Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Arriving in Costa Rica and Sunshine

The Silvermans, Karlins, and 1 Simmons Arrive in Costa Rica!!

Boarding for Panama City
December 20, 2014: Today, I'm traveling with the Silverman and Karlin families to Costa Rica via Panama.  I've been made an honorary Silverman since their youngest kid, Colin, was unavailable for this trip.  (Lucky me!)  My family (Simmons) and the Silverman family have been friends since before I came into existence, and I'm very excited to be traveling with them!  We just boarded our Copa Airlines plane.  I'm very much looking forward to getting back to Costa Rica and basking in the sun.  On this trip, we'll be visiting three regions: La Fortuna, Jacó, and San José.  Our time will primarily be spent doing fantastic rainforest activities.

I did not plan any of this trip, which for me is unusual.  In recent years, I have been put in charge of planning nearly all family vacations, not because I'm a control freak, but because my family likes what I plan (really, they told me so).  On this trip, all I have to do is sit back (in my pool lounge chair), relax (in the sun), and enjoy the rainforest.  Yes!!! I'm just going with the flow on this one.  I don't even know how many hours long our flights are.  I figure I'll just get on the plane, wait a few hours, and get off when it lands.
Actually not a bad meal.  Thanks, Copa.
Descending from our first flight into Panama City, the airline crew announced it was 32 º outside - and then they said a beautiful word: centigrade.  Roughly 82 ºF.  Big smiles, lots of muscle tension released, faces tilted toward the sun....all that was missing was clean drinking water.  Whatever, we all make choices about what we can live without.

After dinner, we celebrated the 5th night of Hanukkah
in the hotel lobby.



By the time we reached San José, we were a little tired, but very excited.  We temporarily lost one person and one suitcase, but in the end, everything showed up.  The car rental guys suggested that we eat at Rosti Pollo, next to our hotel, before driving to La Fortuna the next morning.

Unsure if the water was clean enough to eat fresh vegetables, we ordered our dinners at Rosti Pollo "sin lechuga y sin tomate" in case they had been rinsed in water.  Naturally, all our drinks at dinner were "sin hielo".  Earlier in the day, a member of our group had attempted to ask for a drink without ice, but ended up saying "no helado", which actually means "no ice cream".  Fortunately, the server got the idea and served the drink without ice, and also without ice cream in it.  Over the course of dinner, I translated for the group, and we went from "no helado" to "refrescos sin hielo."  It was really a pleasure to get to speak Spanish again.  Since returning to the US from Spain, I have only had the opportunity to speak Spanish in Miami and on other rare occasions.  I have always found menus to be one of the most difficult things to translate because there are so many ways to describe how food is cooked, and I'm not much of a chef.  Nevertheless, we were all pretty satisfied with our dinner.

Day 2 - December 21, 2014

Around 11 am the next morning, we began the drive to La Fortuna.  The houses looked about the same since the last time I was in Costa Rica.  They are sort of like huts and are built from large pieces of metal that somehow support each other.  Some don't have all the walls, some are open, and some are continuous with the outside air because it's always warm there, and there's really no need to close yourself in when the weather is that nice.  The one thing that had changed was that now, most of the houses had satellite dishes perched on their metal roofs.  Peering into the houses, we saw a lot of flat-screen TVs and people on iPhones.  Even the little trucks on the side of the road that sell fruit in the middle of nowhere now take Visa.

Pet Store in either Naranjo or Zarcero
As we drove through the towns of Naranjo, Ciudad Quesada, and Zarcero, we noticed that the road lanes were more like guidelines.  Drivers drove in the lines when they felt so inclined, and outside of the lines when the inspiration struck.  It's kind of like the pirate code from Pirates of the Caribbean.  The driving was rather precarious, the roads were narrow and winding, and I took the opportunity to share a story about a road trip my family took to Arizona when I was little.  My family was driving in a minivan, and unknowingly, made the extremely unwise decision to drive that minivan on a Jeep tour.  Suddenly, we found ourselves on the edge of a mountain on a path much too narrow for a van, and there was no guard railing.  I remember being fairly sure we were all going to fall to our untimely deaths that day, but we didn't because my mom made like a 13-point turn and got us out of there.  We no longer take Jeep tours.  I'm not sure why it seemed like a good idea to tell this story while driving on a narrow path on the side of a mountain.

Midwesterners Driving in the Mountains
Moments after I finished the horror story about the death-defying Jeep tour, we found ourselves literally driving in a cloud.  Not only could we see less than 15 feet ahead, but we were driving in curvy mountains without guard rails.  Also, it was windy.  Driving in the mountains is very foreign for someone from a land that is flatter than a pancake and is known as the Great Plains.  The cloud created total white-out conditions.  Once or twice, we passed a badly damaged guard railing where a car seemed to have gone over the edge.  I sort of just channeled my inner "palm tree zen" and gazed out the window at the plummeting land.

Driving in a Cloud
You try driving through this.
Finally, as we came into the town of Zarcero, the cloud thinned, revealing rolling mountains with green plants enveloping everything.  Tropical plants announced the sunlight and welcomed us back to the relief that today was not the day to topple over a mountain.

Looking around Zarcero, we found American brands everywhere (McDonalds, KFC, etc.), along with many stray dogs and many cows.  Like in Guatemala, it seemed that the stray dogs in Costa Rica were a population that used the same land as the people, but didn't interact at all.

The Original Hot Chocolate
In the middle of the day, by some miracle, we managed to arrive early for our Rainforest Chocolate Tour.  When we called to ask for an address to put into our GPS, we were surprised to learn that many streets in Costa Rica still don't have names.  In fact, the chocolate tour had no address to give us.  Our directions were simply to drive into town on the road, see the church, turn left, continue for one kilometer, and look for the chocolate sign.  Later, when we left the tour, they gave us the longitude and latitude coordinates of our hotel to put into the GPS.  I'm pretty sure this was the first time any of us realized you could enter coordinates into a GPS.

One the chocolate tour, we learned about all the stages of chocolate production - from the bean to the candy.  We tasted the white pulp, which surrounds the seeds in a cacao bean.  This pulp has the flavor of passion fruit and used to be the main snack people wanted from these beans.  Once the pulp is gone, the seeds go through the processes of drying, fermenting, and getting pressed.  At this stage, the chocolate forms nips, which can be eaten but are bitter.  These are ground into a powder, then a paste with butter, and finally are incorporated into a drink.  The original cacao drink was made with water, cacao, chili peppers, corn, and vanilla.  It tastes much more bitter than what we think of as hot chocolate today, because extra sugar isn't added.  The chili peppers give it a nice kick.

Each section is in a different stage of the chocolate-making process.
Giant Cacao Seed
In the field, we saw the giant cacao bean pods, each of which holds 25-50 seeds.  The large pod begins with a purple color and turns yellow as it ripens.  The seeds of these large pods are pollinated by the insect I hate most - the mosquito.  Yes, we would not have chocolate without mosquitoes.  To be honest, I'd rather ditch the mosquitoes and find some other candy to eat. I was coated in 30% deet mosquito repellent lotion, but that was apparently not strong enough to scare them away.

At the end of our chocolate tour, we had a sort of chocolate fondue, where the guide put melted chocolate on our spoons, and then we got to add any spices and toppings we wanted to taste.  The melted chocolate was 65% cacao, to which I added sea salt, hibiscus, peanuts, cinnamon, sugar, and a bit of orange extract.  We all went back for seconds and thirds because it was unbelievably delicious.

65% melted cacao/chocolate mix with hibiscus, sea salt, peanuts, cinnamon, sugar, and orange extract.
I went back for thirds.
Me and Samara enjoying our second or third helping of chocolate.  :)
As the sun began to set, we popped our coordinates into the GPS and set off toward our hotel, Hotel Heliconias.  The place was a little hard to find in the dark, but we did manage to drive up to what we thought was the reception building.  In our matching, bright yellow shirts, we hopped out of our cars, and burst into the building.  I say "burst" because there were ten of us, and with ten pale Americans wearing matching shirts, you sort of cause a scene wherever you go.  We walked in, smiled, announced that we had reservations, and asked if there was a place nearby where we could eat dinner.  There was some confusion, so I came forward to translate for the group.  To our great embarrassment, the people in the building explained that this wasn't a reception building; rather, we had just barged into their home...and asked for dinner and announced that we had reservations.  The father of the family in that home also owned the hotel, and explained to us that we had to drive about 100 meters farther down the road to get to the reception building.  Semi-mortified, we apologized profusely, and were amazed to see how gracious the family was about the whole incident.  As we drove to the actual reception area, we speculated that if ten people barged into your personal home in Chicago, you would panic, scream, call the police, and definitely not welcome them in.  Luckily for us, we weren't in Chicago.
Welcome to the rainforest! 


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