education · parenting

Day 848: Learning from Literature

It’s easy to be dismissive of our children’s interests when those interests are on a screen—TV shows, video games, YouTube videos—but maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to judge. We don’t always know what they’re getting out of it.

I’m reflecting on this, having watched and read a lot of Outlander. On the surface it’s historical science fiction (what with the time-travel and all) with a lot of sex and violence in the mix. When we read side-by-side in bed every evening, I consider the contrast between my novel and Mr. December’s nonfiction books about education and parenting, and it’s easy to feel like maybe I should be reading something to improve myself, rather than just for entertainment.

It’s not just entertainment, though. Have you heard my constellation theory of education? In brief, the idea is that learning doesn’t always have to be sequential or thematic; every single piece of learning is like one star in the sky. As you add more of them, you’ll see connections all over the place; the more stars the better, even if they appear at first to be unimportant or unrelated to the rest.

Tonight, at Mum and Dad’s house, I discovered a small paperback book called Songs of Scotland. I thumbed through it, humming the melodies quietly and reading the lyrics. I’ve looked through the book before, but this time I noticed all the references to “Charlie” and realized they were songs about “Bonnie Prince Charlie” and the Jacobite rebellion of 1745. Even the Skye Boat Song—which I’d always assumed was a love song for some reason—turns out to be about Charles Stuart escaping Scotland after the battle of Culloden.

(Mr. December—ever the fact-checker—looked up the rebellion online and confirmed some of the details I’d gleaned from my reading.)

What’s my point? Well, I’ve clearly learned something from Outlander, and after re-encountering songs I’ve known for decades, I’ve been able to put them into a historical and cultural context. I think that’s pretty good for a series of highly entertaining novels.

Now, if only I can remember this next time my kids start to binge-watch something on Netflix.

education · gardening · Kids · parenting · waxing philosophical

Day 816: Weeds or Wildflowers?

Yesterday morning we came home to a jungle.

K mowed the lawn right before we left home for our trip. We knew the grass would get long, but we were shocked to see the waist- and chest-high plants that were dominating the front yard.

“It rained a lot,” my mum explained. She, my dad, and my in-laws are all fans of keeping the front yard neat and tidy. None of them appreciated Mr. December’s quip that this was our way of making homes in our neighbourhood more affordable.

Fearing that the neighbours would call bylaw enforcement on us, I biked out to Canadian Tire yesterday to get a new battery for our lawn mower (the old battery died before we left, and that last mowing was done with a lawnmower borrowed from the couple across the street.) This morning I told K it was time to mow; but first, I went out to pick some flowers I didn’t know we had. Now I have four flower arrangements brightening up my windowsill.

Four ceramic cups filled with wildflowers

As I snipped blossoms off their stalks, I reflected on how we wouldn’t have seen these flowers at all if we’d mowed our lawn like we’re “supposed to.” It occurred to me that these flowers are a bit like some kids:

  • They’re obviously not like the grass around them; they stand out from the crowd and don’t conform to our expectation of what a front lawn should look like.
  • When treated the same way as the surrounding lawn, they end up looking stunted and broken.
  • If we give them time to grow in their own way (instead of insisting they behave like grass) they thrive, flourish, and flower.

It’s so hard, when your child isn’t neurotypical, not to wish they could just be “normal.” Society is bent on making them fit in and behave like everyone else; but often these expectations only leave neurodiverse kids feeling like there’s something wrong with them that they need to fix. The very behaviours that make up part of who they are have been deemed unacceptable and unwanted.

But something magical happens if we stand back and observe. If we stop trying to make kids behave and learn and play like everyone else, if we give them time, our children astonish us. If we let them grow their way, they thrive. They put out flowers. They’re beautiful. They’re not weeds anymore—they never were, really—they’re wildflowers.

A weed can’t become a blade of grass no matter how often we mow it. A neurodiverse child can’t become neurotypical no matter what therapy or consequences we apply. But if we let them grow, unfettered, they will flower; and the world will be more beautiful for it.

education · Keepin' it real

Day 776: Aprendiendo español

I just got out of my Spanish class. It’s three hours a week, all on one night (just like night classes in university.) It’s really difficult, but not because of the subject matter.

Three hours is a long time to sit in front of a screen and listen. How on earth do people expect children to learn like this online? Is anybody actually learning during these classes? I ask because I, a motivated student who is in class voluntarily, had three other tabs going in my browser during class time.

That’s not really like me—I used to be attentive in class. The problem is that so much time gets wasted. The first forty minutes of the class are taken up with “housekeeping”—who had trouble with Google classroom, what login we should use for Rosetta Stone, etc. Basically all the questions that people should have asked by email are instead asked and answered—at length—during class time.

At least I got caught up on some of my tasks, like scheduling our pre-flight PCR tests and printing return labels for online purchases. I didn’t go as far as to start playing games online, but I’ll admit I was sorely tempted.

I’ll be missing the next four classes because of the time difference between here and Israel: I’d have to be up from 1 to 4 a.m. to attend class. I’m excited, though, because I should be able to watch the recording of the 3-hour class in an hour and a half, tops. What shall I do with all that saved time?

crafty · DIY · education · family fun · Homeschool · Kids · Unschooling

Day 740: The Right Stuff

Monday’s silicone mold-making experiment was a fail. After curing overnight (the tube promised one hour) the silicone was still sticky to the touch. Back to the drawing board.

Since she’s very interested in the process, I assigned K the task of googling to figure out why it didn’t work. She came back after about half an hour to explain that we used the wrong kind of silicone: ours smelled like ammonia while curing, and we needed the one that smells like vinegar instead (base vs. acid: chemistry class!)

Photo of R's open design notebook, including her sketch and some math. Also in the picture: a giant set of markers and a colour swatch card.

Meanwhile, R was busy working on fashion design. I found her a notebook with thin pages (the better to see her croquis with when sketching) and she set about customizing the cover with a collage of her previous designs. Then she opened up the book and started to draw the dress she wants to sew herself.

R begged me to take her to the fabric store, but I pointed out that she needed to know how much fabric she’d be using before we went and bought anything. She did the math (reviewing radius and circumference in the process) and figured out the lengths she’d need of each fabric.

A photo of me and K at our art table. I'm passing her my clump of glycerine-bathed silicone and she's poking it to test the consistency. Fun fact: on the wall is a decal that reads "don't just stand there... make something"

We swung by Lowe’s (and said hi to all my friends at the Pro Desk) to pick up a different silicone than last time. Back at home, K and I bathed the silicone in a glycerine-and-water catalyst bath and massaged it until it was the right consistency. We embedded objects in the silicone and left them to cure.

Two hours later the verdict was clear: our second attempt had worked! We pulled the hardened silicone away from the objects we’d embedded, and the silicone held its shape (including all the small details.) We still have to make sure that there’s no unexpected adverse reaction when we fill the molds with epoxy, but as scientists say, the early results are promising. So promising, in fact, that we went back to Lowe’s and bought a whole carton of silicone caulking tubes.

That was our school day. Well, that and E’s sewing project (a quilt for a new baby.) N worked on memorizing the Greek alphabet. There were no formal lessons today, just kids engaged in their pet projects with me facilitating where necessary. I don’t know if this is unschooling, but it’s definitely better than dragging my kids through another painful writing exercise.

(For the record, though, K asked if for writing she could just write her own blog detailing her art projects and experiments. Of course the answer was an enthusiastic yes.)

Our two silicone test molds. The one on the left looks dry, smooth, and translucent white. The one on the right looks gelatinous, opaque white, and is falling apart.
Left side: silicone mold made with the right stuff. Right: wrong!
education · Homeschool · Kids

Day 699: Engineer in the Homeschool

Our homeschool had a guest speaker today: a structural engineer who is highly respected in his field. He came to talk to our students about how he uses Cartesian coordinates and polar coordinates out in the field. Our guest was engaging and knowledgeable (of course he was, people pay good money to have him lead a workshop for them.) The kids had a chance to use a transit and to see how engineers use Google Earth.

How did I convince this renowned professional to speak to our kids?

Four kids sitting around a table. My dad is standing up, gesturing as he explains something. There's a computer monitor on the table but nothing visible on the screen.

Easy: he’s my dad—the children’s Sabba.

The kids were remarkably attentive, I thought; I didn’t hear any of the arguing or digressions that Mr. December and I get from them in practically every subject. They listened and asked questions for over an hour and a half. Dad told me how enjoyable it was to teach the kids something through discussion and demonstration, with no assignments or tests.

“That’s the magic of homeschool,” I told him, “I love that part of it.” And then I turned around and assigned the kids four writing worksheets and an online geography quiz.

About that geography quiz: somehow my eldest got to Grade Eight without actually knowing the continents, the oceans, or where at least some countries are on a world map. It’s a deficit I’d like to correct immediately, if not sooner. How can one understand the significance of history, of climate change, of literature, without knowing where countries and cultures are in relation to one another?

There’s a website that has online geography quizzes covering world geography, individual continents, countries and their capitals, physical features, latitudes and longitudes—pretty much everything I’d consider basic geographic knowledge. From now on, each child has to master at least two of the quizzes (by “master” I mean get 100% of the answers at least three times) every day. It feels like a relatively painless way to learn this stuff, and frees me up to take care of other things like registering kids for summer camps.

I’m curious: how many of you can ace these quizzes on the first try?

education · Homeschool · Keepin' it real · Kids

Day 675: Are we unschooling yet?

We’ve heard time and again that a lot of homeschoolers start out with structured curricula, but that after some time (maybe a couple of years) many end up as unschoolers. I’m starting to wonder if we’re following this pattern too, or if it’s just my SAD lethargy that’s leading me to follow the kids’ leads.

If you’re not sure what unschooling is, you’re not the only one. Mr. December and I can’t even agree on a definition, which makes it hard to have conversations about whether we’re turning into unschoolers. Seriously, you might need to do some googling if you want a definition or twelve.

Our mornings are pretty much the same as always: Mr. December works with the three older kids on Chemistry, Physics, or Math. Our afternoons, however, have become a lot more fluid than they used to be.

Here’s what we’re doing this afternoon:

  • E has spent more than two hours reading books in the Magic Tree House series, learning about the Amazon and Llamas (not in the same book. Llamas don’t live in the Amazon.)
  • Kiwi Crates came yesterday, so E also did a couple of magnet-related activities; then she read the little “the science explained” comic book that came in the crate.
  • We found E’s “flute box,” containing a bunch of different straws, pompoms, feathers, and dice. We played a soccer-like game on the table, blowing through the straws to get the pompom into each other’s goal area. Then she got out my flute headjoint and practiced getting a sound out of it, using the dice to determine how many clear sounds she needed to produce in order to win one of the motivational cards her teacher sent her.
  • N has decided that he wants to learn Greek, so we spent some time together looking at possible workbooks and online programs. I found him a YouTube video that teaches the Greek alphabet and how to write it, so he spent a while doing that. Now he wants me to find him a tutor.
  • When he walked into the library looking a bit directionless, I invited him to take a look at the music theory book I bought last week. We spent a while together doing the ear training and sight reading exercises. N has agreed to do a bit of it with me every day.
  • N just came to me asking for help with his Hebrew reading. I’m on a roll with this post, though, so I told him to go practice his songs for piano. He’s happily working on “Waving through a Window.”
  • R spent some time (over an hour) working on her fictional story (inspired by the burnt forest landscape we hiked through on the Turrialba volcano.)
  • For the past hour (at least) R has been working on her latest art obsession: drawing characters from her favourite Anime series, My Hero Academia.
  • K has spent the entire afternoon working on a drawing of the play structure outside, working on showing depth and shadow by using slightly different shades of the same colour.

It’s obvious to me that they’re all learning, but is that enough? Do they actually have to be forced to do more of the things they’re weakest at, or can we trust, given their strong reading and math skills, that they’ll be able to learn what they need, when they need it?

For that matter, do they really learn stuff that we force on them even when they’re not interested? Or does it go in one ear and out the other? Because if that’s the case, isn’t everyone best served by following the children and supporting them to dive as deeply as they can into their interests?

R sitting at the dining room table. On the table in front of her are two large pieces of paper, one with a sketch of an anime character and the other with just the beginnings of an arc. Further down the table are my Kobo and E's Kiwi Crate.
Costa Rica · education · family fun · Keepin' it real · Kids · mental health · Travelogue · Worldschooling

Day 593: “They Have no Idea.”

I really wanted the kids to write about today’s visit to a large coffee farm, but I also wanted you to hear about it today, not next week (you might still read their summary of the coffee-making process next week.)

To sum it up: we learned all about coffee, all the way from seeds and gene manipulation, through harvesting, to different processes for drying the beans (this company generally exports green coffee beans.) Once again, I learned a ton.

One thing I learned had nothing at all to do with coffee production: I learned that it’s time my kids had a bit more Holocaust education.

How did I figure that one out? Well… we were going through the factory looking at different processes, as I said before. Finally, we got to the huge drying ovens. I’ll admit that I felt a little unpleasant jolt when our guide said, “Now we’ll head over to the ovens,” but I told myself to chill out and remember where we were—on a coffee tour in Costa Rica.

So we got to the huge ovens and all I could think was, These look a lot like the ones we saw at Auschwitz. Lovely thought, no?

It got worse before it got better.

K and R took one look at the oven and R said, “Wow! You could fit all six of us in there!” and then K said, “Sure, R… should I toss you in first?” My blood ran cold.

Mr. December reacted faster than I did, but said what I was thinking: “NO. Absolutely not. That is NOT a good joke. EVER.”

My anxiety was through the roof; which was a shame because I should have been enjoying how much my kids were loving this part of the tour: they were competing with each other to see who could carry the most logs to load into the oven. While that was happening, I went over to Mr. December and muttered, “My cultural trauma is showing.”

“I know exactly what you mean,” he murmured back. “I don’t think the kids understand why that wasn’t funny.”

I nodded. “Think it’s time for a bit more Holocaust education?”


Later on, Mr. December and I were mulling over this.

“They have no idea at all,” he said after a quick chat with K. “I can’t tell if that’s a good or bad thing. Is the idea of Holocaust education to make sure they have the same trauma response as we do?”

Good question.

The rest of our afternoon was enjoyable—if you don’t count E’s tantrum about putting her hiking boots back on (“They’re too hot!”) We walked over to the coffee company’s huge farmhouse on a hill, where the covered back patio beckoned us with an elegantly set table. We were greeted with freezing cold towels—a relief after the tour out in the sunny fields and then inside a hot factory—and cold drinks. Predictably, N didn’t touch the food, but I quickly taught him to say, “Quiero pan, por favor” (“I want bread, please”) and he was happy enough with the results.

The children were getting silly at the table, so I told them to run around the garden. R ran off and came back, breathless, to tell K that she found a swingset (big news for two girls who swing for hours a day at home.) I jokingly pointed to a yellow shed and said to E, “Look! a little yellow house. It must be waiting for you!” Our tour organizer, Massiel, took E by the hand and suggested they go explore it together. As it turned out, I was kind of right: it was a playhouse complete with a front porch, play kitchen, and even play food. Through the window I could see E serving Massiel a plastic hamburger with the graciousness of an experienced hostess.

When we got back to our place, E begged me to play school with her and her stuffies; I obliged and did a couple of grammar lessons “for the stuffies.” You know, I really miss doing school. Even though there’s plenty of learning happening on this trip, I’m looking forward to some quieter weeks when we can just homeschool and swim.

Costa Rica · education · family fun · Travelogue · what's cookin' · Worldschooling

Day 592: Enforced Family Time

Our morning plans got rained out.

Tired of my kids spending all their free time on digital devices, I decided to have some EFT (Enforced Family Time®) for everyone. They balked at first (of course) but came around after I offered to store all of the devices securely for the rest of the day so they wouldn’t be too distracting.

I started by reviewing a bit of solfege and the Kodaly hand signs. I had them sing back intervals and short melodies. Gradually, I started singing (and signing) the notes for the harmony part of “Donkey Riding.” After twenty minutes, R knew the part perfectly and could hold her own while I sang the melody; other family members still need to do a bit of work, but there’s only so much time you can spend hammering notes into someone’s head, so we stopped for the day.

We started watching the documentary Fantastic Fungi on Netflix and somehow ended up learning about how the death cap mushroom’s deadly properties work. So, you know, some light edutainment.

Our afternoon activity was a Spanish lesson followed by a cooking lesson in Spanish. Describing it that way would be like calling Lake Ontario a puddle; this afternoon was so much better than I had expected—although since so many of the activities have exceeded my expectations, maybe it’s time those expectations were raised.

Our Spanish lesson took place on a lovely covered veranda overlooking the valley, while it absolutely poured rain. We learned some basic verbs, greetings and goodbyes, days of the week, telling time, and numbers. Then we were led back through the Spanish on the River building and into someone’s private quarters, and there we met Fernando, the owner of several Spanish schools, who would be teaching the cooking class.

To get to the kitchen we had to go through a room with at least a dozen guitars hanging on the walls: a mixing board in the corner confirmed that it was his music studio. The rest of the house, which Fernando built himself, was very cool: big windows, an upstairs loft, a spiral staircase right in the middle of the kitchen island. A ton of musical instruments in an unusual, owner-designed house—I knew I’d like Fernando even before I spent any time with him.

We didn’t start cooking right away: Fernando heard that R played guitar and asked her to play something. She demurred and pointed out that I play much better, then led the other kids in chanting, “Play! Play! Play!”

I sang “Feelin’ Groovy,” and was then pressured to play and sing “Sweet Caroline,” which was as hilarious as it was raucous. Then Fernando brought her a small guitar from his studio; R agreed to play “Riptide” and everyone sang along, including the three Costa Ricans in the room.

Then we got down to business. Fernando taught us to make tortillas from scratch (just cornmeal, water, and salt) with a neat tortilla press that I now want in my own kitchen. After I assured him that my kids can cook, he had them mixing, rolling, pressing, and chopping for the tortillas and the Arroz con Pollo (rice with chicken) that would be our main course. I had the pleasure of watching how capably and agreeably the kids helped out. N ended up with the job of stirring everything together in a wok; I hoped that he might taste the food since he had helped prepare it, but no such luck. He just ate the jelly-filled empañadas that he’d suggested making.

As we worked, we chatted in Spanish and English about families, children, travel, music, guitars, and technology. R wandered off to practice guitar; when she was done and the adults had retired to the couches with coffee, I played again while the kids sang. Fernando grabbed another guitar and joined in as well.

It was another remarkable afternoon that felt like a visit with new friends—which was lovely, but which raised some awkwardness for me and Mr. December. Normally when one goes on a tour, one tips the guide; but here, where we felt like we’d just been entertained in someone’s home, it felt crass to hand him some money. I wished at that moment that I had thought to bring a bottle of maple syrup, or maybe even a bottle of wine, the way I would if I was invited for dinner as a friend. In the end, I decided that I’ll write him a really nice thank-you note and deliver it with a small bottle of maple syrup we brought from home for this type of occasion. Might as well cement some of the stereotypes about Canadians, eh?

community · Costa Rica · DIY · education · el cheapo · family fun · gardening · Homeschool · Travelogue · Worldschooling

Day 590: Down on the Farm

Finca Blanco Y Negro, Turrialba, Costa Rica

Ed. note: this is a continuation of yesterday’s post. If you haven’t read it yet, go ahead and do so now.

We pulled into the driveway of Finca Blanco Y Negro (Black and White Farm) and were greeted by two women and a very enthusiastic child. E seized the opportunity for a new friend immediately: within minutes, she and this little boy were chatting—she in English, he in Spanish, neither understanding the other—as they explored the farm. The rest of us introduced ourselves and met Maria and Paola, the sisters who own the farm (the little boy, E, is Maria’s son.) It was decided that we’d tour the farm and then eat lunch, rather than the other way around.

Over and over, I was struck by how much research and thought went into running this farm. Blanco Y Negro isn’t a high-budget operation; in fact, part of their vision is to make organic vegetables accessible to more people than just rich people and hippies, and to develop new techniques that other small farms can use to grow organic produce. So when they were planning their mushroom-growing operation and saw the cost of all the “required” equipment, they set out to learn the reasons behind all the expensive recommendations. Then they found cheaper solutions that work just as well. Instead of a completely dark grow room, they put thick black garbage bags over the mushroom containers; in place of an expensive sterilizer, they boil the hay for three hours in a huge boiler to eliminate all microorganisms before using it as a growth medium. They built the mushroom greenhouse on the slope of the hill so that they can easily hose down the floor to keep it clean.

The kids received their first challenge in the mushroom house: who could find and pick the largest mushroom? They all scampered off, looking at every row of hanging bags to find the winning fungus. In the end, I think R might have found the biggest one. Not that it really mattered: all the mushrooms, big and small, were taken to the kitchen to become part of our lunch.

Have you ever heard a flock of ninety chickens? Just hens, mind you, no roosters at all? They are loud. As we stepped into their yard, the chickens crowded around the gate, saying “bawk?” as if to ask what we wanted. The kids got to pet a chicken, and we saw where the chickens turn kitchen scraps into high-quality fertilizer. Then we proceeded with our mission: to collect eggs for lunch. Mr. December and the kids eagerly headed into the henhouse to swipe the eggs. The chickens appeared unperturbed.

In the next pasture over, some black-bellied sheep were eager to munch on the long grasses we held for them. Then we went to see the composting shed—far more interesting than you’d think. In addition to a classic compost pile, they also have various barrels full of fermenting liquids which they use to deter insects from around the vegetable beds and to add beneficial microorganisms to the soil. Paola cracked open one barrel for us to see the bubbles forming on top of the liquid. It smelled like olives.

We explored the vegetable garden and learned about pest control without any pesticides, synthetic or natural. The results spoke for themselves: I’ve never before seen a head of lettuce with absolutely no holes or ragged edges on its leaves. The kids had a chance to plant some celery, beetroot, and arugula, which they did with more enthusiasm than I expected; N even came up with a way to streamline the planting process, by having one person place the seedlings in the correct positions while two others did the actual planting. E and her new friend worked with N and planted several rows of veggies in short order. Meanwhile, K indignantly stated that similar plants should be put together instead of mixing them up; she went to the opposite end of the row and diligently planted some celery.

The adults stood around and chatted. When Maria learned that we were homeschoolers, she got really excited: she’s also homeschooling her son, but it’s a pretty new concept in Costa Rica and she gets lots of pushback from… well, pretty much everyone. So we talked about our homeschooling experience and the homeschool community in general.

Poor R—she was sitting inside the farmhouse by this time, because all kinds of things on the farm were triggering her allergies (it hadn’t even occurred to me to bring her allergy meds with us.) Not to worry, though—Maria offered to find some of the allergy meds she had for her son so I could give R a dose. Wonder of wonders—it was the exact same prescription medicine R takes. I gratefully took the bottle and spoon and went to offer R some relief.

Finally, it was lunchtime! My kids were obnoxiously picky (we might need to have another talk about trying foods that are offered when you’re a guest somewhere) but Mr. December and I thoroughly enjoyed the tomato soup with local cheese and mushrooms, hard boiled eggs (they don’t get any fresher than that,) spring mix salad with beets (which I’m not usually a fan of, but it was delicious,) homemade bread with roasted garlic, and grilled vegetables. The kids deserted the table pretty quickly because Maria’s son called them over to see his kittens; all four of my kids were smitten and spent the rest of the time cuddling the kittens—even R, who declared that any allergic reaction she had would be worth it. Even dessert, which was homemade ice cream with berries on top, only held them for a few minutes before they went back to kitten wrangling.

We loved our time at the farm. By the end, I felt like we were visiting with friends. I was pleased when Maria shyly asked for my contact information—we exchanged numbers and I extended an invitation for them to visit us in Toronto. I hope they take us up on it.

education · family fun · Kids · what's cookin' · Worldschooling

Day 587: Bribri Afternoon

(If you haven’t read yesterday’s entry, read it first.)

We had requested vegetarian meals on the advice of our tour coordinator, who felt the lack of electricity (and hence, refrigeration) meant it would be unsafe to eat the chicken.

A few hours after we made that decision, Mr. December suddenly said, “I don’t think she’s right. They don’t have refrigeration, but they don’t need to use it because the meat is always fresh—because it’s alive until like an hour before they eat it.” Of course he’d know—he once spent three months doing development work with Amerindian tribes in Guyana—but by the time he mentioned it, it was too late to change our lunch order.

Our lunch—plain rice, kidney beans, squash sautéed with onions and cilantro, boiled cassava, boiled breadfruit, and something green—was served on a plank lined with a piece of banana leaf. As it was set down in front of us, a miracle happened: E looked at it, said, “Finally! A place with food I want to eat!” and dug into the beans and the rice with gusto. She finished both.

N, on the other hand, ate nothing. He wouldn’t even touch the plain rice. His loss was E’s gain as she wolfed down his beans too.

After lunch, we got to experience the Bribri way of making and serving chocolate. But first, we learned that you can scrape the surface of a green cacao pod and use the scrapings to soothe cuts, burns, and insect bites.

The Bribri pick the cacao when it’s yellow. They use the jelly that’s around each seed for jam (or eat it fresh—it’s delicious.) Then they ferment the seeds and dry them in the sun. We picked up the process at that point. We crushed the dried seeds using a large rock and a concave wooden tray (think enormous mortar and pestle;) our guide jostled and tossed the crushed stuff in the tray multiple times until the pieces of shell had blown away and all we had was crushed cacao beans. Then we loaded the crushed beans into a manual grinder; what came out was black, pasty, and oozing chocolatey goodness everywhere. We tasted the paste, the purest chocolate you can possibly get: the texture was smooth and the chocolate flavour was intense.

We learned that the Bribri either eat the chocolate with fruits, or drink it mixed with water—never milk. Chocolate is sacred, you see, and mixing it with milk would be sacrilege (“Mmm…” Mr. December muttered, “sacrelicious!”) Our guide took the paste we’d just made and mixed it with condensed milk: we ate it spread on fresh bananas. It was heavenly. Everyone was happy except for R, who gets a tummyache from even small amounts of chocolate. She just ate the bananas.

For drinking, we added the paste and some sugar to a pitcher of hot water and mixed it with a wooden tool: a stick with five small dowels sticking out of the end like a star. We learned how to rub our hands together with the stick in between to froth the drink before pouring it out into dried-gourd bowls. I went back for seconds.

Suddenly, it was time to go. The driver of the boat would have to take us back to the meeting point and then come back to the village, where he lived, before sunset (sunset here is absurdly early—5:30 most days.) So with many thanks and chocolatey smiles, we left the Bribri village behind and got back on the boat.

The boat ride back was quicker than the ride into the village—this time we were going with the current instead of against it—and we got back to our meeting point around 3:20. Our driver was waiting there. Tired enough to ignore the potholes, I slept the whole way back in the car.

It may sound trite, but the kids got to see that despite language barriers, they had a lot in common with the Bribri kids: they all liked to play in the water, for example. More relatable, perhaps, was something we saw right before we left the village: a young boy sitting in a corner, playing Subway Surfers on his mother’s phone. As N pointed out, some things are universal.