A Vacation of Fitness and Terror, Vol. 5: The True Meaning of Fear

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Another of Jenn’s cool pictures. This was taken on the beach in Santa Teresa.

None of us knew what to expect as we left Casa Morfo for our last full day of vacation. Our plan was to hike to the Montezuma waterfalls in the morning and then drive to the nearby town of Santa Teresa for lunch.

There were two options for getting to the waterfall—Joy and Chris were going to walk down the river—not on a trail next to the river, but actually in the river itself, hopping from slippery stone to slippery stone. (This reminds me of a time when we were hiking in Cabo Blanco, I pointed out a slick spot to Joy and said, “That’s an ankle breaker.” She replied, “Yeah, that’s a real teeth-knocker-outer.”)

Brian and Jenn would drive the car to the trailhead a little later, then hike up from the parking lot to the big waterfall. I could choose which way to go—down the river with Joy and Chris, or in the car.

My first thought was—um, hell-to-the-no. There was no way that I would step foot in that river ever again. I would take the nice, leisurely ride in the RAV-4 and the well-traversed trail from the parking lot, thank you very much.

But I guess I caught a case of the fuck-its that morning, because I was like, what the hell am I so afraid of? What’s the worst that could happen? Fuck it.

I had done a pretty good job of psyching myself up when Joy, Chris, and I set off for the river trail. Then we stopped to chat with Alex for some last minute tips.

He said that it takes most people about 20 minutes. As a local, he could make it in about 10 because he knows all the best places to get his footing. When we asked him about the waterfalls themselves, I really thought that he would laugh it off and tell us that they were no big deal. (I thought he would be like, “Ha, ha! There is nothing to fear, silly gringos!”)

Instead, he looked at us with some trepidation. He said the first waterfall isn’t very high. You don’t have to jump, however it is actually easier than trying to shimmy down the rockface.

The second waterfall would be much higher. You can still jump off of it, but it is safer to climb down to about the halfway point and jump from there. If we chose not to jump off the second waterfall, we could climb around the rocks to the left where we would have to “be like Spiderman” (Alex made a little Spiderman move) and cling to the mountainside with only a very narrow ledge. He mimed as if he were scooting along a thin trail, trying not to look down.

He got very serious. No one jumps off the big waterfall, he said. People have tried it and they have died. When you are standing at the top, it looks like sheer water, but there are actually rocks jutting out underneath. Alex made a motion with his hand to illustrate a body hitting one of those sharp rocks.

We thanked him and started on our way. After hearing that we pretty much had to jump into the first pool, I started to freak out a bit. I decided to run back to Casa Morfo to leave my backpack and towel in the car. There would be no point in carrying a bag if it was just going to get wet when I was forced to jump off a waterfall.

I’m not going to lie—I seriously considered backing out on the whole thing. I mean, the RAV-4 was right there. It had air conditioning. I would have much less chance of bodily injury. But, once again, I thought, fuck it. When is the next time I’m going to be on a Chris Parkes Fitness Vacation? So I somewhat reluctantly made my way back to the trail.

As we descended the long, steep mud stairs, I determined that the only way I was going to make it through this ordeal was to attack my anxiety head on.

I thought about what went wrong the last time, and I realized that it was all about that first leap—right as we entered the water. Last time, when faced with that first leap, I let my fear take over. I allowed my thoughts to spin with negative scenarios and all the things that might possibly go wrong. (It reminds me of something my dad said recently about learning to meditate. He said in a sort of mock guru voice: “Too much mind.”)

When we got to that first leap this time, I did not hesitate. I did not hem and haw or try to find a way around it. I just jumped. And as we made our way down the river, I continued to let my instincts guide me. I looked around at the possible places to jump to next. I assessed my options, and I took the best one.

Chris makes his way down el rio.

Chris makes his way down el rio.

Sometimes I wobbled or slipped, but my attitude was completely transformed. Last time, whenever my foot slid an inch out of my control, my mind used it as evidence to convince me that I was doomed for failure. Every rock looked scarier and more slippery than the last. The feeling of danger was compounded by the knowledge that whatever I slipped down would have to be climbed back up on the return trip.

But this time, there would be no return trip, so I didn’t have to worry about that. And rather than seeing every stumble as a harbinger of further difficulty, I just decided to trust. To have faith. I didn’t overthink it. I just jumped. Fuck it.

And that worked beautifully. Until we got to the first waterfall.

Alex was right; it wasn’t too high. But it would still require getting some distance out from the rocks to clear it. And the pool drained directly into the second, much larger waterfall, which I had no desire to get sucked into.

If you didn’t want to jump, the only other way was to repel yourself down to the pool by taking hold of some black rubber water pipes that were strongly anchored (one hoped) to the hillside. Chris took this option in order to keep our supplies dry. Once he made it down to the pool area, he did a little re-con and found the trail.

Having watched the effort it took Chris to get down to the pool by clutching those weird pipes, I have to admit that jumping seemed the better option. So Joy and I stripped down to our suits and tossed our other clothes to Chris.

It was a beautiful, serene pool, especially given the raging waterfall just on the other side. Right as we were about to jump, a man and a woman approached from the trail. They were the first other tourists we’d seen on the river that day. They looked vaguely European—maybe French or Spanish. They perched themselves on the rocks facing us and unwrapped their sandwiches. They looked at us like we were daring for jumping off the waterfall. It gave me a moment of pride.

I threw my hat in the water and jumped. As I climbed out of the pool wearing just my tennis shoes, my bathing suit, and my soggy hat, I felt like a real adventurer. I was like frickin’ Joan Wilder.

We scooted on our butts down a fairly steep rocky hillside to get to the second waterfall pool. I could not imagine anyone jumping from the top of it. It is as big as a proper waterfall should be. About 50 feet. None of us jumped from this one; we just swam in the pool. It was a little more unsettling too because it had a much stronger current and it flowed right into the big mama waterfall, which you apparently don’t want to go off of because YOU WILL DIE.

Overall, at that point, as we swam around the second waterfall pool, I was feeling pretty badass. I felt like I had faced something really big.

As we were leaving, a bunch of tourists started to arrive. Everyone was kind of milling around, trying to figure out where to go. Then a very athletic, tanned and toned blonde chick with a belly button piercing approached. She didn’t hesitate at all—she just climbed to the rock ledge about 20 feet up the second waterfall and dove right in.

That took some of the wind out of my sails. How could something that was terrifying to me be so easy for her?

Looking back, I realize that, rather than feeling bad because I had been scared where she was not, I want to celebrate her. She was demonstrating the very thing that I want to learn—Too much mind. Don’t think. Just jump.

And, as we found out, sometimes the jumping is the easy part. It’s the climbing out that is the challenge.

Probably the scariest part of the experience thus far was scrambling back up the rocks from the second waterfall pool to get to the trail. I mean, it was steep. And you didn’t always have great places to get a grip.

The “trail” began with a series of roots and pipes that were used to pull yourself up the side of the hill using your upper body strength. It was pretty high, and believe me, you did not want to look down at any point in this process.

We finally made it on to a somewhat normal trail—like room for both your feet and not a sheer dropoff on either side—and I honestly thought that the hardest parts must be behind us. But then, just as we were descending on the big waterfall pool, we reached a point where the trail just dropped off into a muddy hillside, which we had to repel down using ropes with big knots tied into them.

Honestly, if I had really understood what this hike entailed before attempting it, I would have been too scared. But when it was all over and we were lounging in the big waterfall pool, I felt like a different person. For maybe the first time in my life, I fully understood the payoff of pushing myself beyond my perceived limits.

Jenn and Brian met us at the big waterfall pool and we made our way back to the car. Contrary to my assumptions, the trail to the parking lot was a little rough as well. We somehow ended up off the beaten path and suspended from another hillside, dangling into the river from some more of those weird black water pipes. Thankfully, that part only lasted for a few minutes. But, needless to say, we all felt that we had earned our leisurely lunch in Santa Teresa as a reward for our efforts that morning.

As we walked up the road into town, I noticed a change in my general attitude.

Even though I have traveled in some fairly sketchy places, for some reason, this trip had me feeling especially vulnerable. Normally, I am not easily sketched out, but something about the characters milling about downtown Montezuma put me on edge. Not to mention the steep, windy, narrow roads and the lack of any discernible traffic laws.

But as we walked up the road from the waterfall, with shirtless dudes on motorcycles whizzing past—not wearing helmets, of course, and often with a small child sitting up near the handlebars—I found that I wasn’t freaked out by it anymore. I was feeling very zen.

And that lasted for about ten minutes.

We had seen the road to Santa Teresa on an earlier daytrip, so we felt pretty confident that  we knew where we were going. We might have been a little alarmed when, less than a kilometer into the drive, we found ourselves on an extremely narrow passage, with no places to turn around, and with a river about a foot or two deep rushing in front of the RAV-4.

Our options were to: 1) Keep going; or 2) Attempt to drive in reverse far enough that we found some kind of safe place to execute an extremely tight turn:

We opted to push forward.

The road was less than 10 km, but it felt like we were on it forever. We crossed more rushing rivers. We balanced our wheels around gaping holes in the dirt. We gunned it up steep inclines and prayed that the next dip, around the next curve, through the next bumpy narrow passageway, would be traversable, because there was no way any of us wanted to have to turn around and go back through what we had just passed.

It felt like we were filming a Toyota truck commercial. Only a lot, lot less fun. At one point, the trees thinned out and we found that the road was on a ledge, which dropped off into a jungle valley to our right. There would absolutely be no place to turn around here. And of course our phones didn’t really work. We didn’t have any food or water. All we needed now was for the car to get stuck, then for someone to fall and get some kind of compound fracture, and, boom. I Shouldn’t Be Alive, here we come.

But, thanks to some expert driving by Chris, some solid wing-man support from Brian, and the women keeping our cries of terror to ourselves (for the most part), we made it on to a real road again. Later, the guys told Alex which route we’d taken, and he was absolutely flabbergasted. We had essentially driven through the Cabo Blanco Nature Preserve jungle, on a road that was meant for dirt bikes and 4-wheelers.

Our first impression upon entering Santa Teresa was that we would have needed to be a lot richer and better looking to have vacationed there. Brian summed it up pretty well when he said that it was like a collection of “all the coolest people from the places that they’re from.” Everyone was perfectly tan and skinny. It was horrible.

Alex had suggested we have lunch at Pranamar “Buddha Eyes” Restaurant, where they serve a lot of fresh juices, salads, and healthy dishes, as well as some good old boat drinks like pina coladas and Mai Tais. All in all, it was pretty darn swanky.

pranamar

They have a sign in the bathroom telling you that the resort has its very own sewage treatment plant. We couldn’t figure out why this was a selling point. But we did think of a good tagline: “Pranamar Yoga Retreat and Villas—Where your shit is treated as well as you are.”)

On the right, you will see the statue that I almost bought. The place was pretty much empty as we were leaving, except for a group of very fit exotic surfer dudes. Naturally, I wanted to make a good impression. We had been told to remove our shoes upon entering, and as I paused ever-so-gracefully to put them back on, I inadvertently put my fat palm right on the statue's face and sent it flying sideways, into the dining room and directly in front of the surfer dudes, where it landed with an extremely loud and echoing "THUMP." Brian yelled out to the waitstaff, "Well, at least you have her credit card number!" Thankfully, the statue survived and they did not have to use it.

On the right, you will see the statue that I almost bought. The place was pretty much empty as we were leaving, except for a group of very fit exotic surfer dudes. Naturally, I wanted to make a good impression. We had been told to remove our shoes upon entering, and as I paused ever-so-gracefully to put them back on, I inadvertently put my fat palm right on the statue’s face and sent it flying sideways, into the dining room and directly in front of the surfer dudes, where it landed with an extremely loud and echoing “THUMP.” Brian yelled out to the waitstaff, “Well, at least you have her credit card number!” Thankfully, the statue survived and they did not have to use it.

After lunch, we made our way to the beach, which was quite beautiful. The waves were fairly gentle, but there were a lot of knee-scrapers and face-smashers among the rocks just below the water’s surface, so you had to be careful.

hammock

They were offering surfing lessons:

surfing lessons

And we decided that I am going to marry a rich guy who will pay for everyone to come to our destination wedding here:

wedding altar

There’s not much to report about the return trip. There were no strippers on our ferry to Puntarenas (how unfortunate!) and the drive back was not nearly as harrowing. However, we did miss our exit, forcing Chris to execute another cross-four-lanes-of-speeding-mid-90s-sedans U-turn.

We got pretty turned around and couldn’t find the road we were supposed to be on until, funnily enough, we got our bearings again when we recognized a store with 8-10 rotisserie chickens rolling past the plate glass window surrounded by a bunch of tires and appliances. The old tire chicken place had saved the day.

That night, we basically spent a couple hundred dollars on food at the Denny’s Restaurant that shared a parking lot with our Holiday Inn. The guys watched football at the casino next to the Denny’s for a while, and we ladies watched music videos in our hotel room. This was by far our favorite:

After a crack-of-dawn flight from San Jose to Panama City, and a five-ish hour flight to Houston, we found out that our final flight to Denver was delayed at least an hour and a half, which turned into four hours when all was said and done. We were pretty exhausted when we made it back to DIA. We exited the train into the terminal and stepped on to the escalator, only to discover that it wasn’t moving. As we trudged up that last flight of stairs, we were all thinking the same thing: Damn you, Chris Parkes Fitness Vacation!

**Once again, thank you to Jenn Superka for the picture of the motorcycle on the beach in Santa Teresa. We’ve been back almost a month now, and it is all beginning to feel like a distant memory, so it’s great to have the pictures. Jenn recently shared her album on Google+, and as I was scrolling through, I noticed that she had cleverly concealed herself in some of the photos…

Okay, so it was her Google avatar. It's like Where's Waldo? Where's Jenn?

Okay, so it was her Google avatar. It’s like Where’s Waldo? Where’s Jenn?

A Vacation of Fitness and Terror, Vol. 4: Curse of El Rio

montezuma pura vida bballPrior to departing on our Costa Rican adventure, we had tossed around a lot of ideas for possible activities, including horseback riding (check.), beach time (check.), swimming (check.), and hiking in the Cabo Blanco Nature Preserve (where we saw the busts of Nicolas Wessberg and Karen Mogensen).

Among the things still on our list were a snorkeling excursion to nearby Tortuga Island and a visit to Montezuma’s waterfalls. Pretty much the only thing that Brian (aka, The Pelican) wanted to do was deep sea fishing. The owners of our rental property, Alex and Khalida, set up a private fishing trip for the guys and arranged for a masseuse to come to the house to give each of us ladies a massage while the guys were away.

This was not just any masseuse. Her name is Devaya and she owns a yoga studio in Montezuma. Picture Joyce DeWitt (Janet from Three’s Company). Now shrink her down to about 65 pounds and give her the mouth of a sailor. Khalida told us that Devaya was also something of a psychic—while we were on the massage table, she might very well tell us our future, or give us a soul reading, or whatever.

We were all pretty excited to find out what she would tell us. Jenn was first. Joy and I went up to the big pool to give them some privacy.

big pool

Joy went to the massage table next, and Jenn filled me in on all the insights that Devaya had shared with her about her true purpose, her relationships, and her health. It sounded like they had talked pretty much the whole time.

When Joy emerged, I expected her to have lots of juicy stuff to share with us. But the only bit of insight Devaya had shared with Joy was that she needs more calcium in her diet.

I have to admit that when I first heard this, I thought it was just part of the infamous Joy Kosenski Customer Service Curse (for as long as I’ve known her, Joy has had a problem with customer service people. They just don’t like her). But then I got on the massage table and Devaya barely said a word to me either except that I “bruise easily” and that I should drink nettle tea. Thanks a lot, Jenn. You used up all the psychic powers. (It was a good massage though.)

Meanwhile, the guys were on a small fishing boat with a guy named Eric, another guy simply called “Pollo” and the owner of the boat, a man named Macho, who we proceeded to see just about every day after that riding his motorcycle from town to town.

fishing

Here is Chris, apparently having caught a fish. The big story of the trip was that Brian came within inches of reeling in a dorado, or mahi mahi—which would have been a major accomplishment. Chris got a great video of the moment when the fish jumps the hook and you just hear one of the boat’s crew (Macho? Pollo?) exclaiming, “PUNTO, MAN!” which we deduced is kind of like saying, “FUCK!”

Brian made some pretty good ceviche and fish tacos out of what they caught. The food throughout the trip was not too bad (although we all got pretty sick of salchiches and processed cheese). Some of it—like the sushi at Puggo’s and the casado at the Panaderia Cabuya—were downright delicious.

Casado is a simple dish of rice, beans, plantains, salad, and a protein (in this case, the most delicious chicken you've ever had). At Panaderia Cabuya.

Casado is a simple dish of rice, beans, plantains, salad, and a protein (in this case, the most delicious chicken you’ve ever had). At Panaderia Cabuya.

On Thanksgiving night, we had a fancy dinner at a Mediterranean restaurant called Playa de los Artistas. It was a swanky spot right on the beach where our server was a sunkissed blonde Frenchman, giving the whole experience a cosmopolitan feel. If Matt Damon were in Montezuma, he would be eating here for sure.

The menu was all in Spanish, so our Frenchman had to painstakingly translate every dish for us. If he hadn’t been absolutely dreamy, it might have been annoying to have your server sitting at your table reading you the menu with a thick French accent. After what felt like forever, we were on one of the last entrees and he got stuck on a pronunciation. He just kept repeating it: sweesharsweeshar… (We had absolutely no clue what he was saying)… sweesharsweeshar… sweeshar … sweeshar … (seriously, this went on for quite a while.)

Finally Jenn was like, “OH, ARE YOU TRYING TO SAY SWISS CHARD?” and we all realized we didn’t want that dish anyway. We got a bunch of other good stuff, like octopus salad, tuna steak, and lobster lasagna. After dinner, we ordered a whole bottle of pink champagne. That was our high-rollin’ Thanksgiving.

We joked that we needed to get up early the next morning to be first in line for all the Black Friday sales:

viernes negro

We spent quite a bit of time just hanging out at Casa Morfo and exploring the property. On the other side of the big house there was a steep jungle trail leading down to the river.

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Despite how tranquil it looks here, the river moves very fast in some places.

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The rocks were all furry and moss covered, so it felt like we were in a fantasy movie.

Our first time to the river, we walked upstream a bit and lounged in some deep, clear pools. We talked to Alex and he said that if we actually walked downstream, we could reach the Montezuma waterfalls in about 20 minutes.

So, on our second visit, we tried to walk downstream. I say “we tried” because from the moment I stepped onto the rocks, every part of my being wanted to turn around and go back.

There was a spot where you had to hop across the rushing water, from one rock to another. When I got to that spot, I should have just jumped. Instead, I started to analyze the situation. I played out the scenarios of what would happen if I didn’t make it. What if my foot slipped? What if I banged my knee and fell? I started to investigate other options for getting across, but no matter where I looked, the rocks were slick, the water was rushing, and my mind was spinning with anxiety.

I was slipping all over the place; I couldn’t get my footing. I fell down hard into a shallow brown puddle that looked like toilet water, bruising my ass and jarring my wrists. Every slick spot we came to, every steep rockface I had to shimmy down, every nub of a rock I was supposed to hop onto, my mind was fighting me, filling me with fear and hesitation. Fear that I would fall and twist my ankle, break my wrist, get swept away. Fear that I would experience pain, or that I would be so mentally crippled by anxiety that I wouldn’t be able to go on.

I was very thankful when we turned around and got back on the trail. And I certainly did not think that I would ever attempt that again.

The last big-ticket adventure of our trip was a boat ride to Tortuga Island. We went back to Zuma Tours and booked the trip with Ojos Locos.

That's Ojos Locos on the right. His ojos didn't look quite as locos the second time we met him.

That’s Ojos Locos on the right. His ojos didn’t look quite as locos the second time we met him.

While we were waiting for the tour, I took some pictures around Montezuma.

The town’s central park would be quite lovely:

park3 park2 park1 park grafitti park grafitti closeup park bench

If these assholes weren’t ruining it for everyone else:

At one point, one of them landed on Brian, causing him to cry out for his wife: "It touched me, honey! It touched me with its feet!"

At one point, one of them landed on Brian, causing him to cry out for his wife: “It touched me, honey! It touched me with its feet!”

We departed for Tortuga Island on a boat with about ten other tourists and three crew.

tortuga boat ride

I can’t say that I was too excited about snorkeling. My first and only other time snorkeling was a few years ago in Sayulita, Mexico. We were dropped off in choppy water and told to swim through a cave to the other side, where we would find a beautiful private beach. I am not a strong swimmer and the idea of breathing out of a tube in open water completely terrified me. But, I hopped out of the boat and tried it anyway, only to find that the tunnel we had to swim through was filled with floating debris and the “beach” on the other side was covered in sharp-looking rocks. We now call this “trash snorkeling.”

Tortuga Island was a lot better than trash snorkeling. However, it was also a lot more crowded. There must have been six or seven boats carrying 10-20 tourists each, which they all dumped off in the same place at the same time, creating a tangled traffic jam of Americans and Europeans swimming around in rented flippers and masks that are “cleaned” with spit and hand sanitizer.

But this time, I actually relaxed and enjoyed the quiet of being underwater. I saw lots of pretty tropical fish. And a lot of pasty white tourist bodies. No tortugas, unfortunately.

They dropped us off on the island, where we were given lunch. This place was the very definition of a tourist trap. Boats of various sizes drop their tourist cargo once or twice a day to buy souvenirs at the gift shop and rent deck chairs for $9 USD a piece.

tortuga-boat

The Love Boat soon will be making another run...

The Love Boat soon will be making another run…

On the way back to Montezuma, we were joined by a group of dolphins that swam alongside the boat and played with us. It was quite special, and almost makes up for the whale-watching tour I went on earlier this year where I saw no whales.

Speaking of wanting to see wildlife, we had been hoping to see howler monkeys throughout the trip, but so far had been unsuccessful. We could hear them around Casa Morfo—they make a deep, barking noise that echoes all over the peninsula—and we knew we were close to some while hiking through Cabo Blanco, but we hadn’t spotted any.

On the return boat ride from Tortuga Island, a nice woman named Anne who was on her post-divorce Eat, Pray, Love trip, told us that she saw howler monkeys around her hotel (the Ylang Ylang Resort) all the time. So, we went to check it out, and sure enough:

howler

We now realized why they had evaded us before. When you get close, they are as quiet as ninjas.

Tune in next time for the fifth and final installment, where I face my fear of el rio; the gang comes SERIOUSLY close to becoming an episode of I Shouldn’t Be Alive in the Costa Rican jungle; and I almost buy a very expensive statue.

**Once again, thank you to Jenn for the pictures from Tortuga Island and the shot of the howlers. And it must have been The Pelican who took the picture of Chris and the fish. Thanks, Pelican—yours is truly a dangerous, dangerous beauty.

A Vacation of Fitness and Terror, Vol. 3: Rise of The Pelican

vol3-cover

After being fire-drilled out of bed that morning, then enduring a harrowing drive to Puntarenas and 70 minutes on a floating strip club, followed by another hour or so in the middle seat in the back of the RAV-4, capped off by a mile of muddy jungle road up to the house where my friends would be staying, I was dead tired.

I was also nervous about meeting the owners of the property. I didn’t want them to think that I was trying to scam them.

Getting “scammed” was something that we joked about a lot throughout the trip. We were especially wary of “scammers” who might try to pull a stunt like dressing up as an elderly couple whose car had broken down on the side of the road. Likely story, abuelitos. You can’t fool us with your scams.

Anyone who looked remotely sketchy, it was like, “That guy definitely wants to scam you.” We never discussed explicitly what it meant to be “scammed,” but we all knew we didn’t want it to happen to us.

So, almost immediately upon meeting Alex and Khalida, who own the rental property, I blurted out that I would be staying at the hostel in Montezuma, just so they knew I wasn’t trying to scam them.

They seemed pretty cool. Alex is Costa Rican and Khalida is American. We weren’t sure how to pronounce her name—turns out it is the feminine form of the Afghan name “Khalid,” and is therefore pronounced Hall-i-dah. She is a very petite and pretty blonde woman whose parents did humanitarian work in Afghanistan.

We didn’t get the full story, but somehow, Khalida and Alex met and fell in love. They lived in New York/New Jersey for a while, which Alex found stifling. Especially the idea that, in some spots, you have to pay to use the beach. (He was flabbergasted by this. Pay? To use the BEACH??!… He couldn’t imagine how this was justified.)

Eventually, they moved back to Costa Rica and bought the property (dubbed “Aqua Vista”) where they now have several rental houses. They walked us from the big house, where they live with their two young daughters, down a tidy little path toward “Casa Morfo.”

We are pretty sure that “morfo” means “butterfly,” even though “butterfly” in Spanish is “mariposa.” Someone suggested that “morfo” could mean “moth,” but “House of Moths” doesn't sound like a very inviting vacation home.

We are pretty sure that “morfo” means “butterfly,” even though “butterfly” in Spanish is “mariposa.” Someone suggested that “morfo” could mean “moth,” but “House of Moths” doesn’t sound like a very inviting vacation home.

Unlike most landowners in the area, Alex and Khalida do not have dogs, therefore, they said we were much more likely to see wildlife. Alex said that we would see more animals at Casa Morfo than we would if we went to the nearby nature preserve, Cabo Blanco.

As if on cue, we were summoned to some nearby trees by a group of capuchin “white faced” monkeys.

Jenn had a snazzy new digital camera, so she was taking pictures like it was frickin' National Geographic up in here.

Jenn had a snazzy new digital camera, so she was taking pictures like it was frickin’ National Geographic up in here.

In between the two houses was a beautiful pond, full of the happiest looking koi you have ever seen. They were darting all over the place in the crystal clear water under the shade of a green tarp. A lovely bridge crossed the width of the pond. Alex told us that this was the best place on the property to get WiFi.

We wouldn’t have any internet access in the house—and with the calling capabilities on our cell phones turned off, we wouldn’t be making or getting any calls either. We would be essentially free of technology and disconnected from the world unless we came up to the pond, thus earning it the title, “The Koi Pond of Knowledge.”

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Brian was the most frequent visitor to the Koi Pond of Knowledge, or “Information Point” as he also liked to call it. The knowledge he gathered consisted mostly of football scores.

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The house had two nice-sized bedrooms, a full kitchen, and a bathroom with a washing machine and a private outdoor shower. Just out the front door was a dining area and outdoor living room complete with a small “plunge pool,” a swimming pool about four-feet deep and the size of a very large bathtub.

We decided to eat lunch, take a dip in the plunge pool, and relax for a while before venturing back into town to check me into the hostel. We hadn’t been sitting out there ten minutes, when we met some of the locals:

There was a whole family of these little guys--they're kind of like raccoons, I guess, but they come out during the day. They're called "coatis." We first saw the baby, and then a couple bigger ones, who we assumed were the parents. We named them Jim, Helen, and Liam Coati.At one point, later in the trip, Liam got a little wild one night when he found a single-serve packet of Crystal Light in Chris's backpack and proceeded to get high as a freaking kite on diet sugar drink crystals. His little sticky paw prints were all over the outdoor living space. We were surprised we didn't find him floating in the pool like Brian Jones from the Rolling Stones.

There was a whole family of these little guys–they’re kind of like raccoons, I guess, but they come out during the day. They’re called “coatis” (ko-watt-ees). We first saw the baby, and then a couple bigger ones, who we assumed were the parents. We named them Jim, Helen, and Liam Coati.  Liam got a little wild one night while we were all sleeping. He found a single-serve packet of Crystal Light in Chris’s backpack and proceeded to get high as a freaking kite on diet sugar drink crystals. His little sticky paw prints were all over the outdoor living space. I was surprised we didn’t find him floating in the pool like Brian Jones from the Rolling Stones.

coati family

After plunging into the pool—and the rum—we all agreed that it would be ridiculous for me stay in the hostel. Alex and Khalida had a single-occupancy cabin on the property that appeared to be vacant. (In fact, we were the only guests at Aqua Vista for the majority of the trip. The timing could not have been better. We had come at the end of the rainy season. In about a week, the entire area would be swarming with tourists.) Chris volunteered to go up to the big house to discuss the situation with Alex and Khalida.

He returned with a completely different option—that we all move to a larger rental house on the other side of the property, which would cost only $35 more for the week. We went and checked out the bigger house—where I would have had a real pullout sofa bed and we all would have had more room—but something didn’t feel right about it. We loved Casa Morfo. (And the big house didn’t have a plunge pool, or the view.)

For some reason, the view was really hard to capture in a photo. But there's water in the distance, and a whole lotta jungle in between.

For some reason, the view was really hard to capture in a photo. But there’s water in the distance, and a whole lotta jungle in between.

There was a day bed on the porch that had a lightweight mattress. I didn’t really want to sleep outside (even though—amazingly—we had encountered very few mosquitos), so we did some experimenting. The mattress fit nicely in the kitchen. I could bring it in at night and we could still use it outside during the day. We agreed to pay Alex and Khalida the price of the bigger house, but stay at Casa Morfo.

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My bed in its daytime capacity, next to the plunge pool.

Jenn's beautiful photo of my bedroom, aka, the kitchen.

Jenn’s beautiful photo of my bedroom, aka, the kitchen.

The outdoor dining area came to be known as the Depression Table, for its tendency to make the women talk about deep and serious things.

The outdoor dining area came to be known as the Depression Table, for its tendency to make the women talk about deep and serious things.

That night was just a lot of talking. And a lot of tequila and rum. We discussed the events of the day. That is where the legend of The Pelican truly began to take shape.

During the drive, Brian had revealed that some people refer to him as “The Pelican.”

Neither Joy, nor I, who have known him for 20 years, have ever heard him referred to as “The Pelican.”His wife has never heard anyone call him this. But, Brian insists that it’s true. It has something to do with his golfing buddies.

Regardless of how it originated, for the remainder of our time in Montezuma, Brian became a sort of mythic, Godfather-type character in my mind. Whenever something went wrong in a restaurant or if there was a traffic jam, we joked that the townspeople were like, “We are so sorry for the inconvenience, Pelican…” “Don’t you know who that is? It’s The Pelican.” I picture him dressed in white linen suits and a fedora.

We spent quite a good bit of time sketching out the beginnings of Brian’s autobiography, Dangerous Beauty: The Pelican’s Story.

The next day, we set out to walk along Montezuma’s beach. We stopped off in town beforehand to set up the logistics for a horseback riding excursion . We signed up at a place called Zuma Tours. For some reason, it was incredibly complicated. The guy who was helping us (who we affectionately refer to as “Crazy Eyes,” or “Ojos Locos”) was either really stoned or just a little bit off, and there was a lot of confusion about where we would go, when we would be there, and how we would pay. But we finally got it figured out. The guy drew us a map that included something about a yellow gate and a panaderia (a bakery), and we agreed to be at the Indiana Horse Ranch at 8:30am.

With our horseback riding plans set for the next day, we set off for our beach hike. Alex had told us that about a 45-minute walk along the shore would get us away from the tourists and onto more secluded beaches. We set off, taking note of what else was on the beach, including a chi-chi looking restaurant and hotel called the Ylang Ylang Resort, where we thought we might have lunch later. And where we suspected we might run into some celebrities like Matt Damon

A little further down, we came upon this area with dozens of multicolored rocks stacked on top of each other, a la The Blair Witch Project.

IMG_3814 IMG_3816

It turns out that the rock garden and plaque are in honor of a young Swedish couple named Olof “Nicolas” Wessberg and Karen Mogensen, who founded Costa Rica’s first national park, the Cabo Blanco Nature Preserve on the tip of the Nicoya Peninsula.

According to Wikipedia, Nils and Karen moved to a farm just outside Montezuma in the 60s and became leaders in the local environmental movement as they fought against developers and big business to save what was left of the wild jungle. Sadly, Nicolas was murdered in 1974 by people who opposed his conservationist work.

This photo was stolen off the internet. This is the picture of Nicolas and Karen that appears on other educational signage near the beach.

This photo was stolen off the internet. It is the picture of Nicolas and Karen that appears on educational signage near the Montezuma beach.

(Incidentally, when we went to Cabo Blanco a few days later, these are the images of Nicolas and Karen on the memorial there):

karen-nicolas

karen

Later in the trip, I made Joy a sand sculpture of this bust of Karen Mogensen because she enjoyed it so much.

We kept walking, and walking. We went along the beach and then onto a shaded path in the tree cover. This was when Joy warned us that Chris likes to push for a little more physical exertion than one might be hoping for on vacation. He kept saying, “Just a little further” Just around that bend” “Let’s just see what’s over this hill here…” Before we knew it, we were working out.

This was when we realized what we were in for. It was like he was a personal trainer who fools you into thinking you’re having fun, when really he is interspersing cardio with quick, muscle-building exercises. We had all been duped into a Chris Parkes Fitness Vacation.

Thankfully, he took it easy on us that day and we ended up at a nice beach where we lounged about in the tide pools.

We like to call this "plunge pool south"

We like to call this “plunge pool south”

The next day, we got up early and made our way to the Indiana Ranch for horseback riding. Unfortunately, the map made no sense because one of the main landmarks we were meant to use—the panaderia—did not actually exist. And the yellow gate we were supposed to be looking for was on the wrong side of the road. But somehow, we backtracked and managed to find it.

Nativo et al

The ranch was owned by an American woman who operates a veterinary practice in the nearby town of Santa Teresa. We felt this was a good sign that the horses were well cared for. Our guides were an American man named Lee and a local named Rigo.

They led us on a leisurely ride up the country roads from the ranch, through a small town, and into a wide open meadow. We then tied up our horses and walked down some very steep “stairs” built into a hillside that led us to a small waterfall. We swam and ate pineapple.

There was a rope swing that you could use to jump from the rocks into the water. Rigo showed us how it was done, and then Chris did it. I’ve never been one for jumping off sharp rocks into waters of unknown depth, but I thought it was time to face my fear. There was a moment as I was dangling over the water that I wasn’t sure if I could let go. But that is the only rule of using the rope swing: You MUST let go. I did it, but I can’t say I enjoyed it much.

We got back on our horses and headed back toward the Indiana Ranch. Jenn and I tried to chat up Rigo using our beginner’s Spanish, but he wasn’t really a chatty kind of guy. I managed to get out of him that his horse’s name was Orion, although it took him saying it about a dozen times and then Jenn translating for me to get it. Jenn said she tried to ask him some questions, but he just basically didn’t respond.

Nativo-and-Rigo

That’s me riding my horse, Nativo, who was pretty fun and not a big jerk like the last horse I rode. With Rigo assisting.

As we were driving away from the ranch, we joked that Rigo was going to pull Brian aside and say, “Pelican, why are your women speaking to me?”

Stay tuned for Vol. 4 where the guys go fishing, the ladies have psychic massages and the gang meets an adorable Frenchman who cannot for the life of him pronounce the name of a certain leafy green vegetable.

**Thank you, once again, to Jenn Superka for letting me use her photos. There’s the one of the sunset on the boat, which, actually, Brian must have taken. Thanks, Pelican. Then there’s the horseback riding shots, the monkey, Liam, Plunge Pool South, and the lovely shot of my bedroom.

Amy Tan is not dead yet

I know that I am right in the middle of telling the story of our trip to Costa Rica, but I have to interrupt to post about something else that happened today.

It actually started with something that happened in Costa Rica.

Our flights left San Jose at 6am, which meant we had to get on the shuttle from our hotel around 3:45 to be at the airport by 4. Chris and Joy knew from their last experience traveling through Central America that Costa Rica charges an “exit tax.” You have to pay about 30 bucks just to leave the country. If you don’t know this, and you cut it close timewise, you could end up scrambling to get all the security and customs taken care of before your plane takes off.

Because our hotel was literally about 7 minutes from the airport, and there was a shuttle that did the loop every 15 minutes, we decided to save ourselves the stress in the morning and just go over the night before to pay our tax and check in to our flights.

For some reason, the airline couldn’t print Jenn’s boarding passes, but a very nice girl, who looked about 12, was helping them figure it out. While we waited, Joy, Chris, and I looked around the extremely expensive gift shop. They actually had a pretty good book rack—not the newest releases, not classics, but just good books from all different genres.

One of them was Stephen King’s On Writing, which is one of those books that people are always telling me to read and I’ve just never gotten around to it. I have a theory that Stephen King will be seen by future generations as our Charles Dickens—a popular author who can actually write.

I mean, I’ve never read any of his books, per se, except about half of The Shining, but even just his plots are amazing—Carrie, Pet Semetery—the short story that inspired Stand By Me. I actually think the reason I didn’t finish The Shining is that he is too good a writer. I was scared.

So at the San Jose Airport gift shop, I picked up On Writing and started reading the introduction, which is all about how he (Stephen King) is in a rock and roll band with Dave Barry, Scott Turow, Barbara Kingsolver, a bunch of other authors, and Amy Tan. Apparently, they formed as sort of a joke during some kind of author conference, and they enjoyed it so much that they continued to play shows here and there for 20 years.

I love this. It is so refreshing to think of writers who like to have fun together. Even as a teenager, I thought Dave Barry was hilarious. That was back in the days when you still read his syndicated column in a real paper newspaper that was delivered to your house. And I adore Barbara Kingsolver—The Poisonwood Bible, especially.

And Amy Tan. When I was a senior in high school, I was in A.P. English. It was my first and only A.P. class, and it was what convinced me that I wanted to be an English major. We read some incredible books: As I Lay Dying; Native Son; Bless Me, Ultima; Beloved; The Brothers Karamazov.

One of my favorites was The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan. Like its predecessor, The Joy Luck Club, it is historical fiction based on stories from Tan’s own family in turn-of-the-20th-century China. It’s almost mystical the way that she transports you to other times—all in an effort to untangle messy present-day family relationships by better understanding why the elders think and behave the way they do. It just shows how universal so much of our family issues are, regardless of culture or ethnicity.

A few years ago, I was given a copy of her memoir from 2003, The Opposite of Fate: Memories of a Writing Life. There is a chapter called “A Question of Fate,” in which she writes about being a doctoral student in linguistics at Berkeley in the mid-70s.

She and her husband had a friend named Pete, also a Berkeley student, who worked part-time with them at a pizza place. They often drank beer and talked after their shifts about philosophy, metaphysics, and the nature of life—free will vs. destiny.

It turned out that Pete had tragically lost his wife in a car accident a couple years earlier. He revealed to Amy and her husband, Lou, that he had recently been having dreams about joining his wife in the afterlife. He had premonitions that two men would break in to his apartment and strangle him, but he felt that it was going to be okay because his wife would be there to guide him to the other side.

They were all feeling vulnerable because there had been some trouble with a gang that Amy, Lou, and Pete had thrown out of the pizza parlor. They felt they were in so much danger that they had reported their situation to the police, but there wasn’t much that the cops could do except advise them that they might want to move to a different neighborhood. Amy and Lou thought that Pete was just experiencing heightened anxiety because of this situation, and was having traumatic flashbacks to his wife’s death.

They decided that it would be best for them to move. They found a building in Oakland. Pete would move first; Amy and Lou would follow as soon as another apartment opened up. It was only a couple of days after he moved in that Pete was strangled to death by two men who broke into this apartment, just as he had predicted.

The way that Amy Tan writes about this is so inspiring, because she really doesn’t play it up for drama—the real things that happened were so dramatic already. She takes you through the feelings, the doubts, the skepticism that she experienced both then and now about what happened next.

She had a series of dreams in the months that followed wherein Pete guided and comforted her. In these dreams, he told her the names of his killers, which turned out to be accurate. He assured her that he was okay. And he encouraged her to release her fears. Eventually, he helped her question if she was really on the right life path. This self-reflection compelled her to quit her doctoral program and take a job doing speech and language therapy for developmentally disabled kids. She says in her memoir that this experience was fundamental to her becoming a writer.

The dreams ended when the murder trial wrapped up, and Tan is careful to say that, in reflection, she now believes that these dreams were probably a result of the shock and trauma she felt at losing her friend. But she also acknowledges that—real or imaginary—these visits from Pete after he died completely changed the course of her life.

So, today, I went over to the Tattered Cover on my lunch hour, and there was sign announcing that Amy Tan would be speaking and signing her new novel, The Valley of Amazement, tonight at 7:30. I had a few moments of feeling like, “Ugh, I’m too tired” or “I just want to curl up at home” right after work, but then I thought: When is the next time I am going to have this opportunity to see someone in real life who I find so interesting and inspiring? So I went.

She didn’t end up reading at all—instead, she showed us pictures of her grandmother as a young woman in China. She talked about what she has been doing these past eight years since her last book, and told about new revelations she has had regarding her family history.

And she talked about the power of coincidence—synchronicity—serendipity—the importance of just allowing things to unfold the way they are supposed to. Getting out of the way so that strange, magical things can happen.

The very first question of the Q&A, someone asked her about the rock and roll band. She said that Barbara Kingsolver quit because she decided to become a “a grown-up” and that some people in the group, like Dave Barry, are actually really good musicians. She is not very musical, so she dresses up in leather and sings “These Boots Were Made for Walkin’” while doing a sort of campy dominatrix act.

They played with Bruce Springsteen once and he told them to stop trying to be good. He said that they are just good enough, and if they got any better, they would be bad.

Toward the end of the Q&A, she recounted something that had happened on a prior visit to the Tattered Cover, for a different book tour. She was waiting off to the side as she was being introduced, and standing next to a wire rack full of CliffsNotes.

She, herself, used CliffsNotes a few times in college, much to her embarrassment. She was taking more than 20 credit hours in one semester, plus working two jobs, and she just couldn’t do all the work. So she used CliffsNotes for three works: Lord Jim, Hamlet, and Ulysses. (No one can read Ulysses in one night, she joked.)

She saw those titles among the selections on the wire rack that night in the Tattered Cover. Then she looked further and saw The Joy Luck Club. She says she was shocked. She thought, “I’m not dead yet!”

Maybe that’s what I find so inspiring about Amy Tan. She believes in allowing mysterious things to unfold. She investigates with compassion and writes with purpose. She has lived through tragedy and explored the tragedies of her ancestors. Yet she still likes to play. She is still funny and warm, and smart and fierce. And she’s not dead yet.

A Vacation of Fitness and Terror, Vol. 2: The Glam Hole Ferry

vol 2 cover

*We loaded into our white Toyota RAV-4, which, I’m pretty sure, is the official rental car of gringos traveling through Costa Rica. Chris was our driver and Brian sat up front to co-pilot, leaving the three women in the back.

We had directions from a hand-drawn map in a binder at the Holiday Inn reception desk explaining how to get to Puntarenas (or, “Punch Your Anus” as the guys liked to call it) where we would catch our ferry.

If we missed the 11am, we would be stuck taking the next one, which wasn’t until 2. If that happened, we wouldn’t arrive on the Nicoya Peninsula until after 3, and we would risk possibly having to drive in the dark.

Aside from getting used to traffic signs in Spanish (CEDA = “yield”), driving out of San Jose was just like driving out of any other city. We made jokes about the billboards and looked at the landscape. We passed a factory that said Dos Pinos—which translates as “two pines” and is the name of Costa Rica’s largest dairy producer—but, of course, in our car it became “Two Penises.”

We were probably laughing at something related to the Two Penises Factory when we completely missed the on-ramp to the highway.

Eventually, we realized we had overshot the exit. Unfortunately, the road was short on both signage and places to turn around. In order to make a U-turn, Chris had to pull over as far onto the shoulder as he could, wait for there to be a break in the steady stream of Suzuki Samurais and mid-90s Toyota Tercels coming at us, and then gun it across four lanes of traffic.

I can only speak for the women in the backseat—but—yeah—we were pretty freaked out. Chris was cool and collected. We circled back and stopped at a gas station for directions. The guy said to turn left just after the football stadium. We made the obligatory jokes about not seeing any “football” stadium, just a bunch of dudes playing soccer. Then we turned left and followed the road.

We went a couple kilometers before hitting a roundabout where we could see the highway rushing above us—we just couldn’t figure out how to get on it. We veered right, onto a frontage road that we thought, surely, would merge with the highway. The road was narrow and rough, with nothing but a couple of farms jutting off of it. Chris was taking us along at a pretty good clip when we suddenly saw that we were about to dead-end right into a dirt hillside.

Chris hit the brakes, then executed a tight turn to get us going back the other direction. At the roundabout, we turned right again, this time under the highway, hoping to find another on-ramp. We went a few blocks into a tiny town, where we passed a corner store with 8-10 rotisserie chickens rolling behind a plate-glass window, alongside a bunch of household appliances and tires for sale. We thought about stopping for some tire chicken, but we were in a hurry.

We backtracked again, and finally got on the right highway. We had just under an hour’s drive left to Puntarenas. If everything went right, we could possibly still get our car onto the ferry. Everyone relaxed, knowing that at least we were headed in the right direction.

The landscape was mostly agricultural—ranch land with some big factories here and there. We knew we were close when we saw the water. We drove along the shore, past rows of vendors selling fruit and barbeque. This was not a tourist attraction. We saw local families out for their Sunday picnics: teenagers playing music; kids running into the water; grandmas with umbrellas; dads in starched church jeans.

We reached the ferry around 10:30 and had to make a quick dash to get the tickets. The ticket office only accepted cash in Costa Rican currency—called colones. Before leaving for the trip, I debated whether or not to have some U.S. dollars changed to colones, and decided that I’d wait until we got to Montezuma to withdraw cash from the ATM there. This was a mistake.

I was given the task of buying the ferry tickets—and I  assumed I could pay with a credit card. I got up to the window with minutes to spare, only then to discover that I needed colones from Chris, who was way down the road, sitting in the car line—which was now making its way on to the ferry.

I had no choice but to get out of the ticket line and send Joy running to the car to get colones. By the time I made it to the ticket window again, the attendant was not happy to see me. I was panicked and probably sounding like a typical entitled American tourist—I butted in front of the guy in front of me, begging, “Lo siento, lo siento …” He gave me a sort of stunned look at how rude I was being. I felt terrible, but the vehicle line had moved quickly and we risked losing our spot on the ferry. The attendant seemed purposely to be moving as slowly as possible. As soon as she handed me my change, we made a mad dash and got the vehicle ticket to Chris just in time.

We all boarded the ferry, breathed a big sigh of relief, and went in search of some much needed mid-morning cervezas.

Ferries like these can accommodate a huge load. The lowest level is reserved for cars—people drive on, park, and then come up to the passenger decks. There is a mid-deck that holds larger vehicles such as buses and tour vans. Then there is an indoor seating area, where most of the families stay. Finally, there is the upper deck, which has a bar that sells some snacks and beer. And where, we discovered, some people like to get a little boozy on a Sunday morning.

We each got a Pilsen at the bar. The bartender/DJ was blasting dance music at maximum volume. About a dozen Spanish-speaking dude-bros were already noticeably drunk and encouraging each other with the universal call of the frat guy: WOO-HOOOOOOOO!

There was a group of 10-15 twenty-something women dancing to the deafening music near the “Woo-hoo” guys. They were drawing quite a bit of attention from the rest of the ferry passengers. They started out dancing provocatively with each other in a circle, which then escalated to one woman hanging from the rafters with her legs stretched out spread eagle—this should have been our first sign that something was different about these lady travelers.

The ferry had barely pushed off from the dock when all the dancing women started stripping down to thongs and string bikini tops. Many of the male passengers—and the ferry staff—were holding up their smartphones, snapping pictures and video.

We found seats on the other side of the deck, where we could hear the music and see some of the crowd, but we couldn’t see the dancing. We were right outside the bathroom, so we watched the steady stream of scantily clad women going back and forth to adjust their—outfits.

Was this the normal Sunday morning ferry crowd? We didn’t know. Was our entire vacation going to be like an episode of Spring Break Miami?

There was nothing particularly fitness-oriented or terrifying about this part of the trip, except that it reminded me that I need to go to the gym.

There was nothing particularly fitness-oriented or terrifying about this part of the trip, except that it reminded me that I need to go to the gym.

As we were exiting the ferry, we got the answer to our all our questions—in the mid-deck area, where all the buses were parked, there was a shiny gray van with pink lettering stenciled on the side. It said “Glam Pole.”

Of all the ferries we could have taken, we ended up on the one with the strippers. Of course, Chris and Brian found this to be quite fortunate, and assured us that the Glam Pole ladies (or Glam Hole, as we came to refer to them) undoubtedly were a positive omen for the rest of our trip.

Aside from some sharp turns and narrow passages, the drive from Paquera to Montezuma was a piece of cake. We stopped off in Cobano because we’d been told that the market was better and cheaper than the one nearest to our house. We stocked up on pasta, processed cheese, milk (in a tetra-pak), jugo de naranja (also in a tetra-pak), some bread, beans, tortillas, salsa, chips, carne asada, cereal, bananas, coffee, Coke, beer, tequila, rum, and a package of chicken hot dogs, or salchiches, which we all agreed was more fun to say en espanol.

It wasn’t until we turned onto the private drive toward the rental house that I started to panic. The road from Montezuma to the house was steep, bumpy, pothole-y, generally treacherous and extremely long—or, at least, that’s how it felt to me the first time we drove up it. It was clear immediately that none of us would ever be walking up and down this road at night unless we wanted to become an episode of I Shouldn’t Be Alive.

Chris and Joy turned me on to I Shouldn't Be Alive when I was visiting them in San Diego earlier this year. We concluded that the basic formula is: [extreme temperatures/weather] + [remote location] + [some kind of compound fracture] One of our favorite episodes told the story of a guy who fell off a cliff while taking pictures and ended up with a "horribly mangled pelvis." From then on, we were always reminding each other to watch out for things that might horribly mangle our pelvises. It sounds morbid, but it's actually really inspiring to see the kinds of crazy shit that people live through.

Chris and Joy turned me on to I Shouldn’t Be Alive when I was visiting them in San Diego earlier this year. We concluded that the basic formula is: [extreme temperatures/weather] + [remote location] + [some kind of compound fracture]. One of our favorite episodes told the story of a guy who fell off a cliff while taking pictures and ended up with a “horribly mangled pelvis.” From then on, we were always reminding each other to watch out for things that might horribly mangle our pelvises. It sounds morbid, but it’s actually really inspiring to see the kinds of crazy shit that people live through.

It was obvious that none of us would be walking up and down this road, which meant that my plan to stay in Montezuma at the hostel just got a helluva lot less convenient. I had visions of myself sadly sitting at the community table at the hostel, eating free pancakes across from a white guy with dreadlocks.

All we could do was get those guys checked into their house, eat some lunch, and hope that we came up with a better housing arrangement for me. Otherwise, my primary activity of the trip would be shaking down the hippies at the hostel for some weed.

Montezuma is a notorious hippie stoner town, where it is rumored that everyone smokes weed (or "mota"). We, however, were offered no weed by anyone. Brian joked that we were going to be asked, "Didn't you get your welcome weed?"

Montezuma is a notorious hippie stoner town, where it is rumored that everyone smokes weed (or “mota”). We, however, were offered no weed by anyone. Brian joked that we were going to be asked, “Didn’t you get your welcome weed?”

Stay tuned for Vol. 3, wherein we meet the Coatis, discover the Koi Pond of Knowledge, and experience the horrors of the Depression Table.

*Thank you so much to Jenn Superka for the beautiful pictures of the view from the ferry ride and the macaw. And thank you for capturing, in the background of another picture, the Glam Hole girl. Otherwise, I would not have had photographic evidence of just how “fortunate” we were to be on that particular ferry.

A Vacation of Fitness and Terror: Vol. 1

Montezuma-cover

Well, I finally got a job. As someone who has been unemployed for almost this whole year, I’ve been having a little culture shock upon returning to office life. I mean, this whole health insurance and 401k thing is great, but do I really have to work every day?

Fortunately, prior to starting the position, I had booked a trip to Costa Rica for Thanksgiving. So, I worked for two weeks and then I took a 10-day vacation.

In hindsight, it’s probably not a wise idea to buy a $700 plane ticket when you’re unemployed. But I was having dinner with my friends Jenn and Brian one night in August and they said, “We’re going to Costa Rica with Chris and Joy over Thanksgiving.” And I was like, “Oh really? I am coming too.”

We now refer to this as “vacation-bombing.” It’s much like photo-bombing, except instead of jumping into their picture, I jumped into their vacation.

Chris and Joy planned the trip—they chose a tiny bohemian town on the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica called Montezuma. I didn’t do much research beyond that because  I knew that any trip planned by Chris and Joy would be worth vacation-bombing.

They live in San Diego. Joy is one of my oldest, dearest friends, and her husband, Chris, is a phenomenal individual. They are always doing something inspirational—running marathons, volunteering at wildlife sanctuaries, teaching English to refugees. They went on an African safari, and they have done a ton of traveling in Central America. They go down into Mexico a lot to visit friends who run a horse rescue on the Baja Peninsula.

And Jenn and Brian are probably the funniest couple ever. Brian is another one of my oldest and closest friends. He is the best storyteller I have ever known—just an incredibly quick mind and an innate sense of comedic timing. He has found his perfect partner in Jenn. She is one of those women who is always enriching herself—painting, reading interesting books, growing a beautiful vegetable garden that never seems to die. And she has a law degree. I mean, come on.

Brian and Jenn often have people over for dinners and gatherings. Brian is quite the cook. His specialties are meat, seafood, and candy. Just give the man a bunch of deer meat or 10 lbs. of crab legs and see what he can do. (Sidenote: Brian’s dream Halloween costume is to be the “We’ve Got Crab Legs” chefs from the Sea Galley commercials of the 1980s.) He is also quite the gummy aficionado. Brian enjoys any sort of gummy-based candy (worms, fruits, green army men). He once ate the full-sized gummy Coke bottle.

Unfortunately, because Joy and Chris had already booked the rental house, which only slept four, there was no way for me to stay with them. So I reserved a room at one of the Montezuma hostels. The town was less than a mile from the house, so we figured that, worst-case scenario, Chris and Brian could walk me back to the hostel at night.

I was able to get onto all of the same flights that Jenn and Brian were on except for the very first one. They left DIA for Houston at 6am, and I left at 7:15. Then we got on the same flight from Houston to Panama City, and from there to Costa Rica. Joy and Chris would fly from LAX to San Salvador before meeting up with us at the San Jose Airport. Our flight landed at 9:30pm; Joy and Chris’s flight was supposed to land at 10pm.

The plan was to take the shuttle from the airport to the Holiday Inn, where we had a room reserved under Chris and Joy’s name. The only concern was that Chris and Joy’s connection in San Salvador was tight. We were all worried they might miss it. And since none of us wanted to spend money on international calls, we weren’t going to have a way to communicate.

So, before we left, Joy and Chris suggested that we all get an app called Viber, which would allow us to call and text for free anywhere that we could get WiFi. Viber also is equipped with an array of emoticons and “stickers” with which to communicate your very important messages. Our first Viber group chat went something like this:

Chris Parkes: [sticker of poo] [sticker of happy face wearing sunglasses]

Me: “I was asking Jenn last night about this, wondering if we can use actual words or if    all of our communications will be in emoticons…”

Me again: “CP seems to be saying ‘poop happy’”

Chris Parkes: [sticker that says ‘I heart Viber’] [sticker of a beer with what looks like a bowl of jalapenos and a bunch of pretzels] [sticker of a guy eating a hamburger]

Chris Parkes: [emoticons of: a devil head, an ice cream sundae, a beer, a smoking cigarette, a pile of poo, a monkey, a creepy doll head, a ladybug, a beach chair, and a sheep]

Brian: [emoticons of a sun wearing sunglasses, some kind of lady, a high heel shoe, a bikini, a different monkey (?), a whale, a tropical fish, a different tropical fish, a crocodile, livestock of some kind, something else I don’t recognize, and a smoking cigarette]

Me: “I see this is going to be a valuable communications tool.”

The actual day of departure snuck up on me. In the two weeks prior, I had moved into a new apartment and started a new job. My trip to Costa Rica was the last thing on my mind. I stuffed a bunch of clothes into a backpack on Friday night and Brian and Jenn picked me up at 3:15am the next day to make our early morning flights.

We tried to use Viber when we got to Panama, but even when we connected with WiFi, we couldn’t get it to work. We went to the bar and had three light beers that ended up costing us $25. While sitting there, we noticed that the escalators were moving extremely slowly. They were barely inching along. But as soon as someone stepped on them, they accelerated to normal speed. We all agreed that this seems like a good way to save energy. Then we watched a music video where Kylie Minogue takes a bath in metallic paint.

The other thing about the Panama City Airport is that it’s basically a high-end mall. There are shops for all these expensive fashion designers and jewelers. How do these stores stay in business? Are travelers impulse-buying Roberto Cavalli outfits in between flights? It doesn’t make any sense.

Before we knew it—okay, about 17 hours later—it was 10:30pm and we were on the other side of Customs in the San Jose Airport, wondering if Chris and Joy were going to make it. We bought some rum and tequila at the Duty-Free store, and we waited. We still weren’t able to get Viber to work. There were a ton of people still coming through Customs, but no Chris and Joy.

This is me looking for them. Yes, I am wearing a poncho. I have a problem with unintentionally wearing clothing that look ethnically stereotypical for the place that I am going. For example, when I worked at a sushi restaurant, I died my hair black and cut my bangs really short, without even thinking about how that might be perceived. Or the time in high school when we were going to the zoo, which was in a pretty rough neighborhood with a lot of gang activity. I showed up that day wearing a do-rag. My best friend, Hari, looked right at me and was like, “You know where the zoo is don’t you?”

This is me looking for them. Yes, I am wearing a poncho. I have a problem with unintentionally wearing clothing that look ethnically stereotypical for the place that I am going. For example, when I worked at a sushi restaurant, I died my hair black and cut my bangs really short, without even thinking about how that might be perceived. Or the time in high school when we were going to the zoo, which was in a pretty rough neighborhood with a lot of gang activity. I showed up that day wearing a do-rag. My best friend, Hari, looked right at me and was like, “You know where the zoo is don’t you?”

We realized that we really didn’t have a Plan B. We were starting to get worried, but then Jenn saw a Facebook post by Joy, saying that their flight was delayed an hour. We all relaxed, knowing they were on their way, and they arrived soon after.

When we opened the doors to the main terminal, we were bombarded with cab drivers and limo services, families waiting for their relatives, people holding signs with other people’s last names on them, all crowded up behind the gates. The cabbies all shouting at us: “You need a ride?” “Where you going?” “You need cab?”

One guy got right up in Chris’s face, “Hey, hey, you need a ride?” Chris said, “No, thanks, we’re getting the Holiday Inn shuttle.” The guy tried to intimidate him: “Oh, well, I hope you made a reservation.” Chris just shrugged it off, and we got on the shuttle a few minutes later, no problem.

We literally drove less than 5 minutes—just over the highway—and we were at the Holiday Inn, which shared a parking lot with the “Fiesta” Casino and the most expensive Denny’s Restaurant in the entire world. Down the road a stretch there was a fair called “Ciudad Magic.” It had old-fashioned bumper cars and other questionably safe carnival rides. Joy really wanted to go, but we never made it.

The next day, we had about an hour’s drive to Puntarenas, where we would take a 70-minute ferry ride to the town of Paquera. From there, we had about another hour’s drive across the Nicoya Peninsula to the town of Montezuma where we were staying.

The plan was for Brian, Joy, and Chris to pick up the rental car as early as possible the next day, while Jenn and I slept in a bit.

We had to leave the hotel as early as possible to catch the 11am ferry. We absolutely had to make the 11 o’clock if we wanted to avoid driving at night to get to Montezuma. Which, believe me, we all did.

Brian had done a ton of research before the trip so he was always spouting off facts, like: Costa Rica has the third most accidents of any country in the world … and … the roads are so bad that cars get swallowed up in the potholes …

He had read that some of the roads would be paved, but most would not. And a majority of them would have portions wide enough for only one vehicle at a time, putting us at the mercy of the fates and whoever was speeding around the other side of every curve. None of us relished the idea of trying to navigate this in the absolute darkness of an island jungle town.

We conked out pretty early, with Chris volunteering to sleep on the floor so I got to sleep in a bed. I didn’t hear them leave in the morning. When I finally woke up, it was already 7:45, but they weren’t back yet. I figured I should get up, even though I felt like I could have slept for another couple days.

Literally 10 seconds after I got into the bathroom, I heard Joy, Chris, and Brian come charging into the room, yelling that we have to get up immediately, that there was a problem with the rental car and we were running way behind and we have to go now! AAAAAGGGGHHHH!

They swept in and grabbed all their bags and ran out the door, leaving Jenn and I to scramble to get dressed and gather all of our stuff. We hurried downstairs to the lobby, where we found Chris, Joy, and Brian leisurely partaking of the continental breakfast. Jenn and I were like, um, what the f, people?? 

It turned out that they had spent an hour just trying to find the right rental car place, and once they got there, they were told that the ridiculously cheap deal that Joy had been given online ($200 for an entire week) was a mistake, and the rental car company now insisted that we pay $1,000 for the week instead. After arguing with the clerk for another hour, they finally signed the contract with the higher price (and a note that it was in dispute), figuring we could deal with it when we dropped the car off at the end of the trip. Given what we had read about the roads on the Nicoya Peninsula, we weren’t entirely sure we would be bringing the car back in one piece anyway.

We were told we needed to arrive at the ferry an hour early to ensure that we could get the car on, which left us with only two hours to  find our way to Puntarenas. This involved following a hand-drawn map of poorly-labeled highways with a steady stream of traffic and hardly any exits or places to backtrack if we made a wrong turn.

We were in a time crunch, which is why Chris, Brian, and Joy had fire-drilled Jenn and I out of bed, but it wasn’t quite as urgent as they had made it seem. They joked that this was how they were going to wake us up every morning of our trip.

And thus began our Vacation of Fitness and Terror.