Walden World

The wacky and wonderful tales of Beth's and Catherine's global adventures. And all things Walden too.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Coffee Tour From a Weird Circle of Hell

We have been at the gorgeous Costa Verde Inn in the mountains of Escazu for the last week. The grounds are covered in gardens of lime trees, palms, mangos and other fruits. Countless birds live in the trees including, next to the pool, two very hungry and rather plump, shouting Yellow Tanager chicks who spend all day demanding that their parents feed them. I note the parents have been avoiding the nest lately. If I were them, I'd spend all my time at the local pub too.

There is a fantastic blue tiled pool and hardwood hand made furniture throughout the grounds; this is a really great place. Plus there is cable TV for C and she is currently lying in bed (it is mid day) watching a British show on the history spices of the world. Apparently ancient Roman cuisine actually tasted good! The breakfasts also rock with the two lovely Ticas making a fresh breakfast of whatever you want each morning; five to six different kinds of fresh fruit, eggs, gallo pinto, granola...

The only real drawbacks have been the frequent power outrages which have hit San Jose the last three nights. However one can't say it isn't romantic, sitting in the main hall on leather sofas, the wood beamed roof high above, while the hoteliers light a blaze in the fireplace. The downside is eating as we've been forced to order in from the limited restaurants which had cooking gas. Have you ever had a Costa Rican pizza? Let's just say onions figure prominently.

Yesterday though was the strangest activity that we've yet undertaken. We decided to do day trips from Escazu for the last week in light of the excellent premises, this compared to the stifling jungle cabin in Cahuita that C withered away in, like Alec Guiness in the sweatbox in 'The Bridge Over the River Kwai'

Thus we went on a "coffee tour". Now coffee tours are a dime a dozen here and all turistas take them. We however have managed to avoid them until now; but now we were running out of things to do. Thus assured by the hotel that the tour was excellent and would feature traditional dancing and costumes we signed on.

Of course because the little tour bus contained C and I, the clutch promptly broke and we spent the next 2 hours stalling and restarting our way slowly to the plantation in Heredia.

Upon our arrival at the Britt Coffee Roasting Plant and Plantation we were dispatched to the large gift shop and implored to purchase roasted beans while being doled cups of coffee liquor and forced to taste all myriad of chocolate covered banana scraps and coffee beans.

The shop was flooded with American high school students who took advantage of the free internet connections to send friends ecards featuring Britt Coffee propoganda. We were told our tour would start in ten minutes in the garden. Our private tour turned out to be shared by the flood of US students as well as I think 100 hundred very elderly Americans from Arizona.

The coffee tour, it immediately became clear, was some kind of whacky, vaudeville cabaret Costa Rican style. Thus a man who resembled a Tico version of Gilligan and a woman 'straight man' began a Jerry Lewis-esque comedy masque. Unfortunately for the assembled Americans Latin American humour diverges significantly from the Protestant kind, focusing rather pointedly and repeatedly on the woman complaining about her spouse's lack of 'ahem' potency as well as his laziness. This for two hours. Later it was followed by a strange costume and light show involving a number of popes, the king of France and medieval doctors all played by El Gilligan, the sex starved girlfriend and oddly enough, the plant manager who decided that he would rather do rapid changes of whacky costumes, then pay attention to the roasting process.

Thus for $27 each American C and I endured the oddest "let's put a show on in the barn" event I have yet witnessed, slack jawed in awe the entire time. "Am I on LSD?" I kept wondering as costume change after costume change unfolded rapidly before us.

On post mortem C tried to figure out whether we had been on a lamer tour. I suggested the cheese factory last year in Monteverde was pretty bad, they just showed me the vats and then made you eat cheese; and the Guiness tour in Dublin was pretty bad. They sat you down for a 10 minute sound and light show with broken old manequins in moth eaten period costume illuminated by spot-lights while a grainy taped voice-over told you how Arthur Guiness started to brew beer, after which you were frogmarched off to the gift shop; end of tour.

At least here El Gilligan, the actor wannabe plant manager and the love starved actress had gone to a great deal of effort in a manic, pratfall, sex joke kind of way to keep the students, elderly Arizonians and C and I entertained, if that's what you would call it.

And as for the coffee; gee come to think of it I'm not sure they even mentioned coffee.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Here and There - Revised

Strange is our trip. Last year we loved CR like a infatuted young man after his glance of a mature woman of his dreams. The CR I love is still here, but is being choked out by the many weeds in this garden of paradise.

The monkeys hang from trees looking at you watchfully but curious none the less. Ticos still pick you up in cars to ward off harm and so many small rivers flow like delights.

But now learning and seeing more about the rainforest and the course of massive constructions, I see that CR is being drained and washed away through the erosion of development. 70% of beachfront land is owned by foreigners; all hotels with the exception of two we have stayed in are owned by Europeons or Americans; the Ticos all work as maids and servants: They drive for you and clean for you but do not own their own inheritance.

Ex-pats fill the bars, hotels and properties complaining about the weather, the prices and the attitude they get from help. This is quickly turning to one of those 'countries' where fat, rich gringos suck the juice while Ticos get poorer and poorer.

We expressed these thoughts to a Rasta on the Caribbean, all the while our hotel room was being robbed. He was shocked anyone from the North America noticed these issues at all: that the gap between the rich and poor gapes greater each year; that Ticos lose their country to condos being sold to retired Americans, who can't afford much in their home state.

Here gringos sit in the rivers and pan and prospect for property.

Filling up the mountains around us, in Escazu, are newly rich Ticos but mostly ex-pats, comprising a tiny minority of the already small population. They have built huge upscale malls replete with private security and gates and drive SUVs bigger than I have ever seen, to the strips in order to have bad Italian and Peruvian food produced by the TGIF chains.

But still white faced Cappuchians came down from the trees and flashed nasty little fangs at a Canadian hippy who teased them with Pringles; and fish the colours of the stars in all galaxies on black light swam beside me in schools of hundreds; waterfalls from 10,000 feet high fall cascading down, seven in total, one after the other.

Finally I walked on Irazu: Neil Armstrong was there in the 1970s after the eruptions had stopped. He said it was like walking on the moon. There 11,000 feet above sea level, gasping for breath as the air was thin, I walked like the astronauts on a surface like our lunar sister and looked down thousands of feet into the mouth of the volcano: its' black, blasted, strayated sides counterpoint for the raging moss sea green lake in the heart of the crater. I was away from all that is normal or real. Have I been on another planet? Do such things like this exist?

And then, there is the ripped gortex tent on the sidewalk of a 'drivethru' suburb by the new Intel Plant, wherein some guy lives; and then the man they interviewed for his opinion today on the issue of the proposed US/Central American free trade pact, in the 'Tico Times', an ex-pat English language newspaper for Latin America.

A photo of a blind man squinting and then this description of the interviewee: "Rodrigues, 40, a beggar from Guanacaste in downtown San Jose who plays a broken guitar with soundless plastic strings. He is going to vote "No""

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Paradise Lost

This story must be related seamlessly:

Paradise was quickly lost.

First the wonderful cabinas we rented rose in temperature, both day and night, to a level of heat one can only compare to that experienced by a caged captive of the Japanese army in Borneo during WWII. This was not made better by the small and pathetic fan perched on the crest of the roof rafters, nor our hostess' grave caution that, while we slept, should we fail to batten down all the thick, wooden, Kansas strength storm hatches, we would be robbed or killed by bandits who may lay in wait in the nearby national park.

Then came the bugs: C´s legs and mine resembled those of a smallpox victim despite the generous application of repellants both natural and Deet based. Worst of all the insects here don´t hurt when they bite, rather you just wake up all red, poxed and bumpy. Then the burning starts. After that the itching...

C and I go snorkelling and the sunscreen washes off. We were burnt to a crisp like toast. C already hated the stifling heat and thereafter could barely dress her soundly barbequed very white Britanic-Hebredian backside.

We thus wisely elected to flee Cahuita to Panama on the morning bus to a promising air conditioned hotel. Unfortunately as I went to pay our bill the Swiss ex-pat hotel owner exclaimed in great shock that, despite the fact that she had said when we checked in, (NOTE: advertises doesn't take Credit Cards) that you can pay in travellers' cheques she "never imagined the cheques would be in Canadian currency!Such a thing is never heard of!!!" Remember Scotiabank is the #1 bank now in CR.

She sounds exactly like "Inga" as played by Teri Garr in 'Young Frankenstein' and there is no bank nor any ATM in Cahuita.

Thus off to all the stores in town: the hardware, the weird liquor mart etc...who advertise that they cash TCs as well as exchange money. All readily agree to take said TCs until they realize they were, yes, in Canadian currency. I feel as though I am attempting to pay some snooty shopclerk at Holt & Renfrew with loose change in Albanian Lekes.

I thus told 'Inga' that we would have to go to Puerto Vieljo, a long bus ride (10 kilometres away, this is CR afterall) to the Costa Rican National Bank to cash the damned TCs. We waited for the bus which arrived promptly after an hour. We then went to Vieljo and lined up in the bank for 30 minutes after being strip searched for weapons, only to be told upon inspection of our TCs, that the bank cashes TCs in US dollars only.

We went to the ATM and dangerously overdrew C´s account.

An 1 1/2 hour wait for the return bus and back to Cahuita where 'Inga' was anxiously waiting for us though our entire earthly belongings were neatly packed and locked up sitting in the cabina.

As I began to make payment she strongly implied that as we had failed to vacate the room by the required 11 am check out time posted, we would have to pay for yet another day.

Note 'hotel ist morte': it is empty; no one there in the other cabinas. I reply 'flushed' (let's just say by this time I was really pissed off, broiling hot, sweating and fed the hell up) that I was not paying for another night; that we had left the hotel at 10 am; that she knew we had to go to Vieljo and that she knew we couldn´t make it back until now at 2:00 pm due to the damn bus schedules.

As C pointed out (trying to smooth things over) it wasn't like we slept in or something; we had in fact spent the last many hours trying desperately to pay her.

We thus left Cahuita as my name was now mud amongst the ex-pat hotel community.

Off to Puerto Vieljo. Things went well at first. A musty but expensive "LUXURY" unit which at least had air conditioning for C's relief, owned by some weird American kid who sounded like Jack from 'Lost' yet behaved like 'crazy Kevin' from 'The Young and the Restless'. He was an American "Doogie Howser" property owner in a poor country.

Now to the denouement. On the day of our arrival we were propositioned by the local mover and shaker of financial beach trade in PV, a certain "Andrea" who not only made a living by braiding hair and (she said) giving massages but also, we learned later, hooking people up with ganja sellers in the town.

C eagerly volunteered me for a massage knowing rightly that I enjoy them, given my crappy back. But I was a tad reticent, Andrea having no credentials, training or, well even a decent business card (I didn't think a home pencil-crayoned red, yellow and green hair braiding ad, fingered many times and quite crumpled with a wrong phone number she corrected with a pen seemed expressed an air of professionalism). But I decided to put my uptightness aside and, as C said, 'go with the flow'. This was after all, the other coast of CR: the 'vibe' coast.

Andrea requested a 5000 Colone deposit and promised to meet me for a massage at our hotel at 4:30 pm the following day.

At about 5:30 pm she arrived. Andrea insisted we go to our hotel room for the massage. I felt "odd" or as the Irish would say more precisley "off".

First it was the worst massage I have ever experienced. C hates giving massages and will, when I really whine, kind of poke me with her fingers a bit in the back for about a minute, but C was a veritable Shiatsu master compared to Andrea's lame 'touching' with Johnson's Baby Lotion.

Odd again; 20 minutes into my '1 hour massage' Andrea she said she had to go out for a 'refreshment to take a break'. She made a clumsy attempt to get out the patio door which opened on to the street. I redirected her to the main door. C came in a few minutes later asking me how the massage went. I told her that Andrea was taking a break and we were apparently mid-massage.

"Andrea is sitting at the bar having a beer", C replied breaking out laughing.

5 minutes later Andrea returned, Corona in hand, and gave me a further 10 minute perfunctory 'massage' after which she suddenly left.

I told C I was completely weirded out.

I have had many massages but none so awkwardly...strange. I advised C I had a bad feeling like as if Andrea was 'casing the joint'. I triple locked the door with the many deadbolts and locked all our luggage. I checked the door, left all the lights on so it looked like we were there and we went out.

We returned about an hour later after a drink in maintown. I saw light sparking from the room. I lightly pressed the heavy wood and it swung wide like a saloon door. Both deadbolts were firmly in lock position. They had shifted the entire doorframe to break into the room. Our bags had been rifled through top to bottom.

When we told Doogie Hotelier he advised us that Andrea had been banned from a number of local hotels and bars for petty thievery. The 'good news' he said, was that they didn't find anything and therefore "probably won't come back".

We decided we would leave the next day.

The rather random bus cancellations and our vacilations meant that we couldn´t get out of the stifling heat of PV by bus, until 1:30 pm. Thus we wouldn't get into San Jose until after dark. Not a good thing on a Saturday night.

Doogie Hotelier had told me that the price to Puerto Limon by way of taxi was $25 US firm. We had the hotel call a taxi and an air conditioned SUV arrived shortly all smart and grey. However after stowing our stuff the driver told me the price was in fact $40 US. Firm.

Beth, thus outraged, pulled the luggage out of the boot and stormed down the dirt road to demonstrate her protest at this rip off, C struggling behind, her pack in tow.

We then got to the dead, baked centre of PV.

No one was outside except local and expat maddies who seem to wheel about the dirt streets on bicycles from the 40s and US surfer kids who've come to smoke Ganja. They are the modern version of 'mad dogs and Englishmen'.

The heat was unbearable.

There was no bus for another two hours. C was feeling sick. I thus decided we should call, again, a cab.

When he arrived he advised that the fare was $40 US, this clearly agreed to by all taxis that serve stupid Gringas in PV. We weren't in a position to bargain anymore.

Our new cab however was no AC Minivan, rather it's a "Flintstones" car. Many of the taxis in CR are crap but this one took the cake:the windows were all cracked or broken, no door handles or window handles; seats or seat belts were not apparent, the front hood and trunk seemed to be held together by string; C and I put our luggage in the boot which was covered in a thick paste of old motor oil and for all we knew, the blood of murdered coca dealers whose bodies had been disposed of in one of the two oceans surrounding CR.

Rattling along in 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang' off we went to Puerto Limon at a top speed of 20 km an hour as the car was unable to break past the 40 km barrier. Neither the speedometer nor odometer worked; not that I guess it really mattered.

After some time in the 'vehicle' both C and I felt our 'bottoms' getting really hot, like we were sitting on blacksmith iron. We mentioned this to each other and after investigation found that the molten car exhaust was venting through the rusted trunk into the back seats and cooking our backsides. Realizing the eminent risks of carbon monoxide poisoning we spent the remainder of the journey with our heads thrust out the crack of the back windows lest we suffocate, adjusting our daypacks so they didn't catch fire.

At one juncture our driver pulled in to a gas station to buy exactly $5.00 US of gas, but left the car running while "filling up" lest the car stall and never again start. I wasn't sure whether to run from the vehicle, imagining a 'Starsky and Hutch' like explosion or sit and hope that "prayer" and/or New Age 'visualization' could supress the laws of physics.

But in our little tinker car we made it to Puerto Limon rattling into the bus station just as the San Jose was about to pull out.

I gave our driver the biggest tip I think, I've ever given anyone but I am not sure if it was to fix his car, or award him for his courage.

Monday, April 09, 2007


C and I have found that we have done more in three days than we usually do in 2 months. We've flown half way south into central america, visited a superb zoo, taken a crazy plane ride, followed by an even more insane boat ride, then swam in the ocean on a black sand beach and drank beer in a Rasta bar while watching the sunset over the river; and that was only up to Saturday.

Yesterday we again woke far too early, 5am to go for a guided canoe trip around the canals of Tortuguero. Unfortunately we had to paddle too. This was not made easy by the strange hand carved "native" paddles we had to utilize. However the trip was, in the end, worth every blister. We paddled along thick rain forest canals where giant trees hung over you almost blocking out all light. We saw scores of spider monkeys swinging from tree top to tree top and even watched a "river otter" sit by a tree and groom himself for 10 minutes. River otters were the most surprising creatures. No Ticos in Tortuguero swim in the river there due, apparently, to the viciousness of this animal. The only other predator of the dreaded crocodile apart from humans, are the otters who in packs attacks the reptiles and eat their tails. Luckily the victims' tails will grow back.

At 10 am returning from our canoe trip we got into yet another boat and took the long, 3 1/2 hour journey from isolated Tortuguero to Puerto Limon where roads started again as Tortuguero is accessable only by boat or plane. Luckily we found a tourist bus willing to take C and I to Cahuita straight from the docks without having to detour through Puerto Limon: a town with the worst reputation in CR.

Sadly though our Jonah vibe rubbed off on the tourist bus and it promptly broke down requiring us to venture to the bus station in dangerous Puerto Limon, a thoroughly nasty little place, home to numerous gangs, maddies and addicts, who appear to comprise the entire population of the town. Perhaps most telling is that the restaurant beside the bus station is itself, actually dirtier than the restaurant washrooms.

Off then to Cahuita on the Caribbean sea. A totally awesome village which throbs with reggae music. Our cabina is a beautiful polished wood cottage set among fragrant tropical gardens which back onto Cahuita National Park. Entirely surrounding our cabin are grasses that are home to thousands of crabs who upon vibration race into their holes to escape predators. Tropical birds flit about the garden while I lay in the hammock on the porch watching them with binoculars.

Best of all Howler monkey troops live the trees right behind our cabina we watch them clamber through the trees. Even as I write in this internet cafe small lizards cling to the panes of glasss outside and wander up and down the windows.

The beach at Cahuita is entirely national park with pristine coral sands allowing C and I to spend hours just floating on aquamarine waves. Perhaps the only mishap of the day was C's terrified motioning which brought me in from the ocean; she thought a tarantula had walked over her towel while she lay reading. Luckily the tarantuala was only a very large yellow crab who had the misfortune of having C use the entrance of his home as her book rest.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

A Tale of Two Jonahs

Are you aware of the biblical story of Jonah? Jonah was thrown into the sea and ultimately swallowed by a whale as the crew of the ship upon which he sailed, believed him to be responsible for the many disasters the ship suffered. Thereafter "bad luck" people were called a "Jonah" by shipmates.

Catherine and I are "Jonahs" for Sansa Airline.

We awoke this morning at 4 am to get to the airport for 5:15 am to take a flight to the remote Tortuguero national forest, which is only accessible by boat or plane. No roads wind through the astounding rainforest which surrounds the village. Awoken and duly served fruit by the conspiracy theorist American hotel owner who sounded like what I imagine Robert E. Lee to have sounded like (did you know the twin towers were brought down by a drone missle launched by the federal government to instil fear in Americans and bring about a police state?) and fed Pinto Gallo.

To the airport thereafter. In a crowded room filled with travellers the Sansa desk man kept commenting on how beautiful was the name Catherine Hunter. He loudly asked her:"How much do you weigh" and she easily responded: ¨120 pounds". It then came my turn. He turned to me and conspiratorily whispered: "How much do you weigh?" acting as if he was trying to sell me drugs. I responded only to be asked a second time in a harsh whisper: "How much do you weigh?!?!"...worst part is I wasn´t lying. The day didn´t get better from there.

Onto the small 12 person plane and off to Rio Colorado to drop off a group of Americans at a lodge then to Tortuguero. The plane landed with a cracking thud as the local dogs came wandering out to greet the plane. Having deposited the Americans off, we, C and I, two crazy rich Venezulans, and the American wife of one of them, started down the runway. Suddenly the plane started shaking like it would come apart at the seams causing my teeth to literally rattle. We promptly came to a halt. The pilots jumped out and then advised us that we could not fly, and they would have to call a mechanic from San Jose to fix the "stabilizing piston" in the engine. It was just after 6 in the morning.

Anyone who read my post from last CR trip "Death and the Loofah Sponge" would see a strange parallel. However at our last castaway spot was a shaded little oasis with swinging couches, an impeccably clean bathroom and a fridge full of ice cold pop, water and beer. Here we were in a decidedly grim little town, where the shack like houses were perched on stilts to avoid flooding from the swampy river which bisects the town. Then the rain started. Luckily we were taken in a by a French Canadian fisherwoman who had become a local, sitting in the foyer of her little store where she sold a few small items such as hair colour and nail polish.

The pilots and the crazy Venezulans retired to a cantina by the airstrip where, in celebration of Easter, everyone was getting blasted on beer at 6:15 am.

The plane with the much hoped for mechanic however failed to materialize by the promised hour of 8:30 am.

Then it was 9am, then 10am and still the pilots and crazy Venezulans sat in the catina drinking beer. We watched the rain pour down while feral dogs wrestled. Finally "Sid", one of the crazy Venezulans came to parly, there was no guarantee any mechanic was coming from San Jose to fix the plane, the pilots nodded in agreement...Sid had a "Plan B¨.

"Plan B" was chartering a boat for $90 US, split between the parties, piloted by Sid´s new drinking buddy from the cantina. Sid´s pitch to me was:¨"You look like a woman who likes adventure!"

Diane, the French Canadian wanted to know the identity of the Captain before we set sail. She checked him out, his name was "Marcos" and she frankly advised me that he had been drinking since at least 6am that morning, but nevertheless had a big boat, could handle his drink and that he would get us where we wanted to go.

With this assurance, C and I hauled ourluggage to the riverbank and put ourselves and packs into a strange, long, open motorboat shared by the crazy Venezulans, the American wife, Marcos and his co-pilot and two Ticos from the bar who, it seems, just decided to come along for the ride.

Marcos suddenly took off like a shot, C and I terrified that we, and all passengers and luggage would be thrown out of the boat. The crazy Venezulans and the drinking companions from the bar, were delighted at the speed and sharp dramatic turns of Marcos machismo sailing, yelling:"!Pura Vida" (Costa Rican for "Yipee"!)at every hairpin turn while I trying clutching desperately at the gunwhales and clinging stupidly to a small, blue rope tied to the front of the boat.

Perhaps most interesting, was the huge lurch the boat experienced, again almost tossing me out. I turned back to the pilot to see what was going on. He had handed the wheel to his co-pilot so he could stand and take a leak out the back of the boat, he had after all, been drinking for 5 hours...

And thus, after 35 minutes of hair-raising speedboating through miraculous virgin rainforest river we arrived at the docks in the town of Tortuguero, the dock being a giant river bank tree upon which our luggage was gently placed. At the dock were numerous Rasta, Tico townsfolk selling Che Guevera hats who watched us with disinterest.

The humidity was stifling, and the whole town was bathed in pounding latin and reggae music, coming from every shop, cabina and bar.

It was 10:35 in the morning.