We arrived in Costa Rica two days ago for our three-month trip. As with most long travel days, our first day was stressful, chaotic, and tiring. And it came right after a long day of cleaning and prepping our house in Florida for rent and then driving three hours to Fort Lauderdale in the evening.

After getting through customs, we stopped to think and realized we didn’t have much of a plan. We’d sort of thought we’d take the bus to Grecia, which I knew from my research meant getting a bus or taxi back to the capital of San Jose (since the airport is 20 minutes outside of it in Alajuela) and then taking a bus from there to the smaller town of Grecia. Ultimately, we decided to just take a taxi directly to Grecia, since the price would be about the same to get to Grecia via bus as it would via taxi and taxi would certainly be a lot easier with four kids.

We enjoyed practicing our Spanish with the taxi driver. Well, I say “we” but I really mean “Kevin,” since my month or so of Spanish lessons back in the U.S. wasn’t enough to make me feel confident to try to speak much to the guy. But as I listened to them talking, I realized I did understand a lot more than I would have before my lessons so yay for that!

Once the taxi guy knew we were looking for a place to rent, of course he had an “amiga” who had a house for rent. So, on our way to Grecia, where we’d booked our airbnb for the first week, he stopped by Alajuela to let us take a look at the house. It was in in a gated area that he called “condos,” although they were separate, stand-alone houses. The house itself was only two bedrooms, with a double and a twin in each one. Not a lot of privacy for the parent figures on this trip. The house also had a kitchen (somewhat small but had everything we’d need), a laundry room with a washer, a dining room, bathroom, and really big living room. It was a little less than clean, but not too bad. The lady wanted $850 for it, which included all utilities: electric, Internet, cable, water, and use of the complex’s pool and tennis courts, as well as 24/7 securidad. It was okay, but we hadn’t really discussed living in Alajuela, which is only about 10 minutes from the airport and just a bit busier than we’d expected.

We told the lady all of this, as best as we could in Spanish, and she negotiated the price down to $750. Still, we told her we wanted to look around a little bit. She gave us her info and we got back on the road.

When we arrived in Grecia, the taxi driver asked us where we wanted to be dropped off. The only info I thought I had for the airbnb rental I’d saved on the photos on my phone from my emails back and forth with the owner. I saved the photos right before I had the flight attendants made me turn my phone off—I’d forgotten to do it before then. The problem came in the fact that I didn’t snapshot all the emailed info. I’d neglected to save the very detailed map the owner had sent along—which was the one bit of information we actually needed. Whew, that small error created a chaotic couple of hours for our family.

All I had as far as directions went was: “From Metal Church, 500 m east, 100 m north, 50 northeast and finally 50 meters north.” But which end of the church did we start walking?! And how many blocks was a meter? There are no addresses in Costa Rica, so directions like this are pretty common. Still, it wasn’t enough to get us to where we needed to go. In fact, the directions were downright confusing. We trekked around a bit, with all of our backpacks and a huge duffel that I’d stuffed full at the last minute and we were all tired, down on water, and had to pee. The kids were troupers, but I could tell they were fading fast. Heck, I was was fading fast, so why wouldn’t they be? Especially little 4-year-old Addy, who really remained uncomplaining throughout the whole time. We felt lost and foreign and out of place.

When we realized the futility of finding the place with the directions we had, we backtracked back to the busier area of town and stopped in a bakery. There we bought Fantas for each of the kids and a big water to share and also a bread with ham and pepperoni on it. When Kevin was paying the clerk, a fellow customer at the counter told him he could get all of that for cheaper at the grocery store right across the street. Ha! The shop keeper wasn’t very pleased about that. We didn’t mind much, though, because we just needed to get the kids out of the sun, sit down, get a drink, and also ask for directions. It seemed worth the $10 or so it cost us.

After we ate our bread and drank our drinks, we went back to the counter and showed the workers the map and directions. We asked if they could point us in the right direction. But the language barrier, along with the minimal directions, made it difficult for them to figure out. Although they were very friendly and tried to be helpful, the workers were no help. We left the shop no further along than we’d been.

We needed to get Internet somehow so we could look up the emails from the owner of the house. I knew there was something else in my airbnb inbox—at least a local phone number—that would help us find her house. At the very least, I could write her another message and hope she wrote back quickly. Kevin went into the electricity company, which sells SIM cards for our iphones (which we’d just unlocked on the way out of the U.S.) but the line was a half hour long. He came back to us where we were waiting at the park, frustrated and tired. “What should we do? I don’t want to wait that long!”

I suggested we go the taxi area and see if they could figure out the directions. After all, who knows the town better than the taxi drivers? We walked up to one of the red cabs waiting in line and showed the driver the directions we had on my phone. He had no idea where the house was and couldn’t speak any English. Even though he was pretty friendly, we were at another dead end. Just then, though, a young Tico walked up to us and asked us (in English!) if we needed help. Kevin explained to him our dilemma and showed him the map. But, again, the map we had was too vague, as were the directions. He talked to the taxi driver for a minute and the driver offered to take us to try to find it. Then he looked at our family and laughed. He had a small car and we are a big family! Still, he agreed to stuff our luggage in the trunk and let us stuff ourselves into the cab.

Sitting on each other’s laps, we drove around in circles a few times, trying to use the dumb directions, to no avail. The cab driver laughed and laughed and we had to laugh, too. The kids were pretty straight-faced, though (probably because they were tired and thirsty and had to pee). I asked if he could drop us at an Internet cafe, which he did, for $2 US for the whole driving in circles ride. And, lo and behold, the Internet cafe also sold SIM cards! After a half hour of stop and start communication with the lady in the store, Kevin finally broke the code and got a new SIM card installed in my phone! Whoo!! When we were done, we stepped outside the store, I got online on the phone and wrote to our owner, and also found THE MAP I should have saved before our flight too off. This map was very detailed and made it easy to get to the house.

We got back on the road and, using the directions, found the house on foot. By then, we were all exhausted from carrying the heavy packs. I regretted not packing even lighter than I already did, but I just don’t know how I would do that with four kids. At any rate, we found the house and met the mother of the girl I booked with. She didn’t speak much English, but her son did. They were just finishing up cleaning so we waited a minute but were just glad to be sitting down in the place we were supposed to be. What a relief.

After the lady, Sylvia, was done cleaning, she came to speak to us and we found her to be a lovely, sweet person. She showed us around the house. We thought it was beautiful! It has three bedrooms, one with a twin bed, another with a twin bed, and a third with a double and a larger twin. The bathroom is huge, with a very big shower, and extremely clean. The other rooms include a formal sitting room, a dining room, and a TV area—all three of these flow into the others—and, in the back, a kitchen with a breakfast counter, a huge back porch, and a laundry room. We loved the house immediately and asked Sylvia after the tour if she’d consider renting it for our whole three months in Costa Rica. Unfortunately, her son said that wasn’t possible since their family often uses the house. Oh well, at least we tried!

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Once we were settled in the house, we set back out on the road around 6 p.m. to find a place to get something to eat. All we’d had was a tiny chicken salad sandwich on the plane and some snacks. We ended up finding a pizza shop somewhat nearby and shared a big pizza, half pepperoni and half pepperoni and ham (which was bologna) for nueve mil, or around $18. Not bad. And the girl who  rented us the house had told me that restaurant diners don’t tip the servers in Costa Rica, so that was the final price. I hope she didn’t misdirect us on that one, as I’d hate to be known as the American family who doesn’t tip servers.

I wasn’t feeling well after dinner, probably just because of the stress of the day, so we headed straight home without stopping at a store for milk and bread, as we’d intended. We got home and I limped around helping people find their toothbrushes, get their beds situated, etc., and then fell into bed. I read for about 5 minutes before I closed my eyes at 8:30. I don’t remember anything after that and woke up 10 hours later at 6:30 a.m. to the sound of the many birds outside our window.

It was a long day and I realized two things: 1) Even though I’d planned this trip for six months, it’s simply impossible to plan everything down to the last detail; and 2) The best stories don’t come from easy times but from the difficult ones. The experiences where you’re most uncomfortable are sometimes the experiences when you grow the most.

Today has been much better. We have a place to live, at least for a week. We have Internet access and a phone, so now we can get back to work and also get to work finding a place to live after this week is up. Kevin got the SIM card for the other phone and also changed some U.S. dollars to colones, as well as picked up a few groceries. Yesterday we relaxed a little, caught up on work and schoolwork, and worked on finding a long-term place to rent.

Things here are different but, now that we’re getting acclimated, we’re feeling the richness of a new culture and getting excited to see what there is to see. We’ve “met” some people online who we will be visiting in the next few weeks, so that is exciting.

Life is good! As they say here in Costa Rica, pura vida!