In three short weeks we're going to be leaving this place for the warmer and sunny climes of the Tamarindo area of Costa Rica. The school has already recruited a replacement for Jim, who will have stayed more than a month more than he originally contracted for.
I wish I could contact this person and let them know all the things I had to learn the hard way in the last almost two months here. The school admin is not very good about helping people acclimate to the area, which is a shame. When we lived in Germany I worked for the USO doing just that, helping the wives settle in quickly, and providing information on everything from bus routes and costs to shopping, dealing with the utility company and navigating in a very different society.
The lady replacing my husband is older, recently widowed and leaving the U.S. to teach here just to do something different while dealing with her grief. I'm worried for this unknown woman.
This place is incredibly beautiful, at least in the morning before it rains. She needs to know what I didn't. Pack a raincoat, boots and a sturdy umbrella. You'll use them daily. I stupidly only packed a small folding umbrella after reading through the literature sent to us upon signing up.
I'd tell her that the most useful item I brought with me seems to be a two dollar and fifty cent fleece blanket/throw I bought at Wal Mart. It works to wrap yourself up in under the copious bed covers you'll be cowering under when the rain makes the temps drop into the low 50s. It can be used as a dirty clothes bag by tying it like a hobos bindle. You can spread it on the beach to lay on instead of a beach towel. It's small and thin enough to fold and use as a makeshift scarf when you travel by bus and the driver is super enthusiastic about the bus air conditioning. On the colder nights I've used it as a quick wrap over my clothes.
Speaking of clothes... bring more than you ever dreamed you might need. I failed at that too, bringing 2 pairs of shorts I have yet to don, 2 pairs of jeans, a pair of capris, a pair of capri leggings, 2 long sleeved shirts, 4 sleeveless or tee shirts, 1 sweater and 4 dresses. Much of this stuff I cannot wear here, it's more suitable for the heat of Tamarindo, not the cool weather that dominates this area. I was advised to bring a sweater for chilly evenings, never dreaming that it would rain every afternoon and tank the temps for the afternoon and evening. Bring warm clothing, or at least more sweaters than I did.
Clothing brings up another point. All of the guesthouses here that host the teachers, while they do wash your clothing, use cold water and no pre-treating of spot. It's not unusual to have your clothing come out of the washer with undissolved detergent and still with the same dirty spots on them. I learned early on in late June that to keep my clothing very clean without spots you really need to buy upon arrival a small box of laundry soap, or a bar of laundry soap, a small scrub brush, a bottle of vinegar and a hanging drying rack to hang off the shower curtain bar. I have learned after ruining two shirts and an expensive new dress that you must spot treat any dirt on your clothing and hang it in the shower to dry before putting it into the laundry basket. There is no Spray n Wash here. You have to fight the spots old school style.
The other problem with the laundry is that pesky rain. If the landlady washes your things and places them under the covered part of the carport to dry they will dry in two days. If she puts it in the morning sun, and toddles off to do something else. Forgetting that hanging laundry it might be a week before she remembers and moves it to a shady spot out of the rain.
The food. I have spent so much time talking here about the starchy carb-laden food that it's ridiculous and petty. I finally just shut up and went back on Metformin until I leave. It didn't dawn on me that this is a farming community and the 3 to 4 servings of carbs at every meal is how farming families sometimes eat until the last week. Just be prepared for rice and beans as a side at every meal and don't be surprised if you get a meal that is rice and beans, mashed potatoes, potato chips and some sort of pasta and tortillas. You cannot fight it, you cannot make them understand. What I do is keep tuna, cheese, fruits, veggies and whole wheat crackers in my room for those days when the meal is 'Carbs! Carbs! Carbs!'
They're not going to tell you but the bus goes into a bigger nearby city every 5:30 am, 12:30 pm and 5:30 pm. It only costs less than a buck and that you can go to one of the grocery stores to stock up on things in eat in your room. There are also many excellent fruit and vegetable stands, and a few discount stores to pick up things like cutting boards, knifes, etc. if you need to fix your own meals.
The good part of that is this is where some of the best coffee in the world is grown. The coffee shop connected to the local coffee farmers co-op has some of the most delicious coffee (some with delicious adult beverages poured into the coffee. They have pastries to die for at the same place. Try their que-que (pronounced kay-kay - it means 'cake') and the rollos. Just a short walk from the shopping district in the next town over.
The bus is very inexpensive and you can take it just about anywhere you can imagine. We even took a bus into Nicaragua! The bus station is right behind the coffee shop. But a word of caution - a ticket to big cities, like San Jose, or to the tourist areas like the volcano parks, you need to buy your ticket at least a day in advance, or you might find yourself standing the entire way. I stood all the way to San Jose once, several hours and it was no picnic.
The confusing thing about taking the bus is that there are a thousand different bus companies so if you take a bus into San Jose and need to get on another bus headed to Arenal or Quepas, you might have to take a taxi ride to another station. No one tells you that ahead of time. A word of caution about the taxis. Everyone tells you to take the official red taxis, but in the bigger cities I've had the experience of the driver driving around and around and around until I've asked him what the heck he's doing and ended up with a fifty buck taxi fee. Always insist that they turn on the meter when you get in 'Taxi metro'. I no longer use the official taxis unless forced to. I have learned to look for the 'Piratas' - pirate taxis. They are usually a block or two from the bus station. You haggle with them, agreeing on the price before getting in. I now pay the Tico price from the shopping town to here of 3 thousand colonies - or just under 6 American dollars.
Cellphone service really sucks in this town. The only place besides the school where you can get decent cell tower coverage is down by the village soccer field. The internet is spotty everywhere you do and the speed is not fast. But it is fast enough for Netflix and Hulu, so you do have some entertainment options, which is good, because the nearest movie theater is over an hour away in Cartago.
I do recommend the mall at Cartago for clothing. I found the prices and quality to be very close to what we get in the US. Everywhere you go you see 'Ropa Americana', but I've found that most of those places sell very worn looking second hand clothing mixed with a few newer things.
This is already getting to long so here's a few other quick tips.
The people here are friendly and nice. People actually greet each other on the street. Most folks say 'Buenas' instead of 'Hola' because hola is used when you expect a conversation instead of a quick greeting.
Always, always, always try to speak at least a little Spanish when you can and say 'please' 'thank you' and 'I'm sorry'. People here are much more polite.
Bugs, big bugs are a reality here. Ignore them as much as possible and try not to stress over them.
The showerhead with the crazy electrical wires poking out will give you hot water if you adjust it just so.
You cannot flush toilet paper anywhere.
Washclothes are not a known thing here. Pack as many as you need. Also, you can make your bath and bedroom much more comfortable by the purchase of a few luxuries, like hand towels and bath mat, a rug by the bed, whatever it is you cannot live without.
Some of the guesthouses here do not use top sheets and only change the bedding every few weeks. I deal with this by using what I call the 'Norwegian Bachelor Scheme' - turning the sheet every week until the landlady gives me a new clean bottom sheet and blankets.
There are three things in every house, big or small, rich or poor, you can count on. 1 - there will be a satellite dish on the roof. 2 - Most of the yards will have beautiful flowers growing everything and 3 - there will be a display or alter to Jesus, Mary and God in the home.
But here's the biggest benefit of living here besides the adventure of figuring out how to deal with the culture shock and work arounds - there is virtually NO continual fear mongering news or constant drum beat of the awful shenanigan of our president. It's calm, it's relaxed and a much slower pace of life, at least when the church isn't burning down or you are not dealing with government red tape.
That's it! The kids at the school are wonderful and the community here really wants you here teaching their children English. There are so many fun things to do. Never turn down an opportunity to judge a spelling bee, or to share a holiday with a local family.
I wish you success and happiness here.