San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

On ‘Musts’ and Gratitude

Every time I make my yearly visit to my adult children in the United States, I experience at some point a moment in which the contrast between what people have in the States – or at least the particular people with whom I am hanging out – and what  people in Central America have hits me like a lead ball in the stomach.

It is a strange moment, not at all like the bittersweet pain of compassion. It is, rather, black and empty. Empty, I think, because I feel so utterly alone with it. Those around me cannot begin to understand it. If I tried to explain it, I would only come off as preachy and better-than-thou.

Last year, it happened while I was watching a TV reality show – I forget its name – in which a team of celebrities chooses a needy family for whom to build a new house in a week’s time. One of the reasons that week’s house was in disrepair was that the family had a little girl with an expensive disease and no health insurance.

Of course, it was laudable that the family was going to get a new house. However, the crew glossed right over the glaring problem that such families – those without access to adequate health care – exist in the United States.

And yet, that’s not what threw me into a funk.What bothered me was the realization that millions of people sitting in front of their television sets were getting misty-eyed and maudlin over this noble thing that the program was doing for this family, precisely so that they could get up the next day and continue to turn on the air conditioning, take a long hot shower and drive their SUV to work down a super highway without feeling guilty. They had, after all, drunk their full cup of compassion the previous night. This is not premeditated. People do not purposefully sit down to watch programs like this to soothe their consciences. In effect, however, this is what happens.

This year,my fall into the black hole took place in the course of the opening of gifts at a baby shower. Amid rapturous cries of “Oh my god, soooo cute!” there it was again, that awful feeling.

Actually, I think it was during the discussion about all the things one simply must have in order to have a baby. Where I live, no one must have anything.Women simply have their babies, carry them around in their arms (no Baby Bjorns here) and bed them down where they can.

Everybody, of course, knows this. They see it on National Geographic and public television and Oprah.

Then again, pregnant women here don’t have the same needs as these upper-middleclass North American girls. A car seat isn’t a problem if there is no car. Women here would never consider it a problem to be without a diaper genie or an electric breast pump, neither of which they have ever heard of. Mostly, it is decent food that is a problem – that, and how to get the diapers washed with a primitive washing machine, then hung and dried before the afternoon downpour.

Someone once told me that the longest journey in the world is between the head and the heart.

And so it is. Seeing documentaries about Central American families living at the edge of garbage dumps or movies like “Blood Diamond” is at worst an intellectual experience and at best a virtual experience we can easily forget during the next program. Time was, I did the very same.

Since I’ve lived in a small, impoverished village in Costa Rica, where most of my good friends live on, what seems to me, the edge of annihilation, the next program doesn’t do it for me, or the next or the next. This is not because I am better than anyone else. It is simply because my experience has been real.

I know this sounds like the starving-children-in-China argument, but it’s not. I am not suggesting that anybody purposefully lead a deprived life just because others must.

What I am advocating is, at the very least, an attempt at more awareness.

After all, jogging strollers, diaper service and designer layettes are not “musts.” They are privileges.

Hey, just say thanks.

Kate Galante may be contacted by e-mail at


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