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Archive for August, 2008

I am sitting on the roof of our new house on a tiny little square of concrete accessible via a steep set of stairs which up until a few moments ago was safety locked with a gate.

I’ve climbed up here because it is the only place I feel safe from the cockroaches.

My escape to the roof came just hours into our first evening in the new place, which is a completely different one that we had originally secured. That is a whole other story.

After tucking the kids into bed and getting them off into slumber-land I stepped into the kitchen, which only a couple of hours earlier I had finished scrubbing, on my hands and knees, with bleach to ensure it was clean for my kids to crawl around on.

In the glow from the oven light left on after cooking home-made pizza I saw dark specks on the white marble floor. Wondering what they were flicked on the ceiling light which sent the specks scurrying, back into their dark hiding places and me into a frenzy.

Hearing a screech, my husband came running and began furiously stamping out the disgusting little creatures I’ve only ever seen live once, at the Victoria, B.C. bug zoo. He captured one in a bottle my daughter has used to catch butterflies and no kidding, it was nearly two inches long, its unmistakable barbed legs sticking out from its sides like razor wire.

It’s a good thing I had already opened a bottle of wine because at that moment, alcohol was the only thing that would calm my frayed nerves.

I immediately collapsed into a heap of tears. I must have done something really shitty in my past life because the crap just keeps coming.

We are in this house instead of the one we originally rented because our landlord there ended up shafting us, switching out all the furnishings he’d promised and generally making our life miserable by constantly contacting us with some kooky question or another. and we weren’t even living there yet.

The last straw was when we returned from our short trip to the beach to a series of e-mails, one of which said to call him right away. When I did, he said he’d thought we left the country because he hadn’t heard from us, and said he’d just as soon stay in house the now if we wanted to get out of the contract. Happy to do so because it was becoming apparent that he was stark raving mad, we searched and found a new place. But the next day, he reniged on his offer and refused to return our deposit — a full month’s rent.

Money isn’t worth our sanity so we decided to forgo the deposit and rent the home we saw in the a little town nearby to where we first landed, called Santo Domingo.

It seemed to be everything we were looking for — and now roaches. Spiders, ants, flies — I can live with those bugs. But roaches?

It’s going to be a long night. I only wish I’d brought a sleeping bag.

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When I was a kid I had a maid.

Every week she would enter my room, ground zero, carefully stepping along the path from the door to the bed, searching for life under the pile of rubble that often included soiled dishes and green food.

The maid doubled as my nanny and she loved me despite my messy ways, never following through on the threats to bag everything in my tornado-like room and put it in the trash.

It was nice being taken care of, never having to lift a finger until my teens, when my maid and nanny — also known as my mother — got fed up and quit.

Ever since I’ve had to do my own laundry, clean my own room and then my own house. And now, I clean up after my own kids and am myself a maid. That is, I was up until we moved to Costa Rica, where hiring domestic help is commonplace, if not expected.

A maid came as part of the deal at the villa we rented for the first month of our stay.

For the first few days, it was a blessing to come back from a day’s outing to have the beds made, dishes done and laundry hung on the line.

But as time passed, the novelty wore off and so did my patience as the dirt left in the corners and goop on the plates became more apparent.

The same cobwebs that clung to the ceilings when we first moved in are still there and the bottoms of the kids’ feet are usually black by the end of the day from running around on floors that only ever get a quick swipe with something resembling a mop.

I haven’t the heart to complain, as the two lovely women who each day clean almost a dozen houses on the sprawling gated property where we live are paid a pittance, less than $300 per month, to clean the toilets where other people . . . you get the idea.

But it still irritates me that the job is always seemingly half done. My grandfather always used to say, even if you’re a ditch digger, be the best ditch digger you can be.

I’d pass it along to the maid but it would only demean someone already forced to perform a demeaning job.

So instead I just say, mucho gracias and then remind myself of another old adage:

Never ask someone else to do something wouldn’t do yourself.

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After a crazy first three weeks trying to settle into our new life in Costa Rica we took a much-needed vacation to the beach.

The oft-used term pura vida, pure life, surely applies to Tortuguero, a hidden gem on the Caribbean coast that’s only reachable by boat and features the richest forest in Central and South America, according to one local guide.

The scenery is spectacular; brightly lit flowers sprinkled amongst a blanket of greenery with leaves in all textures, shape and form. Its menagerie of wildlife is like a noisy circus, full of sound, colour and tricks that inspire awe and wonder.

While it’s low tourist season elsewhere in the country, Tortuguero, a village of about 800 surrounded by protected forest and situated on a peninsula, is bustling with activity with the peak of the green turtle nesting season. 

Though mentioned in guide books, Tortuguero is a destination that doesn’t hit the radar of most visitors to Costa Rica. It’s quieter, more remote and is clearly a backpackers paradise with rooms renting for as little as $10 per night.

There are organized tours but they can prove very expensive — starting at $200 per person per night and going up to as much as $600 for transport and accommodation at one of the few resorts that have been built.

Given that we are on a budget we did it on the cheap, taking public transportation to the area along with the locals who travel back and forth to the riverside communities. The trip door-to-door took about 5 1/2 hours and cost about $35 each way, for all four of us. Accommodations were about $25 per night, which consisted of a tiny room with three beds, a bathroom and fan that barely took the edge off the steamy nights that were spent spread eagle without any top sheet.

The mention of costs and money seems to permeate nearly every post you’ll read on this blog. The purpose is to show that you needn’t be wealthy to skip town for a time, whether it’s a month or a year. But if you don’t have a bulging bank account, sacrifices do have to be made. We’ve made many but on this particular excursion, it was an air-conditioned hotel room.

Aside from the cost, there are also other reasons to take the road less travelled, so to speak. A five-star vacation is nice but boring. If there’s no suffering involved it doesn’t leave you with much to talk about when people ask about it. 

And if you want to experience life like the people who live in a place then doing things the way they do is essential. Of course, this is my view upon reflection. It was a different story during the hour spent crammed like sardines on a school bus in the searing tropical heat and shirt-soaking humidity traveling over a teeth-rattling bumpy dirt road through a banana plantation to get to the public boat that would carry us the final leg of on our trek to Tortuguero. But I digress.

Aside from the weather, which was much hotter than we’ve been used to while living in the mountains, there are no gated communities and few barred homes like there is in most of the communities we’ve seen. Life is decidedly laid back in Tortuguero, too.

Our hostess at La Casona, Sara, took our reservation by phone, only requiring our first name, how many beds we needed and how long we’d stay. Dogs and cats roamed her palm-roofed, open-air restaurant (not exactly sanitary but certainly charming) and Sara herself cooked up breakfast and lunch while in between hitting the beach for a romp in the bathwater warm sea, where the untouched beach stretched out for miles with barely anyone on it.

 

For the first time, we also saw some of the wildlife that draws so many to this beautiful country, like the howler and spider monkeys that up until this point we’d only read and heard about.

What will be most unforgettable was the once-in-a-lifetime chance to witness the nesting of the gigantic green turtles that have made the area so famous. 

In a carefully controlled and permitted night tour supervised by national park rangers, we were able to watch one of these primitive beasts go through the arduous process of digging a deep hole where through even more great effort some 150 eggs the size of baseballs were laid, each one dropping from under her tail onto an ever growing pile that was eventually covered over in an incredible process that’s done but once a year.

Cameras are forbidden as a flash of light can confuse the turtles and force them to abandon this process but we were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of one making her way back out to sea at first light the next morning. We managed to get photos with the blessing of local authorities. 

This is a small sample of our trip and I could go on and on. Suffice it to say that the adventure was the highlight so far of moving to Costa Rica.

It has given me a new appreciation for nature, both here and back home, where the magnificent Rocky Mountains and all their splendour are an hour’s drive or less from our home and whose beauty I have taken for granted for years.

Paradise exists everywhere on the planet but it’s easy to overlook when it’s in your own backyard.

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Disconnecting

Gone on vacation . . . check back in a few days.

Meantime, some photos from our week.

Our boy loves to play in the rain, which comes every afternoon in the form of cats and dogs.

Our boy loves to play in the rain, which comes every afternoon in the form of cats and dogs.

 

Feeding the pigeons is illegal in some places. Apparently not in Heredia, where old men sell bags of corn for about 10 cents.

Feeding the pigeons is illegal in some cities, like New York City. Apparently not in Heredia, where old men sell bags of corn for about 10 cents.

There are hundreds of "winged rats" in this public square in the nearest city to us, which has a population of about 30,000 to 50,000. Heredia is a bustling town, filled with students as it hosts a major university.

There are hundreds of

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This is what it looks like:

Wake up with a headache and cranky after a night of bad dreams. Out of coffee. No Starbucks or even a poor equivalent despite having a coffee plantation for a backyard.

After years of being married to a Catholic, decide for the first time ever to attend a Sunday mass only to discover it’s combined with two funerals.

San Rafael cathedral, circa-1861

San Rafael cathedral, circa-1861

In search of a sweet for morning pick-me-up (remember, no coffee shops), inside of pastry showcase in bakery is swarming with bees.

Head to the farmers market where angry Tica woman slaps my hand as I reach for a bag of tomatoes that apparently she’s already spoken for. Vegetable shopping is serious business.

Wander over to playground to supervise the little ones in time to see a boy of about age 10 whip out his peter and have pee next to the slide.

Go home and put away groceries only to realize that fresh garlic carries a tag that says, ‘Product of China.’

Late afternoon torrential downpour causes sewer backup in bathroom, resulting in an inch of stinky brown overflow. No mop.

Internet outage occurs moments into a VOIP call home.

Resume reading Eckhart Tolle’s book, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose.

Page 226: “The words This, too, will pass are pointers toward reality.”

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It’s Mother’s Day in Costa Rica, an occasion so celebrated it’s actually a national holiday.

In honour of soccer moms, business moms and last-minute Mother’s Day shoppers, the government suspended the usual vehicle restrictions. The day also prompted President Oscar Arias to pardon a mother who had been serving an eight-year prison for funneling drugs into prison, which she claimed she did to feed her children.

Since it has already passed back home in Canada, I was honoured twice by my husband and two little ones, who surprised me this morning with a new umbrella after one of the three we brought was lost. My husband also cooked up pancakes with syrup, a pleasant break from the usual brown eggs, which each day get a little easier to swallow.

By coincidence, a package also arrived from my own mother, some important documents that weren’t ready  prior to our departure.

The occasion and the package made me nostalgic, longing for a lazy afternoon at the farm with my parents, especially my mom. Thinking of her, and our journey here in Costa Rica, resurrected fond memories of my own childhood and my desire to be the kind of mom to my kids that my own was to me.

Like so many mothers of her generation, my mom made many sacrifices, giving us all of herself to provide a home rich with love and attention. She baked cookies, sewed Halloween costumes and slipped special ‘I love you’ notes into the lunches she packed for school each day.

During my preteen years, my mom ferried me be back and forth to friends’ houses when hanging out with her became an embarrassment, like it does for most kids at that age. She survived my teenage rebellion and forgave all the times I told her I hated her.

As a young adult, my mom supported my decision to attend university 1,000 kilometres from home and sent me money to help pay the rent during the times I overspent on drinks at the bar.

She never once critcized my many bad choices in boyfriends and helped picked up the pieces of the broken heart each one left behind.

When I got hired for my first professional job she took me shopping and bought me new clothes. And when I got fired, she told me not to worry, that another job would come along.

As usual, she was right. And as my career took off, my mom was my biggest cheerleader, sending clippings of even the most trivial news stories that I wrote to my grandmother to share with the extended family.

My mom is simply the best mom in the world and gave me the tools to raise my own children, who don’t get near as much of me as I did of her.

And despite taking away her beloved grandchildren for an entire year, my mom never once asked us not to go — even as the tears rolled down her cheeks when we said our goodbyes.

So mom, Feliz Dia de la Madre.

There ought to be a national holiday for you.

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The moment the words tumbled from my mouth I wished to take them back, collect them like scattered coins spilled from an emptied pocket.

It happened during a meeting at the bank, where I was opening a Costa Rican account and making my first deposit.

“I’m a millionaire here,” I stupidly joked.

Friends and colleagues have often remarked that I have no filter, suggesting on occasion that my inside voice needs work. It’s one of the negative qualities that requires constant attention.

But even a momentary lapse can have disastrous consequences. This was evidenced in the reaction of the banking official, who was quick to remind me my million-colones deposit, about a thousand bucks or so, is a fortune here.

Although Costa Ricans boast the highest quality of living in the region, the minimum monthly wage is a mere $175. By comparison, Nicaragua has the lowest minimum wage at $33 per month, according to the Central American Human Rights Commission.

“There are many poor people in Costa Rica,” the banking official stated, her voice even but the words direct.

“It’s because of, how do you say, foreigners, driving up prices.”

Ouch.

Instantly wracked with guilt, I tried to assuage her, agreeing that people like me were to blame for the growing disparity amongst the people here, which has resulted in debate about the root of Costa Rica’s social ills and the relatively new phenomenon of gated and guarded communities due to rising crime.

It is true that the cost of housing has shot through the roof throughout the country, particularly in coastal areas where mostly Americans and Canadians are snapping up a piece of paradise for still relatively reasonable prices, at least compared to recreational property in North America.

But neither foreign investors nor the expats who settle here are solely to blame for the growing gap between the rich and poor — the Ticos themselves have to own up to their own fair share.

In the expat enclave of Escazu, where the Multiplaza is located, the majority the area’s residents and patrons at the high-end stores are wealthy Costa Ricans who seemingly have no problem paying North American prices to outfit their kids and themselves in the latest fashions or buy the latest high-tech gadget. Although there are more expats there than here in our small town of San Rafael, where prices are much more reasonable, they are still a visible minority by far.

Globalization and rising oil prices are playing havoc on the local economy just as they are in countries around the world, including Canada. According to the Tico Times, the local English weekly, the Costa Rican economy, along with its currency has experienced a sharp decline in recent months. This is in contrast to years of robust economic growth.

Food prices are also on the rise, including staples like rice and beans, making it harder for many local people to put food on the table.

Yet there are fewer visibly poor here than in Calgary, where a surging economy has left many out in the cold — literally and figuratively. At least here there is an abundance of fruit and vegetables that can be grown year-round to ensure there’s always food on the table.

Unlike home, where you can hardly walk any downtown street without being assaulted by panhandlers and vagrants, it’s rare to see someone sleeping on the street in the central valley, where at least the temperatures never dip down below about 15 C.

Even San Jose is almost bare of panhandlers, although we did witness the heart-breaking sight of a mother and child begging on a busy corner.

Still, the episode at the bank was a good reminder that even though my lifestyle is restricted by my resources both at home and here, I am rich compared to most people in Costa Rica, and around the world, for that matter.

Humble pie is a meal best eaten with gratitude.

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