Tortuguero

Friday morning we set our alarm for 3:30 a.m., and took the 40-minute cab ride from Atenas to SJO airport.

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A selfie as bleary as we feel

We were headed to Tortuguero, a remote and sparsely populated town and national park on Costa Rica’s Caribbean Coast. Technically it’s nesting season for leatherback turtles, but (spoiler alert) they’re endangered and we didn’t see any.

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We flew with local airline Nature Air in a 19-seat twin otter — Andy’s first experience in a small plane. (He did great.) The otter’s giant picture windows and low flying altitude (no pressurized cabin!), coupled with Costa Rica’s not-too-shabby views made the flight a highlight of the whole trip.

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Boarding! Watch your head …

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The flight from SJO to Tortuguero includes a stopover in Limon, seen here from the air.

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The 15-minute hop from Limon to Tortuguero

 

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Tortuguero from the air

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The Tortuguero “airport.”

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Our taxi driver meeting us at the air strip

We took a water taxi to Casa Marbella, a B&B in town. There are fancier lodges to stay elsewhere along the river, but a water taxi is the only way to get around, so we decided to stay in the town itself. Casa Marbella has a pleasant deck overlooking the river where guests eat breakfast and read or snooze or drink beers in adirondack chairs. Most tourists are from mainland Europe — not a lot of North Americans.

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Tortuguero from the river

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The town of Tortuguero is full of public art. Most of it is not anywhere near as terrifying as this, the creepiest trash receptacle of all time.

We relaxed most of the first day — had a fantastic Caribbean-style lunch in the garden at Miss Junie’s, Tortuguero’s best-known restaurant, and dinner later that evening at Wild Ginger, which we’d also recommend. The friendly owner was getting ready to close up shop for a couple weeks during low season, so we were glad we got there in time. He encouraged us to pay by credit card, as Wild Ginger is one of the few places in town that accepts them. No one wants to pay the fees, but on the other hand, change is hard to come by in Tortuguero. There are no banks or cash machines there, and tourists bring in large bills, so locals are always scrambling for smaller bills and coins. What’s more, the closest bank is an entire day’s trip up and back down the river. It used to take less time, but the water levels are low, and boats are slow-going. (I’m always amazed and saddened by the real-world implications of climate change.)

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Sunset from the deck of Casa Marbella

The next morning we took a guided boat tour of the national park. The boat had a quiet electric motor, so as not to disturb wildlife. Our guide, Roberto, pointed out all kinds of animals that our untrained eyes would never have spotted: monkeys, a sloth, a small turtle, a cayman (like a small crocodile), iguanas, toucans, and lots of other birds.

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Cayman hiding in the grass

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A female jacana chasing away adolescents so she can mate. Jacanas are polyandrist: the female mates with several males, and the males incubate the eggs and care for the young. Do your thing, girl. 

The $15 entrance fee to the park was good for the whole day, so Andy and I went for a hike later that afternoon — a guard almost didn’t let us in because the park closes at 4 p.m., but we must have looked sad because he quickly relented, showed us where the trail started, and told us to be out before sunset. Pura vida. At one point on the trail I stopped to pee, looked up, and saw a spider monkey decimating a piece of fruit not 15 yards away. Communing with nature!

This morning we water-taxied back to the “airport.” The pilot checked us in and the co-pilot loaded our bags. No one asked to see an ID … guess it’s not really a problem around here.

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What, no Starbucks? This is an outrage.

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Nature Air’s twin otter on the Tortuguero airstrip

Low season turned out to be a great time to visit, since many places were still open but prices were low and the town wasn’t overcrowded. I don’t know if we’ll get the chance to go again, but if we did return we’d go during green turtle nesting season so we’d be sure to see the area’s namesake. Even though we didn’t see any big nesting turtles this time, we’re still so glad we went.

 

Fainting Lessons

Last weekend I fainted.

Normally, this would be NBD; I’ve fainted lots of times. It’s unpleasant* but temporary. This time, it was the middle of the night and I was at the top of the staircase when I passed out. I woke up at the bottom of it.

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I came to face-down, one of the dogs licking my arm, wailing involuntarily for a few moments until I pieced together what happened. (It’s exceptionally bizarre when this splice of your consciousness is just missing, when you moved from A to B and everything hurts.) My head ached. So did my neck and my hip. Andy brought me an ice pack. Maybe we should have gone to the hospital, but it was late. 

The next day I spoke with my sister, a physician’s assistant. She told me to look out for signs of concussion — fuzzy vision, headaches, memory weirdness — and to get an X-ray if my neck continued hurting to rule out a fracture. We agreed not to tell our parents, who have a teensy propensity toward fretting. (Sorry, Jen, I’ve broken our agreement.)

The next morning, I felt banged up but otherwise okay. No signs of concussion. Today all that’s left is an impressive purple bruise on my hip.

All week, I’ve been avoiding dwelling on the most obvious takeaway: I could have died. I banged my head, hard, in a fall down the stairs. That moment near the top, when I barely had time to register wooziness, could have been the last feeling I felt on this earth.

But I shouldn’t avoid dwelling on that. It’s not uncommon for those who’ve had near-death experiences to start living more fully — to focus deeply on what matters, to tell the people you love that you love them.

Without these occasional glimpses of mortality, we worry about how people would receive our outpourings of earnest love. We tend not to offer them day-to-day, for fear of being perceived as overemotional weirdos. A couple years ago, we lost a young family friend. I was in South Africa at the time; my parents and I cried together over FaceTime. “We love you so much, honey,” Dad said. “You look so beautiful right now.”

It’s better to risk being weird, I think.

It’s better to gush at the people you love about how special they are. It’s better to accept death is coming for all of us, so we might as well do what we can with the time we have. That’s what Destino Pura Vida is about, in a way: to create the kind of life where, toward the end of it, I’ll feel good about how I spent my time.**

“Only when you accept death can you free yourself from it, can you deal with it, can you move forward from it,” says Philip Gould in the short film When I Die: Lessons from the Death Zone. “Acceptance is the absolute key. At that moment, you gain freedom, and you gain power, and you gain courage.”

I promise it’s worth your time to give it a watch. Then call up or write to the people who mean the most to you and tell them how wonderful they are.

tl;dr You’re wonderful, and I love you. I’m so glad we’re both on this planet.

*      *      *

*Especially the disoriented, waking-up part. If you’ve never fainted, it sort of feels like your mind is scrambled, like a channel you don’t get on an old television set, for a few seconds of semi-consciousness before you fully come to. That moment lasts just long enough to terrify you that your brain might be stuck in this buzzing, crazy-making way forever. Anyway, it sucks. What’s comforting about fainting, on the other hand, is that you just go out, like that. You don’t know anything; you’re out. So if that’s what death is like, we’ll all be fine.

**If I do die soon, rest assured I’ve had a great life. Don’t be too sad about how I went before my time — just throw a fantastic party, preferably with bagpipes followed by a bluegrass band. And lots of carbs for everyone.

Visitors! Or: I Don’t Want to Wait (For Our Lives to be Over)

Our first visitors to join us in Costa Rica were my coworkers and dear friends, Ann and Kristin.

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Kristin and Ann on the deck of the eco-cabin outside Turrialba. To set the record straight: purchasing Oreos was *not* the first thing Ann did upon her arrival in the country; it was only *among* her initial activities.

A respectable dent was made. (Passive voice intentional.)

A respectable dent was made. Passive voice intentional. (A. Goliak photo)

These women are excellent guests: Not only do they make good choices in their duty-free booze shopping, Ann hauled a five-pound bag of gummy bears all the way from Chicago. (“You said you couldn’t get them here!”) They’re agreeable travelers, and funny as all get out. Ann’s signature comment of the trip was, “I’m helping by staying out of the way.” We spent considerable time annoying one another with song, principally by yell-singing Paula Cole’s 1996 hit “I Don’t Want to Wait.”

“If I never hear that song again,” Andy said (a day or two after our guests left but the song was still very much stuck in my head), “it will be too soon.”

Buttercup, queen sloth.

Buttercup, queen sloth. (A. Goliak photo)

The gals’ only original request was that we see sloths, so over the weekend we road-tripped from Turrialba to a jungle house on the Caribbean coast, not far from Puerto Viejo and the sloth sanctuary. When Kristin learned that howler monkeys will sometimes (and with startling accuracy) urinate on humans when agitated by their presence, she added “getting peed on by a howler monkey” to her short list of goals.

We swam in in the ocean, wore out the dogs, made dinner, drank margaritas, window-shopped, read in hammocks. Ann knitted a baby sweater while Kristin and I played canasta. It was proving a relaxing beach vacation until some small vampire, an ant or a spider, bit Andy on the toe. He gets bitten all the time — 9 out of 10 bloodsucking insects agree; Andy tastes grrrrrreat! — so I didn’t think much of it at first. Then he pushed his plate of tacos away and announced he didn’t feel like eating; he was going to go shower. That’s when I knew something was wrong.

Andy has never rejected a taco.

He peeled off his shirt to reveal that he was covered in hives. His ears felt funny, he said. His eyes were watering. I grabbed the car keys and white-knuckled it to the nearest open Farmacia, where the pharmacist tried to sell me Allegra because Benadryl would make him drowsy. “Benadryl,” I insisted. She rolled her eyes.

The pink pills worked their magical magic almost immediately. Andy passed out. I told Ann and Kristin that was the worst drive ever — I’d had difficulty finding the Farmacia, and was pushing away thoughts of Andy’s throat closing up when he was miles from a doctor and I’d taken the car, too frantic to consider that I should have told him to get out of the shower and taken him with me.

“We were prepared to do a tracheotomy,” Ann reassured me.

The next morning, we awoke before sunrise to the other-worldly racket of howler monkeys nearby. Andy was much better but still drowsy, but Ann and Kristin hopped out of bed and we sped out in pursuit, three braless women in search of monkeys. (This has to be someone’s fetish, we concluded.)

We found the monos high in a tree behind a neighboring hotel — too far to photograph but plenty close to marvel at their spooky, smoke-monster-from-Lost vocalizations. Howlers are fairly small, harmless vegetarians, but as Ann noted, if you didn’t know that and heard one for the first time, you’d think you were about to die. They’re the loudest land animals on our planet — a hollow acoustic chamber in the back of their throat serves as a sort of bullhorn that makes their roar louder than a lion’s. They are incredible.

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Toyota the sloth, so named for his durability: He was electrocuted and fell to the ground; his electrocuted arm turned gangrenous; vultures (fortunately for him, actually) ate off a good portion of his gangrene; a worker found and rescued him; and what was left of his arm was amputated. He’s all good now. (A. Goliak photo)

We did not get peed on. 

The sloth sanctuary was a mixed bag. There were sloths, of course, so it had that going for it.

But we were irritated by the tour guide, who was overly fond of figurative language despite a marvelous inability to construct a tenable metaphor. (“Imagine you are a lady sloth, and you are trying to find a date, but the harpy eagle keeps eating all the eligible bachelors by imitating your mating call. So you tell the male: our date is for tonight … but come tomorrow. She arranges the date for tonight, but tells him to come the next day, you understand? Then, when that stops working, she tells him the date is for tonight, but to come next week.”) He loved both the sound of his own voice and knowing more about sloths than you. We did not learn much about sloths.

How Kristin felt about the guide at the sloth sanctuary

How Kristin felt about the guide at the sloth sanctuary. (A. Goliak photo)

But we enjoyed the boat-ride segment afterwards, where our Tico guide pointed out another monkey, a couple more sloths in the wild, and a small alligator camouflaged in the mud.

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We’re on a boat. (K. Aardsma photo)

Poor Ann was sick with a cold the next morning, so she skipped the surf lesson. Andy, Kristin and I met up with Jermaine, a local surf instructor who taught us the “chicken wing” technique for popping up on the board. Andy had surfed once before; it was my and Kristin’s first time. They were both measurably better than me, although I finally stood up once for a few seconds — long enough to realize how fun it could be once you get a feel for it. Our muscles were sore for a couple days.

Back in Turrialba, Kristin and I worked in the UCR biblioteca, and Andy and Ann took a coffee tour, which they loved. Ann claims to now know much more about coffee than she does about sloths. On the gals’ last night, we drove them to Hotel Aeropuerto and enjoyed a far better steak dinner than one might expect from a restaurant at a place named “Hotel Aeropuerto.” We couldn’t finish the huge portions, but Penny and Theda helped, by busting down the dog grate in the back of the Subaru and dispatching the contents of the to-go box with admirable stealth.

It was only a little sad to say goodbye, since I was about to see them again for a work trip to San Francisco. I’ll also get in some drinks with friends, a dental cleaning, and some direly needed baby niece time (yeah yeah, and see the rest of the family). Andy and the puppies are on their own in the hills for eight days. Will they be able to avoid a trip to the vet? Stay tuned!

A Sojourn in Turrialba

Last weekend, we arrived at an ecocabin outside of Turrialba. Where they make the sportsballs.

We booked this stay a few months ago when we were still in Austin, because the area sounded lovely, and because we didn’t want to worry about housing so soon after arriving. I had narrowed our digs for this month down to a couple options, and gave the final vote to my coworkers and friends Ann and Kristin — they’re our first visitors (!) arriving tomorrow (!) so I wanted to make sure we’d be staying somewhere they’d enjoy.

View from the front porch

View from the front porch

“This is just like House Hunters International!” Ann said.

They picked the ecocabin, so here we are! And ’twas a solid pick. The solar-powered house sits on a hill amid coffee and sugarcane fields with holy-shit-that’s-incredible views of the valley below.

I am not making this up.

I am not making this up.

Porch pickin'

Porch pickin’

Entrance to La Postita

Entrance to La Postita

It’s a bit remote, and the internet hearkens to the days of dial-up, so that means commuting 20 or so minutes into town for work. The best connection in the nicest setting I’ve found is, unsurprisingly, at the Universidad de Costa Rica campus. Today I overheard a couple students in the library discussing their coursework about the Puritans and my witch-burning ancestor, Cotton Mather! It was so jarring to hear that name of all names in Costa Rica that I had to interrupt them and apologize for eavesdropping. They were characteristically sweet about it, and expressed their condolences for my shameful heritage.

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Post-romp panting on the porch. Theda has since lost the cone, thank goodness.

The doggies have seven acres of trails and fields to romp around in, so they’re in heaven. We have to be mindful of snakes and poisonous toads and whatnot, and Penny usually has to be leashed, because (shocker) she charged the caretaker. He walked up unannounced, which spooked her, and she ran and barked so loud it scared the poor guy half to death. He broke his umbrella over her back (we don’t blame him — we bought him a replacement the next day), and warned us that the next guy might be carrying a machete rather than an umbrella.

So, leashed walkies it is. Penny is such a jerk.

Falling for Atenas

The original plan was to bounce around Costa Rica from month to month — see the country, get a feel for different places, roam around and be flexible. But after a month in Atenas, we’re looking at renting a house there.

Part of that, I suppose, is that we’re already a bit weary of nomadism — packing and unpacking our belongings, figuring out new places to stay, learning where to shop and work and eat. It’s fatiguing, and if I did that every month for a year, I fear I wouldn’t be a very pleasant person to live with. After two or three weeks of being in one place, we started to settle in. And the more we looked around, the more we found to like.

View of the (somewhat under-construction) parque central, from Gelly's Cafe

View of the (somewhat under-construction) parque central, from Gelly’s Cafe

Atenas has a lot going for it. National Geographic once designated it the world’s best climate, and with days in the 70s-80s and nights in the 60s, we’re not arguing. It’s a smaller town (like many others, built around the hub of a central park and the church) in a mountainous agricultural area — no hopping nightlife to speak of, but we’re old people who go to bed at 9:30 anyway. Although it’s small, it has its share of decent cafes and restaurants, a couple of which host community lending libraries.

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Andy at Kay’s, one of the places in town where you can order a fresh juice AND borrow a large-print copy of “The Pelican Brief.”

Penny and Theda in their preferred spot under the mango tree.

Penny and Theda in their preferred spot under the mango tree.

Happy hour.

Happy hour.

Our AirBnB hosts, Pat and John, were super knowledgable and keyed us into where to shop (the co-op), which vet to take the dogs to (Dr. Solano), and where the extranjeros get rowdy on Friday afternoons (German’s Bar). They introduced us to the farmer’s market, shared their smoked brisket with us, answered our incessant questions and made us feel truly welcome. We loved staying at “Casita Limón” and we’re happy to call these lovely folks our friends now.

At Casita Limón with our lovely hosts Pat & John

At Casita Limón with our lovely hosts Pat & John

The farmers market in Atenas is off the chain. Every Friday morning vendors gather under a massive shelter and sell (out of) everything from pineapples to eggs to baked goods to homemade sausages and cheese. It’s all fresh and all amazing.

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La feria

Yet such bounty can make a body start to feel doughy, and jogging around the soccer field in the morning wasn’t cutting it. Fortunately, the instructors at Atenas Yoga are non-annoying — lovely, even — and the setting sure beats the group class room at 24 Hour Fitness. Andy even joined me once — his first experience doing yoga! — and I suspect he enjoyed it, despite his predilection for calling yoga “hippie stretching.” After one session in English I put on my big-girl yoga pants and attended a couple in Spanish. I still don’t understand everything and peek at my neighbors a lot, but I’m enjoying this more than any yoga I’ve done before. It no longer feels like something I ought to do; I look forward to it.

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Yoga at the Colinas del Sol hotel in Atenas

Speaking of Spanish, another huge draw to Atenas is our Spanish teacher, David. He runs the community-center-of-sorts Su Espacio, which offers dance, karate, fitness and other classes in addition to language learning. David has us focus on conversational Spanish: we just talk, and he pauses when we get stuck on something to explain a word or concept. In just a few weeks he’s helped us both level up in a big way. We want to keep working with him, so we can talk to our Tico neighbors, learn from them, and perhaps start to feel like part of a community.

We’ll see what happens — we make a lot of new decisions every day, and often we go back and forth, and then in a different direction entirely. We didn’t intend to fall for the first place we saw; and we don’t want to be hasty because we’re tired of bopping around. But we could see ourselves in this place, and that’s saying something.

Prep: packing up, learning Spanish, feeling all the feels

Enough folks have asked whether we’ll be blogging about our adventure that we’ve decided to ignore the reality that the internet does not need another blog about white people living abroad. We’ll do our best not to whine too much (wahh, moving to a foreign country is hard!), and use this space to keep friends and family updated, record our memories, and share our experience with others who may be interested in doing something similar.

Please promise you’ll tell us when we start to sound smug, and we will cut that shit. Right. Out.

So, yeah! Andy and the dogs and I are moving to Costa Rica in a couple weeks. (Andy already answered the “Why?” on his blog, so I won’t go into that here.) We’ve spent most of our free time this year gearing up: getting our house rented out, researching, packing up, and learning Spanish.

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Practice-packing the car with a year’s worth of junk. Side note: you might be surprised how many intelligent people think Costa Rica is an island, and ask us how we’re going to drive there.

That last one is the kicker. I took French in school and Andy took German, so between us we had about enough Spanish to order a beer and find the bathroom. After studying a little bit a day for the past several months, I’m still not confident I possess enough Spanish to handle the five border crossings and subsequent residency application process smoothly — that’s my biggest anxiety about the trip. But I do know a heckuva lot more than I did. Here are the tools I’ve been using:

  • DuoLingo: This app makes learning Spanish a game, and holds you accountable with a “shaming notification” delivered each night if you haven’t practiced your Spanish by 10pm. It’s fun, and helpful for getting started.
  • Coffee Break Spanish: I listen to this podcast while walking the dogs and doing dishes. It’s a series of digestible, ~20-minute lessons from a Spanish professor (who happens to be Scottish). I appreciate his detailed explanations for why things work the way they work, and I love me a Scottish accent.
  • Drive Time Spanish: I listen to these CDs in the car. It’s sporadic because I don’t have a commute, but I manage to absorb a little something while I’m out running errands.
  • Verbling: In my last-minute panic about sucking at Spanish, I signed up for these one-on-one online video lessons with a real Spanish teacher. I wish I had started them much sooner. There’s no substitute for having real conversations with native speakers.

We also have the Rosetta Stone program, but I never got into it because I already have my computer open all day for work, and often the last thing I want to do is stare at the screen any longer.

We knew our last month in Austin would be crunchtime. But it’s more of a crunch than we predicted, because I’m horrible: a couple months ago when sweet Andy tried to convince me we needed to start on the Costa Rica residency stuff now, I stuck my head in the sand and argued we should focus on leaving, and we’ll worry about that crap when we get there. Well, he was right. (Hear that, Andy? YOU WERE RIGHT.) Turns out we do need to get fingerprinted at the local police station so that we can get letters saying we’re good citizens, among other tasks we could have handled earlier had I not been sticking my fingers in my ears and singing LA-LA-LA.

Andy has also learned his lesson about sending me to REI to buy camp stove fuel, because I will walk out with two new Patagonia dresses.

Here’s the part where I ignore my pledge not to whine: I’m stressed the eff out. Penny-dog has ringworm (because it’s a super great time for her to be contracting spreadable illnesses!), and a bad attitude when strangers (such as border agents) approach the car. Some mornings I wake with a sense of dread that this is all a terrible idea. Andy and I haven’t spent a whole day off together since our honeymoon. All our energy is being funneled toward this thing, and we have no idea how it’s going to go, or if they’ll even let us into the country, but they’d better let us in, because our house is rented out for a year.

But: Eyes on the prize, right? Soon we’ll most likely forget the hassle of planning our adventure, because we’ll be too busy adventuring. And it’s not an adventure if sometimes you wish you weren’t having it.