Blog moved, redirecting to in 2 seconds!

April 02, 2009

Random Thoughts from Colombia

- I am getting used to standing up when a powerful person enters a room. It is a pretty cool feeling for 20 people to be sitting around a large conference room, making small talk, and then for The Guy to enter, everyone stands at attention immediately, and he shakes each person's hand.

- The drivers we've had open the door to talk to someone on the sidewalk, not the window. They never open the window. I think the windows are like permanently locked for security reasons.

- Airport security in Colombia and most third world countries is less a security process and more a "Welcome to the gate!" process. I take nothing out of my bag, I don't remove my shoes, I walk through, they do a half second of metal-dector-to-my-body, and grab my bags and walk on.

- 1 in 5 women under 20 in Colombia have been pregnant. Many of these women want to be pregnant, according to surveys. Colombia has six times the pregnancies as Venezuela. Lack of education and Catholic church influence affects this number in a big way.

- There are 3x as many words in English than Spanish and this discrepancy is only growing. Most new tech or medical words (like "internet" or "email") are in English with no Spanish translation.

- Colombians are remarkably optimistic. They've been this way for years - even when violence was high. One person told me a low point in morale for Colombians is still higher than high points of most other countries.

- Uribe is the counterweight to Chavez in the region. Lulu (Brazil) likes to play nice to everyone, he's not standing up to Chavez.

- The weather report for Colombia has thunderstorms like every day. The same was true in Ecuador. Yet, such rain rarely materializes in either country. Bottom line: don't trust weather reports for Colombia and Ecuador, especially when they have rain for 20 days in a row.

- The Apple Store in Bogota is called an "iStore".

Bogota Day 2

We then had lunch with Frank Pearl who helps ex-guerilla members leave the shadow world and re-integrate into Colombian society. The government has essentially bought out more than 30,000 paramilitary guys over the past several years. They still have to serve justice, but their sentence gets reduced, and they receive job training and other assistance. Pearl has the very difficult job of balancing peace and justice: by demobilizing guerillas you further the peace process, but by shortening sentences or otherwise offering carrots to criminals, you are hurting the justice process for victims. Imagine if you were the mother of a son who was murdered by a FARC guerilla; how would you feel if the guerilla turned himself in and then received a light sentence and government aid to re-integrate into society?

Our last meeting of the trip was with the Minister of Defense (Secretary of Defense). Yet another extremely high level meeting with one of the most important power brokers in the country. The Minister started by showing a brief video about "ecoside" - drawing the connection between drug trafficking and environmental destruction. Colombia is one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet...and the drug cartels / cocoa growers are demolishing thousands of acres of forest and plants and wildlife. I had not yet heard the environmental mandate to root out the drug lords, but it makes sense. It introduced a new source of guilt on American drug consumers: "The next time you snort a line of cocaine at an American party, think of the rainforest that got destroyed to make that possible. Think about the carbon footprint of drug users."

U.S. aid to Plan Colombia only funds 5% of the effort but it's a high quality 5% in terms of intelligence and resources. Still, people overestimate U.S. aid on that effort.

Bottom line with the defense minister: this past year has been one of incredible achievements for Colombian security forces. They've captured key guerrilla leaders, eliminated more huge swaths of cocoa fields, rescued captured hostages, and continued to restore confidence in the people that they will be safe.

Bogotá Meetings Day 1

After a few days in Medellín, our group flew to Bogotá -- the nation's capital -- to meet more government and business leaders.

We enjoyed police escort our entire time in Bogota; we stayed in a fancy hotel; we ate at fancy restaurants; and our meetings took place in the type of buildings that require an index finger scan before entering. So I can't say we saw "real life" Bogota -- but from our admittedly high-end vantage point I would still say that the city seems cosmopolitan, wealthy, fast-paced, and everything that a capital city ought to be.

We spent most of the afternoon with four communications strategists / political consultants who all served at one point or another in the Colombian government. They rattled off a bunch of stats and points:

  • The physical size of Colombia is France, Spain, and Portugal put together!
  • When Uribe came to power, the country needed a fireman. That's what Uribe was: someone who could put out fires.
  • 80% of the world's kidnappings in the 1990s were in Colombia. That number has fallen drastically.
  • Uribe first term was different than Uribe second term, and if he gets a third term he will be different still.
  • If the country can amend the constitution this time for Uribe, why couldn't an evil person do it in the future? What kind of precedent does it set?
  • The U.S. embargo with Cuba was designed to bring down Castro. It hasn't. It's failed.
  • In one election Paleo Escabar killed four of seven presidential candidates.
  • 80% of Colombians support a third Uribe term. What's the difference between democracy and populism?
  • "There's war, and we have a good general, why change generals in the middle of war?" - Uribe position

In the evening we met with former Colombian president Cesar Gaviria. Gaviria doesn't support Uribe as a current president nor does he support a third Uribe term. He thinks that the security situation in Colombia under Uribe is better, but the narco-trafficking hasn't changed much. He thinks there are still corruption issues. Like so many of the guys we met, Gavriria speaks passionately about security issues in Colombia with first-hand experience: several of his family members have been killed by guerillas or paramilitary groups.

The next day in Bogota, we met the head of the national police force. There are no local police departments -- only one national police. Imagine the FBI doing local and national law enforcement.

The policy academy is a university -- it issues bachelors degrees. All the police officers, then, are well educated and motivated.

He said that the police force will never be able to pay officers what the drug cartels can. So stopping corruption within the force is not just a matter of higher salaries; it's a matter of values, leadership, etc.

He noted that the consumption and production line when it comes to the drug trade is blurring: used to be U.S. consumed, Colombia produced. Now U.S. is producing some drugs (meth etc) and Colombia has growing consumption population.

March 30, 2009

Native English Speakers Don't Say "Clever" Much

Always interesting to hear and analyze how non-natives speak the English language. What's difficult? What do they mess up?

One random observation: the word "clever." Most fluent English speakers I know don't use the word "clever" very often, certainly not as a catch-all compliment for intelligence or savviness. If anything, "clever" can have a slightly negative connotation -- like sneaky. Yet many folks in Latin America use "clever" very often and in broad contexts.

Second random observation: "this" and "that." Neither is technically grammatically better than the other, but you can hear it when it doesn't sound right.

Horseback Riding in the Countryside

On Sunday the group went horseback riding for about an hour outside Medellín. We had a fantastic time.

There were about 20 of us on horses and about 15 police officers on horses as well, acting as our guides and escorts. One of the guides' horses was the "DJ" - two stereo speakers playing traditional cowboy Spanish music draped over each side of the horse.

The countryside was beautiful -- lush green hills, lots of vegetation, trees, trails, etc.


My horse got tired as the journey went on as he became gradually less responsive to my kicks which are supposed to jumpstart him. Or maybe he just realized his "driver" was a real amateur and that he could follow his own pace!

One of the most impressive aspects of the horses were how they always picked the best path to take on difficult, rocky downhills. That is, they would instinctively bob and weave on the path to avoid the sharpest rocks or least steady ground. Also, my horse had a penchant for grass, and stopped a few times to munch on grass on the side of the trail. Just like with walking dogs, the horse will eat grass forever unless you pull him away.

Hosreback2 All in all, a wonderfully authentic experience. Horseback riding is a traditional weekend activity in many countries in South America. I'll post pictures next week.

March 29, 2009

Colombia: Uribe, Clinton, Barrett, Reid, and Others

The Inter-American Development Bank is celebrating its 50th anniversary in Medellín so we've been able to piggyback on those festivities to meet some amazing people.

Our first meeting was with the former prime minister of Jamaica, James Patterson. He opened by expressing his "sincere disappointment" that no one from the Caribbean was represented in our group of 20. He then discussed the state of Jamaica, the drug trade, and his country's precarious financial situation. Anti-American sentiment shimmered throughout.

At lunch we heard from the former mayor of Medellin, Sergio Fajardo, who's now launching a presidential bid. A mathematician and university professor by training, he got involved in politics by giving voice to the everyday people on the street. He mentioned several times that he's "walking around the country" meeting with everyday people, hearing their concerns, etc. A grassroots effort. He's deservedly proud of Medellín's turnaround from drug haven 20 years ago to a very safe, beautiful city today. Whether this record will be enough to win a nation-wide presidency remains to be seen; if Uribe successfully amends the constitution and runs for a third term, it's Uribe all the way (he has 60% approval rating). If Uribe is out, Fajardo has a good chance.

Next we chatted with Craig Barret, chairman of the board at Intel, former CEO there, longtime employee. He began his remarks by saying "We old people have screwed the world up -- it's up to you to solve the problems we created." Unfortunately he didn't specify what problems, exactly. Most interesting tidbit: 75% of Intel revenue comes from outside the U.S. and all future growth will come from emerging markets.

Next was Michael Reid, Americas editor of The Economist, and author of The Forgotten Continent which I read and posted my notes. Reid was impressive. He's spent 20+ years in the region and knows it inside and out. He wrote the editorial in the Economist calling for drug legalization. The political will to legalize drugs will only come when there's universal understanding that the War on Drugs has been a failure. Reid also said it would be a "terrible mistake" for Uribe to amend the constitution and run for a third term.

The following day started with Agustín Carstens, Treasury Secretary for Mexico. Very smart dude. He said it'd be nice for Mexico's economy to be less dependent on U.S., and for Mexican companies to have a more diversified customer base. But practically speaking, companies are going to continue to try to penetrate the world's largest economy next door. As long as the Mexican-US trade relationship remains tight, Mexico's economy will mirror America's. He also said he expects more Americans to immigrate TO Mexico, as 10-15 million Americans retire in the next decade. Another fun fact: 50% of the fresh produce eaten in the U.S. in a six month period is grown in Mexico.

Our next meeting was with Robert Merton, Nobel prize winning economist at Harvard. He famously co-founded Long Term Capital Management, the disastrous hedge fund in the 1990's that used complex statistical models to make trades. Merton struck me as an arrogant prick. His remarks were all over the place, and his overconfidence was shocking given the state of the global financial system.

Our meeting with Bill Clinton got cancelled but we were able to catch the end of his talk to the larger group. He had some very gracious things to say about Colombia's stunning progress on the security front. He closed by saying Colombia should not give up on its neighbors -- that it should talk to countries that disagree with them. This meant Venezuela, for sure, and maybe Ecuador too?

The day ended with the big meeting: President Uribe of Colombia. It was my first time meeting a head of state. He was impressive and thoughtful. We got to ask questions. We asked about his move to amend the constitution to allow for a third term and asked his reaction for observers who say such a move would weaken the "institutions" of Colombia. He pushed back and asked what specific institutions would weaken. He noted that Margaret Thatcher in England was in office for 14 years (or so). He said the security work in Colombia is not yet done. Most of all, he said he just wants to respond to the people's will. If they want him for another term, he should have another term. On drugs he said the "US is not spending too much on it." Ie, they're spending the right amount, not too little.

March 28, 2009

Length of Meals in Latin America

Meals go on forever in Colombia. Each lunch and dinner has taken about two hours. Today, for example, we had a two hour breakfast, 2.5 hour lunch, and will have about a two hour dinner. That's about seven hours of sitting in a restaurant for the day!

So much in this part of the world happens over food and drink.

Whereas in France and Spain and Europe in general I got frustrated with how long everything took (for waiters to arrive, food to come, etc) so far in Colombia I've enjoyed the leisurely pace.

I suppose if you're eating at super nice restaurants with a large group of interesting people, a 3.5 hour dinner feels better than if you're a solo backpacker on-the-go. :)

March 25, 2009

Colombia, Day 1

I've blogged about the annoyances of taxi drivers who hound you moments after stepping out of a third world airport. It creates a terrible first impression for visitors.

Imagine the sense of relief I felt, then, when I stepped outside of the airport in Medellín, Colombia this evening, prepared to not look any of the drivers in the eye (what I learned in Dalian, China is that if you give a driver eye contact he won't let you go), ready for an onslaught of "Taxi! Taxi!".... and instead encountered a pleasant, quiet, area with taxi drivers patiently waiting for customers.

I love this city already!

When I arrived at my hotel the check-in process required my limited Spanish and the desk agent's limited English.

I gave him my American passport for the check-in. He studies it, opens it, looks at it. He asks me where I'm from. I say USA. His eyes widen with surprise, "Oh ok, USA."

I get my room key and ask if the restaurant is still open. He says no but he can order food from a local restaurant and have it brought up to my room. I say ok. He asks what I want. I ask if there's a menu. He says no. Silence. I'm not sure what to say - my food vocabularly in Spanish was escaping me. He asks if I like meat, I say yes, and he nods and says he'll take care of it.

30 mins later the desk agent and the restaurant dude show up at my room with two plates of thin steak and fries. It reminded me of the type of steak that's served as "casado" in Costa Rica.

He tells me I need to pay in pesos. I don't have pesos. Only credit card and dollars. Shit. I go online and check the currency conversion - 15,500 pesos into U.S. dollars. They stand there waiting for me and talking in Spanish as I figure out how much to give in dollars.

The whole meal comes out to US $6. I feel a little guilty at how cheap it is. I give the agent a $20 bill and say, "Give me back $11 and give the rest to the restaurant." They trust my conversion numbers. I get change back in pesos.

Tomorrow, I must go to an ATM and get the local currency. In the meantime, I feel lucky that the U.S. dollar still has street cred. :)

Mexico City Traffic

I've been to Mexico City two times. Both times the traffic has been insane. Remarkably, all the locals I spoke to always attributed bad traffic to "rush hour" -- but personal experience indicates that rush hour is all day long.

Everyone I spoke to agreed traffic is a problem, but they all felt it was only a problem at certain times of the day.

Bottom line is 20+ million people in one city (largest in the world) is going to create massive transit challenges.

July 13, 2008

Taxi Hounds at Third World Airports

Here's a little thing third world countries could do which would vastly improve the travel experience for foreigners: create a formal taxi line and enforce it.

In every poor country I've been to the airport scene is always the same. You land, go through customs, and then take one step outside and are hounded by taxi drivers. Some legal, some illegal, all shouting "taxi! taxi! taxi!".

The most frustrating experience I've had was in Dalian, China. There the illegal taxis swarm and won't leave you. I had to physically push one guy away and he nonetheless kept following my every step trying to get me to hire him.
In Liberia, Costa Rica, you step out of the airport and before you know it you're inundated by "taxi! taxi!". When I waited to pick Laura up at the airport, I watched dozens of passengers exit the airport. Each time, without exception, they walk out with a smile on their face, and within seconds, at seeing the mob scene of taxi drivers, their smile turns to deer-in-headlights or general fear / nervousness.

Why would you want that to be the first impression visitors have of your country?

Ziplining Through a Forest Canopy

Monteverde is the most popular place to zip line in Costa Rica, but you can just as easily do it in Arenal. There's a forest canopy with 12 different platforms built around a tree. For about 15 - 60 seconds you zip along the line to the next platform. It's very cool and fun and any jitters quickly dissipate after the first run. Here's a money pic of me on the line:

Pictures of Hike Thru Rincon de la Vieja

I blogged about my hike through Rincon de la Vieja (part 1 and part 2). Below are some photos:
Cimg3211 P6290055 P6300059 P6300070

La Fortuna - Arenal: The Lake

The Arenal Volcano and the surrounding activities (rafting, hiking, ziplining, hot springs-ing) are tier 1 tourist destinations in Costa Rica, along with the Monteverde Cloud Forest, the Pacific Coast beaches, Manuel Antonio, and Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean side.

P7050021 Arenal is an active volcano (last erupted in 2000) and as such you can't walk up and around it (like Stan and I did in Rincon de Vieja). But, it's more stunning to look at from afar -- a perfect cone, with visible "scars" on the upward steep towards the peak, which I assume resulted from lava flows.

La Fortuna is the town at the base of Arenal and is very touristy but contains a wide mix of restaurants and activities. You have to hunt for the local prices (look for where the locals are eating!) but it's possible.

Our first full day in Arenal my new traveling companion Laura and I took a taxi to the lake area adjacent the volcano. We were told there was a good hike up and around the lake. The taxi driver dropped us off at the beginning of a path. It was a wide, well marked road/path. Easy walking surrounded by endless green -- trees, brush, nature, etc. After about an hour of walking we realized we were walking away from the lake and there was no turn off or fork in the road that would suggest we missed an exit. We nevertheless kept walking, stopped to rest at a river for a bit, then continued on, following signs for a restaurant about 2km ahead of us. The uphill was a bit tiring but as we ascended a more mountainous part the view of the volcano and lake behind us (so much for walking around the lake) grew only more spectacular.

P7050016 By the time we reached the restaurant on a small mountain, the view of the volcano and lake was the best we've had the whole trip. We grabbed a table by the window and ate lunch with a one-of-a-kind backdrop. After lunch we sat in the lounge chairs smartly assembled facing the volcano and forest and lake. A terrific sight.

As usual here in Costa Rican green season, the threat of rain was omnipresent. Dark clouds started hovering. We had no car, there were no taxis where we were, and to hike back the way we came would take a couple hours. We would surely get soaked. We decided to start walking about at around 2pm and hope to hitchhike back to town.

P7040011 The moment we got back on the road trail it started pouring. 10 seconds later a car passed us, we looked longingly (but did not actively hitchhike). The car pulled off the side, a Canadian man popped his head out, looked back, and asked if we wanted a ride. Before we knew it we were in their car, driving toward La Fortuna, and torrential rain beat down over our protected heads.

July 12, 2008

Lost in Translation Moments

Interestingly, my few lost in translation moments in CR didn't happen in Spanish, but in English.

"Do you like the food in Costa Rica?" I asked a Dutch couple in English. The wife responds, "Oh yes, it's a beautiful country, there's so much diversity."

At the front desk of a hotel, the woman describes what's in the national park.
She says:
"There is the flamadore."
"Are those birds?" I respond.
"Yes, we have birds in there too."
"No - the flamadore. Is that an animal?"
"Yes, there are animals too. Very beautiful."

School Goes on Vacation...

If the school teacher needs to make more money doing another job. That's how it works in a school near Playa Samara, in Costa Rica. Sometimes the teacher declares random days vacation days, so she can go work and make more money doing something else.

Price of Tour Depends on Where You Buy It

La Fortuna is a tourist town with every street home to a travel agency trying to sell various tours -- rafting, hiking, hot springs, etc. What's remarkable is the variance of quoted price for a given activity. Everyone marks up the base price differently.

Our lesson from Fortuna is buy tours through hostels (such as Gringo Pete's in La Fortuna), NOT from nicer hotels or even random street corners, as their commissions tend to be much higher. The difference in price is sometimes $30-$40 or more, for the exact same tour or service.

Arenal Day 2: White Water Rafting

(incomplete post)

On day two in Arenal / La Fortuna Laura and I went white water rafting for most of the day on the Rio de Toro Class III and IV rapids. We had both rafted before and enjoy it, so we were looking forward to taking on Costa Rica's rapids. Our day started at 8:30am with an hour van ride to the river.

All 30 of us who were rafting that day with this company then gathered around a rotund Costa Rican with an unwieldy beard who reviewed safety precautions.

10 minutes later five of us were in our own raft, each armed with one paddle, and a guide in the back who yelled out directions like "paddle forward," "paddle backward," "get down," etc.

The nature that lines either side of the river makes rafting in Costa Rica different from the States. Lush forest and weird-sounding birds and other assorted animals. At the halfway point, the guide got out, took a knife, went into the forest, cut off some pineapples, and gave us some pineapple pieces to eat as a snack. Where else other than Latin America?


The other rafters were a motley crew. A PhD candidate in geophysics from the University of Montana; an evangelical Christian; some weak-rafting Portuguese; a deaf kid (who had to have someone translate the commands into sign language, glad I wasn't in her boat).

After two hours on the generally manageable rapids (I fell out once) we were driven back to a delicious lunch spot with all the other rafters. Rice and beans, chips, some salad stuff.

July 03, 2008

Rincon de Vieja - Part 2 - The Hike

In Rincon de Vieja National Park, there are a couple volcanos. To reach the craters, it's advertised as a seven hour roundtrip hike from the entrance of the park and you have to sign a waiver before doing it releasing the national park and Costa Rica of any liability. Stan and I thought we could do it quicker. We're both fit and Stan is an experienced mountain climber in Colorado.

We set off at around 9:30 AM and began the trek. The first hour and a half was an uphill but pleasant hike through some forest / jungle. Lots of trees and shrubs around us and a canopy overhead blocking the sun. We stopped a few times to get water, but overall, it wasn't too hard. We saw only two other people in this section of the hike -- they were older but determined to continue on, it seemed.

After we emerged from the canopy section, out in the open air, we stared up at the crater and were startled with how far away it was and moreover, how steep the trail seemed to the top. We walked on and up through, still feeling pretty good and confident with our pace.

We eventually reached a sign that had two arrows and messages: one pointed to the "difficult" path and said "Use caution" and the other pointed to the "easy" path. We couldn't decide which one to follow, we flipped a coin, and it landed on the easy path. We set off in that direction and within a couple minutes had to decend a steep, poorly constructed path downhill toward a river. We were amazed this was labeled the less difficult of the two paths -- even this brief downhill section was muddy and challenging and it's hard to see people with big bags or wobbly legs doing it.

At the bottom of the hill we had to cross a river and then came upon a wall of solid dirt and rock with a rope hanging down. WTF? Would we have to use the rope to ascend this wall like a rock climbing wall? It appeared so, and we hauled ourself up. By this point we were stunned at how difficult the going had become. And it had just started.

For the next 40 minutes we gained elevation very quickly as the trail became a stairmaster with muddy footholes and narrow lanes winding through shrubs. No crossbacks, no zig zags, no flat land. Just straight uphill. Exhausting. Very very exhausting. The farther up we got we had to stop every couple minutes to catch our breath.

We felt some raindrops and this added to the stress. The day prior we had been rained on, hard, and we didn't want to have a situation where it started raining Costa Rica-style and we were left on the side of a mountain with the paths would quickly disintegrate into a mudslide.

As we climbed and climbed I think stopping and turning back crossed our minds. There wasn't another soul on the mountain and the prospect of rain was scary -- not only for our clothes / comfort but for the safety of being able to come back down.

We ended up making it up the steep hill, barely, and the worst was over. We still had to hike up to the peak of the mountain and then walk around the edge, but the uphill was largley over. My quads were shaking.

The top of the crater was like nothing I've ever seen. Deserted. Moon-like. Rocks and nothing else. Then some green leaves here and there. We walked along the narrow path at the very top of the crater and finally reached active volcano. A sign said we couldn't stay for more than 15 minutes b/c toxic gases emitting out of the steamy crater are dangerous. We checked it out, turned back, and found a wind-secluded area where we could have a bag lunch.

Truly one of the more exhausting, crazy, but worthwhile physical experiences I've had!

Rincon de Vieja Nat'l Park - Part 1

Rincon de Vieja National Park is not at the top of the tourist list in Costa Rica. But it's still worth visiting for anyone in the country for more than a couple weeks. Only 45 mins northeast of Liberia airport, it's easily accessible.

My friend Stan and I spent our first day in the national park hiking the shorter, two-hour path. It was mainly forest / jungle so lots of beautiful tree sights, a mini-volcano / hot spring thing, and a mini-waterfall. About an hour and a half into our hike, it started raining. Pouring. Pouring harder than either of us have experienced. We turned around and started backtracking out of the park.

I had an umbrella, Stan had a jacket, but neither was effective for the torrential rains. We hitched a ride back to our hotel with a Dutch couple (we had walked the 4 kilometers to the park) who we also had dinner with later that night.

The next day we walked to the waterfall near our hotel and swam / stood in the little pool area the waterfall created. Obviously, the nature around the waterfall was stunning -- green and attractive and large, angled rocks. When our conversation started treading on "how to improve Twitter's UI" we had to bring ourselves back to nature. :)

That night, in a heroic attempt, we tried to walk to a neighboring lodge in the national park area to have dinner. The closest hotel was 3.5 kilometers away -- most people drive or pay the $5 roundtrip fare for a hotel van to take you. We were feeling adventurous, so we set out at night. We got lost, confused, scared (of some attack dogs at one house we passed, the sole house in the deserted park area), etc etc. Even though we had seen the sign for the other lodge during the day, by night, Stan's little headlamp couldn't illuminate stuff enough for us to find our way. So we turned around and began the long, 3.5 km walk back to the hotel. Exhausting.

At dinner, we bumped into yet another Dutch couple, who we chatted with. They wanted someone to talk to, and importantly, start complaining to! They ragged on the hospitality impulse in Costa Rica restaurants, which was pretty funny to listen to. ("The service here is non-existent, it's a spectacle, it's ridiculous.") It was true that waiting tables doesn't seem to be a skill at the staff at this hotel or other restaurants. With the waiter standing in front of us, Stan even told me, "Maybe I'll get the same thing as you, so they don't screw up our orders." (The prior night they had brought all of us the wrong dish, forcing the Dutch guy to demand to re-see the menu and compare plates to orders.)

All in all, our first couple days in Rincon de Vieja were fun, filled with nature, rain, and one too-long night walk. Little did we know our real physical challenge would come the next day....

July 01, 2008

Why Costa Rican Weather (During Rainy Season) Feels like a War Zone

I'm sitting at a restaurant in Costa Rica looking out over a ledge into the dark sky. Every 30 seconds the sky lights up and flashes a couple times -- lightening. Soon, there will be thunder. The thunder will be loud. Louder than anything in the States. The thunder will last for a few hours.

Then rain will come, and in the rain the monkeys and other animals will make weird sounds.

The sky lighting up is like bombs exploding in the neighboring city; the thunder is the sound of bombs; the animal noises sound like surface to air missiles.

(Note: Costa Rica is a very safe and peaceful country. :) )

June 29, 2008

"Those Sound Like Surface-to-Air Missiles"

My traveling companion made this comment after hearing howler monkeys scream after the crazy-loud thunder roared in Rincon de Vieja Park. The thunder here in Costa Rica is unbelievably loud -- like bombs exploding.

June 26, 2008

Moments Thus Far That Have Stuck w/ Me

Some memorable moments so far:

  • Lathering my feet and legs in bug spray (97% DEET!) before going to bed, to prevent being ravaged by the endless bugs here.
  • The grandmother at my hostfamily addressing me, "Muchacho" and handing me some clean clothes. It was sweet.
  • Grandmother asks, "Le gusta chilli?" I hear "chilli" and think of the American dish (beans, means, tomatoes, mixed together, tasty). Apparently chilli in Spanish means "spicy" / peppers, which I hate. She gives me peppers to put on my food; since I said I "love" chilli I oblige and put a bit on the side of my plate, and move it aside when she's not looking.
  • I tried to tell a girl "her laugh is distinctive" - I think it came out, "your smile is beautiful." Oops.
  • Lying on beach, on beach lounge chair, to the left and right were palm trees, straight up was a big blue sky. iPod in my ears. Then, suddenly, a perfect V formation of birds flies across the sky. Magical. I've never seen anything like it.

Rice and Beans

I've had rice and beans for virtually every bfast / lunch / dinner I've been in Costa Rica so far (in addition to other stuff). It's truly the staple of the cuisine here. Some complain, I don't. I like hearty, square meals, even if they're forgettable.

June 25, 2008

Playa Samara Beach at Sunset

Playa Samara
Originally uploaded by costa rica beaches
Click the pic to enlarge...I didn't take it but it's exactly what this place looks like. Pretty damn beautiful.

Travel Doctors are a Scam

I've never been to one, but I now know two people who went to American travel doctors before going to Latin America. Of course they give you every medicine they can think of and tell you to avoid everything and anything once in the region.

A particularly amusing fun fact was the travel doctor a friend visited before coming to Costa Rica had only been abroad once in her life, to London!

My approach is to follow the CDC / State Dept recommendations on malaria, avoid tap water, and be smart about other types of food. Get your shots, etc. But do your own research and take action that will keep you healthy and make you less nervous (sometimes people say you don't need to take malaria medicine in certain places like Guanacaste in Costa Rica -- but I'd rather assuage any nervousness when I get molested by mosquitoes which inevitably happens).

Just don't outsource this process to a "travel doctor"!

Staying with a Family in Rural Costa Rica

On Sunday I moved in with a local family for a week.

I've stayed with families in the past, but this is the first time I'm paying to do so. I pay the school, the school pays the family. For $125 I get six nights of lodging and two meals a day. This means the family is attentive to my needs but it also means the whole thing feels more like an economic transaction than a real cultural experience. The family hosts a student almost every week of the year, so the novelty has long worn off. The two kids haven't asked me a question about anything, and the mother is very kind and sits with me at dinner in case I want to ask her something (in Spanish)...but being open to answer my questions is different than a conversation. All in all, though, even if only viewed through an economic lens, it's still a helluva deal as the meals are hearty and bed comfortable.

Their house basic but livable. This is rural Costa Rica so hot showers, internet, a/c, etc etc rarely are found in homes (and hotels), including mine.

The TV is on all day and night (until they go to bed). They mostly watch cartoons or telenovelas. The kids eat all their meals in front of the TV. I hear this is how it works in most families here -- the dominance of a TV in the house is a sign of being poor, I'm guessing, in any country.

The "neighborhood" is a mix of shacks and small houses, with dirt roads and the occasional paved road (which has potholes). Due to the rain, the roads are almost always flooded and more than once I've had no choice but to walk through muddy puddles which come up to my calves. In the distance I can see the beach and palm trees; it's a beautiful sight.

Kids run around without shoes, socks, or shirts.

Arriving in Playa Samara

Liberia airport is in the Guanacaste region of Costa Rica and has non-stop flights to Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles, and New York throughout the week. Liberia, then, is an alternative for American travelers who don't want to fly into San Jose, Costa Rica's capital, which is regarded as dirty, over-crowded, and dangerous.

I flew into Liberia Friday night and took a taxi to Playa Samara, which is a beach town along the Pacific coast (as opposed to the Caribbean coast). It takes about two hours by car from the airport.

Samara is very much a tourist town. Not only is the beach is beautiful (right out of a postcard), but there's also a successful Spanish language school here called Intercultura which attracts hoards of Americans and Europeans (mostly Swiss, for whatever reason). It's a well run operation and I'm taking one week of Spanish classes (4 hours a day) at the school. The classrooms / school are about 30 yards from the beach.

I'm here during the "wet season" which means it's insanely hot during the day (tropical climate = Ben sweating for like 48 hours straight upon arrival) and usually rains for a few hours in the evening. My second night in Samara it rained so hard that the thunder sounded like bombs exploding right outside the window and an hour later all the power in the town went out. I heard an American ask someone "Does the power go out often here?" and the response was, "No, not so much. Last time it happened was three weeks ago." The natural reaction when there's no power is to light candles in your room. What I learned in the Amazon jungle in Ecuador, however, was that candles attract bugs and other insectorial creatures. So, I shunned candles and went to bed early. Sleep proved elusive because with no power there's no fan and with no fan you die in the heat.

The downside to spending a week in a tourist town is that the restaurants are generally overpriced and there's more English spoken. The upside is there's more infrastructure for tourists (such as laundry service and the like) and the town knows tourism drives the economy, so they don't hassle out-of-towners.

May 31, 2008

The "McWalk" in Prague (and Haifa, Israel)

Massimo and I happened upon what I think should be a more recognized tourist attraction in Prague: the "McWalk" in McDonald's! It's like a drive-thru window; except it's a walk-through open 18 hours a day.Mcwalksmall

According to my research, there are only two McWalk's in the world: one in Prague, and one in Haifa, Israel.
I say this because the Prague Post claims that Prague is home to "the only McDonald's in the known world with a 'McWalk' window." And yet a Google search turned up one other location, in Haifa, see photo below. All other results pointed to Prague.

Kafka Musuem

Well worth visiting in Prague. The pic below is me in a mirror exhibit in the museum. With dark museum and weird mirror effects throughout the whole thing, it really gives you a sense of the depressed mood in Kafka's writing.
Kfafka Mirrors

From Prague Old Town

Two pics from Prague old town. It's a remarkable sight to stand in the old sq and take in the Astronomical Clock (pictured here) and then old facades and colorful buildings which surround the square...

Clock_2 Praguesquare_2

May 26, 2008

In McDonald's in Prague

They charge extra for ketchup.


May 21, 2008

Supporting Mexican Cuisine Abroad

In Zurich I ate at a Mexican restaurant. It's prob one of the few in town. I always try to support Mexican cuisine abroad. Sometimes I have no choice -- the primal urge for Mexican overwhelms any native Californian within a few days.

May 20, 2008

Prague Tourist Items

Are remarkably like those in Russia (Russian hats, dolls, toys). I don't think the Czech Republic has a defining item other than beer!

People Making Out in Public

In Europe, since people live at home with their parents till later in life, there's many more people making out / kissing in public. Ie, they don't want to go back home, so they do it in public.

You Know You've Entered an Italian Family's Home When...

At 11 AM, the mother insists she make you spaghetti, even though you're about to leave for the airport. You decline, so she packs you sandwiches to go. I love Italians.