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.
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.