8 years ago, when I was 16, I left everything I knew in New Hampshire and went to live in Alicante, Spain for a year as a foreign exchange student. Just over a week ago, I left everything I knew in New York and came to Costa Rica as a volunteer farmer to afford to be a writer. What’s different this time around? What’s not?
Well, this time I have a high school and college diploma. I have 6 years of part time work experience and 2 years of full time. I’ve spent 6 years living in New York City. My parents live in a new house in a different city. My family dog died. . I hostessed, bussed, waitressed, and bartended at 5 restaurants. I lived in Italy for a semester and (kind of) know how to speak Italian. I’ve traveled to Egypt, Turkey, Puerto Rico, and Kentucky. I lost $20 in Vegas. Friends who were emailing about junior prom dresses then are now married with kids. I’ve built my own family of new close friends. I’ve experienced love and loss, hatred and loyalty in relationships in all areas of my life. Obama was elected President; I voted for the first time. I stopped eating processed meat. I paid taxes (not as a dependent!) and signed my name on a lease in Queens. I bought (and sold) a bike. I moderated a panel at NYC’s first Green Festival and maintained a Green Living Channel on examiner.com. I commuted regularly on 10 of the city’s 21 subway lines. I lived in the Hamptons. I totaled my car (sorry Dad… I still feel really bad about that one… ☹ ), I became a regular at Manhattan bars. I took ballet classes from of the city’s most reputable instructors. I know how to Samba.
This time, I already speak fluent Spanish. When I meet someone we can launch into a conversation; this time I don’t have to spend 4 months stumbling over verbs and vocabulary, with my nose buried in a dictionary nightly.
But, for all that’s changed, I still have to approach people I don’t know- people to whom I’m an anomaly. In Spain, people simply couldn’t understand what an “exchange student “ was and why on earth I had been dropped into their classroom. I didn’t dress like they did, I spoke like a 5 year old, and I confirmed some American stereotypes while eschewing others (she only knows how to drive an automatic, but she doesn’t know how to play Mario Kart?!) I didn’t make sense and was therefore exhausting to deal with.
Now, I’m just as confusing. Who is this gringa lady (who’s taller than everyone else in town) who’s 24, and when we ask, then tells us she isn’t married and has no children? Who in the world is this woman who goes to the finca every morning and works in the garden (which is basically the same as shoveling cow shit and machete chopping the grass with the men, as far as they’re concerned)? Essentially, I’m the resident crazy old maid from the United States.
I try to explain that I’m a writer from the US interested in coffee, but that makes as little sense to the Ticos here as did telling the Spaniards that I’m interested in learning about a different culture (why? We aren’t.)
For all that’s change in 8 years, I’m still the most awkward person in the room (or in this case the field…or the mountainside).
It seems I haven’t lost my knack for thrusting myself (voluntarily) into exactly the most bizarre situations possible.
But, one thing that’s different this time is my goal. 8 years ago, my goal was threefold 1) get away from NH before I loose it 2) learn Spanish 3) understand and integrate myself into a new culture- just to prove I could handle the challenge. Through sweat, blood, lots of tears, even more dog-eared dictionary pages, and mostly awkward moments, I am proud to say that I achieved all three folds of my goal. All were useful, but only to me personally. This time, my goal is more honed, and I maintain that it is valuable to every single North American.
I want to know where coffee comes from. Not see a geographical dot on a map on the vacuum-sealed label, but really know what blood, sweat, and tears the coffee I drink comes from. I want to find out what depth of spirit and soil, what resilience, resistance, abuse, and romance yield the coffee I drink daily.
We (myself included, see above) throw the phrase “sweat, blood, and tears” around like we know what it means, but do we? Do we mean the sweat that covers your body after just three times wrenching the rake through the clay mud when you know you have to do the same thing all day, or the sweat from just from breathing under the tropical sun? Do we mean the blood that comes from fire ant and mosquito bites, or the blood from errant machetes and horse spurs? Do we mean the tears that come from crying when a snake bite kills the dog you’ve had on your farm for 20 years, or the ones you fight back when you’re not allowed to play soccer because you’re 8 years old and a girl?
My goal is to understand the complexities with which a commodity as seemingly simple and standard as coffee is woven into the lives of millions. Machines and petroleum don’t run our globalized economy and deliver the daily American bounty; people do. I want to know their names, look into their eyes, and sit down and talk to them (perhaps over a cup of coffee)?
I want to, and I am. One awkward moment at a time.