Adios, Costa Rica...hasta la próxima!

One more adventure has come to an end. Returning to Chicago was, surprisingly, a bit of a rude awakening...I hadn't realized how accustomed I had become to the slower pace and tropical pulse of Costa Rica until...well, until we got to San José, actually. Our last day and a half in Costa Rica's capital city was somewhat stressful, but still very colorful and cool!
Coffee Beans

We started with an up-close and personal look at how Costa Rica's delicious coffee is made at the roasting facility for Café Britt, the largest and most commercial (but also the most accessible from San José) coffee company in the country. We had a fun and interesting tour/skit with two perfectly bilingual guides whose banter and rapid switching from Spanish to English and back again kept us entertained and mildly informed. The best part, though, were the samples!

Fully caffeinated and buzzing from head to toe, we ventured into downtown San José for the first time...it is a hectic and somewhat unattractive sprawling city, which even on a Sunday afternoon was crawling with people and throbbing with energy. I'll admit to feeling a little intimidated, but was able to shake the nerves after a couple of hours. We had lunch in a 1930's Parisian-style café and headed for the Museo del Oro Precolombio, the Museum of Precolumbian Gold.

A striking work from a temporary art exhibit
In an underground bunker, a staggering collection of gold artifacts revealed the incredible metallurgy and decorative skills the native people had mastered. They perfected a technique for creating molds, mining and melting gold, and then casting figures of unbelievable detail that they used in many ways in their society. Even if the figures had been made today, they would have been amazing, but realizing that they were made before Columbus ever set foot in the Americas was even more astounding.

The day of our departure, we paid a last-minute visit to the Mercado Central. We got turned around several times while navigating the labyrinth of stalls and narrow corridors, but in doing so, got to explore the exotic assortment of fresh produce, meats, seafood, herbal health treatments, souvenirs, clothing, flowers, food stalls, leather goods, cookware, musical instruments, and just about anything else you can imagine. I was so fascinated that I worked up a hunger for a quick 10:30 a.m. pineapple sorbet before we hopped back into the car for the last time and headed for the airport.

Costa Rica was a beautiful, welcoming country with friendly people and an unobtrusive way of weaving visitors into the fabric of their culture. I hope I can work a little bit of the Costa Rican color into my Chicago tapestry...and if not, I hope I can get back to Costa Rica soon!


A monkey sat on my head!!!!!!!!

I'm going to cut to the chase here, people...A MONKEY SAT ON MY HEAD!!!!! It was awesome! His furry, curly tail and his leathery little hands and....well, allow me to explain. Today was the day that we had to leave Manuel Antonio for Costa Rica's capital, San José. We had some time to kill in the morning and decided to check out the local scene from a different perspective - the water. Luckily, our amazing hotel staff (Hotel Plaza Yara rocks ;) ) was able to book us a last-minute boat tour of Damas Island, known for it's variety of mangrove species and diversity of wildlife.

"Walking" Mangroves
Mangroves are a shrubby sort of tree that thrive in the estuaries of Costa Rica where the ocean meets the river, creating a salty, sediment-filled water that few plants can tolerate. Enter the mangrove. According to National Geographic, "the forests mangroves form are among the most productive and biologically complex ecosystems on earth." They have crazy root systems that eventually trap sediment and dead leaves and actually CREATE land. Pretty cool.

But, enough about mangroves....back to the monkeys!! Our guide, Jorge, had lived in the area and run tours of the local waters for 15 years, and though he hadn't quite perfected his English, he HAD honed a relationship with a group of white-faced, or Capuchin, monkeys. As we approached a particular area of the mangrove forest, Jorge started hooting and hollering in a very disconcerting way...I was starting to worry that we had been motored into a complex ecosystem by a crazy man, but sure enough, the monkeys came running!!

They jumped onto the canopy of the boat and started pounding with their little fists until Jorge brought out a mushy half of a banana and gave them a little snack. Now, I know, I KNOW that feeding the animals is really bad for them in a number of ways, including losing a healthy fear of humans, ingesting pesticides, etc, etc...but, Jorge really seemed to think of them as his friends and himself as a bit of a caretaker. I know...it still doesn't really justify it, but before we even knew what was happening, there were monkeys everywhere nibbling banana...on our boat, on our heads, on our laps. Then, Jorge, took my hand and smeared a little mushy banana on it...one monkey grabbed my hand in his two little hands and licked it off. It was the weirdest sensation to feel his smooth, thick-skinned hands holding one of my fingers and my thumb and to meet his eyes that seemed to say..."yeah, I know this is kind of degrading, but, hey, I won't tell anyone if you don't." We watched in wonder as the monkeys explored the boat for awhile and then scurried off.

We wrapped up the day (after copious hand washing) with a typical Tico lunch of casado, which closely resembles breakfast...black beans, rice, fish (or chicken or beef), salad and potatoes, in a local soda. I was not a very good lunchtime conversationalist because most of the time I just thought about the monkeys on my head and giggled idiotically to myself...incidentally, I'm doing that right now and probably will be for some time :)


Sloths and monkeys and raccoons...oh my!

Exposed crater of Arenal from La Fortuna
On our last day in the La Fortuna/Arenal area, the volcano decided to show it's peak...but still no flaming lava :( Still, it was pretty cool to see the clouds finally part across the top of the jagged crater on a bright, sunny morning. This time, even though I was stuffed to the brim with a typical Costa Rican breakfast of black beans and rice, eggs, fried plantains and picadillo (kind of a veggie hash), I managed to avoid any major car sickness issues, although there were still a few hairy moments.

Due to the state of roadways, we had to head almost all the way back to San José before continuing on our southward journey to Parque National Manuel Antonio on the Pacific coast. After almost six hours in the car, the first thing we did after dumping our bags at another lovely hotel, was to change into swimsuits and head for the beach! From the shore, we could see a series of jungle-covered islands off the coast, which James assured me were full of dinosaurs, à la "Jurassic Park." Luckily, I didn't see anything that could prove him right!

This morning, we woke up to another Costa Rican breakfast and headed out to the National Park. Within minutes of entering, we sponged off some of the tour guides to spot a couple sloths and a monkey or two! It was so amazing to see the animals out in the wild, just doing their thing...a long way from watching the poor stir-crazy critters kept in cages at the zoo! We hiked around for hours...always walking as quietly as possible and
keeping an eye in treetops, which led us to spot several monkeys and sloths on our own!

We found a few secluded beaches ringed by rugged black rocks and lush green jungle. Due to the humidity and steepness of the trails, we were dripping DEET-laced sweat, an unfortunate necessity to keep the killer
mosquitos and other biting insects at bay. I have been
maintaining a steady intake of Benadryl to cope with the itching...I have NO self-control and would have scratched all my skin off by now without it. At one point, we got a little too close to the waterline and
our hiking-shoe-and-socks-clad feet took an unexpected dip...fortunately, it didn't take too much of a toll on the rest of our Manuel Antonio experience.

After the park, we decided to take a dip in the Pacific to cool off...actually, that sounds far too calm...it was more of a battering in the breakers than a peaceful paddle! We tried to avoid getting knocked off our feet as we watched a few hearty souls taking surf lessons...seeing them get slammed over and over into the sand nipped any inclination I had to give surfing a go in the bud. Maybe something a little more sedate...

Oh, yeah...and this guy as per the title...
One of the highlights of this area has been the amazing food and fantastic happy hour views that we've managed to find! As soon as I caught a whiff of the ocean breezes on our drive into town, I set a goal for myself to only eat seafood at major meals...a goal I have proudly met! From fish steamed in a banana leaf, to coconut-rum sauteed shrimp to eye-popping citrus ceviche, everything I have sampled has been incredibly fresh, lovingly prepared and beautifully served...now, if I can just fit into that swimsuit a few more times....


Welcome to the jungle....

I'll let you finish the amazing musical reference that the title implies! I know that I owe y'all another post or two on the Germany experience, but since I am currently sitting at the base of a volcano surrounded by tropical flowers, I think I'm going to put that on hold and tell you about Costa Rica
instead! Flew into San José on Monday, picked up a hearty SUV and drove on really twisty, turny, bumpy, crazy roads for a couple hours to Arenal Volcano. I jinxed myself by proclaiming that I've never really had motion sickness and, of course, karma had her way with me...I spent a solid handful of hours praying for the drive to be over and focusing on not losing my tuna sandwich.

We made it to La Fortuna in one piece, sampled some local Costa Rican cuisine and went for a swim to rinse off the inevitable travel grunge. A surprise downpour caught us in the pool and gave us our first taste of Costa Rica in the "Green Season," aka the rainy season. So far, the sudden bursts of intense rain haven't affected our adventures too much, managing to always occur when we're already indoors or near a convenient grocery store or church where we can take cover!

Unfortunately, the flaming top of Arenal has remained shrouded in an intense cloud cover, but supposedly the light show of flowing lava is quite cool to see at night. Often, it's almost impossible to even tell there's a large land mass there to begin with...the clouds disguise it's massive bulk on a fairly regular basis. We did hike around the base and saw some old lava flows from the last major eruption in the mid-nineties. It was actually a little hard to imagine that the black, porous rocks had ever been molten and flowing like mud down the side of the mountain.

We continued our hike down to the base of Fortuna Waterfall, where we were able to take a (very!) refreshing dip in the pool at the base. The pounding water battered us around a bit against the rocks and some brave souls were proving their recklessness by jumping off a large log sticking out over the pool. I really wanted to jump myself, but found myself too self-conscious to clamber out on a slippery log in my bathing suit...too many opportunities for wardrobe malfunctions!!

Adrenaline junkies have plenty of options in La Fortuna, with ziplining, waterfall rappelling and whitewater rafting to choose from...not quite what I was in the mood for on this relaxation vacation. So, instead of zipping through the rainforest canopy attached to a cable, we hiked a really cool trail that brought us up to treetop level via a system of hanging bridges and
occasionally steep, winding paths. The bridges hopped and swayed underfoot and looking down, you could see the amazing diversity of the rainforest foliage from a bird's perspective. Pretty awesome!
We then did a bit of a wildlife safari at an eco-reserve and managed to spot a colorful frog or two, two sloths (that were so high up in the trees that they really just looked like really furry, massive coconuts), a couple caimans, tons of butterflies, a lizard that can run across water on its hind legs, and a primate hand (or foot) that he kept dangling in our view while he lounged, just out of sight, in the crook of a tree. 

Finally, we capped off our Arenal experience with a relaxing few hours in volcano-heated hot springs! Nothing like relaxing with an icy daquiri while your muscles turn to mush in a bubbling volcanic pool to really feel grateful to be here! La Pura Vida indeed!


Bags packed? Will travel...

So, this is where my love of travel really becomes apparent...I jumped at the chance to be the secondary chaperone on my school's German Exchange Program...three weeks in Germany? Ja, danke!! As with all student trips, the focus wasn't so much on sightseeing as interacting with the kiddos and helping them navigate their (often) first experience abroad. In spite of my pathetic German, I hope that I was able to contribute to those aspects of the trip in a positive way.

Home sweet home Merkendorf
The first week of a multi-week trip is often one of idyllic interaction with the host families, exploring new foods, recognizing cultural differences, and in spite of a few episodes of uncertainty or discomfort, congratulating oneself on the successes. This trip was no exception...we teachers were staying with a kind and generous couple in Merkendorf, a village about 10 miles from the school we were exchanging with. We lived right next door to the village church where our host is a pastor and were awakened each morning (and periodically throughout those first couple nights) by the church bells.
Würzburg Residenz
Within the first week, we spent a couple days attending classes at Simon Marius Gymnasium in Gunzenhausen...and, no, fellow non-German-speakers, "gymnasium" doesn't mean it's a sports school. We also visited three lovely towns: Rothenburg-ob-der-Tauber, aka. Christmastown (home of a famous Christmas ornament maker); Nuremberg, the capital of Franconia and the site of the infamous Nuremberg trials; and Würzburg, where we had an amazing tour of the Residenz (castle).

We also had PLENTY of opportunities to sample local goodies! Lots of giant pretzels, TONS of würst (sausage), enough different
types of cheese to put France to shame, and cakes...yum, yum! We had a few REALLY hot days, which made it kind of hard to even have much of an appetite...but we managed to sample plenty of types of ice cream!

 My favorite thing that I discovered in the first week was that storks actually do build nests on the roofs of houses in southern Germany!! When I was little, we had a children's book whose title I don't recall that was about people installing wheels on top of their houses to encourage storks to come and build their nests. I hadn't thought of this book in years, so imagine my surprise when I spotted a HUGE nest on top of the Rathaus of Merkendorf within a day or two of our arrival. Sure enough, it was a stork...I really enjoyed keeping an eye on the storks of Merkendorf and watching out for nests in other towns. If anyone knows which book I'm thinking of, please let me know!! I'd love to reread it in light of my Franconian stork discoveries!

More on weeks two and three to come!

Trip to Nowhere (Farm, that is...)

So, I hate writing retrospective blog posts...I much prefer to write them during the trip, but, better late than never, I guess!! This is turning out to be a spring and summer chock full of travel, so I figured I'd better get caught up before it's time for my next adventure!

Over Memorial Day weekend, I was fortunate enough to road trip with some of this year's new friends to meet up with a dear old friend, all in the name of good tunes, Cincinnati chili and grocery store safaris. Katherine introduced me to the band Over the Rhine (OtR)years ago and we have maintained our mutual fandom over the years...so when the opportunity to attend a special concert ON THEIR FARM came along, we couldn't possibly pass up the opportunity! Fast forward a bit to meeting new(er) friends James and Roger who share our enthusiasm for the band and the plan was made!

Our departure for Cincinnati was delayed a little bit when my new nephew decided to arrive when we should have been hitting the road, but once we finally got going, we made great
time and got to Cincinnati just in time to get settled in our townhouse rental before scooping Katherine up at the airport.

Anyone who has heard of the band, knows that their name comes from the Over the Rhine neighborhood in downtown Cincinnati, so we, of course, had to make a pilgrimage. Gentrification seemed to be a bit uneven...pricey boutiques perched next to chic wine bars and check cashing places while gorgeous rehabbed buildings neighbored run-down broken-windowed beauties. After a bit of browsing through the stores and the sights, we settled in for wine flights and a delicious dinner at some atmospheric local spots.

We also had to make a pilgrimage to Jungle Jim's International Market...aka. the BEST grocery store in the world! It is something like a food-themed amusement park with animatronic soup cans and corn cobs, an Elvis impersonating bear and much, much more...everywhere you look there is something wacky to catch your eye! We loaded up on supplies for our picnic at the OtR concert and managed to squeeze in a trip to Skyline Chili before the night was over!

FINALLY, it was concert day!! We drove out to the pre-Civil War era farmhouse to enjoy a picnic in the band's backyard with other fans before settling in for a very, very special concert in a cozy open-sided circus tent. We got to hear music
inspired by the setting that we were able to take in from every angle; sign a guestbook to thank our gracious hosts for honoring us with such an incredible experience; and snack from a homemade cookie exchange...everyone brought cookies to share :) Best of all, they closed with my favorite OtR song, reminding me of all my favorite people and all the grace that they've showered on me this year. So, I can't say it better than OtR: "To those I've wronged / Please forgive me / The random gifts of joy and pain / Were more than we could quite contain / We let it spill and flood the plain / All of it was music"



Crossing the border
I found a butter tart in my bag this morning and while scarfing it down, I realized that I had yet to write my final post from my self-imposed exile.  Luckily, this isn't a handwritten piece or you would see the butter stains all over the paper :)

After our time in Victoria drew to an end, Katherine and I packed Clarence back onto a ferry and drove him south of the border into the US! My friend Sara lives in Seattle and we had decided to meet in Bellingham, WA to have lunch and catch up. I have many, many summers' worth of border crossings under my belt and assured Kath and Clarence that it would be no big deal. Uhhh...not so much. We waited in line for an hour, turning the engine on and off repeatedly, since B.C. is an "idle free zone" and cracked jokes about who might be holding things up ahead of us. When we finally got up to the booth for our interrogation, we were asked two questions in the most incredulous of tones...1) "What the heck are you doing here?" and 2) "Who's car is that?" We answered very seriously, of course, and were on our way.
Sara and Me
We met up with Sara and wandered around the historic Fairhaven neighborhood. It was full of funky galleries and cool boutiques. The main attraction, though, was friendship and conversation as we shared stories, laughed together and compared frustrations and triumphs. All too soon, it was time to head back to Vancouver to return Clarence. Another rainy wait at the border and another set of wacky questions and we were back in Canada. We quickly drove around Stanley Park and watched the sun sink behind the clouds over the Pacific. A beautiful end to the day.
The next morning, we headed to Granville Island for gallery-hopping, amazing food, and window shopping. It was a great way to stay out of the chilly rain and absorb some of the cool Pacific Northwestern culture. After lunch, we explored Gastown, a part of Vancouver named after one of its most illustrious citizens, Gassy Jack. Yep, that's really his nickname. Apparently, the "Gassy" moniker comes from the lengthy speeches he used to make to anyone willing to listen...I'm not so sure that's all it was. Especially since the main attraction in Gastown these days is a steam-powered clock that toots every half hour. We shopped around for a bit, ducking into and out of the rain before retiring to the hotel for some HGTV and take out food.

And that's it. The next morning we both left early and before I knew it, I was back in Chicago. I've been back now for a few days and it was overwhelming how quickly my "real life" came rushing back to me. I knew the transition would be a challenge for me, but I had no idea how much so. I'm getting through it. Soon, school will start again as a welcome distraction and I can start putting my life back together piece by piece. Some of the pieces aren't going to fit anymore and I'm trying to store them away as kindly as I can. There are also some new pieces that I will need to find a place for. I've never been much of one for puzzles, but I'm a quick learner and I'll get there.

A parting message from B.C...
Besides, this butter tart tastes just as good as it would have in Whistler and if a pastry can stay delicious over time, I'm sure the memories of my time of reflection, peace and growth will have an even longer shelf life.

Signing out until the next adventure, Lindsey