The last few decades have seen the rise of an America increasingly enamored of differences, ever more cognizant that diversity means fresh perspectives and ideas. I arrived in Costa Rica with this in mind, excited to meet and learn from people so different from me. And I did—I learned the traditional Costa Rican method of brewing coffee from a single mother who meshed entrepreneurship and hospitality by opening her home to tourists for a small fee; I experienced life on a dazzling farm redesigned to encompass sustainable principles; I tasted cacao and learned about its transformation into the chocolate I so relish. The most important lesson I brought home was not a celebration of differences, however, but rather one of essential similarity.
The leaders of the small group I was traveling with had arranged for us to attend class with a student at the local high school and accompany them home for the remainder of the day. I was paired with a ninth grader named Yaritza. We were both shy as she gave me a tour of the small school, so much greener than mine back in Michigan.
Yaritza and I became better acquainted during the school day. We learned about each other’s academic and extracurricular lives and gained a greater understanding of our companion’s personality. Still, we remained effective strangers.
After school we ambled around the dusty town of Brasilito for an hour or two. Against the backdrop of miniscule stores and bakeries, men loitering in the heat, and barely clad children darting across dirt roads, we began to truly open up to each other. Our conversation turned to religion, secret dreams for the future, and social justice issues—intimate topics still not broached with friends I’d had for years back home.
I felt as if I’d known Yaritza since we were niñitas. Our initial self-consciousness had utterly vanished, replaced by the kind of rapport usually restricted to drowsy 4 a.m. conversations. We contemplated the unlikely depth of our bond and determined that it was made possible by the unusual situation in which it was formed. Typically, friendships are forged gradually. There’s the promise of time to get to know each other; a school year, perhaps, or a sports season. And there’s the choice of whom to get to know. Yaritza and I, having been paired more or less arbitrarily, had neither that time nor that choice. We were two people who lived very different lives, thousands of miles apart. Our meeting was improbable and we knew it. The unfortunate but undeniable implausibility of ever meeting again leant us a certain freedom to bare our deepest selves to one another.
Yaritza and I have many differences. Her first language is Spanish and mine, English. She goes to school in a polo-and-khaki uniform while I wear a tie-dye shirt and jeans. It’s not uncommon for her to pick a lemon from the tree out back to flavor a supper of meat soup; I can often be found watching the countdown on the microwave with anticipation as I wait for my pizza rolls to cook. Her dogs, chickens, horses, pigs, fish, and parrot far outnumber my single elderly cat. Yet as much as I enjoy recalling these things, when I think back to my trip to Costa Rica and the day I shared with Yaritza, I remember the kinship we felt most of all. There are those who would attribute our similarities to the encroaching fingers of globalization, but I believe it is something deeper. We recognized in each other the fundamental oneness that transcends all differences, making us human.
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