Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Treasures in the cheap bin, featuring Lumatic

I've written before, in a journal on last.fm, about what fun it can be to look for new music by browsing through cheap used CDs and picking out some to buy. To quote from my previous post:
From time to time, I'll go to a store that sells music and browse their used section, then pick out an album (or a few) that I've never heard of but that looks interesting. There are hits and misses, of course. The misses don't hurt much when the CDs can cost as little as a dollar, and when I get a hit in this way there's just something really cool about it. Some of my tactics for increasing my success rate:

-Look for interesting album artwork.
-CDs packaged in digipaks instead of jewel cases seem more likely to fit my tastes (not that I ignore those in jewel cases).
-Look at the liner notes to get a sense of the lyrics and (more importantly) see what sort of instrumentation the music employs.

The best place, by far, that I know of for buying used CDs is an independent store in Columbus, Ohio called Play It Trade It. It's a store that is mainly focused on video games, but for some reason they have all sorts of random CDs there, and at really good prices.
Cara and I discovered Play It Trade It when she still lived in Columbus - it's right down the street from her old apartment - and we would often stop in there when I visited. Now that we are only in Columbus every couple of months or so, we still like to take the opportunity to revisit one of our old haunts. Thanksgiving weekend was a good opportunity, with the store having its usual Black Friday sale, including buy-one-get-one on all CDs. I picked out six albums, and it turned out to be a nice haul. A quick rundown of the albums, with prices:

TV on the Radio - Dear Science ($3.96) - This art rock group is the one really well known band on the list, and the only band I had any familiarity with, but I hadn't listened to them much at all, and thought this was a good chance to check out one of their albums. It's quite good.

Stars of Track and Field - Centuries Before Love and War ($1.99) - I knew nothing about this band except that their name is the title of a Belle and Sebastian song that I really like. It turns out that they are indeed named after the song in question, but their soaring, electronically-tinged rock sounds nothing like Belle and Sebastian, which came as something of a surprise. Still, I've found the album enjoyable.

Broken Spindles - Inside/Absent ($1.99) - I picked this up partly because it's on the Saddle Creek label. It's fairly minimalist electronica, and it seems pretty good, but with so much music on my plate it hasn't really inspired repeat listens.

Blake Miller - Together With Cats ($1.99) - I got this album because Miller is a local Cleveland artist on the Exit Stencil label. This album is pretty simple lo-fi indie folk, but there's a decent variety in sounds from song to song, and it's quite a charming listen.

Eulogies - Here Anonymous ($1.99) - This one definitely takes the silver medal for this trip to Play It Trade It. The infectious, catchy indie rock has a sound appropriate for the band's Southern California home, and might appeal to fans of Weezer. Strong melodies, a nice variety of guitar and synth tones, and some welcome female guest vocals on a few tracks help Eulogies avoid the risk of becoming generic. I've listened to this album a lot, but not as much as...

Lumatic - Swimming to the Hook ($1.99) - With the buy-one-get-one deal, that's six CDs for $7.94 plus tax. Quite a bargain, I'd say, especially with this hidden gem included.

Sometimes I'll come across a really good album and just wonder, how is it that this is so obscure? I'm well aware that most good musicians don't achieve real fame, but this is a fantastic album that seems to have been produced with a lot of effort and care, and the band Lumatic has just 67 listeners on last.fm. (To put that into perspective, my favorite band, Okkervil River, has over 500,000 listeners, and they're far from being the biggest band in the world). I searched the web for reviews of Swimming to the Hook and literally all I could find were two short customer reviews on cdbaby.com. It's almost criminal that this album (released in 2007) got so little attention. Hopefully I can do just a little bit to rectify that.

The title of the album, pulled from the lyrics of "Go Fish," is appropriate, as much of the music feels like it could be the soundtrack to dreamy underwater scenes. The songs here are richly textured, with a great variety of sounds that flow together organically. Katherine Miller's sultry, expressive voice is the clear star. Behind it is some nicely complex guitar and bass work, with synths, cello and accordion adding further layers to the lush dreamscapes. Lumatic's music can comfortably switch from laid-back to intense both within and between songs. It's often thrilling to experience. I can't really think of another album that I would consider similar to this one, although I do get something of a My Brightest Diamond vibe at times. I like Lumatic more, though, in part because they clearly like to rock out and know just when to do it.

They can also create music that I'd have to describe as pretty darn sexy, such as on "Abduction Fantasy," where Miller's vocals really shine. Shortly after, "Reassemble" provides a nice change of pace, with more of an acoustic feel. There are a number of really wonderful moments on this album, and one of my favorites comes partway through this track, when Miller's voice and the music drop out for a moment, and then a lonesome harmonica enters in a way that's somehow just perfect. The next, and second-to-last, track, "Chugalug," is a superb climax, with a great buildup to the heaviest guitar sounds on the album. The short "Serial Monogamist" is a fitting denouement.

On a number of occasions, I've wondered just how it was that some little-known album made its way to a store on North High Street in Columbus, Ohio. That's again the case here, although the NYC-based band does have Ohio roots, with Miller having studied at Oberlin Conservatory. Still, the overwhelming obscurity of this triumphant piece of work bewilders me.

Check out Lumatic here!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A future that is better than today

I recently spent a few days in Washington, D.C., for the Society for Neuroscience's annual meeting. It just so happened that one morning there, as I was eating a hotel breakfast, Tommy Lee Jones appeared on TV in a commercial for Ameriprise Financial and began speaking with this pronouncement: "In America, we believe in a future that is better than today."

This got me to thinking. Well, to be honest, it's something I've been thinking about for a while, but this commercial provided a perfect impetus for further, more focused reflection. "In America, we believe in a future that is better than today." Sure, it's a nice slogan for a commercial, but is it true?

I remember that when I was a child, the future seemed full of promise and potential. Looking back over the course of human history (in what's clear to me now was a very over-simplified way), it seemed like progress was something that happened naturally. Sure, there were still all sorts of problems for humanity to address, but as civilization advanced, as science and technology advanced, things would continue to get better. Why wouldn't they? In this country, my parents' generation grew up with a considerably higher standard of living than my grandparents' generation. And my generation grew up with a considerably higher standard of living than my parents' generation. As a child, I saw no reason to doubt that this trend would continue.

How things have changed. In the last three decades (over the course of my lifetime, roughly speaking), productivity in the U.S. has continued to rise, but median incomes have stagnated, as the gains have gone almost exclusively to the top. Take into account exploding health care costs (and a myriad of other factors, but that one right there is a killer), and the typical family now is worse off than the typical family in the '80s. To put it bluntly, my children's generation will almost undoubtedly grow up with a worse standard of living than my generation. It's kind of staggering to think about, and to contrast with my grade school self's view of the future.

"In America, we believe in a future that is better than today." After finishing my breakfast that day, I decided to forgo the conference events for the next couple hours and take a stroll through Washington. As I walked, a Washington Post headline caught my eye. But not the headline of that day's newspaper - rather, a headline on an image that appeared on the side of the paper dispenser. It was a rather interesting choice by whoever designed the dispenser's layout.

The sudden promise of huge surpluses for as far as the eye can see is radically altering the way some politicians and economists think about spending money and has raised expectations of bolder government programs in years to come. "We are on the edge, if we will have discipline, of a generation of surpluses beyond reckoning" said Newt Gingrich.

So goes the article, and it's a stark reminder of how, even at the turn of the century, the future seemed so different from today. Government . . . surpluses? The idea seems almost incomprehensible. Now we wake up to depressing headlines about debt panels and supercommittees debating how to cut retirees' benefits and social programs to stave off trillion dollar deficits.

Where did things go wrong?

Well, when it comes to the current deficit issues, at least, the answer is pretty simple. It also has nothing to do with the entitlement programs that are potentially on the chopping block. I don't want to get too analysis-heavy with this post, but this chart is useful.

Let's remind ourselves again that, when President Clinton exited office, we were projected to have surpluses for years to come. Then a few things happened. President Bush slashed tax rates with the benefits going almost entirely to the wealthy. (This was supposed to create jobs. It didn't.) President Bush launched two unfunded wars. And then the economy cratered, which both necessitated increased spending and caused decreased tax revenue. And the economic crisis can largely be linked to financial deregulation, going back to the '80s and '90s.

So, tax cuts, unfunded wars, and financial deregulation. Three actions taken by the government that led directly to the current deficit. If none of these three things had happened, the deficit would basically not exist! What do all three have in common? They benefited a very wealthy few, and did more or less nothing to "promote the general welfare" of this country. Interesting. Why would a government of elected representatives do all these things that oppose the interests of those they represent?

(If you guessed "because money has completely corrupted our political system," a winner is you!)

Returning to the narrative of my day in Washington, I walked a few more blocks down K Street until I came to the intersection with 15th Street. There, in McPherson Square, I came across a sight that would have looked utterly bizarre in the midst of an American metropolis just a few months ago.

As I'm sure you realize, this is the Occupy DC encampment. It was a striking thing to witness in person. I've seen it asked what the purpose of camping out in the streets to protest is. I think it sends a pretty powerful message, personally, of how committed these people are to the cause. I remember, before the first protests started, reading on the Internet that some people were planning to "Occupy Wall Street" on September 17. Neat idea, probably won't amount to a whole lot, were basically my thoughts at the time. A few days in, the movement seemed to be dwindling. I remember that many Internet liberals had a belittling attitude toward the Occupiers in those early days. Well, at least they're trying to do something, I thought. I had to at least give them credit for the effort.

Then something changed. The movement took off. Occupations popped up all over the country, and all over the world. It's really quite inspiring to see a true grassroots movement grow from such small seeds. I mean, everyone knows the system is screwed up. People were desperate for change, which is why Obama won such a sweeping victory in '08. I was a gung ho Obama supporter. I had been pretty despondent about the state of the country, and the Obama campaign provided hope. Lots of people thought he could bring real change to Washington. And in retrospect, it was naive to think that our current system would allow a president who was really going to change things in the ways that are needed, or that one person would be capable of bringing that change even if he intended to. So people are still desperate for change. And a few people realized that the old methods are no longer working. Voting alone (not to say that people shouldn't vote) isn't going to save us when the best you can do is the lesser of two evils. Holding big, one-day protests doesn't do much when everyone just goes home and back to their lives afterwards. So let's do something different, they thought. Let's do something that can't be ignored.

So a few people got together with an idea. And from those humble beginnings, many thousands upon thousands of people have latched onto that idea, and have stood up and said the way this country is being run, it's not working. We need real change. We need a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Ordinary Americans have woken up to the fact that (contrary to my naive childhood views) progress isn't something that happens naturally, it only happens when we fight for it. The whole thing really is inspirational. I haven't been so proud of my fellow country people in a long time.

There wasn't a whole lot going on at the Occupy DC camp while I was there, but I got a general sense of how things were run, and came away impressed. There's a medical tent, a food tent, a library tent - it was all pretty well organized. And there was a lot of exchanging of ideas. I think one thing I'd take away from the visit is this - people do better when they work together, when they care for each other, when they take an interest in each others' well-beings.

As a society, that's something we've moved away from, and nowhere is this more evident than at the very top, where the elites have become so insulated that it doesn't matter to them whether society as a whole is functioning properly. If the children of the rich and of the poor went to the same schools, for example, then the rich would want to make sure the schools were good. If politicians had to use the same health care plans as everyone else, then politicians would want to make sure we had a decent health care system.

The Occupy movement has faced a lot of criticism, even demonization, in the corporate media. They don't have any clear message! is one common complaint. I think you'd have to be intentionally blind to say that. There are a lot of intersecting issues at play here, but at a very basic level, the message that the government is owned by financial elites and thus does not represent the interests of the people comes across loud and clear. And I think that's a message that a sizable majority of Americans would agree with. What are they hoping to accomplish? There's a long road ahead; these problems are very hard to solve, the obstacles are enormous, and real change won't come easily. But they've already accomplished something - changing the national discourse - and that itself is commendable. Why don't those dirty hippies just get a job? Well, this common criticism is really quite remarkable. Besides the fact that most of the protesters do have jobs . . . with a historic unemployment crisis, you're telling people who are protesting (among many other things) the lack of decent jobs to just get a job? I mean, that's pretty laughable, isn't it?

Again, I go back to the idea, "In America, we believe in a future that is better than today." I suspect that the percentage of people who would honestly agree with that sentiment has taken a precipitous decline in the past few years. Everyone knows things are broken in this country. Most everyone knows the government doesn't really represent the people. More and more people are waking up to the fact that we need a real, fundamental change in our political and economic system, or things are, inevitably, just going to keep getting worse.

There's a feedback loop in action. When money has undue influence on government, then the rich will influence government to enact policies that benefit the rich. Thus, the rich will get richer. Thus, the rich will have more money to influence the government. And so on. Furthermore, even in the absence of government intervention, money and power have a tendency to accumulate in the hands of a few. It's essentially a natural law, and it's why progressive taxation is necessary for a functional society. The best way to become richer is to already be rich. (I defy anyone to argue with this.) And excessive economic inequality leads to a host of societal ills, as well as a less robust economy. The middle and lower classes, quite obviously, spend a greater percentage of their income than the wealthy, so what happens if too much wealth accumulates at the top? Less money flowing in the economy. Less demand. Less jobs.

The ultra-rich continue to get richer, and everyone else suffers.

That's the course we're on. Unless we reverse rising inequality and get corporate money out of politics, we're going to continue on that course. A lot of people have recognized this. The Occupiers have decided they're going to do something about it. Unless you like the status quo of politicians that don't care about your interests if you can't fund their campaigns, you should support this movement. Is it a perfect movement? Nothing's perfect, but I reiterate: without fundamental change in the system, things will get worse.

In this era of crisis, I'm not sure it's logical to believe in a future that is better than today. I do know, however, that a lot of the people I saw in that camp believe in that better future. People everywhere are standing up and fighting for that better future, and that's admirable.

There are a lot of people out there who think this movement isn't about them. They have fairly comfortable lives; they have their HDTVs and iPads and whatnot. Why are these protestors complaining? they might think. And then one day, years from now, they'll wake up and realize that, even after a lifetime of hard work, they won't be able to afford a comfortable retirement. Or they can't pay their medical bills. And even then, they might not realize that things didn't have to be that way, if only our government hadn't decided that preserving tax breaks for multimillionaires was more important than preserving the foundation of our society.

Or maybe things will turn out differently, because a bunch of people got together and decided things had to change and they were going to keep making their voices heard until things did change.

So that's the story of my morning in D.C. As scientists, I think most of us who were at the conference have a hope that our work will, in some way, help make the world a better place. The people I saw at the Occupy camp are also working to make the world a better place.

We're all in this together, and if we remember that, maybe there is hope for a future that is better than today.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Ohbijou: Metal Meets

Prior to this year, Toronto-based indie band Ohbijou had released two albums, each full of beautiful chamber pop music highlighted by ornate string parts and Casey Mecija's ethereal vocals. At times, they managed to go beyond "beautiful" and create something truly magical - "Make It Gold" off of their sophomore effort Beacons comes instantly to mind. I've come to adore both Beacons and Swift Feet for Troubling Times, but if there's any criticism I'd level, it's that when listening to either album, by the time I reach the end of the album I feel there's a certain sameness to some of the songs. It seems the band liked to work in their comfort zone - and it was a very good comfort zone, so that's not really a bad thing - but it was on the songs when they pushed beyond that comfort zone that their music gained those magical qualities.

Two weeks ago, Ohbijou released their third album, Metal Meets, and from the instant I first heard the powerful electric guitar chords that introduce opening track "Niagara" I felt something was different. That sense of magic? "Niagara" has it in spades, the guitar and some spacey synths complimenting those familiarly gorgeous strings and vocals in a dreamy masterpiece. "Niagara" is an apt beginning to an album that takes Ohbijou's sounds to places barely imaginable from their previous albums. The aforementioned "Make It Gold" was my previous favorite song by the band, but perhaps half of the tracks on Metal Meets are just as good or even better.

What's remarkable about this album is that it's simultaneously a natural progression and a radical evolution in style. Previously, Ohbijou's brand of chamber pop was folk-tinged. That's gone now, with nary an acoustic guitar to be heard. Instead, the listener is treated to richly textured soundscapes built on electric guitar tremolos, airy synth arrangements, and a weightier rhythm section - but it wouldn't be Ohbijou without the strings, and they're just as present and just as gorgeous as ever. It all comes together as a fuller, more confident sound for the band, and the vocals top it off perfectly - Casey Mecija's remarkable voice can be both angelic and mischievous, and the backing vocals of her bandmates compliment it wonderfully.

The sense of sameness that I sometimes felt creeping in on their previous albums is also gone. Each song now feels vital, and each is its own distinct entity (but not in a way that sacrifices the flow of the album). After "Niagara," third track "Balikbayan" is another standout. In a nod to Casey and (sister and bandmate) Jenny Mecija's Filipino heritage, its lyrics are inspired by Balikbayan boxes, pieces of luggage that overseas Filipinos use to send items back home.

"Sligo" is the longest Ohbijou track yet, and it makes good use of its six minutes, starting off at a leisurely pace that's repeatedly punctuated by stately strings, and then going into a drawn-out buildup in its second half that takes full advantage of Ohbijou's newfound penchant for the electric guitar. "Sligo" kicks off a sequence of songs that showcase a band at the height of its abilities. "Anser" is another strong contender for best song on the album. It's a wonderfully dramatic composition, with piano, guitar, strings, and shared female/male vocals all building off each other. This newly dramatic, dynamic Ohbijou continues to strut their stuff on "Obsidian" and "Scalpel Blade," before pulling back toward that leisurely pace for the beginning of "Turquoise Lake." (They operated at a leisurely pace for most of their first album, actually, but this is darker, more impactful stuff.) And then "Turquoise Lake" culminates in another dramatic buildup, with a heavy guitar part that I never would have imagined hearing on an Ohbijou album before now. Yet on this album, it fits right in. There's one more song, "The Dreaming." It's as dreamy as you'd guess from its title, and it's a nice way to close out one of the best albums of the year.

In summary, if you are in any way into lushly orchestrated indie pop music, do not miss this album. I continue to be amazed at all the great music arising from the Canadian indie scene, and Ohbijou has just staked their claim as one of the heavyweights in that scene. If Metal Meets is your introduction to the band, don't miss out on their previous albums, either - they're both gorgeous, and the evolution of Ohbijou's sound is wonderful to experience.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Album review: Motopony (s/t)

There have been a few occasions when my introduction to a new artist has gone something like this: I hear one song, and really like that song, so I buy their album. Then it turns out that the song I really liked is easily my favorite song on the album. Even if I still enjoy the rest of the album, it's a disappointing thing to have happen.

But there are also happy occasions when the opposite occurs. On the basis of one song, I get an album - and it turns out that the album is far beyond anything I could have imagined from that single song. That's what happened to me with Motopony.

The song? "King of Diamonds." It's gotten some buzz in recent months, and for good reason. It's a really nice, folksy pop tune, good music for chilling out on a summer day. (I'm a little late writing this review - I did get into Motopony over the summer. It's appropriate, I guess, that today felt like a perfect summer day, despite it being October!) Amazon had the song for free and I decided to check it out, and enjoyed it enough to take a chance on the self-titled debut album. If the rest of the album had been made up of songs of a similar style and quality to "King of Diamonds," I wouldn't have been disappointed. But I got much, much more.

In a certain sense, I'd compare this album to Bon Iver's latest. I wouldn't say that Motopony sounds just like Bon Iver (maybe a little) but there is a similarity in that, at its heart, this is a guy with a guitar playing folk music, but then it pulls in all sorts of eclectic instrumentation and stylistic influences and becomes a wonderfully diverse (yet cohesive) collection of songs. The pleasant pop sounds of "King of Diamonds" are followed by the catchy soul of "Seer." But it's on the second half of the album when the music really transforms into something beautiful. Piano, synth, acoustic guitar, and vocals all play off each other wonderfully over the heavy, syncopated backing beat of "God Damn Girl." "Wait For Me" wanders into dream pop territory, and it's just a really gorgeous track.

"Wake Up" is another standout, adding to the list of great songs called "Wake Up." (Seriously, why are there so many songs called "Wake Up," and why is it that when a band I like has a song called "Wake Up" it's invariably one of my favorite songs by that artist? Arcade Fire, Ozma, Mad Season...) Clocking in at over six and a half minutes, it's a haunting slow burner that starts out with just acoustic guitar and Daniel Blue's vocals, with some powerful lyrics (What if these drugs aren't the problem?/What if my freedom's hiding just outside my reach?/What if I never hit bottom?/How far can I go fallin' 'fore I realize fallin's free?) As the song builds in intensity, insistent xylophone and synth parts join in for a dramatic, but not overstated, climax, before the song settles back down. One last track follows, and "Euphoria" is another beautiful song.

Since I discovered Motopony a couple of months ago, their album has become one of my most listened to of the year. They appear to be a band on the rise, and with this great collection of songs, they deserve all the success they get. Check them out!

One more note - I wasn't sure for a while how to pronounce the band's name - mo-TOP-on-y or MO-to-po-ny. It's apparently the latter.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Megafaun at the Beachland Tavern

This past Tuesday night, North Carolina three-piece-turned-four-piece Megafaun made their third visit to the Beachland Tavern. With the much-hyped tUnE-yArDs show going on in the Ballroom at the same time, turnout for Megafaun was perhaps somewhat smaller than it might have been on another night, but the audience that did show up was very appreciative. Cara and I have been to all three of the band's Cleveland shows, so I guess it's safe to say that we consider Megafaun concerts to be don't-miss events.

For this visit, Toronto-based singer-songwriter Doug Paisley opened with a solo acoustic set. It was a very enjoyable collection of country-folk music; Paisley's vocals and guitar playing were both impressive. I was reminded of Damien Jurado's solo performances. I picked up Paisley's self-titled album after the show and am enjoying it a lot. If you'd like an introduction to his music, look up the song "Wide Open Plain." It's a great track.

After Paisley finished his set, Cara and I wandered downstairs to the Beachland's great vintage shop, This Way Out. I bemoaned the fact that all the clothes I tried on were too short for me before buying a used Haley Bonar CD. We saw her open for Andrew Bird a few months ago, and I've been really into her music recently.

We headed back up to the Tavern about 25 minutes after Doug Paisley finished playing, and I realized as we walked up the stairs that Megafaun had already started their set! This was a surprisingly short break, but fortunately, we hardly missed anything, a minute at most.

Megafaun kicked off the set with the sprawling, My Morning Jacket-esque roots rock of "Real Slow," the opening track from their just-released self-titled album. With lyrics like "People come from miles just to take a seat and watch the show," it's certainly an appropriate choice for a concert opener, and it sounded great. The band proceeded to play the next two tracks from the new album in order, before playing a nice mix of songs from all of their releases for the rest of the set.

There's a lot of variety in sound in a Megfaun concert - or album - as the guys are adept at a cappella or at wailing on their guitars, and pretty much anything in between. As a whole, I'd describe their sound as backwoodsy folk-rock with some experimental/prog elements and killer vocal harmonies. As you might guess, this translates into an excellent live experience.

A highlight of the show came when the band announced they were going to play a song from Gather, Form & Fly, and that we probably hadn't heard it like this before. As they started up with acoustic guitar, the song did indeed sound different from anything I knew, yet still familiar - was it "The Longest Day"? Yep, it was, and hey, guess what, that's my favorite Megafaun song! It's a gorgeous, bluegrassy number about losing a loved one, and it's a song I hadn't expected to hear live, largely because the album version contains some beautiful guest female vocals, and there are no women in Megafaun's touring band. Yet the reworked version was just as effective as the original, and I was thrilled to experience it. Interestingly, the next song in the set, "Everything," was another one which has guest female vocals in the album version. It was also quite different - and also great - live.

The intimate setting in the Beachland Tavern added a lot to the experience. As had happened last time, Megafaun played one song out on the floor, sans microphones. It's always really cool when a band does this (I'm also reminded of The Rural Alberta Advantage). Additionally, there was some nice band-audience interaction. At one point, the band confessed to us that they felt weird about saying "Hello Cleveland," because they feared we would think it too cliched. We assured them that it was cool and we liked it, which they seemed relieved to have cleared up. Better yet was what happened before the band's last song. Earlier during the show, before they played the gospelly "His Robe," drummer Joe Westerlund had made a comment about how tomorrow (Wednesday) was church night, and asked whether we knew this. So then, before their last song, Westerlund came off the stage and was going on some sort of crazy, slightly racy monologue. He was standing directly in front of Cara, and she chimed in "Church isn't 'til tomorrow." Westerlund followed her lead, singing "Church isn't 'til tomorrow" back at us, followed by some other improvised lines (at this point he also put an upside down plastic crate over his head; the whole thing was pretty hilarious) before he returned to the stage and the band played "Eagle" to round out their set.

I've been to a lot of great concerts in my life, but it's rare to experience something like that. It takes a special combination of band, audience, and venue. We'll definitely go see Megafaun again, any chance we get. They and Doug Paisley both come highly recommended, on album or (especially) in person.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Costa Rica Part 6: Vamos a la Playa

It's been quite a while since my previous entry in this series. In the time since, we've gone on another great vacation, to the Adirondack Mountains, and there has also been a lot going on back here at home. But better late than never - here's the final part of my honeymoon journal.

The guided tour portion of the trip ended after Monteverde. There was an optional two-day extension to the tour, a stay at the Tamarindo Diria Beach Resort on the Pacific Ocean. Cara and I had decided that, considering this was our honeymoon, we could use some time to relax at the beach. So we were among those in the tour group who were continuing on to Tamarindo.

On the drive out from Monteverde, we passed over the same bridge that had given us such an adventure two days before. Fortunately, there were no such troubles this time. After descending from the mountains, we headed west, toward the Pacific. Before going to Tamarindo, we made a stop at the Liberia airport, departure point for the tour, to drop off those who weren't doing the beach extension. We said our goodbyes, and then continued on.

When we reached Tamarindo, it was time to say goodbye to our tour guides. Cara and I got a picture taken with Daniel. We'll definitely never forget him!

The weather was gorgeous when we arrived in Tamarindo, a small town on Costa Rica's Pacific coast. It was definitely a different atmosphere there from the rest of the tour - very touristy, and lots of people trying to sell you things. Yet we found that we loved it there just like everywhere else we had visited. And even if there was a certain tackiness to some of the shops and the multitude of street vendors, there was no lack of beauty to be found there by the ocean. After we departed the bus and entered the hotel's open-air lobby, I heard young Sean declare, "I see heaven." This was (roughly) the view that inspired his words:

As you can see, the resort provided us with two options for swimming - the pool, and the ocean. Cara and I spent a lot of time in the water during our two-day stay; none of it was in the pool, inviting as it looked.

When we arrived at the hotel, we were told that a few of the group's rooms were not ready yet. Cara and I were among the unlucky (relatively speaking, of course!) few. We had about an hour of time to fill, so we joined a few others from the tour group at a cafe attached to the hotel. This resulted in one of the few unpleasant experiences of the trip. The food was fine (I quite liked my fish sandwich), but the service was very uneven. The drinks Cara and I ordered didn't seem to be showing up, so after waiting perhaps twenty minutes, we repeated the order (a Sprite and a Coke) to another server. When it came time to pay the bill, I saw that we were being charged for two Sprites and two Cokes (each at three dollars a pop, to boot!), despite only having received one of each. It was clear that our waiter did not realize the first drink order had never been filled, and in fact thought that I was trying to rip him off. I tried to explain his mistake, but the language barrier made the whole situation very awkward. The extra drinks were eventually taken off the bill. I don't think the waiter was convinced of my truthfulness, so I left still feeling kind of bad about the whole thing - it was undoubtedly an honest mistake on his part. I hope he eventually understood what had actually happened, and I hope he didn't get in trouble. In any case, for me, I didn't feel bad for very long, because there was lots of great fun awaiting us in Tamarindo.

We enjoy going to the Mentor Headlands Beach on Lake Erie here during the Cleveland summers. Going in the water is a great way to beat the heat, and lying out in the sun is very relaxing. It had been years since I had been to an ocean beach, though, and the same was true for Cara. Nothing against Lake Erie, but the ocean is much better. The main reason? Waves!

It's tremendous fun to wade out into the warm ocean water and then just play amongst the waves. You don't need any special equipment, although we both thought that surfing looked fun and that we might have taken lessons if we had had one more day. Still, just throwing your body against the breaking waves, or diving toward the shore as the waves pass and letting them carry you, is awesome. It took me back to my childhood, doing the same thing in North Carolina on a vacation to my aunt's. Cara and I spent large portions of both of our days in Tamarindo just frolicking in the water. We absolutely loved it.

Besides the waves, the other big differences between the ocean and the beach back home included the salt water, and the tides. Salt water is obvious, I guess, but it still took me by surprise the first time some splashed in my face. And the tides - they were very dramatic at Tamarindo, because the beach had an extremely gradual slope. It was an eerie sensation when Cara and I walked out on to the beach at night, near low tide, and we were standing in the sand where we had been in the water that afternoon, peering out into a vast darkness, unable to even see the ocean.

There are two places that, to me, sum up our stay in Tamarindo. The first is the beach. The second? Nibbana restaurant. If you're reading this, I suppose it's more likely than not that you'll never be in Tamarindo, Costa Rica, but in case you do ever have the chance - go to this restaurant!

The first night in Tamarindo, we got almost everyone from our tour group who was doing the beach extension, about twenty people in all, to go to the restaurant together for dinner. I found myself instantly taken by Nibbana's atmosphere. The dining room is open on three sides to the outdoors, and the tropical night air felt great. (I should mention that we were somewhat taken aback by the fact that smoking is permitted in restaurants, as used to be common here in the States, but we fortunately didn't have to put up with significant amounts of smoke during any of our meals.) It was great fun to hang out there in our big group, chilling out and talking about all our experiences of the past week.

Another thing to recommend Nibbana is the happy hour drink specials. Two-for-one drinks during lunch hours and from 5-7, with great cocktails that normally only cost $4.50 or $5.50 each? Hard to beat that deal!

Pictured is a Hawai, a drink with rum, curacao, pineapple, and coconut. They were fantastic.

But how about the food? Oh, it was excellent as well. Cara and I liked it so much that we ended up going there for dinner on the first night, then for both lunch and dinner the next day. My favorite dish was a pasta with vodka cream sauce, lobster and shrimp. Everything we got there was delicious, including tropical ceviche, chicken curry with coconut rice, and more mundane fare like pizza. Not to mention dessert!

Taking all that into account, Nibbana would probably be one of my favorite restaurants ever. But there's more. I mentioned that Tamarindo has lots of people trying to sell you stuff. This includes street vendors walking up to your tables in restaurants. To an American, this seemed very strange, and was kind of annoying. But in addition to the street vendors, there were also roving musicians who came into the restaurant from off the streets and played for the patrons. Amusingly, on the second night a guy played '90s rock hits on an acoustic guitar. It was rather charming. Later that night a band of young men from Argentina entertained us. The first night's music was the best, though. That was when a mariachi band performed for us - a very, very good mariachi band. Cara and I were both in awe of the trumpeter, in particular. They played some stereotypical mariachi band songs, like "La Cucaracha" and "La Bamba." Then one of our tour mates suggested we ask if they knew a traditional Costa Rican drinking song that our tour guide Fabian had performed at the lunch in Arenal. That performance had been an English translation of the song, which was clearly lacking something. Could we get the mariachi band to play the song in all its original glory? They did not speak English, but Cara came to the rescue when she asked them, in Spanish, whether they knew the "Costa Rican drunk song" - and they knew what she meant, and played it for us! Sitting in that restaurant, smiling and laughing and sharing in the moment with the friends we'd made over the course of an amazing week, I just felt really fortunate to be there and to have had such a wonderful experience. Oh, and that mariachi band got some generous tips from our table!

One more unexpected bonus capped off the Nibbana experience. With the bill, we received free shots of guaro (sugar cane liquor) mixed with coconut cream. They were great. We tried to recreate them back home with some guaro we purchased in Tamarindo, but didn't come close.

So, Nibbana was one of the highlights of the whole trip. On our second day at the beach, in between lunch at Nibbana and dinner at Nibbana, we basically spent the afternoon at the beach. This included lots of time in the water. It also included couples massages in the hotel's garden next to the beach. I'd never had a professional massage before, and it was very nice. With the ocean breeze and the sound of the waves, in fact, it's hard to imagine any future massage experience matching up.

The last morning in Tamarindo, Cara and I ate breakfast, and then walked out to the beach. I know we both had mixed emotions. We were looking forward to going home, but at the same time, we didn't want to leave. This latter feeling was augmented by the fact that that morning had the nicest weather we experienced on the entire trip. I don't have any complaints about the weather overall, but that morning was just stunning.

We definitely made a great decision by picking Costa Rica for our honeymoon. Cara and I both agreed that the trip was the most amazing experience of our lives. We hope to go again some time in the future, but until then, we will have with us a few neat souvenirs, a whole bunch of pictures, some good friends, and lots of amazing memories. ¡Pura vida!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Costa Rica Part 5: The Cloud Forest

After one night each in Sarapiqui and Arenal, our next stop was for another two-night stay, this one in Monteverde. Now, if you were taking a tropical vacation, would you expect to be staying somewhere with high temperatures that just reached 70, if that? I would guess not, but Monteverde is at over a mile elevation, and let me tell you, the weather there felt wonderful! (Especially when contrasted to the weather in Cleveland after we got home!)

Monteverde is in what's known as a cloud forest, which, according to Wikipedia, is "a generally tropical or subtropical evergreen montane moist forest characterized by a persistent, frequent or seasonal low-level cloud cover." So, it rained a good deal, but more often than actual rain we experienced mist. And, as the name Monteverde suggests, it's very green there. (This could be said of almost everywhere we went, but perhaps the cloud forest most of all.)

The drive to Monteverde was an adventure, in more ways than one. We had an unexpected delay when, in between Arenal and Monteverde, we came to a narrow bridge that was having construction work done on it. Next to the bridge, a dirt path descended to the shallow stream that the bridge passed over, then went back up on the other side of the stream to rejoin the road. Apparently that path was the detour for the bridge, although there was no way a full-size bus could go that way, right?

Wait, we aren't actually going into the stream, are we? What?? Oh, yes, we were. I think everyone on the bus was at least slightly terrified at that moment. The bus went all the way into the stream and started up the other side - but got stuck; it couldn't make it up the opposite shore. We rolled back into the stream, and stopped for a minute. What now? The only option was to retreat back up to the road, in reverse. This was something I certainly never expected to experience in my life. We made it without incident, and then stopped to assess our options. After some discussion, we decided that all the passengers would disembark from the bus and walk across the bridge.

The major obstacle to the bus crossing the bridge was that there was a large hole in the road in front of the bridge, directly in the path of the buses' left-side wheels. At first, the bus drivers considered just putting a wooden plank over the hole. This did not seem like a good idea. Eventually, it was decided that the hole should be filled with rocks, and then the plank placed over the rocks. So our tour guides collected rocks from the stream to fill the hole.

The name of our tour was the "Costa Rica Eco-Adventure," and as all this was going on, there was plenty of bemused commentary among the tour group about how we were certainly having an adventure. Several SUVs drove through the stream as we waited, and we cheered them on as they accelerated up out of the water. Finally, the hole was filled, and the buses passed safely over the bridge to more applause. We loaded back up, and continued on our way.

Before we even arrived in Monteverde, we experienced a spectacular drive into town. The road was unpaved, narrow, and windy, so in the tour bus, it made for an interesting - and potentially nerve-wracking - experience. At times one could look out the window of the bus and see only clouds. I always felt safe, though - surviving going into a stream and reversing back out of it in a bus probably helped!

Our hotel in Monteverde was El Establo, and it was quite an impressive place. We were situated on the 500 level. That doesn't mean the fifth floor of a building, though - that means the fifth level of buildings that were located all the way up a steep hillside. To get to our room from the entrance of the hotel, we had to take a shuttle. Another interesting feature of the hotel was that the electricity in the rooms was activated by placing your room card in a slot, so that when you weren't in the room the electricity was automatically off. I thought this was pretty neat; they definitely seem to be more eco-conscious in Costa Rica than in the United States.

Another nice thing about our accommodations was the great view from our room. Cara and I both felt that this was probably our favorite place we stayed (well, if we put aside the food - we only had breakfasts at the hotel, but they were the low points food-wise in a tour full of excellent meals).

That evening, Cara and I went on the night walk, an optional excursion. It was a guided walk that promised the opportunity to experience the cloud forest in the dark and see various wildlife. We didn't see that many animals - a few insects, a tarantula (that was definitely cool!), and a couple of snakes that were barely discernible way up in the trees. Still, just being out there in the lush forest with darkness and a light rain falling around us was so neat. Sean, the little boy, was in the same group as Cara and me, and at one point he commented that he thought this was where Jurassic Park was filmed - specifically, the scene with the raptors in the tall grass. (The scene in question was actually in the second Jurassic Park movie, a far inferior film to its predecessor, but that particular scene always stuck with me as being really outstanding.)

We had dinner at an Italian restaurant. Oddly enough, the next night, we had dinner at another Italian restaurant. The restaurants were both good, but I still found this somewhat strange; it was one of the very few things I would have changed about the tour.

On our second day in Monteverde, we got to experience the cloud forest from three different perspectives, and all three were amazing. We started out with a guided hike on a trail - experiencing the forest from ground level. I know I've said things like this many times in this series of blog posts, but the scenery was just so spectacular!

It was a great hike. Cara and I both wished we would have had the opportunity to go on a longer hike in the cloud forest - perhaps on another trip to Costa Rica. After the hike, we got to visit a hummingbird garden in the park. It was hard to believe how many hummingbirds there were and how close we could get to them.

After the hummingbird garden, the next item on the agenda was the canopy tour. This was a walk along a series of huge, rickety suspension bridges. So after first seeing the cloud forest from ground level, we now got to see it from way up among the treetops. It was quite astonishing.

Finally, after walking among the ground level vegetation, and then among the tree tops, came the third way of experiencing the cloud forest - hurtling at up to forty miles per hour, hundreds of feet off the ground.

Ziplining was one of my most anticipated activities on the tour, and it easily lived up to expectations. I've been a thrill ride enthusiast since a young age, so this was right up my alley. If you're reading this, it's possible you've been ziplining before, but unless you've been to Costa Rica, it's unlikely you've been ziplining like this. We first ascended up a tram to the top of a mountain, and then went down a series of nine ziplines that crisscrossed a valley, meaning that each line placed the rider way out in the open with jaw-dropping views of the forest. The mist made it even better - as we departed, the platform would quickly disappear behind us, and then we would accelerate into a white shroud - the trees below were visible, but straight ahead there was only a vast nothingness. Finally, the next platform would come into view. It was very exhilarating!

For many members of the tour group, this was their last night. The next two days at the beach, which Cara and I went to, were optional. So dinner that night was the "farewell dinner." Cara and I both got Hawaiian style pizza, taking advantage of the opportunity to enjoy fresh pineapple. After dinner, we drove back to our rooms in the buses. Before we left the bus, Daniel, our tour guide, spoke to the whole group. It was, in some sense, a final sendoff, and I found myself getting emotional. Daniel was really a remarkable guide, hilarious, informative, and so full of life. Cara and I felt very lucky to have him as our tour guide. There on the bus, he gave each person or group a map of Costa Rica with all the places we'd stayed marked on it, and on the back, a list of all the animals we had seen. But he didn't just hand out the maps - he said a short piece about each person, and I found myself reflecting on how amazing it was that we had all gone from complete strangers to a group of friends over the course of the week, and also how Daniel had gotten to really know each person so well. The words he said to each person were usually very funny and at times very touching. When it was our turn, he began (in a sing-song voice) "Love is in the air...", then said, "Seeing the way that Cara and Jeff see each other, it makes me want to get married too . . . in ten years."

After Daniel finished giving out all the maps, everyone just sat there. It felt like we didn't want to leave; we wanted to keep listening to his side-splitting monologues and his great stories about Costa Rica and life and everything. He had to say something like, "Well, you can go now." And so we returned to our rooms.

That night, Cara and I and most of the younger (teenage and twenty-something) members of the tour group went down to the swimming pool (it was nice that we could still fit in with the younger set!). Amusingly, the lights were off, and because they were on a timer, we could not turn them on, but this did not stop us from enjoying the pool. Unlike the others, I only dangled my feet in the water, and I returned to the room before Cara; I was totally exhausted.

We didn't want to leave Monteverde, but we were grateful that we still had two more days to enjoy before we had to leave the country. Our last stop - the beach - will be covered next.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Costa Rica Part 4: A hot time in Arenal

We spent just one night in Sarapiqui. The following morning, it rained. A lot. We were supposed to visit an archaeological dig site before departing Sarapiqui, but this plan was scratched due to the weather. It rained almost every day we were in Costa Rica - it is the rainy season, and we knew to expect this - but thankfully, this was the only time the rain actually caused a significant disruption to our planned activities. Instead of the dig site, we went to a museum, which was interesting, but definitely one of the less exciting activities for the week. Fortunately, the day had plenty of excitement in store.

Our destination for the day was Arenal, home of the famous Arenal Volcano, an active volcano. We had another lengthy bus ride to get there, with a couple of stops along the way. Before the first stop, a food and gift shop by the side of the road, Daniel said that we would get to see an "iguana tree" there. He asked if we had any ideas about what an iguana tree was. I didn't really know. Daniel also said that the shop had very good ice cream, so we could get ice cream if we wanted.

It was still raining, although not too heavily, when we came to the stop. Daniel said that if we wanted to see the iguana tree, we should follow him in a single file line out onto a bridge that went by the shop. I was the first in line after him. We walked out toward the middle of the bridge, some thirty feet above a rushing river, and Daniel stopped. I looked to the left, at the large tree there.

A tree that was absolutely full of iguanas.

It was an amazing sight. Glancing back up the line, I could see the others' faces light up one by one as they realized what we were looking at. The size of the iguanas, the quantity of iguanas, and the fact that they were sitting on these branches dozens of feet off the ground added up to make it probably one of the more bizarre yet wonderful things I've witnessed.

We went back to the shop, where most of the group seemed to be getting ice cream, so Cara and I joined in. The ice cream, sadly, was not very good, at all. I guess when it comes to ice cream, we are spoiled back home. I wonder what Daniel would think of Jeni's?

Our next stop before reaching our hotel in Arenal was a local homestead for what was dubbed the "Be My Guest Lunch." We were served a tasty meal, including some chicken and rice and homemade tortillas, and then a group of local schoolchildren put on a performance for our entertainment. The kids, dressed in traditional garb, did three dance numbers. In the first dance, the boys pretended to be bulls and the girls, holding their flowing dresses out to their sides like capes, pretended to bullfighters. The whole performance was a joy to watch; the kids were very charming and enthusiastic.

We continued to Arenal under very cloudy skies. Apparently, getting to actually see the volcano can be a hit-or-miss affair. Daniel told us a story about how one family on a tour of Costa Rica had been unable to see the volcano during their day in Arenal, and had decided to come again and stay in Arenal for five whole days - and again, they didn't get to see the volcano at all. So it was with definite excitement that Daniel pointed out the mountain peak as it appeared through the clouds on our drive into town. We actually stopped the bus for a photo op before continuing to our hotel.

We stayed at the Hotel Arenal Manoa, where each room had a view of the volcano (which was still visible through the clouds when we arrived to our rooms). Like all the hotels, this was quite a nice place, but we didn't spend a whole lot of time there. That night, we had a visit to the Tabacon Hot Springs waiting for us.

Cara and I had never been to natural hot springs before, and this was definitely one of the things we were most looking forward to on the trip. (I mean, just think about it - "natural hot springs" - that sounds pretty awesome, doesn't it?) I can gladly report that it lived up to our expectations and then some. Sitting in a pool of naturally heated water, surrounded by lush jungle, your feet sinking into the volcanic sand at the bottom of the pool, is incredibly relaxing. Tabacon has a huge array of these pools with water flowing down in series of waterfalls from the more secluded locations to the more heavily trafficked central pools. There's one pool with a bench beneath a large waterfall, and wow, did it feel good to sit there! There's even a waterslide (this going into an artificial swimming pool), which I went down a few times. After getting to enjoy the hot springs for two hours, but before leaving the premises, we also got to enjoy an incredibly huge - and delicious - Mexican buffet for dinner. It was actually rather ridiculous. There were about eight different selections for dessert alone. (One of the funniest sights of the tour was a little boy in the group named Sean returning from the dessert table with a plate containing four crème brûlées, then repeating this twice more.)

We returned to the hotel very full, and very satisfied. That night, there was no sign of the volcano. The next morning, however . . .

Yeah, we were pretty lucky. We ate breakfast in an open-aired room with a spectacular view of the volcano, and then headed to the buses for our departure. As we drove away, more clouds began to drift in, and soon the volcano was once more gone from view. And speaking of clouds, we were off to Monteverde, and the Cloud Forest. To be continued!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Costa Rica Part 3: Going bananas and going rafting

We departed the from Tortuguero the same way we arrived, by boat. Our next destination was Sarapiqui, and much of the trip there was a back-track along the same route from two days prior. The weather was sunny, in stark contrast to the overcast, rainy skies we had experienced on the journey to Tortuguero. This made the boat trip much more scenic; the vivid greens of the jungle surrounded us, and we also saw an additional assortment of spectacular birds.

We then re-traversed the "free massage" road. Now, a portion of this road is surrounded by banana fields. The journey to Tortuguero had occurred on a Sunday, so there had been no one working at that time. On the way out, we made a stop at a Del Monte banana packing plant for a brief educational interlude.

Pictured here is a field of banana trees. The first thing you might be wondering is, what are all the blue plastic bags for? The bags are to protect the bunches of bananas growing on the trees, and our tour guide Daniel informed us that the bags are blue because birds cannot see the color blue.

You might also notice a man running through the field. He's actually pulling a lot of banana bunches which are hanging from a track that runs through the field. It's a grueling job, pulling a heavy load and running many miles a day in a hot, humid climate. The men who perform this task earn $12 a day, which is a one dollar bonus compared to the workers in the plant (their $11 daily wage, or $300 a month, is the minimum wage in Costa Rica).

A lot of the people in our tour group were very shocked when they learned about these minuscule wages. I guess I'm jaded, because I didn't find it particularly surprising. I know that there are lots of people all over the world (some even in this country) who have it even worse. It did, though, help me appreciate how lucky we are to have the relatively comfortable lives we enjoy, let alone that we are able to do things like go on a tour of Costa Rica and stay in fancy hotels there. The image of the banana workers (who are, of course, picking bananas that we buy in our supermarkets) is a stark reminder that anyone who has a comfortable standard of living in a first-world nation could not have all the things they take for granted without benefiting from the exploitation and suffering of less fortunate people. It's an inescapable fact of life; even if you do everything you can to be socially conscious, by simply participating in modern society you are taking advantage of the less fortunate. But just because this can't be escaped doesn't mean it should be ignored.

There are some lessons, I think, to take from this. Well, a lot of lessons, but in particular, today, a few that relate to current events in the U.S.

There are some people here who have far more than anyone could ever need (and could only have these things, I'd remind you again, via the exploitation of others), and who believe that it would be some great injustice if their taxes were raised. Such a belief is certainly erroneous, to put it mildly.

Secondly, giant corporations generally don't care much about the well-being of their employees. They'll do what they can to maximize their profits. If there weren't laws stipulating a 48-hour work week and $300/month minimum wage, the workers would undoubtedly have to work more for even less. It's often suggested that if we just give corporations less restrictions on how they do business, it will lead to better lives for all. I can't help but feel this is very naive.

Surprisingly, though, there is an upside to working in a banana field in Costa Rica compared to living in the United States. All those workers at the banana plant have guaranteed health care. I would consider a country that easily has enough resources to ensure that all its citizens are able to have their basic needs met, and yet does not even come close to accomplishing this, to be a fundamentally broken country. The U.S. has a per capita GDP four times that of Costa Rica, yet Costa Rica has universal health care, and we don't; Costa Rica even manages a higher life expectancy than the U.S.

It's pretty sad.

I didn't think so much about these issues while in Costa Rica. I was, after all, enjoying my honeymoon. The debacle now going on back here at home makes it hard not to think about such things.

However, I don't want this blog entry to be entirely a downer. So, moving on...!

We continued our backtrack by stopping for another delicious meal at the same restaurant with the butterfly garden that we had eaten at two days before. We then continued on to Sarapiqui, where we stayed at the Sarapiqui Rainforest Lodge. When Cara and I got to our room, there was a little surprise waiting for us.

We later asked a few others in the tour group whether they'd had anything similar waiting for them, and they hadn't, so this towel sculpture must have been prepared just for us. I had told our travel agent before the trip that it was our honeymoon. This was the only piece of honeymoon-related special treatment we actually received on the trip, but then, touring Costa Rica was very special in and of itself, more than we could have imagined before the start of the vacation!

That afternoon, we went whitewater rafting. I had gone on one previous whitewater rafting trip, a fairly mild one many years ago with my family in New York. Cara had had no such experience, and was feeling a certain amount of trepidation before we set off. It probably helped her courage that one member of the tour group who joined us in our raft was an 80-ish-year-old woman. There were six of us plus a guide in the raft. I took one of the two front positions, and Cara was in the middle. The guide gave us some instructions on safety and paddling commands, and then, almost before we knew it, we were off into the first rapid.

It was quite an introduction to the river! The first rapid was one of the most intense on the whole trip. I loved it - and so did Cara. The rapids hardly let up after that first one. This rafting trip definitely outclassed my previous one in every way. It was much more thrilling, with significantly less "downtime" between rapids. It was also much more scenic (and we did have some time to enjoy the scenery in between rapids). We got to see some more interesting birds, and the rainforest was gorgeous. There were moments when we barely passed under low-hanging tree canopies that were just awe-inspiring.

And I shouldn't leave out the snack break halfway through the rafting journey. Our snack? Fresh, local pineapple. It was probably the best pineapple we've ever eaten.

After the wildlife cruise the previous day, whitewater rafting was the next thing that stood out to me as a definite highlight of the trip - a "best of the best." If you want a good idea of how much fun we had, just look at the picture!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Costa Rica Part 2: Animal Adventures

It's been longer than I intended since my previous Costa Rica entry, but I'm still planning to write about the whole trip. So, let's pick up from where I last left off, in Tortuguero National Park.

Tortuguero means "Land of the Turtles." It gets this name because of the sea turtles that make their nests on the beach there. There was an optional excursion to go see the sea turtles at night, which we unfortunately didn't have the cash for. We did, however, see a multitude of other extraordinary animals, almost from the moment we arrived. As we stood in the open-aired reception area, enjoying juice drinks and getting our introduction to the accommodations, there were some bats on the high ceiling, and a small lizard on the wall. We soon made our way to our room, a charmingly rustic place with nice wooden floors and rocking chairs on the porch. It's worth mentioning that we had no air conditioning. Now, we were fortunate that the temperatures at night were comfortably sleepable, helped by big rain storms on both nights we stayed there. The downside to the lack of a/c? It was so humid that it was almost impossible to air-dry clothing, and the money in our wallets even became damp from the air! But that's really a minor quibble; it was an amazing place to stay.

The Laguna Lodge where we stayed is located on a narrow strip of land with water on both sides - a wide river to the west, and the Caribbean Sea to the east. After setting our stuff down in the room, Cara and I headed out to the beach. Yet before we even reached it, we were met with what I'd consider one of the most amazing sights of the trip.

On the ground before us, there was a line of moving things. Leaves - pieces of leaves, to be more accurate. A closer look revealed they were carried by red ants. Lots of ants. In one direction, scores of the insects carried their burdens; in the other direction along the same path, ants headed out to gather more. The line extended for probably fifty meters before disappearing into the forest.

Now, I study invertebrates, so I'm perhaps more inclined than most to find this a captivating sight. But I think just about anyone would have to admit that this was really freaking cool. Especially once you learn more about what the ants were actually doing. They're called leafcutter ants, and as I later learned, they use leaves to cultivate a fungus that they have a mutualistic relationship with. Seriously, ants have a complex society in which they practice agriculture. Check out the Wikipedia article. Ants are amazing. Life is amazing.

After observing the march of the ants, we continued out to the beach, to see a choppy Caribbean. We weren't supposed to swim there because of the currents, but it was definitely fun to put our feet in the water. We also saw some more neat animals out on the beach - crabs, in a variety of sizes, scuttling in and out of their holes. Walking back from the beach, we encountered two more fascinating critters, a large lizard and a very colorful grasshopper.

So at this point, we had been at the lodge for maybe an hour, and I'd already seen an astonishing array of wildlife. As a biologist and all-around nature enthusiast, I was pretty much in heaven, and I found myself marveling at what a wonderful place this was. Things would only get better from there.

The next morning, we went on a guided wildlife cruise through the canals and waterways of the park. Our tour group headed out in three boats, making our way from the wide and open channel by the lodge into narrower, more secluded waterways. Now, I definitely have to give major credit to the tour guides and boat captains here. Most animals find it beneficial to blend in with their environments. I could easily imagine having gone on the same cruise without expert guides and seeing almost no animals at all (although I did feel a certain sense of pride when I was the one who spotted a turtle swimming near our boat). Time and again, we would be slowly floating through the waterways, when one of the guides would point to something, and there would be some conversation in Spanish. We would float closer, all eyes would hone in on the indicated location - and there, among the lush foliage, would be some fantastic bird, or reptile, or even a group of monkeys.

Here in Northeast Ohio, one of the most exciting animals to spot is the Great Blue Heron. We've seen quite a few in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, as well as closer to home at the Shaker Lakes. They're beautiful creatures, incredibly graceful in appearance with their long necks and beaks. In the Tortuguero National Park of Costa Rica, there's an incredible diversity of birds that are each just as astonishing as the herons here. We saw several different types of heron on the cruise. The most striking in appearance was probably the aptly-named Tiger Heron.

We were also lucky to see wild turkeys - both a male and a female at the same time. According to the guides, this was a rare sight indeed. A toucan was another treat. Probably my favorite bird, though, was one I'd never heard of before. It's called an Anhinga. This bird, unlike some waterfowl, does not have oil to waterproof its feathers. This makes diving easier, but before the bird takes flight, it must dry its feathers by spreading its wings out. This leads to a truly spectacular sight.

I spotted several of the birds over the course of the week, and it was always a thrill. Perhaps even more exciting than the birds (and the iguana and caimans) was when our guides spotted monkeys in the trees. We saw groups of both howler monkeys and spider monkeys on the cruise. The encounter with the spider monkeys was especially amazing. We were in a section of the waterways where our boats were roofed in by the trees, and there, up above, were several monkeys, watching us. (They're very intelligent creatures, and I have to wonder what goes through their heads at such moments). After some time, they decided to move, and it turned out that there were more than we were initially aware of. And the way they move through the trees is just spectacular to witness - swinging from branch to branch with what appears to be wild abandon but is no doubt greatly controlled. I'm sure most people have heard of how monkeys have prehensile tails, but I don't remember ever seeing such a thing in action - certainly not in person and in the wild. The way the monkeys would propel themselves through the air and then grab on to a branch with their tails before letting go and grabbing the next branch with their hands was simply incredible. As with the ants, I got a sense of just how amazing life on this planet Earth is.

So, the wildlife cruise was definitely one of the (many) highlights of the trip. The whole stay in Tortuguero had a certain magical quality to it. There are no motor vehicles there at all, adding to the sense of peace and connection with nature. We enjoyed relaxing in the pool, or in our rocking chairs on the porch watching and listening to the rain pour down at night. We also enjoyed some fabulous food. I'm generally not much of a seafood person, but the fish we had at dinner the first night in Tortuguero was probably the best I'd ever had, and it got me on a kick of eating seafood throughout the week. Fresh seafood and fresh fruit are two things that I would never get tired of if I lived in Costa Rica. When it was time to leave Tortuguero after our second night, we were a little sad, but also very excited about all the other great things ahead of us on our tour. And those will be discussed in blog entries to come.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Decemberists at Nautica Pavilion

There are moments in life that, if they had been scripted by a Hollywood screenwriter, audiences would mock for being too absurdly implausible. Strange coincidences that no one would ever believe . . . and yet they really happen. Perhaps that's part of what makes life so magical.

Cara and I went to the Nautica Pavilion in Cleveland's Flats last night to see the Decemberists play a concert. It turned out to be an experience we'll undoubtedly treasure for the rest of our lives. It was our first time to the venue, an outdoor, roofed amphitheatre on the west bank of the Cuyahoga River. The place is more corporate than what I typically prefer for a concert, but I'll readily admit that, when the weather is good, it's a nice place to see a concert. The weather last night was perfect.

The Decemberists' set was great from the start (fan favorite "July, July"). Other highlights included "Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect," the whole "Crane Wife" trilogy, and a very rocking rendition of "Won't Want For Love." They closed the main set with "This Is Why We Fight," and I was very pleased with the setlist and performance to that point.

During the first encore break, a surprisingly large number of people filed out of the venue, hoping to beat traffic, no doubt. It didn't make sense to me at the time, but after what happened next, I'm sure that any of those folks who left and then read reports about the concert later are kicking themselves big time.

The encore started with "Raincoat Song." Next up came a song that I'd consider the highlight of any Decemberists concert it's performed at - "The Mariner's Revenge Song." I smiled as I listened to Colin Meloy's familiar introduction, telling the audience to scream at the appropriate time as if we were being swallowed by a giant whale. It's probably the best crowd participation moment I've experienced at concerts, and I doubt it will get old no matter how many times I get to join in (this was the third).

Then they began playing the song.

And then Cara got my attention and pointed off to the right of the stage.

There, just beginning to come into view, was a giant cargo ship making its way down the river.

Let's stop right there to consider things. How cool would it be to see a giant ship float by, right behind the stage, during a riverside concert? Very cool. How about if it was during a concert by the Decemberists, a band with a lot of nautically themed music? Even cooler. Now what about if the ship came into view in perfect timing with the beginning of an epic nine minute song about a boy joining up with a ship's crew and sailing out to sea in a quest for revenge, continued to float by until by the middle of the song the ship basically engulfed the stage in front of it, began to disappear from view at just about the time when the whole several-thousand person audience was screaming in unison for the aforementioned swallowing by a whale, and was finally gone in time for the song's jaunty conclusion?

Well, that would be just about the coolest thing ever, I'd say.

And that's what happened last night.

I truly consider everyone who was there very lucky to have witnessed it. Colin said (clearly joking) before playing closer "June Hymn" that they had hired the ship's captain, and it was very expensive. In my mind, I found myself thinking, "Maybe someone on the ship is a Decemberists fan, and planned it" - a fairly ridiculous notion, I'm sure. But could that really have happened by random chance?

I guess that's what makes real life so magical.

It was a wonderful evening, and I'll also mention that folk band The Head and the Heart were great openers. After their set, Cara and I wandered down to the merch stand, where we saw the really cool custom made poster for the night's show, featuring a stylized picture of the riverside venue. We considered getting one, but I thought it was a little pricey. After the show, I decided that we needed that poster, and we bought one. Years from now, when we look at it, we'll undoubtedly think about the time a giant ship passed behind the stage during "The Mariner's Revenge Song," and marvel at the memory.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Costa Rica - Part One

Last week, Cara and I went on a tour of Costa Rica for our honeymoon. We had a wonderful time, and I think we'd both say that we'd like to be back there. It would be a nice respite from the heat.

In Cleveland, Ohio, at 11 pm, the temperature is about 90 degrees Fahrenheit with a heat index of 100. During a week in the tropics, we didn't have to endure anything like this. In fact, I can't remember the last time I experienced weather like today. Hopefully the next such occurence will be a long time from now. But I digress; this is a post about Costa Rica.

Cara and I both agreed that our honeymoon was the best experience of our lives. We will definitely take a lot of life-long memories with us from the trip. Yet memories, even the strongest ones, inevitably fade and become distorted with the passage of time. Thus, I felt it would be useful to write down these memories while they are still relatively fresh in mind. I also figure that there are at least a few people out there who'd be interested in a detailed recounting of the trip. So, let's start from the beginning.

On Saturday, July 9, we got up bright and early and took the RTA Red Line to the airport to catch our flight, first to Houston and then to San Jose, Costa Rica. It was the first time Cara had ever flown, and she was a little nervous about it. Our flight to Houston went very smoothly. The second leg of the trip began worryingly, as we were assigned to seats on the plane far apart from each other. I was seated next to a nice man from a mission group who noticed my "Just Married" shirt. We struck up a conversation, and I mentioned that my wife was seated elsewhere on the plane, and asked if he would be willing to switch seats with her when the opportunity arose. He kindly obliged. It was a good thing he did, especially because the descent into San Jose was the most intense experience I've encountered in all my time flying.

As we were making our approach to Costa Rica's capital and flying through some clouds, there was a great deal of turbulence. Then, suddenly, the plane seemed to be dropping from the sky. This lasted several seconds, and repeated several times. It was a little freaky for me, and much more so for Cara, whose strong grip I felt on my leg. Finally we emerged from the clouds, and the actual landing was fine. We were later told that San Jose, because it is surrounded by mountains, is one of the most difficult major airports to fly into in the world. Our next stop on the trip involved a journey of several hours that could also be accomplished with a half-hour trip on a small plane going out of San Jose (in the same general direction we came in) - but that plane trip caused most people who took it to lose their lunches.

We went through customs, where I was asked (in Spanish) how much Spanish I spoke. I replied, "un poco" (a little). The customs agent said something like, "How much is a little?" She proceeded to ask where I was going and how long I would be in the country in Spanish. Although it was slow-going, I did manage to respond accurately in Spanish, which seemed to surprise her. I felt somewhat proud, although as the ensuing week would reveal, Cara's skills at conversational Spanish are much, much better than mine.

We were picked up by one of our tour guides with several other members of the group to take a shuttle to our hotel. It's funny now to think about how all those people were complete strangers to us at the time, and by the end of the trip we considered many of them friends. We were quite tired from a day of travel when we arrived at our hotel, the posh Intercontinental San Jose. We needed to eat dinner, and decided to check out a mall across the street. When we headed outside, we were greeted by one of the first of many amazing experiences with animals on the trip. We heard birds - lots of them. Looking up revealed that the trees were absolutely packed with green parrots. We both got smiles, kind of like, "Yeah, we're really in Costa Rica."

The mall, on the other hand, was not so different from what one might find in the states, except that most things were written in Spanish. The food court mostly contained American fast food joints. We settled on tacos from a place not familiar to us - we didn't want to eat McDonald's or Taco Bell in Costa Rica! They were pretty good. The most interesting part of the food court was a place that served rice pudding - about twenty different flavors of rice pudding. Cara got caramel and I got coconut, and we both thought it was quite good.

We headed back to the hotel, and after relaxing in the room, went down to the large outdoor pool. However, after the sun went down the temperature had become rather cool, and it was too cold for swimming. We did enjoy the hot tub for a little while, before heading back to the room and basically collapsing. The next day would be another early rise.

You see, in Costa Rica, all year round the sun comes up at around 5:30 am and goes down by around 6:00 pm. It seems obvious when you think about it, as it's so close to the equator, but before traveling there, it might not be something you'd consider. Costa Rica is currently two hours behind Ohio, but geographically, San Jose is just two degrees longitude west of Columbus. In fact, with frequent 5:30 wakeups - which is 7:30 here - if anything, our bodies had to adjust slightly in the opposite direction for the time change. In any case, with how exhausted we were at the end of most days, getting on a regular sleep schedule was no trouble at all.

We did not stay long in San Jose - it's, let's just say, not the nice part of the country. We did, though, get to enjoy a fabulous breakfast buffet at the hotel before we departed. It was our first exposure to gallo pinto, rice and beans, the national dish of Costa Rica. Next to the rice and beans was a container of a green sauce, which I added to the gallo pinto, and found the combination to be delightful. The green sauce is called Lizano sauce, and it's the most popular condiment in Costa Rica. I fell in love with this sauce, and we bought some to take home; I'm sure it's something I'll continue to enjoy for years to come. The buffet contained far more than gallo pinto; there was a fabulous assortment of breads, meats, cheeses, eggs, tortillas, fresh fruits and fruit juices . . . this was just the beginning of a week of fabulous food experiences. More on that to come, certainly!

After eating, we loaded up on our tour buses. The tour group had 51 members, and we took two 50-seat coaches, so there was plenty of room to spread out when we felt like it. Each bus had a tour guide. Bus Two's was Fabian, who had picked us up at the airport. Cara and I were on Bus One, with Daniel, who turned out to be a remarkable guide. You will certainly hear some more about him in posts to come.

Our destination for the day was Tortuguero National Park, a remote location in the northeast of the country, on the shore of the Caribbean Sea. On the way there, we stopped for a "second breakfast" (as hobbits might put it) at a restaurant on the side of the road. It was scrumptious (including more gallo pinto, which I'm sure most people tired of by the end of the week, but I didn't - thanks to Lizano sauce!). In the back of the restaurant was a wonderful butterfly garden.

I took a lot of pictures on the trip. I'll include a few in these posts, but many more can be found on my Flickr.

Then it was more driving, much of it on a very bumpy road - the "free massage road," as Daniel put it. However, Tortuguero can not be reached by driving. We had to get off the buses and transfer to boats for an hour-plus ride through both natural and man-made waterways, during which we reached the national park. Already, on both the drive and the boat ride, the scenery on the trip was spectacular. There's just so much green.

And so we reached Tortuguero, where we stayed at the Laguna Lodge. This was just the start of our Costa Rica adventures, but I think I will leave it at here for now. The next entry will describe some awe-inspiring wildlife encounters.