On leaving Germany and moving to Costa Rica, and then to Ecuador

Comments, compliments... no complaints, with the exception of mosquitoes, but that's biodiversity for you! :)

Sunday, February 17, 2008

First days in Ecuador

This will be updated quite regularly, since changes will take place almost every day. I have to report that packing in Costa Rica went quite well, and so did take off...amazing! I had been torturing myself, waking up in the middle of the night thinking my suitcases were too heavy. I even gave away more stuff that I had already packed (which I had to immediately re-buy here)...by the time I got to the airport, I was really nervous and afraid I'd be charged hundreds of dollars for my excess baggage. Not so. I feel extremely lucky and proud of myself :) I'd called the airline the day before and told them I was carrying important documents with me (from the university) that could not go in my suitcase and would not fit in the carry on...could I carry them in a shopping bag? They said yes, annotated that on my record online and when I got to the airport, they didn't make problems...I was SO relieved!

My shoulders and back still hurt, but I got to bring everything I needed...

I was picked up at the airport by my new boss, and treated to a typical Andean soup and fried plantains for lunch. Then we discussed "housing" matters. She showed me pictures and, even though I haven't seen the house yet, it looks like the kind of place I'd enjoy living in. I'm very satisfied with the living arrangements and think that I will enjoy working for this university. There's a lot to be done, but I can do it. I was trained for that and already did the same job at another university for three years...so, I'm looking forward to tomorrow...

There's a slight problem...I will have to work in Quito for the first week, and I already talked about my headaches...not funny to have to start my day with two Advils, but it's necessary.

I think that's all for now... "soroche" (altitud sickness) is manifesting itself again and I have to go lie down...

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

I know, I've been more than bad...

I just noticed I hadn't posted anything since October...and SO much has happened since then!

At some point in October I got a phone call offering me a job at a university in Ecuador. Not to be disrespectful or anything, but all I knew about Ecuador at that point was that it is located to the north of Peru, that the Equator line runs through there and that they produce lots of bananas. Also, that the Galapagos Islands (a place I'd like to visit) belong to them. I had met a few people from Ecuador, both in Germany and in Costa Rica, really nice people both from the mountains and the coast, but they hadn't told me much about their country, so, when I was asked to choose between Quito or Guayaquil, I didn't know what to say.
Then I contacted all the Ecuadorians (and non Ecuadorians with Ecuador experience) I knew and asked about the university and the two cities mentioned. I was told it's a young university, but it has potential...About the cities, one was very high and cold, the other one extremely hot and humid. It was a hard choice, since my mom passed her altitude sickness genes on to me...which means I get a splitting headache as soon as we reach 50 meters above sea level (maybe not that bad, but almost) plus nausea, dizziness, etc...on the other hand, the heat and I are not very good friends...
I liked the idea of Quito better because, from what I could see online, it's prettier and I'd read it's cool, since it's mountain climate. I was told many times that people on the coast are more open and friendlier...but I was afraid I couldn't handle the heat.
So, I left the research there, since I had more important research to take care of and decided all would get straightened out with a visit.

November was pretty uneventful, no major things happening, except for great things to write on my thesis. The more I research about my topic, the more I'm convinced that it was a great choice to focus on the urban poor, their lack of water, and the strategies water suppliers are using to include this segment...
Also in November I told my family I wasn't coming home for Christmas because of my one ticket budgetary limit (which I would use when I left Costa Rica in February)...got lots of pouts from my beautiful nieces, one of whom told me I had already cheated them out of one very recent Christmas...how dare I do it again? So I promised I'd visit before their summer vacations are over...she MADE ME promise!

I was invited to spend Christmas in Costa Rica with a great family...it really felt like home...so I really didn't feel very homesick. But before that, I have to mention that all the friends I made here really tried to make my Christmas in Costa Rica as happy as possible, in view of the fact that I was not going home. So, Carla, my neighbor gave me a little Christmas tree, with a glittering star...another friend invited me to a "parrillada" that is really VERY different from the parrilladas I've known.
This deserves a new paragraph. Seems like it's completely normal to have that kind of event here in Costa Rica around Christmas, so I'll have to make a detailed account of that, since I find it extremely interesting. I was picked up at 6 am so we could start our way to Grecia...on the way, we stopped for breakfast. We got to the house on the hills of Grecia. We had more breakfast :) The best gallo pinto (rice with black beans and lots of spices) I've ever eaten. They had already prepared the area, with a tent just in case it should rain. The focal point was this metal frame that I couldn't figure out what it was for...Turns out, it was for the huge pig I had seen tied to a tree on the way in. To make a long story short, the pig was slaughtered, skinned, and cut on that frame...by the owner who is a surgeon and his sister who works for the Costa Rican Red Cross, while some other family members helped. This is where it gets interesting: some of the skin with some meat was used to make chicharrones (pork rinds), part of the meat was used in a chili soup, and other parts were selected for making tamales, and the rest of the pork was destined, I guess for other purposes. I had never participated in something like this: Previously, I had seen some ladies washing and cleaning banana leaves. Then someone started cooking something in a pot. It was a white mixture of corn and other things that I'm not sure about. I have to admit I wasn't paying attention at that point. I was concentrating on the karaoke and how well some of the guests were singing. All of a sudden three long tables were set up with the banana leaves cut in squares. Kinda like place mats, maybe ten to each side of each table. All guests who wanted to participate, were standing in line and received a bowl with one single ingredient (red peppers, meat, rice, peas, garbanzo beans, olives, etc.) and then the parade started. The music was turned up, and, while the hostess put a spoonful of the white mix on each banana leaf, her husband was encouraging the guests to sing on the karaoke microphone while they were placing the ingredient they were in charge of on the banana leaf. I know it must sound more complicated than it really was. If you can picture a conga line, each person with a bowl, everyone singing and dancing to the reggaeton music (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reggaeton) while placing 1 red pepper strip, a spoonful of rice, a piece of pork, or in my case, three peas, you pretty much got it. :) Later that evening, we ate those tamales and had the most wonderful time. Really, truly memorable. I had tons of fun! Thank you Alexandra and Sandro for that great experience!
The day after that was almost Christmas. I had promised to bring something typical from Peru. As typical as I could produce with the ingredients at hand. With the online help of my mom, I managed to prepare some cocktail potatoes (mixed with garlic and rosemary) with huancaina sauce (http://tinyurl.com/3xxc57) . I guess they liked it because it was gone in almost no time. :)
That Christmas party was great, it's a really warm family, and although I was the only "stranger" (or should I say non-family member) there, I felt right at home. The next day was spent resting from the night before and eating leftovers :) What a treat! :) The list of people to thank here would be so long, I will only thank Donia Lorena & Guillermo, Nini & Paco and Juan Carlos :)
Then it was back to the campus...I was already getting ready to spend New Year's Eve alone (had already bought the candles and the grapes) , since, when I got back I discovered everyone left on campus had fled to the beach, when I got a phone call from the same friends I spent Christmas with to see if I wanted to go to the beach. I was really excited...had like 45 minutes to shower and prepare for a long weekend with party included...and off we went towards Jaco. Great company, nice car, beautiful scenery...and my Ipod music, what more could I ask for? :) We had lunch at Steve and Lisa's...rice with shrimp...delicious!
One of the highlights of this mini trip, I got drunk for the first time in my entire life!!! :) I know, shame on me! (that it took me so long!) . To that day I had never experienced what it is to have a hangover. I really don't understand how people who have had one, still drink excessively. YUCK! I can bet I looked green the next day, luckily by 2 pm I was fine again.
The funniest part of this trip was when we decided to swim in the pool on December 31st around 5:30 pm. Guests were supposed to arrive around 7, so there was time, we thought. We splashed around and laughed like little kids. Then the mom came out on the balcony overlooking the pool and told us (with great dismay in her voice): "Oh my God, what are you doing in the pool? The guests are going to be here any minute!" I swear I was transported to age 12, when my mom would do the same (sans balcony)...so we very obediently left the pool area and went to shower and get dressed like good little kids.
The guests arrived, all of them family members that I'd already met at the Christmas party, and once we'd had a delicious dinner, we left around 11 pm for the party at the beach club. The club had hired a great band who played until 5 am(I think) . We stayed until the very end. It was great fun! We went back to the house, dragged ourselves into bed and rested until around 1 pm. Then there was a big surprise...an effort had been made and a captain was found to take us on their sailboat, departing from Los Suenos (literally The Dreams...and also truly...what an amazing place!). This trip was so much fun! We (well, that's an exaggeration) caught a huge Mahi Mahi, and the captain cut it into little filets as soon as we were back in Los Suenos.
Then it was time to go back into the real world...sadly...

I visited Ecuador. Was picked up by the dean of business, and later shown the city of Guayaquil. It rained most of the time. It was also very warm, but a lot nicer than I had expected. The next day another dean picked me up and showed me what couldn't be seen the day before because of the rain. We walked for hours in the Malecon (Boardwalk along the river). And we'd only seen HALF! :) Monday was all business...lots of interviews and my departure for Quito. In Quito I was taken to the central offices of the university to meet my potential boss. Then I discovered Ecuadorian shrimp ceviche...YUM! Not too long after that, I realized that Guayaquil would be my best bet...at least with air conditioned houses and offices you do't have to worry about the heat...but the altitude you can't do much about... Still, I confirmed my suspicions that Quito is quite beautiful...One night I was taken to a restaurant on top of a mountain where you get the view of Quito, especially the historic center illuminated. BEAUTIFUL! One morning I spent touring Quito, museums, churches and such (sigh)...I guess it's near enough that I can visit anytime I want (it's only a 40 minute flight). Then it was time to come back to Costa Rica, but first I stopped in Guayaquil again to look at apartments...I fell in love a couple of times...really exactly what I was looking for, but not all people involved in the process were present, so, I guess I'll have to look again once I'm there to stay.

Totally crazy month, and it's not over yet! All I've done has been sell my things, pack, give things away, throw stuff out and write like a maniac on my thesis at the same time.

Also, I'm saying my goodbyes in the middle of this chaos. And it's not easy...it's hard to leave...in just a year, I made so many friends, I know I will be missing them in Ecuador...

I will be starting work on the 18th and I'm already exhausted! Can't wait for it to be the middle of March when I hope I'll be settled and will know more what to expect and what my new life in Ecuador will be like.

I will continue this blog from there...so, please join me on this new adventure...no need to change the title, since where I'm going it's also mostly sunny (and bright and hot)...Sounds like I'm going like that song from The Beatles "I'll follow the sun..." no, no, too sad....maybe "Here comes the sun"? Nope, I'm the one who's moving... I know:
I'll do like Monty Python and "look on the bright side of life" :)

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Mama in Costa Rica

I know this post is long overdue. Some time ago my brother called me at the office and asked me if I missed my mom and really, without a pause, then asked if I wanted her here, if it was a good time for me. Of course, when you're writing a thesis, it's either always a good time or never. I 'm glad he called. I'm glad she came.

Suddenly I started planning a two-week trip where I could show her as much of Costa Rica as I could without missing work but without boring her to death. I will copy/paste parts of a post I wrote for the CRL list, but without the details about prices and such. If you want that information, you can write me an e-mail.

"My dear brother surprised me about three weeks ago with a phone call. Somehow I get the feeling it was a combination of too many frequent flyer miles on his part and my mom commenting that she missed me. In any case, he called and said if you want her, she can be there in a week or so. For two weeks.
I have the Lonely Planet Costa Rica book, and I had a pretty good idea of what she "needed" to see.
Important information if you're still reading: My mom is 63 years old and not the most adventurous type.
On our first week (weekend, actually) we went to Punta Leona and Cataratas de La Paz. Both beautiful places.
I rented a car from Mapache Car Rental...very acceptable service. So, on Friday we left Alajuela around 10 am and got to the Jaco area in two hours, just because we were admiring the view and she wanted to take lots of pictures. I'd booked us a room at the Punta Leona hotel, just before Jaco. We got a double room, with breakfast, lunch and dinner included, and also the beach towels. The hotel is great, the food was not bad, the beach was beautiful. Not too crowded, just the right amount of people. It was a long weekend (this was on the weekend before July 30th) so they were full, but there was never a time when we thought there were too many people anywhere. Very enjoyable.
On our first day in the Punta Leona area we drove around, discovered a little restaurant (Steve & Lisa's) where we had a delicious lunch and after checking in at the hotel we showered, dressed up and went to have a drink at the Villa Caletas Hotel. I had found it in my Lonely Planet Book, where they mentioned that you could have a nice drink while watching the most amazing sunset on the Pacific side. They have an amphitheatre where they also have concerts on special occasions. It was really worth it! My mom took about 100 pictures as the sun changed colors. Truly amazing. Then we went back to the Punta Leona Hotel for dinner. They were serving Paella among other things. The most fun were the monkeys that climbed down from the trees and stole the napkins, salt and pepper shakers and anything that was not too heavy to take with them.
Since we had to check out at 12 on day 2, we got all our stuff ready and put it in the car so we could check out early. As we checked out, they said we could stay there for as long as we wanted on that day (as long as we never left, because they give you a little paper every time you want to leave the resort).
We then drove to the beach (Playa Blanca) after breakfast where we stayed until around 1 pm. We were able to shower at the beach facilities and then went to the buffet area to eat. After that, we visited some friends in the Playa Herradura area (we had a really enjoyable time) and drove back to Alajuela via the Cerro Aguacate. I think I might try some other route next time. Other than that, the weekend was a complete success.
Sunday morning we left Alajuela around 9 and after stopping everywhere mom wanted, for pictures and souvenirs, we got to La Paz Waterfalls Garden around 11. If you don't have time for visiting much in Costa Rica, La Paz is the place to see. You can visit the trout pool, aviary, butterfly area, hummingbirds, snakes and frogs, a little Tico house from the old times and THEN you can walk down to view 5 waterfalls. It's a good idea to bring a rain poncho, because it can get wet, especially during this time of year. After you've seen the last waterfall, you climb back a little and a shuttle will take you back to the park entrance. We got back home around 5 pm or so, so it's a full day adventure.On Tuesday we visited Sarchi. All kinds of nice tico (and Central American) souvenirs with mostly reasonable prices.
At some point during this week she cooked lots and lots of stuff so I could freeze it and have some of her cooking when she was gone. SOOOO delicious!

Second weekend: Arenal and Monteverde - WOW!
I did not rent a car for this after I heard the description of the road to Monteverde. We took a bus (Gray Line) at the Garden Court hotel in Alajuela across from the airport. Extremely pleasant ride, air conditioned mini buses with expert drivers. There's a stop at Limonal where you're offered a snack (juice or coffee with some pastry) courtesy of Gray Line. They will pick you up at your hotel and will take you to your hotel wherever you're going. They will also pick you up there for your next trip. Extremely convenient.
We left at around 9 am and reached Arenal around 12 or 12:30. Our hotel was the Arenal Paraiso. Beautiful little cabins with private bathroom and a little terrace with a view to the Arenal Volcano. The best part were the little hot spring pools. They had about 12 of them (plus 2 big ones and a normal pool with chlorine) but each hidden in all this vegetation. So you had the feeling of being all alone among the rocks and trees. She loved that. The hotel provides you with towels as well, so no need to carry those huge towels to lie on the chairs by the pool. We got to see the volcano without the clouds and even some lava at night.

Since our bus picked us up at 6:35 and breakfast was served at 6:30, they gave us our breakfast in boxes, so we got to snack on the way to Monteverde. In order to get there, we had to stop at Limonal, where all the other buses stop for about 30-40 minutes to refuel and exchange passengers. That's where we took the mini bus to Monteverde.

This deserves a new paragraph. The ride into Monteverde is EXTREMELY bumpy. Not only is it full of twists and turns, the road also goes up and down a lot but the worst part is that it's not paved! It's like someone poured sharp rocks on a semi-flat surface. So you feel like a Martini (either way) when you get to Monteverde. The view is amazing, though. The problem is, if the driver doesn't stop for you to take the pictures, you will most likely just have blurry pictures. Which is not so bad if you're into impressionist style. Our hotel is the last one before the entrance to the reserve. So, basically you walk less than a kilometer and you're in the reserve. Our hotel this time was the Trapp Family Lodge. Beautiful hotel. My mom liked this one best of all. The service was amazing, all meals were delicious, beds were HUGE, in summary, if Gray Line added a helicopter ride to its buses, I'd book there again immediately. As it is, I think I'll wait a while.

First night there, we took the Twilight Tour in the Cloud Forest. Not my mom's favorite because it started raining, it got dark, and she fell on her face (almost) after tripping over a root.
The next day we booked Selvatura for the canopy tour and the hanging bridges. I talked her into doing the canopy and now she thanks me. There's also a Tarzan swing with the canopy... it's kinda like a bungee cable that you hold on to and they attach it to your harness once you've climbed REALLY high. Then you jump into the emptiness. Pretty scary but lots of fun. Mom enjoyed that, too.
That day we came back to the hotel and all we wanted to do was shower and then eat and sleep. So we did just that.
The next day we were met by our two guides with an extra horse each. They took us from 11 am to 1 pm on a ride inside the Cloud Forest. Really amazing. We got back to the hotel, showered, had lunch, and waited for the mini bus to pick us up at 1:45. We made it to Alajuela around 7:00 pm."

Monday (the day before she left) we had plans to visit Cartago, where she could see the church and see the image of the miraculous black Virgin Mary. Unfortunately, we underestimated the "presas" (traffic jams) and only got to the other side of town (Tres Rios) in time for dinner with friends. She was ok with that because our friends gave her a little replica of the Virgin she wanted to see. And she loved that little detail. We also enjoyed ourselves at dinner that evening. And although we got lost in the middle of San Jose (I keep saying we, although I was the only one driving and making the decisions where to turn, etc) we got home safely. She packed that night so I could take her to the airport at 4 am the next day. YAWN!

I think she had a lot of fun here...and so did I!

Pura diversion!