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La Paz Waterfall

Another fun thing we did during my parents’ visit was to go to La Paz Waterfall Gardens. The website described it as a large property with a resort hotel, hikes to several waterfalls and some animal displays. One Sunday, we decided we would go check it out, maybe for a couple of hours.

The fun started on the drive. We found ourselves on a twisting road running along the mountaintops with lush green fields falling away to each side. It looked simultaneously like something out of Switzerland and Kauai. After driving for an hour, we arrived to a nearly empty parking lot. When I inquired at the front desk as to the entrance fee I thought I misheard when he said $42. Excuse me?!? Admittedly, the kids were half price, but this is an astronomically high entrance fee for Costa Rica. I was contemplating the drive back without having seen anything when my dad offered to treat everyone (thank you, dad!). Feeling terrible for having suggested such a pricey activity, we got our entrance bracelets and maps.

These anxious feelings started to dissipate after we stepped through the doors and onto the terrace overlooking the valley through which we would be walking.

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It was breathtaking. We took some time to explore the plants and bird feeders here and to look at the map and plan where we would go. We also took a moment to use the facilities. I mention this because it was here in the bathroom that I started to get a glimpse of what we were paying for, and also the sense that maybe it would be worthwhile. These bathrooms were exquisite and the nicest I’d been in anywhere in Costa Rica. The sinks alone were works of art with frog sculptures as handles. In any case, it was a good sign. We headed down the hill.

 

That’s me looking impressed because even the handrails were super high quality. We were in for a treat. When we reached the bottom of the hill a fellow visitor showed us an orange-kneed tarantula that was just happening by. This is always a thrilling sight and one of the kids’ favorite critters.

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Next we headed into the aviary. Like everything we were seeing, this was beautifully maintained and landscaped. The kids starting running through it, exclaiming at everything they were seeing. They really loved these ducks.

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Then we came to the toucan room.

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Did you know that toucans have tongues with feathery tips? I found this out because this one stuck its tongue out at us! I have to say, these have become one of my favorite birds.

 

My mom was allowed to feed one of the toucans, which was pretty exciting. Much later in the day we came back through and the kids also got to feed them seeds we foraged from the ground. They were surprisingly gentle.

mom feeding toucan

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We really appreciated all the beautiful spaces that had been created everywhere. The kids enjoyed climbing into this waterfall and exploring all the nooks and crannies.

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Next, we came to the butterfly and insect house. This was a huge two-story space with thousands of butterflies flying around.

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On every wall were plants or bilingual signs or mosaics or stained glass. It was a feast for the eyes.

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The exhibit on the life cycle of butterflies was especially good as it contained a wall of chrysalises from several species, all in varying stages of metamorphosis. Some were emerging as we watched! It was really interesting to have a side-by-side comparison of how the chrysalises differed from species to species.

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Other specimens were no longer living, but equally interesting.

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oodles of tarantulas

After this, we walked the well-paved path through the jungle, encountering another creepy along the way. I’m fairly certain this is a millipede. Check out how big it is!

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The path emptied into a lovely hummingbird garden with multiple different types dive-bombing the feeders.

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Next, the path led us to the snake house, which was pretty awesome. Here were multiple species from all over the country with well-written (bilingual) descriptions of their habitats, eating habits, venom level and my favorite attribute: temperament. The most venomous and deadly snake in Costa Rica is the fer-de-lance. The sign described it as entirely “ill-tempered”, which struck me as funny, but only because it was behind some seriously thick glass.

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I would definitely not want to meet one of these in a coffee field! It was also neat for the kids to see several venomous and non-venomous snakes side by side and observe how their head shapes differ.

After the snake house, the path cleverly takes visitors directly into the huge buffet area. Seeing what all was on offer, Matt and I happily treated everyone to lunch on the lovely open terrace. The food was awesome! There was traditional Costa Rican food, pizza, hot dogs, chips, guacamole, rice pudding, coffee, juices, something for everyone. Since buying lunch got one unlimited access to this smorgasbord, we tucked in with gusto. Then we went back for seconds while the kids ran around. It was turning into a truly spectacular day. But the best was yet to come, especially for Django.

From the lunch terrace, the path continues on to the large cats, specifically jaguars. These are Django’s favorite large cats and it was his first time seeing them up close. He was pumped.

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An important aspect of the park is that it is a sanctuary, meaning none of the animals had been removed from the wild to be there. Additionally, in the case of the cats, their mission “is to preserve the genetics of the wild cat species in Costa Rica”. They even have a successful breeding pair among the jaguars. We learned a lot about these cats from the signs and it was thrilling to see them up close. In addition to the jaguars, we saw margays, ocelots and an adorable pair of pumas, who were mostly sleeping.

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Next, there was an exhibit about traditional Costa Rican life, with an actual house built and outfitted as it would have been around 1900. It was really interesting. Did I get any pictures of the painstakingly constructed house? No! Instead, I chose to focus on the impressive woodpile, the coati who came to visit near the outhouse and a cute bird on one of the windowsills.

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I’m sure that at this point you’re wondering where the waterfalls are in all of this. They’re next! After what was already a very full day, we arrived at the hike to the five waterfalls that give this park its name. Again, the paths were lovely and led us through the jungle.

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We emerged at the first waterfall, along with hordes of other visitors.

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kids n waterfall

D on rock

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We noticed a path to a bridge off to the side that looked less crowded and made for that. Mountain goats that they are, the kids found another path down to the beach.

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It was ridiculous. We had already had an incredible day walking through the park and seeing all the animals. At the end, there was yet another magnificent part with the waterfalls. It was a bit of a hike down to them, sometimes on (well-constructed) stairs hugging a cliff face. There was vista upon vista of gorgeous falls.

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The adults continued to have fun all the way down to the bottom.

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But, by the end of the trail, the kids had just about had it. Now here’s a real moment! This picture cracks me up. Doesn’t matter how gorgeous the surroundings, right? Sometimes kids have just had enough.

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Now we just had to convince the kids to make the hike back up to the car. We did this with bribes of juice and rice pudding up at the buffet that would be closing in 30 minutes. Hurry!! We regrouped back on the lunch terrace, now virtually deserted. I kept thinking the staff was looking at us funny as we had what amounted to an early dinner. We were determined, however, the wring every last moment out of this day. And, as the late afternoon clouds rolled in, bringing a misting rain, we all felt very satisfied. This was one of our best days here yet.

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Paa-na-ma!!

Shortly after Matt’s birthday, my parents arrived for a two week visit. It seemed a perfect opportunity to have a little adventure. We needed to do another visa run and I knew I would be bummed if our time in Costa Rica ended without us ever visiting Panama, specifically the Panama Canal. As my parents had never been there either, it was easy to convince them to come along. Almost as soon as we bought the plane tickets, Matt cued up Van Halen’s “Panama”. As the trip approached, various members of the family would occasionally burst out with a loud, “Panama! Pa-na-ma-a-a-a-a-a!”. We were pumped.

On the day of our journey we decided to try taking the bus to the airport for the first time. It was great! We walked out our front door, caught the bus in front of the house, switched buses in town and were dropped right in front of the airport. It was quick, easy and affordable. As we sped down the highway and Django curled up with his head in my lap, I realized that the thing I love most about traveling by bus with kids is the snuggling. It feels like a much more connected way to travel than by car. But I digress.

The flight from San Jose to Panama City is a mere hour. As the wheels touched down, Matt cued up “Panama” on his phone and treated the plane to the first minute or so of the song. The kids about died. It cracked me up but I suspect Matt and I were the primary revelers as no one joined us in song.

Since the glossy high rises of Panama City held little appeal for us, I had booked us a hotel in Casco Viejo or “old town”. I had done some research online and it looked like it would be a feast for the eyes. The drive from the airport takes one through the newer downtown and it looks like many metropolises, albeit with super modern, twisty buildings. But then the road hugs the seawall and suddenly the skyscrapers give way to colorful colonial buildings with peeling plaster. It looked like pictures I’ve seen of Cuba. Casco Viejo was declared a UNESCO world heritage district in 2003. The original city was founded in 1519 and was the first European settlement in the Americas. For decades Casco Viejo was forgotten as the new city expanded and the buildings fell into disrepair. After the UNESCO designation in 2003 serious restorations and gentrification began. These restorations are not complete, though, and many nearly collapsed buildings sit right next to perfectly restored ones. Indeed, our hotel was in one such restored building but sat across a narrow alley from a more rundown one. As our balcony sat over this alley, we were treated to sights of life in urban Panama. The balcony across from ours had chickens on it and one could see a constant stream of “interesting” folks issuing from a doorway directly below. Three times one of the shadier characters across from the balcony made eye contact with Matt and simultaneously did a not so subtle finger-to-nose gesture. My dad just chuckled while Matt shook his head no. Clearly old town was where you come to party. These were our first impressions as we enjoyed a bevy on the balcony and being in a new place.

Being on a tight budget and living on the top of a mountain does not lend itself well to going out to eat. Matt and I were really excited to be in a bonafide city with real restaurants. The restoration of Casco Viejo meant it had more than its fair share of restaurants representing a wide variety of cuisine, a first for us since being in Central America. That night, though, we had to find something quick as the day’s travels had made everyone a bit delirious.

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I love this photo. My mom’s expression is priceless.

The next morning we headed out bright and early to explore our surroundings. It was spectacular. Here was a true colonial city, steeped in history. It was amazing to walk along cobbled streets and see buildings centuries old with trees growing from their walls, balconies and roofs.

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Peering through cracks and into doorways we found that in many cases only the outer walls of the buildings remained and nature had retaken the interiors.

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It was really striking to see shiny new cars parked in front of dilapidated buildings. And then some blocks were more complete in their restoration.

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Some sights were just amusing and inexplicable.

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We wended our way through the narrow streets until we came to the seawall at the tip of Casco Viejo. From here you could stand in the midst of the old city while gazing at the modern skyline and the Amador Causeway.

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Along this promenade several people of the Guna and Embera tribes were selling traditional artwork: masks, cloth, pottery and dolls in traditional dress. The kids had an opportunity to spend some of their allowance money. Django bought a shark tooth necklace, which he wore everywhere, and Suki’s doll was our constant companion for the rest of the weekend.

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I love visiting old churches but my kids aren’t quite with me on this. Suki feels like we’re intruding and Django is not too fond of the need for silence. Still, the religious statues prompted some interesting discussions about religious traditions, stories and beliefs. The tree behind me in this picture became known to us as the “Jesus Tree” because it was under its leaves that Matt explained crucifixion to the kids.

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All this walking, talking and shopping built up an appetite. In the heat, the kids opted for something cold. This is shaved ice with syrup and condensed milk on top. It is somewhat similar to the shaved ice you find in Hawai’i but sweeter. Django has fond memories of this treat but Suki recently refused an offer of this, actually saying it was too sweet!

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After cooling off in the pool of our hotel, we decided to make a quick stop at the Smithsonian Punta Culebra Nature Center. The descriptions I had read of this made it sound underwhelming but we had a great time. The Nature Center comprises a relatively short walk around the point of the Amador Causeway and has displays on the tides and ocean life and a very satisfying number of rescued ocean animals to see. Before we could even get to the marine life, though, this enormous iguana emerged from the brush.

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Because the Center is a popular field trip for local schools he was completely unfazed by people. The kids were fascinated. I don’t think iguana sightings ever getting old.

It was difficult to tear Django away from these nurse sharks. Even after he moved on to a new display he kept coming back to gaze at them.

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Aside from the animals and the informative guides, it was just a pretty place to be.

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Matt had been researching restaurants to try and that night we got to go to our first cosmopolitan restaurant in nearly a year. From the outside the building appeared completely restored but then we were led through the front rooms with low ceilings to what amounted to a patio, since the roof on this section of the building had not been rebuilt. With trees and plants climbing the walls all around and stars above, the ambiance was pretty magical.

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Aside from the great atmosphere, food and wine, our server was great. Originally from Venezuela he was very friendly and chatty. He even started doing magic tricks for the kids. After so many months of eating at home, it was a great night out.

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The next day we went to the Panama Canal. There are several locks to visit but we went to the Miraflores Locks, which is only 20 minutes from town. We arrived simultaneously with about 10 tour buses. Thanks to a helpful blog I found, we knew to get there in the morning to see a ship actually pass through the locks, which was really impressive. This is what you see from the viewing platform before the ships comes in.

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In the picture below you can see the giant arms that create a wall to block off or let in tens of thousands of gallons of water in a matter of minutes. What became clear is that the canal and corresponding locks are a way of essentially moving rapidly moving ships over hills, or changes in elevation. It’s incredible.

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The locks also have an extensive museum, which has exhibits on the building of the canal, the importance of water and the operating of the canal, to name a few. The building of the canal brought many workers from China and the Caribbean, which explained the greater diversity in Panama City than I’ve noticed in Costa Rica.

I tried to capture some images of our time here but it was difficult. This is Django in a simulator of driving a ship through the locks.

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And this is Suki moving through a tunnel in an exhibit about the building of the canal.

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There was also a movie showing several times an hour. I hadn’t realized the canal had undergone a massive expansion that was completed in 2016 nor the extent to which the size of container ships have grown in recent years. While the movie was definitely an unapologetic celebration of consumerism and a propaganda piece for Panama and the Canal, the Panamanians are completely justified in their pride of this epic feat of engineering. It was definitely worth the visit.

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All in all it was a great weekend. It was excellent to take a break from Costa Rica and see somewhere new, if only for a few days. I was surprised by how much we loved this city, and not just for the rooftop terraces and tasty restaurants.

 

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suki and mom in panama

While I can’t speak to the rest of Panama City, Casco Viejo was truly vibrant and had a lot to offer in terms of history, culture and nature. We had a blast.

A Story

So here’s a little story of something that happened the other day. I’m not saying it’s entirely Costa Rican in cause but…

When we first moved into our little mountaintop house the pedestal on our main bathroom sink seemed loose and then quickly fell off. I mentioned this to the landlord as it seemed that the sink now had only the most tenuous of connections with the wall. I asked if he could fix it, emphasizing that it seemed dangerous. He nodded blandly and said he would take care of it. Now, let me be clear. We really, really like our landlords. He is generally highly responsive with any of the myriad issues that arise. His wife is great, and has been my walking partner and impromptu language teacher. However, in the case of the sink, he never fixed it. And, to be fair, I never followed up.

Fast forward to last month. We had just completed an epic 5 hour drive from the beach and were stinky, sticky and sleepy. We were getting ready for bed. Suki was brushing her teeth, I was stepping into the shower. I am not sure where Matt and Django were at that moment. As I was coaxing warm water from the shower I suddenly heard a simultaneous shriek, crash and roar. As Suki was leaning over the sink to rinse her mouth it suddenly became detached from the wall. Fortunately Suki has, as she herself describes, “cat-like reflexes”. She jumped out of the way before the heavy ceramic sink could land on her feet, which was wonderful and amazing. Less wonderful was that the sink had sheared off the water pipe that connected the sink to the wall. There was now a high pressure jet of water roaring out of the wall with no way to turn it off.

The pandemonium that ensued! I shouted, Matt ran in and we stared stupidly at the unending stream for a moment. Then I sprang forward, uselessly trying to block the water with my hand. Matt ran from the room, looking for the main water shut off. I yelled for Suki to bring me a pot. She brought me back the salad spinner bowl and I tried to throw bowlfuls of water into the shower. Did I mention that I was naked? There was such an unbelievable amount of water coming out of the wall that stopping to get clothes was out of the question.

I yelled for Suki to get the bucket from the laundry room. Long moments later she came back with it and we got into a rhythm. I would fill a bucket and she would dump it in the shower while I filled the salad spinner. In this way we captured about 60% of the water out of the wall. Matt had rushed back in to say the water shut off was nowhere to be found and that he was going to get our landlord. As Suki and I continued to bail water she expressed deep concern about the impending arrival of the landlord and my state of undress. I agreed with her wholeheartedly but there was nothing for it. Stepping away from the wall for even a moment was out of the question. How could there possibly be this much water gushing into the house?

Long minutes later Matt returned with our landlady. I’m not sure I’ve ever been more embarrassed than I was at that moment when I looked over my cold and goose-pimpled shoulder to see my landlady’s look of shocked amusement as she took in my naked form trying to stop the flood issuing forth from the wall. I snatched up a towel and let Matt bail water for a moment as I tried to explain what we needed. Where was the landlord?? Where was the water shut off? How on earth do you say that in Spanish??? At this point we were exclaiming and gesticulating in 2 inches of water covering our bedroom floor.

I grabbed some clothes while she tried to call her husband. After a few more minutes her aunt wandered in and then her uncle. Matt had at this point used a hose to redirect the water back into the drain pipe, slowing the flow onto the floor by about 95%. I took over and Matt and the uncle disappeared outside. Matt told me later that when the flood first began he had gone outside the gate into our driveway where he knew the water meter and, presumably, the shut off valve to be. When he lifted the cover, however, all he found was the meter, no valve. Matt showed this to the uncle, who calmly assessed the set up. Then he apparently slowly and deliberately began to dig  into the earth outside of the box containing the meter. There, buried under the soil, was the shut off valve. He languidly looked at Matt and said, “Here it is,” as though a buried shut off valve was the most obvious thing in the world. Matt told me he fairly shoved the uncle out of the way to reach the valve and shut it off. It would appear we were the only ones who felt the urgency of the situation.

With the emergency of the flood removed we were left to contemplate the aftermath. I, for one, was completely overwhelmed. There was water all through our bedroom, throughout the living room and into both the kitchen and the kids’ room. In that moment I was so thankful to my landlady and her aunt. They started sweeping out the water in a businesslike manner. Had they done this before? It seemed we didn’t have enough rags to really sop up the remaining water but eventually my landlady suggested we use the spinner on my semi-automatic washer to ring out full-size towels. Another chain system was established. While she mopped up water with one towel, I spun down the other. In less time than I would have thought possible the water was cleaned up with no damage to any of our possessions, thanks to all the platforms and furniture Matt had built.

While we had been cleaning a steady stream of people had come through the house. The neighbor who has done plumbing repairs for us came with his son, a classmate of Suki’s. At some point our landlord arrived, rather stony-faced. While it felt like he thought this was our fault, I’m going to assume he looked so irritated because this was something else he had to deal with. At one point there were four men gathered around where the sink had been, making a plan of attack. In the end, the pipe was capped off and we were without water for the rest of the night. We were assured that a new sink would be installed the next day.

More tired than before, we looked at our dirty and deliriously riled-up children. We called some expat neighbors who run a bed and breakfast and asked if we could use their shower. It may have been the best shower of my life. We filled water bottles at their house and slowly trudged home to bed, finally.

A Birthday Adventure

For Matt’s birthday we decided to take a break from nesting and making furniture. We wanted to explore a part of the coast we had never seen before: the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula, specifically the area around Montezuma. While this was a three hour drive over rough roads from our former home in Samara, coming from the Central Valley we’d need to take a ferry across the Gulf of Nicoya to get to where we were going. I was stoked. Desert rat that I am, boats always hold an excitement for me.

It’s amazing how quickly one forgets the heat after just a few weeks in a more temperate climate. Arriving in Puntarenas for the ferry we were immediately stupefied.

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We had to wait about an hour in a hot line for the ferry to come in. I felt edgy and American the whole time. The line looked long. Would there be room for us on the boat?? We just had to wait and see. I don’t know what I was expecting but I seriously think I imagined the ferry would be a tiny thing with room for just a few cars. How wrong I was. As our ship, The Tambor II, pulled into port I saw that this was a boat more akin to the ferries we have used in British Columbia.

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This was a large ship with several levels, indoor seating areas and outdoor decks and patios. There was a restaurant with a full bar and ice cream. We were super happy.

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Matt and I decided to celebrate our successful arrival on the ship with a beer from the cooler in the car. Tailgating at its finest. During the hour and half ride we bought the kids an ice cream and just generally enjoyed the ride. The weekend was getting off to a good start.

Once we arrived on the Nicoya Peninsula we had another hour or so to drive. We enjoyed being back in the jungle and seeing all the vines and enormous trees.

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Our hotel was located a few miles south of Montezuma. As Matt turned the wheel to enter the hotel Janet, our car, suddenly died. Completely. Without warning our car was now blocking the road in front of the hotel and also the hotel entrance. Sigh. We were grateful to have arrived at our destination, but seriously? Fortunately, there were plenty of people around and we soon had her pushed into the parking lot of the hotel. Matt explained to the owner what had happened with our car and he offered us a jump. I left the birthday boy to deal with the car in the afternoon sun and took our sticky kids to the pool. Matt soon joined us with word that our car was still dead. We’d have to call a mechanic in the morning. Grrrr. This was not how I had hoped we would spend our one full day at the beach.

Putting our car troubles aside for the moment, we set about enjoying ourselves. It had been many weeks since we’d gone swimming and it was nearly impossible to get the kids out of the pool.

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I don’t know if you can tell from the picture above, but the beach is just beyond the pool. We had a very relaxing afternoon of swimming and then walked along the beach into town for dinner. The beach was quite different from further north on the peninsula. Here the shore was rocky and the waves rough. Dramatic for walking along, but tough for swimming.

When we could drag the kids from the pool, they spent a lot of their time in the hammock. It was relaxing and hot and delightful.

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The next morning the mechanic the owner had called arrived bright and early with a high-powered battery charger. No dice. Somehow our battery had died on the drive down to the beach. I didn’t know such a thing was possible! I’m learning, though, that when talking about cars in Costa Rica the inconceivable quickly becomes commonplace.

The closest place to buy a new battery was the town an hour drive up the road. Since this was supposed to be Matt’s celebratory weekend, he obviously needed to stay at the beach and pool with the kids. Even though it was far from clear that a new battery would fix the problem, the hope was that he could still relax and enjoy the day a little.

A Belgian couple was checking out that morning and offered to give me a lift to town. They were lovely. We passed an enjoyable hour, stopping briefly at one point to pick up some Spanish hitchhikers heading into Montezuma for the farmer’s market. As we chatted with these energetic freespirits, the weekend started taking on a decidedly surreal edge.

We were not exactly sure where the car part store was but vague directions from locals led us outside of town along a lonely stretch of road. We eventually found the store and the couple let me off with some concern. Now that I was at least a mile from town I wasn’t sure how well my original plan to buy a battery and catch a bus back to the hotel would work. Still, there was no other option so I got my battery and hung around looking for likely people with whom I could catch a ride. Eventually, an empty turismo minibus pulled up to the store. The driver seemed to have stopped just to say hi to the store clerks. I asked the man helping me if I could catch a ride back to town with turismo driver and he asked on my behalf. I was swept back to town and found out the bus to Montezuma was leaving in just a few moments. When we arrived in Montezuma the driver pointed me to a minibus that was leaving and would drop me in front of the hotel. With much less difficulty than I could have hoped to expect, we had procured a new car battery from miles away without having to pay the hefty fee of a taxi. Score!

The new battery fixed our problem and we were saved from having to tow Janet to a shop. We were very relieved. We planned to spend our last morning taking a short hike to a waterfall in Montezuma where one could apparently swim. We arrived around eight in the morning and only a couple of people were there.

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It was awesome. The kids swam all over this pool, loving the feeling of adventure from getting so close to an actual waterfall. Matt did some heartstopping (for me) leaps from the rocks. We even got Pepe to come swimming with us, a rare treat. As we swam and splashed the stress of our car troubles melted away.

The morning progressed and more and more visitors came to the waterfall. We headed out, knowing we needed to get to the ferry early if we hoped to get on. We had heard from some ticos at the hotel that Sunday ferries were often sold out. When we arrived at the ferry terminal the parking gods smiled on us as we were directed to park in the only shady spot in the line. How different this wait for the ferry was compared to the one only a few days before! All the stress and uncertainty the car trouble had created, followed by its fairly miraculous resolution, provided some perspective or at least gratitude. So we have to wait three hours for a ferry? No problem. This weekend had been an exercise in letting go. I remember a time when such a long wait would have stressed me to no end as I worried how we would possibly keep the kids entertained. But they were perfectly fine, happily crawling all over the car, having snacks and exploring the area around the dock. It was definitely not the birthday weekend I had envisioned for Matt. But the weekend was a metaphor for our time here thus far. An overarching feeling of pura vida punctuated by acute stress.

What Matt’s been up to

Matt’s been making furniture. As you recall, we moved into an empty house. While we did buy several things such as mattresses, a fridge, an oven, a washing machine and a bed for the kids, Matt made the rest. And since we had very little else to do with our time, we made it our job to do it as cheaply as possible. So Matt made our furniture out of driftwood we brought from the beach and pallets. That’s right, pallet furniture. We are bringing hipster life to the mountains of Costa Rica.

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But where to find pallets or tarimas? It took a week or so of asking around and pulling over at every likely warehouse but we finally found a cement warehouse that would sell us their tarimas for less than $2 each. Did they think we were crazy gringos? Definitely. But it didn’t matter because we were in business!

As you may recall, this was our kitchen when we moved in.

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Other than one shelf in the pantry and the drainboard on the sink, there was absolutely nowhere to store or prep anything. With a combination of driftwood, pallets, nails, hooks and cast-off crates from our local grocery I think we outfitted it rather nicely, if I do say so myself.

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These tables are especially great.

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As the rest of the house was similarly lacking in places to put anything Matt built clothing shelves for the kids out of driftwood.

In addition to tables for our bathroom and bedroom and a shelving system in the laundry room for tools, he also made the kids this art table. In short, he was busy.

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One item I felt we absolutely had to have given the aesthetic we were cultivating was a giant wooden cable spool for a coffee table. When I was a child my father built me a big playhouse. Inside I had a kitchen table made out of one of these spools. Ever since then I have wanted to have another spool table. This seemed the perfect opportunity. Where to find one though? I made Matt pull the car over countless times as I saw likely shops and factories that might give or sell us one. Who knew how many words there were for spool in Spanish? I talked to probably five different people about them and they all used a different word. I’m still not 100% what the official word is. Still, in the end we prevailed and a warehouse gave us one. Or, as they say here, it was a regalito or “little gift”. Success!

With this victory fresh in my mind I decided to see if a hardware store might sell me some smaller spools for night and side tables. To my delight, these were considered regalitos as well. I went for it and asked for six. Suki painted the one in their room with a friend.

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When my mom came to visit she outfitted another one with a bottle cap top.

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We also needed some couches/guest beds. It was fun to plan how we would do this on the cheap. I geeked out on Pinterest to figure out cushions. It looked like foam was the cheapest, easiest way to go which then required figuring out exactly where one can buy that. Eventually I found a tiny mattress/foam shop and the owner, Arturo, and I were soon on a first-name basis. Matt deconstructed some pallets to make platforms for the couches. Here’s Django trying out the mock-up.

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And ta-da! The final product:

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Matt surprised me by turning the spool coffee table into a much needed bookcase. Love.

Of course, we also needed somewhere to enjoy the lovely view from our patio. When we decided to move to Grecia I declared I would buy us some of the rebar and elastic twine chairs we saw on every porch in the country. I knew people made these and sold them from the back of trucks around town. After several weeks without a single sighting of such a truck, however, I resorted to Facebook. Sure enough, there were several local folks who would make and deliver them to you. I shopped around and found one who would not only do the colors I wanted but also offered free delivery. Since these are relatively expensive at $45 a pop, we only bought two. Two chairs were not enough for a patio where we planned to entertain. So Matt built us a little couch and we softened it by creating a cushion out of the old foam mattress topper from our beach house and a piece of fabric we had from the States. Two throw cushions from a store in town later and we had our patio done.

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With Matt’s furniture, Christmas lights strung in a swirl on the ceiling and the kids’ artwork on the walls, the house soon became very, very cozy.

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One expat friend asked how we liked our college dorm but we were unfazed. I was thrilled that Matt could make us exactly what we needed. To us the unfinished wood was warm and welcoming. After a flurry of activity for six solid weeks, our house was a home.

 

 

Field Trip!

A really interesting compare and contrast moment between school here and in the States was a field trip I recently went on with Suki to Poas volcano. This is the volcano behind our house. And yes, this is the same Poas that was erupting for much of April. But this was before all that. I was excited to chaperone because we’d never been to the volcano before and I wanted to check it out.

What I remember from field trips in the States was a near military-like control over where everyone was and when. The teacher was the leader, the class stuck together and parent chaperones had a certain number of kids assigned to them. What I experienced here was quite different.

We arrived to school in the morning to find parents and kids milling around in front of several buses. The teachers were all together in a little group. Eventually, the principal came out and told everyone to get on a bus. Everyone got on but I didn’t see any kind of roll taking to keep track of who was there. In general, kids stuck with their parents or chaperones their parents had arranged.

The note sent home from school mentioned packing a snack and that we’d return by 2. I had heard that Poas was colder than where we live so I packed long sleeve shirts for Suki and myself. As the bus climbed higher the clouds rolled across the road and rain drops started to fall. The temperature dropped and I started to suspect I might be unprepared for what was to come. When we arrived at our destination the entire group stood around in the misting rain waiting for our guide. Eventually someone from the park came to inform us that we were going to hiking for about an hour and a half to get to our destination! There was a general groan from the crowd and I looked at the mothers wearing flats with babies in arms.  Apparently, I wasn’t the only one caught unprepared. After we were roughly divided into 4 groups of 25 we all set out.

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Our friend and neighbor had asked me to chaperone her daughter. These two were my responsibility, regardless of what the rest of the group was doing.

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As we walked the weather changed constantly. Sometimes it was raining, sometimes the sun came out, sometimes it was warm and other times I was literally shivering. The kids started out gamely enough but after we mostly arrived at our destination, everyone was pretty pooped.

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I later learned that on this field trip, historically, the initial hour and a half hike was part of the drive in the bus. However, recent rains had apparently made parts of the road impassable to buses, thus the unexpected walk. The spot where the kids were sitting was supposed to be the start of the “hike”, a mere 15 minute walk. It was here that I learned that the purpose of the field trip was not so much to see Poas as to learn about water, in honor of Dia del Agua. Specifically, we were learning about where the water for our community came from and the importance of keeping it clean. Part of the field trip was to actually see the source. The path started out wide.

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Then became narrower…

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and narrower…

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until we arrived at the literal source of all the water.

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The guides lifted a hatch in this slab to show us water running through a channel beneath the ground. At this point most of the kids’ interested had waned and everyone was hungry. Still, it was pretty interesting.

Lunch was waiting for us on the other side of the hour and a half hike. Several mothers lobbied the guides to drive the majority of the kids back in the truck. Suki was only too happy to jump in.

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Eventually, we made it back to the buses. The plan was to drive into the park to eat lunch at the volcano. True to life here, it wasn’t that simple. When we arrived at the entrance to the park there was a delay because the email granting the school free entrance had been sent to the other park entrance. Eventually, though, we rolled into the park and I finally got to see Poas volcano. Sort of. Because we had arrived so late in the day clouds were already covering the crater. All we could see was mist that looked like it went off into infinity. Suki found it utterly creepy. I’m thinking we need to come back early in the morning sometime.

So it was free-form, it lacked apparent organization and we encountered some obstacles. But the kids came home happy and everyone seemed to make it back, despite zero rollcall. Who’s to say if one way is better than the other? One thing is certain, it was an adventure.

Settling In

A couple of weeks after we moved from the beach to Grecia, the new school year began for public schools in Costa Rica. This provided a fun shopping experience, getting the kids outfitted in the uniform that all Costa Rican kids wear, everywhere in the country. The blue shirt (gabacho) Django is wearing signifies that he is in either materno (preschool) or kinder. The white shirt Suki is wearing is what kids first through sixth grade wear. Here are some pre- and post-first day of school pictures.

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One of the draws of moving to Grecia was that we had heard good things about the public school across the street from our house. I have to admit to having all sorts of feelings about them starting yet another school, their third this year. I think I was more nervous than they were.

Maybe the best thing about our new house is that I can see Suki on the playground from our front yard.

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The first day of school I saw her at first recess and she smiled and waved and pointed to a girl next to her shouting, “This is my new friend!” What a difference from the first school we went to here!

The school and the community are very welcoming but also very insular. Of course the kids are dying to make friends here and have play dates but I’m having difficulty figuring out the rules. I had heard from expats who’ve raised their children in Costa Rica that things are different in that regard. Family is huge here, both in size and importance. While the parents may consent to having their child play at your house it does not go without saying that the invitation will be returned. Additionally, in our case, we’re the newcomers in an extremely small, tight-knit community. Everyone knows each other and everything about them. We’re the newcomers about whom they know nothing.

To make matters more challenging is our appalling lack of Spanish. Now, we can manage all the day to day aspects of living here. We can procure things, find things and even have friendly chats with people while we do so. All of this comes crumbling down when trying to make friendly conversation with the other parents waiting to pick up their kids. This is especially true in a small mountain community where different slang is used and the ends of words are often left off. It’s challenging to make new friends, even in your country and language of origin. It’s exponentially more difficult in a new culture and language. I have been utterly humbled by the experience.

I remember reading a post in my friend’s blog right before we moved here. She was returning from a year in China with her family and was talking about what a “language barrier” really meant. I had heard the term my whole life, but never really stopped to think and imagine what that might feel like. Now I don’t have to, since we’re living it. And it’s profound. I have a whole new respect for the immigrants of the world. It is an act of will and determination to go out every day and try to speak in a language not your own. It’s humbling to be an educated and articulate person in your own culture and only be able to speak like a child in another language. I suspect people underestimate us. Or maybe I’m paranoid. All I know is that is hard to continually sound foolish and not be able to express oneself fully. Much easier to stay home and not interact. I really do understand how people can be in another country for years and never really learn the language.

In any case, the school is going well for the kids. They play with others at school, they’re willing to go, they seem happy when they get home. However, they are truly each other’s playmates. This is simultaneously wonderful and hard.

We love that we have an opportunity to experience another country’s public education system. School here is fundamentally similar to the States. Django comes home weekly with an art project and seems to do a lot of singing, playing and coloring in preschool.

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There are some differences, though, that really threw us for a loop. One is Suki’s schedule. In small communities with fewer children, the school does not have the funding to employ a full-time teacher for each grade. As a result, a teacher will teach one grade in the morning and one in the afternoon. This means that all the school books have to come home with Suki every day. Her bag must weigh 15 pounds!

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Happily, it’s a short walk. Additionally, she alternates weeks. One week she’ll go in the morning, the next she’ll go in the afternoon. Below is an image of her schedule.

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For each subject Suki has a book, a notebook and sometimes a folder. She also has a homework notebook, a dictation notebook and a “communication” notebook, the primary means by which we communicate with the school. I’d like to think we’re pretty functional, with-it adults but man, the second grade is killing us. We just can’t seem to get her to school with every single article she needs every single day. This results in stern notes from the teacher asking us to please make sure she has everything as it is really affecting her performance. Yikes! Talk about humbling.

But matters are made more complicated by the fact that we get weekly notes from the school that either or both of the kids’ schedules are changing. Sometimes school is cancelled and we’re notified the night before.  Sometimes we get no warning and Suki just shows up at home an hour early. “What are you doing here?!?” we say. “My English teacher didn’t show up” or “There was no music today”.  Ack! Good thing we’re generally home! The schedule is so incredibly variable that we’ve come to the conclusion that this is a system dependent upon extended family. Because Django always goes in the morning (except when the schedule changes) and Suki flip flops, we sometimes have a few hours a day every other week when both kids are at school at the same time.

This crazy school schedule is contrasted by our ridiculously simple and peaceful existence. The unpredictability of the kids’ school means we spend a lot of time in or around our home. Fortunately, it’s gorgeous around here.

 

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There are avocado, mango, banana and papaya trees all around us. From our front door we can walk about a mile up the road and the coffee fields suddenly give way to pine forests. At an elevation of about 4,500 feet the steep roads and paths we hike are a serious workout.

We have also found out that some our neighbors have farms where we can buy food. One of these farms is a dairy farm that also sells eggs. They have about 10 cows who must have very luscious grass to eat because there is some serious cream on this milk. We have to get there by 8am or after 5pm because the milk from the morning milking is sold off after 8 and the cows aren’t milked again before 5. It’s fun to go to their farm and chat with the owner while she pours fresh milk out of the huge vat. To make it even better, one of their grown daughters is an animal nut who keeps pheasants, rabbits and canaries. There have been at least two litters of rabbits since we’ve been here and if you’ve never seen a child’s reaction to a baby bunny, I suggest you find a way to see it.

I also really appreciate that the owner likes to talk. It is one of our opportunities to work on actual conversation. Like most people I’ve encountered here, she is gracious, kind and patient with our efforts. This is also true of the lettuce farm where we buy lettuce and basil. The farmer there is very curious about us and she always wants to chat a bit while we pick out lettuce and basil. In stark contrast to the beach, our only option up here is to speak Spanish. When I’m struggling to find a word, the person I’m talking to never switches to English. They just patiently wait and work with whatever I come up with.  I am so appreciative.

Our landlady has also been incredibly helpful. She is about my age and very involved in the community. She invited me to come walking with her and a friend, another neighbor. This has provided many wonderful opportunities to get to know people in the neighborhood, speak Spanish and learn about my neighbors as we walk by. Through my landlady I have learned the professions of most of them. The most surprising was a lingerie maker who runs her business out of her home with several other seamstresses and, sadly, a breeder of roosters for illegal cock fights. That was an interesting conversation in which I learned lots of new words. She also helpfully pointed out a neighbor who does mending. Her going rate for seemingly any project is 500 colones, or a little less than a dollar. For the first time in my life all my pants are hemmed to the right length!!

As far as we can tell, this relocation within Costa Rica will help us meet our primary goal of learning Spanish. Secondary to that is being able to afford to stay here to do so. So far, so good.

 

Museo de los Niños

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This place is a trip. Once a fortress-like prison it has been turned into a deceptively extensive children’s museum.  We took the opportunity to go here when the entire family needed to go to San Jose to renew Django’s passport (An exercise in and of itself. We were required to show time lapse photos from the time of his last passport photo at 2 months of age!)

Matt and I entered dubiously. As we walked its warren-like halls we were hard pressed to figure out where the actual installations and activities were. Soon, though, the kids got more into the displays than I’ve seen them in other museums. There was an entire grocery store where employees handed out “money” and menu cards with ingredients for the kids to find.

When they’d found their whole list they could “check out”. Suki and Django probably went on three separate shopping trips, they loved it so much.

Then they found the room about the firefighters and police officers. My kids have never been ones for putting on costumes in public places. However, since there were few visitors the day we went they ran around like mad, trying on outfits, driving vehicles, sliding down the firefighter’s pole. They had a blast.

Then we discovered the outside. This place is immense! There are play structures, full size airplanes to go inside and a whole train to explore.image

There is also an entire interactive display about how bananas are processed which Django got really into.

There are also several fun and random statues and pictures. Everywhere you look there is something to see or touch or do.image

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Then we discovered that they had a little farm display, complete with live chickens and bunnies, in addition to a model cow that you could “milk”. They got right in there. image

We thought we were approaching the end at that point but then found a whole wall of illusion that entertained Suki, Django and Matt for quite some time.

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By this time we were pretty tuckered. When we circled back inside, we found a whole different (huge) wing that talked about the natural word, recycling and the human body. While a lot of the displays have seen some heavy use they have a lot of really cool, interesting areas.image

While at first we weren’t so sure, I ended up very impressed. It would have been worth it to buy a map, so we could see all that was on offer. On the other hand, it was fun to come around a corner and see some new, strange thing. It was definitely worth the visit and I have a feeling we’ll be back.image

When there’s no internet

The next morning found us staring stupidly at our new range, beautiful and shiny and utterly without gas. We had heard from our fabulous landlords the day before that we could purchase gas at the pulperia (small store) just up the road. So up there we trudged at 7am to introduce ourselves to Roy, the proprietor. Now let me back up a moment to say that we have moved to a very small community. imageThis is the soccer field just across the road from our house with a view of Poas volcano behind it. Everyone here knows each other and many are related. The house that we are renting is just down a tiny hill from our landlord’s, which shares land with the houses of his mother, brother, first cousin, and two aunts. I soon realized that not only does everyone know one another, but they all knew of us. It’s a cozy feeling.

But back to the oven. We met Roy and explained our predicament. Thus followed another wonderful opportunity to practice our Spanish as we came to learn that we could exchange our empty gas tank at the pulperia, but we could not buy a new full one. In seeing my desperate, de-caffinated look Roy offered to make a call to the gas company. We eventually learned that we could buy a full tank from him. We thought we were on our way, but wait. The gas tank didn’t come with either a hose or a valve. This provided us with an opportunity to go down the mountain to find the closest hardware store, where we eventually found what we needed. More opportunities for speaking Spanish and experiencing the two step system of paying. Soon we were in business with hot water heating for our much-needed coffee.

Our trials were not over, however. Everything seemed hooked up and ready to go in terms of hot water and electricity. The one snag was internet. Getting internet in our new house proved to be a two-week debacle of waiting, endless phone calls to the provider, an outdated LAM cable and exercises in patience. We managed to get pay-as-you-go internet on Matt’s phone through the pulperia but we had virtually no internet through the computer or my phone. When we arrived, we had two weeks before the new school year started to get settled. Without internet and contact with the outside world it proved to be an interesting, insular time. I have to say, I’m pretty impressed with the kids’ creativity. With every cast off from setting up the house, Suki made something new. This box got a lot of mileage.imageimage

And from more cardboard she made herself a doll, Nina, and a room for her.image

She also created Django a new set of “weapons” out of paper and a belt for them out of string.
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Not disturbing at all. But my favorite was the jeans vest for her stuffie.image

We also started planting, using all our old bottles. I tell you, I thought we used to recycle in California. Now, with minimal supplies to set up our house and an unwillingness to buy new things we became masters of reusing. Tin cans are gold mines for storing things. And old plastic bottles and milk cartons are great for starting seeds from the veggies we bought.

With all the time in the world and no media distractions we finally started getting into family projects like we had wanted. One of our goals in moving here was to spend more time with kids and involve them in the goings-on in the house. We wanted them to be part of the gardening, the cooking, the cleaning. Of course, with kids, this “help” takes more time than doing it without them. But now we had the time. You want to cut the milk cartons? Go for it. You want to scoop the dirt and get all up in it? Knock yourself out.

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You want to mop the floor?!? Please!image

I think back on how much we would buy in the States when we wanted to do a project. We knew where things could be found, we knew their names and we wanted to do the project right then, because we only had so much time. Now we’re in a place where we have no idea of the names for things or who sells them or who even to ask, because it’s all set up differently. It’s challenging and freeing. We have nothing but time so there’s more mulling over things and trying to figure out how we could achieve this or that in the house for free and with what we have or can find. It’s been fun. Matt and I feel like we’re playing house. It’s also really appealing to the side of me that loves to purge and loathes acquiring. Coming at this from serious budgetary restrictions and an aversion to acquisition, we’re trying to only bring into the house what we need. One of these needed items is some way to cover the gestapo-like bare bulbs that light our house. This led to an attempt to make paper-maiche sconces. Please, if ever I get it into my head to do paper-maiche again, somebody stop me. I never enjoy myself as much as I think I will. The kids had fun though.image

In the end, these were a bust. I found a place to buy really inexpensive paper lanterns and considered it money well spent.

While it was at times intense to spend every moment of everyday with the kids in a place where we knew few people and had no breaks via movies it was really fun. We played house. We explored the paths through the coffee fields and the nooks and crannies around our new home.

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The kids used all available fabric to concoct different outfits and stories.image

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And there was lots of art and relaxing.imageimageimage

There was also some play time with some of the American families we know here. Mostly of the feral sort.imageimage

But with some calmer times mixed in.image

If someone had told me before the move that we would have no internet for the first two weeks I would have dreaded it. When it was thrust upon us it was still inconvenient at time but, surprise, surprise, actually completely fine. Even awesome.

Costa Rica, take two

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So we did it, again. We moved from Playa Samara to San Francisco de Grecia. The move did not feel quite as epic as that from California but it had a certain Grapes of Wrath feel as Matt strapped our foam mattress to the top of Janet, our Costa Rican lemon. As you may recall, Janet is no spring chicken. She starts to shimmy and dance anywhere over 60 kph and usually overheats on most trips involving an elevation change of more than 1000 meters. So it was with certain trepidation that we loaded her up. In addition to our possessions we brought along 200+ pounds of driftwood, carefully collected on the beaches near Samara with an eye toward future furniture. imageThe house we were moving to, you see, was completely unfurnished. And when I say unfurnished I mean nada. No oven, no fridge, no washer, no shelves. But we took it as a challenge to see just how much we could do without. Who needs to buy furniture? We’ll build it! For free!image

The kids were good natured about their squishy conditions for what turned out to be a five hour drive. We did, indeed, overheat just as we arrived in Grecia. In a now-familiar task of making lemonade out of lemons, we got some ice cream at Pops, right off the central square. One of the highlights of moving away from the beach was access, once again, to delicious ice cream.

Our plan had been to buy mattresses when we arrived but the inevitable Janet-related delays meant we arrived close to sunset when everything was closing down. On the bright side, the gorgeous view from our new little house awaited us.

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This is from our porch, looking out across the Central Valley. And here is our casita from the outside.image

Since the friends who helped us find our house invited us to spend the night, we were able to delay buying the essentials until the next day. And essentials we needed. Here is our blank slate of a kitchen when we moved in.image

Ironically, I now have things I always desired in a house in the States but could never achieve: a pantry, an eat-in kitchen and a door from the kitchen directly to the yard. Heaven!

As one might recall giving birth, the memory of the next’s days shopping extravaganza is indelibly etched on my mind, yet fuzzy on the details so as to spare the psyche too much trauma. Costa Rica takes its love of bureaucracy, forms and receipts to new heights when shopping for home appliances. When walking into a store of any size, one is immediately struck by the large number of employees completely available to assist you. Additionally, even in large stores, prices are negotiable so shopping is a very personalized experience with an employee noting down what you might need to buy and coming up with a customized price. Since we needed an oven, a fridge, a washer and three mattresses we got very personalized attention. I spoke more Spanish in 5 (exhausting) hours of shopping and negotiating than I had in the previous five months.

What is fascinating and maddening when buying things here is the process of paying. The employee who has been helping you will ask your name (to put on the receipt) and appear to begin ringing things up. This involves writing every item’s name, item number and price down on an invoice that is either handwritten or entered into a computer. You are then to walk to a different part of the store to pay the cashier (that’s where the name on the receipt comes in). Then you walk back to the original employee who will review the receipt demonstrating that you’ve paid and s/he will then stamp your receipt. Mind you, this happens in large stores and stores the size of your living room.

At the end of this day we did indeed have everything we came for, minus a mattress for Matt and me and a frame for the kids’ beds; both were arriving the following week. But we had a borrowed futon to sleep on and the kids were excited to “camp” in their room on their new mattresses. Sleeping bag covers were our bedspreads until I could figure out where to buy decent blankets, since we would actually need them for the first time in months.image

Matt and I feel asleep, exhausted but pleased that we found what we needed without feeling ripped off. We were excited to make coffee in our new kitchen the next morning with our very own stove, until we realized at dawn that we had a new gas range but no gas. Doh!