Friday, January 27, 2006

Immigration, Parking Officers, and Bribery in Costa Rica

We were parked in a bad spot. But, everybody else was, there were four other cars parked in similar spots. Right as we were about to drive away a parking guard walked up to us and wanted to see our license and registration. This request was in Spanish and we kick into dumb gringo. "I don't understand Spanish"...

Which is only partially true, but playing dumb worked getting us through immigration from Guatemala. When we flew back from Guatemala they stopped us at customs and requested to see our return ticket, which we didn't have. You have to have one to enter the country. Adam had a return ticket to Houston which he flaked on a week earlier but he was going to attempt to have them change the flight that he missed. They told us to go buy a return ticket, but all of the ticket booths were on the other side of custom booths. I'm not sure how they expect you to buy a ticket. But we found a phone, make some calls and determine that we are not going to buy an overpriced ticket to Panama. So we return to the same immigration lady, she calls her boss and eventually the boss accepts the argument that we were having difficulties 'changing' Adam's ticket. Adam just told them that I didn't have one. They took our passports for about an hour and than came back to us. At that point they were sick of dealing with us, stamped us, and waved us through. Dumb gringo act kind of worked. Next time we aren't chancing it. We will buy cheap bus tickets to Nicaragua as our exit tickets.

….Back to the Parking Officer. He kept telling us it would be 5,000 colones parking ticket to park in that spot. Adam kept telling him, well write us a ticket and we'll pay it. This went on for a while. The Parking Officer just wanted some cash. Finally he let us go and didn't write us a ticket, which he could have except it probably wouldn't have been for 5 mil.

Moral of the story play dumb, but hold your ground and always let Adam do the talking. He is great at this stuff. He credits his stereo-typical Jewish grandma.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Philip & Frita the Transvestite She-Male

In the previous blog post 'Guatemala and Quetzaltrekkers' I referred to Philip. Philip is special and he deserves his own blog post. I also don't admit to know the accurate definitions of transgendered people (M2F or F2M) nor is this meant to make fun of transgendered people. Do whatever you want as long as you don't hurt anybody (unless they want to get hurt) is my motto. I'm only making fun of Philip, because he deserves it.

We had a pre-trek meeting at Casa Argentina and that is when we met Philip. Philip is a talker. Somebody mentioned a story about being robbed on a chicken bus. Philip pipes up and says he brought home a Guatemalan girl for New Year's Eve and was robbed by her. So now we are on New Year's Eve bed talk. Seems like kids my age feel the need to get laid on New Year's Eve, a kiss just won't do.

We are impressed, this story is starting to sound good. We start pressing him with questions; where did you meet her, how much did she get? He's allusive and doesn't want to give out anymore details, except he does let it drop: she wasn't a female, she was a she-male. Everybody else had instant eye contact with everybody else in the room. Who is this guy and are we really going to spend the next six days and nights with him? He changed the subject after that and wouldn’t give us anymore details.

About Philip; he's completely over weight, mid-forties, has salt and pepper hair, and is my height. Before we even start the trek he's talking about how he wants to be a guide with Quetzaltrekkers. Quetzaltrekkers is run by volunteer guides and they pretty much accept help from anybody.

The first day of hiking we finally get it out of him that Frita told him about his manhood before the couple got to Philip's room. Hmmm, this is getting better. The song that is instantly in my head is Mick Jagger's "Dude looks like a lady" dananana. Everybody else is humming the Crying Game movie soundtrack.

Questions still abound; how much did he steal, how did he get it, how come you still took him home, did you find her/him attractive, did you get off? This conversation is still dominating dinner time talk and finally Shar asks him "Was s/he a prostitute?" Everybody was thinking it, she just said it.

"I'm offended; I can't believe you would ask such a question. I thought you guys were my friends, I trusted you."

Wah? We just met this guy two days before. I'm not sure he knows our names yet. After that he finally tells us they exchanged back massages. Awesome, we have conversation fodder for the next day discussing whether it was a rub-n-tug or a rub-n-chug. He's obviously a closet gay. He said he likes dark hairy arms.

Fortunately he can’t hear us talk about him because, unfortunately, he's about an hour and a half behind us at all times no matter how long we wait. We distribute some of the contents of his bags to Sander's pack and anybody else who volunteers to carry some of his stuff. He really didn't know anything about backpacking. His pack wasn't packed correctly, he brought an electric shaver, seven bars of soap enclosed in a large leather bathroom bag AND no flashlight or RAINCOAT! It is obvious this guy had no idea what he was getting into, and could not read instructions the Quetzal trekkers gave us.

I was told that Quetzaltrekkers took him aside before the trek and explained to him that this was strenuous and to verify that he was in shape. Yes he replied, in shape and just did a hike the other day. Turns out the last trek he went on was in the Boy Scouts twenty years ago.

At one point during the six day trek he asked the guides why they scheduled the lunches so late in the day. "It's because your fat-ass is so slow," we are all thinking in a lunch deprived hunger state.

It wouldn't be so bad if he wasn't complaining all of the time and was truly trying to walk at a normal pace. He walked terribly slow. Alex theorized that he could walk faster he was just being pathetic. Which turned out to be true. On the last day when we had to trek through town and Philip was walking amazingly fast, because he chose to.

There were a few good things about Philip; he gave us all something to talk about, something for you to read about, and at least we weren't "that guy."

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Guatemala and Quetzal Trekking

I was inspired to meet up with Shar for a six day trek with Quetzal Trekkers. Quetzal Trekkers is a non profit group that gives all it's profits to a local school. All of the guides and staff are volunteer so all of the money goes to the locals.

I arrived in Guatemala City and stayed at Posada Belen. This place touts itself as a museum and inn, but few if any of the pieces viewable were labeled. It lead me to believe that it was somebody's personal collection. If artifacts are removed from their location then a lot of information is lost. Plus it was overpriced.

Anyway, hopped the earliest Pullman Bus for Xela (Quetzaltenago), which is a step up from the chicken busses, but not much. I fell asleep and missed the stop for Xela. When the bus attendant and everybody surrounding us found out they really had a good time laughing at me. They left me on the side of the road with my leopard skin rolly bag on top of this mountain an hour past Xela. Crap!! Caught the next mini bus to Xela. The driver, wife and kids felt bad for me so they took me directly to my hotel all for about 15 Quetzals, which is about two dollars and some Toblerone chocolate. And they thought they were ripping me off, HA! It was duty-free chocolate.

I stayed at Casa Argentina. It's not as pretty as the picture in the link but it was clean and I didn't get fleas. Quetzaltrekkers is located in Casa Argentina so that night we had an introductory meeting, paid and then they handed out gear. They provide everything; sleeping bags, backpacks, pads, even rain coats. The only problem I had was my sleeping bag didn't completely close up around my head. If you are really picky about your gear then you should bring it with you.

Two of the days were spent riding chicken busses and four of the days were spent trekking. One of the days we took a fifteen minute bus ride and then hitched a ride for twenty minutes. First night we stayed at a one room hostel place. We asked the lady if she gets many visitors besides Quetzaltrekkers and she said "Yes we had four people come through." The second night we stayed at an old school house and left the teachers with some school supplies. The third night we spent at a family's house and the fourth night we stayed at a hostel in Todos Santos.

One of the highlights of the trip was seeing indian villages where there aren't any cars or western influences. I also enjoyed getting out and hiking for four days. I was a little worried about being in shape, but I was fine. Philip, one of the other trekkers was not in shape, but he deserves his own blog posting.... soon. And another highlight for me was the thermascals, which are homemade indian saunas. Imagine yourself sitting or laying naked on a slab of wood and it's totally pitch black about the size of a closet. It's hot and somebody pours steams on something and then it's steamy. Pure bliss for the achy muscles. I kept wanting to say Pura Vida, but we weren't in Costa Rica.

Well I have posted about 75 photos all with descriptions. I hope you have a look.

See also Clint's pictures with a digital SLR camera. His pictures are really good.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Zancudo Zancudo

We are back from our New Years trip to Zancudo and I am almost completely recovered. The trip went off without a hitch and had to be one of the most fun group times I have had in Costa Rica.

Most of the group showed up on on the 28th of December and started their adventures and Monty showed up the following day in the evening. While in town I took everyone on the standard tour of downtown and the central market which I think is a must see. The Teatro Nacional is worth a quick poke in and the cafe is worth a stop except it was closed because it was Sunday. The Mercado Central is sort of an overwhelming journey into hobbit shopping land. We tried to find the ice cream shop in there and failed miserably. I asked a guy where it was and he told me it was out of the exit to the market and two blocks south. I think that he was confused as to my intentions. He might have been trying to get us out of the market so we didn't get jacked. It is hard to blend in when you have seven people following you with cameras.

Monty showed up and then we left for the real adventure the next day. We had rented out another apartment in our complex to make it easier to coordinate and it worked really well. We all got up and hopped into the taxi shuttle and hopped out at the Sansa terminal. On the shuttle ride to the airport I told everyone to imagine the tour bus with wings and that will be what the plane trip is. Everyone laughed unknowingly. When we hopped on the Sansa plane there were 12 seats and 10 of us. A lady and her husband were supposed to be on the plane also but he was over the weight limit so he had to take the next flight. The flight to Golfito was great, no one freaked out, except maybe Kearstin a little but she calmed down quickly by snacking.

Then the real adventure begins. We get a couple cabs to the Moyecito (boat dock) and do some shopping at the market next door. We manage to get a hundred pounds of liquor and a bag of chips. That should hold us out for a few days, or so we think. Macho from Los Cocos is an hour early at the dock waiting. That was a pleasant surprise. The boat trip from Golfito to Zancudo was very scenic.

We showed up in Zancudo and got dropped off at the two houses that we rented and were amazed at how nice they were. They were two story houses with a big deck on the front of both of them that looked directly at the beach. They had all of the amenities. They were even nicer furnished than my apartment in San Pedro. If we needed something then it was inevitably found in a drawer or cabinet. At one point someone busted out their IPOD and said "Wouldn't it be nice if we had a set of portable speakers?" Oh yeah, right behind the set of dominoes. Then everyone busted out their ipods and a it was a virtual music cornucopia for the whole trip.

The beach was awesome and everyone was of the same mindset, chill. I don't know if we did anything for the first three days aside from eating and drinking. Sol Y Mar's food was amazing and amazingly cheap. $5 for a Mahi Mahi steak that was amazing. Drinks there are a little weak though.

On New Years eve we were down at Sol Y Mar expecting a big party but it was fairly mild so right before midnight we went out to the beach where there was a fire. 6 people decided to head up the beach and check out the Tico party that was bumping and loud up the beach. Me, Monty, Roberta, and Kearstin stayed. We were fairly drunk so we got the amazing idea to hop in the ocean right after the woohoos of midnight. Kearstin was the first in the water and she started screaming for us to join. We all hopped in and found that our whole body was glowing. The phosphorescence were glowing very brightly. They were so bright that you could see the glow of your feet. When you splashed your arms in the water it was light a fireworks show. Absolutely amazing. That was a nightly ritual after that.

Five of us went kayaking in the mangrove swamps behind Zancudo which was fun. It was mid-morning so it was getting hot and the tide wasn't to our advantage but it was still fun. We paddled by a crocodile that was swimming in the water.

The second to last day the whole group went on the Casa Orqedia botanical garden tour. It was great. We got to taste all sorts of odd fruit and plants. I think that my favorite was the fresh pepper(black pepper). It was such a strong pepper flavor that lasted forever. Yummy.

At the end of the trip we all went our separate ways in Costa Rica. We went back to San Pedro with Monty and Kearstin and some people went up to Tamarindo, and Dan and Julene went to climb Chirripo.

All in all it was an amazing trip. It is rare to find a group of ten people that can get together and not have drama or freak-out moments.

Where should we go next year? Thailand methinks.

More pictures here