Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The English Language Dies a Little Bit...

Every time it leaves my mouth.
My proficiency in English is declining. Rapidly. For every three steps forward I make in Spanish, my native tongue takes one step back. I am unconsciously applying my English lexicon to Spanish syntax, and it is producing crazy results. As we were walking to class this afternoon, I made a bad joke and asked Sarah 'Why so retard?' Yes. Why so retard, indeed. Apologies for the lack of political correctness, but the sentence is too excellent to omit. I am adding articles to sentences that don't require them, like 'The politics interest me, but it is frustrating sometimes.' COME ON. The good news in all of this linguistic chaos is that my Spanish is improving. I am learning so much vocabulary every day. Like the word for a slide in a playground or waterpark. Tobogàn. At some point in my life, I will use this word and remember sitting on the porch with my family in Costa Rica in the evening and telling them about the amazing pool I went to with the decrepit and terrifying slide. And the word for tariff. Arancel.
Language acquisition is such a fascinating subject. Living in a house with a four-year-old is one of the coolest experiences, because she is my harshest critic. Whenever I say something in Spanish that doesn't make sense, she looks at me sideways, twists her face, and starts laughing. I ask her what I said and she repeats it in an incredulous tone of voice like it's the most hilarious thing ever, then laughs again. Enculturation is so interesting, because I think Jimena and I are both exempt from the rules and expectations of living as a full member in Costa Rican society. I am a foreigner and she is four, so we are given a lot of room to make mistakes. This morning, she was telling a story to her mom, and she said, 'Mamà, ¡no cabo!' Which more or less means, 'I don't fit,' but caber is an irregular verb, so the first person singular is 'quepo.' In response, her Mom smiled and said, 'Quepo, niña, quepo.' When I study in Mexico in the Fall, I hope my host family has young kids. She is helping me learn so much.
The rest of the day I spent talking with students at La Universidad Tècnica who are studying English so that they can work at call centers, in the tourism industry, or continue their studies at another university. I worked with two girls close to my age who were just as excited about learning English as I am about Spanish. Language is so cool. That is the theme of this post. It's one of the most difficult, frustrating, and gratifying things I've ever done. We exchanged numbers after we made it through the assigned questions, and I am meeting them tonight for karaoke! ¡Mucho Español!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Under the Volcano

Today, I stood on the edge of an active volcano! It was spewing sulphur gas into the air and we could barely see the lake in the crater for all the volcanic activity. I spent the day dweebing out hardcore and asking Carlos, the volcanologist, tons of questions about ash, rocks, soil, chemical compounds, and vegetation! We left Atenas at 7:00 am to drive an hour and a half on twisty roads to the national park surrounding Volcán Poás. There, we listened to Carlos talk about plate tectonics, Costa Rican volcanoes, and geological wonders. From the presentation, we hiked to the crater overlook and witnessed the constant eruption of sulphur gas creating a giant plume from which we were, thankfully, downwind. Poás underwent two major periods of eruption in the 1960s and 70s, which formed the current crater. We hiked to Laguna Botos, which is a crater lake surrounded by dense vegetation. Botos is the crater that resulted from an eruption around the time Christopher Columbus was 'discovering' Costa Rica. Because I know you are probably not dying to hear this information, I will spare you additional details (like how awesome it is that the chemical compounds in the crater lake change before an eruption and turn the lake bright green! and then red!) Like I said, I was dorking out.

On the bus ride from Poás, I made an important connection in my research project. I am researching women's sexual rights in Costa Rica, and specifically how the macho culture and primarily Catholic religion influence women's access to methods birth control (if they want or choose to use it). I talked with Odilie, one of the directors of the program, about my project, and she asked me to write down my main research questions. She offered to have a local doctor answer the questions for me! Wow! This source will make my project at least eighty thousand times stronger. Now, with this exciting new development in my research, I am going to eat dinner with my wonderful family and will write tomorrow all about our language exchange with local students at the technical school in Atenas. ¡Que te vaya bien!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Bombas, Agro Bulls, and Machisimo

As I'm beginning to realize, the most difficult part about writing this blog is deciding where to start. I will start with the most awesome thing in the entire world, and I will introduce you to this most awesome thing with a photo. Words fail. BEHOLD.

Yes. Giant inflatable bubbles floating on a pool WITH PEOPLE IN THEM. Ally, Christina, Grace, and I stood in line with five year olds for a chance at climbing into a chamber with minimal air reserves, zero safety precautions, and a poolful of awesome all for 1,000 colones, or two dollars. A deal. That is me ensconced in the ball of fun you see in the second photo. These bubbles of joy were located at a festival in an agricultural town outside Atenas called Plancillo. The main event at the festival had something to do with taunting bulls, and if I understood correctly it was less about riding them and more about annoying them. While dressed in cool cowboy hats and plaid shirts. ¡Tuanis! The fiesta was fun, and I ate a paquete con chicharrones. The food, oh, the food! We danced in a group and an amorous young man from Jaco was trying really hard to make our acquaintance. We were adequately warned about macho culture, but I didn't realize the lengths to which men will go to demonstrate their 'appraisal' of women. Some of the girls in my group find it offensive, but at the risk of sounding anti-feminist, I think it's flattering to walk down the street in jeans and chuck taylors and still have a carful of dudes hanging halfway out the windows shouting 'Ay! Más hermosa! Qué bonita!' etc. Okay, flattering is totally not the right word. However, as a person who spends a lot of time thinking about fashion and the way I put myself together, I don't think of the male gaze (and the male hoot, and the weird male hissing noise they make here) as threatening or negative. Cara in the study abroad office told us a story about a woman who grew up in a Latin American country and came to the U.S. as an adult. She said the lack of open male recognition made her feel frumpy or ugly. It's certainly something that takes some adjustment, though.

After the festival in Plancillo, we went to a bar in Atenas where Sarah's house sister, Maria Jesús, invited us over to her table with her group of friends. Afterwards, Sarah, Sara (two Sarah's, yes) and I drove to this surreal dance club outside of Atenas with Sara's house brother and some friends. The building was clinging to the side of a mountain overlooking a dark valley with a few lights at the bottom. The terrace wrapped all the way around the outside, and the lighting was like something out of a David Lynch movie. To keep going with movie comparisons, it felt a lot like the scene in Apocalypse Now where they stumble on the French plantation in the jungle. We danced, and I demonstrated such various moves as the sprinkler, the shopping cart, and the crazy leg. Afterwards we sat on the terrace and I had my first intellectually satisfying conversation in Spanish. We discussed the differences in foreign language education in the U.S. and Costa Rica, and talked about imperialism. Fun! Sara's brother said, at one point, that my vocabulary was excellent, and I actually believed it this time because I expressed something complicated without sounding like a second grader. I was proud.

But then I woke up yesterday morning and spent like five minutes giving my host mom a complete answer to a question she didn't actually ask. She is so kind, she just nods with interest while listening to me explain that I don't know where my friend lives, but I think she lives across town, but I'm not sure, and then she smiles like I've said something wonderful and asks again if my friend was able to call her family last night. Good job.

Today we did service learning projects in the morning, visited Intel Costa Rica in the afternoon, and in a few minutes I will go to a dance class to learn the cumbia! Tomorrow we start out early for a hike on the Volcano Poás. Time to go put on my dancing shoes. 

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Away We Go

I am sitting in Atenas, Costa Rica, in an internet cafe on the second floor of a beautiful corner building surrounded by a balcony that wraps all the way around the outside. I can't exactly describe anything as being inside or outside, though; the buildings sort of exist halfway between. Like my house. The front door is always open, the windows are always open, and it doesn't matter if we're sitting inside or out because the temperature is always perfect. I am realizing how much climate has to do with the arrangement of life. Here, the showers don't have hot and cold options, just one setting which is roughly lukewarm and always goldilocks approved - just right. Most buildings have three solid walls and a roof for the rainy season.

I just realized I haven't conveyed my extreme excitement at being here. OH MY GOD I'M IN COSTA RICA!! Okay. Phew.

This town is indescribable. Last night I sat on the porch talking with my family while the sun set, looking out to see the lights slowly coming on in the surrounding mountains and valleys. Being in Atenas feels a little bit like living on Mt. Olympus: up in the clouds, high on the mountain, surrounded by lovely people. In my mind they're wearing togas and meddling in the lives of mere humans. The comparison isn't totally crazy, I promise, because Atenas means Athens.

My amazing family consists of a young husband and wife, their adorable four-year old daughter, and a perfect abuelita. Three generations under one roof. My house opens onto a courtyard shared by another three houses, all owned by members of the same family. In total, there are five generations living together in my 'compound.' I don't know what other word to use, but 'compound' sounds vaguely threatening. It's not. It's the best. This arrangement is so different than what I'm used to in the U.S. I see my family one or two times a year, and I'm just beginning to realize how much I appreciate having them in my life. Here, I think people grow up with that appreciation because everyone, from parents to cousins to great-grandmothers, plays an important role in the family. My Tica abuelita cooks, cleans, and looks after Jimenia, my four-year old sister, while the parents go to work and university. She only has to yell across the courtyard through the open front door to talk to her sister.

Last night we sat in the living room and looked at family photos. They told me that my Spanish was excellent, and bragged to the other members of the family about me. I think they're just being nice. I had to ask what 'facundo' meant, which is slightly hilarious, considering it means 'fluent.'

Finally, the food. The food is so fantastic, and I want to eat all the time. For breakfast we had papaya, pineapple, watermelon, eggs, bread, pinto gallo, and coffee. For lunch a few of us ate at a soda called Tio Mano. I had a papaya licuado, which is like a cross between a milkshake and a smoothie, and amazing ceviche. A soda is a little restaurant that serves food that is fresh, fast, and mind-blowingly inexpensive. My entire meal cost 4400 colones, or about five dollars. Can I please stay here forever, please? Tonight, I will eat dinner with my family and perhaps go out afterwards. Tomorrow, I promise to discuss my scholarly pursuits, but for now, my overwhelming excitement at being in Atenas will have to do.