Revisiting San Jose

When we first arrived on our new adventure, we went to San Jose to apply for our residency visa. On that trip, we really were not terribly impressed with San Jose. It was probably the location where we stayed, though the hotel was nice. Sometimes things need a second chance, just like people.

Over the last two weeks, I have spent several days in San Jose teaching at the Universidad and my opinion has changed a good deal.

Part of my new-found appreciation for San Jose may stem from teaching here. Universidad Veritas, as I’ve noted before, is a complete design university. I am teaching Information Visualization in the new Interaction Design program and so far it has been a wonderful experience.

The Interaction Design program is an evening program for professionals under the direction of Ana Domb. I have 15 very bright students who come from a range of backgrounds including computer science, design, architecture, marketing, and project management. My classes are Tue/Thu evening and Saturday morning. Since I live about 6 hours away by bus, I commute in on Thursday and leave Saturday afternoon so I can be there in person for two classes. On Tuesdays I am remote (as is the rest of the class).

It’s been a lot of work to design the class – Deb says she’s happy to “have me back.” I’ve been spending a lot of time the last several weeks creating content for the class. It is highly visual content in a fairly new space where there are many, sometimes conflicting, voices, so it has taken some work to gather and edit the content. The fun part has been really distilling the core elements of the topic so I can cover a broad range in a few short weeks.

I’ve added in some things that I hope will make the class fun, such as some “Hell’s Kitchen” type challenges. I can’t hope to pull off the Chef Gordon Ramsey persona of shouting f-bombs and calling people “donkey,” but I do take inspiration for what he does. He is a master at creating challenges that are just the right thing to help his aspiring chefs appreciate and master a particular skill. Last night was my first “experiment” with this and the students were very accommodating. For the challenge, I asked them to visualize the incredible range of ever-expanding data we face from kilobytes to gigabytes to yottabytes. I gave them 40 minutes for an incredibly difficult problem – perhaps even a bit of a Kobayashi Muru type challenge. They struggled, debated and seemed to have a good time. I gave a nice prize but didn’t have any clean-up work for the losers 🙂

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The Hell’s Kitchen Challenge; Sketching Data Sizes

The experience of doing the class has been well worth it. I always enjoy teaching. I feel like I’m giving back to the user experience discipline and I always feel like I get more than I give. Students have an unparalleled enthusiasm you rarely see in industry with folks more than a year or two out of school. They haven’t been told yet, like many in industry, all the reasons why you “can’t” do something. Everything is possible. I’ve always believed that. The best way to get me motivated is to tell me something can’t be done. So, it’s invigorating for me to return to a replenishing source of belief in the possible. It’s just what I need before returning to reality in November.

My experience teaching here has also given me a fresh view of San Jose. One reason is likely where I am staying. I am near the Universidad in Hotel Luz de Luna. It is on a wonderful street in a neighborhood restaurants, nightlife, and cafes. I’ve eaten some of the best food in Costa Rica here and the place really comes alive after 9.

There are odd discoveries here like the brazen rip-off of Cheesecake Factory (and the food looks about the same).

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The Cheesecake Factory Doppleganger

Then we have the Beer Factory. I and my class went here after our first class. Not only do they have many beers, they have a large selection of some great Costa Rican craft brews. I had a great rich brown ale there.

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The Beer Factory

We also have Sofia. It is an excellent Turkish restaurant next to my hotel. In the “small world” department, I also learned that the very friendly owner, Mamat, is the boyfriend of one of my students. They have a home-made tagliatelle with mushroom’s that is incredible. It’s by far the best thing I have had in Costa Rica.

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Sofia 

Ravi is a “gastro pub café” that is vegetarian and comes highly recommended by everyone. I tried the gnocchi and loved them.

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Ravi

There is also a very cool lounge/bar called Keidos where they have tapas. I had a rather large and delicious “tapa” of filet mignon that was ridiculously inexpensive.

Now, round that out with a theater and exhibition center, access to trains downtown (to the less interesting areas) and some nice shops and you can see why my opinion is changing. Mamat (Sofia) is working with the local government here to get better street lighting in the neighborhood, allow outside tables and even close down the very small main street to cars and allow only pedestrians. Keep this area in mind if you visit San Jose. You’ll be very pleased.

Finally, on this trip I have to say I have had the best, and most surprising, experience with a US government agency. It was at the US Embassy in San Jose. No, I didn’t get my passport stolen, thankfully. Deb just discovered that I don’t have enough pages left blank in my passport to go to Europe after Costa Rica. It turns out that getting pages added to your passport is one of the many services here that the consulate provides.

You start online and can request an appointment to get pages added as well as download the form (for this task and many others). The site said that they deliver the passport back to you in the same day. I got a 9am appointment and figured I’d be waiting there all day, so I got a good book. I didn’t need it.

I got to the Embassy (the Consulate part actually) about 8:40 and got in a fairly short line (8 people). It was a heavily sealed facility. Within two minutes, one of the consulate staff was out checking the folks in line. Even though my appointment was at 9, he put me in the line to go in.

About a minute later I was ushered in to the security area. I had to give them everything electronic, including computer, kindle and phone. I gave them my whole bag and they put it in a locked area and gave me the key. I went through a metal detector next. Time in so far – 5 minutes.

I went to a kiosk to select one of about 10 services and got a numbered ticket (like the DMV). I then went into a large area and several signs pointed US citizens to the front of the line so I bypassed about 40 people in chairs waiting. I then entered a small complex with service windows. That took about two minutes.

As I walked in, my number flashed and I went right to the window. The consulate agent took my form, passport, etc. and then asked me to go pay. The cashier was right next to that window and it was open and I paid. I then went back to the agent who had my passport, gave him my receipt and he said it would just be a bit and to wait; they would call me. This was about 8:50. I figured this was where the wait was going to begin.

I sat in an area of chairs and started chatting with two unlucky folks who had their passports stolen. They said they had been there about 20 minutes or so (inc. filling out forms). My name was called and I looked at my watch. It and been 12 minutes. I got my passport and was stunned. I had 48 new pages and it was all done. If you count the two minutes getting my bag and leaving, that was a total of 25 minutes start to finish. I left at 9:05 – 5 minutes after my supposed appointment. Amazing.

I have to say I was expecting to wait and would have been happy to wait, actually, to get more pages in my passport in just one day. This blew me away. It wasn’t just me. Everything was efficient. There were more folks from Costa Rica there getting visas, etc., than US citizens, but their lines were constantly moving also. The US agents were friendly and fast. I’d send a thank you letter to the government if I could just navigate their site and figure out where to send it!

Perhaps this was a fluke, but I don’t think so. It was great to see the whole process for something that was relatively stress-free (extra pages). If I ever did lose my passport, I can only hope the consulate where I am is as great as the one in Costa Rica. It would dramatically reduce the stress I imagine that we’d have.

Adding everything up, I do have a different view of San Jose. I’m sure it still has its downsides, but it was nice to see its benefits as well before leaving with an incomplete perspective. Second chances surprise you sometimes. Pura vida!

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Border

Things are always moving on our new adventure. And sadly, they will be coming to an end soon – but not before we have a chance to experience more interesting, inspiring, and well, odd and embarrassing things here. First the fun stuff.

Deb and I just completed our SCUBA PADI certification. This is something Deb has always wanted to do. What better place than Costa Rica. While we have friends who love diving in Seattle, sorry, it’s juts to cold and dark for us. We’ll take the 86° F water and 40 feet of visibility any day.

Our good friend Risky was our instructor out of Aquacenter in Playa Flamingo. He suggested we wait until June/July because the water is clearer then. We wanted to do wait anyway for all of the tourists to be gone (its low season now). We ended up doing it in 4 days, culminating in the most amazing final open water dives.

The Caribbean has its wrecks and coral, the Mediterranean also has wrecks caves. Costa Rica has no coral or wrecks, but what you get here are incredible numbers of sea life in great diversity. As an example, on our final dive we saw a pod of dolphins on the way to the site and two humpback whales on the way back. While diving, the dolphins were serenading us – we could hear their “chirpy” vocalizations underwater. During the dive we saw several adult and baby white-tipped sharks, an eagle ray, many flavors of moray eels, an octopus, and tons of fish of all kinds. The puffer fish are pretty friendly. They hovered and watch me and when I stuck my finger out they would go for a nibble.

That was one dive. While it was the first time we saw whales, dolphins and sharks, the rest and more were pretty common on our other dives. We hear from Risky that this particular area off the coast of Play Flamingo is one of the best diving spots in Central America. We sure had a blast. We took our GoPro and have some great video (although note that the original GoPro and GoPro 2 have domed lenses and that makes for a bit of blurriness in underwater conditions.

Deb and Aidan (and me when I can) will start running a computer class at Abriendo Mentes next week. It is one of the organizations for which Deb recently helped put on a fundraiser. Abriendo Mentes provides a safe, constructive, and vibrant place for children to go after school where they learn invaluable computer and English language skills. I’ll let Deb say more about the class once she starts it.

Speaking of classes, I start teaching my Information Visualization class at Universidad Veritas next Thursday. I’ve completed all of the course content. I think I have around 1200 visualization examples for 13 classes. It’s not all lecture. I’ll talk for a bit, we’ll have some discussions and critiques, and the class will have some in-class exercises and projects. I’ve been inspired a bit by the challenges in Hell’s Kitchen so I’m going to try to set up a few challenges that way. J

 

The young adults are motoring along with unschoolingstill. They are doing some math now online on IXL while Deb helps in the tougher spots. We are supplementing that with some science content, including a few science fiction movies that have a lot of good science, including Gattaca and the Andromeda Strain so far. Aidan and Nev both though the Andromeda Strain, which was done in the 70’s, was “pretty good” despite not having CG, cool special effects and computers. It was a little eerie to see that again and all of the really “old school” science technology.

It’s pretty clear that Aidan and Nev are digital natives – people born after computers, digital technology, and the internet. For that matter, most of my students are as well. There isn’t a term though that I have found for kids who technically fit the criteria for digital natives but who have never used a computer or the Internet. There are many kids like that here and that’s why the work that we’ll be doing with Abriendo Mentes is so important. Abriendo Mentes is the one place most of these kids can work with technology. What we’ve heard is that, like most kids, they take to it like breathing, so I expect Deb and Aidan will have their hands full quickly. Deb is looking to bring in some new content and Aidan is the designated Minecraft expert!

For those who read my Border Run post and Deb’s border run, I had to do another one Friday. I have some updates and an interesting story. There are some new official, and unofficial, procedures that have come into being compared to January. First off, Costa Rica still requires the $7 exit tax. You’ll find that you need more dollars in Nicaragua given a few changes. One is that you now pay $12 to enter Nicaragua. It used to be $2.

What was interesting about the $12 was that immigration has to fill out a new form evidently, as a receipt of cash. I paid $12 USD. I just happened to actually look at the receipt later and saw two things. First, the immigration official marked it as a receipt of cash in Nicaraguan cordobas, not dollars as I paid. I initially thought they had a very creative process for working the exchange rate (dollars are much stronger). Heck, it works for banks, why not immigration? However, I also noticed that the receipt was for what I believe I remember to be 44 cordobas. Sadly, I didn’t keep the receipt, but that is about $2. I’m not sure how official the $12 was, so keep an eye out.

There are a few new rules as well. One is that you now need to photocopy your passport for immigration when you leave Nicaragua. Fortunately, there is a handy “fotocopias” hut near the immigration entry/exit station (add $1 here for a photocopy).

Another new rule is that you now need to spend a minimum of 5 hours in Nicaragua (or 8, depending on who you talk to). We heard this from both the Nicaraguan tourist “helpers” and the immigration folks. There does seem to be an unofficial but fairly structured way around it. It was important in my case because I was on a bus with 8 people and if anyone didn’t follow this process, we’d all be waiting 5 hours. Of course, that’s how most people do border runs.

In terms of this process around the 5 hour rule, first, the local “helpers” are good at spotting folks who are doing border runs and they’ll find you. They basically tell you that you need to stay 5 hours unless you pay a special fee. It is supposedly not a tip, but rather for the immigration official. I paid $10 but others on our bus paid $20. First they go off and “talk” to immigration. When ready, they go with you through the Nicaraguan exit immigration where the immigration official just charges another $2. Interestingly and unsolicited, mine told me (in Spanish of course) that I should not need to pay anyone else anything. It was curious at the time.

After getting our exit papers and stamp, we paid our $10 fee and walked toward the exit to “no man’s land.” Here it gets interesting. If you don’t go through the process, or evidently if you don’t pay your “helper” enough, when you approach the exit immigration official, the helper run up and shout that you have not been here 5 hours. I saw it twice.

The big surprise was that the exit official was telling all of the gringos in line that they had not been there long enough. Helpers told me that I should give him $2. Now I understood the strange comment from the other official.

This seemed clearly like a shakedown. It was confirmed by a few others who had been through this before. I and one of the women from the bus were waiting for him to give us back our passports, but he wasn’t. Meanwhile, more and more gringos were coming into line and he was taking their passports too, to check. Well, one of them started making a big and loud huff. The “helpers” were saying that the person hadn’t been in Nicaragua for 5 hours. The tourist was arguing vociferously that it didn’t matter. It is one of those situations that I could see going south quickly and everyone gets in trouble, so I asked for my passport for a “momentito”, returned it to the official with $2 inside, and got my passport back and left. The argument continued as a few more officials started toward the tourist.

My experience may have been rare, so don’t take it as the expected process, but at least be prepared. While I dislike the idea of bribes, this all seemed part of the experience and big waves were caused when the process wasn’t followed. At the end of the day, it was only a few dollars. The economy in Nicaragua is so bad that a dollar goes a long way and if it helps the folks at the border, I don’t mind. Hopefully, it is not a cultural experience I’ll have to get used to. I would have been fine waiting 5 hours but my bus wasn’t. But then, we had one more bit of excitement to come.

I exited Costa Rica through immigration in an incredible 6 minutes this time, including filling out the form. I got 90 days, even though I really only need 30. My immigration officer was very nice and on a roll. From there, it was back to the bus and home. Well, not quite yet.

As I said, there were 8 of us on the bus. Two of the passengers were very boisterous older men from the US who had been staying in Tamarindo. They had only been in Costa Rica 5 weeks, but were staying for 4 months and so needed to do a border run at some point and chose Friday. One of the two guys got very angry in Nicaragua when he found out that he had to get a photocopy of his passport and started yelling at everyone, including his friend. I thought it was odd at the time, but I have seen worse, sadly, from other American tourists.

Well, 6 of us were waiting in the bus for these last two. The one that was not angry came back and when he did not see his partner, he told the driver that his buddy was escorted to the front side of the building. This is where you first arrive and where they have their interrogation rooms. We waited about 15 minutes and he was a no show. The driver was clearly worried and so went to immigration to check. When he returned he did indeed say that this guy was taken by immigration officials.

Meanwhile, his friend had tried several times to call him without luck. After about another 10 minutes, his friend gets a call. His buddy was being detained. Here was an arrest warrant out for him in Texas that was triggered when he tried to re-enter Costa Rica. The Costa Rican’s were putting him on a bus to Managua so he could go to the US Embassy there.

The guy who was detained had on shorts and a tank top and nothing else with him. His buddy thought he could meet him in Managua with his stuff and they could return together. Unfortunately, his buddy wasn’t likely to be going anywhere other than back to the US – or perhaps a permanent, unofficial stay in Nicaragua. So, since there was nothing we could do about the detainee, we left. The whole bus, including his friend, was speculating on what this guy, who was the “nicest guy in the world” according to his friend, did and why they caught him here instead of when they first landed. The warrant must have triggered in the 5 weeks since they’ve been here.

Once again, border runs seem to be good experiences to see karma in action. Pura Vida.

Spectating and Planning

The past couple of weeks have been a blur of World Cup soccer watching. It has been very fun to be able to watch as many games as we want this year, since we can schedule our other activities around the games and because Brazil is in a compatible time zone. Obviously we were rooting for our U.S team and were sad to see them go. Being here in Costa Rica and experiencing the excitement of seeing Costa Rica make it so far in the tournament has been a treat. While we had been enthusiastic about their chances from the beginning, many Costa Ricans we know were highly skeptical and really not believing their team could escape the first round. What fun it has been to be able to watch their crazy enthusiasm and the bloom of hope leading into this “last eight” round against The Netherlands. I’m still learning just how much fútbol means to most Central and South Americans and the Europeans. It’s not just a game. It’s something more.

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Oh, and if you haven’t seen comedian John Oliver’s take on the beautiful game, the controversy over this year’s World Cup, and its governing organization FIFA – it’s a must see.

When not watching fútbol, Andy has been working on his class that he will be teaching at Universidad Veritas. The course begins July 23. I have seen a lot of the material. It will be a great information visualization introduction course.  He has collected, with help from many colleagues and friends, a vast array of both excellent and terrible examples. I’m always amazed to watch Andy work on a project. He doesn’t do things halfway. It will be a course to remember.

Meanwhile, the kids and I are planning our family trip to Europe. It will end up being shorter than I originally thought because of Andy’s class, getting the dogs back to the U.S. and the kids’ request to be back with their U.S. friends for Halloween.

Our Europe trip will focus in Spain and Italy. The goals are to get a bit of architectural history that lines up with Aidan’s crusades project and to get a bit of art history for Nev.  And really, just giving the kids a taste of seeing really old stuff, riding trains, and experiencing some great food in its native environment.

We will primarily be castle hunting in Spain. Aidan and I have been scouring all of the “best castle” lists we can find on the internet. There are many. Now we just have to piece together a logical route to hit the most castles that we can. There are few castles that are way away from other things that we may have to forgo.

We fly into Barcelona. Here I have booked my first ever Airbnb lodging. Fingers crossed that is what I expect. While not many castles here, we will go out to Montserrat for a day trip. We will also take the opportunity to see as much Gaudí works as possible and we are considering a day trip to the Dali museum. Nev’s only comment so far on Dalí is that he had a really cool mustache. I was hoping for a response that was ever slightly more intellectual.  We may try to catch an FC Barcelona match if there is one while we are there as well. Their schedule past August is not posted yet.

I found a couple of interesting websites that are proving to be useful. Trip4Real is Spain only. I assume that they will branch out to other countries once they can. It appears that anyone can register and create an offering (tour or activity).  If you find an activity you like, you register, book, and pay (PayPal) on the site. I assume the site takes a commission. Neither Andy nor I are very keen on organized tours with groups of strangers.  However, we will likely do at least a local tapas tour in Barcelona.  I’ve found the site to both useful for tours to book as well as information on good castles, etc. that we can visit on our own.  Another site that is pretty interesting is a simple trip planning site called Route Perfect. It helps you pick out an itinerary across a few cities based on a few criteria. It additionally allows you to book lodging through them. I’m not using it for our final itinerary, but it was a useful beginning tool.  It doesn’t seem to be able to cross country borders, which is a bit annoying.

The other site I found that I think we will find to be the most valuable is Rome 2 Rio. This is a site that aggregates available transportations options – buses, trains, planes, car – from city to city.  It seems to work all over. I tested it on a couple of U.S. trips and Costa Rica trips and it seems to pull up proper info.

We will go through France briefly on our way over to Italy. Haven’t planned the cities yet for certain. I know in Italy we will go to Florence, Orvieto, and Rome.  Beyond that, the kids and I have a lot of planning left to do. If you have any must see things in France, Italy, or Spain do let us know.