Monday, January 30, 2012

The Greatest Miracle

My adventure to Costa Rica began when I found a job teaching at the Pan American School, an international bilingual high school outside of San Jose. It was there that I spent the majority of my time, teaching adolescents about literature, test-taking, and how to write. The day before my flight back to the U.S.A., I stopped by the Pan American School to pick up my final check, and I chatted with the principal, coworkers, and secretaries, completing my journey where it began.

I then went to a hostel near the airport and reread the previous blog posts, reflecting on my past experiences: dancing merengue at the local discoteca; killing spiders in my unfurnished apartment; having shabbat dinner with my student's family; seeing my first sloth; cutting open a coconut straight from the tree; jumping off a waterfall; living by candlelight.

What did I learn from these experiences? Peace has no boundaries. Sometimes the unexpected comes true. How we respond in the face of challenges helps define us. Sometimes, we have to chill. When you work for something, the juice is that much sweeter. Even dogs learn to look both ways. We gain strength by overcoming our fears. There is a tranquil beauty in living the simple life.

Walking out the doors of the Pan American School on my last day in Costa Rica, I realized that there was something greater than all the experiences. I was glad to have known Philip Bennie, the vice principal who hired me, Carlos and Monse, who welcomed me into their home when I first arrived and invited me to spend Christmas with their family, and Jacob, who gave tremendous advice on the art of teaching. It was the people, not the experiences, who made the difference.

Last spring, I never would have imagined that I'd live in Costa Rica. And then there I was, the humid air against my cheeks, rice and beans on my plate, espaƱol all around me like surround sound. It was surreal. The fact that I had the opportunity to reside in such an inspiring country as Costa Rica - it almost seemed like a miracle.

I missed the bright lights of Manhattan, the nightlife of the Village, Brooklyn pizza, New Jersey bagels. I wanted to be in New York when the Giants beat the Patriots. But I didn't come back home...for home. I came back for my friends, who gathered at Genesis Bar in the Upper East Side the night before I left for the tropics, and for my entire family, who read and commented on every blog I posted, loving and supporting me in whatever I chose to do.

The day after I walked out the doors of Newark Airport, feeling the brisk air against my face, I went to Primavera Italian Restaurant in West Orange, New Jersey, for the celebration of my grandmother's ninety-fifth birthday. Only four months ago, Grandma Naomi had a seizure, and was delirious in St. Barnabas Hospital, the same place I was born, in Livingston, N.J. Somehow, she regained the faculties of her mind, revitalized her spirit, and exited the doors of the hospital in nearly the same state as which she entered.

In that hospital, where I came into the world, my grandmother went off to a faraway place, and through a sense of determination nothing short of extraordinary, and with the strength of a mighty waterfall, she came back to life. At her birthday dinner, I asked her what her secret was, living to the ripe old age of ninety-five. She replied, "Well, that's easy, Jonah. It's sitting right here, family." As she blew out the candles on her birthday cake, I realized that here, in New Jersey, I was witnessing the greatest miracle of all.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Japan and Costa Rica: An Unlikely Parallel

With my first time living abroad being in Japan, it is inevitable that I would attempt to make parallels between my experience there and my life here. Because of this, I initially took these comparisons with a grain of salt, assuming they were forced connections, stemming from the personal in a way that they would interfere with discovering the universal truths that writers so desperately seek. But after living in Costa Rica for some time, I must admit that I have come across many striking similarities between these seemingly disparate nations.

There is a well known social phenomena in Japan described as ¨honne¨ and ¨tatemae¨. I recall explaning the difference between ¨honne¨ (a person´s true feelings) and ¨tatemae¨(behavior one displays in public) to some gringos who had lived here for many years. They replied immediately, ¨sounds exactly like Ticos!¨ When I repeated this to another group of gringos, they responded in the same way. And so on.

This was when I began to notice several odd and inexplicable connections between these faraway nations with completely different histories. In both Asian and Latin American cultures, family values are stressed. Youths live with their parents until they are married. Both the Japanese and Ticos are polite and hospitable and this is reflective in their use of language. Japanese has two distinct forms: polite and casual. Spanish also has the ¨usted¨¨and ¨tu¨ forms. Yet it is the Ticos in particular who use the polite form more than any other people in the region. Husband to wife, parent to child, even master to pet use the polite form in Costa Rica. Yes, when speaking to your dog or cat in Costa Rica, you ought to use ¨usted¨.

In Japan, the word ¨chotto¨, or ¨a little¨, is used all the time. In Costa Rica, Ticos add diminutives to everything. The Japanese have varying degrees of politeness, conveyed in how far and for how long you bow, to ways of saying ¨thank you¨ (arrigatou, arrigatou gozaimasu, arrigato gomazaimashita, domo, domo arrigatou, etc.). If you look at language as reflective as culture, these similarities speak volumes.

One of the biggest differences between these nations is their view of religion. Costa Rica, like nearly all countries in the Americas, is a Chritian nation. Japan, on the other hand, is very irreligious. Discussing religion with someone from Japan is like chatting about sports. I remember how the majority of the Japanese had no idea when I asked them the differences between Buddishm and Shintoism, the two major religions. In fact, some people couldn´t even remember which religion they belonged to - or they belonged to both. Customs define society, not religion.

Still, Japan is filled with little shinto shrines in homes and along streets. When I first moved to Costa Rica, I remember walking down the block from my apartment and noticing a Christian shrine. It bore such a striking resemblance to those in Japan that I stopped in my tracks when I saw it, and caught myself staring in amazement. From gaijin to gringo, in certain ways, I hadn´t traveled very far.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Living the Simple Life

It was time for a change. My best friends here, Carlos, Monse, and Jacob, had either returned to the US or were about to. I liked Heredia, the city where I was living, but I wanted to explore other parts of Costa Rica; I wanted to experience something completely different. So I quit my job, sold my furniture bit by bit, from my bed to my favorite coffee mug, and moved out of my apartment and into a room lit by candlelight, with a shower without hot water.

I currently live at Alba Nueva, the New Dawn Center, an organic farm in the Talamanca Mountains, the unexplored, rarely traveled, extension of the Andes Mountain Range, in the southern region of Costa Rica. Each morning, I work, which consists of either construction (we´re building a bamboo structure), mixing concrete, or planting and weeding in the vegetable garden. It´s not exactly lesson planning.

For lunch, we eat organic vegetables, straight from the garden, and fresh fruit, right off the trees. In the afternoon, I take classes: naturopathy, massage therapy, medicinal plants, and Spanish. The farm is run by Ed, who moved to Costa Rica 30 years ago from the US, married Jessica, a local Tica, and raised two sons here. The only other people living on the farm are Tanner and Ryell, a couple who are studying abroad through a college in Washington State. Each night, we eat dinner together and write in our journals.

This new simple life is not without its challenges. First of all, the buildings have been constructed with open spaces and we are surrounded by critters of all kinds; I´ve seen a tarantula already. Needless to say, I sleep beneath a mosquito net with a bottle of "Off" insect repellant by my side.

But it isn´t the mosquitoes that worry me, or even the tarantulas. As soon as the sun comes down, the snakes come out. I walk through the grass with a flashlight in hand, stomping the ground to let them now that I´m coming. Snakes don´t bother you if you don´t bother I make sure, every step of the way, that the rounded twig I see lying in the grass in front of me is, in fact, a twig.

The classes have been challenging in their own right. It isn´t that they are difficult (there are no tests) but they challenge the modern way of thinking. Naturopathy is a controversial alternative to modern medicine, claiming to cure all sorts of diseases, even cancer. Every day I learn a new way of looking at the world.

The diet it professes - vegetables, fruit, grains, nuts, and seeds, ´the diet of our ancestors´- is quite different from the Standard American Diet (which Ed abbreviates, ´SAD´). I am a vegetarian, which helps, but I love my carbs, and I´ve already caved and cooked up some pasta.

When I first arrived and Ed told me he was putting me in a room ¨lit by candelight and closer to nature¨, I said I´d prefer a room with electricity. But then I changed my mind. There is a certain freedom of not having to check my watch for the time, of not having a phone vibrating in your pocket - of living with the bare essentials. I´ve found myself strangely compelled to the simple life.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Waterfall

There are some things you dread. With just the thought of them your entire body convulses, and your mind, for a brief moment, is overcome with fear. At the same time, these are the things you are drawn to. Although you’re afraid of them, it is the emotion of fear that compels you to them. These are often the risks we take – or do not take – in life, when we step outside our comfort zone, when we seek a thrill or danger. One of these things, for me, was jumping off the infamous waterfalls in Montezuma.

“About half a dozen people have died attempting to jump off the Montezuma Waterfalls.”

These were the words I read in the Costa Rica Lonely Planet. Although I read this three months ago, having no plans to travel to the difficult-to-get-to Hippie beach town on the Pacific Coast, I still felt an acute anxiety rise inside my stomach as these words leapt out from the page at me. I’ve bungee jumped without hesitation; I climbed Mount Fuji in the middle of a typhoon. So what was it about these waterfalls? One thing that didn’t help was when a friend told me how she hurt her back from not jumping correctly, and how she still felt water inside her ear two months after she took the plunge. No problem, I thought, I just wouldn’t go to Montezuma. Or so I told myself.

With the school year coming to a close, and vacation approaching, my roommate, Jacob, and I planned out our final trip together, before he headed back to the US: party in the international town of Samara, chill on the beach in Jaco, and…visit Montezuma. In the days leading up to the trip, my inner-Woody Allen began to rise to the surface. As we took the beautiful ride down the Pacific Coast from Samara to Montezuma, I found that inner feeling of anxiety bubbling in my stomach.

The hike to the falls was one of the more difficult I had ever done – or at least, one of the most dangerous. We ended up veering off the path and hiking up some pretty intense steeps. A rocky river roared below us as we scaled a cliff, trying not to think about what would happen if we slipped. Man was my heart pounding when I made it to the top.

Then we got to the waterfall. I’m perfectly satisfied swimming in the cool water, I thought. I wasn’t going to do any sort of jumping. Definitely not.

Then Jacob did it. Without hesitation, he scaled the rocks like a monkey, and leaped. And I found myself, somehow, at the water’s edge.

I wasn’t as high as Jacob. But still, it took me a few minutes, sitting on that ledge, to summon up all the courage I had. And eventually, I jumped.

When I teach creative writing, I often open with a short story I wrote where the main character overcomes his fear. This sort of thing makes for great storytelling, I tell my students. But no matter how hard a fiction writer may try to escape into his imagination, he will always have to reenter the real world, stop living vicariously through his characters (or as a teacher, through his students), and confront himself, overcome doubts, and take on challenges. As I climbed higher, and leaped again, my anxiety and sense of adventure met, and I faced my fear – the same emotion I felt as I got onto the airplane to come here, knowing I’d be living in an unknown land. Fears are there to be conquered. By overcoming ours fears, we can become as strong as a mighty waterfall.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Dog Who Looks Both Ways

There are no street names in Costa Rica. There are no house numbers. There are no mailboxes.

Ok…so how do you get around? How do you receive mail?

Directions are geared toward the locals. A block is referred to as “100 metros”. I live 75 meters north of the Musmanni Bakery, in front of the Catholic Church. The school I work at is 400 meters south of the Panasonic Factory. These are the simple addresses.

In the city of Alajuela, a movie theater is used as a landmark. The only problem is that the movie theater has been torn down and a bank currently stands in its spot. The “Cine Alajuela” no longer exists, yet it’s used in addresses all the same. In the San Pedro section of San Jose, there was a big tree, called “higueron”, which people used for directions, and although it too has long since been gone (for a good twenty years), all Ticos know it as a landmark, even the people who deliver mail.

There are no “mailmen” per say. To receive bills, for example, a representative from the company slips them through your door (or through the bars that surround it, which are there to keep out intruders). Unless you use FedEx, which can be up to $150 a package, sending mail outside the country can take weeks, even months to be sent, if it’s delivered at all.

The driving here is more aggressive than in the States (even in New York). One of the major differences is that in Costa Rica, pedestrians do not have the right of way. Cars zoom down streets and motorcycles weave in and out of traffic as people search for an opening to cross the intersection. Not only are people accustomed to this way of life, even the stray dogs that roam the streets know to look both ways when they cross.

Foreigners often seem perplexed by the directions, mail, and traffic patterns in this country. It’s the same way in Nicaragua as well, though not in Panama, a country created by the United States for transportation of goods. When I first came to this region, I found these differences particularly striking when compared to the US. Yet the more I thought about them, the more I made sense of it all. With directions like “seventy five meters south of the bakery”, sure people need to know where the bakery is, but they also need to know where south is. It’s harder to forget the four points of the compass when that’s what’s used to get around. This can only help develop an innate sense of direction.

One thing every expat learns is that there are many ways of looking at the world. Living abroad forces you to see things from a different perspective. This cultivates open-mindedness but it also creates challenges. It’s easy to see things as black and white, good and evil; it is harder to accept a world filled with murky complexities. Being pushed out of your comfort zone is certainly part of the experience of living abroad. but maybe this is something we all have to face. We are always changing, learning, adapting to our surroundings. Even the dogs learn to look both ways.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Journey into the Jungle: Part 2 - The Coconut

My roommate, Jacob “the Dude” Westman, coined the term “Costa Rica, the new west” on our trip to Cahuita National Park. In one sense, he was describing Costa Rica as an extension of the not-so-old American idea of manifest destiny. As recent as the 1990s, US citizens and Canadians have invested heavily in developments in this country. The Oregon Trail leads to Costa Rica.

Yet in another sense, Jacob was referring to the wild west. Rules aren’t rigid here; laws are not necessarily upheld. Police officers are bribed. It’s ill advised to walk the streets alone at night because of muggings. More US passports are reported stolen in San Jose than any another city in the world.

Foreigners work hard to establish their lives in Costa Rica. They have to deal with the excruciatingly slow and difficult bureaucracy not unlike other Central American nations. They have to find their own place and then furnish it. They need to make new friends. Establishing a new life isn’t easy, but it is this very thing - the newness, this sense of adventure – which gringos seek.

One of the greatest changes that anyone living abroad has to grow accustomed to is food. What are the things that I miss the most? New York pizza. A Jersey bagel. But there are foods that are unique to the region that I was looking forward to before moving here, like fresh pineapple and rice & beans. But there is one food that has stood out above the rest. The coconut.

Jeffrey, our guide to Cahuita National Park, was taking us snorkeling, where “fruit is included in the tour”. I had nothing in my pockets, no iPhone, no money. I had no sense of time and nowhere I needed to be. When Jeffrey mentioned the fruit, I imagined fresh pineapple awaiting me, simmering on a plate on the sunny deck of a sailboat. Not quite.

Jeffrey led us to a launch, filled with canoes and enclosed by coconut trees. I watched as Jeffrey took a long wooden stick and swung it at the coconuts: one, two, three, they tumbled into the sand. Then he took one of the coconuts, leaned it against a pile of rocks, cut into it with a knife, and smashed them as hard as he could with the stick. I was so mesmerized by him that I didn’t notice that Jacob had already opened his coconut until he handed me the knife and plopped the heavy, hairy fruit in my hands.

When I tore into that coconut with the knife, smashed it with all my might with the stick, and then peeled the final layers with my bare hands, I felt primitive, otherworldly. Never had I felt further away from the streets of Manhattan. I was in a different world, a place where coconuts fall from trees and you walk barefoot in the sand. Where it’s OK to just let go and be free.

Living in Costa Rica is not without challenges. But gringos need these challenges – they seek them – so they have something to overcome. Every good story has conflict. As I put the coconut to my mouth, I realized that because I had worked for it, the juice was that much sweeter.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Journey to the Jungle: Part 1 - The Sloth

5% of the world’s biodiversity (animal and plant life) is in Costa Rica, more than Europe and the United States combined, all in an area of the size of West Virginia. Nearly every bird, mammal, fish, and critter that you could imagine resides somewhere in Costa Rica. Living in the Central Valley, I’ve been experiencing Latin culture, but I hadn’t fully experienced the wildlife of Costa Rica. That is, not until I ventured to Parque Nacional Cahuita, a wild jungle on a beautiful beach along the Caribbean Coast, rarely traveled to by the common tourist.

Accompanying me on this venture was my roommate Jacob, who is best described as “the Dude” from the movie, “The Big Lebowski”. He’s also 6’5 feet tall, which was a huge relief for my mom, because if I was traveling with him, she could rest assured that I would be safe. It was Jacob who recommended we travel to Cahuita.

Our trip began with a touch of fate. We had planned to stay in Puerto Viejo, a popular party destination south of the national park but despite bringing our backpacks and sandals to work, we still missed the final bus there. Instead we ended up passing through the town of Cahuita, and when we stepped off the bus and onto the dirt road, we immediately changed our minds. Perhaps it was the dry air against our cheeks, or the sand beneath our feet, or the laid-back feeling in the air. Whatever it was, we couldn’t resist staying overnight in the small town of Cahuita.

The chilled out vibe of Cahuita comes from a Caribbean atmosphere. In fact, the locals we talked to identified themselves more with the Caribbean than they did their native Costa Rica. Outside our hostel, we could hear people conversing in the local dialect, Mekatlyu. Whereas so much of Costa Rica has undergone development with the onslaught of tourists, Cahuita has been able to retain its culture and its natural beauty. Only a few hundred meters from our hostel was the national park. We walked along the dirt road, and within minutes, we found ourselves surrounded by monkeys, snakes, hundreds of species of birds, and my favorite, sloths.

It was on our first venture into the national park when we saw our first sloth. We had been hiking for about a half an hour, eyes pointed downwards, searching for snakes, when I commented, “hey, we should look up too and maybe we’ll see a sloth.” As soon as I said that, Jacob lifted his head and low and behold (or should I say “high and behold”), we spotted a sloth, hanging off a branch at the top of the tree line, peacefully gazing into the sky, without a worry in the world.

It seemed like fate that brought us to Cahuita; it was as if an indescribable force propelled me to tell Jacob to look for sloths in just the precise moment when one was hanging above his head. Ever since I’ve come down here – just the fact that I am down here – I’ve thought a lot about fate. But there’s also something else, something I learned from my weekend in Cahuita. Costa Rica’s most famous saying is “pura vida”. Literally, “pura vida” means “pure life”, but the meaning goes much deeper. It refers to a “go with the flow” way of thinking, just letting things happen, and believing that in the end, it will all work out. As a result of this mentality, the pace of life is very slow here, something I’ve had to grown accustomed to, coming from quite the opposite environment of hectic New York. It’s important, I think, to take it easy sometimes, to let go of our need to control our surroundings. Like the sloth hanging from a branch of the tree, sometimes you have to chill.