Kids coding in Costa Rica

We’ve mentioned Abriendo Mentes in a couple of previous posts. They are a local non-profit working here in Potrero. Their goal is to help enhance educational opportunities for the local children. The local public school available for children is only 3 hours per day. Abriendo Mentes provides additional programs such as art, team sports, English, and computer skills. Most of the children here do not have computers in their homes. Having computer skills and being able to speak English will open up many more income possibilities for these children when they reach working age. I’ve been lucky enough to have the opportunity to temporarily take on running the computer classroom/lab. Aidan is also helping me with the class and serving as my Minecraft expert.



I was a little unsure what type of curriculum to provide. I’m used to being around children that have grown up with computers as part of everyday life. After getting a sense for what the previous person had set up, I spent the first few days watching and learning what the kids already seemed to know and enjoy. It was interesting to watch these children use the computer.

Here are a few observations:

  • I noticed that many of the sites they like to use for games are only available in English and so they miss a lot of the subtleties of the story etc.
  • I was surprised to see that because of their lack of experience, there are certain patterns of interactions that they just don’t understand. The “radio button” selection for example. It is an interaction convention that provides a list of options from which you can only select one. This part they understand. What they don’t understand is the “commit” or “submit” requirement after that selection.
  • Another one I noticed is the use of the same button for 2 purposes (a dual state button). You also see this every time you use a video player on YouTube where the play and pause button is the same button. There are a couple of places that they have encountered this and have trouble. The first is the video player example. The second in the coding tool where they need to “run” something and then need to “reset” it to start over.
  • They have recently been introduced to Minecraft. They play differently than the U.S. kids that I know. The most interesting differences are what they build and how they play in the world. They build replicas of their local physical environment – small houses (Costa Rican Casitas) with lots of horses, cows, dogs, and chickens. They run and play with their horses and put them in a corral at night. They put little signs in their small 2 room homes with their name or sometimes their name along with a friend’s name. The materials that they use are all very simple and the same as what they see in their environment e.g. stone and wood. When they do play together in the same world, they do not create/build together but will build complimentary structures – neighboring houses or a corral for the house that the other is building. This is almost exactly opposite of the way I’ve seen kids in the U.S. play. Those kids collaborate to create elaborate structures from their imaginations and search diligently to find and use a variety of resources/materials.
  • There is a large disparity in the games that the girls play and the boys play. Girls will choose to play fashion (clothes, hair, make-up) games or Disney princess games. The Boys will choose to play Minecraft, soccer, or driving games. This isn’t 100%. I’ve seen a couple of boys play videos of songs from the movie “Frozen” and I’ve seen a couple of the girls choose to play Minecraft together, but not regularly.

Based on some of these observations I decided to try a couple of things with the kids, with some mixed results.

With Minecraft I tried to introduce them to a couple of concepts – creating larger environments from the real world and creating things from their imagination. The first thing was to put a group of 4 students into a world together. I then tried to help them to visualize and build the Potrero town square. This is not very large. The town center is the soccer field. Around this are the community center (where they take English and art classes), a church, a market, and a few houses. This proved to be incredibly difficult for them and ultimately they lost interest because it was so challenging.

Next I had Aidan create one of his favorite things to build – an enormous and elaborate roller coaster as a demonstration of imagined things and explain how you make it. This didn’t inspire too much creativity or interest. Then Aidan created a large thing that used a lot of “red stone” which are really circuits. I thought that maybe the cause and effect would be interesting. Nope.


Next I tried something that seems to be working. My own children have used with success. I was concerned about trying this or Gamestar Mechanic because of the large amount of English required. Then I discovered a beta section on that was visual programming for early readers. This meant that the tools were mostly using only arrows rather than written English to describe the actions. It worked very well and the kids enjoy it. Many of them seem to really seem get the underlying concepts and enjoy the thinking involved in moving the Angry Bird along to catch the bad pig without running into walls or blowing himself up. I see sparks of that joy of the success of making something happen with a sequence of things you put together on the computer. I’m hoping that this base understanding will help them move along without too much trouble to the coding that involves some English paired with the arrows.

I’m enjoying the opportunity to meet and interact with these kids. They are all bright and friendly and I get a little different view on Costa Rican life than just interacting with adults. They teach me some Spanish and laugh when I make conjugation mistakes. I think Aidan is enjoying the experience of working with me and being the “expert” in something. Without a doubt it will be something we remember about our Costa Rican adventure.


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.

CostaRicaFutbolWatching CRFutbol

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.


Giving back

Wherever you live there are opportunities to become involved in helping your community. Our community here in CostaRica is no exception. My current project is working with a group of local residents to plan and host a fundraising event, called Books and Barks, to benefit two organizations that consistently improve the community here – Abriendo Mentes  & Costa Rica Pet Care.

Our party will be held June 21. A local restaurant, Oasis, is donating the whole restaurant and kitchen. Many, many businesses – from restaurants, resorts, and bars, to markets, ice suppliers, and musicians – are donating food, drinks, supplies, and musical entertainment. It should be a very fun event with 4 bands confirmed. We have a core team of local folks headed by our fearless local yoga instructor, who are planning, coordinating volunteers, advertising, selling tickets, and procuring. Fortunately, I have our fabulous UCoop school auctions to look to for models of how to run very fun and successful fundraising events.

Here is a little bit about our awesome local organizations/funding beneficiaries:

Abriendo Mentes provides a safe, constructive, and vibrant place for children to go after school where they learn invaluable computer and English language skills. The local economy has shifted from agriculture and fishing to tourism jobs, leading to roughly 40% unemployment. The regional state elementary schools operate only about 3 hours per day for 85 days per year and only about 13% graduate from high school. Abriendo Mentes provides a foundation that prepares local children to one day become successful, economically stable adults.

Costa Rica Pet Care has been working tirelessly for 12 years to help our local pets. And by Costa Rica Pet Care, I largely mean the founder, Dawn. Her work includes sterilizing over roughly 12,500 dogs and cats. Dawn coordinates with veterinarians all over Costa Rica who donate their services for 1 weekend per month doing spay and neuter clinics. She tirelessly drives through the rural regions, finding sick and injured animals and provides medical care for these animals. This work helps to keep diseases from spreading at alarming rates through the community.




Some before and after medical care photos:


Spay and neuter clinic photos


I know that most of you reading this blog don’t live here and cannot attend our fabulous fundraising fiesta. However, I do hope that you would consider helping by donating a few dollars (via PayPal) through the link below. Any money you send will be split equally between the two organizations. A little bit goes a long way.

  • $10 can provide deworming or distemper shot
  • $25 can provide 1 year of school supplies for a child OR feed a dog for a month
  • $30 can spay or neuter 2 pets
  • $50 provides art materials for a month of creative projects
  • $100 funds ESL and technology education for one child for a whole year
  • $500 can provide a (much needed) computer for the lab

donation button alone 2

Guanacaste Literacy Inc, (DBA: Abriendo Mentes) is a 501(c)3 organization in the state of Texas. Tax ID: 27-1427847 Address: 3310 Crosspark Lane, Houston, TX  77007          





Girls Gone Beaching

I recently returned from a girls’ 4-day weekend in the Nicoya Peninsula. Specifically, we spent time in Montezuma, Santa Teresa, and Malpaís. There were 4 ladies on this trip. Our primary purpose: investigate/evaluate 2 yoga instructor training courses (not for me obviously – one of the other ladies on the trip). I was particularly excited to go because this area of Costa Rica was on my short list for where we might live during our year here.



If you do a tiny bit of internet searching on Montezuma you generally find some description like – a quiet, eclectic, remote hippy town that has grown up in recent years to include some tasty restaurants run by expats and a local organic farmers market. Sounds like just the place you might expect us to land right? I ended up not choosing Montezuma because of the distance from the airport, hospital, and because of reports of very strong rip currents. I was excited to see first-hand the path not taken.

The beach here turned out to be beautiful, but with a lot of lava rock.


Montezuma beach across from Montezuma Yoga studio



Katie and a fabulous piece of driftwood


Ultimately, I’m pleased with my decision not to live here, though it was certainly worth the visit. We did manage to find one pretty good restaurant with a nice location on the beach. But for the most part the restaurants, bars, markets, buildings, and street vendors were pretty uninspiring. Everything was easily walkable. We all agreed that we enjoyed the people and the town more during the day than the evening. It’s a little rougher crowd in the evening.  The town does have a couple of very beautiful yoga studios. One is the Montezuma Yoga studio. It was here that I met my first white-faced/capuchin monkeys. I learned that they like to throw mangos at people. Charming.




Montezuma does have some impressive waterfalls.  There are 3 along the same river and range in hiking distance from about 30 minutes to about 2 hours. We chose the 30-minute trip to the first falls. This decision was based primarily on the fact that we each only had one pair of shoes and these were, of course, flip flops. The hike is up a rocky riverbed, which meant that we actually hiked it barefoot. It was a fun hike. However, much to my disappointment the pool at the bottom of the waterfall was quite brown and murky. It is typically clear but as this is just the beginning of rainy season (re-named by the tourist industry marketers to Green Season) the dirt was just getting stirred up and not yet cleared out by enough rain.




Santa Teresa and Malpaís

Post waterfall adventure, we drove off on a bumpy jungle road to Malpaís and Santa Teresa.  These two towns are very close together, as in you can’t actually tell where one stops and the other starts. First stop after a hike is always food. Fortunately, Katie knew about one restaurant The Bakery.  This place was awesome! We ended up eating there 4 times. It’s not just pastries of course.





Santa Teresa was also on my short list for places to live. It is a surfing town. Apparently for a long time it was a “secret surfer paradise.” I ended up not choosing this town and am a little bit sad about this one. It turns out that the Santa Teresa information found during my research phase was at least 2 years old. I read a number of articles that described the area as over-run with tourists to the detriment of the locals and un-walkable because the main road created so much dust that everyone had to wear dust masks just to walk down the street or get to the beach. The truth is that the road is paved and has been for roughly 2 years. There are definitely some tourists, but it’s also clearly a town of residents from a variety of countries. We even saw a guy with the word “local” tattooed on his arm (sorry no photo). We of course debated about whether he was really trying to identify as a local resident or if possibly he was just that into local food/farming. We ended up staying an extra day because we loved our lodging and its easy walk to the beach – Casas Villas Soleil.  I highly recommend it if you are ever in the area. We didn’t eat every meal at The Bakery. We also had incredible butterflied, grilled Red Snapper at a restaurant called…The Red Snapper.  This town seems very livable. It is quite a drive to an airport or a hospital though – roughly 5 hours to those services. We were also warned not to go on the beach after dark. Not really sure how seriously to take that.










As we lounged and chatted about Montezuma, Santa Teresa, Malpaís and other Costa Rican beach towns with which we are familiar, we designed our perfect Costa Rican beach town. Our mythical town has a host of features like The Bakery, a weekly organic farmer’s market, a good grocery market, a few good restaurants and bars of course, with live music, just the right amount of rain, a main paved road, safe bridges across the rivers, tourists but not too many, and other things I’m forgetting right now. I’m sure you can imagine your own list. In the end we came to realize that retail offerings serve to make a richer experience, but it really is the community/the people that define a small town. You need diversity of experience, skill, opinion, background, etc, and of course not everyone will get along with everyone all of the time, but the secret ingredient to these small towns is people who want to work together to create a thriving community. Our little town of Potrero may be odd in its layout and sadly lacking in quality French pastries, but the community does work together to help each other, to solve local infrastructure challenges, to welcome new people, and to build relationships. For that, (and the paved road) I am happy.


Deb goes to Nicaragua

This week I took a little trip to Nicaragua. It was my turn to do a “border run” for a freshly inked tourist visa. Andy detailed his trip to Nicaragua a few weeks ago.  I decided to make it a little more fun and actually stay overnight and explore just a little bit.

A little background:

As Andy mentioned previously, we applied for a “Rentista” visa.  At this point in time, we have completed all of the application requirements, have submitted the application, and the application has been put into the system/queue for review. We achieved this “in process” status in mid January and have the receipt to prove it.



Rentista receipt


According to the law, we are free to stay or leave the country as we please until our application is either approved or rejected.  However, we are only legal to drive using our American driver’s license if we have a valid tourist visa stamp.  They can take our plates if we drive with an expired tourist visa. You might ask – why don’t you just get a Costa Rica driver’s license? Great idea and we would love to do that. But as with many oddities here, you are not allowed to get a Costa Rican driver’s license until you are granted the residency visa. This is actually a recent change. There are people here that have a Costa Rica driver’s license but do not have residency. They will not be able to renew when it expires without residency.


Crossing the border:

I had heard all about Andy’s trip as well as read the jewel of a post by Gord and Elisha at In Nica Now detailing the border crossing from the Nicaraguan side.  Still I wasn’t quite prepared for the disarray and expanse of the “no man’s land” on each side of the actual border. Having traveled internationally a fair amount, I went into it not really thinking it would be anything unusual. In the midst of it all, I realized that with the exception of the US/Canada border and between the US Virgin Islands and British Virgin Islands (which I don’t think really counts) all of my immigration experiences have been at an airport.  This certainly lacked the efficiency of the airport.

Fortunately my Canadian traveling companion had made this pilgrimage before. She knew just the right place to park the car, a reasonable distance inside of the fray. What we didn’t know was that the long discussed $7 Costa Rican exit tax was now required. We waited in line outside the Costa Rican departure building for about 30 minutes and made it all of the way into the building before we realized this. The line wrangling official directed us to a machine inside the building where we should have been able to pay the tax.  Unsurprisingly it was not working. Some folks on their way out of the building told us that we could pay the tax at an A-shaped building about 300 meters back from where we came. I stayed and held our place in line while Colleen took both of our passports and ran off to pay our exit tax. I spent the next 20 minutes doing that weird stand-in-line-but-let-people-go-ahead thing. I continued to mentally practice the Spanish that would attempt to explain to the line officer (should he ask) why I’ve been in line for so long and why I no longer have a passport. A lovely German backpacking couple entered the building. They have also been directed to the non-functional machine to pay the exit tax. I confidently send one of them off to the mythical A-shaped building with both of their passports to pay the tax. There, I’ve helped someone with information that I have no idea is actually correct. Good deed for the day complete.

For the record the building really does exist. Here is a picture. And they charged us each a $10 (US) for the $7 exit tax. Whee.


A-frame building where you can pay the Costa Rican exit tax at Penas Blancas

We got back in the car and drove a bit further to a gated parking area to leave the car overnight. Cost for this was $10 (US). We gathered up our backpacks, locked the car and proceeded to make our way through the multiple passport showings and various people trying to sell us things and help us. As soon as we crossed the actual border into Nicaragua, Colleen was spotted by a Nicaraguan man named Charlie that she knows from previous trips. Charlie has apparently made a living at the border for many years assisting confused travelers navigate the milieu. He guided us through the rest of the process and helped us find a cab driver that knew how to get to our lodging. I have one useful note that I can add to the previous reports. This little receipt (pictured below) that costs $1 US is required on both entry and exit. You can save yourself a dollar if you keep your entry one and show it on exit. No need to pay for it again.


The no man’s land is so large that is has a sort of town square, duty free shopping, and a restroom. Ladies if you don’t carry your own toilet paper or enjoy drip dry, be prepared to pay somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 cents for a handful of the stuff.


Walking in no man’s land


Town Square

Surf Ranch

Once we were through all of the stamping, passport viewing, and tax paying we were free to travel about Nicaragua. We had decided to try out a place called Surf Ranch. It’s a few minutes north of San Juan del Sur. Colleen’s surfer son and his buddy stayed there last year and liked it. It’s much like it sounds – a low budget haven for surfers to meet other surfers, find easy travel to the good waves, and party with other surfers. The grounds come complete with a climbing wall, skateboard park, pool, outdoor bar, and some kind of inflatable thing that you climb up to a platform and jump onto.  It was quite an entertaining place. The rooms were small and quite clean with surprisingly decent mattresses. I will note that they were very short. I’m only 5’6” and my feet were at the end of the bed.


Climbing Wall at The Surf Ranch


Main grounds and bar and The Surf Ranch

We dropped our bags in the room, locked up and headed for a day in the nearby town of San Juan del Sur.


San Juan del Sur main street along the beach

San Juan del Sur

This is a lovely little beach town that seems to have a nice mix of expats, young tourists, and Nicaraguan residents. It’s quite a bit larger than the town where we live in Guanacaste. Probably equivalent in size and amount of restaurants and retail to Tamarindo, but it has a very different feel. We immediately stumbled into an awesome little organic store with lots of local honey, chia seeds, coconut oil, essential oils, chocolate, lotions, potions, locally made clothes, swimming suits, hammocks, beach chairs, etc. Score. We then heeded the Canadian clarion call of the Caesar at The Loose Moose. It’s really just an elaborate bloody mary made with Calmato juice instead of tomato juice. But don’t try to tell that to the Canadians. They insist it is unique.

Colleen and her Ceasar. Yes, that’s maple coated bacon on top of those beauties.

As we were drinking our Canadian bloody marys, we noticed a parade of twenty-somethings going by all wearing matching shirts that said “Sunday Funday.” Not ones to pass up a funday, we discovered it was a pubcrawl between not just bars, but bars that had swimming pools. Yeah! We immediately went to the hostel to purchase our $10 pubcrawl shirt/ticket and joined the fray. Turns out there were a lot of people. If you look in the background of the photo, that is a pool below. It is packed with people.



Sunday Funday at the Pelican Eyes hotel.

We hung out for a while and then headed down to one of the lower level pools at Pelican Eyes hotel so we could actually get in the water.

Eventually it was dinnertime. Sadly, Colleen’s favorite restaurant had recently closed down. So we had to look for a good place to have dinner. There were lots of options of course. We avoided the touristy and tourist-priced restaurants along the beach. We went to the perfectly named One Love surf shop and asked for a recommendation. We ended up at a tiny local fish place. We each had the special – lobster tails in garlic sauce, rice and salad. It was incredible. The price was even more incredible. These 2 meals, 2 sodas, 2 glasses of wine, 2 bottles of water =  total with taxes $16 (US).


Meanwhile back at the (Surf) Ranch

We returned after a long day of walking, talking, drinking, and swimming to the Surf Ranch to shower, cool off, and sleep. Here is where the Surf Ranch review gets bad. The rooms were, as is typical in Central America, made of concrete. Our room was on the second floor in the middle of the row of about 7 rooms. The only door to the room was the sliding glass door along the narrow outside walkway.  We noticed that there were 2 standing fans and of course a ceiling fan. There was a tiny window in the bathroom (which is at the back of the room). There were no other windows, ventilation, or air conditioning.

Folks, it’s hot here. Roughly 98 F during the day and some pretty hefty humidity this time of year. We were 2 women traveling with a passport, some cash, and a credit card each. Our natural inclination was to close the door and lock it for sleeping. Within 30 minutes, it was so stiflingly hot in the room we could hardly breathe. We opened the door and spent some time standing out on the walkway where it is about 20 degrees cooler. I contemplated wrapping myself in a sheet to protect myself from bugs and sleep in the hammock by the bar. Colleen contemplated moving her mattress out on the walkway that is probably just wide enough for the mattress. Eventually I noticed that all of the other people (meaning the 2 rooms to left and 2 rooms to the right of ours) were sleeping with the sliding door to the room open and the fan in the doorway blowing in cooler, fresh air.  Eventually too exhausted to care, we put our wallets under our pillows and sleep with the door and one eye open.

We awoke with the sun – since we didn’t really sleep anyway. Showered, packed up, lazed around the grounds and headed back to town as soon as the driver arrived on site.



Back in San Juan del Sur we headed to the famous El Gato Negro café and bookstore for a long, lazy breakfast. The food, smoothies, and coffee were delish. As was the people watching. It was a lovely mix of American, Canadian, German expats and Nicaraguans that frequent the café.


El Gato Negro store front




El Gato Negro coffee


Back to Costa Rica

We eventually headed back to Costa Rica. We made this leg of the trip in record time –  1.5 hours from San Juan del Sur to picking up our car in Costa Rica.  Entering Costa Rica and getting my tourist visa stamp went smoothly. This was the first test of using the residency receipt rather than travel documents. I was a little worried that the receipt wouldn’t be accepted or that because I had the residency receipt perhaps they would give some other type of visa stamp. It all went smoothly. When the immigration officer asked for my onward travel papers and I showed the residency receipt he actually seemed excited/pleased. I’m not sure whether it was just that he doesn’t seem many of those or some other mysterious reason. Anyway, I got my 90 day stamp and I’m legal to drive in Costa Rica.

I really enjoyed my little trip to Nicaragua. From what little I’ve seen, it’s a charming country with friendly people. I loved seeing the fields of wind turbines generating electricity (Sorry no photo. But trust me, they were beautiful.) and the ease of the mixing of Nicaraguans and expats. I didn’t feel like I was being charged the higher “gringo” price everywhere. I’m told that Isla Ometepe and Little Corn Island are must. Maybe we’ll take the whole family on the next trip and hit both of these.