Monday, 22 February 2010

El Voodoo Climbs a Waterfall

This morning I breakfasted on three pints of water, one of coffee and a native version of Walls’s classic ‘Feast’ choc ice. Then, equipping myself with camera, towel, two packets of peanuts and a large bottle of mineral water I struck out at half past nine for the famous Montezuma waterfalls, feet stowed in the trusty Merrell walking shoes.

Located a short walk from the town, the waterfall trail opens out from a secluded, tree shrouded car park. I crossed the car park, pausing only to note an extremely obese man and couple of unremarkable middle aged men half his size shepherding a trio of rather obviously, um, enhanced, females toward the start of the trail. Putting testosterone to one side for the moment I got stuck into the trail.

As I began following the stream through the forest, hopping goat-like from rock to rock, one thing became immediately clear: the Merrells had not been a waste of money or weight allowance. Whilst others gingerly picked their way along the right hand bank of the stream, I was scrambling from side to side, pursuing the shifting patterns of light and shade as I attempted to capture the alien environment with the Nokia. Simultaneously, I was recapturing a sensation of exploration and physical fluidity that was very much a part of my childhood and has been so very lacking in my urban, warehouse dwelling twenties.

I rounded a corner and beheld the first waterfall. This is the smallest of the three and the most accessible. I hung around for a while, taking a gratuitous number of photographs in the hope that I might espy the lovelies from the car park again. In the end I decided that they were obviously incapable of independent movement and once more resumed my hike.

As I bounced, hopped and slithered across the sometimes damp rocks, steadying myself with a judiciously grabbed creeper from time to time, I saw tiny little fish, more iguana (one quite large and close, though it ran before I could get its photo) and the most amazing butterflies, all sunshine yellow and electric blue. Sadly my patience and equipment were not up to the task of recording them so you’ll have to take my word for it.

The second waterfall, which is where most people stop, is really quite special. As you might imagine the noise rather gave it away as I advanced along the stream bed and then it emerged from the thick foliage, everything I had hoped for and more. Descending majestically over 30m of rocky escarpment it empties into a deep and cool pool where conveniently located rock formations provide natural diving boards at height of roughly two, four and ten metres. There were already a few bathers wallowing in its soothing green waters or diving, whilst others sat at the side, taking in the glorious environment and resting before returning. Or, as was my plan, attempting the next stage. I ate the first packet of nuts.

Before long a bunch of Californian language students (all female) I’d been blathering on in my self-aggrandising way to the night before arrived; as they seemed more inclined to jump in the pool and scream at each other than allow me to continue conducting my personal brass band in their general direction I reasoned it was time to see waterfall three.

Now, whilst the first two waterfalls are for the majority of people eminently reachable, the third, highest waterfall is an entirely different proposition. At first I looked at the near vertical ascent and reasoned I must be looking in the wrong place. A quick word with a fellow explorer (tourist) confirmed that this fifteen metre free climb was, in fact, my destiny. Consoling myself with thoughts of my climbing days at the Mile End wall, and putting thoughts of ropes and crash mats (and their absence) from my mind, I put boot to rock and started to climb.

It wasn’t particularly hard going, the slope was a good few degrees from vertical and handy tree roots and vines provided solid, manageable hand- and footholds. My mind did briefly conjure images of the old ‘hero grabs snake masquerading as vine’ routine, but I deemed these thoughts ridiculous and ploughed on. Looking down was a mistake though, thrusting as it inevitably did my heart firmly against my not-so-pearly-whites.

View from near the top of my climb down onto the 2nd waterfall's pool

It’s a long way up to waterfall three, involving inching along precipices, paths that terminate in breathtaking views over falls of certain death, and, basically, proper rock climbing. By the time I slithered down to the shady ledge overlooking the drop pool I was sore and shaking. But immensely proud of myself for not wussing out or dying.

The top of waterfall 3

Rejecting the calls of some more muscle-bound locals to make a frankly ridiculous dive into the pool from yet another brain-buggering height, I ate the second packet of nuts, drank most of the water and set off back down before my muscles seized up and rendered me immobile. Despite the exhaustion, I was riding high on adrenaline. A more experienced climber pointed out the ideal descent route – before doing it at triple my speed despite being around fifty years of age.

Having made it back to the swimming pool I figured I should have a bit of a dive. I’ve never swum in a natural pool before. Hot and sweaty as I was from the climbing it was about as revitalising as that adrenaline shot into the heart was for Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction. I will confess to only tackling the baby dive though: I’ve got a video of a couple of guys doing the top ledge and it’s no joke.

After letting the fearsome Central American noon-time sun scorch the water from my body I practically ran back along the path I’d cautiously picked at on the way there, pausing only for a quick chortle at yet more American girls who’d decided to do the trail barefoot. Arriving back at the first waterfall, I discovered what the obese man and his gaggle of beauties had been up to all this while: an all-nude photoshoot in the plunge pool of the first ‘fall. Acting on the principle of 'pictures or it didn't happen', I grabbed an obligatory voyeur shot and skipped back to Shitezuma. An altogether pleasant morning.

Voodoo out.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Crimson Vood

The four wheel drive Toyota driven by the smiling man from Santa Theresa turned a bend in the road and my eyes were bathed in a balmy vista: a wide sweeping beach, framed by lush vegetation dotted with beachfront bars and hammocks. This, then, was Montezuma. I checked into my shabby little room and walked out of the backdoor on to what I thought was a fantastic looking beach.

It was at this point that the illusion started to crumble.

I popped off my sandals and my soles were confronted not with pristine white sand, but shingle, á la any third-rate British beach. And then I noticed the pollution. Mankind (I suspect mainly of the rich, white and western type) has not been kind to Playa Montezuma (Montezuma beach). No matter, thought I, we’ll go check out the town.

And for that first hour I was happy enough – sure my box of a room smelt like a fishing boat and had no exterior windows, but I reasoned that would get me out on to the beach which literally opens off the back porch of El Parque Hostel. After all, I can hang around a bedroom back home.

I scrambled and hopped up the largest beach rocks in sight, saw the biggest ‘wild’ crabs I’ve ever seen and a flock of at least half a dozen Pelicans. I took a whole bunch of pictures and was looking forward to getting a bit more outdoors-y than I had been at the, frankly, idyllic Funky Monkey.

However, it was midday and I was at serious risk of turning into Lobster Voodoo so I did what you do in Costa Rica and sauntered into a beachside café for a Casado*.

The guy came over with the menu and I was pleasantly surprised by the range of meals and cocktails listed therein. There were even a couple of drinks I’d never heard of before. ‘Excellent’, thought I, ‘I might finally get my lips round a decent Mojito’, not that I was currently in the marketplace for an alcohol.

Dragging my eyes away from the larger, more expensive, dishes I went straight for the Beef Casado backed up with another Costa Rican classic, watermelon smoothie , ‘casido con agua’. All good. It was neither the best nor the worst I’d sampled, the boiled carrots reminding somewhat of what my young padawan George describes as Mother England. I finished up and requested the bill.

And this is when the trouble really started. There were my items, there was the tax. Standard. And then the total, which was 500 higher than it should have been. I decided that I couldn’t be bothered to argue with the greasily smiling proprietor and that I would call it a tip and walk.

But then when I sat down at an internet café (this is the first hostel I’ve stayed in which doesn’t have free WiFi) I was charged $4US for an ice cream, and then I was charged for two instead of one hours internet. My attempts at arguing with the skinny youth behind the desk went nowhere as his English had mysteriously dried up. I paid him. I was now starting to see things tinted deep crimson.

Storming back to the hostel I was eventually given some attention by a man who did not appear to even work there. He recommended Zuma Tours as being a decent business. He was wearing a Zuma Tours t-shirt. Opting, against my better judgement, to check it out as I knew I could pick up the Zuma WiFi signal faintly in my shit-box of a room and figuring I could leach in future, I wandered up to Zuma. Where the guy tried to charge me about 20 pence A MINUTE. I blew a Zen fuse, flipped the bird in his general direction and returned, once more at pace, to El Shit-sandwich. Where I was ignored some more and then told to go back to the first bunch of tourist-exploiting cowboys.

Instead, devoid of any more human outlet for my now incandescent rage I returned to the fishy-smelling solitary isolation ward to vent to Microsoft Word (2003 if you’re interested – what’s with the obtuse 2007?).

After the honesty and good vibrations of Santa Theresa this is all too much. I think the difference is that ST is a surf town, and most of the staff have moved there to surf – therefore staff and patrons mingle freely and often socialise – regardless of whatever culture they originated from they are drawn together by a set of shared values. Conversely, Montezuma is not known for its surf and there is a clear divide between the Ticos (Costa Ricans) running the disgustingly overpriced bars and peddling trinkets, dope and hammocks on the beach and the hideously exploited Gringos.

The national motto of CR is ‘Pura Vida’, it means Pure Life. If this is pure give me an East End pub full of chavs and coke-dealers any day. At least they’re honest about it.

Crimson Voodoo out.

*for those that missed my earlier description of a ‘Casado’, it’s the standard Costa Rican lunch/dinner dish consisting of rice, salad, potato or yucca, ‘Gallo Pinto’(like a dwarf kidney bean, pretty much the national food of CR) and a pan-fried fillet of beef, chicken or fish.

Funky Monkey

I am currently holed up in the idyllic town of Santa Theresa on the Southwestern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula, staying at a sprawling hostel called Funky Monkey. The owners describe it as being situated within a private jungle; this is barely an exaggeration. Monkeys, lizards and scorpions (small and not poisonous) roam amongst the carefully maintained wilderness garden.
Aside from the shared accommodation it very much reminds me of some of the places I have stayed at in Kenya: fantastic wooden architecture, gravel paths winding between the shrub-shrouded dormitory buildings. The bar is run by an extremely skilled chef called Rafa (Rafael) who on one night might cook traditional French cuisine and another Sushi. His gourmet cheeseburger is not to be sniffed at either. It has bacon and avocado in it. 'Nuff said.
All of the staff here are lovely, and the whole package is tarnished only by the moody owners who treat staff and patrons alike with a healthy dose of money grabbing contempt - something which, I happen to know, is about to cost them the vast majority of their friendly, intelligent and hard working staff. In fact as I sit here working on this text the managers are having a discussion with their key staff at the other end of the bar. It’s a discussion of the ‘full and frank’ persuasion.

Back to Funky Monkey: They have a private swimming pool, and if you are a surfer the nearby beach has some of the best medium sized waves in the world - meaning that almost everyone in town is a bronzed slab of classically Herculean proportions. Still, I console myself that barely one of them is a DJ or can fix a computer so there would still be a role for me to play if I were to consider moving here (which I'm not). The main club here in Santa Theresa sucks by the way, it's run by another money grabbing skeleton of a woman who refused to even listen to my demo after I twice walked a mile and a half, the second time with my laptop, to ply my wares.
I have spent the last two hours with a temporary office set up here in the bar trying to plan a route round some national parks/wildlife reserves for my last 11 days in Costa Rica. Unfortunately, all though they are all trying to be helpful, I have had around a dozen solid suggestions for my next destination this morning and am no closer to finalising an itinerary and booking some more accommodation. I have learned to spell accommodation though!
You may be pleased to know that, being marijuana free for a fortnight now, socialising has been relatively easy. My brain, though impeded by the odd beer or three and the intense midday heat has recovered somewhat and hopefully my IQ has crept back over 100. I was still disastrously beaten at chess by an American; though he was a high-level website engineer it still hurt, I despise losing at chess.
I have made friends with the Argentinian and Costa Rican staff here, as well as some lovely Swedes and an English lady called Jackie who has very similar background to me - and, rather synchronistically, a son called Robin. So I've had company when I want it, and when I don't it's easy to find a quiet spot by the pool or in the dorm for a bit of reading or an episode of Top Gear, to which I have become hopelessly addicted.

Tonight is one of the crews birthday so we are going to the beach for a Latin music party - which may well involve a lot of sexy dancing and a headache in the morning. What a hard life.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Living the Pura Vida

San Jose

You thought London was polluted? Think again. As you might imagine, two thirds of the vehicle owners in San Jose seem to be in possession of a vehicle built long before emissions were a concern for anyone except a yogurt weaving yurt-dweller. And to have then drilled a half-inch diameter hole in the exhaust pipe. San Jose at 6am is noisier and more crowded than the A12 in rush hour, if, that is, everyone on that wonderful road felt the need to announce their presence with a near continuous deployment of the horn. For the first time in my life I wished I had a Japanese-style face mask to protect myself from the smog-belching lorries and stuttering, farting motorcycles.

Think the screeching metal soundtrack of a team working on the Central Line at 2am and you still have no conception of the intensity of the sound four metres from your inevitably open window. In San Jose, you get up with the rest of the city. A surprise here though was that it was actually less intimidating to cross the road in SJ than in South Beach, Miami. In Miami, everyone drives slowly but pays very little attention to the pedestrian (zebra) crossings – so you never really know what they are going to do next – will she let me out, won’t she…? The bigger roads were simply terrifying, especially when you factor in the whole driving on the right thing – I constantly found myself expecting traffic to be in the other lane – leading to a couple of hair-raising near misses. Not cool. In San Jose, everyone drives as fast as possible, announces their presence with a blare of electronic bullhorn and treats red lights as optional. Which somehow made more sense to a Londoner. In London (unlike Australia) we’ve never heard of jay-walking. We spot a gap and exploit it as hard as we would a third world grain harvest.

Fresher than fresh food for a handful of pocket change. Above all this would be the line to sell me San Jose. Costa Ricans call themselves ‘Ticos’ and the national dish is the ‘casado’. This is a plate of rice, ‘Gallo pinto’ (black beans), fried yucca (like the most fantastically crispy and wholesome chips – that’s French Fries, non-Brits), the days local, fresh vegetables and fillet of either beef, pork, chicken, fish or some shrimp with a tasty, salsa-drenched salad.
Like every Spanish speaking country I’ve been to, which is two, they truly prize fresh food. Everywhere you go in Costa Rica you find little unpretentious family run cafes called ‘sodas’. Despite their humble appearances, every soda I’ve eaten in has served up food of a freshness simply unattainable in London unless you’re a Chelsea-dwelling, farmers-market-patronising WAG or bean-threading, raw-foodist trustafarian (I don’t thread beads). And for a price that so far has never exceeded three of your English pounds.

Why is there nothing to do in San Jose? And if this is a relaxed, cosmopolitan Central American capital, what’s Panama City or the capital of Nicaragua like? I have no idea, but the fact remains that in San Jose there is a market district, three museums, the National Theatre and a night-clubbing district. You can literally exhaust the touristic options in three days.

Voodoo out.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Dynamic Voodoo.

Dynamic means in a state of flux, variable, not fixed. Despite the fact that corporate iSpeak has corrupted this wonderful and multi-purpose word to mean ‘thrusting’ and, quite possibly, ‘has a personality entirely fuelled by cocaine’, it is a brilliant word. Because, in a practical sense, it means ‘not boring’.

In music, ‘dynamics’ are, essentially, contrasts. The difference between fast and slow, loud and quiet, hard and soft. Whilst listening, dynamics – for example your iPouch jumping from Gotan Project to Slayer or an organ and strings break in the middle of a blisteringly heavy Cradle of Filth tune – are what gets you to pause in your discussions of the latest Canon full-frame sensor or the England rugby teams World Cup prospects. Dynamics are what pull the girls back on to the dancefloor after they’ve abandoned an unrelenting jungle racket for a fag and a group deconstruction of the preposterously posing males still gurning amongst the empties and sweat.
All of which brings me on to the concept of dynamic range. Quite obviously I suppose, this is the measurable difference between extremes – between the hardest and softest, lightest and darkest etc. When we build a system to measure, record or reproduce something we have to concern ourselves with dynamic range – if a camera is too sensitive it will always over expose unless you are in near darkness. Conversely, not sensitive enough and you can only take pictures in blazing sunlight. As, with my trusty Nokia N86, I know all too well. Those of you who have been following my photographic exploits on face-space know it does a perfectly acceptable job of reproducing a sunlight-laden beach scene. But ask it take a picture during twilight, or even just indoors, and you get a grainy, blurry underexposed travesty of jpeg-noise and shoddy LED flash.

Last night I looked up at a truly magnificent vista of blazing stars in the mercifully unpolluted Santa Theresa firmament. It was incredible, the three stars of Orion’s belt blazing like a 1970s underground Russian nuclear test. Now while the Canon 1D, I am assured, can see in the dark, it costs over four thousand pounds , weighs four kilograms, and you still need a tripod to take a half decent picture of the heavenly void. Whereas my eyes cost me nothing, weigh a handful of grams and let me see both stars and a trio of bikini clad Californian beach-babes reclining on a UV soaked tropical beach without any additional equipment whatsoever. Now that is dynamic range.

Dynamics are fantastic. And so is the human body.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Miami Flashback


(Posted very late due to tiredness/having fun)

Well, here I am in Panama Tocumen airport, two hours into the frankly insanely tedious ten hour wait for my connecting flight to San Jose. After discovering that there was not a sniff of a smoking area inside passport control, and reasoning that there would be more fun to be had actually in Panama City rather than hanging around the departure lounge for the entire day, I decided to temporarily immigrate. Then changed my mind in a hurry, confronted by my embarrassingly poor Spanish and complete and utter lack of any information whatsoever about Panama. That and it’s pushing thirty degrees C out there and the Miami security took my bottle of sunblock. I can still feel my skin protesting at the five minutes of exposure it took while I had a cigarette. Intense.
So, I’ve sat myself down next to a car rental desk in the airport lobby, laptop screen on its dimmest setting in an attempt to eek out every last minute of computing goodness. My main concern at this point is falling asleep involuntarily and being either robbed or more likely mocked by the slightly bemused looking Latinos lounging around looking tanned and chirpy. I had to leave for Miami International at 4am last night after a 2nd gig at the hostel and loads of Superbowl cheap drinks. I think I grabbed an hour on the first flight but the grand total in the last twenty four hours is substantially below the regulation eight. There’s also a mild hangover struggling to make itself known through the fog of fatigue and travel stress.

Time to do my write up of Miami.

As I stepped out of the arrivals area all my thoughts of shuttle services and buses flew out the window when confronted by the reality of how strange it all was. I did what I do best and hailed a cab. The drive to South Beach was everything you imagine it to be – villas, rugged looking areas with Hispanic architecture, vast marinas stocked with an armada of luxury yachts (I think my single most favourite thing I saw the whole time was a huge mirror-finished black pleasure craft with matching helicopter on deck) and more palm trees than you could shake Kew Gardens at. It was epic.

But before I talk about anything else we need to cover the 24th Superbowl. In case you don’t know, the Superbowl is the US equivalent of the FA cup final. The New Orleans Saints vs. the Minneapolis Colts in an epic sporting battle watched by a staggeringly large number of millions of Americans and syndicated viewers worldwide. I am informed BBC1 showed it, so it’s definitely a big deal! The first I knew of it was the US customs guy “you here for the Superbowl” ” I still come in?”

(My brain is desperate to shut down and embrace sleeps sweet oblivion)

The city was crazy for the Superbowl – especially from Friday onwards when all the New Orleans fans, almost uniformly enormous, black and loud, started arriving en masse. The Saints theme goes “Who Dat, Who Dat something something something” but the main point is that if anyone shouts “Who Dat!” in a boisterous Southern accent half the street answers the rallying cry with a powerful reciprocal “Who Dat”. The fans call themselves the “Who Dat Nation” and the slogan is on shirts, body painted fan girls and echoing out of hotel windows down into the throng below.

As I was fairly firmly ensconced in the area known as South Beach the focal point for me was the (apparently) world famous Ocean Drive. The Drive runs parallel to the beach for a couple of miles and had been turned into a pedestrianised mini-festival for SBXXIV. The street is lined with bars and restaurants of the cheesy tourist variety, each of which has a sexy ‘hostess’ or three outside trying to get passers by to examine the days specials and come in for overpriced cocktails and people watching. There were various promo girls trying to force everything from detergent samples to Pepsi Max on the revellers. I eventually gave up wondering who was being exploited most – however, I did strike up a conversation with a restaurant hostess at one point – if you can call a dialogue where every other sentence is interrupted by “we’ve got a great menu today for you guys…” a conversation. The point is though that if you sit down and watch them it’s incredibly hard tedious work.

My living quarters was the charming South Beach Hostel on Washington Avenue, one of the three main north-south streets in South Beach, lined with restaurants, strip clubs, shopping and very fast cars. SB Hostel is run by a couple of charming Puerto Rican brothers, Jose and Jorge (pronounced ho-hey). They have just recently taken over and combine clean, cheap rooms with some delicious bar snacks (Jorge is a pro chef – we talked food a lot) and daily drink specials. The internet is reasonably fast too. I turned out that they both DJ drum and bass also and I managed to charm them into bringing down the 1210s on a couple of nights so we could “throw down”.

I have to say though that South Beach is a stupid place to go as a backpacker, even with my relatively princely £40 per diem. The average meal costs at least £10 meaning I could basically afford food, sunblock and the odd bottle of cheap ‘liquor’ (what we would call spirits). Still, I made friends with a Russian, a Canadian and a Fin and had a reasonably good time. The women made my eyes melt and the beach was incredible. Still, I have to say I was glad to check out at 4am on the 8th and start my Latin American adventure.

Time to embrace the Pura Vida!

Wednesday, 3 February 2010


Well, I've landed!

It's going to take a while to gather my thoughts on Miami - it's a lot to take in. It's beautiful: hi-tech America meets slightly down-at-heel Latino architecture next in the middle of a marina full of playboys yachts. Saw a boat with a helicopter on it just casually moored amongst the double radar-domed pleasure cruisers. Already, Americas obsession with cosmetic surgery has made itself abundantly clear: a free newspaper I picked up seemed to have classifieds for nothing but beauty enhancing private treatments - including a clinic that specialised in couples with a strap line along the lines of "couples that laser together stay together". Mind blowing.
I've checked in to my somewhat smelly but friendly and well equipped hostel. At least the internet is free here, unlike in some over-priced British institutions.

It turns out it's Super Bowl - and it's here in Miami. I know nothing of sport, let alone American Football, but it's such a big event in their culture I guess I'm going to get caught up in the superbowl madness. Can't complain!

I have to admit the utter lack of any kind of anchor, cultural or social, is pretty terrifying. The legendary American friendliness hasn't exactly been on show either, I haven't been engaged with on the other persons initiative even once yet. Still, that's pretty standard for me. As I type, a man is using his laptop as a phone and holding up to his face so he's inside it like a fast talking techno-Spanish sandwich. Guess it won't be long till I'm doing the same.

Wish me luck. I'm going outside!

Posting from Heathrow T5 :)

Well, when my Nokia flashed up 8.30pm last night the realisation of what I'd done hit me in the stomach like Uwe Boll dealing with a spot of negative PR. Shit. Big adrenaline, had to quash a incipient panic attack quick sharp. Picked up the painstakingly packed rucksack and headed downstairs. Said 'goodbye' to my little sister Carol (nearly cried) and set off for East Ham Tube. As my flight was at 9am I had decided to stay at the Thistle Hotel near the airport for one night. This turned out to be a waste of time and money.

The 'new' District Line train rattled and bounced around emitting a cacophonous sonata of shrieking metal. Eventually it completed it's tedious crawl to Earls Court and I changed to a surprisingly full Piccadilly Line train. I was already regretting every little luxury I'd decided to allow myself to pack. The rucksack was/is terrifying me. I'm only committed to it for another four months (gulp).

The hotel claimed online to have 4 stars, but all I can say is I've never stayed in a three star that was that disappointing. They were rude, there was no lift, no smoking rooms and the facilities were bloody basic. Additionally, they wanted £10 for the use of their internet for 24 hours, when not a single hostel I've looked at in Costa Rica doesn't have free WiFi access. When I got up the injury was compounded by sitting down at the (remember, allegedly 4 stars) breakfast table only to discover they wanted £16 for the buffet-style continental. Fuming!

Still, at least the transport is pretty sorted for hotel goers at Heathrow - there are several bus routes covering all the hotels and £4 got me there in no time at all.

Now, I'm sure you've all heard the horror stories about Terminal 5. Bags lost, massive delays etc. Now, although it's true that I haven't actually got my bag back at the other end yet, it's been very quiet, efficient and clean so far. the building, whilst not exactly fantastic is still very impressive architecturally. I'll post some pics when I can, time is starting to get a little pressed here in T5! In fact got to go!