Thursday, May 31, 2012

¡Pasa Adelante! ¿Qué busca?

Today started off with what has become a typical day here in Ciudad Colon: a quick cold shower that wakes you up, a delicious cheese sandwich and fruit for breakfast with some of the best coffee ever, pack up the homework and the rain jacket, and off to bus stop we went, commenting on the gorgeous weather that unfortunately won’t last and the differing cuteness of the many dogs that decide to follow us around. When we got to UPEACE a bit early and let Professor Paxton grab his coffee, we jumped right into discussing the new Les Miserables trailer and how it should really just come out now instead of at Christmas. (In case you haven’t seen the trailer yet: There are benefits to getting to class early and Professor Paxton grabbing coffee before we start. 
Today's class started off focusing on micro-development by discussing the pros and cons of entrepreneurship. After a class poll and some hypothetical situations we came to the conclusion that most of us are rather risk adverse and would choose to avoid acts of entrepreneurship, such as opening our own businesses. We then addressed the question of whether or not it is moral or acceptable to suggest that people in developing countries develop by opening their own businesses, when we ourselves would be adverse to the idea.
On the macro level, we asked ourselves how ethical or fair is it for powerful states to tell developing states they have to develop in certain ways. We used the example of the US encouraging states to conserve the environment during development while the US didn’t and still doesn’t always consider the environment during development. We considered how difficult it can be to address ethical issues while trying to make development happen. Like most days in class, there were some lively debates, good laughs, interesting analogies, and the rare moment of quiet when the economics of the situation were shown graph. Professor Paxton also finally banned the fish metaphor (“teach someone to fish instead of giving them a fish”) before we all drowned in it – some things do get worn out after a while – and we wrapped up by going over some tips and reminders for this afternoon. Why would we need tips you might ask? Well because this afternoon the Global Scholars headed off to El Mercado Central in San José!
Colleen, Kathy, Jackie
outside El Mercado Central
After lunch we bussed into San José to do our ethnography assignment. Despite our nerves, we had a blast exploring the market, observing the people and market-culture, and interviewing some of the workers. Those of us who know Spanish got to put our skills to the test and find out about why and how the workers became part of the market. It might seem simplistic or ignorant to ask someone why they work (umm to make money, duh) but we found that there’s a lot more to everyone’s story. My group met individuals who had started their own businesses and taken risks to give their families something to depend upon; an elderly woman who loves her job talking with people and watching the crowd walk by while strategically selling lottery tickets outside the market sitting a block away from her son who does the same; a fruit vendor who brings his produce from his hometown and money back to his family and works every day from 5 am until the tarde (late afternoon). We saw people selling touristy knick-knacks, clothes, shoes, leather goods, pottery, artwork, books, hammocks, hats, live bunnies, chickens, roosters, food for the chickens, chickens cooked to order, fruit, vegetables, meats, seafood, flowers, toys…I could go on but you get the picture. (Or if you don’t you can look at the ones I’ve put on here.)
Conor in the market
Ethnography is enlightening as long as you’re willing to take the risk and start up a conversation. You can learn a lot from watching interactions, but hearing what people have to say allows you to understand their actions. We learned about the risks the entrepreneurs in the market made and how they went about with their own development projects. Putting ourselves out there a little and taking the constant shouts of “¡Pasa Adelante! ¿Qué busca?” (Come in! What are you looking for?) as an opportunity to pasa into a conversation allowed the Global Scholars to turn a trip to the market into a pura vida learning experience.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Where the pavement ends.

Living in a small Central American town has its perks and its downfalls. One of the downfalls is seeing strange insects and animals running around our house.  Imagine the chaos that ensued when five girls watching a movie and doing homework saw a gecko run across the wall.  Cue excessive screaming and the frantic batting of brooms in an effort to shoo the gecko out of the house.  Imagine five girls standing on chairs and tables in order to avoid being crawled on (even though the gecko was on the wall), and collective screaming every time it made an appearance. Although mildly terrifying at first, it soon became an object of amusement as we reflected over experiencing new things in a foreign country.

Costa Rica is certainly charming in every way – from the seemingly never-ending mountains to the host families who treat us as their own family to the new food and culture.  I have to admit, I was a little bit apprehensive about living in a house away from downtown Ciudad Colon, where the rest of our cohort was living.  That coupled with living with people I had previously only been acquaintances with initially made me nervous as to how this trip was going to turn out.  The half mile trek through a dirt road to our bus stop to and from UPEACE every morning and afternoon seemed daunting, especially when it seems to start raining unpredictably, leaving us to walk home in the rain.

Where the pavement ends - our bus stop to and from UPEACE
Fast forward a week - After the initial culture shock of living away from the rest of our classmates, all six of us girls have started to adjust to and even appreciate the compound we live on.  The walk to the bus stop in the morning has become enjoyable, with a peak of sunshine guiding our way and some beautiful mountain scenery.  The neighbors always greet us with a cheerful “Hola!” or “Buenos dias!” and the dirt road doesn’t seem quite so long as it used to feel.

Some of the girls on the way to the bus stop overlooking the mountains.

After a slightly delayed bus ride involving some miscommunications, we all arrived at UPEACE for another day of stimulating discussion which challenges our opinions and encourages us to think deeply about each topic.  Today’s topic was whether China or India would be more preferable and successful in the long run, which led into a discussion of if we would rather live in China or India.  We discussed ideas of political freedoms, history, cultural values, and personal background.  This discussion really pushed us to look at things from different perspectives and push further into cultures we really aren’t too familiar with.  

After school today we decided if we were going to venture around down town Ciudad Colon or go back to our quiet sanctuary.  In the end, we decided to go back home and work on homework.  Once we arrived at our house, we started off the afternoon by picking fresh oranges from the orange tree in our backyard before retiring to our homes to take a siesta before another night of homework.  This place is beginning to look a lot like paradise.

Alaina, Sarah, Colleen, and Jackie walking home.

Studying together on the balcony.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

A Taste of the USA in Ciudad Colón?

It is always surprising to me to find English language shops or restaurants when visiting a foreign country. It seems as though a little piece of the United States was transplanted to comfort weary tourists who are deprived of their native land. Imagine my surprise when I heard about an English language café and bookstore in the heart of Ciudad Colón of all places. Granted, Ciudad Colón is considered part of San José, but it feels like a small town to us Global Scholars who have the pleasure of living here for three weeks. Professor Paxton, our International Development professor, and Jeannie Khouri, our study abroad coordinator, had told our cohort about an English language used bookstore during the first week of class, but it appears to have been forgotten until now.
After an interesting class discussion, involving selling human beings and giving states “fish” (or aid) instead of helping them learn “how to fish” or how to develop, a small group of us decided to try out this bookstore when we arrived back in town. Though the weather seemed ominous, with dark clouds and the loudest thunder I have heard in a while, the skies did not actually open up like yesterday. Once our bus wound down the mountain from the UPeace campus back to Ciudad Colón, we made our way down the main street to find this elusive shop.

Where our adventure began.

We took a turn before a local panadería, and wandered down a side street complete with an ice cream shop and Indian clothing store. Many locals stared at us as we kept turning around in confusion and walked halfway through doors of different shops. We inched closer to the main street until we decided to go in the other direction, and lo and behold, from the corner, we saw the New Day Café and Bookstore. No longer were we confused tourists, but knowledgeable locals (to a certain extent).                                                 
Part of the main book room.

The bookstore is split into two areas: the actual shop with bookshelves and a terrace area to sit and read. As we browsed the shelves, I was surprised at the variety of books the shop had. On one shelf, you can find the classics, like Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Gone with the Wind, Wuthering Heights and The Age of Innocence. Directly across from them are books that are a bit more modern and teen-oriented: New Moon, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. On other shelves, I happened upon Spanish for Gringos, a great guide for those who want to learn Spanish basics, as well as a large novel section of the Danielle Steele and Nora Roberts variety. Apart from more popular books, the store also houses books about philosophy, history, pets, some books in Spanish and obscure novels that may not have reached the New York Times’ Best Seller List.

The other part of the main book room.

  The main book room also houses a small kitchen where you can order many different items. Coffee is a must, but the kitchen also offers freshly baked goods. A number of us had the cinnamon buns, even though cookies and cake were also available. The kitchen also offers fuller meals, namely the quesadilla as well as some sandwiches and salads. The great thing about Costa Rica is that you get more for your money here. One moderately-sized cinnamon bun costs 600 colones, which roughly converts into just over one US dollar. The rather large quesadilla cost 1800 colones, which is just under $4 in the US. I found that there was a great mix of cultures in the menu, as both Latin American and American cuisine were offered.  

The terrace.
A lion fountain toward the back of the terrace.

Just through a side door, you enter into the terrace area. The terrace is a covered, but open-air area, complete with three tables, a small fountain and some more books. The sound of the running water provides the terrace with a sense of calm, almost like being in a park, but without the added bonus of screaming children. The tiles and walls are a red/brown/burnt orange color, which is an unusual color choice, but it adds to the Costa Rican charm of the store. Wi-Fi is included for free, so all you need to do is ask for the password.

Francesca in the middle of reading.

Overall, the bookstore has a great atmosphere and does not only cater to visiting Americans. The blending of cultures through décor, menu items and books makes it different from other English language bookstores I have encountered in the past. The books themselves are not that expensive, about 500 to 2000 colones maximum, and there is even a free book bin.  This place is great for hanging out, grabbing lunch and studying too. If only Cohort One had more time in Costa Rica so that they could make New Day the place to go after International Development class.
Kate (enjoying a quesadilla), Amaya and Conor.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Back to the Books.

This morning the alarm on my phone went off at 9 AM. It was a pleasant change to my alarm going off at 7 AM the way that I’d grown accustomed to during the past week of classes. It was definitely a nice break, getting to sleep in two hours. We had a long and busy weekend at Monteverde, and even though most of us napped on the bus ride back we were still all exhausted. Sleeping on a bus simply does not compare to sleeping in a bed. Even though we weren’t getting Memorial Day off, like we would have if we had class in the states, I think we were all more than grateful to have class start two hours late.

The weather was especially pleasant this morning. The sun was bright, and there wasn’t a single cloud in the sky. The morning air felt especially warm, because Monteverde had been noticeably cooler. But I was glad to be back to where the sun was warm, and the clear sky gave me hope that the rest of the day would be equally beautiful, which would be a nice change from the usual rainy afternoons.  

When we got on the bus this morning it was eerily quiet. Normally, even though my roommate Kathy and I are the first Global Scholars to get on the bus, a few UPeace grad students were already on the bus. Their school year had finished at the end of last week. So, instead of going to the regular bus stops, and all of the Global Scholars arriving on three different buses, one picked all of us up.  

Today’s class discussion was extremely interesting, because it was our first opportunity to really bring together what we were seeing around us in Costa Rica and what we were reading and had been discussing for the course. We intended to only spend about an hour discussing what we’d observed in Monteverde over the weekend, but instead we found ourselves discussing our observations for the entire hour and a half that we had before lunch time.

As with any good class discussion, I think it created more questions than answers.

When we talked about Monteverde we wondered: was tourism the best choice for the town? Was it the most efficient economic choice that the town could have made? Had the value on conservation or ecotourism come first? Were the community’s prioritization of conservation and ecotourism dependant on each other? Was tourism helping or hurting the environment? Had it not been for the Quakers moving to Monteverde would there be tourism in the area? Had the Quakers moving to Monteverde helped the environment because they specifically protected certain areas of land? Or had the Quakers causing the dairy industry to grow created more damage than they prevented?

After lunch, a professor from UPeace came to address us. His name was Mihir Kanade. He was an extremely intelligent Indian man who specialized in international law, and more recently international development and human rights. He did a really good job of providing us with a background of what he was defining human rights to be, as an essential part of development because he relied primarily on Amartya Sen’s definition of human rights as freedom. He proceeded to question the real value of the United Nations’s Millennium Development Goals and point out their inherent flaws. It really helped me understand that while efforts to help developing countries are admirable, sometimes they are ineffective and serve more to make an organization look good rather than actually help the developing countries.

Unfortunately, during Professor Kanade’s lecture the skies open and the rain began. It was the loudest rainstorm that I have ever heard, but it was beautiful. It rains hard in DC, but it pours in Costa Rica. Still, there is something especially beautiful about tropical rains! Because it was raining I decided to spend the afternoon and evening in, catching up one some reading, writing, and communication to my friends and family back home.

It was another beautiful day in Ciudad Colon, Costa Rica!

Pura Vida: Preservation in Monteverde

Today we started our final day in the mountains of the Monteverde Cloud Forest with guest speakers who concentrated on both the most important mammals in the forest, and the role of environmental preservation in this area. 
Conor with ears the size that
humans would require to have
the hearing equivalent of a bat

We began with a visit to the Bat Jungle for an informational tour on how bats contribute to the cloud forest ecosystem. Our tour guide was incredibly passionate about bats, and began with a brief introduction to the different types of bats that are present in the area: nector bats, insectivores, fruit bats and even small vampire and false vampire bats. She explained the unique body structures each kind of bat has, from varying ear size and placement to their “ear horns” on their noses and wingspan. Most interestingly, our guide explained the role of bats in Costa Rican society and economics. Without bats, Monteverde would not be able to support its current biodiversity. 

A fruit bat roosting
After a walk through of this bat “museum,” we moved on to a live bat exhibit. Despite it being extremely dark with a very dim red light, we got to observe over one hundred bats of various species through just a thin pane of glass. Our guide talked us through each species habits in the Monteverde Cloud Forest, from pollinating piña and banana trees to controlling the insect population. Farming for certain fruits practically requires bat boxes in order to stay profitable as the climate changes. She highlighted individual bats and told us their histories, introducing us to their personalities. One of the bats was convinced a model bat roosting on the bark of a tree was its mate, bringing it an extra piece of fruit every day. Another bat was mischievous, going out of its way to wake up its sleeping friends and cause them both to fall to the floor. The cloud forest’s ecological framework relies directly on bats to stay as beautiful as it is.

Our next stop was at a station of the Children’s Eternal Rainforest. Here we had the opportunity to meet and get lectured by Dr. Bob Law, a major player in preserving the biodiversity in Costa Rica. Reminding many of the students of the grandfather-like figure of Pixar’s Up, Dr. Law moved to Costa Rica around forty-five years ago and became involved with a lot of the development in Monteverde. Unlike most of our guest speakers, our lecture took place outside, in the very forest that Dr. Law was talking about protecting. 

Our outdoor classroom
The beginning of technologic growth in the Monteverde area was way ahead of other areas because of the Quaker involvement. In the 1960s, they even had a telephone system despite the fact that mail was only delivered every two weeks if they were lucky. With the Quakers, natives established the Monteverde Preservation Society to protect the forest and promote ecotourism. Dr. Law spent most of his time discussing the economical background of this organization and how the Children’s Eternal Rainforest is able to continue to expand. 

In Costa Rica, the area around Monteverde was originally open for homesteading by whomever came here. You could claim whatever land you wanted - even that which was  “owned” by other people if it did not appear to be being used. In the 1980‘s the people living here began to protect the watershed area near the lake by attempting to buy up the surrounding land. Education programs in local schools spurred an entire generation of environmentally focused youth.
Dr. Bob Law discussing the Children's Eternal Rainforest

Because of Swiss teachers teaching in Monteverde and then going back home and teaching their students about the importance of rainforest protection. The Swiss children’s movement for the Children’s Eternal Rainforest raised a million dollars, which was then matched by the federal governmental of Switzerland. This money was able to grow the protected area of the cloud forest from 3000 acres to more than 56000 acres today. 

Farmers donated land in 1987 that later became Bajo del Tigre, the visitor’s center that we visited. In the 80s, the Monteverde Preservation Society was able to recieve many grants to fund their educational goals. As more and more environmental issues came onto the scene in the 90s, money was much more hard to come by, and they began to rely more on ecotourism for revenue. 

At this time, maintaining the security of the preserve became more difficult because of the homesteading laws. They require security throughout the preserve because technically if its not going to be used people can move in on it: they protected the natural environment from hunters, irresponsible hikers and people who want to collect orchids and songbirds to sell. Unfortunately, the only response by local law enforcement is a light slap on the wrist.
Going forward, the Monteverde Preservation Society is looking to continue expansion through indirect governmental funding. There are no official national preserves - they are all privately own; however, to combat development in more rural areas they created a gasoline tax. This tax creates a fund that any person can apply to use if they have more than five acres of forest land. The money for an educational program ran out around fifteen years ago, yet they are reestablishing a teacher in the schools specifically for environmental protection and the responsible use of their bountiful environmental commodities.
Butterfly at Bajo del Tigre, Children's Eternal Rainforest

At the outlook of Bajo del Tigre

Dr. Law provided a different perspective on the environment that was not as concentrated on ecotourism and the economic development. The idea of conservation of our resources has major ramifications on the idea of development, and how you can truly measure success in communities where this paradigm appears. 

As we travel throughout Cuidad Colón, San Jose and Costa Rica and then onto Quito, Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands, you can find my own personal travel blog posts like this one, as well as more pictures at 

Sunday, May 27, 2012

A Bird's Eye View

Our second day in the beautiful Costa Rican town of Monteverde began bright and early as usual. After a delicious but brief breakfast, our group piled onto the bus for our new adventure.

Steps leading up to the Monteverde Institute
First stop -- Monteverde Institute.

We were welcomed by Justin C. Welch, an American native whose studies brought him to Costa Rica where he has resided ever since. Titled "A Sustainable Community for a Sustainable World," Justin discussed Costa Rican water resource management, focused in the Monteverde area. I found it very interesting to hear that they run as a nonprofit, reinvesting everything back into the community.

Our group listening to Justin Welch's lecture.
Monteverde Institute
We learned of the two ways to view water resource management; naturally and anthropogenically. The natural perspective looks at what is actually happening to the water; the chemical contaminants invading the water, the type of ecosystem the water is a part of, the biological processes themselves, and how watershed affects the dynamic of the local community. The anthropogenic perspective takes a less scientific route. This tradition looks at how these things affect individuals and their community groups. Many things are observed during this view such as the economic necessity of clean water for flourishing tourism, the recreational use of water, how the changes in the water system affect the health and well being of individuals, and lastly this perspective focuses on the access to water as a basic human right.

Welch talked of the differences between the United States and Costa Rica's water regulation system. Even within the United States, west coast as compared to east coast, there are major differences in the type of water management. Costa Rica's course of action aligns best with that of the east coast. The Costa Rican constitution itself even states the importance of a "clean, healthy and balanced environment," (Article 46 & 50) -- maybe that is why Costa Rican's have displayed such a commitment to conservation! I found the specifics of watershed and the variant types of water, grey water, black water, etc., to be the most interesting facts of the lecture. Prior to today, I had not understood the importance of watershed and the various departments of the Costa Rican government whose goal was to protect watershed.

Although Costa Rica makes an effort to be "green," no pun intended, its biodiversity and exemplary education system still does not prevent all issues like the frightening statistic that 24.8% of the total population has access to a sewage system. However, the Monteverde Institute has been working to obtain all research regarding water resource management in the area in order to have digital library resources available to all in this quest towards full sustainability.

After a quasi-tour of the institute and a brief break to explore the rare flora and fauna on site, we returned for our next guest lecturer. We were introduced to Ernesto Ruiz, a native of San Jose and a current PhD candidate at the University of Florida. Ernesto furthered our knowledge of ecotourism and its subsequent effects on Costa Rica, a motif of our excursions throughout Monteverde. "Without tourism this town does not eat" focused on the notion of food security. Our class defined food insecurity as both quantitative and qualitative. High rates of food insecurity coincide with consistent availability of food and cultural taboos against certain foods. He furthered our definition by revealing the purpose of his research, to explore the consequences of food insecurity through access to food and patterns of consumption and production.

This ignited a lively discussion of the connection between rising Costa Rican tourist rates and the dynamics of food production and availability to local Costa Ricans. Ernesto was kind enough to also give us some researching tips for our ethnography assignment, his speciality, which will occur next week! Our back to back discussions were brought to a close with lunch. We ate pizza, a nice departure from the typical Costa Rican tradition of rice and beans.

The Cooperative
After our hunger was quenched we traveled to our final, and my favorite, lecture of the day. CASEM is a local women's cooperative, although there are a handful of active male
participants, in Monteverde. The co-op started to sell arts and crafts produced by local women thirty years ago in an effort to help women learn to support themselves and speak up for their personal rights. The director of the co-op, Patricia, was lively, engaging, and openly shared with us her story of overcoming the stigma surrounding her disability and the gender blocks in the way of her path to success. Her discussion, after a brief overview of her organization, revolved around cultural issues in the community. Personally, I found she gave great insight into the dynamics of Costa Rican Culture. Patricia reinforced a recurring concept in class, the importance of education and knowledge in development.

Snake eating a lizard
Up next was the adventurous night tour of the forest. Being afraid of birds, ridiculous and irrational I know, this seemingly fun excursion was causing my stomach to spin overtime. About 90% of Costa Ricans living in Monteverde depend on tourism as a main source of income, therefore tours such as these were common occurrences. Our group split into two and after a brief introduction with our guide, we were off! The two hour journey flew by too fast. We saw a sloth, a porcupine, a butterfly cocoon, a walking stick (the bug not the actual stick), a twenty foot deep ant colony, mating beetles, a tarantula and a snake in the process of eating a lizard after a stealthy catch! Luckily, no birds were in sight...

This post, along with many other exciting accounts of my trip can be found on my own personal blog,
I hope you subscribe and continue to follow my adventure!

I finally met a Beatle!
Our group awaiting to embark upon the night tour!

Friday, May 25, 2012

Up, up and away - Friday, May 25

"Up, Up and Away: to Monteverde"

Today was our first day away from our home stays. After breakfast, we trekked to the bus stop and began our journey to Monteverde. Monteverde is located in the cloud forest in the mountains, and the bus ride takes 3 hours. A cloud forest is a rainforest that receives most of its moisture from mist and clouds, which is due to the trade winds  Along the way, we saw a beautiful lake located in a former volcano. Eventually the paved roads of the Pan-American highway gave way to a dirt road. As the dirt road climbed the mountain, we were treated to amazing views of the valley below. We also were slowed by a herd of cows- which we learned later are an important part of the economy of Monteverde.


Monteverde is known in Costa Rica for its tourism, especially its eco-tourism. After checking into our beautiful hotel and returning from lunch we went to the Monteverde cheese factory. It was established in 1953 by a group of Quakers fleeing the draft in America during World War II. The Cheese Factory is an example of economic diversification in Monteverde and sustainable development. The factory helps support many local dairy farmers and provides an alternative industry in Monteverde  The excess whey is also sent to a pig farm instead of polluting the environment, and thus helps support other nascent industries.


After sampling several cheeses and ice cream, we returned to our hotel where we had two guest speakers address us. The first speaker was a teacher and coffee cooperative member named Guillermo Vegas. He detailed the environmental history of Monteverde from 1950 to the present day. Legislation on the local and national level is dedicated to resolving major environmental issues in the area. As development and pollution in the area increased, measures were taken to preserve existing ecosystems through education, legislation, reforestation programs, and creation of national parks.

The second speaker, Alan Pounds, works for the Centro Cientifico Tropical as a biologist studying orchids. He discussed evidence of global warming in Monteverde and the possible ramifications that has on the ecosystem. We learned about the disappearance of the Golden Toad and the Golden Eye Leaf Frog. There was a 99% decrease in Golden Toad in two years between 1987-1989. We discussed in detail changes in temperature and rainfall in Monteverde. These changes in weather can greatly affect such a delicate ecosystem. This can also significantly affect the diversity of the area.

Following our lectures, we went to a delicious Peruvian restaurant in town and then returned to our hotel, where we all fell quickly asleep after a long and fantastic day in Monteverde. 

Steph VDB

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Are You Sure This is The Third World?

I didn’t know quite to expect when I came to Costa Rica.
While I had done some reading in advance, I knew what people said about Latin American nations, and knew that it was considered to be a place where International Development is a very real and salient aspect of life. After all, we came here to study it!

But picture this. You break the cover  of gloriously puffy clouds only a few hundred feet above the airport, and a beautiful view meets your eyes: powerful and rich greens climb mountainous ridges, and the light from the noon-day sun suffuses the landscape with a verdant glowing cape.

  You can see the rooftops rushing up beneath you and tiny cars crawling like ants below.  As your plane lands gently on the ground, (and has anyone else noticed that landings aren’t as exciting as they were when you were kids?) you see the buildings and can almost feel the sunshine that you might have expected coming to Latin America.  There is a rundown, unused building just outside the airport fence.  As your airplane pulls closer to the terminal, you see that the terminal itself does not appear to be anything special from the outside.  In fact, it appears to be a normal airport that you could find in medium to large cities anywhere in the US.  

There reaches out from the terminal a passageway that connects to your plane. You proceed to walk down it, perhaps after picking up a “checked carry-on.”  That’s when you first notice a small difference in the airport itself.  The architecture is different from what you’d expect in an airport in the States,  and by that I mean, it has a little flavor. True, the shops, snack stands, and places to get breakfast, lunch or dinner are not all that different from in the US.  But you can tell by the way the walls are painted a color other than grey, and the arches are hidden in slightly rounded rectangles that gives a different feel to the place.
Nothing too special though, if you don’t count the whiff of divinely inspired air, the temperature, and all of the green.  


The airport is just the beginning though and, frankly, probably one of the more boring parts of the experience.  You wait in line for between fifteen minutes and forty five, trying to get through customs, and that’s an experience in and of itself, but you don’t really get a taste of Costa Rica on the ground until you step out from the airport.  If you get in during the early afternoon you’re lucky if it isn’t raining even a little bit, but even if it is, you can still see the buildings, people, and vehicles that are on or next to the streets.  

            As I’ve already said, I didn’t know what to expect, but to be honest, I was prepared for what I considered to be a bad scenario, with buildings falling apart around me, little to no evidence of technology and roads that made even rural Pennsylvania’s look like the best paved parts of the Autobahn.  

As our bus pulled away from the airport, I was pleasantly surprised by the colors, the upkeep and the culture that was apparent in the buildings and people, even those in the places further from the airport. As we made our way in the bus up towards Ciudad Colon, I saw shops of all varieties, supermarkets that would exceed a modest shopper’s expectations and most surprisingly to me a few fast food joints.  Admittedly, the roads are not what I was used to, but they far exceed my expectations!  You can travel most places on a road with only a few potholes, and where the roads end, there are invariably gravel roads that have sufficient material to keep your vehicle safely on track. 

What few negative expectations I had were pleasantly proven to be incorrect and I have now taken a slightly more nuanced view of what it means to be in the developing world.  
Another thing I was worried about, I’ll admit, was the prospect of a homestay.  While I was excited by the contrast it would offer and thrilled at the opportunity to experience a family’s life, I was afraid that I would be a typical American, not content with the perfectly adequate local facilities and standard of living.  Needless to say, my fears were unfounded.  American University has done a fantastic job of picking our homestay families, at least from everything that I’ve heard and from my own experience.  The home we are in is purely lovely. It’s well decorated, with themed rooms, it has stable electricity and internet much better than Eagle Secure. 
 The rooms have beds that are comfortable and they are very well furnished by any standard.
All in all, despite not speaking more than 40 or so words of Spanish, I have been able to get along just fine with my host family, with merchants, and while playing a game of soccer mere hours after my arrival.
            What did I expect?  Poverty, depravation, and unfortunate social conditions.  What I’ve found is a place where I genuinely wouldn’t mind living (assuming I could find a good job) and where the quality of life is equivalent in many ways to that in the United States.

   Allow me to share one last thing, something that I did NOT expect in the slightest, before I finish this post!

          Perhaps it was the rigidness of gender norms, but one of the few things that I emphatically did not anticipate was that I would be given a little girl’s bedroom, complete with a pink heart-shaped clock, a pink bed-spread that says “flowers” on it, and a room painted entire in… you guessed it… pink.   I immediately assured my host family that I didn’t mind and that as long as it had a bed, I’d be more than happy with it. Since this was the truth, I have realized that I have a very comfortable place to say, and I certainly won’t let a little bit of pink dissuade me!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

"Don't Worry, Be Happy" (And Peaceful)!

As I blog, I am relaxing in a hammock at the University For Peace (UPEACE) in San José, Costa Rica!  After waking up a little too early this morning (probably out of excitement), I enjoyed a delicious breakfast prepared by my host mom- it even included mangoes picked from a tree in her yard!  Fueled by delicious food and excitement, I was ready for a trip to the famed University.  On the winding, green way to the University, we passed El Rodeo, a small community that is rather isolated; considering that only one bus leaves the community each day, most of the locals find employment either in the numerous coffee fields (now growing tomatoes since it is not yet coffee season) or in Ciudad Colón.  In this area, one can easily observe the economic disparity between the locals and the foreigners, who take advantage of the natural beauty of the area by residing in sprawling vacation properties during part of the year.  This observation provided an unexpected yet extremely relevant prelude to the course in International Development I would begin.
Upon arriving at UPEACE, the rugged exquisiteness of the campus inspires both tranquility and exhilaration.  Surrounded by forested mountains from which mist rises, the campus may as well be a nature reserve!  One-story buildings designed with large windows on all walls are scattered through out the extremely green campus.  Roofed outdoor paths connect the buildings, and nature paths canopied by countless different types of trees entice exploration.  A few of the many notable features of the campus include the peace monuments and the Garden of Peace.  While strolling down one of the nature trails, I could not miss the view of the peace monuments in the distance.  Across a pond, monuments of various ambassadors of peace symbolically arise from the top of a hill.  Once I walked around the pond and ascended the hill, a moment of profound awe overcame me.  Upon stepping onto the path that spirals around the statues, I entered a sacred covenant- a commitment of sorts to the universal peace upheld by the various leaders represented by the monuments and towards which we all strive.  All of the stone monuments are arranged in a circle, and each monument includes the name, face, and representative quote from leaders that have worked for peace, from both Costa Rica and around the world.  From the central statue, a dove, the symbol for peace and the University’s mascot, flies from a pair of hands- the hands of past generations and of future generations that will continue to act on the hope for a world that empowers humanity rather than disgraces it with ignorance and conflict.

a stunning panoramic view of the verdant mountains upon arriving at UPEACE
the peace monuments from a trail across the pond
a closer view of the monuments on the hill
all of the Global Scholars

A memorial for Gandhi, the prominent figure of peace, appropriately greets visitors at the front of the Peace Garden.  The Garden has an open, grassy area surrounded by flag poles.  When events are held in the garden, a flag is raised for each country that signed the UN Charter for peacekeeping.  Witnessing and experiencing the ecofriendly nature and design of the campus, UPEACE (if not the entire country of Costa Rica) is certainly making substantial green strides towards the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of environmental sustainability.  Given this, how “developing” is Costa Rica?  On the one hand, there is obvious poverty and lack of opportunity in rural areas.  However, while some of the people may be poor, the natural resources of the country are rich.  Furthermore, even in the smaller communities (of the few I have been exposed to), the way of life there may be less complex and technologically advanced than developed countries, but the people appear to be just as happy (if not more so) than Westerners.  Then again, the parts of Costa Rica I have been exposed to are just representatives of the diversity of the country; other areas may suffer from more apparent poverty.  During the weeks ahead, I look forward to exploring the complex concept of development in the context of a country as beautiful as Costa Rica!
the Gandhi memorial at the front of the Peace Garden
the outdoor hall of hammocks soon to be filled with students studying and relaxing!