• Sara B.

We survived quarantine.

Two days ago as of 1:17 p.m. (not that any of us were keeping that much track really...), our family became quarantine-free in Costa Rica.

While our quarantine was a bit looser than was probably required (it helps to live in the middle of nowhere in a relatively newly-established county where police aren't all over and nearly everyone is family), we were still confined to our little gravel street for 14 days. So when it ended, that meant that, for the first time in two weeks since setting foot in this country, we could leave the gravel-road we'd been confined to to do our own grocery shopping, buy some furniture and honest chairs (my seat at the "table" has been the 5-gallon paint pail the contractor left), drive a car (or at least have someone else drive us somewhere....anywhere), go swimming, run in the plaza, change some of our dollars into colones at a bank, and most importantly, begin to recreate what we had envisioned our first weeks of moving to this new country would look like. While the five of us had been counting down the days, hours and minutes, it was quite a bit more anti-climactic than I'd imagined, but come it did: we rallied the cousins and at precisely 1:30 - because now we operate on Tico-time and so I guess we'll be regularly late?-, we turned right onto the main gravel road and headed to......the next town over, a 15-minute walk for low-quality ice creams (and, for me, a chance to attempt my own grocery shopping at the small, local supermarket). Oh, well. It was something. Yay!

But what came before that 1:17 p.m. mark on September 17 and after 1:16 on September 3 when the immigration officer was carbon copying our quarantine into place? Here's a look back on our first two weeks:

Earl(ier) to bed and crazy early to rise

Costa Rica, given it's location, is consistently pitch black by about 6 p.m. every night. So much so that, by 7 p.m., you feel like it's 10 p.m. and are wondering why you are only now eating dinner and why you aren't showered and snuggled into bed. It's a very strange adjustment. We are learning this a bit the hard way, as on morning one, I awoke at 5:45 to two sounds:

  1. Oliver coming into the house after an early morning stroll looking for anyone on the street who was awake (as in, he was already up and dressed and ready for the day....). What? Go back to bed!

  2. A gazillion birds of all kinds singing wildly outside my window in our back yard (of this, I can not complain!)

We are all up significantly earlier here than in Madison: and not in a groggy, I'm too tired, alarm-clock-snooze-button-wake-up sort of way. Through our big windows pour lots of sunlight, lots of bird sounds, surprisingly NOT a lot of motorcycles (for this I am pays to be at the end of a dead-end street when you live in a town where everyone goes to work at dawn on motorcycles!), and some yippy, Chihuahua-weiner dog mutts sounding the alarm for who knows what. We wake up quite alert and ready to go. It's quite a welcome change from what we've been used to for the last many years. And I'm not going to helps that the window I roll over to each morning overlooks palms and plantains.

This early morning start combined with being in a house that is open (by design) all day long and spending 75% of our waking hours outside makes for a both physically (yay!) and mentally exhausted family come 7 p.m. A few nights ago, the kids were showered and in bed by 7:40 and no one argued. No one. It was a miracle, as we are usually a family of 9:30 - 10 p.m. bedtimes. The kids (and Johel) are generally sleeping within minutes of hitting the pillow. So, despite quarantine, my dream of our kids getting endless hours of outdoor, unstructured nature time to move and play started happening on day one.


Coming from a four-season climate where you are only subject to true, overbearing heat for a few weeks out of the year, La Flor is going to take some getting used to. We are presently in "winter": the rainy season. About 75% of our days thus far have involved major downpours and loud thunderstorms from about 3 - 6 or 7 p.m. It's glorious. It cools down everything (to the point of wanting a hoodie when I sleep) and sounds wonderful on the roof right as I'm trying to put Leo to bed for a mid-day nap. However, that fresh, cool air rapidly dissipates by no later than 6:30 a.m., and we all then start to sweat. Profusely. Poor Leo had a small rash on his nose after a few days from having perpetual sweat drops beading on it while he ate breakfast.

Our schedule is such that we tackle homeschooling with our kids first thing in the morning while everyone is fresh, concluding around noon. That means Johel and I start to tackle outdoor projects like machete-ing down all the 10-foot tall plants that have taken over our back property in the last year (him) or hauling it across the street to a burning pile (me) at about 1 p.m. Hmm. Two or three trips and I'm beat, feeling both mentally cloudy from dehydration and physically like a weak loser. I'm not going to lie, it's not my favorite weather. However, I will also admit that each day gets a bit easier. It's helps to know that at some point in the day, it's going to cool off to something comfortable. I also like to think that all the sweat is hopefully a reflection of the calories I'm burning, with any luck all that excessive amount of rice we've been consuming - fingers-crossed! And since the contractor hasn't yet hooked up our hot water (this is a problem), I always know I have a cold-water shower to "look forward to" each night before I put on my pjs.

Homeschool just might work but it'll be a major work in progress

Having your mom as a teacher is generally not fun (just ask Ollie). Plus, being the mom who has to educate three kids ages 3-6-9 simultaneously is also not always fun (just ask me). However, we've found a sweet spot that, early in the morning, is actually breezier than our house and has some squared off logs that serve as perfect benches. We pack up and stroll down there most mornings to begin our classes. I'm shooting for about 3 hours of day of work, which, when we stick in "breaks" to get Leo engaged with things like games or ball-throwing, plus breaks for the kids to pet the neighbor cows (lovingly named Bistek and Hamburgesa :) or get distracted by a gecko, we're honestly down to about 2.5 hours of decent learning. That, plus a healthy game of pick-up soccer daily at three with cousins in place of recess and instrument practice makes a decent school day, I think. Lack of internet has tossed some of my ideas out of the window, but we're making due pretty well.

What, I've decided and observed will be the key to our success are two things:

  1. Keeping learning real (which was always the plan, but there's always that little part of my brain that is having me second-guess my approach)....let's learn about what we are living: cultural observations and comparisons, how we're doing mentally, those crazy plants growing on some tree, the two wasp nests we came across in week one. The days I've tried to make things artificial and irrelevant to our current situation, it's like pulling teeth. The days we keep it real and relevant are great: dismantling paper wasp nests to learn how they are structured and made only to stumble across a layer that had baby wasps emerging from their eggs during our class? Amazing!

  2. Planning so that they have to help each other, and I only have to tend to one kid at a time. While this might seem quite obvious, in week one, I lumped "reading" for everyone together. My theory was that I'd get the older two going and then read to Leo on the side. But then Yori gets distracted by listening to me read. And Ollie finishes his chapter too quickly and then is sitting there wondering what to do next. And I get pissy because everyone seems to have too much downtime. Plus, why do I have to do everything? Yori can help Leo with a puzzle while Ollie and I review his writing. Ollie can toss the ball with Leo while Yori reads to me out loud. Little by little we're figuring it out.

"The customer is not always right" here and man, are things slow

We've run into multiple situations just in these two short weeks, primarily related to our house construction disaster, that are quickly making mainly me (Johel already gets it) understand that things are just harder to manage here. And some things are just a bit shadier. Contractors who don't show up even though they've gotten a portion of their fees up front, appliance warranties (on a brand-new, 14-day-old fridge that is crapping out) that don't get swift response (3-5 business days for a tech to come, are you kidding me?!), internet installation options that take weeks to track down and then can't be installed due to storms and then can't be rebooked for....more than a week?! A legitimate complaint we are filing regarding our architect with an official architectural organization that requires us to pay for a neutral professional to come review the project first to see if an investigation is even appropriate. A car that can't be driven til it gets some "revision tecnico" (annual technical review) that is only offered by a handful of authorized places not near our town. And the next review slot is 10 days from when we called (meaning no car for another two weeks after quarantine ends by the time we get the revision and then file the paperwork?!) And we have to take the car to the appointment on a tow truck since it doesn't yet have license plates? (We learned the way around this little detail is scheduling a crazy-early appointment so you head out in the early morning before traffic police are monitoring the roads...) C'mon!

I'm quickly (and stubbornly) learning that in some situations, us, the customers, have little to no recourse in what seems like a black-and-white case of foul play or unethical behavior. It's driving me a bit wild, and I wreck my brain many days trying to think of how to find my way to that "supervisor" who is going to get us what we need cause the customer is always right. Right? Not so much. This part, thus far, has been maddening, but I'm sure it's all part of the moving-abroad package. I will have to learn how to play the Tico game here if we hope to get anything done efficiently or without losing out too much. As my brother-in-law told us yesterday: "if you plan to live here, you better arm yourself with a whole lot of patience." Oh, boy.

The food-is-so-hot

Not spicy hot; temperature hot. I like the food in Costa Rica quite a bit, although I don't think it is necessarily anything to write home about. I'm realizing I like it even more when I don't need to cook it myself. For the first time in my life, something is happening that I always (kind of) dreamed would happen: my fridge is almost condiment, dairy, and grain-less and instead it's full of veggies, fruits, and meat. Some mayo. Some yogurt and milk. Some weird Costa Rican cheese block most of us don't like and doesn't melt (so really, what are we supposed to do with it?) But that's about it. What do I do with this stuff? How do I turn it into a meal?

One thing to note about at least the Costa Ricans I've known is that most of their meals are hot. Even when it's 100 degrees at noon with 100% humidity: they are cooking some veggie and meat picadillo or warm rice and atun or something else that not only involves too much heat when cooking at that time of day but is also far too warm to eat. At noon, all I'm really craving a cold sandwich, salt & vinegar potato chips and a pickle or something refreshing like that. No soup for me, thanks.

I've struggled a bit with figuring out what to cook here. I couldn't bring myself to do the customary Rice + Beans + Something Else that makes up most meals here, in particular at noon. Plus I wasn't yet familiar with my grocery options and was at the mercy of combining what was left on my doorstep with some basics I knew could be found anywhere (tuna, mayo, lettuce, onions, noodles) to produce meals for the last few weeks. This led me to ask the kids to interview weekly a different aunt to collect some new ideas for favorite recipes (and learn how to cook them themselves). I've also had to (embarrassingly early in the trip) tap into my reserves from the states: Thai curry paste and Mac n cheese with "Hello Panda" for dessert. Thank goodness I had these babies, because otherwise, there would have definitely been a few days of straight up plantains.

This, plus investment in some major heads of lettuce for (cold) tuna salad wraps for many lunches has gotten us through these first two weeks. I'm more than eager to have access to a big grocery store to see what other Tico options might exist for cool midday meals and non-rice/beans-based menus. I want access to a grocery store almost more than I want a sofa in our living room....

Thank God for Tico family and wonderful neighbors

I know many of my family members in the US would have helped in any way they could have had we been transitioning into that country, but here the help we've gotten these first two weeks is such an incredible reflection of what anyone who visits Costa Rica always observes: people here are just nice. For the first week, family and neighbors would just randomly drop fruit on our corredor (front porch): mamones chinos (rambutans), pineapples, plantains, and bananas became a part of every meal during week one.

For this, I was majorly grateful. After about 36 hours of people only hanging out in the corredor for mild concerns of COVID, our kids were heading over to their cousins' houses and playing pick up soccer daily before it rained next door. Each of them has found a cousin that suites them well and in this itty-bitty town where almost everyone on the street is family, even little Leo can pull on his own rubber boots and head down on his own to see "his amigo" (which is actually his 7 year old female cousin). They play for hours, house-hopping depending on what they feel like doing. It's awesome, and helpful for us to know our kids can run over to someone else's house (or have their kids come here) without having to schedule a playdate in order to get some things done. Our neighbor Ana has let Yori stop by daily and interrupt whatever she's doing to play with her pet bird. Another family member lets us chop down some pipas (green coconuts) for coconut water, and one of my sister-in-laws was willing to give Ollie sewing lessons the other day to tackle some shorts I never had the time (or skill) to show him how to make. (I have neither.) Johel's sisters ran errands for us almost daily as we tried to figure out what in the hell to cook (rice and beans? beans and rice? beans and eggs? The choices are endless!) and what tools we needed to assemble some sort of table from wood in the backyard. I feel like all I heard Johel say into his phone over those first two weeks were "Hola negra, como esta? Negra, por chance va a Pital hoy? Me puede hacer un grandisimo favor?...." (Hi negra, how are you. Are you by chance going to Pital (a nearby city) today? Could you do me a huge favor...). And they were always willing.

We have a lot of learning to do

This is a good thing. I'm excited about it. I'm excited for all of us. In the last two weeks alone, the kids and I have studied some locale-prompted topics during homeschooling (epiphytes, the anatomy of a flower, different kinds of paper wasps, how to make guava honey from scratch, Costa Rican independence day) and begun to transition surprisingly easily into all-day Spanish conversation (I heard Ollie today tell a story to his cousin using a few new words I can't recall him ever using before - woohoo!). Just last weekend, Leo woke us up at 6 a.m. as he squealed out the window: "Estan matando las gallinas!" (they're killing - as in purposefully slaughtering - the chickens!).

Johel's sister and brother-in-law next door were slaughtering their 6 meat chickens bright and early on Sunday morning 20 feet outside our bedroom window. Leo threw on his rubber boots and ran out in his undies to watch the whole process. Now this didn't happen in Madison! We're observing how people live life here (in particular in this small town) and figuring out how we can feel "whole" while living in somewhere so different from what we're used to on so many levels (I'm not gonna least three of us have had "we miss Madison" moments for various reasons, but it has yet come to sobs or slumps or something dramatic. For this I am grateful!). We're (kinda) getting a routine and learning how we need to operate to make this feel like "life" and not a vacation. (This is taking a bit of work, but it's coming slowly but surely). We're learning what it's like to not have access to a car (since ours hasn't yet been registered thanks to quarantine), many toys, good internet, hot water, a dishwasher, a TV, and instead a whole lot of open space and fresh air.

We've observed a mom and baby basilisk who live in our backyard, howler monkeys, toucans, chachalacas, oropendolas, geckos, poison dart frogs, morpho butterflies, freaky spiders, a bat who actually made it's way into the kids bedroom on night two, leaf-cutter ants, pisotes, and more, all in two weeks from this little street in this little town. This learning is going to keep us busy and that is a good thing.

So, here we are, a two days out of quarantine, and ready to really start our adventure abroad (just as soon as they install the internet and we get our car registered and finish the house construction and ....) :)

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