Tag Archives: Caribbean

Small Meditation on a Big Marriage

Paul is postponing his planned post due to a death in Cheryl’s family.  Instead, here is a piece he wrote three years ago about his parents’ relationship – just in time for Valentine’s Day.

Last Friday was my 28th anniversary – of my wedding to an inspiring and wonderful woman. We spent the day apart. Instead I was diving into a weekend workshop on self-expression, knowing that my efforts there were fully supported on the home front.

Sharing about my marriage with the other participants and seeing how it moved them, I was again reminded how blessed I am to be in such a loving relationship.

My teenaged parents, five years before their wedding

My teenaged parents, five years before their wedding

So many people tell me that what my wife and I have is rare, almost extinct. That may be. But another anniversary last weekend reminded me of other examples – right in my own back yard.

Two years ago last Saturday my beloved mother passed away at the age of 84. When I was going through her effects, I found, framed and faded and hanging on the wall, an old vinyl 78 recording of “their song”. Sixty-five years earlier, Mom and Dad had courted to the musical poetry of “All the Things You Are” by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II.

I knew this of course. On their 40th anniversary, we had gathered friends and family in an intimate banquet room, where my own wife and I surprised and delighted my parents with our wavering a-cappella rendition of the Kern classic.

My parents remained “an item” for over sixty years including the time of their courtship. Their friends still thought of them as they did when they were first “going steady”. They were smitten with each other their whole life through. My brother used to say that if you looked up the definition of “devoted” in an illustrated dictionary, you’d see a picture of Dad. He wasn’t far wrong.

Wedding Day in 1947

Wedding Day in 1947

After Dad passed away, Mom continued to live her life as the vibrant woman she was. She was lively and healthy, involved in numerous activities, a fantastic mother, mother-in-law, grandparent – and a wonderful friend to many. She helped many of her peers deal with the advancing years, and when she needed a little more action, she hung out with new friends in the younger set.

Yet vibrant and alive as she was, half of her was no longer with us – the “Dad half”. That was our daily experience of Mom for the next six and half years. When Mom learned that her time with us was running out, sad as she was to be leaving us, she was – I believe – very happy to be “following Dad”. She told us many times how her lifelong love affair with Dad had made her life as full as any person could wish for, and that she was completely satisfied with how her life had turned out. I doubt I will ever have the privilege of witnessing another spirit whose final days were as full and serene.

When the time came to find a home for Mom’s ashes, the answer came strong and unbidden to me and my siblings. So a few weeks later, the three of us gathered around Dad’s grave on a chilly afternoon, where we sprinkled Mom’s ashes over it – in the warm care of Dad’s loving arms. Our three loving spouses were there with us in every way: a most fitting sendoff to a love that had begun more than sixty-five years earlier. I like to think it’s a story that will be repeated.

During their overseas years, 1947-1952.

During their overseas years, 1947-1952.

More than once.

(Dedicated to my brother and sister, and our three loving spouses. To those who believe in love. And of course, to Mom and Dad.)

References

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What our Family learned during our Season in Costa Rica

When we mentioned our half-year visit to Costa Rica with our boys, nine and twelve, people often asked us wouldn’t the kids be missing school.  Well, they may have missed school, but they certainly got an education.  Here are some of the many things we all learned.

People make the journey.  We met many friendly people in Costa Rica.  Two stood out.  One was Jorge and his family, themselves expats from the US and Asia.  We both belonged to the

Traveling under sunny skies in beautiful Costa Rica

Traveling under sunny skies in beautiful Costa Rica

same international organization, and a query to the president in San Francisco had put us in touch.  Jorge immediately invited us to crash at their place while we got our bearings.  All they asked was for us to deliver the airbed they were going to offer us, and the wine for a toast.  Their girls and our boys hit it off as well, so it was a great start to our adventure.

Our second find was Alex Martinez who ran a small B&B and ecotourism operation in the Caribbean Lowlands.  We met Alex through another B&B & tour operator that we found on the Internet.  Alex was a wonderful guide and host, and the boys loved him.  To top it off, he shared a first name with our younger son.  Costa Rican custom allowed them to call each other “El Tocayo” or “Toca” for short.  We all called Alex “Toca” although only Al was the namesake.  We ultimately took a couple of two week trips with Alex, covering much of the Southwest and Interior of the country, and staying in small-scale accommodations run by agricultural coops and other local operators.

The boys eventually got photos of all four species

The boys eventually got photos of all four species

Do one good thing every day.  We learned this lesson in “slow travel” while staying for a month in a dilapidated country house on a forty-acre farm near the village of La Garita de Alajuela.  We shared it with a single-mom from back home and her two kids, friends of ours.  Plus one pair of emaciated dogs, a flock of scrawny chickens, and more insects than we ever knew existed.  There was one bus a day if we wanted to go anywhere.  Sometimes we didn’t.  We could lie under a mango tree beside the small pool out back, and watch the neighbours harvest sugar cane with bull-drawn carts.  Or chat with the woman who ran a tiny chicken shack down the road about how she was helping her daughters through college in the US.  When we took the bus and went on day trips, we were tempted at first to schedule a full day:  “In the morning, we’ll go to the snake farm, in the afternoon to the ox-cart display.”  This always had us rushing to make the second appointment, and kept us from following our hearts with whatever came up in the morning.  So, we resolved only to do one thing a day.  It was one of our most important lessons in Costa Rica.  Even now, when life feels rushed, we remind ourselves of this one.

This was our insect-friendly home for a month in the country - and many memories

This was our insect-friendly home for a month in the country – and many memories

Don’t ignore the bugs.  About two-thirds of Costa Rica’s half million species are insects.  We were sure that ants comprised one quarter of all animal biomass in the country.  Apart from the more mundane activities – marveling at unusual beetles, walking sticks, and the ants swarming on the kitchen counters or carrying leaves along an ant highway – we had some more exciting adventures.  An ant bit Dennis while we were trekking through the rainforest to swim in a jungle

Dennis contemplating the bite of the Bullet Ant

Dennis contemplating the bite of the Bullet Ant

pool.  Fortunately, it wasn’t the fabled Bullet Ant.  Our most notable insect adventure had us chased through the mangroves by a swarm of Africanized honeybees – otherwise known as killer bees.  How many kids can say that?  Both boys were stung a few times, but managed to outrun the rest of the swarm.

There’s a naturalist in every child.  “Toca” was an avid birder and bird watching guide.  He was engaged in conservation efforts for the Great Green Macaw.  Before long, he had our nine-year-old hooked; Al spent six weeks of pocket money to buy the definitive Costa Rican bird guide, and logged more than 150 species over the next six weeks.  Al was waking me up before 6AM to look for the Oropendula in the grounds of the pre-Columbian ruins at the Guayabo National Monument.  On our flight home, he struck up a conversation with a professional bird guide returning from Belize – it was amazing to hear them comparing notes about their recent field experiences.

We are lucky and we have so much.  Our friend Alex took us to visit a poor family near his place.  Like many of the poorest in Costa Rica, they were refugees from the recent proxy war in neighbouring Nicaragua.  The father had recently passed away, and the oldest boy of thirteen had to leave school to help his mother support her five children by carving wooden key-chain fobs.  It was eye opening to our boys to see how this family lived in a shack with earthen floors.

Simple accommodation provided by an Agouti Coop

Simple accommodation provided by an Agouti Coop

Closer to home was the single mom and her kids who lived in a small house on the farm we inhabited for a month.  The landlord employed her to keep an eye on the place and do cleaning, and she would do laundry for us at a very low price.  When we first moved into the house, the absentee property owner had asked her to tie up the dogs at night.  Big mistake.  That very first night, while she was at a nearby New Year’s Eve party, someone broke into her place and stole her TV.  This was a very big loss to her.  After that, we encouraged her to let the dogs run free.  As mean as they sounded and looked, within a few days, they had befriended the children and were gentle as puppies.

Treasure your family.  Despite the many adventures we had in Costa Rica, some of our best

Our weekly trip to the Internet cafe - now disappearing

Our weekly trip to the Internet cafe – now disappearing

memories just came from hanging out together.  After years of always working family time around work commitments and school schedules, it was wonderful just to be able to kick around together, even when there was no agenda.  Wandering around the neighbourhood.  Playing cards at night under a dim fluorescent bulb.  Or talking about what we’d just seen or what we wanted to do next.

We also stayed for a month with a large family in the capital, San José.  A small newspaper ad from a homemaker offered rooms plus meals to students in the area near the University.  We applied for a month, and ended up with two rooms, two meals a day, and all laundry for about $700 for the month.  The matriarch of the household was nearing 80, but she still cooked for a family that appeared to number about 50 people in total.  There were smaller buildings out back where two of her daughters lived with their families.  They would often come in for meals.  One of her sons drove a city bus, which he’d stop outside the house so he could come in for mid-morning coffee.  It was a lively place.  If we lingered at the table after breakfast, we would be treated to a stream of visitors and constant conversation.  Our Spanish improved immeasurably.

View into the crater of Poás Volcano

View into the crater of Poás Volcano

Volcanoes are amazing.  We visited the top of Irazú once, and Poás twice, both still steaming.  We passed Turialba more than once.  The best by far was Arenal, one of the most active volcanoes in the world.  We were fortunate to visit at the tail end of a period of higher activity, with remarkably few clouds – it was amazing to watch the smoke puff from the top, followed by booms like muffled canons.  Most memorable of all was the evening we spent on a recent lava flow on the flank of the volcano.  Not only could we see the orange-hot rock sliding down from the peak, we could actually hear it.  Grandma was with us that evening, and despite her nervousness, stood her ground.

We never seemed to have the camera when Arenal was blowing its top

We never seemed to have the camera when Arenal was blowing its top

In half a year, a family can have a lot of adventures.  We took a fisherman’s open boat through the mangroves and the surf to a deserted bay.  We had lunch in the home of an indigenous chief.  We huddled in primitive cabins while the roar of the Howler Monkeys reverberated

Al making friends with the local chickens

Al making friends with the local chickens

through the valleys.  Broke bread with the Israeli consuls.  Adopted a baby turtle.  Saw every museum in the county.  Stalked the elusive Resplendent Quetzal on the Mountain of Death.  Walked across a river into Panama, on a rickety train bridge high above the crocodiles.  Went zip-lining and whitewater rafting.  Just to name a few.

Some of the other lessons we learned in our “summer” in Costa Rica included:

  • The world is getting smaller.
  • Politics suck.
  • Tourists are annoying.
  • Join the local economy.
  • Pay it back, and forward.

The most important lesson our family experienced while slow traveling around Costa Rica?

The world is your school.  Go get your diploma!

We spent three days snorkeling in Bocas del Toro, Panama while renewing our Costa Rican visas

We spent three days snorkeling in Bocas del Toro, Panama while renewing our Costa Rican visas

In our next post, we’ll talk about the legacy of this trip.  What did we take away from it – the good and the bad – and was it worth it?

The herpetologist assured us it wasn't poisonous

The herpetologist assured us it wasn’t poisonous

What do you think?

While what we learned about Costa Rica more than a dozen years ago likely won’t help you, here are a few starting points for your own exploration:

Take your Kids on the Trip of a Lifetime

When our two boys were in elementary school, like many parents we knew, we had a dream of taking them on an extended trip overseas, the Trip of a Lifetime “one day”.  If this sounds like you, we hope Paul’s account of how we created our own family adventure inspires you to realize your dream.  Time is fleeting.  Make it happen!

The conversations at our place started about the time our younger boy hit grade one.  With the oldest only eight, we still had a few years to plan this, we thought.  Yet the years go by quickly, in a whirl of school calendars, baby-sitters, holidays, childhood crises, friends who need attention, and the demands of busy careers.  We had also taken on an ambitious project to create a small low-cost cabin on an island – a task that took four years to complete.  It would have been so easy to sail right through our parenting years without ever getting away on our dream trip.

The view from Paul's favourite spot on the windjammer (it wasn't the tiller)

The view from Paul’s favourite spot on the windjammer (it wasn’t the tiller)

Happily for our dreams, we had built a small network of friends and acquaintances who encouraged us in our ravings and fantasies.  We kept on dreaming, and talking about our hopes.

I had always had a fascination with sailing, and those who went on long voyages driven by the willful wind.  Real and imagined accounts like “Two Years before the Mast” and “Swiss Family Robinson” had been youthful staples.  Naturally enough, my first idea was to take the family on a yearlong sailing trip.  What could be more romantic and adventurous?  I’d even been sailing a few times, although Cheryl’s exposure was limited to a couple of Windjammer cruises in the Caribbean.

If, in those days, we’d had WikiHow, I might have been taken in by their two-page FAQ “How to Sail Around the World”.  A reality check convinced me that the full-time sailing life was not for us.  My skipper friends suggested that the business of sailing might not match my romantic notions.  One of them reminded me that Cheryl had already had a nodding acquaintance with “mal de mer” on the placid seas around the island of Sint Eustatius.

Did sailing in light airs off Sint Maarten give Paul a false sense of security about a round-the-world trip?

Did sailing in light airs off Sint Maarten give Paul a false sense of security about a round-the-world trip?

I discovered that the teenager who mowed our lawn had actually been on such a trip, sailing around the world over a two-year period with his family.  He and his mother even wrote a book.  Reading their account of Mom & Dad manhandling the tiller through hurricane conditions – with the two kids lashed to the mast and doped up with Gravol – had me see the dream could well become a nightmare.

Not wanting to give up on the round-the-world part, we edited the foundering sailboat out of the dream and started looking at commercial airfares.  While good packages existed for traveling around the world, we were still looking at a substantial outlay.  Meanwhile, the pencil ticks on the boys’ doorframes crept relentlessly higher, and their scheduled homework grew longer term-by-term.  We imagined a shrinking window of opportunity before our older boy hit his teens, and school and peer pressures derailed our plans.

We made our first real step when we sold our house to follow our kids’ schooling opportunities – the second such sale in five years.  Thinking we should “stay loose” if we were serious about traveling in the next few years, we returned to renting.  Paying off the mortgage and seeing money in the bank gave a big boost to our plans.

Island life around the cabin kept us busy for a few years

Island life around the cabin kept us busy for a few years

Our plans also continued to evolve.  We replaced the idea of spending most of our travel budget on airfare, and much of our travel time in airports, with a plan for extended “slow travel” in just one country.  Why not really get to know a place?  All we had to do was pick a country, … and set a date.  Ah, the dreaded commitment, that moment of stepping onto the roller coaster!  We hesitated.  The boys turned eight and eleven.

That year, we had our second break when a friend told us she wanted to do something similar.  Her kids and ours were playmates so doing something together might work out.  Our friend also inspired us to take the plunge.  If a single mother on a lower budget could do this, then what excuse did we have?  “What do you think about Costa Rica?” she asked.

Costa Rica appealed to us.  It was different enough yet not too scary: one of few Latin American countries that had never had a violent overthrow of government.  It had a good medical system, so we weren’t too concerned about the kids getting sick without help, or a bite from the deadly Fer de Lance far from anti-venom.  (Parents worry about such things)  Even in 2000, mosquito-borne diseases were limited to a few sections of the country, and we learned you could drink water straight from the tap almost everywhere.  Compared to my travel in Brazil in the 70s, this seemed quite manageable with kids.  I could get by in Spanish, so we could escape from English yet not be all at sea.  Best of all, we loved the focus on eco-tourism and outdoor adventures.  Oh, did I mention it was warm and sunny during our winter?

Paul and his two partners about a year before we left

Paul and his two partners about a year before we left

Cheryl and I held our breath, and made the commitment to go during the following school year, a little less than a year distant.  We began announcing our intentions and making arrangements.  Over the following six months:

  • We negotiated open-ended unpaid leaves for both Cheryl and me.  At that time, we both worked in a company in which I had a part-interest.  We had been talking about doing this for three years, so, it was relatively easy.  In hindsight, it turned out to be harder than we imagined, but that’s a story for later.
  • We gave notice on our lease.  Rather than keep our home – and a place to fret about – we chose to put everything we owned into a couple of portable storage containers.  Moving all the furniture and belongings from a typical four-bedroom house into some containers in the driveway sounds like a lot of work – but in the excitement of the impending trip, it didn’t seem so bad.  We arranged to spend the last few weeks before our trip at my parents’ place.
  • We formally registered our boys for homeschooling that school year, which would be grades four and seven for them.  In prior years, we had been part of a parent-managed Montessori school, and we chose it as our formal school partner for this registration.  The teachers offered us a few helpful suggestions, mostly around not worrying about it too much, with perhaps a bit of work on mathematics and Spalding Rules for spelling.
  • We all signed up for some elementary Spanish classes – not that the boys paid much attention.
  • We arranged to handle the finances that we couldn’t put on hold.  This primarily consisted of a good conversation with our bank manager, and enrolling my Dad to fill in any gaps.
  • We visited the local travel clinic and had all our recommended shots … and then some.
Our first discovery in CR was a local Montessori school

Our first discovery in CR was a local Montessori school

The Internet was just coming into its own as a place of travel research, so research we did.  We also canvassed our contacts for helpful ideas:  best flights, where to go in Costa Rica, what to see, what to do, best time to visit, and where to start?  By the time we said good-bye to my parents and boarded the plane for San Jose, we were about as ready as we could be.  In a future post, I’ll talk more about the planning for the trip, and the trip itself.  The unanimous vote:  it was the best six months of all our family years!

What’s your travel dream for your family?  What are you doing to make it a reality?

Best Tour Ever?

Cheryl and I recently spent a couple of weeks on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola.  We had chosen to stay in a former small fishing village, now growing in popularity with European tourists.  With few North American visitors, there was little English spoken, something that appealed to our sense of adventure.

Gourmet seafood with new friends from the dive shop

Gourmet seafood with new friends from the dive shop

Adventures came from unexpected quarters.  An aborted snorkel trip had led to our befriending the French family who ran the dive shop, and we had joined staff at their home for a gourmet seafood meal.  We’d also put our travel technology to the test.  A family health emergency at home had Cheryl trying to manage doctors’ care and hospital transfers remotely, spending hours every day sitting by the pool on her iPod skype-to-phone connection.  Maybe the stress still won out:  she spent most of the second week knocked out by a nasty bug.  After a week of house calls at the small family-run hotel, the patient was old friends with the doctor.

Doctors still make house calls in the DR

Doctors still make house calls in the DR

On the last day of our stay, I insisted Cheryl treat herself to a massage.  The stomach bugs had canceled a couple of tours so we had a cushion in the budget.  Meanwhile, I spent the morning wandering around town with my camera, taking in the sights.  The air was warming, the sun was growing hot, and I was enjoying the rhythm of the place.  Pretty girls said “hi” in passing.  Everyone seemed happy.

A young man joined me with a friendly “Hola” as I was strolling up the street.  How was I enjoying his country?  He mentioned he was one of the security guards at our hotel.  I couldn’t place him – there were a couple of shifts of each day – but I didn’t let on, and we continued to chat.  I was happy for the chance to practice my Spanish, and he seemed willing to humour me.  He asked if I liked fishing, and said he had a cousin who could give me a deal on a fishing trip.  I smiled.  We’d been declining similar offers all week, and fishing wasn’t my thing anyway.

One of the sites around town that caught my eye

One of the sites around town that caught my eye

He talked a bit about his family, and told me he was worried about his baby son.  A doctor had just told his wife that the baby wasn’t getting enough nourishment, and that she needed to start supplementing with formula right away.  He wanted to get some today, but he didn’t have the cash.  He asked if I’d be able to lend him the money and he could pay me back at the hotel that evening when he got paid.  I thought to myself that I’d likely not see the money again, and immediately felt guilty.  I reasoned that I wouldn’t mind contributing a few dollars to a struggling family.  Our short stay in their town had shown us that many here got by on very little.  I told him I could help him out.

He thanked me and suggested the easiest thing to do would be to buy the formula together, and I could pay the store directly.  He knew a store up the street a bit where the prices were lower, but he was concerned they were about to close for siesta.  He quickened his pace considerably explaining that he knew the shopkeeper and it really would be the best place to go.  As I tagged after him, we continued to talk about some of the things we’d done in the past couple of weeks.  Struggling with more complex Spanish, I told him of our own medical challenges.  A couple of times, I suggested we could stop at another store, but my new friend appeared to dislike the thought.

Out for a stroll on Main Street - what will you see?

Out for a stroll on Main Street – what will you see?

By then we’d left the part of town frequented by tourists.  I suspected that a local on a security guard’s salary would find better deals in the less upscale neighbourhood.  Just as I was about to ask how much farther, we arrived at a small grocery store – with the metal shutters down.  My companion let out an exclamation, then asked a boy sitting out front something I didn’t quite catch.  “Good news!” the distraught father said, “My friend is still inside.”  He knocked on the side door, and it opened to admit us into the dimly lit interior of the closed store.  The shopkeeper behind the counter said hello, and the two men exchanged a few words.  The young security guard asked for the formula and the shopkeeper went to the shelves and brought back a box that looked like it would last until the baby was weaned.  I felt an unpleasant taste in my throat.  While I was still recovering my equilibrium, a case of disposable diapers appeared on the counter beside the box of formula.  At my urging, the bill was quickly calculated, and the shopkeeper held out his hand for the equivalent of about sixty dollars.

At that moment, the growing unease I’d been refusing to acknowledge for the last twenty minutes asserted itself.  I saw I’d put myself into a potentially dangerous situation.  Here I was in a part of town where tourists didn’t go.  I was inside a shuttered store, with two young men, both of whom now looked surprisingly burly.  The young boy outside was probably a lookout.  The young “father” had suddenly grown shrill and demanding – I had promised to pay for the milk, after all.  I was definitely past my physical prime, and with no fighting skills to speak of.

The candidate's message: a much bigger scam?

The candidate’s message: a much bigger scam?

My priorities changed rapidly.  My overriding objective was to get back out on the street.  Giving up sixty dollars to ensure my escape seemed a small price to pay.  I didn’t even blink when the young man grabbed the extra bills from my hand as I was paying the shopkeeper.  Pushing open the door, I burst out into the bright sunlight, stepped over the boy, and high-tailed it back down the street even faster than we’d come up it.  As the shuttered shop fell behind me, I counted my losses, about $75 all told.  I imagined the milk and diapers going back on the shelves.  I wondered how many times they’d been “sold”.

The next day, as Cheryl and I were taxied out of town, we passed the store, now open.  I briefly considered stopping and raising a scene, but figured nothing worthwhile would come of it.  Besides, they’d played a good game and won.  We continued on to the airport without interruption.  Losing the money had been one thing.  The blow to my pride and self-confidence had been much worse.  How had I let myself be taken in?  “I don’t know what you were thinking!” said Cheryl.

We visited this park on one of the legal tours

We visited this park on one of the legal tours

With a bit of perspective, the money ceased to bother me.  In fact, I came to think of this experience as just one more “tour,” an educational one this time.  The price of $75 was the norm for the higher-end tours in town.  I had to admit that this was the most memorable tour I’d had in the two weeks!

Talking to strangers, meeting people when we’re on the road, these are some of greatest pleasures of travel for us.  I’ve always tended to trust people’s motives until proven otherwise – and I don’t really want to change.  Cheryl doesn’t want me to change either, but she does wish I’d be a little less willing to suspend disbelief.  Frankly, I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t fall for a scam like this quite so easily next time, so I spent some time thinking about how I fell for this one, and how I might train myself to heed the warning signs sooner next time.  I’ll share some of that next time, as well as some security tips from travel gurus.

I trust no one reading this will restrict their travels as a result of my story.  In over forty years, Cheryl and I have traveled a fair amount – and I’ve been in a few dicey locations – but all told, we’ve had very few problems between us.  A couple of pickpocket attempts, one successful one during the Munich Olympics.  I’m sure we’ve paid more than we should have for the odd purchase abroad.  In Costa Rica, I lost my electric razor to a “fisherman” – I’ve traveled with blades ever since.

Many years ago, while serving tables in a small town in Germany, I lost a hundred Deutschmarks to a winsome young German lass – almost $150 in today’s money.  I learned from the “polizei” that many other young lads in town had been fleeced during her short stay.  She knew her marks!

This lovely old hotel was the site of Paul's first "tour" - still looks lovely as ever.  I wonder if Brigitte still visits?

This lovely old hotel was the site of Paul’s first “tour” – still looks lovely as ever. I wonder if Brigitte still visits?

What about you?  Have you ever fallen prey to scams or other petty crime while traveling?