Sunday, November 23, 2008

Pura Vida

Costa Rica has long been on my list of must-go places to visit, enticing as it is for consisting largely of protected nature reserves brimming with an amazingly diverse wildlife.

By luck, it was also on my close friend Giorgia's travel list and we went for a week's holiday, renting a 4x4 with a rather simple itinerary - flying into San Jose before setting off for the Arenal Volcano National Park, followed by the Cloud Forest in Monteverde and finally Manuel Antonio National Park on the Pacific Coast, spending just a few days in each area. I feel restless if I stand still for too long so this hectic trip, across such different parts of the country, was perfect for me and full of incredible memories.

Driving a small section of the Pan-American Highway (famous for connecting Alaska to Chile) while on our way to Arenal - trying to avoid running over the pedestrians, dogs and cyclists who also frequent it. Driving for hours on narrow, sinuous dirt roads riddled with potholes and complete with impressive precipices. Few road signs to help us find our way and the ones present usually reporting wildly different mileage to our destination. Going through small villages clinging onto mountains, posh houses next door to run down cabins, all drowning under tropical foliage and flowers. Witnessing a group of teenagers forming a circle around a cock fight by the roadside.

Amazing food. Enjoying our first Costa Rican lunch of marinated beef, rice and beans at the Arenal Observatory Lodge to the sound of crickets, birds and monkeys while watching the mist slowly lift from the rumbling volcano. That same evening being treated to the sight of bright red lava spurting out while having dinner. Having the best tapas in the world in a tiny restaurant in Monteverde. Endlessly enjoying the freshest fish and seafood at the Gaia Hotel restaurant in Manuel Antonio.

Countless wildlife encounters. Crocodiles, iguanas, large lizards, boa constrictors, banana spiders, bats, turtles, too many types of birds to mention and colourful butterflies. Plenty of monkeys too which is what I was particularly looking forward to and we even had a particularly dramatic encounter with an injured sloth that we found on the side of a trail and helped rescue with our guide.

Adventure in the form of zip lining. Adrenaline and excitement pumping through my veins, my entire body shaking while I whizzed through the mountains and rainforest in Monteverde for two and a half hours. Finally taking in the incredible view of the sprawling valleys once I was done screaming on the 750 meters long line, reaching speeds of 40 kms an hour. My heart jumping out of my chest as we did a mini bungee jump (if some of you remember what I did last year, this was a thousand times harder!). The fantastic sense of adventure I felt when I boarded the tiny propeller plane taking me back to San Jose - feeling like a traveler from another era.

Relaxing. Swimming in the emerald sea on a near deserted beach in Manuel Antonio, leafing through my book while surrounded by iguanas and hoping that the boa constrictor our guide mentioned seeing earlier was not sleeping in the branches of tree I had taken cover under. Enjoying a luxurious and indulgent 90 minutes chocolate massage. Sipping a robust Argentinian Cabernet Sauvignon in the open air, colonial style, bar at the Gaia Reserve to the sound of local music, watching a breathtaking sunset turning shades of pink, orange and glowing crimson over the rainforest and the sea in the distance.

And everywhere, marvelling at the incredible friendliness of the people. Smiling at their surprise when Giorgia and I had to explain that I am French but live in New York, she is Italian but lives in London ... and that we met in China. And envying the country's motto - "Pura Vida", the pure life in more ways than one as Costa Rica is one of the very few countries in the World without an army or a defense budget ...

Costa Rica pictures

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


November 4th 2008.

The day started normally enough ... I woke up with only a slight pang of nervousness in the pit of my stomach. Made my way to the lounge, still in a slightly sleepy daze. Put the kettle on. Slipped a bag of Earl Grey (which I get specially brought by friends visiting from the UK) in the teapot. Turned on the computer to check the emails I had received overnight and glanced at my facebook newsfeed.

But how special the day was became quickly apparent. Most of my friends facebook status reflected their anticipation of the events that were to unfold throughout the evening - the hugely important choice that America had to make in the wake of it's 56th Presidential Election. I looked out of my window only to see a large queue of people forming at the corner of 86th and Broadway, the nearest voting station from my apartment. I dutifully updated my facebook status, expressing my own anxiousness and excitement.

At work, all conversations inevitably turned to the election - how many hours had been spent queuing to vote and what election parties would be attended that night. I spoke of my frustration at not being allowed to vote in such an historical election. I have always felt very strongly about civic duties - about the right and the need to vote. In fact, the most exciting thing for me when I turned 18 years old was finally being old enough to vote - sad but true and my parents can attest to that!

I unfortunately had to attend a business dinner that evening (preventing me from attending some of the election parties I had been invited to) as I have joined the Advertisers Advisory board of a major US Online Marketing vendor. Talking "shop" was far from my mind as by the time evening came, my state of "slight nervousness" had descended into mild hysteria. I went home as soon as I could and sat down to watch the coverage on CNN.

I found the whole process incredibly confusing - not understanding why everyone was more concerned about the number of Electoral seats being won, rather than the popular vote ... Numerous text messages were exchanged with American friends who kindly explained and also shed light on what "gubernatorial" means. I should clearly have done my homework ahead of time!

When Ohio was predicted to have been won by Obama, CNN proclaimed the election to be won without a doubt. I again found myself confused and unable to celebrate as it seemed a little premature to me ... until I heard the noise coming from outside my windows. I have not seen such an overwhelming display of public euphoria in a long time (the last time was probably when France won the World Cup in 1998!) - car horns were going wild, people were screaming, crying and dancing in the streets. I did my own little happy dance while exchanging calls and texts with my friends to share in the joy and relief. I became rather emotional and shed some tears when watching Obama's victory speech ... four consecutive times in a row thanks to the wonders of cable live replay! I don't think I have ever felt so inspired and moved by a politician in my life.

I wish I could say that the public exhilaration lasted for many days after the victory ... It did the next morning at least when I sat next to two ladies in the subway who loudly expressed their joy and encouraged the rest of the carriage to cheer with them - which we gladly did. But with America's economy in the most precarious position it has been in decades, I'm afraid that I went back to work worrying about redundancies and the incredibly challenging year ahead.

However there is genuine hope in the new government and trust that they will make the right decisions even if the road to recovery and change will be long and hard. At least, with Barack Obama at it's helm - yes, we can!