Apr 30, 2011

Waking Up

I know, I know, it has been a month and I am a horrible person for waiting this long to post my last post for this blog. I’d say it was because I just don’t want to stop writing about my experiences, that writing this last post means that my trip is really over and that that frightens me, but that would be a partial lie. I’m sure that subconsciously, that was part of it; however, mostly I am just lazy and really, really busy. I have been working 40+ hours a week at my internship and when I have been getting home or have gotten a chance to relax on the weekends, the last thing I have wanted to do is write this post. So for that, I am sorry.

Our last few days in Costa Rica were a strange mix between unbelievably rapid and painstakingly slow. Our despedida day was wonderful; the weather was perfect for tanning, sunny with slight cloud cover for moments of relief. We spent the whole day there and enjoyed three beautiful meals prepared by our host moms. Lacy and Janiva brought their bracelet making materials and Janiva played her guitar and sang. It was very pura vida. That night Johan and I went out for sushi and then stayed in and watched Alice in Wonderland.

Thursday was spent at the mall with Tanny saying goodbye to her and Toya, who left Friday morning, and packing. I wanted to make sure that I had everything basically packed before Friday because I didn’t want to spend my last day rushing around. It was really depressing looking around my room and seeing nothing except the bare necessities and suitcases. Catie came over for dinner that night and we watched RENT and said our final goodbyes to Toya. Halfway through the movie we made popcorn, which Gatito ended up begging for like a dog. He really is a funny – as in comical - little cat.

Friday came and went quietly and included a nap and lots of eating and sitting on my computer. Anna, Fofo, Jose, Lacy, and Adrian came to pick me up around 11 p.m. so that we could go say goodbye to Catie as a group. We laughed, we cried, we made inappropriate jokes at each other’s expense to stop the crying. Then we attempted to take a group photo and failed miserable like three times before finally getting one that everyone was happy with. Typical. By the time we left Catie’s yard, it was rounding on midnight and we had to drop Fofo off, but before we could of course we had to stop at this poor little Asian restaurant that wanted nothing more than to close. The rest of the night was spent driving around and hanging out at Jose’s house until we had to leave for the airport at 3:30 a.m.

Anna and I were amazed to find out that our luggage was underweight when we checked in at the airport. It seemed impossible, but somehow the travel-gods decided to give us a break. Anna sobbed and clung to Adrian for a good hour and a half, until almost the last possible moment, outside of the security line. Then, somehow, our overstuffed carry-on bags filled with coffee and ceramics were considered “suspicious” by the security people and we had to open our bags up to be inspected. That somehow is sarcastic, in case that didn’t come across in my writing. The comic relief was welcomed. By this point, we were starving, so Anna and I went to McDonalds for breakfast and she got her last plate of gallo pinto. I did not. I got French toast sticks – yummy.

We had been unable to get seats together on the plane, but it didn’t really matter. I was asleep and out cold before we left the runway and didn’t wake up until we were descending into Houston. It was perfection.
We only had an hour layover in Houston, which almost turned into a disaster because of the customs procedures to come back into the United States. Anna and I had to go through claims, which are where they check your passport, then reclaim our checked luggage and bring it through customs, recheck it, then go back through security, and get to our gates, all in an hour. We barely made it, and had to say rushed final goodbyes at the end of the security line. My plane was, of course, at the furthest corner of the airport (I had to take a shuttle and walk through about 4 hallways and take two staircases to get there) and was scheduled to take off at 12:10. I got there at 12:07. They had held it for me. I got that dirty look from everyone on the plane that says “so you are the reason we haven’t started taxiing yet.” I didn’t care, I had my own little row and I just read.

My best friend and my parents met me at the airport, which was lovely. The rest of the day was spent relaxing and another one of my good friends was home for Easter so she came over to visit for a bit as well. The next day was Easter and my whole family came over to the house.

Now, it has been almost a month since I got on that plane in Costa Rica. Since then I have gotten a new tattoo (my dog’s paw print), started my internship, temporarily moved in with my cousin and his girlfriend, set up my lease so that I can move into my apartment in June, and been all-around busy just about every single day.

Most days the last four months or so of my life have been nothing more than a wonderful dream. Or the memory of a book that I read, or a movie that I saw. I got home and picked my life up right where I left it, just four months further into the future. I feel like I’ve just woken up, like the movie-theater lights just came on, like I just shut the book. I’m thankful for being constantly busy, though, because if I was bored, this would be unbearable.

I’ll try to have some pictures up by tomorrow. For now, I leave you with a final “pura vida.” Thank you to everyone who has read this. Hopefully you have enjoyed it.


Apr 13, 2011

Single digits: counting down

I’m posting this on Tuesday because we got back from Puerto Viejo a day early. We loved it there, but we realized three things: we wanted to spend more time with our families before we left, we could be eating for free, and we could be sleeping in our own comfortable beds instead of a tent. In case nobody understood the title of my post from last week – since I never explained it – it is a quote from Lacy from our hike up to Poas Volcano. She breathed weird while she was laughing and started coughing, and she said “I’m so high on life right now that I just literally choked on laughter.” I shortened it for literary purposes. It was really funny and seemed appropriate.

This week has been quite the emotional tidal wave; I have felt anxious, nervous, sad, excited, guilty, and most of all confused (because of all of these emotions of course). I couldn’t decide how I felt about leaving, and then, after talking to one of our new Pi Theta pledges, it hit me. All the anxiousness and nervousness derived from my guilt. The realization of the guilt was new for me. I hadn’t put a name to it before. I felt guilty, above all other emotions, for not wanting to go home, for even entertaining the idea of choosing this place over my friends and family. After giving a name to what I was feeling – and some talks with my sorority sisters and other friends – I was able to emotionally prepare myself for coming home.

In order to help myself make sense of the emotions, I had to make myself a list of the reasons why I need to come home:

1. Jazzy would have wanted me to come home.
2. I have tons of wonderful family and friends who want me back.
3. I have an awesome new internship waiting for me.
4. I miss my Pi Theta sisters.
5. I have to write my theses (not that this is really that big of a motivator).
6. I am sick of watching Brewers games online.
7. My parents just adopted two new beautiful kittens, Bosco and Ellie.
8. I need to start making some money again instead of just spending it.
9. I'm going to be a SENIOR IN COLLEGE.
10. I miss my job at Carthage.

So yeah, that is what I came up with. Obviously, there are many more reasons why I have to go home (and should want to go home), but those are just the first ten that pop into my mind. I think it is a pretty good list, but that is just me. The last week has just been hard because everything that we do is the last. We had our last week of classes and volunteering – which was incredibly depressing, by the way. Saying goodbye to our fifth- and sixth-graders was probably the saddest goodbye that we have had so far. Thursday morning before my last marketing class, I almost started crying outside of my marketing classroom because it hit me, like a crazily-driven Tico bus, that I was in single-digit days, at that point 9 (right now, 4, which is even harder to stomach). But, I’ve emotionally stabilized since then. I think we are all getting hit in waves. I’ve only almost cried twice since Thursday. I think that is pretty good. I’m really not much of a crier.

Plus, I found out last Tuesday that Anna and I have the same flight from San Jose to Houston, so that is wonderful! We will be able to cling to each other and sob like children for three hours (which is unrealistic for me, but Anna is kind of a crier, so I wouldn’t put it past her, haha). It will be nice being on the same flight with her; we can support each other through it and sort of figure out all of the outward flight process. Not to mention, since she is flying into O’Hare and I am going to Milwaukee, we will probably be in gates close to each other for our second flights, which leave five minutes apart. We are hoping to change our seats on the flight so that we can sit next to each other. If we get there early enough, it shouldn’t be too big of a problem, I think.

Last weekend on Sunday I went to my Abuela Tica's surprise party (so my host mom's mom). She turned 80 years old. It was a lot of fun. We danced and had a full four course meal and there was a chocolate fondue fountain. I had a chance to meet my extended tico family. After the party, we went to one of their houses for a bit and just chatted.

Wednesday we went to San Jose to buy bus tickets for Puerto Viejo and to stop at the one souvenir shop there that we liked a last time. Anna, Lacy, and I bought friendship rings – I know, I know, you don’t need to say it, I know it’s a bit silly but we like them so yeah – and I also bought a Heredia bracelet instead of a t-shirt. I think I’ll wear it more, so it is a better purchase than a shirt. That night Catie and I got dinner together and La’Antica Roma once again. It was delicious, and we had a wonderfully slow and drawn out dinner, speaking a random mix of Spanish and English. It was a lovely night, and it makes me sad to know I am leaving her, and it makes me happy that she lives in the Midwest region.

We – we being Catie, Lacy, Jose, Tanny (our friend from Peru), and I - spent our final weekend in Puerto Viejo, which is on the Caribbean side in the Limon province. It is gorgeous and very traditionally Caribbean, with brightly painted buildings and coral reefs and beautiful national parks. The hostel we stayed in is called Rockin’ J’s, and it was very different from all the other places we have stayed. It was a good place to go for our last weekend, but I don’t know if any of us would have wanted to be there for a long period of time simply because it was a bit loud. There were parties every night at the bar connected to the hostel, and they were fun while you were there, but a bit of a nuisance when you went to bed.

J's is a unique hostel, made up of rentable tents and hammocks, and a few individual cabins. We rented two three-person tents, and it was only six dollars a night per person. Those six dollars included the tent, a mattress, a pillow, a sheet, and a large locker to keep your stuff in. To me, the price was reasonable, if not really good. There is a restaurant bar (with AMAZING food) connected to the hostel, and the whole complex is located on beach front property. The entire hostel is decorated with artwork done by people who have stayed there, and it gives a very hipster, youthful, frat-house vibe to the whole place.

Like I said, it was wonderful for 3 nights, but I don’t think anyone could stay there for a length of time. It would just get too loud. However, we were lucky enough to meet some really cool people during our stay, which is the best part of staying in a hostel. I think that staying in a true hostel is an important experience for every traveler to have, because it is so distinctive from a normal hotel. We made new friends from Canada, Sweden, Germany, and Argentina during our stay.

When we arrived on Friday, we all just explored the hostel and the town of Puerto Viejo in order to compare restaurant prizes and find out where things sort of were located. That night we ate at the restaurant connected to J’s and I have to say, although the service was terrible, the food was amazing, and since you aren’t really in a hurry to eat, it is worth the wait (I had the coconut-breaded chicken, with salad and rice). We enjoyed the Rockin’ J’s party until about 10:30 because we were all so exhausted from a day of traveling. That was the second time I almost cried (remember, I said I’ve almost cried three times, once on Thursday, and then on Friday at J’s, so we have one more instance).

Saturday, Catie and I woke up for the sunrise, and then we spent all day at the beach behind J’s. We even buried Jose and decorated him like a merman. It was a lot of fun. We used shells and leaves from the beach to make his tail look scaly and we found a really cool branch from him to have as a trident. The beach behind Rockin’ J’s is very different from the other beaches we have visited during the semester. It wasn’t very wide, but the tide was never really much of an issue. There were a lot of rocks and small coral reefs, which formed tide pools and areas where you could stand and watch the tropical fish swim right by shore. Crabs constantly popped out of the sand and the rocks, so you had to watch where you laid your towel or stepped when walking on the rocks when you moved from pool to pool. We all went to bed really early that night, around 9:30, because of the sun-exhaustion. But, before that we had a nice dinner at a restaurant in town (a chicken burger and some of the best blackberry smoothies I have ever had) and wandered a bit to find an ATM.

On Sunday, Catie, Tanny and I went snorkeling n Cahuita National Park. It was gorgeous, even though it was rainy and cloudy all day. Lacy and Jose stayed at the hostel and relaxed all day because they were going to leave that night on the 4 p.m. bus. The family that brought us out (it was a company owned by a husband and wife, and they brought their young children with us) did a wonderful job. You can find them on Facebook. They let me take their underwater camera with me while I dived so that I could take pictures with it, and I put them up in the photographs page in my album for this week. It was so much fun getting right up close to the sea urchins, tropical fish, and different corals systems.

We got back around 3 p.m., and Jose and Lacy were just getting ready to leave. We saw them off and then relaxed a bit for the rest of the day before having dinner at J’s (wonderful fish tacos). That night, Catie, Tanny and I spent time with our new friends from Sweden who had been on the snorkeling trip with us and who were also staying at J’s, and some girls we had met from Canada and the UK who were staying at J’s for the weekend but are currently volunteering at orphanages in San Jose. Other people filtered in and out from our tables all night, and it was a group of misfit travelers, but we all enjoyed each other’s company and had a lot of fun getting to know one another.

Catie, Tanny, and I decided that we wanted to leave on Monday instead of Tuesday, so on Monday we all woke up to go to this bakery that was on the way into town and, quite possibly, had the best bakery I have ever had. Then we walked into town to buy our bus tickets before spending the rest of a beautiful sunny afternoon on the beach. We had one last meal at J’s (a delicious piece of red snapper with salad and rice) and then headed out. Catie and I listened to my Zune on the way back, and when the song “At the Beginning” from the Anastasia soundtrack came on, we both almost cried (that is the third time that I have almost cried, just in case you couldn’t put it together yourself). Our Canadian and United Kingdom friends and their friend from Argentina were on the bus with us, so it was nice to have a bigger group to chat with, and we ended up sharing our taxi-bus with them even though they didn’t really live near us. We ended up getting back to our houses around 10:30 p.m., which was fine. I just went to bed. And slept. Deeply. It was delightful.

Today I unpacked from the weekend and wrote this and was all-around lazy. Tomorrow we have our group despedida (which I think you can remember means goodbye party). Catie’s host mom put together a great day at a country club for us, so we will have all day to sit by the pools, play volleyball and tennis, and just hang out. It will be heartbreaking and perfect all at once. Then Thursday and Friday I will be packing. Anna and I have to be at the airport around 4 on Saturday morning for our flight.
So the next time I talk to you all, I’ll be back in Wisconsin. Just two posts left.

Until then,

Pura Vida.

Apr 9, 2011

"I'm so high on life that I choked on laughter"

In comparison to the last few weeks, this one has been pretty relaxed, which is just fine by me. I needed to recharge my batteries in order to get through the next two weeks. This post is also available in my "En Espanol" page.

This week, we had a cultural activity and an excursion. On Thursday we went to Janiva’s friend, Flor’s, house for a traditional Costa Rican cooking class. The recipes are on my “Interesting Information” page. Friday morning and afternoon were spent at Poas Volcano, and Friday night we had our Despedida (goodbye party) with our Tico friends. Catie and I also went to a fair in Heredia Centro on Saturday afternoon for a few hours, which was fun and relaxing.

In our cooking class, we learned to make five traditional dishes: gallo pinto, tortillas alineadas (cheesy tortillas), empanadas de platano y queso (cheese and plantain empanadas), chimichurry, and prestiños (a type of dessert).

Flor is an amazing cook, and has a beautiful outdoor kitchen made in the traditional way, with a wood burning stove and oven and a healthy mix of modern and cultural cooking tools. She had a tendency to do all of her mixing by hand, instead of with a tool, because it was easier to feel the texture of the dough, which to her is very important. She made us a drink out of a fruit called Cas that dyed our teeth green but tasted divine – sweet, but also a little sour – to go with our foods. And of course, halfway through the session she made us coffee using her chorreador, or traditional Costa Rican coffee maker. She never uses an electric coffee maker, apparently.

We cooked for about 3 hours, and then spent some time just chatting with Flor and her family before heading out because Anna and I had yoga at six. That yoga class really tends to get in the way of our cultural activities, but, we had our final presentation that night so we couldn’t really skip out. And, can I just say that we have more technical difficulties in that class than I have ever had in any class in my entire life? We can never seem to get the projectors or computers working in sync or correctly. It always takes around 45 minutes to get anything functioning correctly.

On Friday we left for Poas around 7 a.m. because the earlier you get there, the better chance you have of seeing the volcano. It is extremely elusive; there are always clouds rolling in and out and you basically have to wait and hope that a wind will blow them away long enough for you to see the crater. When we first arrived, it was completely clouded over and you could see nothing more than grey. So, we stood for a while and read the sign and Janiva explained that Poas is an active crater lagoon volcano, and when it erupts, it becomes the world’s largest geyser. This is because the crater has been filled in so much by lava over the years that it has formed a lake, but it is still active, so fumes are always pouring out of it and when it explodes, it spits 140F degree water along with rocks and sediment, which, you know, would be pretty cool to see.

But, since we could see NOTHING we decided to hike through the fairytale forest - Janiva calls it the Snow White forest because it seriously looks like something out of Tim Burton or Disney with its twisted trees and moss-covered rocks – up to the Botos Lagoon, which is a now extinct crater volcano right next to Poas. When we first arrived, we could see nothing there either, but we waited because we had nothing else to do, and suddenly, the wind picked up. And the clouds started to move away. Then, slowly but surely, we could make out the ridge of the crater-lake and finally all of it was visible. And it was enchanting. We had a perfectly clear view of the lake for all of 15 minutes before the clouds started to roll in again, and we ran back down the trail to Poas, hoping that this bit of luck would extend to a view of the crater.

And it did. Five minutes after our re-arrival at the volcano, the clouds moved out and we got a perfect view of the crater, with its greenish-blue lake in the middle, and ever-present column of smoke and fumes funneling out. What would otherwise been beautiful became spectacular simply because we had to wait for it to be unveiled. It was like opening a Christmas present.

After a quick stop at the visitor center to look around the museum and art gallery and have cup of coffee and some lunch, we started back towards Heredia. On our way, we visited a small soda-restaurant for some fresh strawberries and cheese and to try a seasonal fruit called guava (no it’s not a guava like the English guava, it is different; the English guava is called a guayaba in Spanish). The guava was interesting, it had a hard shell, which you broke into (like a giant peapod) and then the seeds were covered in white pulp which you sucked off of them. It didn’t have a ton of flavor, just mainly tasted like sugar, but I liked it. It was something different. We also stopped at a little souvenir shop that was right next door, but the prices were a little high – everything seems to be priced high after Nicaragua and Panama – so we didn’t buy too much.

And, to make this day even better, I got a call from the Milwaukee Brewers Community Foundation saying that I received the internship that I applied and interviewed for during my time here. Talk about a wonderful morning.

That night we had our goodbye party at La Birreria (where else?) and a lot of people showed up and we danced the night away. Even though we still have two weeks left, I don’t think we will get another chance to see everyone again before we leave so it was nice having a big get together once before we go.

Saturday Catie and I went to Heredia Centro for a small fair that was happening. It was cute, there were lots of artesian and food stands and activities for kids. We wandered around and bought a few things. I bought a coffee at Espigas, our favorite little café right next to the park, and Catie got ice cream from Testy (I know it looks strange… but “e” is pronounced like “a” in Spanish, so it is still pronounced Tasty). We also window shopped for Heredia soccer t-shirts, but couldn’t find any in adult sizes. A Heredia shirt is the last thing I want to buy before I go, so I hope I can find something that I like that isn’t too expensive.

So yeah, two more weeks, 13 days from today, actually, if you want to be exact. It is so hard to wrap my mind around it. At least now I have something to look forward to right away when I get home.

Tonight, I am going to a birthday party for my host mom’s mom. The rest of this week is pretty quiet. Tomorrow is a national holiday, so everything will be closed so I have a feeling it will be a day of relaxing. Tuesday we have our meeting with Janiva, and Wednesday I think we are going to San Jose to buy bus tickets for Puerto Viejo and so that the other girls can all finish their souvenir shopping. Thursday is our last day of volunteering and of my classes, then finally Friday we leave for Puerto Viejo until the following Tuesday. So my next blog post won’t be until the Thursday before I come home. I might just wait until I get home. I haven’t decided yet. I guess we will see.

But until then,

Pura Vida.

Apr 5, 2011

International Excursion: Nicaragua

Can I just start by saying that it is incredibly difficult for me to believe that I only have 17 days left in Costa Rica? That seems almost impossible. This trip to Nicaragua seemed so far away when we first arrived way back in January, and now it has come and gone, not unlike the rest of my time here. For a country that is so slow paced, the time here seems to move more quickly than in the States. Probably because I don’t want it to end.

For our trip to Nicaragua, we visited the city of Granada, which dates back to the 15th century. It is has a lot of European flair, and has a very unique and lively atmosphere. Horses are still a major means of transportation, the buildings are painted in bright colors and you can hear music everywhere you go. The best thing about it is that Granada is safe enough that women can walk at night in a group. You can’t do that in Costa Rica, or other parts of Nicaragua. In fact, you are told to walk instead of taking the cabs because they are likely to rip you off, or worse, try to rob you. So, we walked everywhere within the city, which was fine because it isn’t the biggest city.

On Friday we took a Tica Bus to Granada, which is basically a Greyhound. The ride was about nine hours, including our stop in customs at the border, which was very different from the border with Panama. That day there was a fundraiser going on for a local hospital or school or something and there was music and kids dancing. We didn’t really know how to feel about it, because the girls were between the ages of eight and 13 and they were dancing very provocatively in skimpy little outfits. It almost felt like prostitution, since they were doing it to raise money. Some of the acts weren’t as bad and were just traditional folk dancing, but for the most part, it seemed inappropriate by U.S. American standards. But, that is the culture they are growing up in; sex is everywhere and it’s completely machismo, or male-centric.

Finally around 3 p.m. we arrived at our hotel, Hotel Terrasol, which is a little boutique hotel owned by a gourmet chef from San Francisco and his wife, a baker from Costa Rica. The food there was amazing, as you can only imagine. It is a cute little hotel, well located about four blocks from the central park and main walking street of Granada. We had brought U.S. dollars to Nicaragua so that we could exchange it for the Nicaraguan currency, córdobas. The exchange rate is about 22 córdobas to a U.S. dollar. In order to exchange the money, we went to a bike shop. Yes, a bike shop. Apparently, you are less likely to get ripped off and you are more likely to get a better exchange rate there than at the bank. It wasn’t really just a bike shop and money exchange, though, that little store had everything, clothes, toiletries, jewelry, and pretty much anything else you could want except food.

The rest of Friday was spent wandering around the city of Granada and taking photographs of the beautiful Spanish architecture. We went to this gorgeous old church called La Merced to take pictures from the bell tower of the city at sunset. It was like a dream. You could see the entire city of Granada, and Lake Nicaragua. It was surreal, one of those things that you can’t really explain, and my pictures can’t do it justice. Sitting at the top of this centuries-old church and overlooking a beautiful city with mountains and volcanoes and lakes surrounding you. It sort of heals your soul. Of course, I have a deep-seeded, intense, irrational fear of heights and the spiral staircase (which had no handrails and was just completely open on one side) gave me a slight panic attack going up and coming back down. So I needed my soul healed when I reached the top, and to just take a deep breath when I safely made it back down. After exiting the church, we went back to the hotel to change and clean up - it is unbearably hot and humid in Granada; sweat begins to coat your body the minute you walk out of the air-conditioning – before going out to dinner at a restaurant called El Dario, which was beautiful. It was Caribbean Night there, and they had dancers for entertainment. I got pulled up by one of the dancers and I learned a few steps of a Caribbean traditional dance. After we ate an amazing meal – I had Jalapeño Chicken – we got pulled up by more dancers to dance and do the limbo. It was so much fun, but it drenched us in sweat once again. Totally worth it, though. We slept like babies that night.

On Saturday we started our day early once again with a wonderful breakfast of freshly home-made croissants (what is the point of staying in a hotel owned by a baker if you don’t get fresh baked goods?) before heading out on a completely full day. Saturday was our day of exploration; we started at 7:30 a.m. and didn’t return to the hotel for the day until almost 2 a.m. on Sunday. We went to the city of San Juan de Oriente to visit a ceramic making school where they use the 3500 year-old traditional methods of making ceramic pottery. The only modern technology used is shoe polish as the final polish and bike spokes for sketching on the pottery. They use natural paints, foot-powered pottery wheels, clay kilns, and stones for polishing the paints. We couldn’t watch them process a specific pot because it takes 15 days, but we saw pieces at each step. After we were walked through the school, Lacy, Chris, Toya, and Catie each tried to use the pottery wheel and realized that it is a LOT harder than it looks. Of course Chris could do it perfectly because he had taken a class on it that none of us were aware of, but the others struggled a bit. We all bought a bunch of pottery because we knew we were going to get the best price there and because if you’re going to buy something like that, you might as well buy it right where it is made from the people who made it. They had a traditional, ceremonial sword there made out of genuine cow-skin leather and bull penis. Yes, the blade was made out of dried, stretched bull penis. Talk about a shocker; everyone had wanted to hold it until they found that out.

After we left San Juan de Oriente, we went to Masaya Centro and explored the central park and a few plant nurseries and small fruit markets on our way to the Apoyo Lagoon lookout point. Apoyo Lagoon is considered a sleeping volcano, and is surrounded by tropical dry forest. From the look out, you can see the lagoon and Lake Nicaragua and Granada in the distance. There are also little shops lining the lookout where you can buy souvenirs, which we did, because everything is pretty cheap in Nicaragua. After the lagoon, we drove through the city of Catarina to see the artesian neighborhood. It was very interesting, because almost every home was also a family-owned factory of some sort. You’d look in the doorways and see people weaving hammocks or making shoes or saddles. According to our tour guide, David (who was amazing, by the way), Catarina is one of the most self-sufficient cities in Nicaragua because of its artesian roots.

Around 12:30 we stopped for lunch in Masaya at one of the markets, the one more directed towards tourists that was more of a souvenir market. It was a maze of little stands selling a plethora of different objects, some normal (like clothes and t-shirts and ceramics) and some strange (like baskets made out of taxidermy chickens). We spent about two and a half hours there, and I got almost my entire souvenir shopping list done for my whole trip; I only have one person left on my list to buy for and I finally know what I am going to get that person. I bought myself some gifts too, including a Nicaragua baseball t-shirt because I love baseball and it is the number one sport in Nicaragua. It is red, and I enjoy it. Catie bought a matching orange one. She is brave to wear the color orange. After we finished up at the souvenir market, we went to the real market in Masaya just to make a comparison. We wouldn’t have lasted long in there, it was very claustrophobic and hot and smelly. I saw more poorly-done taxidermy on this trip to Nicaragua than I have ever seen in my entire life, and that includes all of the trips I did in elementary school to 1000 Islands Nature Preserve in Wisconsin. At least their taxidermy is well done, so it’s not as creepy. I bought a rope hammock for five dollars at that market, though, which is a pretty good price. I’m thinking of stringing it up in my apartment next year, but I need to figure out how to do it.

The day closed at Volcan Masaya national park. We walked through the museum to get a bit of history on the volcano before visiting the crater. Masaya is a very active volcano, located near Nicaragua’s capital city, Managua, and any real eruption would put the city in danger. It is constantly spitting fumes made up of carbon monoxide and dioxide, sulfur, lead, and other various harmful toxins. Masaya Volcano is considered the number one natural pollutant in Nicaragua. The indigenous people of Nicaragua used to throw human sacrifices into the volcano from a cliff until the Spanish came to the country and forced Christianity onto them. Now, there is a giant cross that sits on that cliff that the Spaniards put there to exorcise the evil spirits from the volcano. We climbed to the cross’ lookout point and also to the highest point of the ridges to get some more beautiful, sweeping views of Nicaragua’s lakes and craters. Then we were fitted with helmets and flashlights for a night tour of the lava caves, where we got to see a bunch of bats – which was awesome because I have always loved bats – and walk through one of the underground caves that was formed by slow moving lava. The same cave was used during one of the civil revolutions of Nicaragua as a hiding place for the people fighting for the freedom of the Nicaraguan people.

Despite our mental and physical exhaustion due to the heat and waking up early two days in a row, after an amazing dinner at the hotel made by the owner (who I previous mentioned is an ex-gourmet chef) we went up to our rooms to get ready to go out dancing. Our first stop was an Irish pub for Macua, which is a Nicaraguan drink made out of rum and some sort of fruit juice, and then we went to a salsa bar to go dancing. We didn’t stay long, though, because it was a million degrees in the bar and we were all exhausted. Somehow, we still were out until 2 a.m. because we didn’t even get to the salsa bar until close to 12:30. We were slap happy by the end of the night, and you could tell because the sarcasm was dripping almost as heavily as our sweat.

Sunday was a little bit more leisurely, we didn’t leave the hotel until 9:30 a.m. after another breakfast of croissant, coffee, fruits, and home-made jam. We went to a chocolate museum and had this wonderful cold coffee drink made with real cacao. Then, around 11:30 we were back at the hotel to meet up with my friend Brigid, who also goes to Carthage and is currently studying in Managua. She spent the whole day with us. We sat and talked in the air-conditioned hotel for a while and then we went to lunch at this wonderful little soda restaurant that had really good food. But, we were running out of time before our boat tour of the islands of Lake Nicaragua, so we had to take our food to go. Luckily, I ordered a chicken kabob so it was pretty easy to eat on the walk back to the hotel.

The island tour was a lot of fun. Brigid had done it before, but she still enjoyed it because she was with new people and we did a few new things. We visited a pirate island hold with a building that dated back to 1784. It was really cool to be in a building that had withstood so much for so long. And it was cool because it had to do with pirates, and pirates make everything cool. Even scurvy. Our guide told us that you can buy an empty private island in this area for $100,000 USD. We all decided that that would be awesome. You can buy a fully furnished one for $500,000. I think it’s worth the investment. We also saw Monkey Island, which is a small little plot of land where a batch of spider monkeys lives. They were cute and came right up to the boat, which I enjoy but I can’t decide if it is necessarily a good thing that they have lost all fear of humans. It’s the same as the monkeys in Manuel Antonio or Montezuma, it is wonderful that they come right up to you because you can take pictures, but it really isn’t good for them. We also stopped at a little island with a bar on it for drinks before heading back to shore. Janiva ordered coconut juice and she drank it straight from the coconut, which is how it is almost always served in Latin America. We also taught Brigid the basic steps to the salsa. Another one of those days that makes you feel at peace with where you are and you stop thinking about what responsibilities you have waiting for you and you get to sincerely just enjoy the moment and the people you are with.

Brigid had to go back to Managua after we got back to shore, so she didn’t get to join us for dinner. I was sad to see her go, but we had had a great day. That night we went to Mona Lisa Pizza for dinner. Catie and I split a pizza that was half Mexican Pizza (hot peppers and bacon) and half Salmon and all white sauce. It was interesting. Catie preferred the salmon, and I preferred the Mexican, which worked out well, but we both tried both halves. We ate a slow dinner (that was actually brought out to us in record time) and watched the street performers before going back to the hotel. That night we all gathered in Toya, Catie, and my room to watch The Parent Trap on Disney in Spanish. It was awesome. Another night where we were all a little slap happy and giggly like girls can be.

After listening to Brigid talk about her experience in comparison to my own, I realized how lucky I am. She doesn’t necessarily get along with her whole group, but I feel like my group gets along very well despite our differences. We desire to spend time together and make a point of doing it. We support each other and respect each other. And we are sincerely going to miss each other when this semester is over. I’m also lucky to have my host family, who loves me and goes above and beyond to make me feel comfortable and like I am part of the family.

Finally it was Monday, and none of us were quite ready to leave, but we all agreed that we missed Heredia. It has really become home to us. We wandered around Granada a little more, trying to finish any last minute souvenir shopping before heading over to the Chocolate Museum again for lunch – they have a wonderful buffet that ends at noon. Our lunch was a little too relaxed, and we ended up having to hustle over to the bus stop to get there in time to check in before our bus left for Heredia. The bus showed two and a half movies, all of Alice in Wonderland (which they paused with about 30 seconds left when we had to get out at customs because God forbid that we miss that last 30 seconds of Alice in Wonderland), the last hour of Avatar (please explain to me why on a 9 hour drive they would take a good, 3 hour long movie and only show the last hour of it), and all of Alien vs. Predator (which I didn’t pay any attention to). Catie and I talked almost the entire way and shared my Zune and serenaded the bus like obnoxious gringas. But we had fun, and tried to stay quiet. We decided that bus ride could choose to not end if it wanted. But it did, and we finally got home around 10:30 p.m. on Monday.

This week we have a traditional cooking class on Thursday and Poas Volcano on Friday. Also, on Friday night we are having a big goodbye party at La Birreria with all of our Costa Rican friends. Everyone is invited; it will be interesting to see who all shows up. Other than that, not a whole lot this week. Every blog post gets harder and harder for me to write because I keep realizing how few I have left to post. I leave two weeks from Saturday, and I can’t help but feel a little terrified. I’m going home to some losses, and it scares me because I have been able to avoid it for so long. The 23 of April seems to just be a date, looming on my calendar and in my planner, daunting me. Luckily, it is Easter weekend so a lot of my friends and my family will be home so I will be distracted right away. But I know, as hard as it may be, I have to go home.

Well, on that note, until next time.

Pura Vida.

Mar 28, 2011

International Marketing: Panama

I promised a new friend of mine, Daniel, that I would do this post in Spanish and English, so the Spanish-language translation of this post, and selected ones after, will be available under the new page in the menu, “En Español”.

But yeah, Panama…Panama was a-ma-zing. In order to describe how I feel about this experience, and really how to describe my study abroad experience in general, I have to paraphrase what my sorority sister, Libby, said at our 2010 Fall Rush party:

"I never would have regretted not doing it, because I never would have known what I had missed.”
Nothing puts into words better how I feel about my trip to Panama than that. She said it perfectly. I went into the trip really nervous because I didn’t know anyone, I was completely out of my comfort zone and I had no choice but to just hope for the best. But, I didn’t have to hope for the best, because from the moment I arrived at the university to leave on Wednesday until the moment I got dropped back off there on Sunday, I never once felt unwelcomed, or alienated, or foreign. The other students were all extremely friendly, and helpful, and they included me in everything. I got off the bus on Sunday feeling like I had made some wonderful new friends, and now I’m just that much sadder to be leaving in 3 and a half weeks.

But yeah, the trip. So we left the U at 1 p.m. (ish) on Wednesday and didn’t arrive in Panama City until around 5 a.m. on Thursday. Yes, it is that long of a drive from Heredia to Panama City. Basically, you need to drive through two whole countries to get there because Heredia is sort of north central in Costa Rica and Panama City is south central Panama. And of course, there aren’t any real highways until you reach Panama, so the trip is that much longer. But as you know from my previous gushing, everywhere you drive in Costa Rica is gorgeous so it isn’t exactly a pain to be stuck in a bus for 6 hours of daylight. It is when it is dark out that it is awful, especially for people who can’t sleep on buses (I, however, am lucky because I CAN sleep on the bus. Point for me.)

During the drive, we of course had to stop at the border to go through customs, which was an experience within itself. We couldn’t be in the bus, while it was looked at, so we went to this market where the sales people are worse the Buckle employees when it comes to following you around trying to help you. I don’t know if they work on commission, or if they are just are told to be very helpful, or what, but it kind of creeped me out because they wouldn’t leave me alone even after I told them I didn’t need help and that I was just looking. But oh well, I guess they were just doing their job, which I can’t begrudge them.

So after we finally get over the Costa Rican/Panamanian border, we finally arrive at our hotel, El Euro, around 5 a.m. on Thursday and all of us go to our rooms and crash because we have to be back in the lobby at 9 to start our day. I got random-roommated with two girls, Jennifer and Lorley, who were very friendly in a situation where they didn’t have to be anything other than civil to me, and we were good roommates for each other. We even helped each other pick out outfits (which in girl world, takes a decent amount of trust).

That day we went out to breakfast at a café called Niko’s which was sort of buffet style. I went up to the counter to pay for my food and realized that I only had colones with me. Of course, in Panama they use the US dollar, so I just sort of stood there looking like an idiot and silently panicking until the girl behind me paid for my meal. We became fast friends after that. I ended up having to borrow USD from my professor and I have to remember to pay her back this week. Luckily, Panama is cheap so I didn’t have to borrow much (I had brought $160 in colones, so that is how much she lent me in USD) and I actually didn’t even end up spending it all (I only spent $145). We spent the rest of the day driving around Panama City and shopping. We went to two different shopping centers, one that was like an Outlet Mall called Los Pueblos (the villages), and the Albrook Mall, which is more or less the Mall of America of Central America. According to the Albrook Mall website, in order to visit each of the stores (not including the eating establishments) for 10 minutes, you need about 56 straight hours at the mall. Also, if you do one lap of the whole mall you burn over 204 calories, and you can also fit 5 of Australia’s Sydney Opera House in the mall. Those are just a few ways to describe to you just how massive this mall is. While it takes 86 hours to spend 10 minutes in every store in the Mall of America (according to the MOA website), it is still VERY impressive to see a mall that size in a Central American country, if only because Panama isn’t very big.

Here is a list of everything I bought during my trip (all for around $70)
8 souvenir shot glasses
2 shirts
1 dress
2 pairs of shoes
1 compact of eye shadow
1 bra
1 set of maracas
2 hand-fans (think frilly and colorful, not electronic)
1 bottle of LOVE PINK body spray
1 carry-on sized hair-spray
1 skirt
1 bottle of nail polish
1 post card book for my host family

Yeah. Panama is a shopper’s dream. I found a lot of great deals. Some of the stuff was normally priced, but generally things were cheap. I was very, very happy. I didn’t spend over $11 on a single item. It was awesome.

That first night, we were all pretty exhausted from the drive and from shopping all day. We went to a restaurant that was in Old Panama City and that had a view of the Panama City skyline that was beautiful with all of its lights. The easiest way to describe Panama City is by calling it a small version of Miami; in fact, it is called the Miami of Central America. There are a bunch of tall condo buildings everywhere. But, this only makes the poverty in other areas more marked. As we were driving, we could visibly see the extreme differences between the shacks and the big beautiful high rises. The levels of living seem to be more defined there than in Costa Rica. I think I prefer the more balanced and equal look of Costa Rica.

When we finally got back to the hotel, we all went down to the pool and sat around and chatted. We played the name game, which was fun, we all stood up one by one and said our names, major, where we live, which university we went to or go to (2 of the students were from the ULatina San Pedro, and some were alumni of ULatina). It was wonderful to have that opportunity, because otherwise I don’t think I would have learned so many people’s names or had as easy of a time getting to know everyone. I don’t know if they realize how big of a favor that was to me, but I think everyone enjoyed it. My roommates and I decided to go to bed fairly early, around 1 a.m. because the next morning we had to be ready to go by 8:30 a.m., with breakfast before then.

Friday was a full day; we visited the Bridge of the Americas, the Panama Canal, and stopped at a few different sites in order to take pictures. The Canal was really cool, and we got to see a really, really big boat get tugged through. We also went back to Albrook during the afternoon to kill some time before going to the Universidad Latina – Panama for a small lecture and question and answer session with one of the professors of commerce at the university. When we got there, we all were issued International Student passes on a lanyard which made me feel really official, as silly as that sounds. It made me feel important like ID cards on lanyards usually do. Anyway, the professor talked to us about why Panama is such an important center in Latin America for international commerce, mostly because of its use of the American dollar, the Canal, and its bilingual workforce, amongst other reasons. It was pretty interesting, and I understood about 90% of what was said. When he started using some technical terms, I got a bit lost, but I understood the general concept of everything, which is the goal. I can only expect to understand so much when he is talking about Maritime commerce. I wouldn’t understand most of that if he said it in English.

That night, we all decided to go out (apparently, its rude in Latin America to not take advantage of the night life if you are legally able to…a tradition that I can accept) to this street of bars called Panama Canal Village. Basically, you pay a $2 cover charge to get onto the road (it’s closed off) and then you can enter any of the bars there and you only have to pay for drinks. And of course, since I was with Ticos, we danced. All night, from 9 p.m. until 3 a.m., we danced. Some people danced until later. I just couldn’t do it because my feet were killing me. But it was so much fun. It was one of the best nights that I have had in Latin America. Ticos really know how to have a good time.

So, as you can imagine, everyone was pretty tired on Saturday, but we were all up and moving to go to the ExpoComer 2011, which is this big International Business Expo. It was interesting, a lot of countries were represented, including Taiwan, Korea, most of Latin America, the U.S., France, and many, many more. We got a lot of free goodies from all of the companies and wandered for about two hours asking questions to the people at the stands and learning about different products and services. Then, we were informed (at 2 p.m., mind you) that we weren’t leaving until 9 p.m. and that we were going to spend the next 6 hours in Albrook. Again. For the third day in a row. Yeah. We were all tired and just wanted to get on the bus and go home, but apparently the bus driver need to sleep. But I guess it’s better to have a well-rested and alert bus driver, but we were still kind of like, “what?”

So to pass the time, we ate a really slow lunch and then a group of us wen to see the movie “Hall Pass,” which was actually pretty funny. I do like Owen Wilson. I would recommend it if you enjoy Adam Sandler or Will Farrell movies. It’s sort of like that. Or the Hangover, it isn’t as good as the Hangover, but it is still pretty good. After the movie, we only had about 45 minutes until the bus got there so the movie group sat in the food court to eat. They asked me which country I preferred, Panama or Costa Rica, and I told them Costa Rica, of course. Not that Panama really had a chance, mostly because I had only really seen the Canal and Albrook Mall, but also because I love Costa Rica. It’s hard to explain why, but it’s something intangible about it. Even when I am frustrated with “Tico time” and other small things like that, I can’t help but love this small Central American country.

But yeah, then it was finally 9 and we got back on the bus and headed home. I fell asleep almost instantly, and the bus was generally quiet because everyone was so exhausted from the night before. We reached the border around 5 a.m. and had to wait around for it to open so that we could get our bags checked and cross, so we didn’t end up on the road again until around 9:30. But, while we were waiting, we stopped for breakfast and every single person (including myself, surprisingly) ordered Gallo Pinto, the Costa Rican traditional breakfast of eggs, black beans, and rice, which I am almost 100% sure I have mentioned before. Apparently, all of the Ticos were sick of the unhealthy, greasy, heavy Panamanian food, which was basically American food, so I was right at home, but even by the end of the weekend I was feeling the effects. I guess I have been eating like a healthy Costa Rican for too long to truly enjoy mall food for any extended amount of time.

We finally made it back to Heredia, and after a weekend of speaking all Spanish (with a little random English thrown in for good measure since the Ticos liked to practice every once in a while), all I wanted to do was check my email, charge my phone, and relax. But of course, when I got home the electricity was out and I couldn’t do any of those things except relax and unpack. Which was fine. But I really wanted a good shower and had to settle for a quick and cold one, but it got the job done. It’s pretty hard to feel clean after sitting in a bus for 19ish hours.
So yeah, that was my trip to Panama. It was awesome. I’m obsessed with all of the people I went with. Like I said earlier, I am incredibly sad that I have to leave in 3 weeks since I just met all of these awesome new people.

We don’t have too much going on this week because on Friday we leave for Nicaragua. I know, another big trip, which will also be fun. I’m really excited because I think I’m going to get to see my friend Brigid, who is also a Carthage student studying abroad this semester.

Read about Brigid's semester in Nicaragua.

So, next you’ll hear from me, I’ll have another nice long post about my weekend in Nicaragua!

Until then, Pura Vida.

Volunteering while abroad - Lending a hand to the country that hosts you

This week there will be two posts (more like two and a half). This one is dedicated to volunteering while abroad and the other will be about my trip to Panama. The photos below are from our time with Children without Borders and a few are also from our sixth=grade English classes.

I have been fortunate enough to have volunteer opportunities presented to me while I have been abroad through Janiva and the Sol Abroad program. I think that volunteering while abroad is a unique opportunity, because volunteering can show a new side to the country where you are staying. Not to mention, it is a good way to give back to your adopted home while you are gone.
Before arriving, we were informed that Sol extends the chance to teach public school students English. Now, every week we teach Kindergarteners during their school day and we also teach fifth- and sixth-graders as an after school program. This volunteering is through the Sol program, and we are in charge of everything. Every week we have to make a lesson plan and design activities that include vocab, grammar, and sentence structure. So far, we have covered topics like occupations, music, ordering pizzas on the phone, and clothes, along with other miscellaneous concepts. It is a lot of fun to get to know the kids and to know that we help them in an area that will be essential for their future.

Although Costa Rica has a pretty decent education system, the area that is lacking is the English department. English has become crucial in order to get a job in Costa Rica; however, public school students do not have teachers who are necessarily qualified to teach it. A lot of the time, public school teachers do not know English and therefore, cannot teach it properly to their students. If a teacher can speak English, he or she will be working in a private school.

We were lucky enough to have this chance brought to us by Janiva, but some study abroad programs do not come with a volunteer program built in. If it is something that interests you (whether it be because it looks amazing on a resume, because you need volunteer hours to graduate, or because you just want to help people), you should ask your program director about possibilities of getting involved in something while you are abroad.

Children without Borders

What I really wanted to cover in this post was the time I spent last week with Niños Sin Fronteras (Children without Borders). Children without Borders is a non-profit organization dedicated to offering free health care to underserved youth in Costa Rica based out of Bajo los Anonos, San Jose. Their mission is to achieve a healthier and safer future for the children living in high risk and low income areas by giving health care and education to the children and their families. Currently, there are 2 offices open in Costa Rica, one located in San Jose and the other in the province of Guanacaste.

Last week Monday and Tuesday I had the opportunity to work with Children without Borders and AMIGOS Eye Care, a group of optometry students from Pacific University College of Optometry, during their free eye clinic. The clinic lasted for four days, Monday through Thursday, and donated 800 pairs of eye glasses to children in need. The medical students and accompanying doctors saw on average 200 patients a day; they performed basic, but desperately needed, eye exams and had the chance to examine some patients with more advanced eye problems. Clinics took place in Bajo los Anonos at the Children without Borders headquarters, Leon Trece, and in two sites near central San Jose.

Catie and I were lucky enough to get connected to the program through Janiva, who knows Christina Marin, the Executive Director of Central American Operations for Children without Borders. They were in need of translators, and Catie and I filled two of the spots. We got to work with the doctors and translate directions for the patients in order for them to successfully give the eye exams. Catie also helped register patients and fill out “comprobantes” which are proof of visits so that people can be excused from work and school in order to be at the clinic. My second day there, I also was able to give eye exams on my own because the doctors were all needed for more advanced things. I had given the directions for them the entire day before, so after a little bit of explaining, I felt like I was basically qualified to help out with it.

I had the opportunity to talk to some of the students, and they were all very thankful for the chance to come down to Costa Rica and get some hands-on experience that they wouldn’t get in the U.S. They also loved the feeling of being able to help kids who really need it.

If you are interested in learning more about Children without Borders and how you can help, even from the United States, or how to get your school involved in Children without Borders, you can visit the Niños Sin Fronteras website. They are also on Facebook.

Mar 16, 2011

Dancing, El Castillo and Montezuma

I'm sorry that this video blog is so quiet. My host family goes to bed pretty early so I didn't want to talk to loudly. Also, it is a bit...sporadic...because I was tired and my brain didn't want to work. But I covered everything I wanted to. Also, I am aware that at one point in my post I say that I am not going to use the word "cool" again...and then I do. Multiple times. It happens. I don't think you realize how tired my brain is. I'm also sorry it is a bit late. Blogger refused to upload the video (well it didn't refuse...it just failed...more than once) so I had to find a different way to host it. Hopefully it works.

post3-22 from Elizabeth Reinhardt on Vimeo.