Sunday, November 29, 2009

Christmas Spirit

Su Espacio, the community center located in Atenas, Costa Rica, was collecting presents for children who might not otherwise receive a present for Christmas. Over 300 angels hung on the Christmas tree in the center; each angel represented one child and the back of the angel described what the child would like for Christmas. Anybody wanting to act as “Santa” for the child can adopt the angel and provide the gift. Our own 3 children were very excited to be able to play Santa and each of them adopted an angel.

It was heartwarming to find out that all of the angels were adopted before the end of November.

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Monday, November 16, 2009


It is difficult being far from extended family especially in times of need. When Léah was ill, we couldn’t just call Grandma and Grandpa to come over and take care of the younger ones. In those situations and on a day-to-day basis, we feel extremely fortunate that we have “adopted” an extended family member like Isa.

Isa is originally from Nicaragua and lives just across the street from us. She could not possibly have a bigger heart and would help us out at a moment’s notice. She loves the kids and they love her. Isa doesn’t speak a word of English so it forces me to practice my limited Spanish. She is in her early twenties and like many Nicaraguans, had no choice but to leave her country of birth to find a better life elsewhere.

Some facts about Nicaragua:

  • The 1980s were the backdrop to a savage civil war which saw conflict destroy the nation of Nicaragua
  • Already the poorest country in the Americas, the situation has only gotten worse with the global recession
  • A country of 5.7 million, 48% of the population live on less than $2 a day; 80% of the indigenous people (who make up 5% of the population) live on less than $1 per day
  • 27% of all Nicaraguans are suffering from undernourishment; the highest percentage in Central America
  • Many Nicaraguans emigrated during the 1990s and the 2000s due to the unemployment and the poverty; the majority of the Nicaraguan Diaspora is in Costa Rica and the United States
  • Today, one in six Nicaraguans live in either Costa Rica or the US; it's difficult to estimate the number of Nicaraguans living abroad because many of them are living in host countries illegally

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Friday, November 13, 2009

Moderate Earthquake

I had my headphones on and I was busy working when it felt like one of the kids was outside my office door jumping up and down. I dismissed the fact that it might be one of the kids when the slight rumble turned into the equivalent of a Mack truck passing by my desk.

We all happened to be home when the earthquake struck. The rest of the family had already run outside in case the 2nd floor (with me inside it) collapsed on top of them. Only Naimah seemed completely unfazed because she was on the trampoline when it happened… how convenient.

SAN JOSE, Nov. 13 -- A 5.1 magnitude earthquake shook Costa Rica Friday, without immediate report of victims and material damages.

The Costa Rican Vulcanology and Seismology Observatory (OVISCORI) said the earthquake occurred at 3:20 p.m. local time (2120 GMT) and its epicenter was located 20 km northeast to Parritain Puntarenas province, 70 km southeast to San Jose.

The earthquake had a depth of 19 km and it was produced due to a local geological failure, the OVSICORI said.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Road Construction

In North America, it is a common sight to see five men working on the construction of a road; often one or two of them are working with the heavy machinery while the rest are watching. In Costa Rica, all five of those men are working very hard building the road with the same methods that they have been using for many years; the process is fairly manual and in this sweltering heat, it involves a lot of sweat.

DSC_0002[3] All of the rocks that make up the foundation are laid by hand.

DSC_0005[1]A sample of the finished product (notice how in this case, it just ends all of a sudden and then continues as grass).

DSC_0026[1]While taking these pictures (specifically, this next one), I stepped off the road for a moment and as the shutter went, I felt an intense burning on my ankles. Clearly the fire ants weren’t too keen that I was stomping on their territory.



Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Driving in Costa Rica

We are nervous every time we get behind the wheel of our car. It is not so much the tight, winding roads barely wide enough to be considered two lanes, or the lack of guardrails to prevent cars from perilous drops into valleys miles below, or the idea of the roads disappearing in sudden floods during the rainy season. The real fear factor when it comes to driving in this country is the other drivers; their lack of fear – playing chicken with oncoming traffic on blind turns, passing stopped school buses at double the speed limit – only increases our terror.

Did you know that the traffic-related death rate in Costa Rica is twice as high as Canada’s?



Monday, November 9, 2009

Punta Leona

This weekend, we spent 2 days and 1 night at Punta Leona (Lioness Point) which is less than an hour drive from our house and definitely one of the nicest beaches in close proximity to San José. Since it is the off-season, we were able to stay for a very reasonable rate which included breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We inquired about the rates in January and let’s just say that we won’t be heading back in that time period.

Our photo album can be accessed here.

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Friday, November 6, 2009

Project 365

I heard about the concept of Project 365 from a friend who is an amazing photographer. The idea is that you take a photo a day for a whole year. Now, I won’t attempt that just yet but I do take many pictures and it is amazing how some of them speak volumes.

I was cleaning the playroom when I came across Spiderman using a Playmobil notebook computer. I asked Gabriel about it and he replied, “it makes him look more real”. I guess Gabriel sees his Dad (who works in the technology field) in that position a little too often.


Sunday, November 1, 2009

Festival de Danza

Léah performed in the Atenas “Festival de Danza” last night. For a small town, we couldn’t believe how many people were in the audience. It is always a wonderful thing to see one’s child perform on stage; seeing them dance in front of a large audience in a different country with a different culture takes the experience to a whole new level. Léah loved the experience and is already wanting to be part of the next show!

Halloween in Costa Rica

Halloween is not celebrated in Costa Rica. We noticed this at least a month ago when the stores started stocking Christmas items and skipping over Halloween completely. There are many creepy Costa Rican legends meant to scare children and adults away from things like overindulgence of alcohol or infidelity which make the likes of Dracula and Frankenstein tame in comparison.

Our kids look forward to Halloween all year and Gabriel still wanted to dress up despite the fact that there is no place to go Trick-or-treating.

Annapurna, Nepal

There is an iGoogle gadget called “Places to See” which features different places around the world; this week, Annapurna, Nepal was featured.

In October 1999 (already 10 years ago), Mélanie and I did a 12-day trek to the Annapurna Base Camp. This site provides a good summary of the trek.

For a short trek with few altitude problems, the Annapurna region provides you with unparalleled access to spectacular horizons of snowy peaks, so high that you'll find yourself looking twice before you believe that they are not clouds. As well as providing the views for which the trek is famous, the trail takes you through an ever-changing landscape of rice fields, misty forests and tiny local villages.

On October 10, 1999, just before we reached the British Expedition Annapurna South Face Base Camp (4234m.), I proposed to Mélanie. I could swear that the rock on which I had her sit when I popped the question is the one pictured below. With the thin air and lack of oxygen, I figured I had a better chance of her saying “yes” to my proposal. :)

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Manuel Antonio

For the 3-day long weekend, we headed to Manuel Antonio National Park. The park was created in November 1972 to protect it from development as the area's tourist industry began to boom. Manuel Antonio is Costa Rica's second most visited park behind the Poás Volcano National Park.

October is a great time to travel in Costa Rica since it is the low season which translates into less crowds and prices.  We stayed at Hotel Mono Azul for a mere $45 per night. (Prices start at $25 a night but for 5 people, we needed a bigger room.)

Some of the highlights:

A short hike to a magnificent beach in the National Park


The White-headed Capuchin monkeys who come to see the tourists at the beach (and stole our first-aid kit from our bag).

Swimming with giant turtles

Eating at “El Avion”: an Iran-Contra-Cargo plane converted into a restaurant and bar.

Remember one of the biggest scandals in the mid 1980s that involved the Reagan Administration? This very cargo plane was shot down on October 5, 1986, while delivering supplies to the Nicaraguan Contras.


Boogie boarding

Here is a slideshow with more pictures (clicking on any of the pictures will open our album).

Videos of the monkeys on the beach:

  • After stealing some items from tourists

  • Being a little hostile

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


As mentioned before, it is technically the “green season” right now in Costa Rica which means that we get more rain especially in the afternoon. But, so far, nearly every day has had at least some sun (unlike the year that I spent in Lancaster, England) and it hasn’t yet rained all day (unlike some days during winter in British Columbia). In general, the weather has been fairly constant – hot with sun nearly every single day.

The majority of people that I know don’t live in tropical climates but rather live in places with clearly delimited seasons. Atenas, Costa Rica (where we live) was voted as the best climate in the world because of its consistently hot days and comfortably cooler nights.

Having grown up in Quebec, the one time of year that I always miss is now – Fall - when the leaves on the trees change to vibrant colors. My sister-in-law sent us the picture below which she took in her backyard close to Joliette, Quebec.

I am loving the heat and the sun… don’t get me wrong. And, I realize that this post is a bit out of the Costa Rican context. I am just taking a moment to reflect on the fact that travelling doesn’t only allow a person to enjoy experiencing other parts of the world, it also allows one to appreciate where they have been.

Dog Adoption

It is Mélanie’s birthday today and Léah drew a card for her; notice that Léah has included Manchas as a member of our family.


On the subject of Manchas, he decided to join me for my morning run today. I don’t recall inviting him but when I came out of the house in my running gear, there he was waiting. There aren’t any leash or pooper-scooper laws in Costa Rica (at least none that I know of) so he tagged along beside me the entire way (except when he had to stop to do his business and then he would easily catch up). His endurance was pretty remarkable and in this sun, heat, and humidity, he could easily outpace me. Maybe I should outfit him with a huge tank of water so that he can rescue me when I am ready to pass out from heat exhaustion?

Monday, October 5, 2009

Tourist Visa

Canadians don’t need a tourist visa for Costa Rica. An excerpt from

If you hold a valid passport from your home country, you may enter Costa Rica without a tourist visa and can stay up to 90 days.
You only need the following documents to enter Costa Rica:
    * a valid passport with at least one blank visa page. The expiration date of your passport must be greater than 30 days from your date of entry to Costa Rica.
    * a pre-paid airline ticket to exit Costa Rica or proof of financial resources ($400.00 US - $1,000.00 US in cash or traveler checks, and/or a ticket to either return to your home country or to go to another country)

When we arrived in Costa Rica in July, all of our passports were stamped with a 90-day visa.

As a tourist you have two choices to extend your stay in Costa Rica:

   1.     File for an extension of stay at the Department of Temporary Permits & Extension of Stays at the Immigration Department in Costa Rica.

   2.     Cross the border to one of Costa Rica's neighboring countries - ensuring that the port of exit official stamps your passport with the exit seal; and then come back in to the country 72 hours later.  When you re-enter Costa Rica you will be granted another 30, 60, or 90 days to stay as a tourist.

To renew our visas, we opted for #2 above.

We had decided to take a one-week vacation and researched heading to a nearby country like

Panama (on the southern border of Costa Rica) or Guatemala (south of Mexico). Amazingly, it was way more expensive to fly the whole family to one of these close countries than to fly to the US with a cheap carrier like Spirit Airlines. It almost seems hard to believe that we were able to fly one-way to Fort Lauderdale, Florida per person for $9 (yes, you read that right, I am not missing any zeroes). Of course, for a mere $9 flight, you don’t get anything free on the plane but then again, the more expensive carriers don’t offer much for free nowadays either.

We had wrongfully assumed that upon reentering Costa Rica, we would be granted another 90-day visa. When we checked our passports, we discovered that the immigration officer had given us only a 60-day visa. I spoke to the Costa Rican consulate in Ottawa and the representative from Costa Rica explained the wording “up to 90 days” – a 90-day visa is the maximum that the immigration officer will grant but it is at their discretion whether they will grant you a 2-week visa or a 90-day visa or somewhere in-between.

Sunday, October 4, 2009


All 3 of our children love dogs but we never really considered getting one of our own. We never thought that when we would rent a house in Costa Rica, it would come with a dog that just can’t get enough “kid love”.

Manchas (“Spots” in Spanish) belongs to the family who owns the house that we are renting. His current official residence is one house over from us but Manchas insists on sleeping outside our backdoor like a guard dog. Today, when we were leaving the house, he even jumped inside the car next to the kids ready to go. We couldn’t take him and it broke our hearts to see him run after the car for around 2 KM. When we got back at the end of the day, there he was waiting.

As you know from previous posts, it hasn’t been easy for Léah lately and Manchas has surely provided some much needed dog therapy.

Saturday, October 3, 2009


Léah took her antibiotics for the prescribed 7 days but still hasn’t been herself for the last 2 weeks; she has been low on energy, very pale, and has been complaining about cramping in her stomach with pains reverberating to her back. Yesterday, Mélanie spent the day with her at the hospital in San José.

After a urine test, blood test, stool test, ultrasound, and seeing 2 pediatricians, we were informed that Léah no longer has Shigella in her body but she now has Dysentery (which was caused by the Shigella). An excerpt from the Wikipedia entry:

Dysentery (formerly known as flux or the bloody flux) is an inflammatory disorder of the intestine, especially of the colon, that results in severe diarrhea containing mucus and/or blood in the feces. If left untreated, dysentery can be fatal.

The Wikipedia entry on Dysentery mentions that, “consumption of fresh, warm camel feces has been recommended by Bedouins as a remedy for bacterial dysentery”. Instead of camel feces, Léah is taking Glutamine with Lactobacillus Reuteri twice a day for 5 days. Léah loves dairy products and fresh fruit but unfortunately, can’t eat either for possibly 6 weeks.

There are other lab tests being performed over the weekend and Léah needs to return to the hospital on Monday.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

A Bevy of Bacteria

Léah has been very ill for the last week. It started right before her 8th birthday with symptoms of a stomach flu. She was literally bedridden for 5 days straight and we knew that something was definitely wrong when there were signs of internal bleeding on the 4th day. After a few visits to the nearby clinic, we had some lab tests done and it was discovered that she has 2 heavy-duty bacteria in her body. You can read about them here and here but just a warning, the details might make you queasy. Léah is on antibiotics for the next 7 days, and we have to watch her closely for fever and other symptoms.

We were very worried about Léah especially on the night of September 15 when she was writhing in pain. We are 60 minutes away from one of the best hospitals in Latin America (one of the reasons why we chose this area of Costa Rica) but 60 minutes seems like 60 light-years when your child is very sick. Plus, driving the Costa Rican roads at night is not advisable so you better hope that the emergency visit to the hospital is at daytime.

This Central American experience is wonderful in many ways and most of the content on this blog so far has been very positive. However, this experience is not for the faint of heart and we do question the challenges at times.

We had planned a surprise one-week family trip and we are scheduled to leave tomorrow. The kids don’t have a clue where we are going (and I am not going to tell you either, dear reader). The doctors said that as long as Léah doesn’t have a fever, she can fly tomorrow.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Feliz Cumpleaños, Léah!

Happy Birthday, Léah!


From day one, Léah liked to sing and dance.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

When in Costa Rica, do as the Ticos do

We just moved out of our house in Pica Flora. Back in June, we had rented it knowing that we likely would not  be staying there for the full year. But, we thought that we would have had some time to shop around to see other places and decide what type of experience we wanted; we didn’t think that we would be “evicted” without having any option to extend our stay and then have to rush a decision.

Pica Flora is technically a vacation rental. It is absolutely beautiful with a magnificent view but the surrounding area is really not your typical Costa Rican neighborhood; the other houses in the area are occupied by Gringos living here or renting for a few weeks. 

We had to decide what we wanted from our experience – a gorgeous vacation home in the hills or being with the locals. We were (and still are) torn between the positives and negatives of both options. In the end, we settled for the latter.

We are now 5 KM outside of the center of Atenas in an area called Barrio Mercedes. The interesting twist is that we are indeed in a Tico neighborhood but the house that we are renting is a North American style home. It is so unique in the area that our official address for the TV cable company is “casa de 2 pisos” (2-story house). Walking through our front door and into our house feels like you are crossing a border into the United States or Canada. 

The views of a typical Costa Rican neighborhood in front of our house

Our current house came with some big bonuses for the kids. The house belongs to a family with 3 children of similar ages. As soon as our kids laid eyes on all of the toys, they were sold on this house. And, as far as the kids were concerned, the swing set and trampoline out back sealed the deal.

There are many Tico kids on the street and this was an important part of the decision for us. We are hoping that our kids will be able to integrate with the other kids on the street.

Now we have to get used to the action outside our house. When we were at Pica Flora, we had to deal with one rooster; the number of roosters that surround our current home are too numerous for us to fend off. Combine the sound of the roosters with the barking dogs, trucks, and motorcycles, and you have a real Costa Rican symphony a single-pane window away.

Naimah is a maniac on swings

Our backyard has seriously psychedelic eucalyptus trees