Sunday, February 17, 2013

Costa Rica

Just returned from my Global Studies trip to Costa Rica. What a wonderful experience.  In addition to visiting some of the leading companies in Costa Rica, I had an opportunity to meet some really great people along the way.  We spent most of our time within the city of San Jose, but we did take the opportunity to visit some small businesses in Sarchi and Naranjo de Alajuela which provided needed respite from a busy week in the city.  Below is a brief journal that captures some of the highlights of the trip.

Day 1: Arrival
Upon arrival in San Jose, I was impressed by the airport.  It was very clean and modern and navigation was a breeze.  I had the opportunity to meet the class and instructor on the bus ride from the Airport to the Hotel Balmoral which is located in downtown San Jose.  It was interesting to meet the people I have been working with online for a few weeks. I had about an hour to kill and I was famished, so I stopped into the restaurant attached to the hotel and learned first hand that things move at a much slower pace in Costa Rica.  By the time I ordered, ate, paid and left I was a full twenty minutes late to the reception.  Fortunately for me there was still time for me to join in a name memorization game.  After the reception, I took a quick stroll down the pedestrian mall but shortly returned to hit the sack after a long day of travel.

Day 2: Explore
I was excited to take the bus tour in order to see a wider swath of the city. The bus tour was a bit rushed but we had a great guide in Carlos, a local architect who pointed out some of the city's memorable locals.  The walking tour later in the afternoon was just as fast paced, but provided a much closer look at the local culture.  Some of the highlights of the tours were, the university, central market, National Theater and the Gold museum.

Our tour with Carlos ended at the Natural History museum, where Kay, our tour guide from Global Travels, arranged to have the Museum on Monday, a day which they are typically closed.  My classmate Brenda Darrow-Fuhs took this beautiful picture of an ancient monolith displayed in the museum.

After my rather extensive tours of San Jose, I had mixed feelings.  I thought the streets were dirty and filled with graffiti.  I was also somewhat surprised by the vast use of bars, grates, barbed wire and razor wire which seemed to drape along every business and house.  My initial thoughts were that this must be the price to be paid for abolishing the army as Costa Rica did in 1948. Yet, I heard from several people that the razor wire has become some what of a status symbol, meaning you have more stuff to protect.  Either way, it would take some getting used to.

Day 3: Culture and Business:
On Tuesday we had the pleasure of hosting a group of local business people discuss the business environment in Costa Rica and the prospects and challenges that face this dynamic culture.  Among the speakers we heard from a local real estate investor, the general manager of our hotel, owners of a very small family owned business.  

We also had the pleasure of a brief lecture by Dr. Sherman Thomas.  Dr. Thomas is a very well known and respected educator in Costa Rica for over thirty years.  He was also founder of the Renovation Party and he ran for President of Costa Rica in 1998. For me, this lecture was one of the highlights of the trip.  I was absolutely drawn into Dr. Thomas' discussion about the importance of family to society and how many of the ills we faced can be traced back to the family. 

Trade and Global Business Visit:  Groupo Saret - We were originally scheduled to meet with CEO Miguel Rodriguez, but unfortunately he was pulled away at the last minute.  Fortunately the head of business development was able to fill in and she gave an excellent overview of the company and its growth in Costa Rica.  Group Saret is one of the most influential companies in Costa Rica and very similar to CH2MHill or MWH Global; they do many civil engineering and construction projects with a focus on building hydroelectric plants.  The current CEO Miguel Rodriguez is one of four brothers that own and operate the company.  There story is one of rags to riches and is very inspiring.  Miguel was also one of the driving forces behind the free-trade zone which has become somewhat of a hot issue in Costa Rica. We also got to tour their Steel workshop, which really highlighted the scale and complexity of their projects.  Their plant was large, modern, with cutting edge technology and capable operators.

Day 4: Trade and Global Business
Day four was aa whirlwind with stops to Bridgestone, Intel, the American Embassy. 

Bridgestone - Visiting Bridgestone was very interesting and provided a nice illustration as to why I work in IT Consulting and not a Tire factory.  The plant was very hot and the smell of burning rubber filled the air. Although the process of making tires is very dirty, the manufacturing facility seemed very organized and the workers seemed happy to be there.  Bridgestone is actually one of the oldest multi-national companies located in Costa Rica and they have had a presence there since 1967.  When they began they employed 200 workers and manufactured 425 tires per day.  Today the company employees more than 1,000 employees and produces more than 12,000 tires per day.  What I found most impressive about Bridgestone, was how aligned they seemed to be with the local community.  Like Costa Rica, they share the goal of becoming Carbon neutral by the year 2021.  I will be interested to see if they can get there.  I was most impressed by the fact that the employees believed it was their responsibility to spread the company culture into the community as a whole.  

Intel - This was probably the visit I was most looking forward to, yet our visit was somewhat underwhelming.  I was able to get the standard "visitors" tour which did not really highlight the assembly and test process that I was hoping to see in greater detail.  I did however meet the head of materials management and received a first hand look at their distribution facility which was pretty cool.  I learned that Intel chose Costa Rica because of the Free Trade Zone which allows Intel to import and export their materials and products tax free - not bad if you can get it.  The benefit to Costa Rica is primarily the jobs (over 2,500) along with generous contributions to the local schools and community as a whole.

U.S. Embassy - Our visit to the U.S. Embassy was certainly a highlight.  We were able to speak with two of the top diplomats for U.S. and find out first hand what the U.S. interests in Costa Rica are.  First and foremost we is Security as it relates to drug trafficking as well as human trafficking.  It was interesting to hear how the U.S. and Costa Rica have differing opinions on the term trafficking.  The Costa Rica government feels human trafficking that crosses international borders, while the U.S. puts as much weight on forced entry into the sex trade from within Costa Rica's borders.  The other issues tend to be around economic and environmental issues.  It was very clear that the U.S. and Costa Rica still maintain extremely close ties.  It was also pretty clear that China is hoping to foster greater ties with Costa Rica as evidenced by the "gift" of a soccer stadium and the newly opened China Town.

Day 5:  Tourism and Agribusiness
Thursday was another highlight of the trip and action packed to say the least.  This was our first opportunity to leave the city behind and get a glimpse of what Costa Rica is known for; its vast expanses of natural beauty.

Vista del Valle, a small eco tourist resort owned by a U.S. expat.  This place was beautiful and sat at the top of a 300 ft waterfall and overlooking the valley below.  I was very much impressed with the beauty of Costa Rica and only hope I get to return for a real Costa Rica vacation. Fellow classmate Sara Broene captured this classic shot from the bottom of the falls.

Coopronaranjo R.L. Espiritu Santo Coffee Plantation - Yum.  This tour of a coffee plantation and roasting operation ended with some of the best coffee I have ever tasted.

Sarchi Oxcart Factory - I would say that without a doubt the lunch we had at the oxcart factory far exceeded my expectations. This lunch combined with my amazement of the local artisans made this brief stop one to remember.

Bilingual School - Visiting the Bilingual School in Sarchi was very enjoyable.  The kids at this school were very outgoing and bright and enjoyed showing us around the very modest school house.  Most of the kids we visited with spoke perfect English and seemed eager to join the workforce after their graduation.  Although college education is provided at no cost by the government, most of these kids felt they had to work first to be able to afford rent and living expenses prior to attending college.  I wonder how many will actually attend after joining the work force.

Day 6: Group Presentation
By Friday I was ready to get home and completing our group presentation seemed like a welcome capstone to the trip.  My Trade and Global Business Group made  a presentation on foreign investment in Costa Rica and the impacts to the country and the culture.  We also were able to listen to the presentations of our peer groups which included:

Tourism and Sustainability
Health and Medical IssuesSocial Issues and Poverty 
Political Issues & Immigration 

What became clear over my brief stay in Costa Rica is that the country face many of the same challenges that we do: immigration, employment, crime, corruption,poverty, bureaucracy, and numerous other societal issues such as domestic violence human trafficking.  Facing these challenges, however, are a very proud and capable people that value education, entrepreneurship, hard work, democracy and stable government.  I am confident that Costa Rica will continue to lead the region in global business and trade.

Day 7: Adios Costa Rica, Hello Denver
Long plane ride, immigration and customs made bearable by seeing my wife and son at the airport.  Glad to be home. 

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