Dog Heaven Is a Place On Earth

And that place is in Costa Rica!

Several weeks ago a video went viral showing a supposed dog rescue shelter in the mountains of Costa Rica where hundreds of dogs all live harmoniously together. Having lived here for almost two years and never hearing of it, I knew that I HAD to see it for myself. So we took a little day trip. And it turns out the hype was well deserved.

The shelter is known as Territorio de Zaguates (zaguate being Spanish for a mixed-race dog, kind of like “mongrel” in English). This project started simply with a couple, Lya and Alvaro, taking in some street dogs in order to give them a better life. Costa Rica is full of street dogs, so I think they just saw it as the little bit they could do to help. Well, over time, the numbers grew and grew, and people started dropping off more dogs–so eventually they moved the operation out to their family farm. And bam! Now this mountainous territory is home to upwards of 700-900 dogs (I’ve heard both 700 and 900 thrown around, and it’s still not clear to me how many dogs their actually are…but I think that’s because it’s pretty hard to keep track at this point!).

Going into our visit, I had a lot of questions. Are the dogs properly cared for? Are they dirty and smelly and unpleasant to be around? Is it even safe to walk around with that much poop lying around? And there have got to be a ton of dog fights breaking out all the time, right?? It turns out none of these questions were issues of concern, and instead our visit was, in one word, AWESOME!

Every day they take all of the dogs out for a long walk (a paseo) around the property, and the public are welcome to come for free to walk with the dogs. We were supposed to be there by 9 when they start the walk but didn’t make it until 10, and so we came upon a big red gate with no one to let us in and a fear that our drive was for nothing. Thankfully, after about 20 minutes of waiting, the gate was opened for someone leaving the property and we made our way in. Moral of the story: If you want to visit Territorio de Zaguates, email them to find out the time of the paseo and then get there on time!

Upon arriving, we had quite a bit of catching up to do since the group had already been out walking for more than an hour. We hiked it up a long, steep hill…which, honestly, felt like it would never end…until we finally heard distant barking and eventually came to a hillside filled with dogs (and admittedly filled with more people than we expected, too!).

It was mid-paseo break time for all these beautiful pups. There was much panting and relaxing and running and frolicking. One thing we immediately noticed is that the dogs were so calm and there was hardly any barking. They were remarkably quiet, and the dogs were incredibly sweet. All they wanted to do was climb and cuddle and play. It was truly a dog lover’s paradise (and from the looks of it, a DOG’S paradise!). What little bit of commotion took place was because the handlers got the dogs all excited with some hillside sledding–which was hilarious to watch:

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The other thing we noticed immediately was how HAPPY these dogs were. Every one of their faces showed absolute contentment. And I have never seen so many dog smiles in my life.

After the hillside rest, we continued on with the paseo. There’s no better way to take a leisurely stroll than with hundreds of dogs running past you, jumping and playing. As we walked, one of my original questions was answered: No need to worry about stepping in poop because the dogs, just like us, have no interest walking in their own mess–so they make sure to step off the path to do their business. Our shoes came away completely clean (save for the dust and dirt of any normal hike).

Lya, one of the founders of the shelter, joined us on the walk, and we got to hear a little bit more from her about the project. Talking to her quelled any fear about the care and concern of the dogs. They make sure every new dog is spayed or neutered as well as vaccinated, de-wormed, etc. They are bathed regularly and fed well. And they actively look for forever homes to adopt these precious pups. Especially now that knowledge of the shelter has gone viral, their adoptions are on the rise (though there are still plenty of dogs needing homes!). From everything we observed, it seems that this place is a dog heaven on earth. As Lya said, they are not a perfect answer to the issue of stray dogs in Costa Rica–but they are simply trying to do what they can, and in the process they are giving these pups a happy life that FAR outweighs life on the street. Just look at those faces! You can see the joy.

As you can imagine, running such a large shelter requires a lot of resources. Food, vaccines, medical procedures, soap, and the like. If you are so inclined, please check out their Facebook page and consider donating. You can donate online, or better yet if you come to VISIT, you can take the paseo with the dogs for free and they will accept donations at the end. If you are coming to Costa Rica, add Territorio de Zaguates to your “must do” list. You will not be sorry!

I’ll leave you with my favorite video of the pups at the end of our paseo:

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Magic Does Exist

If you know where to look.

In this case, I found magic in what is now one of my favorite spots in Costa Rica. It took me nearly two years to make it, but I finally got there. I’m speaking of the Monteverde Cloud Forest.

I had heard of Monteverde even before moving to Costa Rica, so it has been on my list all along. But for one reason or another I simply did not make it up there before now, so it was top priority for this year’s Semana Santa break as I began to check off my final must-do items (yes, I’m returning to the U.S. at the end of May…so I’ve got to get these things in while I can!).

Monteverde is a nature reserve characterized as a cloud forest, which means there is an ever-present mist of low-level cloud cover. Something about the climate causing plants to give off moisture…I don’t really understand these things. Not only does walking among these clouds give the place the magical feel I mention, but (at least in my experience on this particular day) it was also one of the most tranquil, serene places I have ever been. Once we set off on the path and got a little distance from the ranger station, all we could hear were bird songs, mist dripping, and the sound of our own breathing. Although we came upon other hikers from time to time, it was amazing how respectful everyone seemed to be of the quiet that naturally came from walking among the clouds.

Every turn along the path brought some beautiful new sight. I felt like I had been dropped in the middle of a forest in Lord of the Rings (albeit, a tropical version). The mist, the way the trees came together to create tunnel-like paths, the unique song of quetzals permeating the air. Although we did not choose to hire a guide, we were long enough to spot a female quetzal right at the beginning of our hike (a pretty spectacular feat, I must admit, since quetzals are notoriously elusive).

My only complaint came from being confronted with the disappointment of marketing vs. reality. Whenever you research Monteverde or see pictures of it, the classic image is of hanging bridges disappearing into the clouds. It turns out, however, that most of these bridges are on private land and are part of paid tours. We elected not to do this in favor of hiking in Monteverde on our own (for the very reasonable Costa Rican national/resident fee) and later doing a ziplining tour sans bridges. Having said that, the hiking paths in the reserve do include one hanging bridge–so that satisfied my preconceived hopes for our visit.

I sincerely hope I can make it back to Monteverde one day. I’ve been longing for that magical feeling ever since.

I’ll leave you with the below video from our ziplining adventure. We chose the most extreme option in the area–a company called 100% Aventura. They claim to have the longest line in Latin America (I’m still unclear if that is true or not) which is done Superman style. That is, lying on your stomach/chest and zipping through the area hands-free. It was absolutely incredible! This was my view from that line. Mom won’t be thrilled when she eventually sees this, but she’ll live 🙂

 

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In between my last post and this one, I also had an incredible experience on my school’s annual Social Responsibility Week project. Myself and my friend from work accompanied a group of 13 of our fantastic students to Panama to volunteer for a week at a home for young girls. We spent the week playing games, doing workshops, cleaning, and sharing with the girls. My Spanish may be limited, but I still managed to make a pretty awesome connection with many of them. Never underestimate the simple things–like hand games and art–to forge a connection. Needless to say, there was a lot of laughter that week (and a TON of sweating…WOAH was it hot!).

You Won’t Find This In the Guidebooks

Or, at least, you won’t find but a brief mention.

One of the great benefits of LIVING in another country versus simply traveling abroad is that, if you stick around long enough, you eventually get to learn, see, and experience things that tourists rarely do. Even in a small country like Costa Rica, there is so much to see if you know where to look or who to ask — and don’t stick strictly to the guidebooks. Admittedly, it’s taken me some time to realize this for myself. But I’m there now.

(Heck, even in St. Louis [my hometown], my friends and I would regularly go “adventuring” to seek out random nooks and crannies of the city that we had never explored before…and I know there are STILL things I haven’t seen after 30 years.)

The guidebooks for Costa Rica will point you to the beaches (yes, they’re gorgeous) and the rainforests (they’re lush and fantastic) and the volcanoes (definitely worth a visit). But I was lucky recently to explore another side of the country: The Boruca community, one of Costa Rica’s existing eight indigenous tribes. They’re tucked away in a small village in the middle of the Talamanca mountain range, not all that accessible, and not really all that close to any tourist-heavy sites — so they’re rather untouched by most visitors to the country. The only reason I even had the opportunity to visit in the way I did is because I’ve become very close to a tico (see my Costa Rican Spanish dictionary) whose mother grew up in the Boruca community. So myself, Armando, and our friend Katie hit the road for a little weekend road trip.

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Before I even moved here, I did a lot of research about the country, culture, food, etc., and one of the earliest things I learned about were “Boruca masks”. I understood them to be the signature handicraft of one of the local tribes…but that was about the extent of my knowledge. I saw pictures (they were gorgeous), and in the earliest days of living here I saw beautiful examples in every handicraft market. But I still didn’t know the purpose or story behind why the Boruca are known for these ornate masks. When the opportunity came to not only visit the community but also experience the purpose of the masks for myself, I couldn’t pass it up.

While the Boruca people are absolutely not completely cut off from modern Costa Rican society, they still maintain many aspects of their traditional culture. One of the most celebrated and overt demonstrations of their culture is the annual Danza de los Diablitos (“dance of the little devils”). This three-day event takes place from December 31 to January 2, and it includes a series of performances which depict the clash between their tribal ancestors and the conquering Spaniards. While we missed the main annual event, the nearby town of Rey Curré holds their version of Los Diablitos in early February–so this is the performance we were able to attend.

The “dance” is performed entirely by Boruca men. It consists of one person wearing a burlap-covered frame with a wooden bull mask on the front, representing the Spaniards, and in this case the “little devils” are the Boruca people. This is how they were referred to by the Spanish, and so with this performance it is essentially a reappropriation of the term — a way of saying, “You know what, f*** you! We are diablitos, and we’re coming for you.” The bull is surrounded by the Boruca men who are all dressed in costumes of burlap and leaves with wooden masks representing a variety of animals and devil-like creatures. Ergo: Boruca masks.

The diablitos whip the bull and antagonize him with shrill screeches and screams, and the bull responds by charging forward — often knocking the men to the ground. They put on this show for awhile in one location, and then eventually they’ll migrate to another part of the town — and all of the spectators follow, munching on snacks or drinking chicha (a traditional alcoholic drink made from corn).

Although we only got to see one short part of the multi-day event, Armando shared with us that, on the last day of the Danza in the main Boruca village, the bull kills all of the Boruca men and then runs off to hide somewhere in the village. After he’s gone, the men all get back up (symbolizing the spirits of the murdered), hunt around the village until they find the bull, and then they bring him back to the main square and kill him for all to see — ultimately leaving the Boruca triumphant, even if achieved by the spirits of their ancestors. One of the most interesting things I read while visiting the small Boruca Museum in the village is that Los Diablitos isn’t just about celebrating their past but rather it keeps them mindful and vigilant as other contemporary groups threaten (and will inevitably continue to threaten) their traditions and culture. For example, the Boruca language is unfortunately all but lost at this point.

After witnessing Los Diablitos on our first night, we set out the next day so I could hunt for the perfect Boruca mask — because I was determined to buy one directly from the local community. The masks are surprisingly lightweight, usually carved out of balsa wood (which makes sense because, for the ones used in the performance, the men have to wear them while running around for long periods of time). They are carved and then, often but not always, beautifully and intricately painted. There are three main elements found in many masks: Devil-like faces representing the idea of the “little devils”, serene faces representing indigenous spirits, and imagery of nature and wildlife. Some have all of these, some just depict animals or devils. My hope was to find a mask that combined all three elements.

Upon entering the gift shop at the museum, the very first mask I saw had all three elements. A great start. But, of course, I wanted to take the time to look around. I also found a mask of a black-and-blue jaguar with its forehead painted to depict a rainforest and waterfall with a monkey. It’s yellow eyes drew me in immediately. But I still wanted to keep looking.

We walked around the town and met multiple men out in front of their homes carving up new masks. They all spoke with us about their craft and graciously showed us the finished pieces they had to offer. We found out that in most cases these are family operations–with the husband carving and the wife or children painting the images. We even met one little boy who was CLEARLY ready for his future of performing in Los Diablitos. He showed off his kid-sized costume complete with jaguar mask.

In the end, I couldn’t stop thinking about the first two masks I had seen right at the beginning, back at the Boruca Museum…so I went back and purchased both of them. I was happy to support both the local community as well as the museum, not to mention bringing home a unique cultural artifact from a celebration I was lucky enough to see firsthand which will now be displayed in my home as a reminder of one of my favorite weekends since moving to Costa Rica.

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I’m guessing you didn’t get all of that from a guidebook?

Letters of Recommendation…

…strike again!

Don’t worry, this post isn’t actually about letters of recommendation. I wouldn’t put you through that snooze-fest. But this post is the indirect result of several months spent writing letters of recommendation for my students. You see, just like last fall, letter writing (among other things) crept up on me in September and took over my life. And during those months of constant writing, it’s just impossible for me to come home from work and feel even remotely inspired to spend my evenings writing on my blog.

So, consequently, it’s been awhile since I posted anything substantial. In fact, the last post that was really about my adventures in Costa-Rica-and-beyond was back in May. And seriously, so much has happened since then! I had visitors in Costa Rica. I traveled a ton over the summer break. I had a wicked-cool October break. I went home for a wedding. And then again for Christmas. There’s a lot to catch up on!

I invite you to enjoy this (mostly) pictorial recap of the last eight months 🙂

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May brought the graduation of my first class at UWC Costa Rica–and sending them off to their futures (university and otherwise) all over the world. A beautiful ceremony and a great way to end my first year at the school.

 

Just a couple weeks after graduation, my friend Lance from back home came to visit me in Costa Rica. We made the most of it, spending a relaxing week on the Caribbean side of the country. First we went to the ultra-chill beach town of Puerto Viejo where we rented a great little AirBNB casita right by Playa Cocles (Sarava Place–I highly recommend it for those visiting the area). We visited several beaches in the area, ate lots of tasty Caribbean food, and spent a lot of time just relaxing in the hammocks. A highlight was our tour of the Jaguar Rescue Center, a rehabilitation center for hurt and abandoned animals. We got to see everything from snakes and sloths to monkeys and anteaters. Absolutely awesome, and such a worthwhile organization to support!

After Puerto Viejo, we made the seemingly daunting trek to Tortuguero–which really didn’t turn out to be too bad. We had a rental car, which we had to drive on many dusty dirt roads to a small town where you then catch a boat to the town. Tortuguero, the town, is situated on a very narrow isthmus (I think? Geography’s really not my thing…) amidst the stunning Tortuguero National Park. It’s surrounded by water, and the town is basically a narrow strip consisting of one main street that runs the length of the isthmus. It was wet and isolated and quiet and all-around fantastic. We took a boat tour around the canals in the misty morning, spotting lots of wildlife. And we took a (unfortunately) failed night tour along the beach hoping to spot some sea turtles laying their eggs. No such luck. Alas, a good excuse to go back!

 

Immediately after Lance’s visit came my crazy-insane-travel-filled summer. First up: Two weeks of much-needed time at home in St. Louis. In addition to spending time with family and friends, I just happened to be home for Pride weekend in St. Louis–which coincided with the historic Supreme Court decision bringing marriage equality to the entire country (and there was much rejoicing). Following this came my first-ever trip to San Francisco as a prelude to some work-related travel out on the west coast. My days in SF were spent with my dear friend Courtney who manages the AWESOME Pacific Tradewinds Hostel and who also just happens to be one of the Castro neighborhood’s most bitchin’ tour guides. Fun times all around! Then I made my way up to Oregon to visit a couple university campuses and attend the OACAC conference, followed by a jaunt down to southern California for another tour of university campuses. I capped off the trip with a visit to my dad’s side of the family in the LA area, including some quality time with my Grandma. All-in-all, a very successful and enjoyable (albeit hectic) summer break.

 

Just a few days after returning to Costa Rica, I got a long-anticipated visit from my sister and two of her friends. It was a trip full of many firsts for all of us, and it was a blast! First we headed off to La Fortuna to visit Arenal Volcano and the surrounding area. Hiking, wildlife spotting, ziplining. We went ziplining with Ecoglide which features the infamous Tarzan Swing. If you are up for a thrill, DOOOO IT!! I was scared out of my mind, and then I loved every second of it, and I would do it again in a heartbeat (see the video at the end of this post). Then we made our way to Puerto Viejo for a visit that, in many ways, mirrored my earlier trip to Puerto Viejo with Lance. We stayed in the same casita, visited many of the same beaches, and even went back to the Jaguar Rescue Center. However, this time we paid the extra cost to take the private tour which meant four hours with our own tour guide, getting to see the animals out and about on the grounds before any other tours came through, AND getting to play with baby monkeys!!! Highlight of my LIFE, if I’m being honest. This was all planned because Carolyn had a bucketlist dream of getting to hold a monkey (a dream which I shared), and so we made it come true–and it was unbelievable. Not to mention all of the adorable animals, of which the pictures below only show a fraction. Seriously, if you’re ever in the area, go support the Jaguar Rescue Center. They’re great.

 

The start of the new school year brought new friends in the form of new teachers at the school–a wonderful cohort of people…many of whom I coerced into performing my one-and-only party trick–N’Sync’s Bye Bye Bye–at our students’ orientation camp (if coerced means all you have to do is suggest something and then people jump at it eagerly!). Then, at the end of August, I ushered in a new decade as I celebrated my 30th birthday. The highlight: A FRIENDS-themed birthday cake ordered by my sister and coordinated in secret with the help of a friend from work. A huge surprise, and one that left me speechless! It said, “The One Where Stephen Turns 30” and was decorated with a series of items from the show (my favorites being the lobster and Smelly Cat). A couple weeks later I attended my first-ever professional football (read: soccer) game. And then in mid-September our students once again participated in our local annual Independence Day parade. This is one of my favorite activities of the year as it celebrates the crazy-awesome diversity of our student body–and it’s so fun to see everyone show their pride in their national costume. I don’t even own anything in red, white, and blue–so I decided to represent India this year in my Om kurta shirt 🙂

 

One dear friend I made in my first year in Costa Rica was Gaby–originally from Mexico–who was living here with her mom’s side of the family while completing her master’s degree. Ultimately, she moved back to Mexico–so of course we had to go visit her! A group of us made our way to the DF (Distrito Federal–aka Mexico City) during my October Break. This was my first time to Mexico, and what a fantastic introduction to the country! Rich culture, friendly people, and AMAZING food! We toured Frida Kahlo’s house, visited the stunning pyramids at Teotihuacan, danced in Zona Rosa, saw lots of beautiful art, and basically ate our way through the city. I can’t wait to go back!

 

Immediately upon returning from Mexico, some friends and I went to the highly-anticipated Katy Perry concert right here in Costa Rica. I don’t normally spend my money on concerts because I prefer to go see live theatre–but if Costa Rica managed to score such a big name (and one whom I love), I wasn’t about to miss the chance to see her. This was Katy’s very last show on her year-and-a-half long Prismatic tour. SO much fun, high energy, and I’m fairly certain the entire gay population of Costa Rica was inside that one venue. I’m only half kidding….

 

Just one week later I headed back home to St. Louis again for one of my best friend’s wedding. You’ve never seen anything like it. A Back to the Future-themed celebration, everything was styled after the Enchantment Under the Sea dance from the first film–and we even had a visit from Doc Brown in a legit DoLorean. This was one of the visits that just confirmed all the reasons why I love my friends, my family, and my city. It was beautiful.

 

In November, I participated in our annual Social Responsibility Day service project alongside my students. We went to a small community not far from the school to paint a new mural on the wall of their football field. The students planned and designed the mural, a fun and colorful line of marching cows. The next week, my friends from work and I celebrated with not one, but two, Thanksgiving dinners–the first hosted at a colleague’s house and the other on a beautiful coffee farm owned by one of our colleague’s family. I’m not one to complain about two days of gluttonous eating!

 

As is tradition, our school threw a themed end-of-year party for all staff to celebrate before taking a month off for the holidays. This year’s theme: Comic Books. Needless to say, we had a fun time. Then, just before leaving for Christmas, I finally made my way up to the wind turbines on the mountains overlooking the valley where I live. This is an excursion I’ve been wanting to take as long as I’ve been living here, and I finally did it (with the help of Armando who stuck it out despite the challenge of getting his car up some VERY steep roads to get to the summit). It was well worth it for some beautiful views and a great sunset.

 

After a very busy fall (remember those letters of recommendation I mentioned at the beginning?), I made it home for three weeks to celebrate Christmas and New Years. Once again, some much-needed time spent with family and friends. Not to mention getting to see the new Star Wars film with my dad!

 

Back in Costa Rica for one day, and then I turned immediately back around for a bit of pura vida exploration before school started back up again. My friend and colleague, Sierra, and I made our way down to the Osa Peninsula–one of the more isolated parts of the country. While it is possible to make it there by land (via a bus followed by taxi followed by boat), we made the oh-so-wise decision to fly instead. Not only were we the ONLY two people on our small 12-seater plane on the outbound journey, but the flight also afforded us some amazing views of the Costa Rican landscape. Once in Osa, we stayed at Casa Miriam–a set of small cabinas–in Drake Bay.  The family was so friendly and took care of all our scheduling needs for our five days there. The beautiful thing is that the Osa Peninsula is largely untouched–it’s isolated, hard to get to, and quiet. The perfect spot for a truly relaxing vacation. We spent a lot of time on the beach, went kayaking and horseback riding, read books, played cards. It was fantastic. But the highlight of Osa is Corcovado National Park. Corcovado was designated by National Geographic Magazine as “the most biologically intense place on Earth” as it is home to something like 6% of the entire world’s biodiversity. In just a few hours of hiking, we saw all four of Costa Rica’s monkey species, an adolescent tapir, tons of birds, bats, spiders, and more–plus, around Drake Bay we got to see a TON of Scarlet Macaws, which for me was the highlight of the trip. They. Are. Gorgeous!

 

Now that we’re back and school is in session, this second term is already speeding by (is it seriously February 1st!?). Our students started the new term with Asia-Pacific Week, which they kicked off with a simulation off India’s annual Holi celebration. It was a colorful affair and left everyone with a lot of energy to finish out the year strong!

 

Whewww…that was a lot! But hopefully you enjoyed all the pictures. I leave you with this video of me on the Tarzan Swing in Arenal–trust me, it’s even more intense in real life than it seems on video:

And a video of our monkey friends because, well, I just can’t get enough…

Every Picture Has a Story

Some pictures have stories as simple as, “I took a picture of that because I thought it was pretty.” Others come about through hours of planning, lighting, and makeup. And some have specific, wonderful memories attached to them.

The main banner photo of this blog is one of the latter.

When I first decided on the name of my blog, I knew that I wanted to use a picture of a sunrise. But I also knew that I did not want to just use a stock photograph but rather a picture that had meaning to me. I’ve taken plenty of sunrise pictures in my time, so it was just a matter of picking one.

Ultimately there was no contest. Despite the poor, grainy quality of the picture, I had to choose this one:

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This picture comes from, what is still today, one of my favorite travel stories. And I figured since this is a travel blog, why not throw in a travel story from the past. To do so, I’ve decided to share my journal entry from the day this picture was taken–in 2007 during my semester studying abroad in England, from a brief weekend trip to Scotland while my dear friend Mary visited from the States for a week.

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Monday, February 26, 2007

Our last day in Edinburgh turned out nothing like I expected. But it was amazing.

Last night Mary and I discussed the idea of waking up early to get some pictures of Edinburgh Castle. Ok, fine. Good. So it’s the middle of the night, and I’m dead asleep in the hostel–the night before we have to wake up early to catch the train back to Ormskirk. All of a sudden, around 4:30am, Mary’s next to my bunk poking me and asking if I’m asleep.

I groan and say, “Not anymore.”

She asks if I want to go watch the sun rise with her.

I groan and, “No, Mary. I’m exhausted, and we already have to leave early to catch the train.”

She sadly concedes, shuffles back to her bed, and lays back down in her bunk. Meanwhile, I’m lying in bed, now fully conscious, thinking about how I may never be in Scotland with Mary again and what a great experience it would be to share watching the sun rise over the city. I finally say to myself, “What the hell!”

I call Mary back over to my bunk and tell her we better leave now if we’re going to catch it.

So we quickly change, book it from our hostel, and haul ass up Calton Hill where we can get a view of the entire city. From there we can watch the sun rise over Arthur’s Seat, the mountain overlooking Edinburgh. We stand on top of “Edinburgh’s Disgrace”, an unfinished monument of Greco-Roman columns, to watch the sky change through every shade of dawn. The background is nice a dramatic with a cloud-filled sky and the Firth of Forth. Such a gorgeous site!

Once it is fully light, we take picture of the city from atop Calton Hill. We take a quiet walk through the city before anyone else has hit the streets. We get some great pictures of the castle, as originally planned. We find a beautiful old graveyard and explore.

Needless to say, it was an amazing morning and some wonderful “me and Mary” bonding time.

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I know it’s a simple story, but it’s one of my favorites nonetheless. And it explains why I chose this picture to represent Every Day That the Sun Rises.

Here are some more pictures from that same morning:

“You’re so brave.”

I heard this phrase a lot when I first announced that I would be moving to Costa Rica for a new job. And to be honest, I didn’t get it. Anytime someone said this to me, I would just sheepishly dismiss it. “Naw, I don’t think so. Not brave. Just excited for a change!” I certainly didn’t feel brave. I didn’t feel like I was doing anything especially difficult. I was simply fulfilling a dream many years in the making: To live abroad and experience another culture through full immersion rather than merely as a tourist.

Now I have been living in Costa Rica for just over a year. Hitting that one year mark really makes you reflect, and I’ve been reflecting on those words, “You’re so brave.”

Now I get it.

Hands down, this has been the most challenging year of my life. And I mean that in a positive way because I don’t see challenge as negative. In fact, the exact opposite. It is through challenge that we learn more about ourselves, the world, and the people around us. It is through challenge that we grow into humans who can navigate the complexities of life. Before moving I, of course, had a conceptual understanding of the challenges with which I would be faced. But understanding and experiencing are two very different things.

This move meant a change to everything in my life. Leaving my family and friends, of course. Moving to a country where I was only minimally acquainted with the language. Going somewhere where I did not know a soul. Working in a high school environment, which I had never done before. Starting a new job in a role I had never had before, even though I had related experience. And it turns out that dealing with all of this has required a certain amount of bravery.

Bravery is characterized by confronting challenge or discomfort without fear. I think it’s safe to say that I have experienced challenge and/or discomfort almost every day since I moved. Particularly in the beginning, it took bravery to wake up every morning and confront the world with the realization that I was likely to experience something new that did not make sense or that would be frustrating. It has taken bravery to go out and meet people and try to forge new friendships when I’m not properly conversational in the language. It has taken bravery to walk into work every day and frequently feel like I don’t know what I’m doing (even though I really did, but I was still overwhelmed by the minutiae of it all). And it has absolutely taken bravery to admit to myself that it’s okay if things aren’t exactly as I expected and that I don’t have to be happy all the time.

I think this last point has been the hardest for me. I consider myself a rather positive person, and I try to exude that positivity in everything I do. I believe strongly that attitude accounts for much of what we experience in the world. Heck, you can just look at the explanation of my blog title for evidence of that. But consistently maintaining a positive attitude when faced with such constant, daily challenges has been hard. Coming into the experience with high expectations after years of working toward this dream only to be faced with the reality that expectations are not always met is hard. Being racked by homesickness and wanting nothing but to be surrounded by your family and friends is haaaard. And that’s OK. I have learned so much from this experience, and I wouldn’t change it for anything.

I write all of this as a reflection rather than as an account of where I am right now. The cultural adjustment cycle is a roller coaster of ups and downs, with the ups and downs being more intense at the beginning and slowly becoming less intense over time. I feel that I have largely come out on the other side, perhaps not unscathed, but having grown from those intense fluctuations and feeling well adjusted to my “pura vida” environment. I also write this because I know I am not the only one who has made their first leap abroad and struggled, and should a fellow wanderer stumble on this post they might find it comforting to know that the emotions they are experiencing are normal. Everyone continues to tell me that the first year is always the hardest, and I believe that wholeheartedly. I am optimistic for a great second year ahead.

When I first moved, I expected that this could turn into a many-years adventure–probably over the span of multiple countries. I am still open to that possibility, but I am less certain of its probability. One of my (many) reflections through this experience has been the importance of the people that surround me. I am a highly social creature, a classic extrovert, and I thrive on deep, meaningful relationships. I love love…giving it and receiving it. I love human touch…hugs and kisses and cuddling exchanged between family and friends that are like family. The people that surround me are far more important than the city or country in which I live. That’s not to say that I did not already have an understanding of this before coming to Costa Rica, but merely to say that my appreciation for this Truth in my life is now even deeper.

I don’t know what comes next, and that is also OK. I’m keeping myself open to the possibilities while turning my focus on creating a wonderful second year in Costa Rica. But I must say that I could not have gotten through the first year without the loving support of “my people” back home. They make the good times and the hard times worth it.

Bravery has only been part of the equation. Love has been the rest.

“A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there.”

S.L. Todd

A Picture is Worth 1000 Words

Or so they say. And I’m inclined to agree.

Instead of writing thousands of words about my recent travels, I thought I would do a photo post to catch up on the highlights. It’s been a wild couple of months. I sit here writing this from Costa Rica where I am having a respite for a few weeks before my next whirlwind of travel over the summer break. Only one week of school left before our kids’ graduation, and then it’s 2+ months of (much needed) time off from work.

Enjoy this look at what I’ve been up to since March.

~          ~          ~

Semana Santa (Holy Week) is  basically spring break for the entirety of Costa Rica. It’s a busy travel period with beaches and hotels and vacation spots getting booked up months in advance. Some local CouchSurfing friends and I decided to use the week as an opportunity to visit Nicaragua. But first, we made a stop in Guanacaste, the northern province of Costa Rica, for a beautiful hike in Rincon de la Vieja National Park to this lovely swimming hole.

Waterfall in Rincon de la Vieja National Park

Waterfall in Rincon de la Vieja National Park

The next day, we trudged our way through the tedious (and yet ridiculously lax) border crossing into Nicaragua. I mean seriously…if you want to make a medical check be part of the requirement to enter your country, then by all means. But don’t just give me a slip of paper that claims I’m healthy when you haven’t actually examined me at all.  What’s the point? Alas, all in a day in Central America.

Nicaragua: We made it!

Nicaragua: We made it!

First stop: Ometepe Island, a beautiful island created by two volcanoes in the middle of Lago Nicaragua. We were surprised to find that Ometepe was not nearly as overrun with tourists as we expected (at least, not while we were there), and it still had a largely local feel. We spent a beautiful couple of nights here, including watching the sun set at la punta, a stretch of sandy walkway that juts out into the water, surrounding you on both sides. There was also plenty of imbibing of Toña, the local brew.

Next up: Granada, one of the towns in Nicaragua that still retains much of its colonial era architecture and vibe. The bright colors in both Ometepe and Granada were stunning. The views above the city from a church bell tower, spectacular. The people, friendly and warm. We walked through the central square, visited a chocolate museum (which we browsed but decided against taking the tour as it was overpriced), took a boat tour of the isletas in Lago Nicaragua (365 mini islands in total…I want to live on one!!), and browsed the local markets. Plus, I ran into some of my students who were also traveling Nicaragua for the break!

After Granada, we spent a night in San Juan del Sur. Needless to say, not my favorite place. Huge party/beach town. Too many people, too much crazy, and not even nice enough to make up for that fact. But I managed to get a decent sunset picture, and we did have fun going out dancing that night.

After I Semana Santa, I was back in Costa Rica for all of three days before heading off to Minnesota and Iowa for a tour of four universities: Macalester College, St. Olaf College, Carleton College, and Luther College. In addition to seeing the campuses and meeting many alumni from my school, I had the great opportunity to be joined on the tour by the university counselors from all of the other UWC campuses across the world (14 in total). It was an incredible chance for us to collaborate and create stronger ties across our campuses. Before the work part of the trip, I spent the weekend visiting my dear friend Thomas in Minneapolis. It had been far too long for us, so that was a welcome perk of the trip 🙂

After Minneapolis/Iowa, one week back in Costa Rica to catch up on a mountain of work. Then off to New York for another tour of four universities: Marist College, West Point Academy, the Culinary Institute of America, and Vassar College. For those of us who flew in internationally, the universities were wonderful enough to include some time in the city prior to the start of the tour. I got to spend the week with a fun bunch of fellow international counselors and about 40 domestic counselors. In addition, this week just happened to butt up to Costa Rica’s May Day (a national holiday), so I spent the rest of the three day weekend in NYC with friends. Having been to the city before, I decided to pump my money into Broadway shows above anything else–resulting in a whirlwind of five shows over four days. For those who know me, I am unapologetically obsessed with theatre 🙂

I have to say, I feel really fortunate to have found a career that I love which also affords me the opportunity to travel (not to mention this new adventure of living abroad). I’m in a field where I have a direct impact on the future of our young people, and I am surrounded by colleagues who are passionate, dedicated, and just a ton of fun to be around. #thankful

Recent adventures in Costa Rica have included: A day trip to Rio Celeste, a local company production of West Side Story (entirely translated into Spanish), and a visit to the Refugio Herpetologico where, among other things, I had a beautiful conversation with a capuchin monkey (who I can only assume was named Marcel).

 

 

 

Time to Dust Off My Traveling Shoes…

…because today is the start of a crazy few months of travel! Some work related. Some personal. All of it welcome. I’ve been fortunate that for the last several years my work has allowed me to travel quite a bit, which is a nice way to break up the monotony of day-to-day life (yes, even living in Costa Rica day-to-day life can get monotonous!).

After school finished today, we officially began spring break. In Costa Rica, Semana Santa (or Holy Week) is a holiday for most everyone…not just Easter, but the entire week leading up to Easter. So we have a week off school, and I am going to relish it. But Semana Santa is only the start. Here is everything I have coming up:

For my week off, we’re heading to Nicaragua. First a couple nights in Guanacaste (northern Costa Rica), then off to Ometepe Island in Lake Nicaragua, Granada, and finally San Juan del Sur.

After Nicaragua, I come back to work for a few days and then fly to Minneapolis where I will be visiting four university campuses for a counselor tour (but not before spending a few days with one of my best friends who lives in Minneapolis).

Back to work for a week. Then off to NYC, also for a counselor tour of several universities. Finishing that week with a weekend seeing friends (and let’s be honest, Broadway shows) in New York.

Back to Costa Rica for a month and a half. Finishing up the school year and graduation followed by a couple weeks in early June dedicated to traveling around Costa Rica. Hopefully with a visiting friend or two!

Then it’s home to St. Louis for two weeks where I can’t WAIT to see my family and friends, hit up some favorite spots, and eat some delicious food (Ted Drewes has been calling my name for months).

From St. Louis, I head to San Francisco for a few days. This one is a long-anticipated-first for me, and I expect to fall in love with the city. Bumming around town for a few days to get a feel for it and staying with a friend who manages a hostel there.

Next stop, Portland. Quick stop to visit a university before then heading down to Eugene, Oregon for a professional conference. I heart my profession and the people in it, so I can’t wait for the annual conference shenanigans.

Eugene to Los Angeles for yet another counselor tour–this time of 10 university campuses in the LA area. That one is sure to be a whirlwind. But I’m most excited to end that stop with a few extra days in and around LA in order to visit my dad’s side of the family (he’s originally from outside LA). Fun times with the cousins, aunts, and uncles plus the chance to see my adorable grandma. I’ve only been out to California to see the family a few times in my life, so this is a wonderfully welcome opportunity.

And finally, back to Costa Rica just in time for my sister and her two friends to visit for a week. Details yet to be planned, but sure to be amazing.

They leave, and then it’s one week to decompress before orientation starts for the next school year. At which point I can also officially declare that I have lived in Costa Rica for one year.

Some people have said they feel exhausted just hearing about all my travel. I say it sounds re-invigorating.

Bring it on!

I Just Spent a Week Off the Grid

That’s right. One week with no phone, no internet, and no computer.

And I loved every minute of it.

In fact, I was off the grid in every meaning of the term. Not just without technology. I spent a week in a place where the only electricity available was generated by on-site solar panels and water was a limited resource (as it actually is all over the world) solely piped in from a local aquifer.

This past week was my school’s Social Responsibility Week (a.k.a. Service Week, a.k.a. Project Week, depending on who you talk to). Our entire student body was divided up into groups, along with staff, and we went out all over Costa Rica (and Nicaragua and Panama) to complete a range of service projects. Each year this week is one of the most memorable experiences for students and staff alike–so I’m incredibly glad that I got to participate.

My group headed to the west coast of the Nicoya peninsula to learn and serve with an amazing organization called CIRENAS (Centro de Investigacion de Recursos Naturales y Sociales). There are so many facets to the work CIRENAS is doing, but essentially they exist to help create connections between people and the environment and our resources by way of education and research. One of the primary ways they do this is through short-term, hands-on courses with groups of visiting students. Under that model, we had the chance to not only perform some service but also sit in on lectures to learn more about sustainability, water resources, and the environment in which we were serving which helped to give us perspective on why our project was important to the larger vision. In addition, CIRENAS has a strong focus on appreciating and enjoying the natural environment (I’m talking sunset swims, kayaking, and yoga). Altogether, we spent a wonderfully balanced week that included service, learning, and recreation.

CIRENAS is currently in the process of building a new campus where their short courses will eventually be held. This campus is being constructed according to the principles of permaculture–or “design science”, as our guide Sam succinctly refers to it. Essentially, every step they take in building the new campus is done with the natural environment in mind. The goal is to work with nature, not against it, and in some ways even try to maximize the possible outcomes of the natural environment. For example, CIRENAS is located in an area known as a tropical dry forest. This ecosystem only gets rain for about half of the year, and the other half is completely dry. So on the new campus they are constructing a series of ponds that work with the natural topography of the terrain to catch rainwater and preserve it throughout the year–both to help stabilize the ecosystem and to be used for various purposes throughout the campus.

After learning about the principles in which the new campus is being designed, we spent three days helping them plant seeds for new trees. Some of these trees will serve as shade to aid in the preservation of water and growth of food crops. Others will serve to stabilize the ecosystem, helping to enrich the soil and bring in necessary insects and critters. Our group operated assembly-line style to complete each step of the planting process:

1. Shovel soil into large sifters. (I re-learned that soil is made of three parts: Silt, sand, and clay. I say re-learned because I’m almost positive I learned this in grade school science somewhere along the way, but I honestly could not have pulled that piece of information out of my brain for the life of me.)

2. Sift the soil to remove dense pieces of clay and biomass, resulting in a finer, more usable soil.

3. Scoop the freshly sifted soil into planting bags.

4. Plant the seeds into the bags.

5. Water the newly planted seeds.

In the end, we planted over 500 trees. And now I have a new goal of one day making it back to the new CIRENAS campus to see all those trees scattered throughout the property 🙂 In addition to the tree planting, we spent part of one day performing beach cleanup. All I can say is that it is unbelievable the kind and amount of junk you can find washed up on the beach–even on a relatively low-traveled, non-touristy beach like the one we were staying on.

We spent a lot of time throughout the week learning about the important mangrove ecosystem which exists as a transitional ecosystem between where fresh and salt waters meet. I can’t even explain all the intricacies (so I encourage you to read the link), but we had the opportunity to explore a mangrove via kayak and it was beautiful! I only wish I could have taken pictures, but I decided that the risk of dropping my camera in the water wasn’t worth it. Also, getting to watch some of my students learn how to kayak for the first time (among other firsts they had throughout the week) was an absolute thrill.

Among all the cool things we did, experienced, and learned, if I had to pick one highlight about the week it was the fact that I got to spend time getting closer to this group of students. Some of them I already knew well, others I did not. Spending a week serving and learning with them, not to mention in tight quarters, really confirmed just how incredible our students are. They care about things that matter. And they are our future.

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P.S. We went on a nature hike, and I ate a termite for the first time. Well we all did. I hesitated at first, but the peer pressure got to me and I figured “When will I ever do this again.” So I went for it. They are packed with protein, apparently, and it turns out they have a surprisingly peanuty/lavender flavor. Kind of earthy. I don’t know how else to explain it. But now my co-worker, Alex, is hellbent on creating a Thai peanut termite sauce. Not even joking.

People often ask me how I have managed to have so many interesting people-experiences in my nomadic wanderings. It’s because I trust; I always have. It’s not something that has developed with experience, though perhaps with constant reinforcement I do it more often. I’ve never been disappointed, though I’ve sometimes been surprised. I know there’s a risk, but it’s one I’m willing to take. My life is constantly enriched because I trust people.

-Rita Golden Gelman, Tales of a Female Nomad