Working in paradise is still's just nicer than an office job!

Easter Sunday I spent the day helping Carlos at work.  He is self-employed, and runs a small fruit stand at the ferry station.   Because Semana de Santos is a nationwide holiday here in Costa Rica, and the thing to do is get out of the mountains and head to the beach, the ferry is always slam packed with families heading home again over the weekend.  Carlos runs his stand by himself and knew he’d be crazy busy with all the people waiting on the ferry, so he asked if I would help out.  I agreed, though reluctantly.  I’ve never been a saleswoman.  The only job I was ever fired from was one in a retail store where I was expected to meet a quota; I sucked at it.  I don’t like to push people.  Frankly, sometimes, I don’t like to talk to people.  I can be a little shy, though you may never notice.  Never-the-less, given how often Carlos helps me with things (information, keeping my truck when I’m out of the country, getting me places by bus when I’m clueless, teaching me Spanish, etc.) a day spent behind a table full of fruit was the least I could do.  Plus, I kinda like the guy, so…

In any case, I sold fruit.  All day long.  Over and over I repeated out into the crowd, “Guayavas!  Mangos!  Agua de Pipa!” listing the top sellers in hopes of drawing people over.  Carlos did the same, carrying bags full of fruit around in the crowd and up and down the kilometers-long line of cars parked and waiting.  It was hot and dusty and crowded and often loud, especially as the buses full of travelers pulled up to unload and reload again.  And you know what?  I had fun!  There were plenty of lulls in the coming-and-going of people, and there were other folks working the crowd as well.  Guys with wheeled barbecues, men with ice-cream carts, women selling baked goods and other foods, ferry workers directing traffic, polizia keeping watch, taxi and bus drivers waiting for the next load, etc.  Each time the crowd ebbed they’d all drift back toward the shaded areas, most of which were near our fruit stand.  Thus, there were friendly folks to chat with.  I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the day.  And we were successful, too.  Having me there let Carlos stay out in the crowd, and also provided the whole area with one somewhat knowledgeable  English speaker who could give the tourists directions and advice.

I think many of the polizia and other vendors stopped by to chat as often as they did, in part, because I was a novelty.  They all know Carlos.  He’s worked there for years and so have they.  They all also recognize me.  I’ve drifted through often enough to be familiar.  But I’ve never been around long enough for them to talk with.  I’m a novelty, too, because it’s glaringly obvious that I’m not Costa Rican.  Hello, one tall blonde chick in the crowd anybody?  Plus, while my Spanish is passable, my accent is still American.

Carlos taking a well-deserved break

I’m fairly used to being obvious by now, and I usually don’t think about it until someone points it out, asking where I’m from or how long I’ve been in C.R.   But a group of tweens made me think about it in a whole different way, late in the afternoon. The kids passed by several times, obviously going between car and anything else that there was to do.  After the first time I didn’t bother to make direct eye contact and announce our wares, though I did smile if one of them caught my eye.  They were cute kids, all of them just on the edge of being teenagers and trying to figure things out, maybe one or two even already in high school.  I was a teacher- I know kids.  These were normal ones, from upper class families.  That was made even more obvious when the middle girl of the group stopped and looked at me after their 5th or 6th pass by us.
“Can I ask you a question,” she finally said in nearly-perfect English, leaning in a little so her friends weren’t quite in our conversation.

“Si.  Absolutely,” I told her.

“Why…” and she frowned a minute.  “Why are you selling mangoes here?”  The look on her face, the tone in her voice, the irritated groans of the older boys, and the titter of her younger companions made me pause a second and consider her question.  She definitely wasn’t asking about mangoes.  She was asking about me.  She’d spoken English as a test.  Was I American?  And the question, while polite, was underlined.  Why was I, an American, standing on a sidewalk in the heat and dust, hawking fruit to a crowd of Ticos and tourists?  That isn’t normal.  Americans are rich. They don’t do hot, dirty work outside in the sun, according to the stereotype.  I didn’t make sense to her.

“Well, because people like them,” I told her with a smile.

“Oh, just because of that?” she asked, clearly disappointed that I hadn’t said something else.

I didn’t even want to begin to address the subtler portion of her question.  How could I even try to explain to a kid I don’t know that I just don’t fit the mold, that I don’t think the way the average American thinks, that the stereotype she knows isn’t even really about the majority of Americans?  I can’t even effectively explain that to you, my readers, without either sounding pompous or half-crazy.  But the truth is, I don’t see the world the way most Americans do.

I described my life here, Carlos’ job and his home, and the amenities I can find in town to an old friend not too long ago, and she was flabbergasted.  “I don’t know how you do it,” she finally said.  “I couldn’t live like that.”  Her response flabbergasted me.  Live like what?  I have walls, roof, floor, electricity, phone, internet, roads, transportation, hot water, bed, food, fridge, stove…what more do I really need?  Carlos has most of those things, too. What’s the big deal?

On reflection, I realized the difference.  For me, those things are enough.  Not that I don’t enjoy other, more costly things, I just don’t actually need them and don’t really want them.  Because I’m content with myself and the meeting of my basic needs without struggle, I don’t have any need to live ‘better.’  I don’t, as a lot of modern Americans do, think of a job which may or may not pay $10,000 a year as being ‘low class’ or beneath me (or my boyfriend).  I don’t care if he takes the bus instead of driving a car.  It’s not a deal breaker if, on occasion, a scorpion wanders across my threshold.  It’s fine if I have to dry my clothes on a line.  I’m not ashamed to say, “I can’t afford to do/buy that.”  I’m fine with no TV (as long as I have my computer).  I don’t have any desire for ‘things.’  In my mind, at this juncture in my life, ‘things’ are just ‘crap I’ll have to get rid of the next time I move.’  Why, for the love of little apples, would I want that?

Who needs an overstuffed couch when you've got a hammock on the porch?

Suffice it to say, I think differently.  But how could I explain that to a 12-year-old girl standing on a sidewalk?  I’m not even sure I explained it well here.  I just don’t see how a lot of other people see.  Sure, not all Americans are spoiled, materialistic, selfish, boors…but the stereotype exists for a reason.  A lot of Americans are just that.  And the thing is, most don’t even come close to seeing it: they think they need a car for everyone, two extra bedrooms, a TV in every room, every electronic gewgaw that comes along, stacks of movies, books, dishes, stemware, shoes, toys… an excess of everything, far beyond what they can possibly use alone before they get bored looking at it or forget it’s there.  That almost seems obscene to me, after a year living in a place where folks are content if the whole household has just one motorcycle on which to get everyone to work and school.

It’s not bad to want more, to like things, to surround yourself with ease and beauty.  What saddens me is when people begin to need those things to the point that they believe they can’t be happy without them.  I’m still incredibly materialistic.  There’s no way I’ll survive long without internet access, running water, and easy, reliable transportation.  I’m not about to live with a dirt floor or a thatch roof.  I will have a bed, not a pallet or a hammock.  There is a line, even for me.  I guess maybe it’s just that my line is drawn a little farther down than other people’s are.