Sunday, October 26, 2008

Caribbean calling

By the time we hit mid-October in the rainy season, we are all desperate for sunny skies and warm, dry breezes. The girls had off a few days from school at CDS, so we fled the waterlogged valley for the beautiful Caribbean.

It’s hard to decide what to blog about this trip—there were so many small moments we’ll always remember, yet journaling them all would fill pages. With that in mind, here are some highlights of our time on the coast and a photo album (best viewed as a slideshow) of the first few days of our trip ...

We set out on a sopping wet Thursday morning. About 20 kilometers north of San Jose, we drove through the mountainous Braulio Carillo National Park, an area beyond lush—it’s a gorgeous tropical rainforest with rushing waterfalls, flowers, and towering trees.

Once we came down from the mountains, we bid a big ADIOS to the rain! The rest of the trip was relatively flat, taking us over numerous rivers and past bunches of banana plantations, where the fruit hung in blue bags from tree after tree. The scenery wasn’t like anything we’d seen yet in Costa Rica, but then again, the Caribbean is different from the rest of the country in many ways.

Though just a few hours from the central valley, the Caribbean seems worlds away. The coast is still relatively undeveloped and, because it was so remote for so long, has its own unique culture. There are reserves of indigenous peoples here, and many of the area’s inhabitants are descendants of Jamaican immigrants who came to work on the railroads and banana plantations. These immigrants shaped the culture, and the area has a Jamaican flavor in its music (plenty of reggae), food (much spicier and less-Tico), language (some speak an English-based patois which I find harder to understand than Spanish), drug culture (yes, we smelled marijuana while walking down a beachfront street in Puerto Viejo), and even style of dress (plenty of dreadlock-sporting Rastafarians here).

Eventually we passed the port city of Limón. This is where the container ships come in and where our household goods first landed in Costa Rica. Limón is the largest town on the country’s east coast—a rough-looking place that ships millions of pounds of bananas to the world each year. It’s not much of a tourist destination, and we drove along the city’s edge to the south, along the coast.

We passed by Cahuita and drove into Puerto Viejo, then another eight kilometers to Punta Uva. It’s an understatement to say the drive is bumpy and jarring from Puerto Viejo to the south. The roads here are “paved” in tiny sections—most of the road is dusty and full of rocks and massive potholes. This is hands-down the worst stretch of driving we’ve ever done in Costa Rica. Our trusty RAV4 took quite a beating on this trip.

Finally, we reached our hotel (a compound of single-story buildings with four rooms apiece) and headed right to the beach where we spent much of our time during the next few days. This is said to be one of the best beaches on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica and was refreshing and clear. There was plenty of coral and fish for snorkeling, and—perhaps most fun for everyone—we got to play with a lot of CDS families we know who were also escaping the valley for drier climes and beautiful beaches.

Our first night we had dinner with our friends the Irlenborns at Maxi’s in Manzanillo. Maxi’s is a popular hang-out about five kilometers south of Punta Uva, and the drive is on a two-lane road lined with dense jungle. The restaurant sits at the dead-end of a tiny town and the last settled area in Costa Rica before entering a wildlife reserve that encompasses a few kilometers between Manzanillo and Panama. We had good food and lots of fun with our friends in addition to spotting a bunch of geckos on the ceiling and a few cats prowling around, too. (We noticed there were a lot of cats in this part of the country, actually, which I loved since I still miss my buddy Charlie.)

Sleeping was comfortable since we stayed in one of the few places on the beach with air conditioning. (No mosquito nets for us!) I still woke up each night though to the sounds of howler monkeys traveling through the jungle. I’ve mentioned these vocal animals before, but it bears mentioning that the calls of a troop can carry for miles and are loud enough to wake me out of a sound sleep.

We had breakfast at the hotel’s open-air restaurant each day. One morning while eating her eggs, Erin spotted a sloth across the path near our room. Sloths rarely come down from their treetop homes, so this was a great surprise. We walked over to watch the three-toed creature s-l-o-w-l-y pull itself with its hands over the land and up the giant tree right outside our room. It was a fortunate opportunity to see this.

A few times on this vacation we drove into Puerto Viejo, which is truly Caribbean—steamy, sandy, and laid-back. It’s really hot in this surfers' hang-out, and people take life more slowly here. Between Punta Uva and Puerto Viejo we saw a lot of people walking and riding bicycles, nobody in much of a hurry to get anywhere.

On Friday at the beach, we met up with our friends the Muelas family from Spain. We snorkeled and swam with them, and that evening the eight of us had reservations at a fabulous restaurant in Cochles called La Pecora Nera—a mouthwatering taste of Italy on the edge of the Costa Rican jungle. Many travel guides and travelers agree that this beautiful, open-air restaurant has the best Italian food in the country. The owner is this exuberant, young Italian guy who was not only our chef but also part-time waiter who advised us—with a flourish—on what to order that night. It was a long, leisurely, and fantastic dining experience with a family whose company we truly enjoy.

The following morning we walked along the hotel path that leads to the main road. Surrounded by jungle, we saw blue morphos (love them!), turtles, crabs, and birds. The foliage here is so thick and wild, Dan commented that a person wouldn’t need to walk far into it before he or she might never come out.

Of course we parked ourselves at the beach after the walk for hours of swimming and relaxing in beach chairs under the palm trees (ah, heavenly!). We went to lunch with our Spanish friends that afternoon and, while there, decided to extend our vacation to do something unique, adventurous, and amazing. That story is to come in the next blog entry and will tell of one of our most memorable days here in Costa Rica!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

She's acclimated

It was 75 degrees in our house when I walked through the family room and saw Lauren wearing her knit cap and snuggled under a Mickey Mouse sleeping bag.

"It's kinda cold, Mom."

Bet she's really gonna like that first chilly day we get in Ohio next year!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

¿Se habla inglés?

You know what's weird? Last night I was browsing through TV channels while waiting for Dan's taxi to arrive from the airport and I stopped on an interesting-looking British movie. As I started watching it, I realized I was reading the subtitles. And not just because I can't help reading them—which is often the case—but because I had to.

Yeah, the movie was in English, but in all fairness to me this wasn't the Queen's English. The accents of a couple of characters were so thick I had a hard time understanding what was being said. So I used subtitles. Spanish subtitles. To understand a movie in English.

Once I realized what I was doing I felt kinda freaked out and turned the TV off in favor of a book.

A few times I've watched French movies by reading the Spanish subtitles, but usually after a while my brain gets tired or I get bored. Of course this is almost always at night and is a significant violation of the English-only television-viewing zone rules of the house, so I should know better!

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Random thoughts on late-night TV

Sometimes near the end of the day, Dan and I relax in front of the TV—maybe watch a little news or catch the second half of CSI. More often than not we have a TV language rule by this hour: nothing in Spanish. No soccer (definitely no soccer!), no dubbed sitcoms, no Latin American talk shows—nada. It’s an English-only television-viewing zone, and thankfully—with gratitude to the magic button on our remote that removes dubbing from certain shows—we have a handful of decent American channels from which to choose.

So what if we’ve already seen every episode of Seinfeld a zillion times? Who cares that the rerun of Law & Order is from the days of Lenny Briscoe and Ben Stone? We can get some of these old shows plus Fox News and CNBC—which is what we most commonly watch—and in a pinch, we’ll even watch local news for Denver, the city that provides our network feed.

Dan’s traveling a lot this month, so I’ve been reading at night or hanging out here on the computer hoping to catch him on IM. The no-English TV stuff has been less of an issue. (Though I gotta admit, I did catch an episode of Growing Pains—circa 1987—the other night. Too bad it wasn’t the episode with Brad Pitt, but I still enjoyed the Seavers’ antics. And Wow! Check out that big ‘80s hair!)

Of course mostly what’s on TV now is election coverage stuff, and we’re starting to burn out on that a bit. (We’ve already voted—and yeah, it’s important to stay on top of what’s going on, but it’s not like I’m gonna call the United States and ask to change my ballot, right?) Tonight I’ll watch the debate and all the pundits taking jabs at the candidates and each other afterwards. It’s almost like I’m rubbernecking after an accident on I-75. I want to look away for a while but just can’t.

Overall, we watch less TV here than in the US. We don’t have DVR, we don’t have high def (which we desperately miss during football season) and we have a much smaller selection of choices when it comes to programming. I miss the DVR (because really, who wants to watch commercials?) and certainly we are looking forward to the return of HD when we move back to the States, but other than that, the limited selection is OK. Though I admit we draw the line for watching American shows at MacGyver. (Talk about hair styles of the ‘80s!)

I really do wish we could get the US version of SportsCenter on ESPN, but I won't complain (at least not too loudly or too often!).

Friday, October 03, 2008

The whirlybird coincidence

My friend Joelle and I were returning from a shopping trip when we saw a neighbor out walking her dog. We stopped to chat, but our brief conversation was interrupted when a thunderous, low-flying helicopter flew right over Joelle’s car and—to our complete surprise—landed in an empty lot right here in the neighborhood.

We all looked at each other in disbelief, and then of course I had to get out and take a couple of pictures—because really, this was a very unusual thing. A man got out of the helicopter and hurried down the side of the field; then the pilot took off. It all happened very quickly.

Later we told friends about the helo, and everyone agreed that it landing in this area was a weird occurrence. We all wondered what the helicopter was doing in our neighborhood and who it belonged to.

Fast forward to a couple of days later … Dan, the girls, and I went to a surprise birthday party for our friend Angie. The fiesta was up in the hills of Escazú at the home of friends Angie knows from church.

Shortly after the party began, we introduced ourselves to the hosts, David and Laurie. We found out that they are developing houses in our neighborhood, just down the street from here. I told David about the crazy helicopter sighting and asked if he had an idea what was going on.

He had an idea, all right. A really clear idea. Because—as it turns out—David is the helicopter pilot. He was dropping off an employee to work on the construction site in the housing development.

Before we even moved to Costa Rica, we learned in our cultural training and from other Ticos that one has to be very careful not to insult other Costa Ricans or businesses or restaurants, because Costa Rica is a little country, and at times it seems everybody knows (or is related to!) everybody else. Someone is always a friend of a friend, a cousin, a best amigo … I mean really, here we are not even Ticos and it is just such a funny coincidence that we met the helicopter pilot and figured out the connection to his landing in our neighborhood so quickly. In Costa Rica, it really is a small world, after all.

He was pretty amused that I took pictures of his helicopter, too!

¡ Pura coincidencia!