Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A Glimpse of Paradise

The weekend following the mighty Challenge Irazu we had the pleasure of spending some time with fellow volunteers at our regional volunteer meeting.  We took care of business on Friday night and the following morning we went in search of paradise.  After walking along a hilly dirt road, crossing a mud pit and navigating down some sketchy stairs precariously perched on the side of a "mountain" we found what we had been looking for.

We descended the steps that stood between us and our destination, checking their degree of rot and determining if they would hold our weight and then made our way to the rocky embankment for our first real look at the landscape in front of us.  Tiny frogs hopped out of the way as the group of us took over the bank, in front of us  Pozo Azul waterfall cascaded into the cool waters of the swimming hole we were seeking.  Around us blue morpho butterflies graced the skies.  It was picture perfect (great time to forget to bring along our nifty new waterproof camera!)  

We smiled, took off our shoes, t-shirts and shorts and made our way into the water.  It took some getting used to, but it was worth it for a quick swim.  Then the challenge came.  "Do you want to go behind the waterfall?" asked one of our fellow volunteers that had visited this wonderland previously.  It took some work, swimming against the strong current that the waterfall produced, but it was worth it when we arrived at the rock wall that would take us to our final destination.  For the first time in close to two years we were able to search for hand and foot holds.  We could test out different grips, play with shifting our body weight, hang off of the side of the wall - this was a completely different type of paradise for us; we were climbing again.  It may have only lasted for a few moments, but it was an amazing feeling.  It felt right.  We continued on our way to the small cave behind the falls and sat and chatted until it was too cold to hang out any longer.  Then we were able to traverse that beautiful, wet and mossy rock once again.  New handholds found; new foot positioning; a renewed sense of freedom.  Then, with Chris' lips turning blue we hopped back into the water and swam to the shore in hopes of warming up.

The question is, were we looking for the beauty that Costa Rica has to offer or were we looking for the sensations that come with time spent outside.  We appreciated both, it truly was time spent in paradise.  However, I imagine that we would have had the same feeling had we found a wall in the middle of a cow pasture that we could hang on for a little while.  I guess paradise is different for everyone.

Pozo Azul (costaricaphotos.com)

Blue Morpho Butterfly (www.pctrs.com)

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Challenge Irazu

We recently had our most epic adventure in Costa Rica, so far.

Friday, we got up at 4:30am to catch the 6:00am bus out of our site and the 7:00am bus to San José. Once in San José, we set off in search of our hostel. We knew what the hostel was near, which is how addresses work around here, but we just couldn't quite dial it in. After wandering around in circles for a while, Tarah called the hostel and asked where they were located and got more Tico directions instead of cross streets so we wandered a little while longer until a friendly Tico saw us for about the third time in fifteen minutes and asked us where we were going. We gave him the phone number of the hostel and we got somewhat clearer directions. When we got to the hostel we dropped off our bags and headed to the sporting goods store to pick up our race packets.

When we walked through the door at Decatlon, the race director's wife told us that the (cheap) hotel across the road from the starting/finish line, we (and the other 80km runners) were supposed to stay at didn't want to host runners anymore. Thankfully, Fidelia was all over it, so by the time we left the store with our t-shirts and race numbers we had a place to stay and I had a ride to the starting line. The new hotel was quite a bit further away and quite a bit more expensive, but it worked just fine, and it's okay to not be dirtbags all of the time I suppose.

With our race needs squared away, we headed off in search of lunch and da Vinci. We tried a burrito joint similar to Chipotle for lunch, and it was super messy and delicious, just the way burritos should be. After burritos and chips we headed to Barrio California to experience the brilliance of da Vinci in a travelling exhibit that showcases models of many of his inventions as well as in depth information on some of his masterpieces. We spent almost three hours being blown away, well worth the price of admission. After the exhibit we ate some more rice and beans and headed to the hostel to get some shut eye.

Since we didn't have to catch an early bus to Irazu, we took our time reading and listening to podcasts before heading to the bus terminal for Cartago. When we got to Cartago, we headed to the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles. At the plaza in front of the basílica, we were approached by an English teacher and group of students. The teacher asked if we spoke English and whether or not his students could speak with us for a bit. Of course we said yes to both, and spent about an hour with the students talking about Costa Rica and the U.S. After the impromptu English lesson, we ate more rice and beans before finding the bus that would get us to our hotel and closer to the volcanoes.

Once we got over the shock of the price, we settled into our room and started getting things prepped for the following morning. This is when I realized I didn't have the majority of the required gear for my race. Apparently I had left my headlamp, cap and jacket at the hostel in San José. While I freaked out a little, Tarah called the hostel in SJ and they tracked down my gear and as soon as Tarah was off the phone, she was on the buses back to SJ to retrieve my stuff. While she was gone, I tried to relax. She made it back just as my ride for the race showed up at the hotel, so everything was golden at about 6:30 - I had all my required gear and a ride to the starting line. We ate dinner (rice and beans), I laid out what I needed in the AM, set the the alarm for 2:00am and went to bed.

getting ready for the start
I was up before the alarm, excited to run. I got geared up and went out to the parking lot to meet Alvaro, his partner, and a Swede that was also getting a ride. Shortly after 3:00am we were on our way up the mountain to the starting line. On the way, we chatted a bit and I had a great conversation (in Spanish) with the Swedish racer. Once we got to the starting point, we had a good briefing, warmed up a bit and were toeing the line at about 4:30.

on the course
When the gun went off, one of the guys took off like a bullet, but for the most part we went out pretty slowly (80km is a long way). We headed out in the darkness, mostly in small packs, making friendly conversation and trying to get into a rhythm we could maintain for the next 7 1/2 - 12 hours. The route started on the highway for a few kilometers and then we turned onto a muddy tractor trail, shortly after hitting the mud, the sun started peeking out and the views were spectacular. After about 10km, we began our decent (~1200m) into the valley. At the bottom, we made a small loop and then retraced the route of our decent. I hit the top (about 30km) at about 4 and a half hours and refueled. I ate potatoes, natural gels and bananas and drank water, agua dulce and Gatorade before heading down the road towards Turrialba. On the way to Turrialba, the weather changed and visibility was down to about 15ft, much like hiking on the Maine coast, it was wonderful. The path to Turrialba was mostly a gradual downhill so I was able to keep up a pretty good clip until the turnaround point. At the end of the out and back section, I ate a piece of pizza, drank some more Gatorade and began the slog uphill. It was along this next stretch that I met a great friend, JuanCarlos. We chatted for about 10km. At about 55km, feeling pretty exhausted I told JC to take off and I just kept moving forward. The next aid station was at the base of a monstrous climb. I eventually made it up to the highway where I plodded along getting strange looks from all the tourists (gringos and Ticos alike) coming down from the national park. After what seemed like an eternity on the narrow highway without much of a shoulder I turned onto a dirt road that led to a finca (farm) and the final aid station. At the aid station, I got instructions to head down and readied my trekking poles for the final decent. The road eventually narrowed to an alley that wound through the community where the race began and would eventually end. Running through the small community, a couple of runners from the shorter distances passed me, but for the most part I was alone. At the sight of the inflatable arch that served as the starting/finish line (about a km out) I started to tear up. Shortly there after I got my legs churning and started running hard for the line. The final 400m or so were a blur as I sprinted through the pain towards the small crowd and the finish line. When I crossed the line, I threw my poles to the ground before throwing my body to the ground. I was quickly helped to my feet, awarded my finisher's medal, hugged by Tarah and offered hot drinks and food.

tarah ran the 20km (with another peace corps volunteer)
With the kilometers done, we waited for the few runners behind me and chatted with the other finishers. There was such a wonderful sense of community among the racers. We even got an invite to stay with JuanCarlos's family if we're ever in the area for another event. We eventually found a ride back to the hotel and hot showers, where I foolishly enjoyed a beer with dinner.

the aftermath - including nasty toes and pb&j
The next morning, the adventure wasn't over. We still had four buses back to our community and getting on, off and between those buses with heavy backpacks was interesting to say the least. After our third bus, we treated ourselves to pizza from our favorite spot in Puerto Viejo then boarded the final bus back to Colonia.

Like so many great adventures, the people were the highlights. Can't wait for the next ultra.

Monday, August 1, 2011

How July Flew By

July was a pretty exciting month.  We were able to kick things off with a week-long visit from new friends.  We had another successful mid-year camp.  We ran up some volcanoes and swam in glorious waters at the base of a beautiful waterfall.  With something going on just about every weekend the month flew past.  Sure, we had our struggles but we had some pretty amazing successes and so things balance out.

July 1

Today the cole and escuela were party zones, kicking off vacation.

July 3

I think everyone was pretty shocked to see and hear about the realities of life in the fincas (fields) when you don't have money.

It may have taken them [some of the kids in the community] a while to warm up, but then they picked on the girls about bugs, took photos, played with hair and laughed.  It was great!

July 4

Way to be independent USA!

Games were played, pictures were drawn and colored, new kids were met.

Rafa killed a chicken for dinner and cooked it with platano verde (green plantain) and fruta de pan (bread fruit).  The crew enjoyed their Tico dinner; marveled at some of the chicken parts in the dish.

July 5

The construction workers let us borrow their level to make the lines and they even helped us for an hour! [on making the grids needed to draw the maps of Costa Rica and the world]

Aaron and Chris went out to Progresso for refrigerio (snack) with Johancer's family.

July 6

After lunch they got the world drawn!  Tomorrow we can paint!

It's been good - this visit, camp, the energy, the curiosities, the conversations - we'll be sad to see everyone go.

July 7

Lunch was great.  Rafa's sister and mom came over to help out and hang out.  There were patacones (plantain chips), frijoles molidos (refried beans), chimichurri (salsa), tortillas, yuca, and a whole lot of meat - beef and pork. [we abstained from the meat portion of the meal]

On the way in we had one of the best congo (howler monkey) sightings you could hope for.  They were moving pretty slowly and jumping from tree to tree.  One was carrying a baby.  It was great.  It was the crew's first wild monkey sighting in Costa Rica.

Our celebration came together with some team building, tres leches (delicious cake), a slide show, high./low, Q&A, a motivating closing talk by Chris (our service learning specialist) and a round of Ha!  It's crazy to think of all that we have done this week and know that we still have one day left.

July 8

And we're done.

We now have a beautiful world map and an awesome map of Costa Rica.

It was a great week.  We had close to 50 different kids throughout the week at camp.  Who knows how many other kids were impacted through time in dos (one of the smaller communities in our community) or at the plaza.  Students might learn where Costa Rica is in relation to the rest of the world.  Maria and Rafa did everything they could to make the crew feel happy and welcome.  We got in there.

July 10

The party was fun - musical chairs, dancing, balloons, piñata, and lots and lots of food.

He [Chris] had the honor of controlling the piñata.  He managed to not get hit by any stray swings of the bat and when the piñata was ripped open he was far enough away from the candy that he didn't get trampled.

July 12

Today has been a funky day on my end.  It started when my first attempt to run was interrupted by a wild pack of family dogs.  They came at me from all angles and after kicking at them and yelling a bunch I got away unscathed and the dogs didn't follow.  Some neighbors were on their way to see what was going on, I was just a lot scared.  I ran home, broke into tears, got a hug from Chris, drank some water and took off in the other direction.  I had a dog free run at that point - I was angry for a while but then decided that there must have been a reason that dogs that have never bothered me suddenly attacked.  Maybe something would have happened if I had continued out that way.  I'll never know, but I do know that I made it home safely from my alternate route.

Shortly before heading to the school our world shook.  There was a 5.ish earthquake in Upala this afternoon. It came with a pretty good aftershock too.

July 13

I've been in a funk, ready to get this show (i.e. life) on the road and maybe have a little more control.  I don't know, just not feeling super excited about this life in Peace Corps right now.  Maybe tomorrow.

July 14

Things seemed to fall into place a little better than earlier this week.

July 16

We both got long runs in this morning.  Or, I got a long run in and Chris a short one - even though they were both about the same distance.  I was bugged by the evangelicals on my run - they tried driving along side of me to talk to me and give me fliers.  Further down the road I had some kids race me for a little while, telling me to run faster and harder.  They beat me in the race to the 'corner'.

July 17

We had a surprise visit from Jose Luis and Jose David today!  Guicho (J. Luis) was still wearing his Christmas bracelet, though it is getting close to falling apart - so he asked if I could make him a new one.  I was more than happy to oblige and made one for J. David too.

July 19

We had a very successful morning with Orlando today.  We talked for close to three hours about repitentes (students that have been held back in school - a project that is scheduled to start in the nearish future) - compiling data, coming up with a basic set of goals, setting dates - it was great!

The day kind of flew.  It's nice when that happens.

July 20

This afternoon we had a good session with student government.  They know what they want to do and that they need money to do it.  So, there was a lot of talk about fund raisers and the first one will be selling ice cream.  Other ideas are stress balls, bracelets, paying to wear jeans, sneakers, or a baseball cap to school, etc.  Their goal is 60,000 colones so we'll see how long it takes!

July 21

This evening we got our acts together for Sunday as best as possible.  So many unknowns and only one backpack to accommodate them.  All of the bases should be covered though, just waiting to see what things look like on Saturday to make final decisions.

July 22

Reservations were made and Fidalia made arrangements for Chris to get a ride with one of the other 80kers Sunday morning.

We restrained ourselves from buying things we wanted but didn't need.  Instead we ate burritos for lunch and splurged on the Da Vinci display at Antigua Aduana.

July 23

We found a bench to sit down and were immediately approached by an English teacher that wanted to know if we could speak in English to his class.  They were from a language institute and needed to practice talking with native speakers.  We talked for close to an hour.

Once we settled down [at the hotel] Chris started preparing for tomorrow - at which point he discovered that his vest/jacket, hat and head lamp were missing.  We double checked everything and then called the hotel from last night.  Thankfully they had everything and I soon found myself on a bus back to Cartago and then to San Jose.  Everything went smoothly and I was back - with the precious items in hand - in time for dinner.

We ate veggie casados (a large traditional meal) and settled in for the night at which point Chris asked me how I was getting to my race in the morning. [long story short I found a ride with Meredith, a fellow volunteer, and her dad]

July 24

We did it! [there will hopefully be a blog coming soon about the experience]

July 25

We're moving, just not very well!

July 26

Pain!  It hurts me to use my quads.  Regardless, aerobics went well.  I smiled a whole lot when my quads were screaming for me to stop and we made it through.

It's really hot out right now.  I miss the cold and the mountains.

July 27

We were able to see photos from the race today, yay!  Chris has some great ones - I guess that's what happens when there are only 14 runners at 4am.  Great way to document the accomplishment.

July 28

We had another successful meeting with Orlando today about repitentes.  We have our first group session planned and we all have little homework assignments to prepare for that session.

July 29

We both ran early on, feeling more like ourselves - back to "normal" after the volcanoes.

It was a nice evening with good food and great conversation.

July 30

Big plates of pinto (traditional breakfast dish with rice and beans) = great energy for a morning of walking and playing near beautiful waterfalls.  It's a shame that we left our nice new waterproof camera at home this weekend as we walked to paradise today. [to be described in another blog]

Tummy troubles started somewhere around there [lunchtime] and we spent the evening taking turns hogging the bathroom and laying in bed with hopes of feeling better.

And now August is here.  We're looking forward to starting some new projects, having a visit from one of our lovely PC bosses, celebrating four years of marriage and planning a trip to climb Costa Rica's highest peak, Chirripo (perhaps a September adventure!).  August also marks the 2/3 point in our service - crazy, isn't it!

Stay tuned!