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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!"