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.