Friday, December 24, 2010

Making Tamales

Today marks 11 months that Indio and I have been going out, and I have been embraced by his family. This is great for me because I don't have much of one, and certainly no family member in Costa Rica.

It's a tico tradition for the family (women, men and children) to get together before Christmas and make tamales. It is an all-day process, and everything is in Spanish. Even though Indio was up in the mountain working, I went over to his sister Gretel's house at 10am to help out. When I got there, Gretel and her son, Jose, were off buying ground maiz (corn). So I sat around talking with Ana Laura, one of Gretel's daughters, and Indio's closest relative/friend, about her new (fourth) baby and life in general.

When the maiz and stock from the cooked pork were thickening on the stove, we sliced sweet peppers, carrots and green beans, and cooked rice. Every family adds different ingredients to their tamales, and every family boasts that theirs is the best. My landlady, who gives me some of her tamales each year, includes a prune, a raisin, and a green olive.

Along the way, Gretel fed us all (spaghetti, which they call macaronis). Gretel is amazing. She constantly cooks, and she's good at it. A lot of people live in her house and she feeds them all - Gretel, Ana Laura and her 4 kids, Gretel's other kids Sherlyn, Justin, Sebastian, Michelle and Alexa, plus Indio and Fernando (Gretel's brother) - and always has more for people who stop by.

We cleaned the banana leaves, which get wrapped around the tamales. And we took apart a plastic burlap bag, string by string. Each string ties the tamale packet together. Michelle, 11, and I practiced speaking English.

Late in the afternoon, when everything was ready to assemble, we set up two workstations on the porch. This is how I was taught to make a tamale: Lay down two banana leaves (smaller on top of bigger), ladle the maiz in the center, add a tablespoon of rice, one green bean, one carrot slice, one green pepper slice, and one chunk of pork. Fold the leaves into a packet and stack the tamales. The last step is to tie the packets with the string. The firewood is then lit, and the tamales are loaded into a huge pot and cooked over the fire.

Indio came home from work about 5:30, and by 6:30 I had had enough. My back was sore and I needed to stop.

The goal yesterday was to make 150 tamales. I'll get to taste them tonight, Christmas Eve, when we go to Gretel's house. The entire experience was about more than learning to make tamales, though. It was a bonding experience. The family got to know the gringa better, and I got to see and feel what a warm and loving family Indio comes from.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Intro to Lizano Cahuita

Indio and Me

Saturday night Indio and I attended a 50th birthday party for Ana, a good friend of his. There were about 100 guests, mostly family, plus us. Indio's friends wanted to meet his gringa. I was a hit. His friends wanted to dance with me and give us booze to drink. I made the acquaintance of Lizano Cahuita, a coconut-flavored guaro, which goes down very smoothly. Guaro is a national alcoholic drink made from sugar cane.

The event was held in a big party room way up in the hills between Santa Ana and Escazu. We had to hire a 4x4 taxi to bring us. The food was very good. The chicharrones (friend pork) was outstanding. And the music kept us on our feet almost all night.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Since my last post...

This is the incredible rainbow that I saw on the way back from Grecia on Sunday as the sun was setting. It was so beautiful that I had to stop by the side of the road to take a picture with my cell phone camera. Indio and I went to Grecia (Spanish for Greece) for an afternoon of dancing to live music at an open-air dance hall. My friends who live there, Lynn and Dolores, said to come on out, so we made the hour drive each way. It was fun, and Indio twirled Lynn and me on the dance floor. Someone stepped on my foot, but this time nothing broke.

The weekend before was Indio's 46th birthday. That Saturday night he and I and Susan and Dale went out to eat then to Coyunda's to dance. The next day I had three of Indio's sisters, a brother-in-law and a niece over for a birthday lunch. But I had a bad headache, so the sisters took over my kitchen and came up with chicken fajitas, flavored rice, homemade refried beans, and a salad. I had bought a chocolate cake at Robin's, and it was a nice family get-together. I realized that my Spanish understanding is improving.

I've been taking care of some medical things lately. I finally saw an orthopedist about the persistent pain in my lower back (sacroiliac joint). The xray showed a healthy spine, but degeneration (arthritis) in the lower area. He prescribed 10 sessions of physical therapy, which, after one session, seems to be helping, at least temporarily. I also saw my internist. It was time for an ultrasound to check my abdominal aorta. My grandmother died of an aortic aneurysm, and my mother had one but didn't die from it. So every couple of years I get checked. The ultrasound showed a normal aorta, but some mild hardening of the arteries, which is probably genetic. My bone dentist test showed that I'm still holding the line at severe osteopenia - my hips and wrist are somewhat weakened, but I've still got good bone mass in my spine.

So nothing earth-shattering is going on here. I have been living in Costa Rica over five years and still love it. The rainy season has passed and the days are mostly sunny with bright blue skies. Life is good.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Cledys Birthday Party

I want to post more blogs, but I'm too busy enjoying life to sit down and write. Also, I keep forgetting to carry my camera, and blogs are more fun to read when you can look at the pictures.

So thanks to Susan's camera, I have pictures from last night's birthday party for Cledys, mother of six, including my two friends Hazel and Cuca.

Yesterday I got a text message from Yalile inviting me to Cledys's 72nd birthday party at Cebolla Verde, a typical tico restaurant near me. Almost two years ago I met Cledys, Hazel, Cuca, Yalile and a bunch of other great ticos through my Canadian friend, Susan, and my life in Costa Rica really took off. I have been exposed to the real Costa Rica - its culture, food, music, and wonderful people.

The invitation said the party started at 5pm. At 6:05 I picked up Susan and her boyfriend, Dale, who is visiting from Canada, and we went to Cebolla Verde. We were the first ones there. Parties always start late in ticolandia. But then about 25 other people came, and the party began. I had an interesting conversation - all in Spanish, of course - with Carol, whose 29-year-old son Roberto works for the national parks department on the Isla de Coco, which is actually closer to Colombia than it is to Costa Rica's Pacific coast. Tourists pay thousands of dollars, she told me, to visit the island to see its biodiversity, which is why I will probably never see it. But she and her husband, Gilberth, may be invited to go next year as a gift to family members of park employees.

Hugo brought his guitar and led everyone in singing tico songs. A few were familiar, but most were old songs that folks grew up hearing. Hazel explained to me that Costa Rica used to have many fewer people than now (4.5 million now), and they were spread out across the country, which is divided by mountains. These songs traveled from area to area and united the people.

We finally got around to singing happy birthday to Cledys, in Spanish, and then in English. But they never cut the cake. This is not the first party I've been to where the cake wasn't cut. So I went home hungry. But happy to have spent a fun evening with friends.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Trip to Massachusetts 2010

Susan and me

What wonderful friends I have! I got a chance to see a few of my favorites in Massachusetts on my annual trip back.

I stay with Susan and Mel. Susan and I met at UMass eons ago, but established our friendship in the 80s when she was living in Maine and I was living in New Hampshire. Susan is one of the most generous and caring people I have ever met, and I'm so glad that we remain close friends.

Every year before I arrive, Susan shops for my favorite foods that I can't get in Costa Rica, like Wise potato chips, Kayem natural casing hot dogs and potatoes with real skins. She is an excellent cook. Between her delicious homemade meals and eating out, I gained five pounds in just 10 days this trip. I should be ashamed, but the pleasure of all the wonderful tastes fulfilled me in a way that only a trip back home can do.

I don't know when I became such a foodie, but I certainly enjoy biting into New England boiled lobster with drawn butter, fried clams and onion rings from Woodman's in Essex, lobster salad in toasted buns, creamy clam chowder, fried haddock and Susan's potato salad. My mouth is watering just reliving each of these experiences last week and the week before.

No trip back would be complete without visiting my old Unitarian Universalist church and spending time with Jasmine. She and I toured Barcelona together in May, and it was great to see her again. I am always moved when the choir sings, and when the congregation sings a familiar hymn. This time it was Spirit of Life, which is a real tearjerker.

This year I got to see an old friend, David, from junior high school. We had lunch together and reminisced. He looks the same except his blond hair is now white. But he still has that twinkle in his eyes.

My best day was spent with my oldest friend, Sandy, and Kathie. We met in high school. I had just moved from Beverly to Swampscott and didn't know a soul, and Sandy befriended me. On a glorious fall day, with the sun shining and the leaves starting to turn red and orange, the three of us drove along the New Hampshire coast, breathing in the fresh salt air. We treated ourselves to a fantastic lunch at the Wentworth by the Sea restaurant, where Kathie's friend's son gave us a 20% discount. Our table on the patio overlooked the harbor with tall masts. We enjoyed overstuffed lobster salad rolls, olive focaccia dipped in olive oil and creme brulee with fruit. It was soothing to reminisce about our high school years and friends. One of our classmates, Sally Martin, died just a little while ago. Not only was she Sandy's and Kathie's best friend, but she was Sandy's sister-in-law, too. Sally was a full-of-life person, happy, generous, and fun to be around. Someone took Sally's old blouses and made bracelets with matching earrings and glass cases from the material. I was fortunate to be there when we picked up the finished goods, which turned out beautiful. I got a red checked bracelet with earrings and a case that I put my cell phone in, so now I am reminded daily of Sally, Sandy and Kathie.

Susan had to work while I was there, but she arranged her hours so that we could do what we do best: shop at an outlet mall. Instead of Wrentham, this time we went up to Kittery. Oh yes, I stimulated the local economy with my purchases. In fact, flying back to Costa Rica, I had to pay extra for one overweight bag. I bought a lot of books and vitamins on this trip which weighed a lot.

Susan, Mel and I took a day trip to the western part of the state to go to the Big E, an annual farm show that is like Topsfield Fair on steroids. We saw a sheep being sheared, llamas, cows and pigs. We ate typical fair food: corn dog, the greasiest fried onion rings ever, Italian sausage with onions and peppers, ice cream, nachos. There was a gigantic pumpkin there, and a parade of Clydesdale horses. We skipped the amusement rides, but visited the pavilions for each of the New England states. I slept on the way back.

On my last full day, I visited my Aunt Ethel. Ethel is an amazing person, and my role model for growing older. She is 99 and moved to an assisted living home this year. Also this year, her husband, who was 14 years younger than her, died. She has to sell her house, which she bought as an independent widow in the 50s, to pay for her new home. She and I have a special relationship. We both see the glass half full, if not overflowing. We talked about all sorts of things, and parted by saying, "See you next year."

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Pool Day at Rosemary's

Lisa and Marilyn picked me up at 9am and we drove 55 minutes on the new highway out to Rosemary and Barry's house, just before Jacó. It was an overcast day, but perfect for lounging out in their new salt water pool, and admiring the open view. We saw wild macaws fly overhead, and dragonflies kept up company most of the afternoon.

The others did water aerobics with their noodles, while I babied my sacroiliac joint, which still hurts a lot from the car accident. It was fun and very relaxing, bouncing around in the water, and talking about this and that. I always love to hear Rosemary talk about creativity (she leads creativity workshops for professionals around the world).

Then we muddied up our faces with volcanic mud from the Osa Peninsula. When we washed off the mud, my face felt very soft and light, as though I had dropped a pound or two from my face.

We gathered around a handsome wood table, beautifully set, and dined well. Lisa and Marilyn had stopped at Fresh Market for sandwiches and chips. Rosemary made a salad. Barry had bought a delicious ceviche with different kinds of fish. I brought brownies that I had made. Well, from a mix.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Cerro de la Muerte

Joy, Sima, Glenda, Rosa, Vicky, Estilita, Carolyn and me

A bunch of my Cariari friends and I went on a day trip to Cerro de la Muerte, the road that leads to the highest point in Costa Rica where it has been known to snow on occasion. It didn't snow where we were, but it did rain. By the bucketfuls. But did that stop us? No!

We rented a tourist bus and were regaled by Marcos, the tour guide who is very knowledgeable about all things ecological. Our destination was the Mirador de Quetzal, which means the quetzal lookout, or vista. The quetzal is a beautiful bird with a long blue tail. Unfortunately, we didn't see any quetzals on our trip because of the rain.

We did see a lot of hummingbirds, though. At the mirador, there were dozens of the tiny birds sipping through their pointy beaks from the feeders. We ate well, too: a plentiful meal of comida típica served family style.

Here we are, drowned rats on a hike in the rain. We saw a 1000-year-old cypress tree, lots of moss, and a primordial forest.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Car Crash a Great Experience

I was slowing down for a stop light in bumper-to-bumper traffic when the RAV4 crashed into my rear bumper, nearly forcing my car to hit the one in front of it. We got out of our cars, shaking, to assess the damage: his radiator was emptying its contents into the street and his bumper was dented; my entire back end was demolished and I couldn't open the rear left door. No one was hurt, although at the time the back of my head and neck ached, but the next day I was okay.

The law says to leave the cars where they are and not to move them, so the heavy traffic backed up even more and had to go around us. The owner of the other car, Manuel, a businessman about my age, called the transito police, and I called my insurance company. Manuel had no insurance.

When the transito cop arrived, he looked at the cars, which were stilled joined at the bumpers, and told me to move my car to the side of the road. I said that I had to leave my car there until my insurance adjuster came so he could see what happened. The cop said, and I quote as a translate, "I am the transito police, and this is an order. Move your car." I asked if he was going to take a picture of the accident scene, and he said no. I moved my car, and Manuel moved his car, and the traffic breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Manuel was very kind from the get-go. He said the accident was his fault, which was obviously the case, but still, I could have met up against someone who said it was the gringa's fault and could later prove it at the judge's office with a dozen relatives who swore they were there at the time. Oh yes, those things happen here.

I was having a little trouble understanding everything being said in Spanish, until Manuel's daughter, Alejandra, arrived and translated for me. It's funny, even though she talked to me in English, I answered her, the police and the adjuster in Spanish. I wanted to be sure they had my side of the story.

Even though my insurance could have paid for the damage of my car, and then I would have had to pay higher premiums, Manuel offered to pay for repairing my car. He told me to get an estimate and let him know how much it would be. I thought, wow, I'm lucky to have been hit by a good guy.

Manuel's car was towed away, but I was able to drive mine. I went straight to two body shops. One would charge $600 and take a week; the other, recommended by the insurance company, would charge $1700 and take two weeks. I talked with Manuel's daughter and told her I'd be happy to go with the $600 body shop, and she said her father would give me the money so I could pay the shop.

Manuel and I also had to go to the courthouse together to say that we agreed to settle the repairs outside of the insurance company, so we arranged to go the next day. We met there and handed in our paperwork from the transito cop, and showed our IDs. The clerk said that because my car was owned by my corporation, I had to show proof that I was the owner of the corporation. Now, why didn't the transito cop tell me that? Manuel offered to accompany me to the Registro Nacional, a few blocks away, so I could get a Personaría Jurídica. He even paid for it, about $2.60. Then we went back to the judge's office and completed the paperwork. All the time, we were talking about his printing company and the school that he owns where his daughter works, and about my teaching English and being a marketing consultant, and how hard it was to learn a language at our age.

When we left the judge's office, we had one signed document that said we had settled the case. We walked around the corner to make copies for him and me (which Manuel paid for).

Before we parted, I asked him if he had been talking on his cell phone when he hit me. I wondered because his phone kept ringing after the accident. He said no, that he has high blood pressure and was supposed to wait 30-60 minutes after eating before doing anything. He had eaten but gotten right into his car, and was dozing off when he hit me. He said he was glad the accident only cost him money. It could have happened on the highway at high speed, or he could have driven off a cliff (easy to do around here). I told him that it was a shame that the accident had to happen, but I was glad that he was so nice about it and I was happy to have made his acquaintance. We parted with a handshake a kiss on the cheek.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Coco Futbol Team's 40th Anniversary

One of my two hangouts, El Coco, has been sponsoring a futbol (soccer) game the first Sunday in August for 40 years. I went last year; this year I understood more about futbol so I could follow along better. The game coincides with the last day of a week-long festival in Santa Ana, and La Romería, the day that devout Catholics make their way (mostly by walking) to La Virgen de los Angeles in Cartago.

There were a couple of near misses when the soccer ball (la pelota) went whizzing by our heads, but no one was injured. It was great fun to watch our friends run around, kicking the ball, or at least trying to. It's the fastest I've ever seen them move.

After the game, there was a little parade and my favorite band, La Solucion, was playing on the stage. People milled about everywhere, playing games of chance, Tico Bingo (to support the Red Cross), and generally having a good time. On Sundays, no one stays inside.

Then we went to El Coco for the day. Susan, Indio and I wanted to be sure we got a table, because we knew there would be a lot of people going there after the game. Hugo and his cousin started playing music at 3:00, and we danced, ate and drank until about 7pm.

I am not much of a drinker, and after a miserable 59th birthday spent hugging the porcelain bowl, I stay away from tequila. But guaro, that's much smoother going down, and it packs just as much punch. I hardly ever drink it, but something made me order a shot of it for Indio and myself (Susan had her own whiskey). The look on the waiter's face was priceless. He knows I don't drink much, and I've never ordered guaro before. But he brought two shot glasses, and I downed mine like a trooper all at once. Susan and Indio were surprised and impressed. It kicked in about 10 minutes later. I was happy, happy, happy. And we all had a good time.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Lisa's Belly Dancing Birthday Party

For Lisa's birthday this year (and last year), she wanted to belly dance. So our lunch group shook our booty to the direction of Lisa's belly dance instructor. There were so many of us, we spilled out my French doors and into the garden.

And of course we dined splendidly on potluck and wine. I tested my culinary skills with barbecued chicken wings and a Waldorf salad. Dessert was chocolate queque from Robin's.

How I Passed Riteve

Every year in July I have to get my car inspected. Although it's hard to believe, because of all the exhaust fumes from cars, trucks and buses, Costa Rica has strict emission controls and other standards for every vehicle on the road.

In the past, I gave my car to a mechanic to fix anything that Riteve might fail me on, and to bring my car to Riteve. This year I decided to bring the car there myself and save a little money.

Friends told me that my chances of passing Riteve would increase if I looked sexy. So I put on my push-up bra and a low-cut top.

It worked! Although there were several warnings on the report, my car passed inspection.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Barcelona - the last city on my Spain tour

On May 18, I arrived at the train station in Barcelona, excited to meet up with Jasmine and for us to explore this awesome city. Also arriving this day was a sore throat that would develop into a cold. But I couldn't let that stop me.

Our first night in the city was low-key. We walked around the neighborhood of our hotel, and found a great little restaurant called Lia, where we had pear salads and homemade toasted beer.

On our first full day in the city, we walked all over. To our mutual delight, we found that we were very compatible. We both liked to amble and take in the sights, and we both loved to window shop, especially for jewelry! The stores exploded with colorful clothes and avant-garde styles.

The Picasso Museum was interesting. We saw his earlier work and how he transformed his style over the years. We wandered around the Passeig de Born area and found an outdoor cafe for lunch. We split a great sandwich and salad and basked in the sun.

We kept being portally challenged. I walked into a glass door, and Jasmine stumbled over a threshold. We shared laughs and created memories. At the Sant Jaume Square, I asked a man for directions (yes, those city maps were still confusing!) to La Boquería. He turned my map around, as my eyes followed his finger, I stepped on his foot. I looked down, mumbled sorry, and realized he had a prosthetic leg. He hadn't even felt my foot on his shoe. I thanked him for his help and started to walk away, when Jasmine noticed that he was collecting money and looking for a sponsor for his long-distance bicycle trip. He called himself "the lone paraolympico." We put some money in his hat, and he gave us each his card. He was a very nice, humble man.

We got distracted on our quest for La Boquería, and ended up having gelato on La Rambla, the main boulevard to see and be seen. While we were sitting, eating and taking in the sites, fans of two opposing soccer teams vying for the King's Cup that night were parading up and the down the street, singing, cheering, and waving flags and banners for their teams: Atletico de Madrid and Seville. The atmosphere was festive, and I took a few pictures. One was of a female fan, and just as I snapped her photo, a man came up behind her and made a face. She had no idea he was there.

That night we walked and walked, and to our surprise, we ended up at the harbor. Barcelona has done a beautiful job of building a modern mall and big boardwalk at the water's edge. There are hundreds or thousands of expensive boats docked there, and loads of seafood restaurants.

In the morning we stopped in at the Palau Guell, but there wasn't much to see. So we ambled along La Rambla. We found one kiosque that sold grea, colorful and cheap (2 Euros) earrings and bracelets, and we stocked up.

Then we found La Boquería and our senses exploded! What a colorful indoor market with so many food items! I bought trail mix, chocolate, and sausage. There was every food under the sun.

We walked north along La Rambla. We forced ourselves to see the cathedral, a main site. It was nothing special. We reached the Placa de Catalunya, the main square in the city. It was upscale, busy, bustling, and could have caused sensory overload, but not for me. I loved it! Further north on the Passeig de Gracia, we got to La Pedrera, an apartment building that Gaudi built. It was round and curvy, with chimneys on the roof that were shaped weirdly and used for ventilation.

Ron, my Spanish-class friend from Sarasota, had given me a recommendation for Mediterranean seafood at Port Vell, the harbor, so we walked down there. When I asked for El Rey de la Gamba (The Shrimp King) restaurant, I got three different answers. We walked all over, after we had just walked the length of the city, to find it. It was worth the walk, though. We shared a carafe of sangria, paella, and black rice (rice with squid ink, garlic, shrimp, clams and cuttlefish = marvelous!). It was more than we could eat, so we got it to go, and left it out for a local tom cat near our hotel. Buen provecho, Tom!

We returned to the beach, called La Barceloneta, the next day, by bus. We ate right on the beach, then I stayed there sipping tea and resting the cold in my head and a sore knee, while Jasmine walked the beach. I started reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the first of a trilogy by Stieg Larsson. Ooh, what a good and different book! I got to talking to some young adults on vacation from Switzerland. People-watching produced a naked older man covered in body paint, with his penis flopping around. It was a long one. I guess he wanted to show it off. Everyone he passed did a double-take. Sorry, I wasn't fast enough with my camera.

There was no time to rest after our afternoon out before we headed to Montjuic. We walked downhhill to the Metro, and took the funicular up to Montjuic, then a bus to the Magic Fountain. We waited with the growing crowd to watch a colored water fountain show set to music. It was great! The darker it became, the more we could see the colors reflected in the water. The last song they played, after classical, Spanish opera and Spanish popular music, was about Barcelona. It was very moving.

I met Ron and two of his pilot friends for breakfast the next morning while Jasmine stayed in the room and rested. It turned out that when Ron flies into Barcelona, he stays at a hotel only two blocks from me. At the restaurant, he introduced me to the heavenly tortilla española, an egg, potato and onion omelet. After breakfast, Ron walked me up the hill, past my hotel to Montjuic. I had no idea we were staying so close! We could see the diving boards used in the 1992 Summer Olympics from the front of my hotel!

During the day, Jasmine and I went to see the Sagrada Familia, a cathedral designed by Gaudi. I understood where the word "gaudy" came from. The details, taken by themselves, were admirable and based on nature, but put all together, they made a monstrous mess.

Next we took a taxi to Parc Guell, another Gaudi design that made me believe he had to have been on drugs. There were curvy walls and benches, but lovely views of the city.

Everywhere we went in Barcelona there were performance artists looking for a handout - human statues, musicians, singers. At Parc Guell, I sat next to a headless man. I put some coins in his bag and he got up to pose with me.

That night Jasmine and I met Ron and a friend of his from Barcelona, Mar, for a tapas run. We started at Bar del Pla with beer, fried artichokes, pan de tomate, little fried fish, and something with a fried egg, sausage and french fries. Mar was a delight. She educated us about Castilian and Catalunyan Spanish and the way of life in Barcelona. And she taught me how to flip open a Spanish fan.

At 11pm, we left and went to another hole-in-the-wall restaurant. We had more beer, sauteed mushrooms in oil and garlic, jamon ibérico that was smooth and sweet, more pan de tomate and a seafood salad picadillo. The food was delicious, and I was grateful to have been shown what to eat by a Barcelona native.

The time with Jasmine flew. Just before she left to fly back to Athens, I went to an ATM to make sure I would be able to withdraw enough Euros to last the next couple of days until I returned to Costa Rica. I ran into the same awful problem! I couldn't withdraw any money. I went to three different ATMs, all the with the same result. Thankfully Jasmine loaned me enough to tide me over, and when I got home, I sent her a check. I don't know what it is about trying to get Euros on a Sunday.

With Jasmine gone, I decided to spend a relaxing day at the beach. I put on my two-piece and rented a chair and umbrella. Although there were many topless women there, I decided not to risk sunburn on my delicate skin. It was warm enough to lie in the sun, but too cool to go in the water. It would have been a peaceful day at the beach, but vendors constantly walked through the crowd calling out, "Cerveza, agua, coca-cola, Fanta, cold beer, sexy beer, tattoos, pareos, vestidos, massage..." Finally one passed by with samosas (pastry filled with vegetables). It was very good.

At the beach, there was a group of about 15 people in their 20s and 30s who had brought props: a 50s orange molded plastic chair, a beautician's pole-mounted hairdryer also from theh 50s, wigs, hats, strap-on butterfly wings, an orange paper parasol, a 2'standing doll, a black tutu, a ukelele, and a few other things. For hours, they entertained themselves, and me, by posing in and around the chair and hair dryer, and taking pictures.

That night, I found a great little cafe in Plaza Real and had another wonderful meal: pan de tomate (addictive!), mussels and red peppers. Ooh! I had to go home to Costa Rica so I could stop eating wonderful food.

On my last full day in Barcelona, I took Mar's and Ron's recommendation to go to Montserrat, a sacred mountain where a black statue of Mary and Jesus was found in a cave. I took the hour-long train to get there, then a cable car up the mountain. The views from the mountain were spectacular. I sat in the cathedral and heard the boys choir. Then I took the train back to Barcelona, talking with two young women from Belgium along the way.

The next morning started at 4:10am, with a taxi at 5, and cappuchino and a granola bar at 6. I flew from Barcelona to Madrid, then from Madrid to Costa Rica.

All in all, it was a great trip, good to get away from my routine, and an appropriate way to celebrate my 60th.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Spain - Valencia

My feet in the Mediterranean Sea

Waiting for the seven-hour train from Córdoba to Valencia, I watched someone eat a typical Spanish breakfast, Pan de Tomate: Half a sub roll slightly toasted, slathered with olive oil, then tomato pulp spread on top, with salt and pepper. When I finally tried it for myself, I was hooked. I've been eating it at home, but the bread here isn't as coarse or as yummy as in Spain.

Once on the train, I met a woman from California, Irina, who was originally from Russia, whom I would spend the next three days with, exploring Valencia. I had wanted to take the train instead of a plane so I could see the landscape going from south-central Spain north to the Mediterranean coast. But after hour after hour of nothing but olive trees, I realized I could have skipped the train. I did observe that olive trees grow from a base of two trunks, so they're easily recognizable.

In Valencia, two high school girls guided us to a bus stop that wasn't too far from my hotel. It turned out that I had booked a hotel right on the beach, with a beach view, A/C and breakfast included, for only 40 Euros = the best buy of my trip. I could see the starting place of the America Cup from in front of my hotel. Irina had booked a private apartment about a mile away and had some problems getting the key, but it all worked out in the end.

View from my room

I am an ocean and beach lover, so the first thing I did after I got to my room was walk along the beach. I saw some creative sandcastles. The waves from the sea, plus the expansive sandy beach, muffle noise, so I didn't hear anything in my room. The water and air were too cold for swimming.

The next day Irina and I took the bus into the center of town and walked - a lot. There was a rally for Tenerife, the team playing Valencia that night, and the fans were rooting loudly. We shopped at a street fair selling touristy things in front of the cathedral. We ate cheap and delicious kebab sandwiches. We found a used bookstore with mostly books in English, newly opened by Andy from Scotland. I got a new Lee Child book, Hard Luck and Trouble, in hardback. Later that night, Irina and I walked the beach, bundled up against the wind, and had gelato.

Breakfast at the hotel was good enough to write about: granola with yogurt (what I eat at home), coffee and fresh-squeezed Valencia orange juice. Yummy!

The following day we bussed to the Museum of Arts and Sciences, a huge complex of science-related buildings with exhibits. We spent four hours at Oceanographic, where we enjoyed the dolphin show, aquariums, water birds and wetland birds. Then we went over to the Hemispheric Imax theatre and saw "Wild Ocean", a movie about the sardine run off Africa and the fish and sea mammals that feed on the sardines.

Later, we bussed into the city then split up. I was faced with the challenge of finding the Feria de las Naciones, an international fair. I actually did find it, but it turned out to be only booths selling wares, that all looked alike, from different countries. I grabbed a caña and a Cuban empanada and sat a while to enjoy them. Then I bussed back to my hotel, and sat on the beach wall, enjoying the salt air.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Spain - Córdoba

My introduction to Córdoba was a good one. The people at the Tourist Information desk and the taxi driver were friendly and helpful. Plus the rain stopped and it was starting to warm up a little. Things were looking up.

The city map was awful, and I got lost. Apparently, I wasn't alone, because stenciled on a wall was the sign above, Estoy Perdido, which means, I Am Lost.

Because of the cold weather, I had been wearing the same clothes every day, and they were ripe. I handed over my jeans, a t-shirt and a thin sweater to be laundered. When I got them back the next day, the cost was about $15. Arrgh.

I timed my trip to Spain, and to Córdoba in particular, to coincide with the annual Patio Flower Competition. I got a map for the patios that were open to the public to show off their flowers.

My first stop, though, was at the statue of Maimonides, a 12th century doctor, rabbi and philosopher. Rubbing his foot was supposed to do something - bring luck? erudition? - so I rubbed it, then walked down the street to the sinagoga, one of three (two in Toledo) to survive the Inquisition of 1492.

The patio flower map wasn't much better. I simply could not find some of the patios indicated on the map. I learned that the map used previous years' locations. But I did see many of the patios, and the flower displays were pretty: red and pink geraniums, impatients, hydrangeas and petunias. Coming from Costa Rica, though, where there are gorgeous flowers year-round in my back yard, I was a little disappointed.

Patio Flowers

I walked along the Guadalquivir River, surprised that buildings along the riverfront were not developed as restaurants or for tourism. I was trying to find a patio route, but failed. I stopped at a bus stop and asked a cute young guy for bus help back to my hotel area. He said to take the #4, with him. He was studying economics and enjoyed practicing his rudimentary English with me. As the bus made its way past the municipal building, I saw a crowd of people standing on the street, so I got off to check out what was happening.

It was the Hermandad de Nuestra Senora del Rocio - an Asuncion Day tope, a romeria (pilgrimage walk). I got to talking with a couple of Dutch couples and a couple from Toledo. I played translator for all of them. The horses and their riders were on parade. The men were dressed in traditional Spanish garb, and the women and girls were wearing beautiful flamenco gowns.

Two Dutch couples and me

The Mezquita/Cathedral was free before 10am. The building itself was just an immense empty hall with pillars, but with an elaborate altar and side rooms devoted to saints. This was built was a church, then became a mosque, then because a church again - a story typical of cathedrals/mosques in southern Spain.

As I was about to take a picture of the ornate altar, I had to change the batteries in my camera. So I put in the new ones that I had brought, but the camera wouldn't work. Oh no! I was halfway through my trip to Spain with a broken camera. I left and went back to my hotel room, which was directly across the street, and tried the second pair of fresh batteries I had brought. They worked! Then I had to hurry back to the cathedral to get in before they started charging money. But the altar had just been roped off to tourists for a real live mass, so that picture was not to be.

Next on my dwindling list of To Do's in Cordoba was the Alcazar. The map showed it two blocks from my hotel, yet I could not find it. What I did find was the public library, and I went in. It was an old building on the outside, but brand spanking new on the inside. I used the free computers to check my email and bank accounts and to use the bathroom. While I was at the computer, a group of three-year-olds paraded in. They were all attached by a rope and looked between curious and bewildered. They were very cute.

Finally I found the Alcazar. The gardens were lovely, and the sun was starting to warm me up and shine on the beauty. There were purple flowers, red poppies, roses, pools, fountains and a statue of three Christian kings who stayed there when they visited Córdoba.

I spent some time sitting in a big plaza called Tendillas, just people-watching. I observed that women don't show off their big breasts with low cleavage here (in Costa Rica, the bigger and barer, the better). Nor do they have big hips or butts. How can they eat white bread and pastry and not have big bottoms?