Happy Costa Rica Birthday

Sometimes the mysterious workings of the universe are perfectly aligned in your favor. Like that time I got to spend my birthday in Costa Rica. Sure, I was attending a workshop rather than on vacation, and I missed being with my family, but I suppose if had been able to choose anywhere to go on a birthday getaway, San Jose would have been high on the list.

We stayed at a hotel tucked away in the suburbs of the city, with large gardens and a great view of the mountains from my window. In a fit of birthday wellness (which has since passed, don’t worry), I spent most mornings at the gym or playing tennis with colleagues in the gorgeous morning sun.

During the week, we took a field trip to an agropastoralism pilot site. I brought along a film crew, hoping to capture some great footage of how farmers are helping regrow forests on their fields.

Ah, naïveté. As it turns out, agropastoralism, at least according to that site’s manager, really just involves a lot of cow poop. So we got a lot of great footage of excrement treatment pools, bio-gas collectors, and plain old manure. Many a #ShitPile #OscarSelfie was taken that day!

We also enjoyed a few nights out on the town. One began in a hard metal bar named ‘Steppenwolf’, or rather, whatever ‘Steppenwolf’ is in Spanish, which I can’t remember anymore, and ended in a beer hall where the servers kept trying to give the 1L beers I was ordering to the men at the table instead of me. I was offended. Also, I drank all those dudes under the table.

Another evening involved a team dinner at a poor, unsuspecting local establishment. They might have had an inkling when we booked a table for 25, but I don’t think they were expecting us to discover these crazy ‘Beergaritas’ on the menu and proceed to order about 20 of them. What’s a beergarita? Well, it’s a fluorescent blue alcohol slushie with an open Corona bottle somehow added to the liquid upside down and then garnished with a stick or two of fruity decorations. It sounds better than it is. Actually, it doesn’t even sound very good. But we ordered a bunch of them.

The chartered bus on the way home turned into a drunken karaoke singalong to such classics as ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and ‘Sweet Caroline’, and we spent the rest of the evening drinking a few clandestine bottles of rum out in the parking lot. I don’t think we can ever go back to that hotel.

When the hard week of work was over, I had a single day to try and pack in some sightseeing outside the city. There are a number of beautiful places around San Jose, and if you have enough time, you could visit national parks, beaches, volcanoes, wildlife reserves, and more. Some lovely work friends agreed to take me on a trip to one of the nearest volcano parks, to see some craters and lagoons up on the summit.

The drive was about an hour, passing through coffee plantations and fields of berries and bananas as we spiraled toward the top of the volcano. We looked down and saw the city stretching out below, ringed by distant mountains, imagining the way down to the ocean over the other side.

The crater park was extraordinary. As we walked toward the peak, the ground opened up into a huge pool that was changing color from blue to opaque white with the passing clouds overhead. The rocks told a story of violent geology, streaked with red and brown, covered with dark, ashy soil climbing up the sides. The forest around the crater’s edge was dark and moist, swallowing us from above like a knitted roof.

And it was windy. And cold. We could barely hold onto our coats and bags as the wind and fog whipped past us. But we watched the morning mist roll through at an accelerated speed, like the world was on fast forward.

There was no way to cap off such an amazing place. So we drove away, and I hopped onto a plane and flew off into the night. Happy birthday to me! I’m now accepting suggestions for next year.

New Zealand Part 3 – Maori & Geysers

While we were in Rotorua, we decided to take a tour of the local geyser, which is housed within the property of a Maori cultural center. They had a special ticket price where we could have a tour of the village grounds, the carving and weaving schools, a kiwi habitat and the geyser, as well as an evening Maori music/dance show and dinner. Sweet!

The afternoon started with the tour. The grounds were lovely, and they had a lot of nice artifacts, carvings, and buildings. We watched them weave baskets, carve some decorative wall panels and tour the meeting houses (where we would later see the show). After that, we walked down toward the geyser. Whoo mama, it was awesome! Apparently this one is rather sporadic, unlike Old faithful, for example. This one just randomly decides to “geys” (*is that the verb??) whenever enough steam and gases build up. We were lucky enough to arrive during a particularly large geysing. It was hitting about 25 feet into the air!

We wandered up and around the geyser site, checking out other steam vents and fizzling pools. We also saw a bunch of bubbling mud holes, which they use to make cosmetic products. (Some of the photos are actually from a second set of bubbling mud pools we visited another day, but I figured they all went together well enough!)

After the geyser, we visited a kiwi viewing habitat inside a building. Now, apparently kiwis are nocturnal – who knew! So we were ushered into a pitch black room and told that the kiwis were somewhere inside this bushy area, vaguely near the back of the habitat. Yeah, I think I might have seen its beak. Anyway, so that was not as cool as you would have hoped. At least we saw a building in which kiwis were possibly living, so there’s that.

Next, onto the show! It started with us gathering at the great lawn and waiting for the warriors to invite us in. This involved a lot of chubby guys yelling and gesturing with sticks. Then there was a bit of singing, and we were brought into the meeting house. Then, we enjoyed a few singing and dancing numbers, with the troupe of warriors and lady.. warriors? Anyway, they were pretty good. It seemed a bit like a high school play. In fact, I’m thinking it might have been the school break job for some of them, like you would go and work a summer camp for a few months – well, maybe you join the Maori troupe and entertain tourists. Anyway, they did the hakka dance – it’s cool, look it up. It’s the big-eyed, tongue-sticking-out dance – here’s the ending:

After the show, we chowed down on “real” Maori dishes, some of which were cooked in an underground pit. Honestly, most of the food seemed pretty normal to me, but it was still yummy. Later, we took another twilight tour of the geyser, but it had quieted down by then. Still, the area was misty and surreal, with the moon hanging low in the sky, muting all the yellow sulfur and blue rocks. It was getting chilly, so we lounged for a few minutes on some thermally heated rocks and shared a few cups of hot chocolate before heading home.

Perhaps it was just the magic of the evening, but I came away from Rotorua wondering if maybe we have a drop of Maori in our family tree. It certainly felt a bit like home!


New Zealand Part 2 – Touring Rotorua

Our second stop in our New Zealand adventure took us to a town in the middle of the north island called Rotorua. It’s famous for being a “thermal wonderland” – home to hot springs, geysers, volcanic lakes and a wicked sulphur smell. Like the town was built on rotten eggs. It’s also home to a large population of Maori, though of course we could really only see the tourist side of the culture, kitschy knick-knacks and culture nights. But it was still good fun.

We rented a little apartment overlooking Rotorua lake, mostly because it had a hot tub. The neighborhood was a bit run down – the neighboring house was an empty shell and I’m fairly certain the next one over may have been the residence of a particularly friendly professional lady.

When we arrived in town, the rental wasn’t quite ready, so we wandered down the street and discovered a fair/flea market set up in the park. It turns out these kinds of fairs are pretty much the same everywhere: a few kids’ rides, people selling handmade soaps and earrings, dudes with a bunch of random items from their basements, grannies selling crocheted everything, a young girl selling an entire table full of princess Diana memorabilia.. ok maybe that one was unique, I’m not sure. Anyway, the kids were pretty excited to buy something, so we gave them each a few dollars – J bought a coloring book and LittleB bought a tiny chess set. Not bad!

Eventually we checked into our apartment and settled into the hot tub for the night. It was freezing, actually. Apparently they had just filled it. But hey, we’re Canadian so it felt ok to us.

The next day, we had a great time wandering around the area. We stopped at the nearby Blue and Green Lakes to check out the view. Beautiful! Then we made our way to a Tea House at a historical Maori village. The tour was $30/person, so we only stayed for the tea. Luckily they had some of the best scones I’ve ever eaten in my life. Worth it.

We stopped at a redwood forest for a looksee. Having lived on the west coast of Canada, we had seen huge redwoods before; but they’re always amazing! This forest had been planted in memoriam of NZ servicemen who died in the war(s). We decided to measure the trees in “Bs” – how many Bs fit around the trunk? The biggest one we found was 4.5 Bs around. That’s a big tree.

Overall the walk was beautiful, except for the fact that J fell about a thousand times and got a teeny tiny cut on her knee, and, well, that was the end of that. There was no way she was going to be able to walk back to the car without wailing and collapsing in agony every ten steps. Then we got to the gift shop and she wailed and collapsed at the injustice of us not buying her something. It’s a rough life to be four with a teeny tiny cut on your knee.

Anyway, the rest of us had a nice time!

thecayas vs. the volcano

This weekend, we finally went on our trip to KRAKATOA. Yes, it was awesome!

Saturday started early, with us getting up at 4 am to catch our van. It picked us up from home and drove toward the west coast of Java. From there, we caught a little speedboat out into the Sunda Straight and headed to the group of islands making up the Krakatoa area.

J ready to go (still wearing PJs)
J ready to go (still wearing PJs)
Enjoying some sun (also in PJs)
Enjoying some sun (also in PJs)

By about noon, we caught our first sight of the smoking beauty.

There she is, smoking in the distance - Anak Krakatoa
There she is, smoking in the far distance – Anak Krakatoa

Next door was another huge island, Rakata, originally part of the first Krakatoa, but half of the island was obliterated in the 1883 eruption.

And her sister, Rakata
And her sister, Rakata
Rakata up close - that giant crater is from the 1883 explosion
Rakata up close – that giant crater is from the 1883 explosion

As we got closer, we saw that Anak Krakatau was a bit smaller than we expected, but still huge considering she is only about 120 years old. We pulled up onto the banks of the island at the foot of the volcano.

We've arrived!
We’ve arrived!
Pulling up to the island... I wonder where we will stay tonight?
Pulling up to the island… I wonder where we will stay tonight?
...Right here!
…Right here!

While the guides were setting up our tents, we took the opportunity to explore the black sand beach and go for a swim.

It was a black sand beach - and as hot as lava!
It was a black sand beach – and as hot as lava!
White volcano rock against black volcano sand.
White volcano rock against black volcano sand.
Splashy girl
Splashy girl
The boys a-swimming
The boys a-swimming

So now that we were on Krakatoa, what else to do but climb it?? So we did. Both kids climbed it all by themselves! The whole experience was incredible.

Later that night, after dinner on the beach, we took a walk along the deserted coast – lit up by only the stars and moon. It was wild and beautiful.

In the morning, we cast off and visited a nearby lagoon for some snorkeling. It was especially great, because the coral reefs are relatively young and have grown up out of the completely obliterated crater area.

Then we hopped back in the boat to start our journey home. It was a perfect weekend!


Now that you’ve seen all the highlights, let me give you a peek into our “off-camera” experience:

-When you camp in Indonesia, it means something different than we are used to in Canada. Yes, there were tents, but the only bedding we received were thin children’s play mats placed on the floor of the tent. No covers, no pillows, nothing. Luckily it is warm enough here that covers are totally unnecessary, but a bit of forewarning about pillows would have been nice. So, the makeshift pillows we had consisted of: 1 mostly empty backpack, 1 wet backpack, and 1 hiking boot. LittleB took the empty backpack, I got the wet one, and B had the boot. J slept mostly on my face. It was a rough night.

-After we spent the whole weekend taking awesome photos and protecting our camera like it was a dragon horde, B managed to snag the camera on the edge of the dock while disembarking – then the strap broke and we watched our treasure fall to the bottom of the marina! The marina water was not too deep, but it was filled with jellyfish. Luckily, we were able to pay one of our boat crew kids to jump in there and get it. Good thing it is an underwater camera!

-While visiting the island, we saw at least 3 giant monitor lizards coming right up to the campsites. It was amazing. Unfortunately, they were mostly just coming and eating garbage. So 99.8% of the pictures we have of them are just lizards sitting in piles of garbage. Classy.

Monitor lizard visiting our campsite - our only good photo without garbage
Monitor lizard visiting our campsite – our only good photo without garbage

-What do you do with two bored kids when you’re trapped on a volcanic island? Well, letting them “help” the cooks is good. We were having squid and shrimp for dinner, so first they watched all the shrimp heads get cut off. Then they started an assembly line for preparing squid – the guy pulls out the guts, LittleB rolls all the skin off, J puts the body into a bucket of dirty water. The only problem was that LittleB wiped all the leftover bits of squid skin onto his pants. That’s never coming out.

-What do you do with two bored kids when you’re trapped in a van for 5 hours? Well, telling a bunch of stories that all end with someone getting poked in the eyeball and dying is good for at least half an hour.

-Volcanic sand is neat. It’s black and fine. But it turns out that, not unlike other sand, it gets everywhere, but unlike other sand, because it’s black, you can see it everywhere: in hair, in swimsuits, in shoes, in bum cracks. Walking up a 70-degree incline of the stuff is also not easy. Every step slides you back down and fills your shoes with dirt and gravel. At the bottom of the hill, LittleB dumped out what he pretty accurately described as “almost half of the volcano.” I’m still finding sand in places where no sand should be.

It was still a perfect weekend!

Out and about

We’ve spent the last few days acting like real locals. First, we attended a celebration for Indonesia’s Independence Day at my work on Friday night. Then we visited with friends, went to the mall and toured around the city a bit on Saturday. Tomorrow, we’re looking forward to a family picnic day by the pool and then a dinner with some more friends. It’s like we live here or something!

Time to regale you with a bunch of pictures: