Thursday, June 16 2006

The flight was an agonizing nightmare from the get go until we arrived at the hotel and I could finally fall asleep. John and Charlene went with me, or rather, I went with them- you can decide. It was probably me going with them since I’ve until now maintained my Europe-only bias against 3rd world travel. Charlene had invited me to come on a vacation with them for a while, and they were debating about where to go next (they're both total globe-trotting intrepid travellers) and they like to take guided tours since neither of them has time to organize and plan vacations- both Charlene and I had a lot of schedule flexibility (i wasn't working!) but we needed to find something when John was able to take off- that narrowed the possibilities. They had taken a trip with a sister company to OAT in the past, I think more than once, so Charlene talked me into trying it. Costa Rica seemed to fit that bill. They both had wanted to go there for sometime- I just wanted to get away. I left David very jealous of my ability to just take a vacation- but worse for taking one without him. Ha. As I actually write this, it’s 3/08, the selfish bastard. I am just getting around to documenting the trip now. It’s so much work to put these websites together and I didn’t actually bring my computer with me (as it turns out I TOTALLY should have) so when you get home knowing you have 300 photos and tons of writing to do, the process is so daunting it’s much easier to just say forget it. It takes me about 3-6 hours to put together just one single page (and many trips are many, many pages in length). If you don’t do them when you get back to the hotel at night, they’re hopeless. The flight was a red eye out of SFO that left me wide awake but deathly tired the entire ride. Red-eyes are a nightmare, especially for those of us who cannot get even a wink of sleep on a plane. It’s distressing that so many flights to foreign countries are red-eyes. Argh! Disastrously, the flight wasn’t even full, so I was left before taxi-ing with my own aisle and the dawning horror that I was seated in an exit row and the arm rests between the seats don’t lift up. Worse, one of the high-school aged loud mouths moved up from behind at the last minute and sat in the aisle seat to chat with her boyfriend who was across from me in John and Charlene’s aisle. Fortunately she shut up quickly so I didn’t have to suffer with hyper-paced speech and “like” every other word for too long. I tried to sleep a while in my exit-row-non-reclinig-seat without success. Around 3am they served a light breakfast which I coughed up the 5$ for and watched Galaxy Quest. We gained only one hour and by 5am the sun was coming up. 5hrs of a very smooth flight later, we landed in San Salvador, El Salvador for a flight change. I brushed by teeth, and boarded behind Charlene for the 1 hour flight to San Jose. Once again, every cell in my body was proclaiming its utter exhaustion but sleep would not come.

my room at the Tripp Coribici in San Jose

Finally arriving in San Jose, we got through customs to meet the tour leader and we are dropped at the Hotel Tripp Corbici where we are to be lodged in San Jose. I am just in very great need of some sleep, which seemed elusive even after the flight. I am alone on this trip and the operator will volunteer to room you with another same-sex single roommate, but none were available. But this is a good thing since sharing a hotel room with a total stranger sounds like a form of torture, so this was entirely providential. The hotel room was extremely comfortable and I collapsed into sleep for several hours after reading a half a chapter of my book.

John and Charlene and I were to meet for dinner at 4pm to find a place on our own to eat. As it turns out, they were too tired to go looking in the city for a place so we ended up eating at the hotel. We ate an overpriced and forgettable meal before going to bed at 8pm. I was fast asleep by 9 and don't remember a thing until the alarm went off at 6:30am.

Friday, June 17th

Breakfast at the hotel was a wonderful buffet at which I had a custom omlette with 2 cheeses, tomato, mushrooms and corn along with coffee, OJ and fresh fruit. This was after I caught the luggage guy departing the floor with the OAT luggage but without mine! That would have been a real disaster!

We all loaded onto the tour bus which was to be our mainstay of travel for the coming weeks: it was a true geriatric-wagon: air conditioning, seats no more than 2 abreast, the driver and Marcos (Santos- the tour guide) in the front seats. Marcos picked up his microphone while I sat in the middle with J&C on the other side of the aisle. I was trying so hard at the beginning and took notes as Marcos rattled of the history and various miscellany about CR. I was taking notes and trying to stay on top of the info but this would very, very soon grow tiresome. By the end of the trip I was dying to have ear buds to drown out his incessant dialogue- or begging for a needle full of versed to sedate either her him or me. Seriously- he just literally didn't shut up. Not even for 5 minutes. It was 2.5 weeks of absolutely constant talking. He could go for 8 hours straight. Seriously, he often did. I wanted to choke him and rip out his vocal cords. He introduced us, then went on for 4 hours until we stopped about Costa Rica- politics, history, GDP, finances, lifespan, population- it was exhaustive.

The players on the bus, as we all got to know eachother: Tom Jr. and Tom Sr., both from Texas, father and sun duo who travel together once a year. Tom Sr. is really just a funny older man, Tom Jr. is a nice man, schoolteacher, who is obese, balding, suffers from severe halitosis and seemed to take an interest in me. Joy and Gerry Jones from Tennessee- both retired- Gerry an Ob/GYN doc and Joy a housewife/nurse. They latched onto John and Charlene of course when they learned they were fellow learned physicians. Thought I was a medical assistant. Brought their two young granddaughters- I forget their names right now, one 12, one 14. Painful. Then two neighbors- Bertha who is nice enough and Lynne who was extremely quiet and had taken many of these trips with OAT. Lastly Carolyn and Bill from Seattle who struck me as rather uncouth, a little too obvious with their interpersonal dysharmony, but were on occasion very cabale of engaging conversation.

So: Costa Rica is the least third world in central america- has the highest standard of living. As such, interestingly enough, they have a lot of problems that we have with illegal immigrants crossing the border from Nicaragua and Panama. There is political strife about deporting these aliens, or not- as they are about the only ones willing to do the farming jobs and low-wage jobs that the growing middle class don't want to do. Kind of like us with the illegal Mexican immigration. Somebody has to pick the bananas. The country has 4.5 million people, 60% of whom live in the central valley where San Jose is located. Coffee is the #2 export (there are 7500 types of Arabica beans) and bananas are #1. The president in office is Oscar-Somebody who was president from 1986-1990 and was awarded the nobel peace prize during that time for not getting involved in Bush Sr.'s fight with Noriega in Nicaragua, Costa Rica's northern neighbor.

We drove north and east out of San Jose (past the president's shockingly unglamorous abode) in the middle of the city, maybe 50 feet from a major intersection. We stopped first at a little town called Naranjo to visit the local church and market. I spied a bike shop across the street from the market and realized that would be the perfect gift for David. We went to the bathroom, walked around the market and church. The church, when it was built, was so large that all of the people in the town and surrounding areas could fit in it. It has a charming little grotto out back with a koi pond.

John Glover is a huge birder. He got his undergraduate degree at University of Michigan in natural history so we had our bird bras on with specs the whole time. Birding is very much a hobby Shelby could really get into: they make lists. Lots of lists. They organize their lists. They are obsessed with lists and maintaining and manipulating the lists. I can get behind that kind of obsession. So much of this trip was spent birding. John is a total golden boy: grew up in Palo Alto the child of two PhD Stanford-tenured professors, went to medical school after undergrad. Having said that, I adore him and Charlene. John spotted two orange-throated parakeets nesting in the eves of the church. They're obviously native birds

Unfortunately, with the exotic pet trade, many of the parakeets and parrots who are native to the rainforests of central america are now gone or going because of illegal seizure. They are also suffering from massive habitat loss as Costa Rica is developing and expanding its development. Costa Rica seems to be a little bit more forward thinking than most of the world and tries to preserve some of their natural resources, although these is still massive development all over the country.

When we got off the bus in Naranjo, some of the women introduced themselves- or rather asked me "and who are you?" I had a bit of a laugh when Carolyn blurted out that I was obviously John and Charlene's daughter. Funny, although maybe not- they are about my parents' age. I'm a 30 year old whose friends almost solely consist of 50-somethings: J&C, Cee, Glenn, Greg, etc. Amusing. And I'm dating a 45 year old man. Freud would have something to say here, i'm sure, but I don't know exactly what that would be...

We headed into the market after the church tour and let me say this is why I'm always kind of teetering on the verge of vegeterianism- dead animals and animal parts hanging all over the place just collecting flies and stinking to high hell. The other side is all vegetables, though, and actually was kind of nice and somewhat tempting since they all looked so plump and tasty.

We drove farther north to Alajuela, out next stop along the way was the small but cool town of Zarcero to visit yet another Catholic church. This one, however, has the most delightful gardens- these sculptures straight out of Edward Scissorhands that I'll show you here, it was pretty enchanting.

Totally cool.

Back on the bus, Tom seemed to make friends with Joy and Gerry's grandkids- Ellen and Carolyn and they sat at the back of the bus playing cards. They let out of few squeals and as I was writing the journal entry waiting for everyone to load up back onto the bus, they were running around the lawn in a caribbean downpour.

The next stop was a local farm run by an independent farmer and his family- the farm is organic and sustainably farmed with a variety of crops, all of which gave the ingredients for our very lovely lunch (except the meats). We all trooped in, took a potty break, and got in line. I took the opportunity to wander around a bit, looking at the small waterfalls and turning over banana leaves looking for bugs and snakes, Jeff Corwin like. The girls must have been impressed because they soon followed me, introduced themselves and got in the action. The farm was really pretty- in the jungle in the middle of Costa Rica and right at the base in the shadow of the massive, smoking Arenal Volcano. It was actually belching while we were there. The farm made the most amazing lunch for us on this rooftop patio they had, the roof was covered with dried banana leaves. it was really cool. There was a stream running behind the house, and the place was thick with vegetation. I didn't find any snakes or bugs in the forest exploration, so I went up to the buffet with the group. The lunch was set out on the buffet and had steamed rice, flavored frijoles negres, salsa fresca (with red habaeros from the farm), plantain "potato" chips, boiled casava (love it with some salt!!!) and chicken or beef (I went for the chicken) and green salad. All from the farm. For dessert we had Costa Rican style rice pudding which was flavored with a lot of sugar, vanilla and cinnamon. It was not bad. I sat next to Tom Jr. talking about the weather in his native Houston.

After lunch we took a tour of the farm with the owner who was a local school teacher who became the principal for 15 years. He was a cool, energetic guy who translates his love of teaching into his agriculture and felt very passionate about sustainability and organic farming. We saw the casava which he had Charlene try and pull up (holy COW that's a lot of work!). He talked about the lore of planting based on moon cycles- it should be planted in full moon or it will not be a desirable crop, and other flowers, plants and trees including some of the biggest and spectacular habaeros I've ever seen. After, they had this bird watching stand thing they were building and we scoped birds. John spotted a chestnut mandible toucan in a far-off tree. Marcos got out his swarovski spotting scope and set it up on his tripod so we could see the bird. John engaged Marcos in a little sparring about birds- mostly because the guides on these trips seem to know less about natural history than the Michigan-educated undergraduate-cum-lifelong birder. Funny enough, Marcos is pretty amazing with local flora and fauna and passed the John-test with some ease. After this John had a bit more respect for Marcos' natural history knowledge and they seemed to develop a little symbiotic relationship. Men. The farm demonstration finished up with a sugar cane squeezing demonstration after which we were offered sugar cane water to sip in shot glasses along with some 140 proof moonshine to mix (lol! it was like fire!).

Charlene pulling up the casava, the balcony overlooking the forest, and the smoking volcano in the distance.


The treetop lunch spot.

They also had some really pretty waterfall features near the entrance to the farmhouse.

The group photo by Marcos above: Tom and Gerry kneeling, then l to r: Carolyn, Bill, Bert, Lynn, Carolyn (Bills' wife), the farmer, Charlene, me, Tom Sr, John with Ellen and Joy in the back row. Two more green-lored parrots in the trees below, next to the active Mount Arenal Volcano.

After the farm, we drove toward Fortuna- the new extreme sports tourist mecca of central america sprung up at the base of the volcano. Honestly, this is where I'd go if I came back- i wanted to do it all! There are these resorts that sprung up all over the area from the natural hot springs that abound at the base of the volcano (go figure). These resorts were super luxurious and set up in a series of pools, from coolish to warm to super freaking hot, closest to the spring. We got in bathing suits and spent a few hours soaking at one of these in the lush jungle surround at the base of Mount Arenal. Nice! The air temperature was super hot as it was, and humid, so this wasn't super refreshing to be in hot water, but with a couple of cervesas and feet in the cool pool, I chatted with J&C and Tom Jr.

On the way to the pools we spotted: a green iguana in a tree, the green lored parrots above, a tayra walking through a field, some howler monkeys in a tree, a keel-billed toucan (wow!!), masked tytara and crested guan. As the dusk was setting in, I spied a really gorgreous bird fly by in some low brush- confusing it with the resplendent Quetzal, it turned out to be a Rufous Mot-Mot, the Quetzal's gorgeous cousin.

(L) toucan! (R) Huge tree

(L) sloth in tree (R) green iguana in tree

After a stop in La Fortuna, which is a very popular little town in which people make plans and use as a springboard to explore Arenal and most of the caravan bought some ETOH and a few souvenirs to bring back with us onto the geriwagon for the drive to the hot springs before we head to the hotel for the next few nights. On the map below, you can see La Fortuna adjacent to Arenal Volcano in the lower right corner of the map.

Darkness finally crept in while we were riding toward the hotel for the night, just after I saw the mot-mot fly by. We finally arrived at the mountain top Eco Lodge to my pleasant discovery that we are situated in the row of little cabin-like rooms at the ridge of the hill. The rooms are made up of one entire wall of windows, to capture on the view of Lago de Cote, but all I saw for now was fog. I just got into the door- #43 and looked into the bathroom on my left and spotted a scorpion crawling around on the bathroom floor! I screamed, called John right away to get it out. While John ran back to his room to grab his camera, my rather nosy neighbor (rude and noisy as I'll find out) Bill and Carolyn invited themselves in to see it as well. John finally got there with his camera, snapped a few shots then got him in a cup and tossed him out the door.

I felt myself itching and imagining psychogenic bugs all over me while I tried to fall asleep... the power of suggestion.

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