Friday, January 30, 2015

The Sounds of the Central Valley - Honks, whistles and cat calls

About 4 months ago I traded in the sounds of monkey howls for car horns, bird calls for cat calls and horses hooves for revving car engines. Yes, back in the beginning of October I made the decision to move away from the peace and tranquility of the beach in order to find better work opportunities in the central valley. In the four weeks I spent in the little beach town of Sámara, I had gotten used to the howls of monkeys and calls of roosters waking me up in the morning among other animal sounds. Sámara was small, quiet, spread out and full of natural beauty, but it didn't offer me the opportunities that I needed to succeed as an English teacher in Costa Rica.
So I made the move to the central valley, the most developed part of Costa Rica. Many people get confused when I throw around the term "the central valley," so allow me to explain. Smack dab in the middle of Costa Rica lies a circular group of mountains and volcanos. Within that circle, there is a large plateau or "valley" where most of Costa Rica has decided to develop. The capital, San José, functions as the central hub of the valley with many other smaller cities, towns and suburbs branching out from it. 3/4's of Costa Rica's population lives in the central valley, which is exactly why I came. I knew that San José would draw in the most driven, hard working, successful ticos in the country, and I had a hunch that many of them would want to learn English. I was right. I found a job in less than a week and my schedule filled up soon after.
But let's get back to the reason I'm writing this post. After four months of living in the central valley, I can tell you that it's a great place to live but it's rather noisy. I hear a plethora of noises on a daily basis here in Heredia, but the three that are the most prominent are honks, cat calls and whistles.

Never in my life have I heard so much honking before Costa Rica. At first I thought it was obnoxious (and sometimes I still do) but after talking to many ticos about it I realized it's just part of their culture. Honks here can mean many things, much more than your typical angry honk of impatience (although there's a lot of that too). Ticos honk for absolutely EVERYTHING. They honk to say hello, goodbye, go ahead, hurry up, I'm here, heyyyy there pretty lady, etc. Furthermore, they honk to celebrate sports victories (which here pretty much means just soccer) and other special occasions. Even though I could do with a little less honking, I'm coming to appreciate it more as part of tico culture day by day.

Cat Calls
This is not my first time with dealing with cat calls. My first experience with cat calls was in Chile, then again Mexico and finally on a small scale in Spain. I've gotten more used to them with each experience, but I still find them to be disgusting, degrading and down-right disrespectful. Maybe I have more trouble handling them since I grew up in a culture where they don't exist (at least not in Minnesota), but I don't know how any woman should feel when they're commented on like a piece of meat. Although I admittedly hear cat calls on a regular basis here in Costa Rica, I will say that most ticos are respectful and don't participate, including all of my tico guy friends. When I've talked to my local friends about them, they get angry too. They say that the only people that do "cat calls" are the unclassy, uneducated population of Costa Ricans or as they say here "polo." They also told me that the best way to deal with them is to just keep walking like you didn't hear anything, and that's what I always do.

This is one of my favorite sounds of Costa Rica, as long as it's not being used as a cat call. Whistles are a fascinating innate part of tico culture, and I'm learning more about them every day. I'm not just talking about your standard whistling a song at the bus stop or whistling at a sporting event. Ticos have created a second language with their whistles and I find it incredibly intriguing. Many people have a signature "whistle." Some of them are short and simple (thing Hunger Games) and some are more elaborate. Sometimes a whistle represents a specific person (like if you hear that whistle you know it's them at the door) but sometimes a whistle represents a specific friendship, family or group of people. Many ticos don't have doorbells, so when they arrive at your house they will whistle their little tune to signal their arrival. Since living here I've learned my roommate's family whistle and started to recognize a few others around the neighborhood. There are many little rules and protocol surround the whistles that I'm still learning, but the more I learn the more I'm interested.

It's true, the sounds of the central valley are far less enjoyable than the sounds I was used to in Sámara, but these sounds although abrasive, harsh and rough around the edges, are finding their way into my heart, just like the rest of tico culture.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Just Roll With It

January has been a crazy month so far. I've been continuing my class schedule as usual, plus I am making up all the classes I missed during the two week winter break. So, needless to say, I've been busy. With all of the craziness of making up new classes, etc, I haven't had much time to plan weekend trips this month. However, I was particularly looking forward to this past Friday as my friend Maria and I were planning on throwing a surprise birthday party for her best friend. I won't go into a lot of details, but I will say that it was a huge success!
While I was at the party, I was chatting with one of the mutual friends I made through Maria. We were talking about weekend plans and of course I told him I didn't have much going on but he told me he was headed to Bahía Ballena for a Craft Beer Festival. I had heard about the festival a while back, and wanted to go, but couldn't find anyone to go with me. So, obviously I told him all this and it just so happened that the group of friends he was going with had an extra spot in their car and their hotel room and he asked me if I wanted to go. Three years ago, before I started living abroad, I probably would have said no. Not knowing most of the people I was going with and having only minimal details about the weekend is pretty daunting. But, my courage and flexibility has grown a lot in the past few years, so I decided to just roll with it and said "YES!"
I headed to San Jose bright and early the next morning (well, actually it wasn't really bright when I woke up, it was still dark) to meet up with the others and head south. I was told to meet at 6:10am, and was panicking when I showed up ten minutes late. However... the others were running on "tico time" and showed up over an hour after me. Haha, typical. But hey, I was just rolling with it. 
So, the six of us squeezed in the car and took off.  I hadn't been to southern Costa Rica yet, so I didn't really know what to expect. I had heard about how lush and beautiful it was, and let me say I was NOT disappointed. The drive was stunning! Imagine country roads lined with lush tropical vegetation and rolling hills and mountains and an occasional glimpse of the Pacific coast. The four hour drive wasn't so bad with that view. 
Costa Ballena Craft Beer Festival
Finally we arrived at the beer festival. I found out on the drive down that the reason that they had all decided to go is that one of them sells handmade "balance boards" and was asked to promote them at the festival. So, we spent seven hours at the festival drinking delicious local craft beer, socializing with others and occasionally stepping on the balance board. By the end of the festival, I was able to drink beer while on the balance board. Not bad, huh? The festival was awesome. We Americans love our craft beer, and it's around every corner in the US, but not here in Costa Rica. It's an up and coming fad here  thanks to a certain group of expats.... the Americans of course! The event was run by Americans and most of the attendees were  American as well but there was a spattering of ticos mixed in as well. About 15 microbreweries were present at the festival with anywhere from 1-7 types of craft beers each. So... there was a lot of beer to try. My personal fave was a ginger mango basil beer. Although the ticos I was with were sort of new to craft beer, they enjoyed themselves as much as this beer-loving American did! After the festival we checked into our hotel and then got some dinner. After dinner we were wiped and called it a night. 
Bahía Ballena National Park
The next day we woke up bright and early (well, I woke up on time. It took the ticos more time to get out of bed haha... tico time). After breakfast we headed to the beach. Normally you don't have to pay to enter a beach area, but we did in this case as Bahía Ballena is a National Park. Traveling with ticos worked to my advantage as I was charged the "tico price" to enter the park instead of the inflated price for foreigners. All I had to do was do my best to blend in with the group! We only got to spend a couple of hours on the beach, but they were pretty spectacular. Those of you who know Spanish know that "ballena" means whale, so you're probably wondering why the national park is named that. Well, it has a double meaning. First, the two beaches of the national park come together and make a peninsula in the shape of a whale's tail. Additionally, if you come during the right time of year, you can take a boat trip just off the coast to see whale's making their biannual migration north and south in the Pacific. We only had time for the whale's tail, which we walked out to until we were surrounded by crystal clear water on three sides. The most beautiful view was from the tip of the whale's tail looking back at the pristine, practically untouched beach lined with tropical trees and green mountains. 
After a morning at the beach we moved on. We checked out of the hotel, stopped by the supermarket to buy lunch food and made a 20 minute drive north. We arrived at a hiking trail which I was told had some beautiful waterfalls at the end. However, we had to earn the waterfalls. We had to hike four kilometers to get there. The path was steep, muddy and a bit slippery, and all I had were my TOMS shoes (which actually worked out decently well) but after about an hour of hiking we finally arrived. We spent a few hours swimming in the cool pools of the waterfall, cliff jumping and just hanging out. Because of the remote location, there were only a handful of other people there. We enjoyed a peaceful afternoon in a little slice of heaven.

Eventually we hiked back to the car, and made the drive back to San Jose. What I learned this weekend is that "rolling with it" has it's pros and cons. For instance, the cons for me were making a 8K hike in TOMS shoes and arriving back at 11:30pm when I had still have 5 classes to plan the for the following day. However the pros of meeting awesome new people, experiencing new things and seeing a new incredible place COMPLETELY outweighed the cons. This may have been the best weekend in Costa Rica yet! My advice to you is that when an awesome opportunity like this arrises for you and someone asks if you want to join... JUST ROLL WITH IT.