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Archive for the ‘kids’ Category

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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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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What makes poop and pee so funny?

Pooping, peeing, burping and farting.

These are my children’s latest obsessions. The sounds that escape both ends, sometimes self-generated, send my almost six and four year olds into fits of laughter. Even the words whispered into each other’s ears generates giggles which seem to grow exponentially with their repetition.

I don’t get it. Really, what is so funny? More importantly, how do I make them stop?

The saying of the words, save for the actual moments they’re meant to be used, as in, I have to go, has been banned from the house.

It’s clearly not working.

On my son’s second day in an all Spanish Costa Rican school, he came home beaming about making a new friend. The pair, whose native languages are different, apparently bonded over burps into each other’s ears.

My daughter on the other hand, doesn’t play with any of the kids “because they’re all poopy.”

Ahhh. The joys of motherhood.

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All right…

I have heard enough times in the past few weeks “I love reading the blog…but there hasn’t been anything for a while…” that it has given me some spark to sit down and rattle off some clever and insightful words.

This might be easier said than done, as the “I” in this edition isn’t the regular writer of this blog. It is the regular writer’s so-far-silent husband.

To say “mi esposa” has been uninspired to write is a bit of an understatement: there hasn’t been much more than everyday life to act as a muse. But perhaps her incredibly talented and intelligent husband put it best – “It doesn’t need to be inspired, just write SOMETHING.”

That job was left to me. So it seems that the best way to start is to get back to basics, because clever and insightful isn’t really my style. I am working on my Masters in Educational Leadership…all my writing these days is very clinical.

“Well my friend, what’s new?”

As previously mentioned, we moved into our new home in Atenas, a small farm town about 45 minutes west of San Jose. We are perched atop of hill where we have felt the wrath of the winds that have been pounding the country for the last few weeks. It has knocked down trees and wreaked havoc on the power lines. It has also kept things rather cool.

My in-laws left last week after a month long visit that could have been longer….the kids missed their Papa and Didi and were happy to see some familiar faces from back home. It helped that they brought a few gifts that Santa had supposedly “mis-delivered” to their house instead of dropping them here. Or perhaps Santa didn’t want to pay for the ridiculously over-taxed electronics they sell here in Costa Rica. We dragged them around the country for a few days, to the beach and to Arenal volcano, which is still active and spewing lava down its side. Unfortunately, it rained the whole time we were there and only actually saw the top of it briefly. We did see a few red lava rocks tumbling down the side on one of the evenings, but that was about it. It is on our list of places to revisit before we head home. But we did get to experience the sound of one incredibly loud eruption that froze all of us in our tracks as we were getting ready to head out for dinner. Believe me, it was loud enough for me to think that we were goners. Later, I am sure there will be more about Arenal later as it is a pretty interesting story…

After the parents left we headed back to the beach for five days to escape the cool winds. And escape we did…it reminded me why I don’t want to live at the beach. It was sweltering hot and we actually spent two whole days just lazing inside the air-conditioned house.  The beach is it a bit of an enigma…it is a great place to visit but living there would be too much. Even the kids grew weary of our beach after two days. If anything…it did encourage us to head out one day to Manuel Antonio Park, which is one of the gems of Costa Rica. You could see why, as the beach was stunning, with the green water and the white sand, enclosed in a little cove that soothed the waves to a trickle which the kids enjoyed. It was definitely a tourist haven, but a great break from the usual none the less.

The craziest story from those few days came in the dead of night, during a power outage, when our neighbour decided to fire off his shotgun at “ladrones” during a drunken (or drugged up) party of two with one of his friends. As far as we can figure from the mumble of voices after the robbers were shadows, and at one point may have been squirrel. Regardless, it scared the hell out of us, woke up our boy, who freaked out not because of the gun shots (don’t think he realized what the bangs were) but because the house was pitch-black dark. I was waiting for one more bang, and then I was genuinely going to do something about it. It never came, which is just as well, because I wasn’t too keen on getting into anything with a couple of nuts with a shotgun.

Anyway, we are back home now, our boy, almost six, started school yesterday and seems to be enjoying it. We haven’t had to drag him out the door yet which is a promising sign. Our almost-four-year-old girl starts tomorrow, and has been at home by herself for the last two days without her big brother.  Oddly enough, they miss the hell out each other even though they have been stuck together for the last six months. They are definitely thick as thieves.

Well, that gets you up to date. Not really inspired; I am sure you can see why I am not the one bringing home the bread with my words. But at least those who read will be assuaged until my wife gets back on her proverbial literary feet again. For me, it is back to longitudinal studies and research methods in education.

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Back with a bang

We’re alive. In case anyone was wondering.

Between a month’s hiatus from the blog and a few inquiries following a major earthquake here in Costa Rica, it seemed prudent to finally write.

So much, and so little at the same time has happened so I’ll begin with the end.

Another earthquake.

This time, there was no mistaking the shaking for anything other than what it was, a major tremblor and only about 30 kilometres from our new home in Atenas, a rural area west of San Jose.

We’re living in a beautiful house perched on a mountainside in a rural community about an hour from San Jose, Costa Rica’s seedy capital.

From our home, we can see Poas volcano, the epicentre of a 6.1 earthquake that struck Wednesday, Jan. 8 about 1 p.m.

I was sitting in the living room, with my son, who was having a bit of downtime watching TV while his little sister was being comforted by her dad in another room after an afternoon meltdown.

It all seems like a dream now, and my recollection is hazy. A surge of adrenaline will do that, I guess.

Anyway, it began with a rumble. Then a shake and then the memory after that is noise. Just noise. The clattering of the roof, the sound of glasses clinking together and crashes. The floor underneath moved in sudden bursts and the house violently jerking back and forth, not swaying like it felt before when another quake hit some 200 kilometres away.

There was no question this time as to what was happening and the response was primal — survival. Get me and my child out.

My parents, who had been sitting outside on the patio, were already on the grass, standing there dumbfounded. They only arrived a few days ago for a month-long vacation with us.

Shortly after we emerged, my husband arrived with my daughter and by then it was all over.

We all stood there shaking, not from the quake but our own fear, uncertain what to do next.

The gardener, his eyes wide, rounded the corner, having abandoned his equipment and work and stood there with us, shaking his head.

In two years working at the home we’ve rented he’d never felt anything like it, he said.

The gardener resumed his work and beers were cracked. We spent the afternoon talking about the quake, each of us recounting our own unique perspective of it, laughing about the experience, thinking that surely we were overdramatizing the events.

Then the news started rolling in.

Two kids dead in a landslide — in an area nearby where we were just the day before.

Hundreds of tourists trapped due to collapsed roads. Dozens injured from falling debris or glass.

A friend of ours who was initially thought missing has turned up safe. He is a volcanologist and was in the Poas crater taking seismic measurements when the quake hit.

We have many friends who live much closer to the epicentre, in Heredia, where we used to live and where damage is quite severe.

This event is very quickly turning into a national emergency.

After putting all this into words, it seems trite to recount the Christmas we had at the beach, where the kids cried because even though Santa found them, only left one gift for each. It’s seems silly to tell stories of the neighbour who shot off his gun during a loud fight with his wife and the construction workers who set fire to a development across from us when their boss didn’t pay them two days before Christmas.

We’re alive. It’s a bit melodramatic, but it’s true.

My kids are tucked in bed asleep, happy and unaware of what even transpired; one was too busy crying to notice and the other too immersed in the TV to care.

I’ve spent the past five months trying to open their eyes to what’s happening around them.

But now, worried about our friend and thinking about the pain of the families who lost loved ones in a quake that left a few minor cracks in our house, I’m grateful they live in their own little world where not even an earthquake can shake them out of it.

Below is the view from our house. On a clear day, Poas, the mountain in the distance and the epicentre of the earthquake, is clearly visible.

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Above is the view of our house, a couple of days before the quake. Below, is an example of the damage caused inside. 

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Children are the best teachers

Some days my children make me cry. Some days they make me laugh.

But most days they make me wonder how I ever lived without them.

These two little people have been dragged around for the last five days in a foreign country, looking at houses in areas far flung, being spoken to in Spanish and manhandled by strangers in a way they are unaccustomed because the people here can’t get enough of them. Yet they have maintained grace, patience and for the most part understanding way beyond their years of five and three.

Their adaptability amazes and inspires me with courage to move forward into this journey of the unknown, which has already proven to be a rollercoaster that every day takes us to new heights before sending our stomachs turning with a plunge downward.

Today, at his wits end with the whole house-hunting business, my little boy began to cry and begged to go home — but he meant the villa where we’ve been staying for the last nine days, and said so.

Although he’s barely old enough to grasp the days of the week let alone a month at a time, he somehow understands that this is our home now, or at least for the foreseeable future. On our “way home,” he even said that he wants to stay here and learn Spanish, before spitting out a few words that we had to look up in the dictionary. And be darned if he wasn’t exactly right. Seems TV has a place in our lives after all.

My daughter, meantime, the Imalda Marcos of preschoolers, has been busying herself with the few small toys we’ve brought and simply shrugged her shoulders when we told her that she couldn’t wear the sparkly dress she asked for because we’d left it back home in Canada.

Although most of days have been busy with other errands, what time we’ve had to fill has been spent with the kids playing horses, riding around on a pair of home-made stick ponies given to us by the new Canadian friends we met last week.

Children have much to teach us when it comes to adapting to new situations and making do with what’s available. It’s unfortunate that most of us don’t stop long enough to pay attention and learn from them.

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The more things change . . .

It seems some things never change. As I sit and write my first post from Costa Rica, my two little kids sit in front of the TV watching cartoons, albeit in Spanish.

After nineteen hours on the road — between seven in the air, six spent at the Houston airport (where people are not very pleasant, I might add) and the rest either going to or from an airport and standing in security line-ups — our first morning is just like any other we would have had in Calgary.

I’m kind of relieved, actually. I wasn’t quite sure how we would entertain a five-and three-year-old who got up at 4 a.m. the day before and stayed awake nearly the whole journey here. They turned out to be amazing little travellers with great patience, standing in multiple lines along the way without much fuss and even pulling along their own little suitcases.

If our arrival at the airport is indication, this country is going to be great. After collecting two duffel bags stuffed like sausages, a large suitcase (that cost us an extra $50 US because it was overweight) on top of our four carry on pieces, we were diverted around a snaking lineup through customs to an express line reserved for families. We were through within minutes, sparing us the agony of a meltdown when our little ones just couldn`t take one more minute of waiting. After avoiding a throng of taxi drivers trying to lead us to their cars we found someone patiently waiting with a sign with my name, or something that resembled it anyway.

It was late and dark and difficult to get a real sense of this place. And when we started driving down roads so narrow our van could barely squeeze through, let alone another vehicle, I became a tad worried. I really had no idea where we were going — and still have no idea where we are.

But we’re here. In a place that resembles the photos I was sent online. It is a two-bedroom villa, quite large with lots of space, two tiny little balconies off the top floor and lovely front veranda with two rocking chairs. It’s no Hilton Hotel, but given the condition of some of the residences we drove past on our way here, it seems relatively upscale.

It is among a collection of small townhouse-type dwellings on a large property, in a small town north of the capital of San Jose, that is protected behind a set of iron gates. This is a bit of a surprise and not quite as authentic as I`d hoped. Escaping the boom is in part about rejecting the notion of a widening gap between the rich and poor yet here I am buying right into it.

I`ll have to delve into that a little more later, but for now I`m a bit relieved to have the security given that we have no idea what lies beyond.

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