Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A man a plan, a canal that's really far away...

Soooo that week did end up being pretty good. Anna's brother and his girlfriend came for a nice dinner with Tita, I went out with a group from school one night, I did decently on my final, and I made it to all but one of my Skype dates (sorry, Leah!!!!!).

Still, the weekend was even better!

A friend--Sharifa--and I went to Bocas del Toro on the Caribbean side of Panama, and it was my favorite place yet! There were sooooo many interesting things about it, I don't know how I'll be able to describe them all! I hope you can soooort of see how cool it was from my descriptions, though!

To begin with, in order to get to Panama at the Sixaola border bridge where we crossed, you have to be ready to go over the line by 5 pm. Since it is a 5+ hour drive from the San José bus-stop and we have class until 12 in the afternoon, you can see how it really couldn't be done in a day. For this we decided going on a three day weekend, leaving that Friday afternoon and staying in Puerto Viejo again, would be the best bet.

Commence good omen number one. Following a slightly uncomfortable discussion with Rebecca Dos about the, er, "non-clicking" we had between us, there was a newfound simplicity and understanding to our relationship that really made the Puerto Viejo trip more enjoyable than I might have hoped. She decided she would not accompany us to Panama, rather stay in Puerto Viejo and go to other nearby beaches and jungles by herself. I worried a bit about this, but following our night in the town, and recalling her longing for independence she'd expressed earlier anyway, I decided it wasn't so bad. And it ended up not being--she had a great time, and if I'm completely honest, I think I was able to appreciate Bocas much more being without her.

If you recall, the last time we went to Puerto Viejo it rained all the livelong day. We didn't go out at night because it was pouring too much. This time was the opposite. There were tons of stars, and we didn't stay in the cool hostel, so we were lucky to not have the rain--otherwise there'd have been nothing to do at all. Instead we walked around, got some pizza, tried the weird Costa Rican tradition of mixing beer with Sprite, and got Sharifa a hair wrap from another Rasta woman and her friend. A little later we found some ice cream, went dancing briefly, and turned in by about 11:15, since the bus to Sixaola, the border, was to leave at 6 am the next day (actually left at 6:30, we were confused...I'm just writing that so that if anyone tries to go there, they don't have the same frustration :)).

The next morning we watched the weird buzzard things hop around like dinosaurs, complete owners of the land, and waited for the bus with the ocean wooshing in and out about 30 feet behind us. I got a video, but it's a little less creepy on the screen than in real life. Anyway, our bus arrived, and we settled in, not having eaten any breakfast, for we'd cross the border in an hour and a half, we thought, and everything is cheaper in Panama. We opened the windows since it was already hot, and I realized that Costa Rica smells just like New York where my granparents live. It has the same humidity, the same ocassional scent of water on a summer road, and even very rarely a wafting of horse smells. That was a nice sentiment to have occur as I watched the palm trees and banana plantations go bye at 40 km per hour. Interesting, too, since I was bearing in mind these same grandparents had lived in Panama at one point of their lives. (Yes, Joel, we know you did, too. I'm sure you'll recognize some of the things in the pictures.)

Well the bridge that is the border was a little surprising. It was a one-lane old thing made of wooden planks and a train track, with a narrow sidewalk running down half of one-side of it, guarded by a rusting chain-link fence that now curls away from the planks, bending in an "I've served my duty, let me just lie down, now," kind of way. When we asked the guard to take our picture crossing it, he obliged after hesitating, pointed the camera toward himself at first, then finally asked how to use it. We ended up with a picture cutting off almost half of our heads but including almost to our toes, but I didn't want to embarrass him by asking him to try for a better one. No importa.

When we got to the other side of this crazy old adrenaline rush, we learned it is hot in Panamá. By this time it was nearly 8 and we had 4 lines to stand in with the rest of the people from the bus--customs, I guess, visa-line, visa-approval line, and bus back to San José line. From there we waited half an hour in an unairconditioned car for the taxi to fill up, then drove 40 minutes to the place where a water taxi would take us to the main island of Bocas del Toro. It was a long trip, and I was parched and hungry by the time we arrived at 11:30 or so, but really? Vale la pena!

Bocas del Toro is a group of, I believe, four islands in the Caribbean Sea. We had been told to stay at a really cool hostel called the AquaLounge, which is just across from the main island that is officially called "Bocas." It was going to cost us a dollar to catch a boat from where we were to the AquaLounge, but as we were talking to the man driving the boat, he mentioned there was a festival going on at a different island. We were a little intrigued, and when he said he knew of a hotel on that island that would have a private bath, no bugs, and cost less, we were for sure interested. We decided to come back to the AquaLounge for the nighttime activities and hang out with the others from Veritas, but not stay with all the sunflies that make the people who stay there look like they have chicken pox all over their legs.

So we went to the island, Bastimento it's called, and it was definitely the best decision ever!  It's my favorite place so far, I may have already said that.  Where to begin!?!

Well, being on the Carribbean, it's not a super surprise that the entire place was Rasta.  Everyone had dreads, everyone was black, and all the houses were painted bright colors like red, green, and yellow.  Children were EVERYWHERE along hte sidewalk, which is the only pavement on the island as no one has cars.  Although the "festival," at the main dock in the town in front of the Health Center, consisted of one tent with a man selling bootleg CDs and little trinkets and two tents of typical Panamanian food.  Still, the whole place FELT like a festival.  For those familiar with it, it felt like the Jackson Park jambearee, and for those who don't, try and imagine a carnival or a state fair type atmosphere filled with all people you know and love.  Also imagine children under 5 running around broken glasses and burnt down houses with no supervision, chickens EVERYWHERE, and a beautiful blue ocean with tropical flowers feet from you.   It would have been suuuuch a fun place to have grown up, assuming I didn't get infections or fall through roofs like one child I saw.

Truly the atmosphere was the best part.  Still, it was beautiful, too, and SO interesting.  The people there talked with an extreeeemely Jamaican-sounding accent, speaking a sort of pigeon English that meant I had to ask them to speak in Spanish to me in order to understand them.   I got a video of someone playing guitar for us at a restaurant, including songs like "My commanding wife want to control my life" and "La bamba," in which para bailar La Bamba you need a tiny mini-skirt (good to know).  But I wish that I had gotten a video of just someone talking, so I coudl try and understand it better, practice, if you will.  It sounded so like music.

Anyway, what we did there: not a lot.  The general ambiance of the place was soooo laid back, as though no one had anything to do at all, other than go outside to play or eat or chat.  We ate some fabulous grilled chicken and came to the conclusion that there's never a bad time for fries.  We tried Panamanian rice and beans, and discovered it to be muuuuch different from the salty Costa Rican style.  They're sweet, with kidney beans there, much like the Jamaican style, I hear.  We decided we wanted to go to the beach, asking directions every hundred feet, for we were getting pointed to the end of the sidewalk, then through a graveyard, past a house, and into the forest.  (It ended up we hiked for 20 minutes in the jungle over a big hill to get to the beach.  If we'd had hiking shoes on, I'd have REALLY loved it, but though flops weren't the best it was still cool.  We could hear crazy bird sounds and saw some pretty flowers and vistas and of course tons of trees/vines/tropicality.)  

At one point we lathered up sunscreen and left the hotel with the intent to find a company to take us snorkelling.  Then, the first person we asked to point us in the right directions told us, I'll take you.  We thought he meant take us to show us where the company was, but no, he was going to take us!  He lent one of us his mask and took us on a slight detour to borrow another from his friend, then took us out on his boat for the entire afternoon for $10 a piece.  We went to a beach with old coral until it became too crowded with other snorkellers from a real tour.  Then he just took us out to the middle of the water and we swam around, taking pictures of the coral with my underwater camera.  It was soooooooo cool, even though there were only a few colors--purple, lime green, red, and orange-- to be seen on the mostly brown floor.  The water was perfectly clear so that I could see straight to the bottom, and at one point A SCHOOL OF BLUE FISH swam right around me--for over a minute!!!!!  I really hope I aimed my camera right then!  It was hard with the mask on!

As I said, for the evenings of both days there we went over to the AquaLounge to meet up with some people we knew already.  The trips over were amazing.  We'd just walk down the sidewalk and ask a given person whether they had a boat or knew someone who did. It was that easy--we'd get in their own personal little boat and they'd spend 20 minutes round trip shuttling strangers to another island for $3 a person.  One time we even convinced someone who'd been having dinner to take us, and he was willing to stop and look at a bit of the sunset, too!  Such buena gente.  

The AquaLounge itself is a pretty nice set up.  It's wood and actually ON the sea, with two small docks on either side, between which is an encircled "pool" of ocean water with a ladder and diving board.  This is bordered by hammocks and tables, and of course there was a bar and dance floor open to the night sky, and a swing to swing over the ocean and jump off of into a splash.   The place is totally packed with people, as it's in every guide book, German, Dutch, and English ones, so it offers a club/resort/hostal feel all in once, with the best qualities of each.  If only it werent' for those sunflies it would be perfect, huh?    Anyway, we danced the nights away, talking to our new friends, payed the FIVE dollar each night fare back, and fell asleep exhausted but extremely happy with our choice.  We got midnight grilled chicken, fries, and cole slaw both nights, too.

The thing about Panama nights, though, was that while they were completely safe (I'll get to an interesting experience in a moment), friendly, and gorgeous, THEY ARE HOT!!!  Falling asleep wasn't too hard, but each morning we woke up at 5 or so in sweats, with not even the sheet on (they only dress the beds with a sheet anyway).  Too hot to sleep, really, and the unheated showers didnt' even feel cold enough.  Finally we just gave in to the "Paradise syndrome" of feeling completely secure in our hotel courtyard, (which was far from the sidewalk and in which we were the only guests) and just desperately took a nap with the door wide open.  We were lucky and nothing was stolen.  When I walked out of the hotel, too, I was always happy to be on Bastimento, but to be completely honest, I woke up hating stupid scalding Panama both days, just for the extreme heat.

Now the "interesting experience."  I mentioned that the AquaLounge is right next to (maybe 2 football fields worth of ocean between) the "main" island, Bocas.  The main island has streets with cars.  It has a bank and places tourists can go to eat or book swims with dolphins.  Still, one evening was a girl, Lisa, from Veritas,'s birthday (wow, that was tacky, sorry), and we left the Aqualounge and walked through the neighborhood behind it to find a restaurant that could handle 14 of us.  

That was one of the most fascinating things of my trip.  It was my first true, true encounter with a third-world community.  The houses were wood, not unsual, and in usual states of disrepair, too.  All of them were on stilts, with chickens and TONS of garbage below.  Water that smelled dreadful rain in ditches that didn't look planned at all, all through the neighborhood, and there were 3 or four fires, completely unattended, just burning garbage along the side of the path.  There was a paved part, and that led to the church, literally into its door, where 3 people knealt worshipping.  On our way back, we saw more people entering, and the women all had black, sparkly, lace doily-style cloths on their heads.  I don't know what sort of ceremony it was.  There was a water spigget, and no glass on any of the windows.  Random "soccer" fields were full of children, but consisted of remnants of tiles and sand and dirt fenced in.  The path wound quite unpredictably through the houses, with no lights over it at all, narrowing and dipping with no warning.  At some points we'd emerge from the two-sided bits to find the ocean with the bright lights of the tourist island on the water, and the contrast between what we saw there and the smells of where we stood facing it was so, so real.  Absolutely fascinating.
Still, after eating in the swealtering, well-lit, unheated restaurant that was clearly out of price range of the area around it (it was associated with a hotel), when Sharifa and I decided we were ready to go back to the AquaLounge rather than wait for the big group (including the two boys) playing ping-pong, we experienced something even better.  Though we were two small girls, clearly not from around there and clearly carrying some money and cameras, though we were young, didn't look like we could speak Spanish (a 7 year-old yelled, "Gringas! Gringas! Gringas! at us on the way to the restaurant.  [Our response was, "Panamanian! Panamanian! Panamanian!"]), and obviously lost, no one took advantage of us.  It really restored faith in humanity.  Whether it was because they were so used to people having the same stuff as themselves that to steal just would never make sense to them, whether something is in their religion that encourages kidness to strangers, or whether they simply ARE decent people and nothing more, I don't know.  I know that with my little flashlight, alone with Sharifa in just a tank-top and shorts at night, I felt more safe than I ever would have in such a situation in St Louis.  We asked twice for directions back to the AquaLounge, and the second guy even just showed us the way.  How refreshing.  Muchas gracias.

The only other thing I have to say about that Panama trip, really, is that I'm so glad we were warned by other people to bring information about our return flight home in July to show to the Costa Rica customs.  We got stopped so many times, crossing the border, and later just on the bus as a whole, and we saved ourselves money and time by having it.  I really appreciate air-conditioning now, let me tell you, and proper bridge maintainance.  

I'd love to go back, maybe even see the Panama Canal if there's time.  It's a 10 hour bus ride from Bocas, though, which is already 16 hours away, so I'm not counting on it.  I hear Panama City is a really modern city, though, and I'd love to see pretty Latin American city (San Jose, I've come to learn, is known as the "ugly duckling" of  American capitals).  Some day, perhaps.  I don't think I'll waste a three-day weekend on it, though, when one could be spent in Nicaragua or Cuba instead.

Okay, guys.  I know that was a really long post, and I'm sorry to have stopped and started so many times throughout writing it.  I hope it's still cohesive.  Thanks for reading!!!

Monday, March 23, 2009


WEEELLLLLLL.  I just wrote on this like 2 days ago, aren't you all lucky you get another entry so soon!!!  I think I can hear the celebrations from here, actually!  Awww, you guys!!!

Just kidding.  

This post is for two main reasons.  The first and primary is that a few people have been expressing interest in some more of the basic facts, basic differences between here and the U.S.  I realize the last two posts have been more like diary entries, so I thought I'd get on with the datos and things I've got to say about San José for you.    The second reason is that AGAIN we have no tarea, and I guess I should take advantage of this.  Get excited.

Hmm, well for lack of a better organizing idea, I'm going to just format this like a list, okay?

1. San José should not be respresentative of the country as a whole.  It iiiis where I live, though, and it's what I see most of, so it's hard for me not to talk about it a lot.  También it is where about 60% of Costa Rica's population lives.  You'd think that would count for something.  
What I've read, though, is that this great concentration of population into this middle, landlocked city has only occured since the mid 20th century.  Before that the country was pretty spread out, with many many townspeople making money off of pineapples or mangoes or coconuts or whatever other crop was of interest or necessity to the neighbors.  With the rise of globalization, though, this lifestyle has become less sensible.  The government has chosen coffee and bananos as its main exports, and, as in America, a few great plantations have been sort of encompassing others, buying from them, and doing things large-scale.  (I don't mean to say it's to anywhere NEAR the extent it is in the U.S, though!)  Tourism, too, has become THE way for Costa Rica to make money, so an extra importance has been placed on going to school to learn to be part of this enterprise, on learning English.  Furthermore, entities like televisions and especially computers are more attractive following this globalization, and Costa Ricans come to the city to learn to use the 'puters and make money to buy the television and electricity.  All in all, the way to be able to support the family, for many, has come down to learning and working in the city.  It is widely held that the people who come here would really RATHER return to the country or to their smaller cities, but there is just no work there anymore.  They support futbol teams other than San Jose's Saprissa.
  And I really don't blame these people for wanting to go back to their more rural homes.  San José is just not a pretty city.  I've mentioned before the bars and gates surrounding every house, but it's way more than that; you'll find that in the country as well.  There are sidewalks here, but you'd be hardpressed to find a smooth one.  It really surprises me when my roommate says she'd like to go on a run.  I have no idea how she survives without tripping or twisting an ankle, let alone running up the many hills and crossing the ever peligroso traffic!  Plus there is such pollution.  Walking to class I get sprayed by 3 or 4 different horrible, visible fumes from cars or buses or motorcycles not quite functioning perfectly.  Imagine a walk longer than 7 minutes!  And I've mentioned before the street noise, which is just appalling, almost none of the motorcycles having mufflers and everyone doing there every-other-minute honk.  Add to this the fact that interesting architecture and upkeep take second place to saving money, and the fact that there is more litter here than almost anywhere I've ever been, and you've got a pretty good reason to focus on the gorgeous weather or the distant mountains when you talk about a walk somewhere.  I do think I'll be grateful for the somewhat unattractive replacement of grass with concrete when rainy season comes, though.  The last thing we need is mud.

2. I feel pretty bad for just badmouthing San José THAT much.  I think I willll talk about the weather (AGAIN) and the mountains and the other pretty little things, cause they do exist.  Weatherwise, of course, it can get a little on the hot side, and a little on the gray and dreary side.  But both of these are the biggest concerns, and they really are only A LITTLE on their respective sides.  Most days here are charming and feel wonderful. 
The mountains are really cool, too.  They're dark green and pointy and have almost NO houses on them.  San José truly iiiis in a bowl of them, sourrounded on all sides by a high ridge, with peaks sailing up from there.  Very different and not as useful for telling directions as in Colorado; I like them.
As for the little things I said I'd mention...the first of course is birds.  The sounds they make are hilarious.  A wooooOOOP!  Little whistles, and frequent little squabbles.  There are things that sound like doves, and the pigeons and sparrows here look much happier than the ones you see airblown and a bit mangy in downtown STL.   
There are beautiful beautiful flowers on my walk from Tita's house to school.  Those huge red and yellow and pink things that you see on Hawaiian shirts (can't remember their names) are constantly in bloom and loud and gorgeous.  There are birds of paradise in all kinds of yards, and baby palm trees that I just love.  Today I noticed the most beautiful shades of roses--orange surrounded by pink--but all the roses are stunning, of course.  And there are fruit trees randomly as well.  A lime tree grows across the street from my window, I believe.
Cool, right?

3. Fast food here is SUPER expensive.  I went to the KFC one time when I was starving and slightly annoyed, and it cost me 6 dollars for a medium drink, fries, and 6 chicken nuggets.  Granted they were kind of the best chicken nuggets I think I've ever haaad, but...I SPILLED MY DRINK and even without that they still werent' worth 6 bucks.   Also, when Anna was here we went to Pizza Hut one Sunday, (Nothing else was open! My first time in Pizza Hut ever!) and our waiter was in a tie and he hustled and bustled and the food was pretty delish.  A nice atmostphere, too.  Pretty fancy!

4. The water here is potable!  I have yet to get sick from it, though I've never drunk any from the tap outside of San José.  Still, I'm happy to save so much money just drinking tap water when I'm at home!

Bueno, those were only 4 points, but they were some long ones.  I can tell you more later if people express interest in these.  :)  I hope I'm not doing injustice to my topics.  I really do think that the countryside is positively gorgeous, like paridise.  

Saturday, March 21, 2009

La Mejor Semana

Well thus far, I've liked Costa Rica.  I've enjoyed learning to expect the things that really confused or startled me at first.  I've appreciated that the weather and the scenery here are gorgeous and that the Tico culture would be a truly nice one to grow up in (not too much machista, considering it's a Latin American country, no army, smiley and attractive men, and streets always bustling with people who rise early and have pineapples at their disposal about 80 cents for two).  But I still found myself resenting that I wasn't appreciating it MORE.  I didn't go explore stuff EVERY afternoon, I didn't go to the free dance or cooking classes, though they definitely should have interested me, and I always read or did my homework indoors when it was a beautiful day outside and a park is no more than 5 blocks away.  There just werent' the people here who I wanted to do things like that with, I think.

THEN Anna Nova came to visit.  It was great timing.  She brought in sunny (if a little hot) weather and a week with very few tareas (homework).  My class is apparently switching to being more in the oral expression range for these last 2 weeks, which means I'ma have to really up my confidence in speaking if I'm going to keep my A, but which also means not so many compositions or readings or grammar packets.  Woo!

Sooooo (sew buttons!) Miss Nova arrived at 5:30 am the Friday of my midterm.  I arranged for a guy who I know from Veritas to take me to the airport to greet her bright and early, and Tita was kind enough to cook her breakfast as well.  At 8 I left for clase and Anna napped the four hours in my bed while I (not to brag or anything) kicked butt on my exam.  I got out 30 minutes early and hurried home to pack so we could leave on our adventures for the weekend!!

In a Tico-timely fashion, we were 5 minutes late for our private driver to pick us up, but he, in turn, didn't meet us until 10 minutes after that.  His name was Eluin and he didn't speak English (though he told us later that while he can't express himself much, he understands some of it, we just speak much too fast for him to be able to understand us), but he was very nice.  "I will be like your father," he told us, then modified, "or like your abuelito." And he would stop along the road so we could take pictures of beautiful vistas or a random papaya tree. 

It was throughout this trip that I learned the truth in the statement I'd always found amusing to hear in class: Costa Rica has a large range in climate.  Well, you're right, and I was skeptical at first, too, as I've said, because Costa Rica is TROPICAL.  It's right there at, what? 8º north of the equator?  But for such a tiny, tropical country, it's got quite the variance.

First off (or, first off for meee, since it's where I live), there's San Jose.  It, and the rest of the Central Valley, has a relatively mild climate.   It's in a bowl surrounded by mountains almost 3,000 feet higher than it, and for this, there's not more than a 10º F difference in temperature from day to day during a given season.  While it is dry season, there is almost NO rain (I hear it's rained 3 times since January), and during wet season it is a bit hotter and rains every day.  The plants here are a good mix, with mostly normal, small-leafed deciduous trees, some palm trees, some cacti, and some conifers.  It's often cloudy, there's not much dust, there's almost always a gentle breeze, and it's not too humid (St. Louis is way worse).  

On our trip, though, we encountered the very tropical, where everything was green, vines hung down over a river, and the leaves were broad and glossy.  We saw lands that looked much more like upstate New York in plant life, as we mounted hills that looked over grassier farmland valleys.  We drove along stone roads (not dirt roads or gravel roads--bumpier, but equally dry) and got our hair caked with dust.  Sometimes it was pleasantly cool to have the jeep windows open, and 30 minutes later difficult to breathe for the horrid heat rushing at the face.  It was varied, let's just conclude with that.

So our first destination Friday night was Arenal.  We checked in to our American West-themed hotel (a riot), and headed  up to the hot springs, heated by the famous Arenal volcano.  Here we spent 3 and half hours, moving from pool to pool, testing out the different temperatures.  We had a tropical peach cocktail each at a bar IN the middle of the hot springs, and worked our way up to 113ºF waters, I believe.  Dinner was included, though not so delicious, and afterwards we went further up the hill to see if we might catch a glimpse of the famed night display of lava from the subconical irregular crater above us.  No luck, since there were too many clouds covering it, but we did discover some more pools we hadn't seen before, including the hottest yet, which was painful to even put your foot in.  I also went down an amazing waterslide, the fastest ever ever ever, and it burned a hole in the butt of my swimsuit!!  I'll keep my eyes open for another, but I've little hope, for the swimsuits here are of the South American variety, and offer less modesty than my holey one.  Bummer.  Hahaha.

Anyway, that night was quite delightful, we went to bed somewhat early (though we didn't get to sleep right away, not having seen each other in 2 and a half months), and woke to have desayuno típico at the hotel: eggs, gallo pinto, coffee, and toast with mora jam.  

At 8:30 or so we set off for La Fortuna, a waterfall down the road.  We hiked down the "well maintained path," which in reality was extremely steep and overgrown but offered some cool vistas, and at the bottom swam in the refreshingly cool river.  We could even scramble over a few rocks in our awesome, toed, hiking sandals, and wade/swim in the beautiful turquoise waves riiiight next to the catarata.  It was really gorgeous, and I've never seen Jurassic Park, or however you spell that, but the scenery was definitely straight out of it. 

After that we went back and showered and had a quick lunch (comida típica again--a casada of rice, beans, chicken, plantain, and fruit juice)  in town with Eluin before he had to take off on the long route to Monteverde.  Meanwhile Anna and I went back to the hotel to relax by the pool before a "jeep" (van) picked us up to take us to Lake Arenal where a boat would transport us to our next "jeep" that would bring us to Santa Elena, the town outside the Monteverde cloud forest.  The lake was stunning, with a beautiful view of the volcano (still frustratingly covered in clouds), and I picked out a nice house I'm going to buy (just kidding, Ma).  

The second jeep was the worst.  The road we travelled was awful, and a French backpacker who smelled like gross gross gross was too cold to have the air on.  We jostled and shook the whole way, stopping at one sunny restaurant that had ducks and a hammock for a break.  But vale la pena, we got to our hotel in time to nap before Eluin arrived with our bags, and it was quite a cute hotel.  

I don't have much to say about the cloud forest.  It wasn't at aaaaaaaall what I was hoping for.  We didn't see a single animal, and while the view was pretty, it wasn't thaaaaat much different from any other green area in Costa Rica.  What we did do was take a zipline through the jungle on a "canopy tour."  Yes, this was fun.  It was much like an amusement park ride or something, and the guides were cute and funny.  At one point we had to jump off a platform and do free fall along a rope, and at another we had to do a Tarzan swing which I thought might kill me, but overall it wasn't so bad, a good up for the adrenaline.  The guides took some good pictures of us, too, but it was 10 dollars to get them on a CD, not even printed, so we opted out.

And that was the end of our weekend trip.  It was so great to be with a good friend, and we saw some of the famous sites of Costa Rica, riding and living in style.  The view of the peninsula alone made the trip from Monteverde back to San Jose worthwhile.  And the whole weekend I didn't have any tarea

Well Sunday night (and the rest of the time she was here) Anna and I stayed in a hostel about 20 minutes from my school.  When I went to class in the morning she slept again, and we met up to have lunch with Rebecca Dos before heading off to El Centro to see some museums (though they closed before we got there, which was stupid), eat ice cream, and hit up the Artisan Market.  We got some cool things, including bowls that smelled like cinnamon and a hammock for our backyard or something next year!  All beautiful souvenirs.

Tuesday Anna's brother James had arrived.  We all three went to the beach, me skipping the only day of school I'm allowed without failing, another first for me here.   We chose the one only 2.5 hours away called Jacó, which was lovely, long, and not nearly as touristy as I'd been told it was.  The water was super salty though, and the air extremely humid, so that we felt instantly gross walking off the sand into our lunch place.  Then we caught a cab 10 minutes to the next beach over, Playa Hermosa (or, Beautiful Beach), which was my first ever glimpse at a black sand beach!  It was gorgeous and the waves were really fun, if a bit persistant and stinging to the eyes.  Our stuff didn't get stolen, we didn't get too sunburned, we got some good pictures, and we got some good ice cream, so I'd say the trip over all was a success.  Plus James got us to hitchhike instead of take a taxi back to Jacó, and we survived that, so I must say I had a very good time away from school.

Unfortunately we didn't do much Wednesday or Thursday, though just being around some people I actually enjoy spending time with was really wonderful.  James and Anna were able to visit a coffee plantation while I was in class on Wed, and we then went to the Central Market in the afternoon.  I dont' remember if I mentioned that I saw a real live parrot downtown last week, but when we visited on Wednesday it would have been impossible to miss one!  The park was covered with them, squawking and fighting and hanging upside down, swooping right by our heads, preening each other, and tumbling a bit in the flimsy palm trees.  They were SO LOUD!! It made me miss Kiki quite a lot.

Thursday, then, all we did was be a bit too late or a bit too far from everything we wanted to see.  I'll have to try and see InBio Parque another time--it's a conservation park, a jungle in the middle of the city, where there are many animals to see, and some good walks to go on--and visit the orchid gardens later, as well.  Anna will just have to come back when I actually know what I'm doing is how that goes!

Friday Anna left at the oh-so-lovely hour of 4:30 am, and James did his own thing.  I think he's off to Monteverde today (Saturday).  My class went to the Museo de los Niños (Children's Museum) on a field trip, which is really cool, made from the walls of an old prison.  I also got sick Friday, upset stomach, runny nose, and a fever, so that was all good timing, and it will be nice to be here in town to just recuperate, sleep, write this blog, do some homework, and read after such a full and wonderful week!

Well!  I hope that didn't bore you, but rather inspired you to come visit, too!  I'm sure I miss you, whoever you are, and I hope you're having a good time in the U.S. or Spain or Italy!
All that I've got going on this week is a presentation to give on the Solar System, a final exam, and several Skype dates.  This weekend the new CEA students are coming, most of the people from my classes are going home, and I'm moving out of Tita's house and into the dorm.  It's going to be a lot of changes, I guess, but that will keep things interesting.  Once April starts we'll have pre-paid trips planned for us all every weekend, as well as a busy weekful of vacations during Semana Santa (Holy Week), which sound fascinating.  Once again, I hope all is well where you are.  Costa Rica's still on my good side.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Pura Vida!

To start things off, I realized that I didn't explain the way I ended the last entry--"pura vida."  This is Costa Rican's national motto.  It can mean practically anything. 
 -Como está?  -Pura vida!
-Nice weather we're having  -Pura vida!
-I think I broke this, oh no, I'm so sorry!  Ah, what are we gonna do!?  -No importa, pura vida!
 -No comprendo...  -Ay, pues pura vida!   
Shows you how friendly the culture is here, I think, and it excites me that I'm finally starting to get the hang of when to say it (whenever your mouth isn't busy eating or breathing).  Let's get on with the rest of the blog, shall we?  Pura vida!

I just finished my first week and second weekend here.  I miss my friends and family a lot a lot, and since I'm only taking 1 class this month, I've actually had a bit of boring downtime  (I fill it yacking your virtual ears off, my apologies).   My class, avanzado 1, is not too hard for me, but it iiiis WAY TOO LONG.  Four hours every day that start at 8 doing nothing but speak Spanish is pretty exhausting.  Mostly our focus has been on dichos, or sayings, that are common in Costa Rica, especially among the youth.  It's been helpful at times, and interesting to see some of the cute proverbs (that's not the right word, but it's all I can think of) they use in Spanish.  My only concern is that there are almost 100 of them.  Actually there might be one hundred of them, I haven't actually counted, but to give you a sense of the mass, when I've asked my host mom to explain a new set of them each night, she's gotten increasingly hostile.  The last bunch, which was only of 10 but followed a set of 54, was defined to me with examples like, "Oh, that's like when your teacher asks you to do so many dichos," and "That's what you say when something's  impossible, like learning too many dichos."  One word she didn't even define with anything BUT such an example, and told me just to tell my teacher what she had said.  Ay ay ay!  I didn't, don't worry, but I do fear the quiz on them all tomorrow, and my midterm Friday.  But I'll get it done, pura vida!

As for what I've done this first week: not a whole lot.  If I'm completely honest, I have to say I'm not thrilled with my roommate assignment (oh well, pura vida, right?).  I just don't feel we click (like at all!) (though I think she feels we do...), and often I'd rather not spend my time with her.  That said, I don't know many other people here yet because I am doing early start and living at a homestay.  This means all the people in my class have been here for 2 or 3 months and have no desire for more friends.  Basically I haven't a lot of people to do things with in the afternoon.

  I do feel guilty for not walking around more on my own.  They keep driving home the point that San Jose is peligroso, take out your earrings when you walk around there, don't be about after dark, taqua taqua taqua taqua (that's instead of blah blah blah blah here).  But I haven't felt threatened at all.  People say that about U.City, but I walk around at night all the time, right?  I told my other roommate, who's in her 3rd month here, how I was feeling.  "Yea, but don't get lulled into a false sense of security," she said.  They call this Paradise Syndrome.  "A couple of weeks ago a girl was walking to school at 2 in the afternoon and a man tried to rob her.  There were security guards around, and all.  He just walked up, put his arm around her as though they were friends, and discreetly pulled out a knife, too, asking for her computer."  I don't know exactly how it ended, maybe the man saw there were too many people around, maybe he believed her that she didn't have anything to steal (she didn't!), but she walked away fine.  The only other incident was when a student took out his computer at a busstop like an idiot and a man pulled a gun on him.  But he was okay, too, still has his computer, and can recognize it was totally his fault.  Anyway, long story short, I keep my computer at home and don't go out very far alone, especially not at night.

What I haaaaaave done is go to a travel agent A BILLION times (thanks a lot, Tico time!--I'll explain later) to plan a visit with my friend, Anna, WHO IS COMING THIS FRIDAYYYY!!!! AH!!  I have big plans for her, some of which she knows about as I write this, and I'm super excited to be in a place that offers such interesting things to do at such reasonable prices.  I have walked to the mall, which is ENORMOUS, over priced, and overwhelming.  I've walked once more to the downtown-downtown area for an alarm clock and a gift or two, and had lunch at a few nearby restaurants and *gasp!* a hamburger stand.  (That was only 2ce, though, and I'm not going to do it again, and it was only because it's ON campus and I needed something fast that I could find my way home from, and it was really cheap, and I knew how to say it in Spanish, and I didn't even like it, and I felt super bad, and I really don't know what you mean I'm being defensive!)  And Friday a guy who's been here 5 months already showed a friend and I  how to take the right bus downtown and back, and where to buy coach bus tickets to the Caribbean, and all sorts of other useful things.

Which brings me to the weekend.

I learned the definition of "Tico time."   We've been told since we got here that the locals are NOT going to be on schedule.  That's fine, I thought, I'd heard that before, as long as I know that, things should be fine.  Pura vida.  But oooooh my goodness.

In the United States there is that saying my first hockey coach just loved, "Being early is on time, being on time is late, and being late is unacceptable."  Yikes.  I definitely appreciate a courtesy call, or text, or at least excuse, if someone's going to be ten minutes late to something, but I do think that first slogan is a little anal.  Still, when we go to class in the U.S. we get there 5 or 10 minutes early, and the teacher is always there by then, too, available for questions, setting up, whatever.  Here, no.  I'm told I got the most punctual teacher of all the study-abroad classes, and even she walks in more than 10 minutes late 3 out of 5 days (though if you come in after her!? Bad news, so we still have to be there basically at 8, which is annoying).

But this weekend was an entirely new level of waiting.  

My roommate, Rebecca Dos; Sharifa, the other new girl from CEA; Bobby, the guy who's been here 5 months; and I went to Puerto Viejo.  This is a town almost directly east of San José known for it's Afro-Caribbean culture.  It's got a definite rasta vibe, with dreadlocks on half the people, red, yellow, and green decorations up, and reggae playing anywhere a speaker connected.  It has warm water at its beaches, in which float coconuts and coral, and very few few of the tanned, toned surfer-men wear any shirts.  It's a pretty cool place.

The problem was we had to get to the bus station on the other end of town and be ready to snag a seat (they oversell the seating capacity by 8 people, latecomers must stand) by 6 a.m.  The buses actually leave on time, so we booked a taxi for 5.   Wait #1.  No taxi till 5:30.  We did make it, though, and diddn't have to stand or anything, and I was quite out before we even left the city. But when I opened my eyes it was only jungle!!  I went a little picture crazy, I'll admit, but I am glad I was staring like I was born yesterday.  I saw a vulture-like thing that had no feathers on his head and was guarding some food, some of those weird, humped, and skinny Costa Rican cows, a group of black buzzard things, and A SLOTH!!!!  Flipped out a bit at the sloth...

Anyway our hostel was really awesome, too. It's an extremely popular place, so we had to trek there quickly from the bus-stop through a back, tree-roofed mud path.  It, the hostel, was huuuuuuuuge and covered in mosaics that reminded me a lot of parts of the first floor of the city museum.  There were courtyards of grass with rocking chairs and almost no walls at all.  The downstairs had a restaurant/bar, the showers, tables for sitting to chat, the lockers, and a few private rooms, everything covered either with the mosaic pictures or modge-podge art.  The mosaics on the bathroom doors depictied what might be going on inside, and a sign where you check-in said "Please do not smoke marijuana at the front desk."  A definite hippy heaven.   
Also on the first floor were probably 70 hammocks, all hung in a row under a dark wood roof.  This was the more expensive sleeping option.  The option we chose took us upstairs to a platform with a tin roof, under which was lined about 70 tents of various sizes, all with mattresses in them and room for nothing else. Still no walls up here, but make-shift curtains hung in some places, from yesterday's beach-clothes drying on lines around the perimeter.  Super cool.  There were mosaicked bridges to a TV room and some more upstairs bathroom things and other places to sit to overlook the courtyard.  We took one of the spiral staircases down and changed into our bathing suits.  Wait #2 as people get situated, forget sunscreen or bugspray or money or cameras.  One good thing was that we met a fifth for our group while we sat there, though.  She was a 29 year-old called Eddie who is travelling Costa Rica for 6 weeks alone, just to see the place, and she was pretty fun.

Finally we left to cross the street where we rented bikes and dodged the zillions of potholes (that's not an exaggeration, I'm so serious) to get lunch.  Wait #3, we spend almost 2 hours at the lunch place.  Waiting to order, waiting to pay, waiting for Rebecca to order and look at art and pay, and then waiting for her to go baaaaaack to the hostel for more sunscreen.  When she didn't return for 45 minutes we finally just pedalled a little bit down the road and did some shopping, figuring she'd find us eventually, there being only 2 main roads (really only one, I'm being generous) in Puerto Viejo.  Wait, wait, wait, since I didn't have any money with which to do ACTUAL shopping.  And all I wanted to do was go to the beach.  Whatever.  Pura Vida.

When at last she found us and we started to head out to Punta Uva, the most beautiful beach around there, a rasta woman noticed Sharifa's afro and called out an offer to braid it.  Wait # 4.  We spent from about 1 to 4:30 at a table with her in an open-air hotel lobby.  She. Took. Her. Time.  She talked with friends, she started Eddie's hair.  She got asked her friend to roll a blunt for her.  They smoked it.  She finished Eddie's hair.  She talked.  She got hungry and ordered food from a boy on a bicycle.  She started Sharifa's hair, and had to take a break.  She talked to her friends some more and invited us to her birthday party Thursday.  She got a friend to go get her more hemp paper to roll another joint. She started back on Sharifa's hair, got her pass, and talked some more.  Five braids in she decided she was done with that, put the rest in a mohawk poof on top of Sharifa's hair and called it quits.   Yet somehow we STILL were there for another 20 minutes as they discussed how cute her hair was (it looked fine, but honestly like an unfinished job) and how we should find them on Facebook and come to hear their crew play.  Right.  BEACH!  VAMANOS!

At last we headed out, slowly, dodging some guecos (potholes) splashing through the ones that look the least huge.  Bobby pulled us over at a reasonably nice beach only about 15 minutes down the road.  It wasn't Punta Uva, but for someone who rarely sees the ocean, like me, it was wonderful!! We locked our bikes together and went out to take pictures, wade, and jump in the waves for a while.  Commence wait #5 when Eddie realized she dropped her lock's key in the sand somewhere, leaving 3 bikes inaccessable.  We stood around looking for a while, but as it was getting dark we decided we had to do SOMETHING else.  I knew the most Spanish of the group and Eddie felt responsible, so we took the two free bikes back to the shop at top speed.
.....Aaaaaaand we waited.  It took a while for us to be understood, then for her to accept the offer for us to ride back with all the owner's spare keys, and a lock-saw in our basket.  It was quite well into dusk by now, so for once there was no delay as we tried key after key with no chance of turning them.  We eventually had to cut the lock off and pay for it at the shop, but, through the zillion guecos in the dark, we made it back to Rockin J's, our hostel, all in one piece.  And we then took some of the coldest showers ever.

Bueno, here I'm realizing this is turning epic.  I'll try to condense it starting now. 

We had a good dinner of Mexican food and pasta at the hostel restaurant, and just as we were planning to go to the rasta dance club, it started to pour.  We ended up in the hostel all night, meeting other travellers, and just talking.  I had been looking forward to falling asleep to the sound of the huge waves hitting so close to our hostel, but when I lay down at 11:30 (I'm lame, I know), all I could hear was the extreme clatter of a constant DOWNPOUR on a tin roof.  At least it wasn't the distracting sounds of voices, right?

The next day didn't even dawn.  It just came in with some of the rain about 5:30 or 6, I imagine.  We don't change time zones here, by the way, I know that was a pretty random statement.  But it didn't stop raining the entire day, so we didn't do anything but....WAIT!!!!!   
I was soooooooo grateful when the time came for our 4 o'clock bus home, but in retrospect I don't know why I thought that wouldn't entail the word of the weekend, too.  The bus left on time, sure, but about 40 minutes in it broke down!  We were in the middle of a jungle pounding with rain.  Great.  We had to wait for another bus.  When it finally arrived we found there were only 8 free seats on it, and realized, sitting in the back, it was just time to do some more waiting.  20 minutes in I dared to ask the driver in Spanish when another bus might be coming, and he told me 20 more minutes.  Earth to self, TICO TIME!  But it did come in about 40, which wasn't so bad.  We got back and caught a taxi almost home (he "got lost" first, to run the meter up, Delay # Hell-if-I-know-after-all-those-others, but no matter) safe and sound.

Que tigra!  My pura vida weekend.

Only one thing of real note has happened since then, I'd say, and that is that today (I'm publishing this on Wednesday) there were two earthquakes!!!  Both were small, audible, and enough to make one nauseated and the house lose internet connection, but harmless.  Still, they were my first temblores, which was a little cool/disconcerting.

Well.  I hope everything about yooour vida is pura right now.  I'm off to study for my midterms (I know, it feels just as much too early for those as it sounds) on Friday, and am looking forward greatly to visiting Arenal volcano and hotsprings as well as the Monteverde cloud forest with Anna this weekend!!!   Hasta luego!

Monday, March 2, 2009

Hola de Costa Rica

As a rather rude introduction, I'm going to preface this by saying I am not able to have internet as much as I'd hoped--or at least not during the times of day that I'd hoped.  In about a month I probably will, but it will also be in about a month that I will be meeting new students and starting my excursions, so that might mean more demands on my time away from the internet, too.
Right now as I write this at 5:30 PM, there is a group of middle schoolers sitting outside there house screaming and singing loudly and just hanging out.  They sound like they've been enjoying themselves this past half hour.  A car alarm goes off about every 5 minutes on average, echoed quickly by some bird I've yet to idtentify mimicking the "woooOOOOO!"  As they are from 6:30 AM to about 6 PM every day, my windows are my only source of light, though they're quite enough.  They're always open, they've no way to close.
I do like my bedroom and most things about my homestay very much.  The street noise is really my only complaint.  My host mother, called Tita, is extremely warm, a good cook, and very patient.  She has a good sense of humor about our Spanish levels, too, as she speaks almost no English herself.  Thus far I have therefore been doing the translating in the household (Rebecca Dos--I arrived first, so I'm Rebecca Uno--doesn't understand much Spanish yet--though she's learning quickly), but I have another roommate I've not yet met who's been here 2 months already and who I bet speaks Spanish much better than I do.
On that note, too, we are all learning fast.  It's true what was told to me about Costa Rican accents--they are VERY easy to understand.  The only thing that throws me sometimes is the Central/nothern South American "vos" form that sometimes pops up.  (For those of you who know a little Spanish verb conjugation, this is in place of the "tu" form.  It seems to be made by taking the infinitive and replacing its "r" with an "s."  "You have" would therefore be, "vos tenés.").  But that has been an extreeeeeeemley minor problem.  The Ticos are super nice and understanding, and I'm having  a lot of fun practicing my Spanish fluidity at markets and with Tita, when I also get to practice my Charades.
When it comes to culture differences, I really couldn't tell you many yet.  The people seem friendly and are always outside.  Though they keep their windows open and know many neighbors/have a car drive by with eggs for sale every Saturday, they keep the small-town feel from reeeeeeally blossoming by having heavy gates in front of their otherwise beautiful homes and cast-iron on every first-story window.  They've complained to me about cold when it's below 75 degrees, and heat when it gets above 80.  I've yet to see any put on sunscreen, and the piropos (catcalls) haven't been any worse, really, than those gathered walking through the Loop or a Metro station.
The one thing that dooooooooes stand out, though, is the driving.  I'm going to try and make only observaaaaations, rather than evaaaaaaluation here, as they told us to do in our orientation, but it might be difficult.  Here goes.  The drivers drive very fast.  They speed up when they see someone crossing or about to cross the road in front of them, even when there is a crosswalk there and they have a stop sign anyway.  (This was acknowledged by a Tico, so I'm not crazy or exaggeration from fear).  They ignore all stop signs and many stop lights--at least the first 2 cars after it turns red pass through.  Even when there aaaare lines on the road to separate forward from oncoming traffic, which is rare they aren't respected, and you can forget about lanes going your own direction.  People use their horns to mean anything, from Let me over, to Hey hot girl, to YOU IDIOT, to Sure, come on over, then Thank you, You're welcome, and Chao.  There are no street signs except on Avenida 10 and Avenida Central.  People park in the middle of a lane and just leave their car, even on a downward slope with room for only 2 cars abreast.  People don't really get sued or tickets for hurting pedestrians or other cars.  I've almost had my foot run over twice.  People listen to their radios and talk on their cells whiiiiiiiile all this is going on.  And most surprisingly of all (and that was my FIRST evaluation, whew!), despiiiiiite the pandemonium, traffic accidents still make the evening news.  
But like I said, I've not much else to report.  My initial glimpse of Costa Rica showed me its beauty, which is in both flora and background (the mountains/volcanoes) but not so much buildings.  I've been on a tour of a coffee plantation, walked to and around downtown both with friends and a really attractive Tico guide, visited and gotten lost around the university, and had some real Costa Rican food (pretty good!  Loooooots of beans and rice and fruits), and chosen which Spanish class to take for this first month.  And it's only been 3 days!  Every time I think about what all I've got the opportunity to do, too, I get super excited.  I can't wait to see all these new things and wear lots of sunscreen to them all.
Bueno.  That's all for now.  Hasta luego, pura vida!