Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Mal País surf photography and a giant spider

Welcome to another Costa Rican catharsis! Or, if “catharsis” isn’t quite the right word, at least another blog update on my travels and experiences in this incredible country. Since my last blog entry, (which was far too long ago, I admit), I’ve traveled to Mal País beach to watch a surf competition, gone dancing at the best electronic music club in Central America, scored a header in a fútbol match, encountered the biggest spider I’ve ever seen in the wild (stay tuned for photos at the end), and given a 10-minute presentation on extraterrestrial life, in Spanish, to a class in which I am the only non-native speaker.

A couple of months back, when my friends Josh, Andy, and I decided we needed a break from classes and the bustling, daily grind of taking the bus to San Pedro, studying at the university all day, and then riding the bus home again, we did what any Gringo abroad would do: hopped on another bus for 8 hours and headed to the Pacific. Our final destination was Mal País beach, and we stayed at a hostel called Tranquilo Backpackers, probably my favorite, so far, in Costa Rica. Tranquilo has a central kitchen area where youth guests can store and prepare their own food at any time, and make pancakes from batter provided by the management every morning. Everything was kept very tidy, unlike some hostels I’ve stayed at, with a row of hammocks lined up along the rooms for relaxing and looking up at the verdant canopy, filled with native birds and even monkeys. Tranquilo was an incredible place to stay, but beware: falling asleep overnight in a hammock only seems like a slice of tropical paradise until you wake up with a ring of vicious mosquito bites for a belt. Good times in the jungle!

On our first full day, we started things off with the usual sorts of things one does after arriving at a Costa Rican beach, such as lying around on the sand and taking photos, swimming in the surf, and lying around some more on the beach. We were all pretty content with doing nothing and working on replenishing our tans that had all but faded to a nice milky tone in the month since classes had started. At least, we were until we heard about the surf competition.

As we walked through the tide down the beach we heard a loud voice booming in Spanish, between island reggae songs, and noticed a huge concentration of bleach-blonde, well-bronzed surfer dudes (or “maes” as they say in CR) and girls hanging out. Further out in the surf, we could see lots of teenagers in competition shirts absolutely shredding on the waves, and realized immediately that this had to be some sort of competition. Once we located a spot to post up in front of the competition booth, Andy and I were quick to start snapping some photos. I’ve never been happier to have such a good zoom lens on my camera, because I was able to get some really good shots of the competitors from the beach. My favorite pictures are of an older Tico guy with long hair, who was carving around the waves off to the side of the competition, as if saying, “I don’t need prize money on the table to be totally gnarly, man.” Later that night we watched the sunset from the sand as surfers continued to dot the waves far out beyond the tide, until there was almost no light left, and then followed everyone in to a beachside club party.

A quick side note: the sunsets on the beaches here in Costa Rica are the most beautiful that I’ve ever seen in my entire life. It’s amazing how the light reflects off the water and the sand and paints the sky a gradual gradient from blue, to yellow, to orange-red and eventually shades of purple after the orb has sunk beyond the horizon. I was able to get some great end-of-the-day shots at Mal País that I’ve posted at the end of this entry.

While I haven’t done a whole lot of traveling since that getaway trip, mostly due to my course load at the University of Costa Rica, I have had a lot of cool experiences here in the city. As I mentioned earlier, I went with a group of friends to an electronic dance club called Vertigo in downtown San José to see a Belgian house music DJ called Jimmy Van M. Vertigo is advertised as “the best electronic club in Central America,” and with good reason. There are several tiers to it and a main dance floor filled with lighting effects, and the sound system packs enough bass to be heard up and down the street outside. We had such an incredible time dancing that we didn’t end up getting back to our neighborhoods near San Pedro in a taxi until the first rays of morning sunlight were flaring on the horizon. Now that’s the sign of a good night.

Since this is a “study” abroad, not “party” abroad trip, after all, I’ll emphasize that even though my studies aren’t as fun to talk about in a blog as the “extra-curriculars” I’ve experienced here, they have been the real success of my Tico life. It has been amazing to observe my own improvement with the Spanish language, as I’ve gone from thinking I was a hotshot on arrival in January, to realizing I could hardly understand anyone’s conversational Spanish, to my current situation of being able to understand almost everything and speak pretty effortlessly. I had a definite “step-back-and-think” moment last week after I completed my portion of a class presentation in Astronomy and realized that I had been speaking constant Spanish for almost 10 minutes without having to make a translation from English first in my head. I’m still a long way from being able to call myself “fluent” in Spanish, but after living here for almost five months I think I can confidently say that I am “functionally fluent,” or at least “bilingual.” I had the same feeling this weekend when playing soccer with some Costa Rican friends, because I was able to yell back and forth with them in Spanish during the game without thinking too much. Oh, and I definitely earned some respect after scoring a goal on a header.

I’ll cut this blog post short before it reaches term-paper length, but I’ll be making another trip to a beach town called Montezuma this weekend before final exams start really breathing down my neck, so I’ll be putting together at least one more photo blog post before I head back to the good ol’ U.S.A., in July. I also returned to the hot springs and coffee plantation in Cartago last weekend, with the Grupo Kansas, which I already described in my first blog entry on Macho Gringo, so I’ll just let the photos at the end here do the talking. What set this trip apart, however, was a large tarantula-esque spider that we found crawling on a boulder by the hot springs. I haven’t been able to figure out exactly what kind of spider it was, but it sure looks cool in the close-up photo I shot, especially after the two little nieces of one of our group coordinators were done splashing it. (In retrospect, probably not the best idea.) But without further ado, enjoy the photos! Click to enlarge.
The main booth of the surf competition

A surfer warming up Tai Chi style

The long-haired surfer who stole the show

Kid at the bottom left had better watch out

Mal País beach

Blood red colors near the end of the sunset

Surfers paddling out as the sun sets

Purple shades in the sky

I love the beams of light coming through in this photo

Our little poolside friend. Using the word "little" loosely

El Valle de Orosi in Cartago

Grupo Kansas returns to the hot springs

Another view of the tarantula

Sunday, April 7, 2013

San José street art and Panama travels

Buenas, everyone! Once again I've had more new experiences than seem humanly possible to fit into one blog entry since the last time I posted, but I'll do my best anyway. It is now one week after the end of Semana Santa vacation, which is basically Spring Break here at the UCR, so classes have begun in earnest and the days of traveling to a different beach every weekend are definitely over (both because I actually have a good amount of homework now and because my bank account tells me so.) That isn't such a terrible thing, however, since I'm noticing consistent improvement in my ability to both speak and understand Spanish, which is really the reason why I came to Costa Rica in the first place. I'm also looking forward to getting out and experiencing more of what San José has to offer closer to my home-away-from-home here in Cedros, and that's exactly what I've done in the past couple of weeks.

I'll start with my most recent urban activity. I went with a couple of friends this morning to see the National Orchestra of Costa Rica play at the National Theater (Teatro Nacional.) It was an incredible experience, especially because the special guest soloist was a virtuoso on the piccolo. I was in awe when, for the finale, they played a dramatic Stravinsky piece that I recognized from the Disney movie "Fantasia." This orchestra is definitely a "must-see" for anyone visiting San José in the future, especially since the price of entry was only just over five U.S. dollars with our UCR student ID cards.

Before I write a little bit about my trip to the islands of Bocas del Toro in Panama for the week of Semana Santa, I want to talk about the graffiti that is abundant around the UCR in San Pedro and in San José. In fact, calling this spray painted art "graffiti" really misses the mark in my opinion, because it's evident that an immense amount of time and artistic skill goes into many of these pieces. We're not talking your average urban tags here that are nothing more than sloppily scrawled vandalism, but well composed works that represent the emotions and culture of the city. Another friend from the Grupo Kansas program and I walked around the city early one morning a couple of weeks ago to take pictures of this street art, and we're planning to return for more tomorrow. I'm going to post some of my favorites at the end of this entry, and I'll put the rest up when I get around to doing the next one. I hope you'll enjoy and appreciate them as much as I do.

As I've said already, for Semana Santa vacation in late March I traveled across the border into Panama by bus, taxi, foot, and boat to reach the islands of Bocas del Toro. I was accompanied by three friends, Christina and Rochelle, who are also members of the Grupo Kansas, and Rochelle's son Shawn who is attending elementary school in San José. We had a great time camping at the "Mar e Iguana hostel," although camping was admittedly a little uncomfortable because of the humidity, but it's hard to argue with $5 a night, right? We visited a different beach every day, such as Starfish Beach and Red Frog Beach, which undoubtedly lived up to their names as we saw lots of those two animals, and rode bikes to Bluff Beach. But my favorite activity of the trip was definitely a guided boat tour that we took to see dolphins in Dolphin Bay, snorkel in Coral Cay, and finally chill on the beach for a few hours at a beautiful and remote island called Cayo Zapatillo. One of the funniest things that happened on this trip was when a little Panamanian boy asked if we would give him our soccer ball at Red Frog Beach. We politely denied him, of course, to which he responded by catching several of the famous red frogs in a leaf and demanding a trade. We also went dancing with a few Guatemalans we met at the hostel, which was a very cool cultural experience. The only problem with Bocas del Toro is that it is a very tourist-y town, and so is definitely on the expensive side. If I could do it over again I would probably choose to make it a three or four day trip rather than a full week to save money, but it was an amazing time nonetheless.

Here are my favorite photos of the San José street murals, and a few of the best ones I was able to snap in Panama to finish things off. Until next time, Pura vida!

"La Calle de la Amargura"- the student hangout street near campus. (A reminder: you can click any of these photos to enlarge them.)

The first of many graffiti photos, this one was taken near La Calle

Street artists paying homage to the natural world

This one might be my favorite

"Think." "Feel." "Dream."

Another one of my favorites

The art right across the street from campus in San Pedro

The cat bus from the movie "Totoro," which is very popular here


Andy in photographer mode

Another favorite. OK, so I have a lot of favorites

A great shot of a typical city street on the way to the Avenida Central

Andy again on our street photography mission, round one

The first of the Panama photos- bananas are a huge part of the economy here

A couple more amazing graffiti pieces

Bienvenidos a Panama!

These types of boats, or "lanchas," are the primary mode of transportation in Bocas

The best dolphin shot I could get

The Bocas del Toro crew on Cayo Zapatillo

The view from the shore of Cayo Zapatillo

Local kids fishin'

Conch shells

The architecture of Panama- very colorful and in harmony with the ocean

A sailboat in the harbor at the end of a long day

These last few are some hasty iPhone pictures that I snapped on the way out of Bocas Town

The famous Caribbean rice and beans!

More of the architecture