Category: wanderlust


Ye olde roadtrippe, day four

I’m in Canada, y’all! Took only 40 minutes to get my car through customs: they were very confused that I’ve managed to fit everything I own into one Kia. (I also heard a Canadian say “eh” for the first time, so that’s an unlocked achievement right there.)
 
Typing this up at Tim Horton’s, using the free wi-fi and munching on some potato wedges like the stage-one canuck that I am. 🙂
Onward to explore. :^D

Another day, another 887 miles. Just six hours away from my destination! (Plus customs, of course.) Spending the night in an odd little Michigan village called Paw Paw.

There should be a congressional hearing into the utter lack of bacon at hotel breakfasts. (Breakfast sausage just ain’t the same.)

Along the same stretch of I-90 in Minnesota, there are towns called Alpha, Welcome, Blue Earth, and Ceylon. Heh.

I dined in the town of Nodine, MN, but didn’t see any of the Spartans in Sparta, WI.

South Dakota’s radio is filled with religion, in-depth weather forecasts, and detailed analysis of pork futures and corn contracts. This is probably the only part of the country where being obsessed with weather is justified. (Evidently, 40 barns collapsed the night before because of all the snow on the roofs.)

Minnesota roadside shops have free cheese samples. 🙂

Chicago’s highway traffic isn’t any worse than Vegas on a Friday night, but wow, they really do like their tolls. Had to stop to pay them seven times, and one of those didn’t accept anything but coins. (Well played, robots, well played.)

Ye olde roadtrippe, day two

Drove farther today than I did yesterday. More than halfway done! Ended up taking a rather big detour to avoid a flooded section of the highway. Later on, I drove over a long stretch of almost-flooded highway, with impromptu lakes surrounding it on both sides. (An omen of the not-too-distant future?) That was followed by the post-apocalyptic remnants of an old wildfire. And after that, fog. Hundreds of miles of fog. Being able to outrun a major weather pattern is intrinsically cool. Managed to escape not just the fog but a local river that’s projected to get a couple of feet above the comfortable level.
 
It took three attempts to find a South Dakota hotel that a) was on a paved road, b) had outdoor lights, and c) was actually open at the late, late hour of 10pm. The bastards still don’t have bacon at their free breakfast, though.
 
When your food consumption consists solely of water, black coffee (bitterness is energy entering the body!), and prepackaged food, it gets ridiculously easy to track the caloric intake. Welcome back, cheekbones!

Ye olde roadtrippe, day one

Drove 687 miles today on the mighty I-90. 26.4% down – almost there!

It’s logical but still unbelievable that just one day of dedicated driving can get you from Seattle to the Yellowstone national park.

I was greatly amused by dozens of signs telling me how close I was to Butte. (Hey, I’ve never claimed to be mature.)

Montana and Idaho are mind-boggingly boring. Judging by their 80 mph speed limit, they strongly suspect that too, and they may or may not be sorry.

There are two small towns in Montana: Anaconda and Opportunity. For about 5 miles before I figured that out, the “Anaconda Opportunity” road sign had inspired myriads of ideas in my understimulated mind.

Passed a sign that said “Amsterdam Manhattan.” Nice try, Montana: I have it on good authority that those two cities are at least 50 miles apart.

I moved to the United States from Russia when I was 16. Now I’m 32, and it’s time to move once more – someplace safer, more stable, more civilized. Somewhere like Canada.

Over the past 16 years, I’ve been a burger-flipper and a student, a busboy and an analyst, a canvasser and an investigator, a minister and a rescuer. These days, I work at an online company. (It’s fairly small – you’ve probably never heard of it.) When an opportunity to transfer to our Ontario office presented itself, I pounced on it.

I remember visiting a dollar store for the first time: the glorious cornucopia of stuff where everything cost just a buck. I remember being amazed that 15-year-olds could drive their own trucks. I remember the overabundance of election signs and the novelty of free and fair elections.

Since my arrival in 2003, I’ve lived and worked and studied in rural Nevada, Reno, Las Vegas, Fort Worth, Tampa, Seattle… So many journeys and experiences, sights and friends, adventures and mishaps. So much to explore, with ever so much beauty.

I remember driving upward, toward to the clouds, on the picturesque Sunshine Skyway Bridge, with a giant pelican flying by as we both crossed the beautiful Tampa Bay. I remember the breathtaking drive through the Arizona desert as the first rays of sunshine lit up the sand dunes in every single shade of gold and scarlet. I remember seeing the entirety of New York City from the top of the Empire State Building at sunset: the world’s greatest city, its lights shining bright in the darkness.

And then… During yet another roadtrip, I narrowly avoided the deadliest shooting in American history. After spending most of the day driving from Boise to Las Vegas, I was too tired to brave the strip’s traffic, and I went to an off-strip casino. My laziness was the only reason I ended up two miles away, at the Orleans casino, instead of being near the Mandalay Bay on the night of October 1st, 2017. As I was gambling, hundreds of people got shot: 58 dead, 851 injured. Later that night, I saw a sea of sirens to the west, and learned the details shortly after. The entertainment capital of the world, the city of sin, was forever transformed by the action of a single 64-year-old madman. I can’t begin to imagine what it was like to be in the midst of the carnage but I saw plenty of the aftermath: the locals, each of whom had known somebody at the shooting; the impromptu vigils and shrines; the seemingly endless line of people waiting to donate blood. I too gave a pint of my blood – the very least I could do to help the city recover.

There were also a few other incidents that got me to this point. I remember a crowd of Sunday morning churchgoers shaking their fists and yelling obscenities at me and my fellow canvassers because they vehemently disagreed with our politics. I remember living next to two measles outbreaks: one in a megachurch in Texas, the other one on an island full of yuppies in Washington, both groups driven by ignorance and superstition. I remember the blatant and cartoonishly evil case of voter fraud in North Carolina’s 9th district, where nobody got punished.

I remember – and I forget, for there has been so much to view, to try, and to experience.

America has always experienced a balance of bad and good, of ugliness and beauty, of villains and heroes. It seems the balance has shifted – and not for the better. This isn’t the same country I fell in love with in 2003. The changes have been for the worse, and there’s no reason to believe it’ll get better. If I am wrong, I’ll just spend a few years in an interesting new country; another fun adventure to be had. If, on the other hand, I’m right, I’ll outlast the worst of what’s to come. No more mass shootings. No more people declaring bankruptcy due to illness. Far fewer preventable outbreaks of the diseases that should have been left behind in the previous millennium.

I spent half of my life in Russia, and I left it because there was no promise of future: nothing but corruption and despotism. I spent just as long in the US, and I’m leaving because it’s no longer safe, no longer the country I’d fallen in love with, no longer the beacon of freedom. The time has come for me to move once more. By the time you read this, I will be gone, driving into the sunrise, toward a new and better place. I hope that someday I might make it back.

In no particular order…

The largest Costa Rican bill has a beautiful butterfly.

Memorize this expression: “pura vida.” It’s a uniquely Costa Rican expression that means “life is good” or “hakuna matata.” Expect to hear it (and reciprocate!) anywhere, at any time, under any circumstances. It can be a greeting, a goodbye or a random observation – or all of the above.

Bring your own sunscreen, padlock and towel.

Sunscreen in Costa Rica is expensive: I’ve seen 8oz bottles sold for as much as $35. Stock up on it right after you go through airport security.

As we all know, a towel is the most useful object in the known universe. If you’ll be backpacking, you might not want to end up renting (or worse, losing) a hostel towel. (And they’re too tiny to take to the beach with you, in any case.)

If you plan on backpacking and staying at hostels, bring your own padlock. Some hostels will sell or rent you a padlock, while others will have no idea what you’re talking about. Make sure to get a reliable padlock: one of my hostel buddies ended up having to smash his Brinks combination padlock with a wrench after it got stuck.

Prepare for the worst-case scenario by hiding your debit card and a photocopy of your passport somewhere deep at the bottom of your backpack. If you get separated from your valuables, you’ll always be able to withdraw cash and go to the embassy in San Jose.

Speaking of backpacks, I used this one. It’s not the fanciest backpack out there, but it can expand and store a lot more than you’d think.

Bring clothes that are easy to wash, unless you feel like using up a lot of storage space and/or doing laundry while you’re on vacation. I survived just fine with 1 pair of cargo pants, 1 pair of swimming trunks, a 3-pack of wool socks, 3 polyester shirts (say no to cotton!) and 2 pairs of easily washable high-tech undies. (Well worth the price!)

Cargo pants are your friends. You’ll look like a gringo anyway, so why bother trying to blend in? Dark cargo pants (the better to conceal all the stains from your backpacking adventures) with a ton of useful little pockets will make your life a lot easier, trust me.

Tap water is safe to drink, unless you’re on the Caribbean (eastern) coast.

Do not flush your toilet paper! Costa Rican plumbing is a little fragile, so throw all your TP into the trashcan. Otherwise, you’ll end up clogging up the whole thing.

Costa Rica uses the same voltage as the US, so there’s no need to buy fancy power converters.

Just to be on the safe side, you might want to bring a power bank in case your phone/Kindle/whatever battery runs out while you’re out and about. This power bank seems to be the best deal on Amazon right now. It works like a charm: when fully charged, it has enough power to get your phone to 100% 2-3 times. (You can charge it through the micro-USB port, same as your typical cellphone.)

The local beer leaves a lot to be desired. The taste is okay – if you can stomach Pabst Blue Ribbon, you can stomach Imperial. The price is fine too – you can get a 40-oz bottle for just $3. The alcohol content, however, is grossly overstated. It’s not anywhere close to the 4.8% stated on the label, so you’ll essentially end up chugging beer-flavored water. Rum is cheap, though…

Due to high import tariffs, electronics are expensive. A simple pair of earbud headphones costs $9, so bring your own if you plan on listening to music or audiobooks during your stay.

There is nothing of note in Liberia and Limon. Stay there overnight if you have to, then move on to other, more exciting destinations.

San Jose is the capital of Costa Rica. It has some nice museums. It also has the highest crime levels in the country.

Invest in a good guidebook. I used a 10-year-old Lonely Planet guide and it was great, though slightly out of date. It had all the information on landmarks, towns, etc. I also recommend buying this old Frommer’s guide for a penny – it’s not very well written, but it comes with a very large map of Costa Rica.

To get the recommendations on the best restaurants, use Trip Advisor. Check out the top-rated diners – it’ll save you the trouble of finding them yourself!

To get a taste of genuine Costa Rican food, find a local diner (it’s called “soda”) and order a “desayuno tipico” (typical breakfast) or a casado (dinner). The dishes are mostly based on variations of rice and beans, with the side of fresh fruits and veggies. Follow the locals – you can get a decent (and authentic!) meal for just $5 that way.

Bring a Kindle. If you plan on traveling between cities, it can take you a lot longer than you think to get there by bus. I did manage to visit both Costa Rican shores and a lot of stuff in between during my 2-week vacation, but I spent 2 whole days stuck on the bus…

To look up bus schedules, go on this site or just google “Costa Rica bus schedule.” The site will tell you the most efficient way to get from A to B to C.

Costa Rica doesn’t have anything like Greyhound – you’ll have to take different buses at different transportation hubs to get where you’re going. That means layovers, some of which can last 4-5 hours. Most of the time, you’ll just hand your money to the driver as you board the bus. In some of the larger cities, you’ll have to buy the ticket at cleverly concealed ticket booths.

Bus is cheap, but it can take a long time: the roads are less than perfect, and sometimes your bus will plod along at just 20 miler per hour. The other option is designated shuttles: they’ll take you anywhere – and fast, but you’ll have to pay anywhere between $30-50 for the privilege. (The same journey by bus would cost $10, if that.)

Costa Ricans call themselves “ticos.” “Tico” for male, “tica” for female; the plurals are “ticos” or “ticas.”

Despite what you might have heard, not everyone speaks English. I had a lot of hilarious conversations where I got a chance to practice my Spanish with the help of my two mini-books: this pocket dictionary and an equally compact phrasebook. They fit perfectly into the cargo pants’ pockets, by the way!

Do not exchange your money at the airport. They’ll sell you colones at a ridiculously high price and you’ll end up losing over 10%. Everyone in Costa Rica accepts dollars, but you’ll want to exchange your money at the bank anyway: the official exchange rate right now is 534 colones per $1. When you pay with dollars, most people will use the 500 colones exchange rate, if only because it’s simpler to multiply it that way. If you exchange your money at the bank, you’ll end up getting 7% more colones. That’s definitely worth the 40-minute wait! (Don’t forget to bring your passport.)

If you want to see sloths, head to the Sloth Sanctuary near Puerto Viejo.

Use your common sense. Most of the crime occurs in San Jose, but there’s enough of it elsewhere. I met a group of backpackers who had everything stolen from them: they’d rented a car, parked it near a hostel and went inside to see if there are any available rooms. When they got back to their car three minutes later, it was completely empty: all of their luggage, purses and assorted stuff was gone. Don’t leave your backpacks/purses/fanny-packs lying around, be mindful of your things and generally keep your eyes open.

Wear flip-flops at your own risk. Not just because of the random bugs and an occasional snake in a forest, mind you. I don’t know why, but during my 2 weeks in Costa Rica, I met four different backpackers who broke their toes. For the most part, they just weren’t watching their step – and there’s a lot of hard surfaces and sharp edges all over the place.

Ditto for surfing. Yes, it looks cool, but one of my backpacker buddies ended up breaking his face on his surfboard. Be aware of the risks.

The mile-long zipline in Monteverde is amazing. Bring a poncho, though – there’s an improbably large amount of mud flying all over the place while you do your Superman impression 100′ above ground.

You can see a lot more of the jungle nightlife if you take a night tour instead of a day tour. It’ll keep you from getting sunburned, too!

Speaking of sunburns: try to stay indoors between 10am-3pm. The sun is at its strongest during those hours. If you want to hit the beach, you may want to set out early in the day or in mid-afternoon. (Sunburns suck.)

It rains in the rainforest. A lot. About 80% of the time, according to the locals.

If you find yourself in La Fortuna, skip the waterfall. It’s a tourist trap – very pretty, but with very cold water and complete absence of anything remotely resembling a beach. It’ll make for a nice selfie (after you pay the $12 admission fee), but you’ll get very bored, very fast.

The Cerro Chato hike in La Fortuna will take you to the gorgeous lake hidden in the crater of a dormant volcano. The hike itself is difficult: after you pay the entrance fee ($17, I think), it’ll take about 3 hours of climbing, walking, jumping, crawling and quite a few pushups through the mud to get to the top. (The air is mighty humid, so bring plenty of water!) Then you’ll have to slide through the mud for 15 more minutes to get to the actual lake. Both parts of the journey are very strenuous: on our way back, my friends and I met a group of tourists who didn’t watch their step… One of them lost her footing and took a shortcut to the bottom. She got a cut on her leg but didn’t break any bones, fortunately: it would have taken hours to get back to the ranger station…

The Rocking J’s hostel in Puerto Viejo is one never-ending spring break. Beds in their shared dorms are just $11 a night, and if you can handle the loud music at night, you should be able to enjoy your stay.

The strawberry juice at the Guetto Girl [sic] diner in Puerto Viejo is the greatest argument for the existence of a loving deity that I have ever encountered. I’d need to conduct a lot more tests, of course.

Bread&Chocolate is the top-rated Puerto Viejo diner for a reason. Their coconut pancakes are the single most delicious thing I ate during my entire vacation. (The desserts are pretty amazing, too!)

The bakery at the bus station in Liberia has a very large, cheap and delicious selection.

Tamarindo is the definition of a tourist trap: colonized by Baby Boomers, filled with night clubs and real estate ads. It’s quite pretty, though. The beach is always just two blocks away, there are convenient smoothie kiosks all over the place ($3 for a 22-oz smoothie!) and the weather is always perfect.

Visiting Tamarindo? Check out the Pura Vida hostel. It’s nice and cozy and quiet and beautiful. Hard to beat the price, too: $14 a night for a shared dorm.

Most places won’t accept your credit card.

If you try ordering American-style food, you’ll end up wasting your money. Most of the French fries are bland (they almost got them right), and when you order tacos, you’ll get a soggy tortilla smothered by a mountain of wet veggies and meat that you’ll end up having to eat like a salad. Just stick with casados.

The exit tax is $29. You can pay it with your credit card, but it might end up getting treated like a cash advance, with an extra fee from your credit card company. It’s best to just set aside the $29 ahead of time.

Renting a car? Make sure to ask if your quote includes mandatory insurance – it’ll usually cost as much as the car rental yourself. Make sure to follow the speed limit to the letter: ticos don’t get hardly any fines if they’re caught speeding, but tourists get fined about $600. If you try bribing the cop, they’ll take the bribe, smile at you, then write you the ticket anyway. You can’t avoid paying it, either, because your car rental company will just charge your credit card. Basically, a rental car will make your journey a lot easier, but (potentially) a lot more expensive.

“Pipo” is coconut water, and it should never cost more than $1 (or 500 colones). It’s served refrigerated – all they have to do is cut off the top of the coconut and give you the straw. Once you finish your drink, smile and say “parta, por favor?” and they’ll split it open for you. That way, you’ll get a drink and a coconut snack!

Things are much more relaxed in Costa Rica than back home. No one is ever in a hurry, and people take their time to get things done. Don’t get irritated if a clerk/cashier/vendor doesn’t help you right away.

Ticos are excruciatingly polite. They’re pretty much the Canadians of Central America. When you go out to eat, they most likely will not bring you a check unless you specifically ask for it. Why? Because they don’t want to be rude by making it look like they want you to free up the table. When you’re ready to pay, just walk up to the cashier.

And remember, no matter what happens – stay calm and pura vida!

P.S.: if you like my writing and want to see more of it, check out my e-books on Amazon! You might particularly enjoy Taoism-101 or 50 shades of yay: great thinkers on happiness.

Seattle, four months in

So much fresh fish. Such omnipresent hipsters. Fog that hides the world. Oddly shaped towers rise into the sky, illuminating downtown like a film noir as I go home at night. I miss the sun…

On wanderlust

In five days, I shall embark on a cross-continental journey, driving from Tampa to Seattle, stopping everywhere and nowhere, feeding my wanderlust. Over the past year, I’ve visited Dallas, New York, New Orleans, Omaha, Tampa, Charlotte, Chicago, Baltimore, Washington and Seattle, as well as Mexico and Grand Cayman. In the past four years, I’ve lived in Reno and Vegas and rural Nevadan towns you’d never heard of; in Dallas and Tampa and a few places in between.

The sensation of traveling, of moving and experiencing entirely new parts of the world, is indescribable. It’s confusing and mesmerizing and intoxicating, thought-provoking and inspiring, tinged with the bittersweet taste of nostalgia and vuja de. I have no doubt that within the next decade or so, wanderlust will become listed in the DSM as yet another suspicious condition, another sacrifice on the altar of the Pharmaceutical Industrial Complex.

Throughout history, wanderers and adventures (or misadventurers, as fate would have it) spread ideas and innovations throughout the world, assisting civilization and feeding their own wanderlust. Here and now, in the middle of the second decade of the twenty-first century, traveling is easier and cheaper than ever before. Strange foreign lands can be accessed with a swipe of a credit card and several hours in a flying metal vessel.

The full allure of it is hard to put in words. It’s a desire to explore, to see new places and to try new things, to not grow roots in boring little towns, to find something new. Something better. Something else. After all, even Frodo moved on and left his old digs for the Undying Lands when his grand adventure was over.

I spend my last days in Florida packing and reminiscing and enjoying the most of what this state has to offer. It saddens me to leave it all behind, but the exchange will be more than worth it, for there’s a new journey to be had, new city to explore, new land to wander.

Florida – pros and cons

Pros:
no snow
hot weather
beaches
bikinis
cruises
nice roads

Cons:
George Zimmerman within 100 miles of my house
alligators
sharks
brain-eating amoeba
humidity
skin cancer risk
blinding rain
storms

The 27th state

Florida,
The frontier of fun,
Where the fluffiest clouds,
Like fairy tale refugees,
Fill up the sky.