Mark saves Alex's life
02.12.2015 - 29.12.2015
Time for something completely new - Costa Rica! Mark has requested this blog takes the by-line 'Mark saves Alex's life' in honour of the number of times he has had to rescue me from perilous situations, largely involving wildlife or nature this last 4 weeks. Whilst these events were perhaps not life threatening, they were certainly high in number and so in all fairness do summarise our encounters with Costa Rica quite well! So here we go Tales from Costa Rica and Mark Saves Alex's Life.
It was to be both mine and Marks first taste of Central America and so as we waited for our flight we were full of mixed emotions. Excitement to be going somewhere completely new but nervous about the unknown. Unknown language (our rosy-eyed intentions to learn a bit of Spanish every day during the 3 months leading up to Costa Rica accumulated in one hour of Spanish the day before we flew...) , unknown systems and a world of complete unpredictability. Costa Rica doesn't really do bus schedules, it definitely doesn't do addresses (genuinely there is no such thing as an address, just a vague description to head 50 metres west of a palm tree opposite a church) and as we were soon to learn it doesn't really do time-keeping either. For someone who quite likes to plan ahead and really doesn't like not being in control, this was going to be tricky! On the other hand Costa Rica is regularly ranked as one of the best countries to visit in the world and with very good reason. It doesn't just have the beautiful weather and beaches, it is also one of the most biologically intense and diverse countries in the whole world, offering an almost unparalleled range of wildlife and fauna. Alongside this it has every experience going from natural hot springs to zip wires and the world's best white water rafting. So yes, we were also pretty darned excited to be going there.
Our first feelings upon actually arriving though went something like this - "oh it's hot, so bloody hot! Why's it so hot?? It's 9pm and I'm sweating profusely just standing here. How am I meant to work on a farm for 2 weeks in this heat? Argggh, so hot!!!". Thankfully, it turned out that the city of Liberia where we had landed is one of the hottest places in the whole of Costa Rica and we were staying there 1 uncomfortable night only. Our first proper destination was actually a small organic vegetable farm just south of the capital San Jose where we had arranged a two week work placement. Best of all, it was up in the mountains where temperatures are a lot cooler.
Our journey there gave us our first taste of Costa Rica's road system. Here's what we learnt...
- InterCity roads: fab
- San Jose roads: bloody death trap
- any other road: dirt track doesn't even come close.
The thing is, it rains a lot in Costa Rica and so when their roads are damaged we're not talking little pot holes but rather giant holes in the road and land slides. Puts things into perspective a little bit.
So onto our work placement... Well let's just say the first few days were a slight culture shock. A lot of houses in Costa Rica are fairly basic structures built from wooden planks and tin as was the case with this one. Furthermore the volunteer quarters had sort of just been tacked onto the side, which truth be told had a rather strong resemblance to a garden shed. The floor was cement, our bed consisted of two pallets with a thin mattress on top and there were inch long gaps between the walls and the roof and where the door had been placed, which means you might as well be sleeping outside as far as bugs are concerned. Cockroaches, massive spiders, dung beetles, crickets and flies became regular sleeping fellows, which when you're sleeping 6 inches off the floor without a mosquito net makes for rather a cosy affair. On one particularly scaring day I found a cockroach on my toothbrush. I did think we were getting braver on the bug front but then a giant beetle came buzzing into the room, so big we weren't really sure what it was. I dove under the covers for protection only to turn around and find Mark hiding there with me. To be fair to him he did then venture out to remove said beetle and for the record he also killed the cockroach on my toothbrush as well as many others that I would not go near. #1 of Mark saves Alex's life.
Washing facilities were also a little basic, with an outdoor composting toilet, a shower in the corner of a shared living room which was limited to 4 minutes a day, and just an outdoor sink for washing clothes. Coming from the USA where you have every convenience possible, this was one big shock to the system!
But - and it is a very enormous but - there was an awful lot to love about this farm. It had been set up a few years ago by a Costa Rican couple just a few years older than Mark and I, and not only had they put their heart and soul into the place but they had an enormous amount to be proud of. They had built the entire farm and house themselves and much of the simplicity was entirely intentional. The water supply came directly from the local stream, the composting toilet was the most impressive I have ever seen and most of what they ate came from either their own farm or another farmer's. Their aim was to not only grow organic vegetables, but to sustain the local land and to teach as many other people as possible about the importance of doing so, whether that be local farmers, visiting school groups, volunteers like ourselves or the consumers they met at the market. What shocked us most, was that it was a task that really needing doing in Costa Rica, as it has one of the smallest percentage of organic farming in the world, and it's land is slowly being destroyed by the unethical mass production of products like pineapple, palm oil and bananas. This was no hippy dippy rubbish, but conscientious and well planned dedication to preserving their local environment.
So much as it took us a while to get used to, we also had such an enjoyable and enriching two weeks there. The work was tough at times and involved rather more contact with cow and horse shit than we would have really liked (excellent fertiliser and soil base in case you're wondering), but it was also very rewarding . We got to see some amazing wildlife, including a vast array of hummingbirds, and went on a more authentic jungle hike than you'd get on any tour group. The hike was a little terrifying at times as you cling to branches to stop yourself veering down a hill side and hope more than anything that none of those branches turns out to be a snake (and yes I did have to lunge for mark on more than one occasion - #2 life saver moment). But the reward was a famous 'ficus tree', also known as a 'strangler tree' because it winds itself in a circle around another tree, which it eventually kills, leaving the inside hollow allowing you to climb up the middle and enjoy spectacular views at the top!
By the time our two weeks were over, we'd got a real taste for how Costa Rica feels but now it was time to see how Costa Rica looked. Our first stop was La Fortuna, tourist central and home to the just about still active Arenal volcano. Alongside this it's also the 'Toys'r'us' of adrenaline based holidays offering zip lines, bungee jumps, canyoning, white water rafting and pretty much anything else that involves being put in a harness and dangled at high levels. For us it was also strange because you are no longer surrounded by Spanish speakers, but in fact English becomes the dominant language. We thought we'd hate this but in all honesty it was kind of nice to have someone other than each other to talk to! And whilst La Fortuna is very touristy it's also a lot of fun and doesn't have that tack that a lot of tourist destinations have. Whilst there we indulged ourselves in a visit to the worlds biggest hot springs, heated by the local volcanic activity. Pure bliss!! To balance things out we then went white water rafting, which was the most amazing fun and surprisingly did not require any rescue attempts from Mark (some definite near misses though)! If you ever want to go white water rafting, Costa Rica is most definitely the place to do it. It's not just that the rivers are world renowned, but it's also the most beautiful setting and best of all the water is warm! At one point when the waters were calm, we all got out and just floated down the river in our life jackets, surrounded by lush trees and spotting sloths. Definitely one of those moments where you step back and try to absorb what a special experience it is that we're having.
From La Fortuna we got a shuttle bus and boat over Lake Arenal to Monterverde, discovering on the way that there is no limit to how many tourists a Costa Rican will try to stuff into a minibus. Monteverde is famous for its cloud forest, which is, as the name would suggest, a forest that sits pretty much permanently in a cloud, creating a very unique biological environment. Perhaps we should have expected this, but Monterverde is wet...really, really wet! We embarked on a hike into the forest eagerly anticipating all the wildlife this unique environment would offer, only to find that when you get that much cloud and rain in such dense forest you can hardly see the next tree let alone an animal! We did really enjoy ourselves there though. Despite the large tourist numbers, the villages here have remained stubbornly undeveloped, which is a lovely attribute. They are are located on top of volcanically formed hills, creating some amazing views, and the roads are left purposefully unpaved, which has the affect of immediately slowing down not only the few vehicles but also the pace of life. The one tiny negative of this was the precarious, cliff hugging, genuinely feared for my life, bus journey on the way back.
Having survived the thrill of the mountains it was time to finally see the famed Costa Rican coastline. This was to be the major treat part of our trip as a sort of Christmas present to ourselves. We had forked out for a car rental (a week of not having to negotiate non-existent bus schedules, hurrah!) and had booked ourselves a secluded cabin with views out to the sea, and what a beauty it was! King size bed (note bed, not mattress on pallets), giant shower, private balcony and pool, beautiful outdoor kitchen and views to die for. We could hardly believe our luck! It was also perfectly located in a little village called Ojachal, close to the Pacific coastline but far enough south to be beyond where most tourists venture.
Our stay there was a glorious one filled mostly with wildlife watching and swimming at various beaches and waterfalls. Wildlife had been a major reason in our choosing to come to Costa Rica and we were not disappointed! Through trips to various national parks and wildlife refuges we were able to see 3 of the 4 breeds of monkey that live in Costa Rica, both the 2 toed and 3 toed sloth, caiman, agouti, raccoons, iguanas, crocodiles, toucans and scarlet macaw. All of them living in the wild - pretty exciting stuff. The 2 most special sightings were definitely the two toed sloth and the scarlet macaw as both are unusual to see yet we got really spectacular viewings. In the case of the two toed sloth, they spend about 20 hours a day asleep nestled high in the trees and only coming down once a week, so not only are they hard to spot but seeing them move is very rare. Yet we were lucky enough to see one moving ever so slowly from one tree to another, hanging on the branches above our heads. Similarly with the Scarlett macaws, they're unusual to spot as they only live in small parts of Costa Rica, but we saw a huge scwarking flock of them at the beach one day. No photo can prepare you for how bright and beautiful they are in real life. Amazing!
Award for biggest pest though goes to the raccoon and here's where we get to the next incident of Mark having to rescue me. I was having a lovely time sunning myself on the beach whilst Mark swam when I turned round to see a raccoon right next to me rummaging through our bags and stealing our snacks. I got up clapped, growled, did everything I could think of to scare him and all he did was gave me a look which said 'yeah, what?'. In despair I eventually called for Mark who scared him off instantly. Clearly a more convincing predator...must be the beard.
When wildlife spotting got a bit hot and tiring (which at 35C it regularly did) we went swimming at the nearest beach to cool off. I say cool off but in reality it was often more like taking a bath. I don't think either of us have enjoyed such warm sea in our lives - a world away from the 'brace yourselves' experiences of the U.K.! The beaches were also stunning and so diverse. We had the long white beaches, but we also had small coves, shallow rock pools, enormous tidal beaches. Without exception though, they all came straight from paradise - lined with lush green trees, coconuts, soft sand, beautiful turquoise sea and with just the right level of wildlife.
On Christmas Day we opted for a different swimming experience and went to one of the local waterfalls. What we didn't realise, but was actually quite fantastic, is that this is the kind of thing a lot of Costa Rican families do at Christmas. At each pool we passed there would be an enormous Costa Rican family ranging from Nanna to baby Juan, all gathered together in swimming costumes having lugged an entire Christmas dinner up the rocks. It was a really lovely thing to see. We found our own little pool though, and had a Christmas toast for two, enjoying the more refreshing waters that the waterfalls offer. For me it was also a glorious nod back to my childhood in north Wales where we would often spend our summers swimming in the local streams and rivers. Admittedly I think this made me a little over confident as at one point I found myself drifting towards a series of mini waterfalls rather faster than I would have liked much to Mark's amusement. Queue rescue #5 right at the moment I start to go over the edge. After our swim we went to the local bar and had a pretty amusing conversation with some locals considering neither they nor us could really speak the other person's language. It ended with them setting off some fireworks in the middle of the bar.
So we've just returned to San Jose before we embark on the rest of our trip exploring northern Costa Rica and southern Nicaragua. Much to our relief we managed to return the car safely despite the never ending dangers of attempting to drive 20 miles dirt tracks and slightly crazy drivers. The car hire lady was even more surprised - 'what no tickets, no flat tires, nothing???'. It seems Mark had achieved something quite unique for a tourist out here. She was also highly amused at our prompt return of the car 'Ha ha ha, exactly 1 o'clock, you English!! ' . It's true though...they delivered the car to us 2 hours late, no apology, just a good natured smile which you can't fail to forgive.
To end, a quick note on the Costa Ricans as I haven't given them nearly enough writing space. There's a phrase synonymous with Costa Rica - Pura Vida, the pure life. It's used to celebrate Costa Rican culture but also to say hello, goodbye, and no worries. When I first came here I was very sceptical of it, seeing it as a handy marketing tool to lure tourists into this apparent dream world. To some extent I still think it is, but I've also realised it rings true. Costa Ricans on the whole are very relaxed, happy and helpful. Considering parts of the country have been nearly taken over by North American and European ex-pats they are also surprisingly welcoming of tourists. Far from being ripped off we've had numerous people go out of their way to help us - it's not something they think about, they just do. They want the pure life and they want you to have it too. I can't help but reflect on the reserved reluctance to involve yourselves in someone's else's life that is so common in the UK, and which stops us from being friendly or helpful to the average Joe on the street. Something to learn from I think.
P.s. Some unexpected things we've come to really appreciate and delight in
- [ ] Warm showers. If it also has pressure, it's a near miracle.
- [ ] Clean clothes
- [ ] A bed which doesn't feel like you're sleeping on either a plank of wood or a bed of nails
- [ ] A bedroom which is sealed from insects
- [ ] Air conditioning...having said that a functioning fan is also pretty luxurious
- [ ] A bus what arrives when you expect it to.