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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.