Monday, January 28, 2013

Costa Rica

We spent the past week in Costa Rica. For some time now, we’ve wanted the boys to have a chance to hear Spanish spoken outside the classroom. After doing some research we decided Costa Rica would be our best bet, factoring in all the variables at play for us. We spent the week in the Arenal region near La Fortuna, based on Trip Advisor’s recommendation for family travel in Central America (we stayed here).

As we left the airport in San Jose, we passed a block where the street level windows were all protected by bars. Behind one of them a little dog wagged its tail madly, and a woman walking down the street stuck her hand through the bars to pet him. As soon as we left the city, roadside stands selling strawberries and fresh cheese cropped up every half mile or so. The road we traveled wound past terraced coffee plantations, fields of sugarcane, pineapple plantations. Vultures alone and in pairs circled over every field.

Tiempo means both weather and time.

The place where we stayed has a cow, chickens, and pigs.  Every morning, Abbott helped with the milking while Cal collected the eggs that would later become our breakfast. The restaurant was open to the air on one side, and we watched all manner of birds as we ate our meals. It was paradise. With breakfast, we were served some combination of starfruit, papaya, melon, guava and pineapple, to eat and in juices; the starfruit and papaya were grown on the property.  Our morning coffee was Costa Rican. After my first cup I said, ‘Bueno!’ – and our server corrected me, ‘Muy bueno!’

We spent a day with a local farmer and his family, and I saw my first Costa Rican lemons. They reminded me of miniature melons on the outside. They're more globular and more similar to an orange than are American lemons. Together we made chimichurri for lunch, and empanadas filled with guava jelly and caramel for an afternoon snack. Abbott and Cal played with the farmer's daughters, who happened to be their exact ages. They rode ponies and played cards and hide and seek.

Every day we saw sloths.

We learned Costa Rica’s national bird is an ordinary robin, chosen because it can be found everywhere throughout the country, and because of its beautiful song.

Our first full day in the region we visited the Arenal Hanging Bridges with a guide. It was an incredible opportunity to observe and learn about the intricate life of a jungle; the symbiotic relationships, the plants’ efforts at maximizing their sunlight via such measures as ‘walking,’ above-ground roots. We swam in hot springs at the end of the day.

There were endless lines of leaf-cutter ants everywhere. I got used to seeing their movement in my peripheral vision; started seeing it with my eyes closed.

We traveled by horseback through the rainforest and past fields of bulls and dairy cows. Our guide, Enrique, pointed out that cattle grazing and deforestation go hand in hand. Enrique had a little dog that ran alongside us; he found an armadillo. Apparently, they can’t see or hear very well, so they’re easy to catch. Enrique picked it up; the poor animal growled and trembled until he let him go. We rode to a waterfall. While we changed into our swimming suits, Enrique cut up a pineapple for us to share, using a giant leaf as his cutting board. We swam, then sat on sun-warmed rocks in the water and took it all in as we ate chicken salad sandwiches. Not another soul was in sight. At the end of the day, we encountered a few Costa Rican children swinging Tarzan-style on vines, and they invited the boys to join in.

We spent a day floating down the Cano Negro, watching Jesus Christ lizards walk on water, spider and howler and white faced capuchin monkeys in the trees, basilisks and turtles on the banks, bats in the trees and, as everywhere else, paradisical birds everywhere.

me and a baby white faced capuchin at the ASIS Wild Animal Rescue Center

In the evenings, we sat in the last of the light as we ate, listening to the bird songs stop and the cicadas start up. We walked back to our cabin in the thick humidity, and read in hammocks on our porch before going inside to bed. We fell asleep listening to the cicadas, and awoke to bird songs.

Sunday, January 6, 2013


Our Christmas tree sits on the curb, ready for tomorrow’s yard waste truck. Yesterday Alexi and the boys watched USA win the World Junior Hockey Championship while I packed away the last of the holiday decorations. Our snow gear is back on its shelf in the garage. I took a second pass through our pile of holiday cards and letters as I ate lunch today, studying each one with a leisure I didn’t have as they came in. There were lengthy typed letters, some embellished with computer graphics, that included details about family vacations, lost teeth, geography bees and injured dogs. There were photos of the children of our childhood friends; of the boys’ long-ago preschool classmates, some almost unrecognizable to us now, some the same as ever. So many photos and stories of a multitude of lives entwined with ours, near and distant. We’re getting ourselves in order, inside and out, for the resumption of our individual lives tomorrow: school for the boys, work for Alexi, tasks at home for me.

New Years Eve, at the end of an afternoon of packing and organizing and preparing to leave town, as the sun set, Alexi opened a bottle of champagne for us; I opened a bottle of sparkling cider for the boys. The four of us ate dinner in stages, starting with small, clean-tasting Kusshi oysters at the kitchen counter until Alexi’s hand ached from the opening. We moved on to king crab legs at the dining room table, picking the succulent meat out of the shells. I put artichokes on to steam, and it took longer than I remembered it should. We ate them last, sitting on the floor around the coffee table as we watched a movie, pulling off the leaves and dipping them in melted butter before stripping them of their tender meat with our teeth. The ease of the evening combined with the exquisite flavors gave it a celebratory air.

New Year’s morning, not too early, we drove to the mountains. We snacked on clementines; the boys played Minecraft. When we arrived at our hotel, I checked in as Alexi took the boys to play in a patch of snow alongside the parking lot. The three of them were alight with unparalleled joy: pelting snowballs, fleeing; cackling, wrestling, cavorting. They do everything in the snow with an abandon that never ceases to amaze me. I have never lived with abandon.

My senses go on hyperdrive in a new climate. There is always an initial shock to the cold. The snow crunched under our boots. There were icicles on every surface that could form them. The fir trees were encrusted with frost. The initial tedium to the layering and the bundling with every trip in and out quickly transitioned to habit. The day ended with making s'mores - marshmallows take forever to roast when it’s 15 degrees outside - then soaking in a hot tub surrounded by snow. Alexi read from one of the Harry Potter books until the boys fell asleep. Years ago, traveling to and from the same mountains, Alexi read aloud to me from the same book as I drove. It was a surprise and a pleasure to find the snow still there when we woke.

They each want Alexi to read with them at bedtime; compete for him all the time. But in the middle of the night, when they can't find the light switch in the unfamiliar hotel bathroom they come to me. When they're sick and they’re tired it’s me they ask for. The trip was not perfect. Cal woke up with a stomachache, which turned into a full-blown stomach flu. I spent the day in our room with him while Alexi and Abbott skied and skated; he, piteously sick; I, looking out at the ice and snow as I read and offered comfort. The following day, I woke up sick, and the next night, back at home, Abbott and Alexi followed suit. Still, we were all very glad for the time away. The trip has added to our memory bank of family time in the snow. It’s always good getting away, and it’s always good coming home.

Epiphany Sunday is almost over. Our house feels empty where the tree once stood, yet more light gets in. The Seahawks have won. Downton Abbey will premiere in a short while. I’m ready for this year and all it holds.