A look back on the first three months...
This entry I write from my parents' heated kitchen back in wintery Madison, Wisconsin. We are one of the few families who opted to fly into a COVID hotbed to see parents for the holidays (we'd already cancelled one trip in October). But our kids were craving some snow and a legitimate break from our Costa Rican life, so here we are for the next two weeks....
Over the last many days, blog ideas have come and gone, but life has been too wildly busy to actually sit down and write (ironic, considering I recall whining in an earlier entry only a few months ago about how slow life was: how much things can change in a few short weeks!). This will be an attempt at combining all of those came-and-went ideas and highlights into one cohesive entry that also serves as a reflection of our first few months and a looking forward to the coming ones when we head back to La Flor in 2021.
Thus far, I have learned.....
Having low (or no) expectations is the way to go when moving abroad
As I documented in my first many entries, we arrived to Costa Rica ready to hit the ground running with our new life. We had grandiose ideas for our house, our business, our jobs, homeschooling, and weekend outings. None of these went as planned...not a single one.
For the first few weeks of life here, we were presented a mixed set of emotions: frustration, depression, fury, gratitude (for those who went out of their way to help us), and elation when something - however small - went right. All the logistical headaches, combined with the challenges of trying to make our kids feel "at home" or even just figuring out what on earth to cook for dinner made for a rough first few weeks. Should we have to do it somewhere else all over again some day, I will plan everything out (because that's just how I roll....), but then I will shred my plan in one of those shredders that destroys your document into such small scraps of paper that there is no hope of ever putting it back together again. Then I'll put the scraps in a box. Then I'll put that box in another box. Then I'll smash that box with a hammer. (This is little strategy is from one of of my favorite Disney movies...any guesses?) Yes, that will be how I plan for our next international move. Having little to no expectations prior to setting foot on our first airplane destined for Costa Rica may not have eliminated any stress, but it sure would have removed some of the fury.
To not miss the chance to explore something new
We promised ourselves many outings. And I promised myself, as the kids (imperfect) homeschooling teacher, that I would be flexible with our learning. Flexible initially with the curriculum: we wouldn't need to learn about American History this year even though that is what is slated for the 5th grade curriculum at Ollie's school, for example. Or not having to study liquids and solids for first grade Yori. We'd learn what material presented itself. To that extent, we've done alright. I've missed the boat a few times (we'll make a last minute decision to hike a volcano and en route, all I keep thinking is....shoot, this week we should have studied volcanoes, or I'll find some amazing, free, week-long curriculum on sea turtles two days after returning home from Tortuguero - darnit!). But that flexibility also needed to morph into flexibility with time and be molded around my students' attitudes. As chances have presented themselves to go out and explore, we've taken them, hiking many wondrous trails to incredible viewpoints and beautiful waterfalls. We've taken Mondays or Fridays off when we maybe could have been doing something more "productive" like working yet another day on our never-ending house projects or finishing up a report the kids were working on. We didn't want to miss out on exploring all the natural wonder that we live right in the middle of just because routine life projects got in the way. To date, even when our hikes were a bit last-minute or we all left the house a bit grumpy or the weather wasn't cooperating, only twice have our excursions been major bummers. Otherwise, we've all come home happily exhausted, a bit sun kissed and grateful that we took advantage of being able to live so close to some pretty incredible stuff.
Family is everything
I love my Costa Rican family, and they have been instrumental in making life enjoyable in La Flor. Our kids and Johel are incredibly social, and I'm confident we could have moved pretty much anywhere and befriended almost anyone. But when it's family....that's different. The kids get more than their dose of hugs and love from aunties all over town. Our house is an endless stream of people....for art projects, English classes, sleepovers, spontaneous cooking projects, and dinners. Our next-door niece periodically comes over into the
evening when nothing's going on in her house and just hangs out. We drop off our kids when we need to run errands that would be much more enjoyable kid-free and vice versa with our nieces and nephews. They help us with house projects, accompany us on outings, motivate us to work out in the morning, teach us a thing or two, or chat with us through the window when we're both working on house projects next door to each other. Family is everywhere all the time. It's really, really wonderful, and I am so grateful for them.
Life requires a bit of spontaneity...
....and having people willing and able to be spontaneous with you. In the US, Johel and I were relatively spontaneous, in particular with trips we'd take, but we were confined to the dates we could take off of work or when the kids were out of school. We'd have to make sure to schedule get togethers with friends sometimes weeks out based on everyone's hectic schedules. I was a master planner and manipulator of time: getting Ollie to violin while Leo was napping in the car, then running five quick, from-the-car errands during the 30 minutes to be back in time to pick him up before running to the Y for the last half of an exercise class as part of my daily attempt to squeeze in physical fitness. There was never time for anything. Here in Costa Rica, my virtual work is confined to Tuesday - Thursday, purposefully and Johel is super flexible with what he's working on. We are always super busy, but most of that busy can be pushed to the side at a moments notice if we get a nice weather day, and we want to drop everything and go. Just a few weekends ago, a bunch of family members decided to head out at midnight to drive three hours and hike up the incredible "Cerro Pelado" (bald hill) to hike it at sunrise. Did we make it for sunrise? Of course not! (We would have had we been cued into knowing you needed to put "Cerro Pelado parking lot" into the GPS instead of straight up "Cerro Pelado", which takes you a solid 3-4 kilometers away at the true base of the mountain, far from where the hike to the summit is supposed to start. Oops! That mistake made for a long day....but it was worth it!)
Last week, my sister visited, and we scraped Monday school to do two simultaneous days of hikes through awesome forests, past lazy cows to breathtaking waterfall pools. This flexibility, ability and willingness to be able to ignore what's slated for the day as far as mundane tasks to set out on an adventure has been good for everyone's mental and physical health. Plus it's just crazy fun.
Everyone adjusts in different ways
Yori and Leo may as well have been born in La Flor. They love it here. They have endless freedom and a healthy amount of friends (Leo's are all ages 12 and up - we joke he's the La Flor Ambassador, greeting everyone who drives or walks by with a "Buenos Dias (insert name here)!" Just the other day, Leo set off after dark to go hang out on the porch with our 55+ year old neighbors. Yori's friends are about her age.) They are out of the house most of the day and arrive home usually dirty and barefoot, a good sign. I regularly get people dropping off Leo's socks to our house (usually in confusing sets of three....) as he heads in and out of people's homes, making himself comfortable. He has traditions with different people he visits: with 10 year old Bryan across the street, who comes with his dad who is managing a construction project for us, they battle with empty 2-liter bottles. He watches Paw Patrol with Doña Ana two houses down. Juan Manuel takes him on short motorcycle rides around town. He colors with Tia Mari. Yori, in contrast, is usually found hanging up some contraption from the bunkbeds with her cousins, building something crafty with legos or playing in someone's backyard chasing wild kittens, then explaining to us her strategy for how she'll take care of them (if we let her please keep them - just for a week - outside.)
Ollie's adjustment has been a little rougher around the edges. He's very witty, academic, and reads night and day. In a community where school is an afterthought and books are not something anyone owns, I think he sometimes struggles to find something to engage his brain as much as he's been used to for the last many years. He's the child that tells me more than anyone that he's bored. There are days when hanging out with friends in town just isn't that appealing. But this is an interesting case study, because I promised myself that "being bored" wouldn't be something that would concern me. I remember in the US thinking regularly about how little down time my kids had and how they always seemed taxed and with little time to just relax. And now that this boredom stares me in the face when Ollie is lounging on the sofa without anything to do, part of me is concerned (are his brain cells dying?!), angry (just go do something, will you?), and like I'm failing (what should I be doing to keep him busy during all his waking hours?). But when I step back, I remind myself that boredom isn't bad. It aligns perfectly, better yet, with my hope that the kids engage more of their creative side of the brain and find ways to engage themselves in something without always having someone jump start it for them. And as I look back on the last three months, in those heated moments when Ollie is "bored out of his skull" and I, as the impatient mom, rattle off 100 things he could do - none of which are appealing to him - and then conclude with "well then, I guess you can just sit there and be bored," those are the times when, after awhile, he begins to draw or create or invent some game that engages a bunch of his cousins running all around the house and squealing in delight. Yes, he's still a kid, something we take away with our over-scheduling in the states, and it's nice to see he is getting the chance to act like one here.
As for Johel and me, we're good. The periodic frustrations of living in a slower-moving country come and go (all banking transactions, for example, usually involve first waiting in a 30 minute line, which is why Johel does all our banking....). It took me a while to get over my feeling of being a housewife, given I was homeschooling, working on indoor house projects, frantically sweeping up after every snack and spill for fear of the colonies of ants who consistently moved in shortly after any crumb-no matter how small-fell from the table, and then teaching English from our house virtually. I felt like I was always "in the home". Yikes, no gracias. I'm practically embarrassed to admit I actually love hanging our laundry up to dry each morning for fear I'm turning into a "Costa Rican ama de casa," which is nothing at all bad, but just not what I moved down here to be. However, I'm figuring out how to get out enough between homeschooling and virtual work to feel like I'm not trapped indoors. Johel is loving chatting with family and neighbors while working outdoors in true Tico fashion (every "quick conversation" involves 20 minutes of small talk that makes the "inefficiency" alarm in my brain sound, but I'm working to get over it). We're doing well.
Homeschooling is HARD
A weird burden comes with being your children's teacher. It's one thing to have the parental burden of leading them down the right path and not saying "no" too much and helping them consistently maintain a "positive inner voice" (this last one I read on a bathroom wall in an elementary school once and have since felt eternally guilty every time I criticize my kids...). But it's quite another to feel like, in addition to just raising them right, you actually have to make sure they learn academic things that they'll need to move forward in life and not fall "behind" their peers (really, what does this even mean?). That pressure, combined with a personal distaste for heavy use of online learning apps and programs makes for a homeschooling adventure. There are days when I fail miserably. I'm angry, the kids are unproductive or uninspired or our curriculum is a bit loosey-goosey. Other days are diamonds, where they are excitedly writing and acting out their own French plays, enthusiastically inferencing about our latest read Circus Mirandus (if you have kids and haven't read it, you must!) or reporting on cockroaches and orb-weaver spiders, all while Leo is happily tracing or playing catch. Worksheets are boring, so in an attempt to make everything relevant, I'm writing my own math problems for them and designing research packets to match their presentation topics. It's a lot of work and it's a lot of dead ends, but we're plowing away and adapting as we go. I'm not gonna lie, it hasn't been my favorite part of living in Costa Rica, but we're figuring it out. Here, perspective is key: Johel regularly reminds me each time I feel like I'm failing our children that COVID is making learning tricky all over, and the cultural, language and outdoor exposure our kids are getting this year outweighs any virtual experience they would have hated right now back home in the states. I guess he's right.
I can cook almost anything if I can be flexible (and persistent)
Persistent as in I needed to find sesame oil one day. I needed Asian food and come hell or high water, I was going to get it (this was probably a moment of beans-and-rice madness early on in the transition to Costa Rica). After searching high and low (easily 10 different stores in 5 different cities), I found it. For the bargain price of $8 a bottle (the size that, in the states, would cost about $2!). But find it and use it we did to make a variety of Costa Rican adapted Chinese dumplings, fried rice and peanut pineapple chicken.
Flexible as in it's incredible what you can substitute in the recipes that are familiar to make something work. A pumpkin (squash) pie at Thanksgiving? Yum! Buffalo cheese in spaghetti in lieu of parmesan? Mmm. Guava jelly and cream cheese in place of Boursin cheese on toast. It works. An amazing meatball covered in mashed yucca and toasted (lovingly named "Dirty Balls" in a family meal brainstorming session inspired by the SNL "Shweaty Balls" skit that none of the kids have seen or understand but think is hilarious because every time Johel and I mention it, we can't stop laughing.....)? It was so good, Ollie requested it as his birthday meal. Homemade mayo I've finally perfected and am now able to modify depending on what we have available at the moment at home.... I've actually started to like cooking again for the most part now that I've gotten over not having access to every ingredient I was so used to in the states. (Although I'm not gonna lie, since being home, we've spent more money on groceries I'm taking back with us, including sushi rice and oyster sauce). This feeling of accomplishment comes even without really learning a whole lot of real Costa Rican dishes. My 2021 plan is to really learn to cook like a Tica.
To appreciate taking care of what we own...
This comes as both a need and a cultural habit (stemming from need). Here are a few examples: remember Leo's socks I mentioned earlier, strewn all over town? Well, he also does the same with shoes. My sister in law Alicia returned his hand-me-down crocs to me a few weeks ago practically glowing. They were scrubbed so clean I was both in awe and horribly embarrassed to learn they were actually blue - not the tan from the crusty mud that I recalled them being. Everyone's shoes here are spotless. Ours? Ha! I can't remember the last time I cleaned shoes. We even slop through mud in our rubber boots, then just remove them and let it dry, caked on. (I find it's much easier to just bang them together when it's dry to get the clumps off). But here, people scrub them. Tennies, boots, sandals, you name it. My initial question: why? My now more educated question, why not? You paid to buy them....why not work to maintain them?
And that's just shoes. At least weekly, everyone who owns a motorcycle (but us....) is out pressure washing or scrubbing with a toothbrush (no lie) their main mode of transportation. Cars? Cleaned regularly (and not through a gas station car wash). Front porches? Scrubbed practically daily. Mud-stained clothes? Hand-scrubbed in the pila til they are stained no more. Us? As an example, Yori (the dirtiest of our children) has clothes so filthy you'd think
she'd spent the day just rolling in the construction site across the street. Of course we throw everything in the washer, but it never gets 100% clean. And I don't really care. But I'm starting to feel like I should because it seems both ignorant and so American to treat our belongings with anything less than the attitude that they should last no less than their maximum life (as in, wearing at the seams or rusted through). Things here aren't viewed as disposable or replaceable. We should be taking the time to truly clean our stuff so it lasts as long as it can. How am I dealing with this? I actually put a calendar reminder on my phone to scrub clean our shoes weekly. I periodically remember to actually do it.
Our home is another example. We sweep the house like crazy people, motivated by the droves of ants that arrive de la nada to not only feast on whatever crumb you've overlooked, but also on the bare feet and ankles of any innocent passers-by who happen to cross their path (ie. me, the other day, opening the side door without noticing the line several meters long coming in from under the outside door straight for a crumble of what I'm pretty sure was a saltine under the sofa. I have yet to find the perpetrator, but they will pay for violating our "for the love of God, do not eat anywhere but the dining room table!" rule. It took me several days to get over the in-your-bones sting from these little critters.) But mopping thoroughly is something we are just too tired to do daily. But we pay for it (ah, tropical climates and wild insects), either in critters or shame at knowing we probably have the dirtiest house in La Flor.
We'll need to re-work our game plan in 2021
Given we'd planned to start this grand international life way back in September and actually wound up painting our final coat on the house at dusk 11 hours before we headed out for the holidays in the states, we are definitely in need of a new plan of attack when we head back in January. We're going to view this arrival as the one where our new international life officially starts - one with a completed house, homeschooling that will be a vast improvement from 2020, a whole bunch of new books, and for the kid, happy off reconnecting with their old hometown, US family, and some US friends. This next phase, I'm hoping, will look like this:
-More independence in homeschooling and learning with greater focus on arts, books and music (what we love!), physical productive work that we all benefit from (gardens! chicken coop!), and science thorough life experience.
-Living off of things we create (not entirely, of course, but much more true to our community) with crops and animals.
-Exploring farther outside of our region (more beach, please!) and prepping to do some major hikes like Chirripo (Costa Rica's highest point).
-Learning to take better pride in all we do (from making our beds properly each morning - seriously, if I can't get the kids to do this, how can I expect much more?- to caring for the plants we cultivate to maintaining well what we own....) Everything we do and have should have value, and I'm hoping we work harder to acknowledge this.
-Not forgetting why we are doing this in the first place. There was a reason we headed to this little town: to get away from the rat race of life, to grow a business in a truly unique place with wonderful people, to teach our kids in a different way than they have been used to, and to get out of our comfort zone quite a bit in both living and thinking.
We're making good progress toward these goals, but this fresh start, I'm hoping, will really move us forward. We'll see.
And lastly, when everything is hitting the fan, just head to the poza.
As with anything in life, there are days when everything just sucks. People are grumpy, it rains alllllll day when it was supposed to be an outdoor work day or everyone's fighting. School is unproductive, we find out we have to order - yet another - load of gravel just to finish some house project that should have been done three months ago, or we miss our appointment an hour away to apply for my residency by arriving one minute late (thanks 30 minute bank cue to pay the mandatory residency fee!). On days like these, we drop everything mid-day and head to the poza - projects be damned. Even an hour at our local swimming hole changes everyone's mindset 180 degrees, and the day usually ends on a much sweeter note. We remember that we're glad to be in Costa Rica, we still love each other for the most part (until Leo hits someone again...) and we are more or less grateful for the opportunity to be having this experience together.
Here's to an adventure-filled 2021!