Sunday, May 17, 2009

Cahuita National Park

... is the only National Park in Costa Rica which relies upon donation. You can enter a beautiful trail protecting a plethora of wild life and see all sorts of things you've only seen in the zoo or on television previously. We saw various crabs, lizards, beautiful butterflies and other funky insects. Sloths hung high up in the trees, which was a treat because we never made it to the Sloth Rescue Center.

The park runs along miles of preserved beaches and lowlands, so we could hop in for a dip to cool off whenever we wanted. Tons of uprooted trees lay along the shore, which make for lovely resting areas. Examining the intricate sea shells, we discovered hermit crabs peeping their heads out of some - nature is quite clever.

Dangling vines, reaching Liana roots, and other unique foliage all have an ecological role and impressed us just as much as the animals. There is an amazing tree we deemed the rainbow tree for it's magestice bright colors - so I went to wikipedia and typed in "rainbow tree"... its proper name is "Eucapyptus deglupta". Another red-clayish looking tree we were told is called "the naked Indian". Seeing most of Costa Rica is comprised of beaches and rainforest, the translation of "Rich Coast" seems very fitting.

Mugged by Monkeys!!!

It is common knowledge that monkeys are my favorite thing in the WORLD! I looove them. Even after they ganged up on me and robbed my trail mix.

Unlike these adorable HOWLER monkeys (above), who stay in the trees and howl through the jungle loudly beginning at sunrise, Capuchin monkeys (aka White Face monkeys) are not shy in the least. Locals and tourists have given me more than fair warning to watch my stuff when they are around. Yet I still naively pulled out a bag of mixed nuts, raisins, and yogurt while walking along the trail. That's like walking down an alley in Harlem waiving hundred dollar bills. We heard rustling in the branches above us, which drew our attention upward, and when we looked back down we were surrounded by 15 monkeys who meant business. Rumor has it they can be vicious thieves, taking your cameras, wallets, or even entire backpacks. One particularly aggressive one sat on a branch and stared me in the face like he was going to gouge my eyes out. They were all staring at me. Apparantly fear makes the brain stop working because I went into shock and heard myself saying, "They want the trail mix. They want the trail mix. Should I give them the trail mix?" My sister shouted "Yes!" as one neared her. I threw the bag and they all went APE :) leaping for it. One grabbed the bag and ran off into the jungle, scattering the blend of treats all along the trail, which his friends immediately began to devour.

Here the culprits are, enjoying my trail mix. Sure they look cute and innocent but don't let them fool you! They had a feast while we took tons of photos and video. If you would like to see more from our trip, I will be posting all the footage when I get home on the following website:

Ocean & Rio Boat Ride
May starts off the "rainy season" on the east coast of Costa Rica, but in reality it rains on and off year round - mostly during the night & early morning. We were fortunate to have several sunny days... except the landslide day and the day we wanted to go snorkeling. It pourred so hard that the road to Puerto Viejo and Manzanillo, the only road that goes south of Cahuita, got washed out on both sides and our rental car barely fit through. Most vehicles turned around at that point but we like to live on the edge (literally). Besides, a couple Americans hopped off the bus there and needed a ride into Puerto Viejo. We showed them a nice hotel with air conditioning. The waves were insane that day and all the stray dogs gathered at the shore to watch. After dropping off the c.d. player and food to the soup kitchen, we hurried back out of town before that section washed out entirely. The next day we took our hike through the National Park and had to cross through 2 rivers along the path which were flowing higher than usual because of the rainfall: one was up to our chests and the other (only up to our waists) was RED! We're not exactly sure why that is but I've heard some interesting theories on the chemicals released by banana companies.

The day after our hike, the waters still weren't settled enough for snorkelling but we were determined to venture out and see some Ocean life. So I paid some men with a speed boat to take us out to the coral reef and requested they go fast over the waves. "Not too fast." Angela said but I rebutted with "Very fast!" and now my poor sister has a big bruise on her bum (sorry Ang). We came smashing down over the waves with speed so intense it made James Bond look like a little boy on a merry-go-round. Angela came smashing off her seat once but otherwise we had a blast!
We pulled up to a couple fishermen who showed us their catches and pulled up a squid while we were next to them. Perhaps it was an octopus? Either way, he flung it at Angela in a joking manner and pulled it back before it made contact, laughing hysterically. The coral reef was beautiful and we saw 4 sting rays among the marine life. The reef off Cahuita has at least 35 species of coral, 140 species of molluscs, and 123 species of fish. They let us out at Puerto Vargas to swim for a while then putted along in shallow waters for us see more coral.

As a special treat, they took us down the deep river canal we had walked through the previous day. We had crossed at the point where the river merges into the Ocean but these men took us deeper down to the swampy area with snakes and caimans (small alligators). Here the boat driver picked up a rotting alligator head on his oar and posed it for us. They also took us up on shore to see more sloths, one carrying her baby. The adventure lasted over 2 hours though I had only requested a brief expedition.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

One day I hopped off a bus in a random area. As I was wandering down a street I chanced upon a hand crafted sign that read "Family Art" with an arrow pointing up a hill. The narrow path led me through a stream and to the greatest family I have ever met. This family strolls through the jungle collecting organic materials such as seeds, plants, shells, coconut, clay, and naturally fallen wood. Jarrel, who carves all the masks and statues, explained each material to me and what kinds of plants and trees they come from. There is only one kind of tree in Costa Rica which can be cut down legally (because it is so plentiful) and it is called Laurel. While Jarrel was explaining to me that they don't use any machines, a man showed up at the door and spoke to him urgently in another language. Not broken English, not Spanish, but Bri Bri. The language of the Indigenous people of Talamanca. The man was telling him that a huge tree had fallen into the river during a recent rain storm. This would be used as material. Dorcus, his beautiful wife, handcrafts all the jewelry. She doesn't speak any English so he would fill her in on parts of our conversation and he always called her "mi amore".

Knowing mom and Angela would love to meet Jarrel, Dorcus, and their adorable toddler girl, I brought them there one day in a rental car. We brought snacks for the family and purchased some of the amazing authentic work for our loved ones back home. I found an awesome mask for Greg and Jarrel reshaped a coconut shell watch I had bought in Cahuita. Now it's the perfect watch for me! Jarrel and Dorcus are incredibly talented and thanks to the tour agencies who have connected with them, they now have a website so people can order their amazing art online. (I'll post that later, it's back at my cottage in Cahuita)
Jarrel told us a great deal about the Indigenous people in Talamanca, including his wife's mother who operates a chocolate house down the road. She is the most adorable little old woman in the world.

Though chocolate is used to keep women happy in the states, Bri Bri use Cacao (or Cocoa) in a different kind of healing process: spiritual and purification ceremonies. They never mix it with sugar. Instead, a Shaman mixes it with with other natural ingredients and boiling water and pours it over a woman's big toe to rid her of her impurities after a pregnancy or menstrual cycle. A Bri Bri woman gives birth alone on a mountain inside a small hut she puts together with leaves because no one can be around her during the "impure" process and some time after. Here, Dorcus' younger sister is giving us a demonstration of the tradition which has been past on through generations for over 300 years.

The Cacao Plants, native to the tropical region of the Americas, require a humid climate with regular rainfall. Partu Nona, Dorcus' mother, showed us a tree bearing cacao pods in all 4 stages - she cracked open a ripened fruit and let us abstract the seeds, which were smothered in a delicious, white, milky pulp. We sucked the sweet nature right off those seeds & it was like nothing we've ever tasted. The only thing better than chocolate is chocolate in its rawest form.

Cacao flowers are pollinated by tiny flies, not bees, and grow right off the trunk and branches.

Another plant the women showed us had pods which contained small red balls. Bri Bri women dip their fingers in these and use it as lipstick, one of many uses the seeds provide. They can also be mixed with garlic and other ingredients to create a potent cooking spice. Angela and I bought a container each for our boyfriends to cook us delicious meals at home- we are both very fortunate to have partners who rock in the kitchen!
To please tourists such as ourselves, the women sell several flavors of organic chocolate at the end of the tour - with sugar and absolutely yummy. Our big toes were very happy none of us have recently given birth. The ladies were so nice, they even brought us out 2 free bags of cocoa butter and told us all the uses for our skin, including facials and massages. Looks like our boyfriends really have their work cut out for them! As they say in Bri Bri, "aki aki" (bye bye).

Angela was interested in surf lessons, so she spent 2 hours riding the waves while mom relaxed on the beach and I frolicked in the Caribbean Sea. East of Central America, the water is much saltier and clearer than what we're used to in North America. Being so close to the equator, the water is much warmer... and for some reason, we could walk out very far before the water went over our waists. I decided to rent the last surf board the shop had - a small one for experts - and had no luck despite the crash course I was given in California years ago.

After surfing, we took private transportation to another beautiful region just south of Limon. Mom decided to skip the Canopy Tour when they showed us the zip lines 100 meters in the air.
Some very nice Ticos took her in a tractor through the rainforest to watch Angela and I zip over rivers and trees at a pretty good speed between 10 platforms. Our guides were amazing and fun and showed us Sloths, Iguanas, and colorful frogs along the way. In New York, our family had a pet Iguana for about 10 years, so that particular lizard did not excite us. However the "Jesus Christ" lizards, which walk on water, were pretty darn fascinating.

Even though the guide was holding it on a leaf, I made Angela pet a colorful frog to prove they aren't that poisonous. A couple weeks ago I held one in my hand and a local told me after a little while my hand would "sting" from the secretion. Angela and I survived, the frogs and the zip lines. All in all, it was a pretty amazing trip. I'm still here; I'm staying an entire month... in hopes of a tan.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006


Every summer Daecheon beach holds a Mud Festival, to which thousands of fun people flock. Like most foreign teachers in Korea, I said, “Get drunk & muddy? I’m there!” So a bunch of us met in Daecheon, some by bus, some by train, some by car. I thought we were really lucky Jenny’s friend offered to drive us in his SUV, even though we got lost on the way there and had a flat tire on the way back. Men never listen to me when it comes to auto mechanics… so as usual, I sat back and waited for the inevitable, “You’re right.” It also rained the entire 2 days we were there. Many people didn’t come because of it. I don’t understand; you’re COVERED in mud. What is mud made of? Dirt and WATER.
Despite these trivial things that bother most ‘normal’ people, I had a grand time. I met up with a friend who had a large bottle of soju. This bottle encouraged us to
tag-team U.S. military soldiers in the mud pit. I only wrestled the girls and Korean men, b/c I was in a bikini and I know American men. I won most of the time. Jeff did too, and I’m glad he was on my team, b/c he fights dirty. Hee hee… dirty.
After the mud pit, we raced in a bouncy-room style relay and I nearly broke my neck. So we decided to wash off, by swimming in the ocean. I love the Ocean. The guards kicked us out 3 times for swimming out too far. They don’t like to get wet, so they simply turn on some sirens and wave red flashing wands at us. That evening we skipped the squid & octopus dinner with the group and got fake tattoos instead.
The next morning we all had Ramien noodles for breakfast. Yes, I’m in Korea. There were about 15 of us in this one huge room called an “Ondel”: Just a wood floor with blankets and sliding doors. The hotel owners LOVED me. The woman said something to Jenny as we were leaving and Jenny said, “She says you have a good character.” I was SO incredibly touched. I wished so badly at that moment I could speak fluent Korean, but I used the universal hug instead. Awwww!!

Before we left, we hit this huge Sauna (hot tubs, mud tubs, cold tubs, sea water tubs, steam room...and lots of naked women scrubbing eachother clean.) I was so modest before I came to Korea I didn't like getting naked to shower by MYSELF. I didn't realize til half-way through this sauna experience, that I'd been AJUMIZED. (Ajuma = korean woman, usually married) I had no problem walking around nakie in front of my friends. So girls back in New York... prepare to be ajumized. We'll eat Ramien noodles and get nakie.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Daejeon Hanwha Eagles
(an amazing day with my favorite students)
We talk about everything in class and one day we started talking about baseball.
" I play baseball."
" I like playING baseball."
Turns out Denny is MVP at his elementary school (the big guy) and we started talking about how my brother was when he was younger too. They're both pitchers, etc.... a little bonding chat. Well it turned out he had never been to a REAL baseball game. None of his classmates had either. I was SHOCKED! It's $1.00 a child for admission. $5.00 for adults... and a cheap cab ride away. Why not? The kids LOVE baseball too.
Bruce and Paul, big pimpin'
So I took some kids to a game this past weekend and we had a remarkable time!
First, I took them to a restaurant; they're so cute, they asked if they had to use Forks. Awww. Of course I said they could use chopsticks. They spoke English the ENTIRE time. They are very comfortable with the language and I have conversations with them as if they were friends from home.
Here you see the boys practicing their moves in the back of the taxi. Both these boys caught balls to take home. Well, one was thrown over the fence by the Foreigner player "Jay Davis" who's a friend of a friend.... and thinks he's hot shit. Fortunately, the boys thought he was hot shit too, and were SO impressed that I knew him. Paul kept yelling out, "Jay Davis! Nicole is your friend?" And they were instantly the coolest kids in the stadium after Jay waved to me. It rained a little off and on, but the game went on - nothin' umbrellas couldnt handle. Most of the fans sat together behind first base - rowdy crowd.
Denny caught a ball too - a toy rubber ball for a contest. They threw 3 out into the stands and the fans had to SHOOT for a prize. Denny was the only one who made it (knew he would) and he won a ticket to Kumdoriland! It's an impressive amusement park nearby, the first place I went to when I arrived in Korea. Our group was on the big screen much of the time. That happens a lot though, camera men LOVE the foreigners. Attention is always drawn to us.

A good example? Well Mike (my good friend who joined us at the game and DOUBLED the spoiling of my students)
was pulled out of the crowd to dance with the cheerleaders. What? He was crazy up on stage, and for a big guy... the man can MOVE!!! Watch out girls, he just might be at the next try-outs.
What else happened? Well the game was close and very exciting. We were winning most of the time until the very end (ho hum) but the kids still said they had a blast. Alice understood most of the game, but I had to explain some things to her. Smart girl. The game went much longer than
anticipated. 11pm - ouch! So I made them call their parents & get permission to stay. They were very well fed though b/c Mike bought them some kind of burgers and drinks, then the cheerleaders came out dancing with Domino's pizzas... and of course, gave one to us. I got them souvenirs and thanked them for being so well behaved. I'd take them out again ANY day.

Friday, July 07, 2006


Jeju-do (also spelled Chejudo) is Korea's largest Island, located well south of the western side of the peninsula. The whole island is one gigantic volcano, dormant since 1007 CE, with one main cone / crater and over 350 smaller ones. Some 20 beaches encircle Jeju-do. The main island is 1,810 square kilometers, half of which is still naturally forested. Green tea and semi-tropical fruits are widely grown.

I know this guys it tall, and I seem to be grabbing him in an inappropriate display of affection.... but he's not my new boyfriend. His personality was stone cold. (yes it IS funny) Ok, he's one of many Tolharubang Statues on the island. No one knows what they represent, people only guess it was a god or something. Because people who came to the island found them there. Interesting.

Look, Zach found a drinking buddy.

Back in May, Zach took a new teaching job on this beautiful island & invited me out. At the end of June, I flew out for 3 days & it was a wonderful vacation!!! He lives on the southern part, a beautiful area called Seogwipo. There are less than 200 foreign teachers on the island, so I told him I'd help him plunge into the social scene and meet new people. So we made friends with statues... and some of the coolest people I've met the entire year I've been here!

There was an international surfing competition on a beach near his house, so we went to check it out and there was a big group of people sitting around drinking beer and playing volley ball. They were warm & welcoming and we stayed with them for a bit. They'd camped out the night before and I wish SO badly we'd met them for that! Zach played with his new friends on the beach while I went swimming in the ocean. For those of you who don't know..... I looooove the Ocean.

I also love waterfalls. Jeongbang falls is "the only waterfall in Asia that falls directly into the sea." And it was a short walk from Zach's apartment. The water was chilly, but I couldn't help but to dive in - in all my clothes. SO invigorating. It felt incredible even after I was out of the water. Zach's a chicken, more into rock-climbing and stuff that requires physical stamina... so I just swam and giggled by myself!

Also, we picked up some oranges at a stand near the falls. Jeju-do is called the "Island of Love and Oranges". These oranges, grown on the southern slopes of Hallasan, were absolutely savory! Marta, I brought one back for you, but haven't seen you in weeks. So I had to eat it. Yummy! I brought you back some of the love too, but I'll hold onto that til I see you again.
"Every Korean feels he should visit Jeju-do at least once in his life and most do for their honeymoon." I saw a bunch of honeymooners out and about that weekend; surprisingly, none sportin' the 'couple shirts'.
Jeju-do was once listed by Newsweek magazine as one of the world's top ten undiscovered paradises. "do" is the Korean for island.

Jeju-shi means Jeju city and it is the main city on Jeju-do. That's where Zach and I went to meet the foreign teachers at night. The only real Western bar on the island - Blue Agave. Everyone seemed to know eachother and everyone seemed familiar with a guitar. The 3 man band, who plays there every weekend, was remarkable: 3 teachers who've been friends for years and travel together. I got the ladies to take off their shoes and dance the night away. I'm meeting them up in Seoul next weekend for a photography exhibit, in which 2 of the girls have photos in.

A bunch of the teachers have invited me back to the island, and I'll be sure to visit because there's so much I've yet to see:

- Udo, or Cow Island, is to the east and can be reached by ferry. Some say it's more beautiful than Jeju.
- I'd like to actually look into a volcano pit.
- Goseong Dinosaur prints (though I don't believe in dinosaurs)

- And then there are the Manjang-gul caves, which we didn't have time to visit.
" you can pretend to be Indiana Jones and explore one of the longest lava tunnels in the world. Of course, there's no rolling boulder inside. What you'll find instead is a deep, damp cave that was created by molten lava from Hallasan years ago ."

* Many geological wonders have been working their way into my year & I'm putting together quite the photo album!*

Sunday, July 02, 2006

"A black boy killed my hamster."
"No... no Max. I'm pretty sure a black boy didn't kill your hamster."

Today I was teaching a unit on PETS, which is always an interesting lesson with my students. NO ONE has pets here! EVERY single class is the same. "Who has a pet? No one, okay." Then little Sarah raises her hand and says she HAD a pet, but it died. Then Adam raises his hand and says he's had 2 pets, but they've both died.... and so on. Why do they die? The kids never know. Max told me today how the mommy and daddy hamster went to the mountain.... then a black boy killed his hamster. After some discourse, I think the black hamster (who was a male) killed the other hamster. Is the black hamster alive, you ask? No. The awkward moment always comes when we reach the page we have to list everyone in the class and ask that person "Do you have a pet? What kind?" So today I had 11 names waiting for a 'NO' next to them and the kids looked at me like, "Are you really gonna make us ask eachother?" If people DO have pets in Korea, they're small.......... especially dogs.

I wasn't gonna write about this, because I didn't want to think about it. But there was a horrific image branded in my memory that nearly caused a breakdown a few weeks ago. I was getting ready for school when my dogs started whining. I didn't know what they were whining about b/c they had eaten and gone out. Then I thought I heard a dog growl. I knew it wasn't my neighbor's little yapper, this was a BIG dog. I heard the growling a few more times, but dismissed it, because you do see the occasional Husky around. For some reason, that breed is acceptable as a pet here. Think it's the blue eyes. Well as I walked out of my apartment, in my nice little floral, linen skirt.... thinking only of the innocent things in this world and how much I love Korea...... I heard another growl. I turned to see a white pick-up truck parked in front of my house. There were 4 cages in the back, which only took up half of the truck's bed in total, and were gruesomly PACKED with large, beautiful dogs. Beautiful, beautiful dogs looking at me with the saddest eyes I've ever seen. They were smashed in so tightly they couldn't budge, faces pressed up against the cage, legs distorted around other dogs. Some were whining, some growling, some numb in shock. I was numb in shock. I couldn't move. My first thought was, "Who would do such a thing? Why do they treat animals so badly here?" Then I realized. There's a plethora of restaurants around my apartment. I've heard you can go into "any" restaurant and ask for dog, which is slightly more expensive than beef and "very healthy in summer to keep you cool.". They only eat cats when a person's "very sick". Because westerners frown on this particular kind of meat, they don't advertise it openly.... I don't understand why it's any different than a cow, pig, or chicken... just taught. Buddhists in India will drive a busload of people off the road rather than kill a sacred cow. I prefer not to kill any animal, especially for FOOD this day in age.
... So I was standing there in shock. Couldn't move, felt it was physically impossible. Then I thought, people leave their keys in the ignition all the time here in Korea. If anything's worth getting deported over, this is. But where do you bring over 50 traumatized dogs who are large & don't know how to survive in the wilderness? They were probably chained and abused their entire lives. They were obviously "bred" for eating b/c they all looked exactly the same. Not sure which breed. Gorgeous, brown hair. Agh. I didn't even know HOW to get to a mountain by car.
Suddenly, 2 'ajumas' (older women) came out of a small restaurant, laughing and talking, with their permed hair, high-heels, and red lipstick. I looked at them with utter disdain. They walked up to the driver's side door and finally stopped talking when they realized I was staring. There was nothing I could do. I walked away. I could only walk away. THEN... the other night a woman invited me up to a pool hall (which turned out to be similar to pool, but the tables had no pockets... b/c the kind with pockets is "for girls".) Her English wasn't that good, but she said, "Do you like dog meat?" I said, "WHAT?!" and she quickly repeated, "Do you like pork? Do you like pork?" Reminds me of the time my parents tried to get me to eat squirrel by telling me it was chicken. ..... I don't eat animals, period.
I suppose dog meat is MUCH more popular in the summer, because I hadn't actually been exposed to this aspect of their culture until recently. Today, after Max told me about his hamster, I told him about my 2 dogs. He said, "My cousin has MANY dogs. BIG dogs!"

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Traveling Abroad

When I came to South Korea, I was naive about the world. Thought I knew everything.... well not facts (geography, history, pop culture, ...) but thought I completely understood people and how the world worked. I was wrong.

I definitely didn't know anything about South Korea, as an American who's media fed about the evils of North Korea and their desire for Nuclear Power. I thought I'd live in a beaten-down "traditional home" and be the only foreigner in my city. Didn't realize how westernized and industrialized Korea's become, with some financial assistance from Western Powers. Though much of Korea's traditional culture has been preserved, a woman is usually only seen wearing a hanbouk on holidays or Weddings. Many restaurants now have forks to accompany their chopsticks. And most people speak a little English. Hence, the flood of foreign teachers in Korea. I've met so many people over the past year ... some of the most interesting characters I've ever encountered. I usually hate or love them, because they fall into 2 very distinct categories: those who are running from something and those who are running to (searching for something more). Unfortunately, most foreigners here are looking to escape the problems they've created back in their home countries. It frightens me to hear a teacher of little children say they came to Korea b/c it's "drug free" and the best way to quit cold turkey. Or that they couldn't find girlfriends at home and heard Asian women flock to Western men. Sad, but true. Well I've weeded out the weirdos and met some great companions who, like myself, have come for the experience. To be part of a different culture, learn the language and ways of other people. To teach. To travel.

a little HISTORY lesson: Korea was invaded and ruled by Japan from 1910 until the end of World War II in 1945. On August 10, 1945 the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to divide Korea along the 38th parallel (Japanese forces north of that line would surrender to the Soviet Union, those south to the United States)

The Korean War, ( June 25,1950 - July 27, 1953) started as a civil war between North and South Korea. The north was communist and was backed up by the Soviet Union. The U.S. and U.N. "saved" South Korea when they were nearly defeated by the North. American opinion was "solidly behind the venture", however Truman failed to obtain a declaration of war from Congress before sending troops to Korea. Our troops have been here ever since; though I hear we're removing them soon. Hmmm. I'm supposed to visit the DMZ next year with friends.