Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Holiday Wishes For You

We've spent the past few days having a pre-Christmas visit with Dee's folks in the frigid environs of Levack, Ontario. I had high hopes to post a few pictures from there - just to show the folks in the Banana Belt what -32C looks like. Alas, this did not happen for numerous reasons which include: repairing my father-in-law's PC, a shopping trip to Sudbury, my yearly hour of churchy goodness, and constant feasting on my mother-in-law's to-die-for baking. All in all, a pretty decent trip (even the churchy bits) - but always too short.

The weather was another story and I can only conclude that Mother Nature is pretty pissed about something. The 7-hour drive to Levack was uneventful and easy - notwithstanding that it was bookended by winter storms on the day previous and day after we travelled. While in Levack, the temperatures were astoundingly cold - too cold for any outdoor activities. The drive back was not so much a 'trip' as it was a Foreign Legion march. In total, a 10-hour trek through bad weather and slushy roads. The final leg from Kitchener to London took 2 hours with speeds never breaking the 40 km/h mark.

The final indignity was having to shovel more that 40 cm of snow from the driveway last evening, and another 10 cm of wet, heavy stuff again today. But now the final preparations are nearly complete for Christmas and I await the neighbours who'll be dropping by for a Christmas Eve visit. While the weather outside is indeed frightful, Christmas will be undoubtedly delightful.

So to all my Innertube friends: may your Christmas be wooly-sock warm and full of fellowship and good cheer. My gift to you is music - music that you won't be able to get out of your head.

Merry Christmas - and you're welcome.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Eco-Friendly Space Travel?

So I'm driving home from work a few days back and I get behind a little Honda fuel-efficient something-or-other heading West on Riverside. I was thinking to myself, "Damn you all to H-E-double-hockeysticks for not buying North American!" when I noticed his bumper-sticker. So I took advantage of a well-timed red light to whip out my cellphone (screw you McGuinty!) and snapped a quick picture. The bumper-sticker read:

My Other Car is a TARDIS

Without the benefit of the TV-show technology that Jack Bauer uses every week to identify blood-spray patterns and foreign terrorists from high above the Earth's atmosphere, you'll just have to take my word that the above picture is the real deal. It made me smile at the end of what had otherwise been a craptacular day working for Da Man.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Oh Yes, I'm All That

Update: The video below was created here. Check it out. Impress a Loved One!

Under normal circumstances, I would never mention that this is a Special Day. But my friends over at Disney went and made a big deal about today being my birthday. So I thought I'd acknowledge that, yes, today I turn 46 years old(ish). I also thought I'd share this little present from my friends in Orlando.

Thanks, Mickey!!

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Is This Shark-Jumping?

So Jediboy and I have been watching these commercials for the new 'Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe' game - MK vs. DC for the kool kids. I'm a bit underwhelmed based on the fact that I've never quite grokked the popularity of Mortal Kombat. I figure this title will be a success with lots of fanboys snapping up copies all the while piling on the posts in the appropriate IRC channels and discussion boards.

Then Jediboy asks me, "Who's more powerful - DC or Marvel guys?". I'm ashamed to admit I really don't know how to answer him. Sure, I darken Bruno's door from time to time, but I've only ever been a gadfly in the comic book world.

But I know guys who'l know The Truth. So what's The Truth guys?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Secret Life of Cats

I'm paraphrasing when I say: what our pets do when we're not around does not concern us. This is not quite true, of course. All pet owners have stories about the small (and large) liberties taken by their four-legged friends when The Man ain't around to keep them down.

In our house, we have the curious case of Mika the cat - who, incidently, is now responsible for the majority of Google-hits on this humble site. Mika is smart enough to know what she's not allowed to do, and cocky enough to prove it from time to time by taking short cuts across the kitchen table or soaking in the therapeutic waters of a convenient sink. Her secret life - those hours when the house is empty of Human Overlords - is a subject of significant speculation around our dinner table. We've invented a fantastic mythology about this Secret Life, spanning everything from her choice in music to the ingenious means by which she scratches those itches she cannot reach through traditional means.

This week we set out to use science to provide facts and evidence as to Mika's Secret Life. Using a battered laptop, a cheap webcam, and some free software, we rigged up some spy technology to follow her movements in the kitchen and family room parts of our home while we Human Overlords were away for the day. The results answered some questions and raised many more.

Through the 9 hours she was on her own, she spent all of 40 morning-minutes in the kitchen. First was a leisurely nap in a sunpatch on the kitchen table. This was followed by a patrol of the kitchen counter and quick lie-down in the kitchen sink. Then - nothing. She spent the rest of the day elsewhere in the house, away from the cat tree where we typically find her.

So while we've confirmed that young Mika is queen of the kitchen when we're not around, we have a new mystery on our hands. Where is she spending her days? What is she doing? We'll be expanding our surveillance program, but I wonder if we'll be ready for the Truth.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Oh, That I Had Such Talent

These are funny because they are true.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Time To Be Upbeat

I've decided that I've been too much down-in-the-dumps lately. Being a worrier and a cynic by nature, I'm given the occasional 'correction' by various Loved Ones that I need to bring the plane's nose up just a tad. So I decided to spend the past few days deliberately noticing all those little things that give me even the most fleeting joy, and here I shall share them with you all:

  • Tropical-scented sunscreen - I don't know why she was wearing it, but I passed a lady in the park the other day wearing sunscreen that smelled of Vague Tropical Fruit. Memory being closely linked to sense of smell, my mind immediately went to thoughts of wandering through DisneyWorld. I cannot describe the joy this gives me, but Eau De Sunscreen gets me every time.
  • A Rainy Saturday Morning - This the perfect opportunity to 'cocoon' inside the house with a book, the Internet, the paper - anything that goes with coffee. Bonus points for having a comatose cat warming my lap.
  • A New Issue of Make - The new issue is out and my mailbox awaits. The theme this time is something to do with spying - and this means there could be some cool projects to contemplate.
  • Local Bloggers - I've come to appreciate the value in having a thriving local network of bloggers. A sense of community is always a happy place to live.
  • Geeky Projects - For every useless project I complete, there are 5 ideas I never do. While this is a source of frustration sometimes, I revel (just a bit) in the fact that maybe I'll finish some of these, someday.
  • Movie Coupons - We regularly cash in our Airmiles for movie passes because, well, we like movies. I hate movie theaters these days (at least some of the people in them), but that's another story. Anyways, I like the thought of using those coupons. Maybe tonight!
  • Travel Thoughts - Anyone who knows me knows I like to travel. Everytime we finish one trip we're planning the next - even when we know it might not happen. Some say that half the fun is 'getting there', but I think some of that fun is doing the planning and daydreaming.
There, my catharsis is complete. Anyone care to share?

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Life's Velocity Unchecked

The past few Monday nights - and a few more ahead of us - have brought JediBoy and I to Kinsmen Arena for an hour or so. He spends the time sussing out any latent artistic ability in a cartooning class. I spend the time drinking horrid Concession coffee and reading Gibson's not-horrid Spook Country. All in all, it's a good opportunity for us both to get out of the house for awhile and do something fun and non-productive.

While Jediboy draws his elipses and caricatures in a relatively soundproofed 'community room' on the upper floor, I camp out on the nearby padded benches and filter out the sounds of Our National Pasttime being waged all around me. Inevitably, those sounds' contributors include a small gaggle of younger kids forced to amuse themselves while Mom, Dad, and Grandparents watch the older siblings chase pucks - dreams of a professional career secretly (and sometimes overtly) dancing before everyone's eyes.

In all, the whole thing works in a way that makes me glad to be Canadian. But this past Monday held something new in its cosy, arena-lined pocket. The usual gaggle of kids was predominently female with ages ranging from 6-ish to 10-ish. They gathered at a small table nearby with colouring supplies, chattering over top of each other. All of this was typical for our Monday nights.

All at once, they started singing in unison - perfect unison. Their song, Katy Perry's insufferable guilty pleasure, I Kissed A Girl. They knew all the words and actually sounded quite practised at singing this little ditty. The nearby parents cheered and clapped, which produced the inevitable encore performance.

I'm not a prude or Pollyanna by any measure. But it made me feel so genuinely sad - mere children with little scraps of their of innocence needlessly stolen away. Sometimes I question wether I've been too protective of my own kids, and sometimes I get an answer.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Furry London

So off we went to our first cat show this weekend hosted by Pawsitive Paws Cat Club. Given Dee's allergies for most things furry and four-legged, we'd never dared to set foot inside such an event before. As it was JediBoy's birthday (one more teenager emerges from his pod) and this was a Formal Birthday Request, Dee popped some over-the-counter drugs and off we went to puruse the felines at the Carling Heights community center.
I'm not sure what I expected, but it was fun in a setting-foot-on-a-new-planet kind of way. While a bit on the small side, there were dozens and dozens of cats being shuffled about 4 or 5 judging rings. It was obvious that many of the cats were veterans of the Cat Show Circuit - judging from their bored expressions and lack of discernable bone structure as their officious-looking owners carried them to wherever they needed to be.
There were a few of us rubbernecker types trudging up and down the aisles, checking out the hoipoloi of the cat world. But the majority in attendance were serious about these things. The fans tended to be on the elderly side while the breeders tended towards middle-aged couples. In all, the whole vibe was reminiscent of gathering of CB-radio enthusiasts I attended with my cousin way back in the late 70's - normal people with abnormal fixations on a hobby-cum-lifestyle. It was all very charming, actually.
And did I mention they were serious? The judging rings mystified me in the way that polo and cricket mystify me. I get the point of everything, just not the rules. All the same, it was cool to watch - the people moreso than the cats.
The only disappointment was the sparse number of cat breeds. While there was the odd Sphinx (weird) and Maine Coon (huge), the majority of cat-thletes were Persians - a lovely cat for sure, but one eventually gets tired of their flat faces and anxiously-bored expressions. And nowhere did we spy any Siberians - a breed dear to our own household.
And at that, I open the floor to comments on feline slang nomenclature and its overlap with human anatomy colloquialisms.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Dear Jack....

Think me as a first-time caller and long-time listener. Over the years I've developed a not-insubstantial dollop of respect for you - as a politician and leader of the federal NDP. While relegated as the '3rd man' in election after election, I have to admire how you've maintained your earnestness for the job, your sense of justice and empathy for us common schmucks. It's gotta be tough to have your electoral butt handed to you time after time and still look like you care. And I always thought you did - care, that is.

Now, I'm going to be honest with you, Jack. I'd never vote for the federal NDP - not in a million years. I once voted for Bob Rae and.... you get the picture. Like frumpy old Ed Broadbent before you, Jack, you've always been the right guy in the wrong party for my tastes.

But not anymore. Not after this election. You've seen Stornoway within your reach and it's changed you, man. You've become.... a politician. You talk and you talk and nonsense comes out of your mouth - dangerous nonsense. You're going to tax the big bad corporations and share the spoils: national childcare, national eldercare, more manufacturing jobs. Okay, I get that. I really do. It's the standard NDP mantra, right? Make the rich pay, pump up social spending, subsidize the CAW. I get it.

But what's this stuff you're saying about saving our mortgages, saving our insurance companies, solving our banking crisis, fixing the stock market, saving the manufacturing sector? I don't get it. To hear you speak in the last few weeks, Canadians have become extras in a remake of The Grapes of Wrath. Our clothes are torn and dirty, our faces are sullen and hollow-eyed. We're living on the streets, wandering the dustbowl, and everything is devoid of colour. Sack cloth and ashes, Jack?

What world is this? Who are you talking about, Jack? Where's our banking crisis? I don't get it - and neither do you. You know you're talking nonsense in a time when intelligent, thoughtful leadership is sorely needed. There is no Canadian banking crisis - far from it. There is no Canadian mortgage meltdown. You cannot 'fix' the stockmarket with a stroke of NDP legislation. That stuff might play well in the Union Hall, but it's not helpful and, frankly, it makes you look stupid.

So, Jack, why don't you talk about the stuff that really matters? You want to blast the other parties for a lack of manufacturing strategy? Fine. That's cool. But let's hear your ideas, man. Let's have a really honest discussion about the fact that China and Mexico and the Southern US are taking those jobs because they can do them cheaper. They're not coming back anytime soon. Hey! Let's talk about global warning in an honest way, too (and this goes for Mssrs. Harper and Dion and Mme. May). Let's stop pretending that economic sanctions are going to solve the problem. They won't - at least not by themselves. These are hard things to talk about. They won't be solved in a single term - maybe not in a generation.

In short, Jack, shut the fuck up and stop being a prick. It's not helpful. It's just annoying. Please grow up.



Saturday, October 04, 2008

So Close to 'Cute'

I wandered into one of the last remaining actual 'stores' in Galleria Mall this week (is it still called a mall?). You know, the one that sells end-of-the-line stuff that The Dollar Store and Giant Tiger can't move out the door. Anyhoo, I wandered through their major-league Hallowe'en section and found this almost-adorable Cow costume. It made me feel sad inside - sad for the Chinese manufacturer who almost grasps English, sad for the parent who'll smile at the gently-comical 'joke', and sad for the tyke who'll never realize why it doesn't quite work.

And then I felt a little angry at the pricks like me who'll smile and chuckle for all the wrong reasons.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Am I Famous Now?

Apparently, my little corner of the wankosphere has some street cred. Yep, one raised eyebrow from ol' Crazylegs can move products out the door. We're setting the trend here. We're this year's model. We are the It Factor.

Feast your eyes on a little something that arrived in the mailbox today:


I'm the webmaster of
wanted to know if by any chance you would be interested in doing an unbiased
review of our site on
your blog

If you agree you can choose between receiving a product sample or
receiving a payment.
If you choose the product sample instead of the payment
the sample is yours to keep and you don’t need to send it back.

The product sample that you can get is 1 pair of pinhole glasses and
you can see it there:

Please let me know if you are interested.

Thank you

Z. R

Buck up, all you little folks. I won't forget my humble roots.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Pura Vida Day 8 - Hasta Luego

Saturday, August 9, 2008 - Today was to be the worst day of all - time to go home. Looking back, this was a remarkable journey to me. We would awaken to the rolling surf of the warm Pacific and close our eyes for the night while nestled in the bosom of the Great Lakes. The time in between would fly cross the Great Divide, straddle continents, and see into the black, cold waters of the Atlantic from a jet-speed perch in the clouds. And all this would be accomplished inside of 14 hours. What amazing times these are!

Breakfast was at 6:30am and, keeping the streak alive, we were the first to arrive - followed shortly by Fico. Because the restaurant staff weren't prepared for early birds such as ourselves, it was nigh onto 7:00am before we were eating our final Costa Rican breakfast. For old time's sake, I made a point to order rice and beans.

By 8:00am we were loaded into the 2nd of many cart trips that would bring The Gang to the waiting buses at Arenas del Mar's topside entrance. From there, we made the short trip to the Quepos airstrip, where our Twin Otter's would be taking us across the mountains back to San Jose. 35 scenic minutes flew by (pun intended) before our plane was taxiing into the 'regional' side of Jan Jose airport. And there, in front of our hangar, was our old friend Andreas with his bus. He would be taking us the rest of way to the international side of the airport. Since we were on the first plane to arrive, we waited another 20 minutes for Otter #2 to coming rolling in. We passed the time posing for pictures in front of our plane and enjoying our dwindling time in the Costa Rican Sun.

The pre-flight Clearing Of The Coconuts
at the Quepos airstrip.

Andreas' bus made the trip in record time - all of 5 minutes! With the exceptions of Rae, Fico, and Andreas, no one expected such a short ride. Judging from the total silence on the bus, we were wholly unprepared to say good-bye. Rae got us all laughing by telling us with mock sarcasm that this was the end of the line and that a new cast of ABD tourists were waiting for their trip to start. Still, it was a jarring moment. At that, we exited our coach and claimed the luggage that Fico and Andreas had kindly unloaded and sorted for each family. Many of us, there on the sidewalk in front of the terminal, made a point of seeking out special friends from our week together. I always hate goodbyes since I never think of anything memorable to say until long after the opportunity has passed. Suffice to say that I was going to miss a few people, and I was glad that someone had made a point to take every family's name, address, and email address. I hoped we would keep in touch.

The regional side of San Jose airport

Now was the time to screw ourselves to the sticking place and dive into the crowded San Jose terminal. With our passorts and pre-paid 'exit tax' forms at hand, we got in line at the Air Canada counter. With a little more than 3 hours to spare before our flight, the line-up was quite short - and stationary. It turned out that Air Canada would not service any Customers until 3 hours before a flight. We had 15 minutes to wait. I could tell that we were in for problems somehow.

As Air Canada staff made their sleepy transition to 'on duty', the airport security officers had set up their own table in front of the counter. The process: talk to the security people, then proceed to the ticket counter. All I can say is that I've never seen such a thorough passport check by any security officer anywhere. Out passports were twisted and prodded and scrutinized under magnifiers for what seemed an eternity. They did every kind of check they could, short of waterboarding our passports. We passed, but I somehow felt like I shouldn't have.

Soon we had our boarding passes in hand and we set off to brave the next security gate and gather some food. The security check was a breeze, but we were disappointed to find that the airport had no sit-down restaurants. There were kiosks here and there selling fast food, but we opted to buy (very good!) chicken dinners at a little food court affair and take them to our departure gate for a picnic.

At some point I grew restless and went in search of a gift shop (there are many) in order to find some Costa Rican music CDs. I love to make home movies and I was hoping to find some traditional music with a local flavour to provide some soundtracks for my Costa Rican opus. As I browsed the racks in one of the shops, a young security guard struck up a conversation. I told him I wanted something 'local and with lots of guitars' and he was kind enough to make some recommendations. That small act of friendliness and kindness pretty much summed up my experience with Costa Ricans all week. The pangs of sadness grew a little more acute, I think.

Our flight was on schedule. As we boarded the plane, we were subjected to one more security check - literally on the jetway at the aircraft's door. A long table had been setup, behind which 6 officers were stationed (including the 2 who felt up our passports). The rest of our trip to Toronto was without incident (ignoring Air Canada food, of course). We landed at Pearson in darkness under a very light rain. How fitting, I thought.

We negotiated the spanking new inefficient hairball known as Terminal 1 in the hope of finding our next (and final) flight. We proceeded through Immigration and produced our passports. They let us back into Canada, but the scowls on the officers' faces were anything but welcoming. We collected our suitcases and handed over our Customs declarations without having to stop for anything. This was feeling too easy. We loaded our luggage back onto a conveyor for it's own secret journey home (a totally inefficient system) and headed into another security check (did I say totally inefficient system?).

Here was Problem Number 1. The line was short (good), not moving anywhere (bad), and staffed by at least 6 people (very bad). This could only mean 1 thing: there were security trainees here. Sure enough, the line moved at a glacial pace with much squinting and consulting behind the x-ray machine. I proceeded through the metal detector with my practised air of nonchalence that would allow me to (1) avoid a pat-down and (2) casually grab my carry-on from the conveyor.

It didn't work. My carry-on backpack was not where it was supposed to be, which was Problem Number 2. Instead, it was trapped in the guts of the x-ray machine while 2 officers stared at their screen with puzzled expressions. They called over Senior Guy for a conference. 30 seconds went by before Senior Guy called me aside for a hand-check of my bag. I could feel my temper rising, but I maintained my exterior calm. I could not even guess at what he thought he was after.

He began pulling things - my things! - from the bag. And then he found it. I have a Leatherman multi-tool that has travelled with me for years. It always goes into checked luggage, but on this trip I screwed up and left it in my carry-on. I laughed and explained my mistake to Senior Guy. I also pointed out that the Leatherman has passed 2 miltary-style searches in Costa Rica. We both knew this was going nowhere, of course. Leatherman would not be finishing the trip with us lest I use it to hijack a 30 minute flight to London, Ontario. It is to laugh, although Dee recognized that look I get when I'm about to shoot my mouth off. She quickly guided me towards the Tim Horton's kiosk as I was explaining to Senior Guy how enjoyable I found the process and just how darn safe we all felt.

My mood was mellowed by a large double-double and a sandwich at Timmie's. With that bit of body fuel in my system, I barely raised an eyebrow when we found that Air Canada had inflicted one last 'screw you, Customer' in the form of a 30 minute flight delay. But it was inevitable that our flight would take off sometime, and we did make it home. By 1:00am, all our heads were back on familiar pillows.

The next few days would bring the usual post-vacation adjustments - fatigue, disappointment, and outright bitchiness. We retreated to our usual apres trip corners - I to my video-editting, Dee to her 'next trip' planning. My final analysis is this: the world is much bigger place than I sometimes imagine. It's full of possibilities and realities that I could never imagine. Why Costa Rica should evoke these kinds of feelings - it's hard to say. Perhaps the reason lies in the fact that I had never considered travelling to such a place even just a year ago. Maybe it's because it is a place still 'foreign' and 'exotic' in the way places are when they've only been lightly kissed by North American cultural sensibilities. Whatever the reason, it all makes me want to see more of this world before my time is up. I can't wait.

As a fitting post-script to the day's events: Dee and the kids found the time to surprise me with a new Leatherman. When I saw it propped on my pillow one afternoon, I couldn't help but wonder about the journies ahead for this one. We'll see.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Pura Vida Day 7 - Pura Vida!

Friday, August 8, 2008 - The theme the today was Pura Vida or Pure Life. This, apparently, sums up the Costa Rican perspective on living a 'good, relaxed, and peaceful life'. For some, that might mean a quiet day at the beach listening to the whispered philosophies of crashing surf and windy palms. That would not be for us, however. It was a day spent hiking the broad, shady trails at Manuel Antonio National Park.

We started the Arenas golf cart process at 8am - which would take The Gang to our waiting bus at the top of the cliffs. Manuel Antonio is just minutes away from Arenas del Mar, down those winding roads that offer such magnificent Pacific vistas. Upon entering the little town that owes it existence to the Park, I noticed two things: (1) the beautiful public beach was sparsely populated and (2) this didn't matter much given the impenetrable wall of vendors who all but hide the beach from the roadway. I was already dreading the fact that we'd be walking this gauntlet late in the day, and I could only imagine the hilarity that would ensue should I need to haggle with any of these beach-side Vendors.

The road into Manual Antonio literally ends at the Park gate, and this is where the bus disgorged The Gang. Rae and Fico handed out water and snacks to those who wanted them. They also handed out beach towels for those interested in swimming at the park's beach area. We were prepared for this, and easily fit the towels into one of our backpacks. We had also elected to wear our bathing suits under our clothes (on Rae's advice from the day before).

We were split into 2 smaller groups - some of us would be following Fico while the rest would be following a Park naturalist. With a little bit of Sun overhead and gentle breezes to make the humidity bearable, we headed through the gate and down the Park trail for a 90-minute hike. Fico proved to be a great guide (again). With the aid of our own binoculars and Fico's scope-and-tripod affair, we were able to spot scores of animals. I lost count of how many sloths we encountered high up in the forest canopy. The iguanas and Halloween Crabs were also plentiful - as were the variety of frogs hiding in shades of green.

Fico leads the way.

Coming off the trail we found ourselves at the Park's small beach area. Here we had an hour or so to wash the forest humidity from our skin in the warm Pacific waters. JediBoy elected to stay on land with Dee (he felt the waves were too small to warrant his time). BandGeek and I, however, decided otherwise and headed into the water. One of the Junior Adventurers found a coconut shell on the beach, which we used for a spirited game of 'catch' out in the water.

On land, the non-swimmers (including Dee and JediBoy) generally hung out with Rae and Fico around a few shady picnic tables were The Gang's packs were piled. As we had been warned, commando squads of Capucchin monkeys and raccoons paid visits to the picnic tables in vain attempts to grab a pack or two. They have been acclimatized to the fact that 'packs mean snacks'. The monkeys understand how to use zippers while the raccoons take a more brute force approach by simply tearing open the packs. There were enough guards, however, to thwart any monkey offensives while the rest of us chased waterlogged coconuts.

Monkeys are always ready to
lead the way (for a small tip).

Refreshed from our swim, BandGeek and I followed the signs down the beach towards the showers. We found the term 'showers' to be a loose translation of 'trickling pair of hoses nailed to a post'. If we ran only 1 'shower' at a time, we could almost wash the salt from our hair. We soldiered on towards the change rooms which Rae had labeled as 'ill-maintained'. She was being quite generous as it turned out. The change facilities were merely a line of 8 or so washroom stalls - 6 with foul-smelling toilets and 2 without toilets (but foul-smelling all the same). All were in need of cleaning and repair. Fire or dynamite would have worked well, too. Nonetheless, BandGeek and I waited for a chance to use the 'non-toilet' stalls where we would both employ Olympic-caliber balance to quickly change into dry clothes without actually touching the walls of the stall or the ground underneath us.

The Gang proceeded back onto the beach trail to (eventually) exit the Park. Here the Capucchin monkeys came out in force - a crowd of small furry escorts to guide our way. Other Park residents joined in - raccoons, iguanas, and some manner of Costa Rican rodent that was the size of a dog. There was even a Howler monkey or two observing from the tree tops. As the Park path exited into Manuel Antonio, 2 enterprising local old-timers had set up a bridge for us across a tidal creek by parking 2 rowboats bow to bow. It was only when I was fully across the makeshift span did I spy the tip jar - too late to pay these ferrymen.

Looking back to the Park exit
from the Town Beach.

The rest of the afternoon was more or less ours to enjoy. There would 3 hourly shuttles back to the hotel in order to accommodate those who wanted to look around a bit. Alternatively, it was a 20-minute walk to Arenas if one simply followed the beach. We elected to hang out in town for a bit. After grabbing some lunch at The Marlin, we strolled up and down Vendor Row looking (apparently) for just the right souvenirs. I, however, was looking for just the right patch of shade against the hot Sun. The Vendor trinkets were interesting enough and the Vendors, themselves, were never pushy. As a result, Dee and BandGeek managed to find a number of items to add to the inevitable Customs declaration.

Our original escape plan was to walk the beach back to Arenas. The intense Sun and tired legs said otherwise, and we caught the final shuttle back to the hotel. Humiliation was waiting for us in the form of the youngest Junior Adventurer (age 5) who informed me that she had walked back to the hotel with her Mom along the too-hot-for-Crazylegs beach route. I congratulated her with a smile that said, "I could stay up late eating junk food if I so choose and nobody cares that you can walk in the hot Sun. So there.".

With a few hours until our Farewell Dinner, we joined many of The Gang down at Arenas' beach for one last romp in the ocean. Everyone has a great time body-surfing, boogie-boarding, or just hanging out in the surf. After an hour or so, the tide started to come in and the high waves got higher. Rather than risk having bathing suits permanently ripped from our bodies and whisked out to sea, most of us retreated a hundred yards or so to the relative safety and calm of the (lower) hotel pool. The kids played with beach balls while some of 'adults' soaked the salt water away Disney War Stories. I ended up answering a lot of questions about our 2007 ABD London/Paris trip.

Arenas' beach - my lasting impression.

Soon it was time to retire to our rooms and prepare for the evening ahead. All luggage had to be waiting outside our rooms by 9:30pm - they would be leaving for San Jose early to await our arrival the next day. We also had the evening's Farewell Dinner ahead of us. By 6:20pm we had our bags packed and in place and we were making our way back down the trail to the beach-side pavillion where Dinner would be served.

The seating area was well-decorated with long tables covered in cloth and fine china. Wine, beer, and softer beverages flowed freely. As we found a place at one of the tables with our friends from St. Louis, I realized that I would genuinely miss many of the folks on this tour. Saying good-bye in the morning would be a little tough. I made a point of tracking down Rae and Fico to casually hand them their tips and give them my heart-felt 'thanks' for the week behind us.

The Last Supper - ABD style.

Dinner was a delicious buffet consisting mostly of Arenas del Mar specialties. I can whole-heartedly recommend the Black Bean Soup! With dinner out of the way, Fico presented the inevitable slideshow - a slickly-produced montage of the bazillion pictures that he and Rae had taken throughout the tour. I marvelled (again) that our Guides ever got the chance to sleep! As the lights went up after the show, Rae and Fico gave their onw thanks to The Gang, and even offered a few personal comments on the importance of preserving the Earth in all her natural glory.

One last surprise was waiting for us. One of The Gang - as it turned out - was a young lady of 21-ish years of age who was training to be an opera singer! For our entertainment, she sang a selection from Pirates of Penzance and simply wowed the audience. It was almost a Hunter S. Thompson moment - sitting by a Central American beach on a warm Summer night listening to crashing waves and a beautiful operetta. How freakin' cool was that?

And so it was that we collected our sleepy Adventurers and trudged one last time up the switchback trail to our room. We would need our sleep, form tomorrow would prove to be a very long day.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Pura Vida Day 6 - Pacific Journey

Thursday, August 7, 2008 - Another sunrise was hidden behind a deluge - it was raining in the rainforest. But never mind, for our bags were packed and set outside our door for those mysterious forces who would spirit them away towards the Pacific sands while we enjoyed one last breakfast on the slopes of Arenal Volcano.

After one last solitary walk of the hotel grounds - umbrella and video camera in hand - we were on the bus and making our way to La Fortuna to kill some time before our flight to Quepos. Over 40 rain-free minutes, we strolled the sleepy streets, poking our heads into shops to buy coffee and souvenirs for those left behind in more northern latitudes. La Fortuna is actually a lovely little town with it's central park and iconic church-tower framed by Arenal - her attendant clouds in the distance.

La Fortuna in the shadow of Arenal

Next stop was the La Fortuna air-strip where The Gang would board 2, 19-seat Twin Otters that would take us West, over The Great Divide towards the Pacific coast. Boarding the planes was complicated in its simplicity - get off the bus, walk across the airstrip, and get on the plane. If you like, take some pictures on the airstrip. Pose with the pilot. And leave your shoes on. A bewildering process for North Americans. In celebration of these strange, new freedoms, I made a bandolier of extra-large water bottles whilst employing a nail trimmer to clean the soles of my platform shoes. Oh yeah, I'm a Bad Boy.

Welcome to Nature Air!

While only 35-minutes in duration, the scenery from the Twin Otter was nothing short of breathtaking. The jungle plateaus of Arenal gave way to the mountains that serve to divide the flow of rivers, East and West. Small villages appeared here and there and I wondered why they were there. Soon, we could glimpse the twinkling of the Pacific waters and follow the salty foam where ocean meets sand.

As we exited the planes at Quepos air-strip, we were met by Sun and warm breezes. It felt tropical! Waiting for us were 2 shuttle buses ready to whisk us 15 minutes down the road to our next home - Arenas del Mar. The road from Quepos hugs the Pacific cliffs and around every bend was a new ocean vista that would elicit actual Ooo's and Ahh's from The Gang - the surf, the rocky shores, the small islands all furry with green.

Arenas, as we would learn, also hugs the Pacific cliffs. The entrance gate is more-or-less a welcome station where we found an efficient squaron of 6-seater golf carts waiting to drive us down the winding switchback trail to the hotel proper. Along the way we spotted iguanas, sloths, and even a few monkeys. It felt like we'd arrived at an ocean paradise, really and truly. But this was only the appetizer.

Scenic Shuttle Service

As our rooms were being prepared, we were treated to a barbeque lunch on Arenas' private beach. The buffet and barbeque were setup in a shady grove with plenty of tables and chairs setup on the fine sand. Beyond the welcoming shade was the pounding surf in a little cove that resonated Pirates of the Carribbean. One could almost imagine Disney built all this just for us, because no place like this could exist by chance. Translation: Sipping a cool Imperial on a Pacific beach under a palm tree with the smell of barbeque in the air was just about the best time I could have imagined right then.

After lunch it was time for play. The hotel had supplied boogie boards for us, and the kids and Dads put them to great use in the pounding surf. Many Moms pulled chairs into the shallow surf to supervise the smaller kids. At almost 3 hours into our Beach Afternoon, the dark clouds came rolling in from offshore. Weather was coming for us, but it was time to find our rooms anways.

Our ocean paradise under threatening skies.

Just off the beach is an open air lounge/bar, which is where we gathered while Fico and Rae handed out the room assignments. As families were assigned their building and room numbers, hotel staff stepped in to lead us in the right direction. All in all, a very organized procedure, I'd say. Our room was up the cliff near reception, and our 3rd-floor room afforded us an amazing sweep of the Pacific - punctuated by rocky, green islands just off the coast. It was picture postcard perfect!

The rooms themselves were splendid. At the center was a living area with couches and chairs looking our floor-to-ceiling sliding doors towards the water. On either side of this room were 2 bedrooms - one for the kids and one for the adults. Off all 3 rooms was a large terrace that pretty much spanned the entire living space. This would all do quite nicely.

As we were settling in, the dark clouds became rain and intense wind - a storm off the Pacific! The howling was almost surreal. The force of the wind and rain was enough to force no small amount of water around every opening in the living room's sliding doors. It wasn't long before the tile floor was a puddle extending 4 feet into the room! We gathered bath towels from all 3 bathrooms and jammed them along the bottom of the doors. They were quickly soaked, wrung out, and soaked again. One call to Housekeeping and we found 2 hotel staff at our door with mops and many towels. They assured us they would take care of everything, and that was our cue to find our dinner (complimentary umbrellas in hand).

The kids would be dining back down at the beach open-air lounge for a Junior Adventurer's night. The agenda for this event (led by Rae and Fico) was a mystery, known only to our Guides and only the highest levels of the Masonic Lodge. The adults would be dinng in the hotel restaurant near Reception. The menu was ours to explore, and Disney would cover the bill. Any thoughts of a romantic dinner with Dee evaporated when we met the rest of The (adult) Gang in the bar area. Our good friend from St. Louis offered that we all dine at one long table, together. And that's just what we did.

Kids' night out

The meal was great. The wine was great. I cannot remember having such a relaxing good time. We simply ate and laughed for 2 solid hours. It's a rare thing to suspend One's cares so completely - and I was glad to be in the moment.

But by 9pm we needed to collect the Junior Adventurers, so we went down the winding paths, en masse. By all accounts, the kids had a fine time watching a movie, eating junk food, making crafts, and playing games. From the youngest 5 year-old to the hippest teen, they were smiling and thanking our Guides for a wonderful evening. I think they were in the moment, too.

Back to our rooms, we found all traces of the storm wiped from existance. By 10pm, all were in bed save Your Scribe. I elected to sit in the living room, journal and pen in hand, warm Pacific breezes drifting through the open door, keeping the moment just a little longer.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

For The Lack of a TARDIS

Since no one is mailing me cool toys to divert my attention, I have a large mouthful of "fuck you's" to share. So here's one.

A big 'fuck you' goes out to the 20-something knob in the red, late-model Mazda with the sunroof. Tossing your empty beverage cup out the sunroof may have impressed the girl in the passenger seat, but it just makes you look stupid. But don't lose any sleep - I picked it up for you.


And your plate starts with 177.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Why I'm Losing Weight

I hate noise - I mean really hate noise. Nothing sends my gut into rolling spasms quicker than late night sonic assaults from hormonal young'uns and their portable steroes. That goes double if there's rap music involved - and there usually is, you know. And please don't get me started on the topic of squeaky trampolines that never stop - well - squeaking.

In the 13 years we've lived at our current address, we've had the odd episode of noisy neighbours. I'm sure we're no different than most manicured suburban neighbourhoods. Of them all, only one episode became a Summertime Obsession that made for bad feelings and one ineffectual call to the front desk down at Police Central. The resolution: the teenaged bad seed turned 18 and was given the boot. We all applauded.

After the past few years of blissfully pleasant Summers where we could sit on the deck and hear the little chirps and warbles of Nature - a new Summertime Obsession has materialized. Ironically, it's the same house as our last episode. You know, the one with the rainbow-coloured blinds whose backyard overlaps ours by just a few feet in the northeast corner. Yeah, that one.

It started with a portable pool and kids spalshing about - not a problem. We have a little pool just like it. It escalated with the arrival of a trampoline that serves as a diving board for the pool. Okay, we can live with that, too. The thing sits kind of close to the fence and maybe isn't optimal for (our) privacy - but no problem.

Then came the backyard entertaining. Dad, the emcee for these events, strikes me as the biker type - bald, goateed, tatooed, a beer gut that belies a history of muscles, and a voice that rasps gravel and too many smoke-breaks. Son is thin, pale-skinned, and brush-cut. He's all about gangly fidgits and bored meanderings about the yard. Beyond these two, there seems to be an occasional cast of supporting characters, including various kids from 6-ish on up to mid-teen as well as a few adults supplying by Central Casting. And all of them swear a blue streak. Where our neighbourhood is concerned, it is without malice and snobbery when I say that these folks just ain't from around here. They are The Osbournes without the benefit of money and an interested audience.

They love kickin' back, it seems, and spend part of most weekend afternoons and evenings with their like-minded friends sitting in their unkempt backyard playing in the kiddie pool and sucking on cans of Blue Light. I know it's Blue Light because I can see the crushed cans littering their yard from our bedroom window. But all that doesn't bother me. It's sweet to see families and friends connecting. And I can always plant more cedars if need be.

The problem: noise and profanity. It's breathtakingly loud and stunningly lacking in class. As the Blue Light flows, so does the stream of 'fuck' and 'asshole' and 'bitch' that is literally shouted through the 'burbs for all of us to experience. I'm not a prude, but this assault is more over-the-top than anything I've experienced in the hockey locker room or on the factory line. Backyards (mine and others) are rendered unlivable during these innocent soirees.

So now Ozzy's neighbours (we're calling our new friend Ozzy), spanning two blocks and a dozen families, are massing for the attack. Ozzy's next-door neighbour has tried once to work things out. Things, of course, did not get worked out.

We are gathering intelligence. Ozzy is a single Dad and Son is 11 years old. Son does not like school and Ozzy has told him he doesn't have to go to school. Son seems to spend the day on his own, often playing his boom-box too loud in the backyard. Son seems to spend a lot of evenings on his own, too. We had hoped Ozzy is renting the property, but it looks like maybe he owns the place and is putting down roots.

The police have been consulted, and they're too busy dealing with student parties to pay much attention to our little problem. Video cameras are capturing the occasional evening bonfire. Ozzy's next-door neighbour has consulted a lawyer. The neighbours want and need to do something collectively, but aren't sure what this something might be.

And underneath it all, we dream of using our backyards once more. We dream of letting Little Ones play on their swingsets without the sonic assault. Some of us secretly pray for rain and snow - and wonder where the For Sale signs might land come Spring.


Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Pura Vida Day 5 - The Jungle Cruise

Wednesday, August 6, 2008 - Today was the day we answered the age-old question, "Which helmet looked more ridiculous - that which we wore for zip-lining or the one we donned for white-water rafting?". You're right, it's a trick question. They both give the wearer a decidedly tuber-like shadow. It really comes down to whether the tourist underneath looks better in blue or white plastic.

I digress. As I pointed out to my friend David, my verbosity obscures the uneven quality in these dispatches from the jungle. I suppose this means that these little digressions serve a purpose, but this day was long enough without such tangents - so let's begin!

This was the longest travel day of the week. After another early sampling of fried plantains, rice and beans, and tamales, The Gang was settled in on the bus by 8:15am for a 2 hour journey to Finca Corsicana. In other words, the morning would be spent at a pineapple plantation. The weather was, once again, overcast with uneven waves of light rain. As the winding roads took us through varied small towns without names, I struggled to avoid using the lens of North American sensibilities to 'see' how rural Costa Ricans lived. But I continued to be struck by the seemingly down-scale shacks and bungalows that peeked out from the foliage - their windows sometimes framing an expressionless face as our colourful Mercedes coach slid by. For those who preferred their reality to be more artificial, The Incredibles played on the screens above our heads.

Once at the plantation, the skies brightened sufficiently to cause some of The Gang to slather on the sunscreen. Our host, Danny - wielding his expert knowledge of pineapples and an oh-so-sharp machete on his belt - led us from the 'welcome center' into a nearby field to begin our lessons on organic pineapple farming. We were instructed in the finer points of planting and selecting a ripe pineapple. Danny had (and in all likelihood still has) an excellent blend of genuine humour and a interest in farming. While I was sure that he must have delivered these lessons to many groups such as ours, I never felt like I was watching 'just another tourist spiel'.

A teacher and his pupils.

Our preliminary lessons having concluded, we all climbed aboard a quite well-appointed open-air trailer for a journey somewhere into the 28,000 acres of pineapples. Our trailer was pulled by a shiny green tractor under the expert control of Diego. Danny continued our lessons on the finer points of All Things Pineapple as our caravan powered down muddy laneways in search of ripe fruit. On arrival, Diego waded into the field and picked a number pineapples which he tossed football-style to Danny. We would be eating fresh pineapple, we were told, and could consume as much as we all liked. This is where Danny's skill with a machete would be proven. With a few deft strokes, the husk was dispatched and the fruit inside was cut into finger-sized strips, still clinging to the core. Fico and Rae had the pleasure of handing out these treats. The whole thing worked as an assembly line - from Diego supplying the raw materials, Danny supplying the artistry, and Fico and Rae supplying the rewards to The Gang. I cannot remember having this much fun on a farm before.

Diego readies his throwing arm.

After sacrificing a decent chunk of Finca Corsicana's future profits to hungry tourists, Diego pulled us back to the main complex where a surprise would be waiting. There, in the open air cafe, was table after table set with plates of fruit cake, plates of (more!) fresh pineapple, and virgin pina coladas inside hollowed out pineapples. It was lovely - and quite filling! After these refreshments and the obligatory opportunity to case the gift shop, we were back onto Andreas' bus for the next leg of our journey.

The whitewater rafting venue, on Rio Sarapiqui, was nearby. Our journey down the river would begin at a seemingly unlikely spot as we pulled into a laneway protected by industrial-looking buildings. The laneway became 'dirt road', however, and it became evident that we were headed further off the beaten track to find the river. On arrival, lunch was waiting for us in an open-air pavilion - a buffet affair centered around an abundance of soft tacos with lots of choices for building our own creations. It was a satisfying meal in a peaceful setting. Even the nearby iguanas seemed to be restful.

Alas, poor JediBoy (my son) had a brush with Costa Rican wildlife as he finished his lunch. He jumped from the table exclaiming that his leg felt like it was on fire. With Fico's help, we discovered he had been bitten by a nasty brand of caterpillar - not uncommon it seems. A little cooling salve from Fico's kit was all he needed in the way of repairs, however. We also spied a couple of shy (and elusive) Poison Dart Frogs near by. Unlike the caterpillar, they caused us no grief, and seemed to divert JediBoy's attention away from his itchy leg.

Lunch behind us, it was time to test ourselves on the rapids! We filed back onto the bus for transport up-river to our 'putting in' spot. There we found our river guides waiting with our rafts and our gear. Assembly-line fashion, we were issued helmets, lifejackets, and paddles for the afternoon ahead. The final step, a lecture from one of the guides on the mechanics of rafting and taking instruction from our rafting guides.

My family of 4 shared a boat with Fico - piloted by our new friend, Elizabeth (an American earning her keep as a Sarapiqui river guide). Off we went in search of Class 2 and 3 rapids. A footnote: Class 1 is akin to your bathtub while Class 5 is somewhere close to Niagara Falls. Rio Sarapiqui would fall somewhere safely in between. Another footnote: those not wishing to test themselves in the crucible of white water could opt for a gentle float trip down a calmer branch of the river. For the record, no one in The Gang would settle for anything less than frothy mayhem in the warm waters of the Sarapiqui. Adventurers all!

Grim preparations for the challenges ahead.

We shot some rapids (the roughest being early on) and spent time splashing the other rafts as they came near. A common thread through the journey was wildlife. We spotted sloths, Cormorants, herons, vultures, and monkeys at every turn. At the halfway mark we all put ashore for a welcome break and were surprised by an informal buffet of local fruits set out on an overturned raft. I think our raft was paddled quite well - following all of Elizabeth's commands and avoiding losing any of our number. I came oh so close to falling out only once, and thanked the Fates that my feet were firmly entrenched in the raft's toe-holds.

Danger awaits at every bend.

All too quickly we were back at the landing spot, where towels, change facilities, and plastic bags (for our wet clothing) were waiting for us. An added bonus was the barrel of beverages - including local beer - that was offered up for the thirst tillers. I, for one, enjoyed my cool Imperial as I sat on the bus and imagined what kind of images I had captured with my waterproof camera.

Now it was time for another 2 hour journey back to Hotel Kioro. As Monster's Inc. kept people amused via the overhead screens, I may have dozed a bit. Maybe.

We were back in our rooms before 6:30pm. Dinner would be a la carte in the Kioro's restaurant, and we opted to get there early so as to afford Dee enough time to get to her spa treatment later in the evening. The food was very good. Even through my fatigue I managed to enjoy my succulent piece of sirloin with Roquefort sauce. While Dee begged off early to run to the spa, the kids and I elected to punish our full bellies with rich deserts and black coffee. Heaven.

After dinner the kids summoned the energy to don their swimsuits and meet their like minded chums at the outdoor hot springs. I elected to write in my journal amid the solitude of the hotel room. My only interruption was Dee - back from spa experience - looking relaxed and happy.

We slept well. Tomorrow would be another big day spent winging our way towards the mighty Pacific - and the next phase of our Costa Rican adventure.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Pura Vida Day 4 - The Road To Arenal

Tuesday, August 5, 2008 - No matter how tired we were the night before, we always seemed to be the first ones at breakfast. This day was no exception, and I could only conclude that we just were not getting the hang of this 'vacation thing'. On the plus side, Fico was not far behind us and, with his help, we were able to spy a pair of large toucans from the restaurant balcony. That was pretty cool.

The day's Big Event would be zip-lining - something we were really looking forward to trying. I had been dutifully tracking my weight for weeks to ensure I was nowhere close to the 220lb limit. I typically hover around the 200lb territory, so my biggest fear was getting turned away because I was - you know - a little close to the limit (safety first!).

In contemplating the day ahead, I got to wondering exactly how the idea of hurtling through the air on a tethered wire got started. I mean, what was that conversation like? Did it start with, "Hey, listen to this idea, dude!"? Or was it more in the vein of trying to crack the thorny problem of rapid transit in mountainous jungle areas? However it came about, I was sure at least one of the inventors looked and sounded like Keanu Reeve's character from that Bill and Ted movie.

By 8:45am we were on a bus headed for Sky Trek - picking our way down the bumpy dirt roads that skirt Arenal Volcano. The rain was already starting, but we would not be deterred. Our first task on arrival was to suit up - helmets, harnesses, leather gloves, and our own very own pulleys. I felt so eco-hardcore, and just a tad intrigued by the overt bondage vibe one gets from being harnessed and cinched. Next, we made our way to the SkyTram - a set of 3 gondolas that would take us on a scenic trip up the mountain or, depending on one's state of mind, deliver us to our Maker.

The view from up top was incredible - the lush jungle canopy and the massive man-made Lake Arenal below us. One of our zip-line guides, Freddy, instructed us on the finer points of flirting with danger. He explained how we would be hooked to each line, how we should hold our legs to avoid those embarrassing rope burns on our thighs, how to stop, and what to do if we don't make it all the way to the other end of a line. Sadly, Freddy did not teach us how to avoid soiling ourselves or how to dodge large bugs and monkeys along the way. I assumed these skills would come naturally.

Each of us tested ourselves on 2 training lines - short and low to the ground. From there, we would traverse 6 successive lines down the mountain, with the entire trip taking something north of 1 hour. We were also given 3 warnings of sorts: the first line is the highest - coming in at 600 feet from the rainforest floor(!), the fastest line is the final one - with speeds reaching up to 45mph, and once you do the first line you are committed - there is no other way down the mountain.

BandGeek & Friend launching
down the first line.

My first-born, BandGeek, was the first of our family to brave the lines. As with most kids, she actually rode tandem with another kid - both of them clipped to the same line and hanging onto each other - to ensure there was sufficient weight to make it all the way to the next platform. And made it they did! I went soon after. To describe the sensation of being Out There - high and fast - cannot be described by my own puny words. It was the closest brush with flying that I shall ever have. It was not exciting in the sense of a carnival ride - all stomach tickles and happy nausea. Rather, it was the exhilaration of hanging out in space in a place so foreign.

Dee comes in for a perfect landing.

The Gang snaked its way down the mountain - cheering each other on at every platform. I think we could actually sense the group starting to gel, and that added a sense of occasion and anticipation to the week ahead. For myself, I could not imagine being anywhere else - with anyone else - right there, right then. As we completed the final (and fastest) line, the heavens opened. The light rain that struggled to penetrate the jungle canopy all morning turned into a downpour just as made our way into the base station to surrender our gear. It had been a good morning.

Lunch was held back at Hotel Kioro as The Gang waited out the morning's adrenaline rush. The afternoon activity would be more sedate. We would be trying our hand at hand painting gourds in the traditional Costa Rican style. Upon arrival in the 'great room' that had been set up for this event, we found long tables filled with paints, brushes, and gourds. We also had the benefit of 3 local native artisans to help us with our lack of artisitic talent. Also helpful was the fact that each gourd already had a pencil-drawing of an animal - frogs, snakes, etc. - and we need only refer to nearby pictures and paint in the right colours. This was a lot of fun and quite a relaxing way to spend a rainy afternoon in the rainforest. Eventually, most of the kids filtered out to the games room (or somewhere), leaving a number of us adults to paint in peace. For our family, we now have 4 brightly-painted masterpieces adorning our Family Room wall.

Going native with a gourd.

The evening was spent at Hidalgo Hot Springs - a private, family-run establishment at the base of the volcano. It must be seen to be full appreciated, and I will not do it justice here. The focal point is a set of 5 large hot springs - each will successively hotter water fed from the volcano. The setting is lush jungle, natural woods, rock, and discrete lighting. As one moves to the next pool, there is a convenient bar that serves various beverages - beer, liquor, soft drinks, even non-alcoholic tropical smoothies. This is significant on 2 counts. First, the beverages are served in plastic containers that can be taken into the pools. Second, beverages are purchased on the honour system. Since it's a tad inconvenient to carry a wallet in a bathing suit, Hidalgo asks that you keep track of what you order and then pay for it as you exit the premises. All in all, a low-key, relaxing time (even if the change rooms are a bit on the cramped side).

After a hour or so of lolling about in warm water, sipping a cold beer, and chatting with new friends, The Gang made their way to an open-air dining area where dinner had been setup. The buffet offered dishes of variousd types: chicken, beef, fish, rice, etc. The kids even had the option of hamburgers, pizza, and fries (although the majority of kids elected to stay with the adult fare). The hot springs and libations had served their purpose in generating a relaxed vibe within The Gang, and dinner was as lovely a time as I can remember. Yes, I said 'lovely' - and I don't use that word lightly.

Fairy lighting in the rainforest
at Hidalgo Hot Springs.

The bus ride back to the Kioro was pleasant enough, and we all assumed that the evening was close to 'officially over'. We were wrong. Fico and Rae announced that a shuttle would run that evening to the far side the volcano to see the lava flows. The theory: the day's heavy rains should mean that the clouds would have moved along, affording a view of the volcano cone. Those of us who had an interest could partake of the excursion to (hopefully) witness lava flowing through the night sky around Arenal.

My family, of course, jumped at the chance - although some elected to stay behind (I presume they were still enjoying the sleepy afterglow of Hidalgo's libations). After a brief pit-stop at Kioro, our driver, Andreas, pointed the bus in the right direction and we slipped into the Costa Rican night once more. When we arrived at the Secret Volcano Spotting Grounds, we encountered a number of other lava-seekers who'd had the same notion. It was a slightly surreal atmosphere - all of us standing beside a lonely single-lane bridge, waiting for a sign from above, with only the occasional headlight to pierce the blackness. It brought to mind a scene from Close Encounters. While the skies were still misty, the veil did part for a moment or two - and we saw lava! All told, I'm guessing we saw tumbling boulders and flowing, glowing lava oozing from the cone for a grand total of 1 minute. But it was worth it. We cheered and pointed without really knowing why. I suspect our excitement sprang from the unconscious knowledge that most of us would never see such a sight again. Of the millions of people who have walked the Earth, only a very small percentage had ever scene the visceral beauty of an active volcano (and survived). It felt kind of cool to be in such exclusive company. The entire expedition, from Kioro to volcano to Kioro, had lasted about 90 minutes at the end of a very long day- all for 60 seconds of excitement. It was totally worth it.

The gravy: While getting ready for bed, Dee and I once more witnessed the clouds part over Arenal and the volcano's cone glowing red and sputtering cinder. Exclusive company, indeed.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Pura Vida Day 3 - The Tropic's Rainbow

Monday, August 4, 2008 - It's the first official ABD tour day, and my clock is still out of whack. I greet the morning Sun with a smirking "What took ya so long?". On the plus side, we easily meet the 8am deadline to have our bags packed and waiting by the door for those mysterious folk who'll collect them for us while we sip coffee elsewhere.

The sunny day starts with an ABD Welcome Breakfast in the poolside pavillion. It's a lovely buffet affair, with a few families already seated around one of the large round tables. Rather than claim an empty table for ourselves, we join a family from St. Louis who turn out to be great folks. Our Guides, Rae and Fico, do the intros and info-sharing once the whole gang is there. Each family takes turns introducing themselves - Dee does the honours for our clan. It turns out that we're not the only ABD veterans in the room but we are the only Canadians.

By 9:15am we're on the bus for our first leg of the week's journey. Dee and I sit together towards the front of the coach while our kids gravitate towards the rear with the rest of the Junior Adventurer crowd. Through some kind of telepathy or kid-sonar, Nintendo DS devices are unsheathed for group gaming. While silently a little bit jealous, I resolve to make a public display of my Awesome Powers of Parenting by reminding my kids that - for the record - Costa Rican scenery trumps Mario Kart. Other parents seem to agree - or silently opine, "The Canadian dude is a bit of a dick.".

Over the next 90 minutes we emerge from the Central Valley into the surrounding mountains where coffee is grown. As Fico narrates the geography and history of Costa Rica, we follow the narrow, winding roads higher still - beyond the coffee farms - until we reach the cloud rainforest that engulfs La Paz Waterfall and Butterfly Gardens. It has started to rain in the humid high altitude, so we make sure that we have the appropriate jackets handy. Rae and Fico hand out ponchos and umbrellas for those that need them.

Coffee beans meet the sky.

The Gang splits into 2 groups. We follow Fico, first, into the Butterfly House - one of the largest in the world. Butterflies of every colour and shape are everywhere - and it's marvelous! Fico tells us everything there is to know about what we're seeing, and implores the kids to collect 'dead butterfly wings' from the floor (they'll be used for a project later in the week).

Next up is a hike through the rainforest down into the valley to find a series of waterfalls. I thank Dee for insisting we buy water shoes, as they keep us safe on the wet and slippery (and steep!) pathways. The rain is coming harder now - propelled by warm, moist trade winds climbing the mountains around us. At times, we're actually shrouded in clouds!. While the jungle canopy is shielding from most of the downpour, I silently smile. "How cool is this - to be wandering through a rainforest in the rain!", I think. I get that otherworldly feeling, just for a second, when I remember that 'home' is 2500 miles away and 50 hours in the past.

Our first jungle waterfall.

We hike by several waterfalls, all of them spectacular in an Indiana Jones kind of way. I lose track of how many pictures we take and how much video I shoot. I'm simply glad to be in the moment. I feel oddly small and content - another reminder that the world is much bigger than I am.

It's nearing lunchtime. An old school bus, painted green, is waiting for us at the bottom of the valley. It shuttles us topside where a buffet lunch is waiting for us in an open-air pavilion perched on the edge of the Cloud Rainforest. It's amazing. What's not so amazing, however, is the lack of coffee in my cup. My timing is stunningly bad in that every time I go seeking a cuppa Arabica from the beverage station someone is off refilling the decanters. Fate is definitely testing me given that I've been awake since 4:30am and have just completed a hike. Somehow, I avoid taking a life, despite the fact I never do find a cup of coffee. My table-mates, of course, are completely unaware of how precarious their lives have been over the past 45 minutes.

Lunch behind us, we have some free time to explore the La Paz complex on our own. We elect to check out the reptile house, the frog house, and the hummingbird garden. With the exception of the small birds, everything else we see is either poisonous or at least hangs out with something else that is poisonous. I become suspicious of the hummingbirds' place in the jungle hierarchy.

Soon it's time to get back on the bus for the 2-hour trek to the day's final destination, Hotel Arenal Kioro. The rain never seems to let up us we follow more twisting roads through Costa Rican farmland. For those that tire of looking out the window, a DVD movie is shown (Disney, of course).

Hotel Kioro, a fairly new complex, is perched on beautifully landscape slopes in the shadow of Arenal Volcano (one of the country's most active volcanoes). The check-in process for The Gang is super-easy. All the rooms have been pre-assigned and listed (by name) on a number of index cards setup in the lobby. With a simple signature, we are escorted by a hotel guide to our room (rooms are in a series of buildings that dot the hotel grounds). We have 2 adjoining rooms - and they are incredible - tile flooring, lovely tropic furnishings, hot tubs, and a commanding view of the volcano through floor-to-ceiling walls of glass. The kids are in their glory, of course. Not only do they have their own room, but they have a hot tub to call their own. If only I'd known they were so easy to please.....

Soon after receiving the grand tour of rooms, a knock on the door signals that our luggage has arrived. We have some time to rest and unpack before heading over to tonight's Dinner Celebration in the hotel's banquet room. Dinner is buffet style with many excellent Costa Rican dishes and a good supply of alternatives for the less adventurous. BandGeek and JediBoy make me proud by diving into the local cuisine. They may not have liked everything, but they tried it all.

As we work our way through various courses, the evening's entertainment gets underway with a trio of gentleman singing and playing Tico folk songs. These fellows - who hold day jobs as dental assistants and construction workers - are really good! They play 3 or 4 songs and bid us a good night to wild applause. Next up are a group of high-school girls who perform a number of traditional dances for The Gang. They are in a school club, it turns out. They are also good - and very spirited in their shouts and stomps across the floor. They finish up their performance by gathering 'volunteers' to learn a few steps. One young lady tries to draft JediBoy to no avail. She tries to draft Yours Truly - also to no avail (which I will later regret). But our dancer succeeds in dragging Dee up to the floor, where she will learn that she is not a natural-born Costa Rican folk dancer - even though it's a lot of fun.

Swirling young ladies.

Our evening ends will a stroll through winding pathways back to our rooms. The rain has stopped and the clouds have dissipated a bit. Incredibly, we look towards the cone of Arenal Volcano (some 5 miles away) and discover that it's glowing red. Something like sparks are tracing ruby spider-lines into the sky. We are seeing lava and we're smiling and pointing at our good fortune. It's been an amazing first day.

Arenal steams in the distance.