April 27, 2008

Sibling Revelry

Well, my sister Diana (above) is currently in Morocco, which means that my clustrmap (that thing on the left) has its first African dot! I know I'm the only one who cares about that map, but whatever. Thanks, Di!

365: Picture a Day Project    365 Leftovers    All My Pictures    Sitzbook

April 22, 2008

I’m Not Even Sure How To React To Something Like This...Maybe I'll Just Drink Myself To Sleep

I’m not positive who originally said it, but I recall hearing a rather famous quote that went something like: “A little bit of knowledge can be a very dangerous thing.” Meaning that, armed with only a small amount of knowledge or information, a person can make many stupid decisions without knowing all the facts. Or at least that’s how I interpreted it. Recently, I’ve modified that quote in my head to: “A little bit of development can be an infuriating thing.”

I recalled this recently when I read Julien and Martha’s blog. They are my friends serving with the Peace Corps in Georgia, the former Soviet republic. They were comparing their job with that of a friend of theirs stationed in Malawi (Read their entry here). Julien was arguing that in some ways, Malawi is certainly a very difficult assignment, especially in terms of pure statistics. That would probably be in areas like poverty, life expectancy, and other such factors. But at the same time, he said that the thing that made living in Georgia difficult were the times that he was exposed to things that hinted at “western” or familiar culture. I notice that here, too. Basically, my interpretation is that if you don’t see a mall, you might not miss it after a while. But what if every morning you passed a mall in your local town, but instead of rocking out the GAP and Chick-Fil-A, the stores at your local mall all sold wool vests and burkas, and the food court only had a store that sells a casserole made with bamboo leaves and fried goat meat. It would kind of get your hopes up, but then let you down even more, right?

Maybe I’m not understanding what Julien was trying to say, but that is how I interpreted what he and Martha wrote, and made it fit my own paradigm. See, I go to work every weekday at a call center that is completely high-tech and fully outfitted. It has high-speed internet, multiple coffee stations, and vending machines that sell bags of fried plantain chips. All of that is pretty modern, and when I’m doing my thing, I could just as easily be working in Houston as in Heredia. But every night when I arrive home, I find out that some asshole who apparently rides around Berlín on a horse has shut off our water. That appears to be this guy’s job this time of year: He shuts off the whole town’s water at 6 p.m. or so, and turns it back on sometime in the early morning. Usually. Sometimes it’s out for longer. This has been going on for about three months or so now. And the reason he does this is so that the coffee farmers won’t water their farms at night. I swear this is true. Still, I seem to be the only one that is annoyed by this; everyone else in the town has accepted it as a fact by now.

One way or the other, though, after a day of walking about 45 minutes to catch smelly buses and getting sweaty and sticky from the grit of the city, it would be nice to be able to return home and take a shower or even drink a cup of water that doesn’t come from our newly-installed holding tank on our roof. But I can’t because this fucker turns off our water every evening before I get home.

There are also multiple times when our phone and/or electricity goes down. No one really knows why; it’s just what happens. And in some cities around here, they have super-high speed internet. But in Berlín, we can’t even get dialup. In fact, they initially told us it would take two years to get a mere phone line. And people traveling around in packed Hyundai Elantras stop door-to-door to sell the strangest things; one weekend it’s a guy selling mirrors, the next it’s two-for-one pizzas, and the next someone’s offering to give you pots and pans in exchange for your unwanted rings and other items made of gold. Again, I swear this is true.

So in my mind, the problem seems to be the mixing of the old and the new. Or, the developed and the developing. There are many, many aspects of life here that are deeply rewarding, but there are also many that drive me nuts.

The latest piece of news that is leading me to this rant is both sad and disturbing. It was reported in all the papers last week, and if it weren’t both sad and true, it would be a mock headline for The Onion. The event that I am referring to happened last Thursday when a 24-year-old girl was crushed and killed by a banana truck that tipped over in the middle of San José. Now, I really, really do not want to make it seem like I am trying to make light of this tragedy. Like I said, it is sad and depressing, and was even more so after I read that the driver of the truck had something like 50 transit infractions.

This event is just a culmination of so many things involving development and whatever would be the opposite of development. If there were no demand for exporting bananas to Europe and America, the big truck probably wouldn’t have been in the San José area in the first place. And if the road had not been detoured due to construction crews patching potholes in the road, or if the transit authorities had pulled the driver’s license about 40 tickets ago, then the truck might not have tipped over. And if the cities here valued pedestrian traffic as much as car traffic, the girl might have had an adequate sidewalk to safely walk on far away from the road.

In any case, this article made me sad, and what made me even sadder is the realization that I will likely continue to read stories like this into the future, and that the only thing that will eventually remedy this developmental imbalance is good, old-fashioned time. And maybe a good booze-fueled cry to get it all out. But one way or other, the message seems to be clear: development is a slow, gradual process, and it's a painful one at that.

365: Picture a Day Project    365 Leftovers    All My Pictures    Sitzbook

So That's Why No One Ever Calls...

In the recent blog entry where I gave our new phone number here in Berlín, my friend Dustin commented that calling our number would be like the time on “The Simpsons” when Bart called Australia, and he was dialing for about 30 seconds. Well, out of curiosity, the last time I called my parents’ house with a calling card, I counted the number of digits I had to press to reach them. It turns out that to call home, I need to dial a 46-digit number. I guess now the new 8-digit dialing here doesn’t seem so annoying anymore.

365: Picture a Day Project    365 Leftovers    All My Pictures    Sitzbook

Good Is The New Evil

I just finished reading “Bis zur letzten Stunde,” the memoirs of Traudl Junge. Junge was Hitler’s secretary during that last two and a half years of World War II. It’s a very interesting book, but probably only if you speak German. If you don’t, not so much. But one thing that stood out in my mind, for some reason, is that near the end of their lives, both Adolf Hitler and Elvis Presley were on something like 20 different kinds of medication that were prescribed to them by a series of quack doctors. So we’ve finally found the common link between pure good and pure evil. In the end, maybe all the big players for both sides are nothing more than compulsive pill poppers.

365: Picture a Day Project    365 Leftovers    All My Pictures    Sitzbook

April 21, 2008

Maté Me!

When I was talking about the Argentineans visiting us, some of you may have wondered what the hell maté was. Well, here's a picture of me drinking a maté that Nacho and Julia brought me, in all it's gourd-and-metal-straw glory. It doesn't contain caffeine or any stimulants, but tell that to my body at 11 p.m.! Recently, about 95% of the content of this blog has been written by me and my trusty maté. (Don't worry, I still have my first love: coffee. It's just that I drink that coffee in the morning and till about 3 p.m., when I switch to maté. And I don't like writing much in the mornings).

365: Picture a Day Project    365 Leftovers    All My Pictures    Sitzbook


Look: if you two are going to make out the whole bus ride home from San José to Palmares, that's fine, but I'm going to watch you until you knock it off. You can have your Public Displays of Affection, but I get to have my Public Display of Bastard.

365: Picture a Day Project    365 Leftovers    All My Pictures    Sitzbook

April 13, 2008

A Weird Story

As you probably know, I used to teach school. My students were in all the grades from 6th to 11th, so I had a lot of interesting experiences. Some people ask me, "So, do you miss teaching the high school / junior high kids?"
Ha ha!
You must not have taught high school or junior high.
No, seriously, I do miss some of the students, although they were really whiny at times. And it's hard to focus on the really good, nice 5% of your students, when the other 95% falls into that whiny category.
But in any case, I was thinking of this because I came across a snippet of a student's paper from last year. His name is Issac, and he was in my 8th grade class. Their assignment was to write a short story, and this is how his began. It was titled "Ryan Sitzman," and this includes my corrections that I made for the final paper. For example, before it said “I know this question are stupids for you because you don’t know what I’m talking about…”
In any case, just read it. It's weird. Then you'll know why I love my job now:

“Short Story
Ryan Sitzman.
Have you ever had a dream? Have you ever killed somebody? Have you ever died? I know these questions are stupid for you because you don’t know what I’m talking about. But I know a man, for whom the answer to all these questions is “yes.” And here is his story.
15/11/70. That date, a boy was born in Colorado U.S.A. He was born to a poor family, in a poor town, but with a “rich life.” his name is Ryan Sitzman. At the age of 11, one morning he talked with his mother about a dream: “Mommy, last night I dreamed I killed a very nice black man named Issac. I don’t know why, but I did.”
“It was only but a dream, Ryan,” said his mother."

(Yeah...weird. And keep in mind that this was one of my favorite students, one that I liked, and who liked me as a teacher. Imagine what it was like with the "difficult" ones...P.S. I also docked him points for adding 10 years to my age)

365: Picture a Day Project    365 Leftovers    All My Pictures    Sitzbook

What's Going Down

Well, it's been a pretty busy week, so I don't have as much to post this weekend, but I do have some pictures that I've been meaning to share with you. Hope you enjoy!

This is at Angela's cousin's wedding. She has hundreds of cousins (literally), so weddings happen quite frequently, and you need to find things to keep them interesting. At this one, we saw a machete stuck in a stump, and pretended like it was the Sword in the Stone (Oh, did I mention that Berlin can get a bit boring at times?).

I was also not The Chosen One.

My car is pretty cool, but lately it bitched out on me a few times. There was some thumping sound, and after Angela's brother looked at it for a while, he removed a rubber piece. Apparently, he might have replaced it with something else, or he will, but in any case, the thumping stopped. Still, that didn't matter anyhow because as I was coming back from work a week or two ago, the car died and made a bubbling sound. Turns out, a belt broke, and I was driving at night on the Interamericana Highway (which, to tell you the truth, is probably the only place you'd want your car to break down at night in Costa Rica).

Anyhow, I happen to have the full-package insurance, so we called the company. Within like 20 minutes, a guy showed up in a beautiful tow truck, playing "Bette Davis Eyes" on the in-cab stereo. Huh? Since when did "service" become a concept around here?? In any case, I was grateful for the guy (named Conrad) who brought me all the way home to my front door (no, I didn't get to ride in my car on the back of the truck the whole time). And as it turns out, he would have taken me to anywhere in the whole country, all for free, as part of my insurance coverage. Costa Rica, touchee. You've won this round with your unexpected customer service.

And finally, here we have my lovely wife Angela placing one of the first blocks of our house. For an explanation of this picture, a picture of a little Jesus statue in a hardware store (of course), and much, much more from this week in construction, check out our construction sblog!

365: Picture a Day Project    365 Leftovers    All My Pictures    Sitzbook

April 6, 2008

Internet This!

By the way, not that anyone really checks out ryansitzman.com too much, but I have been putting up quite a few new pages in the last month or so. I put up picture pages from Angela and my wedding reception in Colorado, a Mixed Bag page that has pictures that go all the way back to 2004 or so, a second series of Costa Rica pictures from 2007, and pictures from our visit to the U.S. over last Christmas. So, have a look at them. If you know me, there's even a good chance that you'll see yourself in one of the pictures. I'm also planning on getting some different sorts of pages up in the coming weeks and months, so be on the lookout. You can see what's new by going to the homepage at http://www.ryansitzman.com, and then clicking on the "What's New?" link on the left.
Also, my brother Paul's site is expanding, and it's pretty good. As you possibly know, he and I are in a race to finish our A-Z music reviews. He's on B and I'm on J, but he's gaining ground pretty damn fast. In any case, his site is pretty cool, and it also has the videos that he's been making in his film classes, which are pretty cool. There is a link on the left of this page, or you can go directly to http://web.mac.com/paulman97970/Site/Home.html
Either way, this will help you kill a few hours at work.
Have a good one.

365: Picture a Day Project    365 Leftovers    All My Pictures    Sitzbook

"Third World" Wars: Episode II: Jimmy Hats, Baby-Mamas, and Book Learnin'

I have in front of me (and so do you) two newspaper clippings from issues of this week’s editions of La Nación, which is generally considered Costa Rica’s most reliable and reputable newspaper (although that might not be saying much, based on a glance at its competitor newspapers, all of which heavily rely on covers that display bloody traffic accidents, an overuse of exclamation points, and girls decked out with fake titties and/or g-strings). In any case, the point is that these two articles caught my attention because they illustrate, to a saddening degree, that I do in fact live in a country that is, at least in some ways, still a third world country.

Before I go into this, I hope that this doesn’t sound like more preaching/bitching about Costa Rica’s problems. As a foreigner who is still getting acclimated even after nearly two years here, it’s still the differences between my new country and my old home that catch my attention, and these two stories fairly broke my heart.

The first story was from a cover page article that continued onto pages 4 and 5, in which it was stated that the country would begin to teach students how to use condoms in schools. Now, as far as I’m concerned, sure, knowledge can be power. Schools should teach kids how to use condoms, geometry, the five-paragraph essay, the Pythagorean Theorem, chainsaws, hand grenades…whatever. But that’s not my point here. The thing that made this story alarming to me was a sidebar that described some of the motivations behind the government’s decision to teach condom use. It talked about birth rates in Costa Rica and had other statistics like STD and AIDS numbers, single-mother births, and births to underage mothers. This is where I started to become concerned. It says that in the last year, “only 0.7%” of the babies born in Costa Rica were born to mothers under the age of 15.

Now, 0.7% may seem like a small percentage, and I suppose that it is, relatively speaking, but in this case, that still means that 500 babies were born to mothers that were 14 years old or younger. The paper further elaborated upon this. Apparently, in the last year in this country, 366 babies were born to 14-year-olds, 102 were born to 13-year-olds, 16 were born to 12-year-olds, and four eleven-year-olds gave birth. Eleven years old! Man, that’s young. It’s so young, I feel comfortable, APA-style-wise, writing “11” in letters instead of digits.

I realize that in this country of 4,000,000 people, 4 babies born to eleven-year-olds may not be a big deal. And indeed, in the U.S., maybe the same statistics are much higher, proportionally speaking. But what really nags at me is the idea that these condom-teaching programs had been put on hold about 10 years ago—right around the same time those four new mothers were born themselves—due to objections from the church about the curriculum. At this point, I don’t want this post to devolve into a theological criticism or debate, but I do think that the government has made a wise choice here. I realize that for many families, sexual education is taught at home, and for still other families, condoms or other types of birth control are not morally justifiable. But still, when 500 babies are having babies, it’s obvious that the abstinence-only programs aren’t working out so well. Instead of giving them a guilt trip, give these kids a box of condoms! And for the majority of the kids who won’t use them: Great for you! Use them to make water balloons, and play around like kids your age ought to.

The second article that caught my attention was one from Thursday. It’s titled (approximately): “Youth Want A Secondary School On Isla Caballo, Puntarenas.” This caught my attention because Isla Caballo is one of the islands in the Gulf of Nicoya; it’s only about 30 miles away, as the cockatoo flies, and on a clear day you can even see the island from our backyard. Apparently when it comes to educational opportunities, though, those 30 miles will take you into another world. Another world that doesn’t have high schools. That’s right, there’s apparently no high school on the island, so the local kids were collecting signatures to send to the Ministry of Education, in order to get the Ministry to open a high school on the island.

Let’s pause and consider this for just a moment. (Pause)

OK. It’s been considered, and I’ve come to this conclusion: Kids are collecting signatures and asking to be allowed to go to school! What the hell is going on here? Am I in Bizarro Costa Rica here? This all makes a little more sense when you read the quote by Yahaira Alvarado, the 17-year-old girl who is leading the signature collecting. She says, “The youth of Isla Caballo need a school to be opened because after we finish 6th grade, we need to start jobs as fishermen.” The article states that she finished 6th grade in 2003 and is now a fisherwoman. I realize that shitty agricultural work can be a good motivator, educationally-speaking (my wife Angela has said many times that she started to study English mainly because she “hated picking coffee”), but imagining 6th graders “graduating” from elementary school by receiving a diploma and a fishing rod is just sad.

Anyhow, to make a long story short, about 50 kids collected 5,000 signatures, but the outlook for a school still doesn’t look so good. According to the Ministry of Education’s representative, they need 120 students to open a new high school, while this one would only have about 40 or so. The article says there may still be a possibility, or that perhaps they could open a “tele-school” on the island, but for now, the children’s educational future remains uncertain.

To summarize and conclude, let me leave you with a case study. I taught 6th grade last year, and let me tell you, it was a pain in my ass. Those kids were whiny, hyperactive, and lazy, usually all at the same time. But they were also my favorite classes. They have that certain indescribable characteristic of youth that makes their energy both draining and contagious at the same time. But, obviously, all of my students were attending school, and they had the opportunity to continue doing so until they graduate from high school. Also, as far as I know, none of the little tykes popped out a baby, so they’re doing pretty good on that front, too. When kids are that age, teachers have to try to cram in as much knowledge as possible to prepare them for some of the stuff to come. That way, when the bell rings and the kids leave class, they can bitch and moan to their classmates about having to study for the upcoming sex education exams. And if you should happen to overhear their protest-filled lamentations, just look at them and smile, for all is as it should be. At least they have a school to go to, and the whining is coming from their mouths, not the mouths of their newborn babies.

365: Picture a Day Project    365 Leftovers    All My Pictures    Sitzbook

Invisible Monster

It’s still pretty much “summer” here in Costa Rica, so that means that when you go down from the mountain, it’s pretty warm. I’ve been rolling down my car window about halfway, but it makes me nervous.

See, I once read this book called “Invisible Monsters” by Chuck Palahniuk, and it said something to the effect of how amazing it is that so many people who die in traffic accidents are beheaded due to having their car windows rolled halfway down. This idea is creepy, and I know that many people focus on it, at least jokingly, because my brother Paul warned my mom about it one time when we were driving on the highway.
But still: could it be true?

365: Picture a Day Project    365 Leftovers    All My Pictures    Sitzbook

"Hey, Where Is All That Money Coming From?" – A Too-Much-Information Chronicle

Not that this is really something you necessarily need to know, but it’s rather inexpensive to build a house in Costa Rica, at least compared to the U.S. That is also probably the only reason that Angela and I are able to even build a house here, because we’d never be able to afford it in America. I say all this only because many people have asked about this at some point, and also to introduce today’s topic: our funding of our Dream House In The Mountains. (By the way, if you don’t know what the hell I’m talking about, check out our house blog at http://gringiticasa.blogspot.com). The reason I am writing this, then, is because as I was at the ATM the other day, it occurred to me that paying for this house has been really bizarre so far. Since it made me laugh at the absurdity of it all, you might like to read about it, too.

To pay our contractor and to pay for the materials we buy, we’ve been using cash so far. I know that may sound strange, but apparently, it’s the best way to get good prices around here. No one here has or accepts checks (in fact, the girl at the bank flat-out refused to open a checking account for us). Additionally, most places, if they do accept credit cards, they apply extra charges which can rack up the cost of materials by 10% or so. All of this translates into cold, hard cash. Or, as in the case of colones, which is Costa Rica’s currency, it translates into warm, limp cash.

This issue is more complicated because most of my money is still in my account in the U.S., and I’ve not made a large transfer so far partially because of safety concerns, and partially because of a Costa Rican anti-drug-trafficking law which requires a lot of paperwork for large transfers. So now, on various occasions, I’ve had to resort to the ATM.

Fortunately, the company I work for is located in a free trade zone or a duty free zone…I’m not really sure what it’s called, but the bottom line is they look in your car’s trunk when you leave, and while you’re anywhere in the commercial park, you have to wear a badge that makes you look like a big tool. But, the ATM is inside of my company’s building, so it’s probably the safest ATM in the entire country (which IS actually saying a lot, if ATM robbery reports on the news are to be believed).

So, when we need money for construction, I go to the ATM, take out 250,000 colones (about $500), which appears to be the maximum that I’m allowed to get in one day. I quickly snatch the money, fold it, and cram it into my pocket. I then head toward the bathroom, find a stall, lock the door, and sit down. This is where it gets weird. In my other pocket, I’ve already placed a napkin and a rubber band (wow, this is turning into a totally heroin-y story!). I count the money, just to make sure it’s all there. It always is, which is somewhat remarkable, due to the colon’s notoriety for being a physically flimsy bill that is prone to mold and ill odors; I’m just surprised that the mechanical parts of the ATM’s bill counting machine would not have more problems with this currency.

When I know it’s all there, I carefully wrap the napkin around the money. I then double-wrap the rubber band around the bundle. Then I stick it in the front of my underwear. Of course! I know this may sound totally weird, but it was a technique that developed through trial and error over a long time. I used to carry my money in my shoe, like when I had to go pay my immigration lawyer in San Jose, but I noticed that that technique left me with a slight gangsta limp and a sore foot at the end of the day, to say nothing of the subtle humiliation that comes from handing a lawyer a slightly moist and smelly wad of bills.

That, of course, could possibly explain the use of the napkin, but it’s actually not to absorb sweat; instead, I do it to protect my own skin, as there are few things I would like less than a moldy paper-cut on my wang. And the rubber band keeps all the money in place; I’d feel somewhat like a hooker if I pulled forward my drawers to find a disorganized and scattered collection of large-denomination bills. So, the napkin and rubber band are a must. If you have tight-fitting drawers, you can put the stash against your thigh, right about where your front pants pocket would go. Tight-fitting? Oh, I’d recommend boxer briefs. Conventional boxers are obviously out of the question, and bikini briefs are just too small (and pervy) to get the job done. And it shouldn’t be just any style of boxer brief. I’ve found that the American Hanes and Fruit of the Loom just aren’t nad-squeezingly adequate; for our purposes, you’ll have to look to the Old Country and track down some good quality tight-weave Eurotrash boxer briefs. Try Germany.

If all else fails, you can stow the “package” of money by placing it under your pants button, and further secure it with the help of a tight belt over that. Then top all that with a some ribbon, a bow, some whipped cream, a cherry, and a small cocktail umbrella. This whole process should obviously be done near the end of the day, because it’s not comfortable, mentally or physically, having that much cash bouncing around so close to your junk.

From there, it’s probably smooth sailing. If you’ve got a car, you can basically head right home. If you’ve got to wait at a bus stop like a loser, you can take comfort in the fact that at least if you’re mugged, the homophobic nature of most Latin American criminals will probably mean that although they may steal your wallet, they probably won’t be looking to do a pat-down in your groinital area.

Anyhow, the only reason I mention this is because the other day, as I was securing my cluster of currency to my body much like a police informant secures his hidden microphone, I asked myself, “Man, I wonder if paying for house construction is this complicated in the U.S.” And my immediate answer was, “No, of course not. I’d just use a check.” Oh well, different strokes for different folks, I guess.

365: Picture a Day Project    365 Leftovers    All My Pictures    Sitzbook