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30 Oct

My reasons for neglecting my blog are threefold.  (That is, three excuses piled on top of my general inability to see things through.)

  1. I’ve been unfaithful.  No one who knows me will be surprised by this, but I’ve been ignoring my blog in favor of something more exciting.  Most of my creative energy has gone into starting the second book in my series.  I should probably be focusing more on my Spanish while I’m here (Harry Potter y la cámara secreta isn’t going to read itself), but it’s not often that I have so much free time to write.  Which brings us to number two.
  2. My life isn’t particularly interesting.  As much as I love my host family and our proximity to a movie theater, Heredia’s a pretty charmless place.  The past couple of months have consisted of long periods of inactivity punctuated by occasional moments of awesome.  (The highlight of last week was a morning of looking through schoolkids’ hair for lice.  More fun than you’d think.)
  3. Occasionally crippling depression.  I’ll let Allie Brosh over at Hyperbole and a Half explain this last one, as she’s the only person I know who can do so with such endearing humor.

So what’s brought me back to you, loyal readers?  (Yes, all ten of you.)  I’ve come back to tell you about Monteverde, possibly the best place I’ve been in Costa Rica thus far.  I’ve been meaning for the past couple of months to take a weekend trip by myself, but hadn’t gotten around to it. This week I made a last-minute decision less than 24 hours in advance (due largely to my horror at the thought of spending another weekend alone in Heredia) and set off. 

I’d been hoping to meet up with some backpackers at the hostel, but didn’t even have to wait that long.  I spent most of the bus ride from San Jose chatting with a Danish girl named Emma, who happened to be staying at the same hostel as me.  We rolled in with the fog at seven that night, and the owner of the Sleepers Sleep Cheaper hostel was waiting to give us a ride.  For only six bucks a night, his family-run hostel offers a comfortable bed and filling breakfast. 

Emma and I elected to spend our first day wandering.  We hiked up the Amigos trail, where we were lucky enough to get clear skies and a spectacular view.

That afternoon, and each afternoon following it, I spent wrapped up in a cozy blanket reading A Short History of Nearly Everything and listening to the rain.  I was on my own for lunch–on my own, that is, until a baby-faced German invited me to sit with him.  Well, the first thing out of his mouth wasn’t and invitation but a question.  “Are you German?”  I replied that I was American, but he seemed content to eat with me anyway.  It was an enjoyable meal, with a lot of laughter.  I made fun of him for booking every moment of his vacation in advance, and when he found out that I’m only 19 he teased me with “…and that was the year I went to my first rave.  What were you doing?”  I replied that I was in second grade, learning about bees.  It was a good year.

I had dinner that night with Emma, our roommate (one J.D. from Arkansas), and a couple of Dutch guys.  It was a much fancier restaurant than backpackers usually allow themselves–my parmesan sea bass came with a delicious glass of white wine–but I had been craving a really good dinner.  The conversation was great; travelers are definitely one of the best things about traveling.

Emma and I were signed up for the earliest tour the next morning in the hope of getting good weather.  (We more or less got our wish.  There was a light drizzle, but that’s still incredibly lucky for the cloud forest in Costa Rica’s rainiest month.)  Our extreme canopy tour included a dozen ziplines (the last of these being the superman zipline, which is as close as I’ve ever come to flying) and a fantastic tarzan swing.

As much as I loved the views and company and adventure, the high point of my stay was a strangler fig.


This particular strangler fig was a perfect 50-foot tunnel ladder to the canopy.  And it was incredible.


Manuel Antonio y Tortuguero

28 Sep

Somehow I let three weeks slip by without doing anything with this blog.  It’s an unfortunate habit of mine; I’ll obsess over something for a while and then abruptly lose interest.  That’s how I wrote my book; working in great bursts of 10, 12, 14-hour days, ignoring it for months, and eventually picking it up again.  Anyway, since I have a bit of catching up to do, I’ll be sandwiching this month’s two weekend trips into one post.

The first trip was part of the Sol program, with my group of ten and our program coordinator, Maria.  It was an easy bus ride from Heredia to Manuel Antonio, with a stop along the way to see some crocodiles.

Manuel Antonio is a national park located in the middle of Costa Rica’s Pacific coast.  The small inland area of the park is unexceptional (our ‘hike’ consisted of a short walk along a gravel path to the beach) but the beaches are beautiful.  It’s a touristy, unexciting place, but it makes for a relaxing weekend.

Our second trip was to Tortuguero, a national park located on the Caribbean coast.  It’s one of the more remote places in Costa Rica; the only way to reach the park is by boat (after taking two or three buses).  I was lucky enough to sit next to a local who pointed out birds, lizards, caimans, and monkeys as we wound through the canals.

There are a number of tours opted in Tortuguero; ours were included in our package.  Sixty dollars bought each of us two nights at the hotel, two breakfasts, a canal tour, and a nighttime turtle tour.  The canal tour started out on the river and moved into stretches of water so narrow and overgrown it was like passing through a great green tunnel.  

The turtle tour started out well enough (we saw a number of massive green turtles dragging themselves onto the beach to lay their eggs), but ours was ruined when one of the of the turtles was frightened back into the water, leaving an unburried nest and a trail of doomed eggs behind her.  Our guide assured us that it was just bad luck, that the turtles rarely react to the tour groups.  I tried to take her word for it, but the guilt of frightening a mother from her nest marred the remainder of the tour for me.

That bad experience aside, Tortuguero is a great place to visit.  The town itself is small, but unique and full of personality.  A small number of locals live on a narrow (like, less than five minutes walking from one side to the other narrow) strip of land between the ocean and the river.  There’s food, drinks and souvenirs everywhere and a number of hotels and hostels, but so far it’s escaped the overdeveloped sameness that plagues so many tourism hotspots.  There are local kids and dogs everywhere underfoot, and the trail into the national park starts just at the end of the road.  There are also huge pieces of rusting machinery scattered around town, relics from Tortugero’s logging days.

Lost in Heredia

6 Sep

I’ve been here for less than a week, but it feels like so much longer. Everything’s going great, and I’m settling into life in Costa Rica.  I wandered around town on Sunday with Laura, another Sol student.  We let ourselves get lost in Heredia and ended up wandering around a beautiful cemetery before finally heading back to the center of town for fresh coconut milk and empanadas.

Classes at la Universidad Latina started Monday.  I absolutely love my Spanish class.  It’s just six students and a great professor.  I’ve only been to one of my other classes thus far: Ecología y Medio Ambiente.  I’m a little out of my depth there; the amount of Spanish was a little overwhelming.  I understood the main points, but a good sixty percent of the details went over my head.  I might have to give up one of my classes with locals in favor of something less intense.

Other than that, it’s been pretty calm here.  I’ve just been hanging out with my host family (more on them later), playing with their kids, hanging out with the other Sol students.  We leave Friday for Manuel Antonio, our first weekend excursion.  I’m super excited! 

Tico Food

3 Sep

There are ten of us currently studying in Costa Rica with Sol Education Abroad, a wonderful program that includes lots of cultural activities and excursions.  Today was our Costa Rican cooking class in La Garita, in la campa (the countryside) just outside of Heredia.  

The class was conducted in an outdoor kitchen, taught by the married couple whose house we were visiting.  They served us café and agua dulce, a popular Costa Rican drink.  If you dissolved a couple tablespoons of pure brown sugar in a mug of hot water, you’d come away with something similar.  We sipped our drinks and chewed pieces of sugarcane while our teacher walked us through a number of recipes (three are featured below).

Gallo Pinto
  • 4 cups beans (cooked with garlic and oregano)
  • 5 cups rice (cooked with garlic and bay leaf)
  • 1 1/2 cup chopped onion
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 tablespoons Salsa Lizano
  • 1/2 cup chopped cilantro
  • Pinch of sugar, salt, and cumin

Saute the onions, then add the beans and everything but the rice.  Layer the rice on top and let the steam come up for a few minutes before mixing it all together. 

We ate this with something they called chimichurry (a simple salsa).

  • 2 pounds of tomatoes 
  • 1 large onion
  • 1 bunch of cilantro
  • 1 red bell pepper
  • juice of 1 lime
  • salt to taste

Empanadas de Platano

These empanadas use plantains for dough!  Cut the ends off and cook them for 20 minutes in boiling water or just 3 minutes in the microwave.  Remove the peels and mash them.  Roll them into small balls and press the balls into flat circles.  Spread bean paste over one side and place a small piece of cheese in the middle before folding them in half.  Cook the empanadas in a frying pan coated with vegetable oil just long enough for them to brown.  I bet they’d make a great desert if made with a chocolate filling instead of beans and cheese.

The Happiest Place on Earth

2 Sep

No, not Disneyland.

I’ve arrived in Costa Rica, which tops the Happy Planet Index of countries, its citizens reporting the highest life satisfaction of any country.  So, arguably, I’ve arrived in the happiest place on Earth.

I flew in late last night, and the view from the airplane was breathtaking; the softly lit cities were a far cry from the bright grids of light that one usually sees coming into an airport.  The round golden lights form meandering lines through the country, occasionally coming together in irregular clumps.  They’re interspersed with whiter lights that look positively green from the air.

I’m just getting settled in, spending the morning with my host mother, her three-year-old granddaughter and her one-year-old grandson.  I’m headed out soon to meet the rest of my group and our coordinator.

More to come soon, including a Costa Rican cooking class, a tour of Heredia, and the first day of school!