Saturday, April 19, 2014

Homeward Trekking

And here we are on our final day, within a long stone's throw of the ocean. Today was quiet and uneventful, the hottest and brightest of the trip. Most students traveled to one of the three nearby beaches, where they finally reached the Pacific. The beach itself was less attractive than the beachside pool associated with the hotel - this is where most of the students ended up before returning to the buses. A handful remained at the Nacascol Resort building up strength for the long journey home - and getting over a few viruses. A second excursion with just a few students returned to the beach after lunch. By this time, many students were pining for home, planning purchases at the Houston Airport that were not available here in Costa Rica.

Our last collective meeting was tonight after dinner. Our large group was gathered to review the plans for tomorrow's departure. The group that flew from Dulles on Saturday has a 3:30 am departure from the hotel. Yes, that is right. Up at 3:00 and out the door. for a 6:00 am flight They have a long layover in Houston and then they arrive at Dulles in the evening. Those of us who traveled through Chicago on the way here have a more reasonable trip this time - at the airport by 9:30 am, a short layover in Houston, and then home to National by 11:00 (delays willing).

Our Costa Rican farewell was a wistful affair.  Students made a birthday cake for Nick's birthday and serenaded him with a hearty song. A salsa band at the restaurant also found themselves face-to-face with our 63 students. After a brief try with Eric Clapton and the Beegees, they gave up and gave in to their roots. For all their coaxing, no locals found the dance floor, but at times some of our Viking girls danced to music that will not be played at the 8th grade dance in June (but should!). We released the students to an early curfew. A few last minute crises around towels (how can someone end up with 6 blue towels when they started with just one?) and scorpions (I successfully removed one from a bed only to have it go missing somewhere else in the student's room - we evacuated!) didn't slow sleeptime too much.

The next time we will report will be, well, never! With a continuation of the general good luck we have had on this trip so far, we will all be home tomorrow. No doubt that we have had fun, learned a bit, and saw a lot that Costa Rica has to offer - now we can appreciate home even more. Thanks to all our families for supporting student experiences like this world language trip - it was a powerful opportunity and your children took advantage of it.

Pura Vida!

Friday, April 18, 2014

From Jungleland to Home on the Range

Today was probably the least action we have seen this long week. We bade farewell to Lavas Tacotal under heavy clouds and fog. The clear mountain view from yesterday was long gone and the day felt as if the clouds were going to pout on us. A quick exit took us to the Arenal National Park about 10 minutes down the road. We went on a short (2 kilometer) hike that took us to a lava-covered viewpoint that was as close to Areanl as we were allowed to get.

A small group of students and teachers stayed back at the hotel as a combination virus/sun/food illness swept our crew. Even one of our guides (Gustavo) was afflicted. In each case the illness affected its victim differently, although in most cases it was a 24-hour upset. Much speculation on the source of the illnesses, but families were notified as needed and students ate less and were given time to get better. The bulk of the illnesses are probably over at this point, but the experience, nasty and unpleasant for the sick seems to have given everyone a good conversation piece at home.

The remainder of the day was spent leaving the jungles on the volcano's slopes and heading towards Guanacaste. Within minutes of our lunch break, the environment shifted to ranchland - the northwestern part of Costa Rica is something like Texas in look and feel. Ranches are everywhere, stables are now visible, the land is dry and the air is hot - all sense of lushness is vanished. There was even a saddlery on the main road.

After a pit stop at a supermarket, we returned to the road. Our final hotel, Nacascol, is just a couple of miles from the beach. It is designed as a small village of condos and single family buildings, with dozens of exciting amenities for the kids: ping-pong, futbol, volleyball, video games, and more. We just finished our 57th large meal and are off to do a room check. Tomorrow, the beach beckons - and then a short night and a return.

We are here having fun, but we are also almost home. See you soon!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Trifecta in La Fortuna

The last couple of days have been busy. As I noted yesterday, we traveled to La Fortuna. Here is an iguana, posing with style at the Las Iguana tourist trap, visited on yesterday's journey. These are fat and sassy lizards, accustomed to the endless attention of a stream of tourists. Impressive, nonetheless.

Here is an actual shot of La Fortuna, with Arenal Volcano looming in the distance. You can see how helpful the EF Tours backpacks are - especially with as compliant a group as Deal 8th graders. La Fortuna is more than a one-stoplight town (example pictured here) but the hardened Costa Rican traveler uses a different measure - one-, two-, or three-ATM towns. The kids here are probably on their way back from Pops, an ice cream chain that must be partly owned by our guide's family, as he reminds us frequently that it is the best in all of Costa Rica. We are a highly suggestible group and buy this product as often as we can.
Our students/your children have been wonderful. They are very interested in where we are and what we see and ask questions along the way.
With today's technology, everyone is a photographer, but Eliza here puts most of us to shame. Once pictures are taken, there is a mad rush to post shots to Instagram wherever wi-fi is available. If you are following your children, you know what I mean.
Time is spent on the bus, but I think they do a good job keeping it to a minimum and the buses are very comfortable.
Finally, the beast of a mountain that we look at all day. Here it is, briefly cloud-free, poking up through the trees. (All these photos are courtesy Patrick Rottman, by the way.)

Today was incredibly busy - we kayaked on Lake Arenal, we hiked down 500+ steps to the La Fortuna Waterfall (and back up), and we visited the Baldi Hot Springs Spa. Each was pretty amazing. The kayaking was done under intense skies along the face of the dam and around several points to a small beach. The waterfall was busy but also offered chances to swim in the outlet stream at the bottom (but not IN the waterfall). The spa remains hard to describe - paths winding through 22 pools, each with its own temperature and design (caves, waterfalls, disco). By the time dinner rolled around, there was just quiet murmuring as they ate and then a rush to their rooms. A number of stomachs are upset, but discomfort seems to be the order of the day rather than outright viral attacks.

And now, a guest writer, Eden Breslow. I asked her to give us some impressions of the day.

"Costa Rica is very different from the US. For starters the weather: it's hot and humid all the time and can go from sunny skies to pouring rain. There are animals everywhere ( I have woken up to hollowing monkeys, teachers knocking on our doors, and croaking frogs numerous times).  We have been on many long drives during which I have noticed towns in which all the roofs are made of metal sheets. I know we still use satellite dishes in the US but there are many here which seems uncommon to me.  Lastly, the food, which consists of a daily staple of rice beans and some type of meat, not to mention fresh fruit (watermelon and pineapple) for breakfast  every morning. I have really enjoyed my time here so far in Costa Rica and hope to have more new experiences in the last few days."

Thank you, Eden! It is now time to get ready for our departure tomorrow - off to a hike, handicraft shops, and then our final hotel in Guanacaste. Wish us well!

Gliding into night

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Down the Sarapiqui Instead of Over

This morning (is it really Wednesday?) a big chunk of our group rafted down the Sarapiqui - the same river that we flew over yesterday. Our day started at another huge breakfast - really, your children should all come back rested and about 5 pounds heavier - and then we prepared for the rafts. If middle school is frequently about limits and the testing thereof, many of our travelers tried to see if the thin little flip-flops they use around the house could withstand the whitewater. This turned out to be not such a big deal, although they were very creative with restringing their shoelaces over their heels to make it all seem secure.

Very friendly guides met us just down the road and we headed over to the put-in place. Suitably attired and quickly trained, we moved down to the river. Cleverly, we had to enter the river by jumping off the bank; this removed any initial squeamishness about getting wet. The river guides were great - our boat guide is on the Costa Rican National Whitewater Team - and were thoroughly professional. The rapids were Class I - III, but as we are in the dry season, the average was a lot close to II! There were some great thrills, and everyone was in the water a minimum of three times - sometimes by design, never by accident (i.e., some were pushed in!).

Nature was at her best this morning. Tiger herons, kingfishers (blue and green(?), cormorants, and summer tanagers joined us. One of the herons proudly held a fish in mid-swallow. We beached after an hour or so to have watermelon and pineapple. What most of the kids missed (thankfully) was the guides removing a dead fer-de-lance (10 feet long) from the beach before they really landed. This is an incredibly poisonous Costa Rican that was indeed met better dead. The water was clear and warmish, the sky a bit overcast, and all pronounced it a blast.

We put out after just over two hours and had lunch and some great conversation. Here we joined our rested students and teachers that hadn't done the whitewater rafting. We thanked and tipped the guides, and headed back on the bus.

Our final stop today (besides a quick visit to La Iguana Ice Cream stand) was the non-bucolic town of La Fortuna. Your students mingled with regular Costa Ricans, had more ice cream, bought hats, and played a quick game of soccer in the big city park. We then headed to Hotel Lavas Tacotal where we are staying for two nights. The students love the view - right up the east flank of Arenal volcano (the picture on the front of this blog, but much much closer). Right now they are in the pool screaming "Marco Polo" in the dusk under ominous clouds. I promised them that tomorrow morning, if it is cleared up, they will see the perfect cone of Arenal.

Tomorrow - kayaking on Lake Arenal, a hike to La Fortuna Waterfall, and a trip to the Baldi Hot Springs - 22 pools of crowded glory. Should be a blast, if an exhausting one at that.

Two final notes. Please read a Deal parent's (Andrew Smiles) account of his trip to Arenal a couple of decades ago when it was more active - it is in the comment section a couple of posts ago. This story or a version thereof was told to our students on the bus - the volcano burst out of dormancy, killed many, and has burbled on and off for 40 years but has just now gone back to sleep. As David, our guide, gleefully told the story there was a slight shift in the mood on the bus. For a few minutes the primary concern was fear that it was going to erupt tonight and that we were way too close. Not much to do about that, unfortunately, once the cat was out of the bag. I am sure that we will have wary students keeping their shoes on for quick dashes away from the volcano's flanks for the next couple of nights.

And finally, I will get some more pictures from Mr. Rottman to liven up the visuals here. Rafting and ziplining are tough to capture when you are in the midst, and the money the official photographers want is a bit high for most. But if possible, I will repost tonight with some pics for parents. Pura Vida!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Sarapiqui Zip

It is evening now here in Sarapiqui - a region of Costa Rica most akin to a county in the States. It is a hot night, sweltering even, not offset much by a breeze this far inland. I realize as I write this that DC is on the receiving end of a batch of snow and some icy weather for the next day or so. Let's just say that we appreciate each other's weather at this time and leave it at that.

Our last night on the Caribbean gave us the chance to enjoy skywatching. About a dozen or so hearty souls watched the lunar eclipse early this morning (I was not hearty enough) and argued about which shade of red the moon most approximated. If they wanted to see it, they were able to; how they were up at midnight is unknowable as they were all pretty exhausted by then.

We left Tortuguero this morning by water taxi. We split into three again - luggage, small boat, big boat. In the two days since we came down the Rio Suerte ("Lucky River") the water level had dropped precipitously. Now that we were fighting the current our progress slowed dramatically, as well. Our pilot was as safe as all our students' parents could want: methodical, perhaps even lethargic, but safety above all - to heck with schedules. It took 2 and a half times as long to go back as it did to get there. It felt like we were cruising the Mississippi with Mark Twain - endless tree limbs out of sight to the travelers but clearly troubling to the pilot. It poured as well, a nice tropical downpour that gave us that steamy feeling in the crowded boat. To top it off, no crocodiles - they apparently don't like rain either.

To really top it off, we became stuck within hailing distance of the dock at La Pavona. This explained the mysterious presence of the boat boy up top - he was ordered into the water to shove our boat off each sandbar. He was more nonchalant about the potential for crocodiles than I was; many of your children also volunteered to leap into the Lucky River, but we were freed in time to keep them on the boat. If you have ever seen the movie African Queen, well, it really felt a bit like that, We were passed by many bemused travelers on much lighter boats, but we kept our spirits up and waved at everyone.

Once finally docked, we had no time to linger at the delights this waystation offered. We had to get to Sarapiqui in time to eat and zipline - and we were well behind time. The buses roared out of La Pavona (after checking three detailed maps, I am convinced the town is not called that because I never did find it) and we worked our way over to the volcanic foothills of Puerto Viejo and our hotel.

The hotel, Ara Ambigua, is a delightful eco-resort (by the way, there are no non-eco-resorts in Costa Rica, it may be against the law) with individual cabins, twisty paths, a lake of caimans, ant trails, and a pizza restaurant. There are a couple of other older school groups here as well (so not interested in our kids!). The kind of place you loved as a kid, but one that is a bit more difficult to love as a chaperone.

A quick lunch and most of the students were ferried over to zip line. A second round went an hour and a half later. The zip-lining was a series of nine interconnected aerial pathways that culminated in a long drop over the Sarapiqui River - the same river we will raft tomorrow. The guides were professional and efficient. Our second group arrived very late and almost didn't get to go - the final long drop would be in the dark by the time we worked our way to it. But we got going and didn't miss a line. At the very end, Mr. Rottman and I stood as the last two participants, watching lightning bugs from our platform and then, once aloft, guessing that there was a river far below us. It was just that dark, a transition that came up swiftly.

We headed back to the hotel where vast amounts of pizza awaited us, and then prepared for curfew and the challenge of keeping everyone more or less happy in a tight setting with other adolescents. Tomorrow we head for our rafting trip and then, after lunch, off to Arenal. We were trying to figure out which day of the week it was, and failed. That is generally a good sign when you are traveling and someone else is driving the bus.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Seder in Tortuguero

A great tradition was continued tonight here in Costa Rica, as recounted by guest blogger Hannah:

Before dinner, we celebrated the Jewish holiday of Passover. Earlier in the day, a fellow student and I spent our time in Tortuguero village, gathering the materials needed: apples, cinnamon, lettuce, etc. We then came back to the hotel and began to prepare, mixing apples, grape juice, cinnamon, and nuts to make the customary Charoset. As the seder began to come into play, more and more Deal students gathered around to see what was going on (most of them not having heard of Passover or a seder). As my fellow Jewish friends led us through the blessings, we ate matzah with charoset, dipped lettuce in salt water, and other seder customs. I couldn't help but smile at the fact that others were joining in, even those who weren't Jewish! Overall, it was a great experience to teach others about Jewish customs and being able to lead others in something I've been doing my whole life.

Hannah Docter-Loeb