Sunday, October 31, 2010

Happy Halloween!

We made it to two months! We had to buy roundtrip flights when we moved here and thus have 3 tickets from Costa Rica to San Francisco for next week. I'm happy to report, however, that we will not be using them. We're gonna stick it out.

Monday marks the official beginning of the dry season. The "high" season. Stores and restaurants we've never seen will begin opening their doors next week, the rains will taper down, and the tourists will start to arrive. It will be an interesting transition to watch and live.

But this weekend, it's Halloween! Yes, you are absolutely correct, Costa Rica as a country does not celebrate Halloween. Nosara, however, does. Sort of. If you don't have kids or can get a babysitter you can head over to the Gilded Iguana for food and drinks and live music, then gather up your sequins and tiaras and caravan to La Banana for the afterparty (disco ball and DJ from 10 pm on). For kids, not so much. Trick or treating around the neighborhoods? Nope. None of that. But if you have kids at Del Mar Academy, you costume them up and head to Paseo del Sol.

Paseo del Sol is a small gated residential community near the school. The residents and volunteers from the school and the community generously and kindly put together a yearly Halloween event for the kids at the school. Naturally Sadie was super excited. Like most kids, she loves Halloween and if she couldn't have Gilbert Street this year, she'd have Paseo del Sol!

Truth be told however, Halloween in general tends to cause me more than a little bit of anxiety. It's the pressure. Yes, I do have over fifteen years of experience costuming Halloween party goers at a vintage clothing store in Berkeley (yes, of course I can make you into a slutty flapper/manly pirate). But now, as a mom, I have a major fear of Halloween failure. What if my child requests to be something that will require me to dig deep for some creativity and DIYness!?! What if I have to make something!?! Around August, I start pestering Sadie for what she wants to be for Halloween, in order to give myself plenty of time to worry, stress, and, most importantly, spend time on various Martha Stewartish websites studying directions for how to make ears or tails or robot parts or a tiger face (thank goodness I became a mother in the age of the internet). I try to push her towards costumes that require virtually nothing on my part (How about a flamenco dancer with that dress you already have? How about you just wear your ballet clothes and go as a famous ballerina?). Sometimes this tack works but, more often than not, she has no idea what she wants to be until a few days before when she announces she'd like to be a "snow scarf queen" or some such terror-inducing (for me) impossible-to-get-right costume. The one year she went as Angelina Ballerina and I made her ears and the tail I was so full of pride that I wanted her to wear that costume every day for the rest of her life.

You get the point. I'm not effortlessly crafty like so many of you out there. So, here we are in Costa Rica. Not knowing if there was going to be any Halloween activities here and trying to keep our luggage to the minimum, we didn't bring anything with us (except for ballet clothes - you can guess how far that suggestion went). Of course there is no Target here, no Super Longs, no place to buy pipe cleaners or glitter or material or face paint. I start to sweat.

Sadie's first choice was a vampire. Okay, I can work with that. Black clothes, red lipstick for blood, um.... I spend a day or two looking up pictures of vampires on the internet, wondering how far away from the classic look I can convince Sadie to go. A few days before Halloween she changes her mind and wants to be a bat. A vampire bat. Okay, okay, I can do this. We can do this.

And we did!

Sadie and I make a complete bat costume from a black umbrella, an old black t-shirt we cut up, a black hat, safety pins, tape, and a cardboard box. Yes, we are very proud. Sadie wants Ian and I to carry her around upside down from a stick so I get the fabulous idea for us to dress up like trees. I send Ian to an adjacent tree with the machete, stick branches in our hats, make leaf bracelets, dig up some brown clothes, and we are good to go!

Except Sadie gets sick. She is sent home from school Thursday with a runny nose and by Saturday the cold is deep in her lungs, we have broken out the albuterol inhaler, and she is running a low grade fever. But this is Halloween! She'll be so disappointed to miss out on the one thing that everyone at school is doing! We make her rest all day, fill her up with tea and vitamin C and water, and hope for the best. At 4:30 we dose her with some Robitussin I find in the fridge, apparently left by the previous renters (the good stuff, the stuff for kids they no longer sell in the States for reasons I choose not to recall). Hoping the mystery bottle in the fridge really is Robitussin, ignoring the fever, praying the cough will subside enough for her to say "trick or treat" without hacking, and admonishing her to not touch anybody, we get our costumes on and head out the door. Responsible parenting at its best. But did I mention that we made her black candy bag out of a t-shirt and that it even had handles? And we were mango trees! We had to go!

They put on a lovely event at Paseo del sol. The costumes on the kids and the adults were wonderful and creative and there were 7 or so homes to trick or treat at. Sadie made it to one walkway hanging upside down from our arms but quickly realized: 1) it's hard to figure out how to hold a bag right side up when you are upside down, and; 2) going upside down when you have a bad cold and a fever really doesn't feel very good. She hit the other houses right side up, but rest assured didn't miss a one. At the end of the street, music was blasting and beer and pizza were being sold to benefit the school's scholarship committee. Not hungry for pizza of course, Sadie had a lollipop and a cookie for dinner (again, responsible parenting) and stood rather dazed in the street while the other kids played tag around her until we convinced her it was time to go home. The candy went in the fridge and the bat was asleep by 7:30.

I'm hoping that since the costume only got 1 hour of display time, maybe I can convince her to wear it again next year.

Happy Halloween everyone!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Don't Blink

I've had a draft of this post in the works for weeks. I think about it periodically, maybe jot down a sentence or two, but can never seem to complete it, choosing instead to bump it down the road in favor of other topics. So I sat down today to figure why I can't finish it, and in the process, do exactly that. Who says my life here isn't challenging?

There is a particular quality about this place that I can't quite put my finger on, try as I might. The quality is one of motion, of change, of fluidity, of predictable unpredictability - a phenomenon that challenges my powers of articulate description.

It seems ironic that in this place where my life is so very low key, where I am grounded (albeit sometimes unwillingly) by simplicity, it is amidst a perpetually moving backdrop. But there you go.

Nosara seems to be defined by a constant state of flux. There are the environmental factors, for one. The ocean, though predictably there every day, never looks the same. Waves change shape, offshore breaks come and go, the color changes from blue to gray to brown to green. One day water rushes out of the jungle carving a deep wide river that meets the sea, and then is gone without a trace the next day. The sand shifts, covering and uncovering rocks, building and removing hills and valleys. The jungle itself is a breathing living thing. Thousands of insects are born and die every day, trees grow at an astounding rate, vultures make quick work of the larger dead, and decomposition changes the ground beneath my feet at a pace I am consistently amazed at. Even the howler monkeys change routes periodically, apparently in response to a toxin the trees create.

Then there is the town and its inhabitants. The roads, for example, exist in a state of continual degradation, followed by unexplained bursts of isolated fixes, followed again by a steady disrepair. The predictable nature of this cycle is such that the signs are permanent (literally, "the road is in a bad state" - indeed). Bridges get washed out, are rebuilt and are washed out once more.

All over town there are buildings are half built and abandoned, or perhaps they are fully completed and now half disintegrated - the jungle is a formidable foe of development. For sale ("se vende") signs are everywhere - on empty plots of land, on peeling billboards showing fancy condos that may or may not ever have been built, at construction sites, on fully operational hotels. Everything is for sale here and whether or not it ever sells seems to not be of critical importance. Our house is for sale and has been for several years. A mere million and it's yours.

Opportunity is here for the taking. Want to start a business? Build a hotel? Sell boats? Import cars? Of course, failure is rampant as well. Restaurants and businesses come and go by the season. Most people I meet here come from somewhere else. And most have plans to go somewhere and do something else eventually. This is the land of reinvention. From a lawyer to a real estate agent to an ice cream maker. No one seems to be defined by their profession because, after all, who knows what it will be tomorrow?

In some ways living amidst all this change is unnerving. How can I get my bearings in this place when it is always in flux? How can I carve my niche where niches come and go with the weather? Will everything and everyone please just stay still for a minute? What sort of place is this where the resident iquana is the only thing I can count on day after day? We've named him Izzy (short for Israel) and he is a beacon of steadfast and dogged tenacity. He never moves from his branch and for that I am often grateful.

At other times, I find this constant state of change rather reassuring, in the way that less than desirable behavior from children is reassuring. That is, you can always blame your child's backtalking snottiness on a "phase" and look forward with certainty to the end of the distasteful but surely temporary state. The old adage about weather applies to the entire ecosystem here - if you don't like Nosara just wait five minutes.

In addition, I am struck by the amazing way in which humans and nature are intertwined here. Sometimes they fight, sometimes change in one is a direct response to change in the other, sometimes there is mutual assistance, and sometimes they seem to simply pass and wave to each other hurriedly on the way to somewhere else. It is ecosystem-based living in a way that I am enjoying participating in.

And finally, of course (predictably), there is the intriguing nature of change itself. Change is inspiring in its possibilities for innovation and transformation, for renovation and refinement, for evolution or revolution. I think even Izzy can appreciate that.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

La Jungla de Boxeo

I'd read about her before I got here. She was highlighted in a short piece in "Living Abroad in Costa Rica," a book I read cover to cover years ago. So, when another parent from school told me her daughter was going to go take gymnastics/boxing that afternoon from "Tiger Brenda" aka "La Tigress," I thought to myself, oh yea, Sadie is sooo there.

That afternoon I sat at a large wooden table in a ramshackle outdoor kitchen, catching glimpses through the trees of Sadie in a boxing ring in the forest, laughing her head off with an abandonment I hadn't yet heard here in Costa Rica. Behind me was a large open air gym with beautiful wooden floors, punching bags hanging from the steel ceiling crossbeams, boxing gloves hanging by pairs on a clothesline. As it started to rain, a small woman with tiger stripes tattooed down her arms and legs, emerged from the boxing ring and called out to me, "can you please take my laundry down from the line?" I immediately stood up and as I removed towels from lines hanging from trees, I looked around. To my right I could make out a couple of tiny cabins on stilts in and among the jungle. Here and there were a few other wooden buildings of unknown purpose. A bathroom? A sauna? A storage shed? To my left ran a small creek and I could see a few bridges along it, some of wood, some concrete. Painted signs hung on trees and pebble pathways traversed the property. Ramshackle but beautiful, hodgepodge but purposeful, and all clearly the result of someone's strong vision and years of hard work. I glanced at a white board hanging from a nail in a tree and read that there are classes for women held every day at 7:30 and 9:00 am. Oh yea, I am sooo there.

Brenda Burnside was a professional boxer based primarily in Las Vegas. Standing 5' 3" and weighing in at 118 at her heaviest, the bantomweight turned pro in 1997 at the unheard of age of 34 and by 2000 she was competing for the world championship. Her official stats at the end of her career were 7 wins, 11 losses and 2 draws, with 4 knockout wins. For each match she felt she won (even if the official decision was otherwise) she had a tiger stripe tattooed on her body.

In 1999 Brenda visited Nosara and happened to catch an enormous arribada (the mass turtle nesting, remember?). She went to sleep that night with visions of the turtles still in her head and dreamed of a turtle diving into a hole. She followed the turtle in the hole and encountered a sea of eyes of all different types of Costa Rican animals, all looking at her and beckoning. She woke up and knew she had to figure out a way to live here. During the remaining days of her vacation she bought a piece of property near the beach. As Brenda said, when the turtles tell you to stay, you stay.

Though retired from professional boxing, La Tigress knew she didn't want to give it up entirely. She began doing exhibition matches with local men during halftime at bullfights and, impressed, someone suggested she give lessons to the kids in Nosara at the local community center. The classes were a huge success and she then started building a gym on her land, followed by her regulation-size boxing ring, complete with set of small bleachers at one end.

Fast forward ten years and Brenda and her compound, the Enchanted Forest, is as much a part of Nosara as surfing and the beach. She teaches kids and adults and dreams of sending a Costa Rican to the Olympics now that women's boxing will finally be included in 2012. She is full of energy and focus and has managed, from a dream, to create a magical yet very tangible reality. The kind of place you wish you could come to every day. The kind of place that is both mysterious and welcoming, sort of like La Tigress herself.

In short, I'm hooked. Hooked, jabbed, and undercut. Yes, she works us hard. Yes, I literally almost threw up in the ring during my second class (yes, it was very embarassing, thank you), and yes, it is really really fun. I was her only 9 am student for the first two classes and though I loved having her to myself I quickly realized that if I could get more people to join me I would get a bit of relief and might not pass out. These days our class size ranges from 3 to 4 women, which is perfect. We lift weights, we use stretchy bands, we do sit ups and leg lifts and squats, we stretch, and then...we get to box. I've never in my life thought about boxing, never had the urge to check it out and see if I might like it. But here, in the jungle, in the Enchanted Forest, with Brenda and her beautiful wooden floor and her energy and her strength and her support, boxing is awesome. And it's not just because I get to wear pink boxing gloves (though I admit that is a perk).

Sadie and I are both hooked. In fact, I'm thinking I may go professional. 41 isn't too old, is it? Hmmm....maybe we should pin our hopes on Sadie instead. The 2024 Olympics, perhaps?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

School Started!

The school is idyllic. Charming. Set among some 7 acres in the jungle, it is a small Montessori school. Sadie's class is a combined 1st, 2nd and 3rd grades, with a total of 20 students. The kids are from all over the world, as are the staff. The majority of the students are native spanish speakers, though english is the main playground language of choice. They spend 3 hours in the morning doing traditional Montessori stuff (don't ask me, it's a mystery), then in the afternoon they have two hours of Spanish class, which is basically the costa rican public school curriculum consisting primarily of reading, writing and social studies. They are trying more this year to integrate the english and spanish portions of the day, as I gather that the lack of a true bilingual experience has been the source of some criticism in the past. After spanish class they have some type of enrichment class - P.E., art, movement, yoga. In addition they offer several after school classes - latin dance, surfing and soccer. The campus has a small farm and this year they will be planting a food garden. Idyllic. Charming.

Montessori is not big on a lot of homework at this age, so unlike her fellow 2nd graders back in Oakland who are being sent home with an hour or more's worth of homework every night, Sadie will likely be asked only to read for 1/2 hour per day. Later. As one parent put it to me, the kids don't have time for homework anyway because after school they all go to the beach, then they are home for dinner and asleep by 7:30. At the latest. Works for me, though reintegration into Oakland Unified might be challenging....

The best part about school so far though is...KIDS! Sadie finally gets to play with other kids on a regular basis and she is thrilled. And now that school is back in session, kids are all over town. It's an interesting and fun time to be living here. There are virtually no tourists and, thus, virtually nothing open. However, that means that everywhere we go we meet people who live here and, now, everywhere we go we see people we know. It is the kind of small town life that I've never experienced but that I certainly see the appeal of in many ways. The joy of watching your child play tag on the beach with a pack of kids of all ages as the sun sets over the water. The pleasure of sitting at a table in the sand eating ceviche while your kid plays in the water with the kids from the adjoining table. The sweetness of running into your kid's teacher at the grocery store. And this is only after a week of school!

In addition to families from school, we are also getting to know the other folks who have stayed in town and are trying to eke out a living during the low season - the yoga teachers, the chiropractors, the surf instructors, the cheese makers, the taxi drivers. The beach serves as the local cafe, the place where you meet up and chat during your morning walks or surfing time or afternoon reading sessions or evening happy hours. People share tips on what's open and what's not, what roads are being fixed and where, whether there is fresh fish at the market. It has its appeal.

I wasn't sure how to end this post since I am late and am already thinking about the next one, so I shall leave you with this photo.

Yes, my friends, that is the skin of a 9 1/2 foot boa constrictor, displayed by our gardener, Gerardo. He found the skin underneath our house but swears the owner of the skin is not currently in residence. The skin will go into Sadie's freezer collection of dead things. We'll show it to you if you come visit.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Las Tortugas!

I apologize in advance for the vast number of turtle photos that accompany this post. But, oh, how I wish you could have been there!

Saturday mid day we were thinking about heading to the beach, when we got a call from another new family. Want to go see the turtles? Of course we do!

Just north of Nosara is a town called Ostional, home of the Ostional Wildlife Refuge where tens of thousands of marine turtles come to lay their eggs. This mass nesting behavior is called an "arribada," and is unique to a few species of marine turtles, primarily the Olive ridley. Ostional is famous for hosting the largest arribadas of Olive ridley turtles in the world. The best time to catch an arribada is during the rainy season (have I mentioned that it is currently the rainy season here?), at night, and during specific phases of the moon. Several weeks ago, Ian and Sadie and I tried to drive to Ostional to see what we could find out about the arribadas, but quickly discovered an enormous river blocking the road. Clearly we would need some help seeing the turtles.

And help arrived yesterday.

About 10 of us (a few teachers from school, another family with three kids, and an extra kid from the neighborhood) piled into a couple of cars and drove to where the road meets the river. We parked and walked across a narrow hanging bridge to the other side of the road. Once there, a large open bed truck picked us up and we drove into Ostional, hanging onto the sides of the truck and admiring the lush countryside.

The trucked dropped us off at what appeared to be the porch of someone's house, site of the "Local Guides Association." In Ostional, the local community has gotten very involved in conservation of the turtles. I'm sure there is more story to the story than I have figured out so far, but from what I understand the national conservation agency has worked with the community to set up a system where the community members are allowed to harvest a certain amount of eggs at the start of an arribada (in part because subsequent turtles will dig up the nests of the first turtles when laying their own eggs and once the eggs are dug up they will not survive to be hatchlings). In return, the community protects the turtles, cleans debris from the beach, patrols night and day for poachers, flushes birds and dogs, and guides tours. Visitors may not go on the beach without a guide during an arribada.

So we paid $6.00 each ($3.00 for the kids) to be accompanied by an extremely knowledgeable local woman as our guide. She gathered our group together for some basic rules (don't cross right in front of a turtle arriving at the beach because she might get confused and not come in to lay her eggs, don't get too close to the sides of a turtle because the shells are sharp and you could get hurt, and...well, that was about it). Normally, we would also hear lots of rules about not taking any pictures because the flash disturbs the turtles but, for some reason, this arribada was happening in the daytime. We would be able to really see the whole beach and we would be able to take pictures!

And take pictures we did. I can't describe how amazing it was to stand on a nearly empty beach among thousands and thousands of turtles, some heading to shore, some laying eggs, some heading back. Looking towards the ocean, you could see masses of turtle heads poking out of the water as they made their way slowly with the waves to the beach. Because it was still light out, we had the pleasure, the phenomenal experience, of being able to look down the entire beach full of turtles. The sight was so surreal, so unlike anything I could ever imagine, my mind struggled with comprehending that I was actually here, in this spot, seeing what I was seeing.

The turtles themselves were massive. And exhausted. And determined. They labored up the beach slowly, pausing occasionally to breath deeply, then plunged on ahead to find the perfect egg-laying spot. They seemed to pay no heed to the people walking among them, so focused on their mission they were. When they find the perfect spot, they dig a hole, lay between 70 and 120 eggs, pack the sand back in the hole, and turn around and go back to sea. The entire process takes about one hour. More, said the guide, if a turtle is particularly old or hurt (we saw a few missing flippers).

The beach was covered in eggshells and even whole eggs from previous turtles that were continuously being dug up by this batch of egglayers. Vultures waited in the trees, dogs paced along the road, everyone waiting for their turn to eat the uncovered, now doomed, eggs. The kids were concerned at first, wanted to rebury the uncovered eggs, but after being assured that they wouldn't survive, their concern turned to curiosity. Guess who was the first to crack one open in her hand. Part of me was unnerved by the site of kids cracking eggs that a turtle had just laid with so much effort the day before, another part was reassured by the open curious nature of kids and the hope that this experience may help pave the way for six more scientists.

When it began to rain in earnest and the kids' excitement and curiosity morphed into hunger, we walked back along the beach and piled into the truck. We rode back to the river in the dark and pouring rain, watching fireflies light up the adjacent fields.

It was an amazing experience. I wish you could have been there. Perhaps you can join us in November to watch the hatchlings race back to the ocean.