Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Costa Rica Alternative Spring Break Trip (part 2)

As you, dear reader, have no doubt surmised, I survived not only that shower but every subsequent instantiation of the situation with only a few new grey hairs. I changed into my set of clean clothes, washed the old set, and proceeded downstairs for dinner. We were served the usual Costa Rican fare, which consisted of fried banana, fried rice, fried beans, fried cauliflower, fried egg, and fried meat. Also, coffee and juice so fresh my teeth started tap dancing. Our Spanish professor managed to handle the dinner time conversation, though on one occasion one of us managed to get a word in edgewise. Although my knowledge of Spanish is rudimentary at best, I've spent many years with Latin and other close relatives, so was able to follow the conversation for the most part. 

After dinner, we eventually settled for the evening. Despite being a head taller than everyone else, I managed to wedge myself into bed. I dreamed of earthquakes, volcanoes, and other pleasant things, when early in the morning the whole house started shaking. Furniture creaked, and a roaring sound filled my ears. I tried to flip out of bed and roll underneath, only to discover that I was still wedged firmly in place. The sound subsided and I realised it was only a truck passing through.

The next day we were bused out to our designated work site. The van scudded past cyclists and runners alike as it wound up and down the narrow roads, eventually coming to a halt on a narrow spur overlooking San Jose. The landscape, at the foot of Irazu volcano, was reminiscent of Huonbrook with its exaggerated topography, trees, and cows. Our work site was sandwiched between a famous mental asylum and a recently sprouted 'precarios' or slum. I was looking forward to engaging with a local community and getting a bunch of stuff done. We were ushered inside the main entrance for some instruction in Spanish names for tools and a situational briefing. The house had been used for about 20 years as a Hogar Crea Damas, or womens' rehabilitation center/refuge/halfway house. On the wall a schedule consisting mostly of domestic chores began at 4:45am. Our supervisor M told us that the dozen or so women here were variously involved in a two year program in recovery from domestic violence, drug addiction, and other issues. Naturally, the organisation had scant resources and that's where our (wo)manpower came into play. A large part of the rehabilitation program involved isolation from the outside world and its (mainly male) debilitating influences, and so as a result we were strongly discouraged from talking to or interacting with the occupants of the house. For the most part we didn't see much of them for the week we were there. By the time we left, M confirmed that about two thirds of them had actually run away! We had many interesting conversations about the merits of various rehab or recovery programs, and about the historical or theoretical efficacy of the program we were involved in, but it's important to remember that there is not necessary a proven method for 'fixing' people! That said, I was not surprised in the slightest that most of the women wanted to and evidently managed to leave this particular program. They would have learned more about carpentry anywhere else...

We divided into teams and proceeded to work. For the remainder of the week, I was mostly occupied with retrofitting a semi-subterranean bathroom. The plumbing, shower curtains, and window all got a work over. Most of the rest of the team was involved in painting the outside and inside of the house. Why the able-bodied women living in the house were unable to help paint their own house was never explained. I can understand subjecting the gringos to hard physical labour, but painting was not the most efficient use of time! On the last day, K and I fixed a broken window in one of the bedrooms. First we had to unscrew a board that covered 2/3 of the window to access both sides. K, correctly guessing that the purpose of the board was to prevent overnight escapes, objected to replacing it. Replace it we did, however. If anyone else escaped, there'd be no-one left! I spent the remainder of the day dismantling an old colorbond shed. While it was generally possible to unscrew the rusty bolts using boltcutters as pliers, it was much more fun to simply hit them with a sledgehammer. With a crack the bolts broke free of the rusted frame and rusty snow showered me from the steadily collapsing roof. Previously I had wondered why this shed hadn't been pilfered by the precarios for building materials. The Hogar's chickens, for instance, had disappeared. It turns out that it's impossible to dismantle a shed quietly!

In between mastering the use of the wrong tools for the job, we used afternoons to explore San Jose and San Pedro. While people descended en masse on the artisan market, I snuck up into the corner of the city and explored the railway station there. Currently the lines are mainly used for a local commuter train, but they once spanned the continent. I had thought it was a precursor of the Panama canal, but in fact they existed to connect the arable regions of the central valley and several coast ports. The lines were electrified before earthquake damage in 1994 largely killed the system. Since then trucks have performed the majority of cargo services in Costa Rica, to the detriment of the road system.

Another highlight was checking out the museum of precolombian gold artwork. While Costa Rica lacked the empires that grew in other parts of the continent, it had traditions of jade, copper, and gold art work. Using the lost wax method, artisans produced small stylized models of every animal you can imagine. The museum suggested they were used by shamans as part of healing rituals. I'm not sure how much of the ancient knowledge survived exploration, conquest, and colonization, but certainly gold for health is a tradition that continues to this day!

Another cultural element we could hardly avoid immersion in was that of soccer! The week before our arrival, Costa Rica played the US as part of the FIFA world cup qualifying round. They played in Denver, a choice presumably to intensify the effects of altitude. What noone anticipated was a blizzard so intense that the lines on the field were totally covered. For whatever reason (money changed hands, according to the Ticos), the game continued and Costa Rica lost 1-0. Well. A sudden explosion of anti-snowman propaganda etc etc. As you might imagine, sane or rational conversation about this topic being impossible in no way diminished the volume and extent of the rhetoric any randomly selected stranger could produce on demand! Being culturally sensitive types, Maximo organised at a very reasonable price (for them) tickets to the match. I knew I was in for a spectacle when the stadium, packed to the rafters, turned around as one and immediately expanded my vocabulary of Spanish swear words during the FIFA fair play anthem. Costa Rica was playing Jamaica, and the single most distinguishing characteristic of the match was how quickly the players pushed each other over when the ref wasn't looking. Similarly, any questionable calls by the referee were immediately greeted with loud and unanimous speculation as to the honour of his mother. I know that soccer fans are on occasion loud, enthusiastic, even bombastic. I found the complete lack of interest in sportsmanship or a good match rather off-putting. Though, to be fair, I find a similar duration of obese people screaming hysterically in Italian at each other in a darkened room much more comprehensible, so I may not be the best judge of the situation.

The next day, Maximo gladly took the opportunity to swap a day of work at the site for a quick tour to Poas volcano. Although it hasn't erupted much in the last 20 years, one can always be hopeful. In particular, I was gleefully anticipating hellish smells and a decent hike uphill at altitude. The van zoomed up the road between coffee plantations and past skinny dogs parking just outside a large concrete visitors center. Unlike the visitors' center on Vesuvius, this one was built on the defend, rather than replace principle. From there we took off up a path through swirling mist. Impossibly large leaves and moss reminiscent of Fjordland national park (though warmer) bobbed in front of us when before long we reached the edge of a cliff. Apparently this was the crater, though it was completely full of mist. By this stage we were desperate for a stretch leg so we ran around the crater to another crater lake, also acidic but less active. Sadly, neither smelled at all! We checked out the souvenir shop crammed with identical chess sets, shot glasses, and so on as the fellow in the artisan market assured us he made after work each day at his house. Clearly, there is an impressive degree of consistency control across the individual trinket workshops in the country. Fortunately there were plenty of lung-corroding fumes back in town.

By this L and I were getting slightly stir crazy. I jumped on my favourite website and sent a desperate message out into the aether. L harnessed her substantial linguistic skills to locate a local gym and went to a boxing class. I went along for photos and curiousity. While L pounded a punching bag into a pretzel shape, there were a couple of blokes on a nearby mat engaged in what turned out to be Brazilian Jujitsu. I've never seen it before, and so I will describe it as best I can. A sparring bout begins with one fella grappling the other around the torso with his legs. If this happened to me, I'd close my eyes and wait to die. But apparently there are tricks and techniques to get out of this, which I attempted to understand over the next hour. The forms and transitions were surprisingly similar in topology to the set of possible moves in salsa, though presumably with a greater emphasis on pain.

The next day, I discovered my plaintive scream in cyber space had been answered! E, a local couchsurfer and I agreed to meet at the local supermarket and went for a drive up into the hills where she grew up. The transition between essentially concrete terrace houses and farms was almost instantaneous. E worked for a local political movement and had a wealth of information with which to combat my continuous barrage of questions. It turns out Costa Rica was mostly socialist prior to some market reforms in the 80s. Unfortunately, though perhaps unsurprisingly, the middle-class has subsequently gone into decline. Somewhat disorientingly, social conservatives in Costa Rica advocate a return to socialism. Costa Rica is a slightly odd-ball country in a few other ways. They have no army and nearly all renewable energy. The political need for a bogeyman is as present as ever, however, with a strong emphasis on law and order and an almost impossibly ubiquitous police presence. We drove along a narrow cobbled road that apparently used to be the main bullock route. We said hi to her nine dogs and shivered in the wind as the sun set over nobbly paddocks on nobbly hills. All too soon it was time for dinner, but E had a surprise - there was a CS meetup and community party on Friday.

In the meantime we spent time in the living room carrying out robust discussions prompted by our environment and/or playing scrabble in Spanish. This is harder than it looks. Although we'd been warned of a total economic shutdown for the entirety of the week of Easter, Friday rolled around and most supermarkets were still open. We took the opportunity to check out the community stations of the cross easter parade. A few hundred locals turned out to carrying idols of Jesus and Mary down the main street, which was half closed for the occasion. The crowd was mixed. Certainly younger on the whole than the main population that still goes to church in the US or Australia, though, I thought, surprisingly sparse. I estimated that about a percent of the population turned out. As such, it seemed to me to be a ritual going through a steady but inexorable demise. I didn't spend enough time speaking to other locals to find out exactly what the religious situation was. Certainly the background was much more homogeneous that the US, with almost universal adherence to the Vatican's brand of christianity.

That afternoon we were shuttled back to Maximo to debrief. They brought out drinks, dessert, shirts, certificates, and an 'experience evaluation sheet' with no fewer than three reminders to bump their social media nodes. Though the demand for week-long voluntourism is undoubtedly strong, the question remains what to do with it. It's certainly non trivial to extract useful work from the situation. Additionally, just managing the average backpacker presents a host of problems I have no idea how to address. That said, the bottom line of my feedback was that for an organisation as glitzy and slick as Maximo, I expected a much higher level of project direction and efficiency.

That evening all the undergrad energizer bunnies finally ground to a halt and only the indefatigable K opted to join me for the half hour walk to the couch surfing meetup. We navigated easily to the relevant block, and then had to dead-reckon the rest of the way. By this time, of course, it was well after the 8pm Maximo-recommended curfew. Call me a grumpy old man, but I'd rather take my chances on the street than in the back of a taxi under almost any circumstances. In any case, K and I trained our bat-like hearing on the ambient noise and were able to locate the sounds of laughter in English over several other nearby celebrations. We passed the gate (most places have big gates instead of doors), surveyed an awesome hammock, and made our way through the party. I found E and a ceiling-hung beer pong table, and we both had a series of awesome conversations. I have never met a boring couch surfer! One fellow was able to give me a thorough run down on the University of Costa Rica. Another discussed volunteer group organisation, the Red Cross, and differences between various Mardi Gras celebrations in different parts of the world. A Canadian woman and I discussed the merits of Vancouver and access to the arctic ocean. Words cannot describe my relief at finding some Ticos who weren't on Maximo's payroll! 

Eventually we cruised back to our house, finished packing, and went to sleep. At 2:30am we woke for the last time, were picked up by our indefatigable van driver and ferried to the airport. The advantage of operating a tour company next to a large foreign tourism organisation that inculcates helplessness was evidenced by his wife's absurdly fancy looking car. The disadvantage is that he got to drive us to the airport at 2:30am on Easter Saturday! Work hard for the money. E confirmed that a double income was now virtually compulsory to make a living.

We duly checked in (I confused only one hostess in the process), got our stuff x-rayed, and boarded the plane. Sleep deprivation did its job and I once again I hovered like a poltergeist in sleep, disturbing people several rows away. In El Salvador we were rescreened as per TSA requirements to fly to the US. This time there were no x-ray machines or metal detectors. Just several rows of tables with people searching hand luggage, bodies, and shoes. The thoroughness of the procedure was undermined slightly by their failure to search my jacket (containing a phone, a camera, and a book). Also, they twisted my sandals, but didn't check the hiking shoes in a plastic bag tied to the outside of my bang. Additionally, they allowed me to move back and forth between the stages, ie repacking my bag during the subsequent frisk, taking stuff from my friends who didn't have a zip lock bag for their toothpaste, and so on. For taking the effort involved in searching the pages of my tiny journal, someone really dropped the ball.

Soon enough the plane spat us out at home sweet home and we made our way back to Pasadena. The air was clean and cool. The sky was an incredible shade of blue. I got stuck into editing photos.

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