Wednesday, May 21, 2014

"Miss Anastán" English Version

For those who don't speak Spanish, I wrote an English version of the story.  I've changed some parts that wouldn't make sense if I translated them, especially if you're not familiar with Costa Rica.  Enjoy.


"Miss Anastán"

The two elders (as male Mormon missionaries are known) wore, as they always did, their dark-colored pants, short-sleeved White shirts, ties, and black nametags that read “Elder ___________” on one line and then “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints” in Spanish on the lines below the person’s name. 
One of them was from the Factory, as Costa Rican Mormons were wont to call the State of Utah, the headquarters of the Church and from where the vast majority of the missionaries came.   The other one, the fat one with baby blue eyes, was from Georgia.  He was a little different from the rest.  It wasn’t just his weight, but he way of being, of how he carried himself, and how he treated other people.  He was extremely friendly, even extroverted, and loved to talk and talk and talk.  He had gotten baptized in the Mormon church three years prior but he still had some of his pre-Mormon traits, one of which was a profound sense of injustice, especially if he saw something that he didn’t think was just or fair or appropriate or polite.  He hadn’t grown up in the Church; he was a convert and he would always be Southern, no matter how many other labels you could stick on him.  One of those Southern customs that he would never shake was that he would not put up with a child or a youngster that disrespected an adult.  He thought of himself as an adult that day and that is the heart of this story. 

The heat was brutal that day in February 1994.  There wasn't a cloud in the sky and the humidity was so high that it felt like the hot breath of an angry lover on your neck.  They were walking along a narrow sidewalk in a tiny passageway between houses.  These neighborhoods were behind where the Coca-Cola bottling plant used to be in Limón, no roads between houses for no one owned any cars, a labyrinth of concrete, wood, tin, and dirt that seemed to continue on forever, all of it done by the homeowners.  The government cared nothing back then of regulations, codes, or civic involvement.  If you wanted a sidewalk instead of mud, you built it yourself.  The sewers emptied into the creek and the houses were all on pilings for when the annual floods came.  It was an odd place.  Every once in a while they would come upon a small empty space where no one had built, usually because it was the lowest lying land.

The sidewalk was elevated and as they walked ahead, the sidewalk got higher and higher, while the houses’ tiny little yards got lower and lower.  They turned a corner and found a 10m x 10m open space that had been made into a small soccer field in front of about five or six houses that backed up to the creek.  The soccer field had two small goals and there were two boys, long about 7 years old, playing there.  Lots of people from Limón back then were of Jamaican ancestry and many of them spoke English….well and English that they call “Mekatelyu” or “Make I tell you.”  It’s also called “Patois” by those who don’t speak it.  To an American, Mekatelyu sounds like Miss Cleo on steroids…heavily accented with some Spanish words thrown in for good measure.  This is also important to the story.  Why, you might be wondering.  You’ll see. 

The sidewalk now was about a half meter above the level of the soccer field.  The two missionaries went by walking, the tall one in front and the fat one behind, as always.  One of the two boys took a solid shot at the goal and it went through the legs of the kid who was poorly playing at being a goalkeeper.  The other kid shouted, “¡Qué tremendo fogonazo!”

If you speak Spanish, yelling, “WHAT A TREMENDOUS CANNON SHOT!” after you score a goal is something innocent and innocuous.  But, you have to know that the word “fogonazo” means cannon shot.  If Spanish isn’t your native tongue, and you’re in a land where half the people speak a heavily accented English, what you might have heard, as the chubby missionary did, was, “WHAT A TREMENDOUS FUCKING ASSHOLE!”

Upon hearing that, rage welled up inside our portly Elder, and he jumped down from the sidewalk and grabbed the poor creature by his earlobe, yelling at him in Spanish, “What did you say to me?  “Where do you live?  We’re going to go tell your mother what you said and she what she thinks about that.”  The child, whimpering, rightfully didn't understand what was happening, but he told the missionary that he lived right by there and directed him towards his house.   The child’s mother, hearing the ruckus, came out to see what was going on.   The rotund missionary, full of indignation and feeling very offended, obligated the child to tell his mother the supposed cuss words that had left his lips.  The mother spoke English and Spanish and understood immediately what had happened.  When she explained, laughingly, to the missionary "Easy nuh. Yah miss anastán what him ment win him say 'fogonazo.'  Him say 'Wah a cannon chot!'", the gringo turned bright red, was embarrassed and ashamed, and felt like crawling into a hole and dying.  First, he begged a thousand apologies from the boy, then the mother, then the neighbor women who had come out to watch, and finally to God for having behaved like that while wearing the name of Jesus Christ on his chest.  He bought the kid some Trits ice cream and then some more candy; even then, he felt more ashamed that day that he could ever remember. 

From that day on, he has never ever touched another person in a moment of anger.  He never wants to be the tremendo fogonazo of Limón again. 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

A Short Story: "Miss Anastán"

“Miss Anastán”

Los dos élderes (así se llamaban los misioneros varones de los mormones) andaban, como siempre, sus pantalones oscuros, camisas blancas de manga corta, corbatas y placas negras que decían “Elder _____” en una línea y luego “La Iglesia de Jesucristo de los Santos de los Últimos Días” debajo del nombre del individuo.   

Uno de ellos era de la fábrica, como se acostumbró llamar al estado de Utah, la sede de la iglesia y desde donde salían la gran mayoría de los misioneros mormones.  El otro, un gordito de ojos claros, era de Georgia.  Él era un poquito distinto de los demás.  No fue solamente su gordura, sino que su forma de ser, de andar y de tratar con las personas.  

Él se había bautizado mormón hace 3 años y seguía siendo un poquito brusco si veía algo que no le cayera bien.  No creció en la iglesia; era converso y mantenía algunas de las costumbres de su cultura sureña.  Una de ellas fue que no aguantaba nunca que alguien se burlara de él.  Otra fue que jamás soportaría él que un niño o adolescente le faltara el respeto a un adulto.  Él se creía adulto aquel día y eso es la raíz de ese cuento.

Hacía un calor brutal es día de febrero de 1994.  No había ninguna nube en el cielo y la humedad era tanta que se sentía como el aliento caliente de una amante brava en el cuello.  Iban caminando por una acera angosta en una alameda que antes había al oeste de la Coca-Cola de Limón.  Hoy en día es un Mega Súper Maxi Pali Peri Híper Algo, pero antes era la embotelladora de la zona atlántica.

La acera seguía recto y alto mientras los patios de la casa iban bajando.  Doblaron una esquina y encontraron una pequeña cancha de futbol de unos 10m x 10m frente a unas cinco o seis casas.  En la cancha había dos goles pequeñitos y dos niños de por allí de 7 años.  Muchas personas de Limón eran de ascendencia jamaiquina y muchos hablaban inglés…pues un inglés que ellos llaman “Mekatelyu” o “patua” que tiene un acento sumamente fuerte.  Esto también es importante.  ¿Por qué?  Verás. 

La acera estuvo ya como ½ metro sobre el nivel de la cancha.  Los dos misioneros iban caminando, el alto primero y el gordo atrás, como siempre.  Uno de los chicos marcó con la bola y la tiró hacia la meta, con talento, y se le pasó por los pies del otro niño que jugaba malamente de portero.  El niño que tiró gritó de su éxito, “¡Qué tremendo fogonazo!”

Algo inocente e inocuo, ¿no?  Sí, si es que uno entiende la palabra “fogonazo.”  Al pobre gordito gringuillo le llegaron a los oídos algo un poquito más fuerte, de una de las palabrotas más fuertes que hay en el inglés.  Él escuchó, más bien, pensando en esa duda de que si alguien de Limón de ese entonces estuviera hablando inglés o español, alguillo como una mezcla de los dos: “¡Qué tremendo fucking asshole!” 

En ese momento se le subió la rabia y se tiró de la acera hacia abajo y le agarró a la pobre criatura del niño por una de sus orejas, gritándole, “¿Qué fue lo que me dijo?  ¿Dónde es que vive?  Vamos a decirle a su madre lo que acabas de decirme a mí a ver qué piensa ella."  El niño, gimoteando, no entendía (con razón) qué le estaba pasando, pero le dijo al gordito que vivía en una casa allí a la par.  La madre, escuchando el ruido, salió a ver qué pasaba.  

El gordito, lleno de orgullo y sintiéndose bien ofendido le obligó al niño a quien todavía tenía apretado la oreja entre sus dedos a decirle a su madre la supuesta palabrota.  La madre hablaba inglés y español y entendió inmediatamente qué había pasado.  Cuando le explico al gordito el significado de fogonazo, el gringuillo se puso rojísimo, avergonzado, azorado y con ganas de morirse.  Primero, le pidió mil disculpas al chiquillo, luego a la madre, luego a las vecinas que estaban observándolo todo y finalmente a Dios por haber pecado mientras llevaba el nombre de su hijo en el pecho.  Le invitó al chiquitico a un Trits de una pulpería cercana y le compró eso y algunos confites más. 

Desde ese día, jamás ha vuelto a tocarle a nadie en un momento de cólera….nunca quiso volver a ser el fogonazo de Limón.   

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Main Benefit of a Sabbatical for a Language Professor

Coker College is a teaching college, so our sabbaticals are only for one semester and there is no publish-or-perish mindset here.  While a sabbatical might seem like a vacation from work for those not familiar with their workings; it is not. Sabbaticals are about accomplishing projects and doing things that ordinarily cannot be done during a typical semester.

Having time to accomplish things during a regular semester can be a feat.  When Idelber Avelar told me in grad school that I had more free time then than I ever would as a professor, I thought he was nuts.  No, he was right.  Being a professor means grading, reading, meetings, committees, grading, grading, and a little bit of actual teaching.  All of that disappears on sabbatical.  You now have time to do all those things you told yourself you'd do back in grad school.  Obvious benefits include less stress, time to read, time to work on projects, time to write, time.

While I'm working on an article for a book about Borges and the Bible right now, and I'm working on making my SPA 260 course a hybrid one, the main benefit to me, as a language professor, is that I can speak Spanish every single day with native speakers.  I am immersed, again, in the culture and language that I teach. This has had the effect of improving my Spanish, reminding me of countless little quirks and idioms that I have forgotten teaching the ABCs, shapes, colors, and basic greetings day-in/day-out for 15 years.  The vast majority of my students take my classes because they have to.  I rarely get pupils who want to study more than they are required to do. This leads me to spend the majority of my time in "teacher speak" mode, which I've realized can be detrimental to maintaining the superior level of the skill I possess and teach.  

I am able to live in Costa Rica during my sabbatical, and I daily have deep conversations with people, trying to speak Spanish for at least 3-4 hours per day every day.  My Spanish feels polished and shiny, ready for primetime again.  I'm tan, rested, and ready to get back into the classroom in August.  Sabbaticals are a great thing and I hope that they don't go the way of all the earth.  Sería un error ponerle fin a este galardón.

So, while my facebook feed may seem like I'm on one big tourist jaunt around the country, I am speaking, conversing, learning, remembering, and maximizing my time here so that when I'm back there I'll be better than ever.  ¡Vivan los sabáticos!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A bit of introspection about my study abroad trips

Since I'm on sabbatical, I am taking time to concentrate on things I can do to improve myself as a professor.  Since 2010, I have been unable to recruit enough students to make one of my study abroad trips work.  Several factors have contributed to this:

1. The poor economy.  The price is out of reach for many of my students.  However, someone who really wants to study abroad can find the scholarships, grants, and loans to make it happen.  I dislike loans, but sometimes they exist for things such as this.  Not everyone can afford even basic luxuries.  Many of our students come from poverty and threadbare existences.  Rather than trying to find wealthier students, I need to figure out ways to help students learn about financial aid opportunities available to them.
2. A large portion of Coker students are athletes.  They are often unwilling to consider anything that takes them away from their team, practices, or training regimen. The coaches turn over so often that I don't even really bother to learn their names anymore because they'll just be gone in a couple of years.  Working closely with them on recruiting bears no fruit.  If I couldn't even get the soccer coach to recruit a single player for a trip to Costa Rica that focused on the business side of soccer, I don't see how other efforts will be worthwhile.
3. A misinformed colleague told students that I didn't allow anyone to drink on my study abroad trips (not true).  SGA doesn't allow drinking on SGA-sponsored trips.  When I travel with the Coker College Culture Club (CCCC), all of our events are SGA-sponsored, so we have to keep their rules.  Study abroad trips are not SGA's balliwick, and as long as students' drinking doesn't affect their behavior or our schedule, I don't care at all if they drink.  I have gone to bars with colleagues and students on trips.  I don't drink, but I'm not a teetotaler who worries about what others imbibe.  This one still hurts me.  It was untrue and I only learned of it after someone asked me if it were true.
4. The Susan Coker Watson scholarship only works for travel to Europe.  The students most likely to study abroad are pulled that way by the allure of more available funds.  Coker needs more scholarships for study abroad anywhere in the world.  But, there are millions of things that Coker needs.  This is no one's priority beyond my own and maybe a few kindred spirits.  And, I agree that other things should have a higher priority than this.  
5.  I have only offered trips to Costa Rica and Panama.  Many students have the wrong impression of Latin America.  Their parents think it is as it was in their youth.  Nothing could be further from the truth.
6.  The postmodern symptom of late capitalism that sees parents ask their children how or why knowledge of what life is like in another country will benefit them/help them get a job/will look good on a résumé.  Knowing something just to know it is no longer accepted by parents.  Knowledge must have utility; it must do something or else it is pointless and might as well not exist at all (especially if it can't be googled or discussed in a job interview).
7.  The Center for Engaged Learning is focused largely on internships.  The promotion of my trips largely falls to me.  Outdated communication methods like pamphlets have no pull with today's students.  They are understaffed.  The dual missions of the office should be cleaved in two.  Study abroad is a minor part of what they do.  A faculty member with time release and secretarial support could easily handle the current workload.    
8.  Coker's public faculty webpages that we were allowed to edit are no longer available to us since the very-expensive-to-replace server crashed and was not able to be revived or swapped out.  When I had a public webpage, I was able to successfully recruit enough students to Mexico once and Costa Rica twice.  Since its demise, I cannot advertise it effectively.  Students don't read the emails I send.  They want to click on something.  I was able to tell a narrative and frame the idea in their heads.  It was detailed and showed the costs and why it cost what it did.  I think this is a major factor in my inability to recruit people.
9.  Perhaps it's me.  Introspection should be part of any thorough review.  Maybe I'm too eager, too insistent on the subject.  Maybe it's my personality.  Maybe it's the thought of someone depending on me and not finding me reliable enough to trust to take them abroad (often for the first time ever in the history of their family).  I don't really know how to find out this information, but I have to consider it.

So, what can I do to make things better?  I can focus on the nine things above.  I'd like a trip focused on business.  I could bring students here to Zarcero, have them work four days at the lechería, milking cows and making cheese, going to town with Don Édgar to sell his cheese to vendors.  I could take them to Finca Santa Lucía to learn about the coffee export business.

The owners of the highly successful Panadería Zarcereña could teach us about product development, reach, marketing, and supply chain issues.  We'd include a visit to Arenal, zip lining, hot springs, and the rain forest too.  But, I think the educational part is more important than the beaches.  But, if it's the beaches, if it's the beaches that they want then they shall have them.......only after they've dirtied their uncalloused hands.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Mistakes in My Planning

When I visualized our time in Costa Rica, I imagined us living here in Zarcero using public transportation like buses and taxis to go off on adventures.  My plan had some flaws.  Here are some reflections on planning a trip like this in the future.

1.  When five people travel on increasingly expensive buses, the cost approaches parity with traveling via taxi.  The hassle of bus travel means that taking a taxi is very tempting and always wins. 

2.  Taxis in Costa Rica used to be very affordable.  Now, they are ridiculously expensive and a simple trip that used to run $20 now costs $100.  No foolin'  This puts a serious damper on our plans to go places each weekend.  Just getting ourselves somewhere that's not close by will run $200.  

3.  Costa Rica has gone and gotten itself extremely expensive.  It costs more to live here now than it does in the USA.  Food is ridiculously expensive, even if you want to eat the local diet.  Rice is twice as expensive as back home.  Coke is 3-4 times the price.  Eggs, beans, milk, butter, sugar, flour, vegetables, fruit, and snacks all cost about 1.5x the price back home.  For five people here, cooking meals at home, we're spending $35-$45 per day.  I had budgeted $700 per month for food.  Someone is getting rich, very rich, here.  Wal-Mart owns over half of the grocery stores in the country (Wal-Mart, Mas x Menos, Palí, Hiper Más, and Maxi Palí).  I'm guessing that colones are flowing en masse to Bentonville, Arkansas. Thankfully, the dollar has risen 10% against the colón in the last month, which helps us some, but I feel bad for my tico brethren.  I maintain that they should switch to the dollar once and for all and be done with trying to let their central bank sell dollars in the marketplace in order to keep the exchange near 500 to 1.    

4.   Hotels here are exorbitant now.  I'm not talking chain hotels, I'm talking tico places.  You'll pull up to a completely empty hotel with 20 rooms and they'll tell you, straight-faced, that they want $150 per room per night.  Why are your rooms empty you wonder?  If I'm going to spend that kind of money, I'm going to a swanky place for $225 a night.  The days of $35-$50 hotel rooms are gone.  But, it doesn't make any sense.  Everyone, and I mean everyone, is saying that gringos don't come here like before, and tourism is suffering greatly due to the drought of visitors. There is a massive excess in capacity without ANY decrease in price.  Call it greed, call it stupidity, call it a colossal national lack of business savvy, but I don't get it.  The fast-dime-is-better-than-a-slow-dollar mentality does not exist here. It's a shame.  If they slashed the prices of hotels in half, everywhere, more foreigners would come here.  I know how much they pay people an hour to work in and clean hotels.  They'd be making a fortune with 20 rooms full @ $45 a night vs 1 room @ $150.  Hotels that I've stayed at before for less than $50 a night now want over $125 per night for the same remodeling.  Locura es.  

5.  Not having a car was a major mistake.  For the reasons mentioned above, but also for the sheer feeling of freedom that a car gives.  Our options for travel are severely hindered by our reliance on others for our transportation.  It costs us $50 a week to go to church.  I'm considering renting a car for the month of April to see if it makes things better, but I'm not sure if we can afford it.  :(

6.  Lamps.  Most buildings here are lit by overhead bulbs in the ceiling.  Lamps are a rarity, and what ones there are (that cost about $15 at Ikea or Wal-Mart back home) run about $100 here.  Indirect light is easier on the eyes and floods a room better than the options we have here.  

7.  Our kids.  The house we're in has no yard where the kids can play.  We get no break from them except when they're in school, which is different every single day and there's always one of them home at some time early one day for one reason or another.  We needed a yard.  

Thursday, February 20, 2014

What school is like

When you walk into the Otilio Ulate Blanco school, you can tell that it’s old, but well-maintained, though many of the classrooms could stand with a coat of paint.  It sits on the southern edge of the central plaza in Zarcero, Costa Rica with two-way traffic on both streets.  The floors are large ceramic floor tiles from the 1950’s and the gym is a covered concrete area in the middle of a Spanish villa-style building, with classrooms around the central courtyard. 

The classrooms are spare.  The desks and chairs look to be vintage 1950’s materials, no plastic anywhere.  The walls are largely bare; each room as one electrical outlet, a chalkboard, a whiteboard, and a desk and chair for the teacher. 
It’s not bad though, it just seems to harken back to a different time in the progression of American public education, which may not be a bad thing seeing as how our standards and demand for “the best” have continued to deliver ever more dismal results despite the accrediting bodies swearing that assessment is the panacea for all pedagogical ills, billions thrown at the problem, and politicians and administrators getting in the way with required and common-core and a myriad other kind of faddish curricula.  I’ve seen bad schools before in the USA; I’ve seen them in other countries (e.g., Honduras), but I can’t imagine a school in the US doing so much with so little. 

The teachers are happy, energetic, well-dressed, and all business.  They dedicate their days educating cheerful, jovial, and respectful kids; the contrast between Costa Rican elementary students and the kids at the elementary schools in Darlington County, South Carolina is striking.  Here you’ll see none of the posturing and sassing that often abounds in the United States of 2014.  The students line up and give their teachers a kiss on the cheek before leaving each day.  Jack’s teacher worried that she’d done something wrong because the first time Jack didn’t kiss her, and she kissed him on the cheek, he tensed up badly.  When I explained to her that a teacher touching students, especially kisses, was completely forbidden in the States, she frowned and said, “Debe ser porque los gringos son así,” and she’s right.  We are that way.  We can’t be this way, but it’s nice to be somewhere where it can be this way, even if for a season, so that my kids can see that there are multiple ways of being and doing.  Marley told me yesterday that she would live her in Zarcero forever if she could.  The kids don’t mock, or make fun, or laugh at each other, except in amicable jest like friends do.  Everyone in her grade knows each other and gets along pretty well.  The petty ambitions and labels and name calling don’t happen here.  Wherever the British got their hands on any part of the educational system, we see the bullying and abusive behavior that we recognize as our own.  Here in Ticolandia, at least in this corner of it, it’s absent.   

I think the uniforms, required of every school in the country, help make them feel more equal and part of a community.  The rhetoric of their large meetings is definitely Christian Socialist rhetoric.  The Catholic Church and the Patria are the reasons why they are told to do what they do.  The nationalism is unlike other countries because it lacks the bellicose nature of ‘Murica and ¡VIVA MÉXICO, CABRONES!  It takes me back to a time and a place I never inhabitied but have read much of, and I like it and I’m also glad that our Constitution forbids governmental establishment of religion.  Not that I mind them teaching Marley to persignarse or morals to Jack and ethics to Calliope.  I dig it.  But, unlike the USA, Costa Rica is fairly homogenous and hasn’t had to deal with the upheavals and shocks and waves of immigration from all over the world like we have.   The America of yesteryear looks nothing like ours of today, but we are still America.  Costa Rica, demographically, other than marginalized Nicaraguan Otherness, looks the same as it always has.   

Since we aren’t citizens, and we don’t pay taxes, we felt like we should give back in return for our kids being allowed to attend there for free.  We’ve done what we’ve been able to, but there is still more that could be done.  If you’re willing to help, recognizing that it won’t be tax-deductible, let me know.  It’s easier to buy things here than to deal with the charlatans in the customs department here. 

There is a need for copy paper (locally $6 a ream), printer ink, and other supplies that the teachers pay for from their own pockets (as almost every teacher I’ve ever known does).   If you want to Paypal some help, I’ll put it to good use and send you some photographs of what we got.  I’m thinking some classrooms could use some paint, some walls could use some pencil sharpeners and some posters to liven up the place, especially maps.

Maps tell us where things are in the world.  I’m in a tiny insignificant corner of the world right now, not seen on most maps.  No matter the size of the place, I like to roost where I lay my head and make it better.  If anyone else wants to help folks you’ll probably never meet or see, I can make that happen without showing you photos of abject poverty and doe-eyed kids sitting in the dirt.             

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Settling in

Zarcero, nestled in the Tilarán chain of mountains that runs from SE to NW along the center of Costa Rica, sits around 5,700 feet above sea level.  The town (municipio) of about 4,000 people (counting the surrounding area) is dedicated to agriculture.  They grow onions, carrots, green beans, chayote, ñames, avocados, and countless other crops, and the pueblo is decidedly middle class.  The streets are paved and steep, and there are lots of fine houses--and a paucity of the verjas, or iron bars, one usually finds covering all entrances and exits of most houses in Costa Rica.  That was one of the reasons why we chose Zarcero for our adventure, it is safe and secure and you don't have to live in a cage to feel secure.

The people are industrious, charitable, and kind, instantly becoming your friends from the first conversation.  The kids have been accepted willingly at the school, and their teachers are caring and hard-working.  Their classmates are grateful for help in English class.  Marley knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.  She is the laziest language learner, but she is adjusting well socially, which is an important part of 2nd-language acquisition, but I cringe when I see boys checking her out; she's still my little baby girl and I know what they're thinking and I want to.....breathe, Mac.

Jack is Jack.  He is our odd duck, and we love him.  He's not doing anything abnormal for him, but he's still our highly-active, emotional, recalcitrant-in-the-face-of-new-food little boy.  He has decided to be terrified of dogs, so going for a walk her is an adventure with him in tow.

Calliope is worshipped as a tiny muñeca (doll) by all who see her.  She cannot go anywhere without people fawning all over her blue eyes, blond hair, and fair skin. She is quickly learning words, and will be the first of the three to speak Spanish.  
The hotel we've rented out sits on the main town square, in front of the famous cypress (cipreses) topiaries where all the tourists stop to take photos.  We can walk to everything we need, so we don't have a car.  But, if we want to leave Zarcero, we're finding that it's very expensive to take a taxi these days, and with five of us, the bus isn't as affordable an option as I thought it would be.

The cost of living here is absolutely insane.  Food costs 2-3x what it does in the States.  A kilo of rice back home is about a dollar.  Here, it's two to two-and-a-half dollars.  A 2-liter of Coke Zero is over $3 here.  An avocado, which grows on trees I can see from our windows here costs about $1.50.  Our planned budget of $700 per month for food is laughable.  We're spending a lot more, and we're not eating out.  In fact, it might be cheaper to eat out if we only ate casados (a typical meal of rice, beans, plantains, picadillo, and a meat).  Ticos (ticos is what Costa Ricans call themselves) earn 1/4th of what we make in the States.  The cost of labor is ridiculously cheap, but goods are more than they are at home.  We paid someone $20 to make us a pleated skirt, two pairs of shorts, and two dress shirts.  $4 per garment, from cloth without a pattern.

The weather is dry, windy, and cool.  It's gotten above 80F once since we've been here, but one night it got down to 44.7F with 15 mph winds.  That was a chilly night.  The houses don't have air conditioning or heat (though old ones do have chimneys and fireplaces), and the weather is perfect.  This is verano (Summer), the dry season.  It will most likely not rain at all until April.  When it does start to rain, it will come down with a volume (both of sound and quantity of water) only seen in tornado-generating storms back home, but without the violent winds we experience.

The aduana (customs) people have held a package shipped via Fedex since January 30th.  They keep needing me to fix some line on some form.  It's different every day.  It used to be easier 20 years ago when you knew that they were going to steal about 20% of what was in the package.  At least then it would clear customs quickly.  Now, they kill you with papeleo (endless paperwork), even if they don't steal anything.  If I were down in Alajuela close to the aduana, I'd try and bribe them; that's probably what they're waiting for, but, olvídalo.

Semi tractor-trailers use their engine brakes (Jake brakes) freely here, so our days are punctuated with "BRRRRRRRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA" every time the lone redlight changes to red.  At least 10 trucks filled with freshly-cut sugarcane from San Carlos pass by each hour, day and night.  People no longer cut it by hand--too many snakebites and machete injuries--they have gigantic mechanical harvesters.

Unlike my youth, the roads are now in decent shape, rare is the pothole.  However, they are still covered in animals, pedestrians, and other cars, lots and lots of cars everywhere, with no new roads or infrastructure improvements.  Imagine tripling the number of cars on the road in the States in 1994, but building maybe one new road per state.  That's what it's like here now, and the gridlock has led to lots of motorcycles.  Unmuffled, 600cc, motorcycles with drivers who think that 1st gear is all the need.  Last night, I went outside and asked a young man to please move his bike away from the hotel, because it was literally, and I mean literally, rattling every window in the building.  He scoffed, but then I mentioned that I didn't think he knew how to ride the motorcycle and wondered if it might be his or not.  He quickly said, "No, es prestada, pero no me está halando come debería"  (No, it's borrowed, but it's not hauling me like it should), and departed in haste.  I bought a box of foam earplugs so I could try and sleep through the night with all of the automotive bulla (racket) outside.  It worked.

It's 12 miles to church, and it costs us $24 each way.  The bishop's wife was a missionary here with me, and they've given us a standing invitation to lunch at their house when we come to church.  The house is amazing and has a view like few houses I've ever been in.  Check it out:

I'll write more next week or this weekend.  I've got a lot to write this week on the article on Jorge Luis Borges and Judas Iscariot I'm working on.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Olla de Carne, or Too Many Root Stew

Zarcero, Costa Rica is pretty cold for the tropics. The high today is 68F and the low tonight is 55F with 14 mph sustained winds. Up in the hills, they make a stew called olla de carne or (Pot of Meat). As missionaries, someone called it "Too Many Root Stew" for the high number of different tubers it contains. Since we're getting aclimated now, and the kids are using thick wool blankets in the night, I decided to make it. 

I started with a kilo (2.2 lbs) of beef chuck cut into 1 1/2" chunks. In a frying pan, I put 2 tbsp oil and added the meat coated previously seasoned with salt and black pepper. I seared them on both sides and then placed them in a crock pot, on high, with about 4 quarts of water in it, 3 tbsp granulated garlic, two onions (one rough cut & one diced into oblivion), 2 tbsp Costa Rican salt (it's like crushed sea salt), a bay leaf, 2 tbsp achiote (annatto paste), one small can of tomato paste, the juice from half of one Rangpur (limón mandarino), 4 whole stalks of coyote cilantro, and one large Yuca (cassava root) cut into large chunks. We let this cook on high for four hours.

Later, we peeled and added an ear of corn, 4 camotes, 1/4 of an ayote, 2 ñampies, 2 tiquisques, 1 chayote, 1 large carrot, 2 potatoes, and 1 green plantain, all of which were cut into 2" chunks. I also added some more salt and another 1/2 cup of water. 

We let it cook another 4 hours, then served it by pouring it over rice. It was delicious, though no one cared for tiquisques. I'll take some photos next time we make it. You could make something very similar in the States if you live close to a decent Hispanic market.

I didn't care for this so much in my youth, but at 40, it's a tasty meal (or two).

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Zarcero Is Awesome!

We're now safely ensconced in the Hotel Don Beto in Zarcero, Alajuela, Costa Rica.  We're right on the main square and the children don't seem to be suffering from culture shock beyond my fixing rice and beans every day.

The town is full of friendly people who will stop me and ask me why I'm here and congratulate me on choosing their town as our temporary home.  With the lodging, cellphone, internet, and banking situations under control, the only hassle left will be getting the kids enrolled in school.  Crossing my fingers on that one.

We'll go exploring next week.  This week's been a series of mandatos (errands) and tareas (tasks) that had to be done.  In a couple of weeks, with the kids hopefully enrolled in school, we can get down to a routine that will see Mickelle and I working during the mornings and early afternoons while the kids are in school, and the afternoons spent exploring or talking with people.  I want them to have as many experiences as we can afford.  But, it's so expensive here nowadays, I don't think my budget is sound anymore.  Costa Rica is more expensive that the USA nowadays.  Everything costs more except labor.  Someone's getting rich here, but it's not the middle class.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Lifelong Dream Fulfilled

Tomorrow morning, we're leaving from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta Airport bound for Costa Rica via Miami.  All of us are going.  We're going to live in the town of Zarcero, Alajeula, Costa Rica until the end of May.  I will be researching and reading and writing, and the kids will be learning Spanish, and Mickelle will be able to work from home.  It's an adventure that my children will always remember, and a gift that I've been wanting to give them ever since they were born.

130 days in Ticolandia.  Pura vida!