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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.