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Monthly Archives: February 2012

A Visit with Phil and Emma

Our son, Phil, and his girlfriend, Emma, arrived on Saturday to spend their college spring break with us in Costa Rica.  For weeks I have been keeping a mental itinerary of the things we have done, trying to choose which activities to incorporate into their stay.  On Sunday we returned to the Orosi Valley where last weekend, Rod and I hiked in the beautiful rainforest.  We packed our bathing suits this time, dreaming of the crystal clear river and sunning on the rocks.  But in Costa Rica the weather is quite unpredictable from week to week, and even city to city.  The Valley greeted us with the rain that bestows it with lushness.  Rod and I brought our thin ponchos that we had purchased at Poas Volcano, and we brought trash bags for Phil and Emma to use.  Unfortunately, we only had medium bags, dressing them in rain vests rather than ponchos!  Soaked as we were after hiking for 3 hours, the beauty created a rewarding adventure.  No swimming in the river this time!

Phil and Emma in the rain vests

Monday was a good day to wake up a bit more slowly, explore the Christmas tree farm, play with Lassie, one of 4 dogs on the property, and offer a rest from the busy midterms and projects completed last week.  After lunch Phil, Emma and I took the bus up to the end of our bus route, and hiked for a few hours.  Coming from Indiana, Phil and Emma drank in the sun, accomplishing one of their desires of the week-working on their tan, or sunburn!  Phil mentioned how surreal it was to be visiting his parents in Costa Rica, not just coming for a family vacation this time.  I had a similar experience, showing them the places that we have enjoyed, sharing our home, our favorite restaurants, cooking yucca fritters,  and walking over to our “neighborhood” park.  It brings a sense of satisfaction to lead the way to the bus stops, handing them some colones to buy bread at the corner panaderia and hanging out at night sharing stories.  I feel very settled here.

Tomorrow morning we leave for Manuel Antonio, the beach and National Park that Rod and I visited a few weeks ago.  It is a place where monkey sightings are almost guaranteed, an easy choice for our major excursion.


The Orosi Valley

After taking  3 buses, we arrived at the breathtaking Orosi Valley on sunny Saturday morning, to the center of the quaint town, nestled among the mountains and forests, the scenic Reventazon River meandering through.  At the coffee shop we purchased some fresh empanadas and a few danish to take with us to the Tapanti National Park.  We walked back to the center of town where the taxis gather, and asked a driver for the rate to the park.  On the map it appeared to be about 5 miles away, so we were quite surprised to hear that it would cost us $18.00!  We wondered if this was one of those experiences that we read about in the guidebook, where drivers take advantage of tourists.  Since we had engaged in a nice conversation with the women at the cafe, we returned and asked them what the going rate to the park might be.  They too, said about $18.00.  “But isn’t it only about 10 minutes away?” we asked.  No.  As is often the case in Costa Rica, what looks like a straight shot on the map, can be very deceiving.  We wrestled with the dilemma of coming this far to see the park, but wondering if it would be worth the price of the taxi added to the Park’s entrance fee.  Perhaps we could just wander around Orosi.  As we walked back toward the town square, we noticed a young couple sitting on the bench perusing a guidebook.  Approaching, we explained our situation. They were considering what they would do with their day, having just arrived from Turrialba, for their weekend break.  They were volunteering at CATIE (Centro Agronomico Tropical de Investigacion y Ensenanza).   In English, that is Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center, where another Fulbright scholar is working, who is collaborating with Rod.  Patrick and Rachel were actually working under Landon, Rod’s connection!  Small world in Costa Rica.  They agreed to go with us, sharing the cost, and the 4 of us hopped into Luis’ taxi.  It didn’t take long before we understood why the cost was so high!  The first mile was paved, and after that Luis demonstrated the skill of a scout, dodging the rocks and holes.  Five miles took about 30 minutes, and most likely repair needs are much higher in this area than in San Jose!  We arrived at the Park around noon, arranging for Luis to come back for us at 4:00, closing time.  There are no buses that travel on this road, and few cars.

Main Street of Orosi

We began our hike on the waterfall trail with Rachel and Patrick, listening to their stories of their work as wilderness fire fighters in Utah.  Finishing college 8 years ago and not finding jobs, they began doing seasonal work, and traveling.  I was impressed by the way they creatively lived during difficult economic times. Rachel spoke of enjoying all the travel, but missing the ability to plant a garden.  Inspired by their bold way of living, I also, in her longing, saw value in my rootedness.

Hearing the rush of water, we left the path for the river, crystal clear, many boulders taller than us.

And then we saw it, high in the mountain, water rushing through the forest, breathtaking.  Untouched nature, I could only imagine Eden.

Finishing the Waterfall trail, we went our separate ways from Rachel and Patrick, and headed down the Pava trail.  Starting down the switchbacks, tromping down, down, down, we decided we were too tired for this trail, and climbed back, up, up, up.  Taking the last turn, there was Jonathan with his wife and little boy, who we had met on the last trail, guiding them to the location off the path to view the waterfall.  Jonathan was pointing toward the tree, at the perched Pava, a bird about the size of a chicken!

Pava Negra (black)

So few people crossed our path the entire time we hiked, wilderness so tranquil and pure.  The wonder of colors, shapes, sizes, sounds and vistas were soul energy.

Luis pulled up right on time, and our tired bodies crawled into the taxi.  As we bumped down the road, Luis told us stories about working in the coffee fields lining the road, the hard work and long hours in the sun.  Only following parts of the Spanish conversation, I wasn’t sure what we were doing when he pulled off to the side and turned off his car.  Piling out, he  began to show us the flowers and the beans, teaching us the cycle of the harvest, each tree taking 3-4 years to produce its first crop.  Starting coffee plantations was truly an act of delayed gratification and faith!

It was not only the nature that made this day special, although that certainly was well worth every colones, but the people we connected with along the way.  Patrick and Rachel, Luis, and the young Costa Rican family, each added their stories and kindness.  Returning to San Jose after nightfall, to a terminal unfamiliar to us, Rod asked a young man from the bus if he would point us in the direction of Avenida 2, where we would find the Granadilla bus to take us home.  He did so much more, walking with us until we recognized the street of our bus route.  The guidebook prepared us for dangers and scams.  Yet, we continue to be surprised at the kindness, the offering of story, the stranger who goes a few blocks out of his way to guide us to known places. The slower pace seems to allow time for people to be human toward each other, touching us deeply.

Becoming Awake with no Coffee!

I walked out the door just before 8:00 this morning, a few minutes after Rod got on the bus heading for the University.  The sky was baby blue and the sun was warmer than the inside of the apartment.  I opened the door and threw the sweater on the chair.  I walked down to the edge of the property, to the lowest row of Christmas trees, in hearing range of the creek that forms the boarder between the farm and Parque del Este.  I stood, listening to the soothing flow of the creek, the deep warble of a bird, the high pitch tone of another, the 5 note song off in the distance, the attention getting squawks of a flock of black birds with white stomachs, floating  gracefully in formation, as if it were agreed upon.  At least 7 distinct songs, all in unity, making a lovely choir of birds wearing black, white, blue, yellow and brown-of the ones that I could see. I sat on a mound of dirt, next to a small Christmas tree, just in front of the orange tree, and breathed in the sweetness.  It is where, 2 days ago, I saw my first hummingbird in the wild, feeding on what was provided in nature.  My eyes took in the colors, the hillside turning orange with the flowering trees that bloom brilliantly in February and March, so I am told.  A work of art, orange against the backdrop of blue, surrounded underneath with green.   The crescent moon to the left of the trees would have been easily missed, disappearing in the morning light.  A half hour went by so quickly, and I got up to leave.  Within came a voice, “Why are you leaving so soon?”  I sat down again.  I closed my eyes, and listened, and breathed in more deeply the fragrant orange blossoms.  My eyes opened, and focused on where the sweet smell was being birthed.  And there she was, brown and green, with a hint of red, hovering and quickly gone.  It was the only time I saw her this morning, but the hummingbird was not to be captured by my camera, only to be noticed and appreciated.  I felt glad to be alive, part of the painting.  I did nothing to deserve the gift of  beauty surrounding me.  It was there, whether I noticed it or not.  How many more gifts are present, if I look?

Yesterday I took the bus into San Jose to meet Rod at noon for a performance at the Teatro National, a beautiful ornate building, originally constructed in 1897, as an opera house.  Almost every Tuesday there is a half hour performance of music or dance.  Yesterday a dance troupe from the University of Costa Rica demonstrated with movement, the fluidity of life, relationship and cycles, ever changing and dynamic.   Music and movement expressing emotion, creating images, was another gift.

I had arrived downtown early so that I could roam the walking mall before meeting Rod.  I window shopped, glancing at the shoes, which women seem to especially adore here, the dresses, the blouses, and everything else one might desire.  I am not a very good clothes shopper, never sure what it is that I would want or need.  But than I saw an International bookstore, and without another thought I was in the door.  I glanced around for a few minutes, noticing the cookbooks, the religious section, the travel books, and then, the Costa Rican books.  There it was-Costa Rica for the Soul.  It was filled with photographs, matched with quotes that spoke to my longings about new paths and meaning, mystery, seeing in new ways and the wisdom spoken in nature.  I bought it for the gift it was.  I have enough time and space in a new environment, where life is lived, not in vacation mode, but establishing routine, yet without the things that fill my life at home.  It is fertile ground for discovery, not only what surrounds me, but what is inside-what I desire, what I miss, what gives me joy, and what I fear.  I was being offered companionship from others who have written from the wisdom gained in awareness.  Today I will consider this quote by Henry Miller: “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”  I do think there is great truth there for me.

Our New Routine

Tuesday started the next chapter of our stay-a regular week, post language school.  Rod left for the University about 8:30, which felt leisurely since we wake up at 6:00.  We had our first overnight guest on Tuesday evening, a collaborator of Rod’s that he connected with via e-mail.  Scott works at a Georgia university campus in the cloud forest of Monteverde,  He teaches in the States during the month of January and this week he was actually at University of Costa Rica, where Rod works, for a conference.  Rod and Scott had never met, and they even had trouble remember how they connected.  It was fun to be able to extend hospitality to him for the night.  Rod and Scott talked enthusiastically together about potential  collaborative projects in conservation genetics and biology education.

I have enjoyed a few days on my own, not riding buses, reading, walking and writing.  I visited our nearby park on Wednesday, and saw only a handful of people there.  I sat and listened to birds, smelled the trees, and enjoyed the quiet.  It started to drizzle, and I felt no rush to leave, waiting it out under a shelter.  When I finally felt ready, I began the 15 minute walk home, and by then the drizzle became a bit heavier.  I waited under an awning of flowers hanging over the sidewalk.  How fun, not to feel like I had to run from getting wet!  Of course, it helped that it was warm outside.  As I stood under the awning, I took in all the flowers hanging on the trees around me.  Then the rain stopped and I continued on my way.

This was my umbrella

Beauty across the street as I waited for the rain to stop

Rod had a forced day off today, finding out yesterday that his building was being fumigated today.  He did some work in the morning and then we went hiking.  We took the San Ramon bus up our mountain road as far as it goes, about a 15 minute ride.  Then we continued up the mountain on foot, to see where it would lead, beyond the mirador restaurant that we visited a few weeks ago.  I decided that if I continue on walks like these, I do not have to worry about missing out on jogging and exercise classes!  We felt the burn!  But oh, how worth it!  Beautiful vistas and wild flowers.

Where the road disappears, that is about a 45 degree angle in the road.  And then it goes back up.  The picture doesn’t do it justice!

I love the contrast of greens!

So close to out home!

In the valley is San Jose

Wild Poinsettias!


Tomorrow we are having lunch with the Duggans, the friends that we stayed with 2 years ago, who are parents of 2 students that Rod had in class.  Sunday we are invited to the home of a couple, both alumni of Wheaton College, who have been here for 13 years, working at a school.  A mission team from College Church in Wheaton, helping at Matt and Lisa’s school, brought some of Rod’s science equipment down for him, so we will be gathering the last of his donations!

Day 2 at La Fortuna-Unexpected Surprises

Since we did a tour the day before, and saw what we came to see, we decided we would return to San Jose on the 12:45 bus instead of the 2:45, hoping to get home before dark.  (But as always, the trip home takes longer than the arriving trip, so it was 7:15 when we finally got to our apartment!)  We didn’t know what to do with our half day, but we figured a good breakfast was a start.  We walked around the center of town, trying to find an American breakfast because I was craving something besides the familiar eggs, rice and beans.  We found a place that served pancakes, so I was happy.  They didn’t really meet my dreams of light, fluffy, Butterfields Pancake House pancakes,  but they filled my stomach.  We took a walk down a back road where just a block from the town it was pastures and vistas-probably what the whole town was like before the volcano became famous.   We walked by a lovely country inn of cabanas, where, by the beautiful appearance, I guessed the nightly cost would be about $200.00.  It looked like my idea of a perfect retreat center, with gardens, a stream and a pool.  I was surprised to learn that they were $70.00 a night-maybe next time we will splurge!  Our room was $20.00!  It had a bed and a shower, what more do you need!

About a mile from town we came to a bridge and could see the swimming hole that James had told us about the night before.  We climbed down, took a path and waded onto a nice rock to sit on.  This water was cold, unlike the part of the river by the hot springs.  Three older men (older than us!) were swinging from a vine and plunging into the swimming hole below.  We wished we brought the camera, but we thought we were just going to breakfast and then taking a little walk.    We sat on the rock, debating about whether we go back, change into our bathing suits, rent bikes and come back.  Or do we change our plans and go back on the later bus?  I didn’t want us to regret not doing what we wanted to do because we had decided to leave early.  I didn’t really care about going in since it was quite chilly, but I could see Rod’s mind debating.  Suddenly he decided what to do.  He found a way to go into the water without getting his shorts and shirt wet, and without having to walk all the way back to get changed, and it wouldn’t quite be skinny dipping.  Sorry, no pictures.

When we left the swimming hole, we kept walking down the road and came to a house with a wooden sign, labeled, archeological site.  A man was in his front yard, so we stopped and asked what that was about.  He took us to his back yard where there was an old Indian burial ground!  We couldn’t quite comprehend the whole story about its discovery, but a University group is doing other digs in the area.  He told us stories of how the Indians used these grounds.  There were about 8 different squares in the plot, each room separated by rocks.  He told us that the Indians would put the dead body in the river until it decomposed, and then they could bury it in small plots.  They believed that the spirit of the dead person didn’t leave until the bones were placed in the ground.  Then the gentleman showed us his garden filled with medicinal plants.  He had learned the remedies used by the indigenous people, and now he was the pharmacist for his family!  This experience felt magical to me.  I couldn’t understand everything, but it is the kind of experience that brings a smile to my face.  Here we are complete strangers from another country, walking down a country road, and we get to see a burial site in someone’s backyard, learn about his plants, and smell the freshest herbs!  It is the kind of Costa Rican experience that I love.  A mile from the tourist offices, lies a beautiful river, country vistas, and a man with a great heart  and story.

La Fortuna/Mt. Arenal Day 1

Our celebration getaway to Mt Arenal was another beautiful adventure. The ride alone was worth the trip, zig -zagging on mountain roads.  There were lots of turns, when, a moment later, we were looking down and across at the road where we had just traveled.  The last hour was a change in topography, flatter with ranches, and lots of humidity.  The public bus took about 4 hours to arrive at La Fortuna, the small town that has become the entrance way for tourists coming to see the volcano.  The last eruption was in 1968 when over 80 people were killed.  But the active red lava, once seen on clear evenings, has been quiet for the last year.  When we first arrived at the 2 slot bus terminal, our first encounter was with a young man from a tourist company across the street who was like a swarming mosquito, following us down the road to our hostel, bombarding us with information about the great tours that they provide.  The sensory attack after being on a bus for hours was a complete turn-off.  My expectations of this place quickly lowered.  However, once we got settled into our room, we decided to check out the tourist office at our hostel.  The owner came recommended by Lorenzo, the assistant director of our language school, who had been very helpful with our excursion planning.  The woman rocking on the chair outside the office was working for Franklin, the owner.  She set us up with a tour company who would drive us to the volcano, guide us on a hike in the rainforest and lava fields, and then take us to the free hot springs, part of the same spring that the adjacent luxury hotel charges to use.  This is what is good about Tico recommendations!  We were to get picked up at 3:00.  So we were outside of the hostel by 2:45, and at 3:40 our ride came.  Tico time.  We were driven to the west side of the Volcano where it is possible to hike, and with a group of about 12, we began the hike by crossing a river on a hanging bridge.  Crossing behind 10 other people, causing a bit of a vibration, made me feel a little tipsy walking on the bridge!  Early in the hike, a little rain shower brought relief from the hot, humid weather.  I came to appreciate the coolness of our mountain apartment!   We didn’t see any wild life, but the walk was enough, through lush green rainforest, looking at ancient trees, and listening to the birds and insects.  We arrived at an overlook to see the cloud covered peak of Mt Arenal, a gorgeous vista, and rested on lava rocks as our guide, Andres, told us the history of the formation and activity of the volcano.  Then we began the descent down the rocks and back onto the trail just as dark set in.  We hiked the rest of the way, using our flashlights, another first in my hiking experiences!  During the hike, Andres dug up some of the packed wall of dirt that is used for mud spas, putting globs of dirt into his bag.  At the springs he would treat us to free mud facials!  Even the men joined in for that fresh smooth skin!  On the way to the springs, the van stopped along the road when Andres spotted a red eyed tree frog.  He posed on Andres’ arm for us to get pictures-no flashes allowed.    We arrived at the springs and, with our flashlights, made our way down the path to a small water fall, where we could either slide quickly into the pool below, or more slowly cross the wet rocks along the top and climb down the stair step rocks.  Rod took the slide, I went the slower way.  Basically when I saw him go under I decided I didn’t want to chance losing my contacts!  Standing under the falls provided a natural massage.  The water was about 80 degrees, and a totally awesome way to relax after a hike.  Even more so when Andres served us rum and cokes in plastic cups as we enjoyed the springs, waiting for our facial mud packs to dry! Well worth our $28.00 per person.   We returned to our hostel around 8:00, starved.  After cleaning up, we crossed the street to the open air restaurant called, Just Good Food.  There was lots of activity in this small place.  We soon discovered that the Superbowl had just ended.  That was surreal, to realize how out of touch we are regarding normal American activity.  The owner, James, is a 73 year old man from Texas.  He and his wife came to Costa Rica every year for about 8 years.  Then one day she said she didn’t want to go back to Texas.  He sold his business and they moved down here.  He opened this restaurant 3 years ago.  Now that is a different kind of retirement!  James stood by our table before and after our food was served, and told us stories.  He also gave us some recommendations for our next day.  Because this is so long, I will make that another blog!   Enjoy the pictures!

The view from our hostel

Now you can imagine why one might feel a bit tipsy!

Excited about that thigh workout!

View from the overlook of our hike

Lava fields

Yes, that is actually 2 frogs!  Aren’t they cool looking?

Graduation from Language School!

We have finished chapter one, a month of language school, receiving our certificates and saying our goodbyes.  Now we are ready to take our brain-load of grammar and try it out on the Costa Ricans!  Of course, we have been doing that already, but it feels good to be done with adding more grammar, and now we will continue the learning process by practicing.  After our final class, Jenny, my professor, spent the entire afternoon with me.  We sat outside on the balcony of the mall’s food court, and chatted about life.  Then we walked around the University of Costa Rica, where she is a master’s student, and visited Rod in his lab.  I felt accomplished and tired after communicating in Spanish for the entire day!

This is my class from the last week.  Leo and Ralph finished earlier, and these women joined me.  From left to right, there’s  me, Elena from Switzerland, Anne from Austria, and Jenny, the professor.  I had Jenny to myself on Fridays because my classmates, like most of the students, take classes for 4 days a week, and travel on the weekends.  Most, also, stay with Costa Rican families, so they have much opportunity to practice.

Rod will begin spending most of the days now, at the University doing lab work, until March, when he will actually start doing some teaching of a genetics lab course, in the Spanish language.  He is doing great, being complemented by several Costa Ricans on how well he speaks.  But, of course, he feels a bit nervous about his level when facing the students and needing to think on his feet!  But his colleague, Gustavo, will be there to help. The University of Costa Rica is a beautiful campus.  The buildings are rather dated, but there is plenty of green to enjoy outdoors.

Biology Building

Rod, hard at work!

The lovely Campus

There are also several interesting sculptures throughout campus.  Below are two of my favorites.

Sunday we are celebrating our completion of school by going to Arenal National Park, with one of the largest active volcanoes in CR.  We will spend the night in La Fortuna, the little town that houses the volcano watchers.  We are looking forward to another excursion!