A Weekly Journal Chronicling My Life
As It Intersects With The Garbage Dump Community Near La Ceiba, Honduras

Friday, September 28, 2007

There Goes The Gringo

So apparently, despite my best efforts to the contrary, I stick out like a sore thumb – a big one. It’s to the point where small children on the street can tell that I’m not Tico as I’m walking by. One of my Tico friends tried to tell me that I could pass for an Argentinean, but since they’re not looked too highly upon here I think I’ll pass. Today though on my way home from school I passed 3 kids walking down the street, as I walked around them I heard the youngest two start to giggle and then I heard a meek “hello”. How did they know I was foreign just by looking at me? Anyway, I turned around and we started talking, asking about each other’s lives. Much to my amazement I was able to carry on a real conversation with them in Spanish; apparently ‘hello’ is as far as they got in English class. I was amazed though, Spanish phrases and conjugated verbs just came pouring out – I think I kind of shocked the kids too; they looked a little surprised that I was able to conversate with them in their native tongue. Conversate: Mark O’Dwyer/2-Pac vernacular for the common English word converse. I must say I was elated. I felt like skipping the rest of the way home, but resisted the urge for fear that my watchful neighbors might start attaching derogatory adjectives to my given moniker of Gringo. To be sure, I have a long way to go in this language acquisition thing, but I am light-years ahead of where I was back in August. Well, maybe not light-years, perhaps just a month. All in all though, I am thrilled.
You know you’re immersed in the language when you begin dreaming in Spanish. It’s only happened twice. In the more interesting of the two dreams I was being chased by the mafia but because of my OCD tendencies I had an irresistible urge to stop off at the bank and change the dollar bills that were in my pocket into colones. After all, I have to have all my ducks in a row. So I walked into the Costa Rican bank and said, in Spanish, “Hello, How are you, I’m fine thanks, I would like to change my dollars into colones and could you please hurry because I am being chased. Thank you, see you later”. I’m almost positive that I said all of that correctly in my dream, even in the midst of dreaming I was impressed with myself for being able to get all that out – I awoke with a feeling of elation and accomplishment. No word though on whether or not the mafia caught up with me.
In my last entry I described my classes, my teachers and some fellow students; do your best to forget all of that, let’s just pretend they don’t exist. Some very perceptive and highly astute people noticed the ease and facility with which I was acquiring this language of theirs. With all haste they whisked me off to higher level classes and instructed me to blossom and grow to my fullest potential. I can only assume that I have already exceeded their wildest expectations. This fortuitous turn of events has however saddled me with the task of detailing for you the idiosyncrasies of my instructors and fellow pupils. Not to worry though, picking out people’s personality traits and comparing them to well-know public figures, or obscure literary figures for that matter, is a gift of mine. I will be keeping you posted, but I will tell you that the names of my new teachers are Maranella, Gabriella and Francisco. The ladies are very kind and very subdued, Fran however is hilarious, and he keeps us laughing the entire class period, which is important because verb conjugations are nothing to laugh at. I do miss my former classmates, they we’re a lot of fun. Mike, the George Bush clone, has informed me that he will soon be joining me in my new class, that after I left he stepped up and became ‘the smart kid’. I can only imagine.
Two weeks ago I began teaching ESL classes at a local mission center called AMCA house. I heard it about through my school and knew instantly that this would be a great place to forge relationships and train for my work in Honduras. In Costa Rica English is in high demand, if you speak it with proficiency you are almost assured a well-paying job. Therefore, ESL schools have sprung up all over the country. Most charge outrageous tuition fees and as such only the wealthy can afford to learn English and procure the high-paying jobs. AMCA house however, charges $2.00 for 10 weeks worth of classes, needless to say they are wildly popular. Classes meet for 2 hours every Tuesday; we teach for 50 minutes then mingle, drink coffee and listen to a short Bible lesson for 20 minutes and then teach for another 50 minutes. I and a friend of mine named Sonia teach the advanced class. It’s a lot of fun because the students, all adults, are really able to express themselves and have in-depth conversations in English. Most are there because they want to practice and gain confidence and have nowhere else to do it. I love the feeling of being able to teach and I’m really enjoying getting to know my students. Two of my friends, Alejandra and Erick are taking the class; Ale is my age and teaches at my language school and Erick is a Panamanian college student who is studying to become a dentist. They in turn tutor me one afternoon a week by practicing conversation at a local coffee shop. The relationships I have formed in less than a month are a wonder to me, an absolute blessing.
Disclaimer: The following is not meant to bash the United States, nor do I believe the U.S. is acting with malicious intent, but I do believe that CAFTA will not be good for Central America.
Unless you are like my dear friend Zachary Ritter I can only assume that you do not wait with bated breath, counting the days until the next issue of the Congressional Quarterly Review is released. Therefore, I in turn can assume that most of you are as oblivious to the details of the “Central American Free-Trade Agreement (CAFTA)” as I was prior to arrival here. As I understand it, CAFTA seeks to establish free-trade between all signatories to the treaty; no taxes or tariffs on goods exchanged between the partners. It sounds grand, very American, very free-market, basically an extension of NAFTA. In Costa Rica, and most other Central American countries it’s known as TLC. Costa Rica is by no means a wealthy country; medicine, electric, water, higher education are all hard for the common Tico to afford – but they manage to. The reason they’re able to do this is because all of these sectors and many other industries are state-owned, the government essentially keeps things affordable by fixing prices; Costa Rica is essentially a mixed-market economy in the model of many European nations. This certainly creates problems like inflation, and reliance on foreign companies but since it’s a small country it works. Now however the very delicate apple cart has been upset by CAFTA because it’s essentially a no win situation for Costa Rica. One of the many stipulations in the treaty requires all signatory countries to privatize state-owned industries thereby opening those countries up to competition from any other signatory country, most notably the United States. This worries Ticos for a number of reasons; prices will rise on necessities that are already almost unaffordable. Luxuries like college, which the government now subsidizes, will be almost certainly unattainable for all but the wealthiest Ticos. In time, price and affordability will eventually find a balance, but in the interim life will be very difficult for the average family. An even bigger fear however, is that U.S. companies, which are already here, will invade in even larger numbers, shattering Costa Rican traditions and ways of looking at things. It was explained to me that while state-owned companies aren’t as efficient as they could be, they are Costa Rican and they relate to their customers and conduct business in a Costa Rican way, which is highly valued here. If TLC passes, they’re convinced that they will be dealing with U.S. companies who don’t know the Costa Rican way of doing things. This isn’t an altogether unfounded fear – the same thing is happening all over the world, U.S. companies are slowly homogenizing the cultures they encounter and turning them into facsimiles of our Western materialist society. Some countries like Canada, France and Italy go to incredible lengths to preserve their culture and keep foreign influences out. You can even see it in the States, with the so-called “Wal-Martization of America”. Ticos are not blind to the flaws in their current system, but they prefer to keep it that way if it means preserving their traditions, views on life and strong community bonds. The government, in a very wise move, has opened up the decision on the passage of TLC to a country-wide referendum, scheduled for early October. Unfortunately, this truly is a no-win vote for Costa Rica. If it passes, and it very well could because most of the upper class supports it, they will experience rising prices, a harder life and a loss of their own culture. If however it fails, U.S. companies that are here now will almost certainly be lured to other Central American countries that have already passed TLC. The best jobs will leave the country and unemployment will soar. Sorry for the depressing article, I don’t fancy myself a harbinger of ill-tidings, but I do feel a certain responsibility to let you know what’s going on here. One thing I am certain of though, God is bigger than treaties, companies and the laws of economics; pray for the people here and pray for the vote in October, they need it.
Well, with that I think I’ll wrap this little entry on up, but first: I had promised you an update on the Matt vs. Cockroaches war of 2007. Thus far I have one kill and one assist (my Mam’a killed it, but I spotted it, I guess that counts as an assist). Ok they’re winning, mostly because I’m struck dumb with mortal terror every time I encounter one. I just stand there stiff as a board and by the time I am able to react they catch sight of me and scurry off. To be honest the only reason I even got one kill is because I found it in the bottom of my shower, on its back with its legs all akimbo. It was like shooting a duck in a barrel (don’t shoot ducks, they’re practically human). I hate cockroaches, especially when they want to watch movies with me at night, they never like what I’m watching and let me know by making clicking noises. And I thought stink bugs were bad.
Come on back next week and we’ll chat about Benny Hinn, my Mam’a the chatterbox and my adventures in and around San Jose! Peace.

- matt

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Matty goes to school!

Greetings to you all - I feel like there is so much to relay but so little space to do it in. I made a list of 10 items that I wanted to write about and I began to wonder how I would ever get through it and do each topic justice. I then quickly realized that I’m going to be here for quite some time; turns out I don’t have to share everything I’ve been thinking and experiencing in one blog post.

I’ll start with classes – that’s why I’m here after all. I love my Spanish classes – I actually pop out of bed most mornings and can’t wait to get to class. I haven’t figured out if it’s because I love learning this stuff or if it’s because it affords me a chance to converse with people in English; probably both. Seriously though, I am truly enjoying learning – I’ve not been a student for a little while and I love the feeling of really learning something new. I have three classes Gramatica, Lenguaje y Fonetica. Grammar is two hours long, we get an hour break and then the other two classes are I hour each. Twice a week we have chapel during the hour break (I joined a worship team to help lead singing during the chapels, we sing some hymns but it doesn’t compare with Mennonite 4-part harmony). I have all of my classes with the same 4 people – which is nice because you really get to know them. One of my classmates, Mike has to be one of the funniest people I have ever met. He’s 40-something, from Florida, has a thick accent and has the funniest comments and one-liners; he keeps all of us laughing, even the teachers, and they don’t understand much English. He struggles with pronouncing Spanish properly, especially in Phonetics. I swear he sounds just like George Bush trying to speak Spanish – it’s hilarious and he knows it. I give him credit though, he jokes around a lot but he tries hard and it’s paying off. I feel ahead of the game in Grammar because my teaching of English at CCS drilled the parts of speech into me, which we’re learning a lot of in there. My teacher’s name is Maritza and she is volatile, most of the time she’s a peach but if you’re not paying attention or goofing off she lets you have it. She just kind of becomes the extreme of whatever mood happens to strike her fancy in that the moment. Part of me, the brown-noser, loves the challenge of getting on the perpetual good side of people like that; thus far I’m doing pretty well. Lenguaje is taught by a lovely lady named Marlene who sits behind a desk and talks to us in Spanish – she teaches us conversation and it’s probably the most helpful right now. At the end of two weeks I am now able to greet someone, ask for directions and talk about the weather; very helpful stuff down here. Phonics class is a riot – it’s taught by Sandra who doesn’t know much English and reminds me of Theo Huxtable’s Math teacher, the one that came to his house to share his test grade with him. She’s very put together and very serious looking, but she has a heart of gold. Phonetics is the class where we learn to pronounce our vowels properly, it’s tough, and my mouth hurts after each class. One of our classmates is a bit ADD and is perpetually lost or studying the plant-life outside the window, and I have George Bush next to me speaking Espanola with a serious southern twang – it makes for a very interesting class. As I said though, I am really enjoying classes and I must say I’m doing very well in all of them right now – which is a plus.
Many people have asked me about my day – what it consists of. I feel awkward telling them because it never sounds like there’s much to it, but honestly, I’m exhausted at the end of the day. I wake up at 6:00, do my devotions, eat breakfast and get ready for school. I’m out the door by 7, the school is a 15 minute walk from my house through neighborhoods and a busy business district. Classes begin at 7:30, we get an hour break at 9:15 and then classes end at noon. I usually putz around the school, socializing or using the internet for an hour and then I come home, eat lunch and take a siesta (I love doing that). After I wake up I do school work, go for a run, watch “Little House on the Prairie” (“La Familia Ingalls”) in Spanish, eat dinner and then spend the rest of my evening doing school work and reading. That’s it, that’s my life – oh, on Tuesdays I teach English in a local ESL class and on Mondays I take a scuba diving course. Doesn’t sound like much, but I feel pretty busy, especially with siestas.

This past Friday started the 2 day celebration of independence from Spain. As the story goes, Guatemala was at one time the provincial Capitol for all of the Spanish holdings in Central America south of Mexico. When independence was declared a horse and rider came from Guatemala to announce the tidings to Costa Rica. He arrived on the 14th of September in the dead of night and people had to gather under lamplight to hear that they were free from Spanish rule. The next day they apparently partied like it was 1899. So, every year on the 14th of Sept. children will gather at their local schools in the evening with home-made lanterns, dressed in traditional Costa Rican garb and then march through the main streets singing songs and watching fireworks. On the morning of the 15th high school marching bands, dance troupes and Color Guards will compete in parades held throughout the city. In downtown San Jose, dignitaries give patriotic speeches – around noon everything wraps up and people go home, hopefully before the rain starts. At my school we had a little celebration, we marched around with our own lanterns, then listened to our teachers sing a few Costa Rican songs as they hoisted the flag, it was the most patriotic that this Mennonite has been in a long time. I tried to find the lantern-parade on the night of the 14th but was without luck; so that my evening wasn’t a total loss, I stopped at a bakery and had a piece of chocolate cake and coffee (Costa Rican pastries will be the death of me.). I was bound and determined to see the festivities on the 15th so a friend and I took a taxi to the university area and watched the parade there. It was massive – I was impressed with the drum-lines, and the seriousness with which the kids conducted themselves. They practice all year for this one parade – and it shows. I noticed, that unlike our 4th of July celebrations, there weren’t a lot of parties or picnics in people’s homes – celebration is more community oriented, the whole community turns out to one event that many, many people participate in; once the event is over so is the holiday. I like that, but I’m not ready to give up my hotdogs and bonfires at the Meckbach’s.
I’m gonna wrap this entry on up but I wanted say a word about Notre Dame Football. I’ve been informed many times over that they’re 0-3, terrible, etc. Josiah Stoltzfus has gone so far as to attempt to send me newspaper headlines that declare how bad they are, I loathe him. I know they stink, they have no offensive line, they’ll be lucky to beat the military academies this year. We’ve been here before, I’m just gonna be patient and pretend this season doesn’t count (it’s easy to do when you’re not in the country and can’t watch the games; it would be even easier if people like Stoltzfus would leave me alone).

Alright then, that’s enough for this entry. Tune in next week to hear what’s cookin’ in the kitchen, how many cockroaches I’ve killed and the woes of CAFTA, known as TLC down here (Costa Ricans don’t think it’s “Crazy, Sexy, Cool”)! Peace.

P.S. - I’m going to be publishing my first newsletter here in a week or two, if you’d like to get on the email list for that let me know at mlkeis422@aol.com

- Matt

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Good Morning San Jose

Yes Virginia, Matthew Keiser is still very much alive. To be sure, it has been quite a little while since my last entry, but I assure you, henceforth you will be able to read this anew on an almost weekly basis (give or take a day or two…mostly give). There is a lot to recount, but in that most of you know me and know of my comings and goings prior to departure, you are aware that I was crisscrossing the eastern portion of the Commonwealth like a modern-day Paul Revere, less the dire tidings of impending British warfare. As such, you can sympathize with me for finding little to no time to log the happenings of August, nor do I feel it incumbent upon myself to bore you with the dreary details. I’ll be succinct and relay the highlights of the month previous, and then regale you with stories of the tropical paradise that is Sri Lanka, I mean, Costa Rica.
August was a hectic time, it’s not easy to sort through your life and try to think of what you’ll need most in the next 3 years, and then attempt to fit it all into 3 bags – actually that was probably one of the easier parts. It was the steady flow of paperwork, emails, visits and goodbyes that really kept my head spinning. I had some very special moments though with a lot of people that I love dearly and I wouldn’t trade that for anything. I was especially blessed that Rachel Meckbach and Chris Knipe couldn’t stand to wait any longer and decided to get married in August instead of December. I was so happy to be a part of that celebration and be there with so many people that I love. When I wasn’t traversing Interstates 80 or 476, I was a fixture at Brandon Perk, a little coffee shop in Williamsport. Aside from serving wonderful vanilla lattes, they also have wi-fi, which is heavenly when your parents are still stuck in 1995 with their dial-up internet, typical Keiser stubbornness. There, I was able to tie up a lot loose ends with the mission board, language school and whoever else demanded my attention. All in all August was a glorious time, I was able to visit with people that I loved, take in the natural beauty of PA and leave home without feeling rushed or scattered. I thank God for the time He gave me there.
My departure went very well – I flew out of Newark, NJ. Despite the many negative feelings that I harbor towards that mass of land that only half-manages an attempt at statehood; I must say Newark has a lovely airport. Bonita Byler came along for the ride and I’m so glad she did, she kept us laughing and helped my parents think about things other than me on the return trip. The flight was without incident – no luggage was lost, I was able to bring an extra carry-on and I made it through customs effortlessly. Finding my host family at the airport in San Jose was something different entirely. There is only one exit from the airport, it’s fairly narrow and it’s crowded with taxi drivers and baggage porters hopping to make a buck. People waiting for family or friends from a flight must wait outside and hold signs up to a large window. If you do not see your name on a sign, it is not a good idea to take bags packed for 3 years worth of life out into the street. Thus I spent a good 30 minutes looking forlornly out the window as little by little the small lobby emptied and I was left with my bags. I was quite sure that I would be taking a taxi to a hotel when suddenly my host family appeared. Apparently they had been there for two hours and were just about to give up on ever finding me when we made contact. I’m not sure how we missed each other, but it was a relief. We got back to their house, it was quite late by then, and I simply collapsed on my bed (I have my own bedroom and bathroom) and went to sleep.
I woke up to the sun shining and a veritable jungle outside my window – there are green parrots in the trees and a rushing creek below me. It’s beautiful here; San Jose sits in a valley between high, verdant mountains. Mornings especially are glorious, the sun is bright and warm but not excessively hot, there’s little humidity and a light breeze. By 1:00 pm though everything changes, clouds roll in and it storms for hours, sometimes all night. This is the rainy season, winter as they call it, and it will last until December. I’ve already figured out that it’s best to get most of your errands done before noon, after that it’s a crap shoot and you could get drenched. The city itself is a not quite as beautiful, I’ve not been to the downtown, touristy area; I’m in Zapote and my school is San Francisco, the neighborhoods in these areas are littered with trash, and the rushing creek outside my window, although picturesque is lined with garbage a mile upstream (I guess I won’t be swimming there). Many of the homes are nice but they are very narrow and have little-to-no yard-space. Their windows are covered by bars and the homes have high fences and multiple gates protecting them. Despite this contrast of beauty and man-made ugliness, I still enjoy it. The people are warm and helpful, and very patient; my Spanish is passable but nothing to write home about, so patience right now is a must.
I’ve spent nearly two weeks here now. The first was entirely for orientation at the school – and it ran the gamut of orientation possibilities, from living with a family, to traversing the city safely, to policies at the school – we went over everything. Don’t worry I paid attention, mostly because they kept giving us coffee and pastries. I also decided that I love the school – it feels like I’m back at college, meeting new people, feeling slightly unsure of what I’m to do, looking to the upperclassmen for guidance, being overly-friendly to everyone I encounter because you never know if they might turn out to be a great friend. I really thought I’d left all that behind, but here I am again. The school is actually a compound – it’s beautiful, well maintained and is conducive to socializing, one thing I’ve always been good at. I’ve actually already formed a small group of friends, we all clicked instantly and so I’m looking forward to spending the weekends taking trips to the jungle and the beach with them. One of the guys is a Notre Dame fan and we are desperate to find a Sports Bar that carries ESPN or ABC, I’m sure they’ll do better against Penn State than what they did last week.
There is so much more to tell you, classes started this week and I have to tell you about that – I feel like I’m back in 8th grade with Senora Good. I’ve been exploring the city by myself – I feel very brave. And I want to tell you about my Tico family and the food I’ve been eating – I had buttered saltines for the first time ever on Saturday (not so bad if you add a little apple jelly). But this entry is already too long so I’m going to save all that and more for next week. Peace.

- Matt