Saturday, August 27, 2011

The first time I almost died in Costa Rica

After we spent time with family in North Carolina (on the very barrier islands that are being rocked by hurricane Irene right now), visited with family and friends in Nashville and South Carolina, and been to Portland and San Francisco, we fled the country and went to Costa Rica for two weeks. Two blissful weeks of nothing but lounging, sleeping in, reading multiple books and enjoying time with one of our closest friends in the world and his significant other.

This. summer. has been. awesome.

That said, there were a few instances where the Mister and I had a closer than comfortable brush with death.

Lemme preface this story by explaining that months ago, when we first invited our friends to join us on our vacation, we immediately started scouring TripAdvisor, finding the adventures we were going to share. We decided that during the week we would all be together, we were going to take surfing lessons and go on a hike to a waterfall.

That hike turned out to be the most terrifying experience of my life.

My first near meeting with my maker came toward the end of our guests' stay with us in Costa Rica. We had already enjoyed our surf lessons together and were excited to have another leisurely day of making memories before they had to pack up and head back to the States.

The waterfall, before the rain ever started.

We met up with our tour guide, loaded up in his Land Rover and hit the road to the park with the spectacular 600 foot waterfall we were going to view. As we had come to find out, the rainy weather we were experiencing that day is pretty typical for Costa Rica at this time of year. We had dressed accordingly and were ready to get wet. So when it started to sprinkle not long after we started our descent down a jungle covered mountain, we weren't alarmed. By the time we had reached where the trail came to the river, in the valley, it was raining pretty hard.

You can't tell very well from this picture, but the downpour had just started. This is the pool into which we were asked to jump and swim across. to the other bank, right where that little water fall was emptying ...and picking up speed.

At this point, our tour guide told us to stash anything that couldn't get wet because we were getting into the river.

At that point I said, "Say what now?"

By the time our backpacks, a camera, and walking sticks were stashed in a nook of a tree to keep them from getting wet, the small shower had turned into an all out downpour. I mean buckets. It was hard to see across the small river because the rain was so thick. It was raining so hard that, even though we were in the tropics, closer to the equator than I have ever been, the Mister was shivering from the cold. ...or fear.

Our guide told us that, even though it was raining, and the river was turning muddy from all the soil it was carrying down from the top of the mountain, we were going to jump in, swim across the current to the other bank, and head up the the trail.

Dear readers, I can honestly say I have never genuinely hyperventilated from fear, but as I climbed into that muddy eddy and watched as members of our 5-person hiking party made their way across the current--being sucked downriver for a half a minute as they quickly paddled across--my vision got blurry, my heart raced, and it was not possible to get enough oxygen into my body.

I. was. terrified. Genuinely terrified. Memories of news footage from the Nashville flood of May 2010, showing cars, HOUSES and ant-like people being washed away in a river not unlike the one I was climbing into at that moment were coursing through my head.

I searched my years of Girl Scouts, minor canoeing trips, and hours of Discovery Channel watching for a plan B course of action should I not make it to the other side of the river and instead found myself pinned against a river rock. I came up with bupkis. Adding to my terror, I was realizing that I had absolutely no clue what to do if things didn't go as planned. I was about to become on of those stupid American tourists you hear about on the news. The ones that make you smack your forehead and say, "DUH! Don't get into the river during a rain storm!"

The water was rising quickly. Literally before our eyes. I stalled as long as I could, letting everyone jump in ahead of me, but the Mister wasn't falling for it. He would only go in after he'd watched me make it safely across the river. Such a gentleman.

I cursed his name as I just jumped before I had time to change my mind.

At this point, I'd like to say that I took a few summers of swimming lessons at my local YMCA when I was a little girl. I'm very grateful that my parents decided I should learn these valuable lessons, and I'm sure they were hoping I'd become a little Michael Phelps in the process (at least I was kicking myself for not doing so when the scholarships did NOT pour in during my senior year of high school). However, the only thing I learned from these swimming lessons was how not to drown. I can tread water and do a mean doggy paddle.

And ladies and gentlemen, I doggy paddled like there was no tomorrow across that raging river. I can only imagine the horrified look of panic that was on my face as our dear friend--someone who had stood by the Mister as a groomsman on our wedding day--reached out to take my shaking hand when I finally reached the other shore. The hubbins later admitted that he guffawed as he watched me swim like a poorly-bred Newfoundland, floundering through the water, my butt bobbing at the surface of the river. Now that we all survived (spoiler alert) and are safe, he claims that was one of the funniest things he'd ever seen. I believe the words he used were "drowning rat."

But I digress. Where did I leave off?

Oh yes, I survived the first test. Now we had to climb up the river--IN THE WATER--to the bottom of the 600 foot waterfall. "It's only about a kilometer more," our tour guide said. Like it was a friggin' walk in the dang park!

That's me, straddling a fallen tree over and under which the water is flowing very quickly, resulting in ABSOLUTELY NO WHERE FOR ME TO PUT MY FOOT WITHOUT IT BEING SWEPT OUT FROM UNDER ME!

At this point I was quickly coming to learn that the Reebok running shoes I'd purchased in Dubai were NOT designed for wet river rocks. I had zero traction, which only added to my sense of panic as I clung to the rock wall that formed the right bank of the river we were trying to conquer. Keep in mind that the rain had not let up and the current was only getting stronger. In addition, the water level was rising very quickly, and the river bottom was quite uneven, resulting in several adrenaline riddled moments of terror when I tried to place my foot on what I thought was a stable surface, only to have it plunge into the muddy abyss. There was a moment when I turned to the Mister and, in a sad attempt to make it seem like I was ok, said, "Bear Grylls makes this all look so easy!"

I kept telling myself to stop freaking out and stay in the moment as opposed to wondering how long it would take the embassy to notify my parents of my watery death. After I had composed as really moving obituary and climbed up another couple small waterfalls, our tour guide declared that it was in fact too dangerous to continue up the river and we were going to have to head back down to where we left our bags and continue on the trail.

YOU THINK!? And why wasn't that PLAN A!? I hadn't realized that the trail continued alongside the river!! I thought the only option was to dive right in! But I didn't have time to think about that. Now I had to head back down the small waterfalls I had just trembled my way up and not get swept away in the process.

By now we could no longer see the little pool where we'd left our stuff, only a raging river that was swiftly picking up the pace. I managed to make my way down one or two waterfalls (I think I blacked out because I can't remember exactly how far we had gotten) and we got to the second of the small monsters I had to scale, right after we'd initially jumped into the water. The rain was still pouring down, the water was rising alarmingly fast, and we could no longer see the rocks we'd used to guide us up the river. Our guide turned to us and said, "Ok, from here we just have to jump down this waterfall, into the current, go with the flow [let me repeat: GO WITH THE FLOW] and swim as hard as we can to the right before we get to the next waterfall."

GO WITH THE FLOW! The man literally said go with the flow. And by "flow" he meant "the rapidly quickening current of a muddy tropical river that wanted to take us all to our instant death."

As the words were coming out of his mouth and I was realizing what he was asking us to do, I thought I was going to pass out. The tears were threatening to overflow and as I looked at the Mister, shaking my head, covering my mouth to hide at least part of the horrified expression on my face I admitted defeat. There was no way I was going to do this. I was no Bear Grylls, and I knew my limits. I was going to hit that water, feel the pull of the current sucking me toward the rocks and I was going to instantly panic and eventually drown.

Our tour guide sensed my fear (perhaps it was the whimpering squeak I was inadvertently emitting) and said, "Or we can go up the mountain."

Yes. Let's.

This was no easy task, but at least it didn't involve several pounds of pressure trying to suck me down to my demise. We slipped and crawled our way up the hill to where the trail was and we headed on to the big waterfall. I apologized to everyone throughout the whole ordeal. I was embarrassed that I had actually burst into tears for a few seconds in front of everyone when I was the one who had booked this stinkin' tour! I was sad that my husband and friends hadn't gotten their chance to be Bear Grylls for a moment. I was remiss that I was so muddy from scrambling up a dirty hill in the rain forest of Costa Rica.

The rest of the trek was actually pretty cool. I was very happy to be back on semi-dry land and the view of the waterfall was astounding.

In Spanish, this waterfall is called "Angry Water." You can see why.

This was the top of the 600 foot waterfall. We couldn't see the base because of the mist.

When we got back to our bags, this is what the little pool we'd jumped into had become.

Because of all the rain, all the water looked like the chocolate river from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

aaand as a result, this was the first thing I fixed when I got back to our house.

Now that I'm sitting in dry clothes, on a comfy couch, I can laugh about this whole experience. But even as I was typing up this post, my heart started racing again at the thought of how close we all got to sleeping with the fishes.

Vicariously yours,

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Summer reflections, part 2

So, after Portland we went to San Francisco to hang out with a friend from my Charleston days. I had been to San Francisco to visit Shannon before, and the Mister had been to the City a few times as well. We were in no hurry to get up and at 'em most mornings and were more than happy to just laze about and enjoy each other's company.

I have loved all the travel time this summer, mainly because it has afforded me TONS of time to read!! I've read 6 books already and have started 2 more. I've got 2 more lined up to go after that. I. am in. heaven.

I'm actually reading so much that I had a dream last night starring 3 of my favorite authors. It was very bizarre, but a much welcomed respite from the Saudi teacher dreams I've been having for the past week.

It's the plight of every teacher in the world. Two to three weeks before the start of the new school year, the teacher dreams return. My teacher friends will understand what I'm talking about. Friends who have worked in the food service industry can also relate.

In my teacher dreams, it's 10 minutes before first period, my students have all shown up early, my principal is demanding I do a million tasks, and I still have to make my copies for the day. I had a similar variation of these dreams when I was in high school and worked at a 50s diner. I was swamped, in the weeds with more tables than I could handle and co-workers that wouldn't pick up any new arrivals because they weren't on the floor anymore.

I usually wake up from those types of dreams more tired than when I went to sleep.

It's been interesting, however, to see how my teacher dreams have changed since moving to Saudi. Last night's dream (before the dream about my favorite authors), for example, involved the addition of male students to my classroom. I was about 3 hours in to the school day before I noticed. And when I did comment on the fact that there was suddenly a surge of testosterone on my class roster, I was blamed for letting the boys enter the school at all! I was immediately told by my principal to cover up and get the boys out, and apparently I was the only person responsible for this task.

What would Freud have to say about that?

Vicariously yours,

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Summer reflections, part 1

As I have done several times before on this blog, I apologize for the extended silence. It's been about 2 weeks since I've posted and I have no good excuse. There have been several times that I've gotten on the computer with the express purpose of busting out a post, but Facebook and online shopping have won out instead.

A thousand apologies.

Here's what we've been up to since we left Nashville:

We went to South Carolina to visit my grandparents. And by "visit," I of course mean "get spoiled by." I only mentioned the Southern foods that I missed in passing over the phone a few months ago, but my grandmother took it as a personal mission to stuff me full of the BEST foods she could come up with. I think it was probably a thinly veiled ploy to bribe us into coming back to the States, and it almost worked.

What I loved the most was the amount of pork products that were part of our diet during those 3 days we were with my grandparents. Granny found a way to sneak the other white meat into as many meals as possible.

Case in point: not one, but 2 of the mornings, Granny made country ham, grits with red-eye gravy, scrabbled eggs (scrambled in the ham fat, no less!), and biscuits.

Hello heaven!!

Other than fattening up on Granny's fantastic cooking, the hubbins and I got to spend time with my aunt and uncle and their children, and just hang out with the old folks. I love getting my grandparents all to myself because I get the chance to talk one-on-one with them and hear their stories. Before we left the country last year, I quizzed them on their childhood and I quickly realized there was a LOT about my grandparents I didn't know. So many family members I never met or even heard of...and my Grandaddy has got some stories to tell on all of them! It was so nice to just sit in their living room and exchange stories and soak up their love.

We left South Carolina and went to Portland, Oregon to visit a friend of the Mister's from college and his girlfriend. We arrived with the sole purpose of just hanging out with friends and we left having done that AND discovered a super cool city we hadn't expected to find. While Portland doesn't have all that many major landmarks that immediately come to mind when the city is mentioned, the hubs and I, with the help of our hosts, found some fantastic restaurants and breweries.

The porkapalooza continued at the Bones and Brew festival in Portland. Barbecue and Beer...we belong in this city!

We also were introduced to one of the coolest establishments I have ever seen. If any of you plan to be in the Portland area any time soon, you have to go to the Kennedy School.

Yes, I realize how fantastically nerdy it sounds for a teacher to suggest an elementary school as a tourist destination, but hear me out.

The Kennedy School was built in 1905 and served its educational purposes until the 1980s. It was then shut down and fell into disrepair until the McMenamins corporation bought it and turned it into a hotel/bar/restaurant/movie theater. It is the coolest place we went in Portland, hands down.

The old classrooms are now hotel rooms, chalkboards and everything. The old boiler room is now a bar, with old radiators as a main feature of the decor. But the coolest part of the building is the movie theater. It's a "brew and view" concept, so you can order food and beer (and non-alcoholic beverages) and then you go into a theater with big comfy armchairs and watch a movie while you nosh. There are several other theaters that follow this concept around the country, but the Kennedy School really does it right with the armchairs and friendly service.

It's hard to tell from the picture but that's the old chalkboard serving as the marquis for the theater. They were all second run movies, none of the newest releases, but a ticket only cost $3 so it was totally worth it!

We've since moved on from Portland and I'll share details about our latest adventures in another post. I just thought I should let ya'll know that we're still alive.

Vicariously yours,