Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Costa Rica Alternative Spring Break Trip (part 2)

As you, dear reader, have no doubt surmised, I survived not only that shower but every subsequent instantiation of the situation with only a few new grey hairs. I changed into my set of clean clothes, washed the old set, and proceeded downstairs for dinner. We were served the usual Costa Rican fare, which consisted of fried banana, fried rice, fried beans, fried cauliflower, fried egg, and fried meat. Also, coffee and juice so fresh my teeth started tap dancing. Our Spanish professor managed to handle the dinner time conversation, though on one occasion one of us managed to get a word in edgewise. Although my knowledge of Spanish is rudimentary at best, I've spent many years with Latin and other close relatives, so was able to follow the conversation for the most part. 

After dinner, we eventually settled for the evening. Despite being a head taller than everyone else, I managed to wedge myself into bed. I dreamed of earthquakes, volcanoes, and other pleasant things, when early in the morning the whole house started shaking. Furniture creaked, and a roaring sound filled my ears. I tried to flip out of bed and roll underneath, only to discover that I was still wedged firmly in place. The sound subsided and I realised it was only a truck passing through.

The next day we were bused out to our designated work site. The van scudded past cyclists and runners alike as it wound up and down the narrow roads, eventually coming to a halt on a narrow spur overlooking San Jose. The landscape, at the foot of Irazu volcano, was reminiscent of Huonbrook with its exaggerated topography, trees, and cows. Our work site was sandwiched between a famous mental asylum and a recently sprouted 'precarios' or slum. I was looking forward to engaging with a local community and getting a bunch of stuff done. We were ushered inside the main entrance for some instruction in Spanish names for tools and a situational briefing. The house had been used for about 20 years as a Hogar Crea Damas, or womens' rehabilitation center/refuge/halfway house. On the wall a schedule consisting mostly of domestic chores began at 4:45am. Our supervisor M told us that the dozen or so women here were variously involved in a two year program in recovery from domestic violence, drug addiction, and other issues. Naturally, the organisation had scant resources and that's where our (wo)manpower came into play. A large part of the rehabilitation program involved isolation from the outside world and its (mainly male) debilitating influences, and so as a result we were strongly discouraged from talking to or interacting with the occupants of the house. For the most part we didn't see much of them for the week we were there. By the time we left, M confirmed that about two thirds of them had actually run away! We had many interesting conversations about the merits of various rehab or recovery programs, and about the historical or theoretical efficacy of the program we were involved in, but it's important to remember that there is not necessary a proven method for 'fixing' people! That said, I was not surprised in the slightest that most of the women wanted to and evidently managed to leave this particular program. They would have learned more about carpentry anywhere else...

We divided into teams and proceeded to work. For the remainder of the week, I was mostly occupied with retrofitting a semi-subterranean bathroom. The plumbing, shower curtains, and window all got a work over. Most of the rest of the team was involved in painting the outside and inside of the house. Why the able-bodied women living in the house were unable to help paint their own house was never explained. I can understand subjecting the gringos to hard physical labour, but painting was not the most efficient use of time! On the last day, K and I fixed a broken window in one of the bedrooms. First we had to unscrew a board that covered 2/3 of the window to access both sides. K, correctly guessing that the purpose of the board was to prevent overnight escapes, objected to replacing it. Replace it we did, however. If anyone else escaped, there'd be no-one left! I spent the remainder of the day dismantling an old colorbond shed. While it was generally possible to unscrew the rusty bolts using boltcutters as pliers, it was much more fun to simply hit them with a sledgehammer. With a crack the bolts broke free of the rusted frame and rusty snow showered me from the steadily collapsing roof. Previously I had wondered why this shed hadn't been pilfered by the precarios for building materials. The Hogar's chickens, for instance, had disappeared. It turns out that it's impossible to dismantle a shed quietly!

In between mastering the use of the wrong tools for the job, we used afternoons to explore San Jose and San Pedro. While people descended en masse on the artisan market, I snuck up into the corner of the city and explored the railway station there. Currently the lines are mainly used for a local commuter train, but they once spanned the continent. I had thought it was a precursor of the Panama canal, but in fact they existed to connect the arable regions of the central valley and several coast ports. The lines were electrified before earthquake damage in 1994 largely killed the system. Since then trucks have performed the majority of cargo services in Costa Rica, to the detriment of the road system.

Another highlight was checking out the museum of precolombian gold artwork. While Costa Rica lacked the empires that grew in other parts of the continent, it had traditions of jade, copper, and gold art work. Using the lost wax method, artisans produced small stylized models of every animal you can imagine. The museum suggested they were used by shamans as part of healing rituals. I'm not sure how much of the ancient knowledge survived exploration, conquest, and colonization, but certainly gold for health is a tradition that continues to this day!

Another cultural element we could hardly avoid immersion in was that of soccer! The week before our arrival, Costa Rica played the US as part of the FIFA world cup qualifying round. They played in Denver, a choice presumably to intensify the effects of altitude. What noone anticipated was a blizzard so intense that the lines on the field were totally covered. For whatever reason (money changed hands, according to the Ticos), the game continued and Costa Rica lost 1-0. Well. A sudden explosion of anti-snowman propaganda etc etc. As you might imagine, sane or rational conversation about this topic being impossible in no way diminished the volume and extent of the rhetoric any randomly selected stranger could produce on demand! Being culturally sensitive types, Maximo organised at a very reasonable price (for them) tickets to the match. I knew I was in for a spectacle when the stadium, packed to the rafters, turned around as one and immediately expanded my vocabulary of Spanish swear words during the FIFA fair play anthem. Costa Rica was playing Jamaica, and the single most distinguishing characteristic of the match was how quickly the players pushed each other over when the ref wasn't looking. Similarly, any questionable calls by the referee were immediately greeted with loud and unanimous speculation as to the honour of his mother. I know that soccer fans are on occasion loud, enthusiastic, even bombastic. I found the complete lack of interest in sportsmanship or a good match rather off-putting. Though, to be fair, I find a similar duration of obese people screaming hysterically in Italian at each other in a darkened room much more comprehensible, so I may not be the best judge of the situation.

The next day, Maximo gladly took the opportunity to swap a day of work at the site for a quick tour to Poas volcano. Although it hasn't erupted much in the last 20 years, one can always be hopeful. In particular, I was gleefully anticipating hellish smells and a decent hike uphill at altitude. The van zoomed up the road between coffee plantations and past skinny dogs parking just outside a large concrete visitors center. Unlike the visitors' center on Vesuvius, this one was built on the defend, rather than replace principle. From there we took off up a path through swirling mist. Impossibly large leaves and moss reminiscent of Fjordland national park (though warmer) bobbed in front of us when before long we reached the edge of a cliff. Apparently this was the crater, though it was completely full of mist. By this stage we were desperate for a stretch leg so we ran around the crater to another crater lake, also acidic but less active. Sadly, neither smelled at all! We checked out the souvenir shop crammed with identical chess sets, shot glasses, and so on as the fellow in the artisan market assured us he made after work each day at his house. Clearly, there is an impressive degree of consistency control across the individual trinket workshops in the country. Fortunately there were plenty of lung-corroding fumes back in town.

By this L and I were getting slightly stir crazy. I jumped on my favourite website and sent a desperate message out into the aether. L harnessed her substantial linguistic skills to locate a local gym and went to a boxing class. I went along for photos and curiousity. While L pounded a punching bag into a pretzel shape, there were a couple of blokes on a nearby mat engaged in what turned out to be Brazilian Jujitsu. I've never seen it before, and so I will describe it as best I can. A sparring bout begins with one fella grappling the other around the torso with his legs. If this happened to me, I'd close my eyes and wait to die. But apparently there are tricks and techniques to get out of this, which I attempted to understand over the next hour. The forms and transitions were surprisingly similar in topology to the set of possible moves in salsa, though presumably with a greater emphasis on pain.

The next day, I discovered my plaintive scream in cyber space had been answered! E, a local couchsurfer and I agreed to meet at the local supermarket and went for a drive up into the hills where she grew up. The transition between essentially concrete terrace houses and farms was almost instantaneous. E worked for a local political movement and had a wealth of information with which to combat my continuous barrage of questions. It turns out Costa Rica was mostly socialist prior to some market reforms in the 80s. Unfortunately, though perhaps unsurprisingly, the middle-class has subsequently gone into decline. Somewhat disorientingly, social conservatives in Costa Rica advocate a return to socialism. Costa Rica is a slightly odd-ball country in a few other ways. They have no army and nearly all renewable energy. The political need for a bogeyman is as present as ever, however, with a strong emphasis on law and order and an almost impossibly ubiquitous police presence. We drove along a narrow cobbled road that apparently used to be the main bullock route. We said hi to her nine dogs and shivered in the wind as the sun set over nobbly paddocks on nobbly hills. All too soon it was time for dinner, but E had a surprise - there was a CS meetup and community party on Friday.

In the meantime we spent time in the living room carrying out robust discussions prompted by our environment and/or playing scrabble in Spanish. This is harder than it looks. Although we'd been warned of a total economic shutdown for the entirety of the week of Easter, Friday rolled around and most supermarkets were still open. We took the opportunity to check out the community stations of the cross easter parade. A few hundred locals turned out to carrying idols of Jesus and Mary down the main street, which was half closed for the occasion. The crowd was mixed. Certainly younger on the whole than the main population that still goes to church in the US or Australia, though, I thought, surprisingly sparse. I estimated that about a percent of the population turned out. As such, it seemed to me to be a ritual going through a steady but inexorable demise. I didn't spend enough time speaking to other locals to find out exactly what the religious situation was. Certainly the background was much more homogeneous that the US, with almost universal adherence to the Vatican's brand of christianity.

That afternoon we were shuttled back to Maximo to debrief. They brought out drinks, dessert, shirts, certificates, and an 'experience evaluation sheet' with no fewer than three reminders to bump their social media nodes. Though the demand for week-long voluntourism is undoubtedly strong, the question remains what to do with it. It's certainly non trivial to extract useful work from the situation. Additionally, just managing the average backpacker presents a host of problems I have no idea how to address. That said, the bottom line of my feedback was that for an organisation as glitzy and slick as Maximo, I expected a much higher level of project direction and efficiency.

That evening all the undergrad energizer bunnies finally ground to a halt and only the indefatigable K opted to join me for the half hour walk to the couch surfing meetup. We navigated easily to the relevant block, and then had to dead-reckon the rest of the way. By this time, of course, it was well after the 8pm Maximo-recommended curfew. Call me a grumpy old man, but I'd rather take my chances on the street than in the back of a taxi under almost any circumstances. In any case, K and I trained our bat-like hearing on the ambient noise and were able to locate the sounds of laughter in English over several other nearby celebrations. We passed the gate (most places have big gates instead of doors), surveyed an awesome hammock, and made our way through the party. I found E and a ceiling-hung beer pong table, and we both had a series of awesome conversations. I have never met a boring couch surfer! One fellow was able to give me a thorough run down on the University of Costa Rica. Another discussed volunteer group organisation, the Red Cross, and differences between various Mardi Gras celebrations in different parts of the world. A Canadian woman and I discussed the merits of Vancouver and access to the arctic ocean. Words cannot describe my relief at finding some Ticos who weren't on Maximo's payroll! 

Eventually we cruised back to our house, finished packing, and went to sleep. At 2:30am we woke for the last time, were picked up by our indefatigable van driver and ferried to the airport. The advantage of operating a tour company next to a large foreign tourism organisation that inculcates helplessness was evidenced by his wife's absurdly fancy looking car. The disadvantage is that he got to drive us to the airport at 2:30am on Easter Saturday! Work hard for the money. E confirmed that a double income was now virtually compulsory to make a living.

We duly checked in (I confused only one hostess in the process), got our stuff x-rayed, and boarded the plane. Sleep deprivation did its job and I once again I hovered like a poltergeist in sleep, disturbing people several rows away. In El Salvador we were rescreened as per TSA requirements to fly to the US. This time there were no x-ray machines or metal detectors. Just several rows of tables with people searching hand luggage, bodies, and shoes. The thoroughness of the procedure was undermined slightly by their failure to search my jacket (containing a phone, a camera, and a book). Also, they twisted my sandals, but didn't check the hiking shoes in a plastic bag tied to the outside of my bang. Additionally, they allowed me to move back and forth between the stages, ie repacking my bag during the subsequent frisk, taking stuff from my friends who didn't have a zip lock bag for their toothpaste, and so on. For taking the effort involved in searching the pages of my tiny journal, someone really dropped the ball.

Soon enough the plane spat us out at home sweet home and we made our way back to Pasadena. The air was clean and cool. The sky was an incredible shade of blue. I got stuck into editing photos.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Costa Rica Alternative Spring Break Trip (part 1)

Last Thursday evening I had a sudden craving for airport sushi. By a lucky coincidence I was AT the airport. Eleven intrepid adventurers from Caltech were off to Costa Rica for a week to look at strange animals and do some volunteer work as a Caltech Y Alternative Spring Break.

As I munched my slightly stale imitation crab California role and stared across the cavernous check-in hall of the Tom Bradley Terminal, I made eye contact with a strikingly glamorous face. About 40 feet tall, she seemed to be spruiking diamonds or perfume or something. All at once, I was struck with a familiar feeling of 'forever again', or almost oppressive nostalgia for the timeless present. For some reason, airports are a really good place to feel stuck in a time warp. They have not changed as far as I can see in the decade or so I've been aware of them, and in that moment I could have been 100 years old, eating the same food, breathing the same air, wondering if I needed to purchase some expensive perfume.

Fortunately my tiny travel bag was already completely full, the feeling passed, and somehow I had slipped smoothly back into a travel frame of mind, and correspondingly became extremely grumpy as I realised I was once again in for disorientation, exhaustion, weird food and yet more experiences that are difficult to integrate into my own psyche, let alone anyone elses. Incidentally, that's why all my travel stories (this one included) are complete fabrications. ;P

That's not to say travel isn't overflowing with opportunities for amusement and hilarity. As an example, years and years studying science has allowed me to perfect the art of sleeping while seated, my head motionless while hovering uncannily in space. We scudded along the edge of a different sort of space as we followed the great circle south over Baja California and past a series of perfect volcanic cones. Sadly, none of them were erupting. 

After a short break at El Salvador, we reboarded the same plane. The previous crop of mainly hispanic passengers was replaced by a new bunch of mostly moneyed and liquored American holiday makers, new decor, and a new smell. If the television advertisement for the attractions of Guatemala had not lagged at precisely the same points as on the first leg, I might have been fooled despite being in the same seat.

Landing in San Jose (Costa Rica, not Silicon Valley), our token responsible adult C found his old friend and driver extraordinaire J, who pulled up in a shiny new Toyota minibus. The buses passenger door opened on the wrong side, however, so we loaded our luggage through the window. We requested a lunch sufficient to cancel out two previous airline meals and J did not disappoint. We parked by an unassuming ramshackle roadside diner in Alajuela, an affluent suburb to the west of the big smoke. We unholstered our Spanglish dictionaries and cast caution to the winds and were duly rewarded with an extraordinary selection of food, including some of the best beans I've ever eaten. 

The bus zoomed south towards the Pacific coast. The road twisted like a shoelace between impossibly lush fields, over crags, and through canyons. On one side, the 'old' road, one lane wide, was at least twice as wild and three times as narrow. On the other side, an old narrow gauge railway followed our progress to the surf. Later I was saddened to learn that the railways are largely defunct. The corridors, however, are still extraordinary. In between these sights paddocks were marked by a dense thicket of fence posts, all of which had sprouted. Unlike Pasadena, where a faulty sprinkler is the only difference between green and desert, tropical growth was everywhere. Locals shook their heads and said it was drier than it had ever been.

Friday afternoon, the banks close for the weekend, and some for the whole following week of Easter. We piled out of the bus in the perennially rough town of Quepos and went looking for a place to change our greenbacks. I joined a queue for an ATM and giggled hysterically as the Australian exchange rate poured colones by the thousand into my lap. With an exchange rate of 500 colones (ie Columbuses) to the US dollar, I anticipated spending somewhere between Vietnam and Mongolia. I was in for a rude shock. I rounded a corner and after smiling my ultra-innocent smile to two heavily armed guards was ushered into a spacious and air conditioned bank where a few of my companions were avoiding using their credit cards on dodgy foreign networks by exchanging cash directly.

We managed to dodge half a dozen glassy-eyed meth addicts (both local and imported) and drove a few more miles into the park, where a few pre-existing and quasi-pre-existing hotels existed to cater to the foreign and affluent domestic tourist market. We checked into our hotel, an expansive beach side low rise with an even more expansive fellow at the desk, and as one mind switched to beach clothes. For me this amounted to switching to my other set of clothes. When you have only two pairs of pants, choosing your clothing is really straight forward. The beach was a perfect arc of warm sand and warm water about 2km long. For whatever reason, the students in this trip were mostly fitness obsessed undergrads who immediately decided the best thing would be to run to some exposed rocks pummeled by the surf and to climb them. We spent the remainder of the day clambering on stuff, looking for crocodiles, and running along the beach until finally it was time for dinner.

The next day, C, with whom I was sharing a room, thoughtfully woke me at about 4 with the alarm-o-snore. Not wanting to lose a single minute of precious time, I went back to sleep only just long enough to get to the park entrance at the moment it opened. This day I went alone - the rest of the crew opted for horse riding on a ranch in the mountains. Walking into the park, I struggled to see the animals therein for the crushing presence of one particular 'advanced' species of monkey. Their distinguishing characteristic was a peculiar custom of wearing shoes...

Fortunately, they were organised into tribes of about 20, each arrayed around a sacred optical device. Each sacred optical device had a high priest, to whom tribute was duly and frequently paid. His job was to locate the sacred objects of desire with his telescope and then allow his acolytes a quick peek. In such a way I was able to spot the arm of a sloth a few hundred meters away before fleeing the noise. A side track branched to the left. I took it. It branched again, I took the less tracked one. Soon I was almost alone in the jungle. The humidity condensed on my eyelids. Not to worry - walk for a few minutes, then sit quietly until the cool returns. If you sweat too much, you'll ruin all the fun. Before long I came to a sign in Spanish that I think said "only fearless and highly competent hikers past this point". After checking over my shoulder I ducked onto a series of paths with a soft bed of leaf litter. Before long I was alone in the forest, with only the sounds of the surf and lizards skittering along the floor for company. At once I slowed down and relaxed. I opened my eyes and looked around. I followed trail after trail through the wilderness. In such a way I crisscrossed the park several times through the course of the day, while keeping contact with the maddening crowds to a minimum. I saw many, many awesome animals. Monkeys, sloths, a paca, a coati, innumerable lizards, geckos and iguanas, a bright green snake, dozens of birds, fish, frogs, hermit crabs, raccoons, and so on. 

In the heat of the day I made my way down to a beach with a family on it. After emerging from the brush, I took a group photo for them and then settled down to eat my balanced lunch of corn chips and water in the shade of a lemon tree. I counted the period of a seiche wave that periodically flooded the beach or else completely exposed it. From where I sat I could see a beach closer to the park entrance completely infested with people, though for the most part well behaved. A couple of American blokes showed up and one told me that this was the unofficial nude beach, especially in the off season. Noted. At some point I felt a few lemon leaves brush my perfectly coiffed hair and looked up to stare into the face of cheeky monkey who was just dropping in to share my lunch. Fortunately I understood that processed food is poisonous, only I had access to the sort of medical help necessary to survive eating it, and thus kept it all to myself. On my way out, I saw a family of monkeys drop in from a palm tree onto a branch and start grooming each other. Later I saw one catch a lizard and proceed to eat it.

Sooner or later the beaches emptied and I supposed it time to leave the park. I took a dip in the ocean and returned to the hotel to meet the rest of the crew, who had been horsing all day. We all rushed to take photos of the incredible sunset that shifted through an exponential number of shades of pink. B, K and I then exploited a small window of time before dinner to sprint back up the beach and, unable to read in the dark, sneak back into the park to look at some animal eyes with my flashlight. Just as B and I reached the part I knew there'd be raccoons scavenging stuff, we heard and saw some people through the dim light. I didn't want to get busted by rangers, so we slunk into the shadows and kept an eye out. They were speaking Spanish and walking our way. They didn't see us until they were right on top of us, at which point they thought WE were rangers, after which we had a good laugh. Turns out they were camping in the park to avoid paying a fee in the campground on the outside! I was surprised so few people did this, seeing as there was zero enforcement.

The next morning I had a look around town before breakfast and leaving. There was an alley full of tourist trap shoppes, stuffed to the rafters with caramel coloured wooden trinkets, epoxy sculptures of lizards, engraved stuff, and of course thousands upon thousands of pipes - nearly as much variety as Venice Beach, and considerably more tropical in aesthetic. I've seen a LOT of tourist souvenir shops but nowhere have I seen a greater disconnect between the wares (which clearly echo the expectations and preconceptions of the customers) and the actual lifestyle and aesthetic of a place. I nearly expected to see lizard themed babushka dolls. They would have been cool, actually.

We left the Galapagos air and returned to the big city. For a country with 92% hydro electric power and a real shot at carbon neutrality by 2020, Costa Rica has a real problem with vehicle emissions, to the point where, taking a photo, you had to wait a few seconds after a bus passed before attempting to focus the shot through billowing clouds of smog. We were ushered inside the structure of our voluntourism organisation, Maximo Nivel (or Maximo for short). A slick operation that did a mix of teaching, teacher education, and volunteer organisation of all stripes, and a decent side of organising tours through their sister company Transleo, it seemed to be staffed exclusively by incredibly chipper foreigners from all over the Americas. One of them pointed out, positively bursting with excitement, the presence of not one but two staircases to the second floor.

After three hours of mostly pointless briefing we were ushered onto our courtesy bus for the 3k drive to our host families. Five of us were greeted by M, our host (grand) mother who ushered us into her guest wing, complete with laundry area, separate kitchen, and multiple bunk-bedded bedrooms. I inverted my bag and terrified my companions with the spontaneous generation of a full closet of clothes and gear. I took advantage of the distraction and fled to the bathroom with my towel and a supply of impossibly viscous shampoo that sometimes took hours to pour out. 

In a foreign country, one often has no idea what to expect when one enters a bathroom. In Britain, there is no such thing as a hotel with a functional hot water system. In Mongolia, there is no such thing as a bathroom. In Japan, you have to open the shower door to bend your knees enough to wet your head. Costa Rica seemed reasonable. Inside, the shower, however, there was only one tap. Looking upwards my slight trepidation at a week of cool showers was obliterated by the most visceral fear I've felt since breaking a hold while free-soloing on the 28th of December 2005. Armed with the knowledge that I'd since listened to the complete recordings of Enrico Caruso, and therefore had substantially less reason to live on, I took a deep breath and appraised the situation. A metal pipe jutted from the wall at head height. On the end of the pipe, a giant plastic pear covered in occult symbols had been attached. From the top of the pear emerged two thick electrical cables. These in turn vanished into twin blobs of disintegrating electrical tape, from which emerged another set of cables. These ran back down the metal pipe before disappearing inside a 110-240V transformer on the wall. I could assess the relative current because the number of windings was directly visible. The transformer in turn was wired into the lighting circuit. This fact I acertained when, standing outside the shower with one hand behind my back, I turned on the water. At this point the transformer's hum underwent an abrupt change in pitch, like a semi-trailer shifting gear. The lights in the whole house dimmed and flickered but, incredibly, stayed on. From the pear came a sound like a boiling kettle, and from its bottom dribbled a stream of luke-warm water. Seems legit. 

I got on with showering. At the point where I had completely lathered up, the water pressure dropped abruptly, the water flow cut off, and the heating element cut out to avoid boiling dry and catching fire. The lights went back up, the transformer went back to purring. This, of course, I figured out later. At the time, I was certain I had finally experienced the functional equivalent of electro-convulsive therapy and my only thought was whether patients in mental asylums were similarly covered in soap before procedures. Oddly enough, the following day I got an opportunity to find out.

To be continued...