In lieu of an actual post about Costa Rica, I am posting a review I wrote for Trip Advisor for the place we stayed. In CR, we did the usual touristy stuff. You know...zip lining, horseback riding, holding 17 ft long snakes, chasing rats. That sort of stuff.
So here is my review of our hotel in Costa Rica, Toad Hall.
"It's never the wrong time to call on Toad. Early or late he's always the same fellow. Always good-tempered, always glad to see you, always sorry when you go!"
- Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows
At 3:00 a.m. on June 28, 2012, I sent an e-mail from our rental home in Nicaragua to Lydia at Toad Hall. "I'm hot, tired, there are bugs everywhere and my wife stepped on a bat (the fuzzy, flying mammal kind...not the Louisville Slugger kind). How much would you charge if we showed up at your place 5 days early????" I hit "SEND" and went to sleep. At 7:00 a.m. that morning, I had a reply, "Come on down early. We'll be glad to have you. We have glorious air-conditioning!"
Right then, I learned two things. One, I should never write e-mails in the middle of the night when I'm exhausted, hot, frustrated and slightly tipsy. Second, I learned that Toad Hall is where I really wanted to be!
I spent months researching and making plans for our monthlong trip to Nicaragua and Costa Rica. My wife and two young children, 6 & 8, were very excited about our pending trip and VERY excited about staying at Toad Hall. The pictures and descriptions were terrific. I purposely planned it for the last week of our journey because I knew we would want a nice, clean place to relax after spending 3 weeks in Nicaragua. Plus, anything with the word "Toad" in the title sends my kids into apoplexy because they think frogs are the greatest things since sliced bread. Which, when you think about it, is kind of a silly expression since practically no one can remember when bread was NOT sliced.
My wife convinced me to stick it out in our hot, bug-filled house on the beach in Nicaragua and it ended up being OK...green pool notwithstanding. So, I told Lydia we'd arrive at Toad Hall on July 5, 2012 as scheduled and we did so as planned.
Our drive from Nicaragua to Arenal was beautiful. Toad Hall is not exactly in Arenal, it appears to be in a place called La Union...at least that's what my iPad locator kept telling me. Who cares. Find it and go there.
Lydia met us at the front door with warm welcome, as if I were a long lost relative. Of course, after the late-night e-mail, she was probably concerned I was a little crazy so maybe she was trying to be nice in case I was an ax murderer or something. Or worse, French. Shortly thereafter, we met her husband, Jeff. If you were to go to central casting at a movie studio and tell them you needed a Southern, Marlboro Man looking smooth-talker, they would send you Jeff.
From the time we arrived, we loved the place. I won't bore with details about the beautiful, well-maintained rooms or the groomed grounds because the pictures tell that story. I'll sum up my take on the place like this...I have never stayed in a place so reasonably priced where the owners put so much thought, effort and time into every detail. Even the toilet paper rolls in the bathrooms were cool. Seriously.
We had an amazing week. Typical Costa Rica stuff...zip-lining, horseback riding, volcano trek, etc. Blah, blah, blah. Let's get back to Toad Hall.
The place runs like a well-oiled machine. And even if it doesn't, the amazing staff makes it seem so. Jeff and Lydia worked constantly while we were there, making sure that meals were perfect, rooms were clean, lawns were maintained. I've never seen a staff work so hard, but seem so family-like. Jeff and Lydia are not taking advantage of cheap Costa Rican labor and sitting around on their butts doing nothing. Everyone works and everyone has fun. Hell, while we were there, Jeff even put a lame horse to work, dressing him up in a sombrero and hooking his ass up to a beautiful hand-painted cart in the front yard so people can stop and have their picture taken with him! No one on Jeff and Lydia's staff gets away without pulling their weight!
If you want to make a positive impact on my wife, Polly, and I, be nice to our kids. Jeff and Lydia treated my son, Grady and daughter, Annie, as if they had known them all their lives. True story...one afternoon, Jeff told Annie and Grady to make me and Polly stay in our room and then come down to the kitchen. The kids eagerly awaited 6 p.m. and then ran downstairs to the beautiful outside cocina. About 20 minutes later, I snuck down to check things out (OK, I really went down to get a beer...) and Jeff had them in the kitchen, making grilled cheese for themselves and dinner for us. Jeff had them actually working in the kitchen and they were having a blast. Jeff and Annie told me to go away. Shortly thereafter, they brought dinner up for us and we sat on the balcony and ate, overlooking the beautiful Lake Arenal. HUGE points on the scoreboard for Jeff and Lydia.
Jeff found out how much the kids like bugs, frogs and other creepy crawlers. On 2 different mornings, we came outside our rooms only to find containers on the balcony supposedly containing some kind of large insect. Of course, Jeff struggled with figuring out how to actually keep the bugs INSIDE the containers, because they got out both times! But how many places have you stayed where the hosts take the time to catch bugs for your kids?
The food was wonderful. On the first night there, Jeff asked "What do you want for dinner?" I asked him what they were having. He replied, "You didn't hear me. I asked 'What do you want for dinner?'" He and Lydia and their chefs went out of their way to make what we wanted and when we wanted it. It's a small hotel, so you need to be considerate of their time, but whenever we asked, they seemed to accommodate our every wish.
They have a small farm down the road where they raise chickens, goats, pigs, etc. On our second day there, in the rain, Jeff took all of us down to the farm and showed us around. In the middle of all the work that is always going on, he took the time to again entertain my kids, thus scoring even more points on the scoreboard for Toad Hall.
Jeff and Lydia even planned a special dinner for the four of us one night while the kids stayed in the room and watched TV...or lit things on fire in the sink, I'm not sure which. Anyway, for a couple hours, Jeff and Lydia regaled us tales of their life adventures. I won't go into details, but suffice to say, I am boring and have apparently done nothing interesting in my life. And if you think you've done a lot of cool things in YOUR life, sit down with Lydia and Jeff over a beer during your visit and ask them this, "So, how did you two meet and what have you been doing the past 15 years?" Then, sit back and enjoy the show!
I "retired" (my wife says I'm a slacker and quit) from business 4 years ago to become a teacher so I could travel with my family. My wife teaches also, so we have summers off. We like to travel to interesting places and meet interesting people. Our week at Toad Hall has been a Top 3 stop along the path of our journey. Perfect for young kids, older kids, teens, couples, honeymooners, and anyone else who wants to visit a place where people treat you like family and you never want to leave.
So, Jeff and Lydia, this is our late thanks for a great week in July. We'd love to come back some time, with or without the kids, so make sure you don't do something nutty like run off to Kenya and open a yurt motel or some sort of weird treehouse hotel. But if you do, let us know when you open so we can be your first guests! And when we come, we will bring our own container for catching bugs and we will make dinner for y'all!
Adios....Thomas, Polly, Grady and Annie!
"Makin' a Run for the Border!"
Wow. Just, wow.
We arranged with the property manager at our beach house for him to have a taxi pick us up at 7:30 as we had to meet another driver in town who would take us the 5 hours to Costa Rica and help us cross the border. Yeah, well at 7:45 a.m., there was no taxi so we had to arrange another driver.
Remember me mentioning earlier how our "nice" property manager, Harry, gave me a cell phone I could use in case I needed it? Well, this seemed to be one of those times. It didn't work. I had found this out earlier when I tried to call and say the power was out and how about someone firin' up that generator I saw advertised on the website for the house. Yeah, well that didn't work out. Later, I found out the generator had hardly any gas in it and we only got to use it for 45 minutes anyway. Putz.
Anyhow, the housekeeper, Giselle, was able to line up transportation for us. I e-mailed Harry and told him to forget it. He replied later, "Oh, my guy got a flat tire! You just missed him." Even in broken English, Harry lied very well.
No sweat. We made our connection to the vehicle that would take us to Costa Rica and we were off... for approximately 30 minutes until we arrived at the border crossing between Nicaragua and Costa Rica where we came to a screeching (literally) stop. It was as if a Star Trekkian force-field had been drawn between the two countries. Trucks and busses were backed up for MILES in either direction. Fortunately, our driver had no intention of waiting in the really long line and proceeded to pull into the wrong lane and zip to the front. We were through!!!
Wrong. We had merely arrived VERY rapidly to a place where we would now have to proceed VERY slowly. Thank goodness, our driver knew the border crossing routine and took care of us. I would have had no idea where to go. There were several people to pay, talk to, give your passport to, sign forms for and generally just stand in line, often for the privilege of being told to stand in another line.
It was kind of entertaining seeing how things worked. Many people had to dump everything from their luggage onto big tables where it was searched by some people who could have been homeless beggars for all they knew. Meanwhile, enterprising vendors selling everything from cell phone cases to chickens had set up tables directly behind the inspection tables so, if you were so inclined, you could buy a chicken AND a cell phone case! How's THAT for service!
We hopped in the van off we went...100 yds to the next stop. We had to get out and have someone ELSE stamp our passports. By this time, I didn't know if I was in Nicaragua or Costa Rica. That's not true. I actually suspected we were now in Costa Rica because instead of the machetes the Nicaraguan border guards carried, the Costa Rican guards carried machine guns! Hmmm...I think the Costa Ricans want to keep the Nicaraguans out more than the Nicaraguans want to keep out the Costa Ricans.
Side Bar: The idea of closing borders to neighboring countries and illegal immigrants is NOT unique to the United States. Based on our conversations with some Costa Ricans during our trip, they do NOT like Nicaraguans and definitely do not like Nicaraguans coming into the country and staying. Just like in our country, the story is that most come for jobs. But also like in our country, many of the illegals coming to Costa Rica from Nicaragua bring gang activity and violence. We were stopped a couple times by Costa Rican police while we were driving or being driven and they really checked out our Nicaraguan driver. Later, we were passed through a checkpoint while a bus with Nicaraguan plates was being searched. I'm not offering an opinion one way or another, but keep in mind that the immigration issue is not unique to the United States and biases, stereotypes, etc. are global.
And now we're in Costa Rica and all is good. No...all is GREAT! There's a McDonald's up ahead in the town of Liberia! The kids are ecstatic...and so is dad. American grease for the first time in 21 days!
Driving through Costa Rica and eating at McDonald's, the socio-economic differences between the two countries was quite apparent. Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the western hemisphere (behind Haiti) and Costa Rica is considered a "wealthy" country comparitively. I asked Grady if he noticed any differences between the countries and he said "Nicaragua looks poorer." He said the roads are better in CR. The buildings look nicer. The people in McDonald's dressed better. I wasn't quite able to explain to him why this was. I had explained to him about the long-running civil war and the way it damaged Nicaragua. It'll be interesting to see if Nicaragua ever climbs out of its hole...that in some ways, the U.S. helped dig.
Anyway, we finally made it to Toad Hall, our little hotel near Arenal, Costa Rica. Oh my goodness! We were in heaven!
...to be continued!
Playa Marsella, Nicargua, Part 2: "I Come from the Land Down Under"
Well, I don't come from the land down under. The closest I've come is Men at Work, The Croc Hunter and Mad Max (...just the first one. When they brought in Tina Turner, it was WAY past over!).
But our neighbors at the beach were transplanted Australians. And not just any Australians, CRAZY Australians (redundant?) living in a "Robinson Crusoe" kinda house with a thatched roof and no walls. Now, this is a BIG Robinson Crusoe house with a BIG thatched roof, but it is still an outdoor livin' kinda house nonetheless.
Our neighbors for the week were Charlie and Paul (husband and wife), Karl and Alex, their sons and Maddy, their 5-yr old daughter who we took to calling "Bindi" (Steve Irwin's daughter). They've been living full-time here at the beach for a couple years. The boys are aged 10 and 14 and have long hair like Grady. He thought that was pretty cool. The boys and Maddy run all over the beach and the little village like they own the joint.
A little about Playa Marsella (Mar-say-uh). Well, that's about it. Seriously. There are about 27 people who live in the village. There are a couple hotels and a couple little bars. It's a stopping point at the crossroads leading to a village called Playa Madera, one of the best-known surfing beaches in Costa Rica. We walked there a couple times. Nice waves!
Anyway, it's a small place and the best part of our location was the little bar about 100 yds from us that served THE best fish fingers and some sort of magic sauce (1000 Island?) ever! We ate there several times and probably paid the mortgage for the month!
Oh, and the crocodile lake. Seriously. About 70 yds from us is a river that shuts down during the dry season. It recedes and backs up until the rainy season at which time, it starts pouring all the way to the ocean. In the meantime, there are a few crocodiles that call the pond home.
"Oh, yeah," said Karl, the Australian. "At night, they sometimes crawl across the beach and hunt in the ocean. " And THAT pretty much did it for ANY chance I had of getting Annie back into the ocean. We actually shined a big spotlight on it one night and I'll be damned if there weren't 2 red eyes staring back at us from the river! And that pretty much did it for ME walking anywhere NEAR the river!
The Australians don't really work. They're living on whatever money they have from selling some business or another back home and then living cheaply on the beach. They don't have a car...just hitch hike. A truck brings around food every few days and they just buy from the guy on the truck. They have Internet which helps with the kids' homeschooling...which I think is often overlooked in favor of "real-world" lessons like chasing dogs on the beach, making fires at night, surfing, blowing things up with gasoline, hammock-napping and other assorted beach-type lessons.
Oh, and you may not believe this, but Charlie and Paul drink beer. Not any amount of beer. But beer in quantities that would leave my neighbor Dustin saying, "Dammmmnnnn."
One day, I popped over to the bar at 11:45 a.m.
to have lunch and read my book. Paul pops up and introduces himself about 15 minutes later. By then, he was already a bit loopy. I order the aforementioned delicious fish fingers while Paul ordered his first beer. About an hour later, Charlie showed up and SHE started having beers. Then they bought a bottle of rum and some cokes.
Six hours later, I ordered the SAME fish fingers for DINNER and there we sat. Polly had joined us sometime during the EXTENDED conversation. At 7:00 p.m.
, I was done. I had only had 3-4 beers and then LOTS of water. Polly and I went up to pay our tab and saw how many beers the Aussies had ordered during that time. Take a guess? 27! How much food during that time? None. Zero. Nada. I'm guessing he had the option of doing 3 things while we were there...drinking, talking and/or eating. Eating apparently would interfere with the other 2, so he went without eating. Silly Australian!
We've decided we're pretty much done with the beach as a vacation option. The older I get, the less I like sand where sand shouldn't be. Annie doesn't really like the beach. Grady got tired of it after a few days. Polly's skin is basically rice paper and burns if I buy 100 watt light bulbs, so she's not a beach person either. So, in the future, it will probably be lakes or rivers when we want water.
I've also found the older I get, the more I imagine every possible danger that we could encounter based on our choice of vacation locales:
Beach - Sharks, stingrays, jellyfish, rock fish, Europeans men in Speedos.
River - Alligators, snakes, snapping turtles
Lake - Alligators, snakes, drunken rednecks on Sea-Doos
Foreign Countries - Diarrhea, crazy kidnappers, crazy drivers, Frenchmen
National Parks - Bears, hungry bears, REALLY hungry bears
Disney World - High prices, dark socks and sandals, long lines, Frenchmen
See a trend? There's really nowhere we can go anymore where I have no fears, either real or perceived, that will not keep me up at night worrying.
So, while the beach trip was pretty good, we definitely could have gone somewhere else we might have enjoyed more. We have the beach out of our system and are eagerly awaiting Costa Rica. I think the place will be beautiful and they'll take good care of us. And no bears. Definitely no bears!
Adios from Playa Marsella!
7 Days of Playa Marsella in Two Posts! Part I July 8, 2012
I'm going to combine an entire week of our stay at the beach in Playa Marsella, Nicaragua into 2 posts. There are a few reasons for this. 1) I'm WAY behind on posts and 2) We didn't really do much at the beach, intending the week to be a relaxing, non-active week on our butts (mission accomplished).
So, why am I behind on my blog? I had a leisurely week at the beach during which time I could have written like mad. Well, I was lazy. Nothing creative. No adventures to keep me too busy to write. Just laziness. Every time I'd think to write, I'd pull up Facebook or the Internet instead. Or read. And since we were so lazy, there were really no good adventures to write about.
BUT...there's always something nutty in our world, so there were some things I think I can creatively described that happened during the week!
We arrived Playa Marsella on the southwest coast of Nicaragua after a 1.25 hour cab ride from Granada. The property manager for the house we were to rent met us and drove us the 20 minutes out to the beach where the property actually is. And what was the first thing I noticed:
`What the heck? Did I miss something when searching for places on the Internet? Did I have the color incorrectly adjusted on my monitor? I mean, the pools LOOKED freakin' blue on the websites! But so far, we were 2 for 2 on green pools that should be blue.
An inauspicious start, to say the least.
I also noticed no air conditioning. OK...that one's on me. But the error of my ways was not yet apparent. "Oh, we'll have gentle Pacific breezes! We won't NEED air-conditioning." Hmpf. Famous last word!
(Disclaimer: As I write this, I KNOW it's 165 degrees back in the States, but I'm still going to whine about my situation!)
Anyway, no A/C, green pool. What next?
So "Harry" kinda shows us around and leaves me with a cell phone I can use to reach him if needed. Cool. Then he goes outside to talk to Giselle, the property caretaker, about something. Ten minutes later, I hear gravel crunching and he's off.
No information. No nothing. "Where's a store? How often does Giselle clean? Where's the trash can? WHY IS THE STINKIN' POOL GREEN AND WHEN WILL IT BE BLUE?" Ya know...questions like that. Oh, and when I said "Hola" to Giselle, she just grunted. Great...she hates Gringos.
Luckily, we had brought along some food, so for dinner we had peanut butter and jelly and boiled noodles. Yum. This was NOT going to work.
The kids were excited about the beach and their first look at the Pacific. Well, Grady was. Annie is kinda like Polly and not a big fan of the ocean. You can't see the bottom and everything in it wants to bite, sting, poke, poison, scrape, pinch or eat you. Or all of the above. Fair enough...there is some truth to that. But Grady and I like catching the crabs on the beach and jumping in the waves, so we were good to go.
As it got later, it was time to settle in for the night. Hot, humid, no A/C, no washer and dryer, no food, no beer. Things were not starting off well. Sure, I'm whining, but by gosh, I wanted comfort and I WASN'T GETTING IT!
So, we finally got a shower and got in bed. Hot and humid. Toss and turn. Gripe and whine. Both kids wake up sweating which means they wake me up. Polly gets up and goes and sleeps in the other room.
Dogs barking, blinds banging into windows, lizards croaking (and those were the ones IN the house!) and visions of machete-wielding banditos attacking the house, kidnapping the kids, and demanding my iPad in return had me TERRIFIED. I mean, I LOVE my iPad! What?3:30 a.m.
: We DO have Internet which gives me an idea. Onto Delta.com
to see what it would cost to move up our departure date. An e-mail to our next destination in Costa Rica to see what they charge if we came 5 days earlier. I had a plan and by gosh, we were LEAVING, I didn't care WHAT it cost!!
I finally fell asleep at about 4:00 a.m.
, just hoping that if banditos DID steal the children, they would be quiet about it and perhaps clean the pool on their way out.
I don't remember what time I woke up, but I hurried to check my e-mail. No, I can't change my Delta airline tickets, but yes, we could get into our next place early if we wanted. Hmmmmm....I wonder what the Finance Nazi would think.
"No. Suck it up, you sniveling whiner. The kids are fine. I'm fine. You'll be fine."
That went well.
So, long story short, we adjusted. We figured out how to open the windows to cool off at night. We jacked up the ceiling fans. We found "The Discovery Channel" in English. And we played on the beach. I lived.
End of Part 1: Part 2: "I Come from the Land Down Under!"
Day 10 or 11...Maybe Even 12?
Back in Granada after our Ometepe Island adventure, it was funny how we had taken to referring to Granada as "home." We had gotten comfortable there and had adjusted to our new "nature friends."
For the bats, just make sure you close the door to the big front living room so they don't get in there and poop on the pool table. For the sugar ants, you just hide every bit of food in the kitchen in Tupperware (Krista, you need more Tupperware!). For the lizards, you just sick Annie and Grady on them. For the little bedbugs, well, there you're just kinda screwed. Try to sleep with your mouth closed.
We took a horse-drawn carriage tour of the city of Granada while Rodolfo told us some of the history of the city. I condensed it into a Haiku:
A city born of
You're welcome. I saved you hours of reading!
Much of the rest of our time in Granada was spent working at the school (Polly did that the most), Scott finishing language school and me writing and do Master's work.
Yep, I'm actually working on my Master's while I'm here. I was able to do most of my work before we left, packing in 5 weeks of research and writing into 1.5 weeks, but I have to do some things here. I'm working on my Master's in Educational Administration, so I can move from corrupting only 125 minds full of mush each year to corrupting the teachers who will all corrupt 125 minds full of mush each year, thus expanding my influence exponentially!
Actually, I'll make about $27 more each year for having the Master's, so what the heck!
A bit about prices in Nicaragua. Things are cheap. That was one of the reasons why we chose to come here. But we have mixed emotions about this. Sometimes we feel uncomfortable with how cheap things are. It's like we are taking advantage of the plight of a developing country. Nicaragua is NOT a 3rd-world country. If you want 3rd-word, think Somalia, North Korea, The Sudan, Detroit.
Much of Nicaragua has stable electricity, reliable water and is fairly safe. These are just a few of the things that separate Nicaragua from 3rd-world countries as we describe them in the U.S.
Anyway, back to prices and guilt about same. We just had to come to the realization that it is a mutually beneficial relationship we have with the folks we buy from or receive services from. But that's hard to accept because we seem to be getting more out of the relationship than the locals sometimes.
The most glaring of this involves the housekeepers we have had. At the house in Granada, a very nice lady named Carmen cleaned the house 3 days a week, and it's a pretty good sized house. Plus, it offers challenges like indoor and outdoor sweeping, plants everywhere, aforementioned bat droppings, bugs, etc. No vacuum cleaners, no "Swiffer" mops, and about 1500 sf of tile floor to mop.
Before we came down, Krista, the lady who rented us her home, assured us that Carmen is paid above-average wages. I asked her to give me an idea about how much I should tip her for the 2 weeks of work. She said if I gave her $5, she would be very happy.
$5. For two weeks. Really?
Couldn't do it. Gave her $20 and if I screwed up the tipping balance for the next renter, I'm sorry.
So, here is an idea of some of the prices we have paid for things to give you an idea:
-Cab ride for 4 anywhere in town: $1.85
-Single beer pretty much anywhere: $1
-3 of the best pizzas ever (a topic for later) and 4-5 beers: $25
-Hari's Horses: (lodging, 2 hours riding for 5, dinner, breakfast) $155
-Dinner on the street at a vendor: $2
-2 hours of ziplining for 5 and transportation to and from: $100
-Head-shaving and a real shave with a straight-razor!: $4
-Grocery store prices for stuff we're used to is similar to U.S. prices.
In other words, you can travel Nicaragua cheaply. Transportation has been our greatest expense, but even that could have been much cheaper had we been willing to "rough it" more. They have things called "chicken busses" that are very cheap, but they take a long time to go places because they stop all the time to pick up and drop off people. With 2 kids and luggage, it's not the best option. We had drivers in cabs or vans arranged and this is where, after airfare, we spent most of our money.
Costa Rica is next and all bets are off when it comes to lower prices! It's the most expensive country in Central America.
Part 3: Day ?: Trip to Ometepe Island - Horse Trip
We walked back to Hari's, the kids soaked to the skin and the adults full and satisfied, and prepared for the horse trip. In hindsight, I wish I had prepared by stuffing a pillow down my pants (the back, not the front!). It would have made for a more comfy ride.
Warning: When the website says wear long pants, wear long pants. I thought my little 3/4 length shorts/pants things would suffice. Not so much. The bottom part of the saddle (for which I'm sure there is a more official name other than "the bottom part of the saddle) rubbed the hair off the inside of my calves while the jungle we rode through part of the way scratched the crud out of the outside of my legs. Lesson learn. (Oh...NEVER ride a mechanical bull at Gilley's in Vegas with shorts either. Holy cow, that chafes!)
It was time to ride and Hari gave us the waivers we had to sign and then did his 30-minute safety briefing. ....Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Have you NOT been paying attention?? We're in Nicaragua, not Washington, IL. They don't give a crud here if you do stupid stuff and kill yourself. THEY understand true freedom!
"Have any of you ever ridden a horse," Hari asked.
"Do you mean OTHER than Cinderella's horse on the big carousel at Disney World?" I replied.
"Really? It's gonna be like this?" Hari asked.
"Tell him to shut his pie hole," directed Polly, used to such asinine demonstrations on my part.
Anyway, Hari and his helpers got us all on our horses. Annie was both terrified and ecstatic at the same time. Her horse's name was Poco. I kept a close eye on her because, although I do want her to become stronger and more independent, there was SOME concern that she was sitting on 1500 lbs of horse and before that, the only horse she had ridden was the poor little pony chained to a big wagon-wheel looking thing at Tanner's Apple Orchard back home.
I gave ol' Poco the evil eye, warning him not to hurt my little girl. "I got 4 words for you, Poco...la fabrica de pegamento!" Even with my bad Spanish, HE knew what I was talking about and we had no problems that day!
Hari gave us our 2-minute riding lesson. "Pull right to go right. Pull left to go left. Pull back to stop. Don't fall off. Let's go." Perfect.
And off we went.
Horses are peculiar animals, set in their ways. My horse liked to be first, which was good because then Hari could ride back and forth and check on everyone. I was actually doing pretty well, chafed legs and sore butt and all. Grady's horse liked to follow my horse and if I got too far ahead or out of sight, his horse would haul butt to catch up. Grady loved that!
Oh, my horse was named "Tequila." But I forgot and kept calling him "Margarita." Or "Lime." Now I don't remember at all.
We rode for about 2 hours. It was beautiful. We rode around the base of the Madera volcano and looked out over Lake Nicaragua. We rode through coffee plantations and rice fields. Banana plantations and grazing fields. We ended our ride through about 500 meters of jungle on a small trail. (Did I just say "meters?" What the heck. It was about 375 yards. Sorry.)
We all became more and more comfortable, but it was pretty tough riding. Most of the trails were covered with rocks from the many eruptions of the volcano. The horse took it well and worked hard to get us around safely. I felt kinda bad for them, but then thought, "Hey...evolve better next time and you'll get to do the riding!"
Our trip was about 2 hours and that was enough. Hari does much longer trips and will even do overnighters if you want. I think 2 hours was enough for everyone's first trip and we got some great pictures.
When we returned, we all got off and waddled back to the dining room and placed our dinner orders. Veggie pasta for Scott and Polly and add chicken for me! The kids played with the cutest little chihuahua newborn puppies while I shooed away the weirdest looking hairless Peruvian dogs. Yuck. They looked like sick little pigs, all rubbery and gross. But the parrots were fun. They squawked and played and entertained.
That night, we finally got clean and turned the ceiling fan up to 11 and crawled under the mosquito nets. If you lay perfectly still under the net and let the fan blow full blast, you could cool the room down to a chilly 85.
The next day brought homemade yogurt and honey, fresh watermelon, local coffee and bugs. That goes without saying. The kids were hesitant to leave because they loved the puppies and parrots and freedom in the jungle. As much as I enjoyed the visit, there was a pool and air-conditioning awaiting my arrival in Granada.
It was a terrific day.
Part 2: Day ?: Trip to Ometepe Island June 23, 2012
The walk to the ranch was actually on a better road than the Road from Hell and it was quite pleasant as it was shaded by jungle stuff. We saw a couple random horse, pigs, goats and parrots. Like a free-range zoo.
We arrived at Hari's and it was a beautiful little oasis at the base of the Maderas volcano. Surrounded by coffee fields, rice fields and every insect scientists have thought extinct, it was exactly what I was hoping for when I booked the night. We wanted to get away from the "city" and ride horses in the jungle. Annie was so excited about riding the horses I thought she would pop! And I was more excited than she was to watch her ride.
A little bit about Hari and his wife. He's in his mid-late 50's and he's the prototypical "escape the rat-race to live naturally in the jungle" kind of guy. He's German, his wife is Italian. He left home at 17 to study yoga in India for 7 years. He speaks German, Italian, Spanish, English, Hindi and Urdu. I do not speak Urdu, so we had to go with English.
He's very friendly and cares VERY much for his horses. His are the only horses I've seen that are shoed (not counting the tourist wagon horses in Granada). He and his wife grow most of their own food and are great cooks!
About the place: There is an open-air kitchen/dining room that has been built beautifully by hand. There are currently 2 rooms for rent in a brand new building. They have baths, great beds, a ceiling fan and...uh oh...mosquito nets. NEVER a good sign. There are a few more living quarters for them and a friend and they are finishing up another place to try to increase rentals. It's likely no one reading this will go there, but I highly recommend it and here's a link to his website (Yes, in the jungle he can get cell connectivity for his laptop!)
We got settled into our room and man, it was hot. Sure, there's a fan, but we didn't want to open the windows because there were no screens. Hmmm...not sure why that is and I didn't ask. Later, we chose NOT to open the windows. It was hot, but I had no idea WHAT might crawl in the window. Later on, Hari told about the tarantulas the size of plates, so I'm thinking the window closed thing was a good idea! I doubt the mosquito nets would have kept out a beast that size!
Anyway, Hari asked what we wanted for dinner and said he'd handle it. But he wasn't prepared for us to have lunch as he wasn't expecting us. He referred us to a little place in the village called Margarita's and sent us on our way. We hiked along a trail with rice fields on one side and roaming cows and bulls on the other. After a 1/2 mile through the woods, we came to the village of Merida.
Ummm...yeah. Village. I'm learning that everything here is relative. Relative to a single house on the side of the road, Merida WAS a village. A dirt road with several houses on it and 2 businesses, the aforementioned Margarita's and a pulperia (little convenience store). I did not worry about getting lost in town.
We noticed at Margarita's three local guys having beers and watching soccer on TV (Spain vs. France, FYI). We approached and asked Margarita (the owner) if they had food. Well, POLLY approached and asked if they had food. I just drooled and eyed the guys' beers. No problem! She said she'll cook some things up! Uh oh.
Meanwhile, Polly got into a conversation with the locals while I played the 200th game of Uno with Annie and Grady. Scott was talking to the locals, too, as his Spanish is coming along nicely. Grady and Annie were still a little standoffish as the language thing is pretty intimidating for them. But, alas, they found common ground with one of the local guys.
Grady and Annie had become obsessed with trying to open a coconut. They went in the front "yard" of Margarita's and took to attacking a poor, innocent coconut. They smacked it with a rock, threw it at a fence, struck it with a stick.
Coconut - 1 Silly American Kids - 0
But to the rescue came one of our new Nica friends (can't remember his name). He was large, bald and VERY friendly! He ran next door and got a machete which he then used to carefully dissect the coconut for the kids. They were enthralled watching him make short-shrift of the stubborn little coconut.
He then let us all drink some of the water directly from the coconut. Not so good. Let me put it this way. Scott said he's had coconut water from Whole Foods and it was sweeter than this and tasted better. He now knows that SOMETHING had to be added to the Whole Foods coconut water because the stuff he just drank tasted like monkey pee. (Note: Scott, in no way, knows what monkey pee tastes like. This was merely creative license on the part of the author! But it did taste slightly salty and warm, so you can use your own imagination and make your own comparison!).
Needless to say, the kids didn't like it, but they still thought it was very cool. We tried some of the coconut....meat?...and it was just as bad. So, I was eagerly awaiting Margarita's creation for us.
The kids, however, had taken off on their next adventure. That would be chasing chickens up and down the road and around the yard. We talked to locals while they created their own fun.
NOTE: One of the things Polly and I have decided is that we entertain our kids WAY too much and we need to stop. We think we are doing them a disservice and crushing their creativity and ability to create their own diversions, entertainment, etc. "We're bored." "What can we do?" Ugh... This really became apparent when we made it here to the beach at Playa Marsella and met the Australians next door who live in a big "tree house" and let their kids, 5, 10 & 14 run all over the place. More about them later.
Uh oh...rain. It started really coming down and we were worried about our horse trip scheduled for later that day. But then the kids started going really nuts playing in the rain. They ran up and down the road, threw coconuts around and basically entertained the neighbors who were staring out their windows wondering who the crazy white kids were chasing their goats!
And when they got muddy, no sweat! They just stood under the rain gutters and took a natural shower! I knew they had tetanus shots, so I didn't worry too much.
But it was a blast. The kids did what kids are supposed to do...play...and we got to eat an AMAZING home-cooked chicken, rice and bean meal that was awesome! Scott and Polly also got a beautiful veggie/fruit plate. We ate, drank Tonias, talked to the locals and all laughed at our slightly brain-damaged children chasing chickens, throwing coconuts and taking gutter showers.
This is the goal of The Long and Winding Road.
Time to pay the bill: 3 chicken/rice dinners, 6 Tonias, 1 big fruit/veggie tray, tortured chickens and coconuts: $11
End of Part 2: Next up...Horse tour around a volcano!
Day ?: Trip to Ometepe June 23, 2012
OK...this will be the third time I have tried this note about Ometepe. I think I'm going to break up my posts into smaller units so I can catch up and hopefully, not lose any more of them.
So, on Saturday morning, we headed out to Ometepe Island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua toward southern Nicaragua. Ometepe is an 8-shaped island dominated by two volcanoes, Concepcion and Maderas. I think the first one used to play shortstop for the Cincinnati Reds.
We were headed for a place called Finca Montania Sagrada, which translates roughly to "Place in the Jungle with Crappy Roads and Really Hot Bedrooms." Polly said that's not right and that she's pretty sure it means "The Sacred Mountain Ranch." What does SHE know? It's also known as "Hari's Horses" because Hari, the owner, keeps horses and does horse tours of the island. That's the reason for the trip and I'll call the place Hari's Horses from here out.
We had to get a ride from Granada to San Jorge to catch a ferry. No problem there. We hopped on the ferry and were quite impressed. Passengers, cars, trucks...BAR! Really? Tonias on the deck and a pretty ride across the lake to the volcanoes! We're good to go!
As Scott and the Snow-White Princesses (Annie and Polly) settled into the cool of the shaded lower deck, Grady and I parked ourselves on the deck above, exposed to sun, wind and beautiful views. Besides, getting hot on the deck gave me an excuse to sample more of the local brew, Tonia!
"This is a special ferry," a man sitting on the deck said to me.
"Oh, cool," I replied. "What makes it special?"
"It hasn't sunk yet! Ha ha ha ha."
Hmmm....I think another Tonia might help.
We made it safely to Ometepe, failing to re-create the "Poseidon Adventure," and found our driver. We also found our van...and it was not encouraging. I hoped we didn't have far to go because I wasn't sure if our ride had much left. But when I saw 8 people behind us pile into an ox cart, I decided I would not complain about the "Little Van that Probably Could."
If I had ever wondered if labor was cheap in Nicaragua, our 45 minute ride to Hari's Horses cleared that up. We drove on 20 miles of the smoothest, levelest, nicest road we had been on in Nicaragua. (Keep in mind, this island is pretty rustic). And every mile was made up tens of thousands of perfectly laid and aligned pavers, like on your patio. The driver said that a year ago, the road wasn't there. Wow. That road in the States would have taken 5 years, 2 union strikes, 137 workman comp claims and countless permits and EPA violations!
But the Long and Winding Road was soon turned into "The Relatively Short and Incredibly Painful Bumpy Ride from Hell." We turned off the nice road onto the "main" road to the village of Merida where Hari's is located. Oh my gosh. I think they took all the rocks they had to move to make the nice, pretty road and dumped them on the Merida road. It took us 23 hours to go 17 yards. OK, not quite that bad, but I never let the truth stand in the way of a good story. Suffice to say, the road sucked, and we'll leave it at that.
We finally made it to the driveway to Hari's. And the van let us out. What?
"Oh...the road up the hill is too rough," said our driver.
Too rough? Bataan marchers would have thought the last road was rough and now the driver thought the DRIVEWAY to Hari's was too rough? He still wouldn't take us. Adios, propina (look it up).
So, we strapped on the backpacks, luckily only full of shorts, t-shirts and peanut butter, and headed up the 300 yard driveway. Fortunately, a man and woman on a motorcycle stopped and asked if Annie wanted to ride.
WARNING! HELICOPTER MOM ALERT! Take a break from reading and go work on picking out your kid's outfit for the first day of school. Make sure the shoes match nicely so other helicopter moms don't talk! Then, arrange a play date for next Thursday.
Annie definitely wanted to ride as walking is not her thing. So, we stuck Annie between man in the front and woman in the back. "OK, honey, put on your helm...." ZOOOOOOOMMMMM....Gone.
"Never mind. You probably won't need a helmet. The big rocks will break your fall! See you at the top1"
End of Part I of Ometepe Island. (I'll try to post it before I lose it.)
So, the top picture is the pool we walked into on our first night here. Sure, I was pretty tired from a long day traveling, but I was pretttty sure that the pool in on the house rental website was a shade of blue. The kids being kids, they didn't care and jumped into "The Deep" at 9:30 p.m. and swam around anyway.
During the next few days, the pool was drained a little, chemicalized, scrubbed and cussed at. Solution? Drain the entire thing and refill it. Great idea, right? Sure. "Hey, Pancho. When will the pool be done filling up?" "By tonight at 10 p.m.," said Pancho. Pancho failed to take into account that I pee faster than the water comes out of the hose in the courtyard. So, no pool for a couple days until FINALLY at 7:30 a.m., Grady popped out of the bed (we're sharing our bedroom...more on THAT later!) and the first thing he did was run to the door to look out and see if the pool was full. Success! Full pool. Time to swim. Ahhhh....
But wait? Even then there had to be a complaint from the kids! We started swimming and the kids complained that now it's too easy to play Sharks and Minnows because you can actually SEE underwater now. I think I'll call the homeowner and see if she can make it green again!
You might think that our obsession with getting the pool right was a bit...dramatic. But when it's 90 degrees each day with 88% humidity, you want that pool. You NEED that pool! So, we're in good shape again.
So, back to why Grady and Annie are in our room. Did I already mention the leak in their bedroom? I think I did. They had a leak in their room and the homeowner arranged for workers to come replace some roofing. After inspecting it and talking to the roofing guys, Tim, the caretaker, advised us we may want to have the kids sleep with us. Uhhh....OK. We really...uhh...didn't have any ....you know...GOOD reason, I guess, why we'd want...you know, our OWN room! But you do what you gotta do.
We moved their bed into our room and they set up housekeeping in there. It's really not a big deal and I sleep a little better with them in there. Not because I'm a helicopter dad, but because Annie sleepwalks...usually right after she's peed all over the bed, floor, me, etc. To get from the kids' bedroom here to our bedroom, you have to walk by the pool. No sweat. If she's sleepwalking and falls in, I figure the water will wake her up, right? Then she can just pee there. I mean, what was it gonna do? Make the water green??? But remember me saying we drained the pool? NOW if she fell into the pool, it would really be not so good.
NOW the funny part! If you call big snakes "funny." Tim admitted to us yesterday that the reason he suggested we move out is because when they inspected the roof to find the leak, they found a big snake living there! Annie was kinda freaked out. Grady, of course, said "Where's the snake? I wanna see it? Do you have it? When I can see it? What kind is it? Can we take it home? Is it poisonous?"
Ha ha...big funny on all of us, huh? Note to self for vacation next year: There are no snakes in Finland.
So, now we have a full pool, a new roof and everything is good. Right. That would be TOO easy.
Bed bugs. Not THOSE bedbugs that have caused hotels to evacuate, but bugs...in Scott's bed...so by definition, they are bedbugs. Little things the size of a pinhead. We washed and changed sheets. Wait a few minutes and a couple come back. Then some more. We've gotten used to the little ants that scurry all over the place looking for food and the AMAZINGLY fast tiny spider-looking track stars that zip all over. But this is different. After researching "bed bugs" on the Internet, we determined Scott was at risk only for what was referred to as "psychological insect discomfort" as opposed to ACTUAL insect discomfort. Whew!
DID YOU KNOW...that bats can actually be clumsy? I did not know that. Last night, Grady looks into this little concrete "ditch" that surrounds the pool and says, "Holy crap, a bat!" After reminding him not to exaggerate and that I'm not fond of the term "Holy Crap," I looked in the little ditch and promptly slipped up...badly "Holy Shit! A bat!" I exclaimed. "See, dad. I told you. And don't say 'shit,'" said Grady. Duly reprimanded, I got a flashlight to check him out. He was injured and hobbling along. I think he flew into the courtyard and smacked into the wall, fell to the ground and then inadvertently crawled into the little moat around the pool. Fleas? Parasites? Rabies? Androgynous sidekick? What would this bat have?
We traveled lightly for our trip, so I did not have Annie's "Acme Bat Collection Kit" with us, so we used the next best thing to collect him. A Pringle's can. Doubtful? Thought you might be, so there's a picture down below. Bob the Bat slept outside in his little Pringle home last night. I released him down the road this morning and based on his physical condition and apparent allergic reaction to Pringle crumbs, I do not think we will see him again. RIP little Bob. RIP.
Tomorrow we leave for an overnight trip to the island of Ometepe. It's in Lake Nicaragua a couple hours from here via car and ferry. We'll ride horses to a volcano, sleep in the jungle and, I'm quite sure, bitch about the heat and bugs. But, by gosh, we'll be having an adventure!
I think I'm taking the day off from writing. I uploaded lots of new pictures. We did a horse carriage tour of town with Rodolfo. Go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Granada,_Nicaragua
to read about the history of this cool city. There are also pictures of us playing with the kids at the school we've been volunteering at. Enjoy.