Posted by: Adam Kay | January 14, 2014

Biologists reflect on cultural experiences in San Jose, Costa Rica

Every even-year January, the University of St. Thomas sponsors an Introduction to Field Ecology course in Costa Rica. The main component of the course involves student-led ecological research projects at various field sites across Costa Rica. Before getting started, the course spends a day in San Jose working on a vicious stats assignment and exploring the city. We asked students to write short essays to describe their experiences and reflect on how San Jose culture relates to the natural world. We chose two entries (by Jorgen Kvaal and Morgan Reeve) to present here. All pictures are by Meg Thompson.

The Happiest Place on Earth?

by Jorgen Kvaal

The first thing that I noticed as I stepped off the plane in Costa Rica was a large banner that read “Welcome to the happiest place on Earth”. The poster was accentuated with beautiful tropical animals and plants that I look forward to seeing while I’m here.

in a park in San Jose

in a park in San Jose

I started doubting the validity of that slogan, however, after spending my first night in the capital city of San Jose. During a night out, some of my classmates and I were frequently harassed by local riff raff asking for money; they probably thought we were a group of naïve foreigners ripe for the taking. In truth, that is exactly what we were; straight off the plane in a foreign country that none of us had ever been to before. Nevertheless, I believe we were undeserving of some of the horribly vulgar comments shouted in our direction, specifically towards my female counterparts. I went to bed that night thinking that even my hometown of St. Paul MN seemed happier that the town of San Jose.

The next day we explored San Jose more extensively. Besides a few well-kept establishments like the Cathedral Basilica and some expensive clothes stores, I saw much of the same as the night before. Seeing trash on the street, countless homeless people and even a few scuffles between locals, I was reminded of my time in Los Angeles. I was a little heartbroken at the state of the city as I assumed that the “happiest place on Earth” would be pristine and well-kept, both in the cities and in the undisturbed rainforest. I then thought about how there is probably no place on Earth where people don’t have problems. I immediately compared San Jose to St Paul and Minneapolis and thought that there is really little difference among large cities around the globe in terms of social challenge.

Once the guys I was with and I decided that we had seen enough of the main central market in town (Mercado Central), we made the long trek towards the National Futbol Stadium (after being misled several times by the Spanish-speaking locals). On our way we came across a lake in the middle of a large park, apparently surrounding the entire stadium. I immediately became aware of how the local Costa Ricans spend their time when they aren’t shopping or working downtown (on Avenido Central). The first thing I noticed was the vast amount of color set against an unfamiliar green background. There were hundreds of people playing soccer, horseback riding, taking paddleboat rides, fishing, jogging, painting, biking, playing with children, and just taking in the lush green atmosphere. I was amazed at how drastically the vibe changed after maybe a mile and a half of walking.

We eventually realized that we had stumbled upon San Jose’s version of Central Park, and maybe also upon the heart of Costa Rican culture. I got the sense that this was the definition of the happiest place on Earth. As I watched these Costa Ricans taking advantage of their beautiful weather and environment, I found that this scene was more along the lines of my preconceived notions of Costa Rica. I felt that there was a strong sense of connectivity not only within the hundreds of people enjoying soccer but also among everyone enjoying what the park had to offer. I had never seen such a large park with so many people doing such a diverse range of activities. If I had to say the natural world was reflected in any aspect of Costa Rican culture, it would be in Central Park. I was surrounded by people not relying on phones, TVs, or internet, but instead enjoying the simplest of pastimes that ultimately brings strangers together. I felt as though I would have been welcomed if I had tried to jump into one of the pickup soccer games. I think that this is a main difference between Costa Rican culture and my own. Although many of these people probably come from lower income backgrounds, they seemed to be enjoying themselves just as much, if not more, than friends at home who would probably spend one of the rare beautiful Minnesota summer days indoors in front of a screen.

There was a sense of pride for community that was reinforced by the Costa Rican’s care for the protection and enhancement of this popular gathering place. It was quite obvious that the standards for this park were higher than those that existed within the city limits. There were “No Smoking” signs posted all over, trash and recycling bins were clearly used (judging by the lack of litter), and several newly planted trees and shrubs. This community of people using these communal resources like the lake, shade trees, and open fields, reflects an interest in conservation. The attitude of the people hanging out in this park compared to that of those spending their day in the city proves that there is good reason to use more land for parks. If I had found this park before I was exposed to the city of San Jose, I never would have doubted the banner that I read when I entered this country

Old Flowers and New Concrete

by Morgan Reeve

in San Jose

in San Jose

My first impression of San Jose was that it was a fascinating mixture of old and modern.  I’m a huge fan of architecture, so that is what I focused on first. In the outskirts of the city, the smaller parts of town, there were mostly old buildings, small shops that were a bit rundown, and larger fabulously decorated buildings. Further into town, there was a curious mixture of buildings: old, grand ones and newer concrete structures like offices and banks. These buildings looked odd next to each other but I suppose this is the process of becoming a modern city, with an emphasis on practicality rather than decorative beauty characteristics of old buildings. As I walked into the city center I was surrounded by American stores like McDonalds, fashion stores, and even an Apple store. Most were glass fronted and were well maintained. The city center seemed to have lost some of the architectural beauty of the city’s periphery, although there were a few older buildings such as the Opera House and the Cathedral with its stained glass, paintings, and large domed structure. One difference I noticed between the new and old buildings is the choice of colors and decorations. The older buildings, even the smaller rundown shops, seemed to be brightly colored. Perhaps this reflects the bright flora of the rainforest that surrounds them, a more traditionally inspired choice reflecting their ancestral connection to nature. The newer buildings were much less showy, either with less eye-catching colored paint or without painting at all. The decorations of the older buildings also seemed to incorporate more floral patterns painted on the building itself or on tiles both in and outside the building. One building I saw on my way through the city had floral patterns carved into a wooden door. The newer buildings didn’t seem to incorporate much decoration at all into their design.

employees in a tico restaurant in San Jose

employees in a tico restaurant in San Jose

We visited multiple stores and shops as we explored the city.  There was a wide mixture of products, shop buildings, and store workers.  Toward city center many of the shops were the modern style with glass fronts and flashy signs.  There were several huge concrete banks and a few office buildings here and there as well.  Though it shouldn’t have, the Apple store did surprise me.  It seems a mark of how far the modern world reaches.  I doubt there are many in the country yet slowly but surely the modern, western, world creeps in.  The employees in these newer stores were all nicely dressed with crisp clean clothes, presenting a face for the company.  Yet it was in the older, smaller stores that I felt the most comfortable.  While they were not as nice and clean as the concrete and glass buildings they seemed more welcoming.  The people working there seemed very friendly and welcoming to you as you walked in, attempting to strike up conversation even if you struggled with the language.  The most fascinating of the old buildings was El Mercado Central.  In the most simplistic explanations it was a city within a warehouse.  There were streets with names leading to outside streets, vendors in every space possible, buildings with second floors, restaurants, and merchandise wherever you looked.  It was thriving despite how underdeveloped it was, nothing close to anything you might see in the modern world.  At times it was hard to get through the narrow streets as you passed other shoppers and squeezed past those examining merchandise.  Even much of the merchandise there was decorated with natural patterns of flowers or bright colors similar to tropical flowers.  Decorations in the small restaurants sometimes incorporated small decorations on tiles along the shop walls.  In my opinion the more humble, traditional stores are more attractive and welcoming to shoppers, partly through their atmosphere and partly through the employees and shoppers themselves. flower lady

Another interesting mix I observed were the people themselves.  Besides the difference in the store employees the people mingling in the streets and parks were diverse as well.  On one hand there were the obvious tourists with their large cameras around their necks, bucket hats, and sunscreen on their nose, the city dwellers who were well dressed and comfortably strutting their way down the streets.  On the other hand there were those in the outskirts of the town who were less well dressed and sometimes there was a person begging on the sidewalk or a homeless person sleeping next to a building.  Yet I suppose this is seen in almost all cities, a mix of the well off and the poor trying to get by.   One fascinating cultural show was a native dance and song of their indigenous ancestors.  In one of the various parks there were three performers wearing paints, feathers, and bright colors, dancing and singing while playing various instruments.  It was a fascinating mix of new and old since this performance was done so close to the city center, the dancers were dressed and performing in old fashion yet they were surrounded by technology.  Their costumes incorporated the feathers of birds and their clothes incorporated floral patterns and the bright colors of nature; even their props were covered in feathers and colors.

Another way that nature was integrated into the culture was the parks.  Throughout the city there were multiple parks.  But I noticed that there were more parks and free standing flora further away from the city center in the less modern areas.  I noticed that nature was incorporated as a part of the old culture, but as it continues to develop and become more modern I have to wonder if it will continue to be.


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