Murals 40 and 41 with Earth University, Costa Rica

I just never know what the day will bring when I sit down to check my email.  It’s not unusual to hear from teachers located in all corners of the globe.  It is a little more unusual to get a mural invitation.  But, as I painted away on my last mural in Honduras, I got an offer I couldn’t refuse from Costa Rica.  The powers that be at Earth University wanted me to paint some murals with their students.

Like me, you might not have ever heard of Earth University, but I’d visited it a few years ago.  My friend Marvin teaches there.  To get there, you leave the cool comfort of San Jose up in the mountains and cross through a cloud rainforest.  That is every bit as exotic as it sounds.  It’s drizzly and cloudy a lot of the time.  Ferns and other lush rainforest plants flourish as far as the eye can see.  And, if you’re lucky, you’ll spy spider monkeys overhead or iridescent blue Morpho butterflies among the flowers.

However, once you cross through the cloud forest, you go downhill.  Downhill means you leave the mountains. Downhill means you leave the cool comfort of life up in those mountains.  Downhill means you get closer to the Caribbean coast.  Yes, that also sounds exotic, but in reality, it’s hotter than … well … Michigan.  It’s a lot hotter than Michigan!  Yep, Earth University may look like it is located in the Garden of Eden with manicured lawns, tropical flowers, palm trees, and surrounded by the rainforest, but it is still hotter than . . . Michigan!

On my last visit to Costa Rica, Marvin brought me to campus and showed me around (by truck and by bike).  He took me to a few schools for possible murals.  One principal wanted to start a mural that day!  I met a few people at the university that I was supposed to meet.  And, then I waited for them to get their act together for an invitation.  I waited so long.  Years!  To be honest, I gave up waiting on them and gave up on any hope for another mural in Costa Rica.

But, life has surprises.  New people arrive on the scene.  At one meeting, the discussion turned to finding some community activities for students during the vacation. Fortunately, Marvin attended that meeting.  When Melissa learned about me, I had an invitation.

I’m not exactly sure what the plan was for my first week at Earth University.  I thought it was painting the first of two murals.  Then, I got a message from my host Melissa saying that we’d take it easy and buy paint.  That only takes a half hour.  I know that for a fact.  Melissa and I went to a café after we placed our paint order.  That’s when I learned that when you get “coffee” in Costa Rica, you get more than caffeine.  You get something sweet or salty.  Melissa nibbled at some kind of pie while I devoured a warm pastry filled with beans and melted cheese.  Total time in the bakery: one half hour.

I am not one to twiddle my fingers for an entire week after “coffee”.  So, I politely asked Melissa if it might be possible to add a second mural.  No pressure.  No problem if we couldn’t.  But, if I had my choice, I’d paint two murals on this trip.

I got my wish.

Prior to my arrival, both schools were contacted about themes and both wanted the same idea.  That made the designing a little easier, but it still took me a full day to create my mural on paper.  The theme was conservation of natural resources in Costa Rica.  I started off with a big “C R” in the middle of the design.  It, of course, stood for the name of the country in the colors of the national flag, but it also stood for “conservation of resources”, which fortunately also worked when translated into Spanish.  On the left side were mostly ways to conserve water like turning off the faucet when brushing teeth and shorter showers as well as keeping the rivers clean for fish.  On the right side of the design were rainforest animals like the tapir, frog, and toucan along with the actual forest.

The two selected schools were in communities that had other projects with Earth University students.  La Lucha Elementary was an hour away from campus.  However, if I flew by crow, it was only a few miles on the other side of the river.  The journey began on paved roads but it didn’t stay that way.  Although I had traveled on worse roads, it was bumpy enough to get protest pangs from a bladder that had other things on its mind.  I asked “la directora” about a bathroom as soon as I arrived at the school.  She wasn’t sure if it was cleaned up.  I assured her that “clean” was not an important issue at that moment!

During the mural process, I had several different drivers take me to La Lucha.  One driver, Arsenio, was a very nice man, but he burst a little bubble that had started to grow just a little.  You see, so many people in Latin America told me that my Spanish was good.  I always called them liars.  I knew the truth.  My Spanish is terrible.  I can communicate, but I make so many mistakes.  Still, after repeated and repeated politeness, I started to believe that maybe, possibly, I wasn’t so absolutely pathetic with my Spanish.  Well, this Arsenio was no comedian.   He was an “unofficial” tutor as well as a driver, and he told me every mistake that I made with his language.   He wasn’t rude. He had the best of intentions.  But, each and every error was pointed out – and there were so many.  My little bubble was completely, irreversibly, and undeniably burst.  I stopped talking to him.

Some places know how to treat a guest right.  La Lucha had their act together. Although we painted in the shade, it was still hot as blazes.  I was a moist and sticky mess in a matter of minutes.  That condition never really improved as the day and the heat progressed.  But, the people at La Lucha took such good care of us.  There were iced drinks whenever we wanted them.  Lunch was always homemade.  That was at 11:00 and then there was “coffee” at 1:30 which included empanadas stuffed with chicken. Who needed supper?

Well, really, it didn’t stop me from eating again a few hours later.

Perhaps my biggest surprise were my painters.  I try to let anyone paint who wants to grab a brush.  However, little kids need one-on-one supervision and there were only three adults most of the time.  I was the “supervisor”.  Honestly, most children do more damage than good when painting.  I don’t care.  I want them to have the experience. However, that is the reality of the situation.  But, I had a few ten year old painters with amazing care, precision, and patience.  And, they were boys!  That really never happens.  So, my mural made excellent progress even with little hands helping.

Just a little further down the road, only about five more minutes of insane bumping on a gravel road, was Santa Rosa Elementary where another mural went up during week two.  The experience painting there was entirely different.  Students from Earth University participated, and although there was a lot of Spanish, there was also a lot more English than the previous week.  And, although my ten-year-olds painted well in La Lucha, there is nothing like having painters twice their age.

I never adjust to heat anywhere and Costa Rica had plenty of heat that needed adjusting to.  I thought it was hot in La Lucha painting on an outdoor terrace with an occasional breeze and a fan that did minimal good.  Well, the second mural was inside the cafeteria and the temperature jumped several degrees upon entering the room.  It didn’t take long for my shirt to get soaked and things only got worse.  Every layer of clothing was wet.  Even my belt was wet!  At one point, I felt sweat dripping into my ears.  I’d never had that experience before.  I

School was in session at Santa Rosa and I made myself welcome in the English class since their teacher participated in painting the mural.  One little boy happened to be named Felipe.  The poor kid was shy and he didn’t stand a chance.  I called out, “My Felipe” every time I saw him.  When he came into the cafeteria for his meal, I begged shamelessly for his food.  (I never got a bite.)  And, when the entire class said their prayer aloud before the meal, I ended it with a hearty “Thank you, God, for my Felipe”. He didn’t say anything, but as he grabbed his head, I knew he was thinking, “O, Dios, mio!” or “How long must I endure this gringo?”  But, one good thing can be said for certain.  Nobody knew the name of any of the students who came from Earth University. H O W E V E R, everyone knew my name.  Gracias, Felipe.