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!

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