A Trip to the Tropics with Shirlene Groseclose's Spanish students and Anne Smith's science students. Pura Vida, or pure life, is the lifestyle of Costa Ricans, who believe it is important to live life to the fullest and to live each day as if it is your last.
"Pura Vida" in Costa Rica Days 7, 8 and 9
Tuesday, April 10
Beach day. The day all the students were looking forward to the most. We spent the bulk of the day at Manuel Antonio National Park. The upside: a less crowded beach to enjoy the waves of the Pacific Ocean. The downside: because it is a national park, we weren't allowed to take home seashells and other items we found on the beach.
Like I said earlier when we were in the lake, I'm not a huge fan of swimming where I don't know where the bottom is, but I did walk into the ocean just to say I was in the Pacific Ocean.
JD again threatened to drag me in, but he didn't try too hard. Luckily, he was too busy having fun in the ocean.
I spent a lot of my time relaxing on the sand and watching the capuchin and squirrel monkeys try to steal food. Karina warned us to keep our food in our backpacks because the monkeys are fearless when it comes to grabbing a lunch bag.
As we to our lunch break, a large group of squirrel monkeys surrounded us from the tree above and tried to grab our sandwiches and bananas. A few were successful, but most of them went back to the trees empty handed.
The capuchins were able to a few unattended bag and I managed to watch as one drank out of a juice box. He tried to use the straw, but quickly threw it away and drank directly from the box.
They were close enough that I was able to get some amazing pictures of them.
That afternoon, after the students were throughly sunburnt and wiped from the waves, we went back to the hotel to rest.
Wednesday, April 11
Our last full day in Costa Rica. It came so quickly. I was surprised to see how fast our time went.
We loaded the bus and headed out for a little souvenir shopping. My favorite shop was where they make oxcarts. Oxcarts are a huge part of the history of Costa Rica. Along with being a mode of transportation, oxcarts were used to sell goods and produce.
Original oxcarts were very ornamental, with designs carved into them. Now, the artists at the shop paint designs on the carts. Vibrant colors swirled on the carts, wheels and yoke.
The oxcarts range in size from refrigerator magnets to carts that have wheels more than six feet tall. The carts were only part of the canvasses at this shop. Every wall was covered with murals. It was beautiful.
After shopping, we returned to San Jose, our first stop on the trip. There, we stayed at the Gran Hotel Costa Rica.
That night, we got dressed up for our last dinner in Costa Rica. We traveled to Tiquicia, where we ate at a restaurant that was on top of the world. The view was amazing. It looked like we were above Los Angeles when we looked at the lights of San Jose.
We enjoyed a traditional Costa Rican dinner, including rice and beans, plantains, chicken, beef, coconut and salad.
The evening culminated with a performance by traditional Costa Rican dancers. The ladies wore colorful skirts and their partners had matching shirts and scarves. We were sitting so close, that at times we felt the breeze from their skirts as they whipped around us.
After a few songs, they pulled people out of the crowd to join them. When the dancers left the floor, the music changed to modern and the students took over the dance floor. It soon went from traditional dancing to club dancing. From the right angle, it looked that they were floating above the city and dancing on air.
It was the perfect way to end a perfect trip.
Thursday, April 12
I kid you not, we had to get up at 2:30 a.m. to leave for the airport. We didn't have a hard time there. We even had a little time to relax before getting on the plane. I was so happy to see a large plane instead of a puddle jumper.
I did a lot better this time. I was even able to look out the window to see the land below.
Once we landed in Houston, Texas, we had around an hour to get to our next gate for our second flight. Everyone was trying to be optimistic, but when we reached customs, I knew we were going to make it.
Much like Walmart, out of the 40 check-in stations, only 11 were open. We were begging airport employees to help us. One man said he couldn't do anything and another one, Bud, gave us some advice, but he said he couldn't get us through any faster.
After finally making it through customs, we ran or power walked to get our luggage, put the luggage on another carousel and then ran some more to get to our gate. We needed gate C29 so we thought we would be okay.
When we turned the corner, the gates started at E. We had to pass all the Es, then got to a fork where D when one way and C went another. We thought, good, C29 won't be too much farther.
The C gates started at C44. At one point, we ran into Shirlene, who went ahead of us, and she told us they were holding the plane for us. More running/power walking and finally, there it was. C29. Huffing and puffing, I boarded the plane. The flight attendant offered us water and apologized for the fact that we had to run so far.
I was afraid everyone on the plane would be mad, but one guy smiled at me and said, "you made it!" I replied, "barely." Whew, maybe we wouldn't get dirty looks.
This flight was even better. I was beside the window and watched the land below and tried to figure out what state we were over.
Before long we were back to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and were one step closer to home. Within 15 minutes of retrieving our baggage, WG was there to pick us up in his big yellow school bus.
We stopped in Cannonsburg for dinner, where the students scarfed down burgers, fries and frostys. It was official. They were back in America. The ride went fast, with a stop in Elkins for gas and restrooms, we found ourselves at Green Bank Elementary-Middle School at 11:30 p.m. Then journey was finally over.
We said our goodbyes and headed out. It was an experience I will never forget and I want to thank all the students and parents for letting me be a part of the journey.
"Pura Vida" in Costa Rica Days 5 and 6
Sunday, April 8
Easter. Jenny Friel had a special treat for all of us. She made Easter goodie bags for everyone.
Before the day even began, we had bus troubles, again. This time, Jovanni was unable to fix the problem, so he had to bid him adios and find an alternate mode of transportation. He piled into several cabs and the hotel owners truck to get on our way.
Of course, the cab I chose to get in was unable to get up a muddy incline, so we had to wait for the hotel owner to return and pick us up in his truck. He plowed through the road and got where we were going.
We visited the Escuela la Cruz, the School of the Cross, where seven of the students performed traditional Costa Rican dances for us. Everyone fell in love with the youngest boy, whose name escapes me. He was a first grade student and very shy.
The school is a very rural and small school, with only 20 students enrolled at the time. With grades first through sixth, the students have one teacher and one classroom.
After the dancing, the students joined us on the soccer field and played a little game.
Because we were without a bus, we had to walk to our next stop ﾖ the canopy tours. Again, me being the chicken I am, this time due to heights, I sat out the zip-lining. While the kids and brave adults zip-lined, me and the other ﾓchickensﾔ went to the observation decked and watched as the zip-liners zoomed by and a couple of other people bungee jumped.
While we ate lunch, we were drawn to a red Macaw, who must have been a pet because he sat on a fence post beside some benches. I sat and talked to him and tried to get him to walk onto my arm, but he wouldnﾒt budge. I did manage to get him to eat some sunflower seeds out of my hand.
We were joined by our new bus driver, Mario, who took us to the Cloud Forest. As we traveled through the lush forest, we saw a Coati, the cousin of the raccoon, several tropical birds, centipedes and a venomous viper.
At the highest point, we were at 5,606 feet, almost 1,000 feet higher than Snowshoe Mountain Resort.
That night, Jenny gave some of the girls facials and they had a nail-painting party.
Some of the group went on a night walk where they saw armadillos, tarantulas and an insect that glows in the dark. Anne Smith said that the guide told them if you had enough of those bugs in a room, you could read by the light they emit.
Monday, April 9
Another travel day. We boarded the bus and headed to the EF tree planting field so that each of us could plant a tree. Karina told us to name our trees and send them good vibes to make them grow up healthy.
I named my tree Lucia, after my rabbit Lucy who passed away in January. I thought it would be nice to honor her and keep her memory alive.
Next, we traveled a few hours to the crocodile boat tours. On our way there, we caught our first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean.
We managed to get the best tour guide, Jose, who is the crocodile whisperer. He jumped out of the boat and beat raw chicken on the water to entice the crocodile named Saddam Hussein, a 55-year-old, 15 foot behemoth.
Saddam lunged out of the water toward Jose, who didnﾒt budge.
Among the crocodiles, we saw 20 types of birds, including the illusive Roseate Spoonbill, which looks like something from the Jurassic Age.
Once Jose brought us safely back to the dock, we moved on to Joca, and checked into our fourth hotel.
That afternoon, the kids enjoyed a dip in the pool, while I was just ecstatic to have wifi.
"Pura Vida" in Costa Rica Days 3 and 4
Friday, April 6
After a hearty breakfast that featured beans and rice, we headed into town. Most meals in Costa Rica include beans and rice. It was difficult for me to get used to eating breakfast at all, let alone a large one with foods I usually eat at dinner time, but it has been an easy compromise to make.
Our first stop of the day was Down to Earth Coffee Bar and Shop, owned by a man named Matias, the coffee guy. He showed us samples of coffee beans from his farm and offered samples of his dark roast. When Matias finished his lesson, he dubbed us all coffee snobs because we now know how to pick the best coffee.
Next was kayaking. This was going to be interesting. Being a person who has a lack of grace and has the ability to trip herself with her own feet, I knew I was going to spend more time in the water than in the kayak, but I underestimated myself.
Luckily, I was paired with Shirlene, so at least one of us knew what we were doing. Once the guide gave us our instructions, we were in the kayak and paddling our way out into the depths of Lake Arenal.
The manmade lake is the largest lake in Costa Rica and sits in front of the Arenal Volcano, another active volcano. Not to be clich�, but the scenery was breathtaking. Glistening water, a bright blue sky and a smoking volcano. I couldn�t ask for more.
After awhile in the kayaks, our guide took us to a place where we could dock and swim for awhile. I was fine with standing on the beach because Iﾒm not much for swimming where I donﾒt know how deep the water is, but the kids had a different plan.
JD and Emily threatened to pull me into the water, so I took a deep breath and lunged in. The water was so cold, it shocked me for a minute, but once I realized that my life jacket wasnﾒt going to let me sink, I relaxed and enjoyed the water. It was amazing.
On our way back to the dock, Shirlene and I raced the students and managed to not be the last boat to dock. I was really proud of myself. My arms felt a little like jelly afterward, but I was able to paddle the entire time.
I just wish I was successful with getting out of the boat. Remember when I mentioned how graceless I am? Well, as I stood up to get onto the dock, the kayak started drifting, making the gap I had to straddle larger. I panicked and hopped to the dock and landed with a thud on my hip. I recovered with only a few scrapes.
Our next adventure took us to the La Fortuna waterfall. Jenny Friel, who took this trip two years ago with her son Chad, warned me that there were around 400 steps down to the waterfall and they were very uneven and some were in bad shape.
I asked her how similar it is to the Hills Creek Fallsﾒ steps and she said it was 10 time worse. That was enough for me to sit out that adventure. The one and only time I went to the Hills Creek Falls, I fell and sprained my ankle. That was fine and dandy when I was in Pocahontas County, but I really didnﾒt want to sprain or break anything in a foreign country.
Instead, I hung out at the ﾓchickenﾔ table with some of the moms on the trip. There was an observation deck where I got to see the falls at eye level instead of from underneath. It is beautiful. Maybe next time I make it down here, Iﾒll be able to take those steps.
When the kids got back, they were tired but said they enjoyed the trip down and the falls. They were able to swim in them and said the water was very cold, but enjoyable.
We headed back to the cabins and crashed. We were zapped from the day in the sun and the sunburns we got despite the copious amount of sunscreen we all put on.
Saturday, April 7
Travel day. We left on a journey to Monte Verde, which took us on another adventure. We took a windy, treacherous road again and met a bridge that almost beat the great Giovanni. Almost.
It began with a landslide. The first route we took was blocked by a landslide, so we had to turn around to find an alternate route. This route took us back to a one-lane bridge that was in the middle of a sharp turn.
We all had to get off the bus and a couple of men helped guide Giovanni across the bridge. It was a miracle. The man can do anything.
After we got to the hotel, half the group went out to horseback ride and the other half went into town to shop. Iﾒve never ridden a horse and decided my first time shouldnﾒt be this far away from home, so I stayed behind at the hotel to work on my blog, but alas, the Internet was not a friend of mine.
We werenﾒt able to use wifi like we were informed we would. The place in Monte Verde didnﾒt even have wifi. I was flashing back to home in Green Bank.
Since it was too late to join the shopping crowd, I decided to stay in my room and enjoy a good book. It was nice to have a few hours to myself to relax.
The evening was definitely relaxing until we found out that Anne Smith found a scorpion in her bathroom. That got everyone in a panic, except me for some reason. Instead, I wanted to see it. So, a group of us went with Anne back to her room. We crammed five people into the bathroom as we carefully pulled away the shower curtain looking for the scorpion.
When I finally got a glimpse of it, all I could say is, ﾓaw, itﾒs cute.ﾔ They got him coaxed into a glass and out into the garden. Fortunately, he didnﾒt return to any bathrooms that night.
"Pura Vida" in Costa Rica - Days 1 and 2
Wednesday, April 4
Okay, just a quick note on our travel day, because letﾒs face it, traveling days are not that exciting.
We left Green Bank Elementary-Middle School around 5:10 a.m. with our eyes set on Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Once in Pittsburgh, we checked out luggage. Fine. We went through security checks. Surprisingly fine. Then after a little waiting period we boarded the plane. Not fine.
This being my first plane trip, I knew I would be nervous and frankly flipping out, but I had no idea that I was about to ride in a sardine can with wings from Pittsburgh to Newark, New Jersey.
Despite my woes, I grinned and beared it because, come on, Iﾒm going to Costa Rica! The kids were excited and taking pictures of each other as we waited patiently for our sardine can to take off. I held on for dear life and tried to focus on a conversation with Anne Smith.
It didnﾒt work.
I donﾒt know why, but while other people were looking out the windows and saying things like, ﾓOh cool, look at the landﾔ and ﾓThis is awesome,ﾔ I was thinking things like ﾓWhy does it feel like weﾒre tilting to one side?ﾔ and ﾓWhy isnﾒt my motion sickness band helping?ﾔ
I kept my eyes shut and held on to the seat in front of me. I tried to remind myself of what Anne told me. Just think of it as weﾒre riding on the bus and the turbulence is just a few potholes. That would have been fine but those air potholes are a lot worse than any Iﾒve traveled on in Pocahontas County.
But through all that, I survived the flight. Yes, the landing felt like we were going to crash, but they all informed me later that this particular landing was one of the worst. Whew, glad we got that out of the way.
After landing, we had a three hour layover at Newark where we entertained ourselves as much as we could. We took the time to get to know each other and introduced ourselves. JD Hensler soon nicknamed me Van Gogh, due to my tattoo, and it caught on like wildfire.
Finally, we got to board the plane for Costa Rica. Again, my nerves kicked in and I wanted to panic, but I knew this was going to be a larger plane and nicer flight.
Which for the most part, it was. We were late taking off, which made us late getting here, but the ride and landing was much nicer. I even managed to catch a few Zs.
We managed to drag ourselves off the plane, at 9:50 p.m. Costa Rica time, which was 11:50 p.m. in Pocahontas County. We got our luggage, went through customs and boarded the bus for the hotel. Finally, a bed to sleep in.
After about 16 hours of traveling, we made it. Welcome to Costa Rica.
Thursday, April 5
Brand new day, waking up in another country, two hours behind home, we begin our journey. And what a journey it was.
Costa Rica is similar to Pocahontas County and West Virginia in many ways. It is about the same size as West Virginia and is a very rural country. Most of the country is forest, whether it is rain forest or dry forest.
Like Pocahontas County, the country is sustained by tourism and agriculture. We saw several coffee plantations, as well as banana, pineapple, papaya and yuka plantations. Farmers also raise cattle for milk and beef.
It was comforting to see a field with cows in it, until I noticed the giant banana tree they were grazing around. Oh well, it was close to home anyways.
As far as the tourism side of things, Costa Rica borders both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and has volcanoes, forests and a biodiversity facility to visit. INBioparque, the biodiversity facility was our first stop.
It is home to samples of the 217,000 plants and trees of Costa Rica and exotic animals, big and small. My Moby Dick of the day was the sloth. I was hoping to catch at least a glimpse of the illusive creature, but it was not in the cards for me.
We also missed out on seeing the poison dart frogs, another one of my favorites, because they were transferred to the INBio lab. The scientists are trying to find a way to use the frogsﾒ poison to prevent heart attacks.
We did get to see green tree frogs, iguanas, turtles, tarantulas, butterflies and a migratory bird that our tour guide said is nicknamed the snake bird. When the bird hunts for fish, it swims in the water and only its head is visible, making it look like a snake that is swimming.
One creature that made us feel right at home was the white tailed deer. Although they are smaller than the ones we find at home, they were a familiar face in a foreign country. The white-tailed deer is the national animal of Costa Rica and is therefore protected from hunters.
After the INBioparque, we stopped at a coffee plantation to see the mass amount of coffee plants in the country side. Our guide, Karina, said that it is very difficult to pick coffee beans and that the farmers are experts at knowing when the beans are ready to be harvested.
Not being a coffee fan, I didnﾒt test any of the coffee but it was interesting to see banana trees planting among the coffee plants. Karina said the banana trees drink up the excess rain water that would otherwise drown the coffee plants.
Once the coffee connoisseurs taste buds were satisfied, we moved on to our next destination, Poas Volcano.
The Poas is an active volcano which is part of a National Park. Poas is one of five volcanoes in Costa Rica. Although the trek to the volcano was a little of a workout, especially for those of us out of shape (me), it was amazing to see and worth every aching muscle in my legs.
Although there was a large crowd there, it was still a very peaceful experience. Standing above the mouth of a volcano and watching smoke rise from it was surprisingly relaxing.
At one time the volcano was a beast of a natural disaster, and was the cause of a 6.1 earthquake that killed an estimated 40 people. Now, itﾒs more likely to spit out smoke and ash than it is lava, but being an active volcano, anything can happen.
The ash and volcanic soil from the five volcanoes made Costa Rica home of the most diverse and unique forests and farmlands in the world. While in most places it could take a tree up to 20 years to reach adulthood, it takes around seven or eight years in Costa Rica.
After such a long day, we were ready to get to the hotel and relax for awhile, but it seemed the adventure had just begun.
If youﾒve ever watched the show ﾓIce Road Truckers,ﾔ you may be able to understand how bad the roads are in Costa Rica. They are very similar to the roads traversed by those daring truck drivers.
These roads were so narrow, there were places I didnﾒt think I could take my SUV on, let alone a large tour bus packed with 46 people. Our saving grace was our driver, the amazing Jovanni. He made it look easy to take that tour bus down a narrow switchback and over one-lane, low-water bridges.
While Jovanni was cool, calm and collected, most of us were terrified. On one side of the bus was a large mountain, on the other a cliff that looked like it went to the center of the Earth. We managed to collect a trail of cars behind us who werenﾒt too happy about being stuck behind a bus. That didnﾒt stop the motorcycles. They passed us on the left and right.
We finally got to the bottom of the mountain, just in time for the air conditioning to stop working. While Jovanni worked on the bus, we stopped at the Restaurante Las Iguanas for ice cream.
The restaurant is named for the reptile that lives in the trees around it, the iguana. We walked onto a bridge in front of the restaurant and found at least a dozen of iguanas sitting in the trees. They find the tallest branches to sun themselves on and to nap.
One iguana, I called him the grandfather of all iguanas, was relaxing on the rail on the porch of the restaurant. I went over to take is picture and pet him. He didnﾒt seem to care at all and several people were debating over whether he was actually alive. He was. He moved a little, but was perfectly content ignoring us tourist.
Soon after, Jovanni had the bus fixed and we made it to the hotel, which were actually cabins. It was nice to find a room with my own bed and air conditioning. All a girl could ask for after her first full day in Costa Rica.