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. http://www.soonersports.com/trads/sooner-tradition.html.  I will always be a Longhorn since that is where I first went to college (http://www.utexas.edu/), 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 http://www.eatyourfruitandveggies.com/

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 http://janetnews.com/blog/. 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.