exploring, examining, exchanging, expressing
Monday, April 30, 2007
Caffiene and Cages
This morning I was warned that the power would go out at 7am. And it did. So I donned my tourist garb by the light of the rising sun, downed half a pot of coffee, and started towards Alejuela. The bus ride took a full hour, longer than expected, so I was a few minutes late meeting my travel buddies. No worries. We stopped at a little cafe, where I had a magnificent cappuccino, and we went to another bus terminal to catch a ride to Sabanilla.

Our first destination today was the Doka Estates for a tour of the coffee plantation. A kind lady on the bus told us where to get off and even helped us get a cab. Moments later we were high in the mountains overlooking a massive field of coffee trees. We were a few minutes early for the tour, so we got to wait in the cafeteria and sample all of their brews. As with all Costa Rican coffees, they were magnificent. I was buzzed and ready to learn more. We lucked out on several counts. The rain held off. And we were the only people there for the tour, so we got plenty of individual attention. Our guide showed us every stage of coffee tree production, from growing seedlings to roasting beans. It was incredibly educational. I have a whole new appreciation for my addiction.

doka estates - coffee field

Growing coffee is an involved process, and I learned that it's not very profitable any longer. Each tree only yields a relatively small number of pounds of coffee in its 25-year life, so plantations need lots of trees and lots of land. Costa Rica can't match the production of other countries, such as Brazil and Columbia, so they try to beat them in quality. I, personally, think they're doing a good job. I also got some interesting trivia. Did you know that coffee beans are fermented? They're basically a fruit, so the seed/bean is surrounded by a sugary slime that has to be fermented briefly so it can be rinsed away. Plantations like Doka make their money selling green coffee beans to roasters like Star Bucks. They only roast a small percentage themselves (mostly to sell to tourists). I bought a bag of espresso myself. I felt it was the least I could do after downing plenty of samples. It was magnificent.

Afterwards, we went back to Alejuela, where we caught another bus to take us to the bird zoo (zoo aves). Again, we practically had the whole place to ourselves. It was beautiful, totally surrounded by trees and flowers. We saw all sorts of parrots, owls, hummingbirds, toucans, macaws, vultures, and more. They also had some reptiles. And monkeys! Cute, feisty monkeys. It was a great way to see some wildlife up-close. I'm not sure that words or pictures could do it justice.

zoo aves 03 zoo aves 21

By the time we made it to Alejuela again, I needed to leave my companions and start towards San Jose. I wished Heather, our Canadian friend, the best of luck on the rest of her trip. She would be making her way to the beach soon. I'm a little jealous. Me... I have to work tomorrow.

Here are more pictures of the coffee plantation.

Here are more pictures of the bird zoo.


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Sunday, April 29, 2007
Hot Magma
I've made friends with another teacher at my school - we've decided to become travel buddies. It's tough to travel alone. Plus, she's fluent in Spanish, which is very handy. So today we decided to make the trip to the Poas Volcano. It's a nice day-trip, and we have a long weekend because the school is closed for the "worker's holiday" on Monday.

My guide-book said the bus leaves San Jose at 8:30, stops in Alejuela at 9:30, then takes 3 or 4 hours (it had different times on different pages) to get to the volcano. It was partly right. It left San Jose at 8:30 in the morning (ticket price - $5, if you're interested). It got to Alejuela about 9 and left there at 9:15. My friend lives there, so she was going to hop on at that station. She barely made the bus, since it left earlier than expected. "Tico Time" is usually at least 10 or 15 minutes late, so it was really odd for something to leave ahead of schedule! She was caught off-guard. The trip to the volcano was only about 2 hours, with a stop at a little market / restaurant / tourist trap along the way. Maybe I'll write to the publisher of the Lonely Planet guide to Costa Rica to have them correct their book.

The bus stopped at the entrance to the park, where we all had to get off to buy tickets for entrance ($7 for non-Ticos). Moments later we were dropped off in a parking lot. After wandering around the visitor's center for a bit, we were confronted by a young woman who recognized us as English speakers. She pleaded: "I'm completely lost. What's going on?" We explained that we were free to roam the park until 2:30, when the bus would take us back to Alejuela. We invited her to join us and she gladly accepted.

The main crater is just a short walk up a paved road. We were very lucky that it was a clear, cloud-free day. We got a fantastic view of the volcano. It was pretty neat to watch it belch sulfer into the air. It's considered an active volcano, and has had minor eruptions as recently as 1989 and 1995. A trail led us up to another crater, which has become a beautiful lake. Here we stood around and enjoyed some people-watching for awhile.

Afterwards, we continued up the trail, which led us through a forest with lovely vegetation. The ferns grow to massive sizes! And eventually we were back at the visitor's center and cafe. We stopped, ate snacks, enjoyed some coffee, and got to know each other a little better. Our new friend turned out to be from Canada. She had decided to visit Costa Rica for a few weeks on a whim. She was just hanging out in Alejuela for a couple of days before making her way to the Pacific coast for some quality beach time.

We got back on the bus, which again left early. Very, very odd. It made another stop at the same market (the bus line must get a kickback of some sort). And we were back in Alejuela by 3:30 PM. My fellow teacher gave us the penny tour of the city, showed us where she's staying, and then took us to the mall to hang out and get some grub. Our Canadian friend mentioned that she was going to spend an extra day in town and asked if we wanted to go see some other sights, like the Zoo, and perhaps tour one of the nearby coffee plantations. Sure, why not? So we're meeting up tomorrow morning to play "tourist" again.

It's nice to do some traveling and sight-seeing. I mean, that's why I'm here, right? It sure beats sitting around the house.


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Saturday, April 28, 2007
My Boys
I'm really starting to enjoy my Saturday class, even though I don't entirely like the idea of splitting my weekend. The students, though not incredibly motivated (they already have jobs, and their company is paying for the course), are well-educated and articulate. My job is simply to help them sounds more like North Americans, so their customers can understand them better. This means we spend almost no time on vocabulary and very little on grammar. We just talk. I correct their word use and give them tips on pronunciation. It's fun to start debates about Costa Rican political issues, such as CAFTA, drugs, and global warming. And because they work in IT, we inevitably veer off into discussions on technology, science fiction, and video games. A couple of them even whipped out Magic: The Gathering cards during our break and played a quick game. These are my people!

I think they're enjoying it too, which is important because they're giving up their Saturday morning for this. I need to make it worth their time. One of them asked me today: "Are you going to be our regular teacher?" And then he realized I might take his question the wrong way: "Not because I want another teacher! I think you're a good teacher." My school doesn't force teachers to work Saturdays; teaching this class is voluntary, so they're used to seeing different faces. I think they're surprised that I've shown up three weeks in a row. But I think I'll consider them "mine," unless I have travel plans some weekend. I think I can relate to this group better than the other teachers can, simply because of my prior work experience. And I get a kick out of hanging out with Tico computer geeks.

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Friday, April 27, 2007
Sometimes, especially when I'm out on the front porch looking over San Jose, I pause in quiet reflection and think to myself: "HOLY SHIT I'M IN COSTA RICA!"

Even after over two months of being here, the reality still kicks in at odd times. This isn't the United States. I'm in a completely different country. I'm a foreigner. I don't belong here. I quite a well-paid job to move to this country, teach, and earn an income that would put me in the poverty bracket back home. I barely speak Spanish. I'm surviving on a pot of coffee a day and a healthy dose of rice and beans. All of my posessions fit in two duffel bags. Who the hell does something like this? This is madness. How long can I keep this up? What exactly am I going to do when I'm done? How do I transition back to the real world?

And then, after a few brief moments of heart-racing anxiety and panic, I look at the palm trees and birds and mountains, and I relax. I'm in Costa Rica. Go with it. Give it a few months. Maybe even eight or nine. Let's see what happens, shall we?

Stiffs in suits have heart-attacks. Gringos in shorts have sun-burns. Chose wisely.


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Human Sacrifice
I’m slowly being drained of my blood, my precious vital fluids, one tiny bite at a time. It’s the price I pay for nocturnal porch-sitting. The rainy season has arrived and brought hoards of mosquitoes with it. Apparently, they have a thirst for gringo sangria.

Despite the buzz of the little suckers and the constant yapping of the neighborhood dogs, it’s a pleasant night. The air is cool and the moon is bright. I survived a planned three-hour power outage that ended around 9pm. ICE, the utility monopoly, has been cutting electricity all over the country. I understood enough of the television news to know it was coming, though I’m not sure of the reason. It has something to do with an unplanned blackout that happened last week.

I can’t sleep. No particular reason. And no particular need. I have no plans for tomorrow… err… today. Sleep will come eventually. When the power returned, I studied a little Spanish. Then I whipped up a papaya fresco and finished reading “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” (I have a hard drive filled with e-books). And now I’m half watching an old Western flick on the retro channel. This is one of the rare times when they show a movie that’s not dubbed in Spanish. It’s in English, with subtitles. I’m no fan of Westerns, but I’ll take what I can get. Sometimes I keep a dictionary handy while watching so I can look up unfamiliar words, but not tonight.

Right now I’m just hoping the cheesy dialogue will lull me to sleep so I can quit scratching my arms and legs.


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Thursday, April 26, 2007
Mood Swings
It's tough not to let my mood carry over into the classroom. If I don't feel well, I still need to act energetic and enthusiastic. If I'm grumpy, I'm supposed to turn my frown upside down. It's about playing the part, getting into character. When I'm in front of the whiteboard, I'm not a real person. I'm a teacher. My students don't need to know about my troubles. They just need someone to get them excited about learning English.

I know when I was in school, especially in the earliest grades, I didn't think of my teachers as normal people. They were babysitters and disciplinarians. They were givers of homework and tests. I didn't consider what their lives were like outside of the classroom. Looking back, I didn't know much about them at all. When I would see them out in the real world, outside of school, it was always a little odd. There was a disconnect. They needed to be behind a desk or by a chalkboard.

In college, it seemed like some of the best professors treated their students almost like peers. Some would even socialize with us outside of class. And by this point, I saw my instructors as normal folks. They had bad habits and personal issues and everything. But I still didn't appreciate the fact that their job involved putting on a "teacher mask" every day so that they could stand in front of a motley crew of students and try to enlighten them. I guess it just didn't occur to me that there were some days that they probably didn't want to be there.

If you work in an office and you feel like crap, you can generally hide at your desk. You can find work to do that doesn't involve dealing with too many other people. Sometimes you can even work from home and avoid everyone altogether. But a teacher's job is to deal with people, to interact with them. It's like a service-industry job. A waitress that doesn't want to socialize with customers isn't going to make too many tips. A grumpy salesman won't move many wares. And a teacher that can't face students isn't going to expand too many minds.

It's enough to make me want to go back and thank all of the teachers I've had over the course of my life. I want to thank them for putting up with roomfuls of brats. I want to thank them for simply showing up when they had the blues and would've rather stayed home. I can only think of a few of my teachers, very few, that ever really lost it in the classroom. That's pretty amazing considering what they dealt with.

Me? Today I snapped at one of my students. The entire class was being rowdy today. It started out with only one or two of them acting out. But in a small class, it doesn't take much for everything to fall apart. Of course, in a conversation class, we want to encourage talking. It's even okay to get a little off-topic, so long as the discussion is worthwhile. It's fine to have fun. Happy brains retain more knowledge. But things were getting out of control. And this particular student, who is often a handful, really got to me. I wasn't mean or hateful, but I was far more stern than I've ever been with them before. The whole class got quiet for a moment. And then we got back on track. The rest of our time was fruitful and enjoyable.

I'm not good with discipline. It's a skill unto itself. I didn't think it would be a issue with adults who were paying good money for a course. But I guess students are students, no matter the situation. I have to learn how to handle them. At least I'm not alone. After class, I heard two other teachers talking about some problem students. They both have more experience than me and they're still frustrated by the situation.


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Wednesday, April 25, 2007
Since my afternoons are free and my need is growing, I've inquired about taking Spanish classes here. Unfortunately, I've discovered that courses at reputable schools cost well over $200 per week (with discounts for multiple weeks). That's for four hours a day, five days a week of complete Spanish immersion. I'm sure they're worthwhile, but the price is a bit beyond this poor man's budget at this point. That's quite a bit more than Ticos are paying for English classes, I believe. Such is the curse of supply and demand.

It's been suggested that I could try looking for classes at some of the local universities. But to do that, I would need to know enough Spanish to either navigate the schools' websites or wander their campuses and register somehow. Possible, but difficult, I think. Others have said I should try to find a private tutor. But I have a feeling the price for that would be high, too.

I brought some language CDs with me, and I have the Rosetta Stone software on my laptop. I've just been lazy about using them. Now that I know my alternative is to shell out $200+ a week, I've gained a new appreciation for them. That was the slap in the face that I needed. I'll try to get a decent foundation using the resources I have. A little studying combined with real-life immersion should provide me with the basics, at least. I just need to put forth the effort. Later on, if I still need more help, I'll reconsider paying for lessons.

On the flip side of things, I'm starting to worry that my English skills are being affected by lack of use. I'm finding that even though I still think in English, I'm using simpler syntax. Since I only know certain structures in Spanish (I'm stuck in the present tense: I need X, I want X, I have X), I'm starting to think within those boundaries. When I have a chance to talk with another English-speaker, such as my fellow teachers, I have to make a conscious effort to add complexity to my sentences.

It doesn't help that most of the time when I'm speaking English, I'm talking to my students, so I have to grade my speech to their level. That habit carries over to "normal" conversations. I guess it's an occupational hazard. Hopefully I'll be able to keep myself sharp by reading the few books I brought with me and by writing here regularly. It'd be a shame for an English teacher to lose his English skills!


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Comments on Comments
Comments on Comments

I read all of your comments even though I haven't been responding individually. Let me try to hit a few points here. And allow me to thank you all for reading and providing feedback. It's nice to know you're all out there!

Exercise: I haven't been running or jogging. I just wouldn't feel safe running in my neighborhood. I can't explain it, really. It's just a vibe. It's one thing for me to walk around with a purpose. Even then, I still get hassled sometimes. But being a gringo in running gear, sweating and panting up the streets, would be inviting someone to screw with me, I think. I have been doing quite a bit of walking. I know I could be doing more. And I know I could be doing things at home to keep my strength and aerobic fitness up. I'm just being lazy. No excuses. But up until the past few days, my weight was at a good number. A bit too much bread and ice cream lately, I think.

Religion: Costa Ricans are mainly Catholic. It colors their attitudes. For instance, the women may walk around in tight pants and shirts that expose more than they cover, but chastity is still considered a virtue. Alcohol and drugs are mentioned in hushed tones. I was actually surprised to see that booze is sold on Sundays; I figured they might have some blue laws like we did in the States. The religion is deeply rooted in the culture. The buses and taxis have Christian slogans, like "King of Kings" and "God is My Father," boldly painted on them. Many storefronts do as well. I guess it's assumed that non-Catholic customers won't be offended. Some of the churches are beautiful. Others are shacks. Someday I think I'll duck into one during mass. I'd like to attend one here, just for the experience. I'm sure it's very similar to those in the US. After all, the meaning of Catholic is "universal."


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Monday, April 23, 2007
I saw smoke as my bus turned the corner towards my stop. As we got closer, I saw that there was a fire in the field right in front of my house. It was putting up a lot of smoke, but it wasn't threatening any of the houses. It was just burning some of the palm trees and trash. Nobody rushed to put it out. Even the attendants at the nearby gas station were more curious than worried.

I'm not sure how I feel about it. On one hand, it's a shame that so many beautiful plants and trees were destroyed. On the other hand, that area attracts quite a few drug addicts. Maybe without the cover of trees, they'll move on to hang out somewhere else. It'd be nice to be able to walk down my driveway without stumbling over crackheads.


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Sunday, April 22, 2007
Fin de Semana
It seems that Sunday lunch with the family could be a regular thing. Although I like having time to myself, I don't mind a little company. And I certainly don't mind a free meal. Today Dulce made Tico Tacos. They're a little different from Mexican tacos. They're tortillas stuffed with marinated meat and then the whole thing is wrapped up and deep fried. It's artery-clogging goodness.

The family is talking about going back up the mountain to Tres Cruzes next Sunday. Three times might be a bit much. I didn't say "no," but I think I'd rather do something else with my Sunday. I've seen signs for an orchid expo in Cartago. Even if I don't go to the expo, I'd like to go explore the city. It's supposed to be nice. It'd make a good day-trip, and it'd be a baby step towards longer excursions by myself. I need to get out and see Costa Rica!


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Saturday, April 21, 2007
Despite having to work this morning, today turned out to be a another great day in Costa Rica. My throat is sore from laughing, if that's any indication. It was a day filled with good companionship.

I taught with another teacher this morning, because this class is something of a special situation. The students aren't paying. Their company is paying for two teachers, no matter how many students show up. Since there were only 5 students, we didn't see the point in splitting the class. Low pressure. Plenty of individual attention. Everybody's happy.

After class, I had lunch with my coworker (and I had my first real "casado" - like a blue plate special - at a soda in Costa Rica), and then we wandered around Heredia so she could hunt for apartments. She got a few leads from fliers at one of the local universities. To celebrate, we got ice cream. Yummmm. The ice cream here is incredible. It's made with real cream. It's dangerously good, especially on a hot day like today.

As I was walking up towards my house, I was greeted by one of my neighbors. She invited me to sit down, have a fresco, and meet a couple of lovely ladies. How could I refuse an offer like that?! They turned out to be her coworker and her coworker's daughter. I learned that the daughter speaks a little English. My neighbor is trying to learn as well, so she brought out one of her books and asked me to pronounce some words for her. I don't mind giving a free lesson to a friend. And in fact, I was rewarded later with coffee and sandwiches. Muy rico. The real payment, though, was an afternoon of conversation and laughter. It also helped that the ladies mentioned I was "guapo" in my teacher-garb. Flattery goes a long way. Too bad they also mentioned their boyfriends.

Sometimes a gringo just can't catch a break.


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Thursday, April 19, 2007
Gringo Fiesta
I had one rough day this week. But overall, it turned out to be a big week of small accomplishments. These may not sound like much to you, but to me, they were baby steps towards feeling better about my time here.

1) Yesterday, one of my students said, "I had fun in class today!" That's pretty major for me, a newbie teacher on his second week of teaching. It means my students are starting to loosen up and feel more comfortable with me. I'm getting them to open up and have fun with English, which is really the point of our course. We covered a couple of big grammar points, but we still had some laughs. My school's theory is that when students enjoy what they're talking about, they learn more. So in that sense, I think this week was an overall success.

2) I bought fruit from a street vendor. There's a guy with a pickup truck full of fruit that sets up shop along the road at the top of my hill, near the bus stop. I've been told that he gets the stuff that companies like Dole don't want because it's too big or too ripe to send to the US. I can believe it. So I plucked up the courage to ask the price for a bag of mangos. I got 6 decent pieces of fruit for 500 colones, about 1 dollar. Not bad. If I were better at Spanish, I probably could've bargained for either more fruit or better pieces. But it's a start.

3) I opened a bank account (as mentioned) and today picked up my debit/ATM card. Tomorrow, hopefully, my school should make a deposit. At that point, I will have officially started earning money from working in a foreign country. That just blows my mind. I have a job, a regular routine, and essentially a normal life, in a country where I barely speak the language. Groovy.

4) I was tested by my academic coordinator on my teaching skills. I still have a lot to work on, of course. I need to get better at correcting my students. I know when and why they make mistakes, but I'm too timid about interrupting them and pointing out the problems. I'm comfortable with the main concepts of teaching conversational English to advanced students. Not too shabby for a guy that used to be a computer geek for a living.

To celebrate these minor victories, I'm treating myself to a treat sans (err... sin) beans and rice. I stopped at a vendor in San Jose and got a roasted chicken. I've walked past a bunch of these chicken shacks in San Jose and today I decided to give it a shot. They cook the chicken on a rotissary over a wood fire in a brick oven. I just had a nibble and it's quite tasty. The guy mumbled to his friend something about "ingles" after I ordered, but he got the gist and I got my chicken. (I'll always be a gringo here, no matter how much I try to fit in). I also went to the store and got a box of wine (Chilean. Costa Rican wine is... not worth mentioning) and some pasta and sauce for a side dish. And I picked up a loaf of bread, because the lady at the bread store has started to smile at me more. (I go to Mus Manni because it's a self-serve store, I don't have to ask for what I want. My next goal is to go to a bread shop where I have to ask, but I like that the bread lady knows me and smiles).

It's Italian night at Casa Loco Gringo!

Pollo Asado: 2400 colones
Caja de Vino Rojo (Uno Litro): 2000 colones
Pan: 270 colones

One week of not feeling like a complete outsider in a new country: Priceless


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Tuesday, April 17, 2007
A Bad Day

It started out fine. I woke up early. I enjoyed my morning pot of coffee, got ready, and headed up the hill. That's when I got the feeling that things were going to take a turn for the worse. A bus was taking off as I got close to my stop. It was mine. I'd missed it. So I waited. A few busses came and went, but none for the route I needed. Then, in the distance, I saw the right bus. I hailed. He was packed, so I just kept on going. So I waited. Soon, instead of being early, I was going to just be on time. A driver finally picked me up.

Once in San Jose, I bolted for the Heredia bus stop. When I got there, the bus was still waiting for passengers. It was about 10 minutes before we had enough people to take off. I tried not to look at my watch. No sense in worrying about it, I told myself. We hit a ton a traffic. Now I was moving from "on time" into "late."

Sure enough, by the time I made it to my school, I was about 2 minutes late for the start of class. That's fine by Tico time, but I had things I needed to prepare. I rushed around, trying to talk to my students while making copies and getting ready. I was frustrated, but couldn't complain to the group. I just apologized and dove into the lesson. As fate would have it, one of my first activities involved a poem entitled, "A Very Bad Day."

As I was covering a grammar point, one of the administrators came into the room and passed out a class (and teacher) evaluation to the students. This further frustrated me for several reasons. First, this evaluation was supposed to be given out after the third week, not at the start of the second week. The students haven't had enough classes to properly evaluate anything at this point! Second, it should've been given out at the end of the class, not the beginning. This was a major disruption. They kept working on it while I was trying to get them to focus on my activities. And finally, it was obviously a bad day for me, personally. I wasn't giving my best performance as a teacher. But of course, since they were filling out the form today, it would be fresh in their minds. Fan-tas-tic. Grrr.

After class, I had to go to the bank to open an account so I could get direct deposit set up. Given my minimal grasp of Spanish, I wasn't looking forward to attempting this. My need to get paid overpowered my fear. I walked to the bank and saw that it didn't open until 1pm, so I had to kill an hour. I decided to go to the park. I figured that'd be a good place to relax, read, and work on my lesson plans. Not today. Today, a beggar decided to screw with me. I ignored him, but then another one came and sat down right next to me. They both spoke English. Why do the bums speak English? I got up to leave since it was time to stand in line at the bank anyways. As I was walking by, the first bum yelled at me, "Whatsa matter, can't give a few coins to help some poor Costa Ricans?!" Ugh. I didn't need that crap. Not today.

At the bank, I walked upstairs as I was instructed to do. Another teacher had given me a couple of names of bank employees I should talk to. But I ended up in the credit card application area. I was led back downstairs where I was told to wait in another line. Aha. There was a sign in this area that I figured out meant "new accounts." My informants at the school were apparently misinformed. When my number came up, I sat down and immediately launched into my gringo introduction: "Buenas tardes. Hablo un poquito espanol. Necesito una nueva cuenta bancaria." Then I handed her the letter of sponsorship from the school. You see, it's not easy for a non-resident to get a bank account. I needed an employer to vouch for me. I think the letter did more to explain my situation than my pathetic attempt at Spanish did. Either way, we started filling out forms. I handed over my passport and a utility bill. You need to show a utility bill for nearly everything. Another teacher said he had to have a copy even to get a membership at a video rental shop. The nice lady asked me a few questions. Each time, I had to lean closer, not because I didn't understand, but because she spoke too softly. But each time, she followed up with English. So it all worked out. Eventually, after signing my name a few dozen times, I was given my account number and told to come back in two days to get my ATM card.

The worst of my day was over. I went home, ready to put it all behind me. And now that I've written about it, I can.

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Monday, April 16, 2007
Sin Azucer

I've mentioned that it's an oddity that I drink my coffee black, without sugar. I still get funny looks. But in my opinion, the coffee here is so tasty that it doesn't need anything else added to it. Crappy coffee needs sweetener. Good coffee needs a mug.

On a friend's recommendation, I bought a bag of Cafe Rey. After brewing a few pots, I noticed that the grounds really stuck to the filter. Then I took a closer look at the bag. It's 90% coffee and 10% sugar. There's suger right in the coffee! I swear, only in Costa Rica. They love their sugar.

I'll admit, Cafe Rey is a fine brew. But I think I'll go back to Cafe 1812 (the family's choice, and the original source of my addiction). It's a blend of dark and light roasts, with no sugar. Or maybe I'll try some of the other brands. But now I'll know to check the ingredients first.


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Saturday, April 14, 2007

My Saturday morning class turned out to be six guys that do pretty much what I used to do in the states. They work at a company that represents IBM in Costa Rica. They handle internal customers, helping them get online to the corporate VPN and fixing various problems the employees encounter. They're computer geeks. They're the Tico version of me - 3 months ago.

I was given topics for conversation for them. But of course, since they all work at the same place, they eventually started talking about their jobs. I heard things about VPNs and Cisco and the CCNA and other technical topics that were a part of my former life. They got off on a tangent about LANs and video games. They play a lot of the same games I used to play with my friends back in Ohio, like Age of Mythology, Empires, and Mortal Kombat. I couldn't help but think about my old LAN party buddies. They had the same social habits.

It's funny to think that I've traveled all this way to end up teaching English to guys that are so similar to the guys I was friends with in the US.

It's even more funny to think that these guys that are learning English from me could end up in the US in one of my old jobs.

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I'm in. I'm sooooo in.

I had to teach a class this morning (Saturday duty - the curse of the newbie teacher). As I was walking up the hill towards my bus stop, I saw a bus approaching. It slowed down and flashed its lights. Aha! I quickly hailed and he picked me up. I wasn't anywhere close to the stop yet. He recognized me! The bus driver knows me! I guess I'm pretty memorable, probably being one of the few gringos in San Rafael. But it made my morning to know that he made a special stop for me.

Bus drivers can be a fickle, surly bunch. They know they have the power. Some get a real attitude about it. This one was already one of my favorites. He picks up as many people as possible - I mean, really packs 'em in, to the point that some mornings people are spilling out the doors. Yet he still manages to get back and forth from San Jose as quick as the rest. It may not make for the most comfortable ride (imagine sardines on a roller coaster), but it's an excellent quality in a bus driver. During rush hour, when other drivers are zooming past and it seems like I'll never get a ride, this driver appears like a knight in shining armor... on a really loaded-down horse.

It's nice to be known. And it feels good to have someone on my side. Especially a guy that holds my key to the city.


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Thursday, April 12, 2007
Continuing Kindness
Tonight was a perfect example of Tico hospitality. I had to ask my neighbor for a copy of one of my utility bills so I could open a bank account. She gets all the bills. I caught her as she was on her way to town, so she grabbed a bill and took it with her to copy. She said she'd deliver it to me later. I did this all in (surely broken, horrible) Spanish, by the way. That's a pretty big accomplishment for me, I think.

She just dropped it off. She also handed me a loaf of pan dulce (sweet bread) and explained that it was for me, for coffee tomorrow. I couldn't thank her enough. All I know to say is "muchas gracias" over and over. I don't know how to deal with people that are this nice!

I also don't know if this means I should invite her over for cafe tomorrow. You see, the nuances of Tico etiquette are still beyond my comprehension. "Please" and "Thank you" are universal. But other social graces are a bit more complex. There's more to living in a different country than learning the language.


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By Any Other Name
They call me "Teacher." The way they say it, I can't help but smile. It warms my heart. It makes me want to live up to the name. I feel I need to earn it.

I've finished the first week of my regular class. It went quickly. The rest of the 5 weeks are sure to fly by, as well. Will my students have made progress by the end? Will I have taught them anything? I hope so. I'm up to six students in this class now (and should stay at that number), which is perfect. Today they were comfortable and animated. We laughed and joked. (When I do something too goofy, though, there are groans: "Ooooh, Teacher!") We had some great discussions. I taught them several new words (ranging from "guard-dog" to "bar-hop" - like I said, good conversations). We fixed some grammar mistakes. In fact, we were on such a roll, I didn't get to cover everything during class. So I got to give homework - whee! I'm hearing less Spanish and more English. I even stayed after class today to help one of them with a pronunciation problem. It felt very "teacherly."

Maybe someday the title will fit properly.

Of course, I learn things from my students, too. That's the bonus of discussion-centered classes. For instance, when we talk about their favorite vacations, I get to hear about the best places to visit in Costa Rica. Or if we talk about food, I learn which restaurants are good and which I should avoid. (Apparently there are some Chinese restaurants that serve "mystery meat"). This is stuff that doesn't make it into the guide books. It's a great opportunity to get insider information.

My freshman English teacher in college said she loved her job because it gave her the chance to have interesting conversations with intelligent people. At the time, I was skeptical. Teaching isn't exactly a high-prestige job. But I now know exactly what she meant.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007
Adventures in Teaching
I gave my second "business seminar" tonight. Can you guess how it went? If you answered, "Not as planned," then you've been paying attention. Good job. Move to the head of the class.

I was supposed to be driven to the business by someone from the school. As I arrived at the school, however, I saw my ride driving off with the owner. I flagged them down and explained the situation. Apparently they had forgotten the plan. Fair enough. There'd been a week's vacation since we last talked. I'm as guilty as anyone of being forgetful. But did they stop and offer me a ride? Nope. The owner told me to go ahead into the school and she'd have someone give me directions. And they were off. Fan-tas-tic.

I cursed. I considered blowing off the class. It was becoming a hassle, more trouble than it was worth. I would've been on time with a driver. If I had to rely on the bus, I'd be late for sure. I could just go home. That'd be easier. I'd already spent half my day riding busses. There are teachers in Costa Rica that spend all day traveling from business to business. They make good money, but I don't envy them.

My sense of responsibility (and obligation to my students) prevailed. Better not to burn any bridges. So I went into the school where eventually I was told that they would get a taxi to take me. The receptionist handed me the address for the business and enough money to pay the fare. Okay. This might work out.

Time ticked on.

The cab arrived and away we went. Right into a traffic jam. We were getting nowhere. And my driver wasn't particularly aggressive, especially compared to the other Ticos on the road. We were getting passed all over the place. I was surely going to be late. "Oh well," I thought, "it's the school's fault, and it's the school's reputation that will be hurt." I was a little grumpy. As we got closer, it become apparent that my driver wasn't exactly sure of where we were going. We made a few wrong turns. And then he started asking other drivers for directions. Tick tock. Tick tock. And finally, there it was! We made it. Only a few minutes late. Perfectly acceptable by Tico time.

At the front desk (did I mention the business was a hotel?), I explained that I was the teacher and asked where I'd be teaching. They said they'd find a room. I figured they might have a conference room or something we could use. But no, they meant a bedroom! This was a first for me. For better or worse, I only had two students. So we got comfortable and started class.

It went surprisingly well. I was relaxed, not nervous at all. I guess that's an advantage to a small group. And they were, thankfully, talkative. The time went by quickly. We covered everything I wanted to cover. And I think they got some good practice.

Afterwards, I was able to find the right bus and made it home without any problems.

So in the end... "todo bien."

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Tuesday, April 10, 2007
Shaken And Stirred
I woke up almost an hour before my alarm went off this morning. My bed was vibrating. No, it was more than that. My bed was a-rockin'! In my fuzzy-headed state, I had no idea what was going on. Why was I moving? Had I overslept? Was someone trying to get me out of bed? What was all that ruckus?

By the time I realized it was an earthquake, it was over. I guess it was really just a tremor. Nothing was knocked over. There was no damage. It was just a very, very odd sensation, especially first thing in the morning.

I'd heard that they're common around here, that we're near a fault line. In fact, Marta said she woke up to one herself last month, but I somehow slept through it. This morning's was the first I'd experienced. I'm sure there will be more during my time here. I just hope they don't get much worse.


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Monday, April 09, 2007
Second First Class
I taught my first regular class this morning at 9 AM. My stomach was a little upset from all the food over the weekend, plus I was nervous. I gave myself plenty of time to get there. I wanted to be at the school by 8:30 because they hadn't given me any materials yet. They swore the curriculum would be ready in the morning. I left the house at 7:15, unsure of what the morning traffic would be like. I got anxious waiting for my bus to San Jose and got on the wrong one! Luckily, it got me close enough, though I was a little disoriented. There are a few key landmarks in San Jose that I use to find my way around. I didn't recognize anything when I got off the bus. But I got lucky. After walking a couple of blocks, I came across a busstop for Heredia. There are three busses to Heredia. I'd never taken this one, but it got me to the right place at the right time. Whew!

Of course, when I got to the school, they still didn't have the course materials ready. I was given a few printouts, but the students wouldn't have anything. I had to wing it. Teaching involves a lot of improv, I'm finding. So, an activity that was supposed to take one hour - doing introductions, getting to know one another - was drawn out to about an hour and 45 minutes. I think that was pretty good, especially considering that only 4 out of 6 of my students showed up. With 15 minutes left, I grabbed the academic director for help, hoping the books had been printed and we could pass them out. Nope! So we played a game for the last minutes of class and finally it was over.

This class is the lowest level that the academy teaches, but the students still have a pretty good grasp of English. They can carry on a conversation with limited vocabulary, they're just shy, afraid to make mistakes. So a big part of my job is going to be to make them feel comfortable and get them talking. It's kind of like being a talk-show host. It just doesn't pay as well.

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Sunday, April 08, 2007
No Bunny
While children in the United States were hunting for eggs and scarfing chocolate out of baskets, I was watching biblical movies on TV with my Tico family. The airwaves were flooded with every old Christian film ever made. There was nothing else. No news. No soaps. Not even soccer! It was a nonstop marathon covering the old and new testaments, all dubbed in Spanish.

And of course we ate a nice big meal together. After Friday, we no longer had to abstain from meat. So lunch included "arroz con pollo" - rice with chicken breast that had been slow-cooked all night in a delicious garlicky sauce. There was also a pasta dish with tomatoes and tuna. (I'm surprised at the amount of spaghetti they eat). And it was all washed down with a "fresco" made from fresh tamarindo and limon. It was all so good, I didn't even miss eating Cadbury eggs or jelly beans.

Afterwards there were some visitors, including Juan and Angelo and their wives. The women sat in the kitchen, drinking coffee and chatting. The men wandered around the back yard, telling stories and jokes. And then it was over. The family packed up and went on their way. They joked that I'd be all alone again, that I'd be happy to have my freedom back. And while that's partly true, I was also a little sad to see them go. I had fun practicing Spanish and teaching a little English. I enjoyed the company. While I don't mind solitude, I do like the feeling of warmth, of life, that comes with having family nearby, even if they're not my blood relatives. As Dulce was leaving, I made sure to stop her and thank her again for everything. She replied that it was her pleasure. And then she smiled and said, "You are my family!"


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Saturday, April 07, 2007
The Return to Tres Cruzes
Juan, Marta's brother, heard of our hike up the mountain. He called to say he wanted to go. I didn't mind going back. I'd get a chance to take some pictures. So this morning Mo and I piled into Juan's van, along with a few of his nephews, and Angelo, his English-speaking friend. Having a driver saved us the walk through Alajuelita, and the early start gave us plenty of time. It was a much more relaxed pace. We took our time to enjoy the view and the fresh air. The trail was practically empty, so we didn't have to worry about holding anyone up. Despite a few rough spots, it was an altogether enjoyable hike. Unfortunately, the clouds were thick, so the view was a bit obscured. We made it to the 3rd cross, the peak, in about 3 hours. We stopped to have some food and water and just hang out for awhile. I learned that Angelo used to live in Texas, is retired from the military, and is married to a Costa Rican. He used to come here for vacations, so it was an easy decision for him to retire here. We talked about all the things we've grown to love about Costa Rica: the coffee, the bus system, the food, the friendly people, the beaches, the fresh fruit, the beautiful women, the comfortable pace. I know I'll miss all of these things when I return to the States. After everyone was refreshed, we started our journey home. Juan led us down a different path, through some thick forests and across a few farms. It was so peaceful and beautiful! There was noone else around for miles. It was just us and the cows. The price of this tranquility was a more dangereous hike. There were some spots where a missed step would mean tumbling down the mountain. We were rewarded with a magnificent pastoral view. We managed to make our way down with only a couple of minor incidents. At one point we came to a fork in the road and nobody was sure which path to take. Juan made a few frantic phone calls, but reception was too bad to complete a conversation. Finally we asked a couple of townspeople for directions and we were back to civilization in no time.It is on days like this that I feel like I'm experiencing the "real" Costa Rica. This isn't something a tourist would do during a week's vacation. This trail isn't listed in any guidebook that I've read. I wouldn't have known about it had I not made friends with my Tico family. It was a great opportunity, and a memorable adventure.

See all of the photos here.


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Friday, April 06, 2007
My Tico Family
Today is a major holiday in Costa Rica, the culmination of Semana Santa. The streets are practically empty. The town is very quiet. Everyone is at home, spending time with loved ones.

Dulce, Marta's younger sister, explained the significance of the day to me. It is a day of reflection and relaxation, family and feasts. She went on to say that I am considered part of the family, and they would like me to join them for lunch. I was touched. Of course I gratefully accepted the invitation.

We sat around large tables outside, on the back porch. It was a gorgeous day. I was served fish soup, rice with shrimp, marinated vegetables, beet salad, sardines in tomato sauce, and warm tortillas. Everything was delicious. For dessert, we had something I can only describe as a "coconut bar." It was rich and sweet. The meal was fantastic, and the companionship was especially nice.

With Marta gone, the rest of the family had little reason to include me. They've only known me for a few weeks, not very long given the language barrier. But they have gone out of their way to make me feel welcomed. Their warmth and hospitality is seemingly endless.


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Thursday, April 05, 2007
Today was the real kickoff for Semana Santa. Last night, when I was coming home, I saw people lined up at the bus stops, bags packed and ready to go. Today, the streets are empty.

I'm sharing the house again with some of Marta's family. This is their gathering point for festivities. I was greeted with a nice meal last night. Sometime's it's good to have company.

One of Marta's relatives - let's call him Mo - invited me to go for a walk after breakfast this morning. Sure, I figured it'd be a chance to get a little fresh air and exercise. I could work off some of that gallo pinto. So we started up the road and veered off to a part of town I'd never been in. I was warned that it wouldn't be safe to walk here after dark. Mo was taking me to Alajuelita, a small community south of San Rafael. Once we got past the crack whores and filth-filled river, it was actually rather quaint. Mo dashed into the church while I stood around watching people.

When he came back out, we both started looking up the mountain. It's the same mountain I look at most mornings, when I'm sitting on the back porch. There's a huge white cross on top of it. It reminds me of home; we have a similar mountain with a similar cross. One of Marta's brothers had promised to take me hiking to the top, but that never happened. Mo asked me if I'd like to go up there. I tried to say that "Yes, someday I would like to hike up that mountain." But my Spanglish isn't that good. Mo only got the "yes" part. He wanted to make the trek, right there and then. He asked around, trying to get an idea of how long the trip would take. We got replies ranging from 45 minutes to 2-3 hours. (Ticos always try to give a helpful answer, even though it may not always be correct). There were a bunch of kids with camping gear hanging around the bus stop. They were going up. We'd follow them.

The bus finally arrived, we all crammed in, and up we went. Mo and I agree that this is a crazy idea, but we keep going anyway. To me, something just seemed right about climbing up to a cross for Holy Week. The bus is winding up the mountain. Alajuelita is getting further away. The view is spectacular. I curse, wishing I'd brought my camera. But how could I have guessed that a morning stroll would turn into a mountain-hiking excursion?

When we reach the bus stop, everyone rushes out and the kids start up the road. They're smoking, drinking, laughing, and basically acting like teenagers on vacation. Kids are the same everywhere.

The road is steep, and there is little traffic. Mo and I stop every once in awhile to look over the edge, trying to find Marta's house. There's too much to see. All the houses look the same, and there are so many of them! We can see almost all of greater San Jose. Then we look up, towards the cross. It still seems pretty far away. But we keep walking. And walking. And walking.

Eventually the road ends and the trail begins. It is steeper, narrow, rocky, and muddy. The air starts to feel much cooler. I start to worry. Mo keeps going. He's an older guy. If he's up for this, then so am I. He keeps asking people we meet on the trail how far it is to the top. It's a different answer almost every time. "Just an hour more," he tells me. Minutes tick away as we climb and climb. Some parts are so steep that we're climbing rocks. There are a lot of people on the trail, though. I guess it's a common hike for Semana Santa. "One hour," he tells me again.

Each time I start to feel a little grumpy (this wasn't what I'd planned for today), I would take a look at the amazing view ("buena vista" - it's not just the name of a Disney company). It helped that the other hikers were incredibly friendly. There was a real feeling of comraderie. They would sing or chant, and everyone would clap when the group made it over a particularly difficult part of the trail. We were all in this together.

There are three crosses at various points on the mountain. The first small cross was rather uneventful. The second was surrounded by cement steps, so we sat down for awhile. Others joined us. A group of guys offered me a Rock Ice. I was incredibly thirsty at this point, so I gratefully accepted it. The kindness of Costa Ricans continues to impress me. It was one of the best beers I've ever had in my life. While we sat and drank, Mo explained to them that I don't speak Spanish and that I'm here teaching English. A few of them spoke some English, so we chatted for a bit. We talked about girls and cars - the two universal guy topics, no matter the language. "You like the chicas here?" one asked. And just at that moment, three beautiful women walked by. "Si, muy bonito!" I replied, and we all gawked for a bit and laughed. I had almost been ready to give up and tell Mo "no mas" but the cerveza and conversation re-energized me. Vamos! Arriba! We took off.

Towards the top, someone had thankfully rigged a kind of water fountain. We took turns cleaning up and drinking the cool water. Then we hit the final stretch. The massive cross loomed ahead. There were a lot of people heading back down the trail already. But when we got to the top, we were greeted by a mass of young Ticos. It was like a little festival, they were kicking footballs, having picnics, setting up camp, and sitting around enjoying the view. It was spectacular. Awesome, in the original sense. You could see all of San Jose, including the outer suburbs. Again I cursed my lack of camera.

After wandering around and relaxing for a bit, we made our way back down, taking a slightly different route. This part of the journey was, thankfully, uneventful. We skipped the bus and just walked all the way back to the house. In all, we were gone for about 5 hours. When we got back, it was about 2pm, and we had an excellent lunch of fish stew, various salads, and cold frescos waiting for us. I was tired, a little sore, and very dirty. But I was content.

It was another great day in Costa Rica.


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Tuesday, April 03, 2007
Working for a Living

I've been offered my first regular teaching job! The school is kind of far away (especially by bus), but they really need teachers. I think I'll take it. It's 8 hours a week, which isn't much for a normal job, but is a good start for a teacher. 20-25 hours a week is considered full time for most teachers. They have more teachers leaving in the next month, so I could probably get more hours soon. They're mostly advanced students. The school specializes in training them for call center and technical support jobs. That's right up my alley, given my past work experience. The classes I've observed so far have been really great. The students are motivated. There's a heavy focus on conversation and pronunciation, which are the fun parts of teaching English (as opposed to vocabulary and grammar).

I go back tomorrow to observe another class and do a little teaching. If all goes well, I'd have my first solo class on Monday morning.

I'm supposed to hear back from another (closer) school by then, too. So I may have a decision to make. It's not a bad situation to be in, though. You might think the answer is simple: work for both schools. But the language schools here require contracts. To work for one, you need to promise a certain amount of availability for 6-12 months. I'd really rather not split my time between two schools that are far apart. If they were closer, it'd be easier. But to minimize travel time, it'd be better (I think) to choose one or another. I could get a "full" schedule right away working for both, but I'd spend a lot of time on the bus. I think it might be worth the gamble to choose one or another and hope for more hours later on.

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Mas Comida

My decision was confirmed this morning. I was invited over to have coffee with J and his mother, who are my neighbors. J (who happens to be one of Marta's nephews) speaks some English (learned from books and CDs) and is always happy to practice. He also likes to teach me a little Spanish. He's been very helpful in showing me around and making me feel at home. So I couldn't refuse the invitation to socialize. Plus, I love coffee.

But it's never just coffee. He and his mother laid out a full spread, with bread and cheese and fruits. I wasn't particularly hungry, but a plate was put in front of me and it would've been rude to have nothing. I nibbled some bread while sipping my coffee.

We talked about Semana Santa. This week is Holy Week, a major holiday for Costa Rica. The schools, many businesses, and government institutions are closed all week. Most other business are closed at least Thursday and Friday, when the holiday really kicks up. I think the stores stop selling alcohol on Wednesday or Thursday. Busses don't even run on Friday. It's been all over the news for weeks. Ticos flock to all the major beaches and tourist spots for this week. Hotels and busses are booked solid. It's their Spring Break.

I was informed that the family will have a big feast on Thursday and Friday, centered around some sort of fish stew. It's like Thanksgiving here, J said. Lots of food. But fish instead of turkey. Seafood prices have been in the news, too. So I've got that to look forward to.


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Monday, April 02, 2007
The What, The Why
"The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation."

I've been rereading Walden, which has colored my thoughts lately. Thoreau is a good travel companion. Perhaps you'll forgive me for a bit of philosophical meandering.

Before she left, Marta asked what I would do if I didn't find regular work soon. Would I go back home when my three-month tourist pass is up? No, I wouldn't give up that easily. Besides, surely I would find something before three months passed.

But what I couldn't explain, in part because it wasn't completely clear in my own mind, was that working here isn't my sole purpose. I've written that I'm here to have an adventure or two. That's not a very good explanation either, though. I'm not looking to fill my time with a job, nor am I seeking an extended vacation.

"As if you could kill time without injuring eternity."

My purpose is not so narrowly defined. Maybe I'm taking a break from my normal life. That sounds self-indulgent and rather ridiculous, as if I've labored so hard for so long that I need to slow down for awhile. No, it's more like I'm making a break. I'm wandering, mentally as well as geographically, before choosing a new path to follow. I'm getting away, physically, from the places I've known, so that I may explore different thoughts and lifestyles. New experiences and some good stories are the bonus.

This is my reset switch. This is me shaking up the Etch-a-Sketch of my life. Pick your analogy. It's nothing bold or new. If I had done it immediately after graduating college, it would be called a "gap year" - a typical vacation before entering the workforce. If I were doing it ten years from now, it could be considered a mid-life crisis. My timing has always been a bit off. But I think it's right for me. I'd rather do it by choice. Some people don't do it until they're forced to by something like a heart attack or a psychological breakdown. Some never get the chance.

"We are made to exaggerate the importance of what work we do; and yet how much is not done by us!"

It's surprisingly difficult even for me, a slacker at the core, not to define myself by my job. But who I am must be more than how I earn money. My happiness and self-worth is going to have to come from something else. And that's what I need to explore.

With such a nebulous purpose, how will I define success and failure? The journey's the thing. I need to truly and honestly explore my options to consider this a success. If I do so, and decide on a new path, or even a continuation of a previous path, then I think my time will have been well-spent. Stubbornly clinging to the status quo, for simplicity, ease, or comfort, would be the only real failure.

"Here is life, an experiment to a great extent untried by me."

It's hard work. I'll need more coffee.


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Need to Feed

I've given myself a month of freedom to try a variety Costa Rica's food and beverages. It's been fun sampling the new tastes, but a bit scary watching the scale climb. Now it's time to get my nutrition in order.

So I have a decision to make. As part of this experience, do I go with the Tico way of eating? Or do I stick with a plan that I know will keep my physique in check?

Some of you may not know that last year I lost a lot of fat. I have more to lose in order to get a beach-worthy body. I've always had a problem with my weight. So the issue of nutrition is important to me. In the months before I came to Costa Rica, in particular, I had been experimenting with diets to keep my blood sugar under control. They worked very well. But they relied on abundant healthy fats and proteins. That flew out the window when I arrived here, the land of a dozen bread stores for every one butcher.

On one hand, it seems right that I should eat as the locals do. It would make life easier. Rice and beans are cheap and plentiful. They would certainly stretch my food dollars. I could continue to take advantage of the variety of fresh fruits and vegetables here. And I wouldn't have to explain to everyone: "Estoy en una dieta especial."

On the other hand, I feel like my health should be a priority. There were some days last month when I felt like I was starving only a few hours after a meal. I know that was because of fluctuations in my blood sugar. I never felt that way when I ate more protein/fat meals. But meat and healthy fats are expensive here. Some foods are outright impossible to find. It would mean a lot more trips to the Hipermas. And it would mean awkward social situations.
I thought I could look at the people around me and get a feel for what the typical diet yields, but that hasn't been very helpful. There are plenty of fat Ticos and there are plenty of thin Ticos. I know they're not all living off rice and beans. I see too many KFCs and Pizza Huts around. So much for easy answers.

For simplicity (of both shopping and socializing) and economy, I am leaning towards a "traditional" Costa Rican diet. It will require more vigilance to keep it healthy. For instance, I should probably limit or eliminate the natilla and queso that I've enjoyed with breakfasts here. More veggies and less bread might be a good idea. Whole grain breads and brown rice, unfortunately are not an option. Fruit will be a treat. Meat will be a rarity, served in small portions when available. I'll practically be a vegetarian, quite a nutritional turnaround from what I was doing back home. But it's worth a shot.


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