Costa Rica · family fun · Worldschooling

Day 622: This House

As my mother so eloquently put it in the comments, I left you in a traffic jam two nights ago. Sorry about that.

The house we’re in now is pretty great. Not as cool and unique as the house in Playa Avellanas, but very well suited to our needs. It’s a single-storey house with three bedrooms and two bathrooms, plus a “casita” (in cottage country we’d call it a bunkie.) I’m sure you can imagine how thrilled K was, in her teenage way, to have a tiny house all to herself.

The house is built in a Mediterranean style, surrounding a courtyard with a pool in the middle. There’s plenty of seating outside—a table and chairs, a couch and two armchairs with a coffee table, a couple more chairs with a small table between them. The only thing missing is a hammock, which could easily be added.

(Note to self: next time we travel, bring Mr. December’s packable hammock.)

The kitchen is newly outfitted with almost everything we need (a cutting board and a jug with a lid would be nice to have.) There’s a dining area and a living room beyond that. There’s a workspace with a desk and an ergonomic office chair just a step down from the dining room, perfect for Mr. December since he’s working this week.

And my favourite part: at the opposite end of the house from the living room is a sunroom. It’s got doors and windows all around so that we can open it and feel like we’re outside. There are a couple of couches, a flat-screen TV, and a table with chairs, and—most importantly—a door that seals it off from the rest of the house, including Mr. December’s workspace. As soon as we arrived I claimed the sunroom as our classroom.

And the pool… well, the listing said it was heated, but it felt more like a Muskoka lake in September to me. The host let me know that the pool has a solar heater, which would be great in Guanacaste where it’s the dry season right now, but less useful here in the mountains where it rains every other day.

The house, gated and surrounded by walls, is in a residential neighbourhood. Last night we walked out to a restaurant and a supermarket. The walk wasn’t long—twelve minutes each way—and I was pleasantly surprised to see that there were sidewalks all the way there.

Today is our last full day here in Costa Rica. Tomorrow after lunch we’ll leave for the airport and the next adventure: the Galapagos Islands.

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Day 621: The rules, they are a-changin’

I’m trying not to follow the news too closely. I’ve heard there’s a new COVID variant called Omicron, and that’s about all I know; but we leave for Ecuador in two days, so American Airlines has been only too happy to give me the lowdown.

Instead of only the three unvaccinated children requiring an RT-PCR test, we all need one; instead of 3 days before our flight, the tests must be taken no more than one day prior to departure. There’s also a contact tracing form to fill out before we check in.

It’s not that any of these things is a big deal—they’re inconvenient at worst—but the speed with which the rules changed surprised me.

The kids had questions this afternoon:

Q: What if we’re not allowed back into Canada?
A: Won’t happen. They can’t turn citizens away at the border.

Q: Will we have to quarantine when we get home?
A: Maybe. Would you even notice? We spent most of the last 621 days in our house together, just the six of us. It’ll be like old times.

Q: Can I go on the screen?
A: No, you lost screen privileges. Also, WE’RE HAVING A CONVERSATION! Can you focus for, like, ten minutes?

Q: Will you buy me Skittles?
A: (sigh)

Costa Rica · DIY · family fun · hackin' it · Holidays Jewish and holidays not. · Jewy goodness · Keepin' it real · Kids · Travelogue · what's cookin'

Day 620: Hannukah Hacks

It’s no secret that I really miss our Chanuka box. That little baby has everything in it: story books, candles, dreidels, menorahs, extra chocolate gelt, and a candy thermometer for perfect deep-frying. Here in Costa Rica we have… none of that. Put it all on the list of stuff I didn’t bring.

So how exactly are we celebrating Chanuka this year? Read on…

Candles and Menorah

Back home, I decided that we’d be able to do an oil menorah by boring some holes in a potato, filling them with oil, and using pieces of string as wicks. Then I got to the supermarket here and saw a pack of birthday candles with a bonus: those little plastic candleholders you stick into the birthday cake. My plan shifted, and we decided to stick the holders into a plantain to make our chanukiyah. It worked beautifully except for one minor detail: the plastic candleholders melted. From now on we’re just sticking the candles directly into the plantain.

A plantain (looks like a large bruised yellow banana) lying on its side on a dark granite countertop. There are nine plastic candleholders stuck into it in a line; the holder farthest to the right has a birthday candle in it.

A Dreidel

If you want to try this one, you will need:
A roll of blue painters’ tape
A pole-dancing pole
Children who enjoy the sensation of spinning
Something small to use as gambling currency (we used mini cookies)

It’s simple, really: using the blue painters’ tape I made the four Hebrew letters on the floor tiles surrounding the pole. We divided up the cookies equally, then took turns spinning R or E on the pole. The kid on the pole stuck out one leg, and whatever letter that leg pointed to when the spinning stopped was the result.

Chanuka Food

This one was easy. Potatoes and onions are cheap and easy to come by (which is probably why potato pancakes became the chanuka food of Ashkenazim in the first place.) I substituted panko crumbs for matzoh meal, and voilá! Tastes just like home.

We made sufganiyot too, which was easy given that the recipe uses basic baking ingredients. It was even easier than at home, actually: I found jam in a squeeze pouch with a nozzle, eliminating the messy work of getting jelly into my giant syringe for injection into the donuts. We need jam packaging like that at home!

Matches or a Lighter

If you don’t have matches or a lighter, you can roll up a piece of paper and stick it into the flames of a gas stove or barbecue. No gas appliances? Well, then you’re out of luck. That was us tonight: we had our candles all lined up and then realized we had no way to light them (this is the first place we’ve stayed that didn’t have matches in a drawer somewhere.) Sadly, we couldn’t light our candles tonight—but we still sang the blessings, omitting the one specific to the actual lighting.

After all that, my kids have still asked that we not travel over any more Jewish holidays… unless it’s to Israel. I can’t say I blame them.

Costa Rica · family fun · Jewy goodness · Keepin' it real · Kids · Travelogue · whine and cheese

Day 619: En Route

Author’s note: I wrote this last night, but we got in so late I couldn’t keep my eyes open to post. Enjoy. I’ll post later on for today’s installment.

In the end, the charms of the awesome jungle house didn’t outweigh its downsides. It was looking promising for a while until last night when K heard a dripping sound and looked up to see mealworm beetles falling from the ceiling. 

R packed her bags immediately and declared that she’d sleep on the couch. N topped that by announcing that he wouldn’t sleep at all (I’m not sure what that was supposed to achieve, but I had to admire the strength of his convictions.) K was mostly unaffected (her bedroom had very few insects in it) and E kept saying, “Can we please move somewhere else?” 

“Because there are BUGS FALLING FROM THE CEILING!” R and N chorused repeatedly. 

It was too late at night to start moving anywhere, but we all agreed that come morning we’d talk to our host and find a new place to stay. 

Our host—who, I remind you, spent most of yesterday vacuuming the whole house and spraying for bugs—was understanding and apologetic, and agreed to refund us for the next four nights. I found us a new AirBnB (it was our second-choice place after this jungle house) and we packed everything up. 

I had hoped to be writing this from the comfort of our new accommodations, but we’re still stuck in traffic. Our driver was an hour late picking us up: he took a wrong turn and then got his van stuck in the mud (it’s the dry season now and hasn’t rained in that part of the country in weeks, so his mud-finding talent is impressive.) 

We soon hit rush hour traffic; Mr. December suggested that we pull over at the next restaurant in the hope that while we were eating, traffic would clear up again. It didn’t really: we had stop-and-go traffic all the way to highway one. Then it moved, and then—bam!—traffic again. 

So here we are, on a two-lane highway in Costa Rica at nearly 10 p.m. I’d mention the lack of streetlights, but there are enough cars around us to keep everything pretty well illuminated, so streetlights really aren’t necessary right now. 

Our driver is not impressing me, I’ll tell you that much. He didn’t count his change from the toll booth until a couple hundred meters down the road, at which point he pulled a u-turn on a two-lane highway, drove back to the toll area, parked on the shoulder, and got out of the car to walk over to the booth and ask for the correct change.

Driving through Orotina—an area known for fruit production, according to our driver—we asked to stop at one of several enormous fruit stands. The place was lit up brightly enough to be mistaken for an operating theatre, a football stadium, maybe a movie set. It was jarring after three hours of darkness. On the plus side, we got churros, which seem like an appropriate Chanuka food. 

The kids are great, which is par for the course on long road trips. K and Mr. December are in the very back row discussing parenting styles, the Golden Ratio, base-pi mathematics, and philosophies of homeschooling; N is listening to them with one ear and playing something on the Nintendo Switch; R is colouring in a phone app; and until I pulled out the computer to start typing, E was riveted by my dramatic reading of Mr. Popper’s Penguins


It’s been a little while since I typed that last paragraph and now R is dozing on my shoulder. E is half asleep snuggled under my sweatshirt. K is still geeking out over polynomials and devising her own “base cactus” math. 

“They should pay you for this traffic,” Mr. December jokes as we sit in line for another toll both (I hope our driver counts his change this time.) 

Oh, look—this is our exit. I’d better stop typing and start directing. 

Costa Rica · family fun · Jewy goodness · Keepin' it real · Travelogue · whine and cheese

Day 618: A Chanuka Miracle

It’s absolutely amazing: a tiny can of oil that should have lasted eight nights got used up in one!

Okay, fine. It’s not a miracle… but it sure made our latkes taste good!

(Fun fact: the Spanish word for oil, aceite, is from the Arabic word that means olive, thanks to the Muslim conquest of the Iberian Peninsula. It seems there are many Spanish words that are derived from Arabic, which is so close to Hebrew that I can spot the cognates. Isn’t that exciting?)

E took charge of our soundtrack tonight, playing all the Hannukah music she could find in my phone (I have quite a collection.) I made dough for sufganiyot, but after a giant platter of latkes nobody was terribly keen on them. The dough is resting in the fridge, ready to become a new family tradition: sufganiyot for breakfast!

I wish I’d packed a dreidel. Really, why didn’t I? They’re so small and packable. Instead, I’ve had to use what we have available—but that’s a story for another night. For now, suffice it to say that we played dreidel and everyone had fun. The kids played for cookies; N won.

Breaking news: Mr. December and the children have been methodically tracking down the epicentre of the bug infestation. The bugs, now identified as mealworm beetles, have just been seen dropping from one of the pot lights in the upstairs hallway, leading to the theory that there are some nests in the roof. This, after our host spent most of the day vacuuming and spraying the entire house in an attempt to get rid of them all. Stay tuned for further developments.

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Day 617: Drawbacks

Our host came over shortly after we called her, armed with a pump-spray tank of insecticide and her dustbuster. She agreed that the bugs were far beyond what she would deem normal or acceptable, and she sprayed the perimeter of each room as well as everywhere we saw insects massed together (the seam between the concrete wall and the shower tile seemed to host at least a hundred of them.)

Honestly, I was kind of hoping she’d be unreasonable so we’d have cause to leave and find ourselves new digs. This house looks cool and has a few standout features, but we’re slowly coming to see that it has some big drawbacks.

The kitchen is one. At first glance, it was modern and well-equipped. Then it dawned on me that there’s no real oven—just a large toaster oven that does a very so-so job at simple things like frozen fries. Mr. December complained about the timing of tonight’s dinner (the fries were ready while the pizza dough was still rising) until I pointed out that there was no earthly way to make both at the same time.

I did a fine job with Shabbat dinner yesterday only because I made fried chicken in the electric skillet while the toaster oven roasted our potatoes. Of course, at one point we blew a fuse and had to go searching for the breaker box, but aside from that, dinner was lovely: fried chicken, potatoes, tomato salad with tahini dressing, stir-fried cauliflower, and home-made challah (baked in the toaster oven, of course.) Still, the fact remains that the kitchen is inadequate for our needs.

Our meals are on the verge of becoming inadequate too: despite the bakery truck and the promise of a produce truck, we’re starting to run low on certain staples. I don’t much like the feeling of not being able to walk to a store—even a tiny mini-market would do.

The beach is a farther walk than originally advertised. Mr. December took the kids there on Thursday; so far none of them has wanted to go back. There’s nothing else around but houses and forest, and the zipline is only fun for an hour or two before people get tired and bug-bitten. The pool is beautiful, but it’s too small to swim laps or for chicken fighting, so we haven’t spent a ton of time in it. I hate to say it, but I think we might be starting to get bored.

You already know that the internet is slow and unreliable. You know that we had a bug infestation that interfered with our sleep last night. As a bonus, I woke up this morning with a tickle in the back of my throat that usually means I’m brewing a cold. Lovely.

Costa Rica · Keepin' it real · Travelogue · whine and cheese

Day 616: This Place is Bugged

Bugs are a fact of life in the tropics. I grew up visiting my family in Barbados; I’m accustomed to seeing little sugar ants on the kitchen counter, grasshoppers that unwittingly end up in the bedroom, and lizards behind the pictures on the wall (I know, lizards aren’t insects. Indulge me here, okay?)

That’s why, when my kids started complaining about the bugs in their beds, I dismissed their concerns with a glib, “We are in their home, not the other way around.” When N wouldn’t stop coming into our room and declaring that he couldn’t sleep in his bed because of the bugs, I finally went to see what he was so upset about.

There were dozens of little black bugs (not bedbugs, we made sure of that) all over N’s bed. Every time we swiped them off the sheets, more appeared. I couldn’t blame N: I wouldn’t have been able to sleep there either.

R’s bed was similarly occupied; she picked up her stuff and went to sleep in K’s room, which was completely free of the annoying little bugs. Even after Mr. December removed all the bugs from N’s bed, N refused to sleep there. The two of them ended up switching beds for the rest of the night.

UPDATE: This morning, Mr. December pronounced: “It’s very hard to sleep in there. Not only was I brushing away the real bugs that were there; I also had to brush away all the imaginary bugs.” We’ve called the owner of the house; we’ll see if she can come up with a solution.

Costa Rica · Homeschool · Keepin' it real · lists · Travelogue · Worldschooling

Day 615: I should have packed more…

Packing light was a brilliant idea before our trip. I reasoned that we needed very few physical materials and books; between our Kobos and the internet, we could access anything we needed online.

The friends with whom we shared our last accommodation are traveling for a year. They packed a ton of things we didn’t, including one suitcase full of books and school materials. Each of their children had a huge pencil case filled with markers, pencils, crayons, sharpeners, and erasers; our kids are sharing one pencil box with a bare-bones set of coloured pencils and fifteen pencils to share between six people.

When it comes to clothing, I’m glad we packed as we did. Wearing the same three outfits every day for weeks on end is no hardship (if I’m honest, we do pretty much the same thing at home.) Homeschooling, however, feels like the wrong place to economize on packing. There are quite a few things I wish we had brought, especially now that our internet is slow and unreliable.

More Pencils

You may laugh, but fifteen pencils were with us at the beginning of our trip; a search this morning turned up a grand total of five. Sure, pencils are cheap and plentiful almost everywhere in the world, but they don’t grow on trees in the jungle outside our house. With no car and no plans to go into town, I find myself feeling just the tiniest bit agitated when N mindlessly sharpens his pencil for several minutes. We don’t have enough pencils to sharpen them into oblivion, I want to say, but don’t. An extra pack of pencils in our suitcase would have solved the problem.

(Mr. December just read the last paragraph and scoffed, “We’re not even close to running out.” That’s only because he’s not currently looking for a pencil. Tomorrow it’ll be, “Why didn’t we pack more pencils?”)

A Map and a Timeline

Every time we see or learn about something new, I get the urge to show the kids the relevant location on a world map or to place an event on our timeline. There’s a ton of information coming at the kids almost daily when we tour; a map and a timeline would really help them relate the new information to things they’ve already learned. It’s super easy to whip up a map on Google Maps… if you have adequate internet, which we don’t. Given that a map— even a large one—and a fold-out timeline would have taken up almost no space, they really should have made my packing list this time around.


In the name of packing light, I chose not to bring E’s writing workbook. Instead, I brought a ruled notebook so that she could use it for anything. What I’ve found since then is that she’s much more amenable to doing three full pages of writing practice in the workbook than one single page that I’ve written out for her. Same work, different source; somehow it makes a huge difference.

Books for E to Read

Our Kobos have been misbehaving lately; each morning I open mine to discover that books I was reading yesterday need to be downloaded again today. Given that I’d borrowed the only copy of some of those e-books—a Spanish book I was using to teach the kids, for example—I was unable to borrow them again and had to put them on hold instead. So much for our Spanish lessons. Kids’ books are a problem too: OverDrive doesn’t have a good way to browse Children’s Early Readers, for example, so if I don’t have a specific title in mind (spoiler: I don’t,) I’m out of luck.

Unlike pencils and a map, books would have added a lot of weight and bulk to our baggage. We would have needed another bag—a situation we were trying to avoid—but it would have been worth it.

Speaking of Bags…

The biggest lesson for me has been about packing in general. You all know that I pride myself on being able to pack things as if they were Tetris blocks, with no wasted space. I’m always very proud of myself when I manage to do it; still, there’s no great achievement in spending two hours packing everything tightly into a suitcase when I could have just brought larger suitcases and thrown everything in willy-nilly.

(And yes, Mr. December told me this multiple times before we left on our trip. I hate it when he’s right—which is 99% of the time. Engineers—ugh.)

Granted, I was working with the bags we own: two medium-smallish suitcases we got as a wedding present. Maybe now that there are six of us instead of just two, it’s time to upgrade to something bigger, like a wheeled duffel bag or maybe a used shipping container.

better homes than yours · Costa Rica · Keepin' it real · Travelogue · whine and cheese

Day 614: A Concrete Problem

As I’ve said before, the wifi here is awful. Unreliable, inconsistent, and generally slow. Today Mr. December was in a meeting and ended up having to tether his laptop to his iPhone for internet; even then, it took some moving around the house and patio until he found a spot with good reception.

It seems that this house is the problem. It’s built out of concrete (with steel beams and reinforcement, of course.) The walls seem to be at least 8 inches thick. This is great for climate control inside the house, since the concrete walls absorb heat from the sun all day and then slowly release it at night when it gets a little cool. The construction is terrible for wifi signals, though—we’re essentially living inside a Faraday cage.

Mr. December is, at this very moment, walking around the house checking the strength of the cellular signals (the wifi here is on cellular data, not fibre-optic or cable.) His hope is that by moving the wifi base station we’ll get more consistent signals.

Does the poor wifi quality mean that this house was the wrong choice for us? I’m honestly not sure—it would have to be pretty dire to outweigh the five bedrooms, the pool, the gorgeous outdoor space, and the zipline.

Wait, what? Zipline?

Yeah, there’s a zipline on the property. I’ll tell you about it another time when the internet is less slow.

Costa Rica · family fun · Keepin' it real · Kids · Travelogue · Worldschooling

Day 613: Trucks and Turtles

A truck came up the gravel driveway—in the middle of our school day—beeping its horn like crazy. Then I heard a man shouting “Panaderia!” which means “bakery.” I stopped our lesson and we went out to investigate.

It was, indeed, a bakery truck. The guys got out and opened up the back to reveal cakes, buns, empanadas, and several varieties of bread. I soon learned that the bakery truck comes every Tuesday and Friday, a fresh fish truck comes around on Thursday, and there’s a produce truck that will come when we call them. That’s what I call customer service!

Here’s E’s take on the bakery truck:

The bread truck was amazing. There were donuts—not chocolate, but they had caramel—and strawberry cheesecake. There were baguettes and we got two donuts, one baguette, some cheesecake and some cinnamon buns. They weren’t as good as the ones we make at home but they were still good.

Tonight we went to Ostional to see the arribada, when hundreds (if not thousands) of sea turtles come up on the beach to lay their eggs. We went fairly early, which meant that there weren’t quite so many turtles yet (the number peaks after midnight,) but we still saw dozens of them. We followed one and watched her make her nest and lay the eggs. Amazing.

Also amazing in a less positive way was how two of my kids (I won’t name names) kept asking me when we could leave. Some people have no appreciation for the miracle of life.

E, on the other hand, was riveted. Here’s what she wanted to write about what we saw:

The turtles are so cool. We saw a turtle digging its nest and laying its eggs, and then covering its nest. We saw turtles going back to the ocean. She dug it with her back flippers using them like shovels. The eggs were ping pong ball size and they looked yellow. I counted more than 90 eggs but there were triples and doubles and I counted them as singles.

That’s all I’ve got. I really have to start writing these posts earlier. ‘Night!