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Note: This post was originally written/published in September 2014.
There seem to be countless opportunities in Costa Rica. Everything seems possible whether starting a business, taking a vacation, doing a cultural exchange, or volunteering
there is always being talked about.
There isn’t a week where there isn’t something like that to keep me up thinking at night. Most ideas never get much past the sketch on a napkin stage, but nevertheless the possibilities are endless.
Recently I was stuck on the idea that I had to invest at the beach. Something about having nothing but the deep blue ocean in front of you and nothing but a plush rainforest behind you, waking up each day with a walk to the beach and a dip in the pool, pina colada in hand, seemed like paradise to me.
I was certain Costa Rica Frika 2 would open sooner or later at the beach. I just had to make sure this wasn’t a phase like Power Rangers or Pokemon was as a kid growing up. So like all good investors do, I scouted it.
I had been to this particular beach before for two to three days at a time, but I still felt like a tourist every time I arrived there. I just hadn’t been able to find a property that fit what I was looking for.
Until this time. It was a small apartment complex situated on top of a mountain with a direct ocean view a few minutes walking from town.
This was right up my alley, and from the pictures on the Internet and having direct contact with the owner when I made the reservation, I knew this could be potentially a very good visit.
Lucky for me though I was only staying as a guest, and not as an owner. Because it wasn’t anything like what I had expected.
Marketing is really an amazing tool. Done well, you can dress up just about anything to look and sound like the Taj Mahal. Fortunately, this wasn’t my dream Costa Rican vacation, because the only thing I dreamed about during my stay there was how much better this place could be with some substantial investment.
The website didn’t lie; you can definitely see the ocean, and the property borders a private wildlife reserve in which we were able to see howler monkeys playing in the trees the first day we arrived. The pool was even nice and well-kept.
That is about where the pleasantries ended.
Even when lounging at the pool, I couldn’t help but notice the overgrown grass, the plants growing wildly out of control, and dirt caked on the sidewalk, having eroded from the last night’s rainstorm. As I turned to look back at the apartment building, I noticed that some of the units appeared to have been under construction at some point but had been abandoned. I also observed that there had once been three floors to the building and there was now a makeshift roof over the concrete floor on the second.
And the whole place looked like it could use a paint job, as the salt and humidity in the air had had its way with the apartment complex.
I felt blessed to have only prepaid for one night, instead of the three I’d planned on. We arrived to find the advertised wi-fi didn’t work, the water might not work and we couldn’t unlock our room safe after we had locked our valuables inside it.
At least we had the pool while we waited for the locksmith.
I’m sure some people would have turned around and left at this point, and not too long ago I would have done the same myself. This is obviously how all disaster vacations begin, right?
But maybe since I came with an investor’s mindset, the only feeling I could strongly identify with at that point was pity. I felt bad for the owner.
I knew he didn’t intentionally not mow the grass or maintain the garden and that it wouldn’t be cheap to run the must-have wi-fi signal all the way up the hill to the apartments.
And so the longer I sat at the pool the more I felt sorry for this guy. Maybe he had come to Costa Rica with big illusions of developing a great tourism business but for one reason or another things haven’t quite worked out. If I had to guess, he probably underestimated the amount of money it would take to renovate and maintain a place like this.
My wife and I speculated it would cost maybe a half-million dollars to bring this up to dream-level vacation standards. We’re not quite at that level of investment (read: nowhere
near), but we did spend some time at the pool thinking of what could be done to this place.
In the end we were reminded of a common Costa Rica phrase “Cuando sea grande…” It means “When I’m a grown-up…”
That’s the phrase that’s often used when talking about things that you don’t believe you will ever do. This was a humbling experience for me, as I realized beach ownership isn’t quite what it’s all cracked up to be.
I stayed my few nights, but then I was on my way… on to the next opportunity.
A little more than a week ago, I married the girl of my dreams and soon I found myself in Panama City, lounging next to her at the pool, sipping mojitos and working on my tan.
I could smell the sirloin steak coming from the kitchen; it will be my dinner in a few hours. After that, perhaps I’ll go down to the casino or ask the concierge for a good nightclub to go to.
There is no doubt in my mind that it will be a classy night. After all, Donald Trump has a building named after him in this city.
Three days later, back in my home in neighboring Costa Rica, I counted all the luxury hotels, five-course meals, room services, and $10 drinks and wondered if I had made a mistake. No, Mom, don’t panic… I definitely married the girl of my dreams, but our honeymoon was totally out of character.
It was the height of luxury, but we didn’t learn anything about the culture or the country. We never ate the regional food. We didn’t wander off into residential neighborhoods. Besides my wife’s innocent chatter with the taxi driver about why people don’t swim in the ocean (it’s contaminated), we hardly spoke to the locals.
Instead, we spent a lot of time in shopping malls and nice restaurants, and without a friend to show us the ropes, we felt fairly restricted to the superficial tourist area. In effect, we treated ourselves to the all-inclusive package, yet it was probably the most exclusive thing either of us had ever done.
My honeymoon reminded me of why I chose to live in Costa Rica: so I could continue to relive and share the experience of authentic travel that swept me off my feet so many years ago.
Most of us know the joy of experiencing a baby’s firsts: first words, first steps, first tooth, etc. Well, what if I told you that I get to live that euphoria of firsts every single day with people of all ages?
I have seen a 50-year old’s first words in Spanish, a 12-year old’s first gallo pinto breakfast and countless others’ first realization that the world of Latin America is not half as scary as people think it is. People here are quick on the smile, generous with laughs and eager to help – and real travel has nothing to do with nightclubs and luxury hotels.
Every once in a while, this constant, privileged euphoria slowly gets lost in my day-to-day routine until a special group comes along and gives me another injection. Last January, in fact, I came dangerously close to an overdose.
First, a group of University of Minnesota students came down for two weeks during their winter break. I didn’t really begin to understand the depth and impact of their experience until the final night, when their professor proceeded to give a 15-minute bilingual speech in a pizza parlor – and he is not bilingual – where he reflected on his experience and expressed his gratitude to all of the Costa Ricans.
A few days later, I received an email from this professor with a link to his 38-page journal that he had been keeping since he arrived. It was complete with pictures, diagrams, and reactions – practically ready for publishing. It wasn’t just about good food and comfortable beds, but rather a cultural immersion in Costa Rica had inspired him in many new ways. It reminded me of why I am here. Then, my extended family flew down for an exciting week of adventure that culminated in my wedding day.
Every day was filled with an amazing energy to share and to embrace different cultures. Every effort was made so the events took place in both languages, and when communication broke down, people got creative. (Well, not so creative; we just uncorked more wine!)
I got to watch my family’s first attempts at dancing salsa and cumbia, first cracks at Spanish pronunciation, and unfortunately, first exposures to extreme sun. People were eager to organize, record and document every aspect of their newfound Latin American family, and our Costa Rican counterparts were delighted to share and learn, as well.
Many notebooks were filled with memories, countless photos were taken, and everyone agreed that whatever just happened was a blurry, amazing, heartfelt, unforgettable experience.
It’s sometimes hard for me to fathom how what I consider to be my daily life now is the experience of a lifetime for others.
I do remember that feeling some eight years ago though, and it still comes back to me on occasion: the insatiable curiosity, the sense of adventure, the relaxed pace of life, how the tropical climate is different and intoxicating when you come from a fast-paced, extreme-driven society. Even though that seems so long ago for me, it is good to have that reminder of where I started.
My trip to Panama ended up being a refreshing experience, as it reminded me of what I’ve got. At this point, I don’t see myself trading in the open-ended for the all-inclusive anytime soon.
After curiously perusing the aisles of Miller and Son’s supermarket, the Costa Rican crew settled on some familiar cans of pop and headed for the check out. They bought the drinks and just as they were about to leave, one of them remembered to ask the cashier for straws.
“The straws are located in aisle 10.” She replied politely.
There was an awkward pause punctuated only by the beeping of the check out machines where the cashier may have been thinking: “Why did he ask for straws after he paid?” while the Costa Ricans were definitely wondering “Why won’t she just give me a straw?” In Costa Rica, when you buy a can or bottle of pop at the supermarket, they usually give you a complementary straw. After talking up the friendly, hometown service at Miller’s, this was a difficult one to explain and it was one of many among other surprises my Costa Rican family would encounter on their 10-day quest through the Midwest.
I first began traveling to Costa Rica in 2006 and after experiencing the hospitality and kindness of the Costa Ricans, it has always been my dream to share that same experience with a Costa Rican in Wisconsin. That dream became a reality last fall when guest writer Bernal Blanco shared his one month experience in Verona. This time, however, would be different.
In January, I married my lovely Costa Rican wife. I knew I was marrying into a large family, but wasn’t exactly sure of its proportions. I found out fast as word got out that my wife and I were planning a trip to Wisconsin.I had invited the in-laws, but before long aunts, uncles, and cousins came calling to see if they could get in on the experience too. In the end, there were eight of us and a ten-month-old infant.
I’m sure this had a lot to do with safety in numbers. Costa Ricans are known to travel in packs. To given you an idea, San José – the capital city of Costa Rica – is 60 minutes by bus from San Ramon and my 27 year old wife has never gone there by herself. If she can’t go with her parents or a friend, she won’t go. The majority of our family travelers didn’t have passports and had never been on a plane before. As you can see, telling someone here that they don’t get out much really takes on a whole new meaning.
The “pack” mentality became apparent when we decided to cram all of us into one large vehicle to visit Minnesota instead of dividing up into two comfier cars and even more apparent when the whole group spent one gleeful night on air mattresses in my parent’s living room. For them seeing the sights, hearing the sounds, and smelling the smells—- both good and bad—- together, are what makes the experience special for them.
I knew this coming in and I had repeatedly pledged to keep the trip simple. We did spend close to 10 hours in Target and Walmart and we may be responsible for the uptick in sales at the Verona St. Vincent de Paul store, but even I overestimated when purchasing water park tickets for the group.
I had envisioned screams of fear and excitement as they experienced the water park rides, but in reality, I was only able to get half the group to go into the water. The other half were content hanging out at the hotel and relaxing. I even got passes to the indoor/outdoor water park so they couldn’t say it was too cold outside, but nonetheless, my raging river idea went over a little more like a trickling stream. I soon realized that I had been going for the big impression when they were looking for the little things. Watching the squirrels run around
the yard, seeing the ducks at the park, and riding our lawnmower were just some of the small details that they really enjoyed.
For them, the most fascinating mystery of my hometown was how anything survived the winter. Being from a tropical country where plants bloom year-round, they were particularly perplexed by this dormant period. “Where do the squirrels and birds go? Do you have to replant the grass every year? What about the farm animals? What about the cows? Does their milk freeze?”
What about the cows? Well, a trip to Wisconsin wouldn’t be complete without a dairy farm visit. Cattle and dairy farming are very common in Costa Rica and if you have even 15 cows, We took them to a local farm where approximately 600 cows are milked three times a day and I was finally able to impress them with something BIG. The level of efficiency, organization, and calculated production that happens in our local agricultural industry is something that doesn’t exist in Costa Rica.
In the end, the little things always win us over. Seeing the awe and appreciation for our small corner of the world through the eyes of my Costa Rican in-laws was definitely the best part and even if they couldn’t get straws at the supermarket, they had the experience of learning to drink from a can.
PN- The community of Piedades Norte is in a difficult situation. They have computers, but no place to use them. With their previous place having been demolished and an offer on the table from INA (National Learning Institute) to teach free computer courses, the community is now in scrambling to build an adequate classroom. That’s where Costa Rica Frika and the University of Minnesota Construction Management class got involved.
The construction management class from the Northern U.S. university came down for two weeks in January and worked tirelessly to provide the community with some building solutions to house their computers. In the end, they were able to budget and estimate three different solutions for the community, two of them which utilized an existing community structure.
The community was overjoyed to receive the proposals. Now armed with construction ideas, they have moved on to fundraising for the project.
With estimated costs projected to be around 25 million colones (approx. 50,000USD), the community is actively looking to raise money to make this project a reality. Costa Rica Frika began the drive by donating 350 thousand colones (approx 700USD) to help support the engineering and architectural costs of the project. If you would like to donate or get involved in the project please contact email@example.com for more information.
***This article was originally published in a local newspaper in January 2013***
It was like sticking my head in the freezer on a hot summer afternoon.
You know the feeling – when you’re looking for that refreshing burst of air to take your mind off the excessive heat. You know you’re in for a climate change when you open that door, and even though your sweat glands pucker right back up the second you close the freezer, that moment in time feels forever etched in your mind.
Or, like in my case, it’s frostbitten to your forehead. That moment in time, that’s exactly how I feel whenever I touch down in Costa Rica.
I returned to Costa Rica in late December after a Wisconsin winter holiday and from the moment I arrived I unconsciously began to savor every moment, just like if it had been my first time.
Stepping out of the terminal I welcome the warm burst of tropical air. I sense the full moon as it illuminates the surrounding mountain ranges of the central valley. Traveling home my ears are tuned to the salsa and bachata beats coming from the radio, as well as the incessant chatter from the taxi driver about how his team should have won the national soccer championship.
That night I fall asleep, paralyzed with glee knowing that I’d left the wind and grind, ice and snow, and sub zero temperatures behind.
The next morning I spend what feels like an hour just sitting in the yard basking in the sun. Everything feels refreshingly new to me. Taking in the aroma of the orchid plants, drowning out my thoughts with the chatter from the parrots in the nearby trees, and blinding the neighbors with the glare of the sun off my ghostly pale vitamin D deprived skin.
Had my dog, Ruffo, not awakened me I’m sure I could have been harvested as a tomato that same afternoon.
Ruffo seemed to be telling me that it is time to go visit my 86-year old adopted Costa Rica grandmother who lives tucked away in a sleepy, countryside home. I set out by bus to pay her a surprise visit. We take a shot of tequila (her customary greeting for any visitor) and I tell her the news and adventures of everyone in my extended family. She follows along intently, despite knowing very few of them personally, as if they were her own children.
I sit down with her for a typical lunch of rice and beans and instantly long for a slice of pizza, a hamburger, or even pasteurized milk. It’s going to be awhile before I can savor those tastes again.
Fortunately, there are plenty of other delights to keep my taste buds happy: starfruit juice, freshly harvested coffee, fried plantains, and of course salsa Lizano.
Now on the move, I am filled with the inexplicable desire to explore Costa Rica all over again, as if I were seeing it for the first time. I go to a traditional “tope,” or horse parade. The next day, I take a hike in the largest private rainforest reserve in Costa Rica, the Children’s Eternal Rainforest and finally, I spend an afternoon picking coffee for 50 cents an hour at one of my friend’s plantations. To top it all off I even managed to bring in the New Year in a swimsuit (a first for me) by viewing a fireworks show on the beach.
I have always loved visiting Costa Rica, since my initial volunteer abroad experience, in 2006. I always feel the spark of curiosity and adventure when I arrive here. There is always something new to see and experience.
Whether its a short or long stay, volunteering or touring, alone or in a group, I still feel as giddy as the first time (and even more so especially if coming from winter in Wisconsin.)
So now I have since stopped visiting Costa Rica and have made it my primary residence. With each stay here, I’ve become immersed in the culture, made more friends, and developed stronger relationships.
The love and affection shown by Costa Ricans is second to none and thanks to my adopted grandma I’ve been introduced to my girlfriend, which has allowed for even more cultural immersion.
Now I am dedicate to duplicating this experience for other visitors to Costa Rica. I love being at the airport to greet them. To see their initial reactions and then watching as they develop and change over the course of their stay is really gratifying to me. When they go from the “this is strange” expression to the “I could get used to this” expression then I know I’m doing my job.
With January being the start of the tourist season, I couldn’t think of a better way to have prepared for this than by returning to Costa Rica myself.
I encourage everyone to open that freezer door. The initial shock might leave your senses tingling and put you on edge, however once the vapor clears you’ll find yourself adjusting and comfortable again. Whether that door is open for only a week or as long as six months you’re certainly headed for climate change both literally and figuratively.
No doubt, it will leave you awake, refreshed and renewed.
Ever wonder what it’s like to pick coffee? I decided to go one day for the experience and… if your good at repetitive tasks, can work fast, and can withstand bugs, plants and getting lost, then you would be good at this. Plus great for hearing the outdoors, and guys this might be the closest experience to being pregnant that you could have.
Picking coffee is kind of a lost art, what was once a lucrative job is now relegated to immigrants and older Costa Ricans who grew up with it.