Sunday, March 22, 2009

Museo Nacional and My Frugality Leads To a Memorable Afternoon

I started my day at the Museo Nacional at Avenue Centrale & 2 and Calle 17. The bright ochre-colored fortress sits on an embankment facing downtown San Jose and used to house local military personnel. Costa Rica disbanded its army in 1948 after a rebel army led by Jose Figueres Ferrer successfully defeated government forces during the 1948 Costa Rican civil war. After his victory, Ferrer ruled Costa Rica for a year and a half, abolishing the military and overseeing the election of the Assembly that produced the Costa Rican Constitution of 1949.

One end of the museum courtyard offers a panorama of downtown San Jose and the surrounding hills. Aside from two rusting artillery pieces serving silent witnesses to a more violent past, the rest of the courtyard is a shady garden of indigenous trees and bushes, interspersed by a sugar gin and large rock spheres carved by Costa Rica's ancient inhabitants. Lining the courtyard is a covered, tiled walkway leading past several galleries, one displaying a reconstructed bedroom and living area from the country's colonial period, one displaying native gold artifacts, and one long gallery with exhibits tracing Costa Rica's political and social history from pre-Columbian days, to the present day. On the lowest level of the museum I found the butterfly garden, a lush enclosed area housing flowering trees, bushes and butterflies. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 8:30AM to 4:30PM and on Sundays from 9:00AM to 4:30PM. It is closed on Mondays. Admission is $7 for foreigners.

From the Museo Nacional I walked west along Avenida Central to Calle 5 where I found the Museo de Oro, the Museum of Gold, at the bottom of some stairs. My guidebook said admission was $7, but the sign at the museum said $9. Taking time to think over this opulent expenditure, I overheard three women speaking in English about the museum. A mother and daughter were asking an American woman if the museum was worth $9. I sat down as the American woman described what was inside. I decided to keep my $9. The mother and daughter kept their money too.

The mother and daughter were from Eugene, Oregon. The daughter, a massage therapist and freelance editor, had traveled all through Thailand, Cambodia, and Malaysia and told us about the friendly people she met, the fine food she ate, and the wonderful experiences she had while traveling through that part of Asia. She happily recommended those countries for my next trip. The American woman was originally from Wisconsin but had been living in Honduras working on public health projects for two years with the Peace Corps and was staying one more year to work for USAID. She arrived in San Jose today for a seven day Costa Rican vacation and was in town alone until her friends arrived tonight. She also said she spent time in the Phillippines during her masters program and so I told her my heritage and how I have family there. We all chatted for maybe twenty minutes, then the mother and daughter bid us goodbye.

I introduced myself to the American woman, who introduced herself as Laura. She told me she hadn't seen all of the city so I asked if she would like to see some of it with me. She agreed and we were off. I retraced Friday's walk past Parque Morazan and Parque de Espana and then north along Calle 11 and around the back of Parque Simon Bolivar. Curious, we moved deeper into the area east and south of the Parque. As we followed quiet twisting side streets past large villas behind stone walls, we both agreed that the best part of vacation isn't going on tours, or visiting museums, but getting out and exploring the cities and towns on foot. We walked on and she told me about her work in Honduras, visiting remote jungle villages, and how much she enjoyed her two years in a small town near the Honduran-Salvadorian border. I talked a bit about my old work, how I just wanted to travel for a while, and the general uncertainty I have about what I should do with myself. Laura of course, wholeheartedly suggested two years in the Peace Corps.

We walked on towards Parque Nacional and the Museo de Arte y Diseno Contemporaneo, which I had visited the day before. Some Americans had climbed on the statue at the Parque Nacional and we had a good laugh at how rowdy they were acting. We headed back toward the Museo de Oro and then on to the Mercado Central, which I suggested for dinner. We cut our way through crowds on the Avenida Centrale and she talked about Honduras, its cities, and its fine people. The mercado was closed but we still enjoyed the walk, our conversation, and the company. She needed to get on a bus back to the airport to meet her friends so we walked to a soda a few blocks east of the bus station for dinner. Soda el Parque was quiet, with ample seating and good food. Over dinner we laughed about our respective college and masters program experiences, and our respective itineraries in the country. She suggested I visit Nicaragua. I told her I had been thinking about it. The afternoon light was fading quickly and Laura wanted to get on a bus before dark. We paid and I walked her to the bus stop. A warm hug and smile and she was gone. A nice stranger in a strange city.

I don't remember everything she and I talked about that afternoon, but I know we talked a lot, and laughed a lot and that I had a fine afternoon. And I suppose that is what is most worth remembering.

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