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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can you say excited!

Can you say excited!

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

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Just incredible.

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

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

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

And we drove off. Adios amigos.

Nicaragua isn’t perfect.

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

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

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

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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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Welcome to dysfunction junction, where the abnormal and the aberrant meet.

It’s also known as beach life, where motivation goes to die and inspiration is sparked with a spliff.

On the continuum of Costa Rican weirdness, the beach is at one extreme. And I’ve learned that I’m not, at the extreme of weirdness, I mean. Just resting comfortably somewhere between unique and different.

After months of living in an urban prison we moved to the beach, thinking the sand and surf was paradise waiting, the place we ought to be for our remaining six months in this tropical Third World.

At first I thought it was simply a move from crazy town to lazy town. But it turned out to be both.

Vacationing at the beach and actually living there are two very different experiences.

Everyone who’s made the move permanently has an unusual story of how they arrived, often one that involves some sort of calamity. I’m talking about expats, because that’s mostly who we became acquainted with when we moved to the beach, a complete reversal of our previous situation of living amongst the locals.

Blending in with the natives at the beach is simply not a good idea, or at least it wasn’t for us with two little kids. It’s fine for the young surfer dudes who need nothing more than a place to party and crash and who have virtually nothing to steal except for their board because theft is a serious issue at the beach. Drugs and violent crime are also problems in many of Costa Rica’s bigger beach towns; two expat business owners were executed within the past two weeks alone in places about an hour apart along the Central Pacific coast.

So, we chose a small gated and guarded development that was in the middle of nowhere and away from the drugs and debauchery of Jaco, a bustling tourist spot known for its fierce waves.

At least that’s what we thought. Turned out our neighbour in the development, the actual builder of the lovely little complex, is into cocaine and guns. Sometimes both at the same time.

On Christmas Eve, after our kids were tucked into their beds under the air conditioner, the neighbour, an American, and his Tica wife became embroiled in a nasty dust-up. They were scrapping so loud we heard their shouting through concrete walls, followed by two distinct bangs that were unmistakably gunshots.

Earlier that day, the neighbour had for some odd reason told me that his father had shot himself to death, which immediately sprang to mind when the shots rang out. Given that we had no phone, and the police at the beaches generally don’t come when their called (or so we were told) we opted to wait until the next morning to look for bodies. It was a relief when both emerged from the home the next morning unscathed.

The incident was all the talk of the neighbourhood (which consists of about 30 homes) for the next few days because like in any small community, there are no secrets amongst the expats who’ve made their home by the beach.

Shortly after our move there, I became the new best friend and confidant of a woman from the States who moved to this Central American country along with her husband more than three years ago. She poured out her marital woes over a couple of glasses of wine, claiming that talking to a complete stranger was safer than sharing with friends who might make her situation fodder for the gossip mill.

She’s a beautiful girl, both inside and out, but has bigger troubles than just her marriage. She confessed that she used to be bulimic but I’m not convinced the eating disorder — which supposedly resulted when she lost her sense of taste and smell after being hit by a car and comatosed — is a past-tense problem given her skeletal appearance.

Then there was a young couple with a baby who’d been living in the complex and renovating a property there for the past seven months, leaving for long stretches at a time on “vacations” to areas far flung like Indonesia. Their source of income was on ongoing mystery as their stories about their respective pasts and present circumstances changed with every person they met.

There were other strange ducks but after a while I stopped listening to their stories. Actually, I pretty much stopped doing everything, save for going to and from the beach every day. The heat was insufferable and sucked the life out of all of us and we eventually moved back to the mountains, where it’s pleasantly warm during the day, cool at night and the people are only slightly off-kilter.

We struck a deal with the owner of the beach house and have spent this past month enjoying weekend at the beach, catching up and experiencing more of the craziness at the complex.

The trigger-happy neighbour was at it again, this time at 1 a.m. and during a blackout. The new best friend is down to 108 pounds after being stricken with dengue fever and is on the verge of leaving her constant marijuana-smoking husband, who doesn’t actually believe she’s suffering from the potentially deadly mosquito-borne disease.

It’s all just a typical day at the beach. A great place to visit but wouldn’t want to live there.

There’s nothing like getting a glimpse into someone else’s craziness to help you realize that’s yours is really not all that bad.

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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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There are two things that are proving inevitable in Costa Rica — sunburn and corruption.

The first can be soothed but there is little that can be done to quell the fury of being shaken down by the cops.

In the four months we’ve lived in this Central American country we’ve heard countless tales from other expats about the chronic problem of corruption and theft.

We listened with some skepticism and aside from the odd ripoff by a taxi driver never once experienced the kind of problems people spoke of. I might not have actually believed that police and other public officials still readily accepted bribes had it not actually occurred.

We were driving back to our new beach house from San Jose, where we had returned for what ended up as two days to deal with a problem with the used vehicle we purchased (which, of course, experienced problems only an hour after driving it away from the mechanic we paid almost $1,000 to make a series of recommended repairs to ensure it was in tip-top shape.)

Stuck behind a slow-moving truck through the mountains, we relented to the growing cacophony of horns behind us and grabbed an opportunity to pass, crossing over a double yellow line. Of course, passing when there’s the double yellow means the same thing here as it does back home (that is if you do it and manage to avoid a head-on crash) and it just so happened that a pair of traffic officers were waiting at the bottom of the hill.

We pulled over to the side and prepared for a ticket, nervously wringing our hands as the officer approached the window.

After explaining, in perfect English, that we would receive a ticket for the violation, the officer told us that he would also be keeping my husband’s driver’s licence.

At this point, I went berserk and demanded the officer show me where it said he could legally withhold a driver’s licence for a simple traffic violation, upon which he scolded me with wagging finger.

“I don’t like your attitude,” he scoffed, then walked away.

Some moments later he returned to my window, with a code of traffic laws and began madly flipping through it, showing me different pages and citations he claimed allowed him to do this.

Who am I to argue? I don’t read Spanish, at least not well enough to decipher Costa Rica’s traffic laws and certainly not in a matter of seconds.

It was painfully obvious this was a simple case of extortion: my husband’s driver’s licence for a price.

After running through various scenarios in my head, I realized there was only one way out — pay the man and get on with it. With two little kids sitting in the backseat, asking if the police were going to take us to jail, I just wasn’t prepared to call his bluff and tell him to keep the driver’s licence and see how it unfolded.

“What can I do to resolve this?” I asked the officer, whose face suddenly broadened in a smile.

“You’ll have to talk to the boss,” he replied, walking back to the older officer with him.

The second guy, diminutive and weathered looking, came to the window along with the first, who asked if we spoke Spanish.

“Poco,” I said, upon which time the first officer walked away.

I told the second man, in Spanglish, that I would like to pay the fine right now. He simply nodded, walked to the back of the vehicle and began writing in his ticket pad.

Then, he walked back to my window, pad in hand and stood there until I asked him how much.

“I don’t know,” he replied in Spanish, “ten thousand colones?” he asked, although I’m certain it wasn’t really a question to which he expected a reply.

So, I handed over the cash in exchange for the licence, he closed his ticket pad and walked away leaving me fuming and out of pocket $20 — half the amount I would have happily paid in a legitimate traffic fine.

I’d file a complaint if it weren’t for the fact that bribing a traffic officer carries with it an even stiffer fine and likely a one-way ticket out of the country.

So, I’ll have to quietly seethe and ensure we abide by the traffic laws even when no one else in Costa Rica does because, well, traffic cops almost never actually enforce them.

But I will never forget the parting gift we received from the menacing officer who launched the whole charade, wagging finger and all.

Before we could resume our drive, he came back to the window, his smile broader than ever, and reached his bulging arm into the vehicle to shake both our hands.

“Pura Vida,” he said, uttering the words that directly translated mean “pure life.”

I’m beginning to see the ironic nature of the phrase.

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