Friday, June 15, 2007

Pura Vida - back to the simple life in Costa Rica...

"Should we pick the bananas on the way home?" I ask. It is dark. We are walking the trails to the right of the catarata (waterfall) in the middle of the Monteverde Cloud Preserve in Costa Rica. We walk single file, my sister Carrie in front, her husband Pablo behind me.

Carrie and I wear the kind of headlamps that miners wear, illuminating 15 feet ahead of us on our path. We navigate carefully, slipping sometimes on large tropical leaves or patches of mud, picking our way over stone paths, holding on trees and sometimes each other.

All around us, night sounds: birds, crickets chirping, the sound of rushing water. Occasionally Pablo howls or whistles behind me in response to an animal call. "A little further to go," says Carrie, as we walk up and down muddy steps, across rocks, over more slippery yellow leaves. The canopy of trees overhead obscures the moon.

When darnkness fell, we had been sitting at the mouth of the waterfall, by the pool at the foot of a 100 foot cascade, but when the packs of bats came swooping down overhead, we scrambled back to the path and headed home.

We feel our way, the light spilling ahead of us on our path, up and down and around, across log bridges, rocky stairways and paths, forks in the road. I couldn't figure out how Carrie and Pablo knew the way home so well, but it is a path they had walked many times before. To me, it stretched on and on in the dark... until we finally reach a meadow that looks familiar to me.

We walk through it and then through the banana trees. At the end of the corridor of banana trees, Carrie picks six green bananas to fry for our dinner, passing up the plantains this time. Overhead the clouds slide across the star-pricked sky to reveal the moon.

Bananas in hand, we walk back toward the cabin, ducking underneath the barbed wire fence. "Home sweet home," Carrie says as we approach the small wooden cabin, painted aquamarine on the outside, with two travel hammocks swinging on the porch overlooking the mountain and valley views beyond.

In the mornings here, there are hummingbirds, butterflies, sometimes even a pack of white-faced monkeys flying through the trees next to the cabin. Sometimes they hang around outside long enough for us to catch a quick out-of-focus picture, but if you get too close, they vanish into the treetops. You hear the wish-wish-wish sound of leaves rustling at the tops of the trees, and suddenly the fast moving climbers are out of sight, gone.

The variety of the animal species residing here is amazing - from the resplendent quetzal to the basilisk or "Jesus lizard" that walks on water to the shimny honeycreeper (blue bird) to the famous large blue morpho butterflies, an otherworldly royal blue on one side and camouflage brown with a big fake eye on the underside (they are my favorites).

Inside the cabin there are hundreds of varieties of bugs it seems, crawling and flying around - the cabin is charming, rustic, but not airtight or bugproof. When I first arrive, my sister warns me about the scorpions. "Don't worry," she says. "They're not the lethal kind."

Once or twice a day, she takes a bucket and a kitchen spoon and scoops a scorpion off the wall or floor and carries the bucket outside to deposit it on the grass or near the compost heap.

I never thought I'd be so casual about scorpions, but somehow I don't give the bugs here a second thought, content to settle into a simplified life for a while. We spend a week together in this cabin, where there is no hot running water, and no refrigerator.

Preparing meals takes a while, and it's something Carrie and I do together to pass the time while we visit. Carrie and Pablo have greens and veggies delivered to the house twice a week, and we cook up root vegetables and rice, or curried lentils, or black beans with onion and hot sauce. The cooking supplies are limited of course since we can't have perishable items - dairy or meats - only veggies, beans, grains, dry goods.

Somehow this environment brings out the creative cook in me and I find myself making extravagantly delicious dishes with simple ingredients: spicy curried lentils with lemon rice and fried candied sweet potato slices. Pasta with fresh basil and tomatoes and garlic, salted just enough.

Somehow when we cook in the rainforest with simple ingredients on a two burner stove, and you're very hungry, the food is twice is delicious. Simple. Good. Pura vida.

This is the slogan for Costa Rica, the tourist-friendly motto - Pura vida - and it fits here. We wake up when we wake up, cook breakfast (oatmeal, or granola with powdered soy milk, or fresh fruit) then walk to the river to swim, bathe, lie on the rocks basking in the sunshine like the lizards that slither by.

We take longer walks sometimes to the EcoLodge in the center of San Luis, where we can check the Internet, interact with other visitors and the naturalists who travel here from around the world to work at the lodge, giving tours of the wildlife.

We walk up to the waterfall. We visit and talk for hours, and nap when we feel like it, and take sponge baths with hot water heated on the stove in the middle of the day sometimes. We read in the hammock. It's a leisurely, beautiful, simple life.

After a week in the cabin, we head to town to try out some of the organized rainforest activities: flying along the zipline 400+ feet up in the air, walking on suspension bridges over the canopy. I take a ride on 11 ziplines, including one on which you are zipping along at up to 40 miles per hour over the trees. It's exhilirating and not the least bit scary, as long as you don't let yourself think about the risk factor. (As with flying, which I do often, I choose to embrace as a miracle the fact that I'm shooting through the air at 600+ miles per hour in a metal tube, and landing safely, versus thinking about what could go wrong). I don't think about the risk involved, and therefore I have a blast.

By the end, Pablo and I are muddy and happy, splashed with mud and water from the trees when the rain kicked in after the first two ziplines. I recommend that everyone try flying over the rainforest, hooked into a harness, in the sun and rain.... Nothing quite like that sensation.

We then headed to Rincon de la Vieja, one of the volcanoes on the mainland, where we stayed in a picturesque cabin, surrounded by colorful gardens, the cabin walls spilling over with a luscious fuschia tumble of bougainvillea. We swam in the waterfall and soaked in hot sulfur springs.

I nearly passed out when we soaked and sniffed too close to the source of the sulfur fumes, hallucinating for a minute - strange people were talking to me in my head until I snapped out of it and entered the real world again after about 30 lost seconds. Be quite sure you're not allergic to sulfur (apparently, I am!) before trying this trick at home.

Then, we were off to spend the remainder of the last week in the cozy little Pacific beach town of Playa Samara. We stayed in a cabin right along the beach, right next door to the surfer school where cute young Tico (short for "Costa Rican") Rasta-styled, dreadlocked, surfer boys lounged and chatted all day long, occasionally interrupting their endless conversations to teach a lesson.

We drank strawberry margharitas at bars along the beach, including my favorite place, Shake Joe's, which featured comfy bed-style couches and hammocks to lounge in with friends while eyeing the other customers in the hazy evening light and sipping drinks with tropical fruit and little paper umbrellas.

I soaked in the sun, slathered head to toe in SPF 30 or higher of course, and swam in the warm Pacific aqua blue and clear Pacific waters. I got blonder by the day, my red hair picking up golden highlights in the sunshine.

We woke up when the sun or breeze or our internal clock woke us, fell asleep to the sound of the surf crashing at night, lounged about on the beach or in the hammock during the day, ate sumpuously full plates of tropical fruits every morning, and sometimes sipped fresh coconut milk. If this is not relaxing - what is???

When caught in the whirlwind of our normal busy, buzzing lives, few things are healthier I think than slowing down, taking a break, getting back to basics. The simple and pure life in Costa Rica was the perfect way to recharge my batteries.

Perhaps you are not as fortunate as I am to have a sister living in Costa Rica, as Carrie was for a while, and granted, that helped make this a possibility for me. But if not in Costa Rica, build some pura vida into your own life wherever you are, by taking some time just to slow down, relax, unplug the computer, turn off the Treo, to just enjoy some peace and quiet, to just enjoy the company of the people around you.

Luckily, as I have learned again and again, the world keeps spinning if I step out of my work routine for a while. My work is still waiting for me when I return home. But I am calmer, happier, more peaceful, more sane.

And that is a blessing, for me and everyone around me. So, with apologies to Paris and Nicole, whose show I will never watch, here's to living the simple life...

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