Friendsgiving Costa Rica Style – November 2018

Venezuela, Costa Rica, Australia, Finland, United States—these are just a few of the nationalities represented at our Idioma Friendsgiving celebration this year. Needless to say, it was an international and very Tico-style Friendsgiving this year. There was not even a turkey in sight!

One of our teachers graciously invited the entire team to his home to celebrate with food, friends and to take an evening out of our busy lives to give thanks for all the blessings we enjoy living and working in beautiful Costa Rica.

We celebrated potluck style: a southern-inspired chicken and rice dish, green beans and bacon, goat cheese and almond dressed salad with a homemade balsamic, homemade cheese and fruit dip, mashed potatoes, a vegan curry, bread and dips, and brownies and a cranberry apple cinnamon cake to top it all off. And we had wine and sangria to drink, and of course a Costa Rican specialty: a homemade chiliguaro shot brought by a coworker to share.

We scrounged up benches, a couch, some beach chairs and anything we could find so that we all had a seat at the table to eat, chat, celebrate and be thankful together. While the food and drink were plentiful and flowed throughout the evening, it was spending time with both co-workers and friends that truly made this a Friendsgiving to remember.

-Brendan Mulhall

 

Biannual Idioma Internacional Retreat Event – October 2018

Over two different Friday mornings toward the end of October, our teaching staff gathered for the second Retreat of 2018.

We had a healthy breakfast of granola, yogurt, fruit, bread and spreads, juice and coffee to get us started on both days. Our professional development activities focused on our core values of Excellence, Sound Character and Innovation and were complemented by some fun team-building activities.

After the two mornings of professional development, we all met up at Bol Cariari for a Sunday afternoon of wings, beers and bowling shoes! For this Retreat Event, we decided to keep things a bit closer to home and indoors, which was a great idea given the massive aguacero that dumped all afternoon.

Many of us wish we had had bumpers in our lanes to help improve our scores; however, proudly there were a few of us who actually broke the 100-mark! As more beers were cracked open, our scores tended to increase as well.

While we may not have a career in professional bowling ahead of us, we are certainly aficionados of snacking, drinking, laughing and lofting gutter balls one after another.

-Brendan Mulhall

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anna Ross Race Against Breast Cancer 2018

Little compares to the sense of purpose and drive you feel when you’re part of a team. Add that to the festival-like atmosphere of a city-wide race, with music, volunteers passing out water, and people on the sides of the streets cheering you on, and you have the recipe for a gorgeous day in the Costa Rican sun.

Some of us like racing and fitness, some of us are simply volunteers at heart and love participating, and for some of us it was deeply personal — we were there for the same reason the Anna Ross Fundraiser was created, because someone dear to us had been affected by breast cancer. Regardless of our reasons, we were all there together, an Idioma Cares team of eight, with that sense of purpose and drive multiplied by thousands who were side by side with us, same uniform and everything.

We made our way as a group to the start of the race on Paseo Colón, a stone’s throw away from our office. A fire engine that blew bubbles out of it seemed like the best pre-race photo op, before the sweat and sunscreen drenched our faces.

When the race began we knew that we wouldn’t stay side by side for long, but we had the same goal and destination. Regardless of our time or distance we all ended in the heart of Sabana Park and were met with cheers and medals. We designated a spot by the pond behind the main stage for us to all meet at afterwards. After enjoying our newly found deep breaths and congratulatory Latin dance music from the stage behind us, we exited the park as a team, knowing we had accomplished our shared goal separately, yet together.

Shortly after gathering our things at the office, we were clinking our bottles together with a well-earned salud and enjoying some much-anticipated food and drink in a cantina at the foot of an Escazú mountain, a simple bus ride away from the office where a lot of the teachers live. What I really love about Idioma Cares is that the comraderie of contributing to a cause doesn’t stop at a single event. It’s part of who we are. At our most recent staff retreat, one of the group’s proposed definitions of “excellence” was, “setting a high standard, meeting that goal, high fiving, then setting a new standard.” Enjoying an ice cold Imperial with my teammates was the exact high five I was looking for after running a 5K. And if that’s how we end a day of sun and sweat together, I know we’re all looking forward to the next new standard.

-Timothy Garren

 

Costa Rican Independence Day Celebration

Every year, on September 15th, Costa Rica celebrates its independence and this year marked 197 years of a free and independent Costa Rica.

At Idioma Internacional, we have a celebration each year to mark this historic event and celebrate the ‘Pura Vida’ lifestyle we enjoy living and working in beautiful Costa Rica.

Each year, we eat the traditional tamal, wear a chonete and pañuelo and listen to the folklore and the history of the different important events that shaped Costa Rica’s becoming an independent and autonomous nation.

This year was even more special for two reasons. First, we currently have 3 classes at our office on Fridays: two classes of 11 Costa Rican youth with a socio-educational project we work on with Fundación Monge and a private class with 2 professional adults. So this year we were able to invite our Tico students to our celebration for a truly multicultural event.

Second, we had a surprise competition where our Idioma teachers were teamed up with our Tico students and charged with making a farol, or lantern, that symbolizes part of the lore of Costa Rican independence. Faroles are central to the Costa Rican independence day experience as Tico kids create them in school every year growing up.

We divided into mixed teams of foreign teachers and Tico students and got right to work! We had only 30 minutes to construct a farol that would be judged by the following criteria: a) representation of Costa Rica; b) use of materials; c) ability to be illuminated; d) creativity; e) ability to hold up/durability for use.

We put on some typical Costa Rican music and started cutting, pasting, laughing and attempting to create the best farol of the group. With a prize ready for the winning team, the stakes were high!

 

After 30 minutes, our time was up; we were asked to drop our scissors and glue sticks and step away from the table. Competition was now on!

One by one, each team explained their process and farol and showcased it to the group and the panel of Tico judges from our Idioma team, made up of Martin, Diana, Wilberth and Charlyn.

While all groups did a great job, and creativity was certainly not lacking, there was one team in particular that stood out as the clear winner. Team ‘Choza’ with Sarah, Lintonia, Fredman and Alexis won with their farol!

The winning team was rewarded with a pair of movie tickets for them and a friend in addition to proudly wearing the badge of honor of winning the very first Annual Idioma Farol Contest, 2018.

The entire morning and celebration were very special and it was a half-day event filled with culture, food, music, merriment and making connections with people of different ages, nationalities, backgrounds and experiences.

That afternoon, one of our adult students took some time to send along her gratitude for the event. Her words truly sum up the spirit of the day, and the spirit by which we live and work as a team at Idioma Internacional:

Muchísimas gracias por invitarme hoy a la actividad de Idioma, me encantó. Muchas gracias a todos ustedes por devolverme la alegría y sentirme agradecida por el país que me vio nacer.

Felicito al equipo por el gran trabajo, en Idioma Internacional se siente el amor, cariño y dedicación para hacer las cosas de verdad que los felicito. Que viva Costa Rica!

-Brendan Mulhall

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Power of Example

Language. Community. Action.

These are the three pillars of our social responsibility initiative: Idioma Cares.

The Idioma Cares leaders and staff volunteers conducted a park cleanup on Sunday, August 19th, 2018, with the mission of taking action in the community to make a positive difference. We chose “Parque de la Paz” in Desamparados as it is relatively close to our office and it is not provided with a private sanitation service like our local park, “Parque de la Sabana.”

Tim, our team leader, took care of the planning, supplies and logistics for the event. These preparations included scouting the location ahead of time and providing each of the Idioma Cares team members with a map of the park and a designated area to be cleaned that day, so as to cover the entire park and maximize our impact.

We numbered just over a dozen participants, including my two children (five-year-old and a seven-year-old) and a teacher’s partner who joined in the effort. First thing we did when we arrived was climb a steep hill in the center of the park with an incredible lookout point where we game-planned and surveyed the park. Tim passed out gloves, garbage bags, water  and maps while we got into teams of two, with one person taking a large bag for garbage and the other person taking a bag for recyclables.

We all set out to scour and clean our assigned areas of the park with an 11:00 am meet up time to throw the garbage in the park garbage bins for a later pick up (previously coordinated by Tim) and load the recyclables into our cars to haul off to a recycling center in neighboring Escazú.

By and large, it was a typical San José Sunday morning: beautiful weather, blue skies and lots of sunshine, billowy white clouds, scores of families and individuals bustling about the park. And there were some unanticipated, yet insightful  and positive moments to the day above the expected parts of just picking up trash and recyclables to clean up a city park.

The first element that stands out to me was the experience working alongside such a good-hearted team that took their personal time to make a difference in a place that is not their home country. That is so inspiring. Most of the Idioma Cares team is not from Costa Rica, yet their desire to serve and make a difference shows how compassion, support for others, and doing good goes beyond territorial and cultural borders. We were all volunteers joining together for a common cause of making a positive difference. It was pretty cool. And really fun.

The second element that sticks out is how proud I am of my children for participating wholeheartedly in the clean up efforts. This was an important lesson for them that I am really happy they got to experience in addition to their witnessing of the Idioma Cares team setting an example. It was great to see my children do something for others in order to make things better instead of playing, which is what they normally do on a Sunday. I hope this is something that they build upon for years to come as they make their way.

The third element that struck me was the impact we had on the locals. We all wore team shirts and that really made a difference, as we were highly visible while cleaning up the trash and separating it to recycle. Our good acts were noticed by a lot of people and many of them came up to us and thanked us for what we were doing. I didn’t know how to respond, as it was a little awkward. Here they are, thanking us for cleaning up their park, and you could tell they felt as ashamed as they were grateful. And for me, I didn’t know whether to say thank you or ask for them to do more themselves to help their own community. Just act, I thought. So I only said thank you and offered a smile.  

I couldn’t help thinking during the clean up that everything we were doing that day could have been avoided if everyone were responsible with their own trash and recyclables. Even though Costa Rica’s citizens have made monumental improvements over the years in terms of protecting the environment and not littering, there is still some work to be done. That is why the visual impact the Idioma Cares efforts had on the locals and the example we were setting give me confidence that if we continue to act in good will in a noticeable way in the community, that permanent positive change can be achieved. This is indeed the ‘Pura Vida’ vibe that can help move this wonderful country toward a brighter future.

 

Brian Logan – Founder

Biannual Idioma Internacional Retreat Trip – May 2018

It may seem like meeting up on a Sunday morning at 6:45 am is cruel and unusual. But when it is to meet up with your coworkers to head up the slopes of a volcano to an amazing place like La Paz Waterfall Gardens, it’s neither cruel nor unusual.

On May 13th of this year, our entire company (teachers, supervisors and office and support staff) met up for a gallo pinto breakfast at our office before enjoying a half day at La Paz Waterfall Gardens followed by lunch in the folds of Volcán Poás.

We arrived close to 9:15 am and once we got exchanged our passes for our bracelets, we organically split up into a few different groups and headed into the conservation area.

My group first hit the aviary and got to hang with toucans, scarlet macaws and more! One toucan actually got a little ‘too close for comfort’ with one teacher and was looking for not just a snack, but a friend too! And we’ve got a picture to prove it!

We strolled through the area with monkeys and sloths before entering another area with flying things; this time, they were horned beetles and butterflies! Well, perhaps I should explain.

First, there was an entrance with glass cases full of really incredible insects, all pinned to a board like the ones in those laboratory drawers where they count and keep species. After walking the ramp flanked with all kinds of creepy crawly and flying things, there was a glass door that opened to a multi leveled enclosure full of plants and greenery and butterflies!

This butterfly sanctuary was my second favorite part (we’ll get to my favorite). It was warm and humid in there and I would venture to guess several thousands of butterflies flittering and floating about. And they are not shy! They will land all over you and even pose for a selfie!

Several employees supervise this area to ensure that everything goes smoothly and also educate the visitors about the entire process from cocoon to chrysalis to butterfly! Oh, and you can see probably two dozen butterflies in every stage of their development, wiggling about in their cocoons, emerging from them, and flying away. I only gazed in awe for about 15 minutes but I could have stayed all day.

There are also snakes and reptiles, an open area for hummingbirds (and you can feed them by hand at 9am each day!), big mountain cats and poisonous frogs to meander past as you head to the trailhead, which leads to my absolute favorite part of the park: the waterfalls!

A well-maintained trail winds down from the main property along the rocky cliffs that frame a series of five—count them, five—gorgeous waterfalls. The last one, and most famous, is the Peace Waterfall, or la Catarata La Paz.

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If I could spend all day in the butterfly sanctuary, I could spend an eternity gazing at, listening to and feeling the spray from those massive waterfalls. Neither pictures nor words can relay the beauty and awesomeness of those waterfalls. I would simply recommend that you visit some time to experience them.

Alas, after a half-day of adventure we were ready for lunch! We headed to Freddo Fresas near a small town named Frailes and had a great meal as a team and lots of strawberry juice and strawberries and cream to boot!

What could be better than an adventure to a beautiful conservation area, that only accepts rescued or injured animals, set amid the tumbling folds of a volcano in Costa Rica? Going with a great team of friends and coworkers perhaps.

Brendan Mulhall

The Hardest Word to Say

When I close a chapter in my life, even with a new one beginning, I struggle to find the right words or ways to express myself. It is no different this time. The end of my contract here at Idioma Internacional has me struggling to describe the feeling. I have known for a little over a month that I would be ending my contract and moving to a new phase of my educational career. However, preparing for departure is a task in and of itself. Mentally, I have had to think positively. I know how much this company has offered me. I believe in the over ten thousand words I have written in this blog that I have expressed a lot of truth and sincerity. The friendships I have made will stay with me, whether physically or emotionally, for the rest of my life. However, the reality of moving on doesn’t really set in until it is upon you.

Some of the most challenging aspects of leaving such a great part of my life were having to tell my students. Sometimes, however, it does go smoothly. A few of my classes were ready and aware of the way that it goes. These were fairly easy on the emotions. We all shook hands, wished the best for each other, and decided to stay in touch. I went to a lunch with one of my former classes and had an excellent time just bonding and hanging out as friends. It was nice to share some memories with these great students outside of the classroom. However, I know how much I already miss that group.

One of my classes really surprised me. It was one of the lower level classes that I taught. They are an amazing group of people with such varied backgrounds and experiences. When my last night as their teacher arrived, they surprised me with pizza at the end of class. This group always worked very hard and sometimes it was difficult for them to arrive focused for class. However, seeing their progress in just over five months was so motivating and impressive. They had advanced so much in such a short time. Their hard work paid off and many of them have improved so much that I believe they are above the level they are studying.

And just as beautiful as those classes were, with sad but well-handled goodbyes, there was one that brought a flood of emotions over me. This goodbye took my breath away. Literally. I had this class for almost my entire contract. This group was one of the colegios (high-schools). The final class began as normal. The students were taking their short break from regular school to this scholarship program that we teach. A few of the students expressed that it was sad that this was the final class. I knew it too. I felt it. But we all got the lesson going and moved into the routine. I feel close to this group because we have grown together as individuals and as a group. We have had to face some difficult challenges and we have had to make some adjustments throughout the program. However, as smooth as things were going at the beginning of this last class, it suddenly changed. The teacher who replaced me was leading a lesson as I sat in the back of the room. The realization that this was about to be the last time I taught them hit me. My eyes began to well up. I had to take a few deep breaths to keep from crying. One of the students noticed my demeanor and called me out, “not yet, teacher. Not yet.” I giggled, but that made it a little harder, so I busied myself with more instruction and correction. Then, with barely 5 minutes left to spare, I began to say my thanks to the students. They stopped me. They had a few surprises ready. They pulled out a handmade poster with our group picture in the middle and handwritten post-it notes all surrounding it. The waterfall began the moment I saw what it was. I couldn’t even see the words on the notes because I couldn’t stop the flood. I thanked them with every ounce of my being, but they were not done yet. Then, they presented me with a humongous bag of candy and a small figurine that will forever remind me of them. As we finally cleaned up the room and began to leave, many of the students took pictures with me. We exchanged high-fives, hugs, and at the end one final “everybody hands-in” huddle and cheer. I had nicknamed them Team Awesome. So, of course, it was “awesome on three.” I fought off the tears for the rest of the goodbyes, but it was incredibly difficult. I felt appreciated in a way that I have never felt before. Every struggle in my life was worth that feeling.

Before signing off, I want to make one thing clear: I appreciate every single person that has ever taken the time to read any of these posts. I am so thankful that I had the chance to write for this company. I love writing, even if I am not very good at it. I hope that these posts will continue and that the next author will be even better than me. Thank you. Each and every one of you. And as the title suggests, I hate saying this word: goodbye.

Thank you again,

The Author

 

Reflections on a Full Year

The Arrival

He stayed up most of the night packing. His bags were heavy, but his heart was light. The room cleaned out, he felt the impact of the decision he had made and worked so hard for. It had been 4 years in the making, but I could argue that it had actually been 32 years in the making. The ride to the airport with his mother and brother was full of fond memories and good jokes. His brother has always had a way of waiting until the last minute to crack some jokes. However, this time, the brother had one more piece to add. “Tons of people thought that you couldn’t do this. You worked your absolute *$# off in order to make it. I am proud of you. Go change the world.” The tears welled up in our characters eyes. He has always been close to his brother, but these words changed him. It was the first time that he felt such pride. The goodbyes were said, and he knew he had to go on from here alone.

The walk through the airport was quick. It didn’t seem to be overly crowded. NSA check point went smoothly. Now he had a few hours to kill. Always the over-punctual one. Better too early than missing this most important of flights though. He drank a beer to calm the nerves, although the actuality of this new adventure had yet to set in.

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Fast forward to the airport in San Jose, Costa Rica. He walked out of the airport and into the throng of cab drivers trying to take bags and make money. The humidity change had him sweating like an iced-tea in a Louisiana summer. He kept his cool and pressed forward to await his Uber. Once in the car, he attempted to speak some Spanish. Fail. However, his driver knew how to get him to his new home. After the 40 or so minutes through backroads, traffic, and incredible views of his new city, he arrived at the home-stay. The place was beautiful, different than any place he had been in the US but somehow felt like his first time at the university.

He got to his new room and arranged his belongings. Trying to unpack and feel at home, he sat on the bed and took his first deep and calming breath. It was true. He had made it. He ventured into a new country with no friends, no family, no idea about how to do most everything. He then took a short tour of the neighborhood and found a place to eat and have a coffee. The owner of the place had to come and help with the translation, because the waitress spoke no English, and the newbie spoke no Spanish. However, the waitress was sweet, patient, and very polite. He was so thankful that he left a bigger tip than he knew. He returned to his new home and listened to a hockey game online while trying to adjust. He slept with trepidation and awoke many times.

The start of his new career was upon him and he of course became lost immediately. He took the wrong bus on the first day. He made it to the office, sweating, panicking, and on-time. The first few weeks, he had almost no idea how he was going to ever get the hang of it. However, with patience, support from his coworkers, and his strength of will, he slowly started to adjust to the amazing opportunity that he was given. Now he was hooked.

Getting the Feel for It

Eventually he found the rhythm. His days became easier and less confusing. The support of his mentor sent him on the path of finding the best and fastest ways to get through his planning. He was off to see the figurative wizard.

He found that his rhythm was getting better also because of the challenges he set for himself. It is amazing what one can become accustomed to when they possess the correct mentality. At this point, he had really begun to enjoy himself. His classes filled him with joy as he pressed on every day. His new companions and he were really starting to have some fun. The company had begun to feel like his new family. He could count on them for any questions he still had, which were many.

One night, he went with a good crew for a night of dancing and merriment. After a few bars that felt like all the other clubs he had never cared for, they found a place with a view, good drinks, great vibes, and the right kind of music. They had added some random strangers to their entourage and took the entire party to the next level. He and his new companions danced until the bar closed. His morning was spent sharing metaphysical discussions until the sun came up. He found the groove.

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Friends in all the Right Places

He had moved to a new apartment with his best friend in the new country. The excitement of having more space, more privacy, and more companionship enticed him to making the jump to the next level. He and his bestie would work through the motions of the day and then return home to each other’s comfort, and conversation. On the weekends they would stay up late, sharing music, beers, and stories. It is friendships like these that can change lives.

Throughout this time, he built his friendships to levels that hold for as long as both people are interested. Many times, he would laugh into the night with nothing but happiness in his heart. He knew that some of them are what I call “lifers.” Meaning, these friends will last a lifetime.

However, with the good always comes the bad. During this time of seeming bliss, he was given some bad news from the motherland. It doesn’t help our story to go into details, but this bad news was the type that makes someone long for the comfort of family. He fell into a depressive state. He struggled to find quality sleep. He fought off the mood during the days, while in his classrooms and at the office, but at night, he was haunted by the facts. He woke frequently in the middle of the night. He had many nightmares. And he eventually ruined a good relationship because of his inability to convey his true feelings. Even through this though, his best friend had his back. He let him have those long moments of sadness without pressuring him to “feel better.” In fact, the two of them went through similar problems at the same time. It was as if the universe knew they needed to be around each other at this place in history. Eventually, they were both able to break the cycle and return to the bliss. The mountains in view sure didn’t hurt the healing process either.

At times such as those, the reality of being away from the closest people in one’s life really takes its toll. But when we have the friendships that these two were able to formulate, the richness of life returns stronger than ever.

Becoming the Teacher

When starting at Idioma Internacional, he found that the learning curve was rather steep. There is a lot of information to absorb and he was a sponge. He soaked it all up as best he could, but at times he felt that he wasn’t doing enough. He wasn’t sure if he was making an impact on the students. Didn’t know if he was delivering the lessons correctly. Had no idea what it meant to be a teacher.

He adhered to the lesson plans with the grip of epoxy. He tried his best to memorize the better part of the information for each class, reviewing and reviewing. Sometimes he felt that the class went great, excellently, fantastically. Others he wished he would have given more thought to this or that, practiced the grammar more, tried out the directions with a wall. However, through all of his doubts, there were always ways to get excellent critical feedback. Also, part of the company’s many aspects of developing the teacher, were the evaluations by administrators. These helped him focus on his teaching abilities that needed some polishing.

After some of these feedback sessions, he would reflect and find a new style, new practice, or new method. As he told himself and occasionally needed reminding about, failure is part of the learning process. He failed. He learned. He succeeded. With time, patience, and amazing support, he eventually found that his methods improved. His classes were not only fun, but very informative. He was often complimented by his students and sometimes by the fellow teachers. Realizing this change, gave him great comfort and confidence. He had become the teacher.

Adventures Abound

During all of the trials and errors, the friendship building, the growth of the professional teacher, there was still some time to take on the unlimited amount of adventures in Costa Rica. He went to several beautiful beaches, the mountains, rivers, fresh springs, waterfalls, hikes. The list went on.

On his first visit to a beach, he was told by the local populace and many of the other teachers that the beach he would be seeing was “the worst beach in Costa Rica.” He was sure that he didn’t care. The bus was crowded and hot on the way out. He brought only the essentials with him, but that was enough. When he and his 3 friends arrived at this beach and he walked upon it, he said to himself, “worst beach? This is the most beautiful beach I have ever visited.” Apparently however, this was the “worst” beach. To this day it still makes him laugh. The thought that the worst is better than most will ever see in a lifetime is a testament to what can be found in this amazing country.

Another aspect that he found about adventuring in Costa Rica, was that sometimes, oftentimes, the adventures find you. Sometimes you go to find a new restaurant or bar and end up on an urban adventure. He found that the ways to best enjoy these adventures is with the same sense of wonder that brought him here in the first place. Stay positive, be patient, and everything will work out. So far, it has worked every time.

The final aspect of adventure was found in the realm of mentality. Multiple occasions, he found that his life would take an unexpected turn, but he thrived through those. He learned from each and every situation. His mind broadened. His heart grew. His adaptability increased.

Full Circle

He remembers everything, the good and the bad, the happy and the sad, the failures and successes. He could not be who he is now without the friendships and support he gained in this year. He knows that he will take everything with him for the rest of his life, where ever that leads him. He learned so many valuable lessons in the short year. What a year it was. He has too many people to thank for everything they have done for him. So now, as he prepares to leave, he becomes pensive, writes at his table and hopes that someone will read this. If you are reading it and know me, thank you. I couldn’t be here without you. I will strive to bring all of these lessons with me everywhere I go. I am sad to leave this company, but I am excited to see what will happen next. Again, thank you. You have no idea how much you mean to me.

A Day at a Time

A Random Wednesday, 2018

4:50 AM: My nemesis begins to chime, bringing in the new day. As I am not a morning person, I immediately begin to cringe. I always set obnoxious alarms, because the peaceful ones don’t do the trick. I step out of the bed with the same labored sighs as every day. However, once showered and dressed, I walk out to the balcony to put on my shoes and the morning mountains makes the sarcasm bubble forth, “well… it’s not so bad really.” I pop in the headphones and choose today’s playlist: Funky Soul Delicious. Well-crafted for the toe-tapping bus ride.

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6:40 AM: I step off the bus near my first class. The sun is beaming rays of golden heat to melt away the rest of my sluggish start. My hair catches in the breeze over the bridge, soft like a lover’s caress. I finish my walk with a smile and a wait patiently for my student to come and take me to the offices. She and I always exchange our pleasantries and discuss our weekend. We take the elevator up to the office and she lets me into our classroom. She goes to gather her things and returns with the final part of my morning medicine: coffee. She no longer asks. She knows the answer. Class has us both laughing and the time flies like it is moving at double-tempo.

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9:30 AM: The office is warm as I enter, but the AC kicks on and feels nice. I bring with me my daily dose of Tico Wheaties: gallo pinto. Time for some class prep, more coffee, emails, catching up on the news and some fraternizing with the other teachers and administration. There always seems to be something to discuss that inevitably gets the whole gang laughing. We joke on one another. It is fun.

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11:00 AM: A brief walk through the beautiful park across the street from the office. Headphones returned to keep the soundtrack pulsing. This bus ride is my favorite. Not for any particular reason other than the freedom to allow my thoughts to take over. I do most of my self-reflection on buses. It seems to work well since there are plenty of buses in this country. My mind wandering through the rest of the day, I dwell upon the mysteries of the universe. Well, sometimes I just wonder about my next meal. Either way, it sets me up for the rest of my day.

11:40 AM: I arrive at the giant offices where again I wait for a student to escort me to our room. This class is always such fun. The students love to debate and get into friendly arguments. One of their preferred lines, “in my humble opinion…” prefaces some not-so-humble statements. I laugh every time I hear this phrase. An odd sense of comfort overwhelms this group as we have been together for a long time. Again, all feelings lift when I spend time with the students. I love this job.

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2:40 PM: After a brief lunch, I return to the office with a full stomach and renewed need for coffee. I think this company knows that without coffee, we would never get anything done. So, it is available the entire time the office is open. More jokes are enjoyed by the staff. Sometimes it is high-fives and hugs. We really help each other with the day by day procedures. It does feel like a family, with less arguing.

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3:00 PM: I wait for the bus to my final class. More reflections of the day and now, being Wednesday, also some thoughts about the weekend. Will it be a socializing weekend or a Netflix binge? Hard to tell at most times. On the bus, the afternoon heat and clouds begin to dull my senses and I do the awkward sleeping-not-sleeping head bob. As I approach my stop, I begin to perk back up. This is my favorite class after all. (I know. We are not supposed to have favorites. But we all do. Truth.) This afternoon I will be teaching at one of the colegios (high-schools). This scholarship program is incredible and gives such amazing opportunities for these youths. I get off the bus and walk along with my chicken friends, greet the cows, and make my way into the school. I am met by the most genial of security guards. The students welcome me also with our own created handshakes. It makes me so happy. These students are all unbelievably wonderful, even when they are having bad days. We have great interactions, that both my supervisor and I call ‘guided chaos.’ I love teaching these kids and I love the energy they make me exert. It keeps me younger. I think.

7:00 PM: I finally return to my apartment. Exhausted? Yes. Sore feet? Yes. Feeling of completion? Most definitely. I cook a simple dinner, chat with my roommate, and she goes off to sleep. She acts like an old lady with her sleep. It is actually impressive. I stay awake for a few more hours, check emails, look over material, and scroll the social media. Eventually my eyes are no longer wanting to be open, so I brush my teeth and lay down with the satisfaction and gratitude I have felt in no other occupation. Today was a good day.

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Relaxed Adventure at the Doorstep: Puriscal

The best thing about living in Costa Rica: there is so much to do. The worst thing about living in Costa Rica: there is too much to do. No matter how many adventures we go on, there is always another one on the list. This is the definition of a blessing and a curse. Oftentimes, we make plans in order to have them change at the last second. This is exactly how we find some of the lesser known gems.

My great friend and I had been discussing a hike, but we were both saving money and didn’t have a lot of free time. He told me about a place, close to the city, where we could easily take a short hike and get away from the main pulse of the big city (San Jose) for a short while. He told me that the bus was cheap, and the ride was relatively short (45 minutes – 1 hour). The city is called Puriscal. Shortly before the planned trip, we were informed by another colleague and her boyfriend about a beautiful waterfall hike that they were interested in seeing. So, we put our hike on hold and decided to join them.

Of course, plans changed. The waterfall we had planned to visit was experiencing too much rain and therefore the best parts of the park were closed to the public. We woke, with the anticipation of children at Christmas, and found out the unfortunate information. Disappointed yet still excited, my friend and I were texting the same words, at the same time: “So, do you want to go to Puriscal instead?” We laughed hard, finished readying ourselves, stopped for a quick breakfast, and promptly walked to the bus stop.

The timing of our trip couldn’t have been more perfect. Both he and I were experiencing one of those moments in life where you question everything. We each had our own personal struggles to cope with, suffering from some of the isolation that you inevitably feel when being away from so much of your former life, yet being surrounded by the wonders of your new life.

On the bus, we discussed all of the issues we were having. Although separate, they were very related. It is amazing how when you feel the most alone in life, there is always someone going through something similar. Usually, that person is right next to you. In the words of one of my favorite songs, “no time to look into our pain, or see the same despair in everyone else… Agony is truth, it’s our connection to the living…” (Eyedea & Abilities, Smile).

The views from the bus’s windows quickly resolved any depressive feelings we were having. That was one of the things we came for after all. We began to lighten our hearts, determined to find the release and clarity we sought. As we neared our destination, a random stranger overheard us discussing what we were going to see once we arrived. We had talked about an old, condemned church (Santiago Apostle) that was at the precipice of the humble city. This perfect stranger began to explain its history. He claimed that the church is now condemned because in the 1970’s an earthquake split the foundation right down the middle. It was never repaired, and is now too dangerous to renovate, so the city condemned it. (Unfortunately the author has been unable to find a factual historical record of this information). After this man’s description and information, we knew we must see it.

We arrived and immediately could see the church. It is impressive with beautiful colonial-style towers, shattered stained-glass windows, and crumbling facades. It was perfectly described by the man on the bus. However, being condemned we weren’t allowed a close look. This was probably for the best as my curiosity would have put us in danger.

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After making our way around the church, we briefly walked the city streets. We knew we wanted to go see the mountains that are everywhere. I asked my friend, being that he had visited prior, where he would like to start. He pointed off in one direction and said, “there were some good views that way, but I haven’t looked over there,” pointing in a different direction. We chose the unknown path, which in hindsight turned out to be an incredible decision. We figured, let’s both see something new.

We walked off in a random direction, passing multiple stores, a school, and many houses. Eventually we saw a small road off the main concourse. As we progressed down this small street, we saw the mountains entering our view. There we were, amid a small neighborhood with some of the best views I had ever experienced in my life. We looked for a great spot to view, saw one, and decided against going there because it felt like trespassing. However, simply being on the street, we still had an incredible view.

He and I enjoyed a couple beers while observing. The scenery was the reason we came. We stayed there for about 30 minutes before making our way through the winding back-roads of this beautiful community. We walked up and down some serious hills and emerged to the main road again. We had spent a short time here, relaxed, exercised a little, and started to head back to the downtown area.

Then, all of a sudden, we noticed a hill off to our left. I searched for signs that it was private property and found none. We walked up a small dirt path to the top of the hill. To our amazement we found a 360° view of the surrounding mountains. We both froze. It was simply stunning.

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The words on this page do no justice to the view we received by pure happenstance. As we soaked in the true magnificent beauty, we realized that we could see all the way to the ocean from one of the angles of view. When we realized this, we took a seat and let it the natural wonder of this country wash away all of our concerns. We could have stayed there for hours. We did spend about an hour and a half in this location. It was magic. Just when you think you have seen some really impressive places, something unexpected finds you.

After we realized how hungry we became, we walked back to town, had a delicious lunch, and made our way back to the bus to return to our routine. However, this trip refreshed us in so many ways. The surprises that this country has, can really bring you back to your senses. It couldn’t have been better. Like I said, it was magic.

Idioma Internacional Holiday Party

On a Saturday, many of the staff were coming from teaching their respective colegio (high-school) classes, and began to arrive individually. Some of us, the author included, came straight from the class they had just taught. These days are never short. It is often difficult to find energy for anything after. However, this special Saturday gave each of us something to look forward to: THE COMPANY HOLIDAY PARTY!

We knew we were going to a restaurant. We knew there would be paella. We knew we had to dress nice. We didn’t know anything else. We met at the office. We greeted each other with the same exhausted expressions as most Saturdays, but there was a glint, a spark of excitement that came from knowing we were all going to be together for the night. We so rarely get the whole crew together.

I arrived a little early, around 5pm, and only one other teacher was there. He and I watched some comedy, and I opened my first beer. I took a quick shower and dressed for the occasion. As I finished getting ready, the others began to arrive. Each and every one of the crew looked fantastic in their ‘dinner attire.’ Everything began to move a little faster. Multiple greetings, hugs, handshakes, backslaps, beers cracked, wine poured, laughter, adoring voices. All of the sudden it was time to line up for the group photos. In typical fashion, we took one nice photo and several frivolous ones. The frivolous ones are always more of a true representation of our inner strangeness. Now that the pictures were taken, we loaded the cooler, double checked for bags and purses, and packed into the buseta (mini-bus).

On the ride to our still mostly unknown destination, chosen and planned by the ‘elusive’ administrative staff, we found our inner children that hide just below our professional surfaces. With the excitement of going on an elementary school field-trip, we began singing 90’s pop songs, laughing out of our seats, and exchanging the jovial stories of the season. I am sure the bus driver hated us.

As we neared the destination, the city gave way to some really incredible views of the central valley from our windows. You could see the city’s glow. The lights timed perfectly for our Holiday spirits. After what seemed a long time, since most of us needed to use the restroom, we arrived at the restaurant: La Lluna de Valencia.  http://lallunadevalencia.com/

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We exited the bus at the street and walked through a brick and wooden garden. It was already past dark, and we couldn’t see much, but you could tell it was beautiful. Once inside, the atmosphere livened and we all immediately became aware of the incredible establishment we had entered. The lofty, wood-beamed ceilings, classic Spanish decorations, polished wooden tables, and rich warm lighting invoked a sense of home, comfort, and peace.

As everyone found their seats around one of the two large tables that were reserved, the wine and sangria began to flow in torrents. Our general manager was quick to provide a beautiful toast, thanking all of us and officially beginning the party.

The entire crew feeling comfortable, delighted, and hungry began to tell stories and jokes. Laughter could be heard all around. We were a cacophony of merriment. Wine in nearly every glass, the first course was brought out. I wish I could tell you what the first course was. I wish that at some point I could recall the look, taste, and feel of that course. However, what actually has stuck in my mind is when our gracious host arrived to greet us. Vincente Aguilar Cerezo is the type of man that could easily have a novel written about him. His incredible positivity, charming presence, and booming voice and laughter deserve their own story. For now, suffice it to say that he made the experience perfect for us.

Vincente brought a wine skein with him. He taught us the ways to use the skein. We had to slap the leather pouch, and squeeze a stream of wine into our mouths. He first demonstrated this by making a round of our entire group and doing the pouring for us. If he believed you could handle it, he would pour it from your nose into your mouth. Strange, I know. But, as they say, when in Rome. I doubt you could deny him even if you wanted to. His demeanor was intoxicating all on its own.

The next course arrived, sardines with oil and garlic on delicious bread. We continued our joyful satisfaction of each other’s company. The mood was increasingly more fun, we got louder, the food was passed around and consumed. After a few more refills, the main dish was delivered: massive, piping-hot pans of traditional paella. Vincente, our amazing host, served every plate whether it was vegetarian, pescatarian, or the fully traditional chicken variety.

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Once the entire room had been served their dinner portions, the lights began to grow dimmer and flicker out. A giant bowl was placed on a stage in the center of the room, and Vincente took his place. The final lights were extinguished, and Vincente lit the bowl on fire. The blue glow of the flames danced in the bowl and the host began to stir and lift the flaming liquid high into the air. A waterfall of fire was the only illumination in the room as Vincente ladled his mysterious wizard’s potion. The show was something to admire indeed. This flaming liquor was then divided among the guests and a toast was given by the bearded Vincente like it was straight out of a storybook. This was the perfect culmination of hospitality and grace.

Afterwards, the lights were restored, and the party continued with a delicious caramelized pudding for dessert. Our group then revealed the Secret Santa gifts. This was special in so many ways. One by one, we delivered our gifts with hugs, laughter, and love. The party could not have ended any better. We all felt loved as though we were all family.

Our buseta ride back to the office was more of the same: loud laughter, singing, story-telling, and general joy. I won’t lie, it felt a lot shorter than the way to the restaurant. This night was incredible in every way. We continued to build these rare and amazing friendships that will be remembered for the rest of our lives. There are no ways to truly express how unbelievable it feels to be part of a team that can share such great memories and experiences. With every gathering, we truly become more like family, and since most of us have left ours in our respective motherlands, this feeling really creates an unmatchable joy in our usually busy lives. I will forever be grateful for the companionship we have developed. SALUD!

Tamal: Tico Christmas Tradition

Never have experienced the Holiday season in Costa Rica (or any other country) I didn’t know what to expect. There are no snow-covered rooftops, no fields of pine trees, no bells jingling all the way. However, there are tamales. I have not witnessed a tradition here that is more carefully observed than the Holiday season tamal. Unlike Mexico and the Unite States, the Costa Rican spelling is Spanish (literally from Spain) without the last letter ‘e.’ Nearly every family in Costa Rica will partake in this tradition. So many that the University of Costa Rica concluded in a study that “196 million pairs of tamales [are] eaten during December [which equals] three tamales per Tico per day.” (www.ticotimes.net) That is truly a mountain of tamales.

Dating back almost 500 years ago, the tamal tradition has been more Costa Rican than the phrase, “pura vida.” Recipes vary from home to home, but this is incredibly family oriented. “Grandmothers and mothers will teach granddaughters and daughters how to make tamales; making sure the tradition is kept alive.” (qcostarica.com) Although it may not have always been part of Christmas, it has been part of tradition since before the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Costa Rica. “The corn filling symbolized the sun god for indigenous people 500 years ago, but when Spanish conquistadors colonized the isthmus, the food became part of festivities celebrating the immaculate conception and Christmas.” (www.ticotimes.net)

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No historian can pinpoint the exact origin of tamales, but we do know that they have been around for millennia. “Tamales originated in Mesoamerica as early as 8000 to 5000 BC. As making tamales is a simple method of cooking corn, it may have been brought from Mexico to Central and South America.” (en.wikipedia.org) For our intents and purposes though, the tamal tradition in Costa Rica can be considered beginning with life itself. “The truth is, all Costa Ricans will remember having eaten them since they were small children.” (qcostarica.com) Therefore, they have been around as long as anyone can remember.

Although tamales are made year-round, the tradition is based around the Holiday season, especially the month of December. It doesn’t matter when you decide to eat them, you will see people enjoying tamales for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. However, “they are absolutely fundamental for coffee break time” (qcostarica.com) known very properly as tamaleada, “the tradition of taking a break from buying gifts to invite friends over to the house in the afternoon to share a tamal, a cup of coffee and some good conversation.” (www.ticotimes.net)

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Whether you are an outsider like me, a visiting tourist, or a local the tamal tradition in Costa Rica is all encompassing. You will see the supermarkets fill entire isles with the ingredients to make them. Anyone here will tell you about their experiences making tamales with their families every year for as long as they can remember. It doesn’t matter if you are staying in the city, or on a remote beach front, if you happen to be in Costa Rica in December, you will experience the beauty and magic of the tamal. And on that note, I think I smell tamales coming from my Tico mom’s kitchen. Time to eat!

http://www.ticotimes.net/2014/12/24/tamales-a-christmas-present-for-everyday-of-december

https://news.co.cr/christmas-traditions-of-costa-rica/30313/

http://qcostarica.com/tamales-a-christmas-tradition-in-costa-rica/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tamale