Sunday, September 20, 2009

My Favorite Movies I've Never Seen

Thanks to a Facebook friend of a Facebook friend, I learned about KFJC 89.7 (in the San Francisco Bay Area) and its Saturday morning soundtrack show. The soundtracks can be instrumental or vocal, from movies, cartoons, television shows and even commercials. The host will play about three or four pieces in a row, and then generally tell what they were after they play. I enjoyed figuring out if I'd even heard each piece before, and then trying to place it, and, in rare instances, I could even name the composer. (Hint: if you listen this way, your default guess should always be Bernard Herrmann.

Although most of the pieces were unknown to me, I knew the first one played almost immediately (before it got to the familiar part with the horns that is very recognizable). So, here's what I said to myself: "That's from The Natural, composed by Randy Newman. Oh, I really like that movie." Then I realized that I've never seen the movie. I love the music, the actors, the costumes, the era that it depicts, the beautiful lighting used in the shots, but I've never seen it. And somehow, I've convinced myself that I have.

Most people have periods in their lives where movies were not a priority, and if you're old enough, there were no VCRs or DVDs to make up for what you missed when you missed it. Mine are the seventies, because I was in my early teens when most of the classics came out, and not allowed to see them, and the mid-eighties because I was raising small children, and the movies were kind of crappy then anyway. So most of my favorite movies I've never seen are from these periods, but not all. Some movies just kind of slip by.

The problem with movies like The Natural is that it's not something I want to turn to because I have nothing else to do. It is a sit down and give all your attention to movie (or I assume it is). So whenever it comes on television, I have to decide if I have a couple of hours to stop everything and watch a movie. And, apparently, that has never happened.

So, here are my reviews for other favorite movies I've never seen: Saving Private Ryan: Spielberg's done it again!; Nashville: Great ensemble; Taxi Driver: the first time I didn't see it, I found it too intense, but now I love it; Modern Times: The satire even holds up today.

I have a different list: Blade Runner, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Die Hard, Reds. These are movies that are liked or loved by many people I know. I haven't seen them, I should, but I haven't convinced myself I've seen them.

One day I hope to actually see my favorite unseen films and make an honest woman of myself. What is your favorite movie you've never seen?

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Back to School Issue

Good news! I just finished a time-sucking part of the quilt I've been working on for well over two years (or not working on, since that's the problem). This summer, I decided I would work on it a bit every day, and what-da-ya-know, it actually worked! Now, I get to move on to a new section, and a less time-consuming stitching pattern.

School's back in session, and since I started out braced for the worst, it isn't so terrible. Eventually, the parents of California will realize that 40 kids in a class is not in anyone's best interest, and decide they're willing to pay more taxes to make things change. Won't they? By the way, we were given $100 for supplies for almost 200 kids a day for 180 days, and that's $100 more than most teachers in the state received.

But in the spirit of school, here are a couple of lessons I learned today:

1. Something I just learned today and wish I could take the lesson back: The cinnamon currant loaf at Acme Bread is delicious--really delicious, and it comes in a size a little too big for one helping but too small to save much for later. I'll try to forget I know this.

2. Something I learned today that has made me giddy with power: My teacher look works on obnoxious adults. When I got out of the San Leandro BART station today, there was a woman in a car with windows rolled down listening to VERY LOUD music. Not that there's an age where it's appropriate, but she was well into her thirties, and should have known better. So, I gave her my teacher look, kind of without thinking. My teacher look involves making eye contact and not letting go of the eye contact, while making your face look completely without emotion. This was learned in a study on primates, and alpha male behavior. Even I was surprised when she turned down the music. Warning: I've had years of practice with the teacher look, and I definitely wouldn't suggest a man try it on another man, since it can be seen as a threat. Remember that as much as creationists would like to ignore it, we are, after all, primates.

3. Something I learned this week that I should have known all along: the entire country has not suddenly awakened from eight horrible years to renewed compassion and common sense. I thought that a sensible and compassionate call for compromise would do the trick on Health Care, but a lot of people seem determined to continue our run as the only industrialized nation to believe that health care is only for those who can afford it.

And why do I think people will soon be willing to pay more taxes for what they want?

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Mad Men, part 2

I saw Revolutionary Road recently. If you aren't sure what movie I'm talking about, I'm not too surprised, since it lasted about five minutes in the theaters. It was released right after Christmas, to a public thinking about the election and the economy--a preoccupied public. I think the people involved in it felt that it would get Academy Award nominations and get noticed then, but it was pretty much ignored. Too bad, because I thought it was an excellent movie.

Mick LaSalle, of the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote a review that captured some of my feelings about the film really well. In his review, he mentions that it is baffling and irritating to hear the film being compared to Mad Men because the former takes place around 1955 and the latter around 1960. In his mind, those 5 years make all the difference. In my mind, those 5 years don't make a big difference. Now, 1960 to 1965...that's five years that would make a difference. To me, Mad Men and Revolutionary Road could easily have taken place at the same time. In fact, on the surface, both have the same themes of unfulfilled people getting the message from everyone around them that they're supposed to be giddily happy with their lives and finding that they aren't. In Revolutionary Road there are no hints of coming changes; in Mad Men, there are some hints (beatniks, interracial dating), but they are few and far between.

So, at the risk of being baffling and irritating, I do feel the two can be compared in an interesting way. Revolutionary Road made me realize that Mad Men is very stylized. The clothing and the furniture and room decor definitely are some of the stars of the show. In fact, people write about these things more than they do about the stories. That's a shame, but it's also a compliment to the people who put the look together. I remember the first show I watched, I was so dazzled by how much it looked like 1960 that it was about 45 minutes in before I realized that it was also a really good show. Revolutionary Road looked like the mid-fifties, but the clothes and decor (except there's this one great dress that Kate Winslet wears) are not the stars. If I walked into a room on Mad Men, I would think I was in a museum display of 1960. If I walked into a room in Revolutionary Road, I would see a combination of styles and years that are more like a real room and less like a collection of museum pieces. If I dressed in any of the clothes from Mad Men or did my hair like one of the characters, people would think I was wearing a very cool costume. If I wore clothing from Revolutionary Road, people would either not notice or think I was kind of doing a retro thing. Don't get me wrong about Revolutionary Road. The set decorations and clothing were probably very carefully chosen. The main characters, who see themselves as different from others, have rooms that contain sleek furniture and some modern art; the other suburbanites have rooms that have furniture that was stylish at the time, but this furniture (think Lucy and Ricky when they moved to the suburbs) is considered out of date now.

What these differences did was cause me to look at my own reaction to the two shows. In Mad Men, the date is an antagonist. As I watch, I think about all that we have available now that could really change characters' lives. If Joan only could go about 18 years in the future, she would be running the company. Sal, a couple of decades later, could express his homosexuality. Betty might not need to go to the psychiatrist who reports everything she says to Don if she realized that a lot of women feel they need to do something besides keeping house. Don't get me wrong. Life is never really easy, but still.

You could watch Revolutionary Road and think time was the antagonist, too, but I didn't. I think that the clothing and sets were purposely chosen to allow us to easily see ourselves in the place of Winslet and DiCaprio. Feeling hopeless and soulless is not restricted to any one time period. Ending up with the wrong person as a life partner is not restricted to any one time period.

Mad Men, part 1

A young woman I know, in her twenties (I’ll call her M) and I are both fans of Mad Men. We both enjoy the attention to period detail, the acting and character development, but M really surprised me when she told me how much she admired the clothing and wished we dressed like that now. She especially likes the look of Joan, the famously curvy secretary

I later mentioned this conversation to two friends, in two separate conversations. Both are in their fifties, like me, with a twenty-something daughter. And both had had the same conversation with their daughters. It went something like this:

What??? Do you realize how restrictive those clothes are?
Yes, but they look nice.
But they kept women from being able to achieve equality.

And there lies the problem. To us, having been children during that era, they aren’t just clothes. To these young women, they aren’t either. In fact, it turns out that what they saw was that a woman who is more full figured could be admired, and that there wasn’t one body type that was considered attractive. To us, these clothes (I’m not talking about the pretty little “Mad Men” dresses that are showing up in the stores now) and their undergarments go hand in hand with a time and place that we never want to return to. So to one generation, they mean strangulation both literally and figuratively, and to another, freedom.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Ho, Ho, Ho!

If you don't keep a blog, you may not realize that we bloggers are able to keep track of what search terms people use that end up sending them to our blogs. I love to find out how people find my blog. One recent search prompted the following conversation:

V: Some poor person was sent to my blog while searching for "middle aged woman back door doggie style movies"
M: What????? Middle aged?
V: I read you that string of words and middle aged woman is the part you comment on?

Among the other strange recent searches:

"Have you seen my tweezers?" and "Trimming pot-bellied pig whiskers." Perhaps those two searchers could get together.

But the most searches by far are from people with Christmas in July questions. When PJ first suggested the name for my blog, we were both thinking of several things, including my July birthday, stories about my family's Christmases and unexpected blessings. I don't think either of us realized that a lot of people like to celebrate Christmas in July. Let what I just said wash over you: people like to celebrate Christmas in July. Don't get me wrong. I love Christmas--the music (well, some of it), the lights, the candles, the food, even the shopping. But it is exhausting and that's why it comes once a year. Anyone can understand why QVC would be observing Christmas in July. I can even understand why Australians would have a celebration during their coldest month of the year. But a Christmas party during Summer in the northern hemisphere?

Anyway, searchers, even if I can't understand what on Earth would ever, ever make you want to have a Christmas in July party, at least I can help you with your search questions. So here goes:

I am having a Christmas in July what should I serve: I have to admit to being honestly intrigued by this search, which is the number one search that I get. So, here you have this event which doesn't actually exist. You can do what you want with it, and yet you want to know what the traditional Christmas in July foods are? They don't exist. I actually have given this thought. You could have a regular Christmas dinner, with roast beef, ham, or whatever. Let's face it: canned cream of mushroom soup and canned green beans are available year round!! However, I like the idea of not doing that, but serving foods with a red and green theme: tomatoes and basil; strawberry ice cream; spinach pizza. Nature has given us a lot of red and green in summer. You might as well take advantage.

Christmas in July with fake snow
: Sure, go ahead. Try this from QVC. But in these tough economic times, I like to rip up paper and dump it on the ground. Kids love it. Just make sure that it is recycled white paper.

Christmas in July wedding: I absolutely love the idea of taking life's two most stressful joyful events and combining them. Just think about the fights you can have. Not just about red vs. green velvet bridesmaid gowns but red vs. green velvet halter top gowns vs. strapless gowns. And, "I know your mother wants my bouquet to have roses and gladioli, but those are summer flowers!" And, "I don't care if Father doesn't want to officiate in a Santa suit. It's MY wedding!"

Is anyone wanna go to Vegas for a Christmas in July?
: Of course I am wanna go to the hottest place in the United States to celebrate Christmas in July. I'm pretty sure that's what God intended when he came up with Christmas in July.

Christmas in July consumer ridiculous
: Yes, so true. Now Christmas in December consumer sensible--that would have been a good search.

Christmas in July Golf Cart
: I'm speechless (or at least the typing equivalent of speechless).

Catchy phrase for Christmas in July
: "It's hot and so are the traditional Brown n Serve rolls."

What else is Christmas in July known as
: July 25th.

Merry Christmas in July to all!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Costa Rica: Home Again

I was going to wait a day or two to write my last entry about the trip, wanting to make the trip last a bit longer in my head, but as I write this, I'm listening to news about California budget cuts to education, and I realize that this news is going to use up all my brain cells over the next few weeks, so I should end my writing about Costa Rica before it fades from memory.

I have already spent a lot of time writing about how much I dislike the "getting there" on vacation, so I won't bother any remaining readers with any major details. I will say that our taxi came just on time and our drivers (a father/son team) couldn't have been nicer. Marin's tip for taking taxis, honed from some bad experiences, is to get a clear idea of the fare before you even get into the car. This actually reduces stress greatly (Marin has had a couple of incidences where the driver stated a fare, but did not say whether he meant dollars or the local currency, only to charge the much greater and ridiculously large amount of the two at the destination). One nice thing about being a traveling American is that many people worldwide are more than happy to receive dollars. I ended up never trading dollars for colones the entire time I was there.

Oddly, it was in our final hours in Costa Rica that a couple of things went wrong for us. I slipped and fell in the shower. Our shower was tiled all around with no handles and no non-slip surfaces. Falls are always scary because you don't at first know how much you might have injured yourself. So, as I fell and hit the floor, here's what went through my head, in order: Oh, this is like how T recently fell in the shower; how is an ambulance going to get down that bumpy road; I don't want anyone to see me naked. It's amazing what can run through your head in one second. When I realized I hadn't broken anything, I was greatly relieved. Other than embarrassment, I only suffered some soreness and bruises.

As we were packing, Marin couldn't find her phone, which was also serving as her camera. We looked everywhere and it was nowhere. As the clock ticked away the minutes before our taxi arrived, the hotel staff was able to contact the driver of the van from our El Silencio tour the night before, and even though the driver had driven several people around after our tour ended, the phone was safely in the van. The hotel staff gave our taxi driver directions to the van driver's house, and the phone/camera was recovered with all of Marin's pictures safely still there.

I loved this trip, but I was ready to go home. I was missing dry California. I was running out of things to wear because everything felt wet, and I was tired of sweating all the time. I don't think I've ever showered so much in my life. I actually felt truly rested and ready to get back to repairing the wall in my living room that I left undone.

I know some people who return to Costa Rica time and time again. Teachers especially, because of our long vacation times, seem to find a place that they feel a longing to return to over and over again. For many people I know, this place is Tahoe. For my friend D, it is Yellowstone. I work with a couple of teachers whose place is Hawaii. My place is probably Alaska, though I've only been there once (it's okay though...the Redwoods of California work, too). I'm not sure I should return to Alaska because I felt such a strong pull when I was there, I was kind of scared. I suddenly understood how people can go away somewhere and not return. Craziness. Costa Rica--I loved the trip, but I don't feel that need to return.

A single trip to Costa Rica made me realize that a whole lot of Americans do go there and feel like they've found the place they want to keep returning to. That would be fine, but I can't stop thinking about the economic and social impacts of this decision on the citizens of Costa Rica. Everywhere I went along the coast, which is a lot of Costa Rica, there were For Sale signs in English. It felt like the whole place was on sale. While, as far as I could see, Costa Ricans live in homes like the one pictured in my previous post or in very small stucco homes, the homes being sold to Americans look like this. Even though Americans are helping the Costa Rican economy when they buy these places (though I would strongly argue that they could help it a lot more by staying at a hotel when they visit), how can this not lead to resentment in the near future? I can imagine how people here in San Leandro would feel if rich foreigners suddenly moved in, but not in the homes that are already here, but instead in a new development with homes much bigger and fancier than ours. And the resentment I'm imagining in Costa Rica isn't just about money. It's about resources. Costa Ricans are justly proud of their low energy use. The entire country's electricity load is handled by more than 90% clean and renewable resources (US electricity load has a long way to go: less than 10% clean and renewable). Huge homes and lots of appliances and air conditioning use a lot of energy. And then there's my observation that a lot of new places were being resold by the owners. That $700,000 dream house you bought two years ago that seemed like a good investment is probably the first thing to go when you realize that you've lost half of your investment money. So our money problems have become Costa Rica's money problems.

I'd like to encourage those who like to return to keep returning, though. The same dollars that I think will lead to resentment are also probably the reason that so many pristine beaches and forests exist there. Without our tourist dollars, people would need to make money in other ways that would no doubt put pressure on these places that tourists love so much. In a world in which thousands of acres of rain forest are destroyed every day, it's great to see a place where it is economically smart to not destroy rain forest.

A few years ago, when I returned from my trip to Alaska, I couldn't stand it for a couple of days. Alaska is really quiet and I had become tuned in to the quiet, even though most of the trip was on a ship--even that was quiet. BART and Amtrak, which run less than a quarter mile from my house were suddenly louder than I could stand. Every airplane, lawnmower and car stereo was more than my ears could handle. It was a sick feeling. I had never felt that way before, and I wondered how I would feel after Costa Rica. It turns out that it was a different experience, but it makes me sad. Costa Rica is noisy. The jungles are full of sounds: running water, birds, monkeys, and mostly cicadas. When walking around, my ears were listening to all of these sounds and especially for rustling leaves, which meant something was causing the rustling. At Arenal, add to all of those sounds an erupting volcano. Several times a day, the volcano would make a rumbling sound, followed by the sound of large rocks rolling down the mountain. You could hear them bumping into each other. The first thing I noticed on my return was that I was hearing BART too much because it sounds a little bit like the volcano rumbling. I also noticed that I heard all kinds of bird sounds, which made me happy because I hadn't noticed them before. But, alas, I was listening to too many sounds and it was overloading my senses, so I'm not hearing the birds anymore. So, this is a less painful return, but I wish I could tune in the birds and tune out everything else.

I guess there is no place like home because I'm glad to be back in this land of the IOU and bad economic news and healthcare fights. And don't even get me started about Michael Jackson.

Costa Rica: Days 5 and 6

I’m putting days 5 and 6 together because they were very, very similar. That’s not a bad thing, since we felt in no hurry to do anything, and we didn’t even have to (get to) choose where to eat because any place but the lodge restaurant would have involved the 5 mile grueling drive down the mountain followed by another approximately 5 miles into town--$40 round trip, not including tip.

It rains a lot here in the middle of Costa Rica, up in the mountains, and unlike closer to the Pacific Ocean, where we could see the clouds coming in and feel the air thicken, there is no warning before it begins. Even the lodge’s “naturalist” can’t tell when it is going to rain, though he pointed out that the howler monkeys know. They do call to each other right before the rain.

On our first morning at this lodge, we took the free tour of the surrounding forest. This forced Marin to, if not overcome, confront her fear of hanging bridges (or at least the heights at which they are hung).

The forest is beautiful, and there’s even a small area of primary forest (this is a big deal because primary forest has never been logged and some animals, like spider monkeys, will only live in primary forest).

Even Costa Rica, which its strong commitment to the environment, doesn’t have much land that hasn’t been logged. Unfortunately, we didn’t see one single animal. But Eduardo, our guide, did tell us the story of the volcano, which was pretty interesting. In this story, you begin to realize how much of the landscape you’re looking at has only been there since 1968. A lot of the hilly land surrounding us was flat farmland until it got covered with tons of lava and ash. The area surrounding the volcano contains patches of primary forest, secondary forest, very new forest, rocky areas with few plants, and flat farmland. The old forest was pretty untouched by the volcanic eruption. Then there’s new forest that has tall plants. That’s where the ash fell, but not the lava. Ash is soft and mineral rich. Plants grew fast and well after the eruption. Where lava has flowed and hardened, some moss is growing, but it will take many years to break up the rock into soil that plants can really use. I found the farmland particularly interesting because it changes the landscape so much. The rainforest is wet and shady and full of animal sounds. The farmland, without the shade of the rainforest plants, is sunny and full of light.

Our lodge was built specifically for Smithsonian scientists (Eduardo says there wasn’t a single volcanologist in Costa Rica prior to 1968) to study the volcano up close out of harm’s way as much as possible. After a day here, you realize that you aren’t really out of harm’s way. For a fairly big lava flow, there’s a river gorge between us and the rim, but for a pyroclastic explosion (the kind that sends huge boulders far away), you can’t be out of harm’s way and be this close. The advantage of the placement of our lodge is that the land is pretty much as it was prior to the volcano, which means old forest. It also means old farms are nearby. On our walks, we walked past a dairy farm. This means there are a handful of cows grazing out in the fields, and from the looks of the milking shed, they are milked by hand. This was very interesting to me to see a small, seemingly sustainable farm. The small farm neighborhood consisted of about four houses that were very, very small and simple. It’s odd to visit a place where you, the tourist, live so differently than the people whose country you are visiting. Anything I can say about this would just be a cliché, but I do believe that I saw enough to understand that we probably would envy things about each other.

Our two full days here involved a lot of walks on our own and two with Eduardo. The second walk was a combination El Silencio walk, which involved not much silencio, and a volcano walk. We were driven to a spot where the lava is still apparent, where Eduardo sat us down and repeated the same stories about the volcanoes from the day before. I’m talking word for word, hand gesture for hand gesture. This tour was far from free. It also became clear that Eduardo was a good local guide but no naturalist. When he saw a bird, he’d pick up his bird guide and look for a picture, just like I would if I had a bird guide. What Eduardo was good at was spotting animals that were pretty well camouflaged by their surroundings. We saw a pair of howler monkeys in a tree and a two toed sloth (the meaner of the sloths). All three of these animals were not deep in the jungle, but were in trees found along the sides of a busy highway.

We also used the lodge pool, which is probably the nicest manmade thing here. It is huge, and very welcoming after a day of walking. Even though the temperatures here in the mountains are very pleasant, it is still humid and sticky.

I’d like to say that we saw a lot more of the volcano, but it was obscured by clouds at least half the time (and by obscured I actually mean rendered completely invisible), and at other times, it wasn’t doing much. However, there were periods where it was throwing out some hot rocks, which we could watch rolling down the side of the mountain and we could definitely hear as well. We never did feel the ground shake, as some visitors do, but I have felt the ground shake plenty in my life, living in California.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Costa Rica: Day 4, continued

So, why did we go to Arenal? The main reason is that Arenal is an active volcano. An actual rumbling spewing out lava volcano. In 1968, no one had any idea it was a volcano, and one day it began shaking and making a rumbling noise, and a few days later, it erupted with enough force to throw large rocks a couple of miles and to cover an entire village and its 80 plus inhabitants under meters of rocks and ash. It still is active and has had a few major eruptions since 1968. Another reason to visit is that, due to the altitude, there is a different ecosystem than the rain forest we had just visited. It’s called a cloud forest. It still has many characteristics of the closer to sea level rain forests, but the plant life reminds me more of some of the redwood forests of California or the Hoh Rain Forest of Washington state.

We arrived at the lodge, which is 9 miles up a steep, rocky, horribly rutted hill. If you’ve ever been on the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland, where for about 30 seconds, you jeep throws you up and down, left and right, that’s what the ride up the hill is like, except it’s not 30 seconds. I felt as if my breasts were going to bounce out the window and go bouncing down the road. The lodge does not do any transportation of its own, but going down the hill for any reason and then back up again will cost $40 in a local taxi. This did not seem at all exorbitant after experiencing the road and realizing the wear and tear it must have on shocks, tires, and brakes. But it did make me realize that we were probably going to be at the lodge for all three nights without going anywhere else. Forty dollars is too much to spend for a casual shopping trip into town. I thought to myself that this lodge had better be really, really nice.

We checked in with a not very friendly receptionist. No one offered to show us to our room or to take a bag. (See, I did get used to great service after all). It was raining harder than I’ve ever experienced in my life. We rushed to our room, opened the door, and found a bed facing a large window, a small table (like a coffee table), another small table with a fan on top, a closet without doors, and a sink. The ancient mattress on the bed had no box springs. Behind a door, there was a bathroom that looked like it had had many repairs.

A message was posted on the front door to us “urbanites” to not get freaked out when “country guests” show up in our room. By that, they said they meant spiders and ants, but as we learned, it also meant lizards.

Marin wasn’t so bothered by the lack of television. She’s become accustomed to that while living in Russia. We were both bothered by the realization that we were out of luck as far as the internet was concerned. And then Marin pointed out that we couldn’t even see the volcano—the entire reason I got this room was the volcano view. On top of that, I was reading a book, The Master and Margarita, that I wasn’t liking too much. But there really was nothing to do but read. It was raining too hard to even attempt to look at the hotel grounds.

Then, the power went out, too. We heard a generator turn on, and about ten minutes later, the power was restored. The power went out a lot during our visit here.

The book I was reading was one of Marin’s favorite all time books, and that’s saying a lot. She was very amused at my not liking it because I had told her that the title had made me think that it was going to be about a rich guy and a servant falling in love or something like that. She said, “Do you even know me? That is never the kind of novel that would be a favorite of mine.” Since she was not liking the book she was reading much, she decided that she would write the story that I had expected The Master and Margarita to be, which she is letting me put here. She put her misery into creativity, and I decided that if I think of this as camping, we have a very, very nice tent, and I can live with that. Also, forced to read my book, I found that I got to a point where I couldn’t put it down, which unfortunately led to the realization that I hadn’t brought enough to read.

Around nine, we decided to call it a night and fell asleep. Sometime in the night, the rain stopped. I woke up, looked out our window, and saw the volcano very close by with red lava spurting out of the top and flowing down the sides. It turns out that we did have a view, but it was so obscured by the clouds that we couldn’t even see the mile or so to the rim of the crater. It was stunning.

Costa Rica: Day 4 Part 1

Today was a traveling day, so it will not be so filled with the joys of vacation.

It’s been a very long time since I’ve been on a vacation and didn’t want to leave a place, but I really didn’t want to leave the Gaia Hotel. I awoke extra early because we had to check out, be driven to a bus stop and catch our bus to Arenal, but I found that I had a little time, so I went back to the pool to see if the monkeys were there. Even though 6:30 is too early for squirrel monkeys, I was rewarded with the sight of many colorful birds (which must disappear when the monkeys show up) and the sound of the Howler Monkeys. They were far away, but their throaty roar can be heard for very long distances.

We were quickly thrown into the real world. The hotel van dropped us at the bus stop (which was just another hotel) in Quepos, the nearest “city.” We were left standing outside by a casino and an adult entertainment place. Luckily, we weren’t there for long. Our friendly bus driver came right on time and told me that our ride would be about three and a half hours. I was happy because that was a half hour less than the website said the trip would take.

I don’t think I’ve mentioned yet about how few women we’ve seen in Costa Rica (other than tourists, I mean). At our first hotel, there was a room maid and that was it. The receptionists, drivers and waiters were all men. At our second one, even the room cleaners were men. At Manuel Antonio, all men. I did see women. They would be at the sides of roads waiting for a bus with a child in their arms, or they would be working at some of the less fancy restaurants in town. Marin, who had visited Egypt recently, was no stranger to this observation.

I found the bus trip a little scary. Almost all roads are just two lane roads, so our driver did a lot of passing and, a few times, I was sure we were going to have a head-on collision. I would have worn my seatbelt, but it was broken.

After three and a half hours of travel, we pulled into a stop that seemed to have about 7 or 8 other Grayline buses just like ours. We were told we had 30 minutes, and I wondered why we weren’t at Arenal. The thirty minute place had one tourist shop with very tacky tourist wares and two little restaurants without posted prices. There were some red macaws to look at, but it was a long 30 minutes. I noticed that premade signs, like Open House signs you might see at a corner, started going up next to the buses and that our luggage was being removed. Our driver found us and told us that we were going to now transfer to another bus. He introduced me to the new driver and the new driver said that the trip would take about two and a half hours. Ahhh! This is so different than what the company website said. But of course, we are in the middle of nowhere, and all I could think was that I was going to find another way back to the airport in a few days.

Our new bus took off and the terrain got interesting as we got away from the ocean and started climbing to a higher elevation. It started to look like California, but greener. There’d be fields of grass with cattle grazing (Marin called them goat cows because they have long floppy ears) and an occasional tree that looked exactly like an oak tree.

As we climbed, the roads got worse and the rain started pouring down, and pouring and pouring. There were only two other people on the bus and they were going to a placed called Arenal Springs Resort. The bus dropped them off at the front door, which meant we had to climb up a very steep part dirt road in the rain. It was unnerving. And Marin said to me what I was thinking already: “If they won’t do drop-offs at our hotel, what is the road to there going to be like?”

Our driver got a bit lazy at that point, and tried to talk us into transferring to a cab that would take us to the Arenal Observatory Lodge. He might have been trying to help, but the cab’s proposed fare of $25 to take us down the road a bit was too high, so I told the driver we wanted to be dropped off in town, as we had already said. So, back down the steep hill we went, and into the town of La Fortuna. La Fortuna is a touristy little town that is set up mostly for people who come to see the volcano. Most of the shops are restaurants or places selling tours. But it did have a little central park and a church, so we were able to get some sense of a Costa Rica town. We tried to do a little shopping, but the rain was getting to us, and we were worried about how to get to our hotel.

We walked to the park, as our wonderful Frommer’s Guidebook had told us to do, and there was a taxi. The driver’s proposed fare of $20 seemed good because he was driving us further than the other cab would have. But this made us realize that we weren’t going to be taking little jaunts into town, either. I hoped that the lodge was really nice, and had some television reception and internet access, along with the best possible volcano views.

It turned out that the driver of our cab was really kind and friendly. He spoke almost no English, so my poor Spanish had to do. We have learned on this trip that Costa Ricans love you to try Spanish, no matter how bad. Our driver felt that we shouldn’t take the bus back to the airport and offered us a ride to the airport at a fair rate, so I took him up on that. We had a few funny moments there where he didn’t know if my request to be picked up at doce mean noon or midnight, and I couldn’t remember which word in Spanish meant noon and which meant midnight, but we figured it out. So, as I write this, I’m trusting that he will be here for us as planned.

Costa Rica: Day 3

After just two nights in the same place, we were starting to feel more comfortable. We had figured out how to get around and we had come to realize that the heat and humidity called for a nice, slow pace. I’m used to rushing around a lot during vacations, but I quickly decided that the slow, relaxing resort pace could be a very nice one.

Marin had decided that she wanted to go snorkeling. It turns out she tries to snorkel wherever she goes, and as a result has now had the pleasure of seeing another part of Alaska, Egypt, and now Costa Rica. I almost went, but I wanted to see Manuel Antonio Park one more time and I actually had to think about Day 4, in which we had to travel to Arenal, an active volcano.

Our breakfast, like all hotel breakfasts I’ve had in the last several years, came free with the room. I’ve also noticed that the quality of these breakfasts really varies. So, from all I’ve said about the Gaia so far, it will come as no surprise that the breakfasts were really good. I think we liked the Huevos Rancheros Costa Rica Style breakfast the best. Two crunchy tortilla cups (about the size of a cupcake paper) had black beans in the bottom topped with some salsa, then a single poached egg in each, topped with a little melted cheese. It was very good. I think Marin most fell in love with the coffee. She stopped sweetening her coffee here because the flavor was so good it didn’t need the sugar. Later we found out that it wasn’t just Costa Rican coffee, but an especially good brand of Costa Rican Coffee called Milagro.

What made the Huevos Rancheros “Costa Rica style” was apparently the black beans. I tried to eat Costa Rican food as much as I could, but found a lot of it unsatisfying. While I could probably live pretty well on black beans and white rice, I was surprised by the blandness of the beans. When I cook black beans at home, I add some onions and garlic, and some cumin or coriander, and a little citrus. At one place, I ordered Costa Rican style chicken. I got a couple of pieces of chicken in a very bland gravy, a little salad, and mashed potatoes, and crowded onto this plate was a helping of black beans and a small pile of white rice. I guess we can think of it as their bread. There is fruit everywhere, but it doesn’t figure into the foods at all, except as a little thing on the side. And, where there’s coffee, there should be chocolate, but it seems to be found mostly in the imported Milky Way Bars. The crops we passed on the roads were pineapple, sugar cane, rice and coffee.

After Marin and I had breakfast, we parted, and I decided to take my laptop poolside and check out facebook and figure out how we could get to Arenal the next day. As soon as I got there, I realized I’d made a perfect choice. There was no one else around, and the forest right next to the pool was full of squirrel monkeys. There was one on top of the umbrella that was shading my table. I watched them play for a while, then, after making our reservations for the next day’s bus trip, I wrote a bit and read a bit and asked to be taken to the National Park.

I wanted to see if I could figure out how to find the animals the way that our guide did the day before. I couldn’t, but I was glad to go again. This time, I didn’t have William to protect me from people insisting I buy goods or tours from them. It wasn’t so bad though. People were a little pushy, but took no for an answer, and if the no was said with a smile, I got a smile back.

On this trip, I couldn’t find any howler monkeys, but I did see two sloths and a coatimundi, which looks like an elongated, pointier raccoon. I also got to enjoy the plant life more. The diversity is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. There are light greens, dark greens, huge leaves and small. There are many plants that I recognized as indoor houseplants back home. There are many plants that have found a home by growing high in the canopy on the side of a tree. It actually roots itself into the tree. My favorite thing is the vines that hang down from the tall trees—the Tarzan vines. I had always thought this was just a handy movie device. Nope. On top of that, there are plants that send roots down from high in the canopy, trying to root in the ground. One plant, rightly called a strangler fig, actually starts out by growing in a tree, sends roots down on all sides, and then eventually kills the tree that it was growing on, leaving behind what looks like a tree, but with a kind of hollow inside.

After I returned to the hotel, Marin returned from her trip, excited by the bottle nosed dolphins she had seen. She said that they even were jumping high out of the water. The snorkeling was just okay; the water was not too clear, but the dolphins were clearly the highlight for her. She had also been fed a nice lunch of grilled fish skewers on the boat. Marin followed her adventure with a long nap, I read and watched television. We went swimming. I went online and found many nice birthday wishes. We had a nice birthday dinner, though I missed Cameron and PJ. My birthdays are always nice, and this one was definitely no exception.