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.