Saturday, December 31, 2016

Living "La Pura Vida"

In Costa Rica you hear the words "pura vida" spoken everyday. Literally it translates to "pure life" but in Costa Rica it means so much more. It's an expression that can have many meanings, from greetings and salutations to "thank you", "your welcome", "no worries", "cool", or "life is good". And life IS good as I sit back in my reclined chair looking out at Papagayo Bay this morning. The warm air and light breeze feels nice on my skin. My senses feel alive after a barefoot run in the sand and a dip in the cool, salty water.  

The sun rises at 6am here, and at that time of day the beach is empty except for a few egrets, herons and vultures in search of their morning grub. The water is calm in the bay with little ripples of waves rolling in and out over the black volcanic sand. As the sun rises higher it paints ever-changing colors of pale and dark blues down on the water, with shimmery golden-yellow reflections on the surface near the shore. Just beyond the sand is a mangrove of tall, majestic Guanacaste trees, where monkeys and large iguanas make their homes. Early in the morning you can hear the howler monkeys bellowing their deep, resonant calls that sound more like they should come from big gorillas rather than the small, 20 pound leaf-eating creatures that they are. The mangrove forest filled with sounds of its creatures gives an exotic feel to the black sandy beach in front of me. 

I've just spent the past week with a group of people who were all strangers to me seven days ago. This situation is pretty common for me, as an active travel guide. My Italian co-leader and I led our group of excited Americans through all the eco-systems in Costa Rica on the Backroads multi-sport trip. We started near San Jose with a tour of an organic coffee farm where we witnessed the entire process from harvesting, drying and roasting the beans and then tasted the velvety-smooth Arabica coffee. From there we headed up into the cloud forest, hiking past leaf-cutter ants to magnificent waterfalls and sleeping in a beautiful eco-lodge tucked away among the tall trees. 

Throughout the week our group of thirteen  shared one adventure after another: we paddled down the Sarapiqui river spotting iguanas, toucans and monkeys; hiked to the tallest waterfall in Costa Rica that plunges down into a volcanic crater; took part in grinding cocoa beans into pure decadent chocolate; biked down bumpy roads in the warm rain below the Arenal volcano; sipped on coconut water straight from the shell; walked across long hanging bridges through primary rainforest; flew across the country in a 15 passenger propeller plane; kayaked in the calm Papagayo Bay; flew like superman down a mile-long zip line; and finished the week with Guaro Sours and a beach barbecue. After 6 full days of adventures and togetherness, we have become good friends, and last night's celebration of a guest's 50th birthday and sending her through the "spanking machine" was a testament to this! 

Throughout the week we were immersed in the "Pura Vida" mentality of the friendly and eternally optimistic Costa Ricans (referred to as "Ticos" here). We were warmly welcomed by Ticos who have a passion for living the good life, and they do it very well. Our kayak guide who lives just down the beach explained how much he loves his laid-back beach lifestyle, kayaking, catching fish and meeting travelers from around the world. "Pura Vida!" Our zip line crew joked around with us and moved from one platform to the next by zip-lining upside down and howling like monkeys. "Pura Vida!" Our raft guides have mastered the art of splashing unsuspecting guests with copious amounts of water and then winning our hearts by spotting iguanas and monkeys up in the trees. "Pura Vida!" After making us a delicious lunch in her home, Olga patiently taught us how to make corn tortillas and showed us how she lights her wood-fired stove every morning because "a warm kitchen is a happy kitchen". "Pura Vida!" We met countless Ticos who are genuinely joyful and happy with life here. 

How do they do this so effortlessly? Perhaps because Costa Rica hasn't had a military for the past 70 years and instead has put its money into education and infrastructure. It's a country with free and mandatory education and a 96% literacy rate. There is high environmental awareness and ambition to protect the land, with over 25 percent of the country protected by national parks and reserves. Hydroelectric and geothermal energy abound and this year the entire country was run on renewable energy for over 100 days. Beaches are free and open to everyone and the eco-tourism industry is booming.  "Pura vida" is not only everyone's go-to expression (whether old or young) but it is also a way of life here. Carefree and happy Ticos have a love of the simple things, which seems to be the essence of 'pura vida'. 

I take a deep breath and look out at the water from my lounge chair.  A couple of fishermen in a small boat head out of the bay, and I can hear one of them singing. Costa Rica is the kind of place that beckons its visitors to take in the natural surroundings and appreciate every moment. It inspires a love for adventure and not taking life too seriously. It is 'pura vida'. 

Monday, December 5, 2016

Racing Daylight in the Dolomites

There's just no other place like the Dolomites. Located in northeastern Italy along the boarder of Austria, the Dolomites are named after the whitish jagged Dolomite rock spires that jut out of the ground like enormous skyscrapers. The shear cliff walls tower over the green valley floor, dwarfing Germanic houses and wooden huts down below. Being in the presence of the majestic towers gives one the feeling of being small, perhaps even fairy-like, in a mighty kingdom that demands reverence. 

As if this weren't magical enough, Mother Nature also gifted this land the ability to grow grapes, and to produce very good wine. It's a cooler climate in terms of grape growing, so the whites are crisp and refreshing. Some of the best Pinot Grigio in the world hails from here. Far from the bland and boring Pinot Grigios that often line the shelves in liquor stores, these wines are vibrant and exciting with racing acidity that makes your mouth water and want to go back for another sip. Other notable wines are the aromatic and floral Gew├╝rztraminer, the age-worthy red Lagrein and the light and fruity red Schiava. 

The food is just as interesting and impressive. It has an Austrian influence, which means you will find handmade Italian pasta with ragu as well as local pork knuckle with dumplings, and you can trust that both will be authentic and delicious. With the nearby Lake Garda and Adriatic Sea, you can also find delicate fish dishes, which pair nicely with the crisp white wines. For dessert the same menu in a little family run restaurant in a quiet town may offer both Tiramisu and Apple Strudel, making you question whether you are in Italy or Austria. (This kind of variety does not usually exist in Italy, or any small town in Europe for that matter, where food is proudly regionalized. Unless you are in a big city, it would be uncommon to find German/Austrian cuisine in a little Italian restaurant). To make matters more confusing (or delightful, depending on your perspective), your waiter may address you in either German or Italian (or if you look like a true local, perhaps in the local Ladin dialect!). The menu may be in any of the above languages as well. 

The houses and chalets are also very Germanic in style with white stucco walls, dark wooden rooftops and colorful flowers overhanging from their balconies. 

My first introduction to this diverse wonderland was with someone relatively new in my life. We spontaneously decided to rent a car and drive the 9 hours from Prague after meeting each other for the first time just one week prior. The evening of the first day we met, we found ourselves sipping wine together on the top deck of a river boat, floating up the Danube River and gazing at the beautiful lights of Budapest. As I think back on it, it sounds too good to be true. Like the beginning of a love story. It was actually Day One of a Backroads trip with my husband and parents. My new friend was our amazing Backroads leader, whom my mom claimed could be my sister (it's the blonde hair, I think). So not a love story, but definitely the beginning of a budding friendship. She and I hit it off from the beginning and by the end of the day, as we cruised up river into the night, we chatted like old friends. Once we discovered that we both had the following week off we agreed without hesitation to spend it together and to go someplace magical where neither of us had been to before. (Oh the amazing opportunities of working as a guide in Europe!)

The magnificence of the Dolomites greeted us in many facets. We cycled around them, hiked with the goats on the trails that weave through them, climbed up to their craggy tops, and feasted on the local cuisine in the huts down below. From every aspect, the big white rocks are imposing and jaw dropping. The beauty of each day was more impressionable than the last. In short, neither of us wanted our little adventure to end.

On our last full day, we decided to bike down the valley and go wine tasting. We were pleasantly surprised to learn that we could take bike paths the whole way and pedal down the valley past vineyards, apple orchards and cute little towns. We each picked an apple from the first orchard we came across and began our bike ride down the perfectly paved bike path. What bliss! We rode past families of bicycle tourists, with toddlers and gear in tow and kids as young as 6 or 7 riding their own bicycles with panniers. It's common to see families traveling this way on the bike paths in Europe. The paths are shared by all types, from bike touring families, to serious cyclists in lycra and even cute little grannies and grandpas on upright bicycles. I'm not quite sure what category we fell into. We may have been geared up in lycra, but we were far from serious with our multiple stops for photos, pizza and wine tasting. We even stopped for a bit of shopping along the way. Our trunk bags were packed full of bottles of wine, snacks and our new bike socks.

We were like giddy school girls as we pedaled into what looked like a painting, past rows of vines along hillsides with the beautiful backdrop of the dolomite mountains.  Little towns greeted us along the way with cobble stone streets and wineries that tempted us to come in and stay a while. The path through the valley seemed to just keep going and neither of us were in any hurry to turn around or loop back.  At a certain point we decided that we wouldn't turn around! Rather than riding back to our vehicle, we would keep going until our heart's content and then catch one of the many trains that go up the valley back to our vehicle. Brilliant!

So we kept riding and taking it all in, putting together our own version of a 'perfect Backroads tour' that would follow our path, stopping at point x for a beautiful lunch al fresco and point z for wine tasting and a tour of the winery, etc. Eventually we found ourselves around dusk at a wonderful little wine bar in a town called Ora, which means "now" in Italian. What a fitting name for the kind of place where you find yourself living in the 'now' because you really don't want to be anywhere else. There was only one other patron at the cozy little wine bar, and he seemed to be friends with the bartender. My eyes lit up as I scanned the wall lined with wines, both local and from afar. They insisted that we try the local varieties, specifically the dense red Lagrein, and we happily obliged. It had rich notes of raspberries, plums and baking spices, similar to a Syrah. The bartender then picked up a big big hunk of air cured ham and used the hand crank meat slicer on the bar to put together a beautiful plate of thinly sliced prosciutto and crusty bread to accompany our wine. We were in heaven! By the time we finished our last drop of wine and ate the last nibble of prosciutto, the light of the day was nearly gone. We said our goodbyes and headed to the train station to catch the next train up the valley. 

As we walked up to the platform with our bikes, a train was just taking off. We looked at the schedule and realized that we had just missed the last train! We looked at each other with a bit of panic and then almost simultaneously grinned widely and declared, "Let's do it!"

We strapped on our helmets, jumped on our bikes and put on some tunes for motivation. We had a portable speaker, 4 bottles of wine, extra socks and peanut M&M's, but no bike lights. We giggled at our oversight as we navigated our way out of town. Once we were back on the bike path we sobered up to the fact that we were literally racing daylight. With no bike lights, and a path that is not lit up, we needed to hurry. We had 20 miles to get back to the car and probably less than an hour of daylight.

So we put the hammer down. I've never pushed myself so hard for so long on a bicycle.  We pedaled at our max speed without speaking; our bodies tucked, breathing heavy and intentional, eyes focused and legs burning. It was quite the contrast from our lackadaisical ride in the other direction. Pushing like this in the dusk was exhilarating! We cruised down the empty path with shadows of grape vines on one side and the glistening of the river on the other.  Eventually nearly all visibility was gone as the darkness enveloped our surroundings. The last 5 miles we just had to trust that the path was as smooth and predictable as it had been, because we could not see a thing. Luckily, there were no sudden bumps, holes or branches that could have been our downfall. When we finally arrived to our vehicle it felt as if we had just finished an amazing race. We did it! I half expected there to be spectators cheering us on at the finish. We took about 5 minutes to catch our breath and change out of our bike shoes. We gave each other the obligatory high five and laughed at our negligence (especially for being 'bicycle tour guides'). Mainly though, we felt proud and satisfied for squeezing every last drop out of such an incredible day.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Riding out the Storm

"There's an abandoned house!" I holler out through the howling wind and constant clamor of heavy raindrops slapping the pavement. The clouds are so dark and ominous that they give the impression that it is dusk, even though it is just 11am. Lightening strikes and lights up the sky in the near distance. 
"Let's go take cover!" Jarrod hollers back. 
We lightly hit the brakes of our bicycles, careful not to slide out on the wet blacktop below our two wheels. Directly to our left the waves of the Ionian Sea are crashing into the shore, pushed along by the fierce wind of the storm. On another day this would be a scenic seaside ride, but today the large body of water is threateningly close to the road. 

We direct our bicycles away from the sea, down a rocky driveway to a half-built cement structure that was meant to be a beach house. We enter through an opening in the cinder block wall where the front door would have gone. There are several other square openings where windows would have been installed. The floor of the house is still earth, but the cement ceiling and thick walls provide adequate protection for us from the rain. It's obvious by the wear and tear of the structure that it has been left unattended for a while. This is one of the many abandoned houses under construction that we have seen on this road, giving evidence to the economic suffering of the area. We lean our bikes against the unfinished wall and sit down on a couple of cinder blocks in the middle of the living room (or would it have been a dining room?). I feel relieved to have some respite from the harsh weather, but wary that it will not let up anytime soon. 

It's Day six of a two week bike tour with my husband. We've been exploring Puglia, the "heel of the boot" in southern Italy, known for its warm, Mediterranean weather, laid-back lifestyle and now for me, hurricane-like weather. We are touring with bicycles borrowed from Backroads, the company I work for during the summer and fall season. This bicycle tour with my husband is a far cry from the tours that I guide. Nothing is planned out, we don't have the luxury of a van to carry our luggage, or posh hotels with concierge, there are no other guests and there is certainly no guide to give us directions, encouragement, or to rescue us from a storm. I remind myself of how much I love the ultimate freedom of being self-supported, even though it means being uncomfortable or uncertain at times. I like the feeling of being autonomous and having everything I need tucked away in my panniers on the back of my bike. (I even packed us the iconic Backroads snack: Peanut M&Ms.) 

The heavy rain has soaked through my bike gloves and shoes, which are now soggy and seem rather useless. Miraculously, everything inside our panniers are dry. I consider changing my socks, but the rain doesn't seem to be letting up anytime soon so I decide to wait. "Are we trapped?" I ponder to myself. I'm not willing to say it out loud. It looks like the end of the world out there and we are taking cover in a partially protected structure, miles away from the nearest town. I try to convince myself that this is fun; we are adventurers, discovering the lesser known and more authentic corners of Italy! Take this abandoned house, for instance: we may be the first Americans to ever step foot in here! Soon I snap back to reality and my shivering body is not convinced that we are so lucky. This is supposed to be vacation in Italy! What are we doing?

Before commencing our trip we highlighted a few spots on our map; "must-see" places that my colleagues who guide trips in Puglia had recommended. On the list was Polignano a Mare, the beautiful town dramatically built into the cliffs on the Adriatic coast, where Italy's famous singer Dominico Modugno grew up. The townspeople are so proud that they have built an enormous statue of him overlooking the sea and often sing or whistle his catchy song "Volare". Another stop was the interesting gnome-like town of Alberobello. The cone-shaped "trulli" structures and large groups of tourists make the place feel a bit like Disneyland, but people actually live and work in the tiny town and it's even possible to rent your own trullo for the night. The final must-see stop where we would finish our tour is a town called Matera, an actual cave city that was first inhabited over 10 thousand years ago. The caves have recently been renovated with dehumidifiers and electricity and now visitors can enjoy a drink in a swanky cave restaurant or sleep in a romantic cave hotel.  Other than these few planned stops, we were just riding, not necessarily in a direct route, wherever our skinny tires would take us. We certainly didn't plan to stop at this vacant cement structure on a desolate road between towns that go into hibernation this time of year. 

The freedom of bike touring has its consequences, of course. Getting caught in a storm is one of them.  We've bike toured over a dozen times and have endured our fair share of rain and thunderstorms. I recall our honeymoon bike tour when we both got flat tires in the middle of a thunderstorm on a Colorado mountain pass. By the time we changed our flats we were muddy and soaked to the bone. Could our idea of vacation be skewed?

Finally we decide to get back out on the road and work our way to the next town to see if we can find a hotel or at least a cafe to warm up. As soon as we exit the cinder block refuge the rain hits us like little bullets, challenging our escape. We push our bikes through the ambush, back up to the empty road. It's a comical struggle to mount our bikes and stay upright in the sideways wind. The next half hour of riding is the scariest, most nerve wracking experience I've ever had on a bicycle. The wind is so strong that it knocks over a big metal dumpster full of trash and it's all I can do to not get blown over myself. We trust our tires to grip the wet pavement and lean into the wind at nearly a 45 degree angle. Every once in a while the wind lets up and we must swerve and lean upright to keep from falling.  When we finally enter into the next town the streets are flooded under a foot of water and everything seems to be shut down for the season. We need to find shelter again. I can't imagine riding any farther in this weather. 

I've found that even the smallest, most quiet towns in Italy have a local bar, which is the general Italian word for cafe. In addition to what we think of as a bar with alcohol, every bar in Italy will be equipped with a nice espresso machine as well as croissants and other goodies. Sometimes they will have a kitchen and serve more hearty dishes as well. I was hopeful that we would find an open bar in this sleepy little town.

We stay high above the water by riding on sidewalks and splashing our way across streets and past shutdown restaurants. Finally, we round a corner and are overjoyed to see a bar with its open sign turned on! We go inside and warm up with chocolate filled croissants and cappuccinos. After chatting with some locals who come in from the rain, we learn that we just rode our bikes through a hurricane. The locals have a second house inland, and drove out here to check on their beach house. I pinch myself to be sure that I am alive. We count our blessings and start thinking about where we will spend the evening, not wishing to battle again with the hurricane. 

The rumored southern hospitality in Italy proved itself to be true; After a brief search, we are graciously taken in by a sweet couple with apartments for rent. They even give us spaghetti, bread, olive oil and wine, knowing that the grocery store is already closed for the afternoon. They assure us that the restaurant on the corner will open in the evening for the locals that stay in town during the off season.

That evening the clouds part and the sun even greets us for a brief moment. A stray dog becomes our companion as we explore the town on foot and walk down to the empty sandy beach. We follow a cement pier down to its edge to watch the enormous waves come crashing in. Feeling spiteful, we get closer and race the oncoming waves until a big one catches us and soaks us once again. This time, all we can do is laugh and relish in the moment of our child-like giddiness. 

After changing into dry clothes (again) we follow our noses to what really is the only open restaurant in town, where we enjoy tall beers and wood fired pizza. The family restaurant is packed with locals and buzzing with lively Italian chatter, shouting and laughter. We take in the new scene and clink our glasses, toasting to surviving the storm. 

The lure of the unknown propels us forward on our journey. Tomorrow we will be back on our bicycles, riding towards more unknown territory and perhaps new surprises. It turns out that this is how I want my Italian vacation to go. Getting away from predictable routines and feeling a sense of adventure is thrilling and ultimately, so satisfying. Besides, what would be the excitement of vacation without a random hurricane to spice things up? 

The next day of riding along the coast - sunny and warm
stepping into the Ionian Sea
Polignano a Mare (On the Adriatic)
Sculpture of Singer Domenico Modugno in Polignano a Mare
Matera in the evening

Trulli in Alberobello