San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Así Es la Cosa: That’s Just the Way Things Are

Some time ago, I wrote an article also titled “Así Es la Cosa.” This is something that the campesinos in the mountains here say to me when I point out problems. It loosely translates, “That’s just the way things are.” The article was about what I saw as a peculiarly accepting attitude on their part toward all the abuses heaped upon them.

The article cataloged some of the abuses I have observed in this area: –Buses that don’t stop for them on the Inter-American Highway, though required by law to do so.

–Riteve, the Spanish-Costa Rican company and private monopoly (supposedly illegal in Costa Rica) charged with annual vehicular mechanical inspection. Its institution four years ago assured that most poor people, especially those who must drive mountain roads, would no longer be able to afford to have a car.

–Lack of telephone service.

–A rural electric company that charges for the poles and meters, charges for public lighting that doesn’t exist and refuses to install lines and transformers along the roads, thus forcing people to string long, expensive lines across private property.

–Inadequate and difficult-to-access medical care.

–Elementary schools that do not provide much-needed courses in English and computers, thus ever widening the breach between the city and the country kids.

–Lack of a high school or even help to families who try to send their children out to high schools in town.

Finally, I came to the conclusion that since the campesinos have always had less, they expect less. It’s a syndrome, not of the poor in general – poor North Americans complain, protest and rebel, and how! – but rather of the poor in Third-World countries.

And there the article sits in my computer. I never published it because I felt like something was wrong or missing.

The other day, I found out what it was. It involves a story I’d like to pass on to all of you.

About a year and a half ago, EBAIS, the branch of the Costa Rican health system that supplies medical assistance to remote areas, sent a new doctor, actually, a doctora, to this area.

Somewhere within the first six months of her placement here, I came to the terrifying conclusion that she was completely incompetent.

I won’t enumerate all the reasons. Let just a few examples suffice.

My neighbor suddenly began to lose weight for no apparent reason. When the highly competent nurse worriedly pointed this out to the doctora, she laughed and said that everything was “just fine.” A couple of weeks later, a group of Japanese medical researchers decided to use our village for a stomach cancer test area. They found that my neighbor had tumors in her small intestine and saved her barely in the nick of time.

I had a case of bronchitis verging on pneumonia. When I went to the doctora, I told her I was allergic to penicillin. Five minutes later, she gave me a penicillin shot and sent me home with a packet of pills of the same nature. I survived the shot but had to go to town and buy my own pills.

A good friend of mine was having trouble with high blood pressure. The doctora prescribed some pills. A couple of weeks later, my friend was feeling terrible.

She went to a private specialist, who told her she was taking a dose of a dangerous medicine that was three times over the absolute maximum dose.He got her medicine straightened out, but she is suffering permanent effects from the poisoning

she suffered at the hands of the doctora.

Finally, a few weeks ago, a young woman who occasionally suffers high blood pressure was feeling ill, and her pressure began to rise.

She went to the doctora with the problem. It is best to carry out the process of lowering blood pressure gradually to avoid the patient entering into shock. The doctora ordered it done all in one blow, and the woman nearly died. An older or sicker person, in fact, may well have died under those circumstances.

And here is my point. On my way up the hill to our house, I ran into her sister. I stopped the car to talk to her.

“How is your sister?” I asked.

“She’s still feeling dizzy, but she’s going to be all right,” she replied.

“You know,” I ventured, angry, but not wanting to come off too critical of Costa Rica, “this doctora we have now is dangerous. I’m afraid she’s going to kill somebody one day.”

She responded with a mysterious smile (“Stupid foreigner,” she was probably thinking). Finally, she answered me, “Yes, I know. We have to take care of ourselves.”

I drove away confused. It wasn’t until a couple of hours later that the meaning of her answer hit me.

She wasn’t angry at the doctora or at the system that had provided her any more than she would be angry at a tree for falling over the road or at a rainstorm for causing a mudslide. And she saw my anger as that of a spoiled child, demanding more of life than can be reasonably granted.

As they see it, that’s just the way life is. The powers that be, they say, “ni pican leña, ni prestan hacha”(neither split the firewood nor lend the hatchet). Nothing and nobody is obligated to take care of us. All we can do is be careful and try to take care of ourselves. Sometimes it works out; sometimes it doesn’t.

These people aren’t passive or broken; they’re just realistic – at least within the confines of their worldview – and extremely tough.

That’s what was missing from my other article. That’s what they are trying to tell me every time they say, “Así es la cosa.” I just didn’t get it.

Stupid foreigner.


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