Semana Santa

I love Semana Santa. Grumpy gringos love to hate it, but I just love it and that’s all. I love the chicharras. I love the air that’s too hot to breathe and smells like wood smoke from a fire in the mountains somewhere. I love the hazy stars. I love the badly-acted religious movies from 1970 that they play every year on TV. I love the maranones. I love the jocotes. I LOVE the rosquillas.

When I first came to Costa Rica as a student in 1991, the only time I got little case of Montezuma’s Revenge was because I ate too many rosquillas in Semana Santa. Gotta watch those little buggers with all that manteca. Talk about indigenous cooking. Ground corn, manteca, that hard salty smoked cheese, salt…am I forgetting something? Probably.  They don’t look that good. They don’t sound that good. And the first time I saw my host mother dump a handful of those odd little round biscuits into her tall glass of sweet black coffee? Bleagh! I thought in my innocence.

Oh silly me. Once you start on them, you can’t stop.

I love Semana Santa.  I love everything being closed in the middle of the week.  I love families sitting in the shade of trees in their yards. I love families playing with their fat little babies on the beach. I love drunk uncles lounging in the shade beside coolers full of cold drinks, tuna and soda crackers. Grumpy gringos love to hate it, but I just love it and that’s all.

It’s been a year since I’ve been back in Costa Rica, back home.  Immigration renewed my residence, considering me to have been a resident even during the time I was gone.  (I never thought an immigration document could make me almost burst into happy tears but when I read that, I had to take a deep breath.) I missed Semana Santa so much.  Not the chaos-at-the-beach part of Semana Santa–all the rest of it.  If you live in Costa Rica and you have no idea what I’m talking about, my sincere condolences.  There’s more to it than traffic jams at the coast.

They say every year on Sabado de Gloria, it rains.  And honestly, it usually does.  Maybe it’s the moon, this “Christian” holiday being situated on the Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox.   The monkeys are in the trees calling for rain.  The chicharras call for it.  The cenizaros don’t make a sound, but you can see them beckon if you watch.

I love Semana Santa.  I missed it so much.  Easter is a nice day, but let’s not kid ourselves.  Latin America knows how to celebrate a thing in a way that North America never will.  Sorry for all the grumpy gringos.

50 Different Words for Children

Who would like to join me in a toast to funny-shaped families: non-traditional, hard-to-explain combinations that don’t fit into a cookie-cutter no matter how you turn them?

Cheers!

. . . . .

The boys have grown into men and they roar up to my house on motorcycles. They peel of their helmets and pick me up off the ground when they hug me. When they were little and I was their dad’s wife, they didn’t call me mamá, but now they do even though I’ve been gone for much longer than I was there. You can divorce an adult, but the kids are another story.

I re-married and have a new set of step-kids who, unfortunately, live far away. My ex’s kids love my husband and he loves them right back, so when we get together it’s a very odd combination of laughter and pizza and reminiscing about things that not all of us remember. But it’s alright. You can open your heart to the people who want to love you, or you can close it.  Heads or tails.

But the language breaks down–all the ones I know do.  Here’s a question: What do I call my ex-husband’s daughter? If I call her my step-daughter, that confuses her with my husband’s daughter. And my husband has a daughter. He has a son, too, so what do I call the young men on the motorcycles? My ex-step-sons? That sounds terrible. Their dad is my ex—they are not any type of “ex” to me. Our relationship is very much in the present.

So here’s another one. What if my ex-step-daughter has a baby? Because she did. What do I call the baby? My ex-step granddaughter?? I’m laughing now. I’m a little annoyed with Webster’s lack of imagination. We don’t have a word for this. We need one.

I need one.

You know what I don’t like about the options my language gives me for naming children who aren’t mine? I don’t like identifying people who I consider family primarily by who they are not. Like calling the infant I hold in my arms my “ex-step-granddaughter.” That language removes her from me twice before giving her to me. It’s backwards. (And I would never call her that anyway, of course!)

The guy married to my sister is my brother-in-law. The woman married to my other sister is my sister-in-law. Those names give the relationship first and take it down a peg second. I like that order better. My sister’s wife is first my sister—and second, not-really-my-sister.

I guess the supposition is that when you divorce someone, the relationship is broken and the family is broken, so therefore the language identifies the break before it reflects anything else. I imagine that most times it is that way. I just wish we had a whole different word for it, is all, if you aren’t estranged. Like a language that has 50 different words for snow. I wish we had 50 different words for children. We have 3: kids, step-kids and grandkids.

Fail.

I especially dislike the vibe of the prefix “step” in front of family relationships. I accept it, but I don’t care for it. Tell the truth: what’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “step-mother?” A wicked woman who won’t let pretty girls go to parties at best, and feeds them poisoned apples at worst. Please. Being a stepmother is wretchedly difficult, and no matter what you do, it will be the wrong thing in somebody’s opinion almost all the time.

I wish we had a word for my husband’s son that doesn’t start out by telling you that he doesn’t really belong to me. I wish I had a word for my grandbaby’s mama that doesn’t showcase what we are not.

Of course you are thinking, “Just say ‘daughter’ and ‘granddaughter’.” And I do, and I will.  I just feel the need to put my finger on a very personal place where language and life do not match up at all.

When I was college age, I used to say that I wasn’t sure whether or not I wanted to have children, but that I thought I would make an excellent grandmother.  I didn’t expect to pull that off, but look at me now.

And, dear English Language, please evolve.

 

italia

Feed the Good Wolf

I feel the need to weigh in on the political situation in US of A. I do not believe that I have anything new to say, but when I think that I will therefore not say anything, that feels wrong.  So this, today, is my statement.  Followed by a story that gives me a way forward.

I am not happy with our new president.  I was not happy with him as a candidate, and I am not happy with him now.  I don’t like what he says or has done regarding issues of immigration.  I don’t like his arrogant, self-absorbed demeanor.  I read things that disturb me regarding how he is placing white supremacists in powerful positions around him.  I am told that hate crimes and hateful actions are on the rise.

I know good people who like him, who brush off what I find intolerable with a shrug of the shoulders and say this is the liberal media, not the truth.  All I can say is, I hope you are right.

I still don’t like him.  I feel betrayed by a country that I thought I understood a little, but clearly I don’t.

In the face of discrimination, hate and fear, I feel compelled to wage love.  Wage kindness.  Wield it like a sword.  No one, no matter how hateful, can take away your ability to be compassionate.  Do it expansively.

Here is a small Native American story for us to keep close to our hearts, to give us a way forward, personally.  It doesn’t speak directly to politics, but to individuals–to me.

A grandfather tells a young child that inside each person, there is a good wolf and a bad wolf.  The bad wolf is hate, anger, and arrogance.  The good wolf is love, compassion, and kindness.  The good wolf and the bad wolf are locked in a fight.

The child thinks about the wolves and, as children do, asks, “Which one wins?”

The grandfather replies, “The one you feed.”

Feed the good wolf.

 

 

An Inch Too Far To The Left

I wanted to lie in my hammock and look at the moon. It was shining onto the porch through the trees, so if I lie with my head at the feet end, and my feet at the head end, I would be able to watch it rise. Up until that Wednesday night, I kept the hammock tied high and tight. It took some talent to get into, but it’s a much more comfortable position once you’re in, than half-sitting with your knees hyper-extended like what happens to me in normal hammock position.

One second, I was trying to wiggle up into the hammock with my left hip. The next second something slammed my head so hard I knew it was trying to kill me. That is literally what went through my mind: an attempt on my life.

I was lying on the floor. What? The cement floor under the hammock. On my porch. It was very hard to think about things, to understand that one second I was balancing into my hammock and the next second I hit the floor head-first on the other side. Sober, in case you’re wondering. Mortally clumsy.

It seemed clear to me that I might die. The sound I heard inside my own head as it slammed the cement echoed. I put my hand to my head and a soft, hot lump like the skull of a newborn filled my palm. If it’s swelling like this on the outside, what is happening on the inside? Am I going to die?

I called for Pio who was inside watching tv. The moment before, I kissed him and said I was going to go out onto the porch to lie in the hammock for a while. At 8 PM on a Wednesday. The night before full moon when I can’t bear to be inside. Then I was lying there trying to scream for ice.

*****

Clearly, I didn’t die. I walked around in a fog for a few days, and I still have a black eye even though the hit was nowhere near my face.

I’m writing this to tell you what came to my bruised brain as it bounced around inside my skull and decided to keep doing its job of making my body live. This: Pongase las cuentas al día. Get your accounts in order. Literally. And so-to-speak. Leave a paper trail. Say what you mean. Don’t start things you have no intention of finishing. Don’t start things you shouldn’t finish. Because any day, for any stupid slip-up, you could be gone.  Before you know what happened. All you have to do is lean in an inch too far to the left.

Pio got me ice. I don’t know who was more scared–him or me. I lie on the ground with my feet propped up while he iced them to keep me awake. It helps. Keep ice in your freezer. It might keep you conscious some night, which helps. I thought about Jon and the crocodile attack. He held on for 45 minutes or more lying on the beach while he waited for an ambulance. If he didn’t let go, I wasn’t going to. Not that there is any comparison between falling out of a hammock and being attacked by a crocodile. But I thought about it. No ambulance was going to come for me.

Pio called our neighbor who showed up with his truck, they put me in, and hauled me off the the “emergency room” in Santa Cruz, a very bouncy 30 minutes away. At the “emergency room,” they asked me what day it was, how old I am, looked in my eyes, pushed on my arms and told me I was alright. This is the type of free “medical service” available in Costa Rica. I got my first wheelchair ride. They told me if I started feeling or acting strange in the next days, to come back. I left as terrified as I’d arrived. The town I live in has lost more than one person several days after a head injury.

But I feel better now. I think it’s safe to say I made it. The day I leave this world, it will be because of something else. But you know what? I like it here. I don’t want to go anywhere. I’m staying right here if I can help it, in this yellow house with Pio and the cats, my dying computer, the wind, the dusty road and a couple of low-slung hammocks that hyper-extend my knees.

2017 Plans, Starting With Coffee

I was talking on the phone to one of my sisters the other day, and she asked me perfectly normal question: “So what are your plans for the new year?”–or something like that.

For one very confusing moment, I had no idea what to say. I mean, I realize that, yes, we have turned a page on the calendar. I even made a resolution regarding how to (hopefully) be a somewhat better human being. But that’s not the same as plans.

For some reason it felt like a confession of something not very noble to say that I don’t really have any plans.  But I mean that in a good way, if you get what I’m saying.  An expression of contentment.  I have nothing to fix because nothing is broken.

Is that terrible?  I know in my heart that it isn’t, but it’s a 1st World cultural thing:  you need goals.  You need plans.  If you aren’t going somewhere–well.  How dare you?  Let me clarify:  this is NOT said sister’s attitude, nor is it the spirit in which she asked the question.  We were just chatting.  And then I got to… hablando sola.

When I sit down and make a list of what I actually plan to do this year, this is what I come up with:

–In 2017, I plan to wake up every morning.  Early.  Early enough to see the big dipper on the horizon in the south, then watch the sky fade from black to gray to blue.  Roosters, then monkeys, then parakeets.

–I plan to drink hot coffee in the mornings.  A glass of red wine in the evening.  In between, plenty of water.  I fully intend to eat far more plants than animals, and that most of the animals will be fish.

–I plan to surf as often and as well as I possibly can.  It won’t be as often or as well as my heart asks, but I plan to be ok with that.  I know my options.  For five cold years I couldn’t surf, ever.

–In 2017, I plan to feed my cats twice a day.  Religiously.   And pet them and pester them and sing them silly songs.

–I intend to go to work 5 days a week, and remember that this alone makes me lucky.

–I plan to be a good wife.

–I plan to visit my granddaughter.  She isn’t my biological granddaughter, obviously, because her mama wasn’t my baby, but I prefer to define things by what they are, not by what they are not.  She will learn to sit and crawl and probably walk.  I have no plans of being a stranger.

–I plan to look at the sky every night.  Search for certain stars or watch the moon.    On dry nights I may lie for a while on my back on the ground under the sky.  Me and the Milky Way.  Because I can.

–I have a hammock, now, and I intend to use it.

–In 2017, I plan to turn 47.  I feel fine about that.  Next year I plan to turn 48, and I’m not afraid to say it.

–I plan to pay attention to poems, to dreams, to wind direction.  If I can get those things right, the rest will follow.

These are my ambitions.  My goal is to be warm.  My plan is to be content.  On both counts, I am fully self-confident.

A Lesson on Magic

All of the sudden, I’m looking for a point of reference, a place from which to start, something certain. Not to be melodramatic, but it’s been a rough week.  I don’t generally get all wound up about “politics,” but the election we all just survived was more about American morals than American “politics.”  It pulled the rug out from under me.

When I look for a place to begin, I often come back to something I read in college. I’m not going to name the book or the author because, to be entirely honest, I’m not sure how much of what I’m going to say is actually in the book and how much of it I’ve made up since then. College was a LONG time ago. I’ve lived a lot, drawn on this often, and probably molded it to fit me. In lieu of butchering someone else’s book, I’ll just say that these are not original thoughts–they’re second-hand like my clothes.

I read the book for a Women’s Studies class. The author is a Native American woman who, if I remember correctly, was an anti-nuclear power activist in the 1980s (when I was encountering algebra and learning to drive a car). She’s a witch, too–a Wicca witch, not a Halloween witch. The book is about (among other things) magic.

THIS WOULD BE A FABULOUS TIME FOR SOME MAGIC. I would like a fairy god mother to turn vegetables into vehicles, even for an evening. We could use a benevolent woman with a magic wand, a fair although angry woman with a magic wand.

We don’t have one.

But here’s what I learned from the book about how to do magic yourself:

To work magic is to change the physical manifestation of things. Anyone can do it. It takes strength and imagination, not special powers. The author tells the story of her favorite hiking trail in the forest, which people would litter with trash. Time after time she walked by the trash, disliking it and the people who left it there, until finally she decided to use her witch’s powers of changing the physical manifestation of things to make it disappear. She gathered some friends and some trash bags, and picked up the trash. What was the result? Abracadabra: a clean trail.  Just like that.

A thing like that sticks with a girl. So simple. So true.

I want to live in a world that isn’t covered in trash. I pick up what I can.
I want to live in a world that has clean air. I plant things. I ride my bicycle when I can.
I want to live in a world where people don’t walk around the grocery store with concealed weapons. I don’t own a gun.
I want to live in a world where neighbors are nice to each other. I wave and say hi.
I want to live in a world where people look me in the eyes and take me seriously. I look people in the eyes and am serious.

It doesn’t solve everything. It doesn’t solve anything, maybe. Not-owning a weapon doesn’t keep me safe. Pedaling through the rain doesn’t reverse global warming. (But ask me if suiting up for a rainy ride changes the physical manifestation of getting from place to place, as opposed to sitting in a car.) Me waving at the neighbor ladies is not going to end racism any time soon.

But I have strength. I have imagination. I have time. I can make things be different on the trail I walk on. Doing nothing gives you a feeling of helplessness, even if all you are is lazy. Doing something changes things, and that is magic. Getting the stray cat spayed changes the number of stray cats in the neighborhood, and we all know what a downer the physical manifestation of too many feral cats is.

I don’t live in the States. I’m white, straight and of Christian traditions. I’m not sitting here in fear of becoming a target of bigotry–I look too much like the bigots. Nobody is going to beat me up or insult me because of my clothes or my skin or who I’ve married. I am terrified for others, but it’s different because it’s not me. I recognize that as privilege. My greatest privilege, in my opinion, is that I am living in a country that doesn’t suffer from hate crimes and terror. Bad things happen, but the dynamics are not the same.

I don’t know how to do magic that makes hate or fear go away. I don’t know a spell to make privileges visible to those who hold them with blind eyes.  I know how to turn a dirty bathroom into a clean one, and I have the perfect spell for getting trash off the beach.  But how do I make safety appear?

I don’t know.  But I am looking for the answer.  I am trying.  I might turn some princes into frogs by accident along the way, but it’s important to start.  It’s important to try.  If the only things I can change the physical manifestation of are small and insignificant, I will do it anyway.  What is too small to matter when everything is made up of atoms?

Abracadabra.

Hold on to your hat.

Acronyms Meet to Discuss Crocodiles in Tamarindo

These are my gleanings from the meeting held at the Barceló with ADI (Association de Desarollo Integral), SINAC (Sistema Nacional de Areas de Conservacion), CATURGUA (Camera de Turismo Guanacasteca), and MINAE (Ministerio de Ambiente y Energia). The purpose of the meeting was to discuss The Crocodile/s . I mostly went to listen, because that’s always a good start, and I got to ask a few questions. What follows is what I took away from the meeting. This is not intended to be a complete summary—I’m sure ADI will provide that. It is a subjective gleaning and contains editorial commentary and a concerted effort to minimize sarcasm.

 

MINAE says:

–They carefully observed the crocodiles in the estuary after the July attack. They removed the very big one that exhibited dangerous/unusual behavior, explaining that there was only one exhibiting this behavior and it is certainly the one guilty of the attack. It was taken to Puerto Humo. (I looked it up. It’s where the Tempisque River is born. ) They are still monitoring crocodiles in the Playa Grande/Tamarindo/Langosta area and analyzing their behavior. In the five kilometer marine stretch that they monitor, it is normal for there to be 12-14 crocodiles moving around at any given time.

Laura The Crocodile Expert says:

–It is not true that crocodiles were “seeded” here.

–Salt water crocs are completely natural in the estuaries and oceans of Guanacaste. She says they were depleted in the 40-60s, but that now their populations are becoming “healthy” again.

–It is not true that there is an overpopulation of crocodiles in Tamarindo. Overpopulation occurs when there are so many of a species that there is not enough food for them, and they begin to kill each other. Since crocodiles are not doing this, there is no overpopulation. Lucky for us, crocodiles are of a species that control their own population—as in, crocodiles never have overpopulation because they kill each other first and solve their own problem.

–Swimming in the ocean is normal crocodile behavior. Eating dogs is normal crocodile behavior. (I wanted to ask if eating human preschoolers would be considered normal crocodile behavior, but I was afraid of the answer.)

–Attacking/eating (presumably adult) people is not normal behavior for this species of crocodile. Nile crocodiles, she explained, eat people, but not this kind. She made a big deal about how crocodiles do not hunt people, do not want to eat people and are normally afraid of people.

–The (only) problem in Tamarindo is that crocodiles have been, for so long, fed by humans.

The SINAC guy talked too, but he didn’t say anything that stuck with me. He did take a moment to praise the fact that we have such a wonderful government system that allows us all to participate in decisions, as demonstrated by this meeting.

The meeting, by and large, revolved around how dreadful it is that we have created this dangerous situation for ourselves by feeding the crocodiles. (Which I acknowledge. Our Tamarindo crocs have twisted minds and there’s no one to blame except us.)

But ok. So we’ve corrupted the crocodile population. While we right our wrong, what’s the plan for our safety?
Signs. Signs warning people not to feed crocodiles, and not to swim in the ocean/estuary. (How about a sign asking crocodiles not to eat the people? I didn’t say that, but I thought it.) And crocodile “monitoring.”

That’s when I raised my hand. First, I said why I was there—because I happened to be a first-hand witness of the trauma caused by the attack, and I DO NOT EVER want to see anything like that again. And I don’t want you to, either. The room became very quiet. Then I asked the guy from MINAE: How are you monitoring the crocodiles? And what does a crocodile have to do in order for you to identify it as “malportado? “

They said they are monitoring the crocodiles by observing them. I was imagining chips and tracking devices, but no. That’s way too Animal Planet. “Monitoring” means that MINAE has people watching over the crocodiles. (I haven’t seen these monitors. Maybe you have?) Later in the meeting MINAE stated that they have 7 people in charge of “monitoring” 26,000 hectares. Or maybe I misunderstood that? I hope so. And a naughty crocodile, one who could get itself on the bad-boy list for possible deportation to Puerto Humo, is one that shows abnormal interest in people. Swimming near people. Looking at people. Not humbly slinking away.

MINAE wants us to report to them—that’s the most useful thing I learned at the meeting. If you see a human feeding a crocodile, make a denuncia. If you see a crocodile showing interest in humans, make a denuncia! (I’m not sure it’s called a denuncia if it’s against an animal, but you get what I mean.) MINAE says that for all of the videos on social media and for all the fussing and fuming there is about people feeding crocs, there has not ever been ONE SINGLE denuncia filed against anyone with MINAE. Which is silly. A few denuncias, a long time ago, would have enabled them to act before things turned out the way they did. Or anyway, that’s the story in retrospect. Point being: if you see any funny stuff between people and crocodiles—regardless of which species is the perpetrator—call MINAE. They’ll be right over after they finish observing the other 25,000 hectares they’re in charge of.

Other people asked questions, but I don’t really remember what they were. (I don’t advertise this a lot, but I’m actually quite selfish.) We spent A LOT of time reviewing the evils of people who feed crocs and the wonderful power of signs. Signs in red, to be specific. Red was praised. I’m not kidding. (And all sarcasm aside, red is better than the brown-and-yellow ones originally posted behind the high tide mark.)

I asked my other question to Laura The Crocodile Expert. Because I wanted someone at that table of “experts” to say it to my face. I said, “You’re the crocodile expert. You know these animals better than anyone else in this room. So tell me. Now that the big bad crocodile is gone, but knowing that there are others nearby who were certainly fed by humans, would you , if you were a surfer like I am, put your board in the water and surf in the mouth of the estuary?” Everybody laughed nervously. And Laura said, “No.” Not in the mouth of the estuary, she wouldn’t. No matter how good the waves were. That’s like chilling out on their buffet table.

People surf in the river mouth every day, and so far all of us have been safe. I didn’t say that, because she gave me her honest opinion, which is what I asked for. And she confirmed that my persisting fears are not an irrational.

Now, looking back on it, I feel a small (but futile) twinge of victory. I didn’t mean to set a trap, but if you think about it, I guess the panel of experts admitted that even though they’ve “done something” about the crocodile “problem” in Tamarindo, it still isn’t “safe.” Babies, dogs and surfers, beware: MINAE is working to protect us within the bounds of the law, but the crocodile expert wouldn’t go for a swim.

I took this photo in April 2016, of a crocodile exhibiting "abnormal" behavior--chilling there staring me down. If it ever happens again, I will call MINAE.

I took this photo in April 2016, of a crocodile exhibiting “abnormal” behavior–chilling there staring me down.  If it ever happens again, I will call MINAE.