A couple of months after we moved to Costa Rica our home phone rang. I answered, expecting it to be another wrong number, and instead found myself in an extremely confusing conversation.
My ability to speak Spanish is, to date, questionable, but particularly in our early days here I was terrified of the phone. Conversations on the phone lack context or visual cues and, particularly in this span, they almost never involved good news.
On this particular day I caught about one word out of the fifty that were spoken by the caller who was more than willing to sacrifice inflection and grammar to convey three minutes of Spanish in thirty seconds. The sole fragment of a word I recognized was “bus.” Keeping in mind that there is no caller ID here, and for all I knew the caller might have thought they were calling to get a seat on the next bus, I came back with the Spanish equivalent of, “What bus?”
We went a few more rounds until the female caller added the acronym “oo-pe-ss.” That sounded familiar, and at some point I confirmed that the caller was talking about a package for me from UPS. Still very confused about the bus element, I hung up and, with no better idea, drove to the public bus station.
As I drove I remembered a series of frustrating calls I had been a part of a few weeks before. These calls involved my credit card company, who was attempting to send me a replacement credit card, and UPS, who acknowledged that they had received an envelope from the credit card company while also confirming that they would not, could not, deliver anything to me as I resided well outside of their delivery zone.
Upon arrival at the bus station I recognized the voice of the fast talking woman. I followed the sound of her voice to a line of people queued up in front of a counter with a glass partition. I waited my turn, then used my kindergarten-level Spanish to explain that I was the one she had just called. I wilted under the barrage I received in reply, but understood as she left her desk and went outside to meet a bus that she had other fish to fry.
About twenty minutes later she returned to her desk and we began anew. I gave her my name a few different times, attempting to confirm that there is no “k” involved, before giving up and handing over my Texas driver’s license. She stared intently at my license, then reached under a stack of papers and produced a battered UPS envelope with a variety of stickers on the front. I excitedly reached for the envelope, which the woman jerked away with a demand that I produce my passport. Twenty minutes later, after a trip back to my house for my passport, I ripped open the envelope and saw that it did indeed contain my new credit card — which had apparently been traveling around the country before someone stuck it on the public bus.
With this episode and a few rides squeezed into impossibly small seats on this same bus as a backdrop, it is fair to say that I am not a huge fan of the public bus system. I can, and do, ride this bus up and down the mountain on occasion, but it is generally a last resort for Gringo Grande.
Last week I received an e-mail from a newspaper I work with on occasion asking if I would be willing to take an upcoming special edition to a few different spots up in my district. “Sure,” I replied. “How are you going to send the copies up here?”
The short reply said, “We’ll send them to you via encomienda.”
I stared at the word on my screen, trying to figure out what the newspaper contact saying. I had recently finished a couple of different books which touched on the horrific oppression of indigenous populations in this part of the world. The term encomienda had come up — a lot.
Per britannica.com: Although the original intent of the encomienda was to reduce the abuses of forced labour (repartimiento) employed shortly after the discovery of the New World, in practice it became a form of enslavement.
thoughtco.com puts a finer point on it: The encomienda system was one of the many horrors inflicted on the native people of the New World during the conquest and colonial eras. It was essentially slavery…It legally allowed the Spaniards to work the natives literally to death in the fields and mines.
Yes, the Spanish word encomendar means “to entrust.” And, yes, it is apparently true that UPS entrusts the public bus system here with packages they have no desire to deliver.
What puzzles me is how a population descended from the indigenous peoples oppressed by the Spanish has come to use the word in Spanish that identifies this oppression as a name for a delivery service. I wonder how many people here using the encomienda service understand the significance of the word — which would be the equivalent of sending a package in the Ukraine using Ostarbeiter.