Change Yourself…Change The World.

When Blogging Becomes a Burden
September 7, 2009, 2:21 am
Filed under: Costa Rica

Sometimes, just a crazy amount of things happen within a very short period of time. This weekend has been NUTS. I could write a long and detailed post for each hour the past week. But I’ve been so tired, and busy, and out there living my life instead of sitting on a computer, that I haven’t had the time or effort to write a decent blog post. Now I am sort of in this position where I don’t even know what to relay back to you all. Do I talk about LaCarpio, the poorest part of San Jose, where I went to with a teacher on Wednesday? Do I talk about all of the new students that have finally arrived at the Costa Rica Center, and how they are rocking every second of my world and me theirs? Do I go into more detail about the bonding haircut experience myself and three other Global College students went through? Do I elaborate on my experience in the Barrio Jesus community, where we did community service projects this Saturday? Should I SKIP all of that and just talk about the amazing mountain trip I went to this weekend with my homestay family, that resulted in all kinds of delicious food, nature walks, and my pathetic attempts at trying to talk in Spanish? Should I just forge on ahead to talk about the amazing experience I am about to have in Paraguay with my NGO, Fundación Paraguaya (which is amazing and I recommend EVERYONE to work with who is interested in interning with an NGO)?

As you can see, it is impossible for me to sort out what takes precedence or importance. So I decided to throw in a little bit of everything; for this post you get the spices, but not the meaty chunks. Hope you can deal with that for a bit while I valiantly try to organize my life, which has derailed into utter chaos.

Much love,

The Difference Between Asia and Latin America?
September 2, 2009, 4:43 pm
Filed under: Costa Rica

Of course there are too many to name. There are the obvious things, like the dress. In Latin America, you can basically get away with wearing a thong down the street. I’ve seen some women in such strange getups that if a woman in a burka were to walk by, she would probably be stoned for her concealing gestures (ironic because halfway around the world she would be stoned for wearing anything BUT a burka). There is the language, of course. But I also mean language in the way that you can’t really get away with speaking English in this country- you need to speak Spanish to really communicate with the locals (and in Asia, a lot speak English). There is the food. I’d like to judge Asia and Latin America by their fruit. In Asia you have coconuts, jackfruit, pineapple, mango. In Latin America you have papaya, jocote, and a whole slew of strange sounding fruit names I haven’t figured out yet.

But the biggest difference I’ve seen that’s stood out to me the most, is the level of desertion in Latin America. I barely see anyone on my street walking by. In certain pockets in Latin America, I see people hanging out, like in the park, or at the supermercado central (a cool place I went to yesterday). But no matter how many blocks I criss-cross, I only see a few people walking up or down the street, and mostly it’s quiet.
In Asia (and I’m thinking specifically India, Bangladesh, and Nepal in this case), that is pretty much impossible. Every single street would be flocked by hundreds of characters- hawkers who have illegally set up stalls to try to get you to buy their things; beggars limping with one leg or crying horrendously on the street for money; dirty and ragged children running around playing; three or four cows ambling down the street; and so much trash, spit, piss, and debris everywhere that it’s like playing the lava game in order to side-step it all.

I guess it’s hard for me to get a definite flavor or character or Latin America after being in Asia, where there is a new face, a new encounter, a new experience with every direction you turn in. It’s almost as if you have to go looking for the culture here. They are hidden away in little pockets in Costa Rica that you have to find. Yesterday, I wandered in a daze into the Supermercado Central (Central Supermarket) and finally felt I got a bit of a taste of Latino culture. Suddenly Costa Rica went from Ghost Town to- a mini version of India. Vendors shouting their wares, an overabundance of delicious fruit to look at, meat, cheese, little stalls selling tortillas con queso or empanadas, and a whole slew of funny characters who were shouting at each other in Spanish, fighting for a potential customer’s attention, chopping meat or tossing around hordes of green bananas, piling together lists of lottery tickets- utter madness.

Conclusion? Asia is most definitely IN YOUR FACE, whether you want it or not. Latin America teases you, asks for you to come find the adventure before they turn your world upside down.

Pictures of Costa Rica and Italy to come.

Much love,

RIP Dee-Dee Storm, 1910-2009
August 31, 2009, 10:55 pm
Filed under: Costa Rica, Plain Mary Jane, USA

This weekend I went to Pennsylvania to go to my great grandmother’s funeral. Dee-Dee was a truly wonderful and generous person, a pioneer in her time, and a completely sassy and classy lady who always stood up for herself. The lady was 99 years old and until the last week, she was walking around and talking as if she was in her 50’s, her mind still as sharp as kitchen knives. It was a beautiful service, and I’m very happy and lucky to have had the opportunity to pay my respects to her. It was such a tribute to how amazing my extended family is, and how her influence has shaped so much of who we are.

Dee-Dee (with my her daughter and my grandmother Muzzy) on her 94th birthday.

I am back in Costa Rica, back to Spanish, to tortillas, to a million varieties of fruits, to walking 15 blocks every day to school with a can of pepper spray, and to the ant infestation in my bedroom. I am back to being a pioneer in my own time and traveling all over the world. I think that’s how Dee-Dee would have liked it.

Much love,

The Language Barrier
August 27, 2009, 5:38 pm
Filed under: Costa Rica

Dear friends,

Costa Rica is amazing. The weather is great, the food is delicious (especially all of the new fruit I have been sampling), the teachers are engaging- I love it here.

However, one big frustration is the language barrier. It has been much easier traveling in Asia than Latin America, for two reasons. One, I stand out much more easily as a foreigner in Asia because my skin is white. Automatically people assume that I am from the West, and approach me as a foreigner (there are many downsides to this- but this is one of the few upsides). Two, many people in Asia speak English. I have taken it for granted all over Europe and Asia that the grand majority of the people I have asked for directions, gone spontaneously out to lunch with, ordered food from, and had daily interactions with, have spoken English to me.

In Costa Rica, this is not the case. I blend in much more in this country, and while this is majorly positive, it does have it’s drawbacks. Yesterday I wandered into a shoe store just to look at the boots (I am an avid boot lover), and I was greeted by the saleswoman in rapid Spanish. I didn’t know how to say “I am just looking at the boots.” Maybe I could guess- it’s probably something along the lines of “Yo mirando los zapatos”- but I was nervous and didn’t want to be laughed at for my obvious lack of Spanish. All I could say was “Lo siento, yo hablo Español un poquito” (Sorry, I speak Spanish very little) and hurry out of the shop. I’ve suddenly gained an intense appreciation for immigrants in the United States that I used to get so frustrated with because of their lack of English, or even their lack of proper conjugation. When I was younger I automatically made this assumption that they were dim-witted (yes, this is wrong)- but it is truly REALLY hard being in a new country and interacting with people in a completely different language than your own. I get embarrassed and nervous interacting with strangers because I am afraid they will view me the same way as I used to view new English speakers (generally though, this is a very important lesson for me to learn). It is really hard to get a speech from your homestay mother solamente en Español while you’re eating dinner about how her husband died, and to be utterly confused and only grasp one quarter of the words- should I laugh now? Should I look sympathetic? Should I say I’m sorry? I settled for utterly confused.

Costa Rica really HAS been Spanish immersion for me so far. I have two hours of one-on-one Spanish tutoring a day. The teachers at the Global College Costa Rica Center try to talk to me in Spanish. My homestay mother only speaks Spanish. My homestay sister also tries to speak to me only in Spanish. I get home from school, sit in my room, and study Spanish. I wake up, go to the Center, and study Spanish. It is very confusing to be speaking only in Spanish, and to try to think in Spanish, but being able to only grasp certain words, so half of what I think is in Spanish, and half is in English. Half of the sentences I speak to my teachers are English, half are Spanish (and some are even accidentally Hindi or Tibetan, when I can’t think of the right words in Spanish but know them in another language). Por ejemplo, Yo am trying hablar en Español ahora.

Everything has become utterly Spanglish. Welcome to the next four months of my life.

Hasta la pasta,

Traveling Safely As a Lone Female
August 26, 2009, 6:22 pm
Filed under: Costa Rica, Travel Tip

This is a post on how to travel alone safely in developing countries (or any country, for that matter).

There are the obvious things, such as not wandering down deserted alleyways, walking alone on the streets at night, and walking down the street in broad daylight flashing expensive jewelry, your huge professional camera, playing a video on your brand new iPod where everyone can see it, (basically showing off whatever fancy designer brand/technology you own) etc. I would hope that those who wish to brave traveling to a developing country would know this before going there, or they will definitely have some problems.

However, there are some things that travelers are not aware of before entering a country, or there are some things that they are out of their control. For example. there is an incredibly high crime rate in Costa Rica, and I had to be aware of this coming here. People are mugged in broad daylight, with friends, on buses… if you are even walking down the street alone with valuables on your back (in a backpack), people could slash your backpack and take them without you even noticing- so there are certain precautions that need to be taken to make sure that you (and your valuables) stay safe. I would definitely recommend reading up on the country you are going to (even if it’s wiki travel) just to get a general idea of what you should be looking out for before you go there.

First off, blending in with the culture is a huge plus. This means clothing. In Bangladesh, it is most common for women to wear a salwar kameez; if I was walking down the street in a tube top and jeans, there would definitely be trouble (not only is it disrespectful, but it also SCREAMS oblivious tourist). Obviously even if I was wearing a salwar kameez I would still be considered a tourist, because I am white-skinned. But the fact that I AM wearing a salwar kameez implies that I respect their culture and know it enough to wear their clothing, and in that sense, I am smart enough to not carry around super expensive things in my bag that are worth stealing (even if I am).
However, if in Costa Rica I went around in my salwar kameez I would be considered a tourist- honestly, I don’t think there is an India population here (if there is it is probably incredibly small- and pardon me if I am ignorant and am not aware of this, I arrived three days ago). So I need to blend in with the culture around me, which means wearing jeans, skirts, small t shirts- this is common for girls my age to wear these things in Costa Rica. So far I have not been hassled (though people DO greet me in English, which makes me wonder why I still somehow stand out as a foreigner).

The most important part about traveling safely is how comfortable YOU feel. If you’re in an incredibly cheap hostel and you feel really uncomfortable, or if suddenly it’s night time and you don’t want to walk home- then spend a little extra money. Take a cab home. Get a hostel that’s a bit more expensive. It is MUCH better to feel comfortable and safe than to not, trust me. I have been in a few situations where I’ve felt very uncomfortable- there was a time when I took a rickshaw home by myself at 1 AM in Bangalore (Yes. This was a very stupid idea. I regret it), or when I was in a marshrukta (a van that people travel in) at night by myself with two guys in Yerevan, Armenia, or the time when I stayed alone in a very cheap hostel in PaharGanj, Delhi where the windows were taped up by cardboard, and then I thought someone was trying to get into my room at midnight… most fortunately, nothing bad happened to me. Something bad COULD have happened to me. All three of those times, I felt incredibly uncomfortable and nervous. I never want to put myself in those situations again, and you don’t want to put yourself in those situations.

So like I said, if there is a little voice in your head that is saying ‘this is not smart, this is not a good idea,’ then LISTEN to that voice. It is not a good idea.
Right now, I am in Costa Rica, and I am very nervous about the pick pocketing. I have to walk 15 blocks to school from my homestay house every day, and while my homestay family assures me I won’t have any problem walking alone (during the day), I still feel uncomfortable. Therefore, I carry pepper spray with me (I have my backpack on my back with my valuables, and I conceal the pepper spray under the rain coat I carry on my arm). Do I feel silly carrying pepper spray with me? Yes. When I start to feel more comfortable with the country, will I ease up on the pepper spray? Maybe. The fact of the matter is, right NOW I am completely new to this country and I don’t feel comfortable traveling 15 blocks alone during the day with valuables in my bag that could be stolen. It makes me feel much better carrying pepper spray- I feel more confident, and there isn’t a little voice in my head going ‘this is not a good idea, what are you thinking?’ Would other travelers who have stayed in Costa Rica think me carrying pepper spray in my hand while walking is a bit over the top? Probably. They may even laugh at the idea. I don’t care. It makes me feel comfortable and it gives me power in any situation that might pop up. So I carry it.

Basically, it is all about how comfortable you feel. If you don’t feel comfortable in a dingy hostel with a door that has a questionable lock, then upgrade to a more secure one. If you don’t want to take a bus alone at night, then change your plans so you take one during the day. If you don’t want to walk alone, then take a cab. You may feel frustrated and inconvenienced at times, but- nothing is more important than how safe you feel.

It’s also important to understand how cultures interact with one another. For example, in India, many men will approach you on the street and ask about you, where you are from, and what you are doing in India. However, in Indian society, strangers will NEVER approach a woman they don’t know and just start talking to them. So you have to ask yourself- what is it this Indian man wants from me? Maybe he’s harmless and he just wants to practice his English. Maybe he wants you to eventually come to his shop and buy his goods. Maybe he wants to hit on you. Maybe he wants to get you alone so he can take advantage of you. Maybe he wants to offer you drugs so that he can take advantage of you. There are a whole range of possibilities, but the fact of the matter is, these men COULD take advantage of you.
I’m not saying that every person you meet will be bad, or that they’re trying to take advantage of you- I’ve met many amazing locals in every country I’ve been in- but it all depends on the context you meet them in. If you’re walking down a crowded street in PaharGanj, Delhi, and some man comes up to you asking about your name and where you’re from- that’s a red flag for me. I ALWAYS completely ignore these men (to even say ‘hello’ to them indicates that they can now follow you for 20 minutes asking you questions that you’re forced to answer). If you’re walking down the streets in Costa Rica and some man on the street watches you walk by and just says “Hola, Como te llamas?’ I ignore these men.
Examples where I have NOT ignored people I’ve met: Meeting with someone in Varanasi who our institution was paying to coordinate our trip there. He has become a very good friend of mine. Meeting my Tibetan family, who I homestayed with in Dharamsala (that was set up by an agency). They are like a second family to me. Meeting a local Nepali in the Bangladesh Embassy, who I started talking to and invited me out to lunch. I never saw him again, but he was incredibly nice, and it’s a very nice memory. No harm there. Like I said before, it really has to do with your radar- whether you feel comfortable in the situation and with the person you’re talking to. People are a little more tricky, because they can be deceiving, and you don’t want to put yourself in a situation where you can be taken advantage of later. But with that being said, don’t be afraid to make friends, because that’s the best part about traveling- meeting amazing new people.

Some tips for Costa Rica I’ve gotten (for those traveling there)- if you carry a black backpack, people think you’re carrying expensive items like a laptop. It’s better to get something that looks really cheap, or a handbag, if you’re carrying expensive items, because robbers won’t think that you’re carrying something expensive in there. If you’re carrying a backpack, most people have one sling around their arm, and carry the backpack in their front, so robbers won’t slash their bag and steal their things. If you’re traveling alone, always take a taxi at night instead of walking.
If you’re NOT carrying expensive items, but rather, important documents or a notebook with field notes in it- you can buy transparent bags; these show robbers that there’s nothing of value in what you’re carrying, so they don’t try to take your bag.

I hope that was enlightening and helpful! Happy and safe travels!

Much love,

Costa Rica, How I love you
August 25, 2009, 7:42 pm
Filed under: Costa Rica

My reluctance to head out to a new country has been completely abolished within five minutes of stepping out of the airport. I LOVE Costa Rica!!

First off, I didn’t have any visual of what Costa Rica would be like until I got here. I didn’t know that it would luscious, gorgeous and mountainous. One thing that I really like to do every time I go to a new country is watch what the country looks like when we’re touching down onto the ground from the airplane (usually with a big grin plastered all over my face). Well, it was BEAUTIFUL. Granted, the landing into Nepal is the most beautiful I’ve seen, but I would say this comes in at a close second.

Then, getting off the airplane… buying colones (the currency) and being shocked that 100 dollars is 51,000 colones (I had no idea what the conversion rate was)… meeting Hilbert, one of the staff from Global College- seeing DENNY’S here- Hilbert says it is a very expensive restaurant, go figure…. talking to Hilbert on the van ride to Heredia about Costa Rican food (which is basically rice, beans, meat, and a little salad)… taking in my first views of Costa Rica…

We finally got to Heredia, a town about half an hour away from San Jose (the main city), and it’s a beautiful place. In Heredia is the Costa Rica Global College Center, and my homestay, the family I will be staying with for the next month. We pulled up to my homestay, and I was shocked at how big and fancy the house was. After living in Asia for the past year and hanging out in shoeboxes (houses in Asia are just as important, but much more cozy), I was shocked to see big houses here. We went inside and were greeted warmly by Elba, my homestay mother. She is lovely and only speaks Spanish. She gave me a tour of the house and showed me my room, which is way better than I expected. There’s a TV with cable, a closet for my clothes, a laundry basket, my own bathroom with hot water…. Wow! And the bed is incredibly comfortable too. Que lindo!

Elba loves to cook, and she asked me all kinds of questions about what food I like. She has a beautiful garden where she grows all kinds of plants (for coffee, parsley, oregano, and other kinds of spices- they all smelled so delicious). She also has a really cool library, and I love that the house has wooden floors. Then her daughter came home. Her name is Cynthia, and she is incredibly nice and speaks English really well. She works for an airline company and she loves to travel. We had this delicious dinner (crepes, jugo Tamarindo (homemade Tamarind juice), and these delicious plaintains that Elba cooked for dessert.

After dinner, they had me try this amazing fruit called Jocote, which is INCREDIBLY delicious. Then Cynthia took me to her brother’s house, which on the outside looks like kind of a dingy place; but on the inside it was absolutely gorgeous, with all of this up to date contemporary furniture (all black) and paintings and sculptures. His 3 and 9 year old daughters are absolutely adorable, and they have two tiny Chihuahuas. Here brother Alonso was so nice, and he immediately invited me to go fishing with him this weekend, and then Cynthia was talking about us going to see a volcano in Costa Rica!

They are a beautiful family, and I love it here in Costa Rica. It seems like the combination of the old with the new- some of the houses and places look like they’re crumbling down a bit, but then there are really nice houses, there are all kinds of chain restaurants and stores, and good transportation. I think that my first feel of Costa Rica is that people want their things (like their houses) to look a little bit dingy on the outside so they don’t get hassled or robbed, since crime is so prevalent here- but on the inside, it’s a true gem. And truthfully, I like having my own room, my own bathroom, and a space to put my clothes OTHER than my backpack.

Right now I am writing from the Costa Rica Global College Center. I just met with my advisor this morning, who is absolutely fantastic and I like a lot. I am planning a trip to Nicaragua in two weeks to visit a micro-finance organization, and then the week after I plan to go to Panama. All of the staff at the Costa Rica Center are SO nice, and they all love art and music. I feel as though I’m going to have a VERY busy semester because everyone is inviting me to do so many amazing things, like going out to music clubs, going to the beach (a 3 hour drive to either the Atlantic or the Pacific Ocean since Heredia is smack dab in the middle of the country), visiting a volcano, going fishing, checking out new countries- COMPLETE OVERLOAD! I love it!!

Here’s to my first day in Costa Rica. May every day of this independent study semester be as fruitful as this day was!

Much love,

A Little Bit About The Next Four Months
August 19, 2009, 6:06 am
Filed under: Costa Rica, Paraguay, USA

Hi friends,

Well, I leave for Costa Rica in 5 days. To be honest, I am not prepared to start this semester. To me, it feels like I just ended a semester a few weeks ago. I finished a SIXTY-FOUR page paper about Grameen Bank and Grameen Solutions that I submitted to Global College only last week. Now, suddenly, next week I am starting another new, crazy experience, that will take up lots of time, reflection, writing… and learning to speak a language fluently (finally. I’ve been traveling for two years, you’d think I would have one down by now).

So just to give you the low-down/down-low on what I’ll be doing for the next four months, here it is: I am starting my second-to-last semester at Global College; the independent study semester (ISS). An ISS is required of all students at Global College. The premise is that the student can choose anywhere they want to study in the world (as long as it’s not on travel warning by the US government), in any subject (as long as it is approved by Global College administration). The student facilitates the programming, the contacts, the credit breakdown, the housing, travel, accommodation, etc. It is a very strenuous experience (especially since this is the first time Global College is doing this program, so they are pretty much making up rules as they go along, which is very frustrating for us students who have no idea how to navigate ourselves through an ISS)- however, it is very freeing because it gives you the opportunity to study WHATEVER you want in WHATEVER location you choose, and it teaches you a lot about responsibility and facilitating your own experience. The goal of the work you do in your ISS is to eventually elaborate on in your thesis (which you write your final senior semester, at the capstone in Brooklyn).

So, here is my independent study semester (and what I will be doing for the next four months): I will be going to Costa Rica for a month (where there is a Global College Center, which all of the freshmen are required to go to) to study intensive Spanish, get an introduction on Latin American culture and issues, and get a sort of ground base going for my Independent Study Semester (my advisor, who is there to coach and guide me through all of this, is at the Costa Rica Center).
Then, around mid-September, I fly to Paraguay to do a two month micro-finance internship with Fundación Paraguaya. The basis of my independent study semester is to study whether micro-finance is an effective means of poverty alleviation (and also gaining experience working with an NGO). So I will be spending a lot of my time traveling around the country with the director and taking interviews from borrowers (the people who take out loans).

But that’s not all, friends. My school semester is starting so early because I want it to end early. I plan to finish up my semester mid-November, so that I will have about five weeks of travel time. After I finish up my internship at Fundación Paraguaya, I plan to go right to Argentina (hitting up Buenos Aires and then WWOOFing it for a week), then heading over to Chile (Santiago, Easter Island), going straight up into Bolivia and onto Peru (doing the Macchu Picchu trek), and finally ending in Ecuador (Quito and the Galapagos Islands).

It should be a crazy, exhausting, stressful, fulfilling four months. Truthfully, I am very burned out from traveling for the past year, and I am not ready to leave home yet. Today I started getting myself mentally prepared for another 4 month trip- I restocked on supplies, got my camera ready, and ran a whole bunch of leaving-related errands- and it hit me even harder than before how reluctant I am to leave the US next Monday.

However, my tank is not completely on empty. Let’s see if the fuel left in my tank will last for another four months. I hope so. Well, I suppose I complain now, but I know it will. I am going back out into the world and having the amazing opportunity to TRAVEL and see the WORLD again! I will not spend my time whining about how tired I am.

Costa Rica, Paraguay, and all of you other lovely countries: get ready, here I come.

Much love,