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!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Nosara IV

Woke, found string from Debbie's daughter, Molly, at VdP to tie the peddle on the Costa Rican Death Bike & peddled/limped/rode-the-brakes down to town for 10:30 yoga at the Nosara Yoga Institute (NYI). Yoga was good. Different style than the previous class. We dropped off the bikes back at the rental place. The agent, seeing me with peddle-in-hand says "Problemas?" "Si," I say, "mas problemas." He doesn't charge me for the second day of rental and we leave on peaceful terms. Then we walk.

On the path to the NYI we see some interesting vegetation (see photos; I know, not that cool: blog about vegetation), trees with thorns (giant thorns!), vines shaped like chains. We have lunch at Cafe Zen, run by former NYI students, all organic vegetarian fare. Then we head to Robin's ice cream for one of the two things she serves, and not the panini.

Then to get back up el hil to VdP w/o bikes. A cab is in order, but no cabs.

We walk to the Harbor Reef Hotel complex where friends of ours are supposed to be staying while they are here for a yoga retreat taught by a Renowned Yoga Guru from LA (RYGLA) who shall remain nameless….

They haven’t arrived yet, or we are unable to find them. We ask a Tica girl working at the resort if she can find us a cab. She spends 20 minutes calling, then says “let me ask if someone here wants to make some money.” Time passes. She returns and says in 15 minutes her friend will be arriving from the airport and he can take us. We wait. It’s siesta ahora, not only is nothing open but nothing is open. S reads a dated version of US WEEKLY WITH SHANNON DOUGHERTY OF BEVERLY HILLS 90210 FAME ON THE COVER AND THE STARLET STARING OFF INTO THE ETHER (DISPARATELY AT THE READER), THE TITLE OF THE STORY IS “HER TIME” and I open the DFW collection, “Consider the Lobster”.

We wait and wait. No friend from the airport, no RYGLA friends. So we walk, back toward the main drag. As we are walking I flag down a small Isuzu flatbed truck and ask the driver if he can Transport’e me e me esposa to VdP? He tells me, then S – whose Espanol is more fluente – that he’d be happy to but can we run some errands with him first? Hop in the bed of the truck I do, S climbs into the front and we escort our driver to first the ATM, then his house where he disappears and returns with a cousin/brother/son, mumbles something in Spanish and the cousin/brother/son appears to laugh, then we are on our way to VdP.

We resolve the next time we are here to A) not rent bikes and B) rent ATVs. Gunter, the German ex-pat, ex-German, ex-secret service half-time bartender at VdP owns an ATV rental Co. but says Zis iz zee high ceezon, you cannot get z ATV for two weekz ya? – but nexzt time.

A swim, nap, then Debbie comes screaming through the yard that her son Vincent has gone missing, Gunter cannot be found and she's just booked two large tables for tonight. Harry, of the other family staying at VdP, and I volunteer to help with service. I throw on a button-up shirt and jeans, he the same and we appear like some last-place duo in a Laurel & Hardy dress-off. I put out some chairs, clean off the bar and take up our posts. We wait for the first group to walk through the door, except it’s Vincent & Gunter….

S and I put in our dinner orders (Goat cheese salad, coconut prawns, chicken enchiladas with sour-cream chili) and our RYGLA friends arrive unexpectedly and join us for dinner. They are here also for Gabe & Meghan’s wedding, so they will be traveling with us later in the week. They are from Bellingham, Dan owns a POS software and equipment management company, Christy is an ex-teacher, ex-personal trainer, ex-herbologist. Their arrival to CR was decidedly more complicated than ours and includes first the hotel they had reserved in Liberia having been closed two months ago, taking the shuttle to Nosara and being put in a hotel the next town over after two missed attempts at the place they had booked, then a second possibility, being stranded out of town with no way to get into Nosara for the RYGLA retreat, beach etc. and having all the car rental companies have no cars, no ATVs and finally being consoled with an ATV from a local in Garza. But they are totally and completely “rolling with it” in a way that makes a person who had to take a cab out of town (once) feel really really petty for not doing the same. We talk into the night.

T and M, the Berkeley couple comes to the restaurant. Harry and his family are eating the next table over = the restaurant is almost half populated by people we know, people we’d met on this trip, people vacationing in CR.

On the walk to the cabina we see frogs (pictured). Giant frogs that will let you get right up in their placid faces and take their pictures with harboring no apparent discomfort.


Friday, January 23, 2009



Jen, the jeweler (Stone: www.jenstones.com) pics S and I up from VdP at 7:30am. We make a stop in town to pick up a friend of hers, Kristen (Yoga instructor) and we are off to Playa Guiones. S and I get dropped at The Oasis to get boards and the Tica woman behind the counter who calls me Don Miguel says she’s got “the perfect board for you, Don Miguel.” I say I’m ready to give a shorter board a try, but a slow one.

The board I pick is 6” (a full third shorter than the previous board), lighter and I carry it with it just enough ego-inflation to make me step a bit quicker on the way to el mar. I get impatient. I have a board near the size of the 19-yearolds I see ripping up the big waves. I snap at S to hurry up. She demands I put on Sunblock SPF 5,000 and lathers up my back and off I go. Literally running, into the waves. S has taken a more modest approach and rented a board similar to the one she had the first time out, and no-doubt watches me run off, like a wind-up toy toward the edge of a table, thinks to herself “There goes the man I married.”

First wave, not luck. Second, no luck. Fourth, fifth, sixth – tenth, same. The long board, the slower board I had the first time enabled me to pop up and find stability in the water the way you can imagine trying to pop up and stabilize on a door-sized piece of wood. With the smaller, zippier board, imagine trying to accomplish the above (See: necessary for surfing) on a cucumber.

So back to The Oasis I go for a bigger board after being thoroughly deflated, but I am able to summon a look on my face for passersby like it’s only my towel I’m going back for. Or sunblock. At The Oasis, the Tica woman shakes her head and says “Don Miguel, I gave you wrong board. I am not so good at giving boards.” I grumble dejectedly and slink back to the shed for the previous board. Back to the beach.

First wave I’m up. Then ambition takes hold and I’m trying to ride every wave (waves coming 4 or 5 a minute). But I’m getting up 40% of the time and this seems like pretty good numbers to me.

My chest is chafing from the board. My knees are bruised. The waves come faster and more than once I’m thrown under and come up on the wrong side of the horizon. There are too many surfers out. The beach is crowded. We should have come at 6. I’m getting my ass kicked. S has ridden a handful of successful waves and decided to sit a few rounds on the beach. Because she’s sensible. Because she is patient.

We meet up with Jen and Kristen and drive back to VdP where Kristen is going to teach a yoga class for Harry, his wife, Lucille their daughter and Lucille’s three children (Lucille is here with the children following her husband’s/ the children’s father’s sudden death in June.)

S does yoga too. Dan and Christy arrive and we have lunch on the terrace. S showers and we walk (yes, walk!) to what’s supposed to be the opening yoga class for the RYGLA teacher’s workshop. First we go to the NYI’s main studio. Jen, Kristen, Dan, Christy, Sara and I wait until after we’re sure the class is supposed to have started and no one’s arrived. “It’s yoga, no one’s ever on time?” “Maybe they’re on TicaTime (the unattached, indigenous time schedule = usu. 10 – 15min behind or early)?” “Maybe it’s at another studio?”

Dan and I opt to search the one, maybe two, other places in town where a yoga class could/would be held: Casa Tucan (nope), the beach (yep). Ring of yoga-clad dwellers sitting lotuses. Dan drops me and heads for the rest of the crew.

How long do I wait before walking over and joining the group? Long enough to make it obvious I’m either wanting to be a part of or I’m stalking one of the participants.

I sit, a woman offers to make space in the ring for me. I look to the road to the beach, hoping S & Co. will be just now walking over and I won’t have to do this alone.

…the group is probably 20 in size, centered around the RYGLA (who is wearing a small bikini, cowboy hat, sunglasses and holding a petrified peapod which at first glance I mistake for a piece of charcoaled firewood or flashlight or microphone) – everyone is fixated on her. She gives the group the instructions that when the peapod is passed to you you repeat “Oooom wave, mighty wave, glorious wave, my name is (insert name) and this year is going to be a year of (insert value).” The peapod starts going around. I look back to the road – Sara Please be there! – and nothing. Meanwhile other people – vacationers, locals, surfers, joggers, families – are passing by with one eyebrow raised in our direction.

“Ooom wave, mighty wave, glorious wave my name is ___________ and this year is going to be a year of Glory!”

Someone rescue me, please. Ayuda is the Spanish word for Help.

The five year-old next to me doesn’t say the wave part and can’t think of anything this year is going to be about. I take similar tack and mumble something about courage. Pass the pod. “Ooom wave…..”

Jen, Kristen, Dan, Christy and Sara arrive as RYGLA takes off down the beach with her boyfriend, holding hands and I’m left to explain the bit about the circle, the sand and the dedication into the ocean. (RYGLA told me – me! – to instruct “your friends” “when they arrive” to draw a circle in the sand with Peapod, draw in that circle the representations of items we’d like to leave behind at this retreat, then wipe the circle clean, take a handful of flowers and dedicate them to the mighty, glorious ocean.) None are too keen on the whole deal, self included, so we splash in the ocean, take pictures of the glorious, mighty sunset and drive back up the hill for dinner at VdP. Our last meal in Paraiso is deep fried Red Snapper. We say our goodbyes and head to bed early (tomorrow our bus departs downtown at 7).


Wednesday, January 7, 2009


We travel down from Celeste Mountain, our thoughts our clothes our souls drying on the road the farther we get from the rainforest. Gabe & Meghan have chosen a private beach resort on the northwest coast of Costa Rica, the beach there, to get married. I have known Gabe for twelve years, since he moved into a house I was renting in college. He is one of my closest friends. He and Meghan have been dating for five years, she is a truly inspiring individual: she does triathlons, half-marathons in impressive times. The ceremony will be small – 40 people – and mostly family and a few friends. They chose this beach in particular because of its renowned beauty, its seclusion and privacy. The day of the wedding they have booked the entire resort so only guest and family will have access to the beach and hotel.

The drive to Playa de Azucar is just under two hours and on mostly-paved road (which is a stark contrast from the pot-holed, dust cloud, dirt roads we have grown accustomed to in Nosara). Gabe, Meghan, Danny (a computer programmer from Seattle) and his girlfriend, Jen, are traveling with us. We stop briefly in Liberia, Costa Rica’s second-largest city, for refreshments, then press on to Playa de Azucar (PdA).

PdA is located in the center of a small cove on the Pacific Ocean. The waves are small, the scenery lush, the wildlife rampant. We all peel out of the car and head directly to the beach. Like Nosara, the water is warm, 70ish degrees. We waste no time in plotting what will be our routine for the days leading up to the wedding: beach, pool, lunch, beach, dinner, pool. The beach is secluded from the other beaches by rocks on either end of the cove’s U. We rent boogie boards each day and ride wave after wave after wave.

Boogie boarding is not unlike surfing in that it requires the same sense of timing, positioning and tenacity. You need to be just far enough out to catch the wave, but not too far as to have it crash on top of you. Having spent several days on a surfboard, I pick this up pretty easily and we spend the days trying to perfect nuances of the sport: riding the wave down the beach, staying up for longer, boarding on our knees.

The pool where we spend our not-beach, not-eating daylight hours is an Infinity-edge pool, which means it has no edge (see infinity: continuing into perpetuity). Lounging in the pool, the farthest edge appears to not exist, like looking out over a glass table into the jungle. Every time I hop in the water I have to swim over to the edge to see just how it works. I want to say the disappearing trend in pool edges perhaps is symbolic of a larger trend?

The food at PdA is comparable to the Comida Tipica, but with a slightly prettier presentation – sliced avocado splayed like palm leaves, drinks with paper umbrellas. Breakfast is included with our room, but everything else we pay for we charge to the room – which is a good way to have no idea how much money one is spending. There is also a food & hospitality tax in CR. Tourism being the chief moneymaker in the country, they have found some interesting ways to extract small fees here and there for tourists. 10% gratuity here, 13% F & H tax, a $26/per person tax to enter/exit the country.

We explore the tide pools on the edge of the cove. S teaches yoga to the wedding guests every morning. We eat, swim, eat. Friday NBC is broadcasting the San Diego Chargers V. the Indianapolis Colts, we watch some football in someone’s air-conditioned room, Pina Coladas are delivered, nachos. (I’m in a bad way after the Colts tank, they were my pick to win it all.) Then back to the ocean.

It goes on like this. I get a tan. We run out of SPF 30. I have to loosen a notch on my belt. I think they are called Luxury Problems, these.

Another of the features of PdA are the EE-WHANNAS. They are everywhere. Roofs, pathways, trees, restaurant. Harmless, they patrol the grounds in pursuit of insects. When they scamper up too close to guests, the hotel’s employees shoo them away the way you’d shoo a cat from a bowl of tuna on a kitchen counter. EE-WHANNA hisses, then usually remains in eye contact with a look like “how dare you!?!!” Never heard anything about attacking tourists, though it is easy enough to imagine one snapping up someone’s Chihuahua and dragging it down into a storm drain.

Howler Monkeys swing the trees during the morning and evening hours, sitting in the afternoon sun like gargoyles, watching. S glimpses a red squirrel hollowing out a coconut (right? a coconut), pawing out the meat. One of our rooms has 31 bats hanging from the balcony. The sightings get to be commonplace. EE-WHANNA sightings begin to go unremarked. One morning the monkeys wake me before six and I lay in bed wondering what it would take to get my hands on an AK47 like I’ve seen the Policia wear. Paradise is becoming lost.

I think the trick here is to remain impressed. I feel this way as I write, at 30,000ft on the return flight to New York, the city I love. Such a beautiful city. Buildings like mute Swiftian giants, vibrant neighborhoods, unyielding diversity, life throbbing from every bodega and F-stop. M-F, The Grind has an anesthetic quality.

A Buddhist koan: two people are waiting at a busstop for a bus that’s running late. One person grows increasingly anxious and upset at the lateness of the bus. The other remains calm. Therefore, it cannot be the bus that is causing the anxiety or the calm – it’s the person.

*INTERPRETATION: It is not New York or PdA or VdP or CML which of their own power grow dull, it is the person. Perhaps this is where we reach for the larger understanding. Religion maybe. Values. Integrity. To be at times the anxious person and at times the calm. And both being ok, non-judging.

S, however, in no way shares my perspective growing dull. About two days before we leave she begins to say things like “I don’t want to go home” “we only have one more day!” “I’m not ready to go!”

We have the wedding however, guests begin to arrive each day. Pat & Christina, Sustainable business consultants from Bellingham/St. Paul. Dan & Christy, the couple we met at the RYGLA retreat in Nosara. Meghan’s family, Gabe’s family.

The guest list fills out and we’re nearing the Day. A larger and larger percentage of the hotel’s guests are part of the ceremony populating an isolated cove resort with only your family and friends the way a Tolstoy or Austin populates the pages of a novel with characters. We are secluded here to take part in the unfolding drama.

Monday, January 5, 2009


Celeste Mountain Lodge sits in a valley between two of Costa Rica’s active volcanoes, in the perpetual mist of tropical rainforest. The lodge is an Ecolodge, meaning many of the hotel’s features, structures and amenities are carried out in harmony with the ecosphere (see: nature). The foundation of CML is comprised of old tires, wood scraps and metal waste. All of the hotel’s energy comes from sustainable sources (solar, geothermal). The hot-tub is heated from the burning of harvested, fallen timber. The lighting is entirely powered by LED bulbs. The trash is filtered to retrieve all (ALL) recyclable materials. And so on. Meals are included for guests at CML (sustainable, locally acquired meats & produce), including lunches which Joel packs for us the two days we are there – sandwiches, muffins wrapped in banana leaves, not plastic and juice (jugo en Espanol) in plastic containers we are to return to him empty.

The first thing you notice when entering the rainforest is: wet. Everything is wet. The two days we stayed at CML we saw no sun. clouds, mist, rain in alternating variables consumed us each moment of our stay. Joel made it a point to apologize for the weather, but then would add, “Szuch iz zee way zings r ear in zee rainforezt.”* We disembark the cloud cover twice to go into town (Canas, Bagaces respectively), but the entirety of our time is either in anticipation of rain, or in the midst of torrential downpour. Think of the footage you’ve seen of mudslides swallowing houses, cars, trees. Then think of the rain that would have had to come fall to precipitate (I know I know) such a slide. This kind of rain fell daily at CML. And from what I am told, rain of these proportions is the rule here, year round.

So rain and more rain. Eco and more Eco. Joel and Joel. S and I were totally unprepared for the shift in climate from sunny, beach, sun, pool to gray. More than once one of our party remarks how much this climate resembles the Pacific Northwest. & how we could have stayed home if we wanted to trapse through mudcaked trails…. But alas.

We hike, eat, hot tub and play games into the new year. Had we done this leg of the trip without friends, a day would have been plenty. But together the time passed pleasantly.

One of our day excursions is toward the Aranal Volcano to attempt to find a zipline canopy tour. It’s New Years Day, which like the US, the entire country shuts down. We drive toward the volcano following handwritten signs and the handwritten directions Joel wrote up for us. Most of Costa Rica’s 4 million inhabitants reside in large cities (approx. 1 million in San Jose, less than that in Liberia; on any given day however, 1 in 3 Costa Ricans is American) and smaller towns. We pass several of these towns on our way to the zipline (which is closed, the abandoned lines hovering overhead taunting us), we stop in Bagaces (Buh-ga-sez) for a soda tipica (see: lunch) at a small diner. We are the only customers and we order 6 of whatever the chef is cooking today (carne, arroz con frijoles, pescado, lechuga). Chef hustles behind the counter, sweat dripping from brown, collar, forehead. We are served on massive white plates of the above ($4 ea.) which we wash down with Coke Light & Agua (Softdrinks in CR are sweetened with sugar, not chemicals, which means they taste magnificent). It is Gabe’s 34th birthday, when I tell Chef he frantically disappears behind the bar and scoops 6 cups of helado sprinkled with red jello.

We drive back to CML, some of our number nodding into sleep. About 20 kilometers from the lodge, before we turn off onto the dirt road, the clouds return. Driving up to CML we pass shack after shack of corrugated aluminum two-room houses, each with an emaciated cow or two chomping at nubs of turf poking out of the mud. Child, or children wave to us from the doorways as we jerk past on the rooted out roadway, before returning to the dark interior. Pause here to feel whatever one feels - “the hurting is so painless from the distance of passing cars.”

Later in the trip we are talking with one of the wedding’s attendants about my job, about teaching, about youth. She shares a story about a ride-along she once was invited along for with a Bellingham Police officer. The ride passed through some of the rougher parts of town and she says she remembers the kids on the corners flipping off the police cruiser, some throwing things. Our friend was surprised by this reaction. She has always been raised to respect the police. When she remarks as much, the officer driving says “C _______, these children are all of our responsibility. Not just the teachers, the police, the counselors, but all of ours. We can pretend that not taking care of the children is not harming, but each of us is responsible.”

Ecotourism was founded officially sometime in the 1980s by a group of environmentalists looking to reduce the impact of a vast, exploitative industry (tourism: see hotels being built by native peoples, increased strain on local resources, improper waste management, then abandonment when the enterprise fails) and to restore dignity to the communities people travel to see. To reduce the impact of the tourist industry. To restore dignity to indigenous people. This movement has seen its struggles (see: exploitation by commercial industrial barons), but on the whole has succeeded in its twin aims: to expand/profit from the tourist industry; to restore balance/dignity to tropical areas. Costa Rica is a bellwether in the Ecotourist industry, many of the resorts and destinationi locations in the country offer Eco-minded options. The country also regulates the beaches in a similar way.

The blue-flag rating system was started by locals beach communities to communicate to tourists the cleanliness and safety of the beach. This self-certification spread from beach to beach and worked toward a national certification whereby tourists can lookup in said tourists tourist book which beaches do not have syringes in the sand or sewer pumped directly into the ocean an know where to go. Entirely self-started, self-sustained and self-regulated.

At dinner we all sit together, the wedding party and whomever else happens to be staying at the lodge. I ask Joel (SZHO-ELL) why he chose to do this and he says two reasons: one, eating together promotes a return to the communal act of eating, the sit-down and eat your dinner as a family your mother talked about. And two, logistically, it is easier for the kitchen staff to plate all the food at the same time because Joel drives all the employees home after the dinner service, some of them living as far as 10 kilometers from CML and who would otherwise have to walk. (Average individual income in Costa Rica is $4,900/yr. Joel pays his employees considerably higher than the average hourly wage, but still only $1.25/hr. His employees work 48 hours a week, 6 days and receive all their meals while at CML.)

*Joel was born in Quebec, raised outside of Paris, spent most of his adult life in Vancouver, Canada before emigrating to CR. In addition to CML, he owns and runs a burger joint (his words) in the Vancouver airport. According to him he has never once eaten there, out of principle?