Liar! Liar!

Kashá lumber for our house.

I saw a post in a local English language newspaper, The Tico Times, recently about slang terms in Costa Rica. The word “vara” caught my eye. Oh, I thought, this should be good.

Vara (in English “Rod”)
This word that is used as a means of measure, in Costa Rica also means lie or liar. Its origin dates back to the time when the metric system was not yet established, so the fabrics were sold by yards equivalent to 0.91 cm, and wood was sold by rods equivalent 0.84 cm.
And as some merchants sought to take advantage of the difference between both measures, those clients who noticed the deception said: “Stop cutting the rod” from where the expression was reduced to saying the only rod [vara].

Ha! I thought, how appropriate. I was one of those who cried, liar. Repeatedly.

If you buy wood in Costa Rica, nine times out of ten your woodcutter will cut in varas, that ancient and mysteriously created Spanish measurement. But it’s also more than likely he will sell the wood to you in pie, feet.

I have attempted to research the origin of the vara and have been stymied in my efforts. The closest I’ve gotten is through Wiki World and a few obscure blogs related to woodworking. It seems the prevailing thought is that the vara originated in Spain’s northern central province of Burgos, then a power center in the early 16th century. It was calculated with many other integers (toes? Fingers? palms?) and finally became the accepted norm for a yard. It’s complicated. The trouble is a vara is not a full yard. The actual conversion is somewhere around 32.91 inches. A yard is 36 inches.

Three inches + a fraction is not a lot, you might say, but imagine a house built with thousands of board feet of lumber. I did endless calculations—the calculator became my constant companion. I obsessed over how much money we lost with each delivery, and I argued endlessly with our lumber broker, who, by the way, made us just that. But I knew my stuff, and he hated me for it:

1 vara = 33-1/3 inches = 2.777778 feet
To convert varas to feet multiply by 0.36
To convert feet to varas divide by 0.36
Then add the whole board feet calculation to that mix. Yah, my brain was on fire

In the end, it was hopeless and, bottom line, I lost. I did have a cutoff number of what I was willing to pay, though, and at the end of our ordeal, I came in .10 cents under my board foot cost allowance. After one knock-down-drag-out with the guy, my son, who was visiting at the time, remarked, “Wow, Mom, that was worse than a drug deal going down.” But less lucrative for me as well as the wood cutter, I assume.

Because the Spanish brought the vara to all of Latin America and eventually California, it was used in surveying measurements in Southern California. And San Francisco. The first mayor of that city hired a city planner Jasper O’Farrell. O’Farrell, for reasons no one understands, created 50-vara blocks and 100-vara blocks north and south of Market Street.

 

My father loved to tell a story from his youth about working for a renowned surveyor in the 1920s; the last remaining guardian, according to Dad, of the measure and San Francisco’s ancient plot maps. When the city updated with new planning, they used this surveyor (and my dad) to re-plot some of the downtown city streets. Dad was the rod holder and often had to enter buildings as much as ten-twelve feet for the surveyor to get a proper reading of where the point used to be during O’Farrell’s time and his vara period of topography. Dad said he never knew how the city changed the maps and who benefited or lost out, but it employed him for an entire summer.

The vara still lives in Costa Rica and many other Latin American countries, but I love the fact that it’s used to call out those using it: Liar!

Where We Traipse and Meander

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

I sometimes wonder what life would’ve been like for me had I stayed in one place and not viewing my last home from a rear view mirror. What would it be like to belong to a community; a place where everyone knew each another?

As a woman who has moved more than most, I often look at the life my sister led with envy. She had life-long friends, book clubs, and neighbors she knew well. I suppose I did some of that, stayed put while my kids were young, and I did try not to disrupt their lives like our mum and dad did ours. I still think eight grade schools in eight years is beyond too many.

But that aside, it’s more of a kinesthetic question, I think. Maybe there’s a German word for it like fitting in or acceptance or maybe more like that feeling you get knowing there’s a community behind you that you can call on if you need to, but knowing you probably won’t because you’re too private. Now that sounds more like a German word.

We watched an Icelandic TV series recently —Trapped—and it confirmed pretty much what I suspect is correct about my sentimental longings. The police officer in the series is investigating a series of crimes in a snow-bound coastal town. He is not from there. He enjoys a certain distance but enjoys the way people look after one another. They give him a ride when his car breaks down, direct him to a mechanic, loan him a bike while in the repair shop. All very cordial. But the people who live there find the town suffocating. They are fixated on how people pry, carry rumors, do not forget old grudges.

So I suspect my wish for something I’ve never had, is just a sentimental yearning…and there is a German word for that; the longing for a thing or things missed or incomplete in your life: Sehnsucht. The Portuguese call it saudade, which sounds softer to my ear. Romanians call it dor. It’s not surprising that societies that traveled extensively would have words for the homesickness we all feel from time to time.

It’s not a specific place or a thing that I miss, though, because if I travel back to places I think I’d love to stay forever, they have changed, or I have. No, it’s more of a general headset. As the poet, Ira Sadoff, put it so very well when speaking about one of his poems, “It turns out I wasn’t longing for the past but for a state of mind, the capacity to feel the full force of being alive.” Exactly.

I would post his wonderful poem, A Few Surprising Turns, here, but I don’t want to violate any copyrights. You can click on the link above or search for it on Poems.org. It’s worth it. Like most poets, Sadoff is able to capture in a few lines what took me several hundred to spit out here.

Shhhh…quiet

photo credit: Pixabay

“Shutting out the world is not about turning your back on your surroundings, but rather the opposite: it is seeing the world a bit more clearly, staying a course and trying to love your life.” — Erling Kagge

I’ve been examining my addiction to social media of late. Especially Facebook and my increasing need to escape the noise of it. My need for silence. Perhaps those raised in the current tech era might not understand or appreciate that need or even what silence is—there is so little anymore—or the reflection and wonder that comes with it. But that quiet is what makes us more human and, in my opinion… probably better writers.

It is a difficult habit to break because it involves, like all addictions, our very own neurotransmitters. In the case of social media, it’s the endless dopamine loop. Those sites and apps were designed to create a yearning, that feeling good about pursuing feel-good activities. Has anyone “liked” my comment? Has anyone noticed me? All this can be fulfilling, I suppose, or just a waste of time. None of it is self-productive.

Taking a break is harder than it seems. This past week I’ve noticed just how jumpy I am when sitting still. My monkey brain clatters and bangs and it’s all I can do not to get up and run. Ironing? Really? I’d almost settle for that. And I have cleaned the fridge, the freezer, and wiped the walls for mold rather than face the inside of my head. But if I do accomplish 20 minutes of sustained quiet, an open space begins to unfurl and a growing sense of peace and calm drops over me. This is also, coincidentally, when I’m most likely to experience the presence of those who have gone from this world.

So, what is silence exactly? Erling Kagge, explorer and author of Silence: In an Age of Noise, says it’s more of what I’m describing than any shortage of sound. Something nearly impossible to find even in the most isolated places on the planet. His descriptions of the Arctic and Antarctic (where he spent 50 days solo) is less than quiet. So too is the jungle where I live.

So, silence can be seen as a place within where we find space to carry on a conversation with ourselves. I think this is what Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages have brought me. At least when I do them, I find I begin to write to myself in the second person. “Well, Sarah,” I’ll sometimes write. It’s almost as though it’s someone else talking to me. Hearing voices? Or… is it God, which is what Cameron suggests. Not sure about God (maybe if we agree to call it dog spelled backward or refer to it with a lowercase g) but I do feel a more significant and wiser force speaking to me.

It’s comforting to know that writers have been coming to terms with this uncomfortable confrontation since Pascale wrote about sitting still and listening. I’m sure we’ve been struggling with it ever since our species became “thinkers,” but I think Pascale was the first to put into words.

Contemplating my word for the year, Open, during these hushed moments of my life has also brought about reflection. It is in the moments away from the TV, social media—the noise—that I find the space for reflection and…not answers but at least the questions.

 

Don’t Know What You’ve Got ’til It’s Gone

To say I’ve been negligent of this blog would be an understatement. I just checked the date of my last post: 03 March 2015. The reason for my absence? There has been so much loss in my life in the past two-plus years I sometimes wonder that I can still stand upright let alone walk.

I thought it was bad when my dad died in 2012. He was 98, so nothing to be shocked about, but this daughter was grief-stricken for quite a spell. He was my mentor, my champion, my friend, and my go-to guy for everything political. But his last years were taking their toll; his memory was failing, and I know he would have hated seeing himself in an Alzheimer’s unit.

About two years after that came my mother’s need for relocation. The house they both called home in McMinnville OR was too big and too hard for her to manage. My brother, sister, and various nieces and nephews helped move her to a lovely extended care facility near Portland. In fact, many years ago EMTs told me, when they rolled a patient through the doors of our ER, “If you have to go to one of these, make it this one.” Excellent care, beautiful apartments, gorgeous grounds. And they allowed Mum her dog. Can’t go wrong there.

But soon came broken bones (two fractured hips) before her death at the end of November 2015. I have to hand it to my mother, she went out like a trooper—walking from her kitchen to the living room one afternoon, she just keeled over. Gone. My sister, brother, and I cleaned out the apartment, settled most of her affairs, and I was home in Costa Rica before Christmas.

It is a strange feeling to be orphaned at age 66. It stung much more than I would have thought given my parents’ ages and what significant and satisfying lives they both led. Nevertheless,  I found myself withdrawn and reflective. Was I depressed? Looking back, I think I was. It was a time for journaling, not blogging, I thought. Or…maybe blogging would have been a good thing if I were the sort of person who readily shares her feelings before sorting through the remainders first.

Four months after my mother’s death, my sister was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Jesus H. Christ, as my father used to say! My brother and I stayed with her through the try at chemo, through the hospice consults, and finally…through the choice of Death with Dignity that Washington state law allows. Thank GOD for that. She was dead within a month, four months after my mother’s death.Three-fifths of my family gone in four years. My brother and I are the last ones standing.

After that, I lost four friends to cancer in rapid succession and two special little Basenjis who still make me cry whenever I think about them too much. They are buried overlooking our big meadow; prayer flags fly overhead to purify the area.

I miss them. I miss them all.

Why am I writing all this now instead of weekly or monthly as things unfolded? Recently, a poet I follow, Molly Fisk, suggested that rather than New Year’s resolutions, which are seldom kept and often silly, we should instead select a word to reflect on over the course of the year. I thought about many words last month. Most of them I realized were words that typify my life, words I feel comfortable around: resilience, strength, indomitable, tenacity. But the word I finally settled on slipped in on the side one day and whispered to me. It’s simple but essential to any writer: open.

So…I hope to be back on the blog in 2018 with writings about Costa Rica, me, my life, and life in general with openness and candor. (Ooh, that’s another good word.)

No coming, no going. No after, no before. Open to all.

Costa Rica: A Land for The Indomitable Spirit

gotas_valeriana_35ml1I started asking for gotas de valeriana at the local farmacia about three weeks ago; the same pharmacy where I bought the bottle I was running low on. In fact, I started asking about a replacement when mine was only half empty because I was not born to Costa Rica yesterday.

When I asked the nice clerk at the farmacia, she looked in the glass case and then produced valerian capsules. No, thank you, I want the drops. The capsules make my head feel like its going to explode and I find I’m more wired than if I had taken nothing to get to sleep. So, no, those would not work. She then produced linden-flower drops, passion-flower drops, and chamomile drops, but no valerian drops.

“We could order them for you,” she offered.

“Thank you. That would be great.”

But apparently “could” was the operative word, because the following week when I asked for them I got exactly the same routine: the looking, the offering, the ordering from an entirely different clerk.

Yesterday, I was in town and they assured me the valerian drops would be in that afternoon. I did notice it was 2 p.m. when I left the store, but never mind. I asked them to guard a bottle for me. Not to worry, they said. There will be lots. I thanked them very much. Just as I was leaving I remembered and asked about the borax I also ordered. Ah, well, the proveedor brought baking soda instead of borax, so that should be here next week. We all laughed.

I was in town checking the post office, yet again, for a package my brother mailed three weeks ago from the States. Most often those packages take about ten days, but this one contains four credit cards tucked inside a book, plus a fountain pen and some inks. I am very anxious to get these items so, of course, they are taking forever to get here.

The cards have a special history. Our credit cards were hacked sometime back in December and we cancelled them. Replacement cards were sent to our accountant in the States who then mailed them to us. I waited and waited and began to worry that they’d been intercepted. Another care package from my brother was sent to me about a week after the cards and that package arrived in ten days flat. But not the cards. So, I cancelled the cards and had the bank issue new ones. A month and a half later the now cancelled cards arrived.

I had our accountant send the new cards to my brother—the expeditor extraordinaire. I also ordered some special paper from Amazon for my new fountain pen a week later. That arrived yesterday. I now have beautiful paper that does not bleed or feather the ink… but no fountain pen (the photo here is as close as I’ve come to owning it). No credit cards either, and, so far, no valerian drops.

I noticed last night I am just about out.images

To reiterate, this is the land for the stalwart personality; not just the intrepid, but also a spunky person of good humor. I have not always risen to the occasion, but I have learned to mask my frustration and anger because if you take out your frustrations on them, clerks and officials will simply look straight past you for the next in line. You will get nothing. Sometimes you get nothing anyway but at least they feel bad for you.

From Moldy Carrots to Bagels and Cream Cheese

Lowe's“I see we finally got a Lowe’s.”

This would be A. speaking to me a couple of years ago as we bounced along in our pickup over the moonscape road between our house and Puerto Viejo. He says things like this to me all the time. I’ll be daydreaming and suddenly I become aware of something he said that is completely out of context.

“What do you mean there’s a Lowe’s here?”

“Right over there by the pulpería. See it?”

Sure enough, across the road at the little grocery store where I do most of my shopping, I saw the delivery truck with LOWE’S written boldly across its side in stocky white letters on a blue background in the shape of a house. It even said: “Let’s build something together” right underneath, as well as the 800- number.

“Well, that will be nice,” I said. “I wonder when Home Depot will be here?”

We both laughed, knowing full well that neither Lowe’s nor Home Depot would be here in the foreseeable future.

As we drove by, one of the workers handed another a crate of vegetables from the back of the second-hand Lowe’s truck. He, in turn, slung it up onto his shoulder and headed into the store. I could see bright green celery and bronze leaf lettuce mounded over the edge of the crate.

“We have to stop there on our way home. That produce looks pretty good.” I said.

It hadn’t always been this easy to find food on this Caribbean coastline.

When we first moved to Punta Uva in the early ’90s, my Stateside son asked: What kind of place is it, anyway?

It’s the sort of place, I said, that when you want a chicken sandwich, you bake bread, you cook a chicken, then you make mayonnaise… and then, you make a chicken sandwich. There will be no lettuce on it.

There were a couple of options available to me back then. I could go to the Chino’s in Puerto Viejo or I could shop off the trucks.El-Chinos-Shop-Puerto-Viejo

The Chino’s was an old-style commissary run by Manuel Leon, a local businessman of Chinese descent. His place dated back to the days of United Fruit, when they owned most of the land and employed most of the people. The workers spent their hard-earned money at the commissary and chances are they never got ahead.

Leon had the only grocery in town, and, according to A., everyone who couldn’t get to Limón was pretty much subjected to whatever Leon felt the market would bear. He also owned the only telephone line in the town.

ElChino.JPG0001The place still sits right on the beach, the surf breaking idly out front, palm trees swaying in the breeze. But the first time I saw the place was in the fall of 1994.

Climbing a set of very high and steep steps, we entered a big rectangular room painted institutional lima green. The room had a counter around three sides. Spongy wooden floorboards covered with sand bagged under our footsteps. Surfer types waited idly on the front porch for the phone. Behind the counter were twelve-foot high shelves. flat,550x550,075,f

There were cooking pots and pans, pressure cookers, plastic food containers, electric rice cookers, as well as some unrecognizable forms covered with dust on the upper shelves. Canned goods were on the midlevel shelves. Some of the labels were so old and sun bleached it was apparent I would have to take the Chino’s word for what was inside. Further down there were a couple of bins with some dismal looking vegetables: rubbery carrots with black spots, fruit fly covered onions, a couple of heads of cabbage and some potatoes with visible holes weeping snot-like slime. Liquor, cigarettes, and medicines… he kept those items right behind where he stood guard over his establishment.

There was no way to get to any of the items. It became clear to me that I would have to ask for what I wanted and I had no Spanish to make myself understood. Pointing seemed to be the way, and I was sure he would give me the oldest stuff first.

I was just about to do it, too, when A. said, “Don’t buy any vegetables. We can get those off the trucks. Just buy the dried stuff you need.”

I pointed at a bag of black beans, some rice, and a few other staples and Manuel policed them until we paid. He calculated the bill using an abacus and for me, because I was a Gringa, double-checked it with a calculator.

I never bought from him unless I had no choice and I haven’t been in there in years, but he is still there and last I heard he has the same attitude, charging people the credit card commission when they use one. He’s a cash-only kind a guy.

I bought vegetables from the trucks for years and, compared to the Chino’s produce, it was luxurious. Once a week the “verduras” or vegetable trucks would come down from the Central Valley. Now they look like this one, but before you had to recognize them by the exterior paneling. And they were big. 6709485-Fruit-and-Vegetable-Truck-0

There were two that ran the route for years. One had the logo “Ivan Smith Furniture” on the side, presumably from its former job somewhere in the USA, and the other a big truck with a green tarpaulin high up over the back.

We spent a lot of our life waiting for them. We knew what day they came, but what time was another matter. If we were out and about with the car and happened to see them on the road, we stopped and bought right there. Other times people passing by would tell us where they had last seen it, so we had an idea of the wait time.

The first Spanish words I learned were vegetable names.

The drivers were patient and showed me what they had, repeating the names for me. As a matter of survival I learned quickly. The produce they pulled out of the boxes bore no resemblance to the sad specimens at the Chino’s. Boxes overflowed with enormous crisp and juicy carrots, wonderful avocados that I had never seen before. They were smooth-skinned, a wonderful pale shade of green, the meat rich and buttery. Cabbage and beets, “repollo” and “ramalachas”, which I always mixed up. Sometimes I’d end up with one when I wanted the other. Lettuce was not to be found until many years later.

Now there are fresh vegetables of all sorts. They come in three times a week to multiple pulperías, and organic vendors come to the Saturday market every weekend. We have bakeries with fresh bread, a Israeli who makes a mean pita, and because there are so many foreigners living along this coast the markets now carry items like miso paste, tahini, and lots of vegetarian options. I’ve seen an entire rack of soy, rice and almond milk in various flavors. We have imported cheeses, artisan cheeses, and fresh milk. A couple of Spaniards sell hand-crafted sausage and salami at the farmer’s market every Saturday.

breakfast

What was once a little bare-bones, dirt-street Caribbean town is now a foodie’s delight. Here is a photo of the breakfast we had this morning at the sublime Restaurante Bread and Chocolate.

My, how things change.

 

Fall Along the Caribbean

IMG_9810Along the beach road, my path was filled with fallen almond leaves this morning. They resemble oblong leather scraps, colored saffron, crimson, maroon, and sable. As I walked along, the leaves, scruffling and cruffling under foot, I kicked up puffs of their acrid tannin scent. Cicadas thrilled a tinny sound or were my ears ringing? The sea is calm today, thunderheads in the distance; it will be another hot fall day.

Confusion Abounds

Hamster in a wheel

What is it about this period of my life, anyway? Is Mercury in retrograde yet again? Do I have pre-Alzheimer’s? Or regular Alzheimer’s? I don’t seem to be able to get organized, concentrate, much less follow through on anything lately. I’ve made resolve after resolve and find myself spinning my wheels again by midweek. I know some of my mental discombobulation has to do with this legal case; it does play out like a hamster-wheel in my head, but really… get a grip, Sarah.

Obviously, my great plan to create and post the envisioned “Then and Now” series for the blog failed miserably. Then I decided, okay, just ditch the blog then. I am a bit tired of writing about Costa Rica anyway. I’ve had this blog a long time; it is just six months short of my first blog post ten years ago. Ten years is a long time to do anything.

I thought I’d move The Gringuita and all her Costa Rica information over to WordPress.com, which is free and she could reside there for posterity. If anyone wanted to know about Costa Rica from my perspective they could find it there. And I did. I even wrote a blog post the other day saying the Gringuita could no longer be found here.

But something kept me from posting that. The next day I thought, no, I don’t want to do that. So here I am with not one but two blogs on my hands… for the moment.

I will stay and I will write, but I will also give myself latitude to recover from whatever it is that ails me right now.