Dec. 11, 2015

Parallel Worlds- Seeing Red Again

Our world

My wife and I drove to a lunchtime party at Los Sueños, (The dreams), an enormous luxury housing development on Costa Rica's Pacific Coast. We passed through an imposing and intimidating security gate, continuing for maybe a mile through a complex dripping with money. After a pristine golf course, were meticulously maintained palm lined boulevards with regularly manicured tropical plants and flowers on either verge.

Eventually, we were checked through a second security gate and on up to our host's place, a duplex perched atop a cliff with spectacular ocean views. There are swimming pools and a private beach within the development. Someone mentioned that a larger house nearby was for sale at around $6 million.

We understand that most of the properties are owned by wealthy foreigners as holiday homes for occasional use or by the Tico elite, as weekend retreats. Many gringos here in Costa Rica have second homes elsewhere and travel on luxury vacations.

The gathering was a pleasant opportunity to mingle with the usual middle class white retirees, mainly from the US and Canada, with a scattering of Europeans. A good feed and lots of drink lubricated our conversations about the state of the world, recent operations and illnesses, (Yawn!), and other inconsequential matters that educated folk chatter about.

The unseen world

On rare occasions, we leave our house above Grecia around dawn. Sometimes, we pass trucks or tractors towing trailers packed tightly with coffee pickers or sugar cane cutters desperately hanging on and ready to begin their day's toil at first light. As we dodge the potholes and the suicidal or homicidal local drivers, we have noticed a handful of semi derelict hovels here and there, without giving them much thought. Those living in cities and gated communities never see these things.

My wife had agreed to help collect presents and funds for a Christmas Party for the poor children on our street. We were told that without this event they would get no presents. About half the gringos on our road kindly contributed.

On the evening of our visit to Los Sueños, we drove off in the dark to the children's party, held in a primary school, about a mile down the mountain. We were surprised to see several family groups emerging from previously unnoticed gaps in hedges very near to our home, beginning their long walk down the unlit, steep and uneven road.

Nearing the school, the groups swelled into a river of families. On parking our car, we could see mothers, often no more than children themselves, carrying swaddled babies with older children tagging along.

The school seemed like a paradise to many of them, with its shiny Christmas decorations and gaily painted walls. The solidly built play area, with climbing nets, slides and swings, was swarming with kids, who had obviously rarely experienced such luxury. The security fences around the school ensure that amenities are only for the pupils. We worried that some children might fall, as it was now extremely dark.

Along the corridor was the meeting hall. We found families waiting, huddled outside. They spoke in quiet tones and seemed too timid to enter, until we pushed a few through the door to take their seats.

There were striking racial differences between these people and the Costarrcienses that we know. They seemed smaller, with much darker complexions. A few were more like the indigenous peoples one sees in western Guatemala, with high cheekbones and broad faces.

The children had been scrubbed up to prepare them for their event. The passivity and humble timidity of these people was astonishing and a little sad. Unlike privileged children they did not run forward or tear off the wrapping paper to get at the presents as soon as they received them.

We left them to it, feeling ashamed that we had never thought there were so many poor people nearby. Maybe subconsciously, we did not want to see them. They are the invisible ones from a world in a parallel dimension.

People tell us that the children travail in the fields too. It is clearly hard work; often without shoes; at high altitude and under the oppressive heat of a merciless sun,. They have no social safety net. Some eke out an existence here year round. Others must trek back to even poorer homes in Nicaragua.

We discussed our experience afterwards. We concluded that every ridge in Costa Rica is teeming with people from a much poorer world than the locals who serve us. Those Ticos are already poor in contrast to we gringos. We heard that some of the Nicaraguan children had never tasted cake before this party.

Extrapolating from our locale, there are coffee, sugar and other plantations worldwide. All are dependent on cheap and compliant labor. In other places there is no work and minimal food. Some estimates put the total of poor people at over 1bn.

We have seen much more desperate poverty in Africa, Sri Lanka, India, Indonesia and China. We realize that we cannot save the world, but everyone should do what we can. We are shamed and must do more especially at this festive time of year, but not only now. Poverty knows no seasons.

If we, you or Bill Gates had been born into a poor family in a developing country, where would we be now? What can we do? We can consider the human cost of our profligate lifestyles, of our coffee and the other things we consume. We can reduce spending on luxuries, travel and high end living to donate more to charities that develop projects to reduce poverty.

At a political level, the idea that 90% of the world's wealth can belong to a gilded few in perpetuity is unjust and untenable. We are part of the problem.

I am seeing bright red again.