Thursday, February 28, 2008

Drive Like a Tico

Driving in Costa Rica is WAAAAAAY different than driving in the US. Although they have many of the same traffic laws, not many of them are enforced. Also, to get from Point A to Point B on sketchy roads and through busy traffic, people come up with some very inventive driving strategies. We often joke about how driving down here is like driving in a video game, where you can drive all over the road (and sidewalk) to get where you need to go.
At first we were pretty scared to drive down here. People speed all over the place, families of four people pile onto little mopeds, and drivers change lanes suddenly and constantly. Now that we have owned a car for a few months and spent more time on the road, we feel more accustomed to the Tico driving style. We even think that these crazy drivers might be more careful and considerate sometimes than drivers in the states.
The roads in Costa Rica can be horrible. Heavy rains wash out all of the patches, and the roads are constantly covered in huge potholes, just waiting to pop a tire. A lot of people curse at the Costa Rican government while navigating around a giant hole or open manhole. There are also speed bumps (muertos) that are hard to see because they are not painted, so every once in a while you will be driving along until you feel a big THUD.
Other obstacles include the countless stray dogs that run around and sometimes sleep in the middle of the road. Today a couple of cows were walking in the street in front of our school, but that is a little more rare.
The narrow little streets here are packed with huge buses and delivery trucks. Often times you have to drive so close to an oncoming vehicle that you can almost here it scraping against your car. The streets here do not have names, so everything is identified by landmarks (eg 200 meters north and 100 meters west of the 2nd cemetery). To make matters worse, there are TONS of one way streets in Costa Rica, but hardly any of them have signs to warn you. You do not want to drive the wrong way on a one way street. It makes people so mad that they will cuss, honk, and gesture to the point where you are afraid that they might lynch you. The only way to know which street is which and where the one way streets are is to get to know the area. We are pretty comfortable driving around Escazu, but driving into San Jose or any other city is usually a stressful experience, with lots of honking and yelling directed at us.
Ticos are very relaxed people. There is even a thing called Tico Time, which refers to the way people show up late for everything. If you are invited to dinner at 5:00, you do not arrive before 6:30. With this said, Ticos hate driving in traffic, and there is tons of traffic around Escazu. They have many creative ways of dealing with traffic. They honk all the time. If there is a red light, people honk at it (maybe in hopes of making it change?). Also, pedestrians do not have the right of way here. Cars whiz by people trying to cross the street, and pedestrians learn to look both ways and sprint like there is no tomorrow when crossing.
When Ticos approach a two lane road that merges into one lane, they drive way ahead of the point where the lane merges and cut into the line of traffic as far ahead of everyone else as possible. Stop signs are just suggestions down here, and if you stop for too long people will try to pass you on the left. One of the craziest driving techniques that we have been introduced to is driving on the shoulder of the road. If traffic is backed up and you just want to make a right turn at the intersection up ahead, you don't wait. Instead, you drive onto the grass, dirt, sidewalk, or whatever it may be on the right shoulder of the road, and make your way up to the intersection. We used to gasp at this maneuver, but now that we know it is a perfectly legitimate way of driving, we use it ourselves if we are running late.
There are quite a few car accidents in Costa Rica. The law down here says that if you are in an accident, you cannot move your car until the police arrive and give you permission. So if someone is rear-ended (as they often are) the two or three cars involved must stay in the middle of the road. This usually causes huge traffic jams. Therefor, whenever we see a fender bender in front of us, we do whatever we can to get out of there so that we will not be stuck for an hour waiting. This law might sound crazy, but there is another one that is even crazier: if a person dies on the road, the body cannot be moved until a judge (?) comes and verifies that the person is dead.
For as crazy as the driving can be down here, there are still a lot of considerate drivers. If you are trying to make a left-hand turn into oncoming traffic, people will always stop and wave you through. People honk, wave, and flash their lights at each other way more than they do in the US. If you were trying to turn out into traffic in the States, you might be stuck waiting forever, as cars keep speeding up without letting you through. Here people slow down and help other drivers get where they need to. This courtesy seems to balance out all of the craziness on the road. It's hard to describe driving down here if you have not done it, but it is a really unique experience that is now part of our everyday lives.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


We share our house with quite a few other lifeforms. Last night we had to remove a spider that was about as big as a person's hand, and we have found several more that were the same size. The most challenging thing about them is trying to trap them in a cup to put them outside, because killing them would be wrong, and really messy.
Also, there are these strange little cocoon-like things that we find all over the walls everyday. They wouldn't be that bad, except that they start to wiggle around and a little thing that looks like a worm starts to come out. We dedicate at least a few minutes of each day to getting these things off the walls with toilet paper and flushing them down the toilet.
There is a PVC pipe that comes out of the floor near our kitchen, that we did not pay much attention to until a rat started poking its head out and looking around. We capped it off with a plastic cup, and we have not seen any rats since.
The ants also make their presence known. There are all different sizes, from ones that are smaller than a flea, to ones that are as large as a bee. If you leave any food or crumbs out, the tiny ants will immediately appear from out of nowhere and swarm all over their snack. The good thing about this is that we cannot be too lazy about letting dishes pile up, or else we will have company.
Then there are the medium and big ants. They seem to find really interesting places to live. For example, they love electronics, especially printers. Apparently this is a pretty common problem down here, and the Tech Department at CDS has to take apart quite a few printers to get the ants out. They like the heat and the chemicals or something.
The ants that we see the most regularly are the ones who live in the bathroom door (yes, IN the door). Fortunately it's not the bathroom by our bedroom. They are not that bad because they only come out at night, through a whole in the bottom of the door probably. Usually there are only a couple of them, but there have been times when we have found at least 15 big old ants crawling around in there. It's not that big of a deal since we are going to Guanacaste next year. We try to just avoid using that bathroom after 8 PM or so.
Then there are the mosquitoes, who are not too bad lately. We notice them a lot more when we go to the beach, but there are still times when we wake up in the night with a bunch of bites.
The creature that we fear the most is the cockroach. Something about the way that they move around so quickly, and how big they are, makes us squirm pretty easily. The worst is when they start flying around. We have probably only seen about 15 cockroaches in our house since we moved in. Cockroaches are never spared unless they get away somehow, but usually they end up splattered under a shoe or rolled up magazine.
We used to think that we had a mouse problem in our loft because of all of the droppings that we would find. We avoided that area, but soon we learned that there was no reason to be scared, because it actually came from geckos. The geckos are the best. They eat bugs nonstop, and they are pretty cute too. They make the strangest, loudest noise, that is hard to describe, but is somewhere in between a shriek and a click. Sometimes geckos spook us a little because we think that they are cockroaches at first, but when we realize that it is just one of our little insect-devouring reptile buddies we are very relieved.
We have also had some issues with big centipedes and moths in our house, as well as some cats that would come in through the open skylight and spray our things. This is the part of Costa Rica that you don't always hear about when people mention gorgeous the beaches, volcanoes, and rain forests.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

We went to the market in Escazu Centro on Saturday to buy produce. It closes at 1:00, and we got there at about 12:45, but we found that this worked to our advantage. It seems that vendors are a lot more willing to bargain right before they pack up their booths. We bought avocados, shallots, cilantro, parsley, cantaloupe, mangos, mini-mangos, sweet chilies, hot chilies, cucumbers, peaches, and nectarines - all for about 13 bucks.
We just relaxed for the rest of the day and cooked sea bass and mashed potatoes for dinner. We also made gallo pinto and cilantro dip to snack on throughout the week.
We stayed in because on Friday night we went to a trendy Mexican place called Tacotento. The food there is pretty good, but nothing like California Mexican food. It is located in a really trendy place called Plaza Itzkazu, and it is amazing to see how packed it gets with all of the hippest, wealthiest people from San Jose. Plaza Itzcazu has many different kinds of restaurants and bars, including Italian, Argentinian, Mexican, Japanese, Cuban, Spanish, Brazilian, and also an Outback Steakhouse and Hooters.
We are getting more accustomed to going out to eat later in the night. If you go out before 7:30 you will be just about the only one eating, and people-watching is half the fun of going out here.
Today (Sunday) we hung around the house and cleaned up a little. In the afternoon we went to World Gym, which we joined a couple of weeks ago. We really like World Gym because it has so much workout equipment, including many different kinds of cardio and weight machines, free weights, a nice pool, and much more. A lot of teachers and parents from our school work out there, so we can usually count on seeing some familiar faces when we go. If we go to the gym early in the afternoon it is not very crowded. However, later in the evening the gym becomes quite a scene, where men with huge muscles and women with augmented bodies go to socialize. Many of the women wear very fancy workout clothes, as well as a lot of makeup and big earrings. If we ever lived in a place like Beverly Hills or Montecito when we go back to the US, we would probably feel right at home.

Friday, February 8, 2008

One week until President's Guatemala!

We just finished a busy week of planning, teaching, sending out progress reports, and being observed by Mr. Large. Next week we have to administer IOWA standardized tests (you can't even escape standardized testing in Costa Rica!), but after that we are free. Country Day School observes many American holidays, and fortunately for us, Presidents Day is one of them.
We were planning on going to Arenal Volcano for the 3-day weekend, but yesterday we change our plans when we learned about some special flight deals being offered. TACA, the main Costa Rican airline company, has a limited offer to fly round trip to most countries in Central America for only $99. We went to Panama pretty recently, all of the flights to Belize were booked, and we are going to live hours away from the Nicaraguan border next year in Guanacaste. The flights to Honduras did not fit our schedule very well either, and although flights to El Salvador were really cheap, it only took a little bit of reading about the skyrocketing murder rate to steer us away from that idea. With those countries ruled out, we settled on a place that neither of us know much about: Guatemala!
We were unsure about Guatemala at first because we thought that the main reason to go there was to see the Mayan ruins in Tikal. However, Tikal is 10 hours away from Guatemala City, and we did not want to spend our short 3 day weekend driving the whole time. Then we read about Antigua. A beautiful colonial city in the mountains, only about an hour from Guatemala City, surrounded by 3 active volcanoes, and bordering "the most beautiful lake in the world." We were sold. We bought our tickets online during a break in the school day (today was the final day to take advantage of the offer). Now all we have to do is figure out where we will stay.
It might seem crazy to write a blog about a place that we haven't even been to yet, but we are so excited about Guatemala that we just had to share about it. So when we are giving IOWA test to our kids next week, you can be sure that we will be dreaming about stepping on that plane and flying up North.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Daytrip to the Beach

Yesterday we woke up early, quickly ate some coffee and fruit for breakfast, and got on the Pista (freeway) to Play Hermosa. The road was really crowded because there was a huge concert going on in nearby Jaco. A lot of teachers from our school went to the concert, which featured Daddy Yankee as the headlining act, but we felt like relaxing on the beach instead of dealing with big crowds.
We got to the beach at about 10:00, and the first thing that we noticed was the heat. This was our first trip to the Pacific in the dry season, and we were not ready for the burning sand and sweltering sun. The sand at Hermosa is really dark, and it became so hot that people literally had to run across it to get down to the water.
Pretty soon we were ready for lunch, so we packed up our stuff and went to the jungle surf cafe for gallo pinto and mahi mahi sandwiches.
Once were full and hydrated we headed back to the sand to relax and surf. The waves were pretty disappointing compared to some of our past trips to Playa Hermosa. Since there has not been any rain for awhile, there are not any good sandbars for the waves to peel off of, so instead they just closed out.
The sun cooled down a little bit in the afternoon, but it was still so hot that we preferred to hang out in the shade of the palm trees instead of working on our tans in the sun. It was really pleasant to read, relax, and not worry about grading papers or teaching social studies lessons. At about 3:00 we loaded our stuff up and drove back to the city. We hit some major traffic just outside of San Jose, but we eventually made it back safe and sound.
For dinner we went out to Samurai, our favorite sushi restaurant. We ordered a giant sashimi boat, with ahi, white tuna, octopus, squid, salmon, mackerel and sushi rolls. We stuffed ourselves silly, and when we were ready to go our waiter brought us a couple more Saporos on the house (he is the father of one of my students). After a fun day and a great meal, we went home and slept soundly.

A few pictures from Escazu