On a late Sunday afternoon the Texas A&M Biomedical group arrived at the CPI Heredia campus for oral testing and orientation to homestays.
Games were a part of our time on campus and a bit later the families started making their appearance. It was fun to see the interactions and before we knew it all the students were settled in to their new homes.
The first week in Heredia was full of classes and learning. The mornings were spent in Spanish classes and the afternoons in the field visiting different sites that spoke to the students’ majors.
The first full day we went to visit a veterinary clinic; the biggest one in the Central Valley. Doctor Andrés was very knowledgeable and toured us around the clinic, showing us the many rooms that made up the clinic.
From the reception to the physical therapy room, from the lab to the grassy back yard, it is a professional and successful clinic. We got to see some patients in different stages of care, and it was very clear this clinic gives its all to make sure the patients have the best treatment.
In the afternoon it rained cats and dogs and to take advantage of the weather homework was done and everyone spent time with their home stay families.
Tuesday dawned bright and early and again Spanish classes were in order for the morning. In the afternoon a visit to a private hospital was scheduled.
Our visit to the private hospital CIMA was a success. The hospital in one the most prestigious in its class in Costa Rica. Spacious hallways and rooms, state of the art equipment, friendly staff, and an overall sense of knowledge and competency left no doubt in our minds as to the quality of the services offered at CIMA.
A dynamic and interactive white board in each room drew our attention. This gives the opportunity for patients, family or friends, and hospital staff the chance to write down questions, comments, important information (be it medical or personal), positive thoughts, things to remember, etc
The following day was full of cultural and interesting activities. We had our latin cooking class where we had to prepare our lunch.
Our menu was picadillo de papa con carne, arroz, frijoles, ensalada, y tortillas. Picadillo is a tradicional Costa Rican dish and it can be made of finely cut up vegetables: potato, chayote (type of squash), arracache (Arracacia xanthorrhiza for those exacting science types. This is starchy root tasting a bit like a cross between a carrot and celery), ayote (squash), zanahoria y vainica (carrot and green beans), and many more. Ours we made with potato, onion, bell peppers, ground beef, celery, garlic, and cilantro. Or culantro, as it’s called in Costa Rica.
Our lunch was delicious and then it was off for the walk about San Joaquín. The afternoon was threatening rain quite seriously but we decided to brave the weather, armed with our umbrellas and rain jackets. Since most of the group knew where we and other important landmarks were, our tour was spent talking and pointing out other interesting cultural things. A couple of girls tried out the Costa Rican snow cones: Copos or Granizados
Costa Rica, along with the other Central American countries, became independent from Spain in September of 1821 and for everyone to know this great news a group of people was sent from country to country, beginning in Guatemala, to make this announcement. History tells us that the very first time a man from Guatemala ran through the streets carrying a lantern symbolizing hope for the future for all citizens. Present day torch runners from each country run the length of Central America (approximately 350 kilometers) with a lit torch and kids from all ages meet the torch at key locations throughout the countries to receive this fire and take it to their home towns and schools.
A couple of groups of school kids waiting for the torch
Every year on the 14th of September this event occurs and TAMU was privileged to be part of this celebration this year. We saw as the main torch passed by the main street in San Joaquín and its fire was shared to the other school kids waiting impatiently and with patriotic pride to carry the “good news” back to their home towns. Everyone cheered loudly as the main torch kept going; on to the original capital of Costa Rica: Cartago.
As if the heavens knew and were waiting for the torch to run through San Joaquín, it all of a sudden started to rain, one of the hardest downpours so far in TAMU’s Heredia stay. All of us got soaked!
The weather didn’t deter our trip that evening to the nearby town of San Lorenzo. The festivities continued that evening as the torch was received, the National Anthem was sung, and other speeches given. There was no rain that night at all. The only evidence of the inclement weather of the afternoon was the muddy soccer field.
The popular place to be was the soccer field of San Lorenzo as the town council had made arrangements for marimbas to be set up in each of the field corners, a stage was set up (later we would see why!), and the traditional Desfile de Faroles, or The Lantern Parade, started from this point.
The Desfile de Faroles represents the Guatemalan delegates of yesteryear lighting lanterns to symbolize the receiving of the independence torch. To this day every town and city in Costa Rica holds this tradition dear. It has become, in some places, a competition of sort with the locals making the most beautiful “farol”. Both young and old make these hand crafted works of art.
A couple of our girls bought faroles and proudly showed them off. Little Mandy Lu also joined the festivities with her own farol!
After we had walk a few blocks around San Lorenzo with our faroles it was time to switch modes. Marimbas were playing and people were milling about and eating the food that was for sale. It was then we found out why the stage had been put up. A national TV comedian, doña Merry Christmas, was invited to perform for the town. She, or more correctly “he”, embodies a typical Costa Rican homemaker, from humble origins, hard working mother, cleaner extraordinaire, loves to cook, and must look nice: at all times!
She/he got the show going and asked for volunteers. Before we knew it one of our own, David, was up on stage participating! 😀 David won by a long shot!
The night ended with an absolutely spectacular show of fireworks. They were set up in the middle of the soccer field and once the authorities made sure everyone was out of harm’s way the amazing show got underway. It was loud and colorful. It seemed to go on forever. Just when we thought the show was over more fireworks would paint a magnificent design in the night sky.
Independence Day dawned hot and the sky was bright blue; the fluffy clouds giving no hint of rain from the day before. The civic act and speeches started very early, and the parades started after that. Sun block and water were key to have handy this day.
The streets were filled with people enjoying this meaningful patriotic day. The parades started off with the smallest kids and their schools. The high school kids followed. The well rehearsed moves showed off the dresses, flags, and the privilege to be in the parade was clear in everyone’s stance and face. There was even a band made up of alumni from a well known nearby high school. There were students in the parade dressed in beautiful typical dresses, dancing to the tune that the band behind them played.
Little Mandy Lu was dressed beautifully for the occasion!
Lots of people took their dogs. There were lots of sizes and colors and they didn’t seem to mind the loud drums, music, and crowd.
People were obviously proud to be Costa Rican this day, showing off the red, white, and blue colors of the flag. TAMU Biomedical was privileged to have been part of this celebration! ¡Viva Costa Rica!
Our next event was a talk on the pharmaceutical guild in Costa Rica. Dr. Marvin Gómez is an expert in his field. The talk was enlightening and professional.
Dance class followed Dr. Gómez’s talk. Geraldine took over and it was a great way to finish the day. She was animated and lots of fun. She showed us three rhythms: merengue, salsa, and swing criollo. This last originates in the 1950’s combining Colombian cumbia and US swing. It was started by the working class in the Costa Rican Central Valley and has its own moves; it’s not comparable to any other style of dancing.
Geraldine and her partner made sure everyone was out on the dance floor and having fun. She even gave us a small presentation for swing criollo. A fun afternoon, to be sure!
Saturday morning we went white water rafting. Some of us had done it before and others hadn’t. That didn’t slow anyone down, however! It was an adrenaline filled day; it had rained the night before and the river was medium high and super fun! The guides got a kick out of teasing the group and splashing us repeatedly with water. Most everyone slept on the bus for the two hours back to the Central Valley.
The second week TAMU Biomedical was in Heredia was again full of Spanish classes, site visits, and time spent with host families. The CPI teachers expressed their satisfaction as to how well the group was advancing in their Spanish. Yay!
One of our guest speakers was on medicinal plants in Costa Rica. What they are, where they grow, their historical uses, present day uses, etc. The talk was given by Dr. Rafael Ocampo, renown author, researcher, agronomist, and as he puts it, a bit crazy! He brought in examples of different medicinal plants and books to share.
Another great visit was to the Medical School of the Universidad de Costa Rica. The dean of the school received us and gave us a lecture, then toured us around the school.
It was interesting to learn the way medical professionals are formed and their careers afterwards. We also learned how the students are chosen, how the admissions tests work in Costa Rica, how foreign doctors can come to Costa Rica and practice medicine in country, and other practical and logistical aspects. We saw how medicine is intertwined with everyday life and how our daily decisions when we are young affect our future, medically speaking.
One day in the second week a trip to the local Heredia market was planned. To make the experience more interesting we took the public bus. Public transportation in Costa Rica is overall safe and reliable. We waited a few minutes at the bus stop and then piled in the crowded bus. Some of us got seats and some had to stand. The ride was around 20 minutes, spent taking in the scenery and taking pics.
A market is the predecessor of the modern mall. Most Costa Rican cities have a market and it’s a great cultural experience. One can find all kind of things one needs, and doesn’t imagine needing ever! The sights are colorful, the cacophony of sounds fills ones ears, some of the smells are unidentifiable, but all around an entertaining experience. The hustle and bustle of a market has a life of its own.
Lunch was eaten in the market, not all of us in one place since each food stand is small and can’t host a big group. Things tried and tasted were tamales, corn tortillas with cheese, plantains, chicharrones (pork rinds), local drink made with lots fruits, and many more.
The group was split into smaller groups and the assignment was to interact with the locals, ask about different fruits, products on sale, and purchase a few examples of local and unusual fruits. Later, all the information was to be put together in a PowerPoint to analyze and study.
After the market activity we walked to the famous Fortín. This is a tower built in 1876 to defend the city and now is a landmark in Heredia. It measures 13 meters high with a steep spiral staircase going up the inside. We were lucky to have had permission to go to the top since a lot of the time this monument is closed to the public. Only five people at a time are allowed to go the top and then for a short time. The view from the top of the edifice gave us a real sense of the Central Valley: its surrounding mountains and the ever growing city.
We also got a chance to walk through the main church, La Iglesia de la Inmaculada Concepción. Built originally out of wood in 1704, it was torn down and the now impressive church started construction in 1797 and finished in 1804. The quiet and peaceful interior gives one a sense of awe. Of note are the stained glass windows brought over from France. Although it started as a small humble parish it is now the best known church in the town of Heredia.
Our afternoon finished off with a trip to get ice cream. Yummy! Then back on the public bus to our homestays.
The following day was our visit to one of the biggest and most important public hospitals in the Central Valley: Hospital México. Designed by specialists from the Mexican Institute of Social Security, it was inaugurated in 1969. The Mexican institute played a big role in its design, blueprints, and technical advice and therefore the name: Hospital México. This hospital is a modern and renowned facility where many complex and delicate cases and transplants are seen and operated.
Fabián Soto was our guide and we began in the pharmacy section where we learned there are five different pharmacies in the hospital. The one we visited is the central one. This day it was being manned by 15 pharmacists and many pharmacy technicians. Almost 100 people work to fill prescriptions. Wow. We saw how the prescriptions were received and processed. We were impressed as to how complicated and detailed the process is.
After the pharmacy we saw different sections of the hospital: outpatient care, oncology, urology, radiology and imaging, cardiology, etc. etc. The hospital was bustling with people in all stages of care.
We then proceeded to the emergency room. This was seemed pretty calm and fortunately no emergency came while we were there. We got to meet and get toured around by one of the head doctors of the ER. He talked about the “shock room” or trauma room, surgery, the triage system, and their organ donor program.
When we were finished in the ER we had a small section of Q&A with Fabián to finalize our afternoon visit.
Our second cooking class was spent making the very typical arroz con pollo. Doña Eugenia, our cooking class teacher, explained all the ingredients: cebolla, ajos, apio, zanahoria, vainicas, etc. Music was put on and those carrots and green beans were chopped and cooking in a heartbeat. Another yummy meal!
Following our cooking class was another special guest speaker: Gail Nystrom from the Humanitarian Foundation. She has worked in Costa Rica for over 20 years with the marginal and immigrant people from, not only Costa Rica, but also from different Central American countries. Her selfless work has been outstanding and generous. Her talk was inspiring and gave us lots to reflect upon.
The following day was Saturday and our group was scheduled for a San José city tour. Our knowledgeable guide, Juan Carlos, talked a lot and showed us interesting historical or cultural landmarks and gave us some history to go along with the showing. It was a fun day and we were back to our homestays by late afternoon. Our day finished with a torrential downpour and we were happy to be inside!
Sunday dawned bright and early and it was time for TAMU Biomedical to say good bye to the families in Heredia and move on the new adventures. It had been a great two weeks in San Joaquín and everyone’s Spanish had much improved. Although goodbyes are hard the next expedition was calling: Manuel Antonio National Park and some beach time.
TAMU Biomedical was only saying “hasta luego” since in a few short weeks we would receive them again, this time in Flamingo.