26 March 2011

Costa Rica! The Food!

I didn't take nearly as many photos as I would have liked. I grabbed the wrong memory card when I left the house the morning of my trip. Still bumming about that. Anyway, if I had taken more pictures, you would have gotten a complete photo essay of all the amazing food we had. Words will have to do because the food was down right memorable.

Right off the bat from a freshness, flavor and availability standpoint, the avocado, bananas, pineapple and mango were to die for. If bringing produce back to the States were an option, I would have carried back an entire suitcase!

Our on-site work day snack was always fresh fruit. About 10:00 a.m. or so the giant plastic container full of fresh fruit chunks would surface. Each day it was a little different - staples though were pineapple and watermelon. So good! Grab a fork and dig in!

Crew buddies C and C taking a pineapple break.

The camera would have come in handy to document our work day lunches. We had the unbelievable fortune of having a local woman named Emma cook lunch for us every day. She put out quite the home made spread every day. Beans and rice in a few different forms/flavors. Veggies. Spaghetti with option of veggie sauce (not just tomato sauce, it had chunky veggies in it) or meat sauce with veggies. There was a shepherds pie of sorts one day made with yuca (aka cassava). I think this was my favorite - the meateaters got a version with meat obviously, but the vegetarian version was basically fluffly mashed yuca (similar to mashed potatoes) and cheese. With cheese being sort of scarce until that point in the trip, this was heaven on a plate!

One day Emma taught us how to make bean and cheese empanadas. That was fun and delicious! Every single day she also had a fresh green salad with a chimichurri sauce and a fresh fruit juice. Saved the best for last, she made the most amazing corn bread and a yuca bread that were both beyond moist and so delicious. I couldn't stop eating it. We got the recipe and I can't wait to try it! Viva, Emma!

On the way back to El Sueno Dorado after a day of work, we usually stopped at one of the little bodegas nearby for cerveza (Coke Lite in my case) and snacks. My after work snack of choice with my bottle of Coke Lite: plantain chips. So tasty! One day the store we were in didn't have them, so I tried some lime and salt peanuts. Someone on the crew had gotten them and shared the day before and they seemed a worthy snack choice. Turns out a little goes a LONG way. The package I bought was SO salty, I had a few handfuls and never finished them.

El Sueno Dorado had its own restaurant called Benedictus Steak House. The chef was an entertaining character, to say the least. Putting in our orders became a crew joke of sorts for the week after the first night. "Should we put in our orders now?" Apparently the paper with all of our orders got wet in the kitchen the first night and there were some order mix ups. Some meals took longer than others, but I didn't mind at all. It was all part of the experience and gave us ample time to chat about our day on the work site and get to know each other better.

Dinner out at ANOTHER steak house one night! They're literally everywhere in LaFortuna.

Before hitting the work site, we'd gather at Benedictus at 7:00 a.m. for breakfast. Most mornings it was a buffet with many choices. The best Gallo Pinto ever with fresh cilantro and flavorful spices. I don't think I'd ever get tired of that. Scrambled eggs. Fried eggs made to order. Fresh fruit. Yogurt and granola, and a few kinds of mini boxed cereal. Toast. Pancakes came later in the week. Hello pancake, my old friend! That was a nice surprise. Juice and coffee were staples at every breakfast.

A familiar face in the grocery store.

For dinner, there were lots of meat choices for the carnivores. Go figure. For a steak house, though they did a good job keeping this vegetarian happy all week. I had some of the best spaghetti I've ever had. They made a great mixed salad every night and some sort of a dessert, the ice cream was so creamy and good. Makes me want ice cream right now just thinking about it.

On our final night in La Fortuna, Benedictu made us his famous flaming crepes suzette. They were famous only because we'd seen him parade by our table several times with a flaming pan prior to our last night, so we were naturally curious. With all the fanfare, I wanted to love them, but the taste of the liquor was a bit overpowering and made me not love it.

For someone who packed Cliff Builder Bars in her backpack, thinking it might be a difficult trip in terms of getting enough protein or access to vegetarian food, I was overjoyed that the food was certainly veg-friendly, but also plentiful. I ate WAY more than I normally do at home because someone else was always cooking these amazing morsels to try. A week of eating that way caught up with me though and I began to feel a little yucky on our last day. My final meal in San Jose was a bottle of ginger ale and a pack of soda crackers with a side of pepto bismal!

Oh, I almost forgot about this...on my first night in San Jose I had dinner with a few members of the crew who were also in country a day early. One thing we noticed right away were the fun Spanish to English menu items that were lost in translation. The clear favorite which we continued to see on several other menus was the "Gordon Blue" chicken.

Gordon Blue, I'll never forget you and you'll always make me chuckle.

So much goodness! A week later (and I'm pretty sure until I return to Costa Rica for another visit) I'm still thinking about the bananas, pineapple and avocado.

24 March 2011

Costa Rica! More Details!

So, there was much more to my trip than just the build for Habitat for Humanity. "Obvio." So what else? Sights, sounds, smells and such....

When I first arrived in San Jose, I grabbed my journal and camera and explored the grounds of Hotel Aeropuerto where we were staying before heading to LaFortuna. I found a nice patio table and settled in to write in my journal...here's a tidbit I wrote, "Haha, I've been hearing this voice - sounded like a lady on the phone. Because I could only hear her voice (saying the same few things over and over), it was getting a bit annoying. I just turned and realized the "voice" belongs to a parrot!"

Parrot at Hotel Aeropuerto in San Jose.

I saw a few lizards (probably geckos) crawling around on the walls outside our living quarters at the El Sueno Dorado. There was also one collared lizard that stood still long enough for all of us to see him just before lunch one day, to then run away on his hind legs with his short lizard arms waving in front of him as he ran.

There were interesting insects! One morning before breakfast there was a loud scream from one of my neighbors. Turns out a large spider had invaded their bathroom. They sought the help of a fellow crew member to properly dispose of it. The next morning, I had the exact same kind of spider in my bathroom. That one met an early death too.

Giant scary spider. It was bigger than a quarter, maybe silver dollar-sized.

I did not see any monkeys. That made me sad.

We did see some humming birds at this place we stopped at for a bathroom/stretching break somewhere on the road between San Jose and LaFortuna. So pretty and graceful. I could have watched them for hours!

I don't think this is actually a humming bird because it seemed too big, but I saw it along with the humming birds.

You know how when we were younger where you lived might have allowed people to burn leaves and the smell would waft all around? They burn things in Costa Rica and I loved the different smells wafting through the air from time to time. It never smelled bad or toxic. Just reminded me of a simpler time.

One day on our way home from the work site we saw a lady riding a horse down the road talking on a cell phone. It was a funny sight!

Most of the roofs in Costa Rica are metal. Did I mention that it rains on the regular in Costa Rica - at least where we were staying. The rain on a metal roof sounds really intense and pretty awesome. It makes the rain sound like the biggest rainstorm ever, even if it's not.
Do you see that green metal roof? I want a metal roof. Not sure how that would fly in Michigan though!

The food. Um, oh my gosh it was amazing and it warranted a post of its own.

Volcano! El Sueno Dorado was literally at the foot of the Arenal Volcano. Our first day in LaFortuna we couldn't take our eyes off it. I can remember being in the pool and just staring at it and saying, "it's strange how the mere possibility of an eruption makes you want to keep watching it, I doubt we'd be sitting here staring at a regular mountain." We continued to keep our eyes on it all week - even looking for it when it was covered in clouds. Most mornings with all the cloud cover, you wouldn't be able to see it at all.

Volcano view from the pool.

View from town on our first day in LaFortuna.

Cloudy Arenal.

More clouds, but with a Lake Arenal vantage point.

I loved how green everything was and couldn't get over all the flowers and how a lot of the normal plants growing out of the ground were plants we keep in pots in our houses.

And I will leave you with this: Pura Vida. While I'm not sure if it's official, it's a phrase that is an integral part of Costa Rica's culture. If you translate the words they literally mean pure and life, but it is a phrase that we said in many circumstances - when we were relaxing after a hard day at the work site, "Pura Vida!" When we had a good meal, "Pura Vida!" When things were going well, "Pura Vida!" The meaning I like best is "This is living!" And so it was. I lived it for ten days and have so many fantastic memories of the amazing people I volunteered with, the people I met who were so warm and friendly, the beautiful sights, the scents and tastes. I cannot wait to go back!

21 March 2011

Costa Rica! The Build!

I may or may not have mentioned that a trip to Costa Rica was in the cards for me. I just returned from nine days in Costa Rica. I was part of a volunteer team of 13 with the Habitat for Humanity International Global Village program. It was one of the best trips of my life! Our build site was located in San Isidro, about a thirty minute bus ride from La Fortuna de San Carlos and Arenal Volcano.

Our volunteer crew was full of wonderful people - the oldest was 86 years old, the youngest was 22! We were from all over the country. There were two couples - one from San Francisco and one from Montana. Both had been on Habitat GV builds before. Our oldest crew member was also from San Francisco and there were a few more California natives - one from San Jose and one from Orange County. One more volunteer from Montana, Missoula, to be exact. Boston, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Toronto were also represented! And of course, there was me - from Michigan! I actually used the hand as map to show people where Grand Rapids is. Hehe!

A few of us - all smiles after our first day.

The Crew - still smiling - on our last day.

When I signed up for this trip, I had envisioned working on one house from start to finish. It wasn't quite like that. The build site was actually two separate sites located just a stones throw apart. Each site had three houses, each in various stages of completion when we arrived. The single story houses are about 900 square-feet each and are made of pre-fabricated concrete slab walls and columns. A lot of work goes into just one house!

The first day onsite, I pretty much dug and moved dirt all day. The three houses that were more finished needed their own separate septic tank hole and drainage trench. The hole for the septic tank needed to be about 6 feet long, by about 3 feet wide and about 6 feet deep. Picture a grave and you're about right on. The trench only needed to be about two feet wide and about three feet deep. After a full day of digging, we were dreaming of a backhoe! Dreams do come true! Some of the guys flagged down a backhoe that was driving down the road and arranged for the driver to come back to finish the tank holes and trenches. Our crew all pitched in the cash to make it happen. That little bit of luck saved us days of back-breaking work!

The back yards prior to a day of us digging and the arrival of the backhoe.

Taking a quick break from digging on Day One.

The backhoe!!

Day two found me bending rebar and making concrete forms. The footings of each house are pre-fab concrete columns that are set into concrete bases and reinforced with rebar. The forms are three boards that nailed are together and positioned around the concrete column (already anchored into the ground with concrete) with bent rebar wire tied to the vertical rebar for support. Once in position, the forth board is nailed into place and is all set for more concrete. This might sound easy, but it was sometimes a bit challenging with warped and splitting boards being the only boards available to build forms.

Concrete Forms!

Oh and if you've made concrete before or had concrete work done at your house, you probably had the use of a mixer or had a delivery by a cement truck. We mixed concrete on the ground using shovels and a mixture of delivered rocks, concrete mix and water. Talk about a work out...I tried it for one mix, but couldn't keep up with the boys! More upper body strength needed to tackle that job!

Other jobs I did over the week: moving dirt the old fashioned way - shovel and wheel barrow for hours on end to fill in the floor of one of the houses. All the concrete footings had been done and we needed to fill in and level the floor with dirt as preparation for a delivery of rock and eventually a poured concrete floor. We finished one house in a week. That's a lot of hauling dirt!

Look really closely at how low the dirt level is in the first house in the background.

This is the same house on our last day...we moved a LOT of dirt!

A closer look at the level dirt floor. All set for a load of rocks and concrete.

The pre-fab concrete walls had to be prepped with a bonding adhesive. This was like painting with a really watery paint that smelled slightly of Elmer's glue. This job was one of the more zen jobs, and in certain areas you were in the shade, which was a blessing. Once painted with the bonding adhesive, the seams were mudded with a mortar mixture and taped so you could no longer see where the slabs came together. Then the entire surface inside and out was mudded. The finish was similar to a stucco house you'd see here in the States. We actually finished the bonding/mudding of one house and were on to another by the time we had to leave. That was a good feeling.

All week we were working along with some of the families who would be living in these homes. The change we were helping make in their lives will be enormous. Of the families we worked with, there was a husband and wife with two children, a nearly blind father with two children, and three single mothers each with two or three children of their own. Something you wouldn't see in the States, children on the work site! The kids were very much part of our days on site. We heard them laugh and cry daily! They helped where they could. While there was a bit of a language barrier, the universal language of a smile and a laugh was something we all shared.

The site had a kid-sized shovel and wheelbarrow that the kids actually used to help move the dirt.

I was surprised this little guy sat still for this pic, he was all over the work site every day!

Cuties sitting on what will be the front porch.

Kicking back in a wheel barrow, eating/drinking fresh coconut!

Can you even believe this smile?!

One day we brought one of the moms and her children back to the home where they currently live, so we saw first-hand how the home we were all working on would change their lives. It was no bigger than the kind of shed that many homes in the States have in their giant backyards, except it was totally dilapitated and maybe even smaller. One of her children had been removed from the home because of the living conditions (I'm not sure of the details) and she told us at our closing ceremony that she was grateful for our help because moving into her new home would mean her other child could come back to live with her. Our usually lively ride home from the work site the day we saw where she was living was super quiet, as we all contemplated the work we were there doing.

From this...

To this...almost finished!

It was an honor to work with such great volunteers and the families who will eventually live in the homes! I am so thankful for the opportunity to go on this trip. It might not be what most would consider a vacation, but it was exactly what I was looking for in some time away from my regular life in Michigan. I saw a part of the world I've never seen, experienced a different culture, met some amazing people and helped make a difference in the lives of a handful of Costa Rican families.

If this sounds at all like something you'd love to do...stop thinking about it and find a trip in a part of the world you've always wanted to see. You can go directly to the Global Village site to read more about the program and see the trips that are still scheduled for this year. You won't regret it! I'm already thinking about where I want to go for my next Global Village trip.

Check back in the days to come as I'm going write up at least another post or two about the whole experience. Let me know if you have any questions and I'll try to answer them in the future posts.

07 March 2011


I heard an interview with Seane Corn over the weekend on Being and felt inspired about yoga as a power to heal and about life in general. I was reminded of so many of the lessons I've encountered (and am continually practicing!) in my own journey. Here's one powerful clip that I found while looking for more information on Seane after hearing her interview.

Everyone who crosses our path has something to teach us, it's up to us to recognize it.

02 March 2011

A reason to say yes to adventures...

"I had never really hung out in Miami and one night in the middle of the shoot, the crew, a couple guys, said, 'We're going to get a beer somewhere.' I said, 'I'm not really into it.' They said, 'Come on,' and kind of dragged me along. We ended up at a bar where my wife was the bartender. I literally saw her across a crowded room... and eight years and four kids later, that's my life. I don't know how else our paths would have crossed if that didn't happen... The moral is that when you're tired, suck it up and go to the bar because you might meet your wife." -Matt Damon, via Jezebel