Sunday, January 22, 2012

On the way to LA -- Hurray!!!!!

It's all about "TICO TIME" in Costa Rica.  Last night, I asked for a wake up call at 7:00 am -- just to see what happened -- as I've heard that other travelers have missed their planes due to the hotel not being on time with the call.  Those who know me...know that I was up much earlier than 7:00 am.  As a matter of fact,  I don't think I slept more than a couple of hours.  At exactly 7:39 am, the phone rang, "hola", I answered..." llamada de atencion" said the voice on the other end.  "Gracias", I replied before hanging up the phone.

 This is the outside view of the hotel.
 Once I round the corner, and cross the street this is the view.  The hotel is in an area with homes across the street and a travel agency on the corner.

This is another view of the hotel.

By the time the phone rang,  I had already performed my ablutions, and packed. I wasn't very hungry...which meant that I wouldn't go down for breakfast or coffee (as I wanted to stay away from the public bathrooms).  I had to be at the airport at 9:30am as the plane took off at 12:30 pm and was expected to be in Los Angeles around 9:00pm.

The driver (thank God!) wasn't on Tico time.  He arrived promptly at 8:30 am.  The ride to the airport cost $30.00...however, if I were familiar with the bus system, I could have got to the airport for less than $2.00.  The only trick was that I would have had to run across the free with my suitcase in tow in order to catch the bus to Alajuela which is about 20 km from where I was staying.  Now can you imagine me trying to run across a highway with a suitcase and my carry-on bag....NOT (probable)!

Yes, that's a Denny's in the background.  While in Costa Rica, I noticed a number of fast food restaurants, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, Subway, and Quiznos seem to be the most prevalent near the hotel I was at.

Heading to the airport, I asked the driver if we would pass a "soda".  As I explained in an earlier blog, a "soda" is a small place usually with only 1 person to serve and cook your food.  At a "soda", you can get meat, beans, rice, and a drink for under $4.00.  For those who know me...I would never take a chance at a "soda"...but I did want to snap a picture of one for my readers.

 Here's the first "soda" I saw...You can't really get a good look at it because of the fence in front of it.

 This is a combination "soda" and store...which is an anomaly in Costa Rica.  A "soda" is usually a small place with a sit down area where people can sit on stools and enjoy their food on paper plates.
This is perhaps the largest "soda" in the part of Costa Rica I was it.  It's called the "Soda Tapia".  As you can was very crowded at 8:30 am.  This is a bit different than a regular the clientele have a tendency to have more money...and drive their own cars.

At first, I started to only arrive at the airport 2 hours prior to take-off...but not much was happening at the hotel, and I am anxious to get home.  Were they serious???? 3 way would it take that long to get out of this place.  But I'd rather be safe than

Even though the airport traffic was very light...the long line of people going through customs was long.  I'm glad that I paid my fees at the hotel.  Overall...getting out of the country is much more arduous than entering it.

Once passengers pass through the original screening, there is another line to navigate through in which carry one items are scanned.  Like LAX, you remove your shoes, take off your jewelry, your belt, and take your laptops out of the bag.  The difference between LAX and Costa Rica is that in Costa Rica, you wait until the guard calls you to come to a specific conveyor line.  In essence, instead of heading to a line, you wait until you are motioned for.

After passing through this line, you show your passport and airline ticket to yet another guard.  Now I see why it takes 3 hours to get to your flight.

Because of my volunteer schedule and the fear of shopping alone, I didn't buy many souvenirs while I was in Costa Rica.  After the Auto A&M Mercado experience, I was hesitant to traverse the city alone; especially at the end of my volunteer day which ended around 4:00 pm.  The sun sets around 5:30 in Costa Rica...I would have only had about 45 minutes to shop...and return safely to the hotel. NOT TAKING THAT CHANCE.

I was determined to buy a few things for my I did my shopping at the airport.  I had about an hour before the plane was to take off.


A notable difference between boarding a plane in Costa Rica and the good ole U.S. of A, is that before you board the plane,  your carry-on bag is physically searched, and the guards use a wand to make sure that you aren't carrying any illegal weapons with you.  (Now this...after all the other stuff we had to go through to get this far...this might just be overkill.)

Finally settled into my seat 2D.  As we're taking off...I notice that Costa Rica looks very pretty from the airplane...but then again, I guess everything looks better from a distance :-()   Not that I have that many complaints about my trip.

I'm glad that I don't have a seat mate for this leg of my trip and hope that my luck holds out all the way home. I'm happily leaving "Pura Vida" for the hustle and grind of the United States.

It's a peaceful flight with no crying babies...or yacking  seat mates; not that I have anything against my late hubby and I had 3 of our own.

Wow!  I absolutely love the warm mixed nuts American Airlines serves.  I'm going to miss the warm nuts if American is bought out by another airline and run under another banner.

I ordered the chicken as my meal (after all, by this time it was afternoon).  The chicken turned out to be sliced chicken breasts served over Spanish rice.  I wish I had brought the bottle of hot sauce that Eduardo gave me - instead of packing it in my luggage.  (On the other probably would have been confiscated before I it's a good thing that I didn't pack it).  I ate a few bites of the rice and a bit of the chicken and decided I'd wait for the ice cream or cookies (or whatever they serve for dessert) instead.

Today's dessert turned out to be vanilla ice cream with some type of carmel coated nuts.  I scrapped off the topping and enjoyed the ice cream...I'm satisfied...for the moment.

Once I get to Miami, I'll have about 50 minutes to make my connection and board the plane to LAX.  Even though Miami is a huge airport, I'll have plenty of time to connect..

The first leg of my trip back home is coming to an end....My ears are popping as we begin our descent.  I'm also getting sleepy...but excited to be in America!

FROM MIA (Missing In Action ???) TO LAX

Going through customs in Miami is a chore..but I'm glad to be heading home.  Once you deplane from San Jose, passengers must exit the airport then stand around and push your way through customs.  There is no line...simply a disorganized mass of people attempting to get through one door.  Once you get to the door, your carry on is searched again, your body is scanned, and you have to once again remove your shoes,  jackets, belts, and laptops.  You  passport is checked - yet again.

After your carry on is returned, and you put your shoes and jacket back on, it's time to search for your flight number in order to find out which gate to head towards.  By this time,  over 40 minutes had passed.  I found the sky shuttle and made it to the gate with minutes to spare.

This leg of my flight had a number of college students on it.  From the snippets of conversation I heard, many are USC students majoring in some type of health science.

Finally I'm aboard a 767..never been on one before.  It's definitely much better than the other jets I've flown on.  For one, in first class the configuration is 2 - 1 - 2.  This is the first time that I've seen this type of configuration.  The seats are super wide!  The seats vibrate and massage and let out into a bed.  This is absolutely marvelous.  NOTE TO SELF - Always try to book a 767 flight!!!

No such luck on not having a seat mate on this leg of the journey.  A young woman with an outfit similar to a flight attendant's uniform is my seat mate.  It turns out she is a flight attendant.  Once again, this is a full flight...hopefully, she's not a "chatty Cathy".

God is definitely watching over me on this trip.  A mother and her young child are traveling together...yet their seats are separate.  The woman who had the window seat (next to the mother) said that she did not want to give up her seat.  (Definitely no Latin courtesy from her)  The mother's seat was the aisle seat in the row in front of me -- and the child seat assignment was the single seat on the same row was mine.  I offered my seat -- which meant that (I hoped) the flight attendant would have to sit in the seat in the front row.  The young girl would have my seat...and the mother would have the aisle seat.  Voila!  Problem solved...My guess was right...since the flight attendant was flying (to get from point A to point B), I could take the single seat in the middle, or sit next to "Miss 'I'm Not Changing Seats to Help You Outl".  For those who know know I chose the single seat.  I don't really care about the window.  I choose the window seat because I don't have to worry about people crossing in front of me.

Here I am...all settled in for a 5 1/2 hour flight.  It's been a long day, and I'm hoping for a bit of rest.

About 5 hours into the flight, the smell of fresh baked cookies fills the air waking up most passengers who had fallen asleep (including me).  The flight attendants passed through the cabin offering a choice between chocolate chip and coconut cookies.  Because I'm not a big chocolate fan, I grabbed a coconut cookie...and found it to be quite delightful.

While waiting for my luggage to arrive, I call for my ride...  After waiting for about 20 minutes for my luggage to appear, I searched out an airport employee.  She said that I needed to go to the "Lost Baggage Counter" to see what happens.  After standing in line for about 20 more minutes, I found out that my bag took the circuitous route to Los Angeles via Puerto Rica.    After completing a form which had questions such as what color is your bag, and list 3 specific items in the bag:
1.  Macintosh Air
2.  Green journal filled with writing
3.  1 pair of strappy flat brown sandals.

According to the young woman at the counter...I would have my bag by 10:00 am tomorrow.

Looking at the bright least I don't have to unpack tonight.

Pura Vida!

Do you know the way from San Jose? I've been away so loooooong?

It's time to head back home.  NOTE TO SELF: Book taxi (cost $30.00 and pay exit fees cost $28 + $3.00 hotel fee) before leaving the country.

This is the car that picks us up and drops us off to head for the volunteer project.  The cost for the round trip is 1250 colones (about $3.25).

ANOTHER NOTE TO SELF:  Not having an opportunity to practice and speak Spanish the past few days was weird.  The 2 hours spent at Maximo Nivel at the end of my volunteer day made the day painfully long...but also provided me an opportunity to practice with others who did not speak Spanish.

Shots of the outside of Maximo Nivel. This is where I caught the shuttle with the other volunteers to go to the orphanage.  It's also where I took Spanish lessons for 2 hours each day for the first 5 week days I was in Costa Rica.
One of the classrooms at Maximo Nivel. 
Although Maximo Nivel encourages guests to write a positive story on their Facebook page - and in return will give you a free t-shirt, I opted not to.  Here's why:

  1. They forgot to make my reservations
  2. I didn't get my Spanish workbook until the last day of my Spanish class.
  3. The volunteer project that I requested (and was confirmed by Maximo) was not available.
  4. The volunteer project I originally got was much farther away than the 20 minutes by bus.  It took almost 90 minutes on very bumpy roads to get to that project.
The question is, 'would I recommend Maximo?'...the answer is - "I'm not sure".  Other people whom I spoke to had similar experiences as mine. In their defense, the Maximo staff tries hard to be accommodating and helpful.  Overall, I would give this experience a B-.  
Perhaps the most unsettling part of this experience was the fact that the staff at Maximo didn't warn me about the perils of navigating the roundabout (with no stop signs or stop lights). At the very least, they should have suggested that I take a taxi or a bus on my first trip to Maximo from the hotel.  This should have been taken into consideration because the people at Maximo are very aware of my back condition.  
The lounge area at Maximo Nivel
Sometimes when the internet was down at Maximo -- we were told that the wi-fi next door at the bar may be working.  There were no charges for wi-fi, but the owner wanted each person to order at least 1 pitcher of beer.  

One of the things that I noticed while in Costa Rica, is that many of the students are well educated.  They have strong math and (hand)writing skills.  A large number also have a fair command of the English language.  Although I requested to work with teenagers, I figured since I had already changed sites once, I'd just stay at Casa de los ninos.  If tested against a class of public school children of similar ages, I would be that the Costa Rican children have a better education that public school educated children in the United States (especially Los Angeles).

The youngsters who came to learn English, had a passion for learning.  I was warned that I should only make the lessons 15 minutes in length for each hour we were together.  Because I don't like to wait until the last minute to do things...the first day, I put together what I thought would be 3 days of lessons.  It turned out to be just short of 1 day. These students reminded me of the Eveready Bunny..they kept going and going....
They never tire of learning...even during their time out of school .

Most of the children come for the entire day, yet some come only for lunch and to play outside.  Because their is a dearth of toys, some of the volunteers and I got together and purchased some soccer balls for the kids to play with.  Because of the dangers of playing in the area between houses, Don Jose (the overseer of the orphanage) made a place for the children to play on the other side of he kitchen.

 The pantry at Casa de los Ninos

It was truly a pleasure to work with these children.  Although I won't be able to keep in contact with my students, I will certainly keep them in my prayers and remember them in my heart.   

This is the park where I catch the bus to go back to the hotel after leaving Maximo Nivel.

When I left Maximo for the last time, I met a mother and daughter on the bus.  This was the first time that I engaged in "real conversation" with follow bus riders.  I was sitting on the second row of seats behind the driver to the right.  The mother boarded the bus first, looked at me and greeted me.  I returned her greeting.  The mother took the seat directly behind me...and began chatting in Spanish. I turned around and said, por favor - hablar mas lento (please speak slower).  She introduced herself and her daughter.  I introduced myself.  She asked how long I had been in Costa Rica.  I told her that I was here to volunteers.  She looked at me and asked, "es ested de Maximo Nivel?"  "Si", I replied.
The mother then told her daughter that I was from Maximo.  It turned out that the older woman rents rooms to Maximo students.  She told me a bit about her home...and suggested that if I decided to come back for more lessons and live in a home, I should ask for her.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

salir del camino! (Get out the way)

Each time I travel in Costa Rica, the sound of horns blowing -- and people screaming various things and offering hand signs (making a fist with the thumb between the middle finger and index is akin to giving the finger) is coupled with the words, "salir del camino" is part of life in Costa Rica.

As I've been walking down the road, I've seen people who forgot to make a turn...back up down the road until they get to the place they were supposed to turn.

I know that you can't tell from this picture, but this driver is driving backwards down the road.

NOTE TO SELF... (and any one who plans on visiting Costa Rica)
When walking:
1.  Drivers will not stop for a pedestrian...even if they are backing up.  I saw this first hand.
2.  Potholes in the road are the norm.
3.  There are a number of blind drops from the "street"
4.  Make sure you know your landmarks...if not, you WILL get lost!

This is the "sidewalk" in front of Maximo Nivel"...yes, I said "sidewalk"  it's not a road.  You can't really see the depth of the drop from this shot...but I've learned not to bring out the camera too often.

One of the couples at the hotel told me that they got into an accident.  The husband said he was slowing down to allow a pedestrian to cross...but the car behind him wouldn't slow down.  The car rear ended him.  In Los Angeles, the driver that hit the vehicle would have been in trouble.  This was not the case in Costa Rica.  The police informed the man that he shouldn't have slowed down.

As for me, there's no way I would rent a car or drive in Costa Rica.  The roads are narrow and bumpy, and the drivers are crazy!  As I stated earlier, it's not uncommon for a driver to back down the road.  I've seen buses and cars jockeying for space on a narrow, one lane road...driving precariously close to each other going in opposite directions.

Another thing that surprised me...but I don't know why, was seeing peddlers walking between cars selling fruit, tickets, and whole meals.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Winding Down...

This evening, I had the opportunity to have a real talk with Eduardo (the bartender / waiter).  Eduardo is studying to do something in healthcare.  Every evening when I walk into the restaurant, Eduardo is reading a "bioliga libra" (biology book).  Eduardo noticed my Pepperdine book bag and we began talking about school.  In the area where I was staying, there are a number of universities all around.

 Upon entering Hotel de Bergerac, you're directed to the Front Desk.
 Eduardo the evening server / bartender / student
When I returned to my room to finish packing and ponder about this experience, my mind wandered to the children at Casa de los ninos.  My fondness for the two brothers Elkin (8 years old), his brother Guillermo (11 years old) and Esperanza (11 years old) grew with each hour that I spent with them.  They were truly grateful for each small kindness I bestowed upon them.  Small gifts of coloring books, pencils, paper, gum, chocolate bars, and crackers, brought a glow to their faces that I probably would only have if I won the lottery!

This is where I spent the first few days
in Costa Rica volunteering.
As I said in an earlier blog, I didn't feel
comfortable volunteering here, as the location
seemed unsafe for the children.
The steps were stone (with no railings).
Although the children were fond of running
up and down the stone steps (as the chapel
is on the second floor, I felt that this site
was an accident waiting to happen.

Once you pass through the gates at La Carpio, you enter through the yellow building.

 Some of the items I brought with me to give to the children.
 Beans, rice, and mashed potatoes simmering on the stove...before the children arrived.
 All meals are served in bowls with spoons - not disposable cutlery or bowls.
 La Casa de los Ninos  is where I spent my volunteer hours.
 These are the homes that the children live in.   In the background is a dog training site.  (Imagine that).  Although it appears to be's quite a distance away.
 As you can see, there are no real doors or windows in most of the places these families call home.
 This is where one of the families hangs their clothing to dry.

Emeila, Elkin, Esperanza (back) and Guillermo's hand (dealing the cards).  On my last day, Guillermo taught me how to play "loco ocho" (Crazy 8).  I haven't played that game in years.  We had a great time.  I gave him a deck of cards before I left, although he probably has a deck at home.  He is a master dealer...he can take the cards in one hand and shot them over to the other hand without missing a beat or dropping a card.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

A few more days...left in Costa Rica

Ah...breakfast al fresca with the sound of water from the fountain.   Same traditional breakfast...another beautiful sunny day.  Once again, I asked the waiter to skip the papaya juice... he still brought it.  Habit I guess.  I hate to throw away food (or drink)...but I will (even in a third world country).

Ah.... internet access again this morning...will wonders never cease....As I dug into my fruit, I began to contemplate how things get done here...especially with "tico time" as the norm.  No wonder there are no clocks -- tico time means no hurry.

In Costa Rica, you don't have to see a doctor for every ailment.  Simply go to the local farmacia, tell the pharmacist your symptoms and you will get some medicine to cure what ails you.  Not that I tried it...but it is an interesting concept.  In this case, the pharmacy is part of the gas station.

There are farmacias every where.  In San Jose, there are also lots of colleges and universities, as well as hospitals and clinics.

For those faint of heart, you may want to skip this next section...but I did promise to write about all my musings while in Costa Rica....We're going to the toilet here.

The plumbing is not what we (Americans) are accustomed to.  Toilet paper is not to be flushed.... Toilet tissue and anything that is NOT HUMAN WASTE, is not to be put in toilet.  To that end, I'm sure you can imagine what the smell in a public toilet is likely to be like.  Let's end it here...because I just finished breakfast...and want to make sure that I don't get sick to my stomach while blogging about this...and am forced to use a public bathroom.  While I'm away from the hotel, I don't drink anything...this alleviates the need for me to have to go inside a public toilet.

Costa Rica is very expensive during the tourist season (which is now).  Hotel rates go up exponentially during this time of year (like other places -- I guess).  NOTE TO SELF:  Avoid Costa Rica during their summer season (December - April).  QUESTION TO SELF -- Will you ever fly to Costa Rica again?  Answer -- Heck No!  Any other trips to Costa Rica will be via most of my vacations.

Not much else to  muse about...another day in Costa Rica!  It's going to be 84 degrees Fahrenheit.

Pura Vida!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

What's Going On With You???

My Spanish teacher is Angela (pronounced An Hel a).  She is very friendly and speaks to the class in Spanish with a few English words peppered in here and there.  Angela is a phenomenal teacher...she makes learning Spanish fun.

Angela has the blue (Maximo Nivel) shirt on.  Charlotte is my classmate; she is from Australia.  Charlotte quit her job and decided to take time off to travel the world.  Wow!

It was a very interesting day with the kids.  Although there are a number of children in the orphanage...not all of them are interested in learning English.  There are a couple of young boys to whom it was apparent had not seen Black people before.  It should be noted that in the area that these children live...there are no Blacks (at least I didn't see any).  I wasn't surprised when the young boy used the word, "marron" (which means brown) -- I had to ask Angela what this meant.  People who don't know your name, will sometimes call you by description in Costa  Rica.   While this use of the word marron didn't bother me, what did bother me was the fact that the young boy showed me what looked to be a real cell phone.  It wasn't.  It was a cell phone with a picture of a half-gorilla, half-human.   He then looked at me...and pointed at the picture...saying, "esta es" (this is you)...laughing.  Although I wanted to say, esto es....I didn't.  I grabbed the play phone and took it to Don Jose.  Don Jose looked at the picture and apologized to me and demanded that the young boy do the same.  Because the youngster knew that if he didn't apologize, he would no longer be able to come to the orphanage to eat and play.  He begrudgingly said, "lo siento" (I'm sorry) and ran off.

One of the other youngsters (Jeffrey) ran after him.  I noticed that Jeffrey grabbed a pink piece of paper and a pencil.  A few minutes later,  the youngster came back with a picture of me that he drew (see below) as an addendum to his apology.

Jeffrey (the 14 year old) who give the youngster below the pink paper 

The youngster who had drew a picture of me on the paper.  After this incident, Jorge and I became friends.

This is the picture that Jorge drew of an apology.  Jorge does not speak English well...he also doesn't seem to have a desire to learn.