Sunday, April 7, 2013

Still Okay

I remember arriving here, exhausted and excited, nearly four months of unknown hovering in front of me. Now I sit here, looking back on my experience, with less than a month ahead of me. Less than twenty days exist between me and a plane back home. When I first arrived I had a thought- that this experience would not last very long- but in those first few days, it felt like I would never go home. 
Even a month ago, I still felt like my life had gotten caught in some weird dream state, where the familiarity of home was a distant memory and I was stuck here in this strange and beautiful place. Now my time is ticking away. The end rushes forward like a strong wave, and I can see it approaching, ready to spirit me hundreds of miles away.

I’m torn. I want to go home. So badly do I want to go home. I miss my friends and my family. I miss my long skirts and my girly shoes. I miss kissing my dog’s nose goodnight. But I don’t want to leave. I don’t miss them yet, but I will miss my little sisters and my host mom. I will miss Xinia’s tired ‘¿Como almeneció?’ when I finally crawl out of bed. I will miss fumbling my way through a conversation with my littlest sister as she giggles and corrects my Spanish- ‘Cuchillo. Es hombre.’ I will miss the flora and the fauna and the mountains and the forest. 

I will come back. Throughout my experience here, whenever things got hard or I got blindsided by homesickness, I consoled myself with the thought that I would be going home. Now, I’m comforting myself with the thought that I will be coming back. I will come back, and Maria Jose won’t have any more baby teeth. Camila will be in college. Xinia will still make fun of me for wanting egg sandwiches.
Though it did happen, rarely did I ever really feel cut off from home. I was welcomed here with open arms and the classic Tico-cheek kiss. Like going off to college for the first time, this has been another puddle for me to wade through. The water was a little murky at first, but things cleared up pretty quickly and life went on. I lived my life and took advantage of everything Costa Rica could offer me.

I was struck the other day with how far I am from home and how long I’ve been gone when I got handed six dimes. It had been the first time I had paid for anything with American cash since Panama. I accepted the change without preamble, thinking only that the coins I immediately shoved in my pocket felt tiny and light. When I pulled the shiny silver coins from my pocket later, I was startled to find that they weren’t some strange new colon. They were dimes. Just dimes. It was like picking up an old toy after so much time has past- their weight should have been familiar, but it wasn’t.

I have had a real adventure here. Things have been gritty and sweaty and hard, but that’s what makes it so interesting and worthwhile. I’ve seen and done things I never thought I would. Yesterday I threw myself off a bridge and trusted my life to a bungee cord. A few weeks ago, I travelled this country accompanied only by friends and a sense of adventure. We keep talking about how everything back home will be easier now that we’ve done this. 

I have no lingering fears of traveling alone, of being lost with minimal language skills. I can get around by myself. I can make friends no matter where I am. I can be away from everything familiar and still be okay. 

And in spite of everything- or perhaps because of it- I am still okay.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Family Matters

My birthday was a few weeks ago, and my wonderful mother worked very hard to make sure that it was known. (Thanks, mom!) From my experiences, birthdays in La Virgen don’t seem to be much of a cause for fuss, but for most of us in the United States, they are important - especially one’s 21st. 

In the days and weeks leading up to my birthday, cards continued to roll in, as did several donations from friends and family. Some folks had wanted to give me a gift for my birthday, but instead, my mom suggested making a monetary donation, which I could then use to purchase something needed by my host family.

My host family of 5 only has two chairs at a counter in their home at which to eat. Initially, I had wanted to buy them a real dining room table and a set of chairs, but in reality, there isn’t a place to safely put those things and I think my family is happily accustomed to how they conduct their mealtimes. 

A few weeks later, I found out that my host family is planning to open a restaurant (‘soda’ in Costa Rica) by the end of this year. My host family already owns a small store (‘pulpería’ in Costa Rica), but they wish to expand it in order to increase their income and give their children better educational opportunities. I felt that this was the perfect destination for my funds.

This morning, I told my host mom that I had $200, which thanks to my wonderful friends and family, I am able to contribute to this small enterprise. I have never seen such a look of gratitude and relief. She is very excited about the soda, but I know that a business venture such as this for a poor family is a dangerous decision, and could lead to financial ruin. 

I would like to continue raising money for this family that has been so kind and welcoming to me, patient as I learn to speak their language, and eager to ensure that I am comfortable and taken care of. If anyone would like to make a donation, please send me an email at I will post in the near future what I was able to purchase for their soda with the donations.

my host family and I at my surprise birthday party

Monday, February 25, 2013

Be Here.

So we've all been here for over a month, and I think everyone has finally settled down. Everyone's personalities are starting to show, and we have a cluster of strange and wonderful people here. I'm sure we're going to (and probably already have) get on each other's nerves, but in the long-run I think we got lucky. For ten strangers who thought a semester in Costa Rica would be a great experience- we seem to be working very well together. Things could have gone very wrong very quickly, but I think that it takes a certain kind of personality, or at least some tick- to leave home for a semester and go somewhere entirely new. Because this country is very different from home- and without that tick, I don't think any of us would make it.

After a month away, there are a few things I've come to miss. I miss a few things very profoundly, and I miss a lot of stupid things.

I'd have to put familiarity at the top of the list of things that I miss. There's something very comfortable about knowing a place or a person. Here, the people, the place, the food- it's all new. I am not afraid of the newness, but it is exhausting. You don't have to work with things that you know. You don't have to figure them out, to learn them, adjust to them. My home is not my home, my friends here are not the friends that I have known for years. They're strangers that I've known for a month.

Do not misunderstand, I am still enjoying myself. I just ache a little (sometimes a lot) for my mom's hands, my papa's mustache on my cheek, for my roommate's morning fumblings, the clinking of my dogs's collars.

I don't miss many things. I don't miss my iPhone. I don't miss my bed. I don't miss my desk or my shower or my car. I miss my kitchen. I miss remembering things with my friends.

I miss leftovers. I miss judo. I miss English.

Among the stupid things I miss, my kitchen, pause-able TV, and flushing toilet paper probably top the list.

These little bits of homesickness crept up on me like a sunset. Inching little by little towards the horizon- into my awareness- until suddenly the sun has disappeared- I am struck with how little I have here and how much I left at home.

The entire group now has jokes revolving around our experience. I am sure that when the time comes to leave, I will not want to go. For now, I am trying my best to roll with the punches. I am not letting my longing for home intrude upon how much I am enjoying this experience. For now, I am trying my best to be here- and love it.

Not quite sure what this is, but it was pretty!

The oldest cathedral in Cartago, "Our Lady of the Angels Basilica". 

Alyssa's 21st!
My family minus the oldest sister, Camila.

Hot springs with Sam and her sister

Something pretty in the Tallamanca Mtn Range.

Something pretty in the Tallamanca Mtn Range.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Informal Economy

Although this video focuses on Africa, I'm sure everyone in the group can relate many things we have seen on this trip to what is spoken about in this lecture.

Everyday we are here, especially when we go on our trips, we see many examples of informal economy situations. The informal economy here is what keeps people going. There aren't enough jobs in the area for everyone to have a "real job." Without the lottery venders that wonder around La Virgen and the fruit sellers in traffic jams, many people here would not have any form of income.

The example of the cell phone company in Nigeria is parallel to the cell phone company situation here. The Kolbi cards we buy to make our local phones work are sold in the exact same way as discussed in Nigeria in this video.

What is the problem then? This is illegal in most situations. The government can't collect taxes on these people because their set up is so informal. In places like San Jose it is very dangerous to be an unlicensed street vender because the police are likely to shut you down. But what are the other options?

The informal economy is very important. If the police cracked down in cities like La Virgen the economy would literally shut down. The informal economy is what keeps the money moving in Latin America.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

This trip marks the first time I have ever left the United States.  Ever since I can remember, I have  dreamed of traveling and seeing the world.  Due to my being a Geography student, I have spent hours upon hours studying other cultures and other ways of life.  Then the time came for me to finally leave the classroom and actually embark on the journey I've always wanted.

(This is my room)

When our plane was landing in San Jose my heart began to race.  I thought to myself, "This is actually happening, I am about to set my feet on foreign soil."  I immediately began to search for these cultural and physical differences that exist in a foreign country.  I remember being very displeased when one of the first buildings we saw on our bus ride to Sarapiquí was Walmart.  Little did I know, three weeks later I would find extreme comfort in seeing Subways, Walmarts, Starbucks, and any other American business or brand that reminded me of home.

(This is guanabana and it's delicious.  It grows in our backyard.  My mom cuts it up and blends it with water and sugar.  This is called a fresco and we drink it almost every night for dinner and it's delicious.)

I thought I had come to Costa Rica without expectations, but I unconsciously had had millions of expectations.  For example, I guess I had assumed that nearly everybody in the world enjoyed hot showers.  I was sadly mistaken when I took my first shower and froze my butt off.  I am proud to say I have finally gotten used to these cold showers, but I have also trained my body to do this back-bend sort of maneuver to avoid being directly hit by the cold water.  So far, this trip has taught me that there is a huge difference between a want and a need.  I thought I had known the difference before my arrival in Costa Rica, but I honestly did not.

(This is in the Central Market in San Jose.  This is an herb stand so all of these different plants are used for natural medicine)

I have lived a very cushioned life in the United States and I never appreciated it to the fullest until I was forced to live life with much less.  I can finally look at my native country with a fresh pair of eyes and realize how lucky I am to have been born there.  However, life in Costa Rica is much more simple.  The locals here live without all of the fancy gadgets and luxuries that American's depend upon daily.  Therefore, they have a much more intimate relationship with nature.

(This is a poisonous frog I saw while in the rainforest doing volunteer work with Tirimbina)

This is a beautiful concept.  Almost everything you eat here is grown and produced in the same town.  The milk, cheese, coffee, fruit, vegetable, rice, beans, eggs, and meat.  Most of the fruit in our house is from trees in our backyard.  My host brother will casually take a machete and wack some fruit off the tree whenever we need it.  Also, the fruit is so much more fresh and sweet because it's straight from the tree.  Of course, living this closely with nature has its drawbacks such as huge bugs and snakes and scary howler monkeys.  However, even though we are still in the beginning phases of this journey, I have developed a greater appreciation for nature along with so many other things.

(This is the local organic farm at Pozo Azul that I volunteer at.  We grow literally everything from herbs to vegetables to fruits to sugarcane.)

If I wouldn't have come on this trip, I would never have realized what a beautiful family I have waiting for me back in the United States.  I would never have fully appreciated my life and the people in it like I do now.  This alone makes me feel like I have already matured more than I have in the past two years of college. 

(This is my boss on the farm, Nicho.  He is using a machete to shave the bark off of sugarcane.  After a long days work, he gave us some fresh sugarcane to chew on.)

Wednesday, January 30, 2013


You might think that after seeing so much green for such a long time that you'd get sick of it. I'm not sure I ever could. This is the most 'alive' place I've ever been. Sure, a city buzzes with the panicked footsteps of her inhabitants, but a city is cold. A city is grey- like the sky in winter. I get sick of that very easily. If you're quiet enough- patient enough- the forest will sing to you.

We traveled last weekend. The bus ride to San Jose was cramped with bodies and luggage, but we all still managed to nap. The trip took a little less than three hours. Less than three hours of the verdant countryside- of the traffic and the turns and the stop and go. We arrived and promptly began our tour.

San Jose is quite different from Sarapiquí. It's arteries are thick with vehicles and it coughs with the exhaust. It smells strange. The entire city is a giant mural. Walls are decorated with faces and colors and words. The paint is a little chipped, a little graffitied.

It's a different kind of forest. Bright buildings litter the sidewalks. People litter the streets. The earth works tirelessly to reclaim the land. Green creeps away from its designated patches and crawls up brick walls. It breaks the sidewalks and tries to hide the buildings behind outcroppings of tall grass.

Our group walked the city for hours. We were the only ones looking at the city; the natives strolled past the statues we gawked at, apathetic towards their existence. We crowded together, listening to our guide recount the history of every structure, park, and displaced rock. I can't recount the facts he spewed, but I wouldn't mind listening to them again. I'd like to go back.

We spent the night in a family hotel where they strive to be as sustainable as possible. The owner was friendly and welcoming. The food was good.

Another long bus ride took us to the Pacific edge of the country. The sun beat down on us, more severe here than it ever has been in the States. The heat is manageable, but the light is so direct that sunburns are hard to avoid. Collectively we waited for a boat to take us out onto the river where we would see crocodiles.

The wait seemed to take forever, but we eventually stepped aboard. Life is even richer and more vibrant around the river. Something almost always flutters just out of view, perches quietly on a brach, slithers through the water.

The ride was surprisingly refreshing. We crept close enough to the giant reptiles that a mere foot separated their flesh from my fingers (or rather my fingers from their mouths). These massive reptiles (which can live upwards of 80 years, grow larger than 20 feet, and have existed for millennia) make me feel young, small, and meek. It's a strange feeling. I have seen alligators before, but age always shines a new light on life's experiences.

Our tour of the Pacific Coast continued to the national park of Manuel Antonio. The park itself contains a few sandy shores and a few hiking trails. We toured one trail- an intensive hike which included many stairs and much sweat on my part- and managed to witness the ocean from a small peak. I was again reminded of how small I am- how small we all are.

This entire country makes me feel small. I can stand at the base of a tree, extend my fingers to the sky, and still be meters from the lowest branch. Even from miles away the mountains tower over me. 

Stepping into the forest is like letting go of society, of time, and of your 'otherness' as a human. Danger lingers at your heels as you walk. The life there demands respect; it mocks the elegance of our cities with the intricacy of its vines and leaves. It brings into perspective my mortality, my frailty. 

I fall more in love with the heat and the discomfort of Costa Rica every moment. The more you suffer here, the more beautiful the place becomes. The harder you struggle to be 'apart' from nature, the more she pesters you with her existence. I am bitten from head to toe, and I'm still scratching. I am sticky with sweat, but I'm adapting- and that's the whole point.

These Most Certianly are Adventures!

The title of this blog is completely appropriate. "Adventures in Costa Rica," can be interpreted as many things thus far.  I could begin by talking about day one, but instead I will tell the truths behind all of our experiences and "adventures" here in Sarapiquí, Costa Rica, of course from my perspective. I hope this blog  post doesn't come off as me complaining.  I first arrived array of expectations, not necessarily high expectations, but just different expectations.  Actually, honestly I wasn't sure what to expect at all.  Initially, I will explain my house.  The street is a dirt gravel road, located right next to our "university," Tirimbina.  My house is simple, but beautiful, and my mother is a blessing.  My family consists of my mom, my father, and my two younger sisters, Kisha and Yasudi, pronounced "yah-soo-di" - different, I know, but very fun to say.  My house has three bedrooms, a dining room, a kitchen, a sitting room, and yes... a bathroom.

The differences I first noticed were the roof, and the bathroom.  The roof is not attached, I can only assume for better air circulation because the temperature here feels like a mid-western summer...all the time.  Which is nice when the facility located right next door to Tirimbina has an infinity pool :)  I think we're all losing a little weight too considering that our diet doesn't have the possibility of consisting of cheeseburgers and french fries, instead those foods have been replaced by rice and beans, which I eat at every single meal, and love. 

 The bathroom experience for me was a little different.  The "bathroom" consists of just a toilet, a colorful rug, and a trashcan.  The trashcan isn't for your typical "lady products" either, instead it is for your used toilet paper. Yes, for those of you reading this that haven't experienced putting your soiled toilet paper in a trash can it seems disgusting, but with careful disposal, and a nice air freshener, its okay, and quite normal now.  Secondly, the shower is located in a different room towards the back of the house.  Lastly there is no sink in the bathroom, instead there is a sink located in a back room of the house.  The sink has three separate parts.  The center is always filled with water, so you must fill a bowl, put it in the sink to the left or right, and wash your hands in this small blue bowl.  Its not bad, just different.  

The sounds of my little sister crying, my mother yelling, "venga," (come here) and my father watching as much fútbol as he can, are sounds I much enjoy now.  I feel like I'm living, I feel like I'm fitting in, and I have such a new respect for family life.  For example, the name of my family is "Herra."  There are six different Herra households located on my well lit, dog filled street.  Almost all of the houses consist of a family related to my father.  It is typical in Costa Rica that a female marries into the male family and then proceeds to have very close ties to her husband's family.  I love how close the family is to each other. Every night, after a long day at school, I carefully walk home (trying not to fall over the large rocks in the street) to hear the sounds of my little "cousins" joyous laughter, and their mothers yelling at them to come inside to wash their hands for a hearty bean and rice filled dinner. 

 This experience thus far has been eye-opening, and I feel so blessed to be experiencing all of the good things, and bad things. And most of all, when I return to the United States I will be viewing life a little bit differently, knowing all of the things I have are not my necessities, but instead are my materials, I could live without.  Life here is much simpler (sometimes it isn't for the better) much slower, and it teaches you how to breath, and how to see things...instead of just looking at them... like so many of us have become accustomed to doing. 

Washing Machines

One of the most important realizations I’ve had since arriving in Costa Rica is just how much I have as a native resident of the United States. For example, my family of four in the U.S. owns three cars while my Costa Rican family of five doesn’t even have one. 

my family's home
Not only am I blessed with many material possessions, but also access to education and a wide range of opportunities. I constantly see a large gap between my life and the lives of my female counterparts here in Costa Rica. In the recent past, women had very few opportunities outside of the home and even today, I've been told that school attendance is only officially monitored up to sixth grade. In an area where families struggle to produce a sufficient income, I'm sure many students fall between the cracks and move on to the work force (or stay home to help with siblings) instead of continuing their education. 

my sweet sister Vivi standing in the road on which our house is located

The people who live here in La Virgen have access to the resources necessary to meet all of their basic needs, though they may struggle to pay for them. Houses are hooked up to running water, electricity, and in some cases even internet. There are local markets and other stores within walking distance in which to purchase food and supplies. Though my new life here has at times been shocking and difficult - I think I’m accurate in saying that one of the harshest realities of La Virgen life for each of us students is the lack of hot water - we are still far from outright poverty.

room at the back of the house complete with a washing machine 
Despite all the materials I am so accustomed to which are lacking in my Costa Rican life, I am still living with many more conveniences than the majority of the world (approximately 70%.) As part of one of our classes we watched this video, and it really put my experiences in perspective. Please view using the link below, and know that in each of our homes in La Virgen exists a washing machine. 

view from outside my bedroom window (this orange tree - in addition to a nearby cemetery - is used to denote my family's home address as very few roads in Costa Rica are officially named)

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

I must have gone to heaven

Sunday, what a day ! I have finally understood what it takes to spot some cool animals and birds in the forest. It's simple, or maybe not. It requires some slowing down and patience but if one does not have much patience or is used to walking fast just logging in miles every day, this is an achievement. I went to walk La Corteza trail that goes deeper into the forest. I walked the trail some days ago and did not see much but continually heard the howling of Congo Monkeys closer and closer to me. That first time it scared me because I immediately imagined those monkeys attacking me (in my imagination for some unknown reason). The howling can be heard often also in the village and it reminds me of a deep scream mixed with train noise. It scared me.  It was not “cool”. But today I actually enjoyed the group howling, walked toward it and tried to find the monkeys in the canopy of trees. I could not see anything but I knew they were there above my head. I completely slowed down and stopped to go undetected (they wer eprobably observing me), but they stopped howling. I waited a bit and they started to howl again; still, I did not see anything.  I just tried to keep still but it was a little hard because the moment I stopped my face got attacked by about 7 mosquitoes and I waved my hands all over. But I tried slowly....couple more steps forward and then couple more and then I looked to the right, and suddenly I saw something dark, black walking on the tree. First I thought “AH, … sloth” seeing the body size but I kept thinking that it was moving too fast although cautiously and then I realized it was the Congo Monkey. It was smaller than I expected (perhaps, in my ignorance, I was thinking of orangutans).
Yes, that black spot in the middle that's the monkey with her baby taken with an old camera.

The monkey saw me and slowly stopped; it was only about 30 m from me, not very far, I saw it clearly. It was a beautiful, satisfying feeling to watch it ….and then a baby came to her, a cute little monkey, she cleaned it a bit and then they both walked away toward he tree’s crown. It was hard to see them up there even if I followed them. That moment when I saw it , surprised that I was so lucky, I just felt this was it, now I can die. Of course, my biggest dream in live has NEVER been to spot a monkey, but in that moment it felt like “This is it, coming to Costa Rica was worth it!” It was a magnificent sight. After that I kept enjoying that slow walk, that stop and slow go movement of consciously putting one foot in front of another as if I was searching for a treasure. To really see something, one must completely slow down. Maybe something to remember when I get back to Indiana.

Our day at Tirimbina

We walk every day to "school" but the last stretch is a beauty we will miss....

....We are surrounded by exotic trees and flowers and can hear the singing and arguing of colorful birds.

We go to class and Skype our families....

We enjoy a well-deserved rest...

We recharge our energy with some delicious food and Costa Rican coffee...

We can go for a walk to the forest...

...and see some exciting new things...

And when it's all done for the day, we walk back home...

"Cerca de Nicaragua"

My Spanish continues to leave a lot to be desired. I’m noticeably improving every day, but for now, even the simplest conversation is a trying process full of phrases like “Mas despacio, porfavor!” (very slow, please!), “Otra vez.” (Repeat that again.), and “Como?” (literally translates as ‘How?’ but basically means ‘What did you just say?!’).
beautiful rice fields alongside the road

So last week, when my family kept saying they were going to go to “cerca de Nicaragua” (near Nicaragua) and wondered if I wanted to come, I knew I was missing much of the conversation. Of course I replied with an enthusiastic, “yes!”, but I had no idea what we were actually going to be doing. My host parents, 12 year old brother, a friend of the family who was in his 80s, and I left at 8am last Sunday for a long and uncomfortable ride on unpaved roads through the Costa Rican countryside. Despite the heat and rocky thoroughfares, the scenery was incredible and we were blessed with relatively cool temperatures; it was one of the most beautiful trips I’ve ever been on. 
a gentleman working solo to herd about 40 cattle
my first glimpses at the banana plantations
Along the way, we witnessed many miles of Chiquita banana plantations, and the homes of the Nicaraguan immigrants who worked on them. These families lived in absolute squalor. Many of the ‘homes’ were simply sheets of thin black plastic suspended by rope around trunks of trees. I’ve been told that in Costa Rica, there is very little work for Nicaraguan immigrants outside of plantations, so they are forced to accept the difficult conditions and meager pay. From what I hear, it is still a far better option than remaining in Nicaragua. I know I’ll never look at a banana the same way.
one of the better houses Nicaraguan plantation workers live in

It turns out “circe de Nicaragua” was the Delta of Costa Rica, the highest peninsular point of the country where the San Juan river separates Costa Rica from Nicaragua. This was the first time my family (and our 80 something friend) had ever laid eyes on another country. Here I am, only 20 years old, and I’ve already planted my feet on the soil of six. The river was nice, but spending a whole day getting to know my new family was even better. 
my host brother and I with Nicaragua behind us