It is sometimes discouraging when I see the places these kids have to play in. Most of the time they play in the street, on rocks and gravel with the stream of gray water trickling by. Someone will fall over a piece of protruding cement, or trip on a spike of rebar jutting out of the ground. The worst thing to gash yourself on, though, are the mangled corners of the sheet metal on the walls, or a protruding nail. There aren’t any real “parks” in La Carpio, nor any “public” places, except the streets, and one cement court walled by a chain link fence over by the garbage dump.
On July 25th, the Dia de la Anexión de Guanecaste, I left work about a half-hour early since it is a national holiday for the rest of the country. I was working on editing some photos of my boss’s daughter’s quinceniera. I should mention, or I will probably describe in more detail later, that the entire time I’m living in La Carpio I spend all of my weekdays doing normal office work and attending events, meetings, parties, weddings, and celebrations that contrast quite starkly to the material poverty I return to each evening. It takes quite a toll on me, but I figure if these two worlds coexist so closely, it should be humanly bearable to span between them each day. It’s bearable, unfortunately. We learn to tolerate it all too easily without too many pangs of conscience. Spending all your time in an affluent context, or all your time in a poorer context, doesn’t often confront you with the gap between the two. We acclimate to our surroundings. What is miserable, discouraging, and heartbreaking is moving between the two extremes. Every. Day. But even to this one can become acclimated.
Tonight, I notice that little Britani has a splotch of white plaster-looking paste on her arm. She cut herself on the “zinc”, she explains (pronounced “seen”, the sheets of corrugated metal used to construct the walls and ceilings of our home). A few days earlier, following a conversation about various gruesome cuts and punctures the kids got from nails and the metal sheets, I considered doing an entire investigation of scars and where they’d come from. Alicia peeled part of her scalp off on a corner of zinc when she jumped onto the couch. Carlos had a nail go through his foot, and their cousin Melvin came in limping from the same fate a few days ago. Keyvin caught his calf on a nail and it tore a pretty nasty chunk off, causing a pretty gruesome infection that still hadn’t completely cleared up. Lorna stepped in a fire and her toes healed in a sort of contorted way. She has the most gruesome stories, they tell me.
One day, Daniela suddenly explained to me the importance of washing off any food or stickiness from your body before going to bed. The reason is because rats will come nibble it and lick it while you’re asleep. She and her daughter, Britani, show me dark scars on their skin where rats have bitten them at night. I thought I had made peace with the mice squeaking and scratching around under my bed in the morning by ignoring them, but this new insight makes me extremely uneasy. My journal is punctuated with short anecdotes about rats getting into snacks I’d stored, or into my soap, which seemed to be a favorite. I learned early on that I couldn’t store soap or food in my room, but I tried anyways sometimes. They chewed through the plastic containers and through the canvas walls of my duffelbag to get at them. The presence of rats in the house wasn’t really upsetting to anyone; they would occasionally run through the room into the kitchen while we were watching TV. No one exclaimed. They explained that once they could realize their dream of building block walls instead of the metal ones they currently have, that would keep the rats out. Until then, food had to be stored in firmly closed cupboards or hung from the ceiling in bags or containers.
This is probably the reason they found me a bed that sits higher off the floor as soon as possible. Had I heard the stories of mice that nibble skin at night or cockroaches that borough in one’s ears and have to be surgically removed, I never would have settled for the pathetic little excuse for a bed that someone with good intentions lent me to use when I first moved in. That low-lying bed is only useful in a house with block walls and tile floors, that rats and creepy-crawlies can’t get in and out of. I had much fewer incidents with the bed the family found me that was higher off the floor.