Addresses in Costa Rica

In our new adventure in Costa Rica, we’ve discovered several interesting things about Costa Rican culture. In some previous posts I wrote about some things that were better here in Costa Rica and also some things that were not as great. One big difference that I haven’t talked about yet is addresses. The way mailing addresses are handled here is unique – at least to me in all my worldwide travels. They make for some very interesting unintended consequences.

Here is our street address in Playa Potrero:

Del Bar La Perla
200 metros sur y 300 metros este
en la esquina de Avenida Cuatro y Calle Mango
Surfside Estates, Playa Potrero, Guanacaste, Costa Rica

Here’s the translation for those of you who don’t speak Spanish:

From the bar La Perla
200 meters south and 300 meters east
at the corner of 4th Avenue and Mango Street
Surfside Estates, Playa Potrero, Guanacaste, Costa Rica

You can see a few key features right away. There is no house number. It uses a landmark for reference (the bar La Perla in this case). It provides distances from the landmark almost like a pirate map. And most subtly, it doesn’t fully differentiate the address from other addresses that might also fit the directional criteria. It does, however, seem to work here. Mail gets delivered. Mostly.

Before I get deeper into some interesting things about addresses here, you might think that these sorts of addresses are primarily in the outer or lower population areas. That’s not the case. This last week I gave a colloquium at the Interaction Design Department at University Veritas in San Jose. I stayed at a cute little pensione-style hotel called Casa Voltaire. Here is its address:

De la Casa Italia
50 al este y 75 al norte.
Calle sin salida. Avenida 8 y calle 31,
San José, Costa Rica.


From the Casa Italia
50 to the east and 75 to the north.
Dead-end street. 8th Avenue and 31st Street,
San José, Costa Rica.

This particular address was interesting in that it was indeed at the end of a dead-end street, along with 6-7 others, including one other pensione. Fortunately, there was a sign out front so you could differentiate it from the 6-7 other buildings with the same address.

I didn’t survey many addresses in San Jose, but the ones I did – my pensione, the Interaction Design School, the restaurant where I ate, the hotel where I caught my bus – all had addresses like this. According to locals, it works this way throughout San Jose and elsewhere in Costa Rica.

These addresses may seem a bit challenging as is. However, add to it the fact that at least in most of the small towns in the Guanacaste area where we live, there are no street signs. We have nothing around us that would tell you where Calle Mango or Avenida 8 are, except a GPS (which few locals have).

Imagine being a mailperson here. You’d have to have an incredible amount of knowledge of the town. You could probably double as a tour guide.

There are some fun, interesting, and possibly frustrating implications in an address system like this, not the least of which is that you learn quickly how long measurements in meters are (for our metrically-challenged American friends).

For example, most addresses seem to rely on a landmark. Well, what’s the landmark’s address then? Or, do they “daisy chain” landmark addresses? Is the La Perla bar a certain distance from, say, the Super Wendy grocery store? It turns out that in most of the cases I’ve seen the answer is “no.” La Perla’s address is:

Calle principal,
Playa Potrero, Guanacaste, Costa Rica

Basically, this tells you that La Perla is on the “main street” running through Playa Potrero. You’d have to know where on main street.

Another interesting thing we’ve seen is how people “augment” the system. Our Spanish teacher, Ivette, for example, brilliantly has people put her phone number at the bottom of her address. There are several houses that have the same address as hers. I can imagine folks adding “blue house” or other additions to their addresses. If we actually used ours for mail I would.

Consider what might be a very frustrating event if your local landmark changed its name or just went away. If La Perla changed their name, it would affect a large number of street addresses in Surfside. As in the U.S. these addresses are in all your legal documents as well as address books of friends, etc. If your address changes here, you need to get a new title for your car and that involves a lawyer. It’s very good incentive to keep the local landmark places thriving.

This system evidently grew out of the agrarian nature of Costa Rica and the fact that many cities are small. It is pure “Tico.” I think it says something incredibly powerful about small towns and tight-knit communities. Everyone seems to know everyone and people don’t tend to move around much. I’m sure if they did, the mailperson would be able to give them the history of their place.

Of course, there are downsides to living in a small town. Everyone does indeed seem to know your business. But then again, if you are a visitor in town trying to find a friend’s address, you may just find that people here can direct you. It’s a stark contrast for us compared to Seattle where few people seem to want to know their neighbors. It’s also a charming reminder of why people form communities in the first place. We are social creatures after all.

I understand that Costa Rica is now moving toward real street addresses. The two towns of Moravia and Coronado have evidently completed the transformation. San Jose is starting the process by getting street signs up. Can you imagine what it will be like to transform a city that large?

Playa Potrero will likely be far down the list and that’s okay with us. Addresses are just one of the odder endearing qualities of this place. I’m sure there are a few expats here who get frustrated with all of this. I think we are with the locals, though. It’s just one more aspect of “pura vida.” I know there are a lot of us who can use more of that. Pura Vida!

A Few Changes

There are ebbs and flows in most things and that includes our new adventure. We made a few more changes on the path to getting unschooling right with Aidan and Vie this past week. Things weren’t working quite as well as we liked and so we needed to do some tuning. The changes have given us all some new energy.

If you remember, we started our path in unschooling with a bit of structure in when we did unschooling; i.e., we had a daily schedule. On the flip side, we gave the young adults a lot of freedom in their choice of “projects” and helped them understand that they were responsible for their unschooling (with help and support of course).

Shortly thereafter I made my first mistake and realized that I was giving the young adults freedom in unschooling pursuits, but not in their schedules. So, I reined that in and allowed them to set their own schedules for when they got up, worked on unschooling, etc. as long as they hit an average of about 20 hours a week.

After working this way for about two months, the pendulum is swinging back a bit in the other direction. While we are still giving Aidan and Vie schedule flexibility, we are adding back more structure to their unschooling work. And I’m taking a little break while Deb, who recently finished working remotely, takes over.

Many things were going on, but I think the biggest factors leading to these changes were overexposure to technology and what I’d probably call dwindling motivation in Aidan and Vie to take unschooling seriously. It got a bit too easy for them to slip into letting technology drive what they did vs. driving it themselves.

In fairness, they are 13 and 11. Having the responsibility for directing one’s schooling path, while an awesome opportunity for pre-teens, can also be a daunting and at times complex task. We adults are still working to get it right.

I had already come to a good understanding of how Aidan learns, which is very different than me. That led to some learning on my part, which I also wrote about. While Aidan did continue to work on his recipes, more and more of his time was spent watching videos on YouTube, not just of cooking, but really anything he could rationalize as unschooling. He’d track his unschooling time meticulously and then switch to watching more YouTube videos – not unschooling related – and not keeping track of his technology time as we had asked.

Vie also tracked unschooling and technology time and focused. The challenge with Vie was in what the topics of focus were. We went from a project comparing digital art tools and another focused on making videos of walkthroughs of Vie playing a video game, to creating a video game, to just wanting to play video games as learning. Topics would change almost weekly and get more abstract.

Each time Vie would change topics, I would spend a number of hours researching the topic, learning the tools (e.g., Adobe Flash gaming engine to build a video game), etc. It was getting frustrating to me.

Vie and I had a good discussion about gamification, Gabe Zicherman’s TED talk How Games Make Kids Smarter, and how Vie wanted to focus on being a video gamer. While I was hesitant, I was open-minded towards trying it. My requirements were simply that Vie describe what the particular video game offered in terms of learning content, and then after playing the game, how would you know that you learned something; i.e., how do you know you were successful at learning what you expected to.

As we went along, it was getting harder and harder to get Vie and Aidan to tell me what they were working on. They weren’t doing the few things I asked them to do. For example, Vie wasn’t writing up what was learned from gaming. I was also getting a lot of “Dad, we are responsible for our unschooling so why do we have to tell you what we are doing?” It is certainly a creative argument that I would probably raise – they are my young adults after all 🙂 – but it wasn’t helping me help them.

What I was coming to realize was that Vie and Aidan, in different ways, really didn’t want to unschool. That didn’t mean they wanted to go to school. They disliked that idea even more. They just weren’t very interested in [any]schooling. Period.

We had set them on this path of unschooling. Here I’ll emphasize unschooling and not home schooling. In Grace Llewellyn’s great book on unschooling, Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education, the book is targeted toward young adults who want to do this and may need help convincing their parents. We had a bit of the opposite situation, so the book didn’t help as much.

I went online looking for some help and guidance. What I found surprised me. I found tons of advice on tactics for helping learners with different subjects, what tools and resources are most helpful, where to go for all sorts of supporting material, etc. I also found strategies for helping learners develop curricula for their unschooling. I even found information on how to help your learner learn a subject they think they dislike, such as math. What I didn’t find was anything helping with getting your learner to want to unschool. Most of the information assumed that that wasn’t a problem. While I can’t say I did an exhaustive search, I did expect to find some information fairly quickly.

Adding to the mix, more and more, particularly with Vie, most of my suggestions and asks were getting met with arguments. Aidan didn’t generally argue, he just often “forgot” about requirements and rules.

I was getting frustrated. I felt like I was giving them lots of room. I was open-minded about what they were working on and how they were doing it. And yet, I felt like it wasn’t working. While I felt that Vie and Aidan were taking advantage of the situation a bit, I felt like I was failing in making unschooling work. And I hate to fail. I know, I need more Type-A Detox. Failing is an opportunity to learn something. While that’s true, and I do embrace that philosophy, it was “different” for me when my kids schooling is on the line.

After one particular night where we caught both the young adults on their computers well past their bed time and against our rule of no technology after bed, and then learned that it was a pattern, we decided we needed some changes. My trust in them was a bit broken. And I needed a little break. This was Deb’s very good idea.

Fortunately, Deb had recently finished her part-time remote work and had time to step in more deeply. We had a family meeting and talked about what we needed to change. We talked about how we needed to add back more structure to the unschooling.

Deb started with having Vie describe to Aidan what middle school was like. Vie had a fairly typical unpleasant middle school experience, full of rules and consequences, lots of behavior management and little actual learning, bullies, and micromanagement of time to name a few. It was a brilliant move. Aidan had had an awesome experience at University Cooperative School, but didn’t have a larger context of what most schools were like. And this got Vie to remember all the reasons why the middle school experience was so bad, hopefully creating some appreciation for unschooling in both cases.

Deb adding back more structure around what they were working on along with a little more structure around daily activities to go back, at least a bit, to a routine. We also limited technology in a few ways. Vie and Aidan needed to write up short descriptions of what they wanted to do online and why before they did. They also needed to use their computers in the main room of the house; no more sneaking computer time late at night. We explained that in time, if they were working well with this structure, then we could try relaxing it a bit.

Deb is also adding in some structured time for conversation – talking about things in the world, why things are the way they are, etc. to spark broader interest and questions. It was a great idea. It’s already led to discussions on economics, body chemistry and biology.

This last week has been a lot more manageable after the changes, even with the serendipitous intervention of having no Internet for 5 days now. While it’s been inconvenient for all of us to not have internet access, and while it’s been frustrating getting the cable company to make a visit to fix it, it’s been interesting to see the household effects of no internet on top of our added structure. Stepping back and taking a break (from technology) may help Aidan and Vie get some perspective. It works for adults too. It already has in my case.

In reflecting on recent events and doing some more research (thanks to the Wi-Fi at the Shack), there are a few insights I had that I’d thought I’d share.

Systems and Goals
Awhile back, Deb found a great article on systems and goals. I had intended to do something with this in a future blog post, but the opportunity for application in our current situation was powerful. Essentially, the author James Clear makes the argument that systems are more valuable than goals. We all grow up – and continue into the work force – setting and achieving goals. Goals aren’t bad. But systems can be more useful. Systems are structured ways for consistently working toward a goal.

As an example, you may have a new year’s resolution to lose some amount of weight or get fit or save some amount of money. Many people abandon these after a short time. The goal doesn’t easily lead to day to day energy and focus on the goal. In contrast, if you simply start going to the gym consistently a few days a week and put in place some structure to make that easy, then you will eventually lose weight/get fit. More importantly, you don’t just achieve the goal. You now have in place tools that will help you consistently achieve that goal in the form of a system.

In our case, I was focusing on the young adults having projects and goals (of their choosing). I did not have in place enough structure (a system) for them to make consistent progress. I think adding back structure to our unschooling will help Aidan and Vie develop more systems for working toward achieving any goal.

Executive Function
Adults have the ability to visualize and plan for the future, think strategically, and see how they need to tune near term actions to better help them with their longer term strategy and goals. It’s called “executive function.” This ability is not well developed yet in pre-teens. Immediate gratification trumps longer term, and more substantial, benefits. We probably all have examples of this coming into play in our early teen years.

Unschooling gives responsibility to the learner to determine what and how they want to learn. They develop a love for learning and with some guidance, they can learn anything. The challenge I see, now, is that without developed executive function skills, it’s hard to expect a pre-teen to be able to do this well. I’m sure in time they may naturally get there, but I also see the role of a parent is to be a significant “flywheel” in this process – something that makes it go better, faster, stronger. At times, I think this means that we need to add more structure and help edit goals and systems a bit.

I’m still getting past my ego and inability to make this work smoothly so far, which is tough. We came into this so optimistic, thinking it would be a wonderful, easy experience. At least I did. I was naïve. It’s hard. Though, it may not be nearly as hard as dealing with some of the negative side effects of schools (over reliance on homework, bullies, less attention to individual learning styles, etc.) over which you feel as though you have little ability to effect change.

However I can’t think of anything more important and so we will keep learning, tuning, and refining what we are doing. We’ll also keep sharing our journey. Maybe it will keep some folks from falling into some of the holes along the way that we did! It is all part of the journey and I think we will all be stronger for it. Pura Vida!

“That which does not kill you only makes you stronger.”


Supply Run

One of the more interesting questions we’ve pondered in our three months on our new adventure is “what did we forget” or “what should we have brought but didn’t.” We’ve added to that along the way with “what do we need from the US.” We have actually been keeping a list of those things and this last week Deb returned from a week in Seattle (for work) and brought most of those back. We thought it would be fun to share what we couldn’t live without.

At the top of my list was a solution to my “rose” problem. I had written before about how I could not find a red rose here in Costa Rica anywhere. I had been getting Deb one every week for 18+ years. I looked at all the wonderful ideas people had but none worked well enough. I tried looking for the guaria moria – the national flower of Costa Rica – as a substitute to get her, but no luck finding those either. I tried to make an origami rose. I really did. I looked on sites for step-by-step instructions, YouTube videos how to do it, etc. In the end they were all pretty hideous. Then I ran out of large origami paper. I could find digital replacements but, well, that was too easy and not terribly meaningful.

I found my answer in an “infinite rose.” Technology comes to the rescue. An infinite rose is a long-stemmed red rose picked at its peak and preserved with glycerine. I ordered one and had it waiting for Deb as a surprise. It had a bit of trouble with all the bouncing on the trip back, but it made it back, mostly, and now sites in our sunny Costa Rica home!

infinite rose

Cooking tools were a big category of items that we learned that we needed. We brought a few essentials such as my really nice knife, but we came up short on a bunch of things such as a microplane, good salt and pepper grinders, an ice cream scoop, a whisk, ramekins, an apron, and a mortar and pestle. Why the latter? Sometimes we can find the odd spices we need here but they are not ground. Sometimes we have to make our own blends such as Chinese 5 spice blend. I am tired of using a flat rock and a round rock from our yard. Really. We had all of these in storage and Deb got to go sort through boxes to get them.

We also had to get a bunch more technology to support the young adults in their unschooling. Some of it was pretty exotic. For example, Aidan and Vie want to create videos for YouTube showing how they play various parts of a video game on Xbox. To capture that sort of feed, you need a game capture device like the Roxio Game Capture HD Pro. Of course we also needed to get several cables to go with it and a 3 terabyte hard disk since they will be capturing and editing video. Add to that some replacement headsets, Xbox batteries and charger, headset splitter and talkback cables, printer cartridges and you get the picture. As I mentioned in Differences Part 2, you generally can’t find these types of things here, especially anything having to do with Xbox – at least where we are.

There were some other things that Deb brought back that were very hard to get here or very expensive. These included new windshield wiper blades for Moose and Revolution flea and tick control medicine and collars for the dogs. I needed some deodorant that doesn’t have the aluminum chlorohydrate, which is hard to find for some reason. Vie needed some new shoes (Vans) and mostly what we have a selection of here is flip flops. There were some odd house items that we could not find even in the big DIY store, such as those small rubber bumpers you put inside cabinet doors to make them not bang. Try describing those in Spanish! We also needed some cup hooks to hold up tube lighting under our counter cabinets to get rid of all the darkness in the kitchen.

We also had a category of guilty pleasures. These are things that we missed. We would have loved to have brought back a whole case of Jolly Roger Christmas Ale but it would be a tough fit. Instead, Deb brought things like a set of Cards Against Humanity, Brazilian cachaca, jelly beans, Nutella, our Sorry game, and Diva Coffee. I know, we are in Costa Rica and there is some fabulous coffee here…but the roast is not nearly as dark and intense as what we liked in Seattle.

Aidan and Vie had to get their gummy worm fix. They did not just have Deb bring back a few packages. Instead, they had her bring back the world’s largest gummy worm. I kid you not. It is more than 2 feet long, 3 pounds, and 4000 calories. Here’s a picture from Vat19 where we got it.

gummy worm

Now imagine Deb going through security at the airport with this thing, wrapped in plastic, in her luggage!

There were a number of things Deb brought back for friends here – things they could not easily, or cheaply, get here either. Some of these were expected. They were things like power drills, large computer microphones (tech), and a yoga mat.

She also brought back some lacrosse balls for Abriendo Mentes, a local non-profit working with locals in the areas of education and employment. They sponsor kids’ lacrosse here through Lacrosse the Borders.

The most surprising thing she brought back for friends was really nice sheets. Evidently, good ones here are very hard to find, even in Hotel supply stores, and very expensive if you can find them.

In all, we sent over 30 different packages to our friend Wendy’s house, where Deb was staying. Most were from Amazon (you have to love two day shipping). They formed a really nice stack up of presents for Deb to pack up. Even after buying (yet) another suitcase, she couldn’t fit everything. On the chopping block were good tequila, more cachaca, and lots of creams and moisturizers for Deb. They were all too heavy. Deb really sacrificed the most with her creams.

The good news is that I and Vie get to go back in April for a week for SakuraCon. Vie will bring an arsenal of costumes (many made here with the sewing machine we brought!). We can bring down the left items as well as possibly more things we discover that we need in the next few months – though other than parts for Moose, I can’t imagine what new needs we’ll have. I really don’t want to be accumulating more stuff 🙂

Pura Vida!

The Grammar Boss

It’s amazing what a simple adverb can lead to here on our new adventure. This past week I created a bit of a grammar test for our young adults. I couched it as a “boss level” which, in gaming terms, is a part of a game where your character has to fight a difficult opponent – a “boss” – and you have to defeat it in order to move forward in the game. It was indeed a test, even though I worked hard to make it fun. And it all started with a debate about an adverb.

You see, I have a bit of a pet peeve about adverbs – specifically when people do not use them when they should. It irks me when “people drive slow” (i.e., slowly) or when they “do cook bad” (i.e., badly). For a good while now, I have been pointing out correct adverb use to Vie and Aidan. I usually get groans.

Awhile back, Vie and I got into a debate about some adverbs which didn’t seem to exist at all in Vie’s vocabulary, adverbs like “wrongly” and “cooly.” Eventually I had to look these up to prove their existence. The response I got was something like “Dad, people don’t talk like that.”

Now I do understand that colloquially we tend to drop the poor adverb’s “ly” in conversation. It doesn’t detract from its meaning. I hear young adults do this more often than older people and I may have a slight fear that adverbs in our language are going extinct. Nonetheless, I wanted to at least be certain that Vie and Aidan knew their correct use and more broadly, developed good grammar skills. .

So I told them I was going to make a grammar “boss level” and they had to pass it as part of their unschooling. While most of their work is self-directed, I felt I needed to make this ask. They are writing fairly regularly as part of their projects, but we are not doing an English or grammar “class.” I wanted to be sure they continued to develop their grammar skills.

The “boss level” was simply a short story that I wrote with 60 grammar mistakes. They needed to get the boss down to “25% health”, which means that they needed to find at least 75% of the grammatical errors to defeat the boss level. I have the whole thing here under our new Resources menu on our blog along with the answer key. And like many boss levels, it’s hard to defeat the boss in one try; you need to replay the level a bit to get past it.

I started creating the boss level with something either creative, or insidious, depending on your point of view. We all like adaptive games and so what’s wrong with a little gamification of grammar? I went back to some of their writing and studied their individual problematic grammar patterns – things that they would do regularly in their writing. I incorporated these into the “boss level.” It was a little insidious in that these would be tough things to catch since they made these mistakes regularly.

I had a lot of Vie and Aidan’s writing to draw on. Their “paper quest” – a 28 page multimedia paper comparing two video games – was a gold mine, particularly their rough drafts. I also scrutinized Aidan’s herbs and spices flash cards. I reviewed the emails we trade regularly.

I noticed several distinct and unique grammar issues each one had. Vie writes with incredible detail, but also likes to use the gerund form of a verb in sentences to the point that the sentence is really a phrase and not a complete sentence. For example:

And Diablo being an action role-playing game.

Vie is also a fan of run-on sentences. Commas are pretty rare indeed.

Aidan has a rich vocabulary but tends to have a bit of a blind spot for subject-verb agreement (“…fennel seeds is…”). He also tends to not catch the differences between “your” and “you’re”, “their”, “there”, and “they’re”, and “its” and “it’s.”

And of course, adverbs tend to be used sparsely in their writing.

I created a list of all the types of grammatical errors that were patterns in both of their writing and then I incorporated similar patterns into the grammar boss story. Here’s a sample paragraph.

“Your a fool. There is no differences between my army and the greatest Orc army of all time! it’s ranks stretch two the very edges of the hall. My soldiers is well known for being brutal. You cant even compare them to another Chieftans army. When you army stands next to mine their, you can see all the differences such as, their hugely size, large teeth, terrible disposition, and etc.”

I tried not to get too subtle with things they had little practice with so far, such as writing with dialog, but I did put in several very subtle errors that they should be familiar with. I also included a healthy supply of what I assumed were going to be very obvious errors. My goal was that on their first pass they would only find about 40-50% of the problems.

I gave them the test and allowed them to work together on it. I was hoping that since they each had their own blind spots, working together might help them both catch a good number of the errors. In their first pass, Vie and Aidan only found 30% of the errors. I was surprised especially because I told them that there were 60 errors and they stopped at 20.

Vie then took a pass alone. Some of the subtleties started appearing and Vie diligently worked through several iterations, getting closer and closer to the goal. I helped a bit b identifying how many errors were in each paragraph. It was pretty amazing though to see what did not pop out at all. As I expected, patterns were often missed, but even some of the more obvious errors didn’t get identified. Vie hit 90% after 4 tries.

Aidan needed a little motivational encouragement to get through the level. Well, actually, a lot. In each of his iterations, he would find a few more and then want to stop. When I explained that this was like one of the games he played where I’ve seen him play the boss level up to 10 times before he gets through it, he got the rationale I was using for the grammar boss. He then buckled down and made it through. He hit 75% on his 5th try. Unlike Vie, it didn’t seem to be interesting enough to raise his score more 🙂

I’m sure the boss level was tougher than was probably appropriate for their level. I’m clearly not an English teacher and I don’t have a good idea of what level of writing they should be at (yet). I also don’t have other examples of student writing handy to gauge where they are. But, the grammar boss level was doable. It wasn’t so frustrating that they wanted to give up. Even if it was not as “fun” as I had hoped, I did see engagement.

In the end, it was nice to see them collaborate on the first pass. I need to build more collaboration into their projects. It was interesting to see them develop a bit of an eye for proofreading. It’s a useful skill that I still see many adults shy away from. And, somewhat not surprisingly, Vie and Aidan identified every one of the adverb errors in the first pass. The most priceless thing since then is that I’ve watched them watch TV shows like MasterChef and one or both will correct someone who forgets the “ly” in their adverb. I hope I didn’t create little grammar monsters like me. Well, maybe I do 🙂

You can try the Grammar Boss Level here. The answer key is here.