Alternate Food, Alternative Spaces

Ann observed that, to ease my transition to Costa Rica, my reading list stayed "behind" -- that is, in Guatemala; she asked why I don't/didn't read "ahead." Simple practicalities-I had a ton of Guatemalean literature (more than I could read during our six weeks there) and only the thinnest selection from Costa Rica (which I finished off during our first week here). As she said, the difference may well be an expression of the "loaf of spacetime," and my inability to live w/out "to-ing and fro-ing" within it. It may also have to do with Guatemalean overload of (tragic, tragic) stories, and the Costa Rican absence of them (@ least translated into English, and so accessible to me....)

I've complained to my teachers about this absence, and they've tried to fill the gap with Costa Rican legends-about "La Negrita" (the patron saint of Costa Rica, the Virgin of Los Angeles--another Virgin!--who is a black woman); "El Diablo de Puente de Piedra" (about tricking the devil, and an index to certain qualities of "the Tico character": "listo, perspicaz, mentiroso, divertido" (quick, acute, lying, humorous). Our teachers have also told us many stories about their own family histories (and their resentment of the Quakers, who "bought up everything here,” so "own everything here"-the class difference is quite marked). They've also explained that the nickname Costa Ricans use to describe themselves--"Ticos"-comes from their persistent use of diminutives. But there many more stories I'm not getting, because my Spanish comprehension is so limited.

My alternative fantasy (to being shut out/not getting into this culture) is of literally being eaten up by the tropics. I have various intestinal complications, a yeast infection (in the usual place), and a fungus infection (between my fingers). But the other night, when our host mother served us soup, I was reminded again how foreign this place is to me. This soup was a cacophony of vegetables, each one entirely new to us, foreign both in taste and in texture ('twas the textures that made for the difficulty in swallowing): carne, cayote, ayote, yucca y plátano.

In their history book, the Quakers describe the many substitutions they found for familiar foods (aricache and chamol for potatoes, guayabas and cayotes for apples) and for toiletries (salt for toothpaste). I'm reminded that, when my daughters became vegetarians, they did not want to be served substitutes for meat or cheese, but pleasing alternatives. 'Tis the way I'm feeling now, too.

From what I’ve been able to gather from reading about -- and a couple of good conversations with -- the Quakers, they actually were NOT looking for substitutes, in the larger scheme of life. They wanted the real thing, the pure thing (“la pura vida”). They left the empire of the U.S., not to widen their horizons, but rather to narrow them: to find a place where, uninterrupted, they could live the life they felt called to live. This morning after Meeting, Wolf Guindon told me that, when he was first approached by George Powell (the biologist who initiated the idea of a cloudforest reserve), he thought, “Go to hell.” “Hmm,” I said. “Not a very Quakerly thing to say.” Wolf replied, “Oh, I didn’t actually say that. But I did tell him to go to Brazil. Why approach me about conservation? I was a farmer, developing the land.” From what I’ve been able to gather, the Quaker contribution to the reserve was a marriage of convenience with the biologists, a way to preserve the watershed they needed for their community (and now, as landowners well aware of property values) they are chafing @ the resulting restrictions….

That’s an awfully big step, not looking for a substitution for what one already knows, being open, instead, to real alternatives: not a translated version of the way you are, but a different way of being. And of course these sorts of questions apply directly to the exercises of teaching and learning, both outside the classroom and within it. Last week we took two guided tours (to the Frog Pond and Butterfly Garden) and one unguided one (a rough four-hour hike through the Santa Elena Cloud Reserve). We learned a ton from the naturalists @ the first two sites, and saw much less when we were on our own. There's certainly something to be said for seeing what you can see by yourself, learning to look directly. And something equally to be said for listening, really listening, to what others can teach you…


Shaye's picture

Hi, Anne; your last several entries have been fascinating. Many single threads you follow are weaving into a lovely fabric. I find it particularly interesting to contemplate the Quaker move to Costa Rica and its ramifications on the local community. Interesting to me that even the peaceful Quakers seem to exhibit the arrogance of ownership peculiar to Westerners and cannot, or do not, shed this in a new environment. "Wherever you go, there you are." The more I grow, the more convinced I become that humility is an essential component of human nature in order for humans to live sustainably and peacefully not only with one another, but with all the planet. So what your teacher said about poverty not being the problem, but ambition, rings very true to me and may be the source of my earlier impatient questions about who is rich and who is poor. Perhaps the better questions are, who is humble and who is ambitious? What is the relationship between ambition and arrogance in the human psyche? Earlier you speculated on the attitude of locals to the historical arrival of Westerners in this area; does the dialectic of humility and arrogance connect to this attitude? When a culture rich in ambition meets a culture rich in humility, what ensues?