Tag Archives: Caribbean

The times they are a changing

Tuesday 7 February: It was a grey kind of morning, and a dense Darien jungle inundated the teeny fishing village of Sapzurro (pop. 1000) where we dropped anchor in South American waters for the first time. I was absolutely hankering to get on land.

Deb arranged a ‘launch’ (panga / speedboat) with one of the locals to transport us from Ilean to Capurgana (pop. 2000). Both of these villages, because of their proximity to the border – are rich with sailing legends: stories of pirates from Panama, criminals from Colombia, and the wine & wenches who drained them all of their wealth.

Passports stamped, we checked in as a group into the Hotel Los Delphines – rather fitting, given our welcome to country by the beautiful critters. We were all desperate for showers, cold beers & food in varying orders and so went our separate ways for a bit. For the rest of the day we ambled about, bumping into each other by street food vendors, in the pool hall, and down by the sea.

Capurgana is a sweet lil place that reminded me a bit of Little Corn: no cars, no ATM, and town power for only ½ the day – if that. And subsequently, very unreliable WiFi connection.

It’s incredible how reliant we’ve become on the internet. I remember travelling through Europe in ‘98 and carrying traveller’s cheques – now I do my banking electronically. I made arrangements to meet new friends by the Trevi Fountain at a specific time – now I Facebook them. I wrote old-fashioned letters (and faxes!) to communicate with loved ones – now I email them (although I still send postcards!) I collected mail at the next town’s ‘poste restante’ – now I have no idea where I’m going to be from one day to the next. And I made reverse charge calls to my folks from public phone booths (using coins!) – whereas now I Skype them. Oh, the times they are a changing.

I would have stayed longer in Capurgena, along with Pinky & Shannon, except I really needed cash. I needed to touch base with Scott – who was on his way! And I had promised to let my poor old Pa know I had made the crossing safely. I needed to get back to civilisation.

So at 7 the next morning, I was standing on one very disorganised dock, an unwilling participant in yet another brilliant Latin American System. This is how best practice for a Latin American System goes: The more useless paperwork – the better. The more power the bossman thinks they wield – the better. The more other ‘officials’ standing around watching the bossman – the better. And last but not least the more waiting you (as the paying customer) have to do – the better.

It was another back-breaking, tongue-biting, teeth-smashing ride of about 2.5 hrs to Turbo. I didn’t think too much of it when the engine kept cutting out. Men over here can fix anything. But when we ran out of gas in the middle of fucking nowhere, I started to feel a little uneasy. But Whaddya Know! – out of nowhere, a boat with extra fuel appears and topped us up. Like John, the owner of the bar on Little Corn said to me, once – they know how to make you feel grateful for small things.

Turbo was just as the LP described it: a place to get the hell out of, as quickly as possible. It’s a hectic, noisy, filthy place that smelt absolutely putrid and was teeming with touts, sleazes, conmen and beggars. The people from our sailing trip (sans Pinky & Shannon) split into two parties at this point. The lads & Constance were headed for Medellin. While I was headed for Cartagena – along with the delightfully kooky German, Nils and the sour Swiss fellow, who was getting on my nerves.

We got herded to an expensive collectivo where we joined some travellers we had met on the San Blas islands. I chatted with a young Californian girl who looked just like Buffy. The bus took us to a place called Monterria where we ate shit food & got herded into another expensive collectivo, destined for Cartagena.

After midnight, we arrived into Getsemani – the red light district in the old part of town – where a fuck-off street party was in full flight. I checked into the nearest available hostel with Buffy & her crew, right outside where all the action was. An hour later, I literally fell into my bed – which was smack bang in the middle of an awful crowded dorm room on the street-side of the hostel. I dreamt I was trapped inside a sound system that night.

The next day, I moved to the much more resort-y style Media Luna right next door. Into a lovely uncrowded back room. I had a personal admin day by the pool and got an early night.

Shannon came found me the following morning. She & Pinky had arrived late the night before. He had bailed to hook up with a girl he’d arranged to meet here. Shannon was leaving on the 13th, so she & I spent the next 3 days hanging out, having heart-to-hearts, eating lots of g-o-o-d food, chatting with locals, and having lots of great big belly laughs.

Shannon’s a bit of a rarity. She’s only just 25 but such an old soul in many ways. She’s a bit of a dag, which I think makes her incredibly cool. She’s well-travelled and well-read and as such, has lots of interesting things to say. But she’s also a very good listener. Those who she chooses to shine her light on, light right back up at her. It’s a lovely thing to behold.

She reminds me a bit of an amazing woman I used to know called Annie. An angel sent to save my stupid teenage ass, and who ended up having a massive influence on the person I became.

That night we partied with Buffy & her crew. We sampled some of the *local fare* and did a bit of bar hopping, winding up at a cool lil dig with live music & lots of dancing. Next day, we ate a delicious 3-course meal in a beautiful European bistro. I flirted with the cute waiter with gorgeous skin, and a big shiny smile.

We also took a tour to the volcanic mud baths … the whole experience was a bit “different” to what we had both been anticipating (ie, how many tourists can you fit into 5 square metres & sketchy masseurs trying to cop a feel). I got mud in my punani. As my mate Dave would declare, “Now, you don’t get to say that everyday.”

We topped it all off with a wonderful last night of wine & cheese (blue & swiss!) night in the Plaza de los Coches (Square of the Carriages) and a chat with a talented Brazilian artisan whose work we had both fallen in love with. I just kinda moped about the day she left, and then cheered myself up by researching a plan of sorts for when Scott comes. Not long now!

I met a sweet man from San Diego and made plans to go to Playa Blanca with him. It’s supposed to be the best beach near Cartagena and is the weekend playground of many Colombians. And it was just lovely (not quite San Blas, but lovely all the same) … more pristine white sands, more turquoise waters.

We met up with a couple of other solo travellers, and scored ourselves hammocks for $3 / nite. The only downsides to Playa Blanca were getting harassed by hawkers, and the exorbitant prices of meals. But there is nothing like the sound of waves to put you to sleep, and waking up right on the beach will never lose its charm for me.

I ran into Guy and Marcus (the sound English brothers who were on our yacht) and we hung out on the beach for the day, which was a bit of a bonus!

I had started coming down with an intense sore throat thing and was feeling a bit achy in my glands, and didn’t really fancy sleeping out in the open for another night. So I cut my trip short to come back to Cartagena.

I’ve been back two days now and have just been chilling out, drinking lots of water and getting some rest. Re-charging for the Carnival in Barranquilla. Apparently it’s the second biggest in the world, after Rio de Janiero in Brasil.

I’ve decided to go for just one night. I don’t have accommodation sorted (standard). So I’m going to pull an all-nighter. The first in a long time. I’m a bit scared. But also super excited. Plus I have sparkly blue nails! All I need now is some feathers, and I’m good to go.

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Closer to fine

Captain Debbie and her husband / First Mate Wayne were a blonde haired, blue-eyed easygoing couple in their early 50s. They met when they were just 23 and had backpacked the world together. In 2004 they bought a boat called Sunshine, packed up their comfortable home in South Africa and set off towards Brazil with the idea of sailing throughout the Caribbean for a year. They haven’t been home since. Together they have clocked up more than 10 years experience and 35,000 sea miles.

Ilean (pronounced Eileen) is a hardened 54-foot racing yacht that’s been around the block a few times. She’s a very simple boat with no bells & whistles. There were enough beds and hanging cots to sleep up to 12 people. No shower: Just a whoofy marine toilet & an out-of-action washbasin.

She also had no autopilot, which means someone always needed to be at the helm. While this is a romantic notion, it can be impractical. It meant we would need to take turns at hand-steering so Deb could get some rest. Most of us saw this as less of a problem and more of a wicked opportunity!

The galley was small and lacked a lot of basic cooking utensils but it did have a well-stocked pantry. Although it was clear the shopping had been done by an aging white man. There were lots of white bread, pasta and 2 minute noodles.

We spent our first night on the boat in Portabello harbour. We had a few drinks and I, as one of the self-appointed cooks, made us a big tomato sauce pasta for dinner. We got a ‘relatively’ early night with the aim of setting sail early in the morning.

“Trade winds” are strong & consistent winds which blow in a north easterly direction in this part of the world. It makes for favourable conditions if you’re sailing downwind, which in heading south to Colombia, we were.

However, the seas were really rough & choppy that day, and so we stopped after only a couple of hours in Puerto Lindo – essentially to wait for calmer conditions. We also took the opportunity to have lunch and a swim at one of the nearby islands.

As the sun was sinking into the sea, we set off again. Our Captain’s thinking being that if we were going to be motoring in rough seas – best to do it at night when we could, in theory, sleep and then – when we woke up, we would do so in paradise.

The wind and the sea were behind us but neither were in a good mood. The nor’easterly was picking up and messy swells were mounting under a stormy kind of sky. It was not shaping up to be a good night.

The motion of the boat started to make me feel a little queasy after a few hours and so I climbed down the tiny set of stairs & found myself a bed. After a few hours of sleep, I came up for some air.

Conditions had worsened: we were getting a battering with 15 -20 knots of wind & up to 10ft of swell coming in at us from all directions. It was rough out on deck. The lucky few who were less prone to sea-sickness were valiantly drinking rum and singing songs to keep up morale. But most had passed out downstairs – the effects of the Dramamine kicking in.

After a while, I went back downstairs myself. It was almost impossible to stand up inside the cabin without bouncing from side to side like a pinball. And it was carnage inside.

The solid wooden island bench (which evidently wasn’t attached to the floor!) had slid across the width of the cabin finding a new home in the closest bed. Anything that that wasn’t tied down or stown away had gone flying. Wayne and Guy were valiantly trying to restore order, while people were puking into buckets and clinging to the edges of their beds lest they get thrown to the floor. I felt so nauseas at this point, it was all I could do to send a bucket sliding in Nial’s direction.

I popped another pill, laid down, stuck my headphones in, closed my eyes, breathed deeply and instantly felt better.

I woke up again another few hours later, and saw Marcus had taken the helm, and was swigging away at a bottle of rum, while keeping a close eye on the red-lit compass. Everyone else was asleep. Our Captain was laying on the floor beside him ensuring he was on course from the position of the moon behind him. She later told me Marcus had done a great job, never once straying off course. It was still very rough & black & stormy & ugly, so I fell back into bed until daybreak.

As day broke the next day, we sailed into the simply stunning Archipelago de San Blas. 365 islands. One for every day of the year.

Most are deserted but approximately 50 of them are inhabited by some 55,000 Indigenous Kuna Indians. While technically part of Panama, the Kuna Yala is an autonomous province managed by these proud & fiercely independent people. It is thought that the Kunas may be the last of the full-blooded Carib strain that inhabited the Caribbean before the Spanish conquistadors. They have managed to maintain their culture with their customs, language and dress and have also managed to deter mainstream tourism. Theirs is a very simple existence. And a truly rich life.

As we arrived, we were treated to a warm welcome by some of the other locals – a pod of (what I believe were) short-snouted spinner dolphins which are a lot blacker than others I’ve seen before. They played in our wake until we dropped anchor.

The sun was shining down on the Cocos Banderos cays (Tidal, Dupwala, Olosicuidup and Guariadup). They were decorated with coconut trees and lots of rich green foliage. Beautiful crystal clear waters, a few different shades of blue lapped at shimmering white sands.

That picture of paradise on your screensaver in the office? It’s real. I had to rub my fists into my eyes and pinch myself to check I wasn’t dreaming. As many Caribbean islands as I have visited on this trip, I will never tire of seeing new ones. I’m not sure how it’s possible but they just get better & better. I have wondered if I was doing the trip in reverse, if I’d feel the same.

We all jumped in the water, which I put at around 24 degrees, and splashed around like excited little kids. Some people wasted no time in getting their snorkel gear on. I cooked us up a big brekky. And we spent the rest of the day exploring the various islands – all within swimming and dinghy distance.

We set up camp at the island nearest to us that afternoon, taking across supplies & music. The boys got a fire going and cooked up sandy hot dogs in a very amusing manner. We had a wild rum-fuelled eve that night. Lots of whooping. Lots of running around. Lots of laughs.

A few people strung up hammocks. I had a most uncomfortable night on the ground, fighting with my sleeping bag, wedged between two of the Dutchies. Stretching out my crickety ole back, I decided the next morning I would opt for a more comfortable (and peaceful) night on the boat’s deck for the rest of our stay. Must be getting old.

The next day was more of the same: Swim. Snorkel. Eat. Read. Sleep. Repeat. One of the things that I’m most grateful for in taking this year off, is just having time to really enjoy life. I think I’ve really slowed down. I think I’ve become a better listener. I think I’ve become more observant. And I think I’ve become better at sitting still. Ish.

Late afternoon, Deb took Shannon & I across in the dinghy to the island to meet her Kuna friends, Rosalinda and Mr G. They were a gorgeous brown-skinned, wrinkly old couple with big beautiful smiles (missing teeth not withstanding) who welcomed us with open arms. We wanted to buy some jewellery and molas from Rosalinda & the women in her family. Molas are a traditional art form – colourful cotton appliqués of two or more panels, featuring geometric designs and sometimes images of things, such as animals in their environs. Many years ago, they used to paint these patterns and images on their body. Now, the molas form part of their traditional dress. Ironically, they look to me alot like modern art.

We made arrangements with Mr G to come back with our crew and have a big seafood dinner with them the next night.

Most of our crew spent that night on the deserted island we had set up camp in. Guy, Marcus & I stayed on Ilean with Debbie & Wayne. We had a lot of wine and good banter and slept on the deck of the gently rocking boat, under a brightly lit sky. I went diving in my dreams that night.

Day 3 was exactly the same as the previous day. Swim. Snorkel. Eat. Read. Sleep. Repeat. It’s amazing how this stuff never gets boring.

The crazy assed Dutchies just kept partying the whole time. I must admit, I distanced myself a little as I didn’t feel the need to get wasted in paradise. I sought solitude. And quiet chats with a select few. I spent a lot of time reading & writing. And just lying about enjoying the warmth of the sun on my back.

Mid afternoon, Deb took us over in shifts in the dinghy to the Kuna island for our dinner party. Mr G had organised a shipment of ice & beer for us. He & his men were cooking up a storm. Deb had made up a big garden salad with a lovely caper based dressing, and a garlic butter for the freshly caught langoustines. We also had pan-friend yellowtail with coconut rice. It was, in a word, divine! We played with the island kids and had a bit of a drunken singalong. I snuck off for a quick full-moon skinny dip on my own around the other side of the island.

Much later that eve, while the rest of the crew were running amok on their island, Guy & I kicked back on the deck of Ilean. He had a heart to heart with Wayne, while Debbie slept and I just gazed up at that big fat full moon. I reflected back on my trip. How far I had come. In all senses of the phrase.

Closer to fine started playing on my iPod. Gotta love a bit of shuffle synchronicity.

By mid-morning the next day, we were off again. We sailed all day. I slept for most of the arvo, which enabled me to stay awake for most of the night.

At one point in the night, Shannon was at the helm and it was just she, Deb and I out on deck. Three women sharing stories and laughs. After an hour or so the soft swells sang their sweet song to Shannon, and lulled her to sleep.

I took over the helm for a shift and wondered at the expanse. I’ve never been that far out to sea. The sky & the sea stretched on forever and ever. The bright night sky was calm & clear. The dark blue ocean was a big animal breathing in its sleep.

I was awake when the new day broke and a new continent & a new country came into sight. Again, incredibly, we were welcomed by a pod of playful dolphins. We had travelled 175 nautical miles (324kms) over the last 5 days. I couldn’t believe I was nearly in South America. After all this time.

I took a moment to thank Deb. I wondered aloud what adventures life had in store for me. She asked me if I was scared. I could honestly say I wasn’t. Quite the opposite: I was absolutely brimming with excitement.

(welcome to the) Hotel California

After another long day on the road, I arrived in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca all hot & sweaty. I fell straight off the bus into the nearest hostel. It was totally lacking in personality but it was cheap. And convenient.

I had a few happy hour beers, a feed & a jibber with the cute bartender at the local reggae bar. Later, back at the hostel I met a few fun Aussie lads who were leaving the next day & were playing a drinking game with dice called ‘Chase The Ace’. Yes: I know I’m probably too old for drinking games. No: I don’t give a rat’s. Shits & giggles!

The next day, I had a chat to the local dive operator (shit visibility & not really worth going out). Still, I quite liked the feel of this place so I decided I’d stay on for maybe a week anyway… party a bit, explore a bit, chill a bit.

I went to check out Rocking J’s – a hostel recommended by LP, but to be perfectly honest – it was just a big backpacker’s barn. At the bar, I ran into someone I had met on Little Corn. A nice enough Aussie who was (motorbike) riding from Canada to Argentina with a couple of mates. I made plans to come back later for beers and maybe dinner.

A group of us went to a beautiful Japanese restaurant which promised “edible art”. All you can eat sushi for $20. Expensive feed in Central America but I was super excited. Turns out, some of the best sushi I’ve had.

However the meal was almost ruined for me by two of Easy Rider’s yobbo mates. They got hammered, spent the whole time swearing like they were at a cage fight, and complaining really loudly about the food. They’d never had sushi before. They didn’t know how to use chopsticks. Which is fine. But they were just stupid ignorant fucks about it.

These were the sort of boys for whom Japan = snowboarding & pussy. And Central America = cocaine & pussy. And I don’t have a problem with that if it’s coupled with an open, inquisitive mind that wants to learn something about a different culture. But I don’t believe these imbeciles had the capacity for learning anything. To my mind – these are the sorts of Australians who shouldn’t be allowed passports. They give us a bad rep.

It made me miss Todd & Piers (the lovely smart Aussie men that Pinky brought to Little Corn with him). Anyways, needless to say I paid up quick & got the hell out of there as soon as dinner was over. I over-tipped by way of compensation.

The next day I went to look for a different hotel – having been subjected to listening to a couple having sex in our dorm. It just wasn’t worth saving a lousy $4. I wound up at the Hotel Puerto Viejo, on the recommendation of the dive shop owner.

Kurt the owner, was a quietly charismatic Californian. He was tall & fit with dark moppish hair and a strong jaw line (which I’m always a bit of a sucker for). He was aging well for a man in his early 50s. Think Richard Gere meets Kurt Russell.

Evidently, he’s the nephew of a pioneering big wave rider and has surfed Pipeline, himself. I asked him if he’d ever surfed in Australia. He told me when he was ready to die – he’d come & give Shipsterns Bluff a crack.

The place was teeming with half-naked men. Men waxing boards in the yard. Men rolling Jamaican goodness. Men getting into Jeeps to go ride the legendary Salsa Brava. A mix of Caribbean men, Ticos, and imports. All of them with those perfect surfer boy backs. And beautiful brown skin. Man that stuff is addictive. I felt like a kid in a candy store!

The rooms were pretty basic and a bit dark truth be told, but the place had a good ambience about it. And besides, a private room with a fan for $10 was a deal in this town.

I came back with my pack and watched in amusement as four men & a teenage boy tried to check me in. It was a shit show. I think largely because they so stoned (except the lil tacker). And probably because they had better things to do (see above).

Kurt told me he was one of the first foreign business owners in Puerto Viejo, having arrived some 24 years ago. He’d built the place himself. It was a huge rabbit warren of a place – 70 odd rooms cobbled together with lots of mismatching pieces of timber.

It amused me how he answered the phone with the almost arrogant, “Hotel”. As though he was the only one, still.

When he found out I was travelling solo, he reassured me they would take care of me there. And taken care of I was. Morning, noon & night 😉

Puerto Viejo reminded me a bit of Byron Bay 15 years ago. Just a whole lot blacker. And a whole lot cooler. Great waves. Perfect weather. Good reggae. I felt like I was on set of a TVC for an über cool beer.

One day, I hired a bicycletta & rode 15ks to Manzanillo on a nice flat road with the jungle rising up on one side and pretty beaches all the way on the other. I stopped for a swim at the picture perfect Punta Uva. A pretty lil cove with some amazing snorkelling.

I also took some surf lessons with a Rasta, who failed to get me up surfing, but did manage to put me on my arse with some seriously good hashish. Smoking is just a way of life here. People were wrapping up on the bar & smoking openly in the calle. I literally saw a bloke wave to a cop as he sparked up a spliff. Now you don’t see that everyday.

I would have stayed a lot longer had everything not been damn so expensive. And besides – Ometepe Shannon & I had transgressed from just chatting about meeting up with Pinky who was in Panama, to sail to Colombia – to actually making proper plans. Well, one of us made proper plans.

I left Puerto Viejo to catch a bus across the border in the vague hope I could buy a ticket for the plane trip from a one horse town called Changuinola to Panama City. Of course there were no more seats left. And so I ended up on a 10 hour overnight bus trip instead.

I arrived at 330am with no reservations for a room. I was lucky to get a decent taxi driver (not quite ready to take back everything I’ve ever said about taxi drivers yet though) who drove me around town to 4 different places before i found one that would stick me in a hammock until a bed became available. They made one up for me, and at 5 in the morning i crashed out absolutely filthy & absolutely spent.

By mid-morning, I had linked up with Pinky & was having the first beer of the day in a new country. Hello Panama!

Rolling down the river

The next day I made my way to Turriabla.

Because Costa Rica is so expensive, I have been keen to hit the highlights & get through it fairly quickly. This has meant not spending as much time in one place and travelling longer distances between destinations.

It was a big day of travel: 6 hours on 3 buses to go 240km. And I had another incident with a yet another freakin taxi driver in San Jose.*Apparently* buses to Cartago weren’t running due to an industrial strike or some such. My thoughtful driver even placed a call to the officina to confirm. Then offered to take me as far as Cartago for the very low price of $30. The bus would cost me about $3. I knew I could get a bed for around $12 in San Jos, and then try again the next day. But I was loathe to spend any time in the city.

My gut spoke up and in my shithouse Spanglish, I asked him to take me to the bus station anyway. $12 later (more than double of what it should have cost) & I was at the bus station. Guess what? There was a bus in 15mins. The fucker.

I arrived in Turriabla as the sun was setting. It was a large rural town, with a nice feel to it. I checked into a cheap & clean hotel (the kind where you get given a towel!) down by the railway tracks. I later enjoyed a cheap & super tasty casada at a typical Tico restaurant. Gotta say: The local fare in Costa Rica shits all over the stuff Nicas serve up.  Loads more flavour. Loads more vegies.

The next day I was going white water rafting for the first time ever, so I woke up bouncing off the walls like a pogo stick on amphetamines. It was early – so I wandered about the township looking for a panaderia for some more of the spicy beef & potato empanadas I was acquiring a taste for.

The Rio Pacuare is one of the top 5 white rafting sites in the world. It starts in the Cordillera de Talamanca and flows 108km to the Caribbean. The rapids range from beginner (Class I) to expert (Class V) depending on whether it’s wet or dry season. The river is surrounded by these massive, dramatic gorges and sheathed in dense jungle that’s a million shades of green, just teeming with wildlife (jaguars, monkeys & ocelots, although we didn’t see any). And we were about to spend the next few hours rafting down some 25km of it.

After a quick briefing and a bit of Team Paddling 101, we set off. It took us a while to find our rhythm as a team but we got there in the end. Before you know it, we were gently cascading down our first lil rapid.

The raft was certainly very sturdy but also supple enough that you could feel the shape of the river & her rocks underneath. Under the guidance of the very capable Luis (who i called Guns), we progressed from Class I up to Class IV in a pretty short space of time and ended up manoeuvring through some pretty tight ‘passages’ and some pretty freakin turbulent waters. We got up some real speed in these conditions and I could not stop squealing the whole time. A few of us spilled out overboard around one particularly hectic bend. I got a face ache from smiling so much. I went to bed a very tired and happy girl that night.

The next day I woke up & decided to move on and make my way back to the Caribbean in the hope of getting some more diving in.

A little less conversation, a little more action

So, I arrived in Playa Del Cocos, which is in the north of Costa Rica on the Pacific Coast, after a long day of travel and got clean. Like hot shower clean. And then I ambled down the main street to find some grub.

There were a shitload of rich retirees from the US, loads of tacky souvenir vendors on the street, and far too many burger / pizza / rib joints for my liking. I could tell straight away, this place was not for me. I discovered a lil ‘soda’ & hoovered a couple of tacos. I then wandered into a bar, managed to avert the attention of a couple of local men & caught up with a few friends online.

The next day was just gorgeous. 30-something degrees, a light breeze, and bugger all humidity. I booked myself in for a dive and got in a bit of beach time. The playa consists of fine volcanic sand and is the colour of chocolate – hence its name.

Sparkly yachts & cruisers bobbed around in a cove that was surrounded by arid yet majestic mountains. It reminded me a little of Greece or Turkey. It was clear to me this was quite different from most parts of Central America I had seen so far.

On Tuesday I went diving in the archipelago (isn’t that a great word?!) of the Catalina Islands.

Visibility wasn’t so great, maybe 10m (due mostly to the amount of plankton). The reefs were neither interesting or pretty. Sea temps were a lot colder than in the Caribbean (I had to wear a wettie for the first time since leaving home). And we had to deal with quite a bit of surge & current.

But Oh-My-God: the sealife was Simply Spectacular. On the way out, we saw dozens of jumping devil rays, we got a birds-eye view of a humpback whale & her calf. I also spotted two huge turtles bob bob bobbin along.

Underwater there were just schools & schools of oversized tropical fish. We saw snapper, yellowtail, angelfish, triggerfish, barracuda and a big assed spotted eagle ray as well as some massive southern rays. I also saw my first scorpionfish, a cornetfish & a Tiger snake eel which would have made my day right there. But then, it got better and entering  into a channel, we came up against five hooge white tipped reef sharks – no further than 2 or 3 metres away. Totally wicked shit. The stuff you live for when you dive. I surfaced, whooping for joy!

I celebrated with a couple of beers and a big big lunch. I later had a nap and then went to see the sun set from a dock down by the boulevard. I’d call that a good day.

The next day I made my way to Monteverde which ended up being quite the mission. Around 2 in the afternoon, I got dropped off on the highway in the middle of nowhere with the Spanish reassurance (I think) that this was the point where a connecting bus would pick me up.

There was a kiosk selling tired looking fried tacos, a random lotteria and a gas station, where a bunch of Costa Rican cowboys were waiting for a tourist to chop up into little pieces. There wasn’t quite tumbleweed blowing down the highway but there were certainly a lot of big dust gusts added for FX.

I asked at the kiosk and yes, there was definitely a connecting bus at 330. A few locals showed up and I checked with them and they all had different views on what time the bus for Monteverde would come, if at all.

At 430, I checked again with Kiosk Girl who acknowledged that there may not have been a 330 bus after all. But there was definitely a 530 bus.

I didn’t really have a Plan B and started to think about the time I fucked up reading Polish train timetables, and had to spend the night sleeping on a bench in an open train station in a small Baltic village in the middle of October. Note to self: Always have a Plan B (And, Yes I do realise this means I need a Plan A first.)

And then the 530 bus came. At 530!

A couple of hours later I was ensconced in a cozy hostel. I really liked it here. The township of Saint Elena reminded me a bit of Berrima: quiet & quaint. Lots of little coffee shops and art galleries all set against a dramatic green landscape in a crisp, cool clima. The hostel proffered nice vistas, soft lounges, freshly brewed coffee, and good company.

Monteverde is some 1,440m (4,660ft) above sea level and is famous for its cloud forests and rich biodiversity. A bit of googling & I learn there’s more than 100 types of mammals, 400 kinds of birds, tens of thousands of insect species, and over 2,500 varieties of plants (420 of which are orchids alone). I think that’s technically a fuck-load of nature.

Next afternoon, I went horse-riding for a few hours with a proper cowboy who had claimed to be in his mother’s belly when he first started riding. i should say here & now, I was never a pony kind of girl. I’ve only been riding a few times in my life. The last time I was on a horse, I was still a teenager. And I fell off.

Anyways, this was lovely. And largely incident-free. But I remember why I don’t ride horses. I could barely walk the next day.

So of course, not wanting to push myself too hard – I spent it doing sweet FA. Actually, that’s not true: I managed to fit in a manicure & pedicure. And, I am pleased to report my toes are an infection-free zone.

I went zip-lining the next morning. Apparently if you’re going to go zip-lining – Monteverde is the place to do it. I have to say, though, from the get-go – I was a bit iffy about the whole concept. Don’t get me wrong, I love my maximo – extremo – adrenalin-pumping activities as much as the next gal. It just reeked of tourist factory to me. Anyways, I kinda got talked into it by the chica at the front desk, and the next thing you know I’m getting harnessed up (and not in a sexy way), and flying el rapido down a series of 15 highly suspended cables, and of course (!) taking the optional Tarzan swing at the end. Look: It was a pretty cool way to see the cloud forest. And I think I enjoyed imagining I was a big-assed bird flying through the trees but I dunno … Maybe I woulda enjoyed it more if it was in or on or over the water. Anyways: Tick.

I think for me the highlight of Monteverde was a night walk I did through the noisy forest. There was lots of squawking, buzzing, clicking, scurrying & slithering.

In the space of just a couple of hours our guide showed us not one, but two, two-toed sloths; a bright green poisonous snake; an armadillo (Did you know that armadillos (and I think dolphins also) are among the few mammals that have sex in the missionary position?); and i saw my first Toucan Sam!

At one point, we stood in a clearing, switched off our flashlights, and just gazed at the stars. The sound of the wild winds whooshing through the forest sounded just like crashing waves to my ears.

But the best part was the bioluminescent mushrooms. Dunno ’bout you, but i’ve never seen such things! Our guide had us turn off our torches and these organisms start glowing a bright radioactive green in the night forest. How have I not known about this before?! Reckon Gav, Richard, Derek & I could have spent hours tripping out on that shit during our acid-taking days.

We were just about to get in the car and then our guide showed us a massive hairy nasty looking tarantula. The cynic in me suspected that said spider may have been on the payroll. Because it was way too close the office. And in an easily located hole. That the guide then coerced out with nothing more than a stick.

Cynicism aside – this was definitely the coolest thing I had done in Monteverde.

Changes

I’d been invited to Island Boy’s home for his birthday / New Year’s Eve dinner with the crew. He lives in a beautiful old house that’s been in his family for generations. It’s up on the opposite hill to the one I live on, and has very similar views of the bay – just from a different perspective.

He & I had been able to spend time in each other’s company with a lot more ease since the girl’d gone back home. We were back to bantering & laughing again. I figured now was as a good as time as any to start ‘striving for simplicity.’

We had a super tasty meal of lionfish which the boys had caught that day served with mashed potato. We made a start on one of 3 bottles of Flor de Cana we had between us, danced around a bit and then headed down to the party at Tranquilo.

The whole island must have been there, and then some. The place was absolutely jumping but for some reason I felt a little out of sync. Possibly just not drunk enough. Possibly something else. At any rate I headed straight for the bar, gave Steph & Lisa a hug and proceeded to quickly down a few rum & cokes (“coke for colour”). I wandered around just talking shit with people i knew and a few i didn’t. A lovely bloke I’d gotten to know a little over the past few days came up & started telling me how wonderful he thought i was. But i wasn’t really interested & I escaped into an empty space.

I found myself alone, again, right at midnight, staring up at the sky exploding into a hundred different colours, and feeling a bit sad. In that moment between the years, i have come to realise i would rather be on my own than with someone i didn’t really care about. So i hugged myself, made a wish, and then wandered about a bit more, looking for familiar faces to wish a happy new year to.

Cimba was getting it on with a pretty girl he’d met the day before. I was über happy for him as he’d had a bit of a rough quarter in the romance stakes, and absolutely deserved some happiness in that department. Steph & Lisa were getting slammed by the punters at the bar, so were too busy to hang out. All my other mates were shitshows in the making. And although I wasn’t a picture of sobriety by any means – I wasn’t keeping pace with them either. I caught sight of Island Boy making moves on a let’s say, rather generously proportioned girl and I felt another little wave of jealousy / insecurity wash over me. It passed quickly but I was feeling a bit lost, so i took off down the beach for a bit.

I ran into a local lad who was barely legal who’d been trying to seduce me for quite some time now. I’d been waving him off telling him i was old enough to be his mother. Heck, I was probably older than his mother. This did not deter Legal one little bit and he’d really begun ramping things up of late. So naturally he decided he should accompany me on my walk. We laid around on a grassy patch near the beach, smoking a joint and making out. He was a damn good kisser for someone of his age. And so the night ended on a bit of a high. In more ways than one.

I woke up on the 1st feeling better than average and excited about the day. We were going to be celebrating Gorgeous Jen’s birthday back up at Island Boy’s house. The sun was out, and it was shaping up to be another beautiful day. Steph & Lisa had the day off so they could join us, which i was well excited about. This would very likely be the last time all my favourite people would be in the same place at the same time.

Island Boy & I spent most of the morning in the kitchen singing sweet songs, cooking up a storm. We share a love of making meals for others and work well together in that space. The others entertained us in between smokes and drinks with their shenanigans. Cimba’s girl and her friend (who turned out to be the one Island Boy had slept with) came along. Turns out, they’re both Extremely Lovely. It was easier to be around her than the first one. The first one after you is always the hardest. Not quite apples for apples, but I found myself thinking of Roger’s ex-wife. She never forgave me for being the first one after her. Something I only really got, during an abusive phone call I received from her, shortly after the funeral.

We had a bountiful late lunch of marinaded, barbequed chicken and three different types of salad. Island Boy and Gorgeous Jen had a few crates of beer ‘barrowed up the hill and we finished off the rest of the rum. There was lots of dancing that day. And at the end of it, we all watched the sun set into the ocean. For me, it had been one of the best days on the island. What more could you want for? Friends, sunshine, music, food, dancing, banter, booze. I enjoyed myself more on the 1st day of the year, than I had the previous night.

The weather started turning over the next few days. It became windy and rainy and grey and miserable. The hoodies came out and there was a lot of talk about “the breeze”. The dive boats all got cancelled.

I had planned to leave a few days later and so begun seeking out quality time with my favourite people.

On Tuesday eve, Cimba took me to one of the nicest restaurants on the island for dinner. We shared super tasty Cuban steak – his came with chorizo! Earlier in the week, he had given me a pretty bracelet with turquoise semi-precious stones entwined into the delicate handcrafted piece. I felt very loved. I knew I was going to bawl like a baby the moment it hit me i wasn’t going to be seeing him everyday. We had become super close.

I spent lots of time with Steph & Lisa on my old porch, just doing what we do best: drinking gazillion cups of coffee, talking shit & laughing loads. I knew I was going to be seeing Steph in a matter of weeks in Colombia, so the thought of leaving her was a little easier to digest. I felt sorry that I wasn’t going to get to know Lisa a bit better.

I squeezed in some last minute girly chats with Gorgeous Jen & got some hammock time in with DDSteph & Dariel too. I visited my neighbours and kissed Yandell until he got sick of it. I bid a teary farewell to the ladies in the kitchen at the Italian. I gave Rodcliffe a big hug for all the big brekkies. Trouble followed me around for a good portion of my last days. I think she knew I was leaving. I was going to miss her sorely.

The only person who I hadn’t said goodbye to was Island Boy. He knew I was leaving. If for no other reason than the fact that we had done some 15 dives together, I think he could have had the decency to come find me & say goodbye. I know our mutual friends were as disappointed in him as I was.

On the morning I was supposed to leave, I was feeling right out of sorts. The weather got so bad – it looked as though the afternoon panga which would link me up with my flight would be cancelled. And while being stuck on a tropical island isn’t the worst thing that can happen by any stretch of the imagination – I wanted out. I had said my goodbyes to everyone who mattered. I had packed my bag. Left my apartment. And was sitting in a weird panga limbo in a practically empty bar. I was ready. Or so I thought. Cimba & Steph turned up and it suddenly dawned on me I was leaving an island & people who had worked their way into my heart.

And then i started Sobbing.

Later I rang the airline to defer my flight to the next day. Turns out I had actually booked my flight for the day before. Muppet. I thought I’d have to buy a new ticket. They were super chilled out about it. And charged me $15 for the change. As Steph pointed out: you pay $15 for a bottle of freakin water in the UK.

I got myself a room at the conveniently located Lobster Inn and took myself off to the Italian for a tasty pesto pasta, a warming bottle of red and the book I’d been struggling through for the last 7 weeks. I needed time out on my own.

When it came down to it, I couldn’t read. Busy busy mind. It was a day of real mixed emotions. I ended up getting quite pissy on that bottle of red.

I couldn’t help but feel a bit awkward. Have you ever been on a bus chatting with someone you know and then you say goodbye to them thinking they were going to get off at the next stop. But they don’t. Then you’re still standing next to them for four more stops. And there’s that awkward silence. It was a bit like that.

I was also feeling anxious about travelling again. I realised I don’t actually like the travelling bit. You can stick that ‘it’s the journey not the destination’ rubbish up your arse. I like being in places. Not on buses. I was stressing over the thought of my first chicken bus depot (man, those places are stressful even when you’re coming from a big city, let alone when you’re coming from a place that has no cars).

I was not looking forward to Managua. One little bit. But, Costa Rica. Now there’s a place I could get excited about. I’ve been dreaming about this place ever since my friend Greer worked & lived there almost a decade ago. Now everyone tells me it’s super expensive & very touristy. But also that it’s totally worth it.

New Year. New country. After nearly 3 months in Nicaragua, it felt like time for a change.

Up to Friday 6 Jan

One more time!

I’m renting a sweet self-contained apartmentito owned by Mr Winnie, which is up on the hill as you head towards the village. I woke up on Christmas Day earlier than is necessary, complete with my usual raging hangover. I trode over the velvety grass to the edge of the cliff which affords sweeping views of the bay. It was a bit of a grey morning and the water looked a bit like the Ganges after all the rain we had had. I wasn’t all that interested in my customary Christmas morning swim. I was however, absolutely starving.

I trundled off Desideri, which everyone on the island calls The Italian. It’s one of the more high-end restaurants on the island and does some amazing cocktails. I had landed a job there the day after I finished up at Tranquilo. Jobs are scarce on the island so I’ve been very fortunate to have them just fall in my lap. Again, this was my first time waitressing. And again it has ratified my respect for those who work in hospitality. It’s bloody hard work. I have been learning a lot from Mai-Lynn about things like wine service & cocktail making.

I took my time over a nice Christmas breakfast of omelette & French-pressed coffee. Miss Gladys must be one of the best chefs on the island and I think I might want to marry her. Afterwards, I took a walk with Louis who was a bit worse for wear for having been out at Aguila’s until daybreak. We went up to his mother-in-law’s house so i could give his gorgeous son, Yarnel (or Little Louis as Steph calls him) a truck for Christmas. Afterwards I visited Flacco & Ilette’s daughter, Rhiani to give her a drum. It was a bit naughty of me as she’s a rowdy-strong-willed-bull-mastif of a 2-year-old. I saw her carrying that thing around all day. Her folks are gunna love me.

I ran into Island Boy and the most Gorgeous Jen (a dive instructor up at Dolphin Dive) who invited me to join them for brekky beers at The Shack. I figured it would be very un-Australian of me to say no. And so Christmas Day began in earnest.

Town power had come on early that day, so we ended up moving our lunch to Happy Hut. Happy Hut is a bar / club / hammock hangout that is managed by Steph (not to be confused with Tranquilo Steph) who is another dive instructor at Dolphin Dive, and her boyfriend, Dariel.

Dolphin Dive Steph left Canada after school, to live in Africa for a couple of years, and she’s been here on the island for a couple of years. She’s just 22 but in many ways, carries herself as a woman beyond her years. She’s told me some interesting stories about how nearly every member of her immediately family has come very close to death. Dariel is a dreaded Orinoco man & he’s always sauntering around the place, with a big bright white smile on his dial, sayin, ‘everybody got to be happy, mahn.’

In amongst all the drinking, we somehow managed to pull together a Christmas lunch of marinaded chicken and mashed potatoes which was super tasty. I spent the rest of the day ambling around, linking up with mates, having a drink, a smoke & a laugh. Later that eve, I went home for a quick disco nap, until Cimba came to wake me up to go dancing.

The only club on the island is a very unique place by the name of Aguila’s (Spanish for ‘eagle’). Tranquilo Steph described it as “the sort of place that 95% of the time, you wish you hadn’t gone.” As a single ‘white’ female, you have to run the gauntlet down a footpath to the entrance, which always has young local lads sitting on the walls ‘welcoming’ you in. At the front of the club there is a brightly lit pool room, filled with old local men, sizing you up in between shots. You’ll grab a drink from the surly staff and make your way to darker recesses of the club. They’re big on strobe lighting and smoke machines here.

And then there’s the music. Oh my god, the music. They play a bit of Latin pop and a bit of Western pop (eg, JLo, Pitbull etc) but mostly you’ll hear reggae and other Caribbean flavours. I want to caveat the following by saying – there’s quite a lot of stuff I’ve heard here, which I really do like. But the music seems to fall into one of two categories:

1. I’m going to fuck you silly. My personal favourite song lyrics are “bend over, bend over, bend over” or “tight-tight-tight-tight-tight-tight-tight-tight, she had the tightest vagina”. (I swear, I am not making this up)

2. I’m sorry baby I was wrong, take me back coz I just can’t live without you. (Umm, maybe you shouldn’t have cheated on her with 2 different women then, asshole. Just sayin.)

The DJs don’t really get the concepts of smooth segues, of build & release, really even of keeping people on the dance floor. Which is kind of the job of a DJ, one might say. You’ll get something super-poppy one second, and the whole place is bumping & grinding. And then they’ll back it with a slow-dance number where couples are basically just hugging & pashing on the dance floor like 14 year old kids at a blue-light disco. Then it’s straight back into Shakira’s Waka Waka song.

Couple of tips for you, should you ever find yourself at Aguila’s, girls:

  • Don’t dance with any boys unless you’re perfectly happy to have his (semi) hard-on being shoved (sensually or otherwise) into the region of your pleasure palace for the whole time.
  • The slow dance is actually a very aggressive mating ritual. Never slow dance with a guy unless he’s your boyfriend. Or you want him to be. In the latter scenario, it might also be an idea to check if he really is single, first.
  • Go home before you get too wasted otherwise the vultures will circle until you weaken. And remember, 99% of the blokes here don’t walk you home because they’re a gentleman.

It is possible to have a good time at Aguila’s if: You don’t go too often. You don’t stay too long. You stand in the sandy patch between pool room and the club (the lighting & sound is as good as it gets, here). You are with all of your friends. You are drunk / stoned / high. You only dance with your mates. You avoid all conversations about sex. You wear or borrow footwear for the Trainspotting bathroom. You leave on a high note: Don’t wait for it to get better. Waka waka.

______________

Boxing Day was a bit quiet. I think the whole island had worn itself out from a pretty debaucherous Christmas Eve & Christmas Day. I must admit I missed home: There were no champagne brekkies. No ham off the bone & hot English mustard on fresh grainy bread. No watching the Sydney to Hobart yacht race from the Botanical Gardens. None of mum’s leftover stuffed turkey. No trashy house parties with bangin tunes. Put it this way, despite having had a super time – I’ll definitely be home for Christmas next year.

I talked a lot about leaving, so I could have NYE in Costa Rica but the truth of it is I’m finding it really hard to leave now. The sun has finally come out – it seems for good, and so my energy levels have ramped up a notch.

The water’s clearing up, I’ve some great dives (finally saw a turtle and some sharks!) and just in general, the place is starting to look more and more like a tropical island paradise.

I’m getting used to having Cimba & Tranquilo Steph around. The three of us went for a dive one morning and I was so loved up, I just had to give them a big hug underwater. They were so good to me when I was picking up the pieces of my ego after The Situation with Island Boy. I’m glad they’re getting to see Happy Chelle in full flight again. I laugh so much with the pair of them.

I’ve started getting to know Gorgeous Jen a little bit better. And she is just that: Gorgeous. She’s naturally quite shy but I think we’re all witnessing a woman in the making. Her & I and DD Steph had a much-needed bit of girl time one night after I finished work. We sat on the dock watching eagle rays glide around while we drank a couple of bottles of red. It’s up there in my one of my favourite Little Corn moments.

The funny, sweet, hardworking girls in the kitchen at Desideri, who have nicknamed me ‘Sexy’, are pleading with me to stay “one more month”. They’ve been helping me with my Spanish & Miss Gladys has taken to stealth persuasion by way of lobster au gratin. To die for.

Yep, there are a lot of reasons to stay. I have made a lot of new friends. I feel like I have a place here. I love that locals know me by name and stop in at the restaurant to say hello. I love the hugs that the l’il local boys bestow upon me. I love that Radcliff from The Shack knows what I want for breakfast. I love that all the island dogs come bounding up for a pat & a play.

Tourists are often curious as to how I ended up living & working on a little tiny island off the coast of Nicaragua. Truth is, I really don’t know. Put it this way: if you told me a year ago, I’d be here – I would have laughed in your face. Granted, I did meet a few people on my travels, who told me I should visit this place. But it very nearly didn’t happen. And I was most certainly not returning after the first time. But then I met Steph on the panga. And everything changed.

I knew if I didn’t book a flight out, I’d get ‘stuck’ here. And while that might not a bad thing in some ways. I also know I‘ve got to keep on moving.

So, I leave on the 4th of Jan.

Today is the 31st of December.

A time for reflecting on the year that’s passed. In January, I made a decision to travel again. In March, I finished up at the Opera House after five years. In May, I was on a plane bound for New York. By July, I had decided to tear up my ticket home. At the end of August, I was undertaking a teaching qualification in a place I never intended to even visit. In October, I ended up travelling with a mate from back home. And then somehow in the middle of November, I decided to come back to live & work in a place, I didn’t even know existed 4 months prior.

All these decisions, which have nearly all been made in single moment – have changed my life forever. I have made a lot of new friends. I have learned some valuable lessons. I have had some moments which will stay with me forever. And I have become a different person in some ways.

Facebook tells me that at the end of 2007, I made a wish “to be whisked away to a small latin village where the nights are sultry, people dance out on the streets, and the drinks feature lots of fresh limes”.

I know that that was a completely, utterly whimsical wish. I didn’t ever imagine this. Full Stop. That what I’m doing right now would become my reality? It just didn’t seem possible. There were a lot of things holding me back. And I couldn’t see a way out. And then an opportunity came my way that would change things forever. And I made choices that would change things forever.

Right now, I know am so so very fortunate to be living a life where I can just decide at the drop of a hat to be someplace else, doing something completely different.

Right now, I am very grateful. I’ll be making another whimsical wish tonight. I’m super excited to see what 2012 and beyond has in store for me.

____

PS: Forgot about the resolutions. In no particular order I think these ones will do the job:

  1. Get my photos up online.
  2. Drink less.
  3. Write more.
  4. Don’t hurry love.
  5. Strive for simplicity.

Happy new year, folks!