Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Journey to the Southern Tip

This is a map of the Nicoya Peninsula:

It looks small but, as is the case with all of Costa Rica, it is time consuming and often difficult to get from one place to another. One of the areas we really wanted to explore before we leave is the southern tip of the Peninsula - down to Montezuma and Mal Pais. There are two ways to get from Nosara to the southern tip. One is the heavy black line that goes north, then east, then south. The other is the faint dotted line that goes south along the coast.

Lonely Planet has this to say about the coast road:
"If you are truly adventurous, have a lot of time on your hands and some experience driving in places where there is nary a road in sight, you might be ready to take on the southern Pacific coast of Peninsula de Nicoya. Make sure you have a 4WD with high clearence as well as a comprehensive insurance policy. Do not attempt this drive during the rainy season.... Take a jerry can of gas, your favorite snack foods, and plenty of water - if you break down, plan on spending some quality time on your own or with your traveling companion. For very good reason, Costa Rica's tourist office recommends against undertaking this journey."
Oh, for goodness sakes, that seems a bit overly dramatic, don't you think? However, it was enough to push us to: 1) get in gear and get on the road before the rains get heavier; 2) get a rental car instead of taking our jalopy, and; 3) check the tide schedule and save the coast road for our return trip during low tide.

So on Saturday we took the "main" road up and over and down and made it Montezuma in about 4 hours. Montezuma, or "Montefuma" as some like to call it, is described by Lonely Planet as a charming and tranquil village still well in touch with its hippie roots. We arrived without a reservation anywhere and based on a few descriptions in the guide book and a drive down the main road, we chose to stay at a lovely little inn on the edge of town. A step up from our usual travel acommodations, the place was perched at the edge of the rocky coastline and beautifully landscaped with a large lawn strewn dozens of hammocks, benches and lounge chairs. Very unlike Nosara, where not only are there no lawns, but there is no development that close to the beach. It felt more Hawaii than Costa Rica.

That evening we ate at an adorable beachside restaurant and had what was probably the best restaurant dinner we've had in Costa Rica. Ceviche, a bok choy and ricotta tort, fresh thick crusty bread, caprese salad (fresh mozzerella!), and chile rellenos with cheese (not quite up to par with Dona Tomas, but darn good and the only chile rellenos I've had in almost a year!). Everything was very fresh and very flavorful, as in FULL of FLAVOR. Yum.

However, aside from the delicious meal, we weren't too taken with Montezuma. It was very small, practically devoid of children, and seemed to have an almost seedy element to it. It did not present the open friendly vibe that most Costa Rican towns do. We didn't have a real desire to stay there longer, so the next morning after hiking to a waterfall and getting caught in the rain, we packed up and headed around the tip (well, up and over the tip) of the Peninsula to Mal Pais.

Mal Pais refers to the southwestern corner of the Peninsula and encompasses several small villages that all seem to run together along one main road that parallels the ocean. Mal Pais seemed immediately friendlier than Montezuma somehow. It reminded us of Nosara in many ways, as it is clearly another laid back beach community where many expats have settled and are now raising children. There is even a bilingual Montessori school. Interestingly, there is also a large Israeli community, and we saw many restaurants with signs in Hebrew.

Mal Pais appears bigger and more "developed" than Nosara. Though, like Nosara, there is not much development right on the beach (at least no resorts or high rise condos), there was a lot of commerce along the main (still dirt) road. Lots and lots of restaurants. Lots and lots of variety of food. Based on another recommendation, we had our second best restaurant meal in Costa Rica (or maybe it was a tie for first). An out of the way, beautiful little SUSHI place. The Japanese sushi chef running the place kept the menu limited to a few kinds of fish and designed a huge variety of options based on those fish (grouper and tuna), shrimp and octopus, and some chicken and beef. Everything was very fresh and very delicious. The restaurant also was home to three dogs, one of which was a tiny puppy, so while Ian and I ate and ate, Sadie played with the puppy and a little girl who lived there.

Oh, and the acommodations we chose. Sigh. As you know, we are devoid of a steady income this year and therefore during our travels we stay in places that fall under the "budget" category. Now don't get me wrong, we aren't hauling our rolling suitcases into the backpacker hostels - there are a few luxuries I refuse to do without, such as a private room. Our usual accommodations are small, basically clean, and functional with no frills. Perhaps because we are headed quickly to the end of our sabbatical, we decided to live it up during this trip and significantly upgraded our lodgings. Our home away from home for one luxurious night was a beautiful wooden cabin on a hill above the ocean. Two stories, two bathrooms, two little decks, a hammock. To give you some perspective on our usual acommodations versus this one, this was the first hotel we've stayed in this year that provided shampoo and conditioner! Oh, the luxury! Plus, English magazines! Bathrobes! Free movies! We even splurged for massages (my first in Costa Rica), in the open air massage palapa! Let me tell you, it was tough to leave Horizon Ocean View Hotel and Yoga Center.

Hotel grounds with "Massage Palapa" in foreground

But leave we must. Determined to take the coast road home (see description above), we stopped at the grocery store for water, peanut butter, bread, avocados, cheese, chips, and more water, and hit the road going north in our rented Jimny (which was apparently named for Jiminy Cricket owing to its size. I've never seen anything with 4WD so small).

Mmmm..."Chis Wis"

The road north along adjacent to the beach quickly got smaller and less and less maintained until it finally ended at someone's beach house. We had heard that we would have to drive on the beach for a portion of the way, so we veered off the road and onto the sand. It was unnerving to drive on the deserted beach so close to the waves as a passenger, but even more unnerving for the driver, Ian, who had more firsthand knowledge of how the car was "handling" plowing through sinking sand. I kept a positive attitude, however, insisting that the tide was going to continue to recede for several more hours, so we had plenty of time to keep going on the beach with hopes of eventually finding a road to turn onto (with some wiggle room to turn back if we had to).

Things were going along rather well, at least the car was still moving in the sand, until the sandy beach gave way to rocky intertidal. Hmmm.... We got out and walked the tidepools and decided to go for it. I wish I had taken a picture of the Jimny hugging the bottom of the cliff and trying to avoid the largest and deepest tidepools...but the moment was a little too nervewracking to stop and pose. Once back on "solid" sand, we really really kept our eyes open for any possible road.

We did finally find a way off the beach and were happy to be back on a small muddy path, rather than the beach. Until the path ended at a large river. We knew we had to ford a few rivers on the coast road but not only did this look too large to possibly be fordable, but there also didn't appear to be anything resembling a road on the other side. We pondered our choices for a while then decided to retrace our steps back to the beach and continue on the sand until we could find another road. Just as we were getting back in the car, two pickup trucks drove up the pathway. The driver of the first truck asked us where we were going then suggested we follow him as he led the second truck across the river. So we did. Turns out the river was fordable, even in the Jimny, and that further along the bank on the other side, just past those shrubs, was a road. After successfully reaching the road, we all stopped and we explained to the truck driver that we were going to go back to the beach and drive further north. Oh dear, that would NOT have been a good idea, he says.

After leaving us and the second truck with instructions, the first pickup went back the way he came, and we followed the second truck through another large river. We convoyed together for an hour or so, stopping occasionally to compare maps and agree on turns, until they stopped for a break and we continued on.

The road was slow but relatively easy to travel from there, and took us through miles of beautiful Costa Rican forests, pastures, villages, coast lines and mountain passes.

We stopped once to eat our bread and cheese and avocado at the cleanest, most well maintained beach I've ever seen in Costa Rica (or maybe anywhere).

Very impressive garbage/recyling collection. Even a can only for coconuts!

We made it home in about 4 1/2 hours, and all in all it was a great drive. My dad, the King of Back Road Driving, would have loved it.

Note to Lonely Planet for next printing: Keep the part about not attempting the road without a 4wd or in the rainy season, but feel free to scale back on the drama.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Having our mango and eating it too

Yes, we are leaving here and returning to the Bay Area as originally planned. Yes, we did spend some time considering the idea of staying for another school year, but in the end decided to stick to the original plan. Which frankly doesn't make it any easier to explain to people here. "Sticking to our original plan" doesn't mean much in a place where people come to visit and stay for decades, where changing your plans and reinventing yourself is as common as sweating in the sun and watching howler monkeys eat your mangoes.

Yes, it is surprisingly difficult to explain why we are leaving. Our experience has been phenomenal here, we have met wonderful people, live in a fabulous house in the jungle with a view of the ocean, send our daughter to an amazing school, and enjoy all sorts of incredible day-to-day experiences. When faced with the question, we often simplify the answer by chalking it up to the challenge of having to make money. We say flippantly that staying in Nosara would require a lot of ice cream and zumba classes. But the truth is we could make it work. We could expand the ice cream business, I could teach more classes, we could increase the number of properties we manage, Ian could commute to the states a few times a year for a couple of high paying corporate gigs. It would be challenging, but we could probably make it, and anyone who has been here for any length of time intuitively knows that. After all, making it work is precisely what everyone else here is managing to do.

So the economic excuse falls a bit flat. Particularly if it is Ian who is answering the question. Most observant folks would agree that his delivery is less than convincing. As he stumbles to come up with more reasons why we are leaving it becomes apparent that Ian clearly doesn't want to leave, and therefore obvious that I, however, do.

I've spent some time trying to figure out why it is that I do want to leave, despite the wonderful life that we are living here. Well, first there is the obvious - I miss my family and friends back home. In addition, I miss working. More specifically I miss working in coastal management. I love my profession, and I miss being involved with the issues that I care so much about. I miss feeling like I'm working to change the world for the better and I miss applying my skills and being rewarded with a tangible result.

Then there is the small town/big city differences. Despite loving the stunning natural beauty that I am immersed in here, I miss living in a city. I do. I miss things like cafes and museums and dance performances and restaurants. I miss the energy of a city, the way the air is charged with possibility and creativity and ideas and complexity. I miss the fascinating outcomes of the combination of so many people and so much possible input and resources. I miss people watching. I miss fashion. I miss anonymity.

Of course, what do I love about living here? The opposite, naturally. I love the experience of living in a small town - how you run into people you know everywhere you go, how you have to drive with one hand perpetually ready to wave. I love not working and having the time to spend with my family. I love that we spend Monday afternoons in an open air bar drinking cold beer, eating salty chips, studying Spanish and blogging while Sadie has art class at an adjacent table.

I love never being cold. I love how creative people are with their entrepreneurial ideas for how to make a living. I love the ceviche. I love how people understand the challenges of living in a remote place and are so quick to help one another. I love how active and healthy Sadie is, how she hasn't needed her inhaler since October. I love the feeling of driving down a dirt road in the dark just after a rain, the windows rolled down and the sound of the ocean close by. I could go on and on.

I am an expert at nostalgia. It is an art form that I work to perfect. I am nostalgic for virtually everything in my past, from every car I ever owned to every house I ever lived in. I am even nostalgic for pasts that I was too young to have actually experienced (particularly for the accessories of past decades). I am so good at nostalgia that I am able to conjure up feelings of nostalgia for the present. A sort of "pre-nostalgia," if you will. The feeling you can get when you watch your daughter surfing in the sunset, a huge smile on her face. Present moments so precious I am already overcome with emotion over how I will remember them in the future. There is a plethora of those moments here and for that I am so very grateful.

Our charge, then, is to fully live these next few months. To appreciate the present while not dwelling too much on either the past or the future. It's something to strive for at least.

It's funny. If we had just arrived here for a 2 1/2 month vacation, home would be the farthest thing from our minds. But at the end of a year long sabbatical, 2 1/2 months seems right around the corner. I know avoiding the future is neither fully possible nor fully appropriate. This week I am working on my resume. Next week we need to decide what sort of aftercare we will have for Sadie for third grade. Sometimes we talk about what restaurant we will go to first when we return. Occasionally I find myself longing for a specific pair of shoes packed away in my garage. At times we chat about the addition of possible pets or the replacement of pieces of furniture.

Most importantly, we should (and do) spend time attempting to analyze and articulate our experiences here and what aspects of our present lives that we want to work to incorporate into our lives back home. What we have learned about ourselves. What we want for our child. Our short-terms needs and our long-term desires. The potential compromises for a city mouse and a country mouse. Ways to facilitate future opportunities for "pre-nostalgia" moments. Fortunately, sitting on a deck in the jungle, watching the waves in the distance, drinking 12-year-old Nicaraguan rum and eating salty chips is an excellent environment in which to undertake such challenging work.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Nicaragua, Nicaraguita

Once again we hit the road last week to travel to Nicaragua for another "visa vacation," our required border run to be able to stay in Costa Rica.

This time we decided to stay with the Garcia family in Pio XII for four out of five nights, taking one day and night to travel north to León. For our short trip to León, we took along one of the Garcia kids, Sadie's good friend Natasha. We figured Sadie would have a lot more fun with Natasha around and therefore might better indulge our desires to look at old crumbling buildings and museums. As it turns out, none of us had much stamina for walking around in the very very hot city of León. We hit the big church (beautiful and with an added bonus of being able to climb up to the roof), then a wonderful modern art museum housed in two incredible historical mansions (think thirty-foot ceilings, huge carved wooden doors, tile floors, gigantic glass chandeliers, interior courtyards), and then we were all pretty much done.

The view from the top of the cathedral

Los Angeles Tienda

Natasha was fun to have along as she and Sadie could spend hours simply wandering around the hotel. However she was a bit nervous to be with us on the trip I think (she hasn't left home much) and she was polite to the extreme. She barely ate dinner or breakfast and seemed to feel really badly about it. I wasn't sure exactly what was going on with her, though I figured it out fairly soon. On our way out of town, we were flagged down by the police. As we pulled over to the side of the road, Natasha stuck her head outside of the car and vomited. Though I felt badly for her, I did think her timing was terrific. What policeman would want to deal with a car with a puking kid in it? (either that or he'd wonder why a couple of gringos had a young sick paperless Nicaraguan in their car). Sadly, Natasha's state seemed to affect the police not one bit. While I took care of Natasha, the policemen proceeded to argue with Ian about his supposed infraction and described some sort of convoluted process involving lots of money and paperwork back in León. Ian asked Natasha to come help him understand what the police were saying. While the poor pale girl stood in the road with her water bottle and did her best to talk with the police, Ian used the opportunity to get his wallet. A $20 was exchanged and we were waved away. So long, León.

Life in Pio XII is much different than life in León. Pio XII is a lovely small town. Small enough to feel tranquil but large enough to spend an afternoon sitting on the stoop people watching. The roads are paved, but the streets are narrow and lined with all types of trees, most seeming to have some sort of edible fruit. The dominant form of transportation in and around Pio XII is the 3-wheeled "moto-taxis" ("tuk-tuks" elsewhere), a fast and easy way to travel around the relatively flat landscape.

The Garcia family lives on a main road in Pio XII. There are a total of seven adults and ten children living in a group of small houses arranged on a plot of land. In the front of one of the houses is a small store selling various daily items such as coffee, eggs, oil, bread, batteries, crackers, soda, etc. to the population of Pio XII. When Ian stayed with the family 20 years ago, there was one small house with a dirt floor and an outdoor bathroom. Since that time, they have added several more houses, indoor plumbing, floors, and made many other improvements. The living is communal and everyone takes care of each other, though each family has particular jobs they are responsible for. It took me forever to figure out who was cooking for us, where the food was cooked and where the dishes were being washed. For the most part, we never saw the inside of any of the houses, we ate and visited in various outdoor areas among the houses. Across the street was a house belonging to a woman currently living in San Francisco. Oscar has been working on her house for her and he and his wife, and Ian, Sadie and I all slept there at night. It was very luxurious accommodations, really, with our own room and a big bathroom with a shower.

But back to eating. Did I mention that we ate a lot? Though the original patriarch of the family died recently, the matriarch, Dona Teodora or "Mama," is very much alive and well and very insistent on us eating. A lot. The food was relatively simple, but delicious. We had rice and beans (gallo pinto) for virtually every meal, accompanied by eggs in the morning, salad at lunch, and vegetables, meat and cheese in the evenings. In between we ate lots of fruit (mangoes, oranges, melon, bananas) and various yummy bread products purchased from the neighbors. As the guests, we were always seated at the formal dining table on the patio, with Mama, the new patriarch, Oscar, (the only brother who is alive and living at the family compound), and sometimes another kid or two. It took a few days and lots of persistence, but I was finally allowed to wash a few dishes one day, and thereafter took every opportunity I could to return to that same sink with the hopes of being able to wash something. In other words, it is sweet and wonderful and overwhelming and exhausting and uncomfortable to get waited on like that for any length of time and we were acutely conscious of opportunities to be able to give back.

One of the ways we helped out during out stay was by driving. Oscar had recently purchased a used truck, but didn't know how to drive yet. In addition, we had our rental car with us. With the rental car and the truck and two licensed drivers, the entire family (save one to run the store) got to go on an adventure to the beach. The coast is about 1 1/2 hours from Pio XII and several of the kids had never seen the ocean. We piled everyone in the two vehicles, along with a table, chairs, and tons of food (naturally) and hit the road.

One of the discernible differences between Nicaragua and Costa Rica is the beach culture. The beach we went to in Nicaragua was fairly developed, with a large parking lot, lined with restaurants, and offering both quad and horse rentals. However, everyone who was there looked as though it was the first time they had ever been to the beach. Though predictably the only gringos, Ian, Sadie and I were also the only ones on the beach wearing bathing suits. The rest of the beach goers were splashing about in the waves in shorts and shirts and sometimes even jeans. Perhaps it was because they weren't regular enough beach goers to bother with the time and expense of buying bathing suits, or perhaps it was for modesty, or maybe sun protection (something the Garcias seemed fairly concerned about - not wanting to get any darker than they already were). At any rate, it was a far cry from the hordes of itty bitty bikini wearing women and shirtless men in Nosara.

Wet, sandy clothing be darned, the Garcia/Britton/Sweeney family had a blast. We played in the water, collected shells, kicked a ball around, ate fruit and rice and salad and barbecued chicken (who but the Garcias could manage to produce an actual salad at the beach?). Ian and I closed our eyes to a few disturbing cultural differences (such as starting the charcoal with burning plastic bags and styrofoam plates) and we all had a wonderful time. Finally, sunburnt and heat exhausted, we piled all the stuff and all the people back in the vehicles and made our way back to Pio XII.

Lunch time!

The next day we piled about 2/3 of the family in the two cars again and went off to Masaya to watch some baseball. We were hoping to catch the big league home team (San Fernando, with a logo exactly like San Francisco), but as it happens there was an amateur game being played that morning in the stadium. We stayed for it anyway, enjoying the free seats behind home plate. The stadium itself is along the waterfront (a lake) of Masaya and beyond the parking lot is a really nice esplanade, or "malecón."

What with the the waterfront access and the various holes in the stadium walls big enough to see the field, I felt almost like I was at AT&T park. There was even a giant bottle over by the bleachers.

In between our car adventures (and car-related errands), we mostly sat and talked. Or, rather, they sat and talked and I sat and sometimes tried to follow the conversation and sometimes just gave up and spaced out (Ian assures me I did very well following the conversations and trying to participate with my broken spanish, but I thought I spent most of the time silent). Sadie, however, was nowhere to be found during these times. In between meals, Sadie was out and about with the kids, playing freeze tag or running around the houses or walking to the park or eating junk food or doing who knows what. All I know is she would occasionally appear, covered with dirt, to ask permission to do something (rare), give me a hug (also rare) or ask if it was time to eat (more likely). At night, she'd fall in bed dirty, full, exhausted and happy, and ready to do it all over again the next day. She was completely confident in her spanish skills and completely comfortable with her place in her newly adopted family.

Hanging out in front of the store on Sunday

We feel extremely blessed to have been taken in so generously and lovingly by the Garcia family. They are an extraordinary group of people in an extraordinary country. During one conversation over a yummy crunchy bread product, Ian and I tried to explain that although Costa Rica had a similar crunchy bread product, it wasn't as flavorful. This, we realized, pretty much sums up our opinion of the difference between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Nicaragua has more flavor. I'm not sure why, exactly. Is it perhaps borne of living through so much economic and political turmoil and coming out the other side intact?

In a strange way, I am reminded of the fierce pride that many Oaklanders have for their city - a pride born of seeing the beauty and flavor Oakland has to offer while the rest of the world seems to only be able to focus on the crime and the blight. That dichotomy is what gives places like Oakland much of its spice. Nicaraguans are fiercely proud of their country and all it has to offer including its natural beauty, poets and artists, music and dances, and rich and tumultuous history. Like Costa Rica, Nicaragua can feel very tranquil, but there is also an intensity, an energy, a passion, that I haven't found in Costa Rica.

I'm acutely aware that my apparent need to explain and catalog these differences, to analyze and summarize our experiences, has much to do with the fact that this trip out of Costa Rica was our last. We now have the last 90 day visa that we will need here - our plane tickets have us out of the country and on our way back to Oakland on the 89th day. It is a bittersweet time for us, and one I'm certain will be the topic of several future blog posts.

Until then, thank you from the bottom of our hearts to our adopted Nicaraguan family, the Garcias. Much love from Juan, Catalina and Sadie. Hasta luego.