Monday, October 29, 2007

Young citizens of the world

In a blaze of colorful costumes, the kids of Country Day School participated in an exciting and moving celebration of United Nations Day on Friday. The event, held in the CDS gymnasium, began with a parade of nations reminiscent of those held at the opening ceremonies of the Olympics.

The kids—from a whopping 45 countries!—were allowed to wear native costumes to school representing their home nations. To start the ceremony, the children lined up in the corridors, eagerly awaiting their turn to enter the gym. As Mr. Large, the principal, announced each country, children (sometimes many, sometimes just one) marched in to that country’s music while bearing the flag of their nation. There was great applause for all of the kids, with Costa Rica prompting an explosive cheer from everyone.

It was so touching to see these proud little kids joining together to celebrate their patriotism, our world, and the unity of their own student body. I got teary-eyed when the United States was announced and I saw my two smiling daughters proudly entering the gym in their homemade "USA" shirts and red, white, and blue ponytail holders.

Some of the kids' costumes were breathtaking: the little Korean children in beautiful native clothing, the Spanish girls in their cheery flamenco dresses, the throng of Mexican amigos with sombreros and serapes, the Ticas in their billowy skirts and blouses, and the charming little French boy with the beret and a loaf of bread in his sack.

Once the parade was done, the kids sang a song together about friendship, and then a group of students from each grade took turns performing. Lauren’s class did a song and dance from Israel, while Erin’s class performed a traditional African dance. Halfway through the dance, three of the African parents (also in native dress) joined the kids (who were floundering a bit), and the place was electrified—parents, teachers, and kids were cheering and clapping.

Finally, the American teachers danced to a High School Musical song in representation of the United States—they were surprisingly talented and hip! You can imagine the hoots and hollers from the kids as they watched several of their teachers getting their groove on. I’ve gotta admit, I was impressed.

I tried to get some good photos, but the lighting made it difficult and there was so much movement—but you can see some of what was going on in this web album (again, I recommend viewing it as a slideshow).

This is by far one of the most unique, inspiring things I’ve ever seen at an elementary school, and it will be a very special memory for us all.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Irazú, I see you!

On Tuesday, Erin’s class took a field trip to Irazú Volcano (Volcán Irazú), and I was able to snag a seat on their bus and tag along. Irazú is one of several volcanoes in this small country and lies in the Cordillera Central, close to the city of Cartago (the former capital of Costa Rica). It is protected in a national park.

We began our trip at the school in Escazú and traveled through San José, San Pedro, Curridabat, and then Cartago.

At a junction near the agricultural town of Cot, we saw a statue of Jesus with his arms outstretched; here, Christ is said to be embracing the entire valley. We turned left here and began our trip up the mountain.

(Incidentally, the trip up was just as you’d expect with a busload of fourth graders. They were a musical bunch, and I heard familiar tunes in English and some new-to-me “bus songs” in Spanish too.)

On our way up the southern slope of the volcano we saw many onion, potato, and cabbage farms. The fertile soil here from previous years of volcanic activity makes this area good farmland. We also saw many small dairy farms. Erin and I shared a private laugh as we passed one farm and could smell the cows—and most of the kids erupted with “Ewwww!” Erin just looked at me with a grin and said, “Mom, I’ve been to Wisconsin so many times I didn’t even think anything of it.” That’s my girl!!

The trip up was very slow (think big bus, steep drive!), but thankfully there were no sheer drop-offs (especially because I had a window seat on the “edge” side of the mountain!). We saw some great Tico villages with houses in a variety of bright hues.

We also had to put on our jackets as we climbed the volcano because the temperature dropped significantly, which I really enjoyed. I must admit I also got a kick out of the Costa Rican children donning hats, gloves, and scarves for the “cold” day! Apparently it can get quite chilly on Irazú (though I doubt it dropped below 65 while we were there), with an average temperature of 45 degrees and occasional frosts. It rains often too, but thankfully we felt just a few drops during our visit. (There's a rumor that on rare clear days you can see the Pacific and Caribbean from the volcano’s summit—which would have been awesome. Irazú is the highest active volcano in the country.)

We began exploring as soon as we arrived at Irazú, and the main attractions were two giant craters. The first was Diego de la Haya, the second was Crater Principal. Both craters were amazing, but the principal crater was especially magnificent, with a neon green lake created by minerals washed into sulfuric acid by frequent rainfall.

The remaining part of the volcano is a bit surreal—kind of a moonscape with its windswept fields of black volcanic sand. The last eruption of Irazú spanned the years of 1963 to 1965 (on a historical note, it blew its top on the day John F. Kennedy arrived in San Jose to visit the country), but geologists have determined that there is still magma beneath the volcano. We put our hands on the sand and it was very warm!

When we looked very closely, we saw the grains of sand moved around as if by magic, without the assistance of wind or human intervention. We learned there are magnetic anomalies at the volcano. One girl had grains of sand jump to her bracelet and cling there!

We saw stray flowers blooming on the spanning, lunar landscape, but overall the flattest part of the park looked desolate. Bordering it were steep inclines covered in thick vegetation—namely a comical looking plant called Sombrilla del Pobre, or Poor Man’s Umbrella, so named because the leaves are enormous—large enough to keep someone dry in a light rain.

Animal life was scare on the volcano, though we did see a few birds. The children found a dead hummingbird with iridescent blue and green wings. They took pity on the little body and buried it in the sand.

We spent quite a while hiking around (we noticed the thinner air!), and the kids had a great time. We took a break for lunch and then headed back home. Erin and I were wiped out by Tuesday night, but we had a fantastic time.

Wanna see what I’m talking about? You can click here to see more photos (with captions!) of our adventure. (Try the slideshow feature; you can use the pause button if you want to spend more time on a photo.)

Monday, October 22, 2007

Ribs and bananas

Sadly, I'm not talking about tasty ribs hot off the grill and dripping in sauce; the title refers to Dan's ribs, at least one of which is likely broken.

Dan has been playing basketball at the girls' school on Monday nights with a friend and some other guys. A week ago, he took an elbow shot to the side and had a hard time catching his breath for a few minutes. Now he's got a busted rib, is done with basketball, and hasn't been able to run for a week. Apparently ribs are slow to heal. Good thing we have an ample supply of ibuprofen in the house.

On a lighter note, thought I'd share a rather ordinary experience I had this morning that made me laugh.

I was driving down the highway at about 7:30, following a rickety little truck with a mountain of pineapples in the back and large bunches of bananas hanging off the sides. The truck was very slow-moving, so I changed to the left lane to get by. The funny thing was, as I passed the truck, the driver was grooving out to something on the radio and eating a banana. One less to sell, I guess, but at least we know he endorses his product.

Talk about a job with appeal! (That one was for you, Dad!)

Saturday, October 20, 2007

A rare Garbage Fairy sighting!

Check it out! After two months, I finally saw the Garbage Fairy at my house! I know this isn't the best picture, but after he left my driveway I had to stealthily poke my head out the door with a camera to my eye. The GF might have thought I was some kind of crazy gringa (who me?!?) if he'd seen me, so the situation called for the utmost discretion and cat-like reactions from the photog.

And...this is the coolest GF update of all...I set another box out about an hour after the Garbage Fairy left that day and it was gone 30 minutes later. This is guy is good, I tell you. He must have trash radar.

I know he is a masculine-looking fairy, but I'm pretty sure he has special wings under his shirt made of recycled paper and plastic bags from the Auto Mercado. Cool dude.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Mama Mia Pizzeria

Our family loves pizza, but we've found that pizza delivery can easily cost 30 to 40 dollars—too much to spend too often. So six weeks ago, I decided I'd make my homemade pizza regularly and for just a few dollars for two pizzas. And with that, a young tradition of Pizza Night was born.

Tuesdays are busy here. Between work (Dan), drama class (Erin), and soccer (Lauren), our family doesn't get home until 5:30. Since pizza is quick to make once the dough rises,Tuesday night became Pizza Night.

I've always enjoyed making pizza dough, but I had a small challenge—I had to figure out how much yeast, in teaspoons, was in a packet of yeast that I'd find in the US. Here, yeast is sold in small containers with lids and is actually quite cheap. I have to admit, I screwed up the calculation the first time I proofed my yeast and ended up with yeast bubbling over the small bowl. It was pretty funny. (I should have taken a picture of that!) I recalculated and found my mistake; now my pizza dough turns out just right every time.

We've even experimented to see which brand of mozzarella we like best. Everyone admits that Tuesdays are fun now, and Pizza Night has become one of their favorite nights of the week.

¡Buen provecho!

Sunday, October 14, 2007

A laid-back kinda Sunday

At about 6:00 this morning, Dan got up and opened the curtains and windows in our bedroom. We just laid in bed for a while and enjoyed the cool breeze and the radiant sunshine. Yes, sunshine!! It was so wonderful to see everything so fresh and green and light. Our spirits were lifted by the (albeit short-lived) disappearance of the storm clouds; such a beautiful start to the day.

After church we went out to lunch with some friends of ours to an Italian place in Escazú called La Fabbrica. The kids sat at one table, and we shared a second table with two other couples. The conversation was lively and the food was fantastic. (The girls each ordered thin crust, wood-fired margherita pizzas and both ate the whole thing—all 12 slices!) Dan and I are looking forward to trying out the tomato, mozzarella, and basil salad when we return for another meal.

After lunch (around 3pm—restaurant meals are generally long affairs here) we came home, and just outside our house we saw three great kiskadees sitting on some little trees. A great kiskadee is a fairly common bird in our area, about the size of a pigeon with a brilliant yellow breast and belly, and a white band blazing around his jet black head.

I haven’t yet purchased a Costa Rica birds field guide yet (though I plan to soon), but I’m fortunate enough to be in an online group with Henry Kantrowitz, a naturalist and cofounder of the Birding Club of Costa Rica. I described the birds to him, and he knew immediately what I was talking about. Above you can see the great kiskadee in a photo I got from Wikipedia.

To continue with weather updates: It’s been raining again this afternoon and tonight, but it’s softer rain and so we have the windows open and the lower temperature is very pleasant. Good weather for watching football on my couch and finishing my book. And best of all, tomorrow is a national holiday here—no school, no work, no worries.

¡Pura Vida!

Saturday, October 13, 2007

It’s raining, it’s pouring…this weather's getting boring.

All right, I don’t mean to complain, but well, I’ve just gotta be honest here about the weather we’ve been experiencing recently. We are at the height of the green season and awash in precipitation. Want to know why I’m not blogging about fabulous trips to exotic locales in Costa Rica? I’ll tell you why—we’re waiting for this weather to subside. There’s no sense in driving to a volcano if you can’t see the darn thing, right?

I’ve lived in a climate (hellooooo Seattle!) where the skies were cloudy all day, but I seem to recall the rain more as drizzly there. This is something else—I’m telling you, it’s a lot of rain!

So far, for the most part, I’ve enjoyed the green season. The mornings have been lovely and sunny, the afternoons wet, and the evenings clear and starry. I usually like rainstorms, and this pattern of sun, rain, and nighttime was nice and comforting.

We were warned that October was one of the rainiest months, and now we know that was no joke; everything is ultra-soggy. Rain during the day, rain during the night—mucha lluvia everywhere we go. The kids had school inside waterlogged clouds this last week, and our dehumidifier makes the rounds from room to room, filling up in fast time. A couple of nights ago Erin’s comforter was so damp I had to throw it in the clothes dryer for a few minutes. Hey, the temps have been fantastic, in the 60s and 70s. Trust me, amigos, it’s truly not the heat—it absolutely is the humidity.

A Tico friend of ours called on Wednesday to ask how we’re doing with the constant showers. He assured me that we are getting a lot more rain than normal this year (surprise!) and that oddly enough, in January and February we’ll be aching for a rainstorm—but mercifully, he added that by December the weather should be spectacular here in the valley.

I miss swimming in our pretty pool, admiring the verdant scenery, and enjoying the gorgeous Costa Rica mountains. And it's worrying hearing about all the people affected by devastating mudslides, floods, and washouts.

Sunny months ahead? Bring ‘em on!

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Fill ‘er up!

Not too long ago I was in Ohio, fussing about the skyrocketing price of gas and feeling the shock of paying big bucks at the pump.

While I still understand this frustration for friends and family in the US, my sympathy has waned in the last months as we've paid $50 to fill up the tank on an economy car. Gas prices are high here and going up. Regular is selling for about 584 colones a liter in Costa Rica—that’s about $4.25 a gallon for us gringos.

Interestingly enough, the price of gas isn’t published on giant marquees as it is in the US. You don’t know what you’ll pay until you pull up to the pump, but since the government regulates the price of gas, it doesn’t matter which gas station you frequent—a liter of gas costs the same throughout the nation.

These fixed prices eliminate driving around for a bargain—but even if prices were varied and published, gas stations are scarce enough once you leave highly populated areas of the central valley that when you see one, you’re just happy it’s there. (Even in the central valley there are not stations every few blocks, as often seen in the United States, and you need to know where the gas stations are.) We have seen maps on which the only landmarks are gasolineras.

Thankfully Dan no longer has a gas-guzzling commute and we have a couple of gas stations not far from here.

On the flip of all this is the nicest thing about getting gas in Costa Rica: The stations are all full-service, just like they used to be in the United States. You just tell the attendant what type of gas you’d like and he offers to check your oil, the air in your tires, or to clean your windshield. What a pleasure!

It’s too bad we haven’t seen a resurgence of full-service up north in the middle of winter. Chalk it up to one of the many things I will miss about Costa Rica when our time here ends.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Cotton candy in the sky

During the rainy season, the sky at dusk is typically overcast and dreary, often opening itself up with drizzles and downpours. Not so on Wednesday, when we were blessed with a breathtaking start to the night.

Erin and I looked out our back window as we were setting the table for dinner and were amazed. The sky was darkening—a clear, striking blue—and on a large stretch of the horizon were white, billowy clouds. They started to rise as we watched them in wonder, but in the photo I caught the top of the mountain shyly peeking from behind.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Can you hear me now?

We are using a cell phone that our landlady is providing until our landline is installed. There has been an order for the line for more than two months (the order sign posted in my street-facing window tells me so), and we have no choice but to wait for the line. ICE (“eee-say”) is the country’s telecommunications monopoly, and we’re at their mercy. ICE has a monopoly on power and cell phones, too.

You’d think that with a monopoly we’d pay a hefty price for phone service, but really it’s only about $9 a month for our cell phone—because ICE is government owned, it has a restricted pricing structure.

When we first came to Costa Rica there were waiting lists for new cell phone numbers. Now ICE says it has plenty of numbers available, and so we’re about ready to get a cell phone of our own.

While it’s frustrating not having a landline after so many weeks, and just one cell phone for our entire family at the moment, it’s great paying so little for our phone service each month.

And that’s no phoney baloney!