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.

Awesome!

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!

Exchange Brings Novelty, Nostalgia to Thanksgiving

It was darnn chilly getting off that bus. Chillier than I expected or remembered for this time of year.  

Thankfully, my parents were waiting for me and had brought a winter jacket for me, knowing I wouldn’t fully acclimate for a few days.

I don’t normally come home for extended periods in November, however this time I’d brought an exchange group of high school students with me from Costa Rica. They’d stay with local families, visit schools and experience Wisconsin for a few weeks.

If I was having problems, these kids had to be hopeless. It’s one thing to come from Costa Rica, but their region brings out the extremes.  

Just for them to get to the airport is nearly six hours and they can almost get to Panama City faster. Only a few miles from the border with Panama, this region is low lying, hot, humid, and full of rainforests, farms, and minimal population.  

They were going to get a shock to their system from more than just the weather. They were in for experiences all across the board. And so was I.

After spending the first night with their host families, I was interested to hear their reactions.

There was the usual, “Wow, the family is so friendly.” or “The dog is so funny.” and of course the “IT’S SO COLD,” but there is always something that uniquely draws their attention. The most interesting comments I heard referenced having a lower-door freezer and the astounding dishwasher.

Freezers do exist in Costa Rica, but they are almost always upper door freezers, whereas unless you are upper-upper class, or an expatriate, a dishwasher is a complete luxury. They were amazed at its simplicity and the fact that you “don’t even get your hands wet.”

I silently chuckled to myself hearing those comments as I had never really noticed those differences before.  I then overheard one student saying he had been cold at night. I asked him if he had enough blankets and he said he wasn’t given any.  Hmm, that couldn’t be right.

cheesehead model
On Wisconsin!

I decided to follow up with the family, and they were just as puzzled. They said the bed had various sheets and blankets all tucked in.

All tucked in. All tucked in. That was it. The student had never thought to untuck the comforter and sleep under it.

After I thought about it, it made complete sense.

I know where I live in Costa Rica, I rarely need more than a light sheet to cover up with at night, and that is mostly to keep the mosquitoes off. I also know that bedrooms are more focal points of homes in Costa Rica.  

It’s not uncommon to walk into a home and have a bedroom right off the entrance. Because of this they will put comforters on the bed to dress it up and sleep on top of it with a light sheet.  

That’s exactly what happened and is why the student never bothered to untuck the bed!

Don’t get me wrong, these students were modern.  This was not like the Amish coming to the big city.

I’m sure they dominated their hosts in Snapchats per capita and could overwhelm absolutely anyone at the mall, especially since they happened to be in town for Black Friday.

In addition to that utterly American event, this group also got to experience Thanksgiving, a holiday that has no Costa Rican equivalent.

Due to school schedules, we had never been able to exchange during a holiday, and this is what families (and I) enjoyed the most. Having those extra days off really gave them a chance to get to know their student and was highly emphasized in their feedback.  

one inch snowman
Juuust enough snow…

The opportunity to sleep in, take in sporting events and visit family was an intended consequence families took full advantage of. They shared tons of Thanksgiving photos/videos, Badger football/hockey games, cheesehead modeling and the world’s largest snowman you can make with an inch of snow.

It was also a bit of a homecoming for me.  Thanks to the exchange students and their host families, I was excited to experience Thanksgiving as well.

I honestly can’t remember the last time I was home for Thanksgiving (probably 10+ years), and there were more than a few relatives surprised to see me.  I’m also rarely home for Christmas, so when I do visit, it’s typically not when people get together.

On my mom’s side, we were only missing my sister and cousin, which is probably the closest we’ve gotten in a long time to having everyone together. It’s no small feat when we span states, countries, and continents apart.

In all, I spent almost a month at home, which really only felt like two weeks. I could never quite shake the cold, I made a half-hearted attempt at raking leaves (if there is snow on the ground, that’s just embarrassing) and we narrowly missed a major snowstorm getting out of Chicago.  

Maybe November isn’t what it used to be, or maybe I’ve forgotten what it’s like, but hearing the stories from the families and exchange students brought a lot of novelty to the visit and provoked a lot of nostalgia.  

There might not be as much nostalgia for my next visit in late January, but there is already a winter jacket in my suitcase, and I look forward to the exchange students providing the novelty.   

-Dustin

Dustin is the director and founder of Costa Rica Frika.  Originally from Southern Wisconsin, he specializes in providing immersion experiences to/from Costa Rica via exchanges, volunteering and interning.

Strike Proves It’s not Always Sunny in Paradise

The average visitor books their vacation to Costa Rica and can’t wait to visit the happiest place on earth, explore the rainforest and relax on the beach.

The tourism board will continually pitch that image of Costa Rica, but if you’ve been in the country the last month, you’d notice a sharp departure from that narrative.

Public schools have been closed, road blockades happen daily, massive protests occur in the capital, gas shortages affect parts of the country and hospitals are canceling appointments and surgeries. These are just some of the things that have plagued the country the last month – and they’re things the tourism board would just assume not project internationally.

Many governments struggle with debt, and Costa Rica is no exception. To deal with this they are attempting to fast-track a fiscal combo package, but it shifts the load to the working class and basically exempts big business and the super wealthy from any of the cuts.

The plan is so unpopular that a national strike was declared, disrupting many functions of the country. The resistance is quite impressive, and while I don’t agree with everything on the strikers’ agenda, I support them.

What drives me crazy is I see a path to a solution, but there has been a bunch of inaction. And what I’m most disappointed in is our recently elected president, Carlos Alvarado. To me, he is the negotiator, the mediator who should unite the country to agree on a reform that works for everyone.

I’ve looked through the combo and the striker’s proposals, and they were written to be negotiated and compromised on, but the president does not want to engage. Even when they do negotiate, he doesn’t even go to the meetings.

You’d think, he’d be trying to mend things. But he seems to be a coward, hiding behind all his big-business mega-donor buddies and just waiting for the protesters to tire. He even publicly said he was intentionally ignoring the strikers.

What he doesn’t seem to realize is the longer this strike goes, the more blame will get shifted to him.

Maybe his kids go to private school, maybe he attends private hospitals and clinics, maybe he only travels by helicopter. Maybe none of this affects him directly. But what about the generation that might not graduate this December, the people that are on the public system and the road blocks?

It doesn’t seem like he cares.

He was at an event recently where a young girl presented and was politely critical of the fiscal combo. He spoke after her, and the best he could do was say he’s thinking about the Costa Rica 30 years from now and that is why he is carrying out this reform.

But 30 years from now won’t matter if you can’t get today right.

The older I get, the more I can’t help but feel deflated as similar battles go on in the vast majority of countries where the rich try to stick it to the rest and the rest fight for equality.  Unfortunately, it looks like there will be very little compromise and the government will stick it to the common folk.

What’s even sadder is most economists believe this reform will not fix the deficit crisis. Not to oversimplify the problem, but the deficit is running around 8 percent and corruption and tax evasion are an estimated 8 percent of GDP. That’s not touched on much in the combo though.

Obviously, the situation is a lot more complex than what I can explained here, but the point is Costa Rica is not the Central American Switzerland many people think it is.

The international news media still seems to be sugarcoating it the most part – my dad called me after hearing about it and thought the protest was just for a day – but I think things will get worse yet before better.

I don’t think we’ll hit Venezuela or Nicaragua proportions, but we could end up in a Greece-like austerity situation if the president doesn’t govern better than this. He was the Costa Rican “Hillary Clinton” equivalent in the last election that we went for, however, if this keeps up next time we might end up rolling the dice with a “Trump” candidate.

 

Keep Calm and Ride on: The Bus in Rural Costa Rica

I don’t know why I was so panicky.  I had done this many times before with the composure of a tight rope walker over a 50 story building.  The volunteer traveling with me couldn’t be bothered one bit as buses pulled in and out of the station, she kept on reading quietly without a worry in the world.  I was trying to portray the same, but for some reason something was shaking inside me.

I knew we had to get on a bus soon.  Our ticket said 11:50am but it was already 12:15pm.  I wasn’t people at bus stationbothered by that, as we were waiting well before then and anything in writing almost never translates to reality, especially in rural Costa Rica.  This was a throwback trip for me, to my first voyages into Costa Rica as a baby faced recent college grad looking for his place.  Back then, time seemed to go slower and curiosity trumped speed.  

Before I had a vehicle, the bus and my feet were my modes of transportation.  It didn’t bother me one bit if I had to wake up at 5am to take a 2 hour bus out into the countryside, get off at some random point along the road and then walk into the forest another hour before reaching my destination.  It was a cheap way to take an adventure and the cultural insights are so much more interesting when traveling via public transportation.

If you spend anytime at a bus terminal, within minutes you begin to pick up on the culture.  You notice the lady that is there everyday selling newspapers at the entrance, how she greets pretty much anyone that walks by.  She doesn’t greet strangers because nobody is a stranger to her.  She knows the times and routes and which people should be at the terminal at which times to get their bus.

You feel the jolly demeanor coming from the bus drivers as they collect your tickets and store your luggage.  They notice that you are not from around here and pay special attention to make sure your destination is one actually serviced by their route as anything written at a bus station can and is often orally overruled.  Some buses depart 20 minutes late from the listed time, others charge a different price from the listed price, and some may go a completely different route to arrive at their final destination.  Nothing is ever totally accurate but it doesn’t seem to stress anyone out.  After you do it a few times, you know what to expect and you don’t even bother reading the signs on the wall anymore.  

I was anticipating this for my recent journey out to the Pacific coast and was therefore on edge at the terminal, not knowing if I should trust my ticket, what was written on the wall, what other locals were saying, or to even believe the bus driver.  Sure enough my ticket was wrong, the bus’s sign was incorrect, but after consulting with the passengers and bus drivers, I felt pretty confident I’d found the right bus.  God speed.

sacks on bus
The Amazon’s Amazon

This bus was going to one of the more rural parts of the country and I had had experience on buses like this before, but this one reminded me that not everything in Costa Rica is first world and country is country.  One of the first things I noticed about the bus, was that the outside was caked in mud and dirt.  Note to self: we’ll be off roading a bit on this adventure.  Due to this, they were not storing any luggage underneath the bus.  Luggage, you might say?  It’s not really luggage, but rather sacks filled with rice, beans, cooking oil and all the basic staples of the Costa Rican diet.  We lost a few seats on the bus as we had to find a place to put all these bags.

I remember my mother-in-law joking with me when I got married that I’d have to take a sack to the market, fill it with food, and carry it back to the house over my shoulder like a good Costa Rica husband.  That was back some 40-50 years ago before roads and buses existed in most parts of Costa Rica.  I thought that practice was an urban legend until now.  Once the bus was loaded (people and goods) five minutes were set aside for vendors to peruse the aisle one last time to sell soda, snacks, books, umbrellas, newspapers etc.  The lady in the seat next to me wanted a “cono”.  I wasn’t sure what this was but when the vendor jumped off the bus to retrieve it, I was half expecting him to come back with a live chicken or something.  Luckily, she only wanted ice cream.

Finally, we were off and I could relax a bit knowing I was on the right course to my final destination.  Since I am usually driving everywhere, rarely do I have the opportunity to just sit and stare out the window and take everything in.  It had just rained and there was quite a bit of humidity coming off the ground, which in turn made everything greener than normal.  There were also little fog clouds hanging around the rainforest covered mountains, providing my-so-called mystique effect, where I have to pinch myself to make sure I’m not in a Jurassic park movie.   

Sure enough, we entered the rainforest portion of the route and the pavement turned to dirt.  We were going along pretty good, making stops, letting people off, and slowly but surely the bus began to empty out, but we still had these sacks of food with us.  Eventually, we began making stops where nobody got off, but the sacks did.  Usually, it would be at a makeshift crossing, there would be a motorbike waiting to take a sack off on another dirt road that ran into the mountain.  Other times we’d just stop, toss the sack on the side of the road and continue on our way.

You could sense we were getting out of town, as the stops became more leisurely.  Nobody was in a hurry and at every stop there was a pause for discussion amongst the driver and the passenger.  Usually, it was to catch up on the local gossip, or tell an inside joke only community members would know about.  After awhile it seemed like we were traveling on a family vacation and Dad would be telling a story from the driver’s seat.  It didn’t matter that we were crossing some highly questionable bridges, or driving through streams of unknown depths.

Listening to their conversations and observing our surroundings put me into a trance like state, that was abruptly interrupted at one of the stops when the driver shouted “Ostional!”  I looked up and he was looking right at me.  Sure enough, he remembered my request back at the terminal and as anxious as I was, turns out I just had to sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride.

We got off the bus to start our next leg of the journey on foot.  We looked at our surroundings and saw a small path leading towards the beach.  This must be it, I thought.  I felt a wave of anxiety about to fall over me, but I brushed it aside, took a deep breath, and headed down the path, looking forward to the next adventure…