Sunday, June 30, 2013

From Costa Rica to ... Dementia

Roberto was a funny guy.  During one conversation, he said, "oh, wait, what is the name of that German guy? A big time doctor?"  After a momentary pause, he resumed, "Oh, yes, Alzheimer."

We laughed.  Hey, I like a good joke.

The vacation is over, and Costa Rica seems more and more distant in the rear view mirror.  As I returned to my regular reads, it turns out that two of my favorite publications had something significant to offer me about Alzheimer's.

This article (sub. reqd.) in the New Yorker notes:
In the United States alone, roughly five million people suffer from Alzheimer’s, a figure that is expected to more than double by 2050. The annual cost to the nation for treating the disease may then approach a trillion dollars; the cost in suffering is incalculable.
Yet three decades of Alzheimer’s research has done little to change the course of the disease.
Way back, when I was barely thirty years old, I decided that I ought to make clear to wife and daughter my preferences for medical treatment.  I didn't want any big time life supporting machines to be hooked up to me.  Donate my body to a medical school. At a dinner table conversation, I told the attorney friend that my greatest worry was that I would end up with dementia. With Alzheimer's.

Dennis laughed.  "Alzheimer's won't be your problem at all, but somebody else's."  And he looked at my daughter.

As one who loves living the life of the mind, and with thinking as my profession and hobby, I shudder to think that I could lose it and then be in a state of being around without actually being around.  I have been waiting for some kind of a development that would nuke Alzheimer's before it actually begins.  A preemptive strike.  It is all the more important for societies all across the world to understand, and not merely because Sriram is worried about it, because of our longer and longer lifespans.
Current surveys show that, of the population over eighty-five, roughly a third of people worldwide have Alzheimer's. ... "If we lived long enough, would we all become demented, with plaques and tangles?  Is Alzheimer's just another name for aging?"
Doesn't take much to imagine the complexity involved.  Taking care of an Alzheimer's patient is no easy task for a caregiver.  If one decides to outsource this care-giving, the expense quickly adds up.
A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine estimated that caring for an Alzheimer's patient costs forty-one thousand to fifty-six thousand dollars a year.
This piece in the Economist, also on Alzheimer's, puts the cost figures thus:
In America in 2010, the cost of treating those with dementia was $109 billion. That exceeds the cost of treating those with heart disease or with cancer. The RAND Corporation, a Californian think-tank, reckons this cost will more than double by 2040.
That comes across as a low estimate, compared with what the New Yorker suggests: "more than a trillion dollars a year by 2050."

Let's hope that the drugs that are in the trial stages will work out.

Here is to hoping that my constant worries will help in preemptive strikes against those crazy proteins that trigger the Alzheimer's.  If not, my daughter needs to be warned that Oregon's Death with Dignity won't extend to Alzheimer's patients--how can it when they cannot rationally think and decide for themselves!

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Costa Rica was an expensive coffee break. My mother's fault though!

I can always conveniently blame my mother for this Costa Rica trip.

During my childhood days, even before I started drinking coffee--no coffee for us kids back then--the adults were always ooh and aah over the coffee that mother prepared for them.  A much older neighbor, who was a close family friend as well, would even comment that he swung by our home only to have coffee.

A lot of work went into this coffee making.  Mother bought the beans in the raw and roasted them over wood/charcoal fire in the backyard.  These roasted beans were then ground in a manually-cranked coffee grinder and, thus, it was always freshly ground coffee, so to say.  Many nights my brother and I have helped mother with grinding the coffee as one of the final activities before she closed down the kitchen--this way, little time needed to be spent early in the morning.

One of the toughest adjustments the entire family had to make when we moved to Madras (as it was known then) was to get used to the taste of coffee made from the powder purchased at the local stores.  The family did adjust to that inferior taste, similar to how we get used to so many less than exciting developments in life.

Chocolate croissant from the store, and home-made cappuccino, in my yard
I moved on to the US.  I like to joke that I moved to America so that I could continue with my coffee addiction.

My second year in the US, I went to the campus health center because of acute stomach pains.   The doctor said it was acidity, and asked me to avoid spicy foods and coffee.  I told him I could easily forego the spicy foods, which I have faithfully complied with ever since.  But, I could not be without coffee.

The good doctor's suggestion was a compromise: I shouldn't drink coffee by itself and that it should be accompanied by some kind of food, even if only cookies.  Which is when I got into eating Pepperidge Farm cookies!

That advice has, in turn, triggered a devotion to cookies, cakes, and pastries.  In this case, the doctor, not my mother, is to be blamed!

It is, therefore, no surprise, that I have many coffee preparation gadgets at home now.  An old Madras filter that I brought with me during the graduate school days but haven't used it since my second year in these United States.  One small coffeemaker for my regular life. A large coffeemaker that I use when I have guests.

And then there are the gadgets that I take out every once in a while for an even more leisurely life.  A simple espresso/cappuccino machine that I bought after I fell in love with espressos and cappuccinos during that visit to Italy fifteen years ago. A few years ago, my daughter bought me a stove-top coffeemaker from her European trip with her boyfriend (now her husband.)

It was also my daughter who gifted me an old-style cloth-based coffee-filtering setup that she picked up for me during her week in Costa Rica. It is a display object, yes, but one that served as a daily reminder--Costa Rica, some day .  Thus, I can blame my daughter also for this trip.

You can see why, therefore, before leaving on the trip, I emailed two friends with the subject line "off to drink coffee in Central America."

An expensive coffee break, yes,  But, as that old coffee advertisement goes, "good to the last drop!"

Now, the coffee break is over. I have to return to my regular activity.  My twenty-five year old fascination with Costa Rica did not fail me even one bit.  She turned out to be even better than I had imagined she would be.  If only everything in life measured up to be better than the best scenarios we imagine.

With so many other places that I want to visit before I exit this lovely planet, I doubt whether I will ever return to Costa Rica.  I won't see those volcanoes ever again. Nor the peaceful waterfalls, the greenery, the flowers, the wonderful food, and, above all, some of the prettiest and friendliest people.

Such is life!

The wonderful memories I will have with me as I recap my life as that final coffee drop rolls down from my mouth and stains the white hospital bed sheet..

Coffee with the jackfruit halva that mother made at home

I told a woman "you look so lovely." And lived!

I bought in advance that ticket to the opera even though I knew how busy the day would be with the tour to the volcano and the waterfalls.  If I didn't commit myself by spending the money, then chances were pretty good that I would decide to stay back in the room blaming the exhausted body. I am glad I know myself that well.

Not even thirty minutes to shower and change, and check for emails from stalkers!  I did.

I wore the only pair of trousers and the only shirt that I had brought with me on this trip.

Yes, trousers!  When I bought the ticket the previous afternoon, I asked the guy at the counter, "my shorts ok?"  He immediately responded "no shorts. Pants."

I pointed to my tshirt.  "Tshirt ok" he said.  Yet, I wore my shirt anyway.  I didn't want to be that much out of place.

Another selfie ... can you tell this was the bathroom mirror? ;)

I reached the theatre with only a few minutes to grab something to eat.  America to my rescue.  There was a McDonald's across from the plaza.  I ordered to go and ate sitting at the open plaza with all the other Ticos and tourists.  It was the best McDonald's experience I have ever had!

A police escort on a bike drove up to the theatre, followed by a SUV.  The high-powered couple, whoever that was, walked on the red carpet, while I, with the cheap ticket, was asked to take a side entrance to the gallery upstairs.

The theatre was fantastic. An old building.  The audience in the gallery had so many beautiful young and older women, and without male company.  If only more men at least pretended to like opera so that they can then get to know such attractive women :)

A woman walked into the row that was immediately in front of me.  About my age.  Followed by a young woman, about eighteen or nineteen.  The facial resemblance suggested she was the older one's daughter. They both looked absolutely beautiful.  Simple outfits. Not much of a made-up face or hair.  A casual elegance in their demeanor.  They took their seats two spaces to my right.

After a couple of minutes, I leaned over near the mother's seat.  "Do you speak English?" I asked her.

"Yes" she smiled.

I am convinced that when baby girls are born in Costa Rica, they don't cry after birth but they only smile.  And then they keep perfecting their smiles as they grow up.  If only I had been taught to smile when I was a kid; maybe that's what they did teach during the year of kindergarten that I skipped in order to be with grandmother!

"It looks like you are a mother/daughter" I told her.  "You two look so lovely."

The mother's smile became even wider.  The daughter also smiled a charmer. Had the lights not dimmed, I might have just about spent three hours watching nothing but their radiant and smiling faces.

"Oh, thank you" the mother said.

I retracted to my seat.

I could do what I did only because I am older and a tad experienced.  As a young boy, like most young boys, I showed my appreciation for girls by teasing them.  I wonder if young girls knew that when we boys teased them, we were really saying, "you are cool. I like you."  Later, as a teenager and into my youth, it was flirtation.  Now, finally, I can tell a middle-aged woman that she looks lovely, in a simple matter of fact manner.  Just the facts, ma'am, just the facts!

When I shared this with a friend--thank heavens for the internet--she noted that I know how to touch people's lives.  Another friend asked me how I knew it was ok to make that comment.  "I was sure the mother wouldn't misunderstand me" I wrote back to her."  Which is also why I did not tell two young women, who were by themselves, how gorgeous they looked.

To all those lovely ladies!

"If you say awesome, you are definitely an American"

Yep, it was this for lunch my first day in San Jose--not during the package tour, though 

All of us in the tour were famished after the trip to the volcano and the hike down.  We wanted to have lunch before we did anything else.  In the tour bus, the guide, Alberto, called for a vote and we were unanimous on lunch first.  Yes, democracy works!

The buffet lunch was extraordinarily superlative for one reason, and one reason alone: fried bananas.

I love fried bananas.  I first had this Latin American/Caribbean preparation in Venezuela, twenty-five summers ago.  Perhaps to the very date, for all I know.  Mucho Gusto!

I served a whole lot of fried bananas on my plate, along with a few other items.  I tasted one.  I had reached the heavens.

"These bananas are so awesome.  I can easily make a meal out of it" I exclaimed to my lunch table partner, Jill.  She was also in our tour group, at the end of her Costa Rican vacation.  Roberto and Luis were at the table nearby and were too focused on food to talk.  Yes, we were all famished!

Jill--a strict vegetarian--was now excited. "Where did you find it?" And off she went.

I was more than halfway done with them when I remembered to take a photo.  And  a lousy photo at that; stupid me!

Jill came back with a lot of fried bananas on her plate, and a cup of coffee.  Now it was my turn.  "Where is the coffee?  I love having desserts with coffee."

I followed her suggestion.  The coffee pots were empty.

Empty!  In Costa Rica!

The woman who was ahead of me said "looks like I got the last few drops" pointing to the very little she had managed to get from the pots.  She sounded British.  But then I am not good at discerning accents anyway.  In graduate school, I once asked a visiting professor which country he was from--because of his different accent--and he said "Boston!"

I saw a staff person who then led me to another coffee pot.  Panic eased.  I sat down to finish the fried bananas. With coffee, this time.

I was almost done when that same British sounding woman sat down at the adjacent table.

"Hey, find the coffee?" I asked her.  She hadn't.  I led her to the coffee station.  She was profusely thankful.  I suppose we coffee drinkers are alike.

When she returned, Jill, she, and I started chatting.  Yes, her mother is English.

"How was your vacation?" she asked us.  The way she asked, it seemed like she was assuming that Jill and I were traveling together.

To some extent, I even enjoyed that a stranger thought that the young, slim, pretty, blonde was with me.  Welcome to the imaginary world of Walter Mitty!  It is a fascinating world.

Interestingly, as I recall the events now, while we joked that Jill was Canadian and not an American, I wonder if Jill, too, intentionally let that observation slide without specifically underlining the correction that we were strangers on a bus.  If she is like me, there is a little bit of honest awkwardness in admitting to vacationing alone because there is no significant other in life.  However confident I am in myself, I know there is that void.  It is always there, like the scar on my forearm.

This was an inconsequential lunch chat and there was no point clarifying anything.  Who cares; life is full of non-consequential conversations anyway.

For that matter, most of our lives have no consequence at all.  In the cosmic sense. Our lives won't even register a blip on a cosmic register of events and, yet, we fret and fume and worry about the minutiae in our lives.  We then even poke our noses into other people's minutiae.  We humans are strange!

"It was awesome!" I said with quite an emphasis, in response to that Brit's question.  I wasn't exaggerating at all.  It was truly an awesome Costa Rica vacation.  Truly one of the best I have ever had.

"If you say awesome, you are definitely an American.  Only Americans use "awesome" that way.  I love that" the beautiful British blonde said with one of the widest grins ever.

Smiles and grins have been a constant this entire vacation.  Awesome!

La Paz ( the peace) waterfalls eased my worries

"The best part is yet to come" said Alberto, the guide for the package tour.  "The waterfalls are the best."

I figured there is always a little bit of an exaggeration in everything any tour guide says and, thus, I discounted his assertion.

It was a pleasant walk through the cloudforest to reach the waterfalls.  A peaceful walk, indeed.

By now, we strangers on the tour bus were a lot more comfortable with each other.  We talked a lot more.  A whole lot of interesting small talk. With the Colombian-American about fried bananas. About goulash with the Hungarian-American. About California and life with the couple from the Sierras.

And then I heard.  The sound of water.

I love waterfalls.  After all, right from my toddler days, I have been to the falls at Courtallam, which was only a couple of miles away from grandmother's home.  We could never have enough of the falls though--we had to return to Neyveli and get back to school.

As the sound of water started getting louder and louder, the more excited I became.  And then, there it was!

Alberto was there to remind me that if this looked fabulous, then I would be blown away with the next one.  I started thinking that he might not be exaggerating, after all.  Perhaps no hyperbole in his guide talk.  Maybe he is one of those rare, honest guides.  I felt a tad guilty that I had hastily dismissed his earlier comments on "the best part is yet to come."

I chatted with Roberto the most.  "The girls in Costa Rica are beautiful" he said. I agreed with him.  "Here and in Cuba, too.  Latin bodies with a European flavor" he added.  I suppose if I were his age, I too would be analyzing women like that.  With age, everything takes on a different perspective.  Beauty is in the age of the beholder.

From the bend, I could see many of my tour group travelers appreciating the waterfalls from the observation deck.  I still had no idea what was in store for me.

And then I reached that deck.

It was magnificent. Awesome. Nope, all those are terrible understatements.

No photo of mine can ever capture what I saw and experienced there.

"Be careful if you want to go down there" Alberto warned us.  I removed my glasses and placed them in a pocket of my cargo shorts. And climbed down.

With every step, the spray from the falls increased.  It was delightful. Soothing. Comforting. Welcoming. Peaceful. I was overjoyed.

I reached the railing at the end. I could feel a lot of the spray. I felt the waterfalls washing away my pain. My disappointments. My problems. My worries. I stood there with my arms stretched outwards on the sides.  I remember feeling one with the waterfalls. There was a strange sense of oneness with the world.

Perhaps that is what the faithful feel when they go for a holy dip in the Ganges. The river washes away the problems if they feel that oneness. Oneness with the water. With the world.

I had always speculated, tongue-in-cheek, that most of my travels are my own versions of pilgrimages. In this case, it seemed so much to be the case.  It was bliss as I stood there getting damp from the spray from the falls.

But, of course, all good things come to an end, eventually. I walked up to Alberto. "Muy bueno" I told him. "Gracias."  If only I knew the Spanish word for "awesome."

It was mostly a silent bus as we drove back to San Jose.  Perhaps it was the exhaustion for some.  Not for me. I felt exhilarated. Re-energized. Revitalized. I reviewed some of the photos I had clicked. I could not believe I had been to all those places and experienced all those that I did.

I am an incredibly lucky guy.  I hope my lucky streak will continue. For a very long time.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Girlfriends are expensive!

Roberto and Luis seemed to be helping each other out by taking photos.  Wondering whether they were hesitant to ask somebody else to click for them, I offered to take a photo of the two of them, with the volcano in the background.

"No. It's ok. We like photos alone" Roberto said while Luis chuckled.

After a few seconds, Roberto expanded on it. "We don't want people to mistake us. We don't want a photo of us on Facebook. Friends will make fun."

I couldn't help laughing at the way he phrased it.  They too laughed.

Women are way more confident than we men are.  As friends, they hold hands, pose cheek-to-cheek, dance together. All as friends.  No way is that immediately interpreted as being gay.  With us guys, in this part of the world, we are so careful about it.  Insecure. Paranoid.  When I travel in India, I am always amazed at boys and young men holding hands, with arms over each other's shoulders, ... I am sure I, too, walked around that way back then.  Practices are so cultural and contextual!

"Given that you are medical residents, and good looking young men, how come you are not traveling with women?" I asked them.

To quite an extent, talking like this with men at any age is easy.  No guy in his right mind will ever mistake such a question.  I would think that guys, straight and gay, at any age, would love to talk about the female of our species.  The females were mysterious to me when I was becoming aware of them many decades ago, and they continue to be a mystery even now.  My guess is that even women don't understand women.  Perhaps the purpose of life is a simple one--to understand women!

Roberto and Luis laughed at my question.  Then Roberto said "girlfriends are expensive.  They want gifts. Then they want marriage. And kids.  And then it will be a divorce. More money.  I want to travel first."

Lots of young men and young women--and middle-aged balding men too--traveling alone these days.  It has become possible to travel any which way we want anymore.  Life has changed a lot, for the better.  I stood for a while looking at the crater and taking photos when I heard the guide, Alberto, calling my name.  It was time to move on.

During the hike down from Poás

The following morning, I went to have breakfast at the hotel.  I missed the tasty and home-made breakfast at Andreas' and Connie's.  If Charlie Chaplin could eat a shoe when hungry, I certainly can devour old bread and drink horrible coffee.  Ok, that was an exaggeration!

Three women were having breakfast.  Two were more than a decade older than me, and the third was at least a decade younger than me.

"Did you have a good vacation?" I asked them.  It was clear from their bags that they were checking out.

They were indeed moving on to the next place on their schedule.

"Where are you from?" I asked them.  They were all from Hamburg, Germany.  And, of course, the question bounced back.

"From the United States. I moved from India a long time ago."

"Where in India?" asked the younger one.

"From the southern part. The city is called Chennai."

Out in the wild ...

"I love India" she said.  "My boyfriend is half-Indian.  He has family in ..."  She couldn't recall the name of the place.  "It is a place with Communist government."

It had to be Kerala or West Bengal.  And given the wanderers that Keralites are, the odds were not in favor of Bengal.

"Is it Kerala?" I asked and she was excited.  "Yes, that is the one."

"It is a pretty place.  Have you been there?"

"I would like to.  But, it seems like my boyfriend's family want him to marry an Indian woman, and I cannot pass of as an Indian" she laughed.

No way, indeed, for that slim, tall, blonde to pass of as an Indian.

"Wrap a sari around you, cover your hair, and get married" I joked.

"My eyes will give it away." She had a quick comeback.

I suppose it is to avoid complications like this that Roberto has decided against a girlfriend.

During the hike down from Poás

It seems like the German has found what she was looking for, but her journey hasn't ended.  Roberto is looking for other things in life.  We are all travelers in life looking for whatever we are searching for, and our paths intersect.  We share stories. We laugh. And we move on to the next intersection.  Sometimes with people from the previous intersection and other times by ourselves.

I remembered the intersection at Orosi Lodge.  When I returned to the room, I sent them an email:
Good morning, Andreas and Connie.
I miss your breakfast and coffee. Miss it bad. I have to wait to reach home to make myself something comparable :(
Thank you so much for your wonderful hospitality, and an absolutely friendly and welcoming nature. Tell your son I loved his sense of humor :)

When dying, only your memories are with you

The crater at Volcán Poás was magnificent.

And so humbling.  Feeble and powerless we humans are--with all our technology, we are no match for the natural forces.

There was a faint trace of sulphur in the winds.  We lucked out without rains and clouds.

I lucked out this entire trip.  I, like most humans, take the time to complain about the hassles, minor and major, but rarely ever pause to appreciate how much I have and how lucky I am.  So, let me tell you again: I am one incredibly lucky guy!

"I am in Costa Rica and looking at a volcanic crater" I reminded myself.

In a way, that reminder was also necessary given the number of American tourists all around me.  "Where is your group from?" I asked the woman standing next to me.  "Wisconsin" she said.  She was one of the parents along with a group of about twenty or so high school students.

I walked up to Roberto and Luis, who were from Mexico and part of the same package tour with me.  They are now doing their residency after medical school.

"Do you guys travel a lot?" I asked them.

This was Luis' first trip outside the country, and that too because of Roberto's stories.  It was consistent with their respective personalities--Roberto is a lot more outgoing and animated than is Luis.

"Even Mexicans with money don't travel much" Roberto said.  "They don't know how to travel."

Roberto is on to something at a much younger age.  With every trip, I seem to be learning more and more about how to travel.  If only I knew better when younger!  My life would have been so much easier if only I had any wisdom when I had all the energy and youthful enthusiasm.  Even the little bit of wisdom I have has come a huge price of baldness!

"Do you travel alone all the time?" Roberto asked.

"Ever since the divorce, yes."  I paused for a second to figure out how much I should let him into my world.  "I guess it will be better with company.  But ..."

We play the cards that we are dealt.  As an airline stewardess remarked during the flight back home, what other options do we have but to play those cards?

"My friends buy cars, or buy clothes, and that is what they like to do if they have money" Roberto continued.  If not for his occasional struggle to get the right English words, I bet he would be one proficient conversationalist.  I am sure he is quite a talker in Spanish.

I agreed.  I showed him the shorts that I was wearing--it is frayed in more than a couple of spots, with threads dangling, and more than one small hole.  "I don't care about this.  I try to save a little bit of money so that I can travel."

"Yes.  When you are lying nearing your death, you cannot take your car or house or clothes.  You have only your memories with you when dying" Roberto said.  El sentido de la vida es vivirla was what Roberto had later noted in his Facebook post.

Life is, indeed, about creating and sharing memories.  Some memories that we try hard to forget.  And some memories that are so wonderful that we worry we might forget them.

As I lay dying, I hope that the memories I cherish will be far greater than the ones that I will regret.

26 years. Yet, nobody can take the India out of me

I love walking around in cities.  It is the energy of the people selling, buying, walking, chatting, rushing, and whatever else.  The lights, the sound, the noise, the smell.  I can't quite explain it all, other than to shrug my shoulders and say je ne sais quoi.

After four days in the calm, peaceful, and rustic Orosi, I was all ready for San Jose.  I was about to step out after a quick lunch when the gods above opened the fire hose.  It came down hard.  And it kept pouring for an hour.  Finally, when it seemed to have eased up, I darted out with my camera in one pocket of my cargo shorts and my wallet in another.

An advantage of the hilly terrain is that once the rain stops, the water is all gone.  No big puddles at all.  For three hours, I walked.  With a ten-minute sitting down, which is the real story.  But, let me give you the long version.

I never walk around aimlessly though.  I had a plan--to take in the sights and everything else and end up at the Mercado Central.  I was equipped with a map.  It is just that I never strictly follow the plan but I improvise along the way.

I stopped to take photos of parks, monuments, and people.  What incredibly beautiful young men and women, and older men and women!  I wish I could have taken photos of the beautiful women and handsome men who rushed past me.

I stopped to explore the Teatro Nacional de Costa Rica.  I scanned the displays and found that there would be an opera performance the following evening. A premiere at that!  I got myself a cheap ticket in the nosebleed section.

A couple of minutes from there and I was in the thick of the shopping area.  I saw a sign with an Indian name, Surya, and selling a whole bunch of Indian stuff including the stick-on forehead dots. Imagine that!  An Indian fashion store in Costa Rica!

I resisted the temptation to walk into the store and find out whether the owner was an Indian or a Tica.

A few more minutes of walking, and now another store--this is Chandra.  What the heck, right?  It seemed like there was very little overlap between the merchandise in the two stores.  Plus, Chandra seemed way more upscale.

Let me remind you that this was all in San Jose in Costa Rica, not in California.

A few more steps and on the other side, yep, another store with a name that could be based on an Indian one:

What is going on? Did I miss a bunch of readings on the popularity of Indian stuff in Costa Rica?  Do young men and women dance to the Bollywood beats at the discos in town?  Has chicken tikka masala diffused into the Costa Rican culture too?

I had to walk into this Gangas store. The women working there didn't have any distinctly recognizable Indianness in them.  It was like a clothing store in India--bundles and rolls of cloth and people buying whatever they liked at lengths to suit their needs.  It looked so Indian.  Including this roll that said "chiffon print"

I certainly hadn't expected so much of India in the shopping area.  I was even more energized with this unexpected twist.  I entered Mercado Central.

The smell from the food stalls was not always pleasant.  I suppose too much of authentic food smell can be overwhelming to those not used to it.

A fruit stall got my attention.  As I neared it, I saw guavas.  My favorite green guava.  The ones that I buy when in India.

The guavas were being sliced.  Then into a plastic bag, with a little bit of lime squeezed into it, and a pinch of salt.

I started drooling.

As soon as those customers moved away, I said "uno guayaba, por favor."

She said something and I told her "no Espanol."

She picked up a guava, weighed it, washed it, and sliced it.  When she reached for the salt, I showed via hand gestures that I didn't want much.

After paying, I knew exactly where I wanted to sit down and enjoy the green guava that was in a plastic bag of freshly squeezed lime and salt.

I sat on a cement bench in the promenade right outside Chandra and slowly ate the guava. One small bite each time, one slice after another.  For a few minutes, I lost track of the fact that I was in Costa Rica, and was transported to those magical memories of years of green guavas in India.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The girls smiled for me at my last meal in town

During the best of of my married years, the woman I was married to used to marvel at how I knew I wanted to marry her the day after I started talking with her. Four years later, we were wed.

That trait has been a consistent feature of my life.  I don't go comparison shopping if my mind has found something that I am truly happy and content with.  I didn't look around for more as a teenager, and didn't later in life either.

Female stalkers, er, readers, take note: now that I am happy and content with my solitary life, you have a tough task ahead, but not an impossible one by any means, if you want this single guy to fall for you.  Try harder! Yes, you can ;)

Anyway, where was I? Yes, I have been that way with most things in life, not merely with the affairs of the heart.  With cars. With homes. With shoes.  And, even with restaurants when I travel.

In a setting where the people and language and culture are very different from what I am used to, if I loved the food at a restaurant , then why should I even bother wondering whether there might be better ones out there?

At Orosi, I found one such place.  After my first lunch there, I knew I was set.  I had three more lunches at the same place.  Always the same food too.

My fourth and final lunch was after the energy-draining hours at the national park.  The waitress initially gave me a menu and then quickly corrected herself.  She took it back and said, "arroz con vegetales, frijoles, agua."

"Fritas?" I asked  I loved those freshly made potato fries.

"Si, si" she said with a huge smile.

The older I get, the more I find comfort, reassurance, and joy in genuine smiles.  I am tired of the fake smiles.  I would rather that people don't do fake smiles at all.  I will be completely ok with their pouty faces instead.  On the other hand, a genuinely warm smile from a stranger, like this waitress, is simply priceless.

I sat outside, as always.  There was a large group, a family of eight at the far corner.  We were the only customers.

I walked inside and told the waitresses that this was my final lunch and that I was heading back to the United States.  They smiled again.  The one with the long, thinly-shaped eyebrows had the best smile of them all.

"May I take a photo?"

"Todo?" one asked.

"Yes, all."

Their response was so genuine.  One immediately ditched her hair net, brushed her hair, and tied it differently.  The eyebrow waitress rushed outside and assumed her pose.  I didn't have the heart to ask her to come back in, because my plan was to take a photo of them all with the chef too.  I followed them outside.

After clicking, I went back in and said I wanted to take a photo of the chef.  She, too, smiled!

The food tasted excellent, as all the previous three were.  I was sad that I wouldn't see these women again.  Life is about the different people we meet. Some we like. Some we don't.  Some like us. Some don't.  Some stay with us for a while, and others are transient. Memories of these Ticas will stay with me forever.

What doesn't kill me makes me stronger

Walking around at Tapanti National Park was my scheduled activity for the day.

Luis showed up at the appointed time, punctual as always.  It was a lovely drive up to the park.  Luis stopped along the way quite a few times, at my request, because I wanted to take photos, like this:

At the park's gate, I told Luis he could pick me up at 1:30, paid the entry fee, and was on my own.

A few yards into the walk, I was the only human.

The sounds from insects and birds and the gentle breeze on a muggy morning was my company. At some places, the cicadas seemed infinitely louder than jet engines.  I was the only human around to hear them.

"If I slip and fall in this forest and yell like crazy, but nobody hears me, then will my yell really make a sound?" I thought to myself as I turned into a two-kilometer hiking trail off the main one.

Did you get the point by now that it began to concern me that I was all by myself in a forest in a foreign land?

Yet, I decided to take a side trail!

The narrower side trail was not going to be easy with all the watery, mossy, rocky, surface.  A few minutes in, I wondered whether I should be cautious and turn back.

Which is exactly what I did.

Which is also when I slipped and slid down a few feet, yelling "shit, shit, shit."

Nobody around to hear me, of course!

I picked myself up.  Checked my arms and legs.  All ok.  I returned to the main trail.

Insects started bugging me.

I reached into the backpack.  Momentary panic--turned out that I had left behind at the lodge the pouch that had the insect repellant, anti-allergy pills, the anti-itch cream, band-aid, and everything else that is my standard supply even when I go hiking in Oregon.  I had nothing here.  In a rainforest with all kinds of strange insects.

"Shit, shit, shit" is all I could say at this point.  The insects couldn't care.

I kept flapping my arms around to ward off those annoying insects.  I must have looked like I was propelling myself.

Thankfully, nobody was around to see this sorry, and hilarious, sight.

I am simultaneously a wimp and a strong-willed one.  The strong-willed me almost always overrides the panicky me.  I hope that it will be the case until the very end.  I want to die with confidence and in peace, and not ridden by panic and anxiety.

Meanwhile, the logical me wondered whether there were bugs on my back.  I checked it out with my camera!  Into my old age, I will finally stop walking around under the hot sun, and will slowly lose the much darker tan and return to the lighter shade of brown that you can see peeping from under my tshirt.  I am hoping that it will be a whole lot of enjoyment before I, and others, begin to see my face and neck lightening up.

I reached the end of the trail at the top.  A young couple was at the mirador.  A few minutes of courtesy wait later, I approached them with "English?"  They didn't know English.

The woman was sharp; aren't they all!  "Photo?" she asked.  I nodded my head and gave her the camera.

The waterfall at a distance made me forget all about the insects and the fall.  My camera is way too much a toy to capture such beauties far away.  Yet, click I did.

A little later, I started the walk back.  I hated the very thought of those insects all over again.  Yet, despite the fall and the bugs, I knew I was one lucky guy to be there and to enjoy it all.  I walked down slowly to enjoy the scenery, to take photos.

I continued to walk past the park's gate instead of waiting inside for Luis, as we had agreed.

Of a herd of cows lazily grazing at a pasture, one kept mooing at me and continued to walk up to the fence.  She stood at the fence and stared right at me.  We stood looking at each other for two, or even three, minutes.  Perhaps this was my guardian angel, I told myself.  The कामधेनु (Kamadhenu) of the Hindu mythology.

I thanked the cow.  She mooed a response.

This taxi driver could have done brain surgery. While driving!

I was waiting for the taxi after the tour of the organic coffee farm ended.

The sounds of an approaching car sent the dogs into a barking frenzy and the red car appeared.

"Oh, you have a death cab to take you to your hotel" said the woman who was a part of our group.

She and her husband had the two of the most adorable and beautiful kids--about seven and nine years old, I think--that I have ever seen.  And so well behaved, too, which is rare anymore in the United States.  If they keep at this rate, the two girls will grow up to break quite a few young men's hearts; I feel sorry for those unfortunate lads already.

"The taxi drivers drive like crazy here" she added with a chuckle.

I got in to the car.  It was a female driver.  Probably in her late twenties or early thirties.

She let out a volley of words in Spanish towards me.

"No Espanol" I said with a smile.

"You speak English?" I asked her.  She didn't.

She asked me something that I recognized as where in Orosi I wanted to go. "Orosi Lodge" I said, and we took off.  "Took off" is a literal usage!

We barely turned a corner, when her smartphone called for her attention.  I noticed that she had the earplug on.  Boy did words pour out of her at speeds faster than a speeding bullet. I wondered if the person at the other end also spoke at such speeds.  I imagined sparks when the words collided in cyberspace.  No wonder there is network outage every once in a while!

Even as she was talking on the smartphone, the radio dispatch beckoned her.  She barked a few words into that even while continuing with the other conversation.  I was tired simply from watching all these.

She stepped up the pace of the car.  And her speaking.  I wondered which speed influenced the other.

For a minute there was no conversation.  And then a new kind of a jingle.  She yanked out an older model cellphone from her shirt pocket and started jabbering into that one.

When she was done with that, she said something at top speeds in Spanish all the while with hand gestures.  I understood what she was saying--with the radio, her cellphone, and smartphone, sometimes she gets confused as to which one was the one she was talking into.  I smiled.  She laughed a throaty laugh.

She tried to pass a bus on a curve.  And then she immediately slowed down to stay behind the bus.  I understood her exclamations as "a big truck."  Sure enough there was one.

I have seen women multitask and have always been impressed.  This woman beat them all.  She tops the woman I saw at the basilica, who was walking and crossing the road while talking on her cellphone even as her infant baby was suckling from her breast.

How do these women do all those at the same time, when I am incapable of even typing and drinking coffee simultaneously!