Wild ‘glamping’ Trip Brings Rainforest Back to Life

We were on a rural gravel road going through the rainforest when my aunt and cousin heard what seemed like a dinosaur roar and saw the trees shake.

“Dustin, Dustin! Can you stop and go back?”  I mean, sure why not.  Jurassic Park was only filmed in Costa Rica.  They didn’t really bring dinosaurs back to life, right?  

Howler monkey with mouth open
Howler Monkey

I slowly pulled to the side of the road and we began to crane our necks up toward the rainforest canopy to see what was going on. It turned out we had stumbled upon a pack of howler monkeys that really do sound like a T-rex. 

At first, I didn’t even want to get out of the car, as it was just another pack of monkeys in the trees, but my aunt had never seen monkeys in the wild. Thanks to her literally starting a conversation with them, we learned there was more than one pack, they were much closer to us than we thought and they had babies!

I rarely encounter wildlife this far out from civilization, but when I do it’s special.  With humans roving into all parts of the planet it was really cool to see monkeys that roar at you like they are trying to communicate with aliens. It was so far out, it felt like we were on another planet – or that I was in Jurassic Park, expecting a dinosaur at any moment.

We never did see any dinosaurs, of course, but I know have a new favorite Jurassic Park moment, courtesy of my aunt. She showed me new ways to experience the rainforest, only a couple of months after I wrote a column about how it no longer excited me.

Because she and my cousin were visiting me on vacation, we had decided to to find some of the most isolated and pristine beaches in Costa Rica, and that meant pushing the envelope. We took a ferry from the former port town of Puntarenas to the tip of the secluded Nicoya peninsula and hopped on a windy, two-lane road going into the mountains.

Aside from a few small towns or “bumps in the road,” as my dad would say, all we saw along that road were vast expanses of farmland, national reserves and the occasional breathtaking view of the ocean.

Eventually, the road ended and we came to the property. I call it that because we had rented a house, but it was nothing like what I expected. The jungle was amazingly manicured, and the “house” lacked doors and windows.

This place had it all, minus the doors and windows. There were pools, gardens, a pool table, a private beach, and of course, plenty of bat droppings. There was a waterfall a five-minute walk from the property on yet another secluded beach that we would have visited more if we didn’t already have our own private beach to enjoy.  

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Our view and beach below…

I was informed this kind of vacationing was called  “glamping.” and it’s something I would never have chosen on my own had I known what it was.  I’m a sucker for peer pressure though and my aunt, who fears no risk, was in charge. She brought me a hammock with a built-in mosquito net so I could sleep on the balcony overlooking the sea.  

The first night was incredible, as a thunderstorm ended up putting us to sleep. I had envisioned myself dozing off to a music on my phone, but nature was too intense not to take it all in.

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A crab from our night walk, during the day

One night, we drove to a nearby beach and were truly amazed. We hadn’t realized while walking along the tide line in the darkness, that we were right at the bottom of a cliff. When we started to hear waves coming from the shore we became so puzzled until we turned to see the sound was actually reflecting off the cliff we’d been walking along the base of.  The water reaches the cliff during high tide, so this was really a treat, to see the underside of the sea and the caves and creatures that live there.

On our way back, it started to rain a bit, and when we arrived, the jungle was alive and well. The sounds of the crickets, frogs, and the combination of the tap-tap of the water falling through the canopy made it jungle-spooky.  

It was just quiet enough for one errant sound to provoke sheer fear and… thankfully, no dinosaur sightings. But I had to get out of the car to open the gate, and at that moment I could have sworn I was in the movie.

Looking back, I can’t get out of my head how wild that trip was.

Next weekend, I’m traveling to the beach again and I am disappointed already knowing my lodging has doors and windows. It will be a relaxing, fun timebut it will quickly blur into all the other typical trips I’ve done to the beach.

This one will stay with me, and the stories will probably get better over time. However, unlike that one time I almost caught a humongous fish with my uncle, I have video proof of my aunt talking to monkeys.

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It’s hard to be amazed as a jungle connoisseur…

What’s about half the size of a hippo, but not aggressive?

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A hippo-anteater hybrid: The tapir!

That would be a tapir, and some people might want to punch me in the face if I said I went to the Corcovado rainforest and this was the only thing I thought worth mentioning.

Corcovado National Park is isolated in the southwest corner of Costa Rica and is one of the most biodiverse places in the world. I had read a lot about the park and finally decided it was time to see it for myself.

To get there, you boat through canals on what could pass for the set of Jurassic Park, then hit the open ocean to make a beach landing on one of the few primary rainforests left in the world.

For most any visitor, this would be the trip of a lifetime and I was hoping for a great experience.  But honestly, I’d be pressed to remember much of this visit because I’d done and seen most of it before.

Our visit started out traversing the ocean, which could be an experience in itself. Though I had never been in that much open water in such a small watercraft, I wanted to avoid seasickness, so I daydreamed, studying the coastline for jagged rock formations, to take my mind off the rolling waves. I’d seen many similar coastlines up and down the pacific side of Costa Rica before and this was nothing special.

There was no dock at the beach, so we had to jump in the water barefoot to get to shore. It was an exotic beach with the rainforest right at the edge, but it was familiar to me as it reminded me of the beaches in Manuel Antonio and Samara.

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This is a coati!

Even when we saw a coati looking for food as we approached the ranger station, I didn’t bother taking my camera out. I’d seen these in La Fortuna many times before.

We started hiking and encountered a beautiful group of red scarlet macaws, each with a mate and a few with children. They were having a lively conversation while eating their lunch in the trees and gave us many photo opportunities.

Of course, these things fly all around Jaco and the Carara National Park, all places I’ve been.  This would be the equivalent of taking a picture of a squirrel.

That’s when it hit me. In a way, I’d seen it all. That’s why this trip been so ho-hum despite all the adventure it had taken to get to this point.

I recalled going to other national parks and being intrigued by everything, but Corcovado just couldn’t turn the switch for me. We’d go on to see a spider monkey, sloth, herron and some capuchin monkeys, but it was so “been there, done that” for me.

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No big deal, it’s just a monkey..

I was actually disappointed we didn’t see all four types of monkeys that are in the park. It felt no different from Tortuguero, a national park in northeast Costa Rica I visited two years ago.

The most drama on the trip was me forgetting things and Mother Nature making me pay, like getting sunburned and drenched (only in Costa Rica can you get that combo that quickly) on a 1.5hr hike without a change of clothes.

I’ve been dumb before, and I’ll be dumb again so thank goodness I saw the tapir to have more than just a funny story to laugh about in the future. But even at that, the reality is watching the tapir was as about as exciting as watching a cow graze.

All this is not to say Corcovado isn’t a great place to visit. I just have higher expectations for my forests now that I’ve been living in Costa Rica since 2013.  I can’t believe the non-effect it had on me. A first-time rainforest visitor would fill an entire scrapbook.

I’ve really been spoiled by rainforests though, and they really have to work hard to amaze me. I still have a few parks on my list left to visit, and I hope one of them will spark some excitement.

I now know what guides and rangers must feel like. Our guide spent over an hour tracking the tapir and was noticeably excited when he spotted it.  At least now, he’ll have something to want to talk about at dinner.

Benefits of Being an Early Riser in Costa Rica

If there is one thing I could do in my sleep, it would probably be driving to the airport.  I don’t do much driving, but when I do it’s usually the 45min trip into the airport to drop someone off or pick them up.  I’ll do it anytime, but in particular I prefer to go early in the morning, the 5am or even 4am departures. I never imagined I’d willing type those words and stand by them, but a lot of things in Costa Rica actually facilitate and benefit the early riser.

One of things I dreaded most about growing up in Wisconsin was waking up in sub zero temperatures in the pitch dark.  I’ll never forget working construction over winter break in college, wearing four layers of clothes and working the first hour of the day in darkness before the sun would even rise.  How could someone will themselves out of their toasty bed at that time? That just goes against human nature. I don’t think any amount of coffee should convince scientists that early rising helps your health under those conditions.

Based on that trauma growing up, I never imagined I would embrace it in Costa Rica.  However, if you remove the temperature variable and give me a little bit of dawn to work with, I’ll make it the most productive moments of my day.  

Honestly, to really get anything done in Costa Rica efficiently, you should really complete it before 8am.  I learned this one day going to solicit internet service. I arrived at 11am and was directed to take a number and waited almost 45 minutes just to talk to someone.  Unfortunately, I was missing a document and was instructed to return the next day. The agent, seeing the look on my face as I glanced over to the line that would surely await me the next day, said the following: “If you can get here before 8am, there is almost no line and we can help you right away.”  Sure enough, the next day I was in and out in less than 10 minutes. I was hooked.

Speedy service was one thing, but there are other enhanced features rising early in Costa Rica.  For one, we can get some amazing sunrises over the mountains and the birds are so pleasant. Even in the city where I live, if you’re up early before the transit soundtrack starts, you’ll hear sweet melodies from a variety of birds in the area.  I have this beautiful yellow breasted bird that arrives every morning on the power line outside my office window just a chirpin’ away. If you live in the country or forest you’re in for a real experience with exposure to crickets, frogs, and infinite birds.  My favorite bird sighting was that of a red scarlet macaw that I saw at 6am.

Daylight is a precious commodity in Costa Rica.  Situated near the equator we only get about 12 hours of daylight and sunrise happens usually by 5:30am.  Even if you sleep in till 8am you feel like you’ve wasted an important part of your day. Especially in the raining season where it might start raining at 2pm and be dreary and cloudy the rest of the day.  Visitors are a little shocked to find out schools start at 7am, but it’s really a good idea to not waste daylight.

Crab in forest
                         Another early riser

I think the best part about getting up early though are the adventures you can have.  When I go on vacation, the best part is being in the habit of getting up early. Just recently I had the opportunity to sleep in a hammock just steps from the beach.  Every morning I had a chance to explore the beach and the nearby forest at its calmest. I paid attention to the crabs scouring the rocks for food. I spotted a squirrel high up in a tree that normally I wouldn’t have been able to spot and I heard the howls from the monkeys off in the distance.  It’s also a huge benefit as the weather is cool and fresh. By 8am you can feel the sun bearing down on you and the humidity begins to suck the energy out of you.

Early rising is much more enhanced in Costa Rica.  I could early rise in other countries, but I wouldn’t be very happy about it.  Here though I can’t seem to lose setting an early alarm. I’ve always wondered why Costa Rica wouldn’t just shift their clocks one hour ahead.  Wouldn’t it be amazing to have daylight till 7pm? When I take Costa Ricans to the United States during the summer, they have all kinds of problems where they don’t eat dinner till 10pm because they are accustomed to eating dinner after the sun sets.  

Needless to say, I don’t drive to the airport in my sleep, despite the early trips.  Our guests are often embarrassed to have us drive them at odd hours, but it’s really preferred.  Whether avoiding traffic, lines, weather or taking advantage of the calmness, wildlife, and sunrises the early riser always wins.  This doesn’t even include the coffee and gallo pinto that are also best enjoyed in the early morning.

turtles coming onshore
                     Rarely seen after 7am

7 Things I Wish I Knew Before Going to Costa Rica

Like always, all good things must come to an end, and alas that is happening now with my time in Costa Rica. Before coming here, I was extremely nervous because I was worried that two months was going to be too long of a time to live here, but now it seems like that time was too short. I was also nervous beforehand because all I knew about San Ramon was that the weather app thinks it rains there 24/7, and that one retiree thought others should not live there because it had “strange weather”. After spending almost two months here, I debunked both of those stories and found out many retirees live here, to the point that they have their own nonprofit organization, and that the weather app is a liar. These are just two examples of things that I found out to be different once I arrived here, but there were many more. Therefore, I would like to share with everyone a couple of things I wish I knew before coming to Costa Rica.

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Volcano hike in the pouring rain, so worth it.
  1. Even though it is the rainy season, that doesn’t mean it rains 24/7.

As I said earlier, my weather app made me think that I would not be able to leave the house any day. So, I bought new rainboots, a backpack cover, and rain pants. Once I got here, I only ended up using the rainboots once. I found out that if it does rain, its only for a short period of the day. I also realized that the rain is refreshing and not to be afraid of it. If you have the chance, go for a swim when it’s raining, I loved doing that here.

  1. Timing is difficult

If you’ve heard of island time, a similar thing exists in Costa Rica. It makes it a little difficult to make plans because people will either show up 15 minutes early, on time, or an hour late, and you don’t know which one it will be. The view of time in Costa Rica becomes especially tricky when traveling by bus, because there is no exact time that the bus comes at every time. So, I found the best way to deal with this difference is to always be early.

  1. Getting around by bus is quite time consuming even though the country is so small

As I mentioned before, there is no exact bus schedule which is one of the reasons traveling in Costa Rica is a little difficult. The other reason is that there are barely any direct busses, and this can make a trip that would take 4 hours in a car be 7 hours in a bus. This is mainly because of transfers and stops. Therefore, I wouldn’t say to avoid the busses, but to take into account that it can take you a full day to travel across Costa Rica.

P.S. If you are considering renting a car, it does bring the time down, but it costs around $80-100 a day.

  1. Get ready to eat a lot of rice.IMG_2116

Rice is a staple in the Costa Rican diet, so get ready to eat it in some kind of form for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or dessert.

  1. San Jose is not somewhere you want to spend a lot of time

Unlike most capitals of countries, San Jose is not one that has many tourist attractions. The main places to visit there are museums and the soccer stadium, which even then, that can be done in a day.

  1. Ask locals for recommendations

Locals are the best tour guides! They will be able to tell you where the best places are, how much they cost, and even recommendations for places that tourists don’t go. I got the chance to visit many viewpoints and waterfalls near San Ramon because of this. Best part was that all of these attractions were free, and had no tourists.

  1. Solo traveling is not that scary.

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    Old and new friends 

As I mentioned at the beginning I was really scared about moving to San Ramon for two months without ever meeting anyone there. I am from a big city (Chicago), so I was convinced that I would be miserable in such a small town. But, I found out that the size of the town helped me make more friends, and ended up being an advantage.
I was also nervous about making friends while here. But, I ended up learning that to make friends I had to put myself out there and when I would travel over the weekend to stay in hostels. I met some of the coolest people while in hostels, and from all over the world.

Overall, I learned a lot during my time here, but the most important thing that I was reminded of while here is that life is short, so we don’t have time to stress too much, we have to enjoy what we have while we do.  I am not too surprised that I learned this here since this is the country of ‘pura vida. ’

Hasta Luego Costa Rica!

 

 

Why Visiting Manuel Antonio is a Must While in Costa Rica

This past Sunday my mother flew into Costa Rica to spend time with me for a bit in this new country. We’ve spent some time in San Ramon, but we also strayed away from a cultural experience and became tourists this past weekend. We went to Manuel Antonio National Park with hopes to see sloths and a beautiful beach. Luckily, we got the best of both worlds, and saw both of those!

It took me forever to decide somewhere to go with my mom, as she did not care where we went, but eventually I chose Manuel Antonio. I ended up picking it as our destination for the weekend because it had both wildlife and a beach. These two things, along with a special restaurant, are the reasons why you must also visit Manuel Antonio/ Quepos while visiting Costa Rica.

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Playa Espadilla/ Espadilla Beach

After being in the car for about 2 and a half hours, we turned another corner on the never-ending winding highway from San Ramon to Quepos and saw the panoramic view of the beach. I’ve been to many beautiful beaches in my life, and this one left me speechless. Before going, I knew that it is renowned as one the best beaches of the world, and it was used to film scenes of Jurassic Park, but I had no idea how close the jungle and the beach were. The tall dark green luscious jungle trees were arching over the beach, and the waves were always hitting some tall rock that was also covered in these amazing trees. It looked like a picture straight out of a travel magazine. I’ve also heard that on the beach in Manuel Antonio park there is a treehouse, and many monkeys if you are looking for that kind of experience.

The other reason you must visit Manuel Antonio is because of the wildlife. This is kind of an obvious one, but it is the greatest reason to visit. Nowhere else in Costa Rica are you able to see such a variety of animals. While on our tour, we saw monkeys, sloths, dragonflies, lizards, iguanas, spiders (eek), and so many more animals. It felt like a modern day jungle book, except I was not Tarzan, and the animals didn’t talk. Here are some pictures of the animals we saw, but don’t let these pictures be enough, go see these animals for yourself!

 

Side Note: I have heard some people say not to get a tour guide, as you can just follow the groups and then look at the animals that they point out. This is true, but I would still recommend getting a guide because they have binoculars that will let you see the animal’s cute little faces, I’m mainly talking about the sloths faces.

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This restaurant is also great for the amazing sunset views!

Lastly, Manuel Antonio is a must on your list when traveling Costa Rica because of the restaurant called el Avion (The airplane). As I said last week, I love food, so wherever I go, I always look on trip advisor for the best restaurants in the area. This one stood out immediately because I had never heard of anything like it. The restaurant is either an abandoned or old airplane that has been transformed into a two story restaurant and a pub. In order to enter the bar, you have to go in through a small door, and it is located within the cock pit of the plane. If I just heard a description of this restaurant, I probably would have not have thought it was classy, but the way that this place is set up, exceeded my expectations.  On top of the amazing atmosphere, this place has great food. I ended up getting grilled chicken with passionfruit sauce, and it was deliciousss! The prices of the restaurant are more on the higher side, but so are most restaurants in Manuel Antonio.

 

Thank you all for reading, and I hope that once you visit the country of Pura Vida you also visit Manuel Antonio!

If you guys do visit, use our hashtag #CRFreeka when posting on Instagram or Facebook so we can see your adventures and cultural experiences!

Pura Vida in San Ramon

Hello everyone!

I am Julia (get to know me a little more here) and I am going to be a junior when I get back to my university in the Fall. I am currently here in interning for this awesome organization as the Social Media and Marketing manager. So far, I am loving the ‘Pura Vida’ culture. The food is amazing, the nature is breathtaking, and the language is just a tad bit difficult. Nevertheless, this past week I have already gotten the chance to see such a large chunk of the culture. I’ve visited many of the non-profit organizations in the area, the city center, airport, restaurants, schools, banks, and anything else you can think of.

So far there are quite a bit of differences that I have noticed while living here, but I will only discuss the two most important, food and school.

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Two volunteers, from Britain, found a mango this size in the grocery store!

I swear I am one of the biggest foodies, so every time I travel I always look to the food culture, whether that be by trying a new dish, or learning how to cook a traditional dish (fingers crossed I learn one here). This being so, I’ve gone to many restaurants so far, and had a couple of home-cooked meals, as well.  The first thing I immediately noticed here is that Ticos love their rice and beans. Here at least one of your meals in the day have to include beans and rice, and sometimes it might even be breakfast! Another staple to the Costa Rican diet are plantains, fried or raw. They have made grocery shopping a little bit confusing because I want to buy them,  thinking they are huge bananas. But I’ve made that mistake twice, and I never want to willingly bite into a raw plantain again.  Plantains are not the only fruit that humongous here, but so are avocados and mangos

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The school’s geese

Another cultural difference I’ve noticed is in the schools. I’ve gotten the opportunity to observe these differences because two volunteers arrived this week to work for a high school here. Firstly, this school is so different from public high schools in the U.S. due to the fact that it only provides specialized tracks. Most of them are focused around agriculture, but there is also one track that is English for working at call centers. This being so, there are many animals at the school, both farm and wild.

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Talking to a class about the differences between England and Costa Rica.

Within the classroom, the biggest difference I noticed was the way the class learning was structured. The best way to explain it would be as a friendly conversation between students, rather than a lecture or class. It also seems as if there is also never a moment where no chit chat is going on. Compared to the U.S. , and even to England, this seemed crazy to me! I am so used to strict teachers, and a zero whispering rule in elementary or high school classrooms. But, I can see the benefits to the style in Costa Rica. Their teaching style allows them to create better relationships with their teachers, and not be afraid to ask them for help. I know that when I was in high school, I would always be scared of the strictest teachers, but here that is less of a problem. Personally, I know that transitioning to this kind of school would be difficult, but I think it is necessary that I saw this difference. It is these kinds of differences that traveling and cultural immersion experiences give you, that make you grow the most as a person, and learn the most about yourself.

 

 

Before coming here, I took an online accelerated summer course about intercultural communication, and if I were to have walked away with only one lesson it would have been that immersing yourself in a different culture is the best way to learn about yourself, and others. Already during my short time here, I’ve noticed this. Therefore, I am excited to see what other differences I see during my time in this beautiful country and the to feel the effect they will have on my identity and knowledge of Latin American countries’ cultures.

¡Hasta la próxima semana!

Learning a Language is Such a Beach

There it was shaking, like a fish out of water.  Or was it trembling? Like my dog after (and before) he gets a bath.  It was a hand, slowly raising itself as if to ask forgiveness.  So nervous, that if called upon, it may not have the motor functions to articulate a response.  Once so talkative, all of a sudden this student was playing the unnoticed mouse in the corner, hoping their hand might be somehow overlooked.

students in class
Who’s the brave one?

I had just asked what people’s plans were for the weekend.  It was a hot, stuffy Saturday morning on the University of Costa Rica West campus in San Ramon and here we were jammed into a meeting room / storage space for English conversation hour.  In these quarters, not even the smallest mouse goes unnoticed, especially with a teacher that knows a thing or two about learning a second language.  I paced the front of the room and seeing no movement amongst the students I latched on quickly to the timid spaghetti string slowly working up the courage to waver in the back of the room.

We made eye contact and she knew what was up.  I trapped the mouse and now it was time for it to speak.  I was ready for anything, maybe she had to REALLY go to the bathroom, work out a cramp, or maybe she just wanted to know if I had a girlfriend or not.  She lowered her hand, took a deep sigh and said, “This wee-week-end I’m going to the BE-BEECH.”  At this moment her face turned red and her eyes darted around the room to see the reaction of the other students.  There were a few raised eyebrows, some half hushed gasps, but more importantly, an ensuing silence that only Donald Trump could break.

At that moment, I felt like doing one of those movie detective pauses, like when something just doesn’t add up.  The flow had been altered and I needed my Sherlock Holmes hat to decipher this conundrum I had apparently led us into.

I needed more facts.  Something was going on here, like an inside joke that I was not let in on.  My haunch was that it was a cultural or lexical detail that I had missed.  If only my wife were here to whisper the answer into my ear though.  With that not happening, I quizzically began to stare at the students, looking from one to the other, trying to get one to crack and share their reaction. 

Just when I felt my arms begin to shake in frustration, like a construction worker running a jack hammer, a student came to my rescue.  They asked simply, “Teacher, how do you say BEECH?”.  Now we were getting somewhere.  In my fairy tale I’d have slid over to him, lit a cigarette, and took a few puffs before responding, but instead I just responded  “Well, of course we pronounce it ‘beach’.”  Mildly puzzled, they countered, “and how do you say BEECH?”.  Hmmm, I’m going to need a bigger Sherlock Holmes hat or a visit to the ear doctor, I thought to myself. 

Hadn’t I just explained it?  I had to dig deeper.  “What do you mean by BEECH?”  I asked.  The response I got was in Spanish and was something along the lines of someone doing sexual acts for money.  Then it hit me, and not wanting to dig an even deeper hole I followed up with the “Oh, you mean a female dog, don’t you?”  Receiving an affirmative head nod it was then my turn to blush, however at least now we were all laughing together.

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Some of the Saturday crew 🙂

I’m proud of my students for coming and having the courage to bring their language concerns to me, even at the expense of embarrassment.  I was in their shoes too, and the best way to never forget a word is to have a memorable moment using it. 

We only meet for two hours on Saturdays to informally chat in English and the discoveries we make are sometimes quite deep.  We could spend hours going over these curiosities and often times discover new nuances we never knew existed.  (Did you know if you really fudge the pronunciation of ‘beer’ you can make it sound like ‘mirror’.)  I even learn new Spanish words as we sometimes have to reconfirm conclusions by translation.

Our hold up in the session that day was that the “bi” sound sounds like the “be” sound in beach when pronounced in Spanish and is why Spanish speakers tense up when using this vocabulary.  I would too, knowing the consequences of any little mistake. 

I probably should invest in a detective’s cap, or maybe a magnifying glass if only for these instances, as they do come up.  I can’t think of a better way to uncover language’s best kept secrets than in a dusty, glorified storage room with a group of eager, although sometimes hesitant, apprentices.   

So the next time you are in Costa Rica, or any Spanish speaking country in Latin America,  think back to this article before you tell the locals you’re going to “hit the beach”.

  

     

Street Culture in San Ramon

First to come through are the saints, then the oxcarts, and if that weren’t enough luminaries, flags and bands are to follow.  If the Olympics were ever hosted in San Ramon, then this would be the mammoth opening parade ceremony.  Since it’s not quite that, these events are broken down into smaller doses, with each one getting due attention.

If you ever wanted to get a cultural experience in a nutshell, you can’t go wrong spending 17 days in San Ramon at the end of summer.  In those 17 days, you’d be treated to 4 parades, with each one depicting the culture of San Ramon.

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When Saint Raymond comes marching in!

All the parades are unique in their own way, however the first parade, the Saint’s Entrance, has special

recognition by being the only one of its kind in Costa Rica.  Each neighborhood in San Ramon is assigned a saint and they have the chance to parade a representation of it around town and display it in the church for two weeks.  Each town adds their own flare to their saint, and my favorite ones were accompanied by bands, and dancers.  It has gotten so popular that there was even a delegation from Mexico participating in the parade.  This is a good warm up parade as it coincides with the Saint of San Ramon day, Saint Raymond.  However, my favorite parade was yet to come.

Before trains, cars, and highways, Costa Rica was moved by ox and oxcart.  These animals don’t work near as hard nowadays but this parade commemorates their contributions to the growth of Costa Rica, and the colorful designs of the oxcarts.  We had the fortune of the parade passing in front of

Ox and oxcart in parade
Just like in 1950

my aunt’s house and were able to observe oxes from all over the country.  The slow moving parade was great for families, as you could walk out into the street and get your picture taken with any oxcart and you could even participate by riding in one.  It was amazing to see the pride people still have in this tradition and their enthusiasm in preserving it.  My wife’s family would applaud and congratulate the owner each time a nice ox and oxcart tandem walked by.  There is still a lot of appreciation for them, as their generation still can remember them as a primary means of transportation.  This parade is renowned for being the largest of its type in Costa Rica.

After this parade, there is a lull for about a week, until patriotism kicks in.  September 15th, 196 years ago was the day Costa Rica was granted its independence along with pretty much all of Central America.  For a country without an army, the parade had somewhat a military tone, even though Costa Rica never had to fight for its independence.  These parades are held in towns all over the country and are not unique in nature, but I think each town competes to outdo each other.  If it can march, then it can be in the parade.  Marching baton twirlers, flag bearers, and bands highlighted the festivities and were accompanied by floats depicting traditional Costa Rica country life.  I loved the bands, and taken out of context, one might believe it was college football Saturday.  

independence parade costa rica
Independence day flag bearers

Despite how inspiring this parade was, it was actually more of a continuation from the previous evening’s luminaire parade.  Independence was officially declared and signed in the evening on September 14th.  At that time there wasn’t electricity and all the townspeople congregated with lanterns in the square to witness the event.  Funny thing though, this happened in Guatemala and Costa Rica wasn’t even aware of it till the next day, but they’ve since picked up the tradition to instigate civic pride in children.  I don’t attend this parade (yet) but children and parents really take pride in creating their luminaries and some are even entered to be judged.  

There is a lot to parade about in Costa Rica, but this time of year there is a lot to focus on.  What I enjoy most about these parades is the dedication of the participants.  It’s not uncommon for participation in 3 or even 4 parades, and not once will you see their spirits dampened.  The smiles on the faces of the cowboys with their ox, or the seriousness of the flagbearers, and even the lightheartedness of the Saints parade.  My friend is the band instructor at the elementary school across the street from my house and starting as early as June we’ll be treated to afternoon recitals as they are out in the street preparing for parade season.   

Missing from these parades are floats, candy and fireworks.  I’m not sure why candy hasn’t caught on here, as almost everything is eventually copied from North America.  Fireworks are viewed as only for Christmas and New Year’s, while floats popular in years past, appeared to be out of style this year.

Maybe I’ve been out of the US too long, but I didn’t feel their absence at all.  For me it was heartwarming to look down main street and see it packed with people as far as the eye could see and the community feeling was great.  I wasn’t in any of the parades, but I ran into a lot of people I knew just in the course of coming and going from them.  

I would have been drained after this marathon of parades and the only thing I can say is I’m lucky I don’t have kids yet, as my Septembers will then get completely turned upside down.  It’s worth noting that children’s day is celebrated right in the middle of all these parade dates and it might only be a matter of time before they add a parade for them.  If that were to happen, then I think San Ramon could think about bidding to host the Olympic opening ceremony.

About the author:

Dustin is from the United States and is a naturalized Costa Rican citizen.  When not writing for the Costa Rica Frika blog, he is running the Costa Rica Frika organization.

 

Bend But Don’t Break Teaching in Costa Rica

Costa Rica.  The Central American symbol of progress and stability in a region historically known for chaos.  You may have heard of it as a tourist destination.  Fly in, take the tourist bus straight to the all inclusive resort and be shuttled around to places the country wants you to see.

Just like a coffee bean has various layers of skin, Costa Rica can be peeled back one by one to reveal its deeper qualities.  When you sift through all the “Save the Americans” propaganda, and go beyond the beaches and rainforests, you’ll find a culture very dedicated to becoming much more than volcanoes and sloths.

Case in point: Education.  A long way from the standard US public school you’ll find quite a contrast in Latin America. Many school systems lack any kind of technological resources, are overcrowded, have teachers that are untrained and overworked, and the majority work with rural or impoverished communities where school is not seen as a priority.

Enter Costa Rica.  Without having to support a military for over half a century, the resources available for public use have been extensive in comparison to other area countries.  Thanks to a visit from Teachers2Teachers International, a non-profit US organization dedicated to revolutionizing STEM training for teachers all over the world, those differences were put into context and many generalizations need not apply when it comes to education in Costa Rica. 

The mission was to spend a week immersing ourselves at a rural Costa Rican school observing, sharing, and reflecting on the school system.  The school serves a community of about 150 families with children grades 1-6.  Hardly a walk in the park for the teachers, they all teach two grades alternating mornings and afternoons.  A normal day starts at 7am and stretches to 5pm.  And that’s just class time.  Where they find time to lesson plan and complete the many extra curricular activities assigned to them was beyond understanding at times.  Even for them.

Our schedule was very day to day as our visit fell during “fair season”.  During the week we were there, there was an art and a science fair, plus spelling bee practice for the school’s regional qualifier.  Not to mention the principal was replaced two days before our arrival.  By day three the custodian had become the go to person in getting information.  With interruptions seemingly a way of life, we were quickly turned on to the art of improvising, which must loosely translate to pura vida

Our host school fields three full time teachers and they are stretched every which way to meet the requirements that all schools are held to, regardless of size.  That meant one teacher leaving her 5th graders working on a project by themselves so she could do administrative tasks in the office.  A larger school would have a secretary, but here that responsibility gets passed around.  It also meant one group didn’t have class one day because the teacher had to accompany another group of students to a fair at a different school.  It also meant we only saw the new principal once the whole time we were there.  It wasn’t like he was at the school either, he wasn’t.  Whether running paperwork around or attending meetings, the Ministry of Education seemed to keep somebody on the road running errands.

Having digested the shock and awe at the “organized chaos” we were uncertain we would be afforded the opportunity to share with the teachers.  Our moments may have been brief, however the engagement was sincere and I think everyone would agree they took at least as much with them as they left.  It didn’t take long for them to put us on our heels with a long division method that was familiar in operation, but completely backwards in structure.  It was like learning to read all over again, but this time reading right-to-left instead of left-to-right.

Where’s the remainder?

On a classroom level, we were also able to contribute to the learning process.  One of our initial observations was that students spent a lot of time sitting and reciting/reading information.  Luckily, the classrooms were equipped with flat screen TVs and access to the internet, but besides that it was hard to identify much innovation in student engagement.  That observation lasted until day two when the teacher turned to us and offered us her group for 30 minutes.  With the theme of the week to improvise, we knew we couldn’t let the moment pass, even if we didn’t have anything prepared.  It just so happened, we had shared an animal book with an adjoining tangram activity previously with the teacher and it fit right into the science review she was doing with the class that day.

tangram activity with children
Tangrams to the rescue!

Now having experienced and adapted to improvisation, we negotiated right then for the teacher to give us another section to prepare and present an activity the next day.  That day, not only did we get the class engaged in the activity, we had the teacher actively leading the activity with us.  Who thought division/multiplication practice could be so fun?

By the end of the week we were more agile than a goats in a tree in getting our objectives met.  This was my first experience on a trip like this and while it could have been smoother, I don’t think it would have been the same had it been.  One of our participants attended an art festival, another tutored the spelling bee champ, and one teacher even went next door to the high school to see how pura vida they were.

Despite all the juggling, it was reassuring to see the technology available at the school (they had a computer lab and taught programming), the manageable class sizes (<20), and the preparation of the teachers.  In Costa Rica you are required to have a university bachelor´s degree before becoming a teacher, which is a luxury in other parts of Central America.         

I think you would be stressed to find another rural school in Central America with these conditions and you could probably rank them right up with some schools in developed countries.  In my 10+ years in Costa Rica I’ve never been as involved with a school as I was on this exchange.  With the added expertise of T2T-I the sharing was much more focused and found common ground with a lot of the challenges teachers all over the world face.

teacher group shot
¡Exito = Success!

Overall, it was a very pleasant experience and a departure from the norm from what you usually think about when Costa Rica is mentioned.  When bringing colleagues together, countries and cultures apart, those extra obstacles make the experience real and the labor much more rewarding, especially since you’re educating future world citizens at a crucial point in their lives.     

Like a 7-layer cake, not all the sweetness is visible on the surface, and you shouldn’t be afraid to bite down and see what else the country has to offer.  You never know what you’ll find.  We found education, but have you tried Costa Rican coffee??