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March 11, 2010

The Latinos really know how to party-it-up.  After almost a month of celebrating various holidays through December, and instead of heading straight back to the daily grind of work, they extend the party-season into January and even February.  In contrast to a possible lingering New Year’s party that we gringos see as the final bit of extreme fun for a while, fiestas can be found throughout the country during any week for a few more months.

One of the largest festivals in Costa Rica is Palmares.  The town is located in the east of Costa Rica, and is the place to go during the second half of January, when the festival means plenty of fun for plenty of people.  Some of the central events are: concerts, horse parades, bull fights, and sports activities.  I went for the morning of one day to watch a mountain bike race (watching entailing: watching the bikers leave the start line, eating breakfast, taking a nap under a tree, and finally watching for them to return two and a half hours later; it was a very relaxing morning).

And they're off....start line of the race

Even though it was too early for many festivities to have started for the day, I was able to wander the grounds and have a peek at what the night party must be like.

A view of the grounds

There were plenty of places to buy food.  Churros are a good bet (though maybe not right after breakfast, they’re more of a snacky-food for when you’re craving something sweet).  Churros are fried dough in the form of long cylinders.  They generally are extruded using a particular churro-making-machine, and therefore have a hole in the middle.  They’re usually covered in sugar, and they are sometimes filled with dulce de leche, a kind of super-sweetened-condensed milk.


Maybe next year I’ll get to experience the night party at Palmares, but this time, it was great to see yet another part of Costa Rica.



March 11, 2010

It has been a super super long time since I last posted.  The main reason is lack of time, though we have also been traveling quite a bit where there is no Internet.  Our break week is next week, so I plan on catching up on a huge mountain of things, including the blog posts.  For now, I’m going to try to post as many as possible while I have a few hours of free time here.

Costa Rica, Part 1: A Retrospect

January 23, 2010

I’ve now finished my first extended stay in Costa Rica. In retrospect, I can’t believe that it went by so quickly!

Researching at La Selva, a world-class tropical biological station, was amazing. I met researchers from around the globe, and heard about many different types of research that are being done in Costa Rica and throughout the tropics. Being surrounded constantly by the lush and vibrant green of the rain forest was both relaxing and mind-opening at the same time. Carrying out an investigation on the evolutionary ecology of dart-poison frogs was challenging and exciting. And, I had plenty of opportunities to take pictures!

My time with the OTS Global Health semester abroad was fantastic. The number of new experiences was mind-boggling. We not only saw typical tico culture, but also visited several indigenous territories to learn more about their specific cultures. We travelled throughout Costa Rica, and even visited Nicaragua to study the health care systems. We had discussions about moral, ethical, political, financial, and logistical concerns related to health care. We impacted local communities with education outreach and research projects, and developed our abilities to think critically about the development, completion, and review of a research project.

Researching, studying, and traveling in Costa Rica was a life-changing, eye-opening experience. I enjoyed it so much that I am the teaching assistant for the spring semester of OTS Global Health in Costa Rica. I plan to continue blogging, this time with a little different perspective. Instead of a student experiencing everything for the first time, I will be able to see changes in communities I had already visited, along with meeting new communities and people.  I’m looking forward to continuing to share my experiences with you, and hope that you continue to comment on the posts. 🙂

Pura Vida!


January 1, 2010

One more food blog.  The subject this time is the jump-start to the mornings of many: coffee.

Coffee was introduced to Costa Rica in the early 18th century, and today is one of the major crops in Costa Rica’s economy.  There are coffee fields throughout Costa Rica, but there is a very high concentration in San Vito, where Las Cruces Biological Station is located.  At one point during the history of the town, if a person wished to cultivate a crop, there was a law stating that the ONLY crop that could be grown was coffee.  That resulted in LOTS of coffee plantations in the surrounding area.  It appears that the climate is perfect for growing crops in the area, and we have seen at least three brands of coffees in local stores from the immediately surrounding regions.

coffee field

Buying coffee in the US is similar to buying pineapples….we usually don’t have an idea of where it comes from, or how it got there.  We were able to have a close-up view of the growing part of the process.  This is a coffee plant…

coffee plant

Here’s a closer view….


These are the coffee fruits.  When the green fruits are ripe, they turn yellow or red and are ready for picking.  The coffee-picking season in San Vito is from about October to December.  The picked fruits look like this…

picked ripe fruits

When the fruit is broken, the inside looks more like you might have been expecting…the coffee bean (there are two in each fruit, nestled together)….

coffee bean

After being picked, there is a fairly complex process of drying (usually in the sun), fermentation (which smells interesting–we drove past a location where this was taking place), and roasting.  Then it looks more like what we would recognize as whole coffee beans that can be bought in the store in the US.

Unfortunately, like the pineapple industry, there is a darker side to coffee.  Coffee picking is a seasonal activity, and many of the workers that pick coffee are indigenous people that migrate to the area for the season to pick.  San Vito is near the Panama border and there are many migrants who move back and forth across the border to pick different crops.  Constant migrations and poverty don’t allow much time for education on worker rights and fair wages, and perhaps the coffee plantation owners are not very concerned about such issues.  What we saw was this:

"living" conditions

This is part of a large room that is meant to serve as living conditions for as many as 20 families.


This is a small area in one corner of the buildings where they cook.  The outhouses are outside of the buildings.


There are many coffee plantations throughout the area that have similar conditions.  Plantations owners can easily take advantage of poorly educated workers.  Workers are often not even aware of health care options, which contributes to health problems in a large proportion of the population.  Since our interest in the courses is the health of the people, we were also told that despite many horrible conditions, there is an organization that is helping.  “Finca Sana” is a term (“healthy farm” in English) for a coffee picking operation where the owner lets the organization come to educate workers on things as simple as properly washing their hands.  The owners can display their participation in the program by posting this sign:

Finca Sana

Though there are many disparities in the migrant indigenous populations that harvest the coffee on many of the plantations around San Vito, with Finca Sanas this is at least beginning to improve.  With education and supplies, the coffee industry’s treatment of its workers may start to slowly improve.

Do a little research about where your daily morning drink may be coming.  Check out fair trade brands, and also what the company’s or brand’s definition of “free trade” is.

Pineapple: the side we don’t see….

December 28, 2009

Okay, on to pineapple…..

We visited a pineapple plantation with the goals of learning not only about pineapples, but also learning more about how pesticides affect the health and subsequent health care in communities surrounding the plantations.  As stated in the post I wrote about bananas, Dole seems to take care of its employees.  However, we were also told that where the pineapple workers are today is where banana workers were not so long ago….not a good spot.

Starting with the basics, this is a pineapple plantation….

Pineapple fields

A pineapple farm is a vast expanse of land that can be referred to as a strict monoculture…ONLY pineapples grow here.  If you’re not a pineapple plant, you’re not allowed.  In contrast to the banana plantations, where they also grow plants that help control excess water, the pineapple growers do not allow other plants to grow within the area.  The subsequent erosion from lack of large-leaf and fibrous root plants can be seen.  The run-off from the fields can be seen in this picture.

Run-off from pineapple fields

The pineapple is a member of the bromeliad family…which means the plant looks kind of spiky.  A “rosette” of long triangularly-shaped leaves grow out of the base of the plant….these leaves look similar to the green part that is on top of the pineapples that you can find in the store.  It takes about 9 months for a pineapple to grow and mature from the center of the rosette to the large fruit that we know.  The pineapple is cut from the plant and sent to be sold.  That’s the short story of how we get pineapples.  If you don’t care to know about all the baggage that the pineapples have, stop here.

more pineapples

Unfortunately, the story isn’t very happy.  The pesticides and herbicides that the plantations use are not nice chemicals (in the world of agriculture, typically things that end with “-ide” aren’t…).  Instead of properly managing the copious amounts of chemicals that are used to produce the perky pineapples that we can buy in stores, all that runoff (see picture above) goes here…


This is a drain into the local stream, which joins to a local river.  Both of which have people living along them.  Most of those people likely have children.  And, who’s to say that Costa Rican kids don’t like playing in streams as much as any other kids?  Basically, this plantation is in a rural area.  A rural area where even Costa Rica’s extensive treated, piped water does not reach.  The people around the streams and rivers here depend on these sources of water–they have no choice.  The result is high rates of illness in the communities surrounding the plantations and any downstream communities.

Unfortunately, despite high rates of illness, the pineapple plantation owners don’t pay much attention to the health of the workers, the same workers whose families’ health is suffering from being exposed to pesticides and herbicides while working in the fields, and also while at home from the run-off from the lands.  There are also other effects.  The herbicide that is used to kill the pineapple plants at the end of the season is a perfect environment for a certain type of cattle parasite to grow in.  The flies bother the local cows, so the cows are sick, along with the people who depend upon the cows for milk, meat, and income.

Just wanted to offer another perspective on the seemingly innocent pineapples that we can buy here.  I’ve started thinking more about where my food comes from and who it affects before it reaches me.  Give your food a second thought….

Going bananas….

December 16, 2009

So while I posted the picture of the small, purple wild bananas in a past post, I now have experience with cultivated bananas.  We visited Dole banana plantations in the northern part of Costa Rica….it’s quite the process!

wild purple bananas

Driving down roads and highways in Pennsylvania usually involves passing fields of corn and hay.  In Costa Rica, the crops are bananas and pineapples!  The banana plants (plants, not trees, we were told) are about 10-15 feet tall, with large leaves drooping from the tops of the plants.  Each plant has one bunch of bananas covered in a blue plastic bag.  As we were told by the Dole guy, the bunches are covered with plastic bags for three reasons: to provide a suitable microclimate for the bananas to ripen more quickly, to protect the bananas (at least to some degree) from insects and other pests, and to prevent the bananas from being bruised when it is windy and leaves may brush against the bunch.

Bananas-an insider's view

The smallest bananas are on the end of the bunch that is nearest to the ground (which is actually the “top” because the flowers flip over and droop because of the weight).  These are harvested earlier and sent to places (like the US) where people are willing to pay a premium for small bananas.  The rest of the bananas stay on the bunch on the plant until it’s time for harvest.

When the bananas are the proper size, they are ready to be harvested.  The workers protect the bananas from bruising by placing skinny foam pads between the banana “hands” (What are typically refered to as “bunches” when you buy them in the store are called “hands” in banana-lingo.  The individual bananas are called “fingers”.  A “bunch” (in the professional world of bananas) is the large bunch of bananas that comes from one plant, before it is divided into hands and fingers.).  One banana harvester then stands under the bunch with a large pad on his shoulder while another cuts the bunch from the plant.

Banana men

A bunch of bananas can weigh from 75-150 pounds.  To save the backs of the workers, the cables are situated so that no bunch ever needs to be carried farther than 50 meters.  When 25 bunches of bananas are hung the on cable that runs through the plantation, it is called a “banana train”.  When there are three trains, or 75 bunches of bananas, the bunches are pushed (the cable runs on a slightly downward slope) and they move to the processing plant.

Taking the bananas to make a train

When the bananas reach the plant,

Bananas arriving for processing

the foam pads are removed, the bags are stripped off, and the “hands” of bananas are cut off the bunches.  The bananas then take a bath, where any fungicides are removed (insects are not as much of a problem for bananas as are fungi, so they usually only spray with fungicides while the bananas are growing).

Bathing bananas

They are furthered divided into smaller hands and fingers and packaged.  They are shipped and then you can see them in your local grocer’s produce department!

History and random banana facts

Turns out, bananas are actually originally from Asia.  1876 was the beginning of commercial banana production in Costa Rica, and the first shipment of bananas went to Boston.  Dole is named after James Dole, the “King of the Banana business”.  Oh, and in Costa Rica, they aren’t bananas, but bananos.  Our US-version of the word has an “a” instead of an “o”.

The country that eats the most bananas per capita is Sweden, with an average of 42 pounds of bananas consumed per person each year.

The US consumes an average of less than 30 pounds of bananas per person each year.

If you’re interested in learning more about bananas, there is a nice video (with a British-accent narration) here: .

It seems that Dole plantation (or at least the touristy location where we were) has fairly good rules and regulations in place with respect to workers’ rights and care.  The few workers I spoke with had been working with Dole for several years and seemed happy with their jobs.  This is in contrast to the next few posts I’ll have…


December 16, 2009

Taking an intermission from health care to talk about food…because I really like food!  It’s been interesting learning about the various crops in Costa Rica, how they affect the economy, the environment, and the health of the workers.  This post will be the first in a mini-series.  I’ve chosen to write about one of my favorite (and likely one of your favorite!) foods….chocolate!

Before it makes it to Hershey’s or Mars or any brand that we recognize as representing the sinfulness of chocolate, chocolate starts out as a….fruit!  Here’s a picture of what most of us would never suspect as being the predecessor to such a delicious treat.

Cacao fruit

On the inside, beneath a thick rind, there is a a white fleshy portion that can be eaten, but that tastes nothing like chocolate.  Though it’s tasty, one person warned us that if we were thinking of eating a fruit or two’s worth of flesh that the effect would be diarrhea.  After having a decidedly small portion each, the seeds that had been hidden by the flesh were collected (they can be seen in the right part of the fruit, where we put them after eating the flesh that had been around them).

Innards of the cacao fruit

Once the seeds are dried (usually in the sun), they are ready to be toasted.  Though this can be done in the oven or a roaster, but the version that the Ngöbe showed us involved the use of a cast iron frying pan.

Before toasting

The seeds were toasted while being stirred for several minutes….until the seat coats turned a darker color and the smell of cacao made mouths water…

Toasted seeds

We were able to try them like this….100% caco.  Though the taste was similar to chocolate, without sugar it was a very dark chocolate taste.  After being toasted, the seed covers are shed off, and the seeds are ground into a powder.

Ground cacao

The indigenous drink their cacao straight-up, and don’t pansy around with milk and sugar.  However, when they were showing us, they said that typically the US tourists like to have sugar and milk in their cacao, so they had some available for us :).

Cacao-my source of caffeine 🙂

The powder is simply dissolved in hot water and enjoyed as a freshly-made cup of hot cocoa.  ¡Buen provecho!

Social medicine, not that bad! Part 1

November 17, 2009

Before I came to Costa Rica, I had the idea that socialized medicine was not effective.  I think that in the US, we have only heard the complaints of those who come from countries with socialized medicine, and without having heard the positive components of social systems, we are unable to believe that it works.  I hope that this post will provide you with part of “the other side” that we rarely hear.  (Note: this post is again in large part thanks to Jorge, our professor who was trained as a physician and scientist, but pretty much can answer any other questions we can think of 🙂 )

The system in Costa Rica is “Caja Costarricense del Seguo Social”, aka CCSS, or just “Caja”.

The health system of Costa Rica is based on 7 principles:

Universality: guarantees health protection of all inhabitants

Solidarity: each individual contributes to the system

Mandatory: contributions from individuals, employers, and the State

Unity: the population has the right to health care access

Equality: equal treatment of all citizens

Equity: equal opportunity for each citizen to receive care

Subsidized: earnings will be contributed, but the State will cover a deficit


These principles are exercised through three levels of care:


1st level: primary and preventative care, this is taken care of by what is known as an EBAIS (Equipo Básico de Atención Integral en Salud, more or less “Basic team of integrated health attention/care”).  The EBAIS is a team of people working together to take care of the health of all the individuals in an area.  A typical EBAIS serves 3.000-5.000 people in a community, and each EBAIS is made up of: a physician, nurse, medical records technician, and pharmacist technician.  Sometimes there’s also an ATAP (Técnico de Atención Primaria, loosely “Primary care/attention technician”), who is basically a health care worker who gets to ride on a motorcycle to do home visits with people who can’t make it to the health center or those who miss their appointments.

Though the team of people is the actual EBAIS, since the EBAIS usually works in a permanent building, we also refer to the building as the EBAIS.  When, fo whatever reason, a person can’t make it to the building, the EBAIS goes to the person via the ATAP.  The ATAP is also responsible for doing child vaccinations and such.

There is usually a building where an EBAIS works permanently; however, if an area does not have enough people to have its own building, there are temporary buildings, where the EBAIS may visit once a week or once every two weeks.

Most of the EBAISes are painted a characteristic blue, but we have seen several that are painted a sort of salmony colored pink.  This is because pink was the cheapest color paint at the time!


This EBAIS serves one of the indigenous population in Costa Rica



There are 893 EBAISes in Costa Rica.

2nd level: hospitals where appointments may be made with Pediatricians, Gynecologists, General Surgeons, and Internal Medicine physicians.  Patients who need more specialized care than is given at the EBAIS receive referrals to the hospitals and clinics.

There are 29 hospitals in Costa Rica.

3rd level: specialized hospitals for specific needs…psychiatry, children, geriatric, women, and rehab.

There are 9 3rd level hospitals in Costa Rica.


That’s the basic structure.  Next post will describe more about how it’s funded and how it functions.  Until then, pura vida.

History of Costa Rica: Part 2

November 13, 2009

Costa Rica started to get started as its own country.  In March of 1856, the Costa Ricans  defended their country from invasion by William Walker in the Battle of Santa Rosa, which occurred in Guanacaste.  The story of William Walker is interesting, so I’m going to have a tangent here (supplied in part with information from Wikipedia, not that I endorse its use for anything more scientific!)….

William Walker was born in 1824 in Tennessee, he graduated early, spent a few years in Europe studying medicine, observed the 1848 revolutions in Europe, returned to finish a medical degree at University of Pennsylvania, practiced in Philly, moved to New Orleans, became a lawyer, edited a newspaper, moved to California….sounds rather normal so far, right?

Well, he apparently had done as much as a normal person would ever want to do, so he then moved on to deciding to make a hobby out of privately conquering Latin America.

He started by taking over a small part of Mexico and declaring himself president of the region.  He was forced out by the Mexican government, sent back to the US, tried for starting a war that violated US principles, acquitted, and moved on to planning some more.  At the time, there was a war in Nicaragua, and he saw an opportunity.  He recruited over one thousand men and started on the way to controlling (he was in southern Nicaragua, where most of the population is, and which happens to be near the Costa Rican border).  Costa Rica declared war on William Walker, Walker sent a small army to invade Costa Rica, but the invaders were defeated in the Battle of Santa Rosa in March.

La Casona, Santa Rosa

La Casona, Santa Rosa

In April, Costa Rica sent forces into Nicaragua and defeated some of Walker’s troops in the Second Battle of Rivas, Juan Santamaría played a key role (remember this name).  Walker at this point had declared himself the president of Nicaragua.  His policies were put in place to encourage people to immigrate to Nicaragua, particularly spun towards Southerners who were interested in spreading slavery.

Eventually, his time was up.  His policies were weakening, people were revolting, and in May of 1857, he surrendered to the US Navy.  When he arrived in New York, he was  considered a hero, but then blamed the Navy for his “failure”, and lost popular opinion.  He tried to go on another spree, but was retrained by the Navy.  Eventually he returned to Central America, but was taken into custody by the British Navy because they considered him a threat to their own intentions.  The British Navy gave him to the Hondurans, who decided he should be shot by a firing squad (seems this was the preferred method at the time, remember Pablo from “History of Costa Rica, Part 1”?).  Walker was 36 years old when he was killed on 12 September 1860.

Back to Costa Rica….

Juan Santamaría (the name you were supposed to remember from the Walker tangent) was a young man who joined the forces against William Walker.  He was a drummer but gained his fame by setting fire to the camp of Walker’s men.  Juan did not survive the incident, but did became a national hero.  There is a statue dedicated to him in Alejuela, his birthplace.  However, the interesting thing about the statue is that Juan’s likeness is in Haiti, while another similar statue (that was commissioned at the same time) is actually in Alejuela.  At some point, the two were confused, and Costa Rica wound up with a statue wearing a non-Costa Rican outfit, which no one noticed initially.  Apparently, even after some one did notice, it was not a big enough deal for them to switch it!

Monument to the Heroes, Santa Rosa

Monument to the Heroes, Santa Rosa

I’ve about had my fill of writing about history (I mean, after William Walker’s escapades, anything is bound to be boring in comparison!), so here we go in super-fast-forward….

So, after William Walker and Juan Santamaría, there were some governmental changes, including a new constitution in 1871.   Education was made mandatory, water and electricity access were improved, and reforms were common.  After the depression the most influential players were the government, the Communist party, and the Church (Catholic).

Rafal Guadia was the president from 1940-1944 and started lots of good things: UCR (Universidad de Costa Rica, the national university), Caja Costarricense del Seguro Social (Caja, the social health system), and labor laws.

After a 5 week Civil War in 1948, the Communist Party was ultimately banned, the army was abolished, and a new Constitution was constructed based on the one from 1871.

A variety of men were presidents, including Oscar Arias (who won a Noble Peace Prize), who was a president in the 80s, and is the current president (you can read more about him here:

That more or less brings us to today, with not so much emphasis on the last century (sorry!).  More about Costa Rica in the next post….

History of Costa Rica: Part 1

November 12, 2009

I started to write a post on the health system here, but realized that without a history of the country, things would not be in context.  So, even though I’m more of a biologist than a historian, here it goes (many thanks to our professor, who though a physician by training, seems to be an expert in everything, including history;  I’ve used the outline and basic information he gave us to construct this post!):

A short history of Costa Rica…

Like North America, people reached Central America by way of the Bering Strait at some point between 12.000 and 8.000 BC.  Since Costa Rica is part of an isthmus, it has been affected by both North American (the Mayans) and South American (the Amazonians) influences.  Organization of small local governments occurred between 12.000 and 1.500 BC.

Then, in 1502, Christopher Columbus bumped into Costa Rica on his 4th trip to the New World.  At this point, there were over 400.000 indigenous people living in Costa Rica.  Between 1502 and 1570, the conquistadors and their associated disease had killed thousands of indigenous people.

Spain ruled through the “Audiencia de Santiago de Guatemala”, which extended from southern Mexico to Panama.  Then the Kingdom of Guatemala evolved, then Costa Rica was more or less in two parts: Costa Rica and Nicoya (the northwestern peninsula and surrounding area).

Though Costa Rica is know well-known for bananas and coffee, these crops are not actually native to Costa Rica.  The first crops included corn and beans.

As in other colonies, certain populations were exploited for slavery.  In Costa Rica, the exploited populations were the indigenous communities where the conquistadors had already killed many of the people.  Only 7.000 indigenous (of the original over 400.000 pre-Columbus population) survived by the year 1611.  Pablo Presbere helped the indigenous to lead a revolt against the Spainards, but was sentenced to a grisly execution in 1710:

“Given the testimony and the other evidence…I do hereby condemn…Pablo Presbere…to be…placed on a pack mule and led through the streets of this city while a crier declares and describes his crimes.  Outside the walls of this city, he shall be tied to a post and have his eyes gouged out, ad modum beli [in military mode] and then shot by crossbow, since we are without an executioner who knows how to apply the garrot.  Upon his death, he shall have his head cut off and placed high upon the post so that all might see it.”   Don Lorenzo Antonio de Granda y Balbín, 23 June 1970

Sounds nice, doesn’t it?  And this was in place of “the garrot”, which was the execution practice of sitting one on a chair and applying a tourniquet to the neck and continually tightening it…

Back to history: the colony continued to grow throughout the 1700s and 1800s.  Coffee plants were introduced in the late 1700s or early 1800s and quickly became a major crop.

In 1821, some Mexicans decided that the did not appreciate being ruled by the Spainards, so they started the Mexican War of Independence.  The result was that Central America declared independence on 15 September, 1821.  In Costa Rica, they like to say that “independence arrived by horse” because Costa Ricans didn’t get the official news until 13 October 1821 when a horseman brought the documents.

Costa Rica was still in two parts-the main part and Nicoya.  Nicoyans signed a petition to be annexed to Costa Rica, and on 25 July 1824, Guatamala ratified the Act to allow Costa Rica to look as we know it today…..

Now that I have Costa Rica looking the way that it does today,  I’ll leave you waiting for the rest of the history until the next post!