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.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Pura Vida Day 2 - Tico Rhythm

It's Sunday, August 3, 2008 and we're in San Jose (just play along, okay?). According to the 'ABD storybook' provided for Pura Vida tour, today is Day 1 of the tour. Don't be fooled - today is Day 0 of the tour, for we're all on our own without any Disneyfied activities on the schedule.

It gets dark early in Costa Rica - by 6pm or so. Cruelly and predictably, it gets light by about 5:30am. As a result of awakening by 4:00am yesterday and coupled with the 2-hour time difference, I'm awake before the Costa Rican sun. Today is going to be difficult, and I'm pretty sure that I'll be testing the local coffee quite extensively today. The morning is bright and sunny - and I can see mountains out our window. Or maybe they're volcanoes. I make a mental note - albeit with very messy mental handwriting today - to find the travel book that clarifies this point.

We rouse the kids and hit the breakfast buffet in the hotel restaurant. It offers a lot of the generic American Business Hotel fare: eggs, sausages, etc. I opt to go native from the starting line and load up on fruit (plentiful and tropical), rice-and-beans (peppery goodness) and tamales (something akin to mashed potatoes cooked inside a banana leaf and tasting excellent). And, of course, coffee.

Tico Tip: Waiters will arrive at your table with 2 jugs: one containing coffee and one containing warmed milk. If you answer in the affirmative about wanting milk with your coffee, you'll get half you cup filled with warm milk. Otherwise, you get rich, black coffee.

Bellies full, we take advantage of the morning sun by hitting the hotel pool. We do this immediately after breakfast rather than safely waiting 1 hour. When one of the kids points out this safety fact, Dee and I gently explain that the 2 hour time-zone difference from 'home' makes it okay to swim. We take the kids' eye rolls to signify grudging acceptance of this biological math.

Around 10am we're back in the rooms in time to answer the telephone. "Frederico!", I think. I'm close. It's our other ABD Guide, Rae, who's called to introduce herself and let us know when she'll be in the lobby for a meet-and-greet. She sounds very nice on the phone, and I'm at ease now that ABD has coming a-callin'. Down to the lobby we go to meet Rae - and Frederico. We chat a bit, and discover that Rae is good friends with our ABD guide from 2007, Alex! I feel like the world just got a little bit smaller. This, of course, conjures up small dancing dolls and a neverending song in my coffee-addled brain. I make another illegible mental note to avoid doing this again. We also learn that Frederico goes by the nickname Fico. With our lanyards and assorted brochures in hand, we are ready to meet the day in San Jose.

At the Concierge desk we inquire about the Coffee Tour - which has received great reviews on several websites. Alas, we're 15 minutes too late for the 11am tour, so we opt to take the 4-hour San Jose City Tour. The Concierge makes the arrangements and instructs us to be in the lobby by 12:45pm where we'll be picked up for the tour. Since we have a bit of time, we hit the Multiplaze (again) for a quick food-court lunch.

Sure enough, a small tour bus pulls up to the hotel by 12:45pm and a driver comes in to collect us. He also collects a few other families for the tour - families who will turn out to be fellow ABD Adventurers in the days ahead. Yes, this is foreshadowing.

I won't spoil the City Tour (too much) for anyone who may consider doing it. It's a good way to see a bit of San Jose - which is not really much of a tourist town to begin with. The Tour involves a pretty good historical dialogue as the bus drives through various areas of the city. To get to that dialogue, however, you may have to endure a bit of a 'milk run' as the bus stops at other hotels to pick up other interested souls. Since we were one of the first hotels on the route, we win a 1 hour tour of other hotels. To be fair, it should have been a 20-minute process, but the police were busy closing streets (in an already-gridlocked city) to make way for a Cow Parade. You cannot make this stuff up.

With extensive English and Spanish narration, we see old buildings, run down buildings, historical buildings, heavily-fortified buildings, and a few parks as the bus negotiates the narrow streets of San Jose. Normally, the tour includes a peek inside the National Theater, but we have to settle for walking around its outside since it was closed for the day. We then walk across the Plaza Cultura to the Gold Museum, where we receive a narrated tour of ancient Tico gold artifacts. Back on the bus - we make a few more stops.

San Jose's National Theater

First, the President's house. Yes, his house - in a nice subdivision. It's protected by a police car, a security camera, and a couple of plainclothes security guys. I'm pretty sure I see the curtains move, so I'm guessing the President is home trying to avoid tourists. Or maybe he owes the paperboy for a few weeks of Tico Times. It's nice to see people are the same wherever you go.

The final stop is the inevitable gift shop gambit at a place called Esmerelda's. To be fair, the place was actually interesting. They make various gold and silver pieces using pre-Columbian designs and methods. We're escorted inside by a very young fellow holding a police stick and an umbrella (over our heads). One inside, the doors are locked, we all take a seat, and a nice lady gives us a lecture about their products and methods. The lecture ends with a give-away of a small gold charm. We're asked (all 21 of us) to pick a number between 1 and 21. Dee, who is the second person to choose a number, wins the prize! Why the other 19 of us go through the tension-filled process of picking unique numbers remains a mystery. Afterwards, we are let loose in the store, where we actually buy a few things. The staff there are very helpful and never pushy - a refreshing experience compared to other 'gift shop stop' experiences we've had.

The President's Place

We're the second stop for the post-tour drop off, and by 5:30pm we're back in our rooms making dinner plans. By this time the rain has started in earnest, so we opt for the hotel restaurant (again). The evening ends with packing and organizing, for tomorrow morning the Disney Pura Vida experience really begins!

Monday, August 11, 2008

Okay - Let's Do This

The Theater lights are on again - yellow lightbulb glow on fading red satin curtains. The floor has that familiar stickiness. The popcorn smell is all at once warm and stale.

I'm back.

But first, a little bidness. David, my congrats to you and yours on the arrival of your new bambino! Finally, the 4th controller has a set of hands. As others have undoubtedly made you aware, it all changes now. Kid Number 1 is no longer outnumbered. Be prepared, my friend.

Now, it starts - the Costa Rica trip report for all my friends over at Disboards.

Saturday, August 2, 2008. 3:35am came way too early this morning, but the alarm said I needed to get up and so I did. I never fight the alarm - it's bad karma. We needed to be out the door by 4:30am to catch our 6am flight out of London Slightly-International Airport. The plan: fly from London to Toronto Pearson. From there we'd push our loathing for Pearson Airport deep down into our guts and catch a direct flight to San Jose, Costa Rica. We'd spend the next 5 and 1/2 hours tempering our mistrust of Air Canada with the fact we were headed to sunny(?) Costa Rica for our Adventures By Disney tour: Path to Pura Vida (Spanish for Pure Life).

The trip to Central America was more or less glitch-free. Everything was on schedule. Air Canada has switched their in-flight entertainment over to personal video-on-demand, which affords hours of movies, TV, etc. via touch-screens built into each headrest. It was a little finicky to use, but it did allow me to watch a brutally editted version of Caddyshack and a few episodes of Big Bang Theory (a not-unfunny geek show, sorta). Once in awhile, I'd even read a few pages of Heart-Shaped Box.

We touched down in San Jose at 12:30pm local time as the clouds started delivering a light rain. The airport: smallish and modern. The Customs line was long but moved at lightspeed towards courteous officials who smiled as they stamped our passports. Being North American, I was immediately suspicious of any kind of good experience at an airport. It was obvious from the get-go that Costa Rica knows the importance of tourists to their economy (tourism is their number one industry these days).

As we passed through Customs we were immediately met by a nice fellow holding an Adventures By Disney (ABD) placard. We were on his list - and so he slapped some sticky-backed badges on our chests and propelled us towards Baggage Claim using Spanglish as fuel. All I could figure out was that (1) we needed to get our bags and (2) the stickers would magically get us some transportation.

Bags collected, another fellow materialized from the crowd to direct us to some kind of transportation. Either the badges were working, or we were about to be taken hostage. I put my fears aside and followed him. His partner materialized with a baggage cart and soon we were all following our luggage out of the airport to.... something. Just when it couldn't get any more bewildering, a nice lady wearing an ABD golf shirt appeared by our side. In a burst of friendliness she produced a van (oh, *snap* David Copperfield) that would take Dee, JediBoy, BandGeek, our luggage, and Yours Truly to the Real Intercontinental Hotel. Somehow, it all worked. I just don't know how, but I'm guessing there was math involved. Or magic.

The trip from the airport was an eye-opener. Poverty is not the right word - but whatever it was, there was way more of it than I had expected. Lots of shack-like buildings with rusted corrugated-steel roofing. Fences and bars protected everything. Those lucky enough to afford it would top off their defenses with razor wire. People went about their lives: waiting for buses, shopping, watching me watching them. It was a place so foreign. The narrow streets turned and dipped at crazy angles as small cars and brave motorbikes zipped through traffic. Eventually, old pavement gave way to newer, faster pavement - and we arrived at the decidedly more upscale environs of the hotel.

The Real turned out to be a standard-class business hotel. Except for the palm trees, Spanish signs, and frenzied drivers, the hotel could be just about anywhere. But this would be our home for the next 2 nights until the tour officially left the starting line. The ABD Golf Shirt Lady let us know that we would be met at the hotel by one of our ABD guides - Frederico. Sadly, there was no Frederico to be found, so we simply checked ourselves in with the expectation that ABD people would find us. The only bump we encountered was that the hotel had our 2 rooms on different floors (we had requested connecting rooms when we booked through ABD). Once we pointed out that the kids' room needed to be close by, they fixed it so that the rooms were separated by only one room. Good enough.

We lounged in our respective rooms for awhile. I floated in that semi-state that always finds me on a travel day. I marvelled that, in the course of 8 hours or so, I had gone from my bed in London, Ontario to a much more comfy bed, in the heart of Costa Rica, where I needed only to move my eyes the tiniest little bit to see palm trees and mountains. Amazing, although this kind of marvelling is, admittedly, far cooler in the Wintertime.

By 4pm, our bodies were sure it was 6pm (London time) and, therefore, ready for dinner. Being the Lonely Planet kind of travellers we are, we headed into the mall right next to the hotel (Multiplaza Escazu). The journey was interesting insofar as cars do not feel obliged to stop or swerve for anything - be it pedesterians, on-coming traffic, or confused baby bunnies. We bought our way across the road by being bigger risk-takers that the locals behind their steering wheels - running quickly with our kids held in outstretched arms all the while shouting. "We are tourists! We have tourist money!". It seemed to work.

We found some familar signs inside and a lot that were not so much. The basic mall-meme was there, however: stores, neon, kiosks, crowds, cinemas, food court, and semi-sit-down restaurants with vaguely Irish names. Since we're always up (or is that down?) for Gibson-esque juxtapositioning, we selected an Italian restaurant in the mall.

With the waiter's broken English and my broken Spanish, I was pretty sure I'd get served the wrong end of an exotic sea creature or end up buying the entire joint their meals. But it all worked out and the food was actually quite good. Of course, I was a tad jet-lagged and had a mild buzz from a couple of Imperials (the local beer). The price: 29,000 Colones or CRC - which is about $60 give or take.

After dinner, we shopped a little bit and made a stop at Cinnabon for a late dessert for the hotel. I made a mental note that the mall cinema was showing Batman with Spanish subtitles. That could be a cool activity - something that David Bowie would write a song about. I elected to keep keep that observation to myself since since I seldom seem to make any sense to my family. Digression!

Arriving back at the hotel, we found ABD 'goody bags' had been placed in our rooms. This was a good sign - they knew we had arrived. By 7:30pm we had eaten our snacks (for better or worse, they tasted like Cinnabon should) and we were all ready to power down. I wrote in my journal a bit while Dee flicked through channels on the TV - a melange of American stations, Spanish versions of American stations, and various local channels. It was dizzying seeing some shows in Spanish, some shows dubbed into Spanish, and some with Spanish subtitles. There's something patently kooky about watching Japanese anime dubbed into Spanish - so many layers of indirection.

Cognitive dissonance aside, it was a pretty good travel day. Tomorrow would be a free day to do as we pleased. We had ideas, but no plans. Our only goal - see something, and hook up with the mysterious and elusive Frederico.

Friday, August 01, 2008

The Path to Pura Vida

As infrequently as I seem to be posting these days, the Theater is going dark for a week. At 6am tomorrow morning, we'll be strapped into our seats out at London Slightly-International Airport for what will be an 8-hour trek to San Jose, Costa Rica.

Call me Bwana if you must. Over the next week we'll hike through rainforests, watch glowing lava ooze down Arenal Volcano against the night sky, try our hand at zip-lining over the jungle canopy, and shoot (mild) rapids down a Costa Rican river. And, it seems, we'll be doing a lot of this in the rain. But no matter - it'll be an adventure.

Due to an unfortunate incident a few weeks back, I'll have no personal Innertube technology this trip and it's unlikely I'll post anything here until I get back. That is, if I get back. The jungle is a dangerous mistress, you know. It's full of monkeys - face-biting monkeys.

Wish me luck.