Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Nic and Hoya vs. The Volcano

Looking forward to a restful couple days in the countryside, away from Hermosa, we hop in our rental car (careful not to scratch the interior as Costa Rican car agencies tend to be on the anal side, Economy Rental actually went so far as to take a series of digital photos of the spotless new car) and haphazardly navigated our way through a collection of unnamed towns all with their individual maze of unmarked streets.
One thing we realized, the tour book maps all show "avenidas" running East to West while "calles" run North to South. This is opposite from the states, where avenues run North to South. Fortunately, while an amusing aside, it didn't affect us too much since none of the streets, outside of Jaco, are actually named. So, avenida or calle--it really didn't matter. Directions from the locals were limited to landmarks and meters. Thankfully, Nic was equipped with a smart compass-watch which saved us from weaving a perpetual circle around Alajuela and then some.

A serpent-style road that wound up and down, around and around, wiggling through alternating stretches of pastoral farmland and wild jungle, with the lonely golden light of little "sodas" (or little roadside cafes) tucked in between, led us to La Fortuna, the touristy-town at the base of Volcano Arenal. Our jaded tourbook sneered that this town (resplendant with it's strip malls and gawdy hotels) was built up on the fame of Arenal, only for Mother Nature to respond by shifting lava flows southwest for only the tiny town of El Castillo to see, and completely out of view from La Fortuna. Being the intrepid travelers that we were, we didn't hesitate to push on for El Castillo and the killer volcano views.

As night moved in, a jungle storm descended. Nic navigated the gravel road riddled with potholes as sheets of thick rain pelted the car and the road with tireless fury. (Think of Seattle's big storm of Dec. 06, just 50 degrees warmer, in a jungle-forest). We finally found accomodations at a Tica family's simple cabinas, after driving up the steepest, narrowest, pot-holey-ish road ever.

Wind howls, jungle trees sway, and the tin roof hums with rain, as we snuggle into bed after a long night on the road.

Around midnight a hard pounding on the door awakens us. A guest had mistaken our cabina for the office. We settle down again, until 7am we hear someone screaming for help, over and over, as the storm continues to blow over her cries for help. We hopped outta bed again. Only to find a man rushing to her cabin, a guest was locked out of her cabin. We get up for breakfast and put on the warmest clothes we'd brought--shorts, t-shirts and sandals—much to the amusement of the other guests who are decked out in such luxuries as pants, goretex jackets. A chilled breakfast of desayuno tipico—gallo pinto and eggs, fried plantains and a ghost-white cheese that didn’t have much of a taste.

In the storm, Arenal hides in a veil of clouds. Nic and I laugh off the volcano—without a clear night to view her molten flows, angry Arenal is more of a joke, a little less than a jagged hill when compared to our North Cascade beauties.

Little did we know…Vulcan Arenal holds much power over the casual tourist! Don’t think you can leave Arenal without a fight for your life…and your rental car.

We tumbled down the mountain that morning. After arriving in the thick of a jungle midnight, we peered at our surroundings in the early morning light, seeing for the first time the rickety one lane bridges we’d driven over that separated us by only a couple inches from angry river rapids of peanut-butter color and gooey thickness--the result of one wild night, gorging on the silt of flooded streams. Creeks swelled perilously above their seams, and crept towards houses, cows and trees as we bumped along in the rental car. A little breathless to be away from this surprisingly harsher Costa Rican environment, we stopped suddenly, jaws dropped. A tree, a felled mangrove skyscraper with all its jungle inhabitants and parasitic cables, lay across the road. It was like stumbling across a downed 747 in the middle of a remote road. Solid. Enormous. Completely un-passable.

We walk up to the tree, talking in the light, cold rain, deciding what to do, casting furtive glances as our bright white 4 door sedan. Do we wait for someone to cut through this beast and free us? Or drive back, all the way back to town and wait it out there. As Nic looks at me (his back to the jungle, facing me) as a gust of wind rips through the dense forest. Giants sway, groan and snap in the distance. Another burly gust and a 20 foot section of jungle-scape, just 20 feet before me, sways then snaps, splinters and tumbles.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Wardrobe advantages of Surfing Costa Rica

The surfing lifestyle really isn't too bad. You get up in the morning, go surfing for a few hours, grab breakfast, work if you have to, go for the afternoon session then grab dinner. Rinse and repeat, this doesn't take a whole long time to get used to and one can understand how lives go 'wasted' doing this.

One thing that's particularly sweet about being in this climate is just how few clothes you need. For the lucky guy surfers, really only two pieces of apparel are needed. Board shorts and flip flops.

We've been here almost a month now, and there are quite a few locals here who work and live in Hermosa whom I've never seen in anything more than board shorts. And who can blame them? Not only do you have that much less to carry around and pack, but if you adopt this lifestyle wholeheartedly you don't even need to do laundry, just rotate which shorts you are wearing and let the ocean do the spin cycle.

Then again, it seems that having a hairy chest isn't very in-mode around here, so with that lifestyle might come a lifetime of either waxing or shaving. Hrmm..

On that same topic, I must point out that if you want to get a ripped chest and back, I know of no better way than adopting the hedonistic lifestyle of the surf bum. Unlike any other sport I know of, you just can't paddle half way while surfing. Take it easy trying to get outside the breakers and you'll never make it past them, take it easy while trying to catch a wave and you'll never catch them. The entire premise of the sport is based around interval training of paddling sprints, all the while supporting yourself with your abs and back. I'm no hulk by any means, but even after just a month, I'm toner now than I've ever been, climbing, mountain biking, skiing or anything else included.

So by becoming a surf bum you get to commune with nature daily, have a great tan, get ripped, never do laundry again and just generally have a pleasant attitude towards life. All that for shaving your chest once in a while.. Hrmm..

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Plastic surgery in paradise

According to our guide book, a major Costa Rican import is perfecting American tourists. From tummy tucks, to nose jobs, to fresh new boobs – Costa Rica offers cosmetic surgery at a significantly lower cost (compared to US) along with one of the best climates for recovery (just send over a few b&w photos along with your cash payment). In return, the internet abounds with 5 star resorts offering plastic-surgery packages: assisted 2 week stays, hospital transfers, nutritious food to speed recovery and light activities.

OR, as I discovered, for the budget-conscious American traveler looking to enhance what their mamma gave ‘em can simply and cheaply sit in the ocean for 4-5 hours a day under the blistering tropical sun, forget to apply chapstick with sunscreen, and wait for the industrious Mother Nature to give you a good ol’ fashioned face peel and lip burn! The results: pure magic!

This morning (after sitting in the ocean for 4 hours with no sunscreen on the lips) I awoke up to puffy-burnt lips so luscious and full that I could hardly smile, or brush my teeth, or even eat. The pink balloon of my jutting lower lip gives the impression of a perpetual, much exaggerated pout that would give Angelina Jolie a run for her money! It’s crazy that this is what people pay for. I have to reapply chapstick every 4 minutes as the wind of my breath running over the expanding new surface area that is my lip, dries out at accelerated rates. The funny thing is that my exagerated feature is hardly noticable – when I pointed it out to our friend at the rental car place, Juan Carlos, he thought it good, in fact he was pretty excited for Nic...only to lament upon finding out the Joya Jolie affect was only temporary.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

As the surf churns...

We woke around 2a.m., to sounds of something pounding on wood. A recent break-in to one of the cabinas had us on alert (the burglar cut a mosquito screen and climbed in to steal a camera as the tourists slept). Relief it’s not our door. Strange that it’s our neighbor’s door, bashed in at the bottom. Brave Nic can’t find the manager and when someone turns on a light in the neighbor’s room with no objections—we figure it must be ok.

We wake again around 8am, to sounds of a man yelling and cursing profusely at the manager, Roger. While families and friends endure a subdued breakfast, two men [one stocky short guy and the other stringy tattooed tall, both in wet boardshorts, fresh outta the ocean] stalk the manager’s cabina. Both guys are locals, known dealers and troublemakers. Tattoo guy holds up a white surfboard with a series of dents down its stringer-spine. See what that **** did?

Apparently there was a surf altercation, a pretty intense one. Tattoo guy allegedly dropped in on good-surf Afro kid. Their egos collided out on the water. Choice words exchanged. Intensity intensified. And it all translated into a tussle (pummeling?) on the sand. Surf Afro kid, Josie, then seeks out a knife. (Yeah, a knife.) He attacks Tattoo guy’s board. Inflicts massive dents to the sensitive board underbelly, breaking the stringer in multiple places, rendering the board useless. It’s pretty bad. But so are the things the guys say as they pace in circles, demanding that Roger, the manager, deliver Josie (who now hides in Roger’s house). While locals look on with uninvolved curiosity that borders indifference, Nic steps into the sharky ring outside Roger’s house. Taking no side he offers reason to the men. What good will violence do at this point. What’s done is done. Tattoo guy holds up his board and fumes and stomps over the $400 board destroyed. Like a child, crying over some perceived unfairness, tough tattoo guy yells then pleads his case to someone his own size, his menace diffuses in waves by Nic’s equal but honest strength that compels him to stand firm—an unafraid witness to their threats—with coffee mug in hand.

A friend of Roger’s negotiates a solution, Josie’s board for his board if Tattoo guy will leave it at that. It’s not clear what will happen.

The policia show up. In English, they ask who speaks Spanish. Short guy explains the situation. They listen with what looks like bored tolerance. But their presence seems to encourage the guys to take the board as compensation. The friend appears with the board and jokes with them as Tattoo guy walks off two boards in hand, and we sit down to banana pancakes and gallo pinto, preparing ourselves for a much more mellow day ahead, en el campo.

I couldn’t be more proud of Nic (even if his humbleness makes him hate the fact that I’m sharing this mini-drama-adventure with our readers).

Friday, December 28, 2007

Through the eyes of an 8 year old...

This morning we got up at 7 to glassy waves, just around head high, breaking a bit more consistently and a little more softly than before. Paddling out was a relative breeze, hair not even wet. Pelicans, in morning formation, skim across the building sets about a surfboard length from me.

Beautiful wave after beautiful wave glides in. I paddle for my wave and just as I catch it, I know I have it--and I pull back and slide down the backside. Instead of trying to get up when I had the wave, I bailed. Frustrated, the only explanation I had for myself was that after so many years of trying and falling and failing -- I was just sabotaging myself now.

I watch Nic--up and at 'em. Taking a ride, taking a fall, taking a ride, fall.

I lower my standards to just, get a wave and fall. Fall big. Just do something.

So it comes, the same wave repeated -- I paddle hard and get up to fall. Strangely -- I'm on my feet, standing and riding and turning and smiling.

I look up to see two Costa Rican eight year old boys watching me, smiling. One points at my board and excitedly shakes his hand in a "hang loose". I return the surfer sign and his eyes get wide. He nudges his friend to do the same. We stand in ankledeep water exchanging "hang loose" and smiles. Nic rides in and they point and do the same to him.

Funny how not being good doesn't really matter to 8 year olds. What it was, was good enough. Even impressive. It's just the act of trying and doing, of seeing something you hope to do someday -- when you're a grown up?

A flash of a memory. Of being 8 or 9 years old, standing on black-sandy beach of the Oregon Coast, watching Axel, my older brother by 9 years, wading out in a tattered wetsuit with an old-yellowed surfboard, for brief coldwater rides and tumble after tumble in the Waldport whitewater churn. As the sun set, and the cold beach grew colder I stood there til my fingers and toes were numb, watching him do the coolest things I'd ever seen...hoping that someday, when I was a grownup, I could do that too.

Yesterday Afternoon

Yesterday was pretty evil. The first real overcast day that didn't dissipate instantly via tropical storm. Instead the gray clouds sucked the vivid aquamarine from the waves and they took on a troubling-steely look as they grew to magnificent shape, one after the other, slapping down surfers throughout the day. Too beat up from the morning adventures for an afternoon pummeling, Nic and I took a driftwood seat and watched the show.

We noticed a few things:
1. there are some really, really great surfers who have that magical ability to tame the worst of the giant waves with finesse that's just mind-blowing.
2. much to our surprise, there are some not so great surfers here too. We've been so amazed by the great ones, we've been overlooking the now obvious fact that maybe we weren't the worst surfers out there.

We decided to focus on #2 for the afternoon. We picked a couple characters, dubbed them with nicknames and then watched...

Mareka - our new Hawaiian surfgirl friend -- she paddled out, duck dived with decent skill, once outside [we held our breath in anticipation of a great ride] she sat there. Perfectly balanced on the board, facing west, long hair draped over her shoulder, waiting and waiting as the afternoon sets rolled in. She caught a couple rides. One was an obvious, embarrassing dropin on this other dude. So she bailed. The second was nearly a repeat (with the same dude!)

New Girl - while huge sets come smashing on top of her, she stood about shoulder high in water, her board drifting, upside down with the fins up, as she'd alternate between walking and dragging the board and a half swim and drag. We watched her labored attempts to get more than 10 feet off the shore against the rip and waves. We strike up a conversation with an oldtime surfer from New Jersey -- he tells us more people drown in Hermosa than you'd believe. She shouldn't even be out there. We talk while one rescue alert.

Newbie - by far the favorite. On such a burly, big day, this guy haphazardly paddles out on a 8 foot rental. With each whitewater rush, his board goes flying up, but he pushes on and in a strange lull -- he makes it outside. Newbie is completely and dangerously oblivious. We're cringing on our log as he lays flat on his board, sometimes facing the shore and giving the thumbs up to his friends, sometimes facing sideways and falling off the board...meanwhile overhead, double-overhead sets roll by. The heartless rip seems to feel sorry for this guy, it pulls his careless barge down the coast, across the backs of giant waves where better surfers are pummeled for trying, never quite letting him inside enough to get smashed....until he heads in from the floatilla, and, in ankle deep water, a 5 foot tumbler sneaks up behind him and pummels him in the sand.

Boyfriend and Girlfriend - gave us hope. They paddled out together and we kept score for them. Rides vs. Failed attempts. Neither were epic riders, they missed about half they tried for. But they were a reasonable step up from where Nic and I were at. Compared to the few supermen/superwomen in the lineup catching 80% of the waves like it's nothing - these two had an attainable track record.

At the end of the day, we gave ourselves credit for trying, and slowly but surely making some bit of progress here and there, all under challenging conditions....and smiled, like catty junior high girls, with the realization that there really are some people out, at Hermosa, who are absolutely worse than us.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Near death experience?

Joya and I went out for our usual morning thrashing around 7:00. Things have been ever so slightly mellower for the past few days, waves head high instead of twelve feet high, so things have been a bit more manageable.

Anyways, the waves were a bit crazy this morning, and we spent much of the time just playing in the whitewater practicing our popups and generally goofing around. Now and then, things would flatten out enough that I would paddle out and try to catch a real wave and ride it in before it broke.

On one such occasion, I'm sitting outside of the main breaks waiting and I see a big set come in. One problem with Hermosa is that it's always big, there really is never a time when the average wave is less than five feet. Which means that occasionally big sets roll through where the waves are twice that tall, even on the smallest of days. You only really have two options when you see a big set roll in: a) paddle towards Australia, so they don't break on you or b) try to catch one and get out of the way of the others. Since I'm in no shape to catch these, I started paddling. Up and over the first steep pitch, I see the next coming at me.. paddle.. paddle.. Made that one too, but it was clear as I came over the back side of the second, that the third would crash right on me. Onto option b, though this was far over my head (in more ways than one) I tried to catch it.

You can all imagine what happened next.. it sucked me up the face and in a scene straight out of 'worst case scenarios while surfing' it pummeled me over the falls just as it broke. I will admit this wasn't the first time, so as before I assumed the fetal position to wait it out.

This is where it gets weird. Just after crashing in, everything turned perfectly still. No water rushing by, no being tumbled, not even the sound of the wave passing through. I just floated underwater in my tuck, perfectly still, untouched. It was so shocking and lasted so long that the thought crossed my mind that I might actually be dead. I just sat there for three or four seconds, perfectly still, then finally untucked and swam to the surface.

All was well of course, I pulled my board in and rode the next wave's whitewater on my tummy in, but it was an odd experience. Don't worry mom, these waves aren't killers, just enlightening.