Immanent Threats to be Wary of
In a boat, I've learned, absolutely everything must serve more than one purpose, and not knowing what those purposes are, I'm now convinced, may as well be a direct threat to your life. For instance, there is a wooden step in the V berth (below deck at the front of the ship) attached to the surrounding storage areas which allows you a place to sit while rifling hopelessly for what you need inside them as well as providing a boost to open or close the hatch in the ceiling. This, I had surmised, must be the complete list of uses for such a small structure and near died in the process of learning I was wrong. At our anchorage in the wilds of whatever state this is we are so far removed from civilization that there is no unnatural light whatever to compete with the stars. This I first noticed through the three inch opening of the hatch above me and, instantly dazzled by their brilliance, I called Alaina to come look and jumped up onto the obliging step to stretch my head out for a better view of the sky. As it turns out, that "step" is also a miniature storage unit all its own, meaning the top of it is a sliding removable lid which, as it is designed to do, abruptly fled from beneath me sending me slamming down against the edge of the hatch which knocked the heavy lid on my head and furthered the violence of my already being hung by the throat from our roof. Alaina fell almost into the head (sailing lingo for impossible-to-keep-clean ship toilets) overcome by laughter and I tried to join her but was relatively limited on oxygen even when I wriggled free of the what we now refer to as "the guillotine hatch" and now conduct myself with even more exaggerated care about the ship- which is difficult enough when it's not moving but near impossible when it's pitching in someone's wake.
But the boat can be equally dangerous to those who know their way about it as well as their own body. Recently Jan (wife of Kevin, owners of our boat's twin sister who're headed the same direction and have therefore joined us t form our own mini floatilla the last week or so) hailed us with an offering that might as well have been the Holy Grail: a baggy of long, raw carrots, the only fresh produce we'd seen in weeks. She waved us down as we passed her and Kevin on the Pearl of Eastport but we weren't close enough and the precious gift didn't make it aboard with her toss. My darling siblings took it as the perfect opportunity to demonstrate "man overboard procedure" and our neighboring sailors immediately made for enthusiastic spectators. Luckily no one thus far HAS fallen overboard because Alaina's arms resulted to be too short for rescuing and she missed the bag when Pat expertly guided us back past it. Simultaneously he started laughing, our audience started "Aw!"ing and I started grieving the loss of our only opportunity to swallow something that neither had any trace of starch nor required being mixed with our typhoid water to be eaten. Then- midway through a mocking imitation of my sister's failure- her husband accidentally smashed his jaw into a metal cleat and dove through the companionway into the cabin below sputtering that someone had to steer. How he managed to bite his tongue in such a way that it split down the middle like a snake we shall never know. What we DO know is that Alaina doesn't have much of a stomach for gore and I don't have much of a faculty for emergencies. Patrick filled the sink with mouth blood, Alaina turned pale as she slumped over the tiller on the edge of fainting, and I abruptly forgot what the object floating under me was called -along with every other piece of knowledge that might possibly have been useful in helping to navigate it unassisted. Kevin and Jan watched us bewildered as we sailed straight on in a state of chaos whose source they couldn't possibly identify from that distance. Pat, like a true captain, dried his tongue off, stuck it back together and resumed control of the tiller. We, on the other hand, once the shock had passed, were useless crewmen because he could only communicate instructions with an unrehearsed and, therefore, unreliable system of "MMMM!"s and gestures which were so pathetically hilarious it took us triple as long as it should have to understand through our own laughter- which was only intensified by the ironic discovery that our pantry was down to absolutely nothing but bread and peanut butter. It had been 6 hours since Patrick's last meal. We tried to argue him out of eating it anyway. He regretted it.
Sunday, October 18, 2009
Friday, October 16, 2009
Some late transfers from my sailing journal... First installment.
Keeping hydrated has steadily become a simple question of "how many senses can you simultaneously disengage?" Spending upwards of 10 hours a day in blazing sunlight- both that from the sky above and that of every beam that might have missed you on the way down reflected up from the water below- creates an obvious thirst that is nearly never satisfied because of the complicated skills required to ingest the only accessible fresh water. You see, the small engine used to help fight currents when in unfavorable winds (which so far has been nearly always, in our case) happens to be built directly next to our water storage tanks and generates a shocking amount of heat considering its size. This, in turn, makes the water an unbearable temperature to drink when you're already sweating, strained, and sunburned. Solution: disengage sense of feeling. Meanwhile the water itself, after a day or so of re-filling the tanks, generates a sort of sickly-stagnant smell which, paired with the diesel fumes that almost perpetually fill the cabin while we're under way, becomes so nauseating that straight up sea-sickness would be a welcome relief. Solution: disengage sense of smell. A day or so after that the stagnant smell aided by the heat settles into a stagnant taste only worsened by the sour diesel-dominated air, at which point there's one solution: disengage sense of taste. All of this I was beginning to get a handle on until a few days ago when we accidentally refilled the tanks with a hose normally used to power-wash decks and sails which stirred up some kind of whitish sediment slightly resembling wood shavings in the bottom of our holding tanks so that every glass we fill now bears a visible water to ??? ratio of 3:1. At this point, I'd be happy to resign myself to the less complicated option of never taking a drink again, except that I can at no point ever possibly be farther than 30 feet from my suddenly-extremely-maternal older sister for at least a few more weeks and, therefore, will never be out of earshot from her demanding that I "swallow something before I shrivel up and die." Solution: disengage sense of sight. I've never been quite so familiar with the miraculous synchronization involved with the many small muscles in the mouth and throat required to move something downward as quickly as possible. Because once you've removed nearly every possible thing that could draw your attention that's about what you've got left!
Things are different than I'd expected. Living in such limited space I thought I'd never see a moment to myself again until we docked in Baltimore and all started working but that isn't the case. I'm learning a lot about everything. They tell me I'm learning quickly too, but lately we've been going for long stretches (as in several days) through areas that haven't been dredged well and if I were to make a mistake we can't afford the time or money for a tug to come get us if we were to run aground. Between times that it's safe enough for me to practice anything interesting, I'm assigned to tying lines, hailing on the VHF radio, or keeping a lookout for logs or anything else that might damage the ship to be avoided. None of these tasks require constant attention. Alaina and Pat get so absorbed in the charts and depth finder that most days they go for hours (and sometimes the entire day) without hearing a word when I talk to them so I haven't really bothered anymore. I understand. They've got everything riding on this ship. It represents an enormous investment, their temporary home for the next few years, and only hope to make it to their new city. But I can hardly believe there are the same number of hours in these days as every other that I've lived. I read constantly, I listen to their arguments over routes and how the sails should be trimmed to learn more about how everything works, but still there are hours upon hours left to fill and now that I've already alphabetized the CDs, DVDs, and spice cabinet as well as performed what could have been a surgery on the mass of wires in our electronics bag to separate and organize them I'm low on options. Much of this time, I've realized, I spend listening with an intensity I had never known myself to be capable of, first to the great deluge of sounds as a whole, and then I separate them distinctly one at a time. Especially the engine. There is a constant emission of a million and one sounds coming from its place below the deck at the front of the cockpit and I shatter them into categories of hums and whirs and metallic clics and rhythmic drips like an orchestra. I keep finding that I can hear things far quieter and far further away than I ever knew and wonder if this was always the case but I never knew with all the other competing distractions or if it's developed over the course of this frequent exercise. I'm half convinced it's because of the sensory adaptations which become imperative every time I get dizzy enough to make myself force down a drink leave my hearing as the sole operating source of input… I've never been particularly interested in machinery before this and I have to laugh at how childish my imagined picture of this engine is having matched each sound in my head to knobby gears or thin springs and cogs that could just as easily be buttons and yarn or paper chains. But I realized that sometimes I see it as an oily old man grumbling and spitting about "doing all the work around here." Patrick opened the wall to look things over the other day only to find that we've been leaking oil badly for a while now. We joked that our engine's "crying black tears in protest" but in my mind's eye he'd just been sweating 'til the bilge was full of motor grease.
Monday, April 6, 2009
The moment the end credits began to roll I became conscious of my experiencing a familiar feeling in an unfamiliar context: in place of the expected superficial happiness which results from a far-fetched story that makes you feel a sort of delicate blend of silliness, warmth and loneliness (since you probably wouldn’t have watched it in the first place if you had a boyfriend to be spending that time with), I was overcome by the sensation I have just after a friend recounts to me the plot line of a movie I haven’t seen that wasn’t quite good enough to leave things out for me to learn by watching it myself. In short, it was not a story. Only the skeleton of a story comprised of a series of unsupported ideas we are made to believe because they told us to and not because they actually exist in the film itself. Not one single character was developed in even the smallest way, the narrator- who wouldn’t even have been necessary had they put any thought whatever in building the plot line- was a marginal character whose perspective is useless to the action of the story and never explains how they manage to be occasionally omniscient in their explanations, and every epiphany is abrupt and confusing due to the lack of a real backstory.
Now, as far as substance-less movies go, they started with a good enough idea. Two best friends who turn on each other due to the stress and chaos caused by planning their weddings at the same time. I’ve seen quite a few decent and very few actually funny films made from less. Of course I understand that every movie on earth cannot be expected to be artful and insightful, but even those which from the start were never intended to have any real significance beyond entertainment and giving single girls butterflies followed by heart-aches need to demonstrate SOME level of continuity within itself. There is a methodology to be followed which demands so little real planning it’s personally offensive that under these economic circumstances so much money was poured into a project that clearly was only the outline of some 13-year-old’s creative writing project before her language arts teacher got the chance to recommend that she look into tying up at least one or two loose ends at the close of the story if it was really such big a hassle for her even to try to tie up all of them (which is how every story -including worthless ones- should be done) before making it to cheerleading practice that night. Who knows, perhaps by some inexplicable mishap that’s actually what happened and some only slightly more credible writer is mourning the loss of her yet-to-be-located original manuscript that would have made me sincerely laugh more than the one time I can give this movie credit for. Though I’m sure if that’s the case we’ll be hearing about it very shortly in the form of a new mindless comedy entitled “Finding Love on the Brink of Suicide After an Adolescent Robbed My Moment of Glory.”
And, as horrifying as it is to admit… I’ll probably see it at another sleepover.
Thursday, March 19, 2009
I can’t decide if I’m growing to like turning points as their frequency of appearance in my life during recent years allows room for me to grow accustomed to them, or if I’m developing an increasing annoyance for them as they continually recur just as I’m settling in after my exhausting conquer of the last one. I have a feeling there’s a mix of the two in me- though more of the former than the latter. Regardless, I have only twelve more days left here, and that means twelve more days until the next relapse of “what now?” questions and the nagging sense of urgency that comes with them. In theory, I’m putting all these on hold for the time being so I can enjoy the relaxed lifestyle of the Latin world while I still have it, but I won’t say my dreams haven’t been becoming steadily more complicated and filled with characters from past decisions of which new direction to take. (Though I’ve also had a dream about a pet cockroach named Dorothy who wore pink curlers in her antennas and another about riding on swings made out of thick red ribbons tied to the feet of pelicans in the last few weeks.)
Now that I’m taking inventory of everything in my mind, it’s unbelievable how much I’ve learned here. I really feel like something just fell into place in my mind for the first time this week and I’ve been able to communicate with more fluidity than ever. Today I was sitting at the table reading the local news paper while my Mama Tica was making dinner and chatting away, as always. She asked me what I was reading, to which I answered, “Según este artículo, ha sido un epidemico de cólera en Zimbabwe hace casi dos años; yo pensaba que no la existía más en ningún parte del mundo.” Which is, “According to this article there’s been a cholera epidemic in Zimbabwe for almost two years; I thought it didn’t exist anymore in any part of the world”. I think one of these verbs were conjugated wrong if not more that I didn’t notice, but even still, I nearly spilled my plate of rice out of shock when I realized a few seconds later I was having a conversation about plagues in various regions COMPLETELY IN SPANISH after only a little over 2½ months of being here!
The human mind is such an incredible thing… and the force of wanting something as well…
I’m convinced that if I hadn’t wanted this as badly as I do I could easily have left here with no more understanding of the language than it takes to make some grammatical flashcards. But I feel like every part of me grows in proportion to the development of my understanding. As if I’m actually expanding from within to make room for this second world that now must be accommodated because I can never again simply stop knowing about how different history and existence looks here. I don’t know why I feel it to be such an improvement. In all honesty, I would try somewhere else if I decided to live in a Latin American country for an extended period of time. There are a lot of factors that come into play… the sort of lack of national identity I’ve yet to formally address here that causes every wisp of influence from the outside to be accepted with open arms and make things feel in many ways unsteady and unoriginal… the 73% divorce rate caused almost exclusively by infidelity which has created an enormous disenchantment with the idea of matrimony, virtually obliterated the thought of father figures entirely, and thereby resulted in generations of men who manage to be both domineering and dependent toward their women… the less important but nevertheless evident personal preference I have for styles of music/art/dress ect that are very different than those provided here… Don’t get me wrong, there are reasons to stay too. But I can’t help enjoying the idea that learning to understand other people-regardless of the location- changes you so significantly. I have a feeling I could continue expanding in this way through empathizing equally with people when I’m home again too, but when you’re busied with your every-day life nothing seems to prompt the need for such understanding- at least not to the same extent as in these cases. Anyway, the point is that I hope to maintain as much of the differences I’ve encountered in these few months after this is all over as possible- especially my Spanish. Though I suppose I never will learn what happens with that turbulent history behind all the fake curls and muscles and circuses in the end. I seriously doubt they have much of an audience in the states.
Monday, March 2, 2009
I solemnly swear that if I have even the most insignificant form of control over it I shall never again in my entire life live farther from the city than I can ride a bike. I grew up with such romantic sentiments about small towns. I always thought I’d love to live in one until I did. Unbearable.
I spent the preponderance of Saturday in the center of San Jose searching through various shops and especially through the artisan market, which is essentially a long tin roof supported by beams to protect a tightly woven network of tents overflowing with almost nothing that isn’t handmade from the elements. I thoroughly enjoyed myself despite being repeatedly made to feel uneasy by an unattractive vendor who stood far too close to my face, spoke far too quietly in an attempt to make me lean even closer, and winked so often I was inclined to wonder what on earth he possibly thinks winks mean to Americans- not to mention that his brilliant response to my telling that I simply couldn’t buy a scarf even at his “special (wink) price just for me (wink wink)” because I still need to eat this week was that sandwiches are really cheap. I was horribly curious what his genius thoughts would be if I explained that I’m already living off of peanut butter and jelly (which is even cheaper than proper sandwiches) to ensure that I’ve got enough money to bring anything back for my loved ones at all, but getting myself away from his booth before my flight on the 31st held the higher priority. It’s more work than you’d think.
Everyone who sells there isn’t necessarily this disagreeable, however, which is what made an afternoon at the market, penniless as I am, still enjoyable. I met a girl selling skirts and spent a period of time talking about- of all things- church and ex-boyfriends, then a man who makes jewelry out of various minerals and explained to me how to recognize and work with various ones of them, and then my favorite: the old man with inch-thick glasses. He was selling scores of the most beautiful quilts I’ve ever seen, each elaborately embroidered with dozens of individual pictures of people and animals that had such a rich and ancient appearance. The third or fourth time I stopped to marvel at them he introduced himself and showed me some of the more complicated ones in the piles. He explained to me that they are all made by an indigenous tribe on a Panamanian island that has (and I don’t know how accurate his information is, but it was intriguing either way) the highest population of albinos in the world due to the rampant inbreeding that’s resulted from their isolation. He had a whole book of pictures of them. I can’t imagine where he’d gotten them all from or how he was connected with those people to be selling their wares in the first place, but I would have been just as happy to buy a few of those photographs as one of the blankets themselves. Some of them dated all the way back to the 1920’s and the people look virtually the same in the pictures from the last few years. It hadn’t occurred to me before that I’d never seen an albino in my life, but I’m sure most of them don’t appear as strange as the ones in his book because they have such extensive genetic problems. The people nearly all looked like they could be exactly the same person- extremely short and stocky with identically stretched facial features wearing the same excruciatingly detailed quilted clothing. The only real difference was whether they were an albino or as dark as we normally imagine an indigenous person to be. It was fascinating. I don’t know what I wouldn’t have given to buy one of those quilts, but they were all near $150 which simply isn’t doable, but it’s the frequent conversations like this that make me so utterly unconcerned with the fact I’ve been the only person who hasn’t been able to afford to go to the beech the last several weekends. I don’t feel as if I’m missing out on anything here in the city even if it’s not exactly the city I find ideal due to unusual circumstances…
While San José offers in excess two of my top three favorite aspects of the urban world, which are people with stories worth hearing/willing to tell them and never ever having to say “we can’t go out, everything’s closed”, it lacks a certain element of city living which just so happens to be first on that list: the anonymity of crowds. I always thought everyone was exaggerating to make me unhappy when they talked about the kind of attention blonde hair draws in the Latin world but, whatever their motives, it turns out most of them were either underplaying the reality of it or hadn’t experienced the full capacity of these people to yell and/or hiss (at least for this area, I can’t speak for the entirety of Latin America). I now can stop lamenting that my childhood dream of becoming an actress never quite came to fruition under the absolute certainty that I’d rather die than be a celebrity. The very first thing I intend to do upon my return home is make a dozen laps around the ever-overcrowded Atlanta airport and just relish the beautiful feeling of being ignored. Maybe it’s only because I’m such an excessively private person, but after any length of time grocery or window shopping here I find myself longing for the sweet relief of going back to school the next day which always promises the guarantee of being unwanted by all of the rich art students who , thanks to years of mindless Americans flooding their halls with horrific attempts at using their language and throwing themselves all over the locals, couldn’t be more disenchanted with us regardless of what you look like. The girls seem almost vindictive in their looks- when they look at me at all- but no part of me feels in the least troubled about it in comparison with having strangers put down their phones in the middle of a conversation to stare shamelessly, or swerve their motorcycles at terrifying proximities to ensure their hissing is audible over the muffler-less engine, or blatantly force themselves in my way as I shove through the hoards, or forcibly give me their phone number while I’m minding my own business on the street. (All true stories.) But considering that I have no other real complaint here, and taking into account the fact that this same irritation is also the very reason I have been able to manage so much practice of the language since, in the majority of cases, I have to work to make people not talk to me, I’ve decided to regard this as a fair trade.
Thursday, February 26, 2009
Yesterday I walked into school heavy-laden with dreads of an enormous presentation only to be met with the best possible of surprises in the main hallway of the university: a used book fair. Obviously I dropped everything to browse through the tables and quickly identified the most promising vender as his table was filled with the oldest and most attractive books- not to mention that it was the only one not predominantly occupied with text books. He was a personable younger man who appeared genuinely interested in everyone who came close enough to ask questions and quickly had me talking about my studies here. I explained to him that I’ve been trying to read as much as possible to practice my Spanish and how much I’ve loved learning it here and he immediately began searching through some boxes under the table for authors he would recommend because so many of the books I’d been thumbing through- while well bound and titled- had been written by Americans or Europeans and translated into Spanish. The first book he fished out for me was a collection of short stories by Augusto Monterroso who he assured me “es el maestro de los cuentos cortos y centroamericano tambien” (the master of short stories and a native central American as well). The book (which I bought on the spot for 1500 colones) is called “Animales y Hombres” and I can’t even believe how much I’m enjoying it so far. Most of them are extremely short. As a matter of fact, the first one I read I chose because it looked to be only one paragraph which interested me but it turned out to be only one very long sentence and here’s how it goes:
(but it isn't supposed to be all spaced out like this... don't know how that happenned...)
El Apóstata Arrepentido
Se dice que había una vez un católico, según unos, o
un protestante, según otros, que en tiempos muy lejanos y asultado por las dudas
comenzó a pensar seriamente en volverse cristiano; pero el temor de que sus
vecinos imaginaran que lo hacía para pasar por gracioso, o por llamar attención,
lo hizo renunciar a su extravagante debilidad y propósito.
This is my personal translation:
The Repentant Apostate
They say that once upon a time there was a catholic,
according to some, or a protestant, according to others, who in times distant
and assaulted with doubts began to think seriously about becoming Christian; but
the fear that his neighbors would imagine that he’d done it to pass for amusing,
or to call attention (to himself), caused him to resign (himself) to his
extravagant weakness and purpose.
Do you love him?
Because I do.
This isn’t the perfect example of his style. I chose it because it’s easy to fit- though I’m as much enthralled with this as any of them. Perhaps it’s only because reading in romance languages for the first time is so romancing, but if there’s anything I’d rather be taking home I haven’t heard of it.
Having the doors to a whole new sphere of literature so suddenly be opened to me is superbly overwhelming. Last semester in my World Cultural Literature class I realized for the first time in my life that I’ve only ever been exposed to North American and European literature. What we call “the western world” is such an unbelievably small fraction of what exists and it has been a recent ambition of mine to start expanding my knowledge of the written world to other countries. I had intended to start with some of my favorite authors from that class who both happened to be from South Africa, but I’ve had to do some rescheduling as this, to me, is clearly preferable for obvious reasons.
The other book I bought by my new friend’s suggestion is also by a Central American named Julio Cortazar. It’s called “Todos los Fuegos el Fuego” and I’m unsure whether it’s a novel or another book of short stories as I haven’t looked at it much yet. I sincerely hope that it’s equally as brilliant, though I’ve every confidence that the table-side-book-vendor steered me the right direction. He had very good glasses. He’s reliable.
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
That “something” turned out to be editing the official student guide book they distribute to internationals when they come to orientation.
I still have no idea. But needless to say, I couldn’t have been more willing to lend a hand!
Apparently when he asked Marcella, who works in the internationals office and spent a good two weeks prior to my arrival faithfully writing back and forth with me sorting out all of the details, who she thought would be up for the job I was the first person she recommended. Presumably because of her having seen so much of my writing?... I honestly have no real guess as to what happened, but I was too shocked and thrilled to ask very many questions.
The bottom line, however, is that I have my very first, albeit unofficial, writing job! They may be paying me with a school sweatshirt, but considering I would have been more than happy to do it for paperclips I don’t feel robbed in the least. Pablo said he understands that I’m in classes and to feel free to take my time- weeks even if I need to- but I’ve been so thrilled about it I already fished my final revisions last night and dropped it off to him this afternoon. He was surprised to see me back after only a week, but also appeared pleased to have it taken care of so quickly and asked me to come back on Friday to pick up a letter of recommendation the head of the marketing department will generate for me to do with as I please!
All other causes for celebration aside, it was so interesting to look at how such subtle differences in word order or usage could give away that it hadn’t been written by a native English speaker- not to mention trying to understand why they made the mistakes they did based upon what I now understand of Spanish grammar. Translation is such an incredibly intriguing thing to me… that language is so perpetually bound to culture... You aren’t simply exchanging words for their equivalents. You’re trying to re-create the same idea with the same implications in an entirely different cultural system. It’s nearly unfathomable that we can do it at all! Because words themselves are only symbols without any correspondence to the objects or ideas to which they refer outside of the minds of those speaking and listening- assuming they are a part of the same cultural system and interpret the symbols the same way. That we can communicate even the simplest thoughts effectively at all is unbelievable!
But we do.
Tuesday, February 17, 2009
There were several other encounters of this type this afternoon (of being spoken to as if I know nothing because I’m clearly American regardless of what I say- not of being eyed by people who belong drooped over a bar with pinky-rings, though I wouldn’t have been surprised) but, in short, I was frustrated until I sat down for dinner with my Mama Tica and, to my profound relief, realized I was able to relate the whole afternoon of frustrations (not in the kind of detail with which I prefer to explain frustrations, but enough for her to understand generally what happened and how I felt about it) to her with very few hiccups. She was nearly as affronted as I had been which was very sweet and insisted that I tell them I’m listening next time. I promised I would.
All frustrations aside, there is something so interesting about the mental blocks we have with people. For example, the Chinese family that runs the grocery story three houses down speaks fluent Spanish but I have a terrible time understanding them, not only because of their accents, but also because no matter how many times I tell myself “She speaks Spanish!” in my head I’m still looking at a small Chinese woman and nearly all I hear are Chinese vowel sounds that make no sense. I KNOW better. But, regardless, it’s a thought process that’s nearly impossible to break. To me, this is the truest form of self fulfilling prophecy: I know every word she is using but because I believe I can’t understand her, I don’t. And the same was true with the salesman at the bookstore. Because I couldn’t hear his useless mutterings, obviously I’m an idiot American who has no clue what I’m saying even if I’m speaking perfectly well. (Yes, I’m still insulted. You didn’t see the way that flimsy, lisping desk clerk rolled his eyes at me.) These are habits that seem near impossible to break, but there are so many things that I believe to be made possible or impossible based on what we think is true.
And there’s also something to be said about the dynamic of not being understood. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten too comfortable with my speech and accidentally confused something like “quedar” (which is to keep) and “quemar” (which is to scorch) leaving me the only one laughing at the end of a story because I wasn’t paying attention to what I was saying. There are so many cases in which I feel no need whatever to defend myself because if I know I’m not an idiot or out of line then it doesn’t concern me if someone else has so little to do they wish to linger on my apparent incapacities. But this is something I want. Not just to have but to be a part of me. I feel that my intent upon the learning of languages is the means rather than the end- that perhaps my initial anxiety wasn’t about not being able to speak them but not being able to speak to those who can. Or rather, that the thought of so great a percentage of the world being forever barred from my knowledge purely because of this difference in speech is somehow intolerable. Which, in those terms, is a fruitless endeavor as I’ll never be capable of knowing all the companions of my native tongue in the first place much less have the chance to feel the need to know more, but let’s just call it youthful caprice instead of unrealistic goal-setting. We all want things we can’t have, after all. I know I’ve got lots of them- I just don’t commit time to writing about swapping various body parts, features or talents with people without their permission or having a pet cloud.
Thursday, February 12, 2009
My personal goal for today was to learn how to use the public bus system well enough to make my second haunt at Q Café. When the same waiter as my first visit served me politely with few words despite obviously recognizing me, I could not help feeling satisfied with myself that things were right on schedule:
-Step one: polite strangers
-Step two: strangers who recognize/remember each other but don’t address it
-Step three: occasional brief but friendly conversations about casual things such as what I’m reading,
what song is playing, how’s the weather…
-Step four: mocking other customers and similar forms of more interesting conversations that eventually lead to our actual selves
-Step five: friends who no longer secretly look forward to seeing each other on the given day
-Step six: seeing each other outside of the given day
Unfortunately, part of my homework today was to ask a handful of locals who they think the most important historical figure of Costa Rica is and when I was paying the very sweet hostess I thought I might as well ask her and my waiter who was lingering by the desk. By accident, this started an actual conversation which was over rather casual things but also touched on how long I’m here, what I’m studying and that they’d like to see me there again to help me practice my language ability. Now I’m a bit disoriented as to where that falls between steps 3 and 5 and my entire experiment has been overthrown by a factor I forgot to account for in the initial plan: the irreversible warmness of Latin Culture. I’m back to the drawing boards trying to decide whether I can count this as a sort of catalyst that sped up the reaction time and resulted in success or simply an unexpected addition which altered the results entirely. However, being ahead in schedule, while lacking in the romantic development I’d counted on, has the advantage of the possibility we may actually be close friends by the time I leave- or at the very least, I now have consistent conversation partners not to mention the assurance that I’m capable of holding up conversations with strangers in Spanish which is one of the best feelings in the world.
Speaking of the development of my language skills, yesterday I purchased “Harry Potter y la Piedra Filosofal” at a book store in town and have been positively shocked at how much I understand. Naturally, it helps that I’ve already read the story in English but that was the beginning of high school and I never actually read the first good 30 pages but I can read it without a dictionary and, to my surprise, not only understand but actually enjoy myself! I have decided to use a dictionary anyway so I can learn new words but I can’t believe it hadn’t occurred to me sooner that the one and only reason I ever passed English classes what with my horrific spelling and grasp of grammatical rules in elementary school is that I suddenly began to read like crazy in junior high- and I did exactly what I’m doing now: read a book just slightly above my vocabulary level with a dictionary and notebook at the ready to learn new words and then intentionally practice using them at least once that day. I already feel myself being able to speak more fluidly and understand more quickly. The most perfect thing about it is that this series increases by book in length and complexity of both plot and language as more things happen and the characters get older and speak more intelligently. Therefore, my most recent personal goal is to finish the series in Spanish so that my understanding can progress along with the books. Depending on whether I have things too well memorized for it to be useful by the end of this round, I’ll do the same when I take up French at UGA (which is the next language I recently decided on for certain after reading medicine instructions in French and understanding the vast majority of it).
I don’t think I could love anything more than learning as I am now. I feel positively romanced by knowledge… perhaps that’s the reason relationships fail to make my priorities. I’m not too headstrong or idealistic; I feel lacking in nothing.
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
I’ve decided to practice constructing new lives while I’m in town for such a brief stay. Heaven knows I’ve had more than my fill of “starting over”s in the last few years (moving to Georgia, moving to South Carolina, and the constant movements back-and-forth between two only partially constructed worlds which are too unstable to go without serious maintenance upon returns during summers etc.) throughout the course of which I have had a running theory about what is the best way to go about such a change- especially now as I face yet another relocation to UGA upon my return to the states. Upon entering a new life the factor of the utmost importance is not to appear as if you need to belong because neediness is the strongest possible repellant of new friends second only to hideousness. And bad humor. While not impossible, it is incredibly strenuous to put forth the effort of getting to know anyone while maintaining the appearance of indifference as to whether or not they reciprocate interest in knowing you. For this reason, I have long theorized that there must be some way to make other people want to know you first without them knowing it wasn’t their idea originally. I have come up with various possibilities which wile practically fool-proof- such as constantly appearing wealthy and influential, never ever failing to win at anything, or mailing yourself a series of mysterious packages to be delivered by hand in public and refusing to open them where you can be seen- are not realistically plausible for the every-day new student/employee/what have you. But I had a slightly more realistic thought recently which is the basis by which I have fashioned my current experiment.
People feel close to each other when they are familiar enough to predict their actions- what they will wear, where they will be at a certain time, what they will be doing… all this, of course, takes place after having gotten to know the person themselves. But suppose you were able to make such predictions about a person before knowing anything about them personally or having spoken to them at all? Would this not, in some strange sense, make you feel connected to the stranger who frequents your days? Which would cause things to operate in reverse: you now are curious to know them personally. Based on this prediction, I have been scouting out a suitable place to eat lunch at the same time on the same day completely alone with a book (looking my best, of course) in order to become a familiar regular/mysterious foreigner (or “miss lonely-heart” if you will) which is an element that I don’t normally have on my side. The book is an important factor because it implies intelligence where as sitting alone doing nothing at all simply looks like desperation for human contact strong enough to make one go out alone which would cancel out the air of disconcern about making friends completely- which is the ingredient upon which this entire idea is most dependent for its success. Today I went to select the said book at El Biblioteca Nacional and stumbled upon the perfect place to haunt on a corner of el avenida central called “Q Café”. The workers are young and generally attractive, the food is delicious, the walls are covered in black-and-white photos of every-day people… experiment commence. Stand by for details.
As it turns out the library was its own adventure entirely. I didn’t know before getting there that you aren’t allowed to take the books outside of the building. You search for what you want in their old-fashioned computer system and then fill out the information on little slips which are taken to the desk on the opposite end of the library so the attendant can send it up the dumb-waiter. Meanwhile you wait in chairs for the unseen librarians upstairs to send your books down the dumb-waiter for them to call your name. you then take the books to an empty desk to read them before returning them to the dumb-waiter attendant. It was all very inconvenient at the time, but still fascinating as Soraya reminds me that this is how the library is in Breakfast at Tiffany’s- and, needless to say, anything which reminds one of or makes one feel like Audrey Hepburn is well worth any inconvenience. At any rate, I now have the perfect excuse to purchase my very first book in Spanish so, in all, it was a day well spent.
Monday, January 12, 2009
I arrived in the San Jose International airport on time near one o’clock on January fourth. After about an hour of search for the white sign with my name which I was told to expect, I gathered that there had been a problem and quickly figured out that when I had packed my computer- on which I had saved all of my emergency information- I’d forgotten to turn it off and it, therefore, had died on the airplane. Conclusion: I was stranded.
What followed would be extremely complicated to explain, but the bottom line is that 2 hours, 10 secret suppressions of panic attacks and countless friendships with strangers later, I made friends with a girl who was friends with a guy who worked in information and just happened to be friends with someone who worked at Veritas University where I was headed. The man he called coincidentally works not only at the school I was looking for but in the smallest office on campus which coordinates everything for the independent students (which I am) and came to get me 25 minutes later. I’ll be honest; when he got there I couldn’t help but wonder if I was being an idiot for climbing in some strangers van in another country who spoke no English at all. It occurred to me as I sat in the front seat watching him load my suitcase in the trunk through the rear view mirror that for all I knew they were collaborating for some kind of human trafficking business and I’d crawled right into the trap saying “thank you”. But at that point there wasn’t much I could do, so after assessing my surroundings, determining that the only nearby object that could possibly be of use to me in a struggle was a pen half jammed in the seat cushions which would be most wisely implemented in the throat as I would most likely have time for only one strike and then make a run for who knows where, I resigned myself to the possibility I was making a mistake on the basis that I was absolutely sure this was the most real adventure I’d ever had. Twenty minutes later I was making broken conversation with Victor, the driver, in Spanish and feeling unbelievably guilty for having imagined stabbing him since he turned out to be an adorable little man who loves bragging about his daughters and spent half the drive on the phone correcting the details I would have had to fix by coming unexpectedly. My Host family had been expecting me the night before and assumed I had dropped out of the program when I didn’t show up so when I finally arrived at the house with Victor they weren’t home. Victor took me a block down the street to Guiselle’s house who hosts students as well to wait until they got home from church. Guiselle already had a student there named Kelsey Moore. After talking for an hour or so we figured out that since we had the same last name the school had sent our flight information to the wrong houses because she had gotten there the night before, had no one to pick her up, and learned after taking a taxi to their house that her family had expected her on Sunday afternoon. Both of us had been stressed by all the complications, but it all turned out for the better because Kelsey’s luggage had been lost and we just happened to be the exact same size in everything so I left her some clothes and razors etc. and we both had a friend to walk to school with the next day. More than that, we are both here as independents and were placed in the same exact class for intermediate one- which is actually saying something because they have about five classes for each level to keep the classes as small as possible (we have only nine in ours).
Luckily, Kelsey got her luggage back after only three or four days and we know we can borrow clothes whenever we want. So here she is on her first day back in her own clothes:
I don’t think anything’s made me feel more competent than being more isolated and helpless than I’ve ever been in my life- lost in another country with no phone, no address, no familiar human anywhere within reach- and managing not only to solve the problem on my own but help someone with a worse problem along the way.
…for this and many other reasons I haven’t even had the chance to write about yet, this was absolutely worth fighting for through the last 12 months of my life.``
Tuesday, January 6, 2009
This is what I’ve learned in my first 24 hours abroad in Latin America:
1) I no longer wonder where all the beautiful men on earth have been hiding out.
2) I no longer wonder where the most gloriously hospitable families in the world live
3) I’m much more comfortable with my Spanish than I expected to be, but not at all where I wish I was
4) Costa Ricans greet each other with a kiss on the cheek if the greeters include one or more female- men greet with a handshake because it is a high contact culture
5) “Tico” is used to refer to Costa Ricans, but I’m not sure if they use it for any other nationality of Latino
6) Ticos virtually never say “no” to anything… only a very unenthusiastic “yes” which must be politely interpreted as a “no”
7) Addresses in this country involve nearly no numbers. You write something like “400 meters south of the old post office” (which may or may not be a post office anymore) on a letter and- by some miracle I could never understand- it gets there. That’s how you direct the taxi drivers as well. There are very few streets with names and very few houses with numbers, but even those that have them are never used.
8) Taxi drivers are creepy
9) Costa Rican men are beautiful
10) Costa Rican men are VERY beautiful
My host family consists of my Tico mama, Mariam, and her daughter, Marcela (and son, Javier, who visits in the evenings for dinner). The only one I have a picture of right now is Mariam:
I felt terrible because I had every intention of bringing my family a thank you gift and then completely forgot. But I think it’ll be better this way because I can get to know them and what they like and then leave a good bye present they'll actually enjoy.
This is my room and I’ll get more pictures of my school and family soon.