Wednesday, June 26, 2013


When we arrived at the top I heard no words. I heard air rushing into lungs. I heard "hhhhhhhhhhhh!!" and "ohhhhhhhhhhhhh" and then--


Some stood for a time; others sat. Eventually, every one of us had settled into a place. And there we were silent for almost five minutes. Ten if you count the slow, individual ascents to the rock.

There is rarely silence among gathered people--especially in this raucous group.  We are not engineered to sit together and not speak. It felt like a miracle walking a tightrope. The slightest sway and *poof* into a cloud of dreams.

It started at the base of the climb through the forest: we could hear a congo or howler monkey up in the trees above us right about where the rock is. As we entered the woods and continued upward, it became clear to all that treading lightly might just keep him in range of sight once we got closer. As we neared the rock the howls grew in intensity until we were nearly directly under the ruckus. We quietly scaled the face that opens up to a massive view of San Ramón and the Central Valley. Once above, we seemed to have forgotten the congo and perhaps the beast itself recognized the delicateness of the moment.

We stood and sat gawking at the breadth of what lie before us. Five weeks of families, parties, Imperial, classes, friends, and what certainly had become our home was there down below in a living postcard. A melancholy, beauty, victory, saudade of place. It felt like a mini, unspoken goodbye. We were far enough removed to be able to look at it for what it was, a small place we had come to love and now must leave shortly, yet close enough to see it alive in the way we know it to be.

One of the students remarked: "The clouds move slowly up here." I would respond that they always move slowly if we're paying the right kind of attention. And that, in a whisper, is the deep truth of this place, of what coming here means, of what travel is and can show us, of what I really mean by "new air".

At home we don't often look closely at the clouds and we don't often breathe the air with intention. We live expecting that we will see only what we have always seen and nothing more. But, transported to a new environment we see the same world through new lenses. We don't merely see, we look. We don't only hear, we listen. We try to find what it is that makes this newness so palpable when it is, after all, just other faces with eyes-nose-mouth, other buildings of concrete, other smokey tail pipes. The clouds are moving the same speed they always do; it's us that have slowed down.

The reality behind it is that all the wonder of new air, new people, new ways of life is a fallacy. None of it is new in this place. Only we are. I like to think that some of this is what was dawning on us during those silent minutes.

Praise God for when words become unnecessary.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Two Lights

This is my journal for today. See how neatly I started on a little thought? You can tell by how messy it gets about halfway through that my pen was struggling to keep pace with my head.

This notebook is my all-purpose enabler of an obsessive compulsion for writing everything down. I write meetings, I write phone numbers, I write journal entries, prayers, poems, blog ideas, drawings, lesson plans, check lists. I bought it in late November 2010 and have amassed 2.5 years of everything I've done written in my frantic (but artful?) shorthand. If it lasts to the end of 2013 I will be pleased.

Today I had a thought, a very happy thought. I realized that I was able to do two things in the last week that revived my spirit in this far place: playing piano at the museum where we have afternoon class, and mincing several cloves of garlic during a student cooking session yesterday. Here is some of what I wrote as the thoughts poured in/out:

"These two things are very related because they are tangible things. They are creative things. They are things I miss badly. What is it about them that is so satisfying? I think it is the simple seeing of a thing (i.e. garlic cloves, piano keys) and then the changing of that thing to make something out of it through the transformative process of creation. Piano keys they are not anymore: they are music. Cloves, no longer: minced, flavor-giving garlic. I take them from where they are and together we arrive at their purpose. Potential to kinetic--I am Physics. I am a force of reason and spirit descending on them. Cooking is music, too. It is bringing disparate, sometimes dissonant elements into harmony by creative, intelligent incision. Taste is like music, too. A sorbet is Katy Perry's latest pop anthem. A fresh salad, a sprightly waltz. The orchestra is here--I conduct. I whip my arms into a fury drawing out the crescendo of spices. I fade down the blaring brass...or onion. I coax the life out of basil leaves, a flourish of strings."

When I sat down to the piano I played through Daniel Johnston's "Held the hand". One of the students was there with me, so I sang it for her. It's a devastating progression of chords (not to mention the words and melody) with the abrupt, whimsical mood shifts that are present even in his darkest songs. It wasn't the same as being in my apartment with my keyboard, but in the same abstract sense as above it was still a row of keys giving birth to song (with my help).

When I realized we would need garlic for the gallo pinto I volunteered loudly to cut it. A clove of garlic is a small thing already, and the activity of making that clove into tiny, tiny bits of itself is what I love. It's work with hands, it's simple concentration on a simple task, it's raise-and-cut, raise-and-cut. That there was a decent knife made it three minutes of long-needed therapy. I could have kept on cutting my whole way through the head, but six cloves was enough and so I had to hang up the knife for another couple of weeks.

I'll probably get minced garlic all over my keyboard and guitar the day I get home.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

China and Costa Rica

Reading on the way to Puerto Viejo

Since 2007 China has given Costa Rica hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid, autos, medical equipment and this sparkling national stadium. I thought many would be interested in this burgeoning odd-couple relationship between the two nations, and so I'm translating an opinion piece from the paper La Nación from Friday, June 13 about a recent agreement to let China build an oil refinery on Costa Rica's Caribbean coast. China's recent interest in Costa Rica is no doubt based on its growing need for resources and allies in new regions of the world. The article highlights the fears many Ticos share about what ultimate cost Costa Rica will be asked to pay for all of this kindness from the Chinese. The coercion of the little guy by the big guy hasn't changed much since 1492--it's just become more diplomatic.

"China: money Costa Rica pays for"

In this refinery project we are not talking about donations, aid, or concessions from China to Costa Rica. None of the above are necessary for international agreements, of course, but it should be clear from the start when they are or aren't involved. What we're dealing with is two associates making a business deal in which, as in any such deal, each party, if it is marginally intelligent, will try to gain the most it can. This current deal is nearing $1.5 billion or 3.5% of the national GDP. As a result of the project, a foreign power controlled by a dictatorship with global imperial ambitions will be, via his national businesses, co-owner of assets whose operation is part of a monopoly that will oversee a strategic area of national development.

But the truly absurd part of the refinery deal between Recope [Refinados Costarricenses de Petróleo--Costa Rican Refined Petroleum] and the China National Petroleum Corporation is that everything--absolutely everything--has been decided, controlled and executed by the foreign power. Subsidiaries of the CNPC have conducted the feasibility studies as well as overseeing the design, the size and other characteristics of the project--all without soliciting bids or approval of government accounting offices and with massive conflicts of interest in which the CNPC is judge, jury and executioner. All of this, remember, is at market cost. No gifts to Costa Rica this time.

On the 30th of May La Nación reported that Recope informed that a subsidiary of the CNPC would be in charge of construction. Just like that! Another conflict of interest. No bidding process like there should be when dealing with state institutions. That subsidiary is the China Petroleum Engineering and Construction Corporation (CPECC), the very company that, by means of one of its own arms (CEI), participated in the review of the feasibility studies and recommended the project be carried out!

And do you know, Costa Ricans, who may supervise the construction of the refinery? Personnel from another subsidiary of the CNPC. Amazingly, the CNPC will "supervise" itself as it builds! This in spite of the fact that dozens and dozens of world class businesses without links to the CNPC are available for the same services.

Also, we know that that the CPECC will need $1.3 billion to build the refinery. Experts believe that a refinery capable of processing 65,000 barrels is only profitable if its cost is less than $900 million. The fact that the CNPC itself will build it all explains the high price: the CNPC doesn't care about the excessive cost because one of its own subsidiaries will get the contract. What it overpays on one end it overcharges for on the other. For Recope, and by extension, all Costa Ricans, the equation is different: what we overpay for on one end is gone forever.

But here's the cherry on top: upon announcing that the subsidiary CPECC of the CNPC will charge $1.3 billion to build the refinery, the CEO of Recope, Jorge Villalobos, declared that "CPECC's offer is what we expected..." Essentially, the one man who ought to defend national interests declares that the price is fine for a project equaling 3.5% of the national GDP where no bidding process has occurred.

It is hard to find a worse business "strategy". With that statement any bargaining opportunity was lost. If this is how Villalobos manages his private enterprises--pay what they charge!--he is welcome to anger his descendants and inheritors, but Villalobos administers resources that are not his own but those of the whole country, and he should defend them with his life. Beyond that, this attitude underlines what we already know: in this unfortunate deal, China has decided everything, absolutely everything, and the Costa Rican government (just like during the Banana Republic days) obeys and pays what is charged them.

The fact that the president hasn't fired Villalobos still shows that there are reasons that this administration, just like the previous, has bent over backwards to accomodate all that China asks. In my mind, if China intends for Costa Rica to pay and repay the stadium and other donations with the refinery project, it is best that they share this intention with us. Then we will understand--even if we don't agree--the reasons that they so thoroughly trample our national interests. So don't expect that this project will continue on as planned with our silence.

The way this has played out is intriguing, educational and ironic. Who would have imagined that Communism could come up with such a classic Capitalist sleight of hand business deal! Who would have thought that the CNPC of Communist China, that studious observer of the United Fruit Company of Capitalist USA, would revive so perfectly the same practices that we hoped to see dead and buried.

The way in which China has surrounded and pulled in so many Recope executives, organizers, even the ambassadors and presidents of Costa Rica, is highly worrisome, but it also leads to a complete lack of faith in the project. What guarantees us that, one or two years after construction has started, the CNPC (with the approval of Recope) won't ask for more money than originally planned to complete the refinery, driving it closer to the $2 billion that some have speculated?

Distinguished analysts like Dr. Leiner Vargas and Dr. Manrique Jiménez Meza have found technical, financial and legal anomalies in the project. It is clear to me that this all began when our authorities allowed China to make all the decisions and to charge as they please.

What we must do is stop this project before more signatures further compromise the country. The warnings have been clear. The financial offices have been informed. Let no one claim that they didn't realize that this baby was born ill.

Monday, June 10, 2013

No Camera

I didn't bring my camera this year on purpose. The only one that I have is a grainy thing on my Nokia slowphone, and I only use it if I'm the only one in the group who can capture whatever it is that is happening.

One of the students said it a couple days ago: "I always wonder if I should even take pictures because I don't want to miss what's happening just to get a picture of it." She was standing in an aviary with birds careening around, over, under foliage and our heads. Many gringos could be seen trying to follow the erratic movements with cameras. Why?

A couple days before the aviary, another student arrived to the bottom of a long hike where a waterfall violently reached the pool below. The spray was huge, the whole pool constantly churning, the roar required raised voices. After walking out to a rock to pose with the group and back up, she exclaimed, "Wow, I haven't even really seen it yet!" while raising her camera to her eye. Her "really seen" meant "taken a picture of" and so she summarized my fear of what having a camera at all times can mean.

I think the fact that most of my traveling experiences haven't been for tourism--but school-related--has contributed to my aversion to cameras, but this is the first time I have actively deprived myself of the object. I do my best to wear Tico-appropriate clothing and to bronze as quickly as I can while down here to reduce light pollution on whichever block I find myself. As often as I can I try to leave my backpack at home. All of these things make me feel more like I'm a Ramonense and not a gringo.

I fear the assumption that goes with all gringos bearing cameras: another tourist. I can't control the assumptions, but if I want to be treated like a local (and I do!), it makes sense to actively reduce the potential tourist red flags--the camera being the mother of them all.

So, sorry, but I'm not posting many pictures this year. I've got them all in my head--don't worry.

Here's one from today, though:

Chilero sauce, by Tío Pelón. That means Bald Uncle. What.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013


That empty stool is where I sat tonight.

Bocaditos is a bar that, if this is to be said of any business establishment in San Ramón, is my home. On our first year of the program I spent many an evening with the group at Bocaditos having a drink or two and reflecting on the day of mind-altering interactions. It sort of became a haven that year: the bartenders knew us, the guys at the bar knew me, and it wasn't like it was some kind of Gringo bar. We just made it our place among the Ticos.

And so it has been. I went there tonight for the first time this year to watch the Jamaica/Mexico World Cup Qualifier. I was happy to find my old friend Arturo sitting in his usual place at the bar and drinking his usual scotch with water. Arturo's a man I like because he doesn't say much, and what he says he doesn't say well. He's terribly hard to understand. He's also terribly nice. I tapped him on the back, "¿Cómo le va amigo?" And I watched it slowly dawn across his face: "I know this Gringo? Oh! I know this Gringo!" "Hola, amigo", he said.

When I came back last summer, he stood up and gave me a big, happy hug. But now, it was like I had always been there. When you meet someone and have a good connection and tell them that you'll be back next year, you know that first meeting "next year" will be special because who believes promises a year in advance? Last year was a special surprise when I saw Arturo for the first time. We hugged like lost buddies, and I craned my ears to understand what he was trying to say. This time? Just "Hola, amigo" and a pat on the back. It's nice to have a place where people know you and feel your coming and going as simply a part of the rhythm of the place.

I didn't know the man in the stool next to me and was trying to figure out how to talk to him for the first 20 minuts of the match. Clearly, he'd come to watch it because he was peering up at the TV with a twisted neck. I enjoy the challenge of trying to find a reason to pull someone into conversation with me, especially since it's my second language. This guy happened to be drinking a Corona. There it was!

"So, are you rooting for Mexico tonight, or what? I think you've got the wrong beer." (I've yet to meet a Tico that supports Mexico)

"Oh no... I just like Corona I guess. We need them to lose tonight to stay third."

And then we were off on a discussion of the qualification table and who we wanted to go through to the World Cup. Of course, there was plenty to talk about after my trip to Denver in March for the WorldCupQualifier in which the USA defeated Costa Rica much to the Tico's anger. Costa Rica appealed to FIFA that the ref didn't call off the match after SO MUCH SNOW had fallen by half time. It was wild and a definite highlight of my year. Knowing football is always among the most useful knowledge sets when trying to talk to Latin Americans. It's as seamless and ubiquitous as the weather conversation we all have.

At one point when I excused myself to the bathroom I had a quintessential "where are you?" moment: 

I was peeing in the urinal.
I looked up from the urinal.
I saw a gecko one foot from my face on the wall.
I instantly thought: "plastic."
I remembered where I was.
I saw it lick its eye. 
I finished and returned to the bar.

It's a shame that this was my first visit to Bocaditos having been here now for 10 days, but it's good to be reminded that there I have some sort of a home.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Reflections on Immigration

Nicas waiting in line to return to Costa Rica for work after spending December back home

"Have you tried this sweet bread?"


"It's not very good. [pause] It's from Nicaragua."

About ten minutes after overhearing this conversation come from my host kitchen I was having an in depth discussion about the role of immigrants and other cultures in Costa Rica. The boyfriend of one of my host sisters and I covered many topics ranging from international economics and politics to the subtle shifts in ownership of San Ramón's corner stores over the last decade (they have largely been bought by Chinese immigrants as an outcome of the lengthening diplomatic relationship between China and Costa Rica and the resulting immigration policy that has been established).

Last year I met a woman at tourist mecca Manuel Antonio National Park who carried trinkets and earthen vases with painted toucans and monkeys to sell to white folk. We spoke for a while as she discussed with our group the various items that she had for sale. In between showings and price negotiations I came to find that she is a Nica--or Nicaraguan--and comes to Manuel Antonio for several months out of the year to sell these items in order to send money back to Nicaragua where her children live with her parents (her husband also works in Costa Rica). She is given a provisional work visa to be in the country but then must return home for several days for it to be renewed before she is allowed to enter and work again. In general, Nicas are poorer, darker skinned, and make up a large part of Costa Rican's migrant worker class. This particular woman lived in a small dorm with many other Nicas who worked around the park.

As you might imagine, Costa Ricans have a tendency to look down on Nicaraguans. I remember two years ago how the boys on the street would rile up one of the Nica boys by calling him and his little brother homeless and saying, "Your country didn't want you and neither do we!" The only thing I could think to do was to cross the circle of boys in order to very clearly and intentionally stand by them and talk with them in front of the group as a show of solidarity.

It seems like a lot of the people that discuss immigration issues will only talk about the United States's immigration realities. It makes sense because I live in the US and interact mostly there, but the story above of a migrant worker class of the dark skinned could switch out "Nica" for "Mexican" and "Manuel Antonio National Park" for "Tyson Foods, Lexington, NE" without missing a beat. In Europe, thousands of Africans attempt to sail across to Spain's mainland or to the Canary Islands in the hopes of finding work and a better life. Mexico is a corridor for many Central Americans trying to reach the United States, and when they inevitably fail as many of them will they remain in Mexico. Brazil is looking into building a 10,000 mile fence to keep out illegal immigrants and drugs from Bolivia and Paraguay.

Immigration is not a USA-centric phenomenon. It is a world phenomenon wherever the haves and the have-nots sit abreast. As I was listening to the conversation happen in the kitchen outside of my room, it made me think of Imagined Communities, a book I read on this trip last year about the ways we conceive of our nation, the ways be construct our identity around land and culture, and the ways that we remind ourselves of our nation's innateness. Wasn't the implication in the conversation that the sweet bread wasn't good--not due to a less skilled baker or an inferior recipe--simply because it wasn't Costa Rican?

I think the temptation when discussing immigration is to [not so] discretely boast about our nation's attractiveness or superiority in the mirror of the other's need for us. "Wow, look at all these immigrants! We are so attractive! Our country is so great!" We say this in more indirect ways, of course, like when we bring up the American Dream as if it were a concept that is ours to control and assign to others. It's vanity, and it ignores the real reason anyone would travel hundreds, thousands miles from home, family, and community: poverty. The dream of wealth and comfort may drive some to venture to the United States, but more often than not it is poverty that moves immigration--especially for the low-wage migrant worker. Otherwise, the Africans would be crossing the Atlantic and the Paraguayans a dozen countries.

I believe that today's immigrants (the tired, the poor, the huddled masses) are looking for food and not ideology. At one time there were many yearning to breathe free, and indeed still today refugees and asylum seekers need that woman and that beacon in NY harbor, but what about the impoverished? Do they need freedom or just an odd job doing construction so that they can send money back to the Mrs and kids? The point is that immigrants trying to escape poverty will go wherever the closest place is that may relieve that poverty. The Costa Ricas, Spains and United States' of the world will continue to be attractive not on the basis of ideology or inherent goodness but on the basis of the potential for the basic needs of life to be satisfied.

If we make it out to be more than that, we're just not going to enjoy the sweet bread for what it is.