Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Video clip

Here's a few minutes of our favorite video from the summer:

Sharon: Final Photos

Well, 10 days after we arrived home, and I'm getting around to uploading pictures. It's probably testimony to the wonderful time we had that we don't have tons and tons to share; we were really busy just living it all. People keep asking, "How was your vacation?" and I never know how to answer. It was awesome, but it wasn't a vacation. It was life in Costa Rica (which was awesome!).

The follow-up question is usually related to whether or not we're happy to be back. I think it tells you everything about our feelings for Austin to know that after spending five weeks in the amazing, beautiful jungle of Costa Rica, with wonderful friends, we're happy to be back. And it's not just that relief-that-we're-home-in-our-own-house kind of happy, either. Austin sure is great.

On that note, here are some of the photo highlights from the last month:

Here's Liam and Fiona eating chicken feet, and really happy about it, too:

The day we went horseback riding, Emilia and Jules bonded:

Liam and I both loved it, and ended up going again later in Puriscal.

Jules finally gave in to Elana's affections:

And Liam and Fiona were so sweet together:

Max, that wild man, with sugar cane for us all to gnaw on:

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Sharon: The Last Hurrah

Today’s the last day of the trip. I should be repeating that over and over to myself in a numbing, therapeutic sort of way, really; this is not a piece of information I readily accept. While I occasionally think with longing about some creature comforts of home (more long-sleeved clothes (which of course I won’t need at home), a relative lack of mud, access to my own kitchen), mostly I just wish we could stay and stay and stay.

We have moved to Puriscal, a small city up in the mountains where I spent a month with a family in orientation before my tour of duty as a volunteer in Montezuma. We are staying at a “luxury hotel” for three nights in order to spend some QT with my host family from here.

When I was stationed in Montezuma, coming back to visit my Puriscal family always felt like coming home. Flor and her daughter Estephanie are incredibly welcoming, grounded people. Puriscal, being near San Jose, has a culture that was a little easier to adapt to than that of my Cobano family; we might talk politics, for example, rather than just gossip about family and friends. Flor is also an amazing cook, and always cooks my favorite foods. They are also astoundingly patient with Spanish-language learners. As an 8-year-old, Estephanie taught me much of my first Spanish 13 years ago, with eagerness and long, patient explanations. Then last night, Max spent a while talking to her (now 21) and also got some quality instruction. One surprising development makes these last few days a little easier to face: Flor and Estephanie are planning to come visit us in the States! They’ve never mentioned a possible trip before, and neither of them has ever left the country, except to cross the border to buy cheap stuff in Panama. I’m so excited to be able to host them, especially because Flor has a specific request for me to make a Thanksgiving meal, to “see how it is celebrated.” Thanksgiving is a meal that I can easily dazzle with, since they have no point of reference! It’s not like I’m going to feel pressured to make my rice correctly or my tortillas from scratch, for example. Anyway, it’s something to look forward to, and means that our good-byes won’t seem quite so threatening.

So, we’re staying at a Gringo hotel. It’s a “yoga retreat,” supposedly, though they’re off the beaten path even by yoga retreat standards, and are just getting the business off the ground, so there’s not much going on. It’s a beautiful setting, and almost worth the price of admission to sit here on the deck at sunrise and watch the sun spill across the sides of the folding hills on the other side of the valley. Plus, there aren’t many hotel options this close to my host family, and we wanted to end the trip on a vacation mindset. But I have two complaints. One is that these guys are the type of Gringos who live in a fenced-in hotel compound, speak almost no Spanish and whose efforts at learning about the culture seem insincere, and speak with great reverence about the need to teach “the locals” English. It pains me to give them money. We also feel like we’re being nickel-and-dimed, which might just be the way these places are usually run, but if I were going to nickel-and-dime my guests, I’d be really clear about it. Or maybe they are clear, but there have just been too many awkward exchanges about our charges, and some overheard conversations (taking place in very public places) about other financial issues. Whatever it is, it's left a bad taste in our mouths. We've learned that we are definitely, absolutely not the fenced-in-hotel-compound kind of folk.

In any case, in 36 hours, we’ll be very close to home. Stay tuned for photos.

Max: The Challenge I’ve Been Looking For

Every other adult in our mini Costa Rican villa has strong attachments to the country. Asan was born here and knows the area intimately, Khalida spent a year teaching here years ago and then married a local (Asan), Sharon spent a year teaching here in the 90’s and feels that the land helped shape her values and beliefs. And the three of them speak the language fluently. Relative to them, I’m just a dumb yokel stumbling through the mud.

And that’s been the root of one my frustrations here. I have no anchor or motivation to feel passionate about this place. It’s nice and scenic, sure, but so is Texas Hill Country. So is Santa Barbara. So is upstate New York. I’ve been lacking a real attachment to the area, a real reason grow intimate with it. Unlike the others in our household, I didn’t have any coming-of-age experiences that really fortified a bond with the locale. And since I can always lean on them for help in sticky situations, or with communicating with the locals, I didn’t think I’d ever forge one.

But then all that changed.

Okay, so it’s not a huge deal, but Jules and I had an adventure this week that provided me with something to overcome, something to confront, something to accomplish. On my own.

I drove down to our favorite beach in Montezuma, Playa Las Manchas. But as soon as we got there it started to rain. Hard. Rain-forest-type rain that just keeps coming down in buckets. So instead of going to the beach, Jules and I went to a nearby hotel (Amor de Mar) to have an exotic drink (mango and pineapple juice blended with milk in a frosty glass). We had the drink on the hotel’s patio and the rain kept coming and coming, no break in the sky. When we were done, we walked 15 feet in the rain, back to the car, and were completely soaked all the way through. I told Jules we’d go home and take a warm shower, then he’d take a nap, and he seemed unusually amenable. But when I turned the key in the ignition the engine wouldn’t start. The battery had died.

I was flummoxed. Not only didn’t I have a cell phone with me, I also didn’t have any idea what the phone number was of Asan and Khalida’s place. I’d written it down once at the beginning of our trip but never had a need for it and left it somewhere. Life was so free-wheeling and lacking in deadlines, I couldn’t imagine I’d ever need a phone again.

The incident wouldn’t have been too big a deal if I’d been by myself. I would have simply walked the 2 miles back to the house (mostly up steep, muddy embankments) and then warmed up at home. But with a sleepy one-year-old with me, the equation changed significantly. Without turning this into a ridiculous epic, here’s basically what I did next:

--let a mild sense of panic course through my blood for a moment
--recovered my sanity
--went back to Amor de Mar and asked to borrow a phone book
--looked up Asan Jimenez but couldn’t find him in the pages (I later found out Asan and Khalida’s number is in the phone book, but listed under the previous property owner's name. Which doesn’t really count since I have no idea who that person is)
--looked up Asan’s mother’s business name but couldn’t find it either (I later found out that she’s listed under the name Gutierrez even though her last name is Jimenez, so that doesn’t really count either)
--asked various staff members for help in locating Asan’s or his mother’s number
--carried Jules across an overflowing bridge in the rain to another hotel where I’d been told they “might have jumper cables but no car but cars pass all the time and you can just flag one down and surely someone will help.” This hotel didn’t have the cables.
--went back to Amor de Mar to collect my thoughts, keep out of the rain and see if by some fluke someone there had a brilliant idea. They had no brilliant ideas but they did have a small garbage bag to give me. I poked out a hole in the bottom and put it over Jules’ drenched body to keep any additional water off him
--checked the sky and confirmed that there was no chance the rain would ease up anytime soon. In fact it seemed to be raining even harder
--trekked a mile with Jules on my back (in garbage bag garb) to the center of Montezuma through gallons of rushing water and tried to find Diana, a local woman who Sharon had befriended. I knew she had a jewelry shop on the second floor of some building and thought she’d at least have a phone number I could use. I found someone who worked near Diana’s shop who told me she wouldn’t be in till later in the day
--stood under an awning for 5 agonizing minutes trying to figure out my next steps
--remembered that Asan and Khalida had posted an ad for their bungelow somewhere in town a few days ago
--hiked around till I found the ad, memorized the phone number, and asked a local business if I could use their phone. With a soggy, frowning kid on my back I probably could have gotten a million favors
--called the number and got Khalida’s voice mail
--called it again and same thing, so I left a message that I was in town and might just start walking home
--took one last shot and asked a bartender at the local bar if he knew Asan. He did. And a way to reach him? Uh, no, amigo.
--finally decided that I had to walk back to the house through the sludge and rain

Of course, through all this, I was mostly concerned about Jules. He could catch pneumonia after all. But I was grateful that it was relatively warm and figured he could make it through. Still, you never know. It was a ridiculous amount of water and he could even drown in it. Who knew.

I walked halfway up the hill to the house and a kind passerby gave us a ride up the rest of the hill in his car. And then Khalida and Sharon showed up to give us a lift after I’d walked halfway down their driveway. Apparently the rain had been so heavy they hadn’t heard the phone. It was only sometime after I’d left the message that they saw that a new voice mail had arrived and checked for the message.

All ended well. Jules was cranky but safe. He ended up taking a nice long nap after we got him dry. And I finally had my big adventure. Staying alive in the most rugged conditions imaginable. Like Survivor but carrying a small child and having access to plenty of food and water.

I formed two alignments that day. One with Jules, who now only gives me a slightly skeptical look when I ask if we wants to go in the backpack again. And another with Costa Rica. My country. My people. My dead battery.

Max: Yep, I Ben Stiller’d my Son

I can’t quite convey the feeling of guilty terror (or terrible guilt) I felt the other day when, in a fit of agitated impatience, I zipped up Liam’s shorts in the bathroom a little too quickly. The zipper only made it about half way up its metal-pronged path when it snagged on something and Liam’s mouth dropped open in silent, agonized shock. You know there’s real discomfort involved when there’s a delay in the scream coming out of a kid’s mouth. It’s not a whiny, tired or frustrated cry. It’s the real thing.

I immediately realized what I’d done and went into full lockdown crisis mode. I couldn’t bear to imagine the damage I might have inflicted so I retreated into an analysis-only zone, telling him calmly that I wanted to check for blood (he was a bleeder).

As he continued his wall-trembling wail I ran across the yard to get some ice (I probably just wanted an excuse to leave the scene before he saw how pale I’d become). When I got to the kitchen, Asan, Khalida and the Bungelow Boys were eating lunch. They all heard Liam’s screams and Asan asked if there was anything he could do to help. I shook my head without speaking, my mouth puckered awkwardly like a butcher who’d accidentally cut off his assistant’s leg and didn’t want his customers to know about it. Then I ran back across the lawn to apply some cold pressure (something, anything!) to the wound. I wrapped the ice in a washcloth and showed Liam what to do with it. Then I glanced at the zipper damage again and didn’t see anything too obvious (nothing was clearly missing, for example), though the truth is I only gave him the once-over with eyes half-closed.

Eventually Liam calmed and went to bed. Within about twenty minutes he was more excited about his washcloth of ice than the state of his groin (ah, the naivety of youth). Then of course Jules wanted his own washcloth of ice and naptime sort of spiraled into a more typical chaos.

About an hour passed before I was ready to admit what I’d done to our housemates.

“Frank or beans?” one of the Bungelow boys asked when I’d confessed to the crime.

“Frank,” I replied somberly.

“Eeyooh,” he winced, his entire body contracting.


Monday, August 27, 2007

Sharon: The Bungalow Boys and Why I Love Montezuma

So our trip has entered a new phase. Not surprisingly, the fact that we go home in five days has been coloring our experience for the past week or so. But what really came out of the blue to shake things up here were the Bungalow Boys.

Khalida and Asan have two small guest houses for rent on their property. [Shameless plug for them: One is a two BR, one a 1 BR, both built in gorgeous wood, some from their property, with windows all around and amazing views of the ocean. The 2BR rents for something like $700/month, and the 1BR for $275 a month! A perfect place for a retreat, and what a steal!] Last week, two 18-year-old guys from the States moved into the small house. In passing conversation, it came up that they have BABYSITTING experience, in fact have even taken Red Cross child care classes. It has also come to our attention that they are staying way out of town without a car, and that they seem to be a little bored. So...

Now we suddenly have energetic, English-speaking, live-in babysitters who are willing to do it for the CR rate of $2/hr. Shame this only came to our attention during our last week here, but we've already taken advantage of it by going out a few evenings, and we're going to leave our kids with them today so that Max and I can have one afternoon alone on the beach. They're great; the kids adore them, and they're super easy-going and flexible with us.

On the going-out note: Seems I have to write about Montezuma and our evening outings. Last Wednesday, Khalida and I went out to dinner with an old friend of mine from here, Ginette. Since I had kids, the latest I have been out in the evening is probably 11:00, and I usually go to bed by about 9:00 (the kids have taken to getting up at 4:45am, or so, with the tropical sun). So we assumed we'd go out for a leisurely dinner and be home by 10, maybe 10:30. After dinner we decided to head over to the bar in town, which also doubles as a discoteca now and plays loud music into the wee hours, for a drink. Who could have anticipated that the three married old ladies would have such a grand old time out on the town? Khalida is drop-dead beautiful, and the boys lined up to woo her, having no idea that they were stepping into a Stephen Colbert-like courting process in which she entertained us at their expense and they actually seemed to enjoy the wit. She came right out with the fact that we were married with kids, and led the conversation into such savory topics as breastfeeding without missing a beat. All this, while the random bar guys whisked us out onto the dance floor for some rapid-fire salsa and merengue that had them all asking, "But you're not from here, are you?" Before we knew it, the bar was closing, and we were sneaking into bed at 2:00am.

Which leads me to Why I Love Montezuma. Max and I were discussing this last night, as I was trying to pinpoint why I am so melancholy about leaving. Montezuma is technically a tiny, tiny remote village. There can't be more than 1000 permanent residents. So every day, just in doing errands or stopping into the bar, for example, you see the same friendly, familiar faces. But it's an international town, with a few fantastic restaurants, some interesting shopping, a really fun bar with great dancing, and a true international flavor: Italians and Argentinians predominating, but also with Germans, Canadians, and Gingos. The people-watching is phenomenal. Factor in the incredible natural beauty, and the slow pace of life, and it's pretty ideal already. But add to that a few solid friendships and strong local connections (since I lived with families who had been here for decades), and you can probably see why I feel like a piece of my soul will always live here.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Sharon: Rain, Rain, Go Away

Rain pounding down on a faux-tin roof in the middle of the jungle…sounds romantic, I know. I harbored romantic illusions about coming to CR in the middle of the rainy season, especially when we scheduled the trip for August. Of course, little did we know we’d be leaving the rainiest year ever (really) in Texas. Actually, it’s been almost the exact same weather here as what we left: unpredictable rain storms—some with dramatic thunder and lightening—almost every day, interspersed with beautiful mornings of sun and warm breezes. Beautiful, plenty of time for being outside.

But today is different. It’s been raining since yesterday afternoon, and in the past few minutes has gone from rain to RAIN, streaming in doors and windows on the wind, flooding the patios, drowning out conversation even from a few feet away. The floors are all tile, and so are precariously slippery, and the communal areas are all completely open to the elements. It’s fine when it’s just raining, but when it’s RAINing (or, more importantly, WINDing) like this, it all blows in and drives us into our own rooms indoors. If you saw a video of the view from our room right now, you’d swear we were those crazy journalists in the middle of a hurricane.

And still, all of this would be fine if Max and I were cuddled up in bed with a good book and a bottle of wine. But with the kids, it’s a whole different story, and, boy, are we missing Ruta Maya or Radijazz right about now. Max got stir-crazy right before this RAIN hit, and headed out for a drive with the boys.

Today was the Mothers’ Day celebration at Liam’s school. What great timing to be able to celebrate MD twice in one year! They had a crazy, complicated production this afternoon: food (provided by the mothers…grr…), followed by games (figure-out-what-drawing-your-kid-did), and songs and skits. Liam's class did the first skit, and to see him get up with them and sing his heart out in Spanish made me weepy. I'm so proud of him and what he's accomplished here!

P.S. It'd be dishonest of me to not include how badly it all ended over at school. Liam had one of his trademark meltdowns, probably inspired by the heat, the crowd, the noise, and his exhaustion by the end of the school day. By "meltdown," I don't mean tantrum, but more like a tantrum on steroids: an out-of-control, complete disconnect from which there is no recovery in public other than to take him away and let him get over it when he is ready. I was willing to offer him ANYTHING in order to make him more comfortable, but he was completely out of it, not able to tell me what he wanted or needed in order to feel better. It was embarrassing, yes, as it always has been when this happens, but people here are so much more forgiving about kids. As I carried him out (with his back arched, his head thrown back, and screaming at the top of his lungs), I heard people saying, "Pobrecito..." poor baby, he's so tired, or he's so little for this, etc. I sure will miss that completely accepting attitude about kids.