Tropicolidays

It is Sunday after Christmas week, leading into the New Year’s week. It’s a good time to reflect. It’s also a good time to share what we did over the holidays on our new adventure here in lovely Costa Rica.

I’ll start with a priceless thing that Aidan said. About two weeks ago we asked the young adults what they wanted for Christmas – a question I am sure everyone asks their kids at some point. Here is what the wise Aidan said: “How about having Christmas?” He had us rolling on the floor. It was such a great, unintended comment on the differences between our past Christmases with the young adults and this one.

Traditionally, Vie and Aidan have spent most Christmases in Seattle, with an occasional one in Kansas or the Bay Area. In Seattle, as our Seattle friends know well right now, it is cold and it often snows. That means of course snow men, snowball fights, sledding, and all the associated fun.

We get two trees. We get a small one for Aidan and Vie so that they can put up their odd assortment of ornaments. They decorate it with lights and a light up star as well. Then we have a big tree for the piano room (family room). Deb really has some strong tree design and decorating aesthetics that she tries to temper a bit since we had kids. What often emerged was a gorgeous green tree with white lights and a balanced set of hues of gold, silver and white ornaments.

Sometimes I put up Christmas lights. Deb loves them. To do it though, I need to take down the massive array of lights from Halloween. In most years, I kept the Halloween lights up – though they aren’t white and don’t match the Deb Christmas aesthetic.

One of our sets of parents usually fly in to stay with us for the Holidays. We make Christmas cookies on Christmas Eve day and decorate them (and ourselves!). I usually make something easy like Minestrone for Christmas Eve dinner and we open presents from the family that night. Santa has come in the past the next morning leaving a few more presents. To cap it all off, I make a huge dinner of rabbit and polenta that is a tradition in our family, using my Nona’s (grandmother’s) recipes. It takes most of the day to make and makes the house smell “like Christmas.”

Roll the clock forward a bit now to this year coming into Christmas week. The temperature is a balmy 90 degrees (F) here. As I noted last week, here was the forecast for the week.

weather

In fact, it’s the forecast for this week and next week as well. I’m sure January will be the same. So, no snow or winter sports.

We have seen some Christmas trees here. Folks seem to get them in Liberia an hour away and we have seen several people bringing them back on the bus. Most of them are wrapped in a shrink-wrap type plastic and come with red ornaments already on them. We decided that we didn’t really need a tree.

We don’t have a Christmas stockings here – and, well, we have no fireplace to hang them on even if we did. We also don’t have an oven and so we couldn’t make Christmas cookies.

We could have gotten Christmas lights, but they are expensive and few houses have them. The most I saw was one string. We also didn’t have any boxed or wrapped presents (not that we had a tree to put it under). Shipping is very expensive and/or unreliable depending on the method, so our parents sent digital gifts. Deb and I didn’t think we needed more stuff, so we chose presents that were experiences for Vie and Aidan.

[SPOILER ALERT – scroll down to read or skip]

 

 

 

There is one more thing. Small ears should not hear this. Aidan and Vie knew already that Santa was not real but we loved the tradition of presents Christmas morning and so we kept it alive. Well, Santa didn’t make it to Central America this year. I do expect he’ll return next year when his familiar snow is blowing. I hear the reindeer hate the heat anyway J

Looking at the whole thing from the point of view of an eleven year-old boy, you can now understand why Aidan asked for “Christmas” for Christmas this year. We are here for a new adventure, however, and so we were determined to add some new experiences to Christmas for everyone.

We started down this path early in Christmas week with a shopping trip to the DIY (Do-It-Yourself) store in Liberia, an hour or more away. It is sort of like a Home Depot, Costco, Walmart, Furniture USA, and Best Buy all wrapped into one. And it is huge. It is about 4 football fields long and about 40-50 feet or so high. To give you a sense of scale, here is a photo of the ceiling fan (no air conditioning). Each of the 8 blades is about 14 feet long.

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Prices were pretty good there for the most part. We got a light tube for under our counter so we can actually see when we cook. We also got a great deal on a printer and cartridges for unschooling. It was the one piece of technology we didn’t bring, thinking that we could order one cheaply from Amazon! We also got some harder to find items as well as a fire extinguisher and safety vest for Moose. These last items were the main reason we went. We have to carry these in a car and this was the closest place to get them.

Of course, we found a few items that were, we thought, ridiculously priced. Our favorite was this ice chest:

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Notice the price. 48,000 colones. That is about $100 for an ice chest that Costco sells for maybe $15!

We also ramped up our yoga that week. Deb saw a yoga poster with three levels (basics, expanding, radical expansion). Evidently, most of the moves we have been doing, even the P90X moves, are beginner level. She described a “crazy” one (one of the radical expansion ones) called “dragonfly.” That really inspired me. There were two more levels of difficult moves I hadn’t discovered yet, so I went on a bit of a quest. I asked our yoga instructor, Colleen, how to do it and she is working our class up to the move now (a bit to the dismay of our classmates, it seems; it really works you). I’ll hopefully report a successful outcome this coming week. Meanwhile, I just had to geek out a bit and create a spreadsheet with all the poses (asanas). My goal now is to do each one over the course of this next year. I’m sure there will be a post on that sometime.

Most of Christmas Eve day we spent playing 7 Wonders as a family. We finally read through the complicated set of directions and tried it. It is a wonderful game and turned out to be one that all four of us like equally well. We played 4 games then and several more since. It was one of the best family events we’ve had.

Adding to our new Christmas experiences, one thing we have in Costa Rica that we don’t in the US is fireworks! Our nearest big grocery store had a stand outside and so I bought an odd assortment of roman candles, sparklers, and ground based fireworks. We shot about half of them off Christmas Eve and are saving the last few for the beach on New Year’s Day.

After dinner Christmas Eve, we “opened” presents. Aidan and Vie got cards and emails with money or digital gift certificates from their grandparents. I expect they’ll download some fun games on Steam. Aidan will enjoy Minecraft Homeschool. Deb and I gave Aidan a gift certificate to go out on a fishing expedition. He’s been wanting to fish for some big fish – and then bring them home and cook them! Vie got a gift certificate to fly home to Sakura-Con in April, a huge anime convention in Seattle that Vie goes to with a bunch of friends from Utah and other places in the world. It is a really important event to Vie. I get to be chaperone.

On Christmas Day, we had thought to have a new family experience. We went to a new beach, Playa Conchal, and went snorkeling in 84 degree (F) water!

playa conchal

The beach here is one of the best in Costa Rica. It is a fine white sand beach. Even during the holidays it was pretty uncrowded at the end we were at, unlike most of the other beaches. Deb was in striking form as usual!

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Aidan loved snorkeling and now wants to learn to dive. I sense another possible future career for him J We plan on getting certified later in the year after all he tourists are gone.

We came back and I made our traditional (almost) Christmas dinner. I could not find rabbit anywhere, but substituted a chicken and it worked fine. I found everything else here, including polenta, so it was the closest thing to “traditional” Christmas elements as we got. And of course, we started with champagne (well, truthfully, it was a Prosecco).

We had a bit of a health scare that evening with my mom, but she is doing well now and is out of the hospital. It was scary but I’m so happy everything is better. It wasn’t anything major but we didn’t know that at the time. This was probably the most isolated I’ve felt since being here. I couldn’t get through to my dad on my Costa Rica phone and so had to get my Seattle phone and try him at the hospital with that. We just had to wait it out. Fortunately, everything is good and she just checked out of the hospital today. That’s the best Christmas present I could get.

We are heading now into a week where we basically will be “cocooning” at home. Evidently, this is the most crowded week in Guanacaste by the beaches. It’s not mostly tourists, per se, though. According to many of our friends here, thousands come from San Jose and camp on the beach for several says this week, leaving New Year’s Eve day. It is a week of major traffic, people sleeping on the beach, wild parties, noise, drunkenness, and a ton of litter to clean up. We expect to survive it with some movies, more 7 Wonders, Xbox, several bike outings, and lots of pool time.

To all of you, we wish you very Happy Holidays and pura vida!

Differences (so far) – Part 2

A few posts ago I talked about things that were different here in Costa Rica compared to Seattle. Things that were better, easier, cheaper or just more exciting. I promised that I would mention some of the differences that were less great, more expensive, or harder. None of it detracts from the amazing experience of living here, however. It is all part of our new adventure.

At the risk of duplication, I will repeat a few caveats: these are coming from a former Seattleite, Chicagoan, and Californian who is living in a small town on the coast of Costa Rica, and not working. The comparison is clearly not “apples to apples”. And these are mine – I won’t speak here for Aidan, Vie or Debbie.

  • Cars
    I had mentioned in my previous post that auto mechanics were much cheaper here. It’s a good thing, because in most other respects, owning a car is much more expensive and difficult. I related a bit of this when I talked about getting our new family “member”,
    Moose, a 1990 Mitsubishi Montero. All cars are incredibly expensive here as are car parts, which isn’t really a huge surprise. It’s the other things that make it harder and more complicated.

    Japanese cars seem to be the ones the mechanics know best and the ones for which parts are easiest to get. If you have different types of car, you may wait weeks for a part to come in – assuming they can get it here.

    All cars have some complexities, particularly for expats. To buy a car, for example, we learned that you actually need a lawyer. The lawyer (about $114) creates the bill of sale submits the registration information. It takes a few weeks to get that back. Once you do, you go to the bank and pay the tax on the vehicle. It is a value-based tax, dependent on the value of the car, as we have in some states. In our case it was only $170.

    Then, there is a vehicle certification every car needs to go through, sort of like a very involved smog check. You do it in a month based on the last digit of your license plate. You need to get it done in special facilities, which are only in large cities. In our case, we have to go to Liberia, about an hour away. It’s a little tricky evidently. Some new vehicles haven’t even made the certification. Sometimes they find small things. Sometimes they find involved things. That means you get to travel back to where you live, get the car fixed, and take it back to get certified – paying again and hoping that it passes. We hear that there is a guy in the next town whom you can pay to take your car to get certified. We hear they always pass. Ironically, though, we are lucky having an old car. Certification is evidently much easier for cars over 20 years old. We’ll find out in March when it’s our turn.

    And one last thing. Even though our residency visa application (in the system queue) means that we don’t have to leave every 90 days as most expats do, in order for us to legally drive, our passports must show that our 90 tourist visa is valid. We are not allowed to get a Costa Rica driver’s license until our residency visa application is actually approved.

  • Scorpions and other poisonous critters
    I talked a bit about snakes last week as part of my
    “jungle” adventure. Fortunately, I didn’t see any. Scorpions, however, are a different thing. Deb (and it always seems to be Deb), found a dead one by her side of the bed. A few weeks ago she found a live one on the wall above Aidan’s bed. Scorpions stings aren’t lethal and don’t require treatment generally, but they evidently hurt. However, there seems to be a creepiness factor in the household – likely because we have almost no nasty critters in Seattle.
  • Some technology
    Technology here is not nearly as expensive as I would have expected. The few things we have acquired here – a TV, Android tablet for freelancing, printer – were about the same as the US or maybe a bit cheaper in the case of the TV. The harder things to find tend to be associated with newer technology, such as micro-HDMI to HDMI cables (for tablets connecting to TVs). Gaming systems are expensive. What makes it harder is that these cannot be shipped from US suppliers due to export restrictions.
  • Vegetable diversity
    Vegetables here tend to be very cheap – at least the local ones. You can pay about $10 for asparagus imported from the US if you really want it. The challenge with vegetables for us is the diversity. At least, I am comparing this to places in the US like Seattle where you can find huge vegetable and fruit sections in stores. In Costa Rica in most smaller stores you can reliably find things like potatoes, herbs, cruciferous vegetables, as well as plantains, tropical fruits, and root vegetables like Yucca.

    yucca

    The produce sections are small, though, as you can see below. In fact, most stores are the size of the typical produce section in QFC, Safeway, etc. I can tell you that we are very fortunate in places like Seattle to have the range of vegetables and fruit that we do. But, it gives me a new challenge to figure out what to make with what we have. We like challenges.

    produce aisle

  • Co-ed soccer
    This one is probably the most disappointing. Essentially, there is no co-ed soccer. Based on my last data point, Seattle had about 232 co-ed teams across 3-4 soccer leagues. I noted earlier that I had discovered a great pick-up soccer game here. I just expected that both Deb and I could play. It turns out that when Deb asked our friend, Fabricio, who told us of the game, whether women play soccer with the men here, he got a very shocked and horrified look on his face and responded with a stuttering “no, no, no mixto.” We learned that there are a few (yet to be discovered) women in the area who play…with other women. But no, women never play with the men.
  • Mail and Shipping
    We are learning the hard way about mail here. Mail takes a LONG time to get here, period. Packages are usually screened and opened and import duties applied – if you get the package. After about two months now, our first two packages sent from my parents – one with an iPhone replacement for Deb and the other with a Kindle for Vie – are still not here. Two others with clothing did come, however, as well as one shipped via DHL.

    We have since learned that you should not ship packages by the US Postal Service at all, even with a tracking number (which we did not have). We have heard stories of people getting packages 4-5 months after shipping. Many don’t arrive at all. DHL is the most reliable, but it is expensive. If you ship packages in soft (bubble-wrap type) envelopes, it usually comes quickly and easily. If it is a box then sometimes they are opened. However, they still make it here.

    All options though are usually so expensive that a very creative service has arisen: Aeropost. Essentially, you mail your packages to them to a virtual PO box. They fly them directly into the country (most of Latin America). Shipping is much cheaper but you still pay duties. A video game, for example, gets a 70% duty on it. Once here, they deliver them to your door. We think we will stick with having visitors bring us things or trips.

    And, I was wrong about Amazon. The few items (relatively speaking) they can ship internationally, costs a lot to ship and the prepaid duties are high. While they show $4.99 to Costa Rica, it is probably only for very thin books and doesn’t include duties.

  • Software downloads
    I expected that if we needed any software we hadn’t planned for, especially for unschooling, we could just download it. It turns out it is not so easy. Our region is Latin America now, identified by our IP addresses. Most sites can tell where you are connecting from (some even helpfully switch to Spanish). You can use a VPN service that makes it seem as if you are connecting from the US and we do have one of those. However, the one we have only works for things like Pandora and Netflix. So far it has been tricky to get things like Pimsleur language downloads and Xbox Live products. Again, we may have to just wait for a trip back to get some of these.
  • Movies
    We love movies. Unfortunately, there are no theaters near us (the closest is an hour away). Downloading movies from Xbox Live used to be fun, but that doesn’t work for us now. There are very few movie rental stores as far as we can tell and they are regionally encoded so they won’t work in our DVD player (our Xbox). They might work in a PC if we had a DVD drive. It isn’t a huge deal as it turns out. We have discovered torrents. I’ll let you explore that one on your own.
  • Racing bugwrath
    Each evening, the mosquitos and other biting, stinging, and eating insects come out and are really abundant around 6pm. Really. Abundant. This is about the time I finish soccer on Tuesdays. “Racing bugwrath” is when I get on my bike and try to make the 20 minute ride home more like 10 minutes. Even when I am fast, I still catch “bugwrath.” You know when you are in a car driving cross country and get out and see a storm of insects plastered on the front of your car? Same thing, except when I make it home the insects are alive and plastered to my sweaty body. I can run my hand across my chest and it is covered in black bugs. Fortunately, we have a hose and a swimming pool!
  • Ice cream
    Ice cream is (was) our guilty pleasure. At any time in Seattle, we’d have 7-10 pints of ice cream, usually Haagen Dazs, in our freezer. Really! Here, a pint costs about 4,000 colones or about $8 in the few big stores where we can find it. There are a few local brands but the ice cream is not as rich. More importantly for all the ice cream, it is usually so hot that the ice cream in the stores melts a bit and then gets refrozen, creating an “icy” consistency. Consequently, we are not eating ice cream.
  • Roses
    You’ve heard me mention this one in a previous post, A Rose By Any Other Name… After almost two months, no roses L I can’t even find the national flower, the guaria morada, where we are (good submitted idea, though). I did try origami…step-by-step directions, YouTube videos, and more. Sadly, I fall short here in my skills. I’m still working on it though!

But what about…?

  • Heat
    The young adults will differ with me on heat. It does tend to be consistently in the 80’s and 90’s for most of the year.

    weather
    Courtesy HolidayWeather.com.

    There does tend to be a lot of humidity here. But compared to Seattle, I’ll take the heat any day.

    seattle weather

    And notice that this is a rare week in Seattle where you can actually see appearances of the lovely yellow ball despite the cold.

  • Things take a long time
    Finally, one we were expecting, and were warned about, was that things take a long time here. They call it “Tico time.” Honestly, we have not seen it. Deb expected to spend half a day at the bank to pay the car tax based on what we heard. It took an hour. The main waterline for our town runs under our yard and burst last week. We expected no water for a few days. It was fixed (by Juan Carlos, who lives down the street) in a few hours. We had a small issue in the rental house. Hairo was here in 15 minutes to fix it. I wouldn’t expect responsiveness like that in Seattle. So, perhaps it is indeed an issue but maybe it’s just a way to keep the expat population down.

Happy Holidays and pura vida!

Differences (so far) – Part 1

Differences (so far) – Part 1

Day 50 of our new adventure in Costa Rica. It’s hard to believe it’s only been 50 days. In some ways, it feels like we have been here longer. In some ways, it still feels like a beginning, which it really is.

I’ve been writing down things over the last month or two that are different here compared at least to Seattle. Some are harder or more expensive. Some are easier, cheaper or better. I’m sure I will add more things as we go along but I thought it would be fun to share some of these, especially for those who are thinking about coming here for a trip or longer.

I’ll split the list in two and start with things that are better, easier, cheaper or just more exciting. A few caveats: these are coming from a former Seattleite, Chicagoan, and Californian who is living in a small town on the coast of Costa Rica, and not working. The comparison is clearly not “apples to apples”. And these are mine – I won’t speak here for Aidan, Vie or Debbie.

  • Sun
    I can’t even begin to say how energizing it is to see the sun and feel its warmth every day. Vitamin D is a wonderful thing too. I won’t belabor the point for our Seattle friends going through winter right now. 
  • Auto mechanics
    While cars and parts may be more expensive, auto mechanics are much cheaper. Tomás, our mechanic for Moose, is replacing shocks, engine valves, suspension struts, fixing all the electric windows, repairing the back door handle and adding new tires all for the price of about 3 hours (or less) labor in Seattle terms. It offsets the cost of owning a car a bit.
  • Produce (of the types that are available)
    On the up side, the types of produce you can find in Costa Rica are plentiful and cheap. We have a great local produce stand about 2 blocks away owned by Rafael. He’s such a nice guy and is always giving us a new interesting thing to try. One recent discovery – Peruvian cherries.
  • Futbol (soccer)
    Soccer on a grass field in the warm (OK, hot) sun at sunset playing with Ticos and learning their moves. In contrast, this last week it was 28 degrees at night when we would normally be playing soccer in Seattle. I don’t miss the rainy, cold, windy games (though I do miss our team immensely).
  • Medical professional access
    It is very easy to talk to your medical professionals here. We found great doctors. They gave us their email addresses so we can contact them through email if it was more convenient. What a concept! What is really surprising, though, is that they gave us their personal cell phone numbers as well.
  • No commute
    This one is low hanging fruit, I know, compared to Seattle and the Bay Area. While I loved my MINI Cooper Coupe, I don’t miss the quality time I spent with it every day in commute traffic in Seattle.
  • Beach volleyball
    I love beach volleyball. In Seattle, we had indoor volleyball, which was fun. We also had beach volley ball in a very cold indoor arena on imported sand. What can I say about getting back beach volleyball on a real beach in the sun. Like most activities here, though, you stop between 12 and 3 because the sand and the temperature are way too hot.
  • Speaking Spanish
    There is something very empowering about learning to speak another language. We are still working on fluency right now, but Deb and I have reasonable conversational skills. It’s been challenging at times, but very satisfying.
  • No American fast food
    The nearest American fast food chain is 90 minutes away in the closest big city, Liberia. No McDonalds, Burger King, Jack, KFC, etc. All the places here are local and we eat locally whenever we can. Of course, Vie does mourn the loss of access to Starbucks.
  • Soccer on TV
    It’s so great to see soccer on TV. Every night. And I don’t mean only during the World Cup on cable channels or the final World Cup matches on a major network. Almost every night we can choose from UEFA Champions or Europa league games, European premiere leagues, Mexican, South American, or Central American league games. The latter are usually live.
  • Not having to drive everywhere
    We only got a car to get to good surfing. Everything else – food, bars, grocery stores, the beach, yoga, soccer, haircuts, the doctor, etc. are all within walking or riding distance. We love not needing to burn gas every day.
  • Seeing Deb in her bikini every day
    This one is clearly personal, but I just had to list it. Life is good J
  • Surfing
    I never surfed in Washington. It was cold. More importantly, on northern Washington beaches you see trees thrown up on the shore from the surf, so that means as a surfer you’d be competing with trees! A more realistic comparison is snowboarding though. Surfing and snowboarding are nearly even. If I really had to pick one though, it would be surfing. Warm sun and warm ocean say it all. Oh yeah, and you can walk 10 feet to get a Margarita without having to take your equipment off compared to making it to a lodge on a ski slope.
  • Powdered Gatorade
    We do have powdered Gatorade in Seattle, but we had never tried it. We live by it here. Vie and I go through 6-7 bottles per day. Between the cost difference in powder vs. liquid and the fact that we grocery shop on bicycles, powdered Gatorade has become a necessity. One nice discovery is that you can make it a little sweeter. Sometime in the 2000’s I remember Gatorade tried out an “endurance” formula that was a bit sweeter and thicker. I loved it but they stopped producing it. I’m pretty sure was simply more concentrated and now we can make that ourselves.
  • Knowing a bunch of people in the area
    It is striking how quickly we have gotten to know a lot of people in our community. We walk down the street and see someone we know now and stop to chat. Whenever we go to one of our hangouts, like La Perla, The Shack, or Maxwell’s we know most of the folks there. It is a small community to be sure, but it is wonderful to have a community.
  • Pura Vida
    I’ll end with the most profound I think. Pura vida truly is a way of life here. It is one that we are loving every day. It’s difficult to describe just how completely different attitudes are here and how people approach life. Seattle and Silicon Valley, two places where I’ve lived a long time, tend to be very fast paced and intense. Yes, it can be exciting. It can also be complex, stressful, and overscheduled. I always felt behind no matter how much I got done. Time was a rare commodity and far too much of it seemed to be focused on work (including getting there and back). Going to and from places, we seemed to be focused on getting there; rarely saying “hi” to people and stopping to smell the roses. Even schooling is getting to be stressful and all-consuming.Here, everyone says “hi” to each other on the street (or “pura vida”). You get to know people quickly and easily. There is time to take time and smell the roses. One could argue that my comparison of my current and former lifestyle isn’t exactly fair, and it isn’t. But, I would argue that the “pura vida” attitude is that it is important to slow down and live life. It’s important to take the time. It’s important to enjoy doing things. It might be tough to make this work in a fast-paced, high-tech lifestyle, but I believe it is possible. I know “pura vida” is already having a welcome effect on me. And change is something to embrace.

Look for the List, part 2, coming soon.