Monday, December 29, 2008

Good experience with ABC

We picked up our car last night from ABC airport parking and we were very satisfied with the experience. It cost us $82 for the week, using a coupon we found on When we dropped off the car, a shuttle took us directly to the airport. When we arrived back at the airport, we called ABC to notify them of our arrival. We had to walk down one level from baggage claim and outside to a pick-up point. A van came by within a few minutes and took us back to the lot, where our car was waiting for us at the entrance, which meant we didn’t have to carry the luggage far.

We’d had to leave our keys, but the car was in good condition. Due to the ease of use, the convenience, the competitive price and the polite staff, we’ll be using them again.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Flying with a one year old

I was afraid of the four flights that made up our holiday itinerary. In the end, the travel wasn’t easy, but neither was it horrible. Here are some ideas I collected and tips I learned.

  • If at all possible, travel with someone else. Having my husband there made it very manageable, if at times challenging. Doing it alone would have been exhausting.

  • Pack a lot of diapers, drinks (milk) and snacks. Those are things you don’t want to run out of. If using cloth diapers, airport travel might be a good time to make a disposable exception, unless you have extra room for soiled diapers in your carry on.

  • Taking a carseat is a pain that is best avoided. However, if you must take one, as we needed to, it has a few benefits. One, if you can get an open seat on the plane, it’s easier to strap baby into a carseat with hopes that he’ll stay there than it is to strap her into an airline seat. You might get more hands-free time on the plane. Two, the Go-go kidz travel device is really as cool as I’d heard. It converts a carseat into a rolling piece of luggage, basically like a stroller. It’s lightweight and easy to roll through the airport and River was quite content being pulled in it. When you have to board shuttle buses and the like, you don’t have to disassemble a stroller, but instead just push down the handle, pick up the child in the carseat and carry it on board.

  • Waiting areas offer great entertainment. The space and the interesting people around were enough to captivate River for a long term, with little need for extra toys. Another benefit of traveling with another adult is that one adult can sit with the luggage while the second follows the child’s wanderings.

  • Do whatever you need to do to get that open seat available on the flight for baby. Two adults plus baby plus stranger in a row of three narrow seats = hell. Avoid it however possible. Also keep in mind that carseats generally are only allowed to be put in window seats.

  • To increase the odds of getting an extra seat, head for the back. If traveling with another, book a window and an aisle in a row of three and leave the middle open. Someone stuck in the middle is generally willing to trade. If you feel annoyed by the extra time or hassle it takes to head back and to get off last, remember that the survival rates in crashes are highest in back.

  • Try to board when they offer boarding to people who need special assistance if you feel you need it. If you don’t, board last and let baby run around as long as possible before having to be constrained.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Minnesota snowmobiling

Thanks to my father, who organized the trip, we were able to spend a whole day snowmobiling, MN-style, the way I did during my childhood. There are a lot of snowmobile fanatics in my family, including my father, brother, uncle and cousin. During my childhood, my father would go up to twice a month and he often took us with him. At one point, I even had my own snowmobile.

By the age of 13 or so, I wasn’t interesting in spending the weekend in the cold with my family and I stopped going. I hadn’t been on a real snowmobile trip since.

We traveled about 25 miles, from Faribault in southern Minnesota (known as the place of manufacture of the Tilt a Whirl rides) west to Madison Lake, then 25 miles back. The trail was straight and easy. Part of it went through the attractive Sakatah State Park, where we crossed many wooden bridges and drove along a tree-lined path.

The noise and gas-guzzling nature of snowmobiling goes against my generally eco-friendly nature. It’s not something I’ll engage in regularly. However, for an occasional event, it was fun. The roar of the snowmobile makes it almost impossible to talk, even if sharing a vehicle. So I fell into a meditative-like state, left alone with my thoughts as the scenery passed by.

My prior memories of snowmobiling center on the way that my snot would freeze to the facemask. This time, it wasn’t so cold which made the ride much more comfortable. My long underwear, snowmobile gear and facemask did their job, with the heated handlebars an added bonus. My dad said that the freezing snot is still a problem though.

“My glove can only take so much,” he joked. He’s thinking of using an antihistime before going in the future to reduce the drippage.

Part of the Minnesota snowmobile culture is frequent stops at the bars and restaurants along the route. We stopped three times, which was at least one more than I needed. Our first stop was my favorite. Tucker’s Tavern is a small café decorated with bright wood and with a clear dog theme. The burgers, sandwiches, soups and salads were consistently good and the service friendly. The quaint little town of Elysian was also a sight to see.

Snowmobiling itself it easy. It’s more exercise for the fingers than anything else. The most difficult part is navigating narrow trails, taking sharp turns and getting out of a snowbank. It’s good to have an experienced person in your group if possible, or at least a couple of people strong enough to tug a snowmobile back into place.

If you want to try it, here are a few tips:

  • The best snowmobiling is up north, where the trails run through the forest and you feel like you are in the middle of nowhere.

  • Plan your trip for winter, at the time that maximizes the chances of cold and snow.

  • Be cautious at night, especially of other snowmobilers, who may have been drinking or may be speed demons. Also, be cautious crossing water, especially if temperatures have warmed up in recent days.

  • The Department of Natural Resources website has helpful information about trails and services along or near the trails.

  • These sites provide information about snowmobiling in their region (these are all in the north) as well as contacts for snowmobile rentals.
    The north shore
    Ely (this is a mecca for snowmobilers)

  • Remember that the speed limit is 50 miles/hour in state parks. Also, that driving a snowmobile while intoxicated is illegal and can get you an DUI just like driving a car drunk.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Riding out my elite membership in style

Today was my second to the last flight of my elite frequent flier status on two airlines. At the end of the year, my membership expires and I failed to rack up enough miles this year to qualify for next year’s membership. I will return to flying like every other average Jane out there. I admit I’m dreading it.

The short lines for check in are a real bonus, as are the occasional shorter security lines. Special number to call for assistance can be helpful, especially when, like this week, airlines just don’t answer their toll free number because of “heavy volume.” Most valuable of all, in my opinion, was Northwest’s policy of upgrading elite members to first class when there are extra seats available.

I LOVE that perk! Unlike American Airlines’ lame policy of a couple of vouchers to maybe be able to pay a supplement to upgrade, if Northwest has first class seats available, they will give them to elite members in order of ranked membership. This seems to me to be a real acknowledgement of appreciation for frequent fliers. The price of the meal or wine served isn’t all that much but it’s inspired a lot of loyalty in me. I’ve often flown Northwest over other airlines, despite service issues, despite a higher price, just for the chance of being upgraded. The fact that Continental also honored that policy was a double bonus. The experience is vastly different from being on the cramped American planes and seeing wide open spaces up front, but not even being offered a blanket, much less a larger seat.

Tonight, even though I was traveling on miles, Northwest upgraded me to first class due to a full flight. I had a seat and so did my infant son, who sat in his carseat. It was a short flight, but he enjoyed the milk refills and free bananas. I appreciated the Twix and the white wine. We both enjoyed the space.

I suppose we’ll see what happens to Northwest’s plans and services upon the merger with Delta. I hope the upgrade policy isn’t lost though. Even though I won’t qualify for it anytime soon, it’s enough to make me try to qualify again.

Whether or not I will depends on my employment status. If I find a job this year that involves a lot of travel, I’ll probably return to elite status by the following year. If not, I’ll have to learn to deal with long lines and poor seats.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Saving money on airport parking

After I saw the last charge from our stay at the economy airport parking lot ($15 a day adds up quickly) I decided to spend more time looking into the options for our next trip.

We considered public transport – but with a baby, bags, a late return flight and snowy, sleety weather, it’s possible, but not easy.

Then I looked into the shuttle buses. They are fairly convenient, but the price for two adults makes them less of a good deal than when a single person is traveling.

A taxi is easy, but the priciest of the options.

Finally, I googled “cheapest long term parking” and the airport. I found this cool site where several options near my airport were listed, as well as coupons with the best deals. These cost about 1/3 less than the airport economy parking.

I then googled the cheapeast options. The cheapest choice near Newark was EZ Way parking, but I found some pretty horrible reports from customers. On to the next ones: ABC Parking (which will cost $10.50/day including taxes) and AirPark (costs a bit more than ABC). Both came up pretty good after a Google search.

So we’ll try ABC Parking this time, which offers a free shuttle to the airport. The total cost of driving and parking in this lot will be cheaper than taking a taxi or the shuttle. While it’s less environmentally friendly than using public transport, it’s more convenient and we’re not at risk of being left out in the snow if our flight is delayed and public transport is slowed down.

This is one of those times when I want to say yay for internet research!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

the secret New York Chinatown

Yes, New York has its Chinatown, where tourists visit searching authentic Chinese food. But during a recent visit to New York, I accidentally discovered a secret Chinatown. In Flushing (Queens), there are no red arches and almost no visible tourists.

Almost everyone on the street is Asian. Almost all of the stores are Asian. Almost all of the signs are written in Asian languages. As Caucasians, we felt comfortable walking around. But we were the odd ones out. The services there were directed to the local Asian restaurants.

I wanted to find some Chinese baby pants that have the slit in them so a child can bend over, go to the bathroom, and go on with their playing. When I went into stores and asked where I could find a place selling baby clothes, I was directed to Children’s Place or Macy’s. They seemed to just assume I was lost there, that I couldn’t possibly be looking for Asian clothes.

“I’m looking for Chinese baby pants,” I’d say.

When I did finally find a Korean store that sold baby clothes, they showed me a pair of Guess jeans, with snaps down the legs. No authentic slits for me.

What brought us to Flushing was the raving reviews I saw online for Joe’s Shanghai Restaurant. I was looking for delicious ethnic food, I wanted to bring dinner to a friend who had just had a baby, and the descriptions of the steamed dumplings were irresistible.

Good thing we called ahead and ordered takeout, because the hole-in-the-wall restaurant was packed, and then some. Our order was ready at the counter though, so after elbowing through the crowd waiting to get in, I could pay and leave quickly.

I think the dumplings would have been even more delicious fresh at the table. But they were still wonderful – the dough just the right firmness, the pork sweet and meaty. The garlic eggplant was also especially good, with the eggplant slices just the right texture.

Flushing is accessible by subway. It’s the last stop on the purple line and Joe’s is walkable from the subway station. There is also a municipal lot that allows three-hour parking on the lower level and 12 hours on the upper level. This fills up quickly on the weekends though, so get there early.

I wish I lived where I could get food like Joe’s on a whim. Since I don’t, I’ll have to wait until my next trip to New York to enjoy the spices and flavors.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Pennsylvania Laurel Highlands

Earlier this fall, we took a three-day trip to the Pennsylvania Laurel Highlands. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, a house listed on several of the must-see lists, drew us there. But we quickly found out there was so much to do.

We were very pleased with our accommodations at the Glades Pike Inn in Somerset. The beautiful old building was located amidst cornfields and right next to a large, red barn. The prices ($95 on weekends and $65 on weekdays) are so reasonable compared with many East Coast bed and breakfasts. Our room was amply sized, with a couch, fireplace, bathroom and overhead fan. We had enough room for River’s crib, plus plenty of space to move around. The helpful and knowledgeable owner not only made delicious and plentiful breakfasts, she will pick up you and your bicycle/kayak/raft for a modest fee, allowing guests to bike or paddle in one direction only.

In addition to the Glades Pike Inn, there is a wide selection of lodging in the area, from resorts to hotels to B&Bs to motels to a variety of campgrounds.

Fallingwater was as beautiful as it’s said to be (see separate post on visiting with children). Another Frank Lloyd Wright home, Kentuck Knob, is nearby, but we didn’t have time to visit.

My favorite part of the trip was our 30 mile ride down the Allegheny Passage. The Passage goes from Pittsburgh, PA to Cumberland, MA and seems like it would be a great ride to travel the whole trail. We went from Rockwood, PA to Frostburg, MD and that was an enjoyable daytrip. The path is packed gravel and is mostly flat. On our part of the trail, the last seven miles were downhill.

Bikers pass a variety of rural scenery and ride across the Eastern Continental Divide. Most interesting are the several tunnels one passes through. One of them was so long and so dark I grew dizzy on my bike and had to walk it through.

Hiking is plentiful in the area. We took some pleasant short treks in the Laurel Highlands State Park. The hemlock trail provides a view of a rare hemlock grove and another trail takes you to a pretty waterfall.

The September 11th memorial field is nearby, as is a third Frank Lloyd Wright house. We want to return for the rafting and water sports available in Ohiopyle. Best of all, the people are very friendly and welcoming and prices moderate. It’s a very enjoyable place to spend some time.

Other than the great breakfasts at our inn, we didn’t find the food to be quite as exciting as the attractions (although the sweet corn sold fresh from the fields is out of this world). A farm next door to the Glades Pike Inn sells grass-fed ground beef for a bargain $1.99 a pound, as well as other meats from their farm. In season, farmers sell delicious corn and other produce along the roads. The River’s Edge has a beautiful location along the river and delicious food (try the sweet potato fries), but service is poor and it can be packed even mid-afternoon. If you want one of the prime tables overlooking the river, you’ll definitely want a reservation. A reservation would probably be a good idea in any case.

Overall, we loved our visit to the Laurel Highlands. I’d love to go back for more hiking and biking, rafting and skiing.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A Desire to Hit the Road

I just finished watching a Russian film called Roads to Koktebel, in which a boy and his father travel across Russia to the Crimea. Hearing the Russian language brought it back into my head. I began to say words to my son in Russian rather than Spanish. I looked at the road they traveled, that looked so much like the road I bicycled around Lake Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan. I looked at the forest, the water, the decrepit wooden houses, the Russian characters, with longing.

I’m having the same reaction to photos of Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. I haven’t been there, but am dying to go. Seeing photos makes the desire more urgent.

Basically, I have a bad case of wanderlust. The timing is not so good. Having a child hampers my travel plans a little. The state of the U.S. economy and the fact that I haven’t had an income in a while doesn’t help either.

“Nobody needs to travel,” my husband said, when I said I’m going to have to get on the road one of these days.

“I do.”

Friday, September 26, 2008

A Taste of Kyrgyzstan/Uzbekistan in New York

I lost count of how many times people in Kyrgyzstan told me about their compatriot who opened a restaurant in New York City. They all knew the name, Arzu, the same name as a popular restaurant in Bishkek. They told me it was wildly successful, that all the New Yorkers ate there. So of course, when I returned to New York, I had to look this place up.

I found it described as a hole-in-the-wall, with rock-bottom prices and great food. So I went to see for myself.

Arzu is located in Queens and the sign is so easy to miss we walked right past it. It caters to people from the former Soviet Union and the waitstaff exhibit the typical sullenness and will speak to you in Russian before English. The menu is very much like one you’d see in Kyrgyzstan – featuring pelmeni, Korean carrot salad, manti, kebabs, lepushka bread.

The lepushka was the big disappointment. It lacked the doughy, yeasty softness that makes a good lepushka in Kyrgyzstan. The other items had been modified a little to meet American tastes (ie. the Korean carrot salad lost some of it’s typical spice), but they were good. The winners were the pelmeni soup and the kebabs with tender, succulent meat.

With nothing over $7 or so , no one will complain about the price. You’ll leave stuffed and will probably have some cash left over after a substantial meal.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A Visit to the Rachael Ray Show

Earlier this month I was in the studio audience of the Rachael Ray show. Overall, I’d rate the experience as so-so. The hour or so I spent in the studio, seeing Rachael live, laughing at the warm-up comic’s humor, seeing her guest Ty Pennington, learning how a show is made (including all the natural-looking things that are actually scripted), and spinning around on the rotating audience platform were all fun. But the three hours of waiting it took to get in (most of it standing) was not. If someone is a huge fan it would probably be worth it for them. If, like me, you have other things to do with your life, it’s probably not.

Here’s how the experience went for me:

1. Somewhere around January or February 2008 I request tickets for the show. I did this on behalf of a relative who lives in the Midwest and who LOVES Rachael Ray. I thought I’d make her happy if I got tickets and I’d join her just for the heck of it.

2. I hear nothing for a very long time. I think I didn’t get tickets.

3. Out of the blue, on August 29th, I receive an email saying that tickets are available. I’m given the choice between four shows on three different dates, September 14th, 15th and 16th. If those dates don’t work for me, I’m kindly requested to “resubmit another e-mail request form for tickets on our website. Please do not ask us for another date to choose from.”

4. I must reply by September 2nd if I want the tickets along with the ages of those attending. Of course, I receive this on the Friday of Labor Day weekend, so it would have been easy to miss and not reply on time. I did, however, meet the deadline.

5. On September 4th, 12 days before the show, I receive my virtual ticket. It says the check-in is at 2:15. “Entry is not guaranteed,” however, as the ticket reads. So if you want to make the schlep to New York worth your while, you better get there sufficiently early to make sure you get in. How early is early enough? Who knows. You must guess.

6. It’s not easy, nor is it cheap to fly across the country on 12 days notice. Because of this, my sister-in-law is not able to come and I have four tickets in hand.

7. I invite all my friends. They all have jobs and/or children. None of them consider it worth taking the time off or paying for a babysitter.

8. I freecycle my three extra tickets and take strangers with me.

9. We arrive at the studio at 1 p.m., an hour and 15 minutes before check-in. We stand outside. There are no benches to sit on and the street is inclined, which kills your feet after a while.

10. We stand outside until around 2:30. We, who got there over an hour early, were one of the last groups allowed in. Most of the people behind us were sent home without much remorse from the staff. They reminded us that “entry is not guaranteed.” Certain people are treated like vips (escorted in right away instead of having to wait in line).

11. We get in and go through check-in and security, which wasn’t too bad.

12. Then we are herded into a room that is way too small. There aren’t enough seats for everyone. They say coffee and snacks are available, but the snacks are nothing more than Sara Lee packaged white bagels. Yuck. One would expect better from a cooking show.

13. People are escorted to the bathroom. Then we are told we should go to the bathroom only if it’s an emergency.

14. A warm-up comic comes in and cracks jokes. He’s pretty funny. But he tells us the show appreciates us, relies on us, succeeds only because of us.

15. A staff members barks at us that cameras are not allowed and if anyone is even seen with a camera, we will be sent home, even though we’ve been waiting for hours.

16. People begin to complain. We’ve been waiting for three hours. It really is quite pathetic. I hear one woman say to her friend
a. “You’d just be getting out of work now.”
b. “Yeah,” her friend replies. “And I’d be less tired.”
c. “Are you ready to do this again soon?”
d. “No. I’ve been to other shows and stood in line, but once we got in, the show started a few minutes later. Not this hours and hours of waiting.”

I think a show that appreciates their audience could respect them. One idea would be giving away less tickets than are available, not more, but making them a reserved, guaranteed seat, given with advance notice. Then have a standby line available for people who happen to be in NYC and who can fill in the remaining seats. Just my idea.

17. We enter the studio and enjoy the hour of taping. We’re given a bag of multi-grain snacks as part of a promo.

18. The show ends and we are escorted out. The smell of spaghetti squash with a tomato-meat-basil sauce wafts up as the staff eats it. Cranky staff members yell at us to cram back into that room that’s not big enough. We are handed out cheap samples and a copy of Ty Pennington’s new decorating book.

19. I asked a staff member how one can get tickets with more advance notice (so someone like my family member could realistically come). She told me to write on the ticket request that advance notice is needed to travel. However, when I look at the ticket request form again, I don’t see a space to note that. They also say that two weeks notice is needed to accommodate handicaps. And let me tell you, if you have any handicap that doesn’t allow you to stand for three hours, you’ll want this. However, I received less than two weeks notice from the date my tickets were confirmed to the date of the show. So I don’t know how that works.

Some other reactions from people who’ve had this adventure:

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A Trip to New York

I recently spent a day in New York City. It was my first visit there in quite a while. I’m one of those people who would never want to live in New York, but enjoy visiting. Upon emerging from the Port Authority bus station, I took in a host of scents, sights and sounds. As I walked to a restaurant, the scent of baked bread and fried food wafted out from storefronts to mix with the smell of garbage and exhaust. I was truly surprised by the number of smokers. I found myself constantly dodging smoky clouds on the sidewalks. I saw representatives from Grey Line tours, dressed in red jackets, try to approach potential tourists. One man looked at the agent with incomprehension.

“No speak English,” he said.

“No English?” the agent asked, without becoming discouraged. “Spanish?”

Since I’m so used to being the foreigner, it was funny to see the other side.

What I most looked forward to was some good food, since I’m tiring of the mediocre, overpriced food where I live. I timed my arrival for lunchtime, since the weekday lunch selection in New York is vast and the prices reasonable.

My lunch spot - Pongsri’s Thai restaurant – was the winner of the day. This is one good place near the theater district among many tourist-oriented mediocre restaurants. Visit weekdays at lunchtime for the $6-8 lunch specials. The food arrives piping hot within five minutes. It starts to fill up around 12:15 p.m. My pork entrée had a nice, lightly spicy, ginger taste. The service was quick and efficient, the atmosphere cozy. Great value and worth seeking out.

I would rate my other food stops as nothing out of the ordinary.

I was excited to try Red Mango frozen yogurt because I’d heard about the recent spread of this chain. The yogurt had a very tart taste though, like drinking frozen kefir. You almost need to buy one of the attractive toppings (I went for Ghihardelli dark chocolate) to lighten the tang. With a cup with one topping starting at $4, I won’t be returning.

Les Sans Culottes is a little French restaurant with a cozy interior and very cool appetizers. They bring you a basket full of raw vegetables and slices of cantaloupe, as well as a rack of sausages that you can cut off yourself. Almost everyone gets the $25 prix fixe three-course dinner. It sounds like great value, and it could be, but the food is just blah. The vegetables look cool, but I’d actually prefer them cooked or blended together in a salad. My flan dessert tasted like it had just been removed from the freezer. And my entrée, a beef stew that came with mashed potatoes and sides of fries and rice, was OK, but the sauce and all the carbs overwhelmed the meat.

I just happened by Buttercup Bake Shop and a huge line had formed by the time I left. Mouth-watering cupcakes, cakes and goodies line their cabinets. The key lime pie with a gingersnap crust was pretty good. A small pie, which serves 3-4, is $7. I was disappointed with my peanut butter mud bar though. I expected it to be rich and gooey and was disappointed to find it crumbling and not all that delectable.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Early views

I visited Nicaragua during the rainy season, though I didn’t see a drop of rain. And despite being “winter,” the temperatures remained in the 90s. It was strange to adapt to the tropical humidity, to the sweat gelling on my face, to feeling like a smushed pancake in an uncooled cafeteria, where diners moved about with sweat stains growing under their arms or against their backs.

One afternoon, I visited the Mercado Oriental, the largest market in Nicaragua, and supposedly in Central America. This market supplies the entire country. Vendors buy their products there, where rock bottom rates are offered, then resell them throughout Managua and the countryside.

The hustle and bustle of the market has given it an unsavory reputation and my guidebooks advised caution in going there. I went with Henry, a local known by many in the market. So I was able to walk around without much concern for security issues.

It was a fireworks show of colors, sounds, smells and activities, simultaneously beautiful and disgusting, one image alternating with another. I spoke to a woman who sold plastic bags, plastic utensils and shelf lining. Old sheets of corrugated metal hung in all directions, with strips of torn fabric underneath. A bare-chested man with a potbelly leaned against a chair nearby, sweat glistening on his shoulder. A little girl with stringy hair and unhealthy eyes, but a friendly smile and jump to her step, approached the table to buy some orange plastic bags.

I watched a mouse run nearby and I twitched nervously as I anticipated it approaching my foot. Among these dark, smelly, dirty surroundings, the woman selling plastic bags looked bright and hardworking.

Women sold items from the tops of their heads, including a large pink iced cake, sold by the slice. Vendors juiced fresh fruit into plastic bags and sold them with a straw. I saw mancha, a beautiful red and pink powder made from corn, used to made a drink, next to cocoa.

At a watermelon stand, I bought a small, round, light green melon for just over 50 cents. At the back of the stall, a toddler shit on a rock with his mother’s supervision. His mother picked up the feces with a plastic bag, as if a dog.

We walked through smoke, heat and oil, through dirt-cheap piles of bananas and limes. Men sold blue plastic rectangles of water, carried in a plastic bag of chilled water. Buyers bought these bags, that looked like water balloons, drunk half, dribbled the rest on their heads, then threw the plastic to the ground.

On another day I headed two hours south to the town of Rivas. The town itself was attractive, with a large cathedral and a newly painted central square with benches in the color of the rainbow. Yellow bicycle taxis, called pepanos, pedaled along the narrow streets. Children in navy blue uniforms lined up in front of the blue and white flag, singing the national song in preparation for the independence day holidays the next week.

Rivas’ proximity to Costa Rica leads to many locals migrating to Costa Rica for work. Despite the geographical nearness, Beatriz, an employee in Rivas, said the cultures are distinct.

“The Nicaraguan people are very hardworking,” she said, “especially the women. In Costa Rica, they don’t work as hard and the women are different.” She said the Costan Rican government invested in tourism and that the resources are divided more equally than in Nicaragua.

“In addition,” added my colleague Armando, “we spend 20% of our taxes on an army we don’t need. Costa Rica doesn’t have one.”

I caught a glimpse of Lake Cocibolca, the giant lake that fills up much of Nicaragua’s western space. It’s not often I see the form of a volcano, Mount Concepcion, rising up over lake waters, so that was a nice treat.

We drove through banana plantations, past guava and coconut trees, and among fields of sugar cane, on our way to visit a small banana and lime farmer. We passed a lot of home that displayed black and red (Sandinista) or red (Liberal) flags. There were many more black and red than red only.

“Those who have flags are fanatics for that party,” a Rivas resident, Jose, explained to me.

We drove down a hot dirt road, passing field workers riding bicycles with chemical tanks strapped to their backs. Local residents constructed their homes out of sheets of corrugated metal. One had a heart painted on it, “Unity, tranquility and peace” written within it. A wide guarumo tree trunk, whose large leaves are used to wrap cheese, was painted bright pink, the color of the Sandinistas. “Yo voy con Daniel 2 (I’m going with Daniel),” it read, referring to the Sandinista candidate, Daniel Ortega.

The roads were uniformly lush and green. But the standards of living were poor and I found the poverty sad, overwhelming and dirty. The woman we visited lived in two rooms with six others. The house was stifling hot, with mud floors and spiderwebs. Her 16-year-old son had dropped out of school and was working for $50 a month. Her younger children, including the little boy innocently sleeping in the hammock, seemed destined to follow the same fate.

Another day, I paid a visit to a farmer at the opposite end of the spectrum. This family owned a nice house and truck and exported their products – okra, squash, green beans, cantaloupe, watermelon and eggplant – to the U.S. They had an alter to the Virgin Mary, on which they’d placed a sample of their different veggies, to keep them always blessed. The large, fertile fields used modern irrigation and technology.

Not many miles separated these two families. But they moved in different worlds.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Where people are friendly and relaxed

Yesterday I called a bike shop in the Pennsylvania Laurel Highlands to reserve a bike for my husband. The man I spoke to said he needed to attend his grandson’s football game on the day we want the bike, but that someone would be around. He asked my husband’s height and said he’d leave two bikes out for him to choose from.

“Does the rental include a lock?” I asked.

“Oh no, we don’t need that here,” he said. “Our rental bikes sit out overnight and there’s no problem.”

I asked how we’d arrange payment since he wasn’t sure if he’d be around when we gave for the bike.

“Oh, we might meet up when you come. If not, maybe we’ll meet up when you return.” Although he had said we could bring the bikes back anytime that evening.

His laid-back, friendly attitude that assumed honesty and safety made me think this vacation destination is even better than it sounds. We’ll be spending three days there – doing some biking, hiking and visiting of Frank Lloyd Wright houses. I’m looking forward to it.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

A New Love

I have a new love in my life and it’s an heirloom tomato. I received two pounds of them at my organic farm this week. I heard the farmer’s wife comment to someone that she had a new favorite tomato. She recounted how her husband had brought some home from the field one evening and made a tomato salad that blew her away. So when I picked up my two pound allotment, I reached right for the ones she had been speaking about.

They are fragile, with cracked, greenish-brown tops. But inside, they are a deep, juicy red. I cut one up and put it in a bowl with some cottage cheese. I couldn’t believe the flavor that exploded inside my mouth when I took the first bite – sweet, rich, tangy, wholesome – a sharp contrast to the smooth, bland taste of the cottage cheese.

Barbara Kingsolver wrote about heirlooms and how some people treat the seeds, passed down through the generations, as collectors’ items. She mentioned that they taste better, much better, but I couldn’t really imagine how great the difference is.

I never looked forward to a tomato as a treat – ice cream, chocolate or cookies were more likely candidates. But now, I’m rationing my heirlooms, eating one per day, and enjoying them tremendously.

The Virgen of Urcupina

During the week-long festival of the Virgin Quillacollo, pilgrims walk the 14 kilometers from Cochabamba, Bolivia to Quillacollo. There, they ascend the nearby Calvario hill, where the Virgin supposedly appeared, and use hammers to break rocks that represent money. People carry the rocks home with them, as a loan from the Virgin. These are said to help people earn money during the year. They must bring the rocks back the following year or bad things will happen to them.

When I went to the Calvario hill myself, I saw that pilgrims weren’t the only people to come collect rocks. People of varying levels of faith and physical strength, some with no faith at all, joined the gathering. By 9:45 a.m., when I took a taxi there, traffic was bumper to bumper and the hill already teemed with people. The land below was made into impromptu parking lots, charging $1.25 for 8 hours parking. Yellow and blue tents dotted the hillside, making it look like a shantytown.

I followed the crowds and moved slowly through the dense masses. On either side of those ascending the hill, vendors sold fake money – “Dollars! Bolivianos!” they called out, “$1000 for one boliviano!” – models of houses and stores, and toy cars. These represented people’s wishes for the next year (notably I didn’t see any dolls or babies, I guess this isn’t a fertility rite). People bought these items on the holy hill, carried them with them as they collected rocks or obtained benedictions, then took them home until next year with the hopes that they would become reality.

The website of the Virgin’s festival warns of the dangers of seeing the festival as an opportunity to ask for more and more material goods. It urges people to renew their compromises with the demands of the faith, especially the call to love one’s neighbor as one loves thyself.

However, the popular impression is that the religious faithful are in the minority. “Twenty percent of the people who go there are faithful,” my taxi driver estimated. “The other 80% are there for the celebration, to drink and have a good time.” A banner hanging over the toll booth entering Quillacollo read “Let’s Celebrate Without Excess,” and urged people to avoid too much alcohol and to take care about sexually transmitted diseases and AIDS.

Celebratory materials – hats, confetti, streamers and notably, firecrackers – filled the hillside. Indigenous men wearing woven hats with earflaps burned herbs over charcoal, sprinkled on some streamers or confetti, and enjoined people together with rope as they gave benedictions. Then there was the food – cotton candy, ice cream, giant vats of chicken parts cooked in oil, donuts, chicha, beer. The scents of sugar, bouillon and fermentation mixed with the scent of earth and wool.

The further up the hill I moved, the more consistent became the pops, bangs and plumes of smoke from firecrackers, like shots of gunfire ringing out all over the mountain – or like dynamite breaking apart the rock and revealing riches. Dust from breaking rock floated into the air and settled on my tongue.

As I reached the top, I realized the land was divided into pits. Families would select a pit where they’d hang out for a while. There, they used the hammers available for rent to bang apart the rock. They poured beer onto the ground and drank the remainder. They used their confetti, streamers and fireworks to light off a signal of thanks. Sometimes they used the services of a nearby drummer or band. Forming into a circle, they danced to the music.

Locals had warned me to go in the morning, had told me people became drunk, and the environment dangerous as the day went on. At 11 a.m. I already saw some drunk people and could feel how the population was likely to slowly lose control as the sun grew hotter. All around me, I could hear the hollow bang of hammers against rock, with the sudden grapeshot of exploring fireworks. I walked through scents of beer, of sweet fried food, and foul sewage, coming from homemade bathrooms constructed from sticks and flour stacks, manned by entrepreneurs with stacks of bright pink toilet paper.

After taking in the sights, smells and sounds of the experience, I left. The city of Cochabamba was virtually abandoned. An official holiday was declared. The taxi drivers on duty told me almost everyone had gone to Quillacollo. On some streets, there were more dogs than people, with up to ten large mutts hanging around the streets, like so many gangs.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Minnesota Summer

Every time I visit MN I’m reminded how wonderful the lakes are – the smooth, shimmering blue waters, the green that surrounds them, the houses and cabins, that range from tiny boxes to million-dollar mansions. Everyone is equal on the lake. People gather to enjoy the beautiful views and the warm summer waters.

I drove a jetski across the waters, seeing the vivid blueness all around me, pulling two children on tubes behind me, who laughed and screamed as they careened across the waves. Those are the experiences childhood memories are made from.

Each morning I walked with my father to the coffee shop. Golden grasses and small swamps lined the path we walked. Clouds of grasshoppers hopped from side to side. Their greenish-yellow bodies bounced off of River’s fat, white legs. Black and yellow butterflies flew among them and orioles perched upon branches. I thought back to the time of Laura Ingalls Wilder and how she must have encountered the grasshoppers on the plain.

One find from this visit to Minnesota is Doolittles, in Eagan - an upscale café with a comfortable outdoor patio, heated in cool weather. Smell the juicy rotisserie chickens roasting as you enter. The fried walleye fingers are flaky, juicy and flavorful. Friends and family recommend trying anything with the rotisserie chicken (one option is a cranberry chicken salad). Good wine selection. The key lime pie can be skipped.

Another recent favorite is Rudy’s Red Eye Grill in Lakeville. You’d never guess that a restaurant located in a Holiday Inn would be a hidden gem, but this one is. Delicious, modern cuisine is served in a warm, inviting atmosphere with rich wooden benches at reasonable prices. The Sunday buffet is a hit.

If you want to hang with the real Minnesotans, try The Red Fox Tavern in Lakeville, a perfect place for a burger, a beer and dancing to small-town music.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

The Incredible Edible Iowa City

I last visited Iowa City six years ago. When I found out I had the opportunity to return, even though it was shortly after the devastating floods, I was thrilled. Iowa City is the ideal university town. Small enough to be safe, friendly and walkable, large enough to have a variety of shops and restaurants. As a bonus, it’s intellectually stimulating but not pretentious and has a GREAT selection of food.

On this visit, I stayed at a historic house, formerly belonging to a University President, located about a 15 minute walk from the center of town. The beautiful and gigantic house, which includes an elevator, is on the market for about $700,000 and can’t find a buyer. I can only imagine the sum it would fetch on either coast.

I love walking along the red brick streets lined by leafy green trees. I like the bright gold cupola of the central Historic Capital Building and the wonderful selection of shops and restaurants. There is a used bookstore on Linn Street that sells stamps as well as bottles of cold water for 25 cents. Another shop is meant for crafters. They have space to sew, cut and create as well as buy fresh baked cookies. The Java House Coffee shop lines the walls with portraits and offers dim lighting and lots of tables and armchairs for working. Prairie Lights Bookstore is one of the best independent bookshops in the country, with an unparalled periodicals sections.

Here are some of the highlights I found during my week there:

The town is easily accessible via a shuttle service (1-800-725-8460) that runs between the Eastern Iowa airport and Iowa city. The shuttle will wait for the last flight to arrive and they charge $65 round-trip.

Enjoy a relaxing massage or back facial (never heard of it? Try it) in a cave-like environment and pay bargain prices at La James (227 East Market; Brewery Square; Tel: 319-338-3926), a cosmetology school/spa. Skip the nail services on offer since the law in Iowa prevent cosmetologists from cutting nails.

Savor rich varieties of local ice cream (made in Moline) at Whiteys (112 East Washington St; Tel: 319-354-1200). This is where the locals go for a cone, choosing from the many flavors for a reasonable $2-5. The low-fat chocolate shake tastes fully fat.

Savor a gourmet burrito at Atlas World Grill (127 Iowa Ave; Tel: 319-341-7700). The sweet fruit salsa on the Jamaican chicken burrito is good. If you are one of those people who can’t eat a whole burrito, the lunch special, offering a half burrito with a side salad, is a good combo.

Enjoy top-notch barbeque – such as pulled pork with a sweet and spicy sauce – at The Pit Smokehouse (130 N Dubuque St, Iowa City - (319) 337-6653). Take-out, or sit at one of the few little tables inside. Prices are very reasonable.

Locals recommended the Linn Street Café to me. The ambience is very nice and the menu mouth-watering. I stopped by for lunch and got the grilled cheese, which I found only mediocre. It may be worth trying something more substantial. Look on the walls for books written by University of Iowa educated authors.

Devotay uses “local food, worldly flair” as its motto and the restaurant lives up to that, with creations as unusual as elk pastrami and trout mousse as well as worldy specialties like Spanish paella. They offer brunch on Sundays. It’s a fun plan to gather with friends.

Locals say Pagliai's Pizza (302 E. Bloomington, 351-5073: 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. daily) makes the best pizza in Iowa. It’s fun to watch the pizza-makers in tall white hats twirl the dough in the large window.

Oasis is a little hole in the wall, specialized in affordable Middle-Eastern food – falafel, hummus and kebabs are among their offerings. Cheap prices, quick food and free wi-fi make this a popular choice.

One Twenty Six is a small, intimate restaurant with probably the best food around. It’s a good deal for lunch, where you can enjoy gourmet salads and sandwiches (the tuna salad and the steak sandwich are both amazing), using local, high-quality ingredients. The Monday night prix fixe dinner is a good way to sample the food and the wines. Only downstairs is the sometimes snooty service.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Snarky versus sincere

I recently saw a request for new bloggers and the announcement gave advice to potential bloggers. “Be snarky,” it said. “Sincerity might come back, but my guess is that it won’t for a long time.”

Come back? Did sincerity go somewhere without my knowing about it? What the heck does snarky even mean?

I looked it up. The American Heritage Dictionary describes it as:

1. Rudely sarcastic or disrespectful; snide.
2. Irritable or short-tempered; irascible.

Good news for those not in the mood for disrespectful or irritable writing. Sincerity hasn’t disappeared entirely. You can find some right here.

The Ganja Queen

Yesterday I saw a fascinating documentary about a 27-year-old Australian arrested upon entering Bali. While she was going through customs, a bag of marijuana was found in her boogie board bag. The penalty for drug smuggling in Indonesia is death by firing squad.

The movie covered the trial and its effect on this woman, her family, Australians and Indonesians.

The woman arrested, Schapelle Corby, claimed she was innocent and that someone had put the drugs in her bag. She and her legal team theorized it was done by baggage handlers within Australia, or by Indonesian customs agents.

What made the film interesting is that I really couldn’t tell whether or not she was innocent. She seemed to make a convincing case for herself. And the investigation was poorly done, making it look like she was an innocent victim. However, some facts were odd – such as the fact that the drugs were shaped perfectly to fit a boogie board. And I had a bad feeling both about her brother (who drove the family to the airport and traveled with her) and her father. They both seemed strange to me, and perhaps a bit drugged.

Today I found recent information on Wikipedia (don’t click on this until you’ve seen the movie, unless you want a spoiler) that makes her and her family’s guilt (or lack of it) easier to see. A strange and fascinating story.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Death of My Babushka

Yesterday I received the sad news from Babushka Adoption that my adopted babushka, Natalya Vasielievna, died back in February. She lived exactly one year after I departed from Kyrgyzstan.

Just recently I’d been recalling her tears when I left and my promises to send her letters and photos. I’d never gotten around to it and I reminded myself again. Now it’s too late and I feel guilty.

I’d given her a substantial amount of money when I left. I wondered whether she was able to use it to make her last year more comfortable, whether she saved it and it ended up some random neighbor, or if someone was able to con her out of it, as had happened to her before.

I think of how she survived on $20 a month, how she lived alone, selling chicken eggs to make a little money. How she had no family to turn to, despite her advanced age.

I’ve been in the States almost a year now and have started to get used to spending the amounts of money an average American does. Thinking of her make me remember the need in the world and my responsibility to do something. I’ll start by sponsoring another babushka. This woman’s name is Masha and she is 71 years ago. She’s a little bit better off in that she has children. But her daughter is in Russia and doesn’t contact her. Her 22-year-old son lives with her, but is handicapped.

This is her description:

Masha Sergeyevna was born in Frunze city, finished school there and entered the Road-transport College. From 1957 the babushka started working as a technician in the “Frunze” factory, as a secretary in the “Iron” factory then as a methodologist at Road-transport, Pedagogical and Energetic-Construction Colleges in Russia. From 1987 she worked as a manager of household in Tokmok town and from there got retired. At the moment babushka Masha lives with her son (22years), who is handicapped. She lost her husband in 2006. Babushka has a daughter in Russia, but she does not keep contact. Masha Sergeyevna suffers from high blood pressure, ischemia, arthritis, heart and other senile diseases. The apartment, where she lives has 2 rooms and needs minor repairs. The babushka’s pension is pension is not enough to purchase sufficient food, medicine and pay for public utilities.

Life is calm and pleasant these days. But I miss living in a place like Kyrgyzstan, where I learned so much every day and where I felt my work made a positive difference.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Godsends When Traveling with Children

There are two things any parent can feel grateful to come across when traveling with children.

The first are cultures that value and care for children. Panama would be a good example. There, you can rest assured that the staff will do whatever is in their power to make the trip easier on the younger ones. They don’t blame parents for a child being upset, but try to find out the cause and help as they can.

The second are other mothers. Only they know what it’s like to have to deal with the demands of travels, one’s own needs, and the needs of another. They seem to know exactly what another mother needs. One woman in the Atlanta airport offered to help me put on my baby carrier, then she offered to watch my bags while I went to get something to eat so I wouldn’t have to carry them. Later, she told me she has a two-year old.

Thank you to all those out there who instead of rolling their eyes at the crying infant or child in the airport/plane/bus/terminal/train, reach out and offer a hand.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Comfortable Living

There are only two main streets in the town of Boquete, so it doesn’t take long to figure out the lay of the land or two explore it. My days began to take on a routine this week, as I rejected the many tourist trip packages on offer and instead enjoyed the life on offer here. I’d study in the morning, do a bit of work, go home to feed baby and spend a little time with him, find a new place to have lunch, and spend my afternoons with a combination of working and observing my environment.

Each day I notice something new. The brilliant green that surrounds me is the same – from the green grass along the sidewalks to the forested mountains spread out in every direction. But the view changes with the weather – the fog, the mist, the sun, the rain – changing the background and shading.

Every day I notice a new bird or flower – the dark purple and violet bougainvilleas, the lilies, the numerous tropical flowers that have names unknown to me, but call out with bright orange, pink, red, yellow petals. I spend an afternoon on the covered patio of a strawberry café, where the owner carefully painted the tables and all the walls with vines of ripe strawberries atop a cheery yellow background. I see a young girl turning herself into circles until she’s so dizzy she almost falls over.

I hail a public bus, which is a school bus with the same green vinyl seats of memory. But this time I’m sitting next to nuns, the driver has put a black and white check pattern over his steering wheel, and a bright green boa surrounds the rearview mirror. I can take my baby to Havana Blues, showing at the school, and walk back home with him asleep in his backpack. I feel safe here, the people are kind, and the pleasant feeling is only reinforced by the color and life of the nature that surrounds us.

Por Los Ninos

After my final Spanish lesson this morning, I went to Hogar Triskar, a local orphanage, as part of the Por Los Ninos volunteer program. Volunteers, mostly expatriates who live here, come to the orphanage twice a week to spend quality individual time with the children.

It was clear they needed it. They call the foreign volunteers tia or auntie. And an entire crowd of outstretched arms greets them – wanting to be hugged, to be picked up, to be recognized as special.

The playroom had small stuffed animals hanging by threads from the ceiling. I picked up one child and lifted her high enough to touch one of the animals. She loved it. Then another wanted to do the same thing, and another, and another. Then the first wanted to go again. The same thing happened when I gave them horsey back rides. It’s so hard to say no to them, but it’s also not realistic to continually lift about ten kids time and time again. I knew their lives were full of taking turns and of hearing no, so I did my best, but I felt it wasn’t good enough.

My Spanish teacher Margarita had told me that people brought their children there when they were unable to care for them. My host mother Lorena said no, it was crazy women who didn’t want their children any more and gave them up, even when they were still tiny.

I found few small babies there. The youngest was six months old. There were 52 children living there at the moment, but that number seems to fluctuate. The saddest sight was two young girls, 12 and 14 years old, caring for their babies. They had been rejected by their families upon becoming pregnant, so both they and their offspring are being raised in the orphanage.

My 27-year-old host sister, Magdalena, told me that teenage pregnancy is very common. Her own brother had a baby with a 17 year old girl. Abortion is illegal and Magdalena said the social system doesn’t prepare girls. “They don’t receive any sex education,” she said. I could only imagine what their boyfriends or their abusers told them and how easily it would probably be believed. For them to subsequently have no remedy, when they are just children who were probably taken advantage of, I find really horrible.

Compared with other orphanages I’ve visited, the material conditions here were pretty good. The beds looked neat and clean, they had a variety of toys, effort had gone into decorating the room. They wore decent clothing.

But it was clear that some had suffered abuse, like the little boy who stood off to the side. I approached him gingerly, pick him up, paid some attention to him. He smiled, but hesitantly, as though afraid this nice moment would suddenly turn bad. And there was the 10-month old girl, who seemed to look out at the world with a dull stare.

Most of them just lacked the love and security provided by parents, the ability to feel unique and special in the eyes of another. It was clear the foreign residents had done a lot to help. My host father Francisco said the residents of Valle Escondido, one of the exclusive developments, were paying the salaries of some local staff to work full-time at the orphanage. And these volunteers came to try to meet the children’s need for attention, if only partially.

This evening, River lay in my lap, swaddled like a green bean, drinking milk from my breast. As I sang him one of his favorite songs in the cool evening breeze, he looked up and smiled, happy, before going back to his milk. He fell asleep tight, secure and loved. I believe that every child deserves to go to bed that way each night, not to climb into bed next to 20 others, but to feel the comfort of an adult’s arms and the peace of a song sung especially for them.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Visit to Museum

Traditional dress worn by the Ngobe indigenous coffee pickers.

A $3 meal at the popular and affordable local buffet-style restaurant, El Sabroson.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Visit to Farm

I got up early this morning to accompany my host father, Ronaldo, on his weekly visit to his cattle farm. It was located in Gualaca a 50-minute drive from Boquete. We traveled in his silver Toyota Hilux with the man who lives on and watches the farm for him. This employee abandoned his wife and four children and now claims he doesn’t have a family.

The road was excellent for most of the way. Once we turned onto private property, it was a rough track heading steeply downhill. Ronaldo brought in a tractor to improve the road to his property, putting in concrete at the most difficult parts. Despite the fact that this road goes through another person’s property that person refused to contribute to the road.

“He used to live in a small wooden house and also walked from the entrance,” Ronaldo said. “But once I built the road and he could bring in the materials, he constructed that nice house.”

When I asked why the man didn’t pitch in, Ronaldo replied, “The people here are very stubborn in that regard. They won’t cooperate in anything, even though the value of his farm went up with a road going through it.”

The farm was set within rolling hills of incredible greenness. Ronaldo has about 90 cows that he raises for meat and sells to a supermarket chain.

I hung out near the shack and a small river while they transferred the cattle to different pastures. I watched as they vaccinated several cows, then we went on horseback to see a beautiful, roaring waterfall on the property.

We had lunch at a popular local restaurant. It had cowboy hats hanging from the roof and no walls.

In the afternoon I went with Lorena and her grandson Ronaldo to a local garden called Mi Jardin es Tu Jardin (My Garden is Your Garden). It’s owned by a wealthy man from the area who I believe lives in the U.S. He doesn’t charge any admission to the garden and according to Lorena, does a lot for the community, making him very popular.

We finished our day stopping at one of the strawberry cafes, where we had small fresh strawberries, bathed in fresh cream and chocolate syrup. The cute strawberry cafes are covered with strawberry décor both inside and out.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Cheap Bus Tours

A great way to gain a sense of the Boquete region, without spending a lot of money, is to take a local bus. The buses depart across from Boquete Bistro and leave at least twice an hour. Some of the best routes are the Arco Iris (rainbow) and Palo Alto, but you can hop on any one and most of them run in loops, bringing you back to where you started. I rode the Palo Alto and the Arco Iris buses and was able to see the scenery as we climbed up high into the mountains, past the coffee and the strawberry plantations, where the indigenous people live in tenant housing. We traveled across rushing rivers, though dense green forests, and even in the most remote areas, the road remained smooth and in excellent conditions. On another route, I saw the castle an Italian resident built for himself on a bluff, several housing and hotel developments, and a couple of hidden restaurants. In some places, brugmansias, called floripondio flowers would line the road, the upside-down flowers like floral waterfalls.

Monday, June 16, 2008


Today was the first chance I had to hang out in town and explore a bit of Boquete.

I started the day with my Spanish lesson at Habla Ya. I’m taking private lessons two hours per day, five days this week. My teacher’s name is Nora and I was very happy with her. I learned quite a bit of vocabulary, which is what I need most, and she kept the lesson interesting enough that the two hours went by quickly She teaches classes almost back to back though, with a one hour break for lunch. I don’t know how she manages by the time she gets to the afternoon.

We managed to fit in some discussion in between our tasks. I learned that she is married and the mother of two – a six year old and a 12-year old. She told me that machismo is strong here and that her husband didn’t help at all after the birth of the children. She had her last child by caesarean and the baby would sometimes scream all night. She thinks it’s because of the stress of having to take care of him herself that her wounds from the Cesarean didn’t heal well.

He did eventually begin to help out at home, but only after she began to work for pay. “When I was dependent on him financially, he expected me to do everything,” she said. “But once I got a job and was gone all day, he began to help.”

She told me that her 12-year-old is obese and that the children laugh at him at school. Sometimes he comes to her and tells her he doesn’t want to go to school because of the teasing. She told me that she used to make and sell pastries and sweets and would always keep a portion around the house. That made her fat as well, though she lost a lot of the weight when she ended that profession. Her husband though continues to eat an unhealthy diet and continues to remain overweight. When she asks him to set a good example for their son, and not eat junk food in the house, he tells her, “It’s my house, I can eat French fries here if I want to.”

Though this place is rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, grass-fed beef and even home-grown chickens (sold on Sundays), the local diet is heavy in carbohydrates (potatoes, rice, plantains, bread) and fried foods.

After class, I finally had some quiet time to work. Then I strolled through town. It’s such a pleasant place. The residential streets are lined with single-story bungalows, many with patios out front. The main streets are compact and filled with stores selling agricultural equipment, tours, food, coffee, art, souvenirs, videos, second-hand clothing and pharmaceutical goods. I noticed how some of the stop signs had ads on the reverse side, in gratitude to the sponsor of the stop-sign. I noticed a few Indians walking in town. The women wear a distinctive, bright one-piece dress. I’ve also noticed what seems to be a fairly negative attitude toward the Indians by people in town and I’ve learned that they are mostly relegated to working as laborers on the coffee farms and that they have a problem with alcoholism. And of course I noticed the foreigners. Upon leaving the house and walking to school for the first time, I passed foreigners before I even came across a Panamanian.

I had lunch at the Panamonte Inn, which I’d read was the best in town. It was a fancy restaurant, with white tablecloths ad polished glasses. I didn’t find the food all that exciting, though it was nice to have a green salad to balance out all the carbs. The premises of the hotel were beautiful though, with a lush garden, pale blue and yellow buildings and a colonial feel. It certainly does have a long history. I read that Charles Lindbergh stayed there, as did Admiral Richard Byrd, who rested there while writing an article for National Geographic about his Arctic explorations. The Inn also has a spa, so I treated myself to a facial. The prices aren’t much less than in the states, but the quality was good and after night upon night of interrupted sleep, it was a luxurious relaxation. I don’t think I opened my eyes the entire time.

In the evening, the church bells played a beautiful melody at 5:20. The owner of the café where I was working told me it was the Novena de San Juan. San Juan is the patron saint of Boquete. His day is the 24th of this month and the church counts down for the nine days leading up to the event.

When I came home, Lorena was standing with River in the street, looking up at the trees. Later, while I was eating dinner, Magdalena rocked with him on the patio, looking out at the forested mountain. They both commented on how he appreciated grass and trees. So I followed their example and rocked him to sleep out on the patio in the cool night air. He fell asleep and is still in bed two hours later (yay!). And I’ve been able to enjoy a relaxing evening.

So far I really like this place a lot. I know I won’t be able to do everything I’d like to in the time we have left. So I guess I’ll just have to come back.

Panamanian hygiene

The following guideline is included in my packet of introductory materials from my Spanish school under Use of Spanish School’s facilities:

“Please take care of personal hygiene to attend to our Language Center. It is accustomed in our country to shower or bath daily and to use deodorant.”

Makes me wonder what kind of experiences they had with students to inspire such instructions.

Sendero de los Quetzales

Yesterday I took a long hike through the cloudforest, a 12-kilometer mostly uphill trek between Boquete and Cerro Punta. The Sendero de los Quetzales, or Quetzal Trail, was the first trail made by the indigenous inhabitants of this region and was used to facilitate trade between these two towns. It runs along one side of the Baru volcano (the only active volcano out of 64 in Panama – one of its three craters is active). It’s also supposed to be a place where one has a good chance of seeing the quetzal bird. According to our guide Alvaro, this bird is one of the most beautiful in the world.

The area was beautiful, with all kinds of mushrooms, ferns, plants and flowers growing alongside the trail. The thick forest surrounded us with vines, ferns and trees, some new growth, others remants from the primal forest. As we walked, the sound of various bird calls rang through the silence and we breathed in the scent of decomposition and fresh moss.

I’m sure the forest contained all kinds of treasures. Most unfortunately, our guide didn’t seem to be familiar with them at all. He clearly wasn’t an avid birder and didn’t even know how to use the binoculars someone lent him. So while he pointed out a few things to us, I know we passed by a lot of the forest’s secrets. And we didn’t see a quetzal, though we heard their calls.

I think such hikes are best done with an indigenous person, or at least someone who lives near to the forest. Those people are more likely to rely upon nature and to be familiar with its intricacies. We passed several men along the way who were carrying homemade bamboo poles (probably taken from the forest) and were on their way to fish. I’m sure they lived in harmony with the environment. When I asked if they’d seen any quetzals along the way, they said yes, four. I wished the tour organizers would have hired one of them instead of the relatively well-to-do town dweller who was our guide.

The trail was fairly difficult. Much of it was uphill. And while there were stairs in some places, they weren’t in very good conditions. Some had rotted out, requiring large steps upward. That, plus the gain in elevation, eventually became very tiring. Just as we reached the halfway point, at 2200 meters, I began to wheeze.

Luckily, some rest, some juice, and the guide slowing down the pace helped. I felt a light pounding in my head, which I associate with altitude, but it wasn’t too bad and felt better during the rest of the way.

A beautiful view greeted us at the end – bushes flush with white flowers with purple-shaded centers, which Alvaro said were called novios (or couples). Their scent perfumed the air. Up upon a hill stood a statue of a virgin. And we could look out over the agricultural valley and down into the town of Cerro Punta.

The start of the hike wasn’t too far from Boquete. And we only hiked 12 kilometers. So both the other woman on the tour and I were surprised when the return trip was well over an hour, through the town of David. Apparently, because of the national park, there is no direct road. The need for the trail to facilitate trade became much more apparent.

Coming down from the mountain, we passed a bunch of stands selling strawberries, which grow here year round. I bought a dish of strawberries with cream (a very sweet sticky cream) for a dollars, as well as strawberry bread, homemade granola, and from a neighboring vegetable stand, plump orange carrots and top-like magenta beets. They were also selling a variety of fresh honey and jams made from the various local fruits, including tomatoes.

I was so exhausted in the evening, both from the hike and from the fact that River has been waking up repeatedly at night that I didn’t do much besides care for River, go to bed, then get up throughout the night to feed him. The family took care of him while I was gone. When I returned, he was grinning and they were enchanted with him. They are babysitting today as well, for the first time giving me the chance to get some work done and stroll through the town.

Saturday, June 14, 2008


We’ve arrived in Boquete and so far it seems to be as wonderful as it seemed to be from my research. Yesterday was a long day. Our scheduled flight had maintenance problems, so we had to wait another five hours until they could bring another plane. That basically meant spending the entire day at the airport, which was hard on poor River, and hard for me too since I had to occupy all my time caring for him.

The airport at David was tiny and entry easy. We purchased tourist cards right there for $5 each. Behind the immigration officials hung a poster with a man jumping off of a train. A sign nearby said “Border 10 kms.” A man in a wheelchair, missing both of his lower legs, was pictured in the bottom right. The poster said that it’s not worth it, the cost can be higher than one expects.

The school where I am studying in Boquete, Habla Ya, arranged for a taxi to meet us at the airport and it was there as scheduled. He took us right to our host family’s home. It was already dark, so I couldn’t see much during the 45 minute drive. I did notice however the excellent condition of the roads, the $4.40 per gallon price of gas, and the presence of many American businesses in David, including Blockbuster Video, TGI Fridays, McDonalds and Pizza Hut.

It was almost 8 p.m. when we arrived at the home of Lorena and Ronaldo, but they welcomed us in warmly. River made the same impression he’s made on everyone here. They call him a doll and frequently ask to hold him. People will stop on the street and comment on how cute he is, sales staff will congregate around us, and the staff at our hotel in San Jose took turns – first the cook took him for a walk, then the receptionists continued their work while holding River.

Lorena introduced me to her son Ronaldo and her grandson Ronaldo. That makes it easy to remember. Her daughter Magdalena lives and works in David. She’ll be on vacation this week and will be coming here tomorrow.

The house is neat and comfortable. There are little houses hanging on the wall in the hallway, butterflies hanging on the walls around the dining area, and little plastic flowers safety pinned to the sheer curtain in our bedroom. Our bed faces a cabinet stuffed to the brim with stuffed animals. It’s a one story house with a TV room, a living room, a kitchen and a dining area, going from front to back. Doors along the sides lead to one bathroom and four bedrooms.

It seemed hot to me when we arrived and at first I worried about the lack of a fan. But the night air soon cooled and we slept with a blanket.

River was in rough shape from the long trip and for the first time I wondered whether I was harming him by exposing him to so much travel and activity. I tried to eat the meal Lorena left for me – chicken, mashed potatoes and a beef soup, but River became anxious at the sight of food. When I offered him a bite of the soup he smiled and slurped down quite a bit more.

In the morning, after breakfast, Lorena took me in their silver SUV to visit the director of the school. I confirmed when my classes would be and learned about the various activities offered. We continued on to a neighboring town up the hill, called Las Naranjas or “the oranges.” There we paid a short visit to her parents. The 74-year-old mother and 90-year-old father had raised four children in the same house where they now live.

The town is beautiful. Just outside the door of our house is a gorgeous panorama of dense, green, tropical forested mountains. There are many rivers and creeks running through the landscape. There seems to be a nice selection of shops and places to eat, as well as gardens and coffee plantations. I hope I’ll have time to explore it all. But to be honest, there seems to be so much to do and so little time. I’d imagined having time to relax and to get some work done, but I doubt I’ll be able to resist all the temptations to explore.

In the late afternoon we drove with Lorena, Ronaldo and Lorena’s mother back to David, where we were going to watch their daughter Magdalena perform in a folklore dance group. Magdalena danced as a child, but took it up again only this past October.

The performance started at 3, so I thought we’d leave around two. But instead we departed at 10:45. We first went to Magdalena’s house, a small but pleasant house that belonged to her grandmother. Magdalena was still at work, but her parents had keys and let themselves in.

It’s amazing the difference that a 45 minute drive can make. While Boquete is cool and comfortable, the sun emitting a pleasant warmth, the lower altitude David is swelteringly hot year round. It was the type of heat that makes you feel naked because your clothes stick to you as though they were just another layer of skin. Poor River was suffering. Even though they put two fans in the room where he would take a nap, it took me most of our time there to put him down.

Magdalena came home from work and she looked like the photos Lorena displays on her table – a pretty woman in her 20s with heavy makeup, a bright smile and a long, narrow nose. Her attention to appearance makes her look a bit like a doll, which is funny because so many people refer to River as a doll and she’ll be helping to care for him.

From her house, we went to someone else’s house where the group was preparing. Today they were wearing one of their more basic costumes, not the “deluxe” one, but it still seemed pretty elaborate to me. The girls attached long braids to their hair, they all wore heavy makeup and white ornamental pieces on either side of their hair. They wore white shirts and each woman had a long, colorful skirt. When they held their arms out to either side the skirt rose, looking like a fan. The men wore black pants and matching button, down shirts.

This house had a tree in front, which made it much cooler and more comfortable than Magdalena’s. We sat on the patio and watched them practice. When we’d arrived, the musicians in the group were practicing their music, imbuing the air with a festive spirit

I didn’t realize until we got there that the performance was going to be at a political rally, but that made it all the more interesting. The rally was for candidate Juan Carlos Navarro. The elections aren’t until 2009, but the contest is apparently already underway. Lorena told me there are a lot of candidates. She said she thinks this one is the best though and thinks he has a good chance.

I asked what she liked about him and she said he was well prepared because had studied at Harvard. I asked what he believed in, what he proposed to do. She wasn’t very precise, but said that he would continue the policies of the current President, who had helped the poor people with housing.

At the rally, quite a few people wore red, white and blue shirts. A group of youth waved matching flags and posters were hung along the faces. A promoter with a big white smile kept things going. When a woman pictured on the poster with Navarro (she wants to be the representative from this region) appeared and a video camera taped, the promoter indicated (out of sight of the video camera) for everyone to stand up and clap.

They started out with two teenage boys and one girl, dressed in jeans and t-shirts, doing very mediocre pop dances. Someone handed out free juice drink boxes to the people in the audience, who were seated under an awning to escape the drizzle. Then the folkloric group came on and they did a good job. But a young man with jeans falling down below his underwear stole the attention of much of the audience by dancing while he waved the Navarro flag.

River watched, especially entranced by the colorful skirts of the folkloric dancers. He and I were the only gringos in the audience. Our strange appearance probably augmented in oddity when I breastfed him. But it was an interesting slice of local life that I was grateful to witness. And it inspired me to look up what’s going on in Panamanian politics.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Loop on the Tour Bus

I spent today seeing some of Costa Rica by bus. Not my favorite way to travel, but it was better than the other option I was considering – hanging out in the hotel for the day.

The tour bus picked us up at our hotel, took us around and returned us back to the hotel. With one exception, most of the meals and the opportunities to buy things were at large developments, owned by people who already have a lot of money. Only the final stop, a small shop at the end of a boat ride, was owned by locals. I bought my water there. We’ll be leaving for Panama tomorrow and never walked outside of our hotel (not much reason to, it’s just a freeway outside) or changed any money. Dollars are accepted easily here.

We traveled with a group of about 20 tourists, all of whom were picked up from their hotels on the outskirts of the city. Several were attending an epidemiological conference. Quite a few were taking several of these day trips. Despite having quite a bit of time in country, they preferred to see things from the comfort of a bus, then return to a comfortable hotel in San Jose than to spend more time in other areas of the country. I suppose one can see more that way, but I think the level of understanding is less. I wished for the opportunity to talk to the local residents and thought if I had more time, I’d head right for a small town.

We saw a nice variety of things – a coffee estate, a wildlife and waterfall garden, the Poas volcano crater and a boat ride down the Sarapiqui river. My favorite part was the volcano. The crater was one mile wide, with a lagoon within it and white smoke emerging from fumaroles. It was raining when we arrived and we had to walk ten minutes in the rain to arrive. I was carrying River in a front carrier and using an umbrella. I couldn’t believe how well he held up, even laughing when we arrived.

The La Paz Waterfall Garden is a man-man tourism center, constructed by its very wealthy owner. It is well designed though and offers visitors the opportunity to see many birds, butterflies, snakes, monkeys and frogs at very close range. It’s a very good place for families to visit.

They told us when we entered that we should remove any earrings. One woman in our group didn’t listen though and a bird grabbed her earring right out of her ear, then returned to its post to eat it. Even River, at six months old, seemed to enjoy the indoor butterfly sanctuary, with the colorful creatures flying in front of him, and the area where the hummingbirds gathered at feeders, darting around us like little high-powered bees.

The series of waterfalls are of courser natural. The owner purchased the land and made it into a private reserve. He also constructed a series of walkways and stairs (1600 of them, mostly heading downhill) that make it easy to descend the series of waterfalls and get very close to the powerful sprays.

The river trip was short, but relaxing and full of wildlife, In and near the olive-colored water we saw an iguana in a treetop, monkeys, a caiman, an aninga bird, and long nosed bats, small bats that look like butterflies or moths and perch upon wood and rocks on the river’s edge.

River was amazingly well behaved and captured the hearts of many on the bus. They couldn’t believe how happy and content he was and seemed amazed when I said he was usually like that. I said we lucked out that he was born that way; But a woman from Spain, upon seeing me changing him on a stone table and River laying calmly on the hard surface, thought the way the parents acted had some effect. “A lot of people wouldn’t even come on a trip like this,” she said, “because they think they need so much stuff or that their child must eat or sleep at certain times. You seem to have gotten him used to adapting.” Maybe, or maybe he was just born a great traveler. In any case, I’m proud of him and grateful to have a companion.

We didn’t bring a stroller on this trip, since I could only carry so much on my own. Without a stroller, swing, jumper or bouncy seat, I’m holding or carrying him the vast majority of the day. That can get tiring, however, the Ergo baby carrier is working very well.. River is content in there and it’s quite comfortable for me and leaves me with two hands free.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Arrival in San Jose

River and I made it to San Jose today. It was a long day, starting with a 2:40 a..m. wake up call. It didn’t help that I’d gone to bed after one, giving me about an hour of sleep to go on.

We flew on Delta via Atlanta. The flight was scrunched as usual nowadays, no pillow, a charge to see documentaries on the personal video screen. But the service seemed pretty friendly and enthusiastic compared to what I usually experience on U.S. airlines. It was my first time flying Delta and I would use them again.

Upon landing, I could see the greenness of the area around San Jose, the many trees and the white and red brick structures. The modern airport was easy to navigate. I enjoyed seeing a man playing a guitar in the gate area, collecting tips and selling his CDs, and seeing another man rolling cigars for sale. When an airport worker saw me coming, carrying River on my chest, he told me I could go through the immigration line for Costa Rican nationals, since it was much shorter.

There is an official taxi stand right out front. I paid at the counter and didn’t have to worry about coming across a crooked driver. Our driver was a very nice man. He has a 12 year old and a one year old son, so he was interested in River. His son was named Nikolas, after family members who married Russians and ended up staying there.

As he drove us to our hotel, rain loomed on the horizon. He said it’s now the rainy season and afternoon rains will continue through October. We made it to the hotel just before it started to pour.

We’re staying at The Adventure Inn, a place I came across on TripAdvisor. I wasn’t enthralled with what I’d read about San Jose. It sounded like a place where one always has to look over their shoulder and the descriptions brought back memories of my bad experience in Nicaragua. The Adventure Inn sounded good because it was outside of the city center, has a Jacuzzi on the premises and tour buses stop by daily to take people outside the city, to see the sights of Costa Rica. While I’m not a tour bus person by nature, on my first trip overseas alone with baby, I thought I should take extra precautions. I’d want my husband to do the same.

When we arrived at our room I could hear the beautiful sound of the rain pounding on the roof above us. River behaved remarkably well on the trip, but we’d been on the road 12 hours and were both tired. So we spent the afternoon sleeping.

Afternoon stretched into evening for him and he’s still asleep, while I sit out on the patio outside our room and work on the computer. I had a simple, but tasty Tican meal of grilled chicken with rice, beans, fried plantains and salad. The night air is cool and comfortable. I look out at trees and expensive residences. I can hear the chirp of insects and the alternating barks of two dogs.

I signed us up for a day trip tomorrow, a four in one tour that takes in coffee production, butterflies, a volcano and a river wildlife boat ride. Without a swing, a bouncy seat or a jumper, I’m really unable to put River down except when he is sleeping. As long as I have to have him in my arms all day, we might as well be on the move and seeing something. For me, that’s the best possible combination. I get to enjoy quality time with him and be learning and exploring myself.