Where Darwin Meets Damnation
The luxury Brazilian-made bus speeds over a two-lane highway cut into the ridge of tropical mountain range covered by rainforest. With a novel by Tom Robbins in my lap, astounded by his relation of the mating ritual of whooping cranes to hitchhiking, I pause to take a breather and look out at the incomprehensible rises and folds of the Costa Rican rainforests speeding past the window. One novel, as innovative and intelligently written as it is, still does not compare to the time and blood dimensions of trial, error, mutation and evolution, all for the sake of survival right outside the bus.
To define contrast, I need only think of the world I left behind, the world of my upbringing, the metropolis surrounding San Francisco — concrete and cars and arrogant assholes with more money than they know what to do with because their father left it on their bedside table every morning before driving (sitting) for two hours just to get to work, just so he could sit at a desk for ten more hours, just so he could ensure enough money in his account to support his offspring's recreational drug habit. Bitter am I? Not so much anymore, not after the life and lessons of the rainforest, the Third World taking place in an ecosystem older than any number in the Billings, Montana, phone directory? I return from the velocitous view back to the book in my lap. I cannot seem to concentrate on the fine print, the thoughts now so broad and grand, life persisting and repeating and developing and disappearing. The black words on the yellowing page become a blur, and I cannot even concentrate on my own thoughts, until I realize the golden-brown skin of the female leg next to mine, bare to mid-thigh. Why now, what am I contemplating again? Certainly not laying down 15,000 colones, roughly $45, on her bedside table, which is what she tells me it will cost if I want to do anything more than look at her leg.
"What if I want to have a conversation with you?" I ask in my broken Spanish.
"No, no, I am not here for conversation, little one. Conversation does not feed my son."
I settle for a bag of giant grapes from the produce stand at the next rest stop. While I sit on the rain-stained cement steps pondering the breed-ambiguous mutt scrounging underneath the one table at the soda on the other side of the highway, the young woman, no more than 20, stands off at a distance and looks at me with disdain, as if I had promised her dinner, of which, I assure you, I had not. I spit out some two or three grape seeds and attribute the conundrum to the pressure of the Catholic religion on these young girls to remain honest and pious, regardless if those days had passed with their 13th birthday.
Catholicism. Depending on whom you talk to it is the world's greatest religion (although only a sect of Christianity) built upon the very rock thrown down by Jesus to Saint Peter. Given its worldwide presence, this position certainly has weight, but never mind the bloody period of subjugation from the 15th to 20th centuries when under-matched cultures smoldered under the blazing cross of conquering empires (and never mind my apparent bias on the subject). This author must express how impressed he is, though, at how many of these cultures hold on to this teaching and make it completely inseparable from their culture, politics, education, and everyday lives.
There are those many who feel Catholicism to be the most contradictory religion in the world. Let us consider it as a church that abominates idolatry, yet one that fills every chapel with images of its objects of worship, sometimes in gold, marble or alabaster, and sometimes carved from wood by hand. Let us consider it a church based on the word of Jesus, raised of Hebrew faith (a religion based upon the word of God and predominantly on the first four books of the Old Testament), yet one that sparsely uses the Bible in ritual or mass. Certainly the clergy know the Bible, but for the most part the congregation remains ignorant of its contents because its members are rarely encouraged to read it for themselves.
What is it that keeps the Catholic church in business? First and foremost, it is the sincere faith of most of its congregation; lives seamlessly woven with the love and forgiveness they feel upon walking through or passing the front doors. (Once while riding a municipal bus in Nogales, we passed a cathedral and I was the only passenger, including the driver, to not cross myself and kiss my fingers.)
What is the second biggest moneymaker? Clearly it is the captivation, corrosion and fear of the ramifications of sin. (I remember again the bus ride). The baskets are filled every Sunday by the majority of us lazy and impious Christians who would rather throw down Monday's lunch money than make conclusive and concrete steps toward changing ourselves.
That is one side of this coin of human divinity, and on the other side lies the controversy of the definition of true sin. Or better yet, the appropriateness of the interpretation of sin as it applies to the survival of humans, who are so entrenched in the culture that every second tempts them to sell their souls so that they or their children can have a couple bites to eat each day or shoes on their feet. The truth is that most do not even have that much. (Can we, as citizens and recipients of a technologically and economically advanced culture, remind ourselves of that fact enough?) Break it down further? Allow me to rip this shit up.
The Third World, among all its hunger, knows the simple truth of what it takes to survive. In the United States, we take survival for granted, and we still have not figured out that happiness is something that finds us, not the other way around. Happiness arrives the second we are conceived, and through all the pain of birth, teething, weaning, and dressing ourselves under the pressure of media judgment, we forget that living another day with the people we care about is the single reason to be happy. But I digress, and I refuse to digress any further into existential discourse on the nature of happiness. Although, at risk of self-contradiction, I say that happiness, however temporary, comes from a full stomach once empty. By the way, what did you have to do to provide for your last meal?
Even cowgirls get the blues, Tom Robbins says. I say especially cowgirls get the blues. Their way of life, considered unladylike in so many ways, even in the 21st century, takes the brunt of society's double standard in Robbins' novel. His main character, Sissy, born with freakishly large thumbs, learns early that hitchhiking is her calling in life. If God gives us a specific purpose in life, then what on earth could Sissy's purpose be other than to do what she does? For it shows her the world, and contrary to other hitchhikers, it keeps her alive while confinement nearly kills her.
But as every seasoned road traveler knows, there are trappings that go along with life on the road. Ultimately, what form of sustenance does not involve, somewhere down the ladder, some form of sin, some action to manipulate or exploit another in order to put warm rice in your belly or Nelly on your Panasonic? Survival is in itself the world's greatest sin because no matter how you do it, you must take the life of another. The greatest sin, really, is that with all the evolution of our minds our balls have remained in the Stone Age, when our instincts told us to kill a stranger over a piece of meat rather than share it with him.
If you have ever been to Costa Rica and eaten the grapes there, you know that it is not good to polish off a whole bag by yourself, unless you want serious stomach cramps. So back on the bus after the rest stop, I share my grapes with a seņorita whose name was Amanda. I also passed her what amounted to about $5 and asked her if that was worth a conversation. She shook her head, but smiled and could not refuse. The father of her son, as it turns out, was the real sinner. After three weeks of pledging his love to her, he disappeared the morning after she gave him hers.