Friday, May 28, 2010

Perfectly Pura Vida?, Part 2

Sorry for the delay. Here’s the continuation of what I learned from my most recent trip to Costa Rica:

15. Spanish really is my default foreign language. Guess those four years of high school Spanish classes weren’t a complete loss!

16. You really can find Chinese food anywhere. This entire San Jose shop is devoted to my favorite sausage: lop cheong.

17. …Along with all of your favorite American fast-food brand names.

18. If you think that what you’re hearing is the little pitter patter of tiny rodent feet in the space between your ceiling and the roof, it probably is.

19. Never feel guilty about going back for seconds at a buffet, especially when it’s as good as this breakfast was at Parque del Lago Hotel Vivo in San Jose. (I had already taken a bite when I remembered to snap my photo.)

20. This is especially true when chorreadas (corn pancakes with a sweet sour cream topping) and gallos (tacos, I suppose) are involved.

21. Tacky—and questionably offensive—souvenirs are here to stay.

22. Oh, and as long as the pile of shit is just near the top of the waterslide and not actually in the waterslide, you’re cool.

23. A volcano view beats an ocean view any day.

24. Even though I’m more of a dog person, I thought these cats were pretty cool.

25. Kids are cute, but dancing kids up the cuteness quotient tenfold.

26. I love it when I see faces in inanimate objects.

27. Sexually charged sculptures aren’t always considered tasteless; to some people, they’re akin to fine art. So, don’t be a hater.

28. Everything tastes better with a side of Salsa Lizano (top left).

29. Dancing makes everything better—even a cruise to nowhere in particular.

30. And, last but not least, we’ll always have Thermooooo ... Maaaaania—always.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Perfectly Pura Vida?

I’ve just returned from a weeklong press trip to Costa Rica and, while I’m grateful for the amazing experiences that it afforded me, I must admit that I’ve never been happier to be home from a press trip. I even had a hard time keeping it together after spotting the 405 while I flew into LAX. This, I think, has a lot more to do with how the press trip was organized by the Instituto Costarricense de Turismo (ICT), or Costa Rica Tourism Board—not with how Costa Rica itself, as a destination, really is.

Shady accommodations (with the exception of The Springs Resort & Spa and Trogon Lodge), 5 a.m. wake-up calls, painfully long bus rides, 6 p.m. lunches and 9 p.m. dinners preceded by long-winded PowerPoint presentations were the main culprits. (I’m not alone in my assessment, either; Christopher P. Baker, a fellow journalist on my press trip and the author of many, many Costa Rica guidebooks also agreed.)

But even though this trip may have had a disproportionate amount of downs compared to ups, I didn't exactly see it that way. I’m still glad I went on it and grateful for the opportunities that I had to see so much of Costa Rica. I also know that the ICT really had good intentions; they just didn't execute them in the best way sometimes. In fact, I’d still want to go back to Costa Rica in a heartbeat: I love its rich culture, its super-friendly people, its deliciously wholesome and hearty food and its breathtaking nature and wildlife.

And, as the saying goes, what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger, right? Or it just gives you a really bad chest cold like the one I have right now. Luckily, blog writing doesn’t require me to get up out of bed at all—or actually try to use my voice.

Another bonus from this trip? I got to know an amazing group of fellow travel writers, photographers and videographers from the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil and even Uruguay. Together, we muddled through somehow and I know that those shared memories are ones that we’ll always look back on with fondness and laughter.

Those memories and the lessons that I learned from this trip are truly invaluable to me now. More than the bags of CaffĂ© Britt coffee or bottles of Salsa Lizano that I lugged home, these are the things that I will treasure most. Not to sound clichĂ©, but it’s true: we might travel for many reasons but no matter where or why we go, we always learn something from the experience, especially so when things aren't necessarily perfect. So, in no particular order, here are the things I learned from my Costa Rica trip:

1. The ability to sleep on long bus rides is crucial when you have days that start at 5 a.m. and end at midnight. Lucky for me, I can fall asleep on any bus ride, even more so when it’s for three of four hours at a time on unpaved roads.

2. You’re never too old—or young—to play in the mud.

3. Off! Light & Fresh scented towelettes might smell better than the Deep Woods ones, but the Deep Woods ones work 10 times better. Trust me.

4. For that matter, bring a spray-on bug spray, too, and don’t forget to douse the bed sheets with it.

5. If the bathroom reeks of raw sewage and you’re being attacked by crickets while you sleep, resort to a makeshift shower of Charmin wipes, followed by the aforementioned Off! Deep Woods towelettes.

6. No matter how hard you try, you will never be able to make zipline gear look remotely fashionable.

7. Before you take a sip of your vodka tonic, check to make sure there’s no cockroach at the bottom of the glass. To paraphrase Mr. Baker: "If Mexico is known for its tequila worm, does that mean that Costa Rica should be known for its vodka cucaracha?"

8. If I wanted to build my tropical dream house, I’d hire the owners of Monte Azul to do it for me.

9. I’m a sucker for handicrafts…

10. …and baby animals.

11. I really need to upgrade my camera and get a better lens. This was my best shot of the quetzal we spotted in the forests of San Gerardo de Dota. It's pretty awful.

 12. This is a postcard of what the quetzal actually looks like.

13. I know some people detest it, but I love papaya.

14. Hummingbirds never cease to amaze me.

 More to come later…

Friday, May 21, 2010

Wish You Were Here

This is what I woke up to this morning:

Not a bad view, huh? Ocean views are definitely nice, but how often can you say you’ve booked a room with a volcano view?

Right now, I’m in Costa Rica, near the Arenal Volcano, on a press trip with a group of travel journalists from North and South America. We’re staying at The Springs Resort & Spa, which—I can assure you—will be added to my updated list of favorite hotels ever.

It’s absolutely stunning—natural hot springs can be found throughout the resort; the food is excellent (I highly recommend the ceviche); and the views, well, they’re simply breathtaking. Not only that, I’ve got hot water, a hair dryer, a telephone, a clock and complimentary hair conditioner.

Normally, I’d take the above items for granted but I was, in some instances, taken by surprise a few times on this trip. You see, the majority of the hotels I’ve stayed in prior to this one haven’t always included those amenities. In fact, one in particular reminded me of my European hostelling adventures back in college—albeit this one included lots of dead bugs. (Please see below for the photographic evidence.)

Nevertheless, I remained an optimist and, thankfully, it looks like that sunny outlook has finally been rewarded.

But although this place is really spectacular, it’s not exactly perfect. Even though I’m here, I really wish I could spend today someplace else, with someone else, instead. I’m not saying that my fellow journalists are incorrigible or unbearable—it’s quite the opposite, actually. But, truth be told, I’d rather be waking up to this volcano with my best friend by my side, or watching him blow out the candles on his birthday cake back at home.

If there’s one thing that’s not ideal about being a travel writer, it’s that you don’t always get to spend these kinds of moments with your closest friends and family. Sure, I can whip out my camera and show off my pictures, but it’s just not the same as sharing that actual moment with someone you truly care about.

Even though I can’t be with Eliot today, I know that in just a few days, I’ll see him once again. He’ll be the first to hear about my quetzal sightings; about the zipline rappelling course where I was put into a very compromising position with one of the guides (I still don’t understand why they told me I wasn’t heavy enough to go down by myself); and about the hot springs waterslide that made me feel like a little kid all over again. I can’t wait.

Until then, I’ll just keep wishing.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Oh, The Places You’ll Go

During Mother’s Day brunch, while my family and I were gorging ourselves on the feast that my brother, boyfriend and I had cooked up for the occasion—pasta with butternut squash and kale in a brown butter sauce , a Spanish-style omelet and fluffy ricotta pancakes with lemon curd—I started thinking seriously about my mom—and my dad.

Both of my parents aren’t frequent fliers or travelers in the least bit. Since leaving China in the 1950s as young children, they haven’t set foot outside North America, not even to go back to China or Hong Kong. Growing up, their families didn’t have much money, so the furthest they’d go might be to take a camping trip in the forests near Princeton, N.J. (where my dad grew up), to drive down to Texas (which was just a little south of where my mom grew up in Wichita, Kan.) or to drive up north to Canada (to visit relatives on my mom’s side).

Growing up, the most exotic place we’d traveled to together as a family—grandma included— was to Hawaii, followed by San Francisco, San Diego, Lake Tahoe and Las Vegas. These weren't exactly faraway places but they still remain, in my memories, as some of the best trips ever.  

The thing is, however, that I don’t think my parents have stayed put by choice. Extenuating circumstances and obligations, including caring for my grandmother (for 22+ years, no less) and helping to put my brother and me through college, would be some of the biggest reasons.

They don’t talk about this much, but I can tell. I can especially see it every time my mom turns on the TV and tunes into her favorite Spanish-speaking shows on Telemundo and Univision in an attempt to keep her Spanish skills intact (strange, I know, but she majored in Spanish in college, hoping to one day work as a U.N. translator and is almost fluent). Or when my mom petitioned my dad to apply for a passport with her a few years back. Or whenever my dad takes the time to print out extremely detailed maps of the airports where I’ll be flying into, just to make sure I don’t get lost and miss any connections (that one really gets to me). They both yearn to travel abroad—but they just haven’t had a chance to.

And here I was, bummed from missing out on a trip to Germany when I’ll be headed to other trips (most likely) in the next few months, anyway. It’s pretty pathetic. Far too often, I forget how fortunate I've been to be able to go to so many places.

So, if there’s just one thing I could wish for this year, I wish that my parents could finally pack their bags and go on a trip somewhere—anywhere (just not within the continental U.S.). Perhaps they could head to Spain, so my mom can finally practice her Spanish, or maybe even to China or Hong Kong, so they can try to piece together what fragments they can still remember from growing up there. Wherever it is, I just hope they get to go and that they get to—finally—fill up those pages in their newly minted passports. (Photo (c) 

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A Vacation With Staying Power

Some of us might associate a “staycation” with the following terms: “cheap,” “budget” and/or “value-oriented.” (Yes, you know who you are.) For some travelers, the staycation is a byproduct of hard times—it’s an ugly neologism for having to stick it out at home instead of logging more stamps into the pages of your passport. It’s almost as vile in its origins, some might argue, as the phrase, “dining al desko,” which, sadly, is something I practice on a near daily basis.

Well, you can call me an optimist (or a fool), but I like to think of the staycation in a much more positive light. For me, the staycation is more of a mini-break; it’s a short holiday where I don’t have to fret about baggage fees or airport traffic and one where my internal clock won’t go out of whack. Looking back, I’ve covered a lot of staycations for work in the past two years. From Torrance (my hometown), Bel-Air, Rancho Bernardo and Palm Springs to Del Mar, Manhattan Beach and Long Beach, I’ve been lucky enough to recharge my batteries for much-needed and short—but entirely relaxing—weekend stays.

This past weekend, I visited Huntington Beach, aka Surf City USA. Although I’ve lived in Southern California for the entirety of my life, I’ve actually never been to Huntington Beach. So, it was definitely a treat to be able to stay there for two nights at the Hilton Waterfront Beach Resort and to explore its charming downtown with 20 or so other fellow journalists and their plus ones.

It was also — in a funny way — somewhat strange to feel like a tourist in a city that’s only about 20 miles south of your home base. Our group of 24 even packed ourselves into the O.C. Cruiser at one point. Serenading us with the entire anthology of Beach Boys songs in the background, our tour bus dropped us off at the Bolsa Chica Wetlands and dog-friendly Dog Beach. Later, on a walking tour of downtown, we certainly fit the part of tourists from elsewhere or, at least I did with a gigantic camera hanging around my neck. It also didn’t help that when we stopped by the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory for a fudge-making demo, the proprietor of Zack’s mistook me for a Japanese tourist, clasping his hands together while bowing and exclaiming, “Konnichiwa.” (Almost makes you wonder how they’re going to enforce that immigration bill in Arizona. Perhaps I should start carrying my passport with me if I cross state lines.)

No matter; I still had a blast posing as a semi-tourist in my own backyard. In fact, I think we don’t often appreciate our own local neighborhoods as much as we should, whether or not we’re mired in an economic recession. For evidence, feel free to take a look:

Our day of touring began with a ride aboard the O.C. Cruiser.

The first stop? The Bolsa Chica Wetlands where we got up close and personal with the resident birds.

Next stop: Dog Beach. I need to take Odie here one of these days. This pug was so cute.

Speaking of dogs, I love how there are "Doggie Walk Bags" everywhere, and they even come with instructions, too.

Moving on, we headed to the International Surfing Museum where even the doormats are shaped like surfboards.

Then, it was time for lunch at Fred's Mexican Cafe where I had one of my faves: mahimahi tacos.

Later, our downtown walking tour took us to an antiques shop ...

... where you can buy your own set of Rockem Sockem Robots.

And even though downtown has a lot of stores that you might find elsewhere, like a gigantic Forever 21, it still has a lot more character than some other beach cities along the coast, I think.

But, of course, no matter where you go, food and drink will play a major factor in whether you want to come back or not. So, in the name of good journalism, we just had to stop for a Guinness Milkshake from 25 Degrees ...

... and observe a fudge-making demonstration at the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, where we discovered that making fudge is tough—but delicious—work.

Later, we'd indulge in dinner at Duke's where Eliot and I felt compelled to polish off this entire mud pie (Yes, we can, and we did).

And the next morning, we'd enjoy my favorite meal of the trip: breakfast.

So, wherever you’re headed this summer—or in the near future—I hope you’ll take the time to take in your surroundings, even if they’re only a car ride away.