Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A gift from my girl

Erin has been growing her long hair for months with the intention of donating it to Pantene Beautiful Lengths, an organization that has collaborated with the American Cancer Society to distribute real-hair wigs to women who have lost their hair due to cancer.

We've been measuring her hair every once in a while, knowing she'd need a ponytail of at least eight inches to donate. She finally reached her goal (and then some) but was holding out until we had a trip to the US coming up, since we need to mail the ponytail to Pantene in Wisconsin (and don't trust it to get there through any Costa Rican postal service).

Finally, the time has come—we are traveling to Florida soon, and Erin has been beyond eager to donate her hair and have a fresh, shorter style. We visited Kathy, the sweet Colombian who does my hair at her salon, Broadway Beauty, here in Santa Ana for Erin's cut.

The staff watched as Kathy cut the ponytail and congratulated Erin on her adorable new hairdo—a little longer in the front, shorter in the back. Erin says her hair is much lighter and "swishy" now. I think it's a wonderful way for her to finish 2008—a pretty new haircut for a terrific cause (and from a terrific kid, if I do say so myself!).

Irazú: part two

Last Saturday the sky was so clear we could see for miles—no better opportunity for a day trip, so we grabbed cold-weather gear (Costa Rica style, of course) and trekked across the valley to Irazú Volcano.

Erin and I visited Irazú in October ’07, but Dan and Lauren had yet to visit. You can read more about the volcano and the route we took to get there on my previous blog, Irazú, I see you!

We drove to the very summit of Irazú and it was incredibly windy. I’ll admit it, we were cold! (What are we going to do next winter?) Dan commented that I really “gringoed out” for the day by wearing my Wisconsin sweatshirt, but it is my heaviest pullover with a hood and I don’t regret the choice. Funny though how a clothing decision made me feel like more of a tourist than a resident, and a woman (originally from Milwaukee, I learned) even approached me and asked if we’re on vacation here from up north.

We took some photos at the summit before hiking around the lower part of the park near the craters. Erin and I were interested to note a lake on the flat, sandy area where before it had been only spongy ground and appeared much more lunar.

The four of us were so windblown by the time we returned to the parking lot we were happy to sit in the café with our cups of steaming hot chocolate and a bag of Volcán chips supposedly made from potatoes grown on the side of the mountain (not unlikely since we passed many working potato and onion farms on the long drive up to the park).

Of course by the time we’d descended the mountain the sun was warming us through the car’s windshield, and when we arrived home we opened all the house windows to enjoy the moderate temperature of Santa Ana.

Christmastide in Costa Rica

The people in our adopted country prepare for Christmas for months, quite literally, and finally the real season has arrived. We’ve learned that December in the valley is often beautiful, hectic, and hazardous.

Rainy season has been hanging in there by a thread, but the downpours have disappeared and we’ve had plenty of sunny, warm, and—most importantly to me at this point—dry weather. The flowering trees are bursting with color, and the bougainvillea is bright with flashy purples, reds, and pinks.

Ticos across the country each receive an aguinaldo—a government-mandated bonus worth one-month salary given each December to all employees. When the aguinaldos are paid, traffic both on the roads and in the shops is at a frenzy because everyone has money to spend. Unfortunately crime is also on the rise because thieves know there is more cash for the taking. I’ve read and heard stories of several people being held at gunpoint for their money; we are very careful with our purchases and walking to our cars during December.

On a cheerier note, things are festive in the valley. I enjoyed a few trips with the girls to the mall to hear the Christmas music (mainly in English) and see the beautifully decorated trees and stores. Many places throughout the country have portales—nativity scenes—including a large portal at nearby Multiplaza. The Baby Jesus is left out of the manger until midnight on Christmas Eve. Instead of Santa, most Tico children are told the Baby Jesus brings their gifts as they sleep.

We kept many of our own American traditions here. The girls and I made dozens of cookies while we listened to our favorite Christmas music, and they had holiday concerts at school. Erin loves playing the flute and had her first band concert, while Lauren’s class put a holiday show including bells, recorders (yep, third grade!), singing, dancing, and even joke telling. There were many parties too, and it was fun to be at CDS to see how excited the kids were on the last day of classes.

A few weeks ago our neighbor was hosting a large open house for coworkers on a Sunday afternoon, and Dan had a sit-down dinner party for 12 coworkers the following evening. My terrific friends Joelle (who was also hosting the open house) and Angie and I gathered at Joelle’s house around the corner and spent an entire day baking cookies, cutting vegetables, putting together marinades and dips, and musing about which holiday decorations we could share to make our homes look festive. With a fantastic combined effort, both parties went smoothly. Whew!

A week before the holiday we went to a drama at our church about Papa Panov, based on a short story by Tolstoy. I really enjoyed myself.

Finally Christmas Eve day arrived and everyone was off school and work—vacation! I spent most of the day in the kitchen and had a great helper (Dan!) in making the homemade cinnamon rolls to eat the following morning after gift-opening. Because I couldn’t get the ingredients for the recipe I normally use, we tried a Cinnabon copycat recipe this year and wow! The rolls were huge and amazing—they really did taste like Cinnabon and it was hard to eat even one because they were so large. We got 11 rolls from the recipe and they lasted for days. It was fun rolling the dough with Dan and cutting them together.

We went to Christmas Eve service at our church, International Baptist Church. I was overcome with emotion—it was a traditional service with a children’s story, plenty of singing of the old Christmas songs, a lovely message from our pastor, and a beautiful candlelit rendition of Silent Night at the end. It was joyous and peaceful and hopeful all at once, and I reflected on how incredible it was to sit in a congregation of Christians from all around the world to celebrate the birth of our Savior—who I am so comforted to know is with me wherever I go on this earth.

We drove home and opened the windows to the house, turned on the Christmas lights adorning our two balconies, and got into our pajamas. Fireworks had already been exploding around the valley nearly non-stop for hours and hours—the Costa Ricans love fireworks!—and continued on through the night. The Costa Rican adults open their gifts on Christmas Eve and often stay up all night with friends and family, eating tamales wrapped in banana leaves—the one food all Costa Ricans we’ve talked to could agree is truly a Christmas tradition.

That said, this non-Tico family had no plans to stay up until dawn, though sleeping was sometimes challenging with the cracks and booms breaking through times of silence. Dan and I watched Christmas Vacation and took care of a few other things before bed, and soon it was a bright, sunny Christmas Day. We opened presents (our big gift to the family being a trip in January to Florida—can hardly wait to touchdown in the US for a while!) and just relaxed and played the rest of the day. It was a quiet Christmas here that we’ll all remember for its uniqueness.

¡Feliz Navidad!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Quiquiriquí (cock-a-doodle-doo)

I grew up not far from a couple of dairy farms in our beautiful Wisconsin coulee; seeing cows and horses was ordinary, but I don't recall seeing many chickens.

Here it's another story—there's poultry everywhere. The beef in Costa Rica isn't that hot, but Ticos really know how to do up chickens. Even the country's most traditional food, rice and beans, is known as gallo pinto (spotted rooster). I guess you could say that chickens rule the roost.

I see chickens here daily as I go to the grocery store, the school, church, the mall ... Even the kids' former favorite jumping spot (which is no more, sadly) was host to a giant inflatable rooster.

On our trip from Guanacaste back to the valley we easily saw over a hundred chickens along the way. People keep them at their homes in the yards and they run all over like ... well, like chickens with their heads cut off! (BAWK!)

I lived in a gated community that appears to be chicken-free, but somewhere nearby lives at least one rooster—and forget that stuff about crowing at sunrise, because this misguided dude often begins his cock-a-doodle-dooing at about 4am. Somebody needs to readjust that bird's clock.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Everything you want to know—and maybe even don’t want to know!—about water faucets and screaming toilets

If you’ve read my blog for a while, you’ll likely recall that we had a pump installed after many water outages and way too many showers taken in trickles of water. We now have a readily available water supply and good pressure in the showers—not the norm in most Tico housing.

You may also remember that Ticos tend to prefer warm to cold showers in the morning, and those who want hot water often resort to the eerie suicide showers.

But there’s so much I haven’t yet told you! For those who dare, read on for an enlightening look at bathroom plumbing here in Costa Rica…

Sometimes you can turn on a faucet and be unsure of what temperature water is going to come out. I’ve seen showers and faucets with hot on the left, cold on the right—and then vice versa (only where hot water is available, of course).

This should be a non-issue in my own house, I know. But—with apologies to Cookie Monster—sometimes C is for Confusing. We have a big Jacuzzi tub that we don’t use often because it takes forever to fill. The first time I went to use the tub, I didn’t pay much attention to the faucet handles labeled with C and F in fancy, flowy script that I was looking at upside-down. I saw the C—thought "cold"—and automatically turned the other handle and let the water run.

A few minutes later I returned to find a couple of inches of icy water. I turned the water off and sat there for a minute, staring at the knobs, until I realized…duh, me… that in Spanish, C stands for Caliente. Meaning hot. And I had turned the F knob. F, of course, indicating Frio. Meaning cold.

It was a silly mistake, but in all fairness, the other faucets in the house are all labeled in English. The funniest part is that about a month after this happened to me, Dan went to run water in the Jacuzzi. He approached me a few minutes later: “Are you doing laundry? Are you running the dishwasher? Did you just take a shower or what?”

“No, no, and no. What’s the problem?”

“I want to use the tub but I can’t get any hot water.”

BWAH! Off I went to give him a hard time about C and F on the faucet knobs. I could tell he felt sorta stupid about it—as I had—until I admitted that I’d made the same mistake too.

This business with hot and cold water is fascinating stuff, I know, but not nearly as intriguing as fun with toilets here in Ticolandia.

The quality of public restrooms varies, but there are no handy-dandy rest stops for travelers in CR, so gas station bathrooms are an evil necessity. Once in a while we get lucky and find a clean bathroom with an actual seat, toilet paper, and a sink with soap. That said, the girls and I have become adept at “hovering,” and we’ve learned to carry TP and Wet Ones with us when we’re on the road.

Water pressure in Costa Rica tends to be poor, and pipes are narrower than in the US—making it risky to flush toilet paper in most public restrooms and some homes. It’s normal to find signs requesting that one not throw used TP in the toilet. Instead, Ticos throw it in special wastebaskets that are generally emptied frequently, even in dirty gas station bathrooms. Though I know to do it, this still is not a pleasant habit for me, but it’s a heck of a lot better than an overflowing toilet. (Thankfully we can flush paper in our house!)

On the home front, we’ve learned that our toilets have personalities. In the master bath, I often have to push the button in (instead of holding the knob down) to get the toilet to flush properly. Thankfully the knobs are at knee level for me, so I just stand there with my knee holding the button for about six seconds.

The good news is that our master bath toilet is at least quiet, thanks to Dan rigging it with a piece of thread and a metal key. This keeps it from running 24/7. Sometimes I wonder if Dan is watching MacGyver (Mah GEEEEver, as they say here in CR) on the sly. I told you these Ticos love themselves some MacGyver!

Several toilets in our home are screamers. A couple of them emit a very brief, high-pitched wail after use, while those in Lauren’s bathroom and the powder room sound like sirens going off. The first time Lauren used the bathroom on the day we moved here, she nearly cried when the toilet began screaming at her. (Toilets in other places sometimes do this too. We were just hanging out with friends at a beach home they’d rented, and I felt right at home when I used the bathroom—had to hold the knob while listening to the toilet siren.)

We’ve tried fixing the scream and have had two plumbers fix it, too—but the sirens always return. It’s something about air in the lines. We’re used to it now, but I gotta admit that when I stayed with my parents this summer, using the bathroom was noticeably simple. A pleasure! Throw in the paper, one quick push of the handle to flush. Quiet toilet, no running, no sirens. And when I went to wash my hands, there was plenty of soap and I knew exactly which faucet knob to turn for the hot water.

¡Puros baños!

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Thanksgiving in Guanacaste

We had a fantastic holiday here in Costa Rica—it was another turkey-free Thanksgiving! We pulled the kids out of school a day early so we could drive to the Pacific coast on Wednesday and spend our entire holiday having fun. And wow, did we have a blast! (You can watch a slideshow with photos of our trip here: Thanksgiving pictures.)

We made the five-hour drive to Playa Grande in Guanacaste, an area known throughout the country for its surfing and fantastic beaches. Thursday morning after a big breakfast and some leisurely hanging around in hammocks at our beachfront hotel (along with a lizard and a funny squirrel for company) we went horseback riding. The weather was awesome—a real treat coming from the rainy, cloudy valley. Much of our two hours riding was spent on the beaches of Brasilito and Playa Conchal, though we also ventured off onto some trails near the beach shaded by a plethora of tall trees. (And yep, once again we saw monkeys on Thanksgiving—this time howlers that, as usual, made quite a ruckus.)

Our horses were White Socks, Raccoon, Zorro (Lauren’s horse), and Arroz con Frijoles (Rice with Beans—that was Erin’s horse). Soon after we mounted, our guide, Luis, let me know that Arroz con Frijoles likes to go fast, and a bunch of times on our ride he got going and the other horses all followed. We got to galloping at one point on Brasilito but didn’t go for long since the girls’ hats both blew off.

We all had a great time and I must admit, Erin in particular was a real natural on the horse. It was good fortune that she loved to fly down the sand on his back, because Arroz con Frijoles was definitely the most spirited horse of the bunch. White Socks and Raccoon were not nearly so eager to run, though Dan and I suspect that may be because they were carrying us instead of an 11-year-old kid.

After our horseback trip we cooled off in the Toyota’s AC and headed south into Tamarindo, the largest town in this part of the country. There we picked up some snacks and water for later and had lunch at Pizza Hut. I don’t know why it is, but we think Pizza Hut here is better than it is at home, and we were so hungry we didn’t leave a slice behind. We even had ice cream at Pops following lunch—one of the best ice cream spots in Costa Rica that happened to be in the most gorgeous shopping center I’ve ever seen, complete with a sprawling, free-form pond (host to turtles and fish), waterfalls, and beautiful trees and flowers.

That afternoon we went for a swim in the turtle-shaped pool at our hotel and then had an early dinner because we all went to bed at 6:30—yes, you read that right. Let me note that it’s not hard to go to bed early here because it’s already dark—not dusk, but nighttime dark—by this hour and because we normally wake up so much earlier here than in the States. Plus we were tired from the horseback riding and swimming! But this night it was especially important to get some rest because we had set the alarm to wake us at 11pm. We had something very special planned: we were going to Las Baulas National Marine Park with hopes of seeing a giant leatherback turtle nesting.

Lauren wasn’t too thrilled when we roused her out of bed at 11:00, but eventually we all got ready, put on the bug spray, and took our flashlights down the road about 50 yards from our hotel to the park’s ranger station. Las Tortugas Hotel is the center for the Tamarindo National Wildlife Sanctuary and Las Baulas National Marine Park. There isn’t much light on this short walk to the station because the turtles won’t nest unless it’s dark. The owner of the hotel where we stayed has been active for years in eco-tourism and sustainable development; this includes shielding the turtles from all ambient light both here and from neighboring beaches.

Las Baulas is a protected area vital to the endangered leatherback turtle; actually, it is the world’s largest nesting site for these turtles and one of the few remaining sites of significant nesting. Female leatherbacks come ashore at night to lay their eggs in the sand. They then cover the eggs and return to the ocean. The beach is restricted at night from October to mid-February, and people can only visit as part of a guided tour—so off we went, hopes high!

We were part of a small group of people and stood, single file, in the dark on the beach as we waited for a park ranger to spot a nesting turtle. While we waited, Dan and I noticed how amazing the sky appeared—there was extremely little moonlight, and I don’t know if I’ve ever seen so many stars before. It was truly awesome.

We didn’t wait long until we trekked through the sand with only natural light and the guide’s red-filtered flashlight to help us. Soon we could see a giant swath of a path on the beach and right up from it was the turtle, digging deep in the sand. She was absolutely massive—the giant leatherbacks are the world’s largest marine turtles. She was at least five feet long and she certainly weighed more than our entire family! I wish I could have taken photos to share, but the turtles only nest in the dark and so we watched her by the guide’s red light which was aimed at her backside only.

It was incredible to see how this giant creature stretched her flippers (about the size of tennis rackets!) to make this deep hole. When she was nearly done digging, our group stepped away to allow another group to see the dig. We sat down in the sand and just enjoyed the cool ocean air as we waited for our turn to see the turtle again. And when we went back—wow! She was laying her eggs, sometimes three at a time. There were scientists there measuring her and counting her eggs. Erin heard one say at the end that she had deposited 56 eggs into her nest.

We didn’t get to stay and see the turtle go back to the sea—the rangers want to minimize humans’ contact with the turtles, and this was her moment. She had done her job and was leaving her eggs to fend for themselves.

Our family was in awe of this experience. We realized that with the giant leatherback in danger of being extinct, we were surely witnessing a precious and miraculous event. Both our family and the turtle had come a very long way to share in her nesting on this quiet beach.

A couple of months from now, some of those eggs we saw will be little hatchlings, and a few will survive the short yet perilous trip down the beach to the Pacific Ocean. Maybe my girls will return to Playa Grande one day with their families to see an offspring of the leatherback burying eggs of her own.

We are thankful for this turtle, for the horses we rode, for the beautiful beach, and for each other. Though life in Costa Rica is never smooth sailing, it has been a life-changing experience that we will always treasure. What a Thanksgiving!