Monday, August 27, 2012

Goal Posts

Some late summer afternoons, as the sunset drips honeyed light over my neighborhood I would wander out to a vacant field with four bamboo sticks for goalposts and a gaggle of children perpetually at play. The crossbars had long ago been damaged by errant shots, but the grass, yellowed and prickly during the short, hot summer had grown into ankle-high feather-soft and clumped blades of rich green. Every evening the arrival of nighttime was heralded by squawking crowds of parrots and stately clouds of egrets squadroning up to the aged trees on the hills. As the stars began to emerge people start drifting away until at last there was only the moon waiting expectantly in the goal. Usually when I arrive I am placed in the goal (which I can almost completely fill) until some injury or the sudden emergence of chores for a teammate brings me out onto the field. I am not skilled enough to play soccer will people my own age, or even really with children, so I imagine that I have more fun non-competitively waiting in the goal than being constantly shamed by my own students. Initially the hardest part for me to get used to was playing barefoot and ending up with twisted toes, mud caked feet, and a myriad of tiny little cuts from trash, fallen branches, and roots. We play barefoot so that we don't crush one another's feet, and because rubber flip-flops are far too flimsy to last for even a single good kick. As the summer progressed more and more people would come out to play, some evenings the lot resembled a foosball table more than a soccer field. One memorable night at least half the houses in the neighborhood were represented, and more turned out to watch. The teams were never fixed but it was usually the girls and I (and sometimes their parents) against the boys and the high schoolers. Only one sixth grade girl kept track of the scores, and she adjusted the teams accordingly (always making them basically equal, but slightly weighted towards hers). This time of relative neighborhood solidarity amongst both children and adults was brought to a sudden close by the arrival of the rain, which turned the field into mud by mid-May. The goal posts have been brought down and the children have been neatly divided into groups by grade, not to play again until summer returns.


One Month before Elections: The Convention

The school this week has begun to simmer with excitement, for today the parties for the student assembly would form and choose their candidates. The results were surprising, 5th grade (always the favorites) had a long squabble about who to put forward as president, finally settling on the most vivacious student in the class, their roster was bolstered by a couple of layabouts and some good students. They chose to go under the name PES (Social Student's Party), and their symbol was a fish. The main opposition party was a coalition of 3rd and 4th grade named PIE (International Student's Party - they may have been banking on my support), it was a good idea because nepotism plays a large role in school politics and having two classes of brothers and sisters would hopefully net them more votes than the 5th graders could manage.

Two Days until Elections: Campaign Day

 Things are looking very close in the school election campaign, with PIE and PES neck and neck for the presidency. The PES party spokesperson said "our presidential candidate is clearly the best choice, and look, we have candy!" when asked, however, exactly who the presidential candidate was the spokesperson was less clear "well, I think its Yesmily, but it may in fact be Zynara" at this point Zynara arrived to clear up the confusion "I'm the presidential candidate" she said, standing behind a tree, apparently too shy to stand up and speak to the crowd of assembled students. The PIE candidate was not so quiet however, and he proudly stood up on a bottomless chair and began to speak. "I promise a whole new set of plates for the dinning hall, and a new faucet for the sink, and tons and tons of parties and days without school!" The hearts and minds of the public were nearly swayed when he stood up on his tippy-toes and announced that PIE too had candy. At this point the public stormed the stage. PIE's victory was almost assured, but in their moment of triumph tragedy struck. "Wait, they only have chewing gum!" the cry echoed around the playground, and suddenly the momentous support he had gathered collapsed to follow the PES Spokesperson, running in circles throwing all sorts of candy around the field.

Election Day

Exit Polls conducted on Election Day reveal that PES's victory should never have been in doubt, all students, from kindergarten to 6th grade knew that the oldest would always win, and though PIE made a valiant campaign, their coalition could not hold. A splinter party of 3rd and 4th graders ended up cutting into their votes, and the easily awed 1st graders would always vote with the oldest kids. My host mother admitted herself saddened at the result, since PES had not made any real campaign promises, and none where the kitchen was concerned, though she readily admits that she has never seen any politician, in elementary school or otherwise who has made her life better.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Saving Our Planet - English Play

This is one of the main reasons I have not posted anything in a long time, my teacher and I wrote and directed a play at our school! We go to the regional talent show on Thursday, but here is a video of the performance at my school.

Thursday, April 19, 2012


The highest point in Costa Rica is quite cold. This may not be surprising to many people, but before I climbed up Chirripó I had no idea that cold and humid was a climatic possibility, and a miserably tropical one at that. Chirripó is a 3,800 meter peak that lies in the southern half of Costa Rica, near the city of Perez Zeledon, also known as San Isidro del General. I prefer calling it San Isidro, not just because it sounds more traditional, but because San Isidro was the patron saint of Madrid and one of his miracles stemmed from showing up late for work because he had been praying. Everything turned out alright though, because angels were plowing his field for him while he prayed.
There were about 15 people from Peace Corps who showed up to climb together, and we spent the first night right near the trailhead, nestled alongside a stream in a hostel owned by a man from Ojai. I mention this because I walked into the hostel and said 'It feels like Ojai in here', there were large boulders and wood floors and oak leaves covering a rocky stairway down to a swimming hole. The next morning we woke up at 4 and ate breakfast at a nearby restaurant who kindly prepared gallo pinto and scrambled eggs and several fruit platters for us, so that we could leave before 5. My friends Ken and Andrew and I were always non-plussed by the time everyone chose to head out, so we left a little after 5 and quickly enough caught up to the main group. This is not because we were opposed to waking up early, but because hiking in the dark when it is not strictly necessary seems foolhardy.

The trail is generally done in two stages, the first day one hikes 14 kilometers to a dormitory, and the next morning the 5 remaining kilometers to the peak. The 14 kilometer climb on the first day climb about 2,200 meters, seemingly all in the last two kilometers. The trail does start switchbacks while still in the heavily forested lower elevations, but the hardest parts are where it seems to give up on switchbacks, especially in the sandy, slippery sort of places where they would be most helpful. The first part of the hike was gorgeous, a calm steady climb through an autumnal/spring-time forest (brown and orange leaves dying next to new budding flowers). The dappled sunlight and delicate whistles of birdsong were a joy to my ears, which, excepting the grating snatches of music blaring from a fellow hiker's cellphone, were probably the only happy part of my body by the time I reached the dormitory at Crestones. The rest of the trail steepens gradually and just when one is about to give up, flattens out through a burned forest (giving the illusion of breaking through the treeline about three kilometers too early), This part is a pleasant stroll with a beautiful vista, but it ends abruptly at the Cuesta de los Arrepentidos (the Hill of the Repentants) so named because everyone regrets having gone so far only to struggle up an impossibly steep sandy path. We set our teeth and started up, and it was not awful, just a very tiring end to a long hike. After the steep climb the trail rolls smoothly down to the dormitory below.
I was amongst the first group of people to reach the dormitory (we made it in about 6 hours), and after checking in and taking unrefreshingly frigid showers a small group decided to climb up the Crestones, large crenellations of rock jutting out of a low peak above the dormitory. I am still not certain why we thought it would be a good idea to climb a peak between two arduous hikes, but climb we did (Ken and I much more slowly than our two companions). From the top looking down onto the valley with the dormitory the flora was quite different from the alpine growth I have come to expect in the United States. Rather than long meadows of gradually shortening grass growing into rubble and snowy rocks, the Costa Rican Páramo is a burst of low bushes, brambles, flowers and coarse grass, growing all the way up and through massive slabs of granite.

The next morning the we left at 3 am to hike the last 5 kilometers to the top before sunrise, then watch the sun come up over the Caribbean and see our shadows extend out over the Pacific. The moon blocked out all hint of the Milky Way, but it did light our way, so were able to hike for a long time through the freezing dark without flashlights. This was deemed unwise after we lost our way several times. Crunching through ice crystals that would melt into dew with the sun was delightful, although I felt the insides of my ears start to freeze before I was smart enough to put my hood up under my hat. When we rose through the last saddle a massive dark pyramid jutted up into the night sky ahead of us, and from the flashlights glimmering all over it like lightning bugs we realized that it was Chirripó at last. The last part is an easy scramble up one rocky side of the pyramid, and we watched the night sky grow purple in the east as we finally put our flashlights away and pulled ourselves to the top. We had to wait another half-hour for the sun to come up. As it finally rose over a wrinkled sheet of clouds I had the inspiration to sing the Costa Rican national anthem, and was joined by a couple of other volunteers, just as the last strains were fading out over the country the first group of Costa Rican hikers reached the top. I imagine that for them it was magical.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Guinness is Good for you

In Costa Rica, March is the cruelest month. Rather than hearing the first whisperings of spring one begins to notice the creeping presence of an anti-autumn. Grass that has been dying since December slowly begins to grow green, a few trees that have lost their leaves during the long hot summer begin to sprout buds and seem to hold the promise of new life, but accompanying these few glimpses of life are newly darkened skies of obese clouds barely able to shift the constipated weight of the rain dammed up inside them. With the clouds come a relieving coolness that signals the first great migration of insects into the house.

But before this change began I travelled into Corcovado for the second time, and the most notable change were the ticks. But the most exciting thing was stumbling into a tapir! We were coming back from a long hike up and down a serrated ridgeline when we heard the monkeys overhead start screaming. We looked up and saw nothing, so we kept going, and as we came around the standing roots of a massive tree we were about 10 feet from a large bull tapir. He twisted his nose around to sniff at us, and then went back to perusing the dry leaves. We stayed and watched him for at least a half hour, until the monkeys came closer, peeing and throwing branches down at us as they came (luckily we were wearing hats).

The major change that has happened in March is that we have acquired a puppy! We gave a puppy to one of my co-teachers when Malta had a litter, and now that dog has had puppies and we got one. I took him home in my backpack, and he's been mine ever since. The first night I had to bring him into bed with me because he wouldn't stop crying from his basket in the laundry room, but slowly he became accustomed to the house and within a week he was sleeping outside with his grandmother. He is (as can be seen from the picture) mostly black with a little frothy rim of beige, so I decided to name him Guinness. My family considers him to be my dog, starting from when I bought him food and medicine and reinforced by the fact that during my absences in the past month he spend his time moping around the house and scratching on my door. When I am around the house he spends most of his time chewing on my toes, or asleep in my clothes.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Severance Package

Organizing a 'Castration Clinic' was never on my list of things to do as a TEFL volunteer, but when a volunteer from a site near mine went home, she left me some resources and contacts to organize one in my community. I waited a long time before starting on the project, mostly because teaching 5 days a week leaves me too tired to do much besides be with my host family and read, but during summer vacation (mid-December through mid-February) I went to the vet and found a place to host it. The requirements were surprisingly sparse (water, electricity, something to put up to keep the owner from seeing the dog) and I decided against using the school kitchen (too many committees to go through, and some serious health concerns), and instead chose the Salon Comunal, a rotting wooden structure more reminiscent of a ghost town saloon than a community center. Getting the keys was very easy, though hardly necessary, and the day before the clinic) I went down to prepare the surgery. When I got there I had to excavate about six inches of dirt to get to the water, and confront a giant switch that seemed to spark and shake ominously whenever tried to use it. After clearing some brush away from the door with a machete and cleaning up decorations from a quinceañera I had been to in September, I strolled down to the ocean for a swim, and declared it a successful Valentine's Day, barely mindful of the irony that the next day I would be fulfilling the role of an anti-cupid.

The moment I realized that things would not go as I had planned is hard to pin down, but a definite sinking feeling dropped over me as I came jogging back towards the Salon Comunal with the first dogs of the day, and ran into a herd of cows who instinctively lowered their horns and started huffing while the valiant dogs strained on their rope leashes dragging terrified owners closer to a bovine doom. The moment passed when a group of cowboys rode up whooping and hollering, lashing out with sticks and whips, and the sullen cows started forward. With that first group of dogs came a wonderful woman and her daughter who became the nurses, leaving me the role of receptionist/pharmacist/accountant.

I watched the first couple of operations with interest, marveling at how the veterinarian found the ovaries so quickly, and at how the two nurses unblinking mopped up blood and held the (unconscious) dogs down. Soon I was pulled away by my organizational duties, keeping a weather eye on the appointments and the funds. This would occupy me for the rest of the day, along with one other task: manning the recuperation room.

As the dogs began to recover from the anesthetics they had completely different reactions if they were male or female. The female dogs would shake silently for fifteen minutes, but once they could hold their heads up straight they would stand and begin walking around, ready to go. The male dogs would open their eyes and immediately begin howling and yelping, expressing their woe and causing most owners to come close to tears. They recovered within a half-hour, and began to hobble about until they forgot about the pain. Still, when three or four male dogs were recovering together they would set each other off and the rising and falling harmonies and dissonance was chilling.

The first castration I saw I was puzzled by the intricate series of cuts the doctor made on the testicle before simply popping it out like a grape (at this point in the operation several dogs jumped, even through the sleep produced by four anesthetic shots). I asked him why he made four incisions before removing it, and his response was simply "There is also the whole-ball technique." I had to leave to avoid guffawing. At one point a female dog woke up during the surgery, and without batting an eyelid the doctor put in another shot and kept removing the ovaries. The consummate professional.

As the afternoon wore on the dogs that came were no longer completely fasted. No one out here provides drinking water for their dogs, they simply let the dog drink out of whatever old tire or open sewer is nearby. The vet dealt with full bladders by anesthetizing the dogs, then pressing on their kidneys. Without fail the sleeping dogs began to pee, the first time the vet had not prepared anything so it simply peed on the floor, after that we were all a little more cautious. The trashcan that all the organs and urine went into was a gift basket from the quinceañera, and since trash collection here is spotty at best, I realized as I put in a trash bag outside that dogs and vultures would be sharing some odd meals in the coming days.

Sunday, February 12, 2012


From Christmas through Epiphany the airwaves in Costa Rica are dominated by one thing: Bulls. Whether they are being ridden, or simply chasing people around the ring they are Costa Rica's clearest cultural inheritance from Spain, and the closest thing to a national cultural event that this country has. The television spectacle (on both national channels) comes with a 5 person panel of comedians, former riders, and ranch owners, who comment on the action and cover any silences immediately with groans, laughs, yowls, or a popular song apparently named after a legendary bull from years past: 'El Zancudo Loco'.
The event is divided in two parts, the main event of having a man hold on to a leaping behemoth for dear life, and the outrageous time filler of having a slightly smaller bull chase costumed characters and drunk revelers around an enclosed circle. The most important people in the ring are dressed like Superman, Batman, and the entire cast of the 70's television show 'El Chavo del Ocho'. La Chilindra, without fail a man dressed up like a woman, is everyone's favorite, especially when he gets run down and the bull roots around in his skirt. Not content with flashes of antiquated popular culture there are frequently obstacles placed in the ring as well. A favorite seems to be the merry-go-round, but I get a kick out of the four way see-saws because it requires at least two people to recognize when the bull is going to charge to lift one unfortunate participant out of the path of its blunted horns; most often the bull gets frustrated and simply charges the see-saw, throwing everyone onto the ground in a pile. This past year Costa Rica's national bank and major department store both placed cardboard cut outs of cars and boats and trains with their logo prominently placed on the side in the ring, but these were abandoned when bull after bull flipped and then destroyed them in a matter of minutes.
Bull riding is much more suspenseful. One of the greatest differences between the Spanish bullfight and the Costa Rican rodeo is that in Costa Rica the bulls become famous: El Malacrianza, El Chirichi, El Coloradilla, El Soldado (I just asked my host father to tell me some famous bulls, and without pausing he rattled off this list). Because they survive from event to event they are far more interesting than the people who ride them, who frequently suffer serious injuries and so make up a rather transient bunch.
In a typical event the camera focuses in close on the top of the pen as the rider lowers himself onto the animal's back. Then he jumps off, the camera patiently watching his boots. Once he is back on again the bull starts bucking, throwing the rider against the metal poles that line his pen. This process can take upwards of 10 minutes, so it usually starts while the smaller bull is chasing people around. Once everything is ready and the other bull has been retired, the gate flies open and nearly a ton of muscle vaults out and begins spinning and jerking wildly. The bull has two cinches around its middle, the first is for the rider to hang on, and the one nearest the back keeps the back legs kicking together, effectively disabling the creature from running. Most riders fall off within 5 seconds, but some are able to ride until the bull slows down and stops. Serious injuries are surprisingly low, the most dangerous seems to be when successful riders have to dismount, because the bull frequently feels the change in weight and starts bucking and charging, frequently flipping the victorious rider onto the ground and then pawing at him. When I went to a bullring in a small town a few weeks ago the rider managed to tackle the bull around the neck with his legs, bringing them both crashing to the ground, the bull slightly more confused than the rider.
There are two different types of bulls as well, the ones used for the comic segment tend to be straightforward Western cattle, thick and essentially cow shaped. The riding bulls however are 'Brahma' bulls, featuring large humps above the shoulders, long flapping ears, and horns that tend to be more vertical than otherwise. These are the cows I associate with antiquity, they are featured in Babylonian carvings and Egyptian papyruses, and they seem far more noble, if similarly unintelligent. This second type is the most common in Costa Rica's lowlands, making nuisances of themselves by filling up school yards, blocking roadways, and devouring people's gardens.
My host sister's son is enthralled by watching these events, and he has taken to flipping over a chair in the front yard and sitting on the seat gyrating screaming 'la mano libre!' in emulation the bull riders on television. He still loves hopping up and down on his grandfather's legs gripping his knees so as not to be bucked, whooping and yelling all the while.
Last night as we were watching the trumpet sounded for the last bull, everyone's attention was riveted on the starting gate, except for one woman walking along peacefully directly in front of the bull pen. The doors flew open and the bull ran her over before either of them knew what was happening. The woman got up shakily, dusted herself off, and kept walking.