Transitions

Transitions

It has been several weeks since I’ve last posted about our new adventure – far too long. It’s been a crazy several weeks as we’ve returned from Costa Rica, in two groups, visited with friends, searched for jobs, and more. The whole period has been fun but really has seemed like an interlude between our initial adventure in Costa Rica and our next adventure in Europe. I’m taking some relaxing time now while in the airplane to pause, reflect, and write.

When we last left our intrepid adventurers, I had just finished speaking at Universidad VeritasExperience Design Summit, returned home, went diving with Debbie, and then I and the young adults boarded a long plane trip with most of the luggage to California. Deb was to follow in two weeks with our dogs Lucy and Isis.

The conference was a great way to end my adventure in Costa Rica and in teaching. I met some great folks there, especially the other speakers. The Summit had great energy and the only down side was saying goodbye to my fabulous students. It was one of the best and most enjoyable teaching experiences I’ve ever had. Best of luck in your final year folks!

I had a day home to both go diving and finish final packing and preparations. We had the 6 largest checked bags and 6 carry-ons that were really heavy. I had most of the technology in the carry-ons including several backup drives, batteries, rechargers, and a lot more – the kind of things that usually flag us in security for inspection. Oh yeah, we were bringing our adopted Costa Rican cat, MnM, home in a cat carrier.

The trip back was a long one. We basically went from Liberia in Costa Rica to Atlanta with a long layover to LA where we stayed overnight, slept about 4 hours and then boarded a flight for Oakland, near where my parents live.

The trip back was long but not tough, although we had a tricky moment in Costa Rican security. Knowing we had several legs and an overnight, we had packed several baggies of cat litter for MnM. Thinking back, they did look more than a little suspicious! Well, the security folks in Liberia had to take them, after asking what they were. One of the really nice agents was very sympathetic (a cat lover I assume) but we couldn’t even bring one. I was worried we’d have to deal with a kitty accident in the plane but MnM showed herself to be an awesome traveler. She didn’t have any needs on board and didn’t make a peep.

We spent the next few weeks at my parents’ house in Rodeo. We had a great long visit and I got to cook most nights and make some dishes that I couldn’t really do in Costa Rica – like jumbalaya and minestrone. It was quite a treat to be able to make things that took a long time but where I didn’t have to cook in 95°F heat!

A very large thread through my time there was looking and interviewing for jobs. I made two trips to Seattle and a few into Silicon Valley. I have several promising opportunities and I have to say that this makes me feel far more settled going off to Europe and not feeling that I have to start this process from scratch when I return.

Two weeks after we arrived in California, Deb came in with the dogs. Her trip was far more grueling. When we left for Costa Rica, there were two of us to handle the dogs and even though we had two legs, the dogs stayed in their kennels the whole time. On the way back, it was a very different story – starting with the bus ride to San Jose.

Deb had ordered a cargo van for her and the dogs, explaining that she needed an open van, not a passenger van. She confirmed it with the company a few times leading up to her trip. Murphy’s Law then intervened. What arrived was a 12 person passenger van, with all seats and no space. The kennels had to be disassembled – which is a real pain because there are about 14 locking screws on each – and then put on top of the seats. The (large) dogs had to fit between the seats and poor Isis could not lay out fully. She was stressed and so Deb had to hold or pet her the entire 5.5 hour trip to San Jose.

They were flying overnight and so it was late when they arrived. Deb had to simultaneously deal with the driver, assemble the dog kennels, manage the dogs (including letting them do their business) and deal with the bags and a long line of baggage handlers who wanted to “help.” I feel horrible we weren’t there. And yet, it was not over.

She had a stop in the LA and was surprised to learn that in customs, the dogs had to come out and she had to manage them and the luggage. It’s not pleasant because poor, stressed Isis, who is almost 14, had an accident in the crate. We were all set up to deal with that on arrival but not really between flights. I picked the exhausted trio up in San Francisco and 90 minutes later we were all at my parents’ house, Deb having gotten two 45 minute naps in her nearly 48 hour trek. She gets the über-traveler award!

Deb arrived Tuesday. We used Wednesday to pack for Europe, which was a really interesting activity.

As I mentioned in previous posts, we sold most everything before we went to Costa Rica. We only took two stowed bags and two carry-ons each with everything we needed for 10 months in Costa Rica. For Europe, we were “downsizing” to one bag each for 5 weeks. We had the young adults’ backpacking backpacks, which were carry-on size, for them. Deb and I ordered two Tortuga travel backpacks for us.

These Tortugas are amazing. They look like soft carry-ons but have a strong set of backpack straps in a compartment. They open like luggage and wear like backpacks. I was a little worried because they looked small for what we needed, but everything fit perfectly. We are carrying only a few changes of clothes for 5 weeks in Europe along with laptops, Kindles, chargers, converters, mobile battery packs, and even some nice clothes (slacks, jacket and tie for me). This is about as minimal as we can get.

I flew off to Seattle Thursday. We were all wiped out Friday. Saturday we said sad goodbyes and thanks to my parents and headed to our friends’ Tony and Joy’s house for a visit before they took us to San Francisco airport for stage 2 of our journey.

It’s been a whirlwind, but we breezed through the airport with our minimal backpacks and are ready for stage two. For the record, if the ZA (zombie apocalypse) comes, we are now set.

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The Travelers

We are starting our stage two, like stage one to Costa Rica, with varying feelings. Deb and I are super excited – but we have been to Europe before. The young adults have not and really have no idea what a place with such deep history and diverse culture has waiting for them. We are working through various levels of indifference, impatience, frustration, and boredom right now. That will change, we hope.

I’d love to say that our Nev and Aidan are very engaged and anticipating an amazing adventure, but I can’t yet. Right now, they are excited primarily by the selection of movies on the flight and the soda offerings. They can’t yet really value the experience they will have. Often though, the most profound memories and experiences come when you aren’t expecting much (or perhaps even dreading something) and yet you have an amazing experience. This is what we hope for.

Even at 10,000 feet on our way to Spain, pura vida remains with us, at least with Deb and I. We will continue to embrace this philosophy not just for the 5 weeks remaining in our adventure, but for the rest of our lives.

When I was doing research on travel for Boeing, one of the folks I talked with about travel said “travel changes you.” It certainly has for Deb and I. We hope and expect that the next 5 weeks will for our young adults as well! Pura vida!

Diving!

Deb and I have found a new passion here on our new adventure – diving! We waited awhile to do it to avoid the tourists and to wait for the incredible visibility that comes in June or so. It was worth the wait.

Deb and I completed our Open Water certification a few weeks ago and today, the day before I and the young adults leave, we completed our Advanced Open Water certification. We had the best instructor, our friend “Risky” Dave Sheppard out of Aquacenter. If you visit these shores, seek him out!

Some of the best diving in Costa Rica is off our lovely shores here in Playa Flamingo. While the Mediterranean has old wrecks and caves, Australia has the reef, and the Caribbean has reefs and wrecks, what the west pacific coast has near Playa Flamingo is an explosion of large fish and other wildlife,especially leatherback turtles.

We’ve briefly noted before that we’ve seen turtles mating, turtles swimming, a sea horse, dolphins, rays, sharks, and whales, it has become a pretty regular occurrence on our dive trips! Our last one we had our GoPro working well and captured a few treats to share here pulled from lots of video.

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My Lovely Deb All Sexy Underwater!

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day 2 trumpetfish

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A Large Puffer Fish

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A Very Camouflaged Scorpion Fish

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And and Octopus!

Between dives, we got to see two turtles mating.

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Meet the Turtles

Deb found a fun friend on dive #2 – an almaco jack. It was swimming right next to her shoulder and I had to point it out to an unaware Deb. You should hear the squeal on video 🙂 !

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Deb’s New Friend

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On our return, we spotted mom and calf humpback whales. What a great sight. They played for a while in the safer inner waters by the coast.

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Humpbacks Waving Goodbye

Tomorrow will indeed be a sad day. Nev, Aidan and I leave Costa Rica for the Bay Area for three weeks. My lovely Deb follows with the girls (dogs) in two weeks. This last part of our adventure has really come upon us quickly. It hasn’t quite hit me yet. There is so much to miss, but so many new adventures to explore, including an incredible new one coming in Spain and Italy. We’ve been extremely fortunate to have been able to do this. And we know we’ll be back someday. Meanwhile, I’m off to finish final preparations and enjoy the sunset one last time here on our adventure. Pura Vida

The Road Home and Stuff

I can’t believe the first stage of our new adventure is already coming to an end so soon. A short 10 months after we left Seattle for Costa Rica we will be leaving and on to our next, shorter, adventure. We are already actively planning and packing even while we continue our adventure here. The return trip is much easier in many respects, but harder in some.

I noted that it was only the end of stage 1. As I mentioned earlier, we decided to leave early since we are heading into (technically we are already in) low and rainy season. It’s low, but not rainy. Still, many places are starting to close and many friends are moving back to their home countries until November. So, we are switching operations to Europe. We are “trading” our last two months in Costa Rica for about 5 weeks in Spain, France and Italy.

In stage 2, I return to California and my parents’ house for a visit for two weeks while Deb stays in Costa Rica with the dogs. The dogs have to wait until Sept. 15th to travel due to the heat. Deb returns on the 17th and we head to Spain on the 21st, starting our final stage, stage 3.

Deb is hard at work developing a loose itinerary for us all. We know we land in Barcelona, Spain and leave from Florence, Italy. Everything else is pretty open. We know we want to hit a few small towns in France on the way to Italy. We plan to visit Cordoba in Spain for the castles and Orvieto in Italy for the incredible church there that hosts the works of Luca Signorelli (an incredibly talented Renaissance painter, like Michelangelo, but with a penchant for depicting the apocalypse and scenes from hell). The Catholic Church relegated him to this church on a large butte. We will also definitely visit Rome; Deb and I are going to Gladiator Camp. We did invite the young adults, but sadly, no takers there. Deb will certainly be “badass!”

As Deb does the planning, I’ve been doing the packing and finishing up my class(es). We have also both been studying and working towards our Advanced Diving Certification. Never a dull moment.

On the class front, I got asked to add another class on Prototyping to my schedule. It is a two day workshop over two weeks of elapsed time. It’s been a lot of fun to put together but it’s also been a ton of work in the middle of everything. Fortunately, it works with my current schedule in San Jose – I teach Information Visualization Thursday evening and Saturday morning and then Prototyping Friday evening. I and my class usually head out for food and drinks after one or both classes so it’s been a lot of fun.

Just to brag about my students a bit, they just turned in an assignment to create an information visualization on some aspect of the World Cup and I was blown away by the quality of the thinking and the execution. These folks all have day jobs, mostly in high-tech, and then they take night classes several days a week. In just about a week they created some visualizations that in many cases are on par with work I’ve seen on the NY Times.com site (they are well known for their excellence in information visualization). More importantly, they have focused on some really interesting stories and insights from the Cup, such as why Brazil lost so badly(!), why Costa Rica did so well despite the fact that their FIFA statistics are not stellar and how Costa Rica used passing as a super power. I’m super proud and excited to see what they’ve done so far. Here’s a quick example:

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Costa Rica’s Secret Combinations, Mauricio Varela

In between trips to San Jose, I have been starting to pack. Fortunately, and here I reveal my inner geek, I created a big spreadsheet when we first came down itemizing everything in our 6 carry-on bags and 6 stowed bags to facilitate staging and packing. That makes it very easy to do everything in reverse. Mostly.

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Re-Staging

In our two trips back, we returned here with some additional things. We added some “stuff” while we were here, most of which we won’t be bringing back, and of course some things didn’t last through our adventure. We mostly leave with the same number of bags and items. It’s interesting to see what made it and what didn’t.

First off, we have to account for additional things we brought back from the US. This includes paints, paintbrushes, and other material to paint Deb’s painting. I brought back additional technology, mostly for the young adults to make videos which they never did. Deb has all the material she got for her home made lip balms, deodorants, etc. – something she will continue to do when we return, so those all go back.

In the spirit of reducing “stuff”, we actually did not get much down here and what we did get will likely stay – being given away or sold. We will sell Fanta (our truck), our bikes, TV and a few other things. We will find good homes for the blender, crock pot, boogie board, hammock, yoga mats, printer, and sand-castle-making supplies. We used all of those things regularly but won’t need them or can’t get them home.

Very few things that we got here make the return cut list. Deb got a few hand-made bikinis. Those are coming back. They were also excellent purchases. I’ll leave them to your imagination. We’ll take our diving instruction materials back, along with Deb’s painting (which will likely be an adventure on its own). And of course, our newest family member “M and M”. That’s about it. It’s nice to maintain our low volume of stuff.

What is fascinating to me is what won’t make it back and what didn’t get used. We’ve been here almost a year and we really brought minimal supplies. Looking at where we are now, it is really clear to me what we truly need and what we don’t

The young adults have grown, especially Aidan. We are throwing away or giving away almost all of his clothes and shoes. The poor guy has no shoes that still fit – not that he needed them here! Likewise, Nev has a bunch of stuff that doesn’t fit. They, along with all of us, are getting rid of a number of clothes that we have simply worn through wearing them so much over the course of the last year. These include most of our swim suits, flip flops and t-shirts.

Then there is the technology. It’s been a hard year on our tech. Fortunately, I made sure we had redundancy in key areas. We’ve gone through four computer mice(!), three headsets/headphones, two digital pens, one Bluetooth music player, one keyboard, one tablet and a large number of recharging cables. Deb’s Mac and my parts of my tablet are on their way out as well. Kudos to all the smart phones, (Nokia, Apple, Samsung), Kindles, Xbox, and the Dell laptop which, despite heavy use all are no worse for wear.

In terms of what didn’t get used, there are many things. It’s good food for thought for others doing this (and we now know several!). We brought too many clothes and shoes. I brought several nice clothes anticipating that I might have to return to do some consulting. That was fortunate because I use them when I teach class, but I still brought too many short sleeve collared shirts. I found that black Armani t-shirts are versatile and great for going out here. I’d say that I could have cut my clothing by 2/3 and not noticed. In fairness, though, some of these things we didn’t use in Costa Rica we will use in Europe.

We didn’t use our nice Sony camera as much as we should have; it was just too big to easily take everywhere despite the nice pictures it takes. We are getting a smaller one for Europe so we actually use it. Likewise, we just started using the GoPro for diving but before that had not used it much. We didn’t watch any of the movies I brought on DVD and didn’t play most of the Xbox games we brought. And sadly, I never got a chance to use my volleyball.

Up until when I was asked to do a class on prototyping I would have added all of the backup drives I brought to this list. I had brought them more for safety but had not used them until I needed some key material for the class and then they became invaluable.

Almost everything else was used and used frequently, particularly cooking items, the very few board games and the large monitor (which was truly indispensible for my classes).

Of course, we didn’t come here to get “stuff” to bring back. Rather, we came for experiences and adventure, and we certainly got a lot – almost everything we hoped for. We all (mostly) learned a new language. We learned yoga and surfing. I got to play soccer in another country. We learned to dive. We got to explore the rain forest, the volcanoes, the jungle, and the beaches. We got to see (and in some cases live with) wildlife that we had never seen before. We got to have sunrise meditations and sunset cruises. I’ve had a wonderful opportunity to teach in an exciting new University program. Deb got a chance to give back and work for a kids’ organization and help organize a fundraiser. We got to appreciate another culture and make lots of new friends, some of whom have become as close as family. We got to help our young adults unschool and learned a lot about ourselves in that process. We got to spend lots of time together as a family. That’s the “stuff” life is made of.

And that’s just stage 1 of our adventure. Stay tuned for more. Pura Vida.

PS: At least one of us (Nev) got to really appreciate Seattle’s cold weather!

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.

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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.

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Next I tried something that seems to be working. My own children have used code.org 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 code.org 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.

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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.