Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Costa Rica Adventure, part 1

This post is incredibly belated. It is in fact very nearly an entire year overdue. But it is still being written, because there are stories that should really be shared (and so I don't forget, of course).

From May 31, 2010 to June 11, 2010, Jeff and I traveled to Costa Rica. I was in Costa Rica 5 years previously on a school spring break trip, but Jeff had never been. Plane tickets were relatively cheap (~$300 roundtrip) and we knew someone in the Peace Corps there who we would visit.

We landed in San Jose on Monday, May 31 (it was Memorial Day in the US) and grabbed a taxi to our hostel, Hostel Bekuo. It had free internet and we had a decent private room but shared bathroom. We ate down the street at a place called Spoon, which allowed me to recall just how rusty my Spanish really was. I could get my point across, sure, but I'm definitely less conversant than in high school. We also walked around a bit, got some snacks at a grocery store, went into a comics shop, saw a Subway, etc. We had to arrange for a taxi the next morning at the crack of dawn to take us to the bus station, since San Jose wasn't so much a destination for us. That meant we missed the free hostel breakfast, but oh well.

The next morning we got up and went to the bus station. The taxi driver talked to us a bit, but of course we couldn't say much. We were there for the bus to Monteverde, and when we got there the ticket window wasn't open yet. There were a few other backpackers waiting around too. Some guys from Quebec we would see multiple times. Finally the window opened and we bought our tickets, something like $5 each (the public bus is the cheapest way around Costa Rica, and is what I would recommend if you are there). One cool thing about public buses is that food merchants get on every once in a while and are let off shortly afterward. But this means you can easily get a pretty cheap snack on your bus ride. The buses are mostly somewhat clean and a lot seem to have been tour buses in a former life (though, in the less visited areas I did ride on what was clearly a school bus once).

The bus ride was long but uneventful. As soon as you step off into Monteverde you are assaulted by people trying to sell you a place to stay. We already had reservations and one guy very nicely walked us to the bed and breakfast's sister hostel in town, where a guy who worked there walked us out to the Camino Verde B&B (it wasn't far just maybe not easy to describe). We were given our pick of rooms and basically had the place to ourselves.

Stay tuned for the continuation of our adventures - what we did in Monteverde and beyond - once I find the journal I wrote this down in!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Overcoming Fear: Kayaking Style

In my 100 facts about me post, I wrote "Overcoming a fear is one of the most satisfying and self-affirming things I can do." That really is true about me, and I'd like to share my tale of overcoming fear that really drove this point home.

During the spring semester of 2008, I decided to take a Whitewater Kayaking class at William and Mary. I had been flatwater kayaking many a time, and thought that doing whitewater would be really fun. But there was one part of the class for which I wasn't mentally prepared. That was the part where we learned various rescues. When you're just kayaking for fun the boat is not usually enclosed. However, for whitewater, you're in a smaller, more maneuverable boat and you close up the hole that you sit in with a spray skirt so the water doesn't get in and sink you. But, obviously, that means you're sort of shutting yourself in the boat. So one thing we had to practice was various ways to get out if your kayak gets overturned.

Up until this point, I hadn't really come to terms with the fact that I'm a little claustrophobic and a lot afraid of drowning. That's probably a lot of why the one time I went snorkeling ended with me freaking out and bailing. So of course when we started trapping ourselves underwater, stuck in a kayak, I was a little freaked out (this was in a pool, by the way). But I was also determined to get the stuff right. First we just practiced getting ourselves out of the boat. It's really easy, you just pull the loop for the spray skirt and push yourself out. So no, it's not like you're totally stuck or anything. However, if you're out in a river you don't want to bail like that if possible, because then you have to take a bunch of time to drain your boat and flip it and get back in, all taking lots of time away from your enjoyment of kayaking down rapids.

Luckily, there are a couple other options. One is called a bow rescue, and involves another boat coming perpendicular to yours. You grab the bow of their boat and use it to help flip yourself over. Once you get the hang of it, it's pretty easy. But imagine getting to that point - so you've flipped your kayak. You bang on the bottom of the boat and have to wait to feel the bow. Then of course, you're underwater and upside down, and if you're like me you're pretty disoriented by this point. Every time I tried it, I'd try to flip the wrong way and consequently get my head up a little then fall right back upside down. Of course, by that point I'd be panicking. I seriously wasn't getting it, and was stressing massively about it in and outside of class. My instructor, Randy, who was awesome by the way, offered an extra session for people who were having trouble. I came in along with a couple other people and we got one on one attention. At some point during this session, I finally got it. I could do it, and I could repeat it. Suddenly I felt a lot safer and more confident in my kayaking abilities.

Not long after that we learned how to do a self rescue called an Eskimo Roll. You roll in a similar manner, using a hip snap, but you do it all yourself, using your oar to help you. I was much more confident by this point, and I was able to get pretty good at doing an Eskimo Roll, doing it successfully more than half of the time. After a bunch of practice out on the lake we had our outing to the Appomattox River near Petersburg to raft some Class 2 and 3 rapids. The other parts of kayaking come fairly naturally to me - I assume it has something to do with my years of horseback riding (that sounds odd, I know, but I just have the feeling it's true). Anyway, the point is I didn't have to get rescued or self-rescue on the river, but I had that extra confidence boost from knowing that if I flipped out there, I'd be just fine.

And that's the sort of reason I love overcoming fears. Nothing can make you feel quite as good about yourself as mastering something you know you couldn't have done before. Plus the added adrenaline is pretty great.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

City Review: Williamsburg

City: Williamsburg, VA
Geographical Location: Mid-Atlantic, East Coast, USA
Population: 14,068
Size: 8.7 square miles
Climate: temperate, seasonal
My Time There: I went to college at William and Mary so I lived there for 3 and a half years, minus one semester abroad and one summer when I lived at home (that was August 2006 to December 2009). In addition, my grandmother lives there so I visited countless times throughout my childhood.

Weather: 3 out of 10. One summer I looked online and the two hottest places in the country at the time were Death Valley, CA and Williamsburg. No joke. Summers are muggy and miserable - it was built on a swamp, after all. There is a lot of rain. It can be nice in Williamsburg (winters are nice and mild), don't get me wrong, but because of summer it gets a low rating.

Food: 7 out of 10. Williamsburg is chock full of chain restaurants, being a huge tourist destination and all. It has a few unique options, and definitely lots of stuff is good. Plenty of non-American cuisine options, too.

Walkability: Campus and the historical part: 10 out of 10. The rest of the city: 6 out of 10. The William and Mary campus and Colonial Williamsburg are fantastic places to walk around. If it's within those boundaries it's easy to walk to, and a very pretty place to walk, besides. Both have few places where cars can get in your way. If you go outside of those areas, there are usually sidewalks but everything is really spread out so walking is not very practical.

Bikeability: 8 out of 10. Overall it is very bike-friendly, especially on/near campus and the colonial part. There are some bike lanes on the roads outside of campus, too.

Public Transportation: 2 out of 10. So there's a bus system, but it leaves a lot to be desired. There are only a few routes and they only go one way around a loop, so you might get stuck going through most of the whole loop to get to where you're going (and if you have to wait at the bus depot you should probably find another way to get where you're going).

Vegetarian-friendly: 4 out of 10. There are vegetarian options at many of the restaurants but no all-veg restaurants that I'm aware of. Food for Thought is one of the best choices to take someone vegetarian.

Beauty: 7 out of 10. Except for the swampy parts, Williamsburg is pretty gorgeous. Very green.

Museums, Etc.: 5 out of 10. There are a few museums around, but the rating is mostly for the 'etc.' Obviously with Colonial Williamsburg you have a wealth of historical information and locations to visit. That stuff is free for students but will cost you otherwise.

Cool Shops: 5 out of 10. There are definitely some neat places, like a totally sweet used bookstore and a shop that has tons of free samples of peanuts.

Free Stuff to Do: 8 out of 10. It's partially a college town, so of course there are plenty of things to do that are free and cheap.

Great Outdoors: 7 out of 10. The university has a boathouse which is free for students so you can kayak and canoe to your heart's content. The WM Rec Center has some great outdoor student trips, and there's a great outdoors club. If you're not a student, there are still some things for you - short drives to Jamestown and some James River beaches, and not very far from York River State Park.

Cleanliness: 9 out of 10. It's a clean place, probably because they want to make sure it looks nice for tourists. Though you should watch out for horse manure if you're in Colonial Williamsburg.

People: 8 out of 10. On campus there are lots of great people and I knew just about everybody. I have also met lots of non-WM Williamsburg residents through my grandmother and can say they are often friendly. One downside is that some residents resent the college students and tried to make our lives a bit more difficult.

Cost of Living: $$ out of $$$$. Rent is not terribly bad - on Craigslist there are plenty of apartments for $700-$800 a month. Food is also not extremely expensive (though can be a bit overpriced if it's a place that tourists flock to), and there are some pretty cheap places (I'm looking at you, Retro's).

Tourist Congestion: Non-Summer: 3 out of 5. Summer: 5 out of 5. People flock to Colonial Williamsburg when it is nice out. Also, there's Busch Gardens which is a big draw as well. If you're around on campus in the summer the tourists will even filter over and ask things like, "is this a real college?"

Safety: 4 out of 5. You would occasionally hear reports of crimes around campus, and there were a couple bad parts of town, but mostly it seemed quite safe.

Overall Thoughts: Williamsburg was a lovely place to go to college, although staying over the summer as I did, the heat sometimes got unbearable. There is stuff to do for students but in general this is a sleepy town that goes to bed around 8 pm. There are no establishments called 'bars' due to a town law - though of course there are bars, they are just called 'cafes' or 'delis'. So if you like to go out drinking, it's not the town for you. At least there is a 24-hour Wawa next to campus, for your late night macaroni and cheese needs. I liked it, but wouldn't really want to move back there unless I was doing grad school or something.