Friday, June 04, 2010

On guard

I wrote this blog entry a while back and for some reason it didn't get posted. It's a little late in the game, but I'm happy to share it today ...

Gated communities, gun-toting guards, concertina wire, bars on the windows … uncommon for the average US neighborhood, yet very normal for Costa Rica, from the most upscale, exclusive community to humble homes surrounded by chain-link fences.

When it comes to security, Ticos mean business. Theft and street crime are on the rise, especially in San Jose. You’ve gotta watch your stuff here—don’t leave things in the car, don’t walk around with flashy jewelry or a camera around your neck, keep an eye on your purse, always be aware of your surroundings. All especially true for those of us who are obviously norteamericanos. We are targets solely because it’s a common perception that all Americans are rich.

Upon first coming to Costa Rica it’s impossible not to notice the security—it is rampant. Armed guards stand watch in parking lots at restaurants and grocery stores, coiled wire rests atop fences, iron gates keep unwanted visitors from entering condo developments. I’ve found that after living here for a while, I stopped noticing the unsightly wires as much and the ever-present guards don’t faze me; it’s acclimation at its best.

We live in a gated community within a gated community—which I suppose makes us doubly safe. A private security firm controls entry and exit to both gates, while a handful of guards with guns (including a guard at the first gate with his big shotgun) patrol our neighborhood day and night. They’ve whizzed by on an ATV, ridden by on a plethora of bicycles (including some brightly colored beachcombers that nobody was likely to steal), driven by in a tiny electric car (so cute!), scootered past on motos, zipped around in a golf cart, and walked by more times than I can count.

When we first moved into our home, I frequently saw a guard stationed across the street behind our house, standing in the shade of the towering palms and eyeing my backyard and kitchen windows. It bothered me. I felt like I was being watched—and likely, as a new resident and gringa—I was. (I certainly garnered plenty of looks from the construction workers, though they are now used to seeing me walk by their work sites and on rare occasions even offer a curt nod.)

Now, I am happy to see the guards behind our home. When I stir from sleep in the middle of the night and hear a faint crackle of a walkie-talkie from the street out front, I don’t mind. The guards are on duty, and that's a good thing.

Feelin' groovy

When I saw a boxed labeled "Cannabis" at the local grocery store, you know I had to take a closer look. I'd never heard of Cannabis incense, but now that I know it's out there, surely that must explain the scent that used to waft through the vents from my neighbors' apartment on Gilman Street during my junior year at UW. It must have been the incense I smelled! Right?!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Zoo Ave

Twenty years ago, Zoo Ave (ZOH AH-vay), or “Bird Zoo” opened in La Garita to feed, shelter, and provide health care for mistreated and orphaned birds and animals here in Costa Rica. The zoo’s goal is to rehabilitate animals and release them back into the wild, but some creatures still find a permanent home at Zoo Ave.

While the zoo is named for its birds (all 120 species of them), it boasts more than 250 types of animals. This non-profit organization also teaches visitors about conservation and the importance of caring for our world—a very worthwhile cause.

Our most recent trip to Zoo Ave was with my mom and dad. It was a beautiful (but hot!) sunny day—really nice for seeing the incredible macaws, toucans, monkeys, cats, and even ostriches.

It’s fun to see the animals that roam freely, too. We got quite close to a toucan that wasn’t caged (what a thrill!) and wonder if he was just visiting friends. On a previous visit were so near a sloth coming down a tree we could have picked him up. Peacocks, iguanas, agoutis … all make their way around this gorgeous park filled with trees, exotic flowers, tangled vines and giant bamboo. (Speaking of … It’s hard to explain how really amazing this bamboo is! It reaches way up—about 50 feet or so—and as the bamboo is blown by the wind it makes a freaky creaking sound like a tree that’s going to crash to the ground. It’s eerie and cool to stand and listen. Erin looks tiny in the photo standing next to the bamboo.)

A couple of years ago we saw this alligator at Zoo Ave, right up against the fence. I could have stuck my hand through and touched it, but instead I took a super close-up shot of its eye, right through the chain link. Now once in a while, someone in this family sees something interesting and calls out “crocodile eye!” with this excited whisper. It’s weird, but funny, and always reminds me of the alligator (not croc, actually!) we saw so close.

Of all the things I'll miss when we leave here, the amazing animals, trees, flowers, mountains and beaches are what I think I will long for most.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Sharing our hearts

For several days now I’ve had a blog entry rolling around in my head, but I’ve procrastinated in writing because I’m convinced I can’t do justice to the subject matter: an afternoon spent delivering food baskets and toys to needy families up in the mountains of Escazú.

This experience left an indelible imprint on my life and the lives of my daughters. It’s a challenge to explain this day with only words and a few amateurish photos, but I’ll make the attempt. Because this day—this small effort—deserves to be shared.

I’m part of a community service organization at the girls’ school called Care and Share. Our goal is to raise money throughout the year to help the El Carmen school—whether it’s with much needed improvements to the school building itself or to give aid to the students and their families.

A week ago I pulled Erin and Lauren out of class to join me, a handful of other Care and Share moms and kids, the principal Mr. Large, and six student council members to deliver food and used toys to the neediest families from El Carmen. I rightly suspected this would be an amazing, joyful, and heartrending day all at once.

We loaded twenty hefty boxes of food and several bags of toys onto our bus and began the drive up the mountain to the school. From there, we followed the school’s director who led us to the homes of those we wanted to help. The air was cool, the views of the valley terrific, and we enjoyed the El Carmen neighborhood as we wound around the maze of roads. Typical for a trip in this area, we saw many cows, horses, roosters, chickens and stray dogs—oh, and even a kitten on the steps of the local super.

At each stop, a group got off the bus with the food. The director explained to us how many children were at each house and their ages—and then we chose toys for them. Erin, the oldest kid on the bus, sat up front and took charge in selecting what toys were given at each stop. I was so happy as I watched her smile and get excited about serving others with her sweet heart.

The women receiving the baskets were grateful to be sure, but the kids’ responses are what I remember best. We saw how just a few used toys brought forth smiles and looks of awe from these children who live in abject poverty and have very little of their own.

I was only able to take a few photos from inside the bus, and it’s hard to tell from them how poor the living conditions were. We see homes like this daily in Costa Rica—the tin roofs, pockmarked walls, peeling paint, single bulbs hanging from the ceilings, and dirt floors are nothing new for us. Additionally, we have all had many opportunities to help those less fortunate—with food drives, fund raisers, gift giving parades, church offerings—but to meet these families makes the reality that much clearer.

At some homes we’d see one child, then two, then kids would come flooding out once they realized what was happening.

After leaving a place with a large group of kids, the boys in the back of the bus realized that others—a woman and her daughter, at one point—were following us, hoping we’d stop. When we pulled to the roadside for this girl we didn’t know, I caught Mr. Large’s eye and quickly turned away as tears spilled out of my own eyes. There were many times on the trip when I’d catch a mom wiping her cheeks or see a look of wonder on my girls’ faces.

On one of the final stops, a group of children walked up the stairs from what must be a very dark, damp, and chilly place to live. There were about six boys and a girl. As we were preparing to leave, one of our students noticed on the other side of our bus was a small girl, maybe age two or three, clinging to her blue metal door. We couldn’t leave, the girls up front insisted, without giving her something. Erin and her friend Aidra hopped off the bus and began tossing toys—a tutu, a boa, a sparkly plastic tiara—over the door. The girl’s sister appeared, then the grandma. It was a joy to watch their faces as the toys soared over the door and the girls realized they were theirs, for keeps. I tried to sneak a photo of the little one from inside the bus. What a precious girl she was.

After handing out the final baskets and toys, we returned to El Carmen school. Here, the director boarded our bus to thank us and barely finished her first sentence before breaking down in tears. Even the children whose Spanish is not the best could understand this language of the heart. Again, many of us wept silently as she told us how these children often don’t have enough to eat each day, how they live in some very difficult conditions and have family lives that are not safe, healthy, and happy.

This day … it is one I won’t forget. One my girls will not forget. And it served as a tremendous reminder of what is most important at Christmas. We were Santa’s helpers and Christ’s hands all in one. We all agreed that we need to do this again soon.

My dad reminded me of a verse in Matthew—25:31-40—that I shared with Erin and Lauren. It tells us how important it is that we think not only of ourselves but that we serve others—and in doing so, we are servants of our Lord, too. You may say that my daughters and I, and our little group, did something wonderful and caring that day. But I’ll tell you that we received the greatest blessing of all in the giving.


31"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'

Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'

40"The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Costa Rica Christmas

Last December I blogged a bit about December in Costa Rica. I mentioned the aguinaldos and portales—both important parts of the Christmas tradition here. After a few questions from friends about other Tico holiday traditions, I thought a quick blog describing more of the season was in order.

Christmas decorating begins early for the Ticos. The local warehouse store puts its lights, ornaments and trees up for sale in August. (No kidding!) Christmas candy starts showing up about this time as well. By mid-November a lot of families have their trees, wreaths made of cypress leaves and coffee berries, and soon there are sparkling lights twinkling across the valley at night. This year the new section of the mall has a terrific tree three stories high, and just yesterday I saw Santa outside the local supermarket dancing the salsa with a pretty brunette elf.

One of the best aspects of Christmas is the ushering in of the dry season. Days are sunny but mild in the valley and at night the cool breezes blow into our bedrooms. We often walk at night under clear, star-studded skies. It’s wonderful!

Throughout December, the country celebrates with lots of parties (we had our big shindig again this year), carnivals, parades and—perhaps best known—the tope nacional. Celebrated in Costa Rica for hundreds of years, the tope is a parade of horses down the main streets of San Jose. People come from all over for the festivities which are also broadcast on national television. The riders are decked out in their best Tico regalia and the gorgeous horses prance proudly. In the San Jose tope, one may also see marching bands, traditional oxcarts, floats and clowns.

(I should note that topes are not just for Christmas. We saw a small tope with my parents in Quepos one spring.)

During the days leading up to Christmas, Ticos gather for posadas—neighbors meeting at each other’s homes to re-enact the travels of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. During the posadas there is song, prayer, and food—especially tamales and rompope (eggnog—heavy on the rum)! Fat, juicy grapes and shiny apples load the shelves at our local grocery store. They are popular imported foods for the holidays and are a special treat at Christmas.

Tomorrow is Christmas Eve. We’ll go to a 6pm service at our church while most Ticos will attend the Catholic misa de gallo—midnight mass—and open their gifts. Either way, it’s bound to be a sunny, breezy, and beautiful Christmas here in the valley.

¡Feliz Navidad!

Monday, December 14, 2009

A little Teletubby shall lead us ...

... to the airport, anyway. Saw this Po doll (I think it's Po. Why do I know this stuff?) hanging from a painted-over stop/alto sign on our way to drop Dan off for a flight. The Teletubbies have made it across the pond to Costa Rica and a few years ago there was a gang in CR called the Teletubbies. (Doesn't sound very menacing, does it?) I don't know if they're still around.

Thank goodness I haven't seen the gang or the TV show here. Some of these kids' programs (Barney comes to mind) are agonizing enough in English. Hearing them in Spanish? Not fun. Except Blues Clues (Pistas de Blue), which I must admit I have watched a couple of times here in español. Steve is especially well-dubbed. Good times!

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Thanksgiving Travels to Arenal

We’ve established a few traditions during our time in Costa Rica, and one of them is to travel for US Thanksgiving. This year we let the girls choose our destination and they both—independently—decided on staying at Los Lagos resort at the base of Arenal Volcano. (This is the same place we ziplined with my mom and dad last year.)

We drove through a misty cloud forest on our way north that was unbelievably lush, with rolling hills as we topped the mountains and rushing waterfalls. Some areas—spotted with dairy farms and Holsteins—even reminded me of Wisconsin. And of course what would a road trip in CR be without a few cows in the road here and there?

The first day we had some gorgeous views of the towering, active Arenal Volcano. After that, it was cloudy for much of the trip but we didn’t mind the overcast, frequently rainy skies; Dan and I spent much of our vacation in the hot springs while the girls visited all three big pools and flew down the waterslides. A few times we ventured to the small, private hot springs pools surrounded by all sorts of tropical plants and flowers. It was so beautiful, so relaxing. Ahhhhh, I wish I could go back already!

One morning after breakfast we visited the crocodile farm, butterfly house (lots of blue Morphos—my favorites!), and frog enclosure. The gardens are spectacular, and it’s hard to fathom how many types of vegetation are on the Los Lagos property. And while we didn’t zipline on this trip, we did hike around and crossed a long, hanging bridge a few times—which terrified me, but I tried not to look down (waaaaay down) and I made it across each time once I determined that nobody could follow me on the bridge (too much swaying) until I had reached the other side.

A favorite pleasure from this trip was sitting on our second-floor balcony early each morning and watching the birds; we saw so many, including a bunting, kiskadees, and many hummingbirds. When we moved here I had an informal “Costa Rica bucket list”—a bunch of things I wanted to see and do before we had to return to the States. Spotting a big toucan in the wild (because I’ve seen quite a few in captivity) was the only thing I had remaining on my list, and I was worried I’d never get to cross it off. Dan, Erin, and Lauren all had seen at least one—but not me. Until Saturday morning at 5:45, when I heard a crazy-loud bird making a racket outside. Sure enough, a chestnut-mandibled toucan was perched in a tree near our room, calling out to another toucan who answered him each time. (This is the largest toucan in CR. He was big!)

Dan and I watched the toucan and though we took photos, they didn’t turn out well because of the mist and the lighting. But we saw him and then saw another toucan join him and they both flew off. It was amazing!

I spent a lot of time thinking about our lives in Costa Rica during our time at Arenal. Thinking about how spectacular the natural world is here, how much we’ve seen and done, how living here has brought our family closer than ever, and how much I’ll miss this country when we leave. I even grew teary-eyed on the drive home (Wow, was it a gorgeous day!) and feel like I’m splitting in two: half of me longs to be home in the US and half of me wants to stay in Costa Rica, which after a couple of years is also our home. I’m not ready to face leaving yet and am determined for us to get as much out of our remaining time here as we can. I have a lot to be thankful for! (Enjoy the photos and you'll see what I mean!)


Friday, October 09, 2009

Art in the museum

If you've met Lauren, you know that she is an artist. She draws daily—in homemade comic books, on random scraps of paper, on math homework, napkins, you name it. She's won a few art-related contests here, and her drawing "Tigerland" was recently a finalist in a contest for La Celebración del Día Mundial de los Animales (celebration of world animal day) here in the San José area.

Last Sunday, the pictures created by the finalists were all hung in the Museo de los Niños (children's museum) in San José, and we went there for a ceremony to honor the kids. Everyone received a certificate and a year's worth of Pets y Mas magazines. Lauren, despite her reluctance to use her Spanish, is enjoying reading parts of her magazines and looking at the pictures.

Traveling to the museum requires a trip into downtown San Jose and a drive through a seedy district. There is a lot of poverty in the area as well, so it's a seemingly unusual location for a children's museum.

The museum has a fascinating history as well—it is a former barracks and penitentiary. The prison housed some of the country's worst criminals from 1910 to 1979 and was said to be horrible and chaotic. Some of the prison's former cells have been preserved, and along the walls in the entry is an art exhibit about the prison's history, including many before-and-after photos of the prison and now castle-like museum.  There are ghost stories about the place as well, with one in particular about a five-year-old girl who went to visit her father in prison and was killed by him during her visit. Yet despite the spooky past of the place, the museum really is a terrific place for the kids with lots of cool exhibits.

After the ceremony we walked around for a bit and decided to get home before it got too dark and rained too hard. (Yeah, we didn't escape the rain, but it's October—very normal here.)  It was a fun twist to an otherwise ordinary, rainy season Sunday.