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.
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.
Part 1: Professional and Personal Development
Twice each year, Idioma Internacional holds an all-company retreat. There are always two parts to the retreat. The first day begins with an in-office professional development where we build skills to help the entire staff become better educators and administrators. Second, on another day, we gather for a lunch and information session, then we leave the office for an afternoon of fun, bonding, and usually drinks!
The most recent retreat was my first experience. I had heard about them, but there is almost no way to truly explain all the activities and development that we covered. So being that this will barely glimpse the actuality of the retreat, let’s begin with the in-office development day.
We arrived at the office at 8 am and were greeted by a casual buffet-style breakfast, hot coffee, and Irish Cream (you know, the good stuff). After everyone was prepared with a full stomach and clear head, we went outside for the first of many activities. We were using our second (sometimes 3rd, 4th, 5th) language to play a game about giving instructions. These kinds of things really give the staff some perspective on how we instruct. This kind of perspective in invaluable as it leads to better understanding of what our students have to do on a daily basis.
After the outdoor game, we headed back into the office and continued with more activities that encouraged each of us to create and adapt goals, both personal and professional for the remainder of our time here at Idioma Internacional. This was immediately followed up by a reminder of goals that were set previously (either at the last retreat or when we finished our mentor program). This way we could compare our own goals, and also see our progress. We were also given some of the comments that our own students had said about us. It is an unbelievable feeling to see the kind of impact that we can make as educators. The student quote I received was so heart-warming that it was difficult not to cry.
Next, we took an off-campus lunch at a fantastic Mexican restaurant near the office. It was another way to bond and be in each other’s company for a little while, not having to discuss work unless we chose to. This is always rare, because schedules are so varied that it is hard to get the whole group together. However, these moments help us realize the support we all provide for each other.
When we got back to the office, we had another round of professional development workshops that are fun, light-hearted, and still very informative in many ways. Most of the workshops that I have attended in the past are boring and can be redundant. These were exceptional, covering topics that we all want improvement upon, and offer new ideas to keep our classrooms evolving. We covered many different topics that will truly help us develop into fantastic teachers.
Lastly, after all of the professional development had concluded, the coolers were brought out with beer and wine. They were emptied, refilled, and emptied again. All members of staff were encouraged to hang out as long as they wished. Most of us did stay until late in the evening. These moments in the company of the other staff members are excellent for building bonds between co-workers, which then leads to some incredible and lasting friendships. We found our similarities, differences, and helped each other become stronger teachers, better educators, and most importantly great friends. Our relationships grew, changed, and impacted each of us in ways that we can take with us for the rest of our lives.
Part 2: Company Progress and Healthy Competition
As said at the beginning of this, the next part of the retreat is a day of healthy competition, fun, bonding, and drinks. These events take us off-campus and let us play in the company of our colleagues. This most recent retreat, we went go-karting!
The day began with a lunch at the office. It was catered, fancy, and was very appreciated by the entire staff. (Food has always had a way of bringing people together!) While we prepared for our incredible feast, we listened to music, drank sangria or beer, and socialized. It was a great start to the day.
After our well rounded and delicious meal, we were then treated to some great announcements about the progress of the company. There was an old video presentation with hairstyles and young faces of the most senior members of staff that had the entire room laughing viciously. After the laughing subsided, we were all treated to the administrators’ speeches about how this company is successful because of the entire staff working together in so many amazing ways.
Next, it was time to pack into Uber cars and head to the main event of the day: GO-KARTS! Once we arrived at the track, we all signed up for at least three separate times to race with the team. Each person was their own worst enemy, trying to beat their own times. Of course, we all challenged each other for the best time, and of course we were talking trash with each other.
On my first trip, I remember the smell of exhaust, sweat, and rubber. It was exhilarating. I had not driven a go-kart for the better part of a decade. I was fitted into my helmet and buckled into my car. As the green light flashed, I felt the need for speed. It wasn’t long before I was being warned about my aggressive driving. I think that if I had not been warned, I would have wasted my time.
Each member of staff experienced their own love for the track. We were all smiles, laughter, and cheers. Everyone was looking for the best times, or at least enjoying the really friendly competition. Some of the staff had never been go-karting before and were delighted to experience it with the camaraderie of this particular staff.
The social bond that we built during these events is the kind of atmosphere all professionals desire. We were able to really grow as individuals and professionals, while having fun, sharing stories, competing in exciting and healthy ways, and creating lasting friendships. This last part is what separates Idioma Internacional from others in our field. Everyone is grateful for the chance to meet so many people from completely different backgrounds and cultures. We were able to learn through fun and exciting means, while still maintaining an air of professionalism. The entire staff benefited greatly from these activities and will remember their experiences forever. As we continue to grow in this career, we can only hope to take these experiences with us to share with the rest of the world.
Upon receiving the exciting news that my friend and his father from the states were coming to visit me here in Costa Rica, I began searching for interesting things to do. My friend and his father had only requested, “beach, snorkeling, chill.” Fortunately, Costa Rica is abundant with activities that fall into those specified categories.
My research paid off big time when I found out about Cahuita. It had everything that the boys wanted. So I booked the hostel and waited impatiently for my friends’ arrival. They got to San Jose late in the evening, but I made my way to their hotel to celebrate their arrival and have a few toasts.
We left 2 days later for the paradise by the Caribbean Sea. Our drive took us through some of the most twisted, and beautiful mountain views I had ever seen. As we neared our destination, we could see the ocean, a mere 20 meters from the road. Our excitement was palatable, a static energy you could feel at every pore. We rolled the windows down and breathed in the salty air.
The town of Cahuita is small, barely 5 city blocks worth of actual town, but it is densely packed with restaurants, bars, knick-knack shops, tourist companies, and mini markets. We made our way to the hostel, Cabinas Caribe Luna, and saw just what peaceful Caribbean life really looks like. We met with the owners Enrica and David. They had the sweetest and most welcoming demeanor. They were the essence of “Pura Vida.” Their property is tucked neatly back into the wilderness, but still close enough to walk to the beach, the town, the national park. The cabins are individually set back in a romantic garden that is well maintained by Enrica and David. David has even begun marking each plant and tree with their names. There is a small stone sitting circle that I dubbed the “philosophy classroom.” It’s a perfect place for meditation, relaxation, and the mental reset we all need at one time or another.
After setting up our gear in the hostel cabin, we left to get supplies and head down to the beach. The town itself is quaint, quiet, and beautiful. We picked up some snacks and beers and made our way to the closest beach (which was about 300 meters from our hostel). Our first day was spent lounging by the beach with beers in hand. The views are as incredible as you can imagine. The water is clear, the sand soft and warm, the misting sea salt air embraces your lungs.
That night we had a simple dinner at one of the local watering holes, where we enjoyed some beers and the company. We spent the rest of the night playing cards on our peaceful patio. The sounds of the night crept up on us and we all slowly drifted off to sleep.
I woke, sweating (it’s rather warm on the Caribbean coast), but I was delighted to get started on our day. We all had a meager breakfast of cereal bars and orange juice. The night before, we had booked our snorkeling and jungle tour. We were only an hour away from swimming in the largest coral reef in Costa Rica.
My companions and I walked the ten minutes to the tour company that we had booked with. We met our guide, received the simple instructions, fitted our gear, and followed Alex, our tour guide, to the boat. After a few minutes of getting everyone settled in the small boat, we made our way out onto the open water. We were never too far off shore, but the breeze caressing my skin felt like a lover’s hand stroking my beard as I drift to sleep. In other words, pure bliss.
When we reached the first reef stop, we were again reminded of the rules: no standing, no touching the corals, stay close to the boat, etc. We then plunged ourselves into a fantasy. The moment I was in the water with mask and snorkel at the ready, I was immediately in view of an underwater universe I had yet to experience in my life. There were fish of every color. We saw a nurse shark, held a sea cucumber, watched a school of fish whose numbers reached in the thousands. There was every variety of coral, alive and intoxicating to see. We eventually went to another stop a little closer to shore where the scene was just as beautiful and awe-inspiring as the first.
After about two hours of snorkeling, the group was ready to return to shore and begin our jungle hike part of the adventure. I felt like we were waiting forever, but in reality it was probably about 45 minutes. It is amazing how much anticipation can alter our sense of time.
When we finally embarked on the easy hike, it seemed as if there were too many people to see anything very interesting. I feared we would be too loud and keep the animals away. However, within ten minutes of the journey, I was corrected. Alex, our tour guide had already spotted the first sloth. Perched just a few meters out of reach, a mother and her cub were cuddled together gazing at the humans uninterestedly. This was how the hike went: about every ten to fifteen minutes, Alex would spot something else of interest for us inexperienced tourists. We were able to see golden spiders, white-faced monkeys, howler monkeys, basilisks (both green and brown), a variety of snakes (both venomous and non), pelicans in the bay, tarantulas, and many types of butterfly. There may have been more as well, but it was a lot to see in one short afternoon in the jungle. There is no better way to describe it other than magnificent.
The rest of the day we ate lunch, relaxed at the hostel, and then enjoyed a bit more time on the beaches. The next day was more of the same. The adventure was complete, we never wanted to leave. We had found paradise.
The sun warmed the tent. I opened my eyes to the beauty of the day. Birds sang the morning chorus to remind me not to stall, not to dawdle. There was so much to see. I began by making coffee. My companion and I ate a high energy breakfast, prepared our lunch, and packed the bag. Tying up my boots, my heart began to race wildly at the thought of what this hike was going to bring.
Once upon the first trail, we walked through the ruins of the former agricultural town, Hacienda La Marta, that used to operate a lively market for coffee, bananas, sugar, and milk in this park. Barely 3 meters away from the ruins, down the main trail into the rain forest, the scene drastically changed. I already felt like I was in the middle of the ever-changing natural environment. My companion and I were not even 30 minutes into our tour, yet I already had an excitement that only natural glory can bring.
The trails themselves were micro-climates that were different in so many ways. Trees canopied the entire path, shrouding the forest in a sense of wonder and mystery. The earth smelled fresh, wet, and alive. I could sense the life all around me. Like a small child, I touched everything, needing the new experience to be as full as possible. My companion laughed at my childish wonder. However, the mosses were all new and felt as such, the leaves looked as fake as they do in plastic offices, the flowers were practically glowing and perfume-strength fragrant. I was a child again.
After about an hour, the path took a steep climb to a precipice where we encountered our first mirador (look-out). The park had erected a sheltered tower upon this peak to give hikers the best possible view of the valley and distant mountains. It was magnificent. With no human construction in site, other than what I was standing upon, I looked out with awe. My companion, who had already been here, was just laughing at my look of pure love. We left this mirador to head to another which we thought would take us a while to reach. We paused briefly (I paused briefly, my companion only slowing once she noticed my lagging). I was in awe of a type of fungus I had never seen. I continued my child-like touching of everything new, which was everything.
By the time we reached the second mirador, the humidity had escalated to full. My shirt was as wet as if I had jumped into the river. My companion and I really felt what it meant to be in a tropical rain forest. We rested and I attempted to dry out my gear in the sun. Here, the railing keeping us from falling into the abyss, was the only thing that was placed by man. The sun beat down, but the breeze was cool. The distances seen were incredible. We felt like the only two humans for miles. We rested, ate a small snack of fruit and nuts, and reflected peacefully in each other’s company.
The next trail we took was an idyllic path through some of thickest forest I have ever seen. Without a watch, I would not have been able to guess the time. The sun was blocked entirely by the epic canopy that shaded and cooled the trail but also wrapped me in humidity like a thick blanket. The silence. My companion and I stopped just to hear the silence. It was eerie in a mystifying and beautiful way. It was here that I felt the most isolated from the world and destructiveness of man. I breathed in the serenity.
We continued winding through the beautiful trails, encountering all sorts of flora and fauna: white-faced monkeys, beetles the size of my fist, every type of moss imaginable, labios de mujeres (a flower that looks like puckered lips), trees the size of skyscrapers, lizards of all varieties, hundreds of colorful butterflies.
My companion and I were nearing the pozas (swimming holes). We saw a sign for a waterfall and quickly took the detour. We walked down some huge carved stairs, turned a corner around a rock face, and there it was right before my eyes. Before I even knew what I was doing, I had my shirt off, my bag thrown carelessly to the side, my hat and sunglasses resting upon it. I had to shimmy around a giant boulder but then I was standing next to the waterfall. It was not huge, but it was beautiful. The water cascading down the side of this mountain was breathtaking. I dunked my head into the pouring stream.
It was clear, clean, refreshing. I had to take a drink just to say that I have drank from a waterfall in Costa Rica. After I played in the waterfall for a minute, it was my companion’s turn. She was just as pleased about this as I was. We relaxed for a minute next to the waterfall on the boulder before heading off for the final leg of the hike.
Our last stretch of trail was littered with pozas. It seemed that every 200 meters there was another place to sit by the raging river, or if you were lucky there were some calmer places to take a dip. It was pure serenity. My companion and I chose a secluded poza to take our final rest before heading back to camp. Here we relaxed and took in the scenery of the majestic river. We talked lightly and briefly about all we had seen. It was the most amazing day in my recent memory. I will have to make another trip to this magnificent rainforest where it seemed that the magic of nature was at its most perfect state.
Literally translated as Day of the Encounter of Cultures, October 12th marks the 525th anniversary of Christopher Colombus’ discovery of the Americas. Costa Rica celebrates this day as a national holiday. Throughout the Americas, the holiday has several names: Colombus Day in the United States; Discovery Day in the Bahamas, and Americas Day elsewhere.
The celebration here in Costa Rica is centered around the blending of cultures honoring diversity, tolerance, exchange of goods, trade, and respect among cultures. It is viewed as a time to reflect on a mindfulness of positive change, multi-culturalism, and miscegenation (the interbreeding of people considered to be of different races). https://en.oxforddictionaries.com
The actual festivities in which Costa Ricans participate include local meetings, forums, and fairs that give praise and awareness to the aboriginal people of the Americas. Also, some of the Caribbean towns and cities will hold their own carnivals to give thanks to the influence of the African cultures that have also greatly impacted Costa Rica’s rich diversity. Many people located all over the country will participate in traditional dances, music, and cuisine. This holiday truly represents the idea of tolerance and extends to include many ideas of international relations.
These holidays have been called into question lately all throughout the Americas because of the atrocities committed by Colombus and his conquering parties, the horrific conditions endured by the aboriginal people of the Americas, and the fact that there is evidence of others discovering the Americas before 1492. However, the focus in Costa Rica is on the positive outcomes of economic trade routes, diversification of peoples and agriculture, and multi-cultural/ multi-lingual education.
Here at Idioma Internacional, we are not only dedicated to our primary focus of English education, but we also hold a high regard for social responsibility. On October 8, 2017 our company participated in the annual Anna Ross Walk Against Cancer. Several teachers, administrators, and staff members joined the thousands of Costa Ricans to raise money for this great organization to continue their commitment to providing free services to cancer patients and their families. Idioma Internacional provided the entry fee for all of our company’s participants.
The Dr. Anna Gabriela Ross Foundation is a non-governmental, non-profit organization dedicated to serving communities in all of Costa Rica with free education and support services to cancer patients and their families. To date, this organization has served more than 145 communities throughout Costa Rica. Their mission is to provide education about prevention, early detection, wellness, diet, exercise, and mental health in order to battle cancer at all stages of its harmful and life altering path. The foundation gives free workshops and talks to stifle the spread of cancer. (http://www.ross.or.cr/)
On October 8, the staff at Idioma Internacional took to the streets with throngs of Costa Ricans and showed our support for such a wonderful organization as the Anna Ross Foundation. According to our Administrative Assistant, Christina:
“It was amazing to see so many people come together for such an important cause. When I turned onto Paseo Colon, I just saw an ocean of people. I was impressed by the amount of people that came to help raise awareness and support the event.
As we started running, it felt great to be surrounded by so many good people. There was even a man with crutches participating in the run! There is nothing more inspiring than seeing someone without a leg accomplishing what he did. It reminded me why I participated in the event in the first place. I will never understand the pain and challenges faced by someone with cancer and their loved ones. All I can do is show my support and help raise awareness. Seeing all these people come together really made me feel hopeful.”
Part of being an ESL teacher is having to say goodbye. We watch students learn, grow, and become more and more fluent in English. It is a beautiful thing to see so many students progress and get ready to make the next steps in their lives. However, it is also, always a mixed bag of emotions. The only way for me to describe it properly is to tell the story of three of my classes that graduated our program and are moving towards their new phases in life.
In order to put this in the correct context, I will start from when I first met my classes. All three classes that I had were taken over from other teachers who had to leave because their contracts ended, or they were assigned other classes that conflicted with the schedule of these. I had observed two out of the three classes. During the observations, I was able to see how wonderful these students really are.
Once I was given the classes, I truly connected with the students and found my initial reaction to be absolutely correct. Each student was individually brilliant, and as a whole they made class time incredibly fun. I worked for them for three and a half months. It is not a long time in the grand dance of life, but it was sufficient to understand what kinds of people they are. If every teacher had students like mine, this profession would be saturated with applicants.
Anyway, after working with them for that time, the end had come near. I only had one last week with them. As the final class for each group approached, I began to feel melancholy. I knew they were excited to be finished. I would have been also, in their shoes. I prepared the lesson with a sinking feeling in my chest. I knew I would miss them, but I didn’t think it would actually affect me this heavily.
I kept the lessons light and fun on the last days. All the students wanted pictures of the entire group, including myself. It was very special to me. I felt more like a part of something than I had in a long time. We took many group photos, made sure that we all looked happy and then finished the class with some good group discussions.
It was the end of the final class. I had all the students packing and preparing to leave. I had my bag organized again, the whiteboard cleared, the chairs put up. Then we all stood there looking at each other. I could tell this was going to be the hard part. I could sense the emotions like a bird senses the dawn. I told them that they could leave, class was over. Then, almost in a resounding chorus, they replied, “but teacher, we don’t want to leave.” I could have cried right then. My heart swelled with admiration and a massive sense of appreciation. These students, who were going to school for 7-9 hours a day, and then more class on Saturdays had just told me they didn’t want to leave! I did cry. It was so meaningful to me.
We left together since we couldn’t leave one by one. We got towards the exit and exchanged our cordial goodbyes (I wasn’t crying anymore). I know that they will go on to accomplish great things. I know that they need to be finished and out of the program. I know that they taught me more than I could ever teach them.
Although Costa Rica celebrates many national holidays, there are few as vibrant and culturally inclusive as the Annexation of Nicoya to Costa Rica (Guanacaste Day), which takes place on July 25th. Unlike most annexations throughout the world, the annexation of Nicoya, and thus the province of Guanacaste, was made possible by the request of the inhabitants, not some militant coup, uprising, or any such violence.
Prior to annexation in 1824, the province of Guanacaste (including the incredibly beautiful Nicoya Peninsula) was part of Nicaragua. At the time, Nicaragua was struggling with unrest and civil war which led the inhabitants of this region to request to be annexed to Costa Rica. The Central American Federation approved the request and the region became part of Costa Rica. Being that the inhabitants were the catalyst to annexation, the saying “de la patria por nuestra voluntad” (literal translation: of the country by our will) became an illustration of Costa Rican democratic values. *
Here in San Jose, I couldn’t participate in a full-scale celebration. However, by the invitation of my students, I was able to gain access to a sample of the cultural festivities. Their colegio, or high school, held a small festival that celebrated by showcasing the cultural diversity of the entire nation.
I took the bus out to the colegio and was met with open arms. The students, as well as the administrative staff, led me to a seat in the front row to watch the final dance number. (I was there before other members of the public were allowed to visit, but missed some of the other presentations). I felt so welcome with my smile stretching from ear to ear. The dance number concluded and I began to mingle with the students and faculty. A band listlessly played classical Costa Rican music, booths were being manned by the student presenters, and the food was quickly prepared.
Some of my students quickly found me and began to show me around. Each class represented a different province and gave historical presentations, offered typical food, played music, and adorned decorations. Before I knew what was really happening I had a plate of corn tortillas with natilla (similar to sour cream), corn on the cob, and arroz con leche (sweet cream with rice). I tried to pay, but my students refused to allow that. I felt so incredibly welcome. After I conversed with a few more students, I made the rounds to see each of the provinces represented, listened to the histories in Spanish, and ate or drank something from each booth. The experience was incredible. I will forever be grateful to my students for inviting me to such a wonderful cultural learning experience, and for showing me an amazing time.
Not only is this National Holiday a symbol of the democratic values of Costa Rica, but it is truly a time to celebrate all of the cultures that make Costa Rica the rich and diverse country that it is today. Without seeing something like this first hand, I would have never known the importance that Costa Rica places on its very core. The people will always come first and especially their individual values and traditions.
After leaving the mountain, things began to improve. The cloud we occupied did not follow us down the mountain. We were able to pull over for some the best views I have seen since arriving to Costa Rica. It was also significantly warmer as we made our way down.
Then, my boss and driver had a brilliant idea. He knew of another national park with a large lake that was formed after they installed a hydro-electric power plant. Also, his kids wanted badly to go to said park for a “really awesome” swing that they have there. (It was really awesome). This heavenly place is known as Charrarra.
This park was incredible. The greens were so vibrant and the place swarmed with life. Immediately after arriving we saw a duck with her ducklings, a snake (not dangerous), herons, and other waterfowl. There were amazingly colorful and large eucalyptus trees throughout. The lake was covered in a thick-batch layer of lilies. Some of the ones close to the shore were in full bloom. They had such a majesty.
The group all enjoyed some cold beers together and then we made our way around exploring the park. We wandered down some horse paths and decided it was too risky to dodge the apple grenades. After we had climbed into a model airplane designed for 4 to 6 year-olds, used a 4 person gravity spinning swing, and played some quick toss frisbee, we made our way to a low point lookout that was stunning. Unlike the peak of the volcano, were able to see straight across all of the lake.
After a few gallivanting hours, we were all feeling hungry. We went to a local hotspot for chicharrones and enjoyed a lovely and reasonably priced meal before we made our way back to the city. The moral of the story: even a “bad” start to the day here, can end in wonder and amazement.