Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Costa Rica
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Though I was sorely disappointed by the touristy nature of Costa Rica, I did return with one bit of true Tico culture, a giant bottle of the Costa Rican national condiment, Salsa Lizano. No kitchen or serving table in Costa Rica is complete without this slightly spicy, slightly sweet brown sauce, which usually stands side-by-side with its cousin, the very spicy Lizano Chilero. Ticos pour the stuff on everything: eggs, rice, beans, gallo pinto, tamales, cheeses, steaks, soups and even use it to marinate meat.

Costa Rica's national culinary pride, Lizano Salsa and Chilero

Costa Rica's national culinary pride, Lizano Salsa and Chilero

Developed in 1920 by the Lizano Company, the condiment is often referred to as the “Worcestershire sauce” of Latin America, but its ingredients (water, sugar, iodized salt, onions, carrots, cucumbers, cauliflower, molasses, mustard, celery, spicy chiles, spices such as black pepper and cumin, corn starch, acetic acid, and hydrolyzed vegetable protein) have little in common with the traditional English condiment. For years, visitors to Costa Rica have been carrying it home by the gallon jug, as it was not sold outside of Central America. After my first taste I, too, succumbed to its charms and upon returning to San Jose I asked my hotel owner for directions to a grocery store where I could buy a large bottle.

According to the manager at Casa las Orquideas Boutique Hotel, Salsa Lizano was manufactured for many years by a well-known Costa Rican family, in one of the country’s most modern factories. Several years ago, Kraft contracted with the factory to do some bottling for them. One thing led to another and Kraft ended up buying the factory. The public outcry was Read More

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Costa Rica
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Following a disappointing week at the beaches of the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica, I hopped on a bus back to San Jose, where I met up with a group of people for a nine-day tour. As an independent traveler who wanders with no set schedule, I have never been on an organized tour, however this past December I won a tour of Costa Rica with gAdventures so I decided to try it out. The itinerary began and ended in the capital of San Jose, with enough free time see the city center and shop in the local markets, then continued on to La Fortuna/Arenal, Monteverde/Santa Elena, and Quepos/Manuel Antonio National Park, returning to San Jose on the final day.

In La Fortuna, the town that squats at the foot of Arenal Volcano, I found little in the way of local culture. In part, this may be due to the 1968 eruption that completely wiped out the original town. Only a handful of locals were willing to stay following the devastation and those that did rebuilt with tourism in mind. Today the streets of La Fortuna are lined with tour operators who hawk river rafting, rappelling, canyoneering, mountain biking, stand-up paddling, wind surfing, zip lining, horseback riding and hanging bridge walks.

La Fortuna Waterfall, Costa Rica

La Fortuna Waterfall

Our bus rolled into town and stopped at gAdventure’s preferred operator, Desafío Adventure Company, even before we checked into the hotel. I scanned the menu of trips and found only two that might be considered cultural in nature, a visit to a sloth rescue center or a local organic farm. Unfortunately, the sloth center had closed and the organic farm tour was not available so I settled for a boat trip in the Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge the following day, which guaranteed sightings of wildlife. Then, uncomfortable with the prices for these add-on tours, I separated from the group and headed out on my own. Rather than pay $55 for a four-hour combination horseback ride and hike down to La Fortuna Waterfall, I grabbed a taxi for $6, paid the $10 entry fee at the park and hiked down by myself.

Kingfisher in Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge, Costa Rica

Kingfisher in Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge

Two days later we motored across Lake Arenal and boarded a bus for a ride up into Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, where we stopped at El Trapiche coffee and sugar cane plantation. Following a scrumptious lunch prepared by the owners in their personal kitchen, we strolled through the coffee fields and production facilities, sampled brown sugar made from their sugar cane, and whipped up a batch of our own fudge with huge wooden paddles. Later that evening, I opted for a night nature walk at Finca Santamaria to see the nocturnal animals. Our guide pulled apart low-lying shrubbery branches, revealing a vivid lime green pit viper curled up within the bush and fascinated us with facts about thousands of leaf-cuttter ants trooping in and out of giant mounds, but the highlight of the evening came when he shone a high-powered flashlight high up into a tree, illuminating a slow-moving sloth. Fascinated by this second-laziest of all creatures, the next day I spent an hour watching another sloth hang on for dear life as strong winds buffeted the high branches of a tree behind our lodge, Las Cipreses Hotel.

Green Pit Viper on night nature walk in Monteverde Refuge, Costa Rica

Green Pit Viper on night nature walk in Monteverde Refuge

Perhaps because Monteverde has retained its cultural heritage despite being a prime tourist destination, this was my favorite part of the tour. Rather than book adventure activities, I wandered around the charming mountain village of Santa Elena, chatting with locals about the history of their village. The Monteverde area, which encompasses a series of small burgs including Santa Elena, was founded in the 1950’s by Quakers from the United States who chose Costa Rica because of its commitment to a non-militaristic economic path. Though they were farmers, the Quakers quickly recognized the need to preserve the rare cloud forest and today the surrounding mountains are a natural wonderland of butterflies, hiking trails, waterfalls and moss-draped trees that begin many Read More

This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Costa Rica
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Attending a rodeo seemed like an opportunity to witness a bit of local culture in an otherwise culture-less visit to the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica, so I agreed to split the $60 round-trip taxi fare from Santa Teresa to Cobano with five other people. The bull riding was routine, except for the fact that dozens of (mostly drunk) people were in the ring with the bucking Brahmas. Once the cowboys were thrown, the bulls turned their fury on the surrounding people. You’ve heard of slapping the bull on the ass? Well, the point of this rodeo seemed to be to slap the bull between the horns without getting gored or trampled. Some participants came fully equipped with bullfighter capes and fake swords; others donned super hero costumes, apparently convinced the outfits made them indestructible. A couple of young men succeeded in hitting the mark as they streaked in front of the bull at full speed, but two were trampled in the attempt and had to be carried out of the ring. Both appeared later in the evening, apparently unharmed, except for the noticeable limp exhibited by one of them.

Can’t view the above video about the crazy rodeo in Costa Rica where bulls chase people? Click here.

 

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Costa Rica
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The old saying, “Expectations are resentments waiting to happen,” is perhaps the best way to describe my recent trip to the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica. For years I’d heard tales of the beautiful beaches around Montezuma and Mal Pais, so when I won a nine-day tour of Costa Rica, I decided to go a week early and soak up some rays in Santa Teresa, a small town on the southern tip of the peninsula. The beaches were nothing like what I expected. Rather than pure, powdery white sand I found drab brown granular sand interspersed with outcroppings of sharp volcanic rocks. Surfers will appreciate the clean, reliable waves, but since I stopped surfing long ago, the best part of the beaches for me were the spectacular sunsets.

Can’t view the above slide show of the beaches of Santa Teresa, Costa Rica? Click here.

The sleepy towns that stretch along the single sand road leading to the mainland were equally disappointing. Not only were prices for food and accommodations almost as expensive as the U.S., every restaurant and shop I visited was owned by Argentinians who had immigrated to Costa Rica. Little of local Tico culture is apparent in this part of the country.

Even given the above, I would have enjoyed my stay more if I’d had a pleasant place to stay. At first blush, Funky Monkey Lodge looked like a nice place, but as the week wore on I saw behind the facade and it wasn’t a pretty picture. Rules, rules and more rules were posted everywhere. Just one example, check out the rules posted on a sign at the pool:

Pool rules at Funky Monkey Lodge in Santa Teresa

Pool rules at Funky Monkey Lodge in Santa Teresa

Shower before entering I can understand. Maybe even no food. But no sand? The whole place is sand. And no lotion ? I guess I was just supposed to suffer second degree burns in the intense Costa Rican sun.

The sign at the pool was the least of it. When I checked in, I was taken on a brief orientation tour and advised that they were experiencing a severe water shortage. A sign in the shower instructed us to turn on water for 30 seconds to get wet, soap up, then turn on water for 30 seconds to rinse off. Since the water in the shower was little more than a dribble, what they suggested was quite impossible. Yet the owners freely watered plants around the property with the well water and one day even let water at an outside shower next to the restaurant run continuously as they washed one of their dogs. Read More

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“If you’re a vegetarian how do you get enough vitamin B?” Harold asked.

Charles chimed in on my behalf: “Quinoa. It’s an ancient grain that was originally cultivated in Peru and it has one of the highest concentrations of vitamin B of any food, plus it’s high in protein.” I checked his information; as usual he was spot on. I’ve never met another individual who knows so many facts about so many things.

For the next three hours in REV Coffee, our little group expounded on matters small and large. A discussion about the destruction of the Amazonian rainforest in Brazil, which is irrevocably changing the lives of natives who rely on the jungle for their existence, led to speculation about whether the fabled “Lost City of El Dorado,” said to be filled with riches beyond imagining, ever really existed in the Amazon. When Ray wandered in and announced he was thinking of buying a DSLR Canon Camera, conversation turned to the relationship between aperture, speed, and ISO. And when fellow writer, Roger, asked me what reference materials I use when writing, I pointed him to Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style.”

Local artist hangs a new show at REV Coffee

Local artist hangs a new show at REV Coffee

Over the years, I’ve been a regular at any number of coffee shops but none compare to REV Coffee in Smyrna, Georgia. When owner Nick Bimmerle bought the coffee shop in 2008 it had good bones. The cavernous space in which it is located, an old auto repair shop with a soaring ceiling, roll-up garage doors, and exposed air conditioning ducts, was furnished with overstuffed couches, armchairs, and a scattering of cafe tables. Area rugs dotted the concrete floor and the walls displayed original creations from local artists. But it was Nick’s special touch that turned REV from just another coffee shop into the “Cheers” of the greater Atlanta area.

In addition to Wednesday night open mic and Friday night live music programs, Bimmerle encourages groups of all kinds to meet at REV. “I’ve never been close-minded when people asked me if it would be cool if we did this or that, whether it’s knitters or chess players, because that’s what this place is all about, the community and giving people a place to come.” One of his great successes has involved teaming up with Cumberland Community Church. “A lot of the congregation frequent REV. They’re just great people, so whenever they need something we’re happy to help out and vice versa.” The church lends chairs to REV for their bi-monthly ‘Bleep-Free,’ family-friendly comedy night, which features amateur Atlanta-area comedians, some of whom, insists Bimmerle, are very funny. At the end of the evening the audience votes for their favorite and the winner goes home with $100 cash. “It really fills the place up,” he adds.

Live music every Friday night packs the joint

Live music every Friday night packs the joint

Eliciting this kind of devotion in customers can also have drawbacks. Whenever I’m in town, I spend hours at REV, writing. Because I’m taking up a seat, a parking space, and surfing the web on their free wifi connection, I buy things throughout the day: a grilled cheese sandwich here, an Americano there; but I was curious how he felt about customers who are not as considerate. “It kind of comes with the territory,” he says. “There are some who I wish would buy more, but if you buy something, then it’s OK.” The only thing that irritates him is when people sit down, hook up to the wifi, and don’t buy a thing. “That happens?” I asked incredulously. Read More

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I am sitting in a Panera Restaurant in Atlanta, chowing down a Caersar’s Salad and bowl of creamy tomato soup, trying to figure out why I am so depressed. In late December I flew home from Peru to visit my family over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays but this time around circumstances beyond my control kept me Stateside for three months, almost twice as long as normal.

Being in the U.S. for an extended period is difficult for me. I miss the stimulation of nomadic travel, the fascinating introduction and immersion into different cultures. More so, I miss the inexplicable happiness of people who have so much less than we do, but seem so much happier. The stress and heaviness I feel in the U.S. creeps insidiously into my being until I am nearly paralyzed by it. Over the past couple of weeks I’ve grown especially antsy. I squirm as I write, as if trying to break invisible shackles that bind me to my chair. I know I should walk or do Yoga, but each day I become a bit more apathetic.

That lethargy filtered into my travel planning as well. I put off buying a plane ticket, using one excuse after another to justify the delay. Not that there weren’t good reasons. After six years of trying to sell a small apartment house in Key West, Florida I finally admitted that I couldn’t hold onto it. Late last year I contacted the bank and told them I could no longer pay the mortgage. They told me to list the property at market price and three days later we had an offer. It closed in mid-February and, though it sold for about $400,000 less than I paid for it, I felt like an enormous weight had been removed from my shoulders. Finally, I would be able to travel without the worries that come with managing tenant and maintenance issues from halfway around the world.

Author, Barbara Weibel, at Agua Azul Waterfall in Chiapas, Mexico

Author, Barbara Weibel, at Agua Azul Waterfall in Chiapas, Mexico

A week after the house was sold my bank was sold. The new bank issued all new account numbers, debit cards, credit cards, and required all new paperwork to link my online Hole In The Donut corporate account with my personal account. Until that process was complete I was trapped in the States, as debit cards and online banking are crucial for my travels. The banking issues were resolved in mid-March and soon afterward, I finished my taxes and sent them off to the accountant, fully six months earlier than I normally get around to them. I’d even caught up on the backlog of articles waiting to be written for this blog. For the first time in my life, every single item on my “To Do” list had been scratched off. With nothing more to hold me back, I picked up the phone and booked a ticket to Asia.

I should be joyful. But I’m not. Something is terribly wrong.

Although I am living the life I always dreamed of, I can’t help feeling that something is lacking. For a long time I felt guilty that I wasn’t volunteering as I traveled the globe. I investigated dozens of organizations, but with no teaching or construction skills, I had little to offer. Even worse, my investigations often turned up abuse and corruption in many volunteer and charity organizations. Instead, I decided the best way I could help was Read More