exploring, examining, exchanging, expressing
Wednesday, May 30, 2007
Costa Rica Classroom
I've started contributing to Costa Rica Classroom. The site, with its advice and stories from other teachers, put my mind at ease before I came down here. And it continues to be a good source of information on living and teaching in this country. Considering all the help it's given me, I'm glad to give a little back.

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Sunday, May 27, 2007
And Then I Had A Vision
Lately I've been imagining what life could be like when I return to Tennessee. It's more of a daydream than a plan. I still have more than 6 months before I have to think about details. Costa Rica has taught me that these things will work out when the time comes.

I see myself living in a small house. Odd, because I've always thought I'd be an apartment-dweller, a sort of modern-day nomad, never tied to a piece of property. But the idea of a little place of my own is starting to grow on me. Nothing extravagant. I want a home-base, not a burden. I'd like a garden. I've always enjoyed that hobby, though I've had varying success with it. After last week, I consider a hammock to be an essential addition to the house. I don't need much else. I've learned that I can survive in the simplest of abodes.

There's a dog in this picture. Again, this is strange to me, because I've never considered having a pet before. But I've made friends with several dogs during my time here, and I can see how they are good companions. I am otherwise unattached in my vision. This is nothing new. I've enjoyed bachelor life for many years now, and I don't foresee a change. Many people boggle at the concept of a man that neither has nor seeks a partner. I don't know how to explain it other than I'm happier single than as part of a couple.

But in my image, I'm not really alone. I'm no hermit. I'm surrounded by friends and family. In fact, I see myself spending my days at the family business, which will grow in the coming months and years. We will have our own building, rather than the current rented space. My mom will run a general store in the front, a slightly larger version of what she has now, including more local arts and crafts. My brother-in-law will help her, as he has been. My dad and I will work the kitchen. He currently just does snacks and simple lunch items. I see a full restaurant with a big, comfortable dining area, perhaps even including a porch overlooking the river. We'll provide homecooked meals and give people a place to commune and enjoy good company. My sister would be an excellent hostess. And my nieces and nephews will stop by to help out in the afternoons.

What does any of this have to do with teaching English in Costa Rica? Not much. At least, not directly. But it reflects a change in attitude that lead to my time here, and a change in values based on the lifestyles I've encountered. Seven years ago, I was sure that in order to have a good life, I had to do something that sounded impressive. I was concerned with how other people would view my achievements. I worried about salary and job titles. I compared myself to others, looking for approval and outward signs of success, rather than seeking my own happiness.

That didn't work for me. So I'm willing to let a daydream guide me for awhile. I'd like to see where it leads.


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Saturday, May 26, 2007
The Big Border Run
Class was over. The next wouldn't begin for a couple of weeks. My 90 day tourist visa was ticking down, meaning I needed to exit the country for 72 hours. And I'd been itching to visit the Carribean coast. So I studied bus routes and schedules and worked out a plan for a week-long vacation. It's a bit of a blur now, but let me try to recount the adventure:

Day 1 - Pre-Border Relaxation
I got up around 4am on Saturday (the 19th) so that I could make the 6am bus to Cahuita, a small beach community on the Carribean side. I packed light, stuffing everything into a small backpack. I figured I wouldn't need much to lounge around for a week. (I was right. Heck, I overpacked). I took the bus to San Jose, then grabbed a cab to take me to the Caribe Terminal (one of the few actual bus terminals in the city, or entire country for that matter). It's farther north than I've explored, so I didn't know if it was safe to walk the relatively short distance - 500 colones bought me peace of mind. I got there about 30 minutes early, which was good, because tickets sold quickly and the bus was packed by the time we left. Luckily, these long-distance direct buses are more comfortable than the intra-city buses. They've got plenty of seat room, decent shocks, and sometimes there's even air conditioning. Getting there was half the fun since I had a window seat and got to see the country. Four hours passed quickly (with a short stop in Limon) and suddenly we pulled into Cahuita.

At 10am, the beach town was mostly still asleep. I wandered around for awhile, trying to get oriented. I found the road to Playa Negra and explored that area a bit before returning to the main strip to decide on a place to stay.

Cahuita-Playa_Negra-02 Cahuita-Ceviche-Soda_Tipico

I also stopped at Soda Tipico for the best ceviche I've tasted yet.

I chose Spencer's Seaside Lodging because the view from the hammocks outside their second story rooms was excellent. I'm a sucker for a good view and a hammock. It was worth the $20 I paid for the night. After dropping off my stuff, I made the short walk over to Cahuita National Park and Playa Blanca. It's indescribably gorgeous. A perfect white sand beach with jungle creeping up behind it. Then the afternoon rain came (as expected), so I lounged in my hammock. Rough life, I'm telling ya. I ended the day at Coco's Bar, enjoying cold Imperial and fine Carribean beats.

Cahuita-National_Park-Playa_Blanca-02 Cahuita-Spencers_Seaside-02

Day 2 - Onward to Panama
There's apparently no such thing as early check-out in the Carribean. I wanted to catch a morning bus to Sixaola (the border crossing), but couldn't find anyone to take my money or key at the hotel, so I left them both in the room and hoped they'd be found by the right person. The bus to Sixaola was one of the smaller, less comfortable buses. It was hot. And it made many, many stops to pick up passengers. So it was hot and crowded. I kept an eye out for other gringos, trying to find a border buddy. There were a few. When we got off at Sixaola, we were greeted by a "guide" that claimed us as "his group." We were all skeptical and tried to avoid him, but he followed us to the Costa Rican migration office... which had a huge line. So much for a quick crossing. Apparently there were two tour-buses full of people ahead of us, plus many Ticos coming back into the country, which tied up the small two-person office. Luckily, I have learned patience during my time here. No worries. I chatted with some other folks going to Bocas del Toro, my eventual destination. The "group" consisted of two guys from Florida, a kid from Israel, and an older man from Germany. We inched our way forward.

And about two and a half hours later, it was my turn. I handed over my passport. The clerk started to stamp it, then hesitated. He double-checked the date. Holy crap, had I miscounted the days? Had I already overstayed my visa? No, he stamped it and handed it back. Shew. Then I had to make it to the other side, which required walking on a rickety old bridge over the Rio Sixaola into Guabito, the border town on Panama's side. As I stood in line for Panama migration, our "guide" reappeared, urging us to go to the tourist office first, to purchase a tourist card. The others hesitated, but this was mentioned in several things I read about entering Panama, so I went with it. He was right, I had to buy a tourist card for 5 bucks from the Panama Tourist Office, which is inconveniently placed after the migration office, rather than before. When I went back to migration, there was a huge line again. My "guide" assured me I wouldn't have to wait, and led me and the others to the front of the line, gave our passports to the clerks, and had them stamped. Our guide earned his tip with this move, since this meant I didn't have to present proof of onward voyage, which is normally required to enter the country. Afterwards, he took us down to a taxi (minivan) that would take us to Changuinola, where we could take a water taxi to Bocas del Toro.

This was a complicated trip because I chose to stop in Cahuita for a day, rather than take a direct bus from San Jose to Changuinola. It became more complicated when the dock attendant at Changuinola told us the boat wasn't coming. So we had to take a taxi to Almirante, the next closest dock. Our taxi this time was a truck, making things a little more cramped for the 5 of us on this 45 minute trip. But we made it to the dock in time for the water taxi.

In Bocas, we were again greeted by a "guide" who offered to help us find accomidations. I didn't have a clue about finding a hotel in this town, and apparently neither did the others, so we all followed along. He showed us a hostel that was cheap and nice enough. The others went for it, but I wasn't up for sharing a dorm with several people. I wanted a little more comfort and security for the time I was forced to spend out of Costa Rica. He took me to a few other places, and I finally settled on Casa Amarillo, owned by his "American friend." It was $25/night for a big, super-clean room with air conditioning, a fridge, TV with HBO, and most importantly an in-room safe. A comfortable room turned out to be important because I'd end up spending quite a bit of time in it. The owner was a nice guy, too. He lived on the second floor of the house with his wife. This was his retirement project.

Day 3 - Rain
Lots of rain. Unlike Costa Rica, it wasn't limited to the afternoon. I didn't feel too adventurous, but I did walk around the main strip for a bit. Bocas seems like a cool town. But it was dead because of the rainy season. Luckily, the beer is very cheap (50 cents a can). I tried the three local brews: Balboa, Atlas, and Cerveza Panama. CP was the best of the bunch.

Day 4 - More Rain
I learned that it's a $6 cab ride to the nearest beach, which wasn't too enticing given the rain. Bocas doesn't have buses, just community taxis, which are either minivans or fancy new Nissan trucks. So I walked away from the main strip for a bit. The economic disparity becomes apparent as you get away from the tourist areas and get into the other communities. Back in town, I found a store selling cans of Guinness Extra Stout for 75 cents. I briefly considered the possibility of spending more time in Bocas. Like, maybe another 20 or 30 years, so long as the Guinness keeps flowing.

Day 5 - Outta Beer, Outta Here
Early checkout again meant leaving keys in the room, though I'd already paid my bill this time. As I was walking towards the dock, I started to feel bad that I hadn't explored the other islands of Bocas. But the constant rain had killed my sense of adventure. Maybe some day I'll return. Leaving Bocas was actually one of the best parts. The boat ride to Changuinola was really enjoyable. I saw a dolphin. And we went through an area surrounded by amazing forests.

I took a taxi to Guabito, where thankfully there was no line for the immigration office this time. Panama let me go, no problem. Getting back into Costa Rica, I was asked to show proof of onward voyage. Luckily, they accepted an itinerary I'd printed out from Delta, showing my flight scheduled to leave December 15th. I made it in time to catch the bus to Puerto Viejo de Talamanca.

Puerto Viejo is just a short distance from Cahuita, but has a much different vibe. It's a slightly bigger town. It's more touristy. And it's a stoner / surfer community. I walked around, eyeing my options for lodging. I decided to try to find someplace away from the main strip, towards Playa Cocles. I found that many places were offering cheaper rates for the low season. I settled on Cabinas Yucca, owned by a German lady. For $15/night I got a seaside room (no hammock, sadly) with a mosquito net over the bed. I learned an important lesson: get a room with a fan. It was incredibly hot at night without one.
Puerto_Viejo-Cabinas_Yucca-01 Puerto_Viejo-06
Day 6 - Relaxed
I explored the trails around the beach, which took me through forests inhabited by hundreds of land crabs, some red and black, others blue and white. They were everywhere! And then I did a whole lot of nothing. For dinner I went to the Lotus Garden, where they had all-you-can-eat sushi for $14. It was fantastic. I stuffed myself.
My german hotel manager turned out to be a stoner herself, as she smoked up outside my room with some other folks, and sang strange german songs while I tried to sleep.

Day 7 - More Relaxed
I decided to go back to Cahuita. It was a quick 30 minute bus ride. No problem, mon. The surfer scene just isn't my thing. I dig the vibe in Cahuita, though. Very laid back.

I checked rates at several places this time, and decided on Cabinas Palmer, where I paid $12 for a room with a fan inside, a hammock outside, but no seaside view this time. Instead, I was next door to several lovely German girls. I made good use of the hammock. Seriously, it's a rough, rough life.


I walked to Playa Negra, found a secluded spot (not hard), and went for a swim. The black sand makes swimming there sort of surreal. The water is dark, making it look like you're swimming in motor oil. But it's also crystal clear, so you can see your limbs perfectly. That night I went to Coco's, where it was reggae night. I didn't dance. But I certainly enjoyed the view. And I talked with some other travelers, swapping stories about life in Central America.

Day 8 - There and Back
I had to leave Cahuita. If I were to relax any more, I'd end up in a coma. Plus, I was starting to run out of clean clothes. I got on the big comfy bus and watched the surf turn into Palm fields which turned into mountains which turned into city.

I took a cab back to Parque Central to pick up my bus home. The driver claimed his meter was broken and offered a rate of 1000 colones. I was already in the car and we were in the middle of traffic by this time. Grrr. But I just wanted to get to my house, so I agreed to the fare.

And here I am. A little sunburned and mosquito-bitten. Good for another 90 days in the country. Overall, very happy. I'm glad I took the chance on a trip by myself. It's given me confidence. If I can pull off 8 days of travel to several destinations, including crossing into Panama, then I should be able to handle just about anything. And I got a glimpse of what Costa Rica has to offer. Jaco was nice, but compared to Playa Negra I can see why it has a reputation as being too touristy (while still being more tranquil than someplace like Myrtle Beach). There are more beaches and rainforests yet to explore. And I have plenty of time to do it.


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Tuesday, May 15, 2007
Can't Kick IT
Old habits die hard. Today, especially, I've reverted to my tech-head mentality. As I look around my school and think of ways to improve it, my mind immediately turns to IT solutions.

We have a computer lab with identical computers - we should have a standard image so that the computers can be cleaned and reloaded quickly and efficiently. We should lock down the computers so students can't install crap. And we should have a file server so they can save and edit documents as needed.

The staff and teachers could also use a file server (or a network share or an intranet) so they can save and share resources. It might also be nice to create an intranet web site for the students, where we can post activities and additional materials for them. Perhaps we could even link to employment sites and businesses where they could apply online, since our ultimate goal is job placement.

We currently use Skype so the students can call PC-to-PC and simulate customer service and technical support calls. But going across the public Internet is slow here. We could set up a local VOIP / Chat server for this purpose instead. It would surely be faster to host something on our LAN.

I'm almost ready to approach the owner and offer my services as the school's IT guy. But I need to flesh out these ideas a bit more first. Plus, I'm not really sure I want to get back into that type of work. I mean, I came here to do something different, didn't I? Do I really want the headaches that come with tech support again?


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Sunday, May 13, 2007
There's shouting in the streets. Explosions are erupting everywhere. Cars are honking more than usual.

It's futbol time in Costa Rica. Tonight was the final match between Saprissa and LDA (Alajuela). All day, the streets of San Jose were lined with people selling jerseys, flags, and other various trinkets with the teams' logos. It's been all over the news. I'm not much of a sports fan, and I've never had much interest in soccer, but I felt like I had to at least watch the second half. A teacher must keep up with popular culture, you know. My students will no doubt be talking about this tomorrow.

I'm glad I watched. It was actually pretty exciting. When I tuned in, LDA was ahead 1 to 0. I decided to root for Saprissa for the simple fact that their jersey makes me giggle. It's bright purple with "BIMBO" across the chest. I figured if they won, there'd be lots of guys wearing the jersey next week.

It was close. The score flipped back and forth a couple of times. But in the end, the purple bimbos came out ahead. Tee-hee.

My neighbors are oddly quiet. They must be Alajuela fans. In fact, all of San Rafael isn't making much noise. But from my back porch, I can hear cheering, honking, and chanting from the town behind me. They're shooting off fireworks and going crazy in general. I wonder how long that'll go on.

Viva! Viva! Viva Saprissa!


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It's a deal. We've worked out the details with the landlord. I'll be signing the contract on Wednesday. I'll be moving to Heredia on June 9th.

I'll miss having my own place, of course. It's nice to have so much space all to myself. I like the independence and the peace. I'll miss sitting on my porch, watching the world. I'll miss having my Tico family around. They've been great to me. And, in some ways, I'll actually miss San Rafael Abajo de Desemparados. The little town, with all its quirks, has grown on me.

But I won't miss the long commute to get to my school, or the hassle of going through San Jose every day, or the crackheads at the end of my street. I'll finally be able to take any schedule without worrying about getting back and forth. I won't have to turn down a night class because I'm afraid of walking the streets when the sun goes down.

I'm glad I had the experience of living here. It was good for me to get to know San Jose and to live near the city (as opposed to diving right into a suburb like Heredia). And it was great to have a family make me feel at home in Costa Rica. But I think the timing is right. I'm ready to move on.

It might even be good for me to have roommates. It'll encourage socializing. It's too easy for me to be a hermit here.

Marta called today (good timing, as always) so I got to tell her I'll be moving out and thank her for everything. She told me to keep in touch with her family, they'll want to hear how I'm doing. And I'm welcomed to move back here if I ever need to. I'll never be homeless in Costa Rica.


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Saturday, May 12, 2007
Muchas Frutas y Verduras y Mas
Only two students showed up for class today. And they were late. This is why we're moving the class to their location and having it during the week.

After class, I and another teacher walked around Heredia to go look at a condo for rent. Along the way, we ran into the farmer's market. Most cities have one on Saturdays from early morning till a little after noon. I thought the selection of produce at the central market was impressive. But the farmer's market is like the mercado on steroids! There were vendors with little tables set up in four rows covering 4 or 5 blocks. They had everything. It was overwhelming. Ticos were walking around with huge bags or even carts filled with their purchases. I foresee myself doing much the same thing when I live here.

The condo was only a couple of blocks away, too. How convenient! Unfortunately, we spent almost an hour wandering around trying to find the place because the directions we had were somewhat... lacking. Such is life in a land without street signs or house numbers. It was worth the hunt, though. The condo was in a nice location, a little closer to town than the other apartment that was our previous top choice. It was bigger, though we'd be sharing it with a third roommate. That shouldn't be too bad, though, since there's three bedrooms and two bathrooms. It's fully furnished, including wireless internet. The rent is decent (the same as what I'm paying now, but I'll have to pay for utilities - again, not bad since they'll be split three ways). We think we're going to take it. I walked back to the school to see how long it'd take, and it was only about 20 minutes. Sure beats a commute that's over an hour and takes two buses.


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Friday, May 11, 2007
Teachers Meet
My school has instituted monthly teacher's meetings. The nice thing is that pizza was provided (a welcomed change from gallo pinto). The bad thing is that the time, which came to a couple of hours, was unpaid. It also meant I had to go to the academy on my day off. These are minor inconveniences compared to the benefits of getting everyone together for a roundtable discussion, though. We shared ideas and learned from each other.

It's funny. I've only been working there for a couple of months, but I'm already considered a "senior" teacher because we have so many new folks. Only one teacher, at this point, has been there longer than me. Others have moved out of the country or moved up to administrative positions. I think this holds true in many EFL schools. Most teachers only stay for 6 months to, maybe, 2 years. So, despite my relative lack of experience (others have taught more, just not at this academy), and despite having only taught one class through completion, I was one of the most vocal participants.

For instance, management suggested a policy of submitting weekly lesson plans to our academic coordinator by Friday afternoon. I'd been doing them for myself for my class all along. My habit is to review the previous week's plan over the weekend, see what worked and what didn't, and use that knowledge to plan for the upcoming week. (Even then, plans change day by day). So I suggested that we submit plans on Monday morning instead. The other teachers, who had been silent on this issue, suddenly chimed in, agreeing with me. In the end, management agreed as well.

I have other ideas for improving the school, too, based on what I've seen and experienced. Some I'm ready to share, others I'll keep to myself for now. It's in my nature to make a system as efficient as possible. I think that comes from being a tech-head. I'm finding that being a teacher isn't too different from doing technical support. Both involve explaining difficult concepts to people who are unfamiliar with them, and dealing with managers who simply want the business / school to run smoothly.

Who knows? Maybe someday I'll be an academic coordinator myself.

Nah. That'd be too much like real work.

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Wednesday, May 09, 2007
The past two days I worked a split shift that kept me in Heredia from 9am til 9pm. I was covering two evening classes for a teacher that's on vacation. Those were long, long days. The classes were difficult. The students were, of course, tired from working all day. I was tired myself. Even coffee didn't help. Plus, it's hard being a substitute teacher. Remember how you treated subs in school? Yah. And with my house being so far from the school, even taking a taxi instead of a bus from San Jose to San Rafael, I didn't get home till around 10 at night.

I'm glad that's over.

Rough days are quickly forgotten, though. Today was good. This is my last real week of teaching my main class. Next week is just review and then testing. I'm going to miss them. Over the past month and a half, I've gotten to know them fairly well; I've learned about their lives, their families, their likes and dislikes. I've grown to appreciate their unique personalities. But another teacher is taking over for the next level. I have to leave them in someone else's hands.

When this class is over, my schedule is going to get... interesting. The owner of my school has decided that the Saturday class just isn't working out as it is. Not enough students are showing up. So he spoke with the HR person at their company and they agreed to move the class. It'll be taught at the company instead of at our academy. And it will meet for two hours in the evening on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday. I don't like the idea of teaching offsite, but I like the class, so I agreed to keep teaching it.

I'm also going to start teaching one of our highest level classes, which means even more focus on fluent conversation and less on grammar and vocabulary. This one will meet in the mornings on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday. So I'm back to working a split shift, but only three days a week. In those three days, I will work enough hours to cover my living expenses and have some beer money. And I'll have a nice long weekend, perfect for traveling. Despite the inconvenience of having to travel to the company and having to work mornings and evenings, I think I'm coming out ahead in this deal.

By next month, if everything falls in place, I should also have an apartment in Heredia. That'll cut down on my travel time. And that'll mean I'll be in a safer location, so perhaps I can start experiencing some Costa Rican nightlife instead of rushing home to avoid the crackheads that come out after dark. I'll be able to put that beer money to use!

My future's so bright...

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Rice and Beans
I'm always talking about food, aren't I? I can't help it. I'm a foodie. So let me tell you about today's lunch. I went to a Carribean place called Mami's (Heredia Centro, 50 mts. Sur de la Cruz Roja) and had their specialty: Rice and Beans. Carribean "Rice and Beans" (they use the English words) is different from Costa Rican "gallo pinto" or "arroz con frijoles." Instead of being seasoned with cilantro, onions, and Salsa Ingles, they use jerk spices and cook it in coconut milk. It's a unique flavor. It even has a little kick. They serve it like a casado, so it came with a cabbage salad, beet salad, patacones (sliced green plantain that's smashed then fried, like a thick chip), and a meat (I had a pork chop - also with jerk seasoning). And to drink I had a pineapple fresco. My tongue was delighted by the new flavors. It was all so, so good. And cheap, too (under 5 bucks).

Don't get me wrong, I love the typical Tico cuisine. But some variety is always nice. And if I can get Carribean food that's this good in Heredia, I can't wait to actually visit the East coast and try the real deal.

I've also been getting away from the supermarkets and trying to buy more from the mercados (central markets) and street vendors. The Supers are okay for some things (milk, rice, beans, beer, etc), but the mercado and street vendors have a much better selection of fruits and veggies at cheaper prices. My problem is they require much more speaking (it's easier to fill a cart, unload it on a counter, and read a register for the total cost). I have to ask how much things are, tell which things I want, and make sure I pay the right amount. But I'm getting better at it.

Below are some pics from my most recent purchases. I got avacados, tomatoes, plantain, and water apples from the mercado. Water apples (manzana de agua) look like little red pears, but taste more like apples, and smell like roses. And I got two huge pineapples from the guy that sells fruit out of the back of his truck near my home bus stop. Each time I buy from him, he gets friendlier. This time, he was packing up for the day, but he gave me a big smile, handshake, and stopped to ask me if I was from the United States and if I was working here.
muchas frutas manzana de agua


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Sunday, May 06, 2007
Buen Suerte
Either I have an incredible guardian angel, or Marta has talked her family into looking out for me. Today, when they came over for Sunday lunch, her brother-in-law asked me if I needed to go to Panama soon to get my passport stamped. The timing was too good to be a coincidence. I've only been fretting over this trip for weeks. I told him that I had to go in a couple of weeks, and he offered to go with me to David, Panama. I wanted to run over and hug him, I was so grateful! Instead, I offered a handshake and a heartfelt "muchas gracias." He gave me his phone number and said to call him a few days before I need to go. I don't know that there's much to do in David, compared to Panama City or Bocas del Toro, where I'd been thinking of going. But I don't care. I'm just happy to have a travel buddy to guide my way. He did say that the trip would be cheap, though the bus ride is about 10 hours. Fine by me.

I swear, some days I feel like the luckiest guy in the world. I worry. I make plans that fall apart. But in the end, things just seem to work out. I think that's the biggest lesson that Costa Rica has to offer me: Go with it. Stuff happens. Make the best of it. Accept what you can't control. Be flexible and go with the flow.

A good attitude goes a lot further than a good plan.


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Saturday, May 05, 2007
Typical Day
I never thought I'd say this, but here it is: I like working Saturdays. Granted, I'd rather be chilling at the beach or touring the rainforests, but on weekends when I don't have travel plans, I don't mind teaching. It's nice that my school makes Saturdays optional. Anyway, let me take you through my day to give you an idea of a normal Saturday for me. Then, perhaps, you won't think I'm crazy.

I woke up around 6 AM, before my alarm went off, when the sun began shining through my window. I started making coffee and getting ready for the day. I scarfed down some bread and leftover guacamole (on any other day, there'd be gallo pinto, but my stove's still goofy) while reviewing my lesson plan for class. I took a cold shower. I got dressed, downed the rest of my coffee, packed my stuff, and walked up to the bus stop. I caught the bus (120 colones) around 7:40 and got into San Jose at the Central Park stop a little after 8. I walked across the park and made my way through a few more blocks, choosing streets with little traffic and plenty of banks (there are security guards surrounding all of the banks downtown). I got on the bus to Heredia (220 colones) and it left around 8:15. It dropped me off a block from my school at about 8:50. Some days I get off at an earlier stop to walk around and stroll through the park, but I was feeling lazy today.

Nobody was at the school yet. The admin assistant didn't show up until after 9 to open the doors. I, being a lowly teacher, don't get keys. No students yet. They've been getting later every week. I fired up the computer to print out some material for my students, but the printer wouldn't work because the office was rearranged and everything was disconnected. One student showed up and we chatted for a bit while I tried to get the printer working. At 9:20 another student appeared. We decided to start class (20 minutes late, but not bad for "hora de Tico"). I gave a quick lesson on the conditional sentence structure and we started playing "What would you do if...?" As we're talking, a few more students made their way in, and we finally got a group of 5 total. Good! It's hard to have a conversation class without people to converse with. While I was speaking to one student, the others began using Spanish. I explained that they could talk about anything, but they had to use English. So they did. It turned out they were complaining about a difficult customer. We traded stories about that for awhile; it's at those times that I think it's nice that I have experience in their line of work. Somehow, eventually, we got on the topic of crime and the death penalty (Costa Rica doesn't have it). After a rather morbid, frightful, and gruesome discussion, we took a break.

The admin assistant didn't make coffee (very sad) but she did get my printouts done (very good). So when we started class again, I gave a lesson on stress within words, since one of the students had asked about it last week. Spanish has rules for how to stress syllables within words. English doesn't. We have a few guidelines, but many exceptions. With that out of the way, I handed out more discussion topics. I had been waiting for the one female in the class to show up, and luckily she was there today, so the topic was the differences between men and women. This had gotten my weekday class all riled up. Today's class, however, was civil and level-headed. Not surprising, but a little disappointing. I wanted a Battle of the Sexes. It turned into a discussion on spirituality and love. Deep stuff. Even native English speakers have a hard time articulating their feelings on these topics. My students did a fine job. I was impressed, both by their linguistic abilities and their passionate sentiments.

After class I used the school's computer lab to check my email, read some news, surf a few blogs, and post to my own. It began raining. Hard. So I surfed more.

When the rain calmed down, I walked over to the central market and looked around for awhile. I'm still shy about buying from the vendors. But I sucked it up and asked one of them for a chunk of guanabana. I'd been eyeing this fruit for weeks. I'd had a drink made with artificial guanabana flavor, and it was good. The real thing was sure to be even better. It's huge, green, and covered with spikes. They sell it in pieces. I've only seen a whole one for sale once. I asked for a large chunk, but it was more than I wanted to pay. So I got a smaller (about 3/4 kg) piece for 700 colones.

guanabana chunk

I then walked over to another, smaller mercado just a couple of blocks away. I was getting hungry since it was around 1:30, so I looked for a soda. Some were too crowded and didn't have seats (those are the best, of course, but I didn't feel like waiting). Others looked a little scary. I finally found one that looked acceptable and had "olla de carne" on the menu. It's a massive bowl of beef stew with huge chunks of potato, corn, chayote, and other veggies. When I ordered it, the waitress said they didn't have any, but offered another soup. I hesitated and started to leave, but then she rattled off a few other options. I was wooed by the fact that she was nice and spoke slow enough for me to understand, so I ordered casado con pollo en salsa (blue plate special with chicken in sauce) with a melon fresco. The sides turned out to be beans and rice (naturally), beet salad, fried potatoes with corn, two tortillas, and plantain. It was 1450 colones, incredibly filling, and quite good.

I've noticed the waitresses at the sodas in Heredia (and elsewhere too, I'm sure, though I didn't hear it in San Jose) call the patrons "mi amor." I like that. It reminds me of the waitresses at diners back home. They always call people "honey," "sugar" or "sweetheart." Today it made me a little homesick.

With a full belly, I got back on the bus and made my way home. I will spend the rest of my day drinking coffee, reading, cleaning up around the house, lounging on the porch, and watching TV. I may study a little Spanish. I also might eat some guanabana and whip up a drink later.

Not a bad life, aye?

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Volcan Poas
I just got around to uploading pictures from the Poas volcano. Here they are.

A few of my favorites:



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Friday, May 04, 2007
When life hands you a limon, use a slice of it to chase a shot of guaro.

A series of events has led to an incredible meal this evening. Yesterday I worked a split shift (class at 9-11am and at 5-7pm) to cover a teacher that's on vacation. I decided to stay in Heredia for the day. I hung out with another teacher and we looked at an apartment (it was small, dingy, and a bit further from the school than we wanted). Then we went to Heredia's central market to have lunch at a little soda. I had a "casado con carne en salsa" which was a huge plate filled with rice, beans, stewed beef chunks, cabbage salad, green beans, and some other unidentifiable side dish that was very tasty. I had a "cas fresco" to drink. Cas is a sweet'n'sour fruit. The whole thing was incredibly good, filling, and under four bucks. Thus fueled, we wandered around the mercado, browsing all of the vendors' wares. I decided I needed to buy something. So I picked up 3 avocados and a bag of star fruit (about $3 total). Then we went back to our school since it was getting close to class time.

When I got home, I noticed the lights were kind of dim. Something was wrong. Some lights didn't work at all. And the stove wouldn't get hot, though it seemed to be getting power (the little light indicating the burner is on would light up, but the eye never got red). I fiddled with breakers and such for awhile, but nothing worked. I didn't have anything prepared for dinner, and I couldn't cook anything, so I ate some of my star fruit and one of the avocados.

Today, I tried fiddling around with the lights and switches again. I noticed that when I turned a particular eye on the stove on, I could get my bathroom lights to come on (dimly). Odd. Very, very odd. Maybe it has something to do with all of the power outages. But I'm not sure I can blame ICE for this one. I asked Marta's stepfather (who is essentially my maintanence man) for help. He's been working on some other parts of the house, and I figured maybe he fooled with something. But he said to talk to one of the neighbors, who is an electrician and wired the house. The neighbor (one of Marta's nephews) works during the day, so I'd be spending my day off without a stove.

Necessity is the mother of invention. Without a stove to make beans and rice, I decided to put my avocados to use. I sliced into one, and mashed it with some garlic and vinegar (some of the few groceries I had on hand - I haven't been shopping since I might be moving soon). The mixture was incredible. It was so good, in fact, that I decided to improve upon it. I went to the store to get a few other ingredients and picked up a fresh loaf of bread from Mus Manni. I used the remaining avocado and made the best guacamole I've ever had (if I do say so myself).

The recipe, as best I can tell since I didn't measure anything:

2 very ripe avocados, mashed
1/2 a head of garlic
1T vinegar
2-3T mayonnaise with limon
2-3T natilla (I doubt regular sour cream would be as good)
1 small bunch of cilantro, diced

Spread on fresh bread, it is a feast. Of course, I might just be happy to be eating something besides gallo pinto. Either way, I feel like King of the Gringos tonight. I might as well enjoy myself. I have to work tomorrow. And I have split shifts again on Monday and Tuesday. In fact, on those days, I'll be working until 9pm, which means I'll be facing the streets of San Jose late at night. Wish me luck.


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Wednesday, May 02, 2007
Teacher Tricks
A couple of my students were starting to use more and more Spanish in the classroom. That, in turn, was causing the rest of the class to get lazy about it. So I introduced a competition: "A Week Without Spanish." The rules are simple. If a student needs to speak Spanish, he or she must first ask permission. That gives me a chance to push them to try to figure out how to say what they want to say using English. If a student speaks Spanish without authorization, he or she gets a mark next to his or her name. So far, so good. I'm hearing far less Spanish. Half the class has no marks at all. I'm going to reward the winners with candy. Bribery always works.

Today I encountered another problem. Two students decided to doodle in class instead of participate in a discussion. Sometimes it's hard to believe I'm teaching adults. But instead of playing bad cop, I put their artistic urges to better use. I had one of them sit with her back to the board and describe her bedroom. The other had to draw the bedroom on the board. The whole class got a kick out of it. It's nice when you can find a creative solution.

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Tuesday, May 01, 2007
Good News, Bad News
Good: I got a haircut. I was getting pretty shaggy. I pondered just having it trimmed up, but the heat of the day (it was almost 90 this afternoon) swayed me to get buzzed. It took me a bit of effort to explain what I wanted, and the stylist checked a few times with me before attacking me with the clippers. It turned out alright. It's very short, easy to manage, and not nearly as hot.

Mostly Good: I might move closer to the school. Another teacher is apartment hunting and asked if I'd be interested in being roommates if she found a two-bedroom. We looked at a place today that was decent, affordable, and close enough to be convenient and far enough to be peaceful. Unfortunately, it won't be available until next month. It's small. Maybe not by Tico standards, but it's tiny to me after having an entire floor of a house to myself. It'd take some adjusting to get used to cramped quarters with a roommate. We're going to keep looking, but I wouldn't mind another month in my 'hood. That gives me time to figure out how to move when I have no transportation of my own.

Horrible: One of the administrators at my school was mugged. He was at an ATM and someone knocked him out from behind. He woke up on the ground, stunned and disoriented. I didn't get all the details, but I heard enough to be shaken myself. Heredia is considered to be safer than San Jose. It was the middle of the day. There's crime everywhere, all the time, obviously; however, it's scary when it hits this close to home. At a time when I'm starting to feel more comfortable here, this is a strong reminder that I'm not playing a game. It's important to stay alert and take precautions to be safe. I can't let my guard down.

I had a hard time getting on the bus to go back to my house after that. But, although I need to be careful, I can't be overwhelmed by fear. I can't hide. I have to keep that in mind.

I'll admit I'm even more nervous about making the solo trip to Panama in a few weeks, though. I wish I could find a travel companion for that one.


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