The Zigzag Path
Zigzageando along the straight path
The first time I came to
But I didn’t feel that I was being brave. I was just following my plan: I was coming to
However, coming back the second time was a little bit scary. I know that I wanted very badly to return, but I wasn’t sure exactly why. This time, I did not come to
The night before I made the decision and bought my ticket, I had a dream about standing on a roof, looking down at the ground. I had two choices: I could get down on my hands and knees and jump, or I could use a ladder. But the ladder was standing a few feet away from the roof and I couldn’t reach it. I was afraid to take the risk. Then I looked down and saw that my friend Bethany was standing at the foot of the ladder. She moved the top of the ladder toward me and held it so that I could safely climb down.
I had this dream and then I made the connection:
At the end of the week it was time for me to move on with my plans.
I got a scary feeling and questioned what the heck I was doing back in
I will be starting a good job and there are many exciting projects waiting for me. But still, I was seized by feelings of doubt and uncertainty: which way to go now?
I wanted to walk to the bus station, so I avoided the string of bright red taxis that lined the edge of the park.
In doing so, I randomly zigzagged along the little paths through the center of the park. As I rounded a corner, I spied a man sitting on one of the benches.
Next to him were some notebooks and books.
Oh! A writer.
Perhaps this was a sign for me.
The man looked up. Then I saw a Bible. It was, after all, Sunday morning and the church was ringing the bells for
But this man was different. I knew immediately that I could trust him, and that I wanted to talk to him. He invited me to sit down and showed me what he was reading. It was a spiritual book written by an American, translated into Spanish.
I was a little doubtful at first, but within about five minutes I knew this man was a messenger sent by God and that my zigzaggy path through the park was not an accident. He later told me that it was no accident: he had just moved to that spot in order to avoid the sun.
We talked for quite a while. This man, a stranger, was a very wise man. He spoke to my heart so strongly that I began to cry. So did he; but neither of us was embarrassed at all.
He ended by praying for me and telling me that he believed I was in
He gave me his email address and told me to contact him if ever I needed help.
I went my way, confident that I am indeed on the right path even if it appears to zigzag quite a bit. As my latino friends say, “Thanks God,” and, “Gracias a Dios.”
Welcome back to Costa Rica!
Costa Rica, by Bus
One of the reasons I chose to live in Costa Rica is its geography: Costa Rica is on an isthmus, a narrow strip of land bordered on either side by the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Even with the lack of a good highway, it is actually possible to travel from one ocean to the other in one day.
Imagine that! You can watch sunrise on the Atlantic and sunset on the Pacific, in the same day.
Costa Rica also has an excellent public bus system that is subsidized by the government; a bus ride from San Jose to either coast costs from $6.00 to $10.00. Do the math: you can watch the sunrise on the Atlantic and the sunset on the Pacific for a transportation cost of $16.00, plus another $2.00 or so for a short taxi ride to and from San Jose bus stations, if you don’t want to walk. If you rent a car or pay a shuttle service you will pay more; but it is still possible to travel from coast to coast in one day.
Buses are not just for long distance trips: they are the mode of travel in Costa Rica. A traveler can find a bus to and from any obscure niche of the country, from sunrise to 10:00 p.m., by asking questions of friendly taxi drivers or waiting at prominent street corners. People take buses everywhere: to work and school as well as to shop and to visit long-distance family members on special holidays. Bus commutes run from 185 colones (about 35 cents) between neighborhoods, to three dollars from Port of Limon to the outlying villages of Bribri, Cahuita and Puerto Viejo.
Taking the bus is a rich social experience. I have literally received every type of proposition, from a marriage proposal by a lonely widower who gave me his card to a Christmas dinner invitation by a dowager neighbor. On that note, traveling by bus is an excellent way to learn conversational Spanish. And, everyone wants to brush up on their English lessons, no matter how late it is or how tired you look. I have made lasting friendships from meeting people while waiting at bus stops. Asking a fellow tourist to watch your stuff while you run to the lavatory, for example, is a great way to meet someone new. Most of all, riding the bus is the best way to observe life and learn about the culture of Costa Rica.
Taking the bus anywhere beyond the next village begins with taking a bus to San Jose, the hub of the country. To catch a bus to San Jose, you first take a bus from your neighborhood to your town’s central park. If you are not sure where this is, look for the village church spire and some tall trees; this is the parque central. Rule of thumb: if you are ever lost, in any town, just look for a church spire next to some tall trees. The bus to San Jose will be on that street.
Before getting on the bus for San Jose, stop to stroll through this park—if it’s a sunny day, you may enjoy sitting on a concrete bench to watch the pigeons at the fountain—and then enter the open doors of the church for a quick travel prayer. Finally, buy a granizado (South American sno-cone) or a fresh pastry to eat while waiting at the bus stop.
Now for some advice on what to do and what to carry when traveling by bus:
- It’s a good idea to have a special sack or purse for menudos, bus fare. Bus drivers—conductores—have the patience of saints for everything but waiting for people to get on the bus. Be sure to have the correct change in your hand as soon as you board the bus or they’ll tell you to “pase, pase!” (Just get the hell on the bus!!!)
- As soon as you sit down, make sure your passport (preferably, a copy of your passport) is readily accessible for surprise roadblocks and passport checks.
- Always wear clothing with pockets so that you can have your documents and menudos within reach at a moment’s notice. This is a really good idea when you are dozing.
- Wear a cotton scarf or light sweater that you can take on and off for sudden fluctuations in temperature. San Jose is in the central valley where the weather is always temperate. But if you are traveling to either coast, you will cross mountains and the temperature will drop suddenly; temperatures will rise just as suddenly as soon as the bus makes the descent to the coast. Because few buses have air conditioning and no buses have heat, you will be much happier if you have your own source of climate control.
- Pack a small blanket or beach towel that will serve as a seat, pillow, or covering for long bus rides.
- Bring a portable chair (the equivalent of a Girl Scout “sit-upon”), preferably a small, flexible backpack with non-breakable items inside that can double as a seat or a pillow in case the bus is full and you find yourself de pies, standing room only; in which case you will wind up sitting on the floor for up to nine hours (rule of thumb: crowded buses will be delayed).
- Bring a bottle of water and a substantial snack, ditto above (you never know!)
- Bring TP and hand sanitizer in the event that bathroom facilities are lacking and you must beg the bus driver to stop along the roadside (ditto!)
- Bring a camera in order to take photos of adorable children and gorgeous scenery as a diversion during a slow bus ride
- Bring a notebook so you can take notes on all of the above (the source of this article)
An English Teacher Dreams of Costa Rica
Costa Rica Dreams
Interview with Bethany Kirk, currently the Director and CEO of Instituto Estelar Bilingue, a language school based in Liberia, Costa Rica. I interviewed Bethany on the first anniversary of the opening of her school.
Part One: How she got here
Five years ago, Bethany and her then-husband came to Costa Rica with dreams of an ideal life. As newlyweds they shared the plan of getting away from California to travel and work in a Latin-American country. They chose Costa Rica because of its beaches and because they could improve their Spanish speaking skills, and, since Bethany had an M.A. in TESOL (teaching English to speakers of other languages), it was a no-brainer that she was well-qualified to teach English in any situation that presented itself to her.
They planned for two years before finally making their dream a reality. During that time, Bethany unexpectedly inherited some money, which helped them to achieve their goal a little sooner and, later, helped her to establish the language school.
Although they had both been looking forward to making this move, at the last minute Bethany’s husband got cold feet and didn’t want to follow through. She encouraged him by assuring him that he could spend the first six months writing his novel. Because of her recent windfall, they could afford to live on her modest income as an English as a Foreign Language (EFL) teacher until his book was published. But this proved to be a disastrous idea. He stayed home alone all day with his writing, while she was under the constant pressure of adjusting to a new language and culture. Bethany would come home after work, eager to talk to her husband. The first thing she would ask him was, “So, what did you write today?” After awhile, that was all they had to talk about because he wasn’t interested in learning Spanish or exploring the country.
At the end of the six months, Bethany came home from work one day and found her husband’s bags packed and ready, by the door. He had bought his return ticket to California and gave her a days’ notice that he was leaving. Bethany was suddenly alone with her dream of living in Costa Rica.
This very painful experience taught Bethany that some people really hate living in Costa Rica. While travel advertisements lure people to Costa Rica with visions of the pura vida, in reality, Costa Rica is hard on relationships. Only those couples who come here with similar goals and realistic, positive perspectives will survive the pressures. Her advice: Don’t come to Costa Rica expecting to find lasting love.
Bethany is now enjoying success as the founder and director of her own language school, but this did not happen overnight. She began as a part-time English teacher at Idiomas International, one of many private language schools based in the central valley. Bethany found this job while planning her trip to Costa Rica via internet searches and interviews. During the first six months working with Idiomas International, she only taught eight or nine hours per week, and after getting a teaching contract this was increased to 20 hours/wk, which was still not enough to live on.
To supplement her income she did office work that paid around $5/hr. Through this, she discovered that she had a knack for administration and creating curriculum manuals. This talent paid off when she was offered a position as director of II, with a year’s contract. Although the job paid quite a bit more than that of a part-time teacher, she became unhappy with working in San Jose. It was a tough job, but she stayed the year. Then she found a position as director of Intercultura, Centro de Idiomas, in Heredia, which is a smaller, nicer city than San Jose.
Part Two: How I met her
This is where I come into the story.
Unbeknownst to me, my desire to come to Costa Rica for adventure and teaching experience was not an original idea. I was following a well-worn path that many others, like Bethany, had already traveled before me. In my search for a dream life in Costa Rica, I, too, found the Web site of Idiomas International and contacted them to inquire about a teaching job. Lo and behold, it was Bethany who contacted me to set up and conduct the interview. She was friendly and frank. In fact, my impression of her at that time was that not only did she not paint a rosy picture of Costa Rica; she did just the opposite. Bethany was extremely honest--to a fault--about the drawbacks of living in Costa Rica. She said that San Jose was noisy, dirty and dangerous, and that I should think long and hard before deciding to live in a third world city. She sent me a fact sheet of information about the cost of living and things I should know about the foods and lifestyle there.
Perhaps Bethany was doing something new in her field: warning idealists like me not to listen to all the tourist hype about international living.
I owe Bethany the credit for my first real introduction to Costa Rica. Our interview ended up as a friendly conversation in which I tried to encourage her to find some solutions to her dissatisfaction with San Jose. “Maybe you can go to the pool and walk in the park more?”
I had no idea that Bethany would eventually become one of my best and most dependable friends there.
After our interview, I took Bethany’s advice and did some real soul-searching about the offer to work in San Jose. I decided I wanted to give it a try in spite of her caveats. But when I contacted her about two weeks later to say, “Definitely Yes!” I received an automatic email response that she was no longer working at Idiomas International. This should have been my initiation into how quickly things can change in Costa Rica. The message referred me to Bethany’s new email address at Intercultura, so I contacted her again.
Bethany replied to me from her new job at Intercultura, but things were complicated. She said that, since she had originally interviewed me for the previous school, I would now have to go through a whole new hiring process for Intercultura. And unfortunately, Intercultura was not currently hiring teachers, because it was mid-term in the school year….Would I like to come to see her and have an interview when I arrived in Heredia?
So that’s what I did. As it turned out, my Costa Rica contact lived in Heredia, so I decided to share an apartment with her and try my luck as an itinerant English teacher. During my second or third venture into Heredia Centro, I found Intercultura Centro de Idiomas. There was Bethany, sitting at her desk in the Director’s office with a sunny smile, dressed in colorful, summery clothes and handcrafted jewelry. It was a refreshing experience to meet an American acquaintance in this strange world. We had a friendly chat first, and then a professional interview. The next afternoon she hired me to teach a few evening classes.
Intercultura Centro de Idiomas, Heredia, Costa Rica
But I soon became too busy commuting to two other language schools in the area, and some of my classes at Intercultura were cancelled. Bethany and I got to know one another a little bit while I taught at Intercultura, but my other job was far away in Santa Ana and demanded more of me, so after a couple of months at her school, I resigned. I was stressed out and too busy—commuting all over the place, six days a week for 16-hour days. Bethany was very nice and handled my resignation very tactfully. In other words, we parted on good terms. After I left Intercultura, Bethany and I bumped into each other occasionally at the town pool or on the street.
As the months passed, I moved on to new adventures. I was hired to teach at the National University, in Heredia, as a visiting professor. By then I had been in Costa Rica for six months, and the early nightfall and rainy season were getting to me. One, long evening I emailed Bethany to ask her if she wanted to meet in town for a beer. She was also ready for a friendship. We finally found some time to meet after hours to share some Imperial and compare notes about our experiences as English teachers and single women in this strange culture. Our friendship is history.
Part Three: What now?
Why she stays; what advice she has for others.
For the rest of the time we lived in the central valley, Bethany and I met weekly for an intercambio with her Columbian friend, Lily. We “Three Musketeers,” the name we gave ourselves, encouraged one another through all the ups and downs of our parallel journeys in Costa Rica. Lily, bilingual in English and Spanish, had been living in Costa Rica for ten years, working at Hewlett Packard in the customer service department. Bethany had a Tico boyfriend who lived in Guanacaste. She started thinking about moving to be near him and start her own language school with his help. At our intercambios Bethany would update us on the progress of her new business venture. She found a building for the school, and in October Lily and I, along with Mandy, another teacher at Intercultura (we three were elected as Bethany’s Board of Directors), spent a weekend in Liberia helping to paint and clean Bethany’s new school.
Members of the Board, November 2010
The rest is history. Instituto Estelar Bilingue opened last January and now has 115 students!
Bethany is following her five-year plan to stay in Costa Rica to see how the school progresses.
What gave Bethany the courage to take this new risk in a foreign country, all alone?
During her years as director of two language schools she gained a lot of expertise in teaching and administration. Finally she decided to take a risk and open her own school. And, her father has been very supportive in offering sage business advice. Finally, after a cancer scare, she realized that “life is too short,” and decided to follow her dream.
Her Tico novio was instrumental in helping her move toward this dream, but when she decided not to make him her business partner, the relationship began to unravel. So here she is, one year later, the director of a growing and vibrant language school. Her next project is to expand the Spanish language school component for Americans who come to Costa Rica as tourists.
Bethany, Director of Instituto Estelar Bilingue, at its first graduation ceremony
I asked Bethany what advice she would offer to prospective English teachers in search of adventure in Costa Rica. She says, “There are no shortages of people who come here. The people who do come here, after all my warnings, are either not listening, or they are really tough.”
Like me. And, like a few other teachers who’ve come to stay. But be warned: English teachers rarely stay longer than a year. If they do stay, usually they move on to other, more secure employment…or, marry Ticos. But, Bethany warns, bicultural relationships have their own challenges.
I owe a lot to Bethany.
In fact, I don’t think I would have survived in Costa Rica as long as I did had we not become friends along the way.
And, now I am the one offering advice:
Don’t come to Costa Rica looking for a relationship.
Don’t come to Costa Rica expecting an easy life.
Don’t come to Costa Rica with a get-rich-quick scheme.
If you come here at all, come to learn about yourself and to change your life.
Finally, accept the people as they are, and adapt to the culture; don’t expect to change it.
You’ll be a lot happier living in a second world country if you come with low expectations and openness to accepting different ways of doing things. For example, there is no mail delivery because there are no street addresses. This is actually wonderful—because there is no junk mail!
There are many good things about living here.
The life is simple. People take things one day at a time and enjoy the moment, en este momento.
The air and light are pure. The landscape is charming and the beaches are fabulous. The weekly farmers’ markets offer the widest variety of the freshest foods you could possibly imagine. Buying food from local vendors and sodas is safe, wholesome and fun. The people are friendly, polite, gentle and good-humored. There is no need for air conditioning or heating because the temperature is just perfect (except sometimes in Guanacaste). Life is lived mostly out of doors and the windows are always open because mosquitoes and flies are not a problem.
So, if you are not afraid of loneliness and insecurity and a long rainy season, life can be a delightful adventure!
Take a virtual visit to Bethany’s school:
Do you have the courage to do something unconventional?
“Do you have the courage to do something unconventional in order to find happiness?”
I was relaxing on the sofa, relishing an old classic on a cold winter’s eve. These words sent an electric jolt through me. I sat up. The question, spoken by Mr. Rochester to Jane Eyre, was directed at me.
I imagined Charlotte Bronte’s voice (ironically deflected through that of a man), asking herself this question. Charlotte Bronte, tragic heroine of her own life story: survived the girlhood curses of boarding school and tuberculosis only to die in childbirth. But through Jane Eyre, her magnum opus, Charlotte’s spirit soared free of the conventional life of a woman of her era. Did she find happiness in the courageous act of publishing, or was she happy, anticipating the birth of the only child to be born into that unfortunate family?
I was not asking to be challenged, that movie night on the sofa; I was actually looking for something warm and fuzzy to shield me from grim reality. But Charlotte’s question haunted me.
Do I have the courage to find happiness now, in my time?
Now, in a time when every line of convention is blurred, what is the unconventional thing I would do? I already knew the answer. It took the asking to find courage to consider. I would. I mean, I do. I would do it. I would do what I have already considered, many times. In fact, I have my list; I have a blueprint already in my hands. I was just waiting for the passion in Charlotte’s (alias Rochester’s) voice, “I double-dog-dare ya!”
I would quit my job and go back to Costa Rica and live on the beach.
I would write books and publish poetry in New Yorker magazine. I would do all of the creative hobbies that have been placed on indefinite hold while I struggle on and on as a wage slave.
Now, I know that happiness is not to be found in marriage and family, for society these days does everything it can to promote the fallacy of a happy home. I know now that happiness is not the exclusive property of romantic love, although love is something I don’t want to live without. I know now that happiness is not necessarily found in a career, or in having material wealth; otherwise why are so many successful people still looking for happiness?
But by now I think I do know where happiness is to be found. And I want to have the courage to go and find it before I die.
Happiness is not something you can find, the way you would find a can that’s labeled “sunshine” in some cheesy souvenir shop. It is tritely ethereal, fleeting and shy, like Tinkerbell. It is captured briefly in a moment, as the eye catches a glimpse of Venus in the sea foam while watching the surf at sunrise on a deserted beach. The secret is in catching it, not in keeping it; in being fully present enough to even recognize happiness as it approaches.
To me, happiness is the sensation of being fully alive enough to be creative. It’s being authentic. It’s taking risks. Living simply and living in the present tense unburden me from worries and restraints and free me to create what the heart and spirit bring to mind. Happiness is being free of presumptions that keep me in my place: “You can’t do that,” or “You must do things this way,” or “You must have this.” Happiness is freedom from fear of insecurity. It is “freedom from” and “freedom to.”
Actually, I think now that happiness is not about doing or having anything. Doing and having are what get in the way of it. Happiness is a state of being in which hands, heart and spirit are fully integrated. In old-fashion workman’s terms, it’s being in tune, being true, being plumb, being sound. If my spirit can express itself through my work, that is happiness.
And that is what I would do. All that’s lacking now is the courage to do the unconventional thing. The unconventional thing I would do is to have the courage to resign from my career, sell my stuff and reunite my spirit, heart and hands as a team to accomplish something good in this life. I don’t want to live the remainder of my life as a lonely coward, afraid of possibility, then die a conventional pauper. Charlotte Bronte may have died a pauper, but her unconventional legacy lives on, asking anyone who is paying attention:
“Do you have the courage to do something unconventional...?”
Common Sense , Dancing
I'm learning not to be afraid to take little steps of faith.
They always lead somewhere.
Maybe that's what dancing is...
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