how to find out who your friends are, pt. 1: make a mistake

23 November 2011 § Leave a comment

Last night I walked home from Universidad Veritas with every intention of returning after I’d eaten a bit of dinner and thought some more on my NaNoWriMo novel. It’s getting to be a strain, and right now I’m five thousand words behind because I didn’t write all weekend.

I have a good excuse though, and the dog didn’t eat my hard drive. I went to Nicaragua with Eli, which has been in the plans for months, since we arrived actually, and three days in Grenada and touring Masaya and Catarina paid us life in spades: we were pulled out of a taxi in Masaya during el Torovenado, in which dancers dress in traditional, self-made costumes depicting whomever they’d like to ridicule (politicians, death, negative people (represented by vultures)), complete with mascaras, masks, so we’re not supposed to know that the six-and-a-half foot tall woman is actually just a very large man in an elegant dress. Our driver, Mario, made a comment later, about some very pretty-looking, swaggered guys at the desfiles (parade) in Catarina – ” son mujeres falsos.” It was fitting enough.

Some things are funnier when they’re lost in translation. Humility, for example, because a person might not have the vocabulary to be polite. Let them have it, and don’t take it personally.

On my way home last night, I ran into my tico friends at el Chainis, the white restaurant and bar that doesn’t look like a restaurant or a bar until you walk in – and even then, the blank walls make it seem like you’re in the back kitchen of a large restaurant, complete with uncomfortable lawn chairs to give it some ambience. I had to apologize to Jose and Dennis because we’d planned to go to Playa Hermosa on Monday to go surfing. I had been in Nicaragua, or at least on my way back, on Monday, and my cell phone didn’t work outside of Costa Rica, so I couldn’t call him. It was fine; they hadn’t been able to go anyway.

The apology turned into taking turns buying beers for each other, which is one of the great gestures of friendship of the world (or so I’ve come to learn), and soon the group of us, five in total, made the ardous two-minute walk back to my house so we could play some music. Mel and I talk about metal whenever we’re around one another, because it’s an easy ground to meet on, because we both love it more or less (though I figured out this morning that I have become the enigmatic metalhead who loves the underground but no longer dresses the part, so when I mention a band like Xasthur, Belphegor, Finntroll, or Carcass, it’s comng from a relatively cleancut, ocassionally well-dressed guy who probably looks like he listens to Fiona Apple and Jack Johnson on his iPod while working out at the gym (they’re good too, but please, no plastic workouts for me). So it’s kind of strange. But that’s okay, because we’re an odd group of storied miscreants and respectable professionals who gather on sidewalks to drink and talk about politics and supposedly justified cultural profiling in languages we’re mediocre in, at best. 

I had left my backpack on the outside bar at the Chainis, and I realized this about twenty minutes after the small gathering at my house began. I booked it back to the bar, a thirty second run away, and of course the bag was gone. Middle of the night in San Jose, a place where it’s well advised to not walk alone after six p.m., and there I am getting all comfortable in my surroundings.

Two homeless guys who frequent the corner (they’re twins, I think. and both speak in mumbled madness) were cozied up in the corner where the guys and I had been standing, so of course I asked them where my bag was. I didn’t want to make a scene or assume, but I did try to be a little sharp in case they had indeed taken it. (It is Amazing how proficient one’s language skills become when they absolutely must be used). they insisted they hadn’t, and moved around their carbboard-laden stuff to demonstrate they didn’t have it. After a reasonable search, I believed them. I asked around, to the people who were still near the bar, I asked Bruce, the owner of el Chainis, who thinks that a yellow awning does a restaurant make. Nothing.

The guys and I reconvened. They called my phone, which is always on a very low volume setting, so even a thief wouldn’t have heard it unless he was looking at the phone when it rang. They interviewed everyone I’d talked to, in much better Spanish than mine, and while I was at the house cursing myself for losing yet another notebook and shotgunning a beer, they prowled the small neighborhood for answers.

Eventually, the woman who lives next to the bar came out to see what all the noise was about. They asked her in passing if she’d seen my bag. They pointed at me. I was in the process of accepting that it was gone. Again. Fourth time this year. I saw her, walked across the circle we’d created around her and asked, as best I could, if she’d seen it, that I was an idiot and left it here earlier. She smiled at me, reached behind her door, and right when all my hope was gone, she showed us all my pathetic looking backpack, complete with sharpied-out REI logos and elastic string wrapped on the outside for who-knows-what.

After the initial thank yous and muchisima graciases, the invitation for her to party with us, et. al., we went back to the house, accomplished, relieved, and I had the distinct feeling that something very important had just happened. These guys have no obligation to me; I am a temporary US American, studying in their country just long enough to get a taste of their culture, and then go home to my comfort zone, where I can buy things I don’t need and sit on my expensive couch and watch TV until my eyes melt into KFC-scented pus onto the carpet (oh, how I miss a soft carpeted floor!).

I would argue that such is not me, but what reason have I, especially after that ridiculous presentation on social identity theory I’d done earlier for Joaquin’s class, to think they’d have any higher an opinion of me? (What started as an overview on a chapter about Social Identity, Intergroup Attribution, and social biases turned into a preachy rant about how to eliminate prejudices by doing this and that. I felt like no one was listening, so I resorted to my empassioned idealism, which usually makes some impression in private conversation, if not for its logic then for its naivete, and the class responded, trying to keep up, or trying to make sense of what I was saying, or something. A simple Thank You ended the humiliation (and sheer exhilaration of speaking my mind in front of a group of people), and I bowed out of the classsroom with unprecedented swiftness.)

Jose made sure with me later on, after a few more beers and a liquor that tasted more like licorice than even Jaegermeister, that I knew that it was my own mistake that caused the mess earlier. I knew it, and freely admitted it. Jose has a way of philosophizing in English with a limited vocabulary and obvious insecurity about not knowing the words he’s looking for which is endearing and frustrating at the same time. I’d like to match him idea for idea, but I have the same problems with my Spanish (except, of course, if I think you took my backpack).

My mistake, yes. And they went far out of their way, determined to repair it, to help me out. Friends like that, at least in my narrow slice of twenty-five years on earth, are rare.

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