Nicaragua is Costa Rica Twenty Years Ago

I spent last weekend in Nicaragua.  I think it’s unfortunate that many people reading this will be gasping in awe and thinking…”You went to Nicaragua?  Aren’t there guerrillas and other bad elements there?”  It will come as even more of a shock to many of you that I went there alone.  I can hear it now, “You went to Nicaragua alone?  Weren’t you scared?  Isn’t there a war being fought there?”

I really like Nicaragua.  From what my Tico friends tell me, Nicaragua is what Costa Rica used to be like, twenty years ago.  There’s a simplicity there that doesn’t exist in too many places these days.  Horse drawn carriages are still a common sight to be seen in the roads, even in Granada, one of its larger towns.  And actually, in my opinion, the main highways are better maintained there than in Costa Rica.

No, there are not guerrillas there, nor is there a war being fought.  I’m pretty sure it’s been at least a decade, if not two, since there was a war in Nicaragua and if I remember correctly, the US played a big part in it.  What else is new?

Nowadays, people just go about their daily life.  They live their life, they go to the market, hang out in the town square and go to church (there are A LOT of churches in Nicaragua).  They spend time with their families.  They LOVE baseball, even more so than soccer/futbol.

There is also a beauty there that you just have to experience for yourself.  Unlike many areas of Costa Rica, there aren’t many condo highrises and big city buildings there.  There are very few tourists.  There is culture and color and community.  There are volcanos (lots of them), jungles, plantations and beautiful beaches (the beaches I have yet to see but I hear they are beautiful).  There’s a real sense of place.  It reminds me a lot of Cuba…but if Nicaragua is twenty years behind Costa Rica, then Cuba has to be at least thirty, probably more.

I spent a blissful three days on a private island paradise, relaxing in view of the majestic Mombacho Volcano, eating delicious meals, lounging in my casita’s hammock and enjoying the sunsets.

To read more about traveling to Nicaragua and to learn about Jicaro Island Ecolodge, where I stayed, click here.

Enjoy the slideshow…

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Pura vida…Chrissy

Note: While I am now paid and/or receive comped services at many of the places I visit, I will always offer my unbiased opinion to you, my readers.  Fortunately, I almost always have experiences that exceed my expectations.

The downside to not having a dryer

Do you remember those commercials from the 80’s that showed a woman hang drying her clothes outside and how, supposedly, they were so fresh smelling and soft?  She would actually bring the sheets up to her nose and smell them and then smile?  Well, that was just bad advertising.  I still can’t figure out when in the wash cycle I’m supposed to put in the softener (yes, I know it’s during the rinse but there seems to be two different rinses and LG refuses to help me since I’m not in the US) and so my towels and sheets, after being hung out to dry, are so rough and stiff.

Even when I do add the softener during what I think is the correct cycle, the laundry still dries rough and stiff.  Until someone can bring me a downy softener ball, I really need to figure out how to get soft sheets and towels again.  Maybe more softener is needed, maybe I should try putting it in the beginning of the cycle with the soap?

I don’t know…What I do know is that I’m frustrated that my once soft items are now so incredibly coarse.  I know hang drying is so much better for the environment and I’m happy that my ecological footprint has been decreased but can’t I still have soft sheets and towels?  Isn’t there a way to have both?

A friend posted the photo above on Facebook a few days ago – I thought it was pretty funny.  I left a comment with my concerns above and she recommended adding baking soda or beating them while drying to break up the fibers. And another one of her friends recommended Ecover fabric Softener and Maggie’s Soap Nuts but she didn’t know that I live in Costa Rica and there’s no way I’ll find either of those products.

Just to make matters worse, the other day I went out to do a wash (my washer is outside) and when I opened the dispenser drawer for the soap, there were about 50 gigantic ants inside and some very strange cream colored oval shaped things.  I don’t know what they were…I don’t want to know what they were.  I just know I was horrified.

But to end this post on a funny note…The other thing is I always have to do my laundry first thing in the morning so it will dry before the rain begins.  The other day I was working in my hammock because my housekeeper, Laura, was cleaning inside and it started to rain.  The drying line was only a few feet behind me but being in the hammock, I have a tendency to get into somewhat of a blissful state, ignoring what is happening around me.  Fortunately, Laura ran outside to remind me “las ropas!”

Pura vida…Chrissy

My new casa

Yellow arrow – Hotel Capitan Suizo; Green star – my new house

My time at Capitan Suizo was shortened by a few weeks because of a living opportunity I couldn’t pass up.  Just three weeks into living here, I learned a small house was for rent, just up the street from a friend’s house and 250 meters from the beach.  It has two bedrooms, a small kitchen/dining room and is somewhat furnished (as far as rural Costa Rican standards go).  The price was just too good to pass up – you don’t even want to know what I’m paying for a private 2-story, somewhat furnished house with a pool, security system and gated entrance, located just a few hundred meters from the beach as it will make you nauseous.  Oh, and the gardener who comes twice a week and weekly pool service is also included!

Now, I’m closer to the center of town so going to the market, yoga, bank, etc will be easier and faster.  I do miss the jasmine tree (surprisingly it’s a tree, not a vine) whose scent brightened up my covered patio next to my room at the hotel.  But with this new house, I have a large outdoor living space that I will thoroughly enjoy. When I originally looked at the house, a garrobo was sunning itself on the patio.

The second floor is the master bedroom and it has a nearly floor to ceiling window on one side and a sliding door that leads to a terrace on the other.  There is a washer and drying line outside and what really sold me was the gas oven.  Most “tipico” houses in Tamarindo don’t have ovens.  It was explained to me that most Costa Ricans don’t do much baking or cooking (other than on a stovetop).  I was so happy to see an oven.  It’s small but it will work for my needs.  The propane tank is outside and the property manager told me that when it runs out, I just need to call a local company and a guy will come out on a motor scooter with a new tank and take away the empty one.  I had to laugh when she told me that.  I’ve also never used a propane tank so I’m not sure how I’ll know when it’s running low other than maybe the gas just stops working?

I also had to laugh (quietly, because she was serious) when she told me it had a “large water heater”.  Well, then she showed me the water heater which fit under the kitchen sink.  I hate to see what a small water heater looks like here!

There were of course a few issues that needed to be addressed when I moved in.  Some of the windows and doors didn’t have screens, one of the windows was broken, there was no toilet seat and the toilet was leaking, the freezer was leaking, the front gate’s lock kept jamming, a few of the lights both inside and out didn’t work, there wasn’t a 3 prong outlet in the kitchen and no outlet whatsoever in the bathroom and even though the housekeeper said she cleaned two days before, the place was filthy.  I have an issue with dirt and germs so I had one of the housekeepers from the hotel come by the first day to clean it again.  I’ve also been told the house was fumigated before I moved in but based on the number of spiders and scorpions living here rent-free, I have my doubts.  There was also the day that I was sitting at the kitchen table working on my laptop during a thunderstorm and started to feel rain drops, dropping on my head.

The property manager told me I was complaining too much, the prior tenants never had any problems and the owner wasn’t going to take care of all of these issues but I, in turn, replied that all homes require maintenance and I too was improving the owner’s home since they wouldn’t pay for the screens or screen doors and that expense came out of my pocket.  And I suppose the prior tenants must not have cared too much about standing in puddles in the bathroom from the leaking toilet or in the kitchen from the leaking ceiling…but I do.  That’s not acceptable living conditions, here or anywhere.

The electrical wiring is also a little sketchy in that much of it is exposed throughout the house, both inside and out.  And the oven, while I do love it, has old pilot lights on the stovetop that don’t work so I have to use a lighter to turn on the gas, which also doesn’t make me very happy.

So there are moments when I start to feel like Frances Mayes, wondering if I made the right decision with moving into this house but then I look around and know, yeah, I did.  It’s perfect.  Scorpions and all.

Enjoy the slideshow…

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Pura vida…Chrissy

Gigantic Creepy Crawlies

The first 30 minutes in the morning is usually a little bit of a haze for me.  And this morning was no different…But as I turned on the water to wash my hands, something large, black and scary ran out of the sink and up the wall in front of me.  Very quickly, I became fully awake.

My house seems to be infested with spiders.  The small ones I can handle and just leave them alone.  But the ones like today where I’m saying, “Oh _____ (fill in the blank)” multiple times are not okay in my house.  Because I practice the yoga principle of Ahimsa (non-harming), I first tried to assess the situation.  Although it being 5:30 a.m., my brain had to work a lot harder to think about what to do.

The largest mug I have still didn’t have an opening wide enough for this spider’s skinny, creepy legs.  I admit, I did at one point consider whacking it with my shoe.  It was way too big for a piece of tissue paper. And really, even if I did get it outside, there was no way of knowing if it wouldn’t someday work its way back inside my house.  So my shoe was still a viable option.

But I decided to go with the large mug and the laminated pizza menu (I still need to thank Esquina Pizzeria for the menu as it has saved many lives in this home).  I shooed it into a large area of the wall where I could place the mug over it, then slid the menu between the wall and the mug.  It fought me though and made things so much more difficult.  But I quickly ran out of the bathroom, through the kitchen and pushed the screen door open, dropping the menu from the mug onto the ground.  Only problem was…no spider came out.  I looked inside the mug…no spider there either.

“Oh _____ (fill in the blank)”.  Now I’m jumping up and down but not seeing any spider fly off of me and so I run back into the house, flip on all the lights and start searching the walls, curtains, floor, everywhere, to find this darn spider.  10 minutes I’m searching for this thing.  Finally, I look behind the curtains and there it is, hanging out on the glass door.  Great, I can’t whack it with my shoe now because with my luck, it will break the glass.  So I get the mug again and this time, firmly hold the menu against the mug, kick the screen door open and dump out the spider onto the ground.

The spider doesn’t move.  Perfect.  I try to do good karma and I’ve killed it anyways.  A few minutes later, I check back and see that it’s moved a few feet and I decide I’m going to help it move further away from my house so I shoo it into the dirt and I’m praying that it finds a new home, far away from the interior of mine.

I don’t know why spiders like my house so much.  It’s not like there’s food for them here.  If anyone has suggestions on how to create a spider-free home, please leave a comment…

Now, it’s time for a cup of good Costa Rican coffee.

Pura vida…Chrissy

The Tamarindo Tree

Some of you may not be aware of this but Tamarindo is actually a fruit tree and it’s one of my favorites.  The first time I had it, I was at the Harmony Hotel and they had mixed together fresh tamarindo pulp, lime and ginger.  It’s sometimes hard to find fresh fruit drinks at hotels.  Often times, it comes pre-prepared in large bins and that’s just not the same as real, freshly prepared fruit drinks.

When I was in the market recently, I saw a bag of “tamarindo pulpa sin azucar” (tamarindo pulp without added sugar).  All of the “prepared juices” here have way too much added sugar for my liking so I was happy to see this little bag that didn’t have any.  And while it’s not quite the same as preparing my own Tamarindo fruit, it was still tasty and I added in the ginger and lime, just to give it a little kick.

Once it was chilled, I poured it into a glass, grabbed a book and went out to my hammock.  It was a hot day but with the breeze slightly rocking my hammock and this refreshingly cold drink, it was perfect.

I have yet to see a Tamarind tree although I’ve been told that Tamarindo (the city where I live) was once like Orange County, California…covered in Tamarindo trees, just like Orange County was covered in orange trees…before the mass onslaught of planned communities were built.

At some point, I will actually find the Tamarind fruit and learn how to extract the pulp to make my own fresh juice.  For now, this little bag will do just fine.

Pura vida…Chrissy

Speaking Spanish

I got my first telemarketing call the other day.  It was from my internet company, she was trying to offer me a “special promotion” for telephone and cable services.  It seems that no matter where you live, you can’t get away from telemarketers.  Anyways, I was quite impressed that I actually  understood her enough to know what she was trying to tell me and able to respond to her that I didn’t want any additional services beyond my internet.

I’m able to speak pretty coherently with the pharmacist, supermarket cashier, doctor, taxi driver, hairstylist and now the cable company.   I can also talk with contractors at my house.  But understanding Spanish on the phone is so much more difficult than in person.  And one thing that makes it so much more difficult and confusing is that no one introduces themselves when they call me. Normally, you would call someone and say, “Hi Chrissy, this is ____”.  But no one says that.  Most of the time, I have no idea who I’m talking with for the first minute until I can figure out what they’re saying and why they’re calling – then I piece it together!

For nine months before I moved, I took classes at Colors of Spanish in Petaluma which has helped my tremendously.  Having been to Costa Rica ten times before the move, I knew some basic vocabulary but it was really the classes that gave me the advantage I needed to settle in and feel comfortable here.  I know a lot of people who don’t feel like they need to learn the language but personally I feel that’s disrespectful.  When I’m talking with someone here and they apologize for not knowing English, I tell them: Estoy en su país y entonces tengo a hablar español. (I am in your country and so I need to speak Spanish).  I know that the sentence may not totally be grammatically correct but it’s close enough and they understand and appreciate what I’m trying to say.

Pura vida…Chrissy

My tropical cat

So I’m still trying to figure out if Harmony likes living here on the Rich Coast.  I know he’s not quite pleased with the heat.  And going from the California desert to tropical Costa Rica has to be somewhat of an adjustment.  He’s got an incredible amount of fur that he’s holding onto for some reason.  I would have thought he’d be shedding more but there’s barely any cat hair in the house.

I also wonder what he thinks about the haunting sounds of the howlers every morning and night or the high pitched chirping of the geckos that live in the house.  Surprisingly, he has no interest in the bugs that get into the house.  There have been flying beetles and tiny baby crabs but he walks right past them and shows no interest.  He did see a garrobo outside one day and that interested him but once it disappeared around the corner, Harmony’s interest disappeared as well.

I’ve let him explore a little bit of the outside patio.  He’s always been indoors but lately he’s been so curious to get outside.  I tried to put him in the hammock but that just freaked him out.  He also wouldn’t go up the stairs to my bedroom for the first week when we moved in.  He was terrified of them.  They’re not like normal stairs – they’re more like attic stairs that are very narrow.  Eventually he did it but still takes it really slow.  So do I.  Considering I pretty much broke my tailbone (twice) last year, once by falling down my stairs and then falling two weeks later on tidepools, I am really careful as I go down the stairs.  I’m still in severe pain from the falls so I don’t need to do any further damage!

Another amazing thing is that other than him being extremely thirsty, which I’m hoping is due to the heat and not his kidneys failing again, his health has been really good.  A few months before we left, his vets told me that half of his larynx was paralyzed and it would never get better and actually would get worse if I brought him to a location where the weather was hot.  He would have these awful violent attacks every time he tried to purr.  I thought I was going to have to let him go just before the move but somehow in those last few weeks my little miracle cat, who seems to have more than 9 lives, cured himself and he’s had no problems since we’ve arrived.  He doesn’t eat very much but he’s 17 and it’s hot so I figure he’s just not that hungry.  Other than that, he seems totally healthy and happy.

And he knows that we are home because he’s defending his territory with the other cats.  When we were at the hotel, he was quiet and subdued when the hotel cats would come around the room.  But now at home, he crouches down low and hisses angrily at any cat that tries to be on his turf.

Pura vida…Chrissy

Adventures in Costa Rica cooking – Part 2

Last year I was in Baltimore and had an amazing meal at a Lebanese restaurant.  I always wanted to try to recreate some of the food I ate (we got a sampler plate of 9 vegetarian items) but I was working 70-80 hours a week and there was just never enough time.  Now, I have a lot more time but I can’t find the ingredients that I need!

I also thought it would be fun to make mango jam.  They’re so cheap at 70 cents each compared to the $4 I pay for a jar of strawberry jam!  But then I looked up “how to can” and realized there was a key ingredient missing from my pantry.  And yes, I am mentioning, once again, that I cannot find lemons.  Many Lebanese recipes call for lemons and canning requires it!  NOT limes.

I know I should just be eating what the locals eat.  Their diet consists mainly of rice and beans.  And it would be a lot easier on my wallet if I did just that.  As an example, a box of Kashi GoLean cereal cost me $8.  Now, I realize, that’s not financially sustainable but I also know it’s fast, easy and it gives me a huge quantity of the daily nutrients I need.  Plus, you cut up a mango and mix it in and it’s divinely good.  And the mango only costs $0.70 so there’s how I balance out the $8 box of cereal.

I also attempted to introduce some of my favorite meals to my friends here.  The polenta with spinach and mushrooms didn’t go over as well as I had hoped.  My Swiss/Italian friend loved it but then again, she’s Swiss/Italian and polenta is an Italian dish.  The one thing that received rave reviews from everyone were my famous chocolate chip cookies.  But who doesn’t love a chocolate chip cookie!

As for the rice and beans, I have attempted to make them in the traditional gallo pinto way.  I’ll write more about that in a future post…For now, I’m really excited to try to make pita bread.  I just hope I can find yeast in the store.

Pura vida…Chrissy

Living in the Wild

I love living here at my house.  My friends tell me that I live in the jungle.  Mind you, these are friends who also live in Tamarindo but since I live just outside of town in a Zona Verde, they say I live in the jungle.

My list of wildlife seems to be never ending of what I see here.  Just the other day, I saw several Halloween crabs.  I don’t know where they’ve been for the last few weeks but I hadn’t seen them before.

Unfortunately, one of them has already fallen in the pool.  And they’re land crabs, not water crabs, so by the time I found him, he was already gone.

In the last month, here’s all that I’ve seen from my kitchen, my hammock, my bedroom and the pool…

  • Dragonflies
  • Butterflies
  • Many species of birds
  • Monkeys
  • Halloween crabs
  • Garrobos
  • Iguanas
  • Centipedes (or millipedes? I don’t know how to tell the difference!)
  • Caterpillars
  • raccoons (I haven’t seen them but I know they’re around)

And of course, those things that you don’t really want to see: spiders, termites, wasps, scorpions, flying beetles and ants.  There are lots of ants and termites here.  The ants are so bizarre.  Every morning, there are about 15 of them on my kitchen counter – sleeping.  No joke.  They’re not dead.  They’re asleep.  I guess they got tired of trying to look for food.  And the termites have been really interesting to watch.  They build these strange tunnels outside that seem to go nowhere.  And they’re much larger than I imagined.  Of course, all insects are bigger here in the tropics.

It’s so amazing living here.  I’m captivated in every moment.  From the time the howlers and birds wake me up in the morning and I can look out my sliding glass door in my bedroom (which has no curtains), I’m seeing nature exist, change, be. I even got a video of a halloween crab eating a centipede!

Even though I’m now 250 meters from the beach, I can still hear the waves crashing on the shore, especially at night when its high tide.  After the crickets have quieted down, the waves lull me to sleep.

Pura vida…Chrissy

You put the lime in the coconut

A few days ago I was in the grocery store and saw coconuts.  I didn’t purchase one at the time but I kept thinking about it and so the next time I went, I bought one.  Now, like the beans, I had no idea how to even open the coconut much less cook with it.  But I bought it ($1.00 each), brought it home, put it on my cutting board and stared at it for awhile.  I picked it up, checked it out, shook it, took my very sharp knife and attempted to cut into it but realized I’d probably lose a finger doing that.

So I went back to google.  From what I read, it seemed like I was going to need some non-kitchen equipment to get this fruit open, so I found my ziplock bag that holds the tools I brought from the States.  I started with a screwdriver but didn’t get very far.  Then I pulled out my wine opener, thinking maybe I could twist my way into it – at least to get the water out of it.  That actually got me into the coconut.  From here, I dumped out the water into a pyrex.

The instructions I found then said to take a very sharp knife and cut along its equator and after a few turns, it would just break open.  Yeah…no.  That didn’t happen and again, I was concerned about keeping all of my fingers.  Another option was to put the coconut into a plastic bag and hit it with a hammer against concrete.  So I grabbed a hammer, a plastic bag and went outside.  The top flew off but I don’t think that was the “equator”.  From here though I was able to take a knife and scoop out the meat.  Although there wasn’t much of it.  Admittedly, I got a small coconut.  I’m smart enough to know that starting small is a lot better than getting the biggest one and really losing a finger or two.

I took a sip of the water – it was delicious.  So much different than the “boxes” of “fresh coconut water” that you can buy in the stores in the States (sorry friends, that’s not fresh coconut).  Of course, I had no idea what to do with the meat.  I tried to shred it using a grater but the pieces were too small and soft to grate.   One of my cookbooks recommended mixing it with rice and lime so I went with that and made a black bean soup to accompany it.

Both turned out okay.  Although I was so wishing I had brought my immersion blender for the soup.  I also used a little too much lime in the rice so it was extra tangy. You see, I don’t actually follow recipes…I just read what the ingredients are and then do what I want with the measurements. As long as you accept whatever the results may be, experimenting can be fun, right?  But overall, the mix of brown rice, lime and coconut was quite pleasing and aromatic.

Pura vida…Chrissy