Polar Vortex Provides Unexpected Surprise for Winter Exchange

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

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

winter skiers ready
Before the cancellation

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

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

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

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

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

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

at work
After the cancellation

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

weird park sculpture
This isn’t odd?

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

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

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

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

angel wing girl
San José gives you wings!

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!

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.

students studying
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.

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.

 

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??

   

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

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!

All Abroad: My Immersion Experience (Guest Speaker)

I couldn’t believe I was actually doing this.  The plane had just touched down in San José, Costa Rica and here I was, all by myself with my life packed into two little roller bags about to exit customs and head out into the unknown.  I was met with the blur of what seemed like a thousand paparazzi shouting at me, hands in the air, waving signs and trying to get my attention.  I was dumbfoundedly looking around for my name, when all of a sudden a man came up to me, said something very fast and proceeded to grab my bags and walk away…

As they say “the rest was history”, or was it?  To hear inspiring personal travel abroad stories, cultural immersion experiences, and exchange anecdotes, join or invite Dustin to speak to your group/schoolperson with 2 dogs.

Speaking dates are available year round (virtual) and in person dates are subject to availability.

Upcoming in person speaking opportunities in Wisconsin:

Oct. 24th – Nov. 3rd, 2016

Jan. 23rd – Feb. 1st, 2017 (exchange groups)

For more information contact us