Wednesday, February 25, 2015


After a few weeks in Costa Rica, my host mom started calling me "Cindy María", since it just didn't feel right to her that I didn't have a middle name.  And, being a country heavily influenced by the Catholic Church, María seemed an appropriate name for her to give me.  (When I first learned I'd be living with their family, I was tickled to learn that I'd be living with three María's and two Luis's.  When I arrived, I found they used nicknames to keep everything straight--there was "Papa Luis" and "Lucho" for young Luis.  There was "Maru" for María Eugenia, "Eu" for Eugenia María, and "María" for the other María).

After I had dated Caleb for a while, I noticed that he called me "Lucia" when he talked with his friends and family about me.  When I asked him why, he said it's because my face is full of light (luz) and so they had chosen that nickname for me.  I was flattered, of course.  I definitely like "Lucia" much better than "wink wink", a nickname my family chose for one of my brother's girlfriends!

Laundry in Costa Rica

As I looked at myself in the restroom mirror after class one day, just before I was supposed to meet Caleb for a concert at the National Theatre, I felt badly.  It was a bad hair blonde roots were showing.  And a bad clothes day.  Since there wasn't much I could do about it at that point, I tried to put it out of my mind.  But, even so, I still felt a little insecure as I crossed the pigeon-filled plaza near the theatre.  When I saw Caleb in the crowd, I smiled and walked towards him.  He gave me a big hug and kiss, looked into my eyes and said "I like your face.  You are more beautiful today than yesterday."

I tried to explain the concept of a "motivational liar" to him, but he didn't really get it.  Whether his words are true or not, I appreciate him for saying kind and encouraging things to me every day.   

A culture of equality

"I heard there's an amazing couple over here, a gringa and a tico, who can do magic." the homeless guy said to Caleb and I as we sat outside the national theatre, waiting for the open air concert to start.

"Really?" we asked.

"Yes, they are able to magically make a coin from their pocket appear in my pocket." the man smiled.
And with that, Caleb pulled a coin out of his pocket and gave it to the man.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Happy as a Worm

Costa Ricans have a little rhyme to express being very happy: "Estoy feliz como una lombriz" (I'm as happy as a worm).  And they like to joke that if you aren't happy, then you've failed as a worm.  (Something like: "Si no estás feliz como una lombriz, estás fracaso como lombriz"). 

These last two weeks, I've been as happy as a worm.  Because so much has happened, and because my writing time is limited, I'm not going to be able to give you a blow-by-blow account of all my adventures ("de lujo en detalles"--a luxury of details, they like to say here), so I'll just summarize some of the highlights.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Chocolate Tour

"I just can't believe chocolate grows on trees!" my friend Alana said as I told her about visiting a chocolate plantation in the pacific rainforest.  Learning how chocolate was made (and sampling it along the way) was a real treat!

The cacao tree has lots of little flowers, like these, which are fertilized either by insects (typically producing 20 fruits per year per tree) or by human beings (up to 100 fruits per tree per year).

Treasure Hunt in the Tropical Rainforest

"We can't spot any birds or animals when it rains" my guide said "so we might as well just walk fast for the rest of the hike."

When I asked him why, he explained that looking for movement and listening for sound is the key to spotting the wildlife.  Suddenly, I understood how he could point out 20 different species of birds and animals in the 50-yard stretch between Tirimbia's parking lot and main building that I had walked past without noticing a thing (except the enormous plants that dwarfed us).

For instance, I was stunned when he turned his spotting scope on the top of a tree, and suddenly I could see the Iguana resting there.

Practicing Spanish on the Street

"¿Cual es la fecha hoy? (What's the date today?)" I asked a man on the bus in Spanish.  "I don't speak English." he responded. 

"¿La fecha? ¿en español?  (The date? In Spanish?)" I pressed, feeling a little insecure that my Spanish was SO BAD that he thought I was speaking English.  "Oh!  La fecha es..." he said, and I was relieved to be understood.

My friend Alanna and I have been laughing about this Mark Twain quote from Innocents Abroad:  "In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French!  We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language." 

Spanish School: Week 3

"In January, Brad Pitt asked me for a date, but I had to turn him down because I was busy preparing to host the Obama's for dinner" I told my classmates during an activity to practice past tense.

"Really?  How did you meet him?" they asked, awed and incredulous.  Maybe they hadn't understood our teacher's instructions to make up stories (lie) to make the activity more fun.  I'd prepared a whole year of whoppers for their entertainment, including serving macaroni and cheese to the Obamas and coming down with Ebola when I traveled to Africa with Bill Gates.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Weekend trip to Poas Volcano, Coffee Plantation, and Waterfall Gardens

Even though there were too many clouds to see the actual crater, yesterday I had an awesome time taking a tour to see Poas Volcano, one of the few active volcanoes in the world that you can drive right up to.

Somewhere over the rainbow...

In the short time I've been in Costa Rica, I've seen about 5 rainbows, like this one I frequently see while I'm waiting at the bus stop.

Not only does Costa Rica have rainbows, but it also has lots of butterflies, including the very friendly one that lighted on my arm at a butterfly garden and slowly climbed its way to my chest

where it was getting a little too friendly for my comfort.

Spanish school: week 2

"We have two options" Maria Elena said as our classroom heated up in the warm sun.  "We can either open the door or we can take off our clothes.  Which would you prefer?"

Despite the noise in the hall, we decided to open the door.  Trying to stimulate more conversation, Maria Elena continued "How would people react if we took off our clothes?" thus giving us a chance to practice expressions about emotion, surprise, embarrasment, and so forth.

When all else fails, try earthquakes!

This week I stumbled across a gold mine in my search for conversational topics with Costa Ricans: earthquakes!

I realized this when a very animated conversation broke out around my host family's dinner table last night.   We'd been talking about my day trip to the Poas Volcano and a nearby Waterfall Garden.

"Did they tell you about the earthquake that destroyed the waterfall garden a few years ago?" 

Almost Invisible

"This one makes me cry" I said to a random guy as we stood together in front of this piece of art at the "Casi Invisible" (Almost Invisible) exhibition on the 2nd floor of Costa Rican's Museum of Gold.

When he asked why, I struggled to verbalize how the image of the woman in front of the stereotypical feminine floral background perfectly captured many of my life experiences.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Pura Vida: My first 10 days in Costa Rica

Costa Ricans use the term "pura vida" to describe the good life, and my first 10 days in the country have definitely been awesome. 

I arrived on New Year's Eve and spent the first four days hanging out with my Costa Rican host family:  watching bullfighting on TV for New Year's Eve, attending a family reunion, playing with the 2-year-old grandson, shopping at the farmers market, taking a trip to their second home near their salt-production and shrimp-growing businesses, visiting their farmer friends who live in a dirt-floor-and-corrugated-tin home in the country, and then later returning to San Jose where neighbors invited us to participate in two rosario parties where they have a religious and musical program to bless their homes for the new year (followed by a huge fiesta!).   

After the first four days of fun and informal language learning, I started my Spanish language classes at the ILISA institute of languages near the University of Costa Rica.  After my Tica (what Costa Ricans call themselves) mom taught me the commute, I met lots of great classmates, participated in the city tour and dance class offered by the school, and enjoyed the excellent teachers there.  In the evenings, I work out at the little neighborhood gym a two-minute walk from my house, where I learn to talk smack by listening to the reactions of the gym guys to the televised soccer games. 

One of the fun Spanish expressions I learned this week is "sacar el jugo", meaning to "squeeze the juice" out of something, or to get the maximum benefit you can from an experience.  I'm looking forward to "saca el jugo de la vida"...squeeze the juice of out of life during my time attending Spanish school here in San Jose, Costa Rica the next two months. 

Joining the gimnasio

On my first Sunday morning walk here, I had to laugh to see a resourceful guy pumping iron with a barbell he'd created with a broomstick between two milk jugs full of rocks.  A few days later, I was excited to learn that I didn't need to be quite as resourceful, because there's a little neighborhood gym that sits above the corner grocery store about a 2-minute walk from home.

My Spanish classes

"Wanna see the offices of the president of the country?" Fransciso asked.  So we stepped out on the balcony of the glass-walled classroom where our private tutoring session is held, and he pointed out the simple gray utilitarian building with three flags in front.  The president's modest home is also visible from the school, as are a few volcanoes and several other interesting things.

Sometimes I feel like Francisco is tricking me, because he'll start our private tutoring session by asking me what I did the night before, or if I have any questions about the country, and then we have such a fun and interesting conversation that I hardly realize that I'm in school and that I've just spent 2.5 hours conversing with him in Spanish.  When I make mistakes, he'll just repeat what I said the way I *should* have said it.  Later, we'll play games where he shows me a word and I must tell him the synonym or antonym.  Or, he'll show me a verb and I have to tell him a related noun.  It's fun.

Vamos a bailar! (Let's dance!)

One of the fun things about the ILISA Spanish school is all the cultural activities (daily) and expeditions (each weekend) they arrange.

Here's a little video of our dance class:

New Amigos (my classmates)

How many spanish students does it take to buy a SIM card?

Three, plus a computer with google translate, in our case. I'm not all that proficient in discussing SIM cards in English either, but Alanna, Tony and I were able to speak just enough Spanish to get Alanna a local phone number to use in case of emergency. When we started talking about the data plan, that's when the clerk had to pull out the big guns (i.e. Google Translate).

My favorite bus driver

"Buenos días, mi amor" (Good morning sweetheart) Don Luis said to me when I hopped on his bus for my 25-minute ride to school yesterday morning.

Blessing for a New Year

"Let's go have tea at the neighbors!" my host mom said on my third day in the country, and so we walked around the corner to meet her friends Vilma and Anita for a little tea party.  As we chatted over a cake and cups of the awesome "Rose of Jamaica" tea, Vilma's aunt and uncle stopped by to visit too.

I had a harder time understanding Vilma's aunt and uncle when they spoke (I'm not sure why...maybe they speak too fast or slur their words), but I did understand that they are planning to take a trip to Philadelpia USA in the Fall because the Pope is going to be there and they want to see him in person.

I also understood that they invited us to come to their home the following day, and so Vilma, my host mom, and I climbed in the car around 6 p.m. to make the way to their house.  When we arrived, a party was just getting started.  Twinkling lights and rows of lawn chairs in their garage and house welcomed their friends and family to participate in their "Rosario", a Costa Rican Catholic tradition of blessing your home each new year.

Champion Chickens and Old Friends

About 30 years ago, my host mom (Mariu) and dad (Luis) lived in the countryside for a year near their salt-production business.  During that time, they became close friends with their neighbors, and so now whenever they are out in the countryside, they stop to chat with their friends.  Which is how, a day or two after I arrived in Costa Rica, I found myself seated in the dirt-floor, corrugated tin home of Mariella and her husband.  Here's a photo of Mariu and her friend Mariella.

The family business: producing salt and shrimp

Even though my host family live up in the mountains in the capital San Jose, their business is 2 hours away along the Pacific coast.  A few days after I arrived in the country, we took an overnight trip to check on their business and stay at their second home which sits next to their salt-production factory near the gulf of Nicoya.  

Because many of the roads are rough, and they need a high-clearance vehicle on the dirt roads around their salt-production ponds, we made the trip in their very comfortable Range Rover.

After passing beautiful countryside:

My Tico family

As we pulled out of the driveway to go to the farmer's market this morning, my host mom saw the garbage men coming down the street.  "Feliz Año (Happy New Year!)" she called out to them, waiting for them to get closer so she could chat with them a few moments.  "I've been friends with them for many years, and like talking to them." she told me.  Here she is with the garbage man who told me to call him "Colochos" (Curly).

Costa Rican Farmers Market

One of the awesome things about Costa Rica is all the awesome food you can get here.  It's a small country (about the size of West Virginia), but because it goes from sea level to very high mountains, it has several different climate zones and so all types of food can be grown in its fertile soil.

Visiting the farmers market is a fun way to see all the variety in their food.  From typical stuff you'd see in the U.S.

Tico Famly Time

"Will you offer the prayer over our New Year's Eve meal?" my host father asked on my first evening in the country, listing a few ideas about things I could pray about.  I wasn't sure I could pray very well in Spanish, but I was willing to try (and hopefully it was very amusing to them, just like when little kids pray).

Teachers, teachers everywhere

"Look!  A Vaca (cow)!" 2-year-old Santi yelled as he pointed to the horses out in the field.

"That's not a cow," his grandma Mariu patiently replied "that's a caballo (horse).  Can you say cab-a-llo?"  And so she helped him repeat the word caballo about 5 times and then asked "What's that out in the field?"

"Una vaca!" he yelled.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Chichen Itza

"When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico and found the Mayans living subsistence lifestyles in mud huts, little did they dream that the Mayans' ancestors had built grand temples and cities which were at that time overgrown by the jungle. How could such a great civilization have collapsed?" our guide asked.

As I walked among the amazing ruins of Chichen Itza, considered by some to be among the 7 wonders of the world, I pondered that question, and also asked myself what our civilization could learn from them to avoid the same fate.  

Our guide showed us the Mayan writing system, one of the few that existed among the world's civilizations at the time.

Biking and climbing at Coba

Since the ruins at Coba spread over an area 10 times larger than Tulum, our guide recommended renting a bike to preserve our energy for climbing the ruins themselves.  Being a bike fan myself, I was happy to oblige.


I've wanted to visit Tulum since the first time I saw photos of the Mayan ruins clinging to the coastline above a turquoise sea. The actual experience, however, was disappointing.

Swimming in a Cenote

"The Yucatan has no rivers and no lakes" our guide declared "but only underground rivers and sink-holes the Mayans called Say-No-Tays (Cenotes)". Swimming in the Ik-Kil cenote, where the Red Bull Cliff Diving competitions are held each year, was one of my favorite activities in Mexico.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

My new travel buddy

"You need to get off the bus now!" said the lady next to me when I asked where the Oasis Hotel was. I jumped up, swam through the dense crowd of people between myself and the door, and stepped off moments before the bus pulled away from the curb. I'd hopped on the bus when I realized I had 20 minutes to find a distant hotel to meet my tour group, not knowing exactly where I was headed. Walking back around the corner the bus had just turned, I saw a hotel down the block with some tourists out front. One of them had a voucher that looked just like mine....hallelujia!

"I think we're on the same tour!" I said to the Chinese man holding the voucher like mine, kicking off the start of my friendship with JD, an electrical engineer who came all the way from Singapore to
  1. See Chichen Itza (because it's one of the 7 Wonders of the World on some lists), but most importantly 
  2. See the Los Angeles Lakers play in person. 
Learning that he was a basketball fan, for the second time in two days I told the story of shaking Karl Malone's hand. He was impressed. I was impressed when he commented on the current Jazz team ("They are a young team" he told me, "and I think they need a better coach, but they have potential"). He knew much more about the NBA than I do. This guy is One. Serious. Basketball. Fan. Overhearing us, one of the guides jumped in: "One of the restaurants here has Shaquille O'Neal's shoes and they are HUGE", holding out his hands to show the enormity of the sneakers. "Really?" JD asked, holding out his hands to match "They are THIS big?" As they stood there together marveling at just how large a human foot could get, I knew I needed a photo.

It's not humiliation, but charm....

When I was 5-years old, my family frequently asked me to repeat the sentence "The squirrel ate the purple and the yellow flowers", because they thought my speech impediment was especially charming when talking about "squallals" and "popple and lello flolels". "It's so cute!" my Dad used to say "Let's not teach her to say it right!"

The other day when I asked the hotel clerk for extra towels in my halting spanish, he smiled as if I was a 5-year-old speaking of squirels and purple flowers, happily asking me how many I'd like.

When the Peace Corps interviewer asked me which of my personal qualities would help me learn a language, I replied that I was willing to be humiliated.