Sarah Corbett Morgan

sc morgan grew up in Oregon, where she learned not everything is black and white. Now she lives in the jungles of Costa Rica where shades of gray cover the full spectrum. She writes because she can’t help herself. Sometimes she gets published.

Boredom Abounds, But Is That Bad?

 

Photo by Thomas J Abercrombie (courtesy National Geo)

Photo by Thomas J Abercrombie (courtesy National Geo)

I’ve often marveled at my husband’s ability to find pleasure in the mundane. He finds projects around the house and property that need attention and applies himself to them without complaint. He is currently scraping, sanding, and repainting individual pickets on our veranda. On the other hand, I vocally suffer from what Dostoevsky referred to a “the bestial and indefinable affliction”: Boredom.

It wasn’t until I stumbled across an essay by Joseph Epstein, Duh, Bor-ing, originally in Commentary Magazine, and then again in Best American Essays 2012, that I contemplated what boredom is exactly, and why it is not such a bad thing.

Like Epstein, and probably most other tweens and teens, I was brought up short by my parents when I complained about being bored. Epstein’s father told him to beat his head against a wall and he’d soon quit feeling that way. My mother was equally sympathetic; she told me only boring people got bored and to get out of the house. It was a version of the children-are-starving-in-Africa answer to my complaints, brushed aside as being unimportant and predictable.

According to Epstein, some people are more prone to boredom than others, and I guess my husband and I are proof of the opposites attract theory of marriages. But even he is apt to be temporarily bored by a dull speech or a hour-long wait in the doctor’s office. We all have it from time to time. Even animals become bored. I think my little basenji, who loves to run on the beach, was bored to death when recuperating from a broken leg. When we finally took him for his first walk, his whole face lit up and we could see his inner dogginess ignite realizing there would be a life for him outside the confines of his kennel.

There is transitory boredom, ennui, weariness, apathy, and or dissatisfaction. This can also descend into longer term monotony and eventually clinical depression. But Epstein seems to say that every human being has uttered the teen phrase, I’m bored, at some point or another.

I found it interesting that Epstein suggests that boredom occurs more often when there are high levels of distraction—Facebook? Twitter? TV? He also notes that primitive cultures seldom complain of the affliction. And I have watched any number of people in this country work at drudge jobs that would drive me insane, but I have yet to hear one complain about it.

But neither Epstein nor my parents bothered to suggest to us the possible benefits of boredom.

It seems to me that boredom forces us to look closely at ourselves. It puts our existence into perspective and can steer us into a place of contemplation and reflection. If we can push past the frustration of sitting—without action—we can come out the other side with something to show for it. This is the challenge of meditation, of yoga, and of writing.

We writers lock ourselves in rooms and purposefully create this kind of environment, specifically to induce reflection and creativity. Inspiration. Sit long enough and thoughts will come and pages will be written.

I wonder what it would be like if parents told their children that their boredom was good for them and that it proved they were imaginative people. Would it change how we look at it?

Moin: Are Limón Dockworkers Crazy?

APM TerminalsI read several English-language newspapers every day to get a feeling of what is happening around the country. This past week I read about the proposed billion dollar Moin dock expansion in a publication I have mixed feelings about—the editor’s political views seem diametrically opposed to mine. Anyway, his editorial comment at the end of the article said, and in bold print so I could hardly avoid seeing it: “It’s crazy that the dock worker’s union in Limón opposes the proposed container terminal.”

Excuse me‽ It’s not crazy at all.

Earlier this month there was a tense public information meeting in Limón. The Dutch firm, APM Terminals, presented plans for the modernization. This expansion is necessary, the proponents say, “to remain competitive in a very competitive market.”

And just how does that translate into a language we can understand? I’d venture to say the firm in charge of the overhaul is talking about “cost containment” and “efficiency,” which can both be translated as “mechanized” and hence “a reduction of manual labor.”

Jobs.

Needless to say, there were protests, shouting, slow downs, and strikes by the Moin stevedores, not to mention environmentalists upset about possible damage to mangrove swamps and turtle nesting areas. This protest was fairly subdued, not like some we have seen in the past with burning trucks, fruit left to rot in the tropical sun, and angry mobs lobbing Molotov cocktails at the police.protesters-burn

The article also points to APM Terminals maintaining numerous port installations in China, their positive working relationship with the Chinese, and the fact that the Chinese are looking at Limón for a Zona Franca, a free zone for businesses involved in import-export activities.

Aside from the fact that the proposed expansion will mean a loss of their jobs, the stevedores are aware of the long history of foreign intervention and imperialistic attitudes toward the population of this Caribbean coast. People here have fought long and hard for their rights. Remember, Costa Rica is the original Banana Republic and Limón is where the United Fruit Co. opened for business in 1899.

The mastermind, Minor C. Keith, built the railroad from the Central Valley to the Atlantic port of Limón off the backs of Jamaicans and other islanders, Chinese, and Italian workers. In fact, the first strike in Costa Rica came during the construction of that railway.

Initially, Keith used Chinese labor under contract provisions that would send them home to China after the job was completed. Their salaries were a fifth of the going wage—something Keith would become famous for—and they lived and worked in miserable conditions. Their strike, in 1874, was one of the first in the country.

The Chinese were replaced by black islanders and things went according to Keith’s plans until they got a better offer when Frenchman, Ferdinand de Lesseps, began his crazy Panama Canal project. Jamaican workers abandoned Keith for Lesseps who paid five dollars a day, five times what Keith was paying. Keith then imported 2000 Italian workers in 1887 who quickly threw down their shovels and picks.

Before coming to the steaming jungles of Costa Rica, most of those workers were active in farm labor unions in Europe. And why Keith thought organized workers born at the foot of the Alps would work for a pittance in suffocating conditions of the tropics, no one knows. Fortunately for Keith, Lesseps soon went broke in Panama and the Jamaican workers returned.

Once the railroad was completed, Keith branched out into banana plantations— 800,000 acres given to him, tax-free, by the government in exchange for his railroad work. If this sounds to you like the proposed giveaway to the Chinese for their Zona Franca, you are not alone.

Blacks who live in Limón are descendants of the United Fruit legacy. Through oral history, they remember those days and the brutal tactics of the Octopus, as United Fruit Co. became known. Thomas P. McCann, in his book, An American Company: The Tragedy of United Fruit, puts it succinctly: [United Fruit was] a new form of business enterprise: the multinational company …in many instances more powerful and larger than the host countries in which it operated… they bought protection, pushed governments around, kicked out competition, and suppressed union organization.

It sounds very familiar to the multinational companies of today. We can all thank Minor Keith for the business model that brought us Big Oil, Big Banks, and now, Big Terminals.

By 1926 the majority of bananas were grown by independent producers, but, because of the railroad, United Fruit still controlled the docks, the loading, shipping, and marketing of the fruit.

[In the name of brevity for this blog post, I’ll skip a whole bunch of history including Costa Rica leaning toward Communism, a little thing like a Revolution, and the country’s ultimate turn toward Socialism.]

The Costa Rican Central Government finally nationalized the railway and the port in 1966, turning its maintenance over to the Administración Portuaria y de Desarrollo Económico de la Vertiente Atlántica, which is a mouthful for anyone, and is better known by its acronym, JAPDEVA [pronounced hap-day-va]. The people on this Atlantic coast felt proud of their country owning and controlling a port that once was operated by an oppressive and dictatorial multinational corporation.

JAPDEVA is Limón. Or it was Limón until it began negotiating with the Dutch for a 30-year contract for the new terminal, a loss of jobs, and a land giveaway to the Chinese.

So, Mr. Editor, there are many historical and personal reasons the dockworkers of Limón do not support the port expansion. You need to read your history books.

Cacao, Miss Olga, and A New Beginning

 

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I read in The Tico Times this morning that a French competition awarded first prize for Latin America to a sample of cacao grown on a farm in San Carlos, Costa Rica. This does my heart good.

When my husband and I first arrived in Punta Uva in the late 1980s, the people here were suffering from the devastating effects of a fungal blight on their cacao trees. When the Moniliasis, or frosty pod rot, hit their crops in 1978, these Afro-Caribbean’s lives were changed irrevocably. No longer did they have the best chocolate in the world, demand and prices plummeted, and they abandoned their plantations letting the jungle grow over. This is how we came to buy our place.

When you talk to the older people in this area, they will likely tell you that the banana companies brought the monilia so they could take away their land. Whether it was that or one-hundred plus years of mono-cropping, the result was the same. The blight, it was felt, was permanent, and until a few years ago no one had been able to develop a resistant variety. It is a hit or miss crop.

Then people began to try different growing methods. According to an article I read a few years ago,“… rehabilitation efforts and those of 400 families in 14 villages stem from a World Bank-financed organic cacao and biodiversity project created and implemented by the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (Spanish acronym CATIE, pronounced Kah’-Tee-Eh), headquartered in Turrialba, Costa Rica.” Before local farmers had planted from seed. This time the farmers were taught to graft new species onto existing rootstock. They were also trained in diversifying their crops so the land was more sustainable. Within a few years, they were getting reliable harvests from their cacao trees.

As expats have settled the area, once famous for its chocolate, they have also either grown the cacao themselves or become buyers of the indigenous tribe’s crops. New businesses have popped up in the area marketing organic chocolates and baked goods made from the new strains.

Before my husband and I built our house, we rented from a woman with a long history in the area. Her family and others like hers were the original cacao farmers. Miss Olga’s mother was born in Punta Uva. Her grandmother was born here, too. She now lives in Limón with a son as she will be 99 years old this February. She always told me she’d live a long life. “My mother lived to be 99 and 6,” she always said.

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Olguita flirting with Alan

Olga’s coffee and cream complexion made her look more Spanish than black, and the lack of wrinkles made it hard for me to believe that she was in her eighties when we lived in that little rental house she owned. She wore her curly gray hair tied tightly against her head in two braids at the base of her neck. Olga had a great sense of humor and would flash her gold teeth when the joke was on, and her tales of how it was in Punta Uva when she was a child were a pleasure to listen to.

“You know when my family first come, there was nothing here. We just staked out the land we wanted and started growing things. My father and my mother, they had this place and they give it to me. They give the place you have now to my sister, Casilda, and they give my brother, Bai, the place on up there by Little Bay. Now there’s all manner people here I don’t even know anymore. In the old days we all knew each other, and we was family. I used to ride my horse from Manzanil to Ol’ Harbour, stop off at all the farms them for a drink. We had some good times.”

Outside her front door is the most beautiful Mango tree I have ever seen. It is over fifty years old; she knew, too, it because she remembered planting it. Its solid, twisted trunk divides off into five or six branches. The bare limbs twine up over the house some thirty feet, and a canopy of mango leaves and fruit created a wonderful umbrella of shade for her sea-green clapboard house. She often sat outside under that tree in the late afternoon, resting off after a day’s work.

Her favorite chair was made out of old rusty rebar welded together to form a frame. The plastic caning had long ago worn out. Instead, she fashioned some torn rags tied with some rope in places, some string in others. The cushion was made from an old pair of pants.

In all that, she had a way of holding herself that was regal. Sitting in that chair, her chin tilted slightly as though she were looking down on you, her legs crossed at the ankles, one elbow on the chair frame and her arm raised to express herself with those long bony fingers; she could easily be in any fashionable sitting room in any big city in the world.

She was no rube. She’d been to New York City to visit relatives, she’d been on an ocean cruise, and she’d traveled to the capital, San José, when she had to. She just preferred be on her farm.

Behind the house was an old cacao shed, a relic from the past— back when the pods rolled in and the money was flush.

She tore the drying shed down several years ago, and now it appears there just might be a viable crop again in Talamanca.

Things That Do Not Go Bump in the Night

Every morning before breakfast my husband dust mops the house while I cook breakfast— God, I love that man.  (He also does dishes, but I don’t want to make you too jealous.)

One morning on his rounds he called me outside to our wide porch.

“Look,” he said, pointing at the corner of the veranda.“What do you think made this?”

Porch Mess “Maybe one of those animals Miss Olga used to call ‘night monkeys.’” I said.

“Well, whatever it was, it shit all over the floor.”

True enough, it had. It also urinated and left behind three half-eaten fruits that looked like small guavas.

We left a porch fan on the next night, but the same droppings and fruit mess were there the next day.  The third night we applied pepper spray to the rafters. Next morning- nothing.

But what was it? Whatever it was, it was quiet. The rafters where it roosted and ate its dinner are right outside our bedroom door. I’m a light sleeper, so anything walking around on the veranda would have woken me, I’m pretty sure… although, my husband tells me I now snore.

Coincidentally, that same week a facebook friend posted a picture of a cute, furry bat on her timeline. It got me thinking. Could it have been a bat?  I was still voting for the marsupial night creature, but started looking into it. According to Costa Rica (dot) com, there are are approximately 1100 bat species worldwide. Of those, 110 live in Costa Rica.

Not many people think of bats as being mammals, but they are. All bats are born with forelimbs that develop into wings, making them the only mammal capable of natural flight. They are covered with fur, are warm blooded, and their babies develop inside their mothers who deliver by live birth. According to the articles I read, most bats have one pup a year that are fully formed at birth.  But their wings are not developed enough to fly until they are six weeks to four months old, depending in the species.

There are megabats and microbats. Megabats are larger than their cousins the microbat, they have a claws on their second toe (I’d call that an elbow, but I’m not a scientist), no belly fur, use their eyes for navigation, as well as echolocation, and largely eat fruit rather than insects.

The Jamaican Fruit bat eat guavas, papaya, and banana. When these are scarce, they will eat nectar, pollen, and a few insects. Guava, huh… my porch was littered with half eaten guava fruits.

Last month, according to The Tico Times, there was a bat conference held in San José where researchers came together to talk and compare studies. “An estimated 650 researchers, professors, and community educators gathered… to hear presentations on new bat species, research on behavior… and to learn how to communicate [their] importance to the public.”

One highlighted bat species was the Honduran white bat. These thumb-sized bats nest in banana and heliconia leaves. The male and his harem of females chew the leaf until it drops over them forming a tent from the elements.  How could anyone think badly about these cute little guys? But it definitely wasn’t our bat.

Photo courtesy_ The Tico Times

Photo courtesy_ The Tico Times

The more I looked into it,  the more the Jamaican Fruit bat appeared to be our night visitor. The guavas kind of clinched it for me. Their bodies are about the size of a sparrow but their wing span is quite long, but they barely weigh a thing. These bats actually use their eyes as well as the famed bat sonar to guide themselves through the night skies.

Fruit bat Wing SpanBats are our friends. They pollenate crops, scoop up thousands of insects that might otherwise ruin our crops, and Jamaican Fruit bats spread fruit seeds throughout the jungle. Scientists are studying their ability to move by echo in the hopes it will help the blind navigate. Lastly, their manure, called guano, is some of the most fertile in existence.

Little side-story. Some expats who lived near us years ago had a colony of bats in the ceiling. Apparently the guano was so thick it slid down the double walls of their house and oozed out a light switch. This is why we bult our house with single wall construction.  But our creative neighbors made lemonade with the situation, bagged up the guano and sold it to some local pot growers.

And just look at that face. Jamaican Fruit BatHow could anyone not love that face? Even with that fleshy nose flap thingy and those claws on its wings.

It’s just too cute.

 

Book Review is Live

Stephens-DaysAreGods.inddMy review of Liz Stephens’ stunning memoir The Days Are Gods is live over at The Internet Review of Books. I’ve written about this book before, so I was very pleased when IRB picked up the review.

It is definitely worth reading– the book (and the review).