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Costa Rica/Tropics: Lizards

iguana.jpgFor the record, I hate lizards. Not small lizards. Just big lizards. Big, sharp-nailed iguana lizards who bounce their heads when they’re coming onto their pointy lizard girlfriends. They pop up in odd places – on patios near breakfast, on tree branches near lunch, in my personal space – with bits of their tail missing, looking poised for a sprint to the death and carrying enough extra skin that they could easily expand to twice or three times their current size and bag a couple of Tahitian wives and buy their own island and…oh no wait: that’s Marlon Brando. I take it back about the wives. But I still hate lizards.

Costa Rica: Car Rental


Everyone advises against getting a car. “You won’t need it,” they say, “All of your things will be stolen!” they say, as if the country is crawling with crime. The internet at large tells discouraging tales of cars run off the road, slow trucks, roving pedestrians, broken axels, un-fordable rivers, tires intentionally punctured, motorists stalked and on and on and on.

So why did we rent a car in Costa Rica? Because those people are silly and we are not. Because I have a packing problem, a broken rib, all of Costa Rica’s leetle, tiny airlines have a weight restriction of 25 lbs./person and my rolling suitcase weighs 12.5 lbs. empty. Because I just got SCUBA certified and bought all the snorkel gear for my very own and I’ll be damned if I am going to go to Costa Rica and not dive (stupid rib) AND not snorkel with my very own and apparently quite heavy snorkel gear.

But mainly because those people are silly.

My physical therapist is not silly. She goes to Costa Rica every year for two weeks to surf, is a very reasonable person and gets a car every time.

The main thing to remember is, “Don’t be stupid.” Don’t get a car in the rainy season (spring – autumn) and expect to drive on small roads. Make sure you get a 4WD vehicle no matter where you’re going. And, as my grandmother says, don’t get smart and go right up to the edge of things.

We got a mid-sized SUV and it worked out great: even though we didn’t need all the space, we were glad to have the extra weight when crossing “streams.” (I put that in quotes because they were as wide as rivers, just shallow…ish.) The natives drive around in the Acme version of Camrys, but I wouldn’t recommend it. I assume they either a.) replace the struts and shocks every Thursday, or b.) have grown their own set internal to their bodies.

The main roads are in generally excellent condition. The other roads are in terrible, terrible condition, but they are all passable, with a little courage, and they are all well-marked. In fact, the roads in the middle of nowhere are better marked than anything in the cities, where there’s apparently a hate on against street signs.

If the map you bought at the halfway decent travel store (we got this one) has a road on it, there’s a road there. If it looks like a path, it might be, but you can still drive on it. The only thing inaccurate about the maps, actually, is that some of the dashed line roads (the worst designation) are in better shape than the roads marked by solid lines. Well-kept secrets, I guess.

Costa Rica: Tamarindo

costa rica - tamarindo.jpgNo one thinks Tamarindo is a good idea anymore. It used to be a quintessential lazy Costa Rican beach town offering mindblowing sunsets and excellent surfing but, like many tiny treasures on an accessible route, it has become over-popular and unpleasant. Mind you, it’s not a total disaster: we’re comparing it to a pretty tasty list of destinations. I’d still go there over, say, anywhere in Florida.

I’ve heard tell of criminal goings-on – prostitutes and drugs – but saw no evidence of either, so if they are in fact there, they’re not intrusive. In contrast, the potholes are just as bad, if not far worse than has been reported. You will not be able to drive above five mph on any of the roads in town and I would never subject anything less than a four-wheel-drive to the bone-shattering experience. That’s saying something since we have since driven the length of the Nicoya Penninsula on side roads which could better be described as footpaths. Tamarindo’s roads are appalling even by Costa Rican standards.

We stayed at Casa Sueca, just outside the center. It’s not an unwalkable distance, but, given the dust and lack of scenery, it’s far enough that you’ll want some kind of vehicle to get around. (You can walk from the hotel to town via the beach, but it’s a hike.) They offer rooms with kitchens; it’s clean, friendly, spacious, just across the road from beach access and run by Americans. This last is not necessarily a plus to me but it did mean free wireless access and efficiency in making last-minute arrangements for seeing nesting turtles and circumventing the three-day ban on liquor that surrounds each national election.*

Why did we go, given it’s bad reputation? Because I am a turtle fanatic, that’s why, and Tamarindo is the only place you can see nesting turtles in December, so back off.

*Elections happen twice a year and the ban is publicized nowhere on any web site or guide book that I came across. If you’re the “lie in a beach chair and sip rum drinks” type, plan ahead. For seventy-two hours – from Friday at midnight to Monday at midnight – no establishment, bodega or restaurant or beach stand, is allowed to serve liquor of any kind. Some hotels and restaurants will give you a bottle of wine or an illicit daiquiri, but don’t count on it. Either book your trip for the following week or arrive in time to stock up on rum and blenders on Friday.

Sidebar: Friends we were meeting stayed at Capitain Suizo just a few doors up the street. Despite it’s ridiculous name, Suizo is a very nice hotel. $200/night nice but they do offer a more comprehensive experience than the largely DIY Casa Sueca where luxuries were limited to a coffeemaker in the room. The hotel faces the ocean, has the requisite cushioned teak beach chairs and drink service by the pool. Their breakfast buffet is excellent – try the fresh, soft brown bread with your fruit and coffee – and accompanied by iguanas and enormous, cheeky, sugar-packet stealing birds.

Costa Rica: San Jose

Travel Edition: Against: Costa Rica: San Jose

I would like to second all the guidebooks I have read about Costa Rica and say, for the record, that San Jose is a total hole and not worth visiting even for ten minutes. There. I’ve done it. Now let’s move on.

Costa Rica: Orquiedas Inn, Alajuela

costa rica - orqueidas.jpgBecause you will be forced to stay in San Jose (see above) upon your arrival in Costa Rica, I will recommend the Orqueidas Inn as a solid introduction to your Central American experience.

A couple of preliminary notes. First, it is not close to the airport. It’s not far, but it is at least twenty minutes out of town, forty, if, like us, you rented a car and are going to by two hand-drawn maps to get there. If you’re used to rolling out of the Hyatt and onto the moving sidewalk into the terminal, this place is not for you. If, however, you’d like to get a taste of the rainforest right away, Orqueidas Inn is a sturdy bet.

Second, you must be tenacious to secure a room here. While they are listed on, the site will show no room availability even when there is availability. This would seem counter-productive for them but I choose to think of it as a filtering method they employ to secure only the most competitive and determined lodgers, such as myself.

They also have a web site. Before ascertaining whether there is a room for you, you will be asked to submit a credit card on a non-secure form. You will send them the form without your credit card number, web-savvy and safety-conscious as you are, and substitute a note explaining your discomfort. They do not care about your feelings and you will receive no reply. It turns out that you will also receive no reply if you do include your credit card, so don’t be hurt but press on. After you send them two or three emails and make four phone calls, only one of which will be picked up, you may have yourself a deal. This is a good introduction for you to Costa Rican service and road maintenance. There is no ill will and the neglect is not intentional, but only those with patience will be rewarded.

The Orqueidas has a bar and restaurant (get the coconut shrimp) which serve until 10PM, gated parking (essential in Costa Rica’s cities), rooms with air conditioning and hot showers (something which, if not specified, may not be the case), a serviceable pool and almost American prices. Don’t expect to get Central American deals here, but you can get a room for $75 or a little more and it will look out on jungle trees and make you feel like you’re already in the jungle. The staff is exclusively male and talkative. They’ll set up tours for you if you like and you can catch a van to just about anywhere in the country from here. Just ask at the desk or when you finally get someone on the phone to make your reservation.

Do NOT try the house drink, the Marilyn Kiss, which is a vile mix of Cointreau, grenadine and some terrible, low-grade gasoline mixed in a martini glass laced with salt. Go for the caipirinha, a typical Costa Rican drink made of smashed bits of lime, sugar cane and whatever else they had lying around. It’s like a dark mojito and is very tasty. Their margaritas are also good: I usually hate them but ordered one by accident and enjoyed it.

Welcome to Costa Rica!

americanair.jpg“Let us be the first to welcome you to Costa Rica.” This is completely unfair. No one, including my boyfriend sitting twelve inches away, has had a chance to welcome me. As soon as the wheels come down and I unclench, American Airlines is on the intercom, pre-empting other welcomes. Again. American Airlines welcomes me to nearly everyplace I go. They’re a very welcoming bunch.

On the one hand, there’s a comforting familiarity to this since I am, at best, a crabby flier and, at worst, a catatonic, break-down-in-tears-because-they’ve-run-out-of-chicken/ginger ale/snack packs flier. On the other hand, like seeing the golden arches, it is also slightly distressing that everywhere in the world is becoming slightly similar.

Just once, I would like to hear the instructions about flotation devices and oxygen in a language I cannot understand. I get the basics – seatbelts just don’t present the challenge they used to – and the ones I’ve never quite grasped are apparently useless anyway, just something to keep us feeling secure before an emergency and busy during one.

If I could hear those words in Taiwanese, say, it would give me that first-time-all-over-again feeling or at least raise my blood pressure a little as I panicked for an instant wondering if there were something I’d missed, something new, something different, some new bracing position they suggest I assume, some new contraption that would unexpectedly drop from the ceiling, like a fire extinguisher or a sock puppet. That’s all I’m asking. Before I take off or after I land, something a little shiny and new, a little excitement. You know what I’m saying.

Arthur Denting It To Central America

towel.jpgAt this very last instant, I am about to pack my towel, so you know I really mean it about the leaving town. If you don’t know what I mean, please click here and get yourself to a bookstore to round out your expensive education with a copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide the Galaxy. If you saw the movie and hated it, take heart: the book is as better than the movie as going to Costa Rica is better than packing for it.)

It is quarter past five in the morning, we leave in twenty minutes, and so, in the nick of time, National Blog Posting Month comes to a close. I will be posting as often as possible from Costa Rica and, if my plan for rainforest-based connectivity doesn’t pan out, stay tuned for large sets of posts all at once as I pass through towns seeking bug spray and turtles.

On the Road Again

costarica.jpg“Why,” you may ask, “why, Emma, have your recent posts been so sparse, so undernourished, so, as my grandmother would say, spakely?” Why because we are leaving for Costa Rica on Thursday! Yes, the Christmas season this year will be preceded by a jaunt to Central America. Nothing so relaxing as complicated travel right before the holidays, let me tell you what.

There is delight in our eyes at the prospect of beaches and rainforests, I cannot deny it, but it is hardly visible beneath the glisten of panic that has accompanied this long weekend of packing and reserving and printing of itineraries and worry about potholes and rain. Oh, and Christmas. Right. That holiday for which it will already be too late to order presents that have any chance of arriving in time for the blessed day if we wait to send for them until we get back from warmer climes. That holiday of cheer which requires a tree (gotten) and lights (gotten and determined to be broken and unfixable and which must now be replaced with better ones which will also break mysteriously while lying in a box for eleven months out of twelve) and ornaments (disorganized, mostly not broken because, thank God, we have no cat to tear them from the limbs of the tree because it thinks it’s being amusing or predatory or because it has come up with other wrong-headed cat thoeries).

Yes, to sum up, we are very close to the end of our ropes at the very beginning of this season. Thank God for beaches and fruity drinks and let us all pray that there will be no showing of unflattering photographs upon our return and much laughter at the memory of how stressed we once were, back before Costa Rica, laughter about how it is all behind us and only bliss lies ahead. Yes, we will giggle and chortle…as we madly water plants, wrap and re-ship gifts, say a brief ‘hello’ to our tree and pack for our departure for Christmas in Switzerland a mere ten days after our return.

Omigod. I have to go lie down.

France: Sundays

Everything is closed on Sundays unless you get up at the crack of dawn and go to the farmer’s market before it shuts down in the late morning. If you miss the market, you are screwed: there will be no more activities available for the rest of the day. You can console yourself with an Orangina at a cafe until about 2PM but then you’re done for the day. Go home. Give it up. You won’t be able to get groceries or anything else until tomorrow, or, if you’re in the middle of nowhere, Tuesday.

A word to the wise: get your vacationing ass out of bed on Saturday and take care of everything you’ll need for the next couple of days. Gas up your car, collect your baguettes and go buy that handbag today ’cause tomorrow you’ll be out of luck. Oh – also make sure that your boat/yourself are parked someplace pleasant to enjoy the closure of the entire country, preferrably by the water with bikes and books.

(Or you can go to Versailles. In the rain. You and everyone else who’s been left with no plans for Sunday. I knew there was a reason I’d never gone to Versailles on previous trips.)

*Note: I fully approve of a 5-6-day workweek, especially for the working classes. We’re just used to something different here, so plan to adjust accordingly.

Bulletins from Abroad – Christmas

I have come to Switzerland to meet my boyfriend’s extended family. His mother is the eldest of six, nearly all of their collective offspring living in and around Zurich, meaning, they’re all here. By odd coincidence unconnected to my boyfriend, I lived in Switzerland, first as a student and then as a ‘non-resident worker’ which describes well the draconian conditions of the job I had at the sinister train station cafe does not cover the glamour of living abroad and frequenting hyper-hip clubs until five in the morning (when I had to be back at work). Unexpectedly, I also learned the language.

One of Switzerland?s quirks is its German. The Swiss, being a stubborn bunch (and lovable, I hasten to stress), held onto the original German language when the rest of the German world decided one century long ago to standardize on what we now know as High German (or Hochdeutsch). As invariably happens with languages, the two – high German and Swiss dialect – have grown ever farther apart and Swiss German is no longer meaningfully comprehensible to any other German. It is also not a written language, despite the quaint efforts of a handful of misguided authors. All of this is very handy for the Swiss, not just in that they can discuss those around them pretty much anywhere else in the world without fear of being understood but also because it reinforces their apartness, their clarity of history, currency and business, unpolluted by immigrants, wars and foreign or even general influence.

This is not to say that Switzerland is a tiny Brigadoon, floating apart in the center of Europe. It is very much part of Europe and recognizably so, but, like Europe?s other countries of any size, it has elusive but distinct national characteristics of which the language is likely the most prominent example. It;s not an easy language and there’s really no official way to learn it. The process is additionally complicated by the regional dialects which vary both by accent and their employment of entirely different words for the same items. Also, everyone speaks high German (the language of the educational system) and nearly everyone speaks English, further obliterating in foreigners any need or desire to learn dialect. Needless to say, learning it is a daunting and usually fruitless enterprise. Not learning it however leaves a subtle gap between you and assimilation.

How then did I, a young unassimilated student, happen to pick up Swiss German when, say, my boyfriend’s father has not yet picked it up after 40 years of marriage to his Swiss wife? I worked with children. I had no idea that taking that babysitting job for three small Swiss girls would result in such a long-lasting advantage. The three-year-old, the only verbal one of the three, spoke only dialect and French. I spoke no French, so dialect it was. It has been commonly noted that children are without fear. It is less common to note that they lack shame, which provides a great platform for learning things from them. So there we are: I speak Swiss German and, fourteen years later, find myself in Switzerland with my Swiss boyfriend, speaking this uncommon language with his multitude of relatives. How very handy and, apparently, impressive. I am the Christmas novelty. Fear me. I am the Nutcracker.