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To Infinity and Beyond!

It’s as if my feelings can flip on a dime. Last week La Carpio was on the news as the target for the major operativo that crawled through our streets in the early morning hours. This week, our La Carpio kids are on the news for their awesome progress in the Talento Digital program at the Omar Dengo Foundation.

This morning Jags and I went to a big press release they had at the Omar Dengo Foundation. Jags, our three students, and I attended along with mediators from other San Jose neighborhoods. Greyvin was chosen out of all of the students to showcase his project on a huge flat panel screen so everyone could see. He made changes to it as everyone watched, too. Unfortunately, the news cameras had already got their B-roll and walked out. However, Greyvin and his project were front and center.

I can’t help but feel a little pride and satisfaction for seeing him there wowing people with his project, for his interest, curiosity, and reckless inquisitiveness into anything relating to computers and programming. It’s very exhilerating to feel like I played some small part in that. The project he created was called “Carrera para plata,” and I felt even more proud when I recognized the plot from an idea he had three years ago,when we first started programming Scratch projects. The game consists of a race where the kid has to win a car race to get money to pay for medicine for his gramma. If he looses the race, Greyvin put a horrible scene of the gramma dying in bed and mom screaming. If he wins, Gramma gets better and everything is good. Very clever. 3D perspective game. Looked awesome on the big screen. Like I said… wow, I can’t get over how far he’s come. And what a feeling of satisfaction and reward it was for me to see him where he’s at. Do other people get days like this in missions work? How often do we see our disciples get outside recognition for what they do? So affirming. And yes, I think he feels it too. He had tons of questions for me about his project last week.

Our kids are wanted, but for different things. Greyvin is “wanted” by the technician installing the school network in Finca La Caja school, by neighbors and family wanting computer help, by local ministries assembling new computers for the training centers, by Omar Dengo for his awesome project. Our kids get La Carpio get onto the news, too… but for good things, like Nacho’s mug on the article about digital talent.

Small notes for today:

  • tonight I wash my hands before going to bed. Daniella and Britani showed me scars where rats had bit them at night. Daniella tells me to wash your hands and any food off your body because when the rat smells it they nibble on it. Dear God that’s not cool.
  • Axel tells me the mona will come after me at 2AM because of the cross necklace I wear. She will take off my head right above the necklace.
  • Conversation with Junior on the bus. He likes living in La Carpio. La Cuarta, where we live, scares him, though. I recall when Massiel and Juri compared La Carpio to other areas on our way to church. They are impressed by the parks. But they like living in La Carpio. They prefer it and don’t want to leave. “Because you can play with cars” (by this they mean jump on the backs of vehicles for a free ride). Because you can shoot off fireworks in the street. You can do what you want. Odd reasons, I feel. However, there is something to the fact that people outside the ghetto don’t experience “true” freedom. They are trapped in certain ways of living and whatnot. They’re very restricted in how they live, through all sorts of formal (and informal) limitations. Don’t know how good or bad that is, but I doubt they realize it and it’s not often talked about.
  • Riding the bus makes life really difficult. It makes carrying stuff risky. One can only carry a few items at a time. It’s very time-consuming. Finding a new place can take several hours. It’s hard to deviate from your route. You can fit less into your schedule and it requires a major detour, and long amounts of time. Getting a ride or driving is SO much easier.

Operativo – The Raid

I wasn’t surprised to be present when a full-blown “operative” was executed against our barrio on June 30th. What was surprising was how normal it seemed to everyone around me.

An “operativo” or redada (raid or operative) is when the OIJ (FBI equivalent), law enforcement dressed like SWAT, pour into every nook and cranny of the neighborhood and arrest a list of targeted criminals. The operativo is executed by special forces uniformed in black with helmets, masks, black stockings covering their faces, and toting high-caliber weaponry. The newspapers later reported that 13 minors and 9 adults were detained, and there was no resistance.

The raid began at 4.A.M., when I remember waking up to the rushed patter of feet running past on the dirt road outside my bedroom. I went back to sleep not thinking anything of it, because there are always noises of people or animals moving in the street outside my bedroom.

When I stumbled out of my bedroom a couple hours later, everyone was at the entrance to the house peering up and down the street. There are a lot of early risers in La Carpio leaving early for work or school, which generates a lot of bustle in the morning hours, even before sunrise. However, this morning there are visitors in uniform and cars with tinted windows rolling slowly up and down the street in front of our house. Four uniformed motorcycle police perched on the corner, with curious kids sitting around them and watching from the curb. My host brother squatted in front of the pulperia (house-store) and played with his yo-yo-top in the dirt around the policemen so he could watch the event unfold. People peered from doorways to witness the spectacle in case anything dramatic happened, but nothing abrupt broke out. Probably the more sensational entries had been conducted early in the morning and we were currently witnessing minor interrogations and searches.

I watched for a while and listened to the commentary of the people in the home, recounting how family members had narrowly escaped being questioned or ID’d. At this point, the exits to the main road were blocked by police tape and OIJ officers checking ID’s. Nobody made it through without being ID’d and searched – not people on the way to work, not teachers, not even kids in school uniform with backpacks. The family watched and lightly ridiculed students that ascended the hill to the main road, and then returned because they had no I.D. Estaci, my 10-year-old host sister, tried to make it through later that day but was turned around, and took a long side route through other parts of the barrio to get to class.

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First morning

June 10, 2012: 6:05 A.M.

The first alarm I hear and rustle of activity in the home awoke me at 4:50 A.M. The half-dozen nail holes in the corrugated steel wall become pinpricks of gray. There is no direct sunlight yet, but the sky is gray and the light coming through the nail holes forms an interesting constellation on the street-side of my bedroom.

The cocks on the other side of the tin wall have been crowing since 3:30 A.M. It sounds as if they are in the room with me, along with the shuffle of feet passing by in the street outside. I later learn that they are fighting cocks for the gallera (cockfighting ring) that draws a rowdy crowd to the ring by our home the first Saturday of every month.

The light to the kitchen is on (it is never turned off), and its light spreads throughout the house over the rafters made of wood scraps and draped with spider webs. Our rooms are separated by wooden partitions about 10 feet high… above that is an open space so light and sound travels between everyone’s bedrooms quite easily. Nanci’s wailing and Coyol’s persistent moaning ensure that sleeping in will not be an option. Nanci will be turning 1 year old in a few months, and Coyol will be getting a customized wheelchair to begin holding his contorted body in place. Gramma Vicki yells from her room over to her daughter’s to give the wailing child a pacifier.

Someone has begun bathing, and I strive to hear how many buckets of water they toss over themselves so I don’t use too much. Water enters the home through two spigots, neither of them in the bathrooms or kitchen. From those two locations, one of which is right next to the grounding wire that enters the home diagonally from the power-pole outside, the water is routed to other parts of the home by hoses that are connected and disconnected throughout the day. We only receive water for certain periods of time during the day, so one of the most important morning tasks is to fill the 50-gallon blue plastic drums for use during the day. There is no running water in the “bathroom”, a 6-foot square section of the house that is perpetually dark, dank, and wet. The bathroom contains one of the two 50-gallon drums that is used to dump skillfully into the toilet to flush it. It is also used to toss over oneself to bathe in the morning. I hear about 15-20 bowl-fulls. No one will explain to me how to do obvious things like take a shower or turn off the water spigot, so I have to observe even the most simple things to figure out how things are done. It isn’t until 5 months later that I finally learn why the handle of the spigot is always tied shut with a shoestring.

The corrugated steel walls of the house are completely light-proof, and there are no windows. The only light that peeps into my room in the early morning is the bright golden circles of light irregularly pocking the wall furthest from the street. These perfectly circular bubbles of light are created by the morning sunlight piercing through the nailholes in the patchwork of steel sheets making up my wall. I lay awake in the mornings sometimes, fascinated by these bright spots of light dappling my wall. Part of my fascination is the thin sliver of light the sunbeam forms through the glittering fibers of dust in the air. Each pinprick of light where a removed nail has left a hole leaks an unnaturally straight beam of sunlight across my room to form small yellow bubbles of light on the far wall, about two inches in diameter.

Someone has gotten up and turned on the TV on low. Two of the kids have school at 7:30 A.M. They are back before the other group leaves at 10:00 A.M. And the final school session is at about 2:00 P.M. There are 8 school-aged kids in this household, and it will take me months and dozens of pages of notes before I finally figure out how their school schedule and attendance works. I finally decide to interview one of the mothers each day for a month in order to figure out who goes to school and when. There are three “jornadas” or “sessions” of about 3 1/2 hours, each day, in order to service the huge population of kids in La Carpio. At exactly the time when I finally get all the children’s schedules figured out, they will completely rearrange it the next week.

There are 19 people in this home, which is divided into two family living sections, each section on either side of the “carport”, which includes the bathroom. There are 8 people in Daniella’s family on the other side of the carport, divided between two rooms. Each room is some 16 feet squared, roughly. Our section of the home has 11 people, four in the room next to me, three in the other room next to me, two girls in a space just large enough for their bunkbed, and me with a room to myself.

I entertain myself by counting how many fragments of wood and metal make up my room. I count 34 panels/sections on the floor and walls, not counting the corrugated roof panels or rafters. One of the inner walls is a complete section, held up by a supporting beam which I realize is the vertical shard of a door. The hole for the knob contains some treasure that one of the kids who used to live in here left.

This “rancho” (shack?) will be my home for the next six months. Last night when I planned to move in, with a duffel-bag, knapsack, and box of books, I received a text message before I left my office that said “ud tiene cama” (you have bed). I thought that was very hospitable of them to let know I had a place to sleep. Turns out, the message was a question… “you have a bed?”. A few days ago I had visited the home and they had not yet constructed the room for me to live in. Rooms are modular, however, and they can be torn down and reconfigured in less than an hour. However, I had to ask around to find a bed contraption to sleep on. The one I was given was about 6 inches off the floor, which they allowed me to use but looked at disapprovingly. I would later discover small reasons with many legs and sometimes sharp teeth that convinced me that being so close to the floor was not a good idea. Before I had too many problems, though, they had already gotten me a higher bed that was quite cozy and high enough to keep the little animalitos beneath me most nights.

What seemed like a good idea in my head had now become a reality for the next six months. I had moved my stuff out of the other house I was living in. And now I would get a small taste of what life is like in La Cueva del Sapo, La Carpio, Costa Rica.

Burn that old year to the ground

It’s 1:05 A.M., January 1, 2011. I write this from a room in the home of Gramma Vicki, whose real name I finally learned after three years of knowing her.

The streets of La Carpio feel so different from where I live, only a 30 minute drive away by car. So many differences. So much to learn, so quickly. I am in the same country, of the same city, but it is like I’ve moved a world away. It really is, like a world apart.

Tonight, everyone is estrenando to the T. To “estrenar”, they explain to me, is to bust out your new clothes during Christmas, New Year’s, or on your birthday. People roaming the streets are very well dressed. Kids are wearing custom-made outfits to match, including their little sandals. Everyone is premiering their best clothes.

As I lay in this humble home propped up by shambles of wood and covered with a patchwork of rusted corrogated steel, I think back over the past year and somehow muster up the arrogance to demand from God an explanation. What, exactly, was the genius plan last year? There were a lot of deaths that year, more than I can count on one hand. These were not random, depersonalized deaths – they were felt deaths, felt by myself or people close to me whom I care for and love. An anguishing kick-off with the horrendous tragic earthquake in Haiti, followed by several sleepless nights and difficult months, and a renewed sense of powerlessness. Juan died in May, which was extremely hard on the family I lived with, and they lost another close friend a few months later. In August my gramma passed away, and just a a few weeks before writing this La Carpio lost a 16-year-old, Junior, from a home a few houses down the street. Quite frankly, I’m a little sick of it all. I realize sadly that in a laundry list of deaths up to this point in my life, my Gramma is the first person I’ve known to die of old age, of a natural cause, not of violence, freak accident, or sickness. God, I would like for this next year to bode better. No more people dying. It is sad, painful, exhausting, and quite disruptive. We’ve had a rough year, God. Many hard, heavy experiences. I’ve not let up. Neither have you.

Out in the street tonight I was privy to an interesting New Year’s tradition that will remain burned in my memory forever. A neighbor constructed a life-sized stuffed dummy, filled it with firecrackers, and doused it with gasoline. Similar life-sized dummies were stuffed up and hung on poles throughout the barrio. At midnight, amidst cheers, screeching fireworks, and explosions of light in the sky, they ignite the big dummies to celebrate the death of the old year. I watched in fascination as the life-sized, creepily human-looking stuffed dummy wilted, wheezed, and popped as it slumped slowly into a pile of smoldering embers. Kids screamed excitedly and leaped over flickering pile of flames, while the neighborhood looked on cheering and taking photos of the symbolic burning of the old year. Amidst an overwhelming sense of thrill and curiosity, I also felt a strong sense of finality, and closure. The good times and the bad times of the previous year go up in a blazing flame, leaving us nothing but smoldering ashes of memories and stories to leave behind as we transition into the new year, 2011, when many more tears and cheers await us.

The bizarre ritual feels appropriate as I record my thoughts tonight. The previous year can lie smoldering, popping, hissing, and wheezing on the ground, along with all the pain and suffering that accompanied it. New things are in store for 2011.

Pictures from the New Year’s celebration