Today I’m leaving Central America and going to South America. During my travels in Central America I have seen many things starting with Guatemala, a land of natural beauty with volcanoes erupting everywhere and indigenous cultures with people still wearing traditional dress making every attempt to preserve their culture.
From there I went to El Salvador and surfed a little, swam a lot, in the Pacific Ocean where there are black sand beaches. I was surprised to find that the local currency was the same as mine, the U.S. Dollar, and it felt strange to use it to buy papusas in a country that felt very unfamiliar. Here I received stares as I walked down the street, and some people would say sheepishly ” Gewd Marning” and others yelled out “Gringa” as I passed.
We took an adventurous boat ride from El Salvador to Nicaragua. The ride started on calm and beautiful waters as we passed islands with white sand beaches. I was surprised we had been offered to wear life vests since other boat rides I’d been on in Central America didn’t even have enough life vests for all the passengers on the boat. I was wearing an XL life vest, the only size they had, that probably would’ve slipped right off my body had I gone overboard.
I realized it was silly to reassure myself that going overboard was unlikely on the calm waters we had embarked on during the first half of our trip when the waves picked up tremendously and at one point our boat tipped so far sideways the captain cut the engine and gave his helper an order to take the canopy off the boat. We were all asked to shift from seat to seat as the boat rocked to help with balance.
When we reached dry land on that windy beach and the waves continued to hammer the boat we were soaking wet with salt water. But we high fived, and the captain was laughing maniacally saying something in Spanish that translated to “Phew, that was a close one. You tourists are idiots for wanting to take this ride.”
And with that we entered Nicaragua. Nicaragua was full of active volcanoes and tours that took you straight up to the volcanoes to gaze at the smoking crater and molten lava. We had the opportunity to go “Volcano Boarding” where we basically sledded on a laminate piece with some metal on it down the side of a volcano through volcanic rock and ash. It was fun and dirty!
In Nicaragua we were very interested to learn about the revolution from real live Sandanista’s who had fought to preserve their country and embrace socialism, a government that seems to be working well for them.
Then we made it to Costa Rica to meet our friends Annie and Jeason. Costa Rica is the jewel of Central America. It is clean and green and we saw that pretty much immediately after crossing the border.
The wildlife is abundant, something we didn’t see much of in the other countries. The waterways are pristine and not filled with trash. The air smells fresh, not like smoke or burning plastic. And most striking, Costa Ricans are quick to tell you why they love their country and never want to leave.
I thought back to my public health training and remembered that Costa Rica performs well in the health world. They have a higher life expectancy and lower infant mortality compared to the other countries in Central America and around the world.
I couldn’t help but notice that Ticos are highly educated (man we found some amazing guides just on the bus to the park!) and they are taller than people in other Central American countries ( a sign of adequate nutrition). Water from the tap is potable (yeah!), and people are extremely happy. Interesting side note: Costa Rica does not have a military.
I’m happy to have an opportunity to ponder these things first hand and consider the things that seem so crucial in making a country rich. Here are a few impressions:
- Armed guards everywhere does not make me feel safe. El Salvador was particularly notable but Nicaragua and Guatamala too to lesser degrees. Interestingly, I cannot recall seeing any guns since I’ve been in Costa Rica. Actually, seeing armed guards made me feel as if I were in danger. People lugging around guns in public will never make me feel safe. It does make me look at a country and ask myself “What is wrong here?”
- Potable water should be a basic human right. A family without it is unjustly treated, because they are being put at risk for gastrointestinal diseases that increase child mortality. When public potable water sources are not provided corporations are given an unfair advantage because a family’s options are to 1) drink contaminated water and be less economically productive due to illness or 2) buy all the water they need increasing corporate productivity without providing any large benefit to a local community.
- Waste management and public education about it is important in providing a clean environment that people feel proud of. Guatamela is full of natural beauty, but the trash strewn everywhere was a major deterrent to my enjoyment.
- Land preservation is necessary. I’m sad and angry that corporations can’t make responsible decisions. Everywhere in Central America we hear stories about United Fruit, a company that ruined the local land by using a lot of chemicals for banana plantations. The company does not provide good wages to workers or support to local governments by paying fair taxes on the land. Think of this when buying Chiquita, Dole, or Del Monte.
- Organized and ethical governments are key. Do you like safe roads? Public transport? Education? Justice? National Parks? No matter how many non-governmental organizations exist, resources need to be compiled then distributed in order to make a country great. Otherwise resources are distributed hyper-locally and cannot have a large impact. Unequal and inefficient resource distribution can even create competition, disagreement, resentment and conflict within a community.
A local slash and burn farm on a volcano.
- The U.S. has installed ineffective governments in Guatemala and Nicaragua (and other Central American countries?). I want to learn more about this, specifically how this strategy parallels our practices in the Middle East now.
- Women’s rights are being addressed but womens’ workloads, specifically family responsibilities, are so much more here. Cooking elaborate meals, hand washing clothes, caring for large families and insufficient pay for “women’s work” presents problems.
- Early childhood education is a priority in Costa Rica and provided by the government. A taxi driver told us that in Costa Rica children attend school from 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. and literacy rates are high.
- Availability of fair-paying jobs is import and Tim wrote a nice blog about that.