Taking Liberties: Life & Love in Upper Middle Age

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Matrimonio y Machismo

Dear Friends,
Although there are Spanish words for spring, summer, fall and winter, Costa Rica only has two seasons: wet season which is euphemisticallly called Green Season, or Estacion verde and Dry Season or Estacion seca. Green season lasted well into November this year, but when dry season arrived abruptly a couple of weeks ago, it was dazzling. One day it was humid, hot, rainy and buggy, as it has been since my arrival. The next day, it was suddenly sunny and much less humid. There was nothing gradual about this seasonal change. Almost overnight, the huge puddles dried up; the standing water inside the discarded coconuts on the beach dried up, my knee finally dried up and healed; the moldy smell disappeared from my room, and the mosquitos hove mostly disappeared. In dry season, this beach town looks much more attractive. It is full of visitors on the weekends, and business is good in my Tica family's restaurant.

Life is looking up for me as well. I help a little in the restuarant when I feel like it, washing dishes during lunch time or cutting up vegetables , and the staff are starting to chat with me beyond the required "Buenos dias."

My school has matched me up with a conversation partner and I feel so blessed. Around here, the young, single travelers and students quickly hook up with girlfriends or boyfriends. I have felt the lack of someone, well.. to love. Not romantically, just so I too can walk around with a wide open heart. My Companera de conversacion is Hazel, a charming 22 year old mother of two, who is eager to practice her English and gain confidence in speaking. She is trained as a pre-school teacher and is about to receive her kindergarten teaching credential. She got pregnant at 17 (very common here, or at 14 or 15..) and was a single mom until her son was 3. She is now married to the father of her son and they also have a 2 year old daughter. The children are delightful and loving. Juan Luis is reserved, studious, proud to be a kindergartener and quite endearing. Two year old Paula is a pistol. She is outgoing, curious, observant and bursting with energy and sunshine. She can create a game out of anything. Just hearing her laugh makes me laugh out loud. Hazel is a lovely mother and I adore her. She speaks to me slowly and clearly (as she would with her pre-schoolers). I think she probably knows more English than I do Spanish, but since she has learned by reading, she is hesitant to speak, needs help with pronunciation and stumbles over the same verb complexities that challenge me. We have complete empathy and patience for one another. One day, I brought over a large purple rubber ball for Paula and a slim copy of Pinochio for Juan Luis. This version of Pinochio is much abridged, written in Spanish on one side of the page and English on the other. Before giving the book to Juan Luis, Hazel and I had a wonderful time reading together, she in English, I in Spanish, as we helped each other with pronunciation. Hazel is smart and she's an incredibly fast learner. Once I showed her how "v" is formed in the mouth differently from "b," and how "th" is formed differently from "d," she had it. These are sounds that don't exist in Spanish. After a few visits, she invited me to come by every day. When I arrive at the hotel where they live as caretakers, Paula shouts, "La senora, la senora!" I notice that I always leave their house happy. We've taken the kids to the beach together, and when they stop to pick me up, Paula explores my room and my belongings. One day she coyly tried on my sunhat and necklace while I held her up to admire herself in the mirrow. Both kids were interested in my inflatable globe - for Juan Luis, it was a geography lesson and for Paula, yet another ball to play with. I would love to have them visit us in California. Hazel would love to come.

I am finally able to swim in the ocean. The water is cleaner and clearer without the muddy river run-off from the rains. I rent a boogie board by the week and so, right after class, I "hacer boogie." I also enjoy swimming around 5pm. That way I am in the water as the sun sets over the ocean. I never tire of watching the waves fluidly reflecting the splendid colors of the sunset as they roll toward shore. One particular day as I was swimming in the sunset, I found myself in the midst of a circle of pelicans fishing for dinner. They were dive-bombing all around me - at one point, I looked up directly into the eyes of a pelican. Seeing those piercing eyes and, acutely aware of its even more piercing beak, I was grateful not to be a fish.

Recently, I got to witness the amazing drama of a sea turtle's emergence from the sea to lay its eggs. Six of us went with a guide to Playa Ostional, a breeding ground for the endangered Olive Ridly turtles. We followed one mama up the beach to the soft sand. Once there, she used her muscular rear legs (fins? flippers?) to dig a deep hole in the sand about 16 inches deep - as far as her flippers could reach. When the hole was just right, she settled herself over it and went into a trance state while she released - 2 or 3 at a time - about 100 eggs into the hole. Our guide gently dug away some of the sand behind her so we could watch the process. The eggs were exactly the size and color of ping pong balls. (Think about "delivering" 100 ping pong balls! I could only imagine how much lighter the mama must feel once her task is completed.) When she had finished, she used her rear flippers again to push sand into the hole and finally she flipped sand lightly all around her, so there was no tell-tale wet sand in evidence; in fact there was no trace of where she had laid her eggs. At this point, she slowly made her way back to the water's edge. As she entered the water at dusk, we saw a round dark bump for an instant, then she disappeared. Given the many predators of both the eggs and baby turtles - on land, where dogs and people dig up the eggs to eat, and later in the sea - it is estimated that only 1% of these eggs will survive to become adult turtles. We left the beach as night fell, and as we departed we could see many moe of the dark round shapes emerging from the water. What a remarkable experience, watching Life do what Life does.

But I think the highlight of my 5 1/2 week sojourn in Smara has to be the afternoon I spent with a group of womem to discuss "el matrimonio and el machismo." (For several years, I've dreamed of working with Latino couples in the Bay Area who are facing the double challenge of becoming new parents while adjusting to different role expectations in a new culture.) In coming to Latin America, I was hoping -in addition to learning Spanish - to learn more about the relationships between men and women in their traditional cultures. So I jumped at the opportunity when a fellow traveler mentioned that, in a pueblo not far from Samara, there was a Tica woman who helps groups of women build solar ovens while discussing domestic problems and other issues. A classmate with a car helped me locate the pueblo and the house with solar ovens in the front yard. (These ovens consist of metal-lined boxes with glass tops. They work like a crockpot or slow-cooker, but they use the sun as an energy source. Solar ovens offer an alternative to open fires which damage women's eyes and lungs and often shorten their lives.)

I introduced myself to Virginia and explained my interest in learning more about her project and my wish to learn more about couple relationships in Costa Rica. I also offered to share what I know about what makes for successful relationships. Virginia's immediate response was to say she'd organize a group of women for me to meet with the following week.

I was thrilled. I began looking up the Spanish words I thought I might need related to marriage, relationships, couples, children, violence, drugs & alcohol, etc. I prepared a set of introductory discussion questions, and I summarized the most relevant findings of the Gottman marital research in Spanish. It was so engrossing that I had a hard time concentrating on my school work. Finally, I asked Victor, the school's academic director, if he would accompany me and assist me as translater. Victor is a Tico who has lived in the US and Costa Rica; he has been single, married and divorced. To my delight, he agreed.

The "charla" or talk was a resounding success. About 10 women showed up. Victor was charming, especially when the men drove by and called out, "What are they talking about?" He called back playfully, "It's a secret." My friend, Hazel, had suggested that I begin by having each woman give her name and then say one positive word about marriage. Words like love, companionship, respect and dialogue were offered. After that I asked them to each say one negative word about marriage. The first woman said, "machismo," and when I asked for other words, I was told, "That says it all." After much laughter, they later added betrayal, infidelity, violence, dishonesty, laziness and lying to their list. I asked these women to help me understand what exactly machismo involved. I was totally unprepared for what they told me.

I had assumed that machismo was about male obliviousness, selfishness, entitlement and unfairness. In response to my question, I was told that men value their friendships with other men far above their relationships with their wives. They asserted that men believe it is the obligation of women to cook, clean, care for children, work, obey their husbands, have sex on demand, voice no opinions of their own and expect no help from their husbands. they concurred that the men make all the decisions in the family, including those regarding money, work, home and children. Any opinion voiced by their wives is considered "arguing." All in all, what these women described sounded like the relationship between slave holders in pre-civil war South and their slaves. Or the way a farmer treats his work animal; it is important to keep it healthy, but whether or not it is happy is simply not relevant. Oly one wife in the group described having a happy relationship with her husband. She feels they have a friendship and he willingly helps with the house and the children. The other men, she reports, say he must have a "very bossy wife." Apparently, they can imagine no other explanation for his behavior. (I later learned that this husband is Virginia's son.)

I asked the women if they saw any changes over time, and they said, "Yes, like a tortuga (turtle)." I encouraged them to be curious about their husbands' behavior and to consider asking questions about what their husbands might be thinking and feeling. I shared a finding from the Gottman research that, in marital conflict situations, men get physiologically flooded more quickly than women and take longer to calm down. I told them that I firmly believe it is each person's responsibility to manage their own intense emotions, and that no one ever "deserves" to be physically abused. We ended the afternoon with a group photo; instead of saying "cheese," we all said, "Viva la tortuga!"

Victor confirmed what I had heard from these women. He was fascinated by the group process and was very proud of me. When the school term ended this past week, there were two extra awards at graduation in addition to our certificates. I was tickled to receive one of them for my "charla on matrimonio and machimsmo." I certainly didn't receive it for my fluency in Spanish!

Now I am in the process of saying goodbyes as I prepare to leave Costa Rica for Guatemala. I will meet up with Chuck for two weeks of travel and then I'll settle into another language school and another community.

My last weekend in Samara, I was awakened far too early by what sounded like a semi truck rumbling through my bedroom. I pulled aside my curtain and discovered that it really was a truck - a garbage truck! Much as I wanted to be asleep, I couldn't resist grabbing my camera and running into the street- barefoot and in my nightgown - to document this long-awaited event. The garbage men posed and postured and thoroughly enjoyed the attention. Later in the morning, I noticed a TV crew in front of the Policia. I suspect there was a connection between these two unusual events. Media attention to Samara's "basura" problem may have been responsible for the first complete garbage pick-up since my arrival. Samara has never looked or smelled so good as it did on my final Saturday.

On Friday night, Hazel told me that she, her husband, and the kids would be away from Saturday through Tuesday. I did the math and realized with a shock that this was going to be my last evening of chasing Paula round the empty swimming pool, reading books with Hazel, and playing the "melon" game with Juan-Luis and Paula. (The kids crawl under the cover on the sofa; I feel their head and bodies through the cover and wonder "Que es?" I feel their heads - a melon? I feel their wiggly bodies - a turkey? Then they jump out and Paula squeals with glee at my surprise. "It's children!") This would be my last night of "flying" Paula and delivering her to "aeropuertos" on the sofa, her mom's lap or the floor. The next shock came when I wondered how to explain to Paula that instead of coming by every night, I was going away forever - or at least long enough to be forever to a two year old. Hazel says they can't come to California any time soon. They plan to start building a house in her family's pueblo next month.

"Como explicar a Paula?" I asked Hazel. "How do I explain to Paula?" That was when Hazel told me that Paula walks up to perfect strangers on the street and announces, "La senora va a mi casa." ("The senora comes to my house!") Everywhere she goes, "The Senora comes to my house." She wakes up each morning and says to her mother, "When is the Senora coming?"
While I adore the whole family, it is Paula - Paula with her enormous brown eyes, her uproarious chortle of glee, and her passion for play - Paula and I have fallen in love. I wish I didn't have to hurt and confuse her with my abrupt departure. I tried to talk with her about needing to goto my home far away to take care of my own children, but she wasn't having any of it. "Fly me like a plane again!"...

Love to all,


At 7:08 PM, Anonymous Jill said...

Dearest Leah,
What a wonderful way to share all your experiences. I love it. So much to learn, so little time. I hope you took pictures of your little companion. The Wenonahites were delighted with your writing. Love to Chuck, when you see him.
And loads to you,

At 8:55 AM, Anonymous Margie Merkin said...

If Ruth Passweg hadn't noticed that your blogdress needed correcting, I doubt if I would have visited your site. It's exquisite. I melted into the warmth of Costa Rica when you wrote that you "swim in the sunset." I was in awe of your depth of spirit and the open and honest responses you received when you invited women to talk about marriage and machismo. And I was heartbroken when you had to say goodbye to your beloved Paula. Thank you for the gift of your writing...

At 11:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a fantastic adventure you are having. Just to spend time imerssed in another culture. Spainsh is a difficult language to learn. After learning a little (2 yrs in high school) it opened the door for me to learn German. Rick and his family speak fluently, so I have picked it up by osmosis. I look forward to reading more about your adventures. My father, Karl L. had an uncle that spent 30 some years as a missionary in Guatamala. We even have a family published account of his cousin's early years spent there before being sent to the US for schooling.
Take care,
Judi D.

At 7:07 AM, Anonymous Thomas Giannini said...

Dear Leah,

My wife Sandra and I are friends of Wini Bowen. She thought that we would be interested in your projects, and she was absolutely right.

We are former Peace Corps Volunteers (Dominican Republic-Teacher Training) and we are currently involved in raising funds for a school in rural Mexico where we have volunteered as well. Check out our website- www.tewecado.com.

We have traveled extensively in Latin America including Guatemala and Costa Rica. We have been to Antigua and Santiago Atitlan as well as Panajachel, San Juan de la Laguna, Chichi, etc. So we read your account with great interest.

As former teachers we would like to see a copy of the workbook that you created. Can you provide information on how we can purchase one?

Looking forward to hearing from you.


Tom Giannini

P.S. We would like to acknowledge your sense of adventure, organizational skills and interest in language an culture. It is evident that you gained a tremendous amount of satisfaction from your experiences in Costa Rica and Guatemala.


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