Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Godsends When Traveling with Children

There are two things any parent can feel grateful to come across when traveling with children.

The first are cultures that value and care for children. Panama would be a good example. There, you can rest assured that the staff will do whatever is in their power to make the trip easier on the younger ones. They don’t blame parents for a child being upset, but try to find out the cause and help as they can.

The second are other mothers. Only they know what it’s like to have to deal with the demands of travels, one’s own needs, and the needs of another. They seem to know exactly what another mother needs. One woman in the Atlanta airport offered to help me put on my baby carrier, then she offered to watch my bags while I went to get something to eat so I wouldn’t have to carry them. Later, she told me she has a two-year old.

Thank you to all those out there who instead of rolling their eyes at the crying infant or child in the airport/plane/bus/terminal/train, reach out and offer a hand.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Comfortable Living

There are only two main streets in the town of Boquete, so it doesn’t take long to figure out the lay of the land or two explore it. My days began to take on a routine this week, as I rejected the many tourist trip packages on offer and instead enjoyed the life on offer here. I’d study in the morning, do a bit of work, go home to feed baby and spend a little time with him, find a new place to have lunch, and spend my afternoons with a combination of working and observing my environment.

Each day I notice something new. The brilliant green that surrounds me is the same – from the green grass along the sidewalks to the forested mountains spread out in every direction. But the view changes with the weather – the fog, the mist, the sun, the rain – changing the background and shading.

Every day I notice a new bird or flower – the dark purple and violet bougainvilleas, the lilies, the numerous tropical flowers that have names unknown to me, but call out with bright orange, pink, red, yellow petals. I spend an afternoon on the covered patio of a strawberry café, where the owner carefully painted the tables and all the walls with vines of ripe strawberries atop a cheery yellow background. I see a young girl turning herself into circles until she’s so dizzy she almost falls over.

I hail a public bus, which is a school bus with the same green vinyl seats of memory. But this time I’m sitting next to nuns, the driver has put a black and white check pattern over his steering wheel, and a bright green boa surrounds the rearview mirror. I can take my baby to Havana Blues, showing at the school, and walk back home with him asleep in his backpack. I feel safe here, the people are kind, and the pleasant feeling is only reinforced by the color and life of the nature that surrounds us.

Por Los Ninos

After my final Spanish lesson this morning, I went to Hogar Triskar, a local orphanage, as part of the Por Los Ninos volunteer program. Volunteers, mostly expatriates who live here, come to the orphanage twice a week to spend quality individual time with the children.

It was clear they needed it. They call the foreign volunteers tia or auntie. And an entire crowd of outstretched arms greets them – wanting to be hugged, to be picked up, to be recognized as special.

The playroom had small stuffed animals hanging by threads from the ceiling. I picked up one child and lifted her high enough to touch one of the animals. She loved it. Then another wanted to do the same thing, and another, and another. Then the first wanted to go again. The same thing happened when I gave them horsey back rides. It’s so hard to say no to them, but it’s also not realistic to continually lift about ten kids time and time again. I knew their lives were full of taking turns and of hearing no, so I did my best, but I felt it wasn’t good enough.

My Spanish teacher Margarita had told me that people brought their children there when they were unable to care for them. My host mother Lorena said no, it was crazy women who didn’t want their children any more and gave them up, even when they were still tiny.

I found few small babies there. The youngest was six months old. There were 52 children living there at the moment, but that number seems to fluctuate. The saddest sight was two young girls, 12 and 14 years old, caring for their babies. They had been rejected by their families upon becoming pregnant, so both they and their offspring are being raised in the orphanage.

My 27-year-old host sister, Magdalena, told me that teenage pregnancy is very common. Her own brother had a baby with a 17 year old girl. Abortion is illegal and Magdalena said the social system doesn’t prepare girls. “They don’t receive any sex education,” she said. I could only imagine what their boyfriends or their abusers told them and how easily it would probably be believed. For them to subsequently have no remedy, when they are just children who were probably taken advantage of, I find really horrible.

Compared with other orphanages I’ve visited, the material conditions here were pretty good. The beds looked neat and clean, they had a variety of toys, effort had gone into decorating the room. They wore decent clothing.

But it was clear that some had suffered abuse, like the little boy who stood off to the side. I approached him gingerly, pick him up, paid some attention to him. He smiled, but hesitantly, as though afraid this nice moment would suddenly turn bad. And there was the 10-month old girl, who seemed to look out at the world with a dull stare.

Most of them just lacked the love and security provided by parents, the ability to feel unique and special in the eyes of another. It was clear the foreign residents had done a lot to help. My host father Francisco said the residents of Valle Escondido, one of the exclusive developments, were paying the salaries of some local staff to work full-time at the orphanage. And these volunteers came to try to meet the children’s need for attention, if only partially.

This evening, River lay in my lap, swaddled like a green bean, drinking milk from my breast. As I sang him one of his favorite songs in the cool evening breeze, he looked up and smiled, happy, before going back to his milk. He fell asleep tight, secure and loved. I believe that every child deserves to go to bed that way each night, not to climb into bed next to 20 others, but to feel the comfort of an adult’s arms and the peace of a song sung especially for them.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Visit to Museum

Traditional dress worn by the Ngobe indigenous coffee pickers.

A $3 meal at the popular and affordable local buffet-style restaurant, El Sabroson.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Visit to Farm

I got up early this morning to accompany my host father, Ronaldo, on his weekly visit to his cattle farm. It was located in Gualaca a 50-minute drive from Boquete. We traveled in his silver Toyota Hilux with the man who lives on and watches the farm for him. This employee abandoned his wife and four children and now claims he doesn’t have a family.

The road was excellent for most of the way. Once we turned onto private property, it was a rough track heading steeply downhill. Ronaldo brought in a tractor to improve the road to his property, putting in concrete at the most difficult parts. Despite the fact that this road goes through another person’s property that person refused to contribute to the road.

“He used to live in a small wooden house and also walked from the entrance,” Ronaldo said. “But once I built the road and he could bring in the materials, he constructed that nice house.”

When I asked why the man didn’t pitch in, Ronaldo replied, “The people here are very stubborn in that regard. They won’t cooperate in anything, even though the value of his farm went up with a road going through it.”

The farm was set within rolling hills of incredible greenness. Ronaldo has about 90 cows that he raises for meat and sells to a supermarket chain.

I hung out near the shack and a small river while they transferred the cattle to different pastures. I watched as they vaccinated several cows, then we went on horseback to see a beautiful, roaring waterfall on the property.

We had lunch at a popular local restaurant. It had cowboy hats hanging from the roof and no walls.

In the afternoon I went with Lorena and her grandson Ronaldo to a local garden called Mi Jardin es Tu Jardin (My Garden is Your Garden). It’s owned by a wealthy man from the area who I believe lives in the U.S. He doesn’t charge any admission to the garden and according to Lorena, does a lot for the community, making him very popular.

We finished our day stopping at one of the strawberry cafes, where we had small fresh strawberries, bathed in fresh cream and chocolate syrup. The cute strawberry cafes are covered with strawberry décor both inside and out.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Cheap Bus Tours

A great way to gain a sense of the Boquete region, without spending a lot of money, is to take a local bus. The buses depart across from Boquete Bistro and leave at least twice an hour. Some of the best routes are the Arco Iris (rainbow) and Palo Alto, but you can hop on any one and most of them run in loops, bringing you back to where you started. I rode the Palo Alto and the Arco Iris buses and was able to see the scenery as we climbed up high into the mountains, past the coffee and the strawberry plantations, where the indigenous people live in tenant housing. We traveled across rushing rivers, though dense green forests, and even in the most remote areas, the road remained smooth and in excellent conditions. On another route, I saw the castle an Italian resident built for himself on a bluff, several housing and hotel developments, and a couple of hidden restaurants. In some places, brugmansias, called floripondio flowers would line the road, the upside-down flowers like floral waterfalls.

Monday, June 16, 2008


Today was the first chance I had to hang out in town and explore a bit of Boquete.

I started the day with my Spanish lesson at Habla Ya. I’m taking private lessons two hours per day, five days this week. My teacher’s name is Nora and I was very happy with her. I learned quite a bit of vocabulary, which is what I need most, and she kept the lesson interesting enough that the two hours went by quickly She teaches classes almost back to back though, with a one hour break for lunch. I don’t know how she manages by the time she gets to the afternoon.

We managed to fit in some discussion in between our tasks. I learned that she is married and the mother of two – a six year old and a 12-year old. She told me that machismo is strong here and that her husband didn’t help at all after the birth of the children. She had her last child by caesarean and the baby would sometimes scream all night. She thinks it’s because of the stress of having to take care of him herself that her wounds from the Cesarean didn’t heal well.

He did eventually begin to help out at home, but only after she began to work for pay. “When I was dependent on him financially, he expected me to do everything,” she said. “But once I got a job and was gone all day, he began to help.”

She told me that her 12-year-old is obese and that the children laugh at him at school. Sometimes he comes to her and tells her he doesn’t want to go to school because of the teasing. She told me that she used to make and sell pastries and sweets and would always keep a portion around the house. That made her fat as well, though she lost a lot of the weight when she ended that profession. Her husband though continues to eat an unhealthy diet and continues to remain overweight. When she asks him to set a good example for their son, and not eat junk food in the house, he tells her, “It’s my house, I can eat French fries here if I want to.”

Though this place is rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, grass-fed beef and even home-grown chickens (sold on Sundays), the local diet is heavy in carbohydrates (potatoes, rice, plantains, bread) and fried foods.

After class, I finally had some quiet time to work. Then I strolled through town. It’s such a pleasant place. The residential streets are lined with single-story bungalows, many with patios out front. The main streets are compact and filled with stores selling agricultural equipment, tours, food, coffee, art, souvenirs, videos, second-hand clothing and pharmaceutical goods. I noticed how some of the stop signs had ads on the reverse side, in gratitude to the sponsor of the stop-sign. I noticed a few Indians walking in town. The women wear a distinctive, bright one-piece dress. I’ve also noticed what seems to be a fairly negative attitude toward the Indians by people in town and I’ve learned that they are mostly relegated to working as laborers on the coffee farms and that they have a problem with alcoholism. And of course I noticed the foreigners. Upon leaving the house and walking to school for the first time, I passed foreigners before I even came across a Panamanian.

I had lunch at the Panamonte Inn, which I’d read was the best in town. It was a fancy restaurant, with white tablecloths ad polished glasses. I didn’t find the food all that exciting, though it was nice to have a green salad to balance out all the carbs. The premises of the hotel were beautiful though, with a lush garden, pale blue and yellow buildings and a colonial feel. It certainly does have a long history. I read that Charles Lindbergh stayed there, as did Admiral Richard Byrd, who rested there while writing an article for National Geographic about his Arctic explorations. The Inn also has a spa, so I treated myself to a facial. The prices aren’t much less than in the states, but the quality was good and after night upon night of interrupted sleep, it was a luxurious relaxation. I don’t think I opened my eyes the entire time.

In the evening, the church bells played a beautiful melody at 5:20. The owner of the café where I was working told me it was the Novena de San Juan. San Juan is the patron saint of Boquete. His day is the 24th of this month and the church counts down for the nine days leading up to the event.

When I came home, Lorena was standing with River in the street, looking up at the trees. Later, while I was eating dinner, Magdalena rocked with him on the patio, looking out at the forested mountain. They both commented on how he appreciated grass and trees. So I followed their example and rocked him to sleep out on the patio in the cool night air. He fell asleep and is still in bed two hours later (yay!). And I’ve been able to enjoy a relaxing evening.

So far I really like this place a lot. I know I won’t be able to do everything I’d like to in the time we have left. So I guess I’ll just have to come back.

Panamanian hygiene

The following guideline is included in my packet of introductory materials from my Spanish school under Use of Spanish School’s facilities:

“Please take care of personal hygiene to attend to our Language Center. It is accustomed in our country to shower or bath daily and to use deodorant.”

Makes me wonder what kind of experiences they had with students to inspire such instructions.

Sendero de los Quetzales

Yesterday I took a long hike through the cloudforest, a 12-kilometer mostly uphill trek between Boquete and Cerro Punta. The Sendero de los Quetzales, or Quetzal Trail, was the first trail made by the indigenous inhabitants of this region and was used to facilitate trade between these two towns. It runs along one side of the Baru volcano (the only active volcano out of 64 in Panama – one of its three craters is active). It’s also supposed to be a place where one has a good chance of seeing the quetzal bird. According to our guide Alvaro, this bird is one of the most beautiful in the world.

The area was beautiful, with all kinds of mushrooms, ferns, plants and flowers growing alongside the trail. The thick forest surrounded us with vines, ferns and trees, some new growth, others remants from the primal forest. As we walked, the sound of various bird calls rang through the silence and we breathed in the scent of decomposition and fresh moss.

I’m sure the forest contained all kinds of treasures. Most unfortunately, our guide didn’t seem to be familiar with them at all. He clearly wasn’t an avid birder and didn’t even know how to use the binoculars someone lent him. So while he pointed out a few things to us, I know we passed by a lot of the forest’s secrets. And we didn’t see a quetzal, though we heard their calls.

I think such hikes are best done with an indigenous person, or at least someone who lives near to the forest. Those people are more likely to rely upon nature and to be familiar with its intricacies. We passed several men along the way who were carrying homemade bamboo poles (probably taken from the forest) and were on their way to fish. I’m sure they lived in harmony with the environment. When I asked if they’d seen any quetzals along the way, they said yes, four. I wished the tour organizers would have hired one of them instead of the relatively well-to-do town dweller who was our guide.

The trail was fairly difficult. Much of it was uphill. And while there were stairs in some places, they weren’t in very good conditions. Some had rotted out, requiring large steps upward. That, plus the gain in elevation, eventually became very tiring. Just as we reached the halfway point, at 2200 meters, I began to wheeze.

Luckily, some rest, some juice, and the guide slowing down the pace helped. I felt a light pounding in my head, which I associate with altitude, but it wasn’t too bad and felt better during the rest of the way.

A beautiful view greeted us at the end – bushes flush with white flowers with purple-shaded centers, which Alvaro said were called novios (or couples). Their scent perfumed the air. Up upon a hill stood a statue of a virgin. And we could look out over the agricultural valley and down into the town of Cerro Punta.

The start of the hike wasn’t too far from Boquete. And we only hiked 12 kilometers. So both the other woman on the tour and I were surprised when the return trip was well over an hour, through the town of David. Apparently, because of the national park, there is no direct road. The need for the trail to facilitate trade became much more apparent.

Coming down from the mountain, we passed a bunch of stands selling strawberries, which grow here year round. I bought a dish of strawberries with cream (a very sweet sticky cream) for a dollars, as well as strawberry bread, homemade granola, and from a neighboring vegetable stand, plump orange carrots and top-like magenta beets. They were also selling a variety of fresh honey and jams made from the various local fruits, including tomatoes.

I was so exhausted in the evening, both from the hike and from the fact that River has been waking up repeatedly at night that I didn’t do much besides care for River, go to bed, then get up throughout the night to feed him. The family took care of him while I was gone. When I returned, he was grinning and they were enchanted with him. They are babysitting today as well, for the first time giving me the chance to get some work done and stroll through the town.

Saturday, June 14, 2008


We’ve arrived in Boquete and so far it seems to be as wonderful as it seemed to be from my research. Yesterday was a long day. Our scheduled flight had maintenance problems, so we had to wait another five hours until they could bring another plane. That basically meant spending the entire day at the airport, which was hard on poor River, and hard for me too since I had to occupy all my time caring for him.

The airport at David was tiny and entry easy. We purchased tourist cards right there for $5 each. Behind the immigration officials hung a poster with a man jumping off of a train. A sign nearby said “Border 10 kms.” A man in a wheelchair, missing both of his lower legs, was pictured in the bottom right. The poster said that it’s not worth it, the cost can be higher than one expects.

The school where I am studying in Boquete, Habla Ya, arranged for a taxi to meet us at the airport and it was there as scheduled. He took us right to our host family’s home. It was already dark, so I couldn’t see much during the 45 minute drive. I did notice however the excellent condition of the roads, the $4.40 per gallon price of gas, and the presence of many American businesses in David, including Blockbuster Video, TGI Fridays, McDonalds and Pizza Hut.

It was almost 8 p.m. when we arrived at the home of Lorena and Ronaldo, but they welcomed us in warmly. River made the same impression he’s made on everyone here. They call him a doll and frequently ask to hold him. People will stop on the street and comment on how cute he is, sales staff will congregate around us, and the staff at our hotel in San Jose took turns – first the cook took him for a walk, then the receptionists continued their work while holding River.

Lorena introduced me to her son Ronaldo and her grandson Ronaldo. That makes it easy to remember. Her daughter Magdalena lives and works in David. She’ll be on vacation this week and will be coming here tomorrow.

The house is neat and comfortable. There are little houses hanging on the wall in the hallway, butterflies hanging on the walls around the dining area, and little plastic flowers safety pinned to the sheer curtain in our bedroom. Our bed faces a cabinet stuffed to the brim with stuffed animals. It’s a one story house with a TV room, a living room, a kitchen and a dining area, going from front to back. Doors along the sides lead to one bathroom and four bedrooms.

It seemed hot to me when we arrived and at first I worried about the lack of a fan. But the night air soon cooled and we slept with a blanket.

River was in rough shape from the long trip and for the first time I wondered whether I was harming him by exposing him to so much travel and activity. I tried to eat the meal Lorena left for me – chicken, mashed potatoes and a beef soup, but River became anxious at the sight of food. When I offered him a bite of the soup he smiled and slurped down quite a bit more.

In the morning, after breakfast, Lorena took me in their silver SUV to visit the director of the school. I confirmed when my classes would be and learned about the various activities offered. We continued on to a neighboring town up the hill, called Las Naranjas or “the oranges.” There we paid a short visit to her parents. The 74-year-old mother and 90-year-old father had raised four children in the same house where they now live.

The town is beautiful. Just outside the door of our house is a gorgeous panorama of dense, green, tropical forested mountains. There are many rivers and creeks running through the landscape. There seems to be a nice selection of shops and places to eat, as well as gardens and coffee plantations. I hope I’ll have time to explore it all. But to be honest, there seems to be so much to do and so little time. I’d imagined having time to relax and to get some work done, but I doubt I’ll be able to resist all the temptations to explore.

In the late afternoon we drove with Lorena, Ronaldo and Lorena’s mother back to David, where we were going to watch their daughter Magdalena perform in a folklore dance group. Magdalena danced as a child, but took it up again only this past October.

The performance started at 3, so I thought we’d leave around two. But instead we departed at 10:45. We first went to Magdalena’s house, a small but pleasant house that belonged to her grandmother. Magdalena was still at work, but her parents had keys and let themselves in.

It’s amazing the difference that a 45 minute drive can make. While Boquete is cool and comfortable, the sun emitting a pleasant warmth, the lower altitude David is swelteringly hot year round. It was the type of heat that makes you feel naked because your clothes stick to you as though they were just another layer of skin. Poor River was suffering. Even though they put two fans in the room where he would take a nap, it took me most of our time there to put him down.

Magdalena came home from work and she looked like the photos Lorena displays on her table – a pretty woman in her 20s with heavy makeup, a bright smile and a long, narrow nose. Her attention to appearance makes her look a bit like a doll, which is funny because so many people refer to River as a doll and she’ll be helping to care for him.

From her house, we went to someone else’s house where the group was preparing. Today they were wearing one of their more basic costumes, not the “deluxe” one, but it still seemed pretty elaborate to me. The girls attached long braids to their hair, they all wore heavy makeup and white ornamental pieces on either side of their hair. They wore white shirts and each woman had a long, colorful skirt. When they held their arms out to either side the skirt rose, looking like a fan. The men wore black pants and matching button, down shirts.

This house had a tree in front, which made it much cooler and more comfortable than Magdalena’s. We sat on the patio and watched them practice. When we’d arrived, the musicians in the group were practicing their music, imbuing the air with a festive spirit

I didn’t realize until we got there that the performance was going to be at a political rally, but that made it all the more interesting. The rally was for candidate Juan Carlos Navarro. The elections aren’t until 2009, but the contest is apparently already underway. Lorena told me there are a lot of candidates. She said she thinks this one is the best though and thinks he has a good chance.

I asked what she liked about him and she said he was well prepared because had studied at Harvard. I asked what he believed in, what he proposed to do. She wasn’t very precise, but said that he would continue the policies of the current President, who had helped the poor people with housing.

At the rally, quite a few people wore red, white and blue shirts. A group of youth waved matching flags and posters were hung along the faces. A promoter with a big white smile kept things going. When a woman pictured on the poster with Navarro (she wants to be the representative from this region) appeared and a video camera taped, the promoter indicated (out of sight of the video camera) for everyone to stand up and clap.

They started out with two teenage boys and one girl, dressed in jeans and t-shirts, doing very mediocre pop dances. Someone handed out free juice drink boxes to the people in the audience, who were seated under an awning to escape the drizzle. Then the folkloric group came on and they did a good job. But a young man with jeans falling down below his underwear stole the attention of much of the audience by dancing while he waved the Navarro flag.

River watched, especially entranced by the colorful skirts of the folkloric dancers. He and I were the only gringos in the audience. Our strange appearance probably augmented in oddity when I breastfed him. But it was an interesting slice of local life that I was grateful to witness. And it inspired me to look up what’s going on in Panamanian politics.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Loop on the Tour Bus

I spent today seeing some of Costa Rica by bus. Not my favorite way to travel, but it was better than the other option I was considering – hanging out in the hotel for the day.

The tour bus picked us up at our hotel, took us around and returned us back to the hotel. With one exception, most of the meals and the opportunities to buy things were at large developments, owned by people who already have a lot of money. Only the final stop, a small shop at the end of a boat ride, was owned by locals. I bought my water there. We’ll be leaving for Panama tomorrow and never walked outside of our hotel (not much reason to, it’s just a freeway outside) or changed any money. Dollars are accepted easily here.

We traveled with a group of about 20 tourists, all of whom were picked up from their hotels on the outskirts of the city. Several were attending an epidemiological conference. Quite a few were taking several of these day trips. Despite having quite a bit of time in country, they preferred to see things from the comfort of a bus, then return to a comfortable hotel in San Jose than to spend more time in other areas of the country. I suppose one can see more that way, but I think the level of understanding is less. I wished for the opportunity to talk to the local residents and thought if I had more time, I’d head right for a small town.

We saw a nice variety of things – a coffee estate, a wildlife and waterfall garden, the Poas volcano crater and a boat ride down the Sarapiqui river. My favorite part was the volcano. The crater was one mile wide, with a lagoon within it and white smoke emerging from fumaroles. It was raining when we arrived and we had to walk ten minutes in the rain to arrive. I was carrying River in a front carrier and using an umbrella. I couldn’t believe how well he held up, even laughing when we arrived.

The La Paz Waterfall Garden is a man-man tourism center, constructed by its very wealthy owner. It is well designed though and offers visitors the opportunity to see many birds, butterflies, snakes, monkeys and frogs at very close range. It’s a very good place for families to visit.

They told us when we entered that we should remove any earrings. One woman in our group didn’t listen though and a bird grabbed her earring right out of her ear, then returned to its post to eat it. Even River, at six months old, seemed to enjoy the indoor butterfly sanctuary, with the colorful creatures flying in front of him, and the area where the hummingbirds gathered at feeders, darting around us like little high-powered bees.

The series of waterfalls are of courser natural. The owner purchased the land and made it into a private reserve. He also constructed a series of walkways and stairs (1600 of them, mostly heading downhill) that make it easy to descend the series of waterfalls and get very close to the powerful sprays.

The river trip was short, but relaxing and full of wildlife, In and near the olive-colored water we saw an iguana in a treetop, monkeys, a caiman, an aninga bird, and long nosed bats, small bats that look like butterflies or moths and perch upon wood and rocks on the river’s edge.

River was amazingly well behaved and captured the hearts of many on the bus. They couldn’t believe how happy and content he was and seemed amazed when I said he was usually like that. I said we lucked out that he was born that way; But a woman from Spain, upon seeing me changing him on a stone table and River laying calmly on the hard surface, thought the way the parents acted had some effect. “A lot of people wouldn’t even come on a trip like this,” she said, “because they think they need so much stuff or that their child must eat or sleep at certain times. You seem to have gotten him used to adapting.” Maybe, or maybe he was just born a great traveler. In any case, I’m proud of him and grateful to have a companion.

We didn’t bring a stroller on this trip, since I could only carry so much on my own. Without a stroller, swing, jumper or bouncy seat, I’m holding or carrying him the vast majority of the day. That can get tiring, however, the Ergo baby carrier is working very well.. River is content in there and it’s quite comfortable for me and leaves me with two hands free.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Arrival in San Jose

River and I made it to San Jose today. It was a long day, starting with a 2:40 a..m. wake up call. It didn’t help that I’d gone to bed after one, giving me about an hour of sleep to go on.

We flew on Delta via Atlanta. The flight was scrunched as usual nowadays, no pillow, a charge to see documentaries on the personal video screen. But the service seemed pretty friendly and enthusiastic compared to what I usually experience on U.S. airlines. It was my first time flying Delta and I would use them again.

Upon landing, I could see the greenness of the area around San Jose, the many trees and the white and red brick structures. The modern airport was easy to navigate. I enjoyed seeing a man playing a guitar in the gate area, collecting tips and selling his CDs, and seeing another man rolling cigars for sale. When an airport worker saw me coming, carrying River on my chest, he told me I could go through the immigration line for Costa Rican nationals, since it was much shorter.

There is an official taxi stand right out front. I paid at the counter and didn’t have to worry about coming across a crooked driver. Our driver was a very nice man. He has a 12 year old and a one year old son, so he was interested in River. His son was named Nikolas, after family members who married Russians and ended up staying there.

As he drove us to our hotel, rain loomed on the horizon. He said it’s now the rainy season and afternoon rains will continue through October. We made it to the hotel just before it started to pour.

We’re staying at The Adventure Inn, a place I came across on TripAdvisor. I wasn’t enthralled with what I’d read about San Jose. It sounded like a place where one always has to look over their shoulder and the descriptions brought back memories of my bad experience in Nicaragua. The Adventure Inn sounded good because it was outside of the city center, has a Jacuzzi on the premises and tour buses stop by daily to take people outside the city, to see the sights of Costa Rica. While I’m not a tour bus person by nature, on my first trip overseas alone with baby, I thought I should take extra precautions. I’d want my husband to do the same.

When we arrived at our room I could hear the beautiful sound of the rain pounding on the roof above us. River behaved remarkably well on the trip, but we’d been on the road 12 hours and were both tired. So we spent the afternoon sleeping.

Afternoon stretched into evening for him and he’s still asleep, while I sit out on the patio outside our room and work on the computer. I had a simple, but tasty Tican meal of grilled chicken with rice, beans, fried plantains and salad. The night air is cool and comfortable. I look out at trees and expensive residences. I can hear the chirp of insects and the alternating barks of two dogs.

I signed us up for a day trip tomorrow, a four in one tour that takes in coffee production, butterflies, a volcano and a river wildlife boat ride. Without a swing, a bouncy seat or a jumper, I’m really unable to put River down except when he is sleeping. As long as I have to have him in my arms all day, we might as well be on the move and seeing something. For me, that’s the best possible combination. I get to enjoy quality time with him and be learning and exploring myself.

Farm Share, Week 2

In our second week of membership in a local farm, the selection increased a bit. This week we took home spinach, tatsoi, arugula and collards (as before) plus radishes, peas and salad mix, all organic.

Since River and I left this morning for Costa Rica and Mark isn’t much of a vegetable eater, we gave our babysitter what she wanted, then gave away the rest on freecycle.

I couldn’t believe the response. At least 10-15 people responded to my free offer within the first hour. The demand for fresh, quality vegetables seems to be there, if only the price could be affordable. Of course, there is something special about knowing that your food was in the ground nearby just hours or days before eating it. I sampled the salad mix and thought it had a sweet, full taste, better than what I usually buy.

I took the peas with me to the airport and enjoyed them in the terminal while waiting for our flight. I bit into the sweet pods, taking in the smooth, young peas together with their crunchy exterior, Looking around at the bowls of processed cereal for sale for $5 and a variety of other processed, expensive, low-quality foods, I felt I was the luckiest person in the airport.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Escape from the Heat

Today is the fourth day in a row that temperatures have approached 100 degrees. The streets are almost empty of pedestrians, as people try to stay inside and enjoy the A/C. We have our two wall units running full blast, 24 hours a day. We’ve had to move River into our bedroom because it is too hot without air conditioning.

Tomorrow River and I leave for Costa Rica, then Panama. Where we will be in Panama, it’s now winter. The forecast is for sunny mornings, scattered showers in the afternoons and cool evenings. Funny that we’re heading south to cool off.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

The Forgotten Joy of Books

My hubby and I split the childcare duties today. I had the morning and he’s taking the afternoon. So I got to drive to a favorite bookstore and try to get some work done, surrounded by the scent of fresh-brewed coffee and chocolate cupcakes, plus the beautiful sight of racks and racks of books.

Seeing so many books reminds me of how many of them I haven’t read. I’m falling further and further behind as the months pass by. I continue to work on a single novel in Spanish month after month, reading no more than a few pages at a time. Only through audiobooks am I able to actually finish a book or two a month, to feel at least a tenuous connection remaining with the literary life.

Looking out around me, I long for the time to read all these books and to get to know some of the many magazines I’ve never picked up. For now though, I’ll just be thankful for audio books. I’ll appreciate my ability to immerse myself in a story or learn something new while cooking, while walking, while driving. I’ll be grateful for technology.

A Sucker for Baby Photographers

I have to hand it to Sears. They know how to get money out of a parent. They enticed me into their photo studio with a coupon I received in the mail. I would get a free photo session, a free 10x13 print and my choice of either a large package of photos for $9.99 or two photo father’s day cards for $2.99. Either one I thought would make a nice father’s day gift, so I made an appointment, prepared to spend between three and ten dollars.

The photographer did a great job. She let him pose in two outfits and also took pictures with him just in his diaper, showing all of his dimpled fat. Before letting me look at the pictures, she enhanced several and created attractive collages. How could I look at so many beautiful pictures and choose just one? How could I reduce the varieties of his expressions and the aspects of his personality to just one?

They must have known that I couldn’t. Originally, I had no intention to go to photo studios at all. We have a digital camera and a video camera and have been able to record very nice memories on our own.

But upon looking at the results, I saw that the photographer was more skilled than I am. She was able to make my son into an art object.

I wanted the images to last, which meant I needed the digital files. $130 was the cheapest I could get them for. For that price, they threw in way more prints than I needed.

I went in with a plan to spend around ten dollars and left spending thirteen times that. I don’t regret it.

Friday, June 06, 2008

The Joy of Catching a Pee

Those who arrive at this site for travel adventures might find this a bit off topic. But in addition to my local and international explorations, I’m currently on the journey of parenthood.

Before River was born, we decided we were going to try what is referred to in the U.S. as “elimination communication,” or helping a child to go to the bathroom without diapers from an early age.

Why did we want to do this, given the risk that we would be eliminated upon ourselves? For me it was my international travels. I saw that in the majority of the 50-odd countries I’d visited, people used diapers rarely to never. By the time babies were a year or so old, they were pretty well able to lean over a bowl with split pants and do their thing. I also didn’t want to contribute 39 months worth of plastics into the landfill (the current average age for potty-training boys in the U.S. is 39 months!), nor wash 39 months worth of cloth diapers. I also wanted him to feel the pride of being able to control his own body and to avoid the embarrassment of late bedwetting.

For my husband, the enticement was a reduction in the number of months he would have to scrape dirty diapers.

On one of my last flights before River was born, I was upgraded to first class, where I sat next to an Indian woman who had lived in the U.S. for a long time. She was sophisticated and educated and told me that of course, they start potty-training by six months of age.

“As long as you do it before he’s mobile, it will be fine,” she said.

I thought we’d start long before that, but we didn’t. We didn’t know how liquid the poops would be, how sudden and explosive. We didn’t realize that he could smile and laugh, poop, and smile and laugh, with no clues in between as to what was happening. So we continued to put it off.

In the meantime, we found a great cloth diaper that works just as well and as easily as the disposables, but can be washed in the home washing machine.

A few weeks ago, at just over five months old, we realized he was getting close to becoming mobile. He was also venturing further into solid foods, so his poops were getting closer to what one would expect to see. We decided to give it a go.

I bought a simpler cloth diaper to use at home in the daytime, so that we’d know immediately when he went. We tried to give him a few hours a day of playing naked on top of towels or sheets. We watched for a pee and when we saw it, we’d say “pssss,” hoping he’d eventually learn to associate that sound with going to the bathroom. We have a different sound for pooping.

It didn’t take long at all before we could see the signs of a coming poop and I was very excited to catch my first one in a bowl we have on hand for that purpose.

Catching the pees is much harder though and to be honest, I didn’t expect much success there. There is no forewarning. The best we can do is try to guess when he might need to go and then hold him over the bowl and give the signal.

This morning I fed him. When he was done, I held him over the bowl and said psss. Nothing. He ate a bit more and I did it again. Right on signal, upon hearing psss, he peed into the bowl. A few hours later, he did the same thing for the babysitter.

How exciting is that? Not because peeing in itself it something glorious. But because he’s still a few days shy of six months old yet he’s shown us that his mind processes associations. He’s shown us that we can communicate, far before he becomes verbal, and that we can help him to meet his own needs and to spend less time sitting in his own doo-doo.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Community Supported Agriculture

This is my first year joining a Community Supported Agriculture program, or CSA. I’m a member of the Cherry Grove Organic Farm. I paid $330 for a half share (supposed to be appropriate for a family of two that regularly incorporates fruit or vegetables into their diets). That entitles me to a selection of fresh produce through this growing season. Today was the first pickup date.

I looked forward to it with anticipation and thumbed through my recipe books to find items that might use what I’d pick up this week. I knew there would probably be kale, so I marked a recipe for a cauliflower-kale bake.

I drove to the farm early this evening. It is located close to a residential neighborhood, in an area where I’d imagine land prices are quite high. I turned onto the gravel driveway. As the car rumbled up toward the farmhouse I felt like I really was entering an agricultural area – kind of hard to believe since it was so close to home.

The produce was in a barn, together with a bunch of equipment. There was a big bucket of arugula next to a scale, as well as spinach and tatsoi, a green I’ve never heard of. I was also able to grab a bunch of kale.

From there, I went to the supermarket to grab the rest of ingredients I’d need. The cauliflower-kale bake is on the menu, as is an Italian penne with spicy Italian sausage and spinach. I headed home with a bunch of vitamin-packed greens to experiment with this week. Somehow, it’s much more exciting knowing that they were just recently in the dirt nearby home.