Sunday, April 27, 2008

Road rash

Temps this week have been the hottest we can recall in the valley—ideal days for swimming. Unfortunately for Erin, she came home from school on Thursday with big, blood-stained pads of gauze taped to both knees. The kids’ school is built on the side of a hill, and Erin was heading down a concrete sidewalk when she wiped out. Both knees have two nasty scrapes (and this picture is three days later; thankfully the knees are starting to look better).

Of course there’s no way we’re letting her in the pool, even with the bandages on (I’m so glad I bought the box of super-large Band-Aids last summer). The ban on swimming was really the pits yesterday when Erin’s friends were visiting our neighborhood pool. Dan and Lauren went to swim while Erin and I made cookie bars for this week’s lunches.

Nothing like a warm chocolate chip treat (yes, we splurged on pricey chocolate chips—hey, desperate times call for desperate measures) out of the oven to soothe what ails a 10-year-old.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Facing frustrations

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.” —George Bernard Shaw

“But what if a reasonable person is trying to adapt to something unreasonable?” —Me

A friend told me that in the United States one dies of stress, while here in Costa Rica one dies of frustration. We laugh about it, but there is a grain of truth to this notion. While life is markedly more hurried at home, here it’s important—if one wants to maintain some semblance of sanity—to adjust to the slower culture and adopt a more tolerant, patient attitude.

Accustomed to the efficiency of the US, I get frustrated at having a dishwasher sit on the kitchen floor for two weeks while construction workers show up at random to fix the hole in the wall—you know, the hole where the dishwasher connects to the plumbing that was installed five centimeters too high according to the plumber?

Adapting is going for nearly an entire weekend without water, which is what just happened to us—and not for the first time. Costa Rica runs on hydroelectric power, and apparently the water is sometimes shut off during the dry season to help avoid brownouts (which we have also experienced). In the US, I’d be on the phone with the water company trying to find out what’s going on and how quickly water service will resume. Here, the idea of calling with that question is nearly laughable. The water will go on when it comes on, and we just go with the flow (or lack thereof).

Remember our waiting list for a landline telephone? We’re still on the list. We honestly do not think we will ever have a landline while we are living here. I don’t like it, but I don’t dwell on it, even though cell phone service is spotty. See how well I’m adjusting?

The ultimate in aggravation is surely the lack of maps and street signs in this country. And knowing that you could stop and ask for directions and, because a Costa Rican does not want to hurt anyone’s feelings or be unhelpful, the directions you receive may be wrong.

Just when I think I’ve truly embraced the Pura Vida lifestyle, something happens—not even necessarily maddeningly frustrating, it could be something minor—and the dam of built-up frustration bursts, while my all-American self comes shining through. I share what’s bugging me with Dan or an American friend in Costa Rica and we shake our heads, commiserate, and eventually laugh at the absurdity of it all. Culture shock isn’t always the extreme sense of anxiety you might imagine; in fact, it happens routinely here to us as we go about our daily lives.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Pruning the palms

When running through our neighborhood, it’s tempting to seek shade in the palm trees' shadows and out of the hot sun; yet we know better. On windy days, we occasionally hear a crash outside our house as a heavy, dying palm branch plummets to the ground—and we’re always glad nobody was below the tree when the frond fell.

Thankfully, the gardeners come by once in a while to prune the browning fronds from the trees. The palms are tall, so the workers have rigged an ultra-long pole with a blade securely attached to it with tape. With the blade, they remove the menacing fronds just waiting for a gust of wind to blow them down.

By the way, we are at the end of the dry season and just heading into rainy season; you can see how the grass in the field is just starting to get a little green. Soon everything will be lush and beautiful (and wet!).

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Colas, sodas, and what’s on the menu

Here’s a little tidbit about eating and drinking in Costa Rica, with a Spanish lesson thrown in for fun.

If you’re looking for a bubbly beverage here in ticolandia, don’t ask for a cola. In Costa Rica, a tail—whether on an animal or a ponytail in the hair—is called a cola (sounds just like the cola you drink).

Perhaps you could order a soda? Not here. A small restaurant that serves traditional, inexpensive Costa Rican food is called a soda (yep, sounds just like the soda you drink). These little sodas are all over the place, even in remote areas of the country where one wonders how the soda gets its supplies and who is eating there. Anything but fancy, sodas often are sometimes just simple support structures with tin roofs or tarps overhead, as you can see was the case at Soda El Mango where we had lunch on a Manuel Antonio beach.

Sodas serve comida típica—typical/traditional tico food—which relies on local agriculture and cultural tradition. These very modest eateries sometimes don’t even offer menus to diners since it’s known they serve native dishes.

Typical tico dishes such as gallo pinto (a mixture of rice and beans) and casados are the norm. Casado means married, and casado plates are marriages of food to make a meal: rice, beans, a salad of some kind (perhaps heart of palm or cabbage and carrots), fried plantains, and some kind of meat or poultry. My favorite soda food is chifrijo—a combination of chicarrones (fried pork), frijoles (beans), rice, pico de gallo and some other yummy stuff that tastes fantastic.

Eating at soda is a great way to immerse oneself into the tico culture while getting a filling meal at a fair price.

So what do you ask for if you’re thirsty? A carbonated beverage is most often called by its actual name: Coca (for Coca Cola), Coca Light, Fanta … you get the idea. There are oodles of fruit juices here. Coconut milk—sipped from a coconut through a straw—is sometimes sold along well-traveled roads. And of course coffee is king in Costa Rica.

Our favorite drinks are the refrescos—sweet, satisfying concoctions made of liquefied, fresh fruit blended with either water or milk. These traditional drinks are available in loads of flavors such as watermelon, mango, strawberry, blackberry, tamarind, passion fruit, guanabana, and cas. Our favorites are watermelon and strawberry.

If you’re brave enough to try something that really packs a punch, sip a bit of guaro, the national liquor of Costa Rica made from distilled sugar cane.To minimize production of bootlegged guaro, the tico government nationalized the manufacturing of the stuff with the Fabrica Nacional de Licores-Fanal, offering Cacique, the only legal brand of guaro, since the mid 1800s. Just don’t become a guaro vaquero (guaro cowboy)—someone who’s had too much too drink and acts like an obnoxious fool!

There are plenty of other drinks available here in Costa Rica, but perhaps the best news is that you can safely drink tap water here, which is not the case in many Latin American countries. It's freeing not having to worry about what's in the water and makes eating and drinking much simpler.


Wednesday, April 09, 2008

A sense of belonging

Recently I was standing in the checkout line at a supermarket near my house. The employee who was scanning my groceries recognized me and greeted me by name, which made me smile.

As I waited for her to tally my purchases, I began singing quietly to the song playing in the store. Before long I wasn’t the lone vocalist, and I turned to grin at the guy next to me—a tico with flamboyant clothes and a faux-hawk who owns the salon a few doors down and occasionally cuts the girls’ hair. He has a very cute little dog named Paris who runs around the strip mall and is so fashionable he gets his tail dyed—usually pink or light orange. The kids love to see Paris and we usually stop for a moment to tell him hello or give him a scratch behind the ears.

In line behind the hairstylist was my beautiful, friendly pharmacist who is always helpful and lets me speak Spanish with her even though her English is excellent and I sometimes fumble with unfamiliar medical terms.

So there I was, sharing a friendly connection to all three people around me. I am part of my neighborhood; I am recognized. This is my home away from home, and while I have made some special and invaluable American friends here, it feels really good to have established relationships with ticos in my community.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Manuel Antonio in March

Our first spring break destination outside the valley was Manuel Antonio—both the park and the town. We visited the park last Thanksgiving, and it was so amazing we had to take my parents there, too.

Our lodging was a private villa on a cliff with a breathtaking view of the Pacific Ocean, framed by a canopy of trees that’s home to tropical birds, sloths, monkeys, and lizards. We enjoyed relaxing on the deck and listening to the surf as we soaked in our surroundings.

During our stay at the villa, my parents got a taste of authentic life in Costa Rica. Their suicide shower wasn’t working until the last day of our visit (after a handyman came to replace it) and the power in Manuel Antonio went out several times—once while we were dining out (thankfully by candlelight). These snags, which would be unexpected and unacceptable in the US, are common here and a reminder that we live in a developing country.

Boogie at the beach
To get to the beach—just a half mile from the villa—we drove down a path of indescribably rough terrain (four-wheel drive required!) and parked on the sand at the bottom. I’ve never felt ocean water at such a perfect temperature, and swimming was a welcome activity each afternoon since Manuel Antonio is hot and humid at this time of year. Dad rented a boogie board, and nearly all of us had a go at wave riding.

Horsin’ around
Our first night we ate dinner at a large, open-air place in Quepos called El Gran Escape (The Great Escape), which, in its former life, was both a brothel and a cervecería (place to buy beer). An authentic tope—or horse parade—was happening in the main street just outside the restaurant. In this festive atmosphere, Costa Ricans proudly display their high-stepping horses while others cheer them on and music plays.

Manuel Antonio National Park
Sunday was spent at the national park. We arrived early to avoid crowds, see the animals before their afternoon siestas, and enjoy hiking before the equatorial sun blazed too hot. The last time we visited was at the end of the rainy season when we crossed the water in a boat to reach the park; this time, nearing the end of the dry season, we walked through hot sand to reach the park’s entrance.

We loved showing Mom and Dad what we’d learned on our last visit, and it was great to see some new things too—like the tell-tale turtle tracks on the beach that Dad spotted. We also tackled a new, more difficult trail for hiking: Punta Catedral (Cathedral Point), an outcropping of land that was once an island but now connects to the mainland by a natural land bridge. This hike of about an hour took us up a steep incline through dense jungle. It was a challenging (and sweaty!) climb, but it was so beautiful and unique, it was worth it—especially when we saw the view of the ocean, far above the surf pounding rocks below.

More monkeys
We saw plenty of wildlife on our trip, both while in the park and elsewhere. A highlight was the huge troop of squirrel—or titi—monkeys as they migrated past our villa early one morning. These fun little monkeys are incredibly cute as they swing through the canopy, gripping branches with their tails and then launching their small bodies to nearby trees. They’re also a vulnerable species, so we felt very lucky to see so many—including a few mamas with their babies firmly attached to their backs. Many monkeys ran across the roof of the deck, and one peered over the edge to get a closer look at us. (A capuchin monkey had done the same thing the day before, with his eye on Erin’s ginger cookie!)

While we heard howler monkeys several times throughout our travels, these noisy creatures did not wake us in the middle of the night with their roaring, as they did on our last trip to the area.

Isla Damas
On Monday morning, we toured the protected inland waterways of the Damas Island estuary. We traveled with our knowledgeable guide Eduardo to the sleepy town of Isla Damas, just north of bustling Quepos. There we boarded a canopied boat for a morning trip through a unique ecosystem nestled in a lush mangrove forest.

We made our way through a maze of narrow channels of brackish water surrounded by amazing African palms, loads of plants and trees, and impressive red and black mangroves. We saw a variety of marine birds, crabs, lizards, and even the rare-to-spot silky anteater napping in a tree. But the best—no surprise here—were the playful monkeys who came right up to our boat and jumped on the roof, let us touch their hands, and provided fantastic entertainment for their human guests.

Valley bound
After three nights, we left tropical Manuel Antonio for Santa Ana. The ride home was scenic and uneventful (always a blessing!), and we were glad to return to the cool, breezy valley we love.

Click here to see a photo album of our trip (best viewed as a slideshow). ¡Pura vida!