Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Monkey Beach and an Unexpected Road Trip

Knowing Friday was our last full day in country, we decided to get up early to visit Manual Antonio National Park before heading back to San Jose to get Haley on her early afternoon flight. Joe, however, took “early” to a whole new level and was out the door around 5:00 AM to go walk on the beach. The rest of us left around 7:00 AM to catch up with him in the park - almost getting scammed into parking half a mile from the park’s entrance by a couple of official looking guys in khaki shirts sporting park patches. We also tried to enter the wrong end of the park by accident, fording a small stream next to a sign warning us to beware of the alligators (unfortunately, that wasn’t the only unsettling thing we saw) before hitting the barbed wire fence..

After making it into the park, we hiked through the rain forest (spotting a sloth or two along the way) to the infamous Manuel Antonio “monkey beach” where we reunited with Joe. This beach is known not just for its beauty, but also for a horde of mischievous capuchin monkeys bent on stealing whatever they can. Seeing no monkeys, Joe and I stashed our bags near a tree and snorkeled out into the surf. Later, as we returned, I saw two monkeys picking their way down the beach. Unable to remember exactly where our bags were, I picked up the pace and exited the water right as the lead monkey discovered Joe’s backpack and started working out how to open the drawstring closure. I ran towards our bags, yelling and waving and they both moved on to an easier target - stealing a bag of cough drops from the lady next to us. When I told Joe I rescued his bag he said, “You should have gotten a picture before scaring him off!”

Peaceful monkey beach
After heading back and packing up, we left our AirBnB around 11:00 AM on Friday morning (an important detail) and headed back to San Jose to drop Haley off at the airport. Along the way, we added to our list of several surprise wildlife encounters with several kamikaze iguanas crossing the road (think squirrel, but faster), which Tanner swerved to miss (with the “turtle” incident probably fresh in his mind). Along the way, we stopped to see a bask of crocodiles that gathers under the Tárcoles bridge near Jaco. We also had one wildlife sighting earlier this week which was quite surprising. On our way to La Fortuna, we saw a commotion on the road in front of us and slowed to a stop. We saw a guy lean over and pick up what at first looked like a large snake, but turned out to be the tail of a large wild cat! It must have gotten hit crossing the road, just like deer in Virginia. For the rest of the week, we talked about this poor “cheetah,” which drove Steven up the wall. "Cheetahs live in Africa!"

After dropping Haley off at the airport (and getting her to sing her song, “Where are my phone, my keys, and my wallet…” to the tune of “My Favorite Things”) we ate lunch at a Central American chicken chain called Rostipollos (get the cheese bites). As we were leaving, we had our fourth and final run in with an automated parking system. As we discovered, some places (even if they issue you a ticket on entrance) are free to park, while others require you pay for parking inside before leaving (which seems like a dumb design). This usually results in us pulling up to the gate, then reversing out of the chute while someone runs inside to pay. This time, though, we encountered a couple of nice parking lot security guards, one of which said, “I will help you,” and opened the gate for us manually. Tanner said, “Those are the greatest words to hear. ‘I will help you.’”

Central Park, San Jose, Costa Rica
Next, we headed downtown to see if we could find cheap souvenirs. Word of caution, maybe don’t Google “cheap souvenirs” and go to the first place that pops up. As we drove around looking for a place to park, we passed several indoor markets, which, as Tanner told us were, “a little dangerous, but you can get almost anything in there.” We parked and walked the streets for a while alongside thousands of Costa Ricans. While we likely stuck out pretty sorely, it was cool to hang out in place where many of the locals were.

The streets of San Jose
After the sun went down, we did several other things to pass the time until our flight left San Jose around 2:00 AM the next morning (another important detail), including going to the mall, watching “Underwater” at the attached theater with Spanish subtitles, and making a stop at McDonalds for late night ice cream - where Steven got to experience the wonder (or lack thereof) of getting fried from a McDonalds in Central America. We then dropped off the rental car and got to the airport around midnight. We took a picture with the airport sloth, then made our way through security. It was a slow night, but Costa Rica TSA still took a long look at Tanner’s bag, murmuring “Coca Cola?” as the four glass bottles in his backpack showed up on the x-ray. We napped a little bit at our gate before boarding the plane back home, and, within a few hours, were back on United States soil.

Then, the real adventure began…

Our first inkling of trouble was when we joined the customs line immediately after getting off the plane and then didn’t move. For over an hour. Eventually, it was explained to us that five international flights had arrived simultaneously (four of which were Spirit’s and two of those being delayed). Long story short, we were in customs for over two and half hours. What was originally a layover with plenty of time to spare turned into a mad dash for the gate. Joe managed to make it through customs before the rest of us and made it on. I was right behind him, but the plane was pushing back from the jetway as I arrived.

Because they technically got us to the airport with more than ninety minutes to make our connection, Spirit wasn’t very helpful with rebooking. The best they could do was get us on the same flight out the next day (not even guaranteeing that there would be four available seats). After some discussion and working out quite a few different scenarios, we decided to bite the bullet. We took the partial refund for the remaining leg and rented a car to begin the 17 hour drive (not including stops) from Fort Lauderdale, Florida back to Blacksburg, Virginia via Richmond. You know, there’s nothing quite like an impromptu cross-country road trip.

For those of you unfamiliar with Florida geography, Fort Lauderdale is about as far south as you can go. Bottom of the state. Any further and you’re bumping into the Keys. Steven made the astute observation that, “We drove six hours just to get out of Florida!” Thankfully, the trip to Richmond was fairly uneventful (I might even call the last couple of hours after midnight enjoyable) and we arrived at the RIC airport around 3:00 AM. I picked up my Jeep and proceeded to the rental car office to pick up the rest of the group. However, while scanning the road for any reverse tire spikes, I entirely missed the small curb in the center median. My front wheel hit, and I was afraid we were going to have a problem. Sure enough, I parked, came around the side, and stood with Tanner, watching the last bit of air leak out of my tire. He said, “Well” and that’s about all there was to say. Without a word, I opened the lift gate, handed him the lug wrench, Steven the jack, and began dropping the spare.

At that point, there was just a level of insanity to the previous two days that made the whole thing seem surreal. Also, because we were so delusional by that point, there was a bit of hilarity in it as well. After quickly changing the tire (in probably under ten minutes, as Kasey observed) we drove the remaining several hours back to Blacksburg - arriving just in time for Northstar (our church’s) load in and sound check. Doing the math, at that point we had been up for a contiguous 48 hours, sleeping only fitfully on the plane or in the car. Later, I apologized to Joe that he missed out on the great American road trip, but, for some reason, he seemed unfazed by it.

Exhausted, but victorious

Friday, February 14, 2020

Jaco and Manuel Antonio

This morning we packed up early at our AirBnB in San Jose and headed for the beach in Manuel Antonio, about three hours away. We’re definitely getting better at spending long periods in the car together at this point.

Our first stop for the day was zip lining through the rain forest in Jaco with Chiclets Ziplines. We were a little late, due to traffic and a police checkpoint where we saw a guy take off from the cops, but the tour guide was able to call me on my Costa Rican cell number (insert plug for Kolbi here) and we assured him we were almost there.

When we arrived, we geared up and then jumped on the back of an open air truck for the ride up the mountain. We hiked for a while through the jungle to the first platform and (after a short “cable school”) took off!

Here we go!
It was a blast, the guides had a good sense of humor, and I earned the nickname “camera boy” for carrying a GoPro the whole time. I was particularly interested in how they set up the runs and dealt with the speed/braking aspect of the ride. My dad and I built a zipline in our backyard one year, about the same length of the first couple of these runs, but, for ours, I had to be the crash test dummy and figure out how to stop. This system used a padded leather glove and depended on the rider to slow themselves down before hitting the tree.

Next, we had lunch at Bowie’s Point, sitting at a long shaded table, facing the ocean. We also got a show with our lunch, as the owner’s potbelly pig wandered out to join us, along with several chickens, a rooster, and a dog.

Our lunch view - wishing we had brought a volleyball
Our next stop was Biesanz Beach, a hidden gem of a beach supposedly good for snorkeling. Tanner and I swam about a quarter mile out past the surf to where we saw several tour boats dropping people into the water. Sure enough, we found the reef! It wasn’t quite Finding Nemo level of color, but there were quite a few interesting fish swarming around us. Joe even got to to sip from a coconut on the beach, as he had been hoping to do!

The friendly fish
After we left the beach, we checked into our AirBnB in Manuel Antonio and decided to head out for some dinner. Joe picked a place called Barba Roja, which had a great view of the ocean and the setting sun. We enjoyed our dinner and Tanner amassed a collection of glass Coca Cola bottles to bring home with him.

Dinner view
After dinner, we backtracked to the town of Quepos to walk around and see what we could see. We got some ice cream and watched a guy watering a soccer field for a while before stumbling upon what looked to be a high school drum line playing on the paved boardwalk near the ocean. They were excellent, and we discovered “marching xylophones” are a thing.

On the way back, as the van was climbing a steep hill, Tanner said, “Ezra, the needle just dropped and the gas light came on.” This caused quite a bit of consternation in the car, as we hadn’t seen a gas station for a while. Tanner stopped to get directions to the nearest station, but, when he returned, he said. “Good news and bad news. Good news, there’s one nearby. Bad news, I have no idea what that guy said.” There was also a less than helpful hand drawn map. Undeterred, we turned around, dropped Joe and Steven off to watch a local roadside soccer game, and were able to make it back to a gas station before the fuel ran out.

Tomorrow is our last day in Costa Rica before returning home. Haley will be flying out mid afternoon, while everyone else leaves around 2:00 AM Saturday morning. We’re planning to make the most of it, that’s for sure!

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Irazú Volcano and Stupid Americans

Today’s primary destination was the Irazú volcano, about an hour and a half outside of San Jose. We started the morning off in heavy rushhour traffic, which made the extra liability insurance required by our rental car company make a lot more sense. Many of the locals seem to give roughly zero cares, and motorcycles continually weave in and out of the smallest gaps, overtaking out of nowhere on either side of the road.

We’ve had one or two incidents that have made my toes curl just a little bit and prompted Tanner to say, “Oh, boy.” We passed some dude on a bike who almost drifted into the side of the van. Joe looked in the rear view mirror, and, apparently, the guy was completely unfazed. At one point this morning, we squeezed the van between a dump truck and a bus to make a right turn, with the van’s passenger side mirror squeezing in just under the bus’s mirror. We’ve also begun to learn the art of cutting in at exit ramps, just like the locals.

Once we left the city, today’s drive through the countryside was actually quite enjoyable. Our poor van struggled to make it up some of the hills, as we ascended some 8,000 feet of elevation (passing a few cyclist along the way), but we enjoyed seeing the farms scattered about, the clouds below us, and cows being put to work as lawnmowers in the right of way on the side of the road.

We arrived at the volcano, paid our entrance fee, and received the admonition not to cross the barrier fences. I relayed this to the car while Tanner protested, “No hablo español!” I replied, “That was in English.”

The primary crater
In the parking lot, we met our first coati (a Costa Rican trash panda). Katy was enamored and wanted to know if it could come back in the van with us. After I convinced her she was unlikely to make it back through customs with it, we hit the trail towards the crater overlook. While we were looking at the beautiful lake at the bottom of the crater, a couple of stupid Americans jumped the fence to get a closer look (the guilty will remain nameless for their own protection).

Crossing the ash field
Next we made our way to the ridge overlook. Irazú is the highest volcano in Costa Rica and, at a little over 11,000 feet, is also one of the highest points in the country. It is amazing to be looking down on the cloud layer. There was a bumpy dirt road leading to this overlook, and, at one point, the van almost ground to a halt. Steven and I literally jumped out to push, and we barely made it to the top. Steven and I also quickly discovered how easy it is to get winded at that elevation.

Above the clouds!
In the afternoon, we visited the City Mall in San Jose. We had been there less than fifteen minutes before I managed to get kicked out of a bookstore. They let Steven stay, but, for some reason, I and my M&M McFlurry were not welcome. The nice manager I “spoke” to said something about “No comer aquí!” Don’t come here again?

Seriously, though, I am beginning to see how helpful full immersion is for learning a language. I have all of two semesters of college Spanish rattling around in the back of my brain, yet I’m beginning to pick up on and grasp a few things here and there.

Haley, Kasey, and I found an escape room in the mall, and Kasey was super pumped about the possibility of trying the Harry Potter themed room. After receiving a “no” in response to “Habla Inglas?” I decided to give it a shot.  “Es mucho colones?” She pointed to a card with the (fairly inexpensive) pricing. “Individual y total?” “Total,” she responded. “Es posibles six personas?” Haley helpfully chipped in, “Seis personas.” She confirmed it was, then came the kicker, “En español y en inglas?” They were of course, all in Spanish, except for one, which was a mix, but only allowed four people. We decided to pass (not yet up for the challenge mode of tackling an escape room in a foreign language), but I was quite proud of my broken Spanish.

We have learned that, “Habla Inglas?” often puts us into contact with someone who knows enough English to bridge the communication gap, even if it’s not the person to whom the question is originally addressed. We have taken to calling each of these people Ricardo (in the spirit of our first helpful friend and Mark Twain’s “Ferguson”). For example, this morning we called a zip line company, and, after asking if anyone spoke English, we heard a shout in the background, and soon a nice lady was helping us in our native language (when we asked for a discount, she countered by asking if we were nice, and Tanner responded, “No.”). The other strategy is to just to produce incomprehensible or nonsensical Spanish and wait for them to fetch someone who might understand. This happened today when Tanner leaned into a Burger King drive through and asked for chicken. Ultimately, “If you can find a Ricardo, you’re in business.”

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Volcano Hiking, Waterfall Swimming, and Phone Retrieving

This morning, we got up early to begin our first full day of Costa Rican adventures as a complete group. Our destination for the day was three hours north of San Jose in the town of La Fortuna, where there are quite a few activities centered around the Arenal Volcano and Lake.

Strategically hiding the van parked behind us
Keeping our priorities in order, the first stop of the day, once we arrived in town, following our three hour drive, was to get lunch. We chose a local “soda” with large ants as its mascot, called Soda La Hormiga. Most of us ordered some variation of rice, beans, and chicken. Tanner ordered a hamburger (for which the “fritas es necessito”), but was a little disappointed when all they brought him was a hamburger bun without the patty. Apparently “plain” doesn’t translate well.

Outdoor dining
In all seriousness, Tanner’s Spanish (as imperfect as it might be) has been a huge boon for us already in our interactions. He often acts os our goodwill engine, anytime we stop in a new place or interact with someone, quickly making new friends.

The first activity of the day was a visit to the Arenal Volcano National Park, and a hike to some (inactive) lava fields nearby. On the way back, we spotted a bird walking across the path that looked almost tall enough to look me in the eye. He moved along quickly, and we declined to pick a fight. We also discovered good climbing in the Lion King style “tree of life” we passed along the way.

There's the van
On the way out of the park, Tanner drove over what looked to be a turtle crossing the road, which elicited shouts of indignation from Katy and Kasey. Kasey said, “He spun like four times!” Tanner was insistent that it was only a leaf, but made no headway. Have you ever heard a dad threaten to “turn this car around”? Well, Tanner actually did. And wouldn’t you know it, we returned to find... a leaf.

Our next stop was the La Fortuna waterfall - our first glimpse of which was stunning. Not wanting to waste any time, we quickly descended the 500 steps to the falls and jumped into the pool below. It was one of the craziest waterfalls I’ve ever had the opportunity to be that close to. A few of us tried to swim into the base of the fall itself, but were unsuccessful due to the incredible amount of current pushing outward from the base.

A 200ft drop is difficult to capture
We started the long drive back home and had gone about half an hour when Haley realized she had left her phone in the bathroom at the waterfall. After a few minutes of strategizing, we decided to return, hoping someone would still be there and she could retrieve her phone.

Our turn around point - one of many one way bridges
On the way there, we started devising various plans to retrieve her phone, if by chance no one was there to assist us. The biggest issue would have been access to the locked bathroom - although Joe was confident he could scale the outer wall and climb through the open roof. Our biggest concern was whether we could get onto the bridge that crossed the ravine at the entrance.

When we rolled into the parking lot, there was a single, elderly man (ostensibly the security guard), sitting in a plastic lawn chair. He looked quite intimidated when our big white van rolled up, the doors flew open, and a few of us jumped out, ready to stage a retrieval heist. Luckily, after a few words of explanation, he looked relieved and produced Haley’s phone from under the counter and returned it to her. We thanked him profusely and then headed home. We arrived in time for a late pizza dinner, and a happy ending to the day for all.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Welcome to Costa Rica!

Sunday evening, our group began to converge on Richmond International Airport. Katy and Steven made their way from Northern Virginia while Tanner, Joe, Kasey, and I left Blacksburg (almost) immediately after tear down was complete following the last Northstar service on Sunday morning. We knew we would be cutting it close to get to Richmond in time, but we still had our priorities in order and stopped for Popeye’s for lunch (you may recall the previous Popeye’s related incident in Alaska last year).

We arrived and made it through security, with Tanner and I walking up to the gate just as the plane was boarding. The flight to Fort Lauderdale was uneventful, and even arrived 20 minutes early. I was about to have a few smug words with Joe, who had been skeptical about flying Spirit, but, unfortunately, that opportunity was voided when we then proceeded to sit on the tarmac for 45 minutes while we waited for the gate to be cleared.

After a little bit of hassle finding some dinner, we had a game or two of Go Fish before boarding our late night flight to San Jose. A few hours and one time zone later, we landed in Costa Rica around 1:30 AM Monday morning. As we approached the airport,  I noticed the scattered pattern of lights around the airport that was different from anything I’ve ever seen on approach - not to mention the joke of a perimeter fence around the runway.

Fresh and ready!
The customs officers were somewhat strict, but our interaction with them was ultimately uneventful. We made our way outside and waited for the shuttle to our rental car company for about half an hour. We eventually caved and hired a taxi van (roughly the size of a Honda Fit) to take the six of us and our luggage to the office. After a little bit of haggling over the “required” hand written liability insurance policy, we walked away with a twelve passenger van with the horsepower of the same Honda Fit.

Waiting on the shuttle we were assured was "on its way."
After dropping off the other three at our AirBnB, Tanner, Steven, and I mounted an exploratory expedition for morning breakfast food (and a tube of toothpaste for Tanner). We found some nice men preparing newspapers for delivery at 3:30 AM and Tanner proceeded to inquire about any “supermercados” that may have been open at that ungodly hour. We were informed that we would have to wait until 6:00 AM the next morning. Undeterred, we were able to locate a 24 hour gas station and made do with what we found there.

The next day, after a morning jog around the neighborhood, Joe, Tanner, and I headed out to the airport to pick up Haley, who had just arrived. The streets of San Jose were alive by this point, and we saw quite a few interesting sights, including a man on a moped, pushing his wife along on a bike with his outstretched foot. True love and Costa Rican ingenuity.

We managed to locate Haley without issue and headed to the nearest Kolbi shop to attempt to procure a local SIM card. After having a few words with the nice man, we were redirected to another counter with a helpful young guy who quickly set me up with a 2 GB SIM for about $10!

On our (joyful) return, we walked to a local lunch spot from our apartment. When we arrived, we were greeted with a barrage of Spanish. After seeing our confused looks, the two ladies we were speaking to conferred, and we heard “Ricardo, Ricardo.” Tanner said, “Si! Yo neccesito un Ricardo!” Luckily, Ricardo spoke enough English to help us through the ordering process. The food was delicious, and it felt like a genuine Costa Rican experience. It was obvious this restaurant had had tourists before, but it was not a regular occurrence. Tanner said, “As long as we keep finding Ricardos, we’ll be in good shape.”

Lunch at La Trufa
After lunch, we visited the Doka Coffee plantation, roughly an hour outside of the city. We enjoyed a tour of the farm and being guided through the manufacturing process, all the way from picking the beans, to separating, drying, and roasting them. Afterwards we were greeted with free samples of all the various flavors the plantation produces, and, although I tried several, I admit I still do not see the appeal. Before we left, we spent time checking out the butterfly garden and stayed long enough to watch the sun set behind the mountains over the plantation.

Butterfly hunting
On the way home, we stopped at the local Walmart (yes, Walmart) to stock up on necessities and groceries for dinner covering the next few evenings. We had some difficulty locating ground beef and sausage, but walked out with a good selection of food for the next couple of days. One of the innovations we implemented on our trip to Alaska last year was to divide and conquer the purchasing of each meal between the group members. This has two purposes. First, it decreases the amount of time it takes for us to shop for several days. Second, and more importantly, it prevents every little purchasing decision being made by a committee of seven members. If it’s not the meal you're responsible for, you don’t get say.

Dinner was a delicious breakfast of pancakes, eggs, and bacon, prepared by Kasey, Steven, and Haley. We ate in the courtyard by the pool behind our apartment, and enjoyed hanging out and just talking with each other. So far, a good first day in Costa Rica.

The sun sets over the coffee plantation