Globe Trotter: Naples: An Organized Chaos

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At 7:15 in the morning on the dot, on a warm June day, a train arriving from Rome stopped at the Stazione Napoli Centrale. I set foot out of it knowing only rumors I’d heard about Naples from Italian friends, and only having seen a couple pictures of the city on the Internet. The air was thick with humidity, and the rising sun announced a hot weather to come. My friends and I began walking towards the center. Soon enough we had left the crowded train station and were walking down littered, deserted streets, where we would only see small groups of locals in old clothes, glaring at our clearly foreign outfits. The streets smelled, and I began feeling a familiar sense of alarm that I had often felt in various Costa Rican cities, but only seldom in a European one. In retrospective, this was the calm before the storm.

Eventually, we reached busier streets, and as time passed more and more people, as well as vehicles, began swarming out. We arrived at a 4-lane main street with a crosswalk right in front of us; however, no car seemed interested in the slightest reduction of speed. We looked closer while we waited to, maybe, get a nice driver who’d stop for these three tourists. We then realized that close to us there was an uncontrolled intersection with 4 lanes perpendicular to the main street, with cars transiting just as fast. As a group of cars crossed the intersection, we began crossing as well. A few cars on the main street managed to cut through anyway and at our sight decided to swerve rather than slow down. After crossing, I began seeing several motorcyclists with no helmet, large construction zones that seemed abandoned and the huge residential buildings with drying laundry covering most of the windows. I began getting an idea of the kind of place I was in.

The trip to Naples had been spontaneous. We had been staying in Tuscany and had already seen both Rome and Florence. After having had nonstop Italian food for over a week, visiting the birthplace of Pizza seemed appropriate. Thus, we decided to stay a night in Rome and part on a daytrip early the morning after, with the main objective of seeking the best pizza we’d ever tasted. Train tickets were relatively cheap, and the ride was only slightly over an hour.

The pedestrian center had a whole different, yet equally muddled aesthetic. We paced down narrow streets between large housing structures, where, at the base, many homes had their doors open, with no one inside; presumably, because there was not much to steal. We reached a major plaza and, finally, we were surrounded by tourists as well as hundreds of street sellers and artists. The lack of care for public infrastructure, the utter disregard for basic laws and the steering-wheel locks in parked cars all pointed towards the poorness and, frankly, the dangers of the city. My feeling of discomfort, however, began to disappear and it slowly turned into an adventurous and curious sensation. Particularly because I was astonished by the city’s disorder that contrasted its ancient richness, seen through its astonishing architecture and monuments, as well as its natural beauty of coasts, mountains and surrounding islands. It felt like Naples fate had taken a wrong turn at some point in its history.

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Neapolis, the city’s original name meant new city. It was founded around 600 BC as a Greek settlement and taken over by the Roman empire a couple hundred years later. It changed hands various times during the middle ages, belonging to both France and Spain at separate times, becoming a duchy at one point and eventually joining Sicily to form a kingdom. Considered a powerful city, it was an area of dispute and power for centuries. During the Renaissance, Naples was the home of various celebrated artists, symbolized by monuments, architecture and literature. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the capital began to see trouble: at the time of its unification to Italy. Naples was no longer the capital. For the first 10 years of the Kingdom, it was extremely far from the centralized government, located in Turin first and then in Florence. Massive emigration, government negligence and a cholera epidemic were all factors of the city’s slow fall from grace. To top it off, during the Second World War, Naples was the city to receive most bombs in the country. The city’s postwar recovery was slow and is yet another cause of the city’s present state.

Even understanding the historical background, the city’s environment is something to admire. It gives off the impression that the city was abandoned, and the inhabitants now populate its ruins. The city’s ordered chaos was what I imagined Northern African cities such as Marrakech or Tripoli would look like, and as the day advanced, I wanted more of it. It reminded me of how various American friends had mentioned that visiting Costa Rica gave them a sense of adventure and danger that they didn’t get back home.

Given that I already came from such a place, it hadn’t crossed my mind that visiting other poor/undeveloped (for Western standards) area would give me the same feeling. It definitely did, and, ever since, I’ve been contemplating at the amount of ways of living humans have. The average Neapolitan lives a life of much more insecurity than I have (I haven’t even mentioned the Mafia yet), but what I have been accepting is: that is all that it is, a different way of living. And that was exactly the core of my amazement. The fact that these people’s way of living: dealing with danger, noise, heat and much more was so distant to the way I live my life currently. The trip was a reminder of how most of the world lives in that situation: uncertainty and struggle. Now, knowing that Naples is only the tip of the iceberg, I crave to see more of this, more places, more people, more dangers that show the diversity and the resilience of our species. I crave to see how my fellow human beings deal with the challenges of nature, of ourselves and of everything that we have created.

PS. We most definitely found the best Pizza we had ever tasted in Naples.

Earth is Also a Star: Anita back to school!

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On a rainy morning in May, I went to visit my Grandma’s cousin in my hometown. She is a short lady with light brown hair, always in a bun. I used to see her around my Grandma’s house; often with a friend or two, all of them equipped with a rosary and a bible. 

That day, she had prepared Arepas and coffee for us. A few days before, I had asked if I could come over to interview her, because I found her story heartwarming and worth sharing. Ana Leitón graduated 6th grade in 1971 and she is now determined to finish the 7th grade in 2018.

47 years after.

Anita, as most people call her, grew up in San Luis. This small town was firstly populated by traveling people from the Costa Rican metropolitan area of the central valley. During the 1920’s, these families were in search of new land for agricultural production. San Luis’s real development started in the 1960’s, when coffee production began. During this same period two schools were founded, one of which Anita attended. To this day, however, no high school has been constructed. Its neighboring town, Monteverde, although established about 30 years after, became larger both in terms of population and economic growth. Monteverde, the town I come from, is located about 40 minutes away by car and it does have a high school. In order for the inhabitants of San Luis to go to it, though, they have to take a bus that lasts an hour and a half each way. This results in many of the resident families deciding to pull their kids out of the education system past 6th grade, when primary school ends in Costa Rica. Only 7.4% of the current population of San Luis has finished secondary school and 25% of the population aged over 12 did not finish primary school.

Anita moved to Monteverde when she was 29 years old. During many years, and partially now, her way of generating income for her family was through the sale of snacks and small meals around town. At the time she moved to Monteverde, one of the biggest employers of the town was the Cheese Factory. She told me how she would visit it with a bag full of Costa Rican styled tamales one day; prestiños* another; and even slushies from time to time. She raised 6 kids this way, along with her husband who she mentioned had had alcoholism problems and wasn’t as present in the kids’ lives as she was. One of them is on his way to get his master’s degree in geographic sciences. On certain days, even currently, Anita wakes up as the sun rises, ready to prepare tasty foods and goes off to sell them- predominantly at the farmer’s market. Another of her main activities is to be part of a folkloric dance group that has gained popularity around communities in Costa Rica. They were even invited to Nicoya, which is a city 3-4 hours away by car, to perform at a civic event. Her group doesn’t charge to perform, but accepts donations, and it clearly is something she adores. Realizing that these activities, on top of her active participation in many of the catholic church’s events, must be greatly time consuming, I asked her why she had decided to add studying to her to-do list. I was not disappointed with her answer.

*Typical Costa Rican snack made of a thin, fried flour tortilla, often eaten with sugar cane syrup.

Ana told me she loved reading and writing. It may seem like an empty statement to many but, given the way this woman lived most of her adult life, these activities were not a daily necessity, as they are for many of us. As we spoke, I glanced at the various notebooks she had next to us, on the table; she had very neat handwriting. She always knew these were important skills, as well as much of what you learn in school. While her children grew up, she tried helping them as much as she could, knowing how education would change their lives. A couple of months ago, she hosted a someone in her house, as she has done many times. It was a teacher from the West Coast of the country, working temporarily in Monteverde. After a couple of days, the lady told her she was a smart woman who should go back to school, especially considering that the local high school offered a program for adults. Anita considered this for a few weeks, at first thinking it would not fit in with her busy schedule with church, dance activities, the farmer’s market and her long-loved hobby of quilting and sewing. Her children were very supportive of the idea and at one point she thought of one of her sons, Greivin, the one that had died 20 years before. One that was very close to finishing high school but couldn’t because of cancer. She decided to do it.

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Her class is made up of 28 adults ranging from 20 to 59-year-olds, Anita being the oldest. The program is aimed at people wishing to get their high school degree past their teenage years; it is a three-year course composing the 6 main high school subjects, namely Spanish, math, science, English, social studies and civics. In order to accommodate for the students’ jobs, classes go from 5:30pm until 10pm Mondays through Fridays. As she is the oldest, she told me, people look up to her, and she said they have told her having her there is a good inspiration. Every now and then, Anita brings tortillas or some snack for the class, which makes them really happy. Between the class, she says, there is a feeling of familiarity that motivates everyone. The first time she missed a lesson because she was sick, the group called her to make sure she was ok.

In 3 years, this woman will finally have her high school diploma. Ana is evidently determined to, not only finish her studies to feel accomplished with herself, but also to use this certificate and her new-found knowledge to get a job she otherwise wouldn’t be able to. “What’s the most important thing you’ve learned?” I asked her. She answered that in a touristic town like Monteverde, English is the new ‘official’ language. I agreed, any job you look for will ask you how well you speak the language, and finally Ana will be able to say ‘decently’. When I asked her what one of the most interesting things she had learned was, she answered the fact that Egyptians were buried with belongings because they believed these would be useful in their afterlife. Then I asked her what the hardest thing she was learning was. She smiled and said, “Math back in the day was a lot simpler then now.” I chuckled.

Ana told me she was pleased to finally experiencing this part of life that she had helped her children go through, seeing both the effort one has to put in and the value of what she was studying. Her excitement over her studies reminded me of the privilege that schooling is, and I left her humble house that drizzling day feeling happier about my student status than I had for a long time. My only hope is that this text made you feel a similar way.

Before leaving, she showed me a quote she had written on the cover of her folder. Her daughter had found it for her. Later I realized it was a quote by Mark Twain:

“La edad es un tema de la mente sobre la materia. Si no te importa, no importa.”

“Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”

Costa Rica: A small town’s contribution to culture

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5:30 pm. There is a slight breeze brushing on my hair, and my fingers itch with the touch of the blades of grass. I open my eyes and see mountains descending for kilometers and kilometers until they reach a golden coast, covered in the rays of the sleepy sun. I’m sitting in one of my favorite places in the world: Las Piedras (The Stones). This corner of my world, where hundred-year old volcanic rocks are used simultaneously as a teenager’s bench and a beetle’s shelter, was all I knew; my secluded home that seemed, like a bug’s refuge, a bit too small.

When I turned 17, I had just finished high school and I took the decision of moving my life to France for a few years. Some people have called my decision brave, others impulsive, I call it inevitable. Few small-town people that I’ve met have told me that they’d enjoy spending the rest of their lives in their hometown and I’m no exception. Almost two years after my departure, I came back to Monteverde for a second time and, naturally, I saw the town with different eyes. The food tasted better, the sunsets were slower, people’s smiles were sweeter. I was reminded of how particular this tiny place is and how distinct its culture is from much of the country. I admit many people will say that about their respective homes, but bear with me, that is precisely my point.

To get to Monteverde from San José, Costa Rica’s capital, you have to take a 4-hour bus, of which one hour is up a dirt road next to immense cliffs. Regardless of the intimidating journey, the town’s humble population of 6,750 is visited by about 250 thousand tourists yearly, meaning a monthly average of over 20,800. It’s not hard to imagine why this is after spending just two minutes googling pictures of the place, but Monteverde’s cosmopolitan side does not end here. To understand why, we have to take trip to the United States in the 1950’s.

 The Korean war had just sparked at the time, and the US government was drafting soldiers from all around the country. A group of Quakers and pacifists from Fairhope, Alabama who refused to take part in the conflict, decided to move to a more peaceful place. Costa Rica, which had abolished its army in 1949, seemed like an ideal new home. The group of Americans bought land in what is now Monteverde, where only a few Costa Rican families were living at the time. In order to sustain themselves, they created the nationally famous Cheese. The Quakers soon founded the Monteverde Friend’s School which is now one of two bilingual schools in town. As time passed Quaker and Costa Rican culture began to mix. As an established melting pot for Americans and Ticos (Costa Ricans’ informal demonym) more families joined the town. Subsequently, tourism boomed during the 1980’s in Costa Rica, Monteverde’s biodiversity and international nature only stimulating the growth and the global presence of the town.

Driving around, you can see a public soccer field, often crowded with loud, energetic youth; street-open, repair workshops where muscular, greasy, middle aged man are laughing as they fix motorcycles; the Catholic Church in the middle of town, in which elderly ladies close their eyes and hold a rosary. Scenes such as these are the representation of Costa Rican culture at its core, maybe even a good peak into Latin America itself. Look a little closer, however, and you will see less conventional scenes. Wake up early in the morning and it would not be uncommon to see a group of teenagers with binoculars heading into the woods to birdwatch; on a Saturday night you might hear folk music from the Friend’s School, where both young adults and seniors are square-dancing.

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A culture can be analyzed and differentiated through many factors. One recognizes cities as Paris or Rome for their art and architecture or makes the difference between Argentina and Chile based on language and accent, or even distinguishes between Chinese families and American families based on their traditions like when they celebrate the New Year. Monteverde, by this standard has, undoubtedly, its own culture. Concerning art, on top of square dancing, it has become a summer tradition for many to go watch the yearly musical organized by Far Corners Musical Theater. This is a non-profit that has produced plays for over 10 years in the community with kids from the ages of 12-18. Furthermore, language is an amusing topic in the town. Younger generations have excellent levels of English, and many young adults, including myself, have the habit of speaking Spanglish, swiftly changing languages half-sentence or using certain words that might be more precise in a second language. Beyond that, the formal way of saying “you” (Usted) is used much more than it is in the capital, which changes the whole conjugation of your sentences and, in turn, the way you sound.

Some instances of Costa Rican culture are also harder to find in Monteverde. For starters, there is a very specific structure of how towns were built hundreds of years ago in the country. The Church was most likely facing the East, with a park in front of it and the school next it. This arrangement is not found in the town which was built fairly recently in very irregular geography. The church is far from any school and, although nature is abundant, there is no real park in town. The massive amount of agriculture that can be found in many other parts of the country is also missing; rather, the town harnessed its potential for agriculture into tourism, which is the absolute core of the economy in the zone. Tours of coffee and sugarcane plantations, as well as many reforestation activities are easy to find around.

When visiting a country, it is easy to simply use stereotypes to understand the place. It makes us feel safer to know something about a place and we often get carried away by it. Many go to France expecting to see mimes and tons of smokers. What’s more, many of these images that we hear about come from cities, as they are often the most visited place in a country. Stereotypes and assumptions are necessary for people to feel safer while traveling; often it can be the only information one has of a place. But regardless of their importance, their dangers have to be considered as well.

This town is not exclusively a part of Costa Rican culture, as it is not the case for hundreds of thousands of towns world-wide that you and I have yet to discover. The outcome of what the town and its inhabitants are right now, as it is the case for a country, comes from specific occurrences to the place. Granted, it is heavily affected by both our Costa Rican and Latin heritage, but just like the country’s culture is not a hand-down from either Central or Iberian America, what Monteverde has become is an independent phenomenon that overlaps with what the larger culture around it is.

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After spending some time in Europe, I realized I was scared to say that I knew what Costa Rican culture accurately was, knowing that my town was not an absolute representation of my country. How could it ever be, though? I now understand that this is not an unreasonable feeling. Like cities, towns can deeply contribute to a country’s culture while remaining distinctive. Fortunately, this notion only widens the possibilities of learning, exploring and experiencing the vastness of the globe. And I urge you to, as you may have been told all your life, rid your mind of any prejudice and observe, truly observe, what each and every corner of the world has to offer.

 

To see many more beautiful photos of Costa Rica, you may want to go check out local photographer Félix Salazar’s website (https://www.felucointhewoods.com) and Instagram: felucointhewoods!