I use the only Spanish I know to explain that I am looking for a brown dried twig with very small beans inside.
Alive and well and happy here in the compound at Barrio Dent. It is a cool, breezy, utterly sanguine middle of the day in the tranquility garden, where a flock of parrots have settled to raid small red fruit from a tree that grows only in Costa Rica. I can hear a dove cooing somewhere in the bamboo forest that separates me from the train, several car alarms, and a jack hammer. The washing machine they keep on the back porch has broken down so my laundry was sent to Guadalupe and returned - less than two hours later - for me to dry on the line. I've been deliberating a bit on how happy I am to be exactly where I have landed. I bought and mailed a few post cards for Christmas cheer the other day - stunning beaches, zip lining through rainforests, quaint villages and majestic volcanoes. These were my only choices because really, I guess, who's going to print a post card of an armed guard? I am as happy as anyone else when relaxing on an isolated stretch of sandy beach, but I'm also happy to be passing time in the garden of intense sound effects because it reminds me that I am inhabiting the world.
I am comfortable now taking the bus into town - a bumpy start and stop ride past some beautiful architecture, every inch of which is covered in graffiti. I have my $185 colones ready and know to disembark when Avenida Central dead-ends at the pedestrian mall - aka the crushing center of madness. And I'm much less self-conscious about communicating in a foreign language - sometimes my r's are trilled perfectly, the rest of the time I sound inebriated. I have learned to say "por favor, hablar despacio": please, speak slowly. I went to the Teatro Nacional, a beautiful theater in the heart of the city, yesterday for tickets to The Nutcracker. I was so happy to have accomplished the selection of seats and exchange of money without breaking out in a cold sweat that I stopped at a flower stall for white lilies - six stems for $2000 colones. When I handed my colones to the cashier, she gave me the once over, plucked two stems from the bouquet, wrapped the four remaining and dismissed me. Perhaps she heard me ask her girl to speak slowly. And it's entirely possible that what I really said was, "please, I am slow."
There are unlimited possibilities for comedic error in a foreign country, even if you're not considered a foreigner. Jon and Mari hosted an open house on Saturday night, attended by dozens of people from many countries - England, Brazil, Colombia, Germany, Canada among them. I participated in six hours of conversational Spanish, a great deal of it with a group of multi-national women who assured me that I wasn't alone in my misuse of words. Apparently even South and Central Americans are subject to red-faced faux pas when crossing the border. For example, if you are a Brazilian traveling in Colombia and need to buy a camisilla (tanktop), you may be embarrassed to discover you have just asked the shop girl for a condom. On the other hand, Brazilians raise their eyebrows at Colombians who walk into an upscale clothing store asking for a new saco (blazer). Why would this crazy Colombian woman need a sack for holding testicles? My friend Anita Li would say: Don't worry so much about the words, we are communicating! And we are laughing.
I have found it is common to have someone minding the cars on any given block of streets in the city. This minder will typically hang a backpack and a billy club off the tine of gate in the center of the block and commence accepting tips when happy car owners return to find they still have tires. Here, an unobserved passer-by would be pleased to take your floor mats if they are the most interesting thing available in your unprotected car. It is not mandatory to tip these fellows, but I personally witnessed an unhappy minder chasing an ungrateful car owner down the street alongside the super market. I didn't understand a word of his tirade as he ran after the car. But I'm pretty sure I know what he was saying.
Speaking of supermarkets, I am lucky to have the Auto Mercal within walking distance of the compound. It is known as a sort of boutique grocery store amenable to Americans. We can buy our French sticks, provolone, salami. There are some odd twists though. There is no solid yogurt here - it is all liquid. Mayonnaise comes in giant packets with a nozzle attached - which I kind of like. No one knows what a vanilla bean is, and the literal translation to frijoles vainilla just adds to the confusion. They point to the soymilk aisle so I use the only Spanish I know to explain that I am looking for a brown dried twig with very small beans inside. They show me potato chips. Papayas and pineapple are aplenty though, so I'm good. And so it goes.
The day of the open house, Jon and Mari arose with the sun as usual and headed to the feria to shop for food and basic household necessities that they purchase and deliver to 18 families every Saturday without fail. At 7:00 a.m., while they were shopping, I was adhering to the new and amazingly productive two-hour morning writing schedule I alluded to in my last email. When they returned, Jon dumped bags and bags of carrots, potatoes, onions, rice, peppers, pineapples, tomatoes, packages of soda crackers, toilet paper, bars of soap, juice mix, some sort of local root I'll never learn to cook, onto the patio. Assembly line style, we got 18 boxes organized, packed into the car and on their way to families living in unimaginable poverty. I know how it feels now, to sit inside a shack built of recycled corrugated steel panels and bits of wood that leak in the light, and probably bugs - a family of five lives here, and you know, the children were clean, smiling little cuties - this family is poor, but they are also happy. Our next stop was to visit an American ex-pat, the former owner of a well-known hotel near Cape Kennedy/Canaveral, who has spent something like the last 20 years helping needy families in Costa Rica, until now, at this very late age of his life when he finds himself the one in need. I felt embarrassed recalling my search for vanilla beans - the cost equivalent to four bags of rice.
So far I've had lunch at a Chinese buffet, the Hotel Europa in the heart of the of the city, seen the one and only Ojo de Agua in Belen, played chess in the park surrounding the pools, made American-style gravy for the open house (I'm afraid I oversold my ability to make this, which in reality I'd only done once or twice, but thankfully it was a good gravy day - phew), and seen a ballet that was only interrupted twice by car alarms. But Saturday’s delivery weighs on me and these other excursions are easy to abbreviate, although I can mention the earthquake on Monday night: it sounded like a baseball bat and set off an entire city of car alarms, of course.
Then there is writing. I've mentioned Bob's book, "From Where You Dream", and would like to include a short paragraph. He says: "...When I've finished a work, some time passes, and I'm working up to something new, I feel that I am utterly wasting my life. I do trivial, ghastly, quotidian stuff; I hate myself; I complain about myself to my wife, and that hatred daily increases. Finally she says to me, '.... you've reached total self-loathing; you're about to start writing.' ...Soon thereafter, the door opens up to my unconscious, to my new work, and I leap in. And then I write every day and I am scared every day and I am happy every day." That pretty much sums it up for me. I am writing every day, I am scared every day, and I am happy every day. It is working.
The last thing I see from my little loft before I sign off? Beyond the razor wire young boys playing soccer in the rain. Good night - mi cerebro es fatigado.