When Immersed, Failing is Harder Than You’d Think

The server jotted it down his order, nodded her head and went back to the kitchen. No follow up questions, no odd looks.

My cousin, now three weeks into his visit to Costa Rica had just ordered a hamburger, no tomato, no ketchup, with cheese, lettuce and onion – in Spanish.

I was excited. Three weeks earlier, that order would have been a disaster, however now that his Spanish had picked up and he nailed the order.

In early April, he had contacted me about coming down for a few weeks this summer to help me with my business and immerse himself in the culture. He was going to graduate high school and wanted to do an extended stay, as in his previous visits he had been on vacation or participating in an exchange program.

I said sure, knowing we’d be in for some fun.

My cousin, you see, has the perfect personality for cultural immersion. He knows no shame and will throw himself into any situation, whether or not he has the vocabulary. He might embarrass himself, but he learns a lot from the experiences and will tell you all about them.

Young traveler with drink and chips
No fear of foods

For this particular trip, he decided to journal every day about his experience and shared it with friends and family to follow. It was excellent insight to how someone would react to being in a new culture and a great way for me to see just how immersed/uncomfortable I could actually make him.

Knowing his personality, I had no trouble abandoning him when he needed me most.

There was the day I waited in line with him at the bank to exchange money, only to promptly duck out when his turn came. He played it cool afterward, though his journal described nervousness and exhilaration that by just saying “dollars, colones” and putting the cash down on the counter was enough for the teller to understand him.

There was also the day we had a volunteer in town who was looking for a place to eat lunch.  Without hesitation, I sent him on this solo mission with her to a local restaurant a few blocks down the street.

He said everything went fine, but his journal depicted the major breakthrough being when, at a total loss for words, he asked for the “menu” using the English word, only to find out that they use the same word in Spanish.

You might look at these as small accomplishments, but this reminded me so much of what I went through during my first extended cultural immersion experience. A string of many nervous moments where dumb luck bailed me out.

My Costa Rican friends told me that to avoid having to rely on sheer luck, it would be best to find a Costa Rican girlfriend. I used that strategy, and it was no accident that I ended up staying in Costa Rica because of it.

So I’d be lying if I said my wife and I didn’t have someone lined up for him. Our family friend has a daughter his age wanting to learn English, and knowing my cousin wants to improve his Spanish, we couldn’t let this opportunity pass.

I previously said my cousin has no fear of anything, but it turns out his kryptonite is putting him in a room with a beautiful girl who doesn’t speak English.

I have to say this silent version of my cousin was something I’d rarely seen. He would always find a way to fill silence, but he was at a loss for words with this girl. As much as I wanted to help him, I knew that I would only impede and take away from their opportunity to practice speaking with each other.

After they went out the first time, I didn’t even have to wait for the journal entry. He was like a balloon about to burst with all the things he wanted to share. What words he learned, what words he taught, where they went and even the bracelet and cologne she gave to him.

Culturally, the gift caught him off guard, but he saved face by paying for dinner. A week later she invited him over for lunch, and he made it a point to bring her flowers.

My cousin has now returned to the United States, and as much as he missed his friends and family, I’m sure he wouldn’t have minded staying another month if he could.

I don’t doubt he will be back, and he might come back so much that he’ll get so sick of leaving and find a way to stay. Whether he’s back for the language, culture, families, or even the girls, it will only add to his experience.

Next time, I’ll teach him how to order a double cheeseburger, or maybe a well-done steak. The possibilities are endless.

boy with angel wings
No fear to spread his wings

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

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.

  

This Week in San Ramon….

Some observations around town the past week or so…

Tractor parked on city street

Tractor parking downtown San Ramon

I know you are thinking how dumb can this guy be for parking on yellow?  Well that isn’t a concern for anybody here, notice the van parked facing oncoming traffic?  My guess is he ran out of compost for his coffee plants and decided to drive into town to get it rather than pay for a truck to come out and deliver.  While in town he probably spotted a friend and pulled over to have coffee with them.

 

Biker-dog gang on the streets of SRMotorcycle dog

You should probably keep your dogs at home, at least on a leash, unless you want problems with this little guy.  Known to cruise the streets and frequent the park on the weekends, he’s as tough as they come.  Although, he keeps a pretty straight face whether going 0mph or 50mph.

 

Friendly squirrels at the park

These little love squirrels put on quite the show at the park.  Ahhh, to be young and in love.  They seem pretty content and hopefully the won’t get hassled by the biker dog gang.

squirrels on treesquirrels on tree

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Gods love San Ramon

I can count the number of times I’ve seen a rainbow on my hands and never would have imagined I’d witness a double rainbow, but stranger things have happened.  This picture doesn’t quite capture how we saw it live, but it has been a good luck charm for us since the day we saw it.

Double Rainbow

 

Reminds me of the time I witnessed this in La Fortuna:

Sky divided

 

Rebel Cattle Herding in Costa Rica

(Note: I really wish I had some pictures to go along with this post.  You’ll have to use your imagination to get an idea as to what was really going on.  Most days I go for a casual walk/run and don’t end up on wild goose chases.)

One of the great things about San Ramon being a fringe town (‘fringe’ being that it is far enough away from the big city to not be plagued by crime and safety issues but close enough to not get bored ex. has a food court, a shopping (s)mall and a movie theater) is that the countryside is not far and a 5 minute walk outside my front door puts me into the rolling foothills amongst sprawling coffee and sugarcane plantations.

It was a lazy Saturday morning and I needed some air so my wife and I decided to journey into the plantations and do a little exploring.  My wife’s uncle had just purchased 2 cows that he had planned to raise as beef cattle.  He had purchased an expensive breed and had proudly brought them to the family farm, nestled in amongst other family farms, forests and some residential homes.  What he hadn’t anticipated was how rebellious they could be.  After locking them into their corral Thursday evening he returned Friday morning to find one missing.

He immediately called my mother in law worried as there was no noticeable damage done to the corral to indicate the cow had forced itself out.  Maybe it had jumped the fence?  Maybe a crime ring looking to satisfy the prime rib black market had come by?  It was all so strange because in either scenario why would there still be one cow left?

With that on our mind our walk through the plantations took on a new objective.  At every clearing we combed the landscape for a lonely cow and every piece of excrement we encountered required in depth examination.  We even had to keep our dog from getting to far ahead of us in order not to disturb any possible footprints.  Despite our efforts we saw no trace of the renegade cow and dejectedly headed to the corral to complete our walk.  As we were approaching there was a neighbor’s sugarcane plantation to our right.  March is prime harvest time for the sugarcane and this field had just been cleared giving us excellent visibility.  I was half-heartedly scanning the field when I saw a head bob right at the edge of the plantation where it meets the forest.  It was almost as if the cow was actually trying to hide itself as the second I paused and focused on her, she froze instantly.

We were still a good 60 yards away and had no way of corralling her so we decided to short way back to the corral and deliver the good news to my wife’s uncle.  When we arrived though we were greeted by a different scenario.  The uncle wasn’t there, the gate to the corral was badly damaged and worst of all there were now no cows in the corral at all.  Turns out we were only saving our uncle from a second major headache as we had found the second cow which everyone to this point had assumed had not escaped.

Just then the uncle came out from the nearby forest cussing up a storm and not even our news seemed to calm him one bit.  He just seemed to snarl and say “Well come on, what are you waiting for, let’s go get the cow!”  If that didn’t tell me I was family now, I don’t know what will.  So off we went the three of us, with two of us having absolutely no experience herding any type of farm animal much less one that was predisposed to run from us.

So the plan seemed pretty simple, we would separate around the cow and then attempt to converge on it and funnel it back towards the corral.  Our first attempt failed as I apparently failed to maintain edge containment.  I thought I was doing a pretty good job but I guess needed to be faster on the edge, and he let me know “CORRA! CORRA!” (Run! Run! explicative, explicative….).  It reminded me of working with my father when I was younger and him getting frustrated with me when I just couldn’t visualize the objective he was after even though it was second nature for him.  I had to bite my tongue to keep from laughing at the predicament we were in as I honestly didn’t know what I could have been doing better.  Eventually the cow tired and we were able to get a lasso on her and lead her back to the corral.  Unfortunately we still had the missing cow and a damaged gate.

This is where a picture is worth a thousand words.  Not knowing what to do about the gate but having rope and some wood planks at our disposal we put together the most makeshift gate together you’ll ever see.  I thought I would be in for a treat observing how a Costa Rican cowboy gets by in the wild but we ended up putting up and taking down the temporary gate three times before we found a design that would keep the cow from getting out.  It wasn’t pretty but did the job.  I guess not everything is second nature when it comes to farming.

A few days later the other missing cow magically showed up back at the corral on her own.  I’m not sure if she planned to do this or maybe she just got bored wandering around the farms.  The next day my wife’s uncle took them back to the auction and sold them.  If I had to guess I’d say he’s learned his lesson about this breed and that there might be a very good reason as to why they are more expensive than your average cow.  Luckily, neither cow got injured or stolen while they were out on the town.

Thanks to living in a fringe town my walks are able to cover not just urban areas but also nearby rural zones which can be quite diverse.  I’ll have to be on lookout the next time I go out as you don’t always find the things you are looking for but rather find/discover things when you’re not looking for them.

Exploring (by chance) the Community Center

When I first moved to San Ramon I was an explorer.  I went everywhere walking, running or by bus.  There was a lot to see and do and every neighborhood had its charm.  Nowadays I like to pretend I’ve seen it all which unfortunately means I have fewer experiences like these: 

One day during my first few weeks I lived in San Ramon, I was out jogging around when I made an innocent right turn and proceeded down a deep ravine road to see where my next adventure would take me.  Bystanders on the street gazed at me as I hustled along down the road, like a dog retrieving a stick, and a few of them yelled some words of encouragement.  Feeling more upbeat than a kid on the last day of school I picked up speed on the decent and nearly crashed head on into a big yellow wall just before regathering my footing.  What was with all the barbed wire around the top?  Was this a jail? The immensity of the site puzzled me as it stuck out raw in a neighborhood of residential makeshift homes.

I took note of it and continued my journey a few more blocks when I realized I wasn’t in the San Ramon I knew anymore.  Every house had barbed wire, walls and barking dogs.  Children were in the street, shirtless with no shoes, and old beater cars with souped up stereo systems were taking turns rattling their chassis across the street from one another with pounding reggaeton beats.  The subwoofers had to be worth more than the cars.

This was all fine and dandy except for the way they were looking at me.  It didn’t take too long but I realized I may have made a wrong turn back up the road, that maybe those kind words weren’t encouragement but rather words of warning.  I was alone, in a new neighborhood and I doubt I would have been able to walk past them and come out on the other side without incident.  I quickly faked a side ache and turned to head back up the hill, palms sweaty not knowing if I was being pursued but too scared to look back.  At that moment the big yellow jail doors began to open.  This is only going from bad to worse, I thought. 

Well there was no stopping for me and at the moment the doors opened I caught a glimpse of a playground as I sped by the entrance.  A playground?  Inmates don’t have playgrounds, what could this be?  In a split second I decided my options were better heading towards the playground then trying to outrun whoever might be pursuing me from down the hill.

I entered and saw that in addition to that playground there were soccer fields, basketball courts, reading P1040658rooms, computer rooms and classrooms.  The big barb wired yellow complex was just a cover for a safe haven for the children of the roughest neighborhood San Ramon has to offer. Founded in 2008 and run by a Christian ministry, this community center provides education and spiritual guidance for those in need.

Since then I have volunteered on and off at the center, mostly on playground duty without really poking my nose around too much.  I know that just my presence at the center is a big lift for the kids, even if I don’t always feel so special pushing kids on swings for hours or jumping rope.  Any hours you can keep the kids off the street are hours well spent no matter what you are doing.

That had been my role until I bumped in the center’s coordinator in the street last week and she invited me to come to an open house they were having for the community.  Even though I thought I knew what was happening at the center this would be a good opportunity to go for a visit.  It became clear to me that what you see as a volunteer is quite different from what you see as a parent of a child that uses the center.  This is not just a daycare for when children aren’t at school, this place requires work before you ccmake it to the jungle gym.

The center’s focus is reading and math so therefore everyday when children arrive they must first go to the reading room and read for a certain number of minutes depending on their grade in school.  Those who are too young to read are read to by volunteers.  After that they go to work on math.  It was very interesting to hear that learning the multiplication tables are what they work on the most.  Once they have completed that they are able to go to the playground or stay and work on other homework.  Students enrolled in the center are required to come at least 3 times a week to qualify for year end

parties and activities which is the best thing about their program.  Everything is earned whether a pair of shoes or a pencil eraser.  In a community as rough as this one with a lot of government subsidies it is important for children to earn their keep in order to break the cycle of poverty and value the things they’ve earned. 

It’s amazing how many things I think I know just from the surface but when taking the time and digging deeper there is actually a whole lot more going on then what meets the eye.  Makes me wonder if I should dust off the cross trainers and return to my old trailblazing routes.  I’ve probably missed some things along the way.

Taking the Costa Rican out of Costa Rica

See you later San Ramon…..  Follow us the next two weeks as we take 11 Costa Rican students and 2 teachers on a cultural exchange trip to Wisconsin.  They’ll be visiting high schools and experiencing the best that Wisconsin winter has to offer.  Departing 80 degree Costa Rica at 5:30am and should see the snow by midday.  Should be interesting….