August 14, 2006

8-13-06 ¿Qué paso, mi amor?

William and Guiselle, Costa Rica, 8-14-06.This is how the members of my Costa Rican family often ask each other how they are, “¿Qué paso, mi amor?” What’s happening, my love? When I think about them, this is the phrase that stands out. Not just because they say it now and again, but because there’s a lot of love in this house and it’s made my time here very pleasant.

Sometimes when I wake up late, the first sound I hear is William in the next room playing with Maria José before he goes to work. Gently teasing, joking, trading nonsense sounds and animal noises with her. I might hear Justin join them if I’m just moving really slow that morning. Then there are three different tones of morning-softened Spanish filtering through the thin walls. It beats all heck out of my alarm clock at home.

You can’t really have much audio privacy here. Guiselle informed me a couple weeks ago that I talk in my sleep, for example, giving me a good ribbing about it in the process. But she’s good with the deadpan joke, it took a minute to catch it. But she can’t understand what I say then anymore than I can catch the full scope of a normal pace conversation here, especially if it’s muffled. So there’s some privacy of the spoken word, but no hiding tone and emotion.

Andreína (14), Justin (8) and Maria Jose (3), Costa Rica, 7-29-06. - natashaNot that all is perfect. Maria José and Justin, at 3 and 8, sometimes take turns purposely irritating each other. Kids, you know. And this is also a household with deep political divisions. Guiselle is a lifelong fan of the Deportiva Saprisa soccer league, while the rest of the family roots for the Liga Deportiva Alajuelense, or the LDA. With the exception of Maria José, of course, who’s a bit young to have an opinion on this all-important question.

Soccer is somewhat of a universal language outside the United States, as anyone with the barest interest in world affairs can easily discover. One day when I was trying to explain a news story I’d read to Guiselle, I realized that I’d forgotten what the Spanish word for Britain was & she wasn’t getting any of my clues. Talking about a country with a queen here might well evoke Spain before Britain. Justin was there and after I’d named any number of political and popular figures to hopefully prompt the correct country, it turned out that David Beckham’s name was sufficient by itself to call the word Angleterre from him at once. If I knew more about soccer teams, I bet the kids would suddenly turn into living geography texts.

The family property is both home and business, with most of the 2 hectares here devoted to a stand of well-tended, shade grown coffee. William takes care of the farm for about four hours every day, six days a week. He plants new coffee to replace 20-30 year old trees that have tired out, cuts back trees that have been growing for 5-6 years so they can resprout and refresh themselves, weeds between the rows and keeps an eye on the many other food plants they grow here. They eat a lot of root and vine vegetables planted between the rows of coffee, at the edges of the farm, by the side of the house. While many of the shade trees are nitrogen fixing, there are also a lot of fruit trees here whose produce Guiselle often turns into juice or smoothies. When William walks through the farm, he keeps an eye out for anything that looks ready to harvest and bring back to the house.

Maria José clearing her shoes at the pila. Costa Rica, 8-09-06. - natashaWilliam also has a second job, often working about five hours a day, six days a week making pilas for 80,000 colones (about $160) per month. A pila is a hand made, tile-lined sink often used as a wash or utility sink. The pila is generally kept in either the back of a house under an open porch or in the laundry room. In this house, the back room with the pila is a roughly cement floored, all purpose storage and laundry room that I’d call an attached garage, except that it was never intended to house a car. The pila is a useful companion to the type of washing machines that are commonly available here, which are more like the washing machines available in the U.S. decades ago, the ones that my grandmother supplemented with a wringer or washboard. Here, it’s the pila and an oval, rubber laundry brush. William made the one here especially for Guiselle and the family.

However, William hasn’t always had to have a job outside the farm. Before the collapse of the Coopepueblos cooperative and the closing of the local beneficio, or raw coffee processing plant, two years ago, this cafetal produced around 50 finegas (somewhere around 100 pounds, or 20 large baskets) of coffee per year. But last year, they couldn’t afford to buy manure for the coffee trees, which is particularly important when they’re young or resprouting as some of the trees will often be in a given year. The loss of much of their income is what forced him to take work away from home and the combination of the lack of fertilizer and adequate time to maintain the trees devastated their harvest. Last year, the farm produced only 13 finegas of raw coffee. This year, he expects around 25 finegas of coffee and perhaps that the farm will be back to full production in two or three years when more of the trees mature.

Guiselle supplements the family income by sewing cloth shoulder bags and small home decorations. She sells her work through a network of friends and acquaintances, sometimes getting orders from clients of her sister’s in San Jose. When the sewing machine isn’t going, she’s busy all day. Food has to be prepared from scratch for every meal, lunches made to carry, and a house that’s fairly open to the world and three kids that wander in and out kept clean. Laundry, as mentioned, is a little harder to do than most Americans are probably used to. As of nearly two months ago, she also took responsibility for the family’s first paying guest, me.

I can understand Guiselle’s Spanish better than most people’s here. She’s gotten used to working with the limits of my vocabulary and uses her best help-with-homework voice when she’s moving into new rhetorical territory. We’ve had longer and more in-depth conversations than I would have guessed I was capable of participating in, getting to know each other in the process.

Lizard in the kitchen by the Virgin. Costa Rica, 6-27-06. - natashaGuiselle works at being one of the most cheerful, patient and good-natured people I’ve ever known. She’d doubtless credit this to her devout Catholic faith, which is a strong and steady force in her life. I’ve never known faith to guarantee these traits, but she certainly isn’t happy because she’s oblivious.

When the family took me with them to the local fair celebrating the annexation of Guanacaste province, Guiselle took me to see the bull riding because she likes to see the animals and thought it would interest me. After the bull quickly and inevitably throws its rider, the dozens of men who’ve been standing around the edge of the bull ring set in baiting the bull, climbing up the slats when it starts barreling around the sides and sometimes getting together in groups to rope and subdue it. She knew that many of the men in the ring were drunk and she worries about the day when Justin will be old enough to get mixed up in the same kind of behavior. She didn’t stay long after the mood in the ring turned meaner and some of the men started taking even more extravagant risks.

The family also follows the news on both Costa Rican and Panamanian stations and are probably about as well informed about the big events of the day as the typical American news viewer. Or maybe moreso in certain particulars.

In the absence of the world’s Friedmans, Matthewses, O’Reillys and Colmeses, William and Guiselle’s main concern about the wars in the middle east is that this sort of violence will just create more violence and could get out of hand. I’m even now formulating a strategy for outsourcing American foreign policy to farmers in Coto Brus, Costa Rica. It’ll be a brilliant plan with cost-savings in the thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars. Stay tuned.

They also keenly watch environmental news and were eager to tell me as much as they could about features they watched while I was here on the environmental destruction wreaked by precious metals mining in Panama and a program on global warming that discussed the potential for wars over water. Apparently, no one from Exxon Mobil ™ is interested in paying to feed nonsense climate propaganda to Costa Ricans, so William and Guiselle get science news from interviews with scientists and are quite sensibly worried about the sort of world their children will grow up in.

Andreína, 14, goes to the local collegio, for what would be junior high and high school aged students in the U.S. When Guiselle was growing up, the nearest collegio was a couple towns away and her parents didn’t think it was safe to send their daughters that far from home every day. But Andreína will get at least a high school education and right now, she qualifies for 9,000 colones (about $18) worth of student assistance per month, though that lately hasn’t managed to cover the cost of replacing the uniforms she’s starting to grow out of. She enjoys social studies and her language classes and hopes to be a Spanish teacher someday if she can go to a university.

Justin is in primary school, where for years now all students get English language classes every year. He’s also lucky because this year, his school is starting typing lessons. Though the collegio has computer classes, they haven’t managed to swing typing lessons yet, so the younger kids will have a jump on that.

While all the students have years of bilingual education, there are very few adults in the community they can practice with outside of their English teachers. They don’t have textbooks or a language lab where they can hear the accents of native speakers, only the notes they take in class and a Spanish-English dictionary if the family can afford one. So when the husband and wife Peace Corps team, who will be teaching evening English courses here for the next two years, first introduced themselves in English to the collegio students, they weren’t understood at all.

Maria José is still young enough to qualify for four good-sized packs of powdered milk per month, possibly until age 6. However, each area only has a certain number of slots for children receiving this assistance, so there’s no guarantee that it will continue for her next year. Also, the Costa Rican government itself must have had a bit of a rough winter, because for a few months earlier this year they weren’t able to deliver either the student assistance or powdered milk to qualifying families here. Last month, the government caught up with their accounts and made up the difference.

They don’t have a culture of shaming and denigrating poverty here, so Guiselle wasn’t in the least timid to tell me about the help they receive. She didn’t hesitate at all to give me permission to write about it, either. And maybe that’s helped by the fact that they don’t seem to be treated or talked about like undeserving wretches by the government.

I remember vividly when Howard Dean, who first started his presidential bid with the hope of highlighting healthcare issues, would finish off the portion of his stump speech on healthcare with the reminder that “… even the Costa Ricans” all have healthcare. Well, they do. Their national health insurance program costs this family 3,600 colones (about $7.20) per month for total coverage, including dental care. There’s even local ambulance service to take emergency cases to the hospital 13 miles away in San Vito. I’m told that if a person or family can’t afford coverage, they have to be treated in the emergency room anyway, though there isn’t much of a collection enforcement system if they can’t pay later. If you’re sick here, one way or another, you can get healthcare without putting your entire life in hock.

Even with the catastrophic loss of their normal harvest income for the last two years, no one in this house worries that they can’t afford to see a doctor if they’re sick. They say, well, if it’s worse tomorrow we’ll go to the doctor or visit the hospital.

Granted, when Justin had another bout of stomach trouble last month, the first ultrasound they scheduled him for had to be canceled because the machine needed repairs. But the following week, they had him in again and were able to verify that everything was indeed alright with him. When Maria José had the flu and couldn’t keep anything down, Guiselle had packets of the electrolyte solution used to prevent dehydration during excessive vomiting or diarrhea and they were able to take her to the doctor to get what seemed to be fairly effective medication. Diarrhea is the number one killer of young children in the developing world, but I would guess that very few children die of it here in Costa Rica.

So that’s my family here and I’m going to miss them when I leave. But they ordered a telephone in February, so with luck they’ll have a number I can call before the summer is out.

Posted by natasha at August 14, 2006 11:51 AM | Costa Rica | Technorati links |