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.