Sunday, June 15, 2008

Salma's Visit With Her Grandparents in Fresno, California

Some photos of Salma during her recent visit with her grandparents (my parents) in Fresno, California. We call her grandmother Nena, and her grandfather Giddu.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Entering Panama at the Paso Canoas Border Station

Buses leave the Ciudad Neilly terminal for the border every half hour in the morning. The fare is only 300 colones (less than a dollar). At the station, two Costa Rican asked to see Tracy's passport and mine. They examined our passports then declared that we were in Costa Rica illegally. I told them we had come in on the Panaline bus, and I showed them the immigration stamp. They finally realized that the passport was legally stamped, but that the stamp was faint and hard to see. Perhaps next time I should make sure the immigration agent has a full inkpad. And I could bring him a morning coffee as well, and a few pastelitos de queso.

The bus dropped us off only a few meters from the Panama border post, exactly in the spot that you see below. On the Panama side of the border there is nothing but the border station, but the Costa Rican side hosts a thriving town called Paso Canoas (Canoe Passage - a very old name, I imagine). There must be an Arab community there, as I saw a large store called "Almacen Jerusalem" - Jerusalem Department Store - with a sign depicting an image of the Dome of the Rock mosque.

We walked back to Costa Rican immigration to get an exit stamp, a simple process. Then walked back up the street a hundred meters, through an area very busy with truck traffic, to the Panama border station. There is no fence or wall between the two countries. You simply walk up or down the street to cross from one nation into the other. You could easily cross without going through immigration, but of course you would then be illegal.

Actually I take exception with the idea that a human being can be "illegal" for simply moving about on this earth that God made. I find the entire concept of borders and immigration controls to be artificial and random. But that's another issue.

At the Panama border station I waited in line for almost an hour to get an entry visa. When I got to the window the agent told me I must get a five dollar tourist card, and I have to go to a different building to get it. He said he would hold my passport and I should go get the tourist card and come back to the front of the line. I wandered around until I found the window where you get the tourist card, and the woman said, "I need to see your passport." So I went back to the first building and convinced the man that I needed my passport back. Returned to the tourist card window, bought the card, back to the first guy, got the stamp. At this point no one had checked my bag yet. I asked the immigration agent, "Do I go through customs now?" He shrugged his shoulders and said, "If you like."

The customs building is a circular room with tables all around. About thirty people were waiting to get their bags searched, and not a customs agent in sight. Tracy and I set our bags on the table and waited. We met a young American named Brian who was looking for a volunteer opportunity. I gave him Corrin Skubin's number, since she is working with the indigenous tribes to help them plant cocoa and coffee trees and develop export markets for the cocoa.

Our plan was to get through immigration, take a local bus to David, then catch a bus from there to Panama. As we were waiting a fellow in a TicaBus shirt came through and asked us where we were going. He told us there was a TicaBus express going through immigration and offered us seats for $17 each. That was a lucky break and we paid him. A few minutes later he had still not returned with the tickets. I began to think that maybe I should have paid on the bus. After all, anyone could put on a TicaBus shirt and pretend to be an agent. In Panama they call that juega vivo - literally something like "sharp game" but refers to a cultural attitude that is all about taking advantage, and if I can screw you over or trick you out of your money then it's your fault for being stupid. Goodbye pura vida, welcome to Panama. I went looking for the agent and did not find him.

Finally a customs agent showed up. We opened our bags and he went around the tables, only glancing at each bag, not even touching most of them. He looked at my bag and said, "Ok." No stamp, no tag, nothing. I could have skipped the whole thing and no one would have known the difference.

We went out to the TicaBus and I was relieved to find the agent who had taken our money. Not a juega vivo after all. We got on the bus, which was large and comfortable, with many empty seats.

The bus showed two movies in a row, the first a dark Italian comedy called "Life is Beautiful," then one of my favorite action movies, "The Transporter." I kept an eye on the countryside, which mostly consisted of grassy hills where cattle grazed. Very few trees.

The bus provided a boxed lunch consisting of a cheese and salami sandwich and some sort of pastry. I passed on it. The driver kept the pedal down, passing quickly through David - second largest city in Panama - then Santiago, and AguaDulce. Before I knew it we passed through Penonomé, where I sometimes go for Friday prayer, and then Antón. I moved to the front of the bus and when I saw the El Valle entrance I knocked loudly on the driver's cabin, and he let me out. The eight hour trip had passed quickly.

I caught a local bus up the mountain to El Valle. The bus was completely full, and the driver kept up an insane pace on the mountain road in a light rain. I held on with both hands to keep from being thrown right and left. Soon enough I found myself home, at 5:30 pm. The streets were full of water, the sky still light, and El Valle was as beautiful as ever. Gaital was covered in mist, and the frogs chorused loudly on the backroads as I walked home. Cleo had left the front lights on for me, and it felt good to be able to call this place home.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Working and Working Out in Ciudad Neilly

View of Ciudad Neilly Costa Rica from the mountains
Our plan was to catch the 2pm bus back down the mountain to Ciudad Neilly. We walked in the afternoon heat to the sleepy bus station and found it closed for lunch. Took a taxi back to the town square and I went into the air conditioned internet cafe. They have nice computers with large flat screen monitors. $1 per hour seems to be the standard fee for internet access in all these small Costa Rican towns.

At 1:30 I met up with Tracy and we asked a taxi to take us back to the bus station. "Where are you going?" he wanted to know. "Ciudad Neilly." "I'm going there," he said. "I'll take you both for 3,000 colones."

3,000 colones is only $6 or so. True, the bus would only cost 600 colones apiece, but the bus is slow, crowded, and takes a very indirect route.

Just at that moment a tall American woman approached us. She was only the second gringo I had seen in three days. "Can I help you guys with something?" "Do you live here?" I asked. "Yes," she said, "in Sabalito. We come here now and then to shop."

The American woman told us we must be mistaken, no taxi would take us all the way to Ciudad Neilly for 3,000 colones. "It must be 30,000," she said. I verified the price again with the driver and the woman said, "Well, it's an incredible deal." I would have liked to talk to her further and find out what she and her husband were doing in this remote place - most likely they were farming, or perhaps running a hotel - but the taxi was leaving right away.

The trip that had taken 2.5 hours in the bus took only 1 hour in the taxi, though of course the taxi was going downhill. It rained much of the way and the road was draped in mist and fog. I ate almonds and an apple and listened to Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens) songs on my iPod. The driver let us off at the Hotel Andrea, the largest and nicest hotel in Neilly, and we paid him the 3,000 colones. I almost expected some sort of problem, since the American woman had been so incredulous that we could get a ride at that price, but no, the driver said, "Thank you and have a good day."

Hotel Andrea, Ciudad Neilly, Costa Rica
The Hotel Andrea is comfortable and attractive, and not a bad deal at $40. I went out to find an internet cafe and located one only a few blocks from the hotel, across from the large Loaiza grocery store. Air conditioned, good computers, not crowded. I worked for three hours (again $1 per hour for access), then back to the hotel.

The restaurant at Hotel Andrea, Ciudad Neilly, Costa Rica
I asked the concierge about finding a gym in Neilly. She was very young looking and I later found out that she'll be 18 in a week, and is working at the hotel in summer, and going to university soon to study journalism. She told me of a gym 2 kilometers down the highway. I decided to look around on my own, and lo and behold, I found a small neighborhood gym catercorner from the Loaiza grocery, just around the corner from the hotel.

The gym consisted of one small room crowded with equipment and almost 20 people exercising, more of them women than men. I paid $2 to use the facility, and proceeded to work out very hard. No one was using the leg press machine or the lat pulldown, so I went back and forth between those two, working them heavy, breathing hard. I must have looked like I knew what I was doing because one fellow approached me and wanted to know if the pulldown is for the chest. "No," I told him. "La espalda." The back.

The walls were mirrored and occasionally I saw that people were watching me, probably because I was a stranger and a foreigner to boot. A gym that small, they probably all know each other. The gym was not air conditioned and soon I was dripping sweat. I did some heavy shoulder presses with dumbbells - there were several sets of dumbbells but no one using them, maybe because many people don't know what to do with them or believe that machines are better (they're not) - then washed up in the tiny bathroom, thanked the clerk, and went across the street to the grocery store.

Again, people watching me, but maybe now because I was drenched in sweat. Maybe they thought, "Look at this sweaty gringo, he can't take the humidity." In reality I don't even feel the humidity anymore, since Panama is the same.

Tracy had the AC on high back at the room, and was already asleep, tucked under the heavy blankets. I've had to adjust to our different sleeping patterns, as he is usually out by 8pm and up at 5am. I quickly changed out of my sweaty clothes, prayed Ishaa (the night prayer), watched a little tennis on TV with the volume on low - Tracy could sleep through a bombing run anyway - then hit the hay at only 10pm, very early for me.

Neilly doesn't have the charm of San Vito, and it's much hotter, but it's a nice town. The people are friendly and curious, and best of all Neilly is a good gateway for trips into the mountains and the parque Amistad, or down to the beaches at Zancudo or Golfito, or across the Golfo Dulce to Puerto Jimenez and Corcovado national park. The food at the Hotel Andrea is not great but the rooms are nice and I am comfortable recommending it.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Canton Coto Brus Real Estate Tour

The little mountain town of San Vito is part of a larger canton, or county, called Coto Brus. The canton includes three other towns - Sabalito, Agua Buena and Limoncito - but San Vito is the largest, with a population somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000.

Tracy was curious about real estate values here in San Vito and the surrounding area, but we had not seen a real estate agency - we later learned there are two in San Vito - so we stopped in at the office of an attorney that said Bienes Raices (real estate) on the window.

The receptionist turned to the lawyer in the back office, a portly, baby faced fellow, and said, "We don't do real estate, do we?" "Yes, we do," he replied, and she turned back to us with a big grin on her face, and I read her thoughts clearly, "My crazy boss says yes because he can't bear to turn any possible customer away."

We went in anyway. The lawyer couldn't have been more than 30 years old. I later learned he was 28. In Costa Rica, as in Panama, a real estate transaction cannot be completed without a lawyer, so although the attorney - whose name was David Salazar - does not sell real estate himself, he has been involved in several transactions. He told us about those, showing us photos and detailing for us how much the properties sold for. So we got what we were looking for. Turns out property in San Vito proper is surprisingly expensive. A 1,000 m2 property with a small house might go for $150,000. Outside of town is a different story. A hectare of coffee-producing land or of cattle land can be had for as little as $2,000 if it's part of a larger finca or ranch. A stand alone hectare might go for $10,000.

David said he knew of one finca for sale, and offered to take us there. I wasn't too keen on this simply because I knew it would tak all afternoon, but Tracy jumped at it. So we went to David's wife's optometry shop to get the car they share. It was a very comfortable Mitsubishi SUV with leather seats. We headed out of town and along the way David pointed out to us various houses and properties that had sold in the last few years.

San Vito is full of banks, clothing stores, electronics shops and other businesses. Much more than you would expect in a small town. Tracy asked David where this money comes from. David said, "This is coffee country. So there is money for six months, then no money for six months. San Vito is the center of all of Coto Brus, so all the stores are here."

David pointed out a huge house with modern styling that he said was his father-in-law's house. Later on he indicated vast areas of hillside and forest that belong to his mother-in-law. I began to realize that David had married into money. I never heard a word about his own parents. He took us 15 kilometers outside of town to a large sawmill owned by his father-in-law, and in fact we met said father-in-law, who apparently buys and sells the coffee from the finca that is up for sale. The father-in-law said to us, "Let's play a trick on David," and he rushed us out to David's SUV, where the father-in-law got in and started the car, then began to pull out. David came hurrying out and got in the passenger seat.

The coffee finca was quite large, but on a sharply sloped hillside running down to a river. The coffee trees stood in orderly rows, with occasional patches of yucca and corn. The hillside was blanketed in a heavy afternoon mist, giving the area a remote, isolated feel. I would never live there, though David says there is an American couple with a dairy farm nearby, and another wealthy conservationist American couple who have bought an entire mountainside and are reforesting it. Supposedly a jaguar killed someone's horse, and they wanted to hunt the jaguar, but the American said, "No, we'll buy you more horses."

David drove us back to town and dropped us off at Lilliane's pizzeria. I felt a little guilty, as if I had taken up three hours of David's time by pretending to be something I'm not. I tried to give him some money for his time or at least just for gas, but he adamantly refused. "It was my pleasure," he said. That was very generous of him, but hey - can you guess what I'm going to say? - that's the pura vida.

Second Day in San Vito, Costa Rica: Jardin Botanico; Funeral Procession

I worked out fairly intensively in the room first thing in the morning, doing pushups with my feet elevated on the bed, and lateral shoulder raises with the desk chair. There was a gringa on the hotel computer - first foreigner I´ve seen here in San Vito - so since I couldn't get online, I suggested to Tracy that we go for a hike.

The hotel owner recommended the Jardin Botanico. Took a taxi there, about five kilometers further up into the hills, at 1,200 meters elevation. The air was pure, clear and cool. The Jardin Botanico turned out to be a scientific research station, owned by a consortium of universities based in North Carolina. Sixty years ago this land was clearcut for coffee plantations. An American couple from Florida, founders of something called the Fantastic Gardens in Miami, came here and with the help of a British philanthropist they re-planted the forest. Today there is a healthy secondary growth forest covering many hectares. They also have several areas segregated by species, so for example there is a palm garden with 200 species of palms, a bromeliad garden, etc.

We spoke to the young woman at the reception area for a few minutes. She told us that she had studied tourism in Panama for four years, at the Universidad Latina de Panama. Many of the Ticos I´ve met have either been to Panama or have friends there. Not surprising since this town, San Vito, is only 15 kilometers from the Rio Sereno border crossing in the Panama highlands. That´s not the one we´ll be crossing through on Thursday, unfortunately.

The gardens had a small football (soccer) field surrounded by forest. What a setting for playing football! I went on one of the more difficult jungle hikes while Tracy sat on a bench in the shade. It was incredibly beautiful, deep in the green, with water running and birds everywhere, but the trail was very muddy and my arms were movable feasts for the bugs. I came out of it with several awful bites coming up already on my arms. There was a huge old fig tree which we were told pre-dates the gardens. It was not cut because it provided shade for the cattle that used to be here. Now it´s one of the anchors of the forest, with the figs providing food for hundreds of species of birds and animals. How incredible that one tree could have such an impact. That one tree matters more to more living creatures than many human beings ever do. SubhanAllah.

I realized at some point during the day that I was understanding every word that everyone said. I wondered if my Spanish comprehension had taken a leap forward, but once I began paying attention I realized that the Ticos enunciate much more clearly than the Panamanians. Panamanians tend to drop their s´s and even final consonants. Ticos don´t seem to do this.

Back in town I bought a nice pair of $2 sunglasses at the drugstore. The last pair of cheap sunglasses I bought in Costa Rica survived three years. I hope these will do so well. I have an Ironman watch with a plastic band and the band had broken. I went into a watch shop and in less then two minutes I had a new band, exactly like the old one. Cost: another $2.

A funeral procession came up the street, with young men carrying the coffin on their shoulders. About a hundred people walked behind, mostly women, and only a few wearing black. I guess that is not a requirement here.

There´s more to write about the long real estate tour we got in the evening, but no time now. I have a bus to catch down to Ciudad Neilly. I´ll write more later.

Oh, one more thing. People actually stop their cars here to let you cross the road. That would be unthinkable in Panama. In fact I think you can be stripped of your Panamanian citizenship for such a thing. Also, store clerks come up to you, smile and ask if they can help you find something. Not just in clothing stores, but in large grocery stores! Where am I??? Oh yes, I remember. I´m in the Pura Vida.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Travelling in southern Costa Rica: Ciudad Neilly and San Vito

After only half a day back in Costa Rica (I spent a week here in 2004) I am reminded of the incredible beauty of this country, the openness of the people and the innocent quirkiness of the culture. It´s the Pura Vida! I had forgotten how different it is from Panama. How can it be right next door and yet so different in every way? Ahh, Costa Rica, how I´ve missed you.

I boarded the Panaline bus at eleven o´clock at night, catching it at the El Valle entrance on the InterAmericana, where it made a special stop for me. Tracy was already on the bus and had reminded the driver to stop there. The bus was huge, dark and cool, but when I boarded the light came on and the sleepy passengers - who had all boarded 90 minutes back at Albrook - squinted at me in annoyance. The bus was perhaps one quarter full, so I took two seats and made myself comfortable. The bus was so dark and I surprised myself by sleeping comfortably.

I woke up to find the bus empty, except for myself. I asked the driver where we were and he said, ¨La frontera!¨The border. I was amazed that I had slept through most of an eight hour bus trip, but annoyed that Tracy had not awakened me when we arrived. He´s done this border crossing before, I haven´t. I hurriedly got my things and the Panaline trip manager, a young woman named Leydis, directed me to the immigration line.

I´ve heard horror stories about the Paso Canoas border crossing, but it wasn´t so bad. Perhaps those people who complain so bitterly have not lived or travelled extensively in the third world and aren´t used to the way things are done here. Wait in one line, get some papers stamped, wait some more. So what, big deal. I listened to my iPod, read a book, stretched my legs.

So, yeah. You wait in line at Panama immigration, get your passport stamped, then literally walk a few hundred meters up the road and you´re in Costa Rica. You walk into the immigration station there, and in our case they weren´t open yet, so all the bus passengers sat or stood waiting for perhaps an hour. I saw one of Corrin´s friends there, a woman named Isabel. Small world, small country. When the agents arrived they stamped our passports, gave our bags a perfunctory search and we were on our way.

Leydis the trip manager was very helpful through the entire process. She noticed my name on my passport and said, ¨Abdel!¨ I said, ¨Yes?¨ She said, ¨Are you Arab?¨¨Yes,¨I replied,¨and?¨ ¨Nothing.¨ ¨Are you Arab too?¨I asked her. ¨No.¨ ... I thought for a moment... ¨Your boyfriend is Arab?¨ ¨My old boyfriend,¨she replied. ¨Same last name as you. Are you Jordanian?¨ I told her no, that my ancestry is Egyptian. She kept up a conversation with me all through customs on both sides, trying out some of the Arabic words that she had learned. Tracy really liked her and as he always does, imagined how it would be if he were dating her. "I´d have to move to Paso Canoas" he said. As for me, my mind is in other places, thinking of my future and what it will bring, and also just enjoying the experience of doing something new.

Immediately upon passing into Costa Rica the difference is striking. Southern Costa Rica is so lush, so overwhelmingly green. The Pacific side of Panama is mostly clear cut and is now agricultural land or cattle country, but Pacific Costa Rica is heavily forested, even in the farm areas. Lovely rivers and streams race across rocky beds on their way to the gulf. Small towns roll by but the natural beauty is persistent and immediately seductive.

Our plan was to disembark at Ciudad Neilly and take another bus to San Vito, a small town high in the mountains. I had read about San Vito in the guidebook and it sounded like a cool place (literally) to spend a few days. At 700 meters elevation it is even higher than my home town of El Valle de Anton. Founded by Italian immigrants, San Vito supposedly has some of the best pizzas in Costa Rica. I was looking forward to finding out.

I was nodding in and out of sleep and at some point I realized that we had just passed a large town called Rio Claro. I looked at my map. We had passed Ciudad Neilly. We had gone too far. I asked the driver to stop and he let us off at a bus shelter in a forested area with few homes. The sun was bright and warm, the wooden shelter was clean, and the narrow road disappeared into the endless green in each direction. There was some graffiti scrawled into the shelter, but instead of dirty words there were geometrical diagrams... some schoolboy practising his lessons? There were several women waiting at the shelter, including a young woman of classic Spanish beauty, with aquiline features and wearing a simple long white skirt and brown blouse. Buses passed occasionally going in the other direction and I noticed every man on every bus craning their necks to look at the young woman sitting next to us. One man stuck his head out of the window of a bus and made funny faces, and the woman laughed. An old man approached the bus shelter and said good morning, and everyone in the shelter replied, ¨Good morning!¨¨How are you all?¨the old man asked and everyone answered in chorus, ¨Fine, thank you, how are you?¨ This is Costa Rica, you see. Land of the pura vida.

Finally the bus arrived to take us back to Ciudad Neilly. It was full and I had to sit on the entrance step. A woman boarded selling bags of plantain chips and pork rinds. She had a large bottle of hot sauce and a bottle of lime juice. Customers chose their poison and she squirted a large helping of sauce or juice into the bag.

Another vendor was practically a walking kiosk. His long sleeved shirt was strung with goods of all kinds. He went to the front of the bus and in a loud voice began proclaiming and promoting his wares. Skin cream to cure any acne problem. A herb called cat´s claw that would soothe any stomach disorder. Indian soap for natural beauty. Hair scissors, leather scissors, pocket knives, nail clippers, pens, cell phone cases, key chains, toys, even a back scratcher. All this came off his shirt or out of his pockets. He sold a nail clipper and a few other items and disembarked at the next stop.

Ciudad Neilly is a lively small town with two or three commercial streets at odd angles. We took a taxi to the Hotel Andrea. Both the bus and the taxi were $1 each. The Hotel Andrea is the nicest hotel in Ciudad Neilly. A large, Spanish style hotel with two stories, it´s $40 per night for good rooms with AC. We made a reservation for Wednesday night, which should be our last night in Costa Rica, then went to the restaurant for breakfast. Omelettes and pancakes, not very good but passable. Afterwards we walked to the bus station which, it turned out, is only a block away.

The bus to San Vito was leaving in one hour. Fare, 600 colones, about $1.20. The station was very busy, with dozens of people waiting for buses going in five or six different directions. A small covered mercado abutted the station and I walked about, passing time. Many small sodas, as they call these tiny local eateries here, and a few clothing stores. I seemed to be the only foreigner in the area and I got a lot of looks. I also saw several Guaymi women in traditional dresses. I had not realized that the Guaymi tribe was so prevalent in southern Costa Rica, but looking at the map later I noticed several Guaymi reservations.

An old woman selling bags of piva fruit (a small, nutty flavored and soft fleshed fruit) persistently tried to convince me to buy some. Finally I told her honestly, ¨I don´t like them.¨She was offended by this. ¨Don´t like them!¨she huffed. ¨Eat them with mayonnaise.¨And she walked away.

We boarded the bus to San Vito and immediately proceeded to climb, climb, climb. The bus rose slowly on a steep, winding mountain road that ascended through stunningly beautiful cloudforest. Soon there were views all the way to Panama in one direction, and the gulf in the other, and then beyond the gulf to the ocean. At one point the road was confined to a ridge with immense drops on either side. The bus was very large and had trouble navigating the gravelled and potholed road. At one point we rounded a curve and came face to face with another large bus. Both buses backed up meter by meter until there was enough room to pass. At times I gripped the seat in front of me tightly, as if that would save my life if we tumbled over the mountain. Soon the air became cool and damp, and the forest disappeared, replaced by cattle land and coffee plantations.

The 33 kilometer trip to San Vito took almost two hours. San Vito itself is a true mountain town, with a small public square in the center and from there five main roads climbing or dropping steeply, each road rising and falling as it curves through town. It´s a surprisingly large town. There are no population signs, but I saw at least six banks, dozens of clothing stores, three large pizzerias, a huge church with a large grassy compound and outlying buildings, a well-equipped grocery store and much more. Also many motorcycle shops. They love their motorcycles and pizza here. Must be the Italian blood.

My hotel, El Ceibo, is at the end of a gravel driveway coming right off the center of town. Surprisingly, it´s very quiet and in fact is backed by forest and a fast running stream. The room is cool without AC, and has a small balcony that looks out onto the forest. At $40 per night it´s a bit pricey but is undoubtedly the best hotel in town and is quite nice. Since I am a traveller I combined the Dhuhr and Asr prayers, guessing at the direction of the Qiblah, then Tracy and I went to one of the pizzerias for a late lunch. It was delicious, with spicy tomato sauce, plenty of cheese, and loaded with broccoli, mushrooms, tomatoes and onions. Better than any pizza I´ve had in Panama, and the small was large enough that I only ate half and took the rest back to the hotel for lunch tomorrow. Tracy had a very meaty pizza with chorizo, pepperoni and ham... ugh.

One thing I don´t see in San Vito: foreigners. Aside from Tracy and myself, I have not seen a single gringo, Chinese, Arab or any other foreigner. Very unlike Panama in that respect. The population seems to consist universally of slim, fair-haired, attractive locals. I have not even seen any indigenous people here and I wonder why. Do they live only on reservations? I get a lot of looks as I walk about town. Sometimes entire groups stop and watch as I walk past, not at all in a hostile way, but more like, ¨Oh look, a stranger!¨ Occasionally someone asks me if they can help me find something. No one would do this in Panama.There are no restaurants selling ethnic foods other than Italian and local Tico dishes. Also no call center, which makes sense in a town with no tourists, but I was really hoping to find one. Tomorrow I´ll see if I can purchase a phone card and use a public phone, though talking to Salma without a webcam won´t be the same.

Reading this, I realize now that I have not done a good job explaining what it is about Costa Rica that I love so much. There are so many things, but let´s forget about the stunning landscape for a moment and talk about the pura vida. In the USA when you walk into a store the clerk smiles and offers to help you because that´s what they are trained to do. In Panama they simply gaze blankly. In Costa Rica they smile and help you because they are genuinely interested and friendly. People greet one another in street heartily, and beyond that they are genuine. Costa Ricans don´t wear masks. They laugh, talk, joke, flirt, and they do it all honestly and openly, without pretense. Perhaps because they have been a stable democracy for so long, with no military and no wars, they have forgotten how to mistrust. Their lives are simple.

Sure, there is crime in the cities and in San Jose yóu´d better watch your bags, and you could even get mugged. On the other hand I´ve had someone stop and offer me a ride because he was concerned that I was walking in a bad neighborhood.

And the landscape is part of it too. Costa Rica has done a better job preserving their forests than any nation in the world, because to the Ticos the land is precious, it is pure and therefore a part of the pura vida. Sure, the roads here are potholed, high speed internet is rare outside of the major cities, and poverty exists. But the pura vida enriches everyone.