What’s here (beaches, restaurants, our car) and what’s not (our HHE)

We’ve been in Muscat for over two months now, and at this point it seems like the honeymoon phase will never end. Oman is incredible and we still have so much to see!

Our favorite way to spend the day

We set the goal of going to the beach at least once a week, and so far we’ve been hitting our target. We’ve explored several beaches within an hour drive from Muscat and there are some really amazing ones. Our beach tent/shelter thing just arrived in the mail, as did Marlowe’s camping chair which he is very excited about, and we are slowly getting fully outfitted for our beach days. I haven’t had this much beach time since I was a kid and it is a lot of fun.

Before arriving here we’d basically stopped going to restaurants because M isn’t patient enough to sit still for that long. Personally, if I go to a restaurant and I’m sitting there enjoying a nice meal, I get annoyed if a toddler is yelling a few tables away or a shrieking child goes running past. The last thing I want to do is subject other people to something that drives me absolutely nuts. But here, everyone likes kids. If M is running around a restaurant, everyone smiles at him and reaches out to touch his blond/white hair. So we’ve slowly started to explore local restaurants and there are some great ones. Lots of restaurants have water features and, if you go outside, stray cats which are obviously a huge hit with kids.

Our car, her name is Jasmine, arrived from the US last week, and today she got an inspection, new tires, and diplomatic plates! For the first week after she arrived she was essentially just an expensive car port ornament, since we had no plates and couldn’t drive her anywhere. They checked the window tint during the inspection and Jasmine’s rear-most windows are very lightly tinted, which thankfully wasn’t an issue. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous. Then there was the tires… I remember when a tire blew on our SUV in Dhaka and it was an all-day fiasco. Our driver went to three different shops to get prices on tires, and we ended up spending an arm and a leg. Here I drove to a mechanic, they gave me a reasonable quote, and it was done in an hour.

Our Dhaka HHE is still not here. It’s really annoying. This is one of those things that I struggle with because we are so lucky to be getting a shipment at all on the government’s dime and what kind of spoiled brat complains about that. It is, after all, just stuff and at least it will get here eventually. I left Dhaka in July 2016 so I’ve been living without my Dhaka things for nearly a year and a half. Clearly it’s stuff that I can survive without. On the other hand, I really like most of the things I left in Dhaka and it would be great to put some pictures on the walls. It would also be nice to have more than 4 dinner plates (but why am I complaining about how many dinner plates we currently have? How awesome is it that the State Department provides a welcome kit with dinner plates and stuff to tide you over until your shipments arrive? I should be grateful we have any dinner plates at all.) Plus I want my mattress and blankets. And my Dutch oven, awesome toaster, cake pans, serving dishes and cutting boards.

While snorkeling I saw a turtle!

Rather than ending on a whiney note, I’ll leave you with this: I was on a snorkeling trip and one of the women on the boat asked if there were sharks. Our guide, an Omani, said, “You’re in the sea, of course there are sharks. But you’re in Oman, so they are very friendly.” I doubt that’s accurate, but I appreciate the sentiment!

 

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Bringing a dog into Oman

Athena at the beach

Arranging Athena’s travel is, by far, the most difficult, stressful, and expensive part of changing posts.

Before M was born, a friend told me that if I thought traveling with a dog was bad, just wait until I try traveling with a baby. That friend was wrong. No matter how terrible a flight with a baby is, at least you know your baby is with you, getting its needs met in a temperature controlled environment. Whereas if your dog is in the belly of the plane in cargo, who knows what is happening. Our total travel to Dhaka was over 24 hours and during that time, Athena got no food or water. Apparently she has an iron-clad bladder because she also held it the entire time.

Our travel to Muscat was on United and Swiss Air with one layover in Zurich.  We’ve all heard the United pet travel horror stories.  A dead golden retriever, a dead giant bunny, the list goes on. When pets travel on United they travel through United’s PetSafe program, which supposedly keeps them in a temperature controlled environment the whole time, they are offered food and water, and they can be taken out of their crates during layovers. I called PetSafe, booked Athena on our flight to Zurich, and was told United “doesn’t do codeshares” for pet travel. Meaning Athena would be booked through only to Zurich and we would have to recheck her there for the Muscat flight.

Great… So now our dog is also entering Switzerland, which has it’s own set of pet importation rules. Ugh.

I called Swiss Air and they, very politely I should add, assured me that she would never leave the transit area and there was no need for all the Swiss pet import documents.  But it was required that the dog be clean and not smell bad in order to board the plane. Okay, fine, hopefully her iron bladder would hold.

One more thing about United’s PetSafe: it is ridiculously expensive. For Athena and her crate it should have cost $1194 just to Zurich, given the total weight. Instead the guy quoted me $843, which is the cost for the weight class taking into account just Athena’s weight.  I figured United would realize it’s mistake when we were checking in and we’d be taken to the cleaners at that point.

A few weeks before we were scheduled to fly out, we filled out the Omani pet importation form, and the embassy arranged for our pet importation certificate. Athena didn’t need any special shots, rabies titers or anything strange; the process was quite painless. Oman doesn’t have a quarantine or anything, although your pet does have to be inspected by a vet upon arrival and if it looks unwell it could be quarantined. We were told that Omanis like to see stamps on official documents and that it would be a good idea to get Athena’s health certificate USDA certified but that it wasn’t required. We figured we weren’t going to go this far just to get her turned away because there weren’t enough stamps, so we spent a day of home leave driving to Richmond and paid $32 for a stamp and some signatures.

Five days after getting the health certificate certified by the USDA, we were at Dulles getting everything checked in. Athena’s crate met the specifications; her food, collar and leash were taped to the outside; “live animal” stickers covered almost every visible surface of the crate; and all of our flight info was taped to the crate.  Nate took Athena outside for one last hurrah while we got everything sorted out (we got there 3 hours early and ended up needing almost every minute of it). It came time to pay and the lady mentioned that the guy had quoted us the wrong price, but that she would honor that price. I was shocked. She assured me that paying a lower price would not affect the care Athena would receive, and then she slapped the Dulles to Zurich baggage tag on her crate.

We arrived in Zurich with a 4 hour layover and Nate went to go get Athena and recheck her while I dealt with a toddler who was running (literally and figuratively) on minimal sleep. A few hours later Nate found us at the gate, and apparently he and Athena had to exit the airport. He didn’t even have to show her health certificate and Athena had a nice little layover in Zurich. She drank Evian because water fountains aren’t a thing and, after spending another $350 for her ticket, she was on her way to Muscat with us.

Having to pick her up in Zurich and recheck her was a bit of a blessing in disguise, even if it was a pain in the butt. She got food and water and a chance to stretch her legs and take care of doggy business. Plus she got to experience Switzerland. Athena has now been to five countries!

In Muscat her crate came out on the luggage belt with the rest of the bags and she looked good. She handled the flight well, passed the vet check, and we loaded her into the embassy van to go to our new home.

She’s adjusting well so far to life here. She spends most of the day inside, as do we all, and we enjoy our evening walks when it’s cooled down a bit. Athena has joined us at the beach several times and she still doesn’t quite understand that she can’t drink the water. She’ll get there eventually.

VPNs and Wadi Shab

Wadi Shab

Over the past few days we’ve had a five-day weekend for Eid al-Adha. It’s been awesome. Having that long of a weekend just after arriving has been really convenient because it’s given us time to sort out lots of stuff and we’ve been able to start exploring our corner of the country.

First, and maybe most importantly, we finally got our internet installed the day before the Eid holiday began. I spent several hours the next day trying to get our VPN router set up. We purchased a router through StrongVPN so that we can use the VPN connection with our AppleTV. It worked well for us in Dhaka, and, now that it’s finally set up here, I’m happy to report that we were finally able to watch the end of the last season of Game of Thrones.

On a related note, we both fell asleep during the finale. There was so much talking. It was boring. (GoT spoiler alert, although I’m guessing that if this matters to you you’ve probably already watched it) Can someone please tell me why the hell Dany didn’t just blast the Night King with dragon fire in the 6th episode? He was right there. Ugh.

Moving on, a few days ago we went to Wadi Shab, a canyon filled with pools of water and a cave with a waterfall at the end. I was wary going into it because, as you know by now, it’s super fricking hot here and a hike, even just a 45 minute one, sounded like the worst thing ever.  But we took it slow and I survived. I looked like a boiled lobster, but I didn’t pass out or get hurt, so I’ll take it.

Start of the hike into Wadi Shab

The cave at the end was amazing. The passageway in was really narrow, probably 12 inches wide, and to get through you had to tread water and shimmy sideways. Leaving the cave, the sunlight lit up the water and it was practically neon blue. It was incredible. We left our cameras in dry bags once the swimming part started, so I didn’t get any photos of the best parts of the Wadi. Hopefully we’ll go back again soon when it isn’t so damn hot out.

We left M at home with the nanny. We weren’t sure how much of it we could do with him in the hiking backpack and we wanted to be able to explore as fully as possible our first time out. In the future, we’ll bring him with us and once we get to the beach where you have to start swimming we will take turns going to enjoy the cave while he hangs out in the shallow water.

This is the beach at the start of the swimming part of the trek. Usually there are hardly any people here.

One thing to note: we will never go to Wadi Shab over an Omani holiday weekend again. It was PACKED.  Apparently we weren’t the only ones who thought it’d be the perfect chance to explore the wadi. There were at least a thousand people there. Pools that are usually turquoise were brown because of all the people kicking up sediment. Lesson learned!

The parking lot is usually empty!

To, in, and around Nakhal Fort

Inside the Nakhal Fort main wall

During the Eid holiday we drove to Nakhal to visit the fort and check out a near-by hot spring. We weren’t sure if the fort would be open because of the holiday, but we figured in the worst case scenario, we’d admire the fort from the outside and at least we’d know where it was for next time.

The drive took nearly three times longer than it should have. I looked at the route the night before on Google Maps and it looked really straightforward: take the expressway north and exit on highway 13, which basically takes you straight there, all in about an hour.

However, Google Maps doesn’t work for turn-by-turn navigation here. Everyone uses Waze. As we were backing out of our driveway, I typed Nakhal Fort into Waze and it had us taking this strange route that would take nearly an hour and 45 minutes. I decided we would ignore that route and take the route Google Maps had given me. We were happily driving on the expressway and our exit was coming up; long story short, we missed the exit and the next exit was in eight miles. After the exit you had to drive another 1.5 miles to a roundabout to finally turn around. So after driving 20 miles out of the way, Waze was still insisting we take the wonky route. I said, “F that, we’re taking highway 13,” and we did. Until the road was closed and we took a detour onto a road that appeared to not go all the way to Nakhal. So we pulled a U-turn, got back onto the expressway, and drove another 10 miles to the route that the Waze app wanted us to take. Instead of arriving at 10:30, we arrived around noon.

On the drive back, Waze had us take 13 straight to the expressway. There was a road closure but we took a parallel road the whole way, and imagine our shock as we drove by the exact spot where we pulled the U-turn to take the stupid Waze route. That was annoying.

Anyhow, the fort was in fact open and only cost 500 baisa (about $1.25) each. It was hotter than hell so we didn’t do that much exploring. We found a nice room with pillows and air conditioning where we ate lunch, and then we ventured out to look around a little more. We didn’t last long in the heat and M was turning beet red.

Nakhal Fort is particularly interesting because it is built on pre-Islamic ruins on a rocky mound (which was done to avoid having to construct a sound foundation) and the shape of the fort is irregular because it follows the shape of the rocks. There were lots of hallways and rooms to explore, and I think M will have more fun running around during our next visit.

Hajar Mountains and date palm plantations around Nakhal Fort

Nakhal is full of date palm plantations and we drove through them to see the hot spring, which was rumored to have a picnic area and playground equipment. Turns out the hot spring is basically a nice stream and, with the Eid holiday, the entire river bed was one big picnic area. There was zero parking and we didn’t even get out of the car.  I was a little bummed because M would have loved it, but it was ridiculously crowded. We’ll check it out more thoroughly next time.

Adjusting to life in Muscat

Things are going well so far! Jet lag was more of a doozy this time around than expected and for several nights I couldn't fall asleep before 3 am. That sucked.

We love our housing and neighborhood. There is a grocery store, restaurants, and even a Starbucks within walking distance. The sidewalks are functional and it's easy to stroll around the neighborhood. Athena has two small yards that she can run around in!

One thing about our house that's taking some getting used to is the number of light switches. Between the first and second floors there are 63 light switches, and that's not counting the switches that provide power to appliances like the hot water heaters or the stove fan. These are all the light switches by the front door. Here we are lucky because half of them are labeled. Throughout most of the rest of the house there are no labels.

Thanks to our social sponsors, we found a good shawarma shop near a sandy beach. Last week we got shawarma and falafel sandwiches to go and ate dinner on the beach while M played in the surf. Well, technically I ate dinner while Nate kept M from drowning and then vice versa. The beach here is beautiful and the sun sets right over the water. I felt like I was on vacation. It's hard to believe we actually live here sometimes.
The restaurant scene here in general is pretty good. If you're used to paying D.C. prices, it's nothing out of the ordinary.

We don't have internet yet, so I'm blogging from my phone. I have no idea when we will actually get the internet set up. Luckily cellular data is relatively inexpensive, and that's really all I need. It would be nice to get the VPN set up so we can FaceTime with our families (Oman blocks all VOIP calls), but I know it will happen eventually.

Mostly it's the little things that I enjoy the most. I've missed hearing the call to prayer several times a day. We can't hear it inside our house but I always here it when we are out and about. I love stepping outside and smelling the salty sea air. It almost makes me forget how blazing hot it is. Almost. There are dumpsters everywhere for throwing garbage away and the streets are so clean. Muscat is definitely not a bad place to be.

Alright, my hands have fallen asleep from typing on my phone. We have planned for some fun stuff over the long Eid weekend and hopefully there will be more to come here soon. Preferably typed out on a computer.

Preparing for Muscat and home leave

In about a month we depart for Muscat! I’m so excited. I feel like I shouldn’t be because I’m just setting myself up for disappointment, but I can’t help it. I absolutely can’t wait.

Nate has finished up his training, and we stayed busy exploring parks and playgrounds, going to various Smithsonian museums, catching up with friends, going for walks and hikes, and eating at more restaurants than one might consider healthy.

We are living in Arlington for the first time ever. I’m not going to lie, I was a little wary of living here after spending six years in Alexandria, but I love it. There’s an incredible network of running/biking trails, loads of parks and playgrounds, and lots of good restaurants, and the metro is a 15 minute walk away. We still drive down to Alexandria a lot, but we are happy with our temporary apartment in Arlington and we would definitely stay here again.

We bought a car to ship to Muscat, and that was kind of a mess. We decided to buy from CarMax and they made us jump through lots of hoops to buy a vehicle for export. I don’t really understand why, because why would they care what we do with car after we buy it? We could drive it off a cliff if we wanted to. The other serious car-buying hurdle was that Oman has very strict vehicle import rules on window tint and apparently it is actually impossible to get undarkened windows for some vehicles. It was a stressful pain in the butt, but we are now the proud owners of an ugly Honda named Jasmine (because the car is the same color as Jasmine’s clothes in the Disney version of Aladdin). Maybe the color will grow on me.

The weather in Arlington has been really gross and hot lately but I’ve been making myself go outside and try to learn to deal with it because Muscat will be even hotter. Right now it’s 95 degrees outside with a “feels like” temperature of 106 here. In Muscat it’s 92 degrees with a “feels like” of 112 and it’s NEARLY MIDNIGHT. How can that be?! I can’t just never go outside during the summer months there, so I’m trying to prepare to whatever extent that’s even possible.

Soon we will start our road trip back to the Midwest for Nate’s home leave. The idea behind home leave is “to ensure that employees who live abroad for an extended period undergo reorientation and re-exposure in the United States on a regular basis,” according to the Foreign Affairs Manual. Where better to get reoriented and re-exposed to the US than in America’s heartland? One might think that perhaps staying in Virginia for the past two months might be enough re-exposure to life in these United States, but that’s not how it works. Home leave can be a little tricky because unless you happen to have a furnished vacant house someplace, you have to stay with family or find somewhere to stay. We are taking the stay-with-family route and hoping we don’t wear out our welcome along the way. At least with taking home leave now we’ll have a chance to stock up on some amazing cheese to bring to Muscat with us!

 

Done with Dhaka

We made it! The Dhaka chapter of our lives is over and I couldn’t be happier. What a disappointment and disaster.

We arrived in Dhaka a little over two years ago, and at that time I had so much hope and excitement for what our tour there would hold. It’s kind of incredible to look back at the past two years and how things changed. We’ve been meeting up with lots of friends, rehashing the past two years, and nearly all of them have said, “But, wait. Weren’t you excited to go to Dhaka?”

Yes, yes, we were. We couldn’t wait for Dhaka. Everything was falling into place and we were going to have a fantastic tour. I had an amazing job that fell into my lap, Athena was loving it, we couldn’t wait to travel outside of Dhaka to explore the country, we loved walking around our neighborhood, and things were great. Even if you read my old blog posts from when we first arrived, it was clear we were excited and eager to like Bangladesh.

Instead, sadly, IS and Al-Qaida gained a foothold there and things went to hell in a hand basket fairly rapidly. We probably should have listened to our friend who told us when we were initially bidding that whatever we do, we shouldn’t rank Dhaka high. But, what’s done is done.

And now it’s finally over!

The four of us go for lots of walks and we’re exploring Arlington, revisiting our favorite places in Alexandria, and spending time with friends. It’s amazing and I am enjoying it more than I would have thought possible. For now, life is good.

Paris in December (with a baby)

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In December we met Nate in Paris for about 10 days. Our plan was to meet there and then travel together to the Midwest for Christmas with our families. Nate arrived a few hours before us on a Saturday morning, and once we exited customs we hopped in a taxi to our AirBnB apartment.

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Parisian buildings in the late afternoon sun

As you might imagine, there is lots of info on the internet about what to do in Paris. Museums, markets, shops, restaurants, etc. There is not, however, a lot of info about what to do when you’re there with a baby, especially one that is crawling around and starting to develop a sense of independence.

Never in a million years did I think I’d be writing so many baby-centric posts (yes, two is a lot as far as I’m concerned) and if you stop reading now I don’t blame you. I would have before I had a kid.

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Late winter sunlight makes for a lot of beautifully-lit photos. In this case, the Hotel de Ville.

That said, here are my tips for managing Paris with a baby:

  • You can find lots of good baby foods, like pouches, snacks and applesauce at the grocery store. But if your kid is addicted to peanut butter, bring it with you.  We found pouches with no added sugar that were really inexpensive and M loved them.  That beautiful Eiffel tour photo at the top? We asked a stranger to take a family portrait with that background, but M had a pouch that he would not let go of.  So instead of having a photo with a screaming baby, we have a photo with a brightly colored pouch reflecting the flash. Like I said, he loved those pouches.
  • Rent an apartment. M loved having the space to crawl around and explore, and each evening Nate played with him while I bought ingredients for dinner and a bottle of wine. We would eat lunch on-the-go or at a restaurant each day and then we’d eat dinner in our apartment.  It worked perfectly. Plus, everyone sleeps better when you have your own room, especially when you’re jet lagged. Our apartment was in the Marais near the Bastille metro stop, and the location was amazing. We could walk just about anywhere, and the metro and bus were really convenient. We were near a farmers market on Sundays and there were wine shops, produce markets, grocery stores, patisseries and boulangeries all close by. Having an apartment (and therefore a fridge) also means you can buy all the cheese you want .
Most of these ended up in our apartment fridge

Most of these ended up in our apartment fridge

Each night we tried a new bottle of wine with dinner in our apartment. Our favorite was the Bordeaux in the green bottle towards the middle.

Each night we tried a new bottle of wine with dinner in our apartment. Our favorite was the Bordeaux in the green bottle towards the middle.

  • You can let your baby crawl around at the Petit Palais (free admission) and in parts of the Musee d’Orsay. You can not let your baby crawl around in the War Museum. We let M crawl around the exhibits at the uncrowded Petit Palais, and when a museum employee came walking by I thought she was going to yell at us, but instead she smiled and waved at M. At the War Museum we did get yelled at. In the Musee d’Orsay there’s a kind of lounge area by the impressionist wing with big leather chair things and a huge clock. It’s also by the gift shop where there are lots of neat things. The gift shop by the impressionist wing is better than the gift shop on the main level.
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Big clock, tiny baby at Musee d’Orsay

  • You can find nice free bathrooms at department stores and at the Petit Palais. I’m sure there are other places too, but these came in handy for us.
  • You can take your stroller into the Louvre and the Orsay.  You can not take your stroller into the Orangerie or the buildings in the Versailles complex. A word on strollers in the Louvre: finding functioning elevators that take you where you want to go is HELL. Seriously, it was bad. The problem was that it looked simple, and each time we thought we were just one elevator ride away from where we needed to be. So we never folded up the stroller and carried him because it was always “just five more minutes.” This went on for over an hour. At the Orangerie, we entered with our stroller and then we checked it and they gave us a small stroller to use. Another note about the Orangerie: if you are taking photos with a DSLR camera and your flash is turned off (as it should be), you still might have a light that flashes when your camera is focusing.  Turn this light off or a museum employee will give you a talking-to. For Versailles, I’d recommend bringing a baby carrier along with your stroller. But don’t bring a hiking pack because you can’t take that into the buildings either. You have to check your stroller when you enter the either of the Trianon buildings or the chateau. You can use your stroller in the gardens, including the area between the Trianon buildings and Marie Antionette’s hamlet. However, make sure it’s an all-terrain stroller because it’s rocky, sandy and uneven in parts. Whew, that was way longer than expected.
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We got lost in the Louvre trying to find elevators. Luckily we stumbled across a small window with this lovely view.

  • Babies love art museums. All the big colorful paintings, statues and sculptures are fascinating to tiny humans. Even more so if you take the time to point out the animals. But expect the fascination to last for a limited amount of time.
  • There are farm animals in Marie Antoinette’s hamlet at Versailles.  M could have spent hours there, and wow did he scream when we left. I felt kind of bad because this was one of the first things we did that he enjoyed, and our time there was sadly limited. We let him walk along the fence line and try to feed dead leaves the animals.  He had so much fun.
  • Go out for a late lunch. You’re in Paris, so obviously you want to eat the wonderful French food.  With a baby, the best time to do this is lunch.  It’s less romantic than dinner, so you’re not ruining it for anyone else if you have a fussy baby. We’d eat lunch around 1:30 or so, towards the end of the lunch rush. Restaurants were less crowded, which is important since hardly anywhere has high chairs and there is more room to stash the stroller. On a related note…
  • L’ Esmeralda by Notre Dame and Cafe du Marche on Rue Cler have high chairs. L’Esmeralda seems to have mixed reviews, but we enjoyed it and for a restaurant right by a seriously touristy place like Notre Dame, the food was genuinely good and not expensive. I could have eaten at Cafe du Marche every day. That place was awesome. I’m sure there are lots of other restaurants in Paris with high chairs, but these were ones that we found easily that served us well.
  • If you have a stroller, the metro is a pain in the butt.  Lots of stairs and no escalators or elevators. The bus system is really easy and takes you everywhere you’d want to go.

Also, a few notes about Paris in December:

  • It’s amazing, do it!!! It never got that cold (it was generally in the 40s), and we only had a few hours of light drizzle one day. The crowds are less, and there was hardly anyone at Versailles when we went.  Granted some of the statues were covered, the fountains were turned off, and parts of the gardens were closed, but there were only 20 other people in the Hall of Mirrors.  It was incredible.
  • You can get mulled wine in the street and raw oysters. I remember walking around by Notre Dame looking at the Christmas lights and watching all the people our first afternoon there with a cup of mulled wine in hand, never ever wanting to leave. And we ate so many raw oysters at the farmers market. It was awesome.
  • The Christmas Market on Champs-Elysees was kind of a bust. Most of the stalls were selling stuff you could find just about anywhere. Although there were a lot of stalls selling good mulled wine.
  • You can find good Christmas decor and ornaments at the garden and flower market near Sainte Chappelle. Plus, you can easily do all of your Christmas shopping in Paris.  You’ll come home and you won’t need to worry about it!
  • You don’t get the harsh summer sunlight in your photos and nearly everything has perfect lighting. 

Okay, I think that’s it. I’ve got other posts in the works for our other trips we’ve taken (I’m working on focusing on the good things that have happened over the past year).

Oh, I should add that Nate sat with M for the return flight and I sat by myself on the other side of the plane and it was amazing.  I watched movies, napped, raised and lowered my tray table and window shade when I wanted, and sipped my drinks as slowly as I wanted. I will never again understand people when they say “OMG I have this super-long 10 hour flight. Whatever am I going to do with myself?” Um, you can do whatever the hell you want, dude. You’re by yourself.

Pura Vida

A few weeks ago we met up with Nate in Costa Rica.  He had one last R&R and we wanted to go someplace with a beach, but no super-long plane rides, in the same timezone as the Midwest, and Costa Rica fit the bill perfectly.

Dude, Costa Rica is AMAZING. We were in and out of the airport in less than an hour, and it was so easy to drive around and explore. We had a fricking awesome time, even though M got some stomach bug and we spent the first several days cooped up in our beach house. Thank god we had a washing machine and dryer. But this was our view, so even that wasn’t too bad.

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The view from our front porch: coconut trees and the Pacific

The house we rented was about 30 minutes west of Quepos, along the Pacific Coast.  We spent the whole time in that area, exploring literally everything the guidebook had to offer. Here are some of our favorite things we did.

Marino Ballena National Park: This is a beautiful national park with uncrowded pristine beaches. The majority of the area protected by the park is aquatic, which is pretty cool. There are several different beaches, and our favorite was Playa Pinuelas.  It was slightly protected from the open ocean so the waves weren’t too big, and we could drive up to the beach, so we brought beach chairs, sand toys, etc.

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Playa Uvita at Marino Ballena

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Playa Pinuelas

Cascada Nauyaca: You can hike or take a horseback riding tour to this waterfall.  We hiked, and it really wasn’t too bad.  It was 5 miles roundtrip, and we were lucky on the way up because it got cloudy just as we were hiking a long section with no shade. It was nice to have hiked there on our own rather than going with a group because we could stay as long as we wanted.  It was so amazing and the cold water felt awesome. I would avoid doing the hike during the rainy season because you’re either going uphill or downhill at least 90% of the time and the trail would be a muddy slip-n-slide.

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Nauyaca waterfall

Alturas Wildlife Sanctuary: This sanctuary on a mountainside provides medical care and rehabilitation for wild animals that are injured, taken out of private homes where they were pets (the law prohibits keeping animals other than dogs or cats as pets in Costa Rica), or are somehow unable to keep living in the wild.  We toured the sanctuary and saw the animals they weren’t able to release back into the wild for one reason or another.  They do an amazing job caring for the animals, and the tour was really interesting.  Afterward we had cocktails and enjoyed the view.  It was a great way to spend a few hours, and M really loved watching the animals, especially the monkeys.  The monkeys were cute and definitely interesting.  One of them kept hurdling rocks at the cage and another was on anti-depressants and anti-psychotics.

The view from the sanctuary/hotel patio

The view from the sanctuary/hotel patio

Manuel Antonio National Park: This park is beautiful, there is tons of wildlife, and the beaches are ridiculously picturesque.  For all these reasons, there are also lots of people. The park does limit the number of people allowed in each day and you can avoid the crowds if you get off the main paved trail that runs through the park. We packed sandwiches and went in with the idea of hiking the trails and then going to the beach, enjoying whatever wildlife we happened to spot along the way. This worked out well.  We saw lots of tour groups crowded around a telescope or with binoculars, and there was no way M would have had the patience to literally stand around and wait for a butterfly to open its wings. Frankly I don’t think I had the patience for that either given how hot and humid it was. We saw lots of monkeys, a sloth, raccoons, a deer, and coatis.

Manuel Antonio beach was very popular and the water was quiet

Manuel Antonio beach was very popular and the water was quiet.

The raccoons were out of control. They would dig through unattended bags looking for food, and Nate watched 3 raccoons and a coati duke it out over a sandwich

The raccoons were out of control. They would dig through unattended bags looking for food, and Nate watched 3 raccoons and a coati duke it out over a sandwich

Sunsets and cocktails at the beach: Each evening after we got back from our daily excursion, I’d make a cocktail and sit on beach and read. Nate and M would play in the sand and have fun, and it was glorious.  The sunsets from our beach were stunning.

One of the many sunset photos. I haven't even edited this!

One of the many sunset photos. I haven’t even edited this!

Other things we enjoyed were Hacienda Baru (nice hiking paths and lots of wildlife), Cascada Verde (nice little waterfall that you can slide down with lots of shallow pools; follow the signs from Uvita and stop right before the security camera signs where there is parking on the right), and exploring restaurants along the coast. Our favorite was Por Que No? in Dominicalito. It reminded me of The Village in Pohnpei. We loved everything about this place.

We avoided Quepos and the Manuel Antonio area. Both were completely crowded shit-shows.

Here are some general tips for Costa Rica (keeping in mind that we only explored one small area of the country and I’m not an expert):

  • Rent an SUV. And know that you’re going to have to pay for car insurance. Unless you’re sticking to paved highways, you’ll probably encounter seriously steep unpaved roads. As for the car insurance, this was a shocker for us. Our seemingly cheap rental car suddenly cost over $600 for two weeks. Luckily they upgraded us to an SUV for free.
  • Bring sun screen, bug spray and reusable water bottles. Sun screen and bug spray are expensive and tap water is generally drinkable.
  • Buy a SIM card by the baggage claim in the airport.  They cost $20 each and include two gigabytes of data.  We had either 3G or 4G almost everywhere we went. Our hotel was near the airport, but the car rental shuttle took us to a facility in the middle of nowhere.  We would not have been able to find our hotel without those handy SIM cards and google maps.
  • Buy alcohol in the duty free by the baggage claim. There didn’t seem to be a limit and it was much cheaper than what you can find in stores.

180 days later

When a post goes into departure status, whether it’s authorized or ordered, the departure can only last for 180 days.  After those 180 days are up, things either go back to how they were and everyone goes back, or post becomes some kind of unaccompanied.  In the case of Dhaka, it’s now partially accompanied with working EFMs only.

So, we aren’t going back.

M is doing fine, thriving, actually; I’m muddling through.

We saw Nate for 19 days in December over Christmas and it was amazing.  M immediately recognized him, probably due to FaceTime. We spent a magical 10 days in Paris and then celebrated Christmas with our families here in the good ole snowy Midwest. The time went by way too quickly and even though Nate only left in the end of December, it feels like so much more than that.

Hopefully the next three months will go by as quickly as December did.  Hey, it’s almost the end of January already!  Hurray for that. I’ll keep drowning my sorrows in wine and venison bacon (seriously, I just ate 4 pieces), and M will keep touching my iPhone screen and saying “Dada.”

Eventually this shit will all be over and we’ll be a complete family again.