Friday, June 23, 2017

Pura Vida, Mr. Horsey

I'm going to continue with Costa Rica stories even though it feels like ages since we've been there. My recollection of events may be rusty due to the passage of time; I have a short attention span and a sieve-like mind. 

But I owe it both to myself and my kids to try and preserve as much of life as I can, even if some of it is fuzzy around the edges. Someday when all our minds are soft like mozzarella, we can look back at these pages and say, "Oh yes, I remember that now. We once tried to fight a hot water bottle with an umbrella in Costa Rica." 

Part One of Costa Rica ended with a graphic birth photo. What I neglected to mention was the day we saw that calf being born on a dairy farm was also the day I was birthed by my awesome mama in similarly graphic fashion 42 years ago. That calf and I are both Aries. We are both enthusiastic and optimistic but also short-tempered and impatient. High five, my similarly infuriating calf brother.

When the driver to our next resort heard it was my birthday, he suggested we stop and buy beer for the occasion. I was confused at first: "'s OK.....I mean, they'll have beer at the resort, right?" and he said, "Yes, of course, but I didn't mean for the resort, I meant for the CAR!"

That's when I learned people can drink beer in cars in Costa Rica. Not the driver, of course, which we can all agree is for the best, but open container = no problem. Pura Vida!*

(*As for the exact usage of the Costa Rican expression, "Pura Vida," best we can tell is it's a bit of an "Aloha" situation. It can mean hello, goodbye, enjoy your life, have a great day, have a shitty day I don't care, etc. etc. It can mean just about anything. One meaning, however, is set in stone -- Pura Vida means you're in Costa Rica, baby.)

We agreed with the driver that car beer was a great idea -- we were giddy with rebelliousness -- and stopped to pick up a six pack of Costa Rica's favorite, Imperial. It felt odd to be in the passenger seat drinking a beer. Alex had a few, too, and soon thereafter began yelling, "PURA VIDA" at high volume and at regular intervals from the backseat of the car.

The driver may have regretted the beer idea when Alex began yelling but he was still very friendly and entertained us for several hours with fun stories like, "A bus missed this very turn and plunged over the side in 1980, killing three of my childhood friends" and "Everyone driving on this section of road died when the earthquake hit six years ago because landslides wiped out everything."

He said all these things with a broad happy smile on his face so.... is bad news really happy news in Costa Rica?

We got out of the car here because our driver wanted to point out all the areas of devastation the massive earthquake in 2011 created. 
Alex took the time to stretch; he was trying to ignore the fact we could die right now, too, 
if another quake hit, and instead focus on his muscles.

After several hours, our cheerful bummer driver dropped us at our resort just outside La Fortuna, next to the Arenal Volcano, a resort called Leaves and Lizards Retreat.

Leaves and Lizards is in the rainforest, quite a different scene from the mountainous region we'd just left near the Poas Volcano Lodge. If you're headed into the rainforest anytime soon, I hope you don't like to sleep. The rainforest is a thunderous beast; the roaring downpours in the middle of the night (every night) are like no decibel level you've ever experienced unless for some reason you've found yourself standing directly in front of a jet engine. We should have known we were in for a treat when we commented our rental cottage came equipped with 500 sets of earplugs.

such a peaceful place during the day

Rain rarely disturbs me (I live and love in Seattle) but that first night I sat bolt upright in bed, clutching the sheets to my face and yelling, "WE'RE GONNA DIE!" I assumed for a good hour our cottage was about to wash down the hill and splinter into jagged pieces at the bottom. Didn't take long for the kids to run into the room and bury their faces in each of my shoulders. Good times.

It's intense stuff, a rainstorm in a rainforest. And when it's not raining, before and after those storms, the creatures in the trees and brush surrounding you are just about as loud. The animals make screechy startling noises all night long. They don't give a rip if you can't sleep -- "We're animals, b*tch, get outta our house!"

Our cabin was the farthest from the dining room so came equipped with two flashlights. We were advised upon check-in to take the flashlights to dinner so we could make our way back to our cottage afterwards. It sounded fun at the time, kind of like camping.

Leaves and Lizards is a small-ish resort, only nine or ten cabins, and each cabin has its own designated table in the dining room. The dining room is open air with a pool right beside it and a stunning view of the Arenal Volcano on clear days.

It's a dunking Coco

The first night at dinner we really made an entrance. A giant clacking bug flew up to us as soon as we walked in and really took a shine to Lucien. The bug began clacking loudly as he circled Lucien's head and attempted repeatedly to land on his face. Lucien, sometimes one to keep his cool but not this time, immediately took off running through the dining room, arms flailing, clawing at his face and hollering, "IT'S TRYING TO KILL ME, MOM!"

Alex and I waved enthusiastically at everybody and said, "Hi, guys! We're new!" as Lucien continued to run circles around the pool yelling and swatting at himself. Coco took this opportunity to walk over to the pool to feel the temperature of the water and immediately fell into the shallow end. We have arrived, Leaves and Lizards, we have arrived.

Alex wrapped Coco in a towel and we calmly took our seats at the table glaringly labeled with our cabin name on a sign stuck into the table centerpiece. We didn't know where Lucien was at this point but were comforted we could still hear him screaming somewhere out there on the property.

You could almost hear the silent looks family members shared at other tables. The looks spoke words and the words were, "We should perhaps steer clear of the Hummingbird Hacienda."

The kids and I returned to the cottage alone in the pitch dark that night because Alex needed to answer some work emails and the dining room was the only place with WiFi. The three of us walked with our sole flashlight amidst the loudest animal cacophony I've ever heard. I got disoriented at a fork in the road and took the wrong prong, which freaked us out when we didn't recognize any of the things we were passing. Being disoriented in the rainforest in the pitch black night with my two little kids and no cell reception was, ahem, not super comfortable.

The animals were with us all the way, though, as I turned around and picked our way back to that fork in the road. The rainforest emitted shrieks and hums and squawks and clacks from all sides. Coco, Lucien and I huddled together in a tightly wound ball because we weren't sure which, if any, of those animals were likely to attack.

But hearing all of those gorgeous things living their animal lives in the treetops and brush was also indescribably moving. It damn near took my breath away. Even though I was still super freaked out by the darkness and the getting turned around and whatnot, I made the kids stop and just listen. I knew we'd never hear anything like it ever again. It calmed us a bit, standing still listening to the sounds the rainforest has always made. What a goddamn amazing place.

We all made it back to the Hummingbird Hacienda safely that night. But the kids still slept in our bed because they remained a touch jittery, plus a thunderstorm seemed fit to shake our cottage apart again.

Hi, I'm Conan.

Leaves and Lizards is known for it's innovative "Eponicity" equine learning program. It's what brought our family to the resort in the first place, the chance to bond with horses beyond your basic bland nose-to-butt trail ride.

There's a whole theory behind Eponicity -- and a documentary currently being made about it so you should check it out someday -- but the bottom line is horses are our friends and you should get to know your horse before you just jump on his back and start riding him. If you don't spend the time earning his horsey respect first, you are putting the horse in a very uncomfortable situation. Historically speaking, before humans, the only things that have regularly jumped on the backs of horses without context are things with large teeth intent on murder and dinner.

Horses may be domesticated but they are still hardwired to be leery of things on their backs out of the blue. If you just jump on yahoo-style, they may at first be afraid of you, then will probably resent you and think you are a dildo, perhaps even a dildo out to kill them.

I am not an expert on this theory so please take all the above as a grossly inaccurate summary of Eponicity's basic tenets. As I mentioned before, my memory gets hazy nearly immediately following an event.

There is a two-hour Eponicity training course before you're allowed to get on your horse. There are exercises you must complete with your horse before you're permitted to ride, such as leading him around behind you by the reins until he stops immediately whenever you stop. After that, you move on to dropping the reins and getting him to follow you without being led, still stopping when you stop.

After that, you move onto the more advanced steps, such as playing Scrabble with your horse and writing a love letter to your horse. Finally, you must take your horse out for a beer and play his favorite songs on the jukebox. It's all about building trust and familiarity. It's an intense process.

(I am so happy I have time to draw these pictures again)

Horses are very sensitive creatures. They can pick up on your breathing patterns, know how nervous or not nervous you are to be around them, hear the tone of your voice or sense the conviction behind your actions and know whether or not you mean what you say. If I ordered my horse to follow me but was also distracted, maybe looking around for Alex or the kids at the same time, that horse wasn't gonna buy it and would plant his feet firmly in the earth like, "woman, please."

Horses know a spacey, distracted leader is not one worth following.
I'm lookin' squarely at you, there, homeland.

This was the pairing ceremony. 
We were paired with our horses based on common interests, places we've traveled, 
and senses of humor.

I was paired with Conan. Coco had Dorado. I don't remember Lucien's horse's name because my mind is a sieve. I do remember Alex was paired with a feisty thing named J.R. J.R. always had to be way at the back of the group because he had a penchant for kicking other horses and would sometimes bite their butts if too close.

That pairing ceremony was spot on. J.R. found his soulmate because Alex can also be ornery, with sometimes controversial ways of interacting with his peers.

The kids and I are ready to go. 
We have sufficiently bonded with our horses and have passed many tests.
Alex is still wandering around somewhere trying to bond with J.R.
and probably trying to keep him from biting butts.

PS. I creamed Conan at Scrabble that horse can't spell ha ha ha

There are no rules on a Costa Rican trail ride. There is no nose-to-butt, you can do what you want. Faster horses passed slower horses by nudging them aside. Slower horses were free to plod along as slowly as they'd like and not feel badly about themselves. If you had horse smarts, you were allowed to take your horse full throttle when you hit an open field, then join the rest further up the road whenever you were done sowing the wild oats. 

My Conan was on the slow side, Coco's Dorado even slower. And God help poor J.R. who was antsy and wanted badly to push the other horses aside but was forced to stay at the back of pack by the guides on account of his antisocial behavior. At one point Alex, feeling his new horse friend's pain, asked, "If this horse is so damn difficult, why do you let people ride him?" The guides just laughed. The rules in Costa Rica are different, you see. 

Lucien had one of the fastest horses of the entire group. What's-his-name wanted to run so the guides told Lucien to hang on and let him run. And then he was off. It wasn't my most comfortable moment, watching my kid bounce off towards the horizon, but I could tell by his "WHOOOO" that he was OK with it. Sometimes you just gotta let your kids go, especially when they're running away from you on fast horses and you can't even dream of catching up because Conan is a lazy SOB. 

We reached our destination after a few hours of riding through howler monkeys in trees and poison dart frogs being colorful against fallen brown leaves: a waterfall down in the valley. Our group took turns changing into their bathing suits behind a thin curtain which shielded you on one side but didn't do much for all the other sides. You best hope you're not traveling with a perv.

Then we all went swimming at the base of the falls. The group was euphoric, so much laughter and splashing and hollering. I did briefly consider the scary creatures that could potentially be swimming around in the water with us but once I jumped into the cold splashy water, I didn't much care.

We returned on our tired horses to Leaves and Lizards, greasy from sunscreen and sticky from bug spray, muddy from wading through the banks and changing with no towels, and all sorts of humid and crispy.

If it's not yet been made obvious, I dream of the place every day.
You complete me, Conan.
(but shmurdgzf is still not a word)

There will be more chapters of Costa Rica. At the rate I'm going, maybe 20. But I can finally write them because I don't have anything else to do now that my Paris manuscript is with an editor in NYC (though she didn't respond to my latest email so I hope she hasn't fallen off a cliff clutching my manuscript in her hands) and the people I know here in Mexico have written me off as a hermit. 

Pura Vida!
(whatever it means, it seems we should all embrace it on the daily)

PS. Watch and learn. Lucien is still too distracted to earn the respect of his horse. Coco is too small but working through it. British Dad has gotten his horse to follow him without a lead and stop when he stops, true, but he has yet to teach him euchre or give him a hoof massage. They all have a ways to go.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Giant memoir and magic village

A deadline has been met. The first draft of a very lengthy and plodding War and Peace-like Paris memoir manuscript has been sent to my developmental editor in New York City. There are not enough exclamation points in the world to punctuate that sentence so I'm going to leave them out and go for "calm and understated."

At this point, that beast of a book is 5,000,000 words and is so, so boring. I've stared at the words I wrote back in Paris for so long, they have lost all meaning and I've lost all perspective. I can no longer differentiate between "an interesting story" and "a stupid snoozefest of a story" so said, "f*ck it" and threw everything into the soup.

I included a story, only a few paragraphs long, about me exchanging compliments with the man who owned the boutique outside our building. I included long aimless tales of searching for bottlecaps in the streets with Lucien but -- spoiler alert -- sometimes we didn't find any. I included three pages about a dinner where the climax, and only remotely mildly interesting thing that happened, was Coco pelting me in the head with a piece of pineapple.

I have no idea what I'm doing. I vacillate wildly between joy -- "this is going to be a great book!" -- and despair -- "this is going to be a f*cking terrible book!" I'm hopeful it will be made more clear after a couple rounds of editing; I'm hopeful my editor will be able to wade through the muck and pull out some diamonds.

The only downside to devoting these many months in Mexico to compiling my humongous manuscript is I haven't lived life to the fullest in Mexico City. From the time the kids head off to school to the time they come home, I don't move much. I stare at my laptop screen, sometimes blankly, for hours -- write delete write delete -- and play with fidget spinners when the words refuse to do what I want them to do.

Mario, our driver, texts me a daily anxious, "Are you sure you don't want to go anywhere today, Ms. MJ?" Paulina, our housekeeper, may suspect I'm agoraphobic and definitely suspects I'm emotionally unstable by the way I scream while aggressively manhandling the backspace key. I don't think Paulina has ever seen me put on real clothing (it's the pajama and yoga life for me) and go outside, but perhaps she also firmly believes that it's in the best interest of the general public.

My submission deadline was the day before my bestie from Seattle arrived. We set that submission date intentionally. I didn't want the book hanging over my head while Seattle Mom was here, didn't want to be distracted to the point of suddenly yelling, "Yes! That's how to make that toilet paper story really pop" and taking off in the direction of my laptop, leaving Seattle Mom confused and alone in the dust of Teotihuacan.

Distraction free and climbing pyramids again
I will never tire of them

Seattle Mom was our final visitor. I loved seeing all my favorite tourist sites one more time, loved seeing yet another friend who never thought they wanted to come to Mexico City fall in delirious love with the place. Seattle Mom walked through our neighborhood agog, absorbing all the sidewalk cafes lining the streets and the impeccably dressed waiters and the beautiful parks full of lounging people. She said, "It feels just like a European city except everybody is warm and friendly!"

Templo Mayor, the Aztec ruins in the middle of the city

sitting on top of a pyramid looking over at another pyramid

I'm back again, Frida, I can't quit you

we ate the best food

and this is by far the best picture we've ever taken together with a toilet in a castle

We took Seattle Mom on a day trip to Tepoztlán, one of our favorite towns about an hour outside the city. Tepoztlán is charming, not touristy, surrounded by mountains. It's the type of authentic Mexican town where cars often share narrow streets with old men riding burros.

Tepoztlán is one of the dozens of "Pueblo Mágicos," or "magical villages" to be found throughout rural Mexico. Pueblo Mágicos are villages whose cultural, historical, or natural treasures have been deemed -- surprise! -- magical. They transport visitors back in time, far from cheesy all-inclusive resorts and buffet dinners and cheap fruity cocktails with tiny umbrellas in them. The Pueblo Mágicos are truly the Mexico worth getting to know.

The Tepozteco pyramid sits atop a mountain overlooking Tepoztlán. The hike up to it was originally described to us by friends as "a moderately strenuous walk, just a lot of stairs" but in reality was "a stupid hard climb with no 'stairs' to be seen, only slippery boulders occasionally placed in stair-like formation, better suited for a mountain goat to climb than a human being."

It seems our friends and I
do not share the same definition of "moderate"
nor "stairs."

It was much harder than we anticipated. It was also crowded. We also had Lucien and Coco but, thank the ancient Tepoztlán Gods, they were intrigued and excited by the complexity of the climb instead of made crabby by it. They did not complain on the hour long slog straight up the mountain, a fact that seems to lend credence to the belief Tepoztlán is magic.

Something had gone terribly wrong with our hats
by the time we reached the top. 
Seattle Mom's no longer wanted to hold its shape
and mine sat ten feet off the top of my head.
Everything else was great, though.

Seattle Mom doesn't speak any Spanish so I was in charge of our Spanish-speaking needs during our Mexico City wanderings. It made for some great comedy. Sometimes I would ask a question and get an answer back in a rapid torrent of unidentifiable words. As the speaker spoke his incomprehensible message at inhuman speed, I would turn to Seattle Mom, smile big and say, "I have no idea what's happening right now." Then we would laugh and laugh and walk off, never having learned the answer to our question. That's OK, we like a little mystery.

I'm not sure what I told this server 
when he asked what ingredients we wanted in our salsa. 
But I must have told him something 
because he hand ground it right there in front of us. 

Alex and Coco are back in Seattle for two weeks. It's a long story (and one that caught us by surprise) but to make it short, the only way to guarantee Coco's spot at her school in the Fall is to have her finish out this academic year as a "short term returning student." Alex had to go back to Seattle for meetings anyway so I packed her a suitcase and off they went. 

Her return to her old school was glorious. She was treated as celebrity. I hear there was a lot of hugging, squealing, jumping up and down, and crying. Coco loves her friends and her teacher in Seattle and has talked about them near constantly since we landed in Mexico over six months ago. It's obvious Coco left her heart in Seattle and I'm happy she's been reunited with her people.

I've never been away from her this long, though, and it's weird and I don't like it. At least I know she's in capable and lovably nutty hands. I called upon our circle of friends for help with childcare and ended up with a complex spreadsheet entitled, "The Coco Shuffle." Coco has indeed been shuffled to school, to houses after school, to birthday parties, to sleepovers, all by our people while Alex attends work meetings and late work dinners. We are lucky and grateful.

There was another happy reunion in Seattle --

Natani apparently "lost her bananas" when she saw Coco, one of her two most cherished tiny people in the world. She was later inconsolable when Coco got back into the car to head to the next leg of her shuffle. She sat at the window and whimpered for hours, straining for another glimpse of her favorite girl out the window.

My heart hurts for her. I promise she's coming back for good soon, doggo.

Lucien and I are enjoying our one-on-one time. It's such a rarity. It reminds me of Paris in a way, just The Loosh and I taking on a foreign city all day long. We are celebrating our time by going out to eat often at our favorite restaurants and watching many movies, some at the theaters but most at home after school. We're being selective about what we watch, choosing only the most promising titles from the Netflix and Amazon Prime menus, such as this obvious award winner --

Now that the manuscript is out of my hands for a whole 4-6 weeks, I've got time to blog again. There's so much to catch up on, so much I'd like to capture before we're gone. I sure hope I get to it all. I should also leave the apartment sometime soon so Paulina and Mario can stop worrying about me.

Tired wannabe author out,

PS. For the record, it wasn't a misnomer. That was truly a big ass spider --