Visa Run: Bocas Del Toro

Panama – Right where should I start…. The journey to Panama took about nine hours in total, so long. I woke up bright and early at 4:30am, grumpy and tired as I had only had about three hours sleep; I was up most of the night looking for my bank card, which I still can’t find. During the long journey, I met Carrianna, who later became my ‘bus buddy’, and a small tour group, stopping in Boca’s only for the night. Once we got to Changinola we had to walk across the border on an old wooden bridge. With neither of us speaking strong Spanish we latched onto a tour group who allowed us to share the hour and twenty minutes taxi shuttle ride to Alimante and then jump on the water taxi to Boca with them.
Bocas del Toro is this small cluster of Islands just off the Panamanian coast. I was staying on the main Island, Isla Colon, in a hostel called Gran-Kahuna. The Island is populated with about seven thousand people, quite a lot for such a small Island; it is very likely that at least a thousand of those are tourists. Main Street is filled with dive shops, jewellery stalls and shops selling overpriced hammocks and beach wear. This was truly gringo-party central.
Carrianna and I checked into the hostel, got changed and went for a glass of wine and something to eat, l had a literally amazing pesto pasta salad. Good times! That night we met a few other guys in our hostel, two surfer guys from California, (whom names I cannot remember for the life of me) Web and Borris. We brought some cheap local vodka-rum-probably-methanol-spirit stuff (for $1.65) and joined the guys drinking on the balcony. After a while we headed to a club called Iguana and then to Barco Hundido, Barco is really cool, it’s a bar on the bay with a big dock that you can sit out in and drink, also it was ladies night so I didn’t spend anything on drink. AMAZING!!!
Sunday morning brought rain which resulted in us curled up on the sofa and watching ‘The Holiday.’ By about two o’clock the sun had completely come out, so the three of us (we recruited a newbie to the hostel, Dave) decided to head over to one of the other beaches, Red Frog. We caught a water taxi over, and getting to know each other more, we explored the Island. Dave already knew it quite well as he has been to Bocas a few times, he showed us all the cool spots and led us on a walk through the jungle on the beach. It was amazing! That is one of my favourite things about Central America, the fact that wild jungles come up to the sea front, I honestly felt like I was on Lost or something. After our walk, we chilled at the beach for about an hour, before heading to a small beach bar, one of the only other things, besides a hostel, on Red Frog. As the sun started to set we headed back to Bocas.

Player Dominical

Dominical for the weekend, we couldn’t wait! Hayley, Rachel, Kendy and I had planned a great get-away to clear our heads, have fun and work on our tan. As Hayley and I had to teach on Friday morning we were unable to catch the only direct bus to Playa Dominica’s nearest city, San Isidro. Instead we had to make our way into San Jose and then to San Isidro. We arrived in San Jose late as the traffic was horrific and so had to jump in a taxi to the other bus station across town, we only had fifteen minutes. With cars bumper to bumper, I watched as the tariff increased and the clock count down. Despite the best efforts of the driver, we missed our bus so had to catch the later one. Hours later, after a numb butt and dead legs we arrived, however unfortunately, this was not our final destination; we were still about an hour away from the beach. As we were so behind schedule, when we arrived in San Isidro, we found that all busses had stopped for the day; ‘great’ we thought, ‘we’ll have to spend the night’. Argentina
We walked around the city in the dark, past bars, fast food restaurants and ‘hombre’s hollering at us’. Then out of nowhere popped a guy offering us a taxi to Dominical for only £20, without a second thought we jumped in, anything to get us out of the grubby city and to the beach. He sped around the mountains and down the highway, not going to lie I was a little scared; I genuinely think he was a worse driver then me. However we got there none the less, and in the record time of half an hour. Our taxi pulled up at our Hostel, we could not have asked for a better timing. As we walked in our friends Rachel and Kendy were already there, ready and raring to go. ‘Let’s go out’ they called as they shoved the flyers for a neon reggae night under our noses. We were up for anything, we were just so excited to be there and not stuck in some random city for the night. We got dressed up and headed out.
Well we didn’t end up heading to the reggae night as the atmosphere looked dull and they were charging ridiculous prices to get in. Come on, it’s Costa Rica not New York! So whilst we were walking around trying to find somewhere else to go, we stumbled upon a bar playing salsa music; a few drinks and a bit of dancing was exactly what we needed. Although, I did find out that despite my best efforts I was hopeless at Salsa, I think lessons are in order. This was the night we first met ‘Princessa’, well what can I say, I think the pictures explain it all… He was a drugged up man who walked the few bars in Dominical every night looking for a party; did I mention he wears the same fairy costume every night…? And I though the lady in Copey who dresses her dog in a jumper was about as bizarre as they got in these parts, apparently not.
The next day we woke early and headed down to Domincalita, a small beach a little further down. Before our arrival we had been told about this hidden waterfall, one in which only few people knew about, the trees hid it away from the tourist eye. We went in search of the secret falls and after climbing hills and crossing bridges we discovered it deep in the woods. The water cascaded from large rocks about 100ft high and as I dipped my feet in the crystal clear water, fish surrounded them and nibbled at my toes. Even the group of guys mucking around swinging from the rope swing failed to ruin its hypnotising tranquillity.
We couldn’t wait to emerge ourselves; we stripped down straight away and dived in. Hayley was the first of us to take the plunge from the rope swing into the water. It’s a good job she is teaching children and is not a diver, haha! I can’t judge though, my swings were no way near what one would class as graceful. I think one of them can be described as nothing less than a spectacular belly flop. We stayed for a couple of hours than headed to the beach. Wow, I don’t think I had ever seen a beach more deserted. At the top stood a single ice cream vender and on the sand, a single group of what seemed like friends; this was very different to the overcrowded stony beaches of the British coast line that I was so accustomed to. Even when I had visited the beautiful sands of Limon, it had been over populated.
The cloud shielded the scorching sun, but somehow we all still managed to burn, damn it! After sufficiently baking for a few hours, we walked around the local market, chatting to a variety of people and trying to make them deals on their beautiful, however overpriced merchandise. One lady who was selling a selection of homemade cakes told us about how she made her living solely going from place to place selling cakes; could you imagine her in the UK, more so, London.
After resting at the hostel for a few hours we got ready and made the finest cuisine money could buy accompanied by a local drink delicacy; After our cuisine of Ramin noodles and $2 white rum we headed for the local club, luckily we were accompanied by two of the guys who worked at the hostel because we had to walk down the side of a highway to get to it. However when we arrived it was well worth it, the music, the atmosphere and ‘Princesser’ were buzzing. What a brilliant night!
The next morning, after both Alka-Seltzer and Resolve we had breakfast and headed for the bus home. Wow, what a killer trip! Let’s hope it can be replicated again soon.


Colour by numbers + MI5 = The Copey experience.

Laura with children Copey de dota 129

This week was my first week of teaching and believe me I was so happy to start, that’s why I’m here for after all. After three weeks of not doing anything I was suddenly rushed with a million and one things to do. I have been asking for the syllabus since I arrived and every time I was told that it was on the way. However, through no direct fault of anyone in particular, I was told that it still wasn’t ready two days prior to me beginning classes. I told the board that I would make one myself which they agreed to. So everyone who doubts my organisational skills, please note it is fate for me not to be organised, even when I try to be, something gets in the way. I began to plan the syllabus but as I had no idea what the children had done before it was very difficult. In the end I decided to use the first week eliciting what they already knew.
Although my classes have been small I have found them to be very difficult to teach, due to both the size and the range of ability. All of my classes seem to have one or two children who have never studied English before. With a want not to segregate them solely from the rest of the class I have been trying to include them; however this is just not possible. I have to figure a way to teach them the basics such as numbers and colours whilst I teach the rest of the class how to join sentences and conjugate verbs. I don’t particularly want to leave children sitting there for half an hour while I am explaining the task to the other children.
As the learning centre is very limited on resources, I am trying to make lots of resources that they can reuse. So instead of attempting to learn Spanish or reading in the sun, like most normal people would do, I have been sitting in what has felt like a prison this week, the learning centre, cutting out ABC’s and days of the week. WOOHOO! The joys of teaching…who am I kidding, I actually love it!
After finishing my ‘alphabet’ on Wednesday, I returned to my house really late (don’t laugh, 10.00pm is like 4am here) to find the doors locked and everyone in bed. Crap! I could see Paulina and Violetta asleep in bed. Ironically, about an hour before, I had had a conversation with Angela about how her friend had gotten locked out of their host family’s house so ended up sleeping on the lawn with a bunch of laundry to keep her warm. You have no idea how much I didn’t want to wake them but as I stood on the door step in shorts and a t-shirt shivering, I knew I couldn’t do the same thing. The back door I though… but I had no such luck, it was locked. I tried the front door again…Nope. After pacing up and down outside my host families windows for a few minutes, it began to rain. I decided I would have to wake them. I ran around to the back to put my laptop and carefully cut out letters under shelter, I would be damned if they got ruined. All of a sudden, next to the shelter, I spotted a small open window. BINGO! I pushed it further open and tried to climb in, it was literally the smallest space ever but I was determined to get through it. One leg at a time and then my arms. The whole episode would have been hilarious to watch, I would pay to see it on video.
After about five minutes of struggling, a bruised knee and a scrapped arm, I was in. Who knew stealth training was part of the Copey experience?! I opened the door and grabbed my stuff. As I tried to creep into bed, the phone began ringing. All my hard work to not wake the house was about to be undone. I grabbed the phone quickly and in my best Spanglish (a mix between Spanish and English) answered it. ‘Hola….’ No answer. ‘Hola….’ No reply. I hung up. No one around here would call and not say anything at that time of night; I am convinced it was a neighbour calling to check that we were not being burgled. As far as I know, I managed to get away with it and my host family do not know, although just because I haven’t heard anything does not mean that the whole town doesn’t know about the embarrassing affair. Maybe I should just stick to my ‘colour by numbers’ day job and leave the MI5 antics to the professionals.


Turning into a Tico, hardly. Turning into a Yank, quite possibly…

So after a crazy weekend of drinking, culture and probably the whole of the Costa Rican Peace Corp, I am back in Copey. Back to what now seems like normality. So in Copey, there four of us volunteers, two from the Peace Corp, Rebecca and Angela, and two English teachers, Hayley and I; this weekend we all had our fair share of fun. On Friday, after a stressful day I headed to Rebecca’s house for dinner. The foodie that she is, whipped Hayley and I up a simple but delicious pasta with good-for-you chocolate bran cookies as dessert. After a few glasses of wine, which I may add, went to my head very quickly, a good catch up and an episode of the Simpsons do England, I headed home. It was just what I needed, I slept like a baby. 
On Saturday morning I woke up full of energy and looking forward to the weekend.  After waving good bye to my host brother Jose, who was heading off to university in San Jose for the first time (tear), Hayley and I headed to the Santa Maria town fair. We arrived at about 1.00pm, before things had really kicked off, but were kept occupied by looking around the few stalls that were there and waiting an hour for two beers and a portion of chips (no joke). In the bar, we met the new Copey state school English teacher, who ended up offering us paid work in his classes. BONUS!!!
The fair officially got underway about 3:00pm when the parade started, I couldn’t wait to see it. However my interest was soon lost as I discovered that all it actually consisted of was three and a half hours of horses parading through the streets of Santa Maria. These horses were not show horses, nor were they pretty or done up, but were solely taken from peoples stables and ridden down the street by their owners who were dressed in cowboy clothing. It was not what I would call authentic or interesting. However, after a few beers we soon got in the spirit and enjoyed the sun. 
 Sunday was of course, as every American around the world knows, Superbowl Sunday. My friend Rachael and I met up in San Jose (central ground) for a bit of a catch up and as the game was on, decided to join the rest of the American population in San Jose and head to Hooters. Upstairs in Hooters were Rebecca and Angela with pretty much most of the Peace Corp volunteers in Costa Rica. Squeezed into this small room were about 80 people. Jugs of beer, chicken wings and baseball caps were rife. I don’t think we could have chosen to do anything more American if we tried. Jose came to join us for the game, he didn’t really know anyone in San Jose yet and we said we would show him around, fancy that, I’ve only been there a few times myself.  With Rachael a Packers fan I got roped into supporting the ‘green and yellows’; this actually worked out well as they were the same colours as the Oregon Ducks, my old team. True to nature, my team won and as some Stealers fans had made bets with us, Rachel and I got brought a round of drinks. WOOHOO!!! The other highlight of the night was my ability to persuade many of the volunteers that I was also in the Peace Corp, that they had expanded on a trail to the UK and I was the first Brit to be allowed in. With the amount of beer I had I’m not sure how I managed to pull it off and remember the lingo, but somehow it worked. Not looking forward to my next meeting with them though….Haha!
Looking back at the weekend, I am disappointed to think that after four years of university my drinking skills have started finally failing me, I am officially knackered and it didn’t take me much to send me on my way to being very merry each day. I think though, as I won’t be going out very often, that will become a constant re-occurrence in Costa Rica. Cheap nights out here I come!!!


Eaten Alive, NOT good times.

First and foremost I feel I should apologise to mi amigo Beth, for laughing at her after every holiday she has come back from with deformed legs from the mosquitos feasting on her blood. I now feel your pain. Three months I spent in Africa and I think I got about ten bites in total, three weeks I’ve been in Costa Rica and I have 32 bites ON ONE LEG!!!! That’s not to mention the rest of my body, including one on my butt, which I am unsure of it happened? I think I may adopt an Iguana and carry him around with me, apparently they eat the buggers.
As if my polka dot body wasn’t enough to live with over the weekend I caught an infection in my thumb (random I know) which caused it to double in size and was apparently immune to antibiotics. So even when I wanted to scratch the mounds on my legs, I couldn’t as it hurt my thumb too much; probably a good thing to be honest. The only thing that cured my thumb was a good old fashioned needle and alcohol, when I say needle I mean safety pin, it’s all we had… but anyways it was pretty gross.
Apart from having a gammy thumb and a multi-bitten body I love Copey.  I am still getting used to the slow pace of life and the lack of entertainment. During the first week I spent most of my time trying to adjust and find my feet, I spent my time working on my Spanish, going running and explored the local towns (who all have internet, unlike Copey). On Thursday I went for the most beautiful hike up the mountains and ended up in a farmers land. He was so friendly and let me look around his land, at one stage he called me over to show me the fish jumping in the river. It is difficult to describe the beauty of the mountains around here, I found myself stopping every five minutes to take pictures, every site more beautiful than the last. The forest is littered with streams and wildlife, clear water cascading off of rocks to create waterfalls and trees so green and so tall you feel overwhelmed. If it wasn’t for the damn mosquitos I would be up there now.  
During the weekend I visited my friend Rachael in Guapiles, what can I say, the heat nearly killed me. Not overly sunny but it was more humid then a greenhouse. It’s the kind of place you want to shower three times a day. During my stay, apart from checking out the town, we went to Limon a beach on the Caribbean coast. The area is populated with tourists and I there was litter in certain places, saying this, it’s beauty would still beat any UK beach hands down (well that’s not really difficult). I cannot wait to explore further as I am confident that there is even more spectacular, remote places further south. Maybe this weekend, before classes start, I could sneak off to top off my tan. ;)  


Learning Spanish, rule one: Smile and say Si!

I think that I have been truly blessed; my host family are so amazing. I am living with a single mum of three, Violetta, her youngest daughter, Paulina and her 19-year-old son, Jose Manuel; her eldest daughter, who I hear is very much like me, is presently in France for the year. I could not ask for a more hospitable set of people, they are really inclusive and are extremely patient, considering I do not speak any Spanish. On my first day in Copey Violetta and I started by trying to communicate in Spanish to each other, this was not very successful. Even when I did formulate enough Spanish to string together a question, I could not understand the answers she would give me.  In the end we resulted in making hand-gestures to each other and acting out certain words and questions. I feel we are both now masters of Charades. That evening I went to bed exhausted and anxious, how would I ever get through three months of this?
Copey de dota 022
                                                        (Paulina, Jose and I)
After a good lye-in I woke up on Friday with new energy and the determination to learn Spanish. I had breakfast and hit the books straight away. I wrote down lots of questions that I wanted to ask my ‘temporary mum’ and somehow communicated them to her through broken sentences and a  bad Spanish accent. Thanks to Jose, who I should nickname ‘the translator’ as he speaks good English, I managed to get through the day. I’m praying I begin to pick it up quickly, I know I am improving but the rate still does not seem fast enough for me.
Ok so aside from my inability to communicate with pretty much everyone, I really like Copey. Although I am used to London, I don’t think you could get anywhere further from it if you tried. Copey is a small VERY rural village in a valley surrounded by a protected forest. It is ridiculously beautiful. It has unreal mountains which I can’t wait to start hiking up (once I know them, don’t worry, no mountain rescue for me) and it has a big river with many streams running from it. The only buildings in the village are a small mini-mart,  two mini ‘poperia’s’ (shops),  a church, an elementary school, the learning centre and a police station, which is manned by only  one person at a time. I have heard that it is only still really there because they used to have a problem with drugs runs. The local entertainment is a football field, which is mainly only used on Sundays. There is no internet (OMG) and most houses do not have TV’s or radios; people literally visit each other for coffee and that’s it! By the end of Friday I could tell I would have a lot of time on my hands, Spanish books here I come.
Copey de dota 107     Copey de dota 118
                (The Poperia)                                                (The local church)
Copey de dota 093 
At the moment I am trying to integrate with my ‘family’ as much as possible, in the last couple of days I have been to Santa Maria to use the internet cafĂ© and to run errands with my ‘host’ uncle Daniel (Sedies husband) in Saint Marcos and to watch Jose play in a family game of football.  Although I have stayed relatively busy this week I know that after a few more days, when the boredom kicks in, I will be willing the start of term and my teaching to begin. Although the tranquillity is nice, bring on the 10th Feb!

First impressions, San Jose

 Biting my nails I approached the young lady at the customer’s desk. With a few short questions about where I was staying she waved me through, no hassle, I couldn’t believe it. WOOHOO!!! I headed for the exit, constantly nervous that someone was going to ask me to turn around and go back, but nothing.
As arranged, on the other side a taxi man was waiting to collect me and take me to my hostel, Traquilo Backpackers. As I drove through what seemed like a very quiet city I took in the banana trees and the city lights. What a fantastic contrast. It seemed I would like staying here a lot. I checked in to my room in which Rachael, another volunteer, was waiting, it was so good to vent on someone about my hectic journey.   
First thing on Saturday morning we rose early to walk to our first day of training at the Aliarse office (the company who have organised the volunteering). Throughout the week we went through a variety of easy teaching techniques and cultural differences between the UK/USA and Costa Rica; all fairly basic stuff to be honest.
As the week past I became more familiar with San Jose and found that, despite first impressions, it wasn’t actually what I expected.  Despite there being a lot of people downtown there wasn’t actually a lot to do; other third world African countries have more of a buzz then San Jose. The whole city feels dirty, with lots of cars and busses around ‘Central Avenue’. The city is also notorious and so therefor rife in prostitution; you see the local ‘Tico’ and the Western tourist opening up their doors as they pull up to a street corner. 
Luckily the week drew to a close quickly and on Thursday our local partners (the liaison between the company Aliarse and our host families) came to collect us to bring us to our villages. Sedie, my local partner and her husband Daniel were lovely. On the way through we stopped at a near town, Santos Maria, to sample some coffee, which may I add, was the best I have ever had. After we had finished we hopped back into the car and drove to the village. As we proceeded through the beautiful mountains I gazed in awe at diversity of rocks and trees contrasted with a perfect blue sky.  ‘Welcome to Copey de Dota, the real Costa Rica’ Sedie said as we pasted the borders. This is more like it I thought.  


Flying Delta
So one way the US are trying to help fund their economy is by charging $14 to every person entering, I couldn't believe it when I found out. I was told at the airport that I had to fill in a ESTA form and pay the fee before I could even check in. I dumped my luggage and Beth (my best friend) and I frantically filled out the form online…this is typical me; always rushing and un-prepared. After intense drilling by the airline team I was finally allowed to check in, 40 minutes after I had arrived.
I had just enough time to grab a quick cake and coffee at trusty costa with my family, before departing to the gate. We all stood up to say goodbye. Mum and Dad, my brother Mark and his two kids as well as my teenage sisters and my best friend. Tears as streaming down my face. Despite the hard work they create, I would thoroghly miss them.
I boarded the plane, thinking of my fifteen and a half hour travel ahead of me until I arrived in luxury Costa Rica. I know Delta airlines are no BA but let’s face it, service with a smile when the drinks trolley comes down probably wouldn’t have killed the staff. It even made the service that other budget airlines such as Ryan air and Easy Jet’ look fantastic. Never again will I fly Delta. Small seats, no leg room and while the first meal was satisfactory (chicken with roast veg) the second was a burnt piece of microwave pizza; clearly it takes a genius to correctly heat one of those bad boys.
However, when I reached my stop-over in Atlanta my biggest problem was still present; I had yet to book a flight out of Costa Rica. The majority of the time you have to have an outgoing trip, may it be train, coach or flight, out of the country within three months in order to gain initial admittance. Anyways, I had heard of a bus company called Tico busses, this is company that have a bus all the way from Nicoragna, through Costa Rica and down to Panama. I tried calling the company three times and no one answered. On the fourth and fifth time a man who did not understand any English shouted at me in Spanish and slammed down the phone. Right, I thought, I must find someone who speaks both Spanish and English who can book this ticket to Panama , looking around everyone only looked English apart from one tanned couple in the corner, they looked like traditional ‘Tico’s’ (Costa Rican’s). Ten minutes past and I was still trying to pluck up the courage to ask them to make the phone call for me, I finally approached them.
“What rude people” Mr Tico said as he handed me back my phone, unable to book me a ticket. “They told me you can’t book online you have to go to a depot in Costa Rica and then hung up the phone”.  Gracias Senor. I told him back (woohoo, using Spanish – the only words I knew mind). At that moment they called my flight to board. Time had run out, I would have to enter Costa Rica on a one way ticket with nothing booked coming out of the country. Customers are going to have a ball with me, I thought, here goes…. And I held my breath and stepped onto the plane.