HEAVEN ON EARTH
BALI is often referred to as paradise, and indeed, at the villa where we slept in big beds on crisp sheets, surrounded by sumptuous wood furniture and an overhead fan that whirred a gentle breeze, it is Shangri-La. The air is redolent of smoky agricultural fires, and a symphony of birds and insects rub their feet together to croon love songs. K-Chch. Zzzzz. Sweet, sweet, ssssss, koo koo who.
“A-oo, a-oo,” crows the rooster all day long. “Geck-o” – the eponymous lizard sounds like a small child hiding under the table, playing a joke.
A long pool overlooks terraced rice fields, and the sound of trickling water is everywhere – from the irrigation system of the rice fields to the four or five gold fish ponds within the lush tropical landscaping.
Banyan trees bend and dribble long tendrils with a flush of pink, orchids take root on trees and in pots, and the servants who dutifully water them and feed the fish also tend to our human needs – from preparing breakfast to offering us insight into the culture, religion and way of life. We eat mangosteen, lichee and snake fruit in the shade.
But not everywhere is it paradise. The path through the rice fields is strewn with trash. Dogs roam freely, sleeping on the cool asphalt roads, and a driver needs to honk frequently to keep from committing canine massacre. And that smoky smell? People burning trash.
As we visit tourist destinations – ancient temples, volcanoes – we are assaulted by street vendors who invade our personal space to get our attention, offering wares at prices embarrassingly low – “cheap, cheap,” they call after tourists. Three dollars for a sarong, 70 cents for a box of pencils each with a hand-painted animal, $20 for a complete hand-carved chess set.
There’s a game they play, and I fall for it. “Two dollars,” says a vendor, holding out the chess set.
“One dollar,” he comes back at me.
I’m thinking he’s offering me this hand-carved chess set for a dollar, but he takes out a single piece – a pawn, intricately carved – and offers it for a dollar.
“What would I do with a single piece?”
“$30 the whole set,” he says.
“No no no,” I try waving him away, although at $30 it’s still a great deal, except that I don’t want it.
“$20” is his final offer.
Another woman, with a 12-inch stack of neatly folded sarongs on her head, tries to sell these starting at $10 each. Uninterested, I offer her 2,000 rupiahs (20 cents) to take her picture. She wants more, and when I put the money back in my pocket, she agrees to let me take the picture and even smiles for the camera.
By the time we’re getting back into the car, she is offering the sarongs for $3, and when the door accidentally touches the chess set as we desperately try to escape, the vendor apologizes for getting in the way. Through the glass window of a restaurant, children make sad faces, trying to hawk their goods as we eat gado gado and other Balinese delights.
Nearer to the temple, flies are swarming a fruit stand that smells like a bodega as sarong vendors swarm the tourists. “You need this for the temple,” they say as a crowd drapes you with beautifully patterned cloth. Finally, you buy one just to keep the other vendors away, although now the other vendors are further lowering prices.
Viewing the magnificently carved Buddhas and other deities in stone and wood, as well as silver, woven and painted goods, and seeing how affordable the prices are, one understands why everyone who comes here dreams of their own import business.
I found myself in Bali because, sometimes, you win the lottery of life. My friend Betty told me she was going to Bali, and when I wore my jealousy, she said “Want to come?” Her brother, Carlos, and his girlfriend, Melissa, were staying at a villa in Bali that had LOTS of room. It took me all of three minutes to say yes, and only that long because I was terrified of the 30-hour flight.
We would all be flying separately, and so I was also anxious about finding the place. A driver was supposed to pick me up and take me there, but if he failed to show, all I had was a hand-drawn map of the route through the rice fields I’d printed from the villa’s Web site.
Fortunately, my driver did show up. He had the windows of his Toyota open, and the air was smelly and polluted. In the dark, Bali seemed built up, and I thought, I’ve come all this way for Key West with 10 times the population density.
A zillion motorcycles were weaving in and out, and at any moment I thought we’d all be dead. But as we drove away from the busy road, the driver let me out on a brick path under a moonlit sky, and we entered the gate to the courtyard of the villa. I could hear water trickling everywhere. Betty showed me to my room, and I opened the windows on all three sides, surrounded by tropical paradise. The next day, I awoke to a view of the rice fields.
After breakfast, we swam in the pool overlooking the paddies, and then walked about 3 or 4 miles into the village of Ubud, the arts and cultural center of Bali. The path through the rice fields was 12 inches wide; on either side of the path was a ditch for the irrigation of the paddies, and we shared the path with motorcycles in either direction.
Along the fields we passed about 10 galleries where artists were making and selling work. Each artist seemed to have four styles: a traditional Hindu style, a tropical Rousseau style, pen-and-ink drawings, and a foray into abstraction. Sometimes husband and wife work together to produce these four styles, each specializing in two. When they weren’t in their galleries, the artists were working the rice fields, driving taxis. People in Bali do whatever they can to earn money.
Elementary school is free, high school has to be paid for, and university is out of the question for all but the richest Balinese. Even with an education, it’s hard to find employment.
The people are sweet and good, and leave offerings of rice, flowers and incense on little bamboo trays for their gods. Just as Bali’s cuisine is a fusion, so, too, is the culture a melange of Indian, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Chinese and Thai. I was surprised to see how overrun with motorbikes paradise can be. Motorbikes are used for everything from the family sedan to trucks. It’s not unusual to see people on motorbikes transporting construction supplies, coconuts, live chickens and families of four, including small babies on their mother’s lap.
The free-range dogs are as serene and sweet as the people. During a performance of Kecak dance – sort of an a cappella version of a ceremonial dance that is usually accompanied by gamelan music – at least two dogs wandered into the arena during the show. During another dance performance, a dog lay down center stage and slept during the performance.
Best of all were the sounds of Bali: At night, a thousand cicadas, crickets, frogs and lizards in the night, punctuated by bamboo beat (actually, contraptions to scare birds out of the rice fields), much like the gamelan music we went to see every night. I came home with the music in my head.
We visited a coffee plantation, where a botanical garden of nutmeg, cinnamon, chilies and ginger creates a heady aroma. We watched a demonstration of the roasting process, then the roasted beans getting ground by mortar and pestle. There were cages with “foxes” inside, and when I asked our driver about this, he asked the coffee roaster, then came back with an explanation that I’m sure was lost in the translation: The coffee is fed to a fox, digested, and then recovered for a finer coffee bean.
At the tasting tables we sampled cocoa, simply mixed with hot water and delicious with no milk or sugar; a ginseng coffee that is sweet and light without milk; lemon grass and ginger teas; and several roasts of coffee, including the one predigested by the fox (I abstained, thank you). When I got home and researched this, I learned that kopi luwak is, indeed, an expensive Indonesian coffee because the bean is predigested, and fermented, in the intestines of a civet cat (looks like a fox) endemic to Java. The animal will eat only the choicest, most perfectly matured beans which it then excretes, and plantation workers retrieve from the ground for immediate roasting.
At Padabai Beach, while reading a book, I am approached by an old toothless man (probably my age). “Is your husband sitting here?” he asks, pointing to the chaise next to mine.
“Yes,” I say sharply.
He points to a young man covered in tattoos and asks if that is my husband. When I laugh and say no, he pulls out two beautifully carved wooden boxes. He offers them at a low price, and I say no thank you, I have no need for them, although they are beautiful. He asks what price I would like to pay, and again I say I am not interested in having the boxes. I tell him he should sell them at a higher price to someone who can use them.
“Good for you, good for me,” he says, lowering his price still. Finally, I agree to buy one small box for 30,000 rupiahs – $3 – just to make him go away. All I have is a 50,000 rupiah note, and he gives me the two boxes for $5.
That night, at a Balinese shadow puppet theater, most of the play is in Balinese, but the English part, made for tourists, parodies the “good for you, good for me” conversation I had at the beach with the vendor – apparently this is a classical tourist experience.
The puppet show also parodies the taxi drivers who get you at every turn in Ubud. “Hello, how are you, taxi?” “You need transport?” “If not today, how about tomorrow?” They gesture as if steering the wheel.
That night, our driver takes us by his painting studio. He is an artist by day, driver by night. He says he uses his taxi business to advertise his painting studio. The next morning, while walking through the rice fields, I see the driver cultivating a new plot with his father. He is a farmer, too.
Wayan, who manages the villa where we stay, is a devout Hindu. He tells us that he is in the lower caste, and even after a life of doing good and being observant, he will never go on to a higher caste in another life. Although this strikes us, in our upwardly mobile culture, as profoundly sad, he insists he is happy. And who are we to know happiness? Perhaps it is this very acceptance that is true happiness.
Putu, our driver (in Bali, both Wayan and Putu are names that mean “first born,” so there are many many Wayans and Putus), tells us there is no happiness in this life, and that in order to achieve happiness you must get your karma to heaven.
Whenever we needed something – a taxi, a take-out dinner – Wayan would say “I arrange for you.” And so it was with massage. We couldn’t leave without experiencing Balinese massage, and our last day seemed appropriate. I chose the hot stone massage with ginger, said to improve the circulation, in preparation for the 30-hour flight home. Our massage therapists arrived by motorbike, of course, carrying the hot stones and a crock pot to heat them. They stripped down two beds, set them with sarongs and towels, gave us sarongs to wear and then promptly stripped them off.
There was lots of ginger-scented oil – and the massage therapist’s thumbs really dug in.
“Ouch,” I heard myself say a few times. Then came the hot stones – they were really hot, and after slathering them in the oil and rubbing them all over, they balanced the stones over my body, then covered me with a sarong.
I found myself asking, what is pleasure? Here was an experience that is pleasure for the tourist, but I’d prefer the pleasure of the artist, painting in the fields, working the land. Bali is what happens when an entire island is made up of artists and artisans, musicians, dancers and performers. It is in their happiness and spiritual devotion that these people have found wealth.
WALKING over Prague’s world-famous Charles Bridge last July, we saw them: old men with weathered faces and rugged hands; young women pushing baby strollers; college students and activists of all kinds. Holding placards and chanting slogans in Czech, they were marching in protest to Condoleezza Rice’s visit to the capitol of the Czech Republic.
While we were there to begin a 10-day bike trip, the Secretary of State was visiting to sign an agreement that would allow the U.S. to install radar equipment for an antiballistic missile system on Czech soil.
All we could say in Czech was dobry den (good morning), but we joined in in an echolalic chant.
We were supposed to have had a full day in Prague – way too little time to see what is often described as the world’s most beautiful city. Our flight was delayed, causing us to miss a connection in Munich, so we didn’t get to Prague until 5 p.m. Luckily the sun wouldn’t set until 9:30, leaving us four-and-a-half hours of daylight to race through the city.
We started first at the astronomical clock in Old Town Square. Nearly destroyed by Nazi fire during World War II, its doors open on the hour when statues of the apostles appear. As we inhaled the smoky scent of roasting waffles, we watched as hundreds of tourists stood there with digital cameras and cell phones, recording the medieval timepiece, with its sun and moon symbols, against a darkening sky.
We headed toward the Charles Bridge, passing the marionette shops the Czech Republic is famous for, then crossed the Vitava River on the medieval stone bridge that closed to traffic in 1978. Artists, artisans and crafters sell their wares here, and we watched – along with 30 Baroque-style statues standing guard over the bridge – as a gust of wind took a matted photograph of the city and hurled it into the water below.
At this point, I had fallen in love with the Czech people and was ready to re-invent my ancestry so I could be one of them. My husband pointed out that everyone we’d talked to thus far was connected to the tourist industry, and it was their business to make us happy.
The next morning we met up with our bike group. I had taken a VBT trip to Provence several years back, and liked the way this Vermont-based company takes the unpleasantries out of travel while leaving the adventure in. Accommodations and most meals are included, as is transport of luggage.
VBT provides bike, helmet, T-shirt and water bottle, as well as a nifty carrying sack on the back for holding sweatshirt, raingear, snack and camera. A van accompanies cyclists to refill water bottles and replenish snacks. There’s the “good” basket and the “bad” one – the first is stocked with fruit and the other has cookies and chocolate bars. Our trip, from Prague to Vienna, was rated “easy to moderate,” with about 30 miles a day at a relaxed pace, so I stuck with the fruit.
There were 17 of us, including doctors, lawyers, educators, business people and nephews. We boarded a bus to Cesky Krumlov, where we met our guides: Jan, a Czech, and Boris, an Austrian. Each had knowledge about the region, was multilingual, and a genius at fixing flat tires. They alternated roles as driver of the van and “sweeper” – biking at the rear and rounding up those of us who veered off the route. (Guilty as charged!)
VBT provides excellent directions as well as a plastic map case on the handlebars, and each morning begins with a route review. Nevertheless, we all occasionally go astray – and that’s part of the fun.
On the three-hour ride over rolling terrain, we learned that there were 400 castles built by Czech nobles, a third now privately owned. The country is divided into three regions: Bohemia (where we were), Moravia and Silesia. Poppies are a major crop, but not for narcotics; they are grown for poppy seeds, used in many Czech desserts, such as kolacky.
There is a system of man-made lakes in Bohemia for breeding carp, trout and catfish, and fried carp is the traditional Christmas dinner. Czechs are the biggest beer drinkers in the world, drinking 160 liters/ person each year. The sudsy beverage has been brewed here since the 12th century, when it was hygienically safer than water. The original Budweiser was brewed in Czechoslovakia.
Cesky means Czech and Krumlov means crooked, referring to the crooked Vitava River – the same body of water in Prague that the Charles Bridge crosses – which takes a horseshoe bend here. The entire village, with architecture in gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles, is a UNESCO World Heritage site, with its castle and Baroque theater that hosts three opera performances a year. We were given demonstrations of the baroque machinery used for making the sounds of wind and rain.
During World War II, Cesky Krumlov was annexed by Nazi Germany as part of Sudetenland. When the U.S. liberated the town, the German-speaking population was expelled.
Since then, Cesky Krumlov has had a significant Roma (gypsy) population. When the communists took over, they painted everything gray, Jan told us. After the Velvet Revolution in 1989 – the nonviolent overthrow of communism – businessmen seized the opportunity and opened restaurants, shops and hotels. The gypsies were moved out to the former Soviet-era housing – large gray concrete structures that have since been painted pastel colors, with balconies and terraces added to give them some charm.
Today, Cesky Krumlov is exclusively a tourist town – no one lives in the central village, and there are no bakeries or grocery stores – but through tourist revenue the sgraffito and Renaissance painting have been restored. There is an Egon Schiele Museum, but all of the works are reproductions. The originals of Gustav Klimt’s contemporary can be seen in the Leopold Museum in Vienna.
We biked in the surrounding countryside for two days, then biked through Sumava National Park, a Bohemian forest and the nation’s largest park. From the Bohemian forest we emerged into the rolling farmland of Bavaria, which could have been Vermont, topographically, except that the architecture was decidedly Prussian. I had never been to Germany before, and was struck by how meticulous everything in this nation is, with solid wood doors that always are properly aligned and snap shut with brass hardware. We were told that this region – Bavaria – has a culture closer to Austria than the rest of Germany.
We stopped for lunch at a Bavarian tavern where we enjoyed homemade sauerkraut, along with a rich vegetable potage. Breads in Bavaria are the real thing, fresh and moist and rich with whole grains and deep nut-brown flours.
Our biking destination for the evening was Passau, a baroque city on the confluence of three rivers: the Inn, the Ilz and the Danube. The Danube is the second-largest river in Europe, with its source in the Black Forest. It borders Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldavia and Ukraine. This geographically significant spot was marked by two porta potties, brought in to service a nearby carnival.
The following two days we biked along the Danube, which is much like biking along the Delaware except that you see castles and spires in every village. We had mostly perfect biking weather – not too hot, not too sunny – but while biking into Weissenkirchen in the Wachau winemaking region of Austria, the sky opened. Outside a café I wrung out my fleece, then enjoyed an Austrian latte.
The Wachau Valley, with perfectly planted rows of grapes dangling bunches of pea-sized fruits, offered some of the most splendid cycling on gently rolling “undulations.” In addition to grapes, apricots and cherries grow in this region, from which schnapps and kirsch are made. Apricots were ripening on the tree during our visit, and I was eager to try the schnapps.
But schnapps and kirsch are not the sweet liqueurs they are here, and I was jolted by the strong, grappa- like taste of the schnapps. More pleasantly, we sampled the local Gruner Veltliner in a Heuriger, a tavern where this year’s wine is served.
We finished our trip with a visit to the Hotel Sacher in Vienna, where we replaced all the calories we’d burned, and then some, by indulging in the original Sachertorte.
PEDALING IN PROVENCE
We were biking the narrow lane to St. Remy when, all of a sudden, we heard the tinkling of bells, the gentle b-a-a-a. Quickly we veered off the road to let the shepherd and his flock pass. We stood there and watched for five minutes until the road cleared, save for the droppings.
For me, nirvana is cycling through the French countryside, inhaling the melange: burning wood, fermenting fruit, the last essences of rosemary, a hint of manure. The roads are lined with plane trees leaning toward the sun, and fields are divided by lines of poplars, whose just-yellowing leaves rustle in the wind. The warm sun soaks into everything.
If I squint, I can see the vineyards and olive groves as Van Gogh did.
Not every road taken on a recent VBT bike tour of Provence was as pleasurably pastoral – there were a number of tricky roundabouts entering cities, and enormous exhaust-spewing trucks sometimes “shared” the road – but pedaling through those narrow passages that, in this country, we’d call a lane, enable a cyclist to absorb the essence of Provence.
There is plenty to photograph here, from blue-shuttered windows surrounded by earth-colored clay pots sprouting plants – and the occasional puppy peeking out – to swaying bamboo and stone farm houses with terra cotta roofs. Then, too, there is so much that can’t be captured with a camera: the songs of unknown birds (alouette lulu, or wood lark?), the tastes of bouillabaisse, pistou and Cotes de Rhone.
Although the characteristic scent of lavender is past its prime, fall is in many ways the ideal time to bike through the South of France. The VBT tour I was on included 13 of us, each with a twinkle of gray. When looking over the catalog with me, my younger son, Everett, had said in all seriousness, “Mom, you have to watch out for those white-haired cyclists. They’re really fast.” Right he was.
Some were former marathoners whose knees had ended their running; others were skiers, canoeists and hikers. All were hearty and hale. We came from California, Iowa, Colorado, Virginia, New York and Princeton Junction. There were married couples, two sisters, a widow and a retired probation officer. A cardiologist, a urologist, an ophthalmologist and a family practitioner among us, as well as a Ph.D. in nursing, meant we’d have experts to consult if we fell off our bikes.
My trip was a gift from my husband on the occasion of one of those big birthdays that ends in a zero and occurs mid century, and since I’d be traveling alone, the idea of hooking up with an active tour appealed. Our trip leaders, Sophie from Brittany and Bruno from Quebec City, assured that everything went smoothly.
The VBT package includes air, luxurious accommodations, most meals and 24-speed bicycles and helmets. There were details such as plastic map cases that attach to handlebars and automatic refills on water bottles. Every time you park your bike, the trip leaders, like magical elves, come and top off your water bottle, each time with a fresh lemon wedge.
A support wagon follows the route and will stop and fix your flat tire or give you a lift if you poop out on a hill. Sophie and Bruno took turns riding with the group and driving the van.
Breakfast was included every day, with fresh fruit, granola, yogurt and baguettes with cheeses and jams, all suited for the hungry biker. Four excellent Provençal dinners were part of the deal; among the more memorable were a risotto with chanterelles and oyster mushrooms, and thinly sliced octopus marinated in olive oil and rosemary. The only lunch we were served was a picnic of wonderful cheeses, pates, breads, fruit, salads, chocolate and good old potato chips in the shade of an old church.
It would be hard to put together a package that included everything offered for less than what VBT charges, and there are benefits that would be hard to find otherwise: Having your belongings toted from inn to inn, preplanned routes and lodging, food and attractions with a track record. The trip leaders were always there to fix malfunctioning brakes, pick up a disposable camera when a camera broke, or provide advice about the food, the language, anything. “We have even been called on as psychologists,” said Sophie.
We were given maps and directions for routes varying from 12 to 45 miles. We were on our own to determine pace, rest stops and getting lost… I mean, having an adventure. You could either stick with the group or go off on your own.
The first two days were flat but gradually increased in hilliness, especially the day we rode through the Alpilles (small alps). I’m mostly accustomed to the flat terrain of the D&R towpath, so Princeton Packet City Editor, mapmaker and cyclist extraordinaire Tom Lederer mapped out a training route for me in the Sourland Hills. Days before my departure, pedaling up hill past two horses on a sunny autumn day in Hopewell, I asked myself, Why am I going to Provence?
Thus named because it was once a province of the Roman Empire, Provence has been inhabited since prehistoric times, first by Ligurians and later by Celts. The Greeks settled the coastal area and Marseilles and then sought military assistance from the Romans. The region, part of France since 1486, is bordered by the Mediterranean to the south, the Alpine chains to the east and northeast and the Rhone on the west.
Olive trees and grape vines were brought to Provence by the Greeks, and the Romans, always eager for a clean water supply, created aqueducts.
The language spoken is Provençal, a Romance language that is a dialect of the Occitane, or the langue d’oc. However, most people we encountered speak French and many speak English.
The Mistral is the wind that blows in from Siberia. At speeds over 100 mph, it is said to drive people and animals mad. As a result, many farmhouses – called mas – are built with no windows on the north side.
Herbes de Provence include thyme, rosemary, marjoram, basil, savory and sage, and cuisines du terroir include pistou, bouillabaisse and ratatouille. Pastis, the anise-flavored liqueur, has been a favorite of the region since absinthe was banned, and petanque, or boules (bocce), is a popular game.
Before embarking on the trip, my mother left me with three bits of advice: Don’t be competitive; stop, get off the bike and take lots of pictures; and don’t do anything stupid. Oui, oui Mama. As the 64-year-old German-born woman from Scarsdale, N.Y., who didn’t wear padded shorts or gloves whizzed by me and I just let her, I thought, Mother would be proud.
Our second day of biking took us through farm fields to get to the ancient city of Arles, where the Roman amphitheater is a major attraction. Shops selling Provençal linens, pottery and soaps scented with lavender make it hard to see the city as Van Gogh did. His “Café Terrace at Night” depicts a street in Arles.
Van Gogh produced more than 300 paintings and drawings in Arles, including “The Yellow House” and “Starry Night Over the Rhone.” When the painter suffered a mental breakdown – possibly from absinthe, epilepsy, bipolar disorder or a combination thereof – and cut off his ear in Arles, the citizens circulated a petition to have him institutionalized.
After the petition was signed, Van Gogh voluntarily entered the clinic at the Monastery St.-Paul de Mausole in St. Remy, where we received a private tour.
The clinic still functions – women with depression pay about 120 Euros/day to receive residential treatment. Perhaps in homage to Van Gogh, the women take art classes and regularly have shows at the clinic.
Most of Van Gogh’s olive tree series were painted at the clinic, as was “The Starry Night.” Our tour guide, Mathilde Hamel, had us walking in Van Gogh’s footsteps. She held up copies of his paintings and showed us the very mountains and olive trees he painted, including a 400-year-old olive tree.
Van Gogh’s room, furnished as it would have been when he inhabited it, is on display. A solitary bed and chair take up the solemn space, canvases lean against the wall, and there are bars on the window.
Earlier that day we had biked up to Les Baux, a medieval fortified city built at the top of a rocky plateau in the heart of the Alpilles. Bauxite, the mineral used in making aluminum, was so named because it was discovered by a geologist in 1821 in Les Baux. Sadly, France now has to import bauxite because the supply at Les Baux has been depleted. Alongside the road, I picked up some rust-colored shards and eagerly showed them to Sophie, thinking I had found some bauxite. But, alas, it was limestone, Sophie told me.
Les Baux is considered one of the prettiest towns in France, although it is largely a tourist attraction, with its ruins of a castle. Not only is the architecture stunning, but there are vistas of patchwork olive groves and vineyards contrasting with the craggy cliffs of the Alpilles. Although France cannot compete with Spain, Italy and Greece in quantity of olive oil, the olive oil from Les Baux is considered by some chefs to be the best.
Sophie recommended Le Table Michel in St. Remy for its pistou, a hearty vegetable soup with basil. (Pistou is Provençal for pesto.) Business was slow the night I visited, and Michel sat out at a café table in his chef’s whites, welcoming me. He told me how he’d been born in Avignon, then went to the U.S. when he was 25 and worked as a chef here for 20 years, including a stint at the Playboy Mansion. His wife was British and homesick and he wanted to raise his sons in Europe so he moved to London for 15 years, then set up shop in St. Remy two years ago. He showed me the cookbook he wrote, and as I ate the pistou I read his recipe.
I dropped my camera on the tile floor in the hotel in St. Remy, so the day we rode through the Alpilles, with craggy snow-touched peaks, I was unable to capture the images. Who will ever believe I biked to such heights? But I was determined to burn those images onto the retina of my memory.
The other 12 in our group were more than sympathetic and offered to e-mail me their photos. One of the doctors suggested I buy a disposable camera, and I snapped “Never!” Three hours later I apologized, and Sophie helped me find one.
Our last biking day we visited Avignon, parking our bikes and walking along the top of the wall, the park and the vineyard at the top, the papal palace and other tourist attractions. We also visited the Pont du Garde, another marvel of Roman engineering in the quest for clean water.
But as with all the famous monuments we visited, I was eager to get back on the road and bike across the land.
We had been warned to check our shoes for scorpions before putting them on in the morning, but Justin, my 20-year-old son, didn’t tell us about the toads. I awoke at 2 a.m., exclaiming, “There’s a frog bouncing on my head.”
“Go back to sleep,” said my husband, Mark.
Ten minutes later I heard his panicked voice. “There’s a frog bouncing on my head.”
We turned on the lights, and sure enough, there on the wall behind the headrail was a critter the size of a man’s hand – a large man’s hand.
“That’s not a frog, it’s a toad,” said Justin, laughing.
We pulled the bed about three feet from the wall before going back to sleep in our lodge in Costa Rica’s dry forest.This was our second trip to the Central American democracy. Justin, our eldest son, had just completed the fall semester of his junior year studying tropical ecology, biology and environmental policy in Costa Rica. To make sure he’d earned his grades Mark, our youngest son Everett, and I took him on as translator, naturalist and guide.
We’d first come in 1996 on an ecotour. Our preplanned adventure included everything we needed for a first-time visit – bilingual guide, tour bus, accommodations and meals, and a week full of opportunities to explore how Costa Rica protects its environment. A quarter of the land area has been set aside for preservation.
This time we wanted to go deeper. The three places Justin selected for us to visit were the cloud forests of Monte Verde, the dry forest of Guanacaste and Playa Grande, a beach on the Pacific Coast.
We flew to San Jose and spent our first night at Hotel Herradura, close enough to the airport so we didn’t have to travel too far after our late-arriving flight.
|We were greeted warmly by the staff, and our room afforded a view of the mountainous surroundings and palm trees overhanging the pool.|
A bountiful buffet breakfast of mango, pineapple, papaya, macadamias, yogurt and Costa Rican cheeses got us off to a good start for the day. Costa Ricans believe in the adage, breakfast is the most important meal of the day. In fact just about every meal we had was hand-cooked from fresh ingredients. In Costa Rica, it is safe to drink the water.
We spent a few hours poolside to recover from the six-hour flight, then took a taxi to the Coca Cola bus station (so named because of the former bottling plant in the area) where we boarded the “normal” bus. This is the local bus used by Ticos (as Costa Ricans call themselves), although there were still a good number of tourists on our bus to Monte Verde. At $4 per person for five and a half hours of travel, it was the best transportation buy of the trip.
A note on getting around: Costa Rica is about the size of West Virginia (bordered by Panama and Nicaragua), but poorly paved roads can make getting around time consuming. Rental cars are costly, starting at $300 per week for a subcompact. Many of the roads can only be traversed by four-wheel-drive vehicles, and these can cost up to $700 a week. Some travelers fly from destination to destination.
During our visit, there were numerous police checks on the Interamericana highway. Our drivers told us, alternately, that police were searching for drugs coming from Colombia or illegal Nicaraguans going home for the holidays.
A less-expensive, though less independent, alternative to getting around is to buy a package from a tour company that includes hotels and transportation.
The normal bus was pleasant and offered an opportunity to be shoulder-to-shoulder with local people. Families traveled with small babies who were well-behaved and enjoyable to watch. We also had magnificent views of the mountainous terrain.
A series of volcanic mountain chains run from the Nicaraguan border in the northwest to the Panamanian border in the southeast, splitting the country in two. The northwesternmost range is the Cordillera de Guanacaste, consisting of a spectacular chain of volcanoes.
We arrived in the town of Santa Elena at 7:30 p.m.; it was raining and the wind was blowing fiercely. This would remain the weather we would endure for our three days in Monte Verde. We found a taxi to take us to our finca, or farm. Once our hostess showed us to our room – a rustic lodge with a concrete floor where we slept in bunk beds; there was a small sink in the room and two closets that held a toilet and shower – she prepared a hot dinner, with no notice, in her small, spare kitchen.
Costa Rica’s rainy season runs May to November, during which it rains predictably every afternoon for a few hours. When it rains during the dry season, it is unpredictable and can last for days and days. Justin reminded us that we were in a cloud forest, and even when the sun came out water droplets surrounded us.
From our room to the kitchen, we had to cross a muddy path where the cows crossed. If you weren’t careful, you’d sink ankle deep, so each morning we played a game of finding the stones to avoid sinking in the mud. Let’s just say I did not win the game.
The first morning our host cooked us a breakfast of hot tamales prepared in banana leaves, served alongside a slice of fresh papaya and a slice of Monte Verde cheese.
In 1952, a group of Quakers left the United States in protest of war and settled in this region of Costa Rica, a country with no standing army. They established dairy farms and a big cheesemaking operation. There is a cheese factory right in Santa Elena where you can watch the process and buy freshly made cheese. It is white, semi-soft and sweet. Santa Elena also is home to a butterfly farm and hummingbird gallery.
That day we visited the Santa Elena reserve, a privately maintained forest owned and operated by the Santa Elena school system. For $1 each, we rented big black rubber boots so we didn’t have to play that game about finding the stones in the mud.
Our extremely knowledgeable guide spoke beautifully accented English and took us around for 2½ hours, explaining the life cycle of the forest and pointing out trees laden with epiphytes, including dozens of bromeliads and orchids. Among others, we saw a bush tanager, a collared redstart and a collared forest falcon. We saw a green-hermit hummingbird, noted for its curved bill that enables it to pollinate a Helconia flower with the same curve.
Later in the day we visited the Orchid Project in Santa Elena, a private acre of trees planted by an orchid enthusiast with more than 400 varieties of orchids, many of which were in bloom. We learned orchids have very little nectar and assume the aromas of fruits to attract pollinators. We smelled some like watermelon, some like blood, even chocolate. We saw one orchid that can only be pollinated by the long-tongued euglossine bee, which is attracted to the scent; it collects the scent to attract female euglossines, and as a byproduct pollinates the orchids.
The next day, after a typical Costa Rican breakfast of gallo pinto – rice and beans – we took a guided tour at the Sky Walk. Zip line tours are offered here as well, but we learned that zip lines are to the rainforest as jet skies are to bodies of water. As humans shriek through the canopy, wildlife is frightened away.
The single-lane metal pedestrian bridge, spanning about 100 feet, shook as we walked its course. We placed each hand on the rails, walking them forward as we stepped with our feet. In the forest canopy, enshrouded by mist, we heard the cheep cheep cheep of white-faced monkeys.
Everyone else on the bridge came running to see, making the bridge bounce and sway. I was reminded of bridges in cartoons, where the wily fox, trying to escape his predator, cuts the rope just after he traverses.
Looking down into the forest, we saw three monkeys, swinging through the trees. We had seen a gray fox earlier in the day – something our guide told us is rare.
We also saw a spangled-cheek tanager, an azure hooded jay and a black-headed solitaire, among others. We glimpsed at least eight varieties of hummingbird, including the purple-throated mountain gem. We learned about the symbiotic, synergistic relationship between the cecropia tree and Aztec ants.
To get to our hacienda in Guanacaste, where we would explore dry forests, we hired a driver. To use buses, we would have had to change three times, and in the town of La Cruz it was questionable whether a bus would even come that day. With a driver the trip would take five hours; with a bus it could take eight hours or more, depending on connections. Although the driver cost a small fortune, we rationalized that it was still cheaper than renting a car, and certainly less stressful than driving those roads. Two other people joined the ride and we suspected we were paying their way.
Most Ticos welcome tourism, especially ecotourism, and will go to great lengths to assure the satisfaction of American travelers. At one restaurant in Santa Elena, when we paid with a 100 colones note, our server gave it back to us, advising us to hold on to it for good luck. He pulled a $2 bill out of his pocket to illustrate.
Hacienda Los Innocentes in Guanacaste was indeed a paradise, a 100-year-old ranch with colorful hammocks swinging from the veranda, laced with tropical flora, from which to view Volcan Orosi enshrouded in cloud. The ranch has hundreds of horses, and tourists from other resorts come to ride them through the forests.
We opted instead to tour the area by foot with Justin as naturalist and guide. Walking the trails of the hacienda, we saw the magnificent blue morpho butterfly, as well as a yellow butterfly in the pierid family. Justin informed us that under infrared light this butterfly was no longer yellow but every color of the rainbow. We saw naked Indian trees, with a peeling red bark to prevent epiphytes from growing on them.
Later, we relaxed at the hacienda’s pool with a glorious view of Parque Nacional Guanacaste. Some of the ranch’s parrots and macaws befriended us and landed on Mark’s hand and Justin’s shoulder. Later, while we were dining on the veranda, one swooped onto Everett’s head.
The next day, the kitchen prepared a boxed lunch for us, and we hiked through Parque Nacional Santa Rosa, the largest remaining stand of tropical dry forest in Central America. We took a tour with a Spanish-speaking guide, and Justin amiably translated. At first, his translations were about the same duration as her original remarks, but as time went on, his translations diminished in length. In the end, the two of them were joking and laughing in Spanish. After about a 10-minute discourse, we’d get a two-word translation. We were happy to see Justin having fun in his new language.
On Christmas day, we found a kindly young driver willing to take us to Playa Grande. He and Justin chatted at length in Spanish, and Justin assured me he was the safest driver we’d had. He was the only driver to help me haul out the seat belts, long buried under the back seat. We left early in the morning so he’d have plenty of time to get back for Christmas dinner – except that I made a big mistake. I thought we were headed to Tamarindo, but when we got there and saw a surfing town, I knew something was not right. We had come to see the leatherback turtles lay their eggs on the beach, and this place was too much like Margaritaville.
I learned that our hotel – Villa Baula, named for the leatherback turtle – was on the other side of the tidal estuary. This 45-minute detour meant an extra hour and a half in the car for our driver, and when he realized he’d be late for Christmas dinner, he was not a happy camper. Thus, our fare doubled. “Merry Christmas,” we wished him when he dropped us off.
Later, walking out to the beach from our room, we realized the estuary was a stone’s throw away. A 45-minute taxi ride was a 5-minute walk on the beach. A ferry shuttles passengers over the estuary at high tide (at low tide you can wade).
That night, we went with a ranger at 2 a.m. to see the turtles. The beach closes at sundown so tourists will not disturb them, but at 2 a.m. we saw hordes of tourists walking around with rangers holding infrared flashlights. The turtles nest October to February, so this was high season.
We walked a long way, passing turtles that other groups were hovered around, obfuscating the view. Then we saw our turtle, lumbering out of the Pacific. She settled herself into a sandy spot to begin her work. We all stood around as she began digging – at a turtle’s pace – to lay the eggs. When the moment was right, our ranger brushed away sand with his arm and shone the infrared light on the egg as we ooh-ed and ah-ed. How odd for this turtle mother, to have a crowd of gawkers surrounding her as she performed this most intimate of acts. The ranger assured us that the next morning, the sand would not look disturbed and you could not find the nest.
We enjoyed long walks on the beach the next few days, and Justin and Everett rented surfboards. Sunsets here were magnificent.
Our final morning, we packed up our bags, got fully clothed and walked along the beach until we met the estuary, where we took the ferry for 50 cents each. Then we boarded the “Fantasy Bus” back to San Jose. The Fantasy Bus is for tourists, three times more expensive than the normal bus but guaranteed to complete the trip in five hours, versus eight hours for the normal bus. It was air-conditioned and had comfortable reclining seats. I read and dozed, then startled awake to the sound of a flat tire.
We all piled out of the bus and waited on the side of the road while the driver, in his clean white uniform, changed the tire. He had trouble removing it but was too proud to take advice from any of the tourists. About an hour later we were all back on the Fantasy Bus, moving along and enjoying the cool air. The driver, whose shirt had become soiled, turned it inside out so he was clad in a clean white shirt again. I read, I dozed, I startled awake. It sounded like an explosion under the bus as the driver’s tire repair gave way.
The driver was isolated in a glass booth at the head of the bus, but I saw his arms pound the glass in frustration. Then, controlling his temper, he opened the passenger door, announcing in Spanish that he would call for another bus. We all piled out, this time on a farm in the middle of nowhere, three girls happily swinging on hand-made swings. Now THIS was the real Costa Rica – even if it took a flat tire to get us here on the last day of our trip.
The farmer was kind to let us wait on his property, and when it was clear that there was no other bus that would come to the rescue, he drove to the nearest town for a new tire. Later, back on the bus, we were three hours behind the normal bus. This time, the driver removed his soiled shirt and wore only his clean jacket. I admired his pride.
If you go:
Recommended reading: The Lonely Planet guide to Costa Rica
Helpful Web sites: www.costaricabureau.com, www.tourism-costarica.com, www.tourism.co.cr/, www.visitcostarica.com. Packaged tours: www.backroads.com, www.classicjourneys.com, www.caravantours.com, www.costaricaexpeditions.com.