Friday, June 21, 2013

Final Thoughts & Pura Vida!

June 20-21

So, I expect this to be my last entry here though I may have one more once I get home and can completely regroup. And of course, once I return to Costa Rica, I will revive this blog. 

This has been a wonderful experience, an eye opening experience, a rejuvenating experience, and hopefully the beginning of a relationship with another country and culture. I’ve been sucked in and I can’t wait until I can return again and again and again—to my tico home in Monteverde, to the beautiful beaches of Manuel Antonio, Puerto Viejo, and Manzanillo. The people here are wonderful—warm, inviting, and engaging. I love the food. Gallo pinto, arroz con pollo, and casado are all delicious. Then there are the fruits. Piña, coco, mango, mandarina, limón, cas, guanabana (soursop), granadillo (passion fruit), among many others. I love them all.

I haven’t talked much about the differences I observed between Monteverde and San Joaquin de Flores (Heredia), which are the two places most of my time here has been spent. I loved Monteverde. It had everything I wanted and needed for this experience—a warm and inviting family, a peaceful and tranquil setting, fresh clean air, access to many outdoor attractions, much wildlife and pretty things, and hills. OK, I didn’t really want the hills, but I think all of the walking on them did my body good.

San Joaquin is a bedroom community of sorts, a suburb of Heredia, which is a suburb of San Jose, the capital city of Costa Rica. There is a lot of traffic here, but nowhere near the number of tourists we saw in Monteverde. After walking around for two hours my first morning here, I didn’t really have a desire to walk anymore. There wasn’t anything to see except houses and businesses and churches…after a while, they all look alike, which may be part of the reason I was disoriented. Oh, you see the pretty yards and the eye-catching things like a horse in front of a large house or a snow white with her seven dwarfs in a yard, but nothing especially interesting. There is not peace and tranquility here. We have had some interesting half-day trips from here—Cartago, a school visit, Café Britt (coffee roasters), but that’s it. I guess it’s obvious which locale I preferred?

As for my families, both have been nice and treated me well. However, I felt a part of my family in Monteverde, but here in San Joaquin, I feel more like a guest. I know some of my classmates have felt the same way. Families seem busier, but also less formal about meals and family time. My family of 6 in Monteverde always had dinner together. Someone always sat down to help me with my homework and was interested in what I was learning. Here, meals are usually just my Tica mama and me. My Tica hermana (24) either doesn’t eat or eats upstairs in her room in front of the TV. If she does eat with us, she asks to be excused as soon as possible.

My house in San Joaquin is more modern in looks, but it doesn't have hot water! There is a garage and a courtyard area behind it to hang laundry, as well as an area in the front with plants, but otherwise there is not any land. My house in Monteverde had land around it--there was the dress shop, the house next door that I believe they owned, a small driveway, a chicken. 

My group’s research project was on tourism. Basically, we interviewed 7 Ticos and 7 North Americans and asked each a set of questions regarding tourism—how they felt about it in Costa Rica, their opinions of the effects of it on the environment, on their communities, on their children, if they felt tourists of different countries were treated differently. We were surprised to find out that Ticos felt that if tourism didn’t exist, they would find other commerce—their economy would be OK. One commented that North Americans treated the environment better than Ticos did. All interviewed felt that a benefit of tourism aside from the economy is the dimension of multiculturalism it provides. It broadens the Ticos’ world, especially the children. They benefit from being exposed to English (among other languages).  

One thing we all considered regarding tourism is how the has to be that balance between the carbon footprint left by tourists—think of buses, consumption of goods, trash left, etc.— with the education and appreciation of the environment we all desire to experience and learn about. Some other North American students mentioned this as well. I don’t know what the perfect answer is, but I will say that all of the hotels we stayed at emphasize things like recycling, reusing towels, conserving. Most of the schools we visited have composts and gardens and begin teaching the students about them at a young age, so hopefully this beautiful place will be around for many years without being negatively impacted by tourism.

Caribbean vs. Pacific
It’s hard to say which beach towns I liked better. I liked certain aspects of both. Of course, the Caribbean is bluer, which you can really only tell when the sun was shining. The waves were rough on both sides, which meant for much fun in the water.
The largest differences was the communities surrounding the beaches. Manual Antonio in general was much more touristy. It seems like I saw more non-Ticos than Ticos. The main road through the town was usually full of traffic. What I really liked was the walk thru the National Park to the lovely beach surrounded by wildlife and different nature hikes you could take. It was amazing. The Caribbean was less crowded, at least the area we were at, which I prefer. It seemed less touched by tourists. I loved the chocolate tour we took and the passion for sustainability exhibited by our guide. The views were amazing. However, we were warned about people approaching us with drugs. No one witnessed this that I know of, but you could smell it out there. It did feel maybe slightly less “safe” but then maybe that’s because of all the seemingly high people around. The beach across from our hotel was very nice and not crowded and just beautiful. I would definitely go back to both places, but think I would choose the less populated area of the pacific if I could only choose one.

Final Story
Earlier this week, I went into the pharmacy to buy some icy hot like stuff for my neck. The male pharmacist was an older man full of smiles. He immediately told me he didn’t speak English, and I told him my Spanish was weak but I was learning and he laughed. So, I was able to convey what I was there for, and he brought me some possibilities. At one point, I was using my dictionary on my phone and he covered it up and pointed to his head and laughed, as if to say, “Come on, think about it. You know it!” I made my purchase, and as I was leaving, I told him to have a nice day—Que tenga un bien dia! He had already gone around the corner, but ran back and looked absolutely THRILLED with my Spanish and that I had used it to offer him a greeting. How wonderful to be treated so well in a country where I don’t have a handle on the language. Many times, it seems North Americans can be impatient and/or annoyed at those who don’t speak our language, but maybe a smile and generous heart will go a long way to help others wanting to learn our language as well. 

The End.

Pura Vida! 

View I pass on the way to CPI in San Joaquin de Flores-looking north

Looking the other way--notice the giant windmills in the distance? 

View north from 2nd floor of CPI

House I pass on the way to school

I miss all of the wildlife we saw in Monteverde

Thursday, June 20, 2013

La Carpio

June 18
Humanitarian Foundation

La Carpio is the location of the Humanitarian Foundation of Costa Rica, started by a woman from New Jersey named Gail. She first came here in the Peace Corps, went back to the US for about a year, and then returned here for good. Her life’s work is to eradicate poverty. From what I saw of La Carpio, the are we visited, she has a huge job just there in that community.

La Carpio is a Nicaraguan refuge community, a shantytown. The pictures are mostly from the bus, but you’ll get the idea. People who live here do not have many material things, but they have huge hearts and the capacity to find happiness with that they have. La Carpio has one way in and one way out. A road runs down the middle of the community. There is a river on each side as you enter. The poorer houses are located nearer the river. 

Gail not only works in this community daily, but also with the Cabecares, who we met last week. They came to her about 15 years ago and said she was the chosen one who was to help them modernize their living while still holding on to their traditions and customs. Thanks to Gail, they have access to medical care, yet it still honors their time held beliefs and traditions. She doesn’t force anything on them; everything they do is because they have asked for help in that area. When the clinic was built, she asked them if they wanted the traditional type of structure that they have or a modern one made from concrete. They chose the latter because they recognized the need to have a sanitary, dry place for medicines to be stored and for them to be treated. I wish we could have visited where they actually live vs. their meeting place. Maybe next time?

As for La Carpio, we just stayed in the facility and helped out. Some people held babies, others played with toddlers. I painted a child sized chair yellow, blue, and purple in about 25 minutes with paint that was as thin as water and brushes that have seen better days. I don’t think the kids in the school will care about that.

I wished I had the words to convey what I felt when seeing the conditions, when learning about the people in La Carpio. I have often heard that what we consider poverty in the US would not be poverty in many other places. I have seen this first hand. I don’t mean to diminish poverty in the US, as I know that is real and there and far too many kids go hungry there. However, this was an entirely different level of poverty.

Gail also shared with us her explanation, based on her observations over 30+ years living in this country. I’ll include a picture and explanation below, as best I can. 

Where we visited

A boy in the nursery. Most of the children here have mothers who work there or are involved in some capacity

The chair I painted. The professional painters in my family would probably be appalled. :) 

A quilt made by some of the women who work here. Each has a square that tells her story. A teenager has one that shows her choices between bad-alcohol, drugs, no school, and good--church, school, work. Another has a story about how she was sexually abused by her father. Of the 27 women who work with Gail in the foundation, 27 of them were sexually abused as children. 

The children's area

 Homes of La Carpio from the bus

More homes

Most start with some tin and add on as they can

What you see as you drive into La Carpio (this was as we were leaving, looking back)

Gail's explanation of the extreme poverty of many Nicaraguans. Basically, the circle represents a system where everyone is equal, contributes equally, etc. The pyramid describes systems of the middle ages starting with the king, the arm, the church, and the serfs/peasants. That was similar to how Nicaragua was. The economy was built around coffee. The landowners controlled the shelter, money, food, education, etc. Education and heath care was limited so that only the basics were provided--enough to have able, if not completely healthy, workers. They didn't provide any health education--they preferred young girls to have children, many times by men much older, as this ensured the continuity of the working class. Fear was used as a motivator to keep the workers working. So, the massive earthquake of 1972 near the capital of Nicaragua changed things. Over 10,000 died. Conditions became worse. Five years later, there was a revolution and economic collapse. Many people escaped to Costa Rica--expressed by the rectangle. Farmers had blocks of land, became business owners, hired many of the refugees, and built a solid middle class. 

I found all of this very interesting and someday when I have free time (ha), maybe I will try to learn more on my own. 

Unexplained Flying Coconuts

June 16

The visit to the Caribbean side of Costa Rica was interesting due to the seemingly completely different culture. There is a lot more Caribbean and Jamaican influence in the Limón province. We listened to a CD of calypso music as we entered Limón province—I need a copy of it for my own personal collection.

Once into the ciudad of Limón, we stopped in the town park. We saw the island where Kristobal Colon first discovered the Americas, as well as a plaque commemorating him and his young son, who was with him. I didn’t learn about this in my history classes. Or maybe I did and have since forgotten. As we were walking back to the bus, I noticed a strange looking ball of fur in a tree. It was a sloth, and based on how low he was, maybe he had just come to the ground for his every two week release of waste, if you know what I mean. Anyhow, after this brief stop, we continued on for just over an hour to Puerto Viejo, a seemingly quiet little beachside town. Our hotel was just outside of town, across the road from la playa. It was a nice little place to stay, surrounded by much flora and fauna.

Two interesting things happened while staying here. The first was on Friday night. We had a bonfire on the beach and roasted marshmallows. While walking down the driveway, a small group of us heard the strangest, most startling sound. I won’t name names, but two of them ran away faster than I ever saw them move on this trip. Me? I went to the noise with my flashlight in hand. About 10 feet in front of me, a raccoon came out of a tree and ran across the parking lot. So, we heard two raccoons fighting in a tree.

Later, while sitting around the bonfire, I was talking and our guide, Selma, was next to me. I heard a strange sound and about that time she jumped up. Turns out someone/something threw a coconut at us and hit her in the back. We jumped up, shined the light around, but didn’t see anything. Two of us went across the street to tell the guards at the gate to our hotel. Well, we should have sent at least one person with a solid command of Español, because this particular guide didn’t know English (several of the others did). So, we are stumbling around trying to tell him that someone was throwing coconuts at us. I started laughing—this just seemed so ridiculous—I mean, can you picture going up to a policeman somewhere and telling him that while sitting on the beach, someone threw a coconut at you? Geez. Another guy drove up who knew some English, so we told him, and he translated to the guard. We were told they would call the police and they would arrive within about 5 minutes.  So, about 10 minutes later, two policemen ride up (on the same motorcycle). They recognize our guide based on her previous job working for the San Joes Police Department-she was the first female high ranking person. Turns out the message they received was that there was a fight at a bonfire at the beach. Ha! They checked things out, didn’t find anything, and we called it a night shortly thereafter. As to where that coconut came from—who knows? It didn’t come from the direction of the trees, so I don’t see how it could have been a monkey. Never mind that we didn’t see any monkeys in this area, though we did hear them a few times. They weren’t that close to the beach. We finished talking, ate all of our marshmallows, and called it a night. 

The next day we visited a different part of the beach for a short time--this time in Puerto Viejo. It was pretty shallow with a lot of rock - it hurt to walk barefoot. However, this was our first truly sunny day when at the beach and it was beautiful. 

Pura Vida! 

Finally, a blue sky and beautiful water!

Ahhhh. This was the rock that was painful to walk on, but the water was great.

Back to the beach by our hotel--one last time

These flowers look like plastic!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Chocolate Forest

June 15

We began the day by taking a leisurely stroll through a chocolate forest. OK, maybe not so leisurely as it was uphill, rocky, and damp. Our tour guide was a cool guy from Minnesota. He was very knowledgeable about the chocolate trade and extremely interested in sustainability and fair trade practices. That was enough to encourage me to buy chocolate—mucho chocolate. J He and his business partner purchased this land and are in the process of cleaning it up as they learn how to make chocolate. A blight once weakened and nearly destroyed the forest, so it had been left without any attention for years. He discussed how wines are developed and marketed—the type of grape, the region, the year, and questioned why chocolate wasn’t the same. Good question! The mass producers of cacao trees are in Africa, and are focused more on quantity vs. quality. Hershey’s has to get their chocolate from somewhere. Theirs is a smaller production, but they also work with other small producers in the area to process and market their chocolate. Chocolate flavors are derived based on several factors—how long and how quickly the beans are allowed to dry, how mature they are, and the region they come from, among others. Next time you take a bite of that piece of chocolate, consider that!

As our guide talked about the production of chocolate and sustainability, he mentioned how their goal is to make chocolate in such a way to best help the Costa Ricans—their workers. Traditional chocolate making only sees the workers receive a small percentage of the profit. Their goal is to have them receive closer to 80%. In order for that to happen, the growers/harvesters must also be heavily involved in the production of the chocolate from the cacao beans. I was very impressed by the efforts not to exploit and maximize the owners’ dollars, but to make extreme efforts to help the Ticos—the workers, the ones who know and carry on the tradition of making chocolate, receive more of the fruits of their labors all while carrying out environmentally conscious practices that focus on sustainability. Oh, how I wish I knew more companies in the USA that focused on taking care of those on the “front lines.”  Anyhow when they package chocolate for production, they don’t add any of the fillers and things whose names you don’t know how to pronounce. It’s chocolate in its purest form—a bite of heaven. I was so glad to do my part to support the local economy after our tour. J

As we were leaving, we told the guide thank you and that we appreciated all he and his partner and family are doing. He said he felt that he didn’t find the chocolate forest, but that it found him. He believes in a higher power and feels that it was that higher power that led them to own this beautiful piece of land near the Caribbean. Additionally, he said he and his wife had been trying to conceive a child when still in the USA, but finally decided that wasn’t in the cards for them. This opportunity came, they jumped on it, moved here, and eventually found out that they were blessed with a child (his words). His entire spiel about this gave me goose bumps. I am sure that their endeavor will result in great opportunities for the local Ticos as well as give the world a bit of great tasting chocolates.

As part of our experience, we had the opportunity to taste four very different chocolates while sitting up high on the side of the mountain with a view of the Caribbean. Too bad it was a cloudy, rainy day, but it was still beautiful. We were instructed to smell the chocolate, listen to the sound of it as we broke it in two, pay attention to the after taste, etc. My favorite was a bitter, creamy dark, though most preferred one that was a little less creamy-that one was chalky to me. The one most of us did not prefer was one with floral undertones. Next, we drank some of the chocolate xotacl (spelling is wrong, I am sure).  I like it—warm, spicy with cayenne, sweetened with a touch of honey and vanilla. Finally, and the most surprising part of our tour, was the pairings. Small pieces of the four chocolates were brought out along with a selection of herb and spices. We had fresh garlic, fresh ginger, cilantro, an oregano like herb, something that I think is similar to tarragon, peppermint, vanilla, salt, pepper, curry, cinnamon, cayenne, and ground coffee. We were instructed to concoct our own bites with a blend of several of the flavors provided. My favorite was the creamy chocolate dipped in vanilla, cinnamon, and ground coffee. Delisioso. However, the garlic and ginger both paired very well with the rich flavors of the chocolate. Imagine that! Maybe I’ll plan a chocolate tasting/pairing for friends when I get back home, and serve wine to wash it all down. Any takers?

Let there be chocolate………………….And it was good (front and back of a t-shirt) 

View from the bathroom during our chocolate tour--this was a part of the "factory" where they process the chocolate. Many bottles made up part of the wall. 

THe menu at the chocolate shop--I purchased some of all I think

The chocolate/herb/spice pairing

Cacao fruit and flowers

The cacao processing area

Our awesome chocolate tour guide/owner