28 July 2010

Costa Rican Reflection

A little reflection on my vacation and a few answers to some FAQs:

What was the best thing I ate/How was the food:
I liked the food a lot. I love rice and beans and make it a lot here so their food was right up my alley. Since I didn't really seek out top restaurants on this trip, I got a great taste of what typical Costa Rican fare is like. I loved having fresh pineapple every morning for breakfast. And, while I enjoyed the gallo pinto a lot, the best rice dish I had was on my last night with my host family. My mamatica made arroz y pollo and it was delic. She said it is a dish often made for fiestas...AWWW! :)

What was the best thing about my vacation:
There are lots of great things about my trip. Interacting with other people who value the human experience. It was nice to know that we all had that common ground of being interested in volunteering and service work. I met some very cool people on my project and at Manuel Antonio. Also, I really enjoyed learning and trying out bits of Spanish. Lastly, the experience and exposure at La Carpio.

What would you rate your vacation:
Scale of 1-10: 9.5
Letter grade: A
Only changes/improvements I'd make would be to stay for at least 2 weeks and to make the volunteer project a bigger component.

What did you think about your volunteer experiences:
Loved it. I just wish it could've been a bigger portion of my trip. The hour commute each way cut down on how long we could spend there and I don't think the kids were there much longer than that anyways. But it would've been cool to do some other things too, like helping build something, clean, paint, etc. Walking into Carpio was a stunning experience, and the kids were great.

What did you think about your Spanish classes:
Loved them. My teacher, Hilda, a native Costa Rican, was totally great. It is tiring to have to concentrate on every word spoken for two hours, but such a fun, effective way to learn. I am making a goal to schedule time each week to continue working on my Spanish.

Do you miss it:
Yes. Totally should've done another week of volunteering and there's so much more to see in the rest of the country that will have to be left for my next visit (Arenal, Monteverde, waterfalls, Caribbean coast).

Worst thing about the vacation:
Hmm. Not much. Maybe just some frustration dealing with lesser technological development. Such as, power outages in Manuel Antonio, no cell phones & texting makes meeting up much more difficult and time consuming, a lack of ATM's, places not taking debit/credit cards, not having a car & relying on feet and public transportation, etc.
Also, even though it happened a week after I left, one of my friends was mugged at gunpoint a half-block from Maximo. :( A sad and scary reminder that all those cautions of crime in San Jose/San Pedro was not empty talk.

How was the weather:
It was the rainy season, so you had to be ready for that each afternoon. But the mornings were gorgeous. A tad cooler than here. But even if it was overcast, it was still pretty nice out. The sun came up early and went down early too.

How was your host family:
Fantastic. Couldn't have been better. For not being able to converse much, we got along fabulously. Great food, super accommodating & flexible.

Did you meet some cool people:
Besides a great host family, I also met great people working for Maximo Nivel and the other volunteers were wonderful people to get to know also.

Why aren't you super tan:
I believe in sunscreen. And I was only on the beach for a couple days.

Was it expensive:
Not really. My flight was paid for through credit card points and the registration fee was $220, and one week cost $250. I hardly spent any money during my week in San Jose/San Pedro. I changed $100 when I landed and still had ~$30 when I left for the coast. When I wasn't staying with my host family, we were staying in hostels for $10 a night.

Who did you go through/Would you go through them again:
International Volunteer Headquarters is the main organization and their prices are the best I've seen. They started in 2006 and I liked the story behind them. They use an in-country partner for their placements and Maximo Nivel was our basecamp in San Jose. The people, facilities, programs and services were top notch.

27 July 2010

Walk Across U.S.

I came across this video on a music blog, who was commenting on the great song used in it. And when you watch the video, you think, "Hmm, cool!" But after watching it a second time your brain starts to wonder a bit about how they got the smooth walking/turning/hand motion effects and how everything stayed so constant and steady. So after watching the video a couple times, watch this behind the scenes video. It makes it so much cooler. What an amazing roadtrip project. 2,770 photos. wow.

22 July 2010

Smiles Ahead [part 2]

I decided to reuse that title since it seemed pretty fitting for the last couple days. Lots of good things have been going on:
  • First and foremost, it is now official that I have a contract for the upcoming school year. Even better is that it is with the same district, so I'll continue to build my seniority. It is a bit more $$ since it is a bit longer calendar. I'll be a technology trainer, helping teachers with tech integration into their curriculum, training on different types of software, obtaining and utilizing student data, and increasing the scope of our online courses. Lots of latitude, lots of things to be figured out still, but I'm eager.
  • When I heard that I had a job, I heard from a number of people how happy they were for me. And not just the standard, "Oh, that's nice you have a job!" but genuine, thoughtful expressions of their happiness at my good fortune. I know there were people out there praying for me and I appreciate it. And all the people offering congratulations and kind words...it makes you feel good.
  • I was able to make a fun trip over to Iowa City where we squeezed a lot of fun into one day. I got to give a little trip presentation over my CR pictures, see my cousin's pix from the World Cup, go to an author talk by Fr. Greg Boyle about his book "Tattoos on the Heart" (which I now own thanks to C!), went to yoga at a new place and saw some crazygood instructors & advanced forms (I am going to work on crow & side-crow), eat some delic ratatouille, scored some super cheap gear at the 'orientation sale' at Iowa Book & Supply, and had a professional development/training session with C that will provide some great direction and ideas as I get started in my new role.
  • Jack Johnson/tubing/camping trip to get packed & prepared for. Can't wait for this!
  • Back on the sand with the Escape Goats after missing for a couple weeks. Unfortunately, I couldn't help us get a win. Maybe I should've stayed away another week. :)
  • I'm taking the firefly out this afternoon for a ride....My first one of the summer. That's awful. But it's gonna be great.
  • FIFA10. caboose got this game for his Xbox and we've been having lots of fun breaking it in.
  • Just saw on facebook that the Nishnabotna Blue Devils (still not ok with that name and not convinced that it is 'my alma mater') beat St. Albert's 1-0 to earn their way to the State Baseball tournament. They play the #1 seed tomorrow.

19 July 2010

Smiles Ahead

Since I do not care for gambling much, Prairie Meadows is somewhere I had never been to before last weekend. But the idea of betting on horses or dogs has always appealed to me a little so I was excited to hear that some friends were planning to go out there for the annual "Ostrich & Camel Night." I had no idea that half of the city had the same idea. After finally making our way through the insane traffic and parking, we met up with our gang and assessed the situation. All betting newbies, we had a lot to figure out but it turned out to be pretty simple. $2 minimum bets (perfect) and a race every 20 minutes or so. The camels were ridiculous and the ostriches were a little better, but the horses were the real deal. We put bets in on five races and overall I think we did pretty well. caboose's horse just barely got nosed out in the very first race, Nic scored a winner, and so did I when Smiles Ahead (yes, I choose him for the positive name) came from behind to nip Fast Freight at the line. The 5-1 odds earned me $12.20. Quite a night. I'd like to go back when it wasn't a packed and see how it is...I'm feeling lucky!

18 July 2010

Measuring Matroyshkas

I was checking out the hippest, most wonderful little boutique managed by my friend before my trip and since it focuses on women's attire, I figured I was just along for the ride. But this place, Francesca's Collections, happens to have some very fun things for home & kitchen also. The moment I saw these little ladies and then realized that they were measuring cups, I knew I had to have them. I picked up a set that I am giving as a gift to a wonderful former student who is going off on her own to begin her career as a professional ballet dancer. And Leslie was thoughtful enough to get a set for me to keep since she knew how much I liked them. I baked cookies with them today and they are convenient (I love having a 3/4 C), fun and look great sitting on my counter. Hopefully the new cookie recipe, Coconut Oatmeal Chewies, turns out nicely. Thanks, Les!

Costa Rica pictures

...are now uploaded. Took me a while to get them sorted out, cropped, etc. I took ~300 pictures, and ended up with about 100 keepers.
Check out the Costa Rica set on flickr, or watch as a slideshow.
And I had a travel partner who also put together a set that you should check out.

16 July 2010

Hmm, What Have I Missed...

back in the States and here's a few things that caught my eye while I was gone and I didn't have an opportunity to blog about:
  • This NY Times article about a Bosnian immigrant in Chicago and the role that soccer has played in his life. It is short and good. His insight on the current German team are enlightening and the bit about the pulled groin muscle made me laugh.
  • NY Times article about Teach For America. It focuses on how selective it has become, looks at a few of the reasons why, and touches also on the effectiveness of the teachers and the retention (or lack of) rate.
  • World Cup review: ESPN Soccernet's experts give us their best & worst of the Cup. And here is someone's list of the top 15 goals of the tournament. I would definitely switch that Japan free kick for the other one by Honda.
  • New Music!!! After just having my shuffle for a couple weeks, I was ready to hear some new things. Fresh albums from Jack Johnson, M.I.A., and Band of Horses are all newly added to my library, along with a new single from Cults and a great "All Summer" jam from Kid Cudi, the girl from Best Coast, and Rostam Batmanglij from Vampire Weekend.
  • This is a 30 minute video called "Village of Hope: La Carpio" about the neighborhood on the outskirts of San Jose where I did my volunteer work. It was made by Fulbright scholar Dana Freedman. It gives an idea of the inhabitants, their struggles, why they have them and the type of NGO's trying to help them.
More to come as I think of it.

14 July 2010

Costa Rica [dia dies]

It's amazing how useful a map is! Maps are something that have been sorely omitted or poorly created for most of this trip. But I had a good one for Alajuela so I had no problem finding my way to the bus stop to catch a ride to Volcan Poás. I would've rather gone up to see Volcan Arenal instead, but my time constraints dictated that it would be Poás instead. So I took a wonderful hour a half bus ride up into the mountains, through the coffee fields and by the strawberry stands to the national park. Just like the guide books warned though, the clouds had already descended and filled in the volcanic crater so we couldn't really see enough to appreciate its enormity. It was very cool to stand and watch the clouds blow through though, breaking up and opening to show you a view for a minute, then piling back into a total white out. There was a nice mile or so trail through the park that I hiked [not much else to do since the bus didn't leave for 2 more hours] and it was cool to see what the ''cloud forest'' is like. Dense, dripping wet, hazy...almost eery. You couldn't hear any thing other than the dripping of rain off of leaves and rustling insencts and wildlife. Some very cool plants, like the Poor Man's Umbrella. Overall, a fun day trip and a good way to spend my last day here. On the way home, I caught the five o''clock mass at the Cathedral de Alajuela. Very nice church and the priest was either a monsignor or a cardinal...or just had a nice red hat. Although I didn't catch a word of the mass, it was a nice experience, up to the point when I was leaving and realized that someone had swiped my umbrella from the back of the church! Oh well, someone must've needed it more than me. And luckily it had stopped raining.
For my last supper I treated myself to a steakhouse on the walk home and it was good. The owner, Raphael, was Cuban and he came by to chat about Costa Rica, steaks, my trip, Nicaraguans, pretty much everything. A good old guy. As I was leaving I noticed that the Iowa Hawkeye basketball team was on the TV. Even more strange was that they were playing the Harlem Globetrotters. And it was the team with Luke Recker and Reggie Evans. Bizarre. Up next was a college football game featuring Alex Van Pelt at QB. Time Warp.

12 July 2010

Costa Rica [dias ocho y nueve]

Just a very quick recap to share what I was up to over the weekend.
Sunday was spent with a morning of ziplining, then watching the World Cup final on the patio bar area of our hostel. There were 30 seats and every one of was filled. It was a fun environment and most of my friends were cheering for Spain, but it was a good time. I don't have the time to break down my thoughts on the game now, but I will say I was sad to see Holland lose, but I was ok with Spain winning. Holland's thuggish play turned me off a little and they didn't play up to their skill level. Actually, I felt neither team really exhibited a level of excellence. There were a few flashes of brilliance, but they were very few and far between. And the keepers really put on the best performances. Both teams had several chances and I think if either team had converted, it would've made things more entertaining. Oh well. Putting it behind me now.
It rained a lot after the final so going out for a nice dinner was the extent of our activities. Hung out with other Carpio volunteers and had a nice time. Just a fun rundown of the people at our table last night - a Spaniard, an Andorran, an American, and three Canadians [one with both parents from India, one with parents from China and Vietnam, one with parents from China and Canada]. We had a great dinner with conversation of each of us sharing some of the fun characteristics or our favorite things about our cultures. Very cool night.
Today was checkout from the Hostel Costa Linda. We spent the morning at the public beach, which wasn't as nice, although still pretty good, but the waves were bigger. After rinsing off and getting into dry clothes, we caught the afternoon bus back to San Jose [the seat next to me was shared by two 8 year old brothers so it was a tight fit but their antics entertained me the whole way. laughing, singing, playing, thumb-wresting, giggling, checking on me to see what I was thinking of them, etc. I shared my gum so we were good.], and I got off a little before the end to stay in Alajuela. It was sad to leave my friends behind, probably to never see again. But, as I told them, it is reassuring to find, and get to know, that there are so many like-minded and good people in the world.

10 July 2010

Costa Rica [dia siete]

Wow. I had forgotten what it was to sleep and wake up to a silent room. What a treat. And A/C is putting us in the lap of luxury as well. Our hostel is pretty bare bones other than that but what can you ask for for $10 a night? A fantastic breakfast for 1800 colones? (under $4) You got it. Free coffee, tea & internet? Why not.
We headed to the Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio after eating, paid our entry fee ($10) and started hiking the trails. It didn't take long before we starting seeing some fun things. Howler monkeys, squirrel monkeys, a sloth (not sure if it was the 3 or 2 toed variety), a violet hummingbird, some sort of lemur thing I need to find out what it was, geckos galore, and another fantastic bird that is undetermined as of now. The landscape is overwhelming, as was the humidity. It is difficult to put into words and definitely beyond my wordsmithing capabilities.
"We have to go back to the island!!"
caboose will know what that means. And it is the best way I can describe how it felt to be where I was. The stacked tropical vegitation, vines on top of trees on top of trees on top of bushes on top of bushes on top of grasses on top of fallen leaves & rotting plant life. The pounding rhythmic crashes of the waves in the background. Humidity pressing in from all sides. Intense sun shining down, trying to work its way through all the leaves of the forest. Walking out of the forest canopy onto the top of a cliff looking out across the Pacific Ocean. It all made me think of either LOST, and I was Jack Shepard, or an Indiana Jones movie. Either way it was a pretty fantastic morning. Also in the national park are some fantastic beaches and that is where we spent the next 4 hours or so. It was surreal. No shops, no vendors, no businesses, no advertisements. No cars, no traffic noise. Just families and friends enjoying floating in a tropical paradise.
On the way home we came across a different beach with a couple of huge rocks about 50 yards off the coast. So even though it was a bit stormy and the surf was picking up, four of us braved the crossing. It actually turned out to be super shallow and we could walk half the way there. But it was still amazing. And the waves were way stronger at this beach. And perfect cap to a perfect day. We came back, and after lots of delays (boy, group decision making is the worst!) we headed out for a great dinner. Only downer to the day is I am pretty sure I broke my (right 4th) toe, kicking a massive underwater boulder at the first beach. I'll try to get a picture of it.
Nice to get out of my house and hang with a different crowd for a few days. The volunteers that shared my home-stay were good, but not really people I could hang with. Spending some quality time with some quality people.
Today was the definition of 'pura vida.'

09 July 2010

Costa Rica [dia sies]

Friday was my last day in San Jose and volunteering. It was an emotional time say goodbye to my host family Friday morning. They have been fantastic. Cooking at the drop of a hat, tons of good food, endless reserves of kindness and unlimited patience with my pathetic spanish skills. My mama-tica speaks very little English and I speak little Spanish so our conversations were usually limited verbally to a few words but through facial expressions, smiles and good vibes, we spoke without a problem. Her daughter, Massiel, is 22 and speaks the best English in the house. She is great, fun, excited to share and very understanding about different culteres. Her niece, Siene, is 19 and was at the house every day. Esteban, 16, is her son, a big football fan/player, always smiling and a good time. My mama-tica's words to describe me was "muy tranquilo." She repeated it often, and I can't really disagree. I gave them their "regalos pequeños" (little gifts) and they were very happy. We took some pictures and said our farewells. They repeatedly said I needed to come back soon, stay longer and that their house is now my house.
Our last day volunteering at La Carpio and it was great. I felt since we had fewer volunteers and also fewer kids, it was an environment much more condusive to communicating, activities and learning. There was English bingo going on, coloring of numbers in Spanish and English, and I was playing three games of checkers. Greivin, one of the first kids to take to me, got out the board which is actually a vinyl Disney princess thing and set it up for us. I quickly found out that there are a few key differences to Costa Rican checkers. Once you have a king (corona), it can move an unlimited number of spaces on the diagonal, like a bishop in chess. Its rules for jumping players stay the same (only one at a time). Also, if you don't see a possible jump and make a different move instead, the other player can then pick up your piece that should've made the attack, show you the missed opportunity and then pocket your piece. Of course, these rules were learned after the fact. I lost two of three games. But we had fun with it, I used a bit of Spanish, they taught me a few new words and we shook hands at the end.
In the afternoon, a group of 7 of us caught a taxi to the main bus station and headed out to Manuel Antonio. Several groups of volunteers were heading there this weekend, so it was going to be Maximo Nivel west, I guess. The bus was not nearly as bad as I'd envisioned. It was like a chartered bus, except MUCH stickier. It was like a sauna in there by the time we got to the end of our 4 1/2 hour journey. But it was great to watch the scenery quickly change as soon as we left San Jose. The lush green surroundings and the fresh tropical air rapidly improved all of our moods. If you have read "One Hundred Years of Solitude", I am pretty sure that, although Gabriel Garcia Marquez was describing Columbia, it could've equally painted a picture of Costa Rica. We checked into the Hostel Costa Linda and rounded out our night getting dinner and crashing.

08 July 2010

Costa Rica [dia cinco]

Actually writing this on Friday morning, but it's gonna recap Thursday. And you may notice that I've gotten the keyboard thing mastered so I can use apostrophes at will. '''' :)
Gallo pinto with fried cheese for breakfast. Also fresh papaya and pineapple. The papaya might take me a while to develop a taste for but we've had fresh pineapple everyday and it is fab. Delicious and thank goodness I had a half hour walk afterwards to help process it [shake it down] and burn off a few calories before starting my day. We had a different sort of schedule for our project today because the volunteers that had been there a while had set up a field trip to the central park as their big project. So we met the kids at the park and they were thrilled to be there and excited to see us. It took about two and a half minutes but a game of soccer soon broke out, which as you can guess, delighted me to no end. It was on my list of hopeful things to accomplish on this trip. Volunteers versus kids. The field was wet, there were big puddles in front of both goals and some kids kicked me in the ankle pretty hard, but it was fantastic and fun. [Sidenote- kids were victorious 3-2]. Snack break, then more fun such as teeter-totters, tag, and frisbee. It reminded me a lot of my good days at YMCA summer camp. Playing in a park, getting to know different volunteers, enjoying "la pura vida". ['pura vida' is pretty much the national motto. literally "the pure life" it is used in a wide array of contexts]. On the way home, I split off from the group to check out a few things in downtown San Jose and a few others went with me. We checked out an amazing church and got some lunch and shopped the artisans' market. Spanish class was great. Señora Hilda is fantastic and fun and I'm sad I can't continue the lessons. Arroz con pollo was for dinner and it was delic. Maybe the best thing I've eaten at my homestay. Packing up, getting laundry done and such rounded out my night.
There is a couple great, touching stories that go along with this day but I am running out of time so I will have to put them in an addendum later.

07 July 2010

Costa Rica [dia cuatro]

Unable to blog yesterday, but here is what I have been up to. (There will not be any contractions in my writing due to my inability to figure out how to type it.)
I have had two Spanish classes and am waiting to head to my third. They are great. It is tiring, focusing on every word that is said for two hours but I am enjoying it. Hilda is our instructor and there are four people in our group. No English is spoken but Hilda has a good time with it. Yesterday afternoon we have a serious rain storm for a few hours, including when a bunch of us were heading home around six. I was happy I had bought my umbrella for sure, but my legs and shoes were soaked and my shorts were pretty damp too. It is the rainy season here so we have had some amount of rain every day but one so far. But the storms pass through and the rest of the day is usually gorgeous. Cooler than at home, it is probably in the upper 70s most days.
Tuesday we went out to our placement for the first time. It is in a very low income area (slum) of San Jose and takes two buses and a walk to get there (around an hour). The guy who runs the church-based childcare/afterschool program there comes up and meets us at the bus stop to walk us the rest of the way. And not so we do not get lost, I am sure. I think I had a something along the lines of a YMCA type program in my head. This is slightly different. It is a corrugated tin shack, maybe 15 feet by 10 feet. The number of kids there ranges for a dozen or so up to three dozen with ages running from 2 or 3 up to 10 or 12. Tuesday we spent just getting familiar and talking with the volunteers who have been there a few weeks. Coloring pictures, playing hopscotch, trying to communicate (the language barrier is worse with kids, in my opinion). They do a soup kitchen meal twice a week and today was one of those days. I was quick to shoot my hand up when they asked who wanted to help cook. (As soon as I translated what had been asked). I was super happy to be one of the four to get to prepare the food because the process was pretty amazing. Photos are necessary to do it justice, but I was blown away. And I got to hang out with three cool volunteers. Once the food was done, we took it down to a worse part of the slum by the river and served it to a line of children who poured in from around the neighborhood. An incredible and tiring morning.
So, needless to say, there is no cable or TV there but we have gotten back in time the last two days to catch the second half of the World Cup semifinals. I can not wait for the final on Sunday!!! Go Oranje!!
I have to say I like the volunteers on my project (around 13 of us) a fair bit better than the 9 volunteers I live with. Seven of us booked a weekend trip today to Manuel Antonio today after we got back. Total cost for having someone pick up our tickets in San Jose, pick us up and take us to the bus stop, bus fare for the four hour trip = 4250 colones or $8. Two nights in a hostel 100 yards from one of the most beautiful beaches in Costa Rica = $20. It will be nice to get out of the city for a while!

05 July 2010

Costa Rica [dia dos]

After spending several hours yesterday afternoon as the only boarder at my host family, eight others showed up over the course of the evening. So we had a nice little group of folks hanging out and getting to know each other. We also had our first taste of standard Costa Rican food and it was good. Rice, red beans, fried plantains, horchata. For breakfast we had gallo pinto, which is the most common breakfast dish in the country. Fried rice & black beans, with a fried egg, along with some pineapple. Very nice. A standard orientation in the morning with a little walking tour. Unfortunately, my placement does not start until tomorrow morning so I had the afternoon to kill. I ventured out on my own and walked around the main streets of San Pedro, bought an umbrella which I luckily did not have to use today so far, ordered and paid for my lunch in Spanish and tried out the bus system for the first time. No major calamities so far. First Spanish session is this afternoon from 4-6 so we will see how that goes. I am a little worried about viewing options for the World Cup games tomorrow and Wednesday. Hopefully the orphanage has planned ahead and figured something out. I just want what is best for the kids! :)

04 July 2010

Costa Rica [dia uno]

I've only been in country for a couple of hours but since it is pouring rain outside and my host family offered me their laptop, I thought I'd write a quick status report. Yesterday was great with a fantastic set by Cashes Rivers at 80/35 (I'll have to share pix later) and then a quick drive over to Omaha for grilling out in the backyard and shooting off fireworks with the stoppable & family. stoppable was awesome enough to get up at 5 this morning and take me to the airport (thanks!) so I could catch my 7:10 flight. Most noteworthy thing from the first stage of the flight was the person who must've had a new watch on because they couldn't figure out how to turn off their alarm, instead just hit snooze every 9 minutes...for the first hour of the flight to Houston. A very short layover in Houston, just enough time to go through passport verification, grab some oatmeal from Starbucks and board for my next flight. Although the plane had personal video screens in all the seats, you had to pay $6 to see anything, which is ok, I just read my book instead. No problems in customs, backage claim or finding the person holding a sign with my name on it. It was a fun drive from the airport to my accomidation on different sides of the city and we cut through the city center. Lots to soak in. A few quick observations - I will have no shortage of opportunities to work on my Spanish. I've already tried out a couple phrases. And I've already met that language barrier a couple times. Also, I don't think "blending in" is an option. I may be the only guy in the city wearing shorts. Oh well. Enough for now. Off to see how to spend a Sunday evening.

01 July 2010

Cee-Lo Does Band of Horses

That title wasn't meant to sound like a porno.
Instead it is a fantastic cover of an incredibly good song.
"No One's Going to Love You" is a 5-star song already, and while I won't say this cover is better, but it is completely enjoyable in its own way. And the video had me riveted too.

20 Questions about World Cup 2010

It's a bit long, but I think there are a couple soccer fans who read this, so I'm sharing this good column from ESPN today. Good opinions not just on the Cup so far but also on the state and future of US soccer.