Tag Archives: Costa Rica

(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!

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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.

Never can say Goodbye

By 545am the next day, “the breeze” had dropped off a bit but the seas in the distance were still looking real choppy. It was also raining pretty heavily on & off. A small crowd of tourists gathered round the dock, optimistically. Eventually Louis & Flacco sauntered down the street and informed me they didn’t have the permission from Big Corn to go ahead, but they would take everyone out anyway… they were going to charge everyone double “because it was too dangerous”. I knew they wouldn’t charge me double. That wasn’t my concern.  After some thought, I figured they wouldn’t go if it was so dangerous they were going to endanger people’s lives. They were just being opportunistic. A few Euros got their backs up about it, which was probably fair enough from their POV. But I defended my new friends by citing the economic law of demand & supply.

It started bucketing down as we got on, so we pulled the big black industrial plastic sheet over us and I wished I had thought to buy a garbage bag for my pack. I spent the ride with my head almost between my knees, curled up into a self-protective ball and wishing I believed in God. I swear the boat nearly flipped sideways a couple of times. Every time i got a glimpse of the outside world, all i saw was the inside of waves. Whoosh. Up the boat would rise. Slam. The boat came down. I started to think about strategies for saving my stuff, myself. I got off the boat a shivering wreck, retrieved my dripping pack, and said a sopping wet & sad farewell to the boys.

I then jumped in a cab figuring I would try my luck for the morning flight, given i had nothing better to do. It was bedlam at the airport with dozens of people who’d had reached the night before all there with the same idea. I didn’t even bother trying. Instead I got changed into drier clothes. Smack bang in the middle of the airport. No one seemed to notice it was so chaotic. I hung around to see if I could leave my pack there for the day. I got chatting to a rugged looking man from San Diego who was on vacation in Nicaragua for a few weeks. He was unsuccessful in getting a wait seat, so we decided to hang out.

We went to a restaurant & bar back by the dock and spent the day swapping stories. He was my age, lived in LA, oversaw set design & production for TVCs, and was exceptionally articulate and well-travelled. Spending time with this handsome bloke was a really lovely way of passing the time on such a miserable day. It was a shame we were heading in opposite directions. We returned to the airport, where I saw a bunch of people I had met on Little Corn including the girl Cimba had hooked up with & her friend. It was good to be able to squeeze in a bit more time with them. Smart sassy girls – the pair of them. I particularly gelled with Jess.

As soon as I got on the plane, I started tensing up. I’m not afraid of flying. It was the fake air which was bothering me. Arriving into Managua airport, I started getting even more anxious. So many people. So much noise.

The girls & I had tossed around the idea of sharing a cab to the hostel I always stay at, but in the end they decided to go their own way. There was a part of me that wanted to tag along with them because I was a bit shell-shocked, but I really needed to pick up a bag of TESOL books I’d left at the Backpackers Inn. There was some comfort in knowing Arlen would be on the front desk to welcome me and help me with my Spanish. And that Chris the Canadian, a long-term resident of the place & I would order home delivery Japanese. I also needed to do some shopping and I knew where the mall was. So I stuck to my original plan. I’m glad I did.

I had a hot shower (the first in months) & got an early night. In the morning I jumped online and saw my friends Shannon & Queso from Ometepe were online too. I had been expecting them on Little Corn the previous Wednesday night. I had no idea where they were. I started ‘chatting’ with Queso & found out they were also in Managua!

‘Let’s have dinner tonight!’ She promptly cut me off saying she was really sick & had to go. Umm, okay. I messaged Shannon saying I’d love to see them both, could we make a plan. No response. Weird.

Then they both burst in the door of my dorm & there were lots of Big excited squeals all round!!!

We were all starving, so we went to the mall and had rubbish food hall Chinese food for brekky. I know it was wrong. But it was oh so tasty. The three of us had lots of catching up to do. It was surreal having deep & meaningful in the middle of a brightly lit food hall, filled with well-heeled Nicas in a mall in Managua.

Shannon & I then spent a couple of hours cruising around & doing some shopping. Shannon makes me laugh like my best girls back home: Michelle, Andrea, Lea. You know when you laugh so hard, you think a bit of pee might come out. Shannon’s like that for me. She taught me a new acronym; LTBD (Love That Black Dick) and we had a “Tampon party!” in the supermercado when boxes of the things jumped off the shelf on top of us. Too freakin’ funny.

Queso had been sick and so had stayed in to rest. When we met up with her, she’d been through a horrible ordeal: 3 teenage boys had tried to jump her for her money. Queso’s a tough lil Aussie nugget and she wasn’t having any of it. She bit the guy who put his hand over her mouth and punched & kicked her way out of the situation. The boys ran away, laughing, but completely empty handed and most likely a little shocked. This was in broad bloody daylight. Queso said neighbours came to their security doors to see what the commotion was about but no one came out to help. Typical of big fuckin cities. Queso was of the opinion they were just kids having a go. It was a good job none of them had any weapons. She was naturally a bit rattled but jesus, she took it in her stride. Nothing a hug & a bit of a cry wouldn’t sort out.

Queso’s a hairdresser by trade, so we took her mind off things, with a much needed haircut for me. (I love it!) Later that night we cooked up a super delicious & healthy meal of loads of green vegetables (I couldn’t even tell you the last time I had asparagus). I’m not a fan of big cities in Central America but they are great for getting your greens!

Yesterday, we said our goodbyes. I am hoping to see Shannon in Colombia later in the year. Queso? Who knows when. Probably back home one day. We shared a cab to our respective bus stations. And then i was all alone again. It’s been a while.

I choose to travel by chicken buses rather than the international buses simply because of the massive price difference. I wouldn’t think twice about spending $20 on a bottle of wine but i resent paying the same for a bus ride which i know i can get for $2. It just seems like such a waste of money. The thing is, it’s always a little bit more hectic doing it yourself. I ended up catching 4 different buses and walking across the border which is at least a kilometre form checkpoint to checkpoint.

Border crossings are no fun at the best of times. They’re certainly no fun when you’re on your own. And it’s hot. And you’re sweating under a 20-something kilo pack. My Spanish is pretty shithouse, and so if things aren’t easy, they’re really difficult. I was sent to an office over an anomaly in my paperwork. There was a lot of debate in Spanish as to what took precedence: the 20 weeks I had accumulated in all C4 countries (you’re only supposed to have 90 days all up) or the 90 days I had been given just for Nicaragua. If they’d wanted to be arseholes about it, they could have given me a massive “fine”. After a lot of umming & ahhing, they decided to let me go.

After 8 hours of travel I found myself a room in Playa del Coco in Costa Rica. I washed and just laid on my bed to decompress a bit. I had found the day pretty stressful: So many times I nearly stepped out in front of cars. So many times I had to stop myself from drinking from a tap. There was such a big part of me that wanted to turn right back around & go back to my Likke Corn.

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

Mysterious ways

Religion on the whole, doesn’t really blow my skirt up. Very little of it makes sense to me. The do good, be good bits do. But it’s not hard to work that stuff out on your own, is it?

It’s easy to write off folks with a faith because… well, there’s evolution for starters… but really, I think because there are so many freaking religious nut jobs out there. Ranging from those who live in pretty green countries who are warring with their neighbors, through to racist grandmothers who go to church every Sunday, and the pedophiliac priests who don’t think my gay friends have a right to be married.

Having said that – I have met some wonderfully smart, incredibly articulate, well travelled, open-minded and completely inspirational people who are religious.

I don’t think I had ever met a nun, before I was invited to have dinner with ACDC’s Aunty Ivy. She totally fits my definition of cool. She is interesting. And interested. She’s quietly spoken by nature, but you can see how rowdy she’d get at Rabbitoh’s game. She’s got a gentle spirit but I don’t think you’d be wise to be messin with anyone she loves. She struck me as someone who likes her creature comforts but she’d also happily sleep on a dirt floor in an African country to do volunteer work with kids in need. I just loved all the contradictions. I don’t know why, but it never occurred to me that you could be a nun and like a tinny or two.

A couple of years ago, I met this bloke at a party full of fitness freaks. Short and ruddy with an unruly beard and a gruff voice – his name was Graham Long and he was the larrikin pastor of a well-known chapel in Sydney’s red light district, a place called The Wayside. Their ethos is giving people a hand up not a handout. They provide a range of services to people who have fallen, well… by the wayside. Everything from showers, to referrals for health and home agencies, advocacy, and I love this: “a judgment free space for those just looking for a chat, a coffee or a quiet place to think.” God only knows, we all need that. I remember him (Graham, not God) saying to me that he came home “at the end of every day completely spent, but completely energized” by what he did for work. And that he didn’t really consider it a job. He’d do it even if they didn’t pay him.

A few weeks later, I was reading an article about a woman who was coordinating a singles / charity event. I really liked the idea of mixing the two. Fail to meet the right bloke? That’s okay. You still get to feel good about yourself, because you’re doing something for someone else. She said, “I don’t have a job. I have a life I love.”

Both of these things have been rattling around in my head for a long time.

I suppose you could say I’ve done some interesting stuff for work. I’ve been the voiceover in upscale department stores. I’ve sold everything from ice creams, to ‘sexy giftware’, to cars. I was the production manager on a low budget film shoot. I did a short stint in the medical imaging field. I once wore a bunny suit (man, those things Smell. Bad.) I was the graphic designer of an independent newspaper. I worked in the engineering industry for a while (loved those boys. They swore like sailors and introduced me to French champagne). I worked for a wee while at one of London’s top ad agencies as a proofreader. I waited tables (that only lasted 4 hours). I have hosted trivia nights and been the MC at weddings (although i did the latter for love). And most recently, I was one of the Marketing Managers for one of Australia’s most famous icons (the pointy white building on Sydney Harbour).

I’ve spent a bit of time over the past year thinking, what would make me feel like the pastor or the social entrepreneur? What do I want be when I grow up?

Things that kept popping up time and time again: writing, teaching and / or training, having my own consultancy…  I also harbored romantic notions of owning  an old-school pub and spending my days listening to old sea dogs swill stories around inside their schooners.

So, when I decided to take some time out this year to travel – I also decided I would work towards effecting change in this part of my life… To that end, I found myself signing up for a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) Certification.

It has been a particularly intense month. I haven’t done any formal study (apart from a few professional development courses) for a decade, so it was a complete shock to the system. I don’t know what planet I was on – but I really did think I was just going to swan on in to our pretty lil Spanish colonial school for a few hours of class, maybe do a bit of homework in the gorgeous garden with its statues and water fountain…  and then breeze through a couple of prac lessons. I mean – there couldn’t be that much to teaching English. Surely.

On day one, our teacher told us to not make plans for the last two weekends before the course ended. And now i know why. We’ve basically squeezed a uni semester’s worth of work into 150 hours. We’ve had 6 hours of practical teaching which has necessitated hours of lesson planning, prior. We’ve had reading almost every night for anywhere between 1-2 hours. So I’ve seen the inside of the classroom, the computer lab, my text books, and my eyelids. And very little of Antigua.

We had to study grammar. And then we had to study how to teach grammar. And then we had to teach grammar.

In the 70s, grammar wasn’t on the Australian curriculum. So it was just as well, from a very early age – I had taken a personal if not rather peculiar interest in the way our language was constructed. I read a dictionary like a normal book. Like from front to back. I was editing the high school newspaper at age 13. I took a 2 day intensive course on grammar at Sydney University. Of my own free will. (nerd.)

A native speaker simply acquires knowledge of grammar through common usage. We don’t need to understand it. I intrinsically understand what goes where and when. I just suck at knowing what it’s called and knowing why we use it. And i wouldn’t be all that bothered, except you do kinda need to know this stuff if you’re going to teach English to others. And you need to be prepared that some of your students will know more about grammar than you do.

I still don’t remember what past perfect progressive is.

Anyway, I was absolutely fine with it all until I had started having The Meltdown, which began on Wednesday night. All the feedback I was hearing (& I should make the distinction between hearing and receiving) was so damn ‘constructive’ – I was wondering if I was in the wrong place. Maybe i wasn’t cut out to be a teacher after all.

My good friend Andrea prompted me to recall how it felt to start any new job. I don’t know about you, but I always end those first few weeks in a new job, thinking maybe I’d rather just work in a record store.

The Meltdown bubbled and boiled for two days. Apparently The Meltdown is not uncommon among TEFLers. One of our classmates dropped out. Another got quite ill. My stress just manifested through my leaky eyeballs.

Then at the end of my last prac lesson on Friday – my students made an announcement (in English) saying they wanted to host a party for me to say thank you. Then they laid out a little spread of home-made Guatemalan food in the garden. And sung me happy birthday. (My birthday’s not until November.) And well, that just sent me right over the edge. There were tears. Of gratitude. And i admit, of relief. But mostly of gratitude. These people have so little and yet were being so generous towards me. I was just lost for words.

For the last few days, I had been of the mindset that I wouldn’t actually pursue any teaching jobs. Because I felt like I sucked at it. And because grammar could go fuck itself.

But then last night we had a wee graduation party at our school. And of course, as fate would have it – a lady who had taken the course with our teacher in Feb and who was now teaching in Costa Rica had come up to Guatemala for her border run. She had walked past the school earlier that day, swung in to say hi and ended up at our party.

We talked, and she told me she had gone through EXACTLY the same thing. She said it was entirely different, once you were out in the field. She said it was far more relaxed than she ever imagined. And all the students wanted was to practice their English and to have a laugh. And then she said this: She didn’t feel like it was really work, she had so much fun everyday.

And I was reminded of the social entrepreneur and the pastor. Maybe God does work in mysterious ways.

Don’t worry, be happy

Sometimes it’s not the big adventures, but the small pleasures that gets me springing around and acting all crazy in love like Pepé Le Pew.

I never intended to come here. I was going to go to Costa Rica to do my TEFL course. I met a few people on my travels who’d discouraged me from CR saying, that while it was utterly stunning – it was almost as expensive as the States. They suggested i might enjoy Guatemala more. Everyone who’d been, just raved about Antigua. I got the impression that while it was far from being off the beaten track – it was completely worth it.

So, I flipped a coin, and Guatemala won the toss. A few days later I was here.

The school arranged my apartment, and to be fair to them – i didn’t really brief them properly as to what was important to me. I ended up in a pokey little hotel room above a deceptively lovely Italian restaurant run by a friendly Swiss man. It was a stone’s throw from Central Park and a block & a bit from my school, which is just un-fallible in terms of location. But it had these extraordinarily tiny windows up near the ceiling, looking up and out to concrete walls. My biggest deal breaker when it comes to a home is natural light.

I realized very quickly, I didn’t really want to spend any time in the place. Which could be viewed as a positive -because it meant that i would get out and see a lot more of the city. But, if you’re going to stop somewhere for a month – you don’t want to spend the ENTIRE time in cafes & bars. You want to feel like you can chill out at home. And invite new friends over for dinner. And what-have-you. Otherwise, you may as well stay in a cheap hostel, right?

So, I ‘moved house’ today. The change i felt when I walked into my new place was instantaneous. And it all came down to the natural light.

My apartmentito is in an old stony colonial building. Upstairs, in the kitchen & living areas, there are these low-set bay windows with rustic wooden doors which open inwards… They offer a view onto a busy & beautifully wonky cobblestone calle and beyond that, I can see a small mountain range, called El Rejon. One of the montañas is called Cerro El Narizon (or “Big Nose Mountain”) & it reaches an elevation of 2,247m (approx the height of Mt Kosciusko for my Aussie readers).

I unpacked all my worldly possessions & immediately went out for a walk, so I could orientate myself at this end of town.

And i got excited all over again…

Antigua is a city that reveals herself slowly. On her own terms.

Depending on what day it is & what time of day it is, sometime she will be closed for business: All her heavy-laden, impenetrable wooden doors with their intricate wrought-iron door knockers: You daren’t knock, for fear of what beast you might stir.

Sometimes she flirts with you…teasing you with what could be yours…
her doors ever so slightly ajar: Showing you an insight into everyday lives: Extended families & friends all noisily coming together from school & work, wherever – to enjoy a late lunch of the most simple but sumptuous food, in a big homely kitchen you can’t see but can absolutely smell and almost taste.

And other times, she flings her gates wide open and invites you into her come-on-in courtyards with insidious ivy twisting over stone bricks that have weathered all sorts, for hundreds of years: waiters dressed in vests who warmly welcome you with a “bienvenido” and tempting you with just one wine…

Never is this on the same street at the same time. So you can have a completely different experience of a street, each and every time you walk down it…

That feeling of newness hasn’t left me.

I went to the grocery store, and standing in the checkout line – it dawned on me, again: I’m in Guatemala!!!

I jumped in a tuk tuk and spoke only in Spanish to Saul…  we bounced along the bumpy road to my new house. Saul was sweet enough to help me with my bags all the way to the door and farewelled me with a kiss on the cheek (this is such a commonplace event between complete strangers in Latin America, that even a driver kissing me on the cheek doesn’t take me by surprise anymore).

I celebrated mi nueva casa with a couple of different types of cheese, some spicy salami and a gorgeous bottle of Chilean Cab Sav which cost me the princely sum of AUD$6. Simple pleasures, indeed.