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Reality bites

While driving down a major freeway the other day, on my way to the old job in an office I haven’t seen in a year, my car suddenly stopped.

Dead. Right there in the middle of major traffic.

Surely this was the sign I’ve been looking for in the past month, since trading Costa Rican paradise for a chaotic life in Calgary.

No more work. No more grind. Time to quit my job for good and pursue the dream, whatever that is.

The $600 repair bill swiftly brought me back to reality.

It seems it was a sign, only the opposite. The sign that I HAVE to go back to work to pay off the mechanic, and the myriad other bills that mounted while we cavorted around Costa Rica for a year, having the time of our lives.

During the past several weeks of post-mortem, another epiphany occurred: Real life sucks.

I guess I can’t really call it an epiphany. I think it’s something I’ve known all along, that I’m not cut out for ordinary suburban life.

In fact, reading back over my old blogs, this fact jumped off practically every post.

So if this point was, and is so obvious to everyone, including me, then why was I then, and now still living it?

I’ll get back to you.

First, the mechanic beckons. And then it’s off to work.

Dear Costa Rica,

I just wanted to send a note letting you know, my love, that I made it home to Canada safe and sound.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that I miss you desperately and would be on the next plane back to you if I could.

Our trip home was uneventful, though the boy burst into tears as our airplane ascended  into the sky and away from the tropical paradise that we all grew to love and at times, hate, too.

Though I shed some tears of my own before leaving, they were not initially for you, Costa Rica, but for the dear friends that we grew close to in Atenas.

It was not until days later that the floodgate opened, when I became overwhelmed with the culture shock of returning to the place that I once called home but, strangely, now is the one looks and feels like a foreign land.

Following behind a truck full of furniture to move back into the house I was happy to leave behind, the tears began to flow.

Though the sky was blue, it was cold outside. Barely above freezing and it’s the end of June.

While in the rear-view mirror I could see the awe-inspiring Rocky Mountains, the flat lands of the Alberta Prairie were spread out ahead. It is a mildly green, uninspiring landscape that leaves me longing for the dense jungle of Costa Rica through which the winding, narrow roads are carved.

It is also a landscape noticably bereft of any character despite the rows upon rows of picture pergect gigantic homes that look as if they have been stamped one next to the other with a cookie cutter.

Aside from moving back into our home, there is a mountain of tasks to attend to. Cars to be insured. Utilities to be arranged. Battles with Revenue Canada to be fought – that’s a whole other story that leaves me longing to return to Costa Rica, a place where people’s lives are not governed by myriad rules and government intervention.

I just feel so sad and so lonely, despite the amazing reception and welcome back from all the wonderful friends we left behind.

I miss you Costa Rica.

I miss your smell after the rain. I miss being wrapped in the arms of your sunshine.

I miss waking up and feeling alive and full of joy.

But in reality it was all an illusion, a one-year affair that had to end. I knew that from the beginning and tried not to get too attached.

Still, I fell in love with you in spite of your flaws, or perhaps because of them. You taught me that paradise never comes without its pitfalls. That none of us is perfect and that it’s ok to be vulnerable. You accepted me and allowed me to be myself instead of who and what everyone else expects me to be.

I try every day to remember the many lessons you taught me but most of those days still end in tears. Even now, as I write this letter, they spill down my cheeks.

I do not regret running away from home to be with you but for now, it is too difficult to think of our time together. So, do not expect to hear from me for a while. It is simply too painful.

Hopefully, with time and distance, I can write again and reminisce about all the wonderful times we shared without feeling so sad.

So, until then.

Hasta luego, mi amor.

We’re at the end of week three in a month or more long road trip, our last before returning to Canada from Costa Rica, where we’ve lived now for almost a year.

It’s hard to believe it’s almost over and as the clock ticks, there are moments where I feel nostalgic and others when I just want it to be over, so much that it has been difficult to enjoy the last few weeks of travel.

Although a year’s sabbatical is fantastic, it really isn’t long enough. We’ve discovered that when you move somewhere new, especially a foreign country, it takes at least a year just to begin to start to feel comfortable and like you belong.

Anyway, those insights are better saved for another post because already I have to cram in three weeks of travels in one go.

So, we left our Atenas house on May 9th and headed north. That’s all, just north. No hotels booked and a couple of destinations in mind. We decided to scrap an official itinerary so we wouldn’t be married to hotel reservations and free to stop if we saw something that looked fun and worth checking out.

We had originally hoped to spend our last month in Granada, Nicaragua because we loved the historical colonial town so much and wanted to do some volunteer work. That idea was scrapped for a variety of reasons, including our indecision about where to stay, how long to stay etc. Indecision, as it happens, became a recurring theme in our first two weeks as we stumbled along from place to place feeling a bit lost and uncertain about where to go next. That whole non-itinerary ended up backfiring in our face, but I digress.

Our first stop was the cloud forest, on the way to Arenal Volcano. On a previous trip to Arenal we had passed an unusual looking resort, just off the highway, called Lands in Love (www.landsinlove.com). The road signs for the place, while totally cheesy with hand-painted hearts and pastel colours, were intriguing.

Turns out the place is an ecological vegetarian resort owned by 18 friends who all hail from Israel. The group lives/works together and runs the “pet-friendly” eco-resort, which is set on 280 acres surrounded by pristine forest.

The grounds and setting are amazing but the place has a bit of an odd, cultish feeling to it. More importantly, none of the owners — who man/woman the front desk, wait tables, cut the grass and even clean the rooms — we encountered seemed enthused about having kids there. So, we moved on after spending just one night there.

The property does have some wonderful trails and its well-kept grounds are dotted with colourfully painted and hand-crafted creatures, such as those in the photo below.

 

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Our next stop was El Casillo, a tiny village at the foot of the ominous active Arenal Volcano.  We found a basic cabina with an incredible view of the volcano for $55, breakfast included, compared to the almost $100 we would have been charged near La Fortuna. Of course, I had to leave the bathroom light on that night after earlier seeing a gigantic cockroach climb out of the drain in the sink. 

The next morning, we visited a nearby serpentarium, where the kids got to hold some snakes before we headed off to the Observatory Lodge , located in the middle of primary forest in a national park and the closest lodging to the volcano. We splurged here on accommodations simply due to the fact that this is the one place you can actually get up close and personal to the lava, if you are so lucky to have a clear night — which we didn’t. It poured all day and night, just like it did last time we visited and we didn’t even get to hear one explosion.

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Still, the place is amazing and is full of beautiful birds and wildlife (my daughter and I nearly stepped on a huge black snake during a walk) and it was worthwhile visiting.

From there, we headed toward Monteverde, the famous cloud forest founded by American quakers who settled there to avoid the Vietnam war draft.

As the crow flies, Monteverde is practically a stone’s throw from Arenal but there is no direct route there. In fact, the approximately 60-kilometres trek takes about four-to-five hours because of the winding, bumpy gravel road so we decided to split up the drive and stay the night somewhere in between.

The highlight of this leg was a cute $29 cabina near Tilaran, at the south end of Lake Arenal, on a lovely property owned by a Swiss couple. They served us breakfast (included in that price) on their patio where the kids cooed over a box of newborn kittens and we oohed over the monkeys swinging through a grove of trees a few hundred metres away.

Monteverde itself was a bit of a disappointment. Though the drive there offered some spectacular scenery featuring rolling green pastures, the area itself is is not at all what I imagined. It is touted as an ecological heaven, a place off the beaten path because of its remote location and rough roads. Instead it was teeming with more tourists than we’ve seen all year and high prices to go along with it.

There are myriad outdoor activities, but each comes with a hefty pricetag. Entrance to the Monteverde biological reserve itself, where there are a plethora of natural hiking trails, is $17 US per person on its own. And that’s the cheapest of them.

We opted to cough up the $100 to the Disneyland park called Selvatura because it had a dozen or so hanging bridges strung through the rainforest canopy.

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It was beautiful, but when you have two little kids whose main interest is to make as much noise as possible and run as fast as they can across the bridges there’s hardly an opportunity to appreciate nature and get your money worth. And when you’ve lived for almost a year amidst similarly beautiful scenery, watched toucans in the trees from the window of your home and nearly stepped on snakes walking down an ashphalt road during a routine walk, paying such a hefty amount to do what usually do for free has a certain sting.

It’s not that I think such attractions should be free. But when you you know the staff, local Costa Ricans, are earning only a couple of bucks and hour and that the costs of construction are dramatically lower here than in other developed countries, it’s hard not feel like you’re being gouged.

I’ve become rather cheap since living in Costa Rica, and think very hard about every dollar I spend on things other than basic neceessities. Partly, it’s because we’ve had to live on a tight budget due to a lack of income from work. But it’s also because my eyes have been opened to just how much money I used to throw away on everything from coffee to clothes to kids toys. 

At the same time, it sucks.

Living like a pauper isn’t a serious hardship but I do find myself dreaming of reclining in a cushioned chair, sipping an umbrella drink at an oceanfront, luxury resort instead of staying in a stinky, rundown condo rental in Tamarindo.

We headed to that famed beach town after Monteverde and much angst about whether we ought to hike more rainforests and volcanos or sit in the sun. What a mistake. Not the sun-seeking decision, but the one to visit Tamarindo. It was dirty, stinky and so expensive we lasted two nights.

So, this brings us to our present location — Playa Carrillo, one of the first beaches we visited after arriving in Costa Rica and certainly one of the most beautiful. Protected by a reef, the cresent-shaped beach is devoid of huge surf and perfect for swimming. It is lined with towering palms, that offer shade over carefully placed picnic spots. It remains unspoiled and free of beachfront development and is kept impeccably clean by the municipality and regularly patrolled by police.

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Here, we scored a fantastic room in a brand new lodging, Hotel Palmeras (www.hotelpalmerascarrillobeach.com) in the tiny village of 250, that overlooks a stunning salt-water pool. It’s a luxurious room with a kitchenette but at a budget rate — $55 per night. The owner cut us a good deal because the place is empty and business is suffering. We’ve been here a week now, soaking up the sun and enjoying our precious last weeks at a beach we may never see again, except in our photo albums.

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I’m dying for a bath.

Sounds odd, I know, but I am. It just suddenly struck me.

I haven’t had one in, oh, at least nine months. That’s almost exactly how long I’ve been living in Costa Rica, a tropical paradise smack in the middle of Central America.

And I could use one. Not because I stink (I shower daily), but because it’s cold tonight, about 21C. Seems strange to be cold at this temperature, when back home I’m used to enduring -21C, during the day, for half the year.

Must be the humidity, and the rainy season coming on here in the highlands of the central valley. Atenas proper is situated 698 metres above sea level and where we sit, high up on the side of a mountain it’s probably closer to 1,000 metres, not far off from my home town of Calgary, which is 1048 metres above sea level and at the same time of writing sits at 19C.

I love a hot bath, especially when it’s cold. There’s nothing like a good soak and a magazine. It’s both a physical escape (from kids and rigours of daily life) and a mental one.

Most houses here don’t have tubs. We didn’t have one until we moved to our “American” style home in Atenas. But even though we technically have one, we really don’t because we can’t get enough hot water to fill it completely. A hot water tank is a rarity here. Those who have hot water (it’s not typical) usually have an instant heater, which lasts a good five minutes or so but certainly not long enough to fill a tub.

On the upside, it’s very energy efficient and cuts down on both waster electricity and water.

Still, it’s one of those “takes getting used to” kind of things about Costa Rica.

I realize after nine months of blogging I have never really properly described this odd yet beautiful place that we have come to love and hate on varying occasions.

I’ve continually called it a developing country, which technically it is, according to official sources such as the World Bank, United Nations and other global agencies who like to collect data but do nothing with it. Most use economic means to measure progress using complicated formulas involving GDP and GNP although there are other indicators that are used to classify countries, such as infant birth and mortality rates.

The connotation of the word “developing”, like “Third World”, conjures up all kinds of images. It makes me think of little African children and bulging bellies, you know, the kind you see in the World Vision infomercials on TV designed to make us open our pocketbooks and feed off our collective capitalist guilt.

TV is often our only view into foreign lands and it’s amazing how much of our conceptions are shaped by what we see.

I had never been to Costa Rica and knew very little about the country before I came. All I knew was that it was a so-called developing country renown for eco-tourism.

After living here for almost a year, neither is the case, in my view.

Costa Rica is very well-developed, although perhaps not quite to North American standards. Most people are content to live in small houses without a tub, or even hot water for that matter.

It boasts the largest middle-class in the region and land ownership is widespread. Although there are many poor here in Costa Rica, about 20 per cent, according to some sources, there are plenty of people with brand new cars who spend their weekends at the mall.

To me, “developing” isn’t the appropriate word to described this country, although there are certainly aspects to life here that reveal Costa Rica to be behind other countries, like Canada.

The country has for years built a reputation as an eco-haven, a place where the environment is protected and pristine. Indeed it is bio-diverse with 25 per cent of its land protected. But the reality is that it is a long way from from being green, in an environmental sense.

Recycling is a rarity and people still throw their trash out car windows and on the ground without thought. In fact, it wasn’t that long ago that signs were posted on public buses, encouraging people to throw their garbage out the window rather than leave it on the bus.

Waste disposal and sewage treatment is an ongoing problem all over the country and some popular tourist beaches are so polluted you’d be crazy to swim in them — although many unwittingly do.

But in other ways this country is no different than my own, just with a few quirks.

We can go the movies at the mall, or rent the latest DVDs from the video store, although they are always pirated copies burned onto blank discs. Or, I can buy those same movies in the streets, but these ones come with the laughs of the folks watching them along with the person who videotaped the screen where it played.

We can drive into the city and go one-stop shopping at Hipermas, the WalMart of Costa Rica. Everything that exists in a North American store can also be bought here, although usually of a lesser quality. The factory rejects are sent here along with the made-in-China toys and crap that doesn’t  stand up rigorous product quality standards in North America.

All this is apparently relatively new. To those who’ve been coming here for the last 10 years, Costa Rica is a different world today.

Our Spanish teacher, Odie, a well-educated and fully bilingual Tica, says they didn’t even have TVs 15 years ago.

If Costa Rica is a developing country, the only question is what is it developing into?

Opposite land

My friend Mary calls Costa Rica opposite land.

It’s a good description because often the way things are done or happen are completely contrary to the way you’d expect.

For instance, if a Tico has his house for sale and has not had a nibble in a year, he will raise the price rather than lower it. This actually happens, according to my friend Mary’s husband, a local realtor.

These types of contrarian situations can happen anywhere, anytime and always when and where you’d least expect. In some ways, it’s part of what makes living in this developing country so alluring because life and the little things that happen in it are never predictable and consequently, never boring.

One of these moments happened the other day while I was at Scotiabank, where we have an account.

I had discovered about a week ago that my debit card was missing and realized I must have left it at the ATM when we were last there, so we drove the 45 minutes to the bank to see if it someone turned it in.

Of course, the day I made this discovery was the eve of Semana Santa, Holy Week in Costa Rica, when everyone is scrambling to do their banking and shopping before the entire country grinds to a halt for several days in religious observance (no beer/liquor is allowed to be sold and nearly every store or institution closes its doors for at least three days.)

The bank was jammed so I grabbed the obligatory number from the dispenser and patiently settled in for my turn.

About 30 minutes passed, without any new numbers being called, when an old Gringo with a young chica entered the bank and walked straight over to a bank representative and sat down and were served.

Had this happened back home, I probably would have went berserk and demanded I be served first.  But being in a foreign country without a good command of the langauge has taught me a few things, patience among them. It is neither worthwhile nor productive to scream and holler and get upset over things you cannot control. So, there I sat, prepared to wait it out.

Then, the opposite of what I would have ever expected here in Costa Rica happened. An armed guard, who unbeknownst to me had seen what happened, went to a woman who appeared more official than the front counter bank officers and reported the incident.

The woman promptly called me over and dealt with me personally, apologizing for the wait and someone else being served first. More importantly, she said my card had been turned in (another unexpected happening) but had been destroyed for security. She would promptly issue me a new one, she said.

When we were done, she asked me to fill out a form explaining what happened. The bank, she said, needed my feedback to improve the quality of service. Now, if that’s isn’t opposite of what you’d ever expect I don’t know what is.

Of course, I went to the ATM shortly after that and the card didn’t work. It hadn’t been activated and by then it was too late to return to the bank and I couldn’t face another long lineup, anyway.

My friend Mary’s onto something. Opposite land. A never-ending adventure in the expected and unexpected.

While cruising the CR classifieds on a Yahoo group the other day it was a bit jarring to see a ‘for sale’ ad for a Glock, as in the gun preferred by most North American law-enforcement agencies. It is apparently legal to pack in Costa Rica but like most things, nobody can be bothered with the paperwork. In Granada, Nicaragua, people need to be reminded that weapons are not allowed in the park.

Centro Turistico, Granada

Centro Turistico, Granada

It poured rain for about an hour tonight — the first time in almost four months of continuous blue sky in Atenas, the Costa Rican town that boasts the best weather in the world. The air is fresh and the wonderful smells of the tropical forest waft up the nose like a freshly sprayed floral perfume.  The change in season is distinctive and Costa Rican winter is coming. Soon, the crunchy brown grass will be lush and green again and the rains will come every afternoon. God, how am I ever going to live through another Canadian winter after one without cold and snow.

The kids are finally loving school and eagerly dress every morning in their uniforms and march off without complaint. It is amazing to hear them greet their friends in Spanish and play in another language. Bilingualism (and I don’t mean a smattering of French) should be mandatory in Canadian schools. We are so myopic in North America.

Every day that passes brings me closer to our return to Calgary and the home we left almost a year ago. I’ve coined a new term for my old life: suburban suicide. The big question looms — how am I going to go back?

Continental Airlines has to have the nastiest and most unhelpful staff I’ve ever encountered. They were rude from the moment we stepped on the plane to fly to CR and even ruder when when I’ve tried deal with them over the phone to make airline reservations to return to Canada. I will never fly that airline again and if I can ever help, avoid Houston airport forever.

After seven months in Latin America, we are finally taking Spanish lessons. It would have been handier doing this at the beginning of the trip instead of the end. Somehow I always manage to do everything backwards.

Life’s problems follow you wherever you go but they sure are easier to work out when the mind is not cluttered with a million things to do. A sabbatical year is more useful than 10 of therapy and probably cheaper in the  long run.

Six years ago today two beautiful babies were born to an incredible woman in Calgary. Three weeks after that, my first child was born. The trio became very best friends and so did their moms. The same month we moved to Central America, my friend’s family moved to another city in Canada, about an eight hour drive away. It will not be the same going home without them there.

Happy Birthday Aiden and Abby. We miss you.

The boy was still quite weak from whatever stomach bug he caught before arriving in Nicaragua. We needed him to save energy for the grand finale of the trip: a night tour to Volcan Masaya and the smoking Santiago crater.

Since walking around town was out of the question, we decided to spend part of the day at Laguna de Apoyo, a 200-metre deep, 200-centuries old crater lake whose water is kept warm by underground volcanic vents.

Finding it, however, was a bit of a trick. There was a sign pointing in the general direction but after that we were on our own. We might not have found it were it not for a group of young, hitchhiking German students.

 

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The kids were a bit befuddled, as we’ve never picked up hitchhikers and always warn the kids about strangers. But as you can see, they looked pretty harmless and we were lost. And it was worth it, because as we reached the top of the crater and the water inside became visible we were awestruck. Its vibrant hues reminded me of the pristine, emerald lakes in the most remote areas of the Rocky Mountains that can only be reached on foot.

Though it came close, our crappy camera did not quite capture the purity of the colour. 119

There are a smattering of houses and a few basic lakeside restaurants where you can enjoy a coolish Tona, lay on a patch of rocky beach or swim in the water.

Though surely a national treasure, there is seemingly no protection or monitoring of the area and though it appears the locals do try to keep it pristine we found a chunk of glass along the shore where the children were playing and some garbage. Still, it was amazing.

From the lake, we moved onto the artisan market in Masaya, a bigger and much less pretty town about 20 minutes from Granada.

The market is hidden behind tall fortress-like walls that ooze history.

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Unfortunately, we only had about an hour to spend and we could have used at least three. The market was filled with all kinds of handcrafted goods, from traditional cotton dresses to chachkes to beautifully woven hammocks to leather shoes and handbags. There was also an impressive array of local art, the canvasses mostly reflecting the rural agricultural life of Nicaraguans.

When we departed, the young man of about age 15 who had pointed us to a parking spot had washed the car, without our asking. Of course, for his entrepenurial efforts he wanted $10 — for school, he said. It was a Monday, when he should have been at school so I’m pretty sure the poor kid is, well, poor, and has to work so we handed over the money without complaint.

From there, we raced over to the Volcan Masaya national park for a night tour — the highlight of the trip and the only thing that kept the sick boy going.

We were able to drive to the top of the volcano’s cone, and peer over the edge of the smoldering Santiago crater, said by the Spaniards who first conquered the New World to be the gate to hell. We were told to park the vehicle facing out, in case of an emergency evacuation. This became mandatory after a 2001 eruption hurled hot rocks into the air and landed on some cars and narrowly missing some tourists.

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These pictures show the crags of the crater’s edge and the sulphurous gases rising from its depths. We climbed to its top, where a gigantic wooden cross reaches into the sky. Visitors are only permitted to stay 20 minutes in one spot, due to the toxic gases.

From there, we explored two lava tubes, caves created from historical eruptions where a very knowledgeable and English-speaking guide explained their formation and how they were historical used for sacrifices by the ancient Mayans.

Can you say excited!

Can you say excited!

Another cave was inhabited by bats and we stood inside it, flashlights off while hundreds of bats took to the air; the wind from their wings felt on our cheeks. If you look very closely at the photo you will see them. It was snapped in complete darkness and the flash captured their silhouettes.

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Just incredible.

This was one of the most impressive natural wonders we’ve seen during our eight months in Central America, and there are many. It rivals ArenalVolcano in Costa Rica, where on a clear night you can see lava flowing down the side of the always rumbling cone.

The only disappointment was a small scam perpretrated by the ticket seller at the national park, who took my $40 entrance fee ($10 per person for the two-to-three-hour tour) then told the tour guides we’d only paid $20 and tried to get them to collect the additional $20.

I thought I’d seen every scam, but this was a new one and annoying that it happened at a national park. But I’m also a seasoned veteran in this game now and have a learned a few tricks of my own. So, I simply explained that I had paid the correct amount and if they had a problem they had better discuss it with the man who pocketed the other $20.

And we drove off. Adios amigos.

Nicaragua isn’t perfect.

About half its population remains painfully poor and it’s not unusual to pass by houses without indoor plumbing and dirt floors alongside the highway. A child rapped on our windows begging for money when we stopped for gas in Granada while a blind man with a cane grasped my hand and kissed it when I dropped some change into his as we passed on the sidewalk in the colonial city. At the border, there is a mother who regularly parades her disabled son past the lines of people waiting to get passports stamped with an outstretched bucket while a pregnant hawker refused to move away from the car window until I relented and gave her some money.

It’s not always easy to cope with these things, both emotionally and financially. Yet Nicaragua remains in my mind a place of beauty and inspiration.

My only regret is that it took visiting there to appreciate the plight of people in the Third World and start thinking about ways that I can make more of a difference.

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