Not so much force. Slide your hand down now. We attach hose: you pull, I pull push twist together fitting the hose together until our foreheads touch together and our fingers are sticky with tar glue. And we play too. I teach you how to ruck and you say, “vea,” and try to show my how to shoot the bucket into the concentrado as if you are better than me. (You are not ☺).

 I know we are different but I want to know you so bad and as I enter the barn in the morning you yell, “ESPENCEEERRRR!” smiling like a crazy person and you fire questions at me while we are milking: “Espencer, how many siblings do you have? Y barones o mujeres?” And “Espencer, I thought you were a boy. Why did you lie to me?” You close the key and pull the ordenador from the udder. “Espencer, can you really find things of value in the trash?” And I know you want to know me too. And you say to me, “Espencer, and it doesn’t cost other North Americans to get to know foreigners either?” Well, time has passed too quickly and it is too soon, and now when I am leaving, you ask for my phone number so we can stay in touch between the US and here.

I am feeling more comfortable in this culture and learning more facets of this culture. I know when you say “su mujer” it is not that you are being machista, but that addressing others in relation to oneself is common—my child, my love, neighbor, professor. And when you joke about me marrying you or Roger so that I can stay, I laugh too in knowing that marriage and companionship are so important here, talked about so much here. I know that offering help is part of valuing dependence on one another. I—I want to learn so much more. Your culture is beautiful, Victor.

 I have known you for 6 weeks. If I stayed would I understand you better and would the differences get smaller and if I stayed still longer would our languages and cultures start to blend and longer still, would our differences start to fade and fit somehow together (or, are they too many and too much?) Would understanding fill in the gaps and would we find the surface and holes of difference and could we at some point eventually in the future discover how deep you can know a culture and a person who is supposedly so different than you simply through the strength of desire to know each other? (I feel like when we are together the differences appear small already).

Sunday, November 21, 2010

El Dueno

I didn’t know that Joaquin was his name until after four weeks of working there, at the lecheria, because my companeros, Carlos, Victor, and Roger, would always refer to him as el dueno, the owner/boss. This name isn’t out of status as much as it is a cultural tendency to use people’s names relatively infrequently. Instead, people use their relationships to people as names. For example, neither do I know the actual name of el vecino, the neighbor, who is around all the time because we call him el vecino. Sonia would call me “mi amor” or “mi hijo.” There are two lecherias in Palmira that Joaquin heads, but lately I have been working at the one abajo. I walk up from the mountain, enter the barn, and we are leaving to go cut hay. Joaquin and I peel and eat our bananas together in the front seat of the pick-up, with Roger and Victor standing in back as we roll over the rocky road. We pile the truck high with armfuls of fresh grass. Joaquin stands on top stamping it down. I can’t help but feeling like we are father and son, like I am his sidekick learning how to work on the farm, and after returning from a hard day’s work, eating bread and fresco that his wife, Mariela, serves us. Joaquin has on his “Money won’t change me” sweatshirt, my favorite of his English text shirts, although his “Middle School Concert Choir” and “Johnsburg Jaguar Pride” coach polos are close seconds. Joaquin is a little over fifty, but works like he is 25, climbing, climbing, chasing cattle, we are always climbing, or carrying, usually both. He isn’t nimble, but he is sure-footed and catches his stumbles with grace.

When we aren’t cutting grass for the day, we are over on the far wild mountain attaching hundreds and hundreds of feet worth of hose with pega, tar sticky glue, to reach the stream below. Wild beans and pumpkin and dead bamboo poke up across the landscape.  We tread slowly through the brush, hauling our long hoses, sawing this piece off and sticking a smaller tube inside the two ends, pulling, pushing them, twisting, one of us on either side, pulling the hoses together until our foreheads touch and our fingers are sticky with tar glue.

Or we are clearing brush with machetes since the cows won’t eat the mora bushes or the shrubs. I watch for a few minutes as Victor and Joaquin slash away at the hillside, grab a machete from the truck, and ask if I can join. Victor sharpens the blade. “Be careful not to swing through to hit your foot,” Joaquin says. “You can hold the shrub with one hand like this,” he says. “Vea, like this,” Victor says. Three abreast, we are slashing away the brush like bandits. I am grinning like an idiot as the knife slashes through the wooden knob in an elegant, strong stroke. I wack the ground and the roots multiple times to finish it off, to feel like I am a kid out loose, unleashing my pent-up energy. It is this balance of composed strength and unruly energy that I crave, and am fed here.

I have lost myself in this rhythm. I can’t sleep past 5:45 am because I am ready, eager to head off to the cows. I have deferred going to the farmers’ market on Saturdays in order to work a full day. After I finish the two mornings at the school every week, I begin my walk across the mountain.

Joaquin tells me they are going to sangrar the cattle tomorrow. It only happens once every two years, he says, so I am in luck. With sangre, meaning blood, I become worried that I am about to partake in some sacrificial ritual, bloodletting the cattle, but figure I had better not turn the opportunity down. We drop a newborn boy calf at the butcher to be slaughtered (they only keep the girls because it is a dairy farm). And then we head off to sangrar the cattle. We venture up to Pueblo Nuevo, a town that is even higher and further, where the lungs must again re-adjust to climbing through this thin air. I am standing up in the back of the pick-up with Joaquin against the hood. “The trafico doesn’t come around these parts,” he says. “Don’t be afraid.” We are like smiling dogs, tongues out in the wind. “It is nicer back here, isn’t it?” he says. “Yes, it is.” The car curves over the bumpy road, and I stand like I am on my skateboard, skating the roads with Lynne, free and unfettered, feeling the road under my feet, under the wheels, balancing, body forward, now back. We herd the cattle into a cement blocked area where I stand guard while Joaquin ropes them one by one. Luckily, sangrar only means drawing blood in order to make sure the cows don’t have tuberculosis or other diseases.

As a daily routine, after milking and feeding the cows and calves, Joaquin fills my water bottle up with milk, and gives me an extra full cup to drink, and I head out into the sunset to walk the hour back to Tapezco. Today, I enter the milk room, and Joaquin slides two 10,000 colones bills (twenty dollar bills) out of his pocket. He says, “I wanted to give you something for your expenses. Ten thousand from last week, and ten thousand for this week.”
(A note on politeness/generosity and culture: generally, it is not polite to decline any sort of gift or offer. Generosity is expected and accepted. You accept and say thank you and offer your generosity to others. Yet it still overwhelms me—how to accept, and how to give back. In the US I am used to paying exactly what I owe, and declining half-hearted polite offers out of politeness. When I enter someone’s house and they offer to get me a drink or food if I am hungry, I usually say, “No, thank you, I am fine,” and they usually expect this answer without prodding. But here, you offer because you mean it. Whether it is a truck pulling up beside me to offer me a ride up the mountain to Palmira, the panaderia waving off my attempt to pay for bread rolls, the pulperia woman sliding an extra tomato into my bag, Joaquin giving me a pineapple to take home, Mariela sitting me down in her kitchen to eat bread and fresco, this happens all the time. Furthermore, it is not polite to try to refuse gifts or defer an opinion or to be ambiguous. When you are asked by Sonia if you prefer sweet or green plaintains, you tell her. “No me importa” is practically an insult; Sonia will get a surprised/hurt look on her face and turn on her heel for the kitchen. If you are asked if you like wine, and you say yes, Carlos will pour you wine and it is not wise to say, “Oh, it’s okay I am fine without wine.” You say thank you and drink it.)
But I stood there, trying to search for words. I was blushing and trying to explain that as part of the program, I was receiving credit for this (since I just kind of showed up one day and wasn’t working with Joaquin at the start) and they were teaching me so much, and he interrupted. “Then, it is a little present. At least take one.” At this word, regalo, I put away my verguenza and accepted the pride of working for an actual 10,000 colon.

Joaquin has been telling me about a shortcut of late. In fact, Roger, Joaquin, and Victor have been discussing at length, pointing to this water tank on the landscape, and that blue roof, debating the best shortcut for me to take to walk down the mountain, through the bosque, over the river, and back up, instead of using the road. I have found the way that Joaquin says is best in coming to work that morning, and this afternoon Joaquin hands me a big stick, and tells me “If there is a coyote, you feign like this (hand raised, stamped foot) and it will run off. If there are a lot of them, you are the one that should be running. But, there won’t be any coyotes yet. If it wasn’t safe I wouldn’t send you through there. I am going to watch to make sure you find the path.” “Thanks, but I remember where it is,” I say. He nods, “Spencer, hay paso arribo, exit the fence above,” and I head off down the mountain with my backpack, milk, and walking (coyote) stick, meandering along the slope. I look over my shoulder to see Joaquin’s yellow rubber milking apron, Victor’s red coat, and Roger’s baseball cap, all standing there, chatting, watching me descend. I pick up my pace a little to get out of sight so they don’t have to watch anymore. I scamper and fall like a drunkard down the uneven patchy hillside, roll, crawl under the barbed wire fence still with my backpack still on and stick in hand, and slide down the mudslope. Out of sight, whew. I have found the path and am in the forest now, picking my way across the rocks to avoid the mud, and leaping across the river stones. The waterfall is small but fast. The afternoon sun is a gorgeous gold, and I stop to take pictures of the sun hitting the thick layers and hanging shapes of green. I plunge my stick into the damp Earth to await my arrival the next day. The moras are ripening in the forest and I pick a few of those too, chewing softly so that the seeds don’t stick in my teeth. I go up, up, up, rucking under a wire every twenty feet in the cow pasture on the adjacent side. Sweating, heavy breathes, I stop to rest. I look back across the forest, up the other hillside to the lecheria, and 30 minutes after I’ve left, Joaquin’s yellow, Victor’s red, and Roger’s baseball cap are all there still, watching, making sure I haven’t lost my way or been eaten by the wolves.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Carlos Huertas

"Carlos Huertas es el problema. El no puede manejar ni un centavo," his son Carlitos says. The tomato farm is in financial trouble because apparently Carlos (to be distinguished from the other Carlos I work with at the lecheria) wastes money on things he buys for himself. My interactions with Carlos have been, well, interesting. I have never seen him actually work on his farm, only drive the truck full of packaged tomatoes once. Our interactions have been in his kitchen, where we have eaten lunch or breakfast together, while he is always wearing his big puppy dog slippers. I never quite know how to respond to him, and he always makes me slightly uncomfortable. After we sit down, he shakes my hand and asks me, "Quiere una cerveza?" and looks at me seriously, I say no thanks, in case he wasn't joking, and his eyes still set on my face for a second too long, looking for something he isnt getting from me, before he grins as if laughing to himself like he is pleased at himself for making me uneasy. Today, during lunch, he asked me if I liked wine, and I said yes, and he proceeded to grab a bottle of wine out of the fridge (Cuanto vale? Joanna asks. 25 dollars) and pour me not a wine glass of wine, but almost a whole glass glass of wine. He also always tries to get me to eat meat without fail. I explained that I was a vegetarian, and here I wasn't used to eating meat. Carlos takes a huge bite of steak, and says, "Mmmmm. You can accustom yourself to eating meat." The table hangs off the side of the wall, and is very narrow, so that the edges of our plates are touching across from each other. After eating everything on his plate, he gives his plate back to his wife, Joanna, to fill with more food. His eyes get wide, and he states, "Tengo mucha hambre," as if he is indeed a hungry beast. Today, half of the cabbage was sitting on the table from the salad, and he cut it into two quarters, picked one up, and bit the end off. Quiere mas ensalada? Joanna asks. He shakes his head, mouth full. He downs the rest of his glass of beer and treads back to his room in his slippers to watch TV.

Hotel Villa Romantica

is not actually where we stayed. But the internet really wanted us to stay there. We probably should have stayed there because that’s where people go on romantic get-aways to Costa Rica when they are in love love love! My girlfriend Ilana came and visited me for five days. Carlos would not stop asking me about her pre-visit and joking with me about her being my ex-girlfriend friend that was now coming to visit. This status came about when, in the first week of working at the lecheria, Carlos asked me if I had a girlfriend. I said no because I didn't yet have a sense of our camaraderie and how he felt about queers, so no is usually a solid answer to avoid the topic. (Carlos also asked me, when I said I had two brothers of the five siblings, to clarify, that there were three boys and three girls in the family? I said "Pues, si. well, yes, I guess so." Victor, my other co-worker, the same day, asks me, "Do you have a boyfriend?" Again, I say no. "Why not?" he asks me. (Victor also has a boyfriend and a girlfriend, I've discovered, and flirts with me daily, which is the best. We feed the calves milk together and he tries to swoon me by discussing classical music)). So, a couple of weeks later, after Carlos has become my closest friend here, Carlos is still intent on asking me why I don't have a girlfriend. I concede part-way, but can't go back on my original word, and things were more complicated than simple girlfriend or not, so I explain that we were together but now we are just friends because when I get back, she is going to South Africa, and it is hard to be together when we are not actually in the same place. Therefore, Ilana became my ex-girlfriend, now friend, who was coming to visit me, which Carlos spun into, my ex-girlfriend coming to visit me in order to get back together with me as my girlfriend. This idea was very exciting to him. Thus, between sawing boards or loading armfuls of grass into the truck, he would slip in, "So, you and la hembra are going to share the same bed, verdad?" or "You are excited to meet up with your novia, verdad? She is coming soon."And I would bury my face and laugh, not sure how to respond.

 I met up with Ilana at the airport at 6:45pm, where our hostel host, Alonso, was supposed to meet up with us and bring us the short distance to his hostel for the night, in order that we could travel to Manuel Antonio (“where the rainforest meets the sea”) the following day. We waited, talked to various people looking for other people, used another hostel host’s cellphone to call Alonso, and waited some more. It was 8pm, and we decided to get another ride there. We were ushered into a cab with a badass girl driver. As we drove past a hostel on the corner, she whipped the cab onto this side street, leaned halfway out the window, and called out to the owner, “Tiene espacio?” “ten dollars a night for each of you,” and before we knew we had agreed, she had taken five dollars from us, and sped off. The owner says, “I don’t know if you understood what we had available…” She drew us a nice map, and showed us where various other hostels were close by, and we headed out into the night with our KFC street map and backpacks into sketchy sketchy Alajuela. Ilana seemed a bit bewildered that she was actually here, and I, similarly, was used to only cow land, so wandering a San Jose suburb was somewhat of a shock to the both of us: tin walls, bars, lit-up signs with lights out in the narrow, dim street. A group of teens popped out to yell “ahhh” in our faces, then “puta.” The first hostel we came to was dark and smoky. I thought maybe we should take the room instead of wandering nervously. All three of us pretended not to see the fat cockroach scurry across the floor as the door opened. “Maybe we’ll be back,” we said. Finally, we were let into a hostel with a nice, open patio with an outdoor kitchen, and a big grey dog with sad eyes that took to tearing off wooden scraps of the kitchen cabinet to chew, which sounded like someone was tearing down the wall.

We got to Quepos, the town over from Manuel Antonio just fine, and instead of going to the beach, we went to the farmer’s market and supermarket. I was of course on a cooking rampage since I haven't been able to cook for two months. Ilana put up with my cooking pursuits very well, and even ate a whole bowl of pineapple rind soup with me (Sonia had made pineapple rind gelatin, which was the best thing ever, and I absolutely had to try it.) Only, we didn't have eggs, a strainer or a blender in our Wide Mouth Frog Hostel, so ended up gnawing on the boiled pineapple rinds, swallowing some to get our fiber in (and to mimic the cows who I am still so impressed with eat the whole pineapple, spines and all), and slurping up the boiled liquid for dessert while listening to (a much straighter) game of “Never have I ever” being played at the table next to us. Platanos maduros definitely improved over the three days, and the yuca was okay after deciding that no, we should not after all try to eat the skins. The chichurritos (plaintain chips) I had watched Sonia cook just about every day, turned out almost perfectly, crispy and thin. Needless to say, I was eager to try to cook everything I had eaten since this probably was my only cost-effective opportunity to cook tropical foods. I was a little ambitious to say the least to expect cooking something for the first time to turn out just as I had eaten it in my two Tican homes, but I was sated.

After convincing Ilana to hike the 4 miles to the national park/beach instead of taking the bus that left in 5 minutes, without sunscreen since I was bitter about buying more after losing my non-toxic organic brand, we finally saw a beach in front of us, decided to forego finding the park for the moment, and scampered down to swim. Now, I had heard about rip tides and explained to Ilana (not knowing that she was afraid of the ocean anyway) that all we had to do is let the current take us out if we get sucked into one, and then swim parallel to it, so that we could swim back in. Ilana stood in the big crashing waves while I swam further out. “You just have to get out past the waves, and then it isn't scary.” We didn’t realize we were already being pulled out a bit, until we tried to swim back in as a lifeguard was whistling and waving us in. “See, see the foam he said, the brown areas…rip tides.” I didn’t catch everything he said, but apparently the rip tides were strong that day. We ate a slightly sandy cabbage salad leftover plaintain lunch, and afterward, finally entered the park, realizing that there were non-wavy, non riptide, rainforest beaches inside, along with monkeys eating out of Cheetos' bags on the beach.

Catching the bus back to Zarcero: on route from San Jose to Quepos, we passed through Alajuela, which is an hour from San Jose, and also on route from Zarcero to San Jose. Therefore, getting off the bus at Alajuela, and catching one to Zarcero would save us about two hours. We got off, and wandered about in search of the bus stop going the other way, entering two highways accidentally. A roadside man told us we had to go to San Jose first, that that was the only way. We tried once more, asking two policemen. Where is the bus stop where we can go to Zarcero? They laughed and described "down this road, cross the highway, on the side." We thanked them and started to head off, and they called back, and were like, "we just want to make sure you understand. It isn't a typical bus stop. It is a cement square." Hmm, okay, well at this point we were determined not to have to go back to San Jose.

There were two other guys there. One, standing right on the white line, ready, determined not to miss his bus. Where are you going, I ask. Shoot, not the same one. The other guy was sitting up on the cement, off the road, clearly a tourist who had just gotten off a plane with all his over-packed black rolly luggage. That made me feel slightly better because if there was any way that he could flag down the right bus, we definitely could. Catching the bus right here meant standing literally on the white line of the highway (so the bus could see you clearly) and squinting your eyes to read the black label on the front windshield to see where the bus was headed, with enough time to stick your arm out frantically before the bus came whizzing by. As we were walking up to the bus stop, one for San Carlos (which goes through Zarcero) was passing. shit. I stuck my hand out anyway. So there we were, huddled on the white line, craning our heads into the highway as a bus was approaching, and just as we read the label, phew, not us, it was already flying by. We had not eaten lunch, and had packed some of our adventurous leftovers into a greasy margarine container and a cut soda bottle. I stood there, slurping up our soup like a drink, interspersed with my leathermen knife as a spoon. Ilana resigned to eating the rice with her fingers. Our bus came about 20 minutes later, and I just about leapt in front of the bus, waving my arm like I needed rescuing. The bus lurched to a stop 200 feet in front of us, and we grabbed our bags, still clutching our food uncovered, and ran, like the bus could still very well leave us behind.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

This cow is sick

“This cow is sick,” Carlos says. It is lying on its side. He lassos the cow in one swoop, and directs it to a pasture closer to the barn, keeping the cow in front like he is walking a dog. Something is poking out of its rear, and going back in, and I think it is some sort of internal organ, and I try to maintain my composure and withhold my disgust to feign as if this was ordinary occurrence in my life as a farmer. (Although I’m pretty sure I lost these points from the start, exclaiming excitedly to my host-mom, Ana, that they fed the cows pineapple and papaya cascaras, and she looked back at me, and said, flat-toned but surprised, “You’ve never seen that?”) I try to ask Carlos what the sickness is, but don’t understand the response. Two hours later, we are back with the cow and Christian, one of the owners, is here, using a long plastic glove to stick his hand in the rear of the cow. I watch in horror as a small hoof, then two, start to emerge in Christian’s hand. Now, Carlos is grabbing one leg, and Christian has the other, and they are both pulling full force as if it is tug-of-war against the cow. I feel as if I am watching a magician, fixated on every detail to see how it could possibly be. I feel incredulous still as a tongue lolls out, head, eyes rolled back covered in this yellow mucus. Legs strained stretched straight out, they appear as if they are going to break off. Floop, Christian and Carlos stumble back as the calf crashes onto the ground, collapses head first, in a heap, legs buckled, lolled tongue out, slime fur ball. I let my breathe out, relieved that it all has come out in one piece, and that the mother is okay. The air is heavy and still. “Muerto,” Christian states. It is still.

We are all fixated on this body, though, that has just emerged from another. Just then, its sides waver, hesitate in and out. Christian swoops over to pull the mucus membrane out of its mouth. It shakes its head as if it has just emerged from a deep slumber. “Shit, I thought it was dead,” Carlos states. We stand there, me, Carlos, Christian, mother. It is as if the mother has yet to discover what has happened, and is as surprised and apprehensive as we are in realizing what is lying there in front of us. Her nostrils flare as she approaches slowly, sniffs it cautiously, and then eagerly, dutifully, eyes wide, rushes the last two steps in to bathe the calf in her tongue swaths. We stand there speechless, silent, watching the tiny body. Christian lifts its leg to see what sex it is. Carlos finally kicks the mother’s head away, saying “hijo de puta, she almost ate its tail. I thought it was gonna eat the damn thing’s tail.” We smile and exchange knowing glances, and return our attention to the new creature. The calf is thin. It lies there, head erect, but unresponsive to the warm breathe blows and big rasps of tongue. The mother chews away the remnants of this yellow membrane in addition to licking off the bubbly slime foam. I am too stunned to be grossed out. Its long front limbs stretch in front of it like it is done lying there. It has figured out how to be an object in the outside world, and now it is ready to enter it as a furry subject unsure of what this leg does and that. Oh, strain upwards, lie down, collect oneself, strain upward, lie down, that is too much for it at the moment. Finally, out of the stillness, Christian smiles at my mesmerized face, and says gently, “Vamos, a ordenar” and I follow walking sideways, head turned back to the calf. Will it stand up? What will the mother do next? I want to see it take its first wobbly steps and see its muzzle furs collect too eager froth dribbles of milk.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Forest Mountain Micro-organisms (Continued)

Day 1:
Gabriel sits down with me to eat lunch, and I ask him, “Are you prepared to go to Nicaragua this upcoming week?” “I am busy preparing the projects. It should take eight years to complete, I have five projects to set up there, and three in San Carlos. So Tuesday, or maybe even tomorrow, we will check if the rice will be ready.” Gabriel begins to explain the rest of the formula. I feel like I should be taking notes between my mouthfuls of cabbage. I want to ask how much of everything, and if you have to mix it together in a special way, but I concede with, “Tomorrow or Tuesday, you are going to prepare it? Can I watch?” “Yes, yes, of course. That’s why you’re here.” I breathe a sigh of relief.

He says that he had started teaching this formula to farmers all over Zarcero, that he could have made millions, but he wanted to give them a present, he wanted, to teach. And then, someone took this idea, and started a business, selling small bottles of the microorganisms for 20 dollars when it only cost 2 dollars to make each bottle. He shakes his head. “In Nicaragua, there is no way people can afford that. I want to make it way cheaper for them. But, I know the empresas will get mad at me again.”
“Why did they get angry at you?” I ask.
“Well, after I started teaching this to everyone, I was being interviewed, I was on the radio and the television. Stupid,” he says. “I should have known better. Well, people stopped buying chemical fertilizers from the empresas. Demand went way down, and that’s when I began receiving threats. They called me on the phone, and threatened to kill me. That big greenhouse on the top of the hill,” he points, “he was my friend, but the chemical businesses gave him money to kill me. He put venom in my coffee, and of course, as you know, I drink a lot of coffee, (he does drink a lot of coffee) it is my fuel, and he tried to kill me. So then, I got nervous. I got nervous and I got quiet. That was ten years ago, so that was when I went to Japan. I went to Japan to study and learn. (He is always talking about Japan). Now I am back, and that’s why I’m going to do work in Nicaragua. It is safer for me there, but they could follow me. I have to be careful.”

Day 2: Gabriel shows up at my work using my host-sister’s boyfriend’s car to collect 4-gallon containers for the formula.

Day 3: Finally, we are back. I have escaped the tomato farm early after another day of hanging mercates. (Although, there is one thing out of the ordinary: Carlos’s father’s girlfriend tells me that her sister apparently wants to “conocerme” (get to know me/meet me) and go on a weekend trip with me). It is 2:00 pm and we are heading out before it rains, shuffling quickly, (as is Gabriel’s normal pace.) Gabriel again carries his machete in hand, waving it around like a wand as it serves as an extension of his hand when he talks. I had been wondering last time why he had carried one, and this time he explains: “For wild animals. Here, at this altitude, there aren’t culebras, but just in case. In Nicaragua, also for people, for thieves.” Shuffle, shuffle, stop. Wild mustard, we eat some (spicy arugula taste). Shuffle shuffle stop. A shoot growing off a tree. (also medicinal). Shuffle shuffle stop. Avocado tree. Gabriel explains how to combine two species of avocado. When we arrive at the first rice packet burial, Gabriel sticks the machete in the ground.

We descend. I am like a child awaiting my first Christmas present. Gabriel takes off the rubber bands and uncovers the fabric covering. Sure enough, purple bacteria have colonized a spot along with a faster spreading yellow color, and two small spots of green. Wow. As we uncover the other packets, the yellow bacteria is most prevalent, called celulitica. One of the packets has gone missing, and Gabriel claims it was a thief. “It was a thief, how unlucky. It was a thief,” he repeats. (Upon leaving, we find the empty container. An animal, not a thief, has eaten our rice.) What do you know? It is milking time right as we are leaving, meaning we join the train of cows back up the cow path. It is slow moving, and Gabriel prods the last fat slowpoke cow every so often. She is so large that we hear the “tick” of the electric fence shock her once, twice as her sides bump against the wire. Of course, she stops to pee, and even as we back off hurriedly, the pee splashes up at us from the concrete path.

Gabriel has collected almost all the ingredients he needs, but we stop at the nearest lecheria to fill up the gallon jug of milk so that it hasn’t yet been pasteurized, and has good bacteria brewing. We get warm milk right out of the now-pumping milk tube. Gabriel covers it with his rain jacket (since the company Dos Pinos that buys milk from every farm in Zarcero won’t let you sell milk to anyone else but them), and the owner waives off Gabriel’s attempt to pay him. Gabriel runs off once more to get molasses from a neighbor, and we are ready. In case you want to make some:

Gabriel’s recipe for organic micro-organism fertilizer
450 g bread yeast (Gabriel says the bread yeast addition was his invention, that he did an experiment, one with the yeast, and one without, and his yeast addition had twice the amount of bacteria as the other)
250 cc alcohol (to accelerate fermentation)
200 cc vegetable oil
20 g salt
2 L milk
2 L molasses
4 eggs (or blood)
15 L warm water
dash of soy sauce
6 packets of forest micro-organism rice

The most important part is that once you have combined everything and put it in a large container (it must be plastic with a cap) you have to open the cap of the container every hour for 24 hours or it will explode. After 5 minutes of closing the container, sure enough the sides and top have swelled. Every 45 minutes or so, Gabriel jumps up from watching TV, saying, "Casi me olvide" and then grabbing me to show how much the container had swelled. (I'm not sure how every hour tonight is going to go). Last time, he said he fell asleep at 1 am by accident and it exploded all over the kitchen. In 24 hours, Gabriel says, 48 generations of micro-organisms will have reproduced.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Where I am (Interlude)

La Leguna de Zarcero is up and down. It is 2000 meters above sea level. Translation: on my 3 mile hike to work, I can hear myself breathing heavy up the hills, and feel my lungs large, shrink, large, shrink, large like the air is not filled with much of anything. At the top of the hill, I can see the clouds settle in the valley below me. One-inch moss hanging onto fence posts indicates the heavy fog and mist that engulfs this land. The hills are green and lush and dotted with Holstein and Jersey cattle. Sections of terraced soil rise in soft steps off the road, ready to be filled with cabbage, potatoes, carrots or remolachas. Invernaderos (greenhouses) are scattered about. The owners are white (Spanish) and the workers are brown (Nicaraguan). The houses are barless, doors are open. A car stops as I am walking, and I smile and say “no, thank you, I am close.”

I, I am up and I am down. I am up, up, up, sipping agua dulce at 6 am, walking from the clouds into a pink sky at 6 pm. I am up sneaking my roadside goat friend a guava snack. I love this walk. I am up capturing forest micro-organisms in the bosque.

Other times I am down, trellising tomatoes with mercates, head down, eight hours alone (well, near Ezekiel, who leaves my hello alone or grunts when I ask how, and so I watch, and follow along) and I think and I talk to, and sometimes fight with myself in my head. I like to think, debate, ponder, dream, plan in my head, but there’s a point when thinking gets too heavy and too much, and my thoughts become angry and silent, and they build and I stop thinking and am just counting: one, two, three, four,…fourteen un-winds it takes to hang the mercates so that the thread just touches from the alhambre to the ground. And all I can see is the end of the row, fast, fast, faster, unwinding, wrist, wrist, wrist, and now it is a secret race: can I un-wind, pull, yank, calculate, hook faster than Ezekiel, who works fast, steady, whistling, never stopping to take a drink, always un-winding just enough twine?

But my angry thoughts are still there, and finally the day is over and I am still bitter riding home silently, sullenly, and I walk in the door, home, and Kristen is calling to check in. I don’t have a chance to filter myself. It is all there waiting no longer, automatically, systematically, there. “How are you?” I erupt, voice high, “okay,” I squeak out, already gasping to talk, tears brimming, words stuck, Ana walking up from the road, opening the door, fresh bread loaves in hand, Gabriel right there on the coach. I try to clear my throat, “ahem,” tears spilling, “what sorts of things have you been doing?”  “…tomatoes…--It’s just (gasp) not what I—I’m okay, I don’t know why I’m so—“ “sentimental,” Ana fills in. “It’s just I didn’t think I would be doing the same thing all day with tomatoes.” There, it's out. And Gabriel goes off: “He was supposed to show you…I told him you weren’t just another…" he shakes his head, "You’re going to work in the school and la ganaderia…” We sit, me facing Gabriel and Ana, bread loaves on floor. 

It is better now. Now I work at the lecheria once or twice a week, escaping the tomates. Hi, I am Spencer, can I work with you? I stir a vat of liquid manure that pumps into a giant irrigation sprinkler and I talk with Carlos (the 2nd), about our family, about the breeds of cows, about our homes. We feed the cattle wheelbarrows of pineapple and papaya cascaras. I grip a bucket of milk for the cutest chiquitica calf to slurp and bob and splash. I learn how to milk the 28 cows with machine tubes. I am still in a place of ups and downs, but it is better now. This is where I am.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Forest Mountain Micro-organisms

“You need three things for organic production: organic matter, micro-organisms, and nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, boron),” states Carlos Huertas, my 24 year old boss. In the first day of my internship (semi-organic vegetable (tomato) farm), Gabriel, my 45 year-old host father organic agriculture consultant Danny Devito character, and I follow Carlos around as he walks in circles turning on this irrigation tube, and hand-watering those seedlings. We follow him into the garage where Gabriel explains the barrels of organic chemicals by saying, “If you take a spoonful of this, it won’t kill you. If you take a spoonful of non-organic chemicals, it will kill you.” He gestures towards the EM (effective microorganism) liquid vat. Carlos proceeds to gather some tools and head out as Gabriel continues to explain, you add molasses, which the micro-organisms eat and then reproduce rapidly. It needs an anaerobic environment for bacteria in the production of EM, muy importante, in order to kill off the bad bacteria such as salmonella and E. Coli.

In my first week here, Gabriel has mentioned at least a few times this EM, los microorganismos del bosque, the microorganisms of the forest, this seemingly secret forest formula that he has taught to Carlos and others. I have tried to get more out of him: what exactly are they and how do you capture them and bring them here to this vat of molasses liquid to spread on the tomatoes’ soil? but his only response has been, “sometime I will show you.”

Carlos’s style is a bit less informative, either I am watching him use the gas stove to repair an irrigation tube in silence, and then he is handing me the tube to try it myself, or I am working for eight hours alone in the greenhouse lowering and pruning and trellising the thousand tomato plants there, after which Carlos finally shows up from wherever he has been, grins, and pats me hard twice on the back.

Yes, Gabriel, on the other hand, from the get go, has been intent on speaking to me about agriculture. These opportunities, unfortunately, arise during my time off, during dinner, while watching TV, or brushing my teeth. Nonetheless, I am content to have my mind buzzing with Spanish agricultural terms on Saturday morning, as I follow Gabriel off to the Zarcero farmers’ market and then to the hydroponic lettuce and tomato farm. We have just gotten back, had lunch, and I am sitting down to talk to my mom on the computer, and Gabriel stands in my doorway and says, “Vamos a la Montana, a la bosque para recoger los microorganismos. I want to go before it rains and it might be raining tomorrow so listo? Vamos.” I take off my headphones and pop off my bed, intrigued and amused to finally be capturing the microorganisms from the mountain forest. We set out, and after ten minutes of walking uphill, we are turning off the road onto a cowpath that winds down around the mountain. (Let me first explain that Zarcero is in the mountains, and going any direction either involves going up or down, so going down to get to the mountain was not unusual). Gabriel is carrying a pink bag filled with plastic ribbons and six packets of cooked rice. I should have realized when we set out that Gabriel was wearing tall rubber boots with jeans tucked inside them for a reason. He was also carrying a machete, which he would use to point to things along the way. (After almost getting knicked by it once, I kept myself out of range.) I, on the other hand, felt like a city boy in my special clean weekend outfit: converses, corduroys, and only unstained plain white T-shirt (since unlike yesterday I figure I will not be stirring a cement pond of cowshit water and moving the shitwater tubes and its irrigation pump to different areas of the field). Oh well, the cowpath was muddy with cowshit and occasional full cowpies. It was also narrow with electric, ticking wires marking either side, rendering sidestepping a less appealing option. Now, we were cutting off the path, lowering ourselves well under this electric wire (my hitting-the-rucking-pad-under-the-stick practice coming in handy), and trudging through knee-high grass across the pastures, and under more wire.

The tall (montane humid) forest is finally looming below us, on a steep steep slope leading into a mountain stream. We step downward, sideways, backward, into the forest, into “suelo muy suave,” Gabriel states, a ground that sinks with each step, thick and rich with decomposing leaf matter from the dense foliage. Gabriel starts digging around, perched diagonally on the slope, rummaging through this soil and that, glasses becoming speckled with dirt, holding the soil up to his nose. “Huele, smell this soil,” he says. I let him drop the soil into my cupped hands.

It is the best soil smell I have ever smelt. It is a sweet sweet deep earth pine must. I feel as if I am a mole, smelling only the sweet dank earthy depths below the ground.  Or else, I am standing with my eyes closed in Ilana’s basement cedar closet. I proceed to smell this patch of soil, and that. I can’t stop smelling its sweetness, its fullness, I want to roll in it and plant things in it and I am more than pleased to be sitting sunken in the humus slope getting high on soil with Gabriel. He says that if you have soil that smells like that, you can grow anything. I don’t need more convincing.

We were like goats scampering from level to level. I was careful not to brace onto anything anymore for balance after getting pricked by tens of tiny invisible bamboo hairs like baby porcupine quills. Lower into this forest, “huesos,” Gabriel says. I look and see a cow skull in the soil. Gabriel starts digging around in it, pulls out the jawbone, and sticks the rice packet where the brain might be. “Calcio y fosforo” he says. The bone has calcium and phosphorus that is decomposing into the soil. He makes me smell this soil too, and it is less sweet, but it is the richest soil that I have felt, reminding me even of fresh worm castings. It is not too sandy or clay-ey, but moist and soft and smooth and crumbly. It appears as if it has been sifted like brown sugar and it is a deep deep chocolate brown. Another packet Gabriel tucks in a rock crevice where algae and lichen cling to the rock’s surface. Still another he  buries next to a special leguminous tree. Gabriel buries the remainder of the six rice packets in distinct spots, marking them each with ribbons. “This you can’t learn in books,” he says. Well shit, I think to myself, eyes wide, I better take note. I could use some farming magic. Only I don’t know what microormitizas or armicigas are, nor would I know what they were in English, and I wish that Heather Rose or Kate were here to explain to me these secret science organisms right before my eyes.

This much I got: he was finding areas with different types of micro-organisms, burying the rice packets shallowly and covering them with leaves so that the organisms would enter the rice since it has a lot of proteins and carbohydrates. The leaves would protect the rice from the rain. Apparently, the organisms will also magically turn the rice different colors as they multiply. Then, we will somehow transfer these little guys into water, producing 40 liters of microorganism fertilizer. But, until then, now, we wait. In three days we will collect our rainbow rice packets and capture our micro-organism feast. To be continued…

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Street Vending in San Jose, the Muni, and Sonia’s Immigration Policy

Wrapped umbrellas swing from hips. Limes perch in a cardboard box. A green-eyed guy with a backpack blows out a stream of bubbles onto the Avenida Central. Katie, my classmate, and I keep an eye out for the muni. This is our homework—to interview five street vendors of San Jose. Subsequently, I have begun counting the “muni,” 4,6,…18, evading any eye contact, and if they walk our way, we walk the other. A lookout vendor lets out a low whistle and women carrying hangers of bright shoelaces sweep their products into their big purses; the fruit vendors hoist their boxes onto one shoulder and start walking; an umbrella woman walks briskly ahead of another, looking behind her, as two “muni” officers stroll into this new, vacant scene. Street vending in San Jose is like a covert, creative network that appears and disappears in an instant, hanging tenuously under the noses of navy blue and bright yellow uniformed “muni” police officers. These vendors are part of the informal sector (IS), the unregistered, unregulated, yet legal micro-enterprises that take place outside of state control. The vendors buy small products typically from a store, and sell them for (from what I found) double that amount on the street. More women than men work in this sector, and many immigrants (mostly Nicaraguan) work here, those with less access to capital (Cross 1998). If the “muni” catches them (which they do, but not as often as I would think) they take away all of their products. The only enemy and disadvantage they mentioned was the “muni,” the municipality. They said they make in two days what they would make in a factory in one week. No, they don’t prefer that work. They have social security. They work every day of the week typically from 6 am to 7 pm, they say. Sonia has told me that they all work for “the Colombians,” that they are the ones who gain money to buy drugs from this work. One person did say she bought her products from “the Colombians”…

(Let me explain, though, a little bit about Sonia. She is conservative, and racist when it comes to Nicaraguans and immigration, and more than adamant about her views, always ending a dinner conversation rant with “Am I right? Do you agree with me?” directed forcefully at me, her eyes wide. I have given up trying to defend my position (non-confrontationally, diplomatically,) after Sonia has used my slower pace of Spanish speech to regain control of the conversation. Now I just take a mouthful of food and defer to William (her friend that lives with us). When I told her our class was going to San Sebastian (a Nicaraguan immigrant community outside of San Jose) she said, “Oh, are you going to the jail?” When I tried to explain what we were learning about immigration in class, she went on a rant that included motioning her thumb to her mouth “Nicas…borrachos, (drunks)”… “taking our jobs, violence, violence, violence.” Sonia feeds the guard of our neighborhood every night after we finish dinner, (I think as her way of payment,) bringing a full plate outside, calling out “Guarda” from behind the bars (typical of almost every house outside of San Jose) and saying to me, “I don’t know his name, nor do I want to know his name” (He is Nicaraguan). Yet, Iliana, our neighbor who eats breakfast with Sonia and Julita every morning, is Nicaraguan. Sonia has explained this by saying, “It is isn’t discrimination. I have good friends who are Nicaraguan, but our system cannot support them when we have our own people to feed.” Keep in mind, Sonia and Julita are also immigrants, from Cuba. (But I follow the laws, she would say). (You are also lighter-skinned and middle class, I would say). Anyway, I guess most people have some contradictions in their politics.)

We have begun interviewing the bubble guy… “How long have you been working here? Do you sell other things, besides bubbles? Where are you from?” He pauses in answering our question in order to blow out a long, stream of bubbles. “Sabanilla.” “What hours do you work?” He screws the top on his bubble bottle, and pulls up the straps of his plastic bag, encasing his bubble collection. In the same swoop, his friend comes over and grabs it up and starts walking. “Todo el dia… 6 a las 7, todos los dias.” The bubble guy is steadily looking past us, half-smiling like he is pleased with himself, and I turn to look. The muni have just appeared. He explains that the muni know his face because they have taken his stuff before, so now he works with his friend as a form of protection. As we are walking down la Avenida Central, we start to get frustrated. Where are all the street vendors? It is then that we realize we have been walking in stride with two muni officers across the street. We stop and wait until the “Sombrillas, Sombrillas…” chatter starts up and products appear as if out of nowhere. We talk with a thirteen year old girl selling bra straps; we talk with a woman who has been working on the street for 40 years, her dad trained her when she was four; we are denied by an umbrella woman because she says she is on lookout duty for her group; we talk with a Nicaraguan lime guy who we can’t understand between the car traffic and his rapid slurred speech; we talk with a shoelace woman who we see ten minutes later now selling umbrellas. As the rain starts to pour down, it seems as though everyone is selling sombrillas. I put up the hood of my rainjacket (and yes, Lynne, it is still the one that is too small for me that I took from one of your camp children and sewed up) and tuck my soggy interview paper into my jacket.

The temblor and the scared gringo

The day before my birthday there was an earthquake, a temblor, not a terremoto, but it was strong, nonetheless, not strong enough to knock dishes off the shelves, but strong enough to make me stumble to regain my balance and give me a good scare. I was washing dishes (I know, a rare exception in Sonia’s home) and the floor started shaking. I finished washing my dish and placing it in its dish rack, not knowing what to think, or do in the case of an earthquake, and concluding that I might as well finish what I was doing. Then, there was a stronger rumble, and Sonia and Julita were yelling at me and waving a hand at me to come over to the door. I stood with them in fear, ready for the floor to open up and me to fall into the gaping breach. Well, that was it, and the floor did not open up. I didn’t think I looked that scared, but Sonia and Julita wouldn’t let go of it.

After the earthquake, Sonia called Juanca, her nephew, and then spoke with the neighbors, and then the Guard (the one that is not Nicaraguan), each time chuckling and recounting “y mi hijo no sabia lo que estaba pasando. Tenia mucho miedo, sus ojos muy grandes. Fue la primera vez que lo habia sentido. Pienso que el no sabia que hubiera temblores aqui.” (And my boy didn’t even know what was happening. He was so scared. His eyes were so wide. It was the first time that he had even felt one and I don’t even think he even knew that there were earthquakes here.) So I became the evening chisme, the scared gringo.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Gymnastic playground foam pit playground

This weekend, I decided to decline classmates’ requests that I go with them to the beach or this hiking place, because, well, I have been thinking lately about why it is (or was) that I wanted to come to Costa Rica in the first place, and I remembered that I felt it important to do some stuff on my own and was excited about venturing out in a new place. So that is just what I did. Saturday I informed Sonia and Tia Julita at 7am that I was going out walking to Cartago. “What, mi hijo?” they responded, “you are going to do what?” Cartago is 17 km away along a busy road. “Don’t worry, I am going to take the bus back.” After giving me a look of worry and disapproval, Sonia opened up the door for me, blessed me “Que dios te lo acompana,” and sent me out. I ended up in Tres Rios instead, which could have been the same thing to me, but I was happy just to be out walking, observing things that I can’t observe with other people around. Along the way, only about two miles from my house, is the Gymnastics Club/Parkour. I had passed it once before, but was apprehensive. Now that I was intent on trying new things here, I decided it was time. Luckily, there was a class on Sunday at 9 am.

La hora Tica—I shouldn’t have worried that I was the first one there and the building locked. Upon entering, I knew that this place was my dream of a giant playground for adults come true—a trampoline, springy floor, a vault like a diving board into a foam pit, rings dangling way above my head like I imagine it would feel like to fly, parallel bars (again I imagined flying like a trapeze artist from bar to bar), lots and lots and lots of squishy pad things, perfect for Lynne and my yet to be fulfilled obstacle course.

After coming back from my spell of awe, I observed for cues as to what I should do, filing into a jogging line. Warm-up kicked my ass, (what is the rest going to be like?), but it felt so good to feel my body working, every part of me, pushing it to limits again, something I haven’t really done since high school.

There were about 20 teenage-adult guys, one badass pre-teenage girl, and a few other teenage-adult girls. At first we were all just jogging (bouncing) in a circle on the bouncy gymnast floor, and doing a little sprinting, and then we were doing jumping, and then a break for stretching for literally 30 seconds, and then push-ups and mountain climbers and push-up jumps and more jumps and abs and ab-jumps and at this point I was sweating thoroughly through my shirt and out of breath and that’s just when we got to handstands where we were supposed to walk on our hands forward and backward and side to side, (which consisted of me springing upside down, moving my hands eagerly forward like a toddler trying to run, and tumbling, legs splaying one way or another, and bouncing up to try again) and then we were doing head-stand push-ups and before I could stop to take a drink, people were doing repetitions and routines of back flips and front handsprings across the floor, like you see in the Olympics and stuff and I think this was still warm-up but I must have missed the point when different levels separate off, in my excitement to try everything I could—that, and watching in awe at the others, when finally the instructor guy came over to me and I was like “So, I haven’t done much gymnastics before,” and he was like “You’re just beginning. Go over to the bar with the muchachas.”

Thankfully, I joined two probably 15 year old girls, slender with braces, who were very nice and were like “Yeah, the first time I showed up, I was like oh my god,” jaw dropping, in reference to the warm-up routine. We all laughed nervously and they showed me how to do beginner bar exercises, the three of us side by side on the bar,  jumping up from pad blocks to hold ourselves on the bar in unison, as others did flips and vaults into the pit of big squishy foam blocks, which reminded me of a McDonalds playground’s ball pit. Others ran up padded walls and flipped upside down in order to jump off the wall (parkour). And still others did balance beam work and floor routines. It was like a zoo of a playground. We practiced handstand forward rolls next, and then (as I had been eyeing the trampoline the whole time) the instructor was like you can do beam exercises or the trampoline and I almost interrupted him to state, “I love the trampoline,” and so off we went, spending the last 45 minutes on the trampoline, which afforded us each like a million turns, at least ten times the number of turns we got each day at camp. The two girls hadn’t even done trampoline before, and couldn’t do a seat drop at first, so I got to teach them how to do seat drops and seat to belly and swivel hips, trying to explain it all in Spanish, and then they just started imitating my moves and out of nowhere, (I guess they were sick of the easy stuff) just bounced into a front flip.

It made me so happy to feel like I was at camp again and that I was around girls and not boys and I felt my girls’ camp pride return and I even really liked that the instructor referred to the three of us as “muchachas” (the feminine form) which no one here except for a few people saying ella but then correcting themselves, has done. (Of course, no one has bothered to ask). I was the happiest (and the most tired and exhilarated and thirsty all at the same time).

I watched parkour practice for a bit after class (and stretched necessarily), and then I practically bounced out of the gym, beaming, light-headed, and free, walking a few miles to the farmers’ market where I bought lots of papaya and jocote and pejiballe and I was so happy that I bought a bouquet of flowers for Sonia and Julita and then as I am walking home with my full backpack and really sweaty t-shirt, holding my bright pink and yellow flower bouquet in front of me with both hands, this guy approached me and was like excuse me, do you have 200 colones (40 cents) to spare for the bus, and he just looked so genuine and I was so happy and I was just looking at him, and he was looking at me in the eye and I couldn’t just walk away (despite being chided again and again about tricks people use to take your wallet), so I gave him the change I had, which was not 200 colones, but he thanked me and walked off  and I knew that the situation was going to be fine anyway because how could anything go wrong when you feel like you are all light all over spilling over with happiness and besides, you are carrying bright flowers home for your mom like you have just won them and how could someone steal those because they know and they feel like you have just won them and your energy is so strong that nothing can break it. Next time I am going to ask to play in the foam pit (or I guess I should say vault).

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


We went to Nicaragua for a week, three days of which we stayed with a host family, each of us in a separate one. I stepped into a taxi with Samantha, my host-second cousin, who is two years old with big brown eyes, and my host mom, Susie. “Guantanamera” is soothingly blasting. Samantha is staring at me furtively from Susie’s lap, and my impulse is to smile and stare back, but I don’t want to seem creepy especially as a first impression in front of Susie. I abashedly look over at Samantha and she looks away and smiles and I look away and smile and then we both look at each other, catching our eyes in the other and we look away and smile and smile… and then I realize I’m supposed to be an adult and I try to plan what to say to Susie. The only think that comes to mind is asking her about her experience of the Samoza dictatorship or if she has a bean crop that has washed away in the flood as David has of course recommended we ask. I chuckle at the absurdity of these first questions. I do feel like an observer here, though, in this unknown world of strings of Spanish slurs without “s’s” and bright bold houses on steep cement block streets.

As I enter the house, my host sister (25) is stepping out of the bathroom covered only by a small towel and I choose to turn my head rather than awkwardly say hi. There are supposedly three ways that latin americans customarily greet each other. Girls meeting girls hug and kiss on the cheek, guys meeting girls hug and kiss on the cheek, and guys meeting guys shake hands. I am still shy and awkward at greetings, not knowing if a particular greeting is just temporary and I should remain seated if I am so and only say hi, or other times, I will reach out a hand out of instinct to be met by a hand clasp that turns into an awkward half hug and someone kissing my cheek. Anyway, it is usually awkward for me, whatever happens or does not happen.

Mancho, my host brother, who looks around my age and is a handsome, muscle-y brown-skinned guy, is there, seated on the couch. I quickly decide that this must be a real greeting, he is my brother after all, and I stick out my hand. I am not ready, though, for any sort of tricky boy handshake. We grab hands, and I am focused on making sure my grip is firm and strong enough, while Mancho re-orients his hand so that his fingers slide around to grasp the top of my hand, and I am still trying to make sure that my fingers are mimicking his in a mirror image as he is pulling me in for a boy hug, arms blocking our chests, one arm extending around the other to pat each other’s backs once firmly. I am excited to be included in this boy mannerism but nervous that it is tenuous, that he will discover that I’m not a boy like him, and then how will we interact? So we sit on the coach watching TV, and I make sure that my ankle is resting on my opposite knee, legs wide, slouching deep in my seat. Dinner is ready for us and we sit side by side at the table, still watching the TV from a distance. I, with my fork and knife, cut into an egg-like mound on a corn tortilla. Mancho grasps the tortilla and egg in a sandwich-like fashion; he holds his sandwich with both hands, one on each side, elbows out wide, sinking his teeth in with large bites. I quickly disgard my fork and knife, sacrificing my table manners in front of Susie, and follow suit. The both of us side by side chomp into our tortilla egg sandwiches like hamburgers, swallowing big mouthfuls without chewing too long, eyes fixated on the TV (which I think was actually a telenovela ☺ ).

Mancho speaks very quickly, and the Nicaraguan accent, not pronouncing the “s” at the end of words, made it sound all the more like one long word jumbled together. After the second day, though, I was impressed at my ability to understand him, not thrusting “Como?” back at him after his every question. I had successfully gotten our handshake down, and we were seated at the dinner table again after he had just gotten back from work and me from school. I asked him what he did for work (I couldn’t understand his answer, but caught that it was close by, in Matagalpa) and how much he worked (6am-7pm) and he asks me about my tattoo. A pause. Suzie and my host sister Raquel leave the table, so it is just us now, one on one. He asks me if I use anything in my hair. I say no, just the rain. He proceeds to show me his large jar of orange “Bronco” gel. We sit there eating. “Do you have a girlfriend?” He asks, nodding and grinning at me. “No,” I say. That is a more simple response. “That girl who was in here earlier is my girlfriend.” “Oh, she is pretty,” I  say. “Yeah, it’s hard,” he says. “Yeah,” I say, unsure of what I’m agreeing to. “I’ve had 20 girlfriends in total.” “Oh,” I say, taking a big gulp of the sweet purple drink in front of me, stalling time for a response, “that’s a lot,” I reply, not wanting to reinforce his machismo with an eager affirmation, but also unwilling to give up my boy alliance. I hope that it’s not my turn to calculate and tell how many girlfriends I’ve had. Luckily, Mancho keeps going, “and the one in here today was just one of them.” I am confused if he’s talking about the present or the past but now Suzie comes back into the room, and our secret boy conversation is over and I am relieved not to have to ask Mancho any questions about his girlfriends.


It has become some sort of routine now. What tourists don’t think of when they think of Costa Rica I’m pretty sure is rain. They are ready for Costa Rica where the sun is always shining (among other things like no people in houses with tin roofs or dirt floors or the air smelling of stale fire smoke, or chip wrappers clogging the gutters). But, it rains a lot here. And by a lot I mean constantly in September and October. It is raining when I wake up and when I go running and when I go to school. It is raining when I come home and go to sleep. Rain pours out of a drain in the cement wall like a (US) showerhead left on full stream. The water skirts around my shoe like a rock in the river. The rivers run brown from soil washing down the hillsides, collecting in sediment that will raise the river's floor and make floods more likely. Nicaragua has lost 80% of its bean crop because of the floods. The sky is grey. So, like I said it has become some sort of routine now:
“Strip!” Sonia demands.
“Quitese la ropa para que puedo lavarlos de inmediato.”
“But they are only wet, they aren’t dirty. I can hang them—”
“Son muy sucios, mi amor.”
Sonia has already caught onto my habit of stashing away clothes that I have already worn once or twice, hanging a shirt discretely behind others so she won’t notice. Well, she is too clever for that. Every day I return to my pink hamper empty, in addition to a couple of other items that I am sure I did not place in the hamper.
 “No se los guardan.” She warns me, shaking her finger at me, and smiling un poco endearingly. I can’t help but half-smile, “Si, si,” and let her lead me into my room, leaving me there to peal off my soggy pants.

Ex-Trabajadores Bananeros afectados del Nemagon Saludan

This is their banner. Ex-Banana Workers affected by Nemagon Welcome you. Across from the National Assembly in the capital city, Managua, of Nicaragua, lives a community of 500 ex-banana workers and their families from Chinandega. And what was I doing here? We (group of study abroad students) came here to interview some of the residents about their situation. It is a city (two blocks) of black plastic, of cardboard, and tree branches. It is a city of resistance, of death, of hope, and survival. A bean plant grows between the cement sidewalk and a woman’s black plastic wall, curling up its wood pole. Seedlings sprout out of black plastic bags, which the ex-workers will sell in the market. For five years, they have camped out right here in the face of the government. For eighteen years they have been fighting for reparations for their multiple health problems caused by the pesticide Nemagon. Nemagon was outlawed in the US in 1979; Dow and Shell exported millions of pounds of this pesticide in the 1970s and 80s to Nicaragua until it was banned here in 1985 (Revista Envio, June 2005).

What was I doing here, poking into houses of people who probably did not want to talk to me, or tell me about their scars and their poverty so that I could write down their names and their illnesses in my soggy notebook? Maria Feli, who I had just met by swooping under a plastic overhang in front of her house with insensitive Kathy leading, and soft-spoken Molly in tow, ushers us into her house. She pulls up her pant leg to show us a spotted purple rash. It was 30 years ago that she left her work on the banana plantation. She worked there for 15 years, deflowering, packing the bananas, body constantly exposed to the contaminated water. Purple rashes itch on ankles, legs, arms. Some have stomach cancer, asthma, sterility, children with deformities. Maria Feli’s husband, who worked in the banana fields, has gone blind from the poison. Many have died. 2,520 deaths, Guillermo Vivas, says. He is their vice-president, saying all they are asking for is a guaranteed pension and access to special treatment for their illnesses. The three ex-workers that I spoke with said that they have access to a doctor now, that he comes once or twice a week. Ortega’s government is providing them with rice, beans, and oil. Is it enough? I ask. Es suficiente? Maria Feli and Yolanda, the two women I interviewed, dismiss my question, Yolanda simply saying yes, there is food. It is then that I realize the foolishness of my question. They are here alive. Regardless of how much food the government gives them, they will survive. (They have been surviving without this government assistance for 60+ years in a country where most of the population has learned to live day by day, learned because if it was not for the earthquake of 1931, or the earthquake of 1972 that destroyed 80 percent of Managua, then perhaps it was the Contra War or the thirty year dictatorship of the Samoza family that destabilized most of the population. Why plan for the future when everything could be destroyed, gone tomorrow?)

Ortega has also implemented a literacy campaign in their community, attempting to provide education up to the third-grade level. Next door to this camp, bulldozers roar, installing a low-income housing project, which, Guillermo says, he hopes will be given to the people of Chinandega. In 2001, these workers were finally successful in bringing a lawsuit against Dole, Dow, and Shell, in which these companies were ordered to pay $490 million in compensation, but they refused to pay.  They refuse to pay. Meanwhile, the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) threatens to nullify these lawsuits (Revista Envio, June 2005). CAFTA has commodified banana production in Nicaragua by making not only resources, but also bodies for sale. This commodification cannot be rectified within a neoliberal system in which people and land are disposable. The Chinandegan banana workers have resisted this neoliberal project through sustained community protest: marching from Chinandega to Managua, squatting the land, effecting a lawsuit, using hunger strikes, and other forms of protest (Revista Envio, June 2005). They are still fighting. They are still there. The transnationals still refuse to recognize them.

But aren’t things better now? Nemagon is no longer in use. Yes, well even pesticides that are not known to be dangerous to humans, affect workers´ health. Our white aging ecology prof, David Norman, explains to us how our bodies are chemically very similar to those of our pests. We develop new pesticides every five years because pests become resistant to these chemicals. And we are complicit. Despite the social movements of local people affected by these policies, the atrocities of nemagon will not disappear until we change our neoliberal development strategies, until we stop bodies from being sold in the free market, until development focuses on social objectives (health, education, fairer distribution of resources) rather than economic growth for the rich. Nemagon will not disappear until we look to the workers of our current neoliberal globalized system for clarity.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Lessons on floor humping: regaeton and machismo

Today, for class, we had one hour of a Latin Dance class. Our bronze Tico dance teacher, dressed in a tight black T-shirt, tells us we will practice merengue, salsa, and regaeton. Our class consists of 17 girls, and Gus (Harvard Jew) and me. Before class, I was nervous about the division of chicos and chicas for this class, but as we started warming up, doing all our moves together, everyone shaking their shoulders and moving their arms and hips, my worries diminished. Next, however, our teacher says "okay, chicos aqui" and "chicas alla." "Each of us gets six women," he says to me and Gus, asserting his masculine sex drive. "Chiste," he was joking. "Seis chicas seran chicos," (Six girls will be boys). Of course, it is necessary to divide us first into chicos and chicas at the risk of two of us chicos being partners for that would threaten masculine desire, and clearly it is also necessary to tell the girls that they are boys because they cannot really be boys, and of course, guys only like girls and girls only like boys.

Salsa and merengue end up being fun and silly besides our teacher singleing out Courtney,  a blonde, to dance with him, pulling her up too close and calling her "mi chica." He says, "chiki, chiki, chiki, chiki" to the rhythm. "El codigo (Elbow) sexy arms!" he instructs us. We stick our elbows out more to show off our sexy arm muscles.

Regaeton is next. This time he separates us again into chicos and chicas, but this time no girl will be a boy. Girls cannot hump the floor, obviously, as we will soon learn. Our teacher first teaches the chicas their part as Gus and I watch awkwardly and laugh nervously. Their moves include shaking their boobs, strutting adelante and atras, twirling, and striking a pose, "don't forget the arms," he scolds, and runs his hand down his face, his chest, his stomach, motioning toward his groin area.  Clearly, the chicas must tempt the men by exhibiting their luscious bodies.

Now, it is our turn. Gus expresses brotherhood and shows his true macho side by giving me a slap on the back and saying "Aright, we got this." The music "Rompe" begins with our first move: a simultaneous pelvis thrust and downward elbow jab. We repeat this four times, alternating sides, next, leaning back so that one of our hands is on the floor. We are ready for break-dancing position. Then, we turn over into push-up position, and widen our stance so that we can gyrate our hips emphatically, humping the foor, first in small motions, and then bigger, pumping our whole body down and up, down and up, in case it wasn't clear by our head nods that we are insertive sex machines. Taquila shouting "Yeah Spencer," affirming our masculine prowess. I glance over and see Gus, old-fashioned white new balances, snugly fit jeans revealing his high socks,  moving his ass up and down as if he is trying really hard to do a push-up. I see our teacher, furrowed brow, biting his lip. It looks as though his whole body is about to convulse. The chicas are laughing.

This was just practice. Now we had to do the "real thing" by putting them together. "Listos?" our teacher asks. He instructs Gus and I to go to the stair, not satisfied, he comes over to demonstrate by putting one foot up on the step, leaning against the wall with crossed arms. He gives a head nod to the chicas, telling me and Gus "como si estas en la esquina" (as if you are on the corner). The "real thing" clearly involves the guys checking the girls out from "the street corner," objectifying their hot bodies, as they shake their boobs and touch themselves, signaling the desire for male attention. Gus attempts to whistle so as to complete our objectifying privileged roles of asserting the male gaze. As they finish, our teacher gives first Gus, and then me a high five, (we are about to score some hot ass) and then he swaggers out to the dance floor, me and Gus following, although our swagger is not quite as manly. We take our fuerte male stances and begin our pelvis thrusting routine.

la feria agricultora and my avocado

Sonia knew that I wanted to work on a farm. I would also ask Sonia for the names of all the fruits, vegetables, and prepared dishes that we ate, and she would tell me, in both their Cuban and Tican (Costa Rican) names. Sonia makes many dishes and uses many types of food that I have never seen before, and to say the least, I cannot keep them all straight. (In Spanish class I was explaining how my host mom (Sonia) asked if I preferred papas fritas (french fries) or chichurrones and I said that I told her I preferred chichurrones, making Sonia very pleased. Chichurrones are pork rinds, whereas chichurritos are the cuban word for plaintain chips, which is what I meant to say. So the professor just thought I was crazy in mistaking chichurrones for the Tican name of plaintain chips, patonecas. She did not know what chichurritos were.) Anyway, besides Sonia knowing I was interested in farming and the names of food, the first day was no anomaly. I continue to eat large amounts of all of her delicious dishes at her insistence. So entonces, my excitement at being asked to accompany Sonia to the farmers’ market was no surprise.

At 8 am Sunday morning, Sonia, under 5 ft tall, and I, pulling a folded up shopping cart behind me, headed out to Zapote for the farmers’ market. Along the way, we stumbled upon my classmate Lauren, a lanky, soft-spoken blonde, at which point Sonia scooped her up with us. After a half hour of zigzagging our way along the streets of Curridabat, the three of us reached the market. It is the largest market I have ever seen. The orange, yellow, reds, and greens stack against each other, row upon row. There are juices and plants. There are pupusas and empanadas. Before we arrived, I had thought Sonia was just being overprotective when she said that we should have a meeting place in case one of us gets lost.

After watching Sonia barter for bruised platanos and carting around her rapidly accumulating produce, I tell Sonia I’d like to buy an avocado and some other produce for my lunches at school. We snake through the rows of papayas, bananas, brocoli, pina, Lauren dragging the cart now and me carrying Sonia’s three grocery bags. We get distracted by various fruits we have never seen before. “Que es esto?” “Pruebalo.” Or “Aqui.” And the vendor proceeds to cut open the guayabana or breaks open a mamon chino for me to try, Sonia always nearby perusing the produce, returning to us to place the boniatos in the cart and comment on the fruit (and trying some herself.) “Can I buy three of these jocotes?” I ask (The Jocote is a small fruit, of the same family as mangoes). “Take it.” “But…are you sure.” “Take it.” The vendor says.

I try to buy carrots and Sonia says “No. Tambien las necesito” and grabs them out of my hand while thrusting 1000 colones at the vendor for all of the carrots. She almost doesn’t let me buy strawberries, “Estas gastando el dinero,” (wasting my money) she mutters, says she has some at home, “ya.” When Sonia has wondered off in search of coliflor, instructing us to stay put, Lauren buys 6 cucumbers and I hurriedly buy two guayabas and some kind of orange.

As I am talking with a vendor in mid-sentence, Sonia approaches, coaxes the avocado out of my hand and steers me like a child away from the vendor. She says they are not good, estes aguacates no estan buenos, too green, and we will find others. Aquellos? I ask. She says those are too caro (expensive) and only “No,” with a look of disgust to another set. Another row over, she finally selects a green turning-black avocado for me, “Este.” She raises it up, admiring it in the sunlight, medium-sized, slightly soft to the touch.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Volcan Irazu

In coming to Costa Rica, I was determined not to buy into ecotourism for its problematic features (forcibly removing the people that live there in what are now National Parks, preventing the local people from using their own resources in the name of conservation and preservation, large numbers of gringos coming to "observe" local people, etc.). However,  after realizing that going to National Parks or to the beach was what all of my classmates were doing, and not knowing another option to suggest to them (besides inhaling exhaust fumes and dodging careening cars and people in San Jose), rather than spend another weekend at home with Sonia and Julia watching telenovelas inside (as much as I love them), I steered Gus, Harvard gap-year friend, and Sara, whitewater kayak instructor friend, toward a close option, a one-day trip to Volcan Irazu. I had, after all, never been to a volcano before.

That night I had a terrifying dream about a volcano in my room back at home that I was waiting for to erupt. Dad and Bridget scolded me about bringing the volcano into my room in the first place, and then finally I threw a lacrosse ball at it because I didn't want it to build up more pressure, and ran for dear life as it erupted and blew out part of the house.

Carrying my fleece jacket, rain jacket, and packet of galletas (cookies) all at Sonia's insistence, I head out at 6:45 am to meet up with the others. While we wait for the bus in front of the Gran Hotel, a sunburned, middle-aged white American guy and three others come up to us. He starts out with "Donde esta el teatro nacional?" which is right in front of us. "Esta aqui," Gus laughs and responds. "Are you guys American?...Well then what the hell am I speakin' to you in Spanish for? I thought you were from here." "Are you two brothers?" He motions to me and Gus." "How old are you son?" He asks me. "Twenty one!? No way. He must be usin' some kind of special shampoo or somethin." He half-whispers to Gus. "Come over here," his wife beckons with a camera, "You're a tourist."After taking his picture in front of the slanted bus stop sign, his wife asks us how long we've been here. (1 week). "Oh, well then tell me where to go! Tell me everything. Where have you been?" she demands, "we need to go organic coffee farm? Where? How did you get there?" It is then that I resign abashedly to my tourist identity.

An hour and a half later, past fields and fields of cebollas, and winding through farmland that flourishes from the rich, volcanic debris, where I wish to jump out and stay, planting my feet in the black soil, Gus convinces the National Park guide that we are residents, and so only have to pay 1000 colones (2$) instead of 10$. "Viven aqui?" She asks. "Somos estudiantes." "Well, what kind of work do you do?" Sara stumbles to say we are only visiting as students, when Gus jumps in and shows her our "ICADS" ID and mumbles " un medico (doctor) y el trabaja con el medio ambiente (environment)..."

I insist that we walk the 2 miles up the road instead of taking the bus the rest of the way. Pausing after a few words to inhale the crisp, thin thin air, we are distracted by giant-leaved vines. We stop for pictures, trying to figure out how to crawl through the brush so that we can take turns in front of these giant leaves for scale. As soon as we start walking again, we see the same plant even bigger, right by the side of the road. We again take turns with pictures, boasting about these new, better onesonly to realize 5 minutes later that these plants cover the entire terrain, as well as the volcano.

Leading up to the crater, the remnants of the volcano, is a wide flat stretch of grey and black sand with people dotted across it, reminding me of people wandering across a waste land. A kneeling blonde-haired woman blends in with the thin wheat grass patched across this expanse. Finally, we peer down into the crater, a deep, deep hole in the mountain like it has been hollowed out, mountain-top removal mining being the only thing I can compare it too. Immediately I want to get closer. It feels too far away to me, too big to look at from afar. My eyes lose their focus following the pattern of rocks, lines, down, across, out. Hints of brown, tan, and red, but mostly deep grey, medium, light grey. Grey, grey, grey. I am drawn to the ridge--a black sand peak snaking toward me like I could jump in and slide down its sides. I want to climb the rocks and feel them under my hands. I want to measure the ravines and cracks with my body. The water at the bottom is definitely not bright ice blue like the photos but looks like a mostly dried-up swamp with mud cracks.

As we hike up the road to the summit, I see what looks like a goat's path up to the right. I dart and leap up its slope. Crawling under our favorite giant-leafed plant, I look back to see that Gus and Sara are smirking but following hesitantly. The path winds around the brush and basaltic rock, and sneaks upward, open, black sand at our feet. Sara catches up to me. Gus emerges feet heavy up the hill breathing hard, "Just a sec." "Haha, good thing we have Spencer as our Ohioan tour guide," He smiles jokingly. We get to the top (3,432 m) and scramble to take out our cameras right as the fog comes rolling up the mountains and gives our pictures a nice blinding white backdrop to our smiling faces.  

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Cosas que he aprendido... Things I have learned on a rainy weekend at home with Sonia and Julia

"EsPen-sare," "mi hijo," "mi amor," or "Esteven" all refer to me.

When asked what you want to eat for dinner, do not try to be polite and say "No me importa" or you will get everything...a dinner of beans, rice, cheesy rice, platanos, ensalada, and chocolate cake.

When you are finished eating, you must exclaim, "Estoy lleno" and even still Sonia might demand "Mas suchini. Mas brocoli. Eres flaco. Coma, coma, coma. Mas, mas, mas."

Let Sonia translate everything that Julia says.

Do not try to go running if it is raining out (which it does for at least two hours every day). Yo miraba por la ventana y sin decir nada, Sonia ya sabia. Me informo, "Espensare, hay demasiado lluvia, no puedes correr hoy. Sientate mi amor." (I was looking out the window and without my saying anything, Sonia already knew. She informed me, "Espensare, there is too much rain. You cannot run today. Sit down, my love."

Handstands in my room are okay.

The streets do not have signs.


There are two cultural taboos I was informed of before arriving at my homestay in Costa Rica: Never go about the house barefoot and be clean-shower every day. I was informed that body odors were upsetting.  After hacer ejercicios on my first day at Sonia and Julia's home, I was pleased to remember that I must shower. Emerging from the shower dressed and clean, (I had even used my rock salt deodorant) I approached 87-year old Julia sitting in her rocking chair. "Descalzo!" She exclaimed. In my haste at having showered, I thought she said, "Te has duchado!" and I announced YES, in fact I had showered only to realize to my embarrassment that she was announcing that I was barefoot.