Shopping (and Traveling) as the Costa Ricans Do

At what lengths would you go to get a great deal?  Nowadays, with Black Friday, Prime Day and the emphasis on sales it should be easy to find a sale price on whatever you’re shopping for.  Not so in Costa Rica. “Black Friday” has of course been copied/mimicked, but the discounts don’t correspond to anything close to what is offered in North America.  Amazon? The other day I found a $40 item that shipped for free in the US. However, to get it to Costa Rica shipping and taxes would add an extra $176(!). Yeah, you read that right.

So what do Costa Ricans do to get some price relief?  There is one option, and whether it ends up saving you any money in the end is up for debate.  Let me explain.

There is a small coastal town called Golfito, located on the southern pacific coast, some 212 miles from where I live.  To travel this far is usually to see a national park, however here is where you come for discounts. In the mid 1980s the government set up a tax free zone in this region for consumers.  Taxes, sometimes up to 70-80% on certain items, make this an attractive option to buy. There is a catch though. Well actually there are many catches which I found out as I went through this process to buy some appliances for my house..

Besides being 212 miles away (about 6 hours on Costa Rican roads) you couldn’t just come, buy, and leave.  You see, each Costa Rican has a yearly allowance of 4 minimum salaries to spend tax free in Golfito. That amounts to a little more than $3,000.  The government tracks this by requiring you to pick up a document before entering the free trade zone to shop. The catch is you can’t buy the same day you pick up this document, thereby forcing you to spend the night in Golfito.  They do this intentionally to provide for the local economy. Thanks to this you can find quite a few hotels and restaurants that basically survive from this restriction.

So we got our document and actually pre-paid a few things at the stores, and would just come back the next day to check it out with customs.  One thing a lot of people do is take advantage and go shopping at the Panamanian border as well. The border is only about an hour from Golfito and prices are much cheaper than in Costa Rica.  In order to fit all this in we departed San Ramon (where I live) at 4am and wouldn’t arrive to the hotel until almost 10pm after going to both Golfito and Panama.

The next day we had to be back in Golfito by 8am to check out our things.  Actually, we didn’t have to be back by 8am, but since it was a Saturday it is when a slew of tour buses arrive from San José and inundate the area with buyers.  I couldn’t believe the lines people were in to buy deodorant, cologne, hairspray etc. It was such a mess as the stores were not equipped to handle lots of people.  Due to the free trade restriction you can’t

long shopping line
Typical Saturday AM

just pick out your item and check out. First you have to go to an invoicing station where the store takes your document and applies the amount you spent to you allowance.  Then you have to go to another counter to pay for it and then you have to go to another area to actually pick up your purchases. And that was only if you could carry what you bought.

I, on the other hand, was looking to furnish a house.  I got a refrigerator, washer and dryer which you wouldn’t believe the process I went through to get it back to San Ramon.  It went something like this:

Day 1:

  1. Walk the store with salesperson, view items.
  2. Check price, see discount price, then negotiate an even better price.
  3. Register items on document, pay for them.

Day 2:

  1. Return to store and go back to cashier for some other authorization I had no idea what the point of it was for.
  2. Open packages and insure that everything works correctly.  This was a good idea, but just terribly time consuming. Unpack everything, plug it in, check the features and then repack it all.
  3. Store wheels packages out to the sidewalk in front of their store.  Keep in mind you are entirely enclosed in a customs zone and shoppers can only walk between the stores after getting in the area through a customs checkpoint.
    hand cart operator
    “Appliance” taxi #1

    So here we are with 3 large appliances just dropped on the sidewalk for us to figure out how to go on our merry way.

  4. Hunt down “appliance taxis”. These guys just run around the free trade zone to help people move their appliances to the customs check-point.  It cost us $9 for them to move our large appliances about 300 feet.
  5. To get our appliances through customs and out to the car we had to hire other “appliance taxis” that charged us $12 to move the items another 500 feet.  The whole customs process is almost laughable though as the officer takes only a quick glance at our paperwork and waves us through.
  6. Our vehicle was not big enough to take our appliances so we found a transport service that would bring our items back to San Ramon.  When I say found a transport service, I mean we wheeled our items to the backside of a hotel and left them on the sidewalk, handed over our receipts to the shipper and got a hand
    street hand cart transfer
    These are the $12 guys.

    written receipt in return.  I emphasize the handwritten part as I actually wrote the receipt myself with instructions from the shipper!

  7. Receive items at home two days later.  Pay freight cost of $60. Not bad for 212 miles in Costa Rica.

 

As you can see it was a ten step process over a two day period and believe me you weren’t given a guide upon arriving to Golfito.  Luckily, I was with my in-laws and they knew a thing or two about improvising. For instance, I knew I had to hire the “appliance taxis”, but I had no idea where to tell them to go.

My mother in-law knew about the place behind the hotel from ten years ago and didn’t even hesitate telling the taxis to go there.  How did she know the guy would be there? What if he wasn’t? Luckily, he was there and it was all laughs and giggles as she is friends with him from childhood and he has brought items back to San Ramon for years.  That’s why I didn’t feel nervous hand writing my own receipt and just leaving the appliances out on the back stoop of the hotel.

It’s moments like these the American in me wants to scold my in-laws for being so loose with things of value.  It’s not like I’m sending back a pair of shoes, I could have easily bought a 70 inch flat screen that I wouldn’t have felt comfortable just wheeling out into the street not having the shipping arranged prior.

All in all things went well, but did we really save any money?  Of course we didn’t pay any tax, but what about the gas, lodging, food, “appliance taxis”, and the time/sleep that was given up?  I pestered the other Costa Ricans I was with on the way back in regards to this and they basically told me that you have to treat the experience as a vacation and enjoy the journey.

When looking at it from that perspective I can see the benefit.  I spent 10+ hours in the car with four Costa Rican women and got all caught up on the latest gossip and jokes going around.  We also stopped off at the beach to enjoy breakfast and we could have stayed extra days to visit other relatives or to just enjoy the beach had we wanted to.

For me personally, as long as there aren’t any major snafus, I’m OK with the hoops you have to jump through to get anything decently discounted by going all the way to Golfito.  There are about five steps too many, but if you only do it once every 5-10 years it’s not that big of a deal. Besides, I shouldn’t have to furnish a house that often.

 

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 😉

 

Exchange Brings Novelty, Nostalgia to Thanksgiving

It was darnn chilly getting off that bus. Chillier than I expected or remembered for this time of year.  

Thankfully, my parents were waiting for me and had brought a winter jacket for me, knowing I wouldn’t fully acclimate for a few days.

I don’t normally come home for extended periods in November, however this time I’d brought an exchange group of high school students with me from Costa Rica. They’d stay with local families, visit schools and experience Wisconsin for a few weeks.

If I was having problems, these kids had to be hopeless. It’s one thing to come from Costa Rica, but their region brings out the extremes.  

Just for them to get to the airport is nearly six hours and they can almost get to Panama City faster. Only a few miles from the border with Panama, this region is low lying, hot, humid, and full of rainforests, farms, and minimal population.  

They were going to get a shock to their system from more than just the weather. They were in for experiences all across the board. And so was I.

After spending the first night with their host families, I was interested to hear their reactions.

There was the usual, “Wow, the family is so friendly.” or “The dog is so funny.” and of course the “IT’S SO COLD,” but there is always something that uniquely draws their attention. The most interesting comments I heard referenced having a lower-door freezer and the astounding dishwasher.

Freezers do exist in Costa Rica, but they are almost always upper door freezers, whereas unless you are upper-upper class, or an expatriate, a dishwasher is a complete luxury. They were amazed at its simplicity and the fact that you “don’t even get your hands wet.”

I silently chuckled to myself hearing those comments as I had never really noticed those differences before.  I then overheard one student saying he had been cold at night. I asked him if he had enough blankets and he said he wasn’t given any.  Hmm, that couldn’t be right.

cheesehead model
On Wisconsin!

I decided to follow up with the family, and they were just as puzzled. They said the bed had various sheets and blankets all tucked in.

All tucked in. All tucked in. That was it. The student had never thought to untuck the comforter and sleep under it.

After I thought about it, it made complete sense.

I know where I live in Costa Rica, I rarely need more than a light sheet to cover up with at night, and that is mostly to keep the mosquitoes off. I also know that bedrooms are more focal points of homes in Costa Rica.  

It’s not uncommon to walk into a home and have a bedroom right off the entrance. Because of this they will put comforters on the bed to dress it up and sleep on top of it with a light sheet.  

That’s exactly what happened and is why the student never bothered to untuck the bed!

Don’t get me wrong, these students were modern.  This was not like the Amish coming to the big city.

I’m sure they dominated their hosts in Snapchats per capita and could overwhelm absolutely anyone at the mall, especially since they happened to be in town for Black Friday.

In addition to that utterly American event, this group also got to experience Thanksgiving, a holiday that has no Costa Rican equivalent.

Due to school schedules, we had never been able to exchange during a holiday, and this is what families (and I) enjoyed the most. Having those extra days off really gave them a chance to get to know their student and was highly emphasized in their feedback.  

one inch snowman
Juuust enough snow…

The opportunity to sleep in, take in sporting events and visit family was an intended consequence families took full advantage of. They shared tons of Thanksgiving photos/videos, Badger football/hockey games, cheesehead modeling and the world’s largest snowman you can make with an inch of snow.

It was also a bit of a homecoming for me.  Thanks to the exchange students and their host families, I was excited to experience Thanksgiving as well.

I honestly can’t remember the last time I was home for Thanksgiving (probably 10+ years), and there were more than a few relatives surprised to see me.  I’m also rarely home for Christmas, so when I do visit, it’s typically not when people get together.

On my mom’s side, we were only missing my sister and cousin, which is probably the closest we’ve gotten in a long time to having everyone together. It’s no small feat when we span states, countries, and continents apart.

In all, I spent almost a month at home, which really only felt like two weeks. I could never quite shake the cold, I made a half-hearted attempt at raking leaves (if there is snow on the ground, that’s just embarrassing) and we narrowly missed a major snowstorm getting out of Chicago.  

Maybe November isn’t what it used to be, or maybe I’ve forgotten what it’s like, but hearing the stories from the families and exchange students brought a lot of novelty to the visit and provoked a lot of nostalgia.  

There might not be as much nostalgia for my next visit in late January, but there is already a winter jacket in my suitcase, and I look forward to the exchange students providing the novelty.   

-Dustin

Dustin is the director and founder of Costa Rica Frika.  Originally from Southern Wisconsin, he specializes in providing immersion experiences to/from Costa Rica via exchanges, volunteering and interning.

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.

IMG_1205.JPG
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.

IMG_1197.JPG
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!

Why Teach a Language When You Can Share It

Dustin Dresser

When I graduated high school and then college, I never imagined I’d set foot back in a classroom.  After spending over two-thirds of my life in a classroom at that point, the last thing I wanted to do was end up back there as a teacher.  Aside from a few classes that let you run around (gym), build stuff (tech ed) and the occasional science experiments,  I can only recall sitting, listening, reading, and writing while at school.  Now, with all the opportunities in front of me as a young adult, why would I resign myself to more of the same things I already knew and was familiar with, except now I’d be expected to teach and grade as well.

Something strange though happened to me once I graduated and transitioned to adulthood.  Once I became knowledgeable about something, my mindset changed.  There came a point where I felt a desire to share my knowledge with others.  I just needed an outlet that didn’t restrict me to a classroom.  

My path in (and out) of the classroom led me on a bit of a journey.  In my case, I got out of school right as the country was headed for recession.  With my job prospects minimal, I got on a plane to Spain to…. teach classroom English.  This was clearly not my first choice out of school, but it triggered an expertise which eventually led to a passion. 

Well, I didn’t last long at my first school.  I got caught “teaching” when I realized I wanted to be sharing.   I felt the restraints of the four walls, desks, and marker boards holding me back.  For me, I realized I was driven by real world experiences.  After school, I was going to buy groceries, play soccer at the plaza and hang out with friends, all in Spanish.  I had the upper hand being forced to use the language and learn the culture, and that was what frustrated me in the classroom.  Students weren’t engaging because they saw me as only 50min/day for a semester for something they’d never need (according to them).  They couldn’t picture themselves ever traveling or living anywhere where they’d have to speak a foreign language or learn a new culture.  For me and my student’s sake, we needed an outlet that took us outside the box of the classroom.      

I didn’t discover how to effectively do that until I moved to Costa Rica and began moonlighting as a cultural exchange coordinator.  Once I was able to take the “room” out of the classroom and put students in real world situations, I began to share a passion.  Gone were the textbooks, worksheets and role plays.  Now, you really had to know how to ask for the bathroom, or where to catch the bus.  The beauty of these exchanges was that the teachers were still there, but were now sharing, coaching and supporting the students through the experience.  I cherished this experience as I was finally sharing knowledge and the student response was incredible.  

Sharing is teaching, but teaching is not always sharing, especially when it comes to language teaching.  The first school I taught at I was given a text book and a school year to get through it.  Anyone forced through such a dry system without any leeway for creativity will not last.  This is what I believe separates good foreign language (FL) teachers from great FL teachers.  FL teachers that are in it for the long haul, realize early on that they are sharers and if they can’t modify their classroom or motivate their students they aren’t going to last.  The FL teacher has the advantage over other subjects where travel can have a huge impact on student motivation, especially via cultural exchanges.  This is where all the classroom work pays off and students realize what all their studies were leading them up to.  The impact doesn’t end just there.  Regardless of their experience, they’ll be more motivated in class knowing there is a use for foreign languages outside the Department of Education requirements.  The teachers though, stand to reap the most rewards as motivated students will encourage teachers and allow them to share instead of “teach” in the classroom.   

What started out as a side project for me has now morphed into Costa Rica Frika, an immersion experience organization specializing in cultural exchanges.  I’ve found my niche that allows me to share a passion and having such a strong student response further fuels my motivation to continue sharing it.  This motivation has led me to expand and work directly with teachers as well.   

FL teachers: How do you share your passion?  What do you do outside the classroom that creates motivation inside the classroom?  Please share your thoughts!

Dustin Dresser is from Wisconsin and now lives in Costa Rica.  If you’re a foreign language teacher looking for ways to share your passion via cultural exchanges, join him on the Costa Rica Frika Teacher Exploratory Exchange this summer.  ¡Pura vida!

Taking the Scenic Route to Tortuguero

tortuguero boat dock

I swung myself up over the side of the narrow ten passenger boat, that would take me into the unknown or at least to “the lesser known.”  The boat wobbled unevenly as I made my way to my seat and I immediately noted the absence of life jackets and paddles, as well as the beer in the hand of our “captain” as he fired up the engine.  It was 9AM and this was already shaping up to be a ‘Captain Ron’ experience.  He had all his eyes but less teeth than Grampa Simpson. 

It's not that difficult to get there.....
It’s not that difficult to get there…..

In all my time in Costa Rica, I have stuck to visiting places that can be reached by car and maintain some resemblance of civilization.  This time, however, I wanted a little more adventure.  I had always heard about Tortuguero, a small community on the northern Caribbean coast. It was in the middle of nowhere or as the locals say, “the anus of the world”. Therein lies Tortuguero’s appeal: its proximity to the ocean and the surrounding rainforest, and the fact that it is only accessible by plane or boat.  I would soon

realize that just the journey to Tortuguero alone would highlight the trip.

The journey to get to the boat had started in the capital city of San José on paved roads and then continued through a side-winding, hair-raising mountain pass. The route forms a part of a majestic national park, but the scenery is difficult to enjoy when you have to be prepared for landslides, rain, fog, or a broken down vehicle at every turn.

After a couple near misses, we came down the mountain pass and hit the hot and sticky  Caribbean lowlands.  From there the towns became fewer and fewer, the paved road eventually dissipated into gravel, then dirt, and finally, we were at a small boat landing in the middle of a banana plantation.

We pushed off from the boat dock and made our way down a narrow waterway with the rainforest

See the croc?
                                    See the croc?

teeming on all sides, muddy waters, and crocodiles sunning themselves on the shore. The waterway was littered with rocks, trunks, and submerged tree branches. Some of the trunks that had been brought to shore had tribal faces carved into them, almost as if to warn the boaters of their trespassing.  From the incessant Cicada bugs to parakeet canopy chatter, the sounds were amazing…  The only thing not Jurassic about this experience were the missing dinosaurs.

Everything was going well until we had to make a tight pass between two tree trunks.  Our boat was about halfway through when there was a big clunk and the motor killed.  An eerie, dead silence shuddered through the boat. The casual chatter came to an abrupt halt.  We were stopped dead in our tracks, no paddles/lifejackets, and muddy waters with who knows how many predators.   I was recalling the tribal carvings and wondering if this was a trap when I heard a splash.  Our “captain” had just abandoned ship.  Maybe he knew something we didn’t know? 

Instinctively, I was waiting for an ensuing crocodile attack, however, the captain emerged the splash, standing in water that was barely knee deep.  How could this be?  We had just seen Jesus Christ lizards that could run on the surface of the water, but this was unprecedented. Was he an X-men living in exile? He must be on a tree branch or something, I thought, but then he walked right up along side the boat and began washing the place where the clunk had happened.  “I don’t like it when they critique me.” he chuckled, as he passed by on his way to the front of the boat, whereas as if were the routine, he grabbed the front of the boat and pulled us through the rest of the pass.

What could possibly be in that water??
         What could possibly be in that water??

After a while it turned into a guessing game as to how he would navigate the hazards.  I began to notice how he instinctively stayed away from the sandy side of the canal and kept us close to the rocky edge.  You could tell he had some experience, or at least instincts when it came to this waterway.  I’d find out later that the water level was at a record low, and that only suffering one engine killing clunk was actually pretty impressive. 

Shortly after that, we exited the narrow waterway and entered a more traditional river way.  We began to notice scant signs of civilization along the banks which were mostly boat landings surrounded by a few homes on stilts.  We pulled into one of the landings to drop off some passengers and the silence was deafening.  There were no noisy motorcycles, or loud busses that I had grown accustomed to in my town.  There was peace and quiet.  This would continue as we made our

Tiny towns...
                                       Tiny towns…

way to Tortuguero, with the exception of a few single engine fishing boats, we were the only ones making a wake.  The fisherman all used canoes and the most sophisticated ones had small electric motors to drift in and out of the river inlets and marsh areas.

When the captain docked us in Tortuguero, we could all let out a sigh of relief, this officially concluded our adventure for the day.  I cherished that sigh as I knew it would only last a few days until we got back on the boat to journey out of Tortuguero and back to the paved land. 

Tortuguero itself was rather boring in comparison to the arrival.  Here are some pictures from the stay:

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           Like I said, a relatively boring town
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                               Tortuguero beach
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         Night critter in downtown Tortuguero
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                        Main Street
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                  Getting gas for the boat
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        Power lines over the river, only source of                                      electricity for town
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                             Welcome man?
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       When you reach the end of the                                 trail….

My First (Official) Cultural Exchange

cultural exchange shirt with signatures

I was excited for the 1:30am wake up call.  It didn’t matter much since the anticipation was so great to begin with I knew I wasn’t going to sleep much anyways.  Today was day 1 of the Costa Rica – Wisconsin high school exchange.  18 hours from now we’d be in a snow frosted parking lot, temperatures in the teens, and students darting off the bus into their host families arms not only to greet them after months of emails and phone calls but to receive hats, gloves, and winter jackets, all scarce in the tropics.

For me this was a homecoming exchange in the fact that my alma mater and hometown was playing host to this exchange.  With them providing the families that would adopt the visiting students for the next two weeks and inviting them to school for a few days, the exchange had its firm foundation from which to work from.  Even my parents were delighted to be hosting their son and daughter in law for two weeks.  From there students could explore their surroundings and see all that snowy Wisconsin had to offer.  It didn’t take long for us to hit the ground running.

Just our second night we hosted a welcome event for the exchange families and community to come together and get to know the students.  Very few anticipated the number of interested community members that would turn out for this event and almost

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Big news for small town 🙂

no one expected the local newspaper to be there taking pictures and interviewing.  I was however very proud of the group as they showed no fear in making a small presentation about Costa Rica to the audience and even treated them to a mini salsa recital.

 

With cultural exchange activities and English language practice being our objectives we took in everything I’d been lacking since my childhood and then some.  Sledding and ice skating were at the top of our list but even activities such as ice fishing were prominent memories for the group.  And by group I include myself and a lot of the host parents/siblings as not all of us grew up ice fisherman. We pretended to stand on the ice and look knowledgeable during the demonstration to not lose face in front of the students.  Between these events, schools visits and family time the experience ended up turning into one of a lifetime.

I couldn’t help but notice the bonding going on between the local and visiting students.  Watching them explain how to skate or how to get maximum velocity on a sled was emblematic of the whole experience.  Every day the students would get together to share stories and funny experiences they had.  The amazement of the lack of rice and beans present in a Wisconsinites diet, the wonderment of how cows stay warm in the winter and how ice could form so strong that someone could walk on it, let alone drive a car on it were just some of the conversations had between students and their hosts.

Some people wondered why we chose to come in January.  Costa Ricans know what summer is all about but why not choose spring, or fall?  Well to begin with we were limited

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First time for everything!

due to the summer break in Costa Rica being Dec/Jan but to find the most diversity and biggest departure from the norm winter is what it has to be.  None of the Costa Ricans had seen snow before this trip and I don’t feel a bit of regret facilitating this experience.  Wisconsin does not have coffee plantations, volcanos, rainforests, or beaches that are within an hours drive of each other so we have to get creative with own nature and natural beauty.  Sure you’ll find a big enough cultural difference but the difference in climate is literally the icing on the cake of a winter exchange to Wisconsin.

 

I don’t believe the impact of this experience really set in until it was actually over.  We had gotten into this routine and we felt like it was never going to end.  But it did and the realization was almost instant.  When we boarded the bus to head back to the airport my

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Who could forget this?

phone began to explode with host parents and students expressing their gratitude and happiness with the experience.  As that was going on the Costa Rican parents were anxiously messaging us about travel plans and flight arrivals. 14 hours after bidding farewell to Wisconsin the students were back in the arms of overjoyed parents.

 

I think back now to the first meeting I had with parents in the fall and all their quizzical looks and even the parent who point blank asked me if I had children (I don’t).  Leaving that meeting casted some doubt on how I could ever convince a parent it was safe for them to send their child with me to a foreign country and to stay with a family they had never met before.  I could stand before them and give as much assurance as I could but until I have my own no one is really giving me the benefit of the doubt which is why host families make the exchanges so magical.

Whenever I talk to students and host families I can’t stress how important they are in the success of an exchange.  Months and years later a student doesn’t remember falling while ice skating or building a snowman but they do remember who they were with.  You might go on vacation or take an educational tour but there is no better way to learn about the place you are visiting than experiencing it with a local.  These bonds, created with the goal of learning one’s culture stay with us much longer than a week spent at an all inclusive resort where asking for a cerveza from the wait staff qualifies as culture.

With technological advances students and families can live the experience through each other, even if they are not actually on the exchange.  Every school we visited and every

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Hi mom, I’m on Wisconsin!

activity we did there was an opportunity to snap a photo and share it with all of the Costa Rican parents.  Watching a hockey game, participating in class, or even eating at food court, parents were able to see what we were up to and that was very reassuring for them.  Combining that with the pre-trip communication they had with their host family via email and video calls everyone felt confident with the trip and this was the backing I needed to convince parents my empty nest was not a cause for alarm.

 

At the end of the two week whirlwind trip I could have slept through four alarms having maxed out all the energy in my body.  As I write this now a month has gone by since the exchange ended and recalling all these fond memories provokes the same excitement all over again.  This inaugural exchange couldn’t have gone better and I’m hopeful to carry over these positive vibes to many more exchanges in the future.

Tiptoeing through the trap of a tourist mecca….

We all have a fairy-tale fantasy of vacationing on an exotic beach.

Sipping juice from coconuts with the cute little cocktail straws as we watch the waves wash over the white sands. Relaxing in the harmony of finally getting away from it all.

That is until your paradise is interrupted by a scream. And then another, and another.

I was living that fairy-tale fantasy, and while the screams fortunately were neither a shark attack nor a coming tsunami, it was just the start of a strange day in which I got a firsthand look at a bad combination of nature and tourism.

After the first few screams, I could see tree branches waving wildly back and forth despite the otherwise calmness of the day, so I decided to check it out. And I wasn’t alone. By the time I got to where the commotion was, the whole beach had congregated in the area to watch the show.

A group of monkeys had climbed down from the trees and had stolen a backpack from one of the tourists on the beach. They were up in the trees going through everything. Watches, cell phones, books and panties all fell from the tree as the monkeys carefully examined everything, eventually discarding anything that wasn’t edible.

For a first-time visitor to Manuel Antonio National Park, this was quite entertaining. However, this ended up going on all day – screams coming from up and down the beach, large gatherings, followed by photos and laughter. It was like we were in the middle of a circus run by monkeys.

By the end of the day nobody could leave anything unattended on the beach.

It might sound fun, but it is having a damaging effect on the beach’s monkeys. Monkeys are not accustomed to chips and crackers, and they have lost all fear of humans, making them aggressive and unpredictable at times.

It’s a delicate situation, as this national park depends on the revenue from the visitors to protect not only this park, but other less visited parks in Costa Rica. As a result, it has catered to the tourists by building changing rooms and providing picnic tables for people to have lunch. And that has led to the animals becoming accustomed to a different diet, one that is harming their health.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s great tourists can come and see animals in the wild, but it’s too bad money-making opportunities are preventing better measures from being taken to not damage that very same environment.

With the massive tourism to the 5.5-acre park – about 150,000 visitors a year – money talks in the beach towns around it, as well. The day before our visit to the park (which charges $3 for Costa Ricans but $16 for foreigners), my wife and I had gotten an exhausting introduction to that, starting with a Spanish man pleading desperately with us.

“Just give me one opportunity, one opportunity! Come on man, one opportunity!” he said, hands up in the air.

Trying to get the two of us into his restaurant for dinner, he had eyed me up pretty quickly and had the sales pitch prepared.

He began to speak to us in English, highlighting that his restaurant was the only one in town that included all taxes in their prices. Then, after showing us the menu, he began to make remarks in Spanish to my wife – who he apparently thought was my tour guide or escort suggesting that if she got me to eat there, he would give her a free drink.

His patience quickly grew thin, though, and he yanked the menu out of my hands to give to a bigger group of tourists walking down the street.

Unfortunately, this became the theme of the weekend. Everyone we talked to was working for some kind of commission and was ready to tell us anything to get us to buy at exorbitant prices. Even when checking into the hotel, they had to walk us through their tour packages before they would give us our keys to our room.

It was hard to even walk down the beach without being hassled. If I looked too long at a surfboard, they’d come after me. If we stopped under a beach umbrella to fix a sandal, we were frowned upon. Even sitting underneath a tree, beach chairs were placed strategically to tempt people to take a load off and start the meter.

The only conversation we had with a local that didn’t end in a sales pitch was with one who happened to be from the same town as my wife. Had that not been the case, I’m sure he would have been all over us to rent a beach chair.

As we departed the park area to head back to San Ramon we passed by many luxury hotels, condos, and restaurants, all touting the beauty of being one of the most beautiful beaches and national parks in the world.

I’m not going to say I didn’t enjoy my weekend – despite all the less desirable aspects of a tourism buildup the park is still quite beautiful. However, I think will take my coco juice and sippy straws on to the next beach, where hopefully, I’ll feel like an outside observer instead of the center of attention.

I don’t think this is the right beach for me…