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.