Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Guest Blog: Mary Gordon Spence

Today is a special day! We have our first guest blogger. Mary Gordon Spence is a renaissance woman. She’s a sought-after speaker, a humorist, a public radio personality, a regular contributor to the Austin American-Statesman newspaper, author of Finding Magic in the Mundane, and, important to this blog post, speaks fluent Spanish.

Currently Mary Gordon is in Costa Rica on a Writing Residency at the Julia and David White Artists’ Colony in Cuidad Colon. And she’s taunting all of her friends by sending us fabulous pictures that show her writing studio, her living space, the countryside and animals, the people, and basically what a great time she’s having. Because she’s fluent in Spanish, she takes time to travel and go out to meet people.

Today, just for Straight from Hel, she’s written an essay about one of her excursions. Thank you, MG!

GRINGO CORNER
September 12, 2006

“Are you waiting for your husband?” a tall, thick, dark man wearing a brown Panama hat asked me as he stood next to the empty chair across the table from me.

“Yes.” I replied.

“Is he coming soon?” the man asked. And then, “What are you and your husband doing after you leave here?”

“We’re going to the symphony,” I replied.

“Mind if I sit here till he comes?”

Before I could answer he had plopped down into the chair, adding, “I don’t go to no symphony, especially by myself.”

The intruder—whose crude tattoo peeked out from his shirt with the top three buttons undone—hailed from San Antonio. He said he had been coming to Costa Rica for years and that sometimes he stayed in a house and other times in a hotel. He was leaving the next day but returning in two weeks. When I told him I was from Austin, he said he’d been stationed at Bergstrom Air Force Base in the 70s. “I went to Viet Nam,” he said as he took off his hat to reveal some serious scars on his head.

I had already decided this was a man who would not be a close acquaintance in Texas or anywhere else for that matter. I thanked him for his service to our country and then asked the question. “What brought you to Costa Rica in the first place?”

“How much time you got?” he asked.

I told him I had four minutes, so he cut right to the chase: “Women. I came to Costa Rica to meet young women.”

And then he launched into a tale that I couldn’t quite follow—one of bars and prostitutes and how young women expected him to buy them drinks and gifts without getting involved with him—if I knew what he meant. I knew, and it was far more information than I wanted. He told me about a young woman he had his eye on, and when they were supposed to meet at a bar after she got off work cleaning a hotel, she showed up with her sister. He cussed the young women for thinking he was a sucker. “I’m no pushover,” he declared. “I know what I’m dealing with, and they can’t take advantage of me. The girls switched from beer to wine coolers when they knew I was buying, expecting me to spend $2.00 on them.” He interrupted himself and asked, “What are you doing after the symphony?”

I assured him I would be making the 25 mile trip back to Cuidad Colon. Then he asked my name. “Maria,” I replied, as I always do when in Latin America.

His eyes and face hardened. “That’s not your name,” he said emphatically. “You are a blonde Texan, and I know that’s not your name. What is it?”

I repeated, “Maria—or Marita as my daddy calls me.”

I’m sure it was the impact from his 35-year old injury that caused this man to get furious over the simple exchange we were having. I considered making up another name just to appease him; I remained silent instead. As I suspected from the start, this man was a little too cuckoo for my taste. He took a deep breath, regained his composure and resumed the conversation. “See those men over there? That’s Gringo Corner. Why don’t stop by and say hello to the Gringos?”

Instead, I excused myself and went to find the rest room in McDonald’s. A young man showed up with a key, unlocked the door to the women’s room, and let me in.

I had never planned to go to a foreign McDonald’s. Heck, I can go to one of several in South Austin. But when I got to the National Theatre of Costa Rica an hour before the symphony began on Sunday morning at 10:30, I looked for a place to read the newspaper and to eat some ice cream. Since I often choose a reverse chic path, I walked into the McDonald’s, ordered a chocolate and vanilla cone, and sat down at a little table toward the back of the restaurant. That’s when the man showed up.

When I came out of the bathroom, the senor from San Antonio had disappeared. Since I had to pass Gringo Corner to leave the very clean, very sanitized McDonald’s I offered my newspaper to one of the men drinking a cup of coffee. He motioned for me to sit down and thanked me for the paper. After we exchanged pleasantries, I asked him the same question I had asked the man with some major head damage. “What brought you to Costa Rica?”

“How much time do you have?” the boyish 50-year old man asked. And then he gave me what he called an abbreviated version of how he and a buddy were driving to Mexico from Kansas, but decided to drive on to Costa Rica. And how he had fallen in love with the country and had come back many times over the past 16 years. And, how he began to buy property here, divorced his wife, and continued to come back. “Women. That’s why I came,” he stated. “Women, and the weather.” He was glowing as he spoke.

I assumed he spoke Spanish, and I said so. He told me didn’t speak a word, and that he didn’t need to. The skinny 60-something year-old man wearing sun glasses sitting next to him chimed in. “I don’t speak no Spanish either. Those Tica women and this weather. You just can’t beat them—and you don’t need to speak no Spanish to enjoy them.”

Fortunately, it was almost time for the performance at the National Theatre to begin. When I got up to leave, one of the other men sitting in Gringo Corner asked me where I was off to. “Across the street to the symphony,” I replied.

He stared at me, shrugged his shoulders and went back to drinking his coffee.

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