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The McDermott Scholars Award covers all expenses of a superb four-year academic education at The University of Texas at Dallas, in concert with a diverse array of intensive extracurricular experiences, including internships, travel, and cultural enrichment.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Pura Vida in Costa Rica

Pura Vida! This characteristic Costa Rican expression translates roughly to "It's the good life!" though it literally means "pure life." Ticos (Costa Ricans) use this expression to say hello, goodbye, I'm doing well, it was awesome... basically anything positive. It certainly is the good life here in Costa Rica, surrounded by mountains, beaches, tropical flowers, fresh fruit, and more shades of green than Behr Paint boasts. There is always fresh fruit to eat or drink, and it's so delicious! At my home stay (a casa) I generally drink homemade strawberry juice with breakfast and dinner, though I've had homemade lemonade, orange, and cas juice as well.

My family lives in a quaint house in between a line of businesses at the corner of two highways. Our mama Tica explained to my housemate and I that the safest way to get to school is along the highways, to avoid crime. In America, it would be the opposite--walking next to the highway would be "dangerous." I guess it's all relative. Also, in Costa Rica there are very very few "real" addresses, as in a number and a street. Instead, everything is based on location in respect to main landmarks. For instance, my casa is "200 metros oueste y 75 sur de la Casa Presidencial" or 200 meters West and 75 South of the Casa Presidencial. In theory, though unconventional to my American self, this system should work fine. However, it's more than confusing to a newcomer who does not know where the "Coca Cola" or the "Centro Evangelistico" are, as there is no hope of finding them on a map.

I've been taking two classes at the Universidad Veritas, Intermediate Medical Spanish and a course on the Costa Rican Health Care System. The latter class is taught by two Costa Rican doctors. Costa Rica has a public health care system, and therefore every Costa Rican can get basically any care that he or she needs, from a regular checkup to a heart transplant or brain surgery, for free (by paying a percentage of their income... the employer pays a very small percentage too). Unfortunately, needless to say, the system is somewhat overloaded and it may take a while to get an appointment. In fact, my mama Tica had an appointment this week that she set up 3 months ago. It works by a sort of hierarchy. At the first level are the EBAISes, which are small local clinics that have only one doctor, a nurse, and a pharmacist or pharmacy technician. The EBAIS treats basic health problems of its population. At the second level are health clinics and small hospitals for more specialized but still routine treatments, such as diabetes or AIDS care. These clinics work together with the local EBAIS to take care of patients. In emergencies, or for even more specialized care such as neurology or major surgeries, the main hospitals in Costa Rica comprise the third level. Most of these hospitals are located in the central region in or around San Jose. If the patient cannot afford to travel to the location of care, the cost is paid for them.

As part of the class, I took a trip to visit a rural EBAIS in La Colonia and a health clinic in Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui. It was interesting to see the limits of the institutions but I was also impressed by the resources they do have, in comparison to other Latin American countries. I also was privileged to visit one of my professors at Hospital Dr. Calderon Guardia where he works in the neurosurgery department. This public hospital is named after a prior president of Costa Rica (1940-1944), Dr. Rafael Angel Calderon Guardia, who established the national health care program, the social security program, the University of Costa Rica, and minimum wage. My class also made a visit to Clinica Biblica, a private hospital in San Jose. Needless to say, the private hospital looks much nicer than the public one did, but apparently patients are sometimes sent to public hospitals to have specific tests done because they have more equipment. Also, the doctors that work in the public hospitals are generally the same doctors that work in the private hospitals--they do both public and private work. So, patients may be more comfortable in the private hospitals, but generally the care is not better quality.

A few weeks ago, the worst rain Costa Rica has had in 120 years let up just in time for us to go to dance class, which was very fun. We are learning how to merengue and salsa, and even a bit of chachacha! On Thursdays a dance bar called Castro's lets people in free, so a group of us usually go every Thursday. A classmate and I were dancing salsa when some funky music came on and people started doing a weird dance that looked like the sea walk. We were trying to imitate it, and this old Tico came over and started teaching us how to do it. He kept doing different steps, which got sillier and sillier, but we kept following. A couple times I felt like he must have been trying to make us look like fools, but I looked around and a few other people were doing weird things too. Seems sort of like the Costa Rican Chicken Dance, though I found out later that it's called Cumbia. Eventually some merengue music came on, and he taught us a few more merengue moves. He also kept stopping us and telling us to move our hips more--or rather showing us, since he didn't speak English at all. Trying to speak Spanish wouldn't have worked either because the music was so loud. What an awesome experience to learn to dance on the actual dance floor from a Tico! This Tico, Orlando, has taught us a few more steps every Thursday since then.

I also went exploring through La Selva (the Jungle)! They have several natural reservations where many students come internationally to study different species. We went on a 3 hour hike through the jungle with a guide. We saw tiny red poisonous frogs, huge ants that are called bullet ants because that's what a bite feels like, huge turkey-like birds, Tarzan vines, walking trees, and three huge iguanas. We heard the roars of a howler monkey and we learned about some of the symbiotic relationships of different species in the jungle. I got bit by a huge fly (quarter-sized at least), but after 5 minutes I couldn't even tell anything had bit me. The walking trees were fascinating--their stumps don't touch the ground; instead they have roots that grow down to the ground in a multi-legged tripod structure. New roots form on the side with the most sun, and old roots rot away. Over time these trees can actually move! Only about 1 cm per year.

Besides all these wonderful experiences, I've been zip-lining through the tropical rainforest, taken a horseback ride to a huge waterfall, seen macaws, toucans, monkeys, sloths, butterflies, and volcanoes, been to beaches on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, and eaten some of the best pineapple and mango imaginable! My Spanish is improving slowly but surely, and I can't help but exclaim "pura vida!"

Marhaban from the Middle East! - Damascus, Syria

Marhaban from the Middle East!

I hope everyone is having a GREAT summer! I have been dying to continue to stalk the McDermott Network here in Damascus, but unfortunately I have problems accessing the EMPSN on any computer other than my non-Middle Eastern-compatible Mac. Either way, it is good to feel like a full-time McDermott again, and it is very safe to say I miss the family very much.

I cannot begin to describe the wonders of the city of Damascus. This is, indeed, the oldest inhabited capital in the world, and as such there is so much to see! I am very fortunate to have some family members that are more than willing to take me around the city to show me the sites. There is no way that a two month stay will do this city justice, but I am happy to say that I have been to many of the stereotypical tourist sites along with many hidden treasures in Damascus.

I don’t even know where to begin. The city of Damascus is split into many different sections, but the one most historically rich and most interesting is known as “Old Damascus.” As hinted by the name, this is where the old villas, markets, mosques, etc. are located. Damascus is home to the oldest hotel in the world! It is two stories high with beautiful arches carved over three thousand years ago! Also, in the old city lie the tombs of John the Baptist and the daughter of the Muslim caliph Ali, both in two exquisite mosques (the former in the famous Omayyid). In the Omayyid mosque, I saw the first sun calendar in the world, the location Muslims believe St. George re-appears, and also the location many people believe Jesus will return. My favorite spot in the old city and one of my favorite parts of all Damascus would have to be Hamadiyya, the famous market strip full of venders selling spices, jewelry, clothes, home d├ęcor, and food, and home of the famous Arabic ice cream (vanilla ice cream with pistachio) that they compact with a special machine until it forms a solid that you can literally hold in your hand as a single piece and bite into! My roommate tells me you cannot eat ice cream with your hands, but here it would be totally possible.

The best thing about Damascus is the abundance of places to just walk around and enjoy the culture. The people are extremely friendly and willing to help (there is no way I could have figured out how to use the bus otherwise!), and the food is both abundant (at least lunchtime is supper, so you can walk off the five hundred pounds of food that you definitely didn’t need) and yummy! Also, the nightlife here is wonderful! But it has been rather exhausting: Arabs like to go out starting at 1:30 a.m. and often don’t get in until 4:30/5 am!! Also, arguille smoke (hubble bubble?) and cigarette smoke have been following me everywhere I go :/.

One amazing weekend trip that I must write about was my two and a half day excursion to Jordan. My family and I took a taxi to the capital, where we stayed with my mom’s ammay (aunt from father’s side) for one night. We then woke up early the next morning to take a tour bus that took us around some of the most famous sites in the country. We first stopped at the religious site where Moses supposedly turned rocks into wells; you can still see and drink from the wells still there today! We then went to the main tourist spot in Jordan: Petra. Petra is an old city from the Byzantine Empire that spans 45 kilometers and has some of the most astonishing ancient architecture in the world. The site has, in fact, been recently named one of the new Seven Wonders of the World! It was very beautiful, but the only problem is that we only had about four hours and the site is so spread out that we were only able to see one of the main doors and a few tombs. After Petra, we went deep into the desert to a popular site known as Wadi Rum. Here we experienced the sand dunes of the arid Middle East; we rock-climbed, saw some quick sand, watched the sunset, and had a mini Bedouin style dance party to end the night! We then drove back to Amman, and after staying the night our family took us to see the city itself. Amman is quite different in that the entire city is literally built on a mountain, so you see these houses built on the edge of cliffs! It was a really interesting and beautiful place to see. I am hoping to also take a trip to Lebanon (hopefully the rebels will stop fighting in the South and hopefully the Syrians will secure the border and hopefully I will get another VISA so I can get there!), and North Syria to see Palmera and go to the beach!

I have, of course, been studying the Arabic language as well. Let me tell you, Arabic is one heck of a trip. Vowels aren’t written half of the time, the alphabet is completely different than what we are used to, all writing goes right to left, and worst of all the written language I am learning is not spoken ANYWHERE except the news and in official government documents. If you walk in the streets you will hear a completely different Arabic than that taught in my classroom. Fortunately, my upbringing, my current living situation with an Arabic family, and being forced to find my way around the city all have forced me to learn the local dialect. I do feel that both my formal Arabic and my daily Arabic have improved ten-fold since I have been here, and I only wish I could stay longer to really get it down.

Summary: I miss you guys, but Damascus rocks!