Friday, September 30, 2011

From the mouths of babes

As I've mentioned before, I'm teaching social studies in addition to English this year. I'm ok with the change because I'm certified in both areas. The tough part is, in social studies, we aren't using traditional standards, we didn't have a textbook until recently, and we came up with the unit ideas before applying the standards.

Teacher friends will know that this is a little backwards. You're supposed to base your units on the standards and THEN come up with your units and THEN see what your textbooks and other materials have that will help you get the lessons taught.

Needless to say, for that reason, I've been a little (ok, a LOT) stressed out about teaching social studies this year.

However, now that I'm back into the routine and I've started teaching from a fantastic textbook (something I usually hate to do. I rarely like to use the textbook.), I'm remembering why I love teaching social studies to middle schoolers so much. Middle school is when your eyes are really opened to the world around you and you discover there are interesting cultures out there. And this subject is especially rewarding in Saudi Arabia, where my students are painfully naive.

In my 8th grade classes, we're looking at climate change. The textbook we are using has a fantastic approach to the material: all the chapters are set up like a case study. So we're looking at the effects (if any) of global warming on Antarctica. I love that the book has set up the information so the students reach their own conclusions. I'm not teaching global warming, I'm presenting real data from research stations in Antarctica and letting the kids decide.

We haven't been able to get into all that yet, though. I've only been able to barely introduce the unit to my classes because the girls are so blown away by what they're learning about Antarctica!

"What about the polar bears?"
"There are no polar bears in Antarctica. Only penguins*. Polar bears are only on or near the North Pole."


*I understand that penguins are the only large land animals in Antarctica and that there are other, albeit a very few, forms of life on the continent as well. I decided to go with baby steps on this one.

The rough part has been trying to help them understand the facts that aren't in metric measurements. For example, there was one blurb we read that said the lowest temperature ever recorded on Earth was -129F and it was in Antarctica. I paused for a minute to let that sink in and I was met with a room full of pubescent faces that said, " that cold?"

Just like I have no concept of how hot 49C is, they didn't know that -129F was REALLY FREAKING COLD! So I quickly hopped on Google and found the conversion.

The reactions I got ranged from "WHOA! Is that even possible?!" to "Teacher, how did you do that so quickly?"

I'm broadening intellectual horizons left and right.

My favorite question so far in the unit has to be, "Teacher, can normal people go to Antarctica?" meaning could people who aren't scientific researchers go. Like tourists. If there's anything these girls understand, it's tourism in foreign lands.

I explained that yes, you can go as a tourist. I explained that you can take a cruise to Antarctica and get off the boat to see the penguins and walk on glaciers and all that stuff. (I know because during my senior year in college, my Assessment and Standards professor spent TWO ENTIRE classes showing us her pictures of her Antarctic vacation. Totally worth the $500 per credit hour my parents were paying her. I was miffed. ...but I guess in the end it did come in handy eventually...I digress).

"Like a cruise?" one of my angels asked.

"Uhm, kind of like a cruise, but it's not luxurious or anything."

"Is it like a Disney cruise?"

" No it's not like a Disney cruise or any kind of cruise any of us have taken. You sleep on a boat in a tiny little room and it's a very small bed. There are only 3 meals a day. No midnight buffets or anything like that."

The whole room murmured a collective "Oohhhh." And they began talking amongst themselves about why anyone in the world would want to go on a cruise like that.

After a little while, another student raised her hand and said, "But teacher, why don't they just build a hotel on Antarctica?"

Haha! She wanted to visit Antarctica, darnit! And should couldn't understand why she would have to give up her usual creature comforts to do it!

I explained that a). Antarctica can only be visited 4 months out of the year, so building a hotel there wouldn't be very economical, b). building a hotel would dramatically change the ecosystem of the entire continent, and that would ruin all the research we're about to study.

"No, but just a small hotel! It doesn't have to be a big one."

Like I said. They are PAINFULLY naive!!

But darnit they're cute when they're learning.

Vicariously yours,

Sunday, September 25, 2011

This is a video of fish

As the title suggests, this is a video of fish. I took this footage at the Kuwait aquarium to illustrated a point: ARABS ARE SO LOUD! It is a part of the Arab culture that I just don't understand. Why do you need to be so inconsiderately loud in public places. There are always children screaming, teenagers yelling, Blackberries ringing, babies crying, and mothers chatting loudly in the Middle East. It was especially unnerving in the aquarium because we were all in a small, enclosed space. One that reverberated sound nicely.

The video is one full minute long, and it was a relatively quiet minute when taken in the context of the rest of our visit. You don't have to watch the whole video. After about 30 seconds, you get the picture.

Let me say that I understand that everyone can be loud from time to time. And there are times when it's appropriate to be loud and raucous. Football games, birthday parties, camp bonfires, pep rallies. All perfectly acceptable instances when yelling at the top of your lungs should come as no surprise and should not be an issue to the people around you.

But when you're in a place of learning, like an aquarium, I was raised that it's polite to apologize on behalf of your ridiculously shrill child when she screams out and pounds her fist on the plexiglass and then immediately try to stop her obnoxious behavior. That was not the case for any of our fellow patrons at the Kuwait Aquarium. It's funny, though because the Mister and I have gotten pretty used to all the noise.

My, how things change over the course of a year.

Vicariously yours,

I'm having parking garage envy

The Mister, a colleague, and I spent the weekend in Kuwait because we got a day off for Saudi National Day. I must say, a road trip like this one far surpasses the way we spent SND last year. We were able to hang out with a couple of the Hubsy's friends from middle school (he lived in Kuwait for 2 years in the 90s), visit an aquarium, and enjoy some fantastically yummy food.

It was really interesting getting to mark another Middle Eastern country off our list. The culture was slightly different from Saudi, with a LOT more entertainment options, female drivers, and a heavier dose of malls to choose from. But I have to say the best part--and possibly the biggest reason we should move to Kuwait next--was the mall parking garage.

You heard me.

The Avenues and Kuwait City have solved an age old problem: finding a parking spot in the garage. You know the drill, you pull in to the garage and commence to trolling the aisles looking for a spot. At the same time, you're scanning the aisles on either side of you in case there's an empty spot just one row away. Inevitably, there is no spot open on your row, but you did spot one on the row to the right. You pick up speed and try to beat the other cars to it, but that never happens. Grandma or a soccer mom beat you to it, and the whole mad cycle begins again.

NOT THE CASE in Kuwait City!!

When you pull in to the parking garage at The Avenues, you see a sign with green numbers and arrows.

The numbers represent the amount of open parking spaces, and the arrows indicate in which direction you must travel in order to snag one of those spots. After you turn down one of the rows, you see red and green lights hovering above each parking spot, just below the ceiling.

Can you see them? All the spots in this row were taken. You can see the red lights just above all the cars on the left side of the photo.

These lights are attached to censors. When a car is in the parking spot, the light turns red. When there is no car in the spot, the light turns green. This allows you to see in one quick glance if there are any spots open on that row.

It looks like this spot is taken, but it's not. See the green light near the middle/left of the photo? It's above the empty space behind that Toyota Land Cruiser.

The genius part is the lights are only visible when you're traveling in the direction the arrows on the ground indicate. This discourages the selfish jerk that you invariably run into in every parking garage: the guy who will elbow is way into your parking space because he's caused a log jam in your row.


I must say, well done mall planners of Kuwait City. You have shown the rest of the world how to park quickly in order to expedite the spending of money in your facilities.

Vicariously yours,

Saturday, September 24, 2011


I've been assigned to teach social studies this year in addition to one section of English, so my work load has increased exponentially. Also added to my plate: STUDENTS! I have 3 times as many students this year as I had last year. It's not that big a deal, I had triple digit numbers for a couple years back home, but the difference is I'm only teaching my social studies classes in three, 40 minute periods per week. That means I'm only seeing my 25 student classes for a total of 120 minutes in a work week. Compare that to the 275-400 minutes of weekly exposure I had at home, and maybe you'll understand why I'm having such a hard time remembering SO MANY FRICKIN' NAMES!

I hate that I'm about to begin the third week of school and I'm still fumbling with connecting names and faces. Growing up, I was the forgettable girl. Not because I had a blah personality, but because I had a difficult last name and/or I had an older sister who was kind of a rockstar in the academic department. Therefore, teachers either just didn't try to learn how to pronounce my full name, or they just called me by my sister's name.

I. hated. it. A person's name is the foundation of her identity! I have always prided myself on being the teacher who remembered 100% of her students' names by the 3rd day of school. And now here I am in the THIRD WEEK of school, and I can't get it right. I'm starting to see the hurt on a lot of my kids' faces, and it frustrates me.

I'll pull it together. I've only got 2 or 3 faces in each class that just haven't clicked. Hopefully I'll have it all together by the end of this week.

The good news is, I have a TON of repeats this year, so when in doubt, I can just call out 1 of 4 names, and chances are I'll get it right. I made a wordle of my girls' names so you can see what I'm up against. Compare this word cloud with last year's, and you'll get a visual image of how much my class load has increased!

Teacher friends, I know this sounds like the whiniest blog post ever, but I also know you can relate. I don't even get the luxury of the old teacher trick of taking pictures of the kids on the first day and using them as flash cards. Can't take pictures of Muslim girls! 

Vicariously yours,

for those interested: You can create your own word clouds @

Monday, September 19, 2011

Featured Photo: A DECADE?! We're so OLD!

The Mister and I are high school sweethearts. We "met" during Coach Blair's Geometry class sophomore year, but didn't start dating till senior year. We "broke up" for college. Even though we dated other people, the Mister and I still talked just about everyday until we admitted we were crazy for each other and made it official again a few months before graduation.

Yesterday, the Mister and I celebrated 10 year "together" by going to our favorite high school restaurant: Chili's. We used to eat there Sunday nights...or anytime, really. Luckily we were able to recreate a high school date in Saudi Arabia. Globalization is awesome. The photo was taken before we set out on our date. If only we'd known to take a photo back then, the side-by-side would be so great.

I cannot imagine a better partner for this crazy adventure we're on right now.

Vicariously yours,

Friday, September 16, 2011

"I don't live around here."

When we decided to take this job in Saudi Arabia, I resolved myself to try to avoid being THAT girl who simply had to find a way to work the fact that she lives abroad into every conversation. You know the one. She drops the fact that she's an expat in front of waiters, parking attendants, and other complete strangers.

I'm not saying I always succeed at that endeavor, but I do try to make an effort.

There is one area in life, however, that I pull the expat card right away: the cash register.

I have always dreaded checking out at some stores because I know they are going to hit me up for a frequent-shopper rewards card, a credit card, or my email address so they can notify me of any upcoming sales.

I DON'T WANT IT! Any of it! I just want to buy my stuff and get out of the store!

Before we moved, the transactions went something like this:

"Do you have a _(insert store name here)_ credit card with us?"

"No, I don't. I'll just pay ca--"

"OH! Well, if you sign up today you can save up to 10% on your purchase."

"No, thanks. I'm trying to quit."

"It's very easy to cancel the card at any time. You just need to call the number on the back and you'll still get to save 10% on today's purchase."

"Nope, I'd just like to pay and get out please."

"Alright, but you can also get bonus points for every $100 you spend and you can use those towards some menial, pathetic reward like $5 off a $5,000 purchase."

ok, I exaggerated that last bit

It's an exceedingly uncomfortable situation for me because I'm sure this poor schmuck is trying to get a commission or something but I DON'T WANT YOUR CREDIT CARD!!

But now! Now this transaction goes like this:

"Do you have a frequent buyer's reward card with us?"

"No. I sure don't."


"And I live in Saudi Arabia, so I'm not really all that frequent a buyer anyway."


And then it's nothing but the beeping of the scanner logging my purchases.

Sometimes, just for giggles, I'll string them along.

"Are you interested in saving 20% by signing up for our 'This Place is Bananas' awesome reward card?"

"No, I don't live around here, but thank you."

"Oh it's got a great reward program and you can use it at any of our store locations."

"I don't think there are any of your stores where I live."

"Well what's your ZIP code, I can do a search of all 50 states and find the location nearest you."

"We don't really have ZIP codes where I live."

"....Where do you live?"

"Saudi Arabia."


I'd be lying if I said I didn't get a small amount of satisfaction from the look on the poor clerk's face as he tries in vain to search his memory for the training session that taught him a convincing response to my answer. But one doesn't exist, SUCKA! Just finish ringing me up and I'll be on my way.

Vicariously yours,

The Second Time I Rode in a Tow Truck in Saudi

Those of you who are remotely familiar with me know that I have horrible luck with cars.  Specifically, their windows.  I have possessed 4 cars in my life and all of them have had some pretty interesting things go wrong with them.

My first car was a brand new silver Saturn sedan that I had affectionately named "Space Ghost".  I loved that car.  Not a lot of pickup, but we drove all the way to Georgia alone together and we got along really well.  He tragically collided with the rear end of a tractor trailer on I-65 in front of Mister T's Patio Furniture on a particularly drizzily day in Nashville, TN.  This was of course only 8 months after I got him.  It remains the only accident I've ever had driving, but scarred me enough that now I "drive like an old lady" to quote my dear wife.

Except without the cool spoiler...

My second car was a iridescent purple-ish Grand Am that I thought was the greatest car in the world.  That was because it was the greatest car in the world.  It went through the hands of me, my brother, my sister, and then me again.  I had just received it back into my hands again when suddenly a phenomenon occurred...a phenomenon that would haunt me for every car that I have ever owned since.  A friend sitting in the back seat rolled down the window...and it stayed down.  Inexplicably the car that had never had anything wrong with it...broke.  I continued to drive it with a doorstop jammed in the window to keep it up...that is, until my favorite car I've ever owned died tragically on a shoulder of I-65 next to the Cool Springs off ramp.  The "Purple People Eater" died...overheated and too expensive to repair.  My father was kind enough to trade him in for a new car, and then gave me the last car I would drive while living in the states.
Loved that car...except mine was purple.

I began driving a green Buick Regal that was pretty epic.  It was also my Dad's car so I knew that it was in near perfect condition...or so it was until I got it.  Almost immediately after I got it the "phenomenon" happened.  First, it was just one window...then without warning...all the windows broke except the driver's side.  I was crushed.  "What have you done to my car!?" my dad asked, totally bewildered.  I had no answer...and still don't.  I never even put the windows down!  Anyway, I never named that car.  I felt like "The Regal" was enough.  Maybe that was why the windows broke...maybe the car was so offended that he never got a nickname...I'm not sure, but that car was given up to scrap...and I was sorry to see it go. 

I just found this random picture on the internet...and THAT WINDOW IS BROKEN!!!

After all these tragedies with vehicles, I was going to get something really good when I got to Saudi.  I checked a bunch of websites and finally found a great Volvo.  It was perfect and fancy!  It had leather seats and everything.  I drove it to school after I got it, proud as a papa...and then heard this: "Who is the maniac who bought the Volvo!?"  That's right.  Now, I should clarify...nobody thinks Volvos are bad cars here, but they're uncommon.  That means I know of one garage that can fix them.  ONE.  Which brings me to the purpose of my post tonight.  

The Volvo was working fine and then boom.  Like the Grand Am, the Volvo had overheated.  This time I had the money and I was going to fix it.  But how do I get it to the ONE Volvo shop that's in the next city over?  Tow it, of course.  Tow trucks here are about the same...with the exception that you're expected to ride in the truck.  I hopped in the cab and grabbed the seat belt.  I pulled it to where I expected to find the buckle...but was met with only the foam from the seat. seat belt.  These are also not the Peterbilt kind of trucks at home with a hood and a grill.  Nope, its just glass and then the road.  We've already talked about the driving here in Saudi...I assure you it's even more terrifying with a ton of Swedish metal (haha Swedish metal...)strapped to the flatbed of basically a pickup truck with no seat belts.  Anyway, we get there and get back safely, car is more problems...  

Until there were more problems.  We came back from our delightful summer back home to find the battery dead and the "phenomenon" had struck as well.  So today I set out to get the car to the shop and this is the process I had to go though:
  1. Call the shop to see if it was open.
  2. Call housemate to see if he could drive me.
  3. Call Arabic speaking colleague to give him the number of the tow truck so that he could call and explain where to meet us.
  4. Help get the car up on the tow truck.
  5. Call the shop to get them to tell the tow truck driver where the shop is.
  6. Ride the harrowing journey to the shop with the tow truck driver.
  7. Drop off car
  8. Pay tow truck
  9. Shawarma
It was then that I returned home to watch "How I Met Your Mother" with the lady, my errands complete.  Now I get to have another great conversation with my Jordanian Volvo guy about how much of my money he wants to take.  (allofit)

Vicariously yours,



Monday, September 12, 2011

Featured Photos: This Abaya'd Life

THIS is what the Mister wore last night when we went to dinner and then to the bookstore to buy some school supplies:

Pretty typical for a nothing-special night of running an errand. But bear in mind that the temperature was still flirting with the hundred degree mark well after the sun went down last night. It's just not all that socially acceptable here for a man to go out wearing shorts, so the Mister tried to dress appropriately. Moral of the story: he was hot. ...body temperature-wise

THIS is what I wore:

mwahaha! Ah the perks of the abaya!


Vicariously yours,

What an expat couple buys in bulk before returning to Saudi Arabia

Starting as early as March, the Mister and I were compiling a list of the things we needed to stock up on before returning to Saudi for our second go around. We were hoping to pride ourselves on being the Americans who didn't move overseas only to become mega brats because they couldn't find the modern conveniences of home. But by the middle of our second semester, we came to terms with the fact there are just some things we don't want to compromise on. So within a few days of returning to Nashville, I was hitting up my local Target and Costco and buying so many of some of the things we can't find here that we actually had to bring back two more suitcases than we left Saudi Arabia with.

Here's a peek into our luggage.

Greeting cards!! I know, right?! What a weird thing to need to spend more than $50 on! (oops, yeah...sorry honey! We spent $50 on greeting cards...)

It never occurred to me that I would need to buy a card for every possible holiday and a few blank ones for the holidays I forgot, but it is so hard to find a greeting card in this country! I thought there might be a Hallmark store or something at one of the malls, but I was sorely mistaken. Eventually I found a pitiful little card display at the grocery store on one of the local compounds, but the selection left much to be desired.

In Saudi Arabia's defense, there is a Hallmark store in Bahrain (yeah, I don't get how that defends Saudi either...just go with it), but there's not much to choose from and they're crazy expensive. I found some postcards, but they were 1BD ($2.66)!! And that didn't even include the stamp!

Instead, I chose to wait it out and hit up the card stacks when I got home.

Sunscreen. I live in the land of endless sun, and I haven't been able to find an affordable bottle of sunscreen the entire time we've been here! Don't let me mislead you: There is sunscreen available for purchase here, but I haven't been able to find a bottle of SPF 15 for less than $20, and I could only find the small bottles.

I mean, I guess it has to be imported? Or maybe there's limited demand since so many people just stay indoors or only go out at night? Or perhaps it's because Arabs just don't seem to suffer the same ill effects of the sun that the Pale Ones do.

Doesn't matter because I've now returned back with 4 different varieties, and I got them all from the clearance shelf at Target! Ah, the benefits of not returning home till after the beginning-of-summer sunscreen rush.

...or something like that.

Several seasons of a few different TV series. Again, don't be misled: There is plenty of programming in English here. And most of it consists of modern(ish) American shows. They're just not the shows we watch...or they're so censored that they're not fun anymore. Also, TV programmers seem to specialize in all the shows that were cancelled in the States a few years ago.

Let's just say we wandered around Best Buy for a while and tried to show some self restraint.

Tampons. 324 of 'em. Thank you, Costco!

Let's move on.

Vitamins and painkillers. Sometimes you'll get lucky and find the random pharmacy that sells more than Flintstones-esque daily vitamins, but they require a lot of money for not a lot of product. And Panadol, the popular pain reliever around here, does absolutely nothing for me. I have no idea why.

So I went to Costco and got 2 bottles of the daily multivitamin pictured, 2 similarly sized bottles of calcium plus vitamin D supplements, and the mega bottle of acetaminophen you see before you. I think the total cost was less than fifty bucks. Yes. Less than the cost of our greeting cards.

I never thought I'd see the day that I would need to find a place in my luggage for more than 300 tampons and an oddly large amount of greeting cards, but apparently moving overseas has that effect on people.

Vicariously yours,

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Definition of Irony

This is what I wore to school today. My outfit consisted of a grey three-quarter sleeve sweater I bought at Forever 21 before we left, a brown pleated polyester skirt I bought at some souq here in Saudi, and my TOMS.

It was 109 degrees outside today. And I was wearing a sweater.

The full length skirt is a requirement. I'm also required to cover my shoulders and my elbows. The sweater was all my choice.

I chose to wear a sweater because, if there's one thing the Saudis do right, it's air conditioning! It is the ultimate irony that I am in the middle of one of the driest, most sweltering regions in the world, and I spend 85% of my day shivering from cold!

Our school is freezing cold all the time...Well, except for when the air conditioning breaks down. Then it's ridiculously warm. But I would say 9 times out of 10, I'm going to be blue from frostbite by the end of the day.

Unless I wear a sweater to school. In Saudi Arabia.

Who could have predicted?!

Vicariously yours,

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Top 4 Things We Learned in Costa Rica

1. We like eating our food out of convenient packets. I'm not talking about those wonderful ketchup packets we discovered at Chick Fil A this summer. I'm talking about unexpected condiments packaged in unexpectedly large, screw-top packets.

Exhibit A:

Exhibit B:

When I first spotted them on the shelves of the local grocery store, I was a little grossed out. There's just something off-putting about your jam being of a squeezable consistency. But food items like these were either the cheapest or only choices we had, so we purchased them. And boy am I glad we did!!

You know how annoying it is when you get down to the bottom of the jam jar and you've got to really work the knife around to maximize the fruit preserve removal? Inevitably, you get that crusty, sticky jam from the jar opening on your knuckles and it takes a 15 minute surgery-style scrub session to get all that crap off your fingers!

Such is NOT the case with the squeezy goodness of the jam in a pack! All you have to do is roll the packet bottom-up, like you do with a toothpaste tube and you get all the product out and you don't have to worry about the mess!

We loved it.

2. The locals often use ATVs to get around and don't even own a typical family car. On our ATV tour, we passed through a few small towns. I would even venture to say these were just villages by American standards. One village only had a population of THIRTY NINE people! As we were chugging along I was thinking we were riding on ATV paths that had been cleared by the government or the tour companies and that the locals used some paved highways that we couldn't see to get around. After a bit I noticed there were houses along these rough 4-wheeler paths and I asked our tour guide if they were inhabited or abandoned. He explained that yes, these were people's homes and we had been driving on their local roads.

I was flabbergasted! Paths like the one pictured above would suddenly have a little ramshackle house with a fence around it and peeking through would be a little kid waving to the friendly tourists. I asked how they got around, cause there was no way a regular car would be able to get through here in the rainy season. He explained that most families use ATVs or dirt bikes to go from place to place--they don't even own a traditional vehicle! Sure enough, a little while later we saw a guy driving his ATV, his little girl sitting on the gas tank between him and the handlebars. It appeared that he had just made a food run because she was holding on to a plastic grocery bag.


3. The simple life is taken to a whole new meaning in Costa Rica. One of the things we loved about our vacation was the laid back pace of everything! Not just because we were on vacation, but because the whole country is a lot more chill than America or even Saudi Arabia. Things move slow in Costa Rica because they have to!

We visited during the rainy season, so the roads were usually wet and we often passed newly-cleared mud and rock slides on the roads after a hard night's rain. If you try to move fast during the rainy season, you're likely to go right off the road, into the back of another car, or drive right into a massive mudslide. You're forced to slow down.

When we were on our ATV tour, we stopped at our tour guide's mom's house for some coffee. I was LOVING getting to actually see how and where real Costa Ricans lived: there wasn't a single gringo for miles! After our guide showed us his mom's farm and gave us a quick tour of his hometown (we stood in the middle of the road and he pointed to places as we rotated in a circle. The town was that small), I started riddling him with questions.

"Do you have internet up here?" I asked.
He quickly put down his coffee cup and excitedly said, "Yes! The school just got internet this year! But we don't have internet in our houses. Only at the school."

The school just got internet this year. It's 2011. Al Gore invented the internet in 1997.*

*not entirely true.

"Well, what about television? Do you get local TV stations? Cable? Satellite?"

"What about mail? I haven't seen any mailboxes, so how do people get their post?" I asked, trying my hardest not to be patronizing. I was genuinely curious because we don't have at-home mail delivery in Saudi Arabia, and I'm pretty sure it's just because people are too lazy to try to figure out a system.

"We have mail, but it goes to the city." The "city" being Jaco, where we were vacationing. It was approximately 45 minutes to an hour away, down a mountain path that was currently a caked river of mud. And I would use "city" as a very loose term. It's a medium sized town by American standards. "The mail goes to the post office in the city and we have to go pick it up. Usually if I know I am coming to see my mother, I will get her mail and bring it to her. Or if someone in the village is going to the city, he will go to everyone's house and ask if they need him to pick up anything while he is gone."

Volunteer mailmen/errand boys. That's how people function in these tiny mountain villages!

"What about hospitals? If you're pregnant, do you deliver at home, or do you go to the hospital?"

"Well, if there is an emergency and it's really bad, someone will call the Red Cross, then put you in their truck and you go meet the ambulance. If it's not that bad, you can wait for the Red Cross. If you're pregnant you have to go to the hospital in Jaco or San Jose, but you have to go 1 week before you are supposed to deliver. Two weeks if it's the rainy season because you might not be able to drive on the roads."

Whaat?! That was so interesting to me! He clarified that if you go into surprise labor you just have to deliver on your own or hope the Red Cross gets there in time...but if it's the rainy season they probably won't come.

I was fascinated by the fact that this was how these people lived day to day and they were so incredibly happy! No one grumbled about how inconvenient it was to get anything done, or that there wasn't even television to fill the time. Because the roads are so bad, most Costa Ricans are subsistence farmers. They live off the land and if they need to purchase anything, they'll sell a cow or a few chickens and get what they need. And they seemed perfectly fine with that.

The whole thing made me so humbled.

4. American tourists are obnoxious. Granted, this is a lesson we learn (and I'm sure contribute to) everywhere we go, but there were little things in Costa Rica that made us not so proud of our fellow countrymen.

We noticed that most of our waiters and tour guides had very Anglo names. One night, Henry served us a fantastic meal at a beachfront restaurant. I remember thinking, "Henry...really?" Then our ATV tour was guided by Alan.

I mean, come on. Alan!? A Costa Rican native named Alan!?

The jig was up when we were having coffee with his mom and she kept calling him Alejandro. That's when our suspicions were confirmed.

People Anglo-fied their names, we assumed, to make it easier for the American tourists to pronounce and remember!

That made us so upset! It's one of mine and the Mister's biggest pet peeves!! Our students do it too. I went the whole school year last year calling a girl by the name she told me she goes by, only to get laughed at by her friends when I called her that same name in the hallway. When I asked her why she told me to call her by a name her mother didn't give her she said, "Well, teacher, it's easier for you to say."

BUT IT'S NOT YOUR NAME!! I guess I should be--what? honored? glad? I don't know--that she was trying to make things easier for me, but IT'S HER NAME! Tell me how to say it correctly and I'll try my darnedest to pronounce it that way.

I felt the same betrayal by our tour guides and waiters! Your name is your identity, and you shouldn't change it because of the pale faces that have taken over your local economy! We are in your country, we should be inconvenienced and taken out of our comfort zone. That's why we travel: to experience local culture!!

I understand that the majority of the American tourists who are vacationing in Jaco probably don't have the same attitude. They're probably going down for a little tropical solace from the corporate grind and don't want to have to worry about sounding like a buffoon when they say Jaco with a hard "j" instead of Jaco with a Spanish "j" (that means it's pronounced "Haco"). I just hated that the locals had to change their identity to mollify my people.

Vicariously yours,

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The second time I almost died in Costa Rica

It was a harrowing vacation, to be sure, but even weeks later Costa Rica still holds its place as Most Likely to be Visited Again in my yearbook of life. Despite repeatedly brushing with death while there, the Mister and I are shopping for schools in Costa Rica so we can be surrounded by beauty 24/7.

Anyway, I need to tell you all about the second time I almost died in Costa Rica. This particular instance was significantly less drawn out and exponentially less terrifying than the Waterfall from Hell. It was one of those moments that I didn't realize was super dangerous until hours later, sitting at dinner with my husband and thinking, "Whoa. That was a close call."

A few days before we left the rich coast, the hubbins and I took an ATV tour. Neither of us had ever been on a 4-wheeler--we both have nurses for mothers who had taken care of ATV accident patients a few too many times--but we were super excited for the adventure that awaited us. Thankfully we'd inadvertently decided to vacation during Costa Rica's wet season, so we were the only 2 tourists on this particular excursion. I had read a review on TripAdvisor from an avid ATV'er who complained that the beginners on her tour had made it boring for her. I didn't want to be that person, but I also didn't want to take my ATV'ing experience from 0 to 11 in the matter of a few minutes. So I was more than happy to poke along on the mostly paved, completely cleared paths we were told we were going to take without ruining the vacation of more experienced fellow tourists that could have come along on our tour.

Doesn't he look intrepid?

The trails ranged from this.... this!

Unfortunately, we'd inadvertently decided to vacation during Costa Rica's wet season, which meant the paths were deeply rutted by the mini-rivers created from the rains of the past few days. Being that I'd never been on a 4-wheeler before, I had no prior knowledge of how to handle it when my wheels tried to follow the rut instead of going in the direction I wanted. Luckily, I got the hang of it relatively quickly and was blaring up and down those mountains, tongue sticking out of the corner of my mouth, with a maniacal grin on my face.

I even got confident enough to snap a selfie while operating my all-terrain vehicle.
Don't tell my moms.

Let me pause the story to let you all know that my machine pulled to the left, but it was only really noticeable when we were on the asphalt surfaces. Obvious foreshadowing is obvious.

So we're trucking along passing by some of the most astonishingly breathtaking vistas I've ever seen in my life.

Like this one.

This was the view out one of the windows at a little restaurant at the top of a mountain where we stopped. The owners lived in an attached building. THIS IS WHAT THEY SEE EVERY DAY!!

This was a much less terrifying waterfall. I liked this waterfall. We were already at its base.

This is a Costa Rican farm. The cows say "Los Moos."

The tour was perfect for two beginners because we would be on a semi paved, mostly smooth path/road for a while where the biggest obstacle we had to worry about was mega pot holes for about 45 minutes and then we'd turn onto a super rutted, mostly uphil, narrow ATV path of awesomeness!! It was the best combination of adrenaline, culture and nature. We were often times riding on ridge trails: look to the right and see nothing but a sheer drop, look to the left and see nothing but a steeply sloping mountain face. It was terrifying and awesome at the same time.

Anyway, about 5 hours into our 8 hour day of awesomeness, we were blazing our way up a trail that was wooded on the right and the other side had tall grass, a bit of an embankment and CERTAIN DEATH! The path was also pretty vertical, which I had learned that I enjoyed. I loved being able to just open up the throttle and bump my way up the side of a mountain, spraying red mud up my leg all the while.

So much fun!!

As I said before, the path was deeply rutted and, as ruts will do, these mini ravines led right off the trail and down the mountain. I hit a rut which wasn't all that deep but for some reason my 4-wheeler headed left, in the direction of the embankment. That's when I had a very Rob Dyrdek kind of moment. Because I was going along full speed ahead, my ATV treated the embankment as a BMX ramp and I was on my way to becoming airborne. In the split second it took me to realize my current trajectory was going to send me flying down the side of a mountain, I let off the throttle. Only thing is, in that same split second, my front wheels were already on their way into the air and when they lost all their oomph, they started to somersault backwards taking me and the rest of the ATV with them. I was about the be crushed by an ATV in one of the most beautiful placed on earth.

Directly behind me, also going full speed ahead, was my husband. I think he was watching this whole thing unfold and had come to a stop so he could watch his wife almost take herself to her grave for a second time in a week. I had also come to a stop but because I was flustered, I hadn't put on the brakes yet so I started rolling down the path. I didn't want to collide with my husband, so my old bike-riding instincts kicked in and I promptly put my feet down. Experienced ATV'ers know that putting your feet down will do nothing but scratch your legs up and possibly get your feet tangled in the snowballing mess that is you and the ATV. But what did I know!?

Eventually (and by "eventually" I mean .25 seconds later) I came to my senses and threw on the brakes. Now I was very nearly vertical on an ATV that was halfway up the embankment. I was afraid that if I kicked the throttle into full speed I would end up finishing the trip down the face of the mountain I'd very nearly started.

But I had bigger things to worry about than that!! On the muddy trail in front of me, right in the middle of an imprint of the tracks of my tires was OUR BRAND NEW CAMERA!!

Yes, the one we had accidentally dropped down the side of another mountain during the hike back from the Waterfall from Hell (I didn't tell you guys about that part of the story, but there's the short version). Today, I had been riding with it between my legs so I could snap quick shots without having to fiddle with trying to get it out of my pocket.

Somehow in all the confusion, I had come off my seat, the camera had flown through the air, my front right tire had landed and skidded on the camera and then rolled backward down the path just enough to reveal my pitiful camera barely peeking out of the mire.

Now I had to get off my 4-wheeler...but I couldn't do that without risking sending my machine into my husband behind me. Our guide was trying to tell me how to get myself out of my current situation, but that entailed me running back over my camera, possibly killing it for good this time.

Long story short, our guide got off his ATV, we wiped off the camera and continued on the trail.

Here's a grainy webcam shot of the scratches on the screen of our camera. Our souvenir from our awesome day of ATV'ing in Costa Rica.

Moral of this story: 4-wheeling is awesome, even when you almost die in the process...and Olympus Tough TG-610s really are tough, even if they don't take the best pictures in the world.

Vicariously yours,