Thursday, December 23, 2010

From Igloos to Volcanoes - a Rubesh year in review

Three countries, 7200 pounds, lots of suitcases and yet another new continent. Time for a quick review of the last twelve months!

They say the third time's the charm, and we proved it in January with our first ever (successful) family ski vacation. The key? Having Erin's parents along to keep Kyler entertained while the rest of us went skiing. The Austrian alps in January? Gorgeous! Hot chocolate on top of a snowy world, before yet another slide back down the hill? It just doesn't get much "besser" than that! Jad celebrated his seventh birthday (and Kevin his... more than seventh) in our little mountain hideaway while we were there. Back home in Prague, we got snow. Lots of snow. Igloo building snow, in fact. If it's going to be cold, it might as well snow, right?
We liked Austria so much that we went back in February. This time via train, and this time, unfortunately, without babysitters. Austria's museums, aquariums, Sri Lankan restaurants and... pharmacies make it a great place to come back to! We've found that a truly "bonding" family vacation is one that starts with one sick kid, and finishes up with three. With a hotel room and pharmacies tying them all together!
We celebrated Easter on a hilltop back in Prague, and then rounded out the month of April by joining in a truly Czech tradition. A hockey game! We enjoyed watching the action on the ice. But even more, we relished finding one of the very few public places where Kyler could be as loud as he wanted... and not be heard!April was a month of Very Important Visitors. When you work at a US Embassy overseas, the first one was truly a presidential-sized job... yet another visit of POTUS (President of the United States of America) to Prague! No sooner had we bid Air Force One a fond farwell than the real important visitors arrived - Kevin's parents. A little icelandic volcano with a cute name (say "Eyjafjallajökull" three times fast) became our good friend during this visit. The volcanic ash paralyzed flights all through Europe. But this isn't a bad thing when you have grandparents on the ground where you want them to be by the time the flights are frozen!

We then put the volcanic ash behind us and headed west - to the south of France, to be precise. Kevin's cousin not only found, but married a lovely French lady, and we got join in the celebrations (by way of a fourteen hour drive)! Danna discovered dancing, and grooved the night away under the disco ball while her brothers snoozed in the playroom and her parents enjoyed the pleasures of French cuisine. France was lovely - but spending time with Kevin's uncle, aunt, cousins and new French extended family was even better. We even got to talk politics... in French (over croissants, of course!)
We had just enough time in May to celebrate Danna's sixth birthday before starting to pull up roots in Prague. 7200 pounds was the magic number. The limit within which we're required to compress our lives every three years as we travel around the world. It's nice in a way. Call it a periodic forced "Spring Cleaning." It was our chance to look at what you have, and decide what's really important to keep around (and what's not). We sold, we donated, we tossed... and then we shipped, hoping to see this stuff when we arrived in Costa Rica months later!
June brought goodbyes to Prague, and hellos to Portland Oregon! June's a great time to be in the Pacific Northwest, and we fell in love with the place all over again. With family in the area, the month was marked with curry nights, trout fishing, real life cowboys, cheese pizza and plenty of "cousin time" with Kevin's brother and his family. Kyler got to meet his great grandparents for the first time.
In July, we headed back east... but only as far as Oklahoma. Yet more cousin time, a small-town fourth of July parade, and Kyler's third birthday - in his birthplace, no less! We also did our part to help the American economy, in preparation for moving back to the 110 volt side of the world. To round off our time in America, we took advantage of willing babysitters and flew to Boston for the reunion of Erin's high school from Amman, Jordan.
August brought our spashdown in San Jose, Costa Rica... where it rained. And rained. And rained some more. For at least 40 days and 40 nights. No arks - but plenty of potholes, floods, landslides and the random cow or two roaming down the street. Lots of changes - new school, work, language, food and culture. Oh, and did I mention the rain yet?
Looking for some excitement in September, we headed to an active volcano, and explored the type of things that bring tourists to Costa Rica - lush rain forest, exotic animals and bridges hung in the treetops.
October. Let's just skip October for now. Leave it to say we invested heavily in Costa Rican
health care and learned fancy Latin words like "pneumonia" and "bronchitis" (maybe they're Greek words?). In between the visits to the doctors offices though, we did squeeze in some more Costa Rican flora and fauna.
We finally found the famed Costa Rican beaches in November, when we escaped to Manuel Antonio on the Pacific Coast - only three hours drive away, despite landslides having taken out the country's only highway the month before. Surfing, sand castles and Gallo Pinto at the "beach shack," along with the best gelato in Costa Rica (so far) made for a fantastic Thanksgiving weekend!
So far, December has featured sheep, stars and a chorus of singing angels at our church's Christmas Production. Jad passed his first ever Tae Kwondo exam, and we imported some some wise parents from the north - bearing gifts. Like ham! And M&M's! We can't figure out who's having more fun - the kids or their "Tayta and Jiddo!" (Erin's parents).

Which brings us right up to date. To all of our friends and family around the world, a very Merry Christmas! May this be a season of joy and peace, wherever you may be!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The daily commute

For those of you wanting a "taste of San Jose," here's what my daily commute to work looks like. This is one of about 5 different routes in to work, but this one is special. It features the infamous crossing over the "Bridge of Doom."

Mile 0.0 - leaving the house on "Rubesova Street." I didn't steal the sign from Prague - I bought it. Really!

Condominios Altos de Escazu.

Mile 0.25 - one of our favorite potholes. This one's been growing for over a month, and is shaping up to be a real car-swallower.

Mile 0.75 - I think they ran out of asphalt on this stretch. The lack of pavement makes the dumped building refuse fit right in.

Mile 1.0 - Kyler's preschool "The Kids' University", followed by the local dairy. "Se Vende Leche!" fresh from the cow each morning.

Mile 1.5 - One of about four river/creek/raging torrent crossings

Mile 1.75 - on the "Main Road" to Escazu. 6:45 traffic ain't bad.

Mile 2.0 - Mmm! A "Lunch Ejecutivo" at Tony Roma's would hit the spot!

Mile 2.75 - Hipermas grocery store. AKA "Walmart"

Mile 3.0 - The "Bridge of Doom". Jad saw the video, and said "Hmm - that looks like fun!" (much to his mother's horror)

[about a mile of very boring warehouses and train tracks]

Mile 4.12 - Just another day in Uncle Sam's service.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Volcano, with a side of cow tongue, please

OK - so you don't usually run into volcanoes and cow tongues on the same weekend, but there we were, in a hole-in-the-wall hotel/restaurant in the mountain town of Ciudad Quedasa and it just... happened.

It was pouring down rain, we had hours left to drive to get back to San Jose, and the guidebook recommended the Hotel Don Goyo's steak (it also said the hotel would make a great Quentin Tarantino movie setting, so we really couldn't go wrong.) We started leafing through the menu (only available in Spanish), and settled on steak looking items and a plate called "Lengua con salsa de carne." Using our excellent Spanish, we quickly deduced that "lengua" was something similar to "linguini" and that a plate of "Spaghetti with meat sauce" would soon appear.

What appeared was clearly not spaghetti, but we weren't sure what is was. Danna started digging into it with a gusto - "I've never tasted such yummy meat!" she commented between mouthfuls. And then it clicked - a memory from our honeymoon in a small town in Mexico (our only prior experience in a Spanish-speaking country), where Erin and I found our way to a local church for the Sunday morning service.

Once we figured out the passage for the day (James 3), we were able to piece together the gist of the sermon - "La importancia de una lengua hermosa" - or importance of a beautiful tongue. Kind of like the tongue Danna was chowing down on.

The meal was delicious - the best steak we've had... well almost ever. The meat was fresh from the surrounding high pastureland - and in fact, it may well have wandered right off those pastures directly into the kitchen. And, in case you're wondering, no snappily dressed hitmen visited us during the meal. Delicious tongues on a Tarantino movie set. And that's just at the lunch stop on the way back from the volcano!

Tasty tongues aside, a volcano was the real destination for our first trip out of San Jose - an active volcano. In fact, Volcan Arenál is listed as one of the ten most active volcanoes in the world - it's been continuously erupting since 1968! About 3 1/2 hours out of San Jose, the Arenal Observatory Lodge is the place to see it from. Situated on a ridge less than 3 kilometers from Arenal, you really can't get much closer without burning your feet. Getting here involves a 10 Km drive over "native road" - (rough, washed out gravel) after exiting the main road just Northwest of the town of La Fortuna.

The lodge started its life as an observation station for vulcanologists from the Smithsonian Institute, and still retains a bit of the original expeditionary feel. It's no luxury resort - but the rooms are comfortable and clean, the shower's hot and you really don't come all the way out here to watch TV or surf the internet anyway. You come all the way out here to sit on your balcony and watch the volcano slip in and out of the clouds.

The restaurant serves up delicious (though a bit pricey for a rustic lodge - $50 for lunch for our family of five) meals as well as a commanding view of both the Volcano and the Arenal Lake at its base. The breakfast buffet, included in the price of the room, is almost worth the price of admission in itself. There's even a buffet set up outside for the tropical birds.

The kids kept themselves entertained while waiting for food by taking up chess on both of the oversized boards. Kyler soon picked up the essence of the game - you use one chess piece to violently knock over another piece, until all the pieces are on their sides. Bobby Fischer he is not (yet).

What's really neat about this place is that you're really out in the middle of the woods. The woods in this case being real, live rain forest! Every morning, a guide from the lodge leads visitors on a free three hour hike; first over the property's hanging bridge and via paved trails, past trees, bushes and shrubs that are labeled for your Botanic edification. Did you know, for example, that the one of the primary ingredients of Chanel N°5 perfume is the leaf of an extremely fragrant tree that is pollinated by bats? I wouldn't have believed it until I sniffed a crushed handful of leaves.

The trek then heads off the beaten trail to a waterfall surrounded by green. A great place to break in new rain boots, throw rocks into the rapids and pretend you're Indiana Jones searching for the long lost somethingorother.

For those without kids... miles more of interesting hikes await - to lava flows, flooded craters and more.

Of course, being in the rain forest, critters abound as well. The purple flowery bushes buzz with hummingbirds, furry racoon-like critters roam the grounds looking for a handout, white-faced monkeys glare at you from the treetops, and if you pause to look carefully at the plants lining the trail, you find an incredible variety of tiny critters roaming about (pardon the scientific terminology in the above paragraph).

What do you really want after a hike in the rain forest? A soak in the hot tub, of course. Being a lodge in the rain forest, you do have to cross a hanging bridge to get to the pool and hot tub, but it's worth the walk!

All good volcano trips do have to come to an end, and soon we were back on the road to San Jose - winding up and up the narrow mountain roads, in the rain (they don't call it "rain forest" for nothing!), and eating delicious cow tongue along the way.

I get a feeling this (and not the litter-strewn, potholed streets of San Jose) is why people come to Costa Rica.