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A Warm Welcome to Costa Rica from your Friendly Neighborhood Denny’s

Today was our travel day. We took a direct flight from IAD to San Jose, Costa Rica. The airport is quite small and before we knew it we were outside. I had hoped to find an ATM to take out colones for the next day or so but all I could find was a money changer charging obscene rates. So off we went with no local currency. 

The plan was to take a free hotel shuttle to the airport Holiday Inn and wait there for our van to the coast. We looked in vain for any kind of signage that would indicate where the shuttles stop but to no avail. Fortunately, the locals were very friendly. Normally when a local approaches an obviously lost or confused tourist who no doubt just got off a long flight I assume it’s to perpetuate some kind of scam. Like when we were charged 5 times the normal rate for a ride from the airport in Athens. I was pleasantly surprised when several taxi touts, out of the apparent goodness of their hearts, helped us figure out where to stand to wait for the shuttle. I started to relax and thought, “Bienvenidos a Costa Rica”.

The hotel the shuttle went to is part of a complex that includes a casino, Denny’s restaurant and another hotel. I tried to change money in the hotel but they wouldn’t do that for people not staying there. So I ventured into the casino and, after a couple of attempts, managed to take out some cash. The chief impediment on my first try was I had absolutely no idea what the exchange rate was. Faced with a set of very large numbers I was unsure if I was taking out the equivalent of $50 or $500. A quick check of the Internet confirmed the actual number was more like $100.

We had a few hours to kill before our van arrived and there wasn’t much to do, aside from gambling, so we ate lunch in Denny’s. Yes we did. Our first meal in Costa Rica was not some local speciality, like the gallo pinto that can be found everywhere, but good old American diner food. Welcome to Costa Rica.

At long last we boarded our small van, operated by Interbus, for the 3-hour trip to Manuel Antonio. Said trip would have been 30 minutes shorter had we not stopped at the tourist trap souvenir shop which also serves as a transfer point for people going to other destinations. I was adamantly against buying a bunch of souvenirs before we had even spent any time in country. On ice cream, I relented.  After a long day, we arrived a the Hotel Verdemar around 7 pm pretty zonked and not at all hungry. Nothing tells you you’re near the equator more than 6 pm sunset in April. As it was quite warm, we took a quick nighttime dip in the lovely hotel pool and dipped our toes in the nearby ocean before crashing.


Spotted on a minivan in Lorton, VA


Dublin with Kids: From the Dublin Zoo to the Dead Zoo with some unanticipated quantum mechanics

Two must-see attractions for traveling in Dublin with kids are the Dublin Zoo and the so-called “Dead Zoo.” Our order of events was entirely dictated by the forecast which called for perfect park weather on Day 2 and rain on Day 3. Thus we did the live zoo before the dead zoo. We definitely made the right call but if you have a choice, consider reversing these for reasons which will become apparent.

Getting to the Dublin Zoo by public transport from the City Centre involves taking the 46A bus to its terminus at the southeastern edge of Phoenix park and walking for about 15 minutes to the entrance of the zoo. If you don’t have a good map of the park, stick to the road because there’s little signage within the park. Actually, there’s little signage anywhere and we found ourselves following other travelers with short people and hoping for the best.

The Dublin Zoo is shockingly expensive (44.5 euro) to a family from DC where many attractions, including our zoo, are free. But if you couple this activity with the Dead Zoo, which is free, then the hit to your travel budget for two days of fun isn’t too bad.

And it’s a lovely zoo. Is it just me or is the whole thing not laid out in the shape of a giraffe head and neck?

What animal is this?

The highlight for me was getting up close and personal with the tiger prowling in front of the viewing window so closely we could have reached out and touched it.

Tiger, meet your baby

“Baby Bengal, say hello to your ancestor!”

The highlight for the girls was the multitude of playgrounds we encountered in the Zoo and Phoenix Park. (Maybe I should start a Playgrounds of the World with Kids blog since that’s what “adventuring” seems to mean these days. Patience, mama.)

Playground at the Dublin Zoo

Kid magnet in the Dublin Zoo

Phoenix Park itself is gorgeous so do orient yourself and stroll back to the bus stop this way.

Phoenix Park

Just another beautiful Irish pond

Between the bus rides, miles of walking, playground hopping, and bird chasing, this is an all-day affair. One suggestion: Don’t allow yourself to become hostage to the zoo’s greasy lunch offerings, which included the omnipresent chicken nuggets and french fries. Even the “veggie wrap” was a fried potatoey patty smothered in mayonnaise. The less said, the better.

On Day 3 our good weather fortune finally expired. It rained heavily in the morning and we had to go out in it to get to the Museum of Natural History, also known as the Dead Zoo. It’s been dubbed so because of the extensive collection of taxidermy. It boasts quite an impressive collection of stuffed giraffes, elephants, and tigers along with a giant whale skeleton hung from the ceiling. The first floor is dedicated to native Irish fauna with the second floor showcasing mammals from around the world. Upper floors were off limits but, really, how many cases of dead things does one really need to look at in a day? (Answer when it’s pouring rain outside: As many as you can and then some.) Don’t get me wrong, the kids absolutely loved this place but, having gone to the Dublin Zoo the day before, we found ourselves saying, “Hey, we saw a live one of that yesterday,” a lot. The dead ones lost a little of their luster because of it.

Dead Zoo Whale

Dead things at the Dead Zoo

Since it was still raining we headed around the corner to the (also free) archaeology museum. Not so kid-friendly, I enjoyed it for the Viking history exhibit, with miniature model boat and lots of axe heads, swords and spears. Lunch in the cafe was surprisingly upscale food with lots of cold vegetable salads and tarts. Not quite ready to give up we headed to Dublin Castle and walked around outside for awhile. The only way inside was a guided tour and they were booked up for the next few hours. There was a very cool set of sand sculptures in the center that were some kind of paean to Irish science.

William Rowan Hamilton

William Rowan Hamilton

Yes, that Hamilton

Someday I’ll start a Quantum Mechanics Landmarks of the World with Kids blog.

A leisurely stroll back through Temple Bar with a stop off for hot chocolates and coffees.

Hot chocolate

Perfect treat for a rainy day

An attempt to stop in a Spar for provisions for a simple in-room dinner were aborted due to incorrigible behavior by the girls. We ended up getting a pizza from La Pizza (imagine that) and eating in the room. Not our best. day. evar. in Ireland.

Top things I miss the most after leaving Houston, Texas

    As promised here is my companion piece to the post about things I’m glad to leave behind in our move from Houston to Washington, DC. This time I pine for the things I find myself missing already.

  1. World-class medical facilities. Yes, I know that other cities have good doctors and hospitals, but no other can boast of the world’s largest medical center, all within a couple miles from home. First-rate women’s hospital? Check. Pediatric urologist? Check. Pediatric ophthalmologist? Check. When I contract some rare disease on our future exotic family travel adventures, I’ma come back to Houston for treatment.
  2. Chiles Rellenos at Taco Milagro. I have certain dishes I’ll always miss from the places I’ve lived. In western New York it was the pad thai at Mamasan’s; in California, it was the veggie burger and fries at Bishop Burger (now closed, I’m told) and the Sweet Basil Tofu at Thai-rrific. Not only is Taco Milagro where I discovered my passion for sipping tequila, but one of their signature dishes is vegetarian. The chiles rellenos at Taco Milagro are poblano peppers stuffed with cheese (worth falling off the dairy-free wagon), dried apricots and nuts, smothered in a tasty sauce and served with rice and beans. Absolute heaven. Especially with a fine tequila.
  3. Central Market. Is there another grocery store in the country that can hold a candle to this cathedral of food? Fresh produce for miles, an extensive and comprehensive bulk foods department, world-class bakery featuring store-made whole-wheat tortillas (sometimes still warm!) and chocolate cherry bread, excellent prepared foods and a decent floral department.
  4. Low cost of living. As we just moved to one of the most expensive housing markets in the nation, I will look back and remember that in Houston a quarter of a million dollars (in 2002) got us a very nice three-bedroom ranch with pool close in to where we work. In DC, that won’t even buy you a decent studio apartment.
  5. Reasonable traffic. What? Anyone who lives in a mansion in Pearland or Katy fights horrendous traffic on a daily basis. So how can I count this among the things I miss about Houston? Two reasons. I lived close in (see above) and didn’t have to get on the crowded freeway everyday. And everyday trips to run errands did not involve logistical planning to figure out whether parking is available, or free, or what combination of Metro stations or bus routes are involved. If I needed to run an errand, I got in my car, drove a short distance, parked, shopped and returned home. Simple.

You know it’s time to leave Houston when…

As I celebrate the sale of our house in Houston, which we left four months ago for our next big adventure in DC, I’ve become contemplative about my hometown of the last 13 years. Raised in western New York, I never in a million years expected a Texas city to become the place I would live the longest since leaving my parents’ home at age 17. I originally came to Houston on a temporary assignment and expected to stay no more than two years. Yet as the years passed, the first house was purchased, two li’l Texans were spawned, and Houston came to feel like home, if always a little surprisingly. The city has a lot to offer, as a companion piece will argue, but there are aspects I’ll gladly leave behind, some tongue-in-cheek and others dead serious.

You know it’s time to leave Houston and Texas when…

  1. You start using “fixing to” in everyday speech. I’m fixing to prune that sago this weekend.
    1. You’ve had to stop yourself from dropping the ‘g’ in “fixing to” in written prose.
  2. You hear yourself using the expression “might could” in conversation. I might could use the number of a good contractor.
  3. You’d like once again to eat restaurant beans prepared without pig parts.
  4. You can cross “live through a hurricane” off your adventure bucket list.
  5. The second spring in a row is too hot and drought-stricken to grow anything but salvia and purslane.
  6. Your monthly summer water bill hits triple digits with no end in sight due to a historic, catastrophic drought.
  7. You’re tired of the risk of heat stroke severely curtailing your outdoor activities in the very season when the kids are out of school and daily sunlight hours are at their peak.
    1. The mosquitoes keep you indoors even when the daytime temperatures start to drop.
  8. For months on end even 5:30 am isn’t early enough to escape the heat and humidity on your run.
  9. You’ve had enough entertainment and lifestyle news to last a lifetime and want a local paper that reports actual news on its homepage.
  10. Your child’s science teacher says she presents the theory of evolution in biology class because it is forced upon her but she knows the real truth.
    1. There are many such science teachers in the public school system.
  11. The so-called Texas Miracle of growth amid the economic downturn is about to turn into a nightmare as funding for public schools is cut by billions of dollars.

Admittedly this was written some months ago when the temperatures were still blazing. And maybe the mid-Atlantic summer to come will prove to be just as hellish. But I doubt it. And no Houston autumn can come close to the perfection we’ve been enjoying this year. I think I’ll stay awhile.

A Program so Awesome it Overcame Late-night Puke and Other Assorted Disasters

Our first camping expedition with the girls was disastrous to say the least.  Yet, the misery had not yet ended and Papa Bear and I were already talking about the next one. Why? Three words: Texas Outdoor Family. This program has to be one of the best-kept secrets in the entire Lone Star Republic. Run by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the program aims to teach camping basics to aspiring family campers. No experience required. In other words, the State of Texas pays park rangers to travel from park to park and spend their weekends out in the woods with people who really have no business being there.

Papa Bear and I each did our fair share of camping as youths. Much of the summers of my childhood growing up in Western New York was spent either sleeping in a pop-up camper or being nauseous from motion sickness in the back of the vehicle that was towing it. We took our camper to favorite haunts close to home, most notably Sprague Brook, as well as more far-flung destinations like Florida and Arizona. With five kids and a single income-earner in the family, camping was a fun and economical way to take family vacations. Papa Bear and I went camping together a few times as adults and still own a small tent, camp stove and sleeping bags but two moves and more than ten years’ time have depleted both our knowledge base and equipment stores. Plus, there’s the whole kid factor now. Still, the itch for outdoor adventure plagues me.

So, I’m scanning through my tweets one day and a person I follow tweets about  participating in a program called, “Outdoor Woman Academy.” Or something.  I  follow the link and read about this weekend program wherein the ladies get together and learn how to navigate without a GPS device (you can do that?), catch dew with a plastic bag and other essential skills for wilderness survival. Cool. Except that the program is in I think Alabama (again, don’t quote me) and I travel enough for work that I can’t really imagine myself stealing from precious family time to go commune in the woods with a bevy of Iron Janes, no matter how fun that sounds. Hmm, I wonder if there’s anything like this in Texas. Insert search terms in box, press return, refine search, repeat, repeat. Voila! Texas Outdoor Family. I email Papa Bear: This is what I want to do for my birthday.

The Texas Outdoor Family Program: Concierge camping

The Texas Outdoor Family program is held at various Texas state parks in autumn and spring, the only times of year sane people would elect to spend time outdoors in this climate. (True, winter can’t truly be called winter here but, remember, this program is aimed at newbie campers. Newbie Texas campers who no doubt start whining about the cold when the temperature drops below 60F.)  Our first-ever camping trip with the girls was at Stephen F. Austin State Park in Sealy, TX, just about an hour from our home. Two days, one night (It’s only one night), all major camping equipment provided, including six-person tent, camp stove, coffee press, air mattress, pads (for kids), lantern, etc. Helpful rangers and park volunteers at hand to demonstrate how to set up and break down camp, cook outdoors and use a GPS  device. Guided nature walks and junior ranger activities for the little ones. All for less money than we would spend dining out. If we even did that anymore.

Ranger Rob with the children

From start to finish, this program was amazing. The pre-trip information materials were detailed and communicated well in advance via the website and snail mail. We even got a call right before the weekend reminding us to bring commonly forgotten items. Too bad jelly wasn’t on their list. Logistical planning was impeccable. As we were sharing the park with a couple of Boy Scout troops, all the campsites reserved for us were marked with custom signs. A printed hour-by-hour schedule of the weekend’s activities was provided along with trail and park maps. Every detail had been considered, down to the provision of brooms to help us sweep out our tents before breaking camp. Every snafu anticipated and prepared for. We personally tested this several times. Extra supplies for boneheads who forgot their charcoal.  I have to confess I was expecting an old moldy tent but the camping equipment was in pretty good condition and they had extra gear in their custom trailer in case it wasn’t. It was the camping equivalent of staying in an upscale hotel with a really helpful, service-oriented concierge on staff. The only thing they could have changed was to have soap in the bathrooms. Eventually someone left a small travel-sized bar in the ladies’. As for whether Papa Bear was washing his hands, I adopted my own Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy.

I could go on and on but the single greatest thing about the program was the people. The rangers and volunteers were never more than a shout away to answer questions, help with a technical question or hold a squirmy pre-schooler during a demo. They toured the campground by foot, bike and truck to inform us about programs start times, drop off our heavy Dutch ovens, check in to see if we were OK. They were infinitely patient with the children, who ranged in age from preteen to infant. We got know a couple of other families as well when our daughters wandered over into their campsites and started rummaging through their food. Some, like us, had long-past or limited camping experience; others had never been camping before in their lives. There was a great spirit of camaraderie that was heartening to experience, especially in the present divisive political climate. At the end of the weekend, when we were attending our little graduation ceremony, one of fathers practically choked up when he thanked the staff on behalf of all 16 families that participated.

Ranger Lennie with the Junior Rangers

Guided nature walk

Papa Bear and I were marveling at how the state could afford to offer this program at such a low price. Answer: generous corporate sponsorship. Duh. That it took us so long to make that connection is a testament to the fact that the rangers never pushed this down our throats. Yeah there were sponsor pamphlets in our packets and logos on the Frisbee and high-quality gimme caps we took home. But you know what? This program rocked so hard that it never bothered me. I would recommend this program without reservation to Texas families looking for a gentle introduction to the outdoors. If your state doesn’t have anything like this, ask for it!

If you missed the account of the late-night puke, here it is

Welcome to Adventuring with Kids

Before we had kids, my husband and I enjoyed adventurous travel, including tent cabining in the U.S Virgin Islands, trekking in Nepal and braving tourist-targeting rebels in Cambodia. Then came careers and two beautiful kids. All too soon ten years had passed since we did anything off the beaten path. This blog marks our gentle reintroduction to vacations that involve neither fancy hotels nor negotiating with in-laws about sleeping arrangements. Because it’s been so long, I’m going to go ahead and call ourselves newbies. Join us as we embark on a new course of adventure travel with our two little girls. From baby steps like overnight tent camping to plans for more ambitious trips, I chronicle all the highs and lows of life outside the big box hotels.