Update: 350 Photos Are Now Up

AlejandraI want to bring everyone up to date.

I spent a good part of the day scribbling, in between surfing, of course.

Tomorrow is a travel day so I’ll spent some time in the airport polishing up my notes and hopefully get a blog post up about Nicaragua and the ride from Nicaragua to El Salvador, which obviously was fascinating.

But it might take another day.

In the meantime, the full set of Central America photos is now up to about 350 photos, so click on the link and enjoy the full set.

More soon . . .

Up The Isthmus on a Promise

Woke up yesterday and immediately jumped into an ice cold shower: penance for my lack of vigilance the night before. You see, it’s been, what, four years since I’ve been on the road like this? A long time to lose critical skills like remembering to ask the hotelier (more like a roach motel, but hey) if they have hot water. It was late, it’d been a long haul from the Canal Zone to the border and on into Costa Rica. I was exhausted and I slipped.
The Road Goes on Forever . . .
Honestly, there was a bit of the old frisson as I counted to five and jumped into the ice cold water, quickly sucked in air, and breathed rapidly under the deluge. It’s called earning your stripes. After that I dried off quickly, grabbed my bags and walked into the brightness peridot-like hills, pregnant tropical clouds and blue skies. Just another typical Costa Rican morning.

Got breakfast. Post breakfast negotiated with a driver for passage to Penas Blancas, the border with Nicaragua.

“Look, son, I don’t give a flying two handed monkey fuck how much it costs, but I am not taking the chicken bus today. I am seventy-one years old and have earned a little bit of luxury. Especially after galavanting with you across Central Asia and God knows where else we’ve been together,” Dad said.

So I negotiated hard, finally settled on a price with a young man named Juan Carlos—handsome in that Latin American way—grabbed our bags and off we went down the road, chasing hope, the possibility that we’d sleep in Granada.

And what a road it was!
Jungle Mountains
The first portion of the morning we traveled the Pan-American Highway—IH 35 for you gringos and gringas—that runs from Chicago to the Tierra del Fuego with only one 53 mile break amidst the impenetrable jungles of Darien between Panama and Columbia. Our heading was vaguely northwest towards Nicaragua. Most of the morning we ran parallel the Pacific with the water popping into and out of view. The urge to halt the car, grab a board and abjure all responsibility was strong with me that morning. Were Dad not with me I might have, alas we pressed on.

On my left the endless quicksilver blue of the Pacific. To my right the timeless procession of jungle clad hills, mountains and countless rivers draining the high plateau of water. An infinity of greens. A riot of floral colors and one “soda” (small restaurants in Costa Rica) after another.

My Spanish grew rapidly as the day progressed but father’s grew exponentially.

Me on the BeachA digression: truth be told here, father’s linguistic abilities have always been somewhere between abysmal and non-existent. His ear for Chinese, Turkish, Russian, French, Italian, Farsi and Uzbek totally laughable, much like the yip and yap a coyote drowning in a vat of melted cellophane would make. But this? This was remarkable. And then it all came back to me, as a boy growing up on a farm north of San Antonio—how, as we fed the horse he named them in Spanish, as we grabbed eggs from the chickens he made me say “huevos” and how he’d point at the goats and say, “cabrito” forcing me to roll my “Rs.” Thus he gave me the gift of a passable natural accent. By the end of the day he and Juan Carlos were just talking. My father is my best friend and I fancy I know all about him, but he surprised me. And after forty three years of knowing one’s father that’s a good thing.

On we drove, the minutes rolling over with the miles on the odometer, little change in scenery: always skirting the ocean and hugging the jungle. Aside from pitstops every hour or so the day was uniform, the persistent squeak of the rear shock absorber, droning engine and Father and Juan Carlos speaking in Spanish in the front seat. I listened but mostly did my favorite thing in the whole world, the best life has to offer: I simply watched country roll by.
Yellow-crowned Euphonia
“And where is your family from,” Dad asked Juan Carlos.

“Mi madre in San Jose, mi padre no se,” replied Juan Carlos in a well rehearsed rhyme on the misfortune of being fatherless.

“You don’t know your father?” my father asked, surprised.

“Si,” Juan Carlos replied in that languid, oneiric way.

“Neither did I,” confessed my father by way of reply. The bond between them grows stronger, even though both know they will never see each other again. Two fatherless men, out in the world alone.

Most Costan Rican geology is igneous, dark brown to black basaltic volcanic rock. The beaches too are a dark brown to black sand. Fine and pretty but hot as hell in the sun. We stopped at an unnamed beach somewhere before the Nicoya Peninsula turns the tall Pacific swells into the smooth, harmless agua de bahia. Dad bought some ceviche and for the next two hours the smell of onions, lemon and fish hung in the air. We pulled away from the beach and rolled on.

Most mountain streams, be they rivers (rios) or creeks (quebradas) along the way ran cold, narrow and clear, but one river was muddy and wide. The Rio Tarcoles was also full of crocodiles. Big, nasty looking river gargoyles that would chew your face over without thinking twice. They had ill looking skin anywhere from a sickly tan, fleshy color, better to blend into the muddy waters, to green with black spots and tan nictitating reptilian eyes. I obligingly took photos and walked back to the car. In a tall ‘Brilliant’ (stress on the iant portion of the word) tree a small flock of Yellow-crowned Euphonias sang and ate and flickered about brining the sound of joy to slow lapping sounds of river water.
Crocodiles
We motored on. The Pacific turned into the Gulf of Nicoya, a peninsula, which on a map looks like an upside down boot spur. The dirt here had changed from a tropical red to an almost Post Oak Prairie black. A road cut explained why: there lay dun-colored multi-layered beds of limestone with a thick black igneous dyke sliced diagonally through it. Clearly this rock sat for eons on the bottom of a shallow sea, much as the bed rock of the Gulf of Nicoya does now. Just as geology changed so too did the topography. We were now up on a slightly elevated plateau that slopes slowly down towards the bowl containing the Lago de Nicaragua. Here in Costa Rica it is punctuated dramatically by two lumbering volcanoes on the horizon.

Magnificent rancheros circled us. Brahman bulls and cows, like little grey cotton balls on a blanket of green, were covered by a ceiling awash in the finest ceramic blue possible. A volcano smoldered, smoked. Then the wind picked up. Blades of tall grass bent horizontally across the road. Then we passed an 18 wheeler blown off the road. Juan Carlos gave the wind a name, “Alicious,” which comes off the volcanoes cool and furious, pulled down by the languid humidity of the Nicoyan Gulf. Dusts devils blew across the road at 30-40 mile per hour blasts. We stopped the car to feel the full effect. Dust flung about by the winds stung my bare arms and face, rain mixed into my hair creating an intolerable clay-like mess.
Rio
We covered our eyes and got back into the car. It was getting late. And when it gets dark in the tropics, the darkness comes on fast. The sun began its nightly rainbow brigade. The scirocco coming off the mountains created a madness of color: from God’s own golden start to the mandarin middle and the crimson finale this sunset whispered a promise: you’ll sleep in Granada tonight.

We drove now into the dark but the closer to the border we got the more tense I grew. The Costa Rican side of this border crossing is easy, but the Nicaraguan side beggars description.

I lectured Dad on safety.

We arrived. We said our goodbyes, then plunged into the fray like it was a mosh pit.

I lectured Dad on safety, again.

Three times more times for good measure, including a string of f-bomb adjectives unfit for a family publication.

We stamped out of Costa Rica and began the kilometer walk in the jungle night to the Nicaraguan side. Countless rigs passed us in a roar we had to scream over to communicate. There were easily a hundred on wait and more coming every minute. This is free trade in the Americas now. Big rigs, diesel smells and insanely crowded border posts.

In a quiet moment father asked, “son, are we in no-man’s land?”

The ring of tension tightened a bit more about my neck. We were, indeed, technically out of Costa Rica but not in Nicaragua.

“Yes, father, we are,” I said somberly.

We reached the first police post.

Then passed through a second.

There was a third, but with the noise total, it was perfunctory. Then the darkness crowded back in upon us, the smell and sense of bodies nearby menacing.

The immigration post was barely discernible amidst the mad darkness. I found it somehow. A hundred migrants waiting for their papers while we breezed through, paid our entry fee, got our stamps and walked towards the fourth and final police checkpoint. In an uncommon bout of good sense I asked the immigration officer what was the most realistic price of a taxi to Granada?

“$60-70,” he said. I thank him and walked away towards the final checkpoint, preparing for the mayhem that would erupt when we walked out into the press and jumble of taxi drivers, bus riders and touts.

A hundred meters before we got there a young man approached me.

“You go to Rivas? San Juan? Granada?”

Apprehensively, worries of taxi kidnappings, left in the middle of nowhere, all our things stolen, disturbed my internal dialogue, but I asked, “how much to Granada?”

“$70.”

“Vamos con tigo,” I said. This turned out to be an excellent choice.

We passed through the final checkpoint without a second glance and were quickly guided into our taxi. A fight threatened to break out over us, so our taxi driver hurried us along.

Digression: once in a town between Samarkand, Uzbekistan and Bukhara a fight broke out between three taxi drivers, slugging it out, bloody noses and all, over me, a lone traveler trying to get to Bukhara. This was a serious moment in Nicaragua and I was happy to see it pass without violence.)

We drove.

All of the sudden Granada felt possible.

Rivas was a blur of light—the baseball stadium lit up the humid jungle night. Rivas versus Chinandega. An American was playing for Rivas, Ty Williams, which is all I understood from the radio blasting out beisbol in Spanish.

The wind farm on the Lago de Nicaragua whirled and whirred in the deep tropical night, providing precious low cost, eternal energy to a very poor country. The moon hung over the lake—the island of Ometepe’s dueling volcanoes crouching with fierce potential power in the shadowy night. We turned off the main highway. East into more darkness. And then even more, as the Mombacho volcano blotted out the moon and stars. I nodded off, sleepy and exhausted.

A bump.

A horse in the road.

Lights.

A city.

And then the Plaza Colones.

Tonight I would sleep in Granada.
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Nota Bene: As always, the most recent photos can be found in the full set, here. The most recent upload start here and moves forward. Enjoy!

(Consider a tip if the mood strikes you.)




Movement

Panama SunsetMoving around feels good, I confess. Not staying in one place for long, feels good, I confess.

Being out here in the crazy, uncontrollable world where only one thing can ruin my day, my expectations, is the best.

It’s just been too long.

It’s just been too long cooped up, unable to pick up and leave a place simply because I feel like it.

It’s been too long.

Don’t you ever feel that way? Doesn’t everyone? Aren’t we all nomads at heart?

Waiting For Motmot

My latest Texas Monthly story is up, here. Enjoy!

Arenal Photo Dump

LizardLots of photos today. Hopefully I’ll get a story done as well.

My favorites?

I’d be lying if I said the one above of the lizard wasn’t one of ‘em. By the way, all the animals in the subsequent photos are from the wild. None, except the kitty, are in captivity.

This one of the Arenal Volcano is nice.

And this one is for Don Henry Ford, Jr. Horses!

I love Vermillion Flycatchers. And this one of the Broad-billed Mot Mot? Probably the finest bird I’ve ever seen in the wild. I wish the colors weren’t so washed out in the photo.

No photo collection is complete without food, this of a fine anti-pasto overlooking the Lago De Arenal, taken from The Country Store, owned by ex-pats from Arizona.

Cumulonimbus!

Finally, the hot springs at the foot of the volcano, known as Tabacon de los pobres.

Enjoy!

La Fortuna Diario: September 25 2009

Montezuma DreamingA year ago today I was in Kuala Lumpur. It was day two of what turned out to be the second leg of my year long journey from Singapore to Amsterdam and then home. Day one was spent in the old spice trading town of Malacca. Much has changed in that year, but then again, not so much. I’m in a town tonight that’s not to terribly different from a hundred other towns I visited over the last year. Although, I confess, the view of the Arenal Volcano is pretty impressive. As a matter of fact, it’s the first active volcano I’ve ever seen. And a big, beefy strato-volcano it is. Tropical jungle gives way to evergreen forests about half way up. After the evergreens it’s pretty much a slush of ash and smoke. I hate to keep speaking in platitudes, but there is something even more impressive seeing it smoke. When a breeze rolls in at night and sends the tropical rains scurrying away the light show is like a giant Fourth of July sparkler several thousand feet up.

I’m feeling a little guilty today. I’d planned, upon waking, to head off to the jungle, do some bird-watching, take some photos and maybe end the day bathing in hot springs. Just your typical work-a-day life. But I got sidetracked and ended up doing a whole lot of nothing except a little Friday Cat Blogging. That just won’t do.

I sure do like the Ticos, as the Costa Ricans call themselves. And I’ve figured out one of the main differences between Costa Rica and Mexico. As I wrote a few days ago, I tend to see all Spanish speakers through the prism of growing up in South Texas and the fact that I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Mexico. One major difference is this: when I arrive in Mexico there is no question where I am. Mexico is in your face. Not aggressive-like, just matter of fact. Mexico is a special place in that regard. Some countries don’t wear their national character as well as the Mexicans do. Often national character is a mixed-blessing. But in Mexico? Not so much. It’s hard to imagine a people more laid back than the Mexicans–actually laid back isn’t the best way of describing Mexicans, but I’m not in Mexico–but the Costa Ricans? Laid back suits them to a tee. Almost Australian in their nonchalance and unpretentious manner. Aplomb is a excellent single word descriptor. They have the benefit of being calm and easy going, friendly and effusive, an effusion that quickly gives way to an open loquacity I’ve seldom encountered. The only people more likely to talk to you on and on about life, in my judgment are the Vietnamese. Now there is a people that like to talk.

When I say, “gracias,” the Ticos reply, “con gusto!”

How can one go wrong with a reply like that?

The Ticos are quick with a compliment and super-smart, perceptive would be a good way of describing them. Not surprising in a country that has a male literacy rate of 97% and a female literacy rate of 96%. Of course, that’s a function of the fact that they have no army. Imagine what we could do if we just cut our defense establishment in half?

There is little in the way of poverty here in Costa Rica, either. Sure, it isn’t a rich nation like Western Europe or America. I’ve seen a few lean-tos and some of the coastal towns have a decidedly dilapidated look to them, all mold on the walls, corrugated iron roofs and the like. Aren’t all coastal towns like that, however?

The people are healthy–and healthy looking. Not too much obesity either. And most of the country, thus far, has, if not a prosperous air to it, one no where near the edge of desperation I’ve seen in other developing and Third World countries. Here the houses are neat and orderly, well-kept, lots of small farm-steads full of papayas, bananas, assorted veggies, rice. Horses fill the pastures and goats gambol up an down the hillsides.

It’s lush too. As I drove in from Punta Arenas on the Golfo De Nicoya yesterday inland to La Fortuna I took to comparing Costa Rica to other tropical places I’ve been. It’s inevitable that we compare something new to what we’ve experienced before. I looked at the hillsides blanketed with green grass. Mountains swell and fall filled with Malinche and Tamarindo trees, multi-hued shrubs and variegated fruits. It doesn’t remind me of any place I’ve yet seen. Perhaps it’s the volcanic soil, permeating the light. Or the water–thick in the air, rich on the ground and always oozing from pores. The villages are Latin, but there is an element of whimsical joy in the civil engineering here. Or maybe it’s the clouds, which are ever obscuring and always revealing some new feature of the countryside, some hidden jewel, or minor flaw that adds much character to the place.

Costa Rica was never high on my list of places to see. It should have been. And I’m glad I’m here now.

I was feeling guilty a little while ago about doing nothing today. But now? As I watch the young families of this little tourist town on the side of volcano walk next to the manicured park, or see the young Latino males cruising the main street in the not-quite-dragsters I can’t help but to smile. How can one feel guilty about that?

Montezuma Dreaming

WoodpeckerMy first story in Texas Monthly is now up and running.

Enjoy!

And I have some new photos up, here.

If anyone can identify the woodpecker in the attached photo I would be very grateful!


Santa Theresa Diario, September 20 2009

PalmsThe surf part of the trip is over for the time being. There is not much of a story here and I do have work to do, insofar as what you can call what I’m doing work.

And while I do enjoy surfing, it’s just not the same without Reyes’ tequila-sodden antics. (I’m not a big fan of rum.) Hell, I’m exhausted at the end of the day and wonder how in the world Reyes and I carried on for a week and a half down in Mexico. Besides, I can’t hardly tell a surfing tale to one of the magazine’s I’m down there writing for. Really, what do middle-aged housefraus from Dallas really care about a divorced, late-thirty something man on the tail-end of his early mid-life crisis, down in Costa Rica surfing and drinking, chasing iguanas across the beach and monkeys through the jungle? Said hausfrau would probably be more interested in me writing an expository essay on the prostitutes in Costa Rica, better to understand why her husband is spending so much time in here.

Tongue planted firmly in cheek, folks.

No really, today I’m headed off to Montezuma, which sits on the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula, a boot looking spit of land kicking its way into the Pacific Ocean. I’m planning on a hike through the national park there, waterfalls, howler monkeys and lots and lots of birds.

If any of you have been down here before and have suggestions feel free to chime in in the comments section. I’m always game for something off the map, beaten trail, or whatever you want to call it.

More soon.

It’s Good Work, When You Can Find It

Just Another Day At The Office
Just another day at the old office.

Santa Theresa Diario, September 19 2009

War PaintPhotos can be found here.

Last night was a riot. Sleeping in the jungle always is. There were at least 10 different animals howling, cackling, wailing, chirping and singing in the night. Two different kinds of frogs, howler monkeys, birds, dogs barking, crickets, and a pool full of big bullfrogs who’s croaks rose and fell like the crescendo of a Beethoven symphony.

Don’t cry for me Costa Rica. Although I do have an all over, generalized body ache. The waves down here make those in Mexico look tame in comparison. I spent the day surfing in the whitewash, that area of the surf between the big waves (3 meter swells today) and the beach. It is a nice long beach break here.

It’s a strange little town. One long strip down a dirt road. And it’s full of Israelis. Last night was Rosh Hoshanna and I saw a few Hasidim walking the streets. Talk about an incongruity. Of course, most of the tourists here are young Israeli men at the height of fitness, post-military service. It’s hard to be out in the surf with ‘em sometimes. I’m not in the worst shape in the world, but not like that. And then yesterday as I was paddling out a girl, and I mean a pre-pubescent girl, less than 12 years old paddled out past me, turned, got up on a wave and surfed it like she owned it. Me? I just generally flail about in the water. But I am having fun–which I kind of feel guilty about because I am actually down here on assignment. So, the surfing will end in a day or so and I’ll head inland to investigate and write a few stories on eco-tourism here. Expect lots of photos!

Speaking of, yesterday I attempted to upload some photos and about five in the connection for the village died. But I did manage to get them up today.

Activity is the enemy of reflection, but I’ve dedicated some time to writing today so I’ll do my best to conjure up a post or two here shortly.