Week Fifteen – Spanish lessons and street vending

Getting this apartment was vitally important.  It is a proven fact that, no matter how much you love your family, if you are stuck together in a hotel room for too long a period of time you will go insane.  It’s so nice to be somewhere where the kids can have their toys out for more than a couple hours, where we have our own kitchen, and, perhaps most importantly in the efforts of preserving sanity, where we have bedroom doors that can be closed on occasion.

Our landlady Roxanna is pretty great too, despite her over-confidence in her family’s renovating skills.  She likes to feed us.  We brought her flowers the other day and I think now we’re family and she is constantly bringing us plates of cookies and various Costa Rican sweet treats.  It occurs to me that in some ways, Ukranian isn’t that far from Costa Rican; I’m sure if I could understand everything she is saying in her rapid-fire Spanish, I would hear the words: “you’re too skinny!  Eat!”  She has a puppy that is roughly the size of a well-fed rat that the kids really like too.  The puppy is small enough to fit through a hole in our screen door and so is always bounding its tiny way through our kitchen.  I think it’s afraid to stay still too long – the ants could carry it away.

After buying coconuts from the farmer’s market, Aidan busted out the long-dormant machete to open one for us.  But these are much drier than the ones that still have the green husk on them that we were eating on the coast, and he was having trouble with it.  Roxanna saw this, came into our kitchen, turned on the gas stove and used it to burn the husk, turning it with one hand so it would char, but not actually light.  When it was totally blackened she brought it outside and threw it down on the cement, splitting it open nicely.  It has a nice toasted taste that way too!  No-one teaches you things like that in Canada.

We took a series of four Spanish lessons with a private school called SEPA.  The idea was to get past the “I Lexi, you waiter” Tarzan-esqe Spanish we had been using up ‘til now and actually learn a few grammar rules and verb conjugations and the like.  It was very helpful.  I know that the Spanish is starting to sink in for the kids finally: Aidan had to wake Ezra up in the wee hours a couple nights ago and in his sleep-addled state, the boy said, “Que?” much to our amusement.  After our lesson on Tuesday we went to a public park/playground with our instructor and her daughter (also seven) so the kids could have some playtime all together.  The playground scared me a bit – made me long for a park like Ben Lee (in Kelowna) where it is reasonably clean and well-maintained and you don’t have to think the word “tetanus” every few minutes.

As we were walking down the street yesterday, I started thinking about how many things you can buy from street vendors here.  Some are things that you would expect, but some are really odd to see people carrying.  Like hammocks.  Can you imagine being a traveling hammock salesman, walking around in the 30 degree heat with a bunch of the big cloth monstrosities over your back?  And it’s not just here, I’ve seen walking hammock salesmen in all of the larger towns we have been in and I’ve never seen anyone actually buying one, but someone has to be to keep them doing it, right?

A quick list of things you can buy from street vendors in CR: hammocks, area rugs, socks, shoes, pencil crayons, purses, underwear (seriously, little tables of bras and panties in the street and it’s not just dirty old men looking at them either), glow sticks, sheets, blankets, lottery tickets, various remote controls (not universal ones) postcards of Jesus and gooey looking shaved-ice and condensed milk concoctions.  A quick list of things I’ve actually purchased from street vendors: paintings, jewelry, fresh squeezed OJ, fruit, bundles of herbs, ice cream and meat on a stick cooking over a flame.  You can see I’m more of a traditionalist – street ice cream is ok, street underwear is not.  I have to admit that the portable-fire-carts are my favourites, though that seemed to be more of a Caribbean thing.  So, if you carry enough cash on you, you don’t ever have to go into a store or a restaurant, you can do walk-through shopping everywhere you go.  Anybody need a hammock?

Week Thirteen – Sometimes, there’s just too many gringos

We have made an interesting discovery this past week: we no longer identify with other tourists while traveling.  It happened slowly; a couple of weeks ago we found ourselves explaining why certain things are the way they are in restaurants here to a fellow traveler; local customs and all that.  I’ve ended up helping Americans at a coffee shop counter translate from Spanish.  We roll our eyes when we hear people complaining about the heat or the pace.  Little things.

But on Monday we had to take the car we had been renting back to Quepos and I got this great idea that we should spend a day at Manual Antonio (just a couple of kilometers down the road), the most famous of the country’s National Parks and the area where you are supposed to be able to see the most wildlife, while we were in the area.  So we drove down the mountain into the town of Manual Antonio which is the place we ended up in our third night in the country, so we’re feeling a little nostalgic for how naive we were way back then (as in “look!  Here’s the half-paved, half-gravel road we tried to lug our four huge suitcases and backpacks up to find our hotel.  I remember the walk being a lot longer for some reason…”) and we checked ourselves into a nice place and headed down to the beach.  When we tried to go to the park in the morning however, we had a bit of a culture shock.  At the gates of the park, literally more than a hundred tourists were standing there waiting to get in.  People were being loud and aggressive.  Outside the park were booths set up with all kinds of souvenir junk (none of which is actually Costa Rican I might add), vendors already sweating in the intense sun at 9:00 in the morning.  Had we fallen into some Twilight Zone universe glitch and ended up in Disneyland?  Is there a rollercoaster ride in there I don’t know about?  We stood back, mouths agape at the unexpected onslaught and regrouped.

We turned and walked away, wandering back to the nearly empty beach, which, in itself had been a bit of a culture shock for us the day before when a woman told us that the umbrellas and chairs were there for rent and we watched waiters coming for people’s drink orders.  When we were there in November, it was the off-season and I have to say that the whole place was a lot more pleasant without all the people who, well, look like us.  I kind of feel bad for the people who come to CR and go to the park, thinking that they are going to have the “rainforest and wildlife experience” there.  Nope.

When we left there we went to a place called Finca Natural: Si Como No Wildlife Refuge that I had read about before.  They boast one of the best butterfly gardens in CR as well as a reptile rescue program.  The garden was great because they show you the entire life-cycle in the ‘lab’ from the eggs of the butterflies, to the caterpillars hatching to the chrysalis forming to the butterflies hatching.  So many blue morphos flapping about!  One particular species called the sulphur butterfly seemed to like me and kept landing on me.  Have you ever tried to keep still while a butterfly crawls on your nose?  Not as easy as you would think.

crocodileThe reptile house was a big hit of course.  It featured boa constrictors and several caimans as well as full grown crocodiles.  These are the bad boys of the country – the guide explained that the refuge is basically a prison for repeat offenders. These are the crocs that keep breaking into people’s houses or ponds.  The first time the centre is called, they catch the crocs (in itself a bit of a process, involving quite a bit of duct-tape apparently) and release them far away from people.  Crocs are on a sort of three-strikes program; if they can behave after that, then they go on their merry way, but if they continue they get “locked up” in order to keep them from being hurt.  The Kingpin of the croc pond named Elliot is not only a repeat offender, but is apparently the only croc in the 25 years some of these guys have been working with them to go after his captors.  We looked down on the pond, which contained the one huge crocodile and one smaller one, while all the other crocodiles were up on land in a bit of a heap.  “You see that in the water?” said the guide, “That’s Elliot and that’s Elliot’s girlfriend (she apparently doesn’t get a name.  That’s what happens when you date the leader of the pack I guess; you lose your identity a bit).  When they are in the water, everyone else has to get out of the water.  When they get out of the water, everybody else has to get in the water!”  He yawned, displaying all his teeth to show us just how bored he was with us and disappeared under the water, studiously ignoring us for the rest of our visit.

Before we left the area we had another close encounter of the reptile kind.  Before we checked out of the hotel, the kids wanted a last swim in the pool, so they were in the water with Aidan and I was on the edge, dangling my feet when I looked up and saw a black spiny iguana nearby, crawling under the lawn chair just a few feet away.  So, of course, I pointed him out to the kids.  He moved to one side of the chair, looked at Hannah’s green and pink flip flop, pounced on the thing and bit it several times, actually leaving teethmarks!  He picked it up in his mouth and I figured he was going to run off with it, but instead he just gnawed on it a bit, licked it repeatedly with his long forked tongue, looked at us and eventually wandered off when Aidan shooed him away.  An iguana with a shoe fetish and a penchant for pink straps.  Now that’s something you don’t see in the Park.

Week Ten – Happy Anniversary to Me!

This week started with me in a dentist’s office, which is usually a bad sign.  I’ll have to give you some background info for this to make sense.  About two years ago, I started having problems with one of the caps on my front teeth.  When I went to the dentist to fix it for me, he said I had an abscess, that the caps needed to be redone, I needed a bridge across the front four teeth and gum surgery and handed me a proposed bill of about $7,000 (that’s after our rather good insurance coverage!).  So I did what any young, broke person would do: I thanked him for his time and ignored the problem for two years.

I’ll confess that one of the reasons we chose our hotel in San Isidro was because of the English-speaking dental clinic across the street.  There are some times in life when you really need someone speaking your language – I didn’t want to be guessing what the man-with-the-drill was intending.  So, I made an appointment.  And rather than the week of miserable recovery and thousands of dollars I was expecting to spend, he gave me a different diagnosis.  He fixed the troublesome cap and gave me a root canal to fix the abscess.  Total cost for both issues and the consultation: $220 and about 1 ½ hours.  True, I still don’t have movie-star teeth.  But my vanity doesn’t need appeasing that badly (you can buy a lot of nice clothes with the remaining $6,780).

We found a store called ConfeTico which sells an insane variety of candy.  Costa Ricans have the sweetest sweet-teeth (tooths?  That’s an impossible grammar sentence.  I should probably re-write it, but I’m not going to) on the planet.  I think it’s a result of craving something that doesn’t taste like rice and beans.  Anyways, we gave the kids each dos mil colones (about $4) to buy whatever they wanted and they acted like, well, like sugar deprived kids in a candy store frankly.  It was pretty fun to watch, though I was mildly horrified – $4 buys you a crazy amount of candy and chocolate in a place like that.  That was basically our gift to the kids for our anniversary (nine years baby!).  Hannah and I went to the beauty parlor and had manicures and pedicures.  That was the best pedicure I’ve ever had and remember, I’ve been walking barefoot everywhere for months now so my feet were naaaasty.  Cost for both of us: $12.  We all got dressed up and went out for dinner at the swanky place in town.  All in all a good day.

We toured an organic farm called New Dawn run by a guy named Ed who has literally written the book on medicinal plants in CR.  I actually bought his book in Hacienda Baru; then realized he lived in San Isidro and called him up.  He gave me his signature tea formula: a blend of pau d’arco, turmeric and ginger, guaranteed to cure whatever ails you.  It’s potent stuff, and I’m sure the cleaning staff at our hotel was cursing me as they tried to scrub it out of all the cups later.  By the way, you can use turmeric roots like pretty yellow-orange crayons and draw pictures with them, though people will laugh at you.

San Isidro has a movie theater and we took the kids to see Alvin and the Chipmunks 2.   I think some movies are better if you only understand half the dialogue.

When we left San Isidro we made our way over the optimistically named Cerro de la Muerte (Mountain of Death) towards Heredia.  Heredia was wet and cold – all the way down to 20 degrees! I was freezing and had to find a jacket from way at the bottom of my suitcase.  (Feel free to curse and grump a little at this point in your reading.)  Here we had the worst hotel experience I have ever had, which I won’t detail for you in case you have a weak stomach. DO NOT STAY IN THE APART-HOTEL ROMA, ROOM #7.  That’s all I have to say about that.

From the hell-hotel we went to Cafe Britt Finca to take their tour which was fantastic.  More theatre than tour, the actors move you around from the plants to the factory to an actual theatre and use costumes and plenty of humour to teach you about the history of coffee. The kids were in hysterics.  The milk-and-sugar laden espresso may have helped with that a bit.  The company also makes chocolates, so this was a big hit.  Last night we arrived at the Hotel Bouganvillea which is one of the nicest hotels we have stayed at in CR and a huge relief after the last one.  We are paying for it, but that’s ok every once and awhile.

We were planning on leaving for the Caribbean side of the country tomorrow and have arranged to rent a little house in a town called Hone Creek.  However, Aidan just talked to a gentleman at the front desk of our extremely helpful hotel about renting a car to get us there and was told that the rainy weather is occurring all the way down the coast and that many roads are washed out and travel is currently not recommended.  Oh the joys of travel in a country where horses are a major form of technology.  We’ll get an update in about an hour and then we will know whether we can go, or whether another night here is a better choice.  Maybe we’ll go back to the coffee farm – it’s my new Happy Place.  As long as the kids are only drinking decaf.