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Archive for October, 2008

Rough waters ahead

Riding the rapids

Riding the rapids

 

 

 

Riding the rapids of the Rio Sarapiqui brought to mind the ever worsening financial crisis that is gripping the globe, including Costa Rica, where some tourism operators are reporting serious declines in reservations for the upcoming holidays.

After a weekend getaway from our urban home near San Jose, we woke to even more bad news. The Canadian dollar continues to plummet along with out spirits and commitment to stay in Costa Rica away for an entire year. It seems we couldn’t have picked a worse time to abandon Calgary’s boom — which could soon be headed for a bust.

While we’d been following the ever-worsening sub-prime problems in the U.S., we were completely oblivious to the mounting financial crisis when it rocked the rest of the globe in recent weeks. When the economic earthquake hit, we were sitting on a beach in Nicaragua which in hindsight I suppose was a blessing. What could I have done, but hold my stomach as my investment portfolio dropped like a rock in the ocean.

Ignorance truly is bliss.

After a week unplugged, we returned to our home in Santo Domingo to discover that while we were splashing in the waves, economies around the world were drowning.

Despite being in Costa Rica, we’re feeling the financial pinch like everyone else. My retirement fund account is down by nearly $10,000. Ouch. And everything here is based in US dollars, so our cost of living is going up — way up. We’re now getting 441 colones for every Canadian dollar, compared to almost 550 when we arrived (a difference of about 26 cents). 

It still doesn’t make sense to me that the Canadian dollar, which a few weeks ago was almost par with the greenback, is plunging even though our economy has been strong. No offence American friends, but it’s totally unfair that because the your country goes to shit the rest of us have to pay for it.

Anyway, we’re at a crossroads: do we ride out the crisis here in Costa Rica, forget our financial woes by frolicking in the waves, or like this past weekend, the rapids? Or, do we pack it in and head home, preserving what we have left of our rapidly dwindling savings account?

After looking at a few photos from our weekend away, what would you do?

Suspending worry

Suspending worry

 

Poison dart Frog

Poison dart Frog

 

Creepy crawly

Creepy crawly

Toucans above

Toucans above

Relax. It's only money, right?

Relax. It’s only money.

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This blog was started as a sort of on-line diary about my family’s escape from urban chaos and the consumer culture that drives North America. Its inention was, and is, to share our journey for perspective, and maybe inspire a few adventurous souls along the way.

But an interesting thing has happened. I’ve found myself inextricably linked to a couple of other bloggers (see blogroll at the side), their stories and their support.  There’s a whole commentary somewhere in that, but for another time.

One of them issued a challenge — something called a meme and I decided to play along, even though it took me days.

 

Strangely, recalling seven random and weird facts about myself proved enlightening. At first, I struggled to come up with just one, thinking surely there wasn’t anything remotely interesting to say. Then, I realized it would be difficult to limit it to that number. In the end, what I discovered was that this exercise is as much about self-discovery as it is about publicly unveiling.

Now I understand why moving my husband and two small children to a developing, Spanish-speaking country we’d never even been to on vacation seems like a crazy idea to others but perfectly ordinary to me.

I’m a woman addicted to drama. Who knew?

Here’s my meme.

1. As a child I used to stand alongside the road that passed our home holding a sign that read ‘Slow Down.’

2. When I wasn’t holding a sign along said road, I was playing tricks on motorists, covering myself in ketchup and laying next to my overturned bike bringing cars to a screeching halt. 

3. As a youth I competed in western riding events and had three beloved horses; Barney, Red and Panama.

4. Growing up, I slept in an ornately carved wood-frame antique bed in which an old woman (the former owner) died.

5. I once posed as a prostitute on a street corner for a story, recording the voices of johns seeking sexual encounters.

6. A serial killer with whom I spent two years corresponding and interviewing in jail killed himself, citing me and my newspaper expose as the reason for his suicide in a note.

7. Last January, I turned down an eight-week assignment to cover the war in Afghanistan. The day I would have arrived in Kabul, a reporter was killed in the first-ever suicide bomb at a hotel where foreign journalists stay before being flown to Kandahar.

One last little random fact: I am technologically challenged. It’s a wonder I’m even able to manage an Internet blog.

So, since I don’t know how to tag and link . . . my meme moment is done.

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To view the text that goes with these photos, visit: http://www.canada.com/calgaryherald/news/city/story.html?id=f26d29e4-4a75-4860-8bd2-8d57156abd1d

A special night in San Jose

A special night in San Jose

 

The reunion of friends

The reunion of friends

 

Girls in all their glory

Girls in all their glory

 

The four amigos

The four amigos

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With brains in your head and feet in your shoes, if you saw this what would you choose?

Paying heed to Dr. Seuss and his wise words, we faced up to our fears and headed to Nicaragua.

It was with some trepidation that we opted to do our visa run to the small fishing village of San Juan del Sur. My knowledge of the country and its history is limited to the bloody and politically controversial civil war that happened 20 years ago and we wondered whether it would be safe to travel with two small children here.

This was foremost on my mind when we were dropped off a bus, after five hours on board and two hours at the border, on a lonely road some 20 kilometres from our final destination. We knew we’d have to take a taxi to San Juan del Dur from Rivas, a border town just inside Nicaragua, but no town appeared before us. Just a fork in the road with a couple of buildings alongside.

According to Lonely Planet, we were to expect a crush of locals competing for a $15-$20 fare to the tiny tourist village. But here, there was just one car, parked at the side of the road.

The driver called out to us, “Taxi,” as we stood bewildered.

What were we to do but climb in, and hope we wouldn’t be driven to some remote jungle location and robbed of our bags and left to our own devices?

Our fears, it turned out, were completely unfounded and we were delivered to our destination in a jalopy of a car without incident, on well-paved straight roads not unlike any North American highway.

The town is quaint and full of charm and colour, its crescent-shaped beach alive with activity.

By Nicaraguan standards (more than half the country’s inhabitants live in extreme poverty) it is prosperous. And aside from the odd street robbery and petty theft, it is safe and peaceful with tourism and foreign investment providing opportunity for jobs and a better future.

The co-owner of the hotel where we’re staying, Hotel Villa Isabella, started a mobile library that provides books to school children and workers at coffee plantations. Another community project also resulted in the recent installation of a beautiful playground where the local children gather to play outside the church and main square.

But there are signs that the region is still very much a Third World,  a place where children go hungry and the lights often go out for hours, if not days, at a time.

While eating lunch at the local market, where a meal can cost as little as $1, a small boy hovered near our table along with a dog, both with sad eyes begging for food.

The dog I could ignore but the boy tugged at my heart, his dark eyes boring into me. I offered him some of our lunch, and he quietly accepted, sitting at the end of the table next to my son.

What happened next filled me with pride and brought tears to my eyes: my son, 5 1/2, offered the boy the last of his fries and Coke — a special treat that he relishes and would ordinarily not relinquish for anything.

He even spoke to the boy in Spanish, asking him if he liked it.

“Te gusta?” my son asked the lad, who quietly nodded.

I kissed my son on the forehead, and told him I was pleased with his gesture.

On our way into Nicaragua we had passed many shanty homes alongside the highway and I had explained to him that this was a country where many children didn’t have enough food, let alone toys.

I wondered, was his act of kindness the manifestation of this message?

Later, I asked him why he gave his food and drink to the boy, curious how he would answer.

“I wanted to share. He wanted to eat with us and didn’t have any food, so I wanted to share with him,” my son replied, again bringing me to tears.

In this moment, all the misgivings about our year-long trek to Central America, where it is a continuous struggle to adapt to the culture and language evaporated like the mist over the mountains that hug the bay at San Juan del Sur.

Like the sun disappearing into the horizon, memories of the beach will eventually fade. But the development of a conscience and kind heart is something that — hopefully — can’t be forgotten because it’s now part of my boy’s essence.

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First, I want to clear something up.

Bocas del Toro is not “teeming with resorts” as I stated in the previous entry.

I should have qualified this statement and offered further explanation, but it was late, I was tired, and had been for hours working on travel arrangements.

There are numerous places to stay on these beautiful islands that fit all sorts of budgets. And like everywhere in Costa Rica and the region, the price is usually commensurate with your needs, standards and expectations.

We were recommended against staying in the town proper, where most of the cheap hotels and lodges are located. With two small children, Bocas town is apparently not a place where we would find peace and quiet. Plus, the beaches directly accessible there are apparently polluted with sewage runoff (similar to many popular beaches in Costa Rica.)

The area’s islands, however, are said to be amazing and best explored by kayak. There are multiple outdoor adventure opportunities, but with two small kids it’s not the ideal family getaway but certainly handier than heading to Disneyland.

Given that we were making a vacation out of our visa run, we decided to go a little more upscale than the manner in which we’ve been travelling so far and wanted something with a pool, for the kids. Making matters more complicated, my hubby has a number of assignments due the week we’re going (the only time we can do it as our kids are on vacation and we have friends coming for a visit later in the month) and requires access to the Internet — an especially difficult travel requirement when going to the remote islands in Panama.

As in all things, you pay a premium for these sorts of luxuries, so the accommodations in the Panamanian islands that fit our desires were priced much higher than what we’ve experienced for similar accomodations here in Costa Rica and in some cases, much pricier than what some of the hotels and lodges advertise on their websites.

Anyway, we turned ourselves around completely and at the last minute have decided to go the other direction — literally — and take our visa trip to Nicaragua, stopping in a beach town called San Juan del Sur where we can get more for less.

It could end up a fiasco, given that we’re two days out and doing it last-minute. Hubby is out right now trying to buy a ticket for Tica Bus, Costa Rica’s Greyhound equivalent.

It is the rainy season on the Pacific side, where San Juan del Sur is located, while October is the best time to go to Bocas del Toro, in the Caribbean. Both are about the same travel time from where we are, but the logistics are somewhat more complicated to Bocas Tel Toro involving bus, bus, taxi, border crossing, boat and taxi to the final destination. And that’s just one way.

So, stay tuned. It’s a toss-up.

Funny, my son always tells me that my favourite book is Dr. Suess’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go.

I think he’s right.

“Simple it’s not, I’m afraid you will find, for a mind-maker-upper to make up his mind.”

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Barely unpacked from our quick trip to the beach and we’re off in a few days for another adventure, this time to Panama.

Our three-month tourist visa doesn’t expire until the end of October but it so happens that the private school where our children attend has scheduled two-week breaks every six and this next one begins Oct. 4th.

Many expats living in Costa Rica make the requisite journey out of the country every 90 days. Aside from buying your way to a resident status through a major financial investment or having a child here — neither of which is an option for us — this is the only way to legally live in the tropical country for any length of time. Some people do this for years. Others simply ignore the rules, hoping to get off with a fine if caught, the penalty for which can be deportation and a ban on visiting for five years.

Of course, there are also opportunities to pay someone to do a “visa run.” Costa Rica, like so many developing countries, has its share of corruption and this option is an easy way to skirt the rules, albeit one with some risk.

It’s an option I seriously considered after exploring the accommodations in Bocas del Toro, Panama, an archipelago bordering Costa Rica on the southern Caribbean. Once an inexpensive and unexplored paradise, the area is now teeming with high-end resorts. And supply and demand seems to have driven up the price of a night’s stay, which at the majority of places starts at about $100 per person.

During our last visit to the coast I met someone who offered to run our visas to the border, get them stamped with the appropriate date (72 hours out of Costa Rica) and return them for a fee of $70 per passport.

This wasn’t just someone off the streets, but a reputable businessman in the area who has for years assisted people like us. It’s not his main income, but a tidy little side business that puts a little bit of extra money in his pocket and that of the border official with whom he’s well acquainted.

After the prospect of paying as much as $1,200 for our five nights away (factoring in meals and accomodation for two nights in Cahuita to break up the six-seven-hour journey) in the face of a rapidly dwindling bank account, I was up for it. But my husband put the hammer down — something he rarely does — and flat out said, “No.”

“I’m afraid it will come back to haunt us, somehow,” said my Catholic spouse.

Wouldn’t three Hail Marys take care of that? Lord knows the Church has forgiven worse sins.

Anyway, he won the battle and off to Bocas del Toro we’ll go, staying in a place recommended by said passport runner — a $25 per night cabin, built on stilts over the sea, without windows or screens.

Can’t wait to write about this one. Good thing I’m scheduled for a meditation workshop at Casa Zen here in Santo Domingo the day before . . . more on that to come.

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The morning after meeting my prince (which a blog reader informed me was actually a poisonous toad, spoiling my epiphany) there were two e-mail messages waiting about beach houses for rent.

The fog (and frog) were gone and I was possessed by spontaneity.

A quick call to a car rental agency and we were off on another adventure, in search of the perfect beach house and pura vida for a three-day whirlwind trip to the coast.

Getting around by bus in Costa Rica is the most economical way to travel but not always the most efficient. The country is small, the size of southern Alberta, the Canadian province we formerly called home, but it takes hours to drive from one end to the other. Traversing the mountainous terrain and twisty roads that connect the wet central valley to the country’s coastlines can even be treacherous at times, like driving through the Rocky Mountains during the summertime where getting stuck behind an RV can add hours to the trip.

Navigating was a snap. Despite Costa Rica’s lack of street addresses and road signs we easily made the 4 1/2 road trip to Playa Conchal, in the province of Guanacaste on the northern Nicoya Peninsula.

We even managed to find the home we were to look at, despite its remote location in the middle of the jungle down a muddy dirt road barely passable by car.

The owner, an American named Patricia, who despite years of living in California never lost her New Jersey accent, turned out be another character in our unfolding drama.

The middle-aged school teacher and her husband built a beautiful, large, four bedroom home with a backyard pool in the middle of the forest about four years ago. They intended to relocate, along with their four children from the U.S. but the dream collapsed along with the housing market.

Patricia graciously invited us to spend the night, saving us one night’s expense in a hotel.

But it became clear early on that her motives weren’t entirely altruistic.

Patricia is a conspiracy theorist — in the extreme, who believes in the Illuminati and the New World Order. In a nutshell, its followers subscribe to the notion that the world is controlled by a select group of people, including many of the world’s wealthiest people, top political leaders, and corporate elite whose goal is to control the world and every human being on the planet.

Patricia, who is extremely knowledgeable on the subject, kept us up until after midnight educating us on her favourite conspiracies, among them the goal of the United States government to create a common North American currency. She even happened to have with her what she claimed is a prototype for the Ameros.

The Ameros

The Ameros

Patricia believes that Sept. 11 was manufactured by the Bush government; that cancer can be cured but for the power wielded by pharmaceutical companies; that non-carbon-based fuels and technological advancements in clean cars is stymied by Big Oil and that dentists are poisoning us by perpetuating a myth that fluoride prevents cavities. Autism is caused by vaccines; microwaving food will kill you; Bill Clinton has people killed to protect his secrets and people can cure themselves of cancer. Just Google “Clinton body count,” says Patricia, who was nonetheless great company and joined us for dinner the next night.

And these are only a smattering of the things Patricia covered during our chat in her jungle home, whose nearest beach is several kilometres away and aptly named Pirate’s Cove.

Sunset at Pirate's Cove

Sunset at Pirate

The home — within sight of a mountain held sacred by the indigenous people because it was believed to be the last point where the spirits gathered before they journeyed across the ocean — is too remote for a family without a car.

We decided not to take the house.

I love a good conspiracy, but Patricia is way out there and so is her house.

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