Globe Trotter: Valentine’s Day all over the World!

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Roses are red, love is in the air, it’s Valentine’s Day! And to celebrate this lovely – … – opportunity to spend time with those we cherish, Babel Tower Keepers invite you to join them on a cruise from Oceania to Africa, from South America to Europe, to discover what the 14th of February looks like in Australia, Benin, Costa Rica, Honduras and France!

 

th-2.jpegAUSTRALIA, by Siobhan Reardon

I’m sure people are expecting something extremely interesting when it comes to dating in Australia. Maybe riding to the location of the date on the back of a kangaroo? I’m sorry to say that this is not the case. When it comes to, pretty much everything, Australia mostly follows the rest of the world. 

As in other countries, when it comes to a heterosexual couple, the man is usually expected to pay for the date (however as society becomes more progressive I would say this is definitely changing). It’s also looked highly upon if he takes the woman to the date and, if this is the case, he is expected to drive her home as well. Other than these things, there isn’t really a special event or gesture that is made by either partner on a date in Australia. 

One thing that is different between dating in Australia and other countries is how dates are generally a lot more laid back and casual. I think people are a lot more open to group dates than in other parts of the world, say like the USA, most likely just to make people feel more at ease in a dating environment. Honestly, the dating scene is pretty relaxed in Australia and is primarily based on what makes the couple comfortable and happy, rather than conforming to a kind of idealised image of dating. It’s, honestly, pretty simple, I would say. 

 

th-4.jpegBENIN, by Iman Eyitayo

I’ve never celebrated Valentin’s day, since I grew up in a city where, I think, nobody cared. I only learnt about that celebration though TV and books, and how people would give their loved ones chocolate, roses, or other kinds of gifts or rituals. I’ve often wondered why was that, and I have a double theory : first, most Beninese do not spend money on « unnecessary things » (so most commercial celebrations are not a « thing » back there), and second, we do not publicly express love. It’s sort of taboo, I think. For instance, the first thing that shocked me when I arrived in France later on was people touching and hugging and kissing in public : this was impossible where I come from. However, since we are being influenced by Western culture, if you happen to be in Benin at this time of year, inviting your loved one to dinner would not considered a bad thing : food is the best celebration you can find in my country, so every occasion to do so is celebrated !

 

th-5.jpegCOSTA RICA, by Pablo Castro

I think of two major environments when I think of Costa Rican couples: a festive party scene and a calm nature one.

Festivals, communal activities and loud bars allow couples to enjoy music in large cheerful crowds. It goes without saying that dancing is a central part of most of these outings. At Las Fiestas, yearly carnivals that travel around towns, the dancefloor is invaded by couples of all ages, ranging from awkward teenagers to experienced 80-year-olds. It is common knowledge that dancing skills are necessary for anyone trying to charm a partner, be it at a bar or at a relative’s wedding. Bachata is known to be the most sensual of dances and if someone invites you to the dancefloor when it plays, you can tell what his or her intentions are!

People who are less interested in crowds, may look for some of the many scenes of picturesque landscapes or simply surround themselves with some of the rich biodiversity the country offers. With many people living close to beaches, mountains and even volcanoes a date can often be a hike, a picnic or a simple sunset-watching session.

If you ever date in Costa Rica, then, be ready for a routine of Salsa, Merengue, stargazing and sunrises.

 

th-1.jpegHONDURAS, by Ana Catalina Espinoza

The red roses, absurd overuse of cologne, the DIY cards, and who knows even mariachis could get into the equation. Valentine’s day is either a day many are waiting to ask a girl to be their girlfriend or the day to make a grandiose declaration of love to your ‘already’ girlfriend. Hondurans are mad romantics that will gift you 100 roses on your first month-versary. But they could also just forget you birthday… so don’t get too excited. Valentine’s day can get cheesy. Back in the day, serenades were a very popular form to demonstrate a boy’s love for a girl. A serenade consists of a group of singing mariachis, which are singers, guitar players, accordion players and some other instruments as well. The magic of the serenade is to have it delivered to your house, you open your window to one of the most romantic gestures ever to exist. (I must admit I am a sucker for romantic musical gestures) The mariachis usually sing songs about how beautiful a girl is or how the man behind the gesture is madly in love with the girl. Now, the usual starter pack for Hondurans lovers includes red roses, a love note, and grooming up in your best formal clothes.

 

th-3.jpegFRANCE, by Camille Ibos

No matter the country in which I was travelling, I’ve always been greeted by people referring to Paris, capital of France, as the town of Love with a capital L. My Australian host sister kept calling Paris ‘la ville de l’amour’, and a Romanian friend joked that one could not tight their shoelaces in Paris without being thought of being proposing to the person in front of them. Another friend from Romania didn’t remember anything else from his French classes than ‘Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?’, ‘Do you want to have sex with me?’. It’s true that in France, we take dating very seriously. It is common knowledge that the day after a first night together, the man of the couple ‘should’ buy a handful of croissants for his partner’s breakfast – which man should be in charge of the croissants in a gay couple, the story doesn’t say. In a country considering itself the ‘world center of gastronomy’, it’s no surprise that love and food often go hand in hand, and bringing breakfast to one’s partner is seen as a peak of cuteness and romanticism. For Valentine’s Day, it is a tradition to offer roses and a present, as well as to go to a fancy restaurant for dinner. Valentine’s Day being a huge thing in France, single friends often organize ‘alternative Valentine’s’ on that evening, and a harsh debate is still going on, on whether Valentine’s is nothing but a commercial celebration or is, on the other hand, a wonderful opportunity to celebrate love. Anyway, it’s at least an occasion to eat good food, and pâtisseries in Paris even offer to sell cakes two by two at this period of the year…

 

And you… how is it in your country? 🙂

Thoughts: Borders and Progress: Seldom Straight Lines

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About 3 years ago, I departed on what is, to this day, the most thrilling trip I’ve experienced while living in Costa Rica. With a friend, a pair of back packs and our trusty 160cc motorcycle we set course towards Nicaragua. A 6-hour drive under the sun awaited us, but my excitement did not allow for fatigue or annoyance. On the contrary, the small roads of the west of Costa Rica had never seemed so liberating nor promising. The beauty of the tropical dry forest, the grandness of the two volcanoes we saw on the way, as well as the clandestine aesthetic of our surroundings, could only be undermined by one thing. Bureaucracy.

We made it to the Northwestern Border to Nicaragua in Peñas Blancas and, after 30- minutes or so, we finished our passport procedures. Then we went to the vehicle customs office, where we intended to pay the tax on exiting the country with a vehicle… except this wasn’t possible, because the taxes had to be paid in a bank in a city, rather than at the border. Defeated, we headed back to Liberia, the closest city: 2 hours away. Tired, after 8 hours of driving, we decided to stay the night at a cheap Airbnb and headed to the bank in the morning. After providing due documentation and paying, we returned to the border, still eager to continue our adventure. Following 45 minutes on the Costa Rican side of the border, we crossed the no-man’s land. The immediate change of scenery was astonishing to me. Whereas its counterpart had mainly buildings, much of this side of the border had tents with government officials tending to long lines of tourists. The whole process seemed ridiculous to me; we were given pieces of paper after showing various documents and were told to go to different tents and buildings in what seemed to be a random order, only to show the same documents again. Eventually, after getting our passports stamped, we arrived at customs to deal with our motorcycle.

This is when we found out we weren’t going to make it to inland Nicaragua in this trip. The official asked us for an insurance document that we had left home, one we didn’t need to give to Costa Rican officials and one that was represented by a sticker on the motorcycle. The official said they couldn’t give us legal permission to take the motorcycle. But here’s the thing: there is a law preventing people from crossing the border twice in the same 24 hours and we were already legally inside Nicaragua. We couldn’t get out and our motorcycle couldn’t go in. This was my first border experience.

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The second time I crossed a border by land was much less eventful. I was driving with a friend in the south of France and after passing by some bushes he said without much tone in his voice: “Cool, we’re in Spain.”

It is this casual approach to such an event that originally bewildered me. We had just crossed a line that had been determined by wars, by geography, by history itself. It took a second to penetrate and the only acknowledgment of it was a “cool”. Right after, there were gas stations with signs in Spanish, a majority of European plate numbers with an “E” rather than an “F”, and plenty of details signaling to us that we were no longer in the same territory. For a while, though, it was no more than that: a detail. This to me, like to many visitors to Europe, was otherworldly.

Borders like I had seen them before had never been a “detail”; they were a very significant political, physical, but most importantly social barrier. One with monetary and bureaucratic disincentives, intentionally implemented to separate “them” from “us”. A border facilitates the development of exaggerated or plainly false ideas on one’s nation and on those surrounding it by isolating the population. It can initiate a positive feedback loop that diverges cultures by allowing the main information on each other to be communicated by the media, stereotypes and rumors rather than by a real-life exchange.

This was the experience I had in Costa Rica, where xenophobic comments are not uncommon to hear while taking a bus, while having a conversation in a store or while hearing the preacher’s sermon in church. Recently I read an article on a Nicaraguan Uber driver that had lived for 20 years in Costa Rica, yet she lied about her nationality to avoid uncomfortable reactions from her clients. The story didn’t surprise me, but it did remind me of this ridiculous separation between the two countries. On the other side of the border, police officers are known for stopping cars with Costa Rican plates systematically. The bad relations between the countries were not started by borders (although the annexation of Guanacaste is surely a factor), but the fact of having a barrier complicating economic and social interchange unquestionably worsens the situation. I am not an advocate for immediate suppression of the borders, as I understand the complications that the cultural and economic differences of the two countries present. Nevertheless, I am an advocate for their suppression in a future where Central America’s relations have progressed into a more integrated system.

Central American integration is not a new idea, though. Since the 1800’s there were efforts to bring the geographical area closer, for instance, the Federal Republic of Central America which existed since 1823-1841 but was eventually dissolved for differences in ideology between the provinces. Most recently, the most successful effort has been SICA (Sistema de Integración Centroamericana) which addresses many economic, social and political issues, hoping to strengthen and unify Central America (along with The Dominican Republic which is also part of SICA). The entity, created in 1991, has had notable success in terms of trade agreements as well as environmental policies, but is not close to having the international power or credibility the European Union has. Another integration effort worth noting is the CA-4: established in 2006, this is an agreement between Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to implement free movement between the countries without the need of a passport. The agreement does not allow, however, free movement of goods and services, but it is a giant step in Central American integration- more than one has proposed the idea of expanding the treaty.

The experience of crossing borders across the European Union has shaped my outlook on physical and political divides. The dynamics of the area give me a desire to see something similar in all of Central America. It is hard to imagine something like this happening in the near future, particularly considering Nicaragua’s ongoing political instability issues, but in the grand scheme of things it seems we are heading into that direction. Populists, protectionists and separatists have risen and will continue to rise, but progress is not a straight line. Evidence shows that, if not in 5 years, if not in 50 years, most likely at least in 100 years, not only Central America, but our whole globe will be more united.

 

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!