My youngest niece graduated from high school yesterday with plans to continue her education at the local community college. I am very proud of her accomplishment. This grand milestone leads me to ask a fundamental question about education. What are the tools a child needs to find success in education? There is a plethora of research on the internet declaring why students drop out of school. However, there is very little research on why students persist in their pursuit of education. We know students drop out of high school because of academic failure, behavioral problems, life events, and disinterest. In their recent book, Leaving to Learn, Washor and Mojkowski list four additional reasons student leave school before graduation: sense of isolation, being invisible, untapped talents and restrictions.
My current research is with online high schools whose populations consist of mainly at-risk students. For many of these students, online high school is their last chance to earn a high school diploma before they age out of the system. These students are attending school in the comfort of their home using a school provided laptop. Challenging…YES! I do not know about you, but my house is not always the quietest place to study. Add to this setting no bells to wake you up and move you from one subject to another and a teacher looking over your shoulder to encourage you to complete your work. Schooling takes place on the laptop, which has equal ability to connect to Facebook and games as it does to school. To many students, this is the upside of online, to others this is the downside. Why are some students very successful despite external challenges?
Many students are very successful with online schooling or other nontraditional educational methods because these venues enable them to follow their interests. These individuals found their talents and passions at a young age and pursue their dreams through whatever means best helps them achieve their goals. There are students attending the online school who play semiprofessional sports, travel the world, or follow other interests that prevent them from using traditional schools. These students are the lucky few who have discovered their passions early in life. For others, adolescence is a time to explore, try different interests, fail, and try something else. Sir Ken Robinson has a new book, Finding Your Element, about discovering natural talents and passions during a time when many American students are dropping out of high school without a passion or education. A big part of finding your passion is to eliminate areas of interest through trial and error, yet many students are not given the opportunity to fail.
For both our boys, Curtis and I have tried to provide experiences in their fields of interests. For Aaron it has been flying lessons, Legos and Erector sets, Lego Robotics, The Museum of Flight where he volunteers, and ACE (Architecture, Engineering, and Construction) Club. For Elijah it has been visits to every zoo within driving distance from wherever we live, zoo camps, volunteer opportunities at animal rescues, magazines and books about animals, and opportunities for him to learn more about animals. Similarly, when working with the students at the online school, I have challenged them to talk to professionals, like fire fighters or writers, about their jobs, volunteer in a field of interest, and gain experience
Through travel and experiences, children learn to expand their horizons and look at other possibilities. Exploration takes the fear out of change that many individuals experience when transitioning from one milestone to the next. You cannot travel far without experiencing challenges, which are really learning opportunities in disguise. These experiences equip us to weather the vicissitudes of life. While traveling may present a few more challenges than a stationary lifestyle, the biggest difference is the opportunity to follow your passion and discover your true talents. Once you find your passion and talents, the rest of the details will follow. Then you achieve a real quality of life.
Today, we are off to see our oldest son, Aaron (15), compete in the county track championships here in western Washington. He is only a 10th grader, but on the varsity high school team. He runs a 4:38 mile and is hoping to break 10:00 minutes in the 2 mile. Yes, we are proud of him. Not just because he is fast, but because he has stuck with something and put in a significant amount of hard work and sacrifice to emerge as a true sportsman who has the respect of his coach and other athletes. I am proud as I watch him (and usually only him) shake every other competitor’s hand after the race. We will see how his sweat and tears pay out today.
We came home to the U.S. primarily because of Aaron. He really wanted the American high school experience. So far, it is working out well for him. He is taking AP classes and getting mainly A’s with a few B’s. He is practicing the SAT already so he can score high for college admittance. He hopes to have his Eagle Scout awarded by the end of his 11th grade year. By all indications, he should get into a good university. He likes the structure, the social life, and the challenges. So, I guess the return home has been good for him in many ways.
He wants to be an engineer or architect. Great. Those careers require a college degree. To get into a good college requires a solid education in specific areas, like math and science. Therefore, a structured program serves this goal best. We do not want to rob him of his dreams.
Our youngest son, Elijah (11), is also doing well in school. He gets A’s and B’s too, but struggles with the nuances and intricacies of middle school. He very much wants to go back to England. Part of his stress is his age, middle years are tough, and part of it is his personality. He loves to be outside with his hands dirty and his imagination running free. He loved traveling and exploring new places while learning. People and places come and go and he seems fine with that natural order of his world. He is the polar opposite of his older brother. We do not want him to forever be in the shadow of his super-star sibling, so we struggle to find ways for him to excel and find his niche. Such are the trials and tribulations of parenting.
He wants to work with animals in some capacity. Great too. His career path may not require a college degree. He may benefit more from hands-on training. We do not want him to burn out in school or not get the experience he needs.
As educators, my wife and I have many conversations about schooling. We both taught middle and high school (at the same schools even). She has moved into teaching and administration for online schooling and I have moved into international and higher education. During our combined 30+ years in education, we have seen many different pedagogical theories, approaches, and ideas come and go. I jokingly tell people that if we could take the best of what we have seen and put it together into one school, then we might create an awesome place for students to learn.
One issue, however, that we struggle with is the concept of a one-size-fits-all model of education. Some children, like Aaron, crave the organized formal education style. They want to be with peers in a social atmosphere where they learn and explore common themes together. Others, like Elijah, want individualized experiential learning opportunities where they are free to learn what they want, when they want, and how they want to acquire knowledge. Maybe, as most psychologists agree, our personalities are largely set by our genetics.
Children have an amazing capacity to adapt to all sorts of circumstances. Aaron was fine with home-schooling, but not great. Now that he is back in a formal American school, his is flourishing. Elijah was very content being home schooled, but now struggles with the rigid and social aspects of school. How to accommodate both learning modalities? How does any school cope with all of the other learning styles that exist? Should all students just learn to deal with whatever education serves? If you ask 100 educators or parents, you will inevitably get 100 different answers. So, how, or should we, reach a consensus? All of these questions are being asked by educators, parents, and politicians not just in the U.S., but all over the globe.
In Europe and Asia, education from pre-school to college is largely controlled by the government. National curricula are favored over local control of schooling in these regions. The primary advantage of national education systems according to proponents is that the government can ensure an equal education for all students with measurable outcomes, hence the phrase in the U.S., “No child left behind.” Opponents assert that national education programs do not compensate for all of the diversity found in a large multi-cultural nation, like the U.S. They also contend that the nature of large government bureaucracies is not responsive enough in a rapidly changing environment. I have written about the education systems of England and Germany in earlier posts.
There is no shortage of education theories. Seminal theorists, like Dewey, Illich, Brookfield, Mezirow, Gardner, Locke, Piaget, and Vygotsky just to name a few, have all contributed to the rich tapestry of education theory. Each theorist has a slightly different view of how people learn. No one theory dominates education. Also, theories fall in and out of favor over time. Who is right? The problem is that no one theory completely, accurately, and concisely explains human learning. Some theories are not easily implemented too. To further complicate the issues, as we learn more and society changes, educational theories will continue to proliferate.
I firmly believe that as a society we need to ask ourselves what we want from education. Is it college preparedness? Is it developing future citizens of society? Is it job training? Is it individualized growth? Is it free day-care? Maybe, it is all of the above. However, until we decide on outcomes we will continue to go nowhere. Once we determine outcomes, we can define goals, develop metrics, allocate resources, and monitor progress.
I highly recommend watching this video on the history of education in the U.S. to understand how we got to where we are in education. Basically, we have an outdated education model in desperate need of updating. We are not alone either. When I was teaching in Europe and Central America, I saw the same dilemma. Fortunately, I have seen hope in some exceptional schools and programs around the world. Check out The Green School, for example. Also, check out The Big Picture School. Traveling is a powerful educational tool. Read this article from Jessica at Wandering Educators.
Like most parents, we want to provide the best scenarios for each of our children so that they can reach their full potential. We do not want to rob Aaron of his high school experience if that is what he wants and works for him. Conversely, we do not want to restrain Elijah if granting him educational freedom provides him with adequate skills and knowledge. We are proud of both of them. More importantly, we recognize that they are very different learners.
What is a college education worth? That is the question many American students and parents are asking, including us. Our 15 year old, Aaron, is a sophomore in high school and starting to look at where he wants to attend university. Paying for him to go keeps us up at nights. When he graduates college, our other son, Elijah, will be setting off for university. The thought of eight years of eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and no vacations to send them is depressing. As with most parents, we are not being selfish and will do whatever it takes to ensure that they have the best opportunities. However, the reality is money does not grow on trees (or I would be in the orchard business).
Higher education costs in the United States have spiraled up to record levels. Historically on average, tuition has tended to increase about 8% per year since 1950. An 8% college inflation rate means that the cost of college doubles every nine years. So, for a baby born today this means that college costs will be more than three times the current rates when the child matriculates in college. Today, the average cost of a college degree from a public school is $21,000 per year with instate tuition discounts and from a private school is $40,000 per year. Expect to pay $250,000 total for an Ivory League undergraduate degree. Is it worth it?
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, “In 2010, young adults ages 25–34 with a bachelor’s degree earned 114 percent more than young adults without a high school diploma or its equivalent, 50 percent more than young adult high school completers, and 22 percent more than young adults with an associate’s degree.” That is encouraging news. Similarly, in 2012 a new study conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, claimed that the average college graduate will earn $2.4 million over his or her lifetime. Even more encouraging!
The Brookings Institute did an interesting analysis in 2011. They asked the question, “Where is the best place to invest $102,000.00?” So, if your rich Aunt left you $102,000, you have the following options for investment:
1. A four-year college yields a rate of return of 15.2% per year
2. Stock market – 6.8%
3. Corporate bonds – 2.9%
4. Gold – 2.3%
5. Long-term government bonds – 2.2%
6. Housing – 0.4%
*Based on the last 60 year averages and 65 year retirement age
Clearly, a college degree is the best investment. So, all of the data point to going to college, right? The next question then is where?
Some students are embarking for universities abroad. Sending our son to England might be a less expensive option believe it or not. Even to study in the University of Oxford’s hallowed halls would cost a U.S. student just over $20,000 for an undergraduate program of study. The fee would be about $4,700 for a U.K. student. Every college that features in the top 20 of the U.S. News and World Report’s most recent ranking of best U.S. colleges in 2013 costs at least $34,000 a year for tuition and fees. Most, in fact, are closer to $40,000 a year, and quite a few top that level even. Having lived in England, he has the added advantage of knowing the country and visiting the schools.
My wife and I are educators of 20+ years for high school and college. Every year I tell my students to put in for scholarships because college is expensive and getting more expensive every year. What amazes me is that every year literally millions of dollars of FREE scholarship money goes unclaimed. Many times, only one or a handful of students put in for some of them. You do not necessarily need to go after the big ones and put your eggs all in one basket. $1,000 or even $500 ones add up. You can reach your expense goals if you are motivated to fill out the applications. I told my son to start writing.
The last question is what to study? I am very adamant about following your dreams. However, following your dreams usually requires money. Therefore, I advocate for getting a degree that affords you to pursue your dreams in the evenings and weekends after work. If you can make a living off of your degree, then it is worth the investment. To get a degree just to get one is an extremely frivolous expense and waste of time. Remember, not all jobs require a degree too. Matching up your goals with your higher education choices sets you on a solid path for a bright future.
Kiplinger in 2012 listed the following as the worst majors in college for a return on your investment:
8. Drama and Theater Arts
7. Liberal Arts
6. Studio Arts
5. Graphic Design
4. Philosophy / Religious Studies
3. Film and Photography
2. Fine Arts
Conversely, they ranked the following as the best majors in college for a return on your investment:
10. Medical Assistant Services
9. Management Info. Services
8. Construction Services
7. Medical Technologies
6. Electrical Engineering
5. Chemical Engineering
4. Treatment Therapy
3. Transportation Science & Technology
1. Pharmacy & Pharmacology
U.S. News and World Report in 2012 ranked these as the best fields of study for a return on your college investment:
6. Computer Sciences
Lastly, Forbes in 2012 added this list as best college majors:
10. Biology Fields
9. Computer Science
7. Management Info. Services
4. Construction Management
So, make up your mind sooner than later on what you want to study. Remember, According to a report from the Washington State Higher Education Coordinating Board (HECB), our home state, Washington ranks 1st nationally in the employment of engineers, 6th in computer specialists, and 9th in life and physical scientists. However, we rank 38th nationally in the production of bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering and 42nd in the production of graduate degrees in these fields. Bottom line, we need certain skilled professionals.
The jobs ARE out there for college graduates IF they have the right skill set. So, choose carefully. You are gambling 4+ years and over $100,000 on your selection of college and major. Good luck!
Being back in the Pacific Northwest is both good and not as good. It is good because it is beautiful (at least this time of year), safe (relatively), and familiar. It is not as good because it is too familiar. Aside from working at the same type of job in the same city we left six years ago to begin our world travels and become “The Wild Smithberrys,” there are other familiarities too.
Advertisements are familiar. America is definitely the land of materialism. Everywhere we look we are bombarded with a barrage of advertisements trying to coerce us into buying something we probably do not need or really want. Obnoxious neon signs light up businesses all day long. I am amazed that owners feel compelled to keep signs lit even when the stores are closed. Home Depot’s huge, bright orange sign was on at 2:00am! Seriously, is that necessary? Americans see over 1,000 advertisements every day according to a 2012 CBS study. Overload!
Entertainment is familiar. Television has gone from bad to worse. We did not have television when we lived abroad, so we became desensitized to the hypnotic trance of the glowing screen. Did you know that commercials have gone from 13% of air-time in 1958 to 31% today? No wonder I miss out on 9 minutes of original Star Trek re-runs! The all too familiar violence, sex, and drugs theme has only become more common and flagrant in the long list of banal shows aired around the clock for a numb audience.
Working is familiar. The notorious rat-race is still being run. Another world-traveling family, the Bohemian Travelers, wrote a telling blog post about “The Illusion of the American Dream,” which I found an excellent read. We are indoctrinated from the beginning into the belief that a big house, an expensive car, designer clothes, and a job with a fancy title equates to happiness. Ironically, we have the highest divorce rate in the world according to the 2012 U.S. census and are listed by the U.N as only the 12th happiest people in the world in 2013. Also, we spend more per person than anyone else on therapy, ant-depression medication, and counseling according to the AMA. Maybe our plan for universal happiness is not working. However, we still relentlessly continue to claw, trudge, and fight our way up the proverbial corporate ladder at all costs. Is the sacrifice worth it?
The OECD revealed that only workers in Greece, Poland, Hungary, Estonia, Israel, Slovakia, Mexico, Russia, Korea, Turkey, and Chile put in more hours per year than U.S. workers in 2012. How is that working for them? Generally speaking, long working hours are associated with lower productivity per hour. Over the course of your lifetime, Americans by far will work far more hours than anyone. The difference is really driven by the fact that the U.S. is the only developed country that has no legal or contractual or collective requirement to provide any minimum amount of annual leave. We work to buy goods we do not truly need to make someone else richer thinking that this makes us happy and fulfilled. Interesting logic.
Food is familiar. In America, we are all about quantity, not quality. The bigger and quicker the food makes us happy. Consequently, I walk around town and see that our waist lines are bigger too. I notice that the food does not taste quite as good as I thought it did before. We do miss European cuisine.
Education is familiar. Our son is finding that high school in America is the same as it has always been. Teachers arbitrarily assign work and grades based off of largely irrelevant, non-applicable, and dis-jointed lessons (and this coming from two award winning veteran teachers). Much to our chagrin, bullying has gotten worse. Despite decades of preventive measures and attention on the subject, the problem has grown. Social media outlets, dis-engaged parents, and increased societal pressures all have attributed to this alarming trend. Education is poised for dramatic and fundamental changes, but there is no money and little support to make them happen.
Politics are familiar. Special interest lobbies dictate what we should think. The NRA will not allow open discourse on gun control, so children continue to die. The extreme polarization between Republicans and Democrats deepens the divide between Americans. We seem to forget quaint, antiquated clichés like “United we stand, divided we fall.” We live in a winner-take-all mentality where compromise is a lost thought.
Before I get emails from uber-conservatives lashing back at me for discussing familiar issues with our society, I am not espousing any anti-American sentiments. Indeed, I served 7 years in the U.S. Navy with 6 months in combat operations in Desert Storm and taught 15 years in public schools. I am extremely patriotic. However, I lament the problems that continue to plague our great nation.
After living and working in Europe and Central America, I understand where the world’s perception of us comes from. We are self-absorbed. We are materialistic. We are work-aholics. We are neglectful of our children. We are far too familiar with these issues. However, we do not collectively do much about them. Why?
I whole-heartedly endorse global education. International travel is an eye-opening experience. I am not talking about the all-inclusive resorts or the whirl-wind tours, but authentic travels. When you shed the familiarity and embrace the unknown, transformation happens. As we say, “Life is a journey, not a destination.” Enjoy the journey.
Last week I wrote about our wonderful spring break get away along the gorgeous Oregon coast. The trip reminded me of how special the region is. Now that the weather is finally getting warmer and the days lighter, I am anxious to shake off the cabin fever we tend to develop here in the Pacific Northwest and explore our area. Like many of us locals here, we know our region is blessed with magnificent scenery, but we tend to go elsewhere for vacation. Maybe that is because you take for granted what is most familiar. For me, when summer comes, I want to stay here and enjoy what nature has created on the Olympic Peninsula.
The Olympic Peninsula is the most northwest part of Washington State. Many visitors do not realize that Seattle is not the farthest west you can go in our state. Across Puget Sound is another land that is more remote and wild where nature’s power is clearly evident.
The Olympic Peninsula is rich in geologic history stemming from an amazing past of powerful tectonic forces shaping this unique land for more than a billion years and continuing today. Young mountain ranges clad in dense forests and topped with icy glaciers, like the Olympics, impressively tower over the landscape as they majestically rise up from sea level. Countless streams melodiously flow down to combine into massive rivers that swiftly wind their way to Puget Sound, which, in turn, runs into the Strait of Juan de Fuca and eventually out into the Pacific Ocean. This awe-inspiring land of big mountains, big trees, big rivers, and big ocean boldly demonstrates nature’s creative power. The land has an appearance of permanence. Everywhere, however, are underlying forces at work changing and shaping the terrain in a never-ending process.
The Spanish were the first to explore the area. In 1774, the Spanish explorer Juan Perez sailed his ship along the coast of the Olympic Peninsula seeking to claim the new land for Spain. Other Spanish ships arrived in the area after explorers reported favorable conditions. Captain Bruno de Hezeta of Spain was the first European to make contact with indigenous peoples in the Northwest, the Quinault, in 1775. Later, the English also explored the coast and moved into the interior. The legendary British sea captain and explorer James Cook commanding the H.M.S. Discovery and the H.M.S. Resolute mapped the Olympic coast in 1778. Ten years later, in 1788, another English sea captain, John Meares commanding the merchant ship Felice, sailed into the Strait of Juan de Fuca and beheld the mighty peninsula mountain range for the first time. He named its tallest peak Mount Olympus in reverence to the Greek mythological home of the gods because he was awed by its size and stature.
Realizing that this area was in many ways special, several people strove to gain some type of protection for the natural beauty of the peninsula. A United States Army officer by the name of Lieutenant Joseph P. O’Neil in 1885 and 1890 led two separate expeditions into the interior of the peninsula. He was the first European to venture up into the Olympic Mountain Range and he mapped a trail to the top of present day Hurricane Ridge near Port Angeles. Upon returning, he passionately lobbied to protect the area and preserve its vital resources.
Although several attempts were made and failed, finally conservationists’ efforts prompted President Theodore Roosevelt to designate the area Mount Olympus National Monument in 1909. Finally, in 1937 the dream of creating a new national park in the Pacific Northwest was realized as President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law a bill that established Olympic National Park. He had personally visited the area previously and was so awe struck that he felt obligated to act.
The area reached several important milestones in its recent history. In 1976, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization named Olympic National Park an “International Biosphere Reserve because of the outstanding scenic and scientific values of its virgin temperate rainforests, the largest and best example in the Western Hemisphere, and for the large, un-manipulated ecosystem preserved within the park.” In addition, in 1981, the Olympic National Park was recognized as a “World Heritage Park, a designation that honors parks for their outstanding natural and cultural values.” Most recently, in 1988, 95 percent of the Olympic National Park was officially designated a wilderness area by the federal government. Today, the park boasts 922, 651 acres of protected land. In addition, in 1994 the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary was created protecting 3,300 square miles of fragile coastal habitat.
The Olympic Peninsula is truly a unique place. If you have not had the opportunity to explore it, I highly recommend you plan a trip. Driving is the best way. You can get to the peninsula by either driving around the southern end of Puget Sound or taking a ferry across the sound from Seattle. Once on the peninsula, you can start your drive from the beginning of legendary Highway 101 and head south (or counter-clockwise) around the area.
The first stop is Port Townsend. This quaint old Victorian sea port was once slotted to be the capital of Washington. Thanks to the railroad company deciding to build the line along the other side of the sound, Olympia became to capital instead. The city has been lovingly restored to much of its former beauty. There are several neat shops and restaurants. The city is also home to the Northwest Maritime Center and Wooden Boat Festival (every Labor Day weekend). You can also visit Fort Worden State Park. You may notice some familiar sites here. Officer and a Gentleman and The Ring were both filmed at the park. The park is free and has a nice beach, hiking trails, historic sites, marine science and natural history center, and light house.
Heading around the peninsula, the next neat city is Sequim. This small town is in the middle of what locals call “the blue hole.” What this means is that it is in the rain shadow of the mountains, so clouds are diverted around the area. Consequently, Sequim gets more than 300 days of sun a year! You can visit the famous lavender farms. An area specialty is lavender coffee. I recommend stopping in at Discovery Bay for one.
Next on the stop is Port Angeles. President Abraham Lincoln designated the town of Port Angeles a military outpost in 1861 and had a garrison, lighthouse, and customs house built there in the name of the federal government. His plan was that if the union lost the Civil War, Port Angels would become the new capital of a new union. Today, the small city is struggling to recover from declining logging and fishing. It still, however, has a rustic charm. You can drive or walk out on the Ediz Hook to get a spectacular panoramic view of the Olympic Mountains. I highly recommend driving up to Hurricane Ridge at 8,600 feet. Once at the ridge, you can look north all the way to the Canadian Rockies with the cities of Vancouver and Victoria and then turn around south and gaze into Blue Glacier on Mount Olympus. Almost always there are dear peacefully grazing in the meadow.
Just west of Port Angeles on the 101 is beautiful Lake Crescent and Marymere Falls. The lake is glacier fed, so the water is cold and clear. You can see more than 60 feet down. The falls are a sort ½ mile hike/walk from the main parking lot. You can climb to their top amid the dense fir trees. On the western edge of the lake are the Sol Doc Hot Springs. These natural geothermal springs offer a relaxing hot mineral bath, a shocking contrast after a lake swim. You can usually Roosevelt Elk grazing in the meadows as you drive to the springs.
If you are really adventurous and have the time, you can drive all the way out to the most northwestern point in the continental United States, Cape Flattery. The cape is located on the Makah Indian Reservation, which is open to the public provided you stop by the visitor center and purchase a permit. From the point, you can see Tatoosh Island with its light house.
You can also take a side trip to the Hoh Rainforest. This is the only temperate rainforest in the United States. Due to the intense rain, 140 inches per year, everything is covered in a thick green layer of moss. Walking through the Hall of Mosses is un-worldly. I did not think that there were that many shades of green on the planet. It is the only color you see.
Cut out of the dense forest is the small logging town of Forks. No, there are not vampires and werewolves everywhere. However, the locals have cashed in on the hit books and movies. You can sit in Bella’s seat at the diner, have you picture taken in her truck, park in Dr. Collins’ spot at the hospital clinic, stroll along the black sand beach at La Push, and take pictures in front of Forks High School. At the tourist center, you even can get a free map of all the places from the books.
Leaving the trees for the sand, the next stop is the picturesque sea side town of Ocean Shores. Here you can play in the surf (even though it averages 42° F). There is ample space to fly a kite or build a sand castle. Every restaurant and crab shack serves fresh local caught seafood!
The last stop is Cape Disappointment State Park. This is where Meriwether Lewis and William Clark of the legendary Corps of Discover in 1805 first beheld the Pacific Ocean. The visitor center and museum provides a great historical experience of their expedition. In the park you can tend, RV or rent a yurt on the beach. It is a beautiful place to relax at the mouth of the mighty Columbia River.
You can drive the entire Olympic Peninsula loop in one day without stops. However, I highly recommend taking a week (at least) and really enjoying one of the most amazing places on Earth. I am very happy to call it my backyard. As much as we travel, we always come back home here. This time of year I remember why.
At the risk of self-promotion, I wrote a book about the area with its indigenous peoples that you can find in ‘Publications’ on the top menu.
The Smith Family Vacation
We have been traveling the world for a few years and are currently home in the Seattle, Washington, area for a bit. We promised our oldest son, Aaron, that we would stay here so he can finish high school. Being in the same school so he can have the typical American teenage experience is very important to him. Why anyone would want it, I am not quite sure. My high school experience was less than idyllic. However, a promise is a promise, so we are U.S. bound for two years.
The United States is truly a beautiful country with a wide variety of ecosystems ranging from rainforests to deserts to grasslands to mountains to coasts and more. There is more to see than anyone could in a lifetime. So, over the boys’ spring break, we decided to explore a little piece of our country. We embarked on the traditional family road trip. I carefully consulted maps and weather forecasts before rolling the dice and finally deciding on a destination. Our chosen route was along the picturesque Oregon coast.
Family road tripping usually goes one of two ways, National Lampoon style with every imaginable dilemma popping up or creating life memories style where the vacation gods smile on you. Luckily for us, our trip turned out to be the later. I do not impersonate a good Chevy Chase anyway. We loaded our Nissan X-terra with supplies, two excited and school weary boys, a spastic dog, and my wife and I and headed south.
The weather in the Pacific Northwest is fairly consistent from November to March, plan on rain. July through October is sunny and spectacular. April and May are harder to predict. You take your chances with the unpredictable weather. Remember, the weather person is usually wrong (disclaimer: my wife’s father is a meteorologist). Despite the gamble, we headed out on the road because this was the boys’ school spring break. During the summer the Oregon coast can be packed with sun worshipers anyway trying to soak in as many rays as possible in the short summer. So, we had the coast almost to ourselves. Luckily, the weather was great.
We drove south on Interstate 5 to Portland. Portland’s unofficial city motto is “Keep Portland Weird.” I must say, they do a fairly good job of living up to it. We like the city, but it is definitely a little quirky. The city is probably the most European feeling of any city in the United States. There are many great places to eat. Portland is famous for their numerous food carts that serve a wide variety of cuisines inexpensively. I highly recommend Moonstruck Chocolate. They have five locations throughout the city. Their hand-crafted truffles are amazing! We really like Kells Irish Pub on 2nd Avenue too. On Saturday evening they usually have live Irish music. Of course, no trip to Portland is complete without a stop by Voodoo Doughnuts on 3rd Avenue. Their unique over-sized and decadently decorated doughnuts attract locals and visitors alike. The line can easily be over an hour to get in. Their specialty is the bacon-maple bar.
After eating your way around Portland, you can walk through Washington Park, the country’s largest in-city wilderness park. It is home to the famous Portland Rose Garden and the Japanese Garden. Both are spectacular. The Oregon Zoo, Children’s Museum, Forestry Museum, and train ride are also here. Remember on your way back to stop by Powell’s Books. If you still have energy, check out the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry across the Willamette River.
After visiting Portland, we headed northwest on Highway 26 to Highway 101 and the coast. The first stop was Ecola State Park. This park offers breathtaking views of the ocean. From the point you can look 50 miles south and gaze in awe of the unspoiled beauty of the Oregon coast with its rugged rocks and shifting sand dunes. When I look out along the beach I know how Lewis and Clark must have felt when they first saw the same sight. Little has changed in the last 200 years here, fortunately. Nowhere else in the continental Unites States will you have this much beach to yourself with barely a sign of human encroachment. On a nice day, this is an amazing spot to relax for a picnic and breathe in the sea air and realize what is truly important in life.
Heading south on Highway 101, we came into the quaint town of Cannon Beach. This is one of my wife’s favorite stops. It has many unique boutiques and eateries. My favorite is the Treasure Company. Historians and treasure hunters Robert Knecht and April Knecht travel the world to find “Antiquities and artifacts that speak of distant times and places, lifetimes removed from our modern world…Genuine pieces of history you can hold in your hand -hundreds and sometimes thousands of years old.” The store is like a museum filled with items they have collected over the years. Some treasures April has turned into stunning jewelry.
We continued south along the gorgeous coast to our next stop, Tillamook. You may have heard of this famous cheese town. The Tillamook Cheese Company has been in business for over 100 years. We decided to stop in and take the factory tour. As much as I like their cheese, the tour was a little disappointing, not that we expected the Disney Land of Dairy (plus it is free). The highlight was the free samples of their cheeses. They also make ice cream, but no free samples of that. There is also a small airplane museum in town, which was closed when we visited.
Our next town was Florence. Florence, Oregon, and Florence, Italy, are two very different cities. This Florence is a quaint small sea side town with some neat stores and places to eat. It is relatively well known for its glass blown crafts and art. The town makes for a nice quick stop to take a break before continuing south.
We stopped for the night in Newport. Newport is a sizeable coastal city. It is home to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the Oregon Coast Aquarium, and the Hatfield Marine Science Center as well as anointed Coast Guard City USA. We strolled along the historic waterfront and rummaged around in the shops. We got coffee and bear claws at the Coffee House for breakfast. We highly recommend them. The bear claws were the best we have ever had! Afterwards, the boys wanted to go in the Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museum, so we gave them a break from mom and dad for an hour. My wife and I enjoyed some quiet time walking around. We met back up for a picnic lunch of Tillamook cheese, sausage, fresh bread, and olives outside the marine science center. The Hatfield Marine Science Center is operated by the Oregon State University. It is worth a stop. Recommended donation for entrance is only $5.00 per person. The center has numerous hands-on learning activities and touch tanks to entertain and teach everyone. The docents were very friendly. We all learned something new. Did you know that albacore tune is sustainably fished in the Pacific?
We left Newport and hurried to the world famous Seal Lion Cave before it closed at 5:00pm. This is the largest sea cave in North America and home to hundreds of sea lions. We took an elevator inside the store down 200 feet into the rock. When the elevator doors opened, we were inside an enormous cave at sea level filled with barking, belching, and farting sea lions. We were instantly hit with the strong smell of sea lion flatulence. In case you are wondering, it smells like dead fish, go figure. Despite the smell, the cave is amazing. In the cave we found information on sea lions and the cave and a 10 minute movie about the geology of the area. We really enjoyed watching the playful antics of sea lions on the rocks inside the cave.
Leaving the sea lions and their smell behind, we continued south to Coos Bay. This working sea port community was the home of legendary runner Steve Prefontaine. Pre, as his fans call him, achieved world record holder status before his untimely death in 1974 at merely 24 years old. There is a cool tribute to him at the Coos Bay Art Museum. Our oldest son, Aaron, is a hard-core runner and really wanted to stop and pay his respects. I also ran cross-country in high school and college and have empathy for the runner. Pre was notorious for his unparalleled determination and shear drive. He was quoted as saying, “If someone wants to beat me, they will have to bleed to do it.” I think stopping by inspired Aaron. We will see next race.
Our terminal destination was Bandon. Bandon is not a typical tourist stop unless you play golf. There is a world class course there that attracts big name players from all over. Not being golfers, we were not interested in the course. Our excitement was saved for the West Coast Animal Safari. This was our youngest son’s, Elijah, turn at inspiration. He wants to work with animals someday at a zoo or in the wild. This was his chance to get up close and personal with some critters because the safari boasts America’s largest petting zoo! This is not just any petting zoo mind you. We got a chance to pet a bob cat kitten and bear cubs. They also have tigers, mountain lions, chimpanzees, wallabies, monkeys, deer, goats, and much more. All are rotated through their petting program. All of the animals are rescue animals that are unable to return to the wild or be part of captive breeding programs. So, they are lovingly cared for at the park and available to visitors for human interaction. The place is amazing! My wife was over the top infatuated with the bear cubs. Where else can you feed a baby bear a bottle and rub its plump little tummy?
We met a wonderful animal keeper there named Peter Slaney. He is not only an expert animal handler, but an amazing wildlife photographer and documentary maker. He was a wealth of knowledge about the animals. We greatly enjoyed learning from him and watching him interact with his animal friends.
I had to pull Elijah and my wife away from the park. I wanted to get to our lodging for the night and relax. On the way to Loon Lake Lodge, the boys begged me to stop so they could play in the sand dunes on the beach. How could I say no? So, we made a last stop to finally exhaust them. To my surprise, they still had enough energy to sprint up the huge dunes only to jump and roll back down. They rushed out into the freezing Pacific Ocean waters and back into the sand, including our dog, Albie. An hour later, sandy and spent, they climbed back in the vehicle. We had a great dinner at the local Dairy Queen. I still love Peanut Buster Parfaits!
Loon Lake Lodge is a hidden gem tucked away on Loon Lake 21 miles east of Reedsport. The resort has RV and tent sites, cabins and yurts for rent, and a hotel. You can rent all sorts of watercraft for fun on the lake, like jet skis, fishing craft, kayaks, and paddle boats. They also rent fishing gear. There are many trails for hiking if you want to get some exercise. We rented a deluxe cabin, which included all amenities (towels, bed linens, dishware, cooking equipment, soaps, television, and full bathroom). We were not exactly roughing it. It was the perfect place to rest and relax before heading home.
After five fun days we drove Highway 38 east to Interstate 5 and the long six hour drive back to Seattle. We talked most of the way home about the things we saw and did. They boys obviously had a great time. My wife kept exclaiming that she got to see baby bears. I was glad that we had this opportunity to spend some quality time together as a family. In a couple of short years, Aaron will be off to university somewhere and I will miss these trips. Our trip may not have been as entertaining as the Griswold’s trip to Wally World, but ours was far more rewarding. The quintessential American family road trip is still alive and well!
I have wanted to go to Ireland since I was a wee lad. Both of my parents’ families are of Irish descent, so I naturally I am too. The draw to see the “homeland” was irresistible. We dared to travel on Ryan Air again. I figured since it is an Irish owned airline, it was only fitting. Luckily, the luck of the Irish was with us and the flight was uneventful. We took off in London and landed in Dublin within an hour.
Truth be told, Dublin is not that an exciting city. The biggest attraction is the Guinness Brewery (which is a big deal to us Guinness fans). The real Ireland is out in the countryside. The charming small villages, rolling green hills, and old stone castles much more represent the true Gaelic culture. So, we rented a van and headed west from Dublin to Cork.
Remember, Ireland is one island, but divided into two separate countries since 1921. The larger one is the Republic of Ireland (making up about 5/6 the land area) and the smaller one is Northern Ireland (which is still part of the United Kingdom. Even though they are both considered Ireland (depending on who you talk to), the similarity stops there. Dublin is the capital of Republic of Ireland, while Belfast is the capital of Northern Ireland. The Republic of Ireland is predominantly Catholic. Northern Ireland is split almost evenly between Catholic and Protestant. The north uses the British pound and the south opted to adopt the Euro. The north uses the Standard English measuring system (mph) and the south switched to metric (kph). The north was plagued by horrible violence for almost three decades from fighting between Catholics and Protestants, which ended with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 (although segregation and animosity can still be found in some areas). The south has benefited from stability and peace for over 80 years (though they had a year’s worth of bloody civil war first).
Despite their differences, the Irish are Irish. They are a very friendly and hospitable lot who love to tell tales over a brew and listen and dance to traditional music. In many parts of Ireland, especially the south, you can hear the Irish language spoken in pubs and stores. This is the Ireland we were looking for. On the west side of the island there are places that look and sound like they probably did a century ago. The drive from Dublin to Cork keeps getting prettier as you head west.
Our first stop was Cork. Cork is the second largest city in the south and third largest on the entire island. It is a good destination to make for and use as a jumping off point. That is what we did. From Cork, we went to the coastal town of Kinsale 45 minutes south. Kinsale is exactly what we had in mind when we thought of Ireland. It is a beautiful seaport with brightly colored buildings and cobble-stoned streets. We took a guided tour of the city with a nice gentleman who educated us on the area. Elijah, seven at the time, was insistent on holding his hand as we walked.
From Cork, we kept driving west. We stopped in Kilarney and then in Kerry for the night. I really wanted to stay in an authentic Irish cottage hotel or castle, but my wife booked rooms for us in a less expensive modern hotel at the airport. We were traveling with her parents and she thought the hotel would be OK. I was very disappointed, but out voted. She promised we will go back to Ireland so I can have my childhood fantasy. I will keep her to it.
From Kerry, we headed out to drive the famous Dingle Peninsula, appropriately named the Ring of Kerry. The luck of the Irish continued to be with us. The weather was perfect. You can drive the route in about 8-10 hours depending on stops. There are many places to see along the way. In Waterville we stopped at a pub for some chowder and fish-and-chips (with a Guinness). To our surprise, in the park on the water across the street was a life-size statue of Charlie Chaplin. Apparently, Waterville was a favorite holiday destination for the legendary actor.
We also stopped at a ring fort. Ring forts are circular fortified settlements that were mostly built during the Iron Age (800 BCE–400 CE) in northern Europe. One of the best is Grianán Ailigh. We were amazed at how well preserved it was. They are certainly not castles, but still impressive.
In a small village on the drive, my oldest son, Aaron, surprised me with a special present. He bought me an Irish cap (with his own money even). I was extremely touched. He knew how much going to Ireland meant to me. I still wear it all the time. Sometimes the little buggers know how to touch your heart.
My wife enjoyed stopping at all the villages and shopping to wool items. There are also many places to buy Irish Belleek pottery. I remember my great grandmother had some in her china cabinet. We also admired the numerous local artists who painted amazing landscapes of the area.
Driving back to Dublin, we stopped at the Rock of Cashel. According to local mythology, the Rock of Cashel originated in the Devil’s Bit, a mountain 20 miles north of Cashel. When St. Patrick banished Satan from a cave in the mountain, the devil in anger hurled the rock out into the valley where it now sits. Cashel also is reputed to be the site of the conversion of the King of Munster by St. Patrick in the 5th century. What remains of the original structure is impressive. It is widely regarded as one of the best remnants of Celtic craftsmanship in Europe.
On the recommendations of several sources, we skipped Blarney Castle with its famous stone. The thought of kissing a rock that thousands of strangers have kissed before did not appeal to any of us (especially since you have to lie on your back with your head back down in a hole to do it). We also missed the Cliffs of Moher, which look spectacular. So, we have even more reason to go back than just my childhood fantasy.
See Rick Steves’ Ireland for more details!
The capital of a country says much about the nation. It is the actual and symbolic seat of power of the government. The capital is also the showcase to the world of the nation’s prestige, history, and culture. All capitals share in common the burden of being the ambassador of their country.
We have been to almost a dozen other national capitals in our travels. They all have been very interesting and informative experiences. London is wonderful. It is rich in history and full of things to see and do. I still clearly remember turning a corner and seeing Big Ben for the first time reigning over parliament. We were awestruck. Paris, in my eyes, is one of the most beautiful capitals on the planet. It is rightfully dubbed the “garden city.” Who does not recognize the iconic Eiffel Tower? Despite being ravaged by years of war, Berlin holds much of its former power and presence. The new dome on the Reichstag is a triumphant symbol of re-birth. The wall is down and the city once more united. The National Theater in San Jose is an architectural gem in the city. Democracy Plaza in the middle of San Jose shows the commitment of Costa Rica to its people. The Central Market is always busy with colorful vendors selling wares from all over. Each capital city has some unique feature that reflects the nation.
Washington D.C. is no exception. It is recognized the world around as the capital of the United States of America. When you stand in the Mall looking at the capital building, there is no doubt that you are in the heart of a great nation. The city radiates power and pride. It also showcases American history, culture, and achievement for the world to see. You may call it arrogance or narcissism, but Washington, D.C. is impressive to behold. It is like no other capital anywhere.
Unlike most other capital cities that evolved over time to become the center of their nations, Washington was purposefully designed from the beginning to be the seat of government of the United States. The basic city plan was designed by the famous French architect Pierre Charles L’Enfant in 1791. President George Washington personally selected the site of his nation’s new capital along the Potomac River. He envisioned a majestic city that would be a beacon for democracy for all to see.
Today the city does not disappoint. For visitors, the city offers more than you can see in a packed week of vacation. Even more, most sites are free. The famous Smithsonian Museums, all the monuments including the capital, the National Zoo, the National Aquarium, and more have always been open without charge to the public as a gesture of good will. So, for families, Washington is an economical trip too.
The Smithsonian Museums are considered America’s attic. The house an irreplaceable collection of original historic artifacts from America’s past. All items are the real deal. For example, you can see the Apollo 11 capsule, a real space shuttle, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the Hope Diamond, the original copy of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, George Washington’s wig, and much more. In fact, less than 2% of the collection is ever on display at one time. Since it is continually being rotated, each time you visit is a unique experience.
Taking our boys to see Washington D.C. for the first time was a truly moving experience. The look on our 15 year old face when he saw the Washington Monument was priceless. He was more excited to see it than Big Ben. Our 11 year old was giddy with excitement to see the National Zoo, but even more thrilled with the Natural History Museum. Each of us had our favorite site.
For me, the monuments still give me goose-bumps. Looking at the enormous white marble statue of Abraham Lincoln as I stand on the very same steps that Martin Luther King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, waters my eyes. The history is emotionally over-whelming. I have been there several times before and still read the entire Gettysburg Address inscribed on the wall inside. I recounted the story of the Battle of Gettysburg to our sons so they too understood the enormous importance of the battle and the significance of Lincoln’s speech. They will far better understand now when they study that era of American history in school.
For James Bond fans, there is the International Spy Museum (there is a charge for it). It has an impressive collection of real spy gadgets from the CIA to the KGB. Ford’s Theater, where Lincoln was assassinated, is still operating both as a theater and museum. You can actually see the private balcony and chair where he and his wife were sitting that fateful evening in 1865.
Aside from the museums and monuments, Washington has great restaurants and night life. You can wonder down to the George Town area in the evening and be sure to find some excitement. There are also miles of walking and biking trails. The walk along the Potomac River past the Jefferson Memorial is particularly nice. You can walk all the way to Arlington National Cemetery past the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier if you want. You can even kayak the river.
Outside Washington, is the carefully preserved estate of George Washington, Mount Vernon. You can tour his private residency and get an in depth glimpse into the life of the father of our nation. If you become saturated with history, you can unwind at Six Flags Amusement Park (I am sure that George Washington did not go there though.). For a more sedate thrill, you can hike in Great Falls National Park and see the water falls up river on the Potomac.
Washington D.C. does a superb job as the ambassador for the Unites States. It is an amazing city with much to offer everyone. I think that every American should make the pilgrimage to our capital at least once in their life. As much as you can call me bias, I think it stands out as the capital of capitals.
4 Italian Cities by Plain and Train
One of our big trips while living in England was going to Italy. Italy holds a certain fascination with Americans. The long history dating back to the Roman Empire, the scrumptiously fine cuisine, the hand-made designer fashions, and the beautiful landscapes draw us in like flies to honey. I highly recommend venturing there if you have not already. You will not be disappointed. Italy delivers on the promise of a memorable vacation.
My wife has been to Italy before with her family as a young girl. She has many fond memories of climbing the Leaning Tower of Pizza, seeing the ruins of Pompeii, and taking in the landscape dabbled with Roman ruins. This was going to be my first trip. We also wanted to see parts of Italy together that were new to both of us. So, we booked a flight on Ryan Air to Trieste.
Ryan Air is Europe’s low budget no frills airline based out of Dublin, Ireland. When I mean no frills, I mean bare bones traveling. The planes are not crop-dusters, but are stripped down to the essentials. The Ryan Air fleet is comprised solely of 737’s, which made me feel better. However, they modify them for cost efficiency. Therefore, the seats are plastic (I kid you not), the cabin is sparse (but painted in the hideous standard Ryan Air yellow and blue), and the in fight service is non-existent (no meals, no beverages, no magazines, and bottled water only available upon request for a price). They even tried charging for use of the inflight toilet until the airline safety board luckily put a stop to it. To maximize fuel consumption, if the plane is not full, then they heard you into the center of the cabin for optimal balance. Ryan Air has a way of making you feel like cattle being transported in mass. The flight crew is notoriously rude and impatient. The good side is that the flights are very cheap. They will regularly give away tickets just to keep the planes as full as possible (you pay the tax on the ticket, however). You can fly from London to Rome for 20€! As a ritual, everyone claps when you finally land at your destination (a little un-nerving).
We survived the flight and landed in Trieste. I will admit, I was more than a little shaken by the approach and landing. Once on the ground in Italy, I quickly forgot my near-death experience and soaked in the Italian ambience. Trieste is in northern Italy on the Adriatic coast. It has the only city square along the water. Although it is not a popular tourist destination, I really love it. It is a relatively unspoiled part of Italy not crowded with tourists. Being on the sea is an added bonus.
After walking around for a bit, our stomachs began to beg for some authentic Italian cooking. In traditional Italian areas, restaurants do not start serving until 7:00pm or later. So, finding food is difficult. Only in America do we have 24/7 convenience. We were obliged to wait. The wait, however, was worth it. Our first meal in Italy was fabulous! Italians have a way with dining. Plan on being there for a while. We were served course after course: aperitivo (appetizer, but serving alcoholic drinks and small food items), antipasto (cold sliced meats, cheese, vegetables), primo (first course, usually pasta), secondo (second course, usually hot meat or fish), contorno (a vegetable plate), insalata (the salad), formaggi e frutta (local cheese and fresh fruit), dolce (dessert), caffé (Italian style coffee), and finally digestivo (more alcohol). All meals are served with local wines.
We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. The slow, relaxed and friendly atmosphere is what makes dining in Italy a pleasure (of course the great food also). When we finished our caffé, we assumed that was the last part, until our waiter produced a frozen tall, translucent bottle filled with a clear liquid. I tried to explain that we did not order any more drink, but he insisted. With his very limited English, we understood that this was a gift from him to us as guests in his restaurant for the first time (we were indeed probably only a handful of Americans that every frequented his establishment). We thanked him in Italian, “Grazie!” He poured us two shot glasses of the Grappa. We each took a sniff and quickly determined that this was going to be a new experience. Neither of us drinks hard alcohol. I was daring and went first. The freezing liquid went down easy. It has a strong licorice taste. No problem. Two seconds later, my throat ignited on fire. By the waiters laugh and comment, “Stai bene?,” I assumed the expression on my face was priceless. Mish tried to back down politely, but Italian protocol required she show respect to our host’s gift and down it. I got to see what I looked like! We can proudly say we have tried Grappa.
We left Trieste by train for Venice vowing to return. In Venice we had a marvelous time. Venice is legendary for its unique water ways. The boys really wanted to ride a gondola, so we did. The rides are not cheap, but you cannot visit Venice without doing it once. The gondolier was very informative and funny and made the experience worthwhile. The Basilica of San Marcos is gorgeous. We walked across the famous Bridge of Sighs and did not even know it. You will find that Venice can be an intricate maze of alleys, canals, and buildings. Get a map! We were off season (which I highly recommend) so the crowds were non-existent. In the summer, Venice is extremely hot and humid and packed with tourists from around the world. In another post, I will go on and on about how marvelous Venice is. For now, let me just say it is a magical city.
From Venice, we continued by train to Florence. Florence is my favorite Italian city. It straddles the Arno River in a large valley at the foot of the Appenines Mountains. We took Rick Steves’ recommendation and stayed in the home of a nice lady who rents rooms. We shared one large bedroom with adjoining bathroom. Our hostess was fabulous and made the experience memorable. The climb to the top of the Dolma was exerting, but worth it. Plus, we needed to burn off all of the Italian food we were eagerly trying. The view of the land from the top is breathtaking! Inside is the equally breathtaking sculpture of David by Michelangelo. My wife really enjoyed the world famous leather market. She left with a great deal on a leather wallet.
Our last train stop was Rome. Rome is probably the most interesting city in all of Europe. Having been the capital of the Roman Empire for centuries, it retains enormous history. You can catch glimpses of its majestic past in The Colosseum, The Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, the Circus Maximus, the Forum Romanum, and more. Do not forget the Vatican! That is an all day excursion itself. Again, at Rick Steves’ recommendation, we stayed at a convent just a few blocks from the Colosseum. For families, it was an ideal location. I will do another post dedicated to Rome. We spent five wonderful days there, which was not enough, but too much to write about here.
The only negative part of the whole trip was that I needed to get back on Ryan Air for the flight back to England.
Two different views of the same river
Most people talk and write about Costa Rica from the typical vacationing tourist perspective. The rainforests are amazing, the zip-lining is cool, the beaches are wonderful, and the volcanoes are awesome. Visitors tend to treat Costa Rica as a tropical get-away. It is a place where nature is at her finest. National Geographic dubbed the Central Valley of Costa Rica the best annual climate in the world. All of this is true. Costa Rica is a truly beautiful country with abundant sights and activities for visitors.
Costa Rica is also a living functioning country with real people facing real problems behind the tourist facade. It is a country juxtaposed of wealth and poverty, technology and primitive conditions, global aspirations and isolation. To experience the real Costa Rica requires leaving the all-inclusive resorts and the tourist attractions and getting to know people.
There is another side to Costa Rica. Not too far from the lush pristine rain forests and flowing rivers you will, unfortunately, find horrific forest degradation, polluted water ways, and tons of litter. Even though the country is literally two-thirds national park and a world-renowned ecological treasure trove, Costa Ricans do not seem to place the same value on the environment as we do. In general, you will find gross amounts of litter along the roads, trash floating in rivers, and cars spewing all sorts of noxious fumes. This is part the reality of an impoverished nation and culture.
We purposefully lived outside San Jose, the capital, in a predominantly native area away from the tourism and expatriate communities. Areas like Escazu, sometimes called “Gringo Land” by locals,” are the epitome of Americanization in Costa Rica. It reminded me of southern California right away when we first ventured there. The mall there caters to the wealthy elite with stores like Tiffany’s, Macys, and Banana Republic. You can dine at TIGF, Applebee’s, or Azteca. There are also many very upscale restaurants in the area. As you walk around, Porsches, Ferraris, Land Rovers, and Corvettes driven by mainly white expatriates zip along the streets. There is even a very modern and well-staffed private hospital for the privileged who can afford it.
Escazu is in sharp contrast to other areas of Costa Rica. Areas like the southern part of the country where people struggle to get by and largely ignore the outside world. Unfortunately, the wealth brought in to the country through tourism tends to get funneled away from them. The wealthy in the country garnish the lion’s share of the spoils. This is just how things work, is the general feeling.
Latin American has always stood out as the area with the most skewed distribution of wealth. Although Costa Rica has been applauded for its progress in social equality, it still has some deficiencies and there is evidence that it is sliding backwards. Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Honduras are for sure far worse, but Costa Rica aspires to be an example in the region.
Chinese investment in the country is a concern for some. Indeed, Chinese immigration to Costa Rica is accelerating with an already sizeable population of 45,000. San Jose now is home to the world’s newest China town district. China even financed the building of the new Costa Rican National Football Stadium (soccer type). Why? In politics, favors are expected in return. China is second only to the United States as the leading trading partner with Costa Rica. Costa Ricans rightfully worry that Chinese workers will take Tico jobs like they have in the U.S., in a country already stricken with high unemployment.
The trade agreements have not brought down the prices on consumer goods. Commodities, like cars, electronics, clothing, etc. are incredibly high. As we found out, living in Costa Rica is no bargain. Most items are considerably higher than in the U.S. The average Tico has difficulty saving money and getting financially ahead. To worsen matters, the increasing expensiveness of Costa Rica has caused many expatriates, retirees, and tourists to search elsewhere, to places like Ecuador and Peru, taking with them valuable dollars.
Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator and activist, coined the phrase pedagogy of the oppressed. He used the term to describe how the wealthy elite, the oppressors, either intentionally through action or unintentionally through in-action, subjugate the poor, the oppressed. He argued that the oppressors really are not interested in changing the plight of the oppressed, but merely helping them accept the situation and be thankful for any charitable deeds done on their behalf. “Indeed, the interests of the oppressors lie in changing the consciousness of the oppressed, not the situation which oppresses them” (Freire, 1970). This paradigm is played out in much of Latin America, even Costa Rica.
I hope that Costa Rica continues on its path to socio-economic equality and full democracy along with environmental activism. It has achieved much in a region of the world ravaged by conflict, corruption, and poverty. It is a beautiful country to visit and the people are wonderful. We made some endearing friends who we hope to visit back in Costa Rica and host in our home in the U.S. someday. When you visit, I encourage you to take a closer look around you and learn the whole Costa Rica.
WANTED: BY THE BRITISH FOR WRONG PAPERS
More Adventures with the dog
We decided to leave Europe finally for the beautiful tropical beaches and rainforests of Costa Rica. Before we left, however, our oldest son, Aaron, really wanted to see his friend (girl type) in England one last time. So, we planned a trip across the channel from Germany to England. We were all looking forward to strolling around London again, even the dog.
We had crossed the channel on the surface via the ferry and under the water via the train a few times, so we knew the procedure. This time, we reserved passage on the ferry. The ferry leaves form Calais, France, and docks in Dover, England, two hours later. We prefer the ferry because the view from the decks is nice and you get a relaxing break in the drive. The ferry is a little less expensive too.
Traveling with a dog is a little more complicated (and expensive), but we are old pros at it now (or so we thought). My wife, Mish, went to the local veterinarian in Germany and got the dog the obligatory de-worming shot and the necessary health form with official signature for proof. She made hotel reservations in London and I made sure that the car was ready. Aaron primped and preened himself for his impending rendezvous with his friend while Elijah day-dreamed of British pubs. Albie just napped unaware of the problems he was about to cause.
We got up bright and early Friday morning and head north out of Frankfort to Calais. By this time, we were so familiar with Europe, that I did not even need the map (Mish made sure to navigate none the less). We arrived in Calais and boarded our vessel. Albie stayed and guarded the car while we went up to the passenger deck to get a snack and enjoy the view. The trip across was uneventful. We were getting ready to go back down to our car on the vehicle deck, when a steward announced for the owners of a dog in a blue car to please report to the purser’s office. My first thought was that Albie was making some sort of racket barking or had somehow discovered a way out of the car. As we walked to the purser’s office, I muttered, “That dog better not have…”
The captain of the ship actually met us and asked if we had the required documents to bring a dog into England because the purser was missing them. Mish, always at the ready, expediently produced the signed forms from the veterinarian. The captained examine the documents closely and concluded that the authorized signature was absent. Mish was taken back (after all, she is the “queen of preparedness” who makes a boy scout look ill-equipped). Despite putting up an impressive defense, the answer was no; the dog could not enter England (even though he lived their previously). The British are, after all, rigid sticklers to rules (no matter how stupid). Adherence to proper protocol to the bitter end lads is a must.
So, we were faced with a dilemma. Turn around and retreat from the British bureaucracy or send the expedition forward while someone stayed behind with the dog. Since we already were in England (almost) and had hotel reservations (not to mention a British lass waiting for her American heart-throb), we decided on the later. Guess who got left behind babysitting the pooch? Me!
To make matters worse, we had now delayed the off-loading of the vessel by about 20 minutes. We all went down to the car so Mish and the boys could retrieve their luggage. To our surprise (and embarrassment) ours was the only car left in the cavernous car hold. To add insult to injury, they had adorned our little car with enormous yellow and black warning signs stating “Quarantine: Unauthorized Animal” and were guarding it with animal inspection officers. You would have thought that we were smuggling in a rabid bear! There was poor (and clueless) Albie sitting in the backseat looking out at all of the commotion, unaware that it was over him.
I quickly got the luggage and kissed my wife good-bye and told the boys to behave. I was eager to get out of there. As I drove off the ship with Albie, Mish and the boys were escorted off in another fashion. They got to ride in the police wagon! Aaron even got to sit in the back lock-up where they put criminals. They were not actually in trouble; the police were being nice and giving them a ride to the ferry terminal. I am not sure who was more embarrassed. I am sure that someone watching must have been thinking, “Wow, the Brits don’t mess around with animal control!” I had to drive back on and re-cross the channel alone.
Two more hours later I drove off the ferry onto the dock back in Calais. I was left wondering where to go now. I decided that driving eight hours back to Frankfort was better than hanging around Calais for three days. I got on the motor-way and headed for Germany. By the time I got to Brussels, Belgium, I was exhausted. I pulled into a rest area to get some sleep before heading the rest of the way back. I woke up at about 4:00am needing to use the toilet. I left Albie asleep in the car while I went off to the nearby 24-hour gas station. When I returned, someone was attempting to dog-nap Albie! I could not believe my tired eyes. A young guy had pulled his car right tight against mine in an empty parking area. He was looking through my back window, which I had left partially open, trying to coax Albie over. As I walked up he quickly straightened up and looked surprised to see me (or anyone). He simply said “Nice dog” and got in his car and drove off as I stood there speechless. I am positive that Albie had no idea of the stress that he had inadvertently caused me that day. As I started the car he gave me a lick on the cheek. All was forgiven.
I decided to go back to Calais and hang out after all. Albie and I had a good time exploring the city. He enjoyed the beach and I enjoyed a little quiet time. I was very happy to reunite with the family Sunday. We both had a story to share. Aaron got to visit with his friend and Elijah got to go to another British pub one last time. Albie got to do his favorite thing, hang out.
Scouts All Over the Globe
Our boys have been in Scouting since they were young Tiger Scouts in 1st grade. Right now, Aaron is working on Life Scout and nominated for Order of the Arrow and Elijah just made Tenderfoot. Both want to make Eagle Scout someday. Now, if all the Scouting jargon sounds confusing and a little outdated Americana, you probably never were a Scout. You missed out on the most amazing, fun, and rewarding boyhood experience ever. So, have boys and volunteer to be a Scout dad so you can go back and do all the cool stuff or, like me, do it all over again. I love being able to re-live my childhood through our boys!
I was worried that when we moved to England our boys would miss out on Scouting. Fortunately, Scouting is so big that it is in almost every country around the world. The World Scout Bureau office is in Geneva, Switzerland, with regional offices in six areas around the world: Africa Region (Nairobi, Kenya), Arab Region (Cairo, Egypt), Asia-Pacific Region (Manila, Philippines), European Region (Geneva, Switzerland), Inter-American Region (Panama City, Panama), and Eurasia Region (Yalta-Gurzuj, Ukraine).
February 22nd was Lord Robert Baden-Powell’s birthday. Lord Baden-Powell was the founder of Scouting in England, from where Boy Scouts of America originated. According to legend, W. D. Boyce was an American newspaper man and entrepreneur. He was lost on a foggy street in London when an unknown Scout came to his aid, guiding him back to his destination. The boy then refused Boyce’s tip, explaining that he was merely doing his duty as a Boy Scout. Immediately afterwards, Boyce met with General Robert Baden-Powell, who was the head of the Boy Scout Association at that time. Boyce returned to America, and, four months later, founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910.
What do President Barak Obama, Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, Bill Gates, Steven Spielberg, John F. Kennedy, Harrison Ford, Gerald Ford, Martin Luther King, Jimmy Stewart, Bill Clinton, Nolan Ryan, Richard Gere, Jim Lovell, George Bush, Mark Spitz, Jim Morrison, Bruce Jenner, and Hank Aaron all have in common? They were all scouts! In addition, 181 NASA astronauts were involved in Scouting (57.4% of astronauts). 39 are Eagle Scouts. 35.4 percent of the United States Military Academy (West Point) cadets were involved in Scouting as youth. 14.7 percent of cadets are Eagle Scouts. 23 percent of United States Air Force Academy cadets were involved in Scouting as youth. 12 percent of cadets are Eagle Scouts. 25 percent of United States Naval Academy (Annapolis) midshipmen were involved in Scouting as youth. 11 percent of midshipmen are Eagle Scouts. 206 members of the 112th Congress participated in Scouting as a youth and/or adult leader. 29 are Eagle Scouts. 15 current U.S. governors participated in Scouting as a youth and/or adult volunteer. Four are Eagle Scouts. 72% of Rhodes Scholars are Scouts too. Wow!
Obviously, we wanted our boys to continue in Scouting. I went online and found the BSA website where I was able to track down the nearest Scout troop in England. Sure enough, there was one 30 minutes away outside Cambridge on Royal Air Force Base Alconbury. Amazingly, there were almost as many Brits in the troop as Americans. We all had a great time trading Scout experiences.
When we moved to Germany, we found another unit at the American consulate in Frankfort. Even in Costa Rica we found another troop. The boys camped in the Alps, British country-side, and rainforest! They got to keep a small part of American life with them wherever we went. They have Scout troop patches with them from all over the word. Now that we are back in the United States, temporarily, they have stories to share with the troop here in the Seattle area. Plus, they have not missed advancing in the program.
This weekend, we are building and sleeping in igloos up in the Cascade Mountains! See what you may be missing.
Pub guide to the U.K.
Amazingly, the thing that we miss the most about England is the pubs. Pubs, an abridged term for public house, are unique establishments to the U.K. Despite places in other countries, including the U.S., claiming to be pub-like, they fall short. There really is not anything quite like a British or Irish pub. They are neither bars nor truly restaurants. Pubs are the social enclave of rural England where village life centers around.
Pubs can be traced back in history to the Roman occupation days of the first century A.D. The Romans loved to build things. Soon, villages and cities were connected in an intricate network of roads. Pubs became a place for people to gather and listen to the tales of travelers, catch-up on news, discuss issues, and drink. Drinking has always been central to the pub experience. However, pubs rarely serve hard alcohol, like vodka, gin, or bourbon. Instead, ale is the preferred beverage. Many even have their own unique ale label. Beer and hard ciders are also very popular.
My wife really prefers apple cider. Strong Bow is her favorite. I am almost exclusively a Guinness man. Pubs allow children too, so our boys can get soda (we found that our American family and friends do not quite understand that we allow our children to hang-out in pubs). We all love pub-grub. Food in pubs is usually made fresh on the premises from simple ingredients. The food is reasonable healthy, filling, and inexpensive. Typical dishes include steak-and-ale pie, fish-and-chips (of course), shepard’s pie, bangors and mash (sausages with mashed potatoes), ploughman’s lunch (cold cheese, chutney, bread, and egg), and more. On Sunday, most pubs have an amazing roast served buffet style. I’m getting hungry!
Everyone has their favorite pub. We are no exception. Elijah, Aaron, and Mish all fancy the Red Lion in Middleton. The owners, Kevin and Fiona, are exceptional! They always treated us very well. We even stayed there for a few nights as we were getting settled. We all have many fond memories of times well-spent in the pub socializing with our new village friends and learning British culture. As much as I too loved the Red Lion, my favorite pub was the Royal George up the road in the same village. The beams in the building date back to the 1200’s. Imagine sitting in a place that was erected 500 years before your country was founded. If those beams could talk!
Most pubs have similar names. The Royal George, The White Horse, The Green Dragon, The Red Lion, The Fox and Hound, or the Golden Eagle are common. Inside you can always find a warm welcome, hot food, cold drink, and endless talk. You can play traditional pub games like darts, skittles, dominoes, or trivia. If you prefer, you can watch a game of football (soccer) on the tele or chat with friends or make new ones. Whatever you are in the mood for, you can usually find it at your local pub. So, when you travel through the U.K., stop in and have a drink (or more). Let us know about your experience. It will make us reminiscent of our old pub back in Middleton. Cheers!
Hospitals around the world
In the United States there seems to be a perpetuated myth that other countries have free health care. Somewhere, some people have it better than us. We want something for nothing too. If they can have it, then why can’t we? The problem with this myth is that it is just that, a myth. Somebody has to pay the medical providers. Doctors and nurses do not work for free. Better doctors want more money. The nerve! Living in other countries, we got to experience “free” medical first hand. So, we have our opinions about the health care of those countries compared to ours in the United States.
Day one in England, we needed to go to a hospital emergency room. The recruitment firm that secured me a job teaching in England put us up for three nights in a quaint bed and breakfast in the village that would become our new home for a while. The place was absolutely marvelous and we were very impressed with our new surroundings. The one small problem was that the doorways in the old house were approximately a foot shorter than what we were used to in America. Apparently the Brits of yore were a little shorter than today. I turned to go through a door way only to ram my thick American head into an even thicker old British timber door frame. I hit it hard! Britain 1, American 0.
My wife, who heard the collision and my verbal reaction (I think I accidently insulted several generations of British carpenters), came running. “Are you OK?” she asked. “No!” I snapped, as I Iaid on the ground with little British buses driving circles around my head and Big Ben ringing in my ears. The problem, other than me having a concussion, was that my wife could not drive our new British automobile nor navigate to the nearest hospital. So, while she was trying to figure out this dilemma, our hostess called a friend who offered to take the poor (stupid) American to the local hospital.
Actually, I wanted to test the British National Health System (NHS) at least that is my excuse today. The NHS has a policy where you must be seen by a medical person within 20 minutes of checking in. Wonderful! So, someone comes, looks at you to verify that you are really there, and then disappears for two hours. But, they did validate my existence within the 20 minutes. Luckily, I survived to fight British craftsmanship (my Land Rover) another day and write about it in this post.
The system is stretched too thin. After arriving in England, you are obligated to visit your local health care provider center for an initial consultation. The facility and doctor are selected for you. You must get some base line data entered into the NHS computer system. Without that, no medical people will touch you, except in the case of door frame hit and run type accidents. Ironically, most doctors are not even from England. You will most likely be seen by a medical professional from India, the Middle East, or Asia. Since NHS sets the doctor’s pay scale, many of the best British trained doctors leave for more financially lucrative areas (i.e. The U.S.). The U.S., however, does not recognize the British medical license. British trained doctors need to be re-certified by the AMA.
Our oldest son, Aaron, decided to also test the British NHS just to get a second opinion. He broke his arm falling off my pull-up bar. We experienced the same level of service. The NHS uses a controversial system called quality-adjusted life years (QALY) as a means to quantify medical intervention priority. Basically, the closer you are to dying, the more likely you are to being treated. QUALY applies to the ER, specialists, regular appointments, medications, and every other medical practice. Therefore, preventive medicine is practically unheard of in England. If you are persistent, like my wife, a woman can get a mammogram every other year after age 45. Consequently, England leads Europe in breast cancer deaths. Many Brits go to other European countries for health needs or about 1/3 pay for expensive private care.
The system is not free. Although there is no specific tax for the NHS, tax there is and plenty of it. I paid on a salary of 31,000 pounds (about 50,000 U.S. dollars then) a 32% tax rate. Anyone lucky enough to earn 150,000 pounds or more pays 50% in taxes. This does not include value added tax (VAT) on goods and services, council tax on your domicile (rented or owned), and other tax sources. So, we like to call the NHS “free” health care “pre-paid” health care.
The German system was better. Our oldest son, Aaron, was the guinea pig this time. Shortly after arriving in Frankfurt, he developed appendicitis. I receive a frantic call from my wife while at school telling me that Aaron was on the living room floor double-overed in pain crying. A very nice Scottish lady took me home, where I found my wife distraught, my son as previously described, and three emergency medical people standing over our son talking in German. Luckily, my taxi driver spoke German. I was very impressed that the Germans send an actual doctor out on the ambulance. She decided that he needed to go to the nearest hospital. Seeing you first born taken away in a foreign country by strangers speaking a different language is an extremely unnerving experience. I recommend avoiding it if possible.
The German hospital was very well equipped and staffed. Even though the staff did not speak English, they did everything they could to make us feel comfortable and explain about the condition of our son. Overall, we were impressed. Aaron was indifferent to the whole experience. He was so medicated that we are not sure if he even remembers it. Like England, the tax rate is high, 24% for our income range. The quality, however, was far superior. We were amazed that even small town clinics had the latest high-tech x-ray and ultrasound equipment.
Costa Rica, on the other hand, was a very different experience. First, the U.S. State Department highly recommends that American avoid using the public medical facilities expect in “life or death decision emergencies.” Ouch! We drove by the main hospital in San Jose and concur. Fortunately, we had private medical insurance through my school so we were privileged to use one of the three private hospitals that cater to ex-patriots. And talk about privileged! The private hospital in Escazu is of the same quality and modernization as any in the United States. We got to test this one too.
My wife, Mish, started to have breathing problems. She suffers from scleroderma, which affected her lungs. The hospital ER did a full pulmonary exam and EKG for only $1,500.00! No wonder why many Americans take “medical vacations” to Costa Rica.
Aaron, Elijah, and I went to the same private hospital for a case of cholera. I will spare you the details, but let me say, it was no vacation. Abbot and Constello were my ambulance drivers. Aside from not speaking English, they didn’t seem to know any medical either. As I had excrement violently erupting from both orifices of my body, they had me walk to their vehicle. Luckily, the doctors were used to seeing numerous cases of intestinal parasites, so they knew exactly what treatment was needed (thank God). The hospital visit was less than 12 hours, but the recovery at home took days.
All in all, we prefer the American medical system. However, we fully acknowledge that we are the minority in the U.S. with adequate care. Our careers have afforded our family the best medical insurance and so the best medical care. Tragically, most Americans do not have our level of coverage. That is the problem. I do not have an answer. I like our medical care, but do not like that it is exclusive.
Let’s look at some facts…
One of the concerns that many people ask us about as we travel is safety, especially regarding children. Without launching into a pointless political debate, allow me to throw out some startling statistics.
According to a 2013 Washington Post study, “The United States has the highest gun ownership rate in the world and the highest per capita rate of firearm-related murders of all developed countries.” This unacceptable figure is supported by numerous other studies and research. The bottom line, you have the best chance of being killed by a gun right here in the United States. Even the Middle East and Africa are statistically safer according to the United Nations World Health Organization in 2012.
A report by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) published in Forbes Magazine in 2010 rated the United States in the top 10 most dangerous countries to drive in. According to the World Health Ranking in 2011, the United States had a medium rating compared to a low rating for Europe, Canada, and Australia in road safety. The report showed that the United States was actually twice as dangerous as Europe.
Well documented studies across multiple areas illustrate the obesity epidemic that the United States is facing. The American Medical Associates cites that in 2009 17.4% of children 2-19 were deemed obese and 30.6% overweight. We lead the world in obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. Furthermore, we come in 7th for cancer rates.
The United Nations World Health Organization in 2010 ranked the United States 38th in health care. Despite the best medical technology and most highly trained doctors, Americans have poor access to health care and shun preventive medicine.
The United States has one of the cleanest airs in the world. Years of environmental activism and regulations are paying off. Better, more sustainable practices are actually working.
The Columbia University’s Earth Institute ranked the United States the 14th happiest country on the planet in 2012. That is up from previous years. However, most of the northern European countries beat us.
So, you need to make an informed decision about where you go. Realize, however, that perceptions are very powerful. For example, Columbia is usually given a very bad report by the media for drug violence. However, most of the problem is confined to the southern mountain area bordering Ecuador. Cartagena on the Atlantic coast is far removed from the violence. It is over 600 miles distant. That is like saying here in Seattle, I am worried about crime in Sacramento. Also, the media over plays violence in other countries. Remember, more people are murdered in Los Angeles in any given weekend than in a year in most other countries.
A friend once told me, “The United States is the most violent country on Earth.” As an American, I found that extremely hard to swallow. After living in other countries and looking at the facts, I now tend to agree. We need to work on some things back home.
The Big Book of Everything
Growing up, I was fortunate to be born into a Navy family. We moved around the world every four years. We moved from Cuba to Spain to Mississippi. Trust me, Mississippi was like a foreign country to me after being outside the U.S. for so long. While we traveled, dad took the family pictures of our adventures, which are currently in the family album in MS. I collected postcards from everywhere I traveled and have them in a box in the basement …somewhere. I don’t have anything personal to remind me of all of my adventures, like running with the bulls in high heels…but that is another story.
When my husband and I started to travel with our boys, I started to collect small pieces of memorabilia. Things like brochures city maps, tickets and feathers were stuffed into my backpack as we traveled. When we got home, I would order pictures and sort the collection. I think my original thought was to create a beautiful scrapbook by spending hours agonizing over the perfect page layout. However, I would rather travel then spend 6 months scrapbooking about my adventures.
Now, I buy brightly colored paper and stickers to create memorable pages. I also type up captions to go with the pictures to remind the boys about something funny that happened. The end product is called The Big Book of Everything. Each boy has a 4-5” binder filled with a year’s worth of memories. They still drag them out often to refer to when telling a story. Each binder weighs 5 lbs and is bulky, so I recommend collecting stuff while you travel and putting the album together when you get home.
I originally started the Big Books of Everything with the boys in mind so they would have something to take with them when they start their own adventures. The truth is, I love to look at them as much as the boys. While we do have pictures of our trips online, it is the other ‘stuff’ that finds its way into the books that make them fun to look at over and over. On second thought, the boys can look at their pictures online…the books stay with me.
Mish (a.k.a. Mom)
Costa Rica, one of the most beautiful countries on Earth! National Geographic rated it the best year round climate on the planet. I agree. The country stays fairly consistent month to month, with rainy and dry seasons. Temperatures generally range from 70° to 85° F depending on elevation. The best time to visit is obviously during the dry season, which runs from December to May. I would avoid the rainy season because when it rains there, it rains! Rains can last for hours, even days, straight and are heavy (like windshield wipers are useless, rain coats and umbrellas are merely for style, and outdoor activities are impossible).
Contrary to popular belief, Costa Rica is not cheap. Over the years, tourists and expatriates have sparked a bourgeoning capitalistic atmosphere. Add to that factor the rising costs of transporting goods into the country and prices have skyrocketed. Visiting can still be reasonably affordable. However, living there can be pricey. Most expats are surprised by the steep prices for everyday commodities. Cars, in particular are extremely expensive. You will find that even an old high-mileage jalopy commands a high price.
To my great thrill, I found a diesel 1973 Series III Land Rover! If you do not know anything (as I did) about “Landies,” then stay clear of them. They are amazing vehicles. They are equally well known for their off-road prowess and their quirky mechanical engineering (remember, the British designed and built them). However, I fell in love with mine. If it were not for the invaluable help of a good friend we made who happened to be an amazing jack-of-all-trades and Land Rover expert, I would have been stranded on the roadside. I have many stories to tell of our adventures in my Series III and Oscar and I fixing it in his barn with salvaged parts, duct tape, elbow grease, and loving devotion to this icon of the automotive world.
One of the amazing traits of “Ticos” is their ability to make do with what they have out of necessity. Since they tend to not have access to the resources that we are accustomed to in the U.S., they utilize what they find around them. Oscar and I repaired my Landie by driving it over two wood boards that bridged a hole in the ground we used as a pit to get under the vehicle. When I broke a leaf spring (too much off-roading), he cobbled a new one from cannibalized parts from another old leaf spring. Here in the U.S., I would have wasted the money on buying a whole new part. I was impressed and humbled by his ingenuity. He and his family were wonderful to us.
We rented a house on the farm from the family that owned the land. They too were amazing, generous, and kind. They invited us to their home for tea and dinner several times. Francisco is an orchid enthusiast. He took us to the Costa Rica National Orchid Show. I did not know how big a deal orchid cultivating was. He schooled us in the art of raising, presenting, and judging orchids. We even met the Vice President of Costa Rica at the show!
We found this hospitable climate throughout Costa Rica. Once you get to know the people and culture, you are almost like family. We shared our lives with them and learned about theirs. It was truly a marvelous experience.
In Costa Rica, the most commonly used phrase is “pura vida”, which literally means “pure life.” The saying actually goes beyond its simple translation. It ia a way of life. It symbolizes the idea of simply enjoying life and being happy. As the Urban Dictionary states, it’s a synonym of “hakuna matata” and reflects the relaxed lifestyle of Costa Ricans.
The ticos, as they call themselves are relaxed too! Life in the country is much slower than in the U.S. or Europe, so do not be in a hurry to do anything.
My 1973 Series III Land Rover (Oh how I miss it!)
German education is very German
Where the British education system is tightly controlled by London, Berlin mostly stays out of German education. In many ways, the German system is similar to ours. The states (or Länder) have the primary authority in education. Therefore, just as in the U.S., education can vary radically from state to state. Incidentally, Germany is made up of 16 states.
Germans do not like what we call “non-traditional” education. Meaning, home schooling, religious schools, online schools, and private schools are pretty much unilaterally outlawed. The Germans have taken this to such an extent that parents can be, and have been, imprisoned for refusing to send their children to the state approved schools. Some parents have even sought political asylum in the U.S. because they were adamant about not sending their children. In recent years, more parents are challenging the laws, but seem to be losing. The only exceptions to this are approved international schools for foreign students and some limited Germans and U.S. DOD schools for military personnel stationed in the country.
The justification for this harsh, by American standards, ruling is to prevent the formation of subcultures within Germany. The German government is still paranoid that an uncontrolled subculture could lead to another rise in something like Nazism.
When we arrived in Germany, we intended to home school our two boys, since both my wife and I are teachers anyway. When we found out the laws (after we arrived – bad idea), we changed to plan B, which was to have them attend the international school where I was teaching. A typical contractual benefit for international teachers is free or reduced tuition for children. This makes sense because most international schools, especially in Europe, are outrageously expensive. Unfortunately, German laws require the tuition benefit to be taxed at the going rate of about 40%. Ouch! So, on to plan C.
We got permission, after quite a struggle and paperwork, to enroll our oldest in a U.S. approved online school. Our youngest, however, was forced to go to the German town school after we got a letter from the government informing us that if he was not there the next day, then the police would come to escort him. No amount of American bravado can dissuade the Germans. Rules are rules!
At first we thought that this would be a great cultural enrichment experience for our son. Unfortunately, the Germans do not embrace multiculturalism. As the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, declared, “German multiculturalism has utterly failed.” The language of instruction is German, period. That is a huge problem for an 8 year old who only speaks English. Immersion in German does not work when a stubborn little boy decides otherwise. We could not blame him; German is ridiculously hard to learn.
One day while I was dropping him off at school in the morning I wished him a good day. He responded, “Yep, off to another day of torture!” I was both amused and heart-broken. He really did not like the school. He would obstinately sit in the back and read his own books while the teacher rambled on in German. The year was an academic disaster for him.
The principal called a meeting to discuss the issue. Through broken English and German with the help of a parent who spoke a little English, we learned that she was more concerned about his exam scores come time to select his secondary school. In Germany, students are self-selected by exam scores to one of three possible options: Gymnasium for smart kids bound for university, Realschule for good kids that might go on to some type of higher education or job, and the Hauptschule for kids that are bound for less noble pursuits. The principal wanted to let us know that our son was opting for the third choice. We knew otherwise, but were forced between a stubborn German system and an even more stubborn child. Luckily, we also knew that our time in Germany was limited, so we just had to wait it out. Elijah was not as happy about the wait.