My eyes are a little more open.  I see, more today than I did yesterday.  My heart is both warmer and a little heavier.  I understand- although I’m not yet sure what it is that I have come to know.

My phone rings in the morning, rather early.  It is Carlos, my overly flirtatious acquaintance from last week’s ferry trip to get Amanda from the airport.  It’s not the first time he’s called, and I sigh.  I don’t really want to be bothered because I am in the midst of doing my morning yoga and washing laundry. Still, I listen to him a few moments as he tells me he came to Montezuma the night before to see friends and stayed in a local hostel.  He has today off from work.  He would like to see me if I am not busy.  I feel irritation rise up.  I’m American, and men who flirt shamelessly, attempt kisses, and then call, call, call are ‘trouble’ because they ‘only want one thing.’  My jaded senses say this guy is no different; men are the same everywhere.  So, in my best god-awful Spanish I tell him I don’t want to be rude, but I think he only wants sex and I’m not that kind of girl.  Strangely, he doesn’t argue.  He says that all men want sex, but if I don’t its okay; he still wants to see me.  I sigh and decide, ‘What the hell. I can have a lark of a visit with an interested man and enjoy the attention.  Besides, I desperately need to practice my Spanish with someone who will listen as I stumble over words and frown in confusion at them when I don’t understand.’ So, I agree to meet him in town later on.  “Solo para hablar.” (Only for conversation.)

We meet and he hands me a gift- a beautiful green vase wrapped in wicker.  I’m surprised and wary, but attempt to be as gracious as possible.  We have lunch (dutchly) at a restaurant I’ve been to before.  He clearly knows the waiter.  We look at our menus and he asks what I’m having.  I explain that I’m vegetarian and don’t eat meat, point to the grilled veggie and pesto sandwich I’ve settled on and say “I think this looks good.”  He nods and says yes.  When the waiter returns, Carlos orders for me.  I’m taken aback, as no one has ever done this before, but he orders what I want so I can’t complain.  He gets the same thing and the waiter is surprised.  “You don’t want the cassado?” he asks him.  Cassado is the only traditional Costa Rican meal on the menu and I gather now that it’s what the locals always order when they eat here.  He says, “No, I’ll try something new.”

As we wait for our food, I mentally grope for things to say.  I’m not nervous, but I have no idea what to talk about.  I fall back on the familiar comfort of weather and the scenery.  In truth, it is a beautiful day- sunny, warm, breezy.  We’re sitting in a lush garden, a river runs along the edge of the space, and the beach is not 100 meters away, screened from view by trees and flowers.  There are brightly colored birds in the branches above us, watching and waiting for food to be dropped.  It’s worth talking about.

When our food arrives, it is delicious.  He takes a bite and his eyes grow wide, “This is very good, very rich!” he exclaims.  I chuckle and agree. “It’s the kind of food I’m used to,” I admit.  It’s obvious that he’s not and that this is a novelty for him.  Costa Rican cuisine is often not heavily spiced or rich in diverse flavors, I have discovered, though it is still very good.  My world is full of rich flavors and good food- I’m a bit of a foodie.  I’ll try anything once; I usually like it.  Clearly, this is new for him.

After lunch we walk along the beach.  He seems content to talk and see, although he reaches for my hand in very intimate, date-like fashion.  I pick rougher terrain that prevents this option.  Eventually, we come to a stopping point- there’s a river in our way.  He points up and suggests we hike to Montezuma Falls.  I agree since it’s a beautiful place and I like hiking.  ‘What else do I have to do today,’ I think.  He learns something about me as we hike- I’m not afraid to get my feet wet or climb if I have to in spite of wearing only flip-flops.  “You’re a very brave woman,” he tells me.  I shrug this off, “Not as brave as some I know.”  We chat about life, family, the differences between Costa Rica and America, how people around the world seem to think about our cultures, the stereotypes that exist, the scenery, the flora and fauna.  We see three pairs of Aracari- a kind of toucan- and he is as amazed as I am.  He says that for a long time they weren’t in this area, but they’ve come back in recent years.  Seeing them is still very rare.

Later, as we walk back into town he glances at his watch.  The last bus to Paquera left half an hour ago, he tells me.  He’ll have to stay another night in the hostel, call his brother to go and feed his dog.  I think it’s a dishonest ploy to be invited to spend the night with me, and that must show in my eyes.  He hands me a copy of the bus schedule, which everyone seems to have around here.  He’s not lying.  The next bus to Paquera isn’t until 5:30 tomorrow morning.

I make a decision, half out of guilt for having taken up so much of his time knowing that I’m not interested in the relationship he’s clearly looking for and half out of curiosity to see where he lives.  Realizing that some of my people back home would think I’m crazy I volunteer, “I have a car.  I can drive you home if you want.”  I am not afraid of being alone with him, of driving so far, of going to his house- he doesn’t seem the violent, too-forceful type and, physically speaking, I’m within half an inch of being as tall as he is, heavier, capable of defending myself.  I don’t have much to worry about.

Along the way, he talks about his home.  “It is very small,” he tells me, but he has a large piece of land and he owns it- no rent, no mortgage.  It’s all his.  “This is very good,” I say.  In America, people buy houses so big they can’t afford them and then spend all their lives working to try and pay for them.  They worry and stress.  It’s not like that here.  Soon, he says he’s hungry and I glance at the clock.  “It is the time for dinner,” I agree- and it is.

A few minutes later, he points to a brightly lit place ahead.  “This is a good place.  The food is good and not expensive,” he tells me.  We stop.  It’s a bar/restaurant I’d never have gone to on my own.  Its one of the few places I’ve seen here where the signs are all in Spanish- obviously not a ‘gringo’ hang out, but I’m with a local.  ‘When in Rome…’ I think, and in we go.  It’s not crowded, but there are a few dozen people.  I bear the only fair skin, light eyes, and blonde hair in the place; people look but no one stares, which surprises me a bit. We walk the length of the room while he stops and greets his friends, chatting amiably over the loud music.  I am introduced as “Evia, mi novia,” (his girlfriend).  I’m not incredibly happy about that, but I can’t bring myself to be rude, to embarrass him in front of people he knows and announce that I’m not.  Mostly, I shrug noncommittally and say hello.  I am greeted, welcomed- warmly and without exception.  For the first time, I find myself hand-shaken and given the traditional hug, cheek press, and air kiss of the local culture.  This is not what I expect.  I expect to see the cold looks you’d see in the States when someone from another country is with an American man- looks that say, “Aren’t there men in your country?  Go find one of your own; leave ours to us.”  Not once do I sense that from anyone.  I hear from a dozen people things like: “It’s nice to meet you.” “Welcome.” “Where are you from?” “You’re very pretty.” “Where do you live?” “Do you speak Spanish?”  In answer to the last question, I say “A little,” not wanting to be misleading and then have people realize I don’t understand them.  Carlos interjects to say that I speak Spanish very well.

We sit at the bar and, once again, he orders for me and gets the same thing.  I’m not sure why, and I feel like I’m missing some cultural difference, but everything on this menu is Costa Rican so maybe that’s just what he wanted.  I’m not sure.  As promised, the food is good, plentiful, and not expensive.  As we leave, I again receive that unexpected warmth.  A few air kisses, a chorus of general consent, “It was nice to meet you.  Hope to see you again soon.”  I am tired at this point, my brain too full from a day of trying to speak and understand Spanish.  Carlos speaks almost no English, so I’ve had to work hard at communication today.

We arrive at his house and he invites me inside.  Curious but cautious, I go.  He apologizes that it’s so small, not very nice, but he seems happily proud as well.  I am too tired to be stunned, but know that later I will be.  His home is one open room plus a bathroom.  A bare, rough-laid concrete floor, a frame made of hand cut trees, a tin roof, walls made of uneven, imperfect scrap lumber- the kind created when a tree is shaped down square to make good boards- flat side facing in, outside still rounded and covered in bark.  There is a bed, a hammock, a dresser, a television set, a radio, a fan.  Nothing else.  An auto-mechanic’s light is hooked to a rope strung across the room- this is the only light in the house.  He has no refrigerator.  No kitchen.  He cooks, he says, on a small camp stove just outside, next to the heavy ceramic sink every house in Costa Rica seems to have.  He buys only what he needs for today.  His house, I realize, is just like every other one on this street.  He grins with pride and a touch of nervousness as I look around and tells me, “It is very small, but I built it myself, with my own hands.  I worked hard for it.  I have much land.  I do not pay rent.  My home and my land are mine.”  He hopes to build a bigger house one day, two stories, with a view of the ocean from upstairs, but this is expensive and for now, his house is all he needs.  He is single, and his only child lives with it’s mother who has married someone else.

I look at his house through my American eyes, and try, try to see it all as he does.  I realize I am blind.  I literally do not know how to see.

I stay a little while, chatting.  I am hyper-aware of a need to be relaxed, comfortable, accepting of his home as it is.  In America, people would be watching, gauging whether or not I was judging this house and finding it lacking.  In truth, I’m not.  I am simply trying to see.

Eventually, I say that I need to go.  He asks me to stay, but I won’t.  He cajoles- it’s dark now, the road is dangerous, he’ll worry about me.  I laugh this off, thank him for his concern, but refuse firmly.  He sees me to my car.  He promises to call me.  I have no doubt that he will.  In America he would not, but I have begun to think that, while he certainly has sex in mind, there’s more.  More that I am very sure I don’t completely understand.

Blind, spoiled, and far more naïve than I ever imagined, I go home.

My house is small- tiny by American standards- but I’ll never look at it that way again.  I have light switches, level floors covered in tile, separate rooms, a kitchen with all the necessities, a spacious porch, hot water, a couch, electrical outlets everywhere.  I have a computer, an iPod, internet access, a camera, books, a car.  At home in the states I have in storage a whole house full of furniture, dishes, books, movies, games, appliances, another car, clothes, shoes, a $400 set of stainless steel cookware I bought for myself- a million things that I don’t actually need but cling to none-the-less.  I am rich beyond measure.  Wealthy beyond anything I’ve ever imagined.  For a moment, I long to run home, to go back where everything is familiar and I can ignore my selfishness and ignorance.  I can’t.  I won’t.  But everything feels tilted on its side right now.  A part of me feels cruel for not being able to see and understand what life is like for other people and then for thinking about how much better, easier, my life is and being proud.  I am ashamed of myself, my blindness, my naivety, my excess and greed, my lack of perspective, the times in the past when I have complained about money and not having all I want.  Who am I that I should have so much when others have so little?  Who am I to think that the little they have is lack, rather than enough?

I begin to see why Americans are viewed with distaste by so many people in the world.  Even the most open and well meaning of us are ignorant and blind at first.  Most will never see or know.  Even I may be part of that group.  Right now I’m not sure of anything except that there’s a lesson in this that I desperately need to learn.  I fear I’m still missing the point.

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