Sunday, July 31, 2016

NYC: A Week and a Day of Independence

When I was younger, my mom often used to say that there was nothing she wanted more than a hotel room to herself.  To read all night, take a bath, have no one calling after her: basically to have complete and utter peace.  Of course, while she was in need of an escape from her two children and I currently have no such distractions, I can still relate to this dream, and New York offered one such chance to live it.  I was visiting The City for a week for work, and staying through the weekend with my friend, Shawn, in The Bronx.  It was summer in the city and I couldn't wait!

After arriving at our hotel from the airport, my coworker, Renuka, and I ate at Ulivo, a new Italian spot where I sipped Barbera, dipped bread in a delightful lentil sauce, and devoured my papparedelle.  Afterwards, we walked through the summer rain to Eataly, one of my happy places.  Grazing on our gelato, we explored the store, taking in the glorious smells, colors, Nutella imports, and tchotchkes.

To prove that some work was done on this trip (really, it was!), here's a shot from Box's office on Park Avenue:

We had several good meals near the office throughout the week, including fish & chips at the wood- and frame-clad Clocktower next to Madison Square Park, Korean-Mexican fusion at Barn Joo 35, and most notably, Ilili, a Mediterranean restaurant we wanted to return to daily.  One interesting thing we learned is that servers are supposed to ask patrons about food allergies in New York City, and are required by law to disclose allergens.  I found this particularly helpful with my newly-acquired oyster allergy!  

One day, near the office, we walked through a live set where they were filming scenes for The Dark Tower at a crosswalk.  Sorry to say there were no Matthew McConaughey sightings, but it was still fun to watch!

Since people were paying anything ranging from $1500 to the souls of their unborn children for Hamilton tickets (it was Lin-Manuel's last week in the original cast), Renuka and I opted for a more attainable show, Kinky Boots.  It was charming, with a moving message of acceptance and a fabulous cross-dressing lead.

Wednesday I finally got to see Shawn, and we headed to what ended up being one of my favorite highlights of the trip, an experience called Sleep No More.  It's a participatory play that puts a 1920's spin on Macbeth in which you're wearing a mask, are not permitted to speak, and wander around a dark, elaborately decorated multi-story "hotel", catching snippets of pantomimed scenes and choreography from ethereal, ever-drifting actors.

I don't want to give away too many specifics in case you want to go (and you should!), but I do have to share my exclusive one-on-one experience, something I did not know was possible until it happened to me.  Here goes nothing.

So I'm on the top floor of the hotel, following an older actress who is dressed as a hotel maid (I later figured out she represented one of the witches in Macbeth), through a maze of trees.  The lady is in her 60s, and even more petite than I am.  She begins to do a very peculiar interpretative dance on a long wooden table, and as my interest wavers, I consider continuing along to see what other fascinating sets I could uncover or scenes, discover.  I decide to stick with her, when suddenly she concludes her dance, walks toward my doorway, and grabs my arm, pulling me along behind her through a hallway.  So many thoughts run through my head, from, "Oh my God, this is going to be good," to "If she's allowed to touch me, what else can she do?"

Stopping abruptly outside a locked door, she leans into my ear and whispers, "Wait here," before opening a door and disappearing behind it ("Wait, she's not supposed to talk!").  Twenty seconds later, she opens the door and pulls me through with her, leaving the other viewers out in the hall and locking us in.  ("Is this legal?"  "Wait until I tell Shawn!")  I find myself in a room that resembles a housekeeper's quarters, with a desk near the door, a twin bed against the far wall, and various other furniture pieces crammed in.  As she turns away from the door to me, she reaches up and removes my mask ("She's breaking every rule!").  Mask-less, I feel completely exposed, vulnerable, and naked.  I had spent the night so far in complete anonymity and this alteration was substantially changing my perception of the experience.  She stares at me for awhile, taking me in and freaking me out.  In turn, I smile freakishly at her ("Maybe this way she'll think I'm nice, and not hurt me").

Suddenly, she grabs my shoulders and pushes me backwards until I hit the twin bed, pressing me down into a seated position.  Perching beside me, she sizes me up, still silent.  She stands and gently lays me down on the bed ("WTF?").  Grabbing a wool blanket from the corner, she makes to cover me completely, like a corpse, but stops short, pulling it sharply below my neck and tucking it all around me ("Sweet marmalade it's hot in here").  Before I know it, she's crawling over me, and with the eerie music culminating around us, she swiftly grabs my face and turns it to the wall, shining a light on two lines of script ("What does that say?  Something about a raven clawing?  Is it a clue?  Am I supposed to be collecting clues?  How long do I have to stare at these words?  Shit, I'm not looking at the lady.  What is she doing now?").  As I turn my head to relocate her, she shifts towards me, and coming in right next to my face, she moves her hand deliberately toward her mouth, languidly reaching in and drawing a nail from it ("What the hell?  What is she going to do with that?!").  My eyes wide, and her final trick apparently concluded, she slowly pulls me up from the bed, leads me to the door, and ceremoniously replaces my mask.  Unlocking the door, she shoves me out and promptly slams and locks it shut again.  I just stand there blinking, re-accustoming myself to masked, not-locked-in-a-room life.  ("Did that just happen?")

Afterwards, Shawn and I had a great time hanging out at the "hotel's" bar listening to jazz, and later moving up to Gallow Green on the roof to rehash our individual experiences inside Sleep No More.  Crazy, huh?  Deep breath, and we can move on to... and music in Korea town!  Shawn and I met up with our UCSD friend, Rachael “You Had Me at Karaoke” Roberts.  I experienced Korean BBQ for the first time at Seoul Garden, where we ordered a variety of meat, and they grilled it for us right in the middle of our table; plus, they brought out about 100 side salads and various accouterments.  Fun and delicious!  Next up was karaoke, where you can rent your own private room and sing just with your friends.  This place had an impossibly thorough song selection, and we got to belt out all our favorite tunes in the two hours we were there.  Most dedicated performance of the night: Tina Turner’s What’s Love Got To Do With It.  Needless to say, it took a few days for my speaking voice to return to me.

On Friday, only four people came into the office because of the holiday, so the rest of us called it early.  I headed to Eataly, where I ate Pappadrdelle with rabbit and spinach in a lemon sauce and was given a huge glass of wine, which led to the ever-dangerous…


That evening, I met up with Shawn and his friend, Christian, at UN Plaza.  A Mexican diplomat, Christian had offered to give us a private tour of the UN followed by happy hour at the bar there.  It was so neat to hear the inside story of life at the UN, observe the gifts of fine art from countries the world over, and learn about the ahead-of-its-time design elements (it looks very 60s-70s, yet was built back in the late 40s; one of the ceilings appears very modern as it’s unfinished, symbolizing that the UN’s work will never be complete; and there’s also a special entrance just for the Pope, who visits only about once a decade).  Also, I learned about all the one-of-a-kind concerts that have taken place under that roof (ehm, Beyonce). 

Saturday I finally made it to the Cloisters!  I hadn’t even heard of them until I read Tell the Wolves I’m Home a few years ago, and had been itching to experience them ever since.  Located in Fort Tyron Park on the Hudson River in uptown Manhattan, and built by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. in 1937, it now belongs to the MET. 

It was one of the most unusual art experiences I’ve had because they basically built the structure to look medieval, and integrated actual medieval architectural elements from all over Europe into the building.  Archways, altars, and columns were acquired from European countries including the Netherlands, France, and Italy, transported to New York City, and melded into the eclectic architecture of these cloisters.  And it’s not as if each room necessarily reflected a specific era, artist, or region: one window would have a splattering of stained glass pieces from various counties and centuries; a display case would hold nothing but a decorative religious frock from Italy and a scepter made of bone from Spain.  The cloisters themselves, courtyards and gardens surrounding by columns, evoked a sense of peace and reflection.  There was also a medieval garden sprouting herbs used in that time period for medicinal purposes.  It’s absolutely worth checking out.

Afterwards, we briefly explored the neighborhood outside the park, and Shawn got this crazy double scoop ice cream.  I'd never seen anything like it!

Next, we got off in Harlem and walked through Columbia University’s campus before stopping for dinner at a BYOB spot called Freda’s, a Caribbean Soul restaurant, where we tried collaloo, and I ate curried goat.  It didn't seem like anything special from the outside, but it was so relaxed and delicious.  Great spot!

Next up, we started our long journey from the top to the bottom of Central Park, destination: Freedom Party as part of the Summer Stage concert series.  It felt like a huge outdoor summer block party, with a DJ playing hip hop from the 80s to today and everyone drinking beer and trading in their inhibitions for dance moves.

On our way to Grom for gelato afterwards, we stumbled upon an impromptu street party in the middle of the park, complete with homegrown house dj (Nick Johnson), cowbell, and a strong maraca presence.  Shawn lovingly described it as a “gypsy rave”.  There were people from all walks of life, enjoying the spontaneity of a perfect summer night dancing amidst friendly strangers.  We spent awhile dancing and reveling in how accepting they were of anyone who wanted to embrace the music and the moment.  I couldn’t have dreamed up a more NYC experience! 

Sunday we took the Long Island Rail Road to Shawn's friend’s house to hang out by the pool.  I met such an interesting cast of characters-people with names like Anthony, Sal, and Ray.  All gay, all with his own particular accent, all with piercing senses of humor.  I felt like I was participating in a reality TV show-it was amazing!

Later that evening, Shawn and I ended up in Astoria, Queens for Greek food.  We ate incredible crab-stuffed sole at Taverna Kyclades.  This place exemplifies one of the most amazing things about New York: the authentic cultural pockets that give you the opportunity to travel the world without ever leaving the boroughs.  

Monday dawned the Fourth of July, and we put aside our wariness of the iconic city on such a holiday to walk over the Brooklyn Bridge, a first for me. 

Afterwards, we chilled in the park in Dumbo, Brooklyn, leaving a trail of ice cream drippings before making our way to another Mexican diplomat’s apartment to celebrate the fourth.  Check out their apartment building:

I seriously need to find myself a diplomat. 

Shawn and I were the only Americans in the group; four Mexicans, an Argentinian, and a New Zealander rounded out our party.  Pablo and Fernanda hosted us at their place in an incredible high-rise building on the west side.  We enjoyed guacamole and great conversation on their seventh floor roof deck, before escaping the sprinkles to their apartment for a game of Cards Against Humanity and the fireworks show (we mostly watched the Macy’s show on TV, but considering they were on the 34th floor, we could partially see it live through the other buildings!).  It was such a lovely international evening!

This last evening in New York culminated in Shawn and I frenetically running through the pouring rain the few blocks from his subway station to his apartment near Yankee Stadium.   What makes you feel more alive than that?!

I was excited to have successfully visited four of the five boroughs, plus Long Island in the week I was there.  I checked the Cloisters and the Brooklyn Bridge off my bucket list, met a ton of new people, and jumped straight out of my comfort zone at Sleep No More.  That was a lot of living for one week...New York sure is a tempting place.  Hold me back!

Saturday, July 23, 2016

CR: Monteverde & Arenal

While we were sad to move on from Punta Islita, we were fortunate because the honeymooners accompanied us to our first venture away from the resort: Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve.  The party continues!

That first evening, we went on a night hike at the Curi-Cancha Reserve with our guide, Adrian.  That's right, at night.


Half of us could barely contain our excitement at what wildlife we would discover, while the other half was quite terrified considering the possibilities.  The slightest murmur from the dark bushes would create quite the commotion among us, with people fleeing the affected area with high knees and frenetic flashlights. 

Still, some discoveries were gorgeous and colorful and benign, like hummingbirds and fireflies, frogs and butterflies.

But the other, more ambitious discoveries were indeed frightening, yet relatively amiable (considering we all got out alive).  Keep in mind that what follows were all in their natural habitat, but our guide knew where they hide, so we were prepared for and never surprised by their appearance.  We saw a pit viper snake (Adrian: "It's safe, he's just hunting"), a scorpion under infrared light (he glowed!), and a female orange-kneed tarantula that Adrian coaxed out of hiding.  It was sick (both meanings apply).

One of the highlights of the night was the lightning storm we witnessed from the clearing near the forest.  Adrian said that in the several years he's been doing these tours, he'd never seen anything like it.  We were perched up on a hill, with a spectacularly open view of the sky, watching purple sparks crack through the atmosphere and illuminate everything below.

Those couple of nights, we stayed at an Airbnb that had a great view out over the forest and all the way to the water on a clear day.  It also had amazing personal hammocks that we took full advantage of.

That next morning, Amanda and Andrew continued on with their honeymoon (I suppose those traditionally are done in twos), and we mourned their departure over the most delicious breakfast of all time the trip, at Cafe Orchid Coffee Shop.

That day we headed to the Selvatura Adventure Park, where we walked over hanging bridges through the cloud forest, where we unfortunately experienced no clouds. 

I got made fun of for this by locals, but I really think my favorite Costa Rican "animal" would have to be the leaf-cutter ant.  They work so hard chiseling out pieces of leaf that are twice or three times their size and carrying them back to their hills in a perfectly coordinated army line (check out their handy work below).  Discovering a constant stream of them was intoxicating to the eye; I can't tell you how many times we stopped just to observe ants.  That's the kind of place Costa Rica is, though-you really can't help but stop to smell the roses.

Next up, Brittany and I went ziplining.  At Selvatura, there are 15 cables totaling over two miles-the longest tour in Cosa Rica!  Towards the end, Brittany did the tarzan swing, and for the last cable, I did the "superman", soaring over the forest on my stomach for an entire kilometer.  It was a spectacular view and an exhilarating feeling-the closest I will ever come to flying!

The view from our airbnb that night:

The next morning we visited the Monteverde Reserve for a guided tour.  Our guide, Sergio, was extremely easy on the eyes, but we still managed to absorb the knowledge he was putting down.  It is incredible how knowledgeable these guides are, especially considering the instinct and intuition needed to be a truly good one.

This is an orchid!

The whole morning turned into a quest for the resplendent quetzal, one of the most magnificent birds that exists.  We greatly enjoyed the hike but were disappointed as we neared the park entrance but still hadn't spotted one.  Just as our spirits were sinking, you could sense a buzz in the air, and Sergio started sprinting toward it, with us in hot pursuit.  Another guide had spotted a quetzel, and Sergio was able to point our telescope right at him. Check him out!

Kristen was moderately excited

Resplendent is indeed the perfect word-his tail continues far outside the frame of my photo, as you can see in the guidebook below, to the left.  We also learned that the Guatemalan currency trades in quezals!

That afternoon, we departed for Arenal, taking a taxi-boat-taxi option.  This means that one taxi van picked us up in Monteverde and brought us to the lake, where we transferred to a small boat to cross it, before finally getting into another taxi van that took us to our hotel.  Transportation in this country is not easy!  It took a few hours all in all, but the boat ride was awesome-we didn't see another boat out on the water for the whole 30-40 minute ride, and the land surrounding the lake was barely developed.  It was incredibly calming.

Our van driver on the arenal side, Isaac, was incredible talkative, albeit in Spanish.  I had been warming up my Spanish skills and was enjoying my half-Spanish, half-Italian conversations with the various people we encountered.  The farther we got from resort life, the more we needed Spanish!  Isaac offered that he would be happy to answer any questions we might have about the local area.  I turned to my three compadres and passed along his offer, excited to attempt actual translating.  Daniel piped up, asking not-so-simply if the city is supported by hydroelectric energy from the volcano.  Having hoped for questions about local restaurants, etc., I just looked at him wide-eyed and we all busted up laughing.  Nonetheless, I translated the best I could, and surprisingly Isaac piped immediately, affirming that they have so much hydroelectric energy, that the company responsible, I.C.E., often exports much of it.

We stayed at the Arenal Observatory Lodge, which was situated halfway up the volcano.  It felt like a grown-up summer camp, and the volcano was basically at the foot of our beds!  I would highly recommend this spot.   The volcano was a fickle friend, often hiding behind the clouds, but it made it that much more exciting when it would reappear.

From the hotel's deck

Our "backyard"

Not long after our arrival, we grabbed drinks at happy hour and walked them over the hanging bridge to the jacuzzi, where we met an incredible older couple named Ethel and Merle, who enchanted us with tales of their travels and courtship.


Since our hotel is situated a ways from the main town of La Fortuna, we grouped both our Arenal activities into one outing.  First, we hiked down to the La Fortuna Waterfall.  Somehow, this was my first time ever swimming in a waterfall, something I had always wanted to do!  The current created by the waterfall was powerful, but there was a lifeguard on duty and it was shallow enough that we could stand. 

We had a really fun video shoot while we were there, which I could never quite get right.

Next, we jumped in a cab and headed to Eco Termales La Fortuna, a thermal hot springs resort even more beautiful than I could've imagined.  Surrounded by trees, there were several large square pools, each one progressively a few degrees cooler than the last, finally ending in a cold plunge so you can regain your wits after the heat.  We were there from 5-9pm, so we got to see it from daylight to dusk to dark.  We felt like such lushes.  It was the ultimate vacation spot, perfect for our last evening altogether! 

The next morning we went on a short group hike provided by the hotel.  It was a great last jaunt into the forest, but showed us how fortunate we were to have had as many private and small-group tours as we did throughout our trip!

Then we broke off, Kristen and Daniel headed to San Jose and Brittany and I headed back to Liberia to sleep close to our respective airports for early flights the next day.  Brittany and I stayed at Hotel Javy, the glowing reviews for which may have been slightly exaggerated.  Still, it worked just fine for one night, especially since we spent most of our time in town, drinking beer, eating at the lovely oasis Cafe Liberia, and stumbling into a high school's talent show.

Costa Rica was such an exotic trip for us.  I had so many new experiences: living among tropical bugs and animals, zip lining, and swimming in waterfalls.  We got to celebrate Amanda and Andrew's spectacular wedding and learned what it means to live the pura vida.  In fact, the day after Brittany and I got back to San Francisco, we were walking down our street and stopped for awhile to look at a butterfly, something we wouldn't normally have taken the time to do.  I hope we can cling to more such moments, reveling in the beauty and stillness around us!