Saturday, December 25, 2010

Rum, beer and relleno

Merry Christmas from Nicaragua. Today is dead day here. Folks here celebrate Christmas Eve much more than Christmas Day. That is because everyone drinks a lot on Christmas Eve. The preferred Christmas drink here is rum. The best and by far most popular brand is the Flor de Caña.

While the tragitos (shots) of rum are the most popular Christmas drinks, the beer is not far behind in popularity. The brand that you see most often is Toña. It is also my favorite beer in Nicaragua.

The most important Christmas dish here is the gallina rellena (stuffed hen) or just relleno for short. It is really good. The dish has shredded chicken, carrots, beets and a couple of other vegetables.

Well, it is time to rest as the whole country seems to have a hangover. Feliz Navidad. BTW the best way the folks here seem to deal with that hangover is to eat and drink...just a little more.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Feliz Navidad from Nicaragua

Feliz Navidad! Merry Christmas from Nicaragua. I am currently in the northern, mountainous part of the country. I am in the city of Esteli: famous for cowboys and producing tobacco. The weather is cool with mountain air and people are very friendly. It is a very different type of Christmas atmosphere but one anyone familiar with the holiday would recognize in its hybrid forms. Santa even got sexy as you can see from the parade photo below.  Yes, those are hot girls dressed up in Santa suits that you see.

The central park in town is all decked out with lights and Christmas decorations. It is a nice and fun atmosphere. You would think it would be absurdly hot since I am in Central America but this mountain climate is very cool and you actually need a jacket or sweater.

Gallina Rellena or stuffed hen is a typical dish. I had some of it today and it’s very tasty. However, most  folks here in Nicaragua find Christmas to be more of a time to get together and celebrate and place less of an emphasis on gifts and gift giving. They do like to drink beer and rum on this holiday…and the night before and the night before that. Etc. Merry Christmas from Nicaragua.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Costa Rica's Caribbean Port City Limón

I want to take you all to the Caribbean side of Costa Rica. Limón is the largest city on the Caribbean Coast. It is an interesting and often misunderstood place. In this city a traveler can witness an interesting ethnic mixing of Indigenous, Mestizos (mixed indigenous and Spanish), Spanish and Afro-Caribbean populations. In this post I want to share some brief history of the city and personal observations.

Much of this cultural mixing is present because of North American corporate interests. U.S.-based United Fruit Company (UFC) established itself as fundamental to Central and South American fruit production and exportation. Railroad scion Keith recruited thousands of Afro-Caribbean workers, primarily English speakers from Jamaica, when the railroad’s oppressive work conditions were rejected by a small and unwilling Costa Rican labor pool. After the construction of the railroad these English-speaking workers stayed in Costa Rica. The United Fruit Company embedded itself so deeply in Central America that Spanish speakers referred to the corporation as el pulpo or the octopus.

The majority of Costa Rica’s black population still lives along the nation’s Caribbean coast, primarily in Limón. Many of these residents continue to speak a dialect of English called patois in the home and often elderly residents will be monolingual English speakers. It would take almost 50 years from the railroad’s completion for the ethno-linguistic minority to gain full rights of citizenship in Costa Rica.

Limón is an often forgotten city for many Ticos (Costa Ricans) and the government. National services are slow to arrive here. The city has a reputation for poverty and crime. Some of this is deserved and some not so. I know of one friend whose computer was stolen on a bus in Limón. As with any place you should use caution when travelling. Limón is only a three-hour bus ride from the capital. However, the city has much to offer for a day trip from San José and/or on the way to one of the Caribbean beaches. If you go I recommend trying all the various tropical fruits, pati (meat-filled pastries) and rice and beans (often made with coconut milk).

 The beaches are nice but not the best on the coast. However, a short taxi ride to playa bonita is worth the trip.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Getting To Know Costa Rica's Central Pacific Coast

When I ask Costa Ricans what are the best beaches in the country most of them tend to direct me toward the country’s Pacific Coast. This coastline is extensive and it’s beautiful. It is also much more developed. It seems to be where most of the Costa Ricans vacation and where many of the tourists tend to congregate. However, I don’t feel that I should lump all of the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica together as one beach. These beaches vary greatly with types of sand, vegetation and access to reach them. In this post I will focus on the areas of the Central Pacific Coast.
Map Courtesy of

The first beach I visited on the Pacific was Jacó. It is the closest to the capital city of San José and is easy to reach by car. It is also the one of the most heavily visited and I find that it offers very little in terms of natural beauty. It is very popular for its nightlife and has many discos and nightclubs (which in Costa Rica generally means strip clubs). It has become a rather seedy town but is easy to take a bus or drive there. It only takes about 2 hours to get there by car and slightly longer in bus.
Many Costa Ricans really enjoy visiting the town of Quepos and its nearby national park of Manuel Antonio. This park is incredibly beautiful. You can see iguanas, birds, sloths and monkeys. Be warned there is an entry fee of $10 for foreigners and a lower fee for Costa Ricans. I don’t remember what the entry fee is for Costa Ricans I always had to pay the higher fee and you will too unless you have a cédula (residency card). The best beaches by far are the ones inside the national park. It is worth the money to see the incredible beaches. However, it is a long walk. Here are a couple of pictures of the beaches inside the park.

I really like Manuel Antonio. The area has good infrastructure and you can stay at a range of places from hostel-type settings to very pricey hotels. One thing I do not like very much is that the entire community is built up a mountain so it is really difficult to walk as there are few shoulders to the road and traffic whizzes by at a breakneck speed. Access to the town of Quepos and the nearby community of Manuel Antonio is good. You can take an inexpensive bus from San José for just a few dollars. The ride only takes about 4 hours (but can vary depending on traffic and the current condition of the road). You can also fly into Quepos and take a taxi and/or bus from the airport. The airport is very small and has a tropical laid-back vibe to it.

The price of the airfare ranges depending on the season, advanced booking and the airline. There are two primary domestic carriers, Nature Air ( and Sansa ( which is part of the Central American Airline Taca. I seem to have better luck finding cheaper fares on Nature Air, however, both provide very fast half hour or less flying time and are both reliable. The planes are small and travel at a low enough altitude that if the sky is not too cloudy you can get some amazing ariel views of the country, but if you are not a good flyer you should know that the ride can be a bit bumpy.

So, my advice is that if you want to travel to Costa Rica’s Central Pacific coastline Jacó is more of a party beach town while Manuel Antonio has better beaches. But, you can certainly find places to have some beers in both Quepos and nearby Manuel Antonio.  If you want to visit during the peak times of Semana Santa (Holy Week), Christmas and school vacations know that both hotels and transportation sell out fast.
¡Pura Vida!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Why Travel to Costa Rica and Where to Start Your Trip?

Why travel to Costa Rica? Maybe I am not the best person to answer because I am biased. I have grown to love the country as my second home. I will tell you that I first traveled to Costa Rica by good fortune and with the help of the study abroad office at the University of Texas at Austin. The study abroad adviser at UT was the most incredible woman named Helena. She worked so much with me to choose a program that would be right for me. BTW she is still a very cool lady. She inspired me to continue learning Spanish and exploring Latin American culture.
Most people arrive at the airport near the capital just as I first did so many years ago. I found a relatively small country of incredible nice people who lived in a beautiful, tropical paradise. I encourage people to visit Costa Rica. I have continued to live part-time and visit for the past 17 years. The Americans and Europeans who visit and/or live in Costa Rica can speak Gringo but hopefully with an attempt at Spanish, order gallo pinto (national dish made of rice and beans) and indulge in pura vida, a Costa Rican construction of the good life.
Most of the population lives in the Central Valley. On either side there are incredible coasts. The country has so many types of climates. You can tame a wild river (the Pacuare) or hike through the jungle. This place simply has it all.
In this post I wanted to focus on the Central Valley. There are four main cities in the valley are San José, Heredia, Alajuela and Cartago. The majority of the population lives here in and/or near one of these principal cities. While many North Americans choose to live or vacation at any number of the country’s beaches, others who want to integrate themselves more into the local culture choose to live in the Central Valley.
My favorite place in the Central Valley is the plaza de cultura next to the Grand Hotel. It is a plaza where children come to play; lovers kiss and street vendors hawk their wares. It is a special place for me. Whenever I had a break from my classes I would come here to watch these intercultural interactions between the tourists and the vendors. Every time I go to Costa Rica I return to this spot.

The plaza is next to the National Theater. It is a stunning display of artwork. The theater continues to be active and many famous artists perform here.

Inside the national theater is really pretty cafe. You can see me having a cup of coffee in that cafe  in the picture below. FYI before moving to Costa Rica I did not like coffee much, now I am addicted to good coffee.

  The nearby National Museum is a great way to learn about Costa Rican history. I took my friend Kristi there and she loved it. You can learn a lot about Costa Rica’s past in this museum. Kristi found a giant old stone….perfect moment for a picture.

San José is a vibrant city. You can do anything here that would in any other nation’s capital. There are plenty of shopping malls, movie theaters and night clubs. I personally think the nightlife in San José can rival many other much larger cities. If you want to dance, gamble, or just eat great food. You cannot go wrong.
Many people often ask me if the thousands of tourists and foreign residents get along in Costa Rica. On the surface most Gringos see this intercultural relationship between expatriates and Costa Ricans as one which is very pleasant and mutually agreeable. In fact, it is for the most part. However, in these exchanges, typically the English speakers expect the Costa Ricans to accommodate them more than those same English speakers are generally willing to adapt to the host culture. You as a visitor will have a much more fulfilling experience if you let go of many of your Gringo ways and just appreciate the local culture and people. Try to learn some Spanish; the Costa Ricans would certainly appreciate that. Meet the locals. Try to make friends. San José is a wonderful city. If you want me to blog with more specifics on San José or the rest of the Central Valley I would be happy to do so.

Next up…I would like to tell you about some areas outside of the Central Valley. I only ask that you be smart and respectful travelers. How about going to the beach next time? If this sounds like you…Costa Rica is waiting for you.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Going to Costa Rica and learning I was a Gringo

What is a Gringo and why do I use the term in my blog The Gringo Guy? Any term commonly used to describe the people of the United States is inherently problematic. The most common name used to describe English speakers from the U.S. is American. However, every person from the Alaskan Straights to Tierra del Fuego is geographically American. I do use the term American to refer to refer to myself and other people of U.S. origin because this is how they refer to themselves, especially in groups outside of their own country. I first learned the nuances of identity when I went to live in Costa Rica. You can see me below as a much younger Anthony (Tony) Spencer in the cloud forest of Monteverde in Costa Rica.

I lived off and on in Costa Rica for many years. That is when I first confronted my identity as an “American.” I arrived in Costa Rica in 1993 as a 20-year old student ready to fully integrate into Costa Rican life. I spoke passable Spanish and fully invested myself in university and community life. I never fully adapted. But, I did make some incredible efforts. Costa Rica is a relatively small country and a the time there was a large U.S. influence, though not at all what it is today.

                                Map Courtesy University of Texas Libraries
I spent a year in the country’s capital San José studying at the Universidad de Costa Rica (University of Costa Rica) While I did not fully integreate I believe I did cross linguistic and cultural barriers better than many others.  Not only did I make extreme efforts to improve my Spanish, I attempted to speak as much like a genuine Costa Rican. Many Costa Rican friends would mercilessly make me practice Spanish to obtain just the right Costa Rican accent or insist I learn local vocabulary, essentially helping me to speak Tico as much as I possibly could. Through countless visits to their homes in the Central Valley and other parts of the country I was instructed on how “to be” a Costa Rican. My Spanish improved immensely but I never got rid of my accent completely. But, that is ok with me.
I learned that I was a Gringo in Costa Rica. When speaking Spanish, Costa Ricans primarily refer to an American by using the word Gringo for a man and Gringa for a woman. In many Latin American nations, such as Mexico, Gringo conveys an inherently negative connotation. In Costa Rica this is not usually the case.  I have personally witnessed Americans who are familiar with Costa Rican culture refer to themselves as Gringos when speaking in both English and Spanish. So, I started to do the same.
I have been thinking a lot about Costa Rica and the time I spent there as I am preparing to go to a conference at the Universidad de Costa Rica in December. This time I go back as a conference presenter analyzing what that 20 year old kid experienced so long ago. I would like to continue my discussion on Costa Rica and travel to that country in future posts. I have seen the popularity of the country skyrocket to both its benefit and detriment.

Boomer Sooner

Boomer Sooner! Anyone who is familiar with the state of Oklahoma and/or college football will know what this means. Yesterday the University of Oklahoma defeated Oklahoma State University 47-41 in a game that has been traditionally called Bedlam. It truly is bedlam or chaos. The state is divided. I obtained my Ph.D. from the Department of Communication at the University of Oklahoma. I am proud to be a Sooner even though I did receive my undergraduate degree from the University of Texas (the other main rival). I was fortunate enough to watch the game in the state of Oklahoma. It was really crazy, chaotic and divided. I took some really cool pictures (thank you Miss Elizabeth from Pauls Valley who was brave enough to wear her OSU sweatshirt in Norman. She posed for a picture among all the OU products. I unfortunately for the blog got a new phone on the same day and lost her picture. Blogger failure on my part). The day of Bedlam made me think about the ways in which I am marked as a Sooner. I have the cap. But, I also have the memories. I spent 4 great years at the university and many many thousands of dollars in tuition money there as well.
The cap is not much but it stands for my understanding of how I belong to OU. The good folks at OU taught me the critical thinking skills to research and teach. I will forever be grateful for that. So, really the cap means so much more.
One of my good friends gave me my own crimson (the colors at OU are crimson and cream) blanket with my name on it. Very cool. The timing was so perfect. On game day. A victory for OU. A victory for this blogger in the cold weather.

I understand many people feel that college football has become very commercial. We should place as much emphasis on academics and community building as we do on athletics in our society. However, that does not take away from the fact that we as college students and alumni are branded in much the same way as the products we wear. I thought I would post an interesting link on Sooner traditions. This site has prompted me think about what it means to be a Sooner.  I will always be a Longhorn since that is where I first went to college (, first learned about branding our ideals and our hearts, but I will always be a Sooner as well. I encourage everyone to think about what their university community means to them. Football is one aspect, but for many people it does symbolize a greater understanding of knowledge and belonging. Football is part of our culture in the U.S.

Boomer Sooner!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Late Thanksgiving Post

I am thankful for many things. I have wonderful family, friends, and students. However, I wanted to make a delayed Thanksgiving post to thank two special people. I wanted to thank my two friends who inspired me to begin this blog about culture and travel. Kristi Wright and Janet Johnson are two "veterans" of the blogging world.

Kristi has a blog that encourages all of us to eat our fruit and veggies. She will make me be healthier and wiser. Here is a picture of Kristi below. I encourage you to visit her blog at

Dr. Janet Johnson is pictured below. She also inspired me with her postings about rhetoric and media. This is another great blog to read. Please visit her at Both of these great friends have been incredible inspirations to me with this cyber venture. That is my late Thanksgiving post!

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Thanksgiving Holiday: Overeating, Football & Shopping

I find it fascinating that we in America (U.S. as all of us in the American Hemisphere are Americans) are consumed with overeating, watching college football and preparing for the next day of shopping. Happy & Fat Thursday turns into Black Friday as we run off to malls to buy things we may not need and may not be able to afford. I have to admit when it comes to college football I do fall into that category. I received my undergraduate degree from the University of Texas at Austin. Hook 'em horns! Well today those horns got snapped off by the Texas A&M Aggies. When we study culture sometimes we forget that our own culture(s) can provide for really interesting analysis. Think about it: overeating, college football and spending money we may not have. This provides an interesting viewpoint of what we value in society. I think it can be problematic but aside from the shopping (which I hope not to do) I did enjoy the holiday. Maybe next year for my Longhorns.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Hola! Come Travel With Me!

Hola. My name is Dr. Anthony Spencer. I teach intercultural and international communication as well as research methods and theory. I love to travel and learn about new cultures. I invite you to explore my blog and interact with me. I believe communication is all about dialog and interaction. So feel free to accompany me on this journey through cyberspace.