learning to love london

Tuesday, 17 October, 2006
by Jen

we’re back in london, safe and sound. it’s only our second full day back, and already i feel the need to get about the business of finding a flat, finding a job, getting a life up and running again. thereis a definite element of culture shock – i’m no longer used to flushing toilets and hot water as standard. walking out the house without having passport/camera/plane tickets glued to me is a very strange feeling. the price of groceries is unbelievable. i feel like an outsider looking in, someone experiencing the city for the very first time. disorientation.

i’ve been here before – having to adapt. and now i am learning it all over again.

the strangest thing is the sense of object permanence. the idea that i can leave my toothbrush in the bathroom, my clothes in a drawer – they will all still be there tomorrow and the next day. there is no more packing, no more living out of a bag. everything has its own place, everything stays put. i can’t get used to that.

but i will. i’ve learned that i can get used to almost anything. and be happy almost anywhere. so i will learn to be happy in london again. it might take some time.

and i’m sure i’ll have a lot to say along the way, so please visit my “regular” blog over at jen’s den of iniquity.

thanks for coming along for the ride.

“It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters in the end.” – ursula le guin

home, james

Thursday, 12 October, 2006
by Jen

it’s 4:00 am and i wake to the thunder of rain on a tin roof, the crash of swollen surf outside the window. a gecko chirps from the dark corner of the ceiling and i realise how very much i will miss that oddly comforting sound. this is the last full day of our trip – tomorrow will be spent getting back to san jose and our flight home is early the next morning. my mind starts to click and whir at this ungodly hour – wondering how cold it is in london, remembering i need a new winter coat, all new clothes, in fact, wondering whose house i left my mobile phone at, thinking about my meeting with my old boss. argh – this is ridiculous. at 5:30, i give up tossing and turning, leaving j to the sleepy comfort of the bed, and go sit on the balcony to watch the sun rise over the beach.

i’ve seen a few of these on this journey – sunrise in yangshuo china, sunrise over ha long bay in vietnam, sunrise over abel tasman park in new zealand, sunrise over the international date line, sunrise over the bolivian salt flats, sunrise over machu picchu… there are more i’m forgetting, i’m sure. and while i hate actually waking up, i love being awake at this hour, when everyone else is still asleep. i find it the most peaceful time or day and i love getting a first glimpse of the day that most people miss. so i surrender to wakefulness, watch the warm light begin to play over the horizon of the pacific. as silly as it sounds, i will also miss this ocean.

i suck at goodbyes, and in most circumstances tend to deal with them using a strict protocol of denial. if i pretend we will meet again, it allows me to avoid confronting the sense of loss and deep missing. so i don’t do goodbyes.

but there’s no ignoring that i will miss these geckos and this pacific ocean. i will miss eating cool papaya salad on sticky nights. i will miss the red clay that stains my toes like henna. i will miss the clusters of chinese shop girls who giggle and follow me around. i will miss loud thumping pop music in impossible languages. i will miss watching countryside unfurl from a bus window. i will miss the old women in pigtails selling socks and chicharrones and gelatins. i will miss haggling with them over the outrageous price of socks. i will miss changing from my designated set of “cold climate” clothes to designated “warm climate” clothes every time we change countries. i will miss trying strange brands of toothpaste. i will miss re-setting my watch for different time zones. i will miss being tan. i will miss political graffiti. i will miss the novelty of television on the road. i will miss learning new ways to say “hello” and “thank you”. i will miss using funny currencies that come in ridiculous denominations. i will miss the chaos of asian traffic. i will miss the tuktuks and songthaews and collectivos and rickshaws. god help me, i will even miss the chicken buses. i will miss getting off the beaten path. i will miss mid-afternoon rains that rinse the heat and dust from the air. i will miss the mountain air so pure it hurts to breathe too deeply. i will miss mountains. i will miss nature so very much. i will miss drinking local beers and trying local dishes. i will miss the simple pleasure of a hot shower and clean clothes. i will miss getting dirty and sweaty and wet and not caring. i will miss meeting people and sharing war stories. i will miss the still hush of temples. i will miss the cacophony of markets. i will miss street vendors selling strange foods and i will miss working up the courage to try them. i will miss “eating street”. i will miss whitewashed plazas with fountains and palm trees. i will miss the thickly starred night sky of the southern hemisphere. i will miss savouring and appreciating even really bad books. i will miss the ritual of having breakfast every morning with my husband and i will miss good coffee.

i will miss the adventure of waking up every morning and rediscovering where we are, figuring out where we are going, and what we will do. the adventure of not knowing what the day holds.

i will miss the adventure.

i don’t do goodbyes, so this is not goodbye. this is “until the next adventure”.

i’ll never be ready – so i guess i’m as ready as i’ll ever be.

home, james.

the beginning

Wednesday, 11 October, 2006
by Jen

i’ve not known what to write about the past few days. i’m having a hard time putting words to this feeling: more ache than nostalgia, more nostalgia than grief, more let-down than wistful, more overwhelmed than let-down. i don’t know how to describe my current state of mind, and that’s an unusual place for me to be. the internal landscape is foreign and i have no map. for the first time in this trip, i find i’m lost.

i don’t want to give the impression that i am depressed, because i’m not (not yet, at any rate) – and the last thing i want is to waste the last days of my adventure wallowing in “poor me”. yet it reminds me a bit of the crash that comes after planning a big wedding – you spend some much time and energy in planning, hoping, waiting, wanting, reveling, that once it’s over, inevitably you find yourself thinking “well… what now? what is there to look forward to next? what else is there to make me feel special? what else is there to fuss over?”

and there is nothing special. there is nothing for anyone to make a fuss over, or to celebrate. there is nothing big and amazing to dream about or plan for. there is nothing else on the horizon but an endless stretch of mundane for the forseeable future. i need more than that. i need something to look forward to.

and there is the sense of being different, in some imperceptible, indescribable way, but one that most people can’t relate to. that makes it sound as though i feel superior in some way (which i don’t) – i just that i worry i’ll find myself saying horribly smug sounding things like “well, when i was in laos…” and put people off, but that it’ll be even more difficult *not* to talk about it. even before i left, i found people had a limited tolerance for hearing about my trip plans – probably for the same reasons most people really aren’t all that interested in personal holiday photos. but the idea that after a week or two i’ll have to just put it away on a shelf and not talk about it… well that just kills me.

when we were in australia, we got a chance to visit with our friends leeann and blair who moved back to oz after spending a good long time using london as a crashpad. and whether they knew it or not, they were much of the inspiration for all this. they’ve been to more countries and done more traveling than anyone i know. but more than where they’ve gone, it’s their approach to travel that i have always been so envious of – the thirst to experience everything, be a part of other cultures. to see the world and then bring the best parts of the world back home. to have stories and photos that capture the colour of life. to have a memory chock full of souvenirs and mementos, and to be surrounded by reminders of wonder.

this is what i aspire to. i need to figure out how to make it happen.

so i feel like i need to process all this. mull it over. incorporate it into something new that i can hold on to. something different that reflects what this has all meant to me. it’s a big task, but an important one.

because as bittersweet as this ending is – it is also just a beginning.

yogurt and sunsets as therapy

Tuesday, 10 October, 2006
by Jen

we’re winding up our journey in the gringo-filled beach town of playa tamarindo. we’ve decided to spend the last week on holiday, definitely *not* traveling, with no larger agenda than topping up our tans. and playa tamarindo is defintely a holiday kind of town- overpriced and touristy ($4/hr for the internet!!!) our hotel room is a bit of a splurge – hot water, air con, *and* tv – and we’ve been overdosing on cable movies and afternoon naps. distractions from the increasingly insistent sadness bleeding in at the edges whenever i start to think for more than 5 minutes. it’s hard to be too depressed – gorgeous sunsets and ample amounts of t.c.b.y. frozen yogurt (told you it was touristy) help numb the pain. but i’m definitely blue, and no amount of pretending will hide that.

sorry to be a downer. but here’s a pretty picture to offset some of it.

can’t beat that with a stick. couple more here.

volcano viewing

Sunday, 8 October, 2006
by Jen

we came to the town of la fortuna for one reason and one reason only – volcan arenal. there aren’t many opportunities on this planet to visit an active volcano, so i figure you should take them when you get them. so we came.

i’ve been lucky enough to see a volcano before – mt. st. helens only a few short years after she blew her top. and since then i’ve had a fascination with volcanos – a strange attraction to their immense power and unpredictability. i dream of one day being able to see a magma flow up close, and i think the superhot red of liquid rock is one of the most beautiful colours to be found in nature.

but volcan arenal is notoriously fickle. although there are daily explosions and lava since 1968, being located in the middle of a cloud forest means that oftentimes the bulk of the giant is in hiding like a shy flower. from the day we’d arrived, she’d been cloaked in a veil of mist, so i was very worried that we’d miss out on seeing her in full glory.

yet just as we set out for our excursion, the clouds began to lift, and by the time we’d hiked up to the best vantage point, the whole beautiful mountain was on show. deep rumbles of gas explosions boomed down on us, and bursts of steam emanated from her top, reminding us of just how close we really were, a mere few kilometers downhill. we watched the sun set over lake arenal – a flooded valley graveyard of old villages displaced during her first big eruption. we spotted wildlife amongst the remnants of old rain forest – toucans and howler monkeys perched in the trees that escaped destruction. reminders of arenal’s latent power surrounded us as we stood atop rocks from a 1992 explosion. she may be a quiet giant, but she’s not sleeping – just laying in wait.

and as dusk began to fall, the real show began. driving to a strategic viewing spot, we watched in hypnotic awe as the darkness illuminated the spectacular lava flows. arenal’s lava spits out in massive sprays of hot rock, rather than molten magma, but it’s no less dramatic to see. rivers of red rock running riot down her steep slopes, great spills of bright superheated boulders crashing down in an avalanche of fireworks. an unbelievable display of earth’s capability for violence and catastrophe, yet beautiful to behold.

i could have watched it all night, but miss arenal had other ideas. just as we turned away to head back, the curtain of clouds came down like drapes over a stage. show over.

(it is nigh on impossible to get photos of the lava unless you are a professional [and lucky] shutterbug, so you’ll just have to imagine those. the rest of the photos are here.)

my memories

Saturday, 7 October, 2006
by Jen

when i was a kid and we went on our summer camping tours or family vacations, my dad always made us keep a journal. every day, whether we wanted to or not, we had to write something in a diary. at the time, i considered it just another form of legalised child abuse. today, more than 20 years later, i still have those journals, and they are so precious to me – reading them brings back flashes of memory that would have otherwise long since faded into nothingness. not only of what we did and where we went, but of who i was as a ten year old kid – something photos can never bring back.

what can i say – old habits die hard.

so being the nostalgic sap that i am, i started re-reading some old blog entries from the beginning of this adventure. and i am so glad i started this little project. one of the things i love about keeping a blog is this: searing these memories, capturing them, sharing them, evoking them for people. when i have to sit down and describe a unique place and time that no one else but me has seen or felt, it puts me back into the moment, fixes it to my heart. 20 years from now, i can look back and remember not only what we did and where we went, but who i was.

we have only a precious week left. so i think perhaps this is an appropriate place to recap a few of my favourite entries. and for those of you who’ve told me you enjoyed reading them – thank you. it means a world to me.

here’s excerpts and links from a few of my favourites (for reasons best known only to me):

“packing is such a bittersweet exercise. the unavoidable culling of personal detrius, sorting out one’s mementos and effects, and ranking their importance. What’s expendable, what’s not reflecting the shifting internal landscape… i’ve left a trail of belongings like breadcrumbs through 4 cities, 3 countries. artefacts of the lives i used to lead, and my changing priorities. pieces of my old self shed like a skin. what i no longer needed or wanted or loved became junk. objects once infused with sentiment, now refuse… i’m tired of discarding things because I have to. i want some stuff that is *mine*. things that feel like home. things that i keep just for the hell of it, just in case. i want the luxury of the non-essential.”

“we hope we’re heading in the direction of moon hill, about 10 km away, and the highest point around, but as we wend our way further, it becomes clear we are not. still, it’s an incredible ride and we’re hardly complaining – our dirt path taking us through small villages of spectacular beauty. thousands of tiny froglings sprinkling the road, the river widening and rushing past, then narrowing peacfully again. villagers chanting in buddhist prayer, leading their cows home, harvesting their crops. intimate scenes which felt like we were intruding, but we kept pedaling on.”

“in macgyyver-like fashion, we strung up the mosquito netting with dental floss and plasters from the first aid kit. setting up the bedding and widening the net, we managed to establish a small “insect-free” zone. and there we hid for the rest of the night – the only light my tiny travel booklamp, the only sound the patter of wings against the tin roof.

“the things men do in the name of war do not speak to how highly we prize our life and liberties, but rather to how little we value the lives and freedoms of others. “

“the slow boat is uncomfortable and long and , true to name, slow. but it’s an essential part of the bonding process. to understand life in laos, you must understand the mekong. appreciating that is something which cannot be rushed.”

“such beauty exists in this world as my eyes would not have believed, and it restores me, heals the damage of neglect like a balm, smoothes the thin patches and fills up the careworn gaps of my soul. it is everything i have needed and more than i could have asked for.”

“and so i feel compelled to bear witness. to try to examine in my own way, the cruel cancerous biology of genocide that invades, multiplies quietly, ravages and destroys a people, and is always identified far too late. to pay my respects to those who died unnoticed by the rest of the world… i feel compelled to see for myself the worst of humanity on display – the stark indisputable evidence of our most craven and cowardly need to deny the existence of evil and suffering in front of our faces. i feel compelled to look it in the eye, because so many do not… for how else are we to recognise it? millions died because we failed them. we can’t keep looking away.”

“and then he is sprinkling us with water as he chants the words by heart, blessing us with humble sincerity, offering prayers for peace or love or charity, reciting the desires of earnest and pure faith which one need not understand in order to feel deeply, be moved by, be grateful for.”

“this is my earliest memory – slumbering cradled under the hull of the little “sunflower” to the lullaby of the sea. cool water and hot sun-sparkles in my eyes. sand in my sandwich. the insistent caw of circling gulls. the loughing sail against the sky.”

“what i know is this: when every ounce of experiential learning and self-preservation instinct is screaming up and down your nerve endings as your foot is poised over red hot coals… you will never take that step unless you believe in something.”

“speechless. breathless. heart-stopping… these are all the words people use to write about beauty so unreal that you can’t quite wrap your brain around it. these are all the wrong words. dead words.”

“and then on day four, we’re up before dawn to catch the rosy hues of first sun rising over the salt plains. as the sun climbs higher in the sky, the endless salt pans change personality – from the cold pebbly white of opaque ice, to the hallucinogenic glare of dizzying white-on-white like a blinding snowfield from the antarctic. holographic effects, mirages and infinity illusions create a surreal scene right out of a dali painting. it is vast and pure and stretches out to meet the cerulean sky in a perfect horizon. spectacular constrasts dazzle the eye, incomprehensible tricks of the light. it’s unreal, unlike any other earthly landscape. we’re like children, playing with photos, dancing, lying down to make salt angels.”

we continued on towards the hospital. i became fixated on the woman in the aisle nearest me, who was twisting and moaning in spite of the morphine. her skirt was akimbo and all i could do was stare at her stockinged leg. the nylon had a tear in it and small droplets of blood were seeping through. she’d lost her shoes in the impact.

eventually her leg stopped moving, and her stockinged foot became still. i turned away.

“two young girls hop on the bus and begin unwrapping their cloth bundle on a ledge in front of our seats, take out a roasted lamb carcass and a machete, and begin hacking off juicy greasy pieces to wrap in brown paper and hand to the eager customers. the dust continues to rise and fall. “

“it is said the incas used to take 2 weeks to travel from cusco to machu picchu – they knew there is merit in overcoming obstacles. there is wonder to be found at the top of a mountain you didn’t think you could climb. there is awe in coming around a corner into a clearing of majestic peaks as far as the eye can see. there is the heartening of hummingbirds that flit about like magic when you are gasping for air. “

“we watched “the motorcycle diaries”again tonight – the movie about che guevara’s seminal road trip through south america. i remember seeing it before, but i am struck by the difference now. i see flashes of familiar – places i’d only dreamt about when i last saw this, now mine in memory. these are parts of me that i get to keep. i have these, tucked away under my belt for reminiscing, tomorrow or a lifetime from now. when it is winter in london, i will always have summer in bangkok or spring in beijing.”

another sad sox fan

Saturday, 7 October, 2006
by Jen

forgot to mention: our tico (i.e. costa rican) kayak guide the other evening? a red sox fan. we commiserated over the sad end to the season. sox (love and) sorrow is everywhere.

wildlife watching on the osa

Thursday, 5 October, 2006
by Jen

it’s funny the habits and interests you pick up from your parents without even realising it. for example, j has long since learned to live with my incessant need to identify every plant and flower. i spent the better part of the inca trail stopping to examine cactii, bromeliads, succulents and orchids while he humoured me and pretended to care. i got this from my mother, who always took care to point out growing things as we took forest hikes or went camping. but i never realised how much her birding hobby influenced me as well. i remember as a little girl her pointing out wrens and warblers, titmice and chickadees, swallows and swifts. but it’s only here in costa rica i’ve found myself avidly spotting tanagers, falcons, herons and macaws. the tropics are birding paradise, and i like to think my mum would be out there with binoculars enjoying the view.

in fact, my love of nature and wildlife can be attributed to all the time we spent camping in my childhood. i remember the excitement of seeing moose, buffalo, prairie dogs and myriad other animals in our travels across the u.s. but aside from the bigger, more obvious sightings, there is also the reward of finding something unexpected in the stillness. of standing still in a forest and letting the hidden lives reveal themselves to you. it takes patience to see those creatures who spend their entire existence trying not to be seen. so i’ve always felt it was a priviledge to have the opportunity to see animals in their natural habitat. it’s a reward for those who respect nature’s boundaries. which is why our recent excursions on the osa peninsula were such a treat.

we first took a sunset kayak dolphin tour in the golfo dulce off puerto jiménez. it was incredibly peaceful being out on the water, paddling quietly in the warm soft rain as dusk descended into night. while the sun never actually made an appearance (and thus, my camera never made it out of the dry bag), the dolphins actually did. about a dozen bottlenoses gamboling in the calm currents just meters away from our kayaks, as if we weren’t even there. watching the sleek bodies splash and leap, knowing they have an entire ocean for their playground, yet have chosen to be right there in front of you… it’s beautiful to see.

and our good luck continued on the following day as we hiked into corcovado national park. where the park covers such a huge area, it’s often difficult to view any animals at all, but fortunately for us, they all seemed to want to be on display that day. we walked through a family of coati who were eagerly rooting out tasty crabs for a meal.

a troop of spider monkeys went flying about the treetops, reckessly launching themselves in dramatic fashion from branch to branch.

a lone quiet anteater dangles from a tree by his tail, searching for tasty insects.

the magnificent quetzal-cousin trogon was showing off with his mate.

a noisy cloud of capuchins feasted on guavas and bananas, pelting us with their leftovers.

a pony-sized nocturnal tapir decided to make an early afternoon appearance.

and finally as the piece de resistance, we caught the briefest flash of the elusive jaguar, bolting across the road at dusk. really!

the day exceeded all our expectations by leaps and bounds, even if some of the animals were a bit camera-shy (you’ll have to take our word for some of the photos, and the anteater, trogon, and jaguar simply wouldn’t wait to be snapped! i’ve used pics from elsewhere when our photos are less than distinct.)

of course, no trip for j and i to a national park would be complete without a drama of some kind – this one in the form of transportation travails. not only did our ancient jeep collectivo break dow en route *to* the park (necessitating a rescue ride) but was subsequently despatched again for the return ride! unsurprisingly, it failed to make it more than halfway back, leaving us to all pile in the open flatbed of a stranded lorry. when the lorry finally made it out of the muck and up the hill, it then skidded, slid and swayed the rest of the 45 kms back… with the final 20 minutes of the journey taking place in a fit of heavy rain. fun.

nevertheless, we had two incredible and memorable days on the osa peninsula seeing wildlife… in the wild. just as nature intented. more photos here.

patience in port jim

Tuesday, 3 October, 2006
by Jen

we’re here in puerto jimenez, a one lone dusty street kind of town, with nothing to do or see in the town itself. but it’s a jumping off point for the corcovado national park and the golfo dulce, and that’s why we’re here as well. this evening we’re out on a dolphin watch kayak tour, and tomorrow we spend the day hiking in the corcovado. I feel a bit wimpy about hiring a guide, but i’ll admit i was a bit freaked out by the guidebook talking about crocodiles and bull sharks at the river crossings. not looking for that kind of close encounter, thanks very much. plus, guides know all the best places to see stuff, so hopefully we’ll get some good wildlife spotting.

i’ve not been so great with the camera lately. san jose isn’t very photogenic, and puerto viejo is just a smudge of beach, so not much in the way of pics (not to mention that outside san jose, the internet connection bites) but there are a few (including our sloth sighting!) here.

much more to come, i’m sure… fingers crossed for no rain!

long time coming

Monday, 2 October, 2006
by Jen

i was reflecting today on how my arrival here in costa rica has been a long time in coming – 16 years, in fact. let me explain.

after my summer as an exchange student in paraguay turned me onto travel and southern culture, i returned home and immediately began looking for ways to go and see and do more. i found a volunteer programme called “amigos de las americas” which sent volunteers to rural parts of latin america to work on improving health, education and sanitation in those communities. volunteers were assigned to a variety of work projects and spent the summer with a host family.

as i was entering my final year of high school, not only would this look good on a college application, but allow me to do some traveling before heading off to university. i had a friend at the time (liz) who was spending a year in costa rica living with relatives. after writing to me about how beautiful the country was, i asked for and was assigned to the dental hygiene education programme for costa rica. i was thrilled.

over the course of the next few months, we prepared for our volunteer projects. we studied and practiced. we fundraised for our trips. we bought cots and other needed materials. liz and i wrote back and forth planning a meet-up for when i got there. i was assigned to a host family.

and then, on 17th february 1990, i got a new brother and sister.

i don’t like to write about my family because i don’t think it’s fair to talk about them without their consent. after all, if they wanted to tell the world their business, they’d have their own blog. but most people who know me in real life know that i have a brother and sister that i grew up with from childhood, and a brother and sister who came into oiur family when i was 17 and they were in their early teens.

so suddenly, i had family i knew nothing about. we had no shared experience, no history. no trust, no rapport. there was an understandable amount of upheaval and drama happening at home as a result, and suddenly everything was confusion as we all grappled with negotiating a basis for understanding each other. trying to suss out these new permanent additions and decide who we would be in the family tree. as the weeks ticked past, i became acutely aware that i would soon be gone from the nest and my new siblings were still perfect strangers to me. i would leave for my programme, be home for two weeks, then spend the better part of 4 years out of the country attending college in montreal… by which time, they’d be out of the nest themselves. my legal brother and sister were a mystery to me – and likely to remain so if i missed this small window of opportunity.

so after much deliberation, two weeks before my flight… i withdrew from the programme. no refunds, no regrets. it remains one of the best decisions i’ve made (though my parents weren’t convinced at the time).

and so when i think back to how things might have been different if i’d made another choice… i don’t think about missing out on spending a summer working with indigenous people in the rainforests of a tropical land. i think about how different my family, my life would have been if i’d gotten on that plane. how much poorer in love i would be if we’d remained family united in name only, but strangers to each other.

a lot happened that summer, and a lot has happened since. some good, some bad. i won’t pretend that we all bonded instantly, or that even now, 16 years later, we know everything we should about each other. family ties are not the product of wishful thinking or even good intentions. they are the result of putting in the time and energy and commitment. and that’s why i stayed home that summer. not everything and not magic. but a start. because i think i knew even then there are some things you never get a second chance for.

and i always knew i’d get a second chance for costa rica.

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