After a hearty, home-cooked Costa Rican lunch we had the afternoon to ourselves. Santi had planned a city tour of Cartago and neighboring San Rafael for those volunteers who wanted to see the town. Of course I enthusiastically agreed. I hadn’t seen anything yet of the town except the CCS Home Base and the nursing home. It was time to check it out and what could be better than getting a knowledgeable tour from our local guide extraordinaire, Santi!
Four of us and Santi left for the city tour shortly after two o’clock and headed left outside the Home Base. It was the first time I had actually walked outside of the building and on the street, something very different for me. I had never really traveled to a place before where I didn’t have my freedom to come and go as I chose. Apparently it was not advised for women volunteers to walk alone in Cartago, especially at night. This was primarily a safety issue. Unfortunately western women often receive a lot of unwanted attention and even occasionally harrassment by the Tico Men. Like most Latin Cultures, Costa Rica had a strong machismo mentality among the men and western women were often viewed as easy prey due to the infiltration of American media depicting women as sex symbols looking for love. CCS discouraged women traveling alone in Cartago despite it being a sleepy, laid-back, Catholic town, simply for our safety. Of course all the female volunteers were willing to abide by these rules while we were volunteering in Costa Rica thus we rarely left the Home Base unaccompanied by others or with a male.
Our walk passed a small, barren open field directly across from the Home Base where a neighbor kept his two horses. Some of the volunteers loved to feed the skinny horses carrots and we’d hear the neighs from our open windows at night. As we walked down the windy street, I was amazed to see that every single home was like a prison. It was fortified with metal gates, barbed wire and a security system. There was no front yard. No front door. No open windows to the street. It was like a ghost town, yet people lived tucked away inside. Santi told us that sadly this is how most Costa Ricans have to live. In fear and in a prison. If you have any money at all, you live behind locked gates away from the thieves and thugs who break into homes daily and steal everything in sight. There isn’t much punishment if any for basic petty theft so it continues on and on and that is why the people are forced to live behind locked gates.
Insert: Here is a picture of our street leading into the town center. Note the fortified homes.
We headed first to THE main tourist attraction in Cartago and the most important church in all of Central America, the Basilica de los Angelos. While we were walking, Santi filled us in on the significant role that Catholicism has on Ticos. One in Four Ticos claim they are Catholic and apparently being Catholic is immensely important. It helps you find a job, a wife, get promoted and be accepted within the community. If you are not Catholic, you are often called a “disowned brother” meaning you are completely cut off from your family and the community. Sometimes you are even disowned and no longer accepted in your families home which is a bad thing in Costa Rica given how important family life is. Santi confessed that oftentimes people just lie and say they are Catholic even if they are not or don’t believe. It is the easier way out. Besides not being Catholic, being gay is even a worse predicament. You are completely banished from your home and it is hard to get a job. Like all places in the world, Costa Rica has a large gay population who have little if any rights. It is a tough situation and a delicate subject.
As we approached the church, we learned about the long history of pilgrimages to the Basilica and how some people walked hundred of miles to go there and pray to Santa Maria. People come from all over Central America to this church, on feet, or on bus, to pray for cures from diseases, good health, fertility, happiness, marriage and wealth. They also bring with them something to leave for the Saints (usually for the one they are praying to) and you could find glass enclosed windows full of gold idols of body parts (head, heart, feet, legs, chest, etc), babies, or any other object that symbolized what they were praying for. It was quite extraordinary.
Picture of impressive Basilica de los Angelos:
We also saw the holy water where people dipped their children’s feet in or slashed all over their body in hopes of good fortune and answers to their prayers. When we entered the inside of the church, we say our first real live pilgrim. He was dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, and dropped to his knees at the entrance and literally crawled on his hands and knees all the way up to the alter, in tears. He had finally made it and was there to pray for something utterly important in his life (hopefully not a new car! Yes we did see gold idols of cars in the windows with the other prayers).
Photo of inside of church:
I left feeling a little confused about religion and all its complexities. As a somewhat non-religious person it was hard to understand all the praying for their own needs, especially when there is so much poverty, desperation and suffering in the world. Praying for that makes a lot of sense for me. However, the idols of cars and symbols of wealth did not. I kept my thoughts to myself since I was with a few highly religious co-volunteers. In my opinion, that is best!
Like all old churches, this one was built in the center of town as the highest structure meaning you could definitely find it and also use it as a landmark for finding your way around Costa Rica’s addressless streets. We moved towards the shopping district, passing the “make-out” ruins (per Santi, these ancient Catholic ruins are where young Costa Ricans go to make-out. They aren’t allowed to live together before marriage so this is the only place they can be together. How ironic! Here is a picture of the ruins:
The downtown shopping district was much like I suspected, very similar to San Jose, with lots of trinket shops, electronic stores and junk. Probably one of my favorite stores was the one in the picture below, a clothing store:
I could not get over the enormous breasts on the mannequin and could hardly contain my laughter. Santi told us that Costa Rica is a hot spot for international plastic surgery and breast enlargements are huge here. It is much cheaper for rich Americans to fly to Costa Rica for a quick, cheap boob job, then spend a few days at the beach before heading home with a new set. Wow.
One of the treasures of Costa Rica are the numerous Tico bakeries. Each block contains one, and every bakery contains their own unique Costa Rican specialties. I have a HUGE sweet tooth and was delighted to go bakery hopping with Santi. We tried many different local sweets from a few different bakeries before I we were satisfied. I loved all the dulce de leche and chocolate deserts. I continued this habit the rest of the trip. Here is a picture of the delicious, mouth-watering sweets:
We also spent a little bit of time visiting San Rafael, a smaller, even sleepier village next to the Home Base. San Rafeal was where a lot of events and festivities were going to take place during the week in celebration of Holy Week. There were going to be processions, and even two staged re-enactments of the Last Supper and The Crucifixion, all in the evening. We would have to go.
After our tour, we had another delicious, huge dinner back at the Home Base, followed by an hour and a half Spanish lesson. We were all exhausted and stuffed like a Thanksgiving Turkey so you can imagine how hard it was to pay attention to the grammar lessons. Taking active notes seemed to help keep me awake. It was another jam-packed day and I was truly looking forward to Day 2 at the nursing home