Thursday, May 29, 2008

Get Outta Here: The Gift Fairy Bombs

Worst part about a vacation, hands down: bringing back gifts. I don’t mean Christmas or birthday gifts (I stock up on those, too). I’m talking about remembrances for the folks who are grabbing the mail for you every day and feeding the dog.

The first few trips it was easy, because you had the endless stock of souvenir shop items to choose from. Unfortunately, I realized in Costa Rica that I’ve exhausted infinity when it comes to teen-age boys. I found a hardwood bracelet for his sister. Serving bowls for his mom. Coffee grounds – what else would you tote home from the coffee country? – for his dad.

But what to get Kevin? He has wallets. He has pens – and no real use for them. He doesn’t wear caps. A handmade photo album would just be stupid. A shot glass isn’t … uh, politically correct for a 20-year-old college student. And it’s really little for someone who spent an afternoon sweeping our deck so the leaves wouldn’t clog the swimming pool.

Don’t even go there with the bookmark idea. That’s for little kids like my first-grade niece. (But kudos for getting it in the suitcase.) Beach towels? Did that last time. Fresh almonds? Now I’m just getting desperate.

In the end, I did what any red-blooded American traveler does in this dilemma: I bought him a t-shirt.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Get Outta Here: I Paid for a Snipe Hunt

When you read the tourist brochures on Costa Rica, they’re telling the truth about the wildlife. My husband got to hold a baby sloth crawling along the ground. We were close enough to monkeys to take up the entire frame in the photo without a zoom lens. I watched leaf-cutter ants straight from the Discovery Channel, I dodged lizards falling from the tree next to the pool. I declined to hold a poison dart tree frog, although a toxic red frog landed on Ron’s rubber boots in the rainforest. I rode up right next to a chimera in a speed boat, and photographed birds whose names I’ll never know (except the toucan. He looked just like Sam on the Froot Loops box.)

They are dead on when they tout the fun of ziplining. The beauty of a molten lava flow at night. The wonderful beaches at Manual Antonio. The upscale hotels that deliver quality lodging without the stuffy, pretentious atmosphere that U.S. resorts give off.

But beware of the famed nesting turtle pitch on the Caribbean side. Oh, the licensed guides will tell you it’s a crap shoot to look for them … as they take your $15 for the night tour. That’s all the warning you get before trudging off down the beach in the dark, no flashlights allowed. (Stupid me, I must have thought they said no water bottles allowed because I left that behind at the hotel, too.) For the next two hours, I dizzily followed the silent guide, surrounded by 15 other suckers in our group, across the sand in humidity designed to sweat your brains out all over your shirt. He wasn’t walking slowly either – we were putting up a decent clip.

And at some point it finally struck me: I was looking for a turtle. Maybe a green turtle, maybe a leatherback, or hawksbill or loggerhead. But nevertheless, a turtle. You know, those things I used to keep in a plastic aquarium as a kid – has a wrinkled penis-like face, four fat legs and a shell. And if I found any representatives of this species, it would be walking in a circle.

This begs just one question: Who cares? I could have been sitting poolside with a drink, for Pete’s sake. Or borrowing the bartender’s red-light pointer and hunting tree frogs. Maybe even getting frisky with my honey in the hotel room. But no, I chose to dehydrate myself silly looking for a damn turtle that never materialized.

Get Outta Here: Private Driver Mystique

I’m a sucker for private transport in a country. I’d much rather deal mano a mano with a local driver as he proudly shows me what is important in his world. We can have a customized conversation in a car, as opposed to a crackling microphone that interrupts my little snooze in the back of the bus.

Ah, but then there was Arthur, the gentleman who drove us three hours from Tortuguero to Arenal. Ron used the excuse he couldn’t understand his English, grabbed the back seat and promptly fell asleep. (Note to self: Book him on a bus next time.) So Arthur and me proceeded to strike up an acquaintance in a combination of passable English and mangled Spanish.

What I couldn’t figure out was why he kept quizzing me on the iguanas I’d seen so far in Costa Rica. What color were they? How big were they? Did I like them? We’d talk about other things, and then he’d return to the next round of “what does Julie know about iguanas?” I was beginning to think the dude was seriously unbalanced about these lizardy creatures or he was using a wrong word. Maybe he meant ice cream? That I could understand an obsession about. Or igloos. That would surely interest someone living in 90 degree temperatures and 90 percent humidity.

Meanwhile, he was driving like a bat out of hell. Costa Rica is a series of one-lane roads, many of them rock rather than paved, and still the locals pass each other without regard to common sense. He’d whip around a bus on a mountain curve, way over the speed limit, muttering under his breath about the stupid drivers on the road who didn’t drive safely. I thought for most of that ride I was back in a New York City taxi cab.

Suddenly, he pulled up in front of a restaurant, with a big grin on his face and promising me a surprise. Great! I’m thinking a Coke in a full glass of ice. That’s pleasant. Perhaps a doughnut, or a sandwich, or more beans and rice. Maybe it was just the fact I got to live long enough to make it to that spot. As I stepped out of the car, I was stopped dead in my tracks by the largest, ugliest iguana yet. Arthur laughed and yelled, “Surprise!” like it was a birthday party. Get outta here -- seems this restaurant owner loves iguanas enough to feed them daily, and thus created a stop where folks can hang out with the fat, lazy things. I’m talking 13 in one tree alone – and there were a lot of trees.

It took nearly 30 minutes to convince our driver we had seen our fill in the first 3 minutes, and then he talked about those iguanas for the rest of the hour trip to the hotel, quite proud of himself for showing us such an amazing site. Personally, I think Arthur was my better memory.

Get Outta Here: Costa Rica Packing Tips

I just returned from what had to be the hottest place I’ve visited on the planet. Not that I can’t take the heat – when they wrote the line “some like it hot,” they were referring to Julie Sturgeon.

What I didn’t like about Costa Rica was my packing choices for this humid, tropical climate. I'll cheerfully pass along my new insights so you can avoid lying naked on a bed, dripping wet, waiting for the fan to speed up:

• Don’t take tight-fitting jean shorts. Tortuguero is a rainforest, for crying out loud. Loose, cotton pants feel far better than rigid materials cutting into your waistline. A waistline, I might add that is larger than the pants’ waistband because I have a vain streak.

• Do take more than one bottle of spray-on sunscreen (bonus points if you even start with a new can. I took the left over from spring break). Sure, you can buy more. But not while on a boat in the middle of a lake.

• Don’t bother with an extensive cosmetics selection. You might find a little powder, a hint of blush to dress up for dinner useful. But foundation? Honey, it’s going to melt off your face and leave stains on your glasses. Not to mention your shirt front where you wiped at the sweat. Mascara and lipstick? Get outta here! Perfume – the only thing you want to smell like in the wilds of Costa Rica is DEET, my friend. Preferably 50 percent or higher.

* Do take along Kaopectate and Milk of Magnesia. These good folks eat black beans and rice for every meal. While your tongue will think it’s in heaven (remember my personal motto: a day without beans is a bad day), the opposite end will be so confused as to whether to clamp down or let loose, you need to be prepared for a sudden decision at any moment.

*** EXTREMELY IMPORTANT: Don’t get hair extensions six days before boarding the plane. In particular, don’t let your stylist’s trainer talk her into semi-permanently welding a weft onto the base of your occipital bone, commonly known as the nape. (I know such medical language because I looked it up on You Tube in an attempt to distract myself.) The result is a head of hair clamped onto your head like a Fisher Price toy. You can’t lift it off your neck. Sweat pools in the weft and drives you nuts. You will scratch, tug and pull at these things until you tear them away from the scalp – and thus destroy an investment of several hundred dollars. Not to mention you look kinda funny in the vacation pictures.

Side note: Said hair extensions also tempt you into toting along a blow dryer, special shampoos and conditioners, two kinds of hair bands, rubber bands, curlers (what was I thinking?) and a curling iron. With airlines charging for precious luggage space, do yourself a favor and only take a freaking hair brush. OK, and the rubber band. Just one.