Simon Family World Trip

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Journal Entry for Decemebr 9-20,2000

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Dick's Journal - Costa Rica

The following is my uncut, unedited and unorganized journal - but with lots of (hopefully interesting) detail about what we have been up to!

December 9, 1999 - Monteverde Cloud Forest, Santa Elena

We are staying at Sapo Dorado and have so far experienced two insect adventures at our hotel. - Yesterday Patty, who was suffering from "turista", sipped ginger ale from her open can to find a cockroach in her mouth and this morning as we make preparations to go out on our day's hike she finds a scorpion in the band of her hat, which had been zipped inside her backpack suitcase. We've been told that the scorpions here are not lethal - we prefer not to provide a human experiment.

We are now on the SkyWalk, which consists of 2.5 kilometers of walk in the rainforest through a cloud shrouded mist with thick moss growing on vines across seven very high, rickety suspension bridges in misty, high winds. We also have the option of going for a SkyTrek which involves high speed (at speeds up to 60 kilometers an hour) harnessed riding swinging hundreds of meters on cables through the canopy, which seems interesting and enticing until we cross our first bridge and determine that we can only take so much excitement in one day. (This was on my birthday and I decided to "treat" myself to the acknowledgment that was far too terrifying an activity to be sanely engaging in - although it sounded like fun). I try to mask my own terror on the bridges of the SkyWalk to keep that from spreading through the group.

Ben yells out "Toucan" to get our attention. He is rapidly becoming the rainforest version of The Boy Who Cried Wolf - The Ben Who Cried Toucan.

Because of the lush environment, everything is oversized - you feel like you are in the Jurassic period looking at the 20 ft. leaves of the fern plants dripping with epiphytes and expect dinosaurs around every bend.

Patty points out that what is really amazing in this walk is that with all the "awareness" of rainforests in the United States, we are actually now walking in the midst of it with the thick mosses and dripping vegetation. We don't see much fauna on this walk, but the flora is amazing and the jungle sounds are wind, rain drops, birds singing, cackling and chirping - all interspersed with Ben's "never ending story" about James Bond, Trevlyn, Bill Gates and Double Trouble in an ongoing battle using flash light guns, laser cannons and other implements of destruction.

We cross seven 300-400 foot long bridges suspended several hundred feet above the deep valleys below, some of which have raging streams. The SkyWalk was developed three years ago, and the SkyTrek was built last year, both by a local family of three brothers.

Later in the day we hike in Bosque Eterno de los Ninos (BEN). It was a "Save the Rainforest" project started by a group of Swedish school children and over the past 15 years it has grown in size to over 50,000 acres from an initial purchase of 8 acres and now exceeds the Monteverde Conservation League owned area.

Tourism to Monteverde has grown from 200 visitors in 1973 to over 50,000 in 1998 and it is currently one of the most visited sites in the country. While this certainly diminishes the sense of undiscovered treasure of an Osa peninsula, it does provide for a range of fascinating educational visitor activities and tourism services such as hotels, pizzerias, butterfly and orchid gardens, etc.

Monteverde seems to be a prime example of eco-tourism really working - wage scales are dramatically higher than in the rest of Costa Rica, the tourists are generally well accepted and not resented and there is virtually not theft. (Our local guide left his own backpack unlocked in our car when we went into one of the sites. When we asked him about that, he said, "Oh no one would steal anything here." A very refreshing change from the paranoia that we have been feeling.) There is also a fairly large "gringo" and other non-Tico population living in the area, which has mixed well with the local populace, and the conservation ethic feels very strong. In fact, it is a gringo, who gave a slide show at our hotel, Sapo Dorado. (He is the ex-president of the Monteverde Conservation League, which is responsible for the preservation of the Cloud Forest and has been living in the area for the past twenty years.) A Costa Rican married to an American owns the hotel, and we understand that approximately half of the hotels are locally owned.

One of the reasons why eco-tourism may be working so well here is the roughly 1 -2 hour deeply pot-holed and rutted road here off the Inter-American highway, and the lack of any air strips providing more convenient access. This seems to discourage the more "whiney" type of tourist, consequently providing a "natural selection" of those who are willing to endure and even appreciate the journey to reach their destination.

A highlight in the area is a visit to the Monteverde Butterfly Garden, set up and owned by a private conservation group (as are all facilities in the area - there is no "National Park" in Monteverde). The researchers and volunteers provide fascinating insight into the world of tropical bugs and butterflies. We learned about the Hercules Beetle, with a three-inch long shiny black body able to lift and carry 5 pounds, the Assassin Bug, which injects a strong anti-coagulant into unsuspecting victims while they're sleeping. The anti-coagulant itself is not the source of its menacing name - after feeding on its host's blood the beetle then defecates on its victim leaving a bloody, dirty mess. The problem comes in the morning when the victim awakens, scratches the bite, which introduces the fecal matter into its blood stream. Flu like symptom ensues for a week or so and then the infection goes dormant for up to twenty years until it manifests itself in heart muscles, tripling in size leading to cardiac failure. There are occasional stories of twenty year old Central & South American athletes dying on the court of heart failure - and the Assassin Bug bite is frequently the culprit. There are no vaccinations against Chagas Disease, although antibiotics are effective if caught and treated within a few weeks. We are assured that these bugs are almost non-existent in Costa Rica and in other Latin America countries are found predominately in the thatched roof housing of the poor without adequate sanitation. That said, when one is in those areas, since this disease is responsible for more deaths in Central and South America than AIDS, malaria and dengue fever combined, we're advised to tuck in mosquito netting under mattresses. We learn a host of other information about the bright iridescent blue Morpho Butterfly, Owl Butterfly and others. (Alex and Katie, our fact collectors, actually remember much of the specifics.).

We also visit the Hummingbird Gallery, with huge numbers of brightly colored birds feeding (and learn that the hummingbird beats its wings 80 times per second and its heart 1,200 times per minute, requiring it to eat at least 50% of its body weight daily for energy.) The Orchid Garden, set up by a local orchid collector, now contains 326 of the approximately 500 species of orchids found in Monteverde. This includes flowers that are only visible through a microscope and are pollinated by tiny fruit flies to larger brilliant blooms, which we are more accustomed to, all with a distinctive triangular formation.

We cancelled our visit to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve itself due to torrential rains as we approach the entrance gate. ("Cloud" is one thing, taking a pleasant walk in a tropical downpour with three children is another!)

We also visit the Monteverde Cheese Company, founded in the 1950's by an American Quaker community, which took over a week to push cars and carts up the mountain during their initial pilgrimage. The factory's production has since grown from 10 kilos of daily cheese production to over a thousand kilos. The factory is now a worker and vendor owned cooperative and we see collections of large aluminum milk cans awaiting pick up at the side of the road along the countryside. The cheese itself was originally only exported to the United States to be sold at premium prices, but is now available throughout Costa Rica and Latin America. Although the dairy and Quaker school remain, the religious community has largely been absorbed and intermarried into the Costa Rican community.

In general, the reflection on the Monteverde region would be a prosperous community and a beautiful location, fully visited and inhabited (although not overwhelmingly or offensively) by gringos and foreigners who seem to mix well with the Tico population.

December 11, 1999 - Arenal Lodge - Two weeks into the trip we are beginning to evolve into a pattern of activities, responsibilities, expectations, roles and "behaviors needing modification". Patty takes primary responsibility for the home-schooling on which she worked many months to understand and develop, I am the logistics and technical support expert (in this land of the blind-my "one-eyed" technical expertise is valued) and Alex, Katie and Ben generally cooperatively do their schooling, work on reports, carry their luggage and help out while occasionally being young children and siblings, bicker and torment each other and embarrass us in public settings (I really am working on "We our the ambassadors of our country, so behave!" It sometimes works.) Alex and Katie read voraciously whenever we are in the car, Ben tells his never ending stories of battles involving an eclectic group of characters, Katie is sometimes maliciously excluded by "the boys" and at other times is the joyously giggling center of attention.

I will point out with great parental pride that during the day that Patty and I were both suffering from turista, (or Montezuma's revenge as it's known in Mexico or "Contra's revenge" in Costa Rica, based on US/Nicaraguan relations) which fortunately the children had managed to avoid, the three went together without us to breakfast and lunch at the restaurant, ordered, and signed for the bill. (Alex was very proud!) The restaurant staff later reported to me that the children were very "serious", formal and well behaved - the solution may be to always let them go to their own meals and Patty and I and other diners will enjoy the peace and solitude.

Patty is the driver. (She enjoys driving and I enjoy not being directed as how to drive - therefore - Patty drives and I navigate and ask questions, a vastly superior and marriage-enhancing solution to back seat driving. Even the best roads here have huge sporadic potholes - it is said that if you see someone driving straight on a Costa Rican road, rather than avoiding potholes, they are probably drunk.

The Arenal Lodge is the most comprehensive and "upscale" resort hotel facility we've stayed at to date. There is a 2-kilometer, paved and cut stone and brick driveway rising into the mountain above Lake Arenal that takes you to the 12 year old Lodge with its 34 rooms and separate chalets. At the top, there is a sign that says, "Welcome - You've Made It!"

We are in the "Master Suite" (in order to fit five in the room) which, is reminiscent a jungle lodge, with its ultra high vaulted ceilings, dark wood, ceiling fans and a balcony with stunning views of the Arenal volcano (when it is clear out!!). (There is, of course, the addition of a modern sunken bathtub leading out to a view of a private enclosed Japanese garden.) (Ben paid the hotel his ultimate compliment when he told us that our room looks like James Bond's room.)

The formal dining room with its multiple crystal wine glasses per place setting also offers a volcano view, although the food, while adequate, certainly doesn't match the appointments (I ordered "spa chicken in its own juices with lemon" for dinner last night and was served chicken breast masked by a thick heavy cream sauce with light lemon flavor, a large piece of "spa-like" cheesy lasagna and duck pate.) The Lodge also features a wide range of activities from horse back riding and organized tours to a fully stocked game room with foosball (Alex is rapidly becoming a world champion), chess, Scrabble and Yahtzee, as well as the dreaded Nintendo 64. (We are very proud of ourselves - we set a 20-minute total limit on Nintendo for our visit here and have stuck with it, although we have endured hours of arguing, complaining and rationalizations as to why more time would really be appropriate/advisable.)

There is no pool or health club however. For a pool we will enjoy the Tabacon Hot Springs facility later today, ideally, as we watch flowing lava, and the health club became less necessary as the torrential downpour ceased and I was able to take a jog through the hills and down to the lake.

We then notice vents of steaming gas coming out of the side. At 11:00 a.m. our perspective on Arenal changed dramatically as the mist started to lift and we were able to see the volcano cone from our balcony. At 11:15 a.m. it changed even more dramatically when we hear the explosion of a volcanic eruption in the distance and see vapor and smoke coming off the cone. Two hours later the fog and cloud on Arenal has cleared and we hear an explosion and see smoke in the air. The volcano has erupted! This is volcano we were looking for.

Following the lead of David Cohen in his book, One Year Off, we visit the hot spring pools at Tabacon Lodge. The Lodge is an interesting mix of natural beauty, sitting in the shadow of the volcano and owing its existence to the thermal springs which are heated by its activity, and transformed into a series of swimming pools heated to varying decrees, with the temperature determined by mixing thermal and unheated water, as well as by distance from the other spring. The pools range from those with sculpted waterfalls and natural volcanic stone bottoms to manmade slides, in-pool bars servings frozen daiquiris and other "tropical delights" complete with pink umbrellas, maraschino cherries and 60's 70's & 80's rock and roll and disco music over the loud speakers.

At Tabacon we find and purchase our first English language newspaper in over two weeks - USA Today's travel feature is on the undiscovered wonders in Bhutan. It lures us with enticing descriptions of colorful festivals in that remote Buddhist kingdom. My highlight of that experience will be wondering through the labyrinth of landscaped and manicured trails to come upon a three foot long yellow snake (which I later learn is the very deadly Eyelash Viper) slithering along with a yellow toad in his jaws. The sight, which was certainly unscripted and undoubtedly undesirable as far as management trying to appeal to the majority of its several hundred tourists a day coming off their tour buses to "experience" the "natural hot springs". It was a wonderful example of nature triumphant over man's efforts.

At dusk, we drive to Los Lagos up a winding road to the "observatory" a thatched roof on four pillars, which provides a fantastic view of the Arenal Volcano only a few kilometers away. The excitement builds as dark approaches and we see red streaks of lava racing down the mountainside. The lava flows at Arenal are composed of super heated rocks and debris glowing red as opposed to molten or plastic lava that flows at other volcanoes. The Arenal Volcano is only 7,000 years old and as recently as 1996 has had a major eruption. I shoot an entire roll at exposures of 5 to 30 seconds, (which I'm sure will show up as a few red dots on a totally black field - but I had to try and do SOMETHING!) and we return to the Lodge for the night. At 1:15 a.m. A loud explosion coming from the volcano awakens me, and Patty and I watch in wonder as the entire left side is deeply bathed in red flows. I truly wish I had better descriptive powers (or a useable photograph) this was really something to behold.

December 12, 1999 - Arenal Lodge - We take a one hour complimentary horse back ride around the grounds in the morning - I much preferred the rent a horse for a day in Osa - "Senor, here is your horse, here are the reins, (no map, no instructions, no guides) now go ride the beaches, roads or trails as you find -see you in a few hours."

I spend the better part of an hour wrestling with the telephone system trying to place a Happy Birthday call to my mother (or Nanny, as she is affectionately known by the kids). The problem is NOT with the Costa Rican phone system, but with MCI Worldcom which maybe succeeding in becoming a global telecommunication house but has a long way to go in customer service. Their automated attendant system hung up on me three times, they had disconnected and had no record of one of our multiple MCI calling cards, spent 10 minutes taking American Express credit card information (there are only 15 digits in the number - it's not clear to me how they managed to spend all that time) before they determined that, "Oh, no, we can't use your credit card on calls going to the United States because of fraud problems." I am issued an "expedited" American Express guaranteed card, which will "only" take four hours to be available. Four hours later, the card is showing up as working on the customer service screens, but not yet "truly functional" (of any use whatsoever) in charging telephone calls. After another hour shuttling the calling card representatives and senior customer service advisory personnel, someone finally offers that since it may take another four hours and since a birthday only occurs once in a year and since three children are by then very impatiently (and loudly), waiting in the background, they would place the call as "a courtesy" call. We have the minute satisfaction of (I think?) having an extended free call back to the United States.

December 13, 1999 - Selva Verde Lodge, on the banks of the Serapiqui River - We arrived last night amidst a downpour which we learned has been almost continual over the past 2-3 weeks. The grounds, the room, our clothing and our spirits are dampened by the weather - this is a clear drawback of a rainforest. Selva Verde is on the banks of the Serapiqui River and is actually a fascinating series of bungalow like structures connected by elevated wooden walkways above the muddy jungle floor. Our fauna viewing last night consisted of dodging hovering bats as the feasted on the available insect population and watching lizards climbing on window screens.

I woke up at 4:30 a.m. to a very strange sound - silence - as the downpour had stopped. I look forward to a jog at sunrise, but I'm thwarted by a resurgence of the celestial flooding at 5:00 a.m.

The rain stopped again at 7:00 a.m. and I am now out enjoying the respite from torrents and believe I may have spotted a faint speck of blue on the distant horizon. There is only one effective strategy for visiting a rain forest - ignore the rain. Once we recognized this yesterday, the experience here improved dramatically.

All of this rain does lead to raging streams and the incredible plant life, five to ten foot wide and long leaves and a lushness which is indescribable.

The air is filled with a pervasive aroma of jungle flowers overwhelmed by the smell of vegetation decay in the drenched forest. The tree canopy is full of "second story" epiphytic orchids and bromeliads and other plants - those that never come in contact with the ground, but derive their nutrients from the decomposing leaves and other plant matter which rests on the upper branches, forming a very complete soil layer, with greater access to the sun for photosynthesis. The bromeliad plant collects water in special pockets at the base of its leaves. These small pools become the homes for many different types of water animals. Literally hundreds of animals may be found living and dying there. The droppings and carcasses of these animals provide extra nutrients for the plant. Much of the rainforest is coated in a thick layer of dark green, fully saturated, mossy, liverworts.

December 14, 1999 - Selva Verde Lodge

The story of the hotel itself is a fascinating one. As explained by the hotel display boards In 1984 Giovanna and Juan Holebrook, owners of Holebrook travel booked a birding tour to the Serapiqui region of Costa Rica. Unfortunately, the travelers were turned away at their arranged facility due to an overbooking. Giovanna immediately flew in to remedy the situation. After a happy resolution to the crisis she learned of plans to destroy 500 acres of primary forest in the area. Following a tour to the threatened forest, Giovanna made a down payment to purchase the land. Later she mused, "Well, I knew that Mother Nature had taken centuries to grow those trees and that we take only minutes to print paper money. I didn't hesitate. I put the deposit down." The idea of Selva Verde Lodge, meaning green jungle, was born and the rest is "history." There are now 45 guest rooms, bungalows, and a research facility criss-crossed by covered wooden walkways on elevated concrete pilings and steal beams.

The Holebrooks have a very close relationship with Elder Hostel, a fantastic program of travel and education with trips and classes throughout the world for over 55 year olds. There are approximately 50 Elder Hostlers staying at the Lodge. (We are the only family with children.) We all eat somewhat institutional food in the communal dining room. (Taste is in the palette of the beholder - our kids insist this is the best food that we've had on the trip - large portions of arroz con pollo, refried beans, and gallo pinto (rice and beans - all prepared with abundant amounts of lard and served from massive caldrons. (The canned half peaches in heavy syrup and Cool-Aid based orange pineapple and strawberry juice in a land of incredible fresh tropical fruit were particularly interesting.)

The most exciting part of staying in a hotel in the jungle is the chance encounters. I was leaving our room for breakfast and came upon four huge yellow tailed, yellow beaked Montezuma Oro Pendulums a few feet away, which I probably would have never discovered in hours of jungle walks and guided tours.

During our walk I try to impress our children to keep in their mind an image of the lush tropical jungle vegetation, as we will not be seeing this through the trip. That concept seems to be lost on them, as children tend to view the world in the current, which subsumes the past and the present, and whatever is will always be. We've also noticed an interesting phenomenon that the "best part" of the trip is usually something that has occurred in the past 24 hours.

This area is known for world class white water river rafting, and after much discussion, we learn that there is a stretch which we can safely go on with the children - Class 1 and 2 rapids easily navigated in a raft. This is a great first rafting experience for the kids and something in which we could all enjoy together as a family, notwithstanding the very tame rafting experience. What we realized is that in general raft trips are so focused on the thrill as opposed to purely the setting, and we would be taking a leisurely float trip ride in the midst of some of the most amazing birding and wildlife settings in the world.

Our guide is Chino, originally from San Jos, who has spent the last seven years running raft trips here. (Chino, literally translated as "Chinaman", is a nickname denoting his Asian facial characteristics.) In Costa Rica there are many gordos (fatty), flacos (skinny) and abuelos (grandfather - any older man).

This adventure includes viewing huge, 4+ foot iguanas high in the Chilimate tree tops 200 feet above us, river otters swimming through the water, great blue herons, osprey (fishing eagle), a variety of king fishers, vultures, hawks, cranes, green parrots, parakeets and macaws. (We learned that the scarlet macaw is making somewhat of a comeback in the area due to extensive public information campaigns after poaching for feathers and pets, valued at $5,000 U.S. per bird - a very strong incentive to go with the "dark side" of the force, decimated its population). The less brightly colored Green Macaw trades at $2,000 on the black market.)

We do NOT see crocodiles, which reportedly inhabit the Serapiqui banks during the summer dry season (January-May). (In the wet season they find it more difficult to locate prey in the quick moving, murky rapids.) We are assured that families with young children swim in the river throughout the year - the crocodiles allegedly find plenty of non-human prey and do not bother with tasty children.

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Simon Family Itinerary as of March 26, 2000

Nov 27 - Dec 20 - Costa Rica
Nov 27 - Maria Alexandra Aparthotel, San Jose
Nov 28 - Lapas Rios Hotel
Nov 29-Dec 1 - Tulemar Bungalows, Manuel Antonio National Park, Quepos
Dec 2-7 - Lookout Inn, Carate, Osa Peninsula
Dec 8-10 - El Sapo Dorado Lodge, Monteverde
Dec 11-12 - Arenal Lodge, Arenal Volcano
Dec 13-15 - Selva Verde Lodge, Serapiqui
Dec 16-18 - Mawamba Lodge, Tortuguero
Dec 19 - Maria Alexandra Aparthotel, San Jose

Dec 20, 1999 - Jan 6, 2000 - Guatemala
Dec 20-22 - La Quinta De Las Flores, Antigua
Dec 23-26 - Mayan Inn, Chichicastenango
Dec 27 - Aurora Hotel, Antigua
Dec 28-29 - Jungle Lodge, Tikal, Peten
Dec 30 - Aurora Hotel, Antigua
Dec 31-Jan 3 - Posada de Santiago, Santiago Atitlan
Jan 4 - Casa Azul, Antigua
Jan 5 - Hotel Viva Clarion Suites, Guatemala City

Jan 6-18 - Honduras
Jan 6-8 - Hotel Plaza, Copan Ruinas
Jan 9 - Hotel de Paris, La Ceiba
Jan 10 - 17- Plantation Beach Resort, Cayos Cochinos (Hog Islands), Bay Islands

Jan 18-24 - Guatemala
Jan 18-20 - Hotel Viva Clarion Suites, Guatemala City
Jan 21 - Volcan San Marcos (Camping), Lake Atitlan
Jan 22 - Santa Catarina Hotel, Lake Atitlan
Jan 23 - Viva Clarion Suites Hotel, Guatemala City

Jan 24 - Mexico

Jan 24-29 - Houston
Jan 24-25 - Drury Inn, The Woodlands
Jan 26-29 - Holiday Inn Select, Houston

Jan 30 - Los Angeles
Jan 30 - Embassy Suites Hotel, Los Angeles

Jan 31 - United Airlines Flight #1, Somewhere over the Pacific

Feb 1-6 - Thailand
Feb 1 - Quality Inn Suites, Bangkok
Feb 2-3 - Taepae Place Hotel, Chiang Mai
Feb 4 - "Guesthouse", Karen Village
Feb 5 - Taepae Place Hotel, Chiang Mai

Feb 6-10 - Laos
Feb 6-9 - Lang Xhiang Guesthouse, Luong Probang

Feb 10-13 - Thailand
Feb 10 - Overnight "Express" Train to Bangkok
Feb 11-12 - Ambassador Hotel, Bangkok

Feb 13-16 - Cambodia
Feb 13-15 - Ankgor Hotel, Siem Reap

Feb 16-March 3 - India
Feb 16 - Ashoka Palace, Delhi
Feb 17 - Surya Hotel, Delhi
Feb 18 - Jaypee Palace Hotel, Agra
Feb 19 - Hotel Sariska Palace, Sariska National Park, Alwar, Rajasthan
Feb 20-24 - Hotel Samode Palace, Samode, Rajasthan
Feb 25 - Samode Bagh ("Garden" - Camping), Samode, Rajasthan
Feb 26-28 - Hotel Gorbandh Palace, Jaiselmar, Rajasthan
Feb 29 - Camel Safari, Jaiselmar, Rajasthan
March 1 - Hotel Gorbandh Palace, Jaiselmar, Rajasthan
March 2 - Overnight "Express" Train to Delhi

March 3-13 - Nepal
March 3 - Hotel Shanker, Kathmandu
March 4-6 - Radisson Hotel, Kathmandu
March 7-10 - Bardia Jungle Cottages, Royal Bardia National Park, Thakura
March 11-12 - Radisson Hotel, Kathmandu

March 13-22 - Bhutan
March 13-14 - Hotel Gangtey Palace, Paro
March 15 - Taktsang Hotel, Thimpu
March 16 - Camping in a snow field at 12,200 feet outside the Phajoding Monestary near Thimpu
March 17 - Taktsang Hotel, Thimpu
March 18 -Hotel Y.T. (Yeshay Tenzin),Lobesa, Punakha
March 19-21 - Hotel Gangtey Palace, Paro

March 22-April 12 - Nepal
March 22 - Radisson Hotel, Kathmandu
March 23-27 - Mirabel Resort, Dhulikhel
March 28 - Radisson Hotel, Kathmandu
March 29-April 10 (approx) - Trekking in the Langtang region

April 12-May 4 - Japan
May 4-May 20 - China
May 20-31 - Egypt (We may bypass Egypt and fly directly to Johannesburg, South Africa)
June 1-Aug 21 - Southern Africa and Europe (Probably ending with several weeks in Norway)