Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Grand Finale

Bocas del Toro was my final trip here in Costa Rica. The next bus I’ll take (besides the one that takes me back after the internet café today, will take me to San José and eventually to the airport.

(I cannot even express how excited I am to fly again. But I won’t get into that now.)

Ems and I met up on the bus. It’d taken her from San José and picked me up in Guapiles en route to Panamá. And at the lunch stop, eating traditional and delicious almuerzo en hojas (lunch in leaves) that my host mom had made us, savoring the layers of tortillas, spiced mashed potatoes and eggs that had absorbed the flavor of the banana leaves, we agreed that it was shaping up to be an amazing weekend.

Her harrowing tale of her journey, which began waiting in a bar at 2am for a 3am bus was filled with wonderful signs that promised a beautiful weekend as had my much less harrowing tale. (Mine only started at 5:30 and included a nice taxi driver who’d dropped me off at the bus stop on the side of the highway and the ceviche preacher, a guy who sells ceviche (fish soup) at the bus stop and gives away religious pamphlets.

And of course the fact that we’d both made it onto the direct bus was a great sign.

After a good five hours of sleeping, we crossed the Panamanian border and hopped into a taxi with about 12 other people from the bus to the ferry to the Bocas del Toro archipelago. Being the smallest (which in this part of the world, is quite a surprise) or perhaps the blondest (not so much of a surprise), I sat on a pillow in between the driver’s seat and the passenger seat. During the hour long drive, the driver started out in stony silence, and ended up flirting in that horribly awkward old man way that was unfortunately less benign than old man flirting usually is.

Ems only laughed at me when I told her about it.

Finally on the main island, we found our hostel fresh with a big common room hung with hammocks and painted tangerine and lime green and littered with travelers.
There was a nice flat screen TV mounted on the wall that often showed re-runs of the Big Bang Theory and Friends and I’ll admit that it made me happy.
Also, it reminded me why I like hostel people so much. We scrounged dinner in the grocery store and made friends over a jenkey tuna salad, a bottle of coke and a bottle of rum. Then trooped out, sadly sans my partner in crime who, after being up for almost 24 hours, needed sleep.

Apparently the nightlife scene in Bocas takes place in hostels. We went to the big one, the famous one that’s famous for its nightlife and I was slightly jealous. It was grungy, to be sure, but you could tell that it was just plain awesome. In fact, a couple of hours into it, I met one of the receptionists that is not only transferring to Berkeley this semester, but is learning how to surf and climb, AND likes good music AND hates bad music (as judged by me).

I’ll admit to being a little apprehensive about returning to Bezerkeley. I mean, I’ve been gone for a year, why wouldn’t I be anxious? So it was lovely to meet someone in the same position.

Soon I was too tired and walked home, even though it was raining. When I got back, there was a group of hostellers sitting up on the top porch listening to music, and the sweet sounds of Louis Armstrong singing "What a Wonderful World" came drifting down. And it certainly was.

And if I thought that first night was awesome, I had no idea what was in store for the first full day.

I could build this whole thing up, explaining the morning, the early intensity of the sun and the curious lack of butterflies that accompanied the whole thing, but I’d rather not. I’d rather just jump into it.

You know when you build something up to yourself and then worry that it’ll let you down? I’ve been wanting to surf for 9 years.

9 years.

I looked into surf camp in 7th grade, in high school I jealously eyed those few who sometimes showed up with surfboards strapped to the tops of their cars and almost skipped school one day to drive down to Mavericks. My first year of college, I was determined that new beginnings was the perfect place to start things that I’d been wanting to do forever, like surfing and playing guitar. I even subscribed to a sear of Surf Magazine. By the time I got to Ireland, I was frustrated with the fact that I still had barely touched a surfboard and joined the surf club. Yea, like that was going to happen… not only was it cold as anything, but the exchange rate was killer and I couldn’t afford the cover for the trips. So when I got to Costa Rica I became obsessed with surf photography… those who can’t do, right?

So you can imagine the build up that I’ve created.

It was more glorious than I could have possibly imagined. And not just the fact that I, for once, stopped obsessing about the perfect, symbolic grand entrance and just did it.

I thought that paddling out would kill me, but apparently those push ups that I’ve been doing have been paying off.

I spent what felt like five hours trying, figuring out and convincing myself that I wouldn’t hit the coral or the rocks.

See Bocas is pretty much a strictly-expert surfing spot, but there is one beach that is good for beginners, except for the fact that it’s pretty far out and you have to watch out for coral and rocks if you get too close in. It’s safe, but I had to have someone who looked like she knew what she was doing reassure me of this fact.

The only thing that forced me back in after that first attempt was the guilt of hogging the boards we were sharing with two guys from the hostel.

And when I got back in, elated that I’d finally, FINALLY made that first step, I assumed that I wouldn’t be back out that day.


About an hour later I was out there, giving it my all. The phrase that convinced me back out was “It’ll all be worth it if you catch a wave” and it totally was. It’s an amazing feeling that’s as close as I think I’ll ever get to flying. I’ve had something similar once before, I was sitting up on my knees in the bow of the boat up on the lake at the cabin and it was really early in the morning. The water was pure glass and I was looking down into the perfect reflection of the trees that lined the shore racing past and I got a weightless feeling like I was flying. That’s how catching a wave felt, except faster and more exhilarating with clear blue water and white spray crowding my peripheral vision.

Although I caught a few on my knees, I did get to stand up at one point which was… thrilling, to say the least.

Let me tell you, it was every bit as worth the sunburn that stretched across my back and the back of my legs. Two weeks later it’s finally finished peeling. And even when it was burning, and even when it was peeling, I’d check out the damage in the mirror, and just feel proud.

I could have gone home that night and been perfectly happy with the weekend, but it wasn’t even half way done.

That night we went to this hostel/bar called Aqua that has a pool. And by “pool” I mean “a hole cut in the dock that it sat on and a jerry-rigged diving board.” I had a long conversation with an Irish kid who’d just spent four weeks in Haiti working with kids under the protection of the local ruling gang. (After which I felt pathetic describing my days weeding, so I emphasized the machete and the size of the bugs). By the end of the night we were all swimming (and by “we” I’m pretty sure I mean “a bunch of tourists”). My sandals and shirt got stolen, likely by some drunken chick who thought they were hers.

And at the end of the night, the sky would light up with dry lightning even though there were stars peaking through the clouds.

The next day rained.

And we got up late. And got out late. And then couldn’t figure out what to do. My ultimate plan had been to take surfing pictures all day and explore some beaches but there were, apparently, no waves and it just wasn’t a beach day.

So around 2 in the afternoon, Ems and I found ourselves on one of the other islands in the middle of an indigenous village.

It was one of those experiences that is valuable but I hadn’t expected or even really wanted. In the grey light of the rainy day, the whole village looked poorer than it maybe was, something that neither of us really expected. Bocas seems like such a touristy area that we were mildly shocked to find ourselves in a place so… colorless, where kids ran around in their underwear and clothes were hanging in vain on clotheslines and bony dogs skittered away.

The village has a newly formed tourism organization that has organized a forest walk on which they explain the medicinal plants and they have an artesian craft store. If you call ahead, they can prepare a traditional meal and do a traditional dance performance. And so it was wonderful to support a grassroots, community based push to take advantage of the archepelago’s booming tourism industry that also will help boost them out of the poverty and government neglect in which they live.

I feel like I reflect on this surprise with more negativity than my activist heart should, but I think it was just a jarring way to spend a vacation, especially since it was a vacation away from a community that also has a grassroots, community based development association, though albeit is much less poor and neglected. So I apologize for that.

As the sun was setting, we were sitting in Dolphin Bay with our fingers crossed. And although it’d just rained earlier that day, which they generally don’t like, we saw quite a few pairs of dolphins weaving up and down.


I took a nap when we got back to the hostel, to be refreshed when we went out that night. I woke up to Ems shouting that there was a group leaving for another hostel right NOW because our hostel was closing it’s common room for the night.

And I was gross. See, I’d napped instead of showering. It was cold and rainy and taking a cold shower was the last thing I’d wanted to do. So, still half asleep, I did my best to make myself less gross: changed the clothes, brushed my teeth and put on deodorant at the same time, and was simultaneously putting my hair in pigtails and screwing the bottle on my bottle of coke with a kick.

We stopped first at Hostel Calypso. After a while, part of the group, including Ems continued on, but I was too deep into my conversation with the Austrian girl, the German girl and her crazy jungle man boyfriend from Ohio and the two Kiwis. Because the night was nice and the music was amazing. I can’t remember what the conversation was about, but I do know that the iPod could have been my own. The Austrian girl, who’d just spent two weeks in Mal País and so loved it like I do, and I looked through the Kiwis’ iPod and took turns exclaiming about how much we loved this band and that band.
I mean, they had an extensive collection of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. I know maybe two people who even know about BRMC and they’re a Bay Area band! And the Pogues! And the girl from Austria loves both as well?!? God I love travelers.

So we spent all night listening to good songs that gave me that warm nostalgia. Tom Petty, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin.

Oh and get this. As soon as we’d started in with Janis, me announcing, as I always do, that she was the one what taught me to sing, the speakers ran out of batteries and had to be charged for 20 minutes. So someone turns to me and says “can you sing Mercedez Benz?” Well of course I can! After two renditions of that classic, with everyone joining the last verse, and some assorted chatter, the speakers were juiced up and we continued on with our night of music and conversation. The younger Kiwi came up to me and with baleful, slightly unfocused eyes informed me that I had the best singing voice he’d ever heard. I smiled, but had to fight the urge to pat him on the arm sympathetically. Poor boy was drunk.

Soon I got to wishing that Ems hadn't a bounced. She loves good music and she's got a fantastic voice. I started looking for a good gap in the conversation where I could slip away to drag her back. Then all of a sudden, like she'd read my mind, here comes Ems!

It was a beautiful night, and a beautiful end to a good weekend.

Mal País Theory of Life

There are some things in life that you know usher in change. They’re not necessarily the cause of said change, but at least they are the catalyst.
I mean, I maintain that it’s a bit cliché, albeit for good reason, to say that studying abroad is a life-changing experience. I think it’s partly because it generally comes right around the time of the transition from teen to adult. I mean, I think most people really grow up in the last few years of college, with or without studying abroad.

This is really just a round about way of saying that my second trip to Mal País helped me distill all this change into my new theory of life. Which is not quite like the numerous Grand Plans that litter the path behind me, but no so unlike them either. (I have been reading way too much Steinbeck.)

I woke up on Saturday morning to start my trek across the country. I’d like to say something poetic like “the sun rose in benediction over that fine day” but I honestly can’t remember what the weather was like.

I do however remember what the journey was like:
6:30 bus from Santa Rosa to Guapiles.
Step off the bus in Guapiles and immediately (literally, no waiting) get on the bus to San José. Get off the bus in San José, walk purposefully towards a taxi that pulls up just as I get to the curb, drops me off at the Puntarenas bus station. See you can either take a direct bus from San Jose to Mal País at 7:30 am or 2:30 pm or you can take the bus to the ferry, and then take another series of buses to get to Mal País. I got into San Jo at 9 and figured that I’d try my chances and not wait around for the direct bus. So the taxi drops me off at the Puntarenas bus station, I buy my ticket for the 10 o clock bus, use the facilties and go to wait the ½ hour until the bus begins loading, but I suppose they load as soon as tickets sell out, because as soon as I stepped up, they started loading. We left 20 minutes early.

Perfect, I’m thinking. I can totally catch the 12:30 ferry. The next one is 1:30, but that’s not too long a wait, and it means I can probably catch the last bus to Mal País at 2:30 from Cobano.

I should have learned long ago not to get cocky like that.

We hit traffic and got into Puntarenas at 12:20. Well, I’m not paying for a taxi for a ferry I probably won’t catch anyways, so I figure I’ll just walk. It’s a nice day, I have a small bag and I figure I have plenty of time. I’m at the shore, which is lined with Tico vacationers and cheap souvenir stalls and food carts. The ferry leaves from the shore, so I figure I’ll follow it up and eventually hit the ferry.

So I walk. About a half an hour later, I see a sign for the ferry, round a corner, and see a ferry. My mind starts racing. Coming or going? Coming or going!?!

The Dos Pinos ice cream man gives me my answer. He tells me that I need to run because the 1 o’clock ferry is leaving and the next one isn’t until 3.

I swore then, but it’s okay, because I’m pretty sure he didn’t speak English. I run. And I get to the ticket booth at 1. And I’m too late.

So I sit down and I start to try and hold back the tears. STUPID! If I’d just taken the taxi, I’d have made it. And now I’m stuck here for another two hours. What the hell am I going to do for three hours?

…I need a drink.

Luckily there is a bar/restaurant across the street, overlooking the ferry dock (so I don’t miss it again). I order a rum and coke and a plate of fries (the first food I’ve eaten since 5:30 am) and continue to try and cork my tears.
The bar and the few tables around it are packed with locals. The rest of the tables in the place are empty, save mine, and two others that host tourists. One group of locals plays cards, and a group of five men joke at the bar. There’s a table with two old men, one who looks more Caribbean than Tico and the other who looks more Tico than anything, who aren’t acknowledging each other. The one is engrossed in an old newspaper and the other is dreaming off out the window.

There are various plastic fish decorating the place, a few beer ads and a distinctively round clock. There is radio music coming from a 5-CD changer stero that sits on top of a NICE sound board and speaker set. One of the men at the bar walks over, drops a coin into the slot machine next to me and succeeds only in producing that distinctively tinkling noise of the turning bells, lemons and bar symbols. This one, I think, was Spider man themed.

It was nice, and helped me pull myself out of a bit of a funk.

Eventually, I caught the 3 o’clock ferry and found myself on the bus to Cobano unsure of the next step. Miraculously I got off at the right stop, as the sky was warming with the promise of sunset. I rolled up my pant legs and tried to ask a woman what my next move should be. I see the sign for the taxi company, but I see no building beneath the sign… So I ask “I know I’ve missed the last bus to Mal País, but…” But she interrupts. No, it’s right there. Literally it pulled up behind the bus I’d just gotten off. Off one, on the other, just like it’d started out today.

Man I love traveling.

I looked out the window until I couldn’t see out anymore and hopped out in front of the hostel Ems and I’d planned to meet at, content that the night was practically over. Probably she was already there.

Turns out it was not and she was not.
The hostel is really funky – it’s called Casa Zen and houses one of the best Thai food places I’ve ever eaten at (and that is the kind of place Mal País is). Sadly, it does not take reservations, and turns out, it was full up.

It’s 6 at night, dark and I have no where to sleep and no idea where Ems is except that she had been at a protest that morning and was hoping that she wouldn’t get arrested like the leaders had been the previous year.

And being the brilliant child I am, I didn’t leave her a note as I wandered off into the night. I walked into the only other hostel I knew, the Backpackers and confronted the guy at the desk.

“Look, I know it’s a long shot in the dark, but do you happen to have two beds available for tonight?”

And he did.

Long story short, I found beds, I found Ems wandering the streets and all was right with the world.

But the thing is, that’s not really the part that prompted the Theory of Life.
Nothing specifically did. I mean, I could give you a run down of the whole weekend, like how we talked over Thai food for like two hours, even though we’d only been apart for two weeks, went out that night with some of the hostel kids (lots of kids from Norway, Israel and Florida), like how we got up early the next morning, out of habit, and ended up walking down the beach to take pictures and ending up trekking for three hours ending up in the middle of nowhere, almost burned to a crisp, thirsty, hungry and pissed off. Or how at that point we decided to trek back on the road and stop at the first place we saw, and how after walking for 45 minutes hadn’t seen any but thankfully got a ride in the back of a pick up with the surfers who’d had to break it to us that we were 3 km away from the hostel and 1 km away from any food. And how delicious that food was and how beautiful it was to spend the rest of the afternoon napping in hammocks amongst reds, oranges and yellows.
I could tell you about how I didn’t get one good picture of a surfer all weekend, but played a ton of pool with a kid from Germany, a kid from Ireland and two guys from Florida.
I could bring up the fact that, save the thai food, we didn’t eat at one of the planned places because we were only there for a Sunday, when everything is closed. But it was amazing anyways.

Basically, it wasn’t the weekend I’d planned, but that was just fine. As I stood on the ferry, watching the retreating landmass that I loved so much, I got the urge to turn back and just stay. Just say “fuck it,” leave the internship and try to find a job waitressing or as the receptionist that they were looking for at the Backpackers, perhaps just until my flight home, perhaps indefinitely. Struggling with a bittersweet melancholy, that was only partially due to that deliciously oppressive heat of the dog days of summer, I watched the sun dancing around on the top of the water and then slanting down through it. It reminded me of the cabin.

I don’t think that I can ever really accurately describe the vibe of Mal País except that it is a community, heavy with ex-pats, that enjoys surfing and yoga and feels intrinsically artistic. It is a place that makes me want to surf and to sit on the beach and write and draw in my notebook and eat food that includes lemon grass and ginger. It’s not the most breath-taking beach in the country, and it definitely doesn’t really feel like a part of Costa Rica at all, but it’s one of those places that I know I’ll go back to.

The last time I had that feeling, that peaceful melancholy that follows an impulse to throw it all away and just stay in a place, and the surety of return, I was sitting on a wall above the sea in San Sebastian. We were waiting to head to the train station to catch the train that would take us back to Paris to catch the flight that would take us home, after two months, to start college and the rest of our lives.

But it was kind of nice this time. Because something about that weekend with people whose attitude towards life I so admired because it blends a profound appreciation for life with a calm and inner peace that I’m not ready to lose myself to but to which I aspire, and also a purely logical “what are you waiting for?” which is actually more of an answer than a question.

Which of course, was exactly the attitude that got me surfing the following weekend in Bocas del Toro

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Surprise Post!!

So I forgot the most important thing I had to do on the internet yesterday, so I'm back again today... which means I can give a quick general update.

In the past two weeks I've been to Mal Pais again, one of my favorite places in the world that prompted a change in attitude about life, which in turn got me up on a surf board the next weekend in Bocas del Toro. Thus I've already fulfilled a couple life's goals: learning to ride a motorcycle and surfing. But I feel as if each of those weekends deserves it's own post, so those'll come later.

But because life moves slower on the finca, I can do that more quickly.
When I got back from Mal Pais, we'd recieved a new volunteer, who will always be referred to as "el muchacho de francia." Come to think of it, I don't think I ever learned his real name.
MK says he reminds her of the clones from Clockwork Orange, only he doesn't talk. As for me, I just could never get the Talking Heads song "psycho killer" out of my head when he was around.
He's just "raro." The entire community was made uneasy about him. I mean this kid had grossly long fingernails and long gross hair and it quickly became apparent that he didn't shower. Or talk. He'd just stand there staring for hours, with a bucket hat and this crazy rain poncho, or ride around on his bike talking to himself. They sent him back before the week was out...

Just around the time that the french girl showed up. They didn't know each other, and she's way less wierd than he is... but a little too eager and intense. She has yet to grasp the pace of life here... that is, slow. There's just so much she wants to do she's trying to organize all this stuff and I just want to continue doing what I've been doing.
Which has set up quite a contrast between us. I actually feel like more a part of the community than she seems to be because I'm living there, as opposed to visiting there. I mean, I've been in this country for seven months, so I don't really feel like I've arrived at another culture in the farm that I'm working to save. But she's arrived here doing volunteer work and has that... distance that so many volunteer workers have. It's like she's not a part of the community, she's visiting it, helping it and so NEEDS to do AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE AS FAST AS POSSIBLE. But I feel more like I'm working, you know? Like I've just moved to another town to work. It doesn't feel new and special and I don't feel that separation from the community. At least not anymore.

See, I have this theory, it takes me exactly half the amount of time I have in a place to overcome the full roller coaster of culture shock. Since I only have six weeks in this place, the culture shock has expired and I'm just... here.
And things feel normal.

Work on the farm hasn't really changed. We still mostly weed, but on rainy days, instead of sorting beans, we've been re-making picture maps of the functions of the farm. Which I like, because, well, I like drawing.
In the afternoon we've started teaching English to the 4th graders at the school. I could gush all day about that. About how bad of a teacher I am, completley unable to command attention, or explain things concisely, but how it doesn't really matter because they all love the class so much and because MK is a really good teacher and we have so much fun playing all the games that I learned in Spanish class. About the kid who likes to tell us how we should do things, but who is super cute because he loves the class so much. About the quiet kids who are really smart, and about the loud kids. About how we have teams and play games and how excited they get. About how awesome it is to have them all come up and give us hugs goodbye at the end of the day, and how I feel like a rockstar walking around town because their parents greet us with grateful smiles and they shout our names across the plaza.

It's one thing that I know I'm gonna miss when I leave.

That and the clouds.

See, yesterday was the perfect late summer Saturday. A day of break after a week of work and rain, the sun finally came out, glancing hot white off the glossy palm fronds and banana leaves and the clouds raced and danced across the piercing blue sky. While waiting for the bus, I watched a spider make it's web and the butterflies drunkenly refusing each perch they approached, stumbling onto the next one. And the youngest age gang of kids trooped around the plaza, deeply engrossed in their games, the same games and using the same code that we all used to use and that we've mostly forgotten to time. A band held together by nothing but age proximity, where girls aren't "GIRLS" but just another member of the band and where everything can be anything and there is nothing but the present, the moment and the game.

Saturday, August 8, 2009


no time to post. I know it's been a while. my apologies.
I forgot my memory stick and I have to catch a bus in 9 minutes.
Expect an overload of updates next saturday!