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?!
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.
A monkey comb
Some cool transparent seed thingee
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:
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.
Beth and I went to high school together, when we looked like this.
We were both in Chamber Choir, which looked like this.
Which means we went on the big choir trip to Russia, Poland, and Hungary in 1987, which looked like this.
(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.
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!
Demonstrating the latest in sock puppet technology
Yes, I happened to have a Guy Smiley t-shirt along on this trip
Cuz that’s how I roll
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.
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.
The funny group photo
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.
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.
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.
One of the many lizards hanging around, this one boldly traversing the parking lot.
These aren’t insects- they’re empty skins, clinging to a boat rope.
I think Karen would have approved of my dinner at local landmark Father Rooster.
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.
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!
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.
It’s not hard to spot the transition from dry forest to tropical forest. Altitude makes all the difference here.
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…
… And people. Old US school buses are a common sight on the roads here, though the giveaway text is usually painted over.
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.
Within fourteen hours of landing in Liberia, Guanacaste province, Costa Rica, I found myself addressing a classroom full of students at the National University. To figure out how I got here, we need to go back in time.
In 1998, a team of scientists and artists from the Milwaukee Public Museum journeyed to the dry, dusty Area de Conservación Guanacaste outside Liberia. Their mission: gather the materials to create MPM’s new Exploring Life on Earth exhibit. Lucky for me, video was a major component of the exhibit, so I got to go along.
For a couple weeks, I got paid to hang out in Costa Rica, recording audio while my colleague Dan shot footage of tiny ants, leaping monkeys, and arid landscapes. When our workday was through, we kicked back with cold (as cold as we could make them, anyway) bottles of Imperial under the tropical stars.
Neil from MPM consults with Fernando from ACG
That’s how I met Fernando. While we worked with many Costa Ricans during our stay, Fernando was the one I really connected with. A park ranger at ACG, he was our fixer: tell him what you need, and he’ll make it happen. Our ages and senses of humor were similar, and he’s the one Tico- that is, Costa Rican- I kept in touch with once we returned home. Exploring Life on Earth opened in 2000 with Fernando in attendance, and it’s still serving visitors today. (Look for my cameo as you click through the interactive video screens.)
Sadly, there’s no mannequin of Fernando
But he does get a cameo on the far right of this panel
For our first big trip after getting married, Karen and I chose to visit Costa Rica. I showed Karen around ACG, where Fernando was rising in the ranks, and he also helped us reach parts of this beautiful country I missed last time: an active volcano, a cloud forest, a black sand beach.
A decade later, with Karen already working and my start date approaching, Costa Rica was a prime candidate for my one-last-trip-before-I-go-back-to-work vacation.
A park ranger no more, Fernando has earned his PhD and begun teaching, which is how I wound up in front of an English class at Universidad Nacional. Luckily, he warned me about my academic engagement in advance, so I brought photos of the MPM exhibit and explained about the slice of Costa Rica that lives in Milwaukee.
During the Q&A, I covered the differences between Texan and Minnesotan accents (they’ve never heard of the movie Fargo), drew a stunningly-accurate US map, and promoted Milwaukee as a filming location for Transformers 3 (they’ve heard of that).
Several of the students spoke excellent English- and asked most of the questions. Others were more reticent, and given the sorry state of my Spanish these days, I can easily empathize.
The Universidad Nacional campus
Dry forest in all directions
Fernando gave me the grand tour of his campus, its open-air classrooms situated in the midst of a dry forest. And it was hot. Like 95 degrees Fahrenheit. I don’t know how the students think straight in this heat. And I don’t know how the male students get any work done with their female counterparts running around in the shortest shorts and least clothing possible. (I’m not sure whether the guys’ appearance is equally distracting to the señoritas).
With my “work” complete, it’s time to go on vacation. Next stop: a volcano!
In a few hours, I leave for Costa Rica on a trip that is unusual in the grand scheme of Next Stop: World.
I booked the trip on a whim. I’m going by myself. I haven’t done much planning. I’m only taking a carry-on bag. I’m not taking my laptop. In other words, I’m travelling like so many of the long-term travelers we bumped into on our trip- the ones who wake up in the morning, rub the sleep out of their eyes, and decide to catch a bus to Bangkok.
I’m thinking of it as an experiment, a taste of a simpler travel style. With friends to visit- Fernando is a native I met years ago on a work trip, Beth is a high school friend teaching English- the urge to plan is less intense. When in doubt, just hang out with my amigos. The fact that I’ve visited Costa Rica twice before helps too.
Karen pointed out yesterday (and it hadn’t occurred to me), that this will be the longest we’ve been apart in our whole marriage. With her strict work schedule on the farm this summer, this might not be my last solo trip, giving the experiment even more significance.
Did I mention that it’s gonna be HOT? Look at the forecast for Fernando’s hometown of Liberia!
Just another excuse to kick back with a cold Imperial cerveza.
Here’s one for the history books: on Friday, April 19, 2013, we got a letter in our mailbox! Why is that a big deal? That hasn’t happened in over 20 months.
One of the myriad logistical challenges of going on a world tour is what to do with your mail. Our house was for sale when we began the trip, so mail couldn’t keep going there. There are businesses that will rent you an address for a monthly fee, but we wanted to be able to keep an eye on our haul. That’s why we were extraordinarily grateful when our friend Kurt (and by extension, his wife Monica) offered to be our permanent address.
All of our credit card and bank statements were already paperless (for easy management from afar), and we reduced our mail volume as much as possible by asking businesses to remove us from their mailing lists.
Still, month after month, our mail would show up at Kurt and Monica’s house. Occasionally, Kurt would email us about a letter that looked important, but mostly he would just toss the deliveries into a cardboard box.
When we returned to the US, the box looked like this:
Not bad for nine months worth of mail. But our postal identity crisis wasn’t over yet, because over the summer we stayed with friends. Then we drove around the Southwest, then lived in a temporary condo, then a temporary apartment. All the while, Kurt continued to receive our mail. We’d stop by his house once a week or so to pick up the latest bundle.
Until now. We’ve finally settled down, rented our own apartment, and begun the laborious process of changing our address, no doubt to our friends’ relief.
And what was the historic first piece of mail delivered to our new apartment? A dumb old bill from Time Warner Cable, a company with which I have a troubled relationship. Their customer service often lets me down. Case in point: we are signed up for paperless billing.
So our first letter should never have been sent. A fitting end to our tale of meandering mail.
Just as I had expectations for our world tour, I had expectations for this period of post-travel limbo. I was going to get so much accomplished.
My alternate universe girlfriend Tina Fey put her finger on it when 30 Rock ended. As she told TIME Magazine,
“It’s kind of like a giant bluff is called, because of all the things you’ve said you would do if you had time,” Fey says of her new phase. “It’s like when you have five weeks’ vacation, and you say, ‘I’m going to clean my house and learn Spanish and weave baskets.’ Now I have to choose.”
We chose to look for jobs and see friends and watch movies. Sorting through the mountain of photos and video from the trip gets tedious, but the results are inspiring: we’re creating a photobook for each country we visited, with so many memories wrapped up in each image.
Somehow, I haven’t quite gotten around to editing those additional videos, organizing those computer files, or writing that e-book. And how is it that we’ve had months off but are only halfway through with those photobooks?!
Maybe it’s time to get a job. Why, with money left in our re-entry fund, do I feel that way? I’m certainly not the first person to long for the structure of a workday and the social interactions at an office- look at how many retirees wind up back in the workforce (are you reading this, Dad?). It’s frustrating, though, that a client’s deadline seems to carry more weight than a deadline I set for myself.
My boss once told me that I’m a workaholic. Why can’t I be a workaholic on my own projects?
And so, we are returning to the working world. Karen is the first-ever Farm Chef at Primrose Valley Farm, a CSA (community-supported agriculture) farm that delivers fresh vegetables to its clients throughout the summer. Besides cooking for the farm workers, Karen will be writing for their newsletter and website. Can video clips be far behind?
After exploring the possibilities far and wide (from Washington, D.C. to Nome, Alaska and beyond), I am returning to my previous employer, Plum Moving Media, in a new Producer/Director position. Plum’s mix of good people and hi-tech toys is hard to beat.
It’s not just employment. We also bought a car. Karen finally got that Subaru she’s always wanted, albeit a older model well-suited for the commuting that lies ahead of her. And we’ve moved into an apartment of our very own, one in which we plan to live for more than a month or two.
Boy, all this sounds so… normal. Lest you think that we’ve lost the fire in our collective belly, consider this: I did something distinctly un-American in negotiating with Plum. I asked them to pay me less money in exchange for more vacation days. They said yes.
Even so, going to work means that my time is no longer my own. Inking a May 1st start date on my calendar made me itchy. I felt like… I felt like… traveling! So I booked a flight to Costa Rica. Since Karen will be working, I’m going solo this time, embarking on one last adventure before the next phase truly begins.
After becoming scuba certified in the Great Barrier Reef, I’ve been delving into the deep wherever possible, from Malaysia to Thailand to Bonaire. And Karen has been right there with me- that is, above me, snorkeling up on the surface.
When we returned to Milwaukee, I didn’t want my skills to get rusty, so I joined the Badger State Dive Club. At the monthly meetings, club members organize diving charters, share diving tips, and generally celebrate all things submerged. Around here we’re talking about lake diving, so instead of seeking out a lionfish or manta ray, local divers are more likely exploring shipwrecks or discovering artifacts.
What, I wondered, do they do during the long Wisconsin winter? The hearty among them go ice diving. Yeah, they cut a hole in the ice and jump in (while following rigorous safety procedures). Meanwhile, the more warm-blooded among us go diving… in a swimming pool.
That’s where Karen comes in. Although she harbors an aversion to activities requiring supplementary oxygen, Karen was up to the challenge of scuba diving in seven feet of water.
Our thanks to certified instructor, ice diver, cave diver, and nice guy Paul Franti, who loaned us the gear and gave Karen a mini class. And kudos to her for trying something new.
Upon emerging from the chlorinated depths, Karen reported that it was easier to breathe underwater than she expected. It was also noisier than she expected- I guess that isn’t really captured in my videos (or is left on the cutting room floor).
I don’t think we’ll see Karen lugging scuba tanks around on our next trip, but she did say that she would like to try it again… in a more scenic environment. Some resorts offer “discovery dives,” where they take uncertified divers out into shallow areas nearby.
Next Stop: Cozumel? I don’t think Karen would have a problem with that.
After a week in the Caribbean, it was time to head home. Our flight wasn’t until the afternoon, so we squeezed in one more activity: kayaking through a mangrove on the eastern side of the island.
Although everyone else on the tour was Dutch, they all spoke English, so our guide offered his observations in our native tongue. After scraping through some tight passages, we hopped into the water and admired the colorful sponges and other fauna living on the tree roots.
Soon the mangroves were a memory, and I was cruising toward the resort where we’d rented the moped. I arrived just before the 1:00 deadline… and then realized I hadn’t filled the tank as required. Zipping back to the main roundabout, I was surprised to find lines three vehicles deep at the pumps.
As the clock ticked toward 1:00, I waited in line, figured out how to prepay, filled up, and scooted away. Made it to the resort just in the nick of time.
Fuel cost me about US$8. I was in a hurry, so I didn’t notice how many gallons or liters I pumped, but I do know that mopeds have small tanks. That was probably the cost of just over a gallon!
Day-to-day life must be fairly tough here. Everything has to be shipped in- except salt, there’s plenty of salt. We’ve heard that some of the native (you know, non-Dutch) people resent Westerners enjoying rum punch at fancy resorts, while citizens born here struggle to get by.
In the taxi back to Captain Don’s, the (Bonaire-born) driver shared his thoughts about the island’s 2010 vote to remain part of the Netherlands: he’s all for it. Dutch control, he said, has brought a degree of order to what used to be a do-whatever-you-want environment. He mentioned that there are rules about how many stories high new developments can be, and limits on how much property one person can buy up.
Getting ready for more tourists
In our week here, we’ve enjoyed the luxuries of Bonaire: scuba diving, snorkeling, relaxing in our bungalow, and taking a break from job-searching and decision-making back home.
With this trip, our travel fund is officially depleted, and we are officially moving on to the next phase of our lives. Now we just have to figure out what exactly that means!