Keeping slow traditions in a fast-paced wold

Our dinner plates were ready on the round, wooden table. Two plates holding a cool salad, as fresh as if homegrown and picked from the garden. On the side was a square serving of layered mashed potato and beef, which to me looked like lasagna until I pierced the silky soft, tiered layer of protein and starch.

While Maria and her family don’t eat la cena, dinner was always ready for Marissa and I in the early evening.

On my first night at my host family, after dinner, we cleared the tables and pushed back the chairs to make room so that I can teach the 11-year-old Raquel the English alphabet. They are being taught English sentences in school, yet the students don’t even know how to say the letters on which those sentences were built. Her grandfather sat down on the dinner table with his dinner to watch us, but before he took that first bite, he slowly made the sign of the cross and uttered a prayer in his language. He would make sure to say a prayer before any meal he takes, everyday.

This made me look at the traditions in which people partake, in a whole different light. I liked the attention that Maria’s family gave to everyday routines. Traditions are seen as rigid, customary activities, but there is such wondrous complexity among them: they speak of history, stories, culture, generations and connectedness all at once. I stood in awe as it dawned on me that my family has traditions of our own, many of which have slowly been forgotten after years of living in the States. These had taught be great lessons in discipline, patience, etiquette, and appreciate for grace and beauty. I learned how to set the table properly (with the order of utensils and plates on the table) because my mother required us to do so. I learned how to wait until everyone was at the dinner table before I can take my first bite. I learned how to respect elders and ask for their blessings by mano (the act of placing the back of an older person’s palm against your forehead; a Filipino tradition). I learned how to give thanks and ask for blessings by praying. I learned how to control anxiety and temper as I waited for my mother’s pasalubong after a day of being away from the house.

Growing up, I would consider these old-fashioned, too-Filipino activities. They made me different when all I wanted was to be the same. Other people didn’t understand these, and I would put them aside. Then I thought, I don’t need to accommodate for these people, these are my traditions and I don’t need to apologize for them. They’re pieces that make up home for me– my traditions are portable, they do not reside in one place, and most of them can be done anywhere. Many people yearn for these traditions, and I’ve learned to appreciate them and love them as they are my own.

The fast-paced world we live in demands so much of us. We constantly bury our noses on your phones, disregarding people who we may be in conversation with. We watch TV for hours. We are online at home even after a whole day of being infront of the computer at work. We tend to dismiss the importance of slow living, which we can incorporate in our day. Turn off the phone. Have more human interactions. Do something else on the bus aside from checking Facebook and refreshing your email every x minutes.

I just realized I don’t have a picture of any of Maria’s dishes because it had never occurred to me when I was there to take my phone to the dinner table.


Lessons from a paradisiacal trip

Through the transit from homestay to airport, in between plane transfers, customs clearances and layover waits, all that was on my mind were the palpable tokens of Costa Rica. The majestic ocean amid the bluest skies. The lush palm fronds reaching out to the shore as if desiring to touch the water. The sound of waves enveloping every other sound. The calm chirping of birds in their natural habitat. The sweeping landscapes that makes you grateful to be alive..

As I held on to the images in my mind, fearing that I will forget them once I start thinking about my reality back home in Chicago, I realize that there is no need to worry about forgetting Costa Rica– it’s just impossible; memorable it surely is. Even as I write this in my room in Chicago, thinking about the past two weeks is a sensory experience, the memories as clear as that blue sky, the details crisp as that cool summer ocean.

There are many pictures, activities and people that I’ve encountered which I will never forget, but I think what’s also important is to remember lessons I gathered from the trip. There are plenty of these takeaways, but here are a few:

1. Respect for the environment. One will recognize on a trip that Costa Ricans are cognizant of their ecological footprint, perhaps more than any other people I’ve ever encountered. There are recycle bins with distinct categories (aluminum, glass, plastic, organic/biodegradable) set up everywhere. In various hotels and lodges they have notes near the sink advising guests to take only as much as you need. Light switches are accompanied by a suggestion to turn off lights during the day when the sun is bright. They are very mindful of the environment, and these actions also help them stay within their budget for utilities.

2. Family and camaraderie are priorities. In my homestay, my host mom is a grandma and in her house lives her husband, children (3 grown adults in their 30-40s) and twp grandchildren. Her children have houses of their own nearby, but they make sure to make time to visit often if not everyday. Her grown kids visits in the morning to eat breakfast at home. Outside of the family, Costa Ricans treat good friends like family. Even their greeting is intimate; a kiss on the right cheek; not a cheek-to-cheek peck, but a quick lip kiss on another’s cheek.

3. More appreciation for blessings. What I came to realize in my visit in Costa Rica is that people in developing countries have a different relationship to material things compared to those in developed countries, as I’ve seen in my childhood in Manila and years growing up in the States. In developing countries, they see material things as a status symbol because they are usually harder to get– buying the latest phone or digital camera usually takes a family weeks or even months, to save up for. In the U.S., the material things mentioned are less of a status symbol than the amount of these things one can buy. Kids in the U.S. try to best each other by comparing the number of Apple gadgets they have, while in developing nations, one would be happy with one iPhone, one which the family probably saved up for and will share.

4. Pride in their identity and work. Costa Ricans are very welcoming. One will find that they are easy to talk to, polite and always positive, from the taxi driver to restaurant server. I don’t think I encountered anyone who was grumpy or bitter about their work or situation. They will acknowledge the difficulty of living in Costa Rica in today’s time since they are too, affected by the economic situation affecting many countries around the world. Yet they will talk to you with smiles on their faces, always looking toward the positive, a strong belief in hard work, and return your thank yous with a full and clear “con mucho gusto,” which means “with pleasure.”

5. Deliberate and optimistic living. When you go to Costa Rica, you will notice everyone saying “Pura Vida,” which is a catch-all phrase with several definitions: everything is great, have a nice day, etc. They say it at the beginning and end of conversations, when they’re wishing someone a good day, when they have great news to share, among others. In Costa Rica, people take time to eat, chat with friends they bump into, or take the 30 min (or more) walk back home. At my host family, they start they day early, waking up before 6 am, and ending the day earlier, sleeping around 10 pm. It felt natural for me to follow their routine, and I think this suits me better than the 5 am – 1 am lifestyle of urban America.

6. The world is big. Living in the States makes you tend to plan your life as if you’ll be in the same place forever. Get promoted in X number of years, move to this part of the country, send kids in X school. We have this notion that people live like the way we do, and even if we are on top of the news and know what other people live differently, we just don’t know how different until we live in their shoes. It is amazing what traveling can do to us, introducing us to how people in other parts of the world live, expanding our perspective. It invites you to ask yourself if you can live in other parts of the world.

7. The world is small.
When I was at Stanford, upon my amazement at our mutual connections, a classmate of mine told me that the world is indeed small. “You will realize that only a very small population of the world has the means to travel and get a good education, and we’re all bound to run in the same circles.” We had people from all over the world in Costa Rica and I didn’t run into anyone I knew (the closest commonality was a girl who grew up in Chicago), but I got the sense that I will probably run into them in the future, in another part of the world.

8. Respect for other people and cultures. Costa Rica reminded me that diversity is fascinating, and stories, cultures and traditions different from your the majority is just as valid. In the States, there is emphasis on being the same, and American kids who grew up together who know the same slang and have the same lifestyle (work, party, party some more), and I tend to downplay that I am from some place different. In Costa Rica, I am fascinated by people who have personal stories to tell, even if these are stories from every day living. My host mom wakes up very early everyday to make breakfast for the family, works around the house, cooks lunch, and welcomes family members who arrive home from school and work. She requires that the family eat lunch all together during dinner time, bakes cake for the weekly prayer meetings (there is a prayer leader and everyone responds in unison) that they host at the house. Her every day story won’t make the front pages of lifestyle sections, but I find it interesting because it illustrates the story of a woman whose concern in life is to take care of her family, a priority that is far different from the life of many working women in the States.

9. Openness is about vulnerability and discovery. My sister and I met some wonderful people in Costa Rica, and we attribute it to our philosophy before the beginning of the trip: to be open to whatever comes next. Sometimes it’s hard to be open to others, especially as women traveling alone, but as long as you’re cautious and build genuine relationships with others, things should turn out fine. We engaged many people in conversations, not just our fellow tourists. We saw Costa Rica in the eyes of the locals, from the hotel employees to our cab drivers to our host family. It was a unique experience in that we went out of our way to step beyond our barriers are tourists and communicate with others and listen to their stories about their lives and country.

A coffee tour in Costa Rica

Costa Rica is a country known for its coffee– the soil and climate are conducive to growing good coffee, and the locals’ commitment to sustainability and organic coffee production have given rise to coffee plantations all over the country. Cafe Britt is one of the leading coffee makers in Costa Rica and they host coffee plantation tours for visitors.

In a fun and lively tour, they introduce us to the history of coffee, its history in Costa Rica, the coffee production process and the suggested way to make a good cup of coffee. They also shared with us tips on how to store coffee and how to distinguish a good shot of espresso from a bad one. It was quite entertaining, well-organized, and it reminded me of a science field trip. They had huge, pretty illustrations for everything, there was good lighting when they had to demonstrates machines and coffee-making tools, and we even got to sit comfortably in a small, beautiful theatre where they showed us some videos.

Last morning in Costa Rica

San Jose, Costa Rica
Zona Franca
Barva, Heredia
Zapote, Los Yoses, Costa Rica

It’s my last day in Costa Rica and I told myself that I won’t leave the country without having visited a coffee plantation. They have various coffee plantations in Costa Rica and many coffee shops around the world source their coffee from Costa Rican farmers. Making it a point to get on a tour, I had signed up for a tour with Cafe Britt, one of the leading export-quality coffee companies in Costa Rica.

Since the tour would take up 4-5 hours, I made sure to catch the 7:30 am bus to get to San Jose early enough. After my customary fruit breakfast plate and red gallo pinto with scrambled eggs and ham, I headed out to the San Jose bus stop. There was a young woman in work attire waiting for the bus, and multiple buses were parked at the stop. Maria had told me that morning that I should take an express bus if I want to get to San Jose faster. I ask this young girl in Spanish if the bus that says “Expreso – Zona Franca” goes to San Jose. She replied in English, “Yes, but we have to wait here.” I asked her if she is also waiting for the bus, and she told me that today she would need to take the express bus since she is running late for work. I learned that she works at in tourism at La Sabana, and it’s her second day at her very first job. She graduated this past May. She asks me what I’m doing in Costa Rica, if I’m on vacation or if I’m working. I tell her neither, but in reality, if you were to deconstruct my trip here, it is both. I was on vacation last week with my sister and now this week I work with kids at a daycare center. But as I wait for that express bus going to San Jose, I know that I am neither sipping a pipa fria by the shore, nor am I getting paid in my current line of work. She tells me Costa Rica is a paradise, and her words are filled with youthful ambition and comfort in being at home. I talk to her in Spanish, she replies in English. We both don’t know if we prefer that the other speak in the same language, but we speak in what we think the other understands. She gives me her contact number and tells me we can practice English/Spanish sometime, and we board the bus together but sit in opposite areas.

I get to San Jose and it is just a few minutes past 8 am. Working professionals are gradually trickling into the city, vendor trucks parked infront of stores to replenish merchandise, and local shops are opening the gates that secured their stores during the night. I tried to find my bearings as I walk in the direction that the map says I needed to go, and supplementing that with the points of references that my roommate suggested led me to Avenida Central. I am there about an hour early and the banks are still closed. I decided to find the Holiday Inn where I will be meeting my tour group at 9:45 am.

Clutching the map with a resolute grip, determined not to lose it on the way, I walked past blocks that I had seen before yet were unfamiliar at this time in the day. I didn’t want to stop and ask, a dead-giveaway that I’m a lost tourist in a dangerous foreign city, but I knew I had to. I walked up to Calle 5 on the map and asked a security guard at a nearby store where Calle 5 was to make sure I was on the right track, and he didn’t know that the street infront of him is Calle 5. I went to a pharmacy, and they told me directions to the hotel. I followed and confirmed the route with employees of a small breakfast restaurant. I took a chance and followed this, how can 3 people be wrong all together about the direction of one of the highest points in the city, one that says Holiday Inn in large, familiar script? I didn’t know who to trust. I get to Holiday Inn and it was like coming home. People spoke English, yet I remain to speak in Spanish. I felt comfortable knowing that if worse comes to worst we can revert to another language. It is 9:10 am, and banks are now open. The concierge points me to two of the nearest ATM machines, and I unknowingly picked to go to the one that only shells out colones, their local currency.

Frustration was high. I can’t believe I’m spending my last morning in Costa Rica feeling defeated at the stress of the morning. I needed to be back at the hotel in 30 minutes, and between my current point and that time, there were multiple obstacles: walking the multiple blocks to the international ATM machine on the opposite side to check if it is now working, going farther than that to the artesanal market to get my last souvenirs. This are not difficult tasks, they are easy errands if I am in the States. But this is San Jose, Costa Rica, and running errands is made more complicated by the fact that I am wearing the last remaining clean clothes that I have in my suitcase which also signals that I am a tourist, and I am holding a medium-sized bag that contains an expensive camera and a bag of American snacks to give to the kids as my last gift.

I am aware of the stares I’m getting from the locals. I wonder if in their minds they are looking at me as a target or someone for whom they wanted to show concern that I might get robbed. Or they might’ve been curious about me, as many people whom I’ve encountered in Costa Rica, of my tanned complexion like many of their fellow Ticos, and Asian eyes. They probably wonder if I am one of them, or a stranger, or both. I walked like a Manhattanite in the city of San Jose that had just woken up, and while this is not helping my case to blend in, it was efficient for what I needed to get done. I get to the bank, the artesanal market, haggled with a few vendors, and not having enough time to negotiate with the last one, settled for the suggested price. In 7 minutes, I needed to be back at the hotel, and new obstacles surface: huge trucks, less busy and more unsafe side streets, glaring eyes, and four blocks up, three blocks to the right. I was banking on Tico time, when arriving a few minutes past the meeting time is the norm. I got to the hotel at exactly 9:45 am.

Being mindful of one’s imprint

I slept in a little and woke up at 7:30 am. I think this is the latest I’ve ever woken up here, and it felt like noontime already. During breakfast, my host mom Maria and I had a great conversation about various topics. She shared with me her frustration about not being able to communicate with guests who don’t speak Spanish, and she understands how frustrated they must’ve been with her sole knowledge of Spanish. We also talked about Costa Ricans and their focus on the environment, something that she thinks is specific to Costa Rica and developing countries compared to the States. I shared with her stories from my childhood, how my mom had rules in the house which I taught were commonplace– turning off lights when leaving the room, only turning on the A/C when absolutely necessary and the electric fan won’t do, using only enough water as we need and never turning on the faucet fully. These rules were imposed around the house and now as an adult I realize how important it is to be mindful of the resources we’re consuming.

I realize that there are a lot of commonalities between those who grew up or lived in developing countries– these people generally have the natural inclination to save, are more aware of their surroundings, vigilant about their possessions, and are more resourceful in finding solutions to problems.

As tourists, especially coming from North America where resources are available and we are entitled to doing as we please, it is important to know that this is not the case in other countries. As Americans, we expect to bring our lifestyle to other countries when we travel, living the way we had been living and expecting other places to have the conveniences we are accustomed to. We wear the same types of clothing we are free to wear in the States, even against the advice of well-intentioned people who are concerned for our safety. We walk in other countries the way we walk American streets, with chins up high as if we own the world. We expect to board the bus first, and crowd near the entrance even when the locals are clearly falling in line. We look for American food even when a local mom cooks delicious and more natural Costa Rican food for us. These are things we do that we may not even be conscious about, and while there is nothing wrong with doing these, I think sometimes it would help us to adapt a little. To respect customs and wear more conservative clothing even when locals don tighter clothes. To follow the line when situations call for them, like when boarding the bus. To roll our shoulders down when we walk and smile at those we see. Observing customs and adapting is a way of showing respect for being in a different country, and it usually benefits us.

Since this was the second to the last day before I leave Costa Rica, I knew that if I wanted to complete a project now is the best time to implement it. I had been thinking of bringing something back home with me in the form of project. I finalized the plan, to interview my fellow volunteers as well as local Costa Ricans and ask them two questions. This morning, I finally decided to run with it and was able to collect data from a few people I interviewed.

Another thing that I think made this day even productive was a conversation I had with Maria and Bernal this morning. When I finally told Bernal the translation of apagar la luz (see post on 7/2), Maria said that it’s been a problem with the guests who stay at the house. A week before, I spent some time traveling with my sister and we stayed in 3 different hotels. I noticed these notes in the room and bathrooms, which were guidelines from the hotel management that they’d prefer the guest respect (such as turning of lights, not wasting water, throwing tissue in the trash can and not the toilet, etc). This inspired me to create little notes for them that they can post near the light switches and in the bathroom. Maria was quite happy with this suggestion and thought it was a great idea. I planned to create these at the Maximo office and give her copies that she can post.

Beauty in unlikely places

I’m halfway through my week and was determined to get more acquainted with San Jose. I boarded that says San Antonio, hoping it will go to San Jose. It’s a the same bus stop where I’ve always waited, it’s likely that it will go to San Jose. I asked the driver bus stops anywhere near Teatro Nacional, and he told me it’s the last stop.

When I got to San Jose, I got off the last stop which was near a shoe shop and I went to with Leanna and Racquel. I saw a pair of Toms Shoes for the equivalent of $10. In the States, those shoes retail for $50-60. They only had one style and limited sizes, and none were suited to my size. I left and walked straight, missing the intersection where I should’ve made a right to arrive directly at Teatro Nacional. I walked past landmarks, and I could point out stores on corners I’ve seen before, vendors selling things I’ve noticed a few days ago. I asked for directions, but I was still lost. As I continued to walk, I felt as though I was going farther away from the heart of the city, as new sights emerged on the horizon. While I had gone farther than the areas I’ve visited a few times, I’ve gotten closer to new surroundings, to new buildings. I persisted in my walk, and finally, I chanced upon something remotely familiar– the Ministerio de la Cultura y Juventud, which I had read about in my guidebook.

I entered the building and it felt safe inside. It had an open-air design, a series of offices surrounding a huge atrium. I asked the security guard where I can find information for tourists, and he pointed me to the nearest office; I didn’t know if he did not understand me or if it was the right office to go to. I inquired inside, and the older ladies in the front desk looked at me like it was their first time to see a tourist. Their expressions gave away the message that they are wondering why I came to their office to ask for information, and although I spoke in Spanish, they knew I was from somewhere else. They offered some suggestions of things to do, like visit the Museo de Arte y Dise├▒o Contempor├íneo, which were quite vague and were not much help, but luckily, there was only one route to take to get to where I want to go, so I didn’t really need directions, I just needed to walk a flight of stairs. I got to the top, and there was the museum. No one was around except for the front desk receptionist, but then again it’s a Wednesday, and I’m not sure how inclined Costa Ricans are to visit this particular museum. I bought a ticket for $2, such a great deal. What I thought would be a simple visit to a museum turned out to be a museum marathon, I visited three other right after MADC: Museo de Pre-Colombiano, Numismatica and Museo del Oro. I planned to seal the morning with a cup of coffee at the cafe inside Teatro Nacional, but upon the suggestion of a waiter, I’m glad to have opted for the delightful aguadulce.

Many people I met in San Jose despised San Jose. They say it’s dirty, run-down, dangerous and nondescript. While compared to cities these people are used to living in, San Jose does seem like it needed a bit more upkeeping as it looked like a lost city, its historic buildings peeling and covered in soot seem to have been forgotten since the colonial times, and the rise of modern American chains all around the city seem like mismatched patches trying to hold a city together.

As much as San Jose is the opposite of the Costa Rica I experienced in the previous week, I wanted to see its beauty. It is dirty and deprived, but it is also filled with children’s smiles and families shopping together. Danger lurks in the corner, and tourists who are unfamiliar are easy targets, but it’s a city that is almost built with a code that locals can decipher– they know how to navigate the streets hidden to the new visitor, they know how to act in a way appropriate to their city. It is bitter, the hard life its had shows through the dilapidated walls of buildings and cracked cement pathways. It is noisy, irritating and busy with people, but it is also exploding with new sounds, smells and visuals that I am not usually exposed to in the comfort of Chicago or Los Angeles.

When I down the streets and turn on avenidas that lead to nowhere or lost on a calle that branches into smaller streets, I’m met with exasperation, but I also feel a sense of home. This is a city in developing country, much like the streets of Manila that I don’t fully know. I had only seen glimpses of it, on car rides when we pass by busy downtowns, or through stories my mom would tell me when she gets home after a long day of running errands around town. Each step in San Jose is like getting acquainted with a hidden history, both physically, with the colonial influence marked on the buildings, and culturally, as if I’m being told an unfamiliar story of my own.

I didn’t know that the similarities between Costa Rica and the Philippines would extend beyond their commonalities as tropical countries. Their histories, while not necessarily intertwined, are shared. I don’t know much about the direct history between Costa Rica and the Philippines, shared Spanish vestiges run rampant on their grounds.

Learning about Costa Rican life in Spanish

Guadalupe Montelimar, Costa Rica
San Pedro, Los Yoses, Costa Rica

The first day of volunteer orientation and I feel like a child on her first day of school. I woke up to a plate of tropical fruits (banana, papaya, mango) set on the table, and afterward, Maria brought pancakes. She asked me if I’d like coffee, and I agreed. As I was waiting for my cafe con leche, I sipped my orange juice and it was Tang– now I felt like I was in second grade in school uniform and the school bus will be arriving anytime soon.

Except that there is no bus. Bernal, Maria’s husband, is dressed in business casual as if going to church. He reminds me of my grandfather, and although they don’t look anything alike, the way they present themselves when going out of the house is quite similar. Bernal comes his hair infront of the mirror like my grandfather, as if there’s a big town occasion to which he’s going. He’s taking the local bus with me to my orientation at the Maximo Nivel office.

As we were waiting infront of the house for the bus, he engages me in conversation. In his moderate pace, he talks to me like he would talk to his daughter, in pure Spanish. He knows I know just a little Spanish to help me get by, but he doesn’t oversimplify words or ideas. He talks to me like an equal native speaker. I liked that. He said he knows a little English, mostly polite remarks like hello, how are you and goodbye. He tells me there is a phrase in Spanish that he’d had always wanted to know in English: apagar la luz. He was saying how he always wanted to say that to the students who stay at the house but he doesn’t know how to say it in English. I asked him to repeat this a few times. I didn’t know what he was talking about. I knew luz, which means light, but I had no idea what he wanted to say about the lights. Later that day, I would look for that word in my dictionary and realize it means “turn off the lights.” North Americans who stay at the house use too much light than necessary, wasting precious electricity.

We arrived at the bus stop it’s by a building that says, Radio Unversidad de Costa Rica. I think it’s the broadcast media building of the university. We are after all, right by UCR, their top public university. We walk a few blocks and I still can’t see where Maximo Nivel is. Bernal keeps talking to me in Spanish, giving me directions. I didn’t know what he was saying as I took in the new visuals in the route we took– billboards everywhere, students with notebooks and book bags, buses on standby. It’s a few minutes before 8 am and the sun is high up, as if it’s noontime. There is chatter, honking, and noisy acceleration everywhere. I don’t what is saying, but he keeps pointing at landmarks and I think he is giving me directions. I told myself I’d just have to ask again what the directions are when we get to the office.

We got to Maximo Nivel and Bernal is greeted by a man named Mario, who works behind the front desk. Bernal introduces us, and before Bernal left, he repeated the directions. I still had no idea what he was saying, and I wished I understood more Spanish. I thought, I’d have to ask Mario what Bernal was telling me. Then a familiar word: A las quatro. I asked if that is the time I’m going home. He agreed, and the next phrases were more clear. I just have to wait there at 4 pm and someone is going to pick me up. I confirmed that this was what he meant, and he nodded. After giving me all the goodluck in the world in the form of “que llevaya bien,” “pura vida,” “pasa buen dia,” he made his way back home.

I realized that when I communicate in Spanish, the best way to make sure I am on the same page as the other person is to repeat back in my own word what they had said. This is quite helpful because it helps eliminate confusion and helps improve comprehension skills. If I say something back that is different from what they said, they will describe it again in other, simpler ways. I am grateful for the incredible patience Costa Ricans have of those who don’t speak their language all that much. Quite humbling, and it inspires you to be try to be more patient of others in the same situation.