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.