exploring, examining, exchanging, expressing
Sunday, December 16, 2007
Final Daze
It is no exaggeration for me to say that the past week has been emotionally draining.

Dec 7
My parents arrived at the San Jose airport in the afternoon. I got them checked into their hotel, fed them, gave them a quick tour of central Heredia, and put them to bed. I began to realize that guiding them would be very much like taking care of children. They depended on me for everything.

Dec 8
We had breakfast at a soda in the central market. Mom's statement: "I've never seen so much meat in my life." Dad saw a jar of picked peppers at another table and decided he wanted some. I didn't know the word for this food item, so I had a hard time describing it to our waiter. My parents just pointed. We caused a bit of a scene. I ushered them out quickly, left a large tip, and took them to the farmer's market. Mom decided she didn't like fruit. They met my roommates and we all went to Zoo Aves, using public buses. This was a new experience for them. Dinner was at La Casa del Cerdo (The House of Pork), where we ate mucho puerco.

Dec 9
We checked into Best Western Irazu to be closer to San Jose, which we toured for a bit. Then we met my roommates at the central park and took the bus to my Tico family in San Rafael Abajo de Desamparados. Today was Alejandra's 15th birthday, so the whole family was at the house to celebrate. My parents were overwhelmed. Lunch was rice, beans, salad, and beef tongue. My parents were disgusted. After eating, the dancing began. And oh, how we danced! I've decided I really like merengue. My parents, however, deemed it "dirty dancing." When we had to leave, it really hit me that I'd be leaving this family. Que triste!

Dec 10
We were picked up for a tour at 6:45am. It began with breakfast and a tour of Doka Estates coffee plantation. Then we were whisked up to the Poas Volcano, where we luckily saw the crater unclouded. Afterwards we got to spend a good amount of time at La Paz Waterfalls. Here we visited monkeys, birds, butterflies, and a few other animals. We also had an excellent buffet lunch. Oh, and we saw waterfalls too. Mom mentioned she'd never walked so much. Finally, we went to Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí for a boat tour down the river and more animal watching. Thirteen hours later, we crashed at the hotel.

Dec 11
Interbus picked us up at 8ish (supposed to be 7:30am) to take us to Cahuita. Finally, we got some relaxing time at the beach. I showed my parents some of my favorite spots. We ate and chilled out. Mom slept alot.

Dec 12
More beach relaxation. I took them down to Playa Negra. I played fetch with some beach-dogs. More eating. More chilling.

Dec 13
We hopped the bus down the bumpy road to Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. We shopped for souvineers and xmas presents. I led them down the path behind the beach so they could see the sights, including Rocking J's (the surfers' mecca). I made sure my mom got ice cream and my dad got beer. Then we went back to Cahuita for dinner at Cha Cha Cha.

Dec 14
Interbus picked us up at 7:30am on time and drove us back to the airport area. The parents decided they should stay in a hotel here, rather than back in Heredia, to make the trip shorter. It turned out to be a good idea, and they liked II Milenium - a small hotel in Alajuela by the airport. Then we paid our departure tax at Banco Costa Rica, did some final shopping, and I sent them back to their hotel so I could finish things for myself. I had dinner with my roommates and packed my bags.

Dec 15
We got to the airport in plenty of time. Things went fairly smoothly. Then we learned that our flight was delayed for an hour. This was a problem, because it didn't leave us much time to catch our connecting flight in Atlanta. In fact, when we got to Atlanta, we were told that we'd missed it, so we got in line to reschedule. Then we were told that our flight to Tri-Cities itself was delayed for 3 hours, so we had plenty of time. When we got to the gate, however, we found a different situation. There was no plane. It was stuck in Milwaukee due to bad weather. ETA? Unknown. We sat for hours and hours, getting tidbits of information from the attendants. Finally they found a plane for us, and we made it back to Tennessee around 3am.

And now I'm here at my family's house. I've been officially welcomed back. It all seems very odd. I think I'm experiencing a sort of reverse culture shock. Hopefully that will ease with time. But for now, I feel very much out of place.


Monday, November 26, 2007
Turkey Day Follow-Up
The expat turkey dinner party we hosted on Saturday night was a huge success! I woke up at 8:30 in the morning to get the bird in the oven and hit the farmer's market for fresh veggies. My roommates were smart and kind enough to leave the house while I, still groggy from the previous night's festivities, monopolized the kitchen in order to prepare the feast. I can be a bit of a bear at times, believe it or not.

I braised a 5.5kg turkey (slathered in herb butter) for 2.5 hours at 375 and 5 hours at 200. I made gravy from homemade vegetable stock and turkey drippings. I made dressing from scratch, using homemade cornbread and store-bought white bread. All of these dishes were firsts for me to attempt solo. My family always helps, and they tend to use a few more prepared ingredients.

Around 5:30, guests started arriving, bringing sides and drinks. It was at this point that I realized our guest list was a bit estrogen-heavy. I was the only male at a table of nine females. Hey, I'm not complaining! It's a special joy to have a group of women fawn and compliment my cooking skills. I spent a good portion of the dinner just sitting back, smiling, and soaking it all in.

After dessert (apple and pumpkin pies skillfully crafted by my roommate) and digestion, I hid in the kitchen to do dishes while the ladies gabbed. I wanted to clean the place up a bit before the rest of our friends arrived for the party.

Alex (friend and former student) showed up with his brother, his cousin, and a lovely young lady. Roommate's former student came with a friend as well. Cacique and shot glasses were passed around. The rest of the night is a bit hazy, but I know it involved dancing, laughing, and posing for pictures.

Altogether, I'd say it was one of the best weekends of my life.


Saturday, November 24, 2007
What Happens in Alajuela
A friend (and former student) took me to a club in Alajuela last night. Although he finished my class a long time ago, we've kept in touch and hung out occasionally. Last night he really went out of his way to show me a good time since he knows I'm leaving soon. Due to the rules of "Guy's Night" I cannot divulge any more details. But I wanted to post this as a reminder of that fantastic evening.


Thursday, November 22, 2007
Feliz Dia del Pavo
Thanksgiving is the one holiday that I enjoy without stress or frustration. It is also the one day of the year that my family gets together at one table and actually talks. Christmas, with its bounty of gifts, is all about the kids. Thanksgiving is about the whole family. It begins the night before, when we cram into the kitchen and start prepping the meal. We get everything ready ahead of time so we can eat early in the afternoon. Plus, there are few joys greater than waking up to the smell of roasting turkey.

Of course, I'm missing it this year.

I'm bummed beyond belief, but there's a consolation prize. We're hosting an expat Turkey Day at our place on Saturday (since most folks have to work Thursday). I bought the bird today. The selection was slim, and the price was ridiculous, but I suppose I'm lucky I found one at all. Turkey isn't too popular here. It's only available at the gringo supermarkets this time of year, which have set up companion displays of Stove Top stuffing and canned cranberries. I plan on making dressing from scratch (thankyouverymuch) and gravy to boot. Roomie, however, snatched a can of cranberry goo. But she's also making pies, so I'll overlook it. Others are bringing mashed taters and such. One kind soul has promised cocktails, bless her heart.

After we stuff ourselves, we're going to have a party with a broader invitation list. It's a going away party for me and Roomie. The rest of our weekends are booked, so this is our last chance to hang out with many of our newfound friends.

Better than a day of family fellowship, extreme overindulgence, watching parades on TV, and browsing newspapers full of sale ads? No, I'll miss my family's quirky traditions. But I'm thankful I have friends here that will attempt to fill that gap.


Wednesday, November 21, 2007
Rainy Cloudforests and Cloudy Rainforest
I've enjoyed Costa Rica's beaches. I've explored a couple of volcanoes. But to get the full experience, I needed to head Northwest.

Friday morning, I and three companions got on the early bus to Monteverde. It was a long and bumpy ride. This is said to be the second most popular spots for tourists, but the roads to get there are the absolute worst in Costa Rica. Oddly enough, this is by choice. The locals (including a large population of Quakers) don't want to compromise their natural resources for the sake of busloads of tourists. Good for them. Good for the cloud forests. Bad for my butt.

Upon arrival in Santa Elena (gateway to Monteverde's forests), we were greeted by hoards of hawkers handing out pamphlets for tours and hotels. We rushed past them to check out a few places from The Book (Lonely Planet's guidebook). After being disappointed, we went back and followed a hawker to a cabina that turned out to be rather nice. Lucky us. The rest of the day was spent exploring the town. It reminds me a bit of Gatlinburg, TN - a mountain town attempting to maintain its charm while still catering to tourists. And much like Gatlinburg, the attempt has failed and charm has mostly given way to tourism.

We visited the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve the next morning, where we ponied up the cash for a guided tour. This is a private (though non-profit) scientific reserve, making it slightly more expensive than a national park. But we were treated to an entertaining and knowledgeable guide who educated us as we strolled through the misty forest. Unfortunately, one of the first things we learned was that November is a horrible time to visit Monteverde due to the wind and rain. Animals take cover during this time. Tourists get soaked. But still, the forest itself was amazing.

Monteverde - 32 Monteverde - 11
Monteverde - 36

More Monteverde pictures.

Sunday, the ladies caught the early bus back to San Jose. I, the essentially unemployed bum, took this opportunity to continue my journey over to La Fortuna. This is an interesting trip because the bus takes 7 or 8 hours, but a Jeep-Boat-Jeep transfer takes only about 3 hours. The name, though fun to say, is misleading. The "Jeep" was actually a minivan. Bumpy, but it got me there. The boat ride is a short skip over Arenal lake. And the final minivan made the short jaunt to La Fortuna's center. I got there in plenty of time to hunt for hotels, which is good since many of the options listed in The Book were either full or closed for remodeling. Finally I found a nice little place run by a friendly, helpful Tico family.

If Santa Elena / Monteverde is Gatlinburg, then La Fortuna / Arenal is Pigeon Forge, TN. This town makes no attempt to hide its touristy agenda. It openly begs for foreign money with big flashing signs. But, oddly enough, I enjoyed it slightly more than Monteverde. Sure, the weather still stank (warm, but rainy and cloudy). And the tour that my friendly, helpful Tico hotel owner convinced me to take was a wash since the volcano stayed covered in clouds.

La Fortuna & Arenal - 02 La Fortuna & Arenal - 04

But there was one thing that made it worthwhile: the waterfall. Sick of tours, I decided to simply walk the 7 kilometers to the waterfall on Tuesday. It was possibly longer. It was uphill. It was rainy. But it was absolutely stunning. The whole area was beautiful, lush and pastoral. I'm so glad I went.

La Fortuna & Arenal - 28 La Fortuna & Arenal - 17
La Fortuna & Arenal - 10 La Fortuna & Arenal - 22

More La Fortuna pictures.

Although the weather was less than ideal, and the towns were overly touristy, there were certainly some good points to this 5-day trek. I enjoyed good company on both towns, with my friends in Monteverde and some travel buddies I met in La Fortuna (two guys from Utah and a young lady from Germany). I saw some spectacular sights. And I'm now able to put a real "face" on all the fuss about saving the rainforests.


Tuesday, November 13, 2007
My spider bite is still healing, but now I'm dealing with a new wound. Months ago, during my hike up to the waterfall in Montezuma, I smashed my big toe. It never quite healed correctly, leading to an ingrown toenail. I was going to wait and deal with it in the US, but while in Bocas, a couple of hospital employees noticed it and said, "I hope you'll visit a doctor for that. We've seen people lose their toes because of it." I decided not to wait.

On a friend's recommendation, I went to CEDCAS Clinica to see Dr. Carla Mastroeni. Thankfully, my roommate agreed to tag along and translate. Medical visits are one time that you really don't want miscommunication.

The entire experience was quite different from doctor appointments I've had in the US. First, the doctor saw me before my scheduled appointment time. I didn't have to spend hours in a waiting room. Also, I paid upfront, and the cost was staggering: $30 for the whole thing. Seriously, why is medical care in the US so messed up?

There was a little confusion at the beginning. When the nurse started the routine exam, she asked my roommate something about my blood pressure. My roomie thought she was asking if she could take my BP, so she said yes. Later, we figured out she was asking if I had a history of high BP. That led to a few minutes of the nurse showing concern that I wasn't on meds and such. We worked it out, though.

It was time to get to the business at hand... err... foot. I showed the good Doc my foot, and she commented that it was "Muy bonito." She actually tried her best to make me comfortable. She did a good job, for the most part. But the toenail was ingrown and had to go. I knew this was coming. I laid down and they injected me to numb the toe. Pain. Weird feelings. And eventually pressure, but no pain. It was kind of like having a tooth drilled at the dentist. I could hear the sounds. I knew what they were doing. I couldn't really feel it, but I knew I didn't like it.

When it was done, she showed me the toenail. Ick. Then she asked if I wanted to look at my toe before they bandaged it. Stupidly, I looked. Eww. Then I got my prescriptions (antibiotics and anti-inflammatories) and instructions (clean it 3 times a day, wear sandals when possible). And I was done.

Now I just have to follow the doctor's orders, wait for it to heal, and try not to look down.


Gringo Grub
Sunday I visited my Tico family for lunch. This time I took both my roommates. They enjoy it, because they get to practice their Spanish. I enjoy it because the food is excellent and, although I don't understand every word, I enjoy the warmth and friendliness of the family.

To show my appreciation, I made banana bread and cracklin' cornbread to take for coffee. Banana bread translates easily enough - pan de banano. But there's no easy way to say cracklin' cornbread. The family calls it "pan con chicharone" or bread with fried pork. They marvel at this typical Southern fare. In fact, on the way home, my roommate said she heard them say: "It took a gringo to teach us how to put chicharone in bread."

Just call me the unofficial Southern Cuisine Ambassador to Costa Rica.


Thursday, November 08, 2007
Bocas Revisited
It was time for my third and final border run. This time, it would be me, my roommate (J), and a new friend (S). We decided to visit Bocas del Toro. Although I'd already been there, I felt I didn't get to enjoy the town during my last trip because of the rain, so I had no problem going back.

Thursday morning, bright and early, we took a taxi to the Caribe bus terminal, where we got tickets for the 6am bus to Sixaola. The bus was rather empty, so we got to stretch out and relax for the journey. At the border, we had no problems getting through migration on either side. As before, I was greeted by a "guide" who took us to a taxi. We arrived at Changuinola's dock in plenty of time to take the 1:30 water taxi to Bocas. Once on the Island, I found my way back to Casa Amarilla, where Dennis had a couple of rooms for us. After a little rest, I showed my companions around Isla Colon, which took about 10 minutes. Along the way, we met up with some fellow travelers, explored a few bars, and shared stories. We retired early in the night, wary from a long day's travel.
Bocas del Toro - 33 Bocas del Toro - 10
Friday, we took the obligatory tour of the islands. Every dock on the island offers the same tour for around $20, lasting from 9:30am till 4:30pm. It consists of zooming around "Dolphin Bay" to try to catching a glimpse of dolphins poking their heads above water. They were fun to watch, but I couldn't help feeling like we were exploiting them a bit, especially when our captain took to driving circles around them, prompting them to jump over the waves. Afterwards, we were taken to a remote dock to order lunch so it could be prepared while the group was taken to do some snorkeling. After lunch, we were herded onto Red Frog Beach, which was the real joy of the tour. It was an absolutely postcard-perfect beach. We lounged for a couple of hours, then were taken to Hospital Point for more snorkeling. Finally, we were returned to the main island.
Bocas del Toro - 04 Bocas del Toro - 07
Saturday was the celebration of Panama's Independence Day, so we were treated to music and parades in town. It was great to watch the student bands march up and down the streets. Throughout the afternoon we did some souvenir shopping. I picked up a colorful hammock for myself. And that night, we enjoyed good food (Shelly's Mexican BBQ - excellent grub) and cheap drinks.
Bocas del Toro - 22 Bocas del Toro - 18 Bocas del Toro - 36
Sunday marked the end of our forced 3-night vacation, so we made the return boat-taxi-bus journey. Well, my companions did, at least. I, being unemployed, had no reason to rush back to Heredia. So from Sixaola I took a local bus to Puerto Viejo, where I caught another bus to Manzanillo. Thus, I have finally explored the full trinity of Southern Carib towns in Costa Rica.

Manzanillo is the smallest of the three, with one restaurant, a few sodas, a couple of cabinas, and nothing else besides a long stretch of lovely beach. It is clearly the hot-spot for Tico families, as they were arriving and leaving by the busload. I enjoyed a lunch of rice and beans, took a nap on the beach, and had an amazing dinner of grilled red snapper.
Manzanillo - 01
Dinner was a bit of an adventure, though. When I arrived at Maxi's, I noticed the lights were out, but the kitchen was lit. Okay, perhaps they're going for a candle-lit thing. I strung together a couple of questions in Spanish and learned that there was a problem with the lights, but everything else was working. As this was the only restaurant in town, I went ahead and ordered. The plate arrived, smelling delicious and looking... well... dark. Candles were impossible to keep lit due to the ocean breeze, so I ate by far-off streetlight. It was delicious, even if I could barely see it.

The next day I returned to Puerto Viejo and located a cheap place in town to stay (Cabinas Larry - oddly missing from the Lonely Planet guide, it's next to "Bread and Chocolate"). It turned out to be perfectly comfortable, with a strong fan inside and a comfy hammock outside, and even a communal kitchen. I had the whole place to myself the first night, and only one other guest arrived the next day. So I spent a couple of days lounging around, swimming off Playa Chiquita, and enjoying a cold beer or two. This is how I know I'm spoiled for beaches forever: When I got to Chiquita and saw there were 5 or 6 other people there, I thought "Oh great, it's already crowded."

Wednesday I headed toward Heredia, back to cool temperatures and construction noise. I miss the Caribbean already. Luckily, I'll be taking my parents to Cahuita in just a few weeks.

The rest of my Bocas del Toro photos are here.

More Manzanillo photos are here.


Tuesday, October 30, 2007
Finding Shelter
I awoke this morning to a complete absence of water and electricity. Earlier this year, around March and April, such outages were common in parts of the Central Valley due to water shortages. But now, in the thick of the rainy season, I assumed that it was because of construction in the neighborhoods.

My roommate, however, informed me of the truth: our landlord forgot to pay the utility bills.

We've endured other discomforts here as well. We've been waken by early morning, unannounced intrusions by our landlord for various reasons. Recently, he decided the apartment absolutely had to be repainted, despite the fact that it meant weeks of drywall dust and paint fumes for us. He spontaneously replaced a sink one morning, turning off the water, and leaving us unexpectedly without water for morning showers. The list goes on and on.

Why do we remain here? Well, this highlights a problem for expat ESL teachers. Furnished housing is difficult to find and relatively expensive in Costa Rica. It's even more difficult to find in desirable locations. So, because we don't want to buy furniture for our temporary stay here, and because we need a place with a phone line (difficult for non-residents to get), and because we want to be close to our school, we are stuck.

Luckily, the water and electricity came back on in the afternoon. And more importantly, I'm only living here for 45 more days.


Monday, October 29, 2007
El Hombre Araña
Two weekends ago my ankle was bitten by something. I didn't worry about it at the time because it was a small bite, like from a mosquito. The tiny mark remained all week, not getting worse or better.

Yesterday, however, things started happening. The bite was swollen and a bit red in the morning. By evening, my entire ankle was swollen and the red area was about the size of a nickel.

No worries, I told myself. I probably scratched the bite and it got infected. I knew I could go to the pharmacy the next day, have a doctor look at it, and get some antibiotics.

Just to be safe, however, I Googled "spider bite." Allow me to warn you now: NEVER GOOGLE "SPIDER BITE!" The anecdotes I read, the pictures I saw, nearly kept me up all night. But eventually I calmed down. I rationalized, figuring that if I had been bitten by a horrible flesh-melting death-spider, the symptoms would've revealed themselves sooner than 7 days.

Today my roommate went with me to the pharmacy and the doctor confirmed that it is indeed an infection. He gave me 7 antibiotic pills (one a day) and some spray. The cost was much more than my last dose, but I assume these are stronger pills. The whole thing took around 15 minutes and $40. I grumbled about the money for about 8 seconds, and then I remembered that a similar medical visit in the US would've taken much, much longer and cost several times as much.

Then I remembered that I'm supposed to leave for Panama on Thursday. Seven days of antibiotics means I'll be taking them the entire time I'm in Bocas del Toro. I'm not thrilled about crossing the border with pills. But worse: that means no drinking during my border run. I don't get to enjoy cheap Panamanian beer. That makes me an unhappy gringo.

Plus, apparently it wasn't a radioactive spider. So I don't get to be Spider-Man for Halloween.


Friday, October 26, 2007
Last night marked the end of my regular teaching gigs. All that's left now is to grade a few quizzes and sub for someone at the end of November. I am free to enjoy my remaining 49 days in Costa Rica in a state of blissful unemployment.

Those days are filling up quickly, too. This weekend I'll be bar-hopping with friends and visiting my Tico family. Next weekend I'm going back to Bocas del Toro for another border run, then I'm taking the long way back so I can check out more of the Carib coast. At some point, I want to go to Monteverde and Arenal Volcano. Then we're hosting a Thanksgiving dinner / party at our place. I'll have one spare week to tie up any loose ends, and then my parents will be here.

And then I'm gone.

It absolutely blows my mind when I think of how quickly this year has passed. But it's too soon to get nostalgic about it. I'm not done yet! These remaining days must be savored.

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Monday, October 22, 2007
Pollo con Coco
Despite the fact that we live together, my roommates and I never eat together at our house. We have different schedules and tastes, for the most part. But since one of them was having a birthday, I decided to cook lunch for us all on Saturday.

Inspired by my recent experience with Caribbean cuisine, I gathered ingredients to make chicken with coconut sauce. Of course, I didn't follow a recipe. Nor did I measure anything. But this is the gist of what I came up with:

chopped garlic (maybe 4-5 cloves)
chopped ginger (tablespoonish)
chopped onion (one medium)
chopped sweet peppers (two)
roasted jalapeño (only one - they're wimps)
fresh thyme (this is my new favorite herb)
cinnamon (dash)
chicken breasts (marinated in soy sauce overnight)
coconut milk (half a can)
cilantro and chives for garnish

I sautéed everything until the chicken was almost done. Then I added coconut milk and simmered for about a half hour. I served it with brown rice and caramelized carrots.

The birthday girl enjoyed it so much she went for seconds, and asked for leftovers to take for lunch. I'd call that a success.


Grey Skies
October is the rainiest month of the rainy (err... "green") season. Now we not only have downpours every afternoon, we have sprinkles and showers throughout the day. There is no sun. The neverending drizzle was starting to get to me, so I looked for a solution. It turns out that October is the driest month for the Limon province.

I should also mention that I'm currently only working 6 hours a week (Tuesday and Thursday from 5:30 to 8:30 at an off-site class).

These two facts led to one simple conclusion: Beach Trip.

I packed a bag and took the Friday morning bus to Cahuita. I plan on taking my parents to this beach when they visit in December, so this was no mere vacation - it was a fact-finding mission. Upon arrival, I scoped a few spots and settled on Cabinas Calipso for my lodging. It had the essentials - a fan in the room, warm water, and a hammock outside. Plus it was only 7000 colones (around $14).

With shelter secured, I began the hunt for food. Miss Edith's called out to me. It is a Cahuita institution, and for good reason. Hidden on a corner, next to the Police Station / Post Office, and with an ocean view, it's a peaceful place to enjoy the best of Costa Rica's Caribbean cuisine. I chose fish fillet rondon, then relaxed with a cool glass of lemonade while I waited. This is not a place for the impatient. But who's watching a clock? The kitchen is hidden behind a curtain, but I could hear the sizzle and smell the aroma of real cooking, the kind that's been going on here for generations. Eventually, I was presented with my feast. Rondon is a stew that gets its name from the patois word for "run-down" because it was originally made with whatever the cook could run-down in the kitchen. Mine contained fish and root vegetables like carrots, potatoes, yucca, sweet potatoes, and plantain that were simmered in butter and a coconut milk sauce and flavored with whole sprigs of thyme. I savored every morsel.

I enjoyed the experience so much that I went back the next day. A morning of lounging on Playa Negra had worked up an appetite. This time, I asked for the Hot Jerked Smoked Chicken, extra spicy. And boy, did they deliver. My platter contained mounds of chicken breast, smothered in dark jerk sauce, and topped with several habanero chilis. It was an amazing balance of sweet, spicy, and smoky. And it was the best chicken I've ever put in my mouth.

The rest of the long weekend was spent in a similar fashion. There was not a single drop of rain the whole time. I relaxed. I checked out some of the nicer hotels for my parents. I ate good food and drank cold beer. I swung on a hammock. And I reluctantly returned to Heredia on Monday, where it was and is still raining.


Saturday, October 06, 2007
Can I Keep Him?
I made a new friend today. As I was walking home from the farmer's market, I took a detour through some different neighborhoods. A cute little dog started following me. I made a few turns to see if he'd keep up, and he did. I even went into a store, and he was there waiting for me when I got out. He made it all the way to my house, despite the other neighborhood dogs trying to scare him away.

I figured it was over when I got through my gate. But he managed to climb through the bars! (Luckily none of the neighborhood dogs can do that). I tried a few things to get him to leave. I put water outside, which he went to. But he always found his way back between the bars of the gate.
perrocito 04
For a moment, I was tempted to keep him. But I knew I couldn't. What would I do with him?
perrocito 01
I left him alone outside for awhile, thinking he'd eventually get hungry and leave on his own. Then, when my roommate went out, he followed her. I don't think he'll be back.
perrocito 03
I already miss him.
perrocito 02


Soccer is, by far, the most important sport in Costa Rica. The sports page of the newspaper is filled with pages of soccer information and a little corner of one pages about other sports. They take their futbol seriously. So I figured I should watch a game, live, in a stadium. Last weekend, my town's team (Club Sport Herediano) was playing at home, so I went with a couple of other teachers to check it out.

heredia futbol 03 heredia futbol 13
Honestly, it wasn't as exciting as I thought it'd be. I expected a more festive atmosphere. But the crowed just wasn't pumped. I think that's because the opposition wasn't very good. CSH scored three goals and the other team (I don't even remember their name) barely made any attempts.

We did get to see some little kids do a traditional dance, which was cute.
heredia futbol 02

And I got to try some unique stadium food. No hotdogs here, folks. There was pizza, which my friends went for. But I took a chance on a guy with a basket selling "patie." It's a snack from the Caribbean, a small pastry filled with meat and beans. I got mine with chili, so it had a little kick. Pretty tasty.

When the game was over, everyone filed out. Again, it was a rather uneventful ending. We might try to catch one of the more important games if we get a chance. I know there are some serious rivalries here.


Tuesday, October 02, 2007
Falling Apart
It is 73 days, 18 hours, 14 minutes and 26 seconds until Saturday, December 15, 2007 at 9:00:00 AM (San Jose time).

I jinxed myself. My class got down to 2 students, and the school's owner decided it was no longer profitable to keep it going. So they kicked the students to the curb, explaining that it was too expensive to pay their teacher. It's a harsh reminder that private English schools in Costa Rica are all about the money, not the education. I'm left to scrape by on substitute gigs until they find more students. Luckily, I think I have enough money saved to pay rent and bills for the rest of the year.

As if to add salt to the wound, my glasses broke on Sunday. Snapped right in half. I have another pair, so I can still see. But I really liked those glasses. I'm noticing other things are wearing down, too. Some tshirts have little holes. I've had to sew a few pairs of socks. I replaced a button on one of my work shirts. And one pair of khakis is currently held together with a safety pin. So, while it's possible to live for almost a year with a very limited wardrobe (5 work shirts, 2 khakies, 1 jeans, 2 shorts, 4 tshirts, etc), the clothes do suffer.

I can feel the days counting down. I've gotten a lot out of this experience. In fact, if I had to leave tomorrow, I'd feel like I wasn't missing anything. There's more to see and do, of course. And there are plenty of things I'll miss. But I'm building up my goodbyes for Costa Rica.


Thursday, September 20, 2007
Better'n No Class
Our advanced classes are a bit odd because students come and go all the time. The class lasts two months, but students came be there for any two months. So the class is circular, not linear. And the composition of the class can change from week to week. Some weeks I'll have 6 students. Then others I'll have fewer. Today I had two. Tomorrow, one of them has to work, so I'll have one.

I like small classes because I get to really interact with the students. I get to know them and understand their needs. It gives me an opportunity to tailor the material. But it's really hard to fill 3 hours 5 days a week with only 1 or 2 students. That's a lot of talking time for me and the students. It's good for them to have the practice, but it's also very draining. It's difficult to keep up the energy for that long. And if a student is tired or just doesn't feel like talking... well... then the class is really shot.

It could be worse, though. This is apparently a low time for the school. Other teachers have been without any students. So I'm lucky that I've been able to keep a class going, no matter how small it is.

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Monday, September 17, 2007
Saturday was Costa Rica's Independence Day. I manage to completely miss all of the celebrations. I thought they would be in the early afternoon. So in the morning, I went to the farmer's market (where I got an excellent bag of habanero peppers). By the time I got to the central park, it was of course raining. The park was empty except for one little snack stand, where I got to eat some meat on a stick.

That evening there were supposed to be fireworks, but I'd made plans with friends to go to the National Theatre to watch a performance of Macbeth. Again, we were too late, and the tickets were sold out. Since we were all dressed up in San Jose, we decided to go out to dinner instead. We found a decent restaurant with a second floor patio. We enjoyed good food and conversation.

In the end, as always, it worked out fine.

Sunday I went to have lunch with my Tico family. It was nice to see them again. They gave me a hard time about getting old. They also gave me grief about not learning much Spanish. But, while they were picking on me, they fed me, so it was worthwhile. I could feel the love.

Honestly, they are wonderful people, and they continue to amaze me with their warmth and hospitality. They've been far too good to me. I could never repay their generosity. In a place where I've felt very isolated at times, they have given me a home and a sense of family.

Sometimes I wonder if I've been too lucky.


Tuesday, September 11, 2007
Bam Bam Bam
This Saturday is Costa Rica's independence day. My students were a bit slim on the details. They don't seem to know too much of the history. But, like other holidays, it will involve parades and fireworks. That explains the constant drumming from every school around here. We happen to live right next to a highschool. I hear drums even when they're not playing. Ba-dump-bump-bump. Ba-dump-bump-bump. Ba-dump-bump-bump.

Since the holiday is on a Saturday, we won't get any extra days off. That's the real bummer. In fact, there are no more work holidays until Christmas. I'm petitioning for the school to observe some of the US's holidays, since we're an English academy. But so far, the administration is unreceptive.

In fact, the administration is rather somber lately. The school has been a grim environment for the past couple of weeks. It's not as lively and fun as it used to be. We don't have as many classes here at the school during the morning any more, so there aren't as many people around. And two people in the office are doing the work of six. We've lost more than just staff and students, though. There's been an attitude change. I can't exactly put my finger on it, but it's definitely a different vibe.


Friday, September 07, 2007
A La Mierda!
Every once in awhile, my mind breaks free from the monotony of my daily routine, and I realize the reality of my situation. These are my "Holy Shit!" moments. I had two of them recently.

Holy Shit, I only have 3 months left in Costa Rica! When it was 4 months, I felt like I still had plenty of time. But 3 months is nothing. I still have a few places I want to visit and things I want to do: Vulcan Arenal, Monteverde (for a tree-top zipline tour), Playa Samara, Playa Grande, INBioParque, see a performance at the National Theatre, watch a live soccer game. There's time. But with only 12 weekends left, I need to get off my butt.

Holy Shit, I'm 29! Yikes. That's way too close to 30. As my young German roommate put it this morning, "Twenty-nine and still alive, aye? Wow!" This is karma. I've made fun of others that were leaving their twenties. It's my turn to be the old man. But I refuse to act like one. I've requested a piñata for my party tonight.


Students Say
I was teaching phrasal verbs to my students yesterday. We came to "get by with" and I explained that it means to do the minimum, to manage with very little effort. One student was thinking and thinking, and then said, "I don't know if we have a word for that in Spanish, but that's so Tico!"

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Thursday, September 06, 2007
Dos Playas, Cuatro Noches
J, my roomie and fellow teacher, was going to be class-less for two weeks. I, being a kind-hearted gentleman, offered to let her teach my class for three days this week. She and our academic coordinator agreed to the proposal. That meant one thing for me: beach trip!

Saturday morning, bright and early, I made my way towards the southern Pacific coast. I spent my first two nights in Manuel Antonio, which is a beautiful beach. It's also heavily touristed. More tourists means more people selling things on the beach. Are these people selling things that beach-goers need, like icecream or beer? No, they're selling ceramic pots. Every five minutes, I was confronted by someone with a pot on every finger, calling out "Ceramica, Amigo?" Who the heck goes to the beach to buy pottery? I didn't see them sell a single piece.

Manuel Antonio Beach

The highlight was on Sunday, when I visited the national park. It was absolutely stunning. There were monkeys and iguanas and racoons and all kinds of birds. And not a single ceramica salesman in sight. I hiked up to the various lookout points, which provided amazing views of the beach. Breathtaking.

Manuel Antonio National Park Manuel Antonio National Park

Monday I took a bus down to Dominical. It's a relatively short trip, around 40 kilometers, but it took over two hours because the road is unpaved. It's all gravel and potholes. That makes the busride, literally, a pain in the ass. But it was worth it. Dominical is my kind of beach. It's small and quiet. It has a great vibe, very laid back, and filled with surfers. The food is good and the beer is cheap. Ideal. Unfortunately, it rained all afternoon and evening. Less than ideal.

Dominical Beach View from Tortilla Flats

Tuesday I tried to go a little further south (17 kilometers, to be exact) to Playa Uvita, which is supposedly an even more remote, quiet beach. Unfortunately, I got off the bus too early. I made it to Uvita the town, but not Uvita the beach. So I had to walk a few more kilometers. I found more of the town, which consists of several farms and a few cabinas and sodas. I found the entrance to the national park. But I never saw the beach. I didn't see any other tourists and only a few locals. Hot, tired, and a little nervous, I headed back to the bus stop, where I waited a couple of hours and had a nice conversation with a Tico who assured me the bus would come. Finally I went back to the comfort of Dominical, where I enjoyed my final night.

Wednesday I headed back, but took a different route. Instead of going through Manuel Antonio, I went over the mountains to San Isidro, the only "big city" in this part of the country. The bus ride was crowded, but the view from the mountains was beautiful. From there, I caught a bus to San Jose and arrived in Heredia safely.

I love these mini-adventures.

More Manuel Antonio pictures.
More Dominical pictures.


Tuesday, August 28, 2007
Post Haste
I'm on a postcard kick. You know, it only took me about 5 months to start on them. Anyone that wants one, make sure I have your street address!


No, this is not a result of my night at the bars. At least, I don't think so.

Sunday morning I woke up with a huge ear. My right ear was swollen, like it was filled with fluid. It had been a little sore for a couple of days, but Sunday it just blew up like a puffer fish. Honestly, I wasn't worried. Something like this happened before, last year, and the swelling went down after 2 or 3 days. It just looks really bad.

Of course, Monday it was still big and red, so people noticed at school. My academic coordinator graciously offered to take me to the pharmacy and serve as my translator. Very motherly, no? Well, as we were walking down the street, I told her it was probably just an outer-ear infection - something like swimmer's ear. She said, "This happened to another teacher before you got here. It turned out that a spider pissed on his neck." I was sure she was kidding. She swore it was a common problem here. I considered leaving the country earlier than planned. But we continued on to the pharmacy.

Why were we going to the pharmacy instead of a doctor's office or hospital? You see, here in Costa Rica, the pharmacies have doctors on site. They can do quick examinations and offer prescriptions for simple issues like this. So, instead of waiting for an appointment and paying a huge fee for a doctor's visit, I simply had to get a quick once-over by the pharmacy's doctor and pay about $6 for three days' worth of antibiotics. Simple and inexpensive. It's a nice system.

My ear is already a bit better today.

Oh, and the doc said the infection was probably caused by a mosquito bite (there's one on the right side of my neck). He said they are filthy creatures and a common cause of infections. So it turned out to be mosquito shit, not spider piss. Such a relief.


Make A Party
I have no exciting travel stories or pictures to share with you from the weekend.

Saturday night, I did, however, go out with Roomie and a former student of ours, Gab. He invited us to a place called The Blue Lounge. It took two buses and a cab to get there. It was a trendy-looking place with hip lighting and too-cool-for-comfort seating. And it was practically empty. We hung out there for a few hours. Others talked while I tried to follow the conversations. I think my comprehension is improving, even if my speaking isn't.

After awhile, Gab and his friends asked us if we'd like to go somewhere else. Sure, why not? So we got in a cab, then a bus, then another cab, and eventually we were in downtown San Jose at "La Avispa." There was much more activity here. The place was thumping with house music and latin beats. People were dancing in various styles, from the typical white-boy-shuffle to the abstract-techno-flow to the latino-hip-grind. (Seriously, how do they do that with their hips? It's like they're made of rubber. Incredible. And... hot). As they drank more, Gab's friends started speaking more English. Likewise, I spoke more (more - not necissarily better) Spanish. This led to some interesting Spanglish conversations. We had a great time and stayed until the club closed.

Getting home required a somewhat scary walk through downtown San Jose. At night, all the freaks and bums come out in force. But we were a large group, so it was a little safer. Gab found a collectivo cab that was going to Heredia, which made it easier and safer for us to get home. Still, it's a lot of work to go bar-hopping using public transportation!


Tuesday, August 21, 2007
Granada, Nicaragua
Here's the breakdown on my border run to Granada, Nicaragua. I went with my roommate, who needed to make a run herself soon.

Thursday -
We left the house at 4:30 AM so that we could get to the TicaBus station in San Jose an hour before our departure. The bus to San Jose dropped us off in an area with no taxis, so we had to walk a couple of blocks. In that short period of time, a bum walked by, begged for money, then snatched the hat off my head and ran away. It was a bad start to the trip. But we made it to the terminal and onto the bus without further problems.

When we reached the border, we all had to get off the bus to get our exit stamp from Costa Rican migration. Here we were also confronted by hoards of money changers. I brought US dollars to exchange because I'd been told I'd get a better rate than using colones. I got 18 cordoba for each dollar, which was only a little worse than the official exchange rate I'd checked online of about 18.5:1. After we got back on the bus, the driver collected our passports, customs forms, and the $8 Nicaragua entry fee. I'm always nervous when my passport leaves my hands, but it had to be done. He got them stamped all together at Nicaraguan migration so we didn't all have to stand in line. Instead, we all just had to stand in the parking lot. I'm not sure that was an improvement.

Nicaragua - Migration Nicaragua - Migration - Our Bus

We arrived in Granada around 3 PM and began the hunt for a hotel. We stopped at a few places close to the central park, but they were all very expensive, around $60 to $80 per night. A few blocks outside, we started to find cheaper places, but they were a bit sketchy. Finally, we came upon Hotel Granada, which a fellow traveler had recommended. It was $30 / night for a big, comfortable, safe, air-conditioned room. And it was right across the street from a church that provided an interesting view. That night we had dinner at the Roadhouse, where I had a fantastic jalapeno steak.

Nicaragua - Hotel Granada Nicaragua - Granada Nicaragua - Granada

Friday -
We had breakfast at our hotel's restaurant, where we saw the man who had recommended it to us. His name was Bill and he was doing missionary work in Central America. He'd been in Granada a few times, so he gave us some suggestions on things to see and do. After talking for awhile, he said he'd like to do a tour himself, and asked to come along. He functioned as our friendly travel guide for almost all of the rest of our stay. He arranged a motorboat tour of the Isletas on Lake Nicaragua. It was amazing to see million-dollar houses built on the tiny little islands. We made a stop at an old fort, which supposedly saw attacks from famous pirates back in the day. And we went by an island filled with monkeys. It was a wonderful way to spend the morning.

Nicaragua - Isletas Nicaragua - Isletas Nicaragua - Isletas - Fort

Back at the hotel, Bill talked to the security guard and learned that there was going to be a baseball game that evening at 6. My roommate's a baseball fanatic, so she was more than happy to go. To me, the idea of watching Nicaraguan baseball was too surreal to pass up. We all hopped in a taxi and went to the stadium to watch the Granada Tiberones play against... some other team. It was an odd site - the contrast of something so American in such an unfamiliar environment. Instead of hotdogs and peanuts, vendors walked around selling sandwiches and quesillas (burritos filled with cheese, onions, and sour cream). I had a quesilla and quite a few beers (at less than a dollar a can, I couldn't refuse).

Nicaragua - Tiberones Baseball Nicaragua - Tiberones Baseball

By this time, I'd had a chance to sample the three major local brews: Victoria, Toña, and Premium. The first two are standard pilsners - crisp, refreshing, and very easy to drink. Premium has a corn-like flavor that was odd, but not unbearable. Though perhaps not as good as Costa Rican beers, they were all decent (better than BudMichCoors) and inexpensive.

Saturday -
I just wanted to hang around town on this day. There was a lot going on in the central park area; vendors and musicians filled the town square. I could tell they were gearing up for a major party. This was confirmed later, when I saw a huge stage being constructed. While I walked around, I came upon a little cigar shop, just a hole in the wall. It was the real deal: I could see the rolling equipment and the tobacco leaves drying outside. I bought a few different types (very cheap at $1 or $2 per cigar) and headed to a bar to enjoy them. The street between Hotel Granada and the central park is lined with restaurants and bars, most of which have seating outside.

Nicaragua - Granada - Horse Cart Nicaragua - Granada Nicaragua - Granada Nicaragua - Granada

I stopped at Zoom Bar, where I got to talk to the owners, Cheryl and Wayne, who hail from California. They'd owned the place for about 4 years. Wayne has a serious passion for food, so he cooks up a couple of specials on the weekends to supplement the typical bar-food menu. This weekend's offerings were lasagna and BBQ beef. He brought out samples for those of us in the bar. While they weren't the best I'd ever had, I can appreciate the efforts of cooking gringo comfort food in this environment. If I were a long-term expat, that would've been a slice of heaven, a delightful respite from rice and beans.

One of the patrons noticed my cigar, so he asked me about it. I told him where I got it. He said, "Yah, that's my place, I make those cigars." He was Eddy "the Stick" Reyes from Sultan Cigars. He invited me to join him, so we sat around talking tobacco for awhile. I mentioned my family owns a tobacco shop, so he gave me his email address and said he does some exporting to the US for the right amount of volume.

Afterwards, I met back up with Roomie and Bill so we could have dinner together. I chose Casa Macondo because I wanted to try their seafood paella. It was quite tasty, with a mix of lobster, shrimp, and mussels.

Then we went back to the town center, where the party was in full-swing. The whole event was sponsored by Victoria beer, so there were ads everywhere. And the Victoria girls were dancing on stage. And the Victoria song was blasting through the streets (Victoria! Victoria! La cerveza de los Amigos, Amigos!). There was a parade through town with highschool marching bands. And there were carts at every turn selling beer for around 50 cents a can. It was absolutely wild. After taking it all in for awhile, we walked down the street back to the Roadhouse, which was having its own party sponsored by Flor de Ca ña rum. They were having a ring-tossing contest, but you had to buy a drink to compete. So I had a few shots of that lovely liquor and pocketed the shotglasses as a souvenir. I didn't win the ring-toss.

Sunday -
We left the hotel around 5:15 AM to wait for the bus, which showed up around 7. It was a long, hot, stinky ride. The stops at migration were much the same as our entrance. But this time, I used the wait to visit the duty free shops, where I bought a few bottles of Flor de Caña at incredibly reasonable prices. The rest of the trip was, thankfully, uneventful.

Nicaragua - Flor de Caña

All of my Nicaragua pictures are here. I've reached the limit of my free Flickr account, so I need to pay for a Pro account. If you can't see all of my older photos, that's why.


Monday, August 13, 2007
Quatro Madres
Marta's in town! She came down to surprise her own mother for the holiday (August 15th is Mother's Day in Costa Rica), which gave me the opportunity to visit her and my other Costa Rican mothers as well. So Sunday I grabbed 4 bunches of roses (one for each of my quatro madres) and made my way back to my old 'hood.

It was wonderful to see everyone again. They all gave me a hard time for not visiting enough. They were right to do so, too. I should go over there more often. I'll try to visit at least once a month from now on.

The food was fantastic, as always. They stuffed me full of arroz con pollo (marinated chicken with sauce, rice, and veggies), Russian salad, black beans, tortillas, and cabbage salad. Then we had arroz con leche (rice and milk pudding), ice cream, and cake for dessert. It'd been awhile since I'd eaten that good.

I stayed until it started to get dark. Then I and the remaining visitors had to leave while it was still safe.

Marta is in town for the rest of the week, and she asked me to visit again. But the distance to her house and my schedule will make it difficult. There's never enough time when I need it.


Saturday, August 11, 2007
Any Excuse
My roommates and I decided to have a party at our house. We didn't have a reason at first. We just knew we wanted to have some folks over. And then, an excuse presented itself. Our academic coordinator's birthday is next weekend, but I and Roomie #1 will be in Grenada for our border run. So we threw a birthday party on Friday.

I began preparing immediately after my morning class. I bought a bunch of food and beverage and went home to start drinki...err...cooking. I made patacones (fried plantain chips), refried black beans, salsa picante, and guacamole. Roomie #1 made a big cookie cake thing. I also started making a big pile of (empty) Pilsen cans.

And then we waited. From my previous party experience, I knew that people are never on time. Ticos, more than anyone else, would surely be late. But Roomie #1 started to worry.

Eventually people trickled in. And then more people arrived. And more. I didn't know them all. The night became a blur of drinking, dancing, talking, and card-playing. Nothing was broken. Nobody was hurt. I met a lovely Tica. Everyone seemed to have fun. Clean-up was fairly easy the next day. I'd call it a success.

We're already thinking of having another one next month.


Wednesday, August 08, 2007
I've been teaching here for about 4 and a half months now, and every single day - every single class - is a different challenge. This job is difficult in ways that I never would've imagined. I knew that I'd have to deal with lesson planning and odd shifts. And I even knew I'd have some trouble-making students. But I never expected that it would effect my emotions to the degree that it has.

If I have a great class, then I'm on top of the world. I'm confident, relaxed, and happy. When my students are engaged and enthusiastic, I really feel like I belong here, like I'm doing something positive. The time flies by and I look forward to the next class. I become inspired, filled with ideas for future lessons and activities.

But if a class goes sour, I'm crushed. It only takes one or two students with bad attitudes to ruin the whole classroom. That's the joy and pain of teaching classes that rely heavily on participation and communication. One student, in a small class, can effectively shut down an activity. The class as a whole will then turn negative. Time drags on. The air becomes thick with boredom or frustration. It's a disease that seems only to be cured by the words "class dismissed." And it ruins me. When I have bad chemistry in the classroom, I feel horrible. My mood is dark. I toss and turn all night. If I do manage to sleep, I have awful nightmares. And, of course, I dread going back to the school.

For whatever reason, my mental state is closely tied to the classroom experience. I can't help but take this job personally. Although there are other people and things involved, when it comes time for class, it's just me and my students. Perhaps it would be easier to remain emotionally unaffected if I were lecturing to an auditorium filled with 30-50 students. But when I'm facing 6-10 individuals, there is a very personal connection.

It's rewarding when the connection is positive. I've had students thank me for helping them. Some have really shown appreciation for my work. There's nothing better than hearing that I'm a good teacher.

And there's nothing worse than students who would rather be anywhere but my classroom. It's absolutely soul-crushing. That's the most dangerous part of this job that I've found so far.

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Monday, August 06, 2007
Montezuma Avenged
Last Tuesday it was announced that the school would be closed on Thursday and Friday for a holiday. Immediately, teachers and admins started making plans for beach trips. A four-day weekend is a rare treat! I knew I had to make the most of it. So I polled my students for ideas. Most of them agreed that I should go to Montezuma, a small beach town on the southern part of the Nicoya Peninsula.

I was worried that I might have a difficult time finding a place to stay. Hotels were sure to be busy during the holiday weekend. In fact, this was enough to discourage other teachers. They caved to the fear and stayed home. But I decided to take a chance. One way or another, I felt certain I'd find a place to sleep.

My next challenge was simply to get there. I'd heard many different opinions on which buses to take. The trip involves taking a bus to Puntarenas, then a ferry to Paquera, then a bus to Montezuma. It's possible to take cheap local buses, but I chose to spend 10 bucks on the "direct" bus leaving at 7:30 in the morning, which simplified the trip and was a little more comfortable. "Direct" is a bit misleading, though, because the driver still stopped to pick up passengers along the way, and it just took us to Cobano (the only real town in the southern peninsula), where we got off and finished the 6-hour trip in a smaller bus.

Upon arrival, the hotel-hunt began. I started at La Aurora, which was recommended by my guide book. I'd emailed them before I left and they said they were booked at the time, but didn't know when people might leave. I was lucky. They had an affordable ($20/night) room available. I checked it out and it was really nice. What sold me, though, was the hammock lounge upstairs.


With that taken care of, I grabbed a few beers and hit the beach. Even the area closest to town was beautiful, and I enjoyed sitting around people-watching for awhile.

The Town in Montezuma Montezuma Beach

Then a lovely young lady in a little red bikini walked over to me. Let's call her Liz. She was looking for her three friends, who might've gone to the waterfall. I hadn't seen them. She asked if I'd like to go with her to look for them. How could I refuse? I grabbed my towel and we began the hike. Along the way, we met an old hippy sitting by the river who looked exactly like a guru out of a movie. He told us which way to go and advised us to take off our flip-flops. But who hikes barefoot? Naturally, moments later, I slipped on a rock and my sandals ripped apart. Bruised and barefooted, I continued up toward the waterfall. We met some others along the way, including a nice German girl, and some college guys from the US. The trek was completely worth the effort, as we were rewarded with a spectacular view of the waterfall. And I enjoyed the company and conversation from my newfound friend. Eventually, we were the only two remaining at the falls, and we decided we should head back before it got dark.

On the way back, we finally found her three friends. They chose to continue up to the falls, while the Liz and I decided to have dinner together. She suggested that we get our food to go so that we could eat at the beach. Excellent idea. Unfortunately, it was dark by this time, so we struggled to find a place that was safe. But eventually we located the perfect spot where we sat, enjoying our "pescado cosados" and listening to the sounds of the surf. It was an amazing way to spend my first day in Montezuma.

Sadly, Liz and her friends had to leave the next morning. So I was left to explore the rest of the area on my own for the next few days.

Montezuma Beach Montezuma Beach

Montezuma is a series of small beaches, connected by a path through the jungle. Each one seemed more beautiful than the previous. And there are hidden treasures, like the rock garden that's part of a nature reserve. I think I'll let the pictures tell the rest of the story.

Rock Garden Rock Garden
Montezuma Beach Montezuma Beach

All of the pictures are here.


Monday, July 30, 2007
Cartoons and Craters
I was invited by a former student to go with him and some friends to see The Simpsons Movie last Friday. Getting movie tickets is serious business in the rainy season. He'd already gotten his on Wednesday. I took a chance and went on Friday afternoon. Luckily, I was able to get two (roomie went with us).

Then, of course, we had to get in line early to make sure we got good seats. That meant getting to the theatre almost two hours early. It was an odd way to spend the evening considering I wasn't even that interested in the movie. Since it's a cartoon, it was dubbed in Spanish (instead of having subtitles). I understood... some of it. But I missed much of the subtle humor, I'm sure. Really, it was just an excuse to get out of the house.

Afterwards, we went to a bar in San Rafael de Heredia called "Reflections." It was a great neighborhood place with classic rock videos playing on the wall and plenty of cheap beer. My student and I drank big liter bottles of Pilsen. Encouraged by the alcohol, I practiced a bit of Spanish. It amused everyone.

Sunday, me and the roomies got up very early so we could catch the bus to the Irazú Volcano. There's only one bus on the weekend and it leaves at 8am. The volcano is close to the city of Cartago, which isn't too far from San Jose, but it still took over 2 hours because of traffic, many stops, and slow-going up the mountain. The bus driver's "assistant" played the pan flute for us along the way. It was painful. People begged him to stop.

We were blessed with a clear sky when we got to the park. We had an excellent view of the crater lake.

Vulcan Irazu, Crater

Although the craters at Poas might be prettier, Irazu is nice because you can actually walk around in one of the craters and feel the lava rocks. You can see the plants and flowers up-close. And you can even see some animals if you're lucky.

Vulcan Irazu Vulcan Irazu, Plants and Flowers Vulcan Irazu, Wildlife

Plus, it's the tallest volcano in Costa Rica. Climbing to the highest point provides an amazing view.

Vulcan Irazu, Highest Point

More pictures here.


Wednesday, July 25, 2007
Churches, Chorros, and Churros
Saturday, roommate and I went to the mall because we wanted to see a movie. But everything was sold out! Apparently that's the way it is on weekends in the rainy season. Everybody goes to the movies. So we just walked around and had a snack at the food court. It's surreal going to the mall here. It's so... American. Almost exactly like the malls in the US. Same stores. It even has that same "mall smell." I had ceviche at the food court. I should've known better. It wasn't the best ceviche I've had here. But I didn't get sick.

Sunday, we decided to go to Grecia and Sarchi, a couple of nearby towns. Our German roommate went with us. We started at Grecia, where the main attraction is a big red metal church. So I went to church on a Sunday! Sort of.

Grecia's Church

Then we went to Los Cataratas de los Chorros, which I'm told translates to "The Waterfalls of the Waterfalls" since both cataratas and chorros mean waterfalls. It was beautiful. The whole area reminded me of the trails and waterfalls in Tennessee.

Los Chorros, Grecia

Leaving the park, we had to wait quite a while for our bus. A little old man in a big floppy white hat came over to talk to the roommates. I'm not sure they appreciated the company, but I thought he was hilarious. He gave them big ol' hugs before we left.

Finally, we made it to Sarchi, where there was a little festival going on downtown. There were tents with arts and crafts, which Sarchi is famous for. The town itself is full of souvineer and furniture shops, but not much else

Sarchi Festival Sarchi Festival

Sarchi Festival

We didn't feel like browsing, so we made our way back home. I can't even explain how many different buses this little daytrip took! But it was nice to get out and see a few different places.

More photos of Grecia are here.

More photos of Sarchi are here.


Thursday, July 19, 2007
Yes, Minister
Yesterday my morning class was chaos, and I loved it! I think they did, too. We started out by talking about jobs. Then we moved on to vacations, then movies, then drugs and crime. I had only meant to get them warmed up and jump into another activity, but we were having such a good discussion I didn't stop them.

After that, a former student showed up and asked if she could use my class for a survey for her university project. It was in English, so I let her do it. It turned out to be an IQ test, which prompted quite a few questions from my students and led to a fun impromptu lesson.

Just when I was getting back on track, one of the admins brought an elderly Costa Rican gentleman into my classroom. She didn't explain why. I couldn't tell if he was a prospective student or a potential teacher or something else entirely. He just sat and watched my class for awhile. Finally, he called me over and explained that he was a representative from the Ministry of Education in Heredia. He's concerned about the English education that high school students are receiving in this province. They get 6 years of language classes and still can't speak properly because they're not taught by native speakers. So he's interested in our methods and might have us teach his teachers. He also gave me his contact information and invited me out to his beach house, which seemed a bit odd.

A few moments later, another school admin pulled me aside and said that I couldn't talk to the man any more. At this point, I really had no idea what was going on. I was in the middle of something I didn't understand.

After class, my academic coordinator asked to speak to me. What now?! Well, she wanted to know what the mysterious man talked to me about. Apparently he just showed up at our academy and asked to see the qualifications of all the teachers and wanted to watch a class. So even my school didn't know why he was there. Everyone was just as confused as I was.

Strangeness is afoot.

As always.


Friday, July 13, 2007
My schedule is changing again. I'm getting used to it, of course. I'll still teach in the mornings, but I'll also have a class in the evening. I'll normally have 5 hours in between, which is enough time to get some things done. But this Monday, I'm also subbing for someone. So I'll teach from 9am till noon. Then I'll catch a cab to an offsite location to teach from 1 till 3. Then I'll get on the bus to be back at the school to teach from 5 till 7. I'm tired just thinking about it.

It sounds like I really work, doesn't it? But to be fair, I need to tell you about last night and this morning.

Yesterday another teacher was having a party for her graduating class and she invited me. So they set up a grill in our outdoor classroom, put on some music, and had me make a beer run. We had hotdogs, sausages, and beef (all served on tortillas instead of buns, of course). We played Jenga. And one student got out a deck of cards and told fortunes.

Today, I had a party for a couple of my students that finished the course. So we watched a movie, had chips and dip, and sat around talking for a couple of hours. Not a bad way to spend a Friday morning, really.

I think the good days, so far, more than make up for the bad.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007
An International Individual
I read an article in AM Costa Rica that I thought would be great material for discussion in class: Modern society is creating an international individual. (Scroll way down towards the bottom - there is no direct link to the article). For those too lazy to click, scroll, and read, I think the article can be sumarized by one line from the author:
I sometimes feel more like a citizen of the world than one particular place.
We talked about this for almost an hour and a half. The students even stayed several minutes after class, they were so involved in the conversation. I loved it. That's what makes teaching here so enriching.

What does it mean to be an "international individual?" Does it mean losing one's cultural identity? Is it possible to have a global mentality while still embracing the uniqueness of each society?

I struggle with these questions often, so I welcomed the opportunity to share them with my students. As a teacher of English in a foreign country, I sometimes feel a bit imperialistic. Am I imposing my language, and consequently my culture, on my students? Sure, they're attending class on their own free will, but is it really a choice? In one sense, they really must learn English to get ahead. It's not like they're learning English for the sheer pleasure of the language. English-speaking countries are the current economic powers, so English is the language of international business now.

The US has an influence on the world, for better or worse. It spreads its language, its media, its companies, and its culture in general. Seeing McDonalds and WalMart here, I know it's true. In return, of course, it also imports many different cultures. But what is the end result? Are we creating a global society that contains the best parts of every country? Or are we creating clones of the US?

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Shaky Ground
There is no stability in teaching ESL. I'm sure I've said it before, in many different ways, but it's worth repeating. It is the polar opposite of a steady, 40 hour per week, corporate job. My schedule changes not only week to week, but sometimes hour to hour. Sometimes I get ambushed in the hallway and am asked to substitute for someone at the last minute. I always know I'm in for a surprise when I hear these words from our academic coordinator: "I'm so glad to see you!"

This month is especially mixed up. Just about every teacher is taking time off. So I'm picking up a few extra hours here and there. Today I realized I should attempt to write down my schedule. That's when I noticed that next Monday I would be teaching three classes at various times and locations from 9am till 9pm. I know I could do it, but I really don't want to. It was my turn to be so glad to see the academic coordinator. I gave up a few hours. And I warned her that since everyone else is taking time off this month, I plan on taking some time off next month.

Then, when I checked my mail after class, I saw the notice that we're having a mandatory meeting on a Saturday morning. Unpaid, of course. And offsite. Harsh. I bet they won't even provide coffee, let alone booze.

But, what the heck? I never expected teaching to be glamorous. And I really can't complain. It still beats corporate life.

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Monday, July 09, 2007
Toots and Fruits
I've heard live jazz performances in a variety of places: New Orleans, Memphis, St. Louis, Columbus, and more. The venue is as important to the performance as the music itself. It sets the mood. It adds to the vibe.

Friday night, I had the opportunity to add Santo Domingo to my list. I went to hear Swing En 4. The performance was in the ampitheatre at INBIOparque, which provided a lush, beautiful background. The music was an eclectic mix of jazz styles, occassionally infused with latin beats. Most of it was excellent and had me tapping my feet. Coltrane and Salsa - what's not to love? On a few occassions, they slipped into something a little more like Kenny G, which I didn't enjoy as much. But overall, it was a great evening.

Saturday morning, I went to the feria to get fruits and veggies for the week. My plan was to make salsa picante, so I loaded up on fixings (tomatoes, onions, limes, cilantro, various peppers, and even a few mangos). Then I saw something that I had to try. It was huge, bigger than my head. And it was green and spikey. But I knew it wasn't a guanabana because it was too cheap - only 300 colones. It was breadfruit! After I bought it, the vendor tried to explain how to prepare it. But the only word I understood was "salt." Luckily, I've found a few recipes, so I'm not completely lost.


Friday, July 06, 2007
The Pressure
Today, at my students' request, I gave a lesson on situational job interview questions. "Tell me about a time that you... blah blah blah." These questions are hard, but they're great practice both for English in general and for job skills. I had them practice in groups for awhile, to get them used to the questions. Then they took turns in the Hot Seat, with one person in front of the whole class, being critiqued by his or her peers. Lots of pressure! But they all did quite well.

When the last student was finished, I was prepared to change the topic. But one student got a big grin on his face. He explained to the class that it might be good for them to hear from a real expert. And then he looked at me. They all agreed that I should get in the Hot Seat. Okay, that's fair. I got in front of them, just a little nervous.

Then the bold student turned to another student, telling her to ask the question. This woman is studying psychology and has recently interviewed with a major corporation in Costa Rica. When I realized they weren't going to ask me one of the prepared questions, I got a little nervous.

A teacher can show no fear.

She asked a doozie: "Tell me about a time from your childhood that has affected your present life in both a positive and negative way." I collected my thoughts and told my story. They were impressed with my answer. I must say, I was a little impressed with myself, too, since I'd never been asked that particular question before. Plus, it's been over 5 years since I've had a real job interview.

I maintained my status of authority. Woohoo!

They all agreed that I gave a great answer, and then they wanted another example. I had to answer the same question again! I pulled out another story and they were satisfied.

I had to admit to them that, even though this was just for practice, I still felt nervous. Job interviews are always difficult, even when they are fake. And it struck me how much harder it must be for them, interviewing in a different language. So I took a moment to tell them how proud I was of them, congratulating them on their hard work. They continue to impress me.


Three's Company
Our new roommate is here! She's German. And tall. We are a house of giants, compared to our neighbors (and most of Costa Rica). I haven't had too many opportunities to talk to her, but she seems nice and friendly. I think it'll work out just fine. In fact, it might be good for us to have a new person around. Perhaps she will inspire us to get out and see a bit more of the country.

My only concern is that both roommates speak Spanish. It's troublesome enough to live with two women. But it's downright nerve-wracking to living with two women who could conspire against me in a different language. I'm at a severe disadvantage. Wish me luck.


Monday, July 02, 2007
A Mixed Bag
Friday night was the school owner's birthday, so a bunch of us piled into an SUV and went to his house for a party. It was mostly just people from the school for the first couple of hours. That period of time was a blur of rapid-fire Spanish, salsa music, and quickly-downed Imperial tallboys. More people arrived and eventually I started hearing a bit more English.

I wandered around, meeting people unconnected with the school. It was an odd mix, no doubt. Yet it seemed completely normal. Costa Rica isn't a melting pot - it's more of a grab bag. Random people thrown together for random reasons. There's a red-eyed surfer dude from Michigan. There's a well-dressed businessman with million dollar dreams. There are travelers and Ticos. And they all have pretty good stories.


Monday, June 25, 2007
Good news: Had a great time partying with my students Friday night.

Bad news: When my roommate and I got home, we saw that the gates were open and the lights were on. I peered in the window and saw my laptop was gone. We didn't enter, instead we went to the neighbors to call the police. Then they came with us to check the house. Two locks completely removed. The thieves made out with 3 TVs, 2 laptops, and my raincoat. Could've been worse. They left a lot of other valuables behind. Another kind neighbor drove us downtown to file a police report. But I hold no hope of seeing my laptop again. Neighbor also gave us a chain and lock to put around the gate so we wouldn't be exposed. Got about 2 hours sleep. Next morning, our landlords came to survey the damage. They had the locks replaced with better locks, and added two more. So now it takes 6 keys to get from the street to my bedroom. Guess we're safer now.

I feel violated, frustrated, and pissed off in general. I considered giving up and coming home. But I'm not ready to do that. I don't want to make a rash decision. I need time to cool off and think. Of course, homesick doesn't even begin to describe what I'm feeling now.


Wednesday, June 20, 2007
My Kids
Last night I had my students debate the pros and cons of CAFTA. They groaned at first. Some don't like political topics. Others are sick of talking about CAFTA. But it's one of the hottest issues in Costa Rican at the moment, so I felt it was important to bring it up in class. Plus, I wanted to hear what they had to say about it.

The debate went fine, but the best part was the discussion afterwards. We started talking about the socioeconomic status of Costa Ricans, and how that affects their attitudes. There's a large lower class, especially outside of the central valley, that depends on government assistance. But there's also a growing middle class that could take advantage of the jobs that would come from a free trade agreement.

My students used themselves as examples. Each of them explained how they'd grown up on some level below middle class. They didn't all live in poverty, but they certainly weren't given the advantage of wealth. And now, here they are: well-educated, bilingual, and employed in very good jobs. They see the opportunities that are open to them. They speak of plans to get more education, to climb to higher positions in their companies, and to someday own their own businesses.

By the end of the night, I was so proud of them I could've burst. They have such amazing attitudes. I know they're going to succeed. They're an inspiration to me.

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Monday, June 18, 2007
Change Versus Improvement
I was seriously bummed before the beginning of class tonight. It's my last week with them. Three are graduating and two are moving to another teacher. Next week I'll be teaching from 3-6pm instead. When I told them about this, they got a little sad too. They said they've had fun in class and that they felt they've learned a lot. They like my style of teaching. We're comfortable with each other, which is important for learning to happen. We all decided to go out and do karaoke after Friday's class.

I was also bummed because of the curriculum changes that I know are coming up. My class is a perfect example of the result of our current method: they can hold a natural, fluent conversation in English with minor mistakes. They are proof that "Converse & Correct" is a good way to improve pronunciation skills for advanced language students. They don't need formal grammar training; they just need quick reminders. They don't need to memorize lists of vocabulary; they need practice using the words they already know.

I don't know why I feel so strongly about this. I shouldn't care, but I do. I guess I hate to see an innovative approach get stamped down by the status quo. I've seen this method work. Our students get jobs. And they recommend our school because it's different. And perhaps I have selfish reasons, too. I enjoy teaching this way. It's far more enjoyable than lecturing. It means less time preparing lesson plans, though it does mean I have to stay on my toes during class. But I like that. If I wanted to be a "now-turn-your-books-to-page-blah-blah-blah" teacher, there are plenty of other schools I could work for.

So, I'm going to make one more pitch for focusing on accent reduction for our advanced students. I'm going to do some research and make a proposal in writing to our academic coordinator. It's my last stab. And it's a long-shot. After that, I can at least feel like I made an honest effort.

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Sunday, June 17, 2007
Working for the Weekend
Friday night one of my students invited me and my roommate out to Bar Retro. It's a two level bar where they place American music videos from the 60s-90s. The place was packed. Apparently, classic rock is popular here. Of course, the beer special (2 for 1100 colones) might've helped. Every table was filled with empty bottles. These folks know how to drink! My student and I did our fair share too. In fact, we closed the place down (no biggie - it was only midnight). Then we went to another bar (this one had 3 levels) closer to campus. Very, very nice views. We made friends with a Tico that works at a call center, speaks very good English, and claims to be a poet. Overall, it was an interesting and fun night.

Saturday morning was the Farmer's Market. I stocked up on all kinds of good veggies. I even got a huge mango as a treat. I just love walking up and down the rows of vendors. I could spend hours just browsing, taking it all in. But it was way too hot to linger. I also had my first Pipa Fria while I was there. They take a young green coconut and hack the top off with a machete and stick a straw in. You drink the fresh coconut milk/water. It was soooo good on such a scorching day.

That afternoon, roomie and I hosted a teachers' meeting out our place to discuss changes to our school's curriculum. I made my pitch for a focus on accent reduction and conversation skills. But I was politely overruled by a room full of women who have a more traditional view of language education. So our most advanced students will be getting heavy doses of grammar and vocabulary, at the cost of pronunciation and fluency practice (which was the school's original selling point and what set it apart from the hundreds of other English academies in Costa Rica).

After the meeting, we went downtown for sushi, then the school's owner caught up with us and invited us out for drinks. Couldn't refuse a free round from the head honcho. It was nice to be able to talk to him out of the office. I learned quite a bit about him. I had no idea he was only 25. Naturally, with a table full of educators, the conversation centered on linguistics and education theory. Good stuff for a Saturday night, aye? Honestly, it was a great time, and we all vowed to do it again. There was even talk of house parties and beach trips. I'm starting to feel like I have a social life again!

Today is laundry day. The washer here is tiny, and looks nothing like the washers I'm used to. It took me awhile to figure it out. Naturally, the buttons are all in Spanish. But I got it. Now everything is hanging out to dry. No dryer. Welcome to the simple life.

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Thursday, June 14, 2007
Webbed Feet
Last night I got a taste of what the rainy season is really all about in Costa Rica. It started raining in the afternoon, as usual. (At least we have clear mornings, for now). Then, as the hours wore on, the storm kicked up. Buckets of rain. Heart-stopping thunder and lightning. And the air was actually chilly.

A little after 5, I had to start heading towards the school. I knew if I walked, I'd get soaked, even with a raincoat and umbrella. My plan was to get one of the taxis that are always parked down the road. So I stepped outside and was immediately drenched. The wind made my umbrella all but useless. The taxis were gone. I tried hailing a few as I walked, and none would stop. I kept walking towards the school. I came across massive puddles that I had to wade through. My shoes were filled with water. At some points, it was above my ankles.

As I got into town, I saw that the streets were flooding and that traffic was crazy. If I'd managed to get a taxi, I probably would've been late. Drains were completely backed up. More than that, they were gushing water upwards. They looked like fountains or fire hydrants.

By the time I made it to my school, my shoes and pants were completely drenched. Two of my students called to say they couldn't make it to class because of the rain. One was very late. And this week, my classroom is outdoors. It's covered by an aluminum roof, which means rain is very noisy. Cold, wet, and frustrated, I just wanted to go home. But somehow we made it through three hours. I think I even managed to teach a thing or two.

Thankfully, the rain stopped before I had to make my way home.


Wednesday, June 13, 2007
Student Driven
My school's highest level classes are taught a bit differently from other language classes. They're 2 months, 5 days a week, 3 hours a day. They're highly conversation-oriented. The students talk, and the teacher's job is to make corrections along the way. Sometimes the teacher provides topics or has them do specific activities. There are job-related role-plays. But for the most part, the students generally dictate the content of the class. And, since students enter and leave the course all the time (it's a circular curriculum, not linear), the needs of the class change often.

So my job is to take the basic outline of a curriculum and tailor it for each unique group of students. I like it, because it allows for a bit more creativity than just teaching out of a book. The students tend to like it because they get to talk about things that interest them.

But, just as students come and go, so do teachers and academic coordinators. Currently my school is in a state of flux. There's a trend to move towards a more "traditional" curriculum. Less time spent "just talking" and more structured activities and lessons.

One class rejected this new method so much that their teacher felt the need to leave them. They're now my class. So I'm stuck between giving my students what they want (lots of conversation) and what my administration wants me to teach (structure, grammar, etc). Naturally, if it comes down to it, the school wins. They're the ones that pay me. But I'm going to go to bat for my students as much as I can.

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Monday, June 11, 2007
The 'Hood
I walked around for an hour today, exploring my new area, San Francisco de Heredia. It actually reminds me quite a bit of my former neighborhood in Westerville, OH. It's being heavily developed. There are condos, townhouses, and gated communities popping up all over the place. That makes it a little bland. It's clean and quiet. There are a few spots with a magnificent view of the central valley.

Tonight it was an easy 20 minute walk to get my school. I like that. I like that alot. My roommate finishes teaching at the same time as me, so we skipped the bus and walked back together. There were enough streetlights. It seemed pretty safe. I don't think I'd do it alone, though.


Saturday, June 09, 2007
New Home
This morning, I finished packing my bags, cleaned the house, and said goodbye to my Tico family.

A $16 cab ride and here I am, at my new, shared apartment. It didn't take long to unpack. I've spent the rest of the day trying to feel comfortable here. It doesn't feel right, for some reason. I have the place to myself this weekend. One roommate is back in the States till Monday. The other roommate doesn't get here until July. The landlords are in Panama, but they left their dog (Bailey) here outside.

I've traded some comforts. I don't have a fully equipped kitchen, a fan, or a clothes dryer. But I do have cable TV and wireless Internet. My bedroom consists of a futon and a 12in TV. I've begged the landlord for a small desk and chair for the bedrooms and a coffee maker. She said okay, but that's it. I guess it's up to me to get the kitchen up to snuff. It needs some knives and a can opener, at the very least. These things would be trivial in the States, but are slightly more expensive here. I might buy a fan for my room, too. It's getting pretty stuffy, even with the window open.

I'm a little worried about how things will work when there are two other people living here.

Besides that, I'm happy to be in Heredia. I can walk to Hipermas, downtown, and my school very easily. The neighborhood is quiet. There are taxis and buses nearby.

Friday night, one of my students invited me to go out with some of his friends to a bar. I had to decline because of my long, late bus ride home. But I told him that as of next week, I'll be able to go out any time. He promised to show me the hot spots in Heredia. It'll be nice to get out. And it's a nice ego boost to know that my students like me enough to hang out with me outside of class.


Thursday, June 07, 2007
One Step Closer
I just picked up the keys to my new apartment. There are 8 of them in all! I figured out the three that get me inside. It's going to take awhile to work out the rest. Of course, I couldn't ask my absentee landlord. She just left the keys with the neighbor. I've never seen the woman. Our only contact has been via phone, email, or third-party. It's such an odd situation.

I toyed with the idea of bringing one of my duffle bags with me, trying to do a gradual move-in over a few days. But it was raining, and the thought of carrying the big ol' bag on two buses was just too much. I'm going to have to bust out the bucks and take a taxi on Saturday. That's probably the safest thing to do.

Speaking of safety...

Last week a teacher mentioned that one of her students had been mugged. Last night, one of my students said he was threatened with a knife by a kid on the street. He said he scared the kid away, but I could tell he was shaken up by the events. I know it worries me. It happened not too far from the school. And this is in Heredia, a supposedly safe area. In broad daylight.

I'm beginning to think it's not a matter of if I'll get mugged, but only when.


Wednesday, June 06, 2007
Little Fish, Little Pond
TEFL Logue linked to my post on Costa Rica Classroom about "The Lesson" and called it "a great article." Granted, it's a limited audience (EFL teachers abroad), but I'm glad to get the word out about what a wonderful (and challenging) experience teaching English in Costa Rica can be.

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Monday, June 04, 2007
Night Shift
The perfect schedule I was supposed to begin this week has been changed (naturally). Both classes are apparently caught in limbo. You see, private ESL schools work on the same principle as "just in time" manufacturing. New classes start only when there are enough students to make it profitable. The sales department provides the students, while the academic coordinator provides the teacher. And when it all comes together, there is a happy classroom filled with 6-12 smiling faces, eager to learn English.

In my case, however, the students never materialized. Being a lowly teacher, I am not privvy to details. All I know is that I was about to go from 15 hrs / week to 0 hrs / week. But then I was offered a M-F class that runs from 6pm - 9pm. Same number of hours I'd been promised, and the same type of class (highest level), but a very late schedule. Not that I'm worried about missing my bedtime. I'm more worried about walking through San Jose at around 10pm. But I didn't have much choice. I had to take it. So I start tonight.

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Friday, June 01, 2007
Trip Tidbits
A few things I left out of my trip report...
  • At the first dock we went to in Panama, there was a kid hanging out, playing "Guess the Tourist's Nationality." He had trouble pegging the guy from Israel. But he looked at me and shouted: "GRINGO!" Days later, when I was passing through again, he remembered me and made the same exclaimation. At least he said it with a smile on his face.
  • There were Germans everywhere. I heard almost as much German as Spanish while I was on the Caribe coast.
  • I checked out "Rockin' J's" while I was in Puerto Viejo. It was Lonely Planet's top choice for budget lodging. It's a freaking Disneyland for surfers. Huge. Hammocks and tents everywhere. Plenty of areas for... smoking. It was cool, in an odd kind of way. But I chose not to stay there (it was overpriced and overcrowded).
  • The police were involved twice. First, a cop boarded the bus that I took from Sixaola to Puerto Viejo (returning from Panama). He just had everyone show ID. Second, we were pulled over at a station going from Cahuita to San Jose. This time we had to leave the bus, show ID, and have our bags inspected. I opened my bag, but they didn't search it. They didn't really search anyone.
  • At one point, I overheard a girl say I looked like Jim Belushi. Or was it John Belushi? Either way, I'm sure she was talking about me. I'm just not sure what to think of it.
More pictures of Cahuita.

More Pictures of Puerto Viejo.


It's a word filled with potential and promise and hope. It's become one of my favorite words in Spanish. Granted, my vocabulary is limited, but it is a favorite all the same. I enjoy saying it. I love picturing it in my mind, letting the possibilities twist around and around. That's the joy of the word. It's so flexible. It's like an M. C. Escher illustration, whittled down to 6 letters.

Mañana is morning. It is the beginning. Unblemished potential. It is the start of the day, when everything is fresh and new. Crisp air and clear skies.

Mañana is tomorrow. It is the leftovers of today, that which could not be done and is put off. It is the definite future. It is certainty that the Sun will rise again.

Mañana is the future. Indefinite. Infinite. Some period of time beyond right now, when anything could happen. It is the timeless eventuality of a million possibilities.

I dig this fuzzy line between tomorrow morning, tomorrow in general, and the future in general. Vocabulary is a reflection of mentality. It is a beautiful culture that blurred these ideas into one word.

Orphan Annie had to bellow on stage through several choruses to get the idea across. That little redhead had nothing on Spanish linguistics. Her wide-eyed dreams could be summed up in one simple word. A word that offers a second chance. A word as sacred as any I can think of.

Hasta mañana, my friends.


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.


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.


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?


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!


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.


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.


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


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.


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:



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!


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."


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.


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!


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!"


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Saturday, March 31, 2007
The Greatest Thing
The local brand of sliced white bread is "Bimbo." This amuses me to no end. I giggle to myself every time a bread truck drives by or I see a loaf on a supermarket shelf.


Thursday, March 29, 2007
First Class
It's a common theme for my time in Costa Rica: planning is worthwhile, but plans are generally worthless.

I had prepared a fairly comprehensive lesson on job interview skills for an intermediate English class. As I was being driven to the business location, I was informed that I should speak slowly. "Uno momento," I thought to myself. I shouldn't need to really slow down for an intermediate class. This group must be a little lower. The two hours of lively discussion I had envisioned was quickly turning into a bigger challenge.

My fears were confirmed when I launched into the lesson. My warm-up questions were met largely with blank stares. Tough crowd. Time to regroup and plan a new route of attack.

I have them do some reading aloud so that I can better judge their level. See, I'm at a disadvantage here for several reasons. This is my first attempt at solo teaching. I'm nervous myself. I can't let them know that, though. I've been introduced as the "business expert." And I've never worked with these students before. I'm not their normal teacher. I won't likely ever work with them again. I'm basically a glorified subsitute at this point. Remember how you treated subs in school? Yah. So I've got that going for me, too. Plus, they've all just come off a hard day's work. They're fading fast. I'm not going to get too many chances here. But, since I had them read out loud, I have a better idea of who the strong students are. They will help me keep things moving.

The two-team competition I'd planned turned into a flop. One group did great. The other group didn't understand the task. I begin to feel like a failure.

It's time to get to the meat of the lesson. We're going to work on actual interviews. This is make-or-break time. My timing is a little off. I still have too much time to kill. Timing is a skill that comes with experience. I need a lot of work on this. But, given their level, I have a feeling that this task might take a good long time. And it turns out I'm right, for once. We get off to a rough start. I have a hard time explaining the task. But I give them some leeway and let them use a little Spanish and they all get it eventually. We're asking questions! We're interviewing each other!

Time ticks away.

With about 20 minutes left in class, I finally start to feel comfortable. We're laughing and getting into a groove. It took awhile, but we got there. I try to recap a few key points before we finish. I know they're not ready to ace an interview in English yet, but hopefully I've laid a little groundwork. I hope they got something out of it, at least. They thank me, and the men shake my hand as they leave.

I suddenly wish I were a better teacher.

Then I realize I need to find my way home. One of the students offers to drop me off in San Jose, where I can catch my bus. Once again, I am saved by the kindness of strangers.

A few minutes of driving, and I have no idea where we are. I begin to worry that I am too trusting. What if she drops me off at the wrong place? What if I can't find my bus stop? It's very dark and very late and I'm a gringo in a tie - I won't make it too far on my own. Nothing looks familiar and we've been driving for awhile. I venture a question: "Parque Central?" It's just two blocks away. Whew! I'm dropped off and away I go.

And here I am. Safe and sound. Ready to teach another day.

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