exploring, examining, exchanging, expressing
Monday, November 26, 2007
Turkey Day Follow-Up
The expat turkey dinner party we hosted on Saturday night was a huge success! I woke up at 8:30 in the morning to get the bird in the oven and hit the farmer's market for fresh veggies. My roommates were smart and kind enough to leave the house while I, still groggy from the previous night's festivities, monopolized the kitchen in order to prepare the feast. I can be a bit of a bear at times, believe it or not.

I braised a 5.5kg turkey (slathered in herb butter) for 2.5 hours at 375 and 5 hours at 200. I made gravy from homemade vegetable stock and turkey drippings. I made dressing from scratch, using homemade cornbread and store-bought white bread. All of these dishes were firsts for me to attempt solo. My family always helps, and they tend to use a few more prepared ingredients.

Around 5:30, guests started arriving, bringing sides and drinks. It was at this point that I realized our guest list was a bit estrogen-heavy. I was the only male at a table of nine females. Hey, I'm not complaining! It's a special joy to have a group of women fawn and compliment my cooking skills. I spent a good portion of the dinner just sitting back, smiling, and soaking it all in.

After dessert (apple and pumpkin pies skillfully crafted by my roommate) and digestion, I hid in the kitchen to do dishes while the ladies gabbed. I wanted to clean the place up a bit before the rest of our friends arrived for the party.

Alex (friend and former student) showed up with his brother, his cousin, and a lovely young lady. Roommate's former student came with a friend as well. Cacique and shot glasses were passed around. The rest of the night is a bit hazy, but I know it involved dancing, laughing, and posing for pictures.

Altogether, I'd say it was one of the best weekends of my life.


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Saturday, November 24, 2007
What Happens in Alajuela
A friend (and former student) took me to a club in Alajuela last night. Although he finished my class a long time ago, we've kept in touch and hung out occasionally. Last night he really went out of his way to show me a good time since he knows I'm leaving soon. Due to the rules of "Guy's Night" I cannot divulge any more details. But I wanted to post this as a reminder of that fantastic evening.


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Thursday, November 22, 2007
Feliz Dia del Pavo
Thanksgiving is the one holiday that I enjoy without stress or frustration. It is also the one day of the year that my family gets together at one table and actually talks. Christmas, with its bounty of gifts, is all about the kids. Thanksgiving is about the whole family. It begins the night before, when we cram into the kitchen and start prepping the meal. We get everything ready ahead of time so we can eat early in the afternoon. Plus, there are few joys greater than waking up to the smell of roasting turkey.

Of course, I'm missing it this year.

I'm bummed beyond belief, but there's a consolation prize. We're hosting an expat Turkey Day at our place on Saturday (since most folks have to work Thursday). I bought the bird today. The selection was slim, and the price was ridiculous, but I suppose I'm lucky I found one at all. Turkey isn't too popular here. It's only available at the gringo supermarkets this time of year, which have set up companion displays of Stove Top stuffing and canned cranberries. I plan on making dressing from scratch (thankyouverymuch) and gravy to boot. Roomie, however, snatched a can of cranberry goo. But she's also making pies, so I'll overlook it. Others are bringing mashed taters and such. One kind soul has promised cocktails, bless her heart.

After we stuff ourselves, we're going to have a party with a broader invitation list. It's a going away party for me and Roomie. The rest of our weekends are booked, so this is our last chance to hang out with many of our newfound friends.

Better than a day of family fellowship, extreme overindulgence, watching parades on TV, and browsing newspapers full of sale ads? No, I'll miss my family's quirky traditions. But I'm thankful I have friends here that will attempt to fill that gap.


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Wednesday, November 21, 2007
Rainy Cloudforests and Cloudy Rainforest
I've enjoyed Costa Rica's beaches. I've explored a couple of volcanoes. But to get the full experience, I needed to head Northwest.

Friday morning, I and three companions got on the early bus to Monteverde. It was a long and bumpy ride. This is said to be the second most popular spots for tourists, but the roads to get there are the absolute worst in Costa Rica. Oddly enough, this is by choice. The locals (including a large population of Quakers) don't want to compromise their natural resources for the sake of busloads of tourists. Good for them. Good for the cloud forests. Bad for my butt.

Upon arrival in Santa Elena (gateway to Monteverde's forests), we were greeted by hoards of hawkers handing out pamphlets for tours and hotels. We rushed past them to check out a few places from The Book (Lonely Planet's guidebook). After being disappointed, we went back and followed a hawker to a cabina that turned out to be rather nice. Lucky us. The rest of the day was spent exploring the town. It reminds me a bit of Gatlinburg, TN - a mountain town attempting to maintain its charm while still catering to tourists. And much like Gatlinburg, the attempt has failed and charm has mostly given way to tourism.

We visited the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve the next morning, where we ponied up the cash for a guided tour. This is a private (though non-profit) scientific reserve, making it slightly more expensive than a national park. But we were treated to an entertaining and knowledgeable guide who educated us as we strolled through the misty forest. Unfortunately, one of the first things we learned was that November is a horrible time to visit Monteverde due to the wind and rain. Animals take cover during this time. Tourists get soaked. But still, the forest itself was amazing.

Monteverde - 32 Monteverde - 11
Monteverde - 36

More Monteverde pictures.

Sunday, the ladies caught the early bus back to San Jose. I, the essentially unemployed bum, took this opportunity to continue my journey over to La Fortuna. This is an interesting trip because the bus takes 7 or 8 hours, but a Jeep-Boat-Jeep transfer takes only about 3 hours. The name, though fun to say, is misleading. The "Jeep" was actually a minivan. Bumpy, but it got me there. The boat ride is a short skip over Arenal lake. And the final minivan made the short jaunt to La Fortuna's center. I got there in plenty of time to hunt for hotels, which is good since many of the options listed in The Book were either full or closed for remodeling. Finally I found a nice little place run by a friendly, helpful Tico family.

If Santa Elena / Monteverde is Gatlinburg, then La Fortuna / Arenal is Pigeon Forge, TN. This town makes no attempt to hide its touristy agenda. It openly begs for foreign money with big flashing signs. But, oddly enough, I enjoyed it slightly more than Monteverde. Sure, the weather still stank (warm, but rainy and cloudy). And the tour that my friendly, helpful Tico hotel owner convinced me to take was a wash since the volcano stayed covered in clouds.

La Fortuna & Arenal - 02 La Fortuna & Arenal - 04

But there was one thing that made it worthwhile: the waterfall. Sick of tours, I decided to simply walk the 7 kilometers to the waterfall on Tuesday. It was possibly longer. It was uphill. It was rainy. But it was absolutely stunning. The whole area was beautiful, lush and pastoral. I'm so glad I went.

La Fortuna & Arenal - 28 La Fortuna & Arenal - 17
La Fortuna & Arenal - 10 La Fortuna & Arenal - 22

More La Fortuna pictures.

Although the weather was less than ideal, and the towns were overly touristy, there were certainly some good points to this 5-day trek. I enjoyed good company on both towns, with my friends in Monteverde and some travel buddies I met in La Fortuna (two guys from Utah and a young lady from Germany). I saw some spectacular sights. And I'm now able to put a real "face" on all the fuss about saving the rainforests.


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Tuesday, November 13, 2007
My spider bite is still healing, but now I'm dealing with a new wound. Months ago, during my hike up to the waterfall in Montezuma, I smashed my big toe. It never quite healed correctly, leading to an ingrown toenail. I was going to wait and deal with it in the US, but while in Bocas, a couple of hospital employees noticed it and said, "I hope you'll visit a doctor for that. We've seen people lose their toes because of it." I decided not to wait.

On a friend's recommendation, I went to CEDCAS Clinica to see Dr. Carla Mastroeni. Thankfully, my roommate agreed to tag along and translate. Medical visits are one time that you really don't want miscommunication.

The entire experience was quite different from doctor appointments I've had in the US. First, the doctor saw me before my scheduled appointment time. I didn't have to spend hours in a waiting room. Also, I paid upfront, and the cost was staggering: $30 for the whole thing. Seriously, why is medical care in the US so messed up?

There was a little confusion at the beginning. When the nurse started the routine exam, she asked my roommate something about my blood pressure. My roomie thought she was asking if she could take my BP, so she said yes. Later, we figured out she was asking if I had a history of high BP. That led to a few minutes of the nurse showing concern that I wasn't on meds and such. We worked it out, though.

It was time to get to the business at hand... err... foot. I showed the good Doc my foot, and she commented that it was "Muy bonito." She actually tried her best to make me comfortable. She did a good job, for the most part. But the toenail was ingrown and had to go. I knew this was coming. I laid down and they injected me to numb the toe. Pain. Weird feelings. And eventually pressure, but no pain. It was kind of like having a tooth drilled at the dentist. I could hear the sounds. I knew what they were doing. I couldn't really feel it, but I knew I didn't like it.

When it was done, she showed me the toenail. Ick. Then she asked if I wanted to look at my toe before they bandaged it. Stupidly, I looked. Eww. Then I got my prescriptions (antibiotics and anti-inflammatories) and instructions (clean it 3 times a day, wear sandals when possible). And I was done.

Now I just have to follow the doctor's orders, wait for it to heal, and try not to look down.


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Gringo Grub
Sunday I visited my Tico family for lunch. This time I took both my roommates. They enjoy it, because they get to practice their Spanish. I enjoy it because the food is excellent and, although I don't understand every word, I enjoy the warmth and friendliness of the family.

To show my appreciation, I made banana bread and cracklin' cornbread to take for coffee. Banana bread translates easily enough - pan de banano. But there's no easy way to say cracklin' cornbread. The family calls it "pan con chicharone" or bread with fried pork. They marvel at this typical Southern fare. In fact, on the way home, my roommate said she heard them say: "It took a gringo to teach us how to put chicharone in bread."

Just call me the unofficial Southern Cuisine Ambassador to Costa Rica.


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Thursday, November 08, 2007
Bocas Revisited
It was time for my third and final border run. This time, it would be me, my roommate (J), and a new friend (S). We decided to visit Bocas del Toro. Although I'd already been there, I felt I didn't get to enjoy the town during my last trip because of the rain, so I had no problem going back.

Thursday morning, bright and early, we took a taxi to the Caribe bus terminal, where we got tickets for the 6am bus to Sixaola. The bus was rather empty, so we got to stretch out and relax for the journey. At the border, we had no problems getting through migration on either side. As before, I was greeted by a "guide" who took us to a taxi. We arrived at Changuinola's dock in plenty of time to take the 1:30 water taxi to Bocas. Once on the Island, I found my way back to Casa Amarilla, where Dennis had a couple of rooms for us. After a little rest, I showed my companions around Isla Colon, which took about 10 minutes. Along the way, we met up with some fellow travelers, explored a few bars, and shared stories. We retired early in the night, wary from a long day's travel.
Bocas del Toro - 33 Bocas del Toro - 10
Friday, we took the obligatory tour of the islands. Every dock on the island offers the same tour for around $20, lasting from 9:30am till 4:30pm. It consists of zooming around "Dolphin Bay" to try to catching a glimpse of dolphins poking their heads above water. They were fun to watch, but I couldn't help feeling like we were exploiting them a bit, especially when our captain took to driving circles around them, prompting them to jump over the waves. Afterwards, we were taken to a remote dock to order lunch so it could be prepared while the group was taken to do some snorkeling. After lunch, we were herded onto Red Frog Beach, which was the real joy of the tour. It was an absolutely postcard-perfect beach. We lounged for a couple of hours, then were taken to Hospital Point for more snorkeling. Finally, we were returned to the main island.
Bocas del Toro - 04 Bocas del Toro - 07
Saturday was the celebration of Panama's Independence Day, so we were treated to music and parades in town. It was great to watch the student bands march up and down the streets. Throughout the afternoon we did some souvenir shopping. I picked up a colorful hammock for myself. And that night, we enjoyed good food (Shelly's Mexican BBQ - excellent grub) and cheap drinks.
Bocas del Toro - 22 Bocas del Toro - 18 Bocas del Toro - 36
Sunday marked the end of our forced 3-night vacation, so we made the return boat-taxi-bus journey. Well, my companions did, at least. I, being unemployed, had no reason to rush back to Heredia. So from Sixaola I took a local bus to Puerto Viejo, where I caught another bus to Manzanillo. Thus, I have finally explored the full trinity of Southern Carib towns in Costa Rica.

Manzanillo is the smallest of the three, with one restaurant, a few sodas, a couple of cabinas, and nothing else besides a long stretch of lovely beach. It is clearly the hot-spot for Tico families, as they were arriving and leaving by the busload. I enjoyed a lunch of rice and beans, took a nap on the beach, and had an amazing dinner of grilled red snapper.
Manzanillo - 01
Dinner was a bit of an adventure, though. When I arrived at Maxi's, I noticed the lights were out, but the kitchen was lit. Okay, perhaps they're going for a candle-lit thing. I strung together a couple of questions in Spanish and learned that there was a problem with the lights, but everything else was working. As this was the only restaurant in town, I went ahead and ordered. The plate arrived, smelling delicious and looking... well... dark. Candles were impossible to keep lit due to the ocean breeze, so I ate by far-off streetlight. It was delicious, even if I could barely see it.

The next day I returned to Puerto Viejo and located a cheap place in town to stay (Cabinas Larry - oddly missing from the Lonely Planet guide, it's next to "Bread and Chocolate"). It turned out to be perfectly comfortable, with a strong fan inside and a comfy hammock outside, and even a communal kitchen. I had the whole place to myself the first night, and only one other guest arrived the next day. So I spent a couple of days lounging around, swimming off Playa Chiquita, and enjoying a cold beer or two. This is how I know I'm spoiled for beaches forever: When I got to Chiquita and saw there were 5 or 6 other people there, I thought "Oh great, it's already crowded."

Wednesday I headed toward Heredia, back to cool temperatures and construction noise. I miss the Caribbean already. Luckily, I'll be taking my parents to Cahuita in just a few weeks.

The rest of my Bocas del Toro photos are here.

More Manzanillo photos are here.


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