Sunday, February 21, 2010

Two Sides to Every Country



When I first decided to visit the Central American country of Costa Rica, I was hesitant. My hesitation was spurred by two reasons; one, it would be the first time that I was consciously traveling abroad and two, I am very much in love with big cities. I have been to countrysides and it makes me miserable. I pictured Costa Rica being one big countryside. I was wrong in my assumption; for a place that has the image of simple living, Costa Rica can get complicated.

When I first landed in the city of San José, the capital of Costa Rica, I was happy to see a bustling big-city atmosphere. It had all the comforts of home: crowded streets, traffic, air pollution, and a plethora of bars and restaurants. It was a little rundown, but I can work with that. So I spent time in the big city and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Alas, all good things must come to an end; it was time for me to visit my estranged family on the other side of the country. The drive alone let me know I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

I went from the bustling city, to what I can only describe as slum villages. Piles of trash being burned, stray dogs everywhere, pot holes that put Boston to shame, and big rusted iron fences around every house, were the first images that could be seen from the car. I could not help but think the typical bad neighborhoods in The United States cannot compare to this. The house I stayed in was on the outskirts of the town, so the first thing I wanted to do was go to the center and see what the busiest part of town looked like; it was not much better.

I had the chance to visit a grade school and I was horrified at the conditions these children went to school in. The floors were flooded, the rooms small and hot, and according to my cousin, none of the girls were allowed to go to the bathroom because rape was a frequent crime. It made me profoundly sad to see my nine-year-old, girl cousin living and learning in these conditions, but what can be done?

Many organizations are currently hard at work trying to instill better values and better infrastructure for the poorer areas of Costa Rica. One of the ones I found is http://www.projectoninos.org/; they have a strong mission statement and really seem to be making a difference.

In the big city of San José the crime they worry about is pick pocketing, but on the other side of the country crimes are more severe. I could not help but notice this division that seemed to split the country in two: the East Coast of mostly tourist-friendly attractions, and the West Cost consisting of mostly small towns and villages. I got on the plane to Texas feeling sobered. It is a strange experience to go from practically carefree living to observing everything around you and feeling saddened by it all.

Ultimately, I think it is important to look beyond the tourist traps of a country. It is interesting how governments, in this case the Costa Rican one, will mask its problems and encourage tourists not to go where the government does not want them to go. I think it is important to disobey their wishes and find the heart of countries. No matter how big and rich or small and poor a country is, the heart is always the working class people.

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