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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Guatemala and other things

Well, then. I guess it's time to get back on track.

In the days when July turned to August, I went out on a number of dates with a girl. Later, in the second week of August, we stepped it up and I found myself in a relationship. This effectively ended all my plans - of which there were many and more - to leave Costa Rica. Not that I've any regrets, mind.

It's now closing in on November, incredibly enough. My second birthday outside my native country has passed. The relationship between me and my girlfriend has grown into something very good. The world in general has been relatively quiet. And my teaching schedule changed.

High school

In Spanish, high school would be colegio, in Norwegian it's ungdomsskole, and in English it'd be equivalent to, more or less, secondary school. I can't tell you the exact circumstances that led me to (and out of) teaching there, due to contractual issues, but I'll gladly tell you some of the things I did there. Before I start, though, the basic concept was this: my private English school had a contract with a normal, semi-private colegio. My school would send teachers to the colegio to teach English.
- in the first ten minutes of one particular class, I evicted 16 of the 18 students.
- I regularly evicted between 3 and 10 students in every single class I taught.
- communications from the high school such as "Don't make the students cry" were routed to my private school. If my boss there didn't tell me not to make my students cry, it didn't count.
- I denied dozens of student requests to go the bathroom.
- I made the other (Tica) English teacher on the premises hate my guts, because all the students I evicted came to her to ask her to plea their cases to me (I hardly uttered a word in Spanish in the high school even though I could).
- roared three resisting Ticos into scrambling for their backpacks and nearly running out of the classroom

The two and a half weeks I taught there were quite interesting in their own, obscure way. Thank God I don't have to do that anymore, though - now I'm (hopefully) back to teaching in the private school.


The things I wish to say about her are all captured in the following monologue, delivered by her:
"I liked the shotgun in Doom [the computer game]. I would walk up to the monsters, stick it in their mouths and fire it, and watch as they flew backwards. I liked the 'chi-chic' sound it made when it was being reloaded."



So here we’ve come to the main part of this entry - my recent visa run to Guatemala. I went to the airport with my girlfriend and kissed her goodbye before I entered the departure terminal. I was armed with two telephone numbers and a return ticket to Guatemala City. After an interminable wait (some kind of organizational breakdown in the Taca administration), I got on the plane and landed in Guatemala about one and a half hours later. Entrance into the country was painless, and after some fumbling, I located the taxi stand (such as it was) and got a taxi into the center of Guatemala City:
Taxi driver(s): "¿Taxi, señor?"
Ole: "Um, si."
T: "¿Para donde?"
O: "El centro..."
T: "¿Donde en el centro?"
O: "No se. No importa. Necesito solo un lugar con internet."

I paid the fare and got out of the taxi next to 'Palaco' something, downtown. I found an ATM, got some local currency and went in search of an internet cafe to find the name of the city I was going to, which I had forgotten to write down. I found a cafe and the name, and by that time it was getting late - late enough for me to start thinking about hustling to get the bus to Quetzaltenango. I presumed that Guatemala was like Nicaragua and Costa Rica in that buses would generally not leave after late in the afternoon till next morning. Asking around, I was told that the terminal was a ways off and that I should take a taxi. The taxi driver had no idea where the terminal was, but asking around got us there eventually, just in time for me to jump on a bus to the impossible-to-pronounce-place.

I don't have a watch, so I can only guess that it was about five hours later that the bus arrived, after lots of obstacle-hurdling, including, but not limited to, a herd of cows (or goats?), lots of roadworks (Fim! Fim!) and a pretty radical mud-pit. I got off the bus at a randomly selected spot in Quetzaltenango, slung my sole piece of luggage (a small backpack) over my shoulder and went in search of a taxi. About half an hour later I got a big welcoming hug from my very tall British friend whom I hadn't seen since many a month, on a dark and quiet little town square in the middle of what I later learned was ‘Zona Uno’ in Xela (which is the more common name for Quetzaltenango). He took me to his apartment and introduced a woman there as his girlfriend. We had dinner together and caught up on each others’ lives.

Later that same evening, as I entered the hostel I were to stay at during my three nights in Xela (Shey-la), I was met by a person some of you might remember - mr. Leadership himself, the ultra-charismatic British bloke I first encountered in Quepos. My sparse luggage was stowed in my room and the three of us - me, mr. Leadership and mr. Tall (the one who met me first in Xela) - went out for drinks. At that time, I had been more or less sober for four months due to the fact that my girlfriend doesn’t drink, so getting drunk was easy enough.

Next morning I woke up and realized something: it was cold. Xela is way up in the mountains (2000+ feet) and the temperature difference between there and San Jose was pretty radical. I hadn’t brought a jacket (I don’t even have a jacket to bring), and I was wearing sandals, so I spent the days in Guatemala gracefully wearing socks and sandals, true gringo style. I showered (the hostel was really quite excellent, its name is Don Diego (I think) and is warmly recommended) and hit the streets of Xela, armed with the name and general direction of the local market (La Democracia) plus a camera. I ate breakfast in a dark, smoky room, a version of what we here in Costa Rica would call a soda, located on the outskirts of the market. The room had about five stalls where women (and often their daughters) were selling local food cooked on the spot. I had torta de carne, directly translated cake of meat. In Norway, we call it kjøttkake. And, miracle of miracles, in Guatemala it’s apparently quite normal to have hot chocolate with their breakfasts. Naturally, I asked for a cup, stared at the change the woman gave me to find out what it looked like and what it was worth (much to the amusement of the locals), then went to the market and spent the most of the day there.

The hostel has quite a few people living there semi-long-term (meaning, for a month or more), so the residents arrange dinner daily on a rotational basis. I ate dinner there, and spent the evening over at mr. Tall’s apartment, chilling.

Xela is a nice city. Guatemala is generally not known for its tranquila cities, that is to say, there’s generally a lot of crime about. Not so with Xela, where you can go pretty much anywhere, anytime, unmolested. Zona Uno, where I stayed, has narrow, cobbled streets which make up fairly square blocks of mixed residential/commercial buildings. Vehicles (especially the local buses, eerily similar to the ‘taxis’ in Cape Town) navigate the streets at high speeds, and pedestrians are well advised to stick to the narrow sidewalks. It’s a city of about 200 000 people, and it’s obvious that it’s not alien to the concept of tourism; a fact easily discerned from counting the number of Spanish schools about. Men and women in strange outfits abound: traditional dresses, hats and whatnot - children are often kept in a shawl slung over the shoulders of the women and tied in front. Their features are dissimilar from the average Tico, whose blood and genes are quite thoroughly different from native Central Americans. In Guatemala, native blood is abundant. The staple food, here as elsewhere in this part of the world, has a lot to do with beans and rice, though with some original touches, such as the aforementioned hot chocolate. Their torte de carne is different in texture and appearance from the Norwegian version, but it tastes similar. Groceries and most everyday goods are vended in the markets around the city, and the quality of foodstuffs is very high. I liked Xela a lot - it’s a place I would not hesitate to stay in for a while.

My third and final day in Quetzaltenango (I think it’s something like... kets-alten-ango) was passed in a huge market in a nearby town. I went there with mr. Tall and his girlfriend. Now, I’ve seen a couple of pretty wild markets before, but this was easily up there with the best of them. It was packed, in the sense that you couldn’t walk a single step without either bumping into someone or narrowly avoid bumping into someone. It stretched out over a total of, I think, ten blocks or so (about a square kilometre, though it was located in the streets and there were buildings interspersed between the rows of stalls). All sorts of clothes were for sale - hell, anything related to textiles in one way or another could be gotten there. I spent a delightful day picking through the stalls with mr. Tall’s girlfriend (he went off on his own, for some reason), lamenting the fact that the town didn’t have an ATM so I could buy Christmas presents for everyone and their mothers. There was a guy there who sold what appeared to be crushed Coyote intestines, which, according to him, has enormous healing powers in relation to pretty much any ailment. By the time I came back to his general area, though (I look first, and buy later), he had packed up and left. I would have loved to buy some of that stuff. I can only imagine the joy of convincing the customs officers in Guatemala and Costa Rica to let me keep it. We had dinner in a Guatemalan version of a soda, which I can’t remember their name for. Family-run cafe-ish kind of affair, anyway. Mr. Tall and his girlfriend had to leave to go to their respective jobs in Xela, but I stayed for a little while longer before I returned.

There was some kind of birthday party going on in the hostel and the poor, beleaguered Belgium girl who was stuck on dinner duty seemed to need whatever help she could get, so I gave it. She served a terrific chicken-and-rice-Thai-ish dish, and we spent most of the evening in the hostel eating and drinking - 16 people or so, including me and my British friends. We went out for drinks later and thus passed a fairly uneventful, though extremely pleasant, night.

My fourth and final day in Guatemala was mostly spent travelling. I got on the bus towards Guatemala City and boy was it slow. It broke down about half an hour outside the city and an hour and a half passed before another came to bring us along. I’m a patient man (wasn’t, before, but learned patience after lots of travelling and, lately, teaching English) and don’t get worked up much, especially when travelling in relatively third-world countries, but the row of roadwork queues and general lack of progress that plagued us started getting on my nerves after a while, especially considering I had a plane to catch. When we finally arrived in Guatemala City, the friendly co-bus-driver arranged a taxi to take me to the airport, but I think the taxi driver felt kind of slighted as I stormed past him muttering something about ‘bathroom emergency’ and disappeared into the toilet. I stood peeing for a good five minutes. He was faithful, though - the taxi driver, that is - and waited patiently until I was done. There were two other people in the car (which didn’t look like much of a taxi), but all my instincts told me that this was completely trustworthy, so I got in and remained utterly calm and relaxed as the driver navigated into a part of the city distinct from the airport, let the two passengers off somewhere in there, then took me to the airport. There I was harassed to a totally undeserved degree by a customs officer who seemed to believe I was up to some shady business - a notion that, oddly enough, seemed reinforced when he found one of my presents to my girlfriend, a nice teddy bear holding a heart with ‘I love you’ written on it, which he held up to the light while muttering darkly in Spanish. His attention was diverted by some other pressing business before too long, though, whereupon I was let off the hook and hit the surprisingly well-stocked tax-free stores.

Four days without my girlfriend! It was good to see her again - she met me in the airport holding a sign written in dubious Norwegian, conjured up from the Spanish-Norwegian dictionary I gave her as a present. She told me that work had called (I don’t have a cell phone and the relationship between me and my girlfriend is, for various reasons, one of the most well-known facts in my workplace, so they call her when there’s something I need to know urgently) and that I wasn’t teaching high school anymore. Hooray!

And that’s about it. The longest blog entry I’ve written in a long time. To be honest, not much has happened here - I spend time with my girlfriend and teach, and that’s pretty much it. I did an aborted attempt at joining the Little Theatre Group at some point, a plan I haven’t quite given up yet. I started eating salads at least once a week and I’m trying hard to vary my meals every day. My first private class is starting next week, if everything works out. Looks like I have to go for a couple of weeks with no work because of, well, issues that I can’t really talk about (though it has nothing to do with me personally, just coincidences and contractual stuff, things outside my control). I had a great time in Guatemala, and I’d love to go back there at one point or another. Life is good in San Jose too, what with my relationship soon entering its third month and it doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere but onward any time soon. I’ve started preparations for my mid-December return to ze Vaterland, to where I won’t be going alone, it seems...

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Finding Shelter

I awoke this morning to a complete absence of water and electricity. Earlier this year, around March and April, such outages were common in parts of the Central Valley due to water shortages. But now, in the thick of the rainy season, I assumed that it was because of construction in the neighborhoods. My roommate, however, informed me of the truth: our landlord forgot to pay the utility bills. We've endured other discomforts here as well. We've been waken by early morning, unannounced intrusions by our landlord for various reasons. Recently, he decided the apartment absolutely had to be repainted, despite the fact that it meant weeks of drywall dust and paint fumes for us. He spontaneously replaced a sink one morning, turning off the water, and leaving us unexpectedly without water for morning showers. And let's not forget that he wasn't paying the community security guard, who consequently turned a blind eye to our robbers. The list goes on and on. Why do we remain here? Well, this highlights a problem for expat ESL teachers. Furnished housing is difficult to find and relatively expensive in Costa Rica. It's even more difficult to find in desirable locations. So, because we don't want to buy furniture for our temporary stay here, and because we need a place with a phone line (difficult for non-residents to get), and because we want to be close to our school, we are stuck. Luckily, the water and electricity came back on in the afternoon.

Monday, September 24, 2007

The silence is broken!

Yes, it's been a long time, for sure. I guess it's possible to say that I've been consumed by a life of teaching, but that would be a lie. The problem is rather a Tica that has entered my life and made all my plans come to a screeching halt. Only this remains: The opening of a window and the defenestration of all hope. Oh well.

Since last I wrote a lot has changed. Let's start with the ESL related stuff. My schedule has been turned around and I'm now teaching a regular class every morning Monday through Thursday, which I enjoy. It's a lot easier to deal one class than three. I was recognized as "that guy from Dave's forum" by a girl who started working in my school (second time, woo). I even met a guy from the selfsame forum in San Jose and was mercilessly pumped for information. Last but not least, I had my ass kicked by one of the moderators there who didn't like my coming down on gringos. My trembling still hasn't subsided.

So it's six on a Monday afternoon and I came to the internet cafe to do some prepwork for one of my classes. As you can see, it didn't work. I dropped by CCC and saw the last entry was in ... July? Something like that. Tony and Joanne (I think her name is) simply stopped posting here, it appears. So now I'm doing something about it. It's true that I have nothing to tell you about except that (and you can be sure I'll repeat this about 30 times) I have a girlfriend. I could tell you that it's raining a bit here. Quite a bit. And that I'm getting more and more to like living in this country - the more I see of Ticos the more I like it.

One thing I will tell you is that I'm realizing more and more that surviving in this country on 400-450 bucks a month is a tall order. I've declared in the past that it's possible, and it still is - but I ran a little check on my savings account and guess what, I've been using a lot more money than I thought I had. Meaning, even though I'm trying hard to be careful, running a monthly budget of about 400 dollars minus 200 for basic living expenses is pretty damn difficult. And I'm not particularly high maintenance. My girlfriend, on the other hand...

Once upon the time I had illusions of going to the States before I went home for Christmas, but all that are now shadows and dust, memories of memories et cetera. I'll be going home for Christmas but other than that, looks like I'm stuck in Costa Rica for a while. A terrible fate, indeed, to be stuck in a wonderful country with a wonderful girlfriend. Oh, oops, did I drop the girlfriend card again?

So this is the end of a disgustingly random blog entry from the in-house Norwegian. I'm still generally clueless, but happier than before.

Yes, it's because of my girlfriend.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Teaching your second language

What follows is something of a defensive speech. I admit it freely. The subject is something I'm thinking about almost daily. It's an issue that will be relevant to every single non-native speaker with a noticeable accent, which is why I'm making my thoughts about it public. To be more precise, while this blog does discuss accent, other issues related to second language teaching (by non-native speakers) are made relevant. It will also, hopefully, open up avenues for native speakers to reflect on their presence in the classroom and their impact on their students. Or something to that effect.

Accent. This is an issue that has been raised many, many times in my relatively short ESL career. On a scale from 1 to 10, where 1 is unnoticeable and 10 is hindering listener comprehension, I'm around 4. I've a very noticeable accent but decent enough English otherwise. And while it sometimes takes a little time to tune in on my "accent frequency", I've never met anyone who didn't understand anything I was saying except people who don't speak any English, Norwegian, German or Spanish.

Why is the question of accent so relevant in the case of English teacher Ole? Well, it ties in with several things. First, and probably most relevant, there's the issue of comprehension. If you can't speak clear enough English that native speakers and, preferably, non-native speakers, can understand you, well, it's obvious that you shouldn't be teaching English. Second, and almost equally important, there's the fact that a language is fundamentally about pronunciation. In English, properly executed verb endings, especially in past tense, are vital for precise communication. While we're not talking about Mandarin here, where, as far as I understand, pronunciation is the end-all, do-or-die of communication, it's still very important that a teacher is able to teach students well enough to improve on their accents. And, finally, there's a much more understated, difficult to point out issue at stake here: alibi and authority in the classroom. I believe, as I think I've written before, that I can "get away" with both the clearness of my language and the pronunciation. Even if barely. To put it in a different way, except for one class (which also complained about their next teacher, a true-bred gringo), I've never had my students make an issue about the way I speak English. Maybe they're scared of me. It would make sense, since I've a forty-pound umbrella that I have repeatedly threatened to employ in the service of second language acquisition (corporeal punishment is so underrated). Further, I'm a fair chunk of Norwegian meat and I look like a biker. Regardless, the point remains that of the fifty-sixty different students I've had (minus the 10 bitches in the class that refused to have me as their teacher), and of the vast amount of people I've met in my travels and spoken English with, nobody has ever had any trouble understanding me after, at most, a minute or two.

And here we come to the point of this blog entry: of authority and alibi. What do these things have to do with ESL teaching?

First off, it must be said that this is a line of thought under construction. I know there's an issue here, but it's very difficult to pinpoint exactly. Authority is easy enough, in a sense - it has to do with how much the students respect you and therefore are willing to learn from you. Authority is also something wielded through force of personality and experience with leadership. In the classroom, as the teacher, you are automatically vested with a certain amount of authority. Knowledge about the subject you are teaching and ability to communicate it well are also ways to draw and work upon the respect of your students. All native speakers carry with them an air of authority about their language. It's only natural, since they are, theoretically, the final arbiters of correctness (at least in terms of communicating meaning, if not grammatical expertise). A non-native speaker, on the other hand, is a different story. But let's talk about alibi first.

The question of alibi is a deceptively simple one: Why are you teaching English? In terms that are easily understood for anyone familiar with Janteloven, why do you think you have what it takes? If you're a native speaker of the language you're teaching, the answer is relatively easy: because I am the language. Native speakers might not be experts on grammar, but they sure know how to speak the language in question.

When it comes to my personal alibi, I'm going to be honest. It was, and still remains, more about my own pursuit of happiness than anything else. I recognize that learning English for Ticos is something that is potentially worthwhile in many different ways, though.

How does the question of authority and alibi connect to teacherhood? Let's have a look at native speakers first. They are naturally gifted with authority, and with it, their alibi: I am English, therefore I can and will teach it. This is of course a sweeping generalization, but I'm not talking about personal beliefs here, but rather how students respond to their teacher.

For someone teaching their second language to second, third or whatever language learners, it's a different story. Authority and alibi becomes something much more relevant, because they will be axiomatic to your ability to teach effectively. You need to convince your students, consciously or not, about your authority more thoroughly than any native speaker would have to. And to do that, you need to believe in the righteousness of yourself. You need to have an alibi and believe in it, and/or, like me, cling blindly to the belief that you are so far removed from the skill of your students that the actual difference between you and a native, in the classroom, is negligible except for the case of the accent. Either way, it's a way of convincing yourself that you are, in fact, worth your students' time and attention (and through that, theoretically, convincing your students). And all this, ladies and gentlemen, is very, very difficult.

I'm standing in the classroom and a student is asking me a question I don't know the answer to. Is this because my understanding of English is fundamentally flawed compared to that of a native speaker? Could the student pose the same question to a native speaker and expect a decent answer? These questions may seem very silly to some, but this is a good example of a typical doubt that will plague me inside and outside the classroom. While I can and do float a lot on my personal charisma in the classroom, self-doubt is disaster for me because it doesn't just potentially flaw the student's understanding, but it's also possible that it undermines the faith of the whole class in my authority to teach them. This will not, I believe, be as much an issue with native speakers who can get away with a lot more because, well, they are native speakers. It's their language.

And that’s about it – about as far as my line of thought has progressed. I'm looking forward to read any feedback on this!

On an unrelated note, here are pics from my stay in Costa Rica.

Signing out,

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Splitting Up

By Tony O.

Most ESL teachers in Costa Rica will, at some point, work a split shift. Students tend to have time for English classes either during the morning or in the evening. Thus, teachers who need money will work during the morning and in the evening.

What does it mean to work a split shift?

It means...

  • Your free time is in the afternoon, when the rain comes.
  • Your first class isn't awake yet.
  • Your last class wants to go to bed.
  • If you have coffee during your last class, you can't sleep.
  • If you have drinks after your last class, you can't teach your first class.
  • You get the joy of leaving work twice a day.
  • You get the pain of going to work twice a day.
  • You have twice as many chances to be late for class.

...and much, much more. I'd write about it, but my 5 hour lunch break is almost up.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Random post

By Dr. O.L.E.

It's Friday, eleven in the morning, and here I am hanging out at Mall San Pedro. What brought me here can ultimately be traced back to incompetence. I'm teaching a class in a nearby business and I failed utterly in calculating exam dates and stuff so now, barely two weeks before course's end, we've still two exams and a novel to go. This has to be the area of teaching I'm having the most trouble with: the long-term planning. I can do the week-to-week stuff with at least a minimum of competence. The long-term stuff, on the other hand ... anyway, I'm here in San Pedro to give my students their novels and some idea of what they will be examined about.

I'm teaching 24 hours a week currently and I'm at a loss to figure out how people do 30+ hours. I'm reeling from the impact the huge amount of work brought on by even the relatively limited hours I'm doing. I enjoy the teaching, but I'm realizing more and more as time goes by that I'm no natural at this, nor am I a particularly good teacher. I can do it, as mentioned, with some level of competence, but it's a far cry from my own desire for excellence in the things I do. Thank God I'm not teaching in public schools, at least. I could handle that for, oh, an hour or two. Maybe.

I mentioned earlier that today is Friday, but today is not just any old Friday, no siree. It's TRANSFORMERS FRIDAY!!!!, and now that I'm already at Mall San Pedro I intend to catch the first show. I grew up in the 80s and, as such, I have no choice in this matter. It is simply something I must do in the same sense of "I must breathe". I can't imagine the movie to be anything else than a popcorn movie, but I'm hoping for entertainment on the same level as, say, the Transporter movies, which are hands down two of the coolest action movies released over the past years. He dodges bullets! Can Optimus Prime dodge bullets? Maybe not, but he can probably take a clip in the chest and keep on dancing.

I spent the staggering amount of 10 000 colones on an umbrella the other day. It's a lot of money, but anyone in Costa Rica these days know the value of an umbrella. My umbrella weighs more than I do, and is more a portable 60-person party tent than an umbrella, to be honest. But it rocks, and was well worth the money. And, of course, if you translate 10k colones to dollars or kroner it's a pitiful amount, but that's what I get paid for, oh, two full days of teaching or something.

A major snag I've recently encountered in my little Costa Rica enterprise is this: I can't go to Spanish lessons without my English breaking down! It never occured to me that it might be a problem but now, when I think about it, it's rather obvious that learning a fourth language while teaching my second language (I can repeat that thirty times and still smile) might not work out so well. In short, learning Spanish looks like it can be a mite more difficult than I had imagined coming here. I'll try a couple of other things, because learning Spanish is one of my most important goals for staying here, so we'll see how it works out.

Two things I've learned while travelling: Skype rocks. And online banking rocks. Skype allows me to contact anyone, anywhere. Online banking allows me to fill my Skype account anywhere, and it gives me full control of my money. Also important is the fact that I can seperate the bulk of my money from the account that is connected to my Visa card, which will be very helpful in case I get mugged. It's just a matter of time, I guess. I've travelled quite a bit the past three years and gone mostly unscathed, so my number should be coming up one of these days.

Next week I'm going on vacation, and thank the good spirits for that. I seriously need a break. Looks like I'm going to Panama (to put another country on my list, not for any serious desire to see the country ;). Gonna be sooooooo good getting out of San Jose for a while. While I do enjoy living in this city (and there is a lot of good stuff here) and mostly enjoy my job, teaching ESL is rather stressful for me. And San Jose isn't exactly the most tranquil spot on the planet, if you catch my drift.

Anyway, I've killed an hour writing now so I'm gonna go do some other stuff before I hit the movies. A truly random entry from the Arfully Clueless Norwegian.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Perhaps my most important advice: Sodas, Casados, and Batidos

By Bruce

Yup, that's right, regardless of all the information that I and the other contributors have posted on this site, there's really one piece of advice that I'm about to share with you that will, more than any other, alter your experience in Costa Rica. Now regardless of what you're making per month, you'll likely need to conserve cash when possible (especially if you're going to be traveling often), and the best way to do so is by frequenting Sodas. "Soda" is really just another name for extremely inexpensive (yet ofter quite good) typical Costa Rican food. Now some are sub-standard, but others are very very good, you can get very large portions, and you can very easily stuff your face for less than $5 (2,500 colones).

Now once you're in the soda (or really most other restaurants), the best way to eat well and eat a lot without spending too much plata, is to order a "casado". Directly translated this means "marriage" and I guess in some ways it represents a "marriage" of a few basic foods. Basically the casado consists of a meat of your choice (chicken, pork chop, fish, or steak) with sides of salad (a couple pieces of lettuce and a tomato slice), white rice, black beans, fried plantains, and usually one or two other sides such as pasta salad or something similar. (see picture, that's a pork chop with grilled onions, plantain, mixed beans and rice, and cabage salad with a blackberry Batido to drink) Now this is a lot of food, and it's generally all very tasty, and really the most you should ever pay for a casado is $5 (but normally you will find them between 1,500 colones ($3) and 2,000 colones ($4)). Oh, and often a sweet fresh fruit drink is included.

Finally, I present you with the "batido." Or just a frozen or cold blended fresh fruit drink (as mentioned above). These generally come blended with water or milk. Milk often costs more, and in my opinion, is far inferior to the water batidos. If I'm going to get a cold fruit drink, I'm looking for something refreshing, and there's just something less than refreshing about a milk based drink on a hot day. But I'll let you make that decision for yourself.

Basically, I survived on all of this while traveling. Because you are forced to eat out when you travel, this is the best way to eat well and conserve cash for things that matter. Like beer.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Beneath the Veneer

By Tony O.

As an ESL teacher abroad, I have a unique opportunity to truly get to know Costa Rica. It's one of the most appealing aspects of the job. I've met numerous wonderful locals. I've seen amazing sights. I've experienced the culture in a way that would be impossible as a tourist visiting here for only a week or two. I've had the opportunity to dig deeper. Instead of just observing, I'm participating.

That means I see more than what the tourism council wants me to see. I see beyond the fancy hotels and beautiful beaches. I see the reality of daily life. I see the blemishes that are so easy to overlook during a whirlwind tour.

Friday night, my roommate and I came home to a shocking scene. Our apartment was broken into. The thieves made it past two locked gates. They simply removed the locks entirely. They stole TVs and laptops. We're lucky, I suppose, that they didn't take other valuables. Our neighbors helped us by calling the police, providing us with a chain and lock for our gate, and even driving us downtown to file a report.

This is the reality of life in Costa Rica. There are bad people that do terrible things. And there are good people that show incredible kindness and generosity.

It's been a few days since the robbery, but I'm still trying to sort out my thoughts. I feel violated and frustrated. I'm angry and homesick. I've been slapped in the face with a reminder that I'm not here on vacation. This isn't all fun and games. There's no tour guide looking out for me to make sure I stay safe.

I don't say this to discourage people from visiting or teaching in Costa Rica. There's crime everywhere, and this could've happened just as easily in the US or any other country. I would still recommend this experience to everyone. But it's important to know what you're getting into.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Another Bocas Border Run

By Tony O.

Like Bruce, I chose the indirect route to get to Bocas del Toro. I started with a bus ride from San Jose to Cahuita, which was an easy 4-hour trip in a big comfortable bus, with a short stop in Limon. The next morning, I started my journey to the border.

The bus to Sixaola (the border town on Costa Rica's side) was one of the smaller, less comfortable buses. It was hot. And it made many, many stops to pick up passengers. So it was hot and crowded. Since I was traveling alone, I kept an eye out for other gringos, trying to find a border buddy. There were a few. When we got off at Sixaola, we were greeted by a "guide" that claimed us as "his group." We were all skeptical and tried to avoid him, but he followed us to the Costa Rican migration office... which had a huge line. So much for a quick crossing. Apparently there were two tour-buses full of people ahead of us, plus many Ticos coming back into the country, which tied up the small two-person office. Luckily, I have learned patience during my time here. No worries. I chatted with some other folks going to Bocas del Toro. The "group" consisted of two guys from Florida, a kid from Israel, and an older man from Germany. We inched our way forward.

And about two and a half hours later, it was my turn. I handed over my passport. The clerk started to stamp it, then hesitated. He double-checked the date. I began to worry: had I miscounted the days? Had I already overstayed my visa? No, he stamped it and handed it back. Shew. Then I had to make it to the other side, which required walking on a rickety old bridge over the Rio Sixaola into Guabito, the border town on Panama's side. As I stood in line for Panama migration, our "guide" reappeared, urging us to go to the tourist office first, to purchase a tourist card. The others hesitated, but this was mentioned in several things I read about entering Panama, so I went with it. He was right, I had to buy a tourist card for 5 bucks from the Panama Tourist Office, which is inconveniently placed after the migration office, rather than before. When I went back to migration, there was a huge line again. My "guide" assured me I wouldn't have to wait, and led me and the others to the front of the line, gave our passports to the clerks, and had them stamped. Our guide earned his tip with this move, since this meant I didn't have to present proof of onward voyage, which is normally required to enter the country. Afterwards, he took us down to a taxi (minivan) that would take us to Changuinola, where we could take a water taxi to Bocas del Toro.

Here we encountered a minor snag. The dock attendant at Changuinola told us the boat wasn't coming. So we had to take a taxi to Almirante, the next closest dock. Our taxi this time was a truck, making things a little more cramped for the 5 of us on this 45 minute trip. But we made it to the dock in time for the water taxi.

In Bocas, we were again greeted by another "guide" who offered to help us find accomidations. I didn't have a clue about finding a hotel in this town, and apparently neither did the others, so we all followed along. He showed us a hostel that was cheap and nice enough. The others went for it, but I wasn't up for sharing a dorm with several people. I wanted a little more comfort and security for the time I was forced to spend out of Costa Rica. He took me to a few other places, and I finally settled on Casa Amarillo, owned by his "American friend." It was $25/night for a big, super-clean room with air conditioning, a fridge, TV with HBO, and an in-room safe. The owner was a nice guy, too. He lived on the second floor of the house with his wife. This was his retirement project.

Bocas seemed like a cool town, but it was dead because of the low season. The constant rain put a damper on my sense of adventure, too, so I didn't explore the other islands. However, the beer was cheap and plentiful. There was a good selection of bars and restaurants. And the people seemed nice.

Returning to Costa Rica was fairly simple. There were no lines when I got to the border, so I passed through Panama's office with a quick stamp of my passport. The Costa Rican side asked for proof of onward voyage. Luckily, they accepted an itinerary I'd printed out from Delta, showing my flight scheduled to leave December 15th. Other than that, it was hassle-free.

This was my first border crossing, so I don't have a point of comparison. But I'd recommend this trip for others who need to take a little visa vacation. Even with the complications of going from bus to taxi to boat (and so on), I didn't have too many difficulties - and I speak very little Spanish.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Teaching English in Costa Rica

This entry is two-fold, and the two pieces have little to do with each other. I wrote one, didn't publish it before I wrote another, so here comes both in one. It's like a Kinder surprise, only better.

By Ole Larssen.

Teaching English

I've had quite a number of people asking me - what exactly do you do, teaching English to people you don't share a language with? I realize I might sound somewhat arrogant saying so, but it's not so hard as one might think. Important to note is that Ticos are subjected to English in school and on TV, just like Norwegians and, well, most Westerners. Their English education from the public school system isn't all that and a nice silver spoon, but it does ensure that 99% of my students have at least some grasp of English, which makes things a whole lot easier. When enrolled into the school I teach at, they go through some tests to decide what level of English they're at. Currently, I'm teaching two Level One classes - meaning beginners. What, exactly, do I do?

Well, there's Side by Side, a language teaching tool (meaning, a textbook), its picture cards, a whole lot of patience and the whiteboard. These are my primary tools. Instead of picture cards, I try to use classroom realia (desks, pencils, clothing, the physical build of my students etc) as much as humanly possible. Vocabulary that are objects are easy enough, and so are most basic description words (describing height, weight, general appearance), since between myself and my students, we have a lot of stuff lying around in our backpacks. When possible, I attempt to involve my class in defining words, since they will always know (in Spanish) what they are, and it's good for them trying to explain in English what it is.

Today, for example, I was teaching prepositions (behind, in front of, next to, between etc) and family. The class I was teaching is small, five students, and all female. First I told them to open their books to whatever page the vocabulary (different buildings and shops) was on, then covered up the words. I then elicited what they were from the students. For example, one says "It's a hotel," then I say yes, and continue to ask "What do you do in a hotel?" In this way, they get to speak English (explaining things they know perfectly well what are ... in Spanish) and learn the vocabulary simultaneously. To explain prepositions, I pulled up one of the girls to the middle of the classroom, then indicated that she stand still while I moved around her, saying the prepositions out loud as I acted them out. "In front of", "next to", "behind", "I'm standing between the wall and her." Then I drew a small town on the whiteboard, put a bus station on it, then gave the marker to one of the students. "The library is across from," I signalled what that meant with my hands since I hadn't covered it, "the bus station." As the students got the idea what I wanted from them, they started making up things to go into the town themselves, and described to each other where it was, passing the marker around. I was standing on the sideline, correcting if there were any really big mistakes in their English, but otherwise doing very little. Then we practiced the prepositions with some of the exercises in the Side by Side book. We had covered family vocabulary previously, so they had an idea already when I asked them first to draw up a family tree of their own. Then, I instructed them to draw a map of their neighbourhoods - not in any great detail, mind, but just get some kind of map. When they had finished those two tasks, the more challenging part came (both for me and them). I explained to them that I wanted them to ask each other about their families and their neighbourhoods, and wrote some sample questions on the whiteboard. Then they, predictably, objected that their family generally didn't work or study in their neighbourhood (obviously they didn't put it like that, but with some broken English and waving of maps the point was made), so I told them that what their families actually do, in this case, was irrelevant. I wrote reality on the whiteboard (knowing the same word in Spanish is very similar) and crossed it out. Then they started talking to each other about their families and their neighbourhoods, and spent about twenty minutes on it. I then sat down as part of the class and asked each one to talk about their families, which they did, and finished by talking about mine (in retrospect, I should have started doing that).

That was the main part of the lesson, and a pretty good example of what I do in the classroom. Realize that while they are able to construct simple sentences in English, their vocabulary is severely limited, so explaining very often needs to be done both verbally (me saying it) and visually, me drawing or referring to something in the classroom. And I need to speak sloooowly, something which everyone who knows me will understand the level of challenge in for me. And repeat myself. This specific class is very energetic and has a habit of talking in Spanish, which is fine for some things (when I need to explain a particularly difficult set of game rules, it often is just as well to have somebody who gets it tell it to the rest of the class so I won't have to waste everyone's time explaining thirty times), but not so good for other things. I want them to get what I'm saying without any connection to Spanish. This class, however, has a slightly irritating habit of immediately repeating what I say in Spanish, and they often get in arguments over what I actually said - in Spanish and without asking me, which would be the easiest option, since I'm standing right there. This is definitively something I need to work on, but for now I leave it be.

The more I think of it, the more I realize that the teaching of English to beginners can be reduced to two things: visual aids and patience. A whole lot of both. Most of my students aren't children, so they know what things are, but not in English. My task is not only showing them what things are in English, but helping them put that knowledge into the actual talking of the language. Difficult, yes, but I wouldn't enjoy it nearly as much if it was easy. The main role I have, as I see it, is to enable them to take the things they learn from the book, and through listening to me (and TV, radio etc), and put it to independent use. Like I told my students today - language isn't about correctness of grammar, it's about getting your point across. Native speakers, whose grammar is generally abhorrent, are the best example of this. When teaching English to beginners, that is mostly what I, and I imagine most teachers, do - helping them learning how to get their point across, even when stumbling over unfamiliar sentence structures and weird-sounding words (health club), using phonetics they don't even have in their native language (like the O in Ole, when you say it in Norwegian, which is a way of saying O non-existent in Spanish or English). Patience and visual aids. Yes, that sounds about right.


Ticos and Gringos

Being a non-native speaker of English teaching English in Costa Rica has its share of challenges. These challenges often seem to have root in the rather odd relationship most Ticos seem to have with gringos (North Americans). In this relationship, we're looking at a love/hate affair of ridiculous dimensions. The dislike is intense in some ways. One example of this is how certain Ticos react to me speaking broken Spanish to them - they react as if I'm doing some sort of capital crime and should be eradicated from the face of the planet as soon as possible. The way I see it, they should be thrilled someone is going to the bother of learning their language and has guts and politeness enough to attempt speaking it even when he or she obviously has no clue. But no, time and time again I run into Ticos giving me that stare when I mangle sentence after sentence, but with heavy use of body language and other visual aids push my point through. They answer reluctantly, and only in the shortest terms possible. Like I'm scum. This irritates me, and I can only imagine it has to do with the hate-part of the deep-seated love/hate affair they have with gringos in general. The same short-temperedness (very unlike Ticos usually) surfaces from time to time when I'm struggling through a pound (in weight) of change trying to sort out which is which. In Costa Rica, land of Many Strange Coins, this is something of a challenge. This is not to say, it must be underlined, that all Ticos are like this. Far, far from it. Most of them are as patient as the day is long with my blundering. My point is that there is something there, some kind of itch that they want to scratch. But they can't.

Because they work for them, right? There are many and more gringos in this country, and they often come with money. Money they invest in various things in the country, and they often employ Ticos. And whatever some Ticos might feel about American culture, young Ticos listen to American hip-hop and immerse themselves in that culture. Burger King is not a burger joint here, it's a fucking institution. Families save for weeks to afford BK or Pizza Hut. American culture, in some way or another, is visible in so many spaces of Tico life. Thusly, they learn to admire it - in some way or another. And all the American jobs spawn a need for Tico English speakers. That's where yer nose-picking Norwegian comes in.


I am not a gringo, and there is no disguising that fact even for beginners in the strange ways of English. I have an accent, and it's quite noticeable. You would, in fact, need to be deaf not to pick up on it immediately. I'm no native speaker of the language, though I've used it on a daily basis for ten years. For most purposes, I do not believe my fluency differs from a native speaker. This (blind) faith is what allows me to do this kind of job in the first place. Yet, this argument is to no avail for most Ticos. They want gringos. And so runs the requirements for most English teacher jobs in the country: Native speaker only or preferred. The advertisements for the school I work at, ironically, announces that they have (implied) only native speaking teachers, even though currently we're two non-native speakers and four natives. The question of whether a native speaker is or isn't a better teacher than a non-native is complicated and I won't get into that. I don't believe in any such easy distinction, at any rate. The point is that in Costa Rica, it does make a big difference whether you are a gringo or not, regardless, I would say, of other factors. I've found myself several times in situations where the employer was choosing between me and a native speaker with the same qualifications as I, and I ended up with the short straw. Don't get me wrong, I understand the reason - I realize, of course, that having native speakers is good for business. What annoys me is that most employers do this because their clients demand it of them - the Ticos want gringos. This is the same kind of idiocy that makes Ticos frown at me when I speak Spanish. Do they want gringos because they are better teachers? Fuck no, they want gringos because they are gringos. And the very people in a position to work against the kind of blind prejudice don't, because they would lose business doing so. This is nothing new, but it seems to me to be a microcosm of the world - specifically, what is wrong with the world in general.

So this is Ticos and gringos. Gringos come here for the weather and whatever obscure reasons people have for travelling (cough). Ticos get jobs and constant exposure to a culture that in some ways must appear superior to theirs - certainly richer in monetary value (and yes, I know that there is a Tico culture disconnected from gringos, but that is irrelevant in this case). But oh, do they hate it, somewhere inside their heart of hearts. And from time to time, and God forbid! there are some people, (maybe even a teacher!) and they don't speak English with an American accent, or even British. What to do, what to do?! Let's throw stones at him and hit him with a big stick and see if he goes away. If not, well. Pura vida?

But I'm not resentful. Cross my heart.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Lesson

I've been in Costa Rica, living near San Jose, for the past 3 months (I just returned from my first border run). I've taught English for about 2 of those months. But during that time, and even before, the country itself has been teaching me. I've found its most important lesson to be this: "Go with it."

The lesson began a few months before my scheduled arrival. I had researched and brainstormed about the trip for over half a year. Finally I'd come up with a solid plan. Everything was going fine. And then the plan blew up in my face. I was left with a choice: fall back to regroup or trudge forward. I didn't want to delay the start of my life in Costa Rica, so I chose to forget the plan and just wing it. So far it's worked out.

In fact I've had plans fall apart, crumble to dust in my hands, on several occasions here. Part of that is the dynamic (or chaotic) life of teaching ESL. Students don't always show up. Teachers don't always show up. Classes are cancelled, moved, rescheduled, expanded, delayed, or altered in any number of ways, often minutes before they are supposed to start. A school's curriculum may change, mid-course. A time-tested lesson plan may suddenly fizzle, leaving you to confront a dozen blank, unresponsive faces. Don't panic. Expect the unexpected. A good attitude goes much further than a good plan. Go with it.

The other part of the challenge is simply Costa Rica itself. This is a country that has changed drastically in the past 20 years. Its economic base has shifted from agriculture to tourism and technology. The infrastructure wasn't ready for this growth; the roads are falling apart and there are power and water outages weekly, if not daily. It faces all of the problems that come with modern society: crime, drug abuse, pollution, corruption, etc. At a deeper level, the country is still struggling to find its identity, to balance what it was with what it hopes to be.

But if you're willing to accept that, if you can come here and adapt to the culture, rather than expect it to change for you, then you'll reap great rewards. If you can be flexible, patient, and understanding, then you'll enjoy a country filled with friendly people, stunning natural beauty, charming quirks, and... of course... the best coffee you'll ever taste in your life. It's not for everyone, of course. But to those who are even remotely considering the possibility of living in Costa Rica, I say this: Go with it.

I think you'll be glad you did. I certainly am.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Border Run Option: Bocas Del Toro

Back in November I wrote about Lisa and my first border run to San Juan del Sur. That destination has become increasingly popular for tourist from Costa Rica, with good reason. If you want to read about that trip and crossing the border from Costa Rica to Nicaragua, click Here, Here, and Here.

Now, however, I'd like to write a little bit about what is probably the most popular "Border Run Destination": Bocas del Toro, Panama. Lisa and I just returned from a three night trip to this archipelago just over the Caribbean border between Costa Rica and Panama, and it is absolutely a trip worth taking, border run or just for fun.

So lets start with getting there. There are two options: 1. Take the San Jose -> Sixaola bus from the Caribbean Bus Station in San Jose, get off the bus at the border, walk across the bridge into Panama, take a land taxi to Changuinola (or Almirante if you prefer a longer land taxi and shorter boat taxi), then finally, take a water taxi from Changuinola to Bocas. Or, 2. there exist buses that will take you directly from San Jose to Changuinola (where you take the water taxi) and the bus company is called Buses Bocatorenos. Lisa and I took option number one, and while the trip is broken up into 3 or 4 parts, it really wasn't very difficult, the border is SO much easier to get through than the CR/Nicaragua border, and the boat ride to the islands was quite nice. As for option 2, it's really no easier or harder, more or less expensive than the first option, and I don't have any info on where the buses leave from in San Jose or when they leave.

Once you're on the main island (Isla Colon), you'll probably start looking for places to say. One really nice thing about bocas is that there is a very wide range of lodging options, from budget hostels to remote luxury eco-resorts. Lisa and I opted for Hotel Olas in the main town (but somewhat removed from the nightlife) and were EXTREMELY happy with it. For $42 dollars per night we got a nice, private, clean double with hot water, air conditioner, cable tv, internet, and free breakfast (a very good breakfast too - I recommend the french toast or the pancakes). From what I could tell, this was the best value we found. There are certainly more expensive options, but for example one place, Bocas del Toro hotel, was $110 per night and DIDN'T include breakfast (which isn't cheap). Again though, if you're looking for more budget options, there are a few decent looking hostels in the $10-12 per night range. One complaint about Hotel Olas: despite being a full service, mid-range hotel, they don't except credit card, so bring cash. Oh, and NOONE will exchange colones to dollars, so bring dollars or look forward to paying ATM fees.

And that's right, Panama's official currency is the U.S. dollar, which is nice.

Now, what to do? Unfortunately there really isn't a beach that can be walked to, but as I mentioned earlier, you get to just about everywhere by boat. Our first full day, Lisa and I did an all day SCUBA/Snorkel trip through the outfit Bocas Water Sports. For divers, there are pretty much 2 options, Bocas Water Sports and Starfleet Scuba. I was very happy with Bocas Water Sports, but from what I could tell, there's little difference between the two companies (similar prices, tours, boats, equipment, etc.). The tour itself was really nice, especially the 1 and a half hours that we spent on Red Frog Beach. This beach is gorgeous. One of the most picturesque beaches I've ever seen in my life (see picture). The sand is white and incredibly soft, and the water is a crystal clear green and great for swimming. As for the diving, what you'll be seeing above all is extensive colorful coral. Unlike diving in the Pacific, you won't see many large schools of fish or other large marine life, but the coral and the small tropical fish are wonderful to see. Oh and you don't have to scuba dive to see it all, the snorkeling can be great as well. Overall, the tour was well worth the money ($60 to scuba dive and $17 to snorkel), but BEWARE, the lunch is not included and the remote island restaurant they take you to is VERY expensive (cheapest meal other than the $3 vegetarian option - which wasn't all that great - is $9, and most options are $11-13). Bring your lunch, or wait until Red Frog Beach where you can get chicken meals for $7.50 - still expensive, but better.

Our second, and last, full day we decided to spend the morning walking around town, and in the afternoon we took a boat taxi to Wizard beach (about $8 dollars per person round trip) which was another nice beach, but not as stunning as Red Frog Beach.

Anyway, that's about what we did, please look at my pictures from the trip (Click Here), and of course, if you have specific questions, please feel free to email me.

Finally, here is some advice (and if you've taken this trip and have your own advice, please leave some comments):
1. Bring cash (in dollars) and don't expect to exchange colones to dollars
2. Bring bugspray
3. Make sure to bring proof that you are leaving Costa Rica sometime in the future (like a copy of your flight itinerary) otherwise in order to get back into Costa Rica you have to go to the nearby pharmacy and buy a $6 bus ticket back to Panama (and just never use it).
4. If you take a tour that stops for lunch, bring your own lunch or be prepared to pay way more than you should to eat.

Monday, May 21, 2007

FOR SALE: 1985 Suzuki Samurai 4x4 - $2900

Well, it's time for Lisa and Me to move back to the states, so I'm selling our 1985 Suzuki Samurai. This thing is perfect for Costa Rica - it has gotten me where I wanted to go, regardless of how far off the beaten track. The great thing about these cars is that they are sturdy, rugged, 4x4, but still economical at 23-26 miles/gallon. Some details are below:

1985 Suzuki Samurai SJ10 1000c.c.
New fog lights, multi-loc (for security), new radio/cassette and speakers, spare tire, new battery (w/ 2 year warranty), new engine parts, fully registered (Marchamo and RTV), etc.

At this price, there really isn’t a better car for exploring what Costa Rica has to offer.

See pics below, and for more information or if you have questions, please email me. I’ll be traveling until Friday, May 25th but I’ll be checking my email and we can arrange a time to see the car. After the 25th, email me or call me.

Cell: 341-0813
Home: 238-1479

Monday, May 07, 2007

Cerro de MUERTE! (and beyond)

Okay, so for those that may not know, Lisa and I have officially retired. That´s right, we have stopped working down here and have plans (currently in them) to travel and pack up throughout May before heading back to the states on June 1.

So, after spending last weekend in Nosara, a few days in Heredia (tending to a dying car), and renting a car, we have embarked on southern Costa Rica. Our first stop was to visit a couple friends who live in Dominical. In order to get there, though, you must first drive through the Cerro de Muerte (roughly translated, the Pass of Death) which is basically a climb up and through some mountains between Cartago and San Isidro. Now, while it´s not the most fun drive, let me tell you, don´t be scared. This drive really isn´t any worse than the drive back into the central valley from guanacaste or even taking on the streets of San Jose.

Anyway, we got through that, spent the last couple nights in Dominical (on the central Pacific) and we are currently in Puerto Jiminez on the northern end of the Osa Penensula. I´ll check back in later.

In the meantime, I´ve posted pictures from our trips to Montezuma, Nosara, and Samara. Check them out here:

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Getting settled (sort of) in Costa Rica

Since I've been here for a month now, I thought I'd better let people know a little bit of how things are going. Since I got here during Semana Santa, I couldn't really do anything about getting a job until the following week, except I did call Bruce at Butler Academy to set up a time to come in on Monday. So Monday I took the bus to Heredia, a slightly nerve-wracking experience since I had never been to Heredia or taken a bus in Costa Rica by myself. My host family told me where to catch the bus, and I asked a couple people at the bus stop just to make sure. I also asked someone on the bus when I thought we were getting close. I didn't have any trouble finding the school once I got to Heredia. I talked with Bruce about my experience and about what the school is like, and worked it out to come observe some classes over the next couple of days. Then I followed Bruce's directions and found the bus stop to catch the bus back to Alajuela. The next few days were easier as far as taking the bus, and I got to see a few different teachers teaching, and even participate a little in the discussions. On Friday I was supposed to come to the school and do some listening to student recordings in the lab and present 3 discussion questions to the co-director of the school, Christian. However, with one thing and another, that didn't work out--I came and did the listening, but Christian wasn't able to meet with me to do the discussion questions. So on Monday I came in and did them, me teaching and Christian pretending to be a Costa Rican with English problems. I was a little nervous before I started, but once I got in the classroom, I switched into "teacher mode" and wasn't really nervous at all. Christian gave me a few suggestions, and said I could start coming to team-teach his two classes with him, from 3 to 6 and from 6 to 9. I started that on Tuesday of that week, and continued for the rest of that week and the next week. Christian led some of the discussions/activities, and I did some (I sort of ended up doing more than half a lot of the time). Then this week, on Tuesday (since we had Monday off for Labor Day), I started out with my own class. So, job taken care of. The apartment thing is still a work in progress. I'm currently staying with a host family in Alajuela, the family I stayed with when I studied here four years ago. This is a very nice situation in many ways, since they are wonderful cooks and take care of all the housework. On the downside, though, it's tiring having to take the bus from Alajuela to Heredia and back every day, about a 35 minute bus ride. Also, I don't really have any place to go to be by myself in the house where I am now. So I'm looking on craigslist,,, and a few other classifieds pages for Costa Rica. I also walked around the university campus one day looking for flyers. It's tough to find an apartment or house that's close to where I work, is fully furnished, and has a phone line, while still being affordable. I've looked at a few houses and apartments, a couple of which didn't have phone lines (that was before I knew I needed to ask), and I've started looking along with Tony, one of the other teachers here, who has an even longer bus ride than I do. We visited one on Tuesday that was really nice, furnished, phone line, even cable TV, and within the price range. The only problem is that it's not available until the end of the month. So we've got that one at least, and we're still keeping our eyes open for anything that might be available.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Photos from recent trip to Granada, Nicaragua

Here's a link to my recent photo album from Lisa and my trip to Granada, Nicaragua:

Granada, Nicaragua for Semana Santa

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Joanne has made it to Costa Rica! (an introduction)

by Joanne Appleby

Well, I've made it! I arrived yesterday around noon, and it's like I never left. I just wanted to introduce myself to all of you. I've got a Bachelors in Spanish and just finished getting my Masters in Education to teach Spanish. For awhile I've had the idea of staying in a Spanish-speaking country to improve my Spanish and get experience, and I decided I should do that before I start teaching in the U.S. And what better country that Costa Rica? I studied abroad here for nine weeks in summer of 2003, and I've been wanting to come back ever since. I'm lucky, since right now I'm staying with my host family from that trip until I find a job and an apartment. Since this week is Semana Santa, I'll be getting started on that next week. For now, I'm just catching up and taking it all in. I'd love to get together with the others who are in Costa Rica teaching!

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Caving to the Convecience of a Car

So, with all this recent talk about transportation via bus, I feel obligated to inform everyone that toward the end of January, Lisa and I actually bought a car. That's right, a car. More specifically, a 1985 Suzuki Samurai. Basically, we wanted something inexpensive, efficient, that we could beat up without too much worry, and that could get us pretty much anywhere in the country we wanted to go, and this car fit the bill. Really what got us thinking about a car is when my parents came down and rented a car, which I drove for a week and started to enjoy the freedom a car provides. What clinched it was when I rented a car to drive Lisa up to Rio Celeste (in Tenorio Nat'l Park) - a location you can't reach on a bus - for her birthday. Buses are cheap, cars (and gas) are not - especially in Costa Rica where you can expect car prices to be 30-50% higher than in the states - but not having to conform to bus schedules (and being able to travel where and when we want) among other things makes up for it. Wow, I feel like I just wrote a Master Card Commercial:

Suzuki Samurai - $3000
Gas - $4 per gallon
Repairs and Upkeep - $400
Having the freedom to travel when and where we want in Costa Rica - Priceless

Anyway, if you think you'd also like to buy a car in Costa Rica and have some questions, let me know and I'll try to help you out, but I'd say the best resource to find used cars for sale is this website: Oh and Lisa and I will be selling our car towards the end of May, so if you're interested, let me know.
And here's our Suzy (or Sammy - depending on its gender) at Playa Carrillo:

Monday, March 26, 2007

Getting Around Part 2: Costa Rica Bus System for Long-Distance Travel

Presumably, if you are coming to Costa Rica (and living in the San Jose area - which is almost inevitable), you are going to want to take as many opportunities as possible to travel extensively around both Costa Rica and its neighboring countries (remember, every three months you'll have to leave the country for 72 hours - see Border Run post Here). If you're on any kind of a budget, you'll be using Costa Rica's long-distance bus system to get to the beach, the mountains, or anywhere else you'd like to go. Lets start with the good news: 1) transportation is extremely inexpensive (you can get just about anywhere in the country for less than $10), 2) You don't have to deal with the heartache of driving in Costa Rica - trust me it's not always fun to be behind the wheel here, and 3) you can get just about anywhere you'd like to go by bus. And the bad news: 1) Your travel schedule is dictated by the bus schedule (which explains why Lisa and I have on at least 3 or 4 occasions left our house at around 4:30am to catch the early bus from San Jose to our travel destination), 2) The trips can be much longer than if you were in a car, and 3) The buses, although much nicer than the city buses (which are like 25 year old school buses, see THIS POST for more information), are not always very comfortable (some have air conditioning, many others do not).

The two most important resources that I can provide to help you understand the bus system are 1) the Bus Schedule (which contains destinations, travel times, departure times, etc) and 2) the Bus Station Map (which is a map of San Jose that has labeled most bus stations according to where the buses from any given station will take you).

Download those documents by clicking below (links are also available under "resources"):
Costa Rica Bus Schedule (.pdf)
Costa Rica Bus Station Map

Finally, Lisa and I went to Montezuma, which is a small surf town on the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula, this past weekend and pretty soon I'll write an entry talking about that trip, and for those of you interested on getting around Costa Rica, I'll take that opportunity to explain how to take a bus to Montezuma (it's perhaps one of the most complicated trips you'll take via bus because you have to take BUS->Ferry->BUS->Small Bus->Montezuma). Pictures will be added as well.

Hope this all helps, leave comments if you have any further questions/comments about the Costa Rican transportation systems.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Random notes on living in San Jose

By Ole

I'm bored and I've nothing better to do. I should go swimming or something constructive like that, but I'd rather write. So, since I don't really have anything specific to write about, I'll just conjure up a hodgepodge of information. This is mostly relevant to people who don’t speak Spanish. Note: For some reason most of the apostrophes are tilted, often the wrong way. No idea why.


There seem to be several different types of taxies in this city. Some charge you for distance, and some apparently charge you for something else that I’ve not quite been able to figure out. There are expensive and cheap taxis and I don’t know how to tell the difference between them, but it generally appears that the red, relatively new taxis with yellow signs charge you more than most. I’ve crossed San Jose in taxi and paid both 2000 and 5000 colones.

Explaining directions can be somewhat tricky if you’re used to relating to maps and street names. That’s not gonna work here. The local geography is based on landmarks. For instance, to explain how to get to my hostel from downtown, I tell the driver to go to KFC on Paseo Colon, then two blocks north and one block east. That’s also how addresses are typed out here. Again, example: “JC and Friends. De KFC en Paseo Colon, 200 Norte y 100 Oeaste.” That’s the address. Generally, most people will give you directions based on landmarks. Regardless how obvious it seems to us how to find the corner of 10 and 4 without referring to landmarks, especially since the city is built in a grid, well, I tried that a couple of times and in both cases the taxi driver ended up calling our destination point to get directions he understood. Just a matter of having learned two totally different systems of reference, I guess.

Getting a taxi is effortless downtown but in the smaller suburbs may require a phone call. Shops and pubs will usually help you out with this, and if you need a bus....


Both Bruce and I have talked a bit about buses and here’s more.
Finding your bus stop is futile without help from people in the know. Don’t even try because you will almost surely fail. On the stretch of Paseo Colon I live nearby, there’s eight bus stops and none of them are marked. Some have sheds. A couple are just a specific place to stay on the sidewalk to indicate to the bus that you’re waiting for it. Two or three of them go in generally the same direction, but the rest go all over the place. To get the correct bus, you need primarily to know the name of the area you’re going to. That will help you to the bus that at least is more or less correct. You also need to know the name of a landmark or two nearby your destination, to get the correct bus stop. Everyone around you will help you out, especially if you make an effort, however atrocious, of speaking Spanish. Bus in Spanish is ‘autobus’ with an accent over the u (which I can’t find on this keyboard), and is often referred to as simply ‘bus’, pronounced like, well, like bus is said in Norwegian. I bet that helps you out. I’ve no idea if this is correct, it most likely isn’t, but what I do is go ‘Disculpe. Por favor, autobus de [destination]?’ and indicate the bus or the bus stop. That gets me to the bus. If I’m unsure of the exact stop, I will usually ask someone in the bus (middle-aged ladies are a sure bet). What precisely I ask depends on how certain I feel of my Spanish skills on any given day, ranging from simply saying the name of the landmark I’m aiming for as a question, or ‘Disculpe, parada de [name]?’ (again, I’ve no idea if this is correct Spanish but it works for me). It’s a good idea asking this as the bus is entering the area in question, since any reply that involves something that sounds like a number and ‘mas’ is good. The natives will usually answer in full sentences, but mostly I can glean the piece of information I need and repeat it back to them: ‘Dos mas?’ Two more?

Asking for directions

There’s no way around knowing what 1-10 is in Spanish to get by in San Jose. Any number of directions, both on a bus and on the street, will involve numbers, just like in English and Norwegian. In other parts of Costa Rica, namely the heavily touristed ones, you can usually find someone who speaks English. That’s not the case in San Jose, which is not very touristy. While you can find people who speak English (try kids and teenagers if you can get them to talk to you), you’ll have to get by on Spanish whether you like it or not. Key phrases are ‘disculpe’ (excuse me), ‘habla despacio’ (talk slower), por favor (please), ’mi no habla Espanol’ (I don’t talk Spanish) and gracias (thank you). Using these, and armed with the knowledge of some major landmarks (to know where north is, primarily) and numbers 1-10, you will be able to find your way. It’s a grid system, as mentioned, so distances are usually measured in number of blocks. I’ve no idea what left and right is in Spanish so I use a lot of sign language to support my questions and answers. There are two things you should do to make sure you get to the right place. 1) When you ask a question how to get somewhere and they reply, repeat their answer to them in your own words using gestures as needed. This is a simple correction mechanism for errors in understanding. 2) Ask more than one person. This is very important in San Jose because Ticos will give you wrong directions for a variety of reasons (they dislike not being able to help). The longer the distance involved, the more people you should ask on your way for both direction correction and making sure that you are actually headed to the right place.

You may have heard a lot about how dangerous the city is. But in full daylight and in crowded streets you shouldn’t worry about betraying the fact that you have no idea where you are or what’s going on. Use your discretion, and if you get into a seedy area (which can be detected by a number of different ways), either keep on walking and act as if you know, or simply go around the block to get back to the more crowded areas (which is what I do in the rare case I get into an area I really feel uncomfortable about walking in).

Well, that's it for now.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Oh, my ego!

Got recognized as 'the Norwegian guy on CCC' for the first time today. I'm a star!


Sunday, March 04, 2007

Buses - additional info

By Ole Larssen

I just read through Bruce's post about buses and felt that I wanted to add some more info. What he fails to mention (since he's not actually living in the city but has crawled off to a comfortable suburb, the wimp) is the overall geography of the area. That is, you have San Jose, which is a sprawling city housing around 350 000 people over an area which size is totally out of relation to the number of people living here. There's numerous suburbs within the city area itself, but there's a ton of suburbs outside the actual city area which all fall under a general definition of "San Jose" but are really vastly different places and not accessible by foot unless you have a day to spend. Heredia, where Bruce and his better half lives, is an example of that. My point is that there's actually three different bus systems within San Jose - the intra-city, the Greater San Jose (serving all the outlying suburbs) and the inter-city. The intra-city bus system is somewhat chaotic (especially when you start using it), but is frequent and reliable in the sense that if you have a slight idea of what's going on, you will usually end up where you're headed (and there will always be 30 buses around to take you away if you missed). The Greater San Jose bus system, on the other hand, is less frequent (meaning between 1-6 buses an hour) and, because of the extremely complex road system making up Greater San Jose, much easier to mess up on - simply because of the distance and the complexity of even the simplest bus route. You really need spot-on directions to get where you are going, much more so than the intra-bus system, in my experience, because the city San Jose is built up with a grid system and usually has a rather obvious landmark system to help you orient yourself. This is not always the case with the outlying suburbs.

All that being said, I've had very little problems navigating the city using the buses. What Bruce also neglected to mention (for some obscure reason only known to people living in the suburbs, I bet) is that the easiest way to ensure you get to where you are going is not asking the bus driver, but the people waiting at the bus stop. My Spanish ought to be punishable by death, but using "Por favor, autobus de (insert area name)?" gets me everywhere. What you do is simply ask the people hanging around waiting for buses and they will, in my experience, be glad to help you out, especially if you make an effort of speaking Spanish (however horrendous it might be). Most people direct you elsewhere if you're in the wrong place, and on the bus itself they will usually do follow-ups on you, making sure you get to where you are going. For instance, a lady who helped me get to San Joaqin (Greater San Jose) told me/indicated to me when she was getting of that while this was her stop, I was going off three stops further ahead (which in my Spanish = "dres mas"). I really like the people living in this city partly because of that.

So that's my two cents. I'm really starting to like this city - I've been here for about three weeks now, and been sick for two of them. But now that I'm kind of putting my head outside my hostel, and the work situation slowly is coming to a correct course, I really like what I'm seeing. I currently reside in the western part of San Jose, which is, much like the rest of the city, rather random, noisy and grungy, but (again, like the rest of the city) has a million redeeming characteristics to it. Except the Coca-Cola area, which really has no redeeming qualities except the amount of buses there.

Getting Around: The Costa Rican Bus System Part 1

By Bruce

Prior to coming to Costa Rica you hear a lot about transportation - almost always in a negative sense. "Pothole Paradise" is one nickname that aptly describes road conditions throughout much of the country (although I will say it's hard to have pot holes on unpaved roads, which are also quite common). But really, to most of us planning to move down to Costa Rica (or already here), driving around really isn't much of an issue because we won't (or don't) have a car. So that brings me to the question at hand: How DO you get around here? And what is that system like?

In short: "Public buses" and "well, it's really inexpensive..." Me explico. I would say that there are two "classes" of buses in Costa Rica: 1. City buses and 2. Longer distance travel buses. You will use both. Extensively. City buses are often of the big yellow Blue Bird denomination (although repainted by the bus companies) and allow you to relive that exciting time in your childhood in which much of your social life revolved around the hour or so spent going to and returning from school. You know what I'm talking about, that time when your social status was defined by your seat's proximity to the back of the bus. I guess what I'm saying is that you'll be riding old, often cramped and uncomfortable school buses to get from one part of the San Jose area to the other. It's not necessarily fun, nor efficient, but you can get just about anywhere in the area and you can get there without spending more than a buck.

So how do these city buses work? Basically, you walk to your nearest bus stop (sometimes they are formal - having a bench and perhaps a sign denoting which buses will stop there - and often times they are common street corners where the only indication that it is a bus stop is the presence of other people standing there waiting. So you walk to the bus stop and wait for a bus that is going your direction to approach, and with about 25-50 meters between you and the oncoming bus, you raise your arm and shake your hand (much like haling a NY taxi with a spasming wrist). Really, everyone has their own bus-haling style, just as Major League pitchers have their own unique windup, and you'll just have to develop your own style once you're here.

At that point, you climb onto the bus, hand the bus driver your fare (usually denoted by a sign on the window, although it never hurts to ask), and proceed to an empty seat. If there isn't one available, you enjoy your ride standing in the isle. Personally, I would recommend, at least at the beginning, asking your bus driver as you pay him to make sure the bus is passing by wherever you're going ("Senor, este bus pasa por INSERT DESTINATION?" usually gets the job done).

Finally, keep in mind that it will take time to get this process down, and no matter how hard you try, you will inevitably get on a bus that will take you in a direction other than the one you hope to go. This has happened to me numerous times, and really, the best thing to do is just ask the bus driver to confirm you're going the wrong way, and get off at the next stop and try again. That's good for now, in Part 2 I'll discuss bus travel to other parts of the country (beaches, mountains, borders, etc.).

Sunday, February 25, 2007

New Pictures from Arenal, Tabacon Hot Springs, & Islita/Samara Beach

New web album with some of my pictures from my trip last week with Lisa's parents. We did the standard Arenal/Monteverde/beach trip and it went really really well (except that Lisa and I both got sick the day we were in Monteverde). Beware the Tabacon seafood! (Click on the image below to view the album)


Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Power of Language

By Ole Larsen

I woke up Wednesday morning and fired up my laptop to check my mail. My friend in Vancouver was online and I was chatting to him for a bit, and he pointed out and rightly so that I should perhaps make some effort of learning Spanish outside "hello". So I got up and took a bus into town, grabbed a burger for brunch and hit a bookstore. I found a couple of decent-seeming children's books (which I was going to translate with my dictionary) and browsed the shelves for some English books. When I found them and bent to pick one up, my back decided to go on a vacation and quit working in a blaze of pain. My knees give out and I fall to the floor.

I'm lying half-prone in a very awkward position, trying to find a way to position myself so it wouldn't hurt so much. One of the staff approached clearly aware that something was wrong, but I waved him off so that I could assess the damage in peace. I knew that since it was a back injury of some sort, I would know immediately if it was very serious. Since I was conscious (even if barely), and I could definitively feel the pain and all parts of my body (which, I reasoned, was a good thing) it was probably nothing deadly. I struggle myself to an upright position, pouring sweat and cursing under my breath. The staff member returns and I make the decision. "I need an ambulance," I tell him, in both English and my own Spanglish. He disappears and apparently asks the manager for help, since he (the manager) came and told me he had called for help. I was near fainting at this time, so he helped me sit down. That's actually a beautification of what happened - he took me to a bench and I more or less fell on it.

The ambulance crew shows up - no lights or anything, thank God. The manager had apparently told them that while it was an emergency, it wasn't an Emergency. They help me up and into the ambulance (I went through the side door, which was excruciatingly painful) and ask me for some biographical info, and where I want to go. The man in the back with me didn't speak much English, so again with my English/Spanish I tell him that I don't care about the cost (since my insurance would cover it), just take me to some private hospital where they have English-speaking doctors.

I was taken to a second-rate hospital where hardly anyone spoke English, and those who did only knew a few words. One of the nice things about being a gringo is that everyone assumes you have money (for good or ill), so I was quickly ushered in to a doctor. He hammered my knees and poked a bit at me. Then he said it was probably a contraction. I didn't know that word in English - that is, I understood the word but not in that context. After I ask him a few different questions and glean that it's something muscular and, as I had already concluded, not really dangerous. That was all I was told before they took me to intensive care. Here I launched my campaign for calling my insurance agency. They wanted me to pay a deposit. That was fine, but I told them repeatedly I needed to call this number, indicating my insurance card. They got a phone and put me in touch with an operator who spoke English but didn't understand what I wanted from her until I had explained with more and more strained patience that I needed to call a number to Denmark (which took a goodly ten-fifteen minutes to get across). Then she announced she couldn't help me with that, for unclear reasons, then started speaking in Spanish. I tell her, like I've told her five times already, that "mi no habla Espanol", but to no avail. I wave a nurse over and give the phone to her, hoping/assuming the operator would explain what was up and the nurse would help me. Futile hope. The nurse disappeared, the phone disappeared, and despite several requests, they didn't produce it again. They wave the deposit slip in my face and I've little choice but to give them my Visa, which I had by pure happenstance brought with me (I don't usually carry it on my person), and told them I didn't know if there was money on it. Turns out there was just enough money to cover the deposit. So I get taken to x-ray, then back to the intensive ward where I'm fed more drugs and ... nothing happens.

I wait around for some forty-five minutes, asking four or five times for a phone with no luck. A new doctor shows up and asks me some questions but gives me no answers. He disappears and I finally manage to convince a nurse to help me at least call my hostel. I talk to the owner there, who speaks both English and Spanish, if he could please tell the staff that it's important I call my insurance company. I give the phone back to the nurse, who talks to the guy for a few minutes, then hangs up and disappears. I never saw her again. My bed is pushed behind some curtains and I remain there for a couple of hours, eventually falling asleep. Another nurse wakes me up and tells me it's time to go home. At this point, I could stand and (after some deliberation) walk, and I kind of wanted myself out of there anyway, so I make little objection and walk to the reception. Apparently the deposit wasn't enough and I had to pay some more money, but my Visa was rejected. I give the guy what cash I have, and am left with enough for a taxi and some food. Fortunately, because of time differences, I could write a mail to my parents which they would read and act on while I was sleeping, so I sent a request for money when I got back to my hostel . I had also been given some medication I didn't know what was, and nobody had actually told me what the problem was/had been. I talk to the owner of the hostel who was wondering why I didn't call him first. I replied that I realized at a later point that that would indeed have been the wisest course, but I was in pain and kind of concentrating on handling the situation and not in a very reasonable corner. Then I ask him if he could call the hospital and ask what the problem had been, he does that and helps me decode what the medication is (basically, two different kinds of painkillers). I go to bed, fall asleep and woke up an hour ago, feeling much better. In case you're wondering, it was a second degree contraction, which is as far as I understand it, basically an extreme case of straining a muscle. Not a very heroic injury, perhaps, but it did hurt like hell.

Lessons learned: Always bring ID and your insurance card with you. Do some research and find a decent hospital and write the name down and keep it with the insurance card. Learn Spanish. Don't panic.