The shifting of your individual and cultural identity is inevitable when you are an immigrant. The world splits in two while you try to continuously adapt to changing scenarios.
That’s how I felt while visiting my home country for the very first time after seven years of having immigrated to Canada as an international student. This column is dedicated to a few impressions of this travel.
Costa Rica is part of a group of countries often called the “Third World,” “peripheral countries” or countries “in development.” It is a country that perspires what is called “Magic Realism” in the books of Latin American writers who depict the chaotic Latin American life. Beautiful natural landscapes mix up with extreme poverty, rich neighbourhoods and malls built among the “tugurios” or marginal cardboard houses. The vibrant autochthonous culture survives in spite of the constant onslaughts of globalized and corporative culture.
Landing in San Jose immediately brought tears to my eyes. Brandon has no mountains while the capital city of Costa Rica is surrounded by them. After the first wave of strong emotions, I realized that I was home, though seven years have not passed in vain.
Somehow, I feel I am different. I carry with me everything I learned and lived in Canada. While many things are still familiar, I am enabled now to see the country from a different perspective. My other home, Brandon, stands as a magnifying glass or a filter through which I see the people, the city, the cultural gestures, politics, and every other single thing. I don’t feel fully Costa Rican anymore, and I don’t feel fully Canadian either.
Inside the airport an old man offers to put my luggage in a cart and carry it to my taxi. I did not ask but I know this man feeds his family by carrying luggage every day. It is not a formal job. Thousands of people in Costa Rica live out of informal jobs.
In a few days in the country I have bought gum, roses, socks, phone cards, pejibayes, umbrellas and many other things. Generally, most Costa Ricans survive on this informal economy. It is maybe the biggest difference from Canada.
Although San Jose is a huge city in comparison with Brandon, the lack of infrastructure is notable. It seems to me like everything shrank. The streets, the buildings, the signs, everything looks very small. There are modern, powerful buildings and beautiful historical places alongside poor cardboards houses. There are five-star hotels, and also hostels where you can stay for 1,000 colones ($2) a night or 500 colones an hour if you wish!
The capital city has not changed much. I can still see people from our own aboriginal communities in the streets, asking for a few coins, musicians playing on the streets, people reading the Bible at bus stops, and little booths in every corner where you can buy almost anything from fresh fruit to cocaine.
You can do anything in San Jose. From visiting a McDonald’s to eating raw turtles eggs in the central market, from watching the Praga ballet company in the National Theater to dancing with live local music from Monday to Sunday. The pollution of the city shares the space with an amazing amalgamation of sounds and smells. If you want to sell anything in San Jose, you have to shout it out loud.
After deciding to go out of the city, the choice was to drive to Guanacaste, on the Pacific.
From San Jose to Guanacaste, the only access is through a private highway. The government declared itself incapable of building and maintaining highways, so it “commissioned” the highways to a private company.
The ex-CEO of the company is now the minister of transportation in Costa Rica. The contract is signed by him representing the government of Costa Rica and his successor and friend in the private company, the new CEO. Every 10 kilometres there is a booth that charges $2 to small vehicles for using the highway. I can’t imagine what this means to a person that drives this highway to work on a $15-per-day salary!
I decide to pick up a newspaper, and the first page of “La Nacion” is dedicated to the story of how the president of Costa Rica engaged on a pleasure travel to Peru on a private plane, property of a very well-known South American drug dealer. She claims her government was ignorant about the plane, the cartel and everything else. There are not enough words to fully describe what I can perceive in a few weeks of my travel back to my home country.
The few things described above make me think that the best part of being an immigrant is perhaps the opportunity to appreciate two different worlds.
After seven years of living solely in Canada, I was getting used to the peaceful and organized environment of Manitoba, and the minor political, social, and economical problems.
I can certainly confirm now that — at least for me — living in Canada is like living in a well-hidden island in the middle of tempestuous waters.
» Jaime Chinchilla is part of Brandon’s Latin American community and a member of the popular Son Latino Band. His column appears monthly.