Tuesday, December 7, 2010
Thursday, November 25, 2010
The challenges to this plan include:
- No oven
- Broken gas stove, only electric skillet and crock pot to work with
- Many traditional American spices, like sage and thyme, are not used here
- Noticeable lack of pumpkins
But I saw this as a chance to get creative. While everyone looked at me blankly when I asked about pumpkins, I realized that squashes are native to the New World and that Costa Ricans traditionally make a sweet squash dish (called chivere) during Easter. I asked around and discovered that my best bet was a big green ayote, which luckily is in season throughout the year here. A very generous family that works at the pulperia (general store) donated an ayote to the effort.My Steps:
3. Put cooked ayote in blender to make paste.
4. Mix in condense milk, sugar, eggs, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg salt. No allspice (called ¨jamaican pepper¨) to be found.
5. Use theory that you are making a sort of flan/pudding type of pie (while ignoring fact that you have never actually made a flan/pudding type of anything that did not come out of a box), and hope you can reduce your saucy mixture in the crock pot. It works!
6. Pour saucy ayote onto crust made of crushed coconut cookies (Called ¨Cocanas¨-- not to be confused with the illegal Columbian ¨cocainas¨) and melted margarine (thanks to Sarah Stone for the idea!).7. Let cool in fridge. Lena´s Super Special No-oven Ayote Pie is ready for Thanksgiving!
Happy Thanksgiving to all our family and friends. This year we give thanks for all of you and the support and love you have sent our way.
We almost didn’t make it out of the country. The day we left our site (November 2nd) was the beginning of a storm that paralyzed most of Costa Rica for the next week. We took the earliest possible bus from our town, carrying our luggage to the bus through the water that had already started to pool outside our house. Over the course of our 5 hours on the bus, the rain grew steadily worse, falling in thick sheets that hid mountains and trees, and we twice plowed through water that had jumped the banks of rivers and was churning in brown curls across the highway. The running dialogue between the driver and passengers (“Can we make it?” “We can totally make it.” “How high off the ground is the engine?”) didn’t do much to soothe the nerves. We must have been on one of the last buses to make it out of the Central Pacific region – within 24 hours, nearly all the highways in the country were closed due to flooding or landslides. Since coming back to our site, we’ve learned that water was waist high in the parts of town near the beach, and several families were evacuated from their houses and had to live out of the elementary school for two weeks. Amazingly, our house, 20 meters from the creek that runs through the middle of Matapalo, the same one that jumped its banks and knocked aside trees and left the high school’s cows standing in the middle of a gigantic, muddy lake, saw no flooding. The worst we had to deal with was a skillet we left uncleaned in the rush to leave the country. It was really gross, but I will gladly take scrubbing mold over a flooded house.
We hadn’t planned on going back to the United States at all during our service. Part of this was a bit of romanticism: we thought the experience wouldn’t be as “authentic” if we interrupted it with a return to our state-side privilege and comfort. The other part was probably emulation: Lena’s parents served in the Peace Corps in Morocco in the 1970s. They not only didn’t go home during their service, they didn’t even call home – flights between Morocco and the U.S. were prohibitively expensive, and international calls involved going to the post office and waiting in line for hours. We, on the other hand, live in a country which is an international tourist destination, meaning flights here from Denver are often cheaper than flying to Ohio, and we have a cell phone. All of which, I suppose, reinforces Peace Corps Rule Number Three: “Never compare your Peace Corps service to that of anyone else, including those in your own country.” For those who don’t know, Peace Corps Rule Number One and Two are, respectively, “You will never be able to kill all the bugs, so stop trying” and “Try to think of skin diseases as interesting rather than disgusting.”
The really odd part the whole experience was we didn’t have much chance to notice we were home. The reason we were there curtailed any sort of reflection; we were too busy worrying or cleaning or running errands to mull over the lessons learned in our eight months in Costa Rica or analyze our personal growth and change. (That had to wait until we were back in country and woken up by a backhoe in our front yard at 5:30 in the morning, just an hour after we had chased off some long-clawed animal crawling in the ceiling above our bed, thus giving us the necessary impetus, if not the rest, to wake up and type this.) It was remarkably easy to slip back into life in Colorado, with only a couple of exceptions:
1) I felt simultaneously guilty and elated every time I flushed toilet paper down the toilet (Costa Rica functions largely on a septic tank system, meaning you can’t wash your toilet paper down the bowl, and instead throw it out like other trash).
2) I had to suppress the urge to say “hello” to every person I came across on the street or in stores, as it appeared to make most people uncomfortable.
3) Lena reports feeling odd not kissing everyone she knows when greeting them. Costa Ricans greet people with a kiss on the side of the cheek – not actually on the cheek, but an “air kiss,” shot broadside of the face. Being a person who sometimes feels awkward hugging people I know and love, I didn’t feel the same.
4) There is a marked lack of ants swarming over everything you own in Colorado.
Deeper reflections have had to wait for our return. It has been, if we’re to be honest, a difficult couple of months for us, with frustrations over our work (or lack of it), doubts about our plans and priorities, and watching fellow volunteers leave to pursue other opportunities. The chance to step back a bit, to receive advice or a pep talk from friends and family, was valuable. We come back, we make new plans, see familiar things again and forget all our Spanish. Our goals change, they contract or expand. Some things you think you’ve learned you have to repeat again. You repeat vague platitudes to cover up the fact you have no idea what you’re doing. And you take pride in the small successes you achieve. Sometimes they are very small: today I figured out, after three months, how to pay the garbage man. Welcome back to Costa Rica.
Thursday, October 21, 2010
It’s only seven months in, but we’ve finally started to do some work.
We know, we were also worried that we were rushing it – maybe we should hold on another five months, get to a full year of sitting on our itching, impatient hands before attempting to leave the house in a purposeful manner – but we couldn’t help it. Plus, people wouldn’t shut up about English classes.
So that’s what we’re doing. English classes. During training, we both said to ourselves: “Self,” because we always address ourselves in the third person when administering sound advice to ourselves, “I never want to set foot anywhere near an English class.” We didn’t come all these hundreds of miles, leave our friends and family, and switch to an entirely rice-based diet simply to explain possessive pronouns to someone in broken Spanish, we said.
After three months of having no fixed purpose at all besides writing an analysis of a community which seemed ambivalent about talking to me, I will gladly explain possessive pronouns to anyone who asks, simply to have something useful to do. I will explain personal pronouns. I will explain for the five thousandth time that that, unlike in Spanish, you don’t “have” 33 years, in English you are 33 years old. I will perform skits in which two people greet each other with exaggerated politeness and awkwardly avoid contractions like “I’m” or “you’re”, acting out both parts in funny voices, usually involving a high-pitched “girl” who swishes her hips a lot.
Please give me something else to do.
I’m sure there are some volunteers who live in areas where teaching English can seem like a nearly useless activity, tiny towns where the last person who spoke English and passed through town was part of William Walker’s army, but our towns are not those places. We live in commuting distance of the most popular national park in Costa Rica, and tourists pass through by the hundreds of thousands. Speaking English is a skill that people in our community can use to materially improve their lives, capitalizing on the fact that Americans are constitutionally unable to order a hamburger or casually insult a tour guide in any other language than English.
Teaching a community English class here, however, is an entirely different animal from teaching Spanish in some suburban church basement in the States. Cultural, social, and class differences often turn our teacher-student relationship into that of two ships passing in the night – through a thick fog, before the invention of radar, radio, or the international semaphore system.
For one thing, the average level of education is generally low: in Matapalo, 33% of people over 12 haven’t finished elementary school. Sixth grade seems to be the average level of education in our English classes, meaning we have to re-tune the way we teach: our default, having attended (especially looked at in retrospect) fantastic public schools and colleges, is to revert to grammar when we run into linguistic problems. Our students often have no formal grammar background in their native language. For example, one of Lena’s students recently asked her about the difference between two sentences about work – in Spanish, “to work” is “trabajar,” while a job is a “trabajo,” so it’s easy to see how the explanation could get convoluted. When Lena explained that “work” is a noun in one sentence and a verb in the other, her student nodded seriously, turned to her, and asked “what’s a verb?”
We’ve written a little about the school system here before, and the conditioning that adults have received in public schools also complicates our Spanish classes. Costa Rican classrooms are largely places where the teacher writes things on the board and the students hurriedly copy the collection of facts for the day in their notebooks. We’ve discovered that we have to be very careful in using the chalkboard, because students have a Pavlovian copying reaction to anything put up there – which means they will pay no attention to anything you say while they are writing. I tried to do an exercise the other day in my elementary school class where the students drew a picture of their family, and underneath each person wrote a few sentences – the name, age and occupation of their family member. I drew my family on the board, wrote some sample sentences about my father, and then went around the class, helping out with vocabulary, and as individual students asked about new words, I would spell them out on the board. At the end of class, everyone had a picture of a family that also mysteriously had three brothers and a sister; everyone had a father with a goatee who was a computer engineer; everyone had filled their notebooks with the vocabulary I had written on the board – in the exact same places I had written it, crowded in the extra board space around the drawings; and no one could explain to me the difference between “I am” and “he is.”
Realizing that most of our students aren’t attending these classes so they can finally read Henry James in the original English, we’ve been attempting to emphasize communication over formalized grammar – which means students have to speak in class. Yet getting students to take initiative and participate can be a challenge. We have several theories: maybe there are some cultural clues we’re missing, or maybe we’re asking the wrong questions, or maybe classroom interaction is just such a foreign concept that we startle our students into silence, but that old U.S. classroom trope of throwing a question out to the class, to check for comprehension or build student interest, tends to meet with the kind of quiet usually reserved for impolite bodily functions. We’ll let you know how this one goes.
All this said, and aside from the joys of ordering textbooks in a nation that is still largely cash-only and refuses to adopt any standardized postal address system, our English classes seem to be going well. (Except that I think drop-out is starting.)
We’re also doing other work: in Matapalo, Nate has started an art club with local kids and was surreptitiously elected to the board of the local community security group when he left the meeting to use the bathroom. Lena is working with a tremendous group of women in Portalón who have built a hydroponic greenhouse and started a small cooperative business selling produce, and she’s also helping organize a community group that works on promoting children’s rights. We’re still wildly emotionally volatile, with lots of ups and downs, but there are occasionally things written in our daytimers now.
P.S. – This is completely unrelated, but startling enough that we felt we should share it with everyone. We have a lot of bichos (Spanish for “critters”) in our house, many of whom are unwelcome and are liable to be struck sharply with a broom if we see their hideous, inhuman faces again. We have, however, grown oddly fond of geckos. Maybe it’s because they eat mosquitoes, which, aside from ants, represent the best argument against the existence of an all-powerful, benevolent God which I’ve ever seen. We have a particular fondness for one gecko, who we have named Gordon and who lives in our kitchen.
Here is the disturbing part: we have found out that Gordon is a “Wandering Gecko,” and that his species is parthenogenic – meaning they don’t need partners to reproduce – and female-only. So if anyone has any suggestions on how to de-gender Gordon’s name (Gordona and Gordonna haven’t really stuck), it would be greatly appreciated. Also, if you could give us a short description of how in Hades parthenogenic reproduction works in multi-cellular animals and if this inbreeding is related to why geckos feel compelled to poop in my skillet every night, that would also be welcome.
Tuesday, September 21, 2010
Nate toasting his work and our newly installed mosquito-net bed, a must have for the rainy season. And the dry season. Pretty much all the time.
We do our laundry in a little Chinese-made machine, then line-dry among bananas and cows.
Lena in the kitchen, making pancakes, which are especially delicious if you haven't eaten them for six months.
Monday, September 20, 2010
(Among family and friends we have quite a range of Spanish knowledge. From a fluent brother who can trick people into thinking he is Argentinean, to a German-speaking Grandmother with little orientation to Latin languages, to everything in between. So, if you find this explanation ponderous, please bear with us.)
Spanish has a fairly well-know and rather charming ability to take a word, a noun or adjective, and modify it to make it diminutive. Take a noun like casa (house). A little house is a casita. How about a perro (dog): a little dog is a perrito. Just add –ito or –ita to a noun and you have created a whole new word and cut out the need for a separate adjective. This can refer to either the actual physical size of something (a tiny house) or how adorable it is (such a cute little house!) or both. So instead of saying “I live in a little house, and I have a little dog” a Spanish-speaker is able to get away with something akin to “I live in a housey-wousy and I have a doggy-woggy.” And no one laughs.
Costa Ricans have an idiosyncratic version of this usage. Instead of –ito, they use –tico. So a small amount is not just un poco. It’s un poquitico. If you need just a minuto (minute), you can ask for a minutico. Due to their tendency to use this form, Costa Ricans are themselves nicknamed “ticos.”
During my eleven years of speaking Spanish, I have always felt that this was a cute trick, that the creation of a new adorable word from an otherwise boring specimen is a nice creative flourish, nothing too profound, but fun. The linguistic equivalent of floral accents in a room. However recent usages by people in our town have led to doubt. It may be that something more profound is going on. Maybe by using –ito, instead of a free and independent modifier, you actually make the thing itself more itsy-bitsy because it is now inherent in the thing itself to be so darn cute and small. Further, the widespread use of this linguistic tool does what all language does: it helps shape the way we think and illuminates the cultural processes by which we see ourselves and our world. –Ito has changed in my mind from mere décor to vital ontological window.
Let’s take three examples: Feíto, pobrecito and Diosito.
Feíto: The use of –ito acts as an excellent social lubricant and is key for those who need an ambassador’s skill to communicate with people who regard politeness as important and look down on aggressive or overly direct social behavior. Let’s say you need to describe accurately someone who is not handsome and is overweight. You could call him feo (ugly) and gordo (fat), but why, when you can much more politely and endearingly name him as feíto and gordito. What if you need to get a meeting with an otherwise recalcitrant co-worker but can’t risk being seen as pushy? Easy! Ask her ever so politely for just a little of her tiempecito (time). Is someone asking you to do something you’d really rather not do right now? Let them know you’ll get to it ahorita (sometime around now, or a bit later than now), and you have anywhere from 5 minutes to 3 years to get to it! You were still accurate with your words (sort of), and yet everyone is happier with you because otherwise overly harsh, direct or impolite words were softened.
Pobrecito: Pobre means poor, but a pobrecito is quite another matter. This is the term universally accepted to describe someone to whom bad things have happened and over which s/he has little or no control. Catch a cold last week? Pobrecito. Did the river flood your house? Pobrecito. Did you lose your homework? Pobrecito. Not show up to that key meeting because you forgot about it? Pobrecito. Can’t get a job because you never leave the house and why would you anyway, your mother cooks and cleans and keeps a roof over your head so there’s really no need? Pobrecito. The seemingly harmless addition of –ito covers a wide spectrum of culpability and victimization, with the effect of diffusing responsibility from said pobrecito. Whereas a Tica mother might say, “Pobrecito my son, he can’t get his act together,” a traditional mother of American Puritan persuasion might respond, “Pobrecito my hind foot, he needs to take on some responsibility and get a job while he’s at it!” Thus, the whole idea embedded in this word is the metaphor of a tiny, helpless human who cannot fight circumstances in a universe beyond his control. This has traditionally been referred to as Latin American “fatalism.” It’s a complicated phenomenon and far from universal, but suffice it to say that the seemingly innocuous phrase holds telling clues to this idea that we, at least, see manifested quite often in the Costa Rican countryside.
Diosito: Dios means God. We have actually heard the term Diosito used several times, once by a priest and once when someone was petitioning God for something. This has got to be the ultimate and most baffling use of the –ito diminutive. What does Diosito mean? Little God? Cute, adorable God? Tiny, smoothed over, no-more-fire-and-brimstone God? Just-the-baby-Jesus God? Creator God that is now tired out like an old man so He’s shrunk down a little? Can you really add a diminutive onto the Someone or Something that is all-knowing, all-powerful and all-loving? Perhaps Diosito is a divinity you can feel more comfortable with, a more personal God along the lines of born-again Protestantism, a guy that you can really talk to and maybe play soccer with on Saturdays. We don’t know. Perhaps all we can say for certain is that the Spanish language itself offers theological possibilities that are not available in English.
There’s no better opportunity than learning another language to realize how much the words you use shape the way you view the world. One tiny suffix can make anything adorable and absolve you from any personal responsibility, as well as softening the blow of any word’s ultimate meaning. We’re working on adopting -ito into English: we live in an house-ito, do a little bit of work-ito in the Peace Corps-ito, and suffer from the tiniest bit of homesick-ito. Don’t worry, we aren’t poor-itos. We’ll always have the Spanish language-ito to keep us going.
Thursday, September 2, 2010
When I used to receive phone calls in the States, the usual order of business was something akin to:
“Hello, this is _____. May I please speak to _____?”
You may notice two things here:
1) The person calling states who they are.
2) The person calling asks for who they want to speak to.
The first public phone was installed in Matapalo in 1979, which one would think would allow enough time for people to develop some sort of system for using phones. Instead, the most common call we receive at our house goes like:
MYSTERIOUS PERSON ON OTHER END OF LINE: Hello?
-- LONG PAUSE --
-- LONG PAUSE --
MYPOOEOL: Hello. Good afternoon.
LENA: Good afternoon.
This can go on for hours. Usually, we have to overcome our sense of indignation at having the expectation that we psychically guess the intentions of the person who called us, and ask who is calling or for whom they are calling. This is followed by another awkward pause, in which we wonder if the mystery person is now indignant at us. Then mystery person finally spills that beans by stating someone’s name in a confused voice.
At first we thought this was an artifact of answering someone else’s phone. We always felt bad that the friends and family calling our hosts were seemingly so upset that strangers with gringo accents were answering the phone that we caused a sudden inability to hold a logically ordered phone conversation (we were also frequently hung up on). We have since learned that this still happens when you have your own cell phone AND it happens when you put up flyers asking people interested in English classes to call Nate or Lena AND it happens to other volunteers in a variety of otherwise unrelated situations.So we have come to the conclusion that a legit PC project could be teaching rural Costa Ricans to initiate and professionally carry out phone calls. We’re only being somewhat tongue-in-cheek; because the irony is that a growing industry here in Costa Rica for the up-and-coming working and middle classes is… customer service call centers!