The Road Home and Stuff

I can’t believe the first stage of our new adventure is already coming to an end so soon. A short 10 months after we left Seattle for Costa Rica we will be leaving and on to our next, shorter, adventure. We are already actively planning and packing even while we continue our adventure here. The return trip is much easier in many respects, but harder in some.

I noted that it was only the end of stage 1. As I mentioned earlier, we decided to leave early since we are heading into (technically we are already in) low and rainy season. It’s low, but not rainy. Still, many places are starting to close and many friends are moving back to their home countries until November. So, we are switching operations to Europe. We are “trading” our last two months in Costa Rica for about 5 weeks in Spain, France and Italy.

In stage 2, I return to California and my parents’ house for a visit for two weeks while Deb stays in Costa Rica with the dogs. The dogs have to wait until Sept. 15th to travel due to the heat. Deb returns on the 17th and we head to Spain on the 21st, starting our final stage, stage 3.

Deb is hard at work developing a loose itinerary for us all. We know we land in Barcelona, Spain and leave from Florence, Italy. Everything else is pretty open. We know we want to hit a few small towns in France on the way to Italy. We plan to visit Cordoba in Spain for the castles and Orvieto in Italy for the incredible church there that hosts the works of Luca Signorelli (an incredibly talented Renaissance painter, like Michelangelo, but with a penchant for depicting the apocalypse and scenes from hell). The Catholic Church relegated him to this church on a large butte. We will also definitely visit Rome; Deb and I are going to Gladiator Camp. We did invite the young adults, but sadly, no takers there. Deb will certainly be “badass!”

As Deb does the planning, I’ve been doing the packing and finishing up my class(es). We have also both been studying and working towards our Advanced Diving Certification. Never a dull moment.

On the class front, I got asked to add another class on Prototyping to my schedule. It is a two day workshop over two weeks of elapsed time. It’s been a lot of fun to put together but it’s also been a ton of work in the middle of everything. Fortunately, it works with my current schedule in San Jose – I teach Information Visualization Thursday evening and Saturday morning and then Prototyping Friday evening. I and my class usually head out for food and drinks after one or both classes so it’s been a lot of fun.

Just to brag about my students a bit, they just turned in an assignment to create an information visualization on some aspect of the World Cup and I was blown away by the quality of the thinking and the execution. These folks all have day jobs, mostly in high-tech, and then they take night classes several days a week. In just about a week they created some visualizations that in many cases are on par with work I’ve seen on the NY Times.com site (they are well known for their excellence in information visualization). More importantly, they have focused on some really interesting stories and insights from the Cup, such as why Brazil lost so badly(!), why Costa Rica did so well despite the fact that their FIFA statistics are not stellar and how Costa Rica used passing as a super power. I’m super proud and excited to see what they’ve done so far. Here’s a quick example:

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Costa Rica’s Secret Combinations, Mauricio Varela

In between trips to San Jose, I have been starting to pack. Fortunately, and here I reveal my inner geek, I created a big spreadsheet when we first came down itemizing everything in our 6 carry-on bags and 6 stowed bags to facilitate staging and packing. That makes it very easy to do everything in reverse. Mostly.

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Re-Staging

In our two trips back, we returned here with some additional things. We added some “stuff” while we were here, most of which we won’t be bringing back, and of course some things didn’t last through our adventure. We mostly leave with the same number of bags and items. It’s interesting to see what made it and what didn’t.

First off, we have to account for additional things we brought back from the US. This includes paints, paintbrushes, and other material to paint Deb’s painting. I brought back additional technology, mostly for the young adults to make videos which they never did. Deb has all the material she got for her home made lip balms, deodorants, etc. – something she will continue to do when we return, so those all go back.

In the spirit of reducing “stuff”, we actually did not get much down here and what we did get will likely stay – being given away or sold. We will sell Fanta (our truck), our bikes, TV and a few other things. We will find good homes for the blender, crock pot, boogie board, hammock, yoga mats, printer, and sand-castle-making supplies. We used all of those things regularly but won’t need them or can’t get them home.

Very few things that we got here make the return cut list. Deb got a few hand-made bikinis. Those are coming back. They were also excellent purchases. I’ll leave them to your imagination. We’ll take our diving instruction materials back, along with Deb’s painting (which will likely be an adventure on its own). And of course, our newest family member “M and M”. That’s about it. It’s nice to maintain our low volume of stuff.

What is fascinating to me is what won’t make it back and what didn’t get used. We’ve been here almost a year and we really brought minimal supplies. Looking at where we are now, it is really clear to me what we truly need and what we don’t

The young adults have grown, especially Aidan. We are throwing away or giving away almost all of his clothes and shoes. The poor guy has no shoes that still fit – not that he needed them here! Likewise, Nev has a bunch of stuff that doesn’t fit. They, along with all of us, are getting rid of a number of clothes that we have simply worn through wearing them so much over the course of the last year. These include most of our swim suits, flip flops and t-shirts.

Then there is the technology. It’s been a hard year on our tech. Fortunately, I made sure we had redundancy in key areas. We’ve gone through four computer mice(!), three headsets/headphones, two digital pens, one Bluetooth music player, one keyboard, one tablet and a large number of recharging cables. Deb’s Mac and my parts of my tablet are on their way out as well. Kudos to all the smart phones, (Nokia, Apple, Samsung), Kindles, Xbox, and the Dell laptop which, despite heavy use all are no worse for wear.

In terms of what didn’t get used, there are many things. It’s good food for thought for others doing this (and we now know several!). We brought too many clothes and shoes. I brought several nice clothes anticipating that I might have to return to do some consulting. That was fortunate because I use them when I teach class, but I still brought too many short sleeve collared shirts. I found that black Armani t-shirts are versatile and great for going out here. I’d say that I could have cut my clothing by 2/3 and not noticed. In fairness, though, some of these things we didn’t use in Costa Rica we will use in Europe.

We didn’t use our nice Sony camera as much as we should have; it was just too big to easily take everywhere despite the nice pictures it takes. We are getting a smaller one for Europe so we actually use it. Likewise, we just started using the GoPro for diving but before that had not used it much. We didn’t watch any of the movies I brought on DVD and didn’t play most of the Xbox games we brought. And sadly, I never got a chance to use my volleyball.

Up until when I was asked to do a class on prototyping I would have added all of the backup drives I brought to this list. I had brought them more for safety but had not used them until I needed some key material for the class and then they became invaluable.

Almost everything else was used and used frequently, particularly cooking items, the very few board games and the large monitor (which was truly indispensible for my classes).

Of course, we didn’t come here to get “stuff” to bring back. Rather, we came for experiences and adventure, and we certainly got a lot – almost everything we hoped for. We all (mostly) learned a new language. We learned yoga and surfing. I got to play soccer in another country. We learned to dive. We got to explore the rain forest, the volcanoes, the jungle, and the beaches. We got to see (and in some cases live with) wildlife that we had never seen before. We got to have sunrise meditations and sunset cruises. I’ve had a wonderful opportunity to teach in an exciting new University program. Deb got a chance to give back and work for a kids’ organization and help organize a fundraiser. We got to appreciate another culture and make lots of new friends, some of whom have become as close as family. We got to help our young adults unschool and learned a lot about ourselves in that process. We got to spend lots of time together as a family. That’s the “stuff” life is made of.

And that’s just stage 1 of our adventure. Stay tuned for more. Pura Vida.

PS: At least one of us (Nev) got to really appreciate Seattle’s cold weather!

Girls Gone Beaching

I recently returned from a girls’ 4-day weekend in the Nicoya Peninsula. Specifically, we spent time in Montezuma, Santa Teresa, and Malpaís. There were 4 ladies on this trip. Our primary purpose: investigate/evaluate 2 yoga instructor training courses (not for me obviously – one of the other ladies on the trip). I was particularly excited to go because this area of Costa Rica was on my short list for where we might live during our year here.

 

Montezuma

If you do a tiny bit of internet searching on Montezuma you generally find some description like – a quiet, eclectic, remote hippy town that has grown up in recent years to include some tasty restaurants run by expats and a local organic farmers market. Sounds like just the place you might expect us to land right? I ended up not choosing Montezuma because of the distance from the airport, hospital, and because of reports of very strong rip currents. I was excited to see first-hand the path not taken.

The beach here turned out to be beautiful, but with a lot of lava rock.

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Montezuma beach across from Montezuma Yoga studio

 

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Katie and a fabulous piece of driftwood

 

Ultimately, I’m pleased with my decision not to live here, though it was certainly worth the visit. We did manage to find one pretty good restaurant with a nice location on the beach. But for the most part the restaurants, bars, markets, buildings, and street vendors were pretty uninspiring. Everything was easily walkable. We all agreed that we enjoyed the people and the town more during the day than the evening. It’s a little rougher crowd in the evening.  The town does have a couple of very beautiful yoga studios. One is the Montezuma Yoga studio. It was here that I met my first white-faced/capuchin monkeys. I learned that they like to throw mangos at people. Charming.

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Montezuma does have some impressive waterfalls.  There are 3 along the same river and range in hiking distance from about 30 minutes to about 2 hours. We chose the 30-minute trip to the first falls. This decision was based primarily on the fact that we each only had one pair of shoes and these were, of course, flip flops. The hike is up a rocky riverbed, which meant that we actually hiked it barefoot. It was a fun hike. However, much to my disappointment the pool at the bottom of the waterfall was quite brown and murky. It is typically clear but as this is just the beginning of rainy season (re-named by the tourist industry marketers to Green Season) the dirt was just getting stirred up and not yet cleared out by enough rain.

 

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Santa Teresa and Malpaís

Post waterfall adventure, we drove off on a bumpy jungle road to Malpaís and Santa Teresa.  These two towns are very close together, as in you can’t actually tell where one stops and the other starts. First stop after a hike is always food. Fortunately, Katie knew about one restaurant The Bakery.  This place was awesome! We ended up eating there 4 times. It’s not just pastries of course.

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Santa Teresa was also on my short list for places to live. It is a surfing town. Apparently for a long time it was a “secret surfer paradise.” I ended up not choosing this town and am a little bit sad about this one. It turns out that the Santa Teresa information found during my research phase was at least 2 years old. I read a number of articles that described the area as over-run with tourists to the detriment of the locals and un-walkable because the main road created so much dust that everyone had to wear dust masks just to walk down the street or get to the beach. The truth is that the road is paved and has been for roughly 2 years. There are definitely some tourists, but it’s also clearly a town of residents from a variety of countries. We even saw a guy with the word “local” tattooed on his arm (sorry no photo). We of course debated about whether he was really trying to identify as a local resident or if possibly he was just that into local food/farming. We ended up staying an extra day because we loved our lodging and its easy walk to the beach – Casas Villas Soleil.  I highly recommend it if you are ever in the area. We didn’t eat every meal at The Bakery. We also had incredible butterflied, grilled Red Snapper at a restaurant called…The Red Snapper.  This town seems very livable. It is quite a drive to an airport or a hospital though – roughly 5 hours to those services. We were also warned not to go on the beach after dark. Not really sure how seriously to take that.

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As we lounged and chatted about Montezuma, Santa Teresa, Malpaís and other Costa Rican beach towns with which we are familiar, we designed our perfect Costa Rican beach town. Our mythical town has a host of features like The Bakery, a weekly organic farmer’s market, a good grocery market, a few good restaurants and bars of course, with live music, just the right amount of rain, a main paved road, safe bridges across the rivers, tourists but not too many, and other things I’m forgetting right now. I’m sure you can imagine your own list. In the end we came to realize that retail offerings serve to make a richer experience, but it really is the community/the people that define a small town. You need diversity of experience, skill, opinion, background, etc, and of course not everyone will get along with everyone all of the time, but the secret ingredient to these small towns is people who want to work together to create a thriving community. Our little town of Potrero may be odd in its layout and sadly lacking in quality French pastries, but the community does work together to help each other, to solve local infrastructure challenges, to welcome new people, and to build relationships. For that, (and the paved road) I am happy.

 

The Elusive Motmot and the Noni Fruit

After 5 months now in Costa Rica on our new adventurewe have seen many things that we haven’t seen elsewhere. Some are amazing. Some are strange. Some are mysterious. Some are, well, hard to describe. I thought I’d share the good, the odd, and the silly.

In fairness, these things may exist outside of Costa Rica. Indeed, several do. In all my travels though, I haven’t seen these before…so take them for what they are.

Of course, I could start here with some of the amazing things Costa Rica has to offer that many people know already, such as the incredible surfing, particularly in Tamarindo. The coffee here is obviously wonderful – and we are from Seattle, so we can appreciate it. We hear the diving here is also incredible. One of our plans is the get certified when most of the tourists leave. We also heard that the rain forests are amazing. That’s another upcoming trip. And there is yoga here almost everywhere, at least where we are. We love it and spend a lot of time with Sattva Yoga by the beach. My “yoga spreadsheet” tells me I’ve done about 337 poses out of the 1051 I’ve collected so far. I need to pick up my pace!

The following are things that you may have not heard about. By the end of this maybe you will be afraid you have J

The Elusive Motmot

The motmot is a bird that Deb discovered. This bird is found throughout the forests of Central America but are evidently very hard to find. We won’t tell the pretty poison dart frogs here that motmots eats them. Of course, the poison dart frogs also seem to be elusive.

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The elusive Motmot outside our window

The Noni Fruit

The noni fruit, or Morinda citrifolia, is not unique to Costa Rica. You can find it in other places such as Australia and Southeast Asia. It seems to favor tropical places like where we are. The noni fruit tree is in the coffee family, but you’d never know it. The fruit neither looks like, nor tastes like, coffee. It does provide a range of health benefits. Evidently, its juice runs $50-100 in parts of the US. We have a tree next to our new (rental) house that sits all alone in an empty lot next to our wall. I tried it. The fruit is bitter and the smell is, well, there is a reason that it is also known as the “vomit fruit” (an oxymoron if ever there was one). The smell is associated with the fruit ripening. I guess I haven’t found a ripe one. Despite the smell, the fruit is rather cute and we would never have learned about it if we hadn’t come here.

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The noni fruit

Bag Driers

I hadn’t seen nor heard of bag driers before coming here. Our friend Sherry makes these and they are not only beautiful, but useful. You basically use them to dry out your Zip-Loc (or other) bags. We try to be green, but we never reused Zip-Loc bags in Seattle – though we did reuse grocery bags as “poop” bags J Here, gallon Zip-Loc bags tend to be harder to find and more expensive when you do find them. Many plastic things here are expensive. We started reusing them before we knew about bag driers. We learned about them at yoga and they’ve now made our list of different things you find here. In writing this, I did see that you can find these on Etsy.

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A bag drier by Sheri Creamer

Motorcycle “Vests”

Here’s one of the stranger things we’ve seen here. There are a lot of motorcycles in Costa Rica. It’s not surprising given the price of cars. Now, you can evidently ride your motorcycle without a helmet. At least, the vast majority of riders do and seem to get away with it. It is pretty hot here. We’ve also seen 2, 3, even 4 people – whole families – on a single motorcycle. None were wearing helmets. But, every rider I’ve seen wears an “X” shaped reflective harness. Every one. I wonder what the fine is for not wearing one.

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The motorcycle reflective harness

Evidently, ATV and scooter riders don’t have to wear the reflective thingy. Maybe it’s because they are not as cool 🙂

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Look, mom, no harness

Strange Tubes on SUVs

Many SUVs here have these long tubes tied to their top racks. We haven’t seen any on cars. We don’t know what’s in them. They have curved ends so they don’t carry long poles. We are thinking that they are for the rain. You see, when it rains here in the “green season”, it really rains. A lot. There are major ponds and rivers to drive through we hear. We’ve seen a number of newer SUVs with those exhaust pipes that stick up like snorkels. Given those and the rain, we think these strange tubes may be retrofit or home-made versions of the snorkels – to deploy when you hit those deep rivers. Of course, they could just be decorations.

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Update! I got a photo of one.

Side Slung Fanny Packs

Most of us know that fanny packs are now uncool. If you didn’t, pretend you did; it’s not worth the embarrassment. For the record, I don’t have a fanny pack. I have a waterproof wallet with a belt strap for surfing so I can carry money, ID, keys, etc. This allows me to wear it as a belt (hidden in my trunks). It’s not a fanny pack.

However, we’ve seen many men here wear what you would call a “fanny” pack across their shoulder, with the pack sitting in the middle of their back. It’s pretty fashionable and doesn’t look at all like a fanny pack strapped around your shoulder. They make a nice addition when worn with the Motorcycle straps. I might be wrong though; they could be “shoulder belt packs” and not actual “fanny” packs.

I would have tried to get a photograph of this, but, well, how do you walk up to a large, tough-looking dude and ask if you can grab a picture of him with his “not-a-fanny-pack”?

Leatherback Sea Turtles Laying Eggs

One of the more amazing things we’ve seen here already is leatherback sea turtles nesting. Leatherback turtles are the largest of turtles and are endangered. 5 of the 7 worldwide species of these noble creatures choose to lay their eggs along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of Costa Rica. They must like it here. Marine turtles have been doing it for more than 100 million years.

We had the chance to check this out during their nesting season – roughly November-February across the many species. We all went to Playa Minas late at night during a full moon at high tide with our friends Eri and Adam. It’s when you have the best chance to spot them. There was one tour and a number of other folks there. You can’t bring white flashlights; it confuses them since they think it’s the moon and get disoriented. Most of us had red lights – well, except the idiot who set his car alarm, which of course went off and started making horrible noises and started blinking its bright white high-beams.

We had the great opportunity to see one come in from the surf and “hoof it” up past where the water line was. We couldn’t see much and we didn’t take photos. About 10 minutes later, we saw it crawling back to the sea, and at a much faster clip than you would imagine a turtle is capable of. This one was fairly small; typically they are bigger than people.

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CC-BYLeatherback Sea Turtle Hiding its Eggs captured by RustinPC

Volcanoes

We’re from Seattle and so we like volcanoes as our natural-disaster-inducing-entity-of-choice. I came from California and gave up earthquakes and Deb came from Kansas, famous for their tornadoes. Volcanoes clearly are not unique to Costa Rica. However, Costa Rica has 112 volcanoes. With only about 50,000 square km (that’s 20,000 square miles for our US friends), this has to be a pretty unique spot in terms of volcanoes per square kilometer.

One of the prettiest is Volcán Arenal. Folks thought it was just a mountain until it erupted in 1968 and it’s been very active since then. It sits next to a lake and has been a pretty big attraction here, complete with hot springs, rain forest and caves – all of which we will be visiting next week. Stay tuned for some (hopefully) amazing photos.

Stone Spheres

This one has intrigued me since we arrived and it is definitely unique in the world to Costa Rica. To this day it remains a mystery of antiquity.

While Cost Rica does not have the incredible Incan, Mayan, and Aztec ruins other Central American countries have, we have stone balls, known as Las Bolas locally. They are basically large spheres made of granite or basalt that measure from a few hundred centimeters to 2 meters (6.6 feet). You find them only in the Diquis Delta area, near Golfito in southern Costa Rica. They are all man-made.

They range from 600 to 1600 years old in most reports and tend to be associated with the Diquis culture. Reports vary pretty widely but most folks agree that there are about 200-300 of them. Some reports say that they are within a few millimeters of roundness. Most have been moved from their original location and many have been damaged by machinery, treasure hunters or others. It’s hard to say what their original characteristics truly were. Nonetheless, they are pretty amazing feats of craftsmanship. And no one knows what their purpose was.

Some experts have noted that the few spheres that remain in their original positions resemble constellations. The Finca 6 site in Corcovado National Park has many spheres in their original spots, or rough diagrams of where they were. Many have a north-south orientation. I don’t provide any links here. It seems there are as many people out debunk the mystery as there are claiming everything from associations with Atlantis, extraterrestrials, etc. I, for one, love it that there is still an unexplained mystery that truly has no good hypotheses. We will definitely be going there to see them ourselves.

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CC-BYStone Spheres from the National Museum Inner Garden by Mario André Cordero

Video Jugadores

Continuing with the theme of mysteries, here is one:

video jugadores

What do you notice? Of course, it is three boys playing a video game. What struck me was that it isn’t just three boys playing. One, JJ, the son of our landlord is 6. Aidan, our son, is 11. And Jairo, our caretaker’s son, is 17. JJ and Jairo live next door. When was the last time you saw three boys, unrelated, with this span of ages playing together and having fun in the US? It’s not just video games. They have a great time every day.

Things may be different in the schools here. They may have all of the problems with clics, bullies, getting along, etc. that we have in the US. I’ve just never seen that diversity of ages in “dudes having fun” in the US. Call me odd, but perhaps even the kids young adults here practice pura vida.

Pura Vida

I’ll end with the 11th – because we all know “11 is better than 10.” I’d put pura vida on the list here. I know I’ve written about it before, and referenced it several times. It remains something purely Costa Rican. Bing tells me it originated in interactions between surfers and the local Ticos in the 1950s.

In doing some research for this blog, I found another fairly unique thing about Costa Rica that’s related. The people here, particularly in the coastal region where we live, are among the most long-lived people in the world. In fact, the area around us has been declared one of the few “blue zones” in the world, which according to Wikipedia is “…a demographic and/or geographic area of the world where people live measurably longer lives, as described in Dan Buettner’s book, ‘The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from people who lived the longest.’”

Why? In addition to diet, water, and physical activity, the ideal lifestyle characteristics cited by the Blue Zone research included close inter-generational relationships. Hmmm. I think we saw an example of that in #10. The thing is that things like this happen pretty easily, pretty genuinely, and pretty quickly here. Maybe pura vida has been here all along, but the surfers and Ticos gave it a name.

Bertrand Russel said “To understand a name you must be acquainted with the particular of which it is a name.

If you truly want to understand what pura vida means, you’ll just have to come and experience it. We have a guest room now. 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.

Updates

We are settling into our new adventure here in Costa Rica. The bigger things in our lives are underway now, particularly our young adults’ unschooling journey. Amid the nooks and crannies of the last few weeks, we have some more mundane, but fun updates that we wanted to share.

We are now more mobile! We just got four bikes for all of us – three mountain bikes and one beach bike which we call the “grocery bike.” While in Tamarindo, we found a bike shop and got a great deal on them. This is a huge help for us since we had no other transportation and a very limited budget for car rental.

We had been walking everywhere, which is great to an extent. For some context, Surfside, where we live, is very small. It has a few fun bars, a grocery store or two, and a nice beach. Playa Potrero is the closest town. It’s about 20 minutes away and is also a small town. Playa Flamingo is bigger and has a hardware store, bank, rental car place, doctor and pharmacy, etc. It is about a 35 minute walk. Brasilito is about a 50 minute walk and Tamarindo (and surfing) is probably 3-4 hours walking.

The bikes give us convenient access not only to things like groceries but also our growing list of activities, starting with yoga. Deb and I found an amazing class in a huge cabana overlooking the beach. We go several days a week now. It’s not as challenging as P90X but it has its tough spots. We love it. And, well, you can’t beat the view!

I’m really excited about finally finding soccer! There is a pickup game in Playa Potrero Tuesdays and Saturdays. It starts late and ends when you can’t see the ball anymore. I’m the only gringo, though Deb will start going too.

Soccer here, as you might imagine, is very different from the league games we usually play in in Seattle. The group ranges in age from teenagers to someone else in their 50s besides me. Most are in their early 20s or 30s. And there are no women. The play is much more centered around fancy footwork, as you might expect. It is also very hot still late in the day and so this focus keeps the running more minimal. Of course, that’s not how I play. I play more like an American – lots of running and speed, far less on the fancy skills front. I was exhausted at the end of the game (not to mention the long walk home). But, I think I surprised a few of them. It was fun to hear a few whistles (more derision of someone who got “beat” than for the person who did it) when this 52 year old gringo beat several of the 20-somethings to the ball or took it from them and ran. J But, I’m looking at this as a great opportunity to learn the Tico way playing. Did I mention that I don’t miss the cold, freezing rain?

We found a gym in Flamingo so that Vie and I can start working out. Vie wants to start getting more toned. The bikes will make this much easier than the long walk there and back. It will be very hot working out there – so hot that they close from 12-3 every day. It should get us fit fast.

We also found some more hang-outs, each with their specialties. We initially found Maxwell’s and it is still our go-to hangout. It has karaoke Tuesdays, poker on Thursdays (yet to be tried) and the best dollar tacos on Fridays. La Perla, one of the oldest places, has karaoke on Saturdays and that’s a fun time. As an aside, karaoke seems big here. So do country songs (I better get my twang on before I try it). The Shack has really great food and gets local musicians in weekly. Our yoga class also eats breakfast there. It was started by a restaurateur from New York. On Sundays, El Coconut Beach Club has live music and dancing. We don’t go there for the food, though.

One of our most mundane, but fun activities is coming back from doing something hot and sweaty – which is pretty much everything here, including a bike ride to get groceries – and jumping straight into the pool. You can’t imagine how refreshing that is!

We’ve started finding a great rhythm here now. We’ve met a lot of fun people around town too and we see them everywhere (except soccer). It also underscores that Surfside/Playa Potrero is indeed a small town. Everyone knows everyone – and evidently everyone knows everyone’s business.

While we expect that we will mostly bike, we did have a transportation dilemma. Having no car means we can’t surf easily. Our beach really has no waves and isn’t even good for boogie boarding. Tamarindo and Playa Grande on the other hand are two of the best short wave long board surfing spots on the planet. Robert August (famous from Endless Summer) ranks Tamarindo as #1. And, Deb and I have become completely enraptured with surfing after we recently spend a few days learning to surf at the famous Witches Rock Surf Camp.

We have a budget for rental cars, but not enough to surf as frequently as we’d like. The rates also go up from $30/day to $150/a day in high season, December and January. Cars here are ridiculously expensive here – up to twice as expensive. One example: our yoga teacher is selling her 2006 Jeep Cherokee for $13,500. We can’t imagine though living here for a year and not surfing a lot. We love where we are and don’t want to move. Tamarindo is too touristy. What to do? Enter “Moose.”

Now everyone knows that if you find a dog (or rabbit, bird, etc.) that has no home, don’t name it. It is a sure sign you are going to keep it. Well, it works for cars too, evidently.

We found a car that looks like it belongs in the jungle, and that it’s been driving in the jungle for decades. It’s pretty beaten up. It has many beauty marks, missing pieces, and lots of character. We found it in a Facebook ad, took a test drive, had a mechanic check it out, and then, we kind-of named it.

moose

The picture we have here really shows Moose in his best light. Moose doesn’t have any computers (our MINI for example had 40), which means it is easy to fix. Moose is Japanese (a 1990 Mitsubishi Montero). In Costa Rica, Japanese cars/trucks are the best to own because the parts are easy to get, reasonably cheap, and the mechanics all know how to fix them. We expect to have to feed Moose many parts over time (in contrast, Jeep parts – and we love Jeeps – are crazy expensive). Moose was $3000. That’s actually less than what we budgeted for periodic rental cars, even when you add in needed repairs. And Moose comes with a mechanic, sort of. The person coordinating the purchase for the SUV is a fun Austrian mechanic named Tomas.

So, we are taking a plunge, and a risk, and buying Moose today. We have papers to transfer. In Costa Rica, that involves a lawyer. Then, Moose gets to go to the doctor and have a few things fixed. He probably needs a good bath after that as well. He’ll be our surf car. Once we have him back from the doc, add a few surf stickers, a surfboard rack, and some boards. Then, we’ll look like real surfers. We just need to get our skills on par with the look!

Pura Vida!

Unschooling “Begins”

This past week we started the process of unschooling with a “warm up” week to help transition from vacation to more of a regular unschooling “schedule” as our new adventure officially begins its fourth week. As Deb noted, it’s a bit hard to say that the unschooling is “beginning” because, truly, it has been going on in a background way for several months. But, let’s call this the “structured beginning”.

Deb and I have read a lot about unschooling, starting with John Holt, who is one of the early pioneers of unschooling. One of the other best initial sources was Grace Llewellyn’s Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education. One of her and other’s recommendations was to give the unschoolers a “break” from school – a time in which they can disconnect from all of the unhelpful structure, memorization, tests, and directed work. Essentially, that’s what we were doing with Aidan and Vie from September, when formal school started this year, through our departure and arrival, until now.

Deb and I thought the transition from “vacation” to unschooling mindset might be a little abrupt and so we decided to do a “warm up” week. The goal was hopefully to get the young adults inspired and ready to jump in to unschooling pursuits following their interests. Part 1 was some light reading, exploring, reflecting, and video-watching. Part 2 was surf camp. The other benefit to the warm-up was helping and I and Deb prepare for something we’d never done before.

We sent several good warm-up references to Aidan and Vie. As articles/blogs, we sent them a few good descriptions of unschooling (Earl Stevens, John Holt, Wikipedia), as well as some tenets Deb and I will try to strive for, and a third article espousing what Vie often does, which is that teens and pre-teens can do a lot more than we (adults, as well as Deb and I) give them credit for.

The videos were mostly TED videos to get their juices going. They included the excellent TED talk by Sugata Mitra: The child-driven education.  Another key one was a TEDx talk by 13 year-old Logan LaPlante: Hack Schooling. We actually love the term “hack schooling”. I think it fits what we are doing even better.

Finally, we gave them some links to Khan Academy as well as Coursera and edX to explore their areas of interest and potential “classes” they could take on those subjects.

The tricky, and interesting part, was figuring out what indeed they were interested in. We like to think that we had a good idea but we were happily surprised in several cases.

To understand what they were interested in, we relied on our own background in design. As designers, we use a very simple process to design things that really provide value to people. Some people use the now controversial term “design-thinking” for this. High-end design firms like to coin their own steps for the process – even using the same letter for each step to seem more unique and cool. It truly is a very simple process and is really just a step above common sense.

The steps are simply:

understand – create – iterate

You begin by understanding your customer – what they (think they) want, what they are trying to accomplish, their hopes and desires, and what they truly need. You need to take what they want with a heavy grain of salt though; rarely do customer descriptions of what they want lead to good or successful products. What they say though helps designers empathize with what customers want to accomplish. In this case, our “customers” are our young adults whom we are unschooling.

You then create a prototype solution, which you know will initially be wrong, but it gives you something you can try out with your customers and test your assumptions. Then you listen and learn as your customers try the prototypes and you iterate, making the product better – until you get it right. It’s worked well for designers across the world as well as for us in our careers spanning education, startups, web sites, healthcare, legal software, Microsoft software and hardware, aviation and more.

We started by asking Aidan and Vie to give us their “top ten” list of favorite “things” to do or “things” they are interested in. They could be “subjects” like chemistry, activities like “writing”, just topics they want to know more about. The one topic we asked them to include was learning Spanish. We felt that was a “must have”. Here are their lists (they also provided descriptions of why they chose these):

Aidan                                                   Vie
1. Surfing                                             1. Drawing
2. Cooking                                            2. Photography
3. Making videos                                  3. Creative writing
4. Building on Minecraft                       4. Sewing/costume making
5. Baking                                              5. Transgender studies
6. Making my own video game             6. Cosplay
7. Making a card game                         7. Computers
8. Making my own board game             8. Coding
9. Make my own cereal                         9. Gaming
10. Spanish                                          10. Spanish

We won’t do all of these things at once, but we wanted to start with things they are interested in and then work towards things they might not think that they are (such as math) but which they will need.

We then asked them to think about 2-3 projects that might combine some of these things, such as Aidan creating a game involving cooking. We didn’t lock in on anything specific yet, but that’s because we unexpectedly found a great collaborative project for them this coming week, and we went with the flow.

It started with a conversation at dinner about Diablo III and Borderlands II – two Xbox games we all play. We were talking about their game mechanics a bit and then we got a good idea. I offered them a “quest” (a popular component of Role-Playing Games). The quest was for them to write a “paper” comparing and contrasting Diablo III and Borderlands II across many different attributes/dimensions.

And then it happened. A spark. We saw Vie get visibly excited.  Really excited. Aidan followed quickly. We talked about what dimensions they could use, whether they wanted to collaborate on it (they do), and even what form the “paper” might take. It’s now this week’s project. You’ll hear more about this soon. But the big takeaway for Deb and I was that we saw them get excited not just about something unschooling related, but writing a paper no less. That was a great spark to start with.

After a few days working on the warm-up activities, we switched gears a bit and ended the week with one of the top surf camps in the world: Witches Rock Surf Camp in Tamarindo. We spent 4 days learning to surf and practicing. It was incredibly fun and incredibly exhausting. It also provided some good physical balance to the mental work.

As a start on our first week of unschooling, I’d say we had some good initial success, but Deb and I have a lot to learn and a lot to improve. True to our process, we didn’t get it completely right, but we learned what worked and what didn’t and we’ll make adjustments (iterate). One key thing we need to evolve is how to get the kids more engaged in discussion about what they like and what they are doing. We have no doubt that will come. Meanwhile, stay tuned for more on the “paper”. It looks to be an exciting week.