Looking Back on How a Travel Experience Became a Permanent Lifestyle Change

There’s an exclusive club I belong to in Costa Rica. It’s the club for ones that have come to Costa Rica, had an amazing experience and followed through on their promise to return. So many people exchange, volunteer and immerse themselves in a foreign country as a GAP year or a once in a lifetime experience, but few ever make it back to visit and even fewer make the experience a permanent part of their life like I have.

At the end of my first experience in Costa Rica, I was enthralled. I had lived with a wonderful family and made many friends in town. As my stay was coming to an end I started telling everyone how I would definitely be back to visit. Most were supportive of my statement, but they also let me know that that is what all the previous volunteers had said too, but had never returned.

I did end up being an exception to that statement, but looking back on those conversations from 15 years ago and having seen countless students and volunteers come and go to never return, it hits me how hard you live the experience in the moment. An immersion experience ties you so much to the local culture that you never imagine yourself giving it up completely, especially with communication being so easy nowadays.

The other day I was visiting a host family from my first experience in Costa Rica. They always remind me of my inaugural experience. How I fumbled my words, who I had a crush on, and how I couldn’t hold Costa Rican moonshine. They reminded me that on Fridays I would get a bus out into the country, get off, and then walk an hour just to get to their home and be able to hang out with them for the weekend. I was behaving and acting like any other 20-something year old Costa Rican that went to the city to work/study and then returned home each weekend to visit.

volunteer with family
One of my first families I met in CR

I was living the experience and keeping my word. At some point though, I stopped doing those things as work, life, and other responsibilities began to take up my time, however I do remember it dawning on me when my normal changed. It went from always spending a night or two with them, to day visits and now I have to make it a special event to get out to visit them. It was a bit sad, but others have moved on too. My family’s children, who I met when they were teens, now send me wedding and baby shower invites. People I met with dark hair, now have gray hair and the moonshine now tastes like sh*t (or maybe it always did?)

Now, my family looks at me differently too. I still get the “you’re so skinny” and the blue eyes remarks, but my cultural innocence is gone and more often than not I’m asked about things that previously I’d be unqualified to speak to. Now we swap information on places to visit, apps to download, cars to buy and even the occasional investment opportunity. I can even debate the best way to drink coffee, which I only started drinking a few years ago and completely amazes them as they remember me as the guy they’d always have to make juice for when everyone else would drink coffee.

If there is one thing they have instilled in me though, is the sense of paying it forward. They’ve been so kind to me over the years and it is always a battle to return their favors, but I recognize that I’m now in their position when I receive travelers. I think I do a good job as it’s not uncommon for me to have to dry tears at the airport and say everything is going to be OK while they are wailing and swearing they’ll be back as soon as possible. It breaks their heart, but brings satisfaction to me knowing they had a great experience.

While I did prove all the naysayers wrong, it is truly a difficult experience to end which is why I feel blessed that I can still enjoy it to this day. It is natural for relationships to change as other commitments and opportunities come into our lives, but those that are young and dedicated have as much of an opportunity to join the club as I did. And last I checked, anyone is allowed to join. Just don’t encroach on my turf 😉

Without A Routine, Time Stands Still in The Tropics

It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost a year since I was last in Wisconsin. With the pandemic either shutting down international travel or requiring so many restrictions to discourage any non-essential travel, I find myself remembering the little things that I took for granted being able to travel home as needed. One thing that was nice was that the weather could give you a good idea as to what the season/month was. If you awoke from a coma and had no idea what season it was you could just look out the window to get a good idea.  That’s not really the case in Costa Rica though.

When people ask me why I like Costa Rica so much, one of my first responses is the weather and, in particular, not having to deal with winter. Where else can you get low 80s and sun every day on planet earth? Growing up in midwest there was always a point during the winter where I would literally lose my cool and say “This is enough, I can’t take the cold/snow/ice etc anymore. Get me out of here!”

There wasn’t much I could do about it until I got to college and decided to take spring semester off to go somewhere warm. Well, it was actually to immerse myself in a Spanish speaking country, but I’d be crazy to not have taken advantage and gone to a tropical Spanish speaking country.

After escaping that first winter, and prior to permanently moving to Costa Rica, I always got creative to come up with some kind of excuse to get me out of the midwest at the most atrocious time of year. I could never quite escape the whole winter though.  My breaking point came after going to Costa Rica for two weeks in January, only to return to negative temps and frozen pipes.  

After making the move and getting into a routine, things were perfect. Now, I only had to deal with rain or no rain for weather forecasts.  Instead of using the weather to help remind me what season/month it was, my work schedule dedicated it. I knew summer was coming because an exchange group was set to arrive. I knew it was fall because I would be in the US visiting schools or attending conferences and I knew winter was here when every week I’d be at the airport to pick up travelers that were as white as the snow from where they came from. That all changed with COVID though.

Costa Rica Frika was hit pretty hard and fast with all the lockdowns and I lost nearly my whole routine. I didn’t notice it right away, but I also lost my internal compass. My work was no longer able to keep me up to date. With the weather as consistent as it is, it was getting hard to tell what month we were in, what day it was, and even if it was a weekday or weekend. Everyday felt the same. 

This year, I spent the whole month of January in Costa Rica for the first time in 5 years. One day, I got a message from a teacher saying today would have been the day they would have arrived for their yearly trip to Costa Rica. When I got the message, I had to open my calendar as I really didn’t believe that it was actually that date. Normally, we’d be going crazy getting ready for them. The lack of activity and routine just didn’t match up with what we were reminiscing about. 

Usually, I’m freezing my butt off in Wisconsin for a few weeks in January, but this year I hung a hammock out on my deck for afternoon siestas and if it weren’t for my editor reminding me to write this article I probably would have forgotten about it. Heck, if he hadn’t mentioned how bitterly cold it was, I probably would have written about something else.

I’m sure I’m not the only one this has happened to as the pandemic has rearranged a lot of people’s routines. I’m also not complaining about not having the change of the seasons to keep up to date. I’ll take that minor inconvenience to avoid the cold. 

Due to this realization, I’m incorporating other methods to help me remember seasons and months. I’ll watch football in December to see the snow and remind me it is winter. Whenever the Costa Rican weatherperson says we’ll be getting a cold thrust (their words, not mine) I’ll know it’s Jan/Feb. Likewise, if they mention tropical waves then I’ll know it is at least June. To keep up with the days of the week, I’ll just listen for the garbage truck to come by and then I’ll know it is either Tuesday or Friday. 

Those cues should be enough to get me through until the routine picks up again. To be fair though, I should treat those two week January trips to visit family and friends back home like I used to treat my two week escapes to Costa Rica. Windburn for sunburn, snowblowing for lawn mowing and of course, Spotted Cow for Imperial. 

What’s fair…
Imperial on beach.
… is fair.

Still Searching for Pandemic Bottom

Normally, I write about once every two months, but for my last deadline I asked for an extension because I was anticipating news: My first traveler since every tourist up and left Costa Rica in March would be arriving. After seven months of lockdowns, quarantines, partial reopenings and mask mandates, this had to be the turning point. Boy, was I excited to get in the car to battle traffic and airport parking to greet our visitor. I couldn’t wait to be face to face again with someone who had never eaten rice and beans for breakfast.

Costa Rica breakfast
Breakfast of Champions!

For as much as I tried to psych myself up for this moment, it was hard to ignore just how severe the downturn had been. The airport, which used to handle up to 12 inbound flights an hour, only had three arrivals the whole day. It was a ghost town. 

This visitor was a volunteer going to our animal rescue center, one that I had taken countless volunteers to before the pandemic. Pre-pandemic, the site often was bustling with 50 or more volunteers, but this time there were fewer than 10. The volunteer also happened to arrive on the same day the country recorded its highest ever COVID19 case count, likely because of government loosened restrictions a few weeks ago.

I think we have reached a point where the psychological and economic effects are doing more harm than good. I naturally enjoy being at home, but I know I’m in the minority, and even I’m starting to get on edge.

Psychologically, it’s frustrating that there is no end date to this pandemic. Countless times I’ve geared up for an end date only for it to get extended. I’d go through all the emotions to open up and then suffer disappointment.

And the more I get entrenched in my routine, the more I find it hard to add even little things to my calendar. Even simple things, like calling my parents. 

I have more free time than at any point in my adult life, but I find that I forget or put off things because it might interrupt, like, my Netflix schedule. Besides, without anything going on in our personal lives, there’s not much to say.

Now, the crisis is economic. Every day more and more people and organizations are asking for help. Heck, even the government is asking for help.

Costa Rica is not like the United States, where it can just print itself out of a problem and add it to the deficit. If Costa Rica were to do that, there’d just be massive inflation. 

A few months ago, the government went to the International Monetary Fund, a big international bank that loans to countries, and asked for a loan just to cover interest on its current debt. Now, it is going back to the IMF for new money to get through the pandemic and refinance old debt.

It seems sensible, but you have to be really careful how you approach an IMF conversation with Costa Ricans. It’s like talking politics in the United States – you’re either going to find someone who really agrees with you or really doesn’t. There’s not a whole lot of middle ground, and it doesn’t take much for tempers to flare.

If you’re anti IMF, it’s because they will require the government to implement austerity measures to pay back the debt and we end up like Greece. If you’re pro IMF, then you are probably upper class and/or work for a large corporation. 

The majority of large corporations don’t pay income taxes, as they are located in tax-free zones, or they implement tax strategies to pay none. What irks the majority of Costa Ricans is the proposal that the government is sending to the IMF imposes additional taxes on everyone, except for… wait for it… yeah, large corporations.

This is where I tune out.  A few years ago there was a near six-month general strike as tax reforms were put in place to reduce the deficit. Everyone had to tighten their belt except… large corporations. Sigh. Here we go again.  

It’s not that I don’t care, but it’s frustrating to think that something will be pushed on us when there could be better negotiating and maybe even an option that doesn’t involve the IMF.  They interviewed an economist on the news the other day, who at one point suggested ending the interview so he wouldn’t start crying on live TV. 

I don’t think he was joking. I’ve felt the same.    

I wasn’t expecting a V-shape recovery to begin with the arrival of this visitor, but the excitement was certainly dampened by the worsening economic situation and rise in cases.

Hindsight will be 20/20, but I think it’s pretty safe to say we haven’t hit bottom yet. Maybe next month will be better.  

As I prepare for the next visitor, I’m already thinking of ways to psych myself up for this turning point. 

Better Preparation Handles Mother Nature’s Curveball 

A year ago, I wrote about living through the polar vortex with 80 Costa Ricans in Wisconsin on a high school exchange.

It culminated in our return flight being canceled, which didn’t bother our visitors but created a horror show for me trying to rebook everyone.

So this year, after a white Halloween and a green Christmas and with twice as many people, we had to be ready for anything.  It’s a good thing we were, because misfortune would be after us again.

We had set up flights to Chicago on back-to-back days, and our Day 1 flights went fine. The next day, the first group would tour Chicago and then travel to Wisconsin along with the Day 2 Chicago flight arrivals.

I was the caboose on the Day 2 flights, connecting in Houston. Our other Day 2 flight was a direct flight that left just before ours. All was well until I started getting messages right before boarding about a snowstorm moving into the Wisconsin-Chicago area that evening.  I didn’t get a chance to check the weather before service cut out, but as soon as we hit U.S. airspace, I was able to watch The Weather Channel’s live report on the storm on in-flight TV.

Chicago looked bad.

I checked the direct flight’s progress, and it was looking good until about 30 minutes outside of Chicago. That’s when the flight path took a sharp right – and was now headed for Cleveland.

Oh man, here we go again.

I got all this information before touching down in Houston, so I was ready to hit the ground running. But we had less than two hours to clear customs and get to our next gate with 40 teens and teachers, half of whom had zero experience in making a connection like this.

Lucky for me, I had my smartphone, which would prove to be life-saving in so many ways.  We were stuck in line at customs for almost an hour, which would have been torture in most cases, but knowing my group was unable to wander off, I got to work fixing issues.

One of the first messages I received was from one of the host schools saying not to send the bus to the high school because they had cancelled all after-school activities. It must have been sent when I was without service, as it was really too late to do anything based on where the bus was at that point.

winter students on bus
Ready or not, here we come!

I quickly called another high school that was also receiving a group from the same bus. I explained the situation, and those families agreed to each take in an extra student for the night until the weather improved.


So I had them taken care of, with a second bus en route from Chicago to Madison making stops along the way. Other than that bus being about two hours behind schedule because of the weather, everything was good.

I had no means of getting a hold of anyone on the flight that was now headed to Cleveland and just had to watch for updates from the airline.

The customs line was really long, and on top of that they took two of our students aside for further questioning. So we were still advancing when it was announced that our flight would be delayed 12 hours, until the following morning.

That was stressful news for the teachers and Costa Rican parents to take, as they were already on edge, being only day one away from their children. For me, this was just another sigh of relief and the students… they were the least stressed in the matter.

students sleeping at airport
Airport sleepover!

We would have been crunched to make the connection even with what initially had been a one-hour delay, and these delays were much better than the cancellation last year.  I’d gladly spend the night at the airport as I couldn’t fathom rebooking 40 people on a smartphone.  In the end, we got to Chicago the next morning, almost the same time as the Cleveland “direct” flight.

I couldn’t help but think this was a leftover gut punch Mother Nature didn’t get a chance to unload on me last year. There hadn’t been any winter this year until I decided to fly.

But it could have been a lot worse.

I think of all the little things – like having upgraded my phone in October, having a SIM card ready to go upon U.S. arrival unlike prior years, having the inflight weather/flight status and flying a Big 3 airline rather than their hubs.

I had families ready for deployment at a moment’s notice, so much so that the ones ready to take in an extra student for a night never got the chance. Once word spread, the families from the first school drove to the other school and met their students there.

After the exciting arrival, the weather went back to being dormant and didn’t play a factor the rest of the exchange.

I definitely deserved that; I just hope I didn’t use up all my good weather credit for next year.

students being welcomed
They made it!

UPDATE JULY 22ND: While the weather was great for exchanging in January, the pandemic has completely shut us down.  Thankfully nothing happened mid-exchange, but we’ll be on the shelf till at least summer 2021 and won’t return to Wisconsin till January 2022.  By then we’ll be well rested and excited for anything that comes our way.

Life in Corona Rica

March 11th.  That’s my date.  That’s when it became real.  I wasn’t even in Costa Rica, but the NBA postponing their season was the tipping point for me.  Three days before I had been telling my volunteers and exchange students not to worry about the situation and that worst case scenario Costa Rica might close schools for a few weeks.  I told them that Costa Rica lives from tourism and closing the airport would be a doomsday scenario and would be a last resort. Little did I know that would be the last face-to-face contact I would have with them.

Within 10 days of that conversation I had traveled to the US and all those doomsday scenarios had come true.  Programs were halted and all my participants were on planes back home. I was still scheduled to be in the United States another week yet, however with the speed that things were moving I couldn’t risk borders closing or cancelled flights.

I decided to shorten my trip by 5 days, and return the day after Costa Rica closed its borders to foreigners.  I have residency so I wasn’t affected and after hearing about the 8hr immigration lines when they closed Europe, I thought better to avoid any panic traveling.

My biggest fear was getting stuck in the middle of my trip, unable to make a connection due to a border or airline closing.  I had one connection to make in Panama and I had no idea what I’d be arriving to in Costa Rica as so much had changed in 10 days.  Feelings ranged from ho-hum, all the way to giving my wife a big defeatist hug, like Tony Stark when he returned to Earth in Endgame.  So much had changed in such little time.

It all started in immigration.  I was promptly served a sanitation order to quarantine for 14 days at home under the threat of jail time.  It was advised that I not even stop at the supermarket to pick up food on the way home as the order was already active. When I got into town, physically, San Ramon hadn’t changed, but my perspective had.  While my programs screeched to a halt, the rest of Costa Rica hadn’t come to a standstill. It didn’t matter though. My brain was set to doomsday mode. I went for a walk that afternoon in the field behind my house and it was eerie.  Doomsday mode opened my senses to everything going on around me. Every rustle in the grass, every sound from the birds was washing over me as the new normal. These were the same sounds I heard every time I went for a walk but this time the atmosphere just felt different.  Lifeless, abandoned, or even post-apocalyptic.

sign at park
#Istayhome For the good of all San Ramonians

I’d spend 14 uneventful days processing all of this.  Most days I’d try to figure out what movie/show I was living in real life.  If I was ever at a loss, I’d just fire up Netflix and look for something to compare my situation to.  Luckily, the quarantine was not a huge sacrifice for me. I was not infected (as far as I know) with the corona virus and experienced no symptoms.  My wife was able to go to the store for me and I had no one to care for outside my dogs.

After completing the quarantine I decided to venture out to see what I had missed.  14 days is nothing in corona virus time and San Ramon was all but on lock down. Everything had closed except essential services and there was a car curfew in place.  Places that were open restricted entry and enforced a 6ft radius. Going to the supermarket I didn’t see many things out of stock, except for some cheese. Lines were longer than usual and clerks were wearing masks.

exercise bikes with caution tap
Not happening…

Wow, how things had changed though.  I was now living what I’d seen on the news the last few weeks, but not all was lost.  Social distancing, safer at home, and lock downs have all been promoted/enforced throughout the world during the pandemic.  The message’s intensity has been consistent in most countries, however there has been differences in its effectiveness across countries.

Costa Rica I’d say has done remarkably well in its efforts to control the spread to this point.  While it’s really hard to say why they’ve done well, there are a few noteworthy exceptions in comparison to harder hit countries.

In the month since our first recorded case, growth has been very consistent at 20-30 a day.  There haven’t been medical supply shortages and the government recently opened a new hospital that only receives corona virus patients.  They have 88 beds and at its opening there were only 10 people hospitalized for the virus in the whole country.

It was painful to shut the borders and tourism is going through a never before seen “zero season” as in $0 revenue.  There have been some rescue packages put together and the public healthcare system has slashed premiums 75% for the next three months.  There’s even talk of imposing a solidarity contribution (read: tax) on high income earners to help the unemployed and their families.

Since March 11th my world hasn’t been the same.  It’s been an adjustment, but I haven’t had a problem staying home.  It feels so little in comparison to what health care workers are going through, but there could be worse places to be stuck in.  My spirit remains high and I can only hope we’ve seen the worst of the pandemic and that better days will be ahead.


Shopping (and Traveling) as the Costa Ricans Do

At what lengths would you go to get a great deal?  Nowadays, with Black Friday, Prime Day and the emphasis on sales it should be easy to find a sale price on whatever you’re shopping for.  Not so in Costa Rica. “Black Friday” has of course been copied/mimicked, but the discounts don’t correspond to anything close to what is offered in North America.  Amazon? The other day I found a $40 item that shipped for free in the US. However, to get it to Costa Rica shipping and taxes would add an extra $176(!). Yeah, you read that right.

So what do Costa Ricans do to get some price relief?  There is one option, and whether it ends up saving you any money in the end is up for debate.  Let me explain.

There is a small coastal town called Golfito, located on the southern pacific coast, some 212 miles from where I live.  To travel this far is usually to see a national park, however here is where you come for discounts. In the mid 1980s the government set up a tax free zone in this region for consumers.  Taxes, sometimes up to 70-80% on certain items, make this an attractive option to buy. There is a catch though. Well actually there are many catches which I found out as I went through this process to buy some appliances for my house..

Besides being 212 miles away (about 6 hours on Costa Rican roads) you couldn’t just come, buy, and leave.  You see, each Costa Rican has a yearly allowance of 4 minimum salaries to spend tax free in Golfito. That amounts to a little more than $3,000.  The government tracks this by requiring you to pick up a document before entering the free trade zone to shop. The catch is you can’t buy the same day you pick up this document, thereby forcing you to spend the night in Golfito.  They do this intentionally to provide for the local economy. Thanks to this you can find quite a few hotels and restaurants that basically survive from this restriction.

So we got our document and actually pre-paid a few things at the stores, and would just come back the next day to check it out with customs.  One thing a lot of people do is take advantage and go shopping at the Panamanian border as well. The border is only about an hour from Golfito and prices are much cheaper than in Costa Rica.  In order to fit all this in we departed San Ramon (where I live) at 4am and wouldn’t arrive to the hotel until almost 10pm after going to both Golfito and Panama.

The next day we had to be back in Golfito by 8am to check out our things.  Actually, we didn’t have to be back by 8am, but since it was a Saturday it is when a slew of tour buses arrive from San José and inundate the area with buyers.  I couldn’t believe the lines people were in to buy deodorant, cologne, hairspray etc. It was such a mess as the stores were not equipped to handle lots of people.  Due to the free trade restriction you can’t

long shopping line
Typical Saturday AM

just pick out your item and check out. First you have to go to an invoicing station where the store takes your document and applies the amount you spent to you allowance.  Then you have to go to another counter to pay for it and then you have to go to another area to actually pick up your purchases. And that was only if you could carry what you bought.

I, on the other hand, was looking to furnish a house.  I got a refrigerator, washer and dryer which you wouldn’t believe the process I went through to get it back to San Ramon.  It went something like this:

Day 1:

  1. Walk the store with salesperson, view items.
  2. Check price, see discount price, then negotiate an even better price.
  3. Register items on document, pay for them.

Day 2:

  1. Return to store and go back to cashier for some other authorization I had no idea what the point of it was for.
  2. Open packages and insure that everything works correctly.  This was a good idea, but just terribly time consuming. Unpack everything, plug it in, check the features and then repack it all.
  3. Store wheels packages out to the sidewalk in front of their store.  Keep in mind you are entirely enclosed in a customs zone and shoppers can only walk between the stores after getting in the area through a customs checkpoint.

    hand cart operator
    “Appliance” taxi #1

    So here we are with 3 large appliances just dropped on the sidewalk for us to figure out how to go on our merry way.

  4. Hunt down “appliance taxis”. These guys just run around the free trade zone to help people move their appliances to the customs check-point.  It cost us $9 for them to move our large appliances about 300 feet.
  5. To get our appliances through customs and out to the car we had to hire other “appliance taxis” that charged us $12 to move the items another 500 feet.  The whole customs process is almost laughable though as the officer takes only a quick glance at our paperwork and waves us through.
  6. Our vehicle was not big enough to take our appliances so we found a transport service that would bring our items back to San Ramon.  When I say found a transport service, I mean we wheeled our items to the backside of a hotel and left them on the sidewalk, handed over our receipts to the shipper and got a hand

    street hand cart transfer
    These are the $12 guys.

    written receipt in return.  I emphasize the handwritten part as I actually wrote the receipt myself with instructions from the shipper!

  7. Receive items at home two days later.  Pay freight cost of $60. Not bad for 212 miles in Costa Rica.


As you can see it was a ten step process over a two day period and believe me you weren’t given a guide upon arriving to Golfito.  Luckily, I was with my in-laws and they knew a thing or two about improvising. For instance, I knew I had to hire the “appliance taxis”, but I had no idea where to tell them to go.

My mother in-law knew about the place behind the hotel from ten years ago and didn’t even hesitate telling the taxis to go there.  How did she know the guy would be there? What if he wasn’t? Luckily, he was there and it was all laughs and giggles as she is friends with him from childhood and he has brought items back to San Ramon for years.  That’s why I didn’t feel nervous hand writing my own receipt and just leaving the appliances out on the back stoop of the hotel.

It’s moments like these the American in me wants to scold my in-laws for being so loose with things of value.  It’s not like I’m sending back a pair of shoes, I could have easily bought a 70 inch flat screen that I wouldn’t have felt comfortable just wheeling out into the street not having the shipping arranged prior.

All in all things went well, but did we really save any money?  Of course we didn’t pay any tax, but what about the gas, lodging, food, “appliance taxis”, and the time/sleep that was given up?  I pestered the other Costa Ricans I was with on the way back in regards to this and they basically told me that you have to treat the experience as a vacation and enjoy the journey.

When looking at it from that perspective I can see the benefit.  I spent 10+ hours in the car with four Costa Rican women and got all caught up on the latest gossip and jokes going around.  We also stopped off at the beach to enjoy breakfast and we could have stayed extra days to visit other relatives or to just enjoy the beach had we wanted to.

For me personally, as long as there aren’t any major snafus, I’m OK with the hoops you have to jump through to get anything decently discounted by going all the way to Golfito.  There are about five steps too many, but if you only do it once every 5-10 years it’s not that big of a deal. Besides, I shouldn’t have to furnish a house that often.


When Immersed, Failing is Harder Than You’d Think

The server jotted it down his order, nodded her head and went back to the kitchen. No follow up questions, no odd looks.

My cousin, now three weeks into his visit to Costa Rica had just ordered a hamburger, no tomato, no ketchup, with cheese, lettuce and onion – in Spanish.

I was excited. Three weeks earlier, that order would have been a disaster, however now that his Spanish had picked up and he nailed the order.

In early April, he had contacted me about coming down for a few weeks this summer to help me with my business and immerse himself in the culture. He was going to graduate high school and wanted to do an extended stay, as in his previous visits he had been on vacation or participating in an exchange program.

I said sure, knowing we’d be in for some fun.

My cousin, you see, has the perfect personality for cultural immersion. He knows no shame and will throw himself into any situation, whether or not he has the vocabulary. He might embarrass himself, but he learns a lot from the experiences and will tell you all about them.

Young traveler with drink and chips
No fear of foods

For this particular trip, he decided to journal every day about his experience and shared it with friends and family to follow. It was excellent insight to how someone would react to being in a new culture and a great way for me to see just how immersed/uncomfortable I could actually make him.

Knowing his personality, I had no trouble abandoning him when he needed me most.

There was the day I waited in line with him at the bank to exchange money, only to promptly duck out when his turn came. He played it cool afterward, though his journal described nervousness and exhilaration that by just saying “dollars, colones” and putting the cash down on the counter was enough for the teller to understand him.

There was also the day we had a volunteer in town who was looking for a place to eat lunch.  Without hesitation, I sent him on this solo mission with her to a local restaurant a few blocks down the street.

He said everything went fine, but his journal depicted the major breakthrough being when, at a total loss for words, he asked for the “menu” using the English word, only to find out that they use the same word in Spanish.

You might look at these as small accomplishments, but this reminded me so much of what I went through during my first extended cultural immersion experience. A string of many nervous moments where dumb luck bailed me out.

My Costa Rican friends told me that to avoid having to rely on sheer luck, it would be best to find a Costa Rican girlfriend. I used that strategy, and it was no accident that I ended up staying in Costa Rica because of it.

So I’d be lying if I said my wife and I didn’t have someone lined up for him. Our family friend has a daughter his age wanting to learn English, and knowing my cousin wants to improve his Spanish, we couldn’t let this opportunity pass.

I previously said my cousin has no fear of anything, but it turns out his kryptonite is putting him in a room with a beautiful girl who doesn’t speak English.

I have to say this silent version of my cousin was something I’d rarely seen. He would always find a way to fill silence, but he was at a loss for words with this girl. As much as I wanted to help him, I knew that I would only impede and take away from their opportunity to practice speaking with each other.

After they went out the first time, I didn’t even have to wait for the journal entry. He was like a balloon about to burst with all the things he wanted to share. What words he learned, what words he taught, where they went and even the bracelet and cologne she gave to him.

Culturally, the gift caught him off guard, but he saved face by paying for dinner. A week later she invited him over for lunch, and he made it a point to bring her flowers.

My cousin has now returned to the United States, and as much as he missed his friends and family, I’m sure he wouldn’t have minded staying another month if he could.

I don’t doubt he will be back, and he might come back so much that he’ll get so sick of leaving and find a way to stay. Whether he’s back for the language, culture, families, or even the girls, it will only add to his experience.

Next time, I’ll teach him how to order a double cheeseburger, or maybe a well-done steak. The possibilities are endless.

boy with angel wings
No fear to spread his wings

Polar Vortex Provides Unexpected Surprise for Winter Exchange

“Yo brah, is your flight canceled?” read the text message from my cousin Tuesday morning.  Like any typical teenager, most of what they say is either false, or intentionally false just to see your reaction.  I wasn’t buying. Planes can fly at -50 degrees, so take off at -30 on polar vortex Wednesday shouldn’t be an issue. Besides, we’d just dodged yesterday’s snow day which would have been a bigger concern.  But then he sent me the image from the airline’s website – CANCELLED. Upon reading that, my heart skipped a beat and I may have blacked out for a second.

It’s one thing to get your flight cancelled, but when you are responsible for a group of 80 Costa Rican high school exchange students, now stranded indefinitely in literally the coldest place on earth, you might need an ambulance upon receiving news like this.  This was an event so uprooting that I would later refer to things as before the cancellation and after the cancellation. This exchange was already one for the record books. With so many weather days I was basically making a new itinerary every single day. I was rolling with the punches, snow day here, cold day there, kind of like the Avengers going against Thanos.  You dealt with things as long as the SNAP didn’t happen, until it did.

winter skiers ready
Before the cancellation

I put the phone down, cleared my head, and assessed the situation.  Two of my six schools had already said good-bye to their host families as they were planning on going to the airport after concluding the day’s activities.  I was an hour and a half away from home visiting a high school and I had over half the group at a museum. I needed a command center ASAP and the best I could do was pace the high school hallway and leverage my phone for every last multi-tasking capability it had in order to keep the fire at bay.

First step, get dad on the phone with airline to find out rebooking options while I figure out a place for everyone to live.  I always tell host families that they are what makes the exchange magical and with that in mind I rubbed my magic genie bottle and asked for my first wish.  Luckily, this wish was a softball as families were more than willing to keep them, especially the ones that had just said goodbye. They had barely dried their tears of sorrow when tears of happiness would arrive with the surprise return of their exchange student.  Let’s just say you’d never get that reaction from a Holiday Inn.

Having resolved housing for the time being, I checked in with my dad on rebooking status.  Not. Good. At. All. Turns out, I needed to wait two weeks before I could get all 80 rebooked on the same flight.  With that news I left the high school and departed on the long, cold, windy drive back home through rural Wisconsin. The wind blew the snow across the fields, making it look like an arctic desert.  It was barren, and besides the passing vehicle, there were no signs of human or animal activity. When this story gets made into a movie this drive will have a montage reflecting back on all the fond memories of the exchange before the cancellation.  The music would be set to a ballad, probably from Adele, and the actor playing me will probably be crying, or at least have that glazed over look on their face like they are trying to come to terms with a recent death.

By the time I got home the pity party was over and it was time to get to work.  Armed with a thermos of coffee, I got on the phone with the airline only to promptly get shot down.  No flights with any reasonable space for at least a week(!). After talking up and down the chain of command and pleading my case I was essentially cut loose.  My only option was to take a fraction of a refund and rebook on different airlines. It was too late at night to begin that search and at that moment I looked my wife in the eye and told her surely this is just a bad dream and I will wake up soon.  This can’t be really happening, can it? It was like I was waiting for the director to yell “cut!” or Ashton Kutcher to appear and tell me I’d been punked.

I wanted to fall asleep and just dream for days.  Find some alternate universe and just stay there, ala “Inception”.  Even if I wanted to sleep it was darn near impossible with all the adrenaline surging through me.  I don’t think I slept more than 30 minutes the whole night.

The next day I managed to sneak 15 out on a later flight and slowly began rebooking the rest.  The weather may have been frigid but the phone lines we’re boiling. At one point I had a Skype call going with my trip coordinator, a cell phone connected to the airline and borrowing a second cell phone to take individual inquiries.  First I’d find the flight, check space/price, then call my trip coordinator to see who would take those spaces, then forward all the info to the airline and then work incessantly to convince the Costa Rican parents to agree to the change.

at work
After the cancellation

Convincing was not as simple as it sounds.  With 80 sets of parents it was a challenge to find consensus, with some anxious to get their children out quick as the weather could get even worse, all the way to the other extreme where they wanted to wait longer for the weather to pass.  The literal icing on the cake was that the teacher-chaperones had to be back to start school Monday and some even had meetings Friday. I felt like I was standing in the middle of a circle of people and they were all chucking snowballs at me to get my attention and listen to them.

That was Wednesday.  What followed then were some of the most anxious days of my life.  Now, that I had everything reconfigured I was on edge waiting for the next issue to pop up.  It didn’t take long. When going to verify the bus shuttle schedule to Chicago I was met with a notice that they wouldn’t be sending out buses that night due to the cold.  The last bus would depart in… 30 minutes. I was at least 20 minutes away and had no idea if the students would make it in time. I frantically sent out text after text, call after call all the while en route to the bus stop.  I was rehearsing how I would sweet talk the driver into waiting a bit, or preparing a chase team to track the bus to the next stop. Nobody could miss this bus.  In a sign that the universe wasn’t against me, everyone managed to make it in time.  That was the win I needed. If you’re keeping track, that was my second wish granted.

Fast forward through overnight bus rides, and waiting at airports all the way to Sunday at 10:45pm.  At that moment, I exited the airport in Costa Rica as traveler number 81 and let out such a big sigh I think it registered on the Richter scale.  There’s no greater relief finishing an exchange and returning everyone’s children back to them. On this occasion it couldn’t have been truer.

After an experience like this, some people might swear off doing that ever again.  However, if you ask me, I’d go through it all over again. The experience is too great and all the problems to solve only makes you stronger, right?  Plus, having gone through it once, I’ll be much more prepared for the next polar vortex.  And besides that, I still have one wish left 😉


Capital City Tour not Worth Your Time Unless You Have the Time

Did you ever think you could spend 2.5 hours on a walking tour that only covers a few blocks?   Of all the places in Costa Rica, the capital city of San José is the last place I’d imagine doing this.

If you look up things to do in Costa Rica, touring San José is probably outside the top 30.  A lot of visitors don’t realize that in comparison to other Latin American capitals, this one really doesn’t have anything that competes with alternate activities such as the beaches or the rainforests.  Or so I thought.

I dread San José.  Traffic, pollution, crime etc. Everything that happens there is so exhausting.  When I go, it’s usually for paperwork, which just involves more standing around, waiting in line, and trying not to get sunburned or rained on.  I had been on tours of San José before, however when I heard about a free walking tour with round trip transportation from San Ramon I decided to give it a try.  At least I’d learn something while walking and standing around in San José.

SJO vive.  Translation: San José lives.  That is the slogan designed to bring the city back to life.  I have no doubt it “lives”, however I’m sure there are many ways to interpret that.  They could be referring to a bar/restaurant district, a theater and arts area, or maybe the rat and cockroach population?San José slogan

After enduring the traffic we arrived outside the national theater, where the tour would begin.  The national theater I think exists as merely a meet up point. Without addresses, people rely on landmarks to get around and this building sure sticks out.  Whether due to its elegance or the enormity of pigeon droppings, people know the place. It has never been a big conversation starter on any tours I’d been on and my eyes glazed over for most of this explanation, except when the guide told us if we go inside to the cafeteria, order something and then ask to use the bathroom, they’ll let you into the theater as that is the only way to access the bathrooms!

From there we walked across the street to “Chinatown”.  The only thing chinese about the area was an oriental arch to mark the entrance of the plaza.  There we’d see a Catholic church, a statue of John Lennon, and our guide told us he would give $50 to anyone who saw a chinese person.  The only thing newsworthy about this plaza was apparently when they put it in they eliminated a city street which sparked criticism as it added further to the city’s congestion issues.

It was interesting to hear the guide put the focus on the oddities, or failures of the city,

weird park sculpture
This isn’t odd?

which might give more context to why it’s not touristy.  We went outside the National Assembly building where lawmakers allowed graffiti artists to paint the walls, but then got upset when they drew a former president to look like a monkey.  We went into an enclosed, glass dome with a stone sphere in the middle that had some sort of healing or meditation purpose, but I couldn’t hear the whole explanation as the smell of urine forced me to exit early.  We visited a Jade museum that is normally $18 to get in, however they have one free exhibition room which of course is where we went and got plenty of information.

Granted, this was a free, gratuity only tour so I didn’t have huge expectations, however I was more drawn to these outlier stories than the straight up, traditional tours I’d gone on in the past.

At the end of the tour I was shocked that we hadn’t gone into any museums or visited any markets, but I still felt like I got a lot of value out of it.  To walk so little in so much time says a lot about the guide, as there isn’t a lot to work with. I remember doing a night tour of the rainforest and the guide took us about 200 feet in two hours.  That was impressive, however I thought this guide got even more creative.

Still, unless you are spending more than a week in Costa Rica, don’t prioritize the city.  As much fun as it is to observe the endangered bicycle rider using the bike lane you’re still better off at the beach or rainforest.

angel wing girl
San José gives you wings!