Costa Rican fun!

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Just when you think you have done the best thing yet on the Gap Semester, another amazing opportunity presents itself—and our past weekend in Cahuita is great testament to this. What I found to be most interesting was how Cahuita, which is located on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, compared to where we live in the Central Valley and how each place identifies itself. One thing that I picked up on was the difference in cooking styles. Since my arrival in Costa Rica, I have adapted to the daily consumption of “gallo pinto” which is a simple rice and beans dish with spices such as coriander, garlic, cumin, salt, onions, and a sauce called Salsa Lizano. When in Cahuita, the meal options did not appear to be much different, however when I ordered a typical lunch option at a restaurant of rice and beans con pollo (chicken), not only was I surprised by the name of the plate in English (and it is referred to that way) I was also surprised by the taste! Unlike where I live in San Jose, Cahuita creates a similar rice and beans mixture however uses coconut milk, cinnamon and allspice. Like both places, the rice and beans from the Central Valley and Cahuita were both rich in flavor and had their own twist. Experiencing traditional Caribbean food helped me to realize the different identities and cultures that exist in Costa Rica. After spending several weeks in the Central Valley, it is easy to think that in general, Costa Rica can appear to be a fairly homogenous place due to the food options, the people and the places; yet thanks to our weekend excursions, we are able to have a clearer understanding of how colorful and diverse Costa Rica truly is.

As great as San José is, it is always enjoyable to leave the city and go explore the wonderful country that is Costa Rica. Since my arrival here from the USA, Costa Rica has held true to its name, which translates to “rich coast”. With its dense green vegetation and beautiful beaches on both sides of the country I can say that Costa Rica is one of the most scenic countries that I have ever been to. An example of this is when we travelled to Cahuita this weekend we got to spend the day on beautiful beaches while spending the nights immersing ourselves in the culture and listening to calypso music. Being fortunate enough to travel to Costa Rica and its many provinces has helped me to immerse myself in the culture and to continue gaining knowledge. I cannot wait to continue on our adventure to discover more of Costa Rica’s hidden treasures.

This past weekend the group traveled to Cahuita, a place known for its delicious food, good music, and lively people. The first night the Gap Pack got a taste of the culture when we had a special performance by a calypso band at our hotel. Our professor is a well-known musician and performed with the band showing us the type of music that is so popular in Limón. The next day I got to learn even more about calypso music and its history by interviewing Walter Ferguson, arguably one of the best calypso musicians of all time. I walked into a cozy Costa Rican home excited and ready to hear Ferguson’s stories. My professor came along and together we sat down in the living room when a woman appeared helping guide an older man to his chair next to me. As he sat down he introduced himself as Walter Ferguson and told me I could ask him whatever questions I like. Soon after starting to interview him I realized each answer was going to be another fascinating story of his life and career. He told me about being a young boy and hearing his mother sing every day, which initiated his interest in music. He told me how easily it was for him to pick up instruments and play them. When he was younger he was given a clarinet, that same day it was given to him he was able to play songs by two in the afternoon. He also shared the stories, which influenced some of his popular songs such as, “Cabin in the Wata”. I left his house with a new fascination for Cahuita and its culture. The weekend was filled with memorable learning experiences and I hope to one-day return.

Early on in our Society and Culture course our professor told me that if I brought my ukulele on our weekend trip to Cahuita we could have a jam session. Agreeing to this was easy and as I packed for Cahuita, I made sure that the uke was tuned to perfection and dusted. On the bus while waiting for departure, the moment came. Both the ukulele and guitar emerged from their cases. After fiddling around with Mumford & Sons and Jack Johnson, I began to strum Wagon Wheel. In our group’s typical style, we erupted into song. Quickly our van was filled with the sounds of our singing and our professor shredding on the guitar. Finishing our group ballad, he taught me how to play a 12 bar blues sequence as well as a traditional Calypso song. When the instruments were finally put away for our drive, I was excited to hear more Calypso music. Luckily, this hope would be fulfilled by the concert being performed for us the same night that we arrived. As we were preparing to leave for dinner, he unexpectedly approached me and asked if I had any interest in playing with the band that night. I excitedly agreed and as I walked away began to realize what I had signed up to do. Later that night as the band warmed up, he motioned me over. We played once through the song to confirm that the ukulele could be worked into the sound system. Sitting back down my nerves started to act up. I could feel the stage fright trying to creep its way in. Finally after the band had played a few songs he introduced me to the audience, consisting of the Gap Pack and a group of middle aged women at the hotel for a yoga conference. Nervously I walked towards the band and positioned myself in front of the microphone. Not daring to look up, I kept my gaze fixed upon my fret board to ensure my fingers were going to play the correct chords. Behind me I could hear the count in and suddenly I was surrounded by music. Quickly, my worries melted away and I began to feel the music instead of my slightly quaking knees. Like a wave destroying a sandcastle, I could feel Calypso’s beachy vibes washing away my nervousness.

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In our Culture and Society class about Costa Rica, we have learned a lot about Calypso music and the history behind it. It has been so fascinating reading articles but the best part is that our teacher is a famous Calypso singer. This past weekend we were able to see him in his natural environment as we traveled to Cahuita with him to learn about the home of calypso music. One of my favorite parts of this past weekend was having our own calypso concert. One of the best calypso bands played for us and it was so cool learning about the music from the band members and seeing how they performed it. I think that the lyrics are the most interesting part when it comes to calypso. The lyrics can express everything from hardships to what’s going on in a person’s day. The range is broad but the lyrics always tell a story. The beat is also very catchy. They had only played 3 songs when the majority of our group decided to get up and start dancing. We soon realized that the only way to dance to calypso was slowly because the beat (although catchy) was not fast. This didn’t stop us. We made the best out of our private concert and danced the whole night away.

Music inspires people all over the world. This past weekend I was lucky enough to get a glimpse at the genre of Calypso music in the heart of Cahuita. Our society and culture professor also happens to be a legend in the Calypso world. We got a private concert from him and some fellow Calypsonians on Friday night. It was amazing hearing the stories behind the lyrics first hand. But the real magic happened on Saturday night. After dinner I asked him if I could jam with him when we got back to the hotel. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to bring my guitar to Costa Rica and have been missing it greatly. When we arrived back at the hotel a few of us met up and he asked what song I would like to sing. Previously at dinner we had discussed our mutual love for The Beatles, so of course I told him The Beatles it would be. Starting with Blackbird I nervously sang along, but as we got further into the song I eased up. Although singing is one of my passions I don’t perform in front of strangers very often. But I was among friends and the lyrics of The Beatles took me away into my own world. For the next hour we would belt out everything from “Yesterday”, to “A Day In The Life”. Each song taking me away into the fantasy world of a rock n’ roll band. Halfway through I realized how lucky I was. Not only did I get to jam out to my favorite band, but it was with an accomplished musician. I was truly inspired in that moment, especially after he told me I should keep pursuing singing. Now I am very eager to join an a Capella group or something when I get to campus. I never really thought of singing as anything but a hobby for myself. But I should follow my heart and see where it takes me, wherever that may be.

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As the rush of the rapids contorted the small rubber boat and the water sprayed up into my face my adrenaline started to rush and I realized this would be one of my favorite days in Costa Rica. White water rafting on the Pacuare River was one of the most fun and exhilarating things I have ever done. Nothing can compare to class four rapids in a six man yellow rubber boat. As we paddled down the river for three and half hours I laughed continually and swallowed way too much water. Each set of rapids brought a new challenge and more obstacles. The day was amazing. I enjoyed the high speed in which we swished through the water and the bumps along the way. Maneuvering in such fast moving water is incredibly thrilling because you suddenly realize that you have little control of which direction the water chooses to fling your small boat. This sense of not knowing what will happen next filled with the fact that water is constantly rushing at you is what leads to the excitement and enjoyment of white water rafting. After the day was over I was sore from paddling all-day and moving around within the boat to be properly positioned for each rapid. Although it was a little scary at first, I would surely do it again any day.

Today was the day: we were going White Water Rafting. Everyone was so excited because most everyone had gone before. We had a really early morning, but no one cared because it was going to be worth it. While we were on the bus, we got instructions on what we would be doing and the proper White Water Rafting techniques. As we were getting closer and closer, everyone was getting more and more excited. The energy was high as we got to the river and things started to get more real. We divided into raft groups and got our instructors, here we go. My group was excited as we started out with some small rapids and there were lots of smiles. As we got to some of the bigger rapids, the adrenaline was high and lots of laughter was occurring. Finally, the class four rapids were here. As we were heading down the rapids, a huge wave came into our raft and our instructor shouted, “LEFT BACK, RIGHT FORWARD!” 10 confusing seconds went by and all of a sudden only half of my group remained in the raft. As we tried pulling people in left and right, one person remained outside of the raft in the class four rapid. He was retrieved by one of the safety kayakers and was returned to our raft. We talked amongst ourselves about how this was so fun and was such an adrenaline rush. As my group talked about how much fun they were having, I couldn’t help but feel the exact opposite. Throughout the Gap Semester, I have been exposed to many new experiences. I have learned the benefit of putting myself out there, and even though I know I won’t be going White Water Rafting again, I am glad to have had this one of a kind experience with my friends.

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Vamos a la playa! A nice, relaxing day at the beach was exactly what our group needed after a taxing series of finals and oral presentations in Spanish class. After applying copious amounts of sunscreen, we disembarked from the bus and made our way along a beachside trail, heading for an area without strong rip currents. Eventually we arrived at our chosen spot and, after some organization, charged into the warm Caribbean water, whooping and cheering as we jumped over small waves and dove under large ones. After having gone far enough away from shore, it was so good to just relax. I floated on my back, feet facing the shore. I closed my eyes and just chilled out for a little bit, and felt at peace. Nature, however, was having none of that, and directed a wave to smash onto my floating self. My reverie was swift, brutal, and tasted like salt water. I laughed it off and joined the others as they hunted for and collected sand dollars with their feet. It was fun work, and I managed to avoid the crabs that pinched a few of my friends. Eventually, I joined some of the others in body surfing. The waves were the perfect size for it, and I had some of the best waves of my life! One wave in particular was perfect. It was abnormally large for our little stretch of beach, about six feet tall. Three of the guys managed to catch it, and when I felt myself in the curl, I opened my eyes. It was fantastic! I was about three feet above the surface of the water, with more wave above me and my bottom half inside the body of the wave. I didn’t need to contribute any effort to stay in the wave, I was just cheering and enjoying the ride. I balled up as the wave eventually smashed down around me. I was a little disappointed but all good things must come to an end. Like this blog post.

After a fantastic breakfast Saturday morning, our group traveled with our teacher to the national park in Cahuita. This past Saturday was by far the best day I had in Costa Rica. Our group had close to four hours to hangout on the beach, which was more than enough time to take in the sun. After body surfing for 2 hours, a friend and I went down the beach and bought some fresh coconuts called pipa to drink coconut water. Then, we went to a local restaurant for lunch and saw monkeys swinging from the trees right next to the restaurant! We went back to the hotel and I had another chance to sit back and enjoy the beach. Afterwards we had a guest speaker come in and talk to use about the struggles facing her Caribbean town and what people can do to help. After our discussion with our speaker we went out to a delicious dinner in Cahuita.

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Upon arriving to Cahuita, Limón, I was immediately mesmerized by the beauty before us. I instantaneously got the feeling of being on a tropical island, with dense jungle right along miles of gorgeous beach. The sounds of the bars and restaurants playing the traditional calypso music along with the laughter and jokes being made were a nice touch as well. Once we began to walk on the beaches of Cahuita National Park, I could not believe where I was. One could either walk on a path through dense forest alongside the beach, or just walk on the sunny beach itself. My two favorite environments, within 20 feet of each other, were too good to be true. I immediately began running up and down the beach anticipating the moment that we stopped somewhere so we could get in the water and swim. Finally, that moment arrived. Sprinting at full speed towards the water with all my friends around me, we dove into the turquoise water. The temperature was just as perfect as the waves. After an awesome couple of nonstop hours in the water bodysurfing waves and splashing each other in between awesome laughter, I ended the beach day buying a nice coconut to drink the water and just enjoy the views. It was a great stress relieving and beautiful day I know I will not forget.

We raced to the beach, taking only a few minutes to lay out our towels and put on sunscreen before diving into the ocean. The water was warm and while the waves were great for body-surfing, it was perfect for swimming as well. The sun began to peek out from behind the clouds and shine on us. Everyone laughed and played, some people were chicken-fighting, others floating on their backs, and others diving under the waves. Everyone was happy, the sort of present happiness where nothing else seems to matter. I waded out fairly deep and felt something underneath my feet. At first, I was shocked and pulled up my knees, but then, I remembered what I was feeling. Putting my legs back down and shuffling my feet along the sand, I found another. Carefully, I picked it up with my feet, and floating on my back, brought it to the surface. I was reminded of this little piece of home all the way in Costa Rica. A sand dollar!

With my feet in the sand and my body exposed to the Costa Rican sun I couldn’t have been happier on this beautiful Saturday morning. It was my first time at the beach in months, and I was enjoying every second of it. On Saturday morning our group visited Cahuita national park and we got to learn about its history and about the local food of Limón. Limón unlike San José was a place where the Caribbean people came in the past to work on the banana plantations so it comparatively has variation in its food and culture. For example the people of Limón speak creole English as well as Spanish. Furthermore they eat more seafood and they cook most of their foods in coconut milk that gives food a very different taste to it, which you cannot find in San José or in most of the rest of the country. Overall I enjoyed Limón very much and hope that someday I will return with more time to get to visit more of the city and more of its attractions like the sloth sanctuary.

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Today we visited a local elementary school in San Jose. We met with three different classes and taught them about community helpers for the English class. My group made a matching game where one card had a picture of a helper and the match to it had the word in English so that the kids could practice their English. First, we explained who community helpers are to them in Spanish and showed the picture of the helper as we talked about it so that they started to learn the English word. When we started to play the game, we had them practice saying the English word when they flipped it over. At first, I could tell it was difficult for them to both say the word and remember which community helper was which, but as the game progressed and they practiced more I could really tell they were starting to learn! As they were learning, they got more into the game and more excited to play. They were smiling more, so I was smiling more. I loved seeing their face light up when they realized that they could correctly identify, in English, which community helpers were which. It truly was an amazing experience helping the kids learn English and make their day a little more fun.

When I read the email about my host family while in Washington, D.C., I was so excited to meet them. I was especially looking forward to meeting my host sister, Ana, because it seemed like we both loved to paint and write. When I entered my Tico family’s house for the first time, I saw Ana’s drawings covering the walls. From her numerous pictures of jaguars, tropical birds, and houses surrounded by beautiful mountains, I could tell we shared a deep love of animals and nature. When we first met, Ana was in her room, on her bed, receiving dialysis treatment. Her legs and feet were swollen, her skin was pale, but her face lit up with a kind smile when she saw me. We greeted each other in Spanish and kissed cheeks (traditional Costa Rican gesture for hellos and goodbyes). Ana asked how I was doing in English and I was relieved to be able to explain and talk about my feelings in depth. I told her how I was nervous to communicate in another language and live in another country but I was so excited to finally have siblings! I told her how wonderful her family already seemed and how I was looking forward to spending six weeks here. She nodded and told me, “Our family is perfect. This is why we love to bring in new brothers and sisters.” Ana and I spent time together most every day, playing games, drawing, sharing poetry, and pictures. Ana showed me pictures of her before and when she became sick. I was taken aback by her beauty, she glowed with life and joy and health. Her tan skin shone and the breeze blew her dark hair to her waist. Of course, the girl sitting next to me was incredibly beautiful in looks and spirit, but the girl from three years ago in the picture, she was so happy and healthy. We had lessons most days and quizzes every night at dinner. Whenever I had a question or was worried about something, I went to Ana. One day we sat on her bed watching The Emporer’s New Groove (In Spanish of course), just laughing and talking. I remember thinking, I’m so thankful to finally have a sister. Ana was the best teacher, friend, and sister I could have ever asked for. I am so privileged to have met her, and be able to call such a wonderful person my sister.

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