Body Defenders: A Germ’s Journey

In my last blog on Plans and Updates, I mentioned the video game I worked on to test the capabilities of Gamestar Mechanic – Body Defenders: A Germ’s Journey. This is just a quick update here to provide the link (above). Gamestar Mechanic just (finally) approved the custom backgrounds I made.

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The Lymph System (Body Defenders’ HQ)

Aidan turned out to be a very helpful resource on this project. He tested the game and offered several really insightful ideas. Thanks buddy. Pura vida.

Plans and Updates

Time flies by quickly on our new adventure. It feels like I just blinked and May is already gone! We’ve been doing a lot of travelling and visiting as I’ve mentioned in the last few posts. At the same time, we’ve been continuing to unschool and have some fun updates. Deb and I have also started planning our return. True to our nature, our “return” may take some unorthodox twists.

But first, I have to describe our most amazing boat trip. We had some good friends (and our young adults’ god parents) visit recently. We saw them in Nosara and then they came to stay with us for a few days. While here, we wanted to go on a catamaran cruise. It is off-season here now and when we booked, we were the only four on the boat (Aidan and Vie did not seem to be interested). When we went on the trip, there were still only the four of us and so we had this whole amazing boat to ourselves! It was a magical experience. I think I took about 100 photos of Deb.

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Deb at sunset. One of my favorites.

Our last unschooling updates were just before Vie and I left for SakuraCon in Seattle. Since then we’ve had a few changes, including getting used to calling Vie by the nickname “Nev.” It is short for “Never”, which, I think, has to be the perfect nickname for a 13 year-old going on 16. J

“Nev” and I had started working on a video game project for unschooling. We were going to actually build Body Defenders, the video game I prototyped in grad school in which you play the immune system defending the body against germs. We started out using Gamestar Mechanic, a fabulous site for teaching core game design and mechanics to young adults without overly focusing on either coding or visual design. Our original goal was to use this as a “warm-up” to solidify our game design skills before moving to a more robust game engine like Construct 2*.

As we got into the project, Nev realized video game design wasn’t really the “thing.” Perhaps I was projecting my interest or perhaps the path was a little too much too fast. We got far enough in where I did a fun little game in Gamestar Mechanic called A Germ’s Journey so I could learn the tools. You can actually go there and play it (I will put the link out once Gamestar Mechanic approves it for publishing). Aidan was my avid play-tester. I think it was more fun for me than Nev though.

Nev switched again but this time to something where we see some strong passion: writing. I saw Nev writing for hours at and on the way home from SakuraCon. It was an interest many years ago and it seems Nev has rediscovered it. Deb and I are excited because we see real interest. Nev is working now on the elements of good creative writing. Combined with the skills Nev is honing in illustration, we could see a path to a graphic novel in the future. There is a short story in progress, but we can’t see it quite yet. Meanwhile, check out one of Nev’s latest illustrations for Mother’s Day:

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Nev’s Mother’s Day card

Aidan has continued swimming on the Country Day swim team and has enjoyed that a lot. He is starting to get a swimmer’s build but hasn’t quite gotten the competitive attitude yet. Swim season is ending soon and we’ll need to find a new activity for him.

Meanwhile, Deb and I added a project on history and religion. Aidan had been asking about world religions and so this was a good “teaching moment.” We let Nev and Aidan choose an event, time, or country to study more deeply. They had each covered a few topics in various school years, but had not covered much breadth. Nev chose the American Revolution and Aidan chose the Crusades, which was a good mix of history and religion.

Deb architected this unschooling project really well. There are, of course, readings which we help the young adults find and some guiding questions on each topic. She also brought in some movies such as Kingdom of Heaven, The Patriot and The Crossing. We let Nev and Aidan also find and try some video games that are based in the era. We were a little more limited there and didn’t find anything of note. We also wanted them to look for their own material so they get a good feel of the diverse points of view on any history subject.

We are a few weeks in and they are starting to work on their final “deliverable”; a presentation on their subject with a point of view. They can make it as multimedia rich as they want and this gets them looking at art images, broadening their exposure more. They only have to present to us, but that skill, along with developing good skills in how you communicate are key. Aidan has had a lot more experience with this from University Cooperative School but Nev had virtually none.

Along the way, we’ve had some good discussions about war, points of view, “good” and “bad” guys and a number of other higher level themes that translate to today’s events. We can’t wait to see what they do in their presentations.

I was going to start work on the next project after history – namely math and science. We wanted to start that less popular subject with some history of math and science to provide some good context and not just start with math equations. Deb is picking that up as I got a bit “distracted” with another project.

Ana Domb Krauskopf, the director of the interaction design program at University Veritas, asked me to teach a class there in August. This was the school where I gave an evening talk back in February. Ana also asked me to speak at her Experience Design Summit also in August. She came out for a “brain spa” day with Deb and I where we brainstormed the class, other speakers for the Summit, and possibly doing an executive workshop in 2015.

My world just got a whole lot busier overnight. The class will be Visual Language and the Representation of Complex Information. Essentially it is about information visualization, a core component of interaction design. Fortunately, I have done a lot of industry work in this area across several different companies. It is a lot of work to pull a new class together but I (and Deb when I can grab some of her time) will have a lot of fun.

The evening program class is 4 weeks in August. I will do the Tuesday class remotely and then take the bus to San Jose to be there in person for the Thursday and Saturday classes. I’ve already met the group of talented and diverse students and am really excited to see what they can do.

Finally, we are also starting to plan our return. Originally, we expected to come back to Seattle in October…and we still are. Prior to that though, we are looking into jumping to Spain for several weeks. September and October here on the coast of Costa Rica are very rainy and are the deep part of the off-season. Many people we know will be away and many businesses close during these months; i.e., it is pretty dead.

Deb, in another of her creative moments, thought we could leave Costa Rica early and move to Spain for a few weeks. September is a great time to be in Spain and we already know the language, at least reasonably well. Mostly.

We are hoping to excite the young adults with some castle visits and some “living history.” Aidan can learn a new cuisine along his cooking path. Most importantly, we can use this precious time we have even more effectively. We will be out exploring vs. arguing with reasons for staying indoors. The plan is brilliant. We have a number of logistics to work out though, along with everything else. And now, time is feeling very short.

Time is an interesting thing. A year, for example, seems a long time, and indeed, it can be. It can also be very short. We’ve found routine here and things to fill our time, punctuated by the occasional, magical experience. I think though that I, at least, and perhaps all of us to a degree, take for granted where we are and what we are doing. Perhaps it has ceased being novel.

I know Aidan and Nev can’t wait to go back – to varying degrees. Neither are really taking advantage of this opportunity as much as we would have liked. Every person I’ve spoken to who lived in another country growing up look back at it as a rare, life-changing experience. However, most said that at the time, they too, wanted to go “home.”

If only we could have the foresight of many years from now when we are in the here and now. What would we do (have done) differently? I think about that almost every day now, not wanting to miss an opportunity here – especially getting to know my young adults better. And yet, still, I find that I could do better.

At some point we will need to return to work and our pre-adventure lives. One thing will be different, at least for me. I will have a different perspective on what I do with time. And that perspective extends to work, what we do, who we spend time with, where we live, and almost everything else. “Passing time” is now an abhorrent phrase. There are so, so many things to experience. Fortunately, we still have a lot of “time” left here. Hopefully, we will all put it to good use. Pura vida.

* As a postscript on game engines, we are really in a period of time similar to the desktop publishing revolution, which I lived through. When desktop publishing tools came out, it made this skill accessible to far more people and non-designers started using them and did some amazing (and some horrible) things. Now, we have a number of excellent game engines available to help develop full video games. I looked at nine of them, narrowing to three. The range was from simple tools for kids, like Scratch, to robust tools like Unity 3D which was used for a number of professional games. I had chosen Construct 2 as a good balance between simple and accessible, and power and customization. I found two good overviews of these tools in case you are interested: 5 Free Game Development Software Tools To Make Your Own Games and the more basic Tools for Binning Game Developers.

Nosara

We love exploring new places on our new adventure here in Costa Rica. We just came back from several days in Nosara with some good friends and wanted to share some of the highlights.

Nosara is a fairly well-known are among celebrities, evidently, given a large number of health, beauty and yoga retreats. You wouldn’t know it though. And no, we didn’t see any famous people 🙂 It is another great surfing area that is about 2 hours south of where we are in Playa Flamingo. Nosara is one of three towns that are all clustered together. Our friends stayed in Playa Guiones and we stayed in Playa Pelada.

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Welcome to Nosara

We took the road to Nosara that follows the coast rather than travelling inland. It was beautiful in many places, especially when you could see the ocean. Mostly though, the roads were dirt and covered in potholes. It would have actually made a pretty good driving video game, but you really need the pounding shock action to help create some challenge in steering. Of course, what’s a road trip without our buds, the cows?

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Cows Always Have the Right of Way

The area is much more “jungly” than where we live. It was lush and beautiful. It was far more green and there was a lot more wildlife in and around town and the house we stayed in. This means that the bug population (“bichos”) was significantly higher as well – and we all felt it. It was more humid in the Nosara area and at times got to a “sauna” level. The Ticos call it “bochorno”.

The three towns themselves have a common, but very different feel compared to where we live up north. Deb liked the “vibe” a lot there.

Among the wildlife we saw was a family of howler monkeys. They get their name from their sounds, of course. Although, it is less of a “howl” and more of a very guttural “hoo”. The males are the ones who like to chat, and chat they did. I had quite a rousing conversation with one of the males one evening. I guess he enjoyed it so much that he came back early the next morning around 4am to have another one. I guess I didn’t mention that they were nocturnal.

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Meet the Howlers

Howlers live in Guanacaste trees (the name also given to the state we live in in Costa Rica). We have the monkeys and the trees in our area up north, but not as close to where we live.

We saw a range of insects in Nosara as well. Many were different from Playa Flamingo. In some cases, that was great. For example, we saw this incredible red dragonfly. We see many as Deb seems to have a magical connection with them. We’ve never seen a red one though anywhere.

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A Red Dragonfly

Nosara has cicadas more the size that we expect from Chicago and Kansas. Strangely, in our tropical climate up north, our “micro” cicadas are about a third the size. Nosara is also home to a large number of biting, stinging, and otherwise onerous set of insects. One bit or stung me on the finger while I was sleeping and it is still red and swollen. Thankfully, the people of the Nosara area are far nicer!

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A Cicada

It rained heavily for a little bit each day, but that is pretty typical for this time of year. We did get a torrential downpour on our way back to our house one night. It was a bit of white-knuckle driving on the dirt (well, now, mud) roads in the middle of the jungle in pouring rain. It was almost like the beginning of one of those horror movies where you get lost and find something evil. Fortunately, with GPS and Deb spotting in the shotgun seat, we made it!

There were many fun food places we tried while down there. We actually found a craft brewing company called Beer and Burgers in Playa Guiones which had wonderful, dark stouts and other brews. I wish I had grabbed a photo to compare to the ones I had in Seattle.

We had a great breakfast at the Beach Dog Café, also in Playa Guiones. Deb’s had these amazing tacos with panko fried avocado, with passion fruit-sriracha sauce. It was very close to the beach and had a memorable sign!

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The Beach Dog Cafe

Another big hit was Robin’s. The ice cream was absolutely amazing. We had heard it was great, but sadly didn’t make it there until our last day. You have to try the “Wake the Dead Up Coffee” gelato.

Overall, the food was pretty consistently good wherever we went. Sometimes we paid tourist prices but mostly we didn’t have to.

Awhile back I described some things that were particular to Costa Rica, if not unique. One of them was this large tube you see on many SUVs. I had thought they might be portable “snorkels” for cars in the rainy season driving through ponds. It turns out that these are portable showers for after-surfing rinse down. I couldn’t find one before when I was trying to get pictures for the blog, but I spotted one in Nosara.

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Portable Surfer Showers

The way back was less of a driving simulator; we took mostly main roads up through large towns like Nicoya and Santa Cruz. And when we arrived home, we had a beautiful sunset waiting for us.

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Another Sunset at Casa Mariposa Amarilla

Pura Vida!

Deb goes to Nicaragua

This week I took a little trip to Nicaragua. It was my turn to do a “border run” for a freshly inked tourist visa. Andy detailed his trip to Nicaragua a few weeks ago.  I decided to make it a little more fun and actually stay overnight and explore just a little bit.

A little background:

As Andy mentioned previously, we applied for a “Rentista” visa.  At this point in time, we have completed all of the application requirements, have submitted the application, and the application has been put into the system/queue for review. We achieved this “in process” status in mid January and have the receipt to prove it.

 

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Rentista receipt

 

According to the law, we are free to stay or leave the country as we please until our application is either approved or rejected.  However, we are only legal to drive using our American driver’s license if we have a valid tourist visa stamp.  They can take our plates if we drive with an expired tourist visa. You might ask – why don’t you just get a Costa Rica driver’s license? Great idea and we would love to do that. But as with many oddities here, you are not allowed to get a Costa Rican driver’s license until you are granted the residency visa. This is actually a recent change. There are people here that have a Costa Rica driver’s license but do not have residency. They will not be able to renew when it expires without residency.

 

Crossing the border:

I had heard all about Andy’s trip as well as read the jewel of a post by Gord and Elisha at In Nica Now detailing the border crossing from the Nicaraguan side.  Still I wasn’t quite prepared for the disarray and expanse of the “no man’s land” on each side of the actual border. Having traveled internationally a fair amount, I went into it not really thinking it would be anything unusual. In the midst of it all, I realized that with the exception of the US/Canada border and between the US Virgin Islands and British Virgin Islands (which I don’t think really counts) all of my immigration experiences have been at an airport.  This certainly lacked the efficiency of the airport.

Fortunately my Canadian traveling companion had made this pilgrimage before. She knew just the right place to park the car, a reasonable distance inside of the fray. What we didn’t know was that the long discussed $7 Costa Rican exit tax was now required. We waited in line outside the Costa Rican departure building for about 30 minutes and made it all of the way into the building before we realized this. The line wrangling official directed us to a machine inside the building where we should have been able to pay the tax.  Unsurprisingly it was not working. Some folks on their way out of the building told us that we could pay the tax at an A-shaped building about 300 meters back from where we came. I stayed and held our place in line while Colleen took both of our passports and ran off to pay our exit tax. I spent the next 20 minutes doing that weird stand-in-line-but-let-people-go-ahead thing. I continued to mentally practice the Spanish that would attempt to explain to the line officer (should he ask) why I’ve been in line for so long and why I no longer have a passport. A lovely German backpacking couple entered the building. They have also been directed to the non-functional machine to pay the exit tax. I confidently send one of them off to the mythical A-shaped building with both of their passports to pay the tax. There, I’ve helped someone with information that I have no idea is actually correct. Good deed for the day complete.

For the record the building really does exist. Here is a picture. And they charged us each a $10 (US) for the $7 exit tax. Whee.

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A-frame building where you can pay the Costa Rican exit tax at Penas Blancas

We got back in the car and drove a bit further to a gated parking area to leave the car overnight. Cost for this was $10 (US). We gathered up our backpacks, locked the car and proceeded to make our way through the multiple passport showings and various people trying to sell us things and help us. As soon as we crossed the actual border into Nicaragua, Colleen was spotted by a Nicaraguan man named Charlie that she knows from previous trips. Charlie has apparently made a living at the border for many years assisting confused travelers navigate the milieu. He guided us through the rest of the process and helped us find a cab driver that knew how to get to our lodging. I have one useful note that I can add to the previous reports. This little receipt (pictured below) that costs $1 US is required on both entry and exit. You can save yourself a dollar if you keep your entry one and show it on exit. No need to pay for it again.

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The no man’s land is so large that is has a sort of town square, duty free shopping, and a restroom. Ladies if you don’t carry your own toilet paper or enjoy drip dry, be prepared to pay somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 cents for a handful of the stuff.

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Walking in no man’s land

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Town Square

Surf Ranch

Once we were through all of the stamping, passport viewing, and tax paying we were free to travel about Nicaragua. We had decided to try out a place called Surf Ranch. It’s a few minutes north of San Juan del Sur. Colleen’s surfer son and his buddy stayed there last year and liked it. It’s much like it sounds – a low budget haven for surfers to meet other surfers, find easy travel to the good waves, and party with other surfers. The grounds come complete with a climbing wall, skateboard park, pool, outdoor bar, and some kind of inflatable thing that you climb up to a platform and jump onto.  It was quite an entertaining place. The rooms were small and quite clean with surprisingly decent mattresses. I will note that they were very short. I’m only 5’6” and my feet were at the end of the bed.

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Climbing Wall at The Surf Ranch

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Main grounds and bar and The Surf Ranch

We dropped our bags in the room, locked up and headed for a day in the nearby town of San Juan del Sur.

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San Juan del Sur main street along the beach

San Juan del Sur

This is a lovely little beach town that seems to have a nice mix of expats, young tourists, and Nicaraguan residents. It’s quite a bit larger than the town where we live in Guanacaste. Probably equivalent in size and amount of restaurants and retail to Tamarindo, but it has a very different feel. We immediately stumbled into an awesome little organic store with lots of local honey, chia seeds, coconut oil, essential oils, chocolate, lotions, potions, locally made clothes, swimming suits, hammocks, beach chairs, etc. Score. We then heeded the Canadian clarion call of the Caesar at The Loose Moose. It’s really just an elaborate bloody mary made with Calmato juice instead of tomato juice. But don’t try to tell that to the Canadians. They insist it is unique.

Colleen and her Ceasar. Yes, that’s maple coated bacon on top of those beauties.

As we were drinking our Canadian bloody marys, we noticed a parade of twenty-somethings going by all wearing matching shirts that said “Sunday Funday.” Not ones to pass up a funday, we discovered it was a pubcrawl between not just bars, but bars that had swimming pools. Yeah! We immediately went to the hostel to purchase our $10 pubcrawl shirt/ticket and joined the fray. Turns out there were a lot of people. If you look in the background of the photo, that is a pool below. It is packed with people.

 

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Sunday Funday at the Pelican Eyes hotel.

We hung out for a while and then headed down to one of the lower level pools at Pelican Eyes hotel so we could actually get in the water.

Eventually it was dinnertime. Sadly, Colleen’s favorite restaurant had recently closed down. So we had to look for a good place to have dinner. There were lots of options of course. We avoided the touristy and tourist-priced restaurants along the beach. We went to the perfectly named One Love surf shop and asked for a recommendation. We ended up at a tiny local fish place. We each had the special – lobster tails in garlic sauce, rice and salad. It was incredible. The price was even more incredible. These 2 meals, 2 sodas, 2 glasses of wine, 2 bottles of water =  total with taxes $16 (US).

 

Meanwhile back at the (Surf) Ranch

We returned after a long day of walking, talking, drinking, and swimming to the Surf Ranch to shower, cool off, and sleep. Here is where the Surf Ranch review gets bad. The rooms were, as is typical in Central America, made of concrete. Our room was on the second floor in the middle of the row of about 7 rooms. The only door to the room was the sliding glass door along the narrow outside walkway.  We noticed that there were 2 standing fans and of course a ceiling fan. There was a tiny window in the bathroom (which is at the back of the room). There were no other windows, ventilation, or air conditioning.

Folks, it’s hot here. Roughly 98 F during the day and some pretty hefty humidity this time of year. We were 2 women traveling with a passport, some cash, and a credit card each. Our natural inclination was to close the door and lock it for sleeping. Within 30 minutes, it was so stiflingly hot in the room we could hardly breathe. We opened the door and spent some time standing out on the walkway where it is about 20 degrees cooler. I contemplated wrapping myself in a sheet to protect myself from bugs and sleep in the hammock by the bar. Colleen contemplated moving her mattress out on the walkway that is probably just wide enough for the mattress. Eventually I noticed that all of the other people (meaning the 2 rooms to left and 2 rooms to the right of ours) were sleeping with the sliding door to the room open and the fan in the doorway blowing in cooler, fresh air.  Eventually too exhausted to care, we put our wallets under our pillows and sleep with the door and one eye open.

We awoke with the sun – since we didn’t really sleep anyway. Showered, packed up, lazed around the grounds and headed back to town as soon as the driver arrived on site.

 

Breakfast

Back in San Juan del Sur we headed to the famous El Gato Negro café and bookstore for a long, lazy breakfast. The food, smoothies, and coffee were delish. As was the people watching. It was a lovely mix of American, Canadian, German expats and Nicaraguans that frequent the café.

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El Gato Negro store front

 

 

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El Gato Negro coffee

 

Back to Costa Rica

We eventually headed back to Costa Rica. We made this leg of the trip in record time –  1.5 hours from San Juan del Sur to picking up our car in Costa Rica.  Entering Costa Rica and getting my tourist visa stamp went smoothly. This was the first test of using the residency receipt rather than travel documents. I was a little worried that the receipt wouldn’t be accepted or that because I had the residency receipt perhaps they would give some other type of visa stamp. It all went smoothly. When the immigration officer asked for my onward travel papers and I showed the residency receipt he actually seemed excited/pleased. I’m not sure whether it was just that he doesn’t seem many of those or some other mysterious reason. Anyway, I got my 90 day stamp and I’m legal to drive in Costa Rica.

I really enjoyed my little trip to Nicaragua. From what little I’ve seen, it’s a charming country with friendly people. I loved seeing the fields of wind turbines generating electricity (Sorry no photo. But trust me, they were beautiful.) and the ease of the mixing of Nicaraguans and expats. I didn’t feel like I was being charged the higher “gringo” price everywhere. I’m told that Isla Ometepe and Little Corn Island are must. Maybe we’ll take the whole family on the next trip and hit both of these.