Monday, November 25, 2013

I Gave Birth!

I'm happy to announce the birth of my new baby!  And no, it's not a child, it's my very own domain!  I will no longer be using this website.  From now on, please check out

Monday, November 11, 2013

Noisy Awkward Crabs

Pardon the absence of a post last week.  I'm in the midst of creating an actual website with my own domain.  I never thought I would say/write those words and to be honest, I have no idea what I'm doing as this is all territory I know absolutely nothing about.  So things with the blog might be a bit wonky for a few weeks while I switch everything over and learn the ins and outs of having my own website.

But onto the post.....

Today I went to the beach.  But not just any beach.  I went to a deserted island.  Well, sort of.  It's a small island in the Pacific called Isla Bolanos.  As I was there I pondered whether a deserted island is one that was once inhabited or if any island where no one is living can be deserted.  What do you think?

I've been getting some serious hiking in while I've been in Boquete and I have only gone to the beach one other time since I arrived here in September.  This was a few weeks ago and, as lovely as it was to be by the ocean, it was a chilly, rainy day with no chance of sun or tan.  Great to be at the beach, but not the greatest beach day.  Today however, was a little slice of magnificence.  A boat took us from the mainland to the island.  It was slightly choppy and I managed to choose the one seat on the boat that was the magnet for water.  I was drenched by the time we arrived on the island.

There were these crabs.  Having spent a good chunk of time by the beach in the past few months, I have grown fond of watching crabs.  They are simply really awkward and silly looking.  The ones in Puerto Viejo didn't live in shells like the ones on this island.  I was never able to capture a good photo of the crabs in Puerto Viejo but I do remember one day hearing a strange munching sound near me.  I turned around to see a big crab close by eating an insect.  I watched, completely mesmerized by its mechanical chewing and loud crunching sound.  It might as well have been a person sitting behind me eating tortilla chips it was so loud.  It held the insect in its two pinchers juxtaposed its mouth, methodically chewing and then swallowing (although I didn't witness the swallowing as crabs don't really have necks, this is just what I assume took place after a thorough mastication of the insect), then pushing the next tiny bit of insect into its mouth.  I remember thinking how that might have been one of the strangest things I have ever witnessed on a beach.

There was also one night where I walked along the shore in Puerto Viejo to catch the sunset.  I was fiddling with some drift wood and threw a tiny piece, perhaps an inch long, a few feet away from me.  Upon the drift wood hitting the sand, several crabs scurried out of their holes and ran towards the piece of wood.  The bravest would charge forward and grab the stick while the others stood around and watched with their oblong eyes.  Fascinated, I threw tiny pieces of wood for the remainder of the sunset watching the crabs run to and fro, one always beating out all the rest for the wooded prize.  What the heck they wanted the drift wood for was beyond me.  I wondered if they thought it was food.

The crabs here take their homes in shells much like I take my home in a hostel.  Whereas the crabs can retreat and hide in their shells at the slightest disturbance, I don't have this freedom.  I suppose hanging a sarong on the bunk bed above me and having my bunk against the wall, thus creating a cave-like enclosure, is as close as I'll get to living like a crab.  There were thousands on Isla Bolanos, going about their day, scurrying along and eating loudly, gluttons who don't know how to chew quietly.  I walked over to some rocks to investigate the landscape and also because I could hear a clicking noise which I assumed was coming from an animal.  I quickly realized the clicking noise was hundreds of crabs congregating on a coconut, their shells and little staunch crab legs clamoring against one another.  They were either eating or having an orgy, either way it was interesting to observe.

Later on, I watched two crabs interact as if they were having a lovers quarrel.  They would butt up against each other, their little pinchers either giving high fives or what would be the equivalent of punching each other.  Then the smaller of the two would walk away.  The other would chase it and they would start again.  They did this little crab dance three or four times before the bigger one got bored of chasing the smaller one each time their little high five/punching match would end.

Just like I never thought I'd be the owner of my own website domain, I also never thought I'd dedicate an entire blog post to crabs.  On that note, I never thought I'd use the words "crab" and "orgy" in the same sentence.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Maximizing Hammock Time

Have you ever taken yourself far outside the digital world to listen and observe?  I know I wax poetic about the times I was living near the Caribbean and sitting by the ocean simply to listen.  Up here in the mountains, I can no longer hear the ocean in Boquete.  But I can hear the wind maneuvering through the tree branches winding around the trunks.  I can hear the cacophony of rushing water when I stand by the river's edge and watch liquid glide over rocks.  I can watch tropical colored birds gather in a tree, tweeting and chirping busybodies gathering whatever it is they are gathering in the branches and then a sudden dramatic exodus as the sky explodes with their delicate, iridescent bodies.

A lot of my time spent abroad I have dedicated to teaching myself how to slow down and notice the outdoor world at my fingertips.  To know that a day spent outside perhaps doing nothing but observing and listening is a day, in my opinion, very well spent indeed.  I remember when I lived in Alaska for a summer seven years ago and the majority of the time I lived out of a tent.  I still remember that as being one of the most amazing times in my life because nothing separated me from the outdoors but a sheet of nylon.  One of my friends from Argentina, Nico, said recently (translated from Spanish to English here), "It is difficult to find true silence, but I found it here in the mountains of Boquete."  I remembered Alaska and how that was the first time in my life that I experienced true silence.  Nothing man-made around to disturb the stillness and vastness of nature.  Something so uniquely incredible that it is a sound in and of itself.  I have been dancing with that silence again here in Panama.  I am house sitting way up in the hills outside of Boquete right now and the other day I decided to listen and observe instead of searching for freelance writing jobs, instead of constantly checking my email and facebook, instead of watching some inane yet funny video on youtube, instead of wasting time, I took advantage of my time by being quiet and listening and observing.  

It had started to rain, the thunder and lightning shows here are extravagant and incredible.  I sat outside in a hammock on the screened-in porch and listened to the rain.  I thought of when I was really young, maybe four or five, and when it rained my dad used to sit in a folding chair in the garage and smoke a pipe while watching the rain.  The sweet scent of tobacco undulating around the garage like the Northern Lights billowing across the Alaskan sky.  This was the mid 80's, before the onslaught of digital media.  When you could sit and relax, put your feet up and take a load off without constantly thinking about who may have emailed you, who may have "liked" your status on facebook, how you might frame a photo of the rain and then put it on instagram.

I allowed myself to sit in the hammock for several hours, sipping coffee and watching the torrents of
rain seemingly on par with the power of Niagara Falls.  The thunder was raucous enough to startle me every so often.  Everytime I thought to myself, "I should probably go back inside and do blah blah blah on the computer," I nudged the thought away.  I wanted to sit and be present in that moment, to de-compress, to remember that there is such abundant beauty in nature; the sounds and the sights, and life will never be long enough to fully enjoy it.   I tried to listen only to the rain, I tried to quiet all the thoughts in my head and concentrate on only the organic sounds surrounding me and the hammock.  It was difficult.  I try to do the same when I'm practicing yoga but I have difficulties turning the machine off in my head.  I'm sure you do too.  I have difficulties concentrating on one task at hand, especially if that task includes sitting still and simply quieting my mind.  Often close friends tell me, "stop thinking so much, stop analyzing so much."  It's advice I work on every day.

After the rain stopped, the sky actually cleared up a bit, which is rare in this rainy season in Boquete.  I walked around the perimeter of the yard and stood on a big rock at the edge of a hill.  Two tall, skinny trees rise up to a 'V' in the front of the rock.  Standing on it, you can see Alto Boquete and Volcan Barú.  It was the first time since I've been here (almost two months) that there was actually a bit of a sunset.  The west side of the sky was that type of bright orange light that occurs in the evening after a massive rainstorm; like the pulp of an overripe mango.  The northwest side of the sky was dappled with striations of long, narrow white clouds hanging so low in the sky there was surely fog in Alto Boquete.  I watched the sky gently change from orange to dark blue to black.  I watched the clouds continually disperse and then redistribute themselves over and over again moving at a steady pace like a sleeping child breathing.  I stood on the rock for an hour choosing to capture the images with my internal viewfinder rather than that of a camera.

When true night hunkered down from horizon to horizon I hopped off the rock and walked around to the front gate at the edge of the driveway.  I had noticed several nights earlier spiderwebs between each bar of the gate.  The moon was shining just so that the spiderwebs were all lit up from behind.  This night, it was even better as individual rain drops had caught on each spiderweb thus looking like perfect, mini, opalescent pearl necklaces weaved into webs.  In the middle of many of the webs sat tiny spiders, smaller than a thumb tack.  I stared in awe, the perfection of the outdoor world something we can never ever match in our own lives.  I was reminded of a verse from one of my favorite Pablo Neruda poems, Through A Closed Mouth A Fly Enters:

What we know is so little/Es tan poco lo que sabemos
and what we presume is so much/y tanto lo que presumimos
and we learn so slowly/y tan lentamente aprendemos
that we ask and then we die./que preguntamos y morimos.
Better to keep our pride/Mejor guardemos orgullo
for the city of the dead/para la cuidad de los muertos
on the day of the departed/en el día de los difuntos
and there when the wind goes through/y allí cuando el viento recorra
the hollows of your skull/los huecos de tu calavera
it will decipher these enigmas for you,/tu revelará tanto enigma,
whispering the truth in the space/susurrándote la verdad
where your ears used to be./donde estuvieron tus orejas.


Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Chocolate Induces an "Orgasm of Your Face"

Everyone has little nuances that make them individualistic, different from the masses.  We all have funny little habits  we cannot help doing that set us apart from every one else.  I have learned from living in dorm rooms in hostels for the better part of ten months that I don't like it if I know people can see me sleeping.  I will go to great lengths to ensure I have a bottom bunk bed where I can tuck a sarong under the mattress of the top bunk so that I sleep like a undisturbed and hidden bear in her den.  If I can't sleep within my little cubbyhole, I sleep facing the wall with a shirt over my face.  When I stand up after sitting for a long periods of time I do this weird hip swivel move to crack my lower back.  It must be done.  I cannot walk like a normal person if I don't crack my back.  And if the hip swivel move doesn't work I walk lifting my knees high up into the air moving them towards my epicenter until my back cracks.  However, probably the strangest little nuance that I have no choice but to participate in is that I sneeze every time I eat chocolate.  As soon as I bite into an authentic, delicious, dark chocolate piece of godliness, I can feel the inside of my nose starting to tingle.  All my little nose hairs start quivering in anticipation of the storm about to blow through their canal.  This is followed by one or several sneezes.  This started happening to me maybe about fifteen years ago.  It's the strangest phenomenon.  People would always tell me, "Oh, well you're probably allergic."  But the thing is, wouldn't I get sick in some way if I was allergic?  Because I've never gotten sick from eating chocolate (another fact: the only food I've ever gotten sick from eating is tofu.  Twice.  And for this I will never eat that flavorless white cube of vomit inducing soy ever again).

I thought I was weird...or special.  But I also thought I was special when Costa Ricans refer to me as, "mi amor," or Chileans and Argentinians refer to me as, "corazón."  I thought, "Wow!  These people really like me!"  Until I had the realization that these are names that all their fellow countrymen use and mean nothing as far as a term of endearment.  Or, as my Argentinian friend, Rulo, told me, in between a fit of contagious giggles, "We call women corazón because we can't remember what their names are."  Even the border patrol agent, on the Panama-Costa Rica border called me "mi amor" once.  Can you imagine crossing from Canada back into the states and the border patrol person calling you "my love?"  Are you imagining it?  Impossible, right?

Chocolate sampling

But you know what?  I'm not here to talk to you about palabras en español (words in Spanish).  No, my love, I am here to talk to you about chocolate and why I sneeze every time I eat it.  I took a tour of a cacao farm when I was still living in Puerto Viejo and Paul, the owner and tour guide, mentioned that there is a percentage of people in the world where chocolate induces sneezing and it's not an allergy.  I was astounded!  There are other people in the world just like me who experience this strange phenomenon?  I immediately conjured up a Chocolate Sneezing Convention in my mind.  Oh my gosh, I could organize an entire weekend event with people who have just as strange a reaction as I do.  We could sit around in a banquet hall in a hotel and eat chocolate and sneeze together.

A cacao bean is purple on the inside, chock full of anti-oxidants.
After that cacao tour, I went online to do a little research in the chocolate sneezing realm.  I found this really interesting article from The Atlantic called,"For Some Chocoholics, an "Orgasm of the Face.  Apparently, chocolate is a stimulant that produces an orgasm of your face or a "photic sneeze reflex."  This happens to some people when they see bright lights but when you eat chocolate (and I'm talking real chocolate, not that Hershey's crap) your photic, which I have now learned means "visual," senses mingle, much like you do at a cocktail party, with the nerve sensations in your face thus producing a sneeze.

Normally, this is all well and good, however, sometimes when one sneezes it can be so forceful that it causes you to pass gas as well.  Unfortunately, this happened to me when I went on a date many months ago when I was living in Tulum.  We had split a brownie for dessert and of course, I sneezed and simultaneously, very unexpectedly, farted.  Thankfully he laughed, almost for too long, but I sat in an embarrassed stupor for the rest of dessert simply because he was a suave Italian and Italians are so refined with their stain-free white linen pants, perfectly coiffed hair, secure in the knowledge that they know what real gelato is.  They are the only brand of men that can wear a man-purse, or as I like to refer to it as a "murse," and look genuinely manly while doing so.

But I digress.  I don't mind the orgasms of my face so long as they don't continue to produce other bodily effects that make me look that much less feminine in front of handsome foreign men.      

The innards of cacao

Cacao tree

If you are in the Puerto Viejo area and have an interest in going on this cacao tour I'd highly recommend it!  Educational (I'm a nerd for learning new things), insightful, entertaining and delicious!  They are called Caribeans Coffee and Chocolate and it's a little family-owned and operated cacao farm and chocolate making business.  The best chocolate I've ever had...

Monday, October 7, 2013

Worshipping Pines and Eucalyptus

I'm not going to be able to move tomorrow.  Not because I did some strenuous hike up Volcan Baru, but because I rented a bike today and took a long ride meandering through the mountains of Boquete.  It might sound like an idyllic, relaxing Sunday afternoon activity, however, Boquete is full of hills; hamlets built into mountains.  There's some work involved, some sweat and sore legs will surely follow.  Where ever you bike down, you must bike back up or vice versa.  I have to tell you, I really, really miss going on bike rides.  There was basically one road in Puerto Viejo so my bike rides were slightly limited.  Had I wanted to go up into the jungle on a dirt road I probably could have but I lacked the correct bike for such an excursion.  I biked in Tulum all the time with my little bike side kick that I lovingly named Chonchito (Spanish for piglet).  That was also mainly on flat surfaces as well.  There was one incline on the road to the beach.  Puerto Viejo and Tulum were both places where I learned how to take my time biking, to slow down, to not try to get to my destination as quick as possible which is what I was wont to do back home.

Today the sun was finally peeking out from the theatrical curtain of clouds that is habitual in this season in Panama.  There aren't too many days here without rain so I thought to rent a bike and get up in the mountains.  I had hopes of maybe biking to a trailhead, going hiking and then returning to Boquete all within the four hour allotted rental time I was supposed to have the bike for.  Twenty minutes into my ride uphill I realized I was perhaps a bit overzealous with wanting to bike into the mountains, go hiking and then bike back down all within four hours.  It was only $12 for four hours and after that the price went up to $20.  I was trying to keep costs down.

I slowly made my way up outside of town.  The gears were on the lowest setting and my legs rotated furiously while I moved at a snail's pace forward, sweat on my palms making it a bit difficult to grip the handlebars tightly.  The thing I love about biking is it enables you to take in your surroundings so much better than if you are in a car.  There are a lot of stunning views from up in the hills of Boquete and biking enables you soak it up.  Gasping for air with each inhale I decided to stop for a little water break and snap a few photos, I dismounted my bike and immediately my knees started to feel sore.  Man, I thought, not even thirty minutes of riding and I'm already feeling this.

I was laughing with a friend the other day about growing up.  We joked about how when you turn 30 suddenly all these things that used to be physically easy now seem a bit daunting.  For example, if I sit cross legged for awhile and then go to stand up, I have to ease up slowly being careful not to strain my legs in the process.  My face winces as a struggling of ahh, ohh, eee's expels from my mouth as I rise to standing.  The same goes for biking.  I can't just hop on and off a bike anymore.  I have to take my time dismounting and mounting, much like an artist takes his time with his piece of art.  Except, I'm only taking my time so I don't dislodge my knee cap.

Easing back onto the bike, I started farther uphill, my knees feeling the effects of resting for a spell.
 There's an old abandoned house up in the mountains that looks like a mini castle.  I had seen it from a car a few times prior and wanted to bike up there for closer viewing.  I'm not sure why, but I feel very drawn to this particular area of Boquete.  The land is replete with coffee plants and massive trees and the road is parallel to a low-level, rocky river.  There are sheer cliffs on your left as you ascend reminding me of roads I've driven on in the Adirondacks in upstate New York.  Maybe it's the magnificent trees lining the river next to this house but it's just so quiet up there, the only roar the water, the occasional car passing over the bridge.  Other than that, it's just a slice of quiet, peaceful bliss.

Roughly two hours later I made it to my destination.  I walked down to the river's edge, removed my shoes and hobbled on the uneven, rock-laden riverbed.  The water was frigid but felt exhilarating after losing five pounds in sweat on the way up.  I climbed onto a boulder and lay on my back to gaze at the canopy of trees overhead.  One side of the river was lined with pine trees and the other eucalyptus trees.  Looking up, the sky was the passage way between the two.  I stared at the branches of pine and thought how each individual display of pine boughs resembled little mini displays of fireworks.  A silent, still and natural display of something so powerfully loud.  How complicated we make life, how simple we can reduce everything when we are in the outdoor world tree gazing.  How boring to spend time watching TV when we can watch the wind tussle tree branches and hear the river rushing by.  How lovely to be alone with your thoughts uninterrupted by people, a phone call, a text message.  Despite the fact that I know I will be in a bit of pain tomorrow after working out muscles that I haven't worked out in quite some time, the bike ride up hill was utterly, totally and completely worth it.  My advice to you, even though you haven't asked, is to find your little slice of outdoor heaven and cling to it much like you do to your cell phone.  However, leave the cell phone behind and instead listen to the wind and the trees.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Unearthing Gratitude

My fruit man in Boquete
Often in conversation, people will ask me what it is about traveling that I like.  I rattle off the desire to learn better Spanish, to experience other cultures, to give myself an education that no college degree could ever compare to and to meet people from all over the world.  Even if you only spend one day with another traveler, there are some that have the ability to completely change the way you think or to bring out the complete best in you.  Since I have been in Boquete, I have met some truly amazing people, especially the local folks who work at the hostel I'm living at.  Two employees are mother and daughter, Melanie and Gina.  They might be the two sweetest Panamanian women I have met so far; I adore them and they are ever so patient in helping me with my Spanish.

It's the rainy season here, the days are all the same.  In the morning there is often sunshine but dark storm clouds lurk around the mountains and slowly enter into the little bowl that Boquete sits in by afternoon.  Massive thunderstorms crack and boom overhead, brilliant rays of lightning zigzag through the monochrome grey sky.  Some days the storms are torrential and detrimental.  Today it is coming in sheets.  The river next to the hostel is zooming at top speed.  I am supposed to teach Melanie and Gina some English in the afternoon but ten minutes into practicing with Melanie, Gina comes over and says they have to go.  I can tell something is wrong but don't want to press the issue so I just say I will see them tomorrow.

I wake up early the next morning and am sipping coffee at the kitchen sink, staring out the window and eating papaya slices.  Luchini, the owner of the hostel, comes in to tell me there was a mud slide that went through Melanie and Gina's house last night.  Their house flanks a mountainside and some damage has been done.  Five of us pile into a truck to go help, assuming we'll be assisting in removing some mud from the house and we'll be done by lunch time.  We arrive to sullen faces, Gina slumps on the couch with one of her dogs in her arms, perhaps the only comfort she is feeling in this moment.

The damage is so much more than what the five of us could possibly do to alleviate it.  They lost three bedrooms, one of their dogs and the concrete that their house is built with has caved in to the rooms that still exist.  You can see the huge hill behind their house stripped bare of nature.  I stare at the damage and feel awful.  I immediately feel guilty for what I can't change, for how helpless I feel.  I begin to wish I had oodles of money to give to them to build a new house.

There is perhaps no worse emotion than feeling helpless.  I think of survivors of Hurricane Katrina waiting on their roofs for help.  I think of people in NYC waiting for electricity and heat after Hurricane Sandy.  I think of my own grandma in a nursing home crying, telling me how lonely she was.  I remember no worse feeling than watching the tears roll down her cheeks knowing that after I left the nursing home, she would be alone again.  That moment slayed me and continues to when I think about it now, three years later.  My heart still breaks.  The look in her eyes, the sound of her broken voice.  I think how I've never experienced a natural disaster on this scale where irreversible damage is done to your life.  I stare at the broken walls and huge pieces of cement taking over what was once their living room.

It's not enough to just keep them in my thoughts.  I want to become Wonder Woman and fix everything for them.  I want to push the mountain back into place and haul the cement out for them.  Give them back their electricity and their happiness.  But I can't do anything.  And the overwhelming feeling of helplessness stays with me for days and days.

What do we do when faced with something we are helpless to change?  All I can offer Gina and Melanie are more lessons in English.  All I can offer is to tell them I have been thinking about them a lot.  Is that enough?   How much can we offer someone when we feel as though we have nothing to offer?  When is the line drawn in the sand between helpful and helpless and is that line often drawn on a windy day where it will be marred by a constant blowing breeze?  To travel is not to simply see.  To travel is to feel and understand, to travel is to sometimes bear witness to those things we cannot change, understand situations that we are helpless to fix.  Maybe that's where gratitude begins.  Despite the fact that I can't change anything for Gina and Melanie, while I stare at the hill behind their house I realize how grateful I am to know them.  And if you are humbled by that gratitude, perhaps that's enough.  To have gratitude for what you do have, for me to have gratitude to at least know Gina and Melanie.  Perhaps, maybe, that is enough.

Monday, September 23, 2013

How Do I Love Coconut? Let Me Count The Ways...

Team Research and Development
I dubbed us Team Research and Development.  Mazen, the funniest Brazilian I've ever met, is research and I'm development.  I have no patience for researching things online.  Well, I do but it's often scant and I get sidetracked.  I start off finding a youtube video on how to make coconut oil and end up watching a video on hydroponic greenhouses noticing how the guy in the video has his purple collared shirt tucked into his jeans which are sitting ridiculously high on his waist and he has a really weird laugh.  Never mind what I'm trying to learn about, I'm too transfixed on his high waisted pants to pay attention to anything else.  What happened to my attention span?  Has it always been this bad or is it a combination of living in a world replete with electronic devices where we are taught to multi-task?  I've discovered that "multi-tasking" really just inhibits you from getting anything done in a timely manner.  How many tabs I have open on my internet browser is a good indicator of how little I'm actually accomplishing.  If I have more than three or four, I write on my blog for about five minutes, then I read half an article on Guernica, then I think of a random youtube video I've been meaning to watch, then I open up the Spanish English translator to tell me some random word that popped into my head that I'd like to memorize, then I begin an email, get distracted and go back to reading the article on Guernica.  Are you seeing the trend here?  The less tabs the better.  But I digress.

Making coconut water
Mazen's attention span is slightly sporadic as well but he is into watching informational videos on youtube and not noticing high waisted pants on men.  We'd been talking about all the uses of coconuts and soon realized that we'd make a good team in the production of coconuts.  Do you know all the things you can do with coconuts?  Besides drink their nectar and add years to your life in doing so?  You can make coconut oil, coconut milk, coconut flour, and dried flakes of coconut to list a few.  So we set to a project on it.  Mazen bought three mature coconuts and I took to cutting them open and grating them against a cheese grater to make shredded coconut.  With the help of two others, it took around an hour.  At this point, I'm not sure what happened to Mazen.  Where he was while I was doing all this demanding physical labor against a cheese grater was lost on me.  He must have gotten distracted doing something, I thought to myself.  There's no way I could ever find fault in that.

When I tracked him down we queued up a few youtube videos on the next steps of coconut processing since both of us couldn't really remember what to do.  Go figure.  Turns out I didn't need to shred the coconut, just cutting it into small pieces and putting it in a blender with water would have been sufficient enough.  Too bad I wasn't paying too much attention to the video I had watched before cutting into the coconuts.  Think of a cat stalking prey, pouncing on it, then freaking out, running off and then serenely sitting and licking it's paw.  I always said in my next life I'd be a cat, I suppose I'm on my way.

Just like this little guy
The next step was blending the flakes with warm water to make coconut water. Then transferring the coconut water to a bowl and manually squeezing the pulp, then putting it through a cheesecloth to separate liquid from solid (a little FYI, when squeezing it through the cheesecloth, the liquid can spray far and wide like a shaken soda can, my shirt was rather wet by the end).  To make oil, you just boil the coconut water until the water evaporates and the oil remains.  This was Mazzen's task and I took to researching other various ways to make coconut oil, you can even just set the coconut water on a windowsill and it'll eventually separate.

Coconut oil!  Cha-ching!
I was super psyched about drying the coconut pulp and making flour with it.  Obviously, a dehydrator would be optimal but the hostel was lacking one so I had to use the oven.  You put it on the lowest temperature and keep the oven door slightly ajar so it dries ever so slowly.  I read this information and only retained the first part.  I also forgot all together that I was even drying the coconut.  I placed the tray in the oven and guess what happened?  I got distracted by one thing and then another so that several hours later it occurred to me that I was supposed to be checking the coconut every hour.  I ran to the oven and could smell burning.  One tray was beyond repair but the other tray was perfect, more or less.  Like trying to draw a straight line on a piece of paper while sitting on a moving bus, it was perfect enough for the first time.

"Mazen, I burnt some of the coconut!"

"How?  Didn't you leave the oven door open?"

"No, was I supposed to?"

"Yes, we read about it online!"

Slipped my mind.  Regardless, I was able to take the unburnt coconut flakes and put them in a blender and blend them until they were fine.  Then I made savory pancakes!  From a whole coconut, to coconut water, to coconut oil, to coconut flour.  How wonderful to create in the kitchen like that.  Do you know how much those three coconuts cost?  30 cents.  Do you know how much a bag of coconut flour or a jar of coconut oil costs?  Upwards of $10.  Pretty darn cool, if you ask me.  Now get yourself some coconuts and start processing!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Papaya is Spanish for Papaya

It's easy to be a sugar fiend in the Caribbean.  You have at your disposal a plethora of tropical fruits that you can purchase from the farmer's market on Saturdays or street vendors every sunny day of the week and gorge on like Pooh Bear with his tub of honey.  The fruit that just takes the cake for me is papaya.  There are so few times in my life where I have eaten papaya.  I don't tend to buy tropical fruits back home because they are not local, they taste bland as they are harvested before coming to full fruition and they are expensive.  (I will admit to my addiction to dried mangoes however, I cannot get enough of those back home.)

Here's the thing with papaya and others can attest; sometimes it tastes like vomit.  I'm sorry for the repulsive reaction you may be having thinking about said flavor.  I have tasted papaya in the past where the flavor has been so revolting I have lost my appetite.  So I stopped eating papaya, for years.  The first time I tried papaya was in Australia ten years ago.  It was delectable.  I ate it in my oatmeal every morning of my two week stay as a volunteer on an organic farm with a spoonful of seeds sprinkled in.  Eight years later, I ate papaya again in Thailand.  I remember a specific incidence that turned me off of papaya until present day, here in 2013, four years later.  I had ordered a fruit salad, my taste buds eager for some tropical goodness.  I was in a little cafe with a nice view of the ocean, I believe it was in Krabi.  I dug into my salad with abandon, an organic farmer excited about the harvesting of tubers.  I bit into the papaya and my taste buds writhed in disgust.  They recoiled much like one would if they were forced to walk through a cave replete with cockroaches (I did this in Malaysia of my own volition, don't ask me why).  Why did the papaya taste like that?  That flavor was quite possibly the most disgusting taste ever, in the entire universe.  What happened to that papaya?  So I didn't eat papaya ever again until now.

I am not the only one with unfortunate tasting experiences with papaya.  I have talked to at least a handful of others who don't eat papaya because of similar instances.  A quick google search proves that there are many in the world with this opinion; vomit, dirty socks, soap, rotten.  There was a point during a homestay in April that I was fed papaya and didn't want to be rude so I ate it.  I have not stopped eating it since.  It was amazing.  I think perhaps the bad flavor has something to do with what stage of ripeness the papaya is at.  My hypothesis is that when a papaya is overripe it has this rather gross flavor.  But when it's at the perfect ripeness, that flavor is better than fresh chocolate chip cookies ten minutes out of the oven.  I have housed entire papayas for meals, I cannot get enough of them.  To think one day I will very well live in places where papaya is not grown (this goes for pipas as well) makes me justify eating them as if I am a bear storing up fat before hibernation.

And do you know the nutritional value of the seeds as well?  I will admit, the seeds don't necessarily have the most pleasant flavor, they are quite bitter with a flavor of pungent black peppercorns but I ignore the taste when I eat a spoonful as it's wonderful for your gut health.  Mainly, they prevent parasitic infections (which can be rampant in these parts, trust me, I know from experience) as well as bacterial infections.  If you're a nerd for learning about nutrition as I am, you can learn more from this useful website on superfoods.

Vomit, dirty sock, soap and rotten flavors be damned, I haven't eaten one since Thailand that has tasted repulsive.  I have a feeling even if I did at this point, I would still power through it as I have joyfully discovered my obsession with this fruit is pretty much unrivaled.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Put Boquete In Your Pipe and Smoke It

Oh, Boquete, you stole my heart.  I was dialing Nicaragua on the phone and then your call came in.  I couldn't refuse you, your crisp mountain air, your river running through town, your hot springs, your hikes, your waterfalls, your warm sunshine and even your rainstorms.

I have lived for the better part of a year in tropical climates.  Puerto Viejo being the most extreme.  Wet clothes take days to dry if there is no sunshine, jeans that have been folded up on the back shelf reek of mold after a week of no use, pages in books have an extremely unpleasant pungent odor, forget ever wearing any type of shoes other than sandals, you share your living spaces with all kinds of jungle critters, your bedsheets always feel damp from the humidity, the list could go on and on and on.  I'm done.  I'm ready for something else.  I kept thinking Nicaragua but something wasn't clicking.  I kept dialing the phone and getting a busy signal.  I couldn't figure out why I was dragging my feet.

Then I went to Boquete, Panama for four nights, extended my stay two more nights, and had to force myself to depart.  Boquete was birthing a new me and I would quite frankly like to stay within the warm womb and never cut the umbilical cord.  I was bereft without my mountains that I am so used to living near and I didn't even realize it until I was in a range of them breathing fresh cool air and hiking everyday.

Do you know what it was like to arrive the first night and feel chilly for the first time in months?  To put on a pair of jeans, a hoodie, my green sauconys and feel nice and cozy?  Do you know what it was like to not wear the same shorts and tank top that I have pretty much been wearing since December?  To rotate the few long sleeved shirts I have instead of my tank tops?  It felt luxurious.  Do you know what it felt like to sleep under a down comforter?  It felt decadent.  Do you know what it felt like to wear wool socks at night?  It felt cozy.  Do you know what it was like to rest my head on a pillow that didn't reek of mold?  It felt clean.  Do you know what it was like to leave food out on a kitchen counter, get distracted by something for 15 minutes in a different room (Me?  Get distracted?  Never!), return to the kitchen and NOT find your food being overtaken by ants?  It felt strange.

Sometimes we don't even realize we were looking for something until after we have found it.  I love the beach, I love the humidity, I love the heat, but I need a break.  I come from a place with four distinct seasons, sometimes six if you know anything about stick season and mud season.  I was so sure I was ready for permanent summer and now that I've basically been living in summerish weather since December, I crave something different.  That northeastern American ostrich in me is rearing her head out of the sand and looking around for a change in scenery and climate.  I'm ruffling my feathers a little and trying out a new nest.  I'm ready to spread my wings and fly to a new place.  I don't think ostriches actually fly but whatever.  Work with me on this.

I've struggled a bit to absolutely love Puerto Viejo for the three and a half months I've been here.  The beaches are stunning with the jungle on the shore but honestly, I thought Tulum was second to none.  Perhaps I am biased because I was with my best friend and her newborn there.  But still...  It's expensive here, often times things are on par with prices in the states.  It's not the safest place to be especially after the sun sets which is at 6PM.  In Tulum I used to go for bike rides at night to decompress after a challenging day working hard on my tan at the beach.  I never felt my safety threatened there.  Here, I do.  And every week, you hear of a tourist being robbed on the street sometimes in broad daylight.  They are usually non-violent, they just want your money or camera but still, it's rife here.  It's not in Boquete.

Boquete is this dreamy little town high up in the mountains with an ex-pat community for sure but not so overwhelming that you feel you've stumbled into mini North America.  There's lots of Spanish spoken there and while you're looking upwards, scratching your head, trying to remember a word in foreign tongue, you're staring at mountains in every direction and you're inhaling crisp air with no detection of humidity or mold.  There's not a party scene here, which means there's not a drug scene here.  Perfect for the "I'd-rather-read-a-good-book-and-go-to-bed-early-oh-my-god-I'm-becoming-my-parents" person in me.

Yes, I will miss being able to go grocery shopping clad only in a bathing suit and sarong.  Yes, I will miss my early morning back floating sessions in the ocean.  Yes, I will miss the constant hum of jungle creatures.  Yes, I will miss howler monkeys.  Yes, I will miss being that slightly crazy woman who stands at the shore and talks out loud to the waves (but there's a river in Boquete that I've already done this with).  Yes, I will miss exfoliating my entire body with sand every time I take a dip in the salty water.  Yes, I will miss rice and beans cooked in coconut milk.  Yes, I will miss my pipa man.  Yes, I will miss the immense inner growth I experienced here.  Namely, working through the worst bout of homesickness I've ever experienced coming to realize that now I wouldn't trade those weeks of feeling so utterly alone in Puerto Viejo for anything.  It all gave me the strength to continue.  It showed me the rock I am made of.  I chiseled a stronger me out of that sad woman and now I am even more ready to trace my next voyage on the map of Central America.  I'm choosing mountains over oceans for the next little span of life.

Goodbye Puerto Viejo.  Hello Boquete.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

A Hiking Mecca For Bekka

Being from upstate New York and living in Vermont for ten years, I have always been affiliated with mountains.  I love hiking as much as I love chocolate, bacon and gin.  Perhaps even more so when you get to the top and there's a sweeping vista for you to sigh happily at.  There was a time in my early twenties when I was obsessively hiking once a week, a new mountain each time.  I would have competitions with myself to see how fast I could hike up and then I would literally jog down.  The faster I ran down the mountain the better I felt.  It was a stress release and my lungs were so happy and content with me back then.

I went to Boquete, Panama for a little visit with the intention of doing some serious hiking followed by bathing in the hot springs outside of town (well not literally bathing, perhaps lounging is the better verb).  I hadn't been hiking since last summer in the Adirondacks.  For all the yoga I've been practicing, it's not exactly cardio work and I will be the first to admit that, although I may be able to do a headstand or balance on one foot for a few minutes, this does not mean I excel with cardio endurance.  I was craving a hike though, a hard one with a damn fine view at the top.  I had read about Volcán Barú outside of Boquete, a whopping 11,398 feet.  About a ten hour hike, you can climb it starting at midnight, watch the sunrise and hike down in time for brunch.  Easy, right?

I eagerly signed up to take the hike with three other people that I would meet later that night and was warned that it was difficult, slightly unforgiving, but the view at the top afforded a vista of both the Atlantic and the Pacific, the only mountain in the world where this is possible, in fact.  And to top it all off, a sunrise to boot.

At 11:30 PM, I walked the few blocks over to another hostel to meet my fellow hikers and take a shuttle to the trailhead.  The four of us set off at midnight to an almost full moon.  I had a headlamp on but it was almost unnecessary as the moon lit the way.  Huffing and puffing immediately, I realized I needed to pace myself if I was going to be hiking for the next ten hours.  The lungs I once had when I was hiking weekly eight or nine years ago have perhaps been marred by concentrating heavily on yoga rather than cardio work.  Sure you work on breathing in yoga but you aren't doing sun salutation while simultaneously jogging up a volcano.  It's different work on your lungs.

Stopping for a food break two hours in
Because there was no cloud cover at that point I was optimistic about seeing both coasts and the sunrise.  It felt slightly unsettling and very surreal to begin a hike at midnight.  It felt strange getting to know three strangers under the cover of darkness and coming to know the sound of their voices better than their physical appearance.  The only other time I've ever hiked in the middle of the night was in Alaska during the summer.  My friend, Chris, and I hiked more for the novelty of taking photos of his watch with daylight in the background.  Also surreal but in a completely different way.  There was also the threat of bears in Alaska, no such threat on Barú.

Two hours into the hike and my hips and lower back were starting to scream.  I began to wonder what I had so enthusiastically signed up for.  Not having hiked any mountains since last summer, I wondered if I was a little overzealous in choosing an arduous hike up a volcano where you could quite possibly get dizzy and light headed from altitude sickness (especially considering the hikes I've done in New York and Vermont cap off at about 5,000 feet).  On Barú you start the hike at about 5,900 feet so you're hiking around 6,000 feet in the middle of the night.  Occasionally, there were some declines or the path flattened out entirely but mostly you're hiking up with every switchback offering another steep incline.  Every corner I rounded, the volcano seemed to say, "Oh, you didn't get enough uphill on that bit, well here's some more, sucker."  I regretted not bringing a fancy chocolate bar with me, something to treat myself with as a celebration for getting to the top of this beast.  The higher we got, the more I thought not only would chocolate be wonderful but also several bottles of red wine to heat the insides.

Stunning view from the top
There wasn't much of a respite in the climb.  The path was rocky, threatening to twist your ankle if you didn't watch carefully.  It's strange but I almost felt like I was drifting forward in a dream.  Your body is wondering what the hell you're doing at three in the morning summiting a volcano instead of sleeping and it's sheer will power that drives you forward, not energy.  There were points where I just closed my eyes and continued plodding one slow foot in front of the other, opening my eyes every so often to make sure I wasn't veering off into the woods.  It's interesting the place your body goes when you're that physically exhausted, the place your mind goes.  You start to wonder if you're even really there.  You start to think about how comfortable your bunk bed is back in the dorm room at the hostel down in town, amidst eleven other strangers snoring and farting in their sleep.  You start to question your sanity with beginning a hike at midnight when normally you're in bed by 10 PM.

I started to think about physical endurance, what we put our bodies through by choice, hiking up a volcano for a view, timing your headstand to see if you can be upside down for five full minutes, a laboring woman giving birth.  And what about when our heart is broken over the death of something, a person, a relationship, a shitty situation.  What mountains do we climb emotionally to move past it?  And then I thought about forgiveness.  Forgiving others for how they may have wronged you, betrayed you, stole the better of you and you spent so long retrieving those lost parts that it took every ounce of energy to gather your stones and build a better you again.  Was it all as hard as this hike on a metaphysical plane?  Well, yes, I thought to myself.

The higher we climbed the colder and windier it got and the less likely it looked that the morning would be clear.  We reached the top around 5:30 AM and I was about ready to curl into a ball and dream of a warm bed in a room where there was no frigid wind blowing.  We situated ourselves against a building where luckily we were out of the wind for the most part.  Someone had very intelligently thought to bring a sleeping bag and we spread it out on our laps while huddling together for warmth to wait out the sunrise.  The prospects of seeing any kind of view were as bleak as the prospects of consuming red wine at the top of this bloody volcano as the fog up there was such that you couldn't see beyond about 100 feet.  Dammit, I thought, where the hell is my chocolate bar and my glass of body warming red wine?  I mean, who doesn't want these two items at 6AM, right?

Every attempt to keep warm
We huddled together for about a half hour, all four of us drifting in and out of sleep as exhaustion seeped through our resting bones.  Unfortunately, it looked like there wasn't going to be a view of any kind.  Collectively, we agreed to head back down knowing it would take four to five hours to descend.  My knees immediately started to ache.  Although, ache is a word that doesn't do justice.  Every step down felt like a sledgehammer banging one knee cap and then the other over and over again.  I thought back to my earlier ponderings on relationships and getting over things.  You reach the peak and it's all downhill from there but even in the descending from something, in the letting go and moving on, it's still painful, even when you finally pass the hump and you know the end is in sight.  And what can you resurrect?  What can you manifest from that pain?  How can you take whatever blinding awful shit you had to go through to get to where you are in this moment and turn it into something positive?  We go through pain on a daily basis and come out the other side a different person.  This volcano hike was just a microcosm of all the ways humans suffer and then surpass the suffering and are renewed in some way.  Nature, in it's primordial way, has been my savior too many times to count.  But usually, it doesn't embody itself within the absolute physical discomfort of my knees.

I was having an inward mental breakdown at this point
I kept having to stop and sit down, with each rest making it more difficult to traverse forward.  The
others were ahead of me most of the hike down and probably better for that.  I mentioned earlier the places you go mentally on a hike like this.  At this point in the morning after hiking for upwards of ten arduous hours, I began muttering out loud to myself, wincing every time I used my knees which, obviously, was every tiny movement my legs made.  I wondered if there was a Panamanian shepherd tending to his flock near the path overhearing me talking to myself cursing the volcano and whimpering about when the hell this stupid hike was going to end.  I can laugh about it now but at the time, I was holding back tears, my knees were in excruciating pain and I was saying things out loud like, "This stupid fucking volcano, why the hell did I hike up here?  You don't even have a stupid view at the top!  I'm done with this shit, when the hell is this fucking hike going to end?"  Perhaps not the sanest of my moments in life but some very authentic moments nonetheless.  Also, considering I had known my fellow hiking partners for all of ten hours, I wasn't about to fall apart in front of them.  And it's probably better that I wasn't with close friends because had I allowed myself to really lash out, perhaps those friends would no longer want to be defined as such.  If you know me well and have seen how bitterly angry I get when I'm really hungry, imagine that times one hundred.  Probably best that I kept my mouth shut when I was in the company of my new three hiking amigos.

By the time we reached the bottom, I was in such agonizing pain that I was ready to turn around and give Barú both my middle fingers.  I was having a hard time appreciating all the beautiful scenery I took in during the daylight.  My appreciation blighted by my physical pain.  Christ, I thought, I'm only 30.  Is this normal??

A taxi took us back to our respective hostels and I beelined it to the dorm room with tunnel vision for my lower bunk bed.  I stuck earplugs in my ears and put a t-shirt over my eyes (two little tricks of the hostel living trade).  Screw the shower, screw breakfast.  I wanted deep, deep, unconscious sleep.  There could have been a cock fight going on in the dorm room and I would have slept through it.  How perfect it would be to get that kind of sleep every night.  However, if I have to climb a 11,398 foot volcano with no darn view at the top on account of fog, screw it.

I woke up late in the afternoon and stumbled out of bed, staggering towards the door to get some water in the kitchen.  For the next three or four days I would walk like a newborn foal attempting to stand for the first time.  Stairs would take me ten times as long to climb and lowering myself to a seated position would take the better part of an hour.  Is this perhaps what a ninety year old, arthritic woman feels like?  I would think this to myself many times.  Other hostel dwellers would laugh at my feeble attempts to move my legs in general and the owner of the hostel would do an impression of me likening my moves to that of the tin man in Wizard of Oz.  "I told you not to go on that hike!  Everyone who goes on it loses a day because they need to sleep and there's rarely a view at the top!"  I would agree with him and have very mixed feelings on what to say to newcomers at the hostel who arrived in Boquete just to hike Barú.  I would keep my mouth shut for the most part and let my general weak physical appearance do the talking.  Let them watch me grip the banister as I attempted to walk down the stairs cringing with every minute movement of my body, an entire hours worth of time going by before I reached the bottom.

Was it worth it?  I'm not sure.  If weather was predictable and you were guaranteed a view at the top, then yes, it would have been worth it.  Was it worth it because I got a great story out of it?  Maybe.  Was it worth it for all the life pondering metaphors sprinkling this page that I came up with while hiking?  Perhaps.  Will I do it again on the clearest and sunniest of days?  Never.  Never.  Ever.  Again.

I stopped in my painful revelry long enough to spot this bird and capture it via photo


Monday, August 19, 2013

Prancing Around in Unmentionables

I have been gone from Rochester for eight and a half months.  This means for that long I have been rotating the same four outfits, staring at my tarnished silver jewelry wishing I had brought my polishing rag along for the ride, I haven't once washed my own laundry, I have shared rooms in hostels with strangers whose faces all meld into one at this point, I have not had a space to call my own since I lived in my little tree house in Tulum for six weeks in December and January.  Other people have, not by their choice, overheard my personal skype conversations in shared dorm rooms, as well as my farts, which aren't so personal, nor have I tried to be discreet about those either.  I've had to wait to use the bathroom (we all know how hellish that can be post big meal of rice and beans), the shower, the communal kitchen (I get very angry when I'm hungry, not the best combination for trying to make friends in hostels).  Sure, I did two homestays and had my own bedroom but I was still living in someone else's house.  I still felt a certain obligation to put on a face, be social, speak lots in Spanish when some days all I wanted to do was the complete opposite. 

Being an individual who craves alone time and personal space to the point of being called weird because of it, frankly, I don't know how I've lasted this long without tearing my eyeballs out.  I looked at it all as an exercise in patience; something I've been trying to incorporate into my personality about as well as I've tried incorporating loathsome beets into my diet.  Sometimes I'm able, sometimes I'm not.  The thing is, I had Nicaragua at my fingertips.  It was a glove I was shaking out about to try on.  However, my friend, Marc, offered me his apartment as he was about to return to the states for a six week spell.  At first, I declined, saying I was heading north, ready to add another stamp to my passport.  However, after some indecisiveness about whether or not I was ready to leave, the thought of moving around from hostel to hostel again in Nicaragua didn't make me feel elated.  It made me feel deflated.  So I decided to take Marc up on his offer.  How the hell I ever considered not taking advantage of this offer is a mystery now that I'm here.
Banana, papaya, mango, strawberry, ginger smoothies on the daily.

Since I moved to this little apartment in the jungle, I have been able to do things like put my food in the refrigerator that I'm not sharing with anyone and not label any of it with my name and the date.  I also don't have to push all of my food to one corner on one shelf in the fridge like my perishables are quarantined from the rest of the perishable society in that cold, dark land.  I don't have to wear my flip flops in the shower in fear of podiatry foul play.  There is a rice cooker and a blender both in mint condition, the latter I use at least once a day, each whir of the blade taking me to a higher level of fruit smoothie buzz.  There are several amazingly sharp knives as well as wonderfully proper pots and pans.  There is a queen size bed with a firm mattress that doesn't reek of mold, nor does it sag in the middle like the valley between two camel humps.  I don't have to read with a headlamp as if I'm spelunking into the pages of my book late at night.  I get my current events knowledge on by plugging Marc's speakers into my computer and listening to On Point Radio, my favorite NPR show.  I can listen to one Beyonce song on repeat for an hour and prance around in my unmentionables signing along and not annoy anyone by it (don't scoff, you know you've done the same with your favorite singer, hairbrush standing in as microphone or strumming that badass riff on your air guitar).  I am not woken up late at night by someone else coming into the room, turning on the light and rummaging around for their toothbrush and pajamas.  I am alone and utterly ecstatic about it.

My little, temporary abode is just fantastic and surrounded by jungle.  Although I'm no longer across the street from the ocean, I'm still close and I can hear it along with the multitudes of jungle bugs humming constantly.  If I choose, I can be here until the end of September when Marc returns.  Or, I can totally move in, change the locks and tell Marc he needs to find another place to live.  Oh, and I'll take his green bike with the broken basket that is not rusted from humidity and salt yet.  An anomaly in these parts.  I will take over his hot sauce collection in the fridge and add to it.  Food is not spicy enough for me here in Costa Rica and I was thrilled to open the fridge door for the first time and see an adequate collection of hot sauces.  One thing I miss about Mexico, is how spicy  you can make the food there.  The more you cry, the more numb your mouth feels, the more painful it is, the more delicious the food.  I swear it's the best thing you can be addicted to.  Unless you go overboard and it's just as spicy exiting as it was entering.  Then you know you've gone too far.

Yup, breathing fire and in pain but oh sooo good!
Anyhow, I'm supposed to be telling you about this lovely apartment and not how my body reacts to an overdosed intake of spicy food.  I don't know how long I will be here for.  Nicaragua is still on the horizon, I just need a vacation from sharing living spaces at the moment.  I've only been here for about a week and I'm not ready yet to say goodbye to sharp knives, blenders, showers sans flip flops, privacy in general, On Point and of course, prancing around in my unmentionables singing and dancing to Beyonce.