Sunday, August 29, 2010

Painting day

One nice thing about this job? The free housing! Before we even arrive in a new country, a board meets, deliberates, and assigns us a house. Zimbabwe, Oman, Czech Republic or Costa Rica, we're assured of getting something livable to house us for the three years of the assignment. We're also assured that our house will be issued to us with government-standard white walls. Nine years and four houses after we started this Foreign Service life, we've always lived between white walls, and until now, we just haven't had the time, energy or experience to do anything about it. Perhaps being pregnant or arriving with a newborn in hand at each of our previous three posts had something to do with it?

Kyler surveys yet another white-walled bedroom

Our arrival in San Jose was different - for the first time, we had three walking kids... two of whom started school the week after we got here. Time to bring some color into our lives for a change!

Last week, Erin and her capable assistant (Kyler) made a trek down to San Jose's equivalent of Home Depot. Still without wheels, they summoned our new best friends - Taxis Escazu. Once the red taxi appears, the next trick is to use our two-week old Spanish to get the taxi where we want it to go. This conversation was about par for the course:

Driver: "¿A dónde?"

Erin: "Epa, por favor."

Driver: "¿Qué?"

Erin: "Epa, por favor?"

Kyler: "Kapachoowee"

Driver: ¿Qué?

Erin, at this point, writes down the name of the store... "EPA" on a piece of paper and shows it to the driver.

Driver: "Ah! Epa, si!"

At least they know how to find their way to our house now, which is more than I can say for Ambulance drivers around here - but that's another story. Anyway - EPA found an English speaking employee to help Erin out, and she came home equipped with paint and the tools of the trade.

After a quick breakfast, we shooed the kids out of the way and started work.

Good thing I'm tall - these ceilings are up there - even standing on top of furniture! Photos courtesy of Danna.

For newbies at this painting stuff, we didn't do to badly. Managed to keep the paint off the hardwood floors (mostly), the furniture (well, except for that one little spot), the kids (at least one of the three), and ourselves (eh... not really).

Walls dry, curtains back up and bed back in the room - all in one day!

By just after lunchtime, we had two of the three kids rooms done. Kyler and I put the finishing touches up in his "new" room by putting up his car, plane and train decals.

Yes - the paint was actually dry before he leaned on the wall!

Of course, the new base color is just the beginning. Both Jad and Danna would like their rooms to sink into the undersea universe of their imagination. Jad wants a shark staring at him every night. Kyler has asked for "Maskween" (Lightning McQueen from "Cars"). Not sure what's going to eventually appear on Danna's walls - unfortunately, our favorite mural artiste is still in Prague, so Ariel may not make a repeat appearance.

But... despite the fact that there's still paint under my fingernails, this stuff is kind of FUN! And really not a bad way to spend a rainy Saturday without wheels in Costa Rica. Who knows - in a couple weekends, we may not have any white walls left in this place!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

A tale of two markets

Ask anyone who's visited Costa Rica what they liked and they'll regale you with stories of rain forests, tropical birds, pristine beaches and zip lines. Food courts? They don't make the tourist route quite as often. Not being tourists in this place, we hopped in one of our favorite red taxis today to make a quick trip down to the Mutiplaza Escazu.

Two floors of luxury shopping

Boasting over 500 stores, this mall sets the pace for western commercialism here in Costa Rica! Cartier, Hugo Boss, The North Face, and and Timberland are just a few of the big names we passed on the way to our two main destinations today: the pet store and the food court.

Danna rubs noses with a feline friend

As you can probably imagine in a place like this, the food court is filled with exotic, Costa Rican restaurants. Like MacDonalds. And Taco Bell. And Pizza Hut.

Fast food - Costa Rican Style

Two cajitas felices ("happy boxes" = happy meals) and a Taco Bell meal in hand, we headed to an empty table and chowed down on junk food that looked and tasted just like the stuff in the US. OK - the happy meal boxes were in Spanish... but apart from that, we could have been eating the processed, frozen, reheated and internationally uniform meals in the Quail Springs mall in Oklahoma City! As a point of reference - the "Happy Meal Economic Index" here is about $4.

Donuts? Fashion? Ride-on toys? Multiplaza Mall is your kind of place!

Just down the road from our house though, is a very different kind of market. Open every Saturday morning, the Escazu Feria (Farmer's Market) is the place to go for fresh produce, fruit, and a much less "developed" shopping experience.

A street in the center of Escazu turns into a weekly farmer's market

This is the kind of market I grew up around. A busy pedestrian street packed with temporary stalls. Shoppers wandering from stall to stall to find the freshest veggies or best deal. Dogs playing in the gutters. There didn't seem to be much haggling here - prices were scribbled on handmade signs, and that was that.

Kyler and Danna check out some HUGE bananas!

This market wasn't the most fun for the kids... especially on a hot morning. But the copos (shaved ice with flavored syrup dumped on top) made the trip worth it!

Ice + Flavored syrup = Copos

And if you're really feeling energetic, you can join the guys on the basketball court next to the market for a quick game up pickup hoops.

Wanna shop? High-class or low-class, San Jose's got you covered. And those rain forests and beaches? We'll get there eventually!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Splash down in Costa Rica

San Jose, Costa Rica gets an average of 10 inches of rain in August. Most of that 10 inches seems to have fallen in our first 7 days here in San Jose. It's not the constant gloomy drizzle of say - the Pacific Northwest in the winter. Rather, the average day starts out gorgeous - puffy white clouds against a blue sky. Around noon, the dark grey clouds move in to replace the white ones, and with a clap or two of thunder, the heavens open up. The clouds move down from the mountain tops surrounding the city. A single watery splat on a leaf is joined by a ping on the tin roof next door, which is accompanied by a cascade of slaps on the leaves of the palm tree... and then BOOM. The heavens open up, and the air turns to water with a liquid roar.

Rain on our driveway

We got the full taste of a San Jose rainstorm firsthand on day two here in Costa Rica. We had noticed a frozen yogurt store "just down the hill" from our house, and decided to take an afternoon walk to get some dessert. As we left the house, the clouds were beginning to gather - and about half way down the hill, down came the rain. The kids were suited up in their rain gear, "just in case", but Erin and I quickly found that our Old Navy anoraks were just not up to keeping out a real rainstorm. After a drippy snack, we headed back up the hill to the house in the middle of a thunderstorm. Kyler, buckled in his stroller, promptly fell fast asleep. Soaked the bone, we made it back home 15 minutes later - having survived our first family walk in the rain.

Stuck in the rain without an umbrella? No worries - just pick a REALLY BIG LEAF!

Costa Rica is an interesting study in contrasts. It's a country fighting for "developed" status, but not quite there yet. In our neighborhood, high walls surround palatial villas and condominium complexes (AKA town houses on a compound). But the houses are wired for electricity via a bare wire twisting down between the tree branches from the overhead lines to a junction box outside the gate. Tap water is clean and safe to drink in San Jose. But the gutters on the sides of the potholed streets look (and smell) quite a bit like open sewers.

Our neighborhood in the
Escazu hills above San Jose.

Taxis are clean and safe, and are driven by smart, tie-wearing drivers. But the "addresses" those taxis are dispatched to start with a well known (you hope) landmark, and proceed with directions such as "100 meters south, 125 meters southwest..." The distances - and even compass bearings seem to bear little resemblance to geographic reality, so most rides involve the taxi driver waving down a passerby to ask for directions. Add our mangled "Spanglish" to the mix, and it's a wonder we're able to direct a taxi to our place at all!

One of our neighbors.

TV and Internet in San Jose is provided via cable, but the installers insisted that the only place they could install our internet was in our laundry room. This is the same laundry room that came complete with plugged drains and pipes that can't keep up with our washing machine's output. Worried about a flood outside during a torrential downpour? Well, we have a flood inside as well - but thankfully only during the rinse and spin cycles!

Yet another reason to always pack duct tape, and our "home office"

It's always tricky to land firmly on your feet in a new place - and our arrival to San Jose has been no different. This first week, we've felt like we've been caught in a rainstorm - and not just the one outside on the way to the frozen yogurt store.

Trying to describe to a taxi driver in Spanish on a cellphone how to find your house... SPLAT!

Meeting a whole new Embassy worth of people, projects, issues and personalities... PLOP!

Fighting leaking washing machines while keeping three kids occupied and off each others nerves... DRIBBLE!

Trying to figure why the cable guys are looking for the "cable largo y negro" poking out of a wall and why they have to install the internet in the laundry room instead of at any of the other perfectly good cable jacks in the house... PITTER PATTER DRIP DROP.


But the nice thing about the rain in San Jose? It never lasts for long. The clouds move on, the sky clears up, and a light breeze circulates the cool, slightly damp air through the house. It's crisp, clean and refreshing. And tonight, as I look down on the lights of San Jose glittering like a thousand diamonds in the valley below us, I realize something. That this type of "everything is frustrating and a little bit overwhelming" thunderstorm is normal for a splashdown in a brand new place. And just like the rain, it too will pass eventually. With every new word of Spanish, each new discovery, each new friend and contact, this place, like any place we bring our little tribe to, will feel more and more like home.

I do need to get a new raincoat through!

Friday, August 6, 2010

Coming "Home"

As a kid, America was a tantalizing but slightly hazy dream. When television came to Sri Lanka, my brothers and I learned about the multi-lane highways waching CHiPs or Knight Rider. Pictures of National Monuments would shine from the pages of our World Book encyclopedia set. To us, America was the land of the impossible. Drinking water from the tap without getting sick. Flying along in a car at 60 miles an hour or faster, and not having to dodge potholes, elephants, pedestrians and ox carts. Our mouths would water at the mention of that mystical temple of culinary elightenment called McDonalds. Everything was bigger, shinier, cleaner. America was the place our passports told us was home. Though we didn't really know why, it was the place we were "from" somehow.

Our kids, growing up in an age of instant information and connectivity, webcams and satellite TV still feel a little of the same cultural dislocation. When Jad informed us at the dinner table that the New York Yankees were his favorite baseball team we were surprised. How did he become a Yankee fan? Turns out that his Polish buddy at the International School in Prague told him they were the best. Ask him to how the game is played and he wouldn't have a clue. An Eastern European first grade teaching our American kid about his national pastime. In a way, it tells the story of sometimes strange life we lead as expat Americans.

Sipping from Portland Oregon's "Benson Bubblers"

"Home Leave" is all about closing that gap with your homeland. Seeing through your own eyes what your own country is all about. After three years in Europe, we were ready to re-introduce our own tribe of global nomads (including ourselves) to "home."

Saying goodbye to Rubesh cousins (Thailand branch)

Kyler's not so sure about the cold waters of the Pacific

Trout fishing in Trout Lake, Washington

"Kissin Cousins?"

"Real live cowboys" in Washington State

Spending time with the kids' Great Grandparents

On the rim of Crater Lake

Danna makes a new friend at the AKC Dog Show

Fourth of July "picnic" during an Oklahoma thunderstorm

Small-town Fourth of July Parade

Finale of the Fourth of July fireworks show

Kyler meets a new friend at Toys R Us

A couch full of cousins.

Hanging out in the pool.

Living room fashion show

Hanging out with the Cartoon Network

High School reunion in Boston

Collecting eggs on the farm in Texas

Meeting "Barbara Manatee" in Dallas

We didn't quite make it all the way from "sea to shining sea," but we got close! From the West Coast to the East, from Boston to Dallas, we made fantastic memories in during the last two months. Memories we'll all file away and add to our cultural identity as Americans. Mental snapshots to remind us of what America is all about as we head out tomorrow for our next adventure overseas - this time in Costa Rica. Farewell for now - but we can't wait to find out what new things we'll discover the next time we visit this place called home!