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 😉

 

No Snow No Problem Winter Exchange

Wow, was this ever shaping up to be quite the cultural exchange.  After last year’s inaugural exchange, this year 50+ students and teachers from Costa Rica would brave a two week winter wonderland in Wisconsin in January, and after receiving consecutive weekend snowstorms in December, I assumed snow would be the least of our worries.

Fast forward to our 40 degree arrival and having to strain my eyes to pick out any recognizable snow banks as we pulled into the high school parking lot Friday night in Madison, WI.  Besides staying with a family and practicing English, snow was a key trip feature that had enticed students to come in the first place.  

Maybe they wouldn’t miss the snow (I sure wouldn’t) and I could smooth the disappointment by blaming global warming (assuming they believed that I believed it was real).  Luckily, there was a big enough distraction for the lack of snow, and that was the Presidential inauguration, which was happening the day we arrived.  

Students were quick to sprint into their families arms at the pickup, probably due to not having any winter clothes, but just as much due to the excitement of meeting the family. It couldn’t have been long before the topic came up though, as the town was abuzz with the Women’s march scheduled to happen the first full day the students were in town.  Those students that were interested were treated to an opportunity of a lifetime to see the march.

There is never not a good time for a cultural exchange, but there are times when exchanges are more necessary than others, and the next four years will definitively be important for cultural exchanges.  Especially with all the fake news and demeaning rhetoric, personal experience is going to end up being the only credible means to get an authentic view of the United States and its people.

So there was plenty to chat about our first weekend, but still no snow.  Wednesday was our big Chicago outing, so at least the huge skyscrapers could take our minds off the lack of snow.  At this point, we had

Drilling hole in ice
Luckily the ice was thick enough to drill holes in it?

had to cancel our sledding and move ice skating to indoor venues, which hadn’t bothered the students one bit, however I felt like we were letting them down.  Fortunately, there was some snow in the forecast for the Chicago trip, but nothing to get excited about, yet.

One thing I always joked with the teachers was how difficult it is to plan a snow day into the itinerary.  We had to assure that all our host schools would close for the day and then figure out how to rearrange the schedule to still get everything in around the snow day.  

Well sure enough, the day of the Chicago trip we began the day under a winter weather watch.  Our departure was scheduled for 6:30am and by 6am the first host school had already closed for the day.  That was great for those students, but I was still inclined to get them on the bus so they wouldn’t miss out on Chicago.  Then, about 15min later, Madison schools closed.  That knocked out another school and we only needed one more school to close for the trifecta.  Madison schools are one of those districts where they only close if they are expecting the worst, so based on that information I was ready to cancel the trip and send the remaining students to the high school to shadow, when the message board began lighting up signaling that their school had been closed too.

Snowman with girl
Poor man’s snowman

I don’t think anyone could have exhaled longer or more deeply than I did at that moment.  Gone was the necessity to make a tricky decision and potentially put students at risk, and I picked up a much needed catch-up day to re-confirm and re-arrange activities with the snow day having now been added to the itinerary.  I still found time to make a snowman and even do some shopping, but what was most satisfying was watching the photos come in of everyone out in the snow (of course, with me tucked in at home in front of a warm fire).

Thank goodness for the snow day, as it came right in the middle of the exchange and proved to be the only opportunity to catch our breaths.  The students didn’t need any downtime, but it was invaluable for the families and teachers.

The reactions from the visiting teachers were also very interesting as a lot of them had been to the United States before, but had gone to places such as Disney or New York, or went to visit Costa Ricans already living in the United States.  It was interesting because they already had experience, but having a family stay was completely new for them.  They saw a lot of things on their previous trips to the US, but didn’t have the chance to necessarily experience them.  For example, a host family treated our group to a bonfire and taught them how to make smores.  This was something that even if you had been to the US, you wouldn’t have experienced unless you were with a family.  Also, for being Wisconsin, the teacher’s hosts made sure they got to experience a brewery tour, which was definitively a novelty coming from Costa Rica.  

tshirt signing
Making memories

Thankfully, the snow day was a dream come true for everyone and we still managed to fit in most of our activities.  What really made the experience stick though were the going away parties.  At the parties you could really see how much the students and families had bonded over the two week experiences and they displayed their affection in various ways.  Some made banners to say good bye, one student put together a video of the experience, and everyone made sure to sign each other’s t-shirts as a going away momento.  

good bye poster
Time to say goodbye…

I addressed the families, but I didn’t have much to say.  By then everyone had created their own experience and at most I could do was recount what I had told the families at our pre-trip meetings in that the experience you will make on your own and no two experiences will be alike.  The “tingling” sensation that you get when you are sharing your culture impacts people in a variety of different ways and I couldn’t possibly give a blanket explanation that would cover everyone’s experience.

I’m super thankful for the families that opened their homes for this experience and I hope they will continue to communicate with their exchange students and encourage other families to take part in this experience.  We won’t get inaugurations nor snow storms every year, but in the end that won’t really matter, despite all the hype we give it.  What will matter is the experience itself and how it can impact one’s future.  

All home safe and sound, I can take another big exhale knowing I won’t have to worry about snow again till next year.

group of students
Cultural Exchange class, Winter 2017

This post was written by Dustin Dresser, director at Costa Rica Frika and winter exchange trip coordinator.  Dustin is from the Madison, WI area and now lives in Costa Rica with his Costa Rica wife.  You can read about the 2016 winter exchange here, and find out more about exchange opportunities here.

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….

Returning home for a fresh burst of Costa Rica

***This article was originally published in a local newspaper in January 2013***

It was like sticking my head in the freezer on a hot summer afternoon.

You know the feeling when you’re looking for that refreshing burst of air to take your mind off the excessive heat. You know you’re in for a climate change when you open that door, and even though your sweat glands pucker right back up the second you close the freezer, that moment in time feels forever etched in your mind.

Or, like in my case, it’s frostbitten to your forehead.  That moment in time, that’s exactly how I feel whenever I touch down in Costa Rica.

I returned to Costa Rica in late December after a Wisconsin winter holiday and from the moment I arrived I unconsciously began to savor every moment, just like if it had been my first time.

Stepping out of the terminal I welcome the warm burst of tropical air.   I sense the full moon as it illuminates the surrounding mountain ranges of the central valley.  Traveling home my ears are tuned to the salsa and bachata beats coming from the radio, as well as the incessant chatter from the taxi driver about how his team should have won the national soccer championship.

That night I fall asleep, paralyzed with glee knowing that I’d left the wind and grind, ice and snow, and sub zero temperatures behind.

The next morning I spend what feels like an hour just sitting in the yard basking in the sun.  Everything feels refreshingly new to me. Taking in the aroma of the orchid plants, drowning out my thoughts with the chatter from the parrots in the nearby trees, and blinding the neighbors with the glare of the sun off my ghostly pale vitamin D deprived skin.

Had my dog, Ruffo, not awakened me I’m sure I could have been harvested as a tomato that same afternoon.

P1000727
Taking a shot with Abuela (grandma)

Ruffo seemed to be telling me that it is time to go visit my 86-year old adopted Costa Rica grandmother who lives tucked away in a sleepy, countryside home.  I set out by bus to pay her a surprise visit. We take a shot of tequila (her customary greeting for any visitor) and I tell her the news and adventures of everyone in my extended family. She follows along intently, despite knowing very few of them personally, as if they were her own children.

I sit down with her for a typical lunch of rice and beans and instantly long for a slice of pizza, a hamburger, or even pasteurized milk. It’s going to be awhile before I can savor those tastes again.

Fortunately, there are plenty of other delights to keep my taste buds happy: starfruit juice, freshly harvested coffee, fried plantains, and of course salsa Lizano.

Now on the move, I am filled with the inexplicable desire to explore Costa Rica all over again, as if I were seeing it for the first time. I go to a traditional “tope,” or horse parade. The next day, I take a hike in the largest private rainforest reserve in Costa Rica, the Children’s Eternal Rainforest and finally, I spend an afternoon picking coffee for 50 cents an hour at one of my friend’s plantations.  To top it all off I even managed to bring in the New Year in a swimsuit (a first for me) by viewing a fireworks show on the beach.

I have always loved visiting Costa Rica, since my initial volunteer abroad experience, in 2006.  I always feel the spark of curiosity and adventure when I arrive here.  There is always something new to see and experience.

Whether its a short or long stay, volunteering or touring, alone or in a group, I still feel as giddy as the first time (and even more so especially if coming from winter in Wisconsin.)

So now I have since stopped visiting Costa Rica and have made it my primary residence.  With each stay here, I’ve become immersed in the culture, made more friends, and developed stronger relationships.

The love and affection shown by Costa Ricans is second to none and thanks to my adopted grandma I’ve been introduced to my girlfriend, which has allowed for even more cultural immersion.

Now I am dedicate to duplicating this experience for other visitors to Costa Rica.  I love being at the airport to greet them.  To see their initial reactions and then watching as they develop and change over the course of their stay is really gratifying to me.  When they go from the “this is strange” expression to the “I could get used to this” expression then I know I’m doing my job.

With January being the start of the tourist season, I couldn’t think of a better way to have prepared for this than by returning to Costa Rica myself.

I encourage everyone to open that freezer door.  The initial shock might leave your senses tingling and put you on edge, however once the vapor clears you’ll find yourself adjusting and comfortable again.  Whether that door is open for only a week or as long as six months you’re certainly headed for climate change both literally and figuratively.

No doubt, it will leave you awake, refreshed and renewed.