"How dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world"
- Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (current read)
|Johancer (left) and family (not pictured: Macho)|
Two years ago I was introduced via written word to a rural adolescent. He won the penpal lottery and got paired with the professor of a class he knew nothing about except that we were from the USA. To the son of a banana farm foreman this must have been quite a departure from normal activities in BananaLand, which included soccer on the floor with two distant countries' flags pushing a marble back and forth, playing bola in the plaza, and helping mom with the chickens.
Last year we met for the first time chest to chest. All in all, the six days I spent in La Colonia de Sarapiquí during a short service project have come to furnish a more complete world outlook. It moved me from B/W to Technicolor--still far from HD awareness. I still must suppress the powerful inclination to romanticize life in La Colonia (Chris and Tarah can rein me in here), but these are a couple things that stand out to me:
(1) Nebraska:USA::La Colonia:Costa Rica? In several ways I found myself comparing Nebraska's place in the USA to La Colonia's in Costa Rica. For one, the agrarian layout of most of the land is a constant reminder of what keeps food on the table. Take also the family-oriented HQ life and low cost of living. These people feel a connection to the land and to each other. Especially when I think about the question that I was asked by anyone who heard I was going to La Colonia (why?), I recall the great why-ness of Nebraska to most costal people in the USA.
(2) How many advertisements do you think we see in one day? I have no idea, but I do know that for one week of my life I saw exactly zero advertisements. No billboards, no popups, no TV--no one telling me what I needed in order to make my life better. Turns out if you aren't constantly being told how to upgrade your life, maybe you don't have those impulses. Maybe all the aural and visual violence of advertising I filter everyday conforms my life to a standard I am unfit to pursue. I say the maybes because who knows, but I feel the maybes lean more toward yesbes. In La Colonia this pursuit appears to occupy very few.
(3) Success. This one hit our group the hardest last year. When a 10 year-old cannot pick their country out on a world map is this a failure of their education system? In a community where most are going to school because it keeps them busy before they are old enough to join the ranks of the banana farmers, how do you measure achievement or success? I come from a culture that values good, hard work but also disdains brute laborers as unsuccessful at best (undetermined at worst). The question is whether or not success exists on a sliding scale, whether education's quality also does, and how to EQ success with the various dials on the Soundboard of Life (family, education, community, work, etc.). Which is more indicative of success: a bank account or a happy family? Neither and both. Dials are tweaked very differently in La Colonia.
Johancer has a quick mind and a tender heart. He said, when responding to his mother's inquiries about why he is always telling girls how pretty they are but never dating any of them, "I just like to help their self-esteem." His heart is more than tender, though. It is weak. He has an as yet undiagnosed condition that leads to fainting spells and chest pains after the slightest physical exertion. Last year after throwing the frisbee for about 10 minutes he stumbled to me hand on heart. Chris guided us to the local clinic where we waited a short time to be seen by the physician. As he sat on the table in the room getting blood drawn, he looked up and asked nakedly ¿Viviré? (Will I live?). Words failed miserably to clothe such a question. The report this year is that he has not had any such spells for quite some time and will undergo tests this September to determine what can be done.
Johancer will leave La Colonia in a couple of years after school. He is one of the few who will overcome (read: "overcome") his educational environment; he says he wants to study science at the nearest university. This worries his parents, who are hoping to build a slightly bigger house next to their current, incredibly small house. "He's going to have to get some good scholarships," says dad ("Macho"). He will, I believe. There he will use the Internet for the first time--an incredible thing to say about a 16 year-old--and make use of the email addresses he has accumulated from the likes of Chris, Tarah, and myself. The Internet is our world now, though some still live in blissful ignorance.
I visited Johancer and his family last week for a day; I still carry three moments with me:
(1) There is a padded chair with armrests in the household. It is worn and in the corner of the 8x8 living room (which, by the way, is separated by a curtain from the 8x8 kitchen--no running water). The other seating is facilitated by a bench and two wooden stumps. As dinner was being served, I was made to sit in the large chair. Then, as my dinner was given to me (pork-skin and bean soup), the bench was set in front of me with a tablecloth (towel) laid across it. Two of four family members sat on the floor deaf to my protests. Their soup also contained no pork skins. All for me! he said, and chewed slimily.
|From the kids' room (bunk bed behind me), you see the living room with said chair. Behind it, the blue curtain separates the kitchen. The house is four equal spaces (all roughly 8x8): living, kids' room, parents' room, kitchen.|
(2) I bought Johancer a chess board. It was time, I thought, and it was also right in front of my head at the store. He seemed ready for chess and the stimulus it entails. The two brothers (Brainer is 9, I think) played and learned quickly following dinner. Later, with their enthusiasm still very much rising we were forced to play by candlelight since Macho gets up at 4am to go to the banana fields. Always catching me in the "one more" trap, we melted candles for several more hours. As I was leaving the next morning, Brainer was teaching the youngest, [name], what the diference between an alfil (bishop) and torre (rook) is. And on, surely on.
|Playing chess on a team of two is near-impossible, we found|
(3) Bedtime brought with it a surprise: bug nets. Houses are not sealed from the elements in this area (except from rain, duh). I remembered fondly last year's severe lack of bug nets as well as the raccoon we would hear rummaging in the kitchen at night (there was nothing to find but smells). Johancer carefully shrouded me in mine (before doubling up on the top bunk with Brainer), and then with the gentleness of the Virgin Mary proceeded to tuck a blanket around my body. He mummified me with maternal care--the bedding equivalent to the chair-and-table treatment I was given at dinner. The moment felt to be approaching holiness.
Duhv-course, there was also bike riding and coconut water drinking.
|Brainer on the top tube|
|Guzzling agua de pipa|
I returned to La Colonia a year later and left in 24 hours. It remains the most striking area of Costa Rica ahead of volcanoes, beaches, and cloud forests.