Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Today, the sun came out

It's been raining here for days... ALL the days!  Every damned one of them.  Except for today.  And like... most of a day last week.  Today, the sun came out.. and pretty much STAYED out.  And while the dark gray clouds did loom and did threaten, and did technically sprinkle for a few minutes... I'm going to go ahead and give it a pass.  Why?  Because this morning, we woke up to SUN!  And I didn't get rained on for the whole day.  Yay!!

So, it's been a little over 2 weeks since my last confession.  I'm still addicted to Tropical Te Frio, but I've managed to titrate the required dose down to something that will let me walk down the street during the day without people looking at me any funnier than they would any other gringo in my neighborhood.

Actually, considering that in my particular neighborhood, there's some sort of Mormon Missionary pavilion, I probably get more FAVORABLE stares than other gringos because I'm not wearing a backpack and a name tag.   Sigh.  If they only knew the inner me... they'd probably walk backwards across the street with their crosses in front of them, mouthing the rosary.

In other news though, it's been a really busy couple weeks.  And when I say busy, I mean busy starting the night we got here!  The first night we were here, we went to see a 1-man show by a guy named Hernan Jimenez.  This actually bears a bit of back-story, and I think it's a nice story, so I'll come back to that in a bit.

After that first night, and over these last couple weeks, I don't think we've had more than one day without seeing people!  During most days, I spend a few hours cleaning up the house, finding and sorting out long-hidden items into "keep, chuck or give-away" piles, and generally preparing the space for the arrival of our container (some day).  Jime, for her part, is busting her ass like mad trying to knock out her dissertation, or helping translate my documents for residency and such.

In the afternoons and evenings, we see friends, go to movies, have people over for game nights, visit bars and hang out for hours.  I've met so many wonderful new people!   We've also done some other chorey things like get me set up with a bank account, get her set up again with the Caja (that was today, and that was a lesson in patience and perseverance both). 

On Saturday mornings, we get up early and go to the feria (farmer's market) and stock up on fruits, vegetables, and fresh farmer's cheese for the week.   I am a happy man when cheese is a significant part of my life.   For whoever comes to visit us later, I am gonna LOVE taking you to the feria!  There's so much cool shit there!  So many different fruits that you've never seen before, and so many fruits and vegetables that you HAVE seen, but haven't seen what they can be when they're grown in the tropics!

Those aren't carrots:

THESE are carrots!

Also at the feria, you can have fresh-squeezed (sugar) cane juice.   If that's not a pick-me-up, nothing is.  Also, you can get fresh "agua de pipa".  Basically, coconut water... water from young coconuts, before it turns to milk.  When you order agua de pipa, it's prepared for you with a machete.  Any time you can get a drink prepared with a machete, that's a drink worth having. 

This week too, I even found a connection for green coffee beans.  If you didn't know it before, one of the hobbies I picked up in Portland was roasting my own coffee beans.  I love it! 

At any rate, right as we were on our way out of the feria, we passed by a booth with 2 ladies selling coffee beans from a co-op in Tarrazu, one of my favorite places in the world for coffee.  Also... I've been there (not to this particular co-op, but that neighborhood at least).

At any rate, I asked Jime if she would chat them up for me, and she did, and it looks like they're willing to sell me small quantities of green beans! That means I don't have to buy a whole 100 lb sack!  And... I don't even have to go all the way out to the farm to get them... since they're already regulars at the feria, all I have to do is call them up ahead of time, and they'll bring them right to the feria for me!  Not sure what the cost will be just yet, but even the roasted beans are cheaper here, so I'm imagining these will be just slightly more expensive than dirt (or... I'm hoping around half what I would otherwise pay for roasted beans).

And lastly, I started running yesterday.  Yes, I actually got off my ass, out of the house, and ran.  This was sort of a big deal for me, because not only do I not know the neighborhood, but I don't even know the whole SYSTEM of getting around here yet.  It's not like the streets are laid out in nice grids with conveniences like street names and god-forbid numbers.  No, these streets are random, almost hap-hazardly laid-out, frequently-dead-ended, often turning, and as far as I can tell from my lack of experience thus far, all exactly the same-looking.  I have no context for this place yet.  Translation... if I get lost 6 blocks from my house... I'm pretty well fucked.  I don't know which way is up here, yet.  So, stepping out and doing "a little run through my neighborhood" was actually somewhat terrifying. 

Fortunately, Jime was able to tell me a fairly easy route, with really huge land marks, and several different ways to find my way back if I somehow got lost.  Also, I had my phone, which has freaking GPS on it.  So... I really had no more excuse to not give it a try.  When all was said and done, I had no trouble at all!  And frankly, I think this may actually be a great way for me to learn my neighborhood. I'll just expand my circle a little bit each time.  Not only will I see more of the hood, but I'll also be extending my physical running range, bit by little bit.  So... I think that will work.

OK, so... back to Hernan Jimenez...

Hernan is a film-maker, and he's a Tico, and he does something unique and amazing, which is to tell stories about Costa Rica, and Tico culture and customs, using Tico slang and language, and set in Costa Rican locations.  What makes that unique is that almost NOBODY does that.  It's virtually unheard of.  And this guy not only does it, but he does it with OUTSTANDING success, amazing humor, gut-wrenching drama, and even some self-criticism.  He both celebrates and criticizes all the little quirks and curiosities that he's noticed about his own culture.  He's like a Costa Rican Seinfeld, in a way... only he's actually funny, and has a talent for writing and telling dramatic, compelling narrative.

Jimena saw his first movie, "A Ojos Cerrados", and loved it (aside from some bits that hit a bit too close to home, but that's not my story to tell).

So later on, we get forwarded a link to a Kickstarter project for a new movie he was making, called "El Regreso" (The Return).  We didn't realize at first that this was the same guy, but Hernan himself appeared in a little video clip about the project, and was so charming and compelling, that we were sold right off.  When we realized what his previous film was, that just cemented the deal, and we donated $20 to the project to earn ourselves a DVD and a credit at the end of the film (as "Associate Co-Producers" or some such thing).   This film, in another weird, too close to home way, was about a Tico who had spent something like 8 or 9 years living in the US, and was finally going back home (the similarity ends there, but that's a pretty big match with Jime to start off with!).  Suffice to say, the premise sounded interesting, the preview seemed awesome, and the guy already had a pretty good reputation to start with.  We were pretty jazzed about the film.  And it seems we were not alone; he apparently blasted past even his stretch goal for fund-raising to finish the film.

Here's his IMDB page, if you're interested:

Jump forward several months into the future... we have our move date set, our packing is going well, but all-consuming, and we still live in that fairy-tale world where our container was GOING to show up on Saturday.  We find out from a friend that Hernan is doing some sort of a talk in Costa Rica (after he had been living in San Francisco for years), and wonder of all wonders, it seems his last show will be the night we're due to arrive!  We beg and plead, and our friend gets us tickets (thanks Hector!).  I figure it's going to be him just talking about the film, but who cares... it's the guy!  And we like him!  We're there, dude.

Flash forward again, we've survived the container Snafu, we've had wonderful times with friends followed by gut-wrenching goodbyes, followed by nearly 24 hours of travel time with 2 cats.  But we made it here, and we had our awesome welcome, and within 6 hours of making it home, it was time to go out! 

Turns out, the show was not just Hernan talking about his movie.  It was nothing like it.  Turns out, it was actually a 1-man play, written, directed and performed by Hernan.  He does a pile of different characters, from silly to cheeky, to tearful, to hopeful, to just himself.  I understood about half of it (with it being Spanish and all), but the primary gist of it was... if you're going to tell a story... make it accessible!  Do it in the language and the culture and the customs of the people you're telling the story TO.  Don't put on airs and try to perform the whole thing with "Announcer voice".   Tell the story like it was your buddy talking.  The whole series of little vignettes he did was all about illustrating this point, but along the way, he also ran the gamut of emotional expression and also really demonstrated that he has some SERIOUS acting chops!  You couldn't help but love the dude.

After the show, we all decided that the only thing to do to follow that up was of course... dim sum.  I don't know how they knew... but it turns out that was correct.  And apparently, the place we went was THE place to go.  How do I know that?  Because while we were there, Hernan himself came by.  And we got to meet him, and shake his hand.  I don't know if that was an accident or a setup.  Honestly, in this country, it could go either way.  But either way, the dude is a rock star, but imminently approachable and friendly, and I'm comfortable stating that Jime and I are fans for life.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

A side note on learning a new language

There's a forum online for expat gringos who have moved, or are planning to move, to Costa Rica.  The forum offers online peer support for how to get by here, as well as points folks to information about local laws, especially those related to immigration.

I saw a post there today from somebody asking about programs for learning Spanish.  At first, I thought they meant social programs (i.e. classes and whatnot), but it turned out they just meant software.  At any rate, it turns out that I've spent a lot of time talking about and learning about this particular subject, and it happens that I have a lot to say, based on my collected knowledge from people who've done this successfully before. 

I figured it was worth sharing, just in case any of my friends or family ever finds themselves in a situation where they want to learn a new language, but don't know how to go about it.  So... here goes:

I have two suggestions that really worked well for me (and which were originally suggested by my partner Jimena, who is fully bilingual and bicultural).

1) Read Harry Potter in Spanish.  Even just the first book.  Why?  Odds are, you have already both read the story and seen the movie in English.  So, you know where it's going, and you have a LOT of basis for context.  But also, the story is written with grammatic simplicity suitable for 11 year old children, yet the story is complex and engaging enough to maintain the attention and interest of adults.  As you read the book, do NOT have a dictionary nearby.  It's important to try to get as much as you can from context. This method takes advantage of your brains ability to make associations and solve puzzles, and the resulting answers will therefore stick MUCH better in your head than if you had looked things up.  If you find you're seeing the same word over and over again, and you still can't get it, then yeah, go ahead and look it up on google translate.  But by then, you will have already struggled with it, so it will still stick better. 

As an example, I did exactly this process myself.  At the beginning of the book, I was reading at about 1/3 my normal reading speed, and understanding at BEST 40% of the words.  By the end of that first book, without looking up ANYTHING, and just getting it all from context and from my previous experience with the story, I was reading at my normal reading speed, and understanding at least 90%.  Miraculously, this also translated directly to my ability to recognize spoken spanish as well.  Maybe that's partly a result of me reading out loud in my head, as it were, so that I was listening internally to myself reading the book.  Or maybe it's just that now my brain had better formed the pathways necessary to recognize the words and phrases easier, so I could do it however they got to me.  Either way, it improved both my reading AND my listening comprehension.  This was huge for me.  You might say it was the critical mass for me to go from a guy who could pass vocabulary tests to a guy who could actually conduct basic conversation.  I'm still FAR from fluent, but reading this book made a huge leap for me.

2) Find a native speaker on craigslist to trade Spanish practice for English practice.  I did this also.  The guy I met was trying to learn English while I was trying to learn Spanish.  As it happened, we were at very similar levels. How we worked it was, we would meet up at the mall (Mall San Pedro) in the foodcourt, have lunch, and spend an hour and a half speaking nothing but Spanish, and then an hour and a half speaking nothing but English.  Since we were both there to learn from each other, and since neither of us was fluent, we both had infinite patience with each other, and a really good attitude in general about the whole thing. 

So yeah,... the conversation was a bit stunted, and proceeded in fits and starts sometimes, but we had a blast, and it improved BOTH of our conversational abilities a TON.  That practice ended up being the critical mass for my ability to hold up my own end of a conversation.  The listening comprehension lets me keep up with where the conversations are going, and the speaking practice, even as minimal as it still is at this point, at least gives me some opportunities to chime in.  As a side note, the guy and I ended up having a lot else in common, and he ended up being one of my first real friends here that wasn't bequeathed to me by my partner.

Another option which doesn't address learning, but does address assimilation, is to have each person just speak in their own language.  As it happens, it's always easier to understand than it is to speak.  So, what you'll find is a lot of people here who understand English very well, but just can't respond in kind.  Since you're likely to be in the same boat, going in the opposite direction for a while, a good short-term compromise for everybody is to just speak to each other in your native languages.  It lets you communicate more, and it lets you get to know people, and it lets you live your life while you're still learning the language.

Pura Vida,


Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Well... we made it!

Hey there folks,

Before I get started,  I promise I will explain the title of my blog in a bit.  This one post will probably be my longest ever, but I've been saving up a lot, so I think we'll get through it.

This here is the first moment of peace and quiet I think I've had in about ... oh... 4 months.  First there was packing, then shopping and more packing, then mad crazy insane-o packing, then "Holy Shit (or Jori Chit! for my Spanish-speaking folks) the container is going to be here in an hour... A FUCKING WHOLE DAY EARLY".  Magically, due to the exhaustive (and exhausting) help from some really good friends, we managed to get that done (in 3.5 hours).

Then of course, it was the final wrap-up and then goodbyes.  And damnit if those goodbyes weren't the hardest goodbyes I've ever had to make.   Some of the friends we left in Portland are so close as to be considered family in everything but blood, and they were absolutely the hardest part for me about leaving Portland.

The trip itself, of course, was also no bed of roses.  We had to take 3 different flights, including an over-night from LA to Miami, in order to best guarantee that the temperatures all along the way would not exceed the extremes (40-85F) allowed for the cats traveling with us.   All told, we left our apartment in Portland at about 2:30 PM (PST) and arrived at our house in San Jose, Costa Rica at about 11:30 AM local time ( equivalent to 10:30AM PST).  For those of you keeping score, that's about 20 hours of active travel!  And several of those hours were spent with screaming cats who really didn't take kindly to being locked in a tiny box for that whole time.  If a crying baby is a sound genetically-programmed to put you on a razor's edge, the sound of a wailing, terrified cat is only 1 step behind it at most.

At any rate... at long last, we made it here!  And the house is every bit as beautiful as I remembered it being.  The wood is gorgeous, the yard is amazing, and the mast bedroom feels like a mini-suite to me (though currently without a bathroom... we plan to fix that later).  We also had the warmest and most overwhelmingly loving and happy welcome I think I've ever experienced.  Hell, aside from the day-of... the welcome home train hasn't stopped running yet!  The night we got here started with imediate family for a couple hours, then friends, then more friends, then... jori chit, it's a party!

Everybody seems happy to see me again or meet me for the first time.  I'm like the baby panda at the zoo.  Most people don't get to see a creature like me up close and personal, so I'm quite an amusement.  I don't mean that they're treating me like a toy or a pet monkey to look at or anything. I mean... they've seen and been around plenty of gringos in their lives.  I think the difference with me seems to be that... I actually care about people.  Maybe I'm good at that, and they like that about me.  Either way, it feels good.

Also, I'm sort of nice, so people kinda like me, which I really enjoy, and I enjoy them as well.  This is Latin warmth at its finest, and is exactly the kind of thing that will make this place feel like home for me... in a way that nothing else could.

It's going to take us a LONG time to get fully settled in.  Like... months.  First we unpacked (good start).  Next steps are to get rid of/give away/sell/etc all the old stuff that doesn't need to live here any more, and make room for all the stuff coming from the container.  This includes not just the old appliances, but also all the closets full of stuff that hasn't been looked at for years if not decades.  This will be no small task, so we'll just take it a bit at a time.  The container arrives in about a month, so that's our window.  I think we'll make it.  We just need to be vigilant, and keep moving.  The unpacking, once the container gets here, will be largely my job to unpack it, since Jime did the VAST majority of the packing.  That is... she packed every single box.  I helped pack the appliances, and I helped move shit around and did other work around the house while she packed... so it's not like I did NOTHING and just sat around and watched her work.  But still... packing is brain-work, and it's stressful, and she did it all, because I don't have experience packing fragile things for long trips, and she does, in spades.  So, I recognize that she did great work, and that SHE made this move happen for us (I'm saying it here, in public, to allow her accolades to commence).  That being said, I OWE it to her to do the unpacking.  And that's definitely something I can do just fine.  :)

Other tasks include getting my immigration documents translated and starting my application for residency.  The plan is to do that within the first couple weeks. 

As for the cats, they're settled into our bedroom for now and will stay here for a while until they really get used to the feel and smell of the place.  Then we'll let them out into the rest of the house, but still keep them inside for another week or two.  Being indoor cats previously, I doubt they'll care to notice the yard, or at least... I think they won't miss it that much.  Then, once they have a nice, solid feel for home, we'll let them out into the backyard, which is completely fenced in.  They COULD get out of it, but they won't, until they learn to climb.  In any case, I'm guessing that based on their previous homebody lifestyle, they won't be in such a hurry to do that.  At any rate, if they finally do decide to climb and explore... well... they have tags with their name and our city and phone number on them.  And by then, they will know what home smells like, so hopefully they'll be able to get back.  And, hopefully they wont' have too many nasty encounters while they're out galavanting.  We have heard that many cats who relocate here (especially from the States) do not do well.  We're really hoping that our conservative approach will give them the best chance possible.  Insha'allah, they'll make it through.

So, I think I'll leave it there for now, for the story of the trip and the arrival.  So now, as promised, I'll tell you about my blog title.  In Costa Rica, they have Coke, like many other countries.  But, unlike many other countries, they also have a local competitor, called Tropical, that sells juices and iced teas and such.  In a really great turn of events, it turns out that Tropical outsells Coke products!  I'm not sure by what margin, but I know it's significant.

So, with that as a background, on my first trip here several years ago, somebody gave me some Peach Iced Tea from Tropical (in Spanish, that's Tropical Té Frío con Melocotón).  For them, it was just a nice local juicy drink for them to bring.  For me, it was like... my first hit of heroin.   I drank the entire 2 Liter bottle pretty much by myself, and within just a few minutes.  I won't lie, it's full of sugar.  But shit, so is coke, and coke doesn't have that effect on me.  Hell, even all their other flavors of iced tea don't do that to me.  Something about this special mix... this particular syrup flavor... lights my taste buds up like Christmas and sends me into a junkie bliss.  After that first trip, I think I brought home like.., 6 Liters, back to the States.  Since then, every time I come here, one of the first things I NEED to have is my own bottle of Tropical Té Frío con Melocotón.  I mentioned that I had a warm welcome when I got here?  Well, one of the things that made it so awesome was that within minutes of my arrival, I was presented with my own 2 Liter bottle (by the guy who's been house-sitting for us for the last year, and who is now one of my new best friends).  I figure the other part of the double-entendre is pretty straight-forward.

Aaaand that's it for now!  Thanks for reading!  I hope to continue telling you stories as they occur to me, both about how my life is developing down here, about the country in general, and later about our other travels when we take our Round the World trip in a few months.  Until then... peace out, home fry!