Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Nosara I

Sara and I decided last night to forgo the TicoBus to Nosara, which left at 5:30am, to sleep in and to commandeer either car or plane across the country to our next destination. After a flurry of phone calls from our room after breakfast (hint: the dial tone makes a different sound, Michael, banging against dresser will not help) we decide to book a flight with NatureAir for $35/ea plus taxes plus luggage but still cheaper than the toll of an all-day bus ride – can I get an Amen?

There’s talk of hitting a coffee plantation before we depart the Central Valley, but the weather looks ominous and we decide to spend our remaining hours in San Jose at the Mercado Central which, according to Fodor’s “hosts medicinal herbs, the country’s first ice cream parlor, pickpockets and a labyrinthine network of stalls and alleyways (hint: if you get lost, find the statue of Jesus of the Sacred Heart at the center of everything, he faces the way out – if only life were this simple. No wars. No botched elections. No carbon sequestration. Just find the person at the center and walk that way*).

Bought medicinal herbs (for good luck, a clean house, a clean wife), coffee and found ourselves lost. (See above.)

Next we checked out of the Hotel Dunn Inn (two stars, recommendation) and found our way to the second airport in San Jose (San Jose/Pavas) to catch our NatureAir flight. The smaller, less-substantial airport. We should have known it was going to be an adventure after seeing the animated twin-prop plane zip across the banner on the NatureAir website. Should have known it was going to be an adventure when we were asked to step on a scale (with our carry-on) before boarding. Should have known it was going to be dicey when we noticed the 50mph gusts and anvil-like thunderheads resting at the top of the hills (See: Volcano) surrounding town.

And to say we were surprised when the plane started drifting sideways off the runway as we sped toward being airborne would have meant acknowledging anything outside of the pinhole focus one’s life takes when one gets the sense one’s life is about to terminate. We lifted – bucked – drifted – bucked – clawed our way into alternating pockets of clear and torrential clouds, up toward 10,000ft for long enough for everyone to exhale (picture the entire cabin – all 10 of us – gripping the sides of our loved ones/seats/strangers for 40 minutes; picture panic). Then descent. Because this is a relatively new service, we had to land in Liberia (the Other Liberia) to drop a – one – uno – person, then re-ascend for another 20minutes until the newly-paved, golden-stretch-of-tarmac, ground-never-looked-so-good airstrip in Nosara came into view. See pictures. Digression: If ever you are piloting a perilous flight through torrential downpour, zero-visibility, jarring turbulence and your cell phone should happen to vibrate from its holster…consider, for your passengers’ sakes, waiting until we are safely upon the terra firma before removing said cell phone from holster, flipping open said phone, checking message, sharing with co-pilot, then re-holstering. Just consider.

But land we did. Then walk across the street (woman with her two children walking into town with two “beach mutts” off-leash trotting in front of her) to the El Officina del Post to find a taxi to our hotel.

It is his first time in Nosara. He has to ask directions several times in the 5km drive. Reggea-ton trebleing through the 6 X 9s in the doors from his iPod. Cigarettes in the console. “I’m looking for a place to stay, also” he says. Not clear if this is something one says with the hope to be invited. His delivery, though, is more like a man who’s returning something for his wife at a department store. I let it ride. On the drive we wind up and up and up some of the worst potholed, rock-strewn, riverbed roads to the top of a small mountain to the Vista del Paraiso (took me more than once to not say Vista del Paradiso).

The only other excitement on the drive is the shouted EE-WHANNA, followed by an abrupt swerve and gesticulation toward a Labrador-sized iguana shuffling along the ditch. OFFICIAL COSTA RICA WILDLIFE GUIDEBOOK CHECKLIST: IGUANA (P.42, second from the top). He doesn’t charge us for the drive.

We are greeted by a woman who announces she’s 80 the way a blackjack dealer tells the table he’s going on his lunch break, and who’s wearing a shirt that reads IT’S A TEXAS THING…Y’ALL WOULDN’T UNDERSTAND!!! She is the mother of the woman we are looking for - Debbie – and quickly (quickly for 80, quickly for anyone) disappears down a couple of doors to fetch Debbie.

Debbie appears and walks us to our room regaling S and I with the events of the past days – a party of 20 for Christmas dinner, the rare(!) dry-season rain that forced them all indoors, etc. etc. We are led down a gardened path to a small yellow cabina with an orange door. Inside, a small double-bed, some shelves and a small bathroom equipped with what we’re later told has been given the Kevorkian moniker “Suicide Shower” (no joke, a shell-like device curiously plugged into an outlet atop the showerhead – when both S and I try to adjust it we are jolted by a formidable electric shock. Important digression: DO NOT STAND IN WATER WHILE ATTEMPTING TO ADJUST SUICIDE SHOWER!). The room is colorful, quaint and surrounded by…wait for it…jungle. Not for the first time on this trip the Indiana Jones theme song pops into my head. Banana leaves, palm fronds, vines (vines@#$!), howler monkeys, wild parrots, tarantulas.

Then up to the terrace. A bean-shaped pool adjoins the main house, a bar at the end of the pool. And from the bar a view of Playa Guiones (the beach). Temperature: 80 degrees. Humidity: 80%. Sun. Jungle. Pool. Ocean. Whatever your notions of paradise are – wherever they have been borne inside your psyche be it postcards, TV, film, Dante, ancestry, genetics, oral tradition – this, it occurs to me with my feet up on the railing, sipping a soda & lime, in shorts, staring off at, alternately the ocean and the yonder-regions beyond….this is pretty much as close to paradise as this gringo has come.

I hop in the pool. Check my email (from the precipice of Known World and the Sublime). Shower. Then back up to the restaurant for dinner. Debbie, the woman who owns/runs this small operation (there are 2 other cabinas in Paraiso) spent a year at the Culinary Institute of America in Houston before spending six months in Paris under the tutelage of (insert French Culinarè here) and departing for Nosara to embark totally on Vista del Paraiso, is a remarkable chef. S had the vegetarian fajitas (grilled pineapple, pepper, mushroom, rice, beans). I had chili-lime prawns (each this size of a carnation) over an avocado crème sauce, rice and beans. We split a passion fruit-chocolate mouse for dessert before stumbling down the pebbled path to our cabina for the night.

*Suffice it to say, usually when people decide en-mass to up and follow people, bad things happen. However the allegory is not lost. I hope.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Nosara II

Woke at 6am to the sound of Howler Monkeys in the banana trees (how many times in life can you say this?). I walked up to the pool and read the Times online/ updated the blog. By 7am Debbie's mom, Rosemary, walked out of the kitchen with breakfast. Sara emerged, then Debbie with a fruit plate the size of a sheet cake (pineapple, passion fruit, sweet orange, papaya, mango) all from her garden. Then asked, "What would you like for breakfast?" (Breakfast is included each morning, FYI.) We opted for the veggie omelet which appeared shortly with mushrooms, pepper jack, avocado, etc. and toast again on large platter. 

Plan for the day: 10:30am yoga at the Nosara Yoga Institute (world-renowned tropical yoga school - see link & pics), beach, lunch....

We talk with Debbie about what she's done to Green (v/t: to make environmentally friendly) Vista del Paraiso. Most of her produce is from the garden. What she can't grow, she buys organic in town. The lighting was replaced with LEDs/solar panels this year. Leftover food is composted either into the garden or given to the birds, dogs, monkeys. She says she's looking for a way to convert her car to run on vegetable oil (as she uses it for cooking in large quantities anyway). Sara said she's going to write up a piece for Ecofacbulous (see link). Costa Rica is a bellwether of an emergent trend in travel, Ecotourism: environmentally friendly, minimally invasive, sustainable travel. (We are staying at a bona-fide Eco resort in the mountains next week.)

Debbie drove us down the hill to rent bikes (10$/day ea.) which there are only 8 places in town to do this. Town is one gravel-road with several congregations of businesses, mostly surf shops, a couple grocery marts, restaurants, real estate, car rentals, in equal proportions: ice creamery (1), bank (1), tattoo parlor (1). You're out of luck, for example, if your TV breaks and you decide to purchase a flatscreen (Rick, welcome to the Big Boys Club!). Out of luck if you want to buy a book. The road is poor, to say the least, and dusty if you happen to share it with a car. 

We then biked through town on the footpaths to the Institute. Imagine a white-pebbled pathway through the jungle, then suddenly appears a wood-cathedral. Took a 90-minute Vinyasa yoga class with a woman who's been at the Institute for a year working towards a continued certification (Yoga instructors, like tattoo artists, like doctors take classes then are required to log hours. Sara's certification is a 200-hour certification. Next for her is the 500). The class was slow and focussed on a lot on breathing. I usually prefer them to have more movement, but S says no matter what the class, you emerge the same person. Nonetheless, yoga in the jungle, right? 

We wandered around some of the Institute's buildings, took pictures then biked down to the Oasis (see town map) for smoothies (2.000 colones, $4). Signed up for surf lessons for Sunday - if time permits I'll explain why surfing on Sundays is probably the most religious activity on the planet. Then we biked the block to Playa Guiones, stripped out of our gear and hopped into the ocean (Air temp: 80 degrees. Water temp: 75 degrees). We played. The travel books all say Guiones is one of, if not The best beach for beginner surfers in CR. The waves are medium-sized, they break consistently to the left. 

Then we biked back to VdP, up the gigantic hill (for the PNWers: Chuckanut Mountain; for everyone else: steep) about 2miles. Truth be told, we walked most of it. The bikes we rented are cruisers (fat tires, no gears) and best suited for the gravel roads in town. Best suited for PAVED roads, but ok. We saw a couple more EE-WHANAS, though too quick to get on camera. 

Back at VdP I grabbed sodas from the fridge & we plunged into the pool. Sara remained poolside, I napped at the cabina. On the way up to dinner we hear this sound like wind rustling through the trees, but when we look up a family of Howler Monkeys is leaping from branch to branch, knocking leaves onto the roof of the cabina. Howler Monkey: see, Costa Rica's largest primate, measuring 24". We watch as the family navigates un-jumpable distances on threadlike branches. Tonight I'm having the chicken. Sun is setting. 

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Nosara III

We've got a surf lesson. No time to look around/comment on the beatific scenery here in paradise. We eat toast and our stopsign-sized platter of fruit, coffee then it's off to town. (Pictures are of us biking down the hill.) We arrive at the Oasis for our 9am lesson ($90, incl board for the day). What we have come to understand is that the best surfing is from 7 - 10am, then people retreat from the afternoon sun and return to the waves around 4 - 6pm, or until it is too dark to see. 

Peadro and Luigi are our surf instructors. Both are rail-thin local - Tico - boys in their late teens. A day in the life of Peadro: wake, surf, teach lesson, lunch, siesta, surf/lesson, surf, sleep. Threehundredandsixtyfivedays a year. We first go to the board shed behind the Oasis and Peadro gets our monstrous 9' boards, straps a leash to each then we are off to la playa, about a 4 minute walk. 

The lesson begins with Peadro drawing with his finger in the sand what his English vocabulary won't sustain. 3 basic rules. 1) Always keep your board perpendicular to the wave; 2) There are stingrays in the ocean so shuffle your feet to avoid stepping on one - this will clearly ruin your day; 3) When you come up from under the water put your hands over your head, just in case there is a board/other rider coming toward you. 

He then draws two longer lines in the sand and demonstrates how to "pop up" on the board. We practice. Think getting up from a push-up but at the speed you would if your toddler was about to put his gummy fingers into an electrical outlet. 

Then Luigi comes bounding out from the cemetery.... He is a local talent, rumored to be Professional caliber, but is choosing to stay in Nosara. He has long curly hair covered by a white hat which he wears even into the waves. (He is, however, the local dance champion. Apparently last night he won a dance contest at the discotheque, for which he received a pair of jeans and not the $40 he was promised. We check this with Debbie's son who was at the club with a Tica girl four years his senior and he confirms.) Luigi and I head into the water, Sara and Peadro head into the water. 

There is a nuance to surfing. Many nuances. The competing factors are balance, velocity, buoyancy, strength, knowledge, patience. When all of these sync together, you get a wave. Then long boards we are assigned, unlike the shorter, fierce incisor-shaped rockets the pros get, account for several of these factors we will not be able to assimilate out of the gates. The longboards, for example, displace more water (buoyancy) and cover more area of the wave (balance) and reach speed more quickly (strength). 

Which still doesn't help me. Well, sort of. The waves here come frequently - several a minute - and are medium-sized. Also, where you catch the waves is only about shoulder-deep water, so it's easy - as easy as one could hope - to learn here. I catch the first wave and ride it about 10 feet toward shore. 

Here is the order of operations in surfing: see wave, analyze where it is breaking, is this the wave for you? it will break in one consistent direction - left, right, not both, get yourself in a position to catch this wave, close but not too close, board turned around, hop onto the board, begin paddling, balance, when the wave begins to rear up under you pop up, position yourself on the board, ride.

Simple right? After the first wave it is another 20 minutes before I catch another. All the while Luigi is patiently reminding me to not be too far forward, too far back, to remain balanced, not too paddle too quickly, to push up evenly. Then another wave. Sara's success is similar. First wave, then a long dry spell (so to speak). Patience. Then the successful waves come more frequently. We are up and riding sometimes 10 sometimes 20 feet toward shore. 

This is tiring. Back at the cabina both S and I find bruises on our elbows, knees, ribs. Two hours of surfing and we head with Luigi and Peadro back to the Oasis for lunch (Asian rice, salad, rejuvenating smoothie, 11.000 colones). We lean the boards together with the thought that we will return to the waves after eating, but this doesn't happen.  

At lunch we run into the Berkeley hedgefund manager (T.) and her boyfriend the molecular biologist researcher (M.) and their 4 mo/old baby who we met at VdP at dinner last night. M tries to convince Luigi he's ready after four days for a shortboard, unsuccessfully. We talk with T about the financial collapse ("We, in the finance world, saw it coming a year and a half ago." "It's going to get much(!) worse before it gets better." "All along the interstate between San Fran and Sacramento there are communities of sprawl built for buyers at super-low rates - = subprime - and are going to sit there vacant until the price drops, which is, if you think about it, the case all over the country with foreclosed houses no one wants to buy." "But we're here, in Costa Rica!") Oh, and she thinks more regulation wouldn't have necessarily fixed any of this. Also the Auto Bailout give the Big 3 about 60 days. Then what....?

It's hot in the noon sun. We bike toward town for some gelato at Robin's. Robin is a 5-star chef who left the culinary world to make gelato in Nosara. We debate leaving the bikes in town and taking a cab up the hill, but S is able to convince me otherwise. We head for the hill. 

About 1/4 mi into the climb my petal snaps off the bike and punctures first my upper calf and then the bottom of my foot. Grueling climb complicated by having to walk, bleeding, pushing a bike. But the reward at the top of the hill - cool pool, shade - makes it almost worth while. Then both of us nap. Hard.

The restaurant is closed on Sundays but Debbie has decided to make coconut shrimp and Costa Rican style tamales (wrapped in banana leaves, not corn husks). We sit family style with Debbie, her mom, and the family from Boulder to eat. Talk ranges from education to war to the NFL, but altogether pleasant. Dinner is amazing - again. We sit poolside long into the dark, before retreating to the cabina where there is a massive bug!