Thursday, March 30, 2017

Morning Mass

I worship at your 7am mass
We are missionaries, 
Whispering prayers to one another’s backs
Feeling the morning’s light 
Caress us in its urgency

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The other side of Pura Vida

Oh, that’s the preventative pill, right? You don’t have something for a mistake with contraception that happened yesterday?” I asked at the counter of my small local Costa Rican pharmacy.

The junior pharmacist smiled sweetly at me. He must have been little older than 22 years old.

“You mean la píldora del día después? Oh, no that doesn’t exist here. Está prohibido,” he shared, looking kindly at me with something akin to camaraderie.

I did a double-take. We had experienced a fairly good pharmacist-client rapport until then. I tried again, certain that somewhere my Spanish had let me down.

“So what does a woman do here, in the case that her usual contraception has failed, as is the case for me?”

“Well,” he said, looking sweetly at me, “if your usual method of contraception fails, and you fall pregnant, then hay que tener un chiquitito.” He beamed, as if this was the greatest gift anyone could hope for. Abortion is illegal in Costa Rica.

I stared at him, not quite believing what I had heard. This whippersnapper was telling me, a 34 –year old woman new to his country, that if I fell pregnant, now, single, and living and teaching here, 6 months into a 2-year work contract; that if the unimaginable had happened and a split condom meant that I was now pregnant by a man I had known for three weeks, I was going to have to GIVE BIRTH TO A HUMAN BEING.

This kind-faced young man, still with traces of post-pubescent acne on his jawline, had laid eyes on me all of 2 minutes ago, and yet, here he was, telling me in no uncertain terms what I was to do with my body. The decision was made. Costa Rica said so. It was possibly the most powerful “computer says no” moment I have ever experienced in my life. And I’ve been to the DMV in New York City, where they have a lot of computer says no moments.

Before you judge me as some kind of promiscuous gringa; someone whose knicker elastic is as loose as her morals, some harlot who goes out corrupting young Costa Rican men with her worldly European charms and her tales of travel and the Theory of Knowledge (the subject I teach), let me make something clear. I’ve had three long relationships since the age of 16. My first lasted 6 years, and we stayed together all through high school and university. I slept with precisely no-one else aged 16-22. Then, upon that relationship ending, I fell in love with an older guy, and we were together for 2 years. He proposed.  I accepted. We realised we had made a mistake. I moved out to a shared house and slept with again, precisely no-one, until a few months later, when I met the guy who I thought was the love of my life. We were together 6 years, and we lived together for 5 of those, moving our lives and work from London to Barcelona. When that relationship ended in 2015, I had a few partners, but you could count them on one hand. I think I was fairly restrained, after a lifetime of sexual restraint. I like being choosy. Not that it should matter, choosing to be choosy is just that: a choice. An equally valid choice would have been to tear up society's rule book and go to wild sex parties, but I'm basically too much of a germaphobe.

In my life therefore I have taken the morning after pill exactly twice.  Once after a very young and very stupid experience with my very first partner, a manipulative older guy, aged 15 ¾, and once again last year, after a night with a close friend, a guy my age (we should have both known better – but – mojitos – and we trusted one another a lot. A pregnancy wouldn’t have been the end of the world, but he was moving to Colombia and I to Costa Rica.)

What I had taken for granted in my EU liberal bubble, I suppose, is how easily available that option had been to me. Even so, in my very first experience at a sexual health clinic, I was terrified. I was technically under the age of consent, by a month or two, and a nurse had to give me an extra assessment to ascertain if I was mentally able to make the decision to receive the morning-after pill without them informing my parent. They also had to check that I wasn’t asking for it as a result of abuse, or something untoward. I had to go with my high-school best friend, whose older sister knew where the clinic was, and assured us it would be confidential. I trembled throughout the assessment, feeling like I’d been sent to the school principal’s office. All of the nurse’s questions seemed designed to make me feel slutty and wrong.

My second experience was much more straightforward. I walked into a Barcelona pharmacy, asked for the pill, paid, and gulped it down. I sent a text to my friend to let him know. He treated me to an ice-cream and a hug, and we resolved to be more responsible.

In a different country, with a different prevailing set of beliefs, with a different partner, I too feel different. It was clear that my values and judgements about what was correct were not totally aligned with the law in Costa Rica. I'd noticed snippets of machismo in daily life here - catcalls, being called muchacha, or girl, by older men, enduring plenty of ogling - but I hadn't imagined that my right to a safe, legal way to control my fertility would have been questioned. After some heavy googling and plenty of frantic whatsapps on the subject, it became evident that Costa Rican women do of course have another method. The Yuzpe regimen, as explained by the World Health Organization, is an equally effective post-coital method of emergency contraception alongside the copper IUD and the morning-after pill. It's sightly more fiddly, requiring two megadoses of the combined ordinary pill taken 12 hours apart, but it exists. And boy, was I glad it did. But I had to question what I would have done had I found myself in the same situation aged 15 
¾. Or were I not an educated woman with access to information from trusted sources and not just the final word from a spotty pharmacist. I asked myself what the outcome might have been for a young Costa Rican girl living in a rural part of the country, or in a very strict Catholic household. I asked myself what many women must have to do in other parts of the world. And even as a committed feminist, a liberal, a teacher - I myself was shocked by how little time I had spent reflecting on what the reality of access to contraception and choice must be for many women worldwide.

For this, and so many other reasons, I marched on International Women's Day, March 8, here in San José, amongst thousands of other women and men, protesting femicide, domestic abuse, inequality, lack of access to legal and safe abortions, and the right for women living here to make their own decisions about their bodies' destinies, as well as their ability to work, live, love and exist without fear of judgement, harassment or comment. As I walked alongside people of all ages, holding placards with slogans like "Keep your rosaries off my ovaries", or "Ni una menos!" (a call to action on the number of femicides, several this year already shaking the bedrock of Costa Rican life to its core), I thought about a time when this won't be necessary. I hope I might live to see it. I also tried to think of my sweet junior pharmacist ever having someone tell him in no uncertain terms that he would have to be a father. (Maybe he already is.) That's the thing about this blinkered approach to birth control. It's offensive to men and women alike, robbing both sides of their sovereignty. It no doubt makes both genders feel trapped, and less trusting of the other. I wondered what the correlation is between countries with legal abortions and widespread access to birth control and equality of opportunity in terms of education, pay and opportunity. This paper from Georgetown University's Law Center helped answer my query.

Don't get me wrong, Costa Rica is a stunning place, with so much to recommend. Its people and way of life are often embodied by the phrase "¡Pura Vida!", which generally means, "no worries, no fuss, no stress, life is good", but I now see: there's still a little way to go.