An Afternoon in Casablanca

After my experience in the Rabat medina, I was utterly exhausted yet for some reason, I kept on going like the Energizer Bunny. I couldn’t stop. I was mesmerized by what I’d seen and the Casbah was only a short walk away. The sun was beginning to set and cast a beautiful rainbow of pinks, reds and oranges against the whitewashed buildings of Rabat, and the Casbah’s grand presence was overwhelmingly alluring. So, instead of going back and relaxing I crossed the busy street, jay-walking, following the well-versed Moroccans and headed over to see one of Rabat’s oldest parts of the city.

The Casbah is a lovely, tranquil place to wander. There are beautiful, hidden alleyways and whitewashed buildings with varying hues of blues. It is mostly residential now and apparently many rich foreigners are buying up the picturesque homes. At the end, you enter and enormous open space which affords a spectacular view of the river and the sea. It is gorgeous and I could have spent an hour there just relaxing if it wasn’t for the hordes of teenage Moroccan men who were obviously on the prowl. I couldn’t help laughing that a young man who could practically be my child was harassing me in french and giving me looks! If only they knew I was almost 40!

Here are some photos of the Casbah:
View approaching the Casbah from across the street:

View looking down in central Rabat:

Inside the whitewashed walls of the Casbah:

The view of the ocean and Rabat from the Casbah:

I returned to the hotel at seven o’clock, extremely tired yet knew that I had to stay up. That is the number one rule of jet lag. You must remain awake all day long and if you sleep during the day, you are finished! So, despite the fatigue, I grabbed my glass of wine that I saved from my Air France flight to Rabat and headed upstairs to the Riad’s rooftop terrace. The view was spectacular and there was little noise except a couple of nearby chickens. I savored my wine and then headed downstairs for a delicious Moroccan meal of Chicken tagine with a seventy-year-old couple from Boston who were traveling with their thirteen-year-old grandson. It was their grandson’s first trip out of the US and he was in for quite an adventure (which included a trip to the Sahara desert for a camel ride, a hike in the Atlas Mountains and visit to Berber villages and a journey to magnificent Fez). Wow! The dinner was delightful and I enjoyed my first glass of Moroccan Red Wine. It was so ironic to be drinking wine in a Muslim country yet I was soon to discover that Morocco is much more modern than any other Islamic country in the world. The Muslims of course are forbidden to drink alcohol yet it is widely available for tourists and the large sum of ex-pats that live in Rabat and Casablanca.

View from the terrace:

The call to prayer could be heard five times a day from the minaret (tower) off in the distance (starting at 5 am and ending at dusk):

And the chickens could be heard at the neighboring residences:

It was lights out by 9:30 PM. I was proud of myself for making it so long! What a wild and crazy day! The United States, an eight hour flight, a visit to Paris for a cup of cafe creme, a flight to Rabat, a visit in search of body lotion to a souq and my first Moroccan meal! I’m tired just remembering all the things I did in a twenty-four hour period….nuts!

I slept hard for four hours, then was up for two (when I decided to write on my blog) then back asleep again until 7:30am. Not bad for my first night in Morocco!

Breakfast was served on the terrace. I was served a traditional Moroccan meal that included Moroccan crepes, mint bread, coffee and four wonderful, homemade condiments to put on the crepes.

Here is a picture of my meal: From left to right, the condiments are Honey, Strawberry jam, Apricot Jam, and best of all, olive tapenade! (I initially thought it was some kind of date jam but was pleasantly surprised):

Me looking very tired:

The morning view of Rabat:

I was really looking forward to the day ahead. I had hired a driver, Mohammed (same driver that picked me up at the airport) to take me to Casablanca (aka “Casa”) where I would meet a french-speaking guide and receive a city tour. Thank goodness I speak French because French is the second language of Morocco thus most Moroccans speak Arabic and French. English is rare.

The drive to Casa is about an hour south of Rabat, following the Atlantic Ocean. There is not much along the way except farms and countryside. Mohammed was very proud to inform me about the government’s great improvement plans to the infrastructure. A third lane is currently being added to the autoroute linking Rabat to Morocco.

I was still feeling jet-lagged yet Mohammed could not stop talking to me so I used the opportunity to learn more about Morocco. Some of the interesting things Mohammed told me include:

1. The name Mohammed is the most popular male name in Morocco and is given to the oldest son. Means “The Prophet”.

2. Fatima: Is the most popular female name. It means “Daughter of Mohammed”.

3. The government in Morocco does not give unemployment benefits. So if you don’t work, you are out of luck.

4. Average cost of petrol: 11 Dirhams/1 Euro per litre of gas.

5. In Morocco, now about 50% of women work. The generation before was only 1-2%.

6. Population of Casa city center is 5 million.

7. Rick’s Cafe is a HOAX! Movie Casablanca was fllmed completely in Hollywood studio. Producer had never been to Casa. There is a fabricated Rick’s Cafe in Casa. Tourist deal.

8. Casa hosts the first McDonalds in all of Africa. It opened on December 18th, 1994 (funny fact here: that is my guides birthday AND my husbands birthday…December 18th!).
Here is a photo of McDo:

We had lunch outside at a posh Parisien style cafe overlooking the beach in Casa:

Besides the public beaches, you can also go to one of the four main outdoor pools for the day:

I also saw this cafe which made me laugh because I am originally from the town of Excelsior in Minnesota:

Coming up in my next post….. My next stop was to the only mosque in Morocco that allows visitors inside.

Morocco TRAVEL BY REGION

Searching for Body Lotion in a Moroccan Medina

The flight to Rabat was uneventful except for all the crying babies who kept me awake. I was really looking forward to sleeping the entire way yet it wasn’t in the cards.

As we made our approach, I looked out the window longingly at the beautiful countryside and array of colors. There were greens, earth tones, yellows and the brilliant blue sea. It was gorgeous. The landscape was such a contrast to brown, barren Minnesota! It was like eye candy and I gobbled it up.

We landed safely and I was relieved to finally be here in Africa after such a long journey. For some reason, I didn’t have much luck with customs and was questioned for at least ten minutes about what I was going to be doing in Morocco. It was becoming a pattern. I was stopped in Minneapolis and had the pat down due to an oversize tube of toothpaste, my beloved face lotion was seized at the Paris airport and now I was being grilled over and over again about my volunteer work in Morocco. I think he must have been simply messing with me. I looked tired and was easy bait.

My “chauffeur” met me outside the arrivals gate and we headed to his old white Mercedes car where I practically collapsed into the seat. It was very warm and I was sweltering. Probably due to my Nordic blood.

I was thankful to know French. Yes, it has been eighteen years since I lived in France but suddenly and magically it all came back and it was pouring out. My driver, Mohammed, was full of information and facts about Morocco. I wasn’t in the mood to chat but it helped me stay awake and everything he had to say was of course very interesting.

We arrived at the hotel in less than thirty minutes. I was staying at a Riad, or private historical mansion, in the center of Rabat. The windy, whitewashed walls of the medina were like a maze that somehow lead to the green sign stating RIAD DAR KERIFA. Atlas, we arrived!

Here is a photo of the entrance of the hotel:

The inside of the hotel was like a hidden treasure. One would never know from the outside that there was a gorgeous mansion inside! I was instantly impressed. Here are some pictures of the inside of the raid:

The architecture and furnishings were all traditional Moroccan:

Even the light fixtures were spectacular:

I unpacked my stuff and took a quick shower. There is something about being on a plane and traveling for hours that just makes you feel disgusting. The shower felt fabulous and gave me that much needed second wind and energy to go on my next quest: In search of body lotion in the Moroccan Medina.

I left the hotel and immediately got lost. There were many Moroccans in their traditional attire, the jellaba (hooded robe) and caftans (decorated robes):

The old medina was amazing, like nothing I’d ever experienced. It felt like being in some kind of crazy maze full of endless twists and turns against whitewashed ancient buildings. I somehow managed to find the “souq” or the market. I looked around and realized that I was the only foreigner in sight. But I didn’t feel uncomfortable at all. Nothing like what I experienced in India. Thus I was able to fully take in the unbelievably overwhelming experience of searching for American Body Lotion in a Moroccan Medina. Ok, I’m at a souq which is an enormous open air market where they sell pretty much everything but the kitchen sink. No big deal, huh? It would be no problem at all to find the lotion and head back to my peaceful, relaxing hotel for a glass of wine. Right! I should have known better! I was in a foreign country, North Africa, to say the least! My mission to find some lotion was absolute madness.

I saw EVERYTHING that is for sure. I saw turtles for sale, ladies underwear fancily displayed (hilarious given I am in a Muslim country), fruit stands packed with dates, olives and figs, jean shops, electronic shops and stuff I couldn’t even guess what it was. It was the most crazy place I’ve ever been. There was shouting, there was chanting, there was clapping….there was absolutely every sales tactic employed to get a sale. It was the most incredible market I’d ever seen! Yet, the lotion was no where to be found.

After two and a half hours of searching frantically, I finally gave in to the pressure of getting a little help. A nice Moroccan man asked if I need his assistance. Yes, this is a no no for sure. I knew he’d probably want money but I was so utterly exhausted and I was lost. He walked me to a place where I purchased some crazy “milk lotion” and then showed me my way back to the riad. He was a friendly guy yet was missing several bottom teeth so I was a little weary but quite frankly too tired to deal with the situation. Finally when I found the way out of the medina and said my farewell, he surprisingly walked away, of course after a request for a small donation, which I gently refused. I was angry with myself for accepting some help but then again, at least I found my lotion!

In the coming week, I know that I’ll definitely be back for more experiences in the souq. Hopefully this time I won’t be so tired and weary! It a place that one could spend hours in. A place of wonder that makes me remember why I travel and see the world.

Here are some of my favorite pictures of the market:
Ok, this first one was the beginning where I freaked out because everything looked like it came from a garage sale. But trust me, it got much better:

Now we are talking:

Pet turtles for sale (they bring good luck in Morocco!):

Now the beautiful, fresh dried fruits, olives and figs:

More wonderful things:

Moroccan beauty supplies (for making homemade facials):

Anything is possible to buy (except lotion!)

I returned to the hotel, beyond exhausted, and headed up to the lovely terrace affording a gorgeous sunset view of Rabat. I had a glass of red french wine (which I grabbed from the Air France flight) and listened to the call for prayer from the nearby mosque. This is quite a country!

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Morocco TRAVEL BY REGION

I’ll Always Have Paris

The flight to Paris was uneventful. I was jam packed like a sardine in a tin can yet somehow I was able to relax and manage to get a couple hours of sleep (thanks to my over the counter sleeping pill). Thus the flight passed by quickly and before I knew it we were making our final descent into Charles de Gualle airpot. I checked my physical status and was happy that I didn’t feel completely miserable like I normally due with so little sleep. It was six am in Paris and eleven pm at home. But like any smart traveler, I had already changed my watch to local time and tried to erase the old Minnesota time out of my head. That is the only way you can survive jet lag. To forget it!

As we were descending, I rechecked my itinerary and was surprised to discover that my next flight to Rabat was not leaving for six hours! I had originally thought my layover was only four hours so I was delightfully surprised to learn that I had six whole hours which opened the door for a little adventure: I could hop the RER train to Paris, mon amour, and take a short but sweet trip down memory lane before catching my next flight!

I know that most people would think I’m absolutely nuts for leaving the airport with no sleep for only a brief visit to Paris, but then again those who think I’m crazy don’t understand how much I adore Paris and love it with all my heart. For you see, Paris is a very special place for me. I spent part of my Junior Year of college abroad living in Paris at the ripe, perfect age of twenty-one and I’ll never ever forget what an amazing, life-changing experience it was. For me, Paris represents an amazing self-discovery and transformation in my life. It was a time of dramatic growth that probably transformed me more than anything else I’d ever done up to that point. My time spent in Paris was like a dream. The world was my oyster. Everything was in front of me.

As I walked through customs and headed out the doors of the Paris airport, my heart speed. I could not believe that I was really doing this. I was going to a see Paris again!It had been ten long years since I’d last been to Paris, and eighteen long years (scary) since I lived there. Thus despite my fear (of somehow missing my next flight) and fatigue (yes it really was two in the morning for me), the temptation and curiosity sucked me in, and before I knew it, I was out of the airport doors and headed towards that all too familiar RER train line that would lead me to back to the city of light and the city of love.

In my opinion, Paris is one of the most beautiful, fantastic and romantic cities in the world. I could spend years there and never bore of its splendor, elegance and unexpected discoveries. It is an amazing place that is always changing yet someone remains a little bit the same. The history, the architecture, the gardens, the cafes, the restaurants and the magnificent monuments, all draw in millions of tourist a year. You could spend your entire life in Paris and still not see it all. There is so much to see and explore, the options are endless. I know for a fact that I will dream about Paris as long as I will live and hope to someday spend more time there, perhaps when my husband and I are old and gray.

I easily found the RER (regional train. similar to the metro) line and purchased my billet (ticket) for 7,8 Euros (around ten bucks) and waited for the familiar looking train to approach. It looked just as I’d remember. White with red and blue, old and creaky. It amazed me how nothing had changed. In fact I’m sure the train was the same eighteen years ago.

I boarded the train, chose my spot by the window and heard the familiar buzz of the doors shutting. I was dead tired but happy all the same! In thirty five minutes I’d be in the heart of Paris, hopefully at an outdoor cafe, sipping a delicious, inviting cup of cafe au lait with hopefully a fresh pain au chocolat in my tummy.

As the Parisian landscape passed me by, the sweet memories from eighteen years ago, when I was a young, carefree twenty-one year old woman, flashed through my mind. I was stunned to think that it was almost half my life ago that I was here. How could that be possible? How could life have really gone so fast? Like the sudden passing of the scenery, my life seemed to have passed me by. It felt like an eternity ago since I lived in Paris, yet it also felt like only yesterday, all at the same time.

My heart began to beat rapidly in excitement and anticipation as the train approached my familiar haunts. Chatelet-les-Halles, Notre Dame, Luxembourg, and finally St. Michel, where I decided to get off. I took the escalator up, noticing that the metro station was just as old, dirty and decrepit as it was then, arrived up at the doors headed out to Paris. A huge smile spread across my face as I opened the door and walked out onto the street. I was at the Notre Dame and Hotel du Ville, two beloved, famous Parisian landmarks that are in the center of the escargot (what they call Paris, as it is shaped like an escargot). I took one step out and stopped, marveling at my beloved Paris, in all her glory.

Was it worth the trip? (I only had an hour to have a quick cafe, take some photos and soak it all it). Indeed! As I love to say, Paris, je t’aime! I will always have Paris.

Here are some shots of my beloved Paris, in the springtime:
Notre Dame:

View from Notre Dame:






Even on a dreary day, Paris is spectacular:

Ok, this is a funny, unexpected shot. I found an outdoor cafe with heaters and ordered up a delightful cafe au lait. I asked the waiter to take my picture and before I knew it, he sat right next to me, grabbed my shoulder and took this hilarious photo of the two of us! I couldn’t stop laughing. He got me!

Me, looking terribly tired but happy as a clam to be having my beloved cafe au lait with a view of the world passing by:

France TRAVEL BY REGION

Life and Death in a Costa Rican Nursing Home

We spent our last day at Hogar Jesus de los Manos preparing for a big celebration. It was one of the resident’s ninetieth birthdays and as with all birthdays at the nursing home, it was celebrated with a grand ole party for all. A large sheet cake was ordered, balloons and decorations were put up, and music was played. Every able resident (save the ones who were bedridden or on their final days) was to attend and excitement was in the air the morning we arrived for our last day of volunteer work.

As we were preparing for the party we heard the sirens approaching. My heart sank. I knew only too well what that could mean. One of the gravely ill residents, Franco, had passed away. I knew it could happen. We were at a nursing home. Yet for some reason it caught me off guard. We were having so much fun with the residents that death seemed miles away even though many of the residents didn’t have much time left on this earth.

The day before Eduardo had us visit Franco, hold his hand and say our farewells. He was dying of cancer and the nurses ensured us that he wasn’t in pain. Yet there was something lost and far away in his eyes that made me deeply sad. His skin was pale and he was extremely frail. I searched his eyes for something but they were staring blankly into space. I grasped his limp hand, held it tightly and said goodbye. I have not idea if he felt anything yet I hope it at least gave him a little peace before he left. A priest was called to give Franco his last rites and floral arrangements were ordered for the chapel. There would be a funeral the next day, in the afternoon, after the birthday party and after we left.

The death put a more serious tone to the day yet the party was still to go on. While we were decorating the main foyer workers were simultaneously decorating the chapel for the afternoon funeral. The irony between life and death was uncomfortably present yet quietly accepted.

Throughout the day I reflected on how amazing it was that we were able to so quickly make wonderful bounds with the residents. I had initially thought a nursing home placement would be very depressing but I was completely surprised. The residents were very peaceful and were cared for by a very loving, caring staff. Each resident was treated with utter respect and dignity and love.

On the last day, we were able to take some photos of our new friends and I took the opportunity to get some of my favorite residents.
Here I am with Javier, one of my favorites.  He would go on and on about how he had traveled the world and was half American, speaking fiercely in Spanish and English.  His stories were always the same and he obviously forgot half the time that he just told you the same thing two mintues ago.  He was full of fire and life and truly made me laugh.  He grew a fondness of me and preferred to have me wheel him into the dining hall or entertain him.  He always wore his cap and would fold up his artwork (colored pages from a children’s coloring book) and hide them under his hat.  He also loved to keep a small ball under his cap as well.  He was one of the funniest residents I’d met:

Here is a picture of Javier alone.  His expression truly portrays his sarcastic, full-of-life attitude:


Here is a picture of our only male volunteer, Cassiano with one of the ladies, Carmen. I did a red manicure on her nails and she loved it.  She was very sweet and extremely quiet.   She also enjoyed coloring and doing crafts.

Elena with Lillian, one of the sweetest, cutiest grannies there. She married one of the residents and they always walk hand and hand, and smile. Love can happen anytime!
Me with the “primero el mundo” , the best boxer in his days in costa rica. He always loved to do his punches and he smiled a ton:

Me with Miguel, or Mike, as he liked to be called. He loves to dance thus when we put on the Latin music he would hold our hands and we would rock to the beat. He also spoke a little English.

The birthday celebration began mid-morning and it was quite an effort getting all 32 residents moved into the hall. It was nice that we were there to help the small staff as over half the residents are in wheelchairs while the ones that could walk needed assistance. The cake was cut and served and gobbled up much faster than lunch. Then the music began. Thanks to our earlier Latin Dance classes, we were able to strike up a beat with the residents. Costa Ricans LOVE to dance, regardless of age, ability or disability. We danced with the able-bodied men and women and even danced with people in wheelchairs. If the men were not able to dance, they loved to watch us dance as they still embraced the machismo culture despite their age. Men are men, young or old.
The residents smiles of joy were contagious and we had a ball. Here are some photos:
The residents loved to dance or watch us dance (if they were in a wheelchair). Me dancing with “La Cubana”, the cuban woman who loves to dance and still has her groove.
Here is a picture of some of the residents who sat around in a big circle, listening to the music and watching the dancing.  Note La Princessa, in pink. She is in her 90s and always wears make-up and was once very beautiful in her days.
We also sang La Bamba in Spanish to them and they loved it. Overall, the party was a big success and brought a little bit of sunshine to Hogar Jesus de los Manos.  Leaving was the hardest part.  We had grown attached in such a short time and felt like we truly made a difference.   After we said our goodbyes, I could hear Javier’s voice in the distance calling my name to come back.  Slowly his voice faded away until you could not longer here a sound except the rapid beating of my heart.

Costa Rica SOCIAL GOOD TRAVEL BY REGION Volunteering Abroad

A Visit to the Countryside

The main reason why I chose Cross-Cultural Solutions (CCS) for my volunteer trip was its unique three-prong approach to volunteer service: Volunteer work, Cultural Exchange and Cultural Learning. I liked the idea that we would not only be doing volunteer work but also focusing on cultural exchange with the locals, residents and staff, and experiencing an assortment of cultural learning activities such as Latin Dance class, Tortilla cooking class, Spanish language classes, Costa Rica history and political class, Cartago city tour and tour of the countryside. This approach was fantastic because it enabled you to truly learn about the culture. The only downside was that it was extremely intense. Not a moment was free. Yet I felt like I had learned and experienced true cultural immersion in a very short amount of time. In fact, that week spent in Costa Rica felt like my entire summer spent doing an internship in southern France during college. In one week, I learned an incredible amount, much more than I learn traveling on my own for pleasure. It was similar to taking a college course. Amazing.

One evening we had a Latin Dance class at the CCS Home Base taught by a local Tico young man. Teaching in front of seven female volunteers, he truly enjoyed the attention he was receiving since he had quite an athletic build equipped with his own six pack and arms of steel. Apparently he was quite the ladies man in town and you could tell he just loved showing us American ladies salsa, tango, mambo, samba and meringue. Latin Dancing is something else. It takes guts and sex appeal to get your pelvis moving in such rhythmic beats, that’s for sure, and it actually is quite difficult. I had taken dance lessons as a child for many years yet there was no way I could master the crazy hip thrusts and multitude of turns required. We looked ridiculous and worked up a serious sweat after an hour lesson. But it was great fun.

We also did a short Costa Rican cooking class where we learned how to prepare fresh corn tortilla and the local drink agua dulce (sweet water) which is made from fresh sugar cane juice boiled in water. It was quite sweet (probably an acquired taste) yet of course worth a try. Ticos also use the sugar cane to make liquors. 

Here is a picture of Lindsey, one of the volunteers, preparing the mixture for homemade tortillas:Here is Santi showing us the sugar cane mold used to make agua dulce:

I truly wished my Spanish was better because I would have loved to take home some of the recipes for the food we ate at the home base. However, most fruits and vegetables used in the recipes would have been hard to find fresh in the States. I enjoyed the mouth watering, overly ripe papaya beyond belief and and also truly loved having fresh pineapple and guava jelly on my toast each morning. Nothing was prepackaged. No preservatives. Everything was made that day and incredibly fresh. I wish there was some way I could spend hours in the kitchen each day to enjoy such natural, fresh food. It was paradise.

A highlight of our trip was our visit to the countryside and nearby Izaru Volcano. It amazed me that the city and the country were so close. Within fifteen minutes we left Cartago proper and were surrounded by lush, verdant green rolling hills complete with life. There were all sorts of vegetable farms and coffee farms along the way and it was incredibly beautiful. The countryside was so serene and so peaceful that it was hard to image you were so close to the city.

View of the Costa Rican countryside with Cartago in the distance:

As we approached the volcano, the land became hilly and lush. You could see the farmers and laborers waiting alongside the road for their drive back to town and roadside sales of fresh produce that looked extremely enticing. What a life to eat such fresh, natural food! In the States, everything is so processed and it is difficult to get such fresh vegetables and fruit out of the summer season. It was a real treat.

We reached the Izaru Volcano in a carpet of thick, gray fog. I was so disappointed because the view of Cartago Valley was supposedly fantastic. Instead, we saw nothing except a nearby ocelot and the gorgeous flora and fauna blanketed in fog.

Lost in the fog (where’s the view?):
Picture of the beautiful vegetation. The big round plant is known as the “poor man’s umbrella”…ha ha.

After our visit to the foggy volcano, we headed back to Cartogo with a stop at the infamous, legendary HAUNTED HOUSE. Per Santi, legend has it that the “Haunted” House was once a hospital for Tuberculosis patients back in 1914, then was turned into a prison later on. After the volcano erupted in 1963 the place was abandoned and has become a major tourist attraction ever since because locals believe it is haunted. We tried to go in it but it was closed due to a movie being filmed. The house reminded me of The Shining….It was very spooky looking, and the fog made it even more frightening.
Photo of the so-called Haunted House:

Santi also pointed out then the infamous Reina de la Noche, or Queen of the Night. Here is a picture of the sacred flowering plant below:
Supposedly it is an illegal drug that is smoked and gives hallucinations and quite an intense high. Obviously it isn’t very regulated. It grows freely along the country roads.

After the countryside, we headed back to Cartago and visited the enormous central market where you could buy all the wonderfully, fresh produce from the outskirts of town. Here are some pictures of the incredibly fresh and delightful market:

Central America Costa Rica SOCIAL GOOD TRAVEL TRAVEL BY REGION

A Burst of Color and Life

I woke up as usual to the song of the birds and wonderful, fragrant smells flowing down the long corridor from the kitchen. It was six o’clock on the nose and time to start day 3 at the nursing home. I was looking forward to it as I truly felt like we’d made a lot of progress in the last two days. Doors were open to friendships and smiles were freely exchanged. I realized that it was a humbling experience working with the elderly. In our country, there really is no respect for them. Nothing like there should be at least, in my humble opinion. In Costa Rica, the grandparents were sacred and highly respected. That is why the reason behind Jesus de los Manos was so tragic; the most scared part of Tico life is family and here these grandmothers and grandfathers were discarded and forgotten, like a child’s old toy. Yet the resilience and desire to live (pura vida mentality) kept these abandoned abuelas and abuelos alive and well, even happy. It was a beautiful thing.

When we arrived, there they were, as expected, lined up outside on the terraces to greet us. It was another perfect day with highs in the low seventies and a crisp, fresh breeze descending off the mountain into the Central Valley. Today we were going to work on more beautification of the grounds and of course entertain the residents. We started by gathering the old, rusty paint cans out of the shed. On our short walk to the shed, Eduardo pointed out the gorgeous mural that was painted the week before by a group of High School students volunteering for the week with CCS. It was extremely impressive and the residents loved it. Here is a picture of the completed in a week, piece of art:

We grabbed the scarlet red paint cans, a couple brushes and some plastic tarp to lay down on the pavement and began painting. We were painting the old, worn out garbage cans (YES garbage cans) from a dirty green to a brilliant red as Eduardo had asked. Why? For two reasons: First, so they would stand out and the residents could easily locate the garbage cans. Second, and most important, to make them look prettier. Eduardo was big into spicing up the nursing home and landscape in order to make it a nicer place to live. These people enjoyed the Pura Vida so anything to make their final years better was done.

After the cans were painted, we headed on inside to the large, rectangular recreation room where long tables and chairs were set up and our friends were awaiting. We were going to do coloring, card games and more handicrafts for the rest of the morning. It was ironic doing some of the same games and activities with the elderly as I do at home with my children. It reminded me of the movie The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in a sense. The circle of life and how we all end up reverting to our infant years when we age and are no longer able to dress ourselves, feed ourselves or even color unassisted. I was expecting this realization to be sad but for some reason it was not. It was hopeful in a way to see how peaceful and happy you could be in your final years. Not the depressing, worrisome slow death that most people fear.

Each volunteer was quickly developing their unique friendships and attachments with certain residents. It was funny how that happened. There were preferences given to what volunteer would entertain them or which one would wheel them into the dining room. Each resident was so incredibly unique and had their quirks and their stories.

I had grown attached to a couple. Javier, the crazy, spit and fire Costa Rican man who claimed he had traveled the world and was half American, became one of my favorites. I also enjoyed spending time talking with a man named Juan Pablo whose English was excellent. Then their was the “best boxer in the world”, or “primero el mundo” as he would like to say. There was also Lilly who was a real sweetheart and actually recently married another resident the past month. The couple always sat side by side and they were the only residents to have a communal bed. Finally there was la Princessa who was simply lovely and Carmen who loved having her nails done. There were not just nameless souls. They were amazing, loving people with an entire history and life to share with those who listened and those for cared.

Here are a few pictures:
This picture shows the work involved in getting all the residents to the dining room and fed for meals. Since over half of them are in wheelchairs, it required at least ten to fifteen minutes getting everyone out of their rooms and moved into the dining room. When the volunteers aren’t there to help, it takes up to a half an hour to bring them to the dining room and back after the meal. Each resident also has their preferred seating (kind of like an assigned place that they assigned themselves). We quickly learned where each person went and who they sat next to. There were also about seven residents who needed to be fed and could not eat on their own. Thus, we hand fed these people just like I had fed my children as infants. It was a touching experience. You could see the appreciation in their eyes. It was very humbling.

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Nightlife in a Sleepy, Catholic Town

As I mentioned in earlier posts, leaving the CCS Home Base at night was not recommended unless in a group or with a male companion. There was no going out to get a drink, no going to the club, just staying back at the Home Base eating a huge meal and hanging out with the group or reading. A big part of traveling for me includes the night life. I love to go out and have fun however I had to respect the circumstances of our volunteer commitment. Since there were no tourists in Cartago, we really stood out and going to the bars (if there were any) in a Catholic town would have looked really bad. I was to learn later just how strict the drinking policy was.

When Santi mentioned an evening outing a few of us practically jumped out of our seats with the opportunity to get out at night. Santi heard that the local Cartago Cultural and Music center was having a free performance in honor of Holy Week for whoever wanted to attend. I could hardly wait to check things out and have an escape.

We left after dinner and it was a perfect evening out. Fresh, light breeze and wonderful. The walk to the Cultural Center took about fifteen minutes heading down windy streets and passing through the center of town. There was not a whole lot going on. People were out and about, doing their business, yet I couldn’t see much in the way of nightlife.

The Cultural Center is a beautiful, traditional Costa Rican building set in the center of town with a gorgeous indoor courtyard full of fragrant flowers, plants and best of all, an opening up to the sky. The Cultural Center offers art and music courses to the people of Cartago at no charge thus you can see artists in residence painting and showing their art and music performances. That evening, we were attending a free musical performance by some of the students in honor of Holy Week. To my surprise, the lights were turned off and the entire piece of music was played by candlelight. It was a quartet of strings and absolutely magical. All the music played was catholic and had to do with Holy Week. There were slides played against the wall that complemented the music. It was very peaceful and put one in the spirit of the importance of the week, even for those who are not that religious.
Here is a picture of the lovely traditional courtyard of the Cultural Center:
After the performance, we walked back to the CCS Home Base and entered a nearby church that was just cleaning up after an evening service. Here are some photos of the outside and inside of the church:


Then, of course, we hit the grand-daddy of all churches, the Basilica light up at night and it was spectacular. Here are some photos:



It was a fantastic evening out and my eyes closed immediately once I hit my bottom bunk. I couldn’t wait for Day 3 at the nursing home. I knew that my friends would be lined up early, on the terrace, anxiously awaiting our arrival with delight.

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The Circle of Life

I woke up Tuesday morning at the crack of dawn, as usual. The pale light was shining through the curtain cracks and the birds were chirping away in beautiful song. It was 6 am, and time to start the day. The breakfast was cooking (I could smell the hot cooked meal along with the freshly roasted java throughout the long corridor, entering my bunk room) and it was time to get up and ready for Day 2 at the nursing home. I knew they were waiting.

We loaded the van with the usual supplies and headed off to Hogar Jesus de los Manos, ready to practice our improved Spanish and see our new friends. We passed the twisty, serpentine roads once again, alive with chatter and laughter, and arrived at the gates ten minutes later.

As expected, there they were, all 32 residents lined up outside on their sunny terraces (save the gardener who was watering the plants, the man with dementia who was pacing up and down ranting loudly, unintelligibly to himself, and two others on “their final days” in bed). They were all smiles as they patiently awaiting our warm greetings and their eyes beamed with joy as soon as we grasped their hand to say buenos dias. It was if we had been friends all along, it was unbelievable and I realized just how hungry they were for our attention, care, and compassion.

The residents were not neglected at all and instead received an enormous amount of love and care from the small staff at Hogar Jesus de los Manos. Unfortunately being a non-profit meant there was not a lot of money to hire enough staff so the small staff in place worked long, hard hours for little pay. Yet each worker showed enormous compassion for the residents and knew their individuals quirks and needs. For example, Juan Pablo always sits out by the red bench next to Dona Maria each morning after breakfast, and Fernando sits next to Lilly each meal on the first table facing the entrance of the dining room. The staff had a huge capacity for remembering these tiny like idiosyncrasies which I found truly amazing.

Our plan of attack for day 2 was twofold: First we would work on planting new trees along the sidewalk and second we would entertain the residents with cards, coloring and the long-anticipated manicure and pedicures for the ladies. Eduardo dreamed of having a lovely, tree-lined sidewalk full of flowing eucalyptus trees that would beautify the courtyard and bring joy to the residents. Last year, a group of CCS volunteers planted small eucalyptus saplings and they had already grown six feet tall.
Insert: Here is a photo of the trees planted last year.

We were to plant four more saplings to hopes that they too would grow and help line the sidewalk. It wasn’t as easy as it looked. The ground was hard as a rock and we were thankful to have a young, strong male volunteer with us to help dig the holes. Cassiano was a wonderful man, mature well beyond his years, and a perfect gentleman. We dug the holes as deep as we could and Cassi did the rest.
Insert: Here is a picture of the saplings.
Insert: Here is a picture of us volunteers, dirty and happy after a hard days work.

While we were digging, we noticed the same old man dressed in long pants and sunhat out watering and tending the garden every day. He couldn’t speak but he would acknowledge our presence with a smile and he loved caring for that garden.
Insert: Here he is, tending the garden.

Eduardo was proud of the gardens. He knew the importance of nature and also responsibility. Having a garden that residents could tend, love, and care for was an important way that they could feel responsibility. Eduardo hoped that someday future volunteers could help plant a vegetable garden where the home could grow their own fresh produce. We started the digging but ran out of time since the work was extremely hard given our meager tools. The ground was much too hard and we needed better equipment. The vegetable garden would have to wait.

Insert: Here is a picture of how the garbage collection is done at the home. A local women brings her bull with a cart and all the leftover food is carried away and then composted. She lives a few blocks away and keeps her bull, goats, and chickens right her yard, a common practice in Costa Rica.

Our next piece of business for the day was “entertainment”. Some of the volunteers had stayed back from the manual labor and had interacted with the residents. We arrived to see them coloring out of children’s coloring books (one of their favorite activities), and making beaded necklaces. Some of the men were coloring too and others were outside playing ball. They all very lively and jovial. However, the real excitement came when we walked in as the ladies knew it was time for a visit to the spa!

We set up a table with different shades of nail polish-scarlet reds, bright pinks, sassy oranges, earthy browns-and then lined the waiting ladies up. They could hardly contain their joy and excitement at getting their nails done. Like most Latin cultures, female beauty is highly important and even these elderly women wanted to look beautiful. Given their arthritic hands and low dexterity painting nails was not an option for them. Thus getting their nails done by volunteers was a treat and a highlight of their day.

Not speaking much Spanish did not matter. It was the loving touch and delicate work on their old hands and toes that truly mattered. I loaded up my hands with lotion and gave their sore arms and hands a massage and they closed their eyes in relaxation. It was beautiful and nothing I say here can express how touching the experience it was. One woman, who everyone calls “La Princessa”, had been a real beauty in her days and was even beautiful now in her nineties. She always wore pink and always wore makeup and lipstick. She couldn’t speak anymore yet her pleasure at receiving a manicure was undeniable. I learned that morning that even small acts of kindness and love can make a difference and mean the world to someone else. It was a good lesson.

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Hogar Jesus de los Manos

We followed the windy, maze-like streets into Guadalupe Cartago leading up to our final destination, The Hogar Jesus de los Manos. Along the way, we chatted happily and the energy in the van was quite high. Everyone was excited and we all couldn’t wait to arrive. A new member of the Costa Rica CCS team had joined us, Santi, who was just as alive and cheerful as the volunteers. As the Program Assistant, Santi works hand and hand with Jose and typically accompanies the volunteers to the site each day. There are two other CCS volunteer sites in Costa Rica, in different areas of the country, so Jose cannot be with the Cartago group all the time. He frequently travels to the other offices to check up on the volunteers and see how they are doing. Santi was an equally knowledgable and compassionate replacement and we were delighted to have him with us and we especially enjoyed all his laughs.

Santi told us that the nursing home was created in 1992 as an NGO that provides loving care and assistance to abandoned and abused elderly Costa Ricans that have no family or other place to go. Like most Costa Ricans, the residents are highly catholic and their faith plays a large role in their life and viewpoints. We were also prepared with some details on the residents before we arrived. About half of them were disabled and in wheelchairs, a few were mentally incapacitated, and a few were on their “last days” as Santi put it. We had to prepare ourselves to deal with anything but most of all, to give compassion, understanding and companionship to them. They were desperately lonely and isolated despite the excellent care of the staff. They were craving attention, fun, entertainment and simply someone to talk to who would listen to their stories. That was all we had to do.

We pulled up to the big wrought-iron gate and Santi buzzed the security (something we were getting use to in Costa Rica). We waited anxiously for the gates to open and the van to be let in. From a distance, we could see them; all thirty-two residents lined up in chairs or wheelchairs along the outdoor terraces on the L-shaped building. They were there, just as anxious as us, awaiting our arrival. My stomach dropped and anxiety raced through my veins. They are waiting for us! I realized in shock and disbelief. Then fear set in. How would I relate to them? I barely even speak Spanish. I have no experience with the elderly save my 95-year-old Grandfather who was one-of-a-kind. And even more nervously I thought, What if they found me a nuisance. Someone who couldn’t speak a lick of their language, a privileged American who didn’t have a clue? Then what would I do? What would I do if I failed?

I didn’t have time to answer that thought because before I knew it the gates opened and in we walked. We were instantly met and greeted by Eduardo, the thirtyish-looking Director of the home. I could tell instantly that I would like him. He was confident, yet extremely humble and caring. He looked everyone in the eye when introduced and you could really tell that he gave a damn.

We didn’t have much if any time to prepare for our introductions to the residents who were all desperately awaiting our arrival. All 32 pairs of eyes were on us as we walked down the long corridor and one by one, were introduced to every single Abuela and Abuelo at Jesus de los Manos. Eduardo made the introductions, lovingly placing his hands on each resident’s back and bending inwards close so that they could hear him speak. It was amazing. The compassion. The warmth. The love. The respect that Eduardo showed these people was unbelievable. I was completely taken aback. This is a good place I realized, in awe.

Insert: Picture of the entrance of Hogar Jesus de los Manos

Picture of the long, L-shaped corridor, lined with outdoor terraces for the residents to enjoy nature.

I was also amazed and relieved to see how the residents reacted to our arrival. They were like little kids in a candy shop. The smiles, the boisterous talk and even the hugs of a few, made us all feel instantly welcomed and at home. I couldn’t believe how quickly they accepted us. They drank us up, every last drop, like an ice-cold drink on a summer hot day. Ok then, no worries about us not making any impact I instantly believed. It was going to be possible to make a difference.

After the introductions of each resident and staff member of the home, we moved on to a brief tour of the grounds and the home itself. The building wasn’t the least bit modern yet it wasn’t as rundown as I had imagined. Of course before you visit a place you, you always conjure up images and perceptions of what it is going to be like. Well, this place was only slightly what I had imagined. The rooms were fine; minimally furnished but clean. Each resident had their own space which was nice. There was a huge room used for entertainment (music, dance, birthdays, etc) and there was also another large room adjacent that was set up with card tables and chairs where the residents could do activities such as color, paint or socialize. In the corner of that room, there was equipment for physical therapy sessions as well. At the end of the L-shaped corridor was a large dining room lined with long tables and chairs. Finally, the upstairs of the building contained more bedrooms and an office space for the staff.

The best part of all about Hogar Jesus de los Manos was the location. The building was inside a walled-in lot set within the perfectly, lush and serene Central Valley. Nature surrounded you once you were outside, which explains why the residents spent much of their day outdoors on the terrace relaxing in the sun and gentle breeze. View of the green-blue mountains could be seen in the distance and the far end of the courtyard contained a large garden where residents could grow and tend plants and flowers. It was lovely and so incredibly peaceful. A perfect place to age (if there can be one).

After our tour, Eduardo spent a short amount of time listing the objectives for the week. The most important thing we could help with was the residents. Since the Jesus de los Manos was a non-profit organization, its funds were very limited meaning they had an extremely small staff for all the residents. Just taking care of the residents required almost all their time so unfortunately the residents often got a bit bored and depressed. That was where the CCS volunteers as well as other volunteer organizations could help. They could entertain the residents. Talk to them. Play ball with them (yes, just like the ball I play with my young children; tossing a ball back and forth). Color pictures with them. Make jewelry or art with them. And for the ladies, give them manicures and pedicures! (Yes beauty is very important in Costa Rica and the women absolutely loved having their nails done!).

Eduardo decided to split up the volunteers into two groups: One group would work with the residents and the other group would work on the grounds. They desperately needed some gardening and planting to be done in order to beautify the landscape. I chose the path of least residence, perhaps, for the first day and opted to do the dirty work: Gardening. We dug out weeds, planting flowers and tried to straighten things out in a garden that probably had not been touched in weeks. Some of the residents adore gardening yet needed help with it. That was where we stepped in to help their aging, arthritic hands to tend to the garden. It was a relaxing way to spend the first morning. Outside, with the gentle breeze coming off the mountains and touching my face. With a few, attentive residents smiling at everything we said (which they probably couldn’t understand). But sometimes smiles and gestures can mean much more than words, I discovered. Another thing I enjoyed that morning was one resident, an elderly man perhaps in his eighties, especially enjoyed to water the garden. He spent hours watering the flowers and tending to the garden, never saying a word but with a smile in his eyes. He wore a white floppy hat, long-gray pants and a red sweater, and every morning when we arrived, he was out tending the garden. It was quite special.

Insert: Photos of the garden and my favorite gardener:

The morning passed quickly and before I knew it, we said our goodbyes to our newly made friends and were loaded up in the vans. We heard the distant protests from some of the residents not wanting us to leave yet but they understood we’d be back tomorrow morning. We heard from Eduardo that day two was going to involve some other activities. Rumor had it that the ladies wanted a special treat. They wanted manicures and pedicures. They wanted to look “pretty” and feel young. The men, meanwhile, were looking forward to playing more ball and perhaps having a dance with the female volunteers. Once a man, always a man.

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The Midnight Arrivals

I had slowly drifted off to a deep sleep, thanks to the cold medicine, and was out cold when I heard the gate buzz. It was pitch black in my spartanly furnished bunk room save the pale, low light shining in through the cracks of the open windows. It was so quiet that you could hear a pin drop making the opening of the gates sound like the crashing sounds of the weekly garbage collection. I pushed the light button on my watch and it flashed the time of 12:15 am. Judging by the noise and commotion, our three other volunteers from Atlanta had finally arrived. Of course I was happy they arrived safe and sound yet slightly unhappy about the fact that I most likely wouldn’t be able to fall back asleep again for hours. Unfortunately sleeping in new environments is not my forte thus I usually have trouble when I travel. That is where a good pair of ear plugs, an eye cover and a sleep aid come in handy.

Everyone was woken up and went out to meet the new arrivals: Beverly, Ophelia and Jo, all from “hot Lanta”. They were a gregarious, loud, cheerful group of ladies that came from the most opposite walk of life as could be. I had never met a Southern Baptist before and now I would have the opportunity to meet three! It was going to be interesting to see how their faith played a role in the volunteer experience as well as being in Costa Rica during the most religious week of the year. I realized that I would be exposed to a lot more culture this week than originally planned.

I woke up Monday morning around 6am as the sun slowly began to rise over the Central Valley. I could hear birds singing cheerfully, something I had dearly missed over our long Minnesotan winter. I laid in bed for a few minutes enjoying the beauty of the birds’s music and also trying to access how I felt. Tired, disoriented and still sick. Bummer. I truly didn’t want to infect any of the nursing home residents (luckily I packed plenty of Purell!) The smell of freshly cooked eggs found it’s way along the long narrow corridor and filled the rooms, making my stomach grumble. It was the first day of our volunteer work and I was looking forward to it.

One by one, the other volunteers began to rise and the once quiet Home Base came to life with movement and noise. Excitement was in the air about our new arrivals and the start of our work at our volunteer site. We did not have much information on the nursing home, just that it was located here in Cartago, not far from the Home Base and had about 40 residents, all abandoned abuelas and abuelos (grandmothers and grandfathers). To most Americans, nursing homes are a fact of life and perhaps the most common route for the elderly. In Costa Rica, however, the entire family structure is much different. Generations of families live together. Adult children are responsible for taking care of their parents as they enter the twilight years of their life. Thus most grandparents live at home with their children and grandchildren all under one roof. This is customary so you can imagine the stigma on the elderly people who are abandoned from their family and have no place to go. Hogar de los Monos de Jesus Nursing Home was established as a place for these kinds of people to live and be cared for in a loving, faithful manner. The residents had no family to visit them. They only had the staff and each other. That was why the volunteers were so important. Besides helping with various odds and ends around the nursing home, the main duty of the volunteers was to interact with the residents and entertain them. As we would learn, this was by far the most important gift we could give: Friendship, Companionship, Compassion and Love. This was how we would make a difference in only one week. Something that seemed impossible but was within our grasp.

Allan, our driver, pulled the van up outside the Home Base at 8 am. Jose told us to gather up a big sack full of supplies to bring to the nursing home so we loaded in markers, colored paper, balloons, beauty products (for the ladies), books, music and other miscellaneous items. We were all dressed in t-shirts and long pants, the uniform required for working in Costa Rica. Shorts or short skirts were not permitted nor were tank tops or flip-flops. We had to remember that Cartago was a very Catholic place and the nursing home was religious-based meaning we were expected to dress conservatively. I was curious to see what the nursing home would be like and had very mixed feelings about the placement. Would it be depressing? Would it be hard? Would I feel like we were having any kind of impact on the residents? Would we be able to make a difference in only a week? These were all thoughts that raced through my mind as we winded around the narrow, serpentine streets of central Cartago.

Here are some photos of the CCS Home Base:

Inside the building, the long corridor lined with lounge chairs for reading and relaxing:

Inside the entrance to the Home Base:

One of my favorite things about the inside of the Home Base, all the wonderfully, inspiring quote written by past volunteers. Each volunteer wrote a quote and added a handprint to the wall before they left Cartago. I could spend hours walking around and reading them. Here are a few of my favorites:

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In Walks Seven Strangers

I arrived at the airport by 2 PM and headed to the specified meeting point outside the arrivals gate, the blue phone. I felt a little jittery not knowing what to expect. All I knew was that there were going to be a total of eight volunteers on my program, none of whom I knew. Three women from Atlanta, two women from California (southern and northern), one woman from NYC, one young man from Miami and last but not least, myself. From our brief conference call two days before I left, I gathered that it was a diverse group and that somehow I fit in the middle geographically and demographically. It was going to be an interesting mix, that was for sure.

I was told to wear my navy blue CCS t-shirt stating loud and clear “Cross-Cultural Solutions International Volunteer” in big, chalky white letters but I chose not to. I wanted to blend in, not stand out. Plus I knew I’d find them, all standing there by the blue phone wearing the navy blue “International Volunteer” shirts.

I looked around, found the phone, but saw no navy blue t-shirt volunteers. I checked my notes. I was in the right place. I waited for a few moments in the hot sun, watched the chaos of the airport drop off scene in a third-world country (no need to say more) and finally got the nerve to test out my Spanish again and ask someone. Si, señorita (what an honor to be called that instead of señora!), I know who you mean. Follow me, the nice young Tico said. And he lead me to the CCS driver, Allan who brought me over to the big, green CCS van which said loud and clear Voluntariado Internacional in yellow and black, standout letters.

I got in the van and four others were already inside: Elena, a twenty-six-year-old from NYC, Brooke also in her mid-twenties from Southern California, Lindsey, a fun-loving adventurous young woman freshly out of school and from the Bay Area and finally Cassiano, our youngest volunteer who was finishing up his senior year in High School and from Miami. I was the oldest of the group, married and with two young children. Yet, I knew that there were three more ladies from Atlanta who were older than me and arriving that night. Thus I fit right smack in the middle, just like where I lived….the Midwest.

Our volunteer placement was located in the provincial city of Cartago, a sleepy, tourist free, laid back town, located about 14 miles (23 km) southeast of San Jose. Cartago is not a main tourist destination as there is nothing there to really see except for the divine Basilica de Nuestra Senora de los Angeles, which brings in pilgrimages from all over Central America. However, Cartago has a very long, important history and significance to the Ticos because it was founded in 1563 as the original capital of Costa Rica. Cartago remained the capital for 260 years until Costa Rica won independence from Spain in 1821 and the capital was moved to San Jose. Today, Cartago is a quiet town of about 145,000 residents that is surrounded by rich, fertile farmland and the lush Irazu Volcano National Park. Despite all its beauty and appearance of high living standards, like other Costa Rican cities Cartago finds itself a place of complexity and contrasts. Many people there live a relatively comfortable, happy life however there are plenty of “have nots” who are lack education, jobs and money to provide for their families. These inequities have lead to an increase in prostitution, alcoholism, domestic violence, and removal of children from homes—-big social issues to tackle for such a Catholic country who is one of the leaders in Central America. The downturn in tourism has also greatly impacted the people of Costa Rica since many businesses and people rely on tourism for their main income. This has had a trickle effect for the people of Cartago who are even less tourist-based that the resort towns.

The trip from the airport took about 45 minutes, passing through a few towns until we finally reached the outskirts of Cartago, a multitude of windy, maze-like streets. The four strangers and I freely chatted away, comparing notes about our lives and hopes of our experience in Costa Rica. My anxiety dissipated as I quickly realized that these people, although we were all different, were somehow the same in a sense. We all love adventure, love travel and wanted to somehow try to make a difference in the world. That realization somehow made everyone at ease and the 45-minute ride passed us quickly by.

We arrived at the CCS Home Base (an old school converted into accommodations for the volunteers) and parked outside the heavy wire gates of the entrance. We couldn’t see into the building so it was hard to guess what it was like inside. Would it be livable for a week? was a question on everyone’s mind. What was the neighborhood like? another question we all wanted to desperately ask since there was no sign of life on our street: no people out walking, no stores, no restaurants, no bars….nothing, except houses hidden behind gates.

The driver rang the security buzzer and the gates slowly clanged open into the hidden courtyard of the building. Like many buildings in Costa Rica, they are completely enclosed from the outside with heavy gates and walls offering protection from the dangers of the outside world. Crime, especially petty theft and break-ins is rampant, so sadly most Ticos live in a prison-like fortress, equipped with gates, barbed wire fences, security and alarm systems. From the outside, you would never guess that people actually live inside and that there actually is a sun-filled, beautiful, peaceful courtyard inside. It is quite a strange cultural difference for a Midwestern gal who grew up rarely locking her front door. But this is a sad reality of life in Costa Rica as well as many other parts of Central America, that was important to see.

Once inside, we were welcomed by Jose, the Country Director for CCS as well as the rest of the staff, Lucy the Office Assistant, Olga and Ana the cooks, and Santiago and Oscar the security guards who maned the fort from sunset to sunrise. Everyone seemed extremely nice, sunny and laid-back, encompassing the true Tico cultural identity.

The CCS Home Base would be our home away from home while we were in Costa Rica. We would eat there, sleep there, and spend our free time at nights there (since apparently it was not recommended to leave alone at night especially without a male companion which there was only one out of all seven of us volunteers….this was something new for me which I will comment on more later!). The Home Base had seven rooms containing 6-8 bunk beds each meaning CCS could accommodate up to 40 volunteers. Since there were only eight of us total, I shared a large room of bunks with only one other volunteer. The others were equally lucky.

The Home Base also contained a large dining area, a gathering/living room, one male and one female bathroom with hot showers, and an long, open chair-lined courtyard for relaxing and reading. It was a nice, homey place and I knew that I would feel comfortable there for my week’s stay (except maybe for the lizards running across the bathroom floor or the Costa Rican spiders climbing on the walls….a norm for anyone living in Costa Rica).

After settling in, we had our first homemade Costa Rican meal and let me tell you, it was absolutely delicious. Everything of course was made from scratch. The arroz con frijoles, the yucca-based casseroles, the dripping, juicy papaya salads and the fresh, soft breads. I was in heaven and would be extremely well-fed for an entire week.

After stuffing our bellies, it was time for our first CCS Cultural training session given by Jose, the Country Director. Part of the appeal of volunteering with CCS is that they combine volunteerism with cultural learning and exchange. Thus, the morning part of the day is spent volunteering and the afternoon is spent doing a variety of cultural learning and training sessions such as Spanish language courses, Latin Dance classes, Latin cooking classes, city tour, and visit to a nearby volcano and national park. Although the schedule was crammed and we were busy every second of the day, it was the most intense, learning experience I’ve ever had and I wouldn’t have changed a thing.

For the next hour and a half, Jose highlighted the political, historical and cultural nature of Costa Rica. It was fascinating even though we were all exhausted and stuffed! We learned about some of the main problems in Costa Rica such as illegal immigration from their poorer neighbors, sex trafficking in the resort towns, poverty, alcoholism, domestic violence, and hopes for a better future. I felt like I was back in school again! I love to learn and especially enjoy hearing what is going on firsthand from a native.

We went over the schedule for the week and then around ten o’clock headed off to sleep. The three other volunteers from Atlanta had yet to arrive (their plane got delayed) and we had to wake up at 6am to start our day. Rumor had it that the three other volunteers were all Southern Baptists (one even a preacher!) so I was extremely interested in meeting them. The next day was going to be a treat!

In Cartago, the road leading up to the CCS Home Base:

The gates of the CCS Home Base and our van:

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Fireworks at Noon

I woke up Sunday morning feeling well-rested but still like my head was a giant, overly inflated balloon.  It wasn’t so much that I minded being so sick (yes it isn’t pleasant to feel like your head is going to explode but after ten days at home in bed trying to get rid of it to no avail, what was a worn-down Minnesota Mom of two, misbehaving kids to do?).  It was the thought of passing my nasty bug on to the elderly abuelas and abuelos at the nursing home that really concerned me.  I’ve become quite aware that the elderly do not have anywhere near the same immune system as younger people do so infecting them with a virulent virus was not something I wanted to do.  Thankfully I packed lots of Purell and intended to soak my hands in the antibacterial slimy gel as often as I could.  Cough in your elbow, not your hand, I reminded myself.  Don’t forget to wash your hands!  Oh the mother in me was coming out! 

The Hotel Presidente has a fantastic cafe that opens up onto the main pedestrian street, Avenida Central  and is attached to the bar I visited the previous night to calm my nerves before bed.  It was eight am and a glorious morning.  The Costa Rican sun shone brightly, lighting up the sky, and my pale, vitamin D deficient skin drank up its magnificent rays like a dehydrated child. Ahhhh….at last! 

I found a wonderful table on the terrace which afforded a perfect people-watching view of the main drag.  I ordered my first highly anticipated cup of Costa Rican java and was not the least bit disappointed in its velvety, rich, deeply satisfying taste.  As a coffee lover, I knew that I’d be in paradise for the next week enjoying some of the best coffee in the world. (I must secretly admit that even today I still order my coffee direct from Costa Rica.  It actually turns out to be a cheaper way of supporting my habit as the cost per pound is less than anything I can buy in the States or at least anything that is drinkable!  Try for yourself:  www.cafebritt.cr). 

The waiter brought me a plate and I helped myself to the buffet where I ordered my very own omelette from the happy smiling egg cooker and passed on the fruit (I didn’t want to take any chances of getting Montezuma’s Revenge and was warned not to eat fruit or uncooked vegetables.  Unfortunately my discretion only last a day and I found out the hard way why you should definitely NOT eat those gorgeous, juicy, delicious papaya).  The food was surprisingly good and I used my breakfast time to page through the guide book for some ideas how to spend the day.  It felt strange to be all alone, in a foreign country.  I hadn’t traveled solo abroad since my twenties and now in my late thirties it was a different experience.  I wasn’t a spring chicken anymore nor did I like to drink myself silly staying in youth hostels.  I was a mother for God’s sake, with responsibility!  I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

Thankfully, I seem to have an approachable, Minnesota nice (I don’t bite!) demeanor and seem to meet friends everywhere, almost to the point of ridicule by friends and family.   I struck up a conversation with the couple next to me and discovered that there was much to learn and see in Costa Rica.   In my opinion, meeting new, interesting people from all walks of life is part of the thrill and adventure of traveling.  Sharing the world and what you have found with others, even strangers, is half the reward and you can often learn a lot. 

I took their advice and set off for my day exploring San Jose, alone and not the least bit alarmed.  I took a deep breath, left the comforts of the hotel, and made a left on Avenida Central, the main drag, to began my exploration of the city.  It was a Sunday morning, and the streets were beaming with life.  Shops selling cheap clothing lined the street as well as fast-food restaurants (yes I even saw a KFC and of course McDonalds…just like North America) and loads of electronic stores jam-packed with well, electronics.  I instantly felt safe.  No one stared at the middle age blond-hair gringa.  In fact, no one even seemed to notice I was there so I was able to walk freely and leisurely allowing me to take it all in. 

I was about two or three blocks away from the hotel when I first heard the sounds and nearly dropped to the ground.  BANG BANG BOOM BOOM!!!  The loud, frightening sounds pounded the bright blue sky like thunder, like death.  I practically had a heart attack and felt all the hair on my skin raise in fear.  Trying not to panic, I looked around at the actors in the play (well, really the people on the streets that I had been secretly watching behind my dark shades).  No one stopped.  No one panicked.  No one seemed to even notice or hear the bangs.  It was like nothing out of the ordinary so at this point I was utterly confused.  What in God’s name was that noise? !  It sure sounded like gun fire.  Yet no one seemed to even notice.  Hmmm….

Another block later, as I nervously crossed the street, I happened to have that “ah ha” moment.  Had I visited a Latin country before I would have known what it was:  Fireworks!  Yes, fireworks were being light off and shot smack during the middle of the day.  And why I wondered?  It didn’t seem to make any sense.

 Then I saw it.  The large, colonial Catholic church and the masses and masses of people marching down the street in a religious procession carrying palms and some kind of burning incense that smoked the bright blue sky.  It finally dawned on me that it wasn’t just any Sunday.  It was Palm Sunday, which jumped off the start of Holy Week or Semana Santa, an entire week of processions, religious festivities and celebrations.  Ticos are CRAZY about Holy Week.  It is the biggest, most important holiday and religious week in all of Costa Rica, a country in which is almost 90% Catholic (aka very religious people) and I was about to discover firsthand how important Catholicism is to the Costa Rican people.  

I watched the procession trying to understand what they were saying and doing.  I practically kicked myself for not knowing more about Catholicism.  Yes, like many Midwestern Americans, I went to church every Sunday as a child yet even to this day must admit that I quite frankly don’t understand what a lot of religious rituals mean.  Oh well.  I’d have time to learn.  I was in a very Catholic country for an entire week, during one of the most important weeks of the year.  I was bound to find out!

 I spent the rest of my morning exploring some of the important cultural and historical landmarks in San Jose such as the splendid Teatro Nacional and the fascinating Museo del Oro Precolombino which is loaded with over 1,600 gold artifacts dating from 500 to 1500 AD and also has exhibits on the native culture before the invasion of the gold-greedy conquistadors in 1506 thanks to Christopher Columbus.  Although there is much more to see in San Jose, a city that is often overlooked and used as a launching off pad for the rest of the country, I unfortunately didn’t have the time.  I had to be back at the airport by early afternoon to meet my fellow volunteers and representatives from CCS (Cross-Cultural Solutions, my volunteer organization). 

While wandering about, one thing that I instantly noticed is the insane difficulty in finding your way around.  In Costa Rica, actual street addresses are seldom if ever used making finding a location equivalent to trying to following a treasure map in Arabic!   For example, most addresses are given like some kind of secret map code:  Our hotel can be found on the northeast side of Calle 3, between Avenidas Central and 1.  If they really want to mess with you or spice things up, they will even throw in some crazy landmarks and add the metric system to the equation (a DISASTER for us Americans who don’t know how to use the metric system!).  Here is an example:  This restaurant can be found by following Avenida Central 100 m. to the intersection of Calle Rose and Avenida 9.  Then take a left, head 250 m straight to the yellow house.  Turn right, etc etc).  For a barely speaking Spanish foreigner, finding an address in Costa Rica is completely by chance and for my first day in the country, I wasn’t going to find out the hard way.  I explored only a few main avendias, the main arteries of the city, and prayed I wouldn’t wind up lost.  It was almost two o’clock and time to head to the airport.   After a quick delightful gelato, I was back in the cab, striking up a half Spanish half I don’t know what conversation with the driver and was on my way.  I was looking forward to starting the volunteer experience which was the main reason why I was in Costa Rica.  Judging how interesting my morning went, I was confident that the rest of the week would be quite an adventure.  I also could not believe my luck at being there during one of the most important weeks of the year.  I was certain it would be a fascinating week, full of cultural learning and mishaps. 

Downtown San Jose, Main drag, where the walk began :

As I walked further, a little more Latin charm:

 National Theater:

Loaded of course with pigeons:

A sad sign of America….Ticos love their junkie fast food:

 And they also love Holy Week….here I witness a procession and prayer session:

 After the loud BOOM BOOM sound of the fireworks at noon, I finally found the source:  A Palm Sunday celebration and procession at one of the many Catholic churches in San Jose:

 Outside the church, the people begin to amass:

 Inside the church, beauty and peace at last:

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