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.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Fitz and the Tantrums at the Rock Hall

If one were looking for a showcase of reasons Cleveland is an exciting place to live, this past Wednesday evening at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame would be a perfect example - nice summer weather, great food, and a rocking music scene. Rising band Fitz and the Tantrums kicked off the Rock Hall's Summer in the City series of free concerts by playing to a large crowd in front of the world-famous museum on the shores of Lake Erie.

Cara and I headed down early to grab a bite to eat from Cleveland's growing fleet of food trucks, represented that evening by Umami Moto, Jibaro, and Dim and Den Sum. Having grabbed some tasty eats from Umami quite recently, I opted for a burrito from Jibaro, which was quite good. I also got a delicious cinnamon coated, cream-filled churro. Cara went with the always excellent PBLT from Dim and Den Sum. It was a sunny day, and the heat was quite sweltering as we sat and ate, but as the sun went down it turned out to be good weather for an outdoor concert. It was great to see so many people out and enjoying the Cleveland summertime.

Local band Clovers played first, with an enjoyable set of tunes that seemed appropriate for the venue - I got a definite classic rock vibe. It was really a wonderful setting for a concert.

The crowd continued to grow throughout Clovers' set and in the break before the headliners. The turnout was impressive, but not too surprising considering that Fitz and the Tantrums sold out the Grog Shop on their previous (and first) visit to Cleveland. Before Fitz and company took the stage, a man from the Rock Hall came on to give a spiel about the band and the concert series. He remarked that Fitz and the Tantrums have been described as "neo-soul," but he felt this was not really an appropriate characterization, and "retro soul" would be more fitting. I found myself agreeing with him; the band really brings a classic Motown sound to their music.

Fitz and the Tantrums are really picking up some buzz, and their live show made it clear why. Their songs are packed with stellar male-female vocals and grooving sax, keyboard, percussion, and basslines. They played most of their original material for an adoring audience, and also threw in a pair of covers: "Steady As She Goes" by the Raconteurs and "Sweet Dreams" by Eurythmics. The latter, played near the end of the set, became an extended jam session with each instrumentalist getting a solo.

The band proceeded to bring down the house (as it were) with their last song, the absolutely infectious "MoneyGrabber." Before the song, they commented that it was great to see so many children in the audience getting to experience real live music at a young age, and then invited the children up onto the stage to dance along. This was really special to see. I'm sure it will be a great memory for those kids.

And be sure to check out the MoneyGrabber video. If you don't feel like shaking your hips to this song, you might be dead inside.

The Summer in the City series continues with three more shows coming up:

Wednesday, July 13th from 7-9 p.m.: Das Racist with Smoke Screen and Muamin Collective
Wednesday, August 3rd from 7-9 p.m.: The Joy Formidable with HotChaCha
Wednesday, August 17th from 7-9 p.m.: Murder by Death with the Buried Wires

Each one should be a good time, and did I mention they're free? It's hard to beat that deal!