Friday, November 30, 2007

Saturday, in the park…

We demonstrated our prowess as skilled beachcombers again on Saturday morning. This time Lauren rode Dan's shoulders—the perfect vantage point for spotting sand dollars. We collected more than eighty in all, many of which made it back to Santa Ana unscathed.

We spent most of this relaxing day at the third beach in Manuel Antonio—it was the perfect day for it, the beach was gorgeous, and the water temperature was ideal. Dan and I commented that we truly felt like we were in paradise.

The girls tried out their new snorkel kits, and Dan and Erin did a little snorkeling out by the rocks. They didn’t see as much as they’d have liked because of the waves, so we’re hoping to go to a spot specifically for snorkeling once Lauren gets more proficient at it (she has been practicing in the pool here at home). Erin is a natural.

We saw several animals at the beach, including a raccoon family with four or five adorable babies. They looked like a pack of robbers with their black masks as they scampered around, hoping to forage in an unsuspecting swimmer's backpack. We had hung our things in a tree on the beach slightly over the water, hoping they’d be safer from sly raccoons—but of course we had to keep our eyes out for those sneaky monkeys, too.

After a day in the sand and sun, we went to Mi Lugar (known as Ronny’s Place) for dinner. The food was tasty, the view was outstanding, and—bonus!—they placed all songs from the 80s on the speakers, too. (What more can one want?)

We returned to our bungalow just in time for the sunset. Everyone sat on the porch and we talked, watched the bats fly by, and were visited by a few jumpy frogs, too.

All four of us stayed up a little later that night, not realizing that we’d have company soon. Dan and I both awoke at 11:45 to the loudest, craziest noise—howler monkeys! It’s incredible how ear-splitting a group of rowdy howler monkeys can be. Only Lauren slept through the seemingly endless racket which continued for an hour. The next morning we confirmed with our Costa Rican neighbor that what we heard were monkeys. Oh yes, he nodded knowingly, “los monos” were the source of the ruckus.

Dan and I went for a short walk on the beach alone on Sunday morning. (The kids were too tired—we did it! We completely wore them out!!). We were all a bit sad to pack up and leave the beach, but it was time to get home. After a short drive on the road, we stopped in Jacó for breakfast at a Colombian restaurant and resumed our Sunday drive on a lovely day.

You can click here to see more photos of our trip.

¡Pura Vida!

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Monkeying around on the day after Thanksgiving

Read the blog before or after viewing the pictures—you choose. Here's the photo album for day two of our Thanksgiving vacation (I recommend the slideshow).

We woke early on our first full day of vacation—around 6am, which is when we normally get up here in Costa Rica. Everyone’s first thought was to head for the beach to check for creatures in tide pools and shells to take home. We especially wanted to find sand dollars after noticing the large collection of sand dollars the owners of the bungalow had displayed in a bowl on the table.

It took a while, but I found the first sand dollar. Then Dan found one, then both of the girls…it seemed suddenly that they were everywhere and we were the mighty sand dollar hunters, all aiming for the most treasures. Erin found six at once! We walked the beach for two hours and returned to our cabin with a full pail.

After a filling breakfast of eggs, gallo pinto, and empanadas in our little kitchen, we headed south to Manuel Antonio National Park—one of the top destinations for anyone visiting Costa Rica and something we’ve been anxious to see since we first learned we were moving.

On our way we crossed a couple of wild bridges (see the previous blog) that had our hearts pounding. After one bridge crossing we saw a family selling pipas (coconuts) with straws stuck in them.

We also saw a couple of guys—at different times—cruising the highway on bikes and wielding their long-handled machetes. We nicknamed these fellows Grim Reapers on Bicycles.

After passing some great landscape and small villages, we entered the beach town of Quepos and made our way up the hillside into the absolutely gorgeous Manuel Antonio. Dan and I loved this drive, where the windy road is lined with eclectic shops, restaurants, and hotels. A few times we noticed authentic streets signs telling drivers to slow down—each accompanied by a silhouette of a person, dog, sloth, and monkey.

After a few miles we came to the end of the road. Here the sides of the street were lined with cars and vendors on the beach. The road made a loop, and there was a beach at the end and a small tree-, rock-, and mud-filled parking area. Unbelievably, this was the lot for those visiting the park. It was certainly a different experience from visiting a national park in the United States—no maps to purchase, no gift shops, no commercialism. Frankly, we weren’t even sure we were at the park at first.

To get to the park itself, one has to walk across the beach and then can choose either to wade through the Camaronera stream or take a small rowboat to access the rainforest of Manuel Antonio. We weren’t in beachwear, so we took the boat (thankfully one of the guides in the boat kept bailing, since there was a leak). At this point we had also decided to spend the extra money ($20 each) to have a park guide with us. Our guide’s name was Henry—he was a Tico who spoke good English and carried a telescope. Without him and his trusty scope we wouldn’t have seen a lot of what we did.

Incidentally, it is about $7 for a non-resident tourist to enter Manuel Antonio, but for us (we’re now official, card-carrying residents!) it was only about $2 each—a cheap price to visit a park with fantastic beaches, beautiful rainforest, and more than 100 mammal species.

We hadn’t even entered the park when we saw our first monkey in a tree. And once we were in the park—WOW! On this day we saw monkeys, several kinds of lizards, sloths, coatimundis, a kingfisher, bats, giant grasshoppers, even a crocodile! You can see pictures of all these cool animals and plants too (beautiful palms, guava trees, banana leaves, the poisonous manzanillo trees that burn if you touch them, bamboo…) on the online photo album. The pictures truly are worth a thousand words—I can’t do justice to how amazing this experience was.

Of all the animals, the monkeys undoubtedly put on the best show. At one point near the beach we ran across a monkey who had stolen a package of crackers from someone (naughty monkey!). His monkey buddies were chasing him through the trees trying to get a snack, but the cracker monkey did not want to share. When he dropped a cracker and the guy next to me picked it up, the monkey got mad. He was behind Erin and me, and when Dan told us to turn around and we saw this creature baring his teeth, we jumped (but then I got a great picture before I beat a hasty exit!).

Another neat creature we saw was the Jesus Christ lizard, aptly named because he is so fast he can literally run across the water.

How about the howler monkeys? They were probably at least a mile or two away when we heard their bellowing, and wow was it loud!

Unfortunately we did not get to see a toucan on this trip; apparently they are rare to see other than in January and February when they are nesting.

We hiked for about two and half hours until we decided the girls’ legs were wearing out and it was time to get something to eat. We had the most incredible time on our first trip to Manuel Antonio—and still can’t believe we saw all these animals in their natural habits.

For our late lunch/early dinner, we visited a unique restaurant called El Avión (The Plane). The eatery is centered around a Fairchild C-123—an aircraft previously owned by the CIA that played a major role in the scandalous Iran-Contra Affair of the mid-80s. The owners of the restaurant bought the plane in 2000, disassembled it into seven sections, and shipped it to its current location in Quepos on the side of a cliff. Here it has become part of this restaurant with tasty seafood, frequent animal sightings (we saw monkeys and a mama and baby sloth), and breathtaking views of the ocean and rainforest. There is even a small bar inside the plane’s fuselage.

The girls really liked this place—they had straws with cute little paper fruits in their drinks, which was totally cool, they said. The food was excellent and we had fried calamari with a fruity-ginger sauce for an appetizer. Lauren liked it quite a bit and was shocked when I told her calamari is seafood (I didn’t go so far as to tell her it’s squid).

After returning to our bungalow, the girls enjoyed playing on the beach, while Dan and I relaxed and admired the brilliant sunset over the ocean. Everyone fell asleep early again—another busy day was to come.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The bridges of Puntarenas Province

While the country’s major highways are certainly an improvement over the streets we drive in town, they are still a far cry from the interstates of the US. It’s not unusual for buses to stop on the highway to pick someone up at seemingly random points. People walk on the extremely narrow shoulders—sometimes three and four people across, they stray onto the highway itself. Women walk here with babies and children, people ride their bicycles, dirt bikes, and horses right down the road. We’ve seen oxen on the highway, pulling carts—and on this trip we met up with a man walking his cows the wrong way on the highway, directly toward us. It’s just hard to believe, sometimes.

There are often few to no line markings, safety signs, or even shoulders on the highway. But there are frequent potholes, drop-offs without guardrails, and areas where the road has fallen away. One time we saw a part of the highway missing and the only marking was a huge stick poking out of the lane with a rag hanging on it.

So back to our trip…the road from Jacó to Manuel Antonio was undoubtedly the best we have seen in Costa Rica thus far. It was wide, lined, and relatively smooth in most places (where the road was bad, there were signs indicating “carretera en mal estado”—highway in bad shape). Yet it wasn’t the road itself that freaked out three of the four members of our family (Lauren is nearly unflappable), it was the temporary bridges. The "You Have Got to Be Kidding Me, I’m Not Going Over That!!!" bridges.

I sent one picture earlier of the suspension bridge between Puriscal and Orotina. We thought this bridge was a bit extreme. We couldn’t have been more wrong. I now think that bridge is a piece of cake.

Moving on…We approached our first true Bridge of Doom on the south side of Parrita. Rumor has it that this bridge has been under construction for many years. We waited in a line of traffic to cross with no idea what we were in for. As we got closer, we saw big commercial trucks going over. Later it occurred to me that (1) if these huge vehicles could cross, the bridge must be safe, and (2) those huge trucks were just weakening the bridge for the rest of us who had to drive across.

Just before the bridge, there is a sign that says “puente angosto.” This means “narrow bridge,” but I really think the “angosto” is a cognate for “angst.” The Bridge of Angst would be a most appropriate moniker: This incredible feat of engineering was truly a one-lane wonder.

Pictures don’t do the bridge justice, nor do words, but both will have to suffice to describe this seemingly ancient—definitely rickety!—railroad bridge, which has rails placed width-wise to use as the driving surface with planks in place for the tire tracks. The rails were not secured to the support beams beneath, and we could see them shifting under the pressure of the vehicles ahead. In some places the rails were permanently bent toward the water 50 feet below—not exactly reassuring to those traversing the bridge. Click here for photos of the suspension bridge near Orotina and more pictures of the Bridge of Doom in Parrita.

The second bridge is further south, closer to Quepos. This bridge was worse than the first. When we saw the sign “puente en construccion adelante” (bridge under construction ahead) we knew it couldn’t be good.

We crossed these two bridges eight times on this trip, but the most unnerving was the final time as we headed north. The truck in front of us stopped on the bridge and the driver got out. I told Dan that if I heard a clanking noise I was going to lose it. Sure enough, the sound of metal hitting metal rang out; the man was adjusting one of the planks which must have shifted dangerously from the previous vehicle. It was so unbelievable that I exploded with nervous, rather maniacal laughter the entire way across.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Giving thanks in Costa Rica

There wasn’t any snow, nor was there a Macy’s parade, or even Green Bay football for us on our first Thanksgiving here in Central America. The kids had time off from school, and Dan took vacation days from work, so we decided to forgo the turkey with all the fixings and instead set off on a family adventure: a trip down the Pacific coast to the beach and Manuel Antonio National Park.

Here’s a snapshot of the first day of our memorable vacation, accompanied by a small online photo album, best viewed as a slideshow. (Additional entries about this vacation to follow….)

We began our trip by climbing up from the valley and into the mountains. It was a beautiful morning, and the landscape was incredibly lush and green, dotted with tropical flowers and farms. Included in this variety of interesting vegetation were trees we nicknamed ginger trees, as the trunks looked like giant ginger roots.

We passed through few towns, most notably Cuidad Colón and the picturesque Santiago de Puriscal (where we stopped twice to ask directions, as the roads are not named or marked, and maps are nearly non-existent), and then began a trek on twisting trails through some awesome, mountainous country. I should note, the last time we passed through the mountains to the coast we took a different route—one with much more traffic, lots of buses and mammoth trucks, and too many drop-offs (no guard rails!) on skinny roads for my liking. It’s scary driving along a mountain “highway” where part of the road has washed out and a massive tour bus is barreling down the adjacent lane in your direction. The route we took on this trip, recommended by our friend Paul, was remarkably better.

The highway (two-lane, but paved) is narrow, and commercial traffic is prohibited on the route from Puriscal to Orotina, making the trip much more relaxing and enjoyable. Reasons for this became even more evident when, just before reaching Orotina, we came upon a narrow, one-lane suspension bridge. (The bridges we saw on this trip merit their own blog entry, coming soon—stay tuned for more photos that won’t disappoint.)

Once past Orotina, we stopped for a break at the Rio Tárcoles. We’d been here before—an area rumored to have one of the highest concentrations of crocodiles in the world—and knew we’d see plenty of crocs from our safe vantage point on the bridge spanning the river. Dan got some good photos of these and also saw a cow standing near the water’s edge, which he quickly labeled “target.”

From the river, we continued our drive down the coast until we came to Playa Bejuco (Bejuco Beach), between Jacó and Quepos. Here in this beautiful open coastal town we found the quiet little beach bungalow we’d rented for the trip. We unpacked quickly, had lunch at a nearby restaurant (one of the few in the area), and headed to the huge expanse of nearly deserted beach. (It looks ominously dark in the photos, but it was just a little overcast and nearing nightfall. The sun sets around dinnertime in Costa Rica, year-round.) Dan and I especially enjoyed watching the girls play a made-up game of “Drop Zone” on their “own private island” and seeing little crabs working furiously on the beach and popping in and out of their holes in the sand.

We drove into Parrita for dinner at an Italian restaurant where we all had Thanksgiving pie—pizza pie, of course! We met the owner, a friendly Italian fellow, and enjoyed a bit of conversation with him before heading back to our bungalow (Spanish being the common language between us). The girls slept on an air mattress in the kitchen, while Dan and I fell asleep early in the adjoining bedroom. We knew the following day was to bring exciting new experiences for us all.

This Thanksgiving our family has so much to be thankful for, not the least of which is the gift of opportunity to share our lives together on this incredible adventure of living in Costa Rica. We’re grateful for a God that loves us, family at home who we treasure, friends old and new alike, and blessings too numerous to name.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Put a little jelly on the Bimbo

Our most-purchased brand of bread in Costa Rica? Bimbo. All you non-Spanish speakers say it with me: BEEM-bo.

Yep, it’s the most popular sandwich bread around. We see Bimbo ads scrawled across trucks, billboards, even clothing. Erin loves it; she wants a shirt that says Bimbo.

I told her she could get one only if she promises never to wear it in the United States. Girl's gotta keep her reputation, you know.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Getting clean the Tico way

We're ever so grateful for the hot water heater in our home. Plumbed-in hot water, even in bathrooms, is not the norm in Costa Rica. Many Ticos are accustomed to cool, brisk showers in the morning (sure to wake up any sleepyhead!), but those without hot water heaters who long for something more soothing do have an option: the suicide shower.

This scary contraption, rumored to be common throughout much of Latin America, has a well-earned name; it hooks up to the shower head where coils heat the water just before it rains down. Wires are exposed, an electrical current is flowing through them...water and voltage—a potentially lethal combination!

I've heard stories (and I believe them) about people receiving shocks while shampooing or seeing blue flashes from the shower head.

Lest you think I'm enjoying a hearty laugh at your expense, allow me to share some proof. Here are a couple of pictures sent to me, by request, from my expat friends on my Costa Rica Yahoo group:

There you have it: the suicide shower. Talk about invigorating—there's nothing like risking electrocution for hot water in the morning!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

A heaping plate of what?

Friday was filled with anticipation for Lauren and her friend Isabel. Thoughout the day the two whispered excitedly about their after-school play date at Isabel’s house.

When we picked Lauren up at 6:30, she told us about her afternoon. She and her friend ran to the playground, made up a game involving a giant boulder and a soccer ball, and dressed up like princesses. Lauren happily relayed that she and her adorable Spanish friend have a lot in common (even their favorite color—yellow) and are the best of friends…but for one thing. Isabel’s family was going to have octopus for supper. “And Isabel LIKES octopus!” said my daughter in disbelief.

Lauren swears she saw Isabel’s mom chop the head off the octopus and that she counted all eight tentacles. “There were like a hundred suction cups!”

A cheer went up from the back seat when I told my little girl our family was having lasagna—not octopus—for dinner. She was saved; we'd picked her up just in the nick of time.

Monday, November 05, 2007

¡Vivan los Empacadores!

Anytime we get the Packers on TV in Costa Rica is a good time—no matter that a game may be broadcast in Spanish, as it was yesterday when we were treated to los Empacadores de Green Bay rivaling los Jefes de Kansas City.

Yep, those are their Spanish names. So funny to hear the Packers called los Empacadores. So unusual to hear names like Brett Favre and Donald Driver thrown in with the all-Español broadcast. So wonderful to hear the announcer exclaim, "¡Que bonita la recepción!" when Favre passed to Jennings in the fourth quarter.

Wondering what your team is known as in the Spanish-speaking world of American football? Here are a few more team names, for fun...

Bengalíes de Cincinnati
Osos de Chicago
Vikingos de Minnesota
Acereros de Pittsburgh
Vaqueros de Dallas
Carneros de San Louis
Gigantes de Nueva York

We've left behind a lot of things we love in the United States to pursue our Costa Rican adventure, but we are very grateful—and admittedly relieved—that we haven't had to miss this so-far glorious season of Green Bay football.

!Pura Fútbol Americano!

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Knock, knock, knock…Halloween!

Costa Rica has an abundance of far-out freaky legends to scare the pants off little Ticos. Next to these haunting tales passed down through the ages, our gringo-imported Halloween is just a fabulous candy-fest and the perfect excuse to dress up, now enjoyed here in Costa Rica by families in expat-heavy communities.

Our kids were thrilled to continue their lifelong Halloween tradition—it’s the allure of the sugar, of course.

Last Friday we went to Halloween Family Night at school (remember, it’s an American school), to enjoy trick-or-treating, games, and pizza. For many of the CDS kids, this was their first experience with Halloween. This was the case for our neighbors from Argentina, whose children were tickled to don costumes and get sacks of candy just for being cute.

The middle school kids decorated all the classroom doors, and the elementary students—under the guise of witches, princesses, cowboys, and skeletons—wandered the darkened school grounds to collect their goodies. The older kids were very creative with their door decorating and their own costumes, and we saw some teachers dressed up too. Everyone’s favorite principal, Mr. Large, even made an appearance as Shrek.

Once our girls secured their loot, we decided not to wait in the big line for pizza and instead went to our favorite pizza place, La Fabbrica. It was a gorgeous night and we sat in the open-air restaurant and noshed on great food, saw a few other familiar faces from school, and had some good family time together. I’m sure the wait staff wondered why Dan and I showed up for dinner at their restaurant with a world-class surgeon in scrubs and a rambunctious little puppy with floppy brown ears.

Fast forward to Wednesday, a rainy Halloween night! A Tica in our neighborhood passed out flyers to see who wanted to participate in Halloween, and of course we accepted. We hung black and orange balloons outside the house to let everyone know we were open for business. Then while Dan handed out candy, I took the girls from door to door.

After our first house, we met up with another family. As our children approached the next door together, mine called out “trick-or-treat!” while the others shouted out “Halloween!” Whaaaa? What was this? I looked at the other mom and she explained that nobody understands what “trick-or-treat” means, so the little Tico kids just call out “Halloween!”

I had to hold back the laughter, it was so funny. The more I heard these kids yelling “Halloween!” at the doors, the more amused I was. I also had to suppress giggles when one mom commented on what a shame it was to be so cold on Halloween (the temp was about 65 degrees). I told her I’ve seen snow on Halloween, and she was in disbelief. I’m learning that a lot of people I meet here really have no concept of snow and how cold “cold” truly is. But hey, if 65 degrees is cold on Halloween, my family can brave the weather.

We didn’t have as many houses to visit as usual—and the girls didn’t do their “speed trick-or-treating” in a big subdivision with Dan this year, as is tradition—but the kids were very happy with their haul. To their delight, Costa Ricans are more than generous with the amount and type of candy they hand out.

After the trick-or-treating we met up with several other families in our community clubhouse for pizza (yes, more pizza—people love pizza here, I’m telling you). The kids ran around and played games and ate too much candy and too much pizza, while Dan and I had a chance to talk with our neighbors and get a late supper. We were the only Americans there, I might add—kind of funny considering it was a Halloween celebration—but we had a chance to practice our Spanish (always a challenge when I’m talking to the Argentineans!) and find out what’s going on in the neighborhood.

The girls were excited to call Grandma and Grandpa when we got home and tell them about their night. My poor little Lauren puppy’s eyes were drooping as I prompted her to say goodnight and hand me the phone.

On a final note, there was serious bartering going on in our kitchen last night, as Dan was trading gum suckers with the kids for candy he wanted from their stash. Let me tell you, the three of them are some tough customers, and all of Dan’s Halloween candy was hard-earned through real negotiations. I think if it were acceptable for a 6’3” kid to travel from house to house in costume, Dan would do it solely for the chocolate and Skittles.