Contradictions in Costa Rica

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A trip up the canal along Tortugero National Park

I experienced paradise for nearly two weeks. Every morning in Costa Rica I’d wake up happy.

And that’s despite getting up much earlier than usual.

The cacophony of birds greeting the dawn just wouldn’t let me sleep. Nor would the howler monkeys. With their loud calls seemingly so close to my window, I felt as though someone had planted my bed smack in the middle of the jungle.

But I’d jump up, no matter the hour, excited and eager to get out there and see what amazing colors and species of bird, animal, and plant I’d find today.

Costa Rica defines abundance.

For such a small country – it accounts for only 0.03 percent of the earth’s surface – Costa Rica has nearly 6 percent of the world’s biodiversity. An overabundance in my book. I couldn’t even keep up with the numbers. Something like 600 species of birds – more than the United States and Canada combined – at least 150 species of frogs, over 500 species of trees.

Every day was an adventure in joyful exploration. An encounter with tremendous beauty.

Daily, I found myself expressing gratitude for this incredible earth we’ve been placed on.

But everything wasn’t perfect. Neither in Costa Rica nor elsewhere on the planet.

While on vacation I wasn’t watching the news, but I couldn’t get away from what was happening at the U.S.-Mexico border. I continued to view emails and messages from friends and reliable news sources.

So, I was aware that the caravan of Central Americans had been denied entry to the U.S., with the claim that Border Patrol had reached its capacity and was unable to accept and process the asylum seekers, most of whom were mothers and children. I knew, too, that this was a charade. The caravan had been anticipated. It had been in the news for days. There was no reason, other than political, as to why Border agents weren’t prepared to receive them.

Meanwhile, back in El Paso, my fellow volunteers were helping an unusually high number of migrants. Texts and emails were coming through, rapidly and daily, for more volunteers, as ICE delivered more than 400 asylum seekers to our “hospitality houses” during the week I was gone.

It was such a contradiction. One border outside Tijuana unable to process a little more than 100 people who had been expected to arrive while another port of entry was taking in an unexpected 100 or more a day.

I couldn’t help but think about it. I imagine a hard stone wall, filled with anger, fear, and prejudice, stacked up against some people’s hearts, to keep from feeling their humanity towards immigrants. It is this wall, I suspect, that keeps us from feeling the pain and outrage over our government’s practice of now separating children – as young as 2 years old – from their mothers at the border. Mothers who have fled their country in order to save their children. Now suffering even greater heartbreak.

It felt like such a contradiction within myself, too.

One minute I was telling a co-traveler how Costa Rica makes my heart happy, and the next, I was explaining to another how the tragic and troubling situation at the border hurts my heart.

And both were true.

I don’t pretend to understand why there is such pain in an abundant universe.

This is the world we live in: one that can be both paradise and prison, both filled with immeasurable joy and immense sorrow.

And my faith lives in the midst of these seemingly contradictory experiences and emotions.

When I ask my inner being, what am I to do, I hear that my task is simply to learn to love. Love those in sorrow and pain, and love those who wound and hurt them because of their own pain and ignorance. Learn to hold all of this suffering and let my heart feel and expand in the process. Which really isn’t that simple, is it?

But this is what connects me to the One who has created such inexpressible beauty in nature and such vulnerable hearts capable of unimaginable pain.

It may seem contradictory, but both are gifts – treasures hidden in plain sight.

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The Pleasure Is Mine

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Three-year-old Ana smacks a kiss on my mouth. I’ve just handed her a baby doll, complete with pacifier. Something to keep her company on her days-long bus ride to Florida.

Whatever pleasure I got out of finding that doll in our used toy bin at the Nazareth migrant hospitality center just got magnified a hundredfold.

Juana is 13. Too old for a doll.

Or so I thought.

But her eyes widen when she sees the one I’ve given Ana.

“Do you like dolls?” I ask in Spanish.

“Si.” She smiles. Off I go to locate another.

I have the perfect one in mind. Eyes as big as half dollars. Strawberry-colored plastic hair. The kind you can’t comb. But her face is more mature. Just right for a girl who’s probably never owned a doll in her life.

Why do I love packing a toy in these children’s travel bags? Why do I take pleasure in seeing their delight?

The answer, I think, lies somewhere in understanding the gift of pleasure.

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If you’re a parent, you know the absolute pleasure of seeing your child delight in receiving a longed-for gift or special surprise.

I believe that the One who loved us into being takes that kind of pleasure in us.

And that God longs for us to take pleasure in the abundance of life. A life gifted to us. Created for us to enjoy.  As fully alive beings.

Sometimes, in between running around getting care packages ready for the migrants, answering their needs, calling for volunteer drivers, I have to step outside to get food in the walk-in fridge next door. And sometimes I pause and stand there in the sunlight. Look up into that constantly blue sky.

And give thanks. Aware of the pleasure I am receiving as well as giving.

Whether it’s in giving a special gift to a child. Preparing a meal for someone who’s hungry.

Receiving expressions of affection.

Or taking in the beauty of a golden full moon on a Friday night. Like I did tonight.

An abundance of opportunities to experience the pleasures of an abundant life.

But I have to say, I’m not always aware of them.

As Jesus said, it is God’s good pleasure “to give you the kingdom.” That kingdom is already alive in you. Alive in me.

Can I keep giving myself over to it?  Can I fully accept this gift?

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Abundance of Contrasts

 

Houses across from my neighborhood park

Another beautiful day in Cochabamba.

Beginning my third week here, where the sun has shown every day, with brief showers passing through. The climate is ideal. Fruit is plentiful and sweet. Green mountains tower over rooftops in all directions. And I stumble across parks on my daily walks, no matter which direction, or how far, I go. An abundance of colors, odors, plants, and people confront me everywhere I turn. This city is fully alive with the richness of life — and all its contrasts. And I love it.

With so much to share and not much time to write — at least not in English — the best I can do for now is offer brief descriptions. Some of these really merit their own separate story, like my first experience using the public bathroom at La Concha — a huge, open-air market that stretches for miles and sells everything that you might want or need, from fresh produce to electronics. Let’s just say the public toilet there involves being very aware and open-minded.

Here’s a taste of my first two weeks:

The absolute beauty of the parks and the grounds of the Maryknoll language school. Both are your frequent hang outs. There’s something about being in the midst of such an abundance of flowers and trees.

Three things you can always find at those lovely parks: stray dogs, young lovers, and basura (trash).

The campesinos — poor indigenous who come from the countryside. Every day they’re out on the streets working, from morning until night, washing other people’s laundry and cars in the canal, selling their fruit or papas (potatoes) and carne (meat) from their stands, spreading their bright blankets on the sidewalk to display their wares, often with little children in tow.

Homeless dogs roaming the streets. One even walked up and down the aisles at church this morning. Guess he was hoping some good soul would have pity on him. I have no idea where these dogs find food and water.
Chicken at almost every meal — except breakfast. Meals usually consist of potatoes and rice, carne (meat), tomatoes and onions (which my host family considers to be vegetables). Whatever we don’t eat for almuerzo (the big meal at lunch time), is served again for la cena (dinner).

No salads. For health reasons, we’ve been told not to eat the lettuce here. For someone like me who’s accustomed to eating salads every day…let’s just say my body’s in rebellion mode right now.

Helado (homemade ice cream made from real fruit) sold throughout the city. It makes up for not being able to have salad. Sort of.

No hot water, except in the shower. But I am so grateful to have it there. If I can only have hot water in one place, that would be it.

Quechua women with black braids wearing white sombreros, their brightly striped shawls draped across their backs carrying babies hidden from view.

The Afro-Bolivian dancers we watched at a special celebration. I didn’t even know theses people existed.

Vendors driving slowly through the neighborhoods on Saturday mornings, calling out the fresh fruits they’re selling from the backs of their trucks: grapes, papayas, bananas, mangos. The mangos taste sweeter than any dessert.

More to come…if I can get the Internet connection to cooperate.

 

Quechua woman washing clothes at the canal under the bridge. The blue gate above is entrance to the language school.