Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Sámara? I didn't see a single ninja!

My friend, Lexy from St. Louis, had the great fortune during the month of May to be studying biology-type-stuff in the cloud forest of Monteverde.  I was sooo excited to hear this when she told me in February, and had been thinking of meeting up with her ever since.  She said she had an awesome time--is even considering coming back!--and learned a bunch.  But I feel bad because the last weekend I could have gone up to visit her, I couldn't make it.  I had promised Leslieann I"d go ziplining with her her last weekend here, and though Monteverde at first had seemed the perfect place, we later realized the travel was very expensive and that I wouldn't get to see much of Lexy anyway, as she had class on Saturday.
Instead, then, we decided to go to a beach on the Pacific coast called Sámara.  Many Ticos say this is their favorite beach, and it came highly recommended by Bobby the American from my first month here, too.  There we'd see the beach, possibly go to a very nice night-club in the mountains behind the city, and do ziplining.  It was 5 hours away, but other than that it sounded perfect!
Eventually it would be what I'd come to consider the "normal group," who would be with us, but Tristen decided to go bungee jumping with a large group of us international students, and Dan isn't crazy enough about the beach to spend two days there, so it ended up that just Justin and Leslie and I left Friday right after class to start our weekend.
When we first got to the town, which is about the size of the average beach-town I've visited (tiny),  we couldn't find the prices we were used to encountering at hotels.  Nothing was under $60 a night!  But we kept walking and, ironically to me, found the closest one to the beach to finally be reasonable.  We spent $10 a night to stay in a three person room (Justin, Leslie, and I) at Playa Sámara Hotel.  It was colorful and had a fan, even if the door to the bathroom didn't really shut and the outside door was hanging a little off its hinges.  We dropped off our stuff and went out to find somewhere to eat.
Right when we ducked into the first restaurant it started to DOWNpour.  Like pretty much every restaurant on a Costa Rican beach, this one wasn't so much of a building as a large area with a roof.  We ate our 3 types of exquisite pasta and a glass of cheap wine each, and it was almost perfect, sitting out of the rain but watching it, and seeing the lightning out over the ocean.  We decided we'd spend our night this way, watching the rain.
It was lucky that by the time we'd finished eating the storm had moved off the beach, really, and out over the sea.  It was almost deserted besides one couple enjoying the scenery from near where the beach started.  And the water was so far away!!  This was probably as wide as the widest beach I'd yet seen--probably Tamarindo--or wider.  It was verrrry dark in the direction of the mar.    
Justin, Leslie and I laid out our towels on the sand about halfway to the waves.  Whenever lightning would flash off over the water, the sky would be a bright grayish color and the water only slightly darker.  We could see the actual rayos in places, sometimes only be lit all around.  And what surprise that as we watched--and talked about philosphy, such was the ambiance--a lone horse walked by, silhouetted in the bright.  He held his head low and trudged purposefully but without haste in a straight line so that we saw him in several flashes of light as he moved.  Later in the night passed another horse, and even later a pair of oxen from the opposite direction.  That was the weirdest.  
We stayed and talked another 20 minutes or so, debating whether lightning striking the ocean waaay out there could be caried in the water and shock us.  Finally we decided to risk it, judging that the horses had been walking in very wet sand, if not the waves, and that nothing had happened to them.  We went down and waded for a while in the warm Costa Rica sea, Leslie's first glimpse of it.  On our way back in we noticed the ground was sparkling bright white in places.  It wasn't firefly-like--the sparkles stayed on once they were on, it seemed, but we couldn't figure out WHAT it was.  We thought of the bioluminscent plankton my old roommate, Lanae, had seen.  But we weren't in the water.  We noticed it was always near coral, so Justin picked some up, thinking it was the coral itself.  He says he felt something burrow into his hand like a bug.  Could that have been it? It was beautiful, and it's still a mystery.
The next morning we chose our breakfast place by the fact it had a cute green parrot that could call out to us on the side.  It was simple but cheap, and we were ready in this way to take our long walk down the beach to where Leslie and I would do our ziplining.  Justin was very excited to get to read a book down by the shore for a while and relax in the sun.  He's from California, what can you do?
This canopy tour for me was more fun than the one offered at Monteverde.  It was shorter, yes, but as it was less famous, it was less crowded.  We had only 2 guides acompany us and one couple taking hte tour besides ourselves.  The fact that it was smaller meant also that the lines weren't as high.  For this we got to actually go through the trees when we zipped, rather than above them, which offered more of a view to me. Plus we could hear the howler monkeys doing their weird bark all around us.   The only curse was the mosquitos.  At one point I thought I felt something on my leg, and when I looked down there were 5 mosquitoes all in a line biting me in no more than a 4 inch area.  Too, Leslie and I got to zip backwards to one of the platforms, which was finally free and exhilirating feeling after the very secure feeling of the organized front ways, strapped in completely.  I think my favorite part was that our guides had brought a snack and on our highest platform we paused, with a veiw of the blue, blue ocean to the right, dangled our feet of the edge of the 60-foot drop, and enjoyed some pineapple, watermelon, oatmeal cookies, and fruit juice.  It wasn't even hot here, where we were in the shade but away from the bushes where the bugs lived.  So, we spent half an hour up there.  I think everyone thought it was just perfect.
On our way back from this Leslie and I had planned to take the beach again, since that is the most straightforward way.  However the shore at Sámara must be very shallow becuase now that it was high tide, that far, far off ocean had crept up so much that you couldn't even walk along the sand.  For a few meters we waded and for a few we tried the road.  We planned to get lunch, shower and do some shopping for local souvenirs before we went back.  Maybe the water woudl have receded by then.
In fact it did, and we spent about 2 to 3 hours in the waves before it was time to go meet Dan and Tristen's bus.  When we started our walk toward the bus-stop from the hotel, there were 5 of the owner-less horses as from last night just grazing in the soccer field in front of where we stayed.  It was pretty wild to see.
As it turned out, Dan and Tristen were accompanied by a huge group of us.  We showed them around, had some more delicious pasta that night, and went out dancing together (though the cool place on the mountain was closed).  We did some night swimming and just had a very good time.  There are occasions when big groups are really fun.
Next day was spent all at the beach, reading, swimming for over an hour straight, and just talking.  It being Sunday we had osme difficulty finding somewhere open for lunch, and got very hot walking around.  By the time we did find a place--a very nice one, I'll add--we were pretty crabby and sweaty.  We were actually eating at the restaurant of a hotel, and Stephanie just pushed Geoff into the pool when he wouldn't stop complaining.  After we had food in us we were happier, and the bus back was airconditioned, so all was well.  Only glitch was when the bus started to pull off from the rest-stop without Dan.  We stopped it, though, and we aaall made it back safe to San José with Trits in our systems.  
I always love coming back to San José where it's cooler weather.  Though the place doesn't smell so great, it really does feel more like home now.  All the beach towns are great, it's just that a weekend is the perfect amount of time to spend there.  Otherwise they'd get boring and tedious with the heat.   That next week here everyone but Sharifa and Rebecca Dos and I went to a concert at the huge soccer stadium by a group called Los Fabulosos Cadillacs.  It was apparently awesome, everyone having You-Tubed their songs to be familiar with them before hand.  Our poor toilet started having the worst time flushing yet, emitting a high-pitched screech/scream for about 3 minutes after every time it was flushed.  And on a more serious note, Danimal got very sick and was out of class for 3 days with a headache.  No one saw him and the rumor was he'd had an anneurism.  The next Monday, of course, we found out that wasn't the case at all--he'd just had a UTI with some weird symptoms--and he is doing absolutely fine.  It just was bad timing, for at the end of that week, right when he was sickest, we had a 3-day weekend.  He'd been planning to go to that spot I'd loved so much in Panamá, Bocas del Toro.    I guess all that really matters, though, is that he's okay.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Tica to Nica

The week following rafting was a busy one.  I had a large project about Paraguay to do and a test in Phonetics.  In Spanish class we also went to a café (here meaning coffee plantation) in Heredia for a one-hour tour and a quick stop at a mariposaria, finally (mariposaria=butterfly garden)!  We made arroz con pollo at cooking class and FANTASTIC papas fritas in the style the Ticos used before the French version.  I went to Zumba class again and my first CEA social at a bar/restaurant where we were to hear Tico Freddy Alvez, a friend of one of our directors, play some songs.  Unfortunately I had to leave early from that to finish preparing for my Paraguay presentation and essay, but it was fun, anyway.    The bar had been quintessentially Costa Rican, playing a soccer game on the big screen TV and 80s rock music videos on all the smaller ones, and my cab home was totally tricked out with embossed "Need for speed" on the windshield, fancy lights all around, and a little TV that played the music video of the reggaetón the taxista jammed to.
Still, the weekend was what I kept my mind on.  Tristen, Justin, Leslieann, Kayla, and I went to Nicaragua!  (Leslieann is the new girl, here only for a month, but I adore her.  She's a lot of fun, got a boistrous laugh, and is full of jokes.  She's majoring in microbiology and chemistry at the University of Tennessee Knoxville--half my family's alma mater--and is studying to be a forensic pathologist.  She and Jenn went bungee jumping off a 280 foot bridge last Tuesday.  She's cramming in the Costa Rican experience.)
We left directly after class on Friday, $130 cash in colones/American in my bag, with bus tickets but no hostel reservations.  It was an 8.5 hour bus ride on a line called The TicaBus.  This runs from Panama all the way up through Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala to Mexico.  Yes, it was long, but it was also air conditioned and offered movies, like House Bunny (not good but definitely funny at times), to make it less horrible.  Plus we had our ipods and each other, so the trip was fine.
At maybe 8:45 we rolled into Granada, Nicaragua.  This is known to be a pretty safe town, with all colonial buildings, on the Lago Nicaragua.  We had a bit of trouble finding our hostel, The Bearded Monkey, but not too much, and we got there only $2.00 taxi-fair total short.
Unfortunately there were reprocussions for not being able to reserve a bed.  Tristen and Justin got mattresses on the floors of two separate dormitories, Kayla and Leslieann had to sleep in hammocks, and, no hammocks left, I got to sleep on a bench.  We got some dinner at the hostel, drank lots of water, and just talked.  By eleven thirty all was dark and quiet even in the common area where my bench was, so I didn't have much trouble falling asleep.  It was actually nice to have the fresh air of the open courtyard dining room-center when I slept, and the bench had a cushion at least.
The next morning we had a plan.  Rising early we ate breakfast at the hostel and set out to change our money to Córdobas then explore the city.  One old church we found, of gray and dirty stone, offered a climb to the bell tower where we could look out over the city.  I really wish more places had something like this.
All the roofs in Granada are of the wavey red clay-looking stuff, which I can't remember the name for, but which is common in Spanish architecture.  Most are to square buildings with an open courtyard in the middle, from which are visible trees and orange or pink flowering plants.  The windows have pretty white curtains in them behind nice looking cast-iron swirls, and the walls of course are all different colors, typical Latin-American style.  You can see the mountains and volcanoes in the near distance and the lake as well, not quite as blue as the ocean, but so expansive that you can't see the other side.  A big clean yellow church dominates the northern vista.  A soccer field's lines are drawn directly below the bell tower, on the patio of the church.
Downstairs, in the actual city, the people are of a darker complection.  My teacher says many are actually mixes of indigenous and African, rather than the mestiza--indigenous and Español--of Costa Rica.  Horses are still used for work, such as transport of wood or even sales goods.   The buildings are right up on the streets, with only a sidewalk separating them, and this sidewalk is of beautiful flat tiles that vary according to whcih building they sit in front of.  There are checkerboards, pure red, pretty marbled/spotted, and green celtic knot looking ones.  The difference in cleanliness between here and San José is refreshing.  There is much less English spoken.
We walked around, buying souvenirs muy baratos, and just enjoying the pretty city.  Lunch was a $1.25 jumbo hotdog and soda, after which we headed back to the hostel to drop off our stuff before going on an hour tour of some of the 360 tiny volcanic islands nearby.
Most of these islands are privately owned, with no more than a house on them.  Some have hotels on them.  Some are still for sale.  It looked like heaven to live on one!  But one island a little further out was known as the isla de los monos.  Two types of monkeys, spider and white-faced capuchin, live on this tiny piece of jungle.  This is unusual because they don't normally get along, said tropical ecology taker Justin.  But these guys, at least the spider monkeys, seemed happy.
They are black with REALLY long tails, and bigger than any of the monkeys I've yet seen.  We pulled up slowly near an over hanging branch and two came over to look at us and scratch their arms, not 8 feet above us.  But then one swung on board.  "Zip up your bags!" our guide told us in Spanish, "But you don't have to be afraid."  The monkey certainly was not.
First she walked down the isle of the boat right past us, to the prow where she explored a box and towel sitting there.  Then she went over to Tristen, arms waving in the air like a monkey's (go figure) and her mouth open to bare her tiny teeth.  She was about as tall as our shoulders when we sat slouched on the chairs.  She went straight for Tristen's lap.  For about 2 minutes she sat there, Tristen mortified, afraid to touch her, to move her, to do anything.  She put her little black hand on her shoulder.  Leslie snapped a thousand pictures.
  Then I dropped my towel in the lake.  The monkey, who the guide told us was pregnant, saw it and climbed on over.  She sat on my chair, put her hand on my legs, on my own hand, trying to get me to stop holding the towel so she could look at it.  I was so afraid she'd take it from me.  About a whole minute we battled, monkey and I, for the right to my terrycloth, though of course I'd never actually push too hard someone with babies in them.  She finally lost interest when I stood up and the guide took out something from his own bag as a distraction.  30 seconds later she had jumped back onto a nearby branch and was gone.  
The rest of the lake was cool, too, on our way back.  We were sitting very low in the water, right next to lily pads that were blooming and other water plants.  Trees from the islands came out with trunks exactly parallel the water.  We saw egrets and colorful ducks.  We relaxed and enjoyed a 4 o'clock sun that was NOT burning us.  What a day.
That night we spent talking to the cute bartender, trying mombacho borrachos and borrachObama mixed drinks (borracho means drunk if you haven't figured that out).  He had his laptop on a shelf behind him playing Planet Earth and we all, Australians, Norweigens, Swedes, French Canadians and us estadounidenses watched, reflecting on our favorite scenes from the series.  It was the first hostel experience for everyone present but me, and they all loved meeting new people and talking about travels.  It was definitely a good time.
The next morning we woke up early again and half of us went to a waffle place while half stayed in the hostel for breakfast.  That was delicious, and from there we went to the yellow church we'd seen from the bell tower the day before.  It is a much more modern one--or at least a much more well kempt one, and it was full for mass, so we didn't go inside.  We did take pictures and walk by, exploring the first true Spanish-style plaza we'd encountered since being in Latin America.  People were selling jewelry and shoes they'd made, and we could hear the classic hymns sung beautifully in Spanish coming from within the open doors of the church.  We couldn't stay long, but walked down some more of the colorful colonial streets nearby and found another of the travelling Marys outside a grocery store.  It was a gold-haloed statuette of the virgen in bright colors, accompanied by a trumpet, base drum, clarinet, and small gathering.  This is a Catholic area, and not the first of these we'd seen by any means.  Everything as at the very least a cross on it, from the bank to the buses, many with small statues or shrines.
I have only a few things to remark on about the long trip back.  Firstly was that Nicaraguans have to pay much more to enter Costa Rica than we did.  They had to pay more to enter their own country than we did, actually!!  Second, that we had some Nicaraguan rice and beans at the border, and it was good, but salty.  The rice is more like fried rice there than the white rice of Costa Rica, and the beans are small brownish red ones in place of the black beans here or the giant kidney beans in Panama.  It was pretty good, though, and only 3 dollars with chicken and veggies and everything!  Thirdly was that one of the movies on the way home was a bootleg copy of the unfinished XMen Origins Wolverine movie.  It was so funny because half the computer animation had not been done by the time it was leaked.  There were clearly visible lines holding him up when he jumped in some parts, and in other places the computerized stunt double had yet to be generated so in its place, as when Wolverine was falling, was just a silver computerized man.  At times it looked very very video-game like.  At times Wolverine's signature claws hadn't even been artworked in.
Well that is all for Nicaragua.  I found it to be very beautiful, very clean and interesting.  I found the people to be quite agreeable and the food better than lots that I've had in San José for a lot less money.  I would definitely recommend the trip to people!

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Jungle Post

Two weeks ago a laaaaarge group of us--15, biggest group of gringoes I've travelled with yet--decided to hacer rafting, or "go white-water rafting" on the Pacuare River in eastern Costa Rica.  Rebecca Dos had said she LOVE love loved it and many people had never been rafting at all before, even in the states, so Tristen signed us up for a day trip down the "best rapids in Costa Rica."
They are called class III and IV (out of VI), but I've been on rivers in Colorado and other places with such designations and never felt too much of a thrill.  Still, we happened to be going at the exact right time of year, when the season was changing, so the rapids were ideal.  We shouldn't get stuck too much, for the river wouldn't be all dried up like in March or so, but it also shouldn't rain on us like it surely would in June.  On the bus ride over there our guide just warned us to try to be a "lucky swimmer" if we could, in other words, try to fall out somewhat CLOSE TO the raft.
Lathered up we split into two groups, helmetted up and donned our life jackets.  Our guide spoke mostly Spanish, but at least he gave the commands to paddle front or back in English.  He would point out things off to the side, animals or rock formations, in Spanish, which was interesting to learn.   We were in indigenous country, actually, so there were some cool huts and ziplines (for transport of stuff across the river, who knew!?)  to see.  We passed an old indgenous cemetary, which just was really a river bank for all we could tell, and a young boy walking in boots down near the water along a miny fútbol field that was set up there on the gravel.  The guide taught us the Cabeca word for "how are you," "bamasquina" in Spanish spelling, and two possible replies meaning "fine".  The first was "bebe, which got all us gringos singing "Ay baybay, ay baybay," rather maturely.  And the second was "masú masú," which apparently literally says the singular form of "male genitals" twice.  The guys got a kick out of that one, too.  Fun language.
Well the first set of rapids really was challenging!  I was in the back so my paddling wasn't too strenuous, but staying in was!  Several times Danimal had to grab my arm to keep me on the boat, and I definitely got some class A blisters on my toes from jamming them  as far in as they would go under the plastic in front of me as a desperate attempt at a foothold.  Still, we navegated well and even did 360 spins through a set of class IIIs, pretty near in sync with each other's paddeling all along.  We paddle-fived each other with a "Pura vida!" whenever we passed the other group we came with struggling to dislodge themselves from a rock or just simply not paddling with any sense of order.
Lunch was also provided along the way, fresh watermelon and pineapple and turkey sandwiches (my first turkey here!) with splendid té frío.  All that we didn't eat went as a donation to the Cabeca.    Though it drizzled a bit there on land, it didn't ever really rain our entire trip, which was great.
Back on the boat there was jungle all around.  Blue butterflies passed us and at one point monkeys were swinging far up and to our left.  It was really beautiful to see so much green, as the rainy season was commencing, so much life.  The rocks, too were unbelievable, almost fake-looking in their size and smoothness.  Some guides even did flips off their boats.  Nothing like rafting in Costa Rica.
When we got back we met up with our other group from Veritas and heard their stories.  Two of them had fallen out, one in front of a kayaker from the company who had a camera!  So they were somewhat tired.  The absolute BIGGEST BUG I've seen in my life was back at the base, too, no less than 3 and a half inches long, and an inch or two tall, slow, and beetle-y.  We played with him some and changed our clothes, bought the $10 disc of all the pictures from the trip to share, and got back on the bus.
What I learned from this trip, besides that class III and IV rapids can be fun but that class XI rapids can be waterfalls, was that there is a kind of social bird in Costa Rica that builds hanging nests next to one another in the high branches of trees.  They look kind of like tear-drop shaped baskets and their builders are black with yellow tails.  I learned there is a small black and red bird, too, which you can watch on YouTube, that can do the moonwalk.  Look for "Michael Jackson bird" and I think you'll find it.  I learned that if you don't get in to swim in the slow parts of the river people will pull you in regardless of how much you try to whack them away with your paddle, and also that I can get BACK on the raft myself, then succeed in pulling an almost 200 lb guy back on as well.  I also, unfortunately, learned the importance of driving carefully on one-lane roads.  We waited in traffic for over an hour before passing a horrible car wreck between a jeep and a truck where the jeep had been too slow to pass another truck before the opposing one reached the spot.  So much jungle can be a beautiful thing but a vision impairing one as well.
As for the rest of that weekend, we didn't do much.  Sharifa and Tristen and I went to the National Museum again for a school project Sharifa had.  It was a little better this time, with more information and a cool new art gallery upstairs, but it still was not extremely impressive.  We also tried to go into the butterfly garden they have downstairs, but found it closed starting in May (BARELY missed it), which was another bummer.
Saturday night we tried to go to a fun-sounding bar in the next municipality over with two British guys we'd met rafting.  In case anyone is in San Pedro after it's done being rennovated, it's called Formula One.  Apparently upstairs it is a bar, but downstairs it is a Gokart/bumper car track.  It's actually encouraging drinking and driving.  Safe, right?  Well in any case, it was closed, so we didn't get to test it out.  Siiiigh.
That's really all for that weekend.  I had some delicious KFC for lunch one day and a barbecue chicken wrap another, which, guiltily, were both nice and American.  And I bought my first bootleg movie on the streets.  Benjamin Button.
Over all it was a pretty relaxing weekend again, and I had no complaints.  The Pacuare was a beautiful river and I was with fun people.  :)

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Datos y sucesos interesantes (ojalá!)

In talking to some friends in the U.S. I've realized that although I say "I've been up to nothing, really, this past week," that's not ACTUALLY the case.  It just means I didn't travel anywhere.  But in fact we do kind of interesting things occasionally.  

One week, jonesing for the surprisingly elusive chocolate, Cayla and I went up to the minimart (here they're ironically called "supers") looking for brownies, cookie dough, a Hershey's bar, SOMETHING.  We found chocolate cake mix.  "Oh, but we don't know if we have oil or a baking pan there," we lamented to each other.  But it was so tempting.  So though it was not cheap, we finally just decided of course they'd have oil, and if no baking pan, we could make use of whatever sort of cooking containers they DID have.  We would HAVE this cake.  We bought chocolate frosting, too.

When we got back from the store to our residencia kitchen, we ransacked the place.  They DID have oil.  We'd take the three eggs even though there was a clearly written note on our whiteboard NOT to do so or we'd have none left for breakfast.  We found 2 cake pans we could stack.  And we figured we could make due with measuring things in ceramic coffee mugs for "cups."  We did nooooot realize there was no oven.  

But my scientific roots (and lust for chocolate) mandated that we experiment.  We put a third of the powdered ingredients in a bowl with one egg and about a third of the rest of the things and mixed till it had a nice consistency.  Then we poured half the batter into a ceramic bowl and stuck it in the microwave.  A minute and a half later it had risen BEAUTIFULLY, cooked through but in no part burned.  We flipped it like a bundt, frosted it, and enjoyed a mini cake each.  There was quite enough we had to share.  And there was enough for a cake each two more days!  Absolutely delicious.  I don't know why I'd ever make a cake another way again.

Another day (yesterday, actually) we decided to go to a class at the gym we joined this month.  We chose zumba, the aerobics thing based around Latin American dance and showed up seconds before the teacher.  We did not warm up.  He jumped right in, doing intense salsa, merengue, and who knows what else moves.  There was lots of hip shaking, foot work, turning, and jumping, all to Spanish music and with Spanish instructions.  We were the only 3 Gringas, Tristen, Sharifa, and I, and we were soooo lost.  The teacher came back to laugh/correct us, and I don't htink I stopped smiling the entire time.  I guess that wasn't a very good story, but I had to vent to someone.  And you should try Zumba yourselves, too, if it's offered near you!

And now for some datos, or information, about Costa Rica, in puntos.  I hope I haven't already said some of these things!  Please forgive.

--For a capital city, San José looks nothing like what I'd expect.  Of course I've mentioned how dirty it is, how there aren't very many historical buildings or interesting architecture, and how gates obstruct all the otherwise pretty houses.  But you can still see all the colors so common in Latin American houses--light pinks, purples, greens, oranges, yellows, and blues.  Many roofs are rusting, some disconnected from the houses.  And the tallest building in the city has 16 storeys.  Almost all other buildings seem to be 3 storeys or less.  I'm pretty sure the tallest building in Costa Rica is a tourist hotel in Guanacaste, the province along the Pacific where all the celebrities visit.   Meaning Ticos really don't go in there.

--Yes, Costa Rica is famous for being quite progressive in terms of conservation biology.  It is rumored that close to a third of the country is national parks.  Yet the recycling program here is horrible.  The only recycling bins I've seen in all my almost 10 weeks are at my school and in the residencia, both sites of wealthy and liberal patronage (my Veritas an art school, everyone's current and edgy).

--As in any third-world country there are stray dogs EVERYWHERE.  They're all really nice--that's how they get fed--but it's still heartbreaking to see.  The director of my program will take in stray puppies, which is how Jenn came about her potential pet, and get them neutered and speoed (wow, how do you spell that word?) to be later adopted.  There are also semi- frequent black-outs here, where it gets INCREDIBLY dark, and a large incidence of fake merchandise.  One time shopping on Avenida Central we noticed the vendors of DVDs suddenly shove their merchandise to the center of the blankets where it was laid up, bundle the whole thing, and put it on their backs like hobos.  Thirty seconds later the policía rolled up. 

--It is a combination of being in a poor country and being in a tropical country, but there is also the problem here that the water pressure is extremely low.  Apparently the tropical sewer system can't handle toilet paper or ANYTHING, really, being flushed into it.  We have to throw it away.  Though it really doesn't even seem gross to me anymore, I can tell you I look forward to being back in the U.S. if for no reason other than this!  Además the showers are very different, too.  There's only one knob connected to a head from which the water doesn't spray, but rather falls, straight down, and not accompanied by a large amount of more water.  And to make it hotter you have to just turn the knob so that less water comes out.  But we're lucky to HAVE hot water here.  (Actually the lack of it in the smaller towns usually doesn't affect much since it's so hot anywhere but the central valley and its surrounding mountains that you only want the cold.)

--I swear I'm not going to beat the traffic topic to death.  I just want to say that the traffic lights are slightly different here.  The green means "go", yellow means "here comes red," and red means "stop" (were anyone to pay attention to them--okay I promise that was the last comment!), buuuuuuuuut there is also a flashy green one before the yellow that I guess means "here comes yellow!"    Also Costa Rica has tried to approach its traffic problem in a way similar to that of Mexico City.  Any car with a lisence plate that contains a certain number cannot drive on a designated day of each week.  For example my teacher has two cars, both of which have 2s on them.  She can drive neither one on Tuesdays (which is a pun in English but not Spanish), and can only drive one on Friday because the other has the number forbidden that day.  It's meant to cut down on congestion, but doesn't work as well as it should because the fine for being caught driving the day(s) you're prohibitted results only in a $10 fine.  (I can't remember for sure, it might be a 10 mil colones fine, in which case it's about $20, but still, not much, right?)

--Costa Rica abolished their army in 1948.  Just another reason for it to be called the Switzerland of Latin America.  Other reasons include that it has been pretty darn stable though it's been surrounded by fighting for most of its existence and that it's rather expensive, especially for the region.

--Costa Ricans doooo make their own music, but I've really not heard much of it.  Instead there is usually one of two familiar things playing.  There's tons of reggae, Bob Marley and modern, and this makes sense.  I think I've made it clear that basically the entire Caribbean coast of Central America his full of Rasta culture.   But the other common thing to hear is 1980's music from the United States.  They love it.

And that is all for today.  This weekend my plans are to go white-water rafting down some river in the jungle Saturday and then go to Jacó and Hermosa beaches again on Sunday.  It should be a good time!!  (When isn't it?)

Pura Vida!

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

La Vida Tica

This past weekend I didn't do much--didn't go to Nicaragua or Cuba as planned--so I've nothing really to report.  It was just a good time to catch up on a little bit of homework and reading and, had there not been workers in the house making al kinds of noise and shutting off the internet,  it might have been a nice time as well to catch up on answering the questions some people have sent me. 

So while I didn't get to do that then, I thought I'd give it a shot now.

At the risk of gossiping a bit, in my father's words, I would like now to tell you a bit about the people studying here this trimester.  They're all so interesting!!!  I say it often, but it's true, studying abroad does attract a certain type of person.  They're very independent and interesting, all with a small streak of what some would call nerdiness but what I consider wonderful, lively passion for the world around them, be it in terms of politics, ecology, or languages.  Together we could write a little encyclopedia.

Of course you've heard a lot about Rebecca Dos, but I don't think I've mentioned she's from the same town where my parents went to grad school in North Carolina and that she's majoring in geography.  I didn't even know you could do that!  She had a Nepali boyfriend for the last 3 years, and she is currently not bothering me too too much.   Sharifa, too, you are familiar with, as the one I went to Panama  with, but she is a very funny and complex person.  Her father is from Ghana and her mother from India, and she gets the most piropos of any girl here.  She is studying biology in Pittsburgh, where she's from, but she's working very hard to learn Spanish here, too.  One morning I woke up, walked out my room and asked her whether she was about to use the shower or could I.  She held up her finger and did a very Sharifa-like head swerve and smile and slowly said "Hoy, solamente hablame en español."  Some days she keeps it up, some days she gets too tired, but she definitely works hard and I hope to see her confidence grow soon.

The people who didn't do the early start but live in our house I believe I've finally gotten to know well enough to write about here as well.  There's Geoff, a tall-ish 20 year old from Boston who goes to school in LA and who studied abroad for a YEAR last year in Australia.  He's helped clear land mines in Cambodia and spent time in Spain, and has a story for absolutely EVERYTHING.  I've still not figured out why he didn't jump off the waterfall because he's been bungee-ing and sky diving and scuba-ing, and it seems if it doesn't cost too much he's down for it all.  He's a photo-journalism major with a nerdy-spot for conspiracy theories and human rights.  Justin is in a lot of ways ALMOST (but never quite!) a stereotype.  He's from California, too, and his entire, moderately wealthy family is in the film industry, some pretty high up.  Add this upbringing to the fact that he's a small, somewhat effeminate guy, and you can see why it's such a disaster when he loses his shoes mid-hike or there are bugs in his bed.  At his school you can build your own major but he's focusing on gender studies type-stuff, and ecology, and he absolutley cracks me up when he's slap happy.  Tristen is the girl I've gotten closest to so far, and I can't help but wonder if it has something to do with the down-to-earth-ness being from the midwest can bring you.  She lived in Chicago till she was 11 and since then in a somewhat small town in Ohio.  She's pretty funny and loves to do the same things I do, including stay IN some nights of the week, and her major is something to do with international relations.  Her best friend is Japanese.  Finally in the house there is Cayla, who is my second roommate in the Poás room at the residencia.  She does yoga and talks loud and is always always happy and easy-going.  Her nerdy bit is city-planning, which is her major, and which she "just looooves!" 

On top of these people there are a few independents (meaning they're not with a program like CEA) I should mention as well.  Dan, or Danimal is 22, to turn 23 while we're here, from Long Island, and a very easy-going, happy, funny guy.  He is majoring in International Relations and loves to watch him some Mets on ESPNdeportes, "BEISBOL DE GRANDES LIGAS!"  Dan's best friend here is probably Josh, a kind of weird guy in my class who lived in France for 8 years.  He loves languages, majoring in French and Spanish, and he's pretty good at soccer as well.  And Jenn is an independent majoring in Spanish who always wears tie-dye shirts and talks about gymnastics.  She's very sarcastic, which I enjoy, and the lastest news with her is that she's considering adopting one of the puppies the woman in charge of our program rescues.  I hope she thinks it out completely, cause I know they're a lot of work, but I'm sure she'd be a good mom to her, who we've dubbed "Poocha" and who weighs not even three pounds at 2 months old.

That was just a little background so you know who I'm talking about, and I hope it didn't bore you!

On to answering some questions.  Many people have been curious about the food here.  It's over all pretty tasty, though the flavors are not all together interesting or strong.  Inoffensive would be a good word for a lot of it.  And relatively healthy.
The key ingredient is culantro, or cilantro, which they put in everything (I've gotten over my hatred of it).  The platos típicos are gallo pinto  and huevos revueltos (scrambled eggs) in the morning and a casado/a for lunch or dinner.  Gallo pinto is a purely Costa Rican concoction of rice and black beans.  When we made it in cooking class it also had egg, cilantro, chile dulce (basically non-bell-shaped bell peppers) and onion in it, so it's a salty, rich breakfast food.  Empanadas, or refried black-beans, cheese, or potatoes folded into deep-fried dough, are common in the mornings, too, though I don't like them as much.  This week in cooking class we will be learning to make dessert versions of them with pineapple in the center.  Hmm...  "Casado" in Spanish actually means "married."  It is because the plate is rice, beans, meat, veggies, pasta, and plantain all joined on one plate.  Cute, right?  The meat is usually either beef, grilled chicken with a slightly salty sauce that has cilantro in it, or fried chicken or fish.  The rice is white, the beans are black, the veggies are either boiled cauliflour, broccoli, carrots, and green beans, or a cold typical Costa Rican cabbage and mayonaise "salad."  The pasta is usually in tiny proportions when it's there and in a vaguely tomato-based sauce that hasn't much flavor at all.  The plantains are fried, with or without honey.  Aside from arroz con pollo, or rice with chicken, which has the same slightly tomato-based salty sauce with cilantro as the pasta mixed with the chicken from before, the only other really common cooked-foods here are Mexican ones, fried chicken, or fried versions of any vegetable.  My favorite is the Costa Rican-style chicken burrito, which is small-ish and fried with not rice but refried black beans inside.  And my favorite place to get it is at Mary's soda where Mary is absolutely the only one who works there.
Non-cooked foods of course are abundant here, too.  There are fruits out the wazoo!  I love it!  Pineapples (piñas), of course are the best, and they're everywhere, never EVER more than a dollar for a whole one.  But there are also the reasonably familiar mango, lemon, lime, papaya, strawberry, banana, grape (the size of plums), plum (the size of grapes), coconut, and avocado (not sure if those last ones are really fruit, but they're RAMPANT in the Rich Coast).  Weird fruits I've tried, if only in juices, are caz, which is somewhat tart and makes a very gross-looking juice, tamarindo, which looks kind of like a bean pod but is delicious enough to have a beach named after it, guava, which works well as jelly in a PBJ, guanábana, the famously delicious and expensive giant spikey pear-looking thing, and chayote, which might be a vegetable, but is really great in sauces or with mayonnaise.  I should also note that the carrots here are HUGE and the ketchup is different (to me, not as good, but others prefer it), the bread is good enough, and the churros are fab.

I want to talk about the diversity of people here, too.  My first trip I took here, the one to Puerto Viejo, I travelled with Rebecca Dos, Sharifa, Bobby, and the girl we met there, Eddie.  The last three were black, and sitting at lunch the two new arrivals talked to Bobby about their initial impressions of Costa Rica.  "Here," they said, "I don't even notice I'm black."  It's not a simple matter of an individual person treating them a certain way, but that in this country, the entire place, there's really (relatively) not racism!  

The language is very frank about things like this, too, the differences between people.  People may be nicknamed by mere acquaintances, "Negrita" ("Little Black Girl"), "Rubia" ("Blondie"),  or even "Gordo" ("Fatty").  There is a girl in a wheelchair in my class this month and my teacher, rather than ignore it as a way of showing she considers her a person first, asks questions of the chair itself, how she gets to class, and how she's travelled.  Honestly it seems the bluntness makes things MORE comfortable.  The difference is awknowledged but clearly not anythign more than a small difference.  Also in my class was a black girl who my teacher told "No, I'm not surprised you wear a size ten," and a boy, Joshua, of whom she questioned his ancestory.  She pulled her eyes on the sides and explained, "Because your eyes are like this!  You LOOOOK Chinese."  Still, it seems to me no one gets offended.  She told me the guys here would not like my curly hair, and another man told me that my skin color would do me well to just get darker, but I didn't take it too badly.  People are allowed to have flaws here.  It's kind of nice.  ...Since we have flaws everywhere.