Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Last Casado

It´s 7:52 here in Alajuela which is the city close to the San Jose International Airport. We arrived after a grueling four hour bus ride from Manuel Antonio and immediately went out to an upscale Soda called La Cosina De La Abuela. Claire had her usual vegetarian casado (rice, beans, plantains, salad, sauteed vegetables) and I had mine con pollo frito. It was good honest cooking and a perfect way to end our stay here in Costa Rica. We are sleeping at a cheap hostel as we have to be up at around 3 oclock to make it to the airport for our 6:30 am flight. The room is not much to see... we only hope there aren´t too many bugs.

Which brings me to the main point of this post. It´s been three days now since we first arrived in Dominical, a small, American expat, surfer town on the central Pacific Coast. We were convinced to stay at a certain hotel (the name of which now escapes me) by a surfer on the bus, who said it was super clean and had all the amenities including HBO and cinemax in english. The deal breaker was that the proprietor gave us a room for 20$ which otherwise would have cost 45. It was small and ugly, but it was a relief to be somewhere sterile. OR so we thought.

After watching the second half of Swordfish, we fell asleep to the grinding song of the AC unit. At around three in the morning, Claire woke me with a start and said, ¨something was on me.¨ At first I thought she was just talking in her sleep, but then she insisted that she had felt something on her chest. I turned on the light and got up to go to the bathroom. When I returned I was horrified to see a giant Cucaracha on the side of the bed, right next to where I had minutes before been soundly asleep. Oh my god, I said, and my face must have instantly reflected the situation at hand. Claire stayed still until the thing scurried on to the top of the bed near her feet.

After that there was a moment of panick but I quickly regained my calm. Had it been the beginning of our trip, I probably wouldn´t have felt capable of doing anything, and we might have slept in the pool ouside. But after threading so many fishing hooks through sardine eyeballs I felt sufficiently empowered to excercise my human might over a much smaller and stupider creature. I waited until senor roach made his way back to the side of the top bunk and then asked Claire for a blunt device. The only weapons available unfortunately were our books, and so with a touch of sadness I took the worlds 100 greatest short stories (Kafka included) and ended the life of the particularly audacious and oversized monster.

The next morning we made haste from our little house of horror to seek out a more calm abode. The room we left behind looked like some sick scene of a crime. There had obviously been some sort of a struggle. The sheets lay tangled on the bed. There was a black bloodstain on the bunk frame. By the door was an open plastic bag with two halves of a giant cockroach. The final touch was the ripped off cover of the world´s greatest 100 short stories covered in insect blood.

I´m happy to report that the following two days were much more tame. I went boogie boarding. We watched the finals of the Mundial. Last night we stayed at a very nice hotel in Manuel Antonio called Mango Moon. We spent most of the afternoon watching American TV in our airconditioned room. We ate dinner at a restaurant which boasted the wreck of a cold-war era cargo plane, which had been shot down during the Iran-contra affair. Today we woke up and waited around in Quepos until the bus to San Jose.

It is now 8:10 and high time for us to be getting to bed. Also the internet room has been invaded by about 20 loud French teenagers.

Buenas Noches y Hasta Luego
See you back in the US OF A

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Some excitement on the road west...

On Thursday morning we left Bocas. It took us a while to get out because the breakfast place we went to on Isla Colon was unbelievably slow. Some other tourists at the cafe told us that there were strikes at the Costa Rican boarder we had past through a few days before and that the road back to Puerto Viejo was blocked. This was fine with us since we were heading south west to the Pacific Coast. When we arrived at the bus station at Almirante, the TV was showing pictures of the border town, Changuinola, where a riot seemed to have broken out. Men with machetes stood in the streets and there were trees blocking the roads. There was an air of excitement at the bus stop, as Changuinola is only about 20 km away from Almirante. A truck arrived and about 15 suspicious men with backpacks got off. After about an hour of waiting for the bus, we were getting nervous. What if the violence spread to Almirante? Finally a little van pulled up and we were instructed to put our stuff in the back. The people onboard assured us that we were going to David, however the guy loading in our bags was tacit. Our fears of being taken back to Changuinola were only put to rest once the van started moving in the correct direction.

You can read about the strike here-- www.puertoviejosatellite.com/news/

The ensuing drive was exceedingly long but very beautiful. It took us through the mountanous middle of the country, high cloud forests and big vistas. Late in the day we arrived in Boquete, one of the major tourist destinations in Panama. Apparently at one time, Boquete was the #1 expat retirement spot in the world and this was reflected in the slightly higher prices, nicer buildings, and a place called Shalom Bakery. (Interestingly enough, Shalom Bakery did not have challah on friday night...) We ate at a mediterranean place the second night where a local retired woman had what seemed like a weekly gig. A large crowd of American retirees had packed the place and ate Israeli food while listening to terrible covers of songs from the 50s and 60s.

Today we left Boquete early in the morning and travelled for 9 hours... all the way to a little surfing town on the Pacific called Dominical. Later dinner, maybe a movie. We were going to camp, but thank god for a solid roof, it is pouring.

The Jaguar Part II

The next day we had arranged with The Jaguar to go fishing. In the morning we went kayaking for about an hour and met a dolphin in the middle of the bay. When we got back to the dock, everyone was watching the futbol game. Right when it ended, The Jaguar, or "Jags," as the brits had begun to call him, was ready to go, having gone out earlier to catch fresh sardines. Once again we all loaded into a boat and headed off into the lagoon. There were dead sardines all over the boat, which I initially thought was gross. Little did I know what was soon to come.

Claire had agreed to try fish if we caught it ourselves and I had been wanting to go fishing for the entire trip. So it was with great anticipation that we waited for the boat to stop. When we threw down the anchor, Jags handed me an empty soda bottle with fishing line wrapped around it. At the end of the line was a ball and a hook, upon which I was now instructed to string a couple sardines. This first time, it took me a moment to work up the nerves to pierce the sardine threw the eyeball and then bend its body back around onto the hook. As the afternoon wore on, hwoever, even this task became mundane. Before I could even get my sardine on the hook, both the Jaguar's wife and 8-year-old daughter had hauled out small fish called Pati, which, according Jags, were "first class fish." I wasn't exactly sure what a bite was going to feel like but after several failed attempts at casting my line all the way down to the bottom, I felt an unmistakeble tug and yelled "I got one." I began to lift the line out of the water and into the boat, as everyone watched expectantly. All of a sudden, the line went slack. Assuming the fish had escaped, I slowly finished reeling in the line. But when the hook came to the surface, it wasn't bare. Out of the water came a bloody fish-head.

I was so shocked I had no idea what to do, but the Jaguar started screaming for me to give it to him quickly. He reached over and grabbed the fish head, which bled all over the floor of the boat. In about 5 seconds, he had it on a bigger hook and back in the water, while his daughter and wife muttered Barracuda. Sure enough, in a matter of seconds, he was struggling with the line and dragging what seemed to be an impressively big fish to the surface. All at once the Barracuda broke into the air. It was about three feet long with a long thin mouth and razor-like teeth. Without flinching the Jaguar grabbed it by its tail and flung it onto the floor of the boat where it continued to flop around for about a half hour. "Make good ceviche" said The Jaguar as he handed me a new line.

By the end of the afternoon we had caught about one and a half buckets full of the small Pati fish. The fishing was exhilerating but a little demoralizing as we kept pulling up baby fish which then had to be thrown back into the water. At one point the irishman pulled up a small fish that had some how been hooked in the eye. He asked the Jaguar if he could use it as bait for a larger fish, since the baby was certainly not going to survive. The Jaguar however refused, insisting that there was a "fish doctor" somewhere down below. Later we all agreed that Jags just didn't want anyone else to catch a barracuda. If there had been a fish doctor, there would have also been a fish dentist who could have fixed the barracuda's front teeth.

When we returned to the dock, the Jaguar descaled all the fish and gutted them. This was probably the more gorey part of the entire thing and I already needed to wash my hands so I went back to the room. When I came out again, there were about 8 barracude steaks and 8 cleaned Pati fish ready to be fried. With lime and salt, the Barracuda was actually really good, although I didn't quite agree that the Pati was a firt class fish. Claire tried both kinds of fish and enjoyed it-- first time eating meat in over a year. We washed down the days adventure with some cheap but good Panamanian box wine and stayed up late listening to stories of far away places.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Jaguar

We had heard of a nice hostal on Isla Bastimentos in the Bocas Del Toro Archipelago. To get there, we took a water taxi from the main island (Isla Colon) to Bastimentos. The ride took only about 4 minutes and as we pulled into the sleepy and rather dilapidated town, we saw various dockside porches with hammocks. Unfortunately, we did not pull into one of these but instead had to hike up a very steep pathway up to the hostal which turned out to not be very nice. So we walked back down the hill and along the water until we found our way to a purple wooden building, where we were met by a man who called himself The Jaguar. (And when I say that, I mean that he actually referred to himself in third person as The Jaguar). This seemed like a good omen to us, seeing as I had been searching for the jaguar the entire time wed been in costa rica and hadnt yet found it. So we entered the building which was built entirely on stilts above the water. At the back was a large covered dock with six hammocks and a kitchen. We knew we had found a great place to stay when we were greeted by 4 jovial brits (actually one was irish), one of whom was playing guitar. We settled into some hammocks, and The Jaguar, who had discovered I played accordion, brought out his little Casio keyboard, two microphones, and an amp. For the next hour, he and his wife Nana performed several original compositions for us, each to the tune of a different, pre-recorded keyboard song. During the instrumental breaks, Nana would shout either "Si!" or "Saaaabbbooorrrr." The effect is hard to convey via blog, however ask me in person and I will be happy to demonstrate. Suffice it to say, their performance went from amusing to grating rather quickly...

It was a rainy day, so we just hung out in the hammocks and talked to the other guests, who, it turned out, were on much longer journeys than our own. One couple had been travelling for more than a year and had started at the bottom of South America, then slowly making their way up. Between the four of them, they had been almost everywhere in the world. Over the next few days, we felt as though we were gaining insight into a sort of traveling subculture. Membership requires embracing traveling as lifestyle and being able to swap stories about treks in Borneo, African safaris, and catamaran voyages to remote desert islands. These people do not live lavishly-- at least not all the time. As they put it to us, whereas their friends spent their money on cars and homes, travellers save up and then see the entire world. Indeed, there was almost a hint of a competive spirit involved. A day later, yet another irish couple arrived who had been travelling the world for 2 years. Their passports were maxed-out, which they announced under the guise of being concerned about how they were going to enter the US soon.

Our first morning in Bastimentos, we agreed to go on a day-long tour with the other guests. After an hour of haggling, we worked out a deal-- 17$ a person to be taken by boat to a snorkling spot and then to a pristine tropical island with white sandy beaches. We were a little ambivalent stepping into the boat. 17 sounded like a lot of money to be paying, especially when there were 8 of us going. However, it would be a gross understatement to say that our misgivings prooved baseless.

After about a half hour of navigating through the bocas lagoon, our boat pulled up along side several others in the middle of a large bay. Other snorklers were already in the water, so we quickly donned our gear and jumped in. The reef below was surreal-- if the coral had been made out of neon lights, it couldn't have been more vibrant. Ethereal purple and pink tubes, yellow and green mushroom-looking things, and lots and lots of fish. The sheer amount of fish made me wonder about how you never really know what's beneath the surface when you're swimming-- there must always be a lot of animals staying out of your way. Although its a lame thing to write, the reef really did look like something from a TV show. And perhaps that's what made it so fantastic? It's always exciting when real life outshines your fantasies.

After probably 45 minutes, we reboarded the boat and continued heading north east (I think) towards the sea. Way off in the distance we saw a small island, which slowly grew as the water beneath the boat became bluer and bluer. Finally we could see a circular island, fringed by palm trees and white sand, and surrounded by bright, clear, turquoise water. The driver stopped several times to let us take photographs, but it was one of those moments when you realie that you might as well buy a postcard. (Indeed, the irishman told me that he often just takes pictures of postcards when he visits especially astounding places). This island, named Zapatia, was the quintessential tropical island that one gets marooned on. In fact, the guidebook said that either Zapatia or one of its neighbors was featured on an episode of Lost. Anyways, the boat pulled onto the sand and the driver informed us that he was going to go sleep under a coconut tree and to be back at 430. For the rest of the afternoon, we walked around the island, enjoying different swimming spots and snorkling. After eating our PB&J, we found a young coconut in the sand. With no machete available, we fell to throwing it down onto a big log. I probably would have given up, had it not just felt like the right thing to do on such an island. Eventually, the coconut cracked and I pealed away the skin. It was a little sandy but we enjoyed the milk and then broke it open to eat the flesh. Here we must thank Delroy again for demonstrating so many times the proper way to eat a coconut-- otherwise we might have been at more of a loss for what to do. At this point you may be thinking that we could come no closer to paradise. Well you're right. The only thing separating us from paradise (aside from still being alive) were these annoying biting flies that swarmed around us when we lay down on the sand. Ah well. I guess nothing's perfect after all.

When the sun started sinking down in the west, we sadly returned to the boat. Zapatia was the kind of place that would have been nice to camp on for a day or two, provided you had a little more food and a lot more bugspray.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Dont you buy cat in sack

says Delroy, the man I have been working with for two weeks. Delroy is Veronicas husband, and the two of them have lived in Puerto Viejo (or nearby) for their entire lives. 50 years ago there were no roads, no electricity, no plumbing, and certainly no tourists. To get to the nearest hospital in case of emergency, one had to take a little boat all the way up the coast to Limon. Delroys family is from Jamaica and Britain and his voice has a charming cadence. He has all sorts of funny sayings that seem to recall something from a much older dialect of english, infused with afrocaribbean culture. When he and Veronica returned from San Jose with a new blender for the juice bar, he discovered that the top was broken. This is actually a big deal, because it takes four hours or so to get to San Jose, and the roads only open at strange hours, so for him to make the return trip is costly and time consuming. Veronica decided to take the bus back to San Jose the next day, and as Delroy informed us, the lesson to be learned was, dont buy a cat in a bag, because you might end up with a dog.

This didnt make immediate sense to us because we had never bought a cat in a bag before. But the gist of the moral was clear: you dont always know what your getting. This was certainly true for our time in Puerto Viejo. While Veronica and Delroys family were very friendly and generous, we were often a little unsure as to our role as volunteers. Some days we did almost nothing for them but still spent six hours waiting around at the restaurant. Other days we worked very hard, but there was little planning and order to the work. One day Claire had to work at night, while I worked in the morning. Starting on the second week, I worked almost exclusively with Delroy doing various odd fixitup jobs around town. We fixed the cement pavement at the school and replaced some ceiling boards. I painted part of the roof of his house. We planted pineapples in a line at their farm (or as they like to call it, a Caribbean Garden) and burned a giant pile of junk and palm leaves in their neighbors front yard. Claire became an adept waitress and started getting sizable tips from the foreign tourists. She didnt keep the money but if she had, we probably could have come out close to even for our time spent at Veronicas place.

When we left the farm in Sarchi, Angel imparted one important ethic to us: orden. While Veronicas place certainly had a different concept of orden, it was nonetheless a fun experience and we got to do a lot of things we had never done before.

All throughout our time in Puerto Viejo, I had been playing accordion at Veronicas place, and sometimes in the street. The first time I brought it out, Veronicas neighbor Jay came over and introduced himself to me. Jay is probably in his late 50s and does odd jobs around town. He also plays a weekly gig at the backpackers hostel, Rocking Js. He invited me to come play with him the first friday and also told us about some of the other music happening in town. Over the course of the two weeks, we got to know the five or so stalwart musicians in town and went to several gigs. ONe of the bands was called Plan B, and the other one was called RAW Rox---- we never figured out exactly what either of them meant, but Jay liked to call his group a cooperative, not a band. Jay was also filled with an unlimited well of strange and sometimes witty aphorisms, including nicknaming me a Great White Shark. There is a funny community of crazy people in PV, and the interesting thing is that they exist on a sort of spectrum: you can start to see certain people making their way down the dark pathway to madness. There is often only a fine, fine line between a washed up alcoholic playing the same 10 classic rock songs every night and the emaciated old man with a long white beard, wearing only black yoga pants and a bright, tight, red pleather vest, doing some sort of mix of karate and modern dance for three hours straight. I played three nights with these guys and it was always an experience.

On our last day in town we decided to go to the Jaguar Rescue Center. As you know, I have been looking for the elusive Jaguar this entire time and bought a carved necklace of one. With high hopes we biked down the road saturday morning and pulled into the parking lot. When we walked through the gate, we were met by a woman with two baby howler monkeys sitting on her head. She told us the tour cost 12 dollars each!! Claire and I started to leave with downtrodden expressions (oh, and by the way, this was the first day of our peanutbutterjelly cost-reducing plan so we were already a little hungry too) when we were stopped by a couple we had served the other day at Veronicas Place. They refused to let us go and generously paid for us-- for some reason they left ten minutes into the tour so we never got to properly thank them but wherever they are, they have our undying gratitude. The Jaguar Center was one of the highlights of our trip thus far. After showing us about twenty cages full of poisonous snakes (this is probably why they left) the woman finally said the magic words and led us to the baby monkey cage. Claire and I were in the second group of people to go in, so by that time, the monkeys were a little frenetic. Immediately upon entering the cage, the monkeys fall upon you from above. Some sit on your head, some crawl up your leg. Others are swinging across the cage to partake of a very enticing plate of tropical fruit and leaves. They are incredibly brave. They cast themselves off of ropes and land wherever they can. Their tails are extremely strong and the ends have no fur so its easy for them to hold on. After the monkey cage, we went outside where Claire fell in love with a baby, sleeping sloth. It was two toed, so it was softer but in theory they are more angry. This one however was more than docile and its name was India. I held her friend DJ, who was also toe toed. DJ had a captivating smile (or at least we think it was a smile, but it never went away). There were also several three toed baby sloths climbing in the bushes. Two of the baby monkeys had followed us to the sloth lawn and now one of them found its way to the nook of claires arm and clung to her while we went to see the frogs and tarantula. Last but not least, we saw the baby Margay cat (we think this is how you spell it) which has markings like a leopard. Next door was a Jaguarundi, named Rundi, and two adolescent Owls.

We left the Jaguar Center feeling rejuvenated and spent the rest of the day swimming at Punta Uva which is the best beach weve found yet.

Yesterday we finally left Puerto Viejo and made our way down to Panama. The boarder crossing was long and tiring, with many people trying to get us to take their taxi service etc. Eventually we yielded with a group of other tourists and found our way here to Bocas Del Toro. We havent done much exploring yet, but this is an archipelago of jungle islands. Today we will go to a hostel on an island called Bastimento... were not yet sure if there will be internet on the island but we will see.

Stay tuned for pictures of monkeys on our heads.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Un Semana en Puerto Viejo

Sunday Morning.Align Right
Sam and I have been in Puerto Viejo for a week and the time has flown by.

In the mornings we are working at Veronica's Place, a vegetarian restaurant and juice bar right in the center of town. Work is varied and at times slow but I'm enjoying it quite a bit. The restaurant owns a farm as well and we've gone twice this week to plant pineapple. The soil here is very wet and clay-like so it is hard for them to grow everything but we were able to bring back a bounty of sugarcane, yucca, breadfruit, plantains, bananas and pineapple to the restaurant.

We have spent our afternoons biking along the coast trying to find the best spots to swim. The spot closest to our house turns our to be our favorite. The reef makes it so there is a natural pool of calm warm water about 8 inches deep. Swimming, reading, drinking coconut milk, its really a nice thing we've got going on here. Sam's even found some people to play music with. On Friday night he joined up with a rock coverband at the local hostel which was quite a scene.

There are a lot of tourists here and we've been making friends here and there. It's a small enough town that we keep bumping into people again which is a nice feeling. On one of our first nights out we were talking to the guitarist in one of the bands because we overheard him say he moved to Costa Rica from SF after talking to him for a while he says: "you guys don't happen to know about a place called 111 Minna do you?"...which happens to be one of my dads favorite hangs and it turns out he knows my family!! SMALL WORLD.

Yesterday we had the entire day off and we biked to Manzanillo and back which was about 26k. It was hot and beautiful each beach more perfect than the last. We got back to Puerto Viejo around 5 tired and hungry. We got a snack at a 2nd story restaurant and watched the Saturday night scene to unfold around us.

We were up again early this morning grabed some coffee on our way to the restaurant (the one downside of the restaurant is they don't have very good coffee which seems like a crime in costa rica where we've had fabulous coffee everywhere else) only to be told that I have to work the afternoon shift today while sam works the morning. So I'm flying solo for the morning with no plan, I might go shopping...who knows. I put some more photos up on the photostream and maybe sam can put even more up later...we'll see.

hasta luego amigos,

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Tortugero - Puerto Viejo

We have now been travelling for three days and three nights. We left Sarchi, early on thursday morning, on the bus for San Jose. From there we transferred to a bus towards the Carribean. We passed through Carriari, then La Pavona, at which point we were herded onto a small, long boat. This boat took us rapidly through a windy canal that got progressively more jungly. On one particularly sharp turn, a wave of water washed over the back portion of the boat, soaking the sad french couple who we had met earlier. Mon Dieu!

At long last, we reached Casa Marabella, a bed and breakfast run by canadian naturalist, Daryl Loth. The place was simple but very nice and its back deck hung over the tranquil river. Jungle all around. Just steps from a misty carribean beach replete with black sand, palm trees, and lots of coconuts.

Dinner at Miss Mirriams where I had coconut chicken and finally the hot sauce I had been craving for a long time.

Early the next morning Daryl took us out on his electric motor boat to see some wildlife. As we drifted through the waterways, we saw troups of howler monkeys, all three kinds of tucan (appently this was a big deal) a sloth, a whitefaced capuchin monkey, pairs of parrots, a baby cayman, a weaver bird, a large basking iguana, egrets, herons, and lots of tourists. later that day we went on a hike into the jungle and saw the spider monkey, a frog, and many large spiders.

we did not see it but we sensed the jaguar was following us the whole time.

late afternoon, accordion on the dock- then a good typical dinner at a place called La Casona.

The next morning we were just finishing breakfast when a woman who worked at the bnb came in with a baby turtle she had found wandering around town. There are strict laws that prohibit walking on the beach at night unless you are with a guide. Apparently, if the babies see any sort of flash light, they become confused and follow it, thinking its the moonlight reflecting on the water. This poor turtle was certainly confused and tired, so we all went down to the beach to try to release it back into the ocean. Unfortunately it seemed to be hurt on one side because it could only walk in clockwise circles. Each circle brought it a step closer to the big sea, but eventually another woman coaxed it in with her foot. It was a bitter sweet moment because the turtle didnt seem capable of surviving on its own, although of course we probably made some tuna very happy.

we should have taken this as a bad omen, for almost immediately it began to rain. The boat that was to take us south to Moin was ten minutes late, and when it arrived, it turned out to be no more than a small outboard motor boat with no roof. Luckily the rain lasted only about a half hour, but the boat jumped on the choppy water which made me very nervous about my accordion. This ride lasted 3 hrs, and by the end of it we were exhausted, sunburnt and wet (although excited about having seen many crocodiles).

From Moin we took the bus down to Cahuita which is a very small tourist town, whose claim to fame is the first afro-carribean settler to land in Costa Rica. The town has a certain vibe, lots of good food but also lots of crazy locals who sort of prey on the tourists who arrive in town, trying to get them to take this tour, stay at that hotel etc... gets tiring very quickly. But we navigated our way to a large wooden room with a view of the ocean, put down our stuff, ate at a great restaurant, and ended the night at the bar listening to live calypso.

Today we woke up and took the bus to Puerto Viejo, which is a larger town and our home for the next two weeks. Maybe its because the sun started shining when we arrived but we already decided we like it a lot more than Cahuita. Today we will try to rent bikes for the duration of our stay and maybe go swimming.

Tomorrow we start work.

Hasta Luego, Mon