Friday, December 28, 2018

Christmas in Cowtown, a Synopsis of the Sparkly

I've planned to write a blog post everyday since last week, but there was champagne and friends and family and fun until the 26th, and then there was a Trumpertantrum over an idiotic $25 billion wall that no one with any knowledge of border security thinks will do any good and that American taxpayers now have to pay for and so the government shut down and my agency ran out of funding and I stopped being paid yesterday and I've never not been paid as an attorney since the day I graduated law school and even though we have some savings and parents who can help me and we are SO MUCH luckier than so many in this awful position at this awful time of year, particularly the government contractors who don't get back pay, and those who have had their leave canceled to be forced to come to work and STILL aren't being paid and who have far more precarious financial situations and I seriously get so mad about this I can't type and that's why I haven't been, and also, even with everything I said, it is so fvcking stressful to me to not be paid that I have basically watched The West Wing for two straight nights in a catatonic state. So I haven't blogged.

My happy mental place

And now we leave for Colorado first thing tomorrow morning to go see my sister and have a mini-Christmas, and then to see my parents and their new house, and THEN the meet friends for a group ski trip we planned back in February when a third shutdown in one year when one party controlled every arm of government never even occurred to me. But here we are. The car is packed, the lift tickets and ski rentals were long since purchased, and we've packed all our food and my Prozac and it's really going to be so fun and I'm only going to check Twitter for legislative updates every hour.

But back we go to December 21st. The last day of school for the kids, it was full of caroling, class parties, and parents reading stories to kids in pajamas. I came to both kids' classes to read, as I do every year, particularly when I realized with a pang that this was Landon's last year! Six years of pajama reading days and this is the last time I'll read him Christmas Delicious in the front of his class.

This is also the first year he didn't wear pajamas, but did stick with the theme with his festive Dinosaur shirt. Claire went all in on the PJ's AND got to bring giant Pua to class and it's possible she was more excited about that than about me coming to read to her! (Except not really, her excitement was exactly equal for both.)

That night was our traditional cookie decorating party at a friend's. Always one of our favorite nights of the year, this year was made even better by another friend bringing her AMAZING homemade Pho for all of us to enjoy. I'm jealous of the me I see in these pictures eating it.

By Sunday, all the Christmas snacks were made, the barre class was taught, and we were very excited about Papa and Gigi and Uncle Eric and his girlfriend coming to visit on Christmas Eve.

So much yum, if I do say so myself

With the house clean and sparkly and ready for guests, we headed out to visit Santa with a five-year-old who was SURE she'd be happy to see him this time.

And she was. "Mommy, isn't it so nice that I like Santa now?"


On Christmas Eve morning I made these delicious cinnamon rolls one of you recommended in the comments to my Christmas cooking post from last year.

My family arrived in the afternoon and we got to meet my brother's girlfriend who we LOVE and have adopted. We played, went on a walk, and inflated the queen air bed in the TV room to fit 9 people into our 3-bedroom house. We got dressed for church and enjoyed a beautiful service near TCU.

We got back to a tasty dinner for which I used both the "Delay Start" AND "Cook Time" buttons on my oven for the first time ever! After dinner was PJs and more snacks and wine and cookies and presents! Staying up late with family to open gifts and eat snacks when it's dark outside and cozy inside is the VERY BEST THING.

Except seeing Landon's face when he opened the Nintendo Switch he never believed he'd get (and nearly didn't because I've so enjoyed our video-game-free lifestyle). That might have been even better.

The other big hits this year were: Cora getting her own big giant Pua from Uncle Eric, Claire getting the hair and makeup doll of her dreams, and all the kids getting two years of Photobooks because I'm ALL CAUGHT UP.

Those books are such a pain in my arse, but I adore them when they're finished, and it's worth every carpal-tunnel-inducing-hour I spend on them because they love them too. Landon has read his cover to cover at least three times and Claire was snuggled on the couch reading hers when I got home from yoga today. They are very special to all of us.

Gifts done (we all got sweet and thoughtful things, more on mine below), we tucked the kids in bed, cleared off the couch for Santa to come, and toddled off to bed ourselves.

Christmas morning was the bleary-eyed delight it always is. We told the kids 7:30 and 7:30 is PRECISELY when they knocked on our door. Landon got his Fort Builder set; Claire a new bike (her legs have grown so many inches in the last year!), and Cora a fairy play set.

There was brunch and games, both indoor and out, and lots of really great, really relaxed family time. And also a walk, completely with much overhead drone flying thanks to James and Eric's gifts from Papa and Gigi.

My parents managed to beat us all at corn hole and we've demanded a rematch in the snow when we get to Colorado. James and I had never been beat before. Mostly because of my graceful, one-leg-up form.

(Little time out for the ladies to get a picture. My brother's girlfriend is from Brazil and she brought us a traditional chocolate chip Christmas bread and is the sweetest and the kids love her and we enjoyed her so much.)

One of my favorite moments was in the early afternoon when we were all playing yard games in the front yard and Cora would leave my brother alone (she ADORES him) and then he put her in his truck bed and closed the top for a (brief!) break and she thought it was hilarious and climbed out and onto his feet and yelled "Mom, Uncle Eric is my BEST FRIEND" and I couldn't stop laughing.

After a delicious early dinner (mostly because I bought six kinds of cheeses to go with it), my brother and girlfriend headed home (he had to work at 6 a.m. the next morning) and the rest of us headed out to see Marry Poppins Returns! We totally loved it, mostly because Emily Blunt can carry off anything, and it was a great way to end the day.

And now I need to go to bed because we begin our road trip in precisely 8 hours, but I most make note of my most special present this year. You see, two years ago I told James I would love to one day do the 200-hour yoga teacher training, but I knew with the expense and time commitment I'd need to wait a while before making that particular dream a reality.

But a year later, and without me knowing, he started saving a painful little extra from his swim school profits every month. And on Christmas Eve this year I opened an envelope of cash, money that had been carefully tucked away every month for twelve months, along with a note to follow my dreams.

And while that money may well go to pay our bills in the short term while the government refuses to pay me for my real job, the ability to one day follow the job of my heart is the most precious and thoughtful gift I’ve ever received. I can't even put into words how much it meant to me. And while I'm currently waging an internal war between feeling stressed and yelling at myself for feeling stressed because we don't need to be stressed yet and other people have it so much more stressful, I'm taking a little break to feel pure gratitude to my thoughtful husband who worked so diligently to help me pursue my passion (and who has wanted to invest in a new swim product idea for the last year and I now realize why he didn't) just as he has said I enable him to pursue his. It'll be a little while before I can work the training into our schedule, but I simply can't wait to be a student again and begin.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Costa Rica Wrap Up: Alturas for Day 7 & Mexico City for Day 8!

The final chapter of the Costa Rica chronicles! I'm cuddled under my fuzziest blanket on the couch. Both girls are napping, James is swimming, Landon is on an outdoor adventure climbing trip he won in a raffle at a climbing competition, and every bit of my Christmas prep is done. Father of the Bride 2 is on TV, I'm swimming through my last round of vacation pictures... all is calm and bright indeed.

And so we go back to Dominical, Costa Rica where we woke up on our 7th day of vacation, after sleeping our last night in our beautiful rental house. We had to check out at 10 a.m., but we fit in a morning swim along with all the packing.

Happy Thanksgiving!

A family of Howler monkeys even walked across a tree on the property, three adults and one with a baby on her back! (Video at the bottom of this post.) They hung out for around an hour, howling and jumping about. A toucan also flew into a tree near the stairs, so we got to say hello to him too. It was such a great Thanksgiving treat and goodbye gift.

Once packed and all sweaty for it, the house manager stopped by to check us out and open the Jurassic Park gates to the house for us one last time as we drove out. We headed to Dominical to stop along the beach tables one more time so each kid could pick out a souvenir with their saved money. Dominical is so low key, there really aren't a lot of opportunities for shopping, and what there is is very chill and friendly. After MUCH agonizing, Cora settled on a small stuffed sloth, Claire got a beaded purse, and Landon chose two toucans carved out of wood. (And, not to be left out, I got a sundress!)

We said goodbye to our local beach and went across the street to a little Soda (small local restaurant) our chef had recommended the night before. Called Tiki Bar and located right next to the little grocery store we visited near-daily it was fabulous and probably our best meal of the trip.

We ordered everything. Patacones (Landon's new obsession), nachos, another round of patacones, casado con pescado, arroz con pollo, and that was just the adults! Cora requested a burrito with beans, rice, and cheese and was rewarded with a burrito the size of her head- and possibly bigger!

Concerned about future tummy aches, I reminded her to only eat as much as her stomach says it wants.

"My tummy is telling me to eat ALL of this mom," she told me very seriously. And she nearly did.

After lunch we headed to the Alturas Wildlife Sanctuary, a short 10 minute drive away.

We'd saved this activity for our last day, knowing we'd have to be out of the house and hoping to not get wet before our 3 hour drive back to San Jose to spend the night.

The Wildlife Sanctuary is part of a tract of land owned by the Villas Alturas hotel. The hotel owner donated the land when he heard that a different animal sanctuary was closing down and all the animals would be euthanized. It's a gorgeous spot, with the best views of the Pacific we'd had on the trip. The tour guide met us in the hotel lobby- an American expat who started as a volunteer and is now a full time employee of Alturas.

The sanctuary was an amazing and touching experience. There are people doing such wonderful work in the world.

If you're on the central Pacific coast, I highly highly recommend a visit for any age. It's a busy and active wildlife rescue and rehabilitation center and most of it is not open to the public to avoid stressing the animals or interfering with the process to dehumanize them and reintroduce them back into the wild, but there is one small part for their permanent residents- animals too physically or psychologically scarred to be released, and we got to tour that. We got to hear each animal's story- many heart-breaking, but all ultimately hopeful as they found their way to Alturas.

I won't do any of the stories justice by trying to recreate them here, really you just need to go to Dominical and go on the tour. From Julietta, the parrot who was kept in a tiny cage of a hotel in San José with French owners, who doesn't know she can fly, mimics kids laughter, and sings to French Opera; to the Aracari with a badly broken wing that even once set wasn't functional anymore who gets visits from a local Aracari flock who deliver him his favorite nuts through the slats of his habitat; to the 2 and 3-toed sloths, to the monkeys, capybara, and even a small deer. They'll take in any animal delivered to them, have a full time vet on staff, and a former orthopedist (for humans!) who retired in the area and comes to read x-rays and help set bones when they need it. They once had a baby hummingbird brought to them and they fed it on demand every 15 minutes 24 hours a day for 30 days until it was strong enough to be released. They also work a lot on education to reduce animal trafficking, working with the Interior Department to build monkey bridges over highways, and more. They're a 501(c)(3) if you're looking for an animal cause to donate to! (It was Landon's chosen charity this year.)

The wildlife tour took about 2 hours and then we started our drive back to San José to spend the night before our crack-of-dawn flight the next morning. We got to the hotel (the same one we stayed at our first night in Costa Rica), walked to get some dinner, and then went to bed at 7 p.m., setting our alarms for the unholy hour of 2:55 a.m. to get up for our 6:00 flight. We were in the hotel lobby by 3:30 and on our way to the airport with the transfer van the hotel arranged for us (the free shuttle begins at 5 a.m., which should be early enough but sadly for us, was not). The sweet overnight desk clerk had packed us a breakfast to-go since we were missing the buffet and that kept the kids busy on the short ride to the airport.

We were at the airport by 4, which is horrifically early, but the kids were great and security took about 3 minutes. The kids insisted on sitting together on the plane, so I got to watch chick-flicks uninterrupted on the in-flight entertainment while James slept and kept the plane in the air by gripping the armrests and everyone was happy. We landed in Mexico City about 9 a.m., went through customs, and went to put our bags in the lockers I'd read about online only to find the lockers were full. So back up the stairs we went to the departures counter and asked if we could change our carry-on only status to add five checked bags for our next flight. That was no problem, so off went our suitcases for our 4:00 p.m. flight, and out we walked from the airport, each with just our backpacks that we'd originally also hoped to store.

We caught a cab van to head into the historical Zócalo city square. We had a 5 hour layover and were determined not to spend it all in the airport. So the Zócalo it was. The 5 mile ride took 45 minutes- traffic was insane and eye-opening. Very much revealing the very large, very different city that it was. Cora fell asleep (she's like a cat) but the big kids watched, eyes wide, as bicycles, motorcycles, trucks, vans, cars, and cabs squeezed through two lanes in and around each other on our journey.

We got dropped off in the Zócalo and explored the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. Wikipedia informed me it was a "simple" and "not ornate," but we found it impressive all the same.

After wandering the square we asked a tour guide for a recommendation on a good local lunch. We followed his directions down the República de Brasil to the Plaza de Santo Domingo for street-corner quesadillas, flautas, gorditas, and chicharrones.

We ate on overturned buckets and ordered food until we were full.

9 plates and $12 later and we were immensely satisfied with our Mexico City excursion. My quesadilla had french fries in it- I can't think of anything better than that.

Lunch complete, we walked back to the Plaza de la Constitución and flagged a cab for the airport.

It took a little while to find one that would take US dollars (and understand our attempts at high school Spanish - two things that were never once a problem in Costa Rica), but find one we did and off we went. The kids and I crammed into the back, James trying not to get car sick in the front.

The kids were delighted and amazed by the manual window crank. There were major negotiations on who got to roll down the window and how many times and Claire exclaimed for the first time on the trip, "Mom! I wish my friends were here so I could show them this amazing thing!"

We got back to the airport about 1:00 with plenty of time to go through security and charge up all our devices before our 3:30 flight. The kids were total troopers- we'd been up for 12 hours by the time we were boarding flight #2 and they were still full of smiles.

We landed at DFW around 6:30, went through customs (Mobile Passport app FTW!), took the bus to our car, and then drove home, walking in the door about 8 p.m., 17 hours and 3,000 miles away from where we woke up.

I can't believe we've been back for less than a month- it already feels so far away! It was an extraordinary trip. Bright, beautiful, fun, and friendly. I can't recommend Costa Rica as a destination more highly. Links to everything we did and where we stayed below:

Condo: VRBO rental
Flight: Booked through Cheapoair (I obsessively shopped flights and ended up getting ours for $305 roundtrip/person, which is pretty great. We had a layover in Mexico City each way, but that's nearly impossible to avoid without paying 3x as much, and on the way back we opted for a longer layover to get out and see a little bit of the city.)
San Jose Hotel: Country Inn & Suites by Radisson, Aeropuerto, San Jose. We had a 2-level, 2-bedroom, 2-bathroom suite for $98/night with a fantastic breakfast included. Highly recommend.

Car Rental: Adobe (through the discount code on this website: 20% off and free car seats). They delivered the car to the hotel and then we were able to just leave it there and leave the keys with the front desk when we got back; it worked out great and they were easy to work with.

Zip Line: Osa Canopy Tour
Snorkel Trip: Bahia Adventures
Waterfalls: Nauyaca Falls & Catarata Uvita

- Tiki Bar
- Porqueno
- Cafe Mono Congo
- Soda Ranchito Dona Maria
Playa Hermosa
- Bowie's Point

Random/helpful info:
- The local currency in Costa Rica is colones. We never exchanged money as everywhere we went took US dollars, from the toll booths to the local grocery store and shops. You'll generally get change back in colones, and the few times I bothered to check the math on my phone their exchange rates and change making was always correct. We generally used cash for smaller shops, local restaurants, and tolls and credit card for the larger businesses like the tour company and restaurants that were part of hotels.
- Spanish is the local language, but English is everywhere too. Every menu in every restaurant we went to, no matter how tiny, had English translations under all the Spanish menu items (though the cost was listed just in colones). All the guides and anyone in anything related to tourism spoke fluent English and anyone else we came into contact with had enough for us to get by, even if we hadn't had several years of Spanish between us. James loved trying to pick his Spanish back up, whereas I got nervous each time I tried and reverted back to only translating what the locals said to the kids.
- The food was fantastic- fresh, healthy, and flavorful without being spicy (my favorite). Very little is fried and rice and beans are present at every meal. The little Sodas we went to loved having the kids and pancakes were available at every meal along with the rice and beans (my kids' version of culinary heaven).
- Gas is full service only and the price is regulated by the state, so it costs the same anywhere you stop. Gas stations were plentiful enough that it was never stressful to find one, but you do want to fill up when you get down to a 1/4 tank because many (most) of the towns along the coast do not have one.
- Navigation was done through Waze or Google Maps. Both worked great, even on the tiny unpaved road to our rental house, and even though very few places have actual addresses or street names. I'd just type in the name of the destination and off we'd go, turning whenever my phone told us to. Driving was far less stressful than I thought it would be based on what others had told me. (If you're in Dominical you definitely need four wheel drive, you couldn't drive up to our house or several of our other destinations without it.)

If you have any questions, let me know! We'll be back to our holiday programming soon!