Archive for February 2011

The only constant in life is change   Leave a comment

It always seems to go that as soon as you get used to a certain place or routine, it changes. That is exactly what is happening to me this week: we are used to our routine of long days at ACM, dinner with my family, and hanging out with friends at night. San José is growing on me: getting to know not only our little world between ACM, UCR (University of Costa Rica), and home – so that I recognized people on the bus in the morning, or our waiters at our favorite bar that know our preferred orders; but also starting to explore into San José and finding new fun and culturally important places. But now, we have to leave that all behind (for a little while) as we adventure out to our rural sites. Each one of us will be in a different site – so it will be really sad not to see the friends I’ve gotten to know over the past month, but it will also be really exciting to be the only gringa around, and have a chance to get fully immersed in the culture (and language) of rural Costa Rica. I promise I will write soon with more detail about my research site/project in my next post, but since I’m short on time, I’ll sum up my thoughts about leaving this weekend in a few sentences:

Things I will miss about San Jose: Playing soccer with some friends from class and our host siblings’ friends on the concrete basketball court/soccer field; the chance to feel an earthquake (I happened to be napping during the small rumble that was supposedly felt in San Jose last Sunday), the cool but sunny, comfortable climate, the ACM building and staff, and my classmates.

Things I am looking forward to in my rural stay: My host mom’s cooking, especially with the ingredients picked off the trees in our backyard, living in a house that smells like chocolate most of the time, being the only gringa around (aka NO ENGLISH!!), being forced to make more tico friends in order to have anything to do in my free time, and living the pace of life of a rural community.

Pura Vida.


Posted February 25, 2011 by rwieme in Uncategorized

A Very Happy Birthday   Leave a comment

Costa Rica was definitely the right choice for me – it is perfectly suited to my interests. As my last post described, the last field trip was focused on two different things that definitely interest me: Nature and Chocolate. Well, lucky for me, our following field trip contained my third love in life: Coffee. Last Wednesday, which also happened to be my birthday, we traveled to an area called “la zona de los santos” because it is an area dotted with many small pueblos, each with a different Saint’s name, like San Rafael, San Carlos, Santa María, etc. Once again, we were provided with some amazing scenery as our mini-bus literally wound up and down through the mountains (some of the tightest curves and steepest slopes I’ve experienced!), which soon became lined with rows and rows of coffee plants. We visited a coffee harvesting plant, which is part of fair trade coffee exportation, where we learned about the process of harvesting and processing the coffee beans, and later about roasting them. Some of the process is explained below, with pictures:

A view of the mountains lined with coffee plants as we drive to the plantation, and a close-up of coffee beans on the branches of the plant (The beans turn red as they mature)

The beans are transported from the field to the processing center in trucks (photo on the left) – Since it is near the end of the harvesting season, all beans are being harvested – the mature red ones as well as the green (the green make a different type of coffee than the red – they are separating in the shelling process). The cases of the mature beans are easily removed to expose the cores (middle & right picture). The cases are composted and reused as fertilizer, and the cores – what we know as coffee beans – are dried. After the drying process, the beans are bagged and exported all over the world (below, left). The dried beans, “Grano de Oro”, are then roasted, which turns them into the gorgeous and fragrant beans that we are familiar with (below).

We were also treated to a fabulous lunch: so great, I had to take a picture. Here you can see a typical Costa Rican lunch – of course rice and beans, with chicken, fried mature plantains, and casados (chopped up vegetables, sort of a “salad”): this lunch had one of arracache and one with palmito (heart of palm), salad (not shown), and fresco. All of that was followed with fruit for desert. Que rica! (Again, I can’t seem to get away from the theme of food).

Of course, we also had fresh espresso after lunch – let’s just say the bus ride home was pretty crazy as we were all infused with incredible amounts of caffeine from the day. The euphoria continued into the night as most of us went out to celebrate my 21st birthday. I really appreciated my classmates and my tico friends taking me out for some dancing even though it was the middle of the week. We had a great time, and we all made it to class at 7:30 the next day!

The only unfortunate thing about this field trip is that it was our last one that we will have together as a class for a very long time. In the next few days, we will all be working hard on final projects for our Spanish class and getting our proposals for our research projects finalized. I’ll hopefully have time for another update or two before I head out to my rural home for my research project…

Posted February 23, 2011 by rwieme in Uncategorized

A perfect weekend   4 comments

For anyone who knows me well, it’s probably no surprise that I absolutely loved our field trip this weekend, given that the majority of the trip was dedicated to chocolate. However, it wasn’t just the chocolate that made this weekend so wonderful, it was a combination of so many great experiences packed together in just three days. The challenge is going to be trying to share them with you without this post turning into a book.

We hit the road early on Friday morning to head northeast of San José, to the Atlantic lowlands on the other side of the mountains. I was already enjoying the weekend with just the drive itself – there was some pretty amazing scenery as we drove up into the mountains. We were completely surrounded with green, until we drove into the clouds and were surrounded by the grey mist. It was really amazing to see such huge expanse of truly savage forest and extreme topography – but of course neither my descriptions nor the few photos I snapped from the bus can do justice to the experience.

We were headed to FINMAC – an organic cacao (chocolate) plantation, which is actually where I will be doing my research for two months. I’ll be able to tell you more about what the plantation and little village is like later, so I’ll just skip to the highlights of the plantation experience. We got to walk around in the plantation to learn about the process of growing, harvesting, and then processing chocolate. Because the cacao on this farm is shade-grown, the plantation supports a high level of biodiversity when compared to many other agricultural systems – which we got to observe first-hand as we found all sorts of interesting animals on our walk including two- and three-toed sloths, a Jesus Christ lizard. We even got to hold one of the three-toed sloths (the more docile of the two species). We were also treated to a fabulous lunch and desert/demonstration from the women’s group that makes chocolate bars right on the farm from the cocoa that is produced there. Overall it was a great experience and it was really nice to meet a lot of the people that I will be living and working with in just a few more weeks – I’m really looking forward to going back!

The next part of our trip took place in Tirimbina – an area of preserved rain forest. We stayed at a great hotel right in the reserve; that night we had a session to learn about bats, and then went out into the jungle to experience the atmosphere at night. I still haven’t decided if crossing the 300-meter long cable bridge suspended 50 feet about the forest floor and rushing Saripiqí river is scarier at night or during the day…

Saturday was also filled with wonderful experiences –beginning with getting up early to go for a hike around one of the forest trails with a friend to see if we could spot some birds before we had to meet the rest of the group for breakfast. We accomplished our goal of finding a toucan, but were even more thrilled when we were able to locate the howler monkeys that we heard along the way. It was actually ironic how we took so long to find the first pair that we heard, only to cross paths with another group that seemed to be joining the others as we crossed another one of the suspension bridges. I was a little bummed not to have my camera with, but luckily Jon had his so we were able to capture evidence of the monkey that practically chased us off the bridge (he did not sound happy with us – but I’m not sure if howler monkeys ever can sound happy).

So Green!          

Top: Jon’s picture of the howler monkey that sat in the tree to grunt at us after chasing us off the bridge and a picture walking through the rainforest. Bottom: Grinding roasted cacao beans with sugar to make chocolate, and preparing the hot chocolate drinks like the indigenous

After breakfast, we had a guided tour with another chocolate demonstration – where we got to learn about the process of how chocolate was prepared by the indigenous groups many years ago, and make our own chocolate from the roasting and grinding the beans. It was definitely a sweet morning, with our awesome guide Jorge we found some more wildlife, including the pair of spider monkeys, a few pit vipers (snakes), the dreaded bala ant, butterflies (including a few blue morphos!), and some birds and turtles, all in addition to learning about some sweet plants and the rainforest in general.

Back in San José on Saturday night, we finally got to experience some josefino night life, as almost our entire class plus some of our host brothers and sisters went out to celebrate a classmate’s birthday. We had a great time dancing, and I even got to use the dance moves I learned from our dance class last week when dancing with my new tico friends. The weekend was topped off with a nice relaxing Sunday spent with my host family, which included going to mass in the morning, then to the fería (market) with my mom and sister, a lively lunch with nine of us all sitting together in the small kitchen, praying the rosary, and winding down the night watching some TV.

It is amazing how much was packed into just those three days – so many new, exciting, and special experiences that I want to be able to write about them all, but really this was just the summarized version. And I know many more new and exciting experiences are still to come in the weeks ahead…

Posted February 15, 2011 by rwieme in Uncategorized

La cultura de la comida   Leave a comment

I know that I’ve mentioned a little bit about the food already, but I’m going to talk about it again now. Besides, I can justify talking about the food more than once, because food is often a large component of a certain culture – and I only briefly mentioned food in my first posts. As many of you might already know, a huge part of the tico (Costa Rican) diet consists of rice and beans. Rice and beans here in the central valley are most commonly prepared as gallo pinto, which includes some very finely chopped vegetables and possibly ground meat (the dish known as “Rice and beans” in the Caribbean lowlands is supposedly prepared differently). In whatever form, rice and beans are eaten at most meals – yes, even breakfast for many people.

So far, I think breakfast has been my favorite. My usual breakfast consists of a cup of coffee, some form of bread (like a roll or bread with jam), and a large bowl of three different types of fruit – but which fruits I get each day are different. I go through a rotation of bananas, pineapple, melon (cantaloupe), papaya, watermelon, and mango. I absolutely love it. You can really taste the difference in having such fresh fruit. And that actually applies to a lot of the food that I eat here – I know that much of what I eat each week was purchased at the market just a few days before, and most of that food was grown just a few or a few hundred kilometers away.

The reason that food is so prominently on my mind is probably due to the “field trip” we had for class this week. We got to get out of the city and up into the mountains, north of the town of Heredia, and while we were there we visited Chris’s (the director of the ACM programs) organic farm. A good chunk of our day we talked about the benefits of organic farming and being organic consumers, and we enjoyed a delicious lunch that included many ingredients that we pulled out of the ground or cut off the tree just minutes before eating it, like lettuce, carrots, bananas, and another fruit I don’t remember the name of. I know it is meals like this that I will miss when I leave Costa Rica – although fortunately I’ll be returning to the U.S. for the summer months so I can enjoy some fresh produce from our garden and farmer’s markets, but it’s not something that we can make last all year round in Minnesota’s climate.

That leads me to the story about the one food I’ve had so far of which I prefer the U.S. version more: corn on the cob. Here, it was much smaller, and a grey-ish cream color, and tasted nearly as bland as it looked. It is ironic because it is actually the only food so far that my host mom has insisted that I eat more of; she was just trying to make sure that I got enough before my host brother and sister gobbled it all up. The three of them (my brother, sister, and mom) were so excited to eat the corn – my sister said it was one of her favorite foods. To increase the irony of my thoughts of longing for the juicy sweet corn that I was familiar with, my mom asked me about the corn on the cob in the U.S. She mentioned that they have eaten the corn on the cob from KFC before, and that she thought it was strange because it was sweet.

Okay, I just have one more quick story from this week to mention. At St. Olaf we often hear about people making crazy connections or meeting other Oles all over the country or in random situations (something that seems to be a trend with smaller liberal arts colleges it seems, the more I talk to the other students on the program with me), but now these connections are becoming international. The other day I was waiting for the bus to take home after class, when I saw someone I thought I recognized from St. Olaf – I had been in one class with her and I knew she was a few years older than me. She didn’t see me, but after a few moments of me making sure she was who I thought she was, I went up to her to say hi. It’s definitely a small world – she graduated from St. Olaf last year, and now she’s working at the University of Costa Rica teaching English. In a city as big as San Jose, ironically we take the same bus home from the University because we live in adjacent neighborhoods – crazy!

Posted February 11, 2011 by rwieme in Uncategorized

¡Vamos a la playa!   1 comment

This past weekend was the only weekend of the month that we don’t have a class or research trip planned, and so we were able to make our own plans for a trip. We all wanted to take advantage of the beautiful “summer” (dry season) weather here and the fact that we are in Costa Rica, so of course the logical answer was: Vamos a la playa! (We’ll go to the beach!) Since we were trying to organize such a large group trip in a very short amout of time, we kept it pretty simple: we chose Manuel Antonio,  a well-known National Park/Beach that is relatively close to San Jose. We left early Saturday morning and once we arrived we went straight to the beach and spent nearly all day there. It was much warmer in Manuel Antonio compared to San José, and I was thankful for the clouds that were there on Saturday that gave us some break from the force of the sun. (Of course, I still ended up burnt – I swear I was putting on sunscreen everyfew hours!). It was pretty busy and touristy, but I still definitely enjoyed it. I learned the strength of the ocean the hard way, as we got pummled by waves while we were trying to cool off in the open water at the public beach.  It was also my first experience with a hostel, and I think we were pretty lucky. We paid $10 per person for a night, and had dinner & refreshments there on Saturday night and made friends with the staff.

Our Hostel

One of my many pictures of one of the beaches at Manuel Antonio

Sunday was another gorgeous day – almost too gorgeous for me, as there wasn’t a single cloud in the sky (of course I took the majority of my pictures on Saturday, when there were clouds, but I’m sure you can still appreciate the beauty of these beaches from what I have…) The beaches inside the park are absolutely perfect. The water here was also much more calm and clear – perfect for swimming. We also got to witness the famous thieves of Manuel Antonio – the monkeys (and even a few racoons) that take advantage of distracted tourists and steal their belongings – especially if they detect food. We were able to hike a bit around the rest of the park before catching the last bus back to San Jose.

We even  made it back in time to head to a bar to watch the second half of the Superbowl. The few of us that went had a great time talking to the other “fans” that were there – most of them were just cheering anytime that something exciting happened. But I have to say I loved hearing the cheers of “Go Packers, Go Packers” with their strong Spanish accents – which I really wish I could describe how it actually sounded (something like “Góh Pahquers” is the closest representation I can give you…)

Posted February 9, 2011 by rwieme in Uncategorized

A few photos   Leave a comment

So the other day, I was about to complain as we were walking from school to catch the bus home because it was cloudy and a little windy, so it seemed “chilly” – but then I reminded myself that compared to what I left behind (this):

(my home in December)

and what many of my friends are experiencing:


including the current below-zero temperatures, I really have absolutely nothing to complain about.

Here are a few photos to help show why I am in love with the place where I get to have class all day:

This is a view of our classroom from outside on the patio – these doors stay open all day so we always have fresh air and the sound of bird calls – also with the occasional yapping of the neighbors’ dogs.

The view from inside the classroom, so you can see part of our backyard – the table that will soon be drenched in (almost too much) sun. (This picture was taken almost first thing in the morning, while the sun is still blocked by the building). The orange flowers are visited quite often by hummingbirds.

The other part of our backyard – the lower patio – where I like to sit and read. (Again, only shaded this much in the morning) The tree on the left side is a mango tree. Also notice the mountains in the background.

And last, but not least, our supply of organic bananas that Chris brings from his farm each week, which we hang in the cage to let them mature if needed but protect them from the birds and squirrels who love to eat them as much as we do…

We’ve been keeping fairly busy between working on our research project proposals, field trips (both for class and personal trips), and spending time with our families, so there will be more stories to come soon, but for now I have to get back to class…

Oh wait, one more: even the money in this country is beautiful – here are two samples: The top is 5000 colones (sometimes called “un tucán” because there is a toucan in the image), and the bottom is 20,000 colones, which is called a colibrí (which means hummingbird)

Posted February 8, 2011 by rwieme in Uncategorized

A Different Life   2 comments

Even though many of the other ACM students and I sometimes take advantage of being able to talk to each other in English throughout the day or a lot of the preparation for our research projects is being done in English, I can tell that my Spanish is already improving. Well, some days (like yesterday) I come home after a long day of bilingual thinking, and I have trouble getting out the right conjugations or have to stop in order to remember certain words while I talk with my host mom about my day and I find myself content to just sit in silence, but other times I can tell there has been improvement and it really makes me happy. For example: last night my host brother had two friends stay over and they joined us for dinner. There were six of us snuggled in around the small table eating dinner, and soon the boys were joking around with each other and telling stories of crazy things that happened lately. I wasn’t necessarily included in the conversation – I was in one of my content-to-remain-silent modes, but I was laughing and following along. I realized at one point that this was the type of conversation that just four days ago I had trouble understanding – I thought my family spoke too fast. Although I obviously didn’t catch every word that was said, I picked up enough to know the general “plot” of the stories, and the rest I managed to gather from the boys’ exaggerated gestures. It was loud and jubilant, but a great feeling when the boys realized that even though I wasn’t saying much I understood them and they began talking to me as well, and not as much around me.

The conversation had another meaningful aspect as well. Even though the boys were just swapping stories, sharing news/gossip with my host mom, and making jokes, the conversation helped me learn more about what their lives are really like. The level of violence that has risen in cities & suburbs of San Jose in the past few years due to poverty is much more real when you listen to the stories of a 13 year old boy telling about the time he ran away from someone trying to mug a group of his friends, or the 10 year old girl who was in a convenience store when it was robbed. These are things that I have never had to experience, and I am very thankful for that. Through the course of this conversation I was able to gain a little more insight into the lives of my family, and connect personal experiences with what we have discussed in our classes at ACM.

Speaking of discussions we have in class, we just finished a very interesting discussion about Costa Rica, which also creates an interesting dichotomy with what I wrote above. We discussed some of the generals of cultural differences and ways of life in Costa Rica, but we spent most of our time discussing our reactions to/opinions of an article in Yes!Magazine that explains why Costa Rica was just named the happiest country in the world. For example, we talked a lot about the topic of sustainability, and how the habits of a sustainable lifestyle often lead to a more fulfilling (and happy) life, such as eating fresh local food, public transportation, and lower levels of consumerism. It was interesting to compare the explanations in the article with our daily experiences living in San José. Check it out at:

As I sit here enjoying the sunshine and the breeze and observing the frequent visits of hummingbirds to the flowers in front of me, I know: How could one not be happing living in a country whose motto is “Pura Vida” (pure life)?

Posted February 3, 2011 by rwieme in Uncategorized