Posted by: Adam Kay | January 16, 2016

“Walking through San Jose opened my eyes to a different world”: Reflections from Costa Rica’s capital

During our first full day in Costa Rica (January 6), we asked the students in our BIOL 211: Intro to Field Ecology course to write a cultural essay. Specifically, we wanted them to visit a site in San Jose (the capital city) and then write about how Costa Rican culture has affected the natural world, or how the natural world is reflected in a particular aspect of the culture. We had a number of excellent submissions, but we chose two winners (by Evan Keil and McKenna Reid). Here they are:

My cultural extravaganza in San Jose

Evan Keil

Evan with his new friend Paquito

Evan Keil with his new friend Paquito

Walking through San Jose opened my eyes to a different world. I’ve been across the globe, yet every time that I am immersed in a new culture I am completely humbled by their way of living. Highlights of the trip include meeting a man (Martin) who carries around his rooster named Paquito, feeding the pigeons, walking through countless markets and shops and finally dancing with a local band who was playing their music in the streets. We are always told how we need to schedule less and how we need to stay off of our countless screens… yet do we? The Costa Rican people move slower, they have real conversations and have shown me a way of life that seems to be worth living. It is becoming more and more apparent how needed the environment is to facilitate this way of living, and how it shaped it.

The markets that we walked through were filled with fresh fruits and vegetables, tons of fish and any type of meat you can imagine, the areas that weren’t filled with food were filled with cultural items and home-made trinkets (as my mother would say). It was obvious that without the surrounding fields and farms that none of this would be possible. After talking to the locals we heard of a fruit market that only runs from midnight to the early morning. I am picturing a family farm filled with apples and bananas and countless other fruits that have been harvested, all filled into the back of a truck. I see this truck making a couple hour drive into the city to and setting up their mini stand in the middle of the street. This truck is joined by other families and the street begins to fill up. I then picture another family who does their daily shopping at this market. I see the mother taking her child through the market in search for the best deals and best fruit in town. These two families meet and, after agreeing on a price, they have what they wanted and have benefited one another. Again, without the surrounding environment, none of this is possible. The availability of rain and sunshine has shaped the areas outside of the city into abundant farmland.

The peaceful demeanor of the people I see being shaped by the rural areas. Obviously deep into the city there will always be the stereotypical on-edge taxi driver who will honk at anything and pedestrians that will eternally assume they have the right-of-way and continue to cause accidents. However, when we took the time to stop and attempt a conversation with a local at their stand we began to see who they really are. The men that were playing their music in the street are a prime example of this. We stopped to listen, but shortly after they realized we were foreign to their city they invited us in to dance. Of course we were hesitant, but after being encouraged by the entire band Sara (Osborne) joined in. She had (still has) no dancing skills, but the light in all of the band members’ eyes when she attempted to dance was something I will never forget.

During our drive and monstrous hike to (our first research site) Rara Avis, I began to see why these people have become so peaceful while enveloped by this country. It seems like there isn’t really any way around it. Since we have left the city, it has been raining for probably 80% of the time. As I am writing this, we are sitting around a table in one of the few dry areas on this mountain. Some people are napping, some are writing and the others are talking. There isn’t an urgency to be busy, there isn’t a drive to go find something to do, and honestly there aren’t really the means to do so. Life is simple. There is no snapchat or Facebook, no twitter and Instagram and no electricity for the most part. The forest has formed this culture, and the most obvious way is by limiting the use of technology. The two workers sitting behind me, named Margarita and Doris, are having a conversation while sipping on some water. The more I observe, the more obvious is it that people not only enjoy this more simple life, but thrive in it. The rural families that grew up in their farms and within the jungle are the ones that shaped and continue to shape Costa Rica as it is today. Again, this call back to nature and simpler times is all facilitated by the surrounding thick of the jungle and the several inches of rain that we have seen over the past few hours.

This whole concept of a simpler life being shaped by the environment is something that I, among other I would assume, am completely oblivious to. When I look outside my window at school, I see more houses, surrounded by more houses and more roads. There aren’t any means to be exposed to these sorts of things growing up in suburbia Minnesota. We have our lakes and our boats and take the occasional trip to Mexico (staying in a 5 star resort, of course), yet we don’t know the quality and way of life outside of our little white picket fenced in yards. There can and has been a case for the interconnectedness of our country and how far we have come. But being thrown into a culture so polar opposite of our own, I am beginning to see the necessity for a change. And as much as my idealistic and egotistic head would like to believe, I will not be able to change the world and the likelihood of America changing its ways are essentially zero. This formation of a culture so simple and yet so seemingly connected came from its environment and came from the infinite rain that accompanies it. I hope to continue learning and tapping further into this way of life, after all, it is only day 3.

The Culture of Costa Rica

McKenna Reid

Mercado Central in San Jose

Mercado Central in San Jose

Costa Rica has an incredibly unique environment and culture. There are creatures in the beautiful forests of this country that cannot be found anywhere else in this world. Just like the organisms that live here, the Costa Rican’s also have a unique and inspiring culture. From the short time I have spent here I feel as if I have been able to observe and learn a lot about the mutual relationship between the locals and the surrounding environment, specifically when it comes to the locals making a living for themselves and their families. In many aspects of their culture, we are able to see a reflection between the natural environment and the traditions that they practice.

I thought that a good location to go within the city was the central market (Mercado Central). From the outside it looks like any of the other surrounding buildings, but once you find yourself inside its walls, it’s as if you entered another part of the world. The market building itself is made up of nearly one hundred smaller stands, all packed together in an uncomfortable and overcrowded space. The walkways are no more than four feet wide and the ceilings are close to 20 feet high. Each stand was crammed with as many goods as they could fit, many of them over pouring into the already too small walkway. There were stands packed with just about anything you could need or imagine: dead sea creatures, little toys and trinkets, arrangements of nuts, different spices, jewelry, bunnies and chicks, vegetables, beef. At one stand I walked by the workers were selling knives and at the shop directly next to it the employees were selling children’s toys. I was amazed by the amount of goods that were available in this one market center. The most common things to find were small food stands. Some of these stands were only selling the raw materials needed for cooking, such as peppers and meat, but the majority of them were selling meals that were cooked right in front of you. The smells were incredible, so I decided to stay and observe how the meals were prepared. There was one stand whose food stood out to me in particular, and that was because the cooks had finished tacos and burritos placed on large leaves. I was curious as to why they were doing this, but I didn’t have the time to ask because of how busy the chefs were. Jonathon, our Costa Rican guide here at Rara Avis, helped to enlighten me as to why the women had these tacos and burritos on leaves. While we were hiking today, Jonathon handed another student a giant leaf and asked him to try and crinkle it up as much as he could. After working at it for about 10 seconds, Jonathon grabbed it and smoothed it out. The leaf had little to no tears or wrinkles left in it, even after the attempted mangling. Jonathon went on to explain that these leaves are commonly used for cooking because of how tough and strong they are. When cooking a burrito, the chef only needs to place the ingredients in the leaf, roll it up, and let it sit in boiling water to cook. The leaves are so strong that they will not tear or get worn from the extreme heat of the boiling water.

Mercado Central in San Jose

Mercado Central in San Jose

I’ve been on this trip for 4 days now, and I have learned more about dependence than I really ever have before. By seeing the chefs use the giant leaves to cook food, it really put into perspective that we need and use the environment for everything. The locals at the market center rely on their meats, fruits and vegetables in order to survive and make a living in this world. They use leaves found in the forest because they’re stronger and better than any man made object the user could find. I think the most important thing that I noticed, not only in the market center but all of San Jose, is how integrated nature is in their everyday lives. Costa Rican food production seems to be the greatest export the country has, and because of this, it is one of the most common things being sold on the streets. A classmate pointed out to me that there aren’t any “organic restaurants” to be seen because almost everything here is organic. I talked to a few locals about what their thoughts on pesticides were and none of them understood why we would willingly (and knowingly) put those chemicals into our bodies. They were shocked that so little of the foods in the United States are not organic. I think that because the Costa Rican culture relies so heavily on the beauty of its land and its foods, that they really have a deep respect for the nature surrounding them. The respect that they have is necessary for the survival of the surrounding forests and oceans. If the locals lacked the respect they have, they would likely tear the forests down branch by branch in order to make more money for themselves. It’s amazing to see how important each party’s respect is for the other’s survival.

It was a truly incredible experience that I was able to submerge myself in the Costa Rican culture and observe the ways in which they provide for themselves and their families. The market central showed me how important the environment is for so many people, and why it is that they have so much respect for the nature that surrounds them. Because San Jose is the largest city here, I’m sure that the true dependence and importance of the natural world for the Costa Rican’s was not fully shown. I am so excited to continue learning about these types of interactions and seeing how we need the natural environment just as much as it needs us for its survival.


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