El fin

On Mombacho volcano, near Granada

On Mombacho volcano, near Granada

All things must pass, even our family sabbatical. No-one wanted to go home, but home we went anyway.

After 130 days in Central America, we boarded a plane from San Jose to Atlanta, where we passed a night en route back to Ireland. The temperature plunged almost 30 degrees in a day, forcing us to don shoes for the first time in months, not to mention every layer of clothing we could find. A day
later, and we emerged from the plane into a cold, grey Dublin dawn.

We vowed to sign off this blog with a valedictory post, but the demands of life, school, work and all that we had escaped took over quickly and we didn’t get around to writing it until now. So apologies if you’ve been waiting with bated breath this past month for our parting words.

We had a great time. We broadened our horizons, met good people, had many great experiences and we were lucky enough to stay safe. We all grew, not just little Luca.

Ella, Rosa and Tana sampling the finest frozen foods

Ella, Rosa and Tana sampling the finest frozen foods

We asked everyone in the group to name their highlight and here’s what they said:

Rosa: Being on holiday with my family.

Ella: Making so many new friends, both adults and children. And growing to like so many fruits that I thought I couldn’t stand, especially mango.

Tana: Eating ice cream before it melted and going on a canopy tour.

Luca: Generally being *El Jefe*

Paul: The sense of heat and warmth that I’ll never forget and the fact that so many people we ran into in Nicaragua had such interesting back-stories.

Deirdre: Being the only person to fly upside down on the canopy tour and finding we occasionally we had time to sit and think.

We’ve written an article our journey for The Irish Times, if you’d like to read it.

Many people have said they would love to do something similar, but
would never be able to. If our experience shows anything, it is that
anyone, regardless of age or family size, is capable of doing what we did.
Best of luck with your own travels.

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Getting to grips with a new language

Getting to grips with a new language

We’ve been drowning in subjunctives and past imperfects in a late bid to improve our Spanish. None of us had a word of Spanish when we came here four-and-a-half months ago, and now we all leave with the basics of one of the most widely-spoken languages in the world. After just a few weeks of lessons, we have acquired a decent grounding vocabulary and impressive pronounciation.

With classmates from La Mariposa

With classmates from La Mariposa

The only problem is that the adults have picked up the vocabulary but still sound like anglophones, while the girls, through their playground immersion, have authentic pronounciation but little vocabulary. We say “Granada” like it was a British television station; in contrast, the word rolls enviably off Ella’s tongue the way it should in these parts.

Our only regret is that we didn’t have more time to bed down our linguistic knowledge and ensure the seeds we’d sown with the girls survive to flourish. It seems to take about nine months for children to acquire fluency and, like riding a bicycle, it’s something they should never forget.

Nicaragua in particular proved an excellent place to learn Spanish as few people speak English and most are only delighted to engage with the extranjeros. Language classes are widely available and very affordable. In the early days, the two of us took classes together, passing Luca from one to the other or putting him down for a sleep in his buggy. But as he grew older and more assertive, that proved more difficult and the amount of juggling during classes increased. Still, at eight months, he has started rolling his Rs impressively.

Rosa with her certificate - all worth it in the end.

Rosa with her certificate – all worth it in the end.

It helped that we took our last batch of classes last week in La Mariposa language school in south-western Nicaragua. As well as being a school, La Mariposa is something of a zoo; the wonderful tree-filled grounds are filled with all kinds of animal life. Dogs, cats, hens and ducks run free; exotic birds and monkeys make an unholy racket from the safety of their caged enclosures. Classes take place outdoors in the middle of this animal brouhaha, and even Luca had a “teacher” or minder for some of the time we were taking lessons. Unfortunately, his tired wails were on occasion as stong as any avian cackle or monkey howls when he was ready for sleep. It’s very hard to drill grammar into your dull adult brain when there’s a baby giving it socks in the background. Our classmates called us ‘The Family’ and appeared to be tickled by our collective endeavours.

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A taste of the good life – without the digging

A taste of the good life - without the digging

In our new place, back in Nicaragua, we thought it would be nice to go out for dinner last evening. So we stepped out the door of our casita, scissors in hand, and gathered some black and yellow aubergines, tomatoes and basil for melanzane alla parmigiana, with potatoes and rosemary as a side and salad leaves including butterhead and curly lettuce, red chard and rocket, or arugula, as they say in these parts. Within an hour, we had picked, cooked and served our meal. We savoured every mouthful, the taste enhanced by the micro distance from farm to fork.

For now, we leave the other garden produce undisturbed. The trees are heavy with avocadoes and oranges, in season now, while carrots, beans and yucca are waiting to be picked. Broccoli and peppers are just starting to ripen. Meanwhile, all around are the ubiquitous banana and platano trees, which fruit so generously here.

Luca checking the ripeness of an orange

Luca checking the ripeness of an orange

We have somehow landed our own finca, or farm for a week here at La Concepcion, around 30 minutes from Managua. This is accommodation attached to the Mariposa language school, in fact the owner’s home, as we needed a bit more space than most guests.

We are appreciative squatters though, awed by the weather, soil and hard work that goes into producing such a rich and diverse range of fruit and vegetables. If we learn no Spanish this week, the trip back across the border from Costa Rica will have been worth it for the privilege alone of living on such a fruitful farm.

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Did the earth move for you baby?

Luca, unmoved by earthquakes, or anything else.

Luca, unmoved by earthquakes, or anything else.

We don’t spend a lot of time worrying about earthquakes, though they are part of life throughout Central America.

So we were caught unawares the other day when our rented house at Samara Beach rattled and juddered for five seconds. We had a strange sensation of the floor tilting somewhat.

We haven’t been all that impressed with the standards in this house, so our first reactions were not “earthquake, run for the open”, but rather, “what the heck is the problem with this house now?” Rather than springing into action, we just looked at each other blankly, gobs agape.

The girls had just started writing postcards so were only delighted to have a bit of excitement to include as news.

Here's what the last earthquake at Samara beach looked like.

Here’s what the last earthquake at Samara beach looked like.

The water in the swimming pool rippled over and back for half a minute after and the monkeys in the coconut trees above shouted and howled hysterically.

It was only 4.7 magnitude, so we weren’t unduly alarmed until our neighbour told us the earthquake wasn’t so much a worry as the tsunami that might follow, as we’re only metres from the sea. He pointed to a hotel high on the hill and said if another one happened we had less than ten minutes to grab the children and get up there.

There’s a lot to be said for being clueless about these things.

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Is this the world’s smallest school?

Teacher Santiago and his student Moises

Teacher Santiago and his student Moises

Remote is just one word of many we used to describe the house at the end of the 20km dirt track, where we stayed in the western hills of Costa Rica.

The single amenity nearby was the local primary school, El Roblar. Without a doubt, this was a school with the best teacher to student ratio any of us had encountered. The sole teacher, Santiago, had just one student enrolled.

Santiago and his 9-year-old charge Moises seemed open to having their numbers increased by 400% for a couple of days, as we sent our three girls and their visiting friend Hilary down for a taste of rural Tico education.

The girls’ arrival from the hill on a horse (yes, all on the same one) created quite the stir in Santiago’s and Moises’s otherwise fairly sedate school day.

Ella, Hilary, Rosa and Moises

Moises, Ella, Hilary, Rosa and Tana (not visible)

Moises, well softened up by a packet of Skittles, seemed pretty happy to run around playing hide and seek with the girls. It made a change from sitting on the bridge with his teacher for his break, where we found them one day, reading through Moises’s Spanish comprehension textbook.

Santiago and Moises made a good team; the teacher picked up his student and brought him to school daily as well. Santiago said it wasn’t easy though, trying to find new ways to keep one pupil engaged.

The school at El Roblar is evidence that Costa Rica is serious about education. A country doesn’t acquire a 96% literacy rate by accident.

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Where the wild things are

Scarlet Macaw at Limonal

Scarlet Macaw at Limonal

If our trip to Nicaragua was all about meeting people with interesting back stories, Costa Rica is about wildlife. Not surprising really, given the country has the highest percentage of biodiversity of any country. Yet we continue to be astounded by the variety, size and colour of the local animals we come across each day.

This morning over breakfast, for example, we were treated to the sight of a group of variegated squirrels going about their breakfast 10 metres above us in a coconut palm. Tap-tap-tap they went until they broke into their morning’s ration of fruit, causing the juice to pour down beside us.

I also spent the morning cleaning up the previous night’s body count of cockroaches, all sandal-squashed in accordance with Dee’s orders. I’m precluded from discussing them further, but suffice to say they were of a fine size.

Rosa with insect at Casa Altamar

Rosa with insect at Casa Altamar

With visitors over from Ireland, we rented a beautiful house of glass one hour up a remote dirt track from the coast road. Whether it was the design of the house or the daunting trip the track in our minibus, we spent a lot of time in the house with only the inhabitants of the surrounding forest for company. Each evening, the din from the jungle would rise to a crescendo, and an astonishing array of creatures would hurl themselves onto the patio and windows of the house – crickets as long as your hand, frogs of a luminous green hue, armies of moths of all sizes, all manner of spindly, hard-backed insects and ants in their multitudes. But, thankfully, no mosquitoes, perhaps because we were at an altitude of 500 metres.

Parts of Costa Rica are over-run by tourists, but they seem to have done a
good job in holding on to their assets in the natural environment. Changing
buses on the way to the beach town of Samara the other day, we were able to
pass the time admiring a family of rainbow-hued scarlet macaws. Monkeys are
a big draw everywhere, especially howler monkeys and their unearthly wails,
but they should carry warning signs; down on the beach at Manuel Antonio
national park, a troop of cheeky capuchin monkeys made off with one of
Rosa’s sandals. Once bitten, twice shy; on the same beach, we sent packing
a gang of marauding raccoons who fancied their chances with our lunch.

So far, so good; we haven’t had any mishaps with the animals we’ve met
along the way (Rosa’s sandal might disagree). No scorpion sightings, and
while Rosa claims to have seen snakes, that was in the zoo in Managua. The
orange-kneed tarantula we saw in the national park was pretty terrifying,
or at least the female was; she eats all her males, and grows to a hundred
times their size.

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Over the border on a bicycle

Taxi bike  over the border

Taxi bike over the border

After almost three happy months in Nicaragua, we had to move on. But first there was the small matter of crossing the land border with Costa Rica, no easy feat when you are as encumbered as we are.

The first step was to arrange transport down to the border. Our Irish friend Gerry offered to bring us down and decided to cross the border briefly himself in order to renew his own visa.

It took less than two hours to reach the frontier at Penas Blancas, where the fun started. First, we had to cart our bags in the hot sun to an office where we queued half an hour to pay $3 each to get the necessary stamps to leave Nicaragua. There were plenty of touts on hand to offer us all manner of unnecessary services, but we forswore most of their offerings. We were glad to engage a cycle-taxi to carry our luggage for a while, but he only operated as far as the border itself.

So we pulled, heaved, tugged and yanked our bags and ourselves into Costa Rica, where we managed to avoid a long queue because we were allowed to move to the top of it with our buggy.

Another bit of queueing and form filling and we were in Costa Rica, where it had, ominously, turned cloudy and started raining. There was more confusion on this side of the border, but we managed to board a local bus to take us to Liberia, the nearest large town.

Welcome to Costa Rica

Welcome to Costa Rica

Gerry, meanwhile, had run into trouble on both sides of the border because there was a tear in his passport. At one point, it looked like he might get stuck in no-man’s land but it seemed if he could grease the palms of officialdom, all would be well, which appears to be how it’s done in these parts.

The bus, though of a higher standard that you’d find in Nicaragua, took two hours to reach Liberia, where we’d booked a room in a hotel on the outskirts of town. We were given a friendly welcome, but I think we were missing our old home in Granada. Costa Rica is clearly more prosperous than its northern neighbour, and Liberia is a well-ordered, if unremarkable town. It has things you’d never seen in Nicaragua, such as mountain-bike shops and photographic studios, and the people seem well-fed and comfortable. We also had to adjust to the higher prices, approaching Irish levels, and the manic driving habits of the locals.

Initial impressions were, to be frank, that it was a bit dull. Things looked up the following day when we took a 40-minute taxi-ride out to Playa Hermosa, a gorgeous, quiet beach on the Pacific. Passing by the condomiums and luxury developments, we certainly felt like tourists in this resort, but our hotel, Villa del Sueno, was welcoming and well-run and we had a great time there. There were howler monkeys on the beach trees, iguanas on the road and puffer fish in the warm waters. The sunsets were glorious and the beach food was tasty. It was just hard to adjust to being ‘on holiday’. We probably just need more practice.

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