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Monthly Archives: April 2012

From Beaches to Mountains

This week I had a friend come visit with us.  She has had an exhausting 3 months, caring for a sick family member while keeping up with her job, her family and life.  What I wanted most was to give her space and rest to refill her soul.  She arrived on Friday and Sunday we left for 2 nights in Cahuita, a quiet beach town on the Caribbean, settled by Jamaicans originally brought to Costa Rica as slaves.  Arriving after the 4 hour bus ride, we were sticky and hot.  Wandering around the 8 street town, looking for a place to call home for a few days, we immediately knew when we saw Alby Lodge, that we had found what we needed-4 bungalows, a shared open air kitchen and sitting area, surrounded by a tropical garden.  As the host was showing us around, we spotted a toucan sitting in the tree nearby.  Watching the shaking branches of a palm tree,  several Capuchin monkeys made their appearance.  Yes, this would be a perfect home!  Oh, and then we were told that we would be awakened around 5:00 AM to the sound of howler monkeys-cool.   The bungalows were constructed by the German couple who owned the property, sturdy and well cared for.  Thatched roofs made us feel like we were in some other exotic location, after seeing mostly tin roofs throughout the country.  We each claimed our bed, canopied with lovely lacy mosquito nets, unpacked, changed and headed to the Atlantic Ocean.  Sinking into the water was like relaxing in a warm bath.

Monday morning the howler monkeys were indeed our alarm clock at 4:5o.  Their eerie deep crescendos gave the impression that the trees were filled with gorillas rather than the small brown creatures.  Laying in the porch hammock I listened to their mysterious sounds, rain steadily falling to add to the symphony, until all that remained was the sound of water and birds.  The rain provided a slow, contemplative day of reading, journaling and talking.  In the afternoon, wearing a raincoat and carrying an umbrella, I walked the trail in the tropical National Park that lined the beach, the heat and humidity from the previous day washed away.

Our alarm clock

Our last morning in Cahuita was spent riding horses, just my friend and I, and our guide, Joe, known as the last cowboy in Cahuita.  Leaving the center of town with hostels, open air restaurants and small shops, passing through the rural neighborhood, we came to the Playa Negra, or Black Beach.  Cantering along the waves of the deserted beach I felt my breath catch at the thrill of the moment.  This was horseback riding like I had never done before!  Weaving between lush tropical forest and the beach I soaked in the sounds, the colors, the smell of the sea, and the feel of muscles that received quite a workout!  (the saddle sore was so worth it!)  Unfortunately I don’t have pictures to share because while we were at the beach, Rod was on a collecting trip with his lab and needed the camera.  What an amazing trip he had, as they captured 1 spider monkey, 2 howlers, 2 capuchin monkeys, 1 two toed sloth and a 3 toed sloth and baby.  They drew blood from each animal (tranquilized), then released them back into the trees.  A student waited with each animal until it was awake enough to wander away.

Rod holding a baby sloth on his field trip

Wednesday morning Rod, Patrice and I left for Whitworth University campus in Costa Rica, near Braulio Carrillo National Park.  Rod presented a talk to students about his research and Fulbright scholarship opportunities.  We hiked into the park, crossing the continental divide, between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.  With the crisp air, meadows surrounded by towering, cloud covered  mountains, it seemed as though we had left the beach and arrived in Austria.  Rod needed to return home in the evening, but  the 2 lakes, mountain views, meadows, and a sense of timelessness were all Patrice and I needed to choose to stay for 2 nights.  I got my fill of much needed girlfriend time!  I also saw my first blue crowned motmot, a beautiful exotic bird.  Unfortunately Rod took the camera home with him, so I only have the memories of his blue head, black face, yellow belly and long blue tail.

I would love to study at a campus that looks like this!

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Weekend Getaway to Grecia/Sarchi

There is a shift of focus starting to take place as I now have arrangements for my return home.  Rod and I will have a short homecoming to see our daughter graduate from college, then we return back to Costa Rica with her.  She and I will depart for home a few weeks before Rod.  Having a plan gives me an ending time for this adventure, and that is filled with mixed emotions.  A few weeks ago it seemed like quite a stretch ahead of me when I was missing home.  Now I want to breathe it all in, making it a part of me.

I also noticed how important it is for Rod and I to have intentional times of connection.  While it is true that we are experiencing a lot of new things together and being the primary companions for each other, the evenings, after his day in the lab, can fill up with other necessary things. Writing e-mails and lab preparations in Spanish takes a lot longer to complete, and can fill up several hours.  Even with an extra day off, and a wonderful visit with new friends on their butterfly farm, I was feeling the space closing up this week, and longed for a weekend without an agenda filled with things to see or do.  Perhaps anticipating (with joy!) 2 weeks of visitors, a quick trip home and then being separated for several weeks, I was sensing the lack of focused time for each other.  So, I found a little bed and breakfast online in Grecia, called La Terraza, just an hour from San Jose, and on Saturday we both were ready to spend quality time together-one of my love languages!  After arriving at the town center we sat in the park eating ice-cream and people watching in front of the unique red metal church.

The metal for this church was shipped from Belgium, taking 2 weeks for the pieces to arrive from the Caribbean port.  It was built between 1950-58.

We took a taxi to the bed and breakfast with the plan to come back to the town after we checked in and dropped off our backpacks.  But seeing the balcony from our room overlooking the colorful gardens changed our minds.  We sat down, listened to the birds, and allowed the tranquility to sink into our souls.  On our walk through the garden we spotted a Jesus Christ lizard (named for the way they walk on water) sunning on a rock by the river.  We watched leaf cutter ants carrying leaves that were bigger than their bodies.  And the space allowed us to receive refreshment and connection.  We were surprised when Christina, the cook brought us each a welcome plate for dinner, with Alfredo, meatloaf, barbeque chicken, salad and cake.  I had no idea that was part of the package!  We ate when we wanted to, warming up the dinners in our microwave. (And we ate the cake first!)  There is nothing better than no schedule or distraction for reconnection. I was surprised how intentional we had to be here, when we aren’t even away from each other in the evenings!  But even in beautiful Costa Rica, it is good to break from routine and, although we traveled to a new location, it wasn’t just for the purpose of “seeing another place”.

Ahhh, so relaxing!

The following day we took a short bus trip to the town of Sarchi, home of many of the artisans of Costa Rica, and known for their painted oxcarts, seen throughout the country  (now mostly decorative carts).  Only a few square miles, I was delighted by its charm and beauty, hilly streets with vistas of mountains and valleys all around.  I am sure going to miss that when I am back in Wheaton!

The World’s Largest ox-cart, in Sarchi

Hospitality and Butterflies

On Easter Sunday we attended a bilingual church for a breakfast, followed by the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus.  Carmen, a professor that Rod had met a week earlier offered to pick us up, a huge gift to us. It was a joy to be in a community comprised of people from at least 8 different countries, where singing and speaking were in Spanish and English.  The diversity and enthusiastic celebration was a mini taste of Heaven.

While we were in line for breakfast we met Tom, originally from England, who came to Costa Rica for a 2 year commitment, and has now been here for 24 years.  (This seems to be a common story!)  Tom breeds butterflies on his 3 acres of property and invited us to come to his home when we had the chance.  After the service he and his wife, Cyntiya, again invited us, writing down their phone number and e-mail for us, and exploring what days might work best.  They was serious!  Well, that day came sooner than expected.  Rod learned yesterday that today was Juan Santamaria Day, which meant school was closed, and he had another unexpected day off  (think snow day!).  For a quick history lesson, Juan is quite a hero here, having the airport named after him.  William Walker was an American who had decided to conquer Central America and form an English speaking empire in the 1850’s.  He had taken over Nicaragua and was attempting to add Costa Rica when he was defeated, Juan Santamaria played a significant role in the victory. (Did anyone learn about Walker in their history class?  Tom’s theory is that had he been successful it would have been a whole different story).  So, in honor of Juan, we had a free day, called Tom and arranged to be picked up in San Pedro near the University.  Pulling up in his driveway was like entering another world.  We sat on their terrace eating watermelon, papaya and mango as we watched a variety of butterflies fluttering around the tropical flowers.  Tom was interested in butterflies since he was 10 years old, and gained his knowledge  by working in butterfly gardens and experimenting with breeding them on his own.  Rod, of course, was intrigued by the process and saw the potential  of a genetics class field trip!

Tom and Cyntiya’s beautiful terrace overlooking lush forest

Tom’s breeding butterfly homes

Tom and Cyntiya on the bridge crossing the river on their property

Later in the afternoon, Tom and Cyntiya treated us at their favorite restaurant in their town of San Isidro.  The owner, Daniel, is from Decatur, IL. and his wife, who does the cooking, is Canadian.  After our delicious meal, they spared us from taking 2 buses, and drove us home.  Rod and I felt so filled from the day.  For him, it was having an agenda-less day.  For me, it was a day in nature and connection in relationship, 2 of my favorite things.  As I learned how each butterfly feeds and lays her eggs on a specific type of plant, I was awed at the magnificence of creation.  It seems to me that  if all butterflies ate from any plant it would be more efficient.  But, again, my soul is filled when I discover the detail and care found in nature.  One size does not fit all, and diversity and interconnection are necessary for life.  I am grateful to have experienced the open hearts of Tom and Cyntiya who gave us a day of sweet refreshment.

Nicaragua

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Approaching the 90 day limit of our visas,we were forced to leave Costa Rica for a 3 day vacation in order to remain in the country for a longer period.   It was especially fun for Rod to leave the research behind and rest.  He has been fighting an infection for 2 weeks and is now on antibiotics. (One thing that is very efficient in Costa Rica is that you can enter a pharmacy, explain your problem and what you think you need, and they give it to you.  No primary care physician needed!)  We chose to take our 72 hours of required leave in Nicaragua.  We heard it was beautiful, and it seemed a bit more of an unknown than Panama.

Nature Air flies within Costa Rica as well as to Nicaragua and Panama, and is located at a small airport not too far from the main international airport.  We were told to be there 2 hours before our flight, which meant 4:30 AM for us.  We were quite surprised as we entered that, other than the security man, we were the only ones in the airport!  It was another half hour before the employees arrived to check in the 30 or so passengers for the 2 departing flights.  Our plane was full, so they carefully weighed each piece of luggage, both carry on and check in, and then, they had each of us step on the scale as well!  When I saw the plane, I understood why weight limits were so important.  A full plane held about 20 people!  The ride was smooth, and the view of Costa Rica and Nicaragua was breath-taking.

Yes, I am lagging a bit behind!

The pilot served as our flight attendant as well.

My initial impression as we rode the bus from Managua to Granada was the difference in traffic between Managua and San Jose, both capital cities.  Managua is the largest city in the country, as is San Jose,  but there was no congestion here.  It is a poorer country where other modes of transportation are used by many. Bikes were as plentiful as cars, many with 2 people per bike.  Women and children seemed perfectly at ease sitting on the bars of the bikes.  Also sharing the road were horse drawn carts.

A road in Granada

View of Granada from a church bell tower

We spent 2 nights in Granada, the oldest town in the Americas, where many of the colonial style buildings remain.  It sits on the edge of Lake Nicaragua, the largest lake in Central America.  Over 300 islets were formed from volcanic eruptions.  It is possible to buy an islet and build your home there!  Some island homes are ritzy while others are quite simple, owned by local fishermen.

Nice island home

A highlight for us was taking a boat tour along many of the islets.  Being the only tourists on the boat, we were able to ask Gustavo, our bilingual guide, so many questions about the land, the people and the history of Nicaragua.  Our first stop was at a very modest home.  The husband gathered coconuts from his tree, cut the tops off, and offered one to each of us.  When we were  finished drinking the coconut milk, he carved out the coconut meat, which we would use to provide food for the monkeys on monkey island,  our next stop.  About 6 monkeys, one Capuchin and the rest, Spider monkeys, live on the tiny islet.  Lola, a Spider monkey, was once a pet who was released onto the island, and she is quite at ease with people.  We got to meet her up close and personal.

A more modest island home where we were served coconuts

Rod and Lola

Gustavo answering all of my questions at an island rest stop

Gustavo was a wonderful guide, genuinely interested in telling the stories of Nicaragua and the people who make up his country.  I learned so much, but my heart opened as well.  Assumptions and judgments tumble down in the presence of stories.  The day before, I was filled with a mix of emotions and impressions.  Granada is a beautiful city, with it’s style and location.  Yet, it was difficult to sit and relax in the central park because we would be inundated with venders trying to sell us everything from trinkets to cashews.  Old women in dirty clothes sat along the cobbled street with their hands out to us.  Children performed dances, or they would stop by our table as we dined outside, wanting to show us how they made origami grasshoppers using palm leaves, competing with one another for tourist money.  Gustavo offered explanations and descriptions of the life lived here.  There is a pride in the history of this country, overcoming war, dictators, and earthquakes.  There are poor, but there is help being offered. Volunteer services are welcomed.  Education is valued.  Jobs are available.  I am better able to see them within their own context instead of my own.  Happiness, after all, is not found in the American dream and consumerism.  There are other values that I see, such as their fight for freedom, the celebration of the people groups and languages of Nicaragua, simple work, and community found in the market place.

Kids in customs perform for tourist, then collect money

Market in Granada

Antonio was another man who became special to us.  He was our taxi driver on 2 different occasions. We made arrangements to visit Masaya, a nearby town known for their artists market. It also has the highest chairs I have ever seen!

Antonio, our taxi driver

Feeling like Alice in Wonderland (or Edith Ann for those who remember Lilly Tomlin!)

We were fortunate to have Antonio for our driver.  He became animated upon hearing Rod’s Spanish, someone who would be able to converse with him!  Antonio was filled with stories, eager to share them with us.  He was in his 20’s during the civil war that began in the 1970’s when the people rebelled against the 45 year Somosa dictatorship.  We were fascinated as he recounted how the people left the cities and moved into the mountains to survive, and to fight for their freedom.  He gave us examples of passwords, changed daily and used to communicate between regions through walkie-talkies.  He gave us the Nicaraguan perspective of US involvement, which supported the government, increasing the length of the war to 15 years.  Yet there was no anger or resentment in him.  As he described the victory of the Sandinista rebels over the soldiers of the dictatorship, I was in awe of the graciousness of the people.  Instead of revenge, or prison for the soldiers, they were sent out to the countryside to teach children.   I was struck by the healing that this alternative could bring if our country could learn from them.

We saw several beautiful places in 3 days, but the best part for me was meeting Gustavo and Antonio, the human faces of Nicaragua.