Monday, November 14, 2011

Golden Bean Coffee Tour

When we last heard from our hero he was at the Turrialba Volcano Lodge, awaiting a break in the weather.  That break never came in my time frame so I headed down the mountain, revisiting the rough roads and fog so thick I could barely see twenty feet in front of the car.  No worries, I made it safely back to the Hotel Turrialtico in time to check in, have lunch and to easily make my appointed 2 PM tour of the Golden Bean Coffee plantation and factory.

The factory workers were packing it in for the day but my faithful guide, Guilermo, met me at the gate and conducted a private tour for me.  I had my choice of English or Spanish and I chose Spanish.  We started with the plants (above), where I picked a red berry, bit the top off and squeezed the two seeds (coffee beans) into my mouth--per instructions.  They tasted sweet.

Then Guilermo gave me a good explanation of how the plants get started.  We progressed to the factory where he showed me the bin where coffee pickers empty berries from their waist baskets.  I'm pretty sure that he told me the daily wage for a coffee picker is around $2 a day.  And if you bring too many green berries to the factory you're toast.  Here's Guilermo demonstrating a small extractor that removes the beans from the berries.

We moved into the factory proper and he explained all the steps from washing, grading, roasting all the way to packaging.  Here's where the beans move after washing.

I won't get into all the details--there's a lot of work that goes into processing coffee beans before they find their way to Starbucks.  One of the final steps is a place where two women grade the roasted beans by taste. The factory uses machinery made mostly in Costa Rica.  At the tasting stage the women use this machine from Germany to produce any type of coffee, from regular to high test espresso.

The coffee then goes into individual bags that are bundled up and shipped out once a week to hotels and restaurants.  Golden Bean coffee is not sold in stores here.  When a buyer comes to the factory he or she makes a selection based on the "sip 'n' spit' technique of tasting, invented by Folgers in the early 1900s.  I did a bit of sipping and spitting--I was able to pick the highest grade by tasting.  Here's the taste test location.

Every tour ends in the store where you have the opportunity to buy as much coffee as you're willing to carry or ship home.

The coffee tour was a great deal, only $12.  If you go with a group in a bus it's $60.  I enjoyed it--it was a fitting end to this chapter of tourism in Costa Rica. I heard more than once during my visit that until coffee came to Costa Rica the country really didn't have much going for it--everyone was poor.  Add coffee, bananas and tourism and you have a very rich country compared to others in Central America.

Pura vida!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Graduation Day & Volcan Turrialba Lodge

Yesterday (Friday) was my last day of class. Alice had a full 3 hours of lessons and discussion planned plus there was an evaluation to fill out.  Everything about the school was excellent.  I feel pretty doggone comfortable striking up a conversation or asking questions in Spanish.  And in hearing and understanding the gist of what's being said without asking for a repeat or having to use the infamous "no entiendo" because I'm not understanding.

We even had a small graduation ceremony where Alice presented a certificate to me.  I'm the only one who graduated.  The other 2 students are coming back next week to complete their studies.

I came back to the house and loaded my bag into the car.  Then Lili, Alphonso and I headed off to the restaurant at Hotel Casa Turire, about 10 minutes' drive from the house, for lunch.  The hotel is very upscale but it's possible to find even more expensive and luxurious hotels if you really want to spend a ton of money.  Lili and Alphonso dressed up for lunch and looked their best.  Lili had on a dress and was all made up for our lunch.  Lunch is the biggest meal of the day for them and I was happy to treat them to a fancy lunch.  They treated me so well that it was the least I could do to show my gratitude. Lili suggested we order seafood so we did.  Food was super and presented in a way you won't find in regular Costa Rican restaurants.

After lunch it was time for a fond farewell at the house then I took off with the GPS as my guide for Volcan Turrialba Lodge.

It was a beautiful day for a drive, with a bright blue almost cloudless sky. We now have a new #1 at the top of the list of "Worst Roads in Costa Rica"--the last 12 kilometers of the road to the lodge. Most of the road looked like a jigsaw puzzle of red clay and broken asphalt with all the pieces scattered. I just had to take it slow most of the way and for the last couple of kilometers over rocks I had to use the four wheel drive. I was glad to have a vehicle with a higher ground clearance than normal.  It took about an hour to creep up the road but I didn't mind because the scenery was so gorgeous.

  And when I arrived the only thing I could say was, "WOW!"  The lodge is very plain, it looks like a few farm buildings in a pasture.  But then you see the amazing volcano hovering so close that it seems you can take a short stroll, reach out and touch it.  There weren't many clouds yesterday in the afternoon so the views from the lodge were magnificent.

I checked in at the same time as a couple I passed on the road; we were the only guests last night.  I took one wing of the lodge (2 rooms plus common area, kitchen and satellite TV) and they got the other.  Everything in my room was very basic--a far cry from the ornate decor of Casa Turire.  I was expecting a small fireplace in the room due to chilly atmosphere at this elevation--I had read to bring some warm clothes. My heater turned out to be a small wood stove with plenty of wood but no matches or kindling to speak of.  I had to get help from the staff at the hotel to get the thing fired up.  Then it wasn't possible to keep the somewhat damp wood burning.  No problem, lots of blankets for the beds. This morning I'm writing on a counter in the kitchenette and have two gas burners turned on for some heat. The temperature on the car thermometer early this morning was 52 degrees F--it felt colder last night with a fresh mountain breeze.

I had dinner last night with the German couple; they spoke passable English.  I found out quite a lot about them; they didn't have much interest in me. They're not married and both are MDs (medical deities). Tina is an opthalmologist and Voelker is an anesthesiologist.  They're in Costa Rica for 3 weeks and it took them 20 hours of travel time to get from their home in Cologne to San Jose. Their indifference was ok with me--I was still glad to have the company, such as it was.  Our meals were surprisingly good.  I had chicken grilled with vegetables and of course rice and beans--red ones this time, usually it's frijoles negros.  We had a discussion about a horseback tour this morning together but it takes at least 2 to make the tour reasonably priced ($35 each).  The woman wanted to go but the guy didn't know how to ride so they decided to skip it in favor of a hike in the National Park nearby.  I'm planning on going to the park as well this morning but they may want to hike farther and faster than I do so I'll probably get a guide of my own.

Later this morning after a great breakfast...

It's not looking good for a hike this morning; all I can see from the lodge are clouds and fog--interspersed with the occasional drizzle.  Forecast is not so good, either.  That's ok if I don't get to do the hike--the beautiful day yesterday definitely made the trip worthwhile.

I'm waiting a while to see if it clears up, then no matter what happens I have to leave around 10:30 for the hour drive back to Turrialba, check in at Turrialtico Lodge, eat lunch then show up at 2:00 PM in a little town not far from the hotel for the Golden Bean Coffee Tour.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Brain Fried, Feet Tangled

This will be short.  I got such an early start yesterday (Thursday) that I didn't feel like touring in the afternoon.  The lesson was difficult because we were working on expanding my vocabulary and using various verb tenses. I had to read and translate an ecological story about a young boy and a parrot thief, then paraphrase it back to Alice.  Then I had to make up a story on the fly for her (a takeoff on the Rapunzel fairy tale).  She was really cracking the whip--I had to describe the story line of one of my favorite movies (Young Frankenstein).  Haven't quite finished that and of course I don't want to tell her the ending.

Then it was time for dance class.  Yikes!  Two dances, salsa and one from the Dominican Republic.  A professional dance teacher and a young male assistant were the instructors.  I had never tried Latin American dancing before so just learning some basic steps took up the whole class.  And my Keen Sandals didn't cooperate, they wanted to grip the tile of our makeshift dance floor.  But it was great to get started--good aerobic exercise, too--the hour class flew by!

Speaking of flying, that's what's happened to this week.  Today's the last day of class; after it ends at 11:15 I'll come back here for Lili and Alphonso.  I'll treat them to lunch in a nice restaurant then I'll head up into the mountains for a night at the Volcan Turrialba Lodge. The page takes a while to load.

Here are a couple of shots of the house and family.  The gates are common in nicer neighborhoods.  I've felt totally confident about leaving stuff around my room during class.

Lili and Alphonso have been such gracious hosts it's impossible to describe in a few words.  So here's a photo of them in the family room, Alphonso in his favorite position for watching the HD TV--they get cable here.  Pura vida!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Cooking Like a Tican & Visiting a Farm

"You and me and rain on the roof..."  Rain continues providing a soothing background sound--some early morning feng shui.  Much of the roof on the house is corrugated fiberglass and a big part of the dining room serves as a large skylight for Lili's indoor garden, complete with mood lighting and a small circulating water fountain for a continuing sound that adds pura vida to the atmosphere of the house.

We don't need the sound of the fountain this morning, probably couldn't hear it if it was turned on (it only runs in the daytime).  What started out a couple of hours ago as a gentle shower is now a continuing downpour.  It's not a big deal, I brought a folding umbrella and I've been driving the rental car to class instead of walking.

I had a really enjoyable class with Alice yesterday (Weds.)  She's very good at weaving things I need to know--grammar and vocabulary--into our 3-hour conversation.  We take a 15-minute break in mid-morning.
Past tense forms are more difficult so the natural thing to do is to talk about my excursions the previous day with Lili and Alphonso.  Something that was strange to me during my stroll through Guayabo National Monument with Rosita was her answer to a routine question, "Do you have children?"  She said yes, two daughters.  Brilliant conversationalist that I am, I asked their ages.  "Twenty-four and 14".  Hmmmm, I thought, "She doesn't look like she's 24!"  Well, at the time I let it go, thinking it would be rude to ask her age.  In our culture you just don't ask an adult woman her age.

This is background to a discussion with Alice in class about the guide, her children and whether or not it was considered rude in CR to ask someone's age.  Alice told me that it's not rude for sure with children and many times it's ok with adults, though some might take offense.  This opened the topic of our ages.  She asked me to guess her age.  It's always best to underestimate a woman's age, I've found so I said "28".  She told me she's actually 35.  In turn, I asked her to guess my age. She guessed 52 or 53 (woo hoo!) and was kind enough to tell me there was no way she could believe I'm 62.  Certainly one of the high points of yesterday's class!  She's always very encouraging and complimentary on my progress, a sign of an experienced teacher.  Judge for yourself, does this woman look 35?

When class ended at 11:15 it was time for a bonus class, this one in cooking Costa Rican style. The school brings in a Tican who's not a Spanish teacher to do the class.  She doesn't speak a word of English so the lesson is great practice in listening to instructions and in learning the names of the ingredients and the cooking utensils.

We prepared (hands-on) a typical Costa Rican breakfast that's served at other times of the day, also.  The menu:  a mixture of rice and beans, scrambled eggs, lightly fried plantains and tortillas.

Here's a picture of our instructor and the ingredients in the kitchen at the school.

We had a lot of fun preparing the meal.  My jobs included chopping celery, adding cilantro to the rice and beans dish and frying some plantain.

Then we were able to eat the finished product--everything turned out great!  Now I feel very confident that if called upon to fix a hearty breakfast for farm workers I'll be able to rise to the occasion.

The afternoon's activity was simple but we had to wait until 3 PM (time for a siesta!) to meet friends of Lili and Alphonso (Marie and Pibe) for a visit to a small farm near town, their second home.  They own a bakery that he manages; she's a professor who teaches computer programming.  

The road to the farm was very rugged and rocky and it ran almost straight uphill.  Fortunately my Rav4 4 x 4 was up to the task.  The farm has a beautiful view of a mountain on one side and the Turrialba Volcano on the other.  Couldn't see much of the volcano due to clouds.  

The place was very impressive--a tilapia farm, chickens, a cow, swimming pool, stilt house with rec room underneath.  We had a great time walking around (we men) and Lili visited with her amiga and fixed some tea with sliced bread.  Lili had made a loaf here and naturally there was another loaf from the bakery.  It all tasted great.  I was able to follow the conversations pretty well and we even talked about my  Peace Corps experience in Kenya and learning Swahili.

The visit was slightly lubricated with a traditional drink that Lili fixed here and brought along called "ronpopo". It's rice based and has cinnamon and rum in it.  It's served in small glasses and there was an interesting discussion about drinking and alcoholism among the men while we were enjoying the brew.

Then things got really interesting talking to Lili and Marie about fishing on the coast--turns out that the couple are avid sportfisher-people. He even has a boat under rehab in a shed.  It got the old wheels turning about coming back next year for more Spanish and a fishing trip in the Gulf, about 2 hours from here.

Speaking of fish... here are some tilapia hanging out in one of the four ponds.

Today after language class we have another bonus class...we dance!  Pura vida!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Visiting the Past in Class & At Guayabo

We spent most of our time on Tuesday working on past tenses, the most difficult in the language, I think.  Talking about the past is a natural thing to do here because Costa Ricans (Ticans) are very interested in people and they ask a lot of questions that need answers in the past tense, ie "Where did you learn Spanish?"  Very useful class session!

I grabbed a quick lunch at a small restaurant near the house and close to several schools.  Most of the diners were students--lots of uniforms.

Then Lili, Alphonso and I took off in the Rav 4 for Guayabo National Monument, one of the least-visited parks in the country.  It's a heritage archaeological site and way off the beaten track.  Views along the way were spectacular.

Lili and Alphonso wanted to walk on the road so they didn't go in with me; they have been to the park many times with other students.  I hired a guide for $15, admission was only $6.  My guide, Rosita, was well worth the money.  She didn't speak much English (most of the visitors to the park, I learned, are Costa Rican) and that was great because I was able to practice my Spanish by listening to her and asking a few questions.

The park is named after the Guyabo tree that bears the delicious guayaba fruit.  It's peak activity was around 800 AD.  Those studying the area think it's life span was 1000 BC to 1400 AD.  No one knows for sure why it died out but best guess is neighboring tribes killed or captured all the residents.  Here are a couple of "then and now" pictures.  The former is from a diorama and the latter is from the tour yesterday.

I read that this site is largely unexplored--researchers have barely scratched the surface (ha!).  My guide, Rosita, told me that there are probably 3,000 sites similar to this in the country that are undiscovered.  

The trails look like something out of Jurassic Park.  But Rosita assured me that only tiny lizards remain as relatives of the dinosaurs.  The hike around the site took a bit more than an hour.  Streams provided great feng shui background music during much of the tour.

We returned to town in time to buy a couple of postcards and get them in the mail.  Wednesday is a regular lesson and after Spanish class we have a class in Tican cooking.  

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

First Day of School & Volcán Irazú

Alphonso (my Tican Dad) went with me in the car to school to make sure I didn't get lost.  I was cutting it pretty close, we arrived at 7:25.  Things were supposed to get underway the first day at 7:30, but no one showed up until about 7:40, typical laid back approach to time.  It was funny that Alphonso was a bit peeved at the tardiness.  A young woman showed up and unlocked the security gate.  We went in and she turned off the alarm.

Alphonso knew her and introduced me to Alice.  It turned out that she was my teacher.  There are only two students in the school this week.  Since there are 2 teachers it works out well.  What may have been group lessons turns out to be private lessons.  Good luck for me--3 hours each day of individual tutoring.

Alice spent a few minutes of our first session introducing herself then we had a 30-minuted conversation where she assessed my level of Spanish.  It was very relaxed and amiable, we chatted comfortably.  No need to elaborate what we're going to work on this week but it's exactly suited to me improving the parts of the language where I'm weakest.

We have a 15-minute break each day and class finishes each day at 11:15, leaving the afternoons free for exploring.  Lili is in charge of the agenda of tourism; she and Alphonso are my guides.  I drove back to the house and picked them up then we were off to lunch (my treat) and then the Irazú volcano.

On the way we stopped at a small restaurant for lunch.  Here's a picture of Lili and Alphonso at our table.

Lunch was good, I had fish fingers and they both had the house specialty rice.  Plenty of food, especially what they ordered.  Then it was on the road to Irazú Volcano National Park.  It took about an hour to get there, including a 10-minute stop waiting for a road crew to clear the road of dirt and small plants that had collapsed  from the side of the road.

It was a beautiful day, lots of clouds that we could drive through on our way up the side of the volcano.  My ears were popping as if I was in a plane instead of a Rav 4. Temperature was dropping, the dashboard has a thermometer that speaks Celsius.  It went down to 11 degrees at the caldera of the volcano--52 degrees Fahrenheit.

We walked a short way and caught some good views of the primary and secondary calderas between the clouds.  It wasn't long before a ranger motored out and asked us to leave--the parks here close at 3:30 PM.
Here's a picture of the primary caldera--it's about the same depth as a football field.

Irazú hasn't erupted since the 60s but it gives off a sulphurous odor like it means business and one of these days just might blow its stack again.

We left and wound our way back through Cartago, where I passed on visiting a fancy church.  I'd already seen it from the outside on the way to Turrialba and I was getting tired of driving, plus it was getting dark.  We still had a stop to make at the supermarket near the house to buy a few things, like a bottle of red Chilean wine for Alphonso.  He favors wine, Lili will drink an Imperial with me.

We have a plan for the afternoons, Tuesday it's the Guayabo National Monument.

I've held back up until now but I have to say it to close this post, "Pura vida!"

Monday, November 7, 2011

Meeting My Costa Rican Host Family

Tried to take the Golden Bean coffee tour in the little village of Atirro when I left the hotel. It wass closed because it was Sunday.  Maybe I'll try again on Saturday when I return to the hotel.

My GPS knows the way to San Jose (the capitol) and apparently the way to almost everywhere else in the country.  It decided to have a little fun with me looking for an ATM when I pulled in to Turrialba around 11:30 AM.  I finally found one next door to the Rawlings baseball factory--one of the town's things that bring it what little notoriety it has.

Then I went looking for a restaurant for lunch.  The GPS felt like it had done its job when we came to the Hotel Wegelia (not the one I was looking for).  No big deal, went shopping at a big supermarket and bought a few things to bring to the house.  The bartender was very nice--he told me that I couldn't buy a telephone card on Sunday to use the pay phone.  All the shops that sell them were closed.

That was a bit of a problem since I needed to call Lili, my host Mom, to meet her after lunch.  Problem solved when he volunteered the phone at the hotel.  A great example of how friendly and helpful everyone here is.  Here's his picture--his attitude: pura vida all the way!

My Costa Rican mom came and picked me up at the hotel and I followed her home in the rental car.  Great folks and a very comfortable house.  They are retired and volunteered to be my guides during the week after classes end each day.  

Lili and I took a walk to see the school and the central part of town.  Then came back here and relaxed with an Imperial before dinner.  They don't eat dinner; they have a big lunch.  Ended up the day watching the movie "Casper" with Spanish sub-titles, a bit of a soccer game and very strange--some of the first half of the Steelers-Ravens game.  I tried to give Alphonso a commentary in Spanish--not that easy to do.

I hit the sack around 9 Tican time and slept like a baby until 5 when my alarm went off.

Next post:  First Day of School...  Here's a picture from the street of the school.