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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


Anna said…
Mateo- I really enjoyed your latest entry- little bit of humor, politics, social issues, language and poignant experiences! A true adventurer and seeker of God's will! I'm curious to see what will happen with the TLC...keep us posted. It was a really hot topic with my friends the last time I went down there.
Anna said…
so, this is the first time i'm writing comments on a blog...I just sent 2 messages almost exactly the same---thinking that the first one didn't go thru....lo siento!
M.A.P. said…
hey matt,
i think the clicking noises are coming from your allies, the geckos. seriously, i couldn't figure it out for the longest time when i lived there. then i saw one of those geckos making that sound. they will certainly aid you in your war on the roaches.
ps i'm glad you're in CR, my other home. No al TLC!!
Anonymous said…

Your blog is more intriguing, well written, and insightful than I ever expected any blog to be.

The willingboro lad in me give you props.

-El Nayhog

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