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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.

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.

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.

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.

Our month of having a beach retreat for weekend escapes has come to a bittwersweet end; like all things in life pleasure never comes without pain.

Let me explain.

We set out earlier than usual on Friday on account of the kids having a day off school. The drive to the Pacific coast from our mountain town is about two hours, over an always busy and sometimes dangerous road with hairpin curves down a mountain with some of the most majestic views in the country.

We decided to break up the drive with a side-trip to one the tourist traps advertised by billboards along the way, Pura Vida Waterfalls and Gardens, which boasts having four waterfalls on its property.

It’s set well off the main highway, up a bumpy and windy dirt road that seems to go on forever in a remote but beautiful location, high atop a hill with spectacular views of the azure waters of the Pacific.

We almost didn’t get there after mistaking Pura Vida Gardens and Waterfalls for a makeshift operation a few hundred metres before the entrance, where an entrepreneurial Tico tried to persuade us to pay $20 to follow a different path to the waterfall — just a five-minute walk, he said, adding that there were natural swimming pools for the kids there, too.

Instead, we made our way to Pura Vida and paid a $20 entry fee there, which still seemed a bit hefty after we discovered there was a bit of misleading advertising involved. The much touted waterfalls were in fact man-made rock walls with water spilling down them. There was a very distant, side view of the Bijagual Waterfall, supposedly the tallest cascadas in the country but without a pair of binoculars you’d never know.

Still, the place wasn’t without its redeeming qualities. There were wild toucans in the trees and we caught a glimpse of a pair of bright green macaws down a little trail through the jungle. The facility, whose gardens were quite impressive, also had a couple of tame and uncaged parrots that the kids got a chance to hold and pet. Their joy and excitement over that alone was worth the $40 privilege.

We eventually made our way back to the highway and were at the beach house in another hour.

The kids were happily settled outside playing when a neighbour we hadn’t met before came by with her toddler. She started explaining that she was anxiously awaiting word about her husband, whom she understood had been carjacked and gunpoint.

It wasn’t five minutes before the police pulled up and let him out. He limped back to his place with his wife and kid and it wasn’t until the next day that we got more of the story, when the wife popped by again.

She said her husband told her that he was driving along when another car tried to force him off the road. When one of the occupants fired off two shots from a gun, he pulled over. She said a couple of bad guys then got in and they continued driving. But somehow things went wrong and the car ended up crashing in the ditch. The wife relayed that her husband said he woke up in the vehicle, in the ditch and the bad guys were gone.

While walking to a nearby gas station to call the police, the husband found his passport and ATM card.

The wife said to me, “At first I didn’t believe him.”

Huh?

My husband comes home and says he’s been car jacked at gunpoint, there wouldn’t be even one second that I would think he was lying — that is, unless there’s already reason to.

That night, my new best friend (the longtime resident of the complex from a previous post) dragged me out to a bar to hear her husband’s band play. That in itself is another story but it would sidetrack an already convoluted tale. So, suffice it to say, that the new best friend thinks the whole story is made up. New best friend says there’s lots of crime, but in the years she’s lived there has never heard of a car jacking.

Apparently car jack guy lost his job some time ago due to the ever-worsening economic crisis in the States. Does the story, if made up, have anything to do with that? Only he knows. I’m not sure what’s more sad — that he crashed his car and made up a story that he was carjacked or that the poor jobless bugger was really car jacked and his wife doesn’t believe him.

Meantime, I got caught up on the other happenings in the neighbourhood from the property manager, who coincidentally had gone to check out the Pura Vida Gardens and Waterfalls the day after we were there. However, they had been persuaded by the entrepreneurial Tico to take the supposed five minute walk directly to the falls. Turns out the five-minute walk was really a two-hour hike each way over some seriously steep and hazardous terrain. She said our kids would never have been able to make the journey.

Typical.

Anyway, we bid our colourful crowd at the complex a fond farewell and had hoped to use the last day of our weekend to check out some unexplored sand and surf at Punta Leona, a supposedly beautiful beach and biological reserve that is as close to private as you can get in Costa Rica. The laws here (one of the few brilliant things this country has done) assert that all beaches must be accessible to the public. So the resort at Punta Leona has built a set of guarded gates to the beach and charges an entry fee to get in. I don’t think this is really within the spirit of the law, but fine, we were prepared to pay a fee because then we could use the facilities at the resort, too.

When the guard told me it would be $50 my jaw dropped to the floor. Oh, kids are free, he said, as if $100 for a couple of hours at the beach was more palatable. Of course, we didn’t pay and simply moved on to another beach, more of a rock beach than sand, farther down the road. The kids had a blast climbing on the rocks, trying catch minnows in the tide pools and watching the brown pelicans bobbing around in the water hunting for easy pickings close to the shore. Oh, and did I mention? It was free.

When we got home, I e-mailed an acquintance who’d been to Punta Leona just last week to find out what they paid for an entry fee. He replied that the cost was just $20 for each adult. Maybe it was a weekday price, he said to me, suggesting that perhaps it is $50 on weekend. My reply was, probably not. This is typical here. The $50 was more than likely the guard’s arbitrary see if you’ll pay it and I’ll skim the rest rate.

How do all of these stories fit together?

It’s this: Living in Costa Rica is like saying goodbye to the beach house. Bittersweet. So much beauty and pleasure but the pain of having to deal with all the bullshit.

I need an intervention. Maybe even rehab. I’ve fallen off the wagon, and in a big way.

The boots called out from the window of the store, begging me to try them on and taste again the sweet but fleeting feeling of wearing something sexy and new.

I’ve written multiple times about the importance of the concept that less is more and changed my ways by reducing waste, becoming eco-conscious and bidding goodbye to the consumer culture that enslaves us all.  And then I threw it all out the window.

The same three pairs of shorts and handful of drab tank-tops and T-shirts have rotated countessly through my wardrobe for almost seven months and it’s never bothered me. We’ve strolled through even the fanciest malls and though I’ve on occasion spied something cute in a window I’ve never felt compelled to actually try something on, let alone buy it.

In fact, I can honestly say that I’ve made just one clothing purchase in our time here — a $10 beach wrap to hide the paunch that has grown an alarming rate during the same period. I haven’t even succumbed to the purchase of a cute pair of sandals for my little girl, previously known as the Imelda Marcos of preschoolers.

The only reason we’d gone to the mall, which is an hour’s drive away, was to hit the bank and a major grocery store for a few provisions that we can’t get at the small one in our town.

But the boots. They spoke to me when I passed the window where they proudly stood. And before I knew it, I was slapping down the credit card and crafting justifications in my mind as to why I want, no NEED, these beautiful, black, hand-crafted leather specimens.

1. Every woman MUST HAVE a pair of black leather boots in her closet, especially those who live in places where the ground is covered in snow more than half the year. Mine are now at least 10 years old, have gone through one zipper, one pair of soles and so far gone the leather is starting to rip. Not to mention the square toe and chunky heel is so over.

2. The price tag for a similar quality pair back home would be at least triple the price.

3. I’m supporting the local economy by buying a product hand-made in Costa Rica by a local, family owned company.

4. I’ve been back to the gym every day for the past two weeks after months of being lazy and deserve a treat for all my hard work.

Ok. I just wanted the damn boots. So shoot me.

I can’t even wear the things because, well, they would look a bit silly with my shorts and tank top.

I could, however, parade around in them naked. These boots are sooooo sexy that my husband wouldn’t even notice the paunch, which, I’m proud to say has shrunk a fraction since I started working out again and laid off the cervesas.

On a deeper level, the guilt is nagging at me. The cost of my new boots amounts to about half a month’s salary of an unskilled worker, like a maid.

I feel like such a hypocrite and disappointed that I’ve slipped back into old habits, which seems to be happening more and more now since the initial shock and awe of being here wore off.

Somewhere along the way all my internal angst faded away and my insight along with it. Change and growth is easy to talk about but incredibly hard to make permanent.

So, really, the boot purchase is a good thing. It’s brought me back to where I began, prompting me to get back to work and remember to continually be present, aware and take time for introspection.

And I’ll be reminded of that with every step.

Kick me, I'm shallow

Kick me, I'm shallow

A day at the beach

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.