Costa Rica Trip ReportCosta Rica Photo Album
Travel to Costa Rica
After Jason & Mishael informed us of their abrupt plans to leave the day after we arrived, our excitement about the trip had waned. We were just as happy to stay home as to go. We left it to divine providence and decided that if the plane left, we'd be on it. Otherwise, we'd happily stay home and use the tickets for a trip to Dallas. When the storm picked up on the 22nd, it looked like we'd stay.
On the morning of the 23rd we awoke at 3:20 AM and drove through a snowstorm, arriving in Grand Rapids at 5:30AM. Every other nearby airport to the South (DTW, ORD, CIN, IND) was already shut down due to the storm so we were prepared to have our flight cancelled. Even while sitting on the tarmac getting de-iced, we didn't expect to make it out of Michigan. Contrary to all expectations, our flight left for Atlanta after a 45 minute de-icing delay.
From ATL we had a perfect flight into San Juan, and there the fun began. After de-boarding, we got herded into Costa Rica immigration corrals. It was in those lines that the wisdom of wearing layers paid it's dividends. While standing in line, I stripped off my overshirt, zipped off my pant legs, and removed by smart wool socks, leaving me in sandals, shorts, and t-shirt. Since it takes quite a while to get through immigration and it's quite warm, I highly recommend planning accordingly.
After getting through immigration and collecting your passport stamp, you can collect your luggage. If you are going somewhere by taxi, pay the fare at the booth in the airport, and let them guide you through the herd of solictors immediately outside the airport gates. Cab fares in Costa Rica are quite reasonable and bus fares are very cheap.
Simply taking a cab ride for the first time is an adventure of it's own. There are precious few street signs, and even fewer (if any) house numbers in Costa Rica. Directions are in the form of:
from Landmark X, go N 300 meters, turn right. Go 200 meters, look for white house w/brown gate.
If you don't know the landmarks, you'll be stopping frenquently to ask directions from friendly pedestrians. It's easiest to just take a cab and let him stop and ask the pedestrians directions. When taking the bus, you're responsible for knowing when you want to get off and signaling the driver when you want him to stop. Good luck with that.
A big part of our trip to C.R. was to help Jason & Mishael get packed and on their plane. In the weeks leading up to our departure we kept asking "are you sure you don't need us to bring anything?" The answer had always been "just yourselves." The day before we left, the call came in: "Bring your largest suitcases. All of them."
So Jen and I toted along our four largest suitcases (the same ones that hauled 78 bottles of wine home from France). After arriving and greetings, we set to packing and spent the next number of hours packing up what remained, weighing the suitcases, repacking, and weighing again to get each bag as close to 70 lbs as possible without being over weight.
Once the heavy lifting jobs were done, Jason and I left the ladies behind to finish up while we did the mens work, selecting dinner. We walked over to the "super" and picked out 4 of the cutest little ribeye steaks I've seen. They're about half the size of a ribeye I'd buy in the states, basically because the cows aren't nearly as big and fatty as ours. Armed with our ribeyes and salad fixings, we headed back, gathered up our wives and retired to the Little's home for dinner.
After grilling up the steaks, we devoured them with a bottle of Chilean wine. Chilean wine is actually pretty good, but if you drink much wine, you'll immediately notice the wine is very young. I found this to be the case with every Chilean wine I had while in Costa Rica. I cannot explain why that is the case, because I've had some very good Chilean wines in the states and none left me with that impression. I think the ticos (Costa Ricans) may actually prefer young wines, just like they prefer bland food.
As compared to most evenings we've spent with Mishael and Jason, this one was abbreviated. We had gotten up at 3:00AM to catch our plane, and Jason and Mishael has been packing all day before we arrived. We talked for a short while, and then retreated to our bedrooms to crash before we fell asleep and landed face first in our salad bowls.
6:00AM send off
I don't recall what time we got up, but it was early. By 5:00AM, we were re-weighing bags, distributing weight between them, duct taping seams, and getting them all ready for the van that would be arriving at 6. We weight every bag at least once more before hauling them out into the driveway.
At 6 AM the taxi bus showed up and a little tico, who might have weighted 110 lbs jumped out. The bags weighted more than half his weight, and he was supposed to be loading the van with 30 of them. I watched him load a few as I carried the rest out and then I helped him load the rest of the van. It was a little van and we packed the bags in from floor to ceiling, sparing only the passenger seat of the van for Mishael, Jason, and Arie to cram into.
With Mishael and Jason on their way, Jen and I went back to bed to sleep in. Later that day Matt finished setting up Mishael's G4 for it's new owner. That consisted of copying the contents of the drives to an external disk for Mishael and then scrubbing the drives clean.
Since we'd be leaving for the hill country, we opted to leave the laptop and some moving gifts with Don Carlos (Mishael & Jason's neighbor and landlord). Since we'd be "offline" for 9 days, we spent the afternoon catching up on emails. By the time Matt finished with emails, it was dinner time so we walked over to the super and picked up enough food and snacks for dinner, breakfast, and bus snacks for tomorrows ride to St. Helena.
Thus far our trip planning was akin to "Well, maybe the flight will get cancelled." After dinner, we decided to figure out what to do with the next 13 days. We had gathered destination ideas, broke out a map and started plotting. The rough outline looked like this: spend a few days in La Fortuna, a few days at Marina's ranch, a few at the beach, and then back to San Jose for a few more. From San Jose we could try to catch an earlier flight home or take the Nica bus to Grenada for a 2 day shopping trip in Nicarauga. Else, if we found something magnificent along the way, we had three extra days to spend.
bus to La Fortuna
We had looked into renting a car to get around but during Christmas/New Years, most rental lots have everything in their lots rented out. Tourism is under full swing and the entire country is on vacation for the month. We found a few options, but a suzuki sidekick for $75/day seemed excessive. After checking out bus fares we decided to go that route. It would be more economical to ride the bus for the major legs and hire a cab for local transit. Most days we wouldn't need any transit (beyond walking) and $75 would rent a cab and driver for the entire day if we should need it. In most parts of the country, you can hire a cab all day for much less.
This turned out to be a good choice. Even with our own vehicle, it would have taken about the same amount of time to get to our destinations by car. This is partly due to lack of passing lanes on mountainous roads, meaning you'll spend a lot of time stuck behind slower vehicles. Complicate the matter with a noticable lack of road signs and it wasn't hard to imagine a lot of time wasted navigating. It's easier to find the right bus, get on, and then take a nap, or listen to a book.
From San Jose, $10 covered our cab fare to the bus stop and our bus fare to La Fortuna. What a bargain! Another advantage to taking the bus is that you're likely to be presented with unsolicited offers. Initially, you'd think this a bad thing, but upon stepping off the bus in La Fortuna, Franklin approached us and asked if we needed a room. We asked a few questions about his rooms, and then walked over to check them out. The room was satisfactory so we booked a double for $10/night which included a fridge, fan, and hot water.
We've talked to travelers that paid as much as $50/night for rooms that did not have hot water. Also, it's important to note that all prices are "per person". So $10/night is a per person cost. This may catch non-Spanish speakers by surprise as it's often lost in the translation. Fortunately, Jen is fluent in Spanish. The practice of seeking out lodgees for their cabins is quite common and that's how we found our $10/night rooms at the beach as well. Those did not have hot water, but most near the beach do not.
dinner at La Choza de Laurel
During the day we talked to other travelers and locals and heard quite a few recommendations for eating at La Choza de Laurel. We walked by to check the place out and the smell of chicken roasting over a wood fire drew us in like moths to a flame. For dinner we both had "Tipical" food diinners, consisting of chiotes, rice & beans, spagetti, and a couple other things. It was good, but nothing to write home about. We would soon learn this is par for anything with the word "tipical" in it. What was very good was the smoked pork chop Jen had with her dinner. I had a bite and then ordered one for myself. They really know how to cook their meat.
Now that the first trimester is over, Jen has a very strong appetite. Many things now attract her dining interests and during dinner, there were no shortage of trays passing by that piqued her dining interest. In particular was the mixed grilled plate, consisting of grilled pork, chicken, beef, shrimp, lobster, crab, and fish. We'd return tomorrow evening to enjoy one of those.
Over the next couple days, we'd learn that La Choza de Laurel is the best game in town. We talked to dozens of other tourists and locals about the other eating places and this is the only one to gain consistent recommendations. Excepting the fruit drinks at Lava Rocks, there's nothing else culinary in town that we can recommend.
La Fortuna Waterfall
We awoke to bright sunny skies and decided to hike up to the waterfall and back. The waterfalls are quite lovely, falling about 200 feet through the heart of a rain forest. The hike to the falls is picturesque and our Dutch neighbors who had left hours before we did were still only halfway to the falls when we passed them. They're avid bird watchers and had spotted all sort of birds that had them bordering on giddy.
Once at the falls, the hike down to the base of the falls is well worth the effort. You have all the lush green foliage and towering canopy of a rain forest, complete with the mist rising off the falls and sparking in the early morning sun. It's simply breathtaking. Not only is the natural setting wonderful, the people watching is also amusing as there are people there from all over the world.
I hadn't brought my camera on this excursion but even if I had, I don't own a wide enough angle lens to have done the scene justice. Instead, I got to chuckle at all the other people lugging their photo gear up and down the very steep trail. Sometimes, the best photos are the ones you take without a camera.
After visiting the falls, we hiked back to town. During the hike it decided to rain on us. Just a word of advise here, if you go hiking in a rain forest, pack an umbrella. It had been sunny that morning and the idea of carrying rain gear never crossed our minds. We got thoroughly drenched. Upon arriving back in town, we stopped at Lava Rocks for lunch. Their food is pretty average fare, but their fruit drinks are excellent and reasonably priced.
Movie Star Sighting
After ordering, Jen recognized a voice behind us, and then turned around to see Kevin Bacon and his family. This is the kind of thing that makes girls get a goofy kind of giddy. Jen turned to me for confirmation. After a couple discreet looks, I confirmed that sure enough, that fellow was a dead ringer for Kevin Bacon. Jen also recognized and knew his wife Kyra Sedgewick, further confirming the sighting.
We were seated right next to them and their two kids. I noticed a couple women a few tables away trying to discreetly peer at them. I waved to her and nodded affirmatively. Their eyes got big as they both giggled and whispered to each other. Twenty seven and even forty seven year old women have much in common with 14 year old girls. Everyone else either did not recognize them or did as we did and let them have their privacy.
After lunch, we hurried along to get back and catch our ride to the hanging bridges. Our conceirge had informed us that we'd be picked up at 1:00, at the cabinas. We scarfed down a bit of our food and then hurried back to catch our ride. Apparently, there was a mis-communication and we were supposed to meet our rides somewhere in town. Instead, we spent the afternoon laying around in hammocks, watching it rain. It does that a lot in La Fortuna. Did I mention that it's located in a rain forest?
Dinner was the grilled meat platter for two at La Choze de Laurel. It was every bit as good as it looked the night before. At $40 for the platter (for two), it was the most expensive meal we had in Costa Rica, but also one of the finest.
Later in the evening, we couldn't help but notice the new collection of spots on our legs and ankles. We feared that we had collected fleas or lice, but after asking some locals about the new spots we were collecting, they informed us that those little bites were the results of their no-see-ums. We likely collected most of the bites while walking to the waterfall and back in shorts. A day or two after being bitten, the bite mark will get a black head on it that remains for a couple days. It itches much like a mosquito bite and is just as enjoyable in every other way. We learned to be cognizant of these little guys and wear pant legs when walking through fields, hiking trails, etc.
We chose to spend a day critter spotting in one of the areas premeir sighting trips in Black Canyon (Cañon Negro). This required getting up early and being ready by 7:30AM. The tour bus picked us up at our cabin and we rode for several hours through Costa Rica, up to Los Chiles near the the border of Nicarauga. The tour guide for the boat was also a guide on the drive and pointed out all of the interesting sights along the way.
Upon arriving in Cañon Negro, we boarded tour boats that guided us up through the swamp, pointing out monkeys, bats, cayman, basilik, iguanas, sloths, caymans, and many types of birds. This doesn't get excite Matt much but Jen enjoys it. She reponds with something akin to "awww, isn't it cute." Matt's responses are a bit more primitive, "Hmmm, I wonder how that tastes." Still, he behaved admirably and instead of shooting at the animals with dinner in mind, he shot them through the lens of a camera.
"Jesus Christ" lizard: They have a very cool little lizard we saw that the locals affectionately refer to as the "Jesus Christ lizard" because of it's ability to run across the top of the water. They're cool to see, and hard to photograph.
For lunch, they served us all a plate of "tipical" food, aka rice and beans. The word "tipical" is used to describe the food typically eaten by ticos (Costa Rican natives). You can just assume that tipical means some variation of rice and beans. It is the staple of most tico diets. It's no wonder they are nearly all skinny. If I had to live on rice and beans, I'd shed a few pounds myself.
Upon arriving back in La Fortuna, we opted to try the Mexican restaurant. We should have seen the handwriting on the wall when the first three things we tried ordering weren't available, but we stuck it out and had a fairly mediocre dinner. If it was cheap, it would have met our expectations but it was tourist priced and left us disappointed.
Here's a travel tip for make note of. Once you venture away from population centers, it's best to have any cash you may need in hand. It's a real bummer to walk up to the only ATM in town and have it tell you "sorry, we can't connect to the central computer, try again later." Apparently, this isn't an infrequent occurance in the more rural areas. Fortunately, we weren't in a hurry and after checking email at an Internet Cafe, we managed to get a fresh pile of Colones.
Excepting areas in San Jose (as with any large city), Costa Rica is a very safe place and I never once felt the least bit unsafe. While you'd be silly (and loss prone) to leave anything valueable unattended, as long as you're attentive, anything in your possession is safe. So, the rule of the road is, before heading out, withdraw as much cash as you'll need, plus an extra $50 worth. If you don't use the extra $50, you can use it to pay your exit fee when you leave the country.
bus to Tilaran
We'd spent our three days in La Fortuna, so it was time to be moving along. Early on the 28th we boarded a bus to Tilaren and comfortably rode for a couple hours. Tilaran is interesting. It's a mountain town and it's most interesting feature is the wind. It blows incessantly, all day every day, all year long. Even hot days are pleasant because of the breeze. We had an hour to kill before our next bus left so we visited a grocery store and made cheese and salami tortillas to eat in the park. It would be very easy to get sunburned there. The sun is nice and warm and the breeze is stiff, encouraging you to always be in a sunny spot.
After lunch, we piled into a school bus for the last leg of our bus trip. Unlike every school bus I've ever sat in, this bus has individual seats for each person, but the seats were child sized. Adults packed into these, hip bone to hip bone, shoulder to shoulder. It might not have been so bad, except that the road from Tilaran to Monte Verde quickly degrades into a very bumpy dirt path through the mountians. We were seated in the rear so we did a good bit of bouncing around.
arrival at Ranch
While bouncing our way towards St. Helena and Monte Verde, Jen happened to notice a ranch with a sign on it bearing the name of Marina. We summoned the driver to stop and then got off the bus, hoping we'd found the right spot. After wandering about for a bit to find a person, we discovered we were at her daughters ranch, next door to our destination. We hiked through the mud up to the ranch and proceeded to knock on every door we found. We finally found a person when Aurelio (grandpa) came into the kitchen (where we could see him) to answer the phone. We got his attention and very soon Marina came out and the formal introductions began.
Formal introductions are quite interesting in Latin American culture. When we walked into her home, Marina knew we were Yorbi's friends and we knew Marina was Yorbi's aunt and they lived on a farm. That was it. We spent the next hour or two talking about where we were from, our families, the weather back home, etc. It was all very formal, taking place in the sitting room.
Over the next few hours, people would trickle in and out of the house and we'd get dizzy trying to remember them all and their relationships within the gigantic family. In our first day, we did a lot of observing, as well as being watched. We were curious new guests. Everyone was very hospitable and we just sat back a bit and absorbed all that was going on around us.
Marina & Aurelio have hosted exchange students in the past and have shared their home with many people over the years. Marina has a collection of coffee cups that could put any restaurant to shame. One entire wall and half of another has cups from all over the world. Knowing that, upon any return trip we make it will be necessary to pack along a couple coffee cups for the collection.
During the middle of the day, things are fairly docile but when dinner time rolls around, the house comes alive. The men come in from the fields, workers are done for the day and stop to visit, and a fairly steady stream of people come through the kitchen and get fed. The kitchen table seats six persons so a group comes in, eats, and then gets up so that others can sit. Dishes are washed and then re-used for the next batch of eaters. This happens three or four times before dinner is finished.
It quickly became apparent that Marina has a full time job just feeding her clan. I suppose that's to be expected when you have 10 kids, and they all have kids of their own. Because of this, having two more people present is pretty easy to overlook, unless they're tall, very white, and the man brought a packet of balloons and has been playing with the kids all night.
To help Marina, one of her (middle aged) daughters Melitza (and her daughter Melissa) live at the ranch and helps out around the house, doing dishes, washing clothes, and keeping house.
Around dinner time, Melitza's other daughter Luitza and her family showed up. Luitza works at a bakery/restaurant in St. Helena and her husband Richard drives a taxi. They have two boys, Eric and Jose Luis, both of whom speak a little English and are absolutely adorable. I had bought a pack of balloons and quickly got their attention by blowing one up. As usual, I quickly had an entourage of youngsters infatuated with this curious new man who seemed to behave just like an overgrown boy.
Since we only planned to stay a few days, we wasted no time taking in the sites. Early on the 29th, we rode into St. Helena with Richard and Luitza. After dropping off Luitza at work, Richard took us up to Canopy Tours so we could ride the zip lines through the rain forest canopy.
Zip Lines @ Selva Tura Park
One of the things you'll notice about the canopy tours is that every photo ever taken there is taken in the rain. This is not coincidence. It's a cloud forest, and it's rare to be there when it's not raining. If it's not raining, then odds are still good that while zipping around the forests canopy, you'll be inside a cloud. Translation: prepare to be soggy.
There are several parks and we ended up at Selva Tura park. They have more zip lines and rope bridges, and I was all about them zip lines. In all, they had 19 zip lines and 21 platforms. You climb up a platform and then zip from platform to platform through the forests canopy. It's quite fun and if you're used to being in a climbing harness, it's second nature.
There really is nothing dangerous about the zip lines other than the possibility of a rapid decelleration if you don't manage your speed. Since Jen was pregnant, we had her accompanied by a guide who rode with her and made sure each platform landing was nice and smooth.
After zipping around the canopy all morning, we rode the shuttle back into town and ate buffalo wings & french fries for lunch. The buffalo wings restaurant was owned by an Israeli who actually knew how to cook. He had started a couple of the other restaurants around town and he's a straight shooter. If you have any questions while in St. Helena, we'd recommend visiting him second, right after the visitors center.
shopping with Marina & Luitza
As we were finishing lunch, Melitza showed up. Her and Marina were shopping, buying all the food they'd need for the gaggle of people that would be showing up over new years. This addressed how we'd get back home so we joined them in the super.
Several facts all became painfully apparent while shopping. St. Helena is a small town. Marina & Aurelio have lived there for 70+ years. They have 10 children and many more grandchildren. Thus, every person in the store who is not a tourist knows them. It just wouldn't be right if they didn't greet, introduce us, and socialize with nearly every person that walked by. With that in mind, imagine just how long it can take to get any shopping done. Now double what you imagined and you're getting the picture.
I don't tend to be a browsing shopper. I like to have a list, I purposefully go about collecting what I'm after, and then get out of there. So, acting through my translator (Jen), I started asking what was on the list and very soon Jen, Melitza, and I were collecting sacks of vegetables and other items from the list. Once the cart was full, we checked out. Since Jorhanni wasn't back with the truck yet, they just left all the groceries in the sacks at the counter (a "normal" practice) and ventured off to another shop to buy a present for some occasion. This was a bit much for Jen, who sat nearby like a watchdog, making sure nobody tried to hurt themselves lugging off our 75 lb gunny sack of groceries.
The Long Road Home
When Jorhanni returned, we loaded up the truck and headed back. However, since we were out, we had to first stop by the seamstress and pick up some clothes. Since we are in Latin America, this stop also requires socializing. After departing the seamstress, we also had to stop at the hairdresser for another "quick" stop. It was dark when we arrived home.
My comments are in no way an indictment of anything, just observations of how life works in this part of the world. It's different, and if you're stuck in the American "go go go" mentality here, you're in for a bit of culture shock. My advice is to simply relax and enjoy the (slower) pace. Who knows, you might just find something there you've been missing.
During the ample spare time we had in the truck, Jorhanni, his girlfriend, Jen, and I chatted. I had talked with Flaco (Jose) the day before about milking cows and apparently they had talked about it that morning. Jorhanni invited me to join them the next morning at 5:00AM. I said that if they could find me some boots to wear, I'd be there.
The walls are paper thick in the house so when the guys call Jorhanni to wake up in the next room, it's hard not to wake up. I got up and Flaco fetched me a pair of boots and we headed down to the milking barn. Thinks are a bit different here than I had experienced. I grew up on a family farm and we always had one or two milking cows. Our cows also served as family pets and any ill tempered ones became beef. We seldom bothered with stantions, simply calling them up to the fence near the house. We'd get them to stand still with a small bucket of grain while we milked them.
I had friends with dairy farms which is the other end of the farming spectrum. They had scores of milking cattle. You'd corral them at milking time and feed them through an assembly line, complete with milking machines. You'd wash the utters, stick the machine on, and get another cow started. It would take me a half hour to milk two cows in the morning. On a dairy farm one guy could milk a couple dozen cows in the same time.
This ranch was somewhere in between. There were a couple dozen cows to milk and 4-6 men to do it. The milking barn had six stations, each with a stantion, a rope to tie the hind legs together (to prevent kicking), and a rope across the back with stringers to tie the tail up with. I liked that last idea. I never did like getting swatted by that nasty old cow tail.
Interestingly, they corral the calves in the milking house and after bringing in each cow, they allow that cow's calf to nurse for a few minutes. Then the calf is hauled away (literally) and a human finishes milking the cow into a bucket. From there the milk is strained into milk cans. After setting some milk and cream aside for family use, the rest gets set along the road for the milk truck to pick up at 6:00AM.
Apparently the milking starts around 4, because it was mostly done when I arrived and I only milked two cows. After the milking is done (around 6AM) the men return to the house for their breakfast. I had breakfast with the men before returning to bed to finish sleeping.
Monte Verde Reserve
After getting up, we walked across the road and met another of Marina's daughters, Mabel. Mabel has a sloth living in the tree behind her house. She also appears to be a good cook. We had a sampling of her corn bread and a bread pudding and both were very good. Mabel has two daughters: Veronica and Daniella. Veronica was working so to get Daniella doing something, she was nominated to act as tour guide for us at the Monte Verde Reserve.
The three of us rode into town with Richard and Luitza and Richard dropped us off at the resevere. In the reseverve we saw monkeys, quitzal, sloth, and a variety of birds, tarzan trees, and the continental divide. Richard waited for us and also gave us a ride home when were were finished in the resevere.
Back at the ranch, Marina was hard at work peeling potatoes and arracache for a huge batch of a tasty dish I don't know the name of. Since I had nothing better to do, and my spanish is nigh useless, I stepped up beside her and gently removed the knife from her hands. I nudged her aside and began peeling potatoes for her. We were pitching in and helping out where it would touch her most, in her kitchen. She gracefully took my gesture in stride and went on to the next thing on her list.
What's most interesting is that latin men aren't often found in the kitchen for anything other than eating. However, the power of example burns strong and before long, I had a smiling young apprentice named Jose peeling beside me. Even though our conversations were limited by the language barriers, I couldn't help but fall in love this little guy. His adorable puppy dog eyes won me the first night, but when he demonstrated that his desire to help is as strong as his desire to play, I was hooked.
The potatoes and arracache were combined with a bunch of other ingredients in a large pot where Marina tweaked and spiced to taste. I thought the dish was very good. It was lightly peppered and well seasoned. I'd have gone a little heavier on the pepper, but half the family complained it was too peppery. This was another reminder that most ticos prefer their food bland. During lunch and dinner, we helped out by clearing table settings and washing dishes.
Marina also has a maid who stopped by. She is supposed to keep the house clean and do laundry. She does, but doesn't seem to do any of her tasks very well. I'm sure much could be written about the pros and cons of having a maid, but never having had one, I have little to offer on the matter. I'll just suffice it to say that the levels of satisfaction I have with my Maytag seem to far exceed the typical experience with hired maids, a common practice in C.R.
By dinner time, the house was packed. Mabel had stopped by, Laura and her children (Jesus, Favian, and Maria Fernandez (Fer)) arrived, and so did Carol and Franklin with their children (Adriana, and boy). This meant that now there were kids everywhere and the house was very much alive. We were the guests of honor and everyone wanted to meet us and see who these strange white nomads from the land of milk, honey, and snow were. We answered lots of questions, shared stories, and laughed a lot.
The previous day I sensed that milking got started earlier than 5 so I rousted myself and went down at 4:30AM to help. The guys were already milking away so I stepped in and got started myself. It sure brought back a lot of old and faded memories. After milking, I had breakfast with the men again before retiring back to bed.
Around 8, Jen and I got up. Marina was working away at making coffee biscuits so I began making biscuits as well. Melitza, the proclaimed expert at this observed for a bit and then declared I was better at it than Marina. Marina took this in stride and left me to finish them as she got started on making meatballs for a soup she was making. We'd spend the rest of the morning in the kitchen, doing dishes, making meatballs, chopping vegetables, etc.
A memorable event occured as Melitza was making tostadas for lunch. She makes a tostada by toasting the tortilla's that she made fresh that morning. She has a rack for toasting them over the gas burner and had left one on the rack and began talking to Marina. I was standing there observing this toasting process. As the tostada began to turn from brown and heading for black, I began a simple chant: "tostada, tostada, tostada, tostada, tostada." Each time I altered my voice inflection until Melitza sprang around to remove her flaming tostada from the rack. Everyone got a nice chuckle and the word tostada gained additional meaning that day.
After lunch, a group of the kids, Jen, and I would hike up to the coffee bean fields and get to see the pickers picking coffee, hauling huge sacks of beans down the mountain, and then have their beans measured to see how much each picker got paid. The pickers are paid based on how many beans they pick, with a roughly 1 foot cubed bucket used to measure their pickings.
Up in the coffee fields we met another of Marina's sons, Walter, who we think manages the coffee bean fields. He works hard up there, picking, carrying down huge bags of beans, and then measuring them for the pickers and paying them for their labors. Many of the pickers are Nicarauguans who come down each year to pick beans.
On the way home from the fields, we stopped by the home of Marilyn, another of Marina's daughters. There we chatted a bit and then Marilyn and Laura busted out the kareoke set and started singing. It was a while before we were able to depart and head back for the ranch.
Laundry: It's easy to take for granted that I dump some detergent into the washing machine, wait 35 minutes, and then throw the clothes into the dryer for an hour or so. The only real work involved is folding them, unless you wait too long before taking them out of the dryer and need to iron them. Even then, I can cheat by throwing a moist towel back in for 5 minutes and then go about folding and hanging laundry. The entire process only takes 15 minutes of "attention time".
Even those fortunate enough to have a washing machine in Costa Rica (as Marina does) don't have it nearly so well. Their washing machines are much more primitive. After the wash cycle, you pick the clothes out of the sudsy water and rinse them yourself, hand washing anything the machine didn't do a good enough job of. After you've rinsed your garments, you stick them into the spin compartment and let the machine spin them dry. From there it's off to the clothes line where they air dry before being ironed and finally folded and put away. Doing three or four loads of laundry will take the entire day to finish.
New Years: After dinner, everyone from 15-50 would be primping and preening for the New Years celebration. In the midst of all the busyness of getting ready, family politics reared up. Melitza and Walter have an aggravated history of some sort and now she was refusing to go as we were all riding in his jeep. We don't know enough about it to determine what happened but it got ironed out somehow. We'd be going out to a discotheque to dance in the new year.
Getting my ears assaulted by 110 decibel music in a smoke filled room isn't high on my list of joys. Cigarette smoke plugs my sinuses and I long for anything to plug my ears with. Regardless, when 9PM rolled around, nine of us piled into Walter's jeep and headed into town.
Shorly after 9 when we arrived, the band was just getting set up. We picked our seats and sat around for quite a while. Around 11, the place started filling up and by 11:30PM it was packed and the dance floor was crowded. Jen and I did a bunch of watching, trying to break down the steps. I finally gave up and hauled Fer outside (where I could hear her) and had her break down the steps for us. With a bit of practice, I was able to do 4 of about 7 of the step variations and began feeling a bit more competent on the dance floor.
Walter and his lady spent nearly every moment out on the dance floor. Jen and I were both happy to see that the couple, who work so hard by day, also play just as hard by night. They danced the night away, having more fun than anyone else in our group. When the clock struck midnight, everyone hugged and air kissed everyone around them and offered up happy new years salutations. Then the music started again and true to Latin American culture, the dancing continued. Around 1AM, Jen, Melitza and I had as much smoke and loud music as we could take and took a cab home.
On new years day I slept through the milking call. I would later regret this because so had Flaco and Jorhanni, meaning the milking crew was seriously short handed. Since I was a guest, there's no way they'd have considered asking me, even though I'd have been happy to help.
Horse Festival: On new years day, a horse festival was being held and it was planned that everyone would pile into a bus to go. However, a bus suitably large could not be found to rent. New Years is a busy time and it was no longer possible to make reservations. Instead, a small group would pile into the family SUV and the rest would be left behind.
In addition to being a holiday, Jan 1st is also Laura's birthday. The previous day she asked us to make her a cake. I'm sure the request was only half serious but Jen and I enjoy doing such things and had begun plotting. We really wanted to make a deep dish apple pie but had several handicaps. The first was lacking anything in the way of a cookbook. At home we have a library of them, but that wasn't much use there.
We contemplated sending an email request to someone and then waiting for a response, but that required a lot of logistics. We'd have to go into town, stop at an Internet cafe, send the email, and then check back later and hope there was a response. We couldn't pin our plans on such chance.
That morning, Franklin had to take Carole into work so we rode into town with them. While there, we decided to see what we could find in the way of recipes, or figure out using raw ingredients. We failed to find anything resembling a cookbook, even checking cans of various products for included recipes when I found just what the doctor ordered, brownie mix. :-) Since a small multitude of people were there, I got 3 boxes of mix, some assorted chocolate bars to mix in, and a couple quarts of ice cream. It wasn't lavish, but it would suffice.
We got back from town shortly after lunch. A group including Aurelio and Marina had already departed for the horse festival so the house was just mostly full. Laura, Melitza, and a few others went over to Marilyn's for kareoke so we kicked the rest of the kids out of the house (a difficult job) and took over. There was no way we'd consider getting caught using box mixes.
Making Brownies: After discreetly mixing the ingredients, we chopped up the chocolate bars, dropped them in, and prepared to bake. What we'd soon learn is that the ovens temperature controls are not accurate. The aren't even close. So, it took nearly two hours to bake the first pan, and nearly 5 hours in total for three pans of brownies as I slowly brought the temperature close to where it should be.
During the entire preperation and baking time, we kept the mix and baked brownies well concealed. The only clue we couldn't control was the smell which was apparent just walking up the path to the house. It was quite fun to see people come into the house and sniff around, trying to figure out what smelled so good.
A while after dinner, the ladies came home from kareoke and began dolling themselves up for another night of dancing. It was all great fun to watch. "We're all going out." "Melissa doesn't want to, so now Melitza doesn't either se we're all staying home." They flipped and flopped back and forth several times, all the while getting dressed up and ready to go. During all the flip flopping, we broke in and presented everyone with a plate full of brownies á la mode.
Jen and I weren't particularly interested in having our sinuses and ears assaulted again so we opted to stay home with the kids. Four days earlier we had arrived and now we were left in charge of a gaggle of their kids. We were charged with putting them down by 10:00PM and off they went to go dancing.
Bedtime: At 9:50PM I started the bedtime procedure, getting each kid to use the bathroom and brush their teeth. At 9:55, just after their teeth were brushed, drill seargeant Carole stopped by to see how we were doing. Jen doesn't know how to look into them cute little puppy dog eyes and be firm. She is just putty in their hands. I was trundeling along, preparing to lay down the law at the stroke of 10. Each child would be in their pre-assigned bed and no noise shall eminate from their room. I could care less what they're doing or if they're awake, just as long as they aren't making noise and keeping the other kids awake.
However, my getting strict proved unnecessary as Carole began barking orders and kids began falling into line. I don't know if you've ever seen a latin woman on a tirade or not, but it's a thing of beauty. I didn't catch many of the words she used but the tone, ferocity, and speed all suggested a very commanding presense that left nothing in the way of negotiation. By 9:56 all the kids were marched into their rooms and were in bed and I didn't have to be the one to spoil the fiesta.
After issuing orders, Carole returned to her cabin and we were left to police the kids. This amounted to little more than issuing a few "keep quiet" and "get back to bed" orders. Not being able to understand their pleas made it even easier to just say "No, no, no" and shoo them back to their rooms.
Around 10:30 the horse festival party returned home. It was quite amusing to see Aurelio walk into the house and head right for the oven. He had smelled the brownies and it wasn't 15 seconds into the house and he had one in his custody. We surmised that he's got a bit of a sweet tooth. :-) We served him up a couple more, complete with ice cream which he dutifully polished off.
As we talked about their day at the horse festival, I heard a door shut behind me. I excused myself and found a kid missing from one bedroom, trying to take advantage of our lack of attention. I checked another room and found a bed with three kids so I picked up the trespasser and hauled him out into the kitchen, where I proceeded to spank him in front of grandpa and grandma. Then I chewed him out for his actions. I had surmised from previous conversations that was the way to handle such incidents and when he saw a group of adults confirming my actions, he resigned his protests and returned to his bed.
Because of the extended stay at the ranch and the new obligations to stop and meet others on our way back, our days at the beach were become endangered so we opted to pack up and catch the 7:30 bus to Tilaren. We said our goodbyes, took pictures, exhanged contact info, and then headed down to the driveway to wait for the bus with our train of kids following.
We rode to Tilaren, boarded another bus to Cañas, another to Liberia, and a final one to Playas de Coco, getting in around mid-day. Travelling around by bus is really quite efficient.
At the bus stop in Playas de Coco (Coco Beach), Manfred introduced himself and asked if were were looking for a cabin. We were and asked the normal suite of questions before riding back to his cabins to have a look. The cabin included a large bathroom and ceiling fan. What we didn't check was hot water, but in the beach region, it's always in the 80's or 90's and the "cold" water isn't very cold. When you wake up in the middle of the night, the fan is going full blast, and it's too warm to sleep, trust me here, it's not a hot shower that you'll be seeking.
After checking in with Manfred at the Villa Austra, we donned our bathing suits and walked to the beach. Playa de Coca is quite dirty and has an abundance of fragrance that does not encourage you to stick around. We had read about this in the guide books and walked around to the left of the beach around a rocky outcropping and found a much nicer, less crowded beach. There was still a fair amount of litter there but we were finally at the beach. In the bay at Playas de Coco, there were a large variety of fishing and sailing boats. The fishing boats all have poles and black flags on them, we surmised for their nets.
On the way back to our cabin, my swim trunks began chafing me again so we stopped by a few stores in town and couldn't find anything I'd consider buying. After giving up, we passed a USA clothing store. We ventured in and it appeared to be factory seconds at dirt cheap pricing. Stores like this could easily explain why nearly every piece of clothing you see in C.R. bears U.S. advertising in English. I purchased two pair of shorts and wore the new ones home.
That night we rinsed and then headed next door to the Marisqueria Milanes for dinner. It's a nice little restaurant, just outside of town (it's tranquil) where there are no walls and the floors are loose rocks. The janitorial staff consists of several free ranging chickens and geese who keep the floor crumb and insect free. It came highly recommended and we'd agree.
We had their maricada (seafood) dish which was very good, ranking at the top of the Costa Rican cuisine we experienced. For dessert we shared a tres leche (3 milk) cake which was also very, very good. I'd have tres leche cake again but never since have I had it as good as that one.
In a quest to find a nice beach, we hired a cab to take us to Playas de Ocotal. We took along snorel masks and were happy to find a much nicer beach to play on. The sand was mixed (black and white) and thus not too hot to walk on (as black sand is) and just right to lay on after coming out of the water. We snorkeled around and saw an eel, stone fish (highly toxic), and various other fish. Afterwards we laid out on the beach for a while before thumbing a ride back to Coco beach.
That evening we ventured into town to check email and find some dinner. We both had a fairly decent Fettucini (seafood & chicken) and then proceeded to get our lower legs molested by no-see-ums in an unenclosed Internet cafe. From then on, I would keep that experience in mind before sitting down. It's really hard to type when you're trying to keep little invisible bugs from eating you alive.
We had accepted an invitation to visit Laura's home so we caught the bus at Villa Austria and rode it to the bus stop just outside Palmares where Maria was waiting for us. We rode in her uncle's van back to their home where Maria gave us the tour of their home and gardens. We then walked into city center and walked around looking for souvenir and gift ideas to take home to family and friends. We didn't find anything.
Back in Palmares (a small town of about 10,000), we did a "cost of living" comparison. We drew up a simple spreadsheet where we compared our income and expenses with theirs. It was a very interesting comparison. Some of the highlights are:
Income: Their family income is about 1/5 of ours. As an interesting side note, 70% of Costa Ricans live on less than $100/month. The primary industries in Costa Rica are agriculture and tourism.
Housing: Costs are comparable between Palmarres and most any small town in the U.S. This was surprising because income levels are so disparate.
Taxes: Between income, sales, and property taxes, most US citizens spend about 35% of their income on taxes. In most of Europe, that percentage ranges from 45-55%. In Costa Rica, employers pay all payroll taxes. If an employee makes $3/hr, they take home $3 for each hour worked. There is no sales tax in Costa Rica.
Energy costs: Since you don't need a furnace or air conditioning, the costs of electricity and gas are virtually non-existent in C.R. The extent of gas use is picking up a cylinder of propane for a cook stove. These costs average about $250 a month for a midwestern U.S. home. Electricity and telephone costs are both extremely cheap, much less than in the U.S.
Food: Because of the abundance of agriculture, there are very few transportation costs for food so it's very cheap. Dirt cheap. Also, most families plant gardens. The climate makes it pretty easy to grow most anything. Our grocery budget would feed 6 families in C.R.
Education: Schooling in Costa Rica is free and C.R. has the highest literacy rate of any Latin American country.
Other: There are plenty of clues that you could live a long time on a very small nest egg in Costa Rica. There are many expatriates and retirees that live out their golden years in Costa Rica. Retirees find their Social Security checks will stretch much further in C.R. than anywhere in the U.S.
We hung around with Laura and her kids all morning and then took the bus from Palmares to San Jose. At the Coca Cola bus stop we visited a market there and found a large wheeled bag to stick our backpacks into for the ride home. This would allow us to also fit in the stuff that we had stashed with Don Carlos, as well as extra room for any souvenirs we might find.
We took a cab over to Don Carlos' and chatted with them. They presented us a gift, a bottle of the vegetable salsa they make there in C.R. We'd had it with food before and they told us it's what their kids and others would take home. Considering that we hadn't found anything else to take home, we headed over to the super and picked up a 9 more bottles for friends and family.
While so close to the Little's home we couldn't help but drop by one last time to check email. After a brief internet fix, we returned to the Carlos's and packed our backpacks and souvenirs into the large bag. After having an excellent lunch with the Carlos', we caught a cab up to Nelle's home in Heredia, a suburb of San Jose.
In Heredia, we met Nelle, Marina's sister. We walked around Heredia, formerly a sleepy little town that's now much like the suburbia you'd find around any major city. It shares many of the same problems as well. Nelle has a very comfortable home and many of her children live near by. Like all the people we met in Costa Rica, Nelle is very warm, friendly, and hospitable.
Our final day was anti-climactic. We rode a bus to the airport and slogged through the process of checking in our bag, passing through security, and enjoying a perfectly uneventful trip home.