Monday, March 12, 2012

Faith, Lost, Logic, and the Big Picture

The plan was to hike from my house to our friend's house in Bijagua.  The time it would take was estimated at about 10 hours.  The specific distance and route was unknown.  The foreseen obstacle was a volcano. And with that much understood we were ready to set out on our journey.

It was 7:30 a.m. on that clear blue sky morning in the north of Costa Rica.  It had been about 2 hours since dawn and the reservoir of cool damp air was just starting to burn off.  It was a luxury that had to be appreciated when available, because the heat over takes the day early here.  We set out going south and did about 5 miles of highway hiking until reaching a little town that would take us in a new direction towards the foot of the volcano.  We also left the comfort and convenience of the paved road, and were now on a mostly dirt and sparsely laid pebble road.

I have to elaborate a little on our heading since the route we are taking, according to the best map we could find, just ended.  Like many areas of northern Costa Rica, where we were going was not on the map.  Roads and routes are local common knowledge and outside the realm of Gmaps and GPS.  So, after speaking with the locals in the town where our trip began, we asked if it was possible to pass over the volcano on foot. Everyone said, "sure, it's possible", which assured us that the idea wasn't entirely crazy.  However, there was no consensus on an exact route.  To us, that just meant we were too far from the source, and accordingly planned to ask along the way.

As we began on the more humble dirt and stone road we confirmed our direction with someone and hiked on.  This tactic of navigation backfired a few times before it took on its final form.  I say this because our question of, "This is the way to Bijagua, right?" got a response from people that was just not helpful.  Although it is "possible" to walk over the volcano, it's not common and even less so for recreation.  Some people pointed us towards the nearest tourist attraction thinking that, as foreigners, we were obviously mistaken asking such a thing and must be lost.  Others, pointed us clearly in the wrong direction to return to more conventional routes.  So, our question finally took the form of, "is this the way to the next town over?" and with that we began to follow the cookie crumbs over the uncharted crag.

The meandering country road eventually led us to an inclined path that was hard to distinguish since a relatively recent storm  had eroded away much of where it began.  Not without hesitation, we started somewhat of a climb up the path on the advise of a town's person, who assured us that this path would lead to an oxen trail, that would take us by some farms, then eventually to a place where some squatters have settled, and beyond that we would get to our next point, Rio Celeste.  At the time, we didn't put much emphasis on the fact that everything was riding on the premise that what these people were telling us was true.  However, since we had established before hand that the local source for directions was superior to any other, even our own, it removed any cause for concern.  It also made it easy for us to focus on the task of following the directions given to us rather then deciding which direction was best. 

It's worth noting that when traversing off the beaten trail, and even more so while passing by or through remote farm land, it is customary to introduce yourself to anyone who takes notice of you.  This is an easy way to dispel any concern they might have of you being up to no good.  One such encounter had us exchanging words with a man working on his horse from a distance of about 100 yards, and our small talk consisted of us reconfirming our heading.  When this cowboy realized that both the distance and language were inhibiting our understanding of what he was telling us, he hopped on his horse and slowly trotted over to us.  Although we had exchanged the required quota of pleasantries, at this new distance the site of us made it necessary for him to reassess us.  So, as if we had never spoken we reiterated our motives, and after conceding to our explanation of what we were doing he told us how this path we were on would change to an oxen trail, that would lead us to the squatter's land, and just beyond that, Rio Celeste.  Only now, he warned of the difficulty in trying to distinguish which way to go when the path ambiguously turned into oxen trails. 

Taking his advice this time and following closely
While trying to hide our ignorance and highlight our resilience we assured the countryman that his directions were sufficient and that he wouldn't have to guide us through the labyrinth of paths and oxen trails.  It wasn't more than a couple twists and turns, and about 200 yards before we regretted turning down the offer made to us.  Feeling as though our sense of direction deceived us, Mick and I backtracked about 100 feet to our last point of reference.  Lucky for us, before we were forced to tuck our tails between our legs and head back to the man who's help we were in no need of, there he came, from around the bend on horseback.  Our inability to navigate this part of our trip must have been more apparent than a disappointing football season for Buffalo Bills' fans watching minicamp.  As that old countryman on top of his horse graciously ignored pointing out our foolishness he warned us to keep a look out for snakes and to follow him and his dog up to the oxen trail.

Although he wasn't 100% certain about our well being, the horseman brought us far enough to be confident that the oxen trails shouldn't cause us any more problems.  He did, on the other hand, warn us to be careful of the squatters.  "You know, they don't like people passing through their land", he told us.  "If you can, just walk right through as quickly as possible", he recommended, and with our gratitude evident we carried on up the volcano.

Due to the incline, Mick and I had picked up walking sticks along the way that would later double as a means of self defense in not one, but two dog encounters.  The first one occurred not long after we acquired our new multipurpose tools. While walking by one of the remotely located houses peppered along our route it's k-9 occupants took notice of us, and quickly made their unwelcoming sentiment clear.  In standard pack formation about 6 teeth wielding dogs came charging at us in order of size, from small to large.  If not for our staffs we would have been no match for the semicircle attack the out numbering guard dogs were deploying.  Mick and I, with no option to run, quickly maneuvered into what could only be described as a makeshift Spartan Phalanx.  We sunk our heals in and the first contact that small dog had with the tip of our spears sent him waling in retreat.  The others heeded this cry and also backed off and only continued to bark until we were out of sight. 

Distracted by a puma for our self timer snapshot

We finally reached a clearing, and the landscape plateaued.  A small valley hid what awaited us at the end of the foot path that would lead us from this point.  Assuming this was the squatters' territory, we proceeded with caution.  Since our only advice was to be careful but never told of what exactly, we didn't know really what we were being cautious of.  Nevertheless, we approached the edge of the hill top and looked out at the house that lay at the bottom of the valley as if we were Navy Seals doing recon.  We crouched down to blend into the landscape as we discussed which way down the hill and past the house would be best.  We also thought this would be a good place to take a picture, however, that was quickly interrupted by the bark of a dog far off in the distance.  As our eyes tried to follow the sound, out of nowhere we saw a long sleek looking blur streak across the panorama and following it was a dog.  It turned out to be a black puma fleeing the ominous bite of the farm's guardian of fowl.  The K-9 pursuit of feline lasted all of 5 seconds until they trailed off into the treeline.  Off set by this, and now more worried about running into another animal than into a grumpy squatter, we grabbed the camera and made our way down to the house in a beeline.  Going against the recommendation of the countryman, we stuck to protocol and got the attention of the squatters. 

After confirming our benign intentions the friendly squatters not only pointed us in the right direction, but they invited us in for some coffee.  Although it was tempting, we politely declined.  In our short interaction they divulged insight as to why everyone had told us to be weary of them.  They mentioned how they don't take kindly to people nosing around their area, because they are usually officials and other people trying to see what they are up to so they can figure out a way to kick them off the land.  They assured us that they are just hard working farmers. Ourselves reassured as well now, we thanked them for their help, wished them luck, and we were off to Rio Celeste.
Our fist sight of Rio Celest crossing a "bridge" to the other side.

Mick performed the structural integrity test
This is where we crossed the river by actually going through it
Rio Celeste means a few things in Costa Rica.  It's a town, it's a national park, and it's a river.   The national park boasts of hot springs, trails, and it's famous aqua blue colored river Rio Celeste.  That was where we were headed, through the park across the river and then down to Bijagua.  Entering the park was no problem, and crossing the surreal colored river was picturesque enough to spend some time to admire it.  Looping around on the trails, we eventually got to a point where we could follow a beacon of light at the end of the trail that was leading us out of the tree covered forest.  The closer we got the heavier the pit in our stomachs got.  Neither of us were sure enough yet to inform the other that something felt awry, so we carried on.  When we got to the road, both of us stayed in denial until it was just too impossible to justify the disbelief of our error.  The park did not shoot us up and over the volcano, rather it looped us back around to the shanty bridge we had crossed earlier.  Essentially, we just wasted about 2 hours on those trails while moving backwards about half a mile.

After correcting for our mistakes, and following our intuition we continued on without anymore instances of getting lost.  We did have a second encounter with another group of dogs, but by this point it was like shooting fish in a barrel (no dogs were actually harmed).  With a little bit of alpha projection and the tap of a big stick those K-9's took for the high ground.  Now that our internal compass was fully calibrated the fact that night fall set in while knowing there was still a good 3 hours of hiking left didn't phase us.  We just flicked on our head lamps and trekked on.  We made it in to Bijagua just before midnight and that moment couldn't have arrived soon enough for our friend that was waiting for us with the young Bavaria.

The faith in our plan and the advice of others eventually got us lost on more than one occasion, but we quickly realized that we could rely on instinct and the heads on our shoulders to self-correct.  In the end our route would not be determined by other people or our mistakes, but rather by us sticking to our birds eye view of the big picture of where we wanted to end up.


Friday, March 2, 2012

The Time I Ran for My Life

I doubt anyone would guess that Costa Rica has the festival with the second largest quantity of beer drunk in the world behind Oktoberfest. Every January the tiny town of Palmares (about 1 1/2 hours north of San Jose) has the Fiestas Palmares. It turns out to be way less cool than it sounds. It's actually on par with any tiny county fair in the USA. There are the typical carny games and rides, the Latina equivalent of fair food, and tons of flirting teenagers. They do get good musical acts, though. Calle 13 played there last year.

James and I decided to check it out and planned a short day hike around it. We decided to hike from San Carlos to San Ramon where our good Peace Corps friend lived. They're both decent sized towns and connected by a windy, mountainous road with beautiful views. It was a good idea but the trip went downhill from the start.

The road to San Ramon was pretty eventful. James shocked himself pretty badly on a cafeteria lunch counter and I puked from bad water which resulted in us calling a taxi to drive us the final 30 minutes to town. The funniest and scariest part of the trip, though, occurred around 11. We were in a slight dip in the road and about to start up a steep hill when a wild pack of about 10 large family dogs jumped on the road in front of us. I immediately pulled out a stalk of sugar cane I had shoved into my backpack to eat later and James flicked out his tiny pocketknife and flashlight. I told him to stay close so that, if they surrounded us, we were back to back. I then raised the cane stalk over my head so as to smack it on the ground in front of me while yelling to try to scare them away. James interpreted this as a charge and instantly dashed into the pack of dogs screaming and waving his flashlight and knife in front of him. I took off yelling after him with sugarcane ready to strike. As the echoes of our screams bounced around the valley, the dogs tucked their tails and parted to let us through. When we got about 30 feet past them, we turned back to look at them and laugh. Only in Costa Rica.

The next day, something truly scary happened, though. We went to the Palmares fair and got on a bus at about 11 pm to take us back to San Ramon. As I got on the bus, I noticed a few guys in the back but didn't do my typical threat assessment. I sat alone in my seat with James in front and our other Peace Corps friend across from him. About 5 minutes into the 20 minute ride, a guy came and sat next to me and asked if I wanted to buy drugs. We told him no but he wouldn't leave. He then pulled his hoodie over his head, tapped me on the leg, and told me he was going to kill me. I asked him why and he said that I didn't respect him and he was a bad man. I tried to ignore him but he did the same thing about 3 or 4 times. I told James what he told me so he was aware of what was going on. I asked the guy what he wanted and he said nothing, just to shoot me. I weighed my options. He was in a very relaxed position with his finger in a Coke bottle that reaked of alcohol. I considered elbowing him in the face and hoping James would jump right on him. I thought I could, at least, stun him and give us time to take him down before he could do anything. But I thought that could lead to escalation. I had to assume he had a gun but I hadn't seen it so I decided to sit tight, maintain the status quo, and wait for the situation to play itself out. As we turned to get into San Ramon, I grew concerned that he wouldn't let me out of the seat, or that he would attack us in the shadows of the bus stop when we got out. James asked Leah where we were getting off and she told him at the church. At that exact moment I looked up and saw the church about 3 blocks ahead and then someone rang the bell to get off. Almost without conscious thought and in one quick move, I leapt from a seated position and propelled myself diagonally over him and the seat back in front of me. I kicked back at him to prevent him from grabbing my legs and sprinted to the bus door. I didn't even touch a step. I grabbed the railing at the door and jumped out of the bus to the pavement outside. I then sprinted full speed, assuming the guy was steps behind me the entire time, 4 blocks ahead before turning down a side road. As I turned, I look back to see both James and my other friend stepping off the bus. All I could think was, "What the hell are you idiots doing? Run for your lives!"

I was running out of gas as I frantically searched for an open bar or hotel, or just a spot to hide as the bus passed by. I turned down another street and started creeping along the building walls, panting to catch my breath in case I had to run again. As I reached a new street, I peaked around the corner and saw two guys standing there. I started walking past them before notcing one had I security hat. I turned and started explaining to them what had happened between gasps and asked where I could find police. Just then, James and our other friend hurriedly walked by. I yelled for them and eagerly ran over.

They said they had never seen anyone jump higher or run faster in their lives. The threatening guy was so surprised, he didn't even move. After my friends saw me run, they agreed they should get off too and hurried off the bus. The guy flipped them off as the bus pulled away.

The whole incident made me terrified of buses for about 8 months and prompted me to buy and constantly carry around pepper spray. Most importantly, I never sat on the inside seat again. It's too easy for someone to sit next to you and trap you in.


Monday, February 13, 2012

Welcome to Miami, Bienblabludo a Miami

I recently took an Amtrak train from Ohio up to New York to see James.  I'm in the process of trying to figure out where I want to live so I wanted to head down to Miami to see if I'd like it.  James wanted to go too so I headed up to see his hometown first.  The little shit was at work when I got in at 8 AM so I walked two miles to a mall near the train station.  Normally that's no big deal but it was about 15 degrees out with really strong winds and snow.  Plus the sidewalks were covered in ice and I'd only brought Miami clothes.  Actually, I kind of liked it.  I wrapped a t-shirt around my face, lowered my shoulders, and pushed through.  I then spent the entire day at the mall until he could pick me up.  If you've never pulled a 9 to 5 as a non-worker at the mall before, you should try it.  It's not that bad.

On the face of it, Miami doesn't seem like a "self propel" town and I guess it's probably not.  It's kind of the embodiment of excessive consumption.  When an Acura is the "shit car", you know you're in a whole different kind of town.  It's a city about looks, no doubt about it.  The people are beautiful, the cars are beautiful, the houses are beautiful.  As James said in reference to some gaudy waterfront mansion, "That's just opulance," and that about sums it up.  But that doesn't mean it doesn't have substance.  I'm not exactly sure where that substance is, but it's there somewhere. 

We took a couple days to walk and bike around the city.  We stayed in Little Havana and walked all over the place.  It's like a Latin food and coffee heaven.  We biked through South Beach and walked around Key Biscaine, which is excess followed by more excess.  Listen, I'm not saying I don't want the same amount of money that people have there but I would definately do different things with it.  The idea of a massive house and expensive cars doesn't appeal to me.  In fact, I think I'd be stressed about the insurance payments and constantly worried about wrecking it.  Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know what you're thinking.  If you're rich enough to drive around in a Ferrari, you can afford the insurance.  Doesn't matter.  I'd still be stressed out of my mind about it. 

Truth be told, my dream home is much closer to a little shack or, better yet, what I can carry on my back.  And if I could buy any vehicle at the moment, it would be a kayak.  That sounds a lot more fun than a car.  The funny thing is, I think it's just as hard to de-aquire as it is to aquire.  I'm sure it's incredibly hard to get a Ferrari but, in a lot of ways, I think it's just as hard to get rid of the MP3 player.  I'm close but still not there (my cousin gave me an old one he wasn't using anymore).  I really like to be able to listen to Pearl Jam where I want, when I want.  And you know, you hear these reports about what happens to the workers who make ipods and ipads and iphones and all those other electronic gadgets, and I can't help but think that I'd rather live in a world that didn't have those things than one where workers' hands are burned off over time from acid.

But I digress.  Miami is a cool city and I could definately see myself living there.  It has a lot to offer.  So, yeah, I think I'll keep looking for jobs there. 

Kind of hard to see how you could mistake that for a woman.

Biking Miami Beach

Birds of a feather are flocking outside

Getting in a little beach walk.


Sunday, February 12, 2012

The truth of the matter is...

On our first road hike in Costa Rica from Colonia Puntarenas to Canas Mick and I arrived late into a town we were unfamiliar with, and the combination of thirst, hunger, the onset of night, and the uncertainty of where to spend the night had our morale depleting fast.  At this point our feet were reaching the end of their journey, and our bags seemingly weighed twice as much as when we started.  In situations like this, you prioritize and begin to address the most pressing issue and that was thirst.  So, we went to a little convenient store to get something to drink and tried to get a little information about the area from the woman working behind the counter.  Next was hunger. We then found the center of town and stumbled into a touristy dinner.  I can't recall perfectly what we ate but I'm sure it included some assortment of rice, beans, cabbage, and some variety of pork.  No matter how beaten up you are, a meal like that can restore your energy quicker than the fast fist-pumping boxing coach in Mike Tyson's Punch-Out.

Now that we took care of the most pressing issues at hand we were able to focus on the next set of priorities, where to spend the night.  We had our hammocks with us and had tentatively planned to set up camp just outside of town.  Mick, however, at some point thought that to be a bad idea due to the traffic, the fact that we were in a more urban area, and he just didn't want to.  Faced with this new stipulation we went back and forth trying to figure out what to do.  Then, what seemed to me like act of desperation, Mick suggested we go back and talk to the woman from the convenient store.  Going off of a hunch he had gotten from this woman's good vibe or "positive X-factor" he thought, if we were to ask her about where the safest place is in town to camp out, that maybe out of concern for our well-being, she would direct us to someone she knew who could let us set up our hammocks on their property.  Crazy huh?  Even though everything about what he just suggested goes against standard practice, it made perfect sense to me.  I also perceived that woman's positive X-factor, but could not make anything of that feeling until Mick proposed this hail mary play.  Quickly agreeing that that was what we were going to do, and acting as if we could already reminisce about the success of the plan we settled back into finishing up our meal and resting our feet.

I don't remember any hesitance on our part while going back to that store and nonchalantly inquiring about where the best place would be to rest our tired bodies.  What happened next was either a miracle or just something we both dreamed.  This woman with, what I can only describe as, her genuinely welcoming eyes was taken back by our question.  Not for the fact that we looked like dirty, hairy, foreign hobos, but because she was concerned for our well being.  It strained her good-hearted conscience to think that we would sleep out in the middle of nowhere.  Then, as if she overheard Mick and I talking at the restaurant, she got on the phone to call someone she knew who could put us up for the night.  "The call went unanswered," she told us, but before we could even react she dissolved her hesitance and got back on the phone.   This time, and too relieved to hear anything but the important details, she was giving us the directions of where we could spend the night in a covered wood storage garage.  After thanking her many times Mick and I were off to our awaited resting place.

The walk there gave us a chance to digest the finer details of what just happened.  We asked ourselves, "did that woman just offer us a place on her property?" And wait! Did she say her 8 year old daughter, who is home alone, would meet us and show us where to go!  In case I haven't painted this picture clearly enough for you, Mick and I were unmistakably the spitting image of two people you shouldn't trust your home-alone-8-year-old daughter with. Nevertheless, that nice woman, who we never saw again, noticed something else about us, just as we did about her, that told her otherwise.    We set up our hammocks, slept like babies,  and Mick found a kitten that used him as a source of heat through the night.  When we awoke it was too early to express our gratitude in person so we left a note and we were off.

Self Propel is a factor of self reliance, but this does not mean you extract yourself from your surroundings and disconnect because you have in some way relinquished yourself of all need.  In fact it is the exact opposite.  Self reliance requires a sort of heightened and acute dependency of others and your surroundings.  What does this mean?  Take out your ear buds, stop talking on the phone, put away your e-reader, and be aware of your surroundings.  Curiously enough, we've developed the notion that minute control over insignificant things like the above mentioned makes us feel self reliant, when in fact they make us more dependent.  Our minds have become numb, our interactions with others have diminished.  If you don't believe me, then when was the last time you traveled a considerable distance in silence?  Or, have you ever found yourself looking blankly at your phone or watch in order to give yourself an excuse to not have to look at the person walking by you?  This Self Propel mission seamlessly required our minds to pick up where our bodies left off. The truth of the matter is, if you can make the mental rebound from physical exhaustion you reach a point of cerebral clarity and clairvoyance. Who knows what would have happened if we had been distracted by our favorite song, someone on the phone, our guide book, or by our own self involvement. Maybe we would have been distracted from less conventional opportunities presenting themselves.  Maybe we wouldn't have read a little deeper into the eyes of that woman, maybe we wouldn't have doubled back to talk with her.  Maybe we would  have settled and slept in a nice hostel or even worse a hotel.  No, those are not forbidden places but, when Self Propelling they symbolize effortless comforts, and result in a much less overall satisfying experience.   I can't recall more than a handful of memorable experiences I had at hostels and hotels, but  this is an experience I will share with my grandchildren.

- James

Saturday, February 11, 2012

As we all know, Christmas is about buying shit

This Christmas, I decided to make a Christmas gift rather than being.  Ostensibly, I did it to save money.  I thought I could make a picture frame that meant more than the ones in the store and that cost me much less.  Below is what I came up with.  It was much cheaper to make but it did take me about 10 hours to make it (so I guess it technically cost me about $140 figuring I would have made it for minimum wage).  It's made out of coffee and potato chip bags and is basically using the same technique I used to make purses in Costa Rica.  It was the first time I've made a picture frame so it's, admittedly, a prototype but I think it came out pretty well.  And more importantly, I think it means a lot more to be able to say, "I made this for you.", rather than, "I bought this for you." 


Thursday, February 9, 2012

Wayne National Forest Reunion

After Peace Corps, James went his way to New York and I was visiting family in Ohio, where I'm from and we got to missing the road.  Since Ohio and New York aren't TOO far, we planned a little hike and James hopped in his car to head down to Athens, Ohio.  We only had one day to hike since he had to get back for work but he, Luquillo, and I got in a nice day of hiking and a cold night of camping before he headed off.  We did an incredibly short section of the North Country Trail before getting lost and hiking back to an old coal mining town and exploring around there.  James almost got Deliveranced at a little restaurant for asking  why all restaurants in Ohio serve pickles and what was on a "pizza burger" (their response of "Anything you want.  Ketchup, mustard, onions tomatoes, lettuce," didn't really clear up anything). 

James trying to get his hiking legs about him.

Ever since he arrived in the USA, he insists on wearing this ridiculous sleeveless tee.

No fanny pack.

Son, this is beef jerky, the greatest food you'll ever eat.

Sometimes Luquillo needs to self propel for both of us.

Now this is familiar territory.

I miss tent hammocks.

Anyways, hiking on a trail was a lot different than the roads we're used to.  You can't let your mind wander as much as on the road.  The cold weather makes your breaks a lot less pleasant and I froze in the tent.  Luquillo didn't help since the traitor decided to curl up with James' feet.


Falling in Love with the Road in Peace Corps

The ocean's never looked so good

A long day of hiking and a cold, shitty beer

Hey yo

Sometimes you're the windshield and sometimes you're, well, the vulture that electrocutes itself on a high tension wire.

Panama you're oh-so-close

Nicaragua to Panama: 14 days

Luquillo looks happy to self propel

The cows don't but, being from the campo, they probably got drunk the night before

Rio Frio

We need to make good time.  Colby has no idea we're coming.

Hiking on a wing and a prayer and a vanilla milk

I call this one "Morning Mist"

Self defense training on the road from Colonia Puntarenas to Canas (pre pepper spray).

Family's woodshed in Tilaran.  We stopped in a store for a beer and then had dinner to decide where to tie up our hammocks.  I told James we should go back to that store because the clerk had friendly eyes and I had a good feeling about her.  She didn't know us at all and we were two crazy, stinking gringos but she directed us to her house and had her young daughter show us where to tie up.  Never happens on a bus.

The volcanos of the Zona Norte

Nothing goes together like walking and religion.  And beer.

Tent hammocking on the beach

Sometimes you just need to climb to the top of the highest hill to see what's out there.

Luquillo's first self propel.  Little guy had no idea what lay ahead.  No surprise here, I ended up carrying him a mile home.

Independence Day

Rio Frio flooded and we went walking through it.

He's his daddy's little mariner.

6 reasons not to throw away "garbage"

Where vanilla milk comes from.

Fruit I grew in my yard.

Sometimes your best inventions are....(that's supposed to be a kiosk made out of recycled plastic bottles). 
My 2 liter Coke bottle cilantro planter.

A little hanging planter I made out of a few gourds.

When you don't have a catcher, you use a pallet.  When you don't have a bat, you find a stick.  When you don't have a ball, you crumple up some paper, shove it in a sock, and wrap it in Costa Rican duct tape.

Biking the beach.

More beach tent hammocking.

An earned sunset after a self propel from Liberia to Parque Nacional Santa Rosa (a bus extraction may have been involved as well).