Posted by: abbytegnelia | April 14, 2010

Barrio adds wheels

It’s extremely expensive to buy a car in Costa Rica, so the locals have adapted numerous ways of getting around. On the road? Legions of old bikes, electric bicycles, license-plated golf carts and more. And yet, my neighbor Ana and I have pretty much been without wheels the entire time I’ve been here.

And now, she’s abandoned me.

Ana bought a quad.

It’s an interesting way of life, having to walk 30 minutes in the searing sun to go to the grocery store. Cabs are great, but sometimes you have to wait up to 20 minutes, and fees add up. The two of us have always felt stranded, hating to beg for rides so often lurking around to see who might be going into town at what time.

Then Ana started going to work every day at Pacifico Beach Club, and she was forced to peddle, at times uphill, to the far other end of town and back. Six days a week.

So yesterday she comes roaring around the corner on the littlest quad I’ve ever seen, saying only, over and over again, “I love her so much!”

Last night, I think I was the first one of us to hitch a ride, home from Kelsey’s, which is about one and a half blocks away. There’s not much to hold onto, so I think I’m going to wait until she gets helmets.

Posted by: abbytegnelia | April 12, 2010

My poker-playing, China-living brother checks in

My parents sure raised some adventurous kids! My youngest brother, Steven, lives in Zhongshan, China and recently disappeared from email for weeks; I knew only that he was headed to Macau with some friends. When he finally resurfaced, he sent me a casual email: “Hey, sorry it’s taken me so long to reply. I’ve pretty much been out of town for a month.” A month?! Can you imagine me not near a computer for a month? He and I are nothing alike – although he definitely has the travel bug. When I was his age, I was backpacking through Europe! Also, he told his tale of poker tournaments in the Philippines and an embarrassing sunburn with, if I say so myself, Abby-worthy dramatic flair. And now he’s officially been to one country his big sister hasn’t yet made it to! Hmmph.

My brother’s recap email, in his own words:

Macau was great. I ended up winning a poker tournament to play in the Philippines for a week. There, I won about 7000 dollars, or about 75% of the money I earned all last year teaching in China. Best 20 bucks I ever spent. Read More…

Posted by: abbytegnelia | April 4, 2010

Monteverde Cloud Forests

After a few straight months in Coco, it was time to head up into the mountains for a break from the stifling heat. My destination? Monteverde, home to the famous cloud forests in the sky. Alicia and I packed up her car and headed out. She’d been there once as a kid, but I had no idea what to expect. About an hour in, the paved road gave way, and we started the long climb up the mountain. We literally drove straight up into the cloud cover, higher and higher, on rock-covered roads crumbling down into nothing about a foot past our tires. I couldn’t imagine a bustling pueblo residing at the end, but after our three-hour drive, it dramatically appeared. Wide-eyed, we drove through town. Shops! A restaurant in a tree! We certainly weren’t in little Coco anymore. We checked into the Hotel Heliconia and drove even higher up the mountain to our humongous room. (The bathroom alone was bigger than my house in Coco.) I threw down my bags and jumped up on the bed. The door was still wide open, and I couldn’t believe it when I looked out. I was eye-level with the clouds!

We decided to save the hiking for the next day and drove into town. Our first stop: Luna Azul, an adorable boutique packed with jewelry and clothes. Since we have exactly zero comparable clothing stores in Coco, this was a hit. We took photos, piled racks of clothing over our arms… we were in retail heaven. After a few hours (no joke) in the one-room store, we finally pulled ourselves away, but not before chatting up the woman who worked there. She made dresses and often bartered for jewelry with some of the other local artists. We left with shopping bags and a list of local art galleries. Monteverde turned out to be such a creative community. Restaurants were packed with one-of-a-kind pieces, and we passed many paintings and projects drying in the sun.

The next morning, we rose bright and early to hit the bosque nuboso. Beach bums from Coco, we didn’t really have appropriate attire for a hike. But we put on what we had and had the guide map out a two-hour climb for us. He vaguely pointed to the park entrance, and we were off. We passed a lovely little house and scientific laboratory, climbed over trees that had fallen on the mud-drenched path… and then reached a few oversized prohibido signs. If any of this clues you in that we were on the wrong path, you’re about 30-40 minutes sharper than we were. In the end, we had an amazing three and a half hour hike. We decided to forgo a guide (insert we-got-lost ribbing here), and when we passed the first two stopped groups, we knew we’d made the right decision. The first was intently looking at a walking stick, the second a bat. Living in Coco, that’s about a normal evening in our backyard! We had stunning cloud cover in Monteverde, literally hiking through a mist and gazing out into nothing at the lookout points. When it’s extra-humid in Coco, I will have to stop saying, “I feel like I’m walking through a cloud,” because now I know what that feels like. (That was for dramatic effect; I’m not going to stop saying that.)

Ok, ok, I admit it: we stopped by Luna Azul again on the way out of town. Deal with it!

Posted by: abbytegnelia | March 31, 2010

Found her!

I found Shannon! It took all day. Of course, I chose the one day in two months that she’d gone out of town to run errands. (The first hotel I tried, MarBar, told me that, along with the cabinas she’d move to.) After a wild goose chase around town, including the Chill cabinas, where I had this wild and crazy idea that I could leave her a message at reception to tell her how to find me. HAHA, apparently the owner was out drinking… at two pm. But I did find her two little dogs, so I knew she’d be back.

After lunch and more beach time, where I asked every surfer if they knew where Shannon was, we piled everyone in the car to head back to Coco. I asked if we could run by the cabinas one more time. This time, the place was buzzing. I knew she didn’t have a car so I drove to the back where I didn’t see any vehicles. One cabina was packed with people speaking English, so I banged on the door. Silence. Then a tall, shirtless guy opened the door and grumbled, “Yes.” “Hi, is Shannon there?” I asked politely. Then a pint-sized surfer chick jumped up, gave me a hug and kicked everyone out. My Playa Grande adventure had begun! After one night in a tick-infested cabina (Shannon found one embedded into her skin while she was scratching her head), a room opened up back at MarBar. Fluffy beds, a refreshing pool, awesome food — I don’t want to leave!

Posted by: abbytegnelia | March 30, 2010

Playa Grande

I have so many exciting posts coming up, from Monkey Trail tales to the magical cloud forests of Monteverde. But first, I’m going to hitch a ride to Playa Grande to meet up with a friend of a friend, Shannon. The catch? She doesn’t know I’m coming! The “town” of Playa Grande isn’t really a town at all, more like a long stretch of gorgeous beach, with a smattering of places to sleep. So, I’m hoping to just ask around and see what happens. (I’ve never met her, but I have seen photos.) She doesn’t have a phone, so let’s hope I find her!

Posted by: abbytegnelia | March 25, 2010

Happy birthday to me!

How does a city girl celebrate her birthday in a small Costa Rican pueblo? With champagne, gorgeous sunset views and a huge Italian dinner set in a romantic garden! My day started at noon when Brynn whisked me away for bubbly and a girls’ lunch on the beach at beautiful Café de Playa. It was the most relaxing afternoon! Then we had a little party at Pacifico, where a huge group of us drank wine, watched the sun set over the Pacific, and marveled at the belly dancer Alessandra’s dramatic performance. The grand finale? Spoiling ourselves with red wine, delectable pastas and mouth-watering entrees at Via Italia. The LA girl in me had actually been worried about getting a reservation. When I was told of the restaurant’s gorgeous garden, I couldn’t imagine it not being full on a Friday night. Hello, Abby, it’s Coco. There was plenty of room for anyone craving dinner in the balmy open air! (Looking at the photos, it appears that I’ve successfully brought the “skinny arm pose” to Costa Rica! I’m very proud.) I passed out early, since Alicia and I were hitting the road at 7 am the next morning, heading towards the Monteverde cloud forests… The posting is coming soon!

Posted by: abbytegnelia | March 24, 2010

There goes the neighborhood

Cars race through the Barrio all day long, kicking up enormous clouds of dirt and causing everyone to scream for the animals that can barely get out of the way of each speeding vehicle. (There have been at least two casualties in recent memory, but I don’t want to go into detail.) In Costa Rica, if you want something done, you often have to do it yourself. So out came the shovels, and we built a home-made speed ditch near us, and other neighbors built the speed bump pictured here. Now, if you’re having trouble seeing the high dirt mound in a photo, imagine driving over it  in the dark. We finally put this pile of rocks in front as a warning. (Hey, you work with what you’ve got.) Now, you might be thinking that a more interesting photo would be me awkwardly holding a shovel. I decided that wouldn’t be fair, since I didn’t help with the actual physical work. But I do sit on the stoop and get excited at every single car that slows down. I always say, I’m not much of an activities girl, but I love to cheer others on!

Posted by: abbytegnelia | March 23, 2010

Nicaragua’s children

Before I left for Nicaragua, everyone warned me of its infamously pushy street kids. I have to say, we did not see much of this at all. In fact, getting to know some of the local children was the most meaningful part of our trip!

In San Juan del Sur, an extremely precocious pottery vendor caught our eye in the lobby of the hotel. Later, on the beach, we spotted him again and motioned him over. Little Manuel had the social skills of a 35-year-old! He was as relaxed as could be, leaning on David’s chair like he owned the place. (This was after he nervously asked the owner permission to step inside.) Turns out, Manuel, 10, had been to Costa Rica more than once, so we chatted about that for some time. His border crossings were different than ours, of course: He and his uncle always traveled through the mountains, taking three full days to travel what had taken us about 90 minutes. He told us of the wild coyotes on the hike as if it were nothing. Selling pottery, he said, was what he did in exchange for his uncle taking him in after his parents gave him up. After buying him a soda (it was hot as blazes outside), we did end up purchasing some of his wares. I wish such a sharp little businessman like him was going to school, but the last thing we wanted was for him to end up begging on the streets if his uncle deemed him not worth the trouble.

The next night, in Granada, we met Jorge when he rolled up on his bicycle while we were having drinks at some outdoor tables. He told us how much he loved school, especially languages. It was already pretty late at night, but we invited him to meet us the next morning. He immediately biked home to ask his mom. Fifteen minutes early, Jorge arrived the next morning for breakfast (wearing the exact same outfit as the night before) on the outdoor patio of our hotel, The Alhambra. He came holding only one item: the key to his house that he wears around his finger. After about a minute, he excused himself to the restroom. When he came back, he’d slicked his hair down with some water. It was so endearing! His manners were impeccable. After we ate, Jorge picked out a horse and carriage for us, and Bill, Lynda and I joined him for a tour of Granada. It was awesome. He ran around with so much energy, making sure I climbed the right ladder to see an aerial view of town and understood every detail that our Spanish-speaking guide was saying.

When we walked through the busy plaza, only one little boy ran his hands all over Bill looking for money, and that same child tried to jump in our van as we were leaving. (To be fair, I’m sure the little gangs of kids we saw were mostly staying away because Jorge was with us.) But overall, the only negative thing I’d ever heard about Nicaragua, how difficult it was to bear all of the begging children, turned out to be a non-issue for us. Instead, I got to see Nicaragua through the eyes of two of its sharp-as-a-tack kids.

Posted by: abbytegnelia | March 22, 2010

Nicaragua Visa Run

Last week I crossed a common expat milestone – my first visa run! I was so excited I couldn’t sleep. Living in tiny, relaxed Coco is a dream, but I guess I’d missed the excitement of leaving the country on trips or… having any excitement in my life at all. Thank goodness my friends in other time zones (yes, you @theaussienomad) kept me occupied! At six am I took my little bag and headed out. Within a few hours, our little van of intrepid tourists had reached the border.

The actual crossing into Nicaragua turned out to be quite the social call. First of all, our fearless driver, Gustavo, was not about to wait in line behind the dozen or so massive semis that were waiting to cross. So he barreled onto the shoulder, on the wrong side of the road, which happened to drop straight down a few feet just past our tires, causing us to skim by with literally no more than an inch between us and a gigantic truck bearing down on our (small) van. When we got out, grateful for many reasons, to present ourselves on the Costa Rican side, everyone knew everyone. Cheryl, my friend who’s lived in Costa Rica for years, and Gustavo chatted away with some of the other guys milling about, joking with the immigration people checking our passports. It was all very light and fun!

We were checked into our little hotel, Gran Oceano, in San Juan del Sur, and at the beachfront restaurant by 10:30 am. But since we’d all been up since 5, it felt like afternoon. So we ordered big lunches (rice, beans and chicken, naturally) and Tona beer. I needed some sleep, but every time I got up to leave, another Tona appeared. Thus went our entire day, chatting with the many vendors who tried to sell us pottery and finding out how all of the kids ended up selling knick-knacks instead of going to school. Finally, we all spilled out, laughing, onto the beach, where we ran around at sunset after a long lazy, hazy day.

Day two was our super-tourist day. We drove to the active Masaya volcano, which emits so much sulphur that you’re allowed to stay for only 20 minutes. (Rules include: “In case of rock expulsions, protect yourself under your car.”) Then we headed to the Laguna de Apoyo crater lake and to the famous markets, where I bought a beautiful wooden fan that I use all the time now in hot, muggy Costa Rica. There, we had one of the best lunches I’ve had in Central America. (Yes, rice, beans… and fish.) Gustavo knows what he’s doing on the food front! That night, after checking into Granada’s Hotel Alhambra, we headed to El Zaguan, where I had the best steak I’ve ever had, without exaggeration. After dinner, we had drinks outside, where Cheryl smoked cigars with the guys.

On our last day, we packed up the van and drove out to Lake Nicaragua’s famous islands, where the country’s rich have homes. There’s an island inhabited only by monkeys, as well as island after island adorned with stunning, colorful mansions. Finally, we climbed back in the van and headed for Costa Rica. It was pretty late when I pulled up the Barrio, and Denise and Lisa were on the stoop. “I brought you a present!” I squealed. “Is it wine? We’re out,” came my reply. “Nope,” I answered to crushed faces, who were now expecting a cheap trinket of some sort. I dramatically pulled out a humongous bottle of Grey Goose, and cheers erupted. Border duty-free shopping: increasing the quality of martinis for expats everywhere.

Posted by: abbytegnelia | March 20, 2010

Busy life in Costa Rica

I never thought I’d say this of my extremely slow-paced life as an expat in Costa Rica, but I’ve been too darned busy to blog! Please check back next week for postings on my amazing trip to Nicaragua, the barrio’s ingenious speed ditch — and my birthday party!

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