One man’s trash
I may have mentioned that I am not a city person. And that Heredia is a city. One of the stranger ways I coped with this was to go looking for trash.
I have a dear friend—back in the land of noontime shadows—who collects everything. Cool-colored stones, funnily shaped hardware, intriguing twigs… The mind of a philosopher looking through the eye of a magpie. His ability to find beauty in the most unlikely of places is one of my favorite things about him.
Among the most expansive and best curated of his collections is his bottle cap collection. At some point it occurred to me to start collecting Costa Rican bottle caps to bring back to him. I thought it would just be an absent-minded favor, just sticking caps in my pocket when I found them. But it ended up becoming much more.
Finding caps was satisfying, and it wasn’t long before incidental discovery gave way to active searching. Instead of arbitrarily letting my gaze graze along at eye level, I aimed it down at the sidewalks and gutters as I walked to and from school. A clear hierarchy of discoveries emerged: at the bottom, bottle caps no different from the ones in the States (Corona Extra); a step up, American brands with Spanish text (Coca-Cola: Ingredientes: agua carbononatada, azúcar, color de caramelo…); then regionally unique brands (Pilsen). I would pick up duplicates and meticulously compare their condition to select the best possible specimen. The crowning glory of my tribute collection is an Imperial, the classic black eagle on a golden background—the true flag of Costa Rica—with hardly a dent from the bottle opener and only the tiniest of scratches from the asphalt where it fell, dejected, from the hands of the drunkard who had no idea what it was really worth.
Of course, the bottle caps themselves are worth nothing. The fact that they might make my friend smile is nice, but even that wasn’t my main reason for scouring the gutters. More than anything, I looked for them because it was an easy way to focus my attention. One of the highest forms of happiness I know is wonder. Wonder comes from newness, and newness comes from paying attention. If you look at anything close enough, you will find something new, and you can find wonder where there was nothing before. So long after I had grown bored with my seven-block walk to school, I was able to find excitement in the very litter that I had once found ugly. And though I can’t say I really produced anything of academic merit, I was thoroughly convinced that I was undertaking a scholarly endeavor by compiling a comprehensive index of the regional diversity of carbonated beverages consumed. (In fact, I told my friend about my undertaking, one of the first things he said was—“Can you conclude anything about the drinking habits of the culture?”)
There was a long time when I wasn’t enjoying my study abroad experience, when my head would have been down whether I was looking for bottle caps or not. But finding an excuse to look for beauty every day made a difference, however small, because it was all a matter of perspective.