A Random Conversation with a Writer

journal

One of my favorite spots in D.C. is a bookstore/restaurant called Kramerbooks. It’s several of my favorite things, all wrapped into one: books, beer, and food. Recently, I was there reading, and writing. I had picked up my journal and began to write about a personal matter. The words flowed out well, and as I articulated my thoughts on this matter, a white haired man sat on the stool next to me and lightly tapped my arm, “Are you a writer?” he asked.

It was one of those moments I could claim to be anything, and since I have had a small blurb published in The Lutheran Magazine a few years back, I suppose technically, yes I am a writer. I have this blog, I have my stacks of journals, but I felt particularly inclined to say yes to this man.

“Yeah, but this is just my personal journal” I replied.

He began to fill me in on his life, offering to buy me another drink. Before he showed up I had told myself I wasn’t going to buy another drink, but since he offered, and I figured I was interested enough in this random conversation, I agreed.

Turns out this man has led an interesting life, and though has loved writing his whole life, only recently has been a published author. When he first showed up I could tell he had a few drinks somewhere else first, and it became very apparent the second time he pulled out a business card and explained in the same words the subject of his book. I just smiled and took the card.

There were a few moments he asked about my life. For some reason I wasn’t sure what to say, but that was alright, because I didn’t have to say much before his tipsy mood wandered into another story from his life. I was less enthused when he wandered away from his story and onto politics.

Nuggets of wisdom were peppered into his story. “Don’t give up” was one of them. At this point in my life it is not one of my aspirations to be a published writer—someday in the future maybe, but not now, and it’s not a goal I need to work on yet. I’m content with this blog, with my photography, and my journal. Perhaps in the future I’ll write about my travels (or something else…), but what makes those interesting enough to be published? When I figure that out, I’ll go for it.

Hearing stories from people who are in a different stage in life calls me back to a reality that is grounded in this: Enjoy life now, follow my dreams, and know that there are many years ahead in this life to keep dreaming and enjoying and doing many different things.

Cheers, wherever you are. Sorry, I’m not going to be buying 5,000 copies of your book.

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Heimweh

Heimweh: the German word for homesickness.  Every so often I experience heimweh for Germany.  Knowing I cannot recreate that experience, I still pine for elements of that life—the beauty of an old city, the pealing of church bells, the refreshing taste of a German hefeweisen…

I’m sure I could write an entry on what I experienced in Germany and why it’s meaningful to me, or what parts of the life live on in me.  For now, I’m thrilled by the German national football team advancing to the semi-finals in the World Cup and am now feeling homesick.

This photo is what happens in Germany when they win.  I took this immediately following the Germany 1-0 win over South Korea in the semi-final match (They lost the final to Brazil) in 2002.  Chaos. And this is in a relatively small town. With the complex past of WWII in their recent memory, the German people aren’t so big on flag-waving patriotism—unless it is about the world cup.  This deep love and pride is something not yet experienced in the US for our soccer team.

German media reports that 400,000 people gathered in Berlin to publicly watch the most recent world cup game (4-0 win over Argentina), and they partied all day.  Since I don’t have time to scan this photo properly, I took a picture of the original print. Sometimes I am homesick for this….

An Ordination

A quick story for today:  One of the first experiences I had in Costa Rica was an ordination at Iglesia Luterana Sola Fe, the church I lived two doors down from.  My second full day in the country was spent at two church services, one being an ordination.  The ordination was one of the many unexpected moments of grace during my time there.  Leonel, the ordained one, is a compassionate man who also does a prison ministry. I am grateful to have been present at this a special occasion.
laying hands on leonel

Nicaragua: War, Coffee, and Fair Trade

13_01_10_IMG_0996Riding in the back of the truck bed, I stared at surrounding landscape.  My grip on the top of the truck was tight as we drove over what passes for a road on Ometepe, an island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua.  As we passed jungle, banana trees, small villages where women cook over woodsmoke, and around the island’s two volcanoes—Conception and Maderas—I suddenly wondered what life might have been like during the war.  Nicaragua’s recent past tells a sad story of dictators, revolution, counter-revolution, and continued poverty.  What stories are there to tell?  Passing through the jungle in peacetime still brought sadness.

I’m not writing a history lesson, but it would be worth your time to reflect on the disastrous results of US foreign policy in the 1980’s that is only self-interested in abolishing whatever is deemed as a threat to US security.  Small Nicaragua, poor Nicaragua—labelled this or that and a worldview was thrust upon a people already in struggle. Somehow, millions of dollars were secretly and overtly donated to a war in this country, so far from the dominating culture, the vast landmass and wealth of the USA.  How many US citizens knew the life of an average Nicaraguan?  What is the face of socialism/communism/capitalism?  Today many of the people in Nicaragua struggle against tuberculosis, parasites, and respiratory problems (caused from open fires for cooking).  Corruption in the government, and 45% live on less than $2 per day…this is a reality.

Ometepe is beautiful, and it is also a remote corner of the country.  Electricity is still new to parts of the island.  Though not in the central area of the war, I imagined anyway…eyes closed, I transcended time.  What would it be like to be on my way to somewhere and have the constant fear of being blown away by mines, or attacked by contras?  My imagination wasn’t even enough to address that terrible reality of war.

Back into the present, I held tight until the destination, an organic coffee farm.  So, yes, there are good stories to tell. North Americans, when you purchase that expensive cup of fair trade coffee, know that you are effecting change.  No, I’m not being trite.  The fair trade concept has been out there, and perhaps you subscribe, and buy that coffee. But personal experience adds power my words, and my personal experience is this: Organic and fair trade products are not a political issue—it is a healthier way of life for all.

This good story is about a small collective called Finca Magdalena, who happen to export some of their coffee to an organization on Bainbridge Island, WA (fairly traded).  If you want to read a success story, read their history.

Below is a photo from my tour at Finca Magdalena.

At Finca Magdalena

Waterfall Adventure

07_01_10_IMG_0751One of the few tourist-type adventures of my month in Costa Rica was spent at a waterfall (the name escapes me, and I am too lazy to google research to find out).  In the great Pacific Northwest US, there are many mountains, high snow-covered volcanoes, a rain forest, and waterfalls.  So in a manner of speaking, this waterfall was not new to me.  It was however, incredibly beautiful.

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The visiting students from Susquehanna University immersion group were on their way to Nicaragua, and I along with them.  On January 7th we left the sprawling city of San Jose and moved along the Pan-American highway.  We traveled by bus down a steep dirt road and then walked a mile or so to get to the two waterfalls. Although it is possible to swim all the way under the falls, I opted to bring my camera, and she ain’t waterproof.

Not wanting to play it safe on the shore because I enjoy a good adventure, I carefully waded through knee-deep rushing water and large boulders to position myself as close as possible to the stream of fresh water cascading from high above.  My 8-year old Teva sandals are barely in tact, but held together for my risky aqua-adventure.

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Water sprayed on my lens as I quickly framed and punched off some shots, day-dreaming that maybe someday I’d crouch for hours in a similar place on assignment for National Geographic.  Back in reality, I snapped a group photo and hid my camera under the protection of my shirt to spy another prime location for a photo.

Accustomed to hiking with my camera slung over my shoulder, I easily scrambled up a boulder on the side of the waterfall without shelter from the misty spray water everywhere.  No one else was near me, but that didn’t matter.  I set the aperture and shutter speed to what I approximated to be a good setting and I held out the camera to shoot one of myself with waterfall in the backdrop.  I had to take 2 or 3 shots, but the final turned out rather well, if I do say so myself.  I also captured a lovely shot of the mist hanging in the hot afternoon air with sun shining through the trees.

Amazing.  Costa Rica…¡pura vida!
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Life in the Barrio

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Tucked away along a dirt road in the San Sebastián district of Costa Rica’s capital San José, this small barrio was my home for most of January (all except the week I spent in Nicaragua). The green door to the left is the church, Iglesia Luterana Sola Fe and behind the view to the camera to the left is the house where I lived.  These interconnected shelters constructed of scrap metal were the homes to the Nicaraguan immigrants who extended their welcome to me, sharing their lives and their faith.

What shall I say? In the short time I have been back in the United States, I have been searching for the right words to describe this place (the people, sights, sounds, and smells), a daily reality so far from the hurried and independent culture of my own country.  Life in the barrio is beautiful and difficult, simple and complex.  I was in Costa Rica for only a month, nevertheless I gained so much from that short duration.  Often embarrassed at my lack of spanish language skills, I was limited in effective communication.  However, I managed to share life, laugh, play, and gain community among the people who live there.

Every morning I ate gallo pinto (rice and beans fried together), fresh tortillas, cheese, fried plantains, bread, sometimes meat and/or eggs, and always coffee.  Costa Rican coffee is strong and earthy yet not bitter like some of the roasts I taste here in the States.  I cannot recall a day I did not have rice, beans and coffee at least once a day (sometimes rice and beans for all three meals) throughout the whole month.  These are staple foods in Central America, and it is a filling and inexpensive meal.

The door at my host family’s home was open throughout the day as friends, family, and neighborhood children were welcome to drop in. Children, out of school for the summer, ran up and down the alley.  Together we kicked a soccer ball, batted around a balloon, and chased each other to pass the time.

The roosters started cock-a-doodle-doo-ing before 5:00am, and the sun consistently rose at 6:00am.  Welcome to life near the euqator—near consistent sunrise and sunset times throughout the year.  The perpetual sunshine of January is the highlight of the dry season, and the summer break for schools. Popular North American Christian spirituality of seasonal change is ineffective in this land of wet and dry seasons.

Since a sheet of metal separated one neighbor from another, noise was all around.  It was an adjustment for this introverted gringa used to an abundance of private space.  I heard the neighbors playing their stereo early in the morning, and I heard the soft patter of the hands of my host mother making fresh tortillas downstairs.  At night I heard barking dogs, cats mating, and the distant hum of traffic  through the open air on the other side of the bookshelves that separated my bed from the rest of the room.

This is but a slice of my life in Costa Rica. I will continue to write in small chunks as I continue to process my memories and what they might mean for my life now.  There are so many little details in addition to reflections—so much can happen in 34 days.  Stay tuned.

¿Which language hablo ich, eigentlich?

Or: Why I didn’t learn to speak spanish in Costa Rica

While I spent a month in Central America, I can not yet speak spanish.  Learning by immersion is the best way to absorb and speak a language.  However, there are several reasons for my stunted skills en español.  The first one being lack of time to study before I left—less than six months between the time plans were made and departure date.

My feeble attempt to teach myself with a few audio resources, a dictionary and a workbook failed to produce adequate results.  Added to an already stressful personal life, I also ran two full marathons and moved across town all in a matter of seven days in the fall.  An amazing accomplishment for sure, but it set me backwards from learning another language.

In Costa Rica, aside from the fact that I fulfilled many roles but was not enrolled in a language course, there were two major stumbling blocks to learning and understanding Spanish: the loss of hearing in my right ear and…..German.  Yes, that’s right, that pesky harsh sounding language impeded my learning process.  Ach!

I was aware that the tumor around my right ear canal would hinder my ability to understand people.  Some days it is difficult to hear spoken english, so of course a foreign tongue would be even worse.  Background noise made it near impossible at times to hear what was being said.  I only wish I were clever enough to learn the words, “I don’t hear very well”.

However, I somehow managed to emerge understanding a fair amount of words and conversations.  Although I was not able to participate or respond, I often had a basic idea of what was said.  The process was tiring, because I strained to hear words I knew, then tried to figure out the meaning of words I didn’t know given the context, thus creating a delay between the time something was spoken to the time I decided I understood or not.

Anyway, the funnier of my stumbling blocks was my proficiency in the German language.  Because my brain is used to switching readily between German and English that is where my instincts instantly jumped.  It messed with my memory and occasionally I uttered half German half Spanish sentences that probably made no sense to my host family.  At least we were able to gesture and smile a lot.

My favorite mishaps were these:

Counting to five became difficult when I said to myself, “uno, dos, tres, cuatro…cuatro…fünf.  With my hand spread out I looked at it puzzled.  No, it’s not fünf.  You know, that number that comes after cuatro….After 10 seconds the data was finally accessed and I was able to say with gusto, “ahhh, cinco!”  Seriously, I’ve known how to count to 10 in spanish for a long time, but the wires continually got crossed.

I also said “nee, nee” (pronounced nay)  all the time, another way to say no in German, when “no” is one of those words that English and Spanish share.  Really.

The mixed prhases were fun too:  “Una hora ist genug”, “Ja, aber muy consado”, and just last week I responded to someone who had asked how long I’d been in Costa Rica with, “treinta Tages”, knowing with certainty that “dias” are days.

While the explanation seems funny, my perfectionist personality was at times frustrated and embarrassed.  It is a difficult thing to attempt to communicate and fail, for I did not want to appear less intelligent that I know I am to be.  I was afraid because too many people in the States assume that picking up the nuances of another culture and language are so easy that they impose this belief on foreigners and hold it against them when they lack the finesse of a native speaker.  This attitude is magnified in Eastern Washington state where I grew up, where people write letters to the editor advocating to cease teaching Spanish in schools and that Spanish shouldn’t be spoken in “America”.  Sigh.

Nevertheless, I have the skills for a solid base.  When I am able to speak Spanish, the skills I picked up in Costa Rica will be valuable in the future, especially if a situation ever calls for a translator.