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.

Separate in Another World

I recently had a discussion with a writer friend of mine about being separate. I told him that I grew up in a political family, which meant we moved a lot. And I mean we moved a lot; I went to eight grade schools in eight years. I was always the new kid, always arriving late in the school year. It gives one a certain perspective on life, I think. It certainly did me.

So I have always felt separate.

This conversation led me to think about separateness and the effects that emigrating to another country has on a person. Several months ago an editor asked me to write an article about what every ex-pat should know before moving to another country. I’m sure what she had in mind was a cheerful essay on how inconvenient it is to encounter things like siesta hour in the middle of the afternoon when your plans include shopping during those hours. I wasn’t very interested in the topic– I still haven’t written it– but I have begun to think about it.

What should every ex-pat remember?

The elementary answer is: It’s not your country, and the reason people, more often than not, forget this simple fact is buried in their cultural past.

At home we understand the circuitous routes we have to take in order to get things done. When we go to the DMV, for example, we might hate it, but we also understand the rules of the game and how to maneuver ourselves through the system. We understand our country’s laws and what is acceptable in our culture. We blend in and find our way through life without really thinking about how we do it.

Anyone who moves to a foreign country loses this ability to cope in an environment they are accustomed to. This is true no matter what level of sophistication the immigrant has. Most neophyte ex-pats enter a phase in which they are totally enchanted with everything about the place they have chosen to call home. Even the inconveniences are quaint. Call this: The Novelty Period.

It is in this phase that people write home and tell of the many wonderful things they are doing: the festivals and markets they have frequented, the funny episodes of waiting in line for a cell phone all day, and the charming neighbors they have encountered in their unconventional and enviable new lifestyle.

This phase could last for years or be very short depending on the individual and the place they have chosen to live.

At some point, though, the ex-pat will be startled out of the Novelty Phase to discover that some of those quaint customs they enjoyed at first are actually created to take advantage of them, and then anger almost always replaces infatuation. Enter the: That’s Not The Way We Do It At Home phase.

Our English speaking newspaper here in Costa Rica, The Tico Times, is filled to overflowing with these bitchy letters, all telling Costa Ricans how to run their country. The authors of these instructional diatribes are insufferable, and I always find myself thinking, but it’s not your country! And, If you wanted it like it was at home, why did you move here in the first place?

This is also the period when many ex-pats begin hanging out with each other in order to gain strength in numbers as if to say, “We are separate but equal. We belong to a group within your culture.” I have never understood this. If I wanted to remain with my own ilk I could have moved too, oh, maybe Miami, or Hawaii, or las Vegas.

If the ex-pat is lucky he eventually discovers that the system is workable, that some of it is good and some of it is bad– just like “home.” Only then, I would say, does a person begin to feel a semblence of assimilation in their new home.

I know I will never feel completely Costa Rican. On the other hand, I never felt fully assimilated in my own culture, so for me it is okay.

My mother tells the story of meeting a Mexican man, living in her hometown in Oregon. She asked him how he dealt with being an immigrant. “I dissemble,” he said.

It is how many of us survive in other cultures, and some of us in our own.

Cleaning Up Around the Place

Sunday is my usual day for doing laundry and getting the house in order. I am not someone who is creative while living in clutter, so if I want to write I must clean first.

I was on my way to the laundry room yesterday morning with a load of sheets from our bed. The “laundry room” is actually on our back porch– one of the many benefits of living in the tropics; not everything has to be indoors. I opened the back door and headed down the steps where I found my husband, a bemused look on his face, standing where I needed to go.

“Check this out,” he said. I looked in the direction his chin jutted and saw a river of black ants flowing across our sidewalk. Army ants, or, as we call them, cleaning ants.

They don’t come very often but when they do, watch out!

Like the flooding Mississippi they flowed over and around everything on our sidewalk. At the head of the torrent they spread out, and our porch and sidewalk became a delta with multiple channels of them foraging in every crack and crevice.

I tried to imagine myself as a small frog or a cockroach, minding my own business, when suddenly, over the hill, a horde of warlike Huns descend killing everything in their path.

Army ants, also called driver ants, are migratory insects. Blind, they communicate using smell and vibration to feel they way forward in their constant hunt for food. They have no home, as do most ants, but bivouac overnight, constantly on the move.

They were in our house for all of thirty minutes I would guess. We watched as they scaled our bathroom wall making the side of it appear antiqued with the living cracks that scurried back and forth. They advanced at an alarming rate. Scouts scurried ahead and returned passing information to the oncoming ranks like bumper cars.

An anole sat at my husband’s feet, his head cocked to one side as the current of ants flowed past him. He had no fear of them, which is more than I can say for any cockroach found in their path. There are other jungle denizens–birds and lizards– that follow the army ants gobbling up any escapees from their marauding runs. The anole happily waited for any moth or fly that might be driven from cover.

As soon as it started it was over. Suddenly we noticed that there were larger numbers headed upstream than down. Like spawning salmon more and more of them fought the oncoming current of their brethren– the bumper car messages indicating a turn in the stream. Soon they were gone.

But my husband ran into them again over by his shop later in the day. They had redeployed over there ravaging that area. He made a misstep and ended up with a welt on his foot the size of an acorn. It still hurts today.

Breakfast With the Howlers

photo by Sally Retecki

Howler monkeys wake with the first light of the day and if they are outside my bedroom window, I do too. I’m not one to sleep late, but I still consider 4:30 to be nighttime. I knew it was going to be an early morning today, because last night, while I showered, I saw them through the open bathroom window swinging through the upper branches of the trees next to our house. It was late enough for me to know that they had decided to take up residence there for the night.

Sure enough, by 4:15 this morning there was a racket outside my bedroom window that practically shook the walls of our wooden house. Howlers are the loudest land animal on the planet and sound like a cross between a dog barking and a pig using a megaphone. A Dr. Doolittle kind of animal.

“ARGH ARGH ARGH,” from the big male outside my window, returned by calls from other dominant males across the jungle, “argh argh argh.”

They have a special hollow and elongated hyoid bone in their throats that allows air to pass in large quantities, and thus they are able to project their voices at such thunderous volumes. Their conversations resonated back and forth like this for about fifteen minutes until I got up to make breakfast and go sit on the porch to watch the day unfold.

The Mantled howler monkey (Alouatta palliata) or mono congo is the largest monkey in the Americas. Part of the Baboon family, they are big stocky beasts with dark brown to black fur and most adults have a long yellow or brown saddle, earning them the name Mantled howler. The face is naked, black and bearded like a Baboon. The males weigh in at fifteen pounds, the females a bit less. They live in troops, and a dominant male, who stakes out a territory where they live and feed, leads each troop. The male fends off unwanted intruders using his voice. Something I did not have to be told this morning.

While I sat drinking my morning tea, a great circus show unfolded across the clearing, or potrero as it is called in Spanish. On the other side of the potrero is a two hundred yard swath of jungle separating us from the Caribbean coastline. This stand of old trees is over one hundred feet high and quite dense. The howlers spend plenty of time back there foraging, and this year a big tree fell during a windstorm creating a hole in their usual jungle roadway.

A rustling in the trees made me aware that the troop was approaching the damaged area. Then one started across. It was the big male. He climbed to the very top of the tree above the abyss, crept out onto the upper limb as far as possible, and, as the branch began to bend under his weight, he let go free falling into the tree below––his arms flung out to catch anything available.

The landing was spectacular. Falling into a tree about 20-feet below him, he grabbed onto a branch. The extra burden carried him and the branch another 10-feet or so, the limb bending like a bow under his weight. Once reaching its maximum arc, the branch simply snapped back into its original position leaving the big guy sitting on his new perch.

The adrenaline rush must have been intense for the monkey. It was for me, watching! He sat there for a few minutes recovering his composure before ambling off to his breakfast table a few trees down. Then the rest of the family followed in exactly the same path: moms, babies, aunts and cousins. The little ones simply flung themselves at the abyss, practicing their monkey version of extreme sports.

I went in the house to make my own breakfast.

Maybe tonight they will find accomadations a bit further away, and I’ll be able to sleep a little later tomorrow.

Red Letter Day!

This essay of mine has rattled around in the offices of editors from The New York Times to AARP. It needed a home and finally found one at Notre Dame magazine under the encouraging hand of Carol Schaal, their editor.

This is my first sale, so for me it is momentous, significant, historic, noteworthy, and consequential. Hey, can you say Red Letter?

A special thank you has to go to my friend, Gary Presley, for his steadfast opinion that the piece was worth that oh-so-sought-after commodity: money. He consistently recommended that I not settle for “the lights” when I could be paid. I feel honored and humbled to share space with him in such a
prestigious publication.

You can find both of our essays at Notre Dame magazine’s summer issue on the web. Look for us under Perspectives.

I have touted IWW to anyone who would listen since I joined last fall sometime. The exact date escapes me, but the feeling of community support remains. Any writer will find a wealth of constructive help through the Lists, but beginning writers, especially, will find it instructive. Look at the link in this blog under the IWW (Internet Writing Workshop) logo.

Jungle Cats and the Old Revision Blues

 There it was resting among the other animals at the roadside stand. It looked as though it needed a home, and I happened to have had 15,000 Colones itching to get out of my purse. So our newest pet, a jaguar, carved from balsa wood by a young Indio-artisan outside of Cahuita, is at home here in Punt Uva. He seemed to enjoy the ride home and is now perched in a perfect hunting position atop our bookcase.

We stopped by the artisan’s stand while coming home from a day in town that had a fifty-fifty success rate attached to it. The norm here.

Our annual revision on the car is due this month, so we drove up to the center and sat in the blazing sun waiting for over an hour, even with an appointment. Once it was our turn we proceeded through the checks. I know the revision’s upside is to make up for all those years where cars had no inspection whatsoever, and often would sidle down the road at us like crabs, the suspension out of alignment. Or, perhaps it is because of the myriad of cars we have met at night, driving without any lights, or the thousands of trucks we have come up behind who have no brake lights at all. The new inspection is needed but, really, they have over-reacted. I told my husband I believe they are in cahoots with the banks and the new car dealers. Nowhere in the world, I think, do they check vehicles as thoroughly as they do Costa Rica.

The first station checked all of our lights, turn signals, seat belts, window cranks, wipers and washer, as well as the condition of the interior of the cab. Did we have the required fire extinguisher? Check. Did we have the required emergency triangle? Roger. Years ago they used to use a bush chopped and laid on the highway for an emergency flare; we are still cautious when we see a branch on the road. One never knows when they might revert to the old ways.

We passed the first station with flying colors. The second station checked the emissions of the vehicle. Perfect. They also checked the condition of our shocks. We drove over a little apparatus on the floor of the station and it vibrated the car up and down. To pass we had to have greater than 45% of our shock capacity intact. We passed that station as well. Next we proceeded to the breaks section of the inspection. Again we drove over a small measuring device and my husband was told to push the break slowly but firmly. Here is where we failed. The front brakes were fine, they said, but the rear left needed some attention. They sent us on through the rest of the inspection line.

The third station is like a lube pit and one of the attendants crawled under the truck to look for leaks and loose fittings. Bingo.

There is an item the 1987 Jeep Comanche Metric-ton pickup came stock with called a load leveling sensor. One year when Johnny Abrams was care taking the truck for us, he ran into a problem with it. Rather than fix it, or save it, he simply threw it away. We have been unable to find one– be it a new product or a junkyard item. Jeep has informed us they quit making them. The revision boys passed us last year and the year before without it. They want it this year. They even knew the name of it this year. I think they want us to buy a new car.

Once we got our failure notice we went back to Limon and had a wonderful meal at the Black Star Line, originally built by Marcus Garvey as a community hall, but now a huge restaurant. We had our usual casado- a plate of rice, red beans, stewed meat, and a little shredded cabbage salad. Once finished, we proceeded on to the National Insurance Office and paid our yearly fees for the workman’s compensation for our hired man, José. It was fairly late by then and we needed to head home. It’s only 35 miles, but it takes two-and-a-half hour to drive over the pot-holed road. Usually I never mention stopping at the little artisan’s shop I’ve been eyeing for some time now. Today I wanted to stop whether we were tired or not.

A very nice man gave us the tour of his complete menagerie including: macaws, crocodiles, anteaters, turtles, various other animals and a few insects as well. I swear I heard the jaguar whisper my name, “Sarita, take me home with you.” How could I refuse that?

So he sits atop my bookcase crouched and ready for an ambush. My husband is out under the truck working on brakes and a fake load-leveling device. We will give the boys at the revision another go in a few weeks. It’s alright. Almost everything here requires two trips to get
anything done. Maybe I’ll stop by the artisan’s shop again.