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!

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.  

beach panoramic
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.

Crab in the brush
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.

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

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

Tapir looking for food
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.

coati running
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.

howler monkey hanging out
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

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

DSC_0308
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!

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.

Saint of San Ramon
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.

 

Cultural Exchange Brings Tingling Feelings to Life

AAAHHHH!!  Was the shriek I heard coming from the other side of the bushes.  This was no ordinary scream, as we were in an area surrounded by jaguars, pumas, and bobcats.  And by no ordinary scream, I mean it didn’t sound quite like an animal attack, but something else.  I rounded the corner to find my cousin, amongst other students, taken aback by the “massive” spider they had just spotted right outside the jaguar enclosure.    

For a group of Wisconsin teens on their first visit to Costa Rica, any creature would appear “massive” in fake spider on armcomparison to what they are used to seeing and this spider sure qualified.  Thankfully, they didn’t scream every time they saw a new insect/animal or they would have been hoarse by day two, but there was a lot of “new” for this group to take in.

Our spider encounter at the Costa Rican zoo we visited that day was just one of the many cultural experiences these students had over the course of their cultural exchange trip to Costa Rica.  When you add that to the cockroaches, gecko lizards, mutant mosquitoes and the occasional rat/mouse there’s already a lot to experience not even counting human interaction.  This was a very special group of exchange students as they had received Costa Rican exchange students in their homes January and would now live with the same students in Costa Rica.  

Over the course of two weeks, the students visited the host students high school, attended classes, participated in educational and recreational activities, and most importantly, were immersed into the Costa Rican culture.

When I talk about cultural exchanges, I always refer to “tingling” moments or sensations where cultural interaction is taking place, but there is no good way to describe the feeling as it is not something you can detect physically (unless you’re screaming).  What’s fascinating is everyone experiences these moments differently for a variety of reasons and there is no telling what their main take aways will be.

Observing these students over the course of the exchange I noticed a lot of these tingling moments. There were card games the US students shared and there was salsa dancing the Costa Ricans shared.  There was our trip to the capital city San José, punctuated be getting stranded (but not soaked) under a torrential downpour and a visit to the main central market of San José.  There was also the unique experience of living through a power outage in all of Central America.  Besides that, there were many great memories created on the other excursions such as the beach island trip, where Wisconsinites and Costa Ricans could be seen kayaking, playing volleyball, and having a good time chilling out in the jacuzzi.      

dave with host familyThe little things were also noted.  My cousin, for one, was relieved despite his limited Spanish, that there were still Costa Ricans that spoke naturally slow enough for him to understand.  There were also students very keen to pick up vocabulary and some carried around a notebook to be ready at a moment’s notice.  Even the teacher/chaperone had a list of different foods to try that was made for her by students at the high school.  (I was curious to hear from her what toad’s soup tasted like.)  

These were only the things that I could observed.  The other aspect of this trip was all the opportunities the students had on the weekends and evenings with their host families.  Even though we insisted the students only spoke Spanish when together, we could rest assured that they were being forced to try out the language while at home.  For the higher level students, this was their time to speak the language freely without feeling as if they were being graded.  For the lower level students this was their chance to see just how far they could get while having their host sibling as a backup should they get stuck trying to communicate something to their host parents.

For me (and them) it was a big accomplishment completing both stages of the exchange.  The only thing I’ve ever regretted about international travel was not starting sooner (and I started when I was 20).  These students now not only have the international cultural travel experience at a young age, but they also have international life long friends that will no doubt continue to be resources for them.  There was lots of sadness at the going away party, however I don’t foresee this being the last time they are together.     

I still keep in touch with my original host family from 11 years ago and rarely do I miss a celebration.  Even being fully integrated into my wife’s Costa Rican family doesn’t take away from that first experience and bond I’ll always have.  I visited a lot of countries after first coming to Costa Rica, but no matter how much I enjoyed the other places, it was never enough to overcome the experience I had from my first time in Costa Rica.  

The future is bright for these students as it’s anyone’s guess where this experience will take them.  I ended up in Costa Rica, however maybe they will never return to Costa Rica This exchange though will no doubt give them the confidence to take other risks putting them out of their comfort zone.  Let’s just hope those risks don’t involve jumping into a jaguar enclosure.  That would provoke one extraordinary scream.  

group photo at park

The Loss of the Iron Grandma

We got the phone call just before 6am and she was already gone.  Just like that, 90 years had been archived into the memories and minds of the people she had touched.  Now the stories and pictures will have to live on through what we tell and show our future children and grandchildren.  Grandma had passed away peacefully in her home.

I had the opportunity to know this woman the final 8 years or so of her life.  For my wife she was Grandma Belissa, but Grandma seemed to be the name of choice, whether or not you were family to her; it was the vibe she gave that invited so many people to anoint her “Grandma”.

I think it all started when you visited her home.  She was traditional for a 90 year old Costa Rican lady, living in town just a few blocks from the main commercial area, but always kept to her roots.  You entered her humble, wood home with a big smooch on the cheek and within a few minutes of sitting down she’d offer some food or a drink.  If you refused, her offer would quickly turn into a demand and eventually you’d have to give in.  She would not just offer an appetizer, but a meal that would last you a day.  Rice, beans, picadillo, pork and tortillas all washed down with a heaping glass of juice.  Just when you thought it was over, she would then emerge with a dessert as big as the previous dish.  You couldn’t leave her home without a food induced coma.  Over the years, I’d have to learn how to go to her home on an empty stomach and covertly sneak food back into the kitchen when she wasn’t looking. 

Besides chatting about what the children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren were up to, there was always an anecdote to the past and she loved to tell stories.  “Abuela” as we called her in Spanish, grew up rough.  Her mother died when she was very young and ended up with 20(?) siblings as her father would be widowed three times.  She ended up caring for many of her siblings and it’s no wonder that her drink of choice from a young age was Cacique, the local liquor made from fermented sugar cane.  Then, before she turned 18, she was married and had set off to live with her husband in Monteverde.

Monteverde, at the time, was the last frontier of Costa Rica.  It took three days to get there from San Ramon (which only takes 2 hours today).  Settlers would arrive by horse and oxcart, put up a fence and that was then their property.  Abuela lived there for years, giving birth at home to all her 10+ children.  They raised a variety of farm animals which her husband would sell down in Puntarenas, which was probably a two day trip then.  They were considered well off for the time despite all the hardships.  She still has children that live in the area and while it has modernized a bit I can still picture how she must have lived every time we’d take her to visit her children in Monteverde. 

Eventually, she’d move to San Ramon to be near to medical facilities, but she never lost her toughness.  A couple years ago, she had a big health scare and even the doctors thought she was going to meet her maker.  That didn’t happen though as she eventually earned the title “Iron Grandma” from the doctors and was able to return home.  Previously to that incident, she had hopped all over the Americas between Peru, the Bahamas, and Montana.  The first time she left the country was when she was 80 as her husband had passed away and she didn’t have any brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, or fathers to look after anymore.  This was like a rebirth for her and she really took advantage of the opportunity.  I think she would say her proudest photo is the one of her atop Machu Picchu.  She displayed that in the same room that had a photo of her father with no shoes on. 

We’re going to miss a lot about Abuela, but her legacy will be a big one.  Comparing those two pictures shows just how much the planet has changed in the last 90 years.  It’s hard to find people with a mind as sharp as her’s to tell stories about the past.  Students used to visit her to complete history projects and one university even gave her an honorary certificate for sharing her experiences. 

“Abuela left us.” was the most common reaction coming from friends and family the day she passed.  While it is painful now, my memories of her will always be with me.  Just like my parents used to tell me about a relative that had passed on before I was born, I will no doubt be telling my children about their great grandma and the changing times she lived through, but I’ll probably leave out the part about taking shots with her until they’re a bit older.

RIP Abuela.

  

Learning a Language is Such a Beach

“This we-wee-weekend I’m going to the BE-BEECH.”  At that 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.

I had just asked what their plans were for the weekend.  It was a hot, somewhat stuffy Saturday morning  in San Ramon and I was leading my weekly English conversation group.  The students come every week as they are motivated to get guidance on their English conversation skills and are very supportive of one another.  The reaction to this comment though, was perplexing.

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…  Well, that was not going to happen, so I quizzically began to study the students, looking from one to the other, trying to get one to share their reaction. 

Class teaching
                    B-e-a-c-h, /beach/

Eventually, one shared, “Teacher, how do you say BEECH?”.  Now we were getting somewhere.  “Well, it’s pronounced ‘beach’”. I responded.  Mildly puzzled, they countered, “and how do you say BEECH?”.  Hmmm, hadn’t I just explain it?  Or am I going to need a visit to the ear doctor?    

I still wasn’t following what they were asking so I prodded,  “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 take the conversation any further off course than necessary, I followed up with “Oh, you mean a female dog, don’t you?”  Receiving an affirmative head nod I was finally back in the game and could take the reins of the group again.

The hold up 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’m proud of the 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.

I’ll never forget, when having dinner with my very first host family, I made a grammar mistake and they corrected me.  It was a simple mistake that I should have known, so I apologized by saying how embarrassed I was.  This response though incited laughter from the family because I had made an even bigger error.  I assumed embarrassed translated roughly to “embarazado” like so many other English words.  The word did exist, but it meant I was pregnant. 

Or the time my friend learned how to make tortillas and proclaimed she was a tortillera.  She made this claim assuming the nouns could be used for people (example: a carpenter does carpentry, a plumber does plumbing etc).  She was right about the word existing, but didn’t realize that locally, it meant she was a lesbian. 

Moments like these I’ll never forget as I assure myself that I’ll always be the “person that makes tortillas”.  I’ll never be mistakenly pregnant again, but I’m sure I’ll still make the same small grammar mistakes.

We only meet for a few hours on Saturdays to informally chat in English, but this discussion will probably stick with them long after the sessions have concluded.  These students already have a good handle on their English and they use me as an open book for detail work.  We spend a lot of time going over these details 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 might have to invest in a dictionary or really study up on pop culture as these students will push you.  I can’t think of a better way though to uncover language’s best kept secrets than in a dusty, glorified storage room with a group of eager apprentices.  The opportunity they have is something that if I had had, probably would have saved me from some “enlightening” experiences to say the least.   

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”.

Thanks for reading this blog and feel free to share your comments.  Have you ever had an embarrassing language moment?  ¡pura vida!