October 4, 2014

I really can’t believe it’s already October.  My first 2 classes are over with as of yesterday (straight A’s, thank you) and the other 2 start tomorrow.  Then I’m off to Belize!

This has been a slow week and I got some sort of bug and did not feel well at all so I haven’t been posting anything.  But the last few days have been better.  Mostly have been running errands. And the weather here has been strange.  Mary and I walked to Guadelupe Thursday so she could pay taxes and it was just gloomy with little rain showers, which is odd in the morning.  In Costa Rica, taxes are due the end of September instead of April.  It’s also the end of the fiscal year for most businesses so the stores have all kinds of sales, which is awesome.  And I took the bus into San Jose on Friday to walk around downtown and got absolutely soaked.  The 9am bus never came so there was a huge group standing around by the time the 9:30 bus came and it was packed.  It rained all morning again and of course I had no umbrella.  I did get some pictures of the street art wall in front of one of the elementary schools though:

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Let’s see…I have to say the high point of the week was when I managed to set up  a proxy IP address and hoodwink Google Chrome into thinking that I am currently located in London, so that I can watch the current season of Downton Abbey online and not have to wait for the US premiere in Jan 2015.  I was pretty proud of that, I must say.  It’s the little things.  And if you’re laughing at me, well, you’ve clearly never watched the show, because it is awesome.

Yesterday morning was beautiful and I went to the ferria, farmer’s market, with Thais and Carlitos. They have absolutely everything imaginable, and it’s crazy cheap: 4 mangos, a pineapple and half a dozen oranges for about $4.  The “orange guy” loves Thais and just beamed when he saw her and enthusiastically greeted us all.   I also tried some new dishes.  Mary made carne mechada yesterday, which translates as shredded beef.  It’s also called ropa viejo, (or old clothes) which I find hilarious, although it does kind of resemble a pot full of dirty laundry.  But it tastes delicious.  After the beef was simmered in the crockpot overnight and shredded, Mary added a hot (and I mean hot) pepper, onion, carrots, and tomatoes and it made this sort of stew/chili that she served over rice, with chayote. Chayote is a strange green vegetable/fruit that when boiled has the texture of a cooked pear and not much flavor but it tasted good with the stew.  Then I tried a recipe for patacones from my new Costa Rican cookbook.  Patacones are popular here: basically you take really green, unripe plantains, slice them, boil until they’re soft enough to smash with a glass, then fry them with salt and pepper.  I added some queso too and they were pretty good:

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September 25, 2014

Not much to report, it’s been a pretty slow week.  I spent 2 hours this morning just wandering around the neighborhood, down to the bank for some cash, past the Catholic high school and the convent next door.  The nuns here dress all in white and don’t seem nearly as intimidating.  I meandered through the Moravian cemetery, also all white.  The graves are all above ground and covered in white tile and brightly colored flowers, not at all gloomy.

There is the sweetest little dog there, tied outside the office.  All the dogs here are kept tied, you see them outside all sorts of businesses, and kept more as guard dogs than pets.  They aren’t abused, they all look healthy enough, and get food and water, but they don’t get much attention that I can see.  Most of them go crazy when someone walks by, jumping and barking, but this one just looked at me and wagged his tail.  I had to go over and pet him and when I did, he wiggled so hard he fell over, just so excited.  I wonder if he just stays there tied by the graves all day, every day, while his owner is inside working, and if anyone every talks to him or pets him.  The thought depressed me more than the graveyard itself.

Mary has been scrubbing the house and the apartment for two days and doing load after load of laundry to get ready for the other guests arriving tomorrow.  I’ve offered to help but she won’t let me; the most I can do is wash some dishes when she’s not looking.  And she wanted my opinion on some new furnishings for the apartments.  I’m going downtown with her tomorrow to meet the new norteamericanos, as we are called here. They’ll be staying for a month and Mary thought she might need me to help her with English.

Otherwise I’ve been working on homework and my resume.  I sent in two applications today for TEFL teaching jobs in China, where I’m hoping to find a place sometime early next year.  One was with a recruitment company actually, and one with America Town Education, which I really like the sound of.  They have some good benefits, like you get 12 hours of free Chinese lessons every week.  I’d like to learn some of the language while I’m there.  Keeping my fingers crossed!

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September 19-20th

So…Golfito. Simply put, this place is the definition of insanity.

Definitely “an experience”, but probably not one I’d care to repeat. We woke up crazy early Friday morning: Mary, Carlitos, Cecelia, and me. Our bus left San Jose at 6:30 on a seven hour drive, stopping a few times at sodas for snacks and bathroom breaks where you have to pay for entry-for ¢100 (about $0.20)-which seems insane to me but apparently is not uncommon in countries outside the US. The trip down goes along the Pacific coast and so I could see the ocean at some points. Otherwise I just read; I got through three books I had saved up on my Kindle, including The Fault in Our Stars, which I had downloaded because of all the hype but didn’t expect much of. It was surprisingly good though.

Costa Rica is approximately the size of West Virginia so I never cease to be amazed at how long it takes to get from one point to another. The mountains are one of the big hindrances, along with a lack of roads. The main roads are nice enough but there are few of them so there seems to be a lot of winding around and backtracking. It’s “a small country of long drives” as Carlitos put it.

Untitled-2Our route

We got to Golfito at 1:30pm and joined a small crowd at the gates to get our cards. Here’s the thing about Golfito: the town used to be home to the banana plantations of the United Fruit Company, which has a fairly interesting history itself, but I’ll try not to bore y’all too much. So the United Fruit Company was this huge conglomerate that had a monopoly on a lot of goods in Central America, in particular bananas (90% of the banana market at one point, in fact), and had a great deal of influence on the economy and politics (which were already fairly corrupt), which is how the phrase “banana republic” was coined. When the business shut down the people in Golfito and surrounding areas were left without jobs. So the Costa Rican government decided to create a duty free shopping area there to boost the economy, drive tourism, and provide employment. Which backfired slightly because now hardly anyone buys their appliances and expensive items anywhere else. Why pay taxes if you don’t have to?

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There are, however, certain conditions: for starters, you can’t actually purchase anything the day you arrive. So you apply for a free TAC (tarjeta de autorizacion de compras) card that allows you to purchase up to ¢500,000 (about $1000) worth of goods.

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But the card isn’t valid until the next day, which forces most people to stay overnight, a good deal for the hotels and restaurants, naturally. You can only spend $1000 per semester, so $2000/year. And you’re limited on what you can buy as well; only one air conditioner per every 5 years, 1 fridge every two years, $40 worth of chocolate per semester, etc. Naturally people have found a way around the rules. Since Mary and Carlos had to furnish two of their rental apartments this year they put one fridge in her name and one in his, using up both of their limits. So the fridge Mary bought for the house in Puntarenas is now in my name. There were also people coming up to us offering to sell the unused portion of their spending limits-which we didn’t need since I shared my ¢1,000,000 limit (it was doubled since I didn’t spend any money the first semester of this year)-and lottery tickets (they sell these everywhere here, people just wander around with dozens of ticket strips trailing from their arms. Mary was especially excited about the extra spending limit-that woman is professional shopper I swear. There are about 40 shops, mainly household goods/appliances, but some cosmetics, liquor, clothes, toy stores thrown in. We spent a few hours after we got there Friday going from shop to shop, comparing prices, Mary bargaining with the shop clerks. Then we got dinner at another soda, found a hostel for the night, and went to bed early.

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Saturday morning we got up and had an early desayuno (breakfast) and were back at the market when it opened at 8am. It was packed, much busier than Friday, and I was told that was because of the overnight excusions coming from San Jose. Large groups of tourists (and some locals) will take private buses leaving around 10 or 11pm and arrive in Golfito early to get a jump on shopping. I don’t really know what the advantage is since they can’t buy anything yet, and I wouldn’t want to be driving those roads overnight (more on this later). Anyway, we finished making all our purchases (well, actually, I got bored halfway through the morning and read my book at a picnic table in the shade, while the others would periodically come back and drop off purchases for me to keep an eye on while they shopped) and then the fun really began.

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Somehow we got all of our purchases to the gate (including, but not limited to, the aforesaid fridge, a stove/oven, a washing machine, a fan, a 42” TV, speakers, toaster oven, a couple of bedding sets, a vacuum cleaner, coffee maker, water cooler, microwave, air conditioner unit, and various other small paraphernalia) where each item then had to be loaded onto giant conveyer belts and passed through inspection. The agents checked every single receipt and checked them against our TACs to make sure we were with our limits. The larger items had to go through a separate gate and since they were in my name my passport had to be checked repeatedly. Once we got through to the other side it was another set of chaos: agents from a dozen different delivery services running around with dollies. I had already been warned about these guys; “Just say no to anyone who comes up to you”. Apparently some people hang around either to take your money, without transporting purchases, or else load your purchases onto a cart and simply take of with the goods. Mary had already made arrangements with one the reputable delivery companies so we waited for them, walked all our goods over to a warehouse, to be delivered Monday, and then went to catch our 1:30 bus back to San Jose-just barely in time too.

The route back to San Jose winds through the mountains, instead of the coast, and takes an hour longer. Why they couldn’t just take the same route back I really couldn’t say, but it was pleasant enough for the first four hours or so, reading, or watching the pineapple and banana plantations zoom by. The sun sets around 5:30 here and after that it was too dark to read. We got stuck for a half hour or so at a police checkpoint. Golfito is half an hour away from the Panama border and apparently people have been known to smuggle goods in from there, where the prices are even cheaper. Some enterprising citizens ran along beside the stalled traffic selling mamons and bags of fried plantain chips through car and bus windows.

IMG_2849A mamon stand

They told everyone to have passports ready but the officer who boarded the bus hardly even glanced at me. Mary says they look mostly for Nicaraguan or Colombian immigrants and couldn’t care less about Americans. She said I didn’t need a passport since I had blue eyes (which I get so many comments on here). Apparently there are a lot of Americans who do actually overstay their visas, sometimes by years, but the government leaves them alone since they have boosted the economy here.

We stopped for dinner in Buenos Aires and then headed into the mountains, where we embarked on Mr. Toad’s Wild ride. There were just enormous walls of green forest stretching straight up on either side of the road, which wound around crazily, uphill, downhill, with sharp turns and two narrow lanes. It was pitch black by now, pouring rain, fog rising out of the valleys, with no streetlights anywhere, and rare even to see guardrails. Golfito was considerably warmer than San Jose, nearly 100F, and the mountains were freezing by comparison. Actually they were just freezing, period.   We made a final stop at a little grocery store/restaurant about 40km outside of San Jose, where Carlitos advised me that we were actually in what the locals call Las Colinas de Muerte, literally “hills of death”. Good to know. On the upside, I found strawberries for ¢1500/qt. Berries are harder to get here and not nearly as good as at home. In the grocery stores they’re about ¢3800/qt. so I was pretty happy with my bargain. Even though we could see the lights of San Jose from above, it took another hour to wind down the mountains and we finally reached the bus station around nine. The moral of the story: Just pay your taxes people, it’s not worth it.

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Not much to report but I just thought I’d post some pictures from Monday.  The parade was, so many kids in all kinds of traditional costumes.  Only watched for an hour or so, then did some shopping downtown, but it was still going on an hour after that.  Beautiful day for it too.

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Street art is very big here, and there are parks everywhere:

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Then today we went to buy bus tickets for Golfito on Friday.  Golfito sounds like a strange place.  It’s this little town that’s pretty much all duty free shopping, but there’s all kinds of rules and regulations, like you can’t buy anything the day you arrive.  Mary is going to buy some stuff for the house in Puntarenas and wanted me to go.  So we leave here early Friday, and she has to apply for a card to buy stuff there, and apparently you can negotiate for whatever you want to buy, but then we have to spend the night and come back to the shop to actually buy stuff the next day.  Yes, bizarre.  So I’m going along to check it out because everyone told me “it’s an experience”.  Doesn’t sound precisely fun, but I’m curious, plus it’s right on the ocean, so it can’t be that bad.

Mary’s friend Cecilia, who lives next door, went with us to buy tickets and we walked all over San Jose.  When we got back she made us some steaks and baked potatoes for lunch and we watched a La Gata, a novella, or soap opera.  I followed along enough to know somebody got left at the alter and nobody was happy.  But then the fact that it’s a soap opera would tell you that.  And I got to spend time with Pupi, Cecelia’s little toy poodle.  He’s so cute, he just hopped up in my lap.  He reminds me of my Grandma’s dog Kenya, she always had toy poodles.  I miss my dogs, but it was nice to visit.

See?  Adorable:

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September 11, 2014

The days are flying by here; I can’t believe I’ve already been in Costa Rica for two weeks.  But I’ve already seen a lot of San Jose and the country.  On Sunday, I went with Carlos and Mary to drop off their friends Roger and Susie at the airport and we took a different way back so I saw some more of the city; we drove by La Sabana, the huge central park, and the National Stadium (which is huge), where there was a rodeo going on, with people in cowboy hats lined up around the block to get in.  It’s a really big deal here apparently, with competitors coming from all over Central America, Venezuela, Argentina, even the US.

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And we drove by this little settlement:

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There are more structures behind these, an enormous hillside covered with little patched together ramshackle homes.  Carlos says this section of town is inhabited entirely by Nicaraguans, or “Nicas”.  They immigrate to Costa Rica for jobs, for the free public education, and medical care.  The structures are made from all sorts of leftover construction scraps:  I saw walls made from plastic, cardboard, sheet metal, boards and plywood, and roofing tiles, all covered over with rusted tin roofs.  The immigrants build them on government land and so far the government just lets them.  Most of the Tico people seem to look at these immigrants disparagingly.

On Tuesday, I got to see a little of Puntarenas.  Carlos and Mary just bought a house there for their son Carlito, who goes to the University of Costa Rica in Puntarenas.  So I drove there with them and we moved all of his stuff from his apartment to the new house, which was less than two blocks from the beach.  I didn’t have any time to really sightsee, but I did get to see the Pacific Ocean for the first time:

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I love the ocean, any ocean, but I don’t think I’ve been near one in almost ten years. Puntarenas is a small city but busy, with the university and the port, with cargo ships and cruise ships coming in.  After moving everything, we got lunch at one of the many sodas along the main street.  Lunch is usually a casado around here: a plate with green salad, rice, black beans, fried plantains, and some type of meat, chicken in this case.  And everywhere they serve fresh fruit juice, which is delicious.  Carlos is staying there to help get everything settled with the new house, so Mary and I took the bus back the same afternoon.  Fare here is really cheap, less than $5 to travel between towns, or about $.65 within San Jose.  The bus dropped us off in front of the Multiplex, the biggest mall in the city, and we shopped for a while.  They have a lot of the stores we have in the States, but the prices are almost double at some stores.

Yesterday morning was nice, I got up early to take a short walk around the neighborhood. Which turned into a long walk when I tried to retrace my steps and missed a crossroad somewhere.  I ended up walking in circles trying to find a landmark I knew.  Finally I just started walking uphill since I had gone downhill on my way out, and stumbled into El Colegio de Scion, the big school a couple of blocks from the house.  Then I went to run errands with Mary, to EPA, which is like a Lowe’s or Home Depot, the bank, and to lunch at a little Mexican restaurant, with really authentic food. I had some chorizo tacos: corn tortillas with crispy sausage, tomato, avocado, and lime, which was really good, and the house drink which, as far as I could figure out, is milk with cinnamon and sugar.

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We got home just in time.  I have noticed that on the rare days when it doesn’t rain at all it will rain twice as hard the next day, often with thunder and lightening thrown in, as if the sky is trying to make up the difference.  And since it didn’t rain Tuesday, yesterday afternoon was an absolute downpour, well into the night even.  But I like the rain here, the sound of it on the tile roofs, how cozy and predictable it is, and how fast it makes everything grow.

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September 6, 2014

What a day!  Got up at four to get ready and headed out of San Jose.  The sun rises really early here so it felt later.  Beautiful morning though.  Mary actually got up and made Carlos and I some oatmeal before we left.  I got some pictures when we stopped for gas just north of the city; the sun was just hitting the mountain range.

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The black spot on the right side of the picture is the top of Turrialba, one of the eight active volcanoes in Costa Rica.  The rest is hidden behind clouds.  It’s about three hours from here to Arenal and a lot of the time is crossing over the mountains on narrow rocky rainy roads and the valleys were filled with fog coming off the river. There’s considerably less traffic outside the city but the driving is no better.  As Carlos said, “Costa Rican people, you meet them on the sidewalk and they’re so friendly, but you put them behind the wheel of a car and it’s…they’re scum.  They’re different people.”

It’s an interesting drive; all the scenery is so different than anything I’ve seen; we passed a rum distillery, tomato, coffee, and sugarcane fields spread out over vast hills.  It felt much shorter than three hours.  When we got to La Fortuna, the town at the base of Arenal, Carlos wanted to stop at the house of friends he used to work with.  They have a little farm where they raise gineaus and have banana trees and mamons, which is the craziest looking fruit I’ve ever seen.  They look like one of those spiky rubber balls I had as a kid:

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A green mammon (the red ones are sweeter)

We had several hours before we had to pick up Carlos’ friends and drive them back to San Jose so Carlos stopped at Catarata Rio Fortuna, an ecologic reserve with a huge waterfall.  I hiked down to the bottom, rickety bridges and 480 rocky stone steps carved into the side of the valley (which felt like 4,800 on the way back up-I’m going to be in so much pain tomorrow).

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The view of the rainforest was gorgeous and there’s a swimming area at the bottom.  There’s a little beach on one side, if you go down another set of steps, or you can climb over a bunch of rocks to get right up close to the waterfall.  The water was crystal clear and so cool:

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We drove over the dam of Lake Arenal and stopped at one of the many hot springs-nice and warm, with little waterfalls flowing down the mountain.

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The flowers are gorgeous too-this red one was about the size of a pineapple!

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Some movie trivia: La Fortuna/Arenal is one of the filming locations for Will Smith’s After Earth.  We saw some of the leftover props and the resort they rented out for the cast and crew.  It was too cloudy to get a good look of Arenal itself but the area was just stunning.

We picked up Carlos’ friends around one at The Spring, a really upscale resort, very secluded, about a mile down a gravel road.  There’s about 27 springs at the resort alone.  And Roger and Susie are a lot of fun.  They’ve been coming to Costa Rica at least twice a year, since the eighties or so, and had all kinds of stories.  They bring tour groups for adventure travel and yoga retreats and were scouting new locations to bring guests.  It rained all the way back to San Jose but we took a different route than on the way in so the scenery was different.  We stopped at this really cute little store and I picked up some souvenirs, then we had lunch about 4pm just outside San Ramon at La Cima, one of the many sodas (little open air restaraunts/bars with typical tico food) alongside the road.  They have really good seafood; I had garlic shrimp and it was delicious.  Sodas are where the locals eat and prices are really pretty low.

 

 

8/31/14

So I turned 29 today-for the first time, but not the last. I’ve started to hate birthdays- they just remind me that another year went by and nothing changed. But this one didn’t bother me as much since I have made a lot of changes to my life this year and I’m finally doing things I’ve always wanted to do. And it was a pretty good day. Mary made a huge breakfast this morning and some more typical dishes for lunch: a sort of bean soup and ensalada Rusa – Russian salad, with beets, potatoes, and hard boiled eggs.

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I also tried annonas-“sugar apples”, which look like sort of smoothed out artichokes on the outside but inside is this creamy white fruit that tastes like a custard.  I’m fascinated with all these new foods.  I’ve been cooking for about 20 years and I experiment with all kinds of food but I never even knew these existed.

 

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Sundays are really quiet around here, a lot of things are closed. I actually read a real book today, no buttons, no batteries, just a good old fashioned paperback. Mary, Carlos, Thais, and Carlito surprised me with a birthday cake tonight and then we watched “Bailando con las Estrellas“-the Costa Rican version of Dancing with the Stars. I didn’t recognize anyone, but Thais says they don’t really have celebrities on it anyway. From what I could understand, the judges are nicer than ours.

Tomorrow I’m going to finish a paper for class and then see if I can find my way to the mall.