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Recuerdos de Costa Rica…Or, Ruminations on Similarities Between Costa Rica and Alaska, Among the Usual Anecdotes

Okay, okay…I’ll stop pretending I know anything about Spanish. (Although I *will* say that it is awfully embarrassing/depressing that after six years of studying the language […seven years ago…], my vocabulary is limited to a few choice phrases…and even *those* I am essentially scared to say out loud to native speakers.)

And…because I know how easy it is to forget the day-to-day when you go on a trip like this and then try to recall what exactly happened to everyone back home (“There was a zipline…and then we saw some monkeys…”), I made a concerted effort to record the goings-on at the end of each day. What follows is basically me writing up my notes. (And just to cover my bases, I suppose, I should note that these recollections are mine and mine alone…and I’m only human and it’s possible my memory is flawed and that these recollections may not be precisely accurate…so. Perhaps read with a grain of salt. [Also? This turned out to be really long. (Even for me…) And I’ve been working on it forever…and as I read it for the umpteenth time, part of me is tempted to just click “Publish” already…so Days Eight and Nine may not have received the tender loving care that they deserve…and for that I hope you’ll accept my humble apologies.])

Day One

Our flight was at 5:45 in the morning and a car was coming to pick us up around 3…so we just stayed up all night. It probably goes without saying that we were pretty exhausted and delirious by the time we made it to the airport. And after telling J that the easiest way to get from my apartment to JFK was to just call a car service and that this was a unique New Yorky thing and she was hip to the scene because she was with a local…we ended up with a guy who parked at the opposite end of my street and who didn’t move the car when we came out of my apartment at 3:00 in the morning with all of our luggage. (And he wasn’t driving a black Lincoln! It was, like, a gray Nissan Altima.) And then he drove like a bat out of hell and sort of got lost in Queens…and it wasn’t a Dial-7 sort of experience. We made it to JFK in two distinct pieces though…and literally the moment we walked through the airport doors, the handle on my purse broke. It was obviously too late to do anything about it (although we did search for glue at the Miami airport…only to find a man in one of the gift shops who tried to stick my strap back together with scotch tape and then advised me to “pull as hard as [I could],” and I promptly ripped it right back apart again…so he gave me a big shopping bag…that basically served as my purse for the rest of the trip.).

We were so tired we slept most of the way on both flights…and when we actually landed in San Jose, I could see some green landscape and life going on outside…but it was still sort of hard to believe that we were actually there — even when we were waiting in line to go through Customs. I had reserved a car…so J was able to flex her language muscles for the first time when we picked it up. And once we were at the actual off-site rental counter (and they told us not to move the car if we had an accident as it would render our insurance null and void), I asked for directions to the hotel…but the guy behind the counter was a little dubious. I had picked the Gran Hotel Costa Rica because my book said it was in the center of San Jose and that it was very close to the Teatro Nacional and that it had been around since the 1930s and had some Art Deco charm to it or somesuch…and it just seemed more unique and San-Jose-y than, say, the Holiday Inn. But the guy asked if we had prepaid…and then proceeded to give us directions because we *had*, but he said it would have been a lot easier to have just stayed near the airport.

And as we headed out for the first time in our Toyota Corolla in search of the Gran Hotel, J said something like, “I hope they have parking…” and it was the first time I had actually thought about something like that. I guess I figured parking was a given. (I think this is what they call foreshadowing…)

So…finding the actual hotel wasn’t all that hard. There was a big road called Paseo Colon…and I think we had to make one lefthand turn, but that was about it. We could see the hotel off to our left. However…the hotel was in the middle of a big square…and there was no place to park nearby. So…we sort of ended up going around and around the square, wondering what to do. We eventually figured out that “parqueo” is “parking lot” and saw a tiered structure on one of the side roads…in which we found a very nice group of men who listened patiently to us — J was so much better at speaking than I was — and one of them even drew us a map. We ended up back in front of the hotel…where we saw a road sort of going underneath the hotel and the words “NO” and “something.” “Maybe it means ‘Parking for Hotel Guests Only!'” I guessed optimistically. But, nope. We couldn’t park there either. So…we ended up pulling up in front of the hotel and were sort of despairing over what to do…when a man approached us to pay to park there…and he was the one who finally explained that we had to park in the lot with the hut with the blue roof a little further down the road.

When we finally pulled into the place where we were actually allowed to leave the car, a man approached and asked for our room number. And while, in hindsight, I probably could have come up with something like, “Todavia no sabemos el numero de nuestro cuarto,” I sort of panicked in the moment and said, “Estamos llegando!” to which the man laughed and said that it was clear we were new arrivals. And as we pulled our luggage out of the trunk, he offered to call security and J said it wasn’t necessary as the hotel was just across the street and then he told us a story about a woman he found crying because someone had stolen her $1000 necklace and he said it was best for us to just wait for someone to walk over with us.

By the time we were actually checked into our room, we were both pretty frazzled. We ended up having dinner in the restaurant downstairs. Wine helped. And I had the first of several arroz dishes.

Day Two

We woke up ready to kiss San Jose goodbye and to head north to Arenal.

The hotel served a pretty decent breakfast, including — get this — blueberry juice (…which I actually thought said “blackberry juice” at first…). I was *really* excited about it…but actually found it to be a little too sweet.

After breakfast, we got directions and returned to the Corolla…and were heading back to the airport in order to ultimately go north. However, while looking for Paseo Colon again, we somehow ended up going the wrong way on a one-way street and got all turned around (which made me feel bad as J was doing this big, brave thing by driving and I was supposed to be her trusty navigator…but I swear the map said it was a two-way street *and* there was a yellow line in the middle of the road)…but eventually we found another sign for el aeropuerto and proceeded on our three-and-a-half-hour drive. It was very, very green — a really pretty drive…and definitely not like any landscape I’d ever seen before. The turns were a little hairy…and there were lots of people walking along the sides of the roads — including wee little ones…and we kept seeing signs for “queso palmito…” although I don’t think we ever quite figured out what that was.

It was all worth it when we got to Arenal though. We had the cutest little bungalow with an amazing view out back of a very lush, tropical landscape. The focal point of all the resorts in the area — the very reason they exist, in fact (their raison d’etre!) — is Volcan Arenal. And everyone at our hotel kept telling us how lucky we were to be able to see the volcano that day…as oftentimes there is so much fog you can’t see it at all. (And, sure enough — when we woke up the next day, it was gone and we didn’t see it again the entire time we were there. So. We were lucky to have gotten pictures the first day. And this brings me to the first Alaskan Similarity: Seeing Denali [also known as Mount McKinley] is kind of a crapshoot as it is often hidden by clouds. Plus — Similarity #2 — we were in Costa Rica during the rainy season…which I thought was kind of like going to Alaska in the winter. Obviously the weather is different…but in both places, the off-season means lower prices and fewer tourists and it’s still really beautiful.)

We stuck close to home for lunch on that second day, opting to eat in the one restaurant on the hotel grounds. I ordered another “typical Costa Rican dish” that came with chicken, rice, plantains, salad, cheese (perhaps queso palmito?) and a fried egg that I gave to J.

Afterward, we (bravely) donned swimwear and headed down to the pool/spa where, luckily, we were the only guests for miles and miles. J jumped in the pool straightaway despite frigid temps, but I wasn’t as courageous. Instead, I stood with my feet submerged on the top step as a hotel employee walked by and shouted, “Hace frio?” and I said, “Si!” (one of the few words I can say with much authority) and I *believe* he suggested I jump in right away to get it over with. Eventually I did. But it was darn cold. Sooo…after a lap or two, we retreated to the spa…and before too long a bartender appeared — another one of the hotel employees who commented on how lucky we were to be able to see the volcano — and she asked us if we wanted anything to drink. (There was actually a bar right up along the pool’s edge…and I suppose that in the warmer months, you can swim right up and get yourself a drink.) The special on that particular day was a Coco Loco and so soon J and I found ourselves with drinks in coconuts.

We ate in the same restaurant that night…and, this is such a dorky thing to say, but…according to my notes, I had more arroz con pollo (I was big on anything labeled “typical plate” or that was somehow otherwise blatantly Costa Rican). We had tried to go to the supermercado in La Fortuna that afternoon to stock up on some basics and to perhaps not be beholden to that one restaurant…but there was an accident on the main road and we couldn’t get through.

And –- indulge me in one more small aside – -all the rice and beans sort of made me think of the Bartender as his stepfather is from Puerto Rico and he grew up eating lots of it and it’s what he cooked for himself over and over again after he hurt his foot and was out of work and couldn’t really afford to buy much else…and one of our crises this summer was promulgated by him being stupid after he said he was sick of rice and beans and I said, “You know I can cook, right?” and he said, “You’d cook for me?” and I said, “Of course I would!” and I proceeded to plan a totally elaborate meal with an Asian-style flank steak and pickled cucumbers and whatnot…and the night before he was slated to eat said meal, he texted me to say he was going to the Jersey Shore instead. A real gem, that boy. And…prepare to breathe a sigh of relief: When I was in Costa Rica, the relative smallness of the Bartender’s actual role in the grand scheme of things finally sort of hit me. He felt really far away…and, while I still miss him, it feels like something finally shifted. It could very well be that I felt the act of going to Costa Rica was really, totally 100% moving on with my life…and that this trip was about getting out and doing things that make me happy instead of wallowing in my apartment and getting droopy eyes every time I walk by his bar. Or something. I am even attempted to identify him by name in one final reckless act to close this particular chapter…like, say, Carrie Bradshaw with Big at the end of the series or Julie Powell with D at the end of Cleaving (…more on that in my next post…)…but, then again, there are some things about him that I’d like to hold close and keep just for me. (The end.)

For dessert, the restaurant offered us a tres leches cake…and we were too full to eat it that night, so we vowed to come back for it before we left for good. I had never had tres leches before, but J had fond memories of it growing up (I think) and said her sister had it at her wedding. This, of course, got the little wheels in my head moving and when I got back to reality, I did a quick search and found an Alton Brown recipe. My mother thinks Alton Brown is absolutely IT because he’s scientific and stuff. She is even willing to forsake our family pie crust recipe because she saw an episode of Alton’s show in which he said that a mixture of butter and lard makes for the perfect crust and he backed up his theory by explaining what fats bond to and whatnot. I admit that I, too, have been curious about using butter and/or lard…but I haven’t done so yet…and part of it is definitely because I’d feel like a traitor to my aunt and my great-grandmother. (And when J and I went back a day or two later, they were *out* of the tres leches cake…so I never actually got to try it there.)

Over our meal, we also talked about red velvet cake and J went off on a pretend tirade about how it isn’t really fair that we only use red food color…and I eventually vowed one day to try out blue velvet. (So…perhaps that will come after the Cleaving post…)

Day Three

Not a hugely early start. We had breakfast in the same restaurant…and we got lots of fruit again – including guava (I think…). But pineapple is still my favorite.

The ONE thing that J wanted to do while we were in Costa Rica was to zipline through the rainforest. I was less enthusiastic…but I wimped out of a somewhat similar experience in the sixth grade at a ropes course and so J was able to hold this over my head and to talk about how I had a great opportunity to do it over again and to conquer my fears and whatnot. So…I wanted to get the zipline over and done with early on so I wouldn’t have it hanging over my head the entire trip.

And…the hotel was nice and had given us a coupon for a free activity…so, with a heavy heart, I signed up to zipline through the rainforest on Day Three.

Since the hotel was more or less empty, I was hoping we would be the only ones on this zipline trip…but, alas, there were about ten other people, including four guides. J and I were the last to arrive, so we quickly got into our harnesses and I nervously made a joke about having a big head as one of the guides readjusted my helmet.

There were nine lines on this particular course. Another guide, Ishmael, explained to J and I how to use the brake on our right hand and he said that it was important to sit back and to try to be relaxed, etc., etc. I understood all of this more or less in theory. But when I finally looked down from the platform and saw where we were supposed to *go*, I was substantially less sure. It was SO high! And it was beautiful, to be sure…but it was SO HIGH!

J said she was nervous, but she sailed off down the line with the rest of them like an expert.

I was the last one. It was just me and Ishmael left on the first platform. He asked if I was okay. I said I didn’t know. He was nice and patient with me…but eventually I told myself that I was going to have to go sometime, so I finally let him let go of me…and, wow. I was really, REALLY tense and my hand with the brake kept flying off the line and that made me even *more* nervous and tense…and it was just so fast…

But when I got to the next platform, J (in waterproof pants!) was super-nice and very encouraging. She kept saying, “You’re ziplining through the rainforest! Isn’t that incredible??” But I just didn’t feel *quite* the same way about it. It *was* really beautiful. And I am certainly glad I did it…but it’s one of those things that I have crossed off the list of Things To Do Before I Die…and that’s it for me and ziplining, I think.

For the next two lines, it was just me and Ishmael on the platform again after everyone else had left…and it required a lot of encouragement for me to let go again. (I believe the poor guy had to listen to me say, “This wasn’t my idea! J wanted to do this! I’m here for her!” a little more than once…) It was so beautiful and green and, well, rainforesty…and unlike anything I have ever seen before…but I had to look straight ahead toward the end point and focus on that and that alone or I never would have made it. I could, however, sort of see all the pretty stuff in my peripheral vision…and despite all of the worries I had about falling or lines snapping, I *did* acknowledge how beautiful it was, too. (The guides kept saying to relax and enjoy the scenery, but…easier said than done, man.)

PLUS you were supposed to pull yourself up so they could hook you onto the line…but I have absolutely no upper body strength whatsoever (not to mention that I have been feeding feelings for months and months and have maybe never been so fat in my entire life)…and so…more elementary school flashbacks to those California State Physical Education Tests (or whatever they were called) and my inability to do a single pull-up. So, basically, I failed. And I hadn’t – or, heck, haven’t – failed at much in my short(-ish) life. But…despite my best efforts to pull my damn chin up over that damn pole, it never happened. And then we moved to Mississippi where no one had to take tests like that (…but…where further humiliation ensued after I joined the girls’ basketball team without realizing what I was getting myself into and ended up on the team with a certain Jennifer White who absolutely hated my guts because I was so bad and who went on – I believe – to play for the Mississippi State Bulldogs. [And, ironically, our mothers befriended each other in the stands while watching Jennifer win games and me warm benches…but that is a story for another day]).

So…after not pulling myself up on the line and having two distinct panic attacks, I found myself face-to-face with the longest of the ziplines: Number Three. And, boy, oh boy…after Ishmael let me go, I was cursing in my head to such an extent that I would have made sailors, longshoremen and car mechanics blush. (There was a mom along for the trip – her daughters, probably aged 7 or 8 and 11ish, put me to shame – who told me that it helped to scream…but I couldn’t bring myself to actually do that. It was silent terror.)

And as I was gearing up for the fourth line and wondering how on earth I could do this six more times, Ishmael finally said, “Do you want me to go with you?” And I excitedly said, “Yes!”

This solved everything. With Ishmael behind me, I no longer had to worry about how/when to brake…and it was completely comforting to think that if I was going to fall into the rainforest below, a strange man was coming down with me.

He was really sweet about it – when we were gearing up to go on the next platform, he called himself my “private taxi” and hooked his line up to mine again. And it was, like, such a damsel in distress moment that I couldn’t help but think of him as my hero a little bit…although, sadly, even though the zipline guys had a little hut on the hotel grounds and we had to walk by it to go to the restaurant and stuff, I never saw him again after that trip. Wistful sigh…

After two lines together, he asked if I thought I could go alone again…and I begrudgingly said I could…and then he said he’d go with me on the final line, which perked me up immensely. And I found that the guides were right and it really *did* help to be more relaxed…although, as noted, it was not easy to do.

And there was also a strange intimacy associated with ziplining…by which I mean Ishmael could get away with saying things like, “Wrap your legs around me!” and he wasn’t just being skeevy.

Later, J and I were in the hot tub and reminiscing about our adventure and I spoke of a moment on one of the platforms when I had been hooked up on the line but was waiting for Ishmael – and I had perhaps just moments earlier confessed my schoolgirl crush, which, in hindsight, may have accounted for her line of thinking – and I was sort of swinging around and not in complete control of myself when I accidentally kneed one of the other guides in the crotch. So…I said to J, “I kneed him in the crotch,” and J looked totally horrified and I said, “It was an accident! I didn’t mean to!” and a wave of relief spread over her face and she said, “Oh! I thought you were saying, ‘I need him in the crotch.’”

After Line Nine was in the can, the guys offered an optional rappelling adventure and I was sort of torn…on the one hand, I felt like I should do it because I was in Costa Rica and when on earth was I going to have another opportunity to go rappelling down a waterfall? But, on the other hand, I had already done a really brave thing that day…and when I realized that I really hadn’t paid attention to what the guy was saying about how to lower yourself off the platform, I figured I had probably had enough boundary extension for one day.

J was brave though. She rappelled.

As I waited for her by the bus, one of the guides pointed out a bat in a banana tree…and lots of vampire jokes ensued. (Blame Twilight?)

Then there was lots of rain and fog…and the volcano was totally obscured – it was like it wasn’t even there…which, again, sort of reminded me of trying to spot Denali in Alaska. Sometimes you get lucky and it’s a clear day…but when it’s cloudy, you get bupkus. We finally understood why everyone had said it was such a big deal the day before. We were concerned it was perhaps *too* foggy to drive to La Fortuna, but we were sick of the restaurant, so we decide to brave it anyway. There, we stocked up on platanos tostados (my absolute favorite), empanadas, and some sort of cheese sticks, among other comestibles…and we had a little picnic on our patio. There was a cat wandering the hotel grounds that appeared again…and I wanted to take her photo, but J initially chastised me for trying to exploit the poor animal…and later relented when she was annoyed that the cat wouldn’t go away.

Day Four

We had to get a really early start because a bus was stopping by to pick us up and take us to Cano Negro. (We still managed to sneak in breakfast at the restaurant though. More plantains. Which, as noted, I love.)

We had two guides, both named Javier. And after stopping at two more hotels to pick up an additional couple/family, one Javier drove while the other regaled us with folklore. Our first stop was an iguana refuge that Javier alluded to by telling us that the particular animal we were about to see is known as, “chicken of the tree.” (Plus, fun fact: Males are bright orange.)

Javier asked us if anybody in the group spoke Spanish…and then he made the dos cervezas joke that everyone seems to make after asking if anyone knows Spanish (“The only thing you need to know how to say is, “Dos cervezas, por favor…”).

When we finally got to Las Chiles, we boarded a pontoon boat…which sort of reminded me of a scene from the African Queen…

The driver of the boat was known as “Eagle Eyes” because of his incredible ability to spot animals…and he was totally deserving of the name. And this was yet another part of the trip that reminded me of Alaska — Similarity Three — the boat ride was sort of like taking the bus in Denali…you have to keep your eyes peeled and what you see over the course of the day is totally a crapshoot. But…as soon as someone sees something and shouts, “Stop!” the bus (or boat) will pull over and everyone oohs and ahhs and takes pictures and then you all set off again…I was a little worried at first because there was a birdwatching couple from England that repeatedly spotted birds…and we initially stopped for each one and Javier explained what it was…and, you know, I like birds as much as the next guy…but I was really jonesing for some monkeys. Luckily, after we’d more or less seen one of each of the birds they have in Cano Negro, the guide politely acknowledged the couples’ subsequent discoveries, but we didn’t pull over anymore. (And then little boy on shore waved at us. And my biological clock began ticking just a little louder…)

And then…a sloth! And howler monkeys (including an orange one that Javier said had a genetic abnormality that happens when the grandfather is also the father)! And another kind of monkey (perhaps spider?)! And capuchin monkeys! And caimans! (Caimen?) It was really quite something.

We crossed over the Nicaraguan border very briefly — really only long enough to take a picture of the “Welcome to Nicaragua” sign and to turn around. But, technically speaking, I have been to Nicaragua now. (Sort of like Kentucky. I was there for about 15 minutes this summer while we were killing time. It was really only long enough to take a picture of some chickens. So…not sure if I can count it on my list of new states this year…which, for the record otherwise numbers five: New Mexico, Texas, Arkansas, Virginia and Colorado.)

We went back down the Rio Frio, where we saw more birds, bats and another sloth. Javier warned us that you have to be really careful with your camera on beaches as capuchin monkeys really like shiny objects and will run up and steal them from you if you are not vigilant.

And I swear this wasn’t all that I ate, but after we disembarked, we stopped off for more arroz con pollo before the hour-long drive back to Arenal. There, J began talking to a couple from Houston who were in Costa Rica celebrating their anniversary and who really liked Vancouver as well…and they said they had recently visited New York, but hated it…in part because, as the husband said, there are too many foreigners.

It was mostly quiet on the drive back to Arenal…along the way, we stopped off at a farm where we saw some more animals and ate a cassava-cheese thing that was kind of the same consistency as a lemon bar. I liked it.

By then, it was raining again…but we were really lucky that the weather was so nice while we were on the river. It rains eight months out of the year there…which, again, is sort of like Alaska (in that winter — like the rainy season — is really, really long).

That night, J and I returned to the hot tub…where there were a group of youngsters cavorting…including a couple of boys who cut up limes and dropped them into their shorts and squealed.

Day Five

I got up early to go horseback riding. J had opted out of this particular activity…but it had been SO long since I’d been horseback riding and I really wasn’t sure when I would have a chance to do it again, so I decided it was worth going sola. But, unlike the zipline adventure that I had hoped would be just me and J, the morning horseback ride turned out to actually be just me and the guide, Alex.

My horse’s name was Eclipse. Alex asked me how long it had been since I’d ridden a horse and I did some quick math and came up with a 17-year estimate. And…Eclipse trotted and galloped a lot faster than anything I remembered…plus, it was raining and everything was muddy and slippery. The ol’ boy even got up to a canter at one point – which, when I was taking lessons as a girl, was the really big, scary thing that took me a long time to do.

While I was getting ready that morning, I wanted to wear my yellow pants…but because it was raining so much, I *had* to bring my rain jacket…which, unfortunately, is yellow…and I didn’t want to look like I belonged on Deadliest Catch…so I went with my red pants instead…but then Alex gave me a blue helmet…so I ended up looking like a character on a children’s television show (Or worse.).

We saw a howler monkey at the very beginning…but, despite Alex’s best effort to hoot at it, it didn’t make a peep. We also saw a lot of vultures and some toucans…but, sadly, the toucans were sort of hard to make out (distinctive beaks, I guess…but that’s about it…) and so Toucan Sam remains my benchmark. (I hate to whip out Alaska again, but I was really excited about seeing puffins for the first time at Prince William Sound [also where I saw otters in the wild for the first time…]. They’re so tiny! And I think this is maybe Similarity #5?)

The ride was really rainy and muddy…and, like I said, Alex kept telling me to make kissy noises at the horse to make him go faster, but I was perfectly happy with taking a more leisurely pace. (Alex also kept calling me, “Vacara!” and “Cowgirl!”) There were lots of rocks and streams and stuff…so we definitely got out beyond where I ever could have possibly walked on foot…and it was all worth it when we got into the rainforest…which was my absolute favorite part. It was so beautiful and green and just like I had always pictured it (instead of, you know, sort of taking it in peripherally as I flew by in the trees)…

We ran into another group along the way…but, as noted, my Spanish is perhaps less than conversational…and so other than, “Buenas!” I was pretty much out. There was a big lake near the volcano that had lots of water lilies in it and Alex had me bring Eclipse out into the middle of it so he could take a picture of me and the horse in the water. (Alex was really sweet and took a lot of photos of me and the horse along with way…which is just one of the reasons it is so unfortunate that I looked like such a buffoon.)

Unfortunately, we couldn’t see the volcano again because of the fog…but Alex still had me tie up my horse when we reached the top of the mountain so we could give him a breather…which I maybe thought was a little strange as the other group came up right behind us, but went on without a break. And then Alex asked me how old I am and if I am married and it was a little awkward…and I, in turn, asked him all the questions I could possibly think to ask…but then I ran out and we were still just sort of sitting there and I was trying to think about how to nicely ask about when we were going to untie the horses and hit the road again…but finally — after an interminably long break — we took off again.

On the way back, Alex took us through a pen with a bunch of bulls in it — big, huge bulls with jowly necks — and I guess he could tell I was maybe a little nervous as he said, “Don’t worry! Bulls are afraid of horses!” I am not entirely sure I believe him…but, no harm, no foul…and I guess in hindsight, it is kind of fun to be able to say that I rode a horse among Costa Rican bulls.

Along the way down, we ran into the owner of the bulls…who was also on horseback. He was wearing a black cape and had a black cowboy hat and his horse was black, too, and Alex took a picture of him giving me a thumb’s up and I couldn’t help but think that he looked like a Black Bart-type character.

Alex said we should keep our eyes peeled for wild pigs on the way back…and I was tempted to ask about whether they are javelinas as my parents have wild pigs near *their* house…but I was still feeling a little awkward from our “Why are you not married?”-conversation at the top of the mountain and it was still raining and my pants were soaked through and I had a pool of water in the hood of my jacket and, while enjoyable and memorable and everything, I was sort of ready to be done with the whole thing. (We didn’t find any pigs anyway.)

And, you know, the whole time I was thinking, “Boy, Lisa, you’re really going to pay for this tomorrow,” and I was scared that I was going to be sore forever…but, amazingly, I was fine. If anything, my stomach muscles hurt after ziplining…and I really didn’t even pull myself onto the line all that much. One of the poor guides (not my beloved Ishmael) had to help me. (Cringe.) Is it perhaps possible that worrying can make your stomach muscles hurt?

In the hot tub that night, J and I met a guy named Jeff from Jacksonville…who was a big surfer and was talking about perhaps moving to Costa Rica…at least for six months out of the year so he can catch lots of gnarly waves. He seemed rather disappointed with Arenal as he couldn’t see the volcano and there wasn’t much of a nightlife there. At dinner, J said that if I wanted him, he was all mine. I had – not arroz con anything! – tilapia a lo macho…which was supposed to be spicy…but either I am tough or it wasn’t that bad. And…I had seen a lot about a beer called Imperial, which billed itself “La cerveza de Costa Rica,” and this was the first night that I tried it. Good stuff. (Although every meathead American guy at the airport was wearing an Imperial t-shirt on the way home, so it may just be that I have bad taste…)

Day Six

We had to finally say goodbye to Hotel Montana de Fuego. And…I was kind of sad about it. I had gotten (mildly) attached to our cute little bungalow and – here’s unequivocal proof of how clingy I am – I would officially never see Ishmael ever again. (I also finally summoned up the courage to take a picture of the oxcart at the restaurant there by thinking about my mother’s “What are you worried about?? You’re never going to see these people ever again!”-advice.)

J expertly maneuvered our Corolla back down south to Alajuela (which, we learned, is far superior to San Jose when it comes to accommodations near to the airport. MUCH more low-key). We wanted to eventually head further south to Manuel Antonio, but to sneak in a tour of a coffee plantation while we were at it…and Alajuela seemed the perfect halfway point.

We tried to retrace our steps…but it got a little confusing in San Ramon…which was the first place I had to pop out to ask for directions. (By the end of the day, I had never said, “Estamos buscando X y no sabemos donde estamos,” so many times in my life.)

Along the way, we stopped off for more plantain chips…but, sadly, these weren’t as good as those first ones from that supermercado in La Fortuna. (I think they had some lime. SO good.)

We had a devil of a time finding our hotel…it was on the same road as a giant aviary called “Zoo Ave” and I got a lot of mileage out of saying, “Estamos buscando Zoo Ave…” and then we saw a sign that said the hotel was in 1200 meters (damn the metric system!) and I swore we had gone 1200 meters and then some and there was no sign of a hotel and so we stopped at a furniture store and I used my phrase on a guy on a motorcycle…and, while he hadn’t heard of our hotel specifically, he told me that all of the hotels were down to our left…and I really wanted to say, “But there’s a sign right over there that says our hotel is in 1200 meters!” But, alas, I could not…and so I was pointing to where the sign was and trying to say something about the hotel as he was saying, “There are no hotels that way!” So, sadly, after all those Spanish classes in high school and college, I was left on that street in Alajuela, thinking, “How in the hell do you say, ‘sign’?” Sigh again.

We *did* finally find it though…and it was a cute little cabiny room…with a very bizarre showerhead.

J and I were *supposed* to go on the 3:30 tour at Doka Estate…but, alas, we got really lost again…and I tried to use my phrase…but to no avail. (The guy who owned our hotel in Alajuela was a very chatty Canadian who later told us that Ticos – that’s Costa Ricans – find it very rude not to answer a question…and so sometimes they will tell you something just to tell you something.) So…we totally missed our tour, but were determined to find the damn Estate so that we wouldn’t have so much trouble the following morning…and the lady at the front desk at our hotel had said that we’d just go two kilometers and then turn left and then go another two kilometers until we got to the fork in the road and then turn right and then we’d see tons of signs…but…we didn’t see any signs…and facil it was not.

Along the way, we *almost* stopped off for dinner at a place called El Mirador that was supposed to have amazing views…but we ended up going back to our hotel and then walking to a seafood joint called La Princesa that had a giant anchor out front (it was one of the landmarks they gave us when giving us directions to Doka Estate). I had more rice and shrimp and Imperial…and we ordered tres leches…but J didn’t like it very much. I liked the flavor…but thought the texture was a little bit like watery cheesecake.

On the walk back home, we saw giant leafcutter ants all in a line, each carrying a single leaf. And…it wasn’t exactly a restful night as there were very loud Englishmen outside *and* there was a storm.

Day Seven

In an attempt *not* to get lost again, we got very long-winded directions from the Canadian guy who owned the hotel.

And, as luck would have it, we *thought* we had found Doka Estate the evening before, but…really all we had found was one of the signs…and so we had to keep going up the hill and we still sort of struggled to find the damn place…even after all that legwork from the day before.

We *finally* arrived at about 10:15 and were luckily able to sneak into the 10:00 tour that only included one couple from Michigan. There, we learned lots and lots about coffee-making from a guide who reminded me a lot of my friend Carmen. And there was unlimited free coffee at the end of the tour.

We got a little lost on the way back, but we ended up finding a gas station…so sort of kismet.

Afterward, we wanted to make our way to Manuel Antonio…and the Canadian guy had sworn up and down that the route was easy and there would be signs and stuff. And, luckily, he was right! It was a good three-plus-hour drive…but we didn’t get lost! And there were lots of signs! And we crossed a bridge that had crocodiles underneath and were able to pull off and see them and get right back in the car and go on our merry way…and the monkey hotel (when I read its motto was, “Still more monkeys than people,” I was totally sold) had room for us even though we didn’t have a reservation…and we got a room that looked like it was straight out of Swiss Family Robinson that was pretty much all windows and wood…and had a giant sliding door and two rocking chairs that said “Costa Rica” on the seats out front. Plus, our towels were folded into hearts and the toilet paper was folded into flowers. (I am easily impressed.) And the view from the pool was amazing and open and tropical and very much paradise-y…

We had an early dinner at a restaurant called the Anaconda (which made me think of the big butt song) and a bat flew by us over and over as we looked out on the trees and the water and swooned. I had a weird melony drink and J helped me compose a list of traits of my ideal man. (If you’re a brunette with big arms, you’re still in the running!)

Day Eight

Official Manuel Antonio Day. I was *really* looking forward to this day as the park was supposed to be crawling with wildlife. And even though I eventually outgrew the ape/monkey phase inspired by my report on orangutans in the sixth grade, I still really like them and have never had an opportunity to see them in the wild before.

The park was only a short drive from our hotel…so we quickly encountered a guy with a whistle who blew us over and told us where to park and tried to talk us into taking a tour with him. We had heard mixed reviews of these tours (including invaluable advice from Jeff from Jacksonville) and decided we might as well try to go into the park on our own as Jeff advised and that if the trip was totally a bust, we could easily go back the next day and cough up money for a guide. (This particular guide told us that we would only see two lizards the entire day if we attempted to go on our own, but he finally relented when we said we’d maybe be back…)

But as we were walking toward the park, we saw him blowing his whistle at other cars…but they ignored him and swerved around…and he had also said that the park was in 500 meters, but there was a sign around the corner as clear as day that said the park was in 1 kilometer…and then we sort of put two and two together and decided to move the car to a more accessible location.

And…even without a guide, we were still able to sort of mooch off of the tour groups in the park as we knew there would be animals wherever they were stopped. Howler monkeys were easy to spot because they’re so damn loud…but sloths were harder and were where mooching really paid off.

We eventually made it out to a beach and I took a photo of the “Don’t feed the monkeys”-sign while desperately hoping I would see some actual monkeys.

Out on the beach, J found some tadpoles in a pool in some rocks…and I followed behind but then slipped and fell in my dumb tennis shoes…and my knee really hurt…so I was perfectly happy to sit on the beach for awhile afterward while J went swimming. So…as I sat there and watched J swim and marveled at how pretty it was and pondered what to do with my life, a raccoon appeared behind me…and it surprised me, so I jumped up…and, remember that shopping bag that doubled as my purse? Well…that ballsy little raccoon came right up to where I was sitting and made a grab for it and I wasn’t quite sure what to do…but luckily a man saw what was happening and shouted and clapped at him and the raccoon ran away without my bag. (I got a photo of him though…)

And…after J was finished swimming and had showered off and everything, we walked back…and decided to pop off on one of the other trails called El Mirador. And…this is where it all happened. Out on the trail, we found so many capuchin monkeys! And they were right above our heads! And they were eating berries and talking to us…(and, yes, pooping…). And it was just so incredible — it was one of those things I will always remember. I never wanted it to end. And then on the way back, we saw more howler monkeys and sloths. It was quite a successful morning!

We had lunch at a quite little spot in Quepos called Cafe Milagro and then hung out by the pool with the magical view for awhile before changing into fancier duds and hitting up Salsipuedes (one of my favorite names *ever*) for tapas and one of the most beautiful (and fast!) sunsets I have ever seen and a black cat that ended up in my lap. I then talked J into a cantina crawl, so we hit up El Avion, La Cantina and Anaconda again…except this time they were playing that song about hos in different area codes and I was once again able to marvel at the fact that I have lived in SO MANY different places and yet the only area codes I know in that song are from Georgia and New York. And — funny enough — there was a big flat screen TV at one of the bars on which you could watch — get this — the CU/OSU game en vivo. So. A bizarre little reminder of home smack-dab in the middle of Central America.

Day Nine

Our trip was coming to an end…so we had to say goodbye to the monkey hotel, too, and make our way back to Alajuela once again.

But, as our hotel had bragged about having more monkeys than people, I really wanted to go out on one of the trails to find some of the little buggers before we left…but, alas, it was wet and there was a precipitous drop and so J and I decided to quit while we were ahead and we made our way back toward the middle of the country. The drive was pretty much okay…although we got lost a little bit more than we did on the way there…and Hotel Orquideas had a room for us (despite all of my worries that we would be high and dry without reservations for every single night that we were there…). The hotel even had a Marilyn Monroe-themed bar, where we spent the early part of our final evening there…and then we retired to our room, where I happened to catch my very favorite Costa Rican TV commercial one last time. (I *believe* it was for a deodorant…and it showed women in long sleeves who lifted their arms toward the sky and then their sleeves shot off and turned into fireworks. I cannot *believe* that I did not think to write down the name so I could search for it on YouTube.)

And, with that, Costa Rica was basically over. And soooo is my blog post.

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Filed under Alaska, beer, blueberries, books, Brooklyn, cake, cheese, cheesecake, chickens, coffee, eggs, fish, football, Mississippi, red velvet, wine

A Consistent Bacon Theme…with the Best Burgers in Chicago and Pies to Boot.

My fat-themed trip to Chicago began with K meeting me at O’Hare with a pumpkin spice latte (say what you will about Starbucks, but it’s become a rite of fall…), which was absolutely perfect as my flight from Denver left at 6:40 and I needed just a *little* more coffee to really feel like Lisa.

Our first stop was Vosges, a chocolate shop with the tag line “Haut Chocolate.” We were there specifically for a bacon bar, but discovered there were actually several to choose from — milk, dark and caramel toffee. I don’t actually remember which of the chocolates I liked better with the bacon bits (it’s sweet and salty…which is one of the reasons I used to love Take 5 so much…), but I generally like milk chocolate better, so that was probably it. The bacon caramel toffee was certainly good, but we couldn’t tell there was any bacon in it…which may defeat the purpose of actually buying bacon chocolate. But, in the end, neither one of us was compelled to buy a whole bar…in part because I could not tell how much they were…and if I had to ask, maybe I couldn’t afford it? (Turns out they’re about $7.50 each…so it might be worth it as a special treat for bacon lovers.)

From there, we stopped off at Dominick’s (…which sells Safeway products! A nice little kickback to my California roots…) for pie ingredients. K is participating in the Bucktown Apple Pie Contest on October 18 and wanted some pointers. I told her the one big thing I learned from the 2007 APC Crisco National Pie Championships — Plain apple won’t do it. You HAVE to have something unique and/or distinctive. — and we found a recipe on Epicurious for a Deep-Dish Caramel Apple Pie. (She actually used her iPhone to do it…which made me long for one even more…but then I worry that I will never be able to make calls in my apartment as the reception is so bad…and I continue to hem and haw…)

We used my aunt’s crust recipe…and, in all honestly, all I think K needs to do is practice a bit to get her confidence up…and *maybe* purchase a few tools (a pastry blender! a pie crust shield! a silpat liner!). Otherwise, the only advice I gave was the standard “make sure your water is really, really cold” and “don’t let the dough get too sticky.”

And…even though the recipe does not call for an upper crust, we improvised a bit and added one…and I think the pie was better for it. It was definitely a memorable spin on standard apple.

After baking, we hit up the Bristol…which allegedly serves a Bacon Manhattan for brunch. We thought maybe we could ask nicely and they would serve us one anyway for happy hour, but, alas, the barkeep said he did not have the right bacon-infused booze on hand. He later let me try some bacon-infused scotch (and the brunch menu says the Bristol’s Manhattan is made with bacon-infused Dewar’s, so…?)…and I told him I liked it better than regular scotch — the truth! — but I did not tell him that I do not like regular scotch. The bacon infusion sort of took the edge off of it…and totally made it drinkable. (Another bonus? They had duck fat fries…which I have been unable to try at Hot Doug’s for TWO consecutive Chicago trips. [They are only served on weekends.])

After meeting up with K’s new husband, we headed over to Kuma’s Corner for what was supposed to be one of the best burgers in Chicago. I don’t like eggs, so the Kuma Burger (with fried egg) was out, but it was really hard to decide between the YOB and Iron Maiden and Neurosis (among others). In the end, I went for the Iron Maiden and K ordered the Neurosis…and both were really, really good…on the order of not-much-talking, lots-of-eating kind of good. I was at Subway once with a guy (hey, big spender…) who was sort of shocked that I ordered a sandwich with everything on it…so, what can I say? I like lots of stuff. I actually kind of wish I lived closer to Chicago so I could try some of the other combinations at Kuma’s. Worth noting in so many words: Definitely worth the trip if you’re in the area.

With bellies full of burgers, K’s husband dropped us off at the Green Eye, where we continued to catch up and whatnot…and we were thrilled to see it had one of those collegiate banners hanging from behind the bar that said, “Bacon!” (The theme continues!) And…I’ll blame it on the bacon-infused scotch, I guess, but it maybe seemed like I had nothing to lose by contacting Wall-E at that point…although it was kind of weird when he showed up and I think I was maybe kind of mean and ignored him a little. So. There ended that.

The next day, our first stop was the Hoosier Mama Pie Company…which K had emailed me about long, long ago. We were both kind of sick of sweet stuff — we had, after all, had pie for breakfast — but they had a peach raspberry pie…which contains, like, my two favorite fruits of all time…so I couldn’t not get a piece. (K, for her part, got a slice of bacon quiche.)

We couldn’t eat it right then and there though — so we dropped off the baked goods at K’s house and headed downtown…where K had the brilliant idea of eating at Rick Bayless‘ new restaurant, Xoco. We had to wait in line for a good long while (and a ballsy woman pulled up in a Corolla and wanted someone to give her menus and phone numbers)…but it was totally worth the wait. (Plus, RICK BAYLESS HIMSELF was working in the kitchen…so we were sort of able to gawk while we waited…) K had the choriqueso, I had the milanesa…and by the time we actually had seats, it was another one of those no-talking, more-eating moments. We were approached by a WGN reporter at the end of the meal who wanted to talk about our food. Unfortunately, nerves got the better of me and I sounded like that version of myself that I hate…and even though it didn’t come out very clearly to WGN, it *is* true that my mother LOVES Rick Bayless and that my torta was really good…I just couldn’t think of any other way to describe it while on the hot seat. Perhaps I’ll give it another go here: it was kind of like a grilled cheese sandwich, but with this tomatillo sauce that gave it a little zing…or maybe you could even think of it as a Mexican spin on an Italian cutlet sandwich?

K and I did some kind of arty, shoppy stuff in the afternoon…and then, finally, we more or less ended everything with a trip to (O)enology at the InterContinental Chicago for — that’s right — more chocolate-covered bacon. One of my classmates had tweeted or Facebooked or somethinged about trying chocolate-covered bacon in Chicago…and so we knew we had to add ENO to our fat list, too. And, you know what? It had one of those menus that seems like it would be really fun to write (Another? Le Peep.) and I would totally dig a job like that…except, even though I realize they have a schtick, I might feel kind of like a schmuck with the whole “Wine. Cheese. Chocolate. Sensation.”-thing. Regardless, the chocolate-covered bacon was only available with the “Wine and Swine” Chocolate Sensation…and so that is what we ordered (along with flights called “Tickled Pink” and “Ring Around the Rose”). It also came with a shiitake truffle…which I was not sure about…but our waiter (who looked like Bradley Cooper from afar) assured us we’d wish it had *more* mushroom. I can’t say I really tasted any shroom…it was pretty much just chocolate. And the chocolate-covered bacon was, you know, good. Same sort of sweet/salty combo as before…but perhaps with more salty this time as there was more meat…and it was covered in dark chocolate…which I suppose was a nice complement to the higher chocolate:bacon ratio?

And then that was it. I had to go home and eat leftover burger and pack so I could wake up super-early and fly back to NY. (And I will share my thoughts on *that* momentarily…)

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Filed under beer, chocolate, eggs, frying, gadgets, grilled cheese, hot dogs, pie

Magic Fruit and Poop Coffee

Alright, I will go on the record saying that I had no idea that my friend D went to such totally crazy food parties.

But, in the course of our 12-hour adventure yesterday, she told me about not one, but TWO things I must share IMMEDIATELY:

1. Magic Fruit. Apparently this is some kind of crazy thing you get on the Internet that you roll around on your tongue (the way she described it, it sounded kind of like acid…but she swore it’s just fruit)…and that makes sour things taste really sweet. (The story from the Times is over a year old, so, yes, I admit it — I am officially behind the times.) D said a friend had a party with this Magic Fruit and then they all gorged themselves on citrus fruits and salt and vinegar potato chips topped with hot sauce. She promises to throw her *own* Magic Fruit party soon…and I promise I will tell you all about it.

2. Poop Coffee. (Or, civet coffee.) This is apparently the coffee Jack Nicholson orders in The Bucket List and is really super-expensive…but the beans have the dubious distinction (I am pretty sure I ripped off that exact phrase from at least one story I read about the stuff) of being digested by a cat-like creature…that then, you know, poops…and somebody has to go out and collect it and dust it off and sell it for lots and lots of money. The whole digestive thing does something to the beans that makes the coffee really good, my friend said. So. Something else for the list, I guess…

Informal poll — which is worse? Poop Coffee? Or the Sourtoe cocktail?

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Today in Pie News…

It wasn’t just a fluke, ladies and gentlemen! I am here — albeit not on camera — with another round of Pie News!

First up, we have BIG news from Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner yesterday about the plan to purchase up to $1 trillion in toxic assets…and firms like BlackRock and PIMCO enthusiastically lining up to do so. So! What better way to mark the occasion, I ask you, than with Grape and Fig Pie? As investors soak up devalued real estate loans and mortgage-backed securities *you* can steam figs that will then “soak up the copious juice that bakes out of the grapes,” Ken Haedrich writes. What’s more, the pie has a decidedly Mediterranean feel…and is that not the ancient home of the form of democracy we’re seeing at work right now?

But! It wasn’t all bland financial news! Late night king David Letterman made headlines this week when he revealed he tied the knot with long-time girlfriend Regina Lasko. And nuptials that were 23 years in the making are no small feat! So…I’d suggest Dave wow his new missus with a taste of home and some Indiana Butterscotch Pie with a Checkerboard Crust. What’s more, that pretty crust will be perfect for celebrating. OR…since Letterman reportedly got stuck in the mud on the way to the courthouse, he could always commemorate the occasion with Mud Pie. (PS: There’s coffee in it…which is apropos as he has to stay up so late.)

And Letterman wasn’t the only one in the news this week! Poor Matt Lauer must be feeling awfully banged up after his deer collision over the weekend. To lift his spirits after shoulder surgery — and to perhaps subtly reference him flying over his handlebars — I’d make a Floating Top Cherry-Vanilla Bean Pie. All you need is a circle of dough to place in the center of the filling…and voila! Floating crust. (Although I suppose the Black Bottom Peanut Butter Cloud Pie — which Haedrich says has a mousse-like consistency that is aerated by whipped cream and beaten egg whites — would also work.)

That’s it for now! But…stay tuned!

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