Tag Archives: community

Pura Vida, Costa Rica

“The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.” – G. K. Chesterton

Watching from the plane window as the sun began to sink below the rolling surface of the clouds was a surreal phenomenon.  I told myself the last time that I was on a plane – when I was on route to Costa Rica – that I was embarking on the grandest adventure of my life.  There are none compared to the stories I now possess, and I never imagined my experience would lead me in the directions that it did.  Unforeseen trials and adventures were had by all – close friendships were made, but most of all there was a sense of fulfillment amongst my fifteen classmates aboard the returning vessel.   Some cried of happiness, and some of sadness; some cried because the conclusion had registered, and others because the reintroduction to a reminisced life was like greeting an old friend.  I, however, sat and watched the flaps while the wheels steadily projected from the bottom of this flying ship.  Overwhelmed with the memories that I now possessed, I read the unfasten seatbelt sign above our heads, and unbuckled from the greatest ride of my life.

Some expected my group and I to have reverse culture shock upon our return to the United States, but I felt the adjustment to be a comfortable one. I was content to leave one adventure and resume the previous with new perspectives and experiences that would forever change my frame of mind.  In a matter of hours, I regressed to English, familiar faces, and the familiar atmosphere of my university.  At first, it seemed like another weekend adventure – like the ones that were so prevalent over the course of my past semester, but when I remained in this place I began to get restless.  Many new assignments passed through my mind and I was welcomed again into my old, over scheduled life.  The mechanization of life in the States compared to that of San Jose, and the paradises that I had visited, was the most challenging readjustment.  Also, I missed the natural food that had graced my plate frequently in my host country.  My body quickly felt the effects of the unnatural foods that are unavoidable in the States, and I have grown very health-conscious as a result.

By the time I became reacquainted with my schedule, and my upcoming tasks, I grew to greatly appreciate the communication that was always accessible to me.  In both the United States and Costa Rica, I had the communication necessary to remain content in each respective location.  Before departing for a new country for the first time, I was very scattered across my many passions.  I am involved in a number of organizations, and loved seeing multiple groups of friends throughout my day.  Costa Rica encouraged me to see another side of myself that is stronger than I previously believed.  I was abroad with about thirteen students from my university, and the majority of them were introverted.  This was one of the greatest blessings that this experience had to offer, because in addition to the friends that I made in Costa Rica – I decelerated to find a cohesive unit of students that truly supported each other throughout our four-month excursion.   They taught me how to love and listen to others and I am truly thankful for the characteristics and kindness that each of them added to the group’s dynamic.

In Costa Rica, a common expression is, “Pura Vida,” which is translated to mean pure life.  Altogether, I believe that is what I discovered while outside of the United States.  I went abroad in search of a new culture. I sought complete immersion into language and lifestyle that were unlike my own.  Costa Rica had plenty of differences, and surely enough to fulfill these desires.  However, there was something even greater that I discovered.  I found culture to look like a circle, in several facets of its existence there are cycles, rituals, and behaviors that make it rich. A circle is my chosen symbol because it is the essence of the whole.  While searching for contrast, I discovered comparison.  Culture, regardless of location can be whittled down to the same items that make us all inherently human.  We have the need for stability, for love, and for community, etc., and it is fascinating to see the ways in which a different country can accomplish the same feat.  When one becomes an ethnographer and sees an outwardly dissimilar world from within – it becomes visible that the individual is attempting to examine a similarity’s difference.  Pure life, or pura vida, is what lies at the heart of society’s inner-workings, and this is how we identify with one another.  Whether I am in Costa Rica, or in the United States, the hearts of people around me are not to be contrasted, but rather compared.

Immediately upon returning, my family and friends wanted to know what I had learned from the experience and the tales of my several adventures.  This is hard because I am continuing to grow as a result of this experience, and this process is just beginning.  With each new adventure comes an expansion of mind that will only continue to place into practice its newfound ideas.  I am grateful for the family I have made, and the memories I have shared with so many in such a short period of time.  So now I begin another adventure-


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Filed under Central America, Culture Shock, Dan in Costa Rica

Carnaval – Part 3

The next night I found my way to an area I’d never stopped at previously… there was a roof constructed, over a small area, with a picnic table underneath, a long bench along one side, and a woodstove made of mud and brick opposite that bench.  That woodstove seemed like a relic from some past time lost to us today in the modern West, formed with clay from the earth by the hands of workers who loved this place, and designed for a concrete human purpose.   It wasn’t made by some machine in a factory line taking orders from a computer in the pursuit of generating corporate dividends… a different reality all together… They kept a good bed of coals inside the stove and cooked crispy little grilled cheese sandwiches inside a cast iron sandwich press.  The rain was gently drizzling outside, and people packed in underneath the roof to keep warm and enjoy each other’s company.  When people first arrived from the wet night, they’d stand close to the woodstove and rub their hands together, warming themselves up before retreating towards the picnic table or the long bench and joining in the conversations all around us.  Felipe brought a little battery powered radio and tuned it to a station playing some variation of samba, and everybody started dancing… one of the women wanted to dance with me, but I didn’t know the steps and she taught me, really quickly… “it’s easy,” she said, “just two steps to the left and then two steps to the right… but take bigger steps to the left so that we spin in a slow circle.”  And it was easy, and she was beautiful, and everybody was beautiful, dancing and smiling under the shelter of the roof, the wood-stove emanating heat, and the people emanating heat too, dancing together while others looked on, munching on crispy sandwiches and laughing in the night.

It was amazing, and I wanted to hide inside that moment forever, and I thought to myself how great it was the way that certain places can gather a community into itself.  Like that woodstove was doing in this joyful night – like the Greek temple did for the ancient Greeks with their daily religious rituals, like the medieval church did for the inhabitants of any given village, gathering the day to day life of the inhabitants into a meaningful totality.  But today, such locations, such locales, are few and far between, and they rarely exist as permanent organizing structures for day to day life.  Instead, we’ll find them scattered here and there in the wasteland of modernity.  Here at a music festival an alternate community pulls the temporary inhabitants into a beautiful caring relation, and the woodstove brings us all together spontaneously under the damp sky.

We finished out the night with a handful of people softly playing forró around the picnic table, and the next morning I found myself at the woodstove again, sharing a breakfast of fruit and nuts with the others.  We pattered around on some instruments, a couple people playing guitars and some hand-drums here and there, and we relaxed in the morning light, slanting sideways under the roof.  Eventually, as the sun rose in the sky bringing the temperature up with it, everybody was going down to the waterfall again, now 10 people going, now 4, now 12, and now 7 coming back up the hill, and now 5 returning, etc.  I went down and rinsed the sweat off under that crisp, cold water, and there was a great jam session tucked in between the rocks down there in the stream bed… a few djembes (a type of West-African hand-drum), a few digeredoos, a couple guitars, and some shakers, and they were blending in with the steady roar of the waterfall, and livening up the wilderness with their sound and with their smiles.

I headed back to the top and made my way to the kitchen, where people were sitting outside on the deck, playing music on guitars and singing along.  They were playing alot of American music now, songs that I knew all the words to, so I started singing along.  With many of these songs, the Brazilians don’t know all the words so they sort of mutter along to the melody at the parts they don’t know, but I would sing every word, and they were loving it… they asked me for more songs that I knew the words to and I told them which ones to play… they were learning the words from me as I went…

It was great fun, and went on for an hour or so, but then we noticed that a bunch of people were arranging themselves nearby the woodstove, which was right in the middle of the hill, above the lower cluster of tents and the row of wooden dormitories, but below the kitchen and the bar on the hill…. they were all dressed in crazy costumes, like Halloween in the U.S., but without the monsters and gory masks…. one guy dressed as Caesar with a white robe and crown of olive leaves, another as Bruce Lee, another as a character from street fighter, a slew of people dressed in the sort of typical flashy getup for Carnaval—and everybody had this orange dye smeared all over their back, and chest, and face, each in their own pattern… it came from the pod of a plant called urucum.  They had a ton of these pods, still on the branches that they’d harvested from somewhere nearby, and inside each pod was 30 or 40 little pouches of a natural orange dye… they were playing music in their own wild way, probably with 15 drummers, each one banging on a different drum, some with sticks, some with hands…. a handful of brass instruments, a trumpet, a sax, some others… a clarinet… a wild school of samba in the countryside… and we all started walking to the top of the hill and out to the red dirt road that brought us there.  We headed in the direction away from Munhoz, and I wondered where we were going….

Everybody was dancing to the music as we went, myself included, and I was learning how to dance properly, on the balls of my toes, taking many quick little bouncy steps as though running in place, but always on the balls of my toes, and back and forth with the rhythm, giving my calves a great workout in the process… it was a slow march down the great dirt road, winding through the trees and fields of rural Brazil, a great dust cloud rising up behind us as we went.  Once in a while a car came and had to get through, and everybody cleared a way for the car to pass, and reached their hands into the car to pat the people on the arms, and those people in the cars really got a kick out of it… Imagine the strangeness of this situation for a tiny little town four hours from any major city.  Here are all these maniacs playing a wild samba and kicking up dust in the country road, celebrating Carnaval without the strange hedonistic madness of that was going on in Rio de Janeiro at the very same time.  And suddenly I was reminded that the other Americans were in Rio, and I wondered what sort of a time they were having.  I was glad that I’d chosen to come to the countryside… and later on I learned that they’d had a bunch of drama, half of them’d had their cellphones stolen or lost, and there were 12 of them all in a one bedroom apartment, fighting and clawing for space.  Quite a different scenario than what I was immersed in at Munhoz, with the great expanse of the rolling hills, the waterfall for showers, the community of music, and the pure joy of the celebration.

We arrived at a little cluster of 5 or 6 buildings, and one of them was a country store, and that was our destination.  Probably 150 maniacs brought their great roar of music and talk and laughter to the store and only 20 or so people could fit inside while the music continued in the red dirt outside.  I was feeling hungry and dehydrated by this point, but they didn’t have much food without gluten, so I bought a jug of orange juice, a jug of water, and a big bag of peanuts, and I munched down a bunch of peanuts and slammed a glass of orange juice right away.  I put the orange juice and water and peanuts on the table so that everybody could have some, and I saw the woman I’d danced with the night before, and told her that her children and the other kids who’d come with her could help themselves to the juice and nuts and water.  I settled down on the concrete slab of the store, where it met the road, making a tall curb to sit on, and just munched on peanuts as I enjoyed the unfolding of the scene.  The music was still going strong, but I couldn’t see the majority of the people, they had gone around the corner now, and were taking a group photo, but I didn’t feel like getting up and getting in any photo… I just wanted to sit and enjoy this shared mood that we were all participating in.  There were still a good thirty people milling around by the front of the store, and I was happy staying right where I was.

After some time, I noticed that a truck was going back and forth between the site of the festival, and the country store, bringing loads of people back to the top of the hill each time.  I decided to catch a ride… I didn’t want to walk up the hill.  My ankle was bothering me because I’d twisted it the day before, so I piled in with a dozen other people and we all held tight for the rumbling ride to the top, passing by dozens and dozens of people who’d started the trek up.  The sun was settling low in the sky, and I headed to the deck by the kitchen to wait for the others to make their way back up.  That night passed like a dream.  It was the last night of the festival, and the reggae band that everybody loved the most played for over four hours, and I danced so much that my legs were sore beyond belief for the next five days after the festival.  In particular, those two days after, I couldn’t do more than hobble between my bedroom and the kitchen to get water and food and then head back to bed to read and rest.  Walking up or down stairs was out of the question, my muscles were so sore, my calves were done!  And my lousy old joints were throbbing with that old familiar pain… the surgeries, the Lyme disease, all that nonsense always comes back to haunt me.  It’s true that Munhozstock wasn’t really “Carnaval,” in the typical sense of the celebration… it was more like an anti-Carnaval, where Brazil’s counter-culture went to recharge themselves and see what community can feel like.

It’s true that the other Americans in the exchange program thought that I was kind of an idiot for missing out on the wild party of Rio, but I was thankful for the times I’d shared with all those amazing people in Munhoz, for the friendships that I’d forged at that little festival, for the celebration of life that it truly was.

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Filed under south america, Tyler in Brazil

The Trials and Triumphs of Travel

“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.” – Cesare Pavese

I feel that Cesare Pavese’s description of travel describes the quintessential backpacker, a situation that does indeed garner a lack of balance. People who are working their way through a country as nomads (i.e. briefly settling in a city until they have the flavor of the land on their tongues, then moving onward) do encounter the feeling that the world does not belong to them. They borrow resources as they go and hold on to nothing lest their baggage become too heavy.

However, in my case, I have arrived in Trinidad and Tobago with the intention of a long-term stay. My goal is to understand the land beyond the tourist view that one would see during a brief stay. I actually feel that I have the same access to comforts here that I might in my home. Initially, I experienced the brutality of travel whilst prying myself away from comfort and entering an unfamiliar place.

Yet within a week of my arrival, I felt completely at home. I feel that a great part of this has to do with my amazing dorm community in Milner Hall. “Milnerites”, as the official members of the dorm refer to themselves, have a strong sense of family. The pledge itself states the dedication to making this place “a home away from home”. Milnerites look after each other like brethren. I might come across someone I have not previously met, but as we are both living together in Milner Hall, we are now in the same social circle and conversation is easy. We share everything with each other and support one another in our endeavors. To all campus events, Milnerites carry a large Milner Hall flag to which we flock during times of distress or after the fete has ended. Together, we walk back to our dorm in the early hours of the morning, following the flag as it waves to us from the front of the pack.

I have never been in ownership of the air, the sky, the seas, or even my greatest dreams. These things are always shared with the rest of the world; they connect us to each other! Here in Trinidad and Tobago, I live in harmony with my fellow students. We share the skies, the air, the cafe, and the spaghetti strainers. We share compassion for each other!

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Filed under Caribbean, Sana in Trinidad & Tobago