Thursday, February 28, 2013

A visit from Peter

(Rio Celeste)

Just after my friends from college left, my younger brother Peter arrived in Costa Rica. Minus a road trip with the family through Canada when we were quite young, it was his first time traveling abroad. Moreover, having gone to college in Iowa and worked in Illinois and Minnesota, it was his first time outside the midwest in a while. I was super excited to have him visit and travel around with him. I did lots of planning before he came, as he was taking precious vacation days to come visit (not lots of those in your first year working for a big corporation) and he had said he wanted the trip to be safe and comfortable. Sadly, traveling around Costa Rica is often the opposite of those two things-but I did my best to make arrangements so that it'd be close. Between my sister and I, he packed exceptionally well for the trip-so that was good. What wasn't good was the mechanical failure on his second flight made him miss his flight to Costa Rica-and thus delayed his arrival by six hours-which threw the first day of the trip for a loop. But, we got the car rented nonetheless, and I made a quick reservation at the hostel I had stayed at the night before when seeing Dave and Greg off.
(Rio Celeste)

 In the end, we had a great trip, with only a few hiccoughs-all my fault. We went ziplining around the base of Arenal Volcano with EcoGlide-which was awesome. I had not gone during my entire time in Costa Rica-somewhat of a rarity, and didn't know what all the fuss was about. But after going, it was well worth it-we had a great time, caught some amazing views, and it gave Peter a great way to see a totally different natural environment than he'd ever seen before. We relaxed by the pool, him soaking up the sun and delightful weather-a nice respite from a Minnesota winter. We took an awesome day trip to Rio Celeste, hiked in, had a basic picnic, hiked back-for some reason the guard didn't charge us for entry (bonus!). We went on a wonderfully informative and delightful coffee tour at Mi Cafecito in San Miguel de Sarapiquí, and were treated to a fantastically delicious and plentiful lunch at its conclusion. We stopped briefly in my first site, he was able to meet my old host brother and sister, see where I lived, and get a brief glimpse of the town. 
(our lunch at the Mi Cafecito coffee tour)
He was the star of my going away party-matching my host dad shot for shot and doing his best to speak Spanish with the members of my extended host family. It was really special to have him meet the people I'd been spending my life with for the past year-and by visiting Liverpool, see both the places I had lived during my service. After my site was when some of the hiccoughs started to happen-having never driven in Costa Rica, I was not the best at giving directions-especially when it came to places to park in Limón-the city near my second site. I always just got off the bus-never paying attention to the one-way streets, no parking areas, areas with paid parking, etc. But everything worked out, and even though I didn't pay close attention and made us drive in a 45 minute loop along the Caribbean Coast (a really stupid mistake-one of only two that can even be made on the entire road), we arrived at Playa Negra Guesta House in Cahuita-which was a gorgeous and delightful place to stay. 
(Petey and I with my host mom, and host dad)
During this trip challenge I had foreseen was very present for me. Having been in Costa Rica for over two years, many of its quirks and differences from the US had become normal to me. Although I have never experienced much "reverse culture shock" upon coming back to the US from any of my stints living abroad, I do understand the concept of having a new normal. While the US will always be my reference point and the norm, two years was a long period of time. So, in many ways-especially daily occurrences-Costa Rican customs and ways were the norm-yet for a visitor they are shocking. It's always a challenge to keep this in mind when someone visits-that their reactions are genuine and normal-I had them too-just two years previous. Being Petey's first time traveling abroad, I tried to stay especially aware of this-but it was difficult. I've been fortunate to have traveled a lot and in diverse places, so many things that I would breeze by were troublesome or awe striking or interesting to him. 
(learning about coffee)
In Cahuita we visited the park and hiked all the way out to the point of the peninsula and then some. We got some great, close views of a few howler monkeys. One more thing-for me not that special, but for Petey-just five days off a flight from Minnesota-a pretty spectacular site to see in the wild-just 10 feet up in a tree. We had some solid Caribbean food and visited a small house run by an indigenous family where a young woman showed us the entire chocolate making process. We both bought some samples-everything in the chocolate was grown on that property. We had a blast watching a storm of shooting stars that night poolside, enjoying some brews and making jokes. At times we could barely contain our laughter and not disturb the other patrons also watching the shooting starts. After the drive back to San José, a stop at the office to pack up coffee and buy some gifts-I dropped Petey off at his hostel (I was staying with some friends in the center of town) as he had a 6 am flight home the next day. Of course, after having assured him pre-trip that almost all the flights I've ever been on have been on time without problems-he was on Frontier Airlines first flight out of Costa Rica-and all sorts of clerical delays and disorganization made the flight two hours late. Luckily he had a long layover and he got home fine. I guess that's how it always works out-when you promise your brother that it'll be fine-it isn't. 
(cacao)
Although there were some logistical bumps and we were hustling and bustling for much of the trip, I'm so glad Petey spent the money and time to come visit me. He wrote me this a few days later: "It was a great opportunity for me to see how other people live in developing countries, as well as remind me of the bubble I live in. Looking back now it was very good for me to get out of my comfort zone/midwest bubble." That's what a real vacation should be: relaxing and eye-opening. 
(on the last day-before leaving Cahuita)

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

2007-08 SA Exec (plus Sally) in Costa Rica


I originally joined the Peace Corps because my good friend Dave had applied and suggested I do the same. He was placed in Kazakhstan, and when I could've visited, he was still in training and couldn't accept visitors. And then I was placed in Costa Rica-so any vacation I was going to take certainly wasn't going to be the expensive and long trip to Central Asia. But, as I was placed in one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, I was constantly hassling him about coming down to visit. He was waiting to go to interviews and then hear about a job-which would then give him the security to spend some money on vacation. Not only did Dave make it happen just in time, he also convinced Greg-my other roommate from my senior year-and third travel buddy on my post graduation Europe trip, as well as Cassie and Sally, two sisters that we were all great friends with at TU. 

So, a few days after Thanksgiving, I met them at the airport in San José. We immediately went to the rental car place, where there were some considerable problems with our reservation and some costs that didn't appear on their website, but there weren't really any other options at that point-so we paid, and hit the road to La Fortuna. Greg was the driver for the week, and he got the worst of it out of him immediately-mountain roads, thick fog, one-lane bridges, and no lights, paint or light reflectors to see the many road curves in the dark foggy night. But, we got to our hostel, and started ordering up some Pilsens and catching up. 

In La Fortuna we took a hike around the national park at the base of the volcano. It was cloudy and misty, so we were unable to take in great views of the volcano, but it was still a great hike. We relaxed big time at EcoTermales, a hot spring resort that was amazing! I took them to get chicharrones-a Costa Rican staple-as well as a typical casado at a cheap local restaurant (I asked the guide for recommendations so we didn't have to overspend at a tourist place). 


We then visited Daryl, a fellow Peace Corps volunteer, so they could get a taste of small town life and an example of Peace Corps sites (which are generally not much like tourist sites-although there are always exceptions). We had a great time, one of the ladies in his community he works with had us over for coffee and traditional pastries of the region, it was lots of fun. Daryl and I did lots of translating, as Cassie and Sally did not want to break out their high school Spanish-Dave, though, was not afraid to do his best with his one semester in college and some trips to Latin America. 

After that we headed to the beach in Guanacaste. It was gorgeous, I'd gone my entire service without visiting the famous beaches of Guanacaste-mostly because I lived on the Caribbean side of the country and because I hadn't had visitors to take there. I was quite impressed with the beauty of the beaches and the sunsets. We visited Playa Conchal and Playa Flamingo, which was gorgeous and had wide open swathes of beach and ocean. We snacked on salsa, refried beans, tortilla chips, and a couple six-packs, read some books, chatted about college, and rode the waves into shore. 
(surfer dude at sunset at Playa Flamingo)
Sadly, I had to go into San José and sign some papers, do some interviews, and officially close my Peace Corps Service-but I sent them on the way to Manuel Antonio national park-where they had lots of fun and didn't get too hosed by the touts. We met back up in San José two days later-my solid directions only having one small mistake-but Greg still made it through the city and to the Peace Corps office. They grabbed some coffee to take back as a gift from another volunteer's project, and we took Cassie and Sally out to the airport-they had to be back for work. Greg, Dave, and I enjoyed a delightful day strolling around downtown San José, admiring the gorgeous buildings, gawking at the atrocious ones, not paying to tour the National Theater, and having delicious Chinese at a recommended restaurant-where Dave wowed the waitress with his Chinese (and I managed to not embarrass myself with mine). With an early flight, it didn't make sense to go out-so we hit up San José's newest mall and were joined by my buddy Brian-another volunteer. Needless to say, it was a GREAT visit. 

Friday, February 8, 2013

At the theater

In between Thanksgiving and the arrival of my friends Cassie, Dave, Greg, and Sally I spent a few days hanging out in San José with some other volunteers from my training group that were leaving Costa Rica. (To explain-although our official close of service date was December 17, Peace Corps allows volunteers to leave up to 30 days early as long as the Country Director approves.) So, two of my friends and I went to see Skyfall at one of the fancy malls in San José's richest district. Everything was fine and the movie was approaching the climax when it suddenly stopped. The lights stayed off and the screen was blank. A few people whistled, and a few cuss words were heard, but in a joking manner. 

This reaction caught me off guard. While every culture of the world is different and unique in many ways, I am a big believer in the idea that the differences within groups are much greater than the differences between groups. There are extremely religious people in America, and in Costa Rica. There are very secular folks in each country as well. I think it's a bit more difficult to decide which country is more religious than the other. It certainly can be determined, but the more I travel and learn, the more I think that the differences within groups are greater than the differences between them (which type of groups is a more complicated issue-I may post about it later). But, back to the theater, I was caught off guard because I tend to think that in the States, even in a delightfully kind state like Iowa, people would've gotten mad. This simply did not happen in Costa Rica-mirth was the most common emotion. Many people started laughing with their friends. I was about to get up-but first looked around, and one person had already walked back to the booth to make sure someone was fixing the problem. 

I didn't hear a single person whine "this is so inconvenient" or "what am I paying them for?" or anything like that. I think to a certain extent this has to do with the laid-back attitude that many Costa Ricans have towards life. Part of it might be because of weather-on the Costa Rican coasts it's often too hot and humid to get all worked up about something. Part of it might be due to the lack of stress in living somewhere where it's never cold, there's plenty of freshwater, beaches aren't far away, and fruits and vegetables grow pretty much everywhere, without too much work. There may be many more reasons, but I was delighted by it as we sat in the theater and observed people using the time to check messages or emails on their phones, chat with their friends and lovers, use the restroom, get a popcorn refill, or just sit back and relax. No whining and moaning so everyone could hear, no jumping up and all screaming at the projection booth. As the worker got the movie back on the screen, a few helpful patrons yelled "further" "further" and "go back" to get us right back to the part of the movie when the screen went black. People clapped lightly and the movie finished without a hitch. It was, for me, in some ways a nice representation of my time in Costa Rica-the country still has many problems as it develops (often with infrastructure), which can be frustrating, and often it seems slow to correct these problems-but everyone is in a pretty good mood about things and they smile and laugh as they deal with them. 


Thursday, January 31, 2013

Nicaragua Trip, Days 7-10


The remainder of our trip in Nicaragua took a very casual pace. This was fine with the four of us, as we were on vacation and had no reason to worry or rush about  (although life in Costa Rica was seldom super busy and stressful). This was because we saw on the news that the day after the big earthquake in Costa Rica, a volcano in northern Nicaragua erupted, and people in that region were being evacuated (not just volunteers-the army was evacuating all citizens)-as well as news that the volunteers from Isla Ometepe (our next stop) were being evacuated because of worries about the seismic activity causing eruptions there. So the official word from Peace Corps came that we couldn't travel there, and had to stay in Granada. So we spent two days walking the streets of Granada,  stopping for a fresh fruit smoothie here and buying some mango slices there. We toured the cathedral, an old church and monastery that had been turned into a museum, what was left of the old hospital, it seems to have just been abandoned and never purchased or maintained. We enjoyed delicious breakfast from Kathy's Waffles-a go-to spot in Granada for tourists-as it has American style breakfast (which was quite good) and finally got some Tip-Top-a local fried chicken chain that we had seen everywhere. We did go out for fish and chips at an Irish restaurant on the main tourist drag-yet, sadly, when we ordered three or four glasses of Guinness, they only brought us one-saying it was the last of the keg and they didn't have another. While I'd certainly blame it on poor management, I wonder if even though (as the menu stated) it was owned and operated by Irish, it still fell prey to the developing country problem of chronically late or incomplete deliveries. As it was my birthday, they guys were kind enough to let me have it. We did grab some cervezas micheladas-which is a way of drinking beer in Latin America-adding lime juice, salt, hot sauce, pepper, and other spices/sauces. This was something Nicaragua did much better than Costa Rica. In Costa Rica, you just get the lime juice and salt, but Nicaragua throws in pepper, hot sauce, and another sauce-similar to Worcestershire. It may not sound appealing, but I challenge anyone to try one and not love it.  
(a view of Granada's cathedral and Lake Nicaragua in the background)
By far the highlight of these last three days was our trip to Laguna de Apoyo, a lake in a volcano crater not far from Granada. We took a mini-bus and then a local bus and got off where they told us too. The supposed ten minute walk to the lodge we used for access to the lake was more like 25, but it was sunny and delightful so no worse for the wear. We used the well run and stocked Monkey Hut to gain access to the lake. For a reasonable price we gained access to their tables, chairs, kayaks, inner tubes, and floating docks. They also sold pizza and beer, and we put more than a few on our tabs. It was a pretty spectacular way to spend a day: lounging on the floating dock, jumping into the beautiful lake for a swim, back to the dock, grab a beer and float on an inner tube for a while. 


Despite not being able to visit Isla Ometepe, which is claimed by many to be the best place to visit in Nicaragua, I had an amazing trip. It was wonderful to see all the historic colonial cathedrals and homes (something Costa Rica has little of), it was great to see another Central American country, which has much in common with Costa Rica but has some strong differences too (baseball, hot dogs, gorgeous doors). We were blessed with fantastic weather during the trip, had essentially no problems (it helps to know the languages and the region), and I really enjoyed traveling with Andrew, Barton, and Brian. Nicaragua is about 4-5 times poorer than Costa Rica on a per person income base, but that was not very apparent except for the number of children begging and some of the houses we saw on the outskirts of Estelí and the market we walked through in Granada-which very crowded and lacked lots of hygienic processes-just like markets in other poor countries I've visited. The transportation system was faster and easy to use-I really liked the more frequently running 15 person buses as opposed to the less often running 60 person buses in Costa Rica. Beer was cheaper and street food was much more abundant, two big wins for Nicaragua. It is hard not to compare it to Costa Rica, because for me during the time I visited, Costa Rica, not the US was my reality. Some of my favorite things were the tobacco tour in Estelí, the Museum of the Revolution in León, the Laguna de Apoyo, and the store side paintings in Estelí. As a very budget friendly country that's easy to maneuver, I'd highly recommend visiting Nicaragua and can definitely see myself going back. In total, we spent ten days in Nicaragua, getting up on the tenth day and boarding a bus in Granada headed back to San José, a trip that went quite smoothly. 

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Nicaragua Day 6


On our sixth day in Nicaragua we headed out of gorgeous, majestic, and historic León. We headed down to the bus station, grabbed a quick mini-bus to Granada (they are super common-another great thing about Nicaragua), and rolled right into the central park of the city. The differences between León and Granada were immediately apparent, even if we hadn't know that Granada and León had always been rival cities in the conservative versus liberal power struggles of 19th and early 20th century Nicaragua. Granada's cathedral was cleaner and more colorful than that of León, (its restoration was complete). It's roads were wider and less busy, it's gardens a bit more manicured, and its offerings of tourist restaurants and shops more plentiful and concentrated. From what I gathered, the revolution/ensuing wars hit León a lot harder than Granada, so some of its historic homes had been destroyed or damaged. Additionally, León was very much a university town, and Granada more of a merchant town-thus less revolutionary murals and more storefronts. Despite being more touristy*, I liked Granada a lot, especially its main drag, with the cathedral, municipal building and on old municipal building-all with imposing Spanish architecture. The central park was bustling with tourists, touts, children begging, and old men sleeping or chatting. 
*Note: being an avid tourist, I don't have a single problem with it-but it will inevitably change a town, especially when it becomes the dominant economic activity of the town-often, super touristy towns end up having pretty similar restaurants and bars and shops-and thus aren't as interesting as a town that hasn't changed itself to suit my desires. Of course, there are conveniences in tourist towns that I can't deny to enjoy and take advantage of. 
(all these pictures are taken from different points on the edge of the central park)
There wasn't much more in store for us on this day, we got ourselves checked into our hostel, explaining that we weren't quite sure how many nights we'd be staying-as we weren't sure what the Peace Corps' decision would be about our ability to travel to Isla Ometepe-the island consisting of two volcanoes in the middle of Lake Nicaragua. We walked around town a bit, checked out a few restaurants and settled on the patio at a mostly empty Mexican style restaurant (Granada is touristy enough that you can get all sorts of "worldly" restaurants). We had a good meal, and as we had a feeling that we might not be making it to Ometepe, we let our budgets loosen a bit and ordered a bottle of Flor de Caña rum, one of Nicaragua's most famous products. We topped the night off giving homage to two of Nicaragua's finest products, as we purchased another bottle of Flor de Caña took it back to the hostel, mixed it with some ice, and sipped it as we smoked one or two of the cigars we had purchased up in Estelí.