Saturday, December 20, 2014

Tico Christmas

Even though spending the Christmas season away from home can be a drag, it's also an opportune time to learn about the culture of others. I always take advantage of the situation and do my best to learn as much as possible about how the holidays are celebrated in my current country. So, I'd like to share with you everything I've learned over the past few weeks about celebrating Christmas and New Years in Costa Rica.

Timing and Decorations: The first thing you should know is that because Thanksgiving doesn't exist and Halloween isn't a big deal, the Christmas season starts very early here. I saw decorations as early as mid-October. For those of you who know me, I love Christmas but I believe it has a strict timeline of Black Friday-New Years day. In my opinion if it's stretched out it becomes diluted and therefore less special. However, I did my best to enjoy the Christmas lights, decorations and trees. While one the topic of decorations, Costa Ricans do a pretty good job of decorating, but it's still nothing compared to American standards. But, I must say one of the cutest displays of Christmas decorations was in the neighboring town of San Joaquin de las Flores. I was recommended by many people to go see their famous neighborhood Christmas lights display, so I decided to go. (Side note: I went alone, which is something I would never have done a few years ago. I used to feel awkward being seen alone, and fear feeling lonely, but the last couple of years abroad have given me the confidence to go solo and do the things I want to do, even if I don't have something to accompany me). The lighting display consisted of a couple of streets with houses covered and lights and with nativity scenes in their front yards. It was small, but charming. Many people come to see the lights, so in recent years the residents of the neighborhood have taken advantage of the situation and started selling food from their houses in order to help compensate for their rather large electricity bills. They sold everything from arroz con leche (rice pudding) to homemade chifrío (tortilla chips, rice, red beans, pico de gallo and crispy pork) but it was the pinchos (kebabs) that caught my eye. I picked out a delicious pinch of beef, onion, red pepper and juicy pineapple grilled to perfection. I enjoyed my kebab and admired the lights and started to get into the Christmas spirit.

Santa- Santa Claus has only become a popular in recent years due to the influence from the United States. Before, it was baby Jesus, not Santa who brought the gifts to the children of Costa Rica. In fact, children even wrote out their annual Christmas list and letters to baby Jesus rather than Santa Claus. Lately it has become confusing to the children who brings the presents, Santa or baby Jesus? One of my students told me that she has a good way of explaining it to her kids; that Santa is baby Jesus' helper, and that's why he's always in the Christmas movies and stories. Whether is Santa or Jesus, Costa Rica shares the same tradition of placing presents under the Christmas tree.

Christmas Eve/Day- Although every family is different, after talking to many Costa Ricans it seems the most common Christmas Eve here consists of going to evening mass, having a late dinner (around 9pm or so), and opening presents at midnight. Even the families with little children let them stay up late (they usually take a early evening nap in order to do so). Then, people sleep in on Christmas day and later on have a big feast with close family. 

The Food- One of the quintessential Christmas foods of Costa Rica is tamales. Because it's an extremely time consuming process to make tamales and it takes many people to do it, the Christmas season is the best time of your to make them due to the vacation time and the abundance of family members nearby to help. Tamales are usually eaten with afternoon coffee, rather than the principal part of the meal. Another popular Christmas food is "Queque Navideño" (Christmas cake). The queque is baked in a small bread mole and consists of usually rum or guaro (a local liquor made from sugar cane), candied fruits and carmel/cinnamon flavors. It's an extremely moist cake but delicious when eaten with a cup of coffee or Bailey's. Finally, the typical Christmas dinner here varies from house to house but the most common dishes are chicken or pork made with rice and other sides. Beer is the main drink of choice with dinner, the brewery I work for has been crazy lately because it's peak season for beer, but some choose to drink rompope (egg nog) instead.

Fireworks- Fireworks here are big not only for New Years, but Christmas as well. Fireworks are legal to buy as long as you're over 18, and they're extremely convenient to buy as many fireworks stands pop up all over the city in the parking lots of local popular stores, restaurants, etc.

New Years- Because it's nearly summer time, the most popular place to spend New Years is at the beach! Every tico has a favorite beach (there are plenty to chose from) most of them will make the trip to the coast for New Years Eve. New Years day meal usually consists of a barbecue of local meats served with tortillas, rice, sweet plantains and of course, beer. They aren't big on the New Years Eve kiss tradition here, but they have some other traditions. Some people carry around a suitcase on New Years Eve in order to have a "travel-filled" year, others copy the Spanish tradition of eating 12 grapes at midnight for good luck in the coming 12 months and some women wear certain color underwear to bring them good luck (red for love and yellow for financial prosperity). But, other than those little differences NYE is celebrated similarly to us, with friends or family gathering for one big special party with food, alcohol and fireworks in the mix.

 As much as I love learning about their traditions I also love teaching about ours! This past week I made a slideshow to show my students what Christmas and New Years in the US is all about! I even made my students gingerbread men to introduce them to a traditional American Christmas cookie. They were quite a challenge to make considering I didn't have molasses or brown sugar and I had to cut them out by hand, but it was all worth it when I saw how much my students enjoyed them!

Well, I better go, I have a flight to catch today. Can't believe I'll be home in about 14 hours. As much as I enjoy being abroad and learning about their holiday traditions, I'm looking forward to celebrating a few traditions or my own for the first time in three years :) 

Feliz Navidad everyone!




Saturday, December 13, 2014

Ridin' Solo in Nicaragua

Granada... cordoba... with these words you might think I jetted over to Spain for the weekend, but in fact I just traveled a little north to Nicaragua in order to get Granada and cordorba back in my life. Let me explain...

I arrived in Costa Rica on September 5th. On that day, a sort of countdown began; I had 90 legal days to stay in the country of Costa Rica. After that, I am required to leave Costa Rica for 72 hours in order to return for another 90 consecutive days. So, I had 90 days to cross over one of the Costa Rican borders... and I left it to my very last day, December 4th, to finally make the trip to Nicaragua. It's not that I was procrastinating or dreading the trip by any means; there was just a long series of complicated events that led to me taking the trip on the 90th day which are not worth explaining.

I originally had planned to go with my roommate but she snagged a new job the week before the trip and had to bail out last minute. As I couldn't push the trip back any further, and it was too short notice to find another travel companion, I ended up making to weekend trip to Nicaragua alone. I'd never taken a trip alone, but had always wanted to. I guess it just took a series of unfortunate events to finally get me to do it! So, I took off two days of work and left on a Thursday to spend my long weekend in Nicaragua. I boarded a rather comfortable bus in San José and made the 5 hour trip to the border. Then, I proceeded through a tedious and time consuming process of crossing the border which involved security checks, luggage investigations, a nurse taking my temperature, and a whole lot of papers. After about two hours, we were finally ready to move on and I rode another 90 minutes to Granada. I chose to visit Granada, Nicaragua after some advice from fellow English teachers and a little research of my own, and boy am I glad I did.

I hopped off the bus and took a $1 taxi ride to my hostel. After the long journey I was starving and ready to stretch my legs, so I dropped off my backpack and headed into town to find some local deliciousness. It was nearly 10 o'clock at this point, so I was a little nervous that there wouldn't be a lot of options for sitting down and eating, but the girl with a friendly smile at the hostel desk assured me that there would still be places open near the central park. She pointed me in the right direction and I made the three block walk into the center of town. As I walked into town the blend of street and moon light illuminated the vibrant colors of the colonial style houses. Even in the dim light the colors seemed to pop out at me. And then I heard a different sort of pop, and another, and another. Fireworks! "Celebrating what?" I wondered. I later found out it was part of a 9 day annual celebration of the virgin Mary. I followed the fireworks and found the central park, filled with Nicaraguans (or "nicos" as they are locally called) socializing, eating, selling food and gazing at the fireworks. The food stands sold oranges, candied apples, fried plantains, snow cones, etc. As delicious as the food looked, I was looking for something a little more substantial, so I found a seat at a table outside of a kiosk that was selling local food. I ordered a typical plate of boiled yucca (a starchy vegetable similar to potatoes), marinated pork and cabbage salad topped with pickled chile peppers, which was all served to me on a banana leaf. It was simple, yet delicious and only cost me 70 cordobas ($2.75), which is their local currency. Full and satisfied I walked back to my hostel to get some rest.

The next morning I did a little research to find a good place to eat breakfast in town. I found rave reviews about a place called Kathy's Waffles that does American style breakfast, so I decided to check it out. Normally I'm all about eating local, but Nicaraguans eat the exact same thing that Costa Ricans do for breakfast: rice and beans.  So, I knew I wasn't missing out on trying something new. Plus, I get to satisfy my American breakfast craving I've had since I arrived here. I ordered blueberry pancakes and coffee. In proper American fashion they were giant... and delicious. After my tasty breakfast, I decided to explore around town a bit. I checked out the cathedral, central market, shopping street and a couple of souvenirs shops. One thing became very apparent, Nicaragua is a lot cheaper than Costa Rica. The prices I saw in the market were about 1/3 of what I see here in Costa Rica. I decided to take advantage of the situation and bought some local produce to snack on for the next few days. In the afternoon, I was hanging out at the hostel when the smiley desk girl talked me into a taking a tour. After checking out my tour options, I decided to take the evening tour to the Masaya market and volcano, just a 30 minute drive away. It ended up being a small tour, just two other people in our little group. They were two aussies on a 7-week vacation. We were the same ages and connected immediately. I don't know what it is about aussies, but I always love them! I just find them to be so friendly and charming. Anyway, the first stop on the tour was in the old Masaya market where they sold tons of handmade crafts and goods with hammocks and wooden rocking chairs being the real crowned jewels. Then, we drove to the top of Masaya volcano just in time to get a glimpse of Managua and Lake Nicaragua before the sunset. (Fun fact, Lake Nicaragua is the 10th largest fresh-water lake in the world and the only lake to have sharks living in it). As we gazed over the top of the active crater, our tour guide told us all about the history of the Volcán Masaya. Then, once it was completely dark we put on hard hats and picked up flash lights to tour caves and see some bats and stalagmites. I didn't realize until that tour, but I'm not a huge fan of bats, especially when they're flying a few inches from my head. After the bat cave tour we had one last chance to get close to the crater and try to see the active lava glowing in the dark. We got so close we had to wear gas masks to keep us protected from the fumes, but unfortunately we weren't able to see the lava as there was too much gas. After the tour, I went out to dinner with my two new aussie friends, got some beers afterwards and called it a night.

The next morning, I introduced the aussies to Kathy's Waffles, which they loved. After breakfast, we took another trip together, but this time to Laguna de Apoyo, which is a fresh water lake that is naturally set in a crater made by volcanic activity. Our chauffeur told us it was the clearest and cleanest water in all of Central America. We spent five hours at the lake kayaking, swimming, sun bathing and admiring the incredibly beautiful foliage that encircled the lagoon. Laguna de Apoyo is still a pretty remote area at the moment, but I'd bet it's only a matter of time before it get's discovered and commercialized. When we arrived back in Granada the sun was setting and I quickly ran over to the bell tower of the church next to my hostel which can be climbed for $1. I climbed several, skinny, spiraling stairs in order to reach the top and see a breathtaking view of Granada. It was a great view to take in as I reflected on my first solo trip and weekend coming to an end. Later that night I enjoyed another delicious meal with my aussie "mates" at a well-known steak house in town (if you ever get to Nicaragua, try the meat!). Afterwards, we checked out the Virgin Mary celebration (more fireworks) and then shared one last beer together and parted ways. They thanked me for translating for them the past two days and I thanked them for keeping me company. The next day I hoped on the morning bus and made the 8.5 hour journey back to San José.

I must say, Nicaragua was unexpectedly wonderful. It's beautiful, affordable and culturally rich. It's what I imagine Costa Rica looked liked before it became commercialized. Don't get me wrong, I love Costa Rica but even the locals will admit that it has lost it's authentic Latin American heritage. This trip was great for another reason as well. I finally realized that it's not so scary to travel on your own, and I'm totally capable of doing it! Although there are some cons, there are many pros that outweigh them. It may have been my first solo trip, but I bet it won't be my last and I'm sure that it won't be my last trip to Nicaragua either.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Most Bittersweet Day of the Year

As I sit here sipping on a cup of tea and munching on the last piece of leftover pumpkin pie, I reflect on one of the most bittersweet days of the year as an American living abroad, Thanksgiving.

People always ask me if it's hard spending the holidays away from home, and my answer is of course! Holidays are all about spending time with loved ones, usually in a familiar setting, and sharing in some kind of traditional celebration. Well, nearly all of that familiarity is swept out from under you when you decide to spend a holiday abroad, which inherently makes you miss home. Also, due to today's social media, the reminder of everything your missing out on at home is more present than ever. So yes, of course I miss my home, friends and family during the holidays, but that doesn't mean I can't still enjoy the holiday.

Thanksgiving is my favorite and least favorite holiday to spend away from home; I'll explain. Thanksgiving is a holiday that is purely about spending time with loved ones. There's no presents, no jealousy, no greed, just appreciation for one another's company. For that reason, spending Thanksgiving away from home is really difficult, because that company which is the central part of the holiday is gone. However, one of my favorite parts about Thanksgiving is that it's intrinsically unique to the United States (and Canada). Many foreigners don't know anything about Thanksgiving except for that we eat turkey with family, if that. This gives me an incredible opportunity abroad to educate others about what Thanksgiving is all about, and naturally the best way to do that is by sharing a traditional Thanksgiving meal abroad with my new friends.  I've done this for three years now, and every year the meal has turned out to be a smashing success. Not only do I get to introduce foreigners to new foods like stuffing, gravy and pumpkin pie, but I get to educate them about the roots of the holiday and the tradition of giving thanks before enjoying the meal. Without fail, every year everyone enjoys the food and the values shared along with it. It's definitely one of those "proud to be an American" moments for me.

This year I enjoyed Thanksgiving with my three roommates, two new friends I've made here (who happen to be one of my students and her sister), and some friends of my roommates. The eight of us enjoyed a delicious menu which included mashed potatoes and gravy, a purée made from a local sweet potato, stuffing, steamed veggies, corn fried onions, pumpkin pie and roasted chicken (the only non-authentic part of our meal, turkeys are time-consuming and extremely expensive). In traditional Thanksgiving fashion, we cooked a ton of food with the intention of having leftovers. However, the Costa Ricans DEVOURED the food and the only leftovers were half of the second chicken, one small side of mashed potatoes and a few slices of the second pumpkin pie. If that's not proof that they loved the food, I don't know what is! I obviously couldn't host all of my students at my house for a thanksgiving meal, but I still wanted to give them a little taste of the holiday.  So this week I made an educational PowerPoint presentation about the history and tradition of Thanksgiving, and brought them all a slice of pumpkin bread so that they can understand our American obsession with pumpkin flavor, along with the recipe so they can enjoy it for years to come.

So hopefully now you understand a little better why Thanksgiving is such a bittersweet holiday for me. I've loved introducing others to the holiday for the past three years but I've got to admit, I'm looking forward to spending my next Thanksgiving at home. I'm long overdue.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Rise n' Shine

5:34am. That's the time the sun rose today in Costa Rica. The latest sunrise that Costa Rica will see all year is coming up in January, at 5:59am. I mentioned this briefly in an earlier post, but because of Costa Rica's close proximity to the equator, the sunrises and sunsets change very little throughout the year. So, basically what I'm saying is that the sun always rises before 6am here in Heredia.
A few weeks ago I started teaching morning classes. This required me to set my alarm for 5:30am, a painfully early time for a sleepy person like me.  I remember groggily glancing at the time as I shut off my alarm on the day of that first morning class and thinking to myself "It's so darn early. Man, am I one dedicated teacher for doing this." After giving myself a little praise for waking up so early, I hopped out of bed and went to make my morning coffee only to see one of my roommates was already up and walking out the door for work. I thought to myself, "Okay, maybe my wake-up call isn't all that bad; my roommate has to wake up even earlier than me and he has to do it every day." I also glanced out the window to see the bright light of the sun illuminating the park across the street from my house. For some reason when the sun is up, it doesn't feel as painfully early as it does on those early Minnesota mornings when you're awake for an hour or so before the sun's even up. Nonetheless, I continued through my morning routine with my "poor-me-I-have-to-be-awake-so-early attitude" and found myself heading towards the bus stop around 6am.
On my way to the bus stop I expected to see a small handful of people on their way to an early start at work, however I saw a few more people than I anticipated.  I saw school vans (vans instead of buses here) full of kids on their way to school, long lines of cars waiting to get onto the main road for their commute to work and people hustling and bustling around doing some morning errands. I also noticed the corner shop and neighborhood bakery were already open and had a few customers. I had to do a double take and look at my watch which read "6:00AM." I was astonished to see that I wasn't one of just a few people awake at this early morning hour, all of Costa Rica seemed to be awake.
Over the past couple of weeks, I have continued to wake up for my morning classes and see the same large crowd of people awake in those sunny morning hours, and I'm happy to report that not only have I gotten used to them, I actually kind of enjoy them. First of all, I've found the best weather is often in the morning. Since it's rainy season, we usually get rainy every afternoon, if not at least overcast. However, in the morning it tends to be clear enough to see the ring of mountains that encircle the central valley in addition to being sunny and warm. Also, it definitely helps that so many other people are awake at that time of day. I've dropped the "poor me" routine and now happily attempt to blend in with my fellow ticos (Costa Ricans) as we get our mornings started. A finally, since the sun sets around 5:30 every day, I'm thankful for those few extra daylight hours in the morning.
I've been trying to figure out why Costa Ricans all get up so early in the morning. I've asked a few ticos about their thoughts as well as speculating a few theories of my own but basically I think it boils down to the fact that the sun is up, Costa Ricans are hard workers, and the god-awful traffic that surrounds the San Jose metro area. I found out it takes one of my students an hour and thirty minutes to drive what is a 30 minute drive in no traffic in order to get to work in the morning. Uffdah is all I can say to that. All of this has (gasp) started making me into a little more of a morning person. I've even found myself waking up on days when I don't have morning classes around 7:30/8, which for those of you who know me, you know that's not characteristic of me. I'm usually one to sleep into 10 or even 11. However, I'm happy with this change. If I'm looking to make the most of my time in Costa Rica, I better be awake for it!
Moral of this post- When the sun's up, so is Costa Rica... and so am I :)

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

It's the Climb

"There's always gonna be another mountain
I'm always gonna want to make it move
Always gonna be an uphill battle
Sometimes I'm gonna have to lose
Ain't about how fast I get there
Ain't about what's waiting on the other side
It's the climb"

Sorry to quote Miley Cyrus, she's far from one of my role models. However, her song "The Climb" relates very well to the adventure we went on this past Sunday as well as experiences abroad in general.
Also, we found ourselves belting out the song as we climbed up the Barva Volcano this weekend. 

I was invited by a friend to join a fellow group of expats as they climbed a nearby volcano this weekend and of course my answer was yes! Any activity involving outdoors, exercise and little money is something I'm all in for. I didn't ask many questions, but I was warned that it would be a pretty intense hike and I should prepare accordingly.

I showed up at my friends house at 8am on Sunday and we walked together to the bus stop to meet the rest of the group. There ended up being 10 of us total including americans, brits, a french guy and a tico. We took the 20 minute bus ride to the nearby village of Barva, a commuter town to Heredia. On the bus ride I found out that the volcano usually takes 3 hours to climb... one way. Boy am I glad I packed a water bottle and snacks. The bus dropped us off at the bottom of the volcano, and we began to climb upwards. The path was paved but steep, very steep. Almost immediately, our larger group formed into a faster and slower group. Not even 15 minutes in someone from the slower group ran up to us and told us that four people were already ready to be done and were gonna take a taxi home. The 6 of us kept going fast at first and then we slowed down to a more reasonable pace. As we ascended we watched the weather go from hot and sunny, to cool and foggy, and finally to cold and rainy. I wouldn't say the climb was particularly difficult at any point, but the uphill battle (literally) was relentless and it became a mental battle to get to the top. I'll admit, there were some miserable points. Like when it first started rainy and I was so hot that I didn't want to put my hoodie on, but then it got soaked, and later on when it got colder and I wanted to use it the damp hoodie only made things worse. Not to mention my muddy, soggy shoes which I had to slosh around in for 4+ hours. However, it was all worth it when we got to the top where a beautiful national park was waiting for us. We spent an hour or so exploring the cloud forest and checking out the volcano crater that has turned into a lagoon. On the way down some of us were able to hitch a ride with a friend I ran into, and we warmed up with homemade soup from a restaurant on the side of the rode. By the time I got home at 7:30pm I was exhausted but all smiles as I had quite the adventure. Not only did I get to see a beautiful piece of nature, but I got to know some pretty awesome people and hey, I CLIMBED A VOLCANO. I'd say that's a pretty big accomplishment.

I think the lesson I learned from hiking the volcano is similar to the one I've learned many times living abroad. There can be rough times like when money's tight, when you're homesick during the holidays or just feeling overwhelmed by culture shock, but it's all those little experiences and reaching that end goal that make it all worth it. It's the journey you take, the friends you make, and the experiences you have along the way. So, to anyone out there that's having one of those down moments right now, remember that it will get better and that it's all part of a bigger picture. And if you need to, feel free to turn on "The Climb" and belt out the lyrics, because Miley knows.   

Monday, October 27, 2014

Conquering My Fear of the Phone

Like I said in my last entry, this past week's goal was to find a place to live in Heredia. My week got off to a frustrating start. I sent out several emails to the scarce online advertisements for rooms, apartments and houses for rent. The past two years in Spain I was able to find a house this way; I simply saw the ad, sent a message to the landlord and continued correspondence through email. This approach didn't work so well in Costa Rica. First of all, Costa Rican's aren't particularly good about responding to emails, and most don't even put ads online to begin with. This made my life very difficult.
I'll admit that my struggle to find a place wasn't completely due to online problems. I also was busy planning lessons for my first week of classes with English2Go! I was a little stressed and so I didn't put as much time as I should have into the house search. Still, I was frustrated. I was ready to move out of the hostel I had been living in for over a week, and finally unpack my bags and settle into a place. After talking with some locals, they told me the best way was just to directly call the person posting the ad. This puts me WAY outside my comfort zone.
The house! Most people have outdoor garages like this. 
As many of you know, my Spanish is fairly proficient and I'm very comfortable speaking the language. However, when it comes to talking on the phone, I'll do anything to avoid it. So much gets lost in the translation when I can't see gestures, facial expressions and read lips. My confidence plummets as my palms begin to sweat and my voice starts to quiver. It's so embarrassing that all this happens over a few simple phone calls, but I can't help it! I am one of many millennials who falls victim to the fear of talking on the phone (even in English I don't like it). Why? Because we millennials grew up with AOL instant messenger, email, texting, and facebook, which means talking on the phone is rarely required. Because I hardly ever used it, I never became comfortable with it and now I'm a grown 24-year-old who shivers at the thought of talking to a stranger on the phone. Okay, I'm being a little dramatic, but seriously... talking on the phone makes me really uncomfortable.
My Street
However, after finding out that Costa Ricans respond better to phone calls than emails and messages, I knew it was my best option. I began to call some of the numbers I had been collecting and didn't have very much luck. Finally, I took a chance and called the number of an ad I saw online that didn't have a picture of the house posted (which usually I take as a bad sign and pass over it). However, a nice woman picked up the phone and told me all about the house and I was immediately interested. The following day (Friday) I took a taxi over to the house and met the woman I had been talking to on the phone, Francesca a smiley 20-something tica and her boyfriend Harold. I immediately loved them, the house and the neighborhood. They seemed to like me to because when I asked when I could move in they said as soon as I wanted. So, I moved in that very night and have been living here ever since!
The house has four rooms: one is mine, another belongs to Harold and Francesca and another belongs to another young tico called Roland. The fourth room is for guests (visitors welcome!). It's a nice small house with a dining/living room and kitchen. Everyone in the house speaks both English and Spanish so it's been a nice mix of languages. Our neighborhood is extremely quiet and safe, just a 10-15 minute walk from Heredia's center. Not to mention the office of the company I work for, English2Go, is literally one block away, lucky me! I feel so fortunate to have found somewhere that is such a perfect fit for me. It took a lot of time, patience, and work to find this place but as the saying goes "great things come to those who wait."

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Starting Over in Heredia

I'll admit it, the transition to Heredia wasn't easy. It's been a long, lonely first week, but things are finally falling into place. But I'm getting ahead of myself, let's rewind to my journey here.
I woke up bright and early at 5am to catch the bus from Santa Teresa to San Jose. A couple days earlier, when I asked where the bus stop was, I was comically informed "everywhere." Upon further investigation I found out that "everywhere" meant that the bus stops anywhere along the main road the passes through Santa Teresa and Mal País, the whole process takes about an hour, but after that we were off. We drove about an hour and a half to a location where we got off the bus and on a ferry. The ferry took a little over an hour to cross from the Nicoyan peninsula to mainland Costa Rica. It gave me a chance to soak up the sun and breathe some fresh air before we had to get on the bus again and make the final two hour push to San Jose. I got off at the airport and waited for a bus to Heredia. I was confused when the first few buses refused to take me because of my luggage, and started to get nervous that I might have to pay the price for a taxi. But, luckily with the help of a nice local tico (Costa Rican) after about ten buses, one finally agreed to take me and put my luggage in the handicapped section. I was relieved to be on the bus but then realized something significant, I had no idea where to get off. I knew I needed to get off somewhere near the city center, so I tried to look for clues. Finally, when I felt that I was seeing big groups of people and more movement, I leaned over and asked the man next to me where I should get off. Not only did he tell me the bus stop, but he showed me where to catch a taxi too. (Are you noticing the trend? Ticos are very nice people). Unfortunately by this time it was pouring rain, so I rushed into the taxi and gave the driver the "address" of the hostel. Something you have to understand is that "addresses" don't really exist in Costa Rica, not the way we imagine it anyway. There are no numbers or street names. Instead they give you directions from a landmark nearby. For example 75 meters north and 200 meters west of the church... well what if I don't know where the church is?! Luckily, my driver had a better idea than I did of where we were going, so we only struggled a little to find the place. Before I could even knock on the door, the door to the hostel opened and who was standing there? Andrew, one of my TEFL classmates. What a coincidence! Then I found out that the owners of the hostel were on vacation and we had the who place to ourselves. So this entire week we've been living in a giant, empty, quiet hostel and it's been quite the experience.
Right away the following day I had two interviews for English teaching jobs. One was in person in Heredia and the other was a skype interview for a job in San Jose. Wednesday I had another two interviews one for a job in Heredia and another for a job in San Pedro, a suburb of San Jose. Throughout all four interviews I heard the same thing over and over... October is low season and there aren't a lot of teaching hours. However, I stayed optimistic and by Friday I had accepted my first few hours of work (10 hours a week to start) with a company here in Heredia that teaches English to local businesses. It's going to require some traveling, so it's not ideal, but I'll take anything at this point!
Central Market
There have been a few other highlights of the week. The first one happened after I read my Lonely Planet Costa Rica guide book and found out that Heredia has a nice central market. So, Andrew and I stopped by and were very impressed. Not only does the market have fresh produce, meat, fish and spices for affordable prices, but they are also full of little restaurants where you can pull up a bar stool and eat some local food. It's my favorite part about Heredia so far. Another big highlight this week was one of my other TEFL classmates, Cassie, was visiting her Costa Rican boyfriend in San Jose. I went out to dinner with them and some friends to a great Lebanese restaurant on Wednesday night, and on Thursday we went to her boyfriend's family's house for dinner! It was nice to see a familiar face and to get out of the hostel for a couple nights.
Saturday, however, was the most eventful day I've had so far and it was completely unexpected. Earlier in the week, I asked if I could observe a class at one of the schools I had interviewed with, and they welcomed the opportunity. So Saturday morning I went to go observe one of the three-hour morning classes. Fifteen minutes into my observation, the coordinator of the school pulled me out of the room and told me that one of their teachers was very sick and they needed a sub for her afternoon class. She asked if I would do it and of course I said yes, even though I wasn't sure how I was going to pull off planning a two-hour class in the matter of a few hours. However, with a little help I managed to do it and by 1pm I was teaching my very own class of 9-12 year olds. Although it was nerve-wrecking and unexpected I really enjoyed the experience. It felt great to be back in the classroom.
Well tomorrow I start my new job and hoping that all goes well! Now that I've got the job nailed down,  this week's task is to find an apartment, followed by finding a new circle of friends here in Heredia. After that, settling in will be a matter of finding my new gym, a new favorite bar, favorite cafe, running route, etc. It's not easy starting over again, especially after I felt so comfortable after my first month here, but it's all a process of a big leap of faith into the next chapter of my life: My Life in Heredia.

P.S. Sorry for the boring play-by-play blog entry but as much as I write this blog for the entertainment of others, I also write it to record my memories for myself. Sometimes the play-by-play is necessary.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Beach Bummin'

Well, my "few days" that I was planning on spending in the beach house turned into a full week. I had a feeling that it might happen, but no regrets! My friends/former classmates and I have been having a great time here in Santa Teresa, a small surfer town on the southern portion of the Nicoyan peninsula. We're currently living in a nice little place just about 100 meters from the beach. We even have our own pool and AC! Since it's "low season" for tourism, my friends were able to get a really good price for the house, so we're enjoying the luxury for the time being.
Getting down here to Santa Teresa was quite the adventure. Gerardo, a TEFL student of ours from Samara, is a taxi driver and offered to drive us from Samara to Santa Teresa. During dry season, the journey only takes an hour and a half, but since it's rainy season there are many roads that are impassable, so we had to take an alternative route which took just shy of four hours. Gerardo's vehicle was a small SUV that tightly seats seven (which was perfect, because including Gerardo there were seven of us) and had next to no trunk space. Not to worry though, Gerardo had a rack on his roof where he some how managed to tie 8 pieces of luggage and a surfboard with a single rope. So, we packed into the car with our smaller bags in our laps and made the four hour journey to Santa Teresa. Nearly the entire journey was on small, dirt roads that winded through mountains and over rivers... literally, we drove through rivers. Although it was a long journey, I can't really complain because the scenery was stunning and the company was great. I even had my first crocodile sighting, which was very exciting. After hours of pothole ridden roads, we pulled into the tiny beach town of Santa Teresa. We even invited Gerardo into the house have a beer with us to thank him for driving us (don't worry, we paid him too).
It's been a great week in the beach house. After 8+ hours a day of TEFL training and teaching, it's been nice to relax. Because we have a former chef (Matt) among us, we've spent many mornings and evenings putting together some pretty elaborate and tasty breakfasts and dinners. The best part is that we've been able to save a lot of money by picking papayas from the tree in our yard, knocking down coconuts from trees on the beach, and cutting down "cuadrados" which are similar to plantains with our friends machete. It's been a blast trying to be resourceful and making dishes with local flavors, not to mention I've been learning a ton from Matt. Because of him, I now know how to break down and use an entire chicken. Thanks Matt!
Cooking has been a blast but it's not all that we've done this week. Because of the on-again-off-again rain, we've been spending a fair amount of time both in and outdoors. Indoor activities include job hunting, setting up interviews, watching movies, reading books, updating blogs, etc. Outdoor activities have included laying on the beach, watching our friend Ben surf, looking for coconut trees that are short enough to reach the coconuts, swimming in the pool, slackline-ing on the beach, and hiking/exploring. One of the highlights of the week was on Wednesday when we went in search of some sea caves that were supposedly a thirty minute walk down the beach. We we're also told that the caves were near a fishing port where we could buy fresh fish caught that day. So four of us ventured out into the rain in search of the fish and caves. In the end, it took us an hour and a half to get to the caves and the fishing port. Unfortunately due to the rain, the fishermen didn't fish that day but they told us to come back another day to get some tuna, mahi mahi or red snapper. We found the caves at the end of a path that had turned into a creek due to the heavy rain that was dense with jungle trees, vines and branches. We had another stroke of bad luck because the tide was so high that we weren't able to get into the caves.  However that's where the bad luck ended because the caves we located on a pristine, untouched, white, sandy beach surrounded by nothing but sea rocks and trees. We spent some time on the beach and were even graced with the presence of a family of white-faced tree monkeys called "mikos." After some time on the beach, we made the hour and a half trek back to our house and rewarded ourselves with some coconut water from coconuts we were able to collect on the way home.
Cassie, our slackline expert
All in all its been an excellent week and I don't want it to end. But, sadly today is my last today in beautiful Santa Teresa with my friends. Tomorrow, at 6am I'll be boarding a bus that will take me to San Jose and eventually taking a second bus to Heredia. I don't like the idea of leaving my friends because we've become so close these past five weeks. What makes it even harder is knowing that they still get to be together for another three weeks, while I'm alone in a new city. But, all fun must come to an end. I have two interviews on Monday which will kick off the next chapter of my time in Costa Rica. Although it's scary to start over, I'm looking forward to seeing what the future holds for me in Heredia! Until next time, pura vida to all.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Adios Samara

It's official. I am a TEFL certified English teacher! It honestly may have been the fastest 4 weeks of my life. I felt like I blinked and it was over. Well as the saying goes, time flies when you're having fun and I enjoyed every minute of my TEFL certification course. Not only did I genuinely love the lessons, but I couldn't have asked for better teachers and classmates.
Picadillo
So a few fun things happened this week since it was our last week of the course. Our last night of lessons was Thursday night and afterwards one of our classes threw us a little party. They made Costa Rican picadillo which is easily the tastiest thing I've had since being here. Picadillo is green papaya, minced and cooked with ground beef, onions, garlic and other spices and served on a corn tortilla. I never knew papaya could taste so savory; it was a nice surprise. It was nice to spend some time with our students outside of our structured classroom environment, and we really felt the love from our students that night. They thanked us for the services we provide because since Samara is such a touristy place, English is necessary to find work here; however most of the people who live here can't afford classes so they feel very fortunate to have us TEFL teachers that give free classes during our training. It really put the importance of teaching English into perspective and helped validate that coming here was the right thing to do.
Our students who threw us the party
Friday night we went to class a little earlier than normal in order to take our final exam and turn in our portfolios. The teachers graded our tests and portfolios during our long lunch break when we celebrated being done with sandwiches and beer on the beach. Afterwards, we went back and got our final grades and TEFL certificates. Later that night, we had a graduation celebration with the teachers at TEFL, other classmates and some of our students at a local bar in town (which TEFL's owner's husband just so happens to own). We drank some champagne and toasted to a stellar four weeks at Costa Rica TEFL. It was definitely a bittersweet moment for me because although I'm relieved to be done and excited to begin my TEFL career, I've really grown comfortable here in Samara and come to love this little beach town and all the people I've met here. 
So, what's next? Well, of my seven classmates, five have decided to spend the next month in a beach house in a town a little further down the Nicoyan peninsula. Some of them will look for work and/or take Spanish classes while they're there, but they're mostly planning on relaxing on the beach for a month. While I don't think I can afford to stay for the whole month, I'm planning on joining them for a few days next week on my way to the central valley of Costa Rica (San Jose area) where I will start job hunting. I've already got a handful of connections and interviews set up for when I get there, so I'm really hoping that one of those pan out. Fingers crossed!
Tomorrow we're leaving so it's time to start the packing process... the worst part of traveling in my opinion.  However, yesterday I spent nearly the whole day outside on the beach, slack-lining, swimming, and trying to soak up my last moments here in Samara. Also, by some miracle it didn't rain at all day! That's a first since I've been here. It must be mother nature rewarding us after all of our hard work these past four weeks. 
There's a lot of sad and nerve wrecking things coming up, saying goodbye to my friends and the little beach town I've come to love in order to go to a new, bigger city where I don't know anyone to start my next chapter! I know it will be worth it, but it's a little unsettling for the time being. But at moments like these, I like to think of one of my favorite quotes, "In order to cross an ocean, you must lose sight of the shore"

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Snorkel Excursion

Well, I figured it was time to give my blog a new look since I'm in a new country after all. Hope you like it!

I must say, I am forcing myself to write this blog post. I'm getting behind on my updates, so I know it's necessary but man am I beat! I've been incredibly busy with my classes and lessons the last couple of weeks. I've officially taught four lessons on my own, and I really think I'm improving every time, which is exciting because I feel like I'm really starting to nail this whole teaching things down. But, it's taking its toll. I've been at school for 10 hours nearly every day and had to dedicate my entire Sunday to lesson planning. Tonights my first free night I've had in a while, so I'm making sure this update gets done before I forget the details. 

This weekend was an absolute blast. On Friday night, my classmates and I went out to some of the local bars on the beach. I'm starting to realize that this town is so tiny, that you see the exact same group of people any night you go out in Sámara. We've been mingling with the locals here and there, but mostly we just stick to ourselves and have been having a great time. 

Holding a live starfish!
On Saturday we got up and met at the soda for breakfast. A "soda" is Costa Rica's equivalent of a diner; it's basic food for a cheap price, so we tend to go there quite a bit. After eating we went to meet our guide, Pedro, who is also a friend of one of our classmates. Pedro was taking us on a kayak and snorkel tour and we couldn't have been more excited! There were six of us including Pedro, so we took two double and two single kayaks. Kayaking into the waves to get out was a little intimidating, but it ended up being easier than we thought. From there, we kayaked out to a little island called Isla Choro about a mile or so off the coast, which took us about 45 minutes. Once we got there we started to look around and saw something very curious, rocks sliding across the sand in a million directions. At a closer look, we realized they weren't rocks, but thousands and thousands of hermit crabs! It was one of the coolest things I've ever seen. We seized the opportunity to pick some up and snap pics immediately (thankfully my friend Michelle has a waterproof camera so she was in charge of documenting the whole excursion). Then, it was time to put on our snorkels and flippers and go snorkeling. Admittedly, I didn't see much at first. I only saw a few tropical fish and some regular ones, but as we continued to follow Pedro we began to see more and more things. By the end of the snorkeling we had seen lobsters, starfish, blowfish, sea cucumbers, tons of colorful tropical fish and more. We even got to hold the starfish and blowfish and Pedro kept one of the lobsters so we could eat it later! All in all it was an absolute blast. After nearly an hour or snorkeling and getting knocked around by the waves, we were ready for a break. Pedro had just the thing for us, fresh pineapple and watermelon which really hit the spot because I had taken a few mouthfuls of sea water and was ready for a different taste in my mouth. We were planning on going out for round two of snorkeling, but unfortunately the weather had other plans so we packed up and kayaked home. It was a close call as we saw a few lightning strikes on our way back, but I'm happy to say we made it back safe and sound.  
Michelle and I posing with hermit crabs
Later on Saturday night, Nini and I invited everyone over to our place for lobster guacamole. However, once we cooked the lobster and tried a piece, we decided we wanted to eat it plain and not put it in the guac because it was just too darn good on it's own (although some of us kept sneaking spoonfuls of guac and lobster together which is a sensational combination if you've never tried it). The next day I even made stock with the lobster carcass which turned into a delicious little fish noodle soup :)

So much more I'd like to write about but unfortunately sleep is now the priority sense I've still got another lesson to plan this week. Hoping to get another update in soon but until then, pura vida mae. 

P.S. One of my buddy's here, Matt, it's an awesome blogger and did a really awesome piece about some of the crazy insects we're facing down here. If you want to check it out, follow the link! https://mattkuerbis.wordpress.com/2014/09/21/dengue-and-other-things-to-avoid/



Monday, September 15, 2014

Welcome to the Pura Vida

Hey everyone! I'm back after a wonderful summer break in Minnesota where I spent tons of time with family and friends at home and on the lake. Now, I'm 10 days into my new adventure in Costa Rica! Here's what I've been up to...

I arrived in San José, the capital, on a Friday. The owner of my small hostel, Michael, was able to pick me up directly from the airport and drive me to the hostel himself.  He told me there was a protest going through the center of town, so we would have to drive around it using back roads which took about an hour instead of the normal 20 minute trip. I was happy to be back and practicing my Spanish again, and Michael assured me that I was speaking very well which is nice to hear after a couple of months off. However, as we continued to talk I started picking up on some of the words that Costa Ricans favor that are different from the Castellano Spanish I've been using the last two years. Here are some of the changes I've been working on in the last week or so:
  • using the formal "usted/ustedes" to address others instead of "tu/vosotros"(which also changes how I conjugate many of my verbs)
  • saying "mucho gusto" instead of "de nada" for you're welcome
  • saying "mae" instead of "tio/hombre" which translates to bro/dude
  • asking for the "factura" and not the "cuenta" when asking for the check
  • using "tuanis" instead of "guai/chulo" for the word "cool"
  • the most important is using the phrase "pura vida" which can mean hello, goodbye, welcome,

    take it easy, have a good day, you're welcome, EVERYTHING. It directly translates to "Pure Life" but it's not just a word here, it's a way of life. It represents their loving, caring, laid back lifestyle here that results in the highest quality of life possible.
Anyway, those are some of the main ones but the different words just keep coming! I know it will take a while but I'm sure I'll have this new tico Spanish down soon.  Speaking of "tico", this is the word used to describe Costa Ricans. Okay... now that I've had my language tangent, let's rewind back to San José. 
After I enjoyed a much needed afternoon nap, I got in touch with another girl from my program that was also in San José for the night. We met for dinner and planned to take the bus together to Sámara the following day. Between our long dinner convo and the long bus ride to Sámara, I learned that this girl's name was Nini, she's from Denmark, only 18 years old (super brave!) and we were going to be roommates once we got to Sámara because we both chose the same living option. I can't tell you how nice it was to have for those first 48 hours because we experienced all the culture shock together. Our 5 hour bus turned into a 7 hour bus ride because a small town between San José and Sámara decided to block off a street during a protests, so our bus could do nothing but wait idelly for 2 hours in a traffic jam. By the time we arrived in Sámara it was dark as the sun sets promptly at 6pm everyday in Costa Rica. It also happened to be storming but luckily as soon as we got off the bus a beautiful blonde girl came running up to us asking if we were Nini and Steph. She turned out to be our landlord Javi's girlfriend who was visiting from Germany. She was an absolute saint for waiting 2 hours for us just to help us get to the house. Because of the rain, we took a taxi to the house. Although it was dark the first thing I noticed is that Samara was a lot smaller and more remote then I was expecting. It's a town of less than 2,000 people that is full of tourism due to it's incredible beaches. Sunbathers and surfers alike are attracted to this quiet beach town because of it's amazing shoreline, great weather and laid-back atmosphere. Finally we arrived at our "cabin" which is a small place with two rooms, a tiny bathroom (one shower temp only), and a very basic kitchen attached to the living room. It also comes with a hammock and two bikes! The place is extremely basic, but I've learned to love it! My favorite part is the giant sliding door at the front of the house, which we leave open when we're home to let in some fresh air and enjoy the chorus of animals that can be heard from our little house. After we dropped off our bags and got a tour of the house, we headed into the town for some dinner. Soon after dinner we came back and crashed after our long day of travel.
Sunday we spent unpacking, grocery shopping and getting settled into the new apartment. I also went out with my landlord Javi and his girlfriend Christina for a couple beers and "bocas" which are like tapas because they come free with a beer. They told me all about Sámara and I quickly learned that the things I've worried about the last couple years are nothing like my worries now. They warned me about the stingrays, scorpions but most of all the crocodiles that live in the river in town... haha don't think I'll be swimming there any time soon. But luckily the ocean is safe because it's waves are relatively small and the riptides aren't very strong. Later on Sunday Nini and I cooked our first dinner together which turned out to be a little more difficult than we though considering we only have one pot, two pans, two plates, three forks/spoons, one cutting knife, one serrated knife, two classes two cups and two bowls. That's it. We've had to get creative with some of our meals and we're learning how to work around it. After dinner we went to bed and I was admittedly very excited for the first day of classes the following day. 
The first week of classes went really well! We were introduced to our three teachers (all americans in their upper 30s or so) and my fellow classmates. I have 8 classmates comprised of 4 americans, 2 canadians (one french), one kiwi and one danish girl all spanning from ages 18-50! We immediately clicked, which is a good thing because we're currently spending 40 class hours a week together plus a lot of time outside of class too. We started teaching on Wednesday, the first week we taught two lessons in teacher pairs. The English classes we give are free to the public, which is a great deal for everyone. The first two lessons we're a little stressful since we're all so new but we were excited to celebrate our successes come Friday! All 8 of us went out for dinner, a few beers and dancing at a bar on the beach. We had such a good time that the night ended with all of us taking a little dip in the ocean. 
Saturday three of us went into Nicoya, the closest big town of about 20,000 people. It's only 45 minutes- 1 hr by bus and less than $3 per way. There we were able to buy some of the stuff that isn't available here in Sámara, Nini and I bought a few new things for the kitchen (spatula, strainer and tupperware... woo!) The only downside is that we all got motion sickness on both ways of the bus ride, but luckily it didn't really amount to anything. Saturday night Nini and I had everyone over to our place and one of the classmates brought his guitar. We had a few guitar players in the group so we just passed around the guitar, sang, and had a good time. Sunday we all went to the beach for the day! We even had a local who helped us get coconuts and chop it open with a machete so we could drink the coconut water and eat the inside. So delicious, fresh and FREE! Later on we watched the independence day parade (celebrated today, September 15th) which was comprised of a small drum line of school children and local families carrying handmade paper lanterns which we're festively decorated with the Costa Rican colors, flags, etc. It took about 15 minutes for the parade to make a small loop around the main block in town.  Nini and I walked with the parade a had a great time! After that we met up at a bar for "free pizza night" where you get two slices of pizza with every drink you order. Quite the deal if you ask me. 
Now it's Monday and we're back to school mode. Tomorrow I teach my first lesson on my own and I couldn't be more excited! There's so much I still want to blog about but I'll save it for another entry. Until then, pura vida :) 

Friday, June 27, 2014

The 7 Reasons I've Loved Living in Madrid

Usually I'm not up at 3am, but today my afternoon siesta turned out to be longer than I originally anticipated, hence why I'm currently wide awake. So, I figured that now is as good a time as any to blog about why I've loved living in Madrid this year. I'll admit, I was a bit skeptical coming into this year. My first two trips to Madrid were, well, just average. I don't know why, but the city didn't really captivate me at all. On my third trip to Madrid I started to like it, but coming to live here this year would be my fourth time in Madrid and I was hoping for the best. I have to say, Madrid has completely shattered all my expectations.

I've chosen 7 major reasons why Madrid has been such a great home away from home for me this year.  Now, I just have to say that obviously being surrounded by a great group of friends is a major reason why I've had such an unforgettable year, so thank you friends! You know who you are :) But, this blog post will focus on just the city aspect of living. So without further ado, here are the reasons why I believe Madrid is a great place to live.

7. It's SAFE- Yes, Madrid is a very safe city. In fact, I feel safer walking alone here at night than I would in Minneapolis or another american city. Sometimes I feel like I only feel safe because I live in a lively area and there's always people around, so there aren't really opportunities to do anything shady.  Plus, no one owns guns here. However, I looked up some quick facts on homicide rates and it turns out, it wasn't just a feeling, I really am safer here! Madrid only had 34 homicides last year out of its 6.5 million metro population giving it a rate of 0.52 per 100,000 people in 2013. Comparing that to an american city of similar size, Houston had a homicide rate of 10.0 per 100,000 people in 2012. The facts don't lie! The worst "crime" you're likely to be a victim of here is pick-pocketing, which (in my opinion) is totally preventable.

6. It's CLEAN- I've traveled to my fair share of big cities in Europe, South America and the U.S. and I must admit that many of them have that city smell. It usually smells like a mix of car exhaust, urine, and rotting garbage. I'm not just saying this, Madrid doesn't have that "smell". We got a little taste of what it would be like back in October during the garbage strike when Madrid wasn't cleaned for 14 days, but luckily now we're back to normal and the city smells normal. Plus, with the army of street cleaners that are constantly working in the center, you'll find significantly less litter here than in other cities.  As a neat freak, this was a huge bonus for me.

5. MASS TRANSPORTATION is convenient and easy- Madrid is the most well connected city in Spain, bar none. It has three train systems in just the community of Madrid itself (metro, light rail and Cercanias suburban train), not to mention the hundreds of trains (including high speed ones) that leave every day to other destinations in Spain and Europe! Furthermore, during regular weekday hours you never have to wait more than a few minutes for the next metro train. If trains aren't for you, there's a massive web of electric city buses as well that run 24 hours a day. Finally, Madrid's newest contribution to transportation is a series of electric bike stands that are all over the center. Rental is merely 60 cents for every thirty minutes (or 15 euros for the annual pass). I think the city still has a ways to go with installing bike lanes before it can call itself a truly "bike friendly" city, but it's trying.

4. Parks on parks on PARKS- Unlike many big cities, you never have to walk far in Madrid to find a city park. Some are small but others are HUGE like Casa de Campo (former royal hunting grounds) or the famous Parque del Buen Retiro (Madrid's equivalent of central park). Not to mention the parks that line the Río Manzanares on the west side of Madrid. My point is that even in a big city like Madrid, you can get your fix of green and stretch your legs.

3. It's DIVERSE- It's no surprise that Madrid is a very diverse city like other capital cities, but I think it's one of the things that makes it great! It's true that you lose a bit of that "traditional Spanish" culture, but you gain so much more! Madrid has large populations of South American, Romanian, Moroccan, Bangladeshi, Indian and Chinese people. The best thing that these people bring with them is their FOOD! You can get tons of ethnic food all over Madrid, so you're never bored. But Madrid's diversity extends beyond ethnicity.  It's also diverse with a large gay population. Gay people are widely accepted in Madrid and same-sex marriages were legalized way back in 2005! Madrid has the biggest pride celebration in the country, unfortunately it's a week after I leave in July. All in all, don't expect just to see one type of person walking around Madrid.

2. WALK-ABILITY- I know I just got done bragging about the public transport, but the truth is it's not even necessary most of the time. If you live in one of the neighborhoods of the "centro," you can walk pretty much anywhere in less than 30 minutes. My location is very central so for me I'm only 10 minutes from Sol, 10 from Plaza Mayor, 5 from Atocha Station, 12 from Retiro Park and 15 from Gran Via. Now, the neighborhood I worked in required the metro but once I am back in the centre and running errands, I rarely use the metro. I love walking for a million reasons but mainly because it's green, free, good exercise and of course better for soaking up the atmosphere.

1. The ATMOSPHERE- I don't know how it happens, but the city of Madrid manages to capture the buzzing city vibe and the relaxed Mediterranean culture all in one. It's incredible how these polar opposite attributes perfectly meld together into one harmonious atmosphere that is totally Madrileño. While there are always people going about there business and it's nearly impossible to ride past a metro stop without seeing someone in a hurry, Madrid is still able to maintain a relaxing atmosphere. People still manage to sit down at a cafe and drink their cafe con leche out of real coffee cups, not paper ones and although there is no siesta in Madrid, people still enjoy their 2 hour-long lunch breaks daily. Yes, Madrileños love to relax, but I promise you that it's not dull. Something is ALWAYS happening in Madrid, there is never a dull moment. It's difficult to explain, so I guess you'll just have to come see it for yourself one day :)

Now I've missed a lot of things, like how Madrid is full of rich, historical culture and it's an extremely affordable city, but I tried to hit the main aspects that stick out to me.  Writing this post is making me feel a bit sentimental about leaving, but I can only say that it's been a total pleasure living here for the past 10 months and I look forward to the day I get back and visit! But I'm getting ahead of myself, I'm not done yet. 3 more days to enjoy this great city and everything it has to offer!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Fútbol

Okay, I'm behind on my blog again... and no one in surprised. I said a while back that I would blog about the Champions League Championship, but I never got around to it. And now the world cup is in full swing so I figured I would just combine both entries and dedicate one blog post to Spain's religious obsession... fútbol.

To be honest until this year I was just sort of a casual soccer fan, like most Americans. I basically only watched soccer in those brief moments when I was traveling abroad and when the World Cup and Olympics happens to come around. So... not often. Not even last year was I really into the soccer scene. Maybe it had to do with the fact that my three best friends were all females who weren't big fans. Well this year, my two best friends happen to be big soccer fans (probably has to do with their families' Greek heritage) and so I started watching with them. I used to be one of those people that found soccer to be pretty slow-moving and dull and now I can't remember why! Sure, there are slow games but most games are thrilling! Even some 0-0 games are nail-biters, and that's something I'm not sure I can say about other sports. Considering soccer is the most watched sport in the world, I don't know what took me (and what is taking Americans) so long to catch on.

A country that caught on a long, long time ago is Spain. Spain has a long history of fútbol and the sport has turned into a religious affair for most Spaniards that I know. I got my first taste of the fútbol fandom when I attended my first Real Madrid game back in January. Although it was just a casual "Copa del Rey" game against Osasuna, a pretty average team, I could feel the passion in the atmosphere. People literally live for this here. Although I can kind of compare fútbol here to (American) football at Saint John's University or basketball at Duke, it's not quite this same. People go "loco" for it here. After that first game, I was hooked. Not only was it fun to watch, but I began to feel even more connected to the Spanish culture, as cheesy as it sounds.

From January on my friends and I would make sure to catch Real Madrid games on TV when we could.  Real Madrid is one of two teams in Madrid.  There is another team, Atlético Madrid, who is also very good. I won't go into detail about the two teams, but basically Real Madrid is the older team with more history, more money and more star players while Atlético Madrid are the newer team with a smaller budget and less stars but definitely a force to be reckoned with.  Another thing that needs to be understood is that during the year, these teams play in more than one league (unlike US teams who only play in the NBA or NFL). The three leagues these teams play in are the Copa del Rey (King's Cup), La Liga (The Spanish League) and UEFA Champions League. The Copa del Rey is the least competitive for all Spanish associated clubs (1st and 2nd tier) and functions in knock-out fashion until there is one winner. La Liga is only the top 20 teams in Spain and functions on a point system; whoever has the most points at the end of the season wins. Then there is the Champions League, the most competitive, which consists of the best club teams in Europe and also ends the year with a knock out tournament.

Well, it was a very exciting year to be in Madrid as Real Madrid beat Barcelona and won the Copa del Rey, Atlético Madrid won La Liga, and both teams ended up playing in the Champions League Championship game. It was the first time in history that two teams from the same CITY played each other in the championship. Madrid was buzzing in the weeks leading up to the game. Even City Hall put up giant posters for each team. The famous government building in Puerta del Sol posted posters with a sign in between that read "Gane quien gane, gana Madrid" which translates to "Whoever wins, wins, Madrid wins." Something that made this game an even bigger deal was that Real Madrid was going for their 10th championship title with the Chamapions League also known as "La Décima" which they would be the first team to do it.

Celebrating in Cibeles
Game day finally rolled around on May 24th and Madrid was full of tension. Some friends and I made some game day food and then headed to a bar to watch the game. The game was a nail-biter! Atlético Madrid scored first early on in the game and after that no one seemed to be able to score! Until, Sergio Ramos of Real Madrid finally scored in the 90th minute during injury time. Then in overtime it took 20 brutal minutes before Real Madrid's Gareth Bale scored followed by two more goals in the remaining 10 minutes of overtime just to show off, ending the game in 4-1. My friends and I hugged other Real Madrid fans in the bar, complete strangers, some even kissed us on the cheek and we went wild! We all headed to Plaza Cibeles where Real Madrid fans traditionally go to celebrate. The police were ready as thousands and thousands of fans poured into the giant plaza. We had to go through a security check where they were searching for alcohol, fireworks, etc. We spent about an hour celebrating like crazy with other fans but we quickly tired out around 2am. The Real Madrid team (who played in nearby Lisbon), got a plane directly back to Madrid and came straight from the airport on a fan bus around 6am, but unfortunately we didn't make it until then. We found out later that the crowds had gotten so big that 200 injuries were reported. Yikes! The next day we got to briefly see the team drive by in a bus on their victory parade, unfortunately it was a closed bus but just knowing they were in there was exciting. Overall, an unforgettable experience.

Fast forward until a week and a half ago when the World Cup began. Once again, Spain was buzzing with excitement. Not only did Spain win the last World Cup, but they one the last two Euro Cups as well. You could say, the Spanish soccer team were becoming legendary. Another World Cup title would be unprecedented. Although Spain weren't the favorites heading into the cup, they were still ranked 4th out of the 32 teams. Everyone was so excited heading into the first game against the Netherlands and then, disaster struck. Spain looked like nervous school boys who had never played together and goalie Iker Casillas (once considered the best goalie in the world) was panicked and flustered. Netherlands murdered Spain 5-1. Moral was very low after that game, but we all thought it was just a fluke. Then, Spain choked again against Chile and ended their chances of making it to the knock out round. The country was shocked, devastated and absolutely crushed. But, everyone agreed that they didn't even deserve to win the way the played. Spain gained a little bit of their pride back in the third game beating Australia 3-0, but it was too little too late.

Although Spain's out, there is still World Cup excitement everywhere! Lots of South Americans live in Madrid, and nearly every night the bars are packed with Colombians, Ecuadorians, Brazilians, etc. still fighting for there teams! It's been a blast to be here for all of this soccer excitement, but hopefully USA will pass on through to the knock out round and I can cheer for team USA with my fellow yankees!

I can't believe I'm down to my last week in Madrid! It's very bittersweet as I'm still so happy here in Madrid but I've gotta say I can't wait to see my friends and family. 7 days!




Friday, June 6, 2014

Basque Country

I'm a few weeks late, but I finally have time to write about my trip to Basque Country! As an aspiring foodie (I call myself "aspiring" because I currently lack the funds to eat out at nice restaurants on a regular basis) visiting Basque Country has been a top priority since I first moved to Spain! However, last year it was not only expensive but extremely time-consuming to get to Basque Country from Almería. This year, I was determined to get there, but it took all the way until my second-to-last month to go, but I made it! And let me tell you, it was well worth the wait.

I've heard so much about Basque Country since I started learning Spanish.  Not only is it well-known for it's exceptional cuisine, but it's also rich in history and culture as well.  Now when I'm talking about "Basque Country" it can be a bit confusing. There is "Pais Vasco" (Basque Country) the Autonomous Community of Spain and Basque Country the cultural region that extends from Northeastern Spain across the Pyrenees into Southwestern France.  I visited the autonomous region of Spain, which also happens to lie within the cultural region. Now, back tracking to that rich history I was talking about. Some historians say that basque culture is the least assimilated culture surviving from the Paleolithic Age. THATS OLD! Also, basque language has absolutely no ties to any other language in the world! It's completely unique and historians believe that the language dates back to the Stone Age and might be one of the oldest (if not THE oldest) language in the world. If that didn't get your nerdy juices flowing, I don't know what will. Maybe it's just extra exciting for a language nerd like me.  Anyway, the basque people are very proud of their language and culture and try to maintain it as much as possible. In fact, the majority of families in the autonomous region País Vasco choose to have their children educated in the basque language with Spanish as a compulsory secondary language.  Furthermore, Basque Country has a long history of trying to succeed from Spain and France and become it's own country because they truly feel like a separate culture from their respective countries. For all of these reasons and more, I was over the moon when my roommate Heidi and I finally booked tickets to Bilbao and San Sebastian the second weekend of May!

Guggenheim Museum
Heidi and I hopped on a night bus at 2am on Friday night and made the 5 hour journey to Bilbao. We arrived early morning and we didn't have accommodation so we took our backpacks and spent the first couple of hours wandering around the city. Most people warned me that Bilbao was very industrialized and kinda ugly but I found it to be quite a charming city. Whilst wandering we happened upon a fish and meat market that was just opening up for the day. We got to see freshly caught deep-sea fish beautifully displayed in stand after stand. There was a group of locals waiting outside for the market doors to open at 8am, and the charged once they did. I guess the locals really care about getting the best and freshest fish! Then, we took refuge in a café for about an hour and waited for the Guggenheim museum to open up. Truly, the museum is the only reason we originally decided to make the stop in Bilbao. For those of you who don't know, the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao is one of three (soon to be four) renowned contemporary art museums in the world, the other locations being New York City, Venice, and soon to be Abu Dhabi. I'm usually into modern art, but this museum is so prestigious that I had to check it out for myself.  We ended up spending close to three hours in the museum. The permanent collection was a little too weird for me, but everyone told me that it's the traveling exhibitions that you go for. One of the traveling exhibits was Yoko Ono's work, which I didn't really care for. However, the other one was a cool, interactive art exhibition made by a Brazilian named Ernesto Neto that involved us touching, climbing, smelling and playing with a lot of sculptures and structures. Plus, just seeing the building itself makes it worth the visit. After the museum we grabbed lunch and then caught a bus to San Sebastian (known as Donostia in the basque language).

The bus was just a hour-long journey but it was enough time for me to sneak in a cat nap, after all we had only slept five hours the night before.  I felt rejuvenated as we stepped off the bus in San Sebastian. We made the 20 minute walk from the bus station to the city center and found our hostel in the heart of the old part of town also known as "Casco Viejo". The first night we walked around a bit and then headed out to get some pinxtos! Pinxtos (pronounced "peen-chos") are Basque Country's alternative to tapas. Most pintxos are little pieces of bread topped with different toppings which are mostly variants of meat, cheese, fish and veggies.  Sometimes pinxtos come in ball (like croquetas), or skewer (like a meat kebab) or sandwich form. Most range in price from 1.50-3.00 euros. 2-3 is usually enough to fill you up, but it's easy to get carried away. My mouth watered as we walked by bar after bar that had anywhere from 20-60 varieties of pinxtos on display. We chose a bar and quickly learned the ordering system. First, ask the bartender for a drink and then they will had you a plate. On the plate you can put one or more pinxtos just by taking them off the display plate and putting it onto yours. Then, if any of the pinxtos are meant to be served warm, the bartender will take the plate back from you and heat those up. Then, INDULGE! The quality of the ingredients was off the charts.  The basque cuisine has mastered the art of simplicity by pairing ordinary yet exquisite flavors together. The two of us visited three tapas bars and had 3-4 pinxtos each. By then, it was nearly midnight and we were ready for bed.

First night at the pinxtos bars!
The next day, we headed out to take a walking tour. The tour we planned to take had been canceled, but Heidi and I met an Australian girl who was also looking to take a tour. So, we went to the tourist office and found one there! Our tour guide gave a 1.5 hour-long tour in both English and French. Being so close to the border here, a lot of the tourism comes from France, so many people can speak the language.  We learned even more about Basque history as we walked up and down the streets of old town. After the tour, the three of us (Aussie included) had a lunch of pintxos. After lunch, we climbed up Monte Urgell which is considered a mountain but is really more of a steep hill. It only took about 30 minutes to climb. From the top, both beaches of San Sebastian can be seen: La Concha, the larger and more famous beach that is protected from the sea by man-made barriers and a natural island and La Zurriola, the smaller surfer's beach. Also at the top, there is an old fortress which a free museum inside about San Sebastian's history, and a statue of Jesus Christ. Later on that night, we met up with our Aussie friend, Jo, and a friend she made at the hostel who also happened to be from Australia. The four of us went out for... you guessed it PINXTOS! With the such a wide variety of pinxtos, I'm not sure I could ever get tired of them.  We hopped between a few bars and enjoyed a night of delicious food and great conversation. I love meeting traveler's and hearing their stories!

The view from Monte Igueldo
On Sunday we met Jo again in the morning and walked down La Concha beach to Monte Igueldo which truly is a mountain. Because it was truly steep, we needed to take a funicular (inclined cable car) to get to the top.  At the top of Monte Igueldo there is a small amusement park, a lookout tower, and the best view of San Sebastian! It's truly breath-taking to look out over the picturesque city at this post-card-worthy view. By the time we got back down, we only had time for a lunch (of pinxtos!) and a quick gelato before Heidi and I had to catch our bus back to Madrid. We said goodbye to our new friend and headed on our way. 

All in all, San Sebastian was fantastic. It definitely lived up to my foodie-dream expectations. But beyond the food, I will take away a respect for the rich culture and history of Basque Country. If you're ever in Spain, Basque Country may seem like it's out of the way, but trust me, it's worth the trip :)

Monday, June 2, 2014

"El Pueblo"

Let me introduce you to a place where the population grows times 10 on the weekend, where a fifteen year old drinking beer is acceptable, and where the party ends when the sun comes up. It probably seems like I'm talking about some crazy party city on the coast in Spain, but in fact I'm talking about a small Spanish village in the mountains of Burgos.

Spanish villages or "pueblos" represent a lot more here than just a speck on the Spanish map. Spending the weekend in the "pueblo" is an integral piece of the Spanish way of life. Nearly every Spaniard I know has a pueblo or two, which are the little villages that their parents or grandparents originally came from. 50+ years ago the pueblos, although small, were full of families who lived their year-round. A lot has changed in the last half of a century or so and most of those families have moved into bigger cities for job opportunities, better education and convenience factors. However, Spanish people still make a means to stick to their roots, and many Spanish families spend nearly every weekend and a large portion of their summer vacation in the pueblos where they originally came from.

Although the word "pueblo" is used loosely here in Spain, in general it means a small town with anywhere from a 10 to a couple hundred houses in an isolated area of Spain. Pueblos are in every region in every corner or Spain. Because Spain is an older country, the concept of "suburbs" never fully developed here. Although now the suburb equivalent of "urbanizaciónes" are sprouting here and there, the majority of Spain is either big city or pueblos. Every weekend, Spanish families pack up and head out to their pueblo for a couple days. Some families have a short 30 minute drive to their pueblo, and others make 4+ hour journeys, it all depends about how far you've strayed from your family roots. This idea of heading to the pueblo for the weekend is something I would compare to Minnesotan cabin culture, except for the fact that pueblos usually aren't on lakes.

I was lucky enough to be invited by my Spanish friend, Isabel, to spend the weekend in the pueblo with her family. I was extra lucky because she invited me to come on a special weekend for her pueblo, to celebrate the patron saint "San Pedro" of Burgos, the region where her pueblo is.  In this case, the "pueblo" is her father's village, and he and his family of 10 lived there until he was 14 years old. Although he and his eight brothers and sisters have spread out a bit now, many of them reunite for weekends in the pueblo.

We left Madrid late afternoon on Friday because Isabel and her parents wanted to stop in Burgos on the way to the village to show me the city. Burgos is located about 2.5 hours north of Madrid in the Castilla y Leon region. It's a city with a population just shy of 200,000 inhabitants located along a babbling river. The pride and joy of the city is it's beautiful cathedral that dates back to the 11th century. It was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in the 80s, and rightfully so. It's a gorgeous, massive cathedral with beautiful French-gothic towers and tons of detailed work. Isabel and I spent about an hour walking around the city while her parents did some grocery shopping. They warned me that there was no convenience store in the whole pueblo. After our stop in Burgos, we made the 40 minute drive to the village through winding mountain roads that were beautiful but my stomach didn't love. Finally, just after dusk, we arrived in their village called La Pineda de la Sierra, which roughly translates to the pine trees in the mountains. Although it was dark, I got my first look at the stone houses with red-tiled roofs. They told me that during the week, a mere 25 people live there but on the weekend the population grows to about 300. We pulled up to their house and I was quite surprised to see how modern it was on the inside. The house's exterior blends in with the rest of the town, which I later found out is part of a village ordinance that requires all houses to be stone with red roofs to maintain the traditional look of the town. The inside, however, was completely modern with a beautiful granite kitchen and a state of the art fire place. They later told me that they had the house built just a few years before after spending many years in an old rented house. Just across the yard was a bigger and equally beautiful house that belongs to Isabel's aunt and uncle. Between the two houses, they can host the majority of the family.

La Pineda de la Sierra
The first thing they did when we arrived was switch on the heating because it was FREEZING. We're talking like, 40 degrees. I know that doesn't sound so cold to you Minnesotans, but after weeks of 70/80 degree weather in Madrid, it felt cold. As the house warmed up, Isabel's parents prepared a simple dinner of Spanish tortilla, angulas (best described as mock eels), and cold fried sardines (don't knock it til you've tried it!). After that, Isabel took me into town to meet her friends. She took me to a building she called the "chamizo" which is building donated by the town government as a place for all of the young people of the village to hang out. Although it's basically just a garage, the jóvenes (young people) have put a lot of work into it to make it their own. The garage has black lights, a laser, smoke machine, disco lights and a bunch of speakers hooked up to the wall. Isabel introduced me to all of her friends, which required me giving "besitos" to 20+ people. I quickly learned through the introductions that nearly everyone was related to someone else somehow whether it was siblings, cousins, second cousins or cousin of a cousin.  The chamizo is the gathering place for everyone ages 15-30 in the village. Usually they just sit around on the plastic bar chairs, listen to music and have drinks. Beyond this building, the only other community places in the city are the church and the two bars in town, so hang-out locations are limited. After a few hours of chatting with her friends, we called it a night.

After breakfast on Saturday morning, we went to mass with the rest of the village. Usually the mass on "San Pedro" weekend is held out doors but unfortunately it was raining. I have to say, it's the first time I've ever seen a church packed with people for a mass, but I think it was because it's really more of a social event for the people of the village. After mass, everyone is given a GIANT sandwich filled with tuna, anchovies and roasted red pepper on olive oil bread, which is traditional to eat on San Pedro. We took the sandwiches back to the chamizo and ate them with the rest of Isabel's friends. Soon after, the drinking festivities began. Isabel recommended that we save the drinking for later considering the party would last until morning hours, and it was only 2pm at this point. We spent the afternoon in the chamizo playing games and watching some of the younger kids (15, 16, 17 year-olds) drink lots of alcohol, which apparently in the village is totally acceptable.  Later in the afternoon, we went up to a bar that's a short 5 minute drive away and further up the mountain. At this point, the younger kids were all sufficiently drunk and finally got the courage to talk to me in English, which was pretty funny because up until this point it was all Spanish. Their English was a little rough, but I was glad they tried. After a drink at that bar, we headed back into the village to go to the two bars there. I met some of the adults of the village who were very friendly to me. Isabel told me it's not common to have an outsider in the village, let alone an American, so naturally I attracted attention wherever I went.

Around 10 o'clock we went back to Isabel's house and prepared dinner. In typical Spanish fashion, dinner was served at around 11 at the aunt and uncles house with about 15 family members. After a delicious dinner of mussels, wild mushrooms, rabbit and cured ham, everyone headed back to the main plaza of the village for the "disco mobil" which is basically a truck that converts into a stage for two live DJs. Luckily the rain had stopped by then, but the weather was still freezing so everyone had their winter jackets on.  The whole town was there (children included, even though it was after midnight) to dance to the music. The type of music is what I would imagine Spanish wedding reception music is like considering they were songs every generation seemed to know and most of them had specific dance moves that coordinated with the song (including doing the "electric slide" to a translated version of "Achey-Breaky Heart" haha).  They played music from 12-3am, then there was an hour-long break, and more music again from 4-6am. I'll admit, there was a point around 4am that I thought about calling it a night, but I was determined to stay awake with the rest of the Spaniards! Most of the adults and young children didn't come back for round two of the disco mobil, but the jóvenes were going strong! After the disco mobil ended, the party continued in the chamizo with lights, music and dancing.  Finally, around 7am, the sun was up and Isabel and I called it a night.  Others stayed out to 9am. I don't know how they do it! The way Spaniards celebrate and party here is inhuman to me. Although it was fun to do it for a night, I much prefer the American party schedule.

Dancing at the Disco Mobil
Sunday we slept in and then enjoyed a delicious Spanish BBQ for lunch. After lunch, Isabel and I met up with some of her friends outside the church and just spent the afternoon hanging around there and the bar. We finally headed back to Madrid around 9PM.  I feel so lucky to have experienced a weekend in a traditional Spanish pueblo and to celebrate a special holiday with everyone.  I can definitely see why the pueblos are so beloved by Spanish people. It's time to spend with friends and family with tons of great conversation and great food. These people have grown up together and share a special bond with each other and the village. There's not a lot to do in the town, but that doesn't matter to them; all they care about is good company. It's something that I think Americans could learn from; rather than spending tons of money on activities to keep each other entertained on the weekend, just enjoy one another's presence and have a good time :)

P.S. I'm very behind on my blog entries! Coming soon: Basque Country, Champions League Final and Top Chef BBQ