Saturday, May 16, 2009

Farewell to Costa Rica

As part of their final essay exam, I asked my students to reflect on their time in Costa Rica: what they’ve learned about themselves, how they are different from the person who arrived nearly 4 months ago, and how they will live differently once they return to the States. The following quotations are excerpts from Essay Question 2 and have been edited for grammar and to protect privacy. They are in no particular order, and the work of each student is represented. Please understand that they are taken out of a larger, multi-page essay. Great thanks to one of the best classes I have ever taught. You guys are awesome!!
“I have . . . learned to be more patient. Costa Ricans’ lifestyles are laid back and relaxed. Life moves at a molasses pace. For example, when eating at a restaurant you can’t expect to get your food in a timely manner, and in the case of the bakery beside Mesoamerica, you can’t expect it to be open at the same time every day. The “pura vida” lifestyle has taught me to be patient and to just relax. There is always tomorrow to complete something and to always remember tomorrow is a new day. “

“As a person I have come to appreciate what I have been given in my life. After living with a family that just makes ends meet and feeling embarrassed for buying half the things that I bought while here, I hope to live a life where things mean less. What I truly want to take away from this experience is the simplicity of life and the meaningful relationships that the Ticos have. Overall, this experience has truly made me realize a lot about myself and hopefully I will not resort back to my old habits when I get back into my normal routine.”

“Before I came to Costa Rica my identity and how I perceived myself was completely wrapped up in the activities I was a part of . . . My time here has taught me to live my life for myself.”

“There were times on this adventure where everyone around me on a small microbus was complaining about something as insignificant as the restaurant that we were stopping at. I have figured out that much of being on this trip is actually putting yourself on the trip and letting the journey take its course . . . I have discovered, and at least acknowledged, that much of what happens is out of our control, yet we learn to live with it and most of the time, something good, or at least interesting, comes out of a once ugly situation.”

“I have become a lot more independent, through choice and by force. I have also learned that it is okay to feel lonely. We do a lot on our own here and we are forced to figure things out for ourselves. One thing I wished I had done while being in Costa Rica was to travel by myself for a weekend. With everyone wanting to travel and do similar things each weekend, it was somewhat inevitable that I had at least one travel buddy. I enjoy traveling with people more, but I think it could have been a fabulous experience being entirely on my own for three to four days in a different, new place. Traveling is when parts of your true person come out; whether they are immediate or not, you will encounter change. “

“In Costa Rica I have gained a new appreciation for the virtue of flexibility. One of our journal quotes reminded travelers that you cannot control your journeys and travels. I have always been a plan-orientated person, it is comforting for me to know what is in store for me at each corner. . . . My most memorable experiences in Costa Rica are not those that required immense planning and preparation; my favorite moments include my spur of the moment decision to participate in sunset yoga or hiking up Chirripo in an astonishing one day. “

“I know a great deal more Spanish and am comfortable speaking it to anyone. I find boys who wear shawls, the latest trend in Costa Rica, attractive. I bought a shirt out of organic material. I don’t wear my pearls every day. I enjoy relaxing nights at home. I am conscious of how I am affecting the environment. While all of these things are things that I have never been like before, it’s only the beginning of how deeply this study abroad experience has impacted my life.”

“The week before leaving Elon and heading off to Costa Rica was perhaps one of the most exciting weeks of my life. I had pictured for myself the romantic idea of a vacation school in which the time at the beaches would completely outweigh any time spent in the classroom. I pictured myself being naturally prepared, missing orientations without a care and hardly listening when I did manage to make it. My first few weeks here clearly reflected these thoughts, and I lived the exact lifestyle that I had pictured. However without these ignorant weeks, and the eventual epiphany of the better way to view Costa Rica, I would not have taken home with me the most important lessons.
• Lesson 1: I can get homesick
. . .This trip has given me a better appreciation for family values and what my parents have done to make me the person I am today.
• Lesson 2: By learning a new language I’ve grown stronger
. . . I’m leaving Costa Rica with not only an understanding of Spanish, but a better appreciation for my own language. . . .
• Lesson 3: I can get by on very little money.
. . . After failing time and time again to make budget . . . I decided to spend the rest of my free weekends in San Jose. In this period I spent less money than I would have on any given weekend, while learning a completely new Costa Rica. . . .”

“My life has completely shifted since coming to Costa Rica. I have been purposefully trying to live in the moment which is opposed to how I was before I came here. Before I came here I was very results-oriented and always interested in going somewhere rather than staying where I was and enjoying it. I am trying to work on improving this and am in the process of shifting my life and forgetting about the results, trusting in that they will come. “

“ My newfound appreciation for nature, while maybe not my most important change, is by far the change that has surprised me the most. Before coming here, I did not care about nature and preserving it. To me a forest was just unused area waiting to be put to an economical use. Now, while admittedly still far from a tree-hugger, I do at least have some appreciation of nature. I have begun to learn that business and sustainability, when done correctly, cannot only co-exist but also work in harmony. “

“A lesson I have learned about life in Costa Rica is to never take any of my friends for granted. Being away from all my friends for a long period of time showed me that I really value their friendship and that I should express that I love for often.”

“My attitude towards Spanish has done a complete one hundred eighty degree turn. I love Spanish. I love speaking the language and I absolutely love hearing Spanish being spoken by native speakers. One of my favorite memories of the semester is going to see “La Tierra” with [a friend] at Mall San Pedro. We had assumed that the movie would be in English with Spanish subtitles, however, when we bought our tickets the employee told us the movie was in Spanish. [We] decided to watch the movie anyways to practice our listening and comprehension skills. “La Tierra” was magical. I loved learning about the Earth by listening to the narrator speak in Spanish. I was so proud of myself for how much I have improved in my ability to understand the Spanish language. A whole new world has been unlocked for me to explore. I am sad to go back to the United States where my opportunities to speak and listen to Spanish will be extremely limited. I now desire to put myself in situations where I will be forced to use my Spanish knowledge.”

“I felt so welcome in my Tica house, yet, could not help but to sometimes feel like a guest which was sometimes quite draining. The experience of living with a host family provided me with the benefits of immersing myself in the new culture, language practice, and the ability to meet a wonderful family, but another change I see in myself from my home stay is how much I now recognize the need for family in my life.”

Friday, May 15, 2009

Repairing a Life, by Glen Cornell

Willy hopelessly awoke to the incarnation of his alarm clock and the crying of a baby in the room next to him. As he rolled over in bed to get up he noticed that his girlfriend Espera had already woken from bed, probably in search for something to eat in the kitchen. Painfully he heaved each of his pant legs up to his torso and dragged into the kitchen, ignoring the constant cry of his child. There was no sign of Espera other than a cold plate with remnants of gallo pinto, (left over from god knows when,) next to a cup of coffee that had meant to be consumed an hour ago. Coins were missing from the table, a sign that his girlfriend hadn’t felt the need to take the morning hike to work. As he sat down to eat her leftovers he nearly slipped on a puddle of oil gathering under the constant drip of a wrench on the counter. More smoke stained tools lay askew throughout the residence. Only a few more bites left for breakfast; the baby had exhausted itself from the crying, given up hope, and fallen back to sleep. Although he cared much for the infant, he couldn’t help but resent it for the position it had left them. After being kicked out from house to house he and Espera had no choice but to find their own place, a beat-up section of a home in a back alley of Sabanilla.

As he stepped outside to take a look at his small neighborhood, he couldn’t help but notice his two projects, taunting him at the end of the driveway. Every day he had put all his efforts to bring them back to life, to redeem some sense of hope. Willy felt that if somehow he could bring back those Volkswagen beauties it could revive some form of hope in his own life. Before beginning the endless daily toils, Willy walked back inside to gather his tools. A few screwdrivers were missing, washers of all sizes, and some things he hadn’t seen in so long he couldn’t hope to remember their names or use. Over a year ago a fire that had taken half of his possessions and workshop all in one night’s blaze. No one knew how it had started but all Willy cared was that it left him here, in that back alley of a community toiling away at the hopeless remains of what had once been a fine automobile.

He stood there staring at the two cars for a moment, trying to remember where he had left off. The sky blue bug with the leather interior and classic dash was his main priority. He and Fernando had always talked about the things they’d be able to do, the trips they would go on and the places they could see in that car. Now it was up to Willy and his hands. He pulled his hair back into a knot to prevent it from being caught in the gears, revealing a long deep scar across the side of his face. Bending to one knee he opened the hood and began to work.

Although he had the appearance of a gruff premature 22 year-old, his hands worked with the softest elegance. An onlooker would have no idea of the constant complicated procedures Willy underwent, but could still admire from his demeanor. For hours he hopelessly worked each and every day, but today he felt that there may have been some progress. As the sun came high into the sky he sat in the seat of the car and began to sip an Imperial, rewarding himself for a brief moment. Through the heat he thought he envisioned Espera far up the drive, returning from work with the child Gabrial in her hands. As the image drew closer he dreamt of the life they wanted to live together; a 2 story home on 10 acres near the coast in Guanacaste. Still in his daydream he took the keys from his pocket and almost in a trance slipped them into the ignition with a twist. A sputter shot and the car shook for a brief moment.

There was still hope.

Based on a true story

Posted By: Wini Mapel

On our last day.....

Tomorrow morning, we are all going to board the microbus for the last time and head to the Juan Santamaria International airport. The day, which we never thought would come, has finally arrived and leaving the place we now call home will bring unpredictable emotions. We will all be happy to get back to our cell phones and cars, but there will be so much to say goodbye to here in Costa Rica.
The hardest goodbye, will be to our new loving families here in Sabanilla. My tica family has been the most wonderful part of my experience here, and they have enabled me to feel comfrontable and a part of the community. I know that my host family, including my giant golden retriever Bruno, will always welcome me if I am ever in San Jose again in my life, and I will be sure to keep in touch.
It will be strange to not be able to ride a public bus to school or look in any direction and see breathtaking mountains. I am assuming that I will have to start cooking rice and beans when I am at home to help ease the culture change and find ways to implement Spanish into my daily conversation. There is so much that I know I will have to return to one day, so therefore I know that tomorrow I will not be saying goodbye to Costa Rica forever.

Cerro de la Muerte - Hikes and Hummingbirds, posted by Glen Cornell

Two and a half weeks ago the group set off on an Environmental Science field-trip for the weekend to the mountains of Cerro de la Muerte. Our destination was a small hotel on the side of the mountain that served as a research center for hummingbirds. Although hummingbirds are less likely to fly to such an altitude, the hotel was equipped with enough feeders and flora to bring in a large number. Upon approaching the station we knew our weekend was going to be interesting. From an outside appearance the hotel gave off a similar aura to that of the Bates Hotel, and with this remote location it was easy for imaginations to run wild (which some of the guys took advantage of, creating a fictional story with the help of "Nacho", our teaching assistant").

After everyone was situated in their rooms, the group did some observing for the lab project. While most of the guys and I set up the tents for tomorrow's experiments, the rest of the group observed the behaviors of the hummingbirds and recorded their feeding habits. After each group had taken their shifts observing, we had all become experts at identifying the different appearances and behaviors of the 4 types of hummingbirds.

Fiery Throated - Small yet aggressive, these punks would chase any other hummingbirds away from their feeders. They could be identified by a "fiery" red pattern of feathers on on their breast.

Green Velvet-eared - Long curved beaks and velvet ears; easily intimidated by the fiery throated

Magnificent - The largest of them all

Volcano - The rarest and smallest, only a few were spotted and only one was caught the entire trip

The next day we set up nets to catch hummingbirds and observe them up close. After hummingbirds were caught we got the chance to hold them and take a sample of pollen on their beak, in order to see if the feeders were affecting their feeding habits on pollinating flowers.
*No hummingbirds were harmed in this process*

After we were able to take the samples, we took a closer look through the microscopes. We counted pollen found and recorded the results for when we returned to the classroom.

Before we were completely done we took a trip to a dwarf forest. We hiked a short distance to the peak of a mountain, in the highest altitude many of us had ever been. On the top of the mountain there was an extreme lack of animal life, and all bushes and trees were no more than waist height; making the name dwarf forest very fitting. The views through the clouds were amazing, and after some exploring of the peak we got together to talk about the differences here from all other forests. Before climbing down the group took advantage of the situation and sat in silence while centering thought.

All in all the weekend included great opportunities to learn, as well as new experiences for everyone.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Mt. Chirripo: Pushing the Limits

On our third day arriving to Costa Rica, a small group of Elon students made reservations in order to complete a common mission: we were determined to hike up Mt. Chirripo before our departure. For those who might not know what Mt. Chirripo is, it is the highest peak in all of the country, and the second highest peak in all of Central America. It measures 12,512 feet in elevation and has an elevation change of more than 8,000 feet throughout the hike. All in all, this is not an easy feat to accomplish, and the approximately 38 kilometer hike was a test of our abilities to work as a team in order to accomplish a common goal.

Unfortunately, we lost our reservation that we had made many months ago and were faced with the decision of completing the climb in one day or not at all because the hike usually takes a minimum of two days; therefore, early on Friday morning we began our mission. As we went about the treacherous climb we were careful to maintain a steady pace so that we would be able to climb and descend the peak before it was too dark at night. Eric was the designated "split timer" and at the end of every kilometer would inform the group of the time to make sure we were on schedule. We had an efficient system going, and everyone contributed to the group's ability to succeed. Some of the responsibilities that were shared were pacing the group, splitting time carrying the heavy backpacks, and, of course, providing motivation. While all of the steep climb up to the peak was a test of endurance and our leg's ability to carry us through rocky terrain, it was all worth the effort when we finally reached the peak. For about 30 minutes, our group of four was the absolute tallest thing in all of Costa Rica which was completely surreal. We also had the opportunity to leave our mark with the other Mt. Chirripo climbers by signing a book that remains at the peak; we also took a group picture so that we could have proof of our great accomplishment. After relishing in our success of reaching the top we figured we had better begin our descent and assumed that the hard part was over. We could not have been more wrong.

I think we were all a little surprised by how difficult the return back down the mountain was. The saying "What goes up, must come down" was consistently exchanged between the members of our group as we mutually struggled and relied on each other in order to reach the base of the mountain for the second time that day. We all had our own personal moments of struggle during the descent: having weird hallucinations, joint troubles, and loss of motivation as nighttime began to creep in. Luckily, we had two flashlights to guide us through the dark, jungle-like trails and were beyond relieved to see a sign that told us we only had one more kilometer's hike left ahead of us. However, we were hit with another hurdle when we realized that we had hiked a portion of this final kilometer down the wrong trail which set us back during a time where we were all at a loss of energy. With a great deal of teamwork in these final 20 minutes we were able to maneuver our tired bodies through the finish of the hike and hail a cab to drive us back to our hostel. At the end of the day, the idea of walking any more seemed akin to a death wish, so we proceeded to sit down to a dinner full of classic Costa Rican comfort foods and pass out in our beds. As trying as the hike up to Mt. Chirripo in a single day was, it was truly an experience that none of us regret. The teamwork we all experienced that day was a true mark of the comrodery we have developed with one another throughout the course of our studies in Costa Rica, and an experience we will never forget.

Ellen Boyle and Eric Hale

Monday, May 11, 2009

Wooded Wonders by Heidi Lewis

"Wooded Wonders"

The golden treetops sprayed light
all over the forest.
I was wearing my pink and purple bathing suit,
the one that I bring everywhere,
mismatched and stained but always my favorite.
My warm body was softly sunned
to the earth's surface as I relaxed
in my own wooded world,
a world that should never change.

My fingers harped the river's green weeds,
careful to not disturb its stagnant
but beautiful blue body.
These feelings of
peacefulness and sublimity embody
every possible part of me,
and I never want to leave it.

As a duet of mating dragonflies painted
blue and purple work upon my knee,
I listen to the rhythmic sounds of the
mysterious enchanted forest,
and the many animals it nourishes.

I didn't know what time it was
and I never cared.
My ankles cracked the river's liquid glass.
It was time to go back to the life
where we are forced to do the things we do.

(May 3rd, 2009; on Rio Celeste)

Friday, May 8, 2009

La Fería in Guadaloupe

La Fería in Guadaloupe is an experience in itself, nothing can prepare you for what you will see when you step out of the taxi. A picture does not do it justice. It is a farmers market that is held in a huge parking lot on Saturday mornings. The vendors sell everything: watermelons, flowers, fresh squeezed juices, natural honey in Corona bottles, homemade jams, exotic Costa Rican fruits and vegetables. There you will find a hustle and bustle of Ticos buying their produce for the week and pulling it around in their carts. While we were there we tried many different fruits and vegetables and sometimes we had no idea what we were about to put in our mouths! It was definitely a cultural experience and made us feel like we were Ticos.

~Jessie Richardson & Martha Browning

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

For the last month, my students and I have been discussing sustainability, both here in Costa Rica as well as in the US.  I asked them to list things they do already, things they plan to do, and general observations about sustainability in Costa Rica and in their Tico families.  Below are excerpts from three of their journals (with some minor editing):

Written by Heidi Lewis:

Things I already do: conserve water when brushing my teeth, recycle, use my own herbs from our herb garden back home in VA, I conserve water by not flushing the toilet every time I use it, I usually bring my own bags to grocery stores, I buy organic produce even though it tends to be more costly (but it tastes better too!), I have 2 reusable water bottles, I never press ‘yes’ for receipts at gas stations or at ATM machines, and I recycle newspapers.

Things I want to do: plant my own garden at Elon with vegetables and herbs, get a barrel for reusing rain water, take shorter showers, ask about sustainability when staying at hotels/resorts, buy power strips for my townhouse at Elon, buy from local vendors and make my housing greener, buy eco-friendly toilet paper/paper towels/light bulbs, buy eco-friendly cleaning supplies, turn my computer off when I am not using it for an extended period of time, and carpool/walk/use my bicycle more.

Written by Eric Hale: 

Being in Costa Rica has also greatly changed the way I live my daily life. The Tico lifestyle is not one of excess. They never leave a room without turning off the light, and in general use as much natural light as possible to lower energy use. Dishwashers really don’t exist here, so everything is hand dried, cutting down on the amount of water used. Costa Ricans don’t have food disposals so no food goes to waste, and culturally, if it isn’t eaten it is a sign of disrespect. However, all of the banana peels, mango cores, watermelon skin, etc. are not reused and just thrown away. 

In addition, my Tico family only has enough plates and cups for about 6 people, when in contrast my family at home has enough for 20. Costa Ricans also don’t have dryers so they dry everything on clothes lines. Due to the over abundance of vehicles and congestion of traffic in the city, San Jose permits drivers to only drive their cars on certain days of the week. My family does not even have a car, so they have to rely on public transportation to do everything.  These simple daily things have made a huge impact on the way I now live my daily life. I am no longer dependent on television, computers, or air-conditioning. I have much larger faith in public transportation and plan on using this summer to get to and from work.

I have committed to lowering my water use, by taking quicker, less hot, showers and hand washing dishes that are not that dirty. I have also become a fan of buying from local markets. If only Elon had bakeries and side fruit venders at every corner, then I would never need to go to a supermarket again.

Written by Ellen Boyle 

The idea of sustainability and conservation has been a constant theme throughout my time spent studying and living in San Jose. Before coming to Costa Rica I expected a country full of greenery, animals, and environmentally conscious citizens. Perhaps I was a bit naïve. I can distinctly remember my dad asking me “Do you ever see monkeys when walking down the street?” and I replied with laughter and an “of course not…I’m in the city!” However, even while saying this, I felt a little guilty because for some reason I kind of expected this type of scene as well. While San Jose was not what I anticipated as far as plentiful amounts of greenery and wildlife, there are certain aspects of sustainability that its citizens rightfully so take pride in. 

My host family is the model example of how to live without excess amounts of waste. She does not own a car and regularly walks in order to complete daily errands. Water is limited and always conserved. I would feel horrible for wasting food and I know that leftovers are always reused in a different form. There are many lessons I have taken away from my time spent in Costa Rica, the most important lesson probably being that it is ok to live out of my comfort zone. Perhaps the greatest reason we have problems with sustaining the environment around the world is because people are simply afraid to change their lifestyles that have become so second-nature to them. It is easy and habit forming to rely on the convenience of driving anywhere on a moment’s notice without thought of public transportation. It is easy and convenient to buy prepackaged food, slit the plastic top, heat in the microwave, and throw away the remaining packaging and food. It is easy and relaxing to enjoy long, hot showers. However, Costa Rica ripped me away from my normal comforts and routines and has slowly transformed me to not only being ok with change, but embracing this new approach to living.

When hit with the question of what I will do upon my return to the United States in terms of continuing and increasing my environmental efforts, I was initially at a loss of how to respond to the question. But as I looked through pictures, read my journal entries, and reflected on the spectacular views I have seen in nature here in Costa Rica, the answers began to flood over me. I know for a fact that I will commit to shelling out the extra money to buy more organic and healthy foods. I know the benefits extend far beyond increasing the longevity of my own body and extend to sustaining the very earth and air of the planet as well. I am committed to creating less waste. I will not buy as many products that do not come in recyclable containers. I will also continue to try and keep up with energy saving appliances and energy sources. While I have already replaced my traditional light bulbs with the energy saving kind, I know there are many other adaptations I can make and intend on gradually making the switch to “greenify” my house and environment. 

We have only one earth, and while the planet seems to be so big and containing unlimited amounts of resources, these assumptions are horribly false. It is ok to think in terms of small changes, but I hope to dream big when it comes to modifying my life in order to help sustain the environment. It is nice to think that if everyone in the world just made small changes that we could severely slow down the harm that seems destined to chip away at earth, but I also recognize that at this point in time it is not realistic that everyone in the world will makes these small changes that create inconveniences to their comfortable lifestyles. Because of this realization, I believe it is the responsibility of those who have been educated on the need for sustainability of our planet to not just think small adjustments. For we have learned that we can handle more than minor changes and inconveniences. We are capable of altering our previous lifestyles in ways that can not only help make up for the lack of world-wide commitment to sustaining the planet, but also for creating an increased passion and demand for healthier practices in our communities. The success and health of our planet can only be as big as the sacrifices we are willing to make.

Monday, May 4, 2009

This past weekend Wini, Heidi, and I set out to find and explore Rio Celeste. Many people warned us of the difficult travel it took to get there, however, we had seen pictures and were determined to discover this, what appeared to be magical, rive for ourselves.
After several hours of travel, we found ourselves in Bijagua, Costa Rica. This is a small pueblo, deep in the mountains an hour from Rio Celeste. Here we made several good friends,enjoyed the annual fair, and even attended a rodeo. We were the only non-locals and we loved it. For once we were able to step back from being tourists and embrace the culture.
We spent Saturday hiking through the national park that held Rio Celeste. The hike was strenuous, but well worth it. The water was incredibly blue. It's said that after God finished painting the sky, He washed his paintbrush in the river and that is exactly how it seemed.

-Jessica Dobyns-

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

One semester abroad by Zack Salvati

What can I take away from studying abroad the last three months in Costa Rica? Well, this question has a answer, but it's not "I learned so much about the culture, how to better speak Spanish and how to travel." That would be too easy and in fact too cliche to actually be true.

When I really ask myself what I learned down here, I come up with blanks. It's not that I didn't learn, it's that I lost. What I mean by that is that over the past three months I have become more mature, more comfortable with myself, and more at ease in my life through the gradual loss of what I know to be true.

But you may be asking yourself what I am talking about. Well, it sounds strange and maybe even stupid that losing what you know to be true makes you happier and more peaceful but it's absolutely true. I personally came here with pretentions and ideas about how things should be, but these have only hampered me-as I have seen over the last three months. I discovered that when I stop expecting things to be a certain way, I learn to see things in a different light. I start to see things as perfect, even if the perfection is different than what I am used to.

As Americans, I think we tend to easily label things as bad and ugly when we first see things as different. When I came to Costa Rica I immediately did this and still catch myself doing it over and over again. When this happens I question my beliefs, because I want to understand why I think the way I do. I see run down buildings, gates on every house and a lack of cleanliness overall and think, "What's going on here?" But I am learning to take a step back and lower my expectations or, even better, eliminate them.

There is a passage from the Tao Te Ching which I think describes this:

Can you coax your mind from its wandering
and keep to the original oneness?
Can you let your body become
supple as a newborn child's?
Can you cleanse your inner vision
until you see nothing but the light?
Can you love people and lead them
without imposing your will?
Can you deal with the most vital matters
by letting events take their course?
Can you step back from you own mind
and thus understand all things?

Giving birth and nourishing,
having without possessing,
acting with no expectations,
leading and not trying to control:
this is the supreme virtue.

When we have absolutely no expectations and don't see things as in comparison to other things, we begin to slowly see the beauty in it all. We start to see things not as good or bad, but as one, and that is when we begin to really enjoy ourselves.

So this is exactly part of my learning here in Costa Rica. I am beginning to loosen my idea of how things should be and starting to see things from a larger magnifying glass. I remember hearing from Allan Watts, something to the effect one of the only things you ever need to know is that you can't have white without black. In that way, I can't have pristine neighborhoods without impoverished ones. I can't enjoy good food if there wasn't crap to eat. I can't feel safe at home if there was no dangerous feeling away from home.

I don't know if I really have taken in some of this deep,(but yet very simple) stuff I have been reading about on my own. I only know that life is much easier and funner when you don't know what to expect and how to do things. This reminds me what the German girl Kalina said to me in a recent conversation, "Life is easier when you're not talking about people." Life is easier when you're not using your previous understanding to approach new conditions. It's better to just go along life, as the Taoist Holy book says, with a "cleansed inner vision" and see things as they are, making the best with what's offered.

Three months in Costa Rica. Three months of my life in another country, away from what I know to be true. Ironically enough, these three months have sent me closer to what I can imagine truth to be.

So, that leaves me still to answer the question, "What can I take away from my time here? Um, why am I asking this? What do I need to "take" something with me. Why can't I just leave something behind and experience life in the unique way I do? I don't know if I am better off coming here in any sort of external way but I do know it was worth it. Costa Rica is a beautiful country, and my experience here has been awesome. I have seen another part of the world and am better off for that. But, I am not better off and that's why I loved it.

Recipe for Happiness by Meg Dolan

-Rub fruit all over your face with your Tica mom
-Sing in the shower
-Recognize what you are greatful for
-Acknowledge the insignificance of your own problems
-Pay someone a compliment
-Run until you cannot stand
-Smile at strangers
-Draw rainbows and butterflies with young girls
-Have a Britney Spears dance party with your younger sister
-Do something goofy

Thursday, April 16, 2009


During Semana Santa we went to Nicaragua to renew our passports. We had an amazing time exploring the colonial town of Granada. My favorite part of this adventure was sitting on the edge of the ACTIVE Masaya Volcano! At the top of the volcano was a cross and the view inside the mouth of Masaya. Due to the heavy smoke it was hard to see the craters, but the smell of the sulfur was evident. ~ Jay Celin ;)

Friday, April 3, 2009

Fifth Graders

It has been the ongoing joke since we got here that we are all in the 5th grade. It started with us waiting to be picked up at school by our moms and having our moms walk us to school the next day. Then, we all proceeded to wear our bookbags everywhere and plastic watches because we don't have cell phones to tell us the time. We ate what was put in front of us and had minimal conversation due to lack of vocabulary. All of our activity pointed to an awkward 11 year-old.

However, in our reading for GST I came across a quote that explains this better. In the story, "The Chumico Tree," boys are playing a game in the dirt. The author writes,"Each hour turns into a whiff of time, a triumphant cry, a wild joy." This has to be the real reason we feel like we are in 5th grade. Our time here is flying by and filled with wild joys. We get excited to go to the grocery store and are proud when we ride the bus by ourselves. How lovely it is to feel free and be continuously excited by the "small things" in life.

Posted with permission of the author, Jessica Dobyns, from her class journal

Rima de Vallbona, "The Chumico Tree," in Costa Rica: A Traveler's Literary Companion. Barbara Ras, Ed. (Whereabouts Press, 1994), 34-36.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Monteverde: The Reserve; Caroline Smith and Meaghan Collins

Interesting Facts:

Female Tarantula molts and eats her own skin. She does not eat her mate.
More tree species in the Cloud Forest than in the US and Canada combined
69 types of avocados can be found in the Cloud Forest
Male Quetzals are more beautiful than female Quetzals. They use their beautiful colors to attract the females.
There is a plant called HOT LIPS now nicknamed Angelina Jolie :-D

On Saturday we woke up early to go to the reserve in hopes of sighting the beautiful Quetzal bird during our nature walk. The group split up in two: half went with JC, and the other half went with Adrino.

The main objective was to explore the biodiversity and learn more about the nature that surrounds us. We ended up learning much more than we bargained for and gained a greater appreciation for the Tican culture as well. Costa Ricans have many superstitions. Both guides carried a handful of seeds in their pockets to ward away snakes. Also, at the beginning of each year to give good luck to their friends they present their friends with a purple flower.

One group had the unpleasant experience of tasting Heart of Palm. The vegetable causes extreme hunger after consumption. Those who ate it felt a hollowness in their stomach for the duration of the hike.

As we entered the Primary forest section of the reserve we approached a Hollow Fig Tree. The fig tree had grown on top of another tree and strangled the other tree species. The dead tree began to decompose and left the Fig tree hollow.

Artifacts and Updates: written by Dr. L-L

On the Thursday before spring break, I asked the students in my class to bring an artifact (or picture or description of one) to class, something concrete or abstract that has come to mean something special for them. The ”collection” was pretty amazing, so I wanted to share them with you.

All of them were symbols of “how do I live” artifacts—how people and themselves are living in Costa Rica. Most students discussed objects: a chorreador (a simple drip coffee maker, used by everyone here), a collection of rocks and crystals in a Tico home and a newspaper clip of the student’s Tico dad in younger days as a track champion, ceramic shapes collected by a student’s Tica mom and similar to a collection she and her mom collect in the States, a picture of a student’s Tico family, stone spheres of mysterious origins found all over the country and in a story the class read , the wall of a Tica sister’s bedroom which is covered by phrases and drawings by friends, and the gallo (rooster), which decorates another Tico home and is a prominent sight (and sound) in C.R.

One student brought a bracelet that she wears to remind her her of a particularly memorable time while traveling, while others opted to bring food: a prickly green guanabana fruit that makes particularly tasty milkshake-like drinks ; salsa picante, a spicy sauce that no Tico kitchen would be without; and a coffee bean, symbolic of the heritage of Costa Rica, one of the main export crops, and the drink of choice here.

Lastly, two students chose to look at linguistic artifacts, both of which have significant meaning to visitors and natives alike: pura vida (literally pure life), used in response to “How’re you doing?” or How’s everything going,” to indicate “thank you ,” “ I’m doing well,” or simply as a tag line to be polite. The other word we hear often is gringo/a, and in Costa Rica simply refers to anyone from the US, Canada, or Northern Europe and not in a negative way as in some other Hispanic countries. The origin of the word is not clear, but there are some colorful stories.

I especially enjoyed the responses to this assignment at the mid-term point of the semester because it shows how well the class is noticing and reflecting on important features of this new culture. As we enter the second half of the semester, we are studying many areas of sustainability, looking forward to our mandatory visa trip to Nicaragua, and presentations of their semester-long projects. They look very promising, too, so we’ll talk about these later on the blog. And I’m sure there will be some interesting stories of Spring Break adventures, so stay tuned!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Zip-Lines: Monteverde

The highlight for most of us on our trip to Monteverde was the highly anticipated zip-line course! Some of us knew what to expect and others truly thought they would chicken-out. Before we even got all geared up in the harnesses and helmets, we all crowded around the map of the course and gasped at the altitude and speeds we were about to reach. Jessica was not feeling too confident, but told herself that she would be fine for the 8 seconds in the air...that was before she read that the shortest line would take 40 seconds...and at 42 mph, 330 feet in the air!
Despite many hesitations, we all made it up the Sky Tram to the highest peak. The thrill of the height, speed, lack of control and of course the breathtaking views kept each of us moving through all 9 lines. By the third platform, we were all running up the stairs to our next perch to jump off. Most of us would say that the 2nd to last line was our favorite. It was the longest, one of the fastest, and it was also one of the opportunities to ride tandem with another person.
It was SUCH a fun experience, and we would all agree that we are happy that we got to have such a cool experience, and of course another perspective of the beautiful cloud forests of Monteverde!

Monday, March 16, 2009

El Mercado Central: Charley Costa

Today we took a class field trip to El Mercado Central in downtown San Jose. It was an absolutely incredible experience that redefined shopping in my mind. In order to get to El Mercado one has to walk through the shopping part of San Jose. This shopping part is nothing but a wide street that goes for probably close to ten blocks where cars are not allowed to drive. There are stores of all different kinds on each side of the street with people out front begging for you to enter their shop. El Mercado Central is located on the right hand side of the street about five blocks from the beginning of the pedestrian shopping area. It was laid out similar to an indoor flea market, with stores selling a wide variety of products from shirts to hammocks to shot glasses and even raw meat. I have never seen so much raw meat in such a small place before in my life. There were also just some simple little stands selling fruits and vegetables as well as a couple of food stands. The best part about the mall in my opinion is that no price is set in stone. It is possible to haggle and negotiate the price of anything, normally with a good amount of success as well. I know on my two purchases I negotiated for close to a dollar off each one. It may not seem like much but a dollar off a ten dollar purchase is a ten-percent discount. It is so different from the stores in the United States where as shoppers we are price takers. There is nothing we can do to change the price of our purchase. Here the consumer is the price makers. It is an interesting for the consumer to actually dictate the sale instead of the vendor.
While El Mercado is not something to plan a trip a trip to Costa Rica around, it is something worth visiting in the San Jose area. It is a fun way to kill and afternoon and you never know what kind of discounts you may find.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Parque de Diversiones: Posted by Jay and Jessie

This past weekend we went to Costa Rica's very own theme park. It was a day full of fun rides and Costa Rican culture. The park was filled with Tica families and young children. We spent the weekend eating a lot of ice cream and acting like kids. The weather was perfect and we enjoyed ourselves.

As disappointed as we were to be missing out on the hiking, rain and bugs, we had a GREAT time nonetheless.~ Jessie y Jay :)

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

InBio Biodiverstiy Park

The students enjoyed an outing to a local biodiversity park a few days ago, and I wanted to post some pictures of our experience. The park is just outside of San Jose and is designed to educate visitors about the four main climate areas in Costa Rica and the fauna and flora in each. All of the national parks and reserves are showcased, and many animals (sloths, birds, caimans, iguanas, turtles, and deer) roam the grounds, while others are behind glass--snakes and tarantulas. A petting zoo was popular with some of our group as was the maze. One of the most interesting exhibits is the Sustainable House, which uses solar and wind power to run nearly everything in the house. All in all, this was a good introduction to the many ways Costa Rica is working hard to maintain and protect its biodiversity.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Journal Post from GST class

This journal excerpt is posted with permission of the the author, Charley Costa.

"I think it is safe to say that every student here recognizes that being in Costa Rica is an experience in itself. At the same time it is very easy to not take full advantage of the experience we have been given. We are in a country where so much is different from our country. There is so much to learn, see and do that it could keep us busy for the entire four month span. We all know this, yet how many of us are truly acting like this is a once in a lifetime experience? Many of us, myself included, spend an unbelievable amount of time on our computers. Skype, Email, Facebook and for that matter the internet in general make it so easy to stay in touch with our world at home that we don't cut the strings that are holding us back from discovering a whole new world (and yes, I realize that this is a cheesy song from Aladdin, but I feel it applies here). Life is truly what you make it, and we have been given a chance to make our lives much more interesting while broadening our horizons. We have been given this great opportunity and there is no question that in order to make it the best experience possible we need to go out and make this experience all it can be. There will always be things in life that will happen to us. Some of these things we can control while others are out of our control. What we do in these situations allows us to gain experience and become wiser and different people for the future."

Monday, March 2, 2009

El Museo De Los Ninos

The Children's Museum was a great trip! All the exhibits were extremely interactive. Our favorite exhibit was probably the earthquake simulation. We got to stand on a platform and experience what it would feel like to be in the middle of a level 3/4 earthquake. Also in the exhibit room with the earthquake simulation were different areas where we were all able to be archeologists and dig for treasures.
All the plaques describing the exhibits were in Spanish. Reading the plaques helped all of us increase our vocabulary greatly! There was an exhibit on the history of Costa Rica where we learned a lot about the indigenous people, the games they played, and the development of Costa Rican culture.
The Children's Museum is definitely a must see while you are in San Jose!

Friday, February 27, 2009

The Peeps in our Group

Let me introduce the people on this trip, because how could you understand our adventures without knowing whose doing the adventuring?

Ellen-from Cary, North Carolina, Education major and a member of the Elon Track team

Meaghan- from Boone, NC, Human Services major and also a member of the Women's track team

Charley-from Atlantic City, NJ, Business major and the "tool" of the group

Mike- from Phily, Econ-Bus major and a soccer enthusiast

Mark- from Maryland, Poly Sci and a straight out baller-ask him about "el gato negro"

Wini- from Chi-town, Business major and a beach lover

Glen-from Ga, Business major and a member of the Men's track team

Martha-from NC, International Studies and a member of a sorority at Elon

Heidi-from VA, Photography major and has lived in Bolivia

Jay-from D.C, Psychology major

Jessie - from VA, Elementary ed major and Business Minor

Jessica-from Raleigh NC, Elementary ed and wants to teach ESL

Caroline-Charlotte NC, Middle Grades Math, and can break dance although I've never seen it

Eric- NC, Elementary ed, and a tennis player

Brittany, NC, Education, she unfortunately left this Wednesday

Becca- NC, Elementary ed and the oldest student here and student teaching in CR

Me (Zack)- NA, Spanish and a member of the "tingo" constituency

Professor Lyday-Lee- originally from East Tennesee, professor at Elon for many years

Together we make-up Elon's 2009 spring semester in San Jose

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Two weeks later . . .

We're a little behind on our blog, but here are a few updates about what we've been doing. The students are VERY busy with classes and getting settled in with their Tico families. The first two weeks are always hectic: getting used to a new schedule, new language, new friends, and new food. On Feb. 1, we took a day trip to Volcan Irazu, Cartago, and Orosi, and then came back to Mesoamerica and watched the Superbowl. After a busy first weekend, the second weekend brought with it our first roadtrip: el Parque Nacional de Manuel Antonio. We journeyed for four hours on our tour bus, with our wonderful driver, Ricardo, to the Pacific coast. Even though Manuel Antonio is only about 100 miles away, travel is different in Costa Rica--no interstate highways. Instead we drove up and down the hills, through beautiful farming communities, and eventually into the town of Quepos, where we stopped for lunch. An hour later, we were checking into the Hotel Karahe for our introduction to Pacific Costa Rican culture.

Over the weekend, we all enjoyed the gorgeous sunsets, the warm ocean, and an early walk through the park to see lots of animals (Howler, Cappucin, and Squirrel monkeys; two and three-toed sloths; bats; lizards; bugs; but fortunately, no snakes). Some of the students opted to explore the park more while others headed off for horseback riding, siestas in the hotel hammocks, a swim in the pool, practicing their Spanish at the markets, or just lazing on the beach.

We reluctantly left the beach after a relaxing weekend, sad to say goodbye, knowing that a week of challenging schoolwork was ahead of us. Last Thursday, we went as a group to the Museo Nacional to learn more about Costa Rican and Josefina history. We saw an interesting art exhibit on the pulperias (general stores) that are common in Costa Rica, but also are disappearing (just like the general stores in the US). After lunch several of the students left for a weekend trip to the Caribbean town of Puerto Viejo, where most of the other students joined them the next day. I think this coming weekend will be a rest break for most of us!

This week we had a speaker on sustainable tourism in Costa Rica. Amos Bien is a leader in this field and runs the Rara Avis lodge, a research and tourist facility that has received national recognition for its sustainablity advancements.

All in all, we are all well and adjusting to life in San Jose, getting to know our Costa Rican families and friends better, and learning a great deal about the politics, economics, environment, and culture of this beautiful land. Stay tuned for posts and pictures from the students about their travels.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

The students have arrived!

All of our students arrived safe and sound AND with all their luggage. Most of them came in on Thursday, while one was delayed a day because of the snow and ice storm up north. The students met their Tica moms, and by all reports, they were fed and housed well and seem to enjoy their new "digs."

Yesterday the group had orientation to the program and San Jose, took a written and a spoken Spanish placement test, and then walked to a local restaurant for lunch. Many of us had the casada (which means married) for lunch, a local tradition of rice and black beans with chicken, fish, or beef, fried plantains, and salad--sort of the "blue plate special" of Costa Rica These were delicious and inexpensive (around $3). Linda's assistant, Stefani, then took us downtown by bus and showed us around. Downtown SJ is very busy--a combination of modern stores in a pedestrian area and very old, beautiful buildings--all sandwiched between several large and lovely parks (parques). We had a good time people-watching, and, of course, being watched. One student even heard someone call out "field trip" when we passed. We were a little obvious, I suppose.

When we returned to Mesoamerica, Linda threw a birthday party for Charley (who turns 20 today). We sang "Feliz Cumpleanos" and had home-baked chocolate and lemon cakes and ice cream. The Tica moms came back to pick up their "kids," and the students were busy making plans for shopping and nightly activities. I've posted a few pictures of the day's events; however, I did not take any pictures of downtown. We'll get some of those posted later.

Today I'm meeting several students for lunch and to decide what they want to do for the day. Tomorrow is our first field trip to Cartago, Orosi, and the Volcan Irazu--then back to Meso for a Superbowl party.

Adios por ahora. Students will be posting their thoughts and pictures on this site as well, so stay tuned.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Hola desde San Jose! Welcome to the blog for the Costa Rica Semester Abroad group, spring 2009. As the faculty leader, I arrived one week early and have been exploring the city and my neighborhood and practicing my Spanish--Tico style. San Jose is a colorful, busy, and historic city, with several beautiful parks, buildings, and neighborhoods. Our hosts at Mesoamerica, Linda and Cliff Holland, and their staff have been wonderful, and I know the students will absolutely love the classroom building, especially the new student lounge with its gorgeous mural wall, provided by Dr. Anthony Weston and his fall '08 students. In fact, we will be there watching the Super Bowl on Sunday.

Many of the students will be happy to see a huge three-storey mall near the Universidad de Costa Rica (UCR), where they can see movies, shop and eat their favorite fast food from home if they become too homesick; of course, I have found that the food is much better at the cafes and "sodas" and other smaller (quieter) places in every neighborhood--and will encourage them to branch out and leave their comfort zones. They will find quickly that anything they want from the US can be gotten here, although sometimes at a higher price. The fresh fruits and veggies are amazing, and so far, everyone has been very patient with my use of not so grammatical Tico Spanish.

The students (17 of them) arrive this afternoon and will meet their homestay families and will have a couple of days of orientation, Spanish testing, a tour of San Jose as well as a walking tour of "our" neighborhood in San Pedro. The students and I will be posting on this blog regularly--comments and pictures--as we explore the many facets of this small but amazingly diverse country. I hope you'll follow along with us as we explore San Jose and visit volcanoes, rainforests, cloud forests, and coastal areas; as we learn the customs and language of the Tico people; as we figure out what it's like to learn to actually use a language we perhaps have studied but not practiced; as we experience pura vida.

Welcome to our community away from home! Hasta luego.