Monday, April 29, 2013


When I signed up for this Spanish immersion program, I had no idea what I was getting into. This is partly because I didn't really know what to look for. I chose Nicaragua because nearly every program I found here was about half the price of the ones in Costa Rica. I chose "Lagartillo" because it was located far enough inland and near the mountains for my taste. I figured it would be the perfect climate. As usual, I did no research on the place beyond that. The folks there were the first to respond to my email, they had no problem working with my limited schedule, and they were one of the cheapest I came across. I completely ignored the probable implications of all this and committed to two weeks.

Getting here was an adventure in and of itself. I was given instructions on which bus to take and from what station, but nothing more. But then, why wouldn't that be enough? When I got to the bus station, I started to ask around for this place, Lagartillo. For several minutes, I followed a trail of extended index fingers leading me from bus to bus. I could tell that some of the drivers hadn't even heard of it. I took note of that. Finally, one driver said, aqui." I asked him how long the ride was so that I would have an idea about when I needed to get off, and so that he would know to stop for me, should he remember and feel so inclined. "Dos horas y media," he said.

The bus was pretty nice, for a school bus. My knees only dug into the seat in front of me a little bit. This was a big improvement over some of the other central american public buses. The guy who designed those things must have just quit his job canning sardines.

Our first turn out of Estelí was onto a dirt road. That was promising. The ride ended up lasting only about two hours. It was bumpy, but entertaining. The bus filled up gradually along the way. There was a guy on the roof to help people load their bags of vegetables and bushels of hay and chickens up there. I was liking it more and more. Something about mustached Nicaraguans in cowboy hats puts a smile on my face.

At the "intersection" to Lagartillo, the driver signaled to me that it was my stop. I grabbed my things and shuffled to the front to get off. As the bus drove off, I thought, "hmmm." It felt a little like I had been dropped into the scene of an old western flick. I just stood there for a minute and looked around. I reached for my hip half expecting to find a six-shooter there. Meanwhile, there was a miniature pep rally going on in my head. It was effective. I got pretty excited to see what was going to happen next. I didn't have plans to meet anyone and there was really only way to go, so I started to walk that way. An old wooden sign with hand-painted yellow lettering indicating the name of the community and all of the sub-communities within it. Lagartillo was one of them. I thought, "that's a good *sign*," and laughed to myself.

Fifteen minutes or so down the road, I reached this sign:

I about pooped my pants. "Hijos del Maiz Spanish School." Sons of the Corn Spanish School. Basically, Children of the Corn Spanish School. What could possibly go wrong?

Shortly after that, a bearded man walked out of his house to stop me. "Sacha?" he said. It took a second for me to snap out of the scene playing out in my head and realize someone was talking to me. "No problems getting here I see,' he continued. The guy's name was Luis and he was in charge of communications with incoming students. He was the one who had responded so quickly to my email. I'm still not sure how, since there is very little power here, much less internet.

He hopped on a three-wheeled bicycle with a small child in the rear basket and led me down the community's main drag. He showed me to the house where I would be staying for the next couple weeks and very briefly introduced me to Tina, the friendly older lady that lived there. Then, he disappeared as suddenly as he appeared. It was all Spanish from there on out. Tina gave me a short tour of the property and left me to get settled in the room she had for me. I wasn't much, but I loved it.

For the next couple days until I started to figure out the schedule, she would come find me for every meal. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner generally consisted of some variation of gallopinto and a homemade tortilla, but it never got old. Mi profesora the first week was named Rosa. She was friendly and funny in her own own way. She fit the profile of many Nicaraguan women her age: single mother. We had "class" for two hours twice a day. Except for the afternoon she canceled because she was sick. We mostly went over verb tenses and didn't get into a whole lot of actual conversation. It was a helpful refresher and a good place to start but it made me remember why I hate school.

For the twelve waking hours a day that I wasn't in class, I'm not really sure what I did. It was very hot and dry, which didn't inspire much motivation. I wandered around, and I wrote a bit. I didn't study much. I got into drawing sketches of things. I thought of all the times when I was little that people asked me what I wanted to be when I grow up. I used to say, "I want to be an artist." I guess I got my wish at some level.

On my third or fourth day, I discovered these homemade Otter-Pop-in-a-sandwich-bag thinggies that sell here. Posicles. That about made my life. Blended fruit, frozen, some with milk. Yes, please. Plus, they went for two cordobas each. That comes out to about $0.08. I ate at least four cada dia. It was the perfect remedy for the heat.

The second week was a little more up my alley. I got a different "profesor." I guess they like to switch things up for their students to make it more interesting. Success! It was a guy about my age named Yomar. The first morning of class, all we did was talk so that he could get a feel for my level. That same afternoon, he had "obligations" with the kid's baseball team so he asked if I wanted to join them for that afternoon's "class." He didn't have to twist my arm.

The game was in a neighbouring community about an hour walk away through dry prairies spotted with mango trees. It was on the walk there that I realized that picking iguanas off of trees with rocks is an international pass time. Kids in Thailand found it just as amusing. These kids though, with their baseball background, were incredibly accurate. One kid knocked the iguana off a branch from about 30 feet out on his first try, and two others got within a foot of it as it ran away.

It was a great time, and interesting to learn all the Spanish baseball jargon. Some of those little guys were actually really good. It turns out baseball is the national sport in Nicaragua. Who knew? It seems like everyone is in some league or another. I found it amusing seeing guys ride in on horses in their uniforms.

After the game, Yomar and I split off from the group and he led me off to a small community about the same size of Lagartillo. We got to a house-like structure and he went inside. A moment later, he came out with a couple beers, handed me one, and said, "bienvenido a mi classe!"

And that's about how the rest of week went with him. We spent our two morning hours of class reviewing grammar in the cabaña, and our two afternoon hours hiking or discussing pictures or wandering around. Our conversation time really helped a lot. I think by the end of it all, I had at least doubled my vocabulary. Unfortunately, that's not saying a lot but it's been fun picking up on more and more. 

As for the "home" life, that was by far my favorite part of the experience. The minimalist lifestyle there is the closest thing to what I thought I was going to find everywhere when I left home seven months ago. There were always kids playing everywhere, mom's yelling after them, folks on horses, a real sense of community, no need for windows, farm animals running free, guitars playing, water concerns, no internet, no running water, and all that simple life goodness.

And of course, the little things. Like the bat that flew into my room every night right as I turned off the lights. He'd fly around a bit and then his claws would scratch slightly against the tin roof where he found a place to hang out (hang out!). Then there was the fly situation in the outhouse in the late morning, early afternoon. It was best to avoid it at those times. Yeah. And then the rooster uprising several times per morning before the break of day. And the attention starved kitty who would jump up and cling with his claws to my pocket (thigh). And the mamma chicken who would literally run at me with her 10 little chicks every time I came around. (That one was probably my bad; I snuck some tortilla out to them after nearly every meal. Whoops!)

Come on, try to tell me you wouldn't have done the same.
Anyway, you get the idea. Those were the things I ended up loving the most, along with the Spanish. In fact, these two weeks were the highlight of my trip so far. As for the language program itself, Spanish? Definitely (although the Nicaraguan accent and speech habits take some getting used to). Immersion? No doubt. Program? Meh. There was very little structure and I question the qualifications of the instructors. That said, their techniques were still effective the experience was more than I could have hoped for. I highly recommend it to anyone with at least a little background in Spanish. Check them out at Children of the Corn.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Like Women In Bikinis

In light of my last post, I'm going to recap my time in Central America so far. Please excuse the travelblogesqueness of this entry. Really, this one is for me. If it gets boring, just force yourself to keep reading. The few minutes it takes to get through it might just offset the schedule of your day the exact amount of time necessary for you to avoid getting hit by some airhead teen driver in daddy's car who because he didn't see the speed bump (kitty) dropped his very last ketchup-spotted McDonald's freedom fry between the driver's seat and the center console and felt the need to search for it while the car was still in motion. You can thank me later.

I spent my first week or so in Costa Rica between San Jose, Dominical, and Uvita. That was alright. San Jose is an overwhelming and misleading place to start a Costa Rican adventure. It feels a little dangerous in parts, and the screaming street vendors are a little off putting. That said, the people-watching is grade A. I was, and still am, in shock at how overweight the Costa Ricans are. I wasn't expecting that at all. On a different note, I did have one very memorable dry, makeshift karaoke night with three very awesome people in the TV room of my hostel there.

As for Dominical and Uvita, they would have been perfect if I loved the beach, surfing, and excessive heat and humidity. I only like these things. Sometimes. Plus, the tourist demographic there was comprised largely of North Americans. Nothing wrong with that, but after having spent so much time in Asia where we are few and far between, it took some getting used to. Especially since I happened to show up in the wake of a music festival called Envision which saturated the area with cannabis-hugging free spirits recovering from a weekend void of moderation. On the bright side, the communal kitchens in hostels here are a welcomed new amenity. I had almost forgotten how much I love cooking. Despite having a good time and meeting some cool folks, I didn't last more than three days at any of these places.

I've found that new destinations you travel through are similar to new people you meet along the way in that you usually know right away whether or not they're worth your time. I understand that every place and everybody has something to offer, but that thing doesn't have to be your cup of tea. There are too many people and places in the world to waste your time with the ones that make you uncomfortable. With people especially, since you meet so many when travelling long-term, you have to employ some sort of filter if you want to make the most of your time. You reach a point where asking, and being asked, about you travel itinerary and motives becomes painfully redundant. But there are those individuals that have that little somethin' somethin' that puts you at ease and brings out the best in you. These are the faces you remember. These are the people who make their mark. And you always know when you've found one because the conversation is effortless and engaging, even when talking about the same ol' stuff. For whatever reason, for me on this trip, the majority of these people have been western European. Just an observation.

Having had enough of the beach, I decided to head to the mountains. The highest one seemed like a good place to start. I've already told that story. A few people there obviously did not fit the profile of those I just described. That said, I loved it. The place itself and the experience I had easily made up for the people I encountered; and then some. I stayed for over a week before leaving. Or rather, before moving on.

From there, I wasn't exactly sure where to go. This is a situation I encounter about once a week. After the short, habitual internal debate -- in which some sort of logic usually prevails -- I decided to head down to Osa peninsula. I chose Puerto Jimenez because it was the first place to which I found a comprehensible bus schedule. Plus, I had a flyer for a "Jungle Hostel" there!

The drive down was my first experience on the vast network of unpaved roads in Costa Rica. It was reminiscent of a few of my Asian rides, sans unnecessarily loud, terrible music. Rocky, but enjoyable. Such are the finer things in life. Unfortunately it was dark when I arrived, and I had been unable to reach the hostel beforehand to arrange for transportation. I would have walked, but it was 4 km out of town in any direction. Fortunately, the token hostel scouts of the town were waiting at the bus stop. The least imposing one was an old, white-bearded, American guy hunched over a walking stick. I let him lead me to a place across the road. That would do for a night. As an added bonus, I woke up next to a nice French girl. She occupied the dorm bed beside mine.

I checked out and made the trek to the Celvante Jungle Hostel. It was hot and humid but I was on a mission. I think I was still riding the wave from Chirripo. When I got there, it was everything I had hoped for and more. The owners are two young American guys, nice as can be. The dorms are scattered throughout the jungle and have no more than two solid walls each. The communal area is homey and has a view of the jungle. There's a fire pit. They have instruments. The kitchen is big enough, and pancake mix and maple syrup are provided. The place has charm, and it has character.

The volunteers were extremely friendly, and the fellow travelers, as a whole, were in a league of their own. It felt like family. There were two cats, a dog, and a duck named Angela when I got there. Angela shit every third step so they had to ban her from the living space. By the time I left, six more ducks had been added to the family. A passing Texan named Gilbert, who was all teeth, bought them for the hostel as a parting gift. He was full ideas and wasn't afraid to share them. A real talker, this one. And a good dude.

Greg, Claus and Gilbert

I stayed there for 11 nights. I read and wrote quite a bit. I helped out with the cooking. I went in to town a few times for groceries. I went to the beach once with a Finnish friend to go kayaking. We took advantage of the opportunity to play with some local kids on a slack line that was set up between two palm trees. I went on a short, guided jungle walk on a neighboring property. But I never once seriously considered visiting the one place that people travel there to see. Costa Rica's icon, Corcovado National Park. According to National Geographic, Corcovado is the "most biologically intense place on Earth," and it barely crossed my mind. I think I have to go back. I'm leaning that way for the last two weeks of my trip, but it'll depend on whether or not I can volunteer at the hostel, and on if something else tempts me more between now and then.

I ended up leaving because I was getting too comfortable. My time was already starting to wear thin and I had a short list of things I wanted to accomplish before I meet up with Shawn and Katie who are coming to Costa Rica for a week at the beginning of May. Plus, the hostel was overbooked and I thought I should give someone else the opportunity to experience it. My plan was to head in the general direction of Volcan Arenal and see what happened. There's another cloud forest up there that I couldn't pass up.

The night before I left, as I was talking to the most interesting person I've ever met, I learned that he was headed in the same direction as me in the morning, and had the same general points of interest in mind. I decided to tag along with him, as it was guaranteed entertainment. This guy Claus, 47, from Denmark, has seen and done everything. He travelled the world in a double decker bus, and was paid by sponsors all along to way to post their ads on the side. He spent five weeks on the Galapagos Islands because that's how long Darwin spent there. A guy he knew got killed by a dead kangaroo. A duck he had got shot by a kid with a bow and arrow. He has run 15 marathons, not including the 8 that were part of ironman competitions, and the 2 that he ran consecutively in a double ironman. And on, and on, and on. I couldn't believe this guy. He had a crazy story to relate to anything anyone said to him, each one brought to life by his quirky accent and untamed giggle. But don't take my word for it, check out his website.

When we left the hostel at 4:45 in the morning, he faced the jungle and at the top of his lungs, bellowed a ferocious Tarzan call while pounding his fists brutally onto his chest. Poor Angela and her new friends, who had been sleeping not ten feet away, probably saw God for a brief moment. As for the rest of the jungle hostel family, I doubt anyone slept through it. This lasted a good five seconds before he stopped, turned around and walked with me down the dirt road, grinning and looking refreshed. After a scripted moment of silence, he said, "that will give them something to talk about."

I ended up traveling around with Claus for the remainder of his time in Costa Rica. This was only about a week, but it was the most active week I've had in a long time. Our competitive natures made for some early mornings and long days. We hiked, and biked, and hiked, and traveled, and hiked, and walked, and ate ice cream, and hiked. It was a beautiful thing finding someone that had the same affinity for frozen treats as me. We easily averaged two a day.

Throughout the week, he kept saying "you're so ready for an ironman!" So many times, in fact, that I actually started to believe it. Not that I'm actually ready, but that I could be if I trained. He claimed to have let himself go in the past two years since his last ironman. I believed it since he was usually the one struggling to keep up with me. But I can't help but think that just knowing what he had accomplished made me push myself a little harder. In the end, we both had a certain respect for one another.

I couldn't have hoped for a better travel companion. His Spanish was as non-existent as my self discipline to get up in the morning. This built trust on both accounts. We mostly had similar interests, but we did our own thing when it felt right. Our mutual distaste for paying for taxis made for a lot of walking, but not nearly as much as it should have. We agreed that we would set out to walk any distance shorter than 30 km at any given point. But it seemed as if the careless attitude we shared, particularly when trying to make it anywhere, actually got us places as quickly as possible. Without fail, within 30 minutes of whenever we needed it, we had a bus or other random ride, regardless of the time of day and day of week.

The most notable instance of this was on our side trip to Tenorio National Park. I hinted at it in the Rio Celeste post, but I'll fill in the gaps. The fact that we even discovered the place was lucky enough. One night when we were in La Fortuna, I was searching online for a photo that might represent an idea that I had had. I typed "jungle volcano waterfall" into the Google Images search box, and a picture of the Rio Celeste waterfall showed up in the first few images. I clicked on it because it appeared surreal and was the closest thing to what I was searching for. I discovered that it was located in Costa Rica so I investigated a little further. Low and behold, it was less than 100 km from where we were. We were lounging around our hostel at the time after a good day of biking. It was almost dark. I showed him the picture and said, "Let's go here." He agreed, as much for the impromptu adventure of it as for the beauty of the place.

The next morning we were up at 5:30 to catch the bus to the only place near Tenorio National Park that we had figured out how to get to. From there, we walked a few minutes until we found a dirt road with a sign that said Parque National Tenorio - 22 km. We gave each other a high five as if to say, bring it on! Aside from a couple big trucks, there wasn't a whole lot of traffic. After about 20 minutes, we saw a poor excuse for a shack on the side of the road with a sign indicating that they had ice cream. It was about time of day -- almost 9:30 am. "Food tastes so much better when you deserve it," he said. I'm not exactly sure what it was we had done to deserve it, but I agreed with the statement.

We had been sitting for a few minutes with our tasty snacks when we noticed a truck approaching from down the road. I got up to throw a thumb out. The guy stopped and asked where we were going. I told him, he nodded, and we got in. About 500 yards down the road, he pulled into his driveway. Claus and I exchanged stupid grins. The man proceeded to tell us that a bus was on the way and that we could wait at his place. Before we could figure out why he had picked us up to tell us that, he introduced us to his 98 year-old father. This guy, who didn't look a day over 86, started cracking jokes at us in Spanish.

About 15 minutes later, the bus showed up. We said thanks and goodbye, then hopped on in. It was an old Bluebird school bus that had been painted white with blue trim.

Just what the doctor ordered. About a half hour later, the driver stopped for us and pointed up a steep dirt road. Claus and I looked at each other again, still grinning. 15 minutes up the road, as we were starting to realize how much steeper it was than it looked, a car drove by. Our reaction time was slow at that point so our thumbs went out a bit late. It didn't even slow down.

Five minutes later, we saw the same car pulled over on the side of the road. As we walked by, two Canadian girls and their guide appeared out of the woods. There was a particularly big tree worth seeing there, I guess. I casually struck up a conversation with them and before we knew it, we were all crammed in the car heading up the hill. They dropped us off right at the park entrance.

After another high five and a good chuckle, we decided to find a place to lose our things before exploring. We ended up at Cabinas Piuri. On the way there, we got our first glimpse of the river. The color was shocking even after having seen the photos. We stopped for a minute and laughed again at how less than 18 hours had passed between when I saw a random picture online and when we got there. The best part: we hadn't even really known the way.

I realise now that having him around inspired quite a bit of confidence in me. I think since he had such a whatever-happens-happens attitude, I trusted my gut every time without hesitation. So many times I thought, phew, I'm glad that worked out!, after having said, "it's this way," without knowing for sure. But it really didn't matter. Everything was an adventure with Claus. During all of our potentially long walks, before we got picked up, we would talk about how fun it might be to get stuck along the way. We'd have made the most of any situation. For an entire week, I felt particularly immune to adversity.

After a short rest, we headed out to explore the National Park. We had originally "planned" to do the complete hike the following day since we had anticipated arriving late afternoon. We stuck to that plan, and went out for a feeler hike to check the park entrance situation and wander around. But when we crossed the river on the way there, I got an itch. I thought it might be fun to scale up the river as far as I could. I proposed the idea and he shot it down. So I went alone. We made a plan to put a leaf on a stick in the ground any time the river crossed a trail. That way we would know if the other had been there.

After over two hours of climbing and wading around, a bit unexpectedly, I reached the waterfall. There were already some people there ignoring the signs that said "no bañarse." I was already in my skivvies at that point and mostly wet, so I dropped my day pack and joined them. Before I knew it, I heard Claus' Tarzan call from across the river. I looked at him and we both started laughing. The first thing he said was, "ha! I knew you'd be here!" We caught each other up on our respective adventures getting there as we made our way down the jungle trail.

The next day went according to plan. We spend all day hiking around the park, interpreting every "do not enter" sign as an open invitation to do something particularly exciting. At one point I said, "I keep expecting to see a snake." Not ten minutes later, we came across this pit viper.

The following day, we were on the road again. This time we had absolutely no idea how were going to get where we were going. Phase 1: Leave Tenorio. Phase 2:  . Phase 3: Arrive at Monteverde. We uncharacteristically took our time in the morning, leaving Cabinas Piuri at around 8:30. About a kilometer down the road at the main park entrance, a truck was pulling out as we walked by. The truck bed was empty so I walked right up to him and told him we were going to Bijagua. He motioned for us to get in the back.

We got dropped off at a bus situation on the one street through town. There was a little supermarket right behind it so I asked a guy working there when the next bus south was and where in was headed. He said, "9:30. A Cañas." It was about 9 and Cañas was about three quarters of the way to where we were going. I reported back to Claus and we laughed again at the dumb luck we were having.

On a darker note, while we were waiting there, a puppy got hit by a car right in front of us. The guy slowed down a little but drove off. The little doggy looked right at me as it was yelping in pain so I went out to get it. It managed to get up and take a couple steps toward me before I got to it but clearly there was some serious damage to the hip and one of the hind legs. I just held it there on the bench until someone came to claim it, which was exactly when our bus arrived. Again, the timing was strange.

At Cañas, I believe we got off a stop too soon but we made our way to what felt like the center of town. The first bus stop we came across had a bunch of people waiting at it. I thought, that's a good sign. I asked no one in particular where it was going. A couple people replied, "Tilaran." I asked, "when?" and through the moans and grumbles I caught someone saying that it was late. Again, I translated back to Claus and we laughed and slapped hands. Tilaran just happened to be the next "big" town on the way to Monteverde. Five minutes later we were on the bus.

At Tiliran, it was the same story. We got off the bus, took our time, I went to the ATM, we had lunch, and then we inquired about transportation to Monteverde. One hour later, we were on a bus to our destination.

Monteverde was nice enough but super touristy. Claus and I used the two days that we had there to explore the two big nature reserves in the area. This allowed us avoid the main tourist traps and be more active and independent; a couple more things that we agreed upon. Both days we were the first ones at the park entrances. If at all possible, we didn't want to be bothered by tour groups while exploring the jungle. Santa Elena ended up being one of my favorite hikes of my trip. For most of it, it really felt like you were in the heart of the rainforest. And it was on that hike that Claus shared with me his most deeply perceptive token of wisdom. He said, "cloud forests are like women in bikinis, it's more exciting when you can't see everything."

We spent Claus' last day in Costa Rica in San Jose. He wandered off to visit a few museums and I took the day to figure out what I was going to do next. I had informally decided over the last week or so that I wanted to learn some Spanish. I began to check out a few options in Panama, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua. The more I looked, the more I knew that that was what I was going to do next. I sent out a few email inquiries about pricing and schedules and that was that.

That night, I cooked dinner at the hostel and we had a couple Carlsburgs because we thought it was funny. We reminisced of our crazy week then called it an early night. I ended up not being able to sleep so I stayed up until about 4 a.m. composing what is probably the most ludicrous thing I've ever written. Looking back, it's embarrassing how engaged and amused I was for those several hours. I'm still deciding on whether or not to share it here. All in favor?

About an hour after I finally passed out, Claus woke me up to say goodbye. He gave me one last high five and giggled his way out the door. It rang in my ear as I smiled myself back to sleep thinking, crazy guy.

Saturday, April 20, 2013


I've been in Central America for six weeks now. I only know because yesterday when someone asked me, I said "a few weeks." That didn't sound right so I checked the calendar, only to realize that it had actually been a few weeks a few weeks ago. I was a bit taken back by the fact that I have already been here for so long. That's more time than I have left on this little adventure. I'm going to have to recalibrate my sense of time. From here on out, I'm basically on a schedule again. It's a strange feeling after having been relatively care-free with time for so long. But it's exciting, in a way.

I knew when I left that it would eventually come to this. Since I started travelling alone when I was 19, one thought has always crossed my mind when boarding the plane to leave Salt Lake: Before I know it, I'll be on the plane back home thinking, "what the hell just happened?" And that's exactly what I think every time. It's not a bad feeling, but it's always laced with some degree of anxiety. It's kind of a pre-traumatic stress syndrome that lasts only as long as it takes to get into the swing of things. Your mind and body know when you're about to enter into an altered state -- like how you feel in the moment before a race, or the hours before an exam, or prior to other extracurricular activities.

I'm feeling the onset of this already. Strange, considering I have more time left than the total time I have had for some of my past trips. It's all relative though I suppose. Over the last several months I've talked to lots of people about their thoughts on going home, and it has usually evolved into a conversation of photos and writing . It's interesting if and how people chose to document their adventures. You can tell a lot about a person from their decisions on the matter, and even more from their justifications. You could say, writing turns the experiences that are but puddles of wax in your memory back into candles. Pictures and videos do the same, although they stimulate your more physical senses. All this is especially true for experiences that didn't feel particularly important or interesting when you were in the moment, because naturally, these times are the most easily forgotten. Actually, there are apps being developed right now based on this idea.

One girl I talked to said that she didn't even know what she was going to tell people when she got home and they asked what she had done in the year she was away. For a moment, I felt the same way, until I thought of the blog and the pictures I've taken. I'll always be able to defer people to those. In some way or another, I've accounted for most of my time away. I can't imagine not having anything to look back at. Already, the month or so in China and the few weeks in Central America that I've missed, feel a little lost. This makes me want to be more diligent about keeping track. But I've talked to others who argue that if they allowed themselves the distractions of writing and photography, they couldn't possibly make the most of their time abroad.

I've decided that it all boils down to what drives you. For me, writing is something (not the only thing) that I could see myself doing later on, so any excuse to write is a good one. And anything that makes me really think about life, is a better one. This is fun for me. For many others, it's different. Some live to travel and prefer to spend every moment present in the experience. Some travel to escape. Some to discover. Some to remember, and some to forget. Some in search of opportunity. And some in search of the unknown. Et cetera. Writing aside, I fall somewhere in the middle of all these. I did not have a clear intention or vision of what I wanted when I left. I remember having a general feeling of lethargy, and lacking ideas and motivation. I just figured that the exposure to new environments and the absence of comfort zone related bad habits would shed some light on my life.

It has. I think the most rewarding thing about my trip so far has been all the time I've spent alone -- the reading, the writing, the hours and hours, and hours, in trains and buses and planes just thinking. I wouldn't chose to live like this forever, but it has done wonders for clearing out the build-up of mental clutter. When I'm in Salt Lake, I'm never alone. At least not for long. I find comfort in company, and I keep myself busy with projects that give me little to no sense of accomplishment once they're complete, should they ever reach that stage. Like most people of our day, I've grown accustomed to choosing activities that are relatively simple and offer instant gratification.

Instant gratification is a novel concept. More often than not, the more instant, the less gratifying. Having a mentality that's driven by instant gratification will disarm you of your common sense. It's a lifestyle -- a debilitating attitude of which procrastination and addiction are primary symptoms. I've found that most everyone subscribes to it to some degree. Forget the consequences of your actions and just as importantly, inaction, and stay busy or distracted at any cost. A life spent seeking and settling for instant gratification is like looking at every pixel in an image without ever zooming out to see what they represent together. Sure, they each have their charm, but what can you make of it all when you're done?

I know this mindset well. I'm no stranger to procrastination. For a while in college I even convinced myself that all the fun I had not studying and doing homework was worth the one or two days of stress before each exam and due date. In my work life, I've mostly had jobs that pay the bills but aren't stimulating. As for my health, I rarely limit my intake of food and beverages that I know will make me feel and look like hell on the grounds that they're magically delicious. In my social life, until recently, I avoided building close relationships with people where I could. And since then, in my closest relationships, I can think of a few instances where I wanted something different but refused to put in the time and effort.

So what now? Here I am figuring this all out but still not making any discernable progress. I've been here before. What makes this any different? Maybe it's the time I have left abroad actually working in my favor. Maybe it's the select few people that I've met since I left that have made a real impact on me. Maybe it's the ideas and inspiration I've gotten along the way. Maybe I'll be 30 this year. Or, maybe, nothing makes this any different at all. In any case, I'm ready to face the joys and challenges of tomorrow. Wait, no. I'll create them.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Rio Celeste: Heaven on Earth

I never intended to post travel help information on here but I've discovered a place so worth seeing, and with such incomplete, inaccurate, and contradicting information across all travel guide platforms, that I just had to set things straight.

The place is Rio Celeste in Tenorio National Park, Costa Rica. Due to the lack of public transportation to the park entrances, it remains one of the least visited spots in Costa Rica. For information on why this park is unique and worth all the effort to see, check your Lonely Planet or click here. There is really only one thing to do there, and that is to hike the scenic jungle trail network surrounding the cloudy blue-green river and its token waterfall.

You can easily see all there is to see in the park in 5 hours, so if you're strapped for time and you have your own vehicle, it's possible to make a day trip of it from anywhere around lake Arenal, Liberia, Canas, or Upala. If you don't have a vehicle and don't want to pay the $65+ for a guided day tour from one of the surrounding cities, you can make it most of the way there on buses, and hitchhike the remaining 5 or 10 km from the Guatuso side (East) or Bijagua (West), respectfully. If you chose to venture out and do this, I would recommend staying at least one night near the park. There is no camping available in or around the park (that I know of), but there are numerous lodging options within 1 km of the park entrances. Unfortunately there are no real budget options, as no place costs less than $20 per person (unless you have a group of 3 or 4 willing to share an amply large "double room" for $40 per night).

The most important things you need to know when visiting Tenorio National Park -- and they don't seem to be clearly mentioned anywhere -- is that there are two park entrances, and it is possible to access the park from both Guatuso and Bijagua. This can be extremely confusing when referencing multiple travel sources that give conflicting directions to the "park entrance." That said, note that both entrances to the park are on the same road, only 3 km from one another. Another noteworthy detail is that the east entrance (the one you'll see first if arriving from Guatuso) does not charge an entrance fee to enter the park; they only encourage donations. The west entrance (the one you'll see first if arriving from Bijagua) is run by the Park Service which charges $10 per adult.

The trails beginning at both of the park entrances lead to the exact same place, and actually meet up towards the end, connected by a couple small bridges crossing the river. The only difference is that the trail from the east entrance is less developed, thus more muddy when wet, and runs along the east side of the river, while the trail from the west side is pretty well maintained and runs west of the river. Since both sides of the river offer unique perspectives, I would strongly recommend going up one side and coming down the other. Obviously if you don't want to pay, go up the east side. This is also a better option if it has recently rained, as the west trail is much less slick, thus easier to go down.

If you have a Lonely Planet, keep in mind that all of their distances relative to the "park entrance" are referring the the west entrance, and they assume you are arriving from Bijagua. If you're following the directions from, note that they approach the park from the opposite side, from Guatuso.

If you want to put on your adventure face and make the journey using mostly public transit, read on. I will warn you though, that I do not have complete information on the bus schedules for buses that stop near the park entrances. Still, the following accounts of my own experience might be sufficient supplemental guidance to get you there and leave without too much trouble.

Getting There

I went to the Tenorio National Park with one friend. We left from La Fortuna near Arenal Volcano. We followed the instructions as provided here. We took a taxi from La Fortuna to El Tanque. It's a very short drive, but deceivingly lengthy, so I wouldn't recommend walking it. I imagine it would take a good hour by foot. The cab cost us around 5000 Colones, but I'm pretty sure we got ripped off. The meter seemed to be ticking abnormally fast. If you're on a tight budget and can't find a reliable cab, I would recommend giving yourself enough time to hitchhike it.

Once in El Tanque, we took the 7 a.m. bus towards Upala. I didn't see a designated bus stop, so we just waited 20 meters or so past the intersection on the right side of the road with the signs to Upala (the road across the street from the grocery and hardware stores -- to the left when coming from La Fortuna). The bus stopped to let people off, so don't stress over not being seen. When you board the bus, let the driver know that you're getting off in Guatuso so that he knows how much to charge you. If I remember correctly, the fare was 1800 Colones per person. The ride to Guatuso lasts about an hour.

In Guatuso, we got off at the small bus station where it stops for several minutes. There are numerous small vendors there, and it's not a bad place to grab a good Tico breakfast. From there, we took a short walk out of town, following the signs to Upala. Contrary to what the Travel Costa Rica Now site says, I found that the sings from the bus station to the road to Upala are quite clear and obvious. After just a few minutes walking on the road leaving town (10 or 15 minutes from the station), you'll see a decent sized dirt road on your left, clearly marked with signs for Parque Nacional Tenorio. Note that this road does not go all the way to the park entrances, nor does it go through to Bijagua; however, it does take you to the road that does. Here, you can hitchhike down this road, or just wait until a local bus turns in at around 9:30 (give or take 20 minutes). Unfortunately, I don't know the exact time since we walked for an hour or so before a friendly Tico stopped to tell us that a bus was on the way. So, 9:30 is my best guess for that turnoff. The fare is about 1000 Colones per person and takes you 20 km down that dirt road to the dirt road that takes you to the park entrances and ends in Bijagua. Tell the driver "Rio Celeste" and he'll drop you off at the right intersection and point you in the right direction. If you're confused, look for the signs to various Rio Celeste Hotels.

Now, you are as close as you're going to get with public transportation. Unfortunately, the home stretch to the first park entrance is a brutal 5 km climb up a rocky dirt road. It's doable, but I'd recommend throwing your thumb out to any car that drives by. We did and got lucky after about 10 minutes. There are no other outlets on this road, so know that any car going up the hill is sure to be driving past, or stopping just short of, wherever it is you want to go. We were dropped off at the first (east) park entrance. It looked like this from the direction we came:

If for whatever reason, you're trying to find this entrance from the opposite direction, it is extremely easy to look over, as there is no park entrance signage facing that way. So, keep you eyes open for the Rio Celeste Hotel. They share the same entrance.

Across the road from this entrance, you'll encounter a contradictory set of signs:

The official blue sign on the left says 2 km to Posada Rio Celeste (where the road crosses over the river). The little brown sign on the right says 1 km to Cabinas Piuri. This sign employs a unit of measurement that I like to call 'ticometers," commonly used by locals who have no idea what they're talking about. The conversion rate is approximately 1.86 ticometers to 1 kilometer, give or take a few hundred meters. For example, Cabinas Piuri, at 1 ticometer from this sign, is actually located past the river crossing, almost 2.5 km up the road. I make this clarification primarily for those of you who plan on staying there, which I highly recommend. These are the giant $40 "double rooms" that I mentioned earlier. Each has a California king and a full sized bed, with private bathroom and mini fridge. Plated Tico breakfast is included, and a two course dinner is available for $7 per person. Another advantage to staying here is that it is located between the two park entrances, making it possible to do the entire trail loop without backtracking.

Less than 1 km past Cabinas Piuri (still coming from the east side), you'll see the other park entrance. The signs are poorly positioned for arrivals from this direction, but this entrance is easily recognizable from the park services building and this Soda across the parking lot:

If you are arriving from Bijagua, this is the first park entrance you'll see and from that side it'll look like this:

This entrance is roughly 10 km from Bijagua, and if you're arriving from there, the dirt road turnoff is at the southern edge of town and is clearly marked with signs for the park. So if you get to Bijagua by bus from wherever it is you're coming from, the rest is cheddar. Find the dirt road and hitchhike up. There are no other outlets on this road from this side either, so any car going up the hill is sure to be driving past, or stopping just short of, one of the park entrances.

Getting Out

When leaving the park, if you're headed to La Fortuna, there is a bus from the Guatuso bus station back to El Tanque at 2:00 pm. We didn't leave that way so I'm not sure of the best way to get to that station. Remember, it's 5 km down the hill to the other dirt road that leads to Guatuso, and 20 km to Guatuso from there. I'm sure that the local bus we took in runs both ways, but you'll have to inquire as to when on your way there.

If you're leaving through Bijagua, you'll have to hitch a ride to town (10 km). The best way to do this is to wait by the west park entrance (the one with the Park Service Station) and catch cars as they leave the parking lot in your direction. It took us less than one minute. In Bijagua, there are bus stops on either side of the one street through town, near the mercado. Both the bus going north to Upala and the one heading south to Canas, coincidentally drive through Bijagua at 9:30 a.m. It was Sunday when we left. There is a chance that buses run on a different schedule on other days.

We were headed to Monteverde so we took the bus to Canas. From there, at the bus stop (not station) by the concrete park in the middle of town with signs of down syndrome kids, we took a bus to Tilaran. We only had to wait a few minutes from when we got there. Two buses for Tilaran showed up at the same time. One cost 600 Colones, and the other, 1200.

In Tilaran, there appeared to be one primary bus terminal near the center of town by the park. The bus to Monteverde leaves from there at 12:30 (still Sunday).

I hope this helps. I encourage anyone in Costa Rica to make the trip to this wonderful park. Also, if you find out any more information, notice any mistakes, or care to contribute in any way to this post, please comment or email me and I will put it up to date. Thanks!

Monday, April 1, 2013

Ain't No Mountain High Enough

I got kicked out of my hostel last week. I had been there for a few days and had mostly kept to myself. The couple who owned the place was extremely friendly and helpful. The hostel was ecologically designed, constructed, and run. The mountainous jungle location was an ideal escape from the humid waterfront heat from which I had arrived. I'm sure I would have stayed for at least a week. An American girl was there doing a work exchange. She ran the check-ins and manned the fort when the owners were away. She was nice enough, but was the type of person with whom casual conversation flowed like toothpaste -- a little effort and it was fine, until the end when you know you probably could get more out of it but decide it's not worth it. Part of the problem may have been that I had very little interest in most of the things she had to say. Still, I appreciated having someone consistent to chat with.

In the few days I had been there, several guests had come and left. The tiny town mostly just serves as a landing pad for travellers wanting to hike Cerro Chirripo, the tallest peak in Costa Rica at 12,533 ft. Supposedly, a permit is required to enter Chirripo National Park. The hike to the top is roughly 12.5 miles with an altitude change of over 8,000 feet. It's strongly recommended that you do this in two days. There's a base camp around kilometer 14, which is the only place on the mountain that visitors are allowed to sleep. Unfortunately, only ten overnight park permits are given per day at this town's Ranger station. In order to get one, you have to either camp out in front to "secure" your spot, or be there at two or three in the morning. I showed up around 8 a.m. a couple days in a row, just to make sure, and left empty handed.  I was a little irritated at the system but my open reluctance to play their game won over my frustration in the ensuing battle of reason that played out in my head. I laid it to rest since I had no time restraint to speak of, not to mention I was perfectly content with where I was.

On my third day at the hostel, after my second half-assed attempt to land an overnight permit, I took the bus into San Isidro to get some cash at the ATM and stock up on groceries for the next few days. I got all that I needed, took the 2 p.m. bus back to San Gerardo, and made the half hour trek up the rest of the dirt road to the hostel. As I walked in the front door, I was confronted by the owner. His raised eyebrows told me that he had been waiting. I said hi and looked at him quizzically as I made my way towards the kitchen.

Nonchalantly, he cut to the chase. "I think it's time for you to leave."

I stumbled for my words in the aftermath of what he had said. In my brief, unsuccessful attempt to pick apart his blank expression, all I came up with was, "OK."

Apparently unsatisfied with this response, he just stood there returning my intent analytical gaze. After another unsuccessful attempt to gather something, anything, from his body language, I finally managed to force out a, "wh-what happened? What did I do?"

Still showing no sign of emotion, he gave me some short and vague explanation to the tune of, "you made someone uncomfortable. To protect this person, I really can't tell you any more. You need to leave."

Ignoring the look of utter confusion on my face, he went on, "all your things are at the Ranger station."

My heart dropped, only slightly less than my jaw, and the possible implications of this flashed through my head. Still having no idea what it was all about, all I could say was, "are they going to tell me what's going on?"

He shrugged off the question as if he didn't even know the answer, then turned away to let me know that the conversation was over. As he walked off, he kindly reminded me that the Ranger station closes at 4:30. It was 3:50. My mind was too preoccupied to put together that that left me just barely enough time to get there. I spent what seemed like the next hour, drunk off emotion, stumbling clumsily around the kitchen gathering the few items of food that I had left around over the last couple days. I became aware of a couple people in the adjoined seating area peering over their books at me. I thought, oh good, that's a nice touch.  Meanwhile, the owner hovered in and out of sight, acting busy, but obviously doing nothing more than monitoring my departure.

Within a few minutes -- after less than 15 minutes of having returned from my errands -- I was back out the front door. But not before I could ask to have one last word with the owner. He agreed, quite pleasantly, and followed me out. I asked him if he could give me any information to help easy my mind. Again, his answer was vague. However, he threw in a couple extra details about how this person felt that they couldn't even sleep while I was in the hostel. The only thing more absurd than what he was saying, was his insistence on not using any gender-specific subjects when referring to the poor soul. Still, these small bits of information confirmed my suspicion of the identity of the plaintiff. For lack of anything else to say, I thanked him, then hurried off towards the Ranger station.

The steep two kilometer descent with stuffed grocery bags in each hand was effortless in comparison to the sorting of thoughts in my mind. I decided since I was hardly given any information that I couldn't possibly be in much trouble. But the fact that I couldn't think of anything I had done to merit the boot meant that there must have been some sort of misunderstanding or mistake. This was enough to maintain my distress about how things might play out at the Ranger station.

I thought of a story that the helper girl at the hostel had told me about a guy she had met in another town. Knowing from their conversations that she was there, he had contacted her and told he was coming up to Chirripo to visit the park. For whatever reason, she was unnerved by this and told him that she would mostly likely be busy with the hostel. I didn't know the details of their encounter so I just assumed something that had happened made her question his intentions. But then she told me how he had come, visited the area, and left. No problem. Nothing weird. End of story.

Another thing, just that morning, I said good morning and asked how she had slept. She said, "OK, but not enough." I had given her my Kindle the day before so that she could read Ender's Game. She had stayed up reading it until the wee hours, but when she finally put it down and tried to sleep, she couldn't. She kept hearing noises in the jungle and could have sworn someone was creeping around her room. She finally decided to read some more until she could no longer keep her eyes open. I didn't understand how she could still be so paranoid about the noises after having been in Costa Rica for so long, but I know how strange and close some of the jungle sounds are around here so I didn't think much of it.

Now though, this and all the other strange little details of our conversations fit right into place with that last bit of insight that the owner of the hostel gave me. Still, there were some loose ends. Like how she had asked me to get mangoes for her in town just that morning. And how she had eagerly borrowed my Kindle and talked with me about the book. I could put together that she lacked confidence and had a few bats in the belfry, but I had not once felt any tension or animosity between us. She had addressed me no differently than any other guest. If anything, the owners were unusually reserved in my presence. I couldn't be sure though, so the thoughts kept churning, exacerbated by the fact that someone's impression of me in one of my most solitary states was so scanty that it had led to this.

I got to the Ranger station a few minutes before closing time and picked up my things. There was nothing to it. I asked if a bag had been brought in. With only a nod, a guy led me to the main office where it was sitting in the corner along side a black garbage bag. The masking tape across the front with my name and passport number let me know that I didn't have to look inside. I figured that whoever had packed my bag simply didn't want to take the time to work all my things into place so that the zipper would close. The makeshift label also added insult to injury. The situation had obviously been handled with so much precaution; it's as if they were convinced that I would flip my shit and bite someone's head off.

I took my things, thanked them, and left. It was clear that nobody there knew any more than I did. Plus, I was in no mood for conversation, much less in broken Spanish. I found a hostel nearby and collapsed onto my bed for a while. Drained by the same events that made it impossible for me to rest, I decided to write the kind owners of Casa Mariposa an email. I wasn't sure exactly what I expected from this, but it was all I could think of to help ease my mind.

As it took form, I realised that the single most upsetting thing was that someone had felt so impossibly threatened by me. I've been told and reminded of how irritating, stubborn, and obnoxiously sarcastic I am; but menacing? This was a first, and it wasn't a credible accusation given the circumstances. If nothing else, I wanted to make them think twice about their reaction to me. That seemed like a reasonable task. Plus, I don't believe in leaving burnt bridges in my wake, however insignificant they may seem. Here's how it went:

John and Jill, 
I am sending you my deepest apologies for having caused any discomfort to you, your staff, and/or your patrons. I aim to take responsibility for my actions, so here is what I will do and have done to limit the damage, given the information you provided me. Since I came to the area to hike Chirripo and explore Cloud Forrest, and have yet to do so, I will be staying at El Descanso for the next two nights, and most likely again on Friday. I will avoid coming anywhere near Casa Mariposa when at all possible until I leave, which will be some time this weekend. Also, I have deleted all the contacts that I obtained in the few days that I stayed with you. 
I appreciate the discretion and respect with which you handled the situation. Despite the unfortunate turn of events, I hold you and your establishment in high regard. I will strongly recommend you to anyone considering heading this way. 
Again, I apologize for the trouble. I am not one to question anyone's judge of character, and I have no reason to believe that this issue stemmed from anything but that and some obvious miscommunication. You can trust that I am taking it upon myself to reanalyze my demeanor and dialogue in the presence of those who don't know me well. Thank you for your kind honesty.

Ten minutes later, I had my response:

Thank you, Sacha.  We understand that communication with others whom
we don't know well may not always be as conscious and clear as we
presume it to be. We do understand this. 
Thank you for your awareness and willingness to acknowledge.  No
damage was done, it was only an opportunity for positive growth. We
are grateful for your honesty and integrity and hope you enjoy the
rest of your trip.

I set myself up for that one. Their subtle confirmation that I was the only one at fault was unsettling; however, it seemed as though I achieved the desired effect. They must have had at least a short conversation about it. I couldn't ask for much more than that. I didn't see any further communication working to my advantage, so that was the end of it. At least as far as I was concerned with them. I still couldn't make sense of it all, and the short email exchange was another tangle in the line. On one hand I felt like there was some closure. On the other, there was that much more to consider.

Ironically, just that morning before any of this had gone down, I had been thinking about one particular philosophy I like that was strangely appropriate to this particular turn of events. I thought of how the hurdles and struggles in life set the stage for change. The attitude with which you tackle your challenges seem to dictate whether that change is "good" or "bad;" whether it creates opportunities or becomes part of a negative chain reaction.

When something throws off your groove, I've found it extremely effective to get curious, or even excited, about the resulting encounters and experiences. The anticipation, in and of itself, inspires a more positive outlook. Even if things seem to continually spiral downward, a little premonition sets the stage for appreciation later on, keeping in mind that a resolution may not be as tangible as what you initially identify as the sacrifice. Or they may turn out to be one and the same. As you accept that the past can't be changed, decisions moving forward become easier to make. When things don't work out, remind yourself that influence is the most effective and enduring form of control. In your own life, this translates to continually making decisions that inspire proactive behavior, in spite of the obstacles along the way. There is some truth to the phrase, "you choose your own destiny." What are we but characters in a real life Choose Your Own Adventure story of endless possibilities?

Once I had cleared my mind of the seemingly inevitable -- yet temporary -- vog that clouded my thinking, I decided to prep for my hike to Cerro Chirripo. My disdain for the permit system, along with the rush from the day's affairs were motivation enough for me to conquer it in one day. I tried the ignore the likelihood that I was physically unprepared for the task. This was how I chose to subscribe my proactive decision-making philosophy. Something interesting or cool was bound to happen whether I made it or not. I had heard that there were no checkpoints for permits aside from the base camp where you are required to check in to sleep. I decided to take my chances. I got my food and attire packed up and ready to go, and set the alarm for 2 a.m.

I took my time waking up, throughly stretching my legs and double-checking the contents of my day pack. I was out the door at 3 a.m. For the first two and a half hours, I had nothing but my headlamp and the glow of the clear night sky to guide my way. Although the latter was unhelpful after the first half hour once I reached the cover of jungle canopy. Throughout the entire climb, I occupied myself with a multitude of mind games to keep me going. I definitely was not prepared for the physical strain but after a while, I just felt posessed. My legs moved mechanically up the to the rhythm of my heart and breath. I decided that the fact I was alone worked to my advantage. It was an experience unlike any other I've had. At around 8 o'clock, I thought, this is a strange time of day to have already hiked 5 hours. As I neared the summit I thought of all the different reasons people would climb this mountain. There is a race up it every year. That's a good enough reason. But I passed some people who looked absolutely miserable. They were like, Alright, mountain, I challenge you to just sit there while I break my balls so that I can be higher than you for as long as it takes to catch my breath and gather the courage to break my balls again on the way down. Game on!

I reached the summit at 10 a.m, having logged about 30 minutes of breaks along the way. The fact that I didn't fully understand how I had made it was one of the most rewarding things about being there. And of course, the unobstructed view was as breathtaking as the altitude. Again, I felt grateful that I was alone. I experienced a perfect balance of pain and serenity. I basked for a while in the glory of it all, letting my thoughts go into the summit wind. Fortunately, I was unaware that hardest, most painful part was yet to come.

I finally made it back to the hostel around 5:15 p.m, knees and feet throbbing from the brutal descent. However, the discomfort paled in comparison to the awe of the experience. I was still mesmerized at how the thick clouds had eerily penetrated the forest for the majority of the hike down. I had been graced with my favorite temperature and weather conditions for the entirety the walk through my favorite scenery. It was dreamlike, only all of my senses were stimulated.

It seemed as though months had passed since the struggles of the previous day. But I knew, had I not been faced with those issues, I would never have taken on this perfect challenge on this perfect day.

Monday, March 18, 2013


I made a friend yesterday. Despite not having much in common, we enjoyed our time together. Unfortunately the communication barrier was high, so not a lot was said. And since I'm not well versed in the body language of fish, it was particularly difficult to understand certain things. The entire time I was snorkeling, he swam beside me or underneath me -- often within a few inches of my mask. When it came time for me to get out of the water, it was like saying adieu to a good friend. As I got closer to the beach, he swam more frantically as if I was leading him away from his comfort zone. Maybe he knew I was leaving and didn't want me to. Still, he stayed with me. If I cupped my hands in front of me he would swim into them. I did this several times. He followed me until his silhouette disappeared into the murky water where the waves met the beach. I imagined him waiting there for a while after I got out. For whatever reason, the whole scenario made me think of my dad, making it particularly difficult to part ways.

Last night, the show went on -- as it must -- in my dreams. I don't recall the exact context, but Papa Max made an appearance. I was as happy as I was surprised to see him. I responded to his presence like I always do when he pays me a visit. It seemed very strange, but since he was unarguably right there in front of me, I couldn't put the pieces together. I usually attempt to ignore the resulting uncertainty and make to the most of my time with him. At some level, I always know that it's been a long time. Often, I find myself trying to explain to him what I've done with myself in the years he's been gone. This inevitably brings on a feeling of discomfort that lingers into the waking hours, and evolves into a momentary driving force in my day or week.

It's interesting to assess the associations made by the unconscious mind and speculate where, when, and how past thoughts and experiences continue to manifest themselves after the fact. Everything is open to interpretation:
Thanks little fish for reminding me of my dad and planting a seed that would grow in my dreams later that night. 
Or, thanks Dad for speaking to me through a fish, and again in my dreams shortly after. 
Or, thanks Higher Being of many names, that I don't understand or believe in, for appearing to me undetected in a form that I can relate to. 
Or, thanks nonentity of oneness comprised of everything that's ever existed and ever will, for channeling information into the part of our infinite collective being that is my conscious mind at this relative point in space-time.
The way I see it, it doesn't matter. Regardless, my take-away is the same - I am subtly reminded of my place in my own life and in the world, and am encouraged to not lose sight of the goals I've set for myself. Something I can't explain is trying to keep me on the right track. Trying to explain this would be tantamount to bitching about something I'm not willing to do anything about.

Naturally, this philosophy is more simple in theory than in practice, but it has served as a good guideline to finding peace and balance in my own life. If a message, or idea, or thought, or feeling comes up inexplicably and has significance, be grateful. Trust it, noting its positive or negative connotation, and let it inspire you accordingly. Take these bits of insight and use them to guide you, rather than wasting time manipulating what you think you already know to explain or give meaning to the insight. Whether you believe it's a message from God, the Universe, or your own mind has no importance as long as it sparks the drive within to make improvements to your life. The unconscious mind works around the clock so that you don't have to. The key is to convert the pieces you pick up on into the self-discipline essential to achieving your positive potential as a living being.

To put things into perspective, I like to compare my existence to that of a cell in a body that's fighting a virus. I either become a healthy part of the whole and work to make a positive contribution to the life cycle of the living organism I belong to, or I let myself go and become part of a growing problem that could potentially put an end to life as we know it. Simply being aware of the threat and doing nothing is not enough. Neutral beings work in favor of the menacing force by exemplifying the comfort and ease of existing in ignorance, be it intentional, or not. As one cell among billions of others, what I do personally may seem to have so little relative significance. However, I know that if enough of us waging this struggle tip the same way and actively resist long enough, the virus can be forced into remission.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Happy Space

Once again, I sit on a plane to the next leg of my adventure. I've been absent from the blogging scene for all too long now. I could give a dozen reasons for this, or make a dozen excuses -- whichever way you see it. I think about writing often. Like a friend I've left behind, I miss it. I have had a pretty steady email and chat presence to those who have reached out. Every time I check my email, I have the anticipation of an old man who walks a half mile to the end of his countryside dirt driveway to check his mailbox. I've mostly satisfied my desire to write lately through direct contact. Now if I can just get into the habit of blogging at the same time.

I've spent the entirety of 2013 so far in China, mostly split between only two cities: Guilin and Shanghai. I had six weeks to travel around the vast country and explore, yet I did virtually none of that. Even though I didn't see much of it, China was one of my very favorite places so far. I probably wouldn't live there, but it was an incredibly thought provoking experience.  Of the countries I've been to, it easily felt the most foreign. For me, it was the hardest one to navigate as well.  The Chinese are very nice, in a curious and selfishly accommodating kind of way. You can't blame them -- imagine growing up in a country with a population of over 1.2 billion. After almost two months, it started to feel like I was in an ant hill. Granted, I only really went to urban areas, but those are home to the vast majority of the Chinese. They have little to no concept of personal space. Right this moment, for example, the nice Chinese man next to me, while slipping into a deep sleep, is also slipping further and further over my side of the armrest, making it a real bitch to type. Excuse me. Challenge. A real challenge. And I love a good challenge. I can't justify feeling annoyed on a plane to Hawaii.

One of my favorite parts of China, quite surprisingly even to myself, is the language. The dialects of the spoken language that I encountered are relatively simple and all the sounds are easy enough to make. Picking up Chinese was one of the highlights of my stay.


Contrary to the first part of my travels, I've been much more social and much less motivated to move about. Since I got to China, I just settled into the places that I found most comfortable and stuck around long enough to build more quality friendships. It was a nice change but in some ways it wasn't as satisfying. I think that like every other time I've traveled long term, I reached a point where I just want to get back into a somewhat consistent daily routine. However, this time, I don't associate that urge to settle down with being home.

As it turns out, this is exactly the desired effect I was hoping for when I left. Why, I'm still unsure. I intentionally got rid of many of the things that typically contribute most to my homesickness while I'm abroad. Now it almost feels like I'm searching for a new place to call home for a while -- a place where I'm comfortable, and properly mentally stimulated, and excited to get up every morning.

Another anticipated effect of my travels that's materialized is this desire I have more and more to distance myself from the temptations of a lifestyle that's so carelessly destructive to our planet. I guess I'm playing the hippie card, but that shouldn't be news to anyone. If there's one thing I learned in China, it's how adversely air- and light pollution affect my morale. And when I hear of the inversion back in Salt Lake, that's just one more (and very big) reason that I'm eager to keep traveling. I haven't had a clear view of the sun or stars in well over a month. You know there's a problem when you look up at an open sky and feel more confined than free. I mentioned this in the End of the World post as an observation, but now that I've truly experienced it first hand, I do say that it's borderline depressing. I confirm that the best way to maintain some illusion of happiness without escaping to nature, is to distract yourself with the at once, over- and under-stimulating activities and products of urban life. That's exactly what I did. And to this I credit, in large part, the sudden change in my behavior.

So, what's next for me? I'm not quite ready to become an expat, but the idea is becoming more and more appealing. I'm in no particular rush. Plus, aside from not yet having found a suitable place, there are still some loose ends that I need to tie up at home. And I plan on doing just that.

After my two-week visit to my mom on the Big Island, I'm heading down to Costa Rica. The tentative plan as of now is to roam around there and the surrounding countries for about three months before making my way back to great city of the super salty lake. I'll stick around home until at least October...