Left Shark. (Also Right Shark.)

There is a hierarchy of people you would like to sit next to on a six-hour airplane flight, ranging from good to terrible. At the positive end of the spectrum – the Platonic ideal of an in-air companion – you might find a mute narcoleptic dwarf. No interactions, no space issues, no unwanted conversations.

At the very opposite end of the spectrum – the winner of Bad Airline Seatmate Bingo™ – would be a 300-pound, gregarious, extroverted dump truck company owner who has also worked as a concrete layer, Canon copier salesman, construction worker and biker bar bouncer.

I won bingo.

If it sounds like I know a bit too much about this guy’s resumé, that’s because he did not hesitate to share the nitty-gritty details of his life story with me as we winged our way across the Pacific to Hawaii.

Usually I’m pretty good about sending out “signals” that I’m not interested in a conversation, like putting in noise-canceling headphones, watching a movie on the in-seat entertainment system or dramatically nodding off to sleep. No such luck with Bouncer McCopiersales.

“They couldn’t believe I sold [name of boondoggle Canon copier model] on my first day,” he says with a laugh, sipping his guava juice and not noticing that I have been forced to pause the movie I’m watching in order to indulge him in conversation.

“Ha ha, right?” I say in a tone of voice that I hope will alert the interest of any nearby plainclothes air marshall. I go back to my movie.

This goes on for the duration of the flight. Me, popping in my earbuds and hoping he will take the hint. Him, elbowing me and talking very loudly so I’ll be forced to engage in conversation.

“Negative fifty-seven degrees outside,” he says at one point, reading off the screens on the bulkhead of our section.

“Glad I’m not outside!” I say fake-jauntily, while secretly wishing I were outside.

A few minutes later: Nudge. “Got any plans for Hawaii?”

“Uh, snorkeling,” I say, because “Blogging about you,” seems overly honest.

Mercifully, the flight lands 40 minutes early, and I zip out of the plane before he can engage me in a long farewell, or sell me a Canon IR 3045.

Hadas and I were flying separately to O’ahu because our frequent flyer rewards were on different airlines, so I had seven hours to kill until her arrival. I picked up the rental car (according to the discount code I found online I work for Unilever – don’t tell my boss) and fought my way through Christmas afternoon traffic to the AirBnB near the tiny town of Waiʻanae on the leeward side of the island. Apparently all the islands here have a “leeward” and “windward” side, but as far as I’ve been able to tell the leeward side is plenty windy, and I imagine that the windward side is overrun with guys named “Lee.” I might need to spend some time on Wikipedia.

Anyway, our AirBnB host (“Shelley”) showed me the amenities of the cottage, pointing out the extra beach towels in the bathroom, demonstrating how to work the remote for the AC unit and giving me the scoop on the beaches within walking distance. Before leaving me with the keys she also casually mentioned that there had been “quite a few” shark attacks this year.

Now I’m not an expert on the hospitality industry, but I think there’s probably some kind of unwritten rule that you should lead with shark attacks when welcoming someone to your property. I mean, the artisanal soaps in the bathroom are lovely, and I appreciate the partially-obstructed ocean view, but if I were renting out beach-adjacent property where said beaches were an all-you-can-bite buffet for sharks, I think I’d probably share that information immediately. Like pretty much when I pulled the car up in front of the cottage she should have come running out the door screaming “THERE HAVE BEEN QUITE A FEW SHARK ATTACKS THIS YEAR!” This is key information. I can probably figure out how to work the TV on my own.

But no, instead she just happened to drop the whole shark thing into conversation the same way I might mention offhand that I was thinking of looking at after-Christmas sweater bargains down at the TJ Maxx.

“Yeah, we’ve known those sharks were out there for years,” she says casually, while showing me which key works the screen door. “Oh, there’s snorkel gear in the closet. Make yourself at home!”

I brought my roller bag inside, deadbolted the front door for safety, and after a brief nap took a trip to the Waiʻanae grocery store where, charmingly, shopping carts are referred to as “wagons,” and somewhat-less-charmingly, Spam® comes in 13 different varieties (Jalapeño and Black Pepper anyone?). After unloading the groceries and checking the shower for sharks, I drove 45 minutes back to the airport to pick up Hadas, whose Delta flight had taken the indirect Portland-Seattle-Wyoming-Uruguay-Qatar-Tatooine-Honolulu route. We were both pretty tired.

After a solid night’s sleep and waking to the traditional Christmas morning sound of tropical birds bleating, we indulged in a breakfast of eggs, lentils and 60 pounds of pineapple (estimated). Then we drove 15 minutes north to the end of the highway, where Ka’ena Point State Park begins, and hiked two and a half miles along a bluff overlooking the ocean, while the waves crashed below, pelagic seabirds screeched overhead and my calves screamed from an ill-advised CrossFit workout two days before. We took a few pictures, which were especially -esque.


Near the westernmost point of the island we passed through a fence that led to a protected seabird nesting area, and sure enough there were albatrosses (“albatri”?) nesting on the ground just feet from the path. An albatross basically looks like a ginormous seagull that would try to steal your lunch money if you met it on the playground. Luckily, I left my cash back at the AirBnB.


At the very end of the path we trudged through deep sand to a rocky shoreline where we saw endangered monk seals splashing in the water and lolling about on the shore. “THERE HAVE BEEN QUITE A FEW SHARK ATTACKS THIS YEAR!” I shouted helpfully. An interpretive sign reminded us not to disturb the seals, so I made a deliberate point of not trying to sell them a copier while they were clearly catching an afternoon nap.

The walk back to the car was hot and tiring, as it was now mid-day and our energy was flagging. Luckily, it appears to be a Hawaiian tradition to carry a stereo and blast music while hiking, so we had a little pick-me-up every time we passed other trekkers. We all greeted one another with a hearty “Merry Christmas!” as the War on Christmas has apparently not made its way to the South Pacific.

On our way back home we picked up some groceries from the store and a bottle of wine-flavored Spam. Hadas almost fainted when she saw the grocery store prices. Three imported portobella mushrooms cost $10. On the other hand, pineapple is 15¢ a pound, so we bought another 290 pounds for breakfast tomorrow. I think it’s all going to even out in the end.


You can read Hadas’s version of the trip at her blog.

Seedy and Delicious – A Walk Through Medellín

Throughout its history, Colombia has been a remarkably stable, successful and peaceful country, except for a brief period of turmoil between 1499 and 1995.

I learned this – and many other facts about Colombian history, customs, culture and food – during a four hour walking tour of downtown Medellín from Real City Tours. The company advertises itself as giving the “real” scoop on Medellín, and they deliver. Our guide, Pablo, was one part storyteller, one part history professor and one part teenage girl madly pouring her heart out on Whisper. It added up to a fascinating day of touring.

I got to the meeting point at the Alpujarra metro station a few minutes early for the 9:14 a.m. tour start, so I mingled near ten obvious tourists who were too shy to break the ice by saying “Hey, we’re a bunch of white people in shorts standing in the foyer of the metro station – ya think we’re all here for the same tour?”

But no, we all studiously avoided eye contact until Pablo arrived and rounded us up. Then we made introductions. There were the usual collection of Americans, Dutch, Australians, Irish, Germans and one couple from Hong Kong who call into question my white people joke from the last paragraph.

Pablo was great. A life-long Paisa (as those from Medellín are known), he took us to plazas and parks, palaces and historical buildings. At each he gave us a taste of Colombian history mixed with his own winking editorial comments on the what makes Colombians tick. It was not just a walking tour of the city, but also a walking tour of the Paisa psyche.

Pablo taught us to form a tight circle (“A Colombian wall”) the first time we stopped for a history lesson. He told us that Colombians are very curious, and if we didn’t stand shoulder to shoulder we’d soon find people pushing into the center of our circle to see what was going on. We laughed at this, until 30 seconds later people started trying to push their way into the circle to see what was going on.

At each stop Pablo catalogued the triumphs and tragedies of Medellín, from the Spanish massacres to the building (and subsequent failure) of the railroad, from politics to the drug cartels and finally Medellín’s rebirth as a world-class city with an amazing transportation infrastructure. Along the way he pointed out towering new libraries where squatter’s camps used to stand, prostitutes loitering in the shadow of the beautiful Iglesia de la Veracruz cathedral, and street vendors selling cups of guarapo, a popular drink of sugarcane juice and lime that looks like radioactive Mountain Dew.


My favorite place on the tour was Plaza Botero in the heart of downtown. Fernando Botero is a world-famous Medellín artist, known for his paintings and sculptures of people and animals with exaggerated, bulbous dimensions.


Plaza Botero features of a dozen of his works in a large open square filled with pedestrians and vendors, shadowed by the Rafael Uribe Uribe Palace of Culture, a dramatic building that was designed by Hungarian architect Agustín Goovaerts. The project underwent a number of starts, stops and changes of leadership during its construction between 1925 and 1982, leading to an oddly compromised design that is gothic revival in the front and modernist in the back, a sort of mullet palace.


The final stop on the tour was Parque San Antonio, a large public plaza that serves as a stark reminder of Medellín’s history. In 1995, a bomb placed under a Botero sculpture exploded, killing 23 people. In the aftermath, authorities prepared to remove the damaged sculpture, but Botero himself implored the city not to do so. Instead, he donated an exact replica, which today stands next to its broken twin as a reminder of the tragedy and an homage to peace in the future.

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As Pablo was quick to point out, despite a history of tragedies – the Spanish conquest, a checkered history of radical paramilitary groups, the drug wars of the 80s – the Paisas have persevered. They remain some of the most happy, friendly and upbeat people in the world.

* * *

I was very excited for my next adventure – the Exotic Fruit Tour. Due to Colombia’s mix of equatorial, coastal and mountainous terrain, this country has some of the highest biodiversity in the world and is home to dozens of native fruits that are little-known in the rest of the world. I’ve always stuck to the party line of apples, grapes and bananas, so I was both intrigued and a little scared of the tour. I am not known for my wildly adventurous tastebuds. My tastebuds are more like your Grandma Helen who lives in Ames, Iowa, and thinks a day trip to Des Moines is living on the edge.


I met the tour at Plaza Minorista, a giant indoor farmer’s market a few metro stops from my apartment. This time I made a point of introducing myself to the others waiting for our guide – there was a couple from Great Britain, two Canadians from Calgary and Montreal, and a Swede wearing some sort of hemp parachute pants that made him look like MC Hammarskjöld.

Our guide was Juana, a perky Paisa who had spent 14 years in Europe and was the only person among our tour group whose English I could actually understand. She distributed taste spoons to each of us and explained the rules of the day: no blocking the aisles, no getting run over by carts, no five-second rule if you drop a fruit. We plunged into the farmer’s market, which was a whirlwind of activity – vendors shouting, shoppers arguing, laborers pushing overladen carts and one dorky Swede in balloon pants carrying a tiny spoon.

We stopped at a stall and had our first fruit of the tour, the guayaba. It was mildly sweet and pleasant. Juana explained that the guayaba has properties that aid with digestion, and added “it’s not a coincidence that this is the first fruit on the tour.”


I had been assuming that we would maybe try one spoonful of each fruit, a dainty taste before moving on to the next. But no, Juana handed each of us an entire half fruit to dig into. I did the math and realized that eating half each of the 18 or so fruits promised on the tour meant that I was about to consume the equivalent of nine entire fruits in the next two hours. Nine fruits, I should add, that my stomach was wholly untested on. This may be more fruit than I’ve eaten total in the last six months. I had visions of a dramatic night spent in el baño and the next day having Fernando Botero erect a sculpture of my stomach in remembrance.

We pressed on. The fruits kept coming, relentlessly. We ate the lulo, an orange-like orb that is said to have narcotic properties. We ate the chontaduro with honey and salt. It had a chestnutty texture and is said to be an aphrodisiac.


At another stand we examined the albarroba, a giant black seed pod of a fruit that Juana opened with a hammer. The meat of this fruit came out in chalky, powdery chunks. “Tastes like compressed, mummified moth,” say my hastily-scribbled notes.

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Halfway through the tour we stopped at a small booth in the corn section of the market, where we watched expert shuckers remove the kernels from cobs of corn in about three seconds flat, using only what looked like a small box cutter. We sat on plastic stools while a woman cooked us fresh arepas de chocolo, which sounds like a sex crime perpetrated by a certain breakfast cereal Count, but are actually thick, grilled tortilla-like cakes made from yellow sweet corn. They were about the most delicious thing I’ve ever eaten, like a crisp cornbread that didn’t need any honey.

We pressed on. The pitahaya was one of my favorite fruits, sweet and subtle with a creamy flesh and a bulbous outside. Juana told us that it had “laxative properties.” I was pretty sure that my AirBnB was going to be a laxative property in a couple hours, if you catch my drift.


The mangostino had a pleasant flavor but was difficult to eat around the large stones on the inside. The uchuva is a tart gooseberry that comes in its own wrapping paper. And the nispero was the sweetest fruit on the tour, like a tiny bowl of fruit-flavored ice cream in an unassuming brown rind.


We ate sugared tamarindo sticks and passed around a heavy guanábana, which looks like a giant cactus poop. Juana made sure to teach us the proper pronunciation – the accent is on the middle syllable so that it rhymes perfectly with a certain Muppet song.


We ended on a series of passion fruits – granadilla, gulupa, maracuya and curuba. Overall I found them, like parts of downtown Medellín, a little too seedy. We wrapped up the tour by heading upstairs to a juice bar for complimentary juices, a group picture and learning the lyrics to Ü Can’t Touch This in Swedish. Just kidding. Actually, we said our goodbyes and I headed home to wait out FRUIT EXPLOSION 2015.

It turned out that my stomach came through with flying colors, but after eating fruits with digestive, laxative, narcotic and aphrodisiac properties I did have a very conflicted night of dreams.


Attempted Murder

It turns out that Colombia is more dangerous than I thought. A man tried to kill me on Saturday.

That man was Daniel, the guide for my Medellín bike tour.

When I signed up for a half-day Medellín bike tour I assumed it would be a nice relaxed pedal on fat-tire cruiser bikes along tree-lined paths, stopping every few blocks to let the panting, out-of-shape tourists at the back of the pack catch up. What I didn’t expect was grinding up hills on high-end mountain bikes and then bombing through busy freeways and on ramps in downtown Medellín with cars whizzing by inches away on either side. Basically, the panting out-of-shape tourist at the end of the pack was … me.

Daniel’s been running bike tours in Medellín for a few years now. I caught a taxi to his apartment, using the EasyTaxi app to summon a cab to the front door of my condo in about one nanosecond. EasyTaxi is said to be safer than hailing a cab on the street, though I think “Robbed by taxi driver” is one of those travel urban legends like “Enjoyed flying on US Airways” that has been overblown. Nonetheless, there’s something fun about pressing a button on my iPhone and having a driver pull up in less than a minute. I’m pretty sure this must be what it feels like to be Donald Trump.

Anyway, joining me on the bike tour was Chris, a 50-something Californian who is here on a “journey of self-discovery.” He’s apparently interested in “affecting change in our world from a grass-roots level,” but right now he’s “taking time out to really get in touch” with himself. If I told you he lived on a houseboat in the Bay Area, I bet you would not be surprised.

The final member of our pack was Prahlad, a mid-20s New Yorker from India who currently lives in Bogotá and works in fraud prevention at Citibank. He came directly to the bike tour after landing at the airport, and apparently had already set up a date for the evening, which confirmed my suspicion that he had a lot more game than the rest of us combined.


After getting outfitted with helmets and gloves, and signing a release form that I probably should have read more closely because I’m pretty sure it included phrases like “inadvertent decapitation” and “repatriation of remains,” we set out on our ride. Daniel advised us to keep close and watch his hand signals carefully. He showed us the signals for “Follow me,” “Wait for traffic to pass,” and “Oh my god there’s a bus heading right for you!”

Just kidding. There’s no point in a signal for that. There was constantly a bus heading right for me.

The first stop on our tour was the Cerro El Volador mountain, which I had just hiked on foot the day before. To say that my sea-level adapted lungs were not keen on pedaling up a grueling incline on a heavy mountain bike would be an understatement. I made it about 1/3 of the way up before I had to dismount and do the walk of shame, pushing my bike to the top. When I finally reached the summit we took a break while Daniel pointed out the key neighborhoods of the city, regaled us with tales of Colombian women’s penchant for plastic surgery, and dropped the factoid that Cerro El Volador was the city’s prime dumping ground for bodies during the drug wars. I decided to wait and refill my water bottle somewhere else.


We re-mounted our bikes and bombed down the mountain at high speed, then made our way to downtown by merging our bikes directly through a busy intersection where a two-lane highway merged onto a four-lane superhighway, weaving in and out of cars while buses and motorcycles shot past at maximum speed. I’ve done a lot of stupid things on my previous travels – ziplining, rappelling, snorkeling, renting from Alamo – but this was by far the most dangerous. At one point we were weaving through speeding taxi cabs in a sketchy downtown neighborhood, leading to a possible scenario where one could be run over by a car and subsequently robbed by a pedestrian at knife-point.

We took a break for lunch at the Botanical Gardens, where Daniel recommended ordering a salad so as not to get overly filled up. I ordered a 12,000-calorie plate of food in the interest of not passing out. Chris told us about his plans to discover the meaning within himself, while Prahlad thumbed through pictures on Tinder (I’m presuming).

Properly fueled up, we headed out for the second part of the tour, which consisted of bombing through dedicated bus lanes, dashing across freeways on foot and stopping every three or four feet for me to catch my breath while Daniel shared anecdotes and historical tales about the city. I would recount these to you if I hadn’t had a stroke while riding.

The next day was Sunday, and I was excited because it was Ciclóvia. Every Sunday in Medellín (and many other cities around Colombia), they close down a number of major streets to cars from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. and make them into giant bike-and-running paths. For those who live in Portland, it’s like our once-a-month Sunday Parkways, only here it happens every week and they close down 25 miles of streets. And these aren’t dinky side streets — these are major thoroughfares through the heart of the city.

My AirBnB comes with a bike, but when I tried to lower the seat I realized that it was jammed. I also found that the front brakes were stuck shut. The bike did not seem rideable. Undaunted, I threw on my running shoes and walked over to Avenida del Rio for a jog along the river. As advertised, there were tons of people out biking, running or rollerblading this long stretch of highway. It was fantastic.

After a short run I was pretty pooped, so I came back to my condo and decided to have another go at the bike. By turning it over and pile-driving the bike seat repeatedly into the ground, I managed to unstick the seat post and get the bike adjusted to an appropriate height. It’s probably good that I’m not a chiropractor. I also undid the front brakes entirely, figuring no brakes was better than a wheel that wouldn’t turn. Thus outfitted on a rickety, squeaky, poorly-adjusted, unstoppable death trap, I headed out for a ride.

On my way back toward the Ciclóvia I ran smack dab into the start of a city-sponsored community ride called Ciclopaso Por Los Derechos De Las Mujeres (“Ride for the Rights of Women”). I thought what the heck, and merged in with the group of 500 or so riders for the free event. It was a slow-paced ride, which was good because the bike I was on had the acceleration of an anchor. One older gentleman was doing the ride with a dog perched on his shoulders:


There was much cheering and good spirits on the ride, and every mile or so the entire pack would slow down to allow the stragglers (i.e. me) to catch up. Then our motorcycle escort would head out again and block traffic as we rode through Medellín’s streets.

After an hour of riding, we passed right next to Cerro El Volador, and I began to have nightmares of a third trip up the mountain in three days. Luckily, we only skirted the mountain and eventually made our way to downtown, where we stopped near the science museum for a brief rest and bags of water (which sounds goofy, but cleaning up 500 bags of water is so much faster and easier than 500 plastic water bottles).


After two hours of riding, it occurred to me that maybe I should have asked how long the ride was before I joined in. Maybe I misunderstood the title of the event and it was the Ride Until Women Have Achieved Full And Equal Rights. I probably should have brought a snack.

While crossing back over the river toward what I presumed would be the end of the ride, my legs finally threw in the towel and said “Nope, here’s where we cramp.” Two and a half hours of hammering in the sun on a $15 bike will do that to you. I was stopped flat, my legs so cramped that I couldn’t even take a single step. After some self-massage and stretching, I was finally able to gingerly walk my bike the mile back home.

In two days I rode more than the last three years combined, and Medellín’s bike culture made me feel right at home. Like Portland, it’s a community that loves to come together for cycling. Unlike Portland, the people here apparently wear clothes while riding. Go figure.




I think Colombia has a counterfeit money problem. The reason I think this is because every time I buy bananas down at the local grocery store the employees examine each bill as though I were a high-profile international criminal involved in ransoming hostages.

Every cash register has two employees. When I hand the cashier a bill she examines it carefully, holding it up to the light and rubbing it suspiciously between her fingers. Then she hands it to the second employee and together they point out the appearance of certain security features, such as a watermark or the absence of “Get 10% off your next Vistaprint order” printed on the back. Finally, once they are in agreement that the bill looks kosher, the cashier cops one last feel before putting it into the register.

Between this routine, and the fact that the exchange rate means I’m walking around with a half million pesos in my fanny pack, I’m definitely starting to get a feel for what it must be like to be an international criminal mastermind.

[Note to self: check Wikipedia to see if wearing a fanny pack automatically disqualifies one from being an international criminal mastermind.]

Luckily, I don’t have to go to the grocery store that often, because street vendors provide many of the things I need around here. For instance, there’s a woman in front of the tienda across the street who sells delicious grilled chorizo on arepas every night.


And all of my avocado needs are easily met by the avocado salesman who wanders up and down the street for what appears to be 24 hours a day shouting “Aguacate!” at the top of his lungs. It took me two days to figure out that the shouting at sunrise coming from the street below my 6th-floor condo wasn’t a caffeine-deprived early riser shouting “I got coffee!” over and over again. I really need to work on my Spanish comprehension.

I may or may not actually be on the real 6th floor, because my condo building inexplicably has a -1st floor. Apparently “P” or “B” wasn’t good enough for the parking garage; someone had to go and get all funky with algebra. I’m told that there’s a barbecue area up on the roof, but I haven’t yet had a chance to venture up to the 8 – 3/4th floor yet.


Absolutely the best part of this condo is that it has a garbage chute accessible right outside my door, leading down to (I presume) a dumpster on the -1st floor. There’s nothing that turns me into a gleeful eight-year-old boy faster than listening to the satisfying thunk-thunk-thunk-smack of a trash bag rattling seven stories down the garbage chute. I believe that throwing junk off of buildings satisfies a universal human drive — at least for dudes. I’m 95% sure that’s why the Mayans built the pyramids.

Besides street vendors, the other notable feature of this neighborhood is the highest per-capita collection of beauty salons in the world. There are at least two hair stylists on every block. Either someone’s figured out a loophole in the whole law of supply-and-demand, or there are a lot more two-headed Colombian women than I was lead to believe.

On Friday I walked about a mile from my condo to Cerro El Volador park, an extinct volcanic bulge in the center of the city. It took about 90 minutes to get from my place to the top of the park, but I was rewarded with a gorgeous 360° view of the entire Aburrá Valley and the city of Medellín. I was also rewarded with a reminder that Medellín is at about the same elevation as Denver, and I was panting like a beagle on a treadmill by the time I got to the summit. The top was a peaceful respite from the noises of the big city, as I sat among the trees and watched hawks and buzzards fly past. The only sounds were the occasional cries of parrots whizzing past, and my oxygen-starved heart beating at 290 beats per minute.


The weather in Medellín is absolutely delightful. It’s known as the City of Eternal Spring, owing to the combination of equatorial proximity and high altitude. Pretty much every day gets up to the mid-70s or low 80s, and at night the temperature stays at a pleasant mid-60s. We’ve had a mix of clouds and sunshine, with the occasional powerful afternoon thunderstorm. With its unique geography, Medellín somehow manages to be both dry and humid at the same time. Come to think of it, this may explain the preponderance of hair salons.

So far I’ve managed to sunburn myself twice, even under a full cloud cover and wearing sunscreen. At least I hope it was sunscreen – I can’t really read the tube. It’s entirely possible I purchased toothpaste from the farmacia and my scalp is just minty fresh.

As they say in Spanish, aguacate!

Getting There is 23-1/2 Hours of the Fun

When you tell people you’re about to spend two weeks in Medellin, Colombia, their first reaction is to tell you that you’re going to get murdered. But when you explain that Pablo Escobar has been dead since 1993 and Colombia has rebounded from the drug cartel days to become a vibrant story of redemption and rebuilding, they tell you that you’ll probably also get kidnapped. Old reputations die hard.

I’ve been wanting to visit Colombia since I went jogging in Barcelona a few years ago with a Colombian expatriate. He extolled the virtues of his home country as we ran along the Mediterranean, or at least I imagine he did because my Spanish is a little shaky. It’s also possible that he was from Columbus and I should be visiting Ohio this month.

Anyway, about two weeks ago the travel bug bit me hard, so I cashed in some last-minute frequent flier miles and planned a trip for Medellin. I have an American Airlines credit card which nets me a free South American vacation every year. I get one mile for every dollar I spend on everyday purchases and two miles for every dollar I spend on American Airlines. If they ever come up with a credit card that gives miles based on purchasing cat food, I’ll be able to afford a flight to Jupiter.

Over the years I’ve gotten pretty laissez-faire about planning my international trips. In the early days, I used to try to plan out every detail and make sure I packed just the right things. For this trip, I threw some items into a carry-on backpack and headed for the airport. There’s nothing I can’t pick up in Medellin that I couldn’t get in Portland, unless I have some kind of crazy vegan salmon jerky emergency.

The one preparatory step I did take was contacting my credit card issuers to alert them that I would be traveling internationally. There’s nothing less fun when overseas than having your credit card put on hold because the computerized fraud algorithms balk at an unusual purchasing pattern that looks like:

March 14: PetSmart, Portland, OR
March 15: PetSmart, Portland, OR
March 16, PetSmart, Portland, OR
March 17, Todo Lo Que Comer Pollo, Medellin, Colombia

Setting up the travel alerts went smoothly until my Bank of America card, wherein I got an error message that I would paraphrase as:

Colombia? Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ... uh, no!

After talking to a nice customer service agent, the upshot was that they won’t even put in a travel alert for Colombia because of astronomical levels of fraud. “You can try your card, and it may or may not work,” said the helpful lady. I may or may not pay my bill.

My flights were long but uneventful. Mileage tickets are rarely the best times or connections, and this was no exception. I left Portland at 9:30 p.m. and immediately had a scheduled layover in the San Francisco airport from midnight to 7 a.m.

[Side note: When you’re trying to make a tight connection after landing, you inevitably end up on an airplane jammed full of people who show no urgency or competency for exiting the plane. It’s like being in tent city full of squatters who refuse to be evicted. But when you have seven hours to kill until your next flight, the plane clears out in two seconds as if it were a giant can of sardines and someone opened the top and shook everyone out.]

I walked to my next gate and tried sleeping on the floor, but was awoken every half hour by the loudspeakers blaring a reminder to NOT LEAVE LUGGAGE UNATTENDED FOR THE SAFETY AND SECURITY OF EVERYONE. This would have been useful information if there had actually been anyone or their luggage in the airport at 3 a.m. The only people present were me and the late-night workers operating a suite of noisy machinery such as an industrial-strength vacuum, a motorized floor waxer the size of a Zamboni, and a leaf blower. I’m not 100% sure about the leaf blower; I was wearing a sweater over my eyes and the sound was drowned out by the voice reminding me to NOT LEAVE LUGGAGE UNATTENDED FOR THE SAFETY AND SECURITY OF EVERYONE.

I didn’t get a lot of sleep.

I did sleep for about three hours on the five-hour flight to Miami thanks to the world’s best travel pillow. I always feel a bit goofy inflating this pillow next to my seatmates, like I’m about to do balloon-animal tricks at a six-year-old’s birthday party, but soon I was too asleep to care. When I awoke I dug into my family size bag of beef jerky and finished reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (recommended!), which of course had the following paragraph:

“Today the global average is only nine murders a year per 100,000 people and most of these murders take place in weak states such as Somalia and Colombia.”

Thanks, reading.

It was an easy 90-minute layover in Miami, then one final three-hour hop across the Caribbean to Medellin. Before departing, the gentleman in the window seat next to me flagged down a flight attendant to urgently inform her that there was fluid dripping off the wing and it might be a fuel leak. She assured him that she would let the captain know, in the same tone of voice I imagine parents must use when reassuring their children that they will check under the bed for monsters. A few minutes later she returned to let him know that the captain had declared the liquid to be “condensation,” and also in the event of a water landing there was a Cthulhu under his seat.

Passing through customs in Medellin was quick and perfunctory, and I didn’t even have to declare the 25 kilos of beef jerky I was carrying in my backpack. I went to an ATM and withdrew $600,000 Colombia pesos — the exchange rate is 2,629 pesos to the dollar. I feel like a gazillionaire here every time I buy a pack of gum.

I jumped into the first taxi I saw, gave the driver the address of my AirBnB, and settled back for the one-hour drive into Medellin.

Until I decided I was being kidnapped.

Here’s the thing: I usually have a pretty good sense of direction, and it sure did not feel to me like we were driving in what I imagined to be the right direction for Medellin. Plus, I was pretty sure I had read that there was a modern four-lane highway from the airport to Medellin, and we were currently on an undivided two lane highway winding slowly up through the mountains. Plus, we had blatantly ignored a number of exits that had signs for Medellin. Plus, it occurred to me that there was nothing on the outside of this white car that actually said the word “Taxi” – I had just jumped into the first car where someone had shouted “Taxi!” Plus, there was no meter. Plus, the driver was being awfully quiet — usually Latin American taxi drivers are up for some idle chit-chat. Plus, the driver kept putting on his turn signal as if he was about to turn off onto a long dirt road leading to a secluded hacienda where I would be held for ransom. I mentally kicked myself for not doing a credit check on my emergency contact.

It occurred to me that it would be incredibly ironic to get kidnapped immediately upon arrival in Colombia. This might set some kind of world record that could only be broken by getting kidnapped while exiting the plane:

“Wait until the aircraft has come to a complete stop before unbuckling your seat belt. As you exit the aircraft, please step into the open trunk of this idling Nissan Sentra.”

So we were driving along windy mountain roads, and I was making panicky calculations as to whether I could leap from the moving vehicle and use my backpack to cushion the fall as I escaped from my abductor. Luckily, a few minutes later we reached the toll booth for entry to the four-lane highway, and I relaxed because it seemed like a really incompetent kidnapping strategy to bring your victim through a toll booth with security cameras; plus, take it from the cheapskate who scheduled a 7-hour overnight layover at SFO to save a few bucks on airfare, I believe it would be poor financial strategy to plan a kidnapping route that included tolls.

The driver delivered me right to the door of my AirBnB condo and charged me the official, government-regulated price of $60,000 (about 35¢ USD, I think).

I was met at the door of the AirBnB condo by Gloria, the landlord’s agent, who gave me a tour in Spanish. A few minutes later the landlord arrived and gave me the exact same tour in English, which was a nice test of my listening comprehension. It’s a good thing — based on my Spanish competency I probably would have peed in the microwave.

After a good night’s sleep I spent yesterday exploring the neighborhood, grocery shopping, working with my office back in the USA (the internet here is strong and reliable, much like the coffee) and going for a run. I also got to watch a massive thunder and lightning storm. I’ll spend more time exploring the city over the next few days, but so far I like what I see. It’s a beautiful, verdant, energetic city, surrounded by tall mountains which provide gorgeous scenery during the day and a twinkling nightscape after dark. Also, it feels completely safe whether walking around during the day or at night, although I am remembering to NOT LEAVE LUGGAGE UNATTENDED FOR THE SAFETY AND SECURITY OF EVERYONE.


Day -1: Packing by Candlelight

Flames from the burning electrical transformer licked at the powerlines behind the house. Acrid, oily smoke blew toward the sliding glass door on the deck, where I’d been watching branches blow free from the trees during this winter wind storm, spiraling down and then sparking as they hit the power pole. The lights in the house flickered. Another gust of wind blew hard, and the powerlines exploded into flame. A blinking arc of fire raced across the powerlines behind my house, jumping into the neighbors’ yard, and into the yard two houses down. Now the trail of flaming powerlines extended as far down the street as I could see, bathing the trees in a dangerous light, while burning electrical sheathing fell in angry clumps of fire to the ground below.

I pulled out my iPhone to call 911, but I started shooting video instead. I may not be the person you want to rely on in case of an emergency.

Slowly the fires began to burn out, dimming to an orange glow and then fading to black. The lights in my house did the same, fading out as if someone had put a dimmer to the entire electrical system. The last to go was the light on my stereo, which steadfastly shone a bright red until it too winked off and died. The house was dead.

It was right about then that I realized I still hadn’t packed for the next day’s cruise vacation.

I went into the basement and grabbed our emergency preparedness kit, which was well-stocked with food and water, flashlights and torches, first aid essentials, blankets, flares and a backup electrical generator.

Just kidding. Our emergency supplies consisted of the flashlight on my iPhone, which was currently at 22% battery and draining fast, as I was still taking video of myself stumbling around the house like a seasick cat burglar. I lurched around the darkened house until I found the key to the truck and I drove to Home Depot, fighting my way through rush hour traffic made worse by non-functioning stoplights. Branches littered the road, making a thunking sound on the bottom of the truck as I rolled over them.

At Home Depot I spent 20 minutes in the flashlight aisle trying to decide what to buy. I am the extremely useless combination of indecisive in emergencies and a very careful comparative shopper. Eventually, after painstakingly evaluating relative lumens, beam spread, battery life and pricing, I bought two flashlights and a pack of AAA batteries, though I would like to point out that I could have gotten them for cheaper with free shipping at Amazon.com.

On the drive back to the house, Hadas called to tell me that she had gotten into a minor fender bender while engaged in the dangerous activity of “Driving While Hadas.” This is only slightly notable, as at this point I’ve lost count of the number of times that Hadas has crashed her car, motorcycle, bike, etc. It will be a major upset if our cruise ship doesn’t inadvertently run into some unexpected object, such as Honduras.

Back at the house I loaded up the new flashlights with batteries and also realized that I already owned two powerful headlamps for nighttime running, so my trip to Home Depot had essentially been superfluous. I also remembered that there were emergency candles in the bathroom towel cabinet, because you never know when you’re going to have a bathing emergency. For all I know it’s entirely possible that I was also forgetting a kerosene-powered backup generator stored in my sock drawer. Like I said, I’m not great in emergencies.

Now well-illuminated with flashlights, candles and a headlamp, I packed my travel backback. Then I took everything out and re-packed it all in my roller bag. Then I texted our housesitter and explained that our house might not, technically, have electricity for the next couple days so he might want to just stop in from time to time and check on the cats rather than stumble around in a dark, freezing house. Then I took a few minutes to curl up into a fetal position while Hadas gently reassured me that leaving the cats the next morning in a house with no power and still-smoldering electrical lines was going to turn out a-ok.

Hadas made dinner by headlamp and we ate before piling into bed for a good night’s sleep before the next day’s early-morning flight. The last thing I remember before drifting off to sleep was Hadas reassuring me that she wasn’t going to stay up all night reading her book and she’d try to get some good rest before our trip.


Next Up: New Orleans and the San Diego Airport

Costa Rica Day 12: And Unexpectedly, Day 13

Here’s a tip for the savvy traveler: When guidebooks use phrases like “gritty charm” and “a few surprises under the rough and tumble exterior” to describe a destination, it might be a place you want to avoid.

(Note: You should also avoid blind dates with those same descriptions.)

Despite myriad warnings, we decided to spend a day checking out the gritty charms of downtown San José, and I can now safely report that downtown San José has a nice personality and — hoo boy! — I’d love to come up for a nightcap but I have an early meeting and I’ll call you sometime.

Anyway, it turns out that our San José Bed and Breakfast should have technically been called a Bed and Make Your Own Damn Breakfast, since they provided a kitchen and some ingredients but didn’t actually provide any “cooking.” I’m somewhat surprised they didn’t provide a hammer, 2x4s and a goose and have us assemble our own bed.

Undeterred, we whipped up some eggs, went for a brief run in La Sabana Park and then caught a taxi to the Mercado Central in downtown San José. Mercado Central is a block-sized building filled with food vendors, fishmongers, meatmongers, vegetablemongers, and various knicknackmongers. (Pro internet tip: knicknackmongers.com is still available. Snap that up and get rich. You’re welcome.) The mercado was not particularly exciting, so we lingered only long enough to enjoy second breakfast at one of the many food counters. Hadas had a delicious bowl of beef soup with various exotic root vegetables. She ate half of it and we put the rest in my backpack to show the owners of our B&MYODB what assembled food looks like.

From there we wandered around downtown a bit, poking our heads into the Teatro Nacional (looks like a theater) and generally getting the feel that downtown San José was more gritty than charm. There was also an overwhelming police presence, with uniformed officers and police towers on nearly every corner. The feeling was a city that is fighting very hard to remain orderly. Strange, considering how laid back, charming and kind the rest of the country is.

As is traditional, Hadas had injured her leg while running that morning, so we cut our walking tour short and hopped a taxi back to the B&MYODB, enjoying the traffic patterns through central San José that could best be described as “lane-curious.” After a nap we went out for a walk in Parque Sabana, where we watched children throw rocks at muscovy ducks and lamented the state of humanity.

Back at the B&MYODB we discovered that pretty much all the guests except for us had come to Costa Rica for dental tourism. The George Bush doppelgänger we had met the day before announced that his tooth surgery had healed up completely, after which he went into his room and proceeded to take a shower that included loud groans of either pain or pleasure. I guess I had missed the part of the AirBnB description where it said “Meet exotic guests from around the world and listen to them masturbate painfully in the shower.”

Luckily, we were distracted from the shower noises by the obnoxious guest from Portland, who proceeded to whine and moan about Costa Rica, her lodging options, her dental work, the airlines, food, health insurance, the city of Vancouver Washington and the general state of the building’s wi-fi. I was moments away from flying across the room and performing an amateur root canal, or at least inviting some children in to throw rocks at her.

Today we were up at 3:45 a.m. for the drive to the airport. Hadas had a flight at 7 a.m. and I had a flight scheduled for 9:30 a.m. It is currently noon and I am sitting on the plane. We have a malfunctioning navigation radio on board, which technicians are trying to troubleshoot. I’m not really sure what the big deal is — the USA is a big country and I’m sure they could just point the plane at it and come reasonably close to hitting it. Worst case scenario, we end up in Kiev and I get an extra week of vacation. I hear Kiev has gritty charm.


The plane never took off. After 45 minutes sitting at the gate they unloaded us back into the terminal, and another 30 minutes after that they announced that the flight was canceled and we would be re-booked. We had to go down through customs to have our passports checked for re-entry back into Costa Rica, then past the baggage claim, outside the airport, across the street, up the escalator, across the skybridge and back into the terminal. Luckily, I’d anticipated this dance, so as they announced the cancellation I’d sprinted the entire way like Usain Bolt on a Hadas-quantity of coffee.

I was second in line for rebooking and was swung over to Delta to fly home with an overnight in Atlanta. The line to go back through security was punishingly long, but I made it to the gate with a few minutes to spare and actually got onto a plane that departed the airport, 11 hours after I’d arrived. Delta wins the travel day because they showed us this safety video.

After an overnight at the lovely Springhill Suites, which is two minutes from the Atlanta Airport by SkyTrain, I flew home this morning. It’s good to be home, although my cats still haven’t gotten used to wearing the saddle for giving monkey rides.

[Hadas and I are writing he-said/she-said blogs about this trip. You can read her blog at klutzinmypants.wordpress.com. I stole the Kiev joke from my cousin Sara. Hi Sara!]

Costa Rica Days 10-11: Iguana Be Sedated

Part of the joy of travel is meeting new people from around the world, learning about their interests and their backgrounds, and then figuring out how to ditch them during a hike so you don’t have to tell them to shut up to their face.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Yesterday was our final day in Quepos, on the Pacific coast. We got up at sunrise and drove 7 km to Manuel Antonio National Park so we could enter right when it opened at 7 a.m. Manuel Antonio is the most popular park in the country, so we wanted to beat the crowds of pasty Germans wearing safari gear who would descend on tour buses after breakfast. We were on our way into the park by 7:15 a.m., right after Hadas stopped for her 17th cup of coffee of the morning. She hasn’t so much tanned in the Costa Rican sun as bold roasted.

Before entering the park we had the option of hiring a guide for the day, who would carry a powerful spotting scope and help us spy wildlife or assassinate world leaders. We declined, on the theory that by now we were excellent sloth spotters. Which is true, inasmuch as we had already spotted one sloth in the wild, although technically that was only because Hadas bumped her head on it while walking beneath a tree.

The 1.5 km path into the park was lined on either side with sloth-ready trees, but unfortunately there were no sloths that morning; it’s possible they were still waiting to get their coffee. Emerging from the trees at the end of the entry road we discovered an impossibly beautiful cove, lined with a white sand beach and gorgeous jutting rocks out in the sea. Breathtaking. We walked along the sand and soaked in the view, keeping our eyes peeled for the myriad wildlife that was certainly hiding in the trees.

Near the end of the beach, a wild-eyed woman stopped us and asked in VERY LOUD SPANISH if we would mind taking her photo. Of course not, I said – but something was not working with the camera on her phone. Maybe it was because it was an Android phone from 1977. Anyway, she soon lost interest in having her photo taken, and instead proposed that she should join us on our hike.

This seemed like a splendid idea to me, as I couldn’t think of a better way to enhance a romantic early-morning animal-spotting hike than to have a potentially-insane woman tagging along and speaking Spanish at the top of her lungs. OK, actually I can think of infinite better things, but unfortunately I never got to Chapter 34 of Berlitz Spanish for Travelers where they cover “Polite rejections for possibly escaped mental patients,” so I said sure that seems like a splendid idea.

We left the beach and proceeded into the jungle, but Hadas and I dilly-dallied at the first scenic overlook near the trailhead, and when the woman walked ahead on the left fork in the trail we made a beeline for the right fork and successfully ditched her. We are not proud.

The trail was a loop through the jungle, high above the beach and the crashing surf. After a few minutes of hiking we heard crashing in the brush, and up ahead we saw a family of capuchin monkeys playing in the trees. Capuchins are a bit larger than the overcaffeinated squirrel monkeys at our cottage in Quepos, and considerably more chill. In fact, when we stopped in the middle of the trail to watch the monkeys, the monkeys stopped to watch us. They wandered over to branches within eight feet of us, sat down and hung out. One of them flopped down on its belly, letting its arms and legs dangle in a position that recalled a bored teenager on the sofa on a Saturday afternoon.


We spent 15 minutes of quality monkey time contemplating the quiet of the jungle, until our VERY LOUD SPANISH SPEAKING FRIEND came around the other direction on the trail and stabbed the monkeys to death with a metal shank she had hidden under her tank top. Not really. Actually, we just continued on our hike and left the monkeys behind.

A few minutes later we climbed up to an overlook and had a spectacular view of the ocean from high up on a cliff. We had a snack and then continued on the trail, where we saw a gray necked wood rail (that’s a bird) and an agouti (that’s a mini-capybara). After emerging from the jungle we finally had our first Costa Rican iguana spotting, although it was a tiny baby iguana that didn’t even seem up to the task of selling car insurance.

It was still before 10 a.m., but it was HOT in the park. Every time we stepped into the sun it was like jumping into a furnace. We were both soaked with sweat and our energy was flagging. We decided we’d seen enough wildlife to call it a day, so we headed back toward the parking lot on the path leading out of the park. We searched the trees for sloths, but alas there were no sloths in any of the trees.

As we got closer to the park entrance we began to see swarms of visitors making their way into the park. Every 10 feet or so, a party of pudgy Germans or pasty French tourists were stopped along the side of the path to look up into the trees at a sloth pointed out by their guide. It turns out that virtually every tree in the park contains a sloth. We just suck at slothspotting.

After the drive home and a nap, we spent a couple hours in the pool. Alas there was no monkey hour on this day, though we were joined by a loud Canadian woman who implored us to never open a Bed and Breakfast. Done and done. Then in late afternoon, as we were sitting out on the deck enjoying the sunset, Hadas noticed a large iguana climbing in the tree directly across from us. She said it was still smaller than what she had been picturing — apparently Hadas believes that iguanas are the size of Godzilla.


Today, sadly, it was time to leave Quepos and our beautiful view of the ocean. As we had been every day, we were awakened at 5:15 a.m. by the birdsong of Costa Rica’s myriad avian species, by which I mean a rooster. By 8 a.m. we were on the road, and by 8:25 a.m. Hadas had tired of my law-abiding driving, so she took over and proceeded to drive the rest of the way to San Jose at 390 kph.

After only two wrong turns and a brief detour through Ecuador we made it to Heredia, a small town just north of San Jose, where we had planned to take a coffee tour at Britt Coffee. The 11 a.m tour had 30 people and the 2 p.m. tour had 90 people. Sandwiched in between those was our 12:45 p.m. tour which had … us. We got to know our tour guide Maria very well over the ensuing 75 minutes; frankly there’s a lot of pressure being the only two people on a tour. She kept asking if we had any questions, and I felt obligated to come up with something. So I feigned interest in coffee bean hull shucking technology or somesuch. Really, the tour was mainly an excuse for Hadas to sample upwards of 84 cups of coffee.


Anyway, we learned how coffee beans are planted, grown, picked, sorted, fermented, hulled, dried, roasted, ground, folgered and packaged. At the end of the tour we learned how to prepare perfect coffee:

  • Grind freshly.
  • Use hot — but not boiling — water.
  • Steep in French press for 3-4 minutes.
  • Replace with cocoa, which is really much more delicious.

OK, I made up that last point, but I don’t drink coffee. I sampled some anyway, and declared it to be bitter. Hadas sampled it and declared it to be not at all bitter. We agreed to compromise, by which I mean she told me to buy her a souvenir t-shirt and I did.

After the coffee tour I got us lost on the way to our new B&B. It’s in an upscale neighborhood in the northwest corner of San José, operated by a couple from Canada. So far we’ve met two of the other guests — a man who probably works as a George W. Bush impersonator and an incredibly-annoying woman from Portland who is down here to get dental work. Hopefully she will have her jaw wired shut.


[Note: Hadas and I are writing he-said, she-said blogs about this trip. They should have done this with the Bible. You can read her blog at klutzinmypants.wordpress.com.]

Costa Rica Days 8-9: Swimming in Monkey Water

So it turns out that every tourist in Costa Rica is from Canada.

In the last few days we’ve met people from British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario. I just need Quebec and Yukon Territories to win Canadian bingo. It’s like all of Canada collectively says “Screw this!” in March and heads as far south as they can get. We’re not complaining. Canadians are very nice, especially the elderly retiree at yesterday’s vanilla plantation tour who tried to convince Hadas that he was in arms dealing and gold smuggling. He quickly found out what it’s like to go toe-to-toe with an extrovert improviser. By the end of the conversation she was close to calling his bluff and forcibly removing his pants to look for prison tattoos.

Anyway, the vanilla plantation tour was very interesting. We learned how vanilla beans in the wild do not pollinate fast enough for farming, so they have a manual process that involves poking the flowers with a stick to spread the pollen. They also increase the vanilla plant’s libido by showing it dirty movies.


This farm also grows pepper, turmeric, coffee, cacao, pineapple, coconut and cinnamon. The latter is really fascinating. We watched a worker shave the bark off of cinnamon tree logs, and when you pop a strip of the bark into your mouth it’s an explosion of cinnamon flavor, like if you passed out face down in a food court Cinnabon.


Skinning cinnamon trees.

After learning about spice history and sampling some cardamom, cloves, allspice and other goodies, we joined the rest of the Canadians for a walk through the plantation where our guide (Giselle) showed us how the plants grow. We then retired to an open air tasting loft overlooking the valley, where we sampled cinnamon tea, cinnamon ice cream, chocolate cookies, biscuits with cacao nibs and a hot drink with cacao, vanilla and chili pepper. Everything was incredibly delicious and – as this is the most sugar I’d eaten in four years – I immediately bounced off the walls like a hyperactive 2nd grader until the inevitable sugar crash where they had to call my mom to drive down from Alaska to pick me up. Actually I was fine.

Then we walked to the spice shop, where we purchased vanilla beans and cinnamon bark. After a stop at the grocery store on the way home, Hadas cooked up a pulled pork with vanilla, which is about the most delicious thing I’ve ever eaten. If she were to open a restaurant in Costa Rica she’d be a gazillionaire. After dinner, we sat in a hammock overlooking the ocean and watched the sunset, and then Hadas engaged in the traditional passing out at 9 p.m.

Today we went ziplining. We had ziplined in Mexico a few months ago, but because the Yucatan Peninsula is flat as a tortilla the zipline towers were man-made and we didn’t so much soar through nature as soar through a large flat lot covered in scrub brush. Today’s ziplining was the real deal, as the zipline course is built into a mountainside in the jungle and we were able to whiz over and through the forest, with trees shooting past our heads as if we were in Return of the Jedi. Our ziplining party included a couple Canadians (of course), two Texans, a pair from Boston and two Belgians who were wearing shorts that could best be described as “insufficient.”

This particular zipline company’s claim to fame is the longest zipline in Costa Rica — nearly a mile long. And let me tell you, riding a zipline that goes for a minute and a half is the way to go. While waiting for our turn to fly I enjoyed chatting with the guides in Spanish, and Hadas enjoyed imploring them to let her ride the zipline upside down like a suicidal opossum.

Besides ziplines, we also walked from tree to tree on crazy bouncy suspension bridges, and climbed platforms high into the top of the forest canopy. While standing near the top of one tree we saw three toucans up close — our first toucan sighting in Costa Rica. They are bigger than I was imagining, but every bit as exotic-looking. After watching the toucans for 10 minutes I had an irresistible urge to down an entire box of Froot Loops, so they had to call my mom to drive down from Alaska to pick me up.

After finishing the course they fed us a traditional lunch and engaged in the traditional hard sell to try to get us to purchase photos from our day. Hadas is smiley and photogenic in each shot, and I have an expression that says “This harness is cinched exceptionally tight around my toucans.”

Back at our casa we had a nap and then decided to get in a small CrossFit workout, so we raced down the hill to the marina and back up, resulting in heat-induced asthma. We were sweating and panting like we were watching vanilla porn. Then we did a timed squat workout and finally finished off our workout in the pool with an hour of intense standing around (it’s tiny and four feet deep).

Just when we were about to get out of the pool, monkey hour started. At first one monkey crossed 10 feet above our heads on a telephone wire, followed by another and then another. Soon there were 15 monkeys cavorting around the pool, climbing trees, chasing across roofs and scurrying down drainpipes. Three of the boldest monkeys actually came over to drink out of the pool we were currently occupying, not four feet from us. This was both (a) adorable and (b) gross. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with drinking MY pool water, but earlier it had been occupied by a number of sketchy Canadians.

After a half hour or so monkey hour was over, so we returned to the room for more vanilla pork (the dish, not the bestselling adult movie) and then walked into town for a sunset trip to the grocery store. The long hike back up to our cottage was made even more challenging by the fact that I was carrying 25 pounds of watermelon, pineapple, tortillas and wine on my back, but it gave me a heck of an idea for a Crossfit workout when I get back home. I need to talk to the trainers at my gym.

[Note: Hadas and I are writing he-said, she-said blogs about this trip. I’ve changed a few details for artistic license. For instance, we are actually vacationing in Norway. You can read her blog at klutzinmypants.wordpress.com.]

Costa Rica Days 6-7: Slothspotting

So there are definitely competing interests at work here.

On the one hand you have the sloth, a creature whose entire evolutionary path has been predicated on remaining inert and tree-colored so as to remain invisible to predators.

And on the other hand you have Hadas, whose entire vacation is predicated on the desire to spot sloths in their natural habitat.

After a five-hour hike in Cahuita National Park yesterday, the sloths are definitely winning.

Cahuita National Park is a large swath of jungle, smack up against the ocean just north of the town of Cahuita. Knowing that animals are — like Matt Lauer — friskier at dawn, we awoke at 5 a.m, in order to be in the park right when it opened at 6 a.m. After signing the entry log and donating $10 ($500 billion in colones) we were immediately rewarded by a family of frisky capuchin monkeys cavorting in the trees above our heads. Unlike sloths, monkeys make plenty of noise and occasionally rifle the telltale fruit pit at your head. They’re not hard to spot. Hadas clapped her hands and made a noise like a toddler with a kitten. The day of animal watching was on!

But not so much animal photographing. I have discovered an amazing knack for not being able to capture photos of wildlife. If I worked for the Sears Portrait Studio, the vast majority of my photos would contain a tasteful mottled background and perhaps a blurry elbow.

Parque Cahuita’s trail winds along the edge of the jungle within site of the ocean shore. The path was wide and flat, and soon we were deep into the park, enjoying the (relatively) cool morning. The jungle was alive with bird and insect sounds, plus Hadas imitating all the bird and insect sounds. She has an uncanny knack for mimicry, which will come in handy if she ever pursues a career as a parrot.

As the very first people in the park we were rewarded with quiet, solitude and the occasional horror of walking through a web strung across the path by a spider the size of Matt Lauer. It didn’t take us long to get the heebie-jeebies, especially because we were walking along the path with our necks craned to the treetops looking for sloths. Every so often we would glance ahead and just avoid an enormous spider that was about to luck out into a kosher meal.

After ninety minutes we had still seen no sloths. We stopped at every tree that looked sloth-habitable and did a slow scan. We pulled out the binoculars and examined the branches, trunks and treetops. No sloths.

Above us a family of howler monkeys swung down to take a closer look, and then sat on the branches eating fruit and watching us with disdain. A family of raccoons cavorted around the base of a tree, just feet from us.


Bats swooped around our heads. A snake slithered through the grass. Lizards and crabs danced quickly away as we walked down the path. We even saw a tarantula eating a giant moth on the side of a banana plant.


But no sloths.

After three hours of hiking we were hot, tired and slothless, so we turned around to make the long trek back to the trailhead. Within a few minutes we came across two friendly park rangers, who examined our park entry ticket and asked us what animals we’d seen. We gave them the list: monkeys (monos), raccoons (mapeches), bats (murcielagos), snakes (serpientes), tarantulas (spidero grande).

“No peresosos (sloths)?” they asked.


“Oh, we thought you were looking at the sloth in that tree over there?”


“That tree you were looking at. We thought you were looking at the sloth.”

And there it was. Directly above our heads, in a tree we had just been looking at, a sleeping sloth. We all had a good laugh and the park rangers went on their way while we gazed at the sloth through our binoculars.

About one minute later, one of the park rangers poked his head around the bend ahead of us and whistled, gesturing for us to come along the path. We hustled down the trail and, yep, he’d spotted another sloth. This one was actually climbing a tree. Hadas squealed and clapped her hands while I took a series of photos that did not, technically, contain the sloth. I joked to Hadas that even though we were terrible at spotting sloths, by the time we got back to our car there would be a sloth sitting on the hood.

“Do not make promises you can’t deliver,” she said sharply.

The last two hours of the hike were tiring. The temperature was rising, our feet were sore and our stash of hiking food had gotten down to the dregs that one brings just in case one takes a wrong turn and ends up in Bolivia. Finally, the park entrance mercifully appeared and we signed out of the entry log to avoid having a search-and-rescue team burst into our bedroom at 3 a.m.

We crossed the small footbridge from the park to the parking lot, and suddenly Hadas froze.

There was a sloth.

Eight feet above our heads in a tree.

Climbing around with a tiny, adorable baby sloth clutched to its belly fur.

After five hours of not seeing the thousands of sloths in the National Park, the closest, cutest, most obvious sloth was cavorting about just steps from our car.

I’m a man who keeps his promises.

After I snapped a few more photos of parts of the tree that did not contain the sloth, we drove back to the B&B and napped for three hours. Then we went out for an ill-advised walk on the beach (feet: still tired) and strolled into town for a drink and some delicious guacamole with plantain chips. I actually drank a few sips of Hadas’s alcoholic beverage (some strawberry and lime concoction), at which point I removed my pants and tried to lead the restaurant in a Caribbean-flavored version of Hava Nagila. OK, I made that last part up, but I did sip on her drink. I’m a lush.

After a dinner of meat on a stick from our favorite street-side vendor we strolled home and Hadas passed out at 8:30 p.m. She slept through until morning, no doubt under the influence of my drinking.

This morning we checked out of our B&B early and made the long, long drive from Cahuita on the Caribbean coast to Quepos on the Pacific coast. It’s not often that you make a trans-continental drive in six hours, but Hadas was up to the task. And by up to the task, I mean she wouldn’t let me take the wheel because apparently I become pouty and unpleasant when driving. I protested by taking a nap.

It was a much faster drive along the same route as the one last Thursday, primarily because there was less Sunday traffic, more passing lanes in this direction, and Hadas drives like Mario Andretti after a six-day binge of cocaine and amphetamines.

Notable events along the drive:

  • We were stopped at a police checkpoint, questioned, asked to show our passports, had our backpack examined and were queried as to why exactly we had a baggie full of red pills. In Spanish, I explained that they were Ibuprofen. I also made a mental note not to pursue the career of drug smuggler, as it probably isn’t a great strategy to keep drugs in the same pocket as one’s passport.
  • We witnessed an actual fistfight between two drivers on the side of the road, that result of which was the stouter of the two being flung into foot-deep water in a drainage ditch and temporarily strangled until he cried “Tío” or perhaps apologized for whatever transgression he had performed. In comparison, I look like a pretty calm driver.
  • We made it through San José with only one wrong turn and sailed onto the tollway toward the Pacific coast with nary a u-turn. This, despite the fact that all road signs are painted on the side of sloths so as to be invisible to gringos.

The last two hours of the drive to Quepos were long and pretty boring. Hadas occasionally tried to goad her introvert into talking by starting a conversation in Spanish, but things quickly petered out when I couldn’t remember how to say “I see” in the past tense, which pretty much put an end to any hope of playing “I Spy.”

Luckily, the monotony was interrupted by a stop at the Rio Tárcoles to peer down at the crocodiles sunbathing below, which we both characterized as “Horrifying.” I made a mental note not to go river rafting. Or showering.


Before re-starting the drive, Hadas ordered an Agua de Pipa from a roadside fruit vendor, which turned out to be a coconut with a straw stuck into it. Delicious, if not easy to drink while driving one-handed. I’m not sure how the open container law works when the container is a coconut and the opening is a hole the size of a straw.


We rolled into Quepos around 3 p.m. and drove to our cottage, which is straight up the side of a mountain overlooking the marina. When I say straight up a mountain, I mean STRAIGHT UP A MOUNTAIN. We were planning to go ziplining in Quepos, but I think we pretty much got the entire experience just winding up the driveway.

As soon as we got into the cottage we were thrilled to discover a family of monkeys swinging through the trees directly outside our screened windows. We stood out on the deck and made monkey noises back and forth with them. I took a few photos of the sky. Being monkey-adjacent is a strong selling point of this place. Hadas claims she is always monkey adjacent.

After a brief nap and a shower we headed out to look for a grocery store. Unfortunately, the street leading into downtown was packed with people and horses, as we had landed smack-dab in the middle of some kind of city-wide horsey parade. We ditched the car on the side of the unpassable road and walked around downtown, looking for groceries. Almost every business was closed for the Sunday afternoon parade, so we eventually settled on getting dinner at a Mexican restaurant while watching the parade of trotting horses and pickup trucks with loudspeakers blaring Latin American pop music.


Upon returning to the cottage, using 4-wheel-drive and rocket boosters, we discovered that the internet in our cottage had gone from barely usable to dormant, so the nice innkeepers arranged to move us into a different cottage that turned out to be in every way nicer than the one we were in. Somehow she had convinced the two people in the nicer cottage to switch cottages with us, and they had agreed. Suckers. We met them later out by the pool and offered to buy them a drink, which they graciously declined. It turns out that he’s a commercial real estate appraiser from Alabama and she’s a gymnastics coach from Calgary — they had just met an hour earlier at the bus station and agreed to share a room. If anyone from NBC is reading this, feel free to contact me for rights to this hilarious sitcom premise.

Now we’re sitting on the deck overlooking the harbor, watching upwards of 20 geckos munch on bugs above our heads while availing ourselves of the gloriously mediocre Internet speeds. It’s raining furiously and every so often we glance into the trees looking for monkeys, sloths or parrots. So far all I’ve spotted is Matt Lauer.


[Note: Hadas and I are writing he-said, she-said blogs about the trip. Because we both want to save all of our jokes for the blog, we stopped speaking five days ago. You can read her blog at klutzinmypants.wordpress.com.]