6 Organizations that Changed My Life, Vol. 2: Wiseman Group Interior Design

This might be the closest I get to going out with a guy who drives a Jaguar.

This might be the closest I get to going out with a guy who drives a Jaguar.

I moved to San Francisco in 2000. It’s strange to think about that now. The year 2000 felt like such a big deal leading up to it. I lived at the turn of a century, the same as my ancestors who lived in 1900, 1800, 1700—only they lived in England, Ireland, Scotland, France, Germany, Sweden. They spoke different languages, but likely led similar lives—they were farmers, ranchers, and farmers’ and ranchers’ wives. I was just a recent college grad working as a hostess at a sushi restaurant.

I moved in with my best friend, Hari, who lived off Divisidaro, in a damp old Victorian with a cast of characters that included a guy who had recently split his head open and had staples holding his skull skin together; a party chick; and a dude who we referred to as a “techno hippie” due to his love of both jam bands and electronica. I picture him in oversized raver pants and a hemp necklace. That was San Francisco at the turn of the century—somewhere between the Summer of Love and The Jetsons.

I literally got on a plane and shipped a couple of boxes, with no job lined up, no car, no furniture. For the first couple weeks I slept in blankets on the floor. Maybe I was punishing myself for something. I’m not really sure. The thing that made the biggest impression on me was that nothing ever got dry. Your hair stayed wet. Your clothes stayed wet. The floor and the air were wet. And cold as hell.

The good news was that there were lots of jobs. It was the tech boom. I went to a downtown temp agency and filled out an application. I had never had a real job before, so I didn’t know what I could do, but I was pretty sure I could do something. I had an English Lit degree, so at the very least, I could analyze the shit out of some prose.

My first temp job was canvassing with a guy who was running for city council. I met him at his nice townhouse, had coffee with his wife and kids, and then we went door to door with fliers. We went to Robin Williams’ house. Of course, we didn’t ring the bell or anything; we just left a flier in the mailbox at the gate.

The next week, the temp agency called me and said they had a receptionist job at an interior design firm. The office was on Potrero Hill in a Victorian that felt more like a posh residence than a business. The receptionist desk was at the top of the main staircase, in a nook that might have been a coat closet or a converted dressing room. It had a nice sunny skylight and a mirror behind the computer so that I never had to wonder if there was anything stuck in my teeth.

This was my first time answering multi-line phones, which is no joke—you have to answer and transfer many different types of calls, watch to see if the person picks up, monitor calendars, know who is in and out and when they will be back, take messages, send callers to voicemail. Then you had to meet the mailman and the UPS guy, sign for packages. And do all sorts of administrative tasks in the meantime—helping with data entry and typing letters, organizing, filing. Anything that was asked of you.

Anyone who thinks that it’s difficult to be a CEO or president of a company should try being a receptionist. Talk about pressure.

Add to that the sensitivity of working in a firm that served high-end clientele—movie stars, musicians, and powerful businessmen (and powerful businessmen’s wives). You had to make everyone feel important. I was expected to know who certain people were, and to treat them with special care.

Having no experience in the design world, everything was new to me. Thankfully, I had a great supervisor, Cynthia, who helped me along and encouraged me. I remember once she was having me categorize a bunch of items in a spreadsheet, and it had categories like “Lighting” “Floor coverings” “Window coverings” and I came across “Kilim” and I didn’t know which category to put it in, so I think I put it in the lighting section, and then Cynthia looked over my work and started cracking up laughing. She was like, um… a kilim is a rug.

I don’t know why I didn’t just look it up. We had the Internet! I had a computer! But maybe that was back when I still thought that I was supposed to know everything. (Business Lesson #1: People who act like they know everything usually don’t know shit.)

As it turned out, I was pretty good at the job. After a few months, I was promoted to Design Team Administrator—I was taken off phone duty and put to work assisting with project management for a team of three designers and an interior architect.

In another firm, with other designers, this might have been a DevilWearsPrada-style nightmare. I mean, we were working on multi-million dollar projects for big-name clients. Thirty-thousand dollars for an armoire? No problem. A $20,000 chair? You got it. (Case in point: I was assigned to a project in an enormous apartment that looked directly down onto author Danielle Steele’s courtyard.)

But, as luck would have it, the Wiseman Group was not that kind of place (at least not to me—I can only speak from my experience). The people were warm, kind, generous, and fun. Despite my youth and limited skills, I was entrusted with important projects; I was challenged to learn new software, to develop my own procedures and work processes, and to go as far as I wanted to go professionally. I never felt stifled—to the contrary—they seemed to think that I could do anything I put my mind to.

I got that encouragement from my coworkers and superiors, including the founder of the company, Paul Wiseman. I’m not exactly sure why Paul liked me so much (I’m sure I botched plenty of things that affected his projects), but he was one of my biggest supporters. That made a huge impression—that someone who had been so successful—an award-winning designer whose work appeared in Architectural Digest and House Beautiful—could see something special in me.

Ultimately, it was that support, and the confidence I gained from my work at the Wiseman Group, that encouraged me to leave San Francisco (and a well-paying job with growth potential) to pursue what I really wanted to do. I wanted to write. And, thanks to Paul, and to all of my friends and coworkers at the Wiseman Group, I finally believed that I could actually do it. I will always be grateful for that.

badasses

These are some of my favorite, and most ridiculous, photos from my time at TWG. We were invited by another design firm to a luau, and we somehow came up with the idea that we were going to crash it as “bikers.” (Grease 2-style, though I don’t think anyone but me would have gotten that reference.) That’s Paul in the middle with Kimberly and I playing the biker babes.

biker luau

Yup, we were pretty tough.

butterfly and me

This is Butterfly. She belonged to Paul’s personal assistant, Susanna, who used to let me housesit for her when she went out of town. She had the most amazing apartment, chock-full of cool trinkets and knick-knacks. I wish I had a picture of it.

luau ladies

Aw, TWG ladies. That’s Cynthia waving. She was instrumental in showing me what I was capable of, and I will forever be grateful to her for being such a thoughtful and compassionate manager.

Greg, Susanna, and Michelle

Maybe one of the reasons we all got along so well was that we went to a lot of parties. And you know I love parties.

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xmas2 girls at bar

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sound of music

I think this might have been the night we went to the Sound of Music sing-along at the Castro Theater. Christine, Amy, and Tamara were super mentors. I really could not have asked to work with more badass chicks than these three.

After I left TWG, I think it was Amy who sent me these pictures. Look how chic and elegant everyone was!

paul owning it

Paul, owning it, in his tux

tamara

I could write volumes about Tamara. She knows everyone in San Fran. She is full of spunk and love. I adore her.

beautiful amy

Beautiful Amy Frank! She and her husband, Chris, are two of the raddest, most creative people ever. I feel like I am so much cooler for having known them.

jasmine-mark

Aw, Jasmine and Mark. Jaz was a real San Francisco chick who grew up in the Mission. And Mark is a true rock ‘n’ roller. I’m pretty sure he took the day off when Joey Ramone passed away to properly mourn.

glam amy

I love this picture of Amy. So glamorous!

laurel-amy

Before I move on from this period, just a word about my post-college job at Sushi Tora, on Pearl Street in Boulder. While I learned that I really don’t care for hostessing or waiting tables, I was sure lucky to work with these fantastic people. 

Saito-san (who would often come down to Round Midnight with us after our shifts to party the night away!); Mari, who was so sweet and patient with me; Enrique, Eugene, and Kay-san, who gave me a shot despite my lack of knowledge about sushi, food service, or Japanese language. I learned to count from 1 to 20 so that I could take orders at the sushi bar, and that was about the extent of my Japanese.

Saito-san (who would often come down to Round Midnight with us after our shifts to party the night away!); Mari, who was so sweet and patient with me; Enrique (? I think? I am not sure on his name, but he was a cool dude), Eugene, and Kay-san, who gave me a shot despite my lack of knowledge about sushi, food service, or Japanese language. I learned to count from 1 to 20 so that I could take orders at the sushi bar, and that was about the extent of it, but they were very forgiving.

Next up: 6 Organizations That Changed My Life, Vol. 3: The Colorado Daily

6 Organizations That Changed My Life, Vol. 1: INVST

I went to college in my hometown and lived with my mom freshman year, so I never had the dorm experience. Once I got over the shock at how scary it was to be on a big campus, college just felt like an extension of high school.

Toward the end of my sophomore year, I saw a chalk message on the sidewalk by the library, announcing an info session about a leadership and social justice program on campus called “INVST.” I thought to myself: Leadership? That’s me. Social justice? I’m all about it. So I went to the meeting.

It was a two-year program that combined the study of social justice theory, which we learned in a 3-credit class during the school year; with practical skills, such as meeting facilitation, conflict mediation, and grassroots organizing, which we learned in a 1-credit practicum; and real-world experiences, including an internship during our first year and two summer community service trips.

A big part of what INVST teaches has to do with living and working in community—derived from the novel concept that, if we want to train young people to be good citizens, we should equip them with tools to help them cooperate, resolve conflicts, and participate in true consensus decision making. So, the idea was that you would go through the entire two-year program with the same small group of people.

I started INVST in the summer of 1996. That year, the program accepted eight chicks and two dudes. Not everyone who applied got in. The curriculum was academically rigorous and included serious courses in sociology, political science, and global economics.

The reading list included everyone from Gandhi and Martin Luther King to Paolo Freire and Ram Dass. We studied real case studies of political movements, nonviolent protest, liberation theology, and civil disobedience, as well as intense histories of oppression and injustice throughout the world—from the unbelievable atrocities of the “disappeared” in Latin America in the 80s; to the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia; to Aung San Suu Kyi’s fight in Burma, and on and on.

We read about environmental destruction, poverty, racism, and white privilege. And we disagreed. We argued. We were encouraged to explore all angles of an issue, so we often played devil’s advocate to each other.

On top of all that, we had our personal relationships with each other, which brought up all other kinds of issues. We got comfortable enough to get on each other’s nerves and the INVST program encouraged us to approach these conflicts using tools we learned in our practica—such as active listening, and objective reasoning that helped us separate our emotions from the facts at hand.

We learned how to set ground rules and structure our meetings to ensure that no one person could dominate. We all participated equally. No one was above anyone else. And if someone was bringing something toxic to the group, we were encouraged to address it openly and honestly.

I could not have had better training for the real world than that. We were being prepared for a different kind of leadership. Not a “power over” kind of leadership, but a model of shared power, equal opportunity, and encouragement of divergent perspectives (so long as they were presented respectfully). I use something I learned in INVST every single day. It was like an intensive on how to live in a democracy. Or at least how it is supposed to be.

Unfortunately, you realize once you graduate from INVST that all of your great practical skills are a lot harder to use in the real world, where most other people have not had similar training.

It is especially hard to enter the workforce and find so many people who feel powerless, and who seem to have no outlet for their frustration. INVST helped me to understand that the hierarchical system of leadership just doesn’t work as well as a community-based model—it doesn’t work in classrooms (as Freire taught us), nor does it work in economics, or in social welfare.

When small groups of privileged people are given the authority to make the rules that everyone has to follow, the wealth does not “trickle down.” The privilege is rarely acknowledged, and, typically, the least powerful are made to feel that their poor situation is their own fault—a result of their laziness, bad upbringing, or wrong decisions.

INVST helped me to understand that there is another way. Real community is absolutely possible, but we have to have integrity in our actions and respect for divergent opinions.

Most importantly, we have to really listen to each other and make persistent effort to better understand the other’s point of view. That is the only way to generate enough compassion for one another that we can start to tackle the real problems facing all of us. Like, for instance, the environmental degradation of the planet and the fact that by 2020 (in SIX years) the United Nations estimates that there will be 1 BILLION people worldwide who are living in extreme poverty in urban slums. These are the kinds of problems we need to put our minds together to try to solve.

And I haven’t even mentioned the summer service experiences yet, which were in many ways the most impactful part of the INVST program. So, here goes:

The Domestic Summer Service Experience
My cohort met only a few times before departing for our first trip together in the summer of 1996. We came together to do a little bit of fundraising and we had a few days of orientation, then we hopped in a van and headed to New Mexico for a “wilderness experience” in the mountains outside Taos.

My cohort at the very beginning. We called ourselves "CEADS." I honestly don't remember what it stands for now. One of my fellow INVSTers will have to remind me.

My cohort at the very beginning. We called ourselves “CEADS.” I honestly don’t remember what it stands for now. One of my fellow INVSTers will have to remind me.

It was kind of like an Outward Bound experience: We did group-bonding exercises and played games. Our facilitators (who were former INVST students themselves) gave us self-reflective journal assignments. At night, the facilitators led discussions and guided us through exercises to help us make deeper meaning of the experiences we were having. On this portion of the trip, we talked a lot about human impact on the environment, and what can be done to preserve the wilderness.

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Here we are a few days later, all crusty and bonded.

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The second part of the trip was to Denver, where we spent a week in the Samaritan House Homeless Shelter. I wrote about this in my last post, so I’m not going to do it again here.

The final two weeks of the first summer were spent in the four corners area, on the Navajo (Dine) and Hopi reservations, where we volunteered with the Black Mesa Permaculture Project. Basically, we dug ditches for two weeks in the summer in Arizona.

Permaculture is a system for shaping the desert land—by digging irrigation ditches, and building burms—so that when it actually does rain (which is obviously rare) the water has places to collect and enrich the soil, making it possible to grow vegetation.

This is Justin from the Black Mesa Permaculture Project. He was a serious, but very cool dude.

This is Justin from the Black Mesa Permaculture Project. He was a serious, but very cool dude.

Gaffney, Summer, and Carol

Gaffney, Summer, and Carol

We studied the effect of the coal industry on the four corners area, where the Peabody Coal Company (the largest private coal company in the world) has forced or coerced the Navajo and Hopi people to relocate repeatedly in the ongoing quest to satisfy Americans’ insatiable consumption of fossil fuels. We talked with the local people, visited a school where we ate our weight in fry bread, and even participated in a sweat lodge.

And we had a lot of fun too.

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Jen and Gig

Seana-Baxter

This is Seana Lowe, who ran INVST when I was in the program. More than anyone else in my college career, she was my mentor and inspiration to do the best work I possibly could. I will always be grateful to her for that. And Baxter was the sweetest pup ever. Although, if you played Frisbee with him, look out. He came at you like a linebacker.

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I love how everyone looks like they’re having fun except Steph, who looks like she’s about to puke.

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Yes, I am wearing a do-rag and walking like an Egyptian. So sue me.

After the first summer, we were a pretty solid group. Then we had a whole school year of classes and practica together, where we reflected on our experiences, read, theorized, argued, and discussed. And we each did an internship at a local organization.

I was a legislative intern for the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL) in Denver. I helped organize phone banks and lobby politicians. I worked closely with the volunteer coordinator, Molly Harlow, who was also an INVST alum. It was an incredibly educational experience. I realized that political organizing is really, really, REALLY hard.

The International Summer Service Experience

The second summer, we went to Mexico. Before we left, we were required to read all about Mexican politics and history (which, if you think the U.S. has issues…) This was right around the time that President Clinton enacted the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), so we read a ton about how U.S. consumerism fuels shady manufacturing practices just over the border.

We learned about “maquiladoras,” the U.S.-owned factories on the Mexican side, which employ mostly young women who work for measly wages and suffer humiliating treatment as they assemble the clothing, medical supplies, and other products that we use every day. Thanks to NAFTA, U.S. corporations were now free to exploit Mexico’s cheap labor with little to no restriction or oversight.

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This is Anapra, Mexico, where many maquiladora workers live. It’s just outside Ciudad Juarez (across the border from El Paso, TX). This is also the location of the notorious Maquiladora Murders–hundreds, if not thousands, of young women who work in these U.S.-owned factories have been sexually assaulted, kidnapped, and murdered here with practically no intervention by the police or the companies who operate here (many of which are household names that you likely use every day).

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Dave is not really using the toilet here. It’s not connected to anything. But it sure looks convincing.

Steph

Steph was my roommate for a while. She and her (now) husband are some of the coolest people you will ever meet.

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One of the most amazing parts for me was staying at Annunciation House in El Paso, which is a safehouse for refugees from all over the world who come to the U.S. seeking asylum. It’s kind of like a halfway house or a shelter–group meals, community rules–and it’s a place for people who are fleeing persecution in their home countries to settle while they go through the legal process of getting permission to stay in the States. Some of the refugees are from Central and South America, and some are from as far away as Iraq.

After our border experience, we headed to the small fishing community of Bahia Kino on the West coast of Mexico, on the Sea of Cortez. There, we volunteered teaching English and doing other odd jobs like painting the school.

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Dave and I are painting “Def Leppard Forever” on the wall. Don’t worry, we painted over it. But I will say that the people of Bahia Kino might have appreciated it. They had some interesting hits in the juke box in town square. All I really remember is a whole lot of Air Supply.

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I don’t know why my pants are so huge and high waisted. It was the 90s.

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I look totally shell-shocked. Like, what am I supposed to teach these children again? On the back of this photo, I had written out some of their names: Claudia y Alonso, Daniel, Victor, David, Miguel, Julian, Ansel, Gabriel, Lucas, (Jen), y
Hector

Abigail

Our host mom, Abigail (ah-bi-gy-eel) and mi hermana, Sara! They were so sweet to us and let us sleep in their air conditioned room with the whole family after our guest room was infested with flying red ants.

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All the kids loved Dave. I will always remember one morning he told us that he’d had a wonderful dream the night before that he knew all the lyrics to Chicago’s “You’re the Inspiration.” He said he was so disappointed when he woke up and it wasn’t true.

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There is a lot more I could write about Mexico and about my wonderful friends from my INVST class, but those are stories for another time.

After completing the program, any INVST alum can apply to be a summer experience facilitator, and lead a whole new group of INVSTers on their trips. I was a facilitator twice: Once for the domestic experience and once for the international experience. I can’t find any pictures from the international trip that I co-led with the amazing and fantastic Carol Lynn, but I do have pictures from the domestic trip that I co-facilitated with Gig.

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This is permaculture, folks. And it’s a LOT more work than it looks like.

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Adam, Beth, and Christine. Doesn’t this look like an Abercrombie & Fitch ad?

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Christine

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I mean, did Gig EVER work? Way to set a good example!

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Phil LOVED this kid.

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Christy

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Sara Nix, aka, “Hottie”

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Sabrina and Christy. Sabrina actually runs INVST now. Aw.

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Adam is such a ham. On the wilderness trip, I vaguely remember something about a squirrel that stole his hat while we were camping. We named it Funky the Squirrel and made up a whole song to the tune of “B-I-N-G-O.”

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Me and Hottie Nix

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I am OBVIOUSLY the better facilitator here. Way to slack off, Gig.

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Just another part of my daring leadership style.

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Gig

Seriously, though, Gig (pronounced “Jeej” or Francois Guillaume, if you want to get technical about his name) was the best co-facilitator I could have asked for and a great friend. I will never forget how he and I each had to drive Suburban trucks full of our INVST students all the way to Arizona to do the permaculture work, and we made up a song to the tune of the Rolling Stones’ “Beast of Burden” that went, “I’ll never be you’re big Suburban…”

INVST is still around and still making a huge difference in the lives of its participants, the local community, the nation, and (yes!) the world. You can find out more about this amazing program on their website.

[Just to be clear, I did not take all (or possibly any) of the pictures in this post. After each trip, we would all get together and share our photos, so unfortunately, I don’t know who to credit.]

Finally, although I am not going to write a post about it, another very important part of my college experience was singing with All Rights Reserved, a women’s a capella group at CU-Boulder. It was just another mind-blowing, enlightening exercise in group creativity that I treasure to this day. I also don’t have many pictures of All Rights Reserved. But here is one:

all-rights-reserved

I don’t remember what we are singing, but DeAnna was one of my favorite people to sing with because she had a beautiful alto voice. She did a kickass solo on “Go Your Own Way” by Fleetwood Mac.

Tune in next time for 6 Organizations That Changed My Life, Vol. 2: The Wiseman Group Interior Design, aka, How I Moved To San Francisco and Immediately Got a Job that I Was Not at All Qualified For.

6 Organizations That Changed My Life

thegirlwhousedtobeatemp

This nameplate came courtesy of Mr. Phil Swann at UT-Austin.

I have never been one to worry about my career trajectory—I haven’t stressed over showing progression in my title or my pay. I’ve always believed that any potential employer who would nit-pick the gaps in my work history or the lack of advancement isn’t going to be a good fit for me anyway. I am more interested in my intellectual, emotional, and spiritual development than I am in impressing some HR person.

(By the way, I picture this HR person as a vogon:)

Considering my general blasé attitude, I find it incredible that somehow the right job has always come to me at the right time. And that I have worked in such diverse fields (Sort of. I mean, I haven’t been like an astronaut or a Solid Gold dancer or anything.)

I have a bachelor’s degree in English literature, which—like most undergraduate liberal arts degrees—basically prepared me to do nothing and anything. One thing you realize when you’ve been in the real world is just how little what you are taught as a young person has to do with the reality of work life.

If school really taught what you need to know to be a successful person in this society, you would take whole courses on Etiquette When Sending an All-Company E-Mail (Does it sound too bitchy? Should you include a smiley face?)

You would take lessons on How to Create an Office Kitchen Cleaning Calendar, wherein you would learn how to craft the “Anything in the fridge without a name on it is going to get thrown out on Friday” message. And practice masking your handwriting on the “Please don’t leave you’re dishes in the sink! You’re Mom doesn’t live here!” sign, in which you purposely misuse “you’re” to throw people off so they don’t know it was you.

If school really prepared you for life, you might even be taught how to pick a health insurance plan, determine your 401k contributions, read your credit card statement, and understand your taxes. But I digress.

All of my jobs have been perfect in their own way for what I needed at that moment. In the next few posts, I would like to acknowledge six of them. The ones I am leaving out are not omitted because they were any less influential, but the six I will write about distinguished themselves because they came at a pivotal time in my development, or gave me a key opportunity to learn or master a skill that served me later.

So, tune in tomorrow for 6 Organizations That Changed My Life, Vol. 1—The International and National Voluntary Service Training (INVST) program, aka, Pushing The Boundaries Of Social Justice … And Personal Hygiene: The College Years.

On George Saunders and things that happen on my way home

It started on Sunday. I was waiting for the bus at Lawrence and 16th St. Mall after a long bus ride from Boulder, and all I wanted was to get home as soon as possible.

It had been a draining day. I had seen both of my parents—and both of them alone, which is rare. My stepmom was on a trip and my little brother, home from college for winter break, was at work. He has a job as a tour guide at the Celestial Seasonings Tea Company, where our dad has worked for the past 35 years. I was a tour guide there when I was his age too.

But on this day it was just me and Dad. We didn’t talk about much in particular. Football—since the Broncos were playing the Chargers that day—and my new job, life in general.

My mom picked me up and we got Mexican food for lunch. Afterwards, we went to her house and hung out. I must have been storing up some stress, because as soon as we were alone, I pretty much immediately broke down in tears. There’s something about being with my mom that just makes me feel like I can finally let go. So, we talked through it and my mom was very supportive, but afterward I felt emotionally spent and just ready to be alone.

I had just gotten to Market St. Station in downtown Denver and was waiting for the 38 bus, which would be about a 10-minute ride to my house, when a woman approached pushing a stroller, with two young kids trailing behind.

The woman looked tired. It was cold that day, and the kids were dressed in warm coats, but she just had on a thin jacket. I heard her ask a man standing at the stop if he knew if the 38 goes to the Samaritan House, which is the local homeless shelter.

I know about the Samaritan House because I stayed there when I was in college as part of a social justice/leadership training program that I was in called INVST. A cohort of 12 of us, plus two facilitators, volunteered there for a week, interacting with the “guests” and eating what they ate, seeing what they saw. The only thing we didn’t do was sleep in the dorms with them. Our group slept in the kids’ playroom, on the floor, in sleeping bags.

During the days, we did projects with nearby charity organizations like the Denver Rescue Mission and the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. On one day, we went out onto “the streets” without any money. Some of us tried “spanging” or “spare-changing.” But others of us didn’t feel right about it because it seemed like we were cheapening the experience of those who have no other choice but to ask for money.

As part of the program, we also read and discussed critical essays about the poverty cycle, the causes and effects of homelessness, and wealth disparity in general. The most memorable was a book called Rachel and Her Children by Jonathan Kozol. It’s Kozol’s true account of the months that he spent in The Martinique Hotel in New York City in the 1980s—It was a “homeless hotel,” basically a condemned, rat-infested building where many of the residents were young children who barely had enough to eat.

As a college student, raised in a pretty sheltered place, I can’t say that I fully got it at that point. I understood that a lot of folks had been dealt a raw deal in life.

I got the injustice of the fact that a handful of privileged people, most of whom got to where they are through no real effort of their own, make the rules that govern the lives of everyone else, and that they basically perpetuate the continuous cycle of the rich getting more and the poor getting less.

I was sympathetic, but I can’t say that I felt comfortable around homeless people. I was scared of them. They were dirty. They were rough. They had a rawness about them.

Over the years since then I have come to understand the significance of that experience at the Samaritan House. Although I didn’t get it at the time, it definitely made me see homelessness in a different way—like, these people aren’t that different from me or my family. It doesn’t take long to internalize feelings of hopelessness, and to continue to spiral downward. Especially if you have no one to help you out and no resources or education to fall back on.

So on Sunday, when I heard the woman ask about the Samaritan House, I felt compelled to help. I asked her if she knew the address and she said yes, 2301 Lawrence. I looked it up on my phone and figured out that they would need to get off at Park West.

Her two older kids, a girl and a boy, were hopping around the bus bench, laughing and curiously listening. I told the boy that I liked his glasses, which seemed to make him bashful. I told the mom where they would need to go and then I remembered that I had a booklet of bus tickets, which are basically the same as cash for the bus fare.

I asked if they ride the bus often, and the little boy called out, “Yeah, we do!” So I gave the mom the bus tickets. She thanked me, but seemed a little shy about it.

When the bus pulled up, the little girl looked at me and asked, “Is this your bus too?” I said yes. I watched them until they got off at Park. In my head, I said a little prayer for them. I wanted to tell the mom that, despite what are obviously difficult circumstances, she must be doing a good job. Her kids seemed so happy and inquisitive, curious and kind. I tried to imagine a hopeful future for them, that their bright spirits won’t be squashed by the fear and the bitterness that must come with that life.

I made it home and I didn’t think much more of it.

The next night, I had my first voice lesson. I am starting to take singing classes from this real cool chick named Kristine who has a studio in a church on Capitol Hill. I had ridden my bike, but I didn’t want to ride all the way home in the dark, so I caught the 15 bus to downtown, where I would then have to connect to one other bus.

First of all, the 15 took for-freaking-ever. I was waiting with two stylish high school boys, two drunk old men, and a guy on a bike who I think might have had a slight mental disability—which I guessed might have something to do with PTSD, because the dude gave me a very military vibe. Not in a bad way, but he just seemed very efficient and concerned about things. He was socially awkward in a way that indicated that he might have been medicated—not the sloppy disorderliness of a drunk or a junkie, but the hyperclarity of someone on anti-psychotics. I had already been waiting for 10 minutes or so when he rode up and asked if I thought we could get both of our bikes on the bus.

“I guess we’ll just have to wait and see,” I replied.

And then he very sweetly added, “Well, you get the first shot at it, cuz you were here first.”

I told him I appreciated that.

But eventually the bus took so long that he rode off, bidding us to have a good night. The bus finally came, and I got my bike in the rack, no problem. It was pretty full, so I sat down next to an older man. He asked me if I knew where the 15 turned when it got off Colfax. I blabbed out some unhelpful answer where I tried to pretend like I knew, even though I didn’t really know. I asked him where he was going, and he said, “23rd and Broadway.”

From the night before, I remembered that the Samaritan House is on 23rd and Lawrence, but I didn’t want to assume that was where he was going. I asked him if he really meant 23rd and Broadway, and he said yes. So I looked it up on my phone, and got the directions for him, but they weren’t easy to convey—he would have to get off the 15, then walk a block to another bus stop, where he would catch the 48.

I tried to help him, but the directions were so long and convoluted that I feared I had confused him more. He was anxiously sitting on the edge of his seat, looking at every stop, trying to figure out where to get off, but I could tell that he was too embarrassed to ask me again.

I decided that I would get off at the stop with him, and try to make it look like it was coincidental, and then I would offer to walk him to the next stop. But he pulled the buzzer and got off a stop too early. I didn’t tell him because I sensed that his pride was more important right then. I didn’t want to condescend to him or embarrass him more.

I felt terrible that I hadn’t helped him, but what could I do? I got off that bus and rode a block or two to my transfer. I saw that my bus was just about to round the corner. All I had to do was to sprint a block or so to get ahead of it. I was so in the zone, apparently, that when I got to the stop, feeling very lucky that my timing had worked out so well, I rushed to put my bike in the rack and get on. I sat down, very relieved, until the bus turned on 17th. At first I thought maybe there was a detour. But we kept going straight, so I asked the driver, “Is this a 38?” and he said, “No, this is a 15.”

Um, WHAT?? I had just boarded a bus going back to Capitol Hill, where I had just come from. Somehow without my noticing, a no. 15 bus had passed the no. 38 bus and arrived at the bus stop first. In my rush of relief, I had gotten on the wrong bus.

Crap.

So I had to get off and ride my bike back to the bus stop, where I would now have to wait at least 30 minutes for the next one.

I was not pleased. I was cold. I was pissed. I just wanted to get home.

A few minutes later, two young girls walked up. They looked about 15 or 16. Neither one of them had coats, just thin hoodies. They asked me if the no. 12 bus stopped there. I said no, and I asked where they were going.

“Westminster,” they replied.

I don’t know every bus route in Denver, but I was fairly certain that they would need to take the regional bus to Boulder, which costs $5. I told them this, but they said, no way, they didn’t have that kind of money.

They weren’t from here—one of them was from Vermont. The other from the Midwest. They had met in a group home for adolescent girls—the kind of place where you end up when you’ve gotten in trouble for fighting, or drugs, or when you’ve been so discarded that the system simply doesn’t know what else to do with you.

I could tell they were a couple, but I didn’t say so outright. One of the girls seemed to identify as more male. Her girlfriend still had a full set of braces—a sign that someone, somewhere, had at least invested in her wellbeing that much.

Once again, I took out my phone and looked up the bus routes. As I suspected, the directions suggested they take the Boulder bus. But it also suggested an alternate route, that would take a lot longer, but wouldn’t involve an increased fare. They would ride my bus, the 38, all the way to Wadsworth, then transfer to the 76 the rest of the way to the Westminster Park ‘n’ Ride.

They thanked me and we started chatting. The girl without the braces told me that she used to come to 16th St. Mall “all the time” with her dad. And that they would ride their longboards, and get drinks at Starbucks. The way she said that they did this “all the time” made me think that they had done this once, and that it was a special memory for her. She kept saying that she knows these streets “like the back of [her] head.” I didn’t have the heart to correct her.

They had been out on the streets for two nights, trying to get back to Westminster. They said that no one would help them. So they had just gotten on bus after bus, getting more and more lost. I didn’t ask them where they slept, or what they had encountered in those two freezing nights.

The girl with the braces pointed to the steam rising up from the sewers. She asked if there was something wrong. I told her no. It’s always doing that.

As we boarded the bus, I confirmed the girls’ route with the driver and he said that it was correct.

I sat across from them in the front seats. I gathered up all the cash I had—a dollar bill and a handful of coins—and I handed it over to them.

They were very grateful, thanking me, saying that they really appreciated my help.

“So many people wouldn’t help us,” they said. “They just walked on past us.”

I told them that it’s just because people aren’t used to talking to each other out on the street. That we’re all sort of in our own worlds.

“Or they’re creeps,” the one girl said.

Yes, I concurred. There are a lot of creeps.

I leaned in and looked them both in the eye, “But you have each other,” I said, “and that’s not nothing.”

The girl without the braces seemed to light up. She cuddled under her girlfriend’s arm. “She’s protected me from a lot,” she said. I could see the tears welling up in her eyes.

Ironically, when we got to the stop for the Samaritan House, the man who I had tried to help earlier passed me on his way off the bus. So, despite my poor directions, he did make it there, which eased my mind.

We reached my stop and, as I was exiting the bus, I repeated the directions to the girls. “Get off at Wadsworth and catch the 76,” I said. I looked at each of them as I said it, trying to ingrain it in their brains.

They thanked me again.

The girl with the braces said, “It was really nice to meet you.”

“You too,” I told them. But I never got their names.

I said a little prayer that they would get to their destination and be able to sleep and get warm that night.

Which all leads up to yesterday.

My coworker came into my office mid-morning and informed me that the short stories writer George Saunders would be signing his book at the Tattered Cover that night. I was turned onto him by my friend Dimitri who leant me his copy of CivilWarLand In Bad Decline, Saunders first short story collection which made him an immediate literary sensation due to his darkly comedic yet tender storytelling style.

Saunders is thought by many to be the writer of his generation. He has been praised by everyone from Thomas Pynchon and Tobias Wolff (his former writing professor at Syracuse) to Zadie Smith, Dave Eggers, and David Foster Wallace who said of CivilWarLand that it was “well worth a good deal of attention.”

On my lunchhour, I went to the Tattered Cover to get a ticket for the reading—tickets are free, but you have to get one to guarantee a seat. I bought a copy of his newest book Tenth of December, even though I was worried about spending the money. I’m trying to stick to a budget, and I can’t be randomly blowing all my cash on books.

So I was already a little stressed about money when I left the bookstore, and just a few feet from the door, I passed a young man who was standing stone-still on the sidewalk, watching me go by. He had a sleeping bag and a backpack, and he looked a little rough around the edges, so I assumed he was homeless. He seemed to want to get my attention, but he was speaking so softly that I couldn’t make out what he was saying. I asked him to repeat himself, even though I knew I had no cash on me, and that he would likely ask me for some.

He seemed surprised that I was speaking directly to him. I stood in front of him and looked him in the eye. He looked to be in his early to mid-20s, very soft spoken and humble in his demeanor. He said his name was Kevin.

He spoke louder—he told me that he had come out here from another state (I can’t remember which) with a woman who had told him that he could rent a room in her house for $400 a month. They had driven together, with all his stuff, but when they arrived it turned out that she didn’t have a house or a room at all. She took all his stuff and his money, and left him with nowhere to go. He had been on the streets for two weeks—homeless for the first time in his life.

For most of that time, he had been able to get a bed at the Denver Rescue Mission, until the previous night, when they had already filled up when he got there. He tried to get into the overflow beds at the Samaritan House, but they wouldn’t take him until he got a $25 tuberculosis test to show he didn’t have TB. He said he had already met with a caseworker there though, and that they may be able to help him, if he could just find somewhere to stay.

He said he needed $30 for the hostel, but that he’d been asking passersby for spare change for over two hours, and had made less than $3.

The night before, he had slept outside—he had found a steam grate which was keeping him somewhat warm, until about 2:30 am, when a cop came by and told him to move along.

Kevin said he begged with the cop, “I’m not intoxicated,” he said, “the shelter is full—I’m human. I can’t walk around all night. I have to sleep.”

“That’s not my problem,” was the cop’s reply. He said it’s illegal to sleep outside in public due to Denver’s Urban Camping Ban.

I just felt like I had to help Kevin. We walked over to the ATM and I withdrew $20. I told him to consider that, even if he could raise the rest of the money for the hostel, that would only get him one night and then he would be right back in the same predicament the next day.

I suggested that he would be better off spending that money on the TB test. At least then he would have the option of getting into an overflow bed at Samaritan House. I shook his hand and wished him luck.

I stopped into Illegal Pete’s for lunch, feeling sad for Kevin, and also frustrated at myself for withdrawing another $20. I had already been feeling guilty about spending money. I had already splurged on a book. What was I going to do, give 20 bucks to every homeless person on the 16th St. Mall?

I reached into my wallet to pay for my burrito, and noticed the corner of a check folded up in the billfold part. That’s when I remembered that I had meant to deposit that check earlier in the week. It was a refund from when I cancelled my Internet.

The amount of the check was $20.90.

So, basically, the money that I had been so worried about withdrawing and giving to Kevin, was sitting right there in my wallet, ready to be deposited back in the bank.

What struck me about all of these experiences was how different all of these people were on the surface—the mother and her kids were African American; of the two teenage girls, the one without braces was white and the girl with the braces was Asian; the vet on the bike was white, as was the old man on the bus; and Kevin looked to be Hispanic or possibly part Native American.

What made them all similar was that they were all kind and vulnerable. And none of them seemed to deserve to be homeless. Yet there was something still hopeful about them too.

That night at the reading, George Saunders said that he really only found his writing voice when he stopped trying to “climb the mountain of Hemingway”—stopped trying to live up to some impossible standard—and planted his flag in the “dung hill of George Saunders.”

During the Q&A, someone commented that they were surprised, considering the dark content of his writing, to find Saunders himself to be so upbeat.

Saunders has heard this before—he said that one time someone actually referred to him as “perky.”

“How can that be?” people always want to know.

They ask him: Which is it?

Is life terrible? Or is life wonderful?

Yes. Saunders replies. It is.

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

COSTA RICA 378

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:

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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:

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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.

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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

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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.

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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):

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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.