20 October 2015

I Need to Address This

When the esposo was merely a pre-esposo and we were courting a través la distancia (bumbling about in a long-distance relationship), the misunderstandings due to culture and language happened even more often than they do now, and it usually took us longer to realize it.

Pretty much.

The esposo is a librarian, though he doesn't work in a traditional library. He's in charge of the document center at one of the government ministries. I worked in an academic library before fleeing the rainhole that is Seattle. We're both grammar nerds who suffer from anxiety over the mistakes we know we're unknowingly making in our second languages. We both like editing and proofreading -- he even edits the annual ministry reports that go to the president -- and we're both readers. He's more into the classics than I am and has read some in English.

When we first met, I noticed that he had an impressive maritime vocabulary. Even among native speakers, words like skiff and buoy don't often come up in everyday conversation, so this being his second language, I naturally assumed he must be some kind of badass fisherman. Lures, hooks, maybe even a gaff. At the time, I was still working on words like cow and hangover in Spanish, and I still don't know many nautical terms. He told me no, he'd never been fishing, which made me wonder if perhaps terms like mast head and harpoon might be his way of flirting. I decided I was out of there if poop deck came up. It turned out that one of the first books he'd read in English was Hemingway's The Old Man and Sea, and he'd made vocabulary lists.

Hey, you never know when you might need gunwale in a sentence.

On my visits, I noticed that not many people had books at home, even people who liked to read. Libraries exist, but having a big, up-to-date circulating collection is not really a thing. After I got my residency, I asked about checking out books from the local library. You'd have thought I'd asked to check the Mona Lisa out of the Louvre. Books are terrifically expensive here, and the average salary doesn't support a lot of book-buying. Books are shrink-wrapped in bookstores. No browsing. And don't even think about coffee near the books.

Students don't get textbooks here. They make copies of photocopies at little papelerías clustered around schools and universities. (That made me twitchy; my boss was the copyright officer at our college library.) The esposo's chess group downloads PDFs of chess books and prints spiral-bound copies at the same copy shops. He's in a book club at work, but they download PDFs. Buying books just isn't a thing here.

I decided I was going to buy my not-yet-esposo a book or two and mail them to him. What better gift for a librarian in a place where books were hard to come by? So I asked him for his address.

And that was when our long-distance relationship almost didn't go the distance.

Me (on Skype): I'm going to send you a present! What's your address?

Him:  ... emmm, that's ... a little difficult.

Me: What do you mean, "difficult"? What's difficult about it? Just type it out in the chat box.

Him: Well ... I don't really have an address.

Me: Okay, whatever you call it in Spanish. Dirección.

Him: No, I mean, I don't have one. Not exactly.

Me: How do you not exactly have an address? I mean, you live in a house, it's on a street, the street is in a town. How does mail get to your house?

Him: We don't normally receive mail, but if someone has mail, the post office has an idea where the house is, and someone comes on a moto and beeps the horn until you come out. Or he asks the neighbors.

Me: Okay, so the mail carrier can find it. What's your street name?

Him: It doesn't really have a name. 

At this point, the yellow flag that had been fluttering in my brain is about to snap the mast head. What does he mean his street "doesn't really have a name"? Something is fishy here.

Me: Okay, well what do people call it? What's your house number?

Him: Number? It doesn't have a number.

Me: ... [activates resting bitch face]

Him: People usually just say it's the house with the green steps next to the seafood restaurant.

Me: ... mm-hmm. What's your ZIP Code?

Him: What's a ZIP Code? 

Did I say fishy? I meant something's stank-ass rotten in TicoLandia. Why was he acting so weird, being so cagey? There's only one reason a man doesn't want you to know where he lives. Ladies, am I right?

This motherfucker was married. Oh, hell no. I curtly ended the Skype call on some pretext or other and sought the advice of an expert. Google.

What the ... ?

Okay, fine. So he wasn't married. I sheepishly packed away my righteous indignation and deleted the draft of the blistering farewell letter I was going to send. By email, of course, because the man had no address.

Fifty meters past where that fig tree used to be, then ... 
Turns out Costa Rica really doesn't have house numbers or street names. ZIP Codes were finally instituted about seven years back, but no one knows that or has any idea what a ZIP Code even is. Even librarians at government ministries. Wait, let me amend my first statement: In San José (the capital) and other larger cities, there technically are street names in the city centers. Any tourist or potentially two-timed woman can look on Google maps and see a nice grid laid out with sensibly numbered avenues and streets.

Fast forward to the first time I went to Alajuela on the bus by myself. I casually dismissed the esposo's advice to ask three people for directions in order to make sure they match. (Time out for culture: Ticos are extremely polite and extremely nonconfrontational. They'd feel rude saying "I don't know" when asked for directions. They'd rather be "helpful"  and guess wildy than tell you directly that they don't know. So ask three different people. Triangulate that shit. Old school GPS.) 

I printed out this map, see? Google. I mapped out all the places I want to go, and planned my route. I won't need to ask anyone. I've got this, babe. 

The esposo looked dubious and didn't quite know what to make of the map. He turned it around a few times and handed it back to me.

Well, if it doesn't work, just remember to ask at least three people.

How could a map not work? It's foolproof. 

I got to Alajuela, super excited, because my route included a gringo-run bookstore that had loads of used books and a bookshop cat. Browsing allowed. I planned to buy some books and then head to a place that makes Tex-Mex food, where I would settle down for the afternoon with some enchiladas, my books, and some ice-cold beer. I know, right? Afterward, I'd walk to the park and maybe get some ice cream before heading home. I didn't see a street sign at the bus stop corner, so I walked to the next block to orient myself. No street signs there, either. Uh oh. I asked for help locating the nearest street sign. No one knew what the hell I was talking about.

There were no street signs.

What good does it do to name streets without putting up street signs? Apparently, the street-naming was from a big push 20 or 30 years ago to organize things. It clearly lost steam. I still thought I could find my way on my own because that's what stubborn, independent gringas who know everything do, but it was high noon, so my already lacking skills in navigating by the sun's shadow were shot completely to hell.

I asked people. Three. I never did find the bookstore that day, so I guess I should've gone for four, but there were still enchiladas and beer. The beer was pretty damn refreshing after all that wandering around and doubling back and sweating. I think I even had it on ice that day, estilo tico.

I used the damn map as a coaster.

Since then, street signs have been installed in San José, and I'm seeing them pop up here and there in the larger cities. Foreigners were ecstatic, but it hasn't made much difference. Ask a taxista to take you to Avenida 2 y Calle 12, and you'll get a blank look. Tell him La Merced church, and he knows exactly how to get to that same intersection. Trying to meet up with a Costa Rican by using street names won't even get you a lackluster reach-around. Best go with 200 meters north of the soccer field, past the licorera, 50 meters east, then past the coffee fields to the karaoke bar.

So if any of you come a-visiting, go to the funeral chapel that's southeast of the vegetable stand -- you know the one, near that little bakery -- then head 100 meters east, 150 south, and then another 75 meters to the east. Or you can come the back way: just go down the "street of the turkeys" and go north on the gravel road before that house with the pit bull.  There haven't been any turkeys on that street for years, so it won't help to look for them, but if you pass the house with the goats, you're heading the right way. There are no doorbells, so stand out in the street and yell "Upe!" a bunch of times until I come out. Nothing to it.

17 October 2015

I Cyberlove You, Man

I just ditched two drafts that were going nowhere in favor of this. Well, they were going somewhere, all right. Like down the Tangent Trail deep into Digression Forest. Another day.

You guys know I teach English online. Finding a topic that's interesting, not too controversial, and that actually sparks authentic conversation can be tricky. The content writers don't always get it right. The Spa, for example. Fail. Every time. And for some reason, I always end up with a class full of guys for that topic. Deer in the headlights, poor bastards. Look, that one's trying to chew his leg out of the trap. Dude, it's either this or Jewels and Gems. Save the leg. Tea Time is another one. Really? Sure, in Japan or chatting up those posh Brits, but our market is Latin America. Coffee. Trying to get my students worked up about tea is like convincing a cat to fetch. Meh. So I just turn Tea Time into Tea, Coffee, Mate, Cocoa, or Whatever-the-Hell-Else-You-Like-to-Drink Time. Open it up for some enthusiasm.

Technology topics always go over well, particularly discussions on how technology has changed communication and relationships. Students love the tech topics almost as much as Dating or Happy Hour. And those are some entertaining classes, trust. Well, in the advanced classes, anyway. In my absolute beginner classes, I spend most of the time resolving tech issues, configuring mics, waving my pointer around, and repeating things sloooowly in my Happy Voice. It's a process.

One question that always sparks spirited debate is whether or not its possible to have real friendships online without meeting in the flesh, as it were. I tend toward the cynical; the Pollyanna outlook just isn't my thing. Life has made me a realist. Time was, I'd have said anyone wanting to be your "online friend" (wink, wink) either wants to get in your pants or in your wallet. Or both. 

Back during the Seattle years, though, before Facebook turned everyone into meme-loving, like-clicking, mindless drones, I unwittingly fell into a cybercommunity. Yes, bloggers. Oh, please, people, get off  your judgy high horses. I repeat: Seattle. What the hell else did I have to do? This was back when I was Drizzle's bitch, huddled under a Snuggie, wearing flannel Seahawks pajamas in front of my fireplace, drowning my sorrows in cheap wine. It was dark by 4:00pm, for Pete's sake.

So spare me the snickering.

Anway, despite my initial skepticism and (fine!) snickering, it was good. We became friends. Many of us have met in person. One year, when some asshole hit my car at the same time that my dog needed surgery and This Old Motherfucking House popped up with yet another issue, as it was wont to do, I found a check in the mail (for a substantial amount) accompanied by a witty, this-is-your-life story they'd written to make me laugh. None of them would cop to amounts or even who exactly had ponied up. No way to send it back. Well played.

I was a single mom, people. That shit meant a lot. I even cried. Hell, I'm getting a little misty now.

I was cold a lot in Seattle.
Another time, one of the guys knitted me a gorgeous scarf, using some fancy stitch (they are called stitches in knitting, right?) that actually took some effort. This same guy sent me his old iPod when he upgraded. I still have that iPod. It's sitting right here, up above my two feet of of kitchen counter. I still think of Tony when I listen to Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, whom I hadn't even known about before.

Another guy made time to take me to dinner during a layover in Seattle. He used to encourage me in the advocacy work I was doing. We were supposed to be working together, fighting The Man by now, but Costa Rica. Another time, I drove up north and had the most fun ever with the effervescence that is Auld Hat. (For the last time, no, there are no hidden pictures from that day, you bunch of freaks.) There were other meetups, literally from coast to coast, that we all read about. We felt as though we really knew each other.

And we did.

There's a kind of intimacy that happens. I know about these people's childhoods. Their successes and failures. Fears. The hell-yeahs and the melancholy moments. The things friends know about. Meeting and mailing things wasn't really necessary. It was just extra.

They made me laugh (lordy, but these are some funnyass people), lent a sympathetic ear when shit hit the fan, read the boring, lame-ass crap I wrote that I didn't migrate over here (you're welcome), shared their own stories, supported me, and made me feel like I was a badass who could take on the world. I needed that during the Seattle years.

Wait, which one of us is the Skin Horse?
They became my friends. Real friends. Like Velveteen-rabbit real. Yeah, that's sappy as hell. Just go with it. Boxed wine and nostalgia will do that shit.

Just this week, we cyberhooked up one night. Settle down, not that kind of hook up. Facebook group, not webcam. Freaks. One of us actually is badass and has a radio show, so we linked in, and he gave us shout outs on air and played tunes for us. We laughed and drank and shot the shit, and it was genuinely fun. A party with folks spread from Canada nearly down to the equator. If that's weird or geeky, fuck it.

Guess I'm weird and geeky.

Listen, the Interwebs is chock full o' bullshit. There are eleventy-jillion blogs out there -- most of which suck ass or only appeal to maybe 13 people on the planet -- along with Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Ashley Madison, and all the other mind-sucking, entertaining places. A veritable sea of bullshit. So if you end up connected in any kind of real way with people, it means you've connected based on your ideas, your values. Your minds. Your humor. Not just because you work with this guy or live next to that guy or your wife is the sister of that other guy.

Granted, you may end up connected based on a web of lies and fakery, but that's life on or off the Interwebs. People hide all kinds of shit. Be careful out there. Google is your friend.

I've lived most of my adult life moving from one country or city to another, leaving friends and making new ones. The Internet changes that somewhat. You're still leaving, but not really. Here in CR, I found another cybercommunity where people think like me, get me. When you're living in another culture, that's huge. Especially when a lot of the people from your own culture are either stoned surfers twenty years younger than you or folks twenty years older with a stick up their ass who want Costa Rica to be Little 'Murka where we speak English and eat Big Macs. Gawd. Finding like-minded people is good. I've met a few people from the cybercrew and count them as friends. Tomorrow, I'll meet two more. (I was supposed to meet someone today, too, but plans in CR have a way of falling through at the last minute. Pura vida. Maybe next week.)

I miss the hell out of my face-to-face friends. Days when I talk with them, I'm happy as the proverbial pig in shit, and it's like no time has passed. But it's weird: sometimes you hear more from your cyberfriends than from your family or face-to-face friends. I think it's because with cyberfriends, that's the ONLY way you've ever communicated. Online. It's the norm. For your fam and "regular" friends, it's a switch. An adjustment. You're "gone" for them. Skype, Whatsapp, Messenger, and the rest get a lukewarm reception. Maybe not for the younger generation or habitual travelers. My daughters are good at keeping in touch, but 90% of our communication is online chat. That's great for me, but it doesn't work for everyone. So it can be hard to connect. A lot of folks overseas say if they're not the ones doing the calling, no one calls the other direction. I don't know why that is, but it's kind of a thing in emigrant circles. You're the caller, not the callee. Maybe it's left over from the Ma Bell days? I need to be better at it, regardless. Because I seriously miss my family and "regular" friends. I don't think they know how much. Probably because my slack ass doesn't call enough.

Aaand, I digressed.

Back to cyberfriends, before I go from misty to pathetically tracing the tracks of my tears. Back in the Seattle years, you bastards helped me keep at least a tenuous hold on sanity. And nearly a decade after falling in with you guys, we're still here. Okay, we got sucked into Facebook's cheap and easy e-thrills, but hey, shit happens. the pendulum is swinging back.

So a toast to friends -- doesn't matter if it's via WiFi or from the next barstool: I love you, man. No, I mean it, a toast. Pass me that beer. No ice.

10 October 2015

Columbus: Bold Explorer or Genocidal Asshat?

(In which I suspend snark and translation tales to address marked asshattery. Fine, there's still snark. I wrote this in 2007. I'm surprised every year by requests for it, so ... the debut at the new digs.)

In fourteen-hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

Remember that? That little rhyme is probably why 1492 is the one date we actually remember from school. I bet you can name all three ships too: the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa María. In third grade, I made miniature versions out of construction paper. I used Popsicle sticks for the masts. It was fun.

Too bad they don't teach you the rest of the story in school.

In fourteen-hundred and ninety-three, Columbus stole all he could see.

What are we really celebrating on Columbus Day? Ask any school kid, and little Johnny's likely to recite, "Columbus discovered America." Except he didn't. He didn't "discover" it, and it wasn't present-day "America". The man thought he had found India by the backdoor. Like some 15th-century Rick Steve tour. He and his crew murdered, raped, and enslaved the people who were already there. Christopher Columbus never even set foot on what we in the United States call "America".

Nevertheless, he has a holiday and a place in every textbook in this country. Textbooks that don't teach us what really happened. At best, you get a watered-down, whitewashed [ahem], quick mention. Like this:

Much controversy exists over Columbus' expeditions and whether or not one can "discover" an already-inhabited land. The natives of the Bahamas and other islands on his journey were peaceful and friendly. Yet many of them were later enslaved by the Spanish. Also, it is known that the Vikings explored the North American coast 500 years before Columbus.

Nevertheless, Columbus' expedition was unique and important in that it resulted in the first intertwining of Europe with the Americas, resulting in the first permanent European colonies in the New World.

Wow, they actually mentioned enslavement, and the land already being inhabited (and therefore, already discovered, asshat). But we quickly move on past that unpleasantness, right on to the "Nevertheless..." bit. After all, his murderous asshattery did lead to the first permanent European colonies in the New World, and that's what's really important.

Because nothing is real until the Europeans say it is, y'all. If you don't believe me, just pick up any US textbook.

History is written by the victors.
~Winston Churchill

You got that right, Winston.

the lowdown
In my daughters' History of the Americas class, the instructors taught from Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States: 1492 to the Present. If you haven't read it, click it, order it. I'm serious - please get this book. Anyway, they were fortunate. Howard Zinn is not usually found in high school history classrooms. My eldest's instructor also held a mock trial for Columbus, in which my daughter was prosecuting attorney. The kids in the "regular" classes don't get this perspective. They get the regular textbooks. Which could, if I were in the habit of digressing, bring me back to the subject of who is and isn't represented in the IB honors classes, and the system of advantage in our institutions. But I won't digress.

Zinn doesn't gloss over what happened. He presents a very different version of history, using primary sources (What a concept!) that we're going to look at today, such as the journals of Columbus and others who were there. This description of the Taino -- renamed "Indians" behind the faulty navigation -- was penned by the invader himself:

... they are so naive and so free with their possessions that no one who has not witnessed them would believe it. When you ask for something they have, they never say no. To the contrary they offer to share with anyone . . .

. . . They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. . .

They would make fine servants . . . With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.

~Christopher Columbus, personal journal

Ah, colonizer thinking at its best. Didn't even cross his mind to respect the people already on the land. Shoot, it didn't cross his mind to even see them as people. Because it wasn't really about exploration, it was about ownership. It was about taking whatever the fuck you want, even if someone else was there first. You want gold? Take it. Take it in the name of your Almighty God, because that makes everything all right. Those people already living here? Take them, too. Hell, make them get the gold for you. Less work. If they don't cooperate, kill them. Or cut their hands off.

That'll learn 'em.

Columbus got gold fever when he saw some of the Taino wearing small gold earrings. He brought 500 natives back to Spain as slaves. Well, 200 didn't make it, actually, but no matter; he managed to convince the Spanish royalty that there was gold in them thar hills, and was funded for a second voyage. This time with 17 ships and over 1,200 men to colonize their find.

Hey, if there's gold to be had, go after it -- you can't expect uncivilized brown folks to manage a valuable commodity like gold. Or oil. (But that's another story.) It's time for some conquering and subjugation, by gawd. Problem was, there really wasn't that much gold to be found.

So they instituted a quota. Zinn writes:

They ordered all persons fourteen years or older to collect a certain quantity of gold every three months. When they brought it, they were given copper tokens to hang around their necks. Indians found without a copper token had their hands cut off and bled to death.

Taino who didn't meet the gold quota lost their hands.
So if your 14-year-old son couldn't collect his quota of gold because it basically wasn't there to collect, some guy who had just shown up on your land one day would cut off your son's hands. Maybe leave them dangling from his arms. For a laugh. Make you watch.

Think about that.

According to James Loewen in Lies My Teacher Told Me, the Spaniards forced the Taino to work in mines. The ecosystem was affected, and the people suffered from malnutrition on top of the beatings, rapes, and disciplinary amputations. Diseases ran rampant, immunities were low or nonexistent. The Spaniards forced the people to carry them from place to place. Because who wants to waste energy on walking when you've got hands to cut off and people to string up? Those who survived all that were driven to suicide, abortion, even killing their own newborn infants in order to spare them from life in those conditions.

Pre-Columbian population estimates vary, but run as high as 8 million.
-- By 1496, the estimate is about 3 million.
-- By 1516, about 12,000.
-- By 1542, fewer than 200 were left.
-- By 1555, they had been essentially exterminated.

Yeah, that's called genocide. Mass murder at the hands of the bold explorer. But that's not all:

Because the Indians had died, Indian slavery then led to the massive slave trade the other way across the Atlantic, from Africa. This trade also began on Haiti, initiated by Columbus's son in 1505.

~James Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me

Whoa, what? Did you all catch that? Because this is important: after Dad and pals decimate the Native populations, Junior heads to Africa to replenish the labor force. The African slave trade. Because they killed off the Native slaves. Way to carry on the family legacy, Junior. Genocide and slavery.

This is what we're celebrating, people. 

A Dominican priest's eyewitness account -- not an opinion, an actual eyewitness account:

Their reason for killing and destroying such an infinite number of souls is that the Christians have an ultimate aim, which is to acquire gold, and to swell themselves with riches in a very brief time and thus rise to a high estate disproportionate to their merits.

It should be kept in mind that their insatiable greed and ambition, the greatest ever seen in the world, is the cause of their villainies. And also, those lands are so rich and felicitous, the native peoples so meek and patient, so easy to subject, that our Spaniards have no more consideration for them than beasts.

And I say this from my own knowledge of the acts I witnessed. But I should not say "than beasts" for, thanks be to God, they have treated beasts with some respect; I should say instead like excrement on the public squares.

~Bartolomé de las Casas, Dominican priest and settler, personal journal

Damn. That's some greed, right there, folks. That's a serious entitlement complex. And, I'm thinking, it's not too far off from some things going on today, 500 years later.

The Spaniards, in a clever act of rationalization, would read a proclamation -- in Spanish, of course -- informing the Taino that the land and everything on it now belonged to the invaders to do with what they would. If the people chose not to cooperate after hearing the proclamation, well, that's their own fault, isn't it?

More from the Dominican priest -- again, dude was there. He saw this shit (emphasis mine):

They attacked the towns and spared neither the children nor the aged nor pregnant women nor women in childbed, not only stabbing them and dismembering them, but cutting them to pieces as if dealing with sheep in the slaughter house.

They laid bets as to who, with one stroke of the sword, could split a man in two or could cut off his head or spill out his entrails with a single stroke of the pike.

They took infants from their mothers' breasts, snatching them by the legs and pitching them headfirst against the crags or snatched them by the arms and threw them into the rivers, roaring with laughter and saying as the babies fell into the water, 'Boil there, you offspring of the devil!' Other infants they put to the sword along with their mothers and anyone else who happened to be nearby.

They made some low wide gallows on which the hanged victim's feet almost touched the ground, stringing up their victims in lots of thirteen, in memory of Our Redeemer and His twelve Apostles, then set burning wood at their feet and thus burned them alive.

To others they attached straw or wrapped their whole bodies in straw and set them afire. With still others, all those they wanted to capture alive, they cut off their hands and hung them round the victim's neck, saying, 'Go now, carry the message,' ...

They would cut an Indian's hands and leave them dangling by a shred of skin and they would send him on saying, 'Go now, spread the news to your chiefs.'

They usually dealt with the chieftains and nobles in the following way: they made a rid of rods which they placed on forked sticks, then lashed the victims to the grid and lighted a smoldering fire underneath, so that little by little, as those captives screamed in despair and torment, their souls would leave them...

~Bartolomé de las Casas, Dominican priest and settler, personal journal

Yeah, that's the real story. That's the unpleasantness that our history books left out.

So if you skimmed over that part, go back and read it.

It's one paragraph, people. One minute.

That's what is still being left out of your kids' history books now, and what your kids probably did not learn about last week. On Columbus Day. But hey, maybe they made a paper ship with Popsicle sticks, or a sailing hat. They might have learned about Old World foods and New World foods, or talked about what it might have been like to be on a ship for 69 days.


So ...

That's what happened. And now we have this holiday. Why?  Why, with all this information -- from the actual journals of Columbus and others who were there, no less -- are we still teaching our children that this racist murderer is some great icon of exploration and innovation? Why do we still have a federal holiday, giving the man and his actions the tacit approval of our government?

Well, for one thing, our government still holds him up as an example for us all in the pursuit of our great goals. Read between the lines and weep:

Christopher Columbus not only opened the door to a New World, but also set an example for us all by showing what monumental feats can be accomplished through perseverance and faith.

~George H.W. Bush, 1989 speech

In 1492, Christopher Columbus set sail on a journey that changed the course of history. On Columbus Day, we celebrate this voyage of discovery and honor an Italian explorer who shaped the destiny of the New World.

Christopher Columbus' bold journey across the Atlantic opened new frontiers of exploration and demonstrated the power of perseverance. His journeys inspired other risk-takers and dreamers to test the bounds of their imagination and gave them the courage to accomplish great feats, whether crossing the world's oceans or walking on the moon.

Today, a new generation of innovators and pioneers continues to uphold the finest values of our country discipline, ingenuity, and unity in the pursuit of great goals.

~George W. Bush, October 8, 2007

Our Nation is built on the efforts of men and women who possess both the vision to see beyond what is and the desire to pursue what might be. Today, the same passion for discovery that drove Columbus is leading bold visionaries to explore the frontiers of space, find new energy sources, and solve our most difficult medical challenges.

~George W. Bush, October 9, 2006

Did you catch that bit about finding new energy sources? Wake up, people! How much has really changed? Yesterday's gold is today's oil. Our government, still today, holds Columbus up as an example of the "monumental feats" that can be "accomplished through perseverance and faith."

And to the victors belong the spoils.

Here's the thing:

As long as Columbus is officially held up as a bold explorer, forcible domination of groups who have something we want -- gold, oil, land -- continues to be seen as the norm. Invasion and colonization of groups deemed to be "less civilized" than we are continues to be seen as natural.

If Columbus were to be officially recognized as a mass murderer, if the holiday were no longer sanctioned by our government, then we'd have to examine history through a different lens. We'd have to examine ourselves, as individuals, and as a country.

We'd have to ask ourselves the question:  If forcible invasion and domination was wrong then ... how do we justify it now?

History is indeed written by the victors. And it's perpetuated by those who benefit from that victory.

Carlos Latuff, artist

I wrote this in 2007. Since then, the city of Seattle voted to observe Indigenous People's Day instead, thanks to a lot of hard work by tribal communities and allies. Other cities have passed similar legislation. Alaska, Oregon, Hawaii, and South Dakota do not recognize Columbus Day. South Dakota, ahead of the curve, has celebrated Native American Day since 1990. Fewer than half of the 50 states still give a day off work for Columbus Day. 

Here in Costa Rica, they celebrate el Día del Encuentro de las Culturas, which is something like "the meeting of the cultures". Right. That was some meeting. Or you could interpret it as "clash of the cultures". Other Latin American countries celebrate Día de la Raza. People here are pretty clear on what old Cristóbal Colón was all about.

I was disappointed to see the annual presidential proclamation confirming Columbus Day for 2015, but heartened (a bit) to see that President Obama did at least talk about the effects on the Native population and the importance of tribal sovereignty. It's something. I guess. I'd hoped he'd step all the way up, though. At least he said "exploration" instead of "discovery". Baby steps. But damn, that baby is taking hella long to walk. 

I hope to update this post one day with a federal proclamation recognizing Indigenous People's Day. 

For more real info about Christopher Columbus and other assclowns, ditch the textbooks and pick these up. This post is just the tip of the iceberg. Columbus is just one piece of a history that has been, in large part, mistaught.


08 October 2015

Words Fail Me: Batshit Loco

When you learn a foreign language later in life *ahem*, words that sound similar can mess you up and make you sound like an idiot. When I lived in Hungary, I was constantly mixing up szőnyeg (carpet, rug) and szúnyog (mosquito). I would say dumb, but apparently amusing things like, "Urgh, these carpets keep biting me!" or "Take that mosquito out and shake it."

And you guys already know about my little mix up with preservantes and preservativos. But let's not dwell on that.

One time the esposo and I were down south, visiting one of my cuñados (really, it's so much easier than "brothers-in-law") and his family.  I love it there. They have a nice little porch where we hang out in hammocks with ice-cold beer of an evening. Ice cold because they literally put ice in the beer here. Not even kidding. I drink mine gringo style, no ice, because I don't like to water my beer. Just put that bad boy in the freezer for a bit.  Guys, I cannot express how much I'm loving the heat after the Seattle years. Where we live, in the Central Valley, it's actually not that hot. It's hot at my cuñado's house. You sweat. You take cold showers. You sleep in your skivvies with the fan on high, and kick off the sheet. And there is nothing like heat to make you appreciate the qualities of an ice-cold beer. Even estilo gringo, without the ice.

Hammock, beer, banana trees, good company ... what more do you need?

So after a long day of eating, relaxing, and drinking, we were all out on the porch for more drinking and relaxing. We'd just made our way back up from the river, where we'd gone to watch the sun set, commune with the neighbor's cattle, and get attacked by some pissed-off army ants after stepping on their anthill in flip-flops. Okay, that last part was only me, but whatever. It was a beautiful night.

So we're relaxing and sipping, watching the moon rise, when I notice something zipping back and forth overhead. A whole lot of somethings. Silent somethings. No cheerful birdsong or, in the case of parrots, obnoxious grawking. These were no feathered friends.

They were bats.

bats, lying in wait on the side of a tree
Now these were early days, my first year, back before that weird little tree in the farmer's squash field on the corner had bloomed with its seasonal batnip. I still don't know whether it was flowers or fruit that drew them, but that tree sang some kind of siren song that only those bats with their damned echolocation could hear. It was like crystal meth to a junkie. McDonald's to a gringo. You always hear about how bats don't bother people, how our fear of them is irrational, how they've gotten a bad rap. I believed all of that.

Until the little tree let loose its crack blossoms.

Those bats became territorial. Taking my dog, Batman (no relation), for his nightly constitutional was like running the gauntlet through a cloud of winged Cujos. In fact, wasn't it actually a bat that gave Cujo rabies in the first place? Poor Cujo probably lived near one of these trees. Those suckers actually dive-bombed me. They didn't give two shits about mosquitos, they were on the attack. Even Batman was a little spooked by his vespertilionine brethren, and he was a calm dog. I took to wearing a sweatshirt with the hood tied tight. After that first season, someone cut down the little tree before it bloomed again. I guess I wasn't the only bat bait out there. I was enormously relieved but also a little sad, because every once in a while, when the tree wasn't in bloom, an owl would perch there, watching me and Batman as we walked by, and I didn't see him anymore after that.

But back to our story, which takes place before the little tree bloomed and I learned what evil lurked in the hearts of bats. So I'm on the porch, soaking up the delicious heat, enjoying my cold beer in the moonlight, listening to the conversation from my hammock. An idyllic night if ever there were one. Wanting to make use of the animal vocabulary I'd just learned in my handy book, 6,000+ Essential Spanish Words, I nonchalantly say,

Look, bats!

Everyone stops talking to look at me. I helpfully point up at the sky, illustrating my keen observation.

A beat. Then everyone bursts out laughing. Great. I know what that means.

What did I say? 

They all chimed in, laughing their asses off, practically choking on their ice:

Look, womanizers!

Typical. Turns out the vocabulary book said murciélago ... not mujeriego.

cuñado - brother-in-law  (koon-YAHD-oh)
cuñada - sister-in-law  (koon-YAHD-ah)
murciélago - bat: mammal,  not baseball.  (moor-see-AY-lah-goh)
mujeriego - womanizer  (moo-hayr-YAY-goh)

02 October 2015

Words Fail Me: The Staff of Life

(In which our new series, Words Fail Me, is introduced, and Cowbell learns that pride goeth basically every damn day.)

Fold, mix, or knead?
Those of you who know me know that I'm not exactly channeling Suzy Homemaker, here. I wish I were one of those people who find cooking relaxing or fun, but I'm not. I cook because we need to eat. Moving to Costa Rica, however, has forced me to embrace my inner Suzy. I wish she were more like an inner Sybil who could just completely take over in the kitchen while I go to my inner quiet place for a nap, but no, nothing so convenient. It's all me in the kitchen.

Logically, I know that not eating processed food is a very good thing. When I'm not actually in the kitchen, I'm all about it. In theory. When it comes time to actually cook, though, logic me importa un bledo*. Once in a while, you just miss a good box or package. An easy mix. That frozen Indian food from Trader Joe's. Actually, you can find packaged food here at AutoMercado, aka the Gringo Grocery, so named because the prices reflect what desperate people with US dollars are willing to pay for that imported taste of home. Which is a lot, and why I only go once a year, before Christmas. 

Anyway, "from scratch" has become more than just a fuzzy concept that happens in other people's houses or in books about the olden days. In the States, making spaghetti sauce meant I sauteed onions, peppers, mushrooms, garlic, basil, and oregano in olive oil, then dumped in a jar of store-bought sauce, added a few personal touches like a bit of sugar to cut the acidity, a pinch of cinnamon, aaand done. "Homemade." What? It's not like I used Ragú. Here, jarred sauce is either expensive (again with the import taxes) or nasty, and let's not even talk about the national brand that comes in those tiny foil packages. Single serving size. For a gnome. So spaghetti sauce here means an assload of tomatoes. This is where I should write about blanching and peeling tomatoes. Yeah, screw that. Did it once. Everyone knows all the vitamins are in the skins, anyway.

My sauce is chock full o' vitamins.

Sweet tooth, pfft. I have a carb tooth.
Anyway, I'm kind of domestic now, y'all. I learned to make yogurt in my Crock-Pot. Yogurt, now. Come on, impressive, right? Fine. I was impressed. I make beans on the regular. Cannot believe I ever used canned black beans in the US. Guácala. Blech. That is my skeleton in the closet here, people; do not out me to the new fam. I also learned to make my own bread. I wasn't feeling that at first, but after a few months of eating "air bread" I warmed to the idea. (Hey, it's a tortilla society. You want good bread, go to Europe.)

Also, I found a no-knead recipe. That's what clinched it. 

The esposo, having been raised on air bread, was quite happy with this dense, warm, homemade manna from heaven, straight out of our oven. So we're talking about it over coffee and warm, buttered slices of deliciousness, and I say to him -- in Spanish, because it's Spanish week:

Homemade bread is so much better for us because it doesn't have preservatives. 

He stops chewing.  

Because it doesn't have what?

Preservatives. I don't use preservatives to make it.

I hope not. That doesn't even make sense.

At this point, I should've realized I'd committed yet another word fail, but these were early days, and I had yet to discover how the intricacies of Spanish lace the language like so much barbed wire. I charged on. 

Well, it does make sense if you want the bread to last longer.

 ... the bread?

Yeah. The bread in the store is full of preservatives. It lasts forever.

Oh. Preservatives. You mean preservatives.

Yeah. What did I say?


Oh. Preservativos means condoms. Preservantes means preservatives. Go figure. To this day, I just avoid those two words. Whoever invented Spanish did that shit just to mess with me. 

me importa un bledo:  it matters to me about as much as a blade of grass. I couldn't care less about it. 
guácala (WAH-kah-lah) - Gross. Blech. Disgusting. That's nasty.