Monday, November 15, 2010

A series of very unfortunate events

This past weekend I left Costa Rica and I almost didn't get back. I am so fortunate to be home, in Costa Rica, after a terrible weekend of very unfortunate events.

As I mentioned in my last blog, Abby and I decided that we wanted to go to Bocas del Toro, Panama for our last weekend trip. We had heard only wonderful things about the island from our friends, so our expectations were pretty high. They told us that everyone is really friendly and helpful, everything is cheaper, and it was really easy to see a lot of amazing sites in one trip. Sounds awesome, right?

Since it takes a little while to reach the islands, I decided to skip my Thursday night literature class after talking with my professor so that we would be able to leave on Thursday afternoon. Well, Abby found out on Thursday morning, only hours before we were supposed to leave, that the border closes at 6:00 p.m. which is way earlier than either of us had imagined, so we had to stay the night on Thursday in Puerto Viejo, a small beach town on the Caribbean side. In hindsight, we should have never left. The town was really cute, everyone was really friendly, we listened to live music, and even made a few new friends from New Zealand and Sweden. Nonetheless, we left Puerto Viejo early Friday morning for Sixaola. We crossed the border there without any problems and a nice Panamanian man helped us with everything we needed to do before getting a taxi to Almirante. The taxi driver was also nice and once we arrived in Almirante, we took a boat taxi over to Bocas.

There were more people there to help us find a hostel and begin booking tours. After we found a cool (and cheap) hostel, it was only 11:00 – plenty of time to get lunch and “aprovechar” (take advantage of) the rest of the day and the beautiful sunny weather. After we ate lunch, we went to the tour office to tell them which beaches we wanted to see on Friday so that we could see another group of beaches the next day. They told us no problem and then said that it would cost $35 each. We already knew that tours only cost $20 per person, so we were not about to pay almost twice the cost. When we told them this, the rest of the conversation went something like this:

“Well, there are only two of you and there aren’t any more tour groups today, so it’s going to be more money.”

“That doesn’t make any sense. If there aren’t any more groups, then you guys are making money off of us that you wouldn’t have made otherwise.”

“I’ll stay with you all day and we can see these beaches and this island…”

“We don’t really care if you stay with us. We’re not paying twice the cost for less time.”

“I can offer you $30 for 2 beaches instead of 3.”

“That’s only $5 less. It’s still too much money.”

“Ask anyone else and they’ll offer you the same price.”

“We’re sure, but we’re not paying that.”

After a bit more back and forth, we settled on going to one beach for $10 that was literally only 2 minutes away. They knew that they had us because we had to do something for the rest of the day, so they could charge us whatever they wanted. Despite my frustration, I was quite proud of myself. I wouldn’t have been able to argue with someone like that a year and a half ago in English, let alone in Spanish.

Despite the hassle, the beach was beautiful and we had it almost all to ourselves. At this point, Abby and I told ourselves that we had to remain positive since we were on the beach, the weather was beautiful, we would be able to go out at night to all of the cool places our friends told us about, and tomorrow we would have an all-day tour for $20.

After spending the day at the beach, we went to dinner where our waitress was rude and the service was horrible. They “ran out” of the main ingredient in the dish that I ordered and our drinks didn’t come out until after we finished our meals. Nonetheless, we still had the rest of the night to look forward to. We went to the opening of a bar owned the same people as our hostel. There was live reggae music, lots of people, and dancing. Abby and I found a place to sit down and we were able to talk and people watch until two Panamanian men came over and started talking to us. Everything was okay at first until they had nothing else to talk about. They just stood at our sides as if they were establishing their territory. Abby and I tried to make it obvious that we were not interested but they apparently didn’t get the message. The guy at my side started whispering to me that my eyes were beautiful and that he loved them and blah blah blah. I told him that “we were going to the bathroom” and when I got up, he grabbed my hand and told me that he would wait for me. We were definitely not going back.

So we left that bar and decided to go to another that our friends had told us about. We had to take a water taxi over to it, and when we arrived there was not a soul in sight. I’m sure that the boat driver knew this, but we still had to pay him to go and come back.

Since it had been awhile, we decided it might be safe to go back to the first bar as long as we stayed on the opposite side. Indeed, everything was fine until the Panamanian spotted us and then came up right behind me and said in a threatening way, “you were coming back, huh?” Then he started touching me and calling me “baby.” I had had it. Abby and I, incredibly frustrated, left right away. I felt so disrespected and angry that some random man completely ruined our night. I miss being able to have a conversation with a man as another human being rather than an object. So far, the people were not nice and everything was not cheaper. However, we still had the next day to make everything better.

We woke up on Saturday to overcast, windy, and cold weather. Trying our hardest to be positive, we went to the tour office to make sure that there was a group for today. They told us:

“Yes, there is a group to go to these beaches.”

“But we told you yesterday that we wanted to see these beaches today.”

“Well there isn’t a group for that tour today.”

At this point, my level of optimism was really being challenged, but we were still going to see beaches so whichever ones would be fine. There was indeed a group and once our guide arrived in the boat, with a beer in his hand at 9:00 in the morning, we left the dock. About 5 minutes into the trip, it became very obvious that the waves were dangerously large due to the weather. They should have turned the boat around and given us our money back, but of course we kept going and of course they told us that the weather would clear up.

We arrived at the first beach, soaked and freezing, to discover that it was raining. We also discovered quite quickly that snorkeling would not be an option due to the waves. So, we sat inside a restaurant freezing cold until “the weather cleared up.” During this time, we met a really nice couple, a Costa Rican man and an American woman, and made the best of the situation talking with them. Hours later, our drunk “guide” told us that the weather was only going to get worse and that we would only be able to stop at the other beach for 10 minutes before going back. All of us in the group, Abby and I, our new friends, and a tican couple, basically said “screw you, we’re going back in the bus.” The guide then asked us for a tip! Furious, all of us bonded in our misery and were able to share a taxi back to the main part of the island.

After talking a cold shower, since our hostel didn’t have hot water, Abby and I spent the rest of our day in a coffee shop playing bananagrams with Scrabble pieces. This was not how I had planned to spend my weekend on the beach. Still trying to be positive, Abby and I weren’t mad at each other and we could at least eat something yummy for dinner. Typical of the Caribbean, we decided that we wanted patacones (fried plantains) for dinner. We found a restaurant that served them, and when we went to order, our waitress told us that they were out of plantains. Out of plantains! Go pick some off of a tree, they are everywhere! We at least still had dessert to look forward to. We found a restaurant with a huge list of reasonably-priced desserts – brownie with ice cream, chocolate mousse, crepes. We told the waitress that we only wanted dessert and she said:

“Well, we don’t have everything.”

Holding our breaths, “Well, what do you have?”

“We have brownie. Oh, and pineapple cake.”

“You don’t have any ice cream?!”


First of all, they had two pages of desserts and almost all of them contained ice cream! Second of all, pineapple cake wasn’t even on the menu. At this point, it was obvious that nothing was going to go right, but at least we would be able to get back to Costa Rica the next day.

We woke up on Sunday morning, checked out of the hostel, met our new friends to take the boat taxi, take a land taxi to Changinola where we would take a direct bus across the border to San José. As we’re eating breakfast there, I realize that my passport was not where I last put it. In fact, it was not anywhere. This could not be happening, but it was.

I start freaking out, crying, pacing, having no idea what to do. I call my parents (as if they would be able to do anything) and finally start to calm down enough to be able to think where I last used my passport. It didn’t make sense that someone would have stolen it because they didn’t take anything else and I was sure that I put it away when we crossed the border. Thank God that Abby remembered that we had to show our passports when we checked into the hostel. This was where it was! The gorgeous and exotic “Venus” (she would have a name like that) “forgot” to give back my passport. When I called the hostel, she said, “Oh, thank goodness you called me, I’ve been looking for you all weekend!” Now, I am not trying to take any blame away from myself for not realizing that she didn’t give me my passport back, but she saw me a million times that weekend! Plus, she is the businesswomen and has the responsibility to take care of customers, especially when it comes to giving back their passports.

In my distress, the Panamanian bus driver ensured me that I would be able to cross the border with the official copies of my passport and my paper that proves that I have a visa. This way, Venus could send me my passport and I could still take the bus. Obviously, I was desperate to get out of Panama and back home to Costa Rica.

Feeling better, we get on the bus and eventually made it to the border. I start to get nervous, but ensure myself that everything is going to be okay. Even as there are American hippie girls walking around barefoot, a German girl passing out and then vomiting all over the street because of alcohol poisoning, a Spanish woman arguing with the officials, and everyone not knowing where we were supposed to be waiting in line, I still tried to tell myself that everything was going to be okay. When it is my turn, the Panamanian official tells me that she can’t do anything for me, so I have to see what the Costa Rican side says. Already across the border, I wanted to leave Panama so badly that I seriously thought about not going up to the counter and just slipping through because it would not have been very hard. But I couldn’t do it. The tican man with the American woman helped me talk to the Costa Rican official about my dilemma. We told him that someone stole my passport, and my money, because we thought that it would have a better chance of getting me through. We talked and talked and talked, but there was no way he was going to let me pass. He told me that I had to go to Panama City (which is REALLY far away from where I was) to make a report at their Embassy. When my tican friend asked how I was supposed to do this without any money, he basically just shrugged his shoulders and said something like “it’s not my problem.” Sobbing all over again, Abby and I cross back over to the Panama side and while we’re walking in our misery, the tican’s girlfriend runs after us because she realizes we left our bags on the bus. She tells us not to worry: she and her boyfriend will take care of them and then they will come pick us up in San José whatever time we get back to Costa Rica. We thank her profusely and keep trudging along.

When I tell the Panamanian official what happened, she said “Qué injusto!” At least someone had sympathy for me. Next we toke a taxi all the way back to Almirante where I picked up my passport at the water taxi boat dock (I had to pay them of course for delivering it) and then we took a taxi all the way back to Sixaola where we finally crossed the border. We ate lunch there and waited to take the 3:00 bus to San José. Fortunately, we didn’t have any more surprises on the bus ride, our friends came and picked us up with our suitcases, and I finally got back to Heredia. When we arrived at my house, I really did feel like I was coming home and could not wait to be greeted by my mom. Sure enough, Claudia was standing at the door ready to give me a big hug. I was so incredibly thankful to be in my house with my family. If nothing else, this entire experience made me love Costa Rica even more and truly realize how much I have become a part of my tican family. I’m on the verge of tears just writing this, thinking about the fact that I will leave them in just one week…

To say the least, I had an adventurous weekend and have added to my list another life experience. Always trying to find the positives:

1) 1) Abby and I strengthened our friendship

2) 2) We made new friends

3) 3) I got my passport stamped

4) 4) I got to go the beach at least one day

5) 5) My passport wasn’t stolen and I got back to Costa Rica on Sunday

6) 6) I had a family and a home waiting to greet me

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Sorry, I'm on "tican time"

Ahhhh...I am SO behind on blogging! I'm sorry that I have been incredibly absent lately. I'm trying to take advantage of the rest of my time here while keeping up with school and blogging keeps getting put on the back burner. I cannot believe that it is already November! My parents will be here on the 26th and I will be back in the U.S. in just over a month. For now, however, I am just trying to enjoy my time here by living in the moment because the time has already gone by quickly enough. So that I can hopefully get back on track, I'll give you a few highlights since the last time I wrote.

1) I learned how to surf from my Hawaiian friend, Caitlin, when I took a trip to the Pacific coast in Guanacaste.

2) I went on a class trip to Perez in the south near the Panama border, which was...interesting to say the least.

3) I zip-lined over the canopy in Monteverde, where I also saw a sloth (finally!) and a tarantula in the wild.

4) I have begun to learn choreography in my dance class for our public performance on November 25th.

5) With the help of my mama tica, I dressed up as a Greek Goddess for a Halloween party.

Until my parents come, I have a lot of school work - final projects, papers, and exams - plus just trying to enjoy the rest of my time here with my family and all of the friends I have made. I'm staying in Heredia this coming weekend, but I'm planning on going to Bocas del Toro (islands just across the border with Panama) the weekend on the 12th and the weekend after that is our last ISEP excursion.

For this last month, I will do my best to update more regularly. Hasta pronto!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Mi Cumpleaños de 21

Just a few days ago I spent my first birthday abroad, which, ironically, was my 21st since I was legal to drink in Costa Rica 4 years ago. I actually didn't even drink any alcohol, but that didn't make it any less special.

During my breakfast, Claudia serenaded me with a Spanish birthday song and then gave me a big hug. Mariela made a little birthday sign for my door and everyone in the house wished me a happy birthday. When I got to school, everyone in my Spanish class wished me a happy birthday, Abby made me brownies, and Caitlin gave me a cute little flower for my hair. After class, my friends Abby, Callie, and Holly went with me out to lunch to an Italian restaurant close to campus and then we went to our favorite smoothie place. We go there so often that we have made friends with the smoothie makers and they gave me a free birthday smoothie :) And in between I got a piece of chocolate cake at our favorite bakery. My excuse for all the sweets was "it's my birthday."

After lunch, I just came home and relaxed until Mariela came to pick me up at 6 to go to Andrea's house. Since Jorge, Andrea's husband, has the same birthday as mine, my family planned to have a party for the two of us at Andrea's house. So, Andrés drove the two of us and my host cousin, Laurie, out to her house. Claudia had already gone over earlier with Sofia to help make dinner and when we got there, Jorge's family members (his parents, sister, brother-in-law, and nephew) were there as well. It was nice meeting new people and spending time talking with my family.

Claudia made the famous "sopa azteca" which has been served at every single birthday celebration since I've been here. I'm not complaining, however, because I love it. After that, we had some type of chicken casserole with salad, which was equally as tasty. Later on, everyone sang "happy birthday" to me and Jorge and I got to blow out my own candles. After cake and some more socializing, we left for home around 10:30.

I really enjoyed my birthday and felt very loved by my host family. I really appreciated their thought in doing something for my birthday, and it reminded me even more of how hard it is going to be to say goodbye in just a little bit more than a month... I'm not quite ready to think about that, so I'll tell you about the continuation of my birthday on Thursday.

Luckily, I didn't have my usual Thursday morning class so I got to sleep in, but I did have my night class. Afterwards, since I didn't really get to celebrate my 21st the traditional way, I went out with Callie and Abby. They had planned to pick me up in a taxi, but when I went out to meet them, they were just standing there by themselves. Once I let them inside, I found out that they made a cake for me and bought a "21" candle. Once again, I felt overwhelmed by all the love and blessings I have received here and just very fortunate that I have family and friends who care about me in Costa Rica. After more cake, we went to a Spanish tapas bar near my house that has become one of our new favorites. It has a very cute and calming atmosphere with food impressively similar to Spain and sangria :) The three of us shared sangria over great conversation and then finished the night with a Corona. It was a tame but perfect celebration (with alcohol) for my 21st. Although it doesn't matter here, I am glad that I can say that I at least had my first drink being 21, even though it was in Costa Rica. This just means that I get to celebrate a second time when I go home to the U.S. :)

All in all, it was a very nice birthday and it will certainly be one that I will remember.

Monday, October 4, 2010


I hate to start off every time with "sorry I have written in a while," but I really am. I wish I had the time to update my blog every day, but it's impossible due to my perfectionism need to include every single detail. I could update much more often if I didn't write so much, but I just cannot make myself write less. Even when I tell myself, "ok, make this a quick blog," it ends up just as long as the rest. I would like to think that a detailed but less frequent update is more enjoyable to read than a more frequent but less detailed update. Hopefully you agree. Side note: this little introduction is a perfect example of why my blogs end up being so long.

So getting to the stuff that you actually care about, this past week was one of the most stressful I have experienced here. Even this stress, however, is nothing compared to the anxiety I normally face at Miami. Nonetheless, it shook me up a bit since I've become quite accustomed to living the laid-back and relaxed "pura vida." Last Sunday I had one of the days when you get stressed out about one thing and then can't stop thinking about it until it is solved. I suddenly felt overwhelmed about all of the things that I need to apply for back in the states while I am still here. For the past week I have been sending tons of e-mails and researching online to try to sort things out, but I think that I have it under control now. Aside from all of this business, I had 2 exams last week, one of which I was worried would be really hard, and as for the other, I had no idea what it was going to test. It turned out that I was very well-prepared for the first exam and the second wasn't as vague and difficult as I had expected. I was able to relax a little bit after wards and start getting excited for my trip this past weekend :)

Caitlin, Abby, and I had been planning to go somewhere last weekend for a couple weeks, but where we ended up going, Tortuguero, was a bit of a last minute decision, but it worked out perfectly. Tortuguero, one of Costa Rica's national parks, is on the Caribbean side of the country near the Nicaraguan border. Its name literally means "land of the turtles" because it is home to several species of sea turtles that come to shore between the months of July and November to lay their eggs. Unlike the tourist locations throughout the rest of the country, Tortuguero is in its "high season" right now because many people come to see the turtles laying their eggs, and this is exactly why we decided to go.

Since sea turtles are an endangered species, the government forbade the construction of any direct roads to Tortuguero when the park was founded during the 1970s. As a result, it takes a little bit of work to get there. I woke up at 4 a.m. on Friday morning so that we could make it to the bus terminal by 5 a.m. We were practically the first ones to arrive at the bus station, which was a good thing because we found out that the transportation (as usual) was different than what we had read. Our bus left for Cariari at 6:30 and we arrived at about 8:30 to find out that we had to wait until 11:30 for the bus to come to take us to Pavona. We had quite a bit of waiting to do, but we met two British girls who had been backpacking throughout Central America for 2 months and were in the last week of their trip. We had fun talking to them and before we knew it we were on the next bus, which was much less comfortable and much more crowded. That bus lasted about an hour and a half and once we got to Pavona, we took a boat to Tortuguero. I felt as if I was on the "African Queen" as we journeyed through marshes and canals surrounded by lush vegetation. After about an hour, we finally entered the park parameters and made it to the tiny town of Tortuguero, home to about 400 inhabitants. What struck me about Tortuguero is that although it is a tourist destination, it didn't feel touristy in the least bit. The livelihood of this town is completely dependent upon tourism: everyone either works as a tour guide, in a restaurant, in a souvenir shop, or a lodge. As we made our way to our hostel, I was literally in the townspeoples' backyards feeling as if I had been invited to each and every one of their homes. This in it of itself was a very comforting and interesting experience.

On our way to Tortuguero, an inhabitant of the town, Ricardo, befriended us in order to, as we discovered later, convince us to come on his tours. He had his act down: he helped us with our bags, introduced us to his adorable son, escorted us to our hostel, and bought us the most delicious homemade bread I have ever eaten in my entire life. Since it is necessary to see the park with a tour guide and his prices were comparable to the other tour prices I had read about in my guide book, we didn't see any reason not to take up this nice man's offer. So, as soon as we arrived, we already had a turtle tour booked for that night and a canoe tour booked for the following morning.

The rest of our Friday before the turtle tour at 7:30 consisted of checking into our hostel, getting some lunch and exploring the town a bit, cooling off on the beach, napping, and coffee (I have come so accustomed to daily 4:30 coffee that I don't think I am going to be able to break the habit when I come back to the U.S.) We met with our guide, Roberto (Ricardo's seemed as if everyone is somehow related in Tortuguero), at 7:30 so that he could explain the guidelines to our group before we went to the beach. Our group in it of itself was quite interesting: a very friendly couple from Holland; a young couple, one from L.A. and the other from New York, who do voices for cartoons and video games (the man is the voice for Leonardo in Ninja Turtles!); our new British friends, and us. We had to wear dark clothes and were not allowed to use white lights so that we would not disturb the nesting process. Almost as soon as we got to the beach, Roberto spotted a turtle already laying her eggs. Since the mother turtles go into a "trance" while laying their eggs, Roberto was able to pull back her back flippers so that we could perfectly see the entire process. I watched from only a few feet away as a sea turtle laid egg after egg after egg underneath a full moon on the Caribbean Sea...I promise that I am not making this up. It was incredible. After she finished laying her eggs, she covered up the nest and camouflaged herself by covering herself in sand using her back flippers. We walked a little bit further down the beach to wait for her to come out to sea, but while we sat there, we were lucky enough to sea another turtle coming out from the sea to lay her eggs. A little later, our first turtle made her way out to the sea and we followed right behind her the entire way.

After seeing this amazing process, I now feel more attached to sea turtles and obligated to advocate for their protection as an endangered species. I knew that it was difficult for the baby turtles to make it out to sea on their own, but I didn't realize that only 1-2 of 1,000 actually survive! These poor little creatures face so many dangers as soon as they're born, if they even make it out of the shell. After the mother lays her eggs and covers the nest, it is quite likely that other animals - dogs, raccoons, birds, etc. - will sniff out the nest, dig up the eggs, and then eat them. If the eggs go unharmed until they are ready to hatch, they face the same dangers as they did inside their shells. And even if they can survive the long trek from the beach to the ocean, birds can swoop down and eat them or fish can gobble them right up. What a life!

Already off to a great start, we woke up in the "madrugada" (early early morning) to meet Ricardo for our canoe tour. The six of us - Caitlin, Abby, me, Ricardo, and our British friends (their names are Hannah and Lucia by the way) - headed off to see some wildlife. Roberto was a great guide. He was funny, knowledgeable, and had an amazing eye. With all of their camouflage tricks, I cannot believe that he spotted so many animals. We saw different species of iguanas, lizards (one of which is called the "Jesus Christ Lizard" because it can run on water), tucans, herons, parrots, a caiman (a bit smaller than an alligator), and spider monkeys. I was especially excited about the monkey, since I had not yet seen that species. There are 4 in Costa Rica and I have seen the white-faced capuccin and spider, so now I need to find a howler monkey and a squirrel monkey.

After our canoe tour, we ate breakfast with the British girls and then went for a walk in the land portion of the park. Most of the park consists of the 20 mile-long beach and the canals, so there wasn't too much to see in the forest, although we spotted more spider monkeys and lots of spiders, literally. They were the sort that I have already seen quite frequently, but I have never seen so many all at once. They are huge and just hang out right in the middle of their enormous webs. The strange thing is that they don't even phase me at this point. I was pretty freaked out, however, when I found a cockroach in my suitcase later that night.

Since we woke up so early, we finished all of our exploring around 12:30, so we had the rest of the day to just relax. We enjoyed more delicious Caribbean food with our British friends for both lunch and dinner. In between, we had coffee of course and we went to the same place we went to on Friday because we were hooked on the banana bread we tried the first time. The owner recognized us from the day before and since we were the only customers inside, she sat down and talked with us. We ended up talking to her for an hour. Her name is Dorling and she is Nicaraguan just like the other 85% of the people who live in Tortuguero, but she has lived in Costa Rica for 12 years. I'm not sure how we even got on the topic, but we started talking about the history of Costa Rica. I could tell that Abby and Caitlin were thinking the same thing as me: wow, this woman is really intelligent...why is she working in a coffee shop? I'm not sure about her past, but we found out that she writes stories about the history of Central America, both fact and fiction. While talking to her, I had one of those moments that come every once in a while when I suddenly realize, wow this is all happening in Spanish. It was really nice talking to her and we made plans to stop by on Sunday morning before we left to eat some more of her wonderful banana bread.

We then met Lucia and Hannah for dinner at a restaurant that served Caribbean food. It was one of the best meals I have had here yet. I ate "rice and beans" with coconut milk, the most flavorful and tender roast chicken, and a variety of typical Costa Rican vegetables. Mmm, I am getting hungry just thinking about it. It was certainly a pleasant ending to a great weekend. I can now check off on my list that I have been to the Caribbean side of the country and seen turtles up close and personal. I am planning my next trip to the opposite side of the country in Guanacaste, "si Dios quiere" (if God wants), as the ticans would say.

Monday, September 13, 2010


I definitely have some catching up to do. I meant to post over a week ago, but my life here has been quite busy lately! Almost at the half-way point (it's going by too quickly!), my class work is a bit heavy right now, and on top of that, my weekends have been pretty busy lately as well. I'm realizing, however, that my increased business is a sign of my increased integration into the culture and adaptation to my new country. I have made the transition between feeling like a visitor and feeling like a resident.

Nonetheless, I have to be a bit of a tourist sometimes because I want to see as much of this beautiful country as possible. During the past two weekends, I went on day trips to some sites nearby. I'll start off with Turrialba. In my guidebook (that's not touristy or anything) Turrialba is one of the top destinations in Costa Rica for its world famous white water rafting. Turrialba is home of the Pacuare River, one of National Geographic's top 5 most beautiful rivers in the world and the site for next year's white water rafting world big deal. Needless to say, my expectations were pretty high and when we finally got on the river, I was certainly not disappointed. I felt as if I was in Jurassic Park or one of the movies that you watch and think "this place can't actually exist in real life." Costa Rica is one of these places and it does indeed exist. I was able to enjoy the beautiful scenery around me when I wasn't fearful for my life! I had never been white water rafting before, although I had wanted to for quite some time, but I am proud to say that Costa Rica was my first experience since it seems like class 3 to 4 rapids here might be more like 5 to 6 in the U.S. Some of my friends had been rafting before, but said that they had never done anything quite like this. Let's just say that I got the full white water rafting experience.

Early on in the first group of more difficult rapids, I some how managed to be the first person to fall out of the raft. I'm really not even sure how it happened, but before I knew it I was in the water. My first instinct was to swim, but then I remembered the proper position is to float on your back. So I just had to "float" amongst the rapids until our guide could pull me out of the water. As I was floating along, I hit a large rock very hard in no other place than my butt...remember my waterfall jumping experience? My first thought was, "no, not my tailbone again!" Once I was back in the boat safely, I started to feel the large and painful bruise forming on my backside. Luckily, about a week and a half later, it seems that it was only a bruise and did not affect my already delicate tailbone.

A bit shaken up after that, I collected myself and kept rowing along with my team. Later on, we got to the most difficult rapids of the day. On one particularly challenging group, I could tell that things were not going well...our guide, Mario, was telling us to row harder, but the rapids were too big, so he told us to "get down!" This command means that everyone has to get down inside the raft and basically just hope that we get over the rapids smoothly. We kept going under water so much that I didn't realize that our entire raft had flipped until I was being carried down the river away from everyone else. I looked back and everyone, including Mario, was in the water. The rapids kept pulling me under water over and over again and I nearly crashed into rocks several times. The scariest part was that there was nothing I could do other than wait. Before I knew it I felt two hands on the shoulders of my life jacket and Mario pulled me back into the raft. We got everyone else back in safely, although quite wet and a bit freaked out. What an adrenaline rush! All of us were determined not to fall out of the raft after that experience, and we didn't "por dicha!"

Although that ranked as one of the most frightening experiences of my 20 years, I would do it again in a heartbeat. I loved it! I had a complete blast and already can't wait to do it again.

This past weekend was a bit less thrilling but equally as beautiful. My exchange program took all of us to the Poas Volcano which is somewhat nearby Heredia. Poas is one of the active volcanoes in Costa Rica and it used to be the biggest crater in the entire world! When we arrived at the park, I was surprised by cold it was, but I have to say that it felt quite refreshing and reminded me of the fall that I am going to miss in Ohio :( I loved breathing in the fresh, crisp, cool air as we hiked up to the crater; however, as the altitude increased and we got closer to the sulfuric gas, it became a bit harder to breath. Once we got there, I was amazed. The view was incredible and I felt the same way as when I am in the mountains: free and close to God. Normally you can see the entire crater, but the volcano was so active that we cold only see one side because the other was covered by all of the gas. After plenty of pictures, we hiked to the "laguna" (lake). The lake was equally as breathtaking, with its vastness and turquoise blue color. I had to keep reminding myself that what I was seeing was real.

After our visit to Poas, we went to another attraction nearby that is called "La Paz Waterfall Gardens." The best way I can describe it is all of Costa Rica contained within one park. I absolutely loved it! It is a lodge/hotel that I would love to stay at some day when I am rich and famous, but aside from the hotel, it is an outdoor park with some covered areas. It is difficult to describe because I have never seen anything quite like it, but I'll try. Its main attraction is the waterfalls that you have to hike through the forest to see. On the way to the waterfalls, are several conservatories and areas where you can observe hummingbirds, butterflies, birds, monkeys, frogs, snakes and orchids. In the bird area there is a separate room for the tucans and when we passed through it there was a worker inside who put the tucans on our shoulders and arms, so I had a live tucan perched right next to my face. Everything inside the park was incredibly beautiful, lush, and green. Throughout the entire day I was thinking, "this has to be one of the most beautiful places in the world."

In addition to its landscapes, the people and culture of Costa Rica are beautiful as well. I am falling more in love with all of the customs and traditions here everyday as well as the incredibly friendly ticos. I am making more tico friends in my classes and am starting to recognize faces around campus. I had some ticos in one of my classes ask me if I want to be in their group rather than the other way around and I even got invited to a birthday party this Friday :) I now understand why so many Americans come here and never leave, but don't worry, I'll be back.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


I gave my blog a make-over, I hope you like it. Carlos told me that it was quite difficult to read white text against a dark background, but I didn't realize this since I create my posts in a different view than what all of you see. When a tried to read it myself, I could definitely see that Carlos "tiene razon" (he's right). Besides, I think that this is more reflective of Costa Rican culture. Plus, my favorite color is orange.

I know that I have said this before, but I feel more and more a part of my tican family every day. On Monday morning, for example, I came back from the gym like I do every morning to eat breakfast and get ready to go to class. I unlocked the gate and then went to open the door, but it was locked, which is always a sign that no one is home. My first thought was, "shoot, now I'm going to have to buy lunch." On Mondays and Wednesdays, I stay on campus for lunch since I have class at 1 on Monday and I have my dance class at 4:30 on Wednesdays. I usually have to remind Claudia that today is "todo el dia en la U," so I would appreciate it very much if I could have a lunch "para llevar." Well, I didn't get a chance to remind her that morning since she was already gone, but as soon as I walked in I saw a lunch on the kitchen counter...with a little container of rice pudding for dessert. I was so excited that I said "awww" out loud.

I slept in a little bit on Sunday morning because I was out late on Saturday night (I'll get to that. Sorry, I'm working backwards.) and because we had already gone to church Saturday evening. After a typical Sunday breakfast of gallo pinto, eggs, bacon, platanos maduros (sweet fried plantains: by far my favorite food in Costa Rica), coffee, and fruit, my family asked me, "do you have plans today?" I had planned to work on a project with Abby that was due the following day, similar to last Sunday, but I'm starting to learn that it is not a good idea to make plans on Sunday because my family will most likely tell me that we are going somewhere on Sunday morning. This is exactly what happened.

Andrea, my oldest host sister who is married and lives in a different house, invited us over. She lives in Moravia, which is part of San José and is about 25 minutes away from my house in Heredia. I had guessed that Andrea and her husband Jorge, a doctor, were somewhat well-off, and when I saw their house I knew that my assumptions were correct. From the outside, the first thing that I noticed was that they live in a gated community, so they don't have a gate in front of their house like all of the houses in Heredia. I then noticed its resemblance to an American home: instead of a tin roof, it has shingles; it has a visible front door; there are potted plants; and it has an attached garage. The inside was beautiful with high ceilings, a chandalier, a fire place (I know, they need fire places in Costa Rica? I'm not sure that they do, but it gets quite cold at their house because it is closer to the mountains), big glass windows, a kitchen with modern appliances, and an upstairs. Already, something that would be so normal in the U.S. seemed so different and impressive to me here in Costa Rica. Andrea's house is certainly not typical in Costa Rica, even within her neighborhood. While she studied in Canada and visited the U.S., she became fond of the style of houses there, so when they had their house built, she knew that she wanted it to be an "American" home. We spent the entire day and evening there just relaxing, talking, and eating. I truly felt like a part of the family that day and as if I was spending time in one of our family friend's homes with my parents. Everything seemed pleasantly familiar.

I'm sure that all of you are dying to know why I was out late on Saturday night. Don't worry, I didn't do anything crazy, but I did have a lot of fun! Mariela took me dancing with Andrés, her cousin and some of his friends. It was the first real test of my dancing skills, and I thought that I did pretty well. I could do the basic steps, and my partners were patient enough with me to teach me some more complicated moves. My favorite part was watching everyone else dance - they are all so good! I am definitely even more motivated to learn how to dance to the point that I am already thinking about taking a dance class when I get back to the U.S.

After the dancing with Mariela, Andrea's house, and all of the little things before and in between, I have felt very "chineada" lately. "Chinear" is a verb that I think might be unique to Costa Rica (its definitely not in a normal Spanish dictionary) that has its roots in a tiny bit of racism, or perhaps xenophobia. The Chinese population in Costa Rica has been known for coddling their babies in a protective, skeptical kind of way. Hence, chinear (note the similarity to "Chinese") means to care for/spoil in a positive way. If someone is chineado/a, he/she is loved/cared for/spoiled. So, I have felt chineada by my tican family and I like it :).

In other news, I can't believe that today is already the first of September! It marks the beginning of the celebrations for Costa Rica's Independence Day, which is on September 15th. We don't have class that day, so I will be able to partake in all of the festivities. Before then, I already have plans for this weekend and the following with plenty of school work in between. This Saturday I am going white water rafting in Turrialba and the next weekend I am going to the Poas Volcano, so I will have exciting things to write about very soon. I'll check in again soon, chao!

Monday, August 16, 2010

They eat Kentucky Fried Chicken in Costa Rica?

Oh blog how I have missed you. I'm sorry that I have been slacking on my updates lately...I've been really busy with my classes and I feel so far behind now that I am not quite sure where to start. I can't retell everything that has happened in "mi pura vida" since my last post, so I apologize in advance for the discontinuity, perhaps, of this post.

I suppose a good place to start is explaining why I haven't written in a while. I can't say that the quantity of school work here is as much as it would be if I were at Miami right now (classes started today without me...kind of sad), but I still keep busy. I have had two group projects in the past couple weeks, one of which I presented on Thursday and the other I am going to present this Wednesday. I'll spare the details of the first project to save energy for more exciting news, but I will tell you a bit about the project that I am still working on right now. It is for my Spanish class and each group has a theme related to Costa Rican culture. Caitlin, Abby, and I "got stuck" with "Ritmos Bailables" (Dance Rhythms) because we were the only people who weren't entirely intimidated by the dancing aspect of the theme. We don't have to dance in front of the class, but given that Caitlin and I are both in a dance class, we have decided to do just that. I interviewed our dance instructor, Argerie, for my part of the project and she has agreed to come to class on Wednesday to give everyone a little lesson :) The project turned out to be more work than we had expected, but I'm having fun with it. Also classes-related, I have gotten back some of my first graded works and have done quite well. I have received over 100% on both of my quizzes for my literature class, thanks to extra credit questions, and I got an A on my first analysis for that class as well. I'm not sure how I did on my first presentation, but the professor seemed to like it. It's hard to tell, however, if other students and professors are just charmed/amused by us gringos or actually think we know what we're talking about. When Callie and I got up in front of the class to give our presentation, everyone paid a lot more attention to us than they did to the other groups and I even made them laugh a few times. I hate to admit it, but we have an automatic advantage as cute American females here in Costa Rica.

Outside of class, I haven't done anything incredibly exciting...I've been in Heredia for the past 3 weekends in a row, so I am definitely ready to travel again. We're planning to go somewhere this weekend...I'll tell you about it once I know exactly where we're going. I actually was quite bored and frustrated last weekend after several attempts to do something other than go to the mall to see a movie failed. This weekend, however, was much more successful. The whole weekend was fun, but I'll just give you the highlights, once again to save my energy. On Saturday night Callie, Abby, Caitlin, and I went to see a Russian ballet (El Ballet de Kiev) in San José. We bought the cheapest seats possible in the gallery, but little did we know that we would have to go down another street outside of the main building through this somewhat shady side door and then climb up a whole bunch of stairs to find benches rather than seats. All we could do was laugh as we awkwardly climbed up to our seats, all wearing dresses. The ballet itself was wonderful. Rather than its own story, it was a selection of pieces from different ballets including Don Quijote, Romeo and Juliet, the Nutcracker, and Swan Lake. It was nice to finally do something a bit out of the ordinary.

Sunday was enjoyable as well. I went to Escazu, the place I had wanted to go for 2 weekends in a row, with Claudia, Silvia, Mariela, and her boyfriend Andrés. In case you were wondering about the kids, they spent the day with their dad on Sunday (it was nice to have a little break). Escazu is known as a wealthy area throughout the whole country...the U.S. Ambassador lives there, no big deal. The entire day was really nice because I was able to talk a lot of Spanish, bond with my family, and learn about a new area of Costa Rica. It was worth getting barely any homework done, even though I am paying for it now.

To go back in time a week (I warned you about the discontinuity), last Sunday was "El Dia de la Madre," a.k.a. Mother's Day. Being a predominantly Catholic country, Costa Rica celebrates Mother's Day on August 15th because it is the same day as the Ascension of the Virgen Mary and Mary is the idyllic mother figure. The way Costa Ricans celebrate the day is similar to how we celebrate it in the U.S. with a few differences. While it is common to go out to eat on Mother's Day in the U.S., I wouldn't say that it is the end all be all, but in Costa Rica, it is the thing to do. Since Costa Rica, like all of Latin America, is such a patriarchal society, I think that it is so popular to go out to restaurants because a) mothers don't want to cook on their day and b) very very few men know how to cook (if there are men in the house). Since I live in a house of all women and none of them wanted to spend their day doing what they do every day, they decided to go out for lunch somewhat at the last minute. Because of the kids, it is difficult to go to a restaurant together and if you're going to go out to eat on Mother's Day, you absolutely have to have a reservation. When my family told me that we were going out to eat on Sunday morning, they had already told me about all the hype and I knew that we didn't have a reservation anywhere so I wasn't sure where we were going to go. It wasn't until we pulled into the parking lot of KFC that I knew where we would celebrate Mother's Day. Yes, that's right - KFC. I have never even eaten at a KFC in the U.S., nor have I ever been tempted to; and yet, here I was at KFC in Costa Rica on Mother's Day. Although I was looking forward to my first eating out experience in Costa Rica, I wasn't so much disappointed as I was uncomfortable and a bit disturbed. First of all, there were men helping people park their cars and escorting people without umbrellas (since it was raining, no surprise there) to the door almost like a vallet service at a fancy restaurant. Once we got inside the restaurant, there were so many people that we had to wait to sit down at a table. Try to imagine the inside of a typical fast food restaurant, packed with people chowing down on buckets of fried chicken, workers running in and out of the kitchen to clean off tables, help people find tables, take people's orders, etc. etc., and then me (the only white person) standing in the middle of all that chaos thinking, "my country created this mess." I can't quite explain my level of discomfort at that moment, but it was quite profound. I found it appalling, in all honesty, that a KFC was so packed with people on Mother's Day in a country other than the U.S. While I'm not a huge fan of fast food restaurants in the U.S., I have never felt this way at home, but here, in my current home, it just did not feel right at all. I had encountered a perfect example of why many people criticize globalization as "Americanization" and I suppose that it scared me a little bit. I suddenly felt as if my country was polluting the rest of the world. During lunch that day, I was not proud of the U.S.

Since then, I have had time to think and calm down a little bit. I've realized that the U.S. can put McDonald's all over the world, but will never be able to transform the cultures of other countries through fast food. The reason why KFC was so crowded, other than the whole Mother's Day thing, is because the concept of "fast" food isn't all that important to ticans. On any given day, the dining rooms of all fast food restaurants are crowded because, whether it's fast food or not, ticans still take time to actually eat sitting down. The concept of eating food in the car on the go isn't all that appealing, nor necessary, to a society that takes the time to eat together with family and friends during every meal. They even take the time to sit down and drink coffee during the late afternoon..."to go" cups are difficult to come by.

While I was a bit annoyed with America on this particular Sunday, living in foreign countries has made me incredibly proud to be an American, and during all of my questioning, analyzing, and rationalizing, I encountered another question: of all the places I could have been born in this world, how did I become an American? Why am I a citizen of the wealthiest and most developed nation in the world? Costa Rica is the most developed country of Central America and one of the most developed in all of Latin America, and yet trash and dog poop lines the streets of Heredia; the bridge near my house that collapsed during the first week I was here has not been touched; stray dogs are everywhere; toilet paper is often not provided in public restrooms; and hot water is a luxury. I, on the other hand, live in a country where Internet is a necessity; 10 year-olds own iPods and cell phones; and there is enough water to take hour long hot showers and to keep our lawns green (the mere fact that we even have lawns). Why am I so privileged? It's no wonder that many people around the world resent many ways, we're spoiled brats. This isn't a criticism, it's just the truth. And it isn't until I stepped outside of what I have recognized as normal my entire life, that I realized that my life in the U.S. is incredibly abnormal compared to the lives of other people all around the world. I'm not sure how to conclude this thought because the concept fascinates me, but it is this fascination that has driven and continues to drive my aspiration to have a career through which I will work with people from other countries who have different cultures and speak different languages. After all, the world extends quite a bit beyond the borders of the U.S.

Sorry if I have lost any of you with my rambling. I will try to have a more thematic update next time. Until then, pura vida!