Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Costa Rica Vignette: The Discovery of Coffee

Costa Rica is known for it's coffee. But coffee wasn't originally grown in Costa Rica. In fact, for many years, Costa Ricans didn't know what to do with the plant. It just sat around and looked pretty on the countryside until some European showed that it'd be a good way to make some money.

So, who first discovered that coffee could be a delectable drink that can give you a burst of energy to jump start your day and keep you moving when you're sluggish? Here a retelling of the tale I learned:

Once there was a young African goat farmer. Each day he would guide his goats across the mountain ranges, allowing the to graze on whatever plants were available. Life was simple, and each day passed with little activity.  
One day, however, he noticed one of his goats was a little more active then the rest. She bucked and kicked her back heels up a lot. She nipped at the other goats. And she always seemed ready to play, instead of lazily grazing like the rest of the herd.  
The goat herder was confused and slightly alarmed by this anomaly. At first he feared that the devil must have possessed one of his goats, and was ready to throw her off a cliff and rid himself of the terror. But he soon realized she wasn't the only one. A few other of the goats had begun to pick up on the crazy behavior.  
Being a goat farmer was all he knew how to do, if he threw them all off a cliff, what would he do? How would he continue to survive? So he decided to watch these group of goats a little bit more carefully, while he prayed silently.  
After a few days, the young goat herder noticed something different about these goats. The tended to graze a little further away from the rest of the herd, and the plants they were eating had little brown bean-shaped fruit spouting on them. The goats, it seemed, not only at the green leaves, but also ingested the curious fruit that grew on the plant.  
Intrigued, the goat herder decided to try one. It was a bit bitter, but he enjoyed the overall crunch and texture. Gathering some more, he decided to roast them over his morning fire. Soon a rich, heavenly smell began to rise from the fire. Pleased by the smell, the goat herder decided to suck on few of the roasted beans, dropping the rest into his cup in attempts to flavor his morning tea.  
Having enjoyed both culinary experiences, the goat herder added a new task to his day. As the day passed, the goat herder followed his goats' lead, gathering the beans from the plants along their grazing path. He was excited to share his new findings with those in his village at the end of the day. As he gathered, though, he began to notice that he too was feeling a bit strange. More energetic, more lively. He wanted to jump, skip, and sing from the mountaintops. He was drowsy like he usually was after lunch.  
He felt he could herd his goats for the next week without resting. There was only one explanation for this sensation: it was the beans. They gave the goats an abundant amount of energy and were making him feel just as manic.  
He knew he'd discovered something monumental that would change the day of every working man (or woman) forever. He began collecting the beans and planting them behind his house. He harvested them and sold them to his neighbors. Soon the village began trading them with other villages. The kingdom began trading with other kingdoms. Until thousands of years later, almost everyone has had coffee and many rely on it's rich smell and flavor to help them kick start their day and provide that extra boost of energy.

 And that was how coffee was discovered.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Never Say Never

Our flight landed two hours ago. I'm finally have handed off nine 11- to 14-year-olds off to their parents, paid $45 for parking, and I'm in my bed at home. And I'm happy.

We had a blast in Costa Rica--I'm so glad that I decided to do this trip and offer this experience to my students. But, let's face it: being responsible for kids who aren't yours in a foreign country is a lot of stress.

How can you not be stressed at learning the day before departure that one of the students signed up for the trip will not be joining you because she never got her passport? How do you not get stressed after discovering one of your students locked in the bathroom and in tears because she occasionally can't hold her bladder, is sure the other girls have been making fun of her, and her skinny jeans are glued to her legs because we had just spent two hours riding horses in the rain? (We had to use a pocket knife to cut her out of those, fyi). How do you not stress out about an absolute walking disaster who had a new scrape or cut each day, consistently dropped things or left them behind? And how do you not stress when this same walking disaster comes to you after spending three hours at the beach and three hours in the pool with a rat's nest in her hair that took two days and about four pairs of hands to brush and comb out? (Let's just say the little dear is also missing a good chunk of her hair, too.) How could you not stress out when you'd been grouped with a bunch 17- and 18-year-old who smoked, drank, and penises in the sand?

And of course there's just the general stress of making sure they fill out immigration and custom forms correctly, didn't lose their passports, didn't blow all their money on the first day, and on and on. Basically, I was Mommy for nine days. Considering I don't have any kids of my own and have only really babysat or nannied kids under the age of 7... I think you get my point.

The biggest bit of stress came rolling in on Day 3. One of mys students broke an antique statue in front of the fireplace at the hotel we were staying at. We had just come in from horseback riding, had showered and warmed up with hot cocoa after being soaked to the bone. I had just finished cutting one of my little dears from her jeans, and had suggested that another one dry her shoes by the fireplace. She took my suggestion, but decided instead of leaving her shoes at the hearth, or at least sitting in a chair while she held them up to the flame, that she'd perch on antique man. I was talking to the manager and happened to glance at her and thought I saw her sitting on it, but wasn't sure. The plan was to walk over and check once I finished my conversation. Instead, I hear a deafening crash. And when I glance back, the antique statue is in shambles under my student.

I was horrified. She was blase. She kind of just walked around to the other end, with absolutely no fear, concern or remorse crossing her face or evident in her attitude. When I asked her what happened she said she was trying to walk around it and it just fell (other chaperons/adults confirmed they saw her sitting on it, but she swears she wasn't). After cleaning up the scrap she got from the ceramic, I sent her on her way and faced the manager.

Now, we're in the middle of nowhere Costa Rica. As lovely as Monteverde is, it's definitely small town. The hotel didn't have Wi-Fi. They had one computer with Internet access at the front desk. You couldn't dial out on their desk phone. They didn't have a credit card machine. In fact, they had never had a situation like this before. After a lot of back and forth between the manager and the owner, they decided that the price of the statue would be $220 (apparently it was really worth thousands of dollars, but that was all they'd charge her). So... we call mom. Who first ignores our calls. Until we text her and say it's an emergency. And then she calls and is all panicked. When I explain the situation she wants to talk to her daughter. And then the manager. And then she tells him that she would like to talk to her lawyer first because how can they hold a 12-year-old accountable for damaged property (if you're thinking WTH?!?, so did I). When I call her back about an hour later, she acts like she never said that and said she was just waiting for her husband to get home. Daddy gets home, they call back and want to give a credit card number... but we're in the middle of nowhere, no credit card machine, remember? And the banks in the town don't open on Saturdays or Sundays (this was a Friday). So then the manager wanted me to pay for it and have the parents transfer money into my account. Suggesting this to the parents started one of the biggest minefields I've experienced in my teaching career so far.

Somehow, their daughter breaking something became my fault and dad tells me, I quote (with my thoughts in parenthesis): Don't you have money on you? (No. Not that much.) I can't believe you left the country with 10 kids and don't have thousands of dollars to pay for this? (Excuse me?) If I were you, I would have brought thousands of dollars and weapons... (Well, if you'd like to deposit thousands of dollars into my account, that would be great. And weapons?!?! Obviously you've never been on a plane before.)

Let's just say I was fuming, and as they continued to try and rip a new hole into my butt, I eventually got mad at sort of yelled back. I made it clear that if they didn't trust me, they shouldn't have sent her with me and if they'd like we could try to get her on a plane right now so they can be responsible for their angel, who could do no wrong.

In the end, they deposited money into my account and then acted like I was holding money hostage from their child and started to beg me through three e-mails and three phone calls to please make sure she has money. Which she did. And even had the audacity to come up to me and ask for more money on the last day so she could get a specific souvenir she wanted (which I'm not sure where she thought it was going to come from. I'm not your mother. Nor am I your personal ATM. If you finished the money your parents gave you, your bad).

I had a moment after this event (and all the other stressful ones) that made me think: Never again. Never again.

But honestly, I'm already excited for next year. Because even though it's easy to focus on the negative, there were tons of bright spots.

All the hugs I got every day from most of the little dears. Meeting other students and teachers and bonding. Learning about a new culture and seeing new places. The new adventures. Fitting into one of my student's skinny jeans when I needed a black pair to wear. Laughing at how five of us where too light to tandem zip line and had to be taken in groups of three with a guide. Hearing the kids say, "I don't want to go home. Can we stay one more day?" And seeing the welcoming party of parents, who stopped to hug and thank me for giving their daughters this opportunity. And one even writing me a very sweet thank you card with money tucked in. I think I wanted to cry more in those final moments than I did throughout any of the stressful ones the nine days before.

Yes, it was a lot of stress. But, the bright spots made it worth it.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Costa Rica Vignette: So Close, Yet So Far, From Home

In many ways, Costa Rica reminds me of Nigeria. The abundance of buildings with the simple concrete facade and tin roofs. Crude wooden or metal signs to alert you of the presence of a shop or restaurant, advertising the availability of wi-fi, satellite TV or fresh fruit. Narrow roads that look like they could not possibly support for two-way traffic, yet somehow they do! Along with bicyclists, pedestrians, and the occasional cow or two. Men ferrying women and babies on motorcycles, school children looking crisp and sharp in their uniforms.

Differences? Oh, they exist. For one, this is no savannah. In Nigeria, I would not be on a long mountain road full of precarious twists and turns. Each bend in the road would not open up to a breathtaking view of thousands of trees and an abundance of vegetation. There would not be waterfalls, or clouds of steam billowing out of volcano craters. I would not be looking down on homes and businesses below, or experience the fog that settles on the road as we cross the continental divide. The road feels smaller, more dangerous, as I observe the smooth slopes formed from an earthquake landslide. I shudder to think of what it would be like to be caught up here as the earth shook and trembled. But it becomes increasingly beautiful, and I can't help but sigh with delight, to also witness the new growth of plants that spring forth to replace what was destroyed and lost.

Yes, it is different from Nigeria. But as we pass mango trees, guava trees, pineapples, papayas, bananas, and palm trees bearing coconuts and palm nuts, I am reminded of my childhood. And even though I'm an ocean away, I feel like I'm home.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Summer is Here!

Rays of sun streamimg through the window. The hum of air conditioner as cool air blast from its vents. Summer hits to rock out too, endless reads to curl up with. Fireworks, hot dogs, burgers and fries. Plays in the parks. Freedom.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Fun in the Land of Photography

I enjoy taking pictures. I'm not 100% sure when photography became a hobby of mine, I just know that once I had a camera in my hand I would take 100s of shots within minutes and have always been fascinated by beautiful shots.

I especially like shots of people. I can spend hours looking through pictures of weddings, babies, family portraits, and stuff like that. Scenic stuff is cool, too. But seeing images of people living life gets me the most excited.

I think what appeals to me the most about photography is that each picture tells a unique story. And as an aspiring storyteller (or as my friends and family would say, a born storyteller), I've always been intrigued by the art of storytelling. I'm never one to turn down hearing (or seeing) a good story. And I'm constantly asking myself: What makes a good story? How do you tell a good story?

Like writing, I probably do not spend as much time taking pictures as I should. I go through bouts where my camera is glued to my side and then times when I've practically forgot I own one. But to my family and friends, I am a photographer. It's become expected of me to have my camera for any event that takes place--big or small.

And occassionally, friends reach out to me to take personal shots of them. So far, I don't charge. It's like my editing work for friends pre-, during, and post-college. I'll read your essays and papers for free because I enjoy the art and craft behind editing. So I take pictures for free, too. Plus, I still have a lot to learn on the photography front, so I feel a bit hesitant charging for a craft I'm still grappling with.

Anyway... recently I took some pictures of a friend for her birthday. This was the "unoffical" shoot. We decided to explore some artsy stuff in Houston, and by default I began snapping pics. We still have to schedule the real one, although I think these are pretty good and I think she looks wonderful.  But... I had so much fun taking these shots and I'm itching to take some more!

She posted her favs on her blog, but here are mine:

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