Sunday, February 21, 2010

Estonian, the root language of Homo sapiens

(An international gathering of young people discussing important issues in Estonian.)

I made the most amazing discovery on this vacation to Costa Rica.  Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of playing poker at the Adelante Hotel with several locals, including four Estonians.  The Estonians built and run this particular hotel along the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica.  During the game, there was Spanish, English, and Estonian spoken interchangeably throughout the night.  After 4-5 hours and 5-6 rums I actually thought I was picking up on the lingo that is indigenous north of Latvia and south of Finland in the country called Estonia.

But then today, I was listening and trying to converse with my 2-year old grandson, who says some words an adult speaker of English would recognize, but mostly it is a hodge-podge of words and sounds that make no sense to me whatsoever.  He is obviously sure of what he is saying, and it is frustrating for him to get little or no reaction from most adults when he blathers.

My grandson was in the pool and I was sitting nearby when I decided to talk to him in unknown words to me, but what sounded to me a lot like the language I had listened to for hours at the Texas hold'em showdown at the Adelante.  To my surprise, my grandson lit up like a candle, began gesticulating to me from the pool, and vocalizing loudly, and had an expression on his face that said "finally, someone understands me". I believe he even winked knowingly at me, although at his age a gas-induced grimace looks about the same as a wink.  We jabbered back and forth for 5-10 minutes before it occurred to me.  He was speaking Estonian!

I had discovered the solution for which linguists had been searching for centuries.  All human babies, whether from Africa, or South America, or the Bronx are born speaking Estonian.  It is only after years of hearing the language of the country into which they are born that they forget the beautiful tongue that comes so naturally to them and they struggle to begin speaking French, or Russian, or English.  Estonian babies, of course, do not have to learn to switch to another language.  The young people I played poker with spoke at least three languages.  Of course they do, they did not have to start all over at age two by abandoning one language they already knew.

Did you ever wonder why babies enjoy the company of other babies so much?  They usually love going to some kind of child care and seeing others of their ilk.  It is because they can, at last, converse with someone in this world.  I am sure they talk over issues important to them about their home lives---whether they like strained peas or carrots, whether they need to wear those papery diapers as much as their parents think they do, or whether being the middle child is really so bad.  Just think if Estonians opened up child care centers all over the world.  There would be a flow of information between the adult and the baby generations the likes of which humans have never seen.  The only danger might be that non-Estonian babies would never want to give up the language that already works for them.  But perhaps, in time, seven billion people would be united under one language.

I think the solution to world peace, for achieving personal harmony in one's life, and for eliminating all sorts of interpersonal problems might be alleviated if we all learned to speak Estonian.  We would instantly find an ancient connection, and a personal familiarity, that goes back to the cradle or even the womb.  The world would be as one mass of contented 2-year olds who all speak the same language.  It would have to lead to a general feeling of well-being in the world.  Can you imagine a group of 2-year olds telling each other they are going to nuke Juan, or embargo Jana, or prevent Jane from joining the United Nations?  Of course not.  So get out that Rosetta Stone cd of the Estonian language and start studying for world peace, verb by conjugated verb.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Valentine's Day, Costa Rica!

(On our way to a recent Valentine's Day celebration.  Sometimes it just doesn't pay to dress for dinner.)

It was about as romantic a day as you could ever expect.  Yesterday was Valentine's Day, 2010, and my wife and I are in Costa Rica.  This is the only place I have ever been, other than my home in Ithaca, where I feel true homesickness when I am not here.  There is something special about the country that stays with you long after you leave, especially if you have experienced the richness that the place and the people have to offer.  Maybe there are dozens of other countries about which I could say the same if I knew them, but this is the place where I have a professional and a social history going back nearly 25 years.  I have memories of friends and family and habitats and organisms here that run wide and deep, and that is not easily duplicated in another place in a short lifetime.

In the morning, Robin and I met the guide from Southern Expeditions at Playa Pinuelas (pretend there is a squiggly accent over the "n", and pronounce accordingly) near Uvita.  We received our nautical instructions, along with four other couples, and we boarded the smallish skiff for our tour of Ballena Marine Park.  I awoke the night before almost regretting that I had agreed to this trip.  I am one of those who suffer from motion sickness; I don't have a pretty history of being on boats in the ocean.  Twice I went salmon fishing off the coast of Oregon years ago and I was the only one who got sick out of 20 passengers--both times.  I must be in the tail of the statistical distribution with respect to this particular affliction.  It is simply no fun vomiting for four hours in front of perfect strangers, and it is embarrassing.  I wanted to see this park, I needed to do it, I dreaded doing it, and I felt like a coward all at the same time.  It is like seeing a bare section of electrical cord leading from a wall outlet to your table lamp.  You just want to touch it to see if you get shocked.  And when you feel that ZAP!, you have your answer and you are good to go for another 20 years.

The skiff sped away from the beach and we headed for the open ocean to look for whales and dolphins.  I had tried medications before, and they never helped, so I didn't even bother this time.  I couldn't remember what the sailors advise to avoid sea sickness---watch the horizon, don't watch the horizon, focus on something in the boat rather than on the water.  I decided I would keep my eyes closed as much as I could.  With sunglasses on, no one would notice.  Even my wife, who was holding my hand, must have assumed that she and I were enjoying the same view of the ocean, and the sun, and the islands.  Wrong!  I wasn't seeing a thing.  From past experience, I would know soon enough if this was going to work, or if I was going to spoil the trip for that German couple who was sitting downwind of me.  Gott in Himmel, let this "eyes closed strategy" work.

I don't believe in the American god, but I guess the German god really exists, because an hour passed on the boat and I still felt fine.  I decided to open my eyes and look around.  Pretty nice.  We saw no marine mammals, but we did some snorkeling, looked at some sea caves, and learned something about coastal topography.  At the end, my wife was happy, I was happy, and the German couple sitting behind me was happier than they could have possibly realized.

But the creme de la creme was later that evening at the Villa Leonor, where I had made reservations for a Valentine's dinner.  The place is nothing fancy and, frankly, I wasn't expecting the evening to flip my wig.   The place is run by Cliff, an ex-pat from Colorado, and his tico wife Anna.  The original plan was for the guests to come at 5pm for drinks on the beach, and to watch the sunset.  Then, we would all retire to the open-air restaurant of theirs about 200 meters back from the beach for live music and dinner.  We had preordered our dinners the day before.  The formula was as romantic as one could construct on paper for this day of days for sweethearts.

But about an hour before we were to leave the house to go to the Villa, it started to rain, really, really hard.  It rained so hard that a large tree fell down near our house, knocking out the electricity for the next 12 hours.  But we had ordered our dinners already, and we thought we owed it to Cliff to show up for the food he had probably gotten in specially for this night.  We drove in a pounding rain to the place.  When we got to the parking lot, Cliff greeted us with an umbrella and escorted us into the bar area.  He obviously had to cancel the beach soiree (pretend there is an accent aigu over the first "e", and pronounce accordingly, but this is French, not Spanish, like the last word I provided instructions for).  Cliff brought us a complimentary cocktail, and we then realized that his electricity was also off.  About ten couples are coming for a rather elegant dinner on a special day and the guy has no electricity just as he is about to prepare a 3-course meal.

But Cliff is laughing and seems totally calm, and says something about making do when in Costa Rica, and my wife is trying to make him feel relaxed during a probable tense time like she usually does, which makes me feel less relaxed because her ruse is so obvious to me, because I have known her for so long and I have seen her do this a thousand times before.  Basically, Cliff's message was, "we have no electricity, so let's party".  Guests kept arriving, and we all sat around while it poured like the devil only a few feet away, and I could hear frogs calling in the rain under the eaves of the open structure with the thatched roof.  Candles were lit everywhere, and it was wonderful!  Cliff went around to each guest and asked them how they wanted their food cooked, not one person complained about anything, and the orders were sent to the kitchen.  Turns out they cook with gas, so the kitchen was lit up with flashlights and candles and they proceeded.

At about this point, a young man from San Isidro picked up his guitar and began to sing.  He continued for about two hours with a fantastic collection of old and new ballads, some in Spanish and some in English.  He was surprisingly good.  Our dinners came, the music continued, and about this time, the electricity came back on.  I realized that my first impulse was one of disappointment.  We were eating my candlelight before the power came back, not because we chose to attempt to strike a romantic mood, but because we had to eat by candlelight to see our food.  To me, that REALLY was romantic.  Cliff caught the change of mood immediately and turned off the incandescent lights that had just flickered on, and we continued almost seamlessly.

I don't consider myself a romantic, mushy kind of guy.  My wife says she would like me to be, but I doubt that really.  Last night's dinner was as romantic, in the fullest sense of the word, as it gets.  My wife did look fantastic, but it was so much more than that.  It was romantic because it could have turned completely sour if the attitudes in the room had been different, but they were not.  The ambiance was perfect, but not so much out of purposeful design, but because the guests and the restaurant staff went with the flow, improvised, laughed at the inconveniences, and were dissuaded from the idea that weather or power outages would keep us from enjoying the moment.  It was also romantic because Robin and I fully recognized the experience as yet another memorable Costa Rican evening that enfolded in a way not quite expected.  And OK, it was also romantic because we held hands for most of the night.  Some mush is allowed.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Fender-bender in Costa Rica

(Driving in San Jose can be hectic, but the dangers of driving in rural areas in Costa Rica are just as real.)

I stayed remarkably calm throughout the entire event; my wife was a bit less so.  When I saw that motorcyclist fly off his cycle onto the trunk of a parked car, my heart stopped for a minute.  I was turning right into a parking space without my turn signal on, he was passing me on the right, so there was plenty of blame to go around.  Fortunately, he was physically all right.  The damage was minimal, mostly lights on all vehicles concerned, but the official reporting took half a day.  We waited in the center of Uvita, a coastal Costa Rican town, until the police and an insurance guy from a town 90 minutes away arrived to fill out all the reports.  I was instructed by the transito that I could show up in court in Ciudad Cortez within eight days, but my car rental company told me that they will do that; that is why I signed all those papers when I got the Nissan 4x4 on day 1.

After all these years of driving in my favorite country, it finally happened.  Nice that it didn't occur during one of those times when I was driving over the Cerro de la Muerte in the dark, in the fog, with trucks passing on blind curves, with a thousand feet of drop off the side.  That would have ruined my year.  I guess this is why I have never been a fan of cars or of driving.  I learned at an early age how these machines can change your life forever.

When a fender-bender happens in the states, it is inconvenient, but it is really not that big of a deal.  If your vehicle is undrivable, we take it to the shop and we get around some other way for a while.  We take a cab or a bus or our neighbor who has a car delivers us where we need to go.  Heck, most of us have a second car anyway, so we use that one until the first one is repaired.  But in places like Costa Rica, it is a big deal to have your only mode of transportation down.  Bus transport in the capital is great, but not out here in the boonies.  Most ticos do not own a car or truck, some have a motocycle or a bike, and most walk nearly everywhere.  So this guy who richoched off my rental car will not be able to drive his moto until he gets the money to fix it properly.  Life gets instantly more difficult---to get to work, to get to market, to conduct business at the bank. (He will apparently receive insurance money, but it will take months.  I will have to pay for damages to the rental car up to the deductible amount.)

You could gauge how important this incident was in the daily life of a tico because of all the locals who stopped by to get the story.  The cyclist must have described his version of what happened a dozen times to friends and relatives while we waited for the authorities.  When gringos passed by, they barely noticed.  I didn't get to explain to anyone what happened.  There was an American eyewitness, however, who was drinking coffee only a few feet in front of where the accident occurred.  Terri Peterson gladly came to my rescue and volunteered to be a witness, if necessary.  Turns out she runs eco-tours from the southern part of the country, so this is my chance to give her a plug.  But from the crowd of ticos, you would have thought there were 2-3 bodies lying on the pavement instead of some pieces of broken glass and plastic.  Fortunately, the owner of the parked car was a guy named Eddie that I had just met 15 minutes before at the nearby gas station.  He had lived in the states for 16 years, so he served as my interpreter with authorities.  My Spanish is perfectly fine in a bar or restaurant, but explaining a car accident to the police is another matter.  All in all, I guess it made for an interesting morning for Uvitans.

In the mid-80s, we lived in a mountaintop village in Costa Rica with our three children for a year.  We had no car, so we walked everywhere.  It was really work to get food and to do errands.  And then, whatever you bought, you had to carry home. After a while, we bought a horse, and life got immensely easier.  I lost 25 pounds that year, and I was not overweight in the least when I got there.  Can you say emaciated?

So I feel badly that I caused, or was involved, in a disruption of the normal flow of events in this man's life.  The accident gave me something to write about; it only gave him a problem.  I wonder how often this is the case.  We tend to weigh our economic setbacks against our own standard of living, not against those for whom the event is much worse.  It even seems there are parallels here with the effects that U.S. international policies have on millions of less fortunate people in other countries.  But that is another blog.