Sunday, July 29, 2012

Don't feed the monkeys.

After about six weeks in the cloudforest, we've arrived for a few days of relaxation at the beach before heading home. It's a nice little vacation after preparing final exams and grading papers, but after staying for so long in one peaceful, quiet place, being here makes me feel a little bit like I'm in an amusement park (full of sand) on half-price day. You see, the beach here at Manuel Antonio is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Costa Rica - and for a reason. It is absolutely beautiful. The water is warm and the beaches are lovely and the rocky cliffs and crashing waves are kind of intoxicating.

Unfortunately, I can't help wishing everyone else had stayed at home. 

I mean, I'm a tourist. I am no more deserving of being here than anyone else. But it is legitimately harder to enjoy natural wonders when surrounded by hundreds of packs of people. It kind of makes everything seem less natural. Like that sloth I saw in the tree? He totally gets paid by the hour to sleep there. I saw a monkey playing around on a wire while literally dozens of tourists (I'm not excluded here) stood underneath snapping pictures and I kind of expected him to come down and charge us a fee when he was done.

Natural wonders attract people. I get that. And I get that there are obvious advantages to local economies when people (by the busloads) decide your town will be the next stop on their tour. So you build hotels and restaurants and you sell them cheap jewelry and drinks with little umbrellas in them and you take them parasailing and banana-boat riding ........ and then, before you know it, a pristine beach becomes a water park and monkeys start to spend their day waiting to entertain tourists. (They have been trained to do this, of course, because stupid people continue to feed the animals no matter how many times you tell them not to). 

It's possible I would not have this attitude if I had not just come from six weeks of living in a tiny little community down a not-so-tiny hill, away from the bustle of taxis and hostels and bars and souvenir shops. While I know the university's presence has caused changes within that community, it feels somehow different than the normal tourist/local-community relationship.

Ecotourism is one of the top industries in Costa Rica and it is fairly obvious that the nation's economy depends on it. But how do Costa Ricans feel about the number of tourists in their communities?

Honestly, I have no idea. In the community where we were staying, I can guess that some people wish there were not a constant flow of foreign students coming and going. I can also guess that there are some people who appreciate the economic boost the university campus has provided. I can guess that different people have different opinions about the different positive and negative effects of tourism in their country.

What I am sure of, however, is that the monkeys where we were staying couldn't have cared less about us. Which is exactly how it should be.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012


How many miles are in a kilometer? Or is it how many kilometers are in a mile? I can never remember. I know, it's embarrassing.

But it's not my fault! I just happen to be from a country that doesn't use the metric system.  One of only THREE nations in the world not measuring metrically by the way (the other two are Liberia and Myanmar/Burma).

I do know, however, after this past weekend, that a kilometer feels like a lot longer than a mile.

Saturday, I went zip-lining through the cloud forest canopy. This, for me, was terrifying. The zip-line course is basically a series of cables running in between different metal towers all of which look like they are just kind of resting against trees. You stand on a tower, trying not to look down, for what seems like hours, waiting for your turn to get called over by the dude who is going to take literally 5 seconds hooking your metal clamp (you know, the one hanging from the fancy cloth diaper you're wearing) onto the next cable and pushing you out into the open air where you will again, zip through the treetops and try not to throw up. Thrilling, really. Most of these cables were short in length and while, of course, high up in the air, they were at least within a reasonable distance from the ground. Yes, I was in the treetops, but trees are rooted in the ground, right? Somehow, psychologically, I think this helped. The last cable, however - it was so far above the treetops that I felt like I was in a damn airplane. It was also - yup - one full kilometer in length. I thought I would never see the landing tower. I thought I wouldn't survive.

But I did.

And so the next day I decided to walk to town. No biggie, right? Except town is something like TWELVE  kilometers mostly straight up one of the steepest hills I've ever climbed. I was motivated partly by the amazing views and partly by the idea of eating lunch at a sushi restaurant - which ended up being closed. So I got a coffee and turned around to start my journey back home. I walked many more kilometers until reaching a pizza restaurant where I treated myself to 3/4 of a pizza pie. By the time I got to the start of the ridiculously steep hill,  the idea of my knees making it all the way down was less-than-pleasant. Luckily, in that moment, one of the guys that works in the kitchen here rode by on his motorcycle and gave me a ride. Which was great, except zipping down that hill on the back of a tiny moto was nearly as terrifying as zipping though the trees... but at least it took a few kilometers off my walk.

**Update** - I just asked someone and apparently it is only seven kilometers to town. I'm telling you, kilometers just feel really long. (This assessment has nothing to do with the fact that my experience with this metric unit of distance has occurred while either exhausted or scared out of my mind. I swear.)

Thursday, July 12, 2012

My commute

It's amazing how good not waking up at 6:30 a.m. can make you feel.

Today I didn't have my a.m. class so I woke up late and then stayed in bed for another hour reading Memoirs of a Geisha (en español, have you). I opened up the curtains to the giant windows looking out to the forest, made some coffee and took my sweet time. It was kind of amazing. Then I had a nice, leisurely walk to work that established today as a good one. You know when you have a morning like that? There is nothing Today can do that will mess this one up. It just started off that good.

First, it is a be-U-ti-FUL day here. It's like the best Spring Day and the best Fall Day had a baby.

And you know who else had a baby? The white faced capuchin MONKEYS I saw in the trees right outside of my cabina! There were several of them (including a baby!) looking down at me, jumping from branch to branch, playing and eating and squawking and squeaking and they were so darn cute I just stood there, for several minutes, looking up with a big smile on my face.

Then I remembered that showing your top teeth at monkeys is a sign of aggression and that in order to look friendly you are supposed to only show your lower teeth. So then I began to bite my upper lip while sticking my bottom teeth out as far as I could into an awkward underbite position. I was feeling so friendly I kind of expected the monkeys to come down and let me cuddle them, but apparently I do not appear as amicable as I'd like to think.

Then I passed by the three baby cows that are always under a little tree, napping in the grass. Then I passed by my favorite tree covered in bromeliads and parakeets. Then I heard what I have since learned is the call of the Oropendola - this awesome bird that makes its nests in the form of giant tear drops hanging from the treetops. Watch the video below and skip to 00:30 to hear it. It sounds nuts.

 I wanted to take photos of all of these things so that I could re-construct my walk for you guys, but I left my camera in my room. So I made a map instead! It's hard to read cause the camera on my computer is fuzzy. Oh, yeah, and cause it's backwards - but you get the idea.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Montaña Rusa

What were you guys doing 5 days ago?

I, myself, was riding on the back of a majestic steed on the slopes of the Arenal Volcano. I have little-to-no experience with horses, but my horse, Montaña, and I - we were seriously in tune. There we were, separate creatures, moving as one, riding up and down a series of rolling hills and valleys in a rhythm that nearly rocked me to sleep. There was a fairy-like mist encircling us as we peacefully trotted through the lush, green landscape. It was kind of magical.

Then my horse got electrocuted in the face.

We were on the trail, patiently waiting in line behind the other horses, right next to a thin, innocent-looking, wire fence. In this moment of stillness, I decided to take my helmet off to fix my hair. Not the best timing. While all the other horses were smart enough to keep their noses up the horse's butt in front of them, Montaña got curious, turned her damn head, and tried to reach her neck over the fence. The electric fence. All of a sudden my body felt like it was inside of a washing machine and off we went galloping and jumping and spinning into the field. Somehow, after a minute or so, I was able to grab the reigns and tell Montaña to stop. Although I inexplicably managed to stay on top of the wild beast, my face was slammed into the horn of the saddle, my helmet and glasses were thrown to the ground, and my hair looked less-than-fabulous.

From that moment on Montaña turned into Montaña Rusa. (Montaña means "mountain" and Montaña Rusa, while literally meaning "Russian mountain" also [don't ask me why] is the word for "roller coaster" in Spanish.)

She was more-than-a-bit perturbed. For the next several hours she went back and forth from walking... to running.... to stopping bucking and kicking her neighbors - all without warning. Her back legs would suddenly fly out towards whatever horse was near her (without any consideration for the poor, inexperienced gringa riding on top of her.). She kicked one of my students! We had to stop at one point so that the guide could bandage up her bloody shin. It was like I was in the damn rodeo. My thighs were clamped onto that horse's body like a snapping turtle's jaw. My hands were pulsing with soreness from holding on so tight. By the time I finally, FINALLY, got off that beast and was able to relax, my legs and arms felt like jelly. My butt felt like paté.

After the ride we discovered that our program had paid for three extra people and we were unable to get reimbursed. The guide suggested that three people ride a second time since it was already paid for. Ride AGAIN?!? Nope. Never. Someone will have to pay ME - and a significant sum of money at that - to EVER get on top of a horse again. EVER.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Short and Sweet

So my friend Darla recently confessed to me that she doesn't read my blog. She says it's too long. She claims people have short attention spans and that I should stop expecting them to even attempt to read what I've written once they see it is longer than 2 paragraphs. She's probably right. So, in honor of Darla, I promise to keep this one as short as possible:

I am currently in San José, the capital city here in Costa Rica. We've got a pretty jam-packed schedule involving mostly academic lectures and fancy dinners. We've been to the Interamerican Institute for Human Rights. We've learned about Costa Ricans' response to Nicaraguan immigration (fascinatingly, but not surprisingly, similar to attitudes in the U.S. - especially to those in Georgia, Alabama and Arizona if you know what I mean). We've continued to eat beans and rice, but this time with fancy desserts afterward (I've discovered coconut flan, you guys - it's like a sweet pillow of tastiness that your tongue just kind of melts into).

Yesterday, however, I got up at 5:30am to raft down the Rio Pecuare (considered one of the top 5 rivers in the world for rapids). The night before that I went to a rock concert with my 19 yr old students (actually the band is described as playing "psycho-tropical" music, whatever that means). Today I kind of feel like someone took my body and rolled it over some rocks and then slammed by head into some coconuts.

Mostly though, I just still feel lucky to have this job. On Thursday we are gonna go horseback riding on the slopes of a volcano and then lounge around in hot springs. So, yeah, life's pretty tuanis. (that means 'cool' in youngster Costa Rican talk).