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Blogging Out in a Timely Fascian

Time July 6th, 2010 in College Study Abroad | 4 Comments by

It’s a sad day in Blogville. Due to the fact that my daily activities and thoughts are having less and less to do with Costa Rica, my life is becoming less and less interesting to any current and future IFSA-Butler blog readers, so I’m gonna have to hang up my keyboard in this little niche of cyberspace that I’ve enjoyed for the last however long. Though it’s probably for the best because my 5-day weekend card has expired and it’s back to doing things like studying (more like “doing what I forgot how to do in Costa Rica”), working (more like “donating plasma”) and cooking (more like “heating up”). The only thing is that after having so many trips and fun things planned for so long, now I feel like there´s nothing. to. do. No more rafting, no more snorkeling, no more new passport stamps… how did I ever live like this before?! Forget culture shock; I’m in activity shock right now. Part of that has to do with a large number of my friends being gone for the summer (and our fitness center being closed on the weekends!), but that’s also been a  good thing because I’ve been able to spend more time with our new classmates and reconnect with other students on campus. 

Before my Gross Anatomy class that started this week I had barely even dissected a frog, but I now find myself elbow deep in human fascia on a regular basis. Of course, as I like to say, I find it all very “fascianating.” But while digging around in a bunch of dead bodies is educationally edifying, there is no doubt that I’d rather be spending my summer down in Texas. I’ve come to realize that my summers as I used to know them are basically over because I’ll have one PT commitment after the other until I finally get my job which, unfortunately, does not end in May and pick back up again in late August like I’ve been classically conditioned to do. The amount of material in this course is astounding, and the smell of the formaldehyde and embalming fluid mixture is enough to put one over the edge. Some people have also been told that I should expect to never be able to look at roast beef the same way again, but I think they underestimate my unconditional love for meat. 

Marielos and I have got to email each other a little bit and she says they miss me too and will always remember me, especially at meal times. Well, at least that’s something, right? Oh, how I miss those magical Marielos meals… I don’t think I could ever get tired of the frozen pizzas I have reverted back to up here, but I think I may have bigger problems than palate dissatisfaction if I keep that up for too long. So I’m going to end this blog before that day comes! That’s right, the time has finally come for me to “blog out.” I hope you have enjoyed reading about my experiences as much as I have enjoyed writing about them. I don’t anticipate returning to the blog world any time soon, but it was fun while it lasted. Have a great rest of the summer, everybody! 

Emily picking me up at the airport!

 

My new home in Evansville

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ReUNITED with the STATES

Time June 30th, 2010 in College Study Abroad | 3 Comments by

Well, that’s it. My time in Costa Rica is officially over and I am back to the hustle and bustle of life in the good ol’ US of A. I was told to prepare for an overwhelming sense of culture shock, but returning to the culture I have known for 21 years of my life is a lot less shocking than it was entering into one I had never experienced before. Of course, I still haven’t been able to completely shake a few Costa Rican habits I developed in my time there, such as looking for the trash can after using toilet paper in the bathroom or closing all doors as if they were made of paper maché. I have been pleasantly surprised at my lack of thought of coffee, which assures me I have somehow avoided an addiction after slugging it down an average of 1+ times a day for 5 months.  

Last Night with CR Fam

Since my last blog was posted right after my parents left, I’d like to share a bit of what happened in those last 3 days before my “resurrection” as an inhabitant of the United States: …not much. After acing a geography presentation that ended my scholastic career at UNA, I was basically left to packing and waiting. I said a few goodbyes in there too (we had a party on Friday at the beautiful home of one of our counselors, Teresita) and had a chance to journal, but it was hard to keep my mind off finally getting off that plane and stepping on to USA soil (or airport carpeting in this case). I did have a wonderful last evening with my Vega-Sibaja family as we went out to Hotel Bougainvillea where we dined on the “Day of Vengeance”, as they called it because I was paying, which meant they would finally have their chance to get back at me for all the money I cost them in grocery expenses. Thankfully their bark was worse than their “bite” (pun intended) and we all had a great time. The next morning, and I mean morning at 4:30am, both Don Luis and Marielos escorted me to the airport for a farewell that was quick like a band-aid.

I still haven’t found out what I forgot yet, but I’m sure I left something there. If I wasn’t fully convinced of my innate ability to lose things before I went to Costa Rica, I have now left no doubt. The good thing is that I never lost anything of considerable value. It’s almost like a talent. Everything was like a toy watch here, a cool towl there, or a sweater jacket on that bus that just pulled away 5 minutes ago. Of course, that is probably due to the fact that the majority of the things I own are not of considerable monetary value anyways. Oh and don’t worry, the trend has continued here in the States as well. I have already almost lost my $1.50 water bottle twice, and my $4 lamp is nowhere to be found… oh yeah, I’ve still got it!

This past week has rushed by in a flurry, but I’ve already finished with one whole physical therapy course and moved into a new house! The next class, Gross Anatomy, is sure to be a doozy, but I’m gonna hit the ground running and see if I can’t snag another A from Dr. Rodd. My roommate, Kris, is great and we’re gonna add another in the fall when Matt gets here, so this upcoming school year has “awesome” written all over it. For now I’m just enjoying the calm before the storm that will arrive at 8am on Monday in room WGH 100. I enjoyed reuniting with my family and Emily and her parents for all of about 12 hours before driving up to Evansville early Sunday morning. My dad got to stay with me up here for a couple of days, which was cool because we got to hang out some more as he got a taste of my Midwestern life, but now it’s back to being the lone Menke. 

Everything is going smoothly overall up here, but I won’t say goodbye just yet because I’ll have one more blog before I officially retire for good; that is, if Gross Anatomy hasn’t sucked out all my brain juices by then. No more “Art in Film” or choir classes anymore… it’s time to strap on my big-boy scrubs and get to dissecting!

The bus I rode probably 200 times

Yeah, I was the only male at the IFSA party...

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The Terrific Trip of a Texan Trio in Tico Territory

Time June 17th, 2010 in College Study Abroad | 4 Comments by

This is not fair. I’m supposed to fit into one blog an adequate description of the week my parents came to visit me in Costa Rica? That is a tall order, and I’m supposed to be on vacation. Actually, I’m supposed to be in Physical Therapy school right now, so I guess I can’t complain! Okay, let’s take a stab at it:

Playa Conchal Sunset

Due to a flight delay that left me anxiously waiting an extra hour for my parents to arrive, I had to go the first few days of our trip without fingernails. Thankfully, the extremely high level of fun-having distracted me from my cuticle conundrum. From the beginning to the end of the week I just couldn’t get enough of the fresh Menke air that I had been forced to breathe without for so long. We really had a uniquely large amount of opportunities to spend some good quality time together, and I’d say we took full advantage. The dynamic of our family has morphed more than usual over recent years with us kids going off to college and just growing up in general (though “growing up” could be debatable in some cases…), and the rate of change doesn’t look to be slowing down any time soon, which made this time to just relax and be with my parents even more special. I say “relax,” but don’t be fooled by thinking we slouched our way through the week.  

Lugging our Luggage Around

From the get-go we were up and at ’em early on Thursday, catching a lengthy sequence of buses that got us to Brasilito by about 1 pm. Wasting no time, we dug right into some typical food and drink (that our waitress fetched by riding her bike to the local market right after we ordered) for lunch and then were on our way to the famous Playa Flamingo, which did not disappoint. Waves were ridden, beaches were walked, and a less-than-impressive game of frisbee was played by the time we decided to head back in hopes of catching the sunset at Playa Conchal. Of course, there are no guarantees when relying on public transportation, but with a lot of persistence and a little luck we waited a grand total of 2 minutes for the hourly bus that dropped us off in Brasilito with just enough time to hike to the beautiful Conchal to take in a beautiful sunset on our first evening. A rude awakening by some apparently insomnious roosters got us up and going after a wild and crazy night that ended promptly at 8:30 pm. Going on wims and game-time decisions, we somehow found a bus that dropped us off 3 hours down the highway just in time to catch the next bus we needed pulling up as we were getting off. As if that incredible timing wasn’t enough, try this one on for size: walking calmly under false pretenses thinking the ferry was going to leave at 3 pm, when we were a mere 2 blocks away from the dock at 1:55 pm we were informed it leaves at 2 pm. Of course, this new information was immediately and dramatically followed by the horn sounding of the ferry. Luggage in hand and 2 hours until the next ferry at stake, I ran to the ticket booth, whose curtains were closed when I arrived but were miraculously re-opened in response to my yelling pleas, while my parents jogged it out toward the boat. We basically had to leap from land to ferry Indiana-Jones-style as it was pulling away. I almost felt like I should have left a hat or something on the other side so I could go back and get it just in time like he does, but at least now I know for next time. 

Montezuma Waterfall

Heeding recommendations to avoid the waterfall upon arriving to Montezuma, we took the evening nice and slow to rest up for our big day at Isla Tortuga the next day. Even though the water was not as clear as normal because of the rainy season, we still really enjoyed the snorkeling; so much so that we were the only ones that went back out after lunch! We also got a couple hours to bum on the beach while enjoying all the food and drink we could want, along with a boat ride to and from the island where we saw a lot of butterflies who apparently fly around the sea “because they like it,” according to our tour guide. Learning from Emily’s and my mistake, we made sure to super-apply sunscreen and it certainly paid off. Left with plenty of sunlight upon our return, we decided to safely hike up the famous waterfall trail there and were simply amazed with what we found. I ruined my shoes, according to mom, but I would have ruined a lot more if necessary to see what we saw. Keeping with tradition, we hit the hay at a nursing-home-reminiscent hour of 8 pm, and were on the road 12 hours later towards our final traveling destination, Manuel Antonio.   

Wouldn’t you know it, but we caught another bus by the shoestrings due to some nifty taxi maneuvering, saving us a solid 2 hours extra. When we arrived to Quepos we even had time to grab a leisurely Sunday lunch and go to the market before heading to the hotel. Everything was going great; or so it seemed. You see, for some reason that reaches beyond the capabilities of human understanding, the national park is closed on Mondays. And what day were we planning on spending all day in the park but… Mondays. Oops. Nevertheless, thanks to some sharp thinking and quick decision-making, we made all the appropriate arrangements to change our zip lining tour to Monday and get the heck out of dodge that same day, which would allow us to see a cool volcano and even have more time to see my university on Tuesday before heading over to meet my Tico parents. Perfect! You know, it’s amazing what keeping a positive attitude can do for the success of a trip. Heck, it’s true of life in general. Not everything went like we planned, and there were moments of frustration, but we still had a legit blasty blast because of who we were surrounded with and by keeping our focus on things that are really important. The zip lining was awesome, the beach we visited later had “gnarly” waves and the convenience of our bus ride back home could not have been better if we had planned it originally.

I immediately slipped into premature culture shock when we entered the Hampton Inn in Alajuela where we merited 2 free nights due to some saved-up points from somewhere. It really surprised me how weird I felt; I kept wondering where all the indoor insects, oscillating fans and community bathrooms were. It wasn’t anything overwhelming, but it certainly felt strange. Volcán Poás was just what the doctor ordered with a mid-day hike in the cool mountain air, and the clouds even parted enough for us to get a clear view of the crater. A rainy afternoon followed, but we continued undeterred to take a quick tour of Universidad Nacional to see a bit of the campus and my classrooms before we ate a lovely dinner of arroz con pollo with my Tico family. As if the language barrier wasn’t awkward enough already, for some reason my padre Tico wanted to bring up a discussion about American politics and the economy that resulted in nothing much except a bunch of nodding heads and uncomfortable glances. Overall, though, it was a great evening that I think everybody, including myself, really enjoyed.

By 10 am on Wednesday my parents were up in the air heading north and I had completed all of my class requirements, meaning my remaining obligations consist of eating, sleeping, packing and an IFSA farewell party on Friday. The semester is starting to wind down quickly now and it’s causing me to realize that I have just as many goodbyes to say as I do hellos to prepare.

The Rents at la UNA

Manuel Antonio Zip Lining

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The Nifty Nation to the North, Nicaragua

Time June 8th, 2010 in College Study Abroad | 3 Comments by

Volcán Masaya - Laguna de Apoyo

Yes, I realize “North” is relative, but after increasing latitude for more than 9 hours straight you start to feel sure you´re gonna meet Santa Claus by the time you finally step off that bus (and the notoriously relentless A/C of “TicaBus” only helps to encourage that sensation). Julian and I got a glimpse of the beautiful country of Nicaragua for a few days this past weekend, and from the moment of arrival she offered us even more adventure than we could have anticipated. You see, upon reaching our hotel in Granada at the dark and sketchy hour of 9 pm on Friday night, we quickly and unfortunately realized that our somehow-confirmed reservation was made for a recently abandoned hotel. Oh. Fortunately we found another hostel a little bit down the road where the price was right (a mere $5/night), the mattresses were thick, and the oscillating fans were fully functional. On top of that, the family running the place couldn´t have been nicer and they even offered 3 meals a day at only $2 a palatable pop.

A church in Granada

From the horse carriages almost out-numbering cars to the colonial-style houses with balconies and towering doors to boot, our stroll through the town the next morning made us feel like we had stepped back in time. On our way to the famous Lake of Nicaragua it was hard not to see beauty wherever you looked. Sure, the architecture of the churches is likely unparalleled, but stopping to watch some genuine Nicaraguan little leaguers duking it out on the diamond is what really gave me goosebumps. Later, we ended up renting a couple of rickety bikes that let us see some of the surrounding neighbohoods, enjoy a nice park and dodge traffic through a crowded market scene. After a lazy lunch shooting the breeze and being hackled by what must have been every knick-knack souvenir vendor in that town, we headed off to Volcán Masaya in the evening. If hiking around 5 enormous craters at sunset wasn´t enough to blow you away, the night time adventure through the bat cave was sure to do it. I even met some people from St. Stephen´s school in Austin, TX on the tour… who´da thunk? Returning to the hostel later, Julian and I enjoyed some “puros” and good conversation in some rocking chairs on the balcony before hitting the hay worn out from a full day and ready for the next one.

Due to some initiative taken on Saturday, we lined up a tour for Sunday to go sandboarding on a volcano called Cerro Negro, located near a city further north called León. It required about 3 hours of public transport to get there, but we got to see some beautiful landscape along the way and, due to our early start, we had a lot of extra time when we arrived. So much so that we were able to wander around Parque San Juan for over half an hour before realizing it wasn´t the Parque Central that we were looking for, nor did the “Leo Tour´s” company even exist in León like we were told, nor did the correct building we eventually found – by the grace of God and the durability of our young legs – have any kind of sign pointing to it´s existence or purpose. Still with about an hour or so before we left for the volcano, we had time to eat something and check out the cathedral of La Virgen del Trono, which apparently is the largest in Central America. Unfortunately it was closed when we got there, but browsing through the market and learning a Nicaraguan card game kept us busy until we finally headed out to the only place in the world where you can sled down a volcano. Apparently our guide, who also has close ties to Austin, has been featured in a National Geographic documentary for developing this ingenious idea, and I can see why it is such a lucrative business; it was a blast! Getting up to the top took a while, but the thrill of zooming down on the black sand/ash made it all worth it. Plus we got to wear some outfits that boasted both protection and style for the fan base that had emerged from the fellow volcano-hikers jealously looking on during the spectacle. After devouring the delicious white pineapple waiting for us at the bottom, they dropped us off at the León bus terminal just early enough to catch the last sequence of buses heading back to Granada.

A chill evening of playing cards with the hostel kids and a pleasantly uneventful morning catching our freezing bus back to San Jose brought me safely back in Heredia with only one weekend left here before returning to the States. Something is happening this week before I leave though… what was it now? Hmmm… I seem to have forgotten… oh yeah, my parents are coming on Wednesday! As if I could have forgotten! We´ve got a hefty helping of beaches, snorkeling, forest hiking and zip lining ahead of us, which is sure to put an exclamation point on what has been nothing short of a fantastic semester!

Stylin´in our Cerro Negro uniforms

The wind blowing us off the volcano

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Pacuare: The Land of the Rapid and Slow

Time June 7th, 2010 in College Study Abroad | 3 Comments by

I don´t know if you´ve ever been rafting before, but it is FUN! I took on my first white-water rafting experience ever on the highly recommended Río Pacuare, a rapid-ridden river whose mouth is found in the Caribbean coast of central Costa Rica, last Thursday, and let´s just say I´m afraid I got spoiled. The trip didn´t start out so great due to a miscommunication of pick-up time and place, but when all was said and done it turned out to be better than if things had gone according to the original plan because I got to get to know a cool couple that was in the same situation, they made us some delicious breakfast-to-go, we got a private ride/informational tour down to the put-in site and the company even paid me back for my taxi fare (plus $2 extra, so I even got paid for all that!). Funny how worrying and stress is so often negated later, isn´t it? Upon arrival to the river, I told one of the personnel I was by myself and needed a group, so he immediately found me this lovely group of 4 that unfortunately looked like they belonged more in a nursing home than in a raft. At first I was reluctant, but my outlook quickly changed when the guide put me in the front (probably because I was the only one who would be able to hear his paddling commands from that distance and perform them without dislocating a hip). Plus, it meant I was the only one who could do some of the tricks he suggested, like riding the front of the raft like a bull or laying prostrate on the raft with my head and neck hanging over so that when the huge rapids came they rushed over my whole body and submerged me from head to toe! The class of rapids ranged from 1-4, so it was a perfect combination of leisure and thrill that left us wanting more even after 3 consecutive hours of direct, tropical sun exposure that laughs in the face of SPF 30. When it got to the point where we could hop out and float with the current under a waterfall in the canyon and I was laying there looking up at the sky surrounded by unending green and birds flying overhead, I had one of those rare moments when… you know? To top it all off, we were met with an enormously delicious lunch afterwards of too many heavenly things to mention. I´m telling you, that trip has put forth a serious case for being considered my single favorite experience in Costa Rica.

Sunset after beach clean-up

As if one unforgettable experience in Pacuare that week wasn´t enough, I returned the very next day; this time for a 3-day visit to a private reserve a little farther up the coast that is dedicated to the protection and survival of various types of sea turtles. The trip itself was free (with a mere purchase of an entire semester abroad with the IFSA program), but we paid a high price in a losing battle against the ungodly amount of insects and reptiles swarming around that place. I never thought I´d see the day when mosquito bites were so unavoidable that I actually wanted them to bite me so that every part of my body would itch equally and perhaps cancel out the urge to scratch. Though just so you know, that theory doesn´t work in practice. Despite our insect inconveniences, I would go back in a heartbeat if given the chance because it was something special to see and help those turtles. I mean, these things are gigantic. We´re talking like well-over 2 meters and approaching 1500-2000 lbs. But man are they SLOW. I don´t see how that hare could have lost. They would just take forever to find where they wanted to dig, dig the hole, lay their eggs, cover the hole up and they may even just doddle for a while if they feel like it before finally heading back to the ocean. I guess they´ve got nowhere to go in a rush, but after 7-hour graveyard shifts of surveying over 7 km of beach, one´s got a right mind to just put a shovel to use for her. Despite the long waits, it was certainly awe-inspiring to watch the miraculous process take place, and we even stumbled across some baby turtle hatchlings later! Normally they don´t come out during the day because the sand is too hot, so pictures are nearly impossible because flash and any other white lights are prohibited, but I got to take a few of the 69 that we saved from, according to our guide, “certain death.” We dug them a path of cooler sand to the ocean, and I couldn´t help but feeling like a proud father as they were scurrying along to the sea to start their life. Of course, apparently only 1 in 1000 survives to adulthood, but I´d like to think one of ours is gonna make it!

Returning to Heredia has confronted me with a manageable multitude of projects to complete and presentations to prepare before heading north to Nicaragua this Friday. Julian and I still have no hotel reservations, bus tickets or even ideas of things we want to do, but we´re as certain as we can be that we´re going to Nicaragua this weekend. Maybe it will be better to go with an open itinerary, but those sound like famous last words to me…

Into that crazy ocean

On the road to survival...

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The Beginning of the Lasts

Time May 24th, 2010 in College Study Abroad | 2 Comments by

Four weeks is a long time, but considering that I’ve been here for 17 makes me feel like it’s so close that I ought to start packing my bags already. But unzipping a suitcase to get to my toothpaste 3 times a day (…okay, twice) is a hassle worth avoiding. Seeing as how my “¡adios!”es are nearing, there have been more and more “last times” I’ll be able to do some things that I’ve done in the past few days, and I fear that this is only the beginning!

For example, we just finished having our last Spanish class of the semester last Thursday – you know, the one that freed me up for a 6-day weekend? Just in case you forgot :) – which means I will be seeing much less, if any, of my compañeros in that class. Of course, we had a party all together on Friday and we’ve got another one planned for Monday, but I doubt this can keep up. As if one “last” having to do with that awesome class wasn’t enough, the boyfriend of our Spanish professor and I (he´s not my boyfriend too, I´m just trying to refer to the plural subject “boyfriend and I”. Oh, English…) got to go on our second and likely last bike ride this past Sunday, but this time it was actually a legit event. A mere 5.000 colones ($10) permitted participation in “El Paseo de los Infantiles y Principiantes” (“Ride for Little Children and Beginners”; suited me just fine), access to delicious fruit/snacks, and a nifty T-shirt! PLUS, my picture might show up on the Promobike webpage = totally worth it. The route itself was pretty, well, beginnerish, so we rode around a bit longer through some astoundingly beautiful country until I was nice and sunburnt and then he dropped me off at my house not without a bag full of easily 25+ mangos and a papaya. I will certainly miss Carlos, but his legend will live on in my sky blue T-shirt that proudly bears a tricyclist outlined in pink on the front.

Peacock in Africa Mia

On Thursday I also got back from the last gira I’ll go on with my Arte en el Cine that brings my total to an untouchable class-record of four. We spent Wednesday and Thursday up in Liberia, Guanacaste (the northwestern region) wiping our sweat and swatting mosquitoes as we toured a bit of the city. Keeping with the theme of the class, we watched a movie, the documentary “Capitalism: A Love Story” by Michael Moore, and it made me realize that I know way too little about economics and politics, much less what is going on in my own country. This, along with various likewise experiences I’ve had this semester, has given me the desire to start paying more attention to the news and international relations to become at least somewhat of a decently educated citizen. This semester is gonna turn me into a morning-coffee-and-newspaper kind of guy, isn’t it? I don’t know if I’m ready for that yet!… Anyways, the following day we went to a place called África Mía and saw a variety of Africa-native species in a pretty convincing safari setting with a $10 discount thanks to the profe, and later enjoyed even more discounts with a delicious lunch of casado and a guided hike through a place called Megafauna, which had a bunch of sculptures of extinct and large animals to raise our eyebrows and nod our heads at. Then on our way back home we got to experience a Richter-rated 6.1 earthquake to welcome us back into the Central Valley.

Due to an anti-climactic, albeit commemorative, event that most people don’t get the chance to celebrate in their lives, I am now able to experience lasts for the entire rest of the year. Of course I am referring to the fact that Emily and I made it to our negative one year wedding anniversary last Friday on May 21st, making us eligible to celebrate each day up until The Big One as the last of that particular date as un-married individuals. When she first made me aware of this unique honor we now share, I considered it to be somewhat of a stretch, but I suppose finding a reason to celebrate each day really is a pretty wise philosophy. I am marrying a pretty (and) smart woman, huh?

Only 66 more years to be like my abuelitos Ticos!

Parrots are LOUD

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Re-defining the “Weekend”

Time May 18th, 2010 in College Study Abroad | 4 Comments by

I have a bit of a troubling situation. For basically my entire life I have considered a weekend to be those couple of days at the end of a week (which never ends up being enough) that are supposed to be free from work but tend to include catching up on extra work or preparing for the upcoming week. However, since finishing our Spanish class for the semester last Thursday has left me with only classes on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, my world has been reversed to where the length of a typical work week has become that of my weekend and I am forced to re-adjust my perspective. To make matters worse, technically I have 6 of each 7 days free because my only class requirements come in the 23 hour block from my 1 pm class on Tuesday until my Wednesday class ends at noon. What a pickle! I suppose I´ll just have to find some kind of way to make it through these last 5 week(end)s…

Corcovado Catarata

To enjoy myself a bit before taking on this difficult road ahead, I decided to go to National Park Corcovado all the way down in the mosquito-ridden Osa Peninsula for a couple days (you know, just for a third of the weekend). It was a quickly planned trip because I was supposed to go on another volunteer trip with UNA to Marino Ballena this weekend, but it got cancelled due to terribly typical Tico transportation issues, so I threw together a few plans and headed out to Bahía Drake to take a tour of what our guide told us has been named the 3rd most biodiverse national park in the world; or something like that. After waking up at 3am to wait for what is apparently the only hour the 24-hour bus doesn´t run in Santo Domingo, I took a taxi to San Jose to catch the 5am bus to Palmar Norte, transition to an 11:30 bus to Sierpe, and hop on the hour-long boat ride to Drake, where the insects are only outnumbered by the sands on the shore. The surprisingly accomodating $9/night hostel called Bambú Sol, run by a lovely lady named Miriam (but not as lovely as my Aunt Mimi!), was just what I needed to keep me alive for 2 nights, and they even let me watch the championship soccer game with them the first night! Upon arriving the first day, I had about 3 hours to kill before sunset in which I was given the rare chance to just sit alone on a virtually empty beach to enjoy creation and just how small I really am. The next morning, after nearly sleeping through my alarm due to the pouring rain made almost deafening by my metal roof, the tour boat picked me up and we were on our way to San Pedrillo Station in Corcovado. Normally I´m not much of a pay-for-a-tour kind of guy, but apparently you´d have to hike 6 hours just to get to the entrance of the park and there´s no other form of ground transport, so forking over a little extra was certainly worth it in this case. If not just for the 30-min boat ride, then the frequent animal sightings, delicious lunch, refreshing waterfall hike/swim, delightful new friends (though none Facebook-worthy) and unprecedented knowledge gained made the purchase all worth it. Not to mention that I snagged like a whole jar of the leftover Jif peanut butter that our guide, Manuel, said I could take home with me! After returning for a nice afternoon café and exploring a little bit of the forest trails around the town, I was encouraged back to my room by the oncoming storm and made it an early night for the sake of the 9-hour travel on the morrow.

Tuesday I´m right back into the thick of my work week, but thankfully I´ll be out of it by Wednesday. I´m going on a field trip with my Arte en el Cine class to Liberia for a couple days, and then my madre Tica tells me there are plans for a family fiesta this Saturday at our house, so at least I´ll have that to look forward to as I try to figure out how to handle all this darn free time… it´s gonna be tough, but I think I´m up to the challenge.

Bahía Drake Sunset

Corcovado Croc

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A Weekend of Culture

Time May 10th, 2010 in College Study Abroad | 2 Comments by

Despite what your typical Teacher of the Year might tell you, I believe that dumb questions exist. However, sometimes a question is posed that is perfectly legitimate in reality, but somebody else considers it laughable. I don´t know if you know what I´m talking about, but it happened to me twice this week. The first time was in geography class and we were deciding if we were going to do a group presentation project or take a written test. Due to the fact that the test would cover an outrageous amount of subject matter, I simply asked the profe, practically with a halo above my head, if he would provide a summary of the basic concepts to go over as a study guide. As if in planned unison, the whole class immediately let out a burst of laughter as if I had just finished telling a joke; following of course by a swift rejection of the idea by the profe. I quickly went over in my head what exactly I said in spanish to make sure I didn´t make a funny mistake, but the script was good. I was confounded. Was that a dumb question? The second instance happened this weekend on a volunteer trip you´ll shortly hear all about. Apparently our group coordinator had this idea that a full 2 hours were required in the mornings to get ready, so he would wake us up at 5 am. I assured him that I was perfectly capable of getting dressed, eating breakfast and boarding the bus all in a mere 30 minutes, so it was okay if I slept just a bit longer. He was confused as to when I was going to fit in my morning shower, but I asked him why I would shower in the morning if I already showered last night. As you might guess, the planned unison chuckle phenomenon happened again, this time including the 4 other guys in the room, of course with their towels, soap and hair gel already in hand on their way to their first of at least a pair of showers that day. After confirming my adequately executed spanish, I was left feeling like the weird foreign kid with poor hygiene. I still don´t know what they need that other hour for.

Before I go any further, I have to share something strange that happened today. Armando was watching the last 4 minutes of a closely-matched NBA playoff game when I got home, and all I could do was ask him how the big soccer tournament was going that I missed for being gone this weekend. Sure enough, he had forgotten there was a game going on so he immediately switched it to the soccer channel… and I didn´t even care! In fact, I enjoyed watching it! I don´t know what´s wrong with me or if this is the beginning of some sort of paradigm shift for me, but this kind of behavior can´t be healthy for someone from the United States, can it?

The pioneers - 1st UNAventura group in Talamanca

Okay, to give you an idea of what I actually did this weekend, a group of about 60 of us from Universidad Nacional (UNA) spent 4 days in the Talamanca region doing some volunteer work with the indigenous population. We were split up into 4 groups, each with a specific tribe, site and task. My group interacted with the Amubri and helped advance their project by basically digging a huge hole and putting huge rocks in it (and it was tough!). In addition to constructing the drainage system, we also put some walls up in a bathroom, but didn´t quite finish due to our almost-hourly snack/coffee breaks. We got to learn quite a bit about the Amurbi culture and language (Bri-Bri) and how until recently the government did  not even recognize their rights as citizens because they did not have any form of legal identification. It was kind of a situation of “If we don´t bother them, they won´t bother us,” but now it´s looking like they´re starting to bother each other. Their traditions, diet and even architecture are all heavily influenced by their spiritual beliefs and deep connections with nature.  While they were actually pretty modernized in the sense that some had TVs, radios and most wore “normal” clothes (though some would say even I don´t wear “normal” clothes all the time), it is apparent they are trying to maintain their identity through surviving cultural traditions and their unique language. From being exposed to and working with these clans to meeting new UNA students to chowing down on buffet-style meals to getting a free t-shirt (is it still considered volunteering if you get a free t-shirt?), the trip was a huge success.

Family resemblance?

Sunset in Talamanca

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April Showers Bring More May Showers

Time May 4th, 2010 in College Study Abroad | 3 Comments by

It’s official: the rainy season is upon us down here in the tropics. Now depending on who you are, this could be a good thing or a bad thing. I haven’t decided which side I’m on quite yet, but the Ticos are certainly on the liquid-loving side; they can’t get enough of it. They appreciate the ultimate result of lush, green forest and the beautiful gift of life provided by the rains while I’m wringing out my shirt, cursing my $3 umbrella that would probably work just as well if I held it upside down. When am I ever going to learn that you can’t go the cheap route on every purchase? Maybe once I have an income that merits otherwise.

Don Luis PhD celebration

This past week was a landmark in the Vegas-Sibaja household: my padre, Don Luis, was officially approved for his PhD! A mere 6 years of borderline family negligence, 650 pages worth of (double-spaced) thesis and a nervously-anticipated 20-min presentation later, he received a doctorate in… something to do with business. We had a delightful celebration afterwards with the whole family over a shamelessly-priced dinner at Hotel Bougainvillea, and I finally got a picture with them! I’m not quite sure what he’s going to do with all his free time now, but I have reason to believe he may be considering my suggestion of a family trip to Disneyland (before I leave, of course).

This past weekend I got to go on another 3-day field trip with my Arte en el Cine class, and we visited several neat places on the Pacific side. We stayed at the nature reserve in Curú where both beach and forest were just a coconut’s throw away from our cabina. The first day we were going to watch a movie at a school like we had “planned”, but apparently the principal canceled school that day for some reason and we were left napless with nothing but a grumbling professor and a relentlessly humid afternoon. Making guayaba juice out of guayabas, we just added an extra hour and a half to our hike later that day in the Curú reserve. The next morning we earned our free lodging by spending a couple hours cleaning some beaches and playing on some beaches we were supposed to be cleaning. Later, we headed off to Cabo Blanco to hike a difficult 4 km through the forest that inevitably led to another beach. After a night of a little fiesta enjoyed with discretion, we woke up early the next morning to soak up surf and sun at Isla Tortuga. We also got a game of volleyball in, and in regard to how it went, all I’ll say is this: they called me “La Máquina”. Afterwards, those who wanted to (which ended up being 5 of us) hiked a 5 km trail back to the cabinas instead of being taken back by the boat. I don’t know why we were surprised, but it turned out the trail lacked any kind of signs to point us to Curú while at the same time offering a fork in the trail every 5 minutes or so, so we got lost. Miraculously, we somehow made it back to civilization with losing only about 30 minutes and coming out on top by gaining another priceless adventure. The group was a little larger than last time so it was harder to integrate with everyone, but by the end of the trip I felt like I had made at least a few more Facebook friends.

This upcoming week is going to be a short one schoolwise because I’ll be in Talamanca, a town in the southeastern region, from Thursday to Sunday to participate in some volunteer work with the indigenous population there through a program led by my university, UNA. I’m not quite sure what all the trip will entail, but if you’d like to find out what I find out, it ought to be here for you when I get back.

The Curú Group

Playa Curú
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Nanners, Manners and Planners

Time April 26th, 2010 in College Study Abroad | 4 Comments by

I have learned a lot in the last couple weeks. I have been taught through first-hand experience the true meaning of Tico Time, the cultivation process of crops like cacao and banana, and even a little bit about manners. How’s that for a well-rounded education? According to my freshman year Psychology teacher, I should explain each of these topics in the order they were previously mentioned in the text, but I’m feeling kind of rebellious. Sorry, Dr. Lakey.

Río Sucio, on our way to Tirimbina

The weekend from a week ago our IFSA group took a day trip to a cacao plantation in Tirimbina. A long, narrow and unnervingly wobbly bridge gave us passage over the mighty Río Sarapiquí to lead us to the site where we learned all one could want to know about the cacao bean. From the fermenting to the drying to the roasting to the grinding, it was all a fascinatingly laborious process to finally arrive at my favorite stage, the eating. Apparently the indigenous people used to add spices like black pepper, chili pepper and nutmeg to their chocolate drinks… and I must say, it wasn’t too bad! The whole cacao experience will certainly make me appreciate my future candy bars even more; a phenomenon I never thought possible.

In another IFSA-related trip (though this one was unfortunately not IFSA-financially-sponsored), our Social History of Costa Rica class traveled to the Caribbean side in a 5-hour bus ride that lacked both personal space and seat cushioning. We first arrived in Puerto Limón and ate lunch in the same building where the leaders of the civil rights movement in the early 20th century would meet to plan the people’s return back to Africa, which never actually happened. So can that technically even still be considered history if nothing happens? Hmm… We also got to see the island, Isla Uvita, where Cristóbal Colón apparently landed in his discovery of the country. Another miserable hour in the bus took us to Cahuita where we stayed in an over-priced cabina for the night and 5 of us woke up early the next morning to take a stroll through the famous national park there for a couple hours. At 8:30 am we were off to the Del Monte banana plantation in Sixaola where we sweated our way through a tour of the cultivation, processing and shipment of the bananas. All very interesting stuff, and we really learned a lot, but the lack of a complimentary banana at the end left me wanting more. One lunch and six hours later, we were back in Heredia and I started  feeling my legs again.

The coolest flower I've ever seen

It may come as a surprise to many of you, but even at the ripe old age of 21 I am still learning about manners. I initiated a heart-to-heart with my madre Tica the other day just to make sure she wasn’t secretly holding grudges concerning important household issues like how much time I spend in the shower, where I keep my toothbrush, etc. Coming as no surprise, she immediately brought up my appetite. It’s not even just about the quantity. She doesn’t want me using jelly on toast in the afternoon because jelly is for breakfast. Don’t snack on cookies because they’re for coffee in the afternoons. Calculate microwave time better so you don’t have to punch the buttons and open/close the door twice. These issues that seem ridiculously insignificant to me are apparently important enough to her to speak out against them. Thus, I could be practicing perfectly fine manners with respect to my North American home, but they might be considered rude in another. Manners are relative! Though I doubt that argument would work in explaining to my mom why it was okay for my elbows to be on the table all those years…

I've always wanted to be #24

In regards to the TicoTime phenomenon I have recently come to butt heads with, I’m going to stand my ground to a certain extent and say that while I certainly appreciate and find beauty in the lack of pre-occupation concerning the time of day or punctuality in general, a lackadaisical and apathetic mindset can become a problematic nuisance. Example: I have played in 2 basketball games with my university; one game at 9am and the other at 11am. Finding the scene at 9am on the day of the first game to include a locked gym with the lights off, trashed floor, and no coach or opponent that ultimately only delayed game time until 9:15 wasn’t such a big deal, but when the second game started at 12:15, I was a bit perturbed. Planning is not wrong. Working efficiently and wanting to manage time wisely is not a bad thing. I stand by that. I also realize there are positives that can come from mindsets on both sides of the issue. Can the perfect balance between them ever be reached? I suppose in the end it’s all relative, kinda like manners.

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Field Trip in the Forest

Time April 15th, 2010 in College Study Abroad | 2 Comments by

When I think of field trips I tend to consider images of little children walking in a single file line on their way to a museum, or perhaps a factory that may include some delightful sample at the end of a tour. Not so at Universidad Nacional, I tell you. This class of mine, Arte en el Cine (Art in Film/Movies), offers not one, not two, but seventeen – and counting – options for field trips and other discounted activities outside of the classroom; all of which merit extra credit and most of which involve overnight stays in various parts of the country at severely discounted rates. The first of the multi-day trips happened this weekend at a biological reserve called La Selva, “The Forest”, and there were 12 of us students who were able to take advantage of this unique opportunity.

Leaving promptly at 6:30 a.m. we arrived at the reserve and got right to work earning our discounted rate by doing some manual labor. I helped with stabilizing a terrestrial bridge, which basically required lugging and wheelbarrowing around a bunch of rocks. Later we got to do some activities that registered more under the category of “leisure”, like explore some of the trails and find some cool animals. Being the students of the silver screen that we are, we did actually watch a movie while we were there too (“Home”, a film akin to “An Inconvenient Truth” that advocates eco-awareness). Later, we squinted our way through a nocturnal hike to enjoy some of the aspects of the forest that come alive only when the sun goes down. The next morning we were made aware of what a difference a guided hike makes because we got to see a lot of colorful birds and learn things about the forest we otherwise would have missed. Having the afternoon free, we watched Barcelona beat Real Madrid on TV and then I had the best

soccer-playing experience of my life. Not because of the quality of my performance (my skills were essentially gringo garbage compared to theirs), but because we started a pick-up game, “mejenga”, with La Selva workers until the sunset that came a solid 2 hours later on this tiny little field in the jungle that had more mud than it did grass (and we won!). After a thorough shower and a hearty dinner, (buffet 3 meals a day = best part of the trip), we all shared in drink and conversation long into our final night and even introduced the Ticos to the messy deliciousness of s’mores. The next day we hiked up, down and around Laguna Hule, which was really a beautiful (and also incredibly muddy) experience. Capped off by an exquisite lunch overlooking the laguna, this field trip was one I’ll never forget. Not only did I get to experience one of the top-tier biological reserves in the world, but I got to make friends with a great group of Tico guys in the group who really helped improve my Tico-ness by teaching me some of the frequently-used (mostly-appropriate) slang.

As for everything else, things are going Pura Vida. I feel like my level of Spanish has kind of accelerated in the last week or so; perhaps due to a combo of coming off such a spanish-filled weekend and efforts to expand my vocabulary by reading all I can to underline and look up words I don’t know (there are still lots of marks on the pages, but less and less with time I suppose). My first basketball game with the university is this Sunday at 9:00 a.m., which I find to be an odd – and rather un-Catholic – hour for a game, but so be it. Friday I have a trip with IFSA to a cacao farm in Tirimbina to give me a break from all the homework I have piled up after this week, and hopefully I’ll be able to make connections with my professor’s boyfriend to do a little bike-riding around San Jose with his Saturday morning cycling group. Hopefully it stays dry enough to allow it – the rainy season is right around the corner!

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Semana Santa

Time April 6th, 2010 in College Study Abroad | 3 Comments by

The spring break we annually enjoy in the United States is substituted in Latin America for a week-long break with a historically more religious purpose: Semana Santa, or “Holy Week.” This is to commemorate the week of events, such as the Last Supper and Good Friday, leading up to the resurrection of Jesus that is celebrated on Easter Sunday. However, much like another Christian-based holiday in the States (Christmas), it seemed to me that the celebration is such that some – if not, most – people are more focused on the vacation time and the practice of traditional events rather than the sacred nature involved in the original intent of the holiday. Make no mistake, I enjoy vacation time and Easter eggs as much as the next exchange student, but this was just an observation I considered worth noting.

Our group of 6 began the week on Saturday at mid-day with a solid 16-hour bus ride from San Jose to Panama City that got us in at 5:30 am and in need of food and shelter. Thankfully we found both before too long and lazied our way into recovery before heading into Panama Viejo, a little town outside of the city that contains enough ruins to satisfy any appetite for history and a generally quaint environment complete with an impressive artisan venue and deliciously cheap fare. Following a much-needed siesta, we hit up downtown to get a look at the sunset and a bit of what the area had to offer. We were surprised and impressed to find that, in stark contrast to those found in Costa Rica, the city boasted coastline, skyscrapers and extensive highways that compared much to that of a Miami-type area. Monday found us in Albrook where ultra-consumerism reigns in the largest mall in Latin America. I mean this place was huge. After browsing about a quarter of the place in 4 hours, we moved on to one of my ultimate goals of the trip: The Panama Canal. If the sheer value in world trade and international relations provided by the canal isn’t impressive enough, just admiring the incredible engineering and Rhode Island-sized boats ought to take one’s breath away. Our student status made access to the movie and museum affordable enough, so after enjoying each we decided to head back to the mall-on-steroids in Albrook where one can purchase a 9-inch pizza for $2.00. Yeah.

Cracking dawn once again the next day, we bussed our way to David and Almirante en route to our final destination of Bocas del Toro, where we would the spend the rest of the 5 nights left of our trip. The island we stayed on consisted of our hostel, a restaurant, and beautiful beaches. That was it, and that was enough. We headed to the main island, Isla Colo’n, on Thursday to scope it out and make a supermarket run, but the $4 water taxi required for passage each way and the fact that the town wasn’t quite as hoppin as we expected was enough to keep us on our own island for the rest of the weekend. Friday we did take a 5-hour tour in which we got to see quite a few dolphins, peer over the side of our boat at some starfish, and soak up some snorkeling at the incredibly beautiful coral and diverse sea life at Caya Coral. All for $15! The rest of our days typically included waking up at the crack of noon to spend cloudy afternoons at the beach either relaxing, body surfing, playing soccer with some local kids, or exploring coastline from the popular Red Frog to the pristine Polo. If and when the shower turned on at 6pm (water conservation during the dry season), we would whip up some pasta, rice & beans, or more PB&J to carry us into our nights spent down at the hostel commons area. When just each other’s company wasn’t enough, there was ping pong, pool, life-size chezz, board games, a restaurant, foreigners from all over the world, and hammocks gallore to keep us occupied. An essentially stress-free week was capped off by a stress-(expensive?) trip back home due to having to wait on our boat taxi that arrived an hour late and scared us into thinking we would miss our bus in Changuinola. Nevertheless, in what had to have been an Easter miracle, we somehow made it in time and were off to San Jose in a bus that unfortunately offered as little leg room as it did air conditioning. When all is said and done, I think it is safe to say that my Semana Santa was, albeit unconventional, certainly “Pura Vida.”

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A Costa Weeka Fun

Time March 22nd, 2010 in College Study Abroad | 4 Comments by

I’m coming off the best week I’ve ever had in Costa Rica, but the fact is that it’s bittersweet at the moment. You see, Emily officially ended her visit today (a stay of 9 days that kept us on a cloud of the same number), which leaves me with some great memories, but alas, fiance-less. Instead of dwelling on the fact that we won’t see each other for 3 months, I’d like to recount a few things we did and stay focused on the positive because it was a blasty blast through and through.

Against the advice of my madre here, we booked it to Montezuma right after her flight arrived (delayed, of course) by means of a taxi, a ferry, and a bus. So if you add the regular car and plane she rode in earlier in the day, Emily utilized 5 different modes of transport over a period of 15 hours to finally arrive at our destination. Wow! Remaining needless to say, it was worth it. Starting off the weekend with a boat ride and snorkeling trip in the crystal-clear waters of Isla Tortuga was an excellent decision in spite of the fact that it left us with some nasty sunburns on our backs that nagged us the next couple of days. But as became the unofficial theme of the trip, “it was all worth it.” The next morning found us on the backs of horses strolling along the beach in some equatorially ferocious sunshine. The heat was such that Emily’s horse actually made the decision to take a quick bath… with her still on him! Thankfully everything was okay (save maybe a few nerves for a while) and the rest of the trek was less eventful. Later in the evening we went on a zip lining tour that included a 30-minute break to enjoy the two waterfalls there. The first was a nice 10 foot drop with a rope swing farther down; very enjoyable. Then we became aware of the second that added over 30 more feet of elevation, and the adrenaline of the jump quadrupled as well. While just the view was enough for Emily to enjoy of this one, I for one was not going to leave such an offer un-jumped. The following day we were back in San Jose to prepare for our next adventure.

Being the man of many obligations that I am, I had to give a 20-minute Spanish presentation on Tuesday morning (the day Emily turned 21), but immediately following the acing of that exposition, we were on our way to Manuel Antonio! To celebrate Emily’s special day, we went to a nice restaurant called “El Avio’n” that gave us delicious food and drink, all taken in with a beautiful view of the sunset. On Wednesday we headed to the famous national park where we encountered all kinds of cool animals, including white-faced monkeys again, sloths, lots of lizards, a rodent we couldn’t quite classify, and too many insects to count. We were going to hire a guide, but we ended up just occasionally piggy backing on those that did and we figured it was just as helpful. The beaches were gorgeous, the views incredible, and the sweating profuse. The Mangrove Tour we tried on Thursday was a bit of a letdown, but it’s hard to complain about a boat ride in Costa Rica that involves even more white-faced monkeys (literally in and on our boat!), sightings of other animals like snakes, an anteater and falcon, and knowledge gained of the surprisingly interesting mangrove there. Friday held the most fun-filled (and expensive) activities for us though. We started off on the whale- and dolphin-watching tour, which unfortunately involved sightings of neither whales nor dolphins, and enjoyed a freshly caught lunch after a little snorkeling. This time we were sure to apply extra layers of sunscreen on our already-peeling backs. Later, we unknowingly picked the perfect way to end our trip with a private zip-lining tour at night in the forest that was teeming with wildlife (sloths, tree frogs, spiders, hawks, INSECTS, etc.) we got a chance to spot with the headlights on our helmets. Not only was the tour a blast, but they fed us a delectable dinner afterwards (from which we took home a convenient bag of salsa for our chips later), and all this was with a discount that made it cheaper than the tours without dinner! That always makes you feel good. :)

Despite the fact that my best week is probably behind me, I look forward to the future with optimism! If the rest of my weeks are even a fraction as awesome as this week was, I’m going to have a great rest of the semester. Back to work with writing essays and reading articles for now, but Semana Santa is right around the corner, and there’s a good time waiting in Panama with my name on it!

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FAMILY

Time March 12th, 2010 in College Study Abroad | 2 Comments by

The title of my last entry, “FINALLY,” which told of my adventures in Guanacaste that I forgot to mention also left me with a wicked wristwatch tanline on my distal left forearm you can almost tell time with, reminded me of the word “FAMILY.” This train of thought led me to realize that I haven’t yet blogged much about the family I’m living with here in Santo Domingo that has been such a big part of my experience here. So, I’m going to do that now. It’s sure to be shorter, and maybe sweeter, than the last one so you can get back to procrastinating somewhere else out here in cyberspace.

My madre, Marielos, could not be sweeter. She is a stay-at-home mom, like the large majority of the mothers here in Central America I imagine, whose focus on cooking, cleaning and keeping house allows me to enjoy high-quality meals, frequently cleaned laundry, and a beautiful yard without so much as lifting a finger. Of course, I’m used to lifting my fingers, so I make sure to do my part when she allows it, which primarily comes in the form of washing the dishes and making my bed. Due to the fact that I eat more than any other student she has had before (out of the 20!) and have nothing to show for it in terms of weight gain, she is convinced that I have a parasite in my stomach that requires immediate medical attention. So I try to eat less when she’s around and sneak more later when she’s not, but I can’t keep living like this for much longer! She is incredibly patient with me in my Spanish-learning process and is always helpful in teaching, involving, and having fun with me. We really have a good time and laugh together a lot.

My padre doesn’t like to laugh so much. Don Luis is almost always out of the house either working at his business or finishing the thesis for his PhD in his office upstairs. I guess working from 7:30 am to at least 8:30 pm every day doesn’t give him much reason to laugh. He really is a nice man and makes sure to correct me when I err in speech (which I appreciate, but sometimes I feel like he’s just waiting for me to make a mistake, you know?). He certainly is an ample financial provider for the family, but he leaves much to be desired in his provision of fatherly love and display of emotion. Don’t tell him I said that though, or he might love me even less than he already doesn’t.

I have 3 hermanos. One of which is married and lives out of the house (Esteban, 31 years old), another who will be married and out of the house in approximately 8 days (Julio, 27 years old), and another who is currently “looking” for work and taking classes at UNA at night (Armando, 20). They are each very friendly to me and fun to be around. Julio actually takes me to school in the mornings because UNA is on his way to work, so that saves me about $1.50 a week in bus fares! I rarely see Esteban, but Julio and Armando really make an effort to involve me with their friends when it’s possible. Like, among other things, I got to come along with them to Julio’s bachelor party a couple weekends ago, which was really fun, so I really couldn’t ask for much more from them.

Overall my living experience is very pleasant and I am being well-provided for and taken care of, even beyond what I expected. Having internet access, hot water, a nice room, laundry service, and 3 meals (plus an afternoon cafe) a day is hard to complain about. Add that to the fact that it comes with people who are enjoyable to be around and you’ve got yourself quite a Costa Rican homestay!

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FINALLY

Time March 11th, 2010 in College Study Abroad | 3 Comments by

It happened. It took me 41 days, but I finally made it to the the region regarded by many to be home to the most beautiful beaches in the country. That’s right, I’m talking about Guanacaste. During the 6 and a half hours en route from San Jose through Liberia and on to the Pacific Coast I came to appreciate the contrast between the extreme heat and dry terrain that occasionally combined well enough to  even provoke small fires and the  overwhelmingly refreshing environment offered by the ocean and coastline just minutes down the same road. My friend, Julian, and I
began our adventure in the wee hours of Saturday morning and arrived in Playa Brasilito and high spirits at about

mid-day. We were ready for some beach action. After a delicious lunch of casado and checking into our adequate (but air-conditioned!) hotel, we were on our way to the highly esteemed Playa Flamingo 6 km down the road. We were gonna take the bus, then after we considered its unknown schedule and ruled out a taxi we decided to walk it, which made us realize we instead wanted to rent some bikes, which allowed us to conveniently catch the bus on our way to the bike place… and we finally made it! The waves were incredible, the view astounding, water refreshing, nature invigorating, and sunset unforgettable. It’s tough to exceed the expectations we had, but it just might have happened. Again not wanting to take a chance on a bus, we unintelligently decided to hike the 6km back in our sandals under the stars. It gave us some good quality time, but at the price of some unpleasant irritation in unmentionable places.

The next morning we woke up bright and early at 5:30 am to catch a glimpse of the sunrise. Of course, it’s not quite the same from the Pacific Ocean side, but it was still definitely worth the interruption of REM. The beach of choice that morning was none other than Playa Conchal, where the sand is replaced by seashells and frowns are replaced with smiles. Seriously though, there were seashells instead of sand – millions of them! This unique trait, along with the crystal clear water and lack of excessive tourism,  leaves me no choice but to regard Conchal as the coolest beach I have ever visited. Our empty stomachs pried us away from the clutches of the beach’s coolness, but after a quick breakfast and a bus ticket purchase, we were right back on it until check out at noon. Julian had to leave that Sunday for classes on Monday, but I was smart enough to avoid scheduling classes on Mondays, so I got to stay another day!

This time I was gonna head less than 20 km south where cheaper lodging and access to new beaches awaited me in Tamarindo (or as locals call it due to a recent increase in the presence of caucasian tourists, “Tamagringo”). Not long after my arrival to my hostel, “La Oveja Negra”, I was off to Playa Negra. Unfortunately, there are no buses that travel to PN and a taxi ride is $30 each way, so I was forced into renting a bike for the rest of the day to make the 18 km trip. But this wasn’t just any trip. We’re talking about 16/18 of this road being unpaved; to the extent that this “road” has been deemed the 7th worst road in all of Costa Rica by my traveler’s guide book, “Lonely Planet.” Unfortunately I didn’t read that part until after the fact, so I found out the hard way first. Enduring some unfortunate component problems with the bike seat and handlebars of my beach cruiser, I finally made it to the refreshing surf of PN a solid hour and a half later. Being made aware that another notable beach, Playa Avellanas, was 3 km down the road on the way back to Tamarindo, I left PN after 30 min to take in another postcard-worthy sunset at PA. Knowing a rough trip was ahead of me, I bolted out of there as soon as the sun was no longer in view to take advantage of what little natural light I had left. I knew I had more shoes on my feet than street lights I would encounter on the all-but-deserted dirt road I had to ride back. I was provoked to such desperation that I began half-heartedly waving down the cars passing me by, and not to no avail! The couple who stopped were unfortunately driving a full car headed for their home a mere 2 km down the road I still had about 10 left on, so I reluctantly thanked them for their efforts and decided I was making it back on my own, or not at all. Thankfully it was the former, and I had never been so happy to jump into a community shower back at the hostel.

To avoid losing your interest in what has almost turned into a novel, suffice it to say that the following day consisted of 2 non-awesome events: 1) I woke up to find my 2 of my 4 small loaves of bread, 6 of my 12 slices of ham and a half bag of chips (36 of 72? I dont know…) were missing from the taken-too-literally “community” kitchen, and 2) I lost my really cool “Pura Vida” towel on… (enter the 4 reasons why this day was ultimately AWESOME): 1)Playa Grande! waves, beach, surfers, 2) I bargained the price of the bike rental down from 10.000 colones to about $9 (less than half!) due to the problems I had with it and the fact I didn’t sign a sheet saying I would be responsible for any damages, 3) the bus to San Jose arrived on time at 2 pm, 4) I had a humongous dinner that was even more humongously delicious waiting for me in my house upon my return. This will not be the last of my trips to Guanacaste, but it was a heck of a first!

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Just the Tip of the Riceberg

Time February 22nd, 2010 in College Study Abroad | 7 Comments by

My friend Julian asked me on the bus the other day how my first month of being in Costa Rica went, and that was the first time I realized it had actually been 4 solid weeks since we arrived. I told him it had been a really good month, but I expect that my best months are still ahead of me. Even if it’s not true, I figure it’s a good attitude to have. I believe we’ve only reached the tip of the iceberg, or “riceberg” in this case, being in a nation that is hopelessly enamored with rice. This may have something to do with the fact that the only beach I’ve been to so far is laughable to Ticos in its quality compared to many others here. Or the fact that getting adjusted to the flow of classes at the beginning of the semester is never easy, especially in another country. Or the fact that I am anxiously anticipating the arrival of Emily in 3 weeks. Or the fact that Semana Santa in Panama has potential to be mind-blowingly awesome. I suppose the facts speak for themselves. Again, however, I think that being able to look forward to the future despite the circumstances, or “facts”, is an important aspect to a healthy lifestyle.

I’d like to share something I’ve learned about communication. Ever since I got the idea in my head to travel to a Spanish-speaking country, my goal has been to become “fluent” and master the language. Although I suppose that goal is not quite as concrete as I had expected or hoped. Communication simply consists of people simply trying to get across ideas or messages to other people, and most of the time that doesn’t even involve words! So I suppose mastering a language and all the inner-workings of the grammar stuff isn’t quite as important as being able to simply communicate the intended idea. I’m sure it’s just a lot more fun to feel comparable comfort in two languages instead of just one. It just fascinates me how people all over the world can use the same sounds and move their mouths in the same way (or at least similar ways) – just in a different order – and come up with a completely unique language that connects the humans within a specific region. Incredible!

For a short update on what has happened to me this week, I’ll hit a few high points. The basketball coach of Universidad Nacional invited me to play with the university team (maybe because he’s good at recognizing incredible natural talent, or maybe it’s just because I’m taller than 95% of the population here… who knows?). Much to my dismay, walking into the gym for practice on Thursday night found me feeling like I stepped into a time machine that took me back to high school freshman basketball tryouts. I feel confident that my middle school team would have given the best players there a good game, but I’m gonna stick with it and see what happens. I also got to meet with Daniel Hercules, the boyfriend of a friend of mine at UE, to have him show me around his university and San Jose on Monday. I “got to” sit through his physical chemistry class, which made me appreciate my chemistry-less curriculum. Before I go, I’d like to share a few of the few things I currently miss about the United States: cold milk that comes in gallon cartons instead of luke-warm liter boxes, popularity and sufficient broadcasting of the Winter Olympics, and the promise of toilet paper in every public bathroom. (That last one could really leave you sitting in a… sti(c/n)ky situation!).

A pic I snagged with the Universidad de CR futbol team... super nice guys!

The front of my university

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Changes

Time February 11th, 2010 in College Study Abroad | 3 Comments by

Change is everywhere. It happens all the time. But in the short amount of time I’ve been granted on earth thus far I’ve really only experienced a few changes I consider to be more or less drastic. Pretty typical ones actually: going to a new middle school and high school, moving off to college, getting a new job/internship, and now, of course, living in another country. The process of shifting from one “normal” situation to another is difficult at times in the early stages for me. Intermittent frustrations with language acquisition have been uncomfortably welcome and have added new synapses to my brain function, which is a good thing! At this point I have been able to see a few glimpses of the euphoria that comes with complete confidence and control of the language, but it comes and goes. With time I’m sure it will come more than go. What has been an unexpected surprise is how gringo-riffic my accent is in my first few sentences of each morning. For some reason I forget how to use a Spanish accent when I wake up… kinda weird!

Laura wins!

Another change we have been lucky enough to be a part of this semester reigns in the political arena with the election process that ultimately led to the first female president in Costa Rican history: Laura Chinchilla. We had a fun Super Bowl / Presidential Election party at our house on Sunday to celebrate both historic occasions. Julian and I, the only Estadounidenses (“Americans” is not politically correct I’ve been told) in the house, were the only ones really watching the Super Bowl I think, but we had two TVs in the room to broadcast both events so everyone was happy. The whole time leading up to the election involved an incredible amount of flag-adorning, car honking, and conversation sparking. What is neat is how incredibly passionate Ticos are about politics without transmitting an ounce of that passion into violence. They really seem to be a peaceful people as a whole from what I can gather.

Sucking on some coco juice during orienation

Classes began this week, which is another change to chalk up on the growing list. There are marked similarities and differences between the education system here and at home, but to say that it is more USA-esque than not might be stretching it. Details may be too many to discuss in a blog that is meant only to summarize my experience while attempting to keep your interest. I have yet to make an incredible amount of new Tico friends after my first couple days in school here at UNA, but there is time yet. I have noticed that male adolescents here tend to consistently have two things in common: raging hormones and copious amounts of hair gel. Though this inevitably attracts the females, whose wardrobes can be as sassy as their hair is brown, because lip-locked couples obviously licensed in PDA dot the campus like sprinkles on a sundae. And my middle school frowned upon holding hands…

Overall my school situation is nothing to complain about because I have both Fridays and Mondays free, which allows for a personally unprecedented 4-day weekend for the entire semester, and most of my classes involve frequent field trips (some even overnight near the beach!) for very cheap. I think I can cruise with the 15-credit hour load I’ve got, so I can focus more on Costa Rica and her people while I’m here rather than books and papers. There will be time for that later. :)

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Fascination during Orientation in the Cafe Nation

Time February 3rd, 2010 in College Study Abroad | 3 Comments by

A Flip into the Frontera Waterfall

Sitting in my plane seat on the way to Costa Rica, being teased by the clouds that would allow me only periodic views of the Central American world below, I couldn’t help but be excited. I expected to be a little more nervous, but the whole process of going through airport security, being checked at customs, and having to find a taxi ride to Hotel Bougainvillea after all that went incredibly smoothly. I couldn’t have imagined a better hotel for our first night in Costa Rica – it was beautiful! From the colorfully thick gardens to the elegant meals they provided to the cloud-like beds (almost) all of us enjoyed, it was obvious from the beginning that IFSA was going to take care of us. The other hotel we stayed at in La Fortuna was equally as luxurious, with a hot springs/bar we enjoyed without hesitation. It also helps that Teresita, Yanori, and Xiomara – our 3 counselors for orientation and the next 5 months – could not be more helpful, caring, and just plain out-of-the-way nice.

The first week of orientation found us in Monteverde, which is about a 3 or 4 hour bus ride west of Heredia, and several kilometers above it. It was extremely and consistently windy, but zip lining through the cloud forest and soaking up the culture through our family stay, walks through the town, excessive coffee drinking, Spanish classes and dance classes/Latin nights were only a few of the things that made us ignore the gusty inconvenience. The sunsets were unforgettable, and being able to look at the brightest moon of 2010 from that altitude through a telescope was indescribable. My family, consisting of Oscar (father), Xeonny (mother), Oscar Esteban (son, 14) and Xiomy (daughter, 6) Fennell, was more than accommodating.

My family in Monteverde

Their home was certainly small, but I enjoyed my stay there immensely. Oscar and I made “Dulce de Bananos” as our dish for the last night with all the families, and I told the story of my first motorcycle ride that took us to the supermarket to get the 40 bananos for the 3 dessert pans, along with the preparation and ingredients of the palatable “postre”. With the comic relief of Oscitar and the unmatched cuteness of Xiomy, it was hard to say goodbye, but the Hotel del Silencio del Campo in La Fortuna softened the blow.

Our stay in La Fortuna was short-lived, but well-received. It included a short trip to a waterfall whose combination of sheer power and natural beauty I’m not sure I’ll ever see again. Jumping into the pool of falling water and swimming toward it with all my strength only to stay in place was exhilarating. We also randomly saw participants in a “campo travieso,” which is like a rainforest ultramarathon that involves travelling 220 km in 5 days, running through the water and that part of the forest! I decided I would probably have to train for the next 7 years just to be able to walk through it… those guys (and girls) were ripped!

As for my current circumstances, I am thoroughly enjoying my stay here with my family in Heredia. Don Luis (father), Marielos (mother), Julio (brother, 27 on Thursday), and Armando (brother, 20) make up my family, and everything is great! Don Luis has a thesis for his PhD he’s been working on for 5 years and he wants me to proofread/revise his summary that has to be in English… quite a task! Marielos stays at home and cooks, cleans, and does laundry 3 times a week! Am I in heaven?!? Everybody is super nice, very accommodating, and I am able to portray somewhat of a personality with the little Spanish capabilities I have, which actually is harder than one may think. More to come later on details with the family, but suffice it to say that it may even better than ideal. Orientation continues for us tomorrow in the capital, San Jose, and classes start on Monday. Also, with the presidential election this Sunday, the countless flags and buzz around the country excites our time here even more!

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It’s About Time

Time January 25th, 2010 in College Study Abroad | 6 Comments by

Enjoying the ice and snow before Costa Rica

It’s about time I leave for Costa Rica! Yes, it’s about time. It’s always about time here in America. People scheduling, deadlining, prioritizing, running errands, meeting quotas, speeding around all for the sake of time. And when the day is over, we complain about not having enough… time. Here in America we “spend” our time, like one would spend money. (In fact, some people would even equate time with money). This morning I “spent” time with my family talking over breakfast and then I “spent” time playing tennis with my dad on his break from work. We do so much spending of our time; will we ever run out? There’s nothing wrong with saying we “spend” time doing things; it’s just the way we English-speakers tend to say it. But I love what Spanish does with time. Spanish speakers “pasar tiempo,” or “pass time,” doing things and being with people. That’s also just the way they say it, but isn’t that neat? I’ve been told to expect a much slower pace of life in Costa Rica and to prepare to use lots of patience (good thing I’ve got a little practice in patience from having 4 siblings… just kidding, hermanos!). Perhaps “passing the time” will be a new experience for me down there. I hope to embrace it.

I wouldn’t say I’ve embraced all this packing I’ve had to do these last couple days though. My suitcases have never been this full. Ever. They are so full I may have to walk on that plane tomorrow wearing a suit jacket, 4 pairs of socks and two hats. Maybe even a bath towel. How’s that for an awkwardly suspicious international air traveler? I also haven’t fully embraced the fact that we have to leave our house at 5 a.m. to make it to San Antonio the suggested 3 hours before my flight’s departure. Oh well, at least I ought to have a lot of time to practice “passing” tomorrow morning… 😀

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A Distant Land – Lubbock, Texas

Time January 13th, 2010 in College Study Abroad | 3 Comments by

I am currently experiencing a trip before THE trip here in the dry, west Texas air of Lubbock. Costa Rica must wait another 10 days, for I am in the midst of a week-long stay in the land of the Texas Tech Red Raiders. All it took to get here was 6 and a half hours of driving, a little bit of singing and dancing in the car, and a small cherry limeade from Sonic. And it was totally worth it! Though while Emily is beginning a new semester of school and life here, I am forced to wait patiently for the unkown that awaits me in Heredia.

Things like exchange rates and calling cards have become commonplace in my conversation these days as I am preparing to learn to do normal things a little differently. I have been told some places take US dollars, others require colones (Costa Rican currency), wait to change currency until arrival, never exchange money with street vendors, I need a departure fee to leave Costa Rica, and on and on. However, in this whole process I am pleased to report that I feel less than overwhelmed. I am more ready and excited than anything.

My host mom reminded me to bring a suit jacket with me for Julio’s wedding, which of course got me all excited again about attending. Going through this whole wedding preparation process myself, it will be interesting to observe how a Costa Rican family handles it. I’m sure there will be some sort of mental note-taking on my part at the wedding, but probably more dancing than anything! That’s why I was practicing my moves on the way to Lubbock. Although I’m sure they can show this white boy a lot about what it means to dance with a Latino flavor. As for now, I’m going to keep my American spices alive here in the great state of Texas until I begin to join them with those of a more distant land.

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A New Year

Time January 7th, 2010 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

My family's attempt at dressing me like a Tico at the party they threw for me

My family's attempt at dressing me like a Tico at the party they threw for me

I can already tell this is going to be the best blog I have written all year. Of course, it will also be the worst since this is the only one I have written so far in 2010… happy new year, everybody!

Entry into Costa Rica is now a mere 17 days away, but I can’t say it has begun to feel any more real that I am going to be in another country this month and the following five. I am now fully immunized for yellow fever, typhoid, tetanus and swine flu. The last two have nothing to do with my travel to Costa Rica. Explanations: 1) it was just time for another tetanus booster and 2) I was peer pressured into getting an H1N1 vaccine shot up my nose (but no, I don’t regret it). I am bringing medication for malaria prevention north of W Panama, and another prescription will take care of the malaria in E Panama and below, should I choose to ever travel down there. I had the option to bring pills along for traveler’s diarrhea, but I think I can just tough that one out.

Butler has continued to send me helpful emails about money, details and whatnot. However, if I am honest with myself, I have not really read all of them thoroughly… YET. I plan to eventually fill my head with an appropriate amount of preparatory knowledge before packing and leaving, but I like to think it will be okay if I put that off for a few more days at least. Call it procrastination or ignorance if you like, but I prefer to think of it as taking life as it comes. I can guess there will be a lot of that kind of attitude needed this year; probably for all of us.

A lot of my friends (including my siblings) are returning to school now that January has almost completed its first full week. Huh, school… I remember what that was like once. No American education for me anymore (at least for the next 5 months). Bring on la universidad!

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A New Experience

Time January 4th, 2010 in College Study Abroad | 2 Comments by

Hello, blog world.

My name is Ben Menke and I hope to become a worthy member of this new society I have now joined. I have never blogged before about anything, but I am optimistic that I can take on this new challenge! Expect to hear some outrageous, exciting, and maybe even some plain old normal reports from me over the course of the next 5 months, and I will do the same.

Christmas Eve with my brothers and sister

Christmas Eve with my brothers and sister

This Christmas break has been unlike any other I have experienced up to this point. Now that finals and all of my duties to an American college education are over for the next 6 months, Costa Rica has been on my mind more than ever. I have been away from home for extended periods before, but never quite like this. Driving 15 hours north for college every semester is one thing, but leaving behind a whole culture for almost half a year is another. Add to the mix that I am a one-month newborn into the world of being a fiance and it makes leaving my American home that much more bittersweet. But Costa Rica is a journey I have been looking forward to for quite a while now and I can’t believe that it’s almost here! I just know I’m going to forget to pack some important thing I need for my trip – I can’t wait to find out what it is!

I have spoken briefly with my host family (la familia Vega-Sibaja) on the phone, but we have been emailing periodically with questions that are typical of strangers who are going to be all of a sudden living together for 5 months and will one day be family. Talking with them for the first time really accelerated the reality of this whole thing, and in an incredibly good way. I had to utilize what knowledge I had of the Spanish language to uphold my side of our conversation, and I realized there was considerable room for improvement of my lingual competence. Becoming equally familiar with the Spanish language as I am with English has been a goal of mine for a very long time, and it is going to finally happen. There’s a dream come true for ya! I even get to experience a legit Costa Rican wedding for my host brother while I’m there – how lucky am I?!

Even if I wanted to, I probably couldn’t anticipate all that I am going to experience, and I don’t want to even pretend like I’m ready for it all. But I am confident that I will carry an open mind with me wherever I go and do my best to make the most out of this unique and rare opportunity.

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