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.            

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Pipas on the Brain

All morning I had pipas on the brain and was hoping to see my pipa dealer in passing.  Puerto Viejo pretty much has one road so the chances of running into someone you want to see is quite great.  If you are avoiding someone, I'd tell you to take the back roads, but there aren't any really so you either have to suck it up or put that invisible cloak you have to use.  Lucky for me, the pipa man was out and about.  I saw him biking towards me as we were both about to cross a small bridge in opposite directions.

"Tienes pipas? (Do you have pipas?)"  I shouted at Guapo as we were passing each other on our bikes.  The telltale bag slung over his handlebars, that was once probably a bag of fertilizer or feed, had little lumps in it signifying his wares.  If you took Guapo and his bag of pipas out of the Caribbean you might think he's got a bag of bocce balls as they are about the same size and weight.  However, if you've ever tried to crack open a bocce ball and drink the inner contents, you'd be hard pressed, to say the least.

Since I've lived in Puerto Viejo, it's still kind of a novelty to me that I can buy pipas (young coconuts) for 300 colones each (about 60 cents) and consume them twice a day.  They're a superfood, you know.  They're Popeye's spinach of the Caribbean.  I don't even want to think about how much I used to pay to treat myself to a coconut water in the states.  Maybe $2 or $3, maybe more.  And who knows what other artificial crap might be in those drinks.  Because we live in a global economy, because the local food movement is moving forward at great momentum and because I worked on organic farms for many years in Vermont, mostly every time I eat something, I think about the true cost of it in terms of labor, sweat, gasoline and miles.  Guapo's pipas are picked from trees around Puerto Viejo and then he bikes around selling them and that makes them taste even better.  Sweat and labor yes, gasoline no.  And miles?  Only with two pedals propelling him forward.

My friend, Molly- one of the many locals who has
given me a tutorial on how to open a pipa

The only thing about buying pipas this way is you don't always have a constant supply.  Sometimes I run out and don't see Guapo around for a few days.  I can feel my muscles waning, my energy diminishing, my fingernails breaking, my hair falling out, without my twice daily fix of pipas.  I like to roll out of bed early in the morning and pop one open first thing.  The second is my afternoon snack.  It's taken me awhile to master opening them.  I used to think I needed a machete as often people on the sides of the road selling them have said tool and open it that way.  If you have the young pipas though, that are peeled of their huge green husk (that part you need a machete for and if you're not an expert, don't bother), you use the blunt side of a knife and whack it a few times on the sweet spot.  They all have a sweet spot, it's a matter of figuring out where it is.  This is done with practice.  It took me ages to get it down.  I just kept asking locals how to open them and eventually, after being shown numerous times, I got the rhythm of it.  

The idea with buying many at a time is you can have them in the fridge and they are a refreshing, delightful drink to cool the body temp a few degrees when it's furnace hot here.  Once you open it and drink the delicious, not too sweet nectar, you can scrape the pulp off the sides and eat that too.  Sometimes I get pipas where the pulp has hardened (I think this means they are a bit older) and you can also take this off and eat although it more challenging to remove from the husk.  I typically fish my thumb under it and slowly pull it up.  Sometimes, I even cut up the pulp, if it's hard, and put it in my salads.  It's kind of bland, unlike the water, but the health benefits are so numerous I don't care if the flavor of the hardened pulp isn't making my taste buds drunk with hedonistic pleasure.

And they make the best
snacks at the beach
I saw Guapo when I was heading back to my new home in Playa Negra (I am subletting an apartment for a little while, more on that in another post).  My backpack was full to the brim with my computer, the power cord and an extension cord (darn computer doesn't work unless it's plugged in), a notebook, my wallet and a filet of marlin that I had just bought not five minutes earlier.  There wasn't room for pipas.  The wire basket on my new green bike (well, new to me at least; it came with the apartment I'm in now) has some holes in the bottom.  Guapo carried three over and looked into my basket as if it was a well with a deep, endless bottom.  He looked up at me.  "Dis not gon fit...hang on, hang on."  My mind jogged to where I might find a piece of cardboard nearby to put on the bottom of the basket.  Guapo was ten steps ahead of me in the department of quick thinking.  He walked across the street and grabbed a few big, waxy leaves from an almond tree.  He piled five or six on top of the holes and then loaded my basket up with seven pipas.  I opened my wallet and happily handed over 2,100 colones, the last of my cash.  Guapo looked at my basket again and told me to get something to cover the pipas so they wouldn't get so hot in the midday sun.  He seemed genuinely concerned about the well being of his sold pipas; as a good business man should.  I assured him I was on my way home and would be putting them in the fridge right away.

As we biked our separate ways, I looked down at my basket full of pipas and then I looked to my right at the ocean.  The sun has finally returned from the long slumber behind storm clouds for the past month.  The water was gleaming and the surf steady and calm.  I had a moment.  One of those great, the world-stands-still-for-just-a-few-seconds, moments.  Never before in my life have I lived somewhere where I can buy fresh young pipas straight from whence they came and pile them into a broken basket jimmy rigged with sturdy leaves from an almond tree.  Not until two months ago did I even know how to open a pipa.  When we remove ourselves from pretty much every materialistic thing that we used to own and can carry our belongings on our back, there are these little things in life that are so much more noticeable.  Like biking down the street in a little town on the Caribbean, basket full of pipas, pedaling home to a new apartment I'm subletting for a short while and getting really, really excited at savoring my first pipa of the day.    

If you want to read more about pipas my friend and fellow blogger, Camille, has a great post about what you can do with a coconut.  You should check it out!

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Antes De La Lluvia/Before The Rain

Don't be fooled by all the sunny beach photos that adorn this blog.  Whenever I have my camera with me, I take oodles of photos for blog stock.  It's a good thing I think ahead as it's been raining here for the past month almost every day.  As of late, when the sun shines here it's like when I lived in VT and there would be a warm spell in February.  It would be forty degrees and people would be walking around in t-shirts.  Here, after days of rain, when the sun finally makes a praise worthy debut, all of Puerto Viejo comes outside.  Streets swarm with food vendors, pedestrians, people on bikes and horses (for real), maybe even a random lackadaisical sloth might cross the road.

But I'm here to tell you about the rain.  I woke up the other morning and flung open the screenless window hoping for sun.  It wasn't raining but the sky was gathering clouds like a gardener gathers flowers for her bouquet.  I hadn't been swimming in the ocean in what felt like ages on account of one stormy day after another.  One memorable night I was abruptly woken up around midnight to a thunder and lightning show right over head.  When I was a kid I used to lay awake at night and count the seconds in between booms of thunder and shocks of lightning to measure the distance of the storm from my warm cocoon of blankets.  This storm was right above us.  The thunder was as loud as if I was standing next to a speaker at a concert big enough to warrant using a jumbotron.  It shook the house I was in, the bed I was in, I felt like it was shaking my thoughts even.  If you could measure the intensity of a thunderstorm, this was off the charts.

This morning though, I decided to take a little saunter across the street as it wasn't a torrent yet, but you could see on the horizon that it was on it's way.  I live in a hamlet called Playa Cocles and the playa here, this time of year, has a pretty nasty undertow.  Swimming isn't ideal unless the water is placid, which happens from time to time.  I waded in to my knees and could feel the strength of the current pushing my legs one way and then another.  Squatting down I managed to get my entire body wet but didn't dare go out farther.  The frothy, churning water a very clear indication that I need not proceed further.

The sky was a striped curtain of grey, a dramatic backdrop for the oceanic theater.  The messy perfection of the pre-storm sky something I wanted to reach out and viscerally touch.  A thin line of the darkest gray lay upon the horizon and then a lighter grey above that.  One long winter white cloud nine months pregnant with rain hovered as the next layer.  On top the clouds whispered out in droves, dispersing into lesser definitions of themselves.  I stood in the shallow water that at times was powerful enough to crash all the way up to my sternum.  It tugged at me physically and then on a whole other level, it tugged at my heart strings.  Like an old lover, begging me to drown only in the turbulence it had to offer.

With each ebb and flow of waves, my feet sunk deeper into the sand.  I was thinking about Nicaragua.  I have to cross the border soon and I have been debating on leaving Costa Rica and introducing myself to a new country.  Starting over again.  However, it takes time to integrate yourself into a community anywhere you are and I wonder do I want to leave that?  I've just begun to tap into a really great food-conscious community here.  However, I know I won't end up here long term so perhaps it's just better to leave now.  Life is in slight upheaval when you're on the move, much like the sky I was admiring.  But this is when we grow the most, this is when we prove to ourselves that we are capable.

After almost an hour of being slightly knocked around, my knees like drunken men swaying to and fro in the current, the rain started falling.  I emerged from the water and looked down to see a feather in my path on the sand.  Perhaps on this Latin American journey, it is once again, time to take flight.