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Archive for the ‘Costa Rica’ Category

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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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.

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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.

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Nicaragua and Costa Rica are starkly contrasting countries, as much for their respective landscapes as for their inhabitants, history and culture.

While Costa Rica is a well-developed paradise for sun-seekers, it is mostly bland in local colour. Nicaragua, meantime, offers a less developed tourist infrastructure but is teeming with native culture and unexplored adventure opportunities.

Despite its turbulent history of civil war and violence, Nicaragua is an incredibly safe country, as well. In fact, according to a variety of sources, the tiny and poor tropical country is the safest in Central America. One study posted on-line actually shows that, statistically, rates of crimes such as robbery burglary are dramatically lower in Nicaragua than in the United States.

Yet for many foreigners, myself included, the mere mention of Nicaragua conjures up all kinds of scary images.

Now, based on two experiences travelling  in the country, I can honestly say that the image in my mind will forever be changed. The people are amazingly friendly and helpful and I felt safer driving and walking on the streets of Nicaragua than I ever have in Costa Rica, where crime has seemingly surged in the past year that we’ve been here.

This feeling of relative calm allowed us to enjoy the incredible drive from the border to Granada, about two hours inland and about midway to the country’s capital of Managua.

The first breathtaking and dramatic sight is Isla de Ometepe, which consists of two volcanic peaks rising up tall and proud from the middle of Lago de Nicaragua. There’s something awe-inspiring about volcanoes; perhaps it’s their sheer power and unpredictability that makes them so enchanting.

The well-paved highway runs alongside the grand lake and though there are a few small, run-down properties advertised as hotels the area remains largely untouristed. Lonely planet offers instructions on how to get the remote volcanoes and island connecting them, but having along two small children means we are restricted somewhat in how and where we travel and sadly, such a visit was out of the question.

The last seven or eight months has taught us that dragging along a three-and-five-year-old around Central America is adventure travel in and of itself.

But I digress.

Along the peninsula bridging Nicaragua and Costa Rica is also another dramatic sight that is changing the lives of many Nicaraguans — wind turbines providing a steady and reliable source of renewable energy.

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Late last year, when we visited San Juan del Sur, a tiny fishing village on Nicaragua’s Pacific Coast, the 126-metre tall windmills were not yet operational. Many hoteliers and local business operators were eagerly awaiting relief from the blackouts that frequently left them without power for hours an even sometimes days.

The turbines have been turning now for just a few weeks.

According to a news release on-line, “the wind farm provides 19 windmills with an expected generation of 40 MW of energy. Six percent of Nicaragua’s energy demand is projected to be met through this $90 million project.”

Amazing that a such a poor and undeveloped country is taking such progressive measures when the installation of additional turbines in the southern part of my home province in Canada is the source of much controversy amongst area residents.

It’s yet another example of how our values are out of whack in North America, in my opinion. I think we wouldn’t be so quick to complain about the aesthetic impact of wind turbines if it meant the difference between having electricity or not, like it does in Nicaragua.

Perhaps it would help if we looked at them through the eyes of children.

The boy loves windmills. Despite his ill state, he lit up at the sight of the turbines that edge Lake Nicaragua and both sides of the highway north of the border. He screeched with excitement at one point, saying he didn’t know which side of the highway to look at because he didn’t want to miss seeing a single one.

As they faded on the horizon, so did the boy, anxiously asking when we would arrive in Granada.

A little over an hour later, we finally made it to the colonial city, arriving smack dab in the centre without a good map to tell us where to go, or how to get to our hotel.

Cathedral de Granada

Cathedral de Granada

 

Iglesia de Guadalupe

Iglesia de Guadalupe

No matter, a local resting along the street jumped on his bike and showed us the way when we stopped and asked him for directions.

It was a warm welcome that continued throughout our stay; almost every Nica we encountered smiled or waved whether it was while we were in the car or on the street.

We were anxious to rest and check-in at Hotel con Corozan, an incredible gem and new lodging located a few blocks from the central plaza.

Just a few months old, the small hotel was founded by some Dutch fellows who have for the past two years donated their time and own money to building the non-profit lodging.

All of the profits go toward assisting in local development projects, primarily programs ensuring Nicaraguan children continue with their schooling.

Decor in the rooms was made by locals; each bed was covered in a colourful patchwork quilt and there were beautiful baskets weaved from old newspapers.

Aside from its sustainable elements, the place was an amazing value at $65 per night — including a heaping breakfast each morning that kept us full until dinner.

It even has a courtyard pool.

It even has a courtyard pool.

From the “hotel with a Heart” we explored Granada’s rich colonial streets and architecture.

We visited museums featuring pre-Colombian artifacts, climbed a bell tower in an amazing cathedral and explored the entire core in a horse-drawn carriage for a mere $10 for an hour.

Granada is truly a treasure and an affordable one at that.

I could go on an on, but at this rate I’m going to have file a whole other post to complete our journey.

Suffice it to say, if Central America is on your list of places to visit you must put Nicaragua at the top.

You will never regret it.

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Three days. Hundreds of kilometres. Two border crossings. Two minor swindles. Two incredible cities. Two sick kids. One gem of a hotel. One incredible smoldering volcano. Swimming in one spectacular crater lake and one positive close encounter with Nicaraguan policia.

Phew. That was fun, I think.

In truth, our trip to Granada was amazing despite a few bumps along the road, so to speak. In fact, there are so many interesting things to write about that spreading it out over a couple of posts would be prudent.

So, I’ll begin at the beginning, with the puke.

The night before our journey the boy woke up in the middle of the night throwing up. Bless his little heart, he managed to actually make it to the toilet so there was no gag-inducing clean-up to endure.

After weighing the options, we decided to go to Nicaragua anyway since the boy would be strapped all day in a car seat with nothing to do but rest and recover from what would end up being a long night of dry heaving. We also opted to split the drive over two days, fearing his condition might worsen after crossing into Nicaragua, leaving us without a medical option in case of emergency.

It had been months since we’d taken this route and everything looked new and different, partly due to the fact that we’d previously travelled the Pan-American Highway to Nicaragua by bus and also because then, it was the rainy season.

From our home in Atenas, the entire journey to the border is about five hours, a tedious drive that goes especially slow at the beginning because of heavy transport truck traffic through the single-lane, mountainous roads.

It was mostly uneventful and we overnighted in the city of Liberia, the gateway to Costa Rica’s northern white-sand beaches, before setting out the next morning for the remaining hour or so to the border and then two more to Granada.

The landscape was like an ever changing painting; the majestic green forested mountains some distance afar looking especially lush against the foreground of the brown leafless trees, baked under the hot summer sun of the high season, alongside the highway.

Oddly, the stretch of mostly straight highway from Liberia was empty of large transport trucks, whose presence is always nerve-wracking because many of them don’t appear roadworthy. In our travels we’ve seen semi-trailers without properly working rear lights, insecure loads and wobbling tires — if they’re all there at all. 

This time it was a smaller pick-up truck that proved worrisome. It was so packed with cows we were sure it was going to tip (see badly taken pic below).

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Fortunately, we knew from someone else’s account of the drive that we were nearing the border when we encountered a massive line of big rigs, completely blocking the right lane of the road, which meant we had to drive around them going the wrong way and hope we didn’t encounter someone on the way.

After a few minutes, we were at Costa Rican immigration and being greeted by a crush of “helpers” at the window of the truck.

No matter how much I prepare for these moments they never unfold the way I envision them. These guys are so savvy they manage to find a way to talk you out of your good sense and your money at the same time.

I agreed to pay one guy $10 to assist with processing our car papers and another $20 for helping us on the Nicaraguan side, where the real hooping-jumping was to happen.

While I took the kids to get exit stamps in our passports, my hubby went with the helper to process the car papers, which really only needed a stamp because we had already obtained the proper permits.

Hubby was back before I even made it through the lineup. And when I came out I pulled out the $10 to pay the guy for his five minutes of work, which in the end was merely showing my hubby to the right window. He stood there, hand out after I put the money in his palm, and asked for a tip.

“A tip for what?” I asked, incredulously.

“Servicio rapido,” he replied, as if he was responsible for the fact there was no lineup at the car processing window.

At this point, I should have shut him down but the “rich gringo guilt” got the better of me and I handed over another dollar, at which he scoffed.

Entrepreneurial spirit and ingenuity are admirable qualities but I’m getting really tired of being treated like a walking wallet in Costa Rica. And in my mind, $10 for five minutes work isn’t half bad, whatever country you’re in.

Anyway, we then proceeded with the other guy, whose promise was to help us in Nicaragua for $20, what seemed a fair price given the multiple fees.

As it happened, we faced another throng of guys who helped our helper, while he sat on the sidewalk and someone else did the running around on his, and our behalf.

When it came to the inspection of our car, the border officer repeatedly ignored our helper-hired helper, looking at every other vehicle in the lot until he could no longer avoid ours. Turns out, the officer and the helper, apparently a former captain in the Sandanista army, are political foes and the delay was the result of a power play between enemies, at our expense.

When all was said and done, I felt bad for the helper who did all the real work and was going to give him a tip, thinking he would get a little extra from the split the first helper must have agreed to give him. But in fact, he expected us to pay another $10, which he totally deserved but which also meant the other guy walked away with a cool $20 for not even lifting a finger.

I guess one person’s ripoff is another’s business opportunity and to these guys, gringos are like buses, there’s always another one coming.

Despite all this, we got through the border in about an hour and were on our way to beautiful Granada.

For the benefit of those considering doing the journey by car, here’s a rundown of the costs. Note that it is slightlydifferent from what was reported by someone else on the Internet and reposted by me — another annoyance here is that the rules are always changing. We have learned to always expect the unexpected because invariably things never unfold the same way twice.

Costa Rica:

$40 for car permits ($20 for someone to get it in San Jose and $20 for the lawyer to notarize it)

$ 10 for a helper to show us to the car permit window at Costa Rica immigration

Nicaragua:

$20 for helper to show us the way to the Nicaraguan side, about one kilometre away

$10 for helper who did the real work

$28 entry fee to Nicaragua ($7 each passport)

$5 tourist fee

$12 insurance fee

$5 fumigation

$2 municipality fee

Grand Total: $132

Next stop: Granada.

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Every three months since we arrived in Costa Rica we’ve made the obligatory three-month “visa run,” leaving the country for the requisite 72 hours and buying ourselves another 90-day tourist extension.

Outside of obtaining resident status, a complicated and usually expensive process, this is the only way to legally live in this Central American country.

This is the last run before we head home to Canada, which means that we’ve less than three months left on our almost one-year adventure. I don’t know where the time went and thinking about leaving makes my eyes water already.

This morning I woke up and my heart went aflutter with what felt like an anxiety attack. I’m not sure whether it happened because of our impending trip to Nicaragua or because I really don’t want to go home. I don’t yet want to talk about the latter, so I will leave that for another post and focus on our next trip.

Granada.

I’ve dreamed since first visiting Nicaragua last fall of going to the historical city of Granada, a Spanish colonial city drenched is history, culture and regal architecture. Founded in 1524, it is the oldest city in the New World.

When we last visited Nicaragua, we travelled to the quaint coastal town of San Juan del Sur and I fell in love with the place the people.

Costa Rica is beautiful and so are its inhabitants but it’s lacking in something that I can’t quite pinpoint.

Nicaragua, on the other hand, has a special vibe and feel that again, is quite indescribable.

Perhaps its their relative histories and present circumstances.

Costa Rica prides itself on being the Switzerland of Central America. It has no army and is an enduring democracy with the highest standard of living in the region. Pura Vida is the national motto, a phrase some might say is better translated as pure lazy than pure life.

Nicaragua, on the other hand, has a violent political history, ranks as one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere and its people are widely known (and hated by many Costa Ricans) for a strong work ethic.

 Anyway, it’s so exciting to be able to return but also a bit daunting.

We’ve decided to take our trusty Trooper on the road-trip and drive over the border into Nicaragua.

Seems easy, right?

Not quite.

First, we had to obtain a permit to take our car out of the country, which was easy enough — $20 for someone to go into San Jose to get it and another $20 for a lawyer to make it official.

But the actual driving of it there and getting it across could be a whole lot more complex, involving exit stamps, entry fees, vehicle inspection, fumigation and a host of visits to a variety of different “windows” on both sides of the border.

Here’s a rundown of what to expect, courtesy of someone who’s done it many times and kindly posted it on the Internet.

  1. Between the CR and Nicaragua sides there is now a spray booth. You pay about $3 to have the car sprayed. They accept US$, cordobas and colones.
  2. Park your car outside the building. A customs person will come over, look in your car and give you a slip of paper. If you have nothing exciting in your car (like a computer) this is about all you have to do. Otherwise, you will likely have to get a technical customs dude to look at the stuff and decide what sort of duty you owe. Careful planning can avoid this step.
  3. Somewhere (and I do mean that, they tend to get lost) will be a police officer who needs to authenticate the slip of paper you just got. Ask around. He will eventually show up.
  4. Show the car paperwork at window and get the next form.
  5. Pay $10 at the bank (in the same building) for your road tax.
  6. Pay $12 for one month of insurance (at a table right near the row of windows–you will likely have a choice of two companies).
  7. Go back to the police window and with this form and get it signed off.
  8. Drive to the border, show your passport and give them the approved car paperwork. You are almost in Nicaragua.
  9. Pay $1 to a guy who asks for it and will get you a receipt. This is a tax for the local jurisdiction.

Next stop, Granada, and then Masaya, a city of about 118,000 nestled next to most heavily vented volcano in Nicaragua.

Yikes. And with two little kids who will already have been on the road for about four or five hours, trapped in their car seats?

Could be interesting. Can’t wait to report back on how it goes.

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We put our kids in a local school almost a month ago.

The almost six-year-old is in prepa, the equivalent of kindergarten, while the almost four-year-old is in preschool.

It’s their second time attending school since we came to Costa Rica last August. Their first was a private international school of some repute just outside the city of Heredia, where many middle-to-upper-middle-class Costa Ricans send their children.

Instruction was in English although most of the children were native Spanish speakers. We thought this would make for an easier transition than a full-on Spanish school.

While my little girl was thrilled, my boy, the older of the two, was miserable. The academic standards seemed unusually high for his age group and from the outset the teacher made a point of telling us our boy was behind the other children in drawing and writing — something the children were expected to do every day, over and over, with great precision.

The day the teacher told me she was keeping him behind during recess so he could finish his work, I cried. I was torn between feelings of disappointment that my son was seemingly behind the other kids and outrage that he was being punished for not meeting someone else’s arbitrary expectations at age five.

After three months at the school, the improvement in his drawing was astounding and he was speaking basic Spanish to the other kids. But when we told him he would no longer be attending, because we were moving to the beach, his relief was palpable. I hadn’t seen him that happy in weeks.

After a month of doing nothing but playing in the sand and swimming in the waves, and another month enjoying the company of his grandparents along with a few fantastic nature outings, my boy and his sister started school again.

The school we chose this time is completely different. It’s located in our rural area and is about one fourth of the size of the other school. Although private, it is a fledgling operation that has far fewer resources than the previous school the children attended. Almost none of the teachers speak English (which I prefer because my goal is to see the children become fluent) and its standards and expectations seem way more relaxed, almost to the other extreme.

The kids spend most of their time on lame workbooks, drawing links between objects that match or memorizing the names of colors — something my boy knew by age two.

And surprise, my boy is miserable.

He’s stopped crying when we take him now but it still breaks my heart to see the sad look on his face when we pull away. And every day we pick him up he complains about going, saying he wished school was just one day a week.

He just wants to be at home, where he can be free to dress up “like a disguise” and go on adventures, shooting at imaginary “thuggies” with the stick he’s made into a gun. He’s discovering so many new things and learning about the world around him — even if sometimes it manifests itself in bizarre ways.

The other day, we went on a hike near our home to an abanoned piece of property where a hotel was once to be built. On this sprawling piece of land there are stone walls and pathways that were built but no buildings as construction was obviously halted before it got to that point.

The area is almost like historical ruins that have been overgrown. The property is now used as grazing land for horses and cows and consequently, there is dung scattered everywhere. My son dubbed it “poop city” (not surpising given his latest obsession with all things poop and pee related). He asked a million questions about why animals poop outside and we don’t. Later, after we came home and he and his sister were playing outside, I discovered he had squatted outside and pooped on the ground.

At first, I freaked out, thinking there must be something wrong with him. Then, I remembered the questions he had been asking earlier, about why animals didn’t use toilets. I figure he was exploring and wanted to know what it felt like to poop outside. Amazing, really, that he would want to experience this first-hand.

But I digress.

I’ve gone from worrying that my boy is learning disabled to worrying that he’s incredibly bright and not challenged enough. He’s my oldest, so I’ve not had the benefit of seeing what a child this age should be capable of and outside school, we’re never around other kids his age so I have no comparison of how he measures up.

All this has led me to question entirely the concept of conventional schooling, and whether it serves our needs more than those of our kids. The idea of warehousing my boy, in a place that does not value individuality and places rules paramount to personhood, for the next 12 years leaves me feeling nauseous.

Yet, I know I don’t have it in me to home school. I love my kids and I am great at cooking, cleaning and kissing booboos. But when it comes to play time and learning, it’s my husband, the teacher, who does all the heavy lifting. And as you can imagine, being a teacher, his viewpoint on the whole schooling issue is vastly different.

I came to Costa Rica to become more engaged with my children. And I have. But I will never be the supermom who can put all her own needs above those of her kids. Nor do I think I will ever feel completely self-assured in this area of my life; that the decisions I make for my kids are the right ones. But then again, does any mother?

And for now, I will continue to send my boy off to school every day because I do believe with conviction that learning  a second language is something that will benefit him in the future.

But Grade 1 is looming. And if my son continues to feel this way about school, it’s going to be a long 12 years.

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