Tuesday, November 27, 2012

monkeys and sloths and new friends, oh my!

local time: tuesday, november 26, 2012; 6:30 p.m.

yesterday (my birthday!) was a great one. having closed out 33 with the zip line, i decided to start 34 with a tour of three local attractions - the Jaguar Wildlife Rescue Center, a demonstration of the Bri Bri (a local indigenous tribe) method of making chocolate, and a hike to a waterfall.

the animal rescue center was wonderful. our very knowledgeable guide took us around to see various kinds of snakes, birds, wild cats, tree frogs, sloths, and monkeys. needless to say, the highlights for me were the sloths and the monkeys. sloths are even cuter live than in photos and videos. i was completely smitten the moment i saw them. one can't help but smile in their presence. i wanted desperately to hold one, but unfortunately only the volunteers at the center are allowed to do that. i did, however, get to play with the monkeys! after a brief introduction, the guide let our group into the enclosure, and eventually the curious little guys came over to say hello. the first one i held was quite small. he was sitting on the rope and fabric climbing structure, fairly close to me. when i reached my hand out toward him, he grabbed one of my fingers (let me tell you - there is nothing quite like a little monkey hand wrapped around your own), pulled himelf into my hands, and settled in close to my chest with his tail wrapped around one of my arms. i pet him gently as he looked up at me, his head tilted slightly to one side as if he was trying to figure me out. i kind of fell in love with that tiny face! a few minutes later, another monkey reached down from the rope above me on which she'd been hanging, grabbed my head, and hopped down onto my shoulders. next thing i knew, her tail was wrapped around my neck and she was happily playing with my hair. such an amazing experience! i would have been happy to stay there all day.

a note about the center - they take in animals who have been injured in the wild, as well as some who have been kept as pets and abused or abandoned. some cannot go back to the wild, due to the type of injury, being raised in captivity and thus being too reliant on humans, etc. the others, once they are rehabilitated, are reintroduced to their natural habitats. the center hosts tours in the morning, then in the afternoon, the volunteers who work there take the animals who are well enough out to the jungle. from there, it's up to each individual animal - some head out to the wild right away. others stay close to the volunteers and are brought back to the center. they are brought out again each subsequent day until they deem themselves ready to go join their wild counterparts. it's a very cool place where some really important work is being done. i highly recommend a visit if you ever find yourself in this area.

after visiting the animals, we headed off to see how the Bri Bri make chocolate. it's a very interesting process (one i can't descirbe here), and the samples offered to us were quite tasty. :) cacao in its various forms (fruit, seed/nut, butter, and chocolate) seems to be a central part of Bri Bri culture and is used as food, medicine, and in purification rituals.

the last stop of the day was for a short but somewhat slippery hike to a waterfall, with a few glimpses of wildlife (birds and frogs) along the way. some of my tourmates swam and played in the pool at the base of the fall. i didn't have a swimsuit, though even if i had, i'm not a strong enough swimmer to have braved the swiftly churning water. i was content to stand back and admire the surroundings and enjoy the feel of the cool spray from the waterfall and listen to its powerful, majestic sound. after the short hike back, we enjoyed some tasty fresh pineapple and coconut water straight from the source (i like the boxed/bottled stuff, but that pales in comparison to drinking it through a straw stuck into a freshly cut coconut).

over the course of the tour, i chatted with a lovely young couple (marissa and matt) from southern california. as the tour was wrapping up, they invited me to join them for dinner. i happily accepted, then headed back to my room for a nap (what is it that makes naps in the tropics so much better than ordinary naps?!).

i hadn't planned on telling anyone that it was my birthday, but when marissa asked me my age while we were talking while waiting for another couple whom they'd met previously and who would also be dining with us, it just came out. the admission leant an even more festive tone to the evening, and i have to admit that it was really nice to be so warmly celebrated by these wonderful folks whom i'd just met. the food was delicious, the drinks were strong and plentiful, and the company was stellar. after dinner, we took in some of the local flavor at a little reggae bar by the beach - a lovely end to a really great night. yay for meeting awesome peeps while traveling!

this morning i killed my hangover with scrambled eggs, an unbelievably good chocolate croissant, and espresso con leche (and lots of water, of course) while watching the waves crash into the shore. with nothing else on my plate for the day, i decided to rent a bike and ride 13 km (just over 8 miles) south to manzanillo, a tiny village that makes puerto viejo look like a bustling metropolis by comparison. the clouds that had kept my ride cool had cleared out a bit in that area, so i found a spot on the beach and soaked up a little sunshine. i had actually started to fall asleep, lulled by the sound of the surf and the distant delighted squeals of children playing in it farther up the beach, when i was roused back to consciousness by a very friendly dog who had taken it upon himseflt to lay down literally on top of me! i encouraged him to sit beside me instead, and he kept me company for the next hour or so - even jogging alongside my bike to the edge of town when i left. i rode back slowly, stopping for a gorgeous fruit shake at a little roadside cafe at about the halfway mark, then took yet another wonderfully refreshing nap.

i'll be heading out shortly to find some dinner. not sure yet what the evening and tomorrow have in store. we shall see. . . pura vida!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

feels like flying

my last post, written on october 14, 2010, was titled "my last few days and the journey home (part 1)" and ended with these words: "i'm going to finish the journey home, get some sleep, give myself a little processing time, and post my final thoughts in a couple of days." hahahahaha. here i am, 2 years, 2 months, and 11 days later, writing my first post since then. better late than never, maybe?? at this point, it seems a little ridiculous to get into my post-thailand processing, which was the intent for "the journey home (part 2)." so much has happened since then - almost 8 months of unemployment; a six-month project in alaska (an adventure in and of itself); and now almost weekly trips to regina (in saskatchewan, canada) for work. i'll just say that a large part of my heart and soul are still in thong nai pan; that i still dream about it on a regular basis and miss it terribly; and that somewhere in the back of my mind, consciously or not, i am still trying to figure out a way to get myself back there for the long(er) term. but that's another story for another day . . . or for private conversations over tea with friends. for now. . . i'm in costa rica!

it's late afternoon on my second full day here, and i just got back from a zip line tour of the jungle canopy. it. was. amazing. more on that in a bit . . .

the trip so far has been pretty mellow and low key (with the exception of the afore-mentioned zip line adventure).  i arrived in san jose late friday night and checked into the Country Inn and Suites near the airport (the room was free, thanks to the hundres of thousands of club carlson points that i've amassed by spending more time at the Radisson in regina than i have at home over the past year). early the next morning, i hopped on a shuttle to puerto viejo, the town on the carribbean coast that will be my home for the week. i spent the four-hour shuttle ride chatting pleasantly with another solo traveler - a young woman originally from england. she's a clothing designer and club promoter who lives and works in ibiza five months out of the year, then spends the other seven traveling the world. what a life! we bonded over the joys and pitfalls of traveling alone, as well as a shared intense love for thailand (she spends at least three months a year there - jealous much?!). i think that she would have made a great partner in crime here, but she was just making a quick stop and left for panama this morning, in search of some sunshine (i have yet to see any here).

the shuttle dropped me off at the Hotel Cabinas Guarana, and i spent some time getting settled. my room is nothing fancy, but it is clean, airy, and comfortable. it is painted in bold, bright colors, and has a large screen window overlooking a lush, tropical garden. and of course, there is the requisite porch with hammock. :) after unpacking and chatting with the owners - a lovely couple from italy - for a bit, i headed out to explore the town.

puerto viejo is very small. i moved at a fairly leisurely pace and covered practically the whole thing in about fifteen minutes. it's pretty quiet right now since it's low season, but most of the shops and restaurants are open, so there were lots of wonderful sights, sounds, and smells to take in. when the drizzling rain through which i'd been walking turned suddenly into a torrential downpour, i took shelter at the nearest bar and enoyed a couple of beers and some lobster ceviche (soooooo good!). when the rain returned to a light sprinkle, i headed back to my room to read and relax for a while. i'd planned on changing and heading back out to check out the nightlife, but by 7:00 p.m. i could barely keep my eyes open. i decided not to fight it and unfurled the mosquito net around my little bed, falling asleep almost as soon as my head hit the pillow.

after 13(!) hours of blissful sleep, i woke to the sound of . . . wait for it . . . more rain. i'd already booked the zip line tour for this afternoon, and i was worried that it might be canceled. apparently that was a foolish notion: when i walked over to the tour office to double check, the woman at the desk laughed and said, "no, it's okay. rain make the cable faster!" sufficiently reassured, i headed off to breakfast at a lovely little spot called Bread and Chocolate (i know, sounds like it was made for me, right?!). the meal was scrumptious - french press coffee, perfectly scrambled eggs, fresh tropical fruit, and a house-made dark chocolate truffle, thrown in courtesy of the very friendly waiter - much to the chagrin of another waitress who, upon hearing me thanking him for it, came over to investigate. when she learned of the little gift, she swatted him on the back of the head and informed me in no uncertain terms that she was his girlfriend. he skulked away, leaving me to try to explain that i didn't think the truffle meant anything, and that in any case i had no intentions of making any moves on her man. i don't think she bought it - her eyes shot daggers at me while i finished my coffee, and a different waiter brought me my bill. too much drama for 8:30 a.m.!! i'm kind of glad that the restaurant is closed on mondays and tuesdays. hopefully when i go back on wednesday (and i will go back - it's too good not to), things will have blown over and i won't get jumped as soon as i set foot in the place!

fast forward a few hours . . . i'm standing on a platform high up  in the jungle canopy, strapped into a harness that is being attached to a cable that stretches 250 meters across, through the lush treetops. i'm 96% over-the-moon excited and 4% gee-it's-a-long-way-down terrified. the guide asks me to show him how to break, and i reach up and pull down on the cable with both hands (behind the pully, of course - i was paying attention during the safety demonstration). "bueno," he says. "ready?" i nod, laugh nervously, and step to the edge of the platform. with my right hand on the cable and my left hand on the harness, i sit back and cross my legs in front of me. i take a deep breath, flash the guide my best here-goes-nothing smile, and nod again. he lets go of the rope that connects my harness to the pulley. just like that, i'm soaring; racing through the treetops, with spectacular views in all directions. it takes my breath away. if this is even the tiniest bit how it feels to fly, then i want to be a bird! i wish that i were a better writer so that i could adequately describe the feeling, but at this point i just can't find the words. i land on the next platform, greeted by the huge, warm smile of the second guide. "good, no?" he asks. i nod enthusiastically and grin form ear to ear. he laughs and tells me that the look on my face is one of the reasons he loves his job. over the next 2 1/2 hours, i zip down 17 more cables through the breathtakingly beautiful canopy. there's a bit of a hike between several of the platforms. along the way, one of the guides points out various trees and plants, explaining how they grow and their special qualities. i'd hoped to see some wildlife as well, but the rain has all of the critters seeking shelter somewhere out of sight. by the time the tour ends, i'm soaked through and through (definitely put the REI quick dry pants to the test!), covered in mud splatter, totally exhilerated, and chattering away to the guides about how i want to do this every day. what an incredible afternoon! seriously - so much fun, and the greatest way to say goodbye to 33.

as i sit here writing, the rain is once again coming down in sheets outside my window. i'm starting to think that i might leave costa rica without gettting the serious beach time that i was so much looking forward to. oh well . . . guess that's the price one pays for coming here during the low season. still, it's beautiful and i'm having a great time. i'll write again when there's another experience worth sharing. hasta luego . . .

Thursday, October 14, 2010

my last few days and the journey home (part 1)

local time (hong kong): friday, october 15, 2010, 1:25 a.m.

i left ko phangan on wednesday morning in time to catch the 12:00 p.m. ferry to chumphon, and from there the overnight bus to bangkok.

i have no regrets whatsoever about returning to thong nai pan for the end of my trip.  although there's nothing terribly exciting to report, my last few days there were fantastic.  i spent my mornings on the beach, my afternoons practicing poi (i've decided that i want to learn to dance with fire, and a couple of my friends were kind enough to give me a few lessons) and getting massages, and my evenings eating, drinking, and being merry.  i'm so glad that i gave myself a little more time there.

you know the saying "go to your happy place"?  well, my happy place has always been an abstract idea, but in thong nai pan yai i found my real happy place.  from now on, that is where i will go in my head whenever my current location or circumstances just aren't quite cutting it.  i know that i will keep this place in my heart and visit it in my dreams; that the experiences i've had there will stay with me as i return to the "real world."  so i tried not to be too sad about leaving.  but as i caught my last glimpse of the bay before my taxi rounded the last curve from which it was visible, i did actually have to fight back tears.

i had planned to spend thursday in bangkok before going to the airport for my early evening flight, but i ended up getting quite sick on the bus and consequently didn't sleep.  by the time i arrived in the city in the early morning hours i was exhausted and still not feeling well, so i decided to go straight to the airport and spent the day recovering there.  not very interesting, but it was all i could manage.

as the day wore on and my departure time grew closer, my sadness over leaving thailand grew stronger.  by the time i boarded my flight to hong kong, i couldn't fight it anymore and the tears started flowing freely.  don't get me wrong - i'm looking forward to seeing my friends and family and good old california, but in some strange way i feel like i am leaving home rather than going back to it.  that is how strong my connection to that place is.  i know that i was on holiday and away from the cares of every day life, so there's bound to be a letdown around coming back, but it feels like more than that.  my heart has been very quiet for the last couple of years - almost like it's been in hiding.  over the course of this trip - between the beautiful surroundings, the new experiences, the time to myself, and the people i met - my heart found its voice again, and by the time i returned to thong nai pan after going to krabi, it was singing like it hasn't sung in a very very very long time.  leaving the place that helped my heart find its song was incredibly difficult.  but at least now i know what it sounds like and feels like again, and i know i can keep it going when i get back.  i just might have to work at it more consciously than i did on my beautiful beach.

there is more to say about this trip and how it has changed me, but i'm writing this from my layover in hong kong (now extended by at least three hours due to technical difficulties) after being up for over 36 hours, and i'm pooped.  i'm going to finish the journey home, get some sleep, give myself a little processing time, and post my final thoughts in a couple of days.

Friday, October 8, 2010

i'm back!

local time: saturday, october 9, 2010, 11:50 a.m.

yes, i'm back in thong nai pan!  i ended up taking a bus and the night boat on wednesday.  i thought that the boat would just be a regular ferry that runs at night, but it was actually a big wooden cargo ship.  the bottom deck was full of all of the stuff being shipped to the island, and on the top deck there was a row of futon-type mattresses and pillows along each wall.  i found my assigned bunk and, thinking that i wouldn't be able to sleep very well, settled in with a book.  but i was wrong.  the bed was actually fairly comfortable, and once the boat started the rhythm of the engine noise was oddly soothing.  i didn't even make it through one chapter before falling asleep.  next thing i knew, the ship's horn was blowing to announce our arrival at the pier at thong sala on ko phangan.

i got a taxi to thong nai pan and, since it was only 7:30 a.m. - too early to check into a bungalow - i asked the driver to just drop me off at one of the paths that goes from the little town down to the beach.  i walked the few hundred yards to the sand, and just like that i was back - and so happy to be here.

tanja, the german woman that i met before i left, is still here, so we met for breakfast.  i told her about what i'd see and done in and around krabi, and she caught me up on the goings on around here.  then i went for a long swim in the beautiful bay that i'd missed so much.

the soccer tournament was still going on, so that afternoon i cheered my favorite team to victory in their semi-final match.  then, after a nap and a delicious dinner at my friend pookie's restaurant, tanja and i headed over to yai bar.  most of the thai people that i'd befriended were there, and i was greeted by a chorus of "rachel!  you back!" and laughter and nods of approval when i explained that i just loved this place too much to stay away.  my friend zin made his way over, grinned, and said "but now you know."  i headed back to my bungalow after a couple of singhas and fell asleep listening to the ocean, the frogs and night birds, and the faint sounds people talking and laughing a bit farther down the beach, feeling so lucky and completely blissed out to be back here.

yesterday was the final match of the soccer tournament.  everyone from thong nai pan and the surrounding area was there, and the atmosphere was even more festive than it had been at the other games.  after the match (my team won.  yay!) and the awards ceremony there was a big party on the beach.  drinks flowed freely, and thai dance music played until the wee hours of the morning.  it was a great night, and i really felt like part of the community here. 

today the sun is shining and there's a nice cool breeze.  my beach towel and my book are calling me.  i'll be spending the afternoon sunbathing, swimming, and chatting with friends if they stop by.  and trying - most likely unsuccessfully - to wipe the silly grin that i've had since i returned here off my face.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

krabi continued

local time: wednesday, october 6, 2010, noonish

yesterday i took a boat tour of some of the small islands near krabi.  it rained for much of the day and the sea was pretty choppy, but it was still a lovely trip.

our first stop was at railay beach, a spot just south of ao nang.  though still on the mainland, it is accessible only by boat, as it sits on the other side of ao nang mountain.  it is where krabi's famous karst rock formations are at their most majestic, and it was easy to see why rock climbers from all over the world flock there.  we took a ten minute walk through some caves and arrived at phranang cave beach.  phranang means woman in thai, and legend has it that a woman died in one of the caves there from a broken heart over her lost love.  people go the cave to pray for love and fertility and leave phallic offerings to the spirit of the dead woman.  just wait until i post pictures - so many wooden penises!!  this was also the place where i was hoping to see some monkeys (they congregate there during the day), but they were hidden away somewhere out of the rain.

next we headed over to chicken island for a photo op and some snorkeling.  most of the people on the boat didn't want to swim or snorkel, so one other person and i got a semi-private tour of the coral from our guide.  the water was a bit cloudy, but we saw tons of tiger fish, sea urchins, swordfish, some gorgeous rainbow colored parrot fish, and the biggest oysters i have ever seen.  pretty cool.

we had a thai picnic lunch on poda island, where i enjoyed wet, cloudy, but still beautiful views of some of the small rocky islands nearby.  we then headed back to tup island - chicken island's smaller neighbor - and found that the tide had gone down enough to expose the sandbank that connects the two.  it was kind of surreal walking from one island to another in the middle of the sea.  oh, and the sun came out for a little while!

it was a lovely day, and i can tell that in nice weather this place must be absolutely stunning.  i will come back someday when the monsoon is not making its southward trek out of the country.  i had hoped to make it to ko phi phi, which is also in krabi provence.  unfortunately there is no lodging within my budget so i can't stay there, and the longtail boat day trip i had hoped to take today was thwarted by heavy seas.  oh well, just one more reason to come back.

while i did end up enjoying ao nang and its surrounding areas, i think that my time here is done.  the weather is iffy in most parts of thailand at the momet, but it is at its worst here (it has rained for all but 2-3 hours of each day that i've been here, and though the sun is currently shining there are more dark clouds looming), and i want to try to find a little more sun before i return to the states (next week!).  regardless of the weather, i've also had enough of the hustle and bustle here.  i want to finish this trip lying on white sand, lounging in hammocks, hearing the ocean as i fall asleep, and walking down the street without being constantly asked whether i want a massage; a handbag; a suit; a taxi; a ticket to a thai boxing match; etc. . .  the pace here just doesn't match my feelings at the moment.

so i'm heeding the syren song of ko phangan and going back to my beloved thong nai pan tomorrow.  maybe it's silly to spend so much of my first trip to thailand in one place, but that's just where i want to be right now, and i see no reason to fight it.  my apologies to any of you who were hoping for more farflung adventure stories.  but this is, after all, my holiday.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

ao nang, krabi provence

local time: monday, october 4, 2010, 1:15 p.m.

i'm in ao nang in krabi provence.  the trip here was . . . interesting.  after a two hour ferry ride from ko phangan to donsat, i took a bus to suratthani, where i got on another bus for the rest of the journey to krabi town.  the air conditioning was broken and there weren't enough seats, so i spent the bumpy four hour ride standing sandwiched between two spanish men who had apparently never heard of deodorant or inside voices.  fun times!  i arrived in krabi sweaty, tired, and cursing spain and shared a taxi to ao nang with some other people going that way.

despite having assured me that he knew exactly where the guesthouse where i'd planned on staying was located, the driver got lost and ended up just dropping me off on a random corner.  but it's low season and there are plenty of inexpensive rooms to be had, so i found other lodging without much trouble.  my room here is nice - clean, comfortable, and full of creature comforts like air conditioning, tv, and hot water.  it's a few blocks up from the beach, but i can see the water.  but i have to admit that i miss my little beachside bungalow.  i think that the pace of island life rubbed off on me during the twelve days that i spent there, and last night i felt a little overwhelmed by ao nang.  my hammock has been replaced with a plastic chair on the patio; the soothing sounds of the ocean and the nighttime chorus of frogs that lulled me to sleep have been replaced by traffic noise, thumping music from bar after bar, and the shouts of vendors selling their wares on the street below; the shimmer of moonlight reflected in the water has been replaced by endless rows of neon signs.  it's not necessarily bad, just different.  i'm glad to be seeing more of the country, and i keep reminding myself of something my friend zin told me when i was feeling anxious on the night before leaving ko phangan and worrying that no other place would measure up: "if you no try, you no know.  and if you no know, you no win."

and so i try.  i'm doing my best to keep an open mind, hoping that the torrential rain will let up a little and trusting that i'll find something amazing once i get out and explore more of ao nang and the surrounding areas - railay, ton sai, and the nearby islands.  but i think i left my heart in thong nai pan.  i had vivid dreams last night (a rarity for me) that took me there, and i woke up with its music in my ears and its people's smiling faces in my head.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

the dark side of the moon

local time: saturday, october 2, 2010, 7:00 p.m.

i attended ko phangan's half moon party last night.  it was fantastic!  the dj's were great and played a heady mix of techno, house, and psychedelic trance music.  there were beautiful lights and decorations and some of the best fire dancers i've ever seen.  i danced like a madwoman and drank more than i should have.

although i went with a group of friends, it didn't take long for us to get separated.  we had agreed on a meeting place, and i met other people to dance with and talk to, so i wasn't too worried.  by about 5:00 a.m. my head was spinning and i was ready to go.  i went to the agreed upon place and couldn't find any of the people that i'd come with.  i searched the dance floor to no avail.  i went up to one of the bars on the hillside hoping i'd have better luck with a view of the crowd from above, but i still couldn't find them.  and at this point i just needed to leave.

i walked out of the party into a crowd of taxi drivers and asked for a ride back to thong nai pan.  i was a little out of my head and forgot that: 1) taking a car or truck taxi by oneself is always more expensive; and 2) one must always always always agree on the price ahead of time.  not having done this, i was astounded when we got back to my bungalow and the driver demanded over fifteen times the amount i had paid to get to the party.  i told him that it was too much and that i didn't have the money.  he would not let me get out of the truck but instead drove me to an atm and stood uncomfotably close while i withdrew the money.  having given him a sum equivalent to one week's lodging - all of the money, in fact, that i was going to use for rooms for the rest of this trip - i was allowed to go and returned to my room feeling defeated, angry, taken advantage of, and stupid.

i broke all of the rules last night.  i lost my friends; i drank too much; i left alone.  i made myself an easy target, and i got scammed.  i'm just glad that money was all he took.  looking back at the course of events with a clearer head, i see that things could have been much worse.  but they weren't, and i'm okay.  just hungover, broke, and upset that i didn't take better care of myself, but wiser for the lessons learned and determined to never put myself in a situation like that again.

my ticket to krabi is already paid for, and i had enough money hidden in my room to cover a couple of nights at a cheap guest house once i get there.  another unemployment check is due any day, and i will be just fine.