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Lisa Prejean: Students exposed to life in Costa Rica

May 14, 2010|By LISA PREJEAN

Have you ever been in a home with a dirt floor?

Not one that's so dirty you can't see the tile, but one that just doesn't have a floor, period. The earth is a floor for many people who live in warm climates. For Americans, it's hard to imagine walking in from the outside and the outside still being in. Even in our poorest areas, homes have floors.

Until my trip to Costa Rica last week, I had not seen such a low level of poverty. We went into one neighborhood to deliver groceries and diapers to the poor families who were living there. They were immigrants from Nicaragua who had come to Costa Rica for a better life.

Most of their homes were made of tin and clapboard held together with whatever materials they could find. These homes were about the size of the average American bathroom, and they were built one beside another as far as the eye could see.

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In this village, several families shared one bathroom, which was located in a common area. Most of the families had four or five pieces of furniture. Electrical lines dangled from the ceiling and down the walls.

As we followed a local pastor single-file into the village, our group of American students were quiet. The people were very grateful for the food and diapers we brought. One lady hugged every student to express her gratitude. It was humbling to be around people who were so thankful for their meager possessions.

We reminded ourselves often of that as we did without the conveniences of home.

In Costa Rica, it is safe to drink water from the tap. However, the plumbing is not as advanced as in the United States. No toilet paper can be flushed. It must go in the trash can. (It's not unusual to be in the bathroom and hear an "Oh, no!" along with a flush. This was a difficult thing for Americans to remember.)

The money conversion rate took a little bit of thought. The colon is the currency used in Costa Rica. Each American dollar is worth about 500 colones. So, if something is priced at 2,000 colones, it is $2.

The conversion is not too difficult to figure out in increments of 500 or 1,000, but it gets a little more challenging when the numbers aren't rounded.

Electricity comes from natural sources: 75 percent of the electricity is hydro-powered. The other 25 percent is wind-generated or geothermal.

Costa Rica has no military. The violent crime rate is low, but theft and other petty crime is high. As a result, most homes and businesses in the capital city of San Jose are surrounded by bars that extend from the sidewalk to the roof.

The people seem very thin, probably because they do a lot of walking and they eat a lot of rice and beans.

Popular crops include coffee, pineapple and bananas.

When a young person turns 15, he or she has a special birthday party, similar to our "sweet 16" parties.

Spanish is the native language, but many Costa Ricans speak some English. I've never had Spanish, but I have had a few years of French, so I kept wanting to respond to their questions in French. That was a strange feeling.

It also felt strange that just a few miles from intense poverty was extreme extravagance.

We had the privilege of experiencing some of that extravagance, and I'll share those experiences in next week's column.

Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail's Family page. Send e-mail to her at lisap@herald-mail.com .

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