The Urge To Speak My Mother Tongue

I’d been in Valencia, Spain solo for two weeks when it struck me that I hadn’t had a full blown, uninhibited-by-the-constraints-of- my-mediocre-Spanish conversation in 14 days. I was living solo in an apartment in a city that was in the midst of Fallas, their exuberant March three weeks family and friend oriented festival which would be followed immediately by a family and friend oriented Easter. I needed to let loose a torrent of pent up English mother tongue words. But where to find English conversation in a city that speaks Valencia (a version of Catalan spoken in parts of Spain) and Spanish? I asked The Google. And then I asked The Facebook.

INTERCAMBIO EVENTS. Intercambio, which literally means exchange in Spanish are informal language and cultural events sponsored by schools, bookstores, coffee shops and pubs that allow participants to practice a language. It turned out there were many public intercambio English events in Valencia inviting English speakers to come converse over beers and coffee with Spanish speakers wanting to improve their conversational English.


My first intercambio was at the Ubik Cafe , a coffee shop, wine bar, restaurant, bookstore in the charming Rusafa neighborhood. The evening was advertised as Singing in English and that’s exactly what it was. A local expat musician distributed sheet music of Beatles tunes and led the audience of Spanish and English speakers through a lively and social sing-along concert. On Monday evenings, Ubik sponsors a more traditional intercambio facilitated by a local language school where multiple language skills can be practiced including English, Italian, French, German and Spanish. I was unable to attend because while I was singing in English, a local told me about another intercambio venue:

20160322_194144_001 (1)

Valencia’s Portland Ale House is owned by two guys from Oregon fell who in love with Valencia and brought craft beer brewing and sensibilities to the city. The owners came from a land only three hours south of my home turf. I would not only be able to talk English, I could talk U.S.A. Pacific Northwest English! The pub was decorated in comforting memorabilia – a University of Oregon banner, Northwest Airline antique signs and black and white photos of Oregon. After the owner greeted me, I was seated at the intercambio table and given coupons for any combination of three free drinks and pizza as payment for my time as a conversation partner. I was joined by another English speaking partner (from Seattle no less!) and six locals – all young professionals wanting to practice English. The evening was a combination of informal table conversation and pub trivia contests where our intercambio table competed with the pub’s regular crowd. It was a trivia question that prompted another suggestion from one of the locals:


IRISH PUBS An Irish friend once told me you can find an Irish pub in every moderate sized city in the world. Irish pubs are generally staffed by friendly Irish bartenders, televise soccer and rugby and are frequented by English speaking tourists and expats. There are at least five Irish pubs in Valencia but I only checked out one to see if it satisfied my need for an English chat. It did. Finnegans of Dublin was conveniently located on my daily walking route back to my apartment. The second time I dropped by for a beer after exploring all day, the bartender recognized me and introduced me to a group of London tourists who were there to watch a soccer match. I joined them and two soccer games later left saturated with English conversation.


LOCAL TOUR GUIDES  The Valencia tour site Discovering Valencia offers a variety of guided tours with English speaking guides. I took the evening tapas and wine tasting tour with their lively and knowledgeable guide, Irma Mariscal and, as it turned out, another travel blogger from the U.S. That not only gave me an evening of speaking English but I also learned a lot about the protocol and culture of tapas, the history of Valencia and I discovered wonderful restaurants that I returned to during the rest of my stay.

I stayed in Valencia for a month with the intent of improving my Spanish by living there as an immersion into the language. My Spanish did improve. In fact, the rare English conversation I heard while out and about was so unusual it would nearly stop me in my tracks. By the end of my trip I thought I was hearing more English street conversation. It turned out the conversations were still in Spanish, but I understood more of it. Still, I found I needed the occasional relief of hearing and speaking unfettered English. As a solo traveler without the companionship of fellow English speakers, I needed to seek out those opportunities. And by doing that I also sang, played pub trivia, cheered a televised soccer match and sampled the cuisine and wine of Valencia.

Next post: Agua de Valencia.


Costa Rica: Backroads Eco-Tourism


One of the advantages of volunteering my services to a friend’s ecotour company (see here and here) is that when I’m in Costa Rica, I get to tag along on their scouting expeditions to check out potential new trips. It was on one of these expeditions that I found myself gaping at the bounty from a remote, organic farm with a family (mother, father and baby) from the Pyrenees Mountains in France who had hiked down the rugged road I had traveled by SUV. They were volunteering and wanted to open a similar operation in France. Dona Noire, the matriarch of the farm, picked out a parachute looking seed pod from a table laden with colorful fruits and vegetables and peeled back the outer layer to reveal a tiny yellow fruit inside. “The fruit of love, ” she said and handed it to us to eat. “This will be your breakfast juice tomorrow and after you drink it I will show you where it grows.”


The following morning she led our small group through her lush garden pointing out not only her plants (she grows incense among her flowers and fruits) but also how the farm recycles ordinary items instead of buying materials. Used tires form steps and garden beds. Used rubber boots become the insulating base for the house. Broken glass gets mixed into concrete for benches. Discarded stuffed toy animals get turned into garden scarecrows.

In the isolated rural community of Providencia in the Los Santos region of Costa Rica the residents have had to make do with what they have as both an economic and environmental necessity. Located about three hours from San Jose, the community is reached 12 kilometers off the Pan American Highway down a narrow, winding, dirt road that borders Parque Nacional Los Quetzales, the newest addition to Costa Rica’s expansive park system.

The earliest settlers in the lush river valley were workers building the Pan American Highway in the 1930’s. While hunting for food they followed the Brujo River and found a fertile valley with wild blackberries that could sustain their families. Declaring that it was providence that led them to their discovery they built houses, grew food and named their tiny community Providencia. In 1946 more families came over the mountains into the valley and, as the story is told by their adult children, lived under a rock overhang for two years while planting gardens and building houses. Those early pioneering families still live in the same four neighborhoods that form Providencia de Dota – La Roca, La Piedra, Zapotal and El Centro.


Struggling to make a living, the residents of Providencia have turned to rural tourism as an income source. Dona Noire, her husband, Oscar Aguilar and their three children, operate Armonia Ambiental Lodge, in their abundant organic farm that brings in volunteers annually from all over the world to work and learn sustainable agricultural practices. EcoTeach trips use this rustic dormitory styled lodge for many of their tours. Up the road in La Piedra, Ana and Enrique Calderon Aguero also run a small lodge and restaurant, La Cabina la Piedra and operate a small coffee plantation. Their neighbor, Flora Valverde Elizondo has learned to produce juices, jams, nectars and salsa from both the wild and cultivated fruits and vegetables in the area which she sells out of her home along with handicrafts made of recycled newspaper. Her neighbors teach tourists how to make newspaper handicrafts.





Within the last decade Providencia has been discovered by the international rock climbing community as a prime location for bouldering (climbing small 20151118_162505_001rocks without the aid of ropes). Organized and supported as a national sport by the Costa Rican Mountain Sports Federation, Costa Rican climbers have consistently dominated Central American rock climbing competions, a record that has been noticed by the climbing community and so a small but developing adventure sport tourist infrastructure is Providencia’s latest effort to bring economic stability to the community. Providencia guides offer bouldering, hiking and mountain biking. An annual Bouldering Festival is sponsored each February.

In the future some residents of the community hope to use the rich rain forest and cloud forest ecosytems that can be found in Providencia to open a small biological research facility that will bring in not only scientists, but also volunteers who will teach English and research and science skills to Providencia’s youth. Such an initiative will provide more opportunities for the next generation to obtain or create jobs that allow them to remain in the area and continue its proud history as an enterprising, self-sustaining community.


Costa Rica: Part Two of Guide Training – The American Dictator of Nicaragua

20150131_062349The 2015 EcoTeach Guide Training included a two-day field trip for the guides to check out a potential new accommodation and tour experience in the Saripiqui area of northeastern Costa Rica. The new accommodation, Sura Farm, is a small family run operation using natural agricultural practices, with tilapia fish ponds, dormitories for overnight groups and much potential for group activities such as planting and picking pineapple, making pineapple juice and catching and learning to cook tilapia as well as understanding the agricultural philosophy of natural versus organic practices.

The evening of our arrival the guides had a briefing session to prepare for the next days boat trip up the Sarapiqui River to follow the route of an infamous conquest in Costa Rican/Nicaraguan history.


William WalkerIn 1855, William Walker, an American soldier of fortune came to Nicaragua to pursue his goal of spreadingslavery to the southern continent. Taking advantage of the internal political turmoil and civil war in the country, he and a small band of other soldiers of fortune (called filibusters) invaded and captured the powerful city of Granada and Walker promptly declared himself President of the country. The US administration under Franklin Pierce recognized his government giving Walker the legitimacy to overturn Nicaragua’s existing anti-slavery laws and make English the official language. The governments of nearby Costa Rica, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, concerned about Yankee imperialism and Walker’s intent to spread his view of Manifest Destiny, joined forces to remove him. The turning point in the battle to oust Walker’s army began on the Sarapiqui River in Costa Rica when Costa Rican troops chased Walker’s army up the river into Nicaragua where the  Battle of Rivas occurred ultimately forcing Walker to flee back to the US.

The guides were first briefed by one of their colleagues who is from Nicaragua who explained what Nicaragua teaches about that period of his country’s history. It was a passionate and detailed presentation. In Nicarugua it’s a major event in their history taught in schools. The battles are celebrated as holidays and Walker is referred to as an invader and a dictator.  My role was to explain the U.S. version of the events since many of the tour groups who use the eco-tour company are U.S. school groups. I was a high school history teacher and had never heard of William Walker. Internet research turned up some details. Apparently, other than Tennessee, where Walker as born (a modest Nashville memorial is erected to him and The Middle Tennessee Journal of Genealogy and History calls him “the Gray-Eyed Man of Destiny” who conquered Nicaragua) his invasion is not part of the history curriculum in U.S. schools.

20150131_084101The following day our group was accompanied up the Saripiqui River by a local historian and retired university professor who showed the guides the battle sites along the river. On our way up river we stopped at the home of a large, extended, economically impoverished family to deliver clothes, food and school supplies the guides had collected for them and later in the day we also delivered school supplies and clothes to the community association to distribute to the local school and needy families.

For more details about EcoTeach’s tours and prices



Costa Rica: Inside An EcoTour Company Guide Training. Part One

It was 8AM. The students were ready with notebooks, tape recorders and electronic tablets. The biologist showed a video clip, then pointed to the photos in her PowerPoint explaining the optimal conditions for temperature and water and passed around different types of coral fragments while the class peppered her with questions as they took notes. This could be a graduate level university marine biology class but instead, it’s the annual EcoTeach training for its guides and day two began early with a two hour in-depth lecture on the lifespan of various coral and fish species and the importance of marine life conservation.

Samsung Pics 1275As a regular traveler who occasionally relies on tour companies in my trips, it never occurred to me that tour guides go to school. So when EcoTeach asked me to do a small presentation at their guide trainings, I jumped at the opportunity to go through the entire training to see what a group of experienced tour guides do for their professional development.

Costa Rica tour companies vary in their requirements for guide certification and training. EcoTeach guides must have previous guide experience and maintain certification in both basic first aid and wilderness first aid. EcoTeach conducts at least one annual 4-5 day training for its guides on a variety of guide requested topics and one follow-up end of season training day. The first annual training occurs in January before the next season begins, allowing the guides and the United States and Costa Rica offices to debrief the previous year and make changes for the next tour season.

Samsung Pics 1304 Some years EcoTeach offers additional training as it did my first year of attending. The guides wanted to update their first aid cards and so we went through an intense multi-day wilderness first aid course that included role playing with realistic looking injuries and an end of course performance test. Not being a guide, it was initially intimidating, but the EcoTeach guides were encouraging and I emerged from my end of course performance exam to their applause as the very proud recipient of my own wilderness first aid card.

This year the guides began their four day training by reviewing the completed season. Then, as they did in the previous year’s training, they heard a presentation from a guest local guide they partner with on some of the tours. This year it was Pedro Rajos Morales, a local guide from the Boruca indigenous community who EcoTeach uses when groups tour there. Pedro’s informative lecture was a follow-up to the 2014 EcoTeach training when guides heard from a university professor about the archeology of the area in Costa Rica now inhabited by the indigenous Boruca and Bri Bri communities.

Following the marine biology lecture the guides met the drivers from the new transportation company EcoTeach will be using which included a lively driver/guide/office question and answer hour. It never occured to me how critical the working relationship was between guides and the drivers who transport groups. Guides had lots of questions about how the drivers would handle specific situations and likewise, drivers had similar questions of the guides in order to understand the EcoTeach philosophy of driver/guide as a team.

For more details about EcoTeach tours and prices