Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Couchsurfing Interview: Transnistria

During my travels, I make many ridiculously bad decisions that cause me to either: a.) waste money b.) offend foreigners or c.) inflict bodily and potentially life-threatening harm on myself.  As you can probably guess, c.) is usually a result of b.), which always comes after a lot of a.) in a local bar.  If not for the helpful people I have meet through Couchsurfing, I would end up broke and dead from trying to display my knowledge of Russian dirty words to the wrong person.
Speaking of Russian, I had an interview in Russian about Couchsurfing in Tiraspol, Transnistria.  Huh?  Transnistria is a country in Moldova -wait, so it's not really a country- but two other countries, South Otessia and Abkhazia, recognize it, but those are not really countries either, however according to the European Court of Human Rights, Russia has "effective authority or at least decisive influence" there, and in fact if we now consider Crimea then...well, fuck, I just went cross-eyed.  Sufficient to say, Transnistria doesn't come up in the spell-check, so that should give you an idea of what we're dealing with here.
I will explain what, exactly, Transnistria is another time.
One of the Couchsurfers I contacted is a journalist.  The interview we had was part of a concert she arranged for me at a local cafe, Freedom Antikafe.  Since Couchsurfing is still a novelty in Transnistria (I can't imagine why), she wanted me to explain what it is, my advice and opinion on it, and what I have done as a part of it for the last 5 years.  Not much, I think.
I got through the interview without completely spazzing out, although after seeing myself on television, I understand now why so many of my friends say I look, and act, like Jim Carrey.  If you are one of the 260 million people who know Russian, great, you will have no problems.  If, like me, the only Russian you know is "vodka," there is a complete English transcript below the video, with my greatest thanks going out to another CS friend for the translation.  This is my live, unadulterated opinion on the Couchsurfing project that has helped me travel so much.
I consider it my greatest achievement that I have become famous in a country that, technically, doesn't exist.  This is far more important than being famous in an actual country, like France.

Let’s meet: this is Raleigh. He is a musician and Couchsurfer. He has traveled for 4 years using Couchsurfing.
Raleigh is not a millionaire, but in the last 2 months he has been to Sweden, France, Luxembourg, Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Moldova and now he is playing a short live concert in Transnistria.
{Interview #1}:
I only knew 3 things about Transnistria: troublesome border crossings, beautiful girls and everything being cheap. It’s all that I knew. And now I am here. I didn't have any problems at the border, I was welcomed at my host’s place, was eating and drinking a lot {in Russian it doesn't mean alcohol}. Also I was talking to a lot of people. I find people here very inquisitive.
Raleigh was welcomed, was feed and was shown around by Olga. They met through the CS website.
{Olga’s interview #1}:
On this website you can find notes and references about people you may host. Raleigh has a lot of positive references. I even remember the exact number - 62. For sure there is some risk...But I read his references and it showed that he is an interesting person. That’s why I decided to risk it and I don’t regret it.
Also on this website you need to point out your availability to host someone. If you have this opportunity, then write how many people you are able to host at once, preferred gender, sleeping place condition, how a surfer can reach your place and other important things.
But if you don’t have an opportunity to host, you can choose a status “meet for a walk\coffee”. Surfers do not have to ask about comfortable conditions. All they need is a place to sleep and someone to chat with.
This was the same situation with Raleigh {exact translation. Not correct even in Russian} when he hosted his first surfer in America [actually Slovakia].
{Interview #2}:
He was a Turkish student. He didn't have a place to stay. I told him: “I just moved into my new apartment, I don’t have furniture, not even a bed.”  So he stayed at my place for a weekend. It was a funny weekend.
The idea about CS came to Casey Fenton in 2000 when he bought a cheap ticket to Iceland but he didn't have a place to stay. So he mailed around 1500 Icelandic students asking if it was possible to stay at someone’s place. After his awesome weekend in Iceland he decided to stop using touristy stuff so he created this community. Now CS unites around 6 million people from 246 countries. They help each other, provide accommodation and it’s all for free. By the way, it is amazing language practice.
{Olga’s interview #2}
He speaks English. It is his native language. And I was interested in talking with someone in English. My son studies it at school, he was interested in it as well.
English is the most popular language in the CS community. But it is always better to know a few more languages because you never know where you might be and what might happen. In 4 years of traveling Raleigh once faced an unexpected situation in Hungary.
{Your interview #3}:
Two people offered me a place to stay. I got there around 9 pm. It was rainy there. I don’t speak Hungarian and most Hungarians don’t speak English. I was repeating one word “university”. Someone showed me the university. I tried to call the CS girl, but no answer. The guy didn't answer as well. I thought: I need to find an internet cafe to send requests. But everything was closed by 10 pm. Cold and rainy. I was scared. But eventually I found a girl who speaks Spanish. A student from Brazil, and she showed me a place to stay at the student’s dorm.
Raleigh says: The most important part of traveling is to think about even small things before and to learn as much as possible about a person who has accepted you.
{Interview #4}:
If a person has some information -read it! For example, I look for musicians. I look for guitars, music, photos with a guitar. I look for Spanish as well because I speak Spanish. Read profiles. It is personal. Don’t write “Hey, I need a place to stay. I will be tomorrow in Tiraspol”. No one going to read it. Everyone wants to know that you've read his profile.
So CS is not just cheap way to travel, but also a priceless experience of meeting with different people.
{End Interview}
If you are adept at video-editing thingies, contact me, please.  It would be awesome to add English subtitles to this video.  My attempts at this so far have resulted in beer-scented tears. 

Thursday, February 27, 2014

I'm Going To Europe, If I Can Survive American Public Transportation

Americans get criticized for their limited knowledge of world geography, and rightfully so.  The average American, when asked to find the capitol of Europe, will point to France.  This is, of course, a gross mistake.  The capitol of Europe is Germany, which is located directly west of Czechoslovakia.
Why such epic geographical failure?  One major issue is that, without a car, traveling to international airports can be an expensive logistic nightmare if you are not from a US state named New York or California.  The United States gives public transportation the same priority as cleaning toilets, since using it means having to share personal space with strangers of questionable psychological stability, legal status and body odor.  There are not many options for public transportation in major cities, and choices become non-existent when you live in the middle of nowhere, like me.
I grew up in Alton, Illinois, a redneck and ghetto river town which is located close to absolutely nothing.  A one hour drive will get me to St. Louis Lambert International Airport.  St. Louis is a notable city, but it is not quite an international travel destination, which means there's few affordable flight options for leaving the North American continent.  The next closet option: an incredibly boring, cornfield-and-cow filled drive 5 hours north to Chicago O'Hare International Airport.  After years of desperately trying to leave the Midwest, I've discovered that even after adding transportation costs -be they gas, train or bus- flying out of Chicago is often still cheaper than leaving from nearby St. Louis.
This is my second attempt at trying to achieve permanent employment on the European continent.  I hope to get something better than the low income, soul-sucking work of a generic English-As-A-Foreign-Language teacher.  This job works fine when you are young, hopeful and speak English by possessing the highly-trained skill of being born in the USA, England or Canada.  After a few years of teaching English abroad; however, you realize that you are simply a trained monkey with a "Native Speaker" sign on your head whose principal purpose is explaining your countries' pop culture references (which you hate) to your students.  Please, non-Americanos, no one says, "How YOU doin?" anymore...
Notice I did not mention Ireland, Scotland, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.  I have yet to actually understand what people from these countries are saying to me, other than "Fuck off, Yank."
Amtrak is the USA's only national passenger train line, and it appears to survive solely on dwindling government subsidies.  My city's lone Amtrak train station has infrequent trains to Chicago.  I considered the megacheap Megabus, but they only have nonstop lines direct from downtown St. Louis.

With my flight already confirmed, I booked an Amtrak train a few days ahead of my departure.  I was dismayed to find out that my train was...a bus.  There is one train line to Chicago, and it was under "unexpected" repairs.  The bus was from Greyhound, which only made the situation worse.  Remember in all dog races there is only one winner; Greyhound is not that dog.  I had the option to take the bus to Joilet, a city approximately an hour south of Chicago, and transfer to the train there.  But this was more than twice as expensive and required waiting in Joilet for an additional 2 hours.
Why pay someone $500 to punch you in the face, when you can get the same thing by paying $10 to enter a club and call the bouncer's mother a slut??
Taking public buses and trains long distance through America allows you to see interesting small towns where the city center is the local Walmart®© and farm equipment is the principle form of artistic expression.  I planned to sleep the entire 5 hour trip.  I stowed my large backpack and guitar in the luggage compartment below and took my small bag with me on the bus.  This bag easily allows me to access my toiletries, books, music, porn, etc..., but more importantly, I can place on it the seat next to me so I can avoid sharing personal space with other, often foul-smelling, people.
This technique works as long as the bus or train doesn't fill up completely.  Whenever we approach a stop, I place my bag on the adjacent seat and pretend to be asleep.  Most people are more polite than I am, and find another empty seat so that they don't disturb my slumber.  On my Alton-Chicago bus trip, this technique proved to be a wise choice.  At the first stop in Lincoln, a large cowish black lady weighing in at around 300 pounds entered the bus and lumbered her way down the aisle while apologizing to the smaller passengers who were fleeing from her path.
I silently prayed to myself.  After staring at my bag for a minute, she squeezed into the seat behind me.  When the bus started up again, she started a loud conversation with someone on her phone:
"You're starting high school today? Where you going...Lincoln High? Yeah, I used to go there myself.  It's gone downhill, really...  Yeah, yeah, lots of black people going there now."
She continued talking about how black people were fucking up the educational system, until she -saint that she was- gave up her seat to a Hispanic mother and her son.  I would have preferred she stay there bellowing on the phone.  Within minutes the little kid began to kick my seat from behind and laugh like it was the best entertainment in the world.  Her mother was yelling in Spanish on her phone, but switched to English in a vain attempt to make her niño stop being an annoying little prick:
Mama: "Vamos a estar in Chicago...Stop kicking the seat!  Vamos a llegar muy pronto, no se como...stop kicking the seat!
Kid: "Hahahahahaha, whatever, Mom."
Mama: Si, claro claro....I told you. OK, leave the nice man alone. Disculpe, vamos como a las 10...I told you STOPKICKINGNOW! NOW NOW DAMMIT!"
I would be unhappy, but a Latina chick could be telling me she's putting a restraining order on me and I would still be horny.  This is why I studied Spanish.
The bus stopped in Champaign-Urbana, home of the University of Illinois, one of the few towns on the way with a collective IQ above 100.  However no sexy college girls get on the bus, because any attractive, well-dressed college girls already have their own car that daddy has paid for, along with their education and allowance they spend on drinking Jager Bombs, having sex with random frat boys and buying the latest smartphone for #omg #selfie #wishyouwereme Instagram pics.  Instead the bus fills up with Asian exchange students, black inner-city Chicago guys and trailer park white trash.  One of these inbreed country Mongoloids taps me on the shoulder: "Excuse me, sir, may I sit down?"
I tell him yes, and quickly avoid a boring conversation by pulling out my Samsung Galaxy to check my flight information and search Chicago hotels.  He in turns pulls out his iPhone and instantly gets engrossed in the latest version of "Super Fucking Really Angry Birds."  Although we don't talk, he communicates with me by emitting a potent odor of cigarette smoke, marijuana and bacon cheeseburgers.  My eyes start to water.
He stares at his iPhone.  I stare at my Galaxy, and through the tears, finally booked a night at a cheap hotel in Rosemont where O'hare International Airport is located.  A quick look around the bus reminds me that I haven't left the USA; everyone is staring at their smartphones.  This is now a bus full of college guys.  Every phone screen has the familiar blue text, pop-up photo of some duck-facing college girl they are Facebook stalking.
The bus is silent, and after 20 minutes my nose is relieved when the country Mongoloid gets off the bus.  I enjoy the smartphone-induced silence and the fresh air.
It doesn't last long.  A ripple of noise begins from the back of the bus: "Uhhhh" "Awww man...." "Oh God!" It slowly grows, and suddenly one of the Asian students behind me yells: "OHMYGOD! WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?!?!"  A smell far worse than Mongoloid Boy hits my face.  I start coughing, then scream: "THAT SMELLS HORRIBLE! WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU?!?"  The guys around me start laughing between coughing spasms and shouts of: "HORRIBLE, WHAT DIED UP YOUR ASS, FUCK DUDE!"  We all share glances with each other, bonding for a moment in unity over the silent but incredibly noxious fart that no one will claim.
The fart clears eventually and the bus is silent again.  I figure it's time to listen to some music, but realize my headphones are in my big backpack, which is stored only 10 feet under my ass, but a world away.  I decide to read.  From years of living in Latin America, I now loathe people who don't bring headphones on public transportation and prefer to loudly share the latest Pitbull single ("Bon Bon Loca Culo Dale") on their phone with the other 50 people they are riding with on the bus.
One of these idiots is two seats in front of me.  The lyrics aren't clear, but the tish-tishatish high-hat beat marks it as rap music of the Dirty South persuasion.  The producer decided to use a particular keyboard sound which beeps at the same frequency as a hospital heart monitor for a patient in the final stages of terminal illness.  Unfortunately, this particular patient never dies.  It continues beeping for an infinite amount of time while the passenger occasionally repeats the lyrics.
"Beep...beep, beep (bitch I told ya...) Beep...beep, beep (you know I get money...) Beep (Uh, Uh, Yeah, out on these streets daaaily...) beep, beep...(bitch...) Beep...
Flatline, please.  My teeth start grinding, and continue until the songs stops approximately 10.78 hours later.  The wannabee rapper gets off in Summit, a town which in my 30 years in Illinois I have never heard of.  Looking out the window, I realize why.
When I reach the Chicago city limits, to my left I see the soaring Sears Tower illuminated in the night sky, and to my right an equally illuminated billboard reminding me:
Time for you to change your air conditioner.
Four Seasons Heating & Air Conditioner
Chicago, with a population of over 2.75 million, is the United States 3rd largest city.  Union Station is in the heart of downtown, and arriving there at 10pm at night after being in a small town for several months is overwhelming.  To get from Union Station to Chicago O'Hare International Airport, I have to walk to Clinton Street to take the Metro Blue Line.  Clinton Street is only 2 blocks away, but the underground station is spread out under about 8 city blocks which have 4 different exits.  I, true to form, chose the one farthest from the Blue Line station.
Unlike in foreign countries, I can speak English here, so I should have no problem asking someone for directions, right?  I didn't have to ask, because once I stepped on the sidewalk, several homeless men approached me to kindly offer their help.  I waved them away and asked a security guard for Clinton Street and the Blue Line.  He directed me back inside the station, where I questioned a well-informed Amtrak employee.  Her eyes searched the ceiling.  After a long minute, she sent me to the same exit where I had just entered.  When the security guard saw me leaving again, he shrugged his shoulders and walked away.  The Chicago winter suddenly felt very cold.
One of the more persistent homeless men saw his chance.  "Hey man, What you looking for?"  I told him the Blue Line, and he motioned me to follow.  I was too tired to argue, so I went with him, knowing where it would lead.  After walking a brief two blocks to the station, he began telling me, "Hey man, hey man, you know I'm out on the streets, the economy's not so good, it's cold and..."
I threw him a dollar fifty-three to make him shut up.  Enjoy that malt liquor, homeless man.
The Metro Blue Line clanked along for 30 minutes to the Rosemont station.  It was full of weird people, but at 11pm at night they were all sleeping.  At the station I grabbed a taxi from a man whose grasp of the English language was slim to say the most.  He did say I chose ("you chooose") a good hotel.  His name was Al-Sayyadd Malhalabaladurkala, and I suspected he had relatives who worked at the hotel where I was staying.
In fact, the hotel staff was from Pakistan, but I doubt they were terrorists.  They checked me in with a minimum amount of "Excuse me's?"  It was a challenging day, and I went to a nearby hotel bar to get my final taste of American microbrews.  After too many beers, and ouzo shots courtesy of the Greek bartender, I passed out thankful for having survived a day of American public transportation.

USA Interstate Public Transporation:

1. Amtrak Railways
2. Greyhound Buslines
3. Megabus Buslines

Monday, January 6, 2014

Five Shitty Things No One Tells You About Costa Rica

Some travel website thought my rants about Costa Rica were worth publishing, because I was writing something different from the usual happy, smiling green tree frogs, cute tree sloths, "Pura Vida" bullshit.  I submitted one blog post; they published it, paid me, and I spent the money on a bottle of Flor De Caña Rum to celebrate my success.  

Not surprisingly, the post comments were split 50/50 between: "You wrote a well-researched, informative AND funny article," and "You're an ignorant asshole, gringo."  I responded to the negative comments in Spanish.

Following this, the website requested a write-up to be titled, Things Nobody Ever Tells You About Costa Rica.  This is the result.  Even though this article is a series of true stories, it must have scared them off, since I haven't heard from them yet, but my irritated Tweets prompted them to finally publish it.

Maybe you won't be offended by my Five Reasons Costa Rica Sucks (the real title,) Five Shitty Things No One Tells You About Costa Rica, an even better title they chose.  After reading it again, I decided to edit it and add more information in order to shut down the haters I expected to get.

Too late.  It got published before the additional edits.

It wouldn't have mattered anyway.   People today have Internet ADHD and just have the patience to read 140 character Tweets before making a well-informed, "Y U SUK, LOLZ" opinion.  Judging by the posts, most readers got halfway through the first paragraph of the article before writing profanity-filled, misspelled, Wikipedia-researched comments.  They vehemently defended Costa Rica's rose-tinted tourist wonderland image, and most assumed I was an ignorant redneck who hadn't traveled anywhere outside of the "First World."  Apparently, clicking on my blog link with 2 years worth of travel posts was too much effort...

Enjoy the complete version, with further edits if I ever feel motivated.
Article For Matador Network:

Everyone told me I live in "The Happiest Country In The World."  So why after 2 years in Costa Rica am I paranoid, depressed, alcoholic and ready to shoot the next person who calls me, my friend?  My concerns started before my flight had even landed at the haphazard concrete and steel structure they call Juan Santamaria International Airport.

I thought I would have a nice, quiet flight with an empty seat next to me.  Not quite.  Right as the last boarding call was announced, a sweaty, extremely hairy kid sporting a tie-dyed shirt and Birkenstocks rushed into the plane and slumped down next to me.  He gave off an odor of marijuana-tainted apathy, and most likely planned to live in some organic commune in the middle of the jungle with a ragtag bunch of other idealistic hippies who hate "the system," but ironically made enough money from it to escape.  After we took off, he pulled out a tinfoil-wrapped package and asked me in a conspiratorial tone, "Do you eat brownies...Y'know, special ones?" 

Mmm, tasty.

Going through customs always makes me paranoid.  Doing it with weed-induced altitude sickness makes me want to lash out at first sight of the menacing, gun-toting customs officers who greet me at the airport.  This dirty hippie gave me a fitting introduction to the many problems I would encounter while living in paradise.

1. Naive Tourists: Tourists like my tie-dyed friend hear many anecdotes praising Costa Rica as the veritable utopia of Latin America, a part of the world known more for drug trafficking, violent crime, kidnapping, and poverty.  They assume that if the travel industry calls it "The Switzerland Of Central America," then surely it must function as efficiently and safely as that little quasi-neutral European country.  I stepped out of Juan Santamaria International Airport with a hopeful smile, thinking that at the terminal exit there might be an easily visible, well-marked bus stop with regular buses to the San Jose city center.

Nothing.  Smelling my gringo scent, I was greeted by 524,003 short men with comical English offering me "very good prices" to San Jose.

2. What Public Transportation?: The taxi drivers were telling me there was no bus, the station was far away, it was too late and other such fanciful lies.  Gracias a Dios, I speak Spanish.  I found an honest person who directed me to the bus stop, which is hidden on the opposite side of the large parking garage.  There was no schedule.  Buses come every "20 minutes or so."  Eventually a bus took me to the central Alajuela-San Jose Bus Station.  

Notice I said "Alajuela" Bus Station.  San Jose does not have one, or two or even three central bus stations.  At the time of this writing, there are about 25 different stations and stops to various locations around the country.  Efforts have been made to centralize the transportation, but the greedy bosses who own the individual bus companies are not ready to give up their control so easily.  This usually means having to take a taxi from the Alajuela-San Jose Bus Station to another station in order to transfer to that bus to beautiful sun-kissed Malpais.

3. Taxi Vultures: Taxis are a necessary evil for tourists.  You do not have to find one; they will find you.  You can have fun negotiating prices with illegal "pirate taxis" but, like pirates, they are bloodthirsty and will rape and pillage you.  If you prefer riding legally, find a taxi that is red and has a clearly marked, inverted yellow triangle with black call numbers.  In local slang, the taxi meter machine is called La Maria.  Be sure to tell the driver to turn it on.  He will smile and commend you on your knowledge of Costa Rican tiquisimos, and later complain to his colleagues that some gringo knew this code word.

Taxi drivers do not even know their way around the city, or they pretend not to know when a tourist gets in the vehicle.  One night I went with my lovely blond French friend to a club called Mas Tequila in the San Pedro neighborhood where I lived.  I told the driver the address in Spanish: "200 Meters Southeast of the Flag Rotunda, Boulevard Dent, Plaza Antares."  He drove around the Flag Rotunda to Boulevard Dent then...drove right past it on the same road we came from:

"Hey! We just drove past Mas Tequila."
"No, no, no. It is in Barrio Dent."
"What? Uh, no.  We just came from Barrio Dent. Turn around.  This shouldn't be more than 3000 Colones"
"You aren't from here.  You probably don't know."
"I've lived here for one year and I work in San Pedro neighborhood.  I eat lunch at Plaza Antares."
"What?  You don't believe me??"

He angrily pulled the vehicle over and stepped out.  He went back to the trunk, and reached in to get...something.  I doubt it was tequila.  At this point my blond French friend jumped out of the taxi and started apologizing to the driver.  Her sexy French-accented Spanish relaxed him for a moment.

Ooh la la.  I slammed a rojo (1000 Colones) on the passenger seat then walked away before it got complicated.
4. The "Green Season": Why take taxis?  Well, out of the 12 months of the year in Costa Rica, it's raining for approximately 15 of those months.  In the tourist industry, this period is called the "green season," because "never-ending-depressing-rainy-season" doesn't sell as well, and India already owns the legal copyright on "monsoon season."  Taxis are the best way to avoid getting soaked if you visit Costa Rica during any month that isn't named January.

On the plus side, hotel rates are cheaper during the "green season," which is great as you will be spending most of your vacation in them.
5. But There's No Military, People Are Peaceful?:  There's another good reason to take taxis.  It's safer than walking the streets after nightfall.  I come from St. Louis, an American city which twice won the dubious award for "Most Dangerous City In The USA," (We're #1!! Woo!!) and I have never been assaulted there.

Witnessed a murder scene in front of my apartment, yes.  Had my car broken into twice, yes.  Had a man offer to suck my dick for crack money - well, naturally.  But never physically assaulted.

During 2 years in happy Costa Rica, I was robbed twice: once with a knife, and another time with a gun.  The first time was expected, as it happened in San Jose, the urban capital city.  The second time was surprising, since it happened with another person on a road in the jungle on the outskirts of Puerto Viejo, a small, relaxed Caribbean coastal town - appropriately enough on my last night in Costa Rica.

This is nothing.  All my Costa Rican friends can outdo me with their own armed robbery stories.  They tell these stories as casually as the latest soccer scores between the big teams, Alajuelita and Saprissa.  One of my friends has been robbed 8 times in her brief 24 years.  This is why she buys the cheapest mobile phones; she expects them to disappear on a regular basis, like that left sock in the dryer.

Of course, nothing bad may happen to you in Costa Rica, especially if you take an all-inclusive, package tour where the worst thing that will happen is a wicked hangover due to an excess of poolside Piña Coladas.  For the rest of the normal backpackers without big expense accounts, good luck, and never-ending Pura Vida.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Manuel Antonio Nightlife: How To Stay At A Beachfront Luxury Condo For Free

Backpackers Manuel Antonio Hostel

Nightlife?  Manuel Antonio is totally dead by midnight.  When the word "gentrified," is applied to tourist locations, this is Costa Rica's first entry.  Once I left the backpacker scene at Backpackers Manuel Antonio Hostel, I felt a lot poorer when I saw all the exclusive restaurants, hotels and villas lining the one winding street that is the "downtown."

Oh well, there's only one street.  Even if I get wasted, all I have to do is follow one road back to the hostel.

As I often point out, Costa Rica's beer scene sucks.  The good thing about this is I don't have to think much about where to go out.  Costa Rica Craft Brewing is pretty much the only microbrewery in the country, so I always start at whatever bar or restaurant they are sold.  In Manuel Antonio that place is Barba Roja, the Red Beard.

It was about 9pm.  Barba Roja was a 10 minute walk from the hostel; it could be done in flip-flops.  I had walked no less than 500 feet, when not surprisingly I heard, "Hey man...Jew want sum weed?"  It's impossible to go anywhere without some annoying, small-time drug dealer heckling me: on the street, on the beach, in bars and in clubs.  I smoke, but I'm not stupid enough to buy off the street.  Usually a simple, "No, gracias" is enough to make them go away, but some of the aggressive dealers respond to my polite "No" with a violent "Fuck You!" followed by threats.  Fortunately this pusher was on the opposite side of the street, so I ignored him and walked faster.

El Gringo Rojo
I was greeted at Barba Roja with, "We're closing soon."  'Soon' meant 'less than an hour,' which is plenty of time to get buzzed.  A quick look around told me that, as with most of the places CRCB is served, this was not in the typical backpacker's budget.  The restaurant is a giant open-air patio that sits high on a hill overlooking the ocean.  They specialize in sushi, feature local artists on their walls and usually require reservations due to their popularity.  The CRCB beers were 3,300 Colones ($6.50), so two would be enough, then I could go somewhere cheaper.

My request for Libertas or Segua got a blank stare from the bartender.  This is normal in Costa Rica.  Your average Costa Rican knows nothing about craft beer, and even if they know of CRCB, they rarely drink it since the beer is about twice the price of a Imperial or Pilsen.

I pointed at the colorful CRCB Segua tap handle to help the bartender.  "Ahhh, la roja!"  He apologized, then actually gave me the first one free.  It's amazing how speaking decent Spanish makes you stick out from every other gringo in Manuel Antonio.  We fell into a Spanglish discussion about the tiny craft beer scene in Costa Rica.  An older American guy at the bar asked about my strange 'red' beer.  Like my homebrewing profesor, Chema, who owns La Bodega de Chema, I prefer to educate and help out people who drink crappy beer.  Just call me a craft beer charity worker.  Or a motivated alcoholic.

Soon we had all ordered another round of Segua, and were discussing national soccer (bad) and pickup lines for Costa Rican girls (even worse.)

Barba Roja was closing.  The Libertas tap was cashed, so the bartender give me a free half-pint 'zarpe' before I left.  If you learn no other word in Costa Rican Spanish, learn "zarpe," which roughly translates as "one-more-for-the-road."  Typically there are 2 or 3 zarpes.

The bartender sent me to Bar El Avion down the road.  'El Avion' translates as 'The Airplane' because it is an authentic replica of Mount Rushmore.  No, seriously, it's a real C-123 Fairlane cargo airplane.  It originally was one of two planes purchased by the CIA in order to attack the Sandinista guerillas in Nicaragua during the Iran-Contra Affair of the 1980s.  It's surprising that this airplane even exists since, according to Ronald Reagan and Oliver North, none of this ever happened.  As with the Iran-Contra Affair, my activities in El Avion are all allegations, since it was closed.

El Avion crash-landed, and most of Manuel Antonio already had too.  There is Mar Luna next to Backpackers Manuel Antonio, but an ugly incident there put me off it.  Some Costa Ricans, like the bartender at Barba Roja, truly appreciate gringos who can speak Spanish.  But many, thanks to years of American influence, would much rather have their gringos remain ignorant, "Uhh-No-Hablo-Espanol" tourists.  They're usually prostitutes, drug dealers, or sketchy guys trying to hook up with foreign chicks.

The previous night I was at Mar Luna talking to some cute, blond American expat chick who had recently moved to Manuel Antonio.  Three Ticos asked if they could join us to "practice their English," which of course meant they wanted to practice with the girl.  She wanted to practice her Spanish, and they obliged.  It quickly degenerated from there...

I spoke Spanish, but they responded to me in broken English.  They talked to the blond chick in Spanish and complimented her even though, quite frankly, her Spanish sucked.  They tried to sell me weed; I declined.  The girl smoked for free.  At some point one of them started talking about Che "El Comandante" Guevera.  He had the cliched, mass-marketed image of Che Guevara as a symbol of the struggle against capitalism, oppression, the Western world, blahblahblah.  In other words, he got his information from a t-shirt sold at The Gap.  Nothing capitalist about that.

I was already annoyed with their tag team cock-blocking.  I pointed out that Che was a brilliant doctor and writer, but as a military commander, he had shot himself in the foot (rimshot!)  During his failed campaign in Africa, he thought Blacks would be easy to control because they were an "inferior race."  Oh, and by the way, he killed lots of innocent people.  This was all said in Spanish, and judging by the look on the guy's face, he wasn't expecting actual facts in his language:
"You think you ares so smart.  I am warning you.  You are alone here."
Better a smartass than a dumbass, I say.  I left before it got ugly.

That incident was out of my mind tonight.  I followed the sound of loud salsa music to the Bar Billfish that was pretty dead, but at least it was still open at 10:30pm on a Friday.  It had a typical Costa Rica late night tourist crowd: drunk local expat business owners; Costa Rican locals who worked for them; old, dirty whoremongers on a "business trip,"; Costa Rican women with dresses that were suspiciously too tight; and twenty-something tourists still energetic enough to drink all night and surf/hike/zipline/drink all day.

Fine Ass Blasian
I was talking to one of these twenty-something tourists about an ATV trip her group of friends were taking the next day.  She was Blasian, and she was hot.  For the uninitiated, a Blasian is a half-Black, half-Asian person (she was half-Korean.)  As the name implies, they are usually blazin' hot, and consequently the subject of many rap songs.  Being from St. Louis, I must mention Kimora Lee Simmons as a prime example, also sexy Amerie, and of course, Tiger Woods.  The Wu-Tang Clan's Blasian status is questionable.

Her friend was half-Black, half-Mexican, or as she put it, Blaxican.  In fact, the whole group was a multiracial reunion of former TCU (Texas Christian University) classmates.  They had rented a fancy beachfront condo for a week in Manuel Antonio.  Everyone was already back at the condo except for the two girls and a Mexican/Filipino/White(??) friend.  He was trying to convince the Blaxican girl that they should be "more than just friends."  That left me with the Blasian.

The tequila shots came fast.  The girls were on vacation, the bar was pretty empty and none of the other guys there stepped up to these chicks.  When the bar did last call, they invited me back to their beachfront condo.  We stopped by a liquor store first.  Unfortunately, Manuel Antonio being the gentrified tourist location it is, had already closed all its liquor stores, even though it was only 11pm.

The guy remembered the fancy condo had provided beer and some liquor, but didn't know if it was included in their payment package.  This wasn't my problem, so I convinced everyone to get beers at the house

Damn flip-flops: the condo was at the bottom of a long rocky winding road on a cliff, and we were pretty drunk by then.  After several cuts and falls, we finally reached the door.  Hooking up with this hot Blasian chick was already motivation enough, but when I saw the property, I knew I wasn't going back to the Backpackers Hostel that night.

Five stories stretched down from the cliff face to the beach below.  When we entered the main door, I saw the blue starry sky stretched out over the dark Pacific Ocean through a glass wall vista that opened onto a deck with an installed firepit.  The marble and steel kitchen was stocked with food and drink.  "We have a French chef who cooks us breakfast and dinner everyday.  His accent is funny." said the Blaxican.  Far below the deck, in front of the beach, was a long, illuminated pool with a waterfall flowing into it.

"Let's go swimming...maybe skinny-dipping?"

We grabbed beers from the fridge and stumbled down the five flights to the pool.  Some of the other friends were awoken by our loud, drunk group.  I expected some issues.  One Puerto Rican(?) guy, who was clearly the mastermind of this TCU class reunion, interrogated me for a minute.  Once satisfied, he shrugged, and in a fatherly tone, reminded his drunk friends that they had to be up early the next day for the ATV tour.

The MexiFilipino and the Blaxican jumped into the pool.  The Blasian and I avoided the pool, and lounged in two recliners, already deep in conversation.  Being a fine half-Asian, half-Black, college graduate working in a big business, she's what you might call a bougie-bitch.  Fine by me.  I hook up with more girls by being a sophisticated intellectual then by trying any bad boy, alpha male bullshit.  Well, not quite: there's a fine line between intelligent, multimillionare, technology-obsessed super-nerd Bill Gates, and intelligent, multimillionare, technology-obsessed super-badass Tony Starks.

Indeed, Ms. Blasian was rolling her eyes at her friend's drunken antics now.  The Blaxican had taken her top off, and I tried my damnedest to ignore her nice tits.  The Filipino guy seemed like was he making progress, but an unfortunate accident ruined his chances.  Drunk Blaxican went to the toilet, and in the process fell up the stairs.  We heard a thump, Ms. Blasian ran away, and she returned helping her friend, whose head was now bleeding.  After some ice, she was put down for the night, and Filipinexican called it quits.

Finally.  I spent the night rolling around with Ms. Blasian on a plush king-sized bed that put my empty bunk bed back at the Backpackers Hostel to shame.  To say the least, she was flexible.  The room had a great view of the beach, but we didn't need any of the TCU crew to peek in on us.  The shower was more of a small pool than a shower.

I missed Backpacker Manuel Antonio Hostel's free pancake breakfast, but getting a Gruyere Cheese and Prosciutto Omelette with fresh pineapple prepared by a French chef with a funny accent is not a bad Plan B.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Manuel Antonio National Park: A Million Tourists, A Thousand Monkeys And Lots Of Fecal Matter

You, and 3 billion other tourists, will love Manuel Antonio National Park.  Recommended travel gear includes a helmet and elbow pads.  It makes pushing aside the weaker tourists much easier so that you can be the first to get a perfect, once-in-a-lifetime picture of those cute Capuchin monkeys playing with themselves in the palm trees.  Try filming the iguanas.  They move a lot slower, and are less likely to throw feces.

This picture was not taken in the national park.  Thanks to a new camera with a 21x zoom, it was taken from a comfortable sofa on the porch of Backpackers Manuel Antonio Hostel.  I was taking advantage of the hostel's awesome free pancake breakfast before I hopped on the local bus to the park entrance.

Backpackers Manuel Antonio sits across the street from the village's "centro,", which in small town Latin American dialect translates to "soccer field."  The rest of the community consists of one winding 10 mile road squeezed in on both sides by hotels, restaurants and stores selling authentic Costa Rica handicrafts made in China.  At one end of this road is the national park.  If your lodging is close enough to the entrance, you can walk there.  The hostel is not close enough.

Manuel Antonio Park's ticket vending stand is well hidden within the vast virgin jungle of tourist shops that will greet you when you get off the bus.  The easiest way to find it is to "join" one of the millions of tourist groups being lead like cattle by Costa Rican guides dressed in Indian Jones-style safari gear.  Once you are guided to the entrance, you can safely leave the group and no one will know the better.  After waiting in line, I paid the ten dollars for my ticket, and practically ran into a deer right before I entered the park.

This is a common sight in Manuel Antonio Park: animals with no fear of humans.  The park was established in 1972, so there have been plenty of years for wild animals to get accustomed to non-indigenous humans wandering through the jungle.  You will find many indigenous animals here, including: raccoons, sloths, agoutis, coatis and the endemic titis monkey. Yes, these monkeys are called 'titis!'  They are highly endangered; most likely because of suicide due to extreme embarrassment.

I entered the main entrance with a elderly, sweaty overweight tour group being lead by a guide who was joking in Spanish with the park rangers about his elderly, sweaty overweight tour group.  He switched to accented English and directed the group down the wide, rocky path.  I quickly outpaced the herd, but within 5 minutes I ran across another tour group wielding cameras and pointing into the foliage.

They were not titi monkeys, but white-faced capuchin monkeys.

Chain Smoking Monkey
I pushed my way through the crowd and held up my camera in anticipation.  Thanks to the Discovery Channel, we all know monkeys have a biological tendency to do funny things.  This behavior has been recorded in many scientific documentary films such as "The Hangover 2, which features one of these little, spidery, long-tailed primates I was filming at the moment.

Unfortunately, they weren't doing anything particularly funny, like throwing poop, masturbating or chain smoking cigarettes.  They appeared quite bored with all the tourists around.  I put down my camera and listened to the guide while the monkeys scratched themselves.  Stupid monkeys.

The monkeys were attracting more and more tourists.  It was time to move away.  Far away.  I kept walking and what I found was that it was impossible to get away from crowds at the park.  Manuel Antonio Park, at 7,656 square miles (19,83 sq km,) is Costa Rica's smallest park, but one of its most famous, receiving around 150,000 tourists per year.  At only 82 miles from San Jose, it's also an easily accessible national park, and will become even more so since a major interstate highway has been recently built to connect San Jose with a popular nearby prostitution-themed funpark called Jaco.

At least I never had to worry about finding someone to take my picture at the scenic points.

This view requires an uphill climb on a series of large, man-made concrete slabs.  I suppose the concrete slabs are Costa Rica's way to avoid any permanent change to the natural environment, yet still make much of the park accessible when the constant rain turns many of the paths into fudge brownie rivers.  In addition to the constant joy of equatorial rainstorms, it's important to note when high and low tide as it makes certain areas of the park cease to exist for several hours.

Some kind of bird
Manuel Antonio has a extensive network of interesting trails well suited for travelers whose closets are primarily filled with color-coordinated, REI brand moisture-wicking gear and matching all-terrain Teva sandals.  For tourists who don't consider sweating profusely to be one of their primary vacation activities, there are the beaches.  Manuel Antonio, South Espadilla, Gemela and Puerto Escondio are the park's 4 locations where you can work on that perfect sunburn.

At this particular moment, isolated Gemela and Puerto Escondio were not technically beaches, due to the rising tide.  I resigned myself to resting on the park's big namesake beach.  Even with the grey threatening rain clouds, it was a madhouse.  I avoided colliding with several hyperactive kids, flying beach balls and banana-thonged Eurotourists while looking for a quiet place to nap that wouldn't be underwater in the next hour.

I found a spot near the treeline, and stupidly realized I had forgotten to bring alcohol.  I went with my second option, which is practicing mixed martial arts.  In Latin America this the only practical form of self-defense next to carrying a firearm.  I was flipping and kicking around when I noticed a class of extremely inexperienced yoga students pointing at me.

I've practiced MMA for 2 years in Costa Rica.  When I practice in public, I frequently meet hippie yoga students who confuse MMA training with some kind of new age, karma-inducing advanced yoga.  I quickly point out that my goal is to effectively beat the shit out of people, and not achieve inner peace.  They (peacefully) lecture me on my lack of karma, then meditate their way back to whatever environmentally friendly, granola-fed, self-righteously sustainable commune they're staying at.

Anyway, I figured this group would be good entertainment.  The perky, lithe yoga instructor, who was clearly born without basic anatomical features like bones, was demonstrating how easy it was to use her arms as a substitute for her legs.  The amateur, karma-seeking students would let out an enthusiastic "OHM" and put their arms on the ground while throwing their legs in the air.

Not the entrance or exit
Unfortunately, they were used to using arms for normal hippie things, such as eating hummus, and would fall on the ground, often with limbs protruding at unusual angles.  The instructor gave them encouraging pats on the back.  She preferred her left foot.

After some time the students' "OHMs" were sounding suspiciously like groans.  The yoga instructor eventually decided that, yes, feet are perfectly fine for walking.  She led the students in a round of applause, which was only hindered by the fact that some of the students could not actually find their hands.

My entertainment was gone, so I moved to South Espadilla on the other side of the peninsula.  The tide was stronger on this side so the beach was empty.  A lone parasailer sailed across the grey, cloudy sky.  I watched him hovering majestically in the air until I noticed that, sadly, there was no lightening.  I recognized the large rocky islands I had seen on all the websites and fulfilled my tourist duties by snapping 5 billion unforgettable pictures.  Surprisingly, Lonely Planet has not responded to my profanity-filled emails.  Perhaps I should apply a different Instagram filter.

There is a different exit near this beach.  The actual exit strangely enough lead to a small river that, due to the high tide, appeared impassable.  Several men sat with rowboats advertising passage across the river for 500 Colones.  Many of the tourists were taking these boats.  Wading across the river was possible, and many people were attempting it, however a big official sign stood next to the river:
Several questions come up: Why would Costa Rica's most famous national park exit to a dangerous, impassable, crocodile and shit-filled river?  Did this river harbor a particular species of crocodile that suffers from severe bowel issues?  Do the crocodiles only attack fat tourists?  Were the crocodiles attacking tourists with the fecal matter?  If so, could they attack the yoga students?

I naturally assume everything in this part of the world is a scam.  Two Costa Ricans guys stood next to me looking skeptical too.  We talked momentarily in Spanish; they had visited before and remembered an easier way.  To the far left, hidden among the palm trees, were some muddy steps that lead over a small hill that extended into the ocean.  On the other side was much shallower water, which appeared free of fecal-throwing crocodiles.

The three of us removed our shoes and gingerly waded across the river.  After a tense minute I reached the opposite shore.  I turned around and noticed the Costa Ricans had disappeared...

Just kidding.  We laughed at the silly scheming boatmen and celebrated with a more honest businessman who was selling homemade ice cream by the bus stop.  As expected, the rain started picking up while I waited for the bus with the other 4.26 million tourists.

The internet connection was good in the hostel, so I spent the rainy evening on my computer looking at pictures of titis.                  


Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Magical Santa Cruz Cheese Festival Of Turrialba

Costa Rica's Largest Cheese...Ever.

Cheese, cheese and more cheese.  The Santa Cruz Feria Del Queso (Santa Cruz Cheese Festival) is perhaps Costa Rica's greatest undiscovered culinary event for any tourist who does not mind severe constipation.  It is a month of dairy delight culminating in the final Sunday unveiling of Costa Rica's largest cheese.  Ever.  It will probably remain undiscovered by most tourists because, even with an automobile, getting to this pretty village in the scenic mountains is a real bitch.  The logistics of traveling in Costa Rica  -a country which has only recently discovered street signs- figured importantly into this trip.

The festival, like all diary products, has its origin in the introduction of foreign cultures.

Costa Rica frequently gets called, "The Switzerland Of Central America," a title which it attributes to its relative stability, prosperity and neutrality as a country in a region of the world that is often known for poverty, drug cartels, military coups and kidnappings.  This safety is debatable, but Costa Rica does resemble Switzerland in a more concrete aspect.  Its mountainous interior resembles the green, verdant rolling topography that we typically associate with that little, neutral, secret-bank-account European country.

These udders are going places
The geographical resemblance is most obvious in the providence of Turrialba.  The region sits at a high elevation, which causes a year-round cool, rainy climate that contrasts with Costa Rica's reputation for sunny beaches.  In the 1850s this climate attracted Spanish immigrants from the La Mancha region (yeah, the Don Quixote place), where they have a long history of dairy production.  The immigrants domesticated some cows, developed farms and quickly built a reputation for the best dairy products in Costa Rica.

While taking the bus on winding Highway 230, the orderly checkerboard farm plots, green rolling hills, tall haystacks and grazing cows made me recall previous summer trips through Switzerland and southern Germany.  My Argentinian friend and I had looked for a big event to finish her Costa Rican vacation, and the "Santa Cruz Feria Del Queso" came up that weekend.  Neither of us were lactose intolerant, so we booked a night at the Casa De Lis Hostel in Turrialba and planned out our travel route with a little help from my roommate, who is from Turrialba.

1. From San Jose take a bus to Cartago.  There are a few options, but Lumaca is the easiest choice. What's most important is that you arrive before 10:00am.

2. Gemon operates bus lines from Cartago to Santa Cruz de Turrilba.  The first one leaves at 10am.  There is another bus that departs at noon.  Leave any later than that and you will miss most of the festival.

3. Most important: indicate to the bus driver that you want to stop at "Santa Cruz de Turrialba."  If you don't speak Spanish, just shout "Santa Cruz, Feria Del Queso!" and make loud "MOOO!" cow sounds.  The driver will drop you off at the highway entrance that is about a quarter mile walk from the fair grounds.  It will be muddy.

Santa Cruz Cheese Festival Fairgrounds

When we stepped off the bus, we congratulated ourselves on bringing jackets and umbrellas.  The mist that we saw coating the green mountains gave the scenery a dreamy quality from inside the bus.  Outside the bus, it simply felt cold and wet.  Fortunately, the majority of the Cheese Festival is held under a giant shed and large tents.  They know their climate, and the temperature heats up quickly once the band starts playing.

Turrialba Spanish
The Cheese Festival fairgrounds are essentially divided into two parts: the stands and the restaurants.  The free-standing tents are where the farmers and vendors sell packaged dairy products and various traditional knick-knacks.  The permanent, tin-roofed shed covers the temporary kitchens where the villagers cook up fresh meals.  Underneath the happy buzz of people eating, drinking and talking there's a constant background sound of mooing from the dozens of cows being housed in a large shed just down the hill.

Before visiting the Cheese Festival, my knowledge of dairy products was pretty much restricted to milk and cheese.  The farmers of Santa Cruz blew that door wide open.  I had learned a lot of Costa Rican Spanish and my Argentinian friend could easily read the menus, but the local Turrialban expressions used for the dishes gave us no clue of what we would eat.  Rosquillos?  Papin de Leche?  Gallos de Ternero?  Leche Volcanica...

Volcanic Milk?? Sounds painful.

The easiest thing to do was to try everything.

Tortillas de Queso (Cheese Tortillas) looked like the most straightforward thing to start with.  It was simply that: a thick piece of bread made with flour and white cheese mixed together.  It tastes fine by itself, and even better with a spoonful of mild salsa or light sour cream on top.  The best way to wash this down is with a glass of Volcanic Milk.  The "volcanic" part comes from the shot of rum and coffee they add to the milk.  Think of it as a Tropical White Russian (or El Lebowski Grande.)

Cheese Tortillas with Volcanic Milk

Chicarrones De Queso: addictive
Desserts made up the majority of our meal.  Papin de Leche (Milk Daddy?) is a type of flan, but fresher thanks to our bovine neighbors.  Chicarrones de Queso (Cheese Chicarrones) worried me at first.  I imagined Mexican chicarrones, which are basically pork rinds.  What I got was similar to crack cocaine, but way more addictive.  Take white Turrialba cheese and then fry it in caramel.  As a red-blooded American, I believe anything is better fried.  I ordered two packages of it and finished the first one in 10 minutes.

After eating we went to the vendors' tents to see what we could take home.  Almost all the products were fresh from the farm; the cheeses squeaked and the sour creams practically dripped from their bags.  I purchased a bag of sour cream, some sweet buns, a liter of rum-and-milk cocktail called rompope, and a block of smooth, white Turrialba cheese dotted with red and green peppers.  My Argentinian friend had a little more difficulty.  Since she was boarding a plane soon, she needed something that could pass through customs easily.  Eventually we found a vendor who sold their cheese in sealed, air-locked plastic bags.

I got constipated just looking at it.

In the history of culinary events it was epic, but as usual the specter of Costa Rica's confusing public transportation reared its ugly head.  Despite a clearly-posted online schedule, and confirmation from the locals, the bus we planned to take back to Turrialba failed to appear at 5:30pm.  This was not unusual.  At 6pm the bus failed to appear again, but we were still laughing about Latinos and their chronic lateness.  When the bus failed to appear 15 minutes later, and continued to do so for the next hour, we became concerned.

We were not simply naive tourists unaware of local practices.  Ten other Costa Ricans were stranded with us on the side of the road, all complaining about the atrocious state of their country's public transportation.

It ended well.  After nearly two hours of hoping and wondering and waiting, a bus --which was not the one we wanted-- arrived to take us to a nearby small town.  We were still nearly 10 miles from Turrialba and it was nightfall.  Luckily, some of the other stranded Costa Ricans had friends in the small town who kindly gave us a ride to our hostel in Turrialba.  We dined and drank with the other hostel guests and soon passed out, completely exhausted.

The followed morning we made a dairy breakfast out of the sweet buns, sour cream, cheese and alcoholic rompope.  I was not able to shit for the next three days.  This is a small price to pay for visiting the magical Santa Cruz Cheese Festival of Costa Rica.

Sweet Buns, Sour Cream and Rompope


Saturday, July 20, 2013

Bocas Del Toro: Red Frog Beach...Has Red Frogs

"You foto? Money, Money, Money?!"

You think I would've learned by now.  Some cute kids show me a palm leaf full of little red frogs, on Red Frog Beach in Panama.  I take a picture.  They start yelling: "Money, Money, Money?!"

Whatever.  Take the damn money.  We're all rich white people anyway, tu sabes?  I'm more annoyed with all the gringos who have came here before me and encouraged this kind of soft scam business.  The kids are just too damn cute to get mad at, even though they are little scam artists.

This is the tourist industry outside of the Western world: from the big international agencies booking all-inclusive's down to the little street kids charging for pictures.  The backpacker community can avoid the international travel agencies (indeed it's a mark of their "independence") but when it comes to local businesses, anyone is fair game, from the senior citizens on their disposable income to the grungy, unwashed student on a gap year.

The amazing thing is how many independent Western backpackers still assume that local businesses in underdeveloped countries operate like they do in the first world.  They feel uncomfortable that there are rarely fixed prices for goods and services, and they complain about having to pay cash for everything.  Or even worse, they try to be an "in-the-know" savvy backpacker and start with a ridiculously low offer for a local service, and still don't get why the guy won't give their cracker-ass a better deal than a local.

Anyway, you should go to Red Frog Beach.

A Random Tour Boat Company
Our little Spanish, Argentinian and Gringo trio booked a boat to Bastimento Island with an "official" tour boat.  I hesitate to call it an official business because, being in Panama, they have a office and employees, but don't have travel insurance, safety waivers, emergency contacts and all that legal shit which we find so annoying in the United States.  As annoying as it is, if something does go wrong, most Americans are happy to have the paperwork to help their lawyer build a substantial lawsuit against the (incorporated) company.

The boat company quoted an initial price of seven dollars per person to take us to Bastimento Island.  We said that was fine, at which point they mentioned -oh, by the way- beautiful Red Frog and Wizard Beaches are on the opposite side of the island from the dock where we drop you off.  For an additional three dollars, there is a truck (conveniently) waiting at the dock to take you directly to the beach.

If you don't take it, the walk is a 1/2 hour through mosquito-infested, muddy jungle...

                                  It's rainy season, so you can expect rain starting around 3pm...

                                                                 The last boat leaves the island at 5:30pm...
                                                                Also the price covers the park entrance fee...

Ten dollars later we were on the boat, after a short reminder to wear our life jackets just in case, you know, something might, maybe, perhaps, come up.  Ojala!  Embrace spontaneity and change? Carpe diem?  Ironically, the travel bloggers who write that romantic shit all the time turn out to be incredibly boring, organized, anal people who actually research all their information ahead of time and have their entire travel schedule planned out already...complete with a post about it online in advance modestly bragging about how they love to "live in the moment."

Legoland Boat Dock 
The weather was overcast and the short trip had no surprises.  The most exciting part was the island's floating dock, made of interconnected, synthetic plastic cubes which decidedly clashed with the rest of the wooden, rustic-looking dock's ornaments.  I assume it was an economical alternative to building a fancy, all-wooden and thatch "authentic" structure.  It's fun to jump on.

A quick walk uphill brought us to the Red Frog Park/Resort entrance where the trucks wait for tourists.  The interior of the island is mosquito-infested and muddy, but the gravel trails are well-laid out and there are little pretty communities of exclusive luxury villas starting at around $95,000 for a "partial ownership" plot.  This is probably too much for the average backpacker to consider, but not to worry, there is Bocas Bound Hostel!!  According to most of the reviews, you will love staying at this affordable option, as long as you don't need running water or friendly service all the time.

Somewhere inside my cynical little heart I find the will to say this: Red Frog Beach is beautiful.  It is isolated and far away from the backpacker ghetto of Bocas Town, so the sand remains pristine and clean, and the extra effort required to get here keeps it from being overrun by tourists.  The clouds, strong wind and slight drizzle didn't stop us from enjoying the wild scenery.  In fact, the inclement weather added a certain drama to the waves crashing on the rocky outcropping that would have been absent on a perfectly still, sunny day.

The drizzle comes and goes intermittently while we lounge on the beach.  Take pictures.  We try laying down for a while; I am too wound up and do martial arts on the sand to amuse my friends.  Take pictures.  The drizzle increases so we amble up a strategically-constructed, scenic observation deck that's protected by the verdant jungle foliage.  Pictures.  More pictures.  Hey, we're alone here.  Smoke a little.  Laugh a lot.  Tomfoolery.  My Spanish friend has an easy smile. My Argentinian friend, she has the most wonderful laugh.  God, it is beautiful here.

Within an hour the drizzle has grown into the typical equatorial afternoon downpour.  We seek shelter at the nearby Palmar Tent Lodge bar & restaurant.  Not surprisingly, it's staffed and patronized by American surfer volunteers.  They procure us a round of Balboa beers.  Talk. "Where are you from?  Argentina?! Spain?!  United States.  Oh."  "You speak Spanish pretty well.  Why are you here?"  "I don't really know."  The usual backpacker talk.  More rain.  "Another round?"

Another hour passes.  Maybe more.  Maybe less.  The rain keeps time.

The rains clears up.  We walk around the Palmar Tent Lodge grounds.  The fancy tents and dorms set on the edge of the jungle go straight onto my "Someday, Somehow List."  It's a typical eco-friendly, self-sustainable "insert-hyphened-word" green community that's affordable by Western standards.  If you like to rough it in nature, but not really, really rough it, it's perfect.

The three of us wander further down the beach and unknowingly cross the invisible border between Red Frog Beach and Wizard Beach.  The only difference here is that all the other tourists are gone.  The sunbathers, swimmers and beach chairs are tiny dots in the distance.  After we walk around an outcropping of rocks and fallen driftwood, those final signs of civilization disappear from sight.  Most likely there are private, luxury villas hidden back in the jungle, but from the beach it appears we are alone.  Our conversation becomes less frequent as we let the sound of the wind and waves take over.

Eventually we stop to take a rest on some smooth driftwood.  Several pictures of the "Wish-You-Were-Here" variety are taken.  Look at this one.  Silence.  Laughing.  Silence again.  I'm not thinking about my home in San Jose, Costa Rica: the robberies, the crime, the scams, the gringo bullshit.  For once in Latin America - I can breath easy.  I am in good company.  Gracias, amigos.

We take the last boat at 5:30pm back to the madness of Bocas Town.