bikes planes and automobiles · Costa Rica · family fun · Travelogue · Worldschooling

Day 629: Galapagos

Well, our flight from Guayaquil to Galapagos was uneventful (and had the most legroom of any plane I’ve been on in the last twenty years.) We were greeted at the airport and arrived at our apartment by 3 p.m. 

We didn’t really meet anyone from the group until Tuesday morning at breakfast. I saw a table with three teenage girls seated at it; I told K to go sit there. I suggested to some other adults that we should have a parents’ table, and I pushed my other three kids towards a large table with some other children. E met another six-year-old girl who was shy but eventually warmed up (they’re best friends now,) N started talking with a few boys, and R watched quietly (which surprised me.) 

On Tuesday we visited the Charles Darwin Centre and learned about what their scientists are doing in order to preserve the ecosystem here. Afterwards, we walked out to the beach and scrambled across the rocks to find crabs, iguanas, and even some fish in the tidal pools. 

Tuesday afternoon was our first Spanish lesson. I’m in the beginner class with Mr. December and two other parents. It’s not difficult for me, thanks to Mango Languages and ten years of learning French, but I’m glad that I have the opportunity to solidify the basics. Me gusto parlar Español. 

Wednesday morning saw us boarding a boat for a Bahia boat tour. We landed and took a hike out to see blue-footed boobies and iguanas. Then we got back on the boat and sailed over to another park where we hiked past a salt marsh and tons of cacti, and down into a canyon where we swam in the brackish water between the canyon walls. After that we took the boat to another part of the bay where we snorkelled over dozens of non-pointy sea urchins (we actually held one in our hands) and got pretty close to a huge manta ray and dozens of different kinds of fish. 

In the afternoon all the kids went to play soccer with local children. I walked out to get my SIM card topped up with data (cellular data is far more reliable than any wifi on the island, though it’s still slow.) I’d always heard that cellular service is cheaper everywhere that isn’t Canada, but I was still astonished to have paid ten dollars U.S. and received 12 gigs of data, plus unlimited gigs for WhatsApp and Messenger. Just… wow. 

(Even more wow was the fact that I went into the store and was able to do the whole transaction in Spanish!)

This morning (Thursday) we had another Spanish class. This time we went out to the main road with our teacher and practiced asking vendors how much things cost, to see if we correctly understood the prices in Spanish. 

The kids had a lesson on renewable energy that K said was “pretty basic,” and then they were free for lunch. When they went back to the classroom at 2:00 for a cooking lesson, we walked down to the pier to ask about weekend tours to other islands. We want to see penguins, so we’re probably heading off to Floreana and Isabella. You’ll likely not hear from me until Monday, when I’ll update you on how the weekend tours went. 

bikes planes and automobiles · Costa Rica · Good Grief · Keepin' it real · Travelogue · whine and cheese · Worldschooling

Day 624: MIA in MIA

I knew flying through Miami was a bad idea.

The first time I flew to Miami airport, I was fifteen years old and on my way to meet Aunty Leah, Uncle Benny, and Grandpa for a week-long vacation. It was my first time travelling alone; I’d been assured that Aunty, Uncle, and Grandpa would meet me. They didn’t. After inquiring with their airline and discovering that their flight had been delayed by five hours, I cried. I had no idea what to do with myself. I called Dad for guidance. He reached out to Mum’s Aunty Doris, and I soon had an address to give a taxi driver. I stayed at Doris’s house until Aunty and Uncle came to collect me.

The second time, Mum and I were on our way to Florida a few months before my wedding to shop for a dress for Mum (and to meet up with Aunty Leah and Uncle Benny.) The first leg of our flight—to Washington, D.C.—was delayed on the tarmac by several hours; by the time we got to Washington it was late at night and there were no more flights to Miami. The airline put us up in a hotel overnight and rerouted us through Charlotte, NC. Twenty-four hours after our original flight time, we arrived in Florida for our truncated shopping weekend.

I was starting to feel like maybe Miami airport was just bad luck. Or was it that meeting Aunty Leah in Miami was the problem? This isn’t confirmation, strictly speaking, but after Aunty Leah died and they were bringing her to Toronto for burial, her body got delayed in Miami for a while. Of course it did, I marvelled. MIA had struck again.

By now, you understand why flying through Miami on our way to Galapagos (listen to me saying “on our way” as if Miami wasn’t in the exact opposite direction) felt like a bad idea to me. The only better options involved paying an extra $1500 and flying through Panama. We reasoned that we had far better ways to spend $1500 and the extra flight time wasn’t that big a deal in the grand scheme of things. So we booked.

Our flight from San José arrived in Miami on time. We were fully prepared for a tightly-timed transfer, and to their credit the kids moved quickly and without complaint through customs and the security re-check. We made it to the gate area only two minutes after the boarding time on our tickets, stopped to check which gate we were going to, and saw this:


Our flight was cancelled. Over the next two hours we learned that we’d been rescheduled to the earliest possible flight: 7:30 p.m. on Sunday. Two days late. We’d miss our flight to Galapagos. We’d miss the first three days of the Worldschooling retreat.

Then we learned that there were no hotel rooms available anywhere in Miami because of an arts festival. The airline was very sorry, but all they could offer were complimentary paper pillows (you know the ones) and tiny fleece blankets.

All I can say is, thank God for in-laws who have a condo just north of Fort Lauderdale.

Please excuse me while I go to sleep.

bikes planes and automobiles · Costa Rica · family fun · Keepin' it real · whine and cheese

Day 623: The Airport Report

We arrived at San José International Airport (SJO) three hours before our departure time and headed straight to the self-check-in kiosk, which didn’t work (kept freezing at the same part of the process every time.) As it turned out, we needed to sign an attestation about our vaccination and testing status, without which we couldn’t check in. Fine. We ended up checking in with an agent, which was great because he checked our bags all the way through to Guayaquil (we’re flying via Miami) and reassured me that we’re checked in for both flights and we don’t have to do anything in Miami except pass immigration and head to the gate for our second flight.

A kindly guard saw that we were a big group travelling with kids and allowed us to bypass most of the line. The woman operating the x-ray machine wasn’t quite so wonderful; neither was the setup. My computer went flying and hit the floor when it came through the machine because there were too many of those gray bins backed up on the conveyer belt (the computer is fine, and I’m glad I insisted on a hardshell case for it.) It (understandably) took us a long time to get our stuff together on the other side of the scanner. Since there was no table or counter for re-packing things, we were still occupying most of the belt four or five minutes later. The woman at the scanner started yelling at us, which I took with good humour because I had no idea what exactly she was saying. But really, we can’t be the first large family to go through security here. I’m sure backups like this happen all the time, so why on earth don’t they have any infrastructure to deal with it?

Interesting to note is that the departure gate doesn’t have many of those bolted-to-the-ground rows of seats that we’re used to seeing. Instead, it looks like a food court, with tables and plastic chairs scattered around the area. We’ve staked our claim at one of the tables and now I’m sitting here while Mr. December and the kids explore. Boarding doesn’t even start for another 45 minutes, and I’m happy to sit quietly by myself (I’m still feeling nauseated from the van ride to the airport.) I’d love to get on the plane and go to sleep, but I’m feeling pretty wired. My next full night of sleep will be tomorrow night; tonight I’ll be lucky to get five hours.

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.

bikes planes and automobiles · Costa Rica · Keepin' it real · The COVID files · Travelogue

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.

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

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.