Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Grand Finale

Bocas del Toro was my final trip here in Costa Rica. The next bus I’ll take (besides the one that takes me back after the internet café today, will take me to San José and eventually to the airport.

(I cannot even express how excited I am to fly again. But I won’t get into that now.)

Ems and I met up on the bus. It’d taken her from San José and picked me up in Guapiles en route to Panamá. And at the lunch stop, eating traditional and delicious almuerzo en hojas (lunch in leaves) that my host mom had made us, savoring the layers of tortillas, spiced mashed potatoes and eggs that had absorbed the flavor of the banana leaves, we agreed that it was shaping up to be an amazing weekend.

Her harrowing tale of her journey, which began waiting in a bar at 2am for a 3am bus was filled with wonderful signs that promised a beautiful weekend as had my much less harrowing tale. (Mine only started at 5:30 and included a nice taxi driver who’d dropped me off at the bus stop on the side of the highway and the ceviche preacher, a guy who sells ceviche (fish soup) at the bus stop and gives away religious pamphlets.

And of course the fact that we’d both made it onto the direct bus was a great sign.

After a good five hours of sleeping, we crossed the Panamanian border and hopped into a taxi with about 12 other people from the bus to the ferry to the Bocas del Toro archipelago. Being the smallest (which in this part of the world, is quite a surprise) or perhaps the blondest (not so much of a surprise), I sat on a pillow in between the driver’s seat and the passenger seat. During the hour long drive, the driver started out in stony silence, and ended up flirting in that horribly awkward old man way that was unfortunately less benign than old man flirting usually is.

Ems only laughed at me when I told her about it.

Finally on the main island, we found our hostel fresh with a big common room hung with hammocks and painted tangerine and lime green and littered with travelers.
There was a nice flat screen TV mounted on the wall that often showed re-runs of the Big Bang Theory and Friends and I’ll admit that it made me happy.
Also, it reminded me why I like hostel people so much. We scrounged dinner in the grocery store and made friends over a jenkey tuna salad, a bottle of coke and a bottle of rum. Then trooped out, sadly sans my partner in crime who, after being up for almost 24 hours, needed sleep.

Apparently the nightlife scene in Bocas takes place in hostels. We went to the big one, the famous one that’s famous for its nightlife and I was slightly jealous. It was grungy, to be sure, but you could tell that it was just plain awesome. In fact, a couple of hours into it, I met one of the receptionists that is not only transferring to Berkeley this semester, but is learning how to surf and climb, AND likes good music AND hates bad music (as judged by me).

I’ll admit to being a little apprehensive about returning to Bezerkeley. I mean, I’ve been gone for a year, why wouldn’t I be anxious? So it was lovely to meet someone in the same position.

Soon I was too tired and walked home, even though it was raining. When I got back, there was a group of hostellers sitting up on the top porch listening to music, and the sweet sounds of Louis Armstrong singing "What a Wonderful World" came drifting down. And it certainly was.

And if I thought that first night was awesome, I had no idea what was in store for the first full day.

I could build this whole thing up, explaining the morning, the early intensity of the sun and the curious lack of butterflies that accompanied the whole thing, but I’d rather not. I’d rather just jump into it.

You know when you build something up to yourself and then worry that it’ll let you down? I’ve been wanting to surf for 9 years.

9 years.

I looked into surf camp in 7th grade, in high school I jealously eyed those few who sometimes showed up with surfboards strapped to the tops of their cars and almost skipped school one day to drive down to Mavericks. My first year of college, I was determined that new beginnings was the perfect place to start things that I’d been wanting to do forever, like surfing and playing guitar. I even subscribed to a sear of Surf Magazine. By the time I got to Ireland, I was frustrated with the fact that I still had barely touched a surfboard and joined the surf club. Yea, like that was going to happen… not only was it cold as anything, but the exchange rate was killer and I couldn’t afford the cover for the trips. So when I got to Costa Rica I became obsessed with surf photography… those who can’t do, right?

So you can imagine the build up that I’ve created.

It was more glorious than I could have possibly imagined. And not just the fact that I, for once, stopped obsessing about the perfect, symbolic grand entrance and just did it.

I thought that paddling out would kill me, but apparently those push ups that I’ve been doing have been paying off.

I spent what felt like five hours trying, figuring out and convincing myself that I wouldn’t hit the coral or the rocks.

See Bocas is pretty much a strictly-expert surfing spot, but there is one beach that is good for beginners, except for the fact that it’s pretty far out and you have to watch out for coral and rocks if you get too close in. It’s safe, but I had to have someone who looked like she knew what she was doing reassure me of this fact.

The only thing that forced me back in after that first attempt was the guilt of hogging the boards we were sharing with two guys from the hostel.

And when I got back in, elated that I’d finally, FINALLY made that first step, I assumed that I wouldn’t be back out that day.


About an hour later I was out there, giving it my all. The phrase that convinced me back out was “It’ll all be worth it if you catch a wave” and it totally was. It’s an amazing feeling that’s as close as I think I’ll ever get to flying. I’ve had something similar once before, I was sitting up on my knees in the bow of the boat up on the lake at the cabin and it was really early in the morning. The water was pure glass and I was looking down into the perfect reflection of the trees that lined the shore racing past and I got a weightless feeling like I was flying. That’s how catching a wave felt, except faster and more exhilarating with clear blue water and white spray crowding my peripheral vision.

Although I caught a few on my knees, I did get to stand up at one point which was… thrilling, to say the least.

Let me tell you, it was every bit as worth the sunburn that stretched across my back and the back of my legs. Two weeks later it’s finally finished peeling. And even when it was burning, and even when it was peeling, I’d check out the damage in the mirror, and just feel proud.

I could have gone home that night and been perfectly happy with the weekend, but it wasn’t even half way done.

That night we went to this hostel/bar called Aqua that has a pool. And by “pool” I mean “a hole cut in the dock that it sat on and a jerry-rigged diving board.” I had a long conversation with an Irish kid who’d just spent four weeks in Haiti working with kids under the protection of the local ruling gang. (After which I felt pathetic describing my days weeding, so I emphasized the machete and the size of the bugs). By the end of the night we were all swimming (and by “we” I’m pretty sure I mean “a bunch of tourists”). My sandals and shirt got stolen, likely by some drunken chick who thought they were hers.

And at the end of the night, the sky would light up with dry lightning even though there were stars peaking through the clouds.

The next day rained.

And we got up late. And got out late. And then couldn’t figure out what to do. My ultimate plan had been to take surfing pictures all day and explore some beaches but there were, apparently, no waves and it just wasn’t a beach day.

So around 2 in the afternoon, Ems and I found ourselves on one of the other islands in the middle of an indigenous village.

It was one of those experiences that is valuable but I hadn’t expected or even really wanted. In the grey light of the rainy day, the whole village looked poorer than it maybe was, something that neither of us really expected. Bocas seems like such a touristy area that we were mildly shocked to find ourselves in a place so… colorless, where kids ran around in their underwear and clothes were hanging in vain on clotheslines and bony dogs skittered away.

The village has a newly formed tourism organization that has organized a forest walk on which they explain the medicinal plants and they have an artesian craft store. If you call ahead, they can prepare a traditional meal and do a traditional dance performance. And so it was wonderful to support a grassroots, community based push to take advantage of the archepelago’s booming tourism industry that also will help boost them out of the poverty and government neglect in which they live.

I feel like I reflect on this surprise with more negativity than my activist heart should, but I think it was just a jarring way to spend a vacation, especially since it was a vacation away from a community that also has a grassroots, community based development association, though albeit is much less poor and neglected. So I apologize for that.

As the sun was setting, we were sitting in Dolphin Bay with our fingers crossed. And although it’d just rained earlier that day, which they generally don’t like, we saw quite a few pairs of dolphins weaving up and down.


I took a nap when we got back to the hostel, to be refreshed when we went out that night. I woke up to Ems shouting that there was a group leaving for another hostel right NOW because our hostel was closing it’s common room for the night.

And I was gross. See, I’d napped instead of showering. It was cold and rainy and taking a cold shower was the last thing I’d wanted to do. So, still half asleep, I did my best to make myself less gross: changed the clothes, brushed my teeth and put on deodorant at the same time, and was simultaneously putting my hair in pigtails and screwing the bottle on my bottle of coke with a kick.

We stopped first at Hostel Calypso. After a while, part of the group, including Ems continued on, but I was too deep into my conversation with the Austrian girl, the German girl and her crazy jungle man boyfriend from Ohio and the two Kiwis. Because the night was nice and the music was amazing. I can’t remember what the conversation was about, but I do know that the iPod could have been my own. The Austrian girl, who’d just spent two weeks in Mal País and so loved it like I do, and I looked through the Kiwis’ iPod and took turns exclaiming about how much we loved this band and that band.
I mean, they had an extensive collection of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. I know maybe two people who even know about BRMC and they’re a Bay Area band! And the Pogues! And the girl from Austria loves both as well?!? God I love travelers.

So we spent all night listening to good songs that gave me that warm nostalgia. Tom Petty, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin.

Oh and get this. As soon as we’d started in with Janis, me announcing, as I always do, that she was the one what taught me to sing, the speakers ran out of batteries and had to be charged for 20 minutes. So someone turns to me and says “can you sing Mercedez Benz?” Well of course I can! After two renditions of that classic, with everyone joining the last verse, and some assorted chatter, the speakers were juiced up and we continued on with our night of music and conversation. The younger Kiwi came up to me and with baleful, slightly unfocused eyes informed me that I had the best singing voice he’d ever heard. I smiled, but had to fight the urge to pat him on the arm sympathetically. Poor boy was drunk.

Soon I got to wishing that Ems hadn't a bounced. She loves good music and she's got a fantastic voice. I started looking for a good gap in the conversation where I could slip away to drag her back. Then all of a sudden, like she'd read my mind, here comes Ems!

It was a beautiful night, and a beautiful end to a good weekend.

Mal País Theory of Life

There are some things in life that you know usher in change. They’re not necessarily the cause of said change, but at least they are the catalyst.
I mean, I maintain that it’s a bit cliché, albeit for good reason, to say that studying abroad is a life-changing experience. I think it’s partly because it generally comes right around the time of the transition from teen to adult. I mean, I think most people really grow up in the last few years of college, with or without studying abroad.

This is really just a round about way of saying that my second trip to Mal País helped me distill all this change into my new theory of life. Which is not quite like the numerous Grand Plans that litter the path behind me, but no so unlike them either. (I have been reading way too much Steinbeck.)

I woke up on Saturday morning to start my trek across the country. I’d like to say something poetic like “the sun rose in benediction over that fine day” but I honestly can’t remember what the weather was like.

I do however remember what the journey was like:
6:30 bus from Santa Rosa to Guapiles.
Step off the bus in Guapiles and immediately (literally, no waiting) get on the bus to San José. Get off the bus in San José, walk purposefully towards a taxi that pulls up just as I get to the curb, drops me off at the Puntarenas bus station. See you can either take a direct bus from San Jose to Mal País at 7:30 am or 2:30 pm or you can take the bus to the ferry, and then take another series of buses to get to Mal País. I got into San Jo at 9 and figured that I’d try my chances and not wait around for the direct bus. So the taxi drops me off at the Puntarenas bus station, I buy my ticket for the 10 o clock bus, use the facilties and go to wait the ½ hour until the bus begins loading, but I suppose they load as soon as tickets sell out, because as soon as I stepped up, they started loading. We left 20 minutes early.

Perfect, I’m thinking. I can totally catch the 12:30 ferry. The next one is 1:30, but that’s not too long a wait, and it means I can probably catch the last bus to Mal País at 2:30 from Cobano.

I should have learned long ago not to get cocky like that.

We hit traffic and got into Puntarenas at 12:20. Well, I’m not paying for a taxi for a ferry I probably won’t catch anyways, so I figure I’ll just walk. It’s a nice day, I have a small bag and I figure I have plenty of time. I’m at the shore, which is lined with Tico vacationers and cheap souvenir stalls and food carts. The ferry leaves from the shore, so I figure I’ll follow it up and eventually hit the ferry.

So I walk. About a half an hour later, I see a sign for the ferry, round a corner, and see a ferry. My mind starts racing. Coming or going? Coming or going!?!

The Dos Pinos ice cream man gives me my answer. He tells me that I need to run because the 1 o’clock ferry is leaving and the next one isn’t until 3.

I swore then, but it’s okay, because I’m pretty sure he didn’t speak English. I run. And I get to the ticket booth at 1. And I’m too late.

So I sit down and I start to try and hold back the tears. STUPID! If I’d just taken the taxi, I’d have made it. And now I’m stuck here for another two hours. What the hell am I going to do for three hours?

…I need a drink.

Luckily there is a bar/restaurant across the street, overlooking the ferry dock (so I don’t miss it again). I order a rum and coke and a plate of fries (the first food I’ve eaten since 5:30 am) and continue to try and cork my tears.
The bar and the few tables around it are packed with locals. The rest of the tables in the place are empty, save mine, and two others that host tourists. One group of locals plays cards, and a group of five men joke at the bar. There’s a table with two old men, one who looks more Caribbean than Tico and the other who looks more Tico than anything, who aren’t acknowledging each other. The one is engrossed in an old newspaper and the other is dreaming off out the window.

There are various plastic fish decorating the place, a few beer ads and a distinctively round clock. There is radio music coming from a 5-CD changer stero that sits on top of a NICE sound board and speaker set. One of the men at the bar walks over, drops a coin into the slot machine next to me and succeeds only in producing that distinctively tinkling noise of the turning bells, lemons and bar symbols. This one, I think, was Spider man themed.

It was nice, and helped me pull myself out of a bit of a funk.

Eventually, I caught the 3 o’clock ferry and found myself on the bus to Cobano unsure of the next step. Miraculously I got off at the right stop, as the sky was warming with the promise of sunset. I rolled up my pant legs and tried to ask a woman what my next move should be. I see the sign for the taxi company, but I see no building beneath the sign… So I ask “I know I’ve missed the last bus to Mal País, but…” But she interrupts. No, it’s right there. Literally it pulled up behind the bus I’d just gotten off. Off one, on the other, just like it’d started out today.

Man I love traveling.

I looked out the window until I couldn’t see out anymore and hopped out in front of the hostel Ems and I’d planned to meet at, content that the night was practically over. Probably she was already there.

Turns out it was not and she was not.
The hostel is really funky – it’s called Casa Zen and houses one of the best Thai food places I’ve ever eaten at (and that is the kind of place Mal País is). Sadly, it does not take reservations, and turns out, it was full up.

It’s 6 at night, dark and I have no where to sleep and no idea where Ems is except that she had been at a protest that morning and was hoping that she wouldn’t get arrested like the leaders had been the previous year.

And being the brilliant child I am, I didn’t leave her a note as I wandered off into the night. I walked into the only other hostel I knew, the Backpackers and confronted the guy at the desk.

“Look, I know it’s a long shot in the dark, but do you happen to have two beds available for tonight?”

And he did.

Long story short, I found beds, I found Ems wandering the streets and all was right with the world.

But the thing is, that’s not really the part that prompted the Theory of Life.
Nothing specifically did. I mean, I could give you a run down of the whole weekend, like how we talked over Thai food for like two hours, even though we’d only been apart for two weeks, went out that night with some of the hostel kids (lots of kids from Norway, Israel and Florida), like how we got up early the next morning, out of habit, and ended up walking down the beach to take pictures and ending up trekking for three hours ending up in the middle of nowhere, almost burned to a crisp, thirsty, hungry and pissed off. Or how at that point we decided to trek back on the road and stop at the first place we saw, and how after walking for 45 minutes hadn’t seen any but thankfully got a ride in the back of a pick up with the surfers who’d had to break it to us that we were 3 km away from the hostel and 1 km away from any food. And how delicious that food was and how beautiful it was to spend the rest of the afternoon napping in hammocks amongst reds, oranges and yellows.
I could tell you about how I didn’t get one good picture of a surfer all weekend, but played a ton of pool with a kid from Germany, a kid from Ireland and two guys from Florida.
I could bring up the fact that, save the thai food, we didn’t eat at one of the planned places because we were only there for a Sunday, when everything is closed. But it was amazing anyways.

Basically, it wasn’t the weekend I’d planned, but that was just fine. As I stood on the ferry, watching the retreating landmass that I loved so much, I got the urge to turn back and just stay. Just say “fuck it,” leave the internship and try to find a job waitressing or as the receptionist that they were looking for at the Backpackers, perhaps just until my flight home, perhaps indefinitely. Struggling with a bittersweet melancholy, that was only partially due to that deliciously oppressive heat of the dog days of summer, I watched the sun dancing around on the top of the water and then slanting down through it. It reminded me of the cabin.

I don’t think that I can ever really accurately describe the vibe of Mal País except that it is a community, heavy with ex-pats, that enjoys surfing and yoga and feels intrinsically artistic. It is a place that makes me want to surf and to sit on the beach and write and draw in my notebook and eat food that includes lemon grass and ginger. It’s not the most breath-taking beach in the country, and it definitely doesn’t really feel like a part of Costa Rica at all, but it’s one of those places that I know I’ll go back to.

The last time I had that feeling, that peaceful melancholy that follows an impulse to throw it all away and just stay in a place, and the surety of return, I was sitting on a wall above the sea in San Sebastian. We were waiting to head to the train station to catch the train that would take us back to Paris to catch the flight that would take us home, after two months, to start college and the rest of our lives.

But it was kind of nice this time. Because something about that weekend with people whose attitude towards life I so admired because it blends a profound appreciation for life with a calm and inner peace that I’m not ready to lose myself to but to which I aspire, and also a purely logical “what are you waiting for?” which is actually more of an answer than a question.

Which of course, was exactly the attitude that got me surfing the following weekend in Bocas del Toro

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Surprise Post!!

So I forgot the most important thing I had to do on the internet yesterday, so I'm back again today... which means I can give a quick general update.

In the past two weeks I've been to Mal Pais again, one of my favorite places in the world that prompted a change in attitude about life, which in turn got me up on a surf board the next weekend in Bocas del Toro. Thus I've already fulfilled a couple life's goals: learning to ride a motorcycle and surfing. But I feel as if each of those weekends deserves it's own post, so those'll come later.

But because life moves slower on the finca, I can do that more quickly.
When I got back from Mal Pais, we'd recieved a new volunteer, who will always be referred to as "el muchacho de francia." Come to think of it, I don't think I ever learned his real name.
MK says he reminds her of the clones from Clockwork Orange, only he doesn't talk. As for me, I just could never get the Talking Heads song "psycho killer" out of my head when he was around.
He's just "raro." The entire community was made uneasy about him. I mean this kid had grossly long fingernails and long gross hair and it quickly became apparent that he didn't shower. Or talk. He'd just stand there staring for hours, with a bucket hat and this crazy rain poncho, or ride around on his bike talking to himself. They sent him back before the week was out...

Just around the time that the french girl showed up. They didn't know each other, and she's way less wierd than he is... but a little too eager and intense. She has yet to grasp the pace of life here... that is, slow. There's just so much she wants to do she's trying to organize all this stuff and I just want to continue doing what I've been doing.
Which has set up quite a contrast between us. I actually feel like more a part of the community than she seems to be because I'm living there, as opposed to visiting there. I mean, I've been in this country for seven months, so I don't really feel like I've arrived at another culture in the farm that I'm working to save. But she's arrived here doing volunteer work and has that... distance that so many volunteer workers have. It's like she's not a part of the community, she's visiting it, helping it and so NEEDS to do AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE AS FAST AS POSSIBLE. But I feel more like I'm working, you know? Like I've just moved to another town to work. It doesn't feel new and special and I don't feel that separation from the community. At least not anymore.

See, I have this theory, it takes me exactly half the amount of time I have in a place to overcome the full roller coaster of culture shock. Since I only have six weeks in this place, the culture shock has expired and I'm just... here.
And things feel normal.

Work on the farm hasn't really changed. We still mostly weed, but on rainy days, instead of sorting beans, we've been re-making picture maps of the functions of the farm. Which I like, because, well, I like drawing.
In the afternoon we've started teaching English to the 4th graders at the school. I could gush all day about that. About how bad of a teacher I am, completley unable to command attention, or explain things concisely, but how it doesn't really matter because they all love the class so much and because MK is a really good teacher and we have so much fun playing all the games that I learned in Spanish class. About the kid who likes to tell us how we should do things, but who is super cute because he loves the class so much. About the quiet kids who are really smart, and about the loud kids. About how we have teams and play games and how excited they get. About how awesome it is to have them all come up and give us hugs goodbye at the end of the day, and how I feel like a rockstar walking around town because their parents greet us with grateful smiles and they shout our names across the plaza.

It's one thing that I know I'm gonna miss when I leave.

That and the clouds.

See, yesterday was the perfect late summer Saturday. A day of break after a week of work and rain, the sun finally came out, glancing hot white off the glossy palm fronds and banana leaves and the clouds raced and danced across the piercing blue sky. While waiting for the bus, I watched a spider make it's web and the butterflies drunkenly refusing each perch they approached, stumbling onto the next one. And the youngest age gang of kids trooped around the plaza, deeply engrossed in their games, the same games and using the same code that we all used to use and that we've mostly forgotten to time. A band held together by nothing but age proximity, where girls aren't "GIRLS" but just another member of the band and where everything can be anything and there is nothing but the present, the moment and the game.

Saturday, August 8, 2009


no time to post. I know it's been a while. my apologies.
I forgot my memory stick and I have to catch a bus in 9 minutes.
Expect an overload of updates next saturday!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Day 12: (Thursday 23)

Yesterday instead of painting we hid in MK’s room and slept. It was fun, kinda like a sleepover.

But today we couldn’t escape it.

The morning started off bad. It’s been a tough week. When I say that I have to get out of here this weekend, I’m not exaggerating. It hasn’t rained during the day all week which means I’ve spend five hours every. single. morning. hunched over in the burning sun, dripping in sweat, swinging the same machete around in the same way. And it hurts all over.

But you know, that which does not kill you…

So today we started out doing the same thing. And then, miracle of miracles! Plans changed! Apparently the director has been teaching his kids to ride a motorcycle. They’re actually almost as numerous as cars here. It’s a practical thing… dirt bikes just work better on dirt roads.

I’ve become rather accustomed to shying away when he comes bounding up. He has an incredible store of energy and never seems to shut up. He’s rather like a born-again agriculturalist. As in he came to organic agriculture later in life and is so passionate that he believes he can convert EVERYONE! He tends to wear a digital watch and I tend to try to catch a glimpse of the time so as to time him. I’m sure he’s talked for more that 15 minutes straight at a time.

This morning was no different. Shoot, he’s on his way, look busy!

But turns out that all he wanted was to invite us to ride around on the motorcycle.

Oh heaven! Check!

It was every bit as magical as I dreamed it would be, flying around on that little dirt bike. It took me about five minutes to learn how to kick start it, put it in gear and to remember what it’s like controlling something with a manual engine. Then it was pure gravy. The bolder I got, the more amazing it was. I figured out how to put it into second and started to take the turns close and low. I’d make the big square of the soccer field a couple of times, zagging through the hillocks, pulling up and roaring past the goal posts. After just two turns of 5 minutes each it felt so natural, so comfortable that it wasn’t novel anymore.

I cheated on my truck.

We painted again today. We decided not to share less with the children this time, so it was less like finger-painting hour at the local kindergarten. Plus we were using rollers.

But even with that, we must have looked like the Keystone Cops or something. A veritable comedy of errors. Without the comedy part. There’s this lack of communication between the two of us, the director and the head of the development association. I still haven’t figured out if it’s because of a lack of Spanish proficiency, or a perceived lack of Spanish proficiency. I mean first it was the base color. We’d discussed it a couple of times and our plans clearly showed that we were going to use a yellow. There are no yellow buildings in the town so we thought it would round out all the blues and greens. Also it’s a color that doesn’t show dirt much. This was pointed out numerous times. But when the paint arrived there was about a quart of yellow instead of a gallon. When we finally get to talk to someone about we find that we’re supposed to try to use as much of the existing paint (light blue and dark blue) which was left over from two other buildings. Then it was the doors. When we painted on Tuesday, we did the doors and windows a light blue. Turns out we have to re-paint the doors black because they need an anti-corrosive paint. This wasn’t communicated at all after any of the three times that I said that we were going to paint the doors light blue.

So we started out frustrated. We tried to paint the bottom half blue and the top half with the quart of yellow we have, but argued about whether or not it was actually a good idea to use the yellow at all, seeing as there was no way it would go all way round. So we had two splotched of yellow painted and the whole thing taped out before we figured that it wasn’t going to work. At all.

So we’ll just paint the whole thing dark blue?

Turns out the dark blue is really more purply. Whatever. Don’t care now. Let’s just get a color down and deal with the thing later. So we start painting in crazy directions and at crazy intervals. Eventually a couple kids start helping and it’s more haphazard (though admittedly less messy). Finally this guy who’d been watching for a while (in a way less creepy way than the young guys usually watch), took the roller from MK and started to paint. Started to paint with perfect lines and an expert evenness and professional speed.

Who is this masked mystery man?!

Well, a professional painter for one… MK’s host mom’s cousin for another.

Lessee. If we started around 12:45, then he probably started helping us around 1:45 or 2. By that time we’d done about half of one wall.

By 4 we’d finished all four walls, detailing on the bottom and light blue detailing around the doors and on the windows.

Our savior even showed us how to clean off the oil-based paint that had splattered us with smurf freckles.

That’s about when the director showed up and informed us that the head of the development association actually had wanted us to use two different colors. Really? NFW! I had no idea!

But alls well that ends well. We sat ourselves up on a lonely wall with a cold Coke and an ice cream and watched the sun slip down towards the horizon, dreaming of coming weekend adventures.

Day 10: (Tuesday, 21)

MK and I have this joke about the finca being the perfect sight for a horror movie. I mean seriously? It’s in the middle of nowhere, it’s an HOUR bus ride to the nearest city (I was wrong earlier when I said 30 minutes… that was me being optimistic). Every once in a while it storms like there’s literally not going to be a tomorrow. We’re working on this farm with giant man eating bugs and killer plants (you know, more or less), and to top it all off the director who seems to have suspiciously boundless energy and turns up unexpectedly. We’re pretty sure he has a secret laboratory hidden somewhere in the finca. Perhaps under the papaya patch. Perhaps in the large drying house.

And then, as if to confirm this whole horror movie thing, today I was walking around taking pictures of cool things on the farm, you know, frogs, butterflies, pineapples… that kind of thing. And BAM! I fell into water up to my knees. I know that wasn’t there last week because we toured the finca last Monday and I’m almost positive that we came up to the pineapples on their left, exactly where I fell. I mean, if it hadn’t have been me, it would have been really really funny. Tromping along (which apparently tromping is an actual, real word… who knew?) dry and smug in my clever way of slacking, then the next I’m pitched forward flying towards the ground face first, stopped only by the fact that I was knee deep in water.

I squelched back to the entrance to the finca, my left foot making suck-y noises every time I lifted it up. Shlomp shlomp shlomp.

But it was really okay. The rest of the day was filled with puppies, butterflies and sunshine. Literally.

Oh, except when we started to paint the changing rooms today. Our Tom Sawyer bit failed miserably today in the form on roughly a BILLION kids throwing oil-based paint at each other (essentially) and making fun on each other and us in Spanish that they either didn’t think we understood or thought we couldn’t hear. GAH! Now my hands smell of whatever paint-remover They said was okay to use. Whereas yesterday I bowled a kid over by accident, I almost did it on purpose today…

Day 9: (Monday 20)

I opened up Cannery Row today. The very first pre-chapter asks how you can possible put people and characters and feelings down on paper.

And that really struck a chord because I really feel like I haven’t been doing that quite right here.

I mean, in the first place I have to deal with culture shock. Which is a concept which I didn’t really take seriously at first. I mean, come on, I travel all the time. It’s like, culture shock is like jet lag, right? Something that everyone talks about that doesn’t really affect me? Except that it does. And I’ve come to understand that this year more than I ever thought I would.

It’s tough right now because I’m in this double jeopardy place. I’ve long gotten over my Costa Rica culture shock. I’m comfortable and happy and all of the sudden I uproot myself and relocate to a place that is so different than anyplace I’ve ever stayed for a prolonged period of time. PLUS I have to deal with the knowledge of my impending reverse culture-shock.

I spend a lot of time here while I’m working on the farm, daydreaming about stuff I’ll do when I get back. During those long hot nights when I can’t sleep because the heat is just there, not oppressive necessarily, but sneaky in that it’s almost unnoticeable except for the fact that you can’t sleep. During those long hours in the sun where I do repetitive and physically straining farm tasks. I think about the airport and how excited I am to be in an airport again. I can’t remember the last time I went this long without seeing the inside of an airport. The orderliness, the false cleanliness, the giant windows that flood light and the steady feeling of transience. Everyone coming or going, planes leave, tons of planes, hundreds of planes, experience, novelty and excitement just saturates the air. I can’t wait to be back in an airport. I hope my layover is long. I also think about stuff I want to do in The Bay, Giants games, tea in the fog, Coit tower (though I don’t really know why), Ocean Beach in the evening with the windows rolled down, Haight street… just all my favorite things that I’ve already probably hashed out a million times here.

But the problem with that is, while it helps me power through the culture shock, the ticking off of the days, I miss things too.

I mean, I got exactly what I wanted here. I wanted to start living off the grid in an area that’s not like that 2% of the world I’m used to. I wanted to work hard, like really hard. I wanted to work so that at the end of the day, my body would just hurt and I’d have innumerable mysterious scratches, bruises and pains. I wanted to drag myself up everyday, whether or not I want to, because I’m obligated to.

Because I don’t know what that is like.

And honey, I got what I wanted. I signed up for this, and it ain’t day camp.
And as hard as it is, emotionally and physically, I just have to remember that. And I also have to just look up once in a while from my whining and my frustration and things that go bump in the night, because I’ll see the sunset, just like it did today.

This afternoon, after back-breaking work on the farm which made me dizzy and light headed, MK and I washed the outside of the changing rooms that we’re going to start painting tomorrow. Of course, all the 12 year old boys in eyesight, who are still on vacation and thus have little to do, eventually drifted over. I’m not sure if it was horsing around with the hose or the possibility of recruiting us as two more soccer players that enticed them, but either way, we totally pulled a Tom Sawyer. By the time we finished one wall, they had “finished” the other three. Well enough at least.

So then we played soccer, barefoot in the muddy field. The two resident gringas (literally) alternately played with competitive ferocity and collapsed all over each other in laughter at the absolute horror that is our soccer skills and swore loudly. I got a leetle too excited when I realized that I wasn’t spent after about 5 minutes and ran around like a madman. Then I realized, it’s okay to throw elbows around my compatriot, not so much around 12 year old boys. I definitely bowled one over at one point. He was okay.

So to recap:
Farm work: check
Community development project: check
Bonding with the youth: check
Teach English: check. Oops….

Then somehow another group of kids absconded with our ball, so, game over. I got at least 5 goals. Beat that!

We chatted for a while, then I headed home for dinner. I greeted the few people I knew as I walked by, tried not to seem put-off when I was greeted by people I didn’t know. I could smell the smoke of a campfire coming from my house. My new host mom cooked rice on an open flame today and it was every bit as good as she said it would be. Then I turned around. The sun was setting in the distance. It started as a perfect arc that blushed pink in the periwinkle sky. (Bear with me here for a second; this is going to get really… prose-y). Then it grew warmer and warmer until the arc was lit up with the particular yellowy-orange of a mango. The clouds were low in the sky, threading through the mountains off to the left, smoky and thin like a sumi painting. I always thought the phrase “purple mountain’s majesty” was a little corny, but I discovered tonight that it’s no exaggeration. The jagged mountains in the distance were a deep royal purple against the lush greenery that was lit up orange. And then the opposite side of the sky was blushing in response, having caught the reflection of the breathtaking sunset. And I swear, no joke, there was a faint rainbow off to the right. Just one pillar, one side of the rainbow, fainter than and disappearing into the reflected sunset.

And just down the dirt road, picking its way through the rocks and the puddles that I do my best to avoid when biking to and from work, one of the neighborhood mutts with a hangdog look, lopsided pointy coyote ears and pale blue eyes watched me.

Day 8: (Sunday 19)

I sneeze like crazy here. I can’t explain it. I think I sneeze at least twice a day. Well, I mean every time I sneeze, I do it twice, so… But already today I’ve sneezed four times. Yesterday I think I sneezed six times.

And don’t even think about making a joke about how I’m probably allergic to work. Because I’m not working today. So there.

Yesterday it we had something like the storm of the century. (Actually, I’m sure it’s pretty commonplace here, but I think the last thing I experienced that was even close was that hurricane in South Carolina. And I was in this house that was almost all glass and I remember the giant windows bending inward.)

The day went pretty well, I took the hour long bus ride to Guapiles to use the internet café. I had to stand for most of it because by the time the bus gets to Santa Rosa (our pueblo), it’s full. About 40 minutes in, it had cleared out a bit. I was leaning up against a seat with two little boys and the littler one crawled up into the lap of the bigger one so that he could see out of the window and they both looked up at me to signal that I could sit down. I wanted to catch the 3 o’clock bus so I only had an hour to work on the internet.

God it’s hot.

Anyway, so then last night it started to rain. Pounding down on the tin roof and leaking through all of the cracks. And then the lightning started. Blinding light exploding into the house. It’s such a literary cliché to say that the lightning flashed a lit up the entire room, but that’s not true. It’s so powerful and intense that you can’t see anything for those split seconds. And then the thunder comes in, gut wrenching and rumbling down to the tips of the toes. I think it lasted at least until the light of the morning, or somewhere around there. I’d know because I was awake for most of it. At some points I literally thought the tin roof may fall in crushing me under it or something. I mean I know that the cement walls would get in the way of that, but man!

But it was all okay, because today is Sunday so I got to sleep in until 9.

And now the power’s out and I’m working on borrowed time… I wonder what’s gonna happen at 6 when it’s dark, except maybe I’ll just go to sleep.

I can smell a fire outside (either for cooking or burning trash). And the dogs barking down the lane. And the geckos singing. And some cicadas too. It’s funny how quickly one can become accustomed with something.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Day 6: (Friday 17)

My bike broke yesterday. We also discovered that there actually ARE people our age here. They were blasting around last night on motorcycles and big ole trucks.
Gah. I have that ominous feeling that comes with becoming accustomed to a place too fast. Like nothing bad has happened in the past day or two so I’m super on my guard because it’s coming. It probably involves cockroaches. Except today I did have to deal with flying ants. I’ve always hated flying ants. ALWAYS. They’re so gross when they crawl around on the ground and I hate the idea that the can get close to my face without my realizing it.
Yesterday we did more machete weeding. I upset an ants nest at one point and thinking about it gives me hives even now. They all came spilling up from multiple holes in the ground. I refused to work in that particular area for the rest of the day. Then it started to rain and we sorted beans for the rest of the day. Well the rest of the day until lunch at least.
Today, for a change, we sorted beans. All red ones this time. It rained all day practically, on and off. But we got some snacks out of it… Pejibayes (which I hope I’m spelling right and which have the texture of an egg yolk but are oddly reminiscent of an artichoke heart) and guanabana (which is a fiber-y fruit).
MK went back to San Jose today and we said goodbye like a pair of saps. It was like we’d never see her again or something. Lots of “here’s looking at you kid” finger guns and I think I said “well…” about a thousand times.
Talked to my new host mom while America’s Next Top Model in Spanish played in the background. She has 7 kids. 6 boys and a girl, and they’re all out of the house. Her husband died years ago.
Man, this getting up at 5 am thing is really killing me. I napped for three hours today. Three hours. And now it’s only 8:30 and I can’t seem to keep my eye lids open. But five weeks from right now I’ll be back in San Jose, ready to head back home

Day 4: (Wednesday 15) Only 38 more to go!

Got up late. Sore, with a side of foreboding. Yesterday was hard. I don’t think we realized that we’d have to deal with a second culture shock. This stuff is gonna be hard to get used to.
Out the door around 6:05 got to the finca at around 6:30. It was threatening to rain.
The first order of business was to make the “green tea” which is really just green leaves (lettuce, papaya leaves and two other types of leaves) liquidated and then to drink it. While we were collecting the leaves, the nausea started to set in for the both of us. The green tea helped me a bit, but poor MK was having a hard time of it. I guess we looked so pathetic that we got an easy day. We sat around sorting through beans. Like dried beans for cooking. We separated the good ones from the bad one. For a good three hours. Then Don Julio made us this tea called “Big Man” which is supposed to cure any stomach malady. More like kill it. He kept telling us that it was bitter but, boy!, we had no idea. Grossest stuff. And it stayed in your mouth for the next 20 minutes too, even though we took a spoonful of honey afterwards. (P.S. Mary Poppins lied. A spoonful of sugar does NOT make the medicine go down. It just helps a little.)
So it was a simple morning. Which was good. It’s been quite a transition.
Lunch, nap. Around 1 Don Julio shows up and we go for a bike ride to play billiards? But unfortunately the bar was closed. So we headed back to town and he chatted all the while about how now we’re going to find the head of the Community Development and talk about our afternoon projects and then play volleyball with the kids. Some of us were still tired and sore and gently suggested that a few of us may not make it if we try to cram all that in. So it might be better if we got to rest.
So MK and I sat and talked for the next two and a half hours or so and it was good. Much needed. Not like we hadn’t talked for three hours that morning, but we’re still sorting through this new culture shock, so it was good.
Then we played with the kids. It was really fun, actually, and we found some energy hidden somewhere. I suck at volleyball. I mean really. It’s more a game of “keep away from my face” and I laughed practically the entire time. MKs pretty good. Then more kids showed up and it turned into a giant soccer game. We inched out to the edge of the room and spent the rest of the game watching and getting a feel for the community of kids. It was fun to watch.
It’s closing in on 8:30 now and my eyelids are drooping. I’ve gotta get to sleep if I’m gonna get up tomorrow…
Ugh. Daytime is so much easier than night time. Daytime is when I take a liking to the community and reflect on how living with my new host mom is like living with someone’s grandmother and to marvel at how I’m learning to survive the heat…
Nighttime is when I pray that the mosquito net works and start considering heading back to San Jose for the weekend.
I mean I only have five weekends here… After this one, there’ll only be four. I want to take one of those to go visit Ems in Malpaís (I just love that place) and one to go to Bocas del Toro. That leaves two after this weekend is over. MK goes back every weekend and made a very convincing argument today… I am really going to miss San Jose and if I can spend more time there, that’d be nice… plus I’d get to an internet… I guess we’ll see…

Day 3: (Tuesday 14)

Will put UP the mosquito net tonight instead of wrapping myself in it. Enough is enough.
Up at 5:15. Finca at 6. 6 AM. 6.
We spent the day giving the pineapple patch a bikini wax. With machetes. Which is to say, I got attacked by a herd of pineapples. No seriously. Even though I had a machete to protect me, you should see my arms, they’re all sliced up.
But let me tell you, that stuff is HARD. Spending 4 hours hunched over, swinging a machete and trying not to hit yourself? And then to move to the baby rice plants and try desperately not to chop them up or step on them with your giant rubber boots? (Though, I have to say, I feel super savage with those boots. They go half way up my calf and I like to tuck my jeans into them so that they balloon out a bit, like a paratrooper or a member of the rebel army. Plus I wear a bandana which always makes it cooler.
As if that weren’t enough, we then milled sugar cane with this double-sided roller thing that took two to work. We squeezed out six or seven sugar canes. Delicious.
I’m not quite sure how we made it back on those rickety bikes. I mean it’s been a while since I’ve hurt that bad. More lunch, ate even less. The “meat” leaves quite a bit to be desired and honestly? I’m finally tired of rice and beans.
And hour and 20 minutes, lunch and a shower later, we met with Don Julio at the bus stop to go to Guapiles to hit the internet café. Bus costs roughly a dollar and takes about 30 minutes. Add an overwhelming heat and two girls who are sore, emotionally as well as physically, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for disaster. Well, not disaster I guess. It’s just not the recipe for a fun outing.
Plus I had a splitting headache, so I don’t remember much. I do remember that I got to the internet café and realized I’d forgotten the memory stick with the Finca Log on it. Dumbass.
But I got to chat with momala, (glad to know the fam is home safe) and answer a few (though not all) long overdue emails.
Afterwards we got ice cream, I remembered to buy a fan and we headed home.
Where I set myself up with this little fan attached to the edge of the bed, and the mosquito net all up. I feel like a 9 year old princess in her fort. It’s awesome.
Fingers crossed it’ll be a better sleep tonight.

Day 2: (Monday 13)

Didn’t sleep last night. Since when is it allowed to be this HOT and HUMID? MK has a fan. I do not. Hmmm.
MK arrived at around 8am. We rode bikes to the farm and received our boots. Toured the finca, sampling the organic goods at the same time. Quite an operation. Everything from rice plants to papaya trees, yucca trees (the yucca are the roots), hearts or palm, aloe verde, lettuce, tomatoes, bananas, butterflies, basil, oregano, and a whole mess of other things. My favorites are the pineapple plants. They’re ground plants that look like giant spider plants or something with a pineapple sticking up jauntily out of the center. There’s a swamp in the back and a room in which to dry plants out for medicinal value. There is also a giant blue bucket that is upended for an ant house? They are the biggest ants I’d ever seen. They should not be housed, they should be squished. I hate ants. Man, I can’t even remember it all…
Returned for lunch, exhausted. Am slowly finding that it wasn’t so much Costa Rican cuisine that I love, as much as it is the cooking of my host mom in San Jose. Which is to say not so much the food I’m getting here. So I guess I don’t feel bad when I can only eat about 1/4th of the thing. It’s so hot here. I can’t imagine anyone eating.
Fell asleep after lunch. Lovely nap.
Returned to the finca at 4 without MK (who was still sleeping when I got to her house) to chat with Don Julio. Boy is that man ever passionate about organic agriculture. And can he ever TALK! That is to say, he never seems to shut up. After a good hour and a half of nodding, I headed home, stopping at MKs to chat for a few hours. She’s got some fancy anti-mosquito stuff. Pills, this thing that plugs into the wall. All I have is two bottles of carcinogenic liquid. I suppose it’s six to one, half dozen the other.
Found a cockroach in the room and had to have my host mom help me remove it. She went for it with her bare hands, grabbed it and tossed it out the back door. Apparently, they don’t live in the house, because there’s no where to hide, but they do sometimes fly in. (Wait, what? Coming soon, The Fuckers Fly? Part of the Costa Rican Cockroach saga) Will probably wrap myself up in the mosquito net tonight.

I don´t wanna work on Maggie's Farm no more

My parents came to visit Costa Rica almost two weeks ago. A year and a half ago when I came back from two weeks building houses in Honduras, I’d have been willing to bet that my parents would never see Central America. Those would have been great odds. The odds for South America wouldn’t have been so good, but I swear, I’da never thought they’d make it to Central America.
And we had a great time. I finally got to Malpaís which was amazing. All artsy and yoga-y and surf-y with a huge population of Israeli ex-pats. It was a place I just felt like sitting in the sand and drawing designs and arrows and reading talented authors. We probably could have stayed there the whole week, but we moved on. We hit up Monteverde which is kind of an “of course.” Met the host family which was filled with lost-in-translation laughter. Tortuguero and saw tortugas (that is to say, we saw sea turtles giving birth. Which was, well… technically awesome and fascinating, but there’s just something about watching something give birth that always makes me feel like I’m invading privacy). Finally they dropped me off at the next six weeks.
It’s funny watching a woman who has been my friend and cheerleader though all the crazy stuff that I’ve done in the past couple years get a sneak preview instead of the post-game. My mother never gets to see what I do before I do it, she always finds out afterwards. So the mothering kicked in while we bounced around through this one horse town. I sure didn’t help out with my constant brushing off of all her concerns and questions. In traveling I like to take things as they are pitched at me… better chance of hitting one out of the park. But I can understand wanting to know all the basics beforehand.
I mean besides a farm that looks, at least from the entrance, rather ramshackle, and a house that is, how shall I put it, “homey and open,” the town has:
1 soccer field
1 schoolhouse
1 church
1 corner store which is rather not on a corner
1 police house
1 cemetery
1 big community building which is more of a cement floor with a roof.
2 tons of ants
0 pharmacies
0 clinics/hospitals
0 internet cafes

So I’ve started a log. A day-by-day which will be updated roughly weekly when I can find my way to an internet.

Your Sister Wears Botas: One girl’s story of farm life (Part of the “Your Mother Wears Army Boots

Day 1: (Sunday 12)
Family left. Toured village with two 14-year old girls for guides. Tour took, mmm, 15 minutes at most. Not quite what I expected after driving through hours of banana plantations… Not sure why. Dinner was a ridiculous amount of food. Started reading Catcher in the Rye. Cold shower. No surprise there. Careful what you wish for?

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Non- Sequitur

So I'm taking a half an hour out of my never-ending schedule of studying (and by "never-ending" I mean "ends on Thursday, but I probably won't make it...") to share some thoughts and impart some wisdom.
As the semester drags to a close, we're in the process of goodbyes. I'm no good at goodbyes, I always just assume there will be a next time in order to avoid saying goodbye.
But it's weird for me because I'm saying goodbye to my friends, my new family and this city that I've come to love, but I'm not actually going anywhere. Not in the way I'm used to. Things for me are bookended by plane flights. An opportunity for which I'm overwhelmingly grateful.
But I realized today that I've never gone this long without being in an airport. Funny how times change, isn't it? I think a big part of my frequent flights has to do with close family on the other side of the United States. But I seriously haven't gone five months, much less seven months without some quality airport time. And I miss it. I love airports.
When I was flying back from Tennessee a year ago, after the Bonnaroo music festival, I remember walking through the terminals that were just littered with festival-goers. I dropped my duffel and myself outside of a sports bar in which a woman who didn't know who Bob Dylan was sang Knocking on Heaven's Door and the golf tournament played on the small tv and the sun flowed in through the skylights and windows like liquid gold.
When I went to Prague we could only arrive at the airport the night before for a 6am flight. We moved from the gumby chairs of the McDonalds to the floor of the Starbucks before we finally found a place to curl up under coats and hats in the freezing cold Dublin airport where every once in a while a policeman in shiny boots would wake you up to check your passport.
Man, I can't even remember the first time I flew alone...
But I miss airports. I'm probably one of the only people on the planet who loves airports, but I do and I can't wait to be back in one. It's so thrilling.

On a completely unrelated note, I have been having the most disjointed, random memory flashbacks ever. I have no idea where they are coming from. Perhaps it is the weird weather (gorgeous and sunny in the morning, gray and rainy afternoons that are still hot) or maybe it's that I'm almost done with the semester but it's not like the end of any semester I've experienced.

Whatever it is, it's messing with my head, and at a time when I need that particular part of my body the most, it's just not fair.
My host sister cooked apple pie the other day. (They saved me some filling. It was delicious.) The next day I was sitting in the living room eating dinner and watching tv when someone heated up a piece. Suddenly I was at the Dickens Fair with it's eerie orange light and particular smell (a mix of roasting chestnuts, cinnamon and bangers and mash. Mmm.)
I'll be sitting in my room studying when suddenly I'm 9 years old, it's Christmas time and I'm at Fresh Choice with my mom. I remember this day distinctly. We saw someone I knew at Fresh Choice and everyone was dressed up. I also remember the pudding bar.
Or walking to school through the park and suddenly I'm answering a question (or slacking off... either one...) in Physics class, senior year of highschool. It's a gorgeous blue day and I can see trees through the white blinds that are failing to obscure the window.
Or I'll be walking home and feel a light sprinkle of the threatening rain and its Halloween. I can't quite remember which Halloween, but I was definitely young.
Or studying for my exam, and I'm transported to the Bridge School Benefit two years ago.

So weird.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Two more weeks

It was just one of those days.

I hadn't wanted to admit it this morning, fought through my annoyance at being up early, inability to feel at peace with my clothing, and chronic tardiness (though ironically, our group meeting had been pushed back, so I was actually a half an hour early). I even hit a bright patch in the middle of the day when the sun was out and I got an hour off of class because of some department assessment that, as a foreign exchange student, I did not have to partake in. I strolled around, was thwarted at one ATM but found another, wandered through the "Micro-finance Refugee craft fair," hoping, though failing, to find presents for some friends.
And as the ominous dark clouds rolled in, I headed back into class, only to be reminded of the all-encompassing frustration that comes from not being able to communicate, from having my identity as an intelligent, eloquent person be absolutely stripped away.

It's been raining for the past couple of hours now. Not pouring, not drizzling, just lightly raining. It's the kind of day I became accustomed to in Ireland. A dark day, in which every hour feels like nightfall with a constant, seemingly inconspicuous rain that, even after it stops, still drips and tinks and plops no matter how far inside you may be. The kind of noise that is inconsequential when you are busy and productive but nothing less than a dull roar when you have nothing else to do but stare outside. It was the kind of day without an appetite, the idea of hunger is completely foreign, but once you start eating, you can't seem to want to stop.

The Hours was playing in the dark living room when I came home. I watched it while I ate my lunch, which was appropriately unappetizing. The pork chop was mostly fat, which sat in a rejected pile on the edge of my plate, and the mashed potatoes had lumped and congealed sullenly.

It was a day for funerals. It was a day for cradling your head in your arms and staring at nothing for far too long.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

< Insert Dylan Thomas reference Here >

So as I settle into what I’m fast realizing is finals month (as opposed to the traditional finals week), I feel like it’s almost time to sit back and take stock of my astounding progress in el español. It should be a time for positive encouragement to propel me on to the end of the semester. It should be a time for secret self-congratulations because, after all, I’ve made it through four whole months of classes in a foreign language. I suppose it could be a time for minor stress and anxiety about taking finals and finishing final papers in a foreign language. But it really shouldn’t be a time for plummeting-gut, dry throat panic attacks (which, surprisingly are similar to that feeling I got yesterday after watching an epically intense movie. Perhaps that indicates that my experience here has been epically intense?) that grab hold and shake you like a wooden roller coaster. Picture red and blue spiny demons with claws, fangs and spikes, and giant evil eyes, obviously artistically rendered in a comic book style standing on my chest with their long fingers wrapped around my neck, shaking my head like a giant mosh-pit without the fun. I mean, at least that’s how I picture them…

Sorry. Where was I?

Oh yes. See I have this professor. He’s Haitian and a visiting professor which means that he doesn’t know much about the way things are generally done here. It also means that he speaks with an awesome accent that I can barely understand. He’s imposingly tall with an unnerving way of stalking through the rows of students and occasionally stopping to tower over someone and pose a question that the poor sap he’s standing over feels compelled to answer even though it was posed generally. His emphasis oscillates between deafening and almost inaudible and sometimes I think he’s just talking to himself. It’s generally a fun class. I haven’t the faintest idea what we’re learning about because sometimes we talk about the CARICOM and the OEA (which is apparently the “Organization of American States”) and sometimes we talk about Haiti and voodoo. I can honestly swear that I pay more attention in that class than I did in all of my MCB (molecular and cellular biology) lectures combined during the spring of 2008. And yet I’m always startled bright red when suddenly he’s talking directly to me and we’re talking about the word “hub?” Or he’s really interested in my opinion but for the life of me I can’t figure out what the question was, I’m still taking notes on what he was saying two minutes ago.

And then today he drew a diagram on the board and it all made sense. You see, his diagrams are a general source of mirth for the class. I have attempted to re-create it in Paint and, to fully understand it, you should know that I’m DAMN good with Paint. This is an actual and very reasonable facsimile of the diagram that was scrawled on the whiteboard earlier today.

(Profe: “Hmm… not sure why this one looks like an “8”…. This one down here, it’s probably Africa because it’s big, yes, Africa is big, and these little lines over here, they look like the Caribbean, right? I suppose these are the Caribbean…” True story.)
You see, we were discussing the 4 major poles of attraction (powers) of the world and then the peripheries. (Yes, that is what I am learning in a foreign language in which I can barely carry on a basic discussion of my day.) Obviously, the labeled blobs are the 4 poles (US, Europe, Asia and the Arabic world, which I can’t for the life of me figure out a better translation of) and all of the specks and lines and un-labeled blobs are periphery countries that are attracted to these poles for different reasons. One hopes.
And even after the rest of the class’s laughter had died down, I was still smothering uncontrollable giggles. Suddenly, it was all absurdly clear. The diagram was, in fact, a diagram of my experience in the class. You see, the labeled blobs represent the main ideas of the day’s lecture which are always written out in the syllabus or made explicit at the beginning of the class. Then there are the things that I assume I can label.
Considering that we are discussing CARICOM today and I’m pretty sure he just said “does not belong” I’m going to assume that we’re talking about Cuba. Sound assumption, if I do say so myself. He’s probably talking about international relations right now. Something about NAFTA? I’ll mark that down with an asterisk so that I remember to look it up later and maybe make a connection. And now I suppose he’s talking about integration again? Hopefully?
And then again there are all the little dots and specks which go straight over my head and I have no hope of understanding. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they are just words and that I’m able to hold onto the big idea blobs. Which is absurd right? It’s downright hilarious. At least, apparently I thought so…
I guess we’ll see… three weeks and counting!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

by any other name.

You know that feeling, the one where even a half hour after the movie has ended and you've found your way out of the darkened theater and out of the taxi or car or bus or what-have-you and into your bed and you STILL can't figure out where your stomach went except that you must have dropped it somewhere along the way because you can feel it tugging at the pit it left behind? The one where your eyes are still clouded on the edges like a black and white photograph because the tears are trying to hide themselves in the shame of cliche and the knowledge that they'd do no justice by falling? And your whole body is sore and there's a dull pain in the back of your head, just above your neck that, if you massage it to lessen the pain flashed images and scenes and snippets of dialogue before your closed eyes?
The movie ended an hour ago and I'm still struggling through it. Granted, Zwartboek or The Black Book or La Lista Negra is a Dutch film and we watched it with Spanish subtitles so that might be partly responsible for my general post-movie exhaustion (which has nothing to do with the current "finals month" exhaustion that I'm experiencing).
But what a movie!
As we walked out, all I could say was "That was such a good movie... except "good" isn't the right word. It wasn't "good," it was amazing? intense? It made an impact...?"
It was probably one of the most amazing war movies I've ever seen, if only because every character spoke their own language. The nazis spoke German, the Dutch spoke Dutch, the Canadians spoke English. There was none of these namby-pamby villains who speak English when no one is looking... Also, the movie was touched up with film noise, specks and distortions so that it looked like they wanted it to look like it was filmed at the time (ish).

But the real point to this story is that I saw a foreign film with Spanish subtitles and understood it. (Never mind that sometimes (read: most times) I can't understand my host sisters when they are talking.) A level of awesome which was only SLIGHTLY mitigated by the fact that Ems and I high-fived each other during the movie every time we remembered that we were watching a foreign film with Spanish subtitles.
Also, it was fun catching Dutch and German words that are similar to English words. Especially the swear words. Subtitles NEVER get that kind of stuff right...

Friday, May 29, 2009

On no occasion

I feel like this would be a good post for half way though my stay here or about a week before I fly away. But what can you do?
My second host sister arrived today and we all sat around and chatted while she ate her favorite meal (lengua in tomato sauce with rice) with her favorite dessert (coconut ice cream). My host mom laughed and asked me what I'm going to eat when I go home, what food I miss. I laughed a bit and talked about all my favorite restaurants in Berkeley that I miss.

Lucky House Thai for my Pad Thai, Naan and Curry or House of Curries for Vegetable or Lentil curry with basmati rice (the jury's still out on which restaurant is better), Man Puku for sushi even though I really prefer Miatama on College Avenue, right across from my favorite coffee house with the big purple chairs and just down the street from the Safeway, but is too expensive.
Ooh! Speaking of College Ave, La Mediterranee for lunch special with pomegranate chicken and pilaf, and then down the street for dessert at Ici, the most perfect mixture of French ice cream and Italian gelato.
Or cafe Intermezzo where you go to feel healthy, even though the fresh and delicious salads and sandwiches are roughly twice the size of your head.
Or Annie's diner after a post-final party when you all troop down the early morning streets when the light is brighter and things seem deserted and a thick greasy hamburger with home-fries is the most comfortable thing you can think of, besides the sweatshirt you're wearing, sitting in silence in sun-warmed seats by the big windows, watching Telegraph come alive outside.
Or my taco truck which is parked on the Highway side of Ironworks until 5pm when it moves to the entrance side.
Or the Southside Berkeley Top Dog, on a hot summer day for a brat with relish, a bag of Classic Lays potato chips, and a root beer to be eaten leaning against the wall outside in the shafts of afternoon sun, hot dog in one hand, root beer in the other and the chips hanging off the fingers of one hand for easy access.
Or even Jamba Juice, where they know me and call out my order as I walk in: sixteen-orange-berry-blitz-non-dairy-sorbet-substitute-with-an-energy-boost. You know, for a change.
Even the smells of the other places along Telegraph make me smile. The enticing, amazing smell of the Noah's bagels that I used to love. That cheap fast greasy pizza smell that battles between the competing Fat Slice and Blondie's Pizza places. Or even the slight spice of Chipotle that makes me think of nothing more than mid-term season rewards.

And I won't even get started on my favorite grown-up places on Southside and down by fourth street where Mom and I go when she visits me (because OH! the distance between us grows long!) Or the places in Marin that I love, even as they change, because of the memories. (Marin Brewing Company, The Cantina, Left Bank, I'm looking at you) Or the fancy once-in-a-lifetime places that I love for their glamor and elegance and unattainability like El Paseo in Mill Valley or The Lark Creek Inn in Larkspur.

I mean, that's not really what she was asking. I think she wanted to know more the kind of food that I eat there than I can't eat here, and honestly there's not too much. I'm pretty content generally with whatever food is put in front of me (I just ate tongue for lordssake, though she just popped her head in to tell me that there was more if I wanted it and I really don't think I do. It was delicious I just... don't want more right now...). I don't really miss food so much as the feeling of BEING as I return home.

I love airports. Either the thrill of going or the relief of coming. I love the people, I love slumping myself in those horribly uncomfortable chairs and watching the planes take off. I love being alone in airports with everything I really need and some stuff that I really don't in my bag next to me, with my iPod and notebook and myself. I love knowing that I travel, I am a traveler, I DO traveling. It's independent, it's exciting, it's relaxing and thrilling at the same time.
I love getting on airplanes, sometimes pretending I'm someone fabulously famous in a black and white movie walking up the stairs to get on the airplane, sometimes pretending I'm an international jet-setter, sleek and cool.
And of course the lift that you get when your heart drops and the plane takes off.
I'm sure I love being in the air, I just can't stay awake enough to know.
And landing. Landing is always bittersweet. It's about cement and tire marks and little tiny lights on the tarmak instead of clouds and endless blue. It's always about goodbyes, and it's always the same. The same dirty upholstery, the same magazines with the crossword puzzles half-filled out to which I contributed a word or two, the same parting words from the same in-flight crew in essentially the same uniforms, the same white hallway lit with the same square lights and the same flood of relief and coolness that you get when finally burst free into the airport and join the flood of suits and rolling suitcases, loud families on vacation and a couple vagabonds, just like me, waiting for their next adventure.
And I know that 12 weeks from now, tired and weary, I know I'm going to walk out into that amazing San Francisco air which I swear is the purest. Maybe I'll take the airporter home, which is secretly okay because it means I get to prolong my journey. And I know that when I get off that bus in the dark of Marin county, lit up by the lights of the ferry building, my parents will be leaning against the bumper of the red truck, waiting for me. Or maybe they'll be waiting for me at the airport full of silent smiles and wordless hugs because we're all so filled with an inarticulate, but mutually comprehensible emotion. We'll load my bags on to a trolley and load up the car. Either ride will be punctured with occasional sighs and huge grins. And I won't be able to believe just how amazing my hometown is, especially at night.
No matter which way I come about it, I'll eventually end up home, a pot of pasta e fagioli bubbling on the stove and filling the house with the smell of my mother's love and my grandmother's house.
I'm glad that they painted the kitchen a burnt reddish orange because it always makes me feel like I'm in a warm embrace when it's the only room in the house with lights on.
And I'll take down one of those huge soup bowls with the squiggly rim and marvel as they feel clunky and new in my hands. And the special swirly spoons with the design at the top that is reminiscent of a treble clef that Mom bought just for me because I hate big spoons.
And maybe Dad'll show me the new Bourbon he found or their favorite new wine, or make me a hot toddy and we'll chat about the aroma or the flavor, and then we'll all just sit, even though it's late, filling the silence with smiles.
Finally, tired and overwhelmed, I'll crawl into cool sheets and my fluffy duvet with my favorite pillow that I guard jealously (currently it's one I brought home in my arms from Ireland) and fall asleep, excited to wake up to the clear light of the morning through my blue curtains and look around at the childhood that I brought with me through 8 or 9 houses and know that I'm home.

That's what I can't wait to have, first thing, when I go home.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Particular Merits of Sunday

Sunday is my favorite day.

I generally can't do homework on Sunday, no matter how hard I try. This is probably because Sunday goes a little like this:

I usually wake up at a deliciously late hour, somewhere between 9:30 and 10:15, with the crisp and enticing light of a clear blue sky shining in through my windows. Its almost always one of those mornings where you realize slowly that you are awake, and then squeeze your eyes shut, hoping to be pulled back into the sweet land of sleep, but then, just as slowly, realize that being awake is actually quite lovely.

This particular morning I rolled over and saw my new poster, proudly displayed on my wall, right next to the hook upon which I hang my bag-not-purse and whichever pair of jeans I an airing out from a recent trip to one of my favorite smoke-filled, green and purple-lit bar where they serve rum and coke in a can. Malpaís played the first ever carbon neutral concert in Costa Rica yesterday afternoon. It was pouring when I left the house, pouring when I got downtown, raining when I met up with friends and drizzling when we FINALLY, after a couple of supermarket pit-stops, reached la Plaza de la Democracia outside the fairy-tale castle-like Museo Nacional.
It had cleared up enough that we stowed our umbrellas in favor of snaking through the crowd for a better view. Thanks to the rain, the crowd was pretty thin and we got almost as close as I was when I saw them during Semana U, way back in March. That day, sitting on the water tank beside the library and watching the crowd that filled the entire square and climbed up walls, seated in tree branches, holding on to drain pipes and hanging off every window, balcony and staircase that they could get to in the surrounding buildings, I remember just looking up at the crystal clear blue sky and being overwhelmed by the music and the emotions of the people who cared about the music just as much as I did, and the perfection of the day. Last night I looked up at the sky as it cleared, relishing the few remaining raindrops, watched the mauve clouds race across the dark blue sky, lit up by the green and blue and purple lights that lit up the Museo Nacional like a stage and the swirling lights that highlighted the musicians on the stage that stood opposite. And every once in a while when the stage lights would turn on the audience you could see, as the night went on, that the population of the Plaza swelled with waves of people, all singing along, whipping bandanas over their heads, enraptured. The concert ran for about four hours and afterward, half the crowd trickled out, and everyone else sat in little groups on stairs, benches, walls and railings, all coming down from a wonderful natural high.

I will never forget the entire crowd chanting these two songs, the musicians leaning out to meet the audience, balanced to topple off the stage and into the loving arms of their fans:
Otro Lugar

Ems and I finished the night in one of our favorite bars, where we didn't see any of the friends who we were hoping to see, but did catch a band that self-defined as Manu Chao but was really more Juanes-like, minus the metallic flavor that comes with commercialization.

Needless to say, my Sunday started off with a smile.

The next part of Sunday always involves some sort of delicious meal. My favorite is gallo pinto, the most amazing combination of rice, beans and cilantro, cooked together. Today it included an egg on the side as well. Sometimes it's sausage which tastes oddly like hot dog, but which I've come to love. Twice we've had empanadas, which is essentially a gift of either refried beans or ground beef wrapped lovingly in masa (corn-flour dough?) and fried golden, which, if you eat right off the griddle, drip down your chin and burn your mouth which is totally worth it. Whatever breakfast is, it always seems more flavorful on Sunday mornings, possibly because it follows a delicious sleep or possibly because the kitchen door is open and that lovely blue-sky light is flooding the kitchen.

Sometimes I shower after breakfast on Sundays, sometimes I leave it for later. Eventually I make it back to my bed and pull out my school books. I spread them out deliberately, planning to be incredibly productive so that I can take a break on Monday. But I always turn on my computer to check my email, read my comics and the Sunday Secrets on, provided I have not read them the night before upon my return from a Saturday night adventure. Of course, the internet always leads to chats with various friends. Sunday is always lazy enough to catch up. After this, if there's time, I find my self drawn into some sort of internet pop-news frenzy/Wikipedia vortex/Google "new thing" investigation in which I learn things like the history behind Alexander Dumas' The Three Musketeers, collect images of Art Nouveau which I'm REALLY into right now, discover that American Girl is coming out with a Russian Jewish Immigrant girl whose history, appearance and story were painstakingly researched [] . This portion of Sunday is usually interrupted by lunch because suddenly it's 1:30 or 2 in the afternoon and where is the day going?

Sunday lunch is lovely. In Costa Rica, our big meal is always lunch, which is followed in the evening by a cafecito, or snack with coffee. Sunday lunch is usually quite simple but always fresh and flavorful because my host mom goes to the market on Sunday in the late morning, after a late breakfast. So the avocados are bright green, the vegetables are crisp and the fresca (fresh made fruit juice + sugar + water) is delicious and something wonderful like mango or pineapple. Sunday lunch is with the whole family, because everyone is home; it is, after all, Sunday. And it stretches luxuriously into the afternoon.

Sometimes it's bittersweet. Two of the daughters of my host family study in the United States and one came back last Monday and the next is due Friday. And they're really a close family, teasing each other about this and that. I've said it often, but it amazes me how similar my family and my host family are, so sometimes Sunday lunch is like looking into a memory. Sunday afternoons are always nice times for nostalgic melancholy and reflection as the sky darkens and the smell of rain dances along with the breeze and almost always leads to afternoon skyping with the homestead.

From there, Sunday plods on. If I have no lingering internet duties, I will pull out the guitar and practice a bit before the afternoon rain drowns me out or my hands get sore.

Then I might nap. Que rico (how delicious) is an afternoon nap listening to the lessening rain beating on the tin parts of the roof and against the windows. Or maybe I'll watch a movie or indulge in some online episodes of my favorite TV shows, it is, after all, Sunday and I have all of Monday to do whatever I don't do today. Today I joined my host family to watch Slumdog Millionaire which I loved. The art direction blew me away.

But then it's almost 6 and Sunday is almost gone. Maybe I'll sit for a while and think. Maybe I'll listen to music, maybe I'll head back into the land of the internet. I'll glance once or twice at my forelorn school books, pushed aside long ago and know that they'll stay there until tomorrow.

Somehow it's 8:30 or 9 and time for a cafecito sans the cafe. And then soon I'm too tired to keep my eyes open, exhausted from the day or the week. And just like that, Sunday is over. I curl up under the covers and regret not a minute of my satisfyingly unproductive Sunday

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Cosmic messages.

My Google Anayltics site has installed in me a very particular type of ambition.
And that is an ambition to increase my procrastination allotment by blogging more. Because I like the idea that people read this. It gives me warm fuzzies.

now if only I could think of something to blog about...

You see, I've reached the point in my stay here where it feels normal. I've gotten into the swing of things at school, and it's a familiar swing. Fewer things are new, I have found my "ordinary." Everything feels natural and routine. I've even become accustomed to feeling lost and stupid when I can't understand people.

And as so much ordinary, it has come to feel mundane and uninteresting.

But then, every once in a while, something shakes me up a bit. Like Tuesday. Now, I read my horoscope every day, I am highly and oddly superstitious what with all the knocking on wood, tossing spilled salt over my shoulder and keeping to fortuitous routines, and I believe that I'm a little bit psychic. So it's safe to say that I "go in for that sort of thing."
So Tuesday. Tuesday I was walking across campus and I noticed a man on crutches in faded old jeans who was missing a leg. Later I was walking down a hallway and my attention was arrested by a table lying on its side, missing a leg. Then, as I was walking home through the park that night, having missed the bus, I watched a man playing with his dog under a street light. As I passed, the dog stopped and looked up at me and, illuminated in the streetlight, I could see that it only had three legs.

I walked home seriously freaked out for the first time in a long time. Twice is a coincidence. Three times is not. It's something else. A conspiracy maybe?
Well, whatever the universe is trying to tell me has been lost on me. It should speak to me as it would to a five year old, the same as I expect anyone who speaks to me in Spanish to do.

And the worst part was that my horoscope, which I usually regard as a casual guide to extraordinary happenings, was completely unhelpful.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Entomology 4 Gringas

I have become like the hunter.

Because in this world, it's all about survival, and in this world, it is self against nature. It is the most timeless theme, man vs. nature, the struggle to conquer or be vanquished. And here in the wild tropics, the theme and the threat are larger than life. So immense is the danger presented by the elements in lands close to the equator, that they have come up with a term that describes the hapless writer's reaction to it: Tropicalization. The sweet siren call of liquid gold sunsets, crystal blue breakers and the saturated green of the rain forest gives way to the cruel extremes of weather and nature. It is a truly perilous journey that I now find myself on, but I can feel myself adapting, out of necessity, out of instinct, out of that clawing, scraping raw desire to live.

Because, after all, it's me against the bugs.

I have developed, through trial and error, methods which limit my interaction with these small enemies. I make sure that as few things as possible cluttering my floor so that my perimeter checks to ferret out corner lurkers and shadow squatters are smooth and quick. I turn lights on before entering rooms and block cracks whenever possible. Luckily the weather has cooled off and I can keep the slatted windows near my ceilings fully closed at all times to limit entry points. I know to look in my sink immediately upon entering the bathroom because there is a centipede that resides in the drain that, unless I'm prepared, tends to startle me (It's actually really funny, he can't quite make it up the sides of the slick sink and so his little legs, of which he really only has 40, work tirelessly to achieve nothing).

My senses have sharpened as well. I know, now, the rustle of the cockroach. I immediately become aware at the slightest buzzing sound. Flies have a particular, familiar buzzing, but there are all manner of new bugs here which I am not familiar with. I can spot an ant on my floor out of the corner of my eye, even though the floor tiles are speckled, and often try to trick me.

I have three different repellent methods of different strengths which I employ to keep bugs out of my bed (which is really the only objective, as I can easily deal with them when I am fully awake during day time): dryer sheets (work well, though not perfectly with mosquitoes), OFF with DEET (work better with mosquitoes), and not showering.

I have learned to live with some, and I think the bigger bugs have come to realize the zero-tolerance policy that is enforced within the confines of my room, and oddly, with cockroaches.

Long have I pondered our repulsion and hatred for cockroaches. To watch one, trapped and still, in a corner during daylight, they aren't threatening or repulsive really. Some are thinner with hard, glowing mahogany shells. Some are fat and striped. All have those long, elegant feelers that gracefully dip and reach. They aren't venomous, and hardly ever bite. We fear spiders because of their danger and their propensity of munch on human flesh. We abhor mosquitoes for their obvious taste for human blood, and also because they make us itch like the dickens. Could the reason we hate cockroaches be solely a societal construction? Could we only hate them because, they eat our trash instead of our flesh and so tend to be found in places that we associate with filth? (Which of course leads to disease-carriers, but so are flies and we don't, generally, shudder at the thought of a fly.) They are big compared to other bugs, but small compared to us. So what exactly is it about these creatures that causes girls to squeal and boys to cringe.
It could be that peculiarly loud skittering sound they make, and ominous indicator of their unseen presence. It could be the sickening sound they make when killed which is too loud to allow their death to pass by casually as it does with so many other bugs. Or it could be the fact that they are FAST little bastards that, the minute they are scared from their disturbed little corner, take off in crazy circles, like a five year-old at the wheel of a Cadillac who can't see the road ahead and who knows WHERE they will end up, except we're all pretty sure it'll be on our bodies somewhere...

And so I'm learning. Learning to stalk, not silently like a jaguar, but with as much scary, ground shaking noise as possibly. Learning to appreciate the smell of roach-killer (as I have become hardened to bug-death by my life among the creatures). Learning to sleep without cocooning myself in my sheets. For the most part...

In other, completely unrelated news: What with the coming of the rains, days here feel like the opposite bend of the season, the one which takes us into the throes of winter. I awoke this morning to the rain, cool and fresh and comforting. And it turned out to be a very good day to listen to The Cure and to delightfully apocalyptic Eastern European romantic music composers.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Two Thursdays ago the choir changed classrooms and I couldn't find the new one. After 10 minutes of wandering campus, that uncomfortable feeling of obvious unfamiliarity started to take over and after 45 minutes I gave up. I was feeling, once again, like I didn't belong, which was frustrating after nearly a month of feeling at home.

So I gave up and stalked home. I got halfway though the park before I gave up on walking home. I threw myself underneath a tree and gave myself up to star gazing and pleading with the cosmos. The lightning bugs danced around through thick ropes of greenery and the bougainvillea bushes and the warm tropical air was sweat and thick and made me think of nothing more that that classic image of New Orleans. Why, I wondered, did I idolize the bohemian culture, but can't seem to feel like I'm living it? I always seem to end up on this side of socially acceptable and distinctly respectable?

I guess someone was listening, or maybe the stars were lined up correctly, because the next day I ran away with the circus.

Let me back up a bit. You see, there are these street-performers, mostly jugglers, who hang out at stop lights and perform in the cross-walk when the light is red. Ems and I sit at our bus stop, which is about 30 feet from a stoplight, and watch them while discussing the awesomeness of juggling. So imagine our surprise when, after an entire day of running errands we collapsed onto the bus and watched a gaggle of them slide into the seats across the aisle from us. It was even cooler, of course, because one of them had an accordion.
(I would like you to please now paint a mental picture of a band of classic bohemian gypsies mixed with a depression-era circus, to the sound of 1920’s accordion and harmonica music that would fit best in black-and-white Paris (or Amélie), with distinct flavorings of Peter Pan and the Moulin Rouge and completely saturated with that fantastic, although elusive concept of wandering artsy (which can obviously only be described with rather quirky coupling of an verb and an adjective, as opposed to the infinitely more conventional coupling of an adverb and a verb.) That’s essentially how I remember the weekend.)
To continue. So what with the circus sitting next to us on the bus and all, Ems got really excited and tried to convince me that if I talk to them, they’ll play something for us on their cool instruments. Actually, it will probably work better if we say it’s her birthday, NO! It’s MAGGIE’S! Maggie! Talk to them even though you are sitting by the window and trying to scrouch as far away from human interaction as possible because you have just spent 2 hours trying on jeans because the only jeans you brought with you to wear are indecently filled with holes and so now you are immensely tired and hungry.
But eventually Ems gave in and asked them herself, in nervous Spanish, where they were going to “play.” By the stoplight, of course, and do we want to come?
Now, I’m not exactly how this exchange went. I think a lot got lost in translation. I’m not sure if they asked US to come along, or if somehow we thought they did and tagged along anyway. I do know that they asked us what we were doing, and we answered honestly: nothing. And so we got off the bus with them? It was a little awkward at first, just randomly deciding to follow them. I was still carrying a bag with two pairs of jeans in it for cripes sake. When they started to set up under a stoplight, we plopped down and strove to look comfortable and natural by conversing casually. (Even though I spent most of the time suppressing nervous giggles.) Stephan was fiddling around on the accordion and David and César brought out the juggling clubs and promptly lit them on fire. Yes fire. Playing with fire is a funny thing. They’d juggle the clubs between them or they’d take three and balance them into a hat or they play like they were going to light someone on fire, getting the flame too close to this one’s back while he wasn’t paying attention or dangerously close to that one’s dreads while he was talking to us. At one point David extinguished his club in a cup of kerosene and these crazy whorls of white steam/smoke erupted up and out of the cup like an explosion of dry ice. I watched it and wished that I’d randomly brought my camera. He looked up and grinned at me “Wow, huh?” (They say “wow” here, but it sounds different. Like it’s more self-conscious of its English origins. Kind of like how I saw “no bueno”)
The stoplight wasn’t doing much for them because it was Labor Day, and in their words the day for “trabajo para taxistas y maravillosos.” (work for taxi drivers and jugglers.) So they told us they were planning on going to do a show downtown and then head to this bar called La Chicharronera. So we said “okay” and continued to follow them.
We walked all the way to downtown San Jose through the back streets, reciting stories, quips and poetry in between bars of accordion music, ringing doorbells and running and other such forms of goofing off in the streets. At one point we stopped in front of a small art-house theater where a line was waiting to get in. The guys set up a small show, jokingly directing traffic around their fire-clubs and jokes, and passing the hat afterward. Ems and I sat off to the side with that kind of smug thrill that I get from being “with the band” as it were.
At one point I looked around and realized we were walking through my favorite part of the city. It’s also probably the most sketchy part too. It’s one end of what is called the “California District” and it’s so cool. It’s bounded on that far side by railroad tracks and at one point there is an antique locomotive just rusting in its house. There are a few dilapidated buildings with artfully broken windows and overgrown grasses. But most of all there are expanses, like I’m talking multiple city blocks, of pure white wall that has been covered with extraordinary graffiti. Every time we bus or taxi through the area I tell Ems that I want to come back on foot and walk around and take pictures and she always tells me that we can do that as long as it’s during the daytime and in a REALLY BIG group. So imagine my glee at finding myself walking through it at 9 pm with a group of locals. We walked by this bar called Raffa’s which is so small that everyone sits outside on the curb. And they are the coolest people too. They’re all in black and safety pins, or plaid flannel and worn jeans and converse. Totally my kind of people. Further down the California district are other bars and music venues. It’s just really hip.
At Raffa’s we were joined by a group of girls who were friends with our jugglers. We found out later that they are all part of the drama department in the University of Costa Rica, where I go, which ends up saying a lot about them. As in they were really cool. (There are a ton of universities in the area, but UCR has a reputation of being the more artsy-hippie school.)
So we all sat down at the fountain in the very middle of the center of San José and the boys started gathering a crowd around. Teasing, cajoling and pushing people into sitting down, which, because of the clownish way they did it, drew more people. They commenced with their routine fire show, the feats of dexterity, the humorous stories all mixed up with perfect improv when it was appropriate. Like then a soaking wet drunk wandered into the middle of the show and they had to entice him out with a fake phone call from a nearby payphone. Or when they drew a crowd member up and made him take off his backpack and David pretended to walk off with it with exaggerated motions while Jason yelled at him that “that’s not for now, we do that later…” They then told the poor bastard that Stephan was going to walk over him juggling fire, and he had to watch while Stephan did a few practice rounds in which he kept dropping the flaming clubs while his friends shouted encouragement. “Good try! You’re doing great! One more time!” It was really cool to watch people we knew, people we’d been interacting with and hanging out with do this entertaining, professional-quality show which was, to all intents and purposes, impromptu.
Finally, the show was over and we headed to La Chicarronera with the girls, walking down the street, laughing and joking as if we’d been friends for AGES. We grabbed a couple of drinks at La Chica, sat on the low stage upon which, one month earlier, I’d watched some of the most awesome break-dancing, under crazy-colored lights and chatted. When the boys showed up we exchanged card tricks and magic. We finished the night singing “Ironic” by Alanis Morissette and “Zombie” by the Cranberries with our new Tica friends in one of the karaoke bars on La Calle, the row of bars that juts off campus. By the time we got in the taxi at 2am we’d been speaking Spanish for 8 hours straight and forgot to switch back to English as we reveled in our new friends and our awesome day.
And that’s about where we thought it would end. The next day was designated for finding a café and studying. We sat for four hours in this café where they make awesome chai tea and Indian food and the walls are yellow and red and the roof is but an awning. When it started to rain, I got distracted and stared out at San José existing around me and the mist-shrouded mountains rising up around it and thought about how cool it was to be sitting, essentially, outside in the rain, but not being cold and not getting wet, with a hot mug of tea. So like Berkeley and so different.
After four hours of studying we started to walk home. We walked instead of taking the bus even though it was kind of raining because I had absolutely no money on me (as per usual) and didn’t really want to borrow MORE money from Ems. But as we got close to the mall, (and Ems stopped at a street vendor to inquire about crocheted bikinis) we ran into on of the jugglers! It was a little awkward, mostly because of our being caught off guard and thus not being able to speak Spanish with much confidence. But he asked us if we were doing anything that night, and when we said no, he said there was a party at his friend’s place in Heredia and if we wanted to come, we could meet them at Raffa’s at 11. We thanked him but didn’t sound hopeful about it. The night before had been draining and after four hours of studying we just couldn’t conceptualize going out. But as we started to walk home, we started to talk about it. Should we go out to cement our friendship with these guys? Or would that be too creepy-soon? Would we seem too pushy?
Long story short we spent four hours discussing it and waffling. Yes, we’re going. We’re only going if we can get MK to come. We’re going even though MK isn’t. Maggie, I asked four online 8 balls and they all said we should go. Well, I checked my horoscope AND yours and it’s not giving me a clear indication. Ems, I don’t want to go to Raffa’s in a taxi, that’s just too uncool. Ems, I have a bad feeling about this. Maggie, I’ve just called the taxi, be outside in 4 minutes. Crud.
I think I just got nervous. I’d gotten ready to go out, so obviously I was planning on going out, but when I got in the taxi apparently, I looked like I was going to be sick. Raffa’s is one of THE coolest bars in San José. It’s in a dangerous enough neighborhood that the tourist welcome mat, so to speak, isn’t really out. It’s more of a place to go and bump into your friends, which is hard to do if you’re a transient gringo and don’t HAVE friends there. I practically DRAGGED her up to the bar because “I really needed a drink” and then we went and leaned against the wall just outside the door, framed with graffiti, trying to construct some sort of semblance of cool. It was around 11 and we couldn’t see them, so we assumed that they’d left. Oh well. That’s cool. No Heredia party tonight. It’s probably for the best. And as long as we’re here, let’s enjoy ourselves and chat. Blend. Eventually a drunk kid came over and wanted some of my drink. I thought it was funny because he was trying to convince us that he’d never tried a Cuba Libre before. (Here they come in cans, already mixed. It’s genius. And it’s also almost as popular as beer.) Then later he told us it was his favorite drink… Anyway, Ems told him we have swine flu and refused to share and then they started talking about places to go in Costa Rica. At one point she leaned over and hissed “I see them. Right. There. No over, leaning on the fence.” We waited, but the douche walked RIGHT past us into the bar and back out again. At that point we figured it was over. Obviously he’d seen us. Obviously he didn’t want to hang out. Obviously we were being creepy desperate.
So we shook off our new “friend,” bought two more Cuba Libres and decided to make the best of it. After all, we had ended up at a way cool bar. We chose a spot off to the side and chatted for a little while longer. FINALLY Jason came over all “hey! You guys made it!” and we were all “yea! Hey, we thought you’d left.” You know how it is when it’s obvious that everyone is lying? Yea. Then it was established that we were, in fact, still in for the party in Heredia. But first we have to wait for David and César who are doing a fire show at Club Latino Rock for one of the bands that was playing.
We ended up waiting outside Raffas, and Ems ended up talking with some drunk guy. Some drunk guy who turned out to be the sopping wet drunk who had wandered through the show the night before. They chatted about his broken life and sang Frank Sinatra and the Mammas and the Papas. Finally the other guys joined us, char smudges on their white collared shirts and big grins, and we headed off, laughing and joking. It’s good to have friends.
In the end, the party didn’t happen, and when I woke up the next morning to a white sky and the sound of the rain on a Sunday morning. The perfect kind of sleepy day to cap off a whirlwind weekend.