Me, Myself and I

Travel can be a lonely business. New sights, new sounds, new tastes, even new language and cultural norms– you can be surrounded by it all, yet feel extremely isolated at the same time. Even if you have a friend along for the ride, being in a strange new place can make you feel all sorts of alone. Subtract that friend from the equation, and you’ve got lonely to the second power.

All by myself, don’t wanna be…

When I decided to go down to Central America alone, a majority of the responses was “Why?” Some thought I was crazy, some thought I was a silly girl who couldn’t take care of herself, some were worried I’d have trouble making friends. I was most apt to agree with the latter sentiment.

I’ve always considered myself a relatively social person…in preexisting conditions. That is, when I’m around old friends I can be a social butterfly– making bad jokes and laughing the loudest at myself. But in new places, filled with new people, it’s like the first day of kindergarten all over again. I get shy and nervous and oddly sweaty. I’m six-years-old again, and it’s no fun.

Those who thought I was traveling by myself to prove a point, they were right too. I wanted to grow up. I didn’t want to turn into a six-year-old in new social situations. I wanted to learn how to talk to people, to learn their stories. After all, how else could I become a good journalist.

So when my fellow travelers and I parted ways a month in, I found myself nervous but also excited. Excited at the prospect of making it, just me, myself and I.  Because the first step to curing loneliness on the wanderlust trail is to be OK with being alone.

It started with a day hike in the Monteverde cloud forest in Costa Rica. I walked the hills from Santa Elena town to the Biological Reserve at Monteverde. For several hours, I was alone in the world. Just some rambling passersby, my thoughts and the occasional cow to keep me company.

In day to day life, we can pass hours by ourselves– surfing the web, zoning out in front of the television, even exiling ourselves to the three snug walls of our cubicles. But none of those hours bring us closer to ourselves. There are distractions at every turn, especially when a little human contact is only a text or tweet away. But when you travel by yourself, those banal distractions vanish. There is no longer a cell phone to check every five minutes for the latest Facebook status update or Twitter feed or Pinterest pingback or whatever other technological jargon is passing for human speak these days. All you have for entertainment is time and how you choose to spend it.

For me that meant actually seeing the land– observing rather than passing by, hurried and distracted. Being by myself meant I saw things I normally might have ignored.

Like handcrafted signs at the mouth of a tiny gravel path shadowed by overgrown trees…

…or discovering just the right vantage point from my post atop the world…

…and recognizing what the Mayans called the Tree of Life…

…while being terrified a flying rodent might whip past my head…

…but urging myself to venture onto an unknown path.

That first day, I began the process of getting to know myself. Not the self I project when nervous, or sleepy in the grocery store, or trying to impress a group of new people. Just me. Because if I could become friends with that girl, I could make friends with anyone.

New Word Wednesday (plus math!)

Apologies for the lack of blogs lately. I’ve been juggling many a fruit and vegetable above my head recently. Until the circus is over, I can offer you a little something. And since it’s Wednesday…

Algebraic [ al-jah-bray-ick ] (adj): relating to or involving algebra (duh)

To my high school math teacher Mr. Fulmer. If you’re reading this, I’m sorry. You were a great teacher. It wasn’t your fault I never understood the point of learning calculus, and loathed that mandatory weekend up in Payson at Calculus Camp.

I think I just described every 16-year-old girl’s nightmare. But that’s beside the matter, since I got a 5 on the AP Calc test (can I get a what? what! for overachievers) and never had to take math again. I just could never figure out why it was important to learn cosigns and limits and how to add letters together. Because I did not aspire to become a physicist or mathematician or high school math teacher, I always questioned when I would EVER use that stuff again.

And, honestly, I didn’t. That is, until I came across this yesterday:

That is my handwriting, in a notebook that’s about two years old. I have no recollection of ever writing any of it, and no idea what I was using it for.

As mysterious as it is, it just goes to show that apparently we DO use math after high school. Even those of us who have to pull out a calculator to figure out tip on a check (I’m not pointing fingers at myself, just being inclusive). Now that’s some Algebraic magic.

The 11th Most Beautiful National Park in the World

Imagine a place that takes pride not in being number one, not number three, not even in the top ten. But in being number eleven. Imagine that under dog and you’ve got Parque Manuel Antonio in Costa Rica.

Forbes named Manuel Antonio among the 12 most beautiful national parks on the globe. Apparently they couldn’t pick just ten. But it’s no matter since Costa Rica is darn proud to be eleventh best.

It’s also one of the smallest national parks out there– only about four-thousand acres, or just over six square miles. Despite it’s small size, however, it still attracts more than 150-thousand visitors a year. And you’ll swear you’ve encountered every single one of them before the end of your trip.

You see, Costa Rica is perhaps the most popular place for Gringos to visit in Central America. Panama City may be a canal-crazy, bizarro world Miami but Costa Rica, particularly Manuel Antonio, is like Disneyland. Tourists and overpriced “My Grandma Went To Costa Rica and All She Brought Me Was This Crummy Shirt” t-shirts as far as the eye can see.

Manuel Antonio is beautiful, just like so many other parks across Central America. The difference is, it knows. Higher prices and swarms of tourists come with the territory. A bottle of sunblock put me back 16 dollars. No joke.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t go. Americans may be tricked into buying 20 dollar sub-par hamburgers but they sure do know their nature. Wherever the tourists are, it’s sure to be beautiful.

For example, Manuel Antonio is home to perhaps the most lovely beach I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting. The water is bathtub-warm, the sand stretches for days and, unlike my childhood beach of yore, we didn’t have to trudge across asphalt and zooming cars and day-trippers to find a resting place.

And the bordering rainforest is likely to produce the most wildlife you’ll ever see in one place in a matter of hours. A word of advice, though, take a tour guide and go as early as possible. He or she will know a heck of a lot more about how to spot monkeys than you, and all those tourists I just ragged on? They start flowing in once the clock hits 9 a.m.

Our guide was Nico and boy was he dedicated to his craft.

Nico and his telescope

Multiple protests from us to keep moving at a brisker pace did not sway Nico in the least. He was determined to find every creature he could with that telescope, even if took an hour at each stop. It was quite sweet actually. Plus, we saw a ton.

This is a land crab. Apparently it nests on leaves instead of under the sand.

Monkey photo shoot

I call this “too cool to care”

We saw three sloths in under an hour. Or as Nico put it, tres perezosos!

These three foot iguanas are everywhere. I almost stepped on at least four. Little buggers…

Ultimately the beaches and animals won us over. Despite the masses of tourists we passed walking out of the park, despite the outrageously expensive food, despite a very slow tour guide who couldn’t take a hint. Because even with the hour-long lines and screaming children, sometimes Disneyland can be wonderful after all. And it knows it.

All we need are mouse ears

Manuel Antonio was certainly the most touristy place we visited, but it redeemed itself time and again. Eleven times over, to be precise.

Photo courtesy of my amazingly talented friend Anna

The “Perks” Of Being A Movie

I thought I’d take a break from the travel writing today. Instead I want to talk about books. And movies. And books that are made into movies.

When I first began gestating this blog baby I wanted to focus on my personal thesis that books are always better than movies. I was told I’d probably be alienating most of America with that theme so I might want to start brainstorming with a wider net.

However, I still believe in my original premise. Or, rather, I believe that when a book is made into a movie, nine times out of ten the original story as written on paper will be better than what’s condensed onto film. There’s simply too much a book can do that a movie can’t: a more elaborate plot, better character development, omniscient narration (which can be a bit much in a movie) and the simple gratification of really good writing. Don’t get me wrong; I love movies. I just think the two work better apart, in separate cubicles, down the hall from each other.

Every so often, though, the universe finds a wrinkle in time and delivers us a book-turned-movie that works. The writers, directors, actors and producers are like a constellation of stars that only line up correctly every blue moon. Something about the ensemble transports the film out of “obviously used to be a (better) book” territory and into simply “good movie” territory.

I think the key is the movie has to hold up on its own merit, not that of the book it’s based on. It cannot assume everyone in the audience has read the book and can easily piece together what’s missing on the screen. It has to be judged as a great piece of cinematography, not literature. That’s why the “Harry Potter” films worked and “The Hunger Games” film missed the mark.

Recently I saw a book-turned-movie that recreated itself brilliantly for the silver screen.

Most everyone who grew up in the 1990′s/early 2000′s has read The Perks of Being a Wallflower, or has at least heard of it. And anyone who had a less-than-Hollywood adolescence can relate to at least one of the story lines that play out in the series of letters sent by protagonist Charlie to an anonymous pen pal. It is the epitome of teen novels– dealing with first love, abuse, homosexuality, bullying and the day-to-day struggle of getting up in the morning when you’re 15 years old.

And it works well as a movie. I was surprised when I first saw the trailer, wondering how they could possibly turn a collection of letters into a feature-length film. But I think that’s what actually worked in the filmmakers’ favor. That lack of prosaic writing allowed a good amount of wiggle room for the set, characters and dialogue.

Plus it helped that the filmmaker was actually the author himself. Stephen Chbosky wrote the screenplay and directed. I don’t think many authors actually get much input in films based on their books, because a screenplay is a much different beast than a piece of  fiction. Oftentimes someone good at the one is not so hot at the other; they’re two separate talents. But Chbosky seems to be an exception– he took out large chunks of the book’s plot, wrote clever dialogue that never appeared in print and even injected a healthy dose of humor into an otherwise depressing story.

The best part of it all is that you don’t have to know the book to love the movie. (Just ask my mom.) And I think Chbosky has a lot to do with that. He transcended that ever elusive line between literature and film with ease and grace. It appears giving the original writer a bit more input on the adaptation is the key to a successful book-to-movie evolution. Perhaps if the same had been done for the Twilight series, the movies wouldn’t be so horrendous to the eyes and ears….Oh who are we kidding? If a good book doesn’t necessarily equal good movie, think about what an uphill battle a bad book has in front of it.

My recreation of the original book cover

What are some good book-to-movie adaptations you’ve seen? What’s the absolute worst?

The Travel Chicken

Sometimes travel is just one big game of chicken. Can you hold out longer than all other forces trying to get you to turn around and go home?

Traveling in Central America is a very large game of chicken– will you go into this cave without a flashlight? will you jump off this bridge into murky water? will you negotiate down the price of a hand-crafted hammock? Everywhere you turn there’s a challenge taunting you into backing down.

Air travel is one of the biggest chickens, so to speak. While taking a bus, a taxi, or Uncle Rico’s mule across the border is ridiculously simple, border hopping via plane can get you into a pickle.

At first, it won’t be so bad. In fact, it will be incredibly easy to buy a one-way plane ticket from Guatemala City to Panama City, like we did on TACA Airlines. And it will be relatively cheap (+/- $200). However, once you get to the airport in GC and attempt to check in, the attendant behind the counter will tell you that you’re not allowed on the plane.

You see, some countries require proof of exit before you can even enter their domain. Even if you plan on taking a bus across the border and have a return ticket home to the U.S. a month later, the airlines will tell you that’s not enough proof that you plan on leaving the country and didn’t you read the fine print on their website? (Here, you will be tempted to scream loudly, “Who reads the fine print?!”)

And so you will be bullied into buying a totally unnecessary and, because it’s the last minute, expensive airplane ticket out of the very northern tip of Panama into the southern region of Costa Rica.

The upside? The airline ticket counter manager may feel so bad for your obvious American naivety that he’ll upgrade you to first class. Mimosas anyone?

Your predisposition towards rants and temper tantrums will return when you reach Panama City and no one– not at customs, not at baggage claim, not even your taxi driver– will ask you for that oh-so-important proof of exit. You will feel swindled, you will feel bullied and you will feel angry.

I’m warning you now so that you won’t be like me and pass the entire situation off as a fluke– a one time bout of bad luck. Because it will happen again, I guarantee it. But this time you’ll be ready.

For us, this déjà vu occurred when we checked in at the Bocas del Toro airport. We were told we needed yet another proof of exit for Costa Rica. The most hilarious part of all is that we were trying to board a plane we didn’t even want to take in the first place. High-larry-us, I tell you!

This time around, though, we were prepared. When the ticketing agent told us we needed to get on the phone with the bus agency we planned on using to get us out of Costa Rica, we just laughed. He was Panamanian for Pete’s sake! Does he honestly think someone emailing us proof of purchase of a non-existent ticket is high on the priority list? Things do not happen fast around these parts. Remember?

Instead, we went for coffee. When we returned, the agent asked us if we got confirmation. We told him we had given it our best effort but no dice. He sighed and skulked back to his office. He emerged a minute later with a fake itinerary printed out for the four of us. It listed a return date 30 days away and a plane reference number. We had played his game. And we won.

Victory on air

Two hours and two flights in minuscule planes later, we arrived in Quepos, Costa Rica. And guess what? No one ever asked us for that dang itinerary.

Now, I’m not recommending this plan of action in airports around the globe. You really don’t want to mess with customs and homeland security in many places, the U.S. included. However, there is some wiggle room. If we were prepared, we would have done our homework and realized many countries actually do have proof of exit requirements. In Central America, those rules can be skirted when sticking to the ground instead of the air. So, if you plan on traveling around the region above the clouds just make sure you’re prepared to shell out some extra dinero for a return ticket. If not, then you’d better be ready for one hell of a game of chicken.