(photo by Ryan Moss)
It may appear imprudent that a story that takes place in a Spanish-speaking city should be told in English. First, and partly, because the English-speaking readers will have a hard time grasping the culture in which the story takes place. Secondly, and conversely, those that can relate to the story are few since the story is narrated in a foreign language. But I will remind the indulgent reader that my situation is a hopeless conundrum. English-speakers constantly visit San José but do not have enough time in the city to experience its routine and tradition. Anglophone foreigners might have come to live permanently in Costa Rica but it is highly likely they have stayed outside the capital due to its ordinariness and its dangerous crime. Likewise those that were unwittingly born in this country have avoided the city because of its pollution, recklessness and delinquency. Finally, those that have actually managed to live in the heart of San José year after year are unlikely candidates to enter this blog and squander a few minutes to the reflections of an (Anglo-phony!) Costa Rican. I have therefore taken the liberty to entertain only a few at the risk that much of what will be said will be lost in the abysmal gap between dissimilar cultures. Also, it may not be superfluous to add that the message will apply to Anglophone first-world citizens and the English-speaking high-class citizens of Costa Rica, which so eagerly emulate the ideals of foreign societies.
It is common to step down from the bus and abruptly wake up from your daydreaming as you enter the rowdy streets of San José. Those inevitable reveries that take place while you sit silently on an old American school bus come to an end when the smoke, heat and noise startle you back into reality. The images of the outer world that were streaming like invisible currents in the fabric of your mind become concrete and your attention is no longer floating in careless thoughts. Your vision is attracted to the large enchiladas on your right, the kiosk man selling newspapers and mangos at the corner, the pretty girl with a low-cut skirt, the taxi honking at that young woman, the bus almost crashing into the sidewalk, a big dog followed by three smaller dogs. Your head turns to and fro unless you are already too numb to notice the riot of any ordinary day. Your pace accelerates as you cross the street when the pedestrian light is red or slow down as you inspect the imitation sunglasses in every third store. People cross by you as they speak on the phone, scold their children or speak to themselves in a sometimes delusional manner. The stores’ windows have merchandise in every conceivable quality with prices tags in bold colorful numbers: ¢5,000 for a tank top, ¢800 for lipstick, ¢13500 for wide legged jeans, ¢250 for a pair of earrings, ¢18000 for a new toaster oven. Small cantina bars have brown and white beads-on-a-string hanging from the entrance, palm trees are easily spotted at street corners and if you venture a bit outside the crowded pedestrian streets you may even find trees ripe with mangos, bananas or jocotes. You get on an inner city bus that costs ¢100. When you pay make sure you don’t stand in between the electronic bars that count how many passengers get on and off (a rather recent feature), and then, quietly take your seat and distract yourself with the view of the sidewalks. It was on this Sabana-Cementerio bus that I saw for a quadrillion time the old bespectacled man that takes notes on his clipboard.
He has been working for the bus company for 37 years, out of those he has been in the same position, every weekday, for 35 years; keeping track of how many buses pass by his position, how many passengers were on the bus at each particular time, and making sure the money the bus driver has matches with registered passenger count of the day. It seems the electronic bars are not foolproof, and a good pair of scrupulous eyes is still warranted. I have seen him so many times I was bound to ask him one day about his job, but as it is common in our country to tattle once we engage in a conversation, I ended up knowing much more than I initially wanted to inquire.
It may seem strange that a man of sound judgment would choose to work in the same unchallenging job for 35 years. Not unless, we could argue, it was very high paying. But the truth is that a salary of under $325 a month is not very much. Our modern avaricious conscience would rebel against this inhumanity; but our initial repulsion might subdue with what I will now tell.
It has been the fortune of many of us to never have dealt with the misfortune of poverty. Even if some of us have endured the hardship of unemployment, most of us, I venture to say, have always had enough food on our tables. In this country many have to strive for a decent meal every day and sometimes circumstances are not in favor of poor families that battle just to survive. Our protagonist grew in a similar condition. His mother had to support his whole family because his father had become blind from an accident at a construction site after some deadly chemicals had fallen on his face. Her mother worked in middleclass homes as a maid and on weekends sold knitted sweaters at a street corner in San José. Having four brothers and a sister, they had a very harsh time growing up. One brother ran away when he was twelve, the remaining three had to drop school to help their mother earn a living. Our friend never reached beyond third grade. It was clear from his expression that his early years were tremendously hard, yet I could perceive a certain satisfaction in his eyes. I assume he is now proud that they survived those tumultuous years.
As a young adult he carried out many different kinds of jobs. He didn’t go too much into detail but he had enough to live on and support his family until the unavoidable crossed his path. He had gone out one night to a salsa/merengue club. Never having a radio or TV at home he grew up unfamiliar with the dexterous moves of Latin dance although he enjoyed greatly listening to the music. (He jiggled his rusty hips, I laughed). He would envy every corrongo male that would sweep women by their dance abilities. That night he was drinking a cold Tropical, a new beer that had just been released in the market by Cuban entrepreneurs, although he hardly had the habit of drinking beer. Eased by the alcohol, he ventured to take out a girl to dance. If it wasn’t for those beers, I would have never asked Yelena out for a dance– he commented. Not very romantic, I know. There’s a common misperception that we Latinos are all desperate romantics. They got married next year and started raising a family. His wife’s father had been working as an administrative director in a bus company and the rest seems logical.
I didn’t dare to ask him why he settled for that simple position. True, it’s a higher position than being a bus driver but also very monotonous. However, when I was just about to bid him goodbye, in an unusual expansion of lucidity, he reflects on his humble circumstances and pronounces thoughts that have answered my tacit doubts:
“No puedo culpar mi familia, mi cultura, mi sociedad, mi país, ni la civilización mundial actual. Mi vida fue la consecuencia de una sencilla decisión: vivir sin la ambición de conocer otros continentes o poseer una abundancia de posesiones. Yo viví así y declaro sin arrepentimiento mi total conformidad con la rutina y singular angostura de mi vida. Me conformo con ser el señor que trabajó 35 años en la misma parada de bus, repitiendo la misma labor día tras día, arruga tras arruga, sin la ambición de buscar algo más que tener la comida en mi hogar mientras veía mis hijos crecer.”
This can be roughly translated thus:
I cannot blame my family, my culture, my society, my country, or this modern civilization. My life was the consequence of a simple decision: living without the ambition of knowing other continents or having great material wealth. I lived this way and I affirm without regret my complete conformity with my routine and singularly narrow lifestyle. I’m comfortable being that man that worked for 35 years at the same bus stop, repeating the same activity day after day, wrinkle after wrinkle, without having the ambition to look beyond the meal of each day while I saw my children grow up.