Monday, November 29, 2010


November 27th, 2010, Juan Santamaria airport, San Jose, Costa Rica

Post 2 of 2 re: my tropical Thanksgiving getaway. Luckily for you, dear readers (assuming you exist), I'm at the gate roughly 6 hours early for my flight home, so this'll likely be a long one, to keep me entertained til boarding. Buckle up.

Shortly after my last post, I caught a bus from Colรณn into San Jose, a cab to the other bus terminal, ans then another bus out to Monteverde, a cloud forest reserve to the north, right on the Continental Divide. What was supposed to be a 5-hour ride turned into seven hours when we hit a mudslide. Not literally – it was a few kilometers ahead of us when traffic came to a dead stop. We sat, we waited, fruit vendors came on board and sold grapes, and finally one of them announced, in English, that they were blowing up a boulder in the road ahead and the wait would be about two hours. [collective groan.] Not entirely surprising, as mudslides and road closings are pretty common in Costa Rica after a big rain, and as it's right now getting near the end of the wet season, there's been rather a bit of precipitation lately. In other words, the boulders are a-rollin'. It was only about an hour and a half's delay, all told, and thank you Terry Gross for keeping me occupied through it. When we finally got to the work area it was pretty clear there was more than just a boulder being cleared; from the looks of things half a mountain or so of dirt had been scooped off the pavement.

At Monteverde – or rather, Santa Elena, the next town over, where all the carless tourists stay – I had three nights booked at Cabinas Vista al Golfo, in a package that came with a canopy tour and a night hike. Nice little place, if you're ever out there. On the bus out I'd run into Sunny, a classmate of Samantha's at Upeace, and her friend Lizzie, visiting from Georgia, and they decided to Stay at Vista al Golfo as well. New favorite drink, courtesy of the two of them – coconut milk, light rum, sugar, ice. And much needed after that bus ride, I have to say.

The birds woke me up at 6am Wednesday morning, and Lizzie and I caught a 7:30 canopy tour while Sunny stayed back and wrote a term paper. Turns out ziplines are awesome. The Tarzan swing I could have maybe done without – for those who haven't done it, you clip your harness to the end of a long rope hanging from a tree above, jump off a 40-foot-high platform, swing out over the forest, and scream like a girl. The ziplines, though, totally worth it. A piece of advice: whenever possible, book the 7:30am tour – our group had three people in it and moved along nicely; the 10am tour had 20 people and likely didn't. I hear the 1pm group was up to 33. No thank you.

12:30, so I'm taking a lunch break. The options are Church's Chicken, Schlotszky's Deli, Burger King, or Cinnabon. I should have gotten a posado to go at the soda where I had breakfast. Oh well. Brb.

$12 for a bag of Kettle chips and what, once I pulled off all the parts that had been contaminated with mustard, which the man at the counter neglected to mention in his otherwise thorough listing of ingredients (“what is 'the original, anyway?”), turned out to be roughly half of a ham-and-cheese sandwich from Schlotszky's. The Cinnebon helped, but I'm not even going to tell you what that cost me. Airports are ridiculous.

Anyway, Monteverde.

When the shuttle dropped us back at the hotel Sunny was still working on her paper, so Lizzie & I decided to walk back along the road towards the town of Monteverde. The views were gorgeous, though the hills were steep. We stuck our heads in a few art galleries, in one of which I spent far too much money on a gorgeous pair or earrings and a Costa Rican cookbook (I told you the food was good), and bought some handmade local chocolates at a cafe. (New truffle flavor: passionfruit.) We walked as far as the cheese factory, run by the American Quakers who settled the town in the 1950's while trying to avoid the Korean War, then turned around and met Sunny for lunch at a delicious, if somewhat upscale, 'nueva latina' restaurant. I had pork-and-plantain fritters, black bean soup, and ginger lemonade. Sophia's, the place was called. I'd go back for sure.

After lunch they took a cab back to the hotel to catch their shuttle to Mt Arenal, a volcano about 3 hours away where they were spending a few days. I took a leisurely stroll home, where I stopped at the Serpentarium and paid $9 to see a roomful of poisonous snakes in glass cages. Those were the only snakes I saw on the trip, and frankly I'm okay with that. Vipers are one species I'm okay with not meeting in the wild.

That evening was my night hike at the Santamaria reserve. It rained. A guide named Oscar showed me and four Germans around the trails, pointing out sleeping birds and insects and the occasional larger wildlife. Highlights were a mother two-toed sloth and her baby, a tree full of coatimundis, and a tarantula in a pipe. Very neat.

One of the perks of being a linguist: while my Spanish vocabulary at this point consists of the numbers on to ten, 'hola', 'gracias', and 'bien', I seem to have gotten good enough at saying those and at deciphering the usual greetings to convince people I speak Spanish, at least for a while. Which is pretty fun. Knowing Italian doesn't hurt, either, when it comes to pronunciation and reading menus. After my summer in Java I could barely get a word of Italian out; it felt like it had been painted over in my brain by the Indonesian. (Apparently I only have one slot available for languages starting with 'I'.) But all this Spanish seems to have excavated it again, hopefully not to the detriment of the Indonesian, though I guess I'll find out in class on Tuesday if I start coming out with 'buon giorno' instead of 'selamat siang'. (Though I did get to practice a bit with Samantha, when she turned to me at the Dutch ambassador's house and started speaking Indonesian so as not to be overheard. Do you know how cool it is to be able to turn and have a conspiratorial conversation in Indonesian at a diplomatic reception? Let me tell you: it's pretty fuckin' cool.)

Thursday morning, Thanksgiving, I took my own advice and booked a 7:30am guided tour of the Monteverde reserve itself. An older American couple and I spent three hours with our guide, who was incredibly knowledgeable about the park and everything in it. Again, more bugs, more birds, a coati at close range, and, after a number of false alarms, a quetzal. Quetzals are gorgeous birds, with a blue head, red breast, and long iridescent green tail feathers. They're native to the park, but apparently during the rainy season they decamp to drier climes, so we were lucky to spot one. How the guides spotted it (and half the other things they saw) is utterly beyond me; even after watching it through their telescope I couldn't find it again on my own. We also spotted a pair of howler monkeys, mother and baby again, eating lunch in a tree. Apparently howlers like to throw poo at people walking underneath; luckily we were far enough away to avoid that. And at the end was a hummingbird sanctuary, with roughly 10 of the 30 native species darting around, dive-bombing tourists, and swarming the feeders. The photos are great.

It was still morning when the tour ended, so after refueling with a cup of tea I headed back into the reserve and hiked a bit on my own. I didn't see nearly the amount of wildlife as before, though I'm sure it was there, but the plants and flowers and insects I did see were pretty stunning nonetheless. I went over a bridge suspended through the canopy and up to an observation point, La Ventana, where on a clear day you can see the Gulf of Nicoya on one side and Mt Arenal on the other. Well it wasn't a clear day, so I could see about 20 feet in any direction into a solid wall of cloud. Almost reminded me of the north of Scotland, with the mist and the wind. But it was a beautiful hike. Not a bad way to spend Thanksgiving – sure beats the hell out of watching old Bond movies and mashing potatoes, that's for sure.

At that point I'd had just about enough of that, so I decided to walk back to the hotel, which was a terrible idea. After a 3-hour nature walk and a roughly 5-km hike, a 6-km walk down a bumpy dirt road added up to more miles walked in one day than I'd really like to think about, and my feet reminded me of that every step of the way. And it rained. Started about 5 minutes in, continued in fits and starts the whole rest of the way. About halfway home I stopped at a bakery for lunch. No turkey available, so I had a chicken-and-veggie empanada and a sweet potato pastel. Close enough. And naturally, with aching feet, in the rain, I missed the turn into Santa Elena. The road I ended up on did take me to my hotel, but not particularly directly. The rest of the afternoon, in true Thanksgiving form, consisted of a nap.

Friday morning I moved on from the cloud forest to the volcano, Mt Arenal. My hotel offered a package with transport there, a volcano tour, hotsprings, and a night at a hotel in La Fortuna, which sounded to me like not a bad way to end the trip. The transport over was what's known here as 'jeep-boat-jeep': tourist shuttle over godawful bumpy roads to Lake Arenal, ferry across, and another shuttle into town. The roads on the first leg rivaled those in Java for sheer size and number of potholes – they make Rachel Carson Way look like a freshly-zambonied ice rink in comparison – but the scenery was gorgeous, especially on the lake. After an excellent posada lunch at a soda in town, the hotel drove me and a Dutch couple out to the Baldi spa for a 2-hour soak in the hot springs before another shuttle brought us to the volcano for our hike. Another fantastic guide – his name is Franklin, if you're ever in town – pointed out all the medicinal plants along the route (did you know a tea made from impatients is good for fever?), which ran through some rainforest and then up the lava flow from the major 1968 eruption, which destroyed two villages and first announced that this wasn't just another docile mountain. Since then Arenal's been one of the most active volcanoes in the hemisphere, and most of the time you can see lava oozing from its crater. Unless, of course, it's the rainy season, in which case you can see clouds. Oh well. But we hiked as far up the side as is allowed, which given how active the volcano is still leaves you about a kilometer from the crater, but is still pretty cool. On the way up we saw toucans and wild turkeys, and at the bottom, just after dark, gorgeous jewel-toned tree frogs. Costa Rican wildlife checklist complete. From there back to Baldi for dinner and another few hours in the hot springs. I hadn't realized earlier just how far back the complex went, and this time I and another girl from the hike, a geologist from Vancouver, discovered some waterslides and a spectacular hot pool with a waterfall and underwater lounge chairs. Worth missing the football for.

And then, this morning, I caught an 8am (carbon neutral – love this country) tourist shuttle back into San Jose to the airport. My transport options were that or a 4-hour bus leaving at noon, so if I was to catch my 5:30 flight I didn't have much choice but to show up very, very early. But they let me check my bag right off the bat, and between writing, reading my latest John le Carre, and browsing the souvenir shops for free chocolate samples (of which there are many), it's now about 10 minutes to boarding. I land in JFK around 2am, SuperShuttle back to the apartment, and stay for lunch and a Sunday matinee of Patrick Stewart's latest Broadway appearance before heading home tomorrow. So, until my next foray into interesting foreign places, adieu.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Welcome to Costa Rica

Question #1: Why do I always manage to catch a cold in the tropics? This one is mild, thank goodness, not like the monster I caught in Thailand that nearly made my head explode on the flight home. Three days later and I'm mostly back to normal. Still, I don't get it.

At the moment I'm in Ciudad Colon, not far from San Jose, Costa Rica. The big lesson so far: whenever possible when traveling, go stay with someone who lives in the country in question, particularly if the happen to be affiliated with a university which happens to be affiliated with the UN, like the University for Peace here in Colon, where my friend Samantha happens to be a student. Major perks. The rundown so far:

My plane to San Jose left JFK at 5am Friday morning, so I booked a Supershuttle to pick me up just before midnight at the apartment. Everyone else would be sound asleep by 10, I figured, so why not get out of the house early and catch a few hours' sleep at the gate rather than staying up late to wait for a shuttle at some ungodly morning hour, or worse yet trying to wake up at 2am to catch it. Well, that didn't work. My first mistake was a rather strong rum drink at Cuba Cafe with Monika earlier that evening, which made even midnight a difficult target to stay up for. I slept in the van on the way in, but when I got to JFK the security checkpoint to my gate was closed. Terminal 4 has a nice shopping concourse down an escalator from check-in but still outside security, so I wasn't stuck by the doors to outside (unlike a similar early-morning flight experience going to Bermuda senior year), but the concourse was bustling enough with airport workers and families taking 2 or 3am flights to god knows where - their gates, unfortunately, were behind different security points than mine - that sleep was impossible. The store just down the corridor whose theft alarm kept going off didn't help either.

(Side note - I was chilly there, so I wrapped my scarf around my head to keep warm. I definitely got some less-than-comfortable looks from passers-by. And yes, I took it off before I went through security - 3am enhanced TSA patdowns were not high on my to-do list.)

Just after 3 security opened to my gate. Surprisingly enough they didn't question the block of tempeh in my carryon. That would have been a fun explanation: "Well, officer, it's kinda like chunky tofu... Yes, you eat it. Well, I do anyway." Boarding was just after 4, and 5am we were in the air. I was out cold.

Copa Airlines isn't bad, by the way. The food's no better than you'd get on, say, Delta, but they give you real metal silverware, which I appreciate, and the leg room's no worse than any other coach seat. I'd fly them again.

Quick layover in Panama City and I got in to San Jose at around 11:30am local time. Taxi to Samantha's, and I chatted with the landlady for a bit until she & her fiance, Arvil, got home from class. After lunch we took the bus up the mountain to the UPeace campus, which is lovely. That night was an Asian cultural night, with food and performances from all over the continent. This being a UN school, they actually have students from quite a few countries - including one from Kyrgystan, whose food tasted Russian, full of dill (not that that's a bad thing), but whose traditional dress was awesome. From Indonesia there was a poco-poco dance and chicken sate; Samantha and I both wore batik.

Saturday morning we went to the market and had lunch at a soda, a traditional Costa Rican cafe-type place. The food here is nothing spectacular, lots of rice and beans and avocados and fried plantains, but it's good in a low-key sort of way. I had a drink made from the cas fruit, which tasted like the love child of a guanabana and a grapefruit. In other words, delicious. That night was a surprise 50th birthday party for the landlady, complete with a mariachi band, giant dancing traditional puppets, and the most spectacular birthday cake I've ever seen, all for about 80 of her closest friends and family. The puppets were the best part, big cloth-covered wire constructions that sat on the wearers shoulders with big paper-mache heads shaped like skulls, devils, policemen, and in one case, no head at all but just a bloody neck. The point seemed to be that they twirled and jogged around to the music and chased people, and occasionally snuck up behind you and bent down and tapped their head against you in an indescribably unsettling way. The pictures came out great.

Sunday was rainy and cool so we stayed in, struggled mightily to get some work done, and watched the Star Trek movie. Monday Samantha & Arvil had 6 hours of class, so I took a bus into San Jose. I saw the jade museum and the museum of pre-Columbian gold, which were pretty neat, and the central market, which wasn't bad, and wandered around for just long enough to realize that San Jose isn't that great a city, and took the bus back. That evening was a reception for UPeace students at the Dutch ambassador's house (again, the perks of UN affiliation), and they were nice enough to invite me along. Good wine, good hors d'oeuvres, a productive chat with one of the professors, and I get to say I went to the Dutch ambassador's house in Costa Rica. Not bad at all.

And today: packing, mostly, then at 2:30 I get on a bus up to the Monteverde cloud forest reserve. I was hoping for the beach but it's supposed to be rainy all week, so I figured I may as well go somewhere where the humidity's always 100% regardless, so what's a little rain gonna do? Already got the zipline canopy tour booked. Will post later re: monkeys & such.