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

Saturday, January 19, 2013

This place...

This place is not a paradise. The wood in my house is peeling and chipped and cracked. There is no airconditioning, and I'm constantly sweating. Plates fill the tiny kitchen counter and the sink. They attract an abundance of fruit flies. My pillow feels like it is made of packing peanuts and my comforter has a single dark stain. The front door is almost always open. 

My family is kind. It took less than a day for the youngest of three daughters to start referring to me as "La hermana mayor". My mother cooks something fresh for breakfast every morning and every evening. I have yet to be in want for food. My father always smiles. He is unafraid to show his family love.

This is not a world of new convenience and luxury. Things which are broken are fixed and kept. Things which are cracked are used again and again. The people here do not move like the people at home. There is no rush or overwhelming fear of tardiness. They walk, but not for exercise. They wait, but not impatiently. Every time I try to rush or worry I am met with the phrase "Tranquilla". 

The bugs are ferocious and the sun is demanding. The air is thick and damp. I can never seem to keep my forehead dry. There is no sidewalk. I walk thirty minutes to access the internet which used to be at my beck and call. I walk thirty minutes back home to eat. I walk to catch a glimpse of something beautiful.

This place is not a paradise, but I love it more so because it is imperfect and small and hot. There is a slow moving persistence which fills the hearts of the people here. Kindness fills their hands and their hearts. The forest is robust and overflowing with life. It moves beneath your feet, heedless of your steps or your intentions. It doesn't care about you. It moves on. Costa Rica is filled with people and animals and plants that simply move on. Maybe they don't move quickly. Maybe they don't move like anything you've ever seen before, but they move on regardless.

This place is not a paradise, but if you kept your eyes open it would be impossible not to see something amazing.

Monday, January 14, 2013

This past weekend...

Helping Nelson, my 22 year old brother run his store.
He also owns 24 cows and 4-5 acres of land.

Kelsey, Brittany, Kevin, Alyssa, Faye, and Kelsie going to Puerto Viejo,
a district of Sarapiqui.

Puerto Viejo

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Advice and truisms from a 72 year old woman

"Never wear jewelry in San Jose."

"You can wear bikinis and shorts here, mi hija. We are not Indians! Just keep your nalgas in, oy, if my mother was brought back to life today she would instantly die of a heart attack at the first sight of what young people wear today. But it's okay. A lot has changed in 50 years. When I first came here there was no electricity. We used candles. Look at it now? I wonder what will change for you in the next fifty years? I bet by then everyone will just be naked all the time."

"How did you sleep last night? Did you sleep well? Could you hear the bats in the roof, the monkeys in the jungle? Did the roosters wake you? These are the reasons el campo is better than la ciudad- the sounds of the forest."

"It is better not to marry, but if you do, do not marry a man of god. Marry a godly man. Marry a man who strives to be the man god wants him to be. Any man can read the bible. Any man can go to church. All men are men of god because they were created by god, but not all men are godly men. A godly man will treat you right and not do you wrong. A man of god will cheat on you and leave you. A godly man will treat you how he wants to be treated. He will love you as much as he loves himself and as much as he loves god. Do not settle for less than you deserve. Every woman deserves a godly man. ¿Entiende mi hija?"

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Stopped for lunch at "Comida como en Casa". Fue muy delicioso!
 On the 2 hour ride from the airport to Tirimbina!

The group in the Atlanta airport getting ready to board to head to Costa Rica!
(Top Row: Kelsey Sickmann, Sam Boyer, Kylie Torres, Faye Lichtsinn, Brittany Burger, Nick McReynolds. Bottom Row: Kelsie Rudell, Ariel Skiba, Kevin Williams, Alyssa Hartman, Jarka Popovicova)

The Trip Begins!

Today is our day.
We're off to Great Places!
We're off and away!

We have brains in our heads.
We have feet in our shoes.
We can steer ourselves
any direction we choose.
We're on our own. And we know what we know.
And WE are the ones who'll decide where to go! 

(Dr. Seuss)