Christmas Vacation


Costa Rica Part 3: The Wedding

Oh yeah. One final thing happened in Costa Rica. My sister got married.


Now naturally, the most important issue of the big day was what should Shane Halbach wear to the wedding?

What does one wear to a beach wedding in Costa Rica?

Two words: Miami Vice.

I went with a hat, sunglasses, a pink shirt, and white linen pants like a boss. Apparently, great minds think alike:

2015_03_17_1168I was also rocking some impressive chest hair. ::wistful sigh:: I would have been so cool in the 70’s.

The resort handled everything, so all we basically had to do was show up. It was a bit strange with all the lookie-loos on the beach, but full service is full service.


Speaking of rocking something like a boss, here is my sister walking down the beach IN HIGH HEELS.




Here’s the thing you might not know about white linen pants: totally see through! (Well, *you* might know that, because apparently everybody knew that but me.)

I will not go into the details of my undergarments, but let’s just say that if your underwear shows through your pants, the solution is not to remove the underwear. I mean, you might think, “problem solved!”, which is kind of true, but also “problem created” if you see what I mean.

And believe me, you would see what I mean.


(I dug out some tighty whitey’s you animals. I can’t believe you looked that close.)

Of course, if you’re staying at an all inclusive resort, the reception is basically taken care of.


Now, not everybody can claim celebrities at their wedding reception, but was I the only one to notice a couple of crashers at the restaurant? (No, not Uncle Jim, behind him!)


Turns out the resort happened to be hosting an event with a couple of Bears’ players. I believe that is Kyle Fuller and possibly Willie Young, or maybe David Bass. Celebrity wedding guests! (Not really.)

Unfortunately, it was a short trip for Sara and I, and all too soon we had to return to the frigid, fruitless, weak-sauce coffee real world to collect our kids. But we’ll always have our memories (plus commemorative cups!)


Costa Rica Part 2: Into the Wilds

Costa Rica has a wide variety of animals not typically found in Chicago*, and that was probably my favorite part of the trip. There’s just something about seeing a big honking crocodile cruising off the side of your boat, that’s a bit different from seeing one in the zoo.

*besides the alligators in the sewers, of course


The most exciting part was when we *almost* saw a crocodile eat an iguana. There had been a bunch of iguanas on a rock, when they nervously started running for the shore, one by one. Our guide pointed out the crocodile that was stealthily creeping up on their position and spooking them out. Finally it got right up to the rock and only one lonely iguana remained.

By this time we had drifted downstream, so we unfortunately did not get to see the exciting conclusion to this little tale, but all I know is that when we came back the other way, the iguana and crocodile were both gone. We’ll never know for sure what happened, of course, but as for me, I’d like to think that the iguana hulked out and ate that crocodile for lunch.

These iguanas, man. They were everywhere. They’re like the Costa Rica equivalent of a squirrel. You couldn’t throw a crocodile without hitting one. On the beach, in the resort, in the trees…you name it. Unlike cute, cuddly squirrels, however, they’re ENORMOUS REPTILES WITH WHIPS FOR TAILS, SPIKES ON THEIR BACKS, AND A HUNGER FOR HUMAN FLESH.


Costa Rica also has monkeys, which, as we all know, are the coolest possible animals. Everything they do is amazing. Up to, and including, almost getting eaten by a crocodile.

See, sometimes these cute little capuchin monkeys have to go down to the river to drink. So they run down their cute little branches with their cute little monkey hands and lean over with their cute little monkey faces and get snatched up in the pitiless jaws of a giant, prehistoric apex predator. Alas, not today (2nd missed chance to see something get eaten by a crocodile).

Apparently, the monkeys have learned to scan the water for a few minutes, then scamper down and slap their tail in the water before high-tailing it (literally) back into the trees to lick the captured water.


The monkeys did immediately delight us by doing what comes naturally, if you know what I mean, which SOME members of our party found just unendingly hilarious, even if I personally think it would have been cooler to see a crocodile do what comes naturally, if you know what I mean.

Also, there was a scarlet macaw.


We saw a few other things, like howler monkeys, bats, and lots of awesome birds, including a super-endangered stork thing that is roughly the size of my 7 1/2 year old.

On the second day we went on a rainforest hike, where we learned that “rainforest” is not just a clever name. No, in fact, it is a forest. A very, very rainy forest.

My motivation for hiking in the rainforest was to see lots of animals. Unfortunately, we didn’t see a single animal. Turns out that animals think it’s kind of stupid to hike around in the rain. Even the leafcutter ants stayed inside.

But we did see a sloth, so actually that was pretty cool.


The rainforest was not a complete waste of time, however, because I got to swim under waterfalls, which was *awesome*, and float in a volcanic-heated hot spring, which was also *awesome*.


Oh, and my sister got married (3rd missed chance to see something get eaten by a crocodile).


I don’t mean to boasta, but I went to Costa


My sister decided to get married in Costa Rica of all places, so Sara and I decided to go without the kids.

Costa Rica was basically everything you think it would be: sunny and hot, but with a fresh breeze off the ocean, exotic animals, amazing fresh fruit, and the. best. coffee. full stop.


It was my first time staying in an all-inclusive resort. Usually, when Sara and I travel, we’re more do-it-yourself kind of people. There were pluses and minuses to it.

The downside was that we were somewhat locked into the touristy resort area, reliant on tour companies to get around, and paying ridiculous prices for souvenirs with “Made in China” stamped on the bottom. We mostly saw the whitewashed, tourist version of Costa Rica, and I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that we could have done everything on our own for much cheaper.

The upside was that we didn’t have to worry about anything. I mean, seriously, ANYTHING. No worrying about where to eat, no worrying about getting bottled water, or cleaning up after ourselves, or asking for directions, or not speaking Spanish. The staff were friendly and eager to please in a way that just doesn’t exist in Chicago (eye rolling and exasperated sighs need not apply!). You don’t realize what a burden it is to not have to worry about all of these little details until you suddenly don’t have to anymore. Obviously all of these things were magnified by the fact that we didn’t have the kids to worry about either.

The biggest decision I had to worry about was which dessert to pick after dinner.


Fresh off the plane from sunny Costa Rica, and it’s snowing here in Chicago. Rough transition, folks!


We did do a couple of excursions (more on that tomorrow), but we still had plenty of time to sit and relax. Relax on our balcony, relax in the pool, relax on the beach…did I mention relaxing?


Every morning, Sara and I would go down and snag a cup of coffee from the lobby and then find a place to read for an hour or so before breakfast. Reading an actual paper book is one of the great pleasures in this life (double so, since I was reading the most excellent The Martian, which was a page turner!).

Did I mention relaxing?


After that, we would go get breakfast, and at LEAST two more cups of coffee. Not only was the coffee amazing (hard to get fresher coffee than in Costa Rica), but it was brewed thick and dark and always came with a carafe of warm milk. Heaven.

The food was actually much better than I thought it would be. I was worried it would be all hot dogs, nacho cheese, and pizza (and those things were, in fact, there to be found), but it was actually much more authentic than I feared. Most importantly, there was lots and lots of delicious fresh mango, papaya, pineapple, melon, and some other, equally delicious if much stranger, fruits. There were fried plantains, and beans and rice, and fresh avocados, and a salsa bar…let’s have a moment of silence for those poor, misguided tourists eating the pizza, shall we?


I think at least 3 people in our party got stung by jellyfish. Luckily, I was not one of them, but it didn’t exactly endear me to the ocean (and apparently, peeing on it really does help. MYTH NOT-BUSTED!). The beach right at the resort was rocky and a little painful to walk on barefoot, so combined with that, the threat of jellyfish stings, and little shade to come by, we mostly came down to the beach in the evening.


Costa Rica is close enough to the equator that sunrise and sunset are clockwork reliable. They get pretty much exactly 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of night, all year round. It was so very pleasant to sit down at the beach and watch a beautiful sunset every night before dinner.


It took at least 24 hours to get used to not having to pay for things. You keep feeling like you’re getting away with something. “Oh, I can just take this? That’s just included? Oh, I just help myself?”

None more so than with the bar. Every drink, on the house, day or night. At first you start out small…lemonade and vodka? Rum and coke? This is still okay, yes? Next thing you know it’s mango smoothies with tequila, and “Oooh, can I get the secret Johnny Walker Red from under the bar?” and “Excuse me miss, I’m not sure you ground the limes properly in my caipirinha…”

It’s easy to let it go to your head, both literally and figuratively.

In fact, they had some funny looking faucets in our hotel room…


But it wasn’t all relaxing and free booze. No sir, there was also a Michael Jackson impersonator.

Michael. Jackson. Impersonator.

Told you this place was full service. She was good, too. I can verify that the Thriller dance was cannon, and during Billie Jean she went full on Moonwalk, baby. Awesome.

There were other shows put on by the resort at night, but after seeing Michael Jackson the first night I’m afraid the bar was a little too high, if you know what I mean.


So Sara and I decided to take a walk down the beach one day. After we were far, far from everybody else, all alone, we noticed a solitary man walking toward us. Hey, what is that strange Costa Rican carrying on this lonely beach? A walking stick? A piece of driftwood?

Nope. A machete.


Luckily, before we could have our heads cracked open like a coconut, some strangers rode up on horses. “Hey, let’s walk quickly after these mysterious horses!” we said, walking quickly after the mysterious horses. I kept nervously looking back over my shoulder to see if he was following us, but I guess the mystery horses were too much for him, because our coconuts remained un-cracked.

We did pass another couple going down the beach, and I did consider warning them about the sword-wielding machete-murderer, but oh well; let them find their own mystery horses, I always say.

Alas, too soon it was time to say goodbye to Costa Rica and head back to the land of kids and snow and watered down coffee. Costa Rica, we hardly knew ye.


Stay tuned for tomorrow’s exciting episode, in which we almost witness a crocodile’s dinner, monkeys do what comes naturally, and I get to swim under a waterfall.

A Christmas (kind of) vacation

For Christmas, my brother got me two great gifts. The first was that he would plan a weekend for Sara and I, including a hotel room and entertainment. The second, and more important gift, was that he would watch the kids during that time.

This was elaborate planning. There were reservations and tickets and printed maps. In fact, there were too many things to do and we ended up missing out on some of them! I guess we’ll just have to do it again sometime.

First we went to the farmer’s market. The Madison farmer’s market is not for the faint of heart. It’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 BILLION times bigger than our farmer’s market. We got scones at their favorite scone place, and bought some honey, flowers, and pickled garlic scapes. Ollie would have prefered to stay at the pickle place all day long eating samples. He mowed through everything in turn, including some habanero pickles. Some lady tried one next, figuring if some little kid was fine with them, what did she have to fear? Unfortunately, her face caught on fire and burned off. Never mess with Ollie when it comes to spicy things.

Next we had a tour of the capitol, which is sort of old hat for my brother. Still we got up on the roof walk, peeked in the senate chamber, and walked around in the rotunda.

By the time the kids were getting pretty hungry (forgetting, naturally, that we had already eaten breakfast AND scones), so we went out to brunch. We ate at Graze, and I must say, it was quite awesome. This was definitely the best meal we had in Madison (more on that later).

Next up we went out to the Sassy Cow Creamery for a tour. They were having some kind of family day, which included ice cream taste tests, games, tours, and did I mention taste tests? Nathan got a little…turned around on the way there (how else to describe the fact that it took us 50 minutes to get there and only 15 to get home?), but it all came out okay.

Better than okay, in fact, because we saw the craziest thing ever.

We were standing in the main barn watching cows eat and pretending like it didn’t smell like we were actually standing inside a cow’s butt, when the tour guide casually mentioned one of the cows was giving birth. Sure enough, one of the cows was just lying on its side, heaving and pushing. They didn’t have it in a separate area or anything; even the other cows weren’t bothering to give it any extra room.

“Whelp,” said the tour guide, “looks like I better give ‘er a tug.”

He casually walks over and grabs some kind of crazy chain thing, reaches inside the cow, attaches the chains to the baby’s legs and PULLS OUT A BABY COW. Simple as that. “I guess we’re all honorary Wisconsinites now,” said Sara.


After that, it was time to split up. Nathan and Amanda took the kids to Cave of the Mounds, and Sara and I went to check into our hotel. We were supposed to go kayaking next, but we couldn’t make it. We had early dinner reservations in order to make the comedy show later, so we only had an hour or so before dinner. Therefore we decided to just walk around and do some shopping. However, we also realized that there was NO WAY we could eat dinner at 6. Between breakfast, scones, lunch, and ice cream, we just didn’t have any room left over. So we had to cancel our reservations. It looked like a lovely restaurant, but we stopped for a coffee instead.

Finally, we ended the night with an improv show at Monkey Business. The room was small and hot, but the improv was actually pretty good. I don’t attend many improv shows, but I have been to a few, and the games they played were different than I have seen before. We ended up getting some pizza, and it was pretty good too (ham, blue cheese and walnuts!).

The next morning we met back up with the kids and Nate and Amanda made us pancakes (beet pancakes no less! That’s a first for me.) On a whim, on the way home we stopped off at my Grandma’s house and took her out to lunch, since we clearly hadn’t eaten enough in the past few days. My Uncle from Madison had the same idea, so we all ended up going together (ironic that we spent the weekend in Madison, but didn’t run into him until we left!)

All in all a very nice weekend, and a Christmas present I would recommend to anyone who has kids. Believe me, a night without the kids is always a very, very good bet for a present, even without the hotel room! Heck, even an HOUR without the kids…

Quote Monday goes camping

::Ollie getting out of the shower at the campground::
Ollie, to the feet under a different shower: “So, I see you’re done with YOUR shower!”

That boy can start a conversation with anyone…

Me: “Oh no, I forgot my hat and now my head is in the sun.”
Ollie: “Well, I could ride on your shoulders, and then my hat would protect you too!”

Evie: “I’m going to go talk to Grandma about going to the store.”
Me: “Honey, it’s too early, the store’s not open yet.”
Evie: “Well, there’s no sign saying we can’t talk about the store when it’s not open.”

Me: “Can you say thank you to Grandma for buying you that shirt?”
Ollie: “Well, I picked it out.”

Me: “Don’t fall asleep right now, we’re going to stop in a minute.”
Ollie: “You know what? I don’t fall asleep on purpose, I only fall asleep on accident.”

Washington D.C.

I had to go to Washington D.C. for a week for a conference, so Sara and the kids decided to join me. This was absolutely wonderful, since it would have been a boring, lonely week without them! Plus it makes for a cheap vacation, since the hotel is paid for and I didn’t have to take any vacation.

It was a 13 hour car ride with the stops, and we did it straight, driving all the way there in one go. This actually went pretty well. I find that at the beginning of the trip it’s a lot easier because everybody is excited. In fact, we woke the kids up to leave early, something that both Sara and I remember fondly from our own childhoods. My dad in particular would always be itching to get going, sometimes just deciding the night before, “You know what? Let’s just leave right now and drive all night!” So I was kind of excited to share that with the kids.

As with the Maine trip, we put together a mixed tape (cd) to listen to on the trip, and it’s pretty awesome. We listened to it basically on a continuous loop the whole time (with only a few minor breaks for Frozen).

The first thing we did was go to Mount Vernon. That was actually really cool, and maybe the highlight of the trip! It was neat to see George Washington’s farm and house, including the room he died in and the room he was sitting in when he found out he would be the 1st president of the U.S. The reenactors were all top notch.

Evie has always really been into the sort of pioneer time period, probably going back to the Little House books, but also intensified more recently with all the American Girl books she’s been reading. She refuses to wear a hat, and instead wears a bonnet every day. She loves nothing more than to wear her bonnet with an old fashioned-looking flower girl dress that Sara had from when she was little. Knowing that we would be going to Mount Vernon, we secretly brought the dress along.

Evie was a big hit. Everybody we passed complimented her on her outfit, and the reenactors were very happy to see her. Even the General himself said she reminded him of his granddaughter. We tried to take a picture, but everybody loved the two of them so much, it set off a papparazzi storm of photography. I think ol’ George wasn’t sure who Evie’s actual mother was, there were so many people taking pictures. Evie was obviously very proud.


Strangely, though, Evie wasn’t the only one to be complimented on her outfit. Someone told Sara, “We’ve been traveling around quite a bit, and your outfit is the best we’ve seen on the trip.” Sara wasn’t wearing anything particularly fancy, but let me tell you, it’s a nice compliment from a stranger!

As we were driving through the confusing, traffic-laden hellstorm known as the beltway, I was trying to understand all the crazy HOV lane signs. They are really into HOV lanes in D.C.! I’m fairly comfortable driving in crazy traffic, as only someone who commutes about 2 hours a day in Chicago traffic can be, but I couldn’t make head or tails of most of the signs. Finally I saw something a Chicagoan could understand: an ez-pass only lane through the toll! Quickly I cut across several lanes of traffic, congratulating myself on figuring this one out. Or so I thought, because I was totally wrong.

What I actually did was get on a special toll road, just for me! Apparently they have special express lanes that charge your i-Pass for the privilege of using them. Everybody who knew what they were doing (i.e. everybody except me) stayed in the free lanes, since the traffic was flowing. So we had our own little private highway with nobody on it except us! I was a little nervous how much it was costing me (we went under a LOT of i-Pass readers!), but it only ended up costing like $3.50. Not exactly worth it, but not too bad.

The nice thing about D.C. is that all the museums and things are free (though they do try to charge you for whatever ELSE they can charge you for). The next day we hit up the zoo. The highlight was seeing 4 lion cubs, one of whom was very tentative, interacting with their mother, who had had about enough of that tentative son of hers.

It was super hot throughout the week, hovering in the high 90’s. Also, the hotel we were staying at through the week had a pool that was under construction, so no swimming for us (though we did swim at every other hotel we stayed at). Despite the heat, Sara and the kids made it around to quite a few things. They spent 6 1/2 hours at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, but that was understandable, considering the kids’ love of butterfly houses.


They also hit up the U.S. Bureau of Engraving & Printing (where they make money; the Mint is only for coins), which seemed to be a highlight. The National Museum of American History, Air & Space Museum, and the National Museum of the American Indian were all only so so. I was at the conference through most of those, though I was able to join them for the Native American Museum.

We also hit up some trendy restaurants that required us to make reservations well in advance. The best was Rasika, which was awesome. Founding Farmers was…disappointing. More on that in another blog post.

Oliver spent most of the week making friends. With EVERYBODY. No stranger was immune to his charm. The was especially true on the metro, when he had a captive audience. He would find someone to make friends with and start chatting them up.

Ollie, whispering: “Mama, can I ask for her phone number?”

They start so young.

Strangely, one of the best things we did around D.C. was go to a school playground. This was not just any school playground. The Beauvoir playground is one of the coolest playgrounds I’ve ever seen. None of that cheap plastic stuff; unique fixtures, old, tall shade trees, uneven surfaces, and imagination required. Why don’t they make all school playgrounds like this? The kids had a *blast* there and didn’t want to leave after 2 hours.

Our final stop on the trip was Glen Echo Park, where we had a personal carousel tour and saw a Wizard of Oz puppet show. The kids were front and center in the first row, and it was cute to watch Ollie clinging to his big sis when the wicked witch puppet came out.

Finally, after driving all the way to D.C. and back, we hit an ENORMOUS pothole hidden under a puddle just as we got back into Chicago, bending our rim and busting our tire. It was quite the traumatic end to a long day, and just really not what we needed right then. So the whole thing ended on a down note, but the tire has already been repaired and replaced (though we ended up losing our hubcap), and, as they say, all’s well that doesn’t end well.