Costa Rica

They call it Rich Coast for a reason.  ´´This is the expensive country, so just skip it and keep traveling in Nicaragua.´´  That’s what we heard from EVVVVVVVERYone.  It’s not that bad and the beauty should not be missed.  We make it cheap by cooking a lot and renting a house for $100/week.

First, we have a proper 7-course Turkey Day meal in Alajuela, outside of San Jose.  (San Jose feels and looks like neighborhoods in eastern Brooklyn.  It is extremely affluent and westernized in terms of restaurants, shops, and advertisements.)  The meal is 7 courses because we only have one propane burner.  Pumpkin pie, mashed potatoes, fresh bread (from a bakery down the street), stuffing, green bean casserole (this is nowhere close to the correct recipe, but still satisfies), oreo creme pie, and banana pudding.  Mostly firsts for Hilary, the food blows her Kiwi mind.  Banana pudding is her favorite, and being from the deep south of her country, leads me to believe that southerners are similar in lots of countries (I know this works for Germany).  Good choice, Hills.

At the last second, I decide to go with Hilary to Montezuma for silent treatment on the south shore of Costa Rica.  Every six weeks or so she has a completely silent weekend where she does as little as possible.  Since I was born, the only time I stop moving and doing stuff is when I am unconscious.  Even then I am quite talkative and have had a couple of adventures around the house.  On the ferry to the Nicoya Peninsula, Hilary has a cheap-boxed-wine connection (called Clos. It’s not wine, but it’s Clos) with Maisie and Michelle.  We follow them to Santa Teresa for a night.  I play bodyguard with a big stick on the supposedly dangerous beach while the girls play in the moonlit ocean.  No banditos in sight so I play a little bit, too.  We meet Gregory around 2am on the shore, and he invites us to his Bungalow.  The next night we take him up on his offer.  I was concerned he might be interested in the chicks because they are hot and much younger than him but he makes not one creepy move and is just a cool, fun loving guy.  He lives in Switzerland, originally from upstate NY, and works around his skiing schedule.  We walk down to the semi-rave club by the water, shoot pool, and quote the good Jimmy Buffet songs.  I have to add the following detail because some reader will recognize the genius in it.  He travels everywhere with a little stuffed monkey named Afika or Afi for short.  After his 365th photo with Afi, he´s gonna start a second calendar with Big Mama, Afi´s mom.  He found them in thrift stores in two different European countries about 5 years apart.  Afi has a basket, sleeping bag, and surfboard.  Hilary asks Gregory, ¨Does he have some little skis?¨  Gregory replies, ¨Of course, but we´re in Central America!¨  Afi was made in 1920, which makes him over 90 years old.  Gregory gives us a ride to the adjacent town of Mal Pais where we will rent the house.

It´s quiet with the exception of some dirt bikes and a family of howling monkeys that live in the surrounding trees.  You can vaguely hear the surf.  For the next two days, Hilary and I interact as little as possible, using hand gestures and writing notes to communicate.  The first day, I take it pretty well and stay still in the hammock on our porch from about 8am until noon.  It´s interesting watching plants reach up to the morning sun.  I spend the rest of the day lying around, sitting in a chair, and looking out the window.  Occasionally I cook.  I thought about conflicts that haven´t crossed my mind for well over 10 years.  On the second day, I am not happy and become very restless.  I discover that over the last couple of years I have become angry with people that I am close with because I have developed a habit of making excuses.  I didn´t always do this, but towards the end of college, I started to undergo psychological changes.  It´s a wonder I had enough momentum to make it through grad school.  Anyway, I realized that I need to stop making excuses and re-assume responsibility for my disposition and life.

After silent time, Hilary and I explore secret beaches, a tiny fish market, and cooking bread without an oven. A bakery quality loaf resulted from a fragment of cinder block we found in the yard, which was heated inside of a foil-lined pot atop the propane stove.  If you do ever create an oven from these materials, use a smooth stone or line it with foil, otherwise the bottom of your loaf will be gritty.  Trial and error taught us bagels should only be flash-boiled for a couple of minutes.  The longer we cooked them, the more they shrank and the more they seemed uncooked.  Like all ¨arts¨ cooking remains profitable through fear mongering and the general public’s lack of confidence.  The vast majority of eaters are afraid it is overly complex to make meals.  Add things that you know you like the taste of.  Heat is often optional.  For bread, mix flour and water until you can shape it.   Yeast and heat are for texture.  Other ingredients are for flavor.  If you add an ingredient with a really strong flavor or pH imbalance, such as baking soda, you have to balance it with something like vinegar or another acid in this case.  You´ll know by the flavor.  Ten bucks at the grocery store and a couple of hours of trial and error will teach you the basics.  After some struggling and some ´Ahhhh, I see!´ moments, then it would be effective to look at recipes and continue experimenting.  The reason there are so many variations of the same dishes is that most of the ingredients aren´t crucial.  Grow some balls and cook.  There´s not a person on Earth who doesn´t want to know how to feed themselves.

Final notes on Costa Rican beaches, de Pacifico.  Big rocks, frozen lava looks really cool and is everywhere, great seashells, pick your wave size, and walk on completely undeveloped postcard beaches until you die of starvation.  If you are too cheap to stay in $10 hostels, walk for 20 min and build a campfire with the abundance of dry driftwood.

Instead of going back to Montezuma to ride horses to waterfalls on the beach, we decide to walk 90k´s along the beach to Samara.  There are no buses  not even a dotted line on the map.  There is a road, and we get lucky with two hitches, one of which takes us though the country for about 3 hours all the way to Samara.  I wonder how much hitching karma I have left.  The couple that picks us up are from Detroit and run a composite-veneer furniture company called Context Furniture.  We drive on the beach, through tidal creeks and waist deep rivers, off and on roads, and see various facets of CR countryside, occasionally stopping to enjoy fresh coconuts and beer at world renowned beaches.  Thank you Brice and Keryn!

The first person we meet in Samara is the mayor, who moved to CR 18 years ago and likes that he doesn´t have to wear shoes to work.  I may return to open a dive company.  Smooth intoxicating energy in this town.  

We wake up in the sand at daybreak, and, after a brisk morning swim, grab our stuff and take a morning bus to Liberia (lee-berry-uh).

In the heart of the cowboy district, Hills and I are greeted by old cattle ropers sporting boots and rodeo hats.  The bustling, yet quaint, streets forming a grid system are adorned with rustic saddles and ropes (not the polished, stained decor at Longhorn Steakhouse), jumbo electronics and grocery stores, and is the 3rd largest city in the country.  Hilary didn´t sleep on the beach, and sweaty, sandy, bug-bitten, with a sinus aggravation wants a swimming pool for our last night in CR.  I´m on board.  Steak and red wine at the hotel restaurant.  WacArnold´s for breakfast.  I mention the night before it would be cool to arrive at the desayuno-almorzado (breakfast-lunch) cusp.  I walk next door and order consado (rice y beans) con huevos and a coffee.  Before the meal is served, the menus flip and I order a Big Mac and a coke.  The orders come out at the same time.  Einstein said, ¨There are two ways to live: you can live as if nothing is a miracle; you can live as if everything is a miracle.¨

–Controversial Tangent:  Anyone who disses McD´s can suck an egg.  Affordable food, millions of jobs worldwide, and go wikipedia “Ronald McDonald House Charities”.  After you get past the sad, failed attempt of hippies trying to find faults with the article, you can read how big the benefactor ballers at WacArnolds are.  EVERYONE has craved some greasy hangover food at some point.  I´m not too worried about the battle between the arches and their arch nemesis though.  Some claim that people have a right to eat healthy.  I say people have a right to choose.  I like to enjoy some ¨poison¨ every once and again.  I´ll do some extra pushups today to make up for it.  I´m not real big on people telling other people what they can and can´t have.  Furthermore, the fuel we consume is insignificant compared to what we do to burn it.  I have not come across any form of food that gives you a cardio or skeletal muscle workout.  Proof of this theory is in Usain Bolt´s interview after setting the new world record for 100m in 2009.  ¨I woke around 11am and decided to watch some TV and had some nuggets.  Then I slept for a couple of hours more.  Then I got some more nuggets and came to the track.¨  He is a legend and doesn´t need the endorsement.  Briefly study  how the guy lives and you´ll realize he wasn´t bribed to say this.  The ¨unpopular¨ giants don´t need my defense, but I like to hit folks in the face with a bucket of reason sometimes.–

The bus for the border town of Peñas Blancas is exceptionally nice.

Connect the dots – Panama

People come and go in life.  Listening as often as possible to the little voice inside (Mama would say, ‘deiner stimme’) has taken me here.  Some say fate, some say luck.  It doesn’t matter; I’m here now.  Here’s how I got here:

In a new country without the funds to make it to my return flight (I came with around $1300 in November and my flight leaves in late April) I was nervous.  My plan was to really chill and stay put for a while.  That plan lasted about 5 days.  I’m not diggin’ Panama City and start rationalizing why I need to stay here and learn to like it.  Liam (rock star) and Hilary (bamf) help me to realize that it doesn’t make sense to stay somewhere I’m not excited about.  I have some money, Central America is cheap, so back on the road I go.

I take a night bus to Bocas del Toro with Hilary.  She’s a sweet New Zealand chick that’s worked in more countries than I’ve stepped foot in.  Bocas is a fun, loud party town on the north coast of Panama.  Lots of cool day trips and activities available by water taxi.  Hundreds of backpackers coming and going kill the local vibe, but a 2-day festival/parade for the city’s foundation give us a chance to feel the culture a bit.  We saw children practicing late into the afternoon as we walked past schools upon arriving to the town.  Kids as young as 6, in groups of 30 or 40, are wailing on snare drums with the timing and intensity of a Tool concert.  OK, Tool cover band.  The conductor signals for the rest and not a single off-beat.  I can see him grinning a foot wide on the inside.  The obnoxious drumming we have been hearing from our hostel is now an entrancing spectacle which we indulge along with some kickass street food.  This is the first time I feel a pride connection (and a little less confused) with a Hispanic culture.
–Being from the United States of America (only saying ‘America’ aggravates most people down here because it references 2 continents and 36 countries), I am greatly distanced from the idea that there are other people with passions comparable to US citizens and college football or classic rock.–
Bocas is great.  Avoid the wet season.

We jump on a bus for the mountains.  La Fortuna has a hostel all by itself in a cloud forest (like a rain forest, but higher).  Serene, but empty vibe.  Hilary gets the scoop and it seems some of the volunteers are dying to get out of their one month contract.  I meet the owner one night, who gets extremely drunk and reveals his bigoted, shallow insides to everyone.  Since everything in the hostel has a sexual innuendo I can deduce his motives for opening a hostel.  Creepy.  He leaves the next day and some cool backpackers arrive.  Full day of hiking jungle trails, fording wide, waist-deep rivers and walking through cold waterfalls feels like you are wearing a lead backpack.  I cook some weird stuff.  The critics seem happy and encourage my experimentation.  Rocky Cloud Pie (named after a white-faced capuchin and a kinkajou that also live here) is made of cornbread minus baking soda, Vienna sausage, topped with spaghetti sauce and red beans.  Sounds gross.  It’s in a standard 10″ rectangular baking pan and disappears faster than a plate of Outback cheese fries.  We watch The Watch (great slapstick, left-field humor).  Shane, ex-lobbyist who instigated the waterfall excursion, has a moustache that Sean Connery would commend and we even have matching heart tattoos.  Instant bros (just add beer).  We DOMINATE foosball all night.  In case you missed the emphasis, we won 15 straight games, while barely maintaining balance from laughing so hard.  And I’m barely average at this game.  Our opponents are laughing just as hard at the phenomenon that is taking place.  GREAT night.

Four days in the cloud and we gain Elyna and hitch a ride toward the border.  Some central american guys have eyes that look like they are wearing makeup.  The dude that picks us up has eyes like this.  With high-heels on the passenger floorboard, I have to check the Buffalo Bill possibility.  My Spanish sucks, and he speaks no English, so I struggle to keep up polite conversation and find out if this guy is cool.  (There’s always a few moments of tension on the onset.  If you think about it in terms of incentives, only cool people stop for hitch-hikers, so you’re probably fine, but I try to be smart and do my best to read people, situations, and formulate a plan B.) They are his wife’s shoes.  He’s 31 years old and has been a priest for the last 13 years.  We drop off his car at his church and take a bus to the border.  He gets off the bus and helps us get on the correct bus and then quickly pays the fare and says bye.  We are a little stunned and joke about how badly he wanted us out of his country.  Really cool dude.

To bum or not to bum – San Diego and beyond


We drive across CA, do LA and Malibu, and then head south to San Diego.  After about a week of living my childhood dream of being a legitimate beach bum, Scott, Tim, and I start getting antsy.  If you’re traveling, you can wear tattered clothes, omit deodorant, and eat anything your enzymes will digest.  The moment you stop moving, you immediately feel like, are treated like, because you actually are a bum.
“Hobo becomes you!” is the threat that haunts Scott and Tim as they are often slinging a hammock where they might not be supposed to.  Scott walks to the bathroom one morning to clean peanut butter off of his pocket knife before he closes it.  With a 2 month beard, hair past his shoulders, and pretty rough clothes, a stereotypical California housewife sees him and freaks.  She sends a guy over to check us out and make sure we are mentally stable.  He tells us that we might want to change locations because she just called the cops.  Thanks dude, later.  I temporarily sympathize with the mother (there are plenty of children at the beach this morning) until I see the blade is all of two and a half inches long.  Maybe if it had ketchup on it, I would understand drawing conclusions.  It’s peanut butter.  The next time I see someone carrying a bottle, I’m just going to assume it’s a Molotov cocktail and shoot them on site.  Amazing how influential hair can be.
We hang out with bums a lot at night, partially because we like the fire pits the city has provided on the beach and partially because we are also bums.  They aren’t scary when you dress like them, use the beach showers for bathing and drinking water, and eat Ramen noodles every night.  After our usual nightcap by the fire, I take my sleeping bag down by the waves.  I can’t sleep.  Instead, I rack my brain and run through my self-help playbook.  I start putting together a plan to learn 5 languages at the same time using the gifted Rosetta Stones on my laptop.  I start getting excited and remember it was learning that made me want to quit my job and start traveling in the first place.  As Tim Ferris explains in The 4-hour Work Week, it’s not about trying to be happy, it’s about doing things that get you excited.  You just have to ask the right questions.  Where do I want to go?  Brazil.  I’m stoked, tell Jeff and Scott, and we all run butt-ass naked through the moonlight into the freezing Pacific.  I feel alive again.
After looking through the Visa requirements, it seems I can’t do it this year and basically puss out.
We take a bus to L.A. and then to Santa Barbara, all the while feeling trapped because deep down I know I don’t want to live in the States right now.  The A/C goes out on the bus shortly after leaving the L.A. downtown station.  The bus turns around, as do the wheels in my head.  This is my chance.  “Tim, Scott, it was fun.  Here’s the ticket to get my guitar under the bus.  I’m taking a cab to the airport and moving to Panama.”  I’m scared shitless.  After being conned into buying a return flight by the airline (you can just show them a bus ticket out of the country), I withdraw the last 80 bones from my account.  I still have 40 silver coins, so I hope they exchange.  
They do and I have $ for about 6 weeks, living on $25/day.

The rest of the desert

GRAND CANYON
(for great pictures, check out Jeff´s Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/undercountry?fref=ts)

We ride up to the big hole in the ground from the east.  East Rim Drive.  It’s the middle of the night and we are wired.  This has been a big X on our map since the get-go.  We drink beer and play guitar until day break because my buddy Scott told us that is the best time to see it.  We find a cool spot to walk out to the edge, which is an obstacle course in itself and just keeps going down.  There really isn’t a distinct edge at all.  Sleep deprived and drunk, this is not a real wise move, but here I am to tell the tale.  The first time you look at the canyon (the only word I can find to accurately name it) it looks like a cheesy post card.  Then you blink a few times and say well there it is. Next.  Then you realize that you can’t look away.  For hours.  It feels like it is the biggest thing I have ever looked at.  Maybe because the ocean is somewhat uniform in texture and color, or maybe because I’ve seen it so many times.  Either way, the Grand Canyon is one of those over-played scenes that loses all meaning until you are standing in front of it.

After a few hours and the light is evenly distributed from the sun’s tall angle, we go back to the van.  The breakfast crowd is flooding the village as we draw the black curtains.
The rest of the day and next are spent struggling with wifi to post pictures and story.  At night on the second day, I am finishing up my blog post when one of two dudes 16 feet away from me reads from a grocery bag, “Don’t take rides from strangers.”  Then he says, “Strangers are sometimes the nicest people you’ve ever met.”  I looked up and said, “Hell yea!”  Two hours later, Tim and Scott grab their backpacks and jump in the van with us Vegas bound.

The Hoover Dam is not worth seeing in the middle of the night.  Mega weak sauce.  We park in the garage at Treasure Island around 4am.  With little time to spare, Tim (red) and I (blue) each down a bottle of MD 20/20 for $3 a pop as a means to save money.  After all it’s Vegas.  If I get out of here without spending $400 it’s a win.  If you want to understand how a bum thinks, chug malt liquor.  It seemed perfectly reasonable to join the group of morning runners in blue jeans and flip-flops while holding a cigarette and spilling my coffee all over my shaman looking Thai shirt.  It wasn’t our idea.  The runners egged us on and cheered the whole half mile down the strip.

After some more hunting for the illusive $5 black-jack table and an almost endless search for our parking garage, we finally got to sleep around bright:30.  Tim got some rest during the drive from GC to LV, which must have been the enabling factor for him to not go to sleep at all.  When the 3 of us rose at almost the same time, Tim is walking to the van.  Food.  The four of us now walk and think as one on our quest to find a buffet.  After talking to some locals, the buffet turns into China Town with such simple directions as, “Next light, turn right.”  Not simple.  The road turns into a freeway which ties the streets into knots, runs out of side walk, drops 4 levels via stairs, and stars off into at least 4 different directions.  Two miles later with damp jeans from a crisp sun, we find an oriental looking multi-tiered shogun roof.  It’s Quizno’s.  Luckily, across the street is Kung Fu, a Thai-Chinese restaurant.  It is LEGIT.  It’s even built the same way as my buddy James’ house in Bangkok.  We tell the waiter to just leave the water pitcher on the table.  Pot-stickers, Thai iced coffee, and all kinds of num-nums.  We walk quickly after paying to avoid becoming epoxied to the leather booth.  During the walking conversation I realized we picked up the right backpackers.

You know how sometimes new groups of people meet and naturally break off into mini-herds where the conversation is so intense you look forward to listening to the other person chime in just so you can take a breath?  It was like that.  Scott and I couldn’t wait to hear what was going to be said next.  Hive minding vocalized.  (Hive minding is the subconscious interaction that I think is always going on between people.)  We talked about traveling and living in the U.S. versus abroad and whatnot.  In America, we kind of grow up believing that this is the only place to live.  People have been living in various locations around the globe for a long time.  It’s possible that there is a place more pleasant to live in than where each of us grow up.  I can get my teeth cleaned in Thailand for $40.  I don’t have to apply for an insurance policy, make monthly payments, and add tension to my shoulders and dreams about who is gonna jerk their lawsuit pistol first.  I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, I’m just saying this is the reality of today’s world.  And guess what, Thai people read the same dental hygiene books as us.  One thing that I really appreciated him saying was, “When I get to my place, my home, I’ll know as soon as I feel the dirt.”

The dirt in Death Valley has a strange energy.  It feels empty.  Nothing lives here.  Nothing can.  We weren’t worried about scorpions or snakes because there weren’t even plants and it was hot at night, so they wouldn’t need to get warm in our sleeping bags.  We parked at Golden Canyon and walked neatly through the dark between the closely spaced oven-dried clay hills.  The air is still hot, blowing through the narrow valley at 9PM.  After a mile and a half of weaving between these life-sized ant hills, we reach the end of the wash, which is also the foot of a giant dirt mountain.  The ground is faintly lit by the bright stars and for the most part it is dead silent.  The tops of the hills occasionally crumble and it sounds like something is following us.

The first time I try to climb a low cliff, the “rock” I’m holding onto comes off the wall in a chunk about the size of a trash can.  I fall a foot onto an incline and slide 5 or 6 feet to the bottom again.  This stuff is crumbling all around us.  We are basically in a huge kiln climbing on nature’s fired clay statues.  Scott and I decide we are going to camp on top of a big hill so we’ll have a good first desert sunrise.  We climb to the top of our hill and then seeing that it’s connected to a taller hill.  This repeats for about an hour, balancing on the collapsing ridge of the never-ending dirt mountain range.  We finally reach a peak, that is clearly too steep and fragile to climb.  We name this place The End of the Earth and get make our beds.  Our beds are slight bowls scraped into the ridge with our feet so we won’t tend to roll off into the abyss so easily .  We are very comfortable and wake up at first light.  The air is still warm, but not hot so we hit our own snooze buttons a few times.  A couple hours later it starts warming up and we finally get up to join meet up with the others who look like ants at the bottom of the next hill.  A few war bird cries are echoed back and forth through the cracks.  The panorama view is sick.

Most of the day is spent driving around the desert and hanging out at an oasis.  At before driving to deeper into California (gas prices are $6.20/gal) we drive 30 miles east to fill up ($3.79/gal) in the small, old gold mining town of Beatty (pronounced Bait-ee).  The wings at Sour Dough Saloon were almost too tender to pick up.  I walked up to 3 strangers next to us to find out what the locals like and dislike about their part of the country.  They are all seasonal workers at the park from various reaches of the country.  Almost everyone in the town is from somewhere else.  We finish a game of pool and follow our new friends to the town brothel.  They aren’t regular customers, it’s just a small town dive that’s entertaining to tour.

On the way out the door of Sour Dough’s, a skinny man, appearing to be in his early 60’s, with a Canadian tuxedo, suspenders, cowboy hat, white beard and twinkly eyes marches in.  There’s a warm vibe emitting from The Prospector and he says, “Everyday is a holiday and every meal’s a feast!” Jeff tells him he’s coming with us to the strip club.  Without hesitation he says, “Ok, but I’m bringing my truck because I don’t want to get stuck there.”  The Prospector is a cartoon character.  He has a catch phrase for every situation and we are folded in half laughing most of the night.  I bought shots, Moxy gave us a tour of the facilities, Scott did his spot-on Mikey Jackson dance moves on stage and showed Moxy a couple moves on the pole.  We go to leave the bar and The Prospector invites us for an after party at his place.  After 20 years of working in the National Parks system, he retired and moved to the ghost town of Ryolite, NV.  He’s the only resident.  Our other friends told us not to go, but how many chances do we get to hang out with a real prospector?

Nothing too strange happens, but we all have the feeling we´ll wake up in the middle of the road and there will only be a placard of ¨The Prospector¨ from the 1860´s.  This guy can´t be real.  After The Prospector shows us around the ghost town and with a flashlight and fails to summon his neighbor through the floorboards, we sing around the fire for a couple hours.  We wake up and he and his house are still there.  After breakfast, we clean up and take off before we wear out our welcome.  A couple of confused tourists visiting the ghost town ask us questions to which we can only say, ¨You gotta ask The Prospector.¨