Going Solo

Anniversary evening out

This may seem kind of strange. The day after our 11th wedding anniversary, I (Ken) am off on a solo trip to Prague via the UK. Stranger still, as readers of these pages will recall, this is my second solo international trip since our return home, the first being my jaunt to Costa Rica.

To be honest, traveling the world as a pair for nine months was difficult. Factors external to the relationship- booking yet another hotel room, catching yet another bus- are compounded by internal factors like differing travel styles and all those little why-must-you-always-_____ irritations that arise in close quarters.

Now that we have returned to Milwaukee and settled into the workforce, we’re figuring out what our travel life will look like from now on. Gainful employment limits the length of future trips, although I did negotiate some extra time off when I returned to work, so my number of days off looks a bit more European than American. On an existential level, after all we’ve seen and done, we still struggle with what it means to return to Milwaukee and how we can live more simply and purposefully- but that’s a blog post for another day.

Never fear: our days of traveling together have not come to an end. This trip didn’t begin as a solo affair; it began when we decided that we would take time off in October, when Karen would be finished with her summer farm job and I would have a couple major projects completed.

Endless possibilities

Endless possibilities

Ah, that most delicious stage of planning a trip, when you can consider going anywhere- just check out the guidebook from the library and spin dreams of faraway places. Turkey and Egypt are at the top of my list, though their governments’ recent actions don’t inspire admiration. Karen and I thought we might go to Oaxaca together for their Dia de Muertos celebrations (we will do that, perhaps next year- stay tuned). Then, when Karen had an important volunteering opportunity come up for late October, this trip morphed into a Ken trip. I’ve been itching to get to Eastern Europe ever since we narrowly missed it on our big trip. I soon settled on Prague, with a side trip to Dresden, Germany.

Narrowed down

Narrowed down

Researching flights to Prague, I noticed that many of them connect through London… so why not stop off in the UK for a few days, too?

It’s a good thing Karen’s not coming along- this is exactly the kind of jam-packed itinerary that drives her nuts. Not me, though. This is a Ken trip for sure.

MKE ghost town

MKE ghost town

O'Neon

O’Neon

After navigating the ghost town of Milwaukee’s airport (I guess not too many people fly at 1pm on a Saturday) and the neon wackiness of O’Hare, I found myself with an entire row to myself on the flight. I actually got to lay down for a while, which helped me feel a little less worn out upon landing.

I guess not too many people fly through Heathrow at 7am on a Sunday either.

LHR as the sun rises

LHR as the sun rises

I probably won’t be able to keep up on blog posts in realtime, but I’ll certainly be snapping photos on my adventures. Next Stop: Wales!

The Godfather of Guanacaste

Sprawling Fernando 1998

When I met Fernando in 1998, he was a lowly park ranger. Now, I’ve come to think of him as the Godfather of Guanacaste.

Gimme a hug

He seems to know everyone in Liberia, forever greeting acquaintances with a smile and a hug. A spirited conversation (mostly unintelligible to me) erupts, everyone laughs heartily, and then we are being shown to the best table or ushered through the gate without paying the entrance fee.

Fernando calendar

He’s on a calendar. Of course he is.

Fernando earned it. He may have started out as a park ranger, but he finished as el jefe of the entire park. Now, with a PhD under his belt, Fernando is the BMOC (Big Muchacho on Campus). He teaches business classes at two universities, as well as volunteering for a local organization helping women start small businesses.

I am particularly susceptible to falling under Fernando’s spell, since having a native Spanish speaker with me makes the ride so much smoother. Oh yeah: the ride. Fernando has a car, and morning after morning he picked me up and shuttled us off to another tourist hotspot, be it his favorite beach (Playa del Coco) or the local volcano (Volcan Rincon de la Vieja).

Ceviche

On my last evening in Costa Rica, Fernando chose a nice restaurant on the outskirts of town, and I chose ceviche. We both requested our entrees without mayonnaise, so, interpreting this to mean that we love mayo, they drenched our chips in it (plus ketchup). Yuck.

Drenched

It was a low-key meal. My thoughts strayed to flying home and re-entering the workforce after 21 months of (intentional) unemployment. Then they wandered to nostalgia for my previous trips to Costa Rica, when I first met Fernando. Those days, I realized, aren’t lost- there’s still fun to be had in CR, and after all these years, Fernando is still sitting across from me (and translating for me… and shuttling me around… and booking hotels for me).

Muchas gracias, amigo.

Makes me think I should hook up with a friend on all my future trips. Hmm, who do I know in the Czech Republic? And Kenya? And Antarctica?

Returning, Remembering

I woke up in Nicaragua, but my mind was already back in Costa Rica. After a couple relaxing days in Granada, I wanted to spend the majority of my last day of vacation with my friend Fernando.

The chicken bus

So it was that I found myself on a cramped local bus (what the locals call the chicken bus) at 6:35am, an elderly woman’s ample bosom squished against my shoulder. At her stop, she extracted the fare from her bra and paid the attendant, while a young mother and her baby moved into her spot. The child played with the straps of my backpack, which I allowed until she started putting them in her mouth.

From my seat near the front, staring past the driver, I could see all the gauges on the dashboard… and I could see that none of them worked. One may only guess at the vehicle’s kilometers/hour, pressure, temperature, or total engine hours. Those of you planning a trip to Nicaragua, please note that for a few dollars more, one can traverse this route in a modern bus. Next time, I’ll do so.

At the border, my thoughts turned to scams. My friend Beth had warned me of one in which Westerners crossing back into Costa Rica are told they need to pay fees of one hundred dollars or more to exit the country. After paying three dollars worth of legit exit fees, I was ready- nay, eager- to wave my receipts in a scammer’s face, but no such opportunity presented itself.

IMG_8511 welcome to Costa Rica

Like Dorothy emerging into a Technicolor Oz, I felt my spirits lift as I entered Costa Rica. A clearly-marked route led to an orderly line, and soon enough I was on a southbound bus. A bus with functional gauges.

The driver was kind enough to make an unscheduled stop, dropping me at ACG, the Area de Conservación Guanacaste.

ACG is the national park where Fernando and I first met in 1998, where the Milwaukee Public Museum team’s labors were recorded by their video crew (including me).

Now, in 2013, Fernando’s car pulled up to the ranger station, and I was reunited with mi amigo. We drove into ACG, back where it all began. As you can see, it was a solemn occasion for us both.

Fernando parked the car, we walked into the comedor (dining hall), and the memories came flooding back. The cafeteria meal still consists of rice, beans, and mystery meat, with a generous dollop of Lizano sauce. Back in ’98, I brought a bottle home, not realizing that my local Mexican grocery store carried it.

Fernando walked me to the research building where we worked (slathering plaster on people to turn them into mannequins) and the dorm where we slept (four to a room in the April heat).

The buildings’ new paint job did nothing to slow the flood of recollections: this is where we saw an aguti… that’s where we stored the video gear… this is where I showered with a scorpion (just a little one).

As Fernando greeted his former co-workers, I lingered at the dorm building. Just moments before losing me to the grip of existential nostalgic angst, my friend pulled me back to reality and drove me further into the park, to La Casona (the large country estate).

La Casona History

La Casona

In a sense, this is the Costa Rican Alamo. In 1856, When William Walker’s filibusters swept into this country bent on conquest, the Ticos drew the line right here: no one gets past La Casona. And no one did. Walker withdrew to Nicaragua and before long was driven out of Central America… and back to the US, where he was welcomed as a hero. Oops.

Manifest Destiny

Um, sorry about that whole Manifest Destiny thing

According to a sign in the museum, “The Campaign is considered a crucial episode in defining Costa Rican identity.”

La Casona 1998

La Casona 1998

I’m grateful that I saw this national landmark in 1998, because arsonists torched it in 2001. Fernando and I are visiting the rebuilt version (the handicapped access ramp and robust fire suppression system are dead giveaways).

Our time travels complete, Fernando and I climbed into the car and made our exit. Do we have to? I couldn’t help but feel wistful, walking in the footsteps of a younger me.

Exploring Life on Earth was the Milwaukee Public Museum’s last grand expedition before its budget troubles hit, and corporate videos far outnumbered museum videos in my future.

But I’ll always have a piece of ACG in my heart… and on the second floor of MPM!

Exploring Life on Earth

My Mombacho

One full day in Granada, Nicaragua. Two possible pursuits: climb the volcano, or cruise around the islands.

I’m a sucker for volcanoes. I’ve gotten closeup views of the calm kind (Mount Saint Helens in Washington state), the smoky kind (Volcán de Fuego in Mexico), and the lava-spewing kind (Arenal in Costa Rica, before the show abruptly ceased in 2010). Now, the magnetic pull of Volcán Mombacho is drawing me into a taxi and onto the dusty road out of town.

Road to Mombacho

A few córdobas (well, actually, they collected it in dollars) gains one admission to the Reserva Natural Volcán Mombacho, and for a total of US$15, one also receives a ride to the top in the back of a pickup truck. Well worth it versus walking.

Januar, not Jaguar

A gaggle of guides lies in wait at the visitor center, and I hired young Januar to accompany me on the Sendero la Puma, a 4-kilometer trail around the crown of the crater. Since its last eruption in 1570, the volcano has been covered over with lush jungle- I was surprised to find myself thinking of New Zealand while hiking in Nicaragua.

Januar (gringos usually can’t remember his name, so he tells them to call him Jaguar instead) and I explored, getting in touch with our inner Tarzan. Sorry about the poor audio quality.

Back in town, I grabbed a meal and hit the museum at the Convento San Francisco.

You know, whispers the diabolical part of my mind, maybe I didn’t have to choose between the volcano and the islands. There’s still time to visit the shore of Lago Nicaragua- the huge lake that contains Las Isletas. There are said to be 365 islands in the bay… which sounds like a suspiciously convenient number to me. I had glimpsed some of them from atop Mombacho.

Las Isletas en la distancia

As illustrated by the museum’s scale model of the city, reaching the shore simply requires getting from here…

Parque model

… to here.

Centro model

How hard can it be? I wasn’t keen on a horse-drawn carriage ride, so I waited for a taxi. Over the course of several minutes, every single one that passed was occupied. How far can it be? I started walking.

It wasn’t a difficult walk; it was just difficult doing it three hours after circumnavigating a volcanic crater. My legs were killing me. Add to that my suspicion that the lakeshore would be hugely anticlimactic. After all, this isn’t tourist season, and I was walking to an area named Centro Turistico.

Centro avenue

The wide avenues were empty, except for work crews patching the sidewalk. Would this be yet another instance where I expend too much effort for too little reward?

Thankfully, not this time. A young woman- clearly a fellow tourist- had been walking ahead of me for several blocks, and when we wound up viewing the lake from the same vantage point, she struck up a conversation. I’m glad she took the initiative, since I generally don’t accost solo female travelers on deserted streets, figuring they get too much male attention as it is.

Centro street

Veronique and I walked together through forlorn Centro Turistico, a collection of shoddy bars and restaurants. A few boats bobbed in the lake, their captains no doubt wishing for the high season’s throngs of tourists.

Lago Nicaragua tour boats

Exploring this area would have been the feared letdown, if not for the interesting conversation with my newfound friend. Veronique, a French-speaking Canadian, was living with a local family and learning Spanish, so we bounced among three languages to get our meanings across (“Tell me about your clase de español, s’il vous plaît.”).

And yes, Veronique confirmed, she does indeed get altogether too much attention from local men- they whistle and yell things as she walks around town. Machismo is alive and well in Granada.

Veronique et Ken

A few of Centro Turistico’s bars were open for business and neither of us had tried Nicaragua’s national beer, so we stopped off for a cold Toña before walking back downtown and parting ways.

Cerveza Toña

From volcanoes to lakes to creepy mannequins, it was an enjoyable day, made all the more so by the “real Tarzan” tour guide and the Québecoise traveler I shared it with.

Now, to get some sleep and store up energy for tomorrow’s departure from Granada… aboard the chicken bus.

Finding Granada

When last we saw our intrepid explorer, he had just stepped off a cramped bus somewhere in Nicaragua…

My first impression of Granada was not glowingly positive. But walking just a few blocks, I arrived at the parque central and took in a whole different vibe. Granada was founded as a Spanish colonial outpost- a few years ago, Karen and I visited the Moorish city it’s named after in southern Spain. While much strife has crossed these avenues, the citizens have rebuilt and restored key buildings after each conflict. The central park is bright, clean, and bustling.

Looming particularly large in Nicaraguan history is William Walker, a Tennessee native who in the 1850s set his sights on no less than conquering all of Central America. After his army was turned back in Santa Rosa, Costa Rica, he sought refuge in Granada. However, he hadn’t made many friends in the region. When the Honduran, Salvadoran, and Guatemalan armies came knocking, he fled. Naturally, his men set the town ablaze on their way out.

The residents seemed to have patched things up nicely, ready and waiting for us photo-snapping tourists.

Basking in colorful colonial architecture is nice and all, but I was worn out from that bus ride. After dropping my bag at the hotel, I stumbled back to Parque Central seeking a snack… and found one of my favorites: plantains- in this case, plantain chips with cheese.

Plantain chips

So simple, so delicious. Rejuvenated, I made the most of the remaining daylight. Climbing to the top of Iglesia de La Merced’s bell tower reveals a boffo view all the way to Lake Nicaragua and beyond.

You call that a view? Ha! The guidebook tells of a fort, Fortaleza La Polvora, with “the best view in town.” Walking west to find it, I noticed the city’s painted veneer wearing off, block by block. The fort rests in a scruffy part of town, with ramshackle homes resembling those along the bus route.

Ramshackle abodes

Turns out the fort was closed, so no “best view” for me.

Back in the park, where painted buildings abound, I stumbled upon a good old-fashioned singing/musical/dancing exhibition/competition/spectacle (rural Nicaragua’s version of a reality show?).

Hmm, that clip wasn’t exactly up to my usual standards of hard-hitting video journalism. Actually, I just wanted to get back to the hotel, where I discovered… the nap. A monumental invention, dating back to- well, a long time ago. Ninety-five degree days… in Latin America… and until now I’ve forgotten to take a sueñecito. A nap.

OK! I’m back! Full of energy! Oh, yeah, it’s 8pm. I treated myself to a fancy dinner: a trio of fancy enchiladas and a glass of wine for US$13. Well-rested and well-fed, I wandered the streets a bit, snapping night photos around the park.

Night walk

Yes, this is the sort of walk that would terrify many fearful Americans. No, I didn’t feel at all unsafe.

Granada was drifting off to sleep, and soon enough, so was I.

Next Stop: Nicaragua

If you’re like most Americans of a certain age, when you read the name Nicaragua in the title your first thought was: Sandanistas! That term sprang into my mind when I first met Fernando in the ’90s and he described his frequent vacation trips north. It became a running joke between us: me feigning fear of shadowy revolutionaries run amok; him threatening to drive me to the border and spirit me across.

Now he finally had his chance.

Profesor Fernando had the weekend off and a hankering to take me to Nicaragua. What luck: I would be visiting a new (to me) country with a native Spanish speaker to show me around.

My luck ran out the day before we were to leave, when Fernando checked his passport. It was valid but didn’t have at least six months remaining, as required for entry into Nicaragua (and many other countries).

I’d gotten it in my head that I was going to Nicaragua, so I was going to Nicaragua. I just wouldn’t have a tour guide. In other words, I was going back into Next Stop: World mode for a couple days. About damn time.

On the wings of the worldwide web, the relevant sections of the Lonely Planet guidebook arrived on my phone (no laptop on this trip). I booked a hotel in Granada, the historic town that was my destination, and started a To Do list.

On Saturday morning, Fernando and I set out for the border, or La Frontera in Spanish (really, he’s been spoiling me by chauffeuring me all over the place). I wondered what the crossing at Peñas Blancas would be like, especially after reading this article. Not only does the author claim that “a jaunt over the border is at best a sweaty and shuffling two-hour inconvenience, at worst a full-day Dantean undertaking.” He also says:

Peñas Blancas is the single largest drug transit point in the Americas. The majority of the cocaine that ends up on a street corner near you in the US moves from Colombia to the shores of Costa Rica, then runs up through this border crossing into Central America and overland to Mexico.

You would never guess that an international game of cat and mouse worth tens of billions of dollars every year is going on right at this border. Last year alone they confiscated 10 tons of cocaine at La Frontera, smuggled in the fake gas tanks and hollowed-out tires of the trucks. Now you can understand why each eighteen wheeler is searched so carefully and they’re backed up for miles, sometimes waiting three days to cross.

Oh, hey, there they are: the lines of trucks.

Line up for Costa Rica

Fernando zips around them and pulls into a parking lot. A quick conversation with a Costa Rican soldier, and we pull forward into a space. Fernando will escort me as far as he is allowed.

Those people yelling at us from behind the fence are currency changers. Apparently they used to hassle people, so authorities placed them behind a fence. How orderly. It’s always a good idea to enter a country with a bit of local coin, so I exchange some colónes for córdobas. Fernando gets me a good rate.

My shadow is about to fade in the Nicaraguan sun: Fernando can go no further. He describes the circuitous path I should take on the other side: keep left/right at the first/second building, go to the office on the right/left of the path (or something like that), then look for a white door that leads to the bus stop, where I can get a cheap bus ride north.

And then he’s gone. A Costa Rican guard waves me through without fanfare.

Border path

I shake my head at the completely unmarked path before me, then shuffle forward, resisting the advances of a man waving papers at me. He wants to “help” me fill out the customs form, in exchange for a tip. I simply follow the trickle of pedestrians ahead of me. No sign of millions of dollars worth of cocaine. But then, there wouldn’t be, would there?

At the open-air office, a humorless official collects my one dollar municipal fee. Figuring that can’t be all, I get into the other line everyone is getting into. I pay another fee (US$12), feeling a bit ridiculous as I try to remember where I keep my dollars, my colónes, my córdobas. They accept any of the above.

Where's the white door?

Emerging into the sunlight, I try to look nonchalant; I have no idea where to go next. No trickle of pedestrians to follow. Wasn’t there something about a white door? I wander past a couple buildings that seem to be closed shops, eyeing up the wall that runs the length of the road. Over there: one might call that a white door. I shall go through it!

Bus station wannabe

Yup, that was it. The noise of bus engines, the shouts of hawkers, and suddenly the taxi drivers are all over me, offering me rides to Granada (that’s where all the tourists go). I seek shelter alongside a ramshackle restaurant and eat a sandwich from my backpack, really just an excuse to get the lay of the land. All the buses are behind the building… so that’s where I go and start asking for the bus to Granada, in Spanish fit for a five-year-old. A couple bystanders try to explain something to me that I don’t quite get, and then a taxi driver latches on to me. Do I want to go to Granada for $40? No. How about Rivas (part of the way to Granada) for $15? How about $10, I counter. We have a deal, and I fold myself into his diminutive sedan. While my border crossing experience was no trip to Disneyland, neither was it two hours long nor even vaguely Dantean. And for that I am thankful.

Usually, before I journey to a new (to me) country, I spend a few nights curled up with a guidebook, learning about the nation’s history and culture. I didn’t have the chance this time, which is too bad because the driver is a chatterbox, regaling me with his thoughts on politics and economics. It’s hard enough for me to follow Spanish; harder still when I can’t quite piece together the words I do understand. Wait, Daniel Ortega, wasn’t he the president in the ’80s? (Yes, I would later confirm, and he’s president again now. ¡Viva la Sandanistas!) I think the driver was saying that the politicians have brought positive economic development- like those wind turbines on the horizon- to Nicaragua but have kept most of the spoils for themselves. In other words, politicians are the same the world over.

Lovely RivasAfter 20 minutes or so, we arrive in Rivas and drive right up to the bus terminal. Not wanting to whip out the stack of twenties in my pocket, I ask to pay in córdobas, but the amount he requests doesn’t quite match the exchange rate I expected, which I call to his attention. “The exchange rate is different on the street,” he says earnestly. I’m not going to quibble over a buck; I pay him $11.67 for my $10 cab ride.

Finding myself once again acting nonchalant while trying to figure out what’s going on, I instantly put the puzzle together. Back at the border, people looked at me like I was crazy when I asked for the bus to Granada; that’s because you need to take a bus to Rivas and then catch a bus to Granada. I’m sure they tried to tell me that.

RivasAs much as I want the next bus to Granada, I want a bathroom even more. The first person I ask points over there, so I go over there. The next person points through there, so I go through there. The next person- well, now I’m afraid I’m going to get lost, so I double back. I consider peeing right here on the side of a building, but hey, this isn’t India. Mercifully, a bathroom presents itself, and I’m back at the bus stop in time to snag a window seat.

Plenty of time, as it turns out. We sit inside the stifling bus, apparently waiting until it is full (and then some) before setting out, around noon.

All aboard to GranadaAs the bus bounces along the dusty road, I try to ward off heat-induced hallucinations by concentrating on the roadside scenery.

Nicaragua is visibly scruffier than Costa Rica. Ramshackle houses with corrugated metal roofs line the dusty roads in this largely agrarian country.

The conflict between the Sandanistas and Contras halted the nation’s development for over a decade. Of course the US was there to boost the good guys- we just couldn’t decide who they were. At first, Jimmy Carter gave money to the Sandanistas, but as the political tides changed, Ronald Reagan had a better idea: sell weapons to Iran (!) and give the money to the Contras. The past appears to be prologue: in recent years election results have been questioned, opposition parties have been silenced, and US aid has been offered and then withdrawn. Nicaragua is the poorest country in Central America. (Panama and Costa Rica are the richest.)

On the plus side, riding the bus for a couple hours costs just over a dollar.

Scruffy Granada

The bus lurches to a final stop. Passengers disembark and disperse. I find myself on a street corner, squinting at dilapidated buildings through a tangle of power lines. I am tired, hungry, worn out. This is where I’m gonna spend two days of my vacation? Has Fernando steered me wrong?

There’s one way to find out. I walk into Granada.

Learn to Surf the Ken Way in Three Easy Steps!

Beth & Bob

After a long day spent molding young minds (into the shapes of puppets), I looked forward to relaxing with my high school comrade Beth and her family. To be honest, I didn’t really know her that well, having drifted out of touch since high school. She’s got a biology degree and was in a band in Alaska? Really? And she’s married to a pilot/mountain climber/adventurer? Really?!

A slice of the suburbs

That biology degree came in handy when Beth, Bob, and I ventured behind their idyllic (practically suburban) house to hike a trail through the forest. Beth launched right back into Montessori mode, teaching me about monkey combs and, um, whatever that other thing is.

Though my time was running short, one cannot depart the Nicoya Peninsula without going surfing. This is Costa Rica’s Surf HQ, its Hang Ten U. Bob rides the waves just about every day. Beth has taken lessons. Me? I had never even been raked over a choka bommie in the pocket of a corduroy party wave. I have no idea what I just said.

After numerous runs, sometimes utilizing unconventional techniques developed on the spot, I am proud to convey to you my surfing method in three easy steps:

Surfing Step One

Surfing Step Two

Surfing Step Three

A couple times, I managed to ride the wave in a kneeling position, approximating the view of one of the many dogs who can surf better than I.

At this point, I would like to show a clip of my hosts’ son Clayton effortlessly riding a wave. However, documenting this achievement proved more difficult than I expected.

All I can offer are my thanks to Beth and the gang for a memorable weekend.

And a non-moving image of the aforementioned surfer dude in action, with his dad looking on.

Surfer dudes

Back to (Montessori) School

Beth and I went to high school together, when we looked like this.

Visions of high school

We were both in Chamber Choir, which looked like this.

Chamber Choir

Which means we went on the big choir trip to Russia, Poland, and Hungary in 1987, which looked like this.

Red Square back in the day

(How Miss Hartzell herded all those troublemaking kids through the heart of the Soviet Union, I’ll never know.)

Fast forward a couple decades, and Beth announced that she and her family were moving to Costa Rica for a year. At the time I vaguely thought, “Hey, we should visit her.” And now, here I am at Playa Pelado, waiting to meet her.

Beth, husband Bob, and their two sons showed up as promised, and we shared a pizza, memories of Russia, and observations about Costa Rica. As she told me about her teaching gig at a Montessori school, I mentioned that I would love to sit in on her class. She got a devilish gleam in her eye.

Back to school

The next morning, for the second time this week, I found myself teaching in a classroom. This new batch of students was a bit younger and way more energetic than my university audience.

My love of puppets, be they Cambodian, Chinese, or Hensonian, is well-known. With the students just starting a unit on Asia, Beth figured this was the perfect opportunity to (a) have a new face in class, (b) talk about puppetry’s Asian origins, and (c) make puppets!

It was a blast. The kids- there are so many of them- jumped into the project with unbridled enthusiasm.

With a sympathetic, you’ve-put-in-your-time smile, Beth gave me permission to leave at lunchtime. But some students had yet to start their puppets, while others had unattached arms or missing eyes (the puppets, not the students). My judgment possibly impaired by the heat, I stuck around a while longer, encouraging the kids to make different kinds of puppets- how about a dragon? a robot? an animal? Most stuck pretty close to the examples I had shown them or what their friends were making, while a few creative types ventured into new territory.

Hard to beat these guys for sheer creativity.

In a room filled with more energy than a nuclear power plant, Beth and her fellow teachers maintained an easygoing control over the pint-sized atomic particles bouncing around the reactor- er, classroom. At one point, she calmed the frenzy by breaking into song: Dona nobis pacem, an old Chamber Choir favorite. One by one, the students dropped what they were doing and began singing along. That the words are Latin for “grant us peace” is probably no coincidence.

Grant us peace

When the students began lining up to go to their daily Agriculture lesson, I made a break for it. I was sweaty, dehydrated, exhausted. How teachers (and parents) manage these little goofballs all day every day, I’ll never know.

A funny group of puppetmakers

The funny group photo

A serious group of puppetmakers

The serious group photo (oddly similar to the funny one)

Later, Beth reported that one of the kids said, “We like him. We should find a job for him here.” I’m not going to quit my day job (actually, I don’t have a day job just yet), but it’s good to hear that after a long day of puppetmaking.

Monkey Island ahoy!

The Coast of Costa Rica

My Yaris

After a couple days teaching and adventuring with Fernando at my side, I rented a car and struck out on my own. Easy to do, since Costa Rica is one of the most developed, stable countries in Central America. They actually have things like safety regulations and paved roads.

Safer motorcycling

Motorcycles and mopeds are all the rage around Liberia, but unlike what Karen and I saw in Asia, riders here don helmets, wear reflective vests, and limit the number of passengers to something resembling the manufacturer’s specifications.

Then again, this is still Central America. Eventually that paved road runs out.

At least that road leads to Playa del Coco, where Ticos and tourists alike were out enjoying the warm (like, 97 degrees Fahrenheit) day. I decided to cool off with a local treat.

Yep, that’s how I eat without Karen along to guide my culinary choices. Good thing she’s usually along.

The following morning was devoted to scuba diving. Since I earned my certification in Australia, diving has added more depth (get it, depth?) to how I experience coastal locales. I booked two dives with a company headquartered at Playa Ocotal. They set me up with a full complement of rented gear and whisked me to aptly-named Monkey Island.

It was just me and the divemaster on this excursion; he gave a quick description of the site and jumped into the water. Um, no buddy check? I ran down the safety checklist in my head and buddy-checked myself, but I’d feel more comfortable with another set of eyes on everything. Perhaps there’s a reason no one else booked with this company today.

Unfortunately, visibility is not great in the waters on the Pacific side of Costa Rica. For dazzling, Bonaire-like scenes, head for the Caribbean coast. Fortunately, I knew what to expect. I was happy to be back in the deep and pleasantly surprised at how bathwater-warm the water was (except for some startling thermoclines, where the temperature suddenly plunges).

Highlights for me were the green turtle who swam by, the spiny sea urchins that look like they’re staring at you with one eyeball, and the stingrays- lying around, swimming alone, and swimming in pairs.

At the second site, the water was colder and the visibility worse, so we had clearly peaked early. Saw a few more stingrays. For now, I wouldn’t herald Costa Rica as a diving mecca, but it was a fun morning… and there’s still the Caribbean side.

Beach boat

My real reason for being on the Pacific coast isn’t granizados or diving. A friend of mine from high school just happens to be spending a year in Costa Rica, teaching nearby. Next Stop: Beth’s place!

Rockin’ the Rincon

Most visitors to Costa Rica arrive in San Jose, stop off in the rainforest of Manuel Antonio National Park, and then hit the beaches. Not me. Mi amigo Fernando lives in the drier northwest of the country, so that’s where my excursions tend to be.

Volcan Rincon de la Vieja is an active volcano surrounded by a national park. Its most recent eruption was in September 2011, so it’s no surprise that the hiking trail around the crater is closed. Fernando and I instead hiked through the surrounding forest, marveling at ropey tree trunks and gurgling mud pools.

And while we’re here, why not go ziplining? From an educational standpoint, careening past an area’s flora and fauna at great speed is pretty pointless. But it sure is fun!

Done right, ziplining isn’t particularly dangerous. That said, Fernando and I both raised an eyebrow at this crew’s antics, goofing around and chattering on as they leapt from platform to platform. Some of the things they said were, Fernando reported, not particularly professional. He declined to translate.

Despite our best efforts, Fernando had to convey some bad news to Karen:

At least I hope she would consider that bad news. Somehow, I survived. Taking a break at a restaurant, we got a front-seat view of how Ticos herd horses…

Horse highway

Horse herding

… And people. Old US school buses are a common sight on the roads here, though the giveaway text is usually painted over.

Burlington school bus

It was a tiring and exhilarating day. And a dirty one, as I discovered when I took off my socks. That’s not a suntan- just a couple layers of Costa Rican dust.

A line in the sand