Thursday, July 24, 2014

Mi Casa Es Su Casa

Even though I'm far away from our Newburyport garden, I do have a several small gardens here at our house in Costa Rica. One garden is inside the house:


This stone wall (which I'm pretty sure is actually cement carved to look like a fieldstone wall) separates the living/dining room from the kitchen in this urban, open-concept house. Leafy and vining tropical plants grow from a trough along the top of the wall and well as in pots along the floor. There is an irrigation pipe that drips water into the trough--this water also runs down the wall into a small, walled pool along the floor, where the potted plants can also catch a drink. There is a corrugated plexiglass skylight above for sunlight, and through which some rain also falls when there are heavy squalls. Here is a view from the kitchen side:


We have also discovered that (at least) two little house geckos live up on that wall. They are small, brown, and way too fast (so far, anyway) for me to catch in a photo. They chirp at night and scamper along the wall. They are considered lucky, probably because they eat insects. 


The kids' bedroom has a window that looks out into a mini-courtyard, which would be an air shaft if this were a taller building. Our house here is only one story, but to stay cool it is important that every room has a window. These are potted plants that get rain and light from the outside in this small area. They must not need much attention, because I think you'd have to remove a window to get out there to deal with them.

Through the back door in the kitchen there is a traditional patio:


Because we are in the city center, this patio is completely tiled, but you can see at the far end that there are more plants along the back wall. Part of the patio is covered so you can sit outside whenever you want, though any line between the indoors and the outdoors is pretty blurry here.

Part of the patio area in uncovered as well:


The outdoor sink could be for laundry, though we have a small washing machine on the patio as well. The outdoor plants need no extra watering, as it rains here at least a little bit every day now that we are heading into the rainy season. 


This last photo shows my bedroom window and small bathroom window, as well as more plants around the walls of the house. A little gueco (our friends the house geckos) must live out here as well, because I saw him running along my window sill yesterday afternoon. There are no screens here, so I suppose he is free to come and go as he pleases, but he chose to leap into the tall plant by my window when I tried to take his picture. 

We also have a pair of Tropical Kingbirds that like the high tree branches just over the back garden wall or over the patio roof. They aren't too loud, though we hear them when the sun comes up. I haven't yet been able to get a picture of them, but will keep trying. 

I'm not sure of the names of any of these plants, but they all seem to be pretty low maintenance. Everyone has them growing in their front porch yards  or back courtyards, and they are also all around town in the parks and open spaces. It is very green and lush here, even in the middle of town, which we like a lot.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Trim The Fat Tuesday: The Insurance Review, Part 2

Here's a sequel that's actually better than the original. I re-opened our insurance policy files, and

Shopped around for the cheapest auto insurance coverage.

Back in February I cut some of our insurance coverage and raised deductibles, which saved us a decent amount of money (especially on the homeowners policy). On my redux, I went online to see what other companies could offer us for pricing.

First stop: mass.gov has a tool that shows what every insurer in the state offers for a premium under several scenarios. In the scenario that was most similar to ours, GEICO charged only half of what most places were.

Say what now?!?

After checking out a few online quotes, I am totally psyched to report that mass.gov has an accurate (if somewhat clunky) tool, and we are now paying less than half of what we were previously for our car insurance.


So we got the exact same coverage (I went line by line with our current policy to be sure), great service so far both online and from the call center, and it's so, so much cheaper. Woohoo!

And now the numbers. Our old insurance policy cost us $112 per month for our two cars. Our new GEICO policy is just $54.50 per month. 

Can I say it again? Less than half as much. 48.5% as much, to be more precise.

Part of that savings comes from me putting the entire year's worth of insurance on our credit card, which is cheaper than being on a payment plan. But since this is so much cheaper, that doesn't hurt much--and it boosts our airline mileage points anyway. Win-win! 

Seriously, it pays to shop around. Big time. And since the internet makes it such a breeze, there's no excuse not to.

Savings per month: $57.50

Sunday, July 20, 2014

¡Bienvenidos a Costa Rica!

For the next month I'll be living in and traveling around Costa Rica. This is partly just to travel, but also partly to study Spanish and brush up my fluency for work. The kids are also with me and will be going to school in Costa Rica while we are here. 

Our first stop after landing in San José was Volcán Poás, which is 8,884 feet high (and hiking to the top will prove it to your lungs--at least for people who are typically sea-level dwellers like we are!). We are staying at the Poás Lodge, which, when the clouds clear, offers an incredible view of almost the entire Central Valley of Costa Rica, including San José and even the Pacific Ocean.

It is often cloudy, though, or at least we have chubascos, which is the Spanish words for a fast-moving mix of sun and clouds, especially when the sun is filtered through the clouds. It's like this:


This is the garden of the lodge, where hummingbirds flit about and children are nice to each other. Poasito is the town up near the entrance to the Poás Volcano National Park, and it is quite rural. We are surrounded by coffee plantations and dairy farms, and can see them all from our room: 


Because of the high elevation, the temperatures are much cooler than you might expect when you think of Central America--we needed our fleeces and sweaters to hike the volcano. Because of those temperatures, we see some familiar flowers in the local gardens:


Hydrangeas abound, and the blue color shows us that the volcanic soils here acidic. The gigantic size of the flower heads hints at the excellent fertility here as well. 

The ecosystem and climate at the top of the volcano is known as a cloud forest, which means that the clouds cover is near constant, and there is often drizzle and mist. The clouds aren't just rain, though, but also frozen sulfuric acid from the (active!) volcano. You can smell this when the wind blows just right, and it can even sting your eyes at the crater:


We couldn't see much of the crater because of those clouds, but we still enjoyed the otherworldly hike through the native cloud forest plants:


The kids' favorite plant was the sombrilla de pobres:


That's Spanish for a Poor Man's Umbrella, which they demonstrate here. The plants look an awful lot like a giant, mutant rhubarb with spines on their stalks (which are also red). 

Further down in the valley we visited a small town called Grecia, which is warmer. There they can mix more noticeably tropical plants with all those hydrangeas:


They also have many large Bird-of-Paradise plants growing outdoors. This one is nearly perfect, although the photo doesn't do justice to the bright blue part of the "head" of the bird:


So far we've enjoyed our stay our in the cool, fresh country air. It's hard to get enough of our view of the Valley. Even though it wasn't always sunny, the chubascos treated us to this:


¡Pura vida!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Freezing Lovage

Time flies in the garden! It feels like we barely had time to enjoy my favorite garden herb this spring before the hot weather came and it went to seed:


Our lovage is now enormous. Hovering around six feet, it's taller than I am! I am letting the yellow flower heads go to seed this year, and hope to gather them to use as a seasoning the way you would with celery or fennel seed. 

Once lovage goes to seed, the leaves just don't taste the same way they did in the cool, spring weather. They're kind of bitter, and not as flavorful. That's why this year I thought I'd try freezing some at their best for later use in cooking. Frozen herbs won't ever be crisp again, but they'll still impart their flavor in recipes.

It seemed a little strange to try to make pesto cubes out of lovage, although I suppose I could have. It's just that we don't usually use it chopped so finely or blended into a pesto. While poking around the internet, I found a suggestion to make herb "cigars" to freeze. Here's how I did it:

First, I pulled all the leaves off the stems, keeping them intact:


I kept the nice ones, and got rid of the crummy ones. Then I put them, dry, into a gallon size freezer bag:


Once I was done with all the leaves, I pressed them all down to the bottom of the bag, working out the air:


With the air pressed out, I sealed the bag, then rolled it up tightly into a cigar shape:


Finally, I secured the bag with rubber bands and labeled it:


The idea here is that once this is frozen solid, I should be able to cut off a piece of lovage as required, kind of the way you would with a frozen roll of cookie dough if you have self-control and are only going to make a few cookies at a time. 

One of the fun things about lovage? It has hollow stems:


I think the best possible use for this is as a straw for a Bloody Mary, instead of the typical celery stalk garnish. In fact, I think using lovage instead of celery changes the drink so much for the better that we should change its name. I propose calling it a Bloody Mary Magdalene, as lovage was considered an aphrodisiac in Medieval times. We also use our own horseradish for these, and that tastes much better in the fall than it is in the spring, so it's worthwhile to try to save some lovage to enjoy in these drinks later.

I saved the nicest, most straw-like stems and cut them to a reasonable, straw-like length:


Then I froze them in a similar manner as the lovage leaves:


Freezing herbs always makes me glad in the knowledge that, at some unknown date several months from now, we'll be able to savor the flavors of spring once again.