It’s hard to explain what exactly Casa del Indio is. It was difficult for Chema (the friend I made in San Jose who introduced me to Casa del Indio) to explain it to me, and it’s hard for me now to explain what it is. For me, it’ll always be the savior of Thanksgiving 2011, rescuing me from the homeless state I found myself in. But I’ll try my best to explain what the house really is in practice and in theory…
The story goes that Bernal, the founder of Casa del Indio, drove past the hospital in his city of Cartago one winter day in 1992 and saw an indigenous family setting up camp on the sidewalk. They were too poor to stay in a hotel. They had come because the woman was pregnant and about to give birth, but not in labor yet. Thus, they wanted proximity to a hospital for when the inevitable soon happened.
Bernal had already been thinking that it just didn’t feel right that he lived in such a large house, with relatively low rent, just for himself. It was cold and rainy that day, so he asked the family if they wanted to come home with him. When he got home, he realized how much of a bachelor lifestyle he lived because he didn’t have enough silverware for everyone, let alone food in the refrigerator. He called his friends and family to bring over some food, silverware, dishes, and clothing for the family.
By hosting this family, Bernal understood a bit more about the struggles of the indigenous community here – specifically how difficult it is when families need to come to the cities for medical care and how difficult it is for the indigenous children to attend university in the cities since housing is relatively expensive.
Thus, Casa del Indio was born.
20 years and three houses later, Casa del Indio exists in its present form. The house is loosely organized. Jilario, a friend of Bernal’s, stays in the house and cleans it and generally keeps it running in top form.
The residents are mostly students. A room is always kept vacant in case an indigenous family needs to stay there to visit the hospital. The house has hosted families dealing with loss, though gain as well as it has seen its fair share of newborn babies!
The students are a mix of people of various backgrounds – some indigenous Costa Ricans, others indigenous Peruvians. Though it’s a house for the indigenous, there are no hard and fast rules about it. I’m not indigenous, but they let me stay there.
I’d say the house is a hub for cultural, political, and spiritual exchange. That’s the best way I can think to sum it up. There is even a stage and curtain for performances (plays, music, poetry readings, etc.). How cool is that!?
The ideology in the house is more leftist. People like Bob Marley, Fidel Castro, and Che Guevara are revered, but so are leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and Mother Teresa. Given all the various ways humans worship a higher being, an alter is set up for Sai Baba. He is an Indian spiritual leader who teaches the unity of all religions and the alter has trinkets representing the religions of the world.
Besides the stage for performances, there are some interesting aspects of the house that are awesome. It is common here to have a water tank at an elevated level. If the water supply is temporarily cut, the house will still have a supply of water for a while. Hot water is made instantly via an adapter on the shower that passes the cold water over a hot electrical element.
In the house, the tank is on the ground. Bernal took an old washing machine motor and it sucks the water into the shower since gravity won’t work. Very innovative and great recycling initiative!
To make hot water, wood is burned underneath the tank. Generally this is done once a day. It’s announced when the water is hot so people can take showers and maximize the sacrifice of burning the wood. Seeing how much wood is needed to make a tank of water hot really puts into perspective how much energy goes into making water hot. When water is heated electrically, it kind of masks the amount of energy actually required to provide this convenience.
This may seem like a waste, but the wood used for burning is all scrap wood from Bernal’s projects. It would otherwise just get thrown away, so it’s a form of recycling.
They do composting, of course. This is relatively common in Costa Rica, or at least that’s my perception since the three houses I’ve stayed at here do it.
There is a beautiful garden on the ground floor as well as on the roof. The gardens set a nice tone that kind of allow you to transport yourself out of the city and connect with nature. There are bird nests, fish tanks, and exotic plants sporting edible berries. It’s a feast for the eyes.
There is also a garden on parts of the roof. Aside from offering great views from the top levels of the house, reinforcing the idea of being out in nature, it helps reduce the temperature inside the house during the sunny summer. Roofs here are usually made of metal and letting the plants absorb the sun’s energy instead of the metal roof is better for everyone.
Speaking of the garden, male residents are encouraged to pee in the garden! There is a sign in the bathroom instructing us to do so. It says that pee is fertilizer so we should spread it far and wide. Plus, it minimizes water consumption since the toilet need not be flushed after every male urination. Win-win situation!
The house is also very artistic. There are many paintings, both the regular kind and directly on the wall, wood carving in the wall, etc. It makes for a very wonderful and inspiring environment.
The house is full of inspiration and quotes. Here’s a wall full of interesting quotes, and then a desk that has a wonderful inscription saying “The earth doesn’t belong to man. Man belongs to the earth.” Very true and throughout my trip I have been exposed to the different way of thinking indigenous people have toward ownership and the earth. It’s beautiful.
Each person in the house has his or her own story. Over the past 20 years, there have been hundreds of stories. That’s why it’s so hard to paint a picture of this amazing place, but it’s far richer than my words or pictures could ever express.
One such account is that of my friend Chema. He wrote up his account of Casa del Indio (in Spanish) and you can read it here.
Can One Person Make A Difference?
This is a question I have asked before. Here is another poignant example. Bernal certainly never could have imagined what he’d be creating 20 years ago when he started.
Hundreds of people later, he has touched more lives than most people could ever dream of. And that’s what it’s all about for him as he’s just a modest carpenter trying to make a difference in his own way. What an inspiration… an inspiration that is propagated on through to each resident of the house – myself included.