----------------------------------------------- Google Site Map ----------------------------------------------- Cindy in ...: February 2008

Friday, February 29, 2008

Costs Rica: Border Informalities

"That was way too much," I thought. I had just agreed to pay a wizened (always wanted to use that word) old man 1000 colones to pedal my big pack the dusty kilometer from the Los Chiles bus stop to the dock on the Rio Frio. I hiked along with my day pack, getting just a quick glimpse of the town.

When we neared the river, he stopped and pointed at the immigration building. I mentally calmed myself about leaving my pack with a stranger, and joined the short and slow line to get stamped out of Costa Rica.

When I walked out, he waved me to the porch of the building next door. There I added my name and age to the manifest, and tucked the 7 of hearts into a pocket of my purse. The card was my ticket.

Once again I was waved on, this time to a man two porches down, who took $5 from me and gave me a receipt. I turned and looked for a yellow shirt and waving arms. This time my little old man pedaled onward to the bank of the river. When I asked about bathrooms he sent me back toward the buildings I had just left, patiently gesturing right, left, and no until I got it right.

Finally he hefted my bag out of his pedi-something (pedi-truck? pedi-cart) and I handed over the 1000 colones. A real bargain.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Costa Rica: Getting to the Border

"Los Chiles?" "Bus - Los Chiles?" I was having no luck finding the bus to Los Chiles, largely because there wasn't one. I had to change buses en route, and I forgot about that. Furthermore, my hostel's nice printed bus schedule was wrong, and I arrived at the right spot on the right side of the park just in time to watch my first bus turn the corner and accelerate away.

Finally someone directed me to the other side of the park, again with the wrong time. But some women in a shop assured me that if I got on the next bus and told the driver "Los Chiles", he would drop me off in the correct spot for the connecting bus. Then while I waited, a woman who had seen me asking questions sat down beside me, and in the simplest Spanish possible, explained to me how to get to Los Chiles. She even wrote me a note to show to the conductor and driver.

Then a driver from the tour company owned by my hostel stopped, and tried to explain it all in English. Then, amazingly, a waiter I knew showed up. It was his day off, he was going to visit his mother, and he was taking the same bus and making the same change as I was. I had a guide!

We talked most of the way, about San Jose and careers and living with someone compared to marriage, his former girlfriend, and the general state of things. When we were let off at the 'connection' intersection, he knew to stay on the same side of the road, in the shade of a bus shelter, until the bus could be seen in the distance. Only then did the waiting group of people cross to the sunny, bare verge where the bus would stop.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Costa Rica: Moving On

While we were in La Fortuna, Jellybean made plans to go to a national park that is supposed to be great for birding. Nothing I read about it appealed to me, so I decided it was time to split and head for Nicaragua. As it turned out, she ended up going to Los Chiles, near the Nicaraguan border. Meanwhile, I decided I definitely wanted to see the lava on Arenal, and hung around until we got a clear day. Most people who go to see Arenal don't get to see it, because, like a lot of volcanos, clouds tend to settle around the top. I was really lucky to have two clear days out of, I think, five.

Now, Nicaragua made no sense as a destination, since my purported reason for coming to Central America was to check out possible retirement in Panama. In case you haven't noticed, Nicaragua is in the other directin. The real reason was to get off my butt and to pass some time with Jellybean, whom I'd hardly seen in my three months in the US.

Since Nicaragua was an afterthought, I glommed onto it as if it were my primary destination, and headed off.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Costa Rica: Expensive

Costa Rica is expensive, at least by my standards. Some things even seemed more expensive than they are back in the US. For instance, a bowl of tomato soup in an decent restaurant cost six dollars. Going to cheaper looking places didn't seem to help much. Giving up a little ambiance only saved about a dollar a meal. Of course, eating less would have helped the budget, but that's not an option I choose very often.

Some other sample prices include $15 for the Jeep-Boat-Jeep trip, $36 to see the erupting volcano and visit Baldi Hot Springs afterward. Skip Baldi, and pay $28 to be driven out to the bridge in a minivan, then be driven back.

What really struck me was the cost of doing anything, anything at all. While I've gotten used to the idea of paying $12 to go into a world class private museum like the Corcoran in Washington DC, $9 for a one hour tour of a cheese factory seems a bit high.

The Monteverde Cloud Forest entrance fee costs $15 per day per person. Admission to Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park is $25 per car, and is good for a week. Yellowstone is bigger, and much more interesting.

Costa Rica is a poor country, with the largest percentage of national parks and other protected lands in the world, so collecting a higher fee makes sense as part of the drive to maintain the Costa Rican wilderness. It is probably especially helpful at Monteverde, where very little of the preserve is available to tourists. That means it is more likely to survive in a fairly pristine state.

As do most developing countries, Costa Rica practices differential pricing, charging foreigners extremely high fees, and their own citizens very low fees. If they didn't do this, they wouldn't have the revenue to maintain the preserves, and their own citizens would probably never be able to visit them. Even knowing this, it gives a rather blatant 'rip off the foreigners' impression.

At any rate, even some Europeans were commenting that prices were very much like those at home. Panama has always been considered the most expensive country in Central America. It has now lost that title to Costa Rica.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Costa Rica: Goodness, Gracious, Great Balls of Fire

Arenal doesn't erupt with lava that pushes up over the lip of the caldera and flows down the side of the mountain, creating new land as it cools. Arenal shoots spikes of lava into the air, where it coagulates into huge 40,000 pound boulders. These huge, glowing masses then bounce and roll down the side of the volcano. This is what you go to see, when you visit Arenal. Great balls of fire tumbling down the mountain.

For years they tumbled down the same side of the mountain, and a whole industry was created, with restarants offering a view of the eruption, and hotels sited so that every room had a balcony view of the lava. But that changed, and a different one of Arenal's three caldera's took over, spewing its rocks to the other side. Now, to see the eruption, you drive to a bridge in the evening, and see tiny glowing dots bouncing along, sometimes splitting into a shower of tinier dots. The volcano erupts constantly, but you can only see the boulders at night.

It's nothing like the steady flow of lava to the sea that I saw from Hawaii's Kilauea, but they do have something in common. A man who was viewing Arenal at the same time told me Kilauea has stopped erupting and they are all holding their breath, waiting to see what the next eruption will be, and what areas will be buried.

At Arenal, too, they are holding their breath. Arenal has three calderas. One shut down, and the other started up, sending the lava in a different direction. Residents wonder if this one will shut down, the third will open, and their town will be destroyed. So far the name La Fortuna has seemed apt. But maybe it won't be so fortunate in the not-so-distant future.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Costa Rica: Jeep-Boat-Jeep

Jellybean and I took the Jeep-Boat-Jeep route from the Monteverde area to La Fortuna, near Arenal Volcano. Actually we didn't, because Jeep-Boat-Jeep is actually Van-Boat-Van, now that the dirt road for the first part of the trip has been improved. That this is the 'improved' road came as a surprise to some. I think the dirt roads in general, like the one up the mountains to Santa Elena, were a surprise to a lot of people. Publicity about Costa Rica definitely doesn't emphasize that side of things.

The dirt road portion was pleasant, and the paved road bit at the end was just that, the paved road bit at the end. But the boat ride across the Lago de Arenal was perfect. We had a clear day, so we could see Volcan Arenal ahead of us as we motored across the lake, with only a little cloud cover at the top.

Many people come to Arenal for several days, and never actually see more than the base of the volcano. But there we were, on our very first day, with a beautiful view of the cone seeming to almost rise from the lake.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Costa Rica: They Speak Such Good English

I was stunned by the level of English I was hearing in Santa Elena. The answer was at the cheese factory.

Monteverde Cheese was founded by a group of Quakers who had emigrated to the area from the US in 1958. They left because, as conscientious objectors, one of the things they objected to was the installation of the peacetime draft.

After scouting the country, they eventually settled in Santa Elena. A few people brought household goods and other necessities overland. The rest flew. Their intention was to start dairy farms, but they quickly realized that they were so far from their intended markets that, lacking refrigeration, the milk would spoil before it was delivered.

So, equipped with a three step process documented in an issue of Reader's Digest, they decided to try making cheese. Cheese wouldn't spoil on the way to market.

They also, of course, established a private school. The curriculum is taught in English, and a lot of local children attend. So not only are there families living in the Santa Elena area who are US immigrants, there is a school that gives children total fluency, just up the hill from the cheese factory, on the way to the cloud forest. And some of the children take that Polaski County school bus to get there.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Costa Rica: The Cloud Forest

The Monteverde Cloud Forest reserve is immense, and the part the public can roam around in is relativelly tiny. I think that is, as Martha Stewart says, 'a good thing'.

Rolf dropped Ellen off in some ungodly place at some ungodly hour to go birding, then came back to deliver me to the bus in Santa Elena. The bus arrived, not so very fresh from Pulaski County, wherever that may be. If you want to feel like a kid again, come to Central America and ride old yellow school buses! Sometimes they get repainted, but often not.

I went with a guide, Elberto, who was leaving right away. There were two other people, an American couple taking a travel break before entering the Peace Corps. They have been assigned to Albania. They are examples of the new group the Peace Corps is targeting, not fresh out of college, but people with some experience whom the local people might take more seriously.

The 2 1/2 hour walk was nice and leisurely. I was a bit concerned about holding the others back, but they turned out to be slower than I was, stopping to look at little things, strolling along at a very slow pace. I was surprised when we got to the end, because it didn't seem we had been out very long. I'd been told it would only take an hour, and that's about how long it seemed.

Monteverde has a huge variety of orchids, but we saw only one. Most of the orchids grow high in the canopy, and they are very tiny. The one we saw was hidden under a big leaf that provides its nice, shady environment. It was brown and white, and about half the size of my little fingernail.

We didn't see a quetzal, the famous irridescent bird that Central America is famous for. In Guatemala, the currency is named for the bird. They are easier to see when the tiny avocados they live on are ripe. The avocados have only skins and seeds, no pulp, and the quetzal eats only the skin.

At the end of the walk we stopped to watch some monkeys, who mainly slept. I ate at the restaurant just outside the gate. We had a better view of the monkeys, and got to sit down, to boot. After stuffing my face, I went to a hummingbird feeding station for a while to watch them stuff theirs, then got back on the yellow school bus for the trip down the mountain.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Costa Rica: Monteverde and the Steep Stairs

The place Jellybean and I stayed in when we went to Monteverde was great, or it would have been if it weren't for the stairs, the drive, my arthritis, and my fear of falling. The place is called the Rainbow Valley Inn. The inn is on the outskirts of Santa Elena, which is the town next to the Monteverde cloud forest reserve.

Rolf, the Minnesotan owner, built a two-story building down the slope from his house, with a room and bath on each floor. It's great, set on the side of a steep valley, with a view of the continental divide across the way. The patio is where I spent a lovely morning reading, looking at the view, and listening to the quiet.

Rolf was a fantastic host. He took us into town in his truck, to give us a personal tour of all three of the streets. Whenever I wanted to go into town, he drove me in. He also got up at ungodly hours to deliver Jellybean to her bird guide.

The catch was that to get to our room, we had to walk down a very steep gravel driveway, then a fairly long stairway of nice flagstone steps. I got around the driveway by having taxis drive down it when they dropped me off. On the stairs, I was very, very careful, and when I returned after dark I had the taxi driver walk me down.

You see, there were no railings. And if I slipped, it was going to be a long, long tumble down into that valley, with plenty of time to contemplate my imminent demise.

Now, I knew the place was built on the side of the hill because I'd looked at the website before Jellybean booked it. But I just assumed, naively, that there would be something to hold on to on the way down, like a railing. To me, every step felt as if I were standing on a precipice, about to pitch over.

It got better each day, as I got used to it and my leg muscles got stronger and gave me better support. But nice as Monteverde was, it was another town I was glad to leave.

Jellybean, in the meantime, is having a great time hiking around in the jungle and adding birds to her life list.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Costa Rica: I don't like Latin music, either

I don't like Latin music, either. On my second trip to Central America, there was a very popular song called "Nunca, Nunca". Or, "Never, Never". I think those were the only two words in the song. I heard it everywhere. In restaurants, on buses, in the internet cafes. It really wasn't even that Latin sounding, but it drove me crazy, and basically solidified my dislike, big time.

So when I cam out of the Gold Museum and saw that a band was set up outside, I sort of cringed. But amazingly, the music was rock. In Spanish, but definitely rock. I sat down to listen for a while.

The museum is under the Parque Central, and the steps leading down to the entrance were designed to form an ampitheater. Set up a stage, and you are good to go, complete with a concrete dance floor.

It's little surprises like this that make travel fun.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Costa Rica: I Don't Like San Jose

I really don’t like San Jose. The neighborhood we were in was OK, but it’s a grubby little city with lots of concrete buildings and very little character. Except for some of the graffiti, which is always interesting and often good.

There are a few old buildings where the exteriors, at least, have been preserved, but mostly it’s just poorly maintained crumbling concrete squares. Out in the suburbs where the expats and those with money live, I’m sure it is very different. Gated communities, Denny’s, and well cared for buildings may well be the norm. But that isn’t what you see in the center.

One exception is the Teatro Nacional, or National Theater, which has been beautifully restored, and even has an old-fashioned coffee shop.

The city does seem to be in a bit better shape than the last time I was there, with fewer missing manhole covers and what seems like a livelier atmosphere.

I was quite happy to leave.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Costa Rica: Banks, Insurance Companies, and Museums

Banks, insurance companies, and museums are intertwined in much of Latin America. For some reason they all seem to have started acquiring archaelogical artifacts, or sometimes art, perhaps for the offices of their to executives. Then somewhere along the line, the collection grows a bit too large, and they open a museum to display the works they own. The Museo de Jade, or Jade Museum, is one of them.

Central American jade isn’t really jade, technically, but nephrite. The author of "1421", uses this as a point in his argument that the Chinese sailed to the new world, and circumnavigated, early in the fifteenth century. Not only do some jade artifacts found in the Americas look as if they had been crafted in China, they are really made of jade from Asia.

The Jade Museum doesn’t actually have much jade on display, but it does have some wonderful pre-Columbian pottery, with faces on the jars and vases shaped like animals. Archeologists assign all kinds of meanings to these artifacts, probably with more accuracy than in many other areas. After all, the Maya still exist, there are oral traditions, and the language is still spoken and can be read with reasonable confidence. However, I still think that a lot of these objects simply reflect a sense of humor.

The Museo del Oro, or Gold Museum, focuses much more on the daily lives and the influences of trade on design and function. The wide extent of trade always amazes me. The Maya in the Yucatan influenced and were influenced by the work of people in Ecuador.

The Gold Museum does an excellent job of explaining all the various techniques used in making the delicate gold jewelry and the decorated pots. Most of the children visiting the exhibits spend their time pushing buttons that match drawings of animals with their equivalent rendered in gold, then hunting for the same animal to light up in the diorama behind the displays. I played for a while, too.

I can't help wondering, though, about bankers sitting in oak paneled conference rooms, surrounded by handmade gold jewelry from hundreds of years ago. Did they notice? Did it make them think of time and change and the end of cultures? Or did they discuss exchange rates and loan terms without a thought to the past?

Monday, February 04, 2008

Costa Rica: The Decision

Costa Rica!

I finally made a commitment to Jellybean to go to Costa Rica with her on her birding trip. I bought a round trip ticket with a return in March. It was actually about the same as any one way fares I was able to find, so if I decide I don’t want to go back to the US then, it really makes no difference financially.

After driving to North Carolina, I began preparations for the trip. Some of my standby routines won’t work. I was 650 miles from my storage locker. I lost enough weight that clothes were literally about to fall off of me, so maybe pulling old things out of the locker wouldn’t have worked anyway. Besides after traveling for most of the past four years, I really don’t have a lot left. Travel is hard on clothes, and I usually have to toss most of them at the end of a trip. Every day as I get ready for bed, I inspect my clothing for tears, stains, and other problems. Apparently I don’t do a very good job, because I got out a pair of capris I had with me on my last trip and noticed that the insides of the legs were pretty much gone. That last trip through the laundry must have done them in.

A new adapter plug, a soap dish, T-shirts, and on and on. Finally I was finished with preparations. I had to be, since a friend of Jellybean’s was picking us up the next day to drive us down to Myrtle Beach, where we would take our early morning flights.

Costa Rica! Traveling again!