MARRY A MENNONITE BOY AND MAKE PIE: The Costa Rica Scenes

I haven’t actually been straight with you yet about Marry a Mennonite Boy and Make Pie. As usual, I don’t throw all my cards on the table at once.

So, the story is that the book isn’t only about somewhat-silly/somewhat-naughty Mennonite girls learning about the joys of cheap wine and no curfew. The book is also about what happened to me the first time I came to Costa Rica—how I fell so completely in love with something I was supposed to find curious and interesting. How I fell in love with someone I was supposed to walk away from and forget.

Yeah. I don’t talk about it much. But the book is coming in mid-September, so I’m about to.

Throughout the book, interspersed with the vignettes about that unforgettable summer in that precious and miserable apartment, are snapshots of moments in Costa Rica. I named the town they took place in “Los Rios.” The scenes from Los Rios are placed there to show you what I saw, play the sounds for you, create a moment of the feeling of complete immersion in a different world. The Los Rios segments are spoken in a different voice than the rest of the story. They might almost be considered prose poems, and are told from a more distant, omniscient point of view than the main story of girls in the summer figuring out to survive.

Today I am sharing the first Los Rios scene with you. It’s a picture of a kitchen unlike any kitchen I had ever imagined on any day of my life previous to the day I walked into it. My intent is to convey a sense of stunned admiration and wonder at its essential simplicity, and therefore, its beauty.

On the kitchen in the house in Los Rios, from Marry a Mennonite Boy and Make Pie

There is no refrigerator in the kitchen. Nothing here requires electricity except the bulb. The kitchen is not even a room in the house; it is a wooden addition with a brushed earth floor connected to the back of the house made of cinderblock. It is neat as a pin. It is virtually empty.

Beside the back door is a woodstove. Is that what I will call it? It does not have a name in my language. They call it the oven but it isn’t that either. On top of a roughhewn wooden base, two open-ended clay ovals are placed, and, inside of them, sticks smolder. There is no stovepipe. Thin white smoke escapes through the spaces that are purposefully left between the boards that form the walls, the space below the roof.

The kitchen sink is a sectioned cement tub. It is set through the wall so that the drain runs into the scorched yard where chickens dash around clucking. Cool water comes from a faucet with a round metal knob like the one outside the farmhouse where my mother hooked up the garden hose on dry August evenings. The sink is also the washer, where every morning Hilda who asks me to call her “Mamá” scrubs the clothes of the day before into spotless submission and drapes them over the barbed wire fence at the back of the yard to dry.

In the shallow section of the sink sets a clay pot, its opening covered by a lid. Inside the pot, the half shell of a round nut called a jiícaro floats on water. When we are thirsty, we reach into the pot, scoop water into the jiícaro and lift it to our lips, cool water running down our chins in the smoke-blackened kitchen. Curling mango leaves skitter and sun stripes slip across the floor.

In this kitchen, more than anywhere else, I am a foreigner. Here, I not only have no words, I am helpless. I do not know how to wash my own clothes. I cannot fry an egg. We do not have cereal or apples or bread. We have rice, beans, tortillas made of corn that my papá, called Tito, grinds. We have canned tuna, sometimes a tomato, a strange sweet custard made of purple corn, stewed chicken for a birthday. When Diego who says he is my brother goes fishing and brings home little bagre, mamá Hilda fries them in boiling vegetable lard, eyeballs and all, and we devour them down to the brains in their heads, driven by a need for nutrients for which we have no names.

Marry a Mennonite Boy and Make Pie will be available from Amazon.com on September 17, 2018.

Advertisements

My Window

You all so kindly and generously held onto me through the last unbelievable months.  It seems right to me that I should tell you what comes next, what comes now.   I don’t have a lot of eloquent words, but I can pull back the curtain and let you look out my window.

You wonder how I am.

What can I say? Alright, I think, all things considered. Glad to be back in Costa Rica. Glad to be “home.” I put the quotation marks around the word, because nowhere without Pio feels like home. But Costa Rica is my home and I am glad I am here. I’m better, here, than anywhere else.

I got of the plane from Italy about 2 ½ weeks ago. I moved into a lovely house with lots of pretty wood, an extra bedroom, a huge porch, and my cats. Those things are all good. I got my washer hooked up yesterday, so that took things up a notch. I have a hammock on my porch. My bike works and my legs are catching up to the job of pedaling.

This is the beginning of my second week of work. Work is good. It’s weird, because I hear the truck Pio drove pull up to the office 100 times a day, and it’s never him. Maybe, eventually, I’ll get used to it and stop looking up every time I hear it. His workshop is dark and quiet. Exactly what he feared most. He was so proud of that workshop. I’m doing some accounting clean-up right now, not trying to run the maintenance department anymore. I didn’t love being in charge of maintenance before, and I have no interest at all in doing it without Pio. I’d rather play matching games with numbers. I’d rather sell coconuts on the beach.

You wonder what you should say if you see me.

Don’t worry about it. “Hi, how are you?” works. What are you supposed to say? Unless you say something like “Good riddance,” or “You were never a very good wife anyway,” you are not going to say the wrong thing. And no, I am probably not going to come unglued and bawl all over you if you hug me and tell me how sorry you are. I’ve only done that twice: once with my parents, and once with the closest thing I will ever have to children. So if you’re not my mom and you’ve never called me “mom,” you’re fine.

No, I don’t dread running into you or anyone else. If I didn’t want to see people I know, I wouldn’t have come back to Tamarindo. I would have gone to another province or another country. The only people I actually don’t want to see are the ones that didn’t like Pio–and as you can imagine, it’s slim company.  So, again—you’re fine.

Talking about Pio and receiving the pictures you have of him does not upset me. They make me smile and laugh. They’re like little visits.

But don’t

Don’t talk about “starting over” or “getting on” with life.” Ok? Those are the wrong words. I realize they are the ONLY words our language has for this, but they are the WRONG ones. Don’t say them. I know what my job is now even if I don’t have the right way to say it. I won’t be mad at you if it pops out, I’ll just feel a little sadder and a little more lost.

And don’t say “Everything happens for a reason.” It sounds mean. I’m not telling you what to believe, I’m telling you what not to say. I am at peace with as much of that concept as humanly possible, but I was never a fan of that snooty saying before, and I’m sure not about to convert now. I’m good with, “Everything happens.” Put the period right there. Less is more.

Ashes

Yes, I have them in the house with me.
No, that is not weird.
Yes, I intend to put them in the ocean as Pio always asked me to, but not yet.
No, I don’t know when.
Yes, I tried to open the box.
No, I couldn’t.
Yes, it is sealed.
No, I am probably not going to hold some kind of event where I invite other people when I take his ashes to the ocean.
No, not even you.
Oh, that’s selfish? Ok.
Yes, I will tell you about it afterward.

 

I sleep really well. I’m tired. Everything takes twice the effort. I don’t mean to complain—I’m trying to explain why I sleep like a log when you’d think I should be tossing and turning. Also, it’s warm, and I sleep much better when I’m warm than when I’m cold. I sleep better when I can hear what time it is by listening through my window.  If you live in Guanacaste, you know what I mean: tree frogs and crickets, owls, roosters, monkeys, dawn.

Tamarindo Bay is like a lake right now, but when we get some waves, I’m ready to go surfing.  And then I will be better than I am.  The ocean is big enough for everything.

Tree Poem Week– #1: El Mango

If you’re not familiar with the trees of the tropical dry forest, let me introduce you to some of my friends.

Company of Mangos

I cannot live one more day without
the company of mango trees.
How am I supposed to breathe
without their green certainty
exhaled into the world?
There is no other way
to survive.
Who else will hear my prayers and
whisper them to heaven?
Their roots pushing down
show me where to
put my feet.
Their parakeets remind me when to
stop sleeping.

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.

Albertina Talking to Jaguars

a poem for a girl who isn’t born yet about a woman who has passed on

Your bis bis abuela
Albertina
knew about the danger of
jaguars at the quebrada.
She remembered when the
mapmakers came to town and
tried to change its name to
something holy like
Santa Barbara down the road, or
San Lazaro further on.
She said she told them no.

Your mamá was
too little to listen to stories back
when Albertina’s mind
was clear, and then Albertina
started seeing angels.
She walked
barefoot to Santa Cruz with
comales on her head and
sold them each for one colon
to buy sugar and
coffee–
things she couldn’t grow or grind herself.
Then she walked home.

She knew the old stories
the old ways.
She had seven sons and
no husband to obey.
Me decía “mi nieta”
because she knew I belonged to her
even after she forgot my name, and
sat on the porch talking
to jaguars until
she turned one hundred.

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.