Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Travelogue: On the way to Domenical

The ride from La Fortuna to Quepos (a town on the Pacific coast, very near famous Manuel Antonio Park) was uneventful. When I hopped into the shuttle, I spoke with the driver briefly in Spanish. Later, I pulled out my Spanish/English dictionary to look up a few words. I was truly shocked when the woman next to me, a native Spanish speaker, asked me if I spoke English or Spanish. I guess if I keep it to 10 words or less, I can "pass."

In Quepos, I found the bus station and waited for the bus headed in my direction. I met a bunch of guys from San Luis Obispo who were headed in the same direction. It's funny how far you go sometimes and still end up meeting people from around the bend. I came very close to missing the bus. If I hadn't met the SLO guys, I would have (bad info from my contact in La Fortuna.) This was the first public bus I had taken in Costa Rica and it was quite an experience. The bus was very crowded, hot and dusty. The distance from Quepos to Domenical is only about 40 km, but took 2.5 hours (good info from my contact in La Fortuna, although I didn't believe him when he told me.)

The roads were, for the most part, unpaved. On the first stretch, the road had dried since the last rain. Dust and grit blew back from the truck in front of us and worked its way into my eyes and mouth. We soon turned off and the road became more like a child's board game - "potholes" of unknown deths, filled with water dotting thedirt and rock road. The bus driver picked his way through them with the grace, care, and concentration of a ballerina.

Somewhere in the first hour, I began really enjoying the ride. We crossed one-lane bridges. The body of the bus was wider than the wheels. The bridges were so narrow that with a window seat, looking down from the bus, one could only see water. I'm not sure why I enjoyed it so much. I think it made me feel more a part of the country. Also, I felt independent and capable - if I can ride a public bus in a country where I effectively do not speak the language, I can handle a lot. Most of all, it really amped me up to go to India.

Domenical is so small that if you blinked, you could miss it. It's not even a one stoplight town - it is one street with no stoplights. The town is centered around surfing - surfshops, reggae, and just general chillage. Someone who works at the school walked me to where I'd be living for the week. He only speaks Spanish and he was explaining something to me. I finally understood that he was saying that I was not allowed to have guys in my room. I hope that you can picture it: I have my main pack on my back, my daypack on my front. I am sweaty, dusty, and all-around dirty. I've been traveling for 7 hours, and this guy is talking about me bringing guys back to my "place?" Even better, he said (in Spanish) that someone would explain all of this to me the next day at the school. So, apparently in all my travel-worn splender, something about me made him think "seductress" and "if I don't tell her this now, we're going to have problems."

I showered and changed ready to hit the "town" and eat - I had skipped lunch to catch the bus. It started raining. I thought I'd wait it out, maybe a half an hour or so. It started pouring. I lay out in the hammock in front of my room (under the eaves of the porch.) I was incredibly relaxed (hammocks = my idea of heaven), but getting hungry. Eventually, the rain was coming down so hard that stray drops were hitting the hammock. I accepted that I'd be going to bed hungry and retreated to my room. Closing the door, I felt someone underfoot and jerked my foot up. Apparently, a small frog had decided to join me in my room. After all the traveling, the language problems, the anxiety, I was happy to have my small, silent companion join me.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Travelogue: Leaving La Fortuna

Tomorrow, I leave La Fortuna for the beach: Playa Domenical on the Pacific coast. I´ll be sad to leave - my host family has been really great and supportive of my efforts to learn Spanish. I know where everything is in this tiny town, etc. etc. etc. Having said that, I´m also ready for new pastures (or whatever the saying is.)

I´ve spent every evening watching the news with my host family. I keep my dictionary at hand and consult it often. My host father and I have bonded over our mutual love of the Brazilian soccer team. My host mother still thinks I´m a little crazy, but then again - maybe she´s right.

Honestly, in many ways, I wish I was headed home. I´m not sure why, but I often feel homesick at the one week point. I think the adventure/adrenaline/whatever is starting to wear off and I´m missing my bed, my shower, and my friends. (Possibly in that order.) I miss knowing where everything is. I miss talking to people easily. I know that I´ll rally and move on, but I still wish I could somehow just pop back for an evening and see Gia, etc.

It´s amazing how much Spanish I understand after 4 days of classes. I took a tour on the Caño Negro. The guide did the tour in Spanish and English, and I was surprised how much of the Spanish I understood. I still have major problems producing Spanish, but my comprehension is probably around 70% now. I´ll be interested to see where I am after another week of classes. (I took lots of pictures: white-faced monkeys, a ´Jesus Christ´lizard (it walks one water), etc. I will have quite the Flickr set to upload when I get back.)

So, that´s where I am. It´s like a see-saw, the more you fit into the area you´re visiting, the more you miss where you´re from.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Travelogue: La Fortuna

During a visit from a college buddy, we hit the grocery store at some obscene hour in search of ice cream. There was a display of stuffed animals featuring different "exotic" animals (part of the money went to the World Wildlife Fund, I think.) Each animal, if squeezed would make the sound the animal makes, and then give you a little background info. For example, the Florida manatee said "I am a Florida manatee - I like to eat, and sleep." (I told my friend that this described her perfectly :) ) The hammerhead shark, in comparison, didn't have a sound. It said "I am a hammerhead shark, I make NO sound."


So. Here I am in La Fortuna staying with my host family. I can safely say, "I speak NO SPANISH, I make NO sound." Dude, I don't speak any Spanish - what the HELL was I thinking?? It's an odd situation all around - I can understand about 50% of what is being said, but I have no words. This is vaguely frustrating for me (understatement), but is exacerbated by my fear that it is frustrating for them. Yesterday, I went for a walk to explore "town" (i.e. all 4 blocks of it!) When I came back, my host "parents" left me in charge of two of their grandkids (the whole family lives more or less on the same street. At least I think so.) Let's go over this again: I speak no Spanish, and I'm babysitting two rambunctious kids. Good times, good times. We watched "Spiderman" and it was all good.

My host family is really treating me like family: my first conversation with my host mother began with her asking me if I was single. The follow-up was "Don't you WANT to get married??" I think she went on to tell me that I just hadn't met the right person, but Im not sure. As if that wasn't classic enough, the next day on a walk through town with my host mother, I saw two of the guys I shared a van with from San Jose. I introduced my host mother. As we walked away she told me "Your friends are cute." When I was noncommital, she said "Did you hear me?? Did you understand me??" I was impressed - usually my "I don't understand what you're getting at" schtick works.

When I am in a non-English speaking country, I always start to lose my English about two days in. This is particularly aggravating because there is not a concomittant gain of the local language. However, not speaking the language is oddly like being a child again - I can let conversations just wash over me and not pay attention at all.


La Fortuna is a fairly small town centered around the tourist industry (mainly related to the nearby Arenal volcano.) Having said that, I have had a few unusual moments. I can safely say that I've never been hit on by a guy twirling a lovely purple parasol, nor have I had a guy ride by on horseback in full-on cowboy gear and tip his hat.

I went on a zipline tour Monday morning. It was fantastic, with view of the volcano and Lake Arenal (the largest man-made lake in Central America.) So far, everything I've done here, I'd do again. Yesterday, we went on a hike incorporating many of the hanging bridges in the area. The rainforest is surprisingly loud, full of cicada sounds and water rushing somewhere. It is so lush and verdant, it is hard to remember that it's all based on competition - for light, for water, for soil and nutrients.


School has started and (shock of shocks) I am in the absolute beginner class. Speaking French, so far, seems to be pretty helpful in understanding the vocabulary we are learning. The real problem is that I need time to study everything we are learning. I have 4 hours of class a day, and maybe half an hour to an hour to study. I could skip some of the activities (for example, today we have dance class), but that seems like an unhappy compromise. I think I have resolved myself to having a lot of material to work through once I am home.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Travelogue: San Jose

Leopard Frog

Even at 1:30 in the morning, my fellow flighmates believed in cologne. And, apparently, a lot of it. I sat in the departure lounge and tried to rest my nose after the olfactory overload of the security checkpoint. Surprisingly, five different passengers came up to ask me questions .... in Spanish. Somehow, my telling them that I didn´t speak Spanish didn´t phase them at all. They continued in Spanish.

A guy from my school met me at the airport. I walked out of customs to find him with a piece of paper with my name pressed up against the glass. I felt like such a big wig! Of course, a big wig would never use the word "big wig."

Carlos drove me to the guest house and passed on safety tips ... which were all tips anyone who has traveled before, or frankly anyone who has lived in a city before, would know. But it was kind of sweet, kind of like having a local father. Driving from Alajuela (where the airport is) to San Jose proper, I was shocked by how much the area reminds me of Malaysia, and to a lesser extent India. The flora, the smells, the architecture, the "style of driving" etc.

San Jose does not have a lot going for it - it is a crowded city with absolutely no street signs. The address of my guest house? "Near the Pizza Hut, Paseo Colone" Not that you'd ever know it was the Paseo Colone. Not exactly tourist friendly.

I'm very glad I did the welcome package offered by my school. My first full day in Costa Rica, I went on a highlight tour with two other women staying at the guest house and some other tourists. We saw a coffee plantation, the Poas Volcano, La Paz waterfall, had lunch in a rainforest lodge (complete with tree frog sightings!) and took a boat down the Sarapiqui river. On the Sarapiqui, our guide would hightail it near shore everytime he spotted fauna he thought we should check out. So we saw big-ass iguanas, caimans (!), a crocodile (!!), bats, howler monkeys, etc. The animals here are a little unbelievable. For example, the tree frogs look like toys - teeny tiny and so brightly colored. I knew that they would be, but it's still difficult to look at one and think "You're so cute. When you are stressed you sweat out a deadly neurotoxin that can be absorbed by skin." Caimans and crocodiles? Yeah, that's Discovery Channel/Nature special type stuff. Logically, I always knew that they really existed, but coming face to face with it is a different story.

On Saturday, I went river rafting on the Rio Pacuare. Class III and IV rapids. Um, I've never been river rafting before. Why did I only realize that this could be an issue when our van was bumping down towards the boat put-in?? The road is on private property and was so steep dropping down to the river that it had switchbacks. Our guide was telling some apparently riveting story to the driver, who kept half an eye on him. I watched the drop, inches away from our tires, and wished that I could say "eyes on the road, buddy!" Of course, he's absolutely used to the drive (at least that's what I kept telling myself.)

Our group consisted of a bunch of American girls, and French guys. Not sure how it worked out that way (none of the Americans were traveling together.) The guides split us up into two groups. Not surprisingly, the girls got the male guide (the captain of the Costa Rican rafting team, I'll have you know.) The guys had the female guide (a member of the Costa Rican women's rafting team.) With about 5 minutes of explanations (NOT ENOUGH), we were on our way. Manuel was an awesome guide and gave us a really good ride - whenever we went through some really great rapids, we'd turn to watch the French guys. It always seemed like they were having a tamer time.

There was a slight mishap after lunch, our "safety kayak"er had his paddle break while he was in the middle of an eskimo roll, while he was stuck under he struck a rock really hard. With his chin. He came up bleeding, but with his teeth intact, thankfully. The kayak was stored on the French boat, and he hopped in with us (and yes, more than one person ribbed him by saying that if he wanted to paddle with the girls, he could have just asked.)

At one point, Manuel and Luis stood up on the edge of the raft to look at something down river. This, of course made us really nervous. When asked, Manuel said "well, there'a class V rapid that I think you could do." Uh, WHAT?!?!?! Yeah, well we did it. Later on, we went through a potentially dramatic situation. Somehow, we got stuck on a rock - you could hear the rubber squealing. Time slowed down - the woman sitting in front of me turned to look at me, and said "Oh shit" as the front of the boat went underwater. Somehow, we all got through that with everyone in the boat!

I was pleasantly exhausted after rafting. It really was a lot of fun, and it gave me a much better impression of how lush the area is. I've been meaning to go rafting in California, and now I'm more motivated to make that happen.

The next day, I headed to La Fortuna - near the Arenal volcano.

Monday, August 14, 2006


As certain bloggers know, I consider myself a founding member of the Partnership for a Guilt-Free America.

Having said that, I'm feeling guilty. I spent on a carefully plotted shopping spree for my upcoming trip to Costa Rica. My mother called me in the middle of the second store. She asked me if my trip was still on (alluding to the recent goings-on in London, and the change in security procedures.) I could hear the hesitancy, and sheer unhappiness in her voice. And yet when she asked me if I was traveling by myself, I still said yes. Immediately, I felt such a pang.

As I get older, and perhaps as more of my friends have children, my sympathy for my parents increases. I still find their wiley ways .... not so wiley. But, still - I can't blame her. I'm her only daughter and, to her eyes, I'm willingly putting myself in (potentially) harm's way when I could just come home to D.C. and spend time with her already. I even for a fleeting second thought about doing just that, and felt an equal and opposite pang. (Newton's third law?)

Not for the first time, I wish it were like the after school special: that my mom could see that I'll by happiest going to Costa Rica, and since what she really wants is my happiness, she joyfully lets me go. I guess it's more like half the after school special - she "lets' me go, but still feels anxious and distressed about the whole thing (and indirectly lets me know too.)

Friday, August 11, 2006

55 Friday Fiction: Meditation edition

Friday takes a break.

She heard the ocean long before she saw it – a dull, repetitive roar. Tapping each boulder to ensure it would hold her weight, she clambered down. Her eyes focused on a piece of driftwood – washing in with the wave, and out again as the water receded. Eventually, she found her breath timed to its movement.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Notes to Self

Notes to self:

  • Do not start watching “Lost” a week before flying to a foreign country. (Mmm...Netflix.)
    Related: one week till Costa Rica, bitches!
    Related: when you get back, Chai will (nearly) be here!
  • Why/How have you read the lion’s share of the Oprah’s book club books (without even trying)?
  • Loved “Little Miss Sunshine” - I don’t know how they did it, but a sight gag which should have been old after the first run through was HILARIOUS every.single.time.
    Related: oddly attracted to Steve Carell as a gay Proust scholar. What does that say about you?

Friday, August 04, 2006

55 Fiction Friday: Julie's edition

Sometimes, Friday doesn't want to make the plans.

She felt like having a drink. She drafted a quick happy hour email. Almost immediately, the responses started trickling in –working late, does it HAVE to be at THAT bar, how about next week instead, if so-and-so is going, I’m not. After reading all of it, she still felt like she needed a drink. Alone.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

As if there was any doubt

You know you're old when you're so excited about your brand new vacuum. Checking and cleaning out the filter gives you the exact thrill that the Bioré® pore strip commercials promise.

Ode to Amália

Route 1 above the Golden Gate Bridge climbs through hills, twisting into hairpin turns worthy of any luxury car commercial. While breathtakingly beautiful, one begins to understand the meaning of the phrase “between a rock and a hard place”: the Pacific Ocean crashes against the boulder-strewn shoreline while the road tightly hugs the rock face.

I drove this section of Route 1 twice this weekend, to and from a friend’s 30th birthday festivities. Both routes were emotional, sensory-laden experiences. Climbing North towards Stinson beach, I thought of the first time I had driven that route. I have found that I am revisiting places and experiences to try and wallpaper over someone’s shadow – the little tinge that reminds me of them. It’s like following someone’s footsteps in the snow, obscuring their footfall with your own. Or, perhaps, hiding that two people walked through the woods.

As beautiful as it is, the road is a difficult one to drive and can abruptly snap you from reverie when you realize just how few inches there are between you, a sheer rock wall, and a car speeding in the other direction. And let’s throw in a bicyclist for good measure, up out of the saddle, climbing, spandex riotously colorful like some human-shaped flag.

Angling away from the coast, I turned down my music to drink in the smell of eucalyptus, softening the stimuli to one sense to heighten another, turning down the radio to find a street address. That moment was perfection: breathing in clean, sunlight falling on my hair through the sunroof.

Driving south, I listened to Amália Rodrigues, the queen of Fado . I started listening to Fado when I won tickets to see Mariza five years ago, and I’ve been fascinated and enamoured of it since. Fado is in Portuguese, and I don’t understand a thing, but the sound, maybe the tone, conveys so much. Listening to Fado in Lisbon was beyond description. Between my love of fado, samba, and bossa nova, I may just have to learn me some Portuguese.

One of my favorite songs, Lisboa Antiga, reminds you of a song you’ve always known. The version I have is only about two and a half minutes long, but I listened to it over and over again because it matched the drive so well. Her voice rose and fell, in pitch and intensity, like the road through the hills. And, in one incandescent moment, Amália and the Portuguese guitar fell silent while she gathered her strength for the next note, and I rounded a curve. Amália let loose just as I saw the Pacific slamming against a rocky island.

The Golden Gate was glorious - cloudless and too regal to take in all at once. I stole glances of it passing overhead through the sunroof as I crossed it heading back into the city. Ah, saudade .