Thursday, January 29, 2009

About the weather...

So, I've now been on the beach in Costa Rica for about a week now, while Lott, Bailey, and Mattson have spent almost a full month here. During this time, the weather hasn't really changed very much. It's been hot, sunny, and, well, wonderful:

Sorta like this

In the mean time, I've had a chance to hear from a few friends in other parts of the world, who appear to be putting up with somewhat more inclement weather. Specifically:
  • Seattle, WA: there's been rain (of course), there's been snow, and the temperature change in going from Costa Rica to Seattle is about 65 degrees.

  • Lexington, KY: severe ice storms. 3 inches of ice on the roads covered by a couple more inches of snow. Lots of people without power.

  • San Diego, CA: this is Southern California, for God's sake, but apparently the day after I had left the rains arrived. Glad to report that it is now back to mid-70's and sunny, cementing San Diego's reputation for the best weather in the US.

  • London, UK: dreary, rainy, drizzly, and depressing. Really, par for the course for London in January.

  • The Northeast of the US: the internet tells me there's snow storms here as well, with millions of people without power.
Well, I'd like to be the first to assure that we all feel exceedingly badly for all of you... And you have obviously not made a wise decision when you chose to remain somewhere North of Costa Rica in the month of January. After all, had you been here you could've witnessed these:

A guy getting around the beach on his unicycle

and an ancient former school bus, now converted into surf camp transport/advertising

Where's the Mini

For a while we had a link to a map with our location as we drove across Asia.  Now that the Mini is safely in Seattle, we're not updating it any more.  So it's gone poof.  But if you want to see the map again use this link.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

24 hours in Playa Tamarindo

Walking along the beach shortly after midnight, it's pitch black here, Tamarindo's few lights flicker in the distance across the estuary. The moon's not out tonight, but the sky is filled with a dazzling assortment of stars - brilliantly visible with precious few outside light sources around. Tina and I (and a group of other assorted tourists) are walking along Playa Grande in Costa Rica's Las Baulas National Park, where the horribly endangered leatherback turtles come to nest, and tourists can come see them October through March. Everyone else had gone to see the turtles in the first week of the trip, but since Tina and I hadn't been here then, and considering that Playa Grande is immediately adjacent to Tamarindo, we figured we needed to go. So, here we were, at around 12:30AM, walking along the beach towards the ranger station, where we'd have to wait for one of the rangers to sight a turtle.

And wait we did... At 2:30 (and still no turtles... and a bunch of others leaving), I was pretty much ready to go, but we decided to hang around for another 30 minutes. At 2:45, the word came that a turtle was on shore, so those of us still waiting, marched 500m along the shore to find a turtle (surrounded by rangers), dig a nest in the sand, getting ready to lay her eggs. The turtle is huge (150cm x 106cm). And she lays about 40 eggs. We weren't allowed to take photographs, but here's what the turtles look like:

After observing the turtle for about 40 minutes, we trooped back up the beach on the way back to all of our respective hotels. Five minutes later, our progress was interrupted by an even bigger leatherback crossing our path on her way up the beach. After letting her pass, we continued on our way - I don't think any of us were really up for spending another 40 minutes with this one considering it was after 3:30 in the morning by now... At 4:30AM, we were back at the house in Tamarindo, and off to bed.

My alarm promptly went off at 6:30AM... that's only two hours later. Lott came by and made sure I was awake at 6:29AM. I was a little mad for missing out on almost one percent of my two hours of sleep! Next on the Costa Rica agenda was scuba diving, so at 6:45 we were outside looking for our diving shuttle. It showed up around 7. I struggled to remain awake. Staying awake became a lot easier once we got out on a boat (and a lot easier still when we got under water).

Part of Catalina island, near which we were diving today

Lott, enjoying the view from the deck

The marine life was pretty spectacular: just on the surface, we saw a couple of dolphins, a manta ray jumping out of the water, birds hovering right around us (then dive bombing into the water to pick up a target), and a pair of green turtles 'getting romantic' on the surface next to us:

Turtles having sex...

The birds would just seemingly hover right in front of the ship

Under water, it was a little cold and a little mirky, but this didn't keep us from seeing a sting ray, a manta ray, a bunch of devil rays, a shark, a turtle, and a few eels, among other wild life. And I felt a lot more awake as a result of it all.

Back at the house around 12:30, where Lott headed off to his Spanish class, while I lazed around not doing a whole lot of anything until we went out surfing at 4:

Bailey making it look easy

Then learning the hard way that it really isn't all that easy

Drew, working on his balance

Tina taking it all in, while taking a break back on the beach

And for the finale, we were at the nearby 'Eat at Joe's' restaurant, enjoying $1.25 beers (Happy Hour till 9PM!?) and some delicious sea food. By about 10 that evening and after a couple of beers, I was all set to pass out - all in all, a good day in Costa Rica!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Costa Rica Day 1 (ok, and day 2)

The prelude: Day -1. Still in California. Flying out Thursday evening to get into San Jose, Costa Rica early Friday morning... very early. In the mean time, the last step before leaving is to finally sell the car. Unfortunately, since I need to sell the car quickly, I'm resorting to simply taking it to a dealership. The one and only upside to this is that CarMax has offices all over the country, including LA, from where my Costa Rica flight is to originate, so I get to have one last drive up the coast in the convertible. Clearly procrastinating too, making a variety of stops along the way. Finally in LA, it's time to say good bye to the car:

The mini certainly has more style, but I'll miss the bimmer!

And on to more practical concerns such as getting to LAX to catch my flight. After some unforeseen adventures in routing with the LA bus and subway system, I finally arrive at the Frontier airlines ticket counter about 45 minutes before my flight is to take off. There's hardly anyone else in the terminal. There is no line, and exactly one ticket agent at Frontier. She sounds a bit exasperated when I confirm that I am in fact taking a flight that will end up at an international destination and still am showing up this late; goes on to sternly warn me that she cannot guarantee that I will make my flight and sends me on the way as I assure her that I'm quite adept at running through airport terminals. 30 minutes later I'm at my window seat, watching a Lakers game (hooray for 30 channels of free TV on Frontier flights), getting ready to enjoy my sandwich (I had time to pick one of those up prior to boarding too).

After a brief stop over in Denver, we were promptly on the way South arriving in San Jose shortly after 6 in the morning, allowing for Costa Rica Day 1 to commence. San Jose, quite frankly, isn't a particularly interesting or attractive city. It's fairly dirty, packed with traffic trying to squeeze through streets not quite wide enough for the number of cars on them, and doesn't have a whole lot in terms of attractions to see. It does, however, have a Brazilian embassy(!), so after getting my luggage, I was in a cab, watching the driver snake his way through the already heavy traffic (at 7:00AM!). 7:30 came about, and I was at the Pangea hostel, optimistic that I wouldn't actually be staying here, but willing to pay $12 to reserve a bed just to have a base of operations to leave my bags. A Banco de Costa Rica was less than a block away on the way in, so I was at their doorstep right as they were opening at 8AM to deposit my $130 into the Embajado de Brazil bank account. 30 minutes later, I was at the Brazilian embassy, which is supposed to start accepting visa applications at 8:30. Supposed to is a strong word, and the place isn't exactly busy (barren?), so the guy at the front desk (not speaking any English) managed to convey to me (in Spanish) that the consul will be there shortly to deal with me. Shortly took about 45 more minutes, but around 9:15 I handed off my application and my bank deposit receipt and beginning the negotiations as to when I could havve my passport back. The negotiations featured her broken English and my broken Spanish, intermixed with only slightly less broken French. She suggested I pick it up next Tuesday. I asked if I could get it vendredi (that's French for Friday - Spanish for Friday is viernes, so it's, you know, close?). I'm not sure if she understood that I wanted to pick it up a week from today, but she asked me "to sit down please", went off to do stuff, and a mere 30 minutes later, I was handed my passport back, with a fresh new Brazilian visa in it. Valid for 5 years! And to think I'd barely allowed myself to hope to get the passport back in a week...

Costa Rica, so far, is progressing better than I could've ever imagined. The bank was easy to find and didn't give me any trouble about depositing the money. The embassy was within walking distance. And not only did I in fact have all the documents required, they gave me the visa basically on the spot! Can we make this even better and meet up with Lott and company today too? Yes we can! I was willing to pay the $35 to catch a fast tourist shuttle to Monteverde, but they were all booked. So, instead, I waited around the bus station for 3 hours and caught a slow local bus to Monteverde for about $4.50. Had a bit of a contentious discussion with the taxi driver getting to the bus station and ended up paying him almost $20, but all in all, I still came out ahead. And the bus was actually fairly nice:

My home for the next six hours.

By 8 o'clock, I was getting dropped off in Monteverde, with the bus station conveniently situated right across from our hotel. Shortly before 11, a loud commotion outside signaled the arrival of a Landcruiser Prado bearing the other 7 of our party of 8, and, quite frankly, I'm still a little astounded that I'd managed to both get my visa to Brazil and meet my friends in the middle of a Central American country where I didn't even speak the language... all in a period of 24 hours, a period that had started with a lady at the Frontier airlines counter at LAX sternly warning me that I may not even make my flight.

On to Day 2... Day 2 was ziplining and hiking through the cloud forest in Monteverde, which Lott has already described in pretty good detail. But, hey, I have more pictures and videos, so here's a few additions to his post:

Megan, Schwin, Mattson, Lott, Bailey, Tina, myself, and Drew learning how to zipline... safely?

Ziplining really just means riding down a long metal line through the heart of a dense jungle. The cloud forest is what they call it...

Lott getting ready to ride off into action. The rest of us, naturally, have our own thoughts on how he should approach the zipline.

Drew's optimistic, while our guide seems clearly ambivalent

Me, enjoying a long ride that got up above the canopy, offering a nice view of the surrounding forest.

Bailey riding off into the jungle... in video!

Did Lott mention there was also a Tarzan swing here? Schwin flying off.

After a brief lunch break, off onto the natural preserve for a 3 hour hike through the dense green

Megan, clearly excited about this particular vine

Not sure how the bird felt about us. I suspect, he was excited to see us leave mostly...

And, there was the research observation Tower. Closed, officially. We felt it wasn't closed enough to prevent us from climbing up to the top. Bailey making his way up the staircase here.

A nice view of the surrounding jungle from the top of the tower

A beautiful sunset on the way back...

Lott, I will contend these two pictures are better than the one you picked for your post!

Stopped for dinner at a [very!] local restaurant on the way back. They had a band performing, which would've been a lot better if it wasn't so damn loud, but sure seemed like a thoroughly authentic experience... Food was excellent too!

In spite of a few somewhat questionable decisions by Mattson, our designated driver, on the way back (thanks for avoiding that oncoming bus!), we made it to Tamarindo in the evening, just in time to go visit the local night life that evening. The next morning/afternoon, we said good bye to Schwin and Megan, who were flying back to Seattle, then washed away our hangovers by going surfing and watching another beautiful sunset:

It's a rough life here in Tamarindo - every evening, around 5:30, you make it out to the beach to have a drink and marvel at the ruby red sun settling down behind the clouds on the horizon.

The entire sky lights up a brilliant shade of red as the sun gets lower and lower.

And now, just five more days of this rough life to go, before I'm off to cruise Antarctica, while everyone else heads back to Seattle... and the blog stops making sense again as Lott and I will be posting from two completely different locations once more.

Roughin' it

With yet another weekend looming ahead of us, we decided to leave the sun and surf in Tamarindo and explore some of Costa Rica's other treasures.  But first we needed wheels.  And boy did we get them a "luxury cuatro by cuatro" driven by Eric "I'm still figuring out how to shift so I'll be extra aggressive passing and hitting potholes" Mattson.


We were definitely the most dangerously over confident group of tourists on the road, racing up steep dirt roads with sheer drops on both sides.  Our first adventure was a Thursday night jaunt to the nearby town of Santa Cruz.  They were in the midst of a week long Fiesta Tipica. We started with a bunch of street food and a fireworks show.


Then we moved onto the main event, a rodeo!  From a pool of young men the announcer randomly picks one to ride El Torro as he is released into the ring.  Some fell off on the first buck while one guy made it through almost 20 seconds of mayhem.  After the bull has shed his pesky rider, he has free reign of the ring where he can chase drunken spectators who alternate taunting him, running for their lives and leaping for the fences. 

Surprisingly, only one guy was hit badly, and was able to still get up and walk away.  Unsurprisingly, of the hundred or so people who climbed the fence to join in the fun, only one was female.  After 5 or 10 minutes, the real cowboys come out, lasso the bull and lead him out of the ring, where I'm sure he's glad to be away from all those annoying people.


With the darkness we didn't get a whole lot of good shots, but here are someone else's videos from last year.  Definitely a fun night and very different and local. 

On Friday we again piled into the 4x4 and headed off in search of a local speciality, palm wine.  Lonely Planet warns of temporary blindness and one of the worst hangovers of your life.  I found a pleasant yeasty sweetness and an effective distraction from the bumpiness of the roads.


The first bottle - a recycled tequilla bottle with screw on cap and slightly chilled - seemed to go down smoother than the second - a rum bottle with a corn cob for a cork, and slightly warmer.  No temporary blindness, though the still active fermentation and bumpy roads did overpower the corn cob.

We arrived in Santa Elena that night and miraculously found Slepak waiting for us.  He had flown into San Jose, breezed through the Brazilian embassy, and taken a public bus to meet us.  We went out for a drink and saw a rickshaw in the parking lot!  Unfortunately we were too busy catching up to go take a photo with it, so instead here's a recycled Rickshaw Run photo.


If it's any consolation, I was wearing the same shirt both days...

In the morning we headed off to the cloud forests of Santa Elena.  We decided the best way to see them would be by zipline!  At base camp there was a sign almost good enough to qualify for my funny bathroom signs collection.


After the obligatory safety lecture we headed off to the ziplines.


Flying through the jungle is quite exhilarating.  Flying 200 feet above the jungle, even more so.


The highlight of the day was a Tarzan swing.


All the speed and adrenaline don't make a good combination for actually seeing a lot of wildlife however.  So afterwards we went for a hike through the forest and stumbled upon a on old research tower.


That bright yellow tape and stuff across the bottom of the stairs means we should climb it right?  The constant mist of clouds blowing through definitely gives the stairs a nice patina.


We ended the day with a beautiful sunset as we drove home across the mountains.


Wednesday, January 21, 2009


I arrived in Seattle, along with the mini, on Friday, January, the 9th. Spent the weekend basking in the glory of the accomplishment that is driving a 27-year old car from London to Seattle... the hard way. Also got a chance to read a few of Lott's blog posts from Costa Rica and be jealous... very jealous - it was much, much colder in Seattle than it was in Central America! And I've come to rather dislike the cold.

So, by the time Monday rolled around, it was time to face a few simple facts and start planning again. First, the facts:
- I'm in Seattle
- in approximately three weeks, I need to be in Ushaia, Argentina to cruise Antarctica
- after Antarctica, I want to head off to Brazil for Carnival
- Brazil requires a visa... f%*!ing reciprocity!
- Lott and company are in Costa Rica, where it's a lot warmer than it is in Seattle
- I need to sell my car in order to be able to afford most of the things above

Visa to Brazil seemed like a necessary first step - in the US, I have to get it from the Brazilian consulate in San Francisco, which takes 10 days. So, plan: send off the application to a visa agency in San Francisco, pay them (too much) to submit the application, take the train down the coast all the way to San Diego, going snowboarding in Hood, Tahoe, and Big Bear along the way - by the time I'd arrive, the visa would be ready, and I'd have just enough time to catch a flight to Ushuaia. Unresolved issue: it's a lot warmer in Costa Rica, than it is in any place on the Pacific coast where I could go snowboarding! Sacrifices have to be made, I guess... So, I booked my train ticket to Portland for Tuesday, convinced a friend in Portland to let me stay with her, and agreed to meet up with that French girl from Vancouver, whom we met at Pike's Place market, down in Portland. Last second get-together in Capitol Hill to commemorate the mini's arrival and my new departure:

It's nice that the beer is in focus, while Liv and I, who've been drinking the beer, are not...

Tuesday, I had Nate on board to give me a ride to the train station and was walking to the Post Office to send off the visa application to San Francisco, when I tried calling the Brazilian embassy in San Jose, Costa Rica once again, and ... lo and behold, my 'Ola! Hablo Ingles?' got me to an English-speaking embassy employee, who told me that an American could, in fact, get a visa to Brazil in Costa Rica, and it would only take a maximum of three days! Well... change of plans! Sorry, Leah - I'm not coming to Portland anymore! Sorry, Colin, you can tell Steph about the creepy Russian sleeping on the couch in the living room for one more night! Hi, mom and dad, I'll be in San Diego tomorrow! And thanks, Steph (even though you're clearly insane) for insisting on giving me a ride to the airport in time for my 7AM flight...

It was (of course) dreary and overcast in Seattle when my flight left, heading for Salt Lake City. We didn't even have to reach California for the weather to improve dramatically, so I got some good views out of my window on the way:

Salt Lake City is literally surrounded by big, snow-capped mountains. I do really want to go snowboarding there...

Rocky mountains flanking the city. I'd like to know what that little puff of smoke on the far right is...

And this, I presume, is the Salt Lake

Entering Nevada - no more snow, but still mountain ranges down below. And the engine is right here too.

A river runs through it. Through Nevada

So, the new plan, hastily formed since I've arrived back in San Diego:
- I've got a bunch of plane tickets to go LA - Costa Rica - Montevideo, Uruguay; Buenos Aires - Ushuaia - Buenos Aires - Rio. With a week long stopover in Costa Rica, where I'm optimistic about getting my visa to Brazil, while hanging out on the sunny beach with Lott, Bailey, Mattson, and company. And with a bus/ferry transfer from Montevideo to Buenos Aires (flights to Buenos Aires were expensive!), and with flights to/from Ushuaia on LADE, a military-operated Argentinian airline, which is bound to make for some interesting flights. There's also a hostel in Rio reserved for seven nights of Carnival, so things are looking up. My car is even all set to be sold tomorrow (to a dealer who's giving me a crappy price, but apparently you people have let the world economy completely deteriorate while I've been gone, which has rather depressed the demand for BMW's...). Thursday, I take off for Costa Rica, set to arrive on Friday and start finding out all the exciting, incredible ways in which all those plans can go horribly wrong!

Hanging out on the beach in San Diego, plotting ways to get even further South

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Stuff white people like

We're all living stereotypes! And it's amusing...

Taking a Year Off

Saturday, January 17, 2009


Yeah, Thirty dollars! That's it... that's how much it costs to import a 27-year old mini into the US. Permanently import too, not one of these temporary transit imports, the type we paid a couple hundred dollars for in Turkmenistan! Nope, the American customs agent in Blaine, WA, who started off being rather serious, but quickly warmed up to the plight of the mini, studied some of my documents for a little while, generated another document, certifying the official import, and asked me to pay $30... with a credit card even! The process took about an hour. He did examine the car, and while he did open (and was then unable to close) the toolkit, I'm fairly positive he never even bothered looking at the VIN number. Honestly, I was almost a little disappointed (I was geared up for so much more of a battle...) almost! And pretty soon I was cruising down an American interstate towards Seattle, marveling at just how humongously bigger the 18-wheelers, that would routinely pass me, were bigger than the mini.

Disregard the 'Do Not Enter' signs, if you please - I didn't break any traffic laws for a change, I entered heading the right way. Did drive the wrong way down a one way street for a while back on the Canadian side of the border, but that's just because of how hard it is to find the Canadian customs agents, who are to stamp your car out of their country...

Side note: speaking of the customs officer starting off being awfully serious... two things:
1. Granola bars do count as food, so you're supposed to declare them as such on the customs form.
2. When they ask you 'Have you ever been arrested, questioned in regards to a crime, or finger-printed?', you are supposed to say No, sir! When you actually say, 'Well, I think, I've been finger-printed,' they don't actually care about the fact that Japan finger-prints all foreigners coming into the country, they only care about being finger-printed in relation to a criminal investigation. And then you have to explain all this... Now back to your scheduled programming...

A month off the roads, the mini was clearly feeling rather refreshed because we made the drive to Seattle without an incident (I still felt better having the toolkit with me, of course, even if it was a pain on the ass on the bus in Vancouver!). The speedometer is in kilometers only (and is about 10% off), so I wasn't sure exactly how fast I was going down the interstate, but I'm pretty sure I was in no danger whatsoever of breaking the speed limit. I did pass three people on the way down though - that was a little strange. And later that evening, I delivered the car into the official care of Theo, Tina, and Cyrus. Apologizing to Cyrus along the way that I was unable to bring the Panda muffler with me...

The mini enters the US! Near Theo's house the evening of January 9th.

Saturday, I ignored the proximity of the car, but Sunday it was time to do the obligatory circuit around Seattle and pose the mini in front of the landmarks:

Well, first we did have to pump up the tires... with the Mongolian foot pump I had snuck across the Pacific in the car. Theo pumping away here surrounded by his car (the Subaru in the back), and his Mongolian ride from the summer.

And then on to nearby Microsoft. Lott, Cyrus, Logan, and I have all quit and gone to travel in silly places like India and Mongolia, but we did all earn money there to afford all this insanity!

Off to visit Adrenaline Watersports, one of our charitable sponsors. Tina was so excited to see the car here, she was learning to walk on air!

Mike (the proprietor of Adrenaline) was pleased to see the car as well.

On to the west-side, across the 520 bridge, fitting in with the flow traffic reasonably competently. Husky stadium in the backgrond.

Seattle's Space Needle towering over the mini and me.

We like the Needle, let there be two pictures.

Pike Place market, where we were minor celebrities again with random passerbies photographing the mini. Including a girl I had met on one of our Vancouver hostel's pub crawls a few days ago. Peggy's French, so she was excited to see a French license plate.

Showgirls is a Seattle institution too, right?

And this was it for the flight (and plight) of the mini. From Paris to London to Mongolia to Japan and now to Seattle. Here, she will remain, rest, and, hopefully, get an entirely new suspension. Driving around on the roads of Washington state, you quickly start to notice that it really does drive like a tractor by now, after all the suspension 'modifications' we had done along the way. And American roads aren't nearly as smooth as our proper suspensions make us think.

Last order of business was to go to the DMV Monday morning and get real Washington state license plates for the mini (not quite sure how I'm going to attach them to the car yet, but I'll wait on that for a while and keep the French plates anyway). The lady here, who of course hadn't the vaguest idea what the hell a Rover mini was, wanted to see a lot more of my documents than the customs ever did, and she kept both my French registration (that I had to fight for so valiantly back in Paris) and the importation documents I got from Blaine. And she charged me $90... but at least the car is much too old to require any emission testing! Wonder if it would pass?