Friday, October 19, 2007

Steadying Myself

By 3:00 I was back in my room, exhausted. I had gone to lunch at a touristy place where Juan Carlos, my waiter, poured the mango juice fast and loose. I ate the first of many servings of arroz con pollo (rice and chicken). Then I climbed a steep street and found myself in the Plaza de las Artes. (Note: plazas are as popular in San Jose as squares in Philadelphia.) I listened to musicians play in an outdoor tunnel and watched bored- and annoyed-looking Ticos wait for a bus.

The streets were steep, and I ran out of breath several times. I wondered whether my life would be different were I not burdened by extra pounds. Yet I felt healthy and tried to push those feelings away. I climbed a hill with the goal of capturing an interesting photograph of the city. As I shot away, a taxi driver pulled up and warned me not to stop for photos--that it made me a target for pickpockets. Away the camera went.

I had hoped to spend the afternoon at the Museo Nacionale to learn more about Costa Rican history. The museum is housed in the city's old army headquarters, adjoined to the Plaza de la Democracia. But I got so turned around that I ultimately got in a taxi and headed back to the hotel. I felt lonely but knew it would be only a few hours until I met my travel mates.

Already I liked the rythmn of life in Costa Rica, or at least the rythmn of my life on vacation in Costa Rica. With the sun setting so early, I had no reason to stay up late. I awoke when the sun filtered light through the small window across my bed. I got up and stretched like a cat, then curled up again under the covers. Now, as I sat in the hotel room, I listened to the afternoon rains of "green season," the clever moniker travel agents use to market Costa Rica during the rainy months. There are benefits to traveling then, however: fewer crowds, lower costs and, I had been told, lots of baby turtles. I couldn't wait to get to Playa Matapalo and the sea turtles.

At 6:00 I met my new friends under the covered terrace at the hotel. Our tour leader, Corina, screamed introductions over the clatter of the rain. Corina, originally from Germany, lives in Peru and conducts tours for GAP in Central and South America. Tammy and her roommate, Roxanna, hail from San Diego; they hadn't known each other before the trip but became fast friends. Tammy broke the ice by telling us one of her gay friends says she's a "Crasian," or Crazy Asian, and that every gay guy should have one. Now every time I hear the name Tammy, I imagine a wrinkled-up cranberry raisin...although the real Tammy is the opposite: open, adventurous, healthy, alive.

Two older women--well, older than me--came from England and Israel. Hellela and Arella sat quietly and revealed little, but we later learned they are sisters. Dustan and Lanita, a young couple on their honeymoon, came from Washington State, and our representative single guy, Chau, traveled from Canada. He chose Costa Rica over the Rocky Mountains because, he said, he "wanted to meet new people." Three of us were missing: two women from the U.K., and the Belgian who would be my roommate.

Between the pelting rain and the awkwardness of a first meeting, Corina told us about the"rustic" and "remote" accommodations of Matapalo. She prepared us for night shifts patroling the beach, requiring a walk of about 6 kilometers each night (about 10 miles). Looking around at my marathon-running, Olympic pool-swimming and rock-climbing friends, I wondered whether I could keep up with them. Still, I couldn't wait to go. No TVs, no phones, no modern accoutrements outside of electricity and plumbing. Maybe I could get back into, or out of, myself. Even though I had "survived" a day without my cell phone, computer or e-mail, my mind was still racing, racing, racing. Living in the moment seemed so hard, let alone thinking about what happens at the core. Sometimes it seems like steading myself can be too much to bear.

Nevertheless, I felt hopeful and excited for the real adventure to begin. After a dinner with the group, I returned to my room, shut my eyes and calmed myself with thoughts of the cat I'd seen in the window of a nearby house that looked very much like Tug.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Three Mistakes in San Jose

The Hotel Aranjuez has a lush courtyard with palms and other tropical trees and plants. My first morning in Costa Rica, I sat alone at a table covered in red cloth and drank three cups of rich, dark coffee. The breakfast buffet was impressive: fresh juices; papaya, pineapple and banana; and a variety of sweet, custardy breads and mild cheeses. I watched couples and families and friends come and go, but I saw few others like me. I couldn't wait for the 6:00 p.m. orientation.

San Jose has a confounding system of avenidas (avenues) and calles (streets), whose numbers start at central boulevards. They are either odd- or even-numbered, depending on whether you're walking east, west, north or south of the central streets. For example, it's three blocks from avenida 1 (to 3) to 5, but if you want to go from avenida 5 to avenida 2, you must walk several blocks in the opposite direction to the other side of the boulevard.

I walked several steep blocks from the hotel before I realized I was lost. Haltingly, I spoke in Spanish to a woman with a baby, who smiled and pointed me in the opposite direction. Mistake #1. Since I wasn't feeling confident, I hailed a cab. The friendly driver took me a few blocks. When I asked the cost, he said, "Give me what you think is fair." Mistake #2. Believing the cost would be equivalent to what I'd spend in Philly, I handed over 4,000 colones, roughly $8. (Corina told me later that 1,000 colones, or $2, would have been more appropriate.)

In any case, since most of our trip would be outdoors, I had decided to spend my one day in the city visiting museums. My first stop would the Museo de Oro. But I got distracted along the way. The museum, which belongs to the Central Bank of Costa Rica, is beneath the Plaza de la Cultura, a great place to people-watch. Pedestrians of all ages gathered: families, couples, children, a clown with a red nose selling balloons. Young people, old people, tourists like me. A teenager shimmied across the plaza, lip synching a song in Spanish as a video camera captured her moves. A woman sold bags of dried corn to children who hoped to attract pigeons.

When I tired of the Urban Bird Parade, I descended into the museum, which contains the bank's pre-Columbian gold collection. The pieces ranged from barely an inch in diameter to several feet wide. Figurines of frogs, spiders, alligators and butterflies glittered alongside gold-copper alloy earrings, bracelets, chokers and breast plates, designed to enhance the power of warriors. The gold had been crafted by indigenous peoples from 500 b.c. to 1500 a.c.e., before the Spanish and their diseases arrived, wiping out much of the population. Perhaps I should have known better, but I was surprised to learn that slavery existed in Central America: the Spaniards traded machetes and other armaments in exchange for indigenous people.

I had hoped to take a tour of the Teatro Nacionale, built in 1897 after a European opera singer refused to perform in Costa Rica because of the lack of "suitable" performance space. Local growers paid for the building with a voluntary export tax on coffee. Unfortunately, a performance had already begun. The ticket-taker tried hard to explain in Spanish but eventually gave up and told me in English, "It's closed." I wandered away for a few minutes, but decided I'd create an educational opportunity out of my misfortune. I walked back and asked, "Como se dice 'closed' en espanol?"

"Cerrado," she said.

"Cerveza?" I repeated.

She and the man next to her burst out laughing. Mistake #3. After I stepped outside the building, I realized the word I had said back to her means "beer."

Monday, October 15, 2007

Traveling Alone

I haven't traveled by myself for several years, so I approached this adventure with trepidation. I flew American Airlines from Philly to Miami and onward to San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica. The flight went smoothly, but I was chagrined to learn American would charge $2 for water. A bargain, I suppose, to the $3 for an oatmeal raisin cookie or a granola bar. Soon we'll be charged to get our seats cleaned, or to remove a used barf bag.

I arrived in darkness. Costa Rica is close to the equator: the sun goes down at 5:30 p.m. and rises about 12 hours later. I nervously tried out my Spanish at the money exchange, where the young boys behind the counter appeared to be laughing at me. It's possible, but I'll never know since I couldn't understand a word they said.

I sat in the back of the cab on the way to the Hotel Aranjuez, palms sweating and wondering whether I'd made a mistake. We drove through some rough-looking neighborhoods, with young people dressed in tight, black clothes, and trash strewn along the streets. Dogs ran up to the cars and barked. Was I crazy traveling alone outside the United States? I decided to focus on the squat homes, painted in teal and pink and ochre. As we passed through the city center, I thought about the murder rate in Philadelphia. I'm probably safer here, I thought.

My room was simple but beautiful. Pine floors and furniture, with bed linens a burnt orange and walls adorned with paintings of Ticos, the word Costa Ricans use to describe themselves. Some believe this diminuative comes from a colonial expression, "We are all hermaniticos (little brothers." I ran the overhead fan to cool and calm myself. The focus and energy it took for me to reach the hotel had exhausted me. I looked forward to meeting my roommate, said to be from Belgium. Her plane had been unable to land, so she was spending the night in Panama.

I listened to the dogs bark outside my window and thought about the cat that had raced past me after I had checked in. I wondered whether my travel mates would like me and whether I could find some of the self I'd lost in the craziness of the past year.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Pura Vida!

Before I got my house last year, I read a book, Buying Solo, that recommended I set one-, two-, and five-year goals. Compulsive soul that I am, I seized the opportunity to establish structure where none exists. Three lists were born.

The one-year list included several admirable goals: buy a house, be a better friend and daughter, create more "work-life balance" (i.e., any). I also wrote, "Take a 'real' vacation," but I didn't define what that meant.

Fortunately, several months ago I discovered GAP Adventures, the travel company of my dreams. It offers small outdoor group adventures, promotes sustainable travel and encourages giving back to the host community. I was relieved to find that many of the company's vacationers travel alone. I was even more relieved to find that people over age 30 often used GAP's services.

After much hemming and hawing, pep talks from my extremely supportive boss and ever-patient friends, and several seemingly unnecessary panic attacks, I signed up for a 13-day volunteer trip to Costa Rica, the "Rich Coast." My itinerary: a week at a sea turtle project, plus trips to a cloud-forest reserve and an active volcano. I knew I'd ride by horseback, hike through the forest canopy and walk along the beach looking for turtles. I didn't yet know that I'd fly hundreds of feet through the air on a cable, get thrown from a boat while rafting on a class III-IV river or jump from a platform using a thin rope.

Over the next few weeks, I'll share my adventures with you. It was the trip of a lifetime, thanks to my adventures and my travel mates (above, l. to r.): Hellela, Chau, Dustin (whose wife, Lanita, is sadly missing from this image), me, Tammy, Arella, Roxanna, Monica, and Corina. (Thanks, Corina, for the photo!). Visit my Facebook page for the photos.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Goodnight, Sweet Nikki

This evening I planned to write my first post about my recent trip to Costa Rica, but something more important came up: the loss of our beloved family pet, Nikki.

If you regularly read this blog, you may recognize Nikki as the "Interloper" who captured my parents' hearts after the death of my childhood dog. Nikki came into our lives eighteen years ago, when I was a first-year student at Haverford. My parents purchased him from a store, something they had never done before. But Nikki was unlike any dog we'd had before, either.

First off, he was smart. He barked on the "speak" command. He understood "sit," "stay" and "down," and he halfway learned "roll over," although he rarely bothered to get back on his feet. His American Eskimo blood made him a terrible retriever: he'd catch a thrown ball, run away, and chew it for hours.

Second, Nikki was loyal. He and my father were great pals and took walks together several times a day. When Nikki was young, Mom played the role of disciplinarian. Still, she never denied Nikki a piece of cheese, his morning toast or, in the last few months of his life, boiled chicken and white rice.

Third, Nikki was flexible. Mom and Dad moved three times in the last two decades, not counting their annual trek to Florida and Massachusetts and back. Nikki never complained. As long as he had Mom and Dad, he was happy. When he was young, he'd get so excited at the site of my Aunt Midge that he'd urinate on the spot. When I came home from college, I'd chase him so I could watch him run in circles.

Over the years Nikki slowed down, grew more affectionate, barked less often at the sounds of everyday life. Yet even when I saw him several months ago--blind, deaf, barely walking--he magically reawakened at the opening of a refrigerator door. Like all Guglielminos, he never lost his taste for food.

When I close my eyes, I remember Nikki as a young dog, the silky feel of his fluffy white hair, his winsome face propped on my knee, looking up at me during dinner with those penetrant eyes that seemed to ask, "Can't you drop a little for me?"

I wish I could find the words to comfort my parents, but I know from experience that everything sounds empty. All I can say is, I love them, the pain will lessen with time and, when they're ready, they can love again.