Stranger 01/100 - Carlos

I photographed my first stranger on a forested hillside over Costa Rica's South Pacific coast. Carlos was the groundskeeper of a house my wife and I had rented. Our first morning there he agreed to lead us to a nearby waterfall. Carlos wore rubber rain boots over his jeans and had a machete sheathed at his side, and I marveled at how effortlessly he bounded through the steep terrain in the morning heat. Passing through a cluster of bamboo trees, I decided this was a fantastic opportunity to start my 100 strangers project (and to catch my breath). I told Carlos I was doing a "proyecto de fotografia" and asked if I could take his picture, and he quickly agreed.

Over the next couple of days my rusty Spanish helped me learn part of Carlos' story. He was born and lived most of his life in Nicaragua, the hemisphere's second poorest country. He had been in the Sandinista army and lived an impoverished life. Seven years ago he left Managua and crossed into Costa Rica, determined to find steady work in the country's more stable economy. Hard times found him there, too, but Carlos seemed to have finally found his niche as a groundskeeper. The owner of the house, a Mexican-American woman, told me Carlos had been among a few squatters living on the land she and her husband had bought. The couple ejected them. At the time Carlos worked as a manual laborer and at a nearby bakery, and apparently he was taken advantage of by his employers. One day, the home owner told me, she was driving in town and saw Carlos sitting on a sidewalk looking hungry and dejected. She pulled over and told him she could use a hard worker. Carlos got into the car.

Since then he has worked as housekeeper, handyman, and chef for the tourists who rent the house, and he is helping construct a second home on the property. Tucked further back on the land is a corrugated metal shack where Carlos lives. The home owner said she gave Carlos a bed but walked back one morning to find him sleeping on a strip of cardboard on the ground. "He said beds are too hot and that he's used to cardboard," she said.

What I found most remarkable about Carlos was his exuberant spirit. A man could easily crumble under the weight of such a hard life, but Carlos seemed invigorated by his. Once he realized I spoke some Spanish and was interested in talking, he launched into story after story, using animated gestures and even animal noises to help us understand. He had stories about pumas and vipers and about American tourists -- doctors, retirees, and hippies -- who always seem so happy to escape the snow and their computer screens and spend a week in this place where he gets to live year round. As he told his stories, his pet dog, "La Duquesa," (the Duchess) sprinted back and forth across the kitchen hunting cicadas that periodically buzzed through the open-air house. Carlos had a boisterous laugh, like a child's, and he seemed somewhat matter-of-fact about the hardships of his own life. One morning he made us a batch of arepas for breakfast. When I asked how he learned to make them, he recalled his mother pulling him into the kitchen when he was still very small and teaching him. Learn to cook for yourself, Carlos, or you will starve to death, she had told him. They were delicious arepas.

I don't expect most of my stranger narratives to be this long. But I found Carlos to be a fascinating character and an inspiration to meet. As for the photo, I think it's a good start. For months I've watched this project from the sidelines and been amazed by the incredible skill many of you have for portrait photography. I'm not there yet. But I intend to make some real strides through this project. And I'm looking forward to meeting many more fascinating strangers along the way.