I got to travel to the rural southeastern part of the country this week, which is why I haven’t updated in a while. Several of our students are staying with families down there, so I took the bus down with them, stayed a few days to make sure everybody was settled, and then took the bus back up by myself. At the end of the month, I’ll repeat the process in reverse to get everyone back up to catch their flight home.
The bus ride itself was pretty uneventful. This was my third multi-hour bus trip since I’ve been here, so I feel like I’ve gotten the hang of the little things, like how the tickets, bag checks, boarding, rest stops, etc. work. It is a really nice feeling knowing what to expect, for the most part, even though I’ve never been to the area and haven’t ridden this bus line before. This was my longest ride so far, at 6.5 hours, plus this time I was responsible for 6 exchange students. In addition, we had two more Tico teens traveling with us. I do have to admit that the kids did just great and didn’t need a lot of help from me.
We took the 4 PM bus, so it was pretty late by the time we got in. Most of the students were picked up right at the stop by their families, but two of them would be staying in the next town over, so they stayed the night with the same family that was hosting me.
The next morning, we packed into the truck and headed up and over the mountain to bring the students to their new home for the month. And by packed, I mean that there were 7 of us in the pickup truck, but luckily one was a little kid, and the truck did have a back seat!
This part of the country was so close to the border with Panama that we stopped by along the way. Around here, the border is quiet enough that you might not even know that you were at a border if somebody didn’t point it out. It was along a gravel road, and there was a gas station, a grocery store, and some construction that is supposedly going to have a few stores. The road itself just sort of veers into Panama for a few meters. If you want to actually go into Panama, there is a road that heads off in that direction, which is notable because it’s paved and looks well-maintained.
We got out to take pictures, and ended up walking around a bit. That was neat because I spotted a post with the plaque that marked the border. Compared to Costa Rica, Panama is known for having cheaper gasoline. In addition, they use the US Dollar for currency, and apparently the exchange rate is currently favorable enough that you can save some money shopping and paying for your groceries with dollars. Seafood in particular is cheaper in Panama, so the grocery store had quite a bit of that for sale. The exchange rate isn’t as good as it was a few years ago, but it’s good enough to warrant some business growth in the area.
I ended up being in the area from Sunday night until early Wednesday. I was able to visit quite a few families and a couple of schools while I was down there, and I have to say that everybody was so kind and welcoming. I know I say that about all of the places I’ve been in Costa Rica, but it’s the honest truth! Especially down here, it’s a part of the world where they haven’t lost the ability to just casually drop in on friends, relatives, or neighbors if you’re in the area. In Costa Rica, you go to the gate and call out, “¡Upe!”, and maybe the person’s name, to let them know you’re there. If you do drop by to visit somebody, you might even be invited in for a meal, or at the very least a refresco (which down here is a juice of some kind, not soda), before heading on your way. Because I was visiting several families in the same day, I had to be careful to not end up eating two breakfasts and several extra refrescos at every stop!
On my first full day there, my family asked me if I wanted to go for a walk. I said sure, but really had no idea what I was getting myself into! I noticed that they were packing a backpack to bring with them, and then they headed off at a brisk pace while checking their watch, and both of those should have been clues. Anyway, they basically took off heading straight up a mountainous road! Luckily I’m in pretty good shape from running, because it was all I could do to keep up!
We walked for an hour and 45 minutes before we reached the turnaround point, a little town that was nearby (uphill and about 8 kilometers from where we had started). We stopped by a local pulpería (corner market) to get some snacks to recharge. I got a little package of coconut cajeta, which is a sweet made from milk and sugar. Then, we headed back down the mountain, this time in the rain. We did stop by to visit a student on our way back, and were offered dinner as well.
The next day, I should have known better, but honestly these mystery walks to parts unknown were fun. That day, we walked for “only” about three and a half hours total, and I think the direction we headed might have been a tad less hilly. Plus, this pulpería had coke zero and yemitas, which are guava-filled sandwich cookies.
Unfortunately, both days I wore my Chacos, because I didn’t pack any good walking shoes, and I’m weird about wearing my running shoes for anything other than running. By the time we made it back home the second day, I had blisters on the tops of both feet from the straps! Ouch! Hopefully they heal up soon! Not just for the sake of my feet, but because I need to be able to wear those sandals again!
The reason my hosts were walking so much is that they are preparing for a 250+ kilometer walk from their home to the Basilica in Cartago. The walk is a yearly pilgrimage. Over 2 million people are expected to walk to Cartago, arriving around August 2. My hosts were planning about 9 days for their trip, which means that the walks we did were short compared to what they had ahead of them! But these were sort of a trial run, which meant they were trying out all of their gear and supplies to make sure they had what they needed.
And what was needed turned out to be Crocs with maxi pads for insoles. Apparently the pads are soft enough to provide some cushion, and absorbent enough to take care of sweat, plus you can change them out if they get nasty. It’s not how I would do a long walk, but I was the one who ended up with blisters, so clearly I should not be the one to talk! There was also some experimenting with gel heel pads, which I tried myself earlier this year when I was fighting plantar fasciitis, but those just wouldn’t stay put in the crocs-n-socks walking setup, so I don’t think they will be taking those.
One interesting thing to me was how “rural” means something a little bit different in Costa Rica than it does in the US. In this area in Costa Rica, coffee production is the main source of revenue, and there is almost no tourism. In addition to coffee, quite a few other crops grow well down there. At the house where I stayed, they had 1-2 trees of a whole variety of fruits, not for sale, but just for their own consumption.
Here is downtown. The taxis down here are pickup trucks with covered beds, so that they can handle some of the rougher roads.
Cacao. The white part is edible, but tastes nothing like chocolate.
Cacao seeds, dried and ready to be toasted.
This is anona, I think. Very tasty when ripe!
So, that’s definitely what you would call rural. But when I think of a rural area in the US, I think of everything as being really spread out. Here, the houses were still pretty close together. Not right up against each other with one portón touching the next, like it is in the city, but pretty close. And the town I was in had a very definite downtown, even if it was only 2 blocks long. But what really makes the difference is that between the clusters of houses and businesses, that’s where the space is. It was noticeable on our walks. Even the small area we were in was composed of several different little mini-towns, (San Bosco, San Antonio, etc) but then it was all fields, or mountains with undeveloped land, in between.
The town where the other two kids were staying was even more remote, but still, the houses were clustered together into neighborhoods. It’s just that I didn’t really see a downtown at all in that town. If I had to guess, I’d say that there was probably at least a minisuper and a soda (small restaurant serving traditional food) somewhere, but maybe not much else. But I wasn’t really taking a running tally when I was out there, so I might very well have missed some stuff.
It’s also interesting to see which things from US culture have and have not found their way down there. There was definitely a lot less English spoken in the area, mostly because there’s just not a need for it since there aren’t really any tourists. Kids do study English at school, though, especially if they want to go into the tourist industry when they graduate.
Cable TV and US TV shows dubbed into Spanish were really common. The teen in the house also liked to watch music videos, so I got to see a Franz Ferdinand video for the first time while I was down there. It definitely felt like a juxtaposition! The next few songs that came on were in Spanish, followed by a heavy metal show.
Out of all the families I visited, I don’t know that anybody owned a computer. But just about everybody had smartphones with data plans. So web sites that can be accessed on a mobile device were pretty well used and common. We could be in the middle of nowhere on our walk, and the family would still be keeping track of an important Facebook post and the replies! On the other hand, I was pretty much off the grid with my not-smart-phone, especially since coverage from my cell carrier was spotty.
I definitely had an opportunity to feel how lucky I was, not just for the kindness and hospitality of everybody that I met, but also for the little window into everyday life in rural Costa Rica. My work here as a chaperone gives me the opportunity to go to some of these places that are far from the tried-and-true tourist areas, but it also gives me the chance to get to know some people and a little bit about their day to day lives. What a wonderful experience this has been!