Just a note to visitors from the A to Z blogging challenge, I have to drop out due to a family emergency. I have enjoyed this month’s challenge and will definitely look at doing it next year. Please feel free to stay on my subscription list, I will be posting after this crisis has passed, and I will keep your writing and look forward to reading them at some later date. Blog on, people.
Costarican idioms (loosely interpreted)
So today I thought I would discuss Kilo. Most Americans know it as a unit of weight; one we refuse to use in our weights and measures system. Remember when the USA was going to switch from the imperial to the metric system? What a disaster. Americans just refused to do it.
I became accustomed to the metric system when I worked as a nurse, and it is such a no-brainer I’m surprised Americans are reluctant to make the switch. 10 X 10= 100, 100 X 100 = 1000. What could be easier? But we get caught up in the conversions… let’s see, a kilo is 2.2 pounds… so that makes my ten pound bag of sugar… how many kilos?
Americans are more adept at associating kilos with drugs. Cocaine. Marijuana. Columbian cartels and the Mafia. I think Americans think it sounds more like a foreign invasion if it’s in that foreign measurement. Screaming headlines like: COSTA RICA SEIZES 900 KILOS OF COCAINE. Well, clearly, this is a foreign problem. But, whether the reports are in metric or Imperial, the problem is All-American. All drugs grown or manufactured on this continent are headed for that market.
Both Panama and Costa Rica share the dubious distinction of being narrow countries on the isthmus connecting South America with the rest of Central America. Consequently, there is a logjam of drugs headed north.
The fishermen who live in Manzanillo talk about the Two Waters, the area off the coast where big boats with powerful motors run up and down the coast. They have found jettisoned packages of cocaine and brought them home. Certainly a better return than a boatload of pargo. There were a couple of bad boys down here that took to running that course at night, looking for the boats and stealing their cargo. One can only imagine the gun battles out there on with bullets flying in the salt spray. Their boat mysteriously caught fire one day. It exploded, killed one and burned the other two badly. Dangerous work.
If the contraband is not running on the sea it is laboriously making its way overland on ancient Indigenous trails. We often hear the US DEA planes flying overhead, and for about six months one year we heard loud regular explosions at night. Alan, who spent a year in Vietnam, knew immediately what it was: aerial reconnaissance, looking for marijuana fields and transport routes.
The only arrests we read about in the papers involve low-level targets. The big fish always seem to get away, and the kilos keep flowing north.
Costarican idioms (loosely interpreted)
But for a long time I didn’t have to learn the language.
The area where we live, the Atlantic coast, was first populated by indigenous natives and then by West Indian blacks, who came to Costa Rica to work for Minor Cooper Keith, the American who built the railroad from San José to Limón in the 1800s. The government gave him vast tracts of Caribbean lowland as a form of payment, and eventually he founded United Fruit; Costa Rica is the original Banana Republic.
These people of color stayed after the railroad was completed and called Limón home. They worked on Keith’s plantations or fished along the Atlantic coastline or farmed cacao here for many generations.
All that changed in the late 1970s when a mildew blight infected their cacao crops, With their harvest and income depleted, they sold the land to people like us. Now the area is filled with European and North American expats and Spanish descendants from the Central Valley– a cultural melting pot– but for many years the primary language here was either English or patois.
Being a lazy person, I consequently didn’t learn Spanish and still do not speak it fluently. I still get lost in a rapid-fire or highly complex conversations. One drink and I’m articulate. Two and I’m expressive, communicative, and eloquent, or think I am. Three, and I revert to being like a two-year old who asks for things with gestures, rudimentary words, and temper tantrums.
So, for years this was our routine when we were looking for a shop or a business in San José. Alan drove and I would tell him pull over when I saw someone I thought looked friendly and might know the area. I’d ask if they knew the place we were looking for. Depending on which way they pointed, we drove in that direction until I found another person and repeated the drill. It took Alan years to realize I hadn’t understood a jot of what they’d said.
“You always looked like you knew what you were doing,” he told me one day when it became obvious I had no clue. We backtracked a lot in those days, were lost more often than not, but we eventually found our way.
There is less hunt and peck these days. Now I know San José and many of its shortcuts. Alan still drives, but I can navigate at least three blocks ahead of us. I work on my Spanish, even though their verbs drive me insane, and I’m only caught scratching my head a few times a year. I can even use the telephone to inquire about things. Now that is progress.
Costarican idioms (loosely interpreted)
Gluttony. I don’t believe I am a glutton, but I do tend to hoard food.
For a long time I stockpiled because there simply weren’t any decent pulperias ( grocery stores, mostly called tiendas in other Latin American countries) in our area, so if I saw something we needed, or I wanted, I bought two or three and stashed the rest away for later use. My larder was chock-a-block full and the freezer packed tight.
Back in the late 1980s a whiny old Italian ran our local pulperia in Punta Uva. Leno had an epiphany on the plane when he emigrated to Costa Rica whereby it was revealed that his true calling was as a curandero, a healer. I am sure it was mere coincidence that he had no other way to support himself when he left his home shores.
Sometimes, without notice, Leno closed the store because he was holding sessions. His patients paid for his services with Guinea fowl, chickens, ducks, or geese, and an attack by one of these was fairly common when trying to buy food. If he was available, he slouched behind the counter of his little multi-colored, rundown shack and kept a board across the entrance, barring anyone from passing.
No matter what the weather, he had some complaint. “It’s too hot and sticky” he would say, running his hands through his uncombed white hair. Three days later when the rains came he’d vetch, “It’s too cold and the rain… it’s so depressing.”
He never let me pick the items I wanted, instead he held up vegetables that were ready for the compost and asked how many I wanted. Rotting, rubbery carrots, some black-spotted cabbage, and a small bin of onions that reared half the world’s population of fruit flies was the extent of his inventory.
I’ve heard Hell’s punishment for gluttony is being force-fed rats, toads, and snakes for eternity. It couldn’t be any worse that those vegetables. Mostly, unless desperate, we traveled the 40 kilometers to Limón and the bigger markets, but that took hours because the roads were so bad.
Now, of course, there are grocery stores you can walk into and browse the aisles, handle the fruits and vegetables, and pick your own. The roads are paved, so running into town is a viable option, and Puerto Viejo even has a Saturday market where vendors from the Central Valley bring an array of farm-fresh vegetables. Fennel the size of softballs, carrots so full of juice they practically bleed when you cut them, red and yellow onions, zucchini, eggplants, and greens. Ah, the greens! When I first saw the pile of Swiss chard at one stall I nearly bought the entire stock.
It is hard for me, and I must repeat to myself like a mantra, “Only buy one, Sarah, there will be more next week.”
Costarican idioms from A to Z (loosely interpreted)
Do I have a problem with this?
This has probably been my single highest hurdle living in Costa Rica. When I first arrived twenty years ago (can it have been that long?) any little thing would have me venting my spleen. Their insane driving habits, long lines in banks, multiple locations where we had to pay bills, nothing I wanted in grocery stores, no Internet, no PHONE, all had me in a constant tizzy.
“Why can’t they do things in an orderly manner?” I bitched to my long-suffering partner.
His response, “If you want it done like they do it in the USA, why don’t you go home?” That always shut me up, because what I really I wanted was to be with him.
A couple of things changed the way I approached all these brain-combusting situations. One was a comment by my Australian son-in-law. He said once in casual conversation—and he is right— “The First World is an anomaly; the way things happen in the rest of the world is the norm.” Well. I had to think about that.
Why should there be staid and starchy traffic patterns? Why did I assume there should be quick and efficient access to a teller? In almost all non-westernized countries there is a general chaos (loose anarchy?) and what I have come to call “informal payments.” But there is also also personal freedom of a kind I was unaccustomed to in the USA. No police will stop you when you are trying to kill yourself on a motorcycle without a helmet, there are no federal safety regulations (to speak of), and if you stand under a guy on a ladder and he drops a hammer and it hits you on the head, well… you have the fault. People in the Third World assume you have common sense and will take care of yourself.
The other thing that happened to change my outlook relates to yesterday’s post: the propensity of Costaricans to pick a legal fight. Once involved in one of those, all other irritants seem minor by comparision.I have learned to pick my battles.
Now, I always take a book to the bank and can sit for long periods of time until they are ready to wait on me (love my Kindle). The Internet has cleared up my time paying bills, so those multiple locations and days to pay bills are no longer and issue (that really was annoying, I have to admit). There are now often more choices in our grocery stores on this Caribbean coast than in San José, and I have an iPhone (I believe everyone is calmer when operating an iPhone).
There are still irritating things that happen, but just drop by the Department of Motor Vehicles in almost any state in America and it will prove that Costa Rica is not unique in exasperating chores.
So (mostly) I don’t sweat the small stuff, even when all of it piled together could create a bonfire for the brain.
And I remeber to breathe.