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One week visit: what should I NOT FORGET to do, bring, remember?

I've traveled quite a bit, but never quite so solo to a place where I don't speak the native language.

Beyond the obvious, what should I not forget to do, bring, remember, guard against, protect, etc?

But should I absolutely do in Costa Rica beyond the things on my itinerary (visit high schools)?

Gracias, amigos!

Absolutely avoid leaving any items in your vehicle.

Don't just check classrooms, but bathrooms and kitchens. Note: students are aware they should carry soap and toilet paper in their bag...

Good to know, thank you, kohlerias!

Also, what should I be on the look-out to bring home as presents, especially for 8th grade girls and their teachers? We have several requests for monkeys and Toucans but I explained that it would be hard to get them through customs. (Can one bring food? I remember we were able to bring regional/ethnic contained food home from China.)

C

When our son visited recently, he said that our grandkids specifically requested, sloth inspired  t-shirts.

You should ask if they offer a beginner class for Spanish or if you are required to have your daughter have private lessons as it may be too intimidating for her to  join in a subject being taught in Spanish where the subject matter is being taught at an advanced level.

Perfect!!!

But for a second I was alarmed. Trying to cut back on the iPhone, iPad sloth around there.

Then I realized - not that sloth!

All kinds of t-shirts for friends....but not for teachers. In France we get jam, mustard....?

kohlerias :

You should ask if they offer a beginner class for Spanish or if you are required to have your daughter have private lessons as it may be too intimidating for her to  join in a subject being taught in Spanish where the subject matter is being taught at an advanced level.

Thank you, Kohlerias! None of us has ANY Spanish. I am thinking of prevailing on a fluent retired friend to give me an in-person crash course for two weeks.

Each of the schools we are visiting is a tuition-charging private school where about half of the student body is not Costa Rican. I guess you've got a lot of expat families down there. Classes are taught in English and Spanish language class is mandatory. The admissions officers are fine with the fact that my daughter has no Spanish. The tuition is extremely less than a private school in the US, and judging by the websites, but more importantly the curriculum description, the academics are rigorous and college-prep.

I have read about the Costa Rica public schools and they are worthy of respect. The country's literacy rate is the highest in Central America, the teachers and students work hard, and the students are described as gentle and kind to each other.

..coffee? :top:

Genius!!!!

There are bullies and drugs in the schools here, just like in  other countries and in some areas, facilities that you would not want to enter.

Very true. I should have sourced my generalization. It does sound idealized. From "Choose Costa Rica for Retirement" by John Howells and Teal Conroy. "Gringo children are typically boisterous, full of energy, and extremely competitive. On the other hand, Latin American children, especially tacos, tend to be polite, calm, and well behaved. Bullying other students is all but unheard of...competition is discouraged. Classroom discipline is no problem for the teachers..." Then the authors discuss a lack of books and other resources and how schedules and rules are casual.

I'd be interested to observe Ticos in school myself. Traveling in Europe, I often ran across children on school trips in museums and visiting Cathedrals. One or two encounters is not enough to make a judgment, but I was struck by the differences between children's behavior (and the teachers' tolerance of it) depending on their country of origin.

The  book mentioned is the tenth edition, and since it was last published there have been many changes that have happened...although some things have never changed such as school closures without any advance notice.

A  link you may choose to read plus some others

BTW, the author of the book introduced one of the first forums regarding moving to Costa Rica.

Kohlerias, I notice here and elsewhere, you really know your stuff. Here in the US, even schools with a so-called "zero tolerance" for bullying and assemblies and summer-reading-and-writing assignments on bullying/cyber-bullying, it happens, in some schools more than others. While I have friends and neighbors whose children have been affected, mine never have. It is devastating and becoming epidemic.

Thank you, because now when we visit schools in CR, I will bring this concern to the foreground during my discussions.

Don't forget to bring bug spray and sun tan lotion.  You'll need them both.  They're very expensive here.

- Expat Dave

I was going to say, bring suntan lotion but Dave beat me to it.
Also, bring whatever kind of hand gel you use (personally I believe in the NON-anti-bacterial type). But one thing that bothers me about Costa Rica is that bathrooms even in restaurants and grocery stores often don't have soap or paper towels. I guess people would steal them? (?) So bring hand gel - I use it whenever I go to the bathroom when I'm out and about as many do not have soap or paper towels.

As to the education level here, it's not what it's cracked up to be. Turns out "the best in Central America" really isn't a resounding endorsement. Many people cannot read or write, especially older people and those who do write, write so poorly you sometimes can't figure out what they're trying to say. (I speak and read Spanish fluently, and can write much better than 9%% of the people I have met and read the writing of, here.) I've seen teachers carry on long personal conversations during class... this just as I happened to be waiting outside a school. My wife is a teacher (not from here) and she also noted the short school hours and many holidays and less than hard-working teachers.

Carry a copy of your passport and keep it in your suitcase in case you lose your real one. It will help you get a replacement should you need to.

if you get a flat tire when driving do NOT accept help; sometimes it's a scam criminals pull on tourists. They pretend to help then when you're not looking they steal. This is NOT all that common but it's worth noting. I've made many trips here and live here now and never had a problem.

I did TWICE get pick-pocketed in San Jose so watch your pockets if you're in San Jose or in a crowd.

Don't dress luxuriously nor wear jewelry.

This is all just precautionary, it's not like Costa Rica is a dangerous place. It's really not. But wherever there are poor folks there may be one or two bad apples.

Celadon :

On the other hand, Latin American children, especially tacos, tend to be polite, calm, and well behaved.

I guess you meant to say "Ticos"; LOL.

Thanks for the great advice,, samramon! I figure we might as well bring along out own toilet paper while we're at it :( 

It's that cursed spell-check! I can't figure out how to disable it! My daughters must know, but I don't want to BRIBE one of them to do it, so we're sort of at a stalemate.

Celadon,

We just got back from out one-week first recon trip to Atenas and Grecia, and it included school trips in both areas (kindergarten and HS, private schools only) and this is what I would suggest:

1. For the kids, the school year runs from Feb-Nov, so if you come in September they will likely have to repeat the last 3 months of the grade they were in before you left. However, that's great news in that non-Spanish speaking children will basically "audit" those months and start to get acclimated to learning in the language. We had several opinions that HS-aged kids could participate in effectively in class after about 6 months in the country. If you count the 3 month of the last trimester and the 2 month holiday before the new grade starts in February, your child should be ok if they are a good student and you practice with them at home. We are starting our tutoring here in the States immediately, and starting to speak more around the house, to get a head start.

2. "Bilingual" by HS usually means one class a day in English, and often that's a class specifically for teaching English. In the lower grades it means teaching Science, Math, etc. in English (usually 3 classes/day), but by the later years it's tapered off. We'll be fine with our Kindergartner, but it means we have to approach HS as Spanish-only.

3. Even the private schools are different than the education that's received in the US. I'd read a few things that said the focus in Costa Rica is really on literacy and basic readiness, and I think I can agree with that. We were hosted at a B&B that was operated by folks who had been in CR for 16 years and raised two daughters in the private schools there. They said looking back, they weren't sure their daughters were served as well as they had hoped and they wish they had done more to expand the education. They said it was very locally focused and parochial in some ways, and there weren't things like "World History" or "English Lit" in the US/Canada sense. We are not going to homeschool, but we are going to start collecting some additional/complementary curriculum we can teach at home. We are having our daughter reading James Baldwin right now, with some family discussions around it, and given our pretty good home library and grasp of US/World events, I'm confident we can expand her educational experience successfully.

4. There are only 11 grades in Costa Rica, so our daughter will graduate HS about 6 months before she turns 18. I don't see her being ready to go to college at 17, and so we're already discussing what we'll do. Likely we're looking at sending her to grandma's in the US to do a last semester in the States to have her graduate there too, and possibly some summer/fall classes from the local Technical School in Wisconsin before heading off to college. We're not really sure, but we are looking to adjust the likelihood of her coming out of HS "college-ready", and adapting to having to do some supplementation at the end of High School.

5. Private school, for a full-day Kindergartner and a High-Schooler is going to run us about $600/month give or take. I don't have the numbers in-front of me, but I seem to remember the HS will run more than 1/2 of that. Food included, or not, will affect the price at the places we visited.

6. EVERY place we visited talked about how they were "closed campus" and presented it as a major selling point. Apparently there's a lot of concern about kids hanging out in the local parks at lunch, and one school even said they "might be smoking...marijuana or otherwise". Not sure how worried I am about this, but it was a big deal to them...and apparently the Public schools let HS'rs go off campus.

Other non-school things we learned from our first visit:

1. Visit places that sell all the things you'll need to live there. We did a LOT of grocery shopping. We shopped for dishes, and jeans, and shoes. We bought things that we'll need like deodorant, and other toiletries, to test some of the CR brands. Take lots of pictures of products/brands you might buy, so you can compare costs later and when when you get home. Things like ketchup and soy milk taught us a lot about the cost of living differences.

2. I'm the guy that NEVER has cash on him in the US, so I got used to getting cash and spending it in Costa Rica. There are card readers in the vast majority of places, but not everywhere, and it seemed less convenient in some locations. I just got used to Colones, and was even using coins properly before I left!

3. Photocopy your passport and visa page, and carry that with you. We did our cover page at home and brought it with us, and had our hotel copy the visa page that first night. We saw several signs that said the CR Government would accept copies as official for tourists, and so we never carried our physical passports (we kept them locked up with our spare credit cards), and only carried paper. That was the first time I'd done that in a country, and it was nice.

4. Make sure you have data service with your cell phone, if it's possible, because it makes life much easier. Google Maps and Waze are lifesavers, and so if it's getting a SIM card that gives you local data, or a roaming plan from your provider (we have Sprint, and got free calls, free texts, and 1g of free data for no cost) see what you can do to use your smartphone when you're there. It also makes #5 possible:

5. Use Google Translate a lot!!! We used it to practice before we visited somewhere, so we knew what to say, we used it to bring up Spanish translations on-screen from English so we could get into a school to get a tour, and we especially used the image "live translate" feature to use our cameras to convert text to English and that helped so much in restaurants, understanding various signs, reading brochures, etc.

6. Drive (assuming you're driving) some of the routes you take at different times. We first came into Grecia on a Sunday afternoon, and it was quiet little town with a LOT of car dealerships. We returned at 3p on Monday for a school tour and it was almost gridlock! When we toured available long term rentals later, and tried driving to places we'd visited (like grocery stores and schools) at different times of the day, we started to see the advantage of one neighborhood vs. another in a way that wasn't apparent when the realtor showed us the properties at 11a.

7. We had no problems with toilet paper availability, although there was one place with no handtowels, but other than that it was no biggie. However, we were in the Central Valley the whole trip. It was good we learned to ask if we could flush paper when we went places (and perspective home rentals), and while it was a bit strange we couldn't at our B&B by the end of the week it was very natural.

8. We learned to start conversations with a polite "I don't know Spanish, do you speak English?" (no se espanol, haba ingles?) and we learned that almost 100% of the time we got long, complete, Spanish sentences in response! I need to watch this in the US, because I'm sure I do the same thing in reverse. We learned to listen for the key word that you understood, but it was funny we got better results by stumbling through the little Spanish we knew than we did admitting, in Spanish, we didn't speak Spanish .

Hope that helps!

As far as I know, the Internationally accredited schools are usually on the same calender as the North American schools.

Kohlerias,

Yeah, I believe you're correct and they would be either English-only or English-primary, but there are no SACS accredited schools that I'm aware of (I'd LOVE to be wrong) in Atenas or Grecia (other than New Summit Academy which is a residential, boys-only school that appears to focus on troubled youth from the US). Going back to the OP, there is one in Guanacaste (Country Day School), but it's likely that the MEP list is going to much larger there than the SACS list, and MEP schools will be largely in the Costa Rican system mold.

I meant to add 'thanks' for the additional information. :top:

Dear Rickinracine, Kohlerias, and other Expat CR contributors who have helped me out here!

Rickinracine, thank you for your detailed and helpful post! Sorry for my delay in responding.

We had a fulfilling, informative, vacation/fun trip in all respects, in large part to the excellent advice we got here. As I wrote, our focus was on visiting private schools for my 14-year old with a view toward possibly relocating to CR where she would attend high school. We  visited two private schools that taught in English Sept-June and offerred the US diploma, taught the Common Core Curriculum, offered AP courses, administered the SAT and provided college counseling. The schools we visited had graduates attending selective colleges in Universities in the US.  (We had planned to visit  4 but dropped the school in San Jose and on the Pacific coast because driving proved too challenging.)

Both daughters and I knew that one school was a stand-out. In our initial interview, when I posed a question, the Director of Admissions addressed my daughter and engaged her in Q&A. She skillfully drew her out. DD joined the 8th grade after the assembly and asked us to pick her up at 1:45. At noon she texted that she wanted to stay till 3. At 2 she texted to ask permission to return the next day! She had secured permission from the school so of course we said yes. She preferred to return to the school than go with me and her sister to the volcano and waterfall.

The second school we visited provided an excellent US diploma education and the teachers and students were friendly, but my daughter detected what she felt was more of an emphasis on competition than she was comfortable with. We all detected it.

It was interesting that the first school had adopted a huge orange and white feral cat (it became tame) who lounged all day in front of his food dish, and that at the second school we pointed to a cute cat and the Director of Admissions said, "Oh yes, we have a problem with feral cats - so hard to get rid of them."

We gave both schools a new book for their libraries as a thank-you gift. Las-minute thought, phew!

Aside from school visits, we had a problem-free vacation visiting sites, enjoying nature and animals, and spending time with our hosts with whom my daughters developed a real bond. They swam in their pool, bonded together in their own room, bought little souveniers for their friends, and adored the modest Tico meals we ate.

We rolled into CR's warmth and sunshine and put on shorts and sleeveless dresses without a second thought. So it was a total shock to land in NYC where it was blasting cold and dark on March 24.  I still haven't readjusted to the darkness and incredible cold we still have on April 3.

Keep us posted, Rickinracine - we want to know what the future brings!

As for us...to be continued!

"...driving proved too challenging" is what is often reported when living 'in town'.

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