Tuesday, May 23, 2017

No hayride problems, Clark

A friend of mine here in Mexico City recently asked for a recommendation for a place to stay in Costa Rica. I gave her my favorite and she booked it the same day. I tried hard to fight the jealousy wave that threatened to overwhelm me when she later sent a few, "Yay! I can't wait, this is going to be amazing, thank you!" messages.

Jealousy won. And now -- well, she and her husband are just going to have to deal with the fact I'm tagging along on their romantic getaway. You can't stop me, people, I am freakishly strong and not worried about losing friends.

Given my feelings, I suppose today is as good a day as any to begin my voluminous love ode to Costa Rica. It will take a long time to write all of it but I don't have anything else to do today besides send incomprehensible text messages to my housekeeper. Paulina and I often communicate by text but my auto correct enjoys changing all of my Spanish words to English words and I rarely notice before I hit "send."

Instead of the fairly straightforward, "Si, claro, no hay problema. Hasta luego. Gracias!" Paulina often receives something more alarming to her, such as, "So, Clark, no hayride problems. Has taken luge. Gracious!"

Anyway, we went to Costa Rica last month.

Our first stop was San Jose, which I'd been warned beforehand is not the most interesting spot for sightseeing. Alex had to stay in San Jose for a few days for work meetings but the kids and I spent one day touring San Jose then bounced to the north.

San Jose does have a gorgeous old theatre --

And an impressive gold museum --

There are many heavy doors in the gold museum to keep the gold safe and unstolen at night. I have no idea what Lucien is doing to those doors above. Let's give him the benefit of the doubt and say it was hilarious.

We had lunch in San Jose with one of Alex's friends. A sharply dressed man appeared at our table towards the end of the meal and began asking questions about our coffee preferences. It was explained to me by Alex's friend that the man was "like a sommelier for coffee" and takes coffee as seriously as a good sommelier takes your wine pairings. Coffee is serious business in Costa Rica.

The coffee sommelier chatted with us some more about our ideal brews then returned with several different contraptions, one for each of us. As he ground beans and sifted and poured, I learned the shape of the container matters, the material of the filter matters, the time it's allowed to sit matters, etc. etc. I'd never seen such an intricate coffee set-up nor met a person with such an incredible breadth of coffee knowledge.

As he poured three different cups of coffee, each one perfectly synced with our personality quirks, interests and hobbies, I asked the man what his job was called. I was hoping there was a more precise title for him than "a sommelier for coffee." The man stood up straight, puffed out his chest with obvious pride and said, "I am called a 'barista'."

Oh dang. I didn't have the heart to tell him we've bastardized that word and made it quite plain back at home.

The next day, the kids and I left Alex in San Jose for work stuff. We were picked up by a driver and taken to our lodge up near the Poas Volcano, about an hour north of San Jose. The drive was stunning as we climbed out of the Central Valley and up into the mountains. We had our heads hanging out of the windows like happy dogs.

The Poas Volcano Lodge is the definition of "cozy" with its relaxing piano music playing in the lobby and its fire crackling in the wood stove in the library. It was the perfect place to return to after a day of sightseeing. I'd play a game with the kids or read a book in the library and enjoy the view of the valley while staff brought me beer. You cannot convince me it gets much better than that.

A hummingbird got into the lodge our first evening, spotted first in the hallway by Lucien, who ran to get a staff member. The staff member he found came calmly down the hall, watched the bird for a few minutes, then reached into the air and grabbed the bird with his hands. He just plucked it right out of the air. He then walked to the door and released it outside, where it quickly flew off with no evident injury.

My mouth agape, I was like, "How did you do that, magic hummingbird man?" and he said, "Oh, it's easy, you just have to watch the bird's flight pattern, wait until it starts to get tired, then grab it when it dips."

I appreciate your humility, magic hummingbird man, but it's OK to admit you've got crazy animal whispering skills. I don't think it's as easy as you say. I'm pretty sure if I tried, and "just watched the bird's flight pattern" or whatever, I would end up with either a handful of air or a handful of crushed bird.

I want to go to there

The next day, a cheerful Poas Volcano Lodge employee named Wilberth drove us to the nearby La Paz Waterfall Gardens. La Paz is part animal sanctuary (mostly full of seized animals once kept illegally as pets) and part waterfall heaven. The kids loved the animals, likely because many of them were accustomed to human interaction so lacked boundaries.

Just look at this crazy toucan --

Toucans be landing on people in Costa Rica like, "What's up, nerds?"

You can also get up close and personal with the scary waterfalls.

Coco jumped into her bed at the lodge later that night, happily exhausted, but immediately began screaming and jumped right back out. Her screams were nearly drowned out by Lucien, who had also begun screaming on the other side of the room. What the hell is wrong with these kids?

They both hopped around frantically, yelling something about animals being in their beds, big fuzzy things that had just brushed up against their legs.

That kind of stuff can really happen in Costa Rica so it's no laughing matter. We'd already had a hummingbird gain admittance to the lodge through its many open doors, who knew what we were dealing with now -- could be a puma, a howler monkey, or, if we're lucky, an adorable little sloth, coochie coochie coo.

Our room was gorgeous
but I was suddenly regretting leaving the patio doors open for fresh air.

I told the kids to get into the far corner while I confronted the wild beasts in our room with the only weapon I had at the ready, an umbrella. I took a leap towards Coco's bed and pulled back the covers in one swift motion, adrenaline pumping, ready to defend my babies against whatever animal had made the unfortunate mistake of wandering into our room.

Jesus. The "animals" were hot water bottles, apparently put there by housekeeping when they came to turn down our beds while we were at dinner. The Poas Volcano Lodge is so damn cozy, I shouldn't have been surprised they were attempting other cozy things. But maybe they should warn you there are unexpected furry things in your bed lest an entire family has a heart attack while fighting a hot water bottle with an umbrella.

 The kids with our new low maintenance pets

Wilberth took us on a couple tours the next day. The first stop was the Poas Volcano, a very active volcano crater that can, and regularly does, blow at any time. Wilberth told us we weren't allowed to hang around the area more than 20 minutes because we could get gassed and made quite ill by all of the sulfur rolling out of the crater. We made a quick stop, took some nice photos, then got the hell out of there.

As we walked away, Lucien said, "When I leak gas, I don't recommend anyone stick around for long, either." That made Wilberth laugh so hard he had to sit down on a bench for a minute. I'm happy we share an appreciation for eleven-year-old boy humor.

lookin' very Costa Rica up here, Poas Volcano

We had some time to kill before our next tour. We'd gotten to know Wilberth quite well by then, having driven around with him for a couple days, so we ended up just kind of hanging out. He had some suggestions like, "Let's go shopping for fruit" and "Let's go see my friend."

He drove us into the tiny nearby town -- where he knew absolutely everybody -- and bought us a bunch of odd looking pieces of produce. Then he took us to his friend's coffee shop where he showed us how to eat the things he'd bought because many Costa Rican fruits require instructions.

Lucien's favorite were the long green things called guaba.

I would not have known to eat the fuzzy white stuff out of the long green guaba
without Wilberth.

This is Wilberth poking his head around the corner of his friend's shop to yell, 
"Hey MJ, come here, my friend wants to make you guys smoothies!" 

Following Wilberth around his town, chatting up his friends, all of whom spoke English, and getting fed weird stuff was more enjoyable than our organized tours. I love getting a sense of the people who live in a place and what their daily lives are like. From what I saw and heard, I suspect Costa Ricans are happier than most.

Thanks for the watermelon juice, Wilberth's smoothie friend, but we had to push on. We had another tour, this one at a large dairy farm close to our lodge.

It was an interesting tour and a beautiful property but the only part that will stick with the kids is they had to milk cows.

The tour guide also made the kids taste the still-warm milk straight out of the cow. They balked at having a second sip until the tour guide stirred a little cocoa powder into it. It's further proof that adding chocolate to just about anything will make kids eat it.

The Poas Volcano Lodge is also a working dairy farm, though much smaller than the one we toured. Wilberth took us on an impromptu tour on the way back to the lodge building but stopped short and turned around when he unwittingly led us into the butchering room.

Coco was very excited
until she saw the dead cow

I then dropped down before them and had an honest talk with my children about how it's good to know the reality of where your food comes from. Wilberth nodded vigorously behind me in support because what else could he do. 

Alex joined us that evening at the lodge and was very impressed with our tales of farms, fruits, hummingbirds, volcanoes, toucans and scary hot water bottles. The next morning we all took a long walk through the farm portion of the lodge's grounds before being driven to our next stop on the itinerary. We had all fallen in love with Costa Rica's mountainous region and wanted to spend a few more minutes enjoying its beauty and tranquility.

Can you see the man walking up the path in the above photo? He was a farm worker hustling up the hill fast as he could go. As soon as he saw us, he began to wave excitedly. A cow was in labor up at the barn, he said, and he was on his way to help her deliver. Would we like to come along and see the birth?  

Would we ever! Who doesn't love watching birth? Nobody can get enough birth.

Bam. Cow coming out of a cow vagina.
My blog posts don't do pretty scenery for long.

The whole birth lasted about five minutes which made me wonder why we don't use the same procedure with humans? Why don't we just tie a rope around their little baby hooves and pull hard? Seems it would save everyone a lot of trouble.

Happy Birthday, little Costa Rican calf.
It's too bad you were born a boy on a dairy farm.
We hope you have stellar genetics so they keep you around 
for breeding purposes.
Sorry to be a downer,
but I've seen things
and I'm just laying some dairy farm truth bombs right now.

We were sad to leave our new friend, Wilberth, and the cows, and the perfection that is the mountainous region of Costa Rica and the Poas Volcano Lodge. But it was time to move on. We had an appointment with another volcano, and the rain forest, and some horses.

This is only about four days into our seventeen-day trip.
Thankfully, everybody loves long vacation posts.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Visit of visits, Post of posts, Guide of guides, you get the idea

Señor Scowly -- a.k.a The Crabby Doorman -- quit. We didn't even get a warning, no chance to say goodbye, not that he would have wanted to say goodbye to us anyway.

We came down one morning expecting to see his usual frowny face opening the door for us all angry and jerky-like, ripping that door open as if the door had disparaged his mother, but no. We saw only smiley Carlos training a new guy, smiley Arturo.

I'm going to miss Señor Scowly. I'm going to miss the times I stood outside the door of the building, hands cupped on either side of my face to peer through the glass, only to see Señor Scowly standing in the middle of the foyer listening to angsty music blaring from his iPhone, his eyes closed, singing every word from the heart as if the words were ripping said heart right out of his chest.

I would knock on the door but his angsty music was pretty loud. It would sometimes take a handful of minutes for him to open his eyes and see me standing there, waving hopefully from the other side of the glass. He'd open the door but would also make it clear by his facial expression I'd ruined his moment.

I'm going to miss approaching the building and wondering if I'll actually get in. Plus everyone in Mexico smiles at me all the time; it was refreshing to have just one who unabashedly hated me and didn't care if I knew it.

My family was just here for a visit and it was the best visit in the history of visits. In other words, brace yourselves for what could be the longest post in the history of posting.

It will never get old.
Just walking around and suddenly bam, mariachi party 

My family's visit was made more special by the fact it nearly didn't happen. Dad has been having trouble with numbness in his leg that comes on without warning, making it difficult to walk and putting him at risk for falling. He decided a couple days before they were to arrive that he couldn't come, that he would be too preoccupied with his walking troubles to enjoy the visit and would therefore bring the rest of us down, too. He wanted my mom and brother to come without him.

Well hell no, Dad. That just will not do. That WILL NOT DO.

I'm happy to say Dad changed his mind the day of the flight. We talked beforehand and eventually came to the conclusion that even if he didn't feel comfortable doing the walking tours or moseying through museums for hours, just sitting here in our apartment with its view of Mexico City, or sitting in the rental house we'd booked for a weekend with its view of San Miguel de Allende, was better than sitting in his house alone in Colorado.

Plus, the food. You don't need legs to enjoy the food and isn't the food the absolute best reason to come to Mexico? Food. FOOOOD.

(Related -- my pants don't fit anymore.)

I talked to my sister, Raba, before my parents and brother arrived and we both adamantly agreed that climbing the pyramids at Teotihuacan was out of the question given Dad's leg. It can go numb without warning and he could fall all the way down the steep stone stairs, especially since several sections do not have anything to hold onto.

We had to go see it, for sure, because Teotihuacan is one of the most impressive places in the world but we would stay down on the ground. No doubt about it, Dad should not go up there.

A few days later, of course, we went up there.

taking a breather halfway up Pyramid of the Sun
(Pyramid of the Moon lurking anciently in the background)

My dad is a strong willed man and the poster child for dogged determination but he's not reckless. He knew he could do it so I knew he could do it. But I still climbed behind him the whole time, arms outstretched and thinking, "oh my god oh my god oh my god if he falls, Raba is going to kill me."

"Chill out daughters, it wasn't that hard."
Top of Pyramid of the Sun

Mom and Dad strolling through Teotihuacan like the bosses they are.

We took a long weekend and rented a house in the gorgeous colonial town of San Miguel de Allende. San Miguel is commonly known as "Gringolandia" given its large population of retired English speakers. There's also a popular joke about needing an American passport to live there.

Well you can't blame them, those English speakers know a good thing when they see it. San Miguel de Allende is one of the most perfect little colonial towns. It is almost too perfect, too pretty, too charming, too UNESCO heritage-y. I felt the urge to break a few windows to take it down a peg, or at least smear some dog shit around on them to mess it up a little bit. Is it normal to be jealous of a town? I have problems.

But look at this stupid perfect place.

(pic courtesy of Dad)

(pic courtesy of Mom)

(pic courtesy of me)

Dad walking around the back terrace of our rental house.
See what I mean? Needs dog shit on the windows.

Our rental house was smack in the middle of the action, just one block from the main square. The owner of the house was there to show us around when we arrived and we all detected a slight edge, something slightly off about him. He was nice but it seemed he had to work hard at it, as his teeth were often clenched. All was made clear later when Alex and I found several How To Control Your Explosive Rage books in his bookshelf. Then we were all like, "Yes, that was totally it, he was just trying hard not to punch us."

(I won him over later when I emailed him several times asking about the art in his house, which was spectacular. He loved talking about his art. And then we were friends, phew.)

There were many weddings that weekend. San Miguel weddings involve the most delightful traditions. There are ten-foot-tall puppets representing the bride and groom dancing around outside the church, and a "tequila burro" that walks in front of the post-ceremony procession through the cobblestone streets from which tequila shots are served from barrels on his sides, and a traveling mariachi band that accompanies the procession and makes everyone within earshot happy.

There were at least half a dozen wedding processions through the streets in two days. They looked like so much fun, I'm now planning to divorce Alex and re-marry him in San Miguel de Allende -- that is, if he doesn't piss me off in between. We'll see.

This wedding celebration walked past our rental house after midnight.
I ran out in my pajamas to take a picture of them.
Look at that tequila burro.

As for what else we did, we did a lot. We hit the must-sees, such as the Frida Kahlo Museum and the Diego Rivera murals at the Belles Artes and Palacio Nacional. 

We also ate lunch in a cave --

hours before everybody else because nobody here eats lunch at noon

-- and we visited an ancient archaeological site in the middle of nowhere called Cañada de la Virgen accompanied by the most enthusiastic guide who's ever guided. Our guide, Alberto, is an archaeologist and he loves his job very much. His eyes would regularly glow and widen, near manic with excitement, so on fire was he with his chosen field. It sometimes felt he was about to lose his composure entirely, grab us all by our slender shoulders and shake us, shake the love of archaeology right into us, goddammit!

He was an extremely likable and extremely enthusiastic gem of a tour guide. 

Look how hard everyone is trying to keep up with Alberto
and the mass quantity of excited information flying at their faces.

Bala and Coco enjoying archaeology

After the archaeology, Alberto took us to a nearby Mexican ranch for a traditional Mexican lunch. There, sitting on the back porch of a humble abode somewhere outside San Miguel de Allende, I ate the best mole sauce I've ever had. It was the best mole in the history of moles.

I learned at this lunch you cannot take a picture of mole sauce
without it looking like poop sauce.
 Just take my word, it was perfect.

I don't think the visit could have gone better. My parents and brother fell in love with Mexico, with the warmth of its people and the beauty and history of the country. I think they fell in love a little bit with our driver, Mario, too. Mario drove us everywhere, helped us communicate when Spanish failed us, carried bags, acted as tour guide, bought Mom medicine when she caught my cold, made us dinner reservations, and on and on and on -- and he did it all with a laugh and a smile.

My family didn't want to leave and I didn't want them to leave because even after ten days here, I still had about two weeks worth of stuff to show them. That's the beauty of Mexico City.

I'm so glad you made the decision to come, Dad.
Because someone had to play with Coco
and her bouncy balloon thing
for hours.
And I'm glad it wasn't me.

Happy belated Mother's Day to all the mamas out there. Mexican Mother's Day was last Wednesday. It's a big deal around here, I was wished Happy Mother's Day wherever I went and was given roses by the security guard when I left a nearby department store. Coco even had the day off from school in honor of the occasion. My Mother's Day gift is having a kid home from school? We should talk about that one, Mexico.

We only have a few months left here. I don't want to go home. I will hang onto Mexico by my fingernails until someone pries them away and shoves me onto a plane because I love this place -- plus my home country has gone and lost its damn mind. It's a real shitshow up there.

In the meantime, I will eat mole, and smile at the people, and enjoy the sun,
and pretend it is not the end of the world as we know it.