Archive for the 'Costa Rica' Category

05
Dec
08

Seeking Refuge from Costa Rica’s Steamy Jungles in Panama’s Misty Highlands

Pacific PurgatoryA small rainbow colored dart whizzed out from the dense vegetation of the southern Costa Rican jungle and right past my nose as I pedaled nonchalantly through the humid air.  It had caught me completely off guard and my mind reeled for a split second as my eyes raced after its retreat back up into the trees, trying to identify the flying object.  Well, Toucan Sam certainly was a lot smaller than I had expected him to be, and quite a bold little fellow as well.  But the moment had caught me and as I pulled over to peek back up through the foliage at the marvelous little avian, I felt the wondrous satisfaction of a return to nature, the firm reinforcement of my conviction in my journey, and the excitement to be back on the road again and approaching the border of the final overland border crossing before reaching the end of North America.

Sadly, after experiencing one of the most blissful moments of transcendence into the beauty of nature during the sunset of the evening before, I must admit that things went dreadfully downhill with what came to pass later that same night.  I strolled back from the beach at twilight, passing through the darkened unpaved streets of the peaceful country town of Uvita.  Upon arriving at my tent, which I had pitched before heading to the seashore earlier that day, I felt quite at peace, and after reading for some time, I finally decided it was time for lights out and a nice restful night of sleep.  However, this night was soon to become one of the most notoriously memorable camping experiences of my journey.  

Ferocious barking erupted some fifty meters away from my tent in the shadowy darkness of night.  I momentarily froze in panic and then surreptitiously raised my head to listen for whether the noise was coming towards me or whether something else nearby was provoking it.  But as the seconds drew into minutes and then long stretches of time began to wear away, the barking became less aggravated and evolved into a monotonously droning pattern.  This continued on for I know not how many hours, but as I lay there restlessly, I only prayed that it would end soon.  However, this was only the tip of the iceberg.

Some time after the barking had trailed off into the night and I was beginning to doze into a frustrated slumber, the first drops of rain began to patter down onto the sandy soil around my tent.  Within moments it had grown into a deafening roar and the ceiling of my feeble tent shuddered ceaselessly under the onslaught.  As you can imagine, at this point the option of sleep was beginning to become but a dream, however I had already nestled myself into that groggy near-slumber at which I had no desire to read or explore options for blotting out the noise – I just wanted to lie there in agony and pray that it would all be over soon.  But it wasn’t.

Several hours later, as the rains began to subside, I knew that the dawn was not far off.  I hoped that I could at least get at least some brief stretch of shut-eye before the dawn appeared and the blazing heat of day arose, but once again my plan was foiled (and I would have gotten away with it too if it wasn’t for you pesky livestock!).  The roosters of the apocalypse began crooning mercilessly, tearing through my desire for peace and harmony within my tent.  And that was it, that was my night.

Goodbye Pacifica RicaOnce the first rays of dawn began to streak across my tent and the sweat started to drip down my face, I knew that it was over, it was fruitless to attempt further sleep.  The temperature would only continue to rise and soon I would be lying there along in my mini-sauna with all of my sticky synthetic materials glued to my body.  So, in a wretched state, I unzipped the tent door, dragged myself out into the light of day, and began to pack up my things and hit the road, hoping that once I got moving the day’s ride would relax my mind and invigorate my body.  But, as is the way with camping, there was just one unfortunate detail – everything was soaked.

Thanks to the torrential flooding of the night before, my tent was dripping with rainwater, and there was no way that I could repack it without filling my bags and other equipment with moisture.  The only option was to hang it up in the morning heat and hope that the sun would dry it quickly.  Since there weren’t any convenient places in the sunlight, I found myself instead throwing the huge sheets of synthetic material over tree branches and such and getting the rest of my equipment squared away.  However, after half an hour of waiting I could take no more of the steamy humidity and idleness (in my beleaguered state) and snatched down the limp tent down and began stuffing it back into its breathable sack.  I lashed it on top of my equipment in the hopes that it would dry in the day’s wind and heat and set off.

After arriving back at the paved main road I continued riding on Southward towards Panama and the journey before me began much as it had ended the previous day, but deeper into the jungle.  At first I skirted the coastline, lumbering up sizable hills looking over the crashing ocean waves and then slaloming back down into the overgrowth.  At one point I pulled off the main road for a break along a striking beach called Pinuela, covered with the smoothest of grey pebbles, and stood out beyond the tree-line staring off into the pale, hazy sky as I caught my breath.  But once I climbed back upon my bike and began riding again the road pulled away from coastline and drew slightly higher and further inland.  I passed through tropical groves, dense jungle, overgrown fields.  I could feel myself pushing farther and farther away from developed Costa Rica and ever nearer to the outskirts.

Dense JungleAt the point when the small toucan had zipped down before my eyes, I had already been riding for several hours, through steamy jungle heat, and had just recently beforehand found myself in yet another tropical downpour.  I had ridden intently, hoping to reach a small town not more than an hour or two from the Panama border to spend the night, when at mid-afternoon the skies had opened up and let loose.  For the first ten minutes I resigned myself to keep riding through the rains, as I was already soaked in my own sweat and the thick humidity and the terrain was only mildly hilly at this point.  But after feeling like pedaling underwater for just so long, I finally decided to pull-over and wait it out (which, as you may or may not know, in that part of the world is a game of Russian Roulette – you may wait fifteen minutes, and you may be there until dusk).  I sat under the little tin roof of a road-side bus stop in the middle of the isolated jungle, snacking on my leftover cheese from the evening before, and hoping that the sun would come out (and, not tomorrow) and show me ample reprieve so as to allow me passage to my destination.

Fortunately, I was feeling lucky that day, and less than a half an hour later I was back underway, spotting my toucan friend as a sign of good fortune, and carrying on in full force.  Shortly thereafter, there I was rolling into the dusty village of Rio Claro in Southern Costa Rica.  Wasting no time in finding the cheapest lodging in town, I haggled the price yet further down and then headed inside to finally peel off my sticky, drenched cycling clothes.  Showered and rejuvenated, I found myself ready for some grub and decided to explore the odd and rather bustling little pueblo.  After a light meal of casado (Costa Rica’s name for the typical Latin American dish: rice, beans, salad, and some variety of meat), I wandered until finding a bakery, to stock up on some carbs for the following day, and an internet cafe, to catch up on the correspondences that I had missed over the previous few days.  I also ran into a friendly French couple that I had met back when arriving in Uvita and we sat down to chat for some time before saying goodbye and me returning to my welcoming bed for some much needed sleep (after the torture that I had endured the night prior).

When I awoke in the morning I felt the teeming excitement of the Panamanian border within reach of my fingertips and wasted no time in loading up and heading out.  I was anxious to begin a new chapter and to mark the beginning of the final nation of Central America.  That short span of time before reaching the border rolled away rather uneventfully.  It was a gorgeous blue skied day with huge white, puffy clouds dotting the horizon.  The jungle had given way to thickly overgrown green fields and beautiful tropical hardwood forest and I hummed a little tune as I daydreamed about what the world would be like on the other side of the border.

Goodbye Panama!Upon arriving at the border, however, I was in for a little delay.  At first I wandered around the confusing border crossing searching for just where exactly I was to get my exit stamp from Costa Rica, but after finding some friendly assistance, I soon found myself in line.  Sadly, after waiting for about an hour and a half, watching yet another raging storm soak the shoddy little border town, and wondering just how much longer it would take, I inadvertently discovered that I was in the wrong line and that this was for stamps exiting Panama!  Argh!  Well, I finally made it to the right line, and guess what?  It was lunchtime.  So I found myself waiting for another forty-five minutes until the border control officials returned just to stamp my passport.  So the long and shart of it was that about three hours after arriving at the border crossing, I was finally out of Costa Rican and riding on into the low hills of Panama.

Curiously, and inconveniently, when I began riding again after my long break, my legs felt laden with iron and my energy completely drained.  I had turned dismally overcast and a light drizzle permeated my mood.  My speed had dropped to about eight miles per house and I was literally crawling along.  Although I never did discover an explanation for this change in my physical state, I did begin to panic that I would not reach the town of David that day, and knew that there was nowhere else to find lodging beforehand (and after the night of camping a few nights earlier, I had no desire for a repeat experience).  Then, as if by magic, after another hour and a half of this intimidatingly snail-like pace and uncertainty, as the color had begun to drain from the sky, my energy sprang back into me.  By now I was frustrated and ready to be at my destination and hence raced forward with a fervor.  The stark contrast to my state of being only moments earlier was astonishing, as I now seemed to fly forward completely unrestrained.

For the next two hours a hauled forward at breakneck speed, up long shallow hills, through flat, scrubby fields, and past endless kiosks of borojo salesmen.  Then finally, I had arrived.  The town of David wasn’t quite as I had imagined it, being that it was the second largest city in Panama.  It was a very low, rural city, with no building appearing to be over two stories, all clustered into small country-town blocks, and with a particularly indistinctive quality about it.  I didn’t care much to explore at this point, as my rush of adrenaline had finally begun to taper away, and I made for where the Purple House hostel had appeared to be on the map that I had consulted earlier that day.  After getting lost only once, I asked for directions and was soon back on track and arriving at the peculiar little purple house, which looked like it had once been an old office building.

I’m not sure exactly whether it was the insipid heat and humidity, the frequent and relentless downpours, the wretched night of camping, or some other element, but despite the beauty and variability of the last few days’ ride, I felt completely trampled and worn out.  I somehow mustered up the energy to stumble out into the streets and search for my dinner, followed by (a pint) of ice cream to sooth me, and then retired back to the somewhat cramped accommodations of the hostel dormitory.  Not having found much allure to the town of David, and somewhat put off my its oppressively sultry heat, I decided that the following morning I would make my way to the very nearby Boquete Highlands, where the air was said to be crisp and cool and the aroma of coffee practically hung in the air.  Of course, I was in no state to be riding the following day and finally soothed my anxiety by making the decision to catch the forty five minute shuttle up to Boquete for a day or two.  However, at that particular moment, I could never have known I would instantly fall in love with the quaint little highland town, consequently finding myself disappearing into it’s tranquil mountain mists and detaching myself from my journey’s rapid passage of time for a week of nourishment and reflection.

04
Dec
08

A Sweet Farewell to the Luscious Pacific Shores of Costa Rica

Pacific PalmAnomaly.  That would probably be the most befitting word for San Jose, a city plopped down right in the middle of one of the most gorgeous countries in the world, and yet completely lacking in any real beauty or allure of its own.  Somehow I had managed to dwindle away over a week and a half in that rainy and depressing place.  I’m not really sure if that was originally my intention, but upon arriving in the city, after having traveled for two weeks to deliciously exotic parts of Costa Rica and shared my time with the best of friends, I began to fall into its dismal slump, and before I knew it I was sinking deeper into the mire.  Not to say that its truly such an aweful place, its just that constant rain, overcast skies, and suburban sprawl tend to bring out the worst in me.  Although my welcoming host, Wilson, quickly became one of my favorite new friends in Central America, with his winning charm, knowing intellect, and easy going manner, there weren’t too many other bright stars in my memory of San Jose.  However, I did also manage to make a fun new friend named Diego while I was there, and after spending some days getting to know each other and heading out to enjoy the nightlife, it definitely helped me to feel even more at home during my stay.

 

But after so many days in the San Jose I knew that it was once again time to start moving again.  I consulted Wilson as to the route ahead and we were both able to finally agree that taking the road that went over Death Mountain (Cerro de los Muertos) probably wouldn’t be the most pleasant of rides, so I opted for the flatter, more inviting coastal jungle road.  The following day I was on a bus back towards the Manuel Antonio and the Pacific (would you believe it?) to begin my journey South, as Wilson had mentioned that it was quite illegal to ride on the highways of San Jose and there were apparently no other clear ways to escape the city.  Arriving to a rainy afternoon on the coast, I decided to spend an overnight in Quepos and set off first thing in the morning.  For some reason I had also arrived in Quepos completely exhausted and within a couple of hours of my arrival, I was already in bed and snoozing away.

 

At dawn next day I was up and at ’em, bags packed and ready to go.  After the free breakfast at the hostel at which I had slept I began to ride towards the edge of town and not fifteen minutes beyond the outskirts I was met with quite a shocking surprise.  The pavement ended.  What I was soon to discover was that from here on out almost the rest of my riding that day was to be over a rocky, muddy, rutted dirt road, which, perhaps on an unloaded bike wouldn’t have been such an affliction, but as it were my panniers (with all of my possessions inside of them) didn’t much enjoy the ride, as more than once they took the liberty of jumping off into the mud.  Apart from this unpleasant detail, however, it was a particularly lovely ride that day, first through miles of perfectly rowed coconut groves and then through peaceful meadows and shady jungles.  At one point I even found myself unable to continue onwards due to a bridge that had been completely dismantled during a construction project.  Although I waited near two hours for the bridge to be reinstated, things didn’t look promising and finally I decided to wander along the riverbank for some few hundreds of meters to a shallow point and take things into my own hands.  Then with the aid of a pungent smelling, one-eyed, afro-caribbean gentleman who had been waiting to cross the river on his bicycle as well, I managed to roll up my trousers (well, just an expression, as I was actually wearing shorts) and we forded the river together: he guiding the bike across from the other side while I pushed it through.

 

The Streets of DominicalA few hours after the river crossing I was emerging from the a leafy wood back out onto paved road and arriving in an isolated but touristic surfing town called Dominical.  Although I had been considering camping under the palms that lined the beach on the edge of town, after stopping for lunch and scoping out the scene, it looked a bit to gnarly and summer-break valley girl for me, not to mention rife with beachcombers just looking for an easy target, so I decided to carry on.  According to my handy guide book, there was apparently a sleepy, old-fashioned Pacific coast farming village called Uvita about an hour’s ride South of Dominical, which sounded like exactly the ticket for a relaxed evening of low budget coastal camping.  The rest of the ride to Uvita also proved to be quite scenic, as the road weaved and undulated through the low coastal mountainside, exposing gorgeous vistas of vivid green foliage, shimmering emerald waters, and neon blue sky for miles along the coastal horizon.

 

It was getting late in the afternoon as I approached Uvita, and from the looks of what greeted me, civilization had begun to encroach on Uvita since the last time my guide was updated.  After pulling over at the new American style strip mall to make sure that this was indeed provincial Uvita, they assured me that it was, but were also able to point me in the direction of the rural part of down a short way further down.  As I turned off the main road to enter the village, the road once again turned to dirt and rock, however this time somewhat more brutal than the ride from that morning, and so I rolled slowly along, through pastures and small Costa Rican cottages.  There was really only one road in town, so it didn’t prove too difficult to find the campground that I was looking for and after being greeted by the landlord of the small property, he showed me to where I could pitch my tent, below a suspended creeping thicket and beside a high wooden fence.

 

The gentleman and his gracious family appeared to be quite trustworthy and ubiquitous within the property, and therefore I felt little anxiety as I left my well protected bicycle and campsite to discover the nearby beach.  I stopped down the road for a loaf of bread, a block of cheese and a bottle of water, then made my way to the coastal park entrance to dine on my simple picnic.  Fortunately, by this point I had figured out the Costa Rican park entrance game, and at the gate I informed the attendant that I was a resident of Costa RIca and working in San Jose, successfully avoiding what would otherwise have surely been some ridiculous entrance fee.  After a short stroll down the coast (as the afternoon shadows were already beginning to grow long), I found a picnic table on top of which I situated myself to escape the stinging ants down below and was finally able to begin preparing dinner.

 

Pacific SerenityAs I sat there, the most marvelously serene scene unfolded before my eyes.  As the sun dipped down behind a hilly peninsula that jutted out into the Pacific Ocean, the coastal mists painted the layers of hills in endlessly fading tones of blue as they disappeared off into the horizon.  Each puffy and streaked cloud in the sky was gently silhouetted in shades of azure and silver, and the glittering tide lapped lazily back and forth along the long, shallow beach.  As I listened to the gentle rhythm of the ocean and heard the distant laughing and shouting of children floating on the cooling breeze, I felt glad that I had finally escaped the abysmal drudgery of San Jose and I felt a contented tranquility within myself.  And as I sat there and smiled softly beneath the delicious twilight, I thought to myself that I hoped I would remember this moment forever, and I only wished that I could share the happiness that it brought me with those who were far away from me, and perhaps feeling the way that I had while in San Jose, but whom were always in my heart.

03
Dec
08

Pawning Off Lisa on the Beaches of Manuel Antonio

Manuel AntonioA wave of pleasure melted over Lisa and I as the palm-fringed coastline of Quepos swept into view beyond the window of our bus.  But in all honesty, this was moreso because we had had the not-so-good-sense to mix a excruciatingly potent cocktail less than halfway through the three hour journey from Puntarenas and were now both slightly drunken and extremely in need of a restroom.  However, it was also true that we were perfectly delighted to be arriving, and once we had thrown ourselves out of the bus in Quepos and taken care of our business, we were finally able to slow down and count our lucky stars that we were finally here in paradise, it wasn’t raining, and we had plenty of time to soak up some tropical sunlight and sunset cocktails before having to head back to San Jose the following evening for Lisa’s flight.  Need I mention that by this stage in our journey foolish optimism had developed into a necessary self-preserving strategy, but as always turned out to be the most supreme form of self-deception as Costa Rica dropped the floor out from beneath us once again and sent us tumbling head first through its own plan.

Once again I found myself sitting on that same little shuttle through the coastal jungle from Quepos to Manuel Antonio, the bus painfully groaning up the torturous hill before arriving at the ridge.  I had made a few friends here in these parts during my week-long stay with Kevin and Willie, and so as we were passing the familiar yellow restaurant along the roadside, Lisa and I hopped out.  We went in to see Jim, whom I had called from the Quepos bus terminal, and had good-naturedly agreed to assist us in searching for a place to stay for the evening.  After a warm welcome, introductions, and quick recap of Lisa and I’s romp throughout the country, we loaded into Jim’s car and, as Lisa and I didn’t particularly have the vitality or desire to spend the rest of the afternoon searching for hotels, we found ourselves quickly settling into the first little beachside shack of a hotel that we encountered.

I had seen the place upon passing on my previous visit to Manuel Antonio, but hadn’t thought much of it – and for good reason.  Although the management was wonderfully friendly, and the location one minute from the beach was impeccable, the room was little more than a damp closet with a musty bunkbed and a spiggot in the bathroom for showering.  Nevertheless, not desiring to waste one moment, we settled into the room, agreed that we would meet Jim that evening for dinner followed by a night on the town, and then bid him adieu.  There wasn’t much reason to linger about our “inviting” accomodations and Lisa and I were ready to go out and grab life by the horns while things seemed to be going our way, so we quickly changed into our bathing suits (Lisa’s suit even more sumptuous this time than the last – clearly a souvenir from the beaches of Brazil) and headed for the beach.

Melting HorizonIt was mid-afternoon and the tide was just pulling up to its highest point as Lisa and I emerged from the path through the coastal underbrush.  The waves were poetically languid, rolling curves that crashed almost at the tree line, and being hypnotically allured towards them, we almost instantly had our sandles slipped off and were frolicking in the breakers.  Ah sweet serenity, here we were together on the beaches of paradise.  We splashed sea-foam at one another and flung ourselves mercilessly at the waves for the next two hours and commiserated as to the lack of sunshine (as it was a somewhat hazy yellow afternoon), but thought joyfully as well of tomorrow and the long hours of enviable tan-time that Manuel Antonio would show Lisa before sending her on a plane back to the States.  Around the same time that we were beginning to weary of the taste of salt-water in our mouths and the abrasion of sand against our backsides, we began to hear the first earth-shattering cracks of tropical thunder.  It appeared to be a sign, and upon recovering our sandles, Lisa and I made our way back along the short path to the hotel to get rinsed off and weather the storm.

We had intended to just spend some down-time reading and chatting until the rains petered off, but as the gentle sound of the pattering rain enveloped us, we found ourselves drifting off into a sweet slumber, snuggled up together amidst the lullaby of million crickets.  When I lethargically came too it was already dark outside and I had the nagging feeling that there was something that I was forgetting.  When the blue light of cell phone shone to life, illuminating the time – 9:15pm – I instantly realized that we were supposed to have met Jim for dinner almost two hours earlier!  I shook Lisa awake mercilessly and prodded her until she had had regained lucidity.  But after breaking the news to her, she rationalized that by this point it would do us no good to try to race to the restaurant, as almost every place in town closed its kitchens by ten in the evening, and instead I called Jim to let him know what had happened to to inform him that we would meet him a little later to head out and hit the bars.

Fortunately, once we had gotten ourselves mobilized, Lisa and I did manage to satiate our burning hungers after searching high and low for a restaurant that was still serving, and then headed out to meet Jim and his friends to kick up our heels one last time before Lisa’s return to Atlanta.  It turned out to be a first-rate night of diversion and Lisa and I found ourselves shakin’ it well into the wee hours of the night.  While we were there we even made a few friends, a few of whom, I could never have known at the time, would soon become repeat characters in the drama that is my life.  However, even in our “slightly” tipsy state, we nevertheless kept our eyes focused on the prize, which was to drag our bleary eyed selves out to the white sandy beaches of Manuel Antonio at the crack of dawn and enjoy every last moment of togetherness that we could – oh, and while getting a tan.

Pacific VistaUnbelievably, as if to put the frosting on the cake that was our week in Costa Rica together, the most unprecedented and outlandish of all the weeks surprises came right there in our last moments together.  Lathered up in sunscreen, riding on cloud nine, and making our way out to the hike through the monkey infested jungles of the Manuel Antonio National Park to the pristine beaches that awaited us on the other side, Lisa and I suddenly remembered something.  We had heard that occasionally the buses from Quepos to San Jose would tend to fill up on Sundays as the day progressed, and thinking ourselves quite prudent, we decided to see if we could buy our bus tickets for that evening before the crowds.  Although the terminal was way over in Quepos, we figured that we could get the telephone number and see about booking our ticket.  However, bad news awaited us.

A young American girl sat at a tourist stand amidst the breachfront restaurants, and, among other things, showed a sign for transport to San Jose.  We approached her to ask if she might know how we could contact the terminal in Quepos and she obligingly began to look up the number, although informing us that they probably wouldn’t take a reservation over the phone.  However, a few minutes later as she hung up the phone we were left there standing in shock.  Every bus, not only today, but for almost all of Monday was completely booked as well.  Ok, well, no need for alarm, there must certainly be other transport options.  However, it didn’t take long for us to discover that almost all of the other options jumped from the seven dollar fare of the regular bus up to almost seventy dollars for the “luxury” Interbus rates.  Whoa!  That was way out of our budget.  However, after fifteen minutes of fretting and uncertainty, we wondered if that might be the only option.

So we asked her about what times these Interbusses departed for San Jose and she made another call.  Well, time for more surprises, not only were these shuttles outlandishly expensive, but they were also all completely booked that day!  Ok, well at this point we were basically what my friends in Mexico would call chingada.  It looked like it was time for plan B… sadly though, Lisa and I didn’t usually get that far in our planning.  We thanked the sweet girl from the tourist desk for all of her help and then walked aimlessly down the boardwalk debating over what we should do.  Lisa’s flight would be leaving that evening, it was the last one of the day to Atlanta, and to change it would cost her a hundred dollars – almost the entire price of the ticket in the first place.  But there had to be another way!

Then it struck me, a stroke of brilliance!  There must be some random strangers here who were on their way back to the capital, after all, during this time of the year (the gringo low season) almost all of the tourists that were there that weekend were probably from San Jose anyway.  So I set to brainstorming on the best approach strategy and just which strangers had the most benevolent look about them.  And that’s when I spotted them, a group of young gentlemen whom we had seen the night before.  Sadly, we hadn’t been engaged in conversation with them or anything convenient like that, but after a few minutes of deliberation we agreed that without a shadow of a doubt (at least that’s what we told ourselves), they looked at least vaguely familiar.  Feeling their buenas ondas (good vibes), I decided to chance it and Lisa and I made our way over to their table at the edge of a restaurant patio.

Pacific PaletteYou can probably imagine the ensuing conversation as Lisa and I, dressed in our skimpy bathing suits (Lisa), approached them and began asking them for a three hour lift back to the city.  At first they weren’t quite receptive to the idea – shocked might be a better word for it – but for the first time in the entire week we had a marvelous stroke of good luck.  One of the guys had lived in Brazil for a time and spoke Portuguese – and so had Lisa!  That was all it took, just the one connection and we had our foot in the door (hey, I’m from Brazil too, but my Portuguese is a little rusty these days), and within a few more minutes they had agreed to transport us back to the big city.  There was only one more small catch, they were riding in a little four door compact and I suddenly remembered that I had my bike stowed with friends here in Manuel Antonio and had to get it back to San Jose with me.

As it were, due to this one confounding variable, a short while later I found myself not sitting alongside Lisa and our three new friends on the way to San Jose, but instead giving her a big hug and wishing her a bon voyage as I gift wrapped her and sent her packing with three complete Costa Rican strangers.  It crept up on me rather unexpectedly, but there I was, left standing on the roadside, alone once again, and suddenly a pang of sadness crept over me.  I wasn’t too worried about Lisa, the young gentlemen had seemed completely harmless, but I was sad to see her go, and it wasn’t quite the departure that either of us had envisioned.  Not feeling much enthusiasm to head out to the beach alone and not sure of what to do, I decided that instead I would head over to Kurt and Linda’s bungalow (my Manuel Antonio ex-pat buddies who were sheltering my bike for me) and see if perhaps they were around and could lift me out of my somber state of mind.  As I made my way in their direction, it began to completely settle in that now everyone was gone and I was indeed by myself again, but as I began to come to terms with my renewed state of solitude, I also began to feel the pulse of energy and excitement for the journey before me and found myself ready to jump headfirst into it – only this time with a painfully drawn out detour in San Jose.

03
Dec
08

Romantic Evenings in Puntarenas and Alluvial Memories from Monteverde

Costa Rica PinkOh sweet reprieve!  At long last Lisa and I were able to pull the nails from our skulls that the busfull of Costa Rican children had hammered into our skulls during the fifty stop, twenty hour ride (or at least thats what it felt like) from Alajuela to Puntarenas.  Clearly we had no idea what we were getting into as we had eagerly hopped onto the next bus heading Northwest after finding out that we had missed our Monteverde directo.  Lisa and I had nearly done one another the favor of slitting each other’s wrists during the ride out (did I mention that sitting in vehicles for long hours is my weak spot?) and were just so glad to be off the bus and one step closer to our next destination, way up high in the verdant Costa Rican mountains.  But as our eyes adjusted to the flat, sandy, sketchy looking streets of Puntarenas, we couldn’t help but wonder just how near to those green mountains we actually were and if perhaps we had just jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire.  Furthermore, the question of just how far awry our luck had fallen, and just what other surprises lay in wait for us during this chapter of our journey, loomed ominously before our curious minds.

Bahh!  But Lisa and I were no pessimists!  Realists? Yes.  Satyrists?  Yes.  But we were two of a kind and we were well equipped to roll with the punches and laugh at the tragic irony of our situations, then forge onward in search of some new predicament in which to place ourselves.  Fortunately for us, the next predicament lay only several paces before us.  Dropped unceremoniously on a street corner, in a rough part of town, well after recommended gringo strolling hours, we quickly began to make all kinds of new friends.  A dark-skinned, haggard and slavish character almost broke into a run to greet us upon spotting us on the far street corner.  Although he didn’t particularly look threatening, he did seem to have aquired a rather pungent smell from the streets of Puntarenas as well as a well practiced used-car-salesman quality about him.

Upon reaching us he instantly brandished a worn and greasy deck of business cards for nearby “hotels” (which were apparently arm-pits of purgatory) and then buzzed around us like a bee on honey.  We tried to dismiss the tawdry character as he desperately tried to wow us with his endless knowledge of the who’s who of the apparently complex world of Puntarenas hoteliers, but as Lisa and I cast one last knowing look at one another, we knew that it was useless.  So the three of us set off together, skipping down the yellow brick road past hookers, trannys, drunken sailors, beggars and crack addicts – and at least one thing was clearly apparent, we certainly weren’t in Kansas anymore (although perhaps it could have been Atlanta).

Bussin' ItAn hour later, after having narrowly escaped what was probably the ripest of settings for getting mugged of all of my journey through the Americas (Lisa and I lugging her rolly through the darkened streets of seedy Puntarenas), and after having visited some of the most repulsive, windowless, prison-cell barred “hotels” of Puntarenas, we finally lost our new friend and stumbled upon a rather warm and inviting guest house.  You can imagine the level of delirious hilarity that we were in as we collapsed on top of the bed in our cozy room, reeling from the day’s unusual trials and still sticky from the sultry coastal air.  Finally we got to showering, braved the streets of Punatarenas by night once more, and scurried discreetly down the street for some cheap late-night chinese food.

The following morning we were up at the crack of dawn and arrived well before the departure time (for a change) for our bus to Monteverde.  As we sat on the benches by the terminal listening to the gently lapping waves on the stretch of golden sandy beach behind us, watching children playing by the surf and the sun rising slowly on the horizon, we ruefully agreed on just how much we were going to miss Puntarenas – then broke down into ironic laughter.  When the bus arrived and we had stowed our luggage and climbed aboard, I sat somewhat anxiously dreading yet another bus ride, but reassuringly remembered that on the map it appeared that we were not entirely very far from Monteverde.  Yet to my unpleasant surprise, I discovered that our “collectivo” would in fact loop all the way around the far side of our destination, passing through other remote and indistinct Costa Rican villages before pointing for the mountains.

Now, although I do make it all sound perhaps more unpleasant than it was (which is really just the fault of my vehicular claustrophobia), I must admit that the drive through the Costa Rican countryside, under frilly, dancing canopies and over deliciously spiraling green mountains into the heavens, was in fact one of the most scenic of all Costa Rica.  However, not to disappoint us, lady destiny unleashed the showers only as we were finally reaching our destinations after our four hour journey.  Well this was most certainly convenient, here we were in a minute mountain village where almost all activities were relegated to the great outdoors, we had less than twenty-four hours to revel in the rumored natural beauty, and there was a steady, persistent deluge hovering right over us.  In just the brief moments that it took us to sprint from one side of the street to the other, were conveniently a hostel was located, we managed to become completely drenched, and after checking-in, headed for a nice hot shower.

Lisa's RainforestWhen we reconvened in our comfy bunk-beaded room overlooking the overcast street outside, Lisa and I had a dilemma to face.  We were here, our precious little hours were slipping away, and the rain showed no sign of repenting.  Finally, after Lisa had presented her pitiful plea, I put on my happy face, agreed that she undoubtedly suggested the most practical and logical plan, and we headed downstairs to catch the van to the Santa Elena Reserve.  For the next three hours, as we trudged through the rainforest, saturated through to our underwear, we both tried desperately to put on excitedly enthusiastic facades, as we squinted our eyes dramatically and stopped to pretend to listen carefully for sightings of rare cloud-jungle fauna.  Nevertheless, as I tried to keep my positive attitude, and did truly enjoy the outlandish adventure, I couldn’t help but let my little ribbons of comedic sarcasm slip through as I schlepped along in my squelching, waterlogged sneakers, once or twice prodding Lisa as to why they called it a rain forest.

However, once we were again back in the lodge, warm-showered, in dry outfits, reclining on our bunks, we did agree that we had made the right decision and had both really enjoyed our “moist” hike.  It had been even more of an adventure as we had tip-toed precariously on top of narrow logs over lakes which had formed in our path, sloshed downhill through tiny raging rivers that flowed along the trail, and had enjoyed the lush jungle  scenery, sparkling amidst the billions of tiny waterdropplets that coated the thick foliage.  We also couldn’t help but to look back at our race through the last half an hour of the hike, as we had almost literally gone at a run along the path, wondering if we would actually make it back to our transport before its scheduled departure time, and dreading being stranded in the drenched forest for another three hours until the following one would arrive.

Lisa and I were thoroughly knackered by the time that we had ventured out for a quick bite and the search for our breakfast yogurt (during which I had to put my foot down that we most certainly would not be buying plain yogurt – I’m more of a strawberry kind of guy), and retired back to our welcoming little hostel bedroom.  Now, if we thought that we had gotten up early on the other days of our journey in order to catch departing buses, none of it quite compared to the following morning, as we dawned at four-forty-five to board our outbound to the coast at five in the morning… but thankfully set sail from outside our window.  Ironically, almost exactly twenty-four hours after having left the charismatic town of Puntarenas, Lisa found ourselves once again pulling in.  This time we had a two hour layover before catching the next ride down to the central Pacific coast and hoped that that would be more than enough time to truly explore the well hidden beauty of the slightly rough-edged town.  And, as our two hours dwindled away and we found ourselves once again sitting on that same bench with the sounds of the gently lapping waves drifting on the breeze, I only hoped that the romantic image of Manuel Antonio which I had painted for Lisa over the past few days would indeed meet her expectations and that we would finally find ourselves completely relaxed and luxuriating in the lap of paradise.

01
Dec
08

Squinting through the Disillusioning Mists of Volcán Poas

The WarrenWell, that Lisa certainly was a coy bird, wasn’t she. When I finally learned of her master plan to brutally drag me kicking and screaming all over Costa Rica by bus I was furious. Alright, I suppose that I wasn’t quite furious, but I did realize that she had gone completely loony tunes and needed a little talking to. So as we returned to San Jose from Puerto Viejo, I told her how it was going to be, and from our list of destinations, Volcán Arenal got scratched. I mean honestly, with only five days left to go, four destinations scattered across the far corners of Costa Rica, dreadfully long bus rides in between, and two volcanoes on our list, something had to give. Add to that the fact that we already had to return to San Jose before heading anywhere else, and would once again need to revisit that not-so-precious jewel of a city if we visited Arenal, and the deal was sealed. However, what neither of us had anticipated was that even our new lite-plan was still about to take us for a head-first slalom through our fickle and not so lucky future.

When we finally arrived in cheerful little San Jose once again, after the luxuriously sweaty four hour safari ride from Puerto Viejo, it was (of course) a drearily rainy day. Although we had come up with the brilliant plan of not going to Arenal, we had not figured out what the heck we were going to do once we arrived in the city. The problem was that by that point it was already afternoon, Volcán Poas was the nearest destination and yet still over an hour away, and the weather seemed to be hypnotizing us into a state of sloth (not to mention that you don’t see a bloody thing on a mountaintop in Central America on a rainy, overcast day). So, in keeping with our plan of carpe dieming our time in Costa Rica, we headed back to our little backpacker hostel over on tranny roe and snuggled in for the afternoon.

The following morning we were the ones that were up with the chickens, and, as Lisa and I like to do, racing willy nilly across town searching desperately for a bus station of which we had no idea the location, and thinking that we were on the verge of receiving the blessing of another few hours in San Jose. But, thanks to my excellent navigational skills and cartographic memory, we were soon on a day-tripper bus to Volcán Poas, about an hour and a half away. When we arrived, the bus driver was kind enough to inform us that we would have the following three hours to fully explore the national park area and Lisa and I only hoped that that would afford us enough time to soak in all of the majestic sights that we were about to experience.
As we bumbled off of the bus and searched for some kind of signage to point us in the right direction, somehow we ended up in the visitor’s center (a small Jurassic Park-like visitor’s center compound) as opposed to headed towards the summit. Once we had backtracked and discovered the proper route (apparently the one with the signs that said “crater this way”), we realized that we were way behind all of the other Costa Rican suburbanites on their way to the top and agreed that we couldn’t paint ourselves the reputation of lazy gringos. So we raced forward, speed-walking in the most subtle manner that we possibly could while only stopping when necessary, like for a brief fashion shoot of Lisa in front of Elephant ears with a cup of Costa Rican coffee. But as we snapped back into reality and remembered out priorities, we began to panic at the thought of the long arduous hike that surely lay ahead of us and whether we would indeed have the fortitude to still reach the summit before the others.

Lisa and her coffeeNevertheless, once again, we bolted forward, this time nothing could stop us as we made for the glorious crater. Five minutes later (for a total of about ten minutes walk time) we had reached the end of the neatly manicured path to the crater and came face to face with look-out point (hmm, so much for that long hike). Lisa and I were practically shoving one another out of the way to get ahead of one another and get the first sighting of what breath-taking and unforgettable sight lay below. Well, I suppose that it was indeed unforgettable, however not so much in an aesthetic type of way, but more of a “we came all the way out here for this?” kind of way. Beyond the wooden railings which lined the look-out point was pure, impenetrable, snowy whiteness. I can’t be completely sure, but I would imagine that it was quite like standing in a cloud.

Poor Lisa! I could see the look cross her face of “no! this can’t be! I came all the way here for a volcano and instead I get this?!” Well, since I had already been roasting marshmallows over pools of hot magma and dancing over crispy lava rock less than a month prior in Guatemala, I wasn’t quite as crushed as Lisa and felt that it was therefore my duty to console her. I pressed her weeping eyes against my shoulder and tried as best I could to comfort the poor, frail thing (ok, well, it wasn’t quite that dramatic, but she was at least slightly disappointed). But as we stood there, peering out into the whiteness, desperately hoping to catch some glimpse of the crater down below, no matter how faint, I felt that this would most certainly be the most appropriate time to play with Lisa’s emotions.  Discreetly turning my back to Lisa and pretending to look off over the cliff’s edge, I rapidly scanned for something nearby of which to take a quick snapshot and settled on some faded etchings on the wooden railing under my hands. I quietly popped the shutter button then excitedly turned back to Lisa and exclaimed “Wow Lisa! Look at this shot of the lagoon down below that I caught with my zoom!” Elatedly she snatched the camera from my hands, hoping to find redemption in my viewfinder, but after the initial moment of curious uncertainty she quickly sobered up and brushed my foolishness away with a quick chiding.

Alright, so that was over, now what? Well, if we can’t see the crater from up here, how about we hike down the few hundred feet into it and get a better view. Ppht, as if we were going to let rules and fences and park rangers stop us. So as we inconspicuously backed slowly away from the crowd, and back to the path from whence we’d come, we saw that there were indeed some places in the almost solidly thick underbrush where small, three foot high holes had been hacked away. With one final glance over our shoulders we jumped stealthily forward like Alice into the rabbit hole, and were instantly lost within a brambly, wicker-like world. We cautiously made our way forward, wondering just how much time we could be held in a Costa Rican prison just for wandering off the path at a national park, not to mention the gram of cocaine in Lisa’s pocket (kidding!). But then again, we were just clueless gringos, and we could always just play the “we got lost!” card, I mean anyone could have made the same mistake as us… thinking that these animal trails were the proper path.

Wicked ForestSadly though, we didn’t make it far, as the path ended abruptly in a dense bracken-like outgrowth backed by dense, impenetrable branches. Well, at this point we were completely stumped and unsure of what to do, but I informed Lisa that we hadn’t come all the way out here just to leave empty handed, and so we did what any logical tourist would do and prepped ourselves for a deep-woods photo-shoot. Since we could only couch (well Lisa at least, I was practically crawling) it turned out to be quite a fun and interesting shoot, as we got into character and pretended to be wild animals defending our burrows. But once the novelty wore off, we were once again met with the question of what to do, and so we again slyly emerged back out from the den and onto the main trail to see what more there was to see. Fortunately, there was apparently also a lake somewhere in this park, and as so far we had only used about a half an hour of our three hour slot, we thought it might make for a nice diversion. To our satisfaction, this hike had a little more body to it, and only moments later we were racing a geriatric couple up the slopes and pleasantly winded from the experience. The path was grown over by a low arch of twisted, mangled, finger-like tree branches and it made for quite a wicked forest ambiance. But alas, this was no Appalachian trail either, and not quite fifteen minutes later we had arrived at the mountaintop lagoon.

It was pretty. I mean, nothing to write home about, mostly since they fenced you off about 200 yards away, but at least it gave you a sense of satisfaction for having reached some significant point. We lolled and relaxed and paced about for some time enjoying the scenery before deciding to carry on. At first we had thought that we were to return by the same path with which we had arrived, but thanks to my horseplay, we inadvertently discovered an alternate route and were instantly on a new adventure, winding away through the forest. This time we had learned our lesson, we knew that there were no other landmarks to see here and we still had almost two hours left before our ride outta here, so we decided to slow down and smell the flowers. Occasionally I would excitedly point to some point off in the trees and inform Lisa of a rare wildlife spotting, but she quickly became accustomed to my farces and we instead settled into conversation.

Painted PoasAlthough this return path had been longer than that with which we had arrived at the lagoon, when we emerged from the wood, we realized that it had also spit us out almost back at the visitors center. With nothing left to do but go pretend to spend our gringo dollars in the visitor’s center, we finally surrendered to our destiny (did I mention that they charged us ten bucks to get into the park and Costa Ricans only one dollar? Well, that’s ok, I got savvy to that little game a few days later…). After an hour and a half of dawdling about in the cafeteria, absent-mindedly strolling through the old-fashioned high school science fair style exhibits of the museum, and staring at the rain pummel down during a torrential downpour, it was almost time to go. I had only one more opportunity to pull the wool over Lisa’s eyes before we were back on the road again, and therefore showed her the spectacular shot of the crater which I had gotten earlier and forgotten to show her (fortunately I’d found quite a realistic looking painting of the crater in the museum and decided to photograph it).

Once we were back on the bus (finally, thank God!) and had only narrowly escaped Costa Rica’s plot to strand us in one of their tourist money laundering facilities, we began to plot the route to our next destination. The plan was to head halfway back to San Jose, to the nearby municipality of Alajuela, and from there pray to the heavens that we would (very) narrowly catch the last direct bus to Monteverde. Well, I do believe that I had mentioned earlier that lady luck was not on our side this week, and that, as she would have it, was how we found ourselves on the excruciatingly drawn out collectivo (local-stopping bus) ride to the charmingly seedy and unrefined town of Puntarenas, only narrowly avoiding our own double homicide in the process.

28
Nov
08

Lisa and… No Chocolate Factory?

Puerto ViejoIt took Lisa and I only a few hours to realize that spending another day in cold, wet San Jose was not an option, and the following morning we were headed to the bus stop to make the voyage to the Caribbean coast. What a refreshing and welcome arrival was dear, sweet Lisa, incessantly smiling, deliciously unique, and with my remorseless complement in sweet irony and satyrical sarcasm. We had also met up with a curious young English lady who was planning on catching the second bus of the day to Puerto Viejo, a small Afro-Caribbean surf and sun type of town, and all agreed that it would be a splendid idea if we made the journey together. As Lisa and I took turns dragging her broken-wheeled, dead carcass of a rolly-suitcase the ten blocks down to the bus station, over jagged, war-torn-looking sidewalks, we began planning our fabulous next seven days together. The rough plan was to unwind and do some snorkeling in rasta-ville (Puerto Viejo), do some volcano watching and hiking at Arenal, jump on board the eco-tourism trend and enjoy the high-altitude fresh air in Monteverde, and then slide down the Pacific coast back to Manuel Antonio, to give Lisa a taste of the white sand paradise that Costa Rica had to offer (and also to return for my bicycle, where some friendly cabana neighbors had agreed to look after her). And although you can plot out your idealized game-plan at the beginning of any new journey, the truth is that its not really an adventure until you start running into the quirky characters, inconvenient shifts in the weather, and unexpected detours and obstacles along the way… as Lisa and I soon found out.
Unfortunately, we had dragged our backsides to the bus station at the last minute, due to the few extra cocktails that we had tied on the night before, and it was a tough call as to whether we would spend the next four hours on a bus to the coral reef lined tropics, or sitting in a bus terminal waiting for the next ride. As we were just arriving at the station, we heard the final boarding call for Puerto Viejo and sprinted into the terminal, desperately searching for the right window to buy our tickets. Upon finding it, a other disgruntled backpackers stood a few feet away and we wondered if this bus was already all sold out. However, in what we thought was a stroke of luck, they informed us that there were still a few more spaces available in the aisles, and after a moment’s deliberation we deemed that it was best not to waste away our precious week together in Costa Rica, and made for the departure area.
But one by one, as we climbed the steps into the bus, our jaws immediately dropped. At first it seemed completely shocking and ridiculous: not only was every single last seat of the weathered, ancient bus filled, but the entire narrow aisle from the caboose almost to the driver’s seat, was jam packed with people sitting one in front of another on the floor, with all of their packs and luggage squeezed in around them. What had we gotten ourselves into? Yet, as it was the beginning of our little backpacking expedition together, we quickly fell into laughter over the comic irony of the situation, and decided that this was all part of the fun. Two hours later, fun was probably the last thought crossing our minds.
Ok, ok, I must admit that within the last hour or so of the ride I did manage to get a seat when one of the other passengers in the front of the bus got off, and yes, I did leave Lisa and Elizabeth sitting on their sorry asses on the floor (actually, that wasn’t really her name, but I can’t honestly remember what it is anymore and I wanted to give her a nice, proper English name for the story – plus, its probably best not to disclose her true identity based on the nature of what’s to come). Now, you probably think I’m horrible person for leaving two women sitting on the floor while I lounged in the front seat – well, you try being six foot five and packing in with your knees against your chest and your shoulders jammed in between the seat-frames on a sweltering bus for three hours. So I battled my conscience for almost an entire minute, decided that the girls would most certainly want what was best for me, and decided to take a nap until we reached our destination.
As you can imagine, the girls had plenty of “constructive criticism” for me when we were finally in Puerto Viejo and ambling down the dirt roads searching for a place to shower and spend the next few nights. But it was all in jest and we were just happy to finally be there and excited to begin exploring. Once we had settled into the little motel-esque hostel that another young lady in San Jose had recommended, we decided to head out for a stroll down along the waterfront and maybe a swim, if the right beach presented itself.
It was interesting, but I hadn’t realized that Lizzy (Elizabeth) had a very direct way of only addressing me when she spoke, and showing complete disinterest in conversation with me. Naturally, Lisa was the one that informed me of this and burst me out of my obliviously gregarious state (as I had been ping-pong talking back and forth between the two the whole time). We had been strolling down the gorgeous shallow-reef lined coast, working our way from the sleepy little hamlet of Puerto Viejo out along the white sands that skirted the surf, then down a windy path through the coastal jungle. After passing heaps of neon orange and blue crabs, we arrived at the throbbing tides of a picturesque beach bathed in the melting hues of early dusk. Although I was stripped down to my suit and went peeling off towards the breakers only moments later, the girls were a little apprehensive but just needed a little coaxing. Well, good ol’ Lisa at least, as Lizzy wasn’t really up for the turbulent waters.
Between being knocked up, down, around and back by the raging tide, Lisa managed to convey to me that she was feeling slightly marginalized by our newfound friend – a sentiment that would only grow with our time spent together. I assured Lisa that it was nothing and that surely she was just reading into it too much, and for the moment we left it at that, as the conversation shifted to Lisa’s mischievous bikini, which had a funny way of incessantly attempting to escape her. Yet, over the course of the coming week I was to become no stranger to Lisa’s complete and unabashed glory, and what better time to accustom myself than at the beginning.
Upon hauling our bedraggled selves from the ravenous ocean the sun was beginning to set amid fiery amber and scarlet Caribbean shades, and it appeared to be an apt time to make our way back to our lodging in Puerto Viejo. Working our way along the winding jungle path towards the village, we made sporadic conversation, and indeed I did begin to notice the polarity of our trio strongly gravitating towards my direction. But what was this strange phenomenon, and how had I grown to be the sun within our small solar system? The certainty of my suspicions would only present themselves as the course of events of the following day unfolded and Lisa and I’s path would invariably and forever diverge from that of our newfound companion.
Undoubtedly drawing from our beleaguering voyage and lengthy hike the day prior, we had decided to have an early night so as to rise and shine and carpe diem that following morning. Well, that is, right after we had joyously endured Lizzy unceremoniously pummeling us (me) with her miraculous life’s accomplishments, and extolling the many virtues of her charmed existence. Nevertheless, once we had recovered the following morning, the outlook was promising: rent some lovely little bicycles (like Eddie and Pats in Paris), ride along the secluded jungle road to the provincial coastal pueblo of Manzanillo, lunch on some delicious Caribbean coastal fare, snorkel in the tranquil turquoise waters, and hike through the lush tropical foliage of the Gandoca-Manzanillo wildlife refuge, before pedaling back to Puerto Viejo. After we had showered, applied sunscreen, and prepared Lisa and I’s soon to be signature breakfast of diced fresh fruit, creamy yogurt, and nutritious granola, we sat in the common area of the hostel breakfasting. All the while, tactfully evading any long-term conversation with the young afro-Caribbean gentleman from Tortuguero who languished in the task of describing to us the beauties of “smoking a big spliff,” to start off the day, as he sat mesmerized in front of cartoons.
Nevertheless, we declined his offer of smokin’ the spliff, and less than an hour later I was tearing down the rutted dirt jungle road on my rusty rented ghetto beach-cruiser, spinning my pedals with unprecedented haste, and throwing my head back menacingly to cackle and screech “you’ll never get me my pretties, if it’s the last thing you do!!” (yes, I know its backwards!), as I left Lisa and Lizzy in my swirling dust cloud. And I must be quite honest with you, I’m not really the competitive type, but I was quite languishing in the fact that I could once again toy with others in a language of which I had a solid grasp, and be certain that I could convey my sense of comedy without appearing stark, raving mad. And so we flew, racing through the dense palm fronts and past odd thatched WiFi huts along the way, until suddenly, thar she was – Paulie and the Chocolate Factory. When I had spotted the inconspicuous sign poking out from the foliage saying “Fabrica de Chocolate” (or something along those lines), I almost came to a screeching halt. Wait, so let me get this right, here I was, riding my bicycle through paradise with one of my best friends ever, on our way to go snorkeling in warm, bath-like Central American waters, and we’d just “happened” to stumble upon a chocolate factory in the middle of the jungle??? Was I having my version of Cameron Diaz’s dream from “The Sweetest Thing”?
Well, I don’t suppose that I need inform you as to our highly democratic decision that I dictated to my two female companions, as I led them off the main road and bouncing along under the steamy green canopy. Promptly, we discovered a suitable site at which to lock up our rides and followed the signs up to the fabrication point – which I was sure would be an elaborate and grandiose factory, tucked away into the isolated forest fauna, and which I only hoped I hadn’t needed to remember my golden ticket in order to gain entry. However, at the end of the path we discovered a thatched roof supported by four posts, and one chocolatier lounging about while lazily rolling tiny brown logs of cocoa. No! Say it isn’t so! Where was the chocolate river? The Oompa Loompas?? Where were Augustus Gloop and Veruca Salt and Violet Beauregarde??? Oh sweet illusion, why had thou forsaken me!
Well, the fact of the matter was that we had come for chocolate, and chocolate we would have! So, as my sweet dreams of golden ticket fortune began to fade away, I had half a mind to say to the gentleman, “look here, if you are wise you’ll listen to me… and hand over the chocolate!” but I caught myself quickly and decided to err on the sake of prudence. In my most charismatic and logical approach, I began the interrogation – where was the factory? Where were all the workers? Was there a free tour? And most importantly of all, where were the free samples! Well, as it turned out, it certainly wasn’t any Willy Wonka operation – this was it: a hut, a man, and some cocoa. But that was ok, it didn’t take long to learn that there were no free samples, but there was fresh made chocolate for gringo dollars, and I judiciously decided that in the name of quality control it was my duty to sample every last flavor. Fortunately, there were only eight flavors, and even more fortunately, they were far more competitively priced than any such equivalent product you might find North of the Gulf of Mexico.
Satisfied with our purchases, Lisa, Lizzy and I opted not to invest our money on the chocolate tour, as the process was clear: cocoa -> chocolate. Not really rocket science there. So we made our way back to our hotrods and rumbled back to the main road. Although for me it was quite a luxurious day in the park riding from Puerto Viejo to Manzanillo, the girls weren’t quite used to cycling through the sweaty heat of the tropics, and once we finally came rolling into the town of Manzanillo, over two hours after our departure that morning, they were wiped out. Fortunately, the town consisted of about six buildings altogether, the first of which just so happened to be the snorkeling rental shop. We shod our burdensome bikes in a corner under the shaded front awning of the shop and plopped down to begin questioning the dive shop “professional” as to what the plan was.
It didn’t take long for us to be rested and ready to get in the water – and thats how I found myself plodding through town in my speedo and flippers, ready for some coral divinity! But as we approached the “peaceful” bay, things looked just a little bit choppy. We saw two other bruised and battered Eastern European gringos laboriously pulling themselves from the water with their snorkels, as if shipwrecked, but reassured ourselves that surely there was no ocean in their country in which to learn how to swim, and hence they were undoubtedly the victims of poor swimming instruction. As girls often do, Lisa and Lizzy wasted their time on pondering whether it might be a good idea to take a stroll down the beach and see if we could find the most ideal spot in which to begin our snorkeling, but I wisely decided to begin walking backwards into the crashing waves the second we touched the sandy coastline. Ah, and what sweet snorkeling it was!
After about fifteen minutes of being dragged through the vacuum-like undercurrent, belly scraping over jagged coral outcroppings, trying desperately to squint my eyes to spot minnows through the swirling brown sand underneath the waves, my optimism began to fade. As poked my head above water to see where Lisa and Lizzy were, I managed to spot them about thirty or so yards off in different directions, in between fruitlessly trying to clear the water from my snorkel again and again, as the waves incessantly invited themselves in. In keeping with that theme, at about the same time, one of my flippers began to work itself loose from my foot, threatening to slip off into the tumultuous void, and forcing me to try to crouch, while floating, to reaffix the bugger. Of course, like any good first-world citizen, I remember that the most important lesson is to never harm the coral! And therefore I refused to put my other foot down to stay myself. Ok, well, my resolution began to tumble as I rolled relentlessly through the riptide atop the reef in the fetal position in a desperate attempt to right myself.
About ten minutes later, and slightly more frazzled than when we had first entered, the three of use reconvened in a heap on the beach. So snorkeling was out – what was the next item on the agenda? Well, I think that I can speak for us all when I say that I was positively famished. So once again, I provided some direction for our small troupe and hassled the girls back to the snorkeling shop and then to a promising looking comedor (restaurant shack). Well, the funny thing about Paul is that when he’s hungry… he’s hungry! And unfortunately, those voluptuous Caribbean mamasitas worked at their own pace – or as I like to call it, tomorrow. About an hour and a half later, we finally received the meal that we had been longing for, a single chicken wing, shredded lettuce, some white rice, and a little spattering of black beans – clearly a labor of love. But it was alimentation we were after, and making quick work of the min-feast, we payed and made for our next destination.
Ambling through the sand street past the central town cluster of wooden buildings, we passed along towards the nature reserve farther along the beach. Even though our faithful guide book had mentioned that there were occasional muggings along the isolated paths, I was confident that Lisa and Lizzy’s brute strength would surely ward off any unwanted predators and we intrepidly waded through the small river which marked the border of the reserve. We strolled leisurely along the secluded jungle path, peeling our eyes for sights of rare tropical ornithological sightings or mischievous monkeys, but to no avail. Nonetheless, the forest was deliciously pristine, and the lapping tide could be heard just off to our left as we forged onwards. We hadn’t gone long before spotting a picturesque rocky outcropping that jutted out into the sea and decided to head that way to investigate. As we admired the scenery, we chuckled and jested about random subjects briefly before turning to head back to the path, but as we did we had no idea what shocking surprise awaited us.
From the dense tropical foliage, a group of five stocky coal-skinned caribbean youths sprang from the underbrush with a roar! Oh why hadn’t we listened to our wizened guide book’s warning! Here we were, by the roaring tide, deep in the reserve where no one could hear us scream or race to our rescue. I cringed behind Lisa as I knew she would undoubtedly fight tooth and nail to save me from these bandits. But after our initial surprise, the youths began laughing condescendingly at us, made a few feeble jokes, and then continued their was along the path through the woods. Oh sweet mercy, we had been delivered from evil so that I might once more be given my daily bread.
Well, you can imagine that after this little scare our appetite for exploration was somewhat daunted and we decided that it was getting far too late to be rummaging about in these distant jungles anymore, therefore making our way back to Manzanillo and our bicycles. After a rather slow paced and jaunty ride back to Puerto Viejo (during which Lisa’s scandalous bike gave her no end of trouble, leaving her marked from head to toe in black bicycle grease), we were finally rolling back into town and ready to return our rental cycles from whence they had come. We made our way haggardly back to the hostel, ready for some showers and contemplating how we would enjoy our last night out on the town in Puerto Viejo.
But once all was said and done and we had consumed our light supper back at base camp, the evening was beginning to wear on. Our friend Lizzy (whom by this point had clearly become the self-proclaimed queen of my fan club), after not having received my returned affection over the past two days, proclaimed that she would be up with the chickens the following morning and off to “Bockers” (Bocas del Toro) on the Northeastern tip of Panama, and therefore would not be joining us that evening. So Lisa and I headed out to live it up with the rastas (and our two Caribbean Guatemalan friends) in what was said to be the bumping downtown Puerto Viejo scene.
Now, given, Puerto Viejo probably has about a total of fifty buildings to its name, but supposedly its the party capital of the Caribbean Central American scene. However, thats not exactly what greeted us as we passed a few empty open bars wailing out played out Bob Marley classics and other obscure reggae. Finally, we settled on a nondescript open hall-of-a-bar that apparently was promoting ladies night that evening (which I think meant that they were serving two for one virgin drinks or one teaspoon of rum per cocktail) and sat ourselves out front. Well, Lisa and I had sagaciously thought to lug our own bottle of rum around the country with us, and hence pre-gamed back at the hostel after our dinner and were already somewhat giddy. But with our Caribbean friends blowing pungent clouds of smoke directly into my face, it was only a short bout before I began to feel the world swirling around me. I had quite suddenly and unwittingly become completely incompetent and thought of nothing other than returning to my bed to lay myself down in comfy pillows. I begged Lisa pathetically to carry me back to the hostel, but she politely refused on the grounds that she thought it would be quite unladylike for her to be trampled beneath my half-conscious carcass in the middle of the sandy street. When this failed, I then pleaded for her to help me hobble to the bushed and leave me there so that I might rest my bones a bit before making the long, arduous journey the two blocks back to the hostel, but again, she suggested otherwise.
And so, the long and shart of it was that moments later Lisa found herself slowly pacing down the dark road with me crumpled heavily on her shoulder back to reprieve. When we arrived, Lizzy was lying in her bottom bunk (there was one bunk bed and a queen-size bed in the room) still awake and reading and greeted us. Well, I wasn’t quite in the mood for chit chat and could think only of making the laborious climb up to my top bunk (woe is me for having used up my queen-size bed option the night before!) and slump down heavily, but still quite lucid. Lisa, who had not had her shower earlier, decided to head into the bathroom and rinse off before bed-time, leaving Lizzy and I all alone in the room.
Then, that was when it began. The last pitiful, desperate attempt. Lizzy began asking me some quite personal questions from the bunk down below, and when I began to play my oblivious card she shifted strategies and began speaking seductively to me. I could only keep playing dumb for so long and didn’t know how else to fend off her advances. Oh Lisa!! Why, oh why, had you decided to shower now! Why had you left me all alone in this room with the wench! What could I do?? My mind raced for a solution, and mercifully, the obvious presented itself. I could just play the unconscious card! And what opportune timing it was, as Lizzy was about to pull out her final ace. From below I heard her provocatively invite me below with, “I need a big strong man, who’s not my boyfriend (yes, she had a boyfriend back in England), to come down here and cuddle me to sleep.” I cringed and buried my face in my pillow, wishing that this horrible nightmare would soon be over. And then it was.
The next when Lisa and I were finally rising from our slumber, Lizzy was already long gone, gone with the chickens. What a sigh of relief! As most certainly there would have been no comfortable or tactful way to confront her after the previous night’s debauchery. But indeed, this pivotal and unforgettable night had marked the end of Lisa and I’s Caribbean Costa Rica adventure, and only a short while later we were back on a bus to the interior and on to yet other mysterious and unforeseen scandal in some new and exotic tropical world.

26
Nov
08

Who is Manuel Antonio, Anyway?

La SelvitaAlright, so here it is, the new site! So you might be wondering, why the change? Well, the main purpose is to now make the site open to the public. On the old .mac server, the site was only available to those who were referred to the site, but it is now completely searchable and also a part of the wordpress community. Also, the old platform seemed to be very buggy and slow to load, but this one seems to be a lot more streamlined and accessible. I’ve also decided to begin uploading my photos to Flickr now, as it allows viewing of the full size images, faster loading, and also gives me a little more exposure, as I’ve begun to invest more time and interest into my photography and would like to be able to somehow use it to help me continue financing the trip down the road. While I was setting up this new site, I also added several new journal entries and I also decided to do an overhaul of most of the other sections as well, so feel free to have a look around and enjoy the new setup. I’ve postponed heading to Ecuador until early December while I finally buckle down and catch up on the many entries that I missed, so you should be able to expect frequent updates over the next couple of weeks – and on that note, here’s another for ya:

Who is Manuel Antonio, Anyway?  (note: this is a somewhat less detailed entry, so as to not violate personal privacy)
As I lay on the warm white sands, the turquoise Pacific waves ebbing and rolling only several yards away, and the gentle rustling of the palm fronds as they swished lazily in the ocean breeze behind me, I thought to myself, “so this is paradise, hunh?” Somehow, I suppose that for a moment as I had sat there in the rainy Guatemalan highlands, dreaming of tropical Costa Rican beaches and being reunited with old friends, that everything would soon be perfect. The funny thing is that just because you’re sitting in the post-card, doesn’t mean that reality just fades away and leaves you with the irresistible urge to smile and laugh all day – just when you think you’re safe and in paradise, drama rears its ugly head.
That first night, arriving at the cabana under the Pacific jungle twilight and receiving not hugs of goodbye, as I had shared with many of the new friends that I had made during my journey, but instead being welcomed into the arms of those which I had once shared my life, I felt certain that this was the beginning of one of the most wonderful and fulfilling weeks of my journey. It had been one of the most difficult decisions that I had ever had to make to have only recently in my life had the opportunity to share my life with friends that made me feel truly alive, and then to say goodbye to them. I knew that my journey was one that I had to take, but as I mounted my bicycle and headed for the border, I could only cling to the hope that these friendships would still burn true one day when I could come back to them. But now, a few short months after having received the news that Kevin and Willie would be intercepting me in Costa Rica, here we were again, and I couldn’t help but smolder with joy and optimism.
It didn’t take long for the fairy-tale to begin crumbling apart however, and although we all tried to make the best of it, and most certainly did have some fantastic and unforgettable times, there was just one detail that stood in the way of the blissful harmony that I had been dreaming of. Kevin and Willie had a history. I’d like to say that it had been a brief but torrid affair (mostly just because I like the expression), but in fact it had been several years of uncertainty as they teetered on the thin line between friendship and something more. Although in the planning stages before the big vacation the horizon had been lined with golden sunsets, sometimes a change of scenery and 24/7 exposure can change the chemistry between people a little more than expected. Plus, the bare truth of the matter is that we were all there in the Costa Rican rainy season, and it wasn’t long before we got used to the afternoon showers.
Those next few days together generally started out with the raucous chirping, rustling, and crashing sounds of monkeys as they seemed to have decided that above our cabana was their official breakfast spot, and didn’t appear to have anything better to do than hurl mangos at each other or on the roof every day at six in the morning. Then, once we had finally mobilized ourselves as well, sometimes we’d head to the pool nestled in the jungle scenery for a morning dip, fix a quick breakfast (at least when the millions of jungle ants hadn’t managed to get into the food supplies), and then get ready to head out to the beach. The bus along the Quepos-Manuel Antonio road ran every half an hour, and thanks to our convenient positioning near to its origin in Quepos, we almost never had to wait long before a pick-up. Then, after about a five minute ride up the almost insurmountable hill (at ten miles per hour), along the crest, and then back down through a shady , the lush canopy opened up to reveal the long stretch of glittering gold and emerald coastline, flanked by stands of gently billowing rainbow hued sarongs and slender, lazily leaning palm trees.
And so the days rolled by, one day climbing over the rocky outcropping at the end of the main beach to relax at the tiny secluded la Playita beach, another time heading for a morning of quintessential Costa Rican canopy touring, another day hiking through the tropical vegetation to reach the lovely sheltered bay in Manuel Antonio National Park, and on one occasion even finding ourselves running up and down the deserted main beach and romping in the breakers naked during a massive rainstorm, then hiking half an hour back up to the main road through the jungle on a roaring, flooded trail. But often the evenings told another tale. Perhaps it was the wearying effects of long hours under the Pacific sun, or perhaps just the closeness of quarters and foreign environment, but the tension mounted as the sun began to set. Often by dinner time an awkward silence had fallen over the table as things between Kevin and Willie reached the melting point, such that conversation was sporadic and somewhat uncertain. And generally, on these nights, that same mood spilled on into the later evening, whether that consisted of lounging around the cabana or heading out for a nearby nightcap.
And so, as I sat on that same bus returning to San Jose from Manuel Antonio with Kevin and Willie, I couldn’t help but think of the complete contrast between how I felt then versus how I had originally felt on the way out to meet them a week earlier. The tension had rendered almost all genuine communication to a very surface level towards the end of our stay on the coast, as each of us had avoided touching on sensitive subjects, and as I, especially, had tried to avoid placing myself in the middle of whatever other issues were afoot. I wondered where things had gone between us, and whether our friendship was really everything that I had once felt it was. A shadow of loneliness and disappointment cast across my thoughts as I wondered to myself whether there would be anything left for me back where my old life had been if even this had begun to crumble.
When we arrived in San Jose, it seemed like things were destined to end just the way that I was beginning to imagine that they were, as I would be heading off to a hostel on one side of town to meet my friend Lisa who had flown in from Atlanta earlier that day, and Kevin and Willie headed to their own hotel to settle in before their flight back to New York in the morning. Finally reaching the hostel after the two hour ride from Manuel Antonio and then the ten minute cab ride from the bus station, I was both overjoyed at the thought of seeing Lisa, but now I also felt a twinge of anxiety as to whether my excitement would indeed meet my expectations. I wondered if perhaps we would be reunited and I would feel as though I had remained at the same point at which we had left off our friendship before my journey but if it was possible that she had moved on. Or maybe it would turn out that we had both changed too much to even relate to one another any more – I couldn’t help but feel unsure.
But seeing Lisa there in the doorway as I walked in, smiling and laughing and the two of us picking back up right where we had left off, pulled my out of my anxious state of mind and back into reality. After catching up and heading out for a walk around San Jose in the cold afternoon rain, we got to talking. Although I knew it wasn’t my place to disclose all the details of what had happened in the past week to Lisa, I did still feel that void and sadness over how things had gone in Manuel Antonio, and I couldn’t help but voicing them. And what I began to realize was that, now that I was out of that other environment, and had someone to give me an outside perspective, it became clear to me that I had begun to let myself feel like the target of whatever tension I had been feeling in Manuel Antonio because I had set my expectations so high, but the truth was that it was never about me. I realized that this was just something that Kevin and Willie were going through and rather than let myself be hurt through the process, the best thing that I could do was to be supportive and unbiased to them as a friend and not let this ruin our friendships. After finally talking it all through and having the clarity of mind to pull myself out of the slump into which I had fallen, even the dismal gray rainy San Jose afternoon couldn’t keep me from feeling like myself again, and I as we trudged back to the the hostel in the fading evening twilight, I couldn’t help but smile.
That evening Lisa and I had plans to head out and meet Willie and Kevin at Bochinche, the same lively downtown bar that I had found myself at one week earlier, but this time in a completely different state of mind. Rather than walking in with my expectations built so high as to only let myself down, I walked in knowing that these really were my friends. They had all come here because they care about me, and it was time for me to stop letting myself become confused in false feelings, and instead hold onto every moment that we had together, being there for them whether in peace-time or in conflict. And so it went, that there I was, thousands of miles away from where we had all shared our lives together, this time with the best of both New York and Atlanta, and all I could think was just how lucky I was to have these people in my life, that they were all there with me in that moment, and that I had no doubt that no matter how far I went, they would still be there with me.