March 6, 2018
Excerpted from Journey to the Joie de Vivre.
A journey without suspense would be boring. Here in Panama the suspense is when my ship comes in (ha!) and when she departs, both of which facts are still unknown. All I know now, having talked to the Port Agent this afternoon, is that the Matisse arrives sometime tomorrow night and departs in the wee hours of the following morning. At the Manzanillo International Terminal, it only takes 8 to 12 hours to unload and load 2500 containers. Having been through this before, I have learned to be patient. And even though checkout time is 1:00 PM, I’m sure the hotel will have no difficulty charging me for an additional night, no matter what time I leave. This little suspense is completely expected. (Memories of sitting uncomfortably surrounded by my luggage in the Washington Hotel lobby for three hours waiting for the time allotted to take me to the port. The charm of the old Washington disappeared completely when I learned in Tahiti – too late for me to do anything about it – that they had charged an additional night anyway.)
The unexpected suspense this time is due to my leaving behind all my cash and jewelry in the almost invisible safe in the dark closet of my hotel room in San José, Costa Rica. As soon as I opened the closet here in Panama and saw the open security box – much more accessible here than there – I thought, “Oh my God, my stupidity has reached alarming new heights.” Fortunately, I was able to call the hotel in San José and finally, after several hours of calls back and forth with a very kind guy named Daniel, it turns out he can send the money by Western Union and that the jewelry will be sent by DHL or FedEx before I depart.
This is one more cost, along with my emergency dental work and the new watch that I had to buy at the airport to replace the one I lost, that has unexpectedly reduced my travel fund. I am realizing that the unexpected is more compelling when you’re over 65. That’s the lesson for today.
It is worth recording the heroic efforts on the part of Daniel Cubero of the Hampton Inn in San José to return my things to me. First, on company time, he deposited my US$400 with Western Union, which was when he discovered that they would not accept euros (I had stocked myself with those too). So this morning, on his own time, he went to the Central Bank and changed the euros into US dollars and returned to Western Union, where he made a second deposit, then called to tell me that that I could now retrieve them both in a Western Union office that he discovered very close to my hotel here in Panama. In addition, he had Federal Express pick up my jewelry this morning at seven o’clock, and urged them to make a priority delivery, since I am uncertain about my departure time, and he informed me that they will be delivering my things between three and five this afternoon. This is all from one country to another, and jaw-droppingly amazing, and I asked him what would be the cost of the Federal Express shipment, expecting to have to pay a great deal for it. He said, “No, no, no, it’s on the hotel.”
Several times I have expressed to him my groveling gratitude at everything he has been doing for me, and he has said “No, no, you are family. I have put myself in your shoes. I understand your position, and we always want to do absolutely everything we can to help.” I think this is not just Hampton Inn training on the part of Daniel. I think it is also the fact that he’s Costa Rican and a gentleman, and Costa Rican gentlemen treat older women with great kindness, understanding and affection.
The hotel in Panama had sent a taxi across the country to the airport to pick me up. He wasn’t there, as the attendant wheeled me out of Customs, but a quick cell phone call straightened things out. I had said, “But I can take any old cab,” and the attendant said, “Not here, you don’t.” Just then Alexander strode up, apologizing for his lateness. He was a dark lanky, man with a frizz of graying hair and the deadest eyes I had ever seen. I’m accustomed to the openness of Costa Ricans – they meet your gaze, they say hello to strangers on the street – so to meet those dead eyes was like a punch in the stomach. He was polite, certainly, helping me into the back seat of his taxi, but I sat there puzzling over what was so clearly distrust on his part, and the possible reasons for it.
It’s also the custom in Costa Rica to talk to taxi drivers – every encounter is an opportunity to relate to another human being – so I leaned forward and started to ask Alexander questions. He was from Colón, so I was able to ask him if conditions there had improved since my last stay there. This was all it took to get him going, and we passed the hour’s drive very pleasantly. When we got to the hotel, his eyes were still remote, but not as dead as they had been.
Over the next 30 hours or so, I needed a taxi twice to take me to Western Union and back (the first time I had lacked a comprobante number), and I always asked for Alexander, telling him about the fix I’d gotten myself into and listening to details about his family as we dragged our way through the insufferable traffic. And I asked for him again when it was time to take me to the port. His eyes had warmed up by then, and as he left me and my suitcase at the port gate, we shook hands. As it happened, the hotel didn’t charge me the extra day, and I wondered if Alexander had been chatting with the people at the desk about my difficulties so much that they had taken pity on me.
But, ah Panama! First impressions survive – the overwhelming humidity, oppressive clouds bearing down overhead, construction everywhere, a pristine concrete highway slicing through what was once some of the most forbidding jungle in the world, decaying tile in the bathroom, maddeningly slow service, creeping traffic and always, always the question of when I am going to leave.
©2016, Sandra Shaw Homer
(Adapted from a presentation given at Allyson Latta’s 2012 writers’ workshop in Costa Rica)
Point of view
Many years ago, I fell in love with Joseph Conrad. I read every single book and story, one right after another. I got excited. He gave me hope. Not that I could write as compellingly as he, but that I could have a point of view, a perspective worth sharing. At the time I didn’t know what this might be, but I certainly could identify with his. I loved his capacity for close observation and at times thrilling description, but most of all I loved his humanity, his understanding of the inner workings of people, their secret selves and what makes them choose the evil or the good. And I especially enjoyed his delicately ironic sense of humor, since I shared something similar myself. In spite of having spent hundreds of hours in literature classes, this was the first time I “got it” that writers must write from a personal worldview, and it gave me courage.
I was forty-something and, fortified by Conrad, I decided to start writing on purpose, and this was part of my motivation in moving away from a high-stress job to another country – Costa Rica – where I imagined I could get a better handle on just that. There were plenty of false starts, and life got in the way a lot (moving to another country is not an unstressful thing to do), but over time I honed my skills and learned plenty of important lessons. But what to write about? Here’s where the sense of place enters the story.
A sense of place
Living in a foreign culture eventually strips you clean of all the cultural encrustations you’ve accumulated in your previous life and leaves you naked and vulnerable. For some, this is a terrifying experience of helplessness. For others, it’s an adventure of discovery – not just of the other language and culture, but of yourself, of what really matters to you. Living in Costa Rica, I found that my values firmed up about things I really hadn’t given a lot of thought to before.
But how to write in such a way that your readers can “see” it the way you see it? You have to describe things – accurately, lyrically, whatever way you want – but in order to do any of these you have to observe closely – physically and emotionally – whatever it is you want to describe. It was this exercise of close observation that resulted the deep sense of place that informs my forthcoming memoir, Evelio’s Garden. The most important lesson this work taught me, from a writer’s point of view, was to close my eyes and go there, wherever that was, into the quiet place where the words – amazingly – just came.
Telling the truth
I had a big problem with truth for a lot of years. I would go back over something I’d written and find it just didn’t jibe with something real inside me that I couldn’t put my finger on. Maybe we all face this in the beginning, the desire to reinvent ourselves through language or stories, and we find that they don’t quite ring true – I mean true to the human experience, not true to the facts. Some of us need a lot of living before we can find this truth, and it can take great courage to face it, and then, ultimately, to tell it. After all, what do we have to lose? Realizing this, I finally found that truth exists only in the place where acceptance lies.
The truths of the human condition haven’t changed much – like the 100 great plots, they’re familiar to us all. But with an understanding of our own personal truth, each of us can bring a unique perspective to the human story. Anonymous was right when she/he wrote that writers write not because they want to say something, but because they have something to say. And that “something to say” must ring true.
Writing from the heart
All writing is really best if it teaches us something. What does what I have experienced or lived have to offer you? How can the way I put something down on paper help you to experience it more deeply, or in a fresh way; make you reflect, or stop for just a moment to say to yourself, “Ah, that’s the way it is”?
Writing makes me feel more alive because it forces me into each moment I describe in a way that can make connections with others. Feeling the thing observed, the moment, and then describing it so that someone else experiences that same moment through one’s words – these are moments of truth shared. It is in this heightened awareness, in this search for connections that we really exist as writers.
This was brought home to me not long ago in intensive care, when I was on a respirator and couldn’t speak. Fortunately, I had a notebook with me, and I could write brief requests or comments to the staff and doctors. It interested me how intently everyone followed the act of my writing. I would signal in the air that I wanted to scribble, they would rush to find my notebook, pen and glasses (never in the same place twice), and then they would peer over my shoulder to see what I was going to “say.” It occurred to me then that they attached so much importance to what I wrote because I was writing it to them. Being the intended recipients of the written word made them feel important. Connections being made. In this light, we can almost see writing as an act of love.
© Sandra Shaw Homer, 2014