Monday, December 20, 2010

Food Begets Life

We have come to the end of the high season at Casa Sweeney-Britton. Our last guests for a while, the Miller-Ouimet family, left yesterday. Sniff.

While they were here, the blog was a periodic topic of conversation. Specifically, this week's topic. We batted around several topics but eventually settled on food.

So much of our lives here revolve around food. The finding of, the buying of, the preparation of, the eating of, the cleaning up after of, etc. Food provides sustenance, satisfaction, frustration, adventure, entertainment, and creates and strengthens friendships.

Take ice cream, for example.

You may remember that our first guests to the casita kindly lugged with them a rather large and heavy ice cream maker. Once washed and plugged in, the hum of the motor became the constant soundtrack to our lives at home. Ian experimented with flavors and friends and family provided willing assistance as official tasters. A few batches later, a few conversations later, and "¡Que Rico! - Helado Natural de Nosara" was officially launched!

Deals were made, spreadsheets were created, and labels were drafted, printed and taped. Salted caramel was created as the signature flavor and, voila, we have an income! (Get your cup at Market Organico or the Beach Dog Cafe now!) Granted, the profit from a batch of ice cream is minimal, but no one is complaining at the bonus dinner out each month. Food begets food.

The salted caramel flavor was launched first because: 1) it is darn good, and 2) all ingredients are available locally. Which brings us to food begets friendships. Ian's search for good, fresh ingredients led him to a local farm where we now purchase fresh raw milk and fresh eggs. The owners of the farm are wonderful, nice and generous people. We brought them a sample of the ice cream made with their milk and eggs and they sent us home with a huge bag full of langostinos they had caught the night before in the river.

They also invited us to come back to help make juice from sugar cane. Their small sugar cane mill is powered by a horse that walks in a circle pulling a beam of wood which turns the gears of the mill. While the gears are turning, the sugar cane is pushed between heavy rollers. The kids worked hard pushing the cane in and were rewarded with a ride on the horse and a taste of fresh sugar cane juice over ice. Food begets adventure.

Food also begets conversation. Guests to Nosara are treated to endless discussions on food. What we can and can't get, how much it costs, the best and the worst of, what we wish for, what we have had enough of....

We describe the typical costa rican "casado" lunch of salad, rice, beans and meat or fish, and compare and contrast our favorite lunch spots.

We talk about how we can get fresh bread from the bread truck and fresh fruits and vegetables from the fruit and veggie truck.

We describe how Sadie and Ian figured out how to get fresh fish from a house on the beach before it gets delivered to the fish markets.

We talk about getting great cheese (ordered in advance now) and organic greens at the farmer's market. We talk about our rental property and its mango, banana and lime trees. We talk about the price of olive oil and soy sauce.

We love to compare and contrast for our guests the ceviche in various establishments. Who uses what kind of fish, which one is the freshest, which one is the spiciest. No visit with us is complete without a trip to the gas station to where the best ceviche is sold from a small table near the pumps (which explains why our car always has a slight smell of fish - eating a cup of ceviche on the Nosara roads is definitely a challenge).

We have a lot to say about food and I'm certain it is as fascinating a topic for our guests as it is for us. Right? Right??

With guests we relish in the relatively rare treat of dinner out (fish and tempura at our favorite restaurant on the beach or pizza at our favorite Italian restaurant), but we also relish in the joy of cooking and eating at home together. Food strengthens bonds.

With the Miller-Ouimets, in addition to spending close to 20 years in each others' kitchens, we have spent many vacations together, renting houses on the Russian River, Hawaii, and Mexico. We fall easily into our comfortable and collaborative roles for cooking and cleaning for six. Over food we all share stories and opinions, we laugh, we discuss the day we've just had and we plan for tomorrow. For entertainment we watch the geckos catching and eating insects, and the monkeys eating flowers and leaves.

Finally, as our guests leave, we send them off with hugs and plenty of snacks for the long journey home.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Peninsula de Osa

Lonely Planet describes the Osa peninsula as "the most picturesque, the most pristine and the most perfect spot in Costa Rica." Much of the peninsula is taken up by Parque Nacional Corcovado, containing the last great original tract of tropical rainforest in Pacific Central America. Lonely Planet goes on to say, "...Osa is the real's a place for travelers with youthful hearts, intrepid spirits and a yearning for something truly wild." In other words, the perfect place for my mother and I to steal away to for a long weekend.

My mother and I meet in San Jose where we take in the city sites for a day before hopping on a puddle jumper to fly to Bahia Drake, on the Osa peninsula. It is a short and beautiful flight and we soon land on a patch of dirt in the jungle that somehow met the qualifications for an airport. We fish our small bags out of the belly of the plane, and climb in a waiting jeep. Our ten year old driver (okay, maybe he was 13) takes us past some farmland, among coastal jungle, through several very large rivers, and drops us off at a beach. Bahia Drake. He points to a small open motor boat and bids us farewell.

Thankful at the minimum amount of baggage we brought with us, my mom and I wade into the sea, climb in the boat, and speed off to the other side of the Bay. We turn inland on a river and soon pull up to a small wooden dock.

Our bags are grabbed, and we are helped out of the boat and up the stairs. We have arrived at our home away from home for three nights: Drake Bay Wilderness Resort.

Again, to quote Lonely Planet, the resort "occupies the optimal piece of real estate in all of Bahia Drake." Quite right. Situated along the coast at the edge of the Bay, the resort consists of several small wooden cabins situated among beautiful landscaping, all with porches and all facing the water. Breathtaking.

Once we are settled in our simple but comfortable cabin, we head to another building where lunch is waiting for us. As it turns out, my mother and I are two of the only four guests currently at the resort (it pays to travel during the low season!). As the other guests are out for the day, we are served by ourselves in the family style dining room. A bean salad and fresh juice followed by a taco AND a very large burritto. All fresh ingredients, all made from scratch, all insanely delicious. Osa may be the place for "endless opportunities for rugged exploration" for some, but I had an inkling that for us, it may be the place for "endless meals of outrageously good food." Just the thing for our youthful hearts and intrepid spirits!

Our stay at Drake Bay Resort is as a part of a package. Three nights, all meals, and two tours. That evening after dinner (fresh shrimp in an amazing sauce, vegetables, dessert...) we are asked to sign up for our tour the next day. Not sure we were quite up for the "required" trek through Corcovado Park yet, we choose CaƱo Island as our destination for the next day. A 362-hectare island outside of Bahia Drake that is the tip of numerous underwater rock formations, the island is a popular destination for diving and snorkeling and a "must do" tour for those visiting the area.

That night it pours rain all night long. Knowing how the weather can change easily, however, my mom and I wake up early and head out in the rain to breakfast (coffee served in heated cups, fresh baked cinnamon roles, fruit, eggs, gallo pinto...). The rain indeed begins to peter out and we are sent to "the dive shop" to get our snorkel gear and told to be at the dock in 15 minutes. By the time we get our gear and towels and lunch are loaded into the boat for us, the rain has completely stopped and we are on our way with our guide for the day, Roy, our boat captain, and a couple from another hotel.

We head out through choppy waters to the island, encountering two species of dolphins along the way, which we stop and watch for a while. Again, I am thankful for the, how shall I put it, casual, nature of Costa Rican tourism where instead of being told to keep my lifejacket on and my hands in the boat, Roy hollers at me, "stand up on your seat so you can see! Go climb on the bow of the boat! Look at those DOLPHINS!"

Once near the island we get a quick review of how to snorkel (stick together, try not to breath in any water, and make sure you keep track of your lifejacket you can sling under your armpits for buoyancy). Okay, put your mask and flippers on, grab your lifejacket, climb onto the edge of the boat, and JUMP! "Right" says mom, and, with a little assistance from the captain, she does just that.

Now I should qualify what I am about to say by first letting you all know that despite my love for the ocean I have done very little snorkeling in my life. But, this was the most amazing snorkeling ever! I saw lots of beautiful and colorful small reef fish, and I also had the phenomenal experience of snorkeling among schools of large fish - jacks and grunts and snappers - sometimes hundreds at once. Here's a smattering of other things I can remember, with help from my handy dandy "Costa Rica Field Guide - Pacific Coast Reef Fish": devil ray, stingray, sergeant major, rainbow wrasse, moorish idol, puffer, cardinalfish. I'm sure I'm forgetting many other species, but you get the idea. I was happy.

Lunch on the island (rice and beans, fish, side salad, home made cookies...), more snorkeling, then home for dinner (whole cooked fish, beet and lime juice, salad, green beans and cauliflower, cake, etc...).

That night it poured and poured again, but again, began to clear up over breakfast (fresh fruit, more cinnamon roles, etc...). Today was our Corcovado trip and we were determined to be able to do it. After all, what trip to Osa is complete without a hike in Corcovado?

Another boat ride, another beach landing to the San Pedrillo Ranger Station. Manual, our guide, provides us a geography lesson with a stick on the sand, grabs his high powered telescope and tripod and we are off. The trail is wet and muddy but it isn't raining so we are able to see and hear quite a bit. Though Corovado is huge and many people trek for days within its wilderness, this is a more well-traveled "Corcovado Light" version. The path is well defined and we meet up with two or three other tours along the route. Still, the rainforest is definitely stunning in the way only rainforests can be.

And we do manage to see a sloth, a couple of different kinds of monkeys, bats, a few birds, several agoutis (in the rodent family), pizotes, and lots of insects. Manual is great at spotting wildlife and quickly sets up his telescope for us to get a good look. These pictures were taken from my camera through the lens of the telescope.

After lunch back at the ranger station (delicious food, yummy dessert...), it begins to drizzle. Despite the rain, Manual suggests we go ahead with our planned afternoon hike to the waterfall. Difficult terrain, he says, but only 20 minutes of walking. Now my mother had already been in Costa Rica long enough to know that all short things take "5 minutes" and all long things take "20 minutes" and that therefore "20 minutes" could be anywhere from 25 minutes to two hours, but she is game. After all, when would we ever get this chance again?

We grab our parkas and head off. As we begin to hike through the rainforest, the rain begins to steadily increase. We slog through mud and up and down over roots and rocks. It begins to rain harder. We grab walking sticks. We hike through rivers and along narrow ledges. We avoid trees with spikes and try not to slide down hills. We hike some more. It rains harder. We hike some more.

We finally make it!

After oohing and ahhing at the roaring giant waterfall, we head back down the pathway to a smaller waterfall feeding a deep pool of water. In the pouring rain, we strip off our ponchos and dive in.

Yes, it was definitely worth it.

Manual finally says something about "flash floods" and so we grab our stuff and head on back at a slightly faster rate. We climb back into the boat, sopping wet, and speed home in the pouring rain, bodies still, heads down, conversation impossible.

After our warm showers, mom and I head to the bar for a well deserved drink. We are exhausted and exhilarated, wet and proud, and our youthful hearts and intrepid spirits are definitely ready for dinner.


Monday, November 22, 2010

High Season at Casa Sweeney-Britton

The guest season has officially begun!

We are so excited to share our lives here with friends and family and have been looking forward to visitors coming. The prize for First Place goes to Jason and Amy, who were our first guests and spent 4 nights in the casita. Lucky for the rest of you they figured out how the shower works, discovered the leaky toilet, and rid the place of the World's Largest Spider. It was wonderful to have them here, and not just because they brought us an ICE CREAM MAKER (and a box load of other goodies).

We had a great time showing them around. They were lucky enough to be here for the hatching of the baby turtles so we all got up before dawn to drive (and successfully ford several large rivers) back to Ostional to see the results of the mama turtles' hard work a few months ago. As the sun rose, baby turtles wriggled their way out of the sand by the dozens and we followed them as they made their long journey down the beach to the water. Volunteers stood watch, ready to chase vultures away, mark new nests with sticks, and gently assist babies that were stuck in holes or behind logs. Only about 1% of the hatchlings survive to adulthood, but we imagined these babies we saw enter the sea safely returning to this same beach decades later to lay their own eggs.

In addition to seeing the baby turtles, we took a surf lesson, went on the "longest in the world" zip line, swam in the pool (Sadie finally met her match in Amy who spent an hour in the rain in the pool with her), cooked (and ate) lots of good food, and did some work around the house (Jason got to use his mad manly skills to hack down and haul away a tree that fell over on our driveway).

Jason and Amy left on Sunday morning to explore more of Costa Rica and Ian's mom, Karen, arrived Sunday evening. It is wonderful having her here, and not just because she brought BINOCULARS and other goodies.

We are doing our best to wear Karen out with our hectic schedule. Her first day here Ian took her at dawn to Ostional to see the hatchlings, and then she went with Sadie to school and had a tour, after which she rushed back out with me to go to boxing class, I then dropped her off back home and took off for a meeting of the school's Environmental Committee, and then brought the car back so Karen and Ian could rush off to the library in time for him to teach his class, and then they went for a walk on the beach, and then they picked up Sadie from school, and then...we let her rest for a few minutes while Sadie went to Ballet class and I went to Zumba. In between all this we all periodically rushed out to the balcony to try out the new binoculars. A ship! Monkeys! Birds! The Iguana! Surfers!

Phew! I think we were all asleep by 8:30.

We're trying have a more mellow day today - maybe some time actually spent just reading in a hammock. However, so far after taking Sadie to school we went for a 2 hour walk on the beach and now she and Ian are at Yoga class, and then there's surf club, and then....

My mom comes next but before she gets to Nosara I'm meeting her for a mini adventure to the Osa Peninsula. I'm leaving the computer at home so no blog posting next week.

We love having guests!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Notes on Nicaragua

We have successfully renewed our Costa Rican visas with a border run/visa vacation to Nicaragua. All three of us have the coveted "90 days" stamp in our passports once again. Along the way we learned a lot, stood in many lines, took many forms of transportation, saw many sights, ate lots of food, and became part of a Nicaraguan family.

First, the border crossing. We chose to rent a car and drive it to the border where we turned it in to the rental agency on the Costa Rican side and then met our guide, Carlos, who walked with us across the border. Carlos helped us find the border in the chaos of trucks, cars, and people, and then bought the right people coca colas, helped us find and then fill out all the forms, and showed us which officials to show our passports to (some at gates, some at tables under a makeshift shade structure, some behind glass panes in unmarked buildings). My one piece of advice for those who wish to cross the border? Bring a pen. There are many forms to fill out but not a pen to be found.

After we negotiated the dusty expanse that is the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, Carlos led us to his car and drove us an hour or so to Granada. Granada is a fascinating city. It is busy and loud and colorful and restored and falling apart and rich and poor. Despite its attraction as a beautiful colonial city for tourists, and the accompanying mass of hotels, horse drawn carriage tours, souvenir shops and restaurants, Granada is still very much a real city inhabited by all kinds of people. The streets are full of dirty sad-eyed children asking for money, of young men riding bikes with their girlfriends perched sidesaddle between their arms, of people raising children and working and playing. At night, folks open their front doors and drag chairs outside to the porch, sidewalk or dirt in front of their house and sit and talk for hours.

The architecture is amazing, just like the guide books say. Some old houses are lovingly restored with an amazing attention to detail, others are barely standing, and many are somewhere in between (a church that looks abandoned on the outside yet is immaculate inside, colonial residences on the plaza with beautiful paint jobs and garish modern flood lights bolted awkwardly along the roof lines, bland exteriors that open up into magical lush inner courtyards). It is a walking city, but as we were traveling with a 7 year old, we didn't walk too much, choosing instead to take advantage of a slow but more relaxing method of touring the city.

We took a lovely boat tour of Las Isletas, a chain of 350 or so little islands in Lake Nicaragua, formed 10,000 years ago with the eruption of a nearby volcano. Though the islands were historically the home of the poorest of Granada's residences, they now are mostly home to the rich (the rum barons, the expats, etc.).

We ate lots of good food.

Lots of fish.

On Saturday we hired a taxi to drive us an hour or so to the small town of Pio XII ("Pio Doce"). When Ian was 19 years old, he was part of a group of americans who came to Pio XII to live with host families and help build a school for a month. He hasn't been back since and wanted to see the school and the town since we were so close. We looked around at the school (still standing and very much in use, though it already looks 100 years old), and wandered around the town for a bit. Ian didn't remember the names of anyone in his host family, with the exception of one of the kids, Oscar. On a whim, Ian asked some kids in the street if there was an Oscar who lived around here.

The rest of the story is really Ian's to tell so I'll let him give you the full version some day over a beer or an ice cream cone. The short version is that we found the family. The kids had grown up, but they were all there (with the exception of the father who had passed away 2 months ago). Not only were they still there, but they remembered Ian and that time clearly. Even those who were only babies at the time had grown up knowing the story of when the gringos came to live in Pio XII to build the school at the tail end of the Nicaraguan revolution.

There were lots of tears, lots of kisses. Ian apologized time and time again for not having contacted them in 20 years. I apologized time and time again for bringing to them only one child (and let me tell you, I also wished my one child had washed her hair). Most of the conversations were lost on me as they were entirely in spanish, but I would periodically hear "veinte anos!" and "un solo hijo!" Lo siento, I'm sorry.

The matriarch of the family, Mama, was surrounded by her children and grandchildren, who all stayed in Pio XII and simply built more homes adjacent to one another. They live together, play together, eat together and raise children together. They all welcomed us into their homes and hearts, fed us piles and piles of food, gave us presents, hugged us over and over. We became Juancito, Catarina and La Nina and our family instantly grew by another dozen or so people - mi familia es su familia. Juancito and his new hermano (brother), Oscar, have talked on the phone several times since we've been back and plans are being made for future visits.

It was an amazing experience - fun, exhausting, humbling, and intense - which we were wholly unprepared for. Much like Nicaragua itself, a country so very different from Costa Rica, despite the fact that where we live was part of Nicaragua until 1825. On the way back to Nosara we reflected on how different our family sabbatical would have been had we chosen Nicaragua instead of Costa Rica - what we are missing culturally by living in an expat-dominated beach community. By the end of the trip, however, we were glad to make our way back to the steamy jungle, to the monkeys and our quiet treehouse with the incredible ocean view. For now, this is the right place to be.

See you in February, Nicaragua.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010


I was supposed to write this week's entry from the balcony of a restored colonial hotel in Granada, Nicaragua. Instead, I am sitting at a little blue table in the back of the library in Nosara. It is sunny and hot outside and the library is full of kids – reading, using the computers, studying. Ian is sitting on a nearby couch helping a local woman study for the English portion of an upcoming exam. He has just spent an hour with a group of 2nd graders, leading them in a discussion about books they were required to read (he has found that teaching 7 year olds requires an entirely different Spanish vocabulary than he has currently been using).

Life in Nosara seems to have returned to normal, or close to it, after Tropical Storm Tomas decided to pay us a visit last week.

Just days ago we were deluged with nonstop torrential rain. The rivers rose, roads flooded, mud slid. Close to San Jose, a massive mudslide killed 23 people. Here in Nosara, fallen trees cut off all land line, cell phone and internet connections, rains washed away roads and bridges, storms made takeoffs and landings by plane impossible. For a moment in time we were completely cut off. No way to get in or out of the town and no way to communicate with each other, let alone the rest of the country or world. People made trips to the grocery store to stock up on rice and beans and lined up their cars as close as they could get to the flooded gas station, walking the rest of the way through thigh-deep water to fill up 5 gallon jugs of gas. Dozens of people were evacuated from flooded homes to temporary shelters.

Initially I was selfishly focused on the frustration of not being able to leave the country for our planned weekend trip to Nicaragua. Surely we weren’t really physically unable to leave Nosara, right? Once we fully grasped the situation and abandoned the idea of a Nicaraguan weekend, I focused more on the strange and novel experience of being isolated. Something I’ve never felt before. I’ve experienced natural disasters, most notably the earthquake of 1989, but even then we weren’t trapped. Supplies could get to us, help could come.

Yes, I know we live in a rural jungle area. Yes, I know that Costa Rica is not the United States and I know that in Costa Rica, Nosara is not San Jose. And yes, I know the state of the roads that lead from here to there. But, still. Was it really truly impossible for deliveries of food to make it to town? When the grocery stores ran out of rice, when the gas station ran out of gas, would there really be no more? Did that woman in labor stuck in the mud at the top of the mountain pass really have to have her baby there? Yes, she did. And a half dozen men gallantly hoisted her and her newborn on a stretcher on their shoulders and walked through knee deep mud as far as they had to go to meet an ambulance who could take them the rest of the way to the hospital.

It wasn’t that I was scared or worried per say (unless I focused hard on the possibility of Sadie suffering some major health issue). Mostly I was struck by the foreignness of the isolation for me. I’ve lived my whole life in big cities. I’ve never felt what so many others have felt when nature stands takes over. Catastrophes of that scale had never seemed quite real to me. For the first time, I had the slightest inkling of how unbelievably strange and frightening it must have felt for the residents of New Orleans and other places so dramatically affected by Katrina. The disbelief that it wasn’t possible to simply just evacuate people. It probably didn’t help that one of the books I recently read here was Dave Eggers' Zeitoun (the true story of the unthinkable behavior of our government towards its own people - the massive failure of the U.S. to successfully manage a crisis). The fragility of both infrastructure and governments was on my mind.

But back to Nosara. Life in a small town. Information was passed through the town person by person, quite effectively, until we got internet and phone service back. At that point, information was distributed most effectively through facebook postings. Our local online newspaper, Voz de Nosara, diligently posted updates on what roads were open and closed and when we could expect short term and long term fixes. Though the country promised a replacement bridge in 22 days, within one day, the river had receded enough for people to hand carry crates of food from a truck on one side to a waiting truck on the other. Within two days, enough material was placed in the river to allow 4 x 4 vehicle access across. Soon trucks will be able to make it as well.

Nearby small towns are still isolated by muddy roads and destroyed bridges. Residents can’t get to their jobs in bigger towns and now have no money to buy the groceries that may come to the stores on the shoulders of men. The damage for many from Tomas will be long lived (here and in other countries). But for us in Nosara, it already seems like the distant past. The sky is sunny, the roads are dry and dusty, tourists are arriving by the dozens, and the library is full. We leave for Nicaragua on Thursday.