The good news: We finally had our first soccer game the other day and we won!
The bad news: I couldn’t be there to see it because I was in San Pablo.

I had pretty much given up on trying to organize a game for the high school because the rainy season had already started and every other time I tried I was always met with resistance. It was really frustrating because the kids in San Isidro are used to being promised stuff that never actually happens. The day before the game a bunch of kids came up to me saying that surely it would be cancelled because they never get to play for one reason or another. One kid bet me a sucker that the game would be suspended and I told him we would be even if we played and won both games, which we did!

The principal from Llano Bonito gave the team permission to miss the morning classes to play two games against us and my principal cancelled morning classes for the entire high school to watch and cheer for the home team! I wasn’t there, so I don’t know what it was really like, but with the two teams, all the students and teachers from San Isidro and whoever else was randomly watching, there must have been about 150 people there. That’s more than 10% of the population of the town haha. We won the first game 4-1 and the second one 2-1. We’re supposed to return the favor and travel to Llano Bonito for another game or two. As long as I’m free the day they go, I could even play with the team since it’s a friendly match!

Today there were four soccer games between San Isidro and San Pablo. The games corresponded to the “cycles” in the school system. The first cycle is 1st through 3rd, the second is 4th through 6th, then 7th through 9th and finally 10th through 12th. I thought we would get dominated since San Pablo is so much bigger and the kids always talk about how they want to play against other villages about the size of ours, but we held our own. We tied the first game, lost the next two 1-0 and 2-1, and won the final 4-3. Nobody really dominated in any of the four matches; they were all entertaining to watch. Apparently there’s no age limit on the fourth cycle so I can play next time if I want. 


From Big Lick to Big Creek

I was reading the history of San Isidro the other day just for fun and found out that its original name was Quebrada Grande, or Big Creek. It was later named after San Isidro Labrador (Labrador means farmer) because the people wanted to pay homage to the patron saint of farming. For those of you that aren’t from Roanoke, or even if you are and never knew, Roanoke was called Big Lick for a while supposedly because there were a lot of sugar deposits that the deer would lick. It’s always fun to discover random connections like that!

I wanted to let you guys know about an opportunity that you could take advantage of to help support a new dance group this year in the elementary school in San Isidro. Five years ago, they formed a folkloric dance group comprised of students from 1st through 6th grades. They bought a dozen or so outfits and these outfits have been used year after year since the formation of the group. This year, they decided to start a popular dance group. It already has 33 members, has been practicing for over a month and just had its first performance today in the school arts festival. The only problem is that they don’t have any outfits for the group because there’s simply no money to buy them. I’ve been working with the school’s guidance counselor filling out a grant application for $500 from Kids to Kids, but even if we’re awarded the grant we’ll still be short a couple hundred bucks. That’s where you come in! I’m a little premature in writing about all of this because I don’t have the account I need quite yet to receive donations through the Peace Corps, but I thought I’d get the information out there while I was thinking about it and update you on the specifics later. Basically, I’ll provide you with a link to the Peace Corps website that allows you to donate money directly to me for my project and I will be sure to keep you all updated on its progress!

I was at the performance today taking pictures and videos of the group for the forms I had to fill out. Since they don’t have outfits yet, the boys wore white shirts with blue jeans and the girls white shirts with blue jean skirts. I thought that the popular dance group would be like breakdancing and stuff like that, but I think it’s just latin dancing that isn’t Costa Rican. It’s basically traditional dances that come from other countries instead of the truly Costa Rican traditional dancing that the folkloric group does. I took a video that I’m going to upload to YouTube. I’ll share the link in my next post. Chao!


My first tico funeral

I was actually at the viewing of one of my students’ grandpa who had died earlier that day when we found out that the father of the elementary school principal had just passed away. They told me that the funeral would be the following day and there would be no school because of it (in Costa Rica, they don’t have all the chemicals we have to preserve the body, so when somebody passes away they have the viewing that same day and the funeral the following). I was a little confused about why school would be cancelled, as the father of the principal was not from San Isidro nor did he work for the school in the past, because the principal had missed a lot of days taking care of his dad and we never cancelled school. But I figured it was safer not to ask.

Today I went to the high school here in San Isidro since the elementary school was closed. I told the English teacher that I would only be there half the day since I was going to the funeral in San Pablo. She then told me that there were no classes in the afternoon anyway so that people could go to that very same funeral. I was a little surprised by the cancelling of classes in the elementary school but I was shocked that the high school was letting out early. Maybe it’s different in very rural areas of the States, but where I’m from maybe one or two kids don’t show up to school or leave early when a relative passes away or there’s a funeral, but we would never ever cancel school for that.

My confusion grew when I heard that all of the teachers from the high school and the elementary school would be attending and we were bringing our school banners to place behind the altar. Admittedly, I haven’t been to many funerals in my life because I have such a small family, so maybe I’m not a good judge of what is typical in American society, but I found everything up to this point to be rather strange. At this point I went ahead and asked if the señor that died had worked in the school system. Chuckling a bit, they told me no and realizing my confusion they began to explain that to them the principal of the elementary school is a colleague even though they work in the high school. And in Costa Rica, it’s customary to support your colleagues in whatever way you can; in this case, the principals and teachers attending the funeral and bringing their banners. I understood what they were saying, but as it was something foreign to me that I had yet to experience, I didn’t fully comprehend it until I got to the church and saw it for myself.

In total, there were four institutions represented by their banners in the church: the elementary school and technical high school in San Pablo and the elementary school and high school in San Isidro. I thought maybe the schools in San Pablo had just sent their banners with a few representatives or something but no, they actually cancelled afternoon classes there too. And that’s no small feat because the technical high school has 800 kids from all over the region, so to communicate a change in the schedule and coordinate transportation for all of them is nothing short of amazing on that short notice. But just imagine classes being cancelled for 1000+ students for a funeral… As I looked around the sanctuary, I saw students, teachers and principals from all four schools, as well as the former high school principal in San Isidro who now works about an hour away. I also recognized a ton of people from a bunch of different places: San Pablo, San Isidro, Llano Bonito, San Marcos, Santa María and even as far as Frailes. The sanctuary was so full that people were crowding around the three entrances to watch the funeral.

Since it was my first tico funeral, I tried to pay as close attention as I could to the service, but it seemed like a typical mass and I got lost rather quickly. Not for lack of understanding because I’ve gotten to the point to where I can understand 75% minimum, but even when I’m listening to a sermon in English I zone out. How many times have you been to church and not been able to remember what the sermon was about a half hour later? It was the typical standing up and sitting down a million times, kneeling on the knee rail thing, holy water splashing all over and the holy smoke – or is it just incense? Never once was it mentioned who it was that had died or who his relatives were, what he did during his lifetime, etc. I guess just about everyone there already knew all that stuff anyway. This was another difference that struck me, because for me that’s what the funeral is about (I feel like I learned more about my dad’s dad during the funeral and reception from what friends and family members had to say than I knew up to that point). However, at the end of the service, the principal got up in front of everyone and began thanking us for coming and how his dad would have been happy to have seen how many people came to his funeral. He also talked about how grateful he was for his dad and how proud he was to be his son and how his dad did the will of God throughout his life. It was super emotional because he got choked up toward the end and almost everyone was crying by the time he finished. I choked back my tears for the time being, but I ended up crying in the second funeral when I saw my student crying. I don’t know why but I can’t watch other people cry without tearing up myself.

When the service is over, they carry the casket to the entrance and set it down there so as people file out they can see the deceased one last time. That part is really emotional also because family members are weeping and practically throwing themselves onto the casket (there’s a pane so they can’t touch the body) saying their goodbyes… it’s hard to watch. Once everyone has left the church, they load it into the hearse and proceed to the cemetery, but slow enough for people walking behind to keep up. There’s the hearse, a crowd of people walking and then a procession of cars. I didn’t see the burial in San Pablo because I left with some people from San Isidro to go to the other funeral, so I’ll describe the burial in San Isidro.

We walked from the church to the cemetery, which isn’t that far but it’s straight uphill so I was surprised by some of the old women that did it. Then they unloaded the casket onto a big concrete slab in a little outdoor pavilion where once again you could view the body. Someone from the church said a prayer and they took the casket to the grave to be buried. I’m not sure why, but they make a concrete container above ground that the casket fits into instead of burying it. The end is open and they slide the casket inside and then some guys with concrete and cinder blocks close it up. Then everyone goes home and the family does rosaries every night for nine days. The ninth day is called the novenario and a ton of people go to the house to pray with the family. I don’t really understand the significance of the rosary in the first place, much less why they do it nine days in a row, but that’s what they do.

I guess what I learned through this experience is what I already knew about Costa Ricans: that they’re more community- and people-oriented than we are in the States. I don’t know if that’s a product of their culture or simply the rural area that we live in, but it’s evident in every social gathering I’ve been to. Later this week, I’ll be attending a wedding for the first time in Costa Rica and I’m sure I’ll see more of the same. More on that later!


La Semana Santa

So I was a little confused about exactly where we were going and what we would be doing for the holy week, but it was still a lot of fun. My family kept telling me about going to the middle of nowhere and getting out of the truck to cross a river and walking a couple hours further into the countryside to a relative’s house. Naturally I thought this is where we would be staying for the whole week since it was the only piece of information I had to go on, but it was just a side-trip. I guess it’s the highlight of the week for them so that was the only thing they told me beforehand. They also told me that they were saving up a lot of money because the trip would be expensive. Maybe I’m naïve, but given that, I was expecting to go to the beach, eat out at restaurants, go to the movies; you know, a typical vacation. But I guess their idea of expensive is different from mine. When I think of an expensive vacation, I think of paying for gas, paying for a place to stay, eating out, going to movies or other activities, etc. Their idea of an expensive vacation is going a week without working. Other than gas and food, we literally didn’t pay for anything else. We stayed at my host mom’s parents’ house and didn’t leave the house for an entire week. I’m not complaining at all: I had a great time. But I want you to know what a vacation is like for a Costa Rican family. We’re going back for two weeks in June and it might be different when it’s not a religious week. They did the rosary thing a lot so maybe we didn’t go anywhere because of that, who knows?

My brother and I refused to sit in the house and do nothing all day every day so we made some adventures with one of our cousins. The first day we went to a waterfall about an hour away on foot. The water was really cold but it’s so hot in that part of the country that it felt great. The second day was the infamous hike to the relative’s house in the middle of nowhere Costa Rica. I actually had been close to that place before when I took my trip down to the southern part for my PCV visit so I kind of knew where we were. The highway follows a river, which was huge when I went at the end of the rainy season last November but was practically dry last week. There are stories about people getting eaten by crocodiles in the past in this river before they had decent bridges. One of my cousins told me that they built the bridge first and later the water ran underneath… It’s not funny in Spanish either. After we crossed the river on a less-than-reassuring footbridge, we followed a dirt road up over a mountain, down the other side, across several creeks and through the valley until we got to my great aunt’s house. Apparently my dad has a tradition of running the seven kilometers and getting there first, so I decided to join him. Well we didn’t run the entire seven kilometers but we did arrive first! I literally sweat for two hours afterward. The place we went to was like a farmhouse with cows, pigs, chickens, ducks and other farm animals. They make a lot of cheese there, the kind that squeaks when you chew it, and it’s even better when it’s fresh like that. I never had squeaky cheese before in the States, so most of you probably don’t know what I’m talking about, but it’s no joke. I don’t really know how to describe it… it’s a unique texture for sure. We also cut down some trees that look similar to palm trees. I reckon that’s why they’re called palmitos. Near the base, the inside is soft and edible and they can use it to make picadillo. It seems like a waste to cut down an entire tree for a part of it about the size of a softball but there’s no other way to get to it. On the way back to the highway I ran with my brother. My dad had to carry a bag so he couldn’t join us, but he must have given it to someone else to carry the rest of the way because he caught up to us close to the end! Imagine a 45-year old dude running up and down mountains in work boots haha…

The third day we went to a different river an hour away in another direction. We left the house looking for guavas, which are different from what we call guavas in the States apparently. The outside looks like a mix between a banana and a pea pod. It has the length and shape of a banana but it’s flat like a pea pod and inside the seeds are in a line. The seeds are coated with what looks like cotton candy and that’s the part of the guava that you eat and you spit out the seeds. Anyway, I thought we would only be gone for an hour or so, so I didn’t bother putting on sunscreen before I left, but we quickly gave up the search and decided to head for the river instead. Just like all the rivers in Costa Rica towards the end of the dry season, it was pretty shallow but we were able to find some spots where we couldn’t touch the bottom. I tried to stay in the shade as much as possible but I got burned pretty good on my shoulders. Not so bad that I had blisters like the other time, but still. While we were there, we ran into a Canadian guy that married a Nicaraguan and has two kids that are Costa Rican citizens. He’s been in the country for fifteen years or so I think he said. Normally I don’t like meeting other foreigners in other countries. I think it’s because the kind of people that travel a lot tend to have a lot of money and are kind of snobby. That’s not to say that everyone who travels is like that, but that’s been my experience with the majority I’ve met. But this dude was really cool. The type that actually lives and works in a foreign country, as opposed to spending a work or two sightseeing, knows what’s up. That’s really the only way to learn the language, experience the culture and to come into contact with the people as they really are. Someday when I’m rich and snobby I’ll be able to travel from place to place, but for now I’m fine with working a year or two in each country I visit.

The fourth day my family and I minus our mom went to the beach; she was doing a lot of stuff around the house so my grandma didn’t have to do everything for everyone. I probably shouldn’t have gone since I was already burned from the day before, but this time I was careful to put on a lot of sunscreen multiple times throughout the day. They told me that we went to Dominical, which is one of the more famous beaches in Costa Rica, but I’m pretty sure we stopped at a random rocky beach several miles before the real Dominical beach. For one thing, the beaches are supposed to be super crowded during la semana santa, but there was nobody at this one. Nor were there shops, restaurants, hotels, nothing… Naw, it couldn’t have been Dominical, but it was nice to have a whole beach to yourself. I think I experienced my first rip tide at this beach, or at least the first one strong enough to make me worry for a bit. I don’t remember ever not being able to touch the bottom where the waves break, but that’s how it was at this beach. I like riding the waves so I kept trying to make it out to where the waves were crashing but I kept getting to this point where I could feel myself being sucked out and I couldn’t touch the bottom anymore so I got scared and swam back in. And it’s a good thing that I wasn’t stubborn enough to go all the way out there because a group of teenagers from the States all drowned a couple of days ago here in Costa Rica.

The following day I didn’t do anything because I had a killer headache. They said it was because I had been out in the sun too long too many days in a row and I think they were probably right. Although I think it was more the heat than the exposure to the sun. The heat that I experienced in that part of the country is what I had imagined that the whole country would be like before I came. The part where I live is in the mountains and it gets pretty cold here, especially when it rains, but in Platanillo (where we stayed) I was sweating just sitting on the sofa. There you would take a shower just to get out of the heat for a little while and then you would immediately start sweating again once you got out. I told you already that I sweat for two consecutive hours after jogging; I don’t ever remember sweating for that long in my life. At night I could hardly sleep. I had to wait until the sun had been down for several hours before it was cool enough to even bother trying.

The rest of the week we just visited other parts of the family in the morning and played soccer in the afternoon. Going home was just as much an adventure as getting there was. Oh, I guess I forgot to tell you how David (my host brother) and I got there and back. Keep in mind that I thought we had to cross the river and walk two hours and all that to get to where we were going. Also, they totally exaggerated that part of the trip anyway… it wasn’t a bug and snake-infested swamp haha. I was under the impression that we would all be leaving together in the same car at two in the morning on Saturday, but if I had been thinking I would have realized that all six of us couldn’t fit in one car and much less with all our luggage. So they sent David (pronounced “dabeed” haha) ahead on Friday with the school principal who was going in the same direction and I decided to go with them. Our principal has a really nice car, even for American standards, so here he gets a lot of attention driving it around. It’s not a hummer but it looks similar; it’s a Toyota something or other, I’m not into cars. So anyway, we went with him and joked around the whole time about picking up girls, but of course we never did. He dropped us off in the big San Isidro that’s kind of like the capital of the southern part of Costa Rica. When I tell people I live in San Isidro, they confuse it with this big one that’s actually called San Isidro General. From there we caught a bus to Platanillo. The story doesn’t sound so crazy now that I’m re-reading what I wrote, but it seemed crazy at the time. It all happened so fast: they asked me if I wanted to go just a couple hours before we left. And I thought we were going to have to walk through a swamp for two hours to get to where we were going. Also, it seemed adventurous because I had never been anywhere outside of our little zone with my family, much less alone with my brother, and I think it may have been his first time making the trip by himself. Well, he was with me, but you know what I mean, gringos don’t count!

On the return trip, we had to spend several hours in San Isidro General waiting for our bus, so we walked a half hour to an aunt’s house. It’s kind of crazy for me to be part of such a big family. My familia gringa as they call it only has ten members but my family here has well over one hundred. It’s like no matter where we are we could walk or drive a few minutes to a relative’s house to visit. We ended up spending a few hours there eating and chatting with some old guy who must be related to us somehow. He kept asking me about the agricultural products of Virginia but as I’m no farmer I only got as far as corn and tobacco. I forgot peanuts! The bus ride was rather interesting. They weren’t selling tickets and the driver lost count of how many people he had let on, so when it got to be my turn to get on he told me to wait to see how many seats were left. Well, there weren’t any and he had already let my brother on so I thought I was going to have to wait in the terminal by myself for the next one but David came back to the front and was like “Hey, this American is with me,” but in Spanish, of course. So the driver was like you’re OK but nobody else. During the ride, we started talking to these two ladies. I started talking to one because she looked like she could have been related to this teacher I know. As it turned out, she really was the sister of someone I knew, but someone completely different from the teacher I had in mind! And David was talking to this other lady just because they were sitting beside each other and she turned out to be the neighbor of the aunt that we visited in San Isidro General. Costa Rica is tiny haha.

Well I can’t say that what I experienced was a typical semana santa for other Costa Rican families, but that’s what my family does every year for it. I’m already looking forward to next year!


Time Flyin'

I can’t believe it’s already mid-April. And before I know it, we’ll be in May because next week is la semana santa (holy week) and my family is taking me to Perez Zeledon for eight days to visit the extended family. The last two weeks in March, we were in San Jose for in-service training and the first two weeks of April have been short weeks with holidays and special meetings and other things keeping me out of school. Time has been flying…

So Easter is coming up and in Costa Rica they celebrate it for an entire week. Not everyone has the whole week off because the most important days (Friday and Sunday) aren’t until the end, so most people have to work Monday – Wednesday. I went home for Christmas, so I don’t personally know what it was like, but my friends tell me that it was anti-climactic in comparison to Christmas in the States. So I imagine that la semana santa is sort of like their Christmas: the biggest holiday of the year, in other words. And if you think about it, it makes sense that Easter would be more important than Christmas. After all, it wasn’t Jesus’ birth that was most important, nor His death, but His resurrection. But it’s still weird!

I thought I might explain a little more about what I do outside of the schools. I enjoy teaching English and helping the teachers here, but what interests me most are projects in the community. They’re a lot more varied than just teaching English all day and I get to meet a lot of new people and learn new things in the process. I’ve already written about my boys’ soccer team I believe, but right now I’m in the process of forming a girls’ team, also. According to my principal, I needed to issue permission slips because it’s not culturally acceptable for girls to play soccer. I think it’s just a better-safe-than-sorry scenario. The female P.E. teacher in the elementary school is going to help coach the girls’ team with me.

Yesterday I went to a meeting of the Boy Scouts in San Pablo to see what a typical meeting is like and to talk to the leader and the head of the committee that’s in charge of the troop. We went on a short hike to a clearing where we ate some snacks, played some games and sang some songs – it was a lot of fun. I didn’t really get the chance to collect all the information I needed, but I’ve come to realize that sometimes it’s better to just relax and experience something new than to go into it full steam asking a million questions and not really interacting with the person. I learned a lot more from watching and participating in a meeting of the Boy Scouts than I could have in ten interviews about it. Now I just need to find a few people that are interested in leading the scouts in San Isidro if we can get a group formed.

Tomorrow I have a meeting with the Asociación de Desarrollo (Development Association) to talk about the possibility of building a gym here in San Isidro. They turned in the paperwork for the project a few years ago and after sitting in bureaucracy forever it was finally rejected due to the government’s lack of funds. We’re hoping that some of the grants that I have access to as a Peace Corps Volunteer will help us get it approved this time.

I have a couple other things going on with some teachers in the technical high school in San Pablo. Remember that I wrote about how the high school teachers in San Isidro have to teach all kinds of other classes other than their specialty because the school isn’t big enough to have its own counselors, etc. Well, in the big technical high school, there is one teacher that teaches the proyecto social class to the entire school. She has 800 students from all parts of the region. I’m working with this teacher to figure out a way for the students that come from places outside of San Pablo to do their projects in whatever village they come from. And specifically the ones from San Isidro, for obvious reasons. The kids in the 10th grade have to do a special community project for forty hours, so maybe I can put them to good use doing a recycling project or something, who knows?

There’s another teacher in San Pablo that I’m talking with to try to get a website created that would allow teachers from all over Costa Rica to share resources and ideas they have for their classes. He’s an informática teacher, which means he teaches computer classes. At first, we were talking about having the kids make the website as their end of the year project, but this guy actually makes websites for a living and he was telling me that he could make it better and faster; in a week’s time he said. It’s cool because it coincides with a project that some other TEFL volunteers are doing, which is to put together a book of resources that Peace Corps volunteers and their co-teachers have come up with. They want to put this book together and send it to all the other TEFL volunteers and the teachers they work with to have a hard copy as a resource for years to come. What I want to do is digitize it and put it on the Internet for others to use and to possibly add to it. The website would be for teachers of all subjects, although I think it would be used primarily by English teachers due to the (hopefully!) high level of content of English resources.

After holy week, I’m supposed to start teaching classes in the technical high school for kids that come from areas where there aren’t English teachers in the elementary schools. These kids go through six grades in their elementary schools with no English whatsoever and then they’re thrown into classes with kids who have had English and they just clam up because they’re scared to make mistakes. It will be good practice for when I start my community classes in May because I think a lot of my students will have little or no prior knowledge of the language.

So it seems like I’m busy, and I am, but sometimes I wonder what I’m actually getting accomplished, if anything at all. I do a lot of talking but I haven’t done a lot of doing. It would be great if all of these projects came together and fell into place but maybe I should pick one or two and focus on them until they’re complete. The good thing is that sustainability of projects is emphasized a lot in the Peace Corps, meaning that I’m not supposed to do all this stuff on my own. It’s better for me and the community if I find people to take charge of my projects because it empowers them to do it on their own in the future when I’m not around anymore. And it keeps me from going crazy trying to be in charge of a million things at once!


Super Busy

I can't believe a month has gone by and I haven't written anything... A month of school and I haven't told anyone anything about my schools, my teachers, my students, the education system here in Costa Rica, nothing. In my site I don't have the time or the Internet to blog often but luckily I'm in San Jose for another week of training and have plenty of both! This week of training is referred to as In-Service Training (IST) in the Peace Corps world and it signifies the three-month mark of your service. For the first three months in your new site, you're supposed to take it easy and get used to your new surroundings, get to know the people, make friends, etc. Unfortunately for us TEFL volunteers the school year started in early February and that time of relaxing kind of went out the window.

I have three schools that I work in every week and a couple others that I visit from time to time if my schedule allows. I work in both the elementary school and high school in my town and another high school in the big town close to me. Each of the schools in my town has roughly 100 students and one English teacher while the other high school has 800 students and 7 English teachers. The bigger high school is a technical high school, which means that the kids that go to that school learn special skills, almost like majors in college. And they have to go there for an extra year to finish the program. Also, I should point out that Costa Rica doesn't have middle schools like we do in the States, so normal high schools go from 7th to 11th and technical schools to 12th. I think they are like colleges because for the first three years they take academic classes and in addition they take English and French and classes from the majors to decide which one they like. They even have to apply to get into a specific program, just like we did in college for our majors. It's pretty cool though. The majors they have are accounting, wood working, computers, secretarial management, tourism, and architectural drawing. Other technical high schools have other programs, but those are the ones in mine.

The schedule in the technical high school and the elementary school is pretty straightforward, but it's wacky in the high school in San Isidro. The technical high school goes from 7:00 - 4:10 everyday. The elementary school goes from 7:00 - 2ish everyday (I don't really know because I'm never there past lunch because the English teacher works the mornings there and the afternoons in another place). But the other high school's schedule is just crazy. There's five grades, five teachers (English, Math, History, Science and Spanish), a principal, a cook and then no one else. There's no janitor, no gym teacher, no counselor, no computer teacher, no art teacher, nothing. So what happens is each teacher is assigned a grade and they have to teach classes called guia (guide - like a counseling class I guess, they talked about feelings the one time I saw it), desarrollo personal (personal development - pretty much whatever the teacher feels like teaching that could help develop the students; it could be art or computer classes, whatever) and proyecto social (social project - a volunteerism class basically, although it's not voluntary). I think it would be a lot more efficient for them to hire one teacher to go around to all the grades and teach all these extra things so the teachers would have more time to plan for their respective subjects, but I doubt the ministry would want to do that. Anyway, to try to make a long story short, the high school in San Isidro starts everyday at 7:00 and then each grade has its own schedule. From what I've seen, the earliest they get out is at lunch and the latest is 3:30. However, a grade might have all Science classes in the morning and nothing in the afternoon and if the Science teacher is sick or something then all the kids just go home because there's no one else to teach them that day. As it turns out, the English teacher I work with there only teaches English in the mornings and then her afternoons are full of all those extra classes. Which is problematic for me because the elementary school teacher also only teaches in the morning. That's why I started visiting those other two schools I mentioned before because it makes more sense for me to work in the high school in the morning and visit another school in the afternoon than to work in the elementary school in the morning and then sit in an art class in the afternoon.

There are a ton of things about my job in the schools that I haven't described at all... but I'm already tired of talking about school haha, so let's move on to the more fun things that I'm doing. I started a boys' soccer team in my high school and we've been training three days a week after school. I was astonished that there wasn't already a team because soccer is so huge here and almost every single kid plays it from a young age. I really enjoy hanging out with the guys and playing soccer, but the difficulty is motivating them to practice without having games planned in the near future. We started with about 25 kids the first couple practices and recently we've been getting ten or twelve. So what I've been doing is going around to other high schools and talking about the possibility of playing friendly matches together, but this poses all sorts of other problems. Namely finding a time to play, transportation and that other schools also don't have teams. Kind of important.

I never realized it until I spoke with the lady in the regional office of DINADECO (an organization that helps Associations of Development with their projects), but the Association of Development in San Isidro is trying to build a gym, which is exactly what I want to do, too! I haven't had a chance to meet with them yet, but I'm really looking forward to the possibility of working with them. Apparently the governmental process for doing these projects is really slow, like years of paperwork and waiting for an answer. And supposedly they had been working on a gym once before and got all the paperwork turned in and everything, but it got denied after three years. Part of our training during IST is on the different organizations that can help us with funding and on how to write grants in Spanish, so hopefully we can start the process over again and get it approved this time!

After IST, I plan on starting my community classes in San Isidro. Part of the reason I waited was because I wanted more time to get to know my community before I became too busy to do anything else but teach English. The other part was simply that I wanted to learn from others' successes and mistakes. All of our classes are completely free because we don't want to exclude anybody from them, so my idea was to have my students volunteer their time working on one of my projects instead of paying me. It will help the community and hopefully limit my class sizes to only those who really want to learn. Other volunteers have classes of like 40 or 50 and that's something I definitely want to avoid.

I think those are all the major things that I've been doing. Lots of English, lots of soccer. I'll try to expand more on my job next time. And if there's any questions that you want answered feel free to leave a comment or email me. Pura vida!


Burnt to a Crisp

Three weekends ago, all of the volunteers from the Central Valley region went to Turrialba to raft the Pacuare River for our regional VAC meeting. I don’t remember what VAC stands for but it’s a committee of volunteers for volunteers. They put together a lot of trips and activities for us all to come together and get to know each other better.This trip cost about $60 per person and it included the rafting, transportation and lunch made by our guides. They dragged one of the rafts onto the land and flipped it over so they could use it as a table and they prepared lunch right there on the river for us. We had tuna tacos if I remember correctly; it doesn’t sound too appetizing but trust me, after a couple hours of rowing, you’ll eat anything. It was actually really good and everything was really fresh because they cut up all the tomatoes and avocados and everything on the raft-table. And for dessert we had Chikys! Chiky is a brand of cookies; they’re rectangles with one side being chocolate and the other just cookie.

 The Pacuare River is one of the world’s top 5 rivers to raft and it was awesome! It has mostly class 3 and class 4 rapids and there’s a long slow part where you can jump out of the raft and just float for a good while. Also, we stopped and went ashore for about a half hour to a nearby waterfall. The water landed on a huge stone step that we were able to swim to and sit on; it was pretty cool.The water hit you hard enough that it kind’ve hurt! It was a fun trip and a great experience and I would definitely recommend rafting the Pacuare to anyone that comes to Costa Rica. It’s affordable and worth every penny: we rafted for a couple hours or so before lunch and another hour after. It had been a while since I had gone rafting and I haven’t gone many times, but I’m pretty sure this was the longest of the trips I had been on previously and easily the most fun.
I’ve spent the better part of the last two weeks with a second-degree burn on my back.The same cousin that I took with me to the mountains wanted to go to the creek and build a dam so we could have a little pool to swim in. It seemed like a good idea at the time and we definitely had a lot of fun doing it, but ten days of pain makes me think otherwise now. I put sunscreen on at the start of the day and reapplied to my face and neck halfway through but I never reapplied it to my back. I have a theory that my host sister didn’t put nearly as much on my back as I needed, but it’s my fault for having my shirt off for that long and sleeping for an hour or so on a rock wasn’t very smart either!

The dam we built wasn’t as good as the ones I used to build with Heath and Andy but it served its purpose. With my friends in Roanoke, we were always really careful to build our dams with rocks that fit each other like a puzzle so not so much water got through. It’s easy to just throw a bunch of rocks in a pile but if they don’t fit together just so, the water will rush between them. Grass clippings and leaves are great for filling all the tiny holes that you’ll inevitably have among the rocks. I was hoping to build a sweet dam like in the old days, but my cousin preferred to just throw a bunch of rocks in a pile. Even so, we managed to get the water up past our waist at the deepest part.

The aftermath was devastating though. Interestingly enough, I wasn’t burned at all in any other part of my body – not my face, not my neck, not my shoulders – nowhere except for my back. And burned it was. The first day it was just really red, almost purple, but it didn’t hurt. From the second day until a day or two ago it hurt a lot and I had tons of little blisters and a few big ones. One was about as big as my fist and was completely full of water. It almost looked like one of those bags that goldfish come in sometimes. It’s almost fully healed now, but it’s still red and feels warmer than usual and I have several scabs down my spine where I got burned the worst. I guess when I laid out on the rock, the skin around my spine was exposed a lot more than when I’m standing and maybe it’s more delicate because of that. At least the pain is gone; now it just itches like crazy haha!



I think I’ve mentioned before that our counterpart here in Los Santos, the regional assessor of English,Manolo, is a very powerful man and that he was instrumental in bringing the TEFL program not only to this region but to Costa Rica itself. Needless to say, we all feel very lucky to have him because he’s set up so many meetings for us and he provides us with the support we need to do our jobs well. We’ve already met most of the teachers we’ll be working with and visited most of our schools. However, sometimes it can be a bad thing for your boss to be so active and interested in your project because sometimes you might have to present yourself in front of seventy principals – in Spanish. And that was just one of our meetings this past week and a half.

Our first meeting was in a pizza place in Santa Maria with the regional assessors of the other subjects and the supervisor of the assessors. We had two hours to tell them all about the Peace Corps, the TEFL program, why we decided to be volunteers and what we want to do in our sites. In typical tico fashion, the meeting started a half hour late but we still ended a half hour early. Everyone knows that it always takes way less time than you think it will to say something you’ve written for a presentation, but as it turns out, it’s a lot worse in a foreign language! I think it took me an hour to write what took me only five minutes to say. I shouldn’t have been as nervous as I was, because everyone here understands how hard it is to learn English, so they’re really gracious about our level of Spanish. But I couldn’t help but be nervous introducing myself in Spanish to the region’s highest level of educators.

Also present at our first meeting were the three county administrators. Each one of us got to meet the man or woman that is in charge of all the schools in our respective county. That’s the cool part about the meetings: after you’ve introduced yourselves and gotten the hard part over with, you get to meet all these powerful people that can help you later on. Everyone seemed like they were excited to have us there and were thinking of ways they could work with us. In my presentation I told them that I like playing soccer, so one of the assessors was telling me that the teachers have a league and I could join his team!

The second meeting we had was the one with all the principals. In the pizza place, the meeting was just for us, but in this one we were just a small part of a much bigger meeting about all kinds of school-related stuff. We met in a big gymnasium at a school in between two of the major towns here for a few hours. I probably could have understood what was going on if I had wanted to, but the four of us had just gotten back from a rafting trip and I was too exhausted to care. The superintendent had some things to say as well as the circuit supervisors and some other people. I have no idea what they were talking about but I can’t imagine I missed anything exciting! For some reason, I wasn’t so nervous to talk in Spanish in front of the principals. I don’t know if I was just too tired to be worried or what it was. Right before our part of the meeting, Manolo sang a couple songs, so I opened with a joke about how if it didn’t embarrass him to sing like that then I could at least say a few words in Spanish!

The third meeting was with some of the English teachers that we would be working with over the next two years. This was by far the most fun because we could talk in English and play games with our new friends. Of course, we said a few things about the Peace Corps, but our main goal was to just meet the teachers and have fun with them. I think we ended up playing Mafia for the last hour of the meeting! I met almost all of my teachers and they’re all really cool and I’m looking forward to working with them. I can definitely see myself hanging out with some of them after school or on weekends if they have time. The problem is that the single ones go home to other parts of the country to be with their families on weekends and the others are married with children. Also, their schedules just don’t really allow them to do a whole lot during the week. They work from 7:00 – 4:00 almost non-stop and without planning periods – ridiculous. Anyway, it was a huge relief to meet my coworkers and for them to be cool.


Día de las Montañas

A couple days ago, on the first, my cousin and I went hiking in the mountains that surround San Isidro. I tried to get more people to come with me by telling them that the first of February is a special day in the States: “El Día de las Montañas.” Nobody believed me, and rightly so. Dario and I packed a lunch and started at seven so we wouldn’t be out in the sun during the hottest part of the day. We had planned on going to the highest mountain to take pictures and come back but once we were up there, we decided we might as well visit as many other peaks as we could and we ended up staying out almost the entire day. Amazingly, I didn’t get a sunburn because the Peace Corps gave me this really thick SPF 60 sunscreen; you only need one coat of that stuff for the entire day, even at the beach. We started at his house on the edge of town and walked back into the center where a road splits off and goes up in the mountains. It was asphalt for a couple hundred meters and then it was dirt and rock the rest of the way. The hardest part of the entire day was the initial ascent; after that we just followed the ridgeline from peak to peak.

We came across a random soccer field way up in the mountains that they use for church retreats and family reunions and stuff. It was really nice, but it definitely seemed out of place and I still can’t imagine the people here hiking up there. I’ve never seen anyone walking around for the fun of it and everyone thinks I’m weird for walking, jogging and hiking. About the only form of exercise that people engage in here is soccer. A little higher up the mountain, we found some bee farms or whatever you call them. Not far from there we also saw a bunch of bees living inside of dead trees. My cousin was afraid of them at first, but I explained to him that they won’t mess with you as long as you don’t mess with them. Eventually, we had to leave the dirt roads to get to the top of the first mountain and we didn’t use another road until we came back down at the end of the day.

The tops of the mountains here are great places to take pictures from because they’ve cut down all the trees to provide grazing land for the cows. We visited several peaks and had different views from each one, but in every direction you look there’s always many more mountains one after the other. We must be right in the middle of a range here in San Isidro. I got a ton of great pictures of my town and the surrounding areas. From the northeast mountain, you can see another one of the villages I’m supposed to work in at some point in these two years: Llano Bonito. I think that translates to ‘Pretty Plain’ but it’s a joke here because it’s neither pretty nor flat. It’s basically strung out along a ridge and the people here say that even the soccer field isn’t level, haha. From another you can see this huge facility owned by the electric company that’s run by the government. And from the last one, the southeast one, you can see almost the entire Los Santos region, or at least all the parts that I’ve ever been to or heard anything about. The only major town I couldn’t see was Santa Maria because there’s a mountain in between it and San Marcos that blocks the view. So I couldn’t see where Bryson and Sarah live, but I could see Copey, almost at the top of the mountain at the far side of the valley where Angela and Rebecca live, San Lorenzo, where Kelsey lives, San Marcos, the biggest town in Los Santos, San Pablo, the closest big town to me, and a handful of other smaller villages.

It’s really cool to be able to see where you live from high up like that. I could see all the parts of town that I’m familiar with and now I know of other parts that I still need to visit. All the major buildings are really noticeable from up there: the church, the soccer field, the salon comunal, the salon pastoral, the two-story house (there’s seriously only one here haha), the cemetery, etc. The salon comunal is a public building that the community uses for dances, concerts, parties and other gatherings. The salon pastoral is owned by the church and is used for similar church-related activities. The two-story house in town is actually my uncle’s house and we live right next door, so it was easy to find where I live from up there!

I was surprised that we didn’t see any snakes, but we did see a very small frog, lots of grasshoppers, butterflies, some lizards, cows, bees, hummingbirds, and a pack of what looked to me like raccoons or something very similar. Their tails were up in the air though… My cousin said that they’re called ‘ardillas’ in Spanish, but that means squirrels so I still don’t know what we saw and I didn’t get a picture either. There was this one part where the face of the mountain was completely covered in a really thick grass and there must have been several hundred birds flying back and forth. I’m assuming they were eating the insects that live up there, but it was National Geographic type stuff with that many of them zooming back and forth feasting on their prey. All we needed was a guide with a British accent to make it complete! It did seem more like terrain you would find in England though. Not that I’ve ever been, but it was like rocky highlands with grass up to your knees.

Towards the end of the day, we came across a herd of cows blocking our way to the next peak. They saw us from a mile away and just stared at us the entire time we carefully made our way around them further up the side of the hill. I would have never thought about it in a million years, but my cousin had to take his shirt off to go around them because he was wearing red! He also advised me to go above them instead of below because if they decided to chase us, they would never catch us going uphill, but downhill is another story… Later that day, I realized that I hadn’t been stared at like that since I came back from Korea!

On the way back down, we kind’ve got lost. We knew the direction we needed to go (down), but the roads weave in and out of coffee farms and sometimes end abruptly. We followed a road for a good while and out of nowhere we turned a corner and there was nothing but coffee in front of us and on all sides. Instead of backtracking uphill, we figured as long as we kept descending we would get to where we wanted to go. Eventually we hit a creek and followed it down until we found another road. From there it was fairly easy to find our way back to town, but those roads in the coffee mountains are seriously like a maze.

All in all, it was a really fun day and I’m already planning my next adventure. I want to walk from San Isidro to Frailes. My brother knows the way and he said it’s like eight or nine hours, which is about the same amount of time we spent the other day. And who knows, maybe there will be a Día de las Montañas Parte Dos!


What´s Normal?

This is something that I’ve been wondering about for a while now but my curiosity has been intensified with my time abroad in cultures different from my own. I remember I started thinking about it when I came home for Christmas during my first year of college in New York and home didn’t feel quite like it used to when I lived there day-to-day for the previous eighteen years. I had only been gone for two months or so, but already I had adjusted to a different life. Or perhaps I was somewhere in between my old life and my new one at school. Either way, home just didn’t feel like home anymore. I think the vast majority of Americans move at least once or twice by the time they go to college, but I had never even moved houses my entire life, let alone cities or states. I think never having had that experience of a drastic change is what made the question of what it is to be normal so conscious in my mind.

It’s weird. You leave your home for the first time and you expect time to stand still while you’re gone and for everything to be exactly as you left it, but things don’t work that way. Granted, things don’t change very quickly in Roanoke and things basically stay the same, but I think I’m speaking more to the attachment you feel to a place. Also, I think that the attachment you have to a place relies heavily on the relationships you’ve developed there. I think it’s only natural that as you move from place to place, or go from high school to college, that your current friendships begin to take precedence over your former ones and relationships tend to fade over time if you don’t keep up with them (I’m not talking about life-long friends – I mean acquaintances, people you were kind’ve friends with in high school, etc.). If you don’t believe me, simply think back over the years of your life, or the periods rather (middle school, high school, college, after college), and tell me if you’ve maintained all those friendships over all those years. It’s impossible. People come and go; there’s nothing wrong with it, that’s just the way it is. No matter how bad you want to, you can never go back to the way things were before. Our childhood homes, or at least the way we recall them, are long gone. And you can never go back to high school, although I have no idea why anyone would want to!

I’ve been blessed to have had a handful of friendships endure from elementary school and middle school to today, but I feel as though that’s the exception to the rule. We all still call Roanoke home since we haven’t technically made the transition to another permanent location, but we’re hardly ever there and never all at the same time. Between college, study abroad, grad school, and working overseas, my friends and I hardly live in Roanoke anymore, but where do we live? What’s normal for us? What’s normal for anyone? What length of time is necessary for a way of life to feel normal to someone? Will I ever feel normal in a foreign country, no matter how long I stay? How long will it take me to readjust to the States? Or will I ever? I think I may have bitten off more than I can chew with this one, but I’d like to explore it for a little while, at least until my head starts to hurt haha.

I think it’s interesting to point out that, in my opinion, it’s much easier for an expatriate to feel at home in the United States where the population is very diverse than it is for a white American like me to integrate into a homogenous country. I stick out like a sore thumb almost everywhere I travel: Africa, Asia and now Latin America. Even if I learn the language, adapt to the culture, make friends, start a family or whatever the case may be, everyone would still know that I was different. That’s not to say I wouldn’t be accepted in those places, but no one would ever believe I was from there. But what people from homogenous cultures often don’t realize is that the United States is so diverse in virtually every aspect of life that you really can’t tell if someone is a citizen or not just based on how they look. I’m not sure if my argument is that I’ll never be able to feel at home in a foreign country or simply that it would take a lot more time than it would in any random town in America. I really like it here in Costa Rica; my Spanish is coming along; I’m starting to make some friends; but I’ll always be the gringo in town haha. I guess it’s not such a bad thing.

I think that I’ll be able to get used to life in the States when I return; I think the difference will be in the way I see things. I don’t think I’ll ever again be able to subscribe to the fast-paced work, work, work lifestyle that so many Americans have. I can’t claim to be completely comfortable with the pace of life down here because it’s excruciatingly slow, but I’m slow-paced by nature and I think this pace suits me better. I also think that I’ll be more people-oriented when I return. It’s engrained into us from an early age that time is money and people rarely spend as much time as they should with their family or friends or neighbors just sitting and talking because it seems like a waste of time when you could be making money. At first it bothered me when I wanted a quick answer to a question from someone and then an hour later after drinking coffee and shooting the breeze I still didn’t have my answer. But it’s nice the way people take an interest in each other here. I’m not gonna go overboard and say that I’ll be a vegetarian by the time I get back, but my family here definitely eats a lot less meat than what I’m used to, and I’ve begun to realize that the amount we eat back home is so unnecessary. Don’t get me wrong, I love meat and there’s zero chance that I’ll refuse to eat it, but I won’t take it for granted so much. Maybe I’ll decide to eat it less often or in smaller portions or something.

Back to the original topic… maybe there is no such thing as normal. Or maybe each person has their own ‘normal’ and I just haven’t yet found mine. Certainly it’s not normal to be a Peace Corps Volunteer or to live abroad. I guess I’ll just have to settle for being different for now. Perhaps there’s something to be said for it.


Rice, Beans and Spaghetti

On the same plate.At the same time.It’s actually a lot better than it sounds after you get over the initial shock of the blasphemy. The first time I saw it, I was pretty taken aback but now that I’ve had time to think about it, it almost makes sense. I mean rice and beans are a given with every meal here like kimchi was in Korea, so if you want something else it still has to be served with the rice and beans. After a while you realize that food is food and you just learn to eat whatever you’re given. Having said that, I actually really do enjoy the food here and it’s not a problem for me at all. It’s not always very balanced but at least it doesn’t contain all the stuff that processed food has in it. I still contend that a rice-based diet is a great way to lose weight. Don’t ask me why, but it is from my experiences. I’m not going to lose another thirty pounds like I did in Korea simply because I don’t really have that much to lose but I had already lost seven by the end of the first ten weeks. Although, I’m pretty sure I gained it all back while I was at home eating turkey, dressing and mashed potatoes and gravy three meals a day for about a week and of course all the Christmas cookies and candies, haha. I was reading a book about being a Peace Corps Volunteer and it was talking about how men typically lose weight and women gain weight during their service. The theory is that food in developing countries has a lot of carbs and men’s bodies can process carbs a lot quicker than women’s and it turns into energy instead of fat for men. Also, there is a lot less meat in the diet and I guess men typically eat more meat than women back home.

Someday I’ll have to start taking pictures of my meals to show you guys but I feel a little weird about busting out my camera at dinner time. I feel like it might send the wrong impression, like I think the food is really strange or something. Speaking of pictures, I figured out why my pictures take up so much space and thus forever to upload. My camera was set to take pictures that could be printed out at size A3. I’m not sure how big that is, but they were taking up 4MB apiece and each one took several minutes to upload. Now I’ve got it set to e-mail attachment mode or something like that and each one is only 150KB and my memory card can hold about 45,000 more pictures now than it could on the other setting. The only problem is that I can’t go back and change my old pictures to the new setting. I’ll choose a select few of the best of my old pictures to upload and then once I’ve taken a bunch of pictures on the new setting I’ll be able to put as many up as I want and really quickly, too!

I’ve started the long, slow process of working on my CAT (Community Assessment Tool). My plan was to start interviewing my family, since they would be most comfortable with me and most familiar with who I am and why I’m here, and then I was going to introduce myself one Sunday at church. The first part worked out great – I’ve interviewed my host dad, his mom and one of my aunts and I feel like I already know a lot about my community. The other great thing is that they’ve been able to tell me who can answer the questions that they don’t know the answers to. I guess in a small town like San Isidro, it’s well known who is on what committee and who the town leaders are. The second part has not gone as according to plan, unfortunately. Last week there was no service, this past week my friends and I went to the beach to celebrate a birthday, and the following week is a special service for a sweet 15. Yes, 15. Apparently that’s like a coming-of-age thing here for girls. I’m not sure how much significance it carries these days but, from my understanding, in the past it used to signify that a girl was now a woman and she was old enough to marry and have children. I think it’s changing or has already changed in the cities, but here in the country it’s acceptable for girls in their teens to marry men ten, fifteen, or twenty years older. Also, teen pregnancy is really common here which makes sense if a lot of teens are married, but still… I was talking to one of my friends about it (she’s 19) and she said that she’s one of three girls left in her graduating class that hasn’t had a kid yet. Now that could be an exaggeration and I have no idea how many girls were in her class, but that’s still really shocking. Anyway, so the next service at the church is a special one for my cousin who is turning fifteen and the only people who are going are the invited guests to her party. There’s still going to be a lot of people there, but it’s mostly family from out of town which doesn’t help me at all. My new plan is to wait until the first day of school and introduce myself to all the teachers and parents because supposedly there’s some sort of meeting the first morning. I still haven’t gotten up the courage to complete the door-to-door survey portion of the information-gathering process. I’m not sure if it’s because I feel like my Spanish is inadequate or because everyone here thinks I’m a 16-year-old exchange student. San Isidro and surrounding areas have had a lot of foreign exchange students in the past, but they have never had a Peace Corps Volunteer or an equivalent from another program. People tell me I look young for my age, but sixteen?!?

The CAT is a huge pain, but I actually really enjoy talking to people about San Isidro and finding out about the community from a variety of perspectives. We’re supposed to ask questions concerning health, safety, education, water and sanitization, drugs, etc. It’s interesting because some of the questions are written specifically for very, very underdeveloped areas of the world. For instance, there’s an entire section on water with questions like ‘How many wells are there?’ ‘Does anyone here know how to fix the wells?’ ‘If there is no potable water nor wells, how long does it take to get to the nearest water source?’ ‘Do you boil your water before drinking it?’ I’m sure all of these questions are really crucial in other places, but here they have water systems similar to ours back home with an organization that oversees the aqueducts and a guy that lives here that can fix them. They haven’t relied on wells in like fifty years! The first two questions were ‘Is there potable water in the houses here?’ and ‘Do the majority of households have their own bathrooms inside the house?’ The answer was ‘Yes, every last one of them.’ So I said well… I guess I won’t be working with the water and they were like why would you? We have a guy for that.

The idea is that by the end of the process, I’ll know what my community needs, what they want, and how that fits into what I can provide with my skill set and also what the Peace Corps would like for me to do. The Peace Corps has a lot of initiatives with HIV/AIDS awareness, women’s rights, teen pregnancy, etc. to name a few. If I walked into my new community without asking anyone anything and started a whole program on HIV/AIDS, only to realize weeks or months later that the problem is almost non-existent here, that would be a huge waste of time and effort. One thing that I’ve found is that the people here are well aware of the lack of recreational activities here for the children. I think it would be a really great idea to start a gym or build a playground to give the kids here something to do with their free time instead of just watching TV. And I think it would receive a lot of support from the people here, which is really important if I want my projects to continue well beyond my time here.

This past weekend, my friends from the Los Santos region and a couple others went to the beach at Manuel Antonio on the Pacific side to celebrate the birthday of one of us. We actually live really close to it if you look on the map, but the way the roads and the bus routes work, you have to backtrack to San Jose and then take a convoluted route past all the other beach towns to get to it. I think by car it’s only a couple hours but by bus it’s more like seven or eight. It was a really beautiful beach and there was also a national park with monkeys! Definitely worth the time in the bus. We left early Friday morning (I got up at 3:50 to catch the first bus out of my site) so we could get there in time to hit the beach for a couple hours before the sun went down. I think I’ve mentioned this before, but if I haven’t, the sun goes down here around 5 or 5:30 every day. The beach was really pretty and the waves were strong but not too strong; it was perfect. I didn’t even get a sunburn haha! For dinner, we found a really good Mexican place. It was so good that we ended up going back there for dinner Saturday night, also! Both nights I got two enchiladas and traded one for half of someone else’s burrito. The restaurant has their own hot sauce and it was so good that my friend, Angela, decided to buy a bottle. I thought about it, but of course I have two bottles of Marie here with me. On Saturday, we went to the national park. It was a beautiful walk through the forest and eventually you end up at a beach that’s more suited to Costa Ricans because it’s enclosed and there’s really no waves to speak of. Most ticos don’t know how to swim or the ones that do don’t know very well, so waves scare them and they’re always warning you about rip tides. My host dad even told me how to swim out of a maelstrom if I got trapped in one! At the beach, people were feeding the monkeys chips and other snacks so they could take up-close pictures. I got a short video of this one small monkey hanging upside down off of a low-hanging branch so he could grab chips out of people’s hands. On one end of the beach, this lady had hung her bags up in the branches of one of the trees on the edge of the forest. I still don’t know if the monkeys planned it this way, or if it was just coincidental, but two of them kind’ve led everyone away from the tree with the bag by running around and looking cute and whatnot. Then one of them sprinted over to the tree and started rooting around in the bags before anyone could make it back over there and stop him and he ended up with a bag of chips! He took it up into the tree and before long there was a huge commotion and you could see a bunch of leaves falling down and you could hear monkeys screaming at each other. Eventually all the chips fell down onto the rocks below and the monkeys had to gather them with their hands and their mouths and scurry back up the trees on two legs.

On the way out of the park, armed with the information that monkeys like chips, one of my friends started feeding one of the monkeys. At first, it was just one cute little monkey and we were having fun taking pictures with him. Then, one by one every twenty or thirty seconds, more and more monkeys arrived on the scene. And they weren’t content to hang upside down from the trees and wait; they started running after us on the ground. Before long there were several on the ground and we started seeing more in the trees, a lot more. So we decided to get out of there – fast! Afterwards, we did a bit of shopping, hit the beach one last time, ate Mexican again and went home early Sunday morning. We spent a little bit of time at the Peace Corps office in San Jose because we needed to put our deposits down for a rafting trip coming up in two weekends. It’s the Saturday before Super Bowl Sunday, so we’ll be staying the night in San Jose after rafting and watching the game with everyone before we all head our separate ways again. But not to worry, we’ll all be seeing each other again at the end of March for ten days in San Jose for our in-service training :) 


Feria del Café

This past weekend was the long-awaited coffee fair in Frailes. It didn’t disappoint. There were tons of activities, lots of merchandise, food and snacks, a coffee-picking competition, fireworks shows,a circus act, concerts, and even helicopter tours! It’s by far the biggest event of the year in Frailes and the surrounding areas. I’m really glad I went and that I stayed the night Saturday with my training host family so I could be there for the entire two days. I got to see most of my tico friends from Frailes and several of my Peace Corps friends as well. Unfortunately, many of the Volunteers from my training group live several hours away and couldn’t make it up for the fair.

Most of the fair took place on the soccer field, although the coffee-picking competition was in a finca and the helicopter took off from a different location. Along the perimeter of the field were stands with all kinds of snacks and merchandise pertaining to coffee and other traditional Costa Rican stuff. There were coffee cookies, coffee brownies, coffee candies, coffee pizza and, of course, just regular coffee. The coffee pizza didn’t really taste like coffee; it was just bad. There were also necklaces, bracelets, earrings and crosses made out of coffee beans. Everything seemed reasonably priced and there were several things I saw that I considered buying, but I’m sticking to my plan to buy the bulk of souvenirs towards the end of my service. That way, I’ll know even better than I do now what’s out there, what I want, how much I can get it for, what’s authentic and traditional, etc.

It was cool to walk around the fair with my friend, Tyler, from the business program of the Peace Corps because a lot of the people selling merchandise there are going to be working with him since he lives in Frailes. So he was explaining to me how they make everything by hand and how it’s environmentally friendly and whatnot. They all seemed talented and creative, not to mention ambitious, so I imagine he’ll be able to do some great things with them and help them expand their businesses over the next couple of years. One thing they would like to do is start websites and expand their market beyond the Frailes coffee fair once a year and wherever else they sell the rest of the time – probably in markets in San Jose. I’ll share any links I get from Tyler so you guys can start buying stuff made from the world’s best coffee!

The coffee-picking competition was kind’ve anticlimactic. I guess I shouldn’t have been expecting too much since all you’re doing is just watching other people do a menial job but I thought it would be really exciting. I thought it would be an hour or two of intense picking, but as it turns out, the competition in Frailes is the finale of a series of competitions in other places and they only pick for fifteen minutes in each location. I got there right when it was supposed to start, but for whatever reason we had to wait an hour for it to begin; like everything else here, things just run on a different schedule than what I’m used to. Apparently, not only do you have to pick fast, but you have to pick the high quality beans. If you end up with a lot of greens or leaves and twigs in your basket, you get disqualified or have points deducted or something. They announced the winners of the competition at the end of the fair. There were three places for each sex: 3rd place received $100, 2nd place $200 and 1st place $300. Pretty decent considering that it would take even the best coffee pickers about two weeks to make $300. And slow people like me couldn’t make that much during the entire season, haha!

One of the sponsors of the fair was Stihl and they had a competition to see who could cut the thinnest slice off of a log using one of their chainsaws. It was called ‘la galleta más delgada,’ which means ‘the thinnest cracker!’ A lot of guys tried to cut it too thin and were disqualified when their slice broke off halfway down the log. Tyler’s host dad was one of the participants and he opted to go last because he thought the chainsaw would do better after it had warmed up a bit. I knew Papillo was pretty handy because he constructed his own house, but I didn’t think he would cut the thinnest cracker, but sure enough he did! It was really quite impressive; it couldn’t have been more than a centimeter or two thick.

I was stupid and didn’t check my camera battery before I left so I wasn’t able to take many pictures. But there’s always next year and it should be even bigger and better!


Back in the CR!

I’ve been back in Costa Rica for almost a week now and although I really enjoyed seeing friends and family back home, I’m definitely glad to be back. It was a little weird to fly back and forth like that. I’ve been to other countries and lived abroad before, but I’d never visited home in the middle of one of my trips and then returned to wherever I was. By the time I had readjusted to the States, it was time to return to Costa Rica.

While I was home, I tried as best I could to keep up my Spanish but I was definitely rusty and unconfident when I first got back. I think I’m back to where I was, but I was a little overwhelmed the first couple of days. There was just a lot going on. I spent the night in my training community and visited as many people as I could before I had to leave the following afternoon and then I was off to my new site, San Isidro. So I had to pack all my stuff and say goodbye to a lot of people and then start over in a new place. A couple days later the other volunteers in my region and I had a meeting with the regional English assessor to talk about what our plan was for the rest of the month and a half we had left until school starts. The other volunteers had met a bunch of people in their sites and held meetings and were about to start teaching classes in their communities and all this other stuff… I just felt lost. I hadn’t even unpacked yet haha. After the meeting, one of my friends gave me some paperwork that was due in less than a week. We’re also supposed to be collecting information in a variety of ways and writing a 40-50 page diagnostic on our community. In Spanish, mind you. It was just a lot to handle in a short period of time, but I’m better now so it’s all good. I still haven’t really started on any of the things that I’m supposed to have done by the time school starts, but I’ve taken a few days to relax and get my bearings before I get going and I feel a lot better about everything now.

This past week, even though it’s been hectic, has been really fun. Like I said before, I got to see a bunch of people in Frailes before I left which was really nice because it would have been a much more difficult and uncomfortable transition to go straight from home to my new site without seeing anyone I knew. I spent my first full day in San Isidro picking coffee with my host family, which I thought was fun and interesting but I can see how it wouldn’t be much fun to do every day. At first, I was picking the coffee bean by bean because I was worried about accidentally picking the green ones if I just tried shucking the entire string of them all at once. The red ones are ripe and the yellow ones are OK to pick, also, but you’re not supposed to pick the green ones because they’re not ready yet. The black ones are dried up reds and those you can pick, too. What makes it a little easier is that the green ones are still really hard and they stay on the branch a lot better than the others. So as long as you don’t pull too hard, you can get all the reds, yellows and blacks in one fell swoop without getting any of the greens. The other thing I had to get used to was the fact that it’s OK if you end up with a bunch of leaves in your basket because you can just pick them out at the end and it’s a lot faster that way than avoiding them the whole time while you’re picking. Anyway, I definitely picked the least out of everyone, including my twelve year old sister, but they all said that I picked a lot for my first time. I didn’t let them pay me for what I picked, but if I had, I would have made $7 for about 7 hours of work. That sounds pretty bad, but obviously the other workers pick a lot more and make a lot more than that. And considering that half the world is below the poverty line which is $2 per day, I think Costa Rican coffee pickers are doing just fine. It’s not exactly what I want to do with my life, but it beats a lot of other things in a lot of other places.

Before we had our meeting, the regional assessor took us to a coffee co-op for a tour of the facilities. Coffee is a huge part of the culture here, so it’s important that we have a good understanding of the process. The more we know about coffee, the more we can relate to the nationals and thus the more willing they will be to work with us and befriend us. I had already experienced the first few parts, which is picking the coffee, measuring who picked what by emptying your sacks into boxes called cajuelas, dumping the boxes into a big truck and then taking it up to one of the receivers. At the receiver, the coffee slides out of a chute in the back of the truck into a bigger box that equals ten cajuelas. Two of those boxes equal a fanega. Someone has to keep shoveling the coffee towards the chute and once the box is full the worker at the receiver closes the chute and pushes a button so the bottom of the box opens up and the coffee falls into a huge pile and sits there until another truck comes to take it to one of the coffee co-ops. The guy at the receiver keeps track of how many times you fill up the box and then you get a receipt. At the co-op the coffee goes through a number of other steps to prepare it for roasting. There’s a machine that separates the part of the coffee bean that they want from the parts they don’t and from there the two piles go off in different directions. None of it is wasted, however, because they found ways to make good use of the entire bean. They figured out that they can make ethanol gas with the liquid part of the bean and the husk can be used as fertilizer. The actual bean continues on to be dried in the sun which takes about a week. And if it rains, everyone has to run outside and gather up the coffee as fast as they can. I’m not sure why they don’t just bring out a tarp or construct greenhouses or little pavilions made of clear plastic or something like that, but I guess they know what works best. After the beans are all dry, they put them inside for a few days to recuperate and they have to control the humidity in the room to ensure that the beans are as good as they can possibly be. Don’t ask me why they need to recuperate or how sitting in a huge pile in a building helps but it’s a step in the process so… haha. Then they’re ready to be roasted. They roast the majority of the beans to a medium roast because it’s the most popular but they also do light and dark. There are also four flavors of coffee in Costa Rica and the flavor depends on the altitude in which they were grown if I remember correctly. They are chocolate, vanilla, floral and the other I don’t remember. All in all, it was interesting to see the process from start to finish and I must say that even though I almost never drank coffee back home I’m getting to the point to where I drink at least two cups every single day here!

This past weekend there were fiestas de verano (summer parties) in my site. It’s not really supposed to be summer down here because we’re in the northern hemisphere but they call the dry season summer and the rainy season winter. These summer parties are a lot like county fairs or carnivals except with dances at night. There are a lot of farm animals (cows, sheep, goats, hogs, etc.) and a lot of carnival games and food. They start the dances around 8 and at first it’s kind’ve traditional and a lot of older couples dance for an hour or so but after they leave they play more modern music and the dance has more of a club atmosphere. The first night, on Saturday, none of my friends from Frailes were able to come, so I ended up dancing some with my host sister and her friends and a little with my brother and his friends. We didn’t leave until around midnight which is super late here because we normally go to bed around eight or nine so we can get up at five and be in the fields by six, but these parties only happen once a year so everybody stays up for them. Yesterday, a few of my friends came up for the fiesta and we hung out for a little while until the tope came. A tope is a group of horses that rides from a good distance to its destination at one of these fiestas. Then they have a horse show before they sit down for dinner. After dinner, there is live music and dancing.We decided to leave after the tope and drive over to a bigger city and see what was going on at their party. There was a lot more stuff to do and there was an outdoor concert, as well. It was a cover band playing the most popular songs from Latin America, none of which I knew, but it was still fun.

Today I haven’t really done much of anything except write this post and I finally got around to downloading my pictures onto my laptop. By the time I publish this, I should have some pictures up on Picasa and the link will be on the right. Enjoy!

P.S. It´s going to take me a while to get a substantial number of pictures up... the upload time is really slow


Home for Christmas

Peace Corps Volunteers aren't supposed to leave their sites during training, the first three months of their service or the last three months. However, I was allowed to come home to see my grandma before she passed away on the 23rd. She had a rare and aggressive form of cancer called sarcoma. We had no idea anything was wrong before I left and then all of a sudden she was in the hospital and her health deteriorated so rapidly that I just barely made it back in time to say goodbye. We'll miss you gramma.

Right before I left to come home, we had our graduation from training. It's called the swearing-in ceremony and we had to take an oath at the ambassador's residence. The oath goes something like this:
"I, (your name), do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America against all enemies, domestic or foreign, that I take this obligation freely. And without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion. And that I will well and faithfully discharge my duties in the Peace Corps, so help me God."
Two of our fellow Volunteers, one from each program, went up and gave a short speech thanking our host families for everything they've done for us. Then we all went up one by one to get our certificate saying we completed our training and to get our picture taken with the ambassador. Afterwards we had some time to take pictures with all our friends and family before we all went our separate ways to our sites. When I go back in January, I'll be close to five or six other Volunteers and the rest I'll just have to wait until our In-Service Training in March to see them.

It's surreal to be home right now, especially during the holiday season and having come home so quickly and unexpectedly. I remember coming home from Korea and it felt so weird, but we had been looking forward to it for so long... this time I got an email telling me to come home and the next thing I knew I was on a plane and back in my own home, albeit with no bed but that's another story haha. It's definitely been comforting to see friends and family during this time. As always, my thoughts are jumbled and I can never stay on one topic, but I just wanted to mention that it's really cold here. And there's snow. We had the coldest day in 15 years in Costa Rica and it still didn't get down to freezing. It was probably in the 40s or something. Usually you see old women bundled up like there's a blizzard outside when the temperature is in the 60s early in the morning, so 40 is pretty darn chilly for them. It's nice to see snow again. I missed last year's 'Snowmageddon,' unfortunately. My tico friends want me to bring some back with me, but I think pictures will have to do :)

Aside from the cold, another thing I've noticed is that we don't eat rice at every meal, or at any actually (I haven't had a single grain of rice since I left CR... and I'm OK with that haha), and we use forks here. Actually, I lied. I had a ton of rice with my Chinese the other day. The first time I got change since coming back, I thought for sure they had dumped a bunch of pennies in my hand because they felt so tiny. The coins in CR are so huge that even quarters seem really small and light in comparison.

In my spare time here, I've been memorizing the national anthem of Costa Rica, talking with my tico friends to keep up my Spanish, watching a ton of American football and eating as much food as possible. Today I created a new Facebook account since it bothers everyone so much down there that I don't have one. It's all in Spanish, but feel free to add me anyway. I'll write to you in English, I promise! It's actually under my real name this time, imagine that.


San Isidro de Leon Cortes!

This past week, we went back to the training facility in Tres Rios to meet our counterparts for a two-day workshop before going on our site visits for five days. It was an awesome experience and I and everyone else in the Los Santos region feels really blessed to be where we are and for whom we get to work with. Our main counterpart is the regional assessor of English and he brought with him a few other teachers and principals from our communities. My other counterpart is the principal at my high school and I can already tell that we’re going to be good friends; he’s really cool and laid back.
After the workshop, we all visited our future sites for five days. I went to San Isidro de Leon Cortes and I already really like it there a lot. It’s really beautiful and relaxing there, ‘super tranquilo.’ My new family is pretty cool, too. I thought I was only going to have one sibling because when the Peace Corps visited their house the other two weren’t there and I suppose they just forgot to ask if there were any other members of the family living there. I have a 20 year-old sister, an 18 year-old brother and a twelve year-old sister. Their names are Viviana, David and Maria Lupe, respectively, and we already have a lot of fun with each other. Something really interesting about my new family is that they have had exchange students in their house in the past, so they’re used to us and they know what to expect and how to deal with us better than other families who have no idea. The thing about having had high school exchange students, though, is that they were kind’ve crazy and they were expecting me to be like that, also. Apparently, the other people they had had before me never woke up before 9 or 10, which sounds pretty normal for a high school student but that’s ridiculous here. People generally wake up at 6 or 7 at the latest, but my family picks coffee for a living, so they wake up every day at 5. So when I woke up at 5 with them, they were astonished and kept asking me if I needed to go back to sleep. They’re also really curious to know why I don’t do drugs because the last exchange student they had moved out of their house to a bigger city so she could buy her weed. And they also insist that weed is legal in the U.S. even though I insist that it isn’t, haha. The other thing is that the exchange students slept around within the community, so everyone is already assuming that I’ll be like that, too… Nothing like high school exchange students to provide misconceptions that I have to live with for two years! Honestly though, I think they realize that I’m older and I’m coming as a volunteer so I’m not going to be doing the same types of things.
The first couple days I was in my new site, I just tried to see as much of it as I could and get a feel for where everything was. For how small it is, there’s quite a bit of stuff, and anything I can’t find in San Isidro I can go to San Pablo for and it’s only ten minutes away. We have a supermarket, a soda (a hole-in-the-wall restaurant), a movie rental store, an Internet café in my neighbors’ house, a restaurant and a soccer field. I’m pretty sure we don’t have a bank, a police station, a fire station or a gym but I can survive without those. I think I mentioned before that my family picks coffee for a living. Well, the first day I was there, my brother and I took their truck up the side of a mountain to where their ‘finca’ (farm or plantation) is and the workers brought all their ‘canastos’ (huge bags) full of coffee to put in the truck. They empty them out into this box and then they share the money based on the number of times they filled up the box. After all the coffee is in the truck, they take it up to one of the collector facilities in town. The truck has a chute on the back of it and they pour the coffee into this big container and they keep track of how many times they fill the container. It was really interesting to see a portion of the process and I’m excited to get to try out picking coffee when I go back in a week. The second day was Sunday so we went to church in the afternoon for a special Christmas service. They had a play which I’m pretty sure was their version of Scrooge and after the service they lit the Christmas tree and Santa appeared on the roof of the church and threw candy down.
Monday and Tuesday, we went to the high school in San Pablo for a workshop that the regional assessor had set up. It was a great opportunity for us to meet the other English teachers from the region that we would be working with and we were even given the chance to present what we have been learning in training. Although we don’t always feel like we’re qualified to be leaders, that’s what Manolo, the assessor, wants us to be and being at the workshop was a huge step in the right direction for us. We’ve already developed good relationships with the teachers that we’ll be working with and they have a sense of what we’ve been learning and what we’re going to be doing to help them.

I had a great time in my future community and I already really like it and can't wait to go back for good! I've already made some great relationships with my new family, my co-workers and a few people around town. I'm definitely excited about the next two years of my life :D