Friday, November 30, 2007

Costa Rica Adventures

For some people, Costa Rica's beautiful forests & beaches offer a time to relax. For others, it's an andrenaline-junkies dream come true.
During of the first weeks, the whole group went white water rafting. We went with a well established company here in Costa Rica called Rios Tropicales, and they picked us up one Friday morning to go rafting on Rio Reventazon, with 2 - 3 level rapids (5 is the highest). Our group was divided onto 2 different rafts with bilingual guides. The rapids were semi-difficult, but good for beginners. At one point, they let us get out of the rafts and swim around, and some of us jumped off these rocks into a mini-waterfall! It was a lot of fun.
When my parents came, we went rafting again with a company called Exploradores Outdoors. I definitely preferred this trip. We went rafting on Rio Pacuare, which has level 3 - 4 rapids - the most dangerous in Costa Rica! At one point, our guide fell off the raft and it was TERRIFYING!! The scenery was absolutely breathtaking, and there were some calm moments where we could swim around or enjoy the views. Expoloradores makes a stop at this isolated valley for a picnic lunch, and then donates the leftover food (there's a lot!) to a local, poor indigenous family, which is a nice touch.
My parents and I also went zip-lining in Arenal. Because of the nature of the forests there, the ziplines aren't too high, but they're good for beginners. I definitely preferred the zip-lines in Monteverde, which were a lot higher. I was zipping across a canyon when I got stuck in a gust of wind and was blown all around! My heart was definitely pounding.
To top off the list of adventures, we decided to go bungee jumping! It's definitely not for the faint of heart. Craig, Cullen, Maggie, Amanda, and I went last Thursday. I was not expecting to be afraid, but I almost chickened out! A 275-foot long rubber band goes around your feet and connects the jumper to this old bridge over Rio Colorado. Essentially, you dive off this metal diving board into the air and fly for a few minutes before the cord yanks you back up for a second time. IT WAS AMAZING! You're absolutely weightless. The company that we went with is called Tropical Bungee, and has higher safety standards than most bungee companies in the United States, and has been used by companies like Levis, Smirnoff, and the X-Games for shooting commercials. Our guide has jumped nearly 800 times! I would highly reccomend the company to anyone interested in this experience.


Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Volcan Arenal: Two Different Experiences

On Friday, November 23, the group headed off to Los Lagos Hotel by the active Arenal Volcano. Arenal is one of Costa Rica's most popular tourist destinations, but it was our last group outing through Elon, so I was expecting the trip to be a little bittersweet.
Arenal Volcano is about 90 km from San Jose (but thanks to the poor roads, it takes about 4 hours to drive there). After 400 years of dormancy, the volcano erupted in the mid-1960s, coincidentally just in time for Kennedy's visit to this country. It destroyed the town of Arenal, and even today, tourists can't climb the volcano due to the potential dangers from the constant mini-eruptions. Still, the view and the natural hot springs are really popular with tourists
This was actually my second time going to Arenal because I went with my parents when they visited during fall break. The first time, my parents and I did a tour with Desafio Adventures company, which is based in nearby La Fortuna. We did a combination tour where we rode horses to a forest near the volcano, then did ziplines through the tall trees. These ziplines was perfect for my parents (my mom is afraid of heights) and the guides were very congenial, but the ziplines in Monteverde were a lot more challenging. That night, we stayed at Arenal Observatory Lodge, about 30 minutes from La Fortuna. The Lodge actually used to be Smithsonian's observation point, and is therefore the closest hotel or tourist spot to the volcano's cone. It's also very close to Arenal Lake. On premises, there is a semi-fancy restaurant, a hiking path that goes by hardened lava, and 1 cold pool and 2 small hot-spring fed pools. The view from this hotel was AMAZING, especially when we woke up at 4:45 to the sound of what I thought was howler monkeys, and my mom thought was an avalanche. It was actually the volcano grumbling, and it was beautiful set against the clear, dark sky.
This time, the Elon group and I stayed at Hotel Los Lagos, a luxury resort a little further from the volcano. It too had a semi-fancy restaurant, but it had at least a dozen beautiful, spring-fed pools (both hot and cold) and 3 water slides. It also had a crocodile farm, so we could get really close to these giant crocs, a butterfly farm, and beautiful gardens. There are hiking trails and some small ziplines on the premises too. Some of the students opted to get massages and facials from the hotel's spa, which was relaxing. The one drawback to Los Lagos is that, unlike the Observatory Lodge, it is on the inactive side of the volcano, meaning that even if there had been no clouds, we probably would not have been able to see any of the lava. Unfortunately, clouds blocked the volcano for the whole weekend, day and night. My classmates were disappointed that we had travelled so far and not seen more than just the base of the volcano.
All in all, it was a good trip. Los Lagos has everything you need; it is good for families or tourists wanting a 1-stop destination in Arenal. However, Arenal Observatory lodge definitely had better views and a more calm, private atmosphere.
Enjoy the pictures!

- Jessi

Poverty Issues in Costa Rica

I recently completed a project for my seminar class that required me to research poverty statistics and lifestyles in Costa Rica. Admittedly, I was drawn to this project after what I experienced in my trip to Nicaragua. Until this study abroad experience I had never before been to a developing/third world country. Now I have been to both. I think that the experience is somewhat strange. It is hard to describe what it is like to travel to a country that is so much further behind than mine but both living in the same world at the same time. It doesn’t really make sense that not all countries can have the same type of luxuries, commodities and necessities that other countries have so easily. For example, I (a fairly broke college student) have a washer and dryer in my apartment that I can use whenever I want. I don’t have to worry about the sun not coming out to dry my clothes or the electricity cutting off during a wash cycle. Building materials are different, luxury items are different, you drink warm milk, the diet barely varies, and everyone lives behind bars. There is so much more that is different in non-developed countries that I could not even relate to you right now because I have been living here for far too long to even notice them or note them as obvious differences.

Anyway, I was writing about poverty. Costa Rica is undisputedly poorer, as a whole, than the United States. It was clear to me when I first rode through San Jose that there were some true poverty issues that this country was suffering with. What I was surprised to discover, however, was that compared to all of Latin America, and compared to the World, Costa Rica really is not as poor as you would think. While approximately 25% of the population lives in poverty or extreme poverty, at least Costa Rica has a middle class. So many countries have a small upper class and a huge lower class and no middle class, it says something for Costa Rica that they have a visible, strong middle class. Consider Honduras, Nicaragua, Sudan, Ghana, and so many more countries that barely even have an upper class, that survive in nearly primitive lifestyles. Earlier in the year we had the chance to visit Nicaragua for a long weekend which some of us blogged about earlier. The poverty problems there are so much worse than here in Costa Rica I actually began to feel guilty for sitting in an air-conditioned bus while I watched men and women walking, barefoot, and leading their horse drawn carts or carrying their laundry from the river…I still do feel guilty.

Experiencing these developing/third-world countries truly opened my eyes up to the privileges I have compared to the struggles of a huge world population of impoverished people. I still can’t help but wonder what the world would be like if everyone gave just $10.00.

-Craig Campbell

We Went to Arenal

This past weekend we all took our final group trip to Arenal, Costa Rica. According to some Tico talk, this is one of the most favorite places in Costa Rica because of the active volcano and beautiful surroundings. Unfortunately, we all decided to come to Costa Rica during the rainy season, and rain comes from clouds, and clouds block the view of the sweet, lava-flowing volcano. We didn’t get to see it. Nevertheless, the weekend was pretty cool because we just lounged away in hot springs located on the property of the Los Lagos resort. Also, the hotel pools had some really fun, slightly dangerous waterslides that we repeatedly went down along with the 20 or so children who enjoyed them. I did get to have a first-time-in-my-life experience while I stayed there: a massage. Before coming to Costa Rica I had never had a massage before and I decided that since I have been doing so many new things like bungee jumping, eating rice and beans all day, crossing unfathomably dangerous streets, speaking in Spanish all the time, handling hummingbirds, learning Latin dances, and relaxing on beaches in September, October, November and sooner than later December, I may as well treat myself to a good old Costa Rican massage. The experience was very relaxing and definitely set me up to be in a good mood for the upcoming stress-filled week. The massage was a good life decision and a good way to start the end of my Costa Rican extravaganza.

-Craig Campbell

10 days

At this point, I find myself switching back and forth regarding my feelings on leaving. Everyday, every minute I change my mind. Each minute that passes is one less I will spend here in Costa Rica, in the country that has become my home. Leaving my "family" here is going to be very difficult. Naomi has become a second mom, and José (despite how ridiculous he is)has become a part of my family. I am going to miss their son and his newly adopted 2 year old Anthony. I knew that was going to be the most difficult part of living and as each day goes by I know I am getting closer to leaving them. It scares me that I will probably never see them again. However, I know that once I return to the states I am going to go back into my my normal routine and get back to my regular life. The same has happened every time I travel abroad. It's always hard to leave. Then the period of adjustment, missing the way things were, and then moving on. Obviously, I realize that this experience will stick with me and I will always remember my time abroad, yet I also realize that I am going to be able to move on and continue. I realize as well that I am leaving one family for another. Seeing my friends and family again is really exciting. I find the whole process of adjustment rather interesting. The way I switch back and forth between excitement and sadness depends entirely on my mood. So at this time when I feel stuck between two places, I am trying my best to enjoy these last days and make the best of the little time we have left.


Monday, November 26, 2007

Los Lagos Hotel: The Other Side of Arenal

This weekend we went to Arenal Volcano as a group for our last Elon-planned group trip. I had already been to Arenal with my parents over fall break, and was excited to go back. I really enjoyed staying on the active side, where we were guaranteed to see lava during your stay. Therefore, I found it interesting that I did not see the top of Arenal during the entire trip due to the clouds. It seemed kind of odd to go to a hotel near an active volcano and be unable to see it during the entire weekend. However, I thoroughly enjoyed spending a relaxing weekend in the hot springs. As I had remembered, everything was overpriced in Arenal because it is such a hot spot for tourists. The hotel had mediocre food (confirmed by others in the group...this is not just me being difficult because I'm a lactose-intolerant vegetarian who prefers healthy food) but we went to a really nice Mexican Restaurant.

I also had a fun incident with Kim and Sara where we got caught in a rainstorm on our way to a "look out point" which we still aren't completely sure if we found. The best part was that we happened to have our cameras with us. The rain was intense, to the point that each drop was painful. We returned to the room completely soaked. Luckily, the cameras were saved and we have a couple pictures from before the rain got too bad. Overall, it was a good time. While a very different experience than the one I had at Arenal the first time, I was happy to have the time to relax and enjoy the beauty of our hotel.


Wednesday, November 21, 2007

National Theater: Starring Abuela

A week ago our group took a trip to the National Theater to see Cullen’s tica abuela (grandma) sing in a choir she is a part of. I’ve had the opportunity to get to know her a bit as she lives down the street from me. She’s really sweet and always willing to talk and feed you. She invited our group to come see her perform and we decided to make a night out of it. In all honesty the show wasn’t that amazing because it was mainly community group choirs and a lot from local high schools, but it was nice to be there. I especially liked watching the choirs with really little kids. One tiny girl had glasses that kept falling down her nose...she just kept on singing her heart out opening her little mouth extra wide to squeeze all the words out. It's nice to see that these kids get to be part of something in the community as there are really no after school activities for children or many extraccuricular activities.
The pictures in this post are from the night. If you ever come to Costa Rica be sure to visit the theater...and just hope that "abuela" is performing the night you come! -CM

Monday, November 19, 2007

El parque de diversiones

So Saturday Caitlin and I go to the only amusement park in Costa Rica. She called me 15 minutes before we needed to leave, and I was more than excited to accompany her. The park was just like most amusement parks in the United States. It was a little smaller, but it was really clean and nice. And it only cost 10 bucks to get in! We were with about 10 Ticos from Caitlin's church, and they were all so nice and so much fun. We went on all the rides, which took a little bit of convincing to get Caitlin to go on all of them, but it was worth it! We had a great time, even, waiting in line and talking to the Ticos, a few who spoke some English, although we got by with our Spanish. We stayed until the park closed, and we went on all the big rides at least once. We also went on the paddle boats, bumper cars, and the water rides. We got to try this typical Costa Rican candy made of milk and sugar, almost like fudge. It was really sweet and tasty. All in all it was a great day. Our new friends walked us to our bus stop to make sure we would get home okay, and we have already been in contact with them since! We hope to see them again before we leave, but either way, I will never forget this fabulous experience!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

This blog has 2 parts...

First, yesterday my Tica mom invited the neighbors over to pray the rosary. Yep. She just invited the neighbors over, got dressed up, prepared "aguadulce," a typical hot drink here, and they all prayed the rosary in thanks for everything God has provided. My Tica family is Catholic, but they don't go to church. So I found it interesting that this is how my Tica mom and neighbors spent their afternoon. When she told me, I thought I misunderstood her spanish, because this is such a cultural difference. But it was interesting, and I thought I should share.

Second, with only 3 weeks left, I am finally feeling a part of my family here. I always felt welcome, just as a guest though. Now I truly feel as though I am another daughter in the family, which is a great, reassuring feeling. When I leave school, I truly feel like I am going to my home. I feel comfortable in the city here, and I can go places by myself without a doubt in my spanish skills or confidence in getting around here. I can't believe we have only 3 weeks left! I know I will be ready to go home, but I also know it will be with fond memories and a connection to this place.


Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Community Service at Jose Figuerres

During this semester, the Sabanilla community has been really welcoming and helpful to all of us, and we all agreed that we should do something to give back to the community that has given so much to us. Staci and Cullen, who has been student-teaching all semester, arranged for us to go to Jose Figuerres, a local elementary school for a beautification project. Linda supplied us with a car-load of flowers, shovels, rakes, spades, paint, etc. and we were set to spend the afternoon improving this poor public school.
What a shock it was! Like almost every building in Costa Rica, the school is enclosed in a cage of bars and barbed wires to keep out robbers. On the property were two open air 'court yards.' One was labelled a "Danger Zone" and had a big, gaping hole and jagged rocks scattered about. A sink of sorts, with rusty faucets and dirty looking water, was in front of this courtyard, and Cullen tells me that this is where each and every child brushes his teeth in the morning as part of a government implemented dental hygiene program. The second courtyard, where we worked, was smaller and had two big palm trees in the middle of it. Our job was to clear debis (including trash, dead leaves, and shards of glass) from the courtyard, and plant a colorful garden instead. We also cleared away several large rocks around the palm trees, and planted small flowers there instead. Cullen and Maggie painted the stone wall and several of the stones that were too big for us to move away.
I was also really surprised to see how excited how the Tico students were to help us. Whenever we put down a shovel or rake, we'd basically never see it again because the little boys and girls would snatch it up and use it until their hands hurts, then pass it on to another one who was waiting in line. They also really liked talking to us to practice their English and show off their knowledge of US pop culture.
After an hour or so of work and a lot of help, we finally finished our beautification project. The little courtyard looked a LOT better, but it was still quite disheartening to see that we threw our trash into this overflowing trash pile behind the kindegarden class rooms. Still, it was a positive experience to at least give back a little something to this community.

<3, jessi

ENS Field Trip the Sequel: Cerro de la Muerte

This second Environmental Science field trip was very different from the previous field trip for several interesting reasons. First, it was much colder on this most recent field trip because we travelled to a tropical cloud forest instead of the tropical rain forest from the last field trip. Also, we stopped along the way to hike in the mountain bog, which is just a wet as it sounds. We had to be extremely careful to not fall into large seemingly harmless, giant holes of watery mud (unfortunately one of the group still had the misfortune of stepping into a deep hole and getting very wet). The rest of the first day we went looking for flowers that hummingbirds feed on for our lab work, and then spent a very cold night in the hotel (apparently people just don’t use heaters in Cerro de la Muerte).

The second day we set up our nets and caught some hummingbirds, which is both easier and more difficult than it sounds. The easy part was having the hummingbirds fly into the big nets and get entangled. The hard part was getting the birds out and then carrying them to another location. It is an interesting feeling to hold a hummingbird, one that I didn’t really enjoy simply because I thought I was going to break it the whole time, but other than that really cool. In case you are wondering, they pee a lot, but it doesn’t really get on you it just kind of shoots out. Later, we observed hummingbird feeders to see what kinds of hummingbirds visited the feeder and how many there were to aid in our lab reports. The rest of our time we spent identifying pollen on different slides and packed up to go home. We were supposed to do a second hike on the way back to San Jose, through a type of forest called the Paramo, but it was too rainy. Overall, it was a very different second field trip in that it was less comfortable for me because it was so cold, but more interesting because we got to work with and observe hummingbirds.

-Nicole Olavarria

Environmental Science Field Trip to Cerro de la Muerte

On the weekend of November 3, our biology class headed to the Talamanca Mountain Range along with Alejandra, our professor, and two teaching assistants. The weekend started with a two hour drive to an oak forest, which we hiked through, eventually reaching a remote mountain bog. The topography of these two areas was COMPLETELY different than what we have seen thus far in Costa Rica. The trees in the oak forest were shorter, the canopy was less dense, and moss and vines hung everywhere. The bog was - in a word- muddy. I made one wrong stepped and was sucked into mud nearly as deep as my stomach! It was cold, and I am pretty sure I felt creepy crawlies slithering around my legs. Luckily, Amanda came to my rescue, grabbed me around my shoulders and pulled me out. Still, I had to hike around in wet jeans and water-filled boots for another hour. It was miserable!
After a quick lunch near the oak forest, we continued our drive to La Georgina Hotel and Restaurant in Cerro de la Muerte, where we would be staying for the night. We drove all this way in order to study hummingbirds, and La Georgina was selected because of the abundance of hummingbirds attracted to the restaurant's sugar-water feeders. We went for another hike (in the pouring rain, not so fun).
Cerro de la Muerte basically translates into "Mountain of Death" because in the olden days, people who camped in the area were at risk of dying of hypothermia or other perrils of cold weather. The thermometer said it was about 40 degrees but it was raining, and after two months of living in a hot and humid tropical climate, we were all miserable. I literally wore 5 long sleeve shirts, one North Face jacket, two pairs of pajama pants, and three pairs of socks to bed, and I was STILL cold. Future ENS students should definitely pack accordingly, and be aware that La Georgina is by no means a deluxe hotel (there are no heaters or hot showers).
Sunday started for us bright and early at 5:45 am. Basically, we set up nets to catch hummingbirds who were eating at the sugarwater feeders and then checked for pollen on their bodies. The hypothesis was that feeders negatively impact growth of local flowers, because the birds who eat from the feeders aren't fulfilling their roles as pollinators. The only thing that made the experiment worthwhile was holding these tiny little birds in our hands. They're soo fragile, and it's hard to believe that their rainbow colored, irridescent feathers are natural. They were just so beautiful!
In the early afternoon, we packed up and headed back to San Jose to later evaluate the data we collected over the weekend. While the trip wasn't the most fun way to spend a weekend, holding the hummingbirds was definitely a worthwhile once-in-a-lifetime experience :)

by Jessi

Monday, November 12, 2007

Jose Figueres Elementary School

Having spent four to five hours a week at the school, I felt as if I was prepared for the experience we would have volunteering. While some needs of the school and students are immediately obvious to me, others have come to my attention only because of the time I have spent there interacting with the children. I was excited to be able to work with the children outside the classroom and get to know some of them on a more intimate level by doing something that would add life to the somewhat barren school. While I am happy we spent the time planting the flowers and painting rocks, I feel that with better organization and more effort from all of us, we could have done more to give back to the community that has given so much to us.

While I was very happy and excited to complete this work to beautify a section of a local elementary school it made me realize how much more is needed and all the things that could have been done in addition to the work we did. I think that working with students gave us a new perspective on the needs of the people who live among us and hopefully opened the eyes of some of those that may have thought otherwise. Every little thing done makes a difference and is noticed, and this is something we cannot underestimate as volunteers. My time spent at the school has taught me so much and although it was overwhelming at times I could not have asked for a more interesting experience getting to help students with my native language and getting help in return.

- Cullen Pitler

Friday, November 9, 2007

¡Alejandro´s B-day Fiesta!

The host family of one of my friends here threw a birthday party at there house for their 10 year old son. I was invited to join in on the celebration and had a terrific time. Cullen and I counted about 45 people in attendance…most probably under the age of 10. WILD. There were kids running everywhere, adults chatting while watching the soccer game on TV, and lots of birthday cake being consumed.

I love the kids here in Costa Rica, they are so excited to talk to you! A whole bunch of kids were trying to help me speak Spanish, and asked me every essential question like ,”What’s your favorite color? And do you have kids?” They are all really polite and I was quite impressed with the amount of English they also knew.

When it came time for Alejandro to blow out the candles on his cake all the kids gathered around to help out. I’m not really sure how much air was being blown as there was spit, but I smiled and ate a piece with some ice-cream.

I love that things like baby showers and birthdays are such big family and community events. Everyone is just so happy to be together and catch up. It was really nice to be included in the celebration!

Cafe Britt

I don’t drink coffee but I still wanted to see how Costa Rica makes its coffee…so Kim and I decided to take the Cafe Britt tour in Heredia. We got up early one morning and took a taxi downtown to San Jose where we were picked up by a tourism van. The van driver was really nice and gave us tour of the city in Spanish on our way to the coffee plantation. Once there we paid and joined our group which was mostly made up of an elderly tour group from the US. Even though I am technically a tourist I felt like I was a “tica” because I live here and can someone speak and get around.

The tour was fun. They do this somewhat cheesy, but entertaining production as they lead you through the plantation and processing plant. Did you know that there are like 4 layers to a coffee bean and they end up throwing out most of the bean flesh before they even use the bean for coffee? Interesting!

Part of the tour included lunch and Kim and I sat with a girl from Argentina vacationing here for the week. We talked to her about her country and the differences between CR and her home. I love the unexpected cultural experiences you get to have if you are just willing to participate!

Thursday, November 1, 2007


After spending all of fall break getting on and off buses trying to fit everything in, there was nothing that could make me excited about another long bus ride on a never ending unpaved road. And although the bus ride was just how I expected it to be, the ride through the mountains allowed us to see beautiful scenery of far away mountains. The one thing that sticks out to be about our Monteverde excursion is our canopy tour. The experience of flying through the rainforest attached to thin metal wire by a harness made me realize how close we have come as a group. And even though we might have laughed as we watched each other shake as each zipline seemed to get higher and longer, and laughed when we heard each other screaming as we gained speed, I knew that it was an experience I would never forget.
- Cullen Pitler