`Archh ... what is that silly boy doing?' The boat is already loaded and people are getting on. Grant and I got two weeks off from work. Grant had been stroked by some bacteria with ADHD, which literally opened all the locks, sometimes even all the together. After a trip to the Panama hospital, a few injections and Christmas alike package full of medication he is fortunately better.
It's five o'clock in the morning and Panama City awakes. My parents and I separated ways two weeks earlier. It's still dark when we park the jeeps in front of `Luna`s castle`, the most popular hostel in Panama City. The group is waiting on time. With a big grin I walk towards them, 'Hey, good morning, are we all excited?’. A half awaken `yes` comes here and there from the group. I count the people and divide them over the jeeps. My eye catches a fun, spontaneous guy. I give him a charming smile: “Do you have a jeep?” `No, not yet.` Perfect`, I think to myself `you can go in a jeep with me.`
When all chicklets with their overloaded backpacks are crammed into the jeeps I send a quick whatsapp to Renèe, the coordinator, we are complete and good to go. The jeep is (coincidentally) full of boys. ‘So Sanza (a nickname I have kept from my stay at hostel` Lost and Found` see same-called blog), tell me honestly, as a tour guide, you must be doing well with the boys?`.
It is another great trip. Awesome group, everything very quiet, nice weather, calm sea, good vibes and a work willing team of Guna captains. The third day of the trip I suddenly don`t feel well. I'm freezing cold, which is strange when it`s 35 degrees Celsius. I wait a bit, but after the daily boat trip, I feel 10 times worse. Half awake, I help Jean with preparing the lunch and when everyone is happily munching on their sandwiches, I dive into my hammock. Senora Rosa Linda, the owner of the island, an old Guna woman, comes in my hut with the eternal charm of her traditional clothing and colorful jewelry. "I have some warm blankets for your Sanne, to keep you warm.” I thank her, throw two ibuprofens down my throat and fall into a deep sleep.
My hammock is suddenly swinging back and forth. It is Mogui, one of the captains. “Sanne it is Patricio on the phone.” (Patricio is a Guna with great respect, he coordinates the captains and all contact with the islands). “Sanne, please go to the hospital now while it`s still daylight, Mogui will take you together with Cesar. Mogui called me worried that you could fry an egg on your forehead. Let yourself get checked by a doctor and please let Jean take care of the group.” Yacob, a guy from Israel offers to come along. He was drunk, but he speaks fluent English and Spanish and since my Spanish with my feverbrain was pretty far away, it seemed for the best to take him.
Time passes by like crazy. My life is full of beautiful moments, sad moments, tense moments, but I enjoy it to the fullest. I love it when I give my captains a can of Coca Cola with lunch. I love it when I play volleyball with the guests and the Guna`s come and join in. I love it when hordes of kids come running at us when we arrive in one of the Guna villages. But most of all I enjoy the moments on the boat especially enjoy on the boat, as the engines make it impossible to talk and I can quietly enjoy the view as we pass along these paradise islands on one side and rainforest of the mainland on the other. On these moments I am so happy and grateful that I have turned my life upside down at the end of last year (see my blog `In a country far, far away`).
“Raphael, Raphael!”, I shout while I`m thundering down the stairs, skipping 3 steps at the time. During our time off in Panama we stay at Hostel Kamehouse, an old villa that once belong to a wealthy American family. “Que pasa?”, asks Raphael, one of the employees of Kamehouse and also a very endearing friend of mine. “My parents are coming! They come in July and they`ll come with me on one of the trips!” I announce enthusiastically, still out of this world stoked about the brand new news that I have heard from my mother. “Wow that's great! Come on we should celebrate this amazing news.”
Way too early I arrive at the airport. With fear of the immense daily traffic jams in Panama City and the fact that I want to jump into my parents arms as soon as the doors of arrival plus the fact that it`s their first trip outside Europe, I decided to take four buses earlier than needed. After some polar bear imitations by walking up and down at the airport and some silly fiddling on my phone, I take a look at number 1004 on the information board. `LANDED` there it was, with red flashing letters. I jump up and pick a spot between the two doors which regularly spew out people with a mountain of luggage in front of them. After some nerve wrecking minutes the sliding door opens and I catch the first glimpse of my parents. We jump into each other's arms, my mother and I burst into tears and my father gives me a big kiss on my forehead. It is an indescribable moment to have my parents with me.
“Are those your parents?” Asks one of the girls in the group when we arrive at the first island. “Yes those are my parents.” “Ow wow, so cool! My parents would never go on a trip like this. Do they like it?" She asks curiously. “I think so, but I think you can better ask them yourself” I reply with a wink. Not only the participants of the trip, also the Guna`s are deeply impressed by the arrival of my parents. “It is a great honor to meet you and to show you our islands” says Benicio, one of the captains, when I introduce my parents to him. Everywhere we go, they are treated like royals.
Once in Colombia we stay just outside the village in Cabinas Darien of Enrique and his mother. His mother spoiled us three times a day with a delicious, fresh, home cooked meal and fresh fruit juices. We hang out on the beach in hammocks, visit the local waterfall, natural pools, eat the best patacones of Colombia (fried, beaten flat, plantains), and we get salsa lessons from Enrique.
It is wonderful to show my parents how I live, where I live now and to have them with me again.
Time flies and it’s already time for the next trip back to Panama. My parents join in for the first part, so I can drop them off at the airport of Puerto Oboldia, which is in the same village as the border crossing. Again tears stream down our faces. Tears of sadness, but also of happiness because it was such a great time.
The alarm awakes me at 5 o'clock in the morning. The first trip is about to begin. I'm excited. The last few days I have done well. I caught up when it comes to sleeping and gave myself as much alone time as possible. The alone time took to me in such an extent that I`m even eager to meet new people and socialize again. Jean (the assistant) and Dave (the guide) are still deep in their dreams. I moved into the ‘crew apartment` stationed opposite the port of Capurgana and above the Italian restaurant owned by Marco, one of the other guides and good friend of the owner, Fabio. There are three bedrooms and once you come back from a trip to Capurgana you pick a bedroom that is free and you make it your own for the next five days. It did not take long to figure out that my bedroom is my only form of privacy (if you barricade the door well enough from the dogs that roam the apartment for food). The rest of the apartment is gratefully used by the restaurant staff, plus friends, as a TV room and private place to share the necessary `gifts` Colombia has to offer, out of sight of the police. From the hammock on the balcony there is a view of the harbor of Capurgana where every day the boat brings in a new load of tourists and takes the ones who are continuing their travels.
On Friday the cargo brings in fresh fruits and vegetables and on Sat, Mon and Thu other goods are delivered (well at least, that`s how it should be). The boat is old, looking like a big primary school project made of woo, that didn`t entirely work out well. It desperately tries to keep floating on the crystal clear waters. The pier is not in much better shape and the men and boys hopping agile with their bare, muscular torsos from one plank to the other while the load is balancing on their back or head. The more they unload, the higher their salary. The daughters of the harbormaster keep a close eye on things while shouting, with long lists in their hands, instructions to the carriers to ensure that the cargo is carried to the right cart. The horses and mules stand patiently waiting in a queue in front of their improvised cars. Their heads lowered, dozing in the shade, until the cart is loaded and a slap on the bottom tells them it`s time to get on the move. There are no cars in Capurgana. Jose is the only proud owner of a tractor and there are a couple of mopeds/motorcycles in the village. On Monday and Friday there will be a small charter plane which brings you to Medellin, then the horses again neatly await in a queue in front of their improvised carts until it`s fully loaded with parcels from the plane. The workers of the plane walk into the police station to submit the required payment, while the horses bring the parcels to the harbor or into the mountains. Questions are not asked, no one knows about it and at the same time everyone knows what's going on.
Capurgana is a popular holiday destination among Colombians. The beaches are beautiful, the village is surrounded by mountains covered with deep green rainforest and the blue sea is so clear that you easily can see the bottom of the ocean. Life is relaxed in Capurgana, there is fishing, the shops open once the owners wake up and they close when they are tired. Dominos are played on every corner of the street. `Mammasitas` sell homemade snacks and on weekends there is a real ghetto blaster war between the various cafes around the football field. Each cafe plays its own music as loud as possible to rise above the beats of the competitor. The whole village, from 1 years old to a 100, drinks beer together, dancing salsa or show their twerking moves on one of the spare tables or chairs. Everyone knows each other by name and on the street you greet each other and then engage in a brief chat.
It is early morning and time for the next trip. I quickly finish my shower. It's pitch dark. At night the whole village is without electricity and often during the day the electricity cuts off as well. My hands feel around the bathroom to look for my towel, I dry myself off. I jump into the clothes that I had neatly prepared on my chair the night before and put my last stuff in my backpack. Jean and Dave have already started carrying the boxes to the dock. The guests, some half asleep, are putting their backpacks in large trash bags to make them somewhat waterproof. We load everything into the boats and set off for the islands.
The San Blas Islands (now called Guna Yala) are 365 breathtaking islands in the Caribbean sea. Most are inhabited and seems copy-pasted from a travel brochure. During the trips we always sleep one night in one of the 47 villages in the Guna Yala to show the guests the daily life of the Guna. The other nights are spent on uninhabited islands where we drink out of a coconut, toast marshmallows over a campfire and the last night enjoy an unlimited lobster dinner.
Dave introduces me to the owners of the accommodations (ie, huts with hammocks) and the captains and sailors of the boats. All of them are Guna and all 1.5 foot shorter than me. It is a happy folk, no internet, no phone reception. The women still wear traditional clothing and the men modern clothing, often inspired by one of their reggeaton heroes. Daytimes are spend fishing in a wooden canoe, sometimes a tarp acting as a sail to make paddling easier.
The idea of the tour is simple, make sure everyone has a memorable four days on the islands. In practice, this means getting up early, prepare breakfast, wash the dishes, put your captains to work, make sure the bills are paid, make sure everyone is packing, pack your own belongings, check if everybody is on the boat, no one forgot something, next island, prepare lunch, etc. It is a great job, demanding, but I enjoy it. Each trip a new group of friends, the different roles that have to be performed; manager, chef, phycologist, party starter, game supervisor, cleaner..... and all of this with stunning islands in the background.
My first trip with Dave flew by and before I knew it we arrived in Panama City. Dave showed me the survey results; 'Sanne did an amazing job, just a bit more confidence and she'll be the best guide San Blas had ever known." I smile and Dave gives me a pat on the back. "Confidence, something I'm going to work hard on from now on." I promise myself.
My first group
My training is over. Dave went to Germany for a Eurotrip. Now it's up to me and Jean. We prepared the next trip up to every detail. The group is great, after the first day, everyone is already best friends and time flies. Before we know it, the last night has already begun. I give the group the necessary instructions for tomorrow and then open the `20-kilo-of-lobster buffet`. Todd, one of the boys in the group, raises his hand in the air with some doubt. "Todd, what’s up" I say with a smile. “Sanne, we had a good chat this afternoon and we decided we do not want to go to Panama yet. We want to stay an extra night on this island." I chuckle, it did not take me a lot of time to figure out that Todd was the clown of the group and soon I parked this question in the category `jokes` "Well Todd, there are two single Guna ladies on this island, if you marry one of them, you stay here the rest of your life." I say with a wink. The group was silent. "We mean it Sanne," Jess says with a smile. "We would like to stay another night." “In that case I'll have to excuse me. I need to make a couple of phone calls.” and quickly I walk off to look for my phone.
"What?!" shouts Renee, the coordinator from Panama. "That's never happened before!” After 10 laps around the island, I finally found some phone reception. “Yet it is true, they want to stay. I need to know if we can do it logistically and how much it costs per person.” “Ok Sanne, I`ll arrange everything with Fabio and see if I can arrange the necessary food supplies, you talk to the captains and ask them to stay another night.”
Two hours later it was all arranged. The group no longer had their last night, which we now celebrate tomorrow. I throw some more wood on the fire. It's time for a party.
One night later, the final night had inevitably arrived. I get up early to prepare breakfast. Ravi, a boy from Israel is the only one who is awake. I walk up to him and give him a piece of mango. “This is the best day of my life.” he says with a smile. “Well that's quite an early conclusion to make at 6:30 in the morning” I chuckle. “I saw dolphins, very close. About three meters away from me.” On that point I had to agree with him, in that case nothing would stop me from having an awesome day. We laughed and I go back to the table to continue to prepare breakfast.
The group slowly starts rising from their hammocks. Enjoying breakfast together Jack suddenly calls; “Dolphins, I see the dolphins!” Quickly, we pack our snorkels and jump into the water. Jess shouts instructions from the beach “To the left, straight boys ow, ow they are on the right now!” Swimming as quick as we can we follow her instructions. Then it's quiet. Suddenly I see a shadow coming at me in the distance. The shadow is becoming clearer and then I see a mother with her young slowly swimming past. She looks at me briefly, while she swims by. Unfortunately I cannot take pictures, but this moment is burned into my brain. This, I will never forget.
The sunlight slowly cuts his way through the windows of our dark, small bedroom. When I slowly open my eyes my sight straight catches the squeaky and rusting fan which made his turns above my bed. Yawning, I push my sleep out of my mind, while I rub the last bit of my dreams out of my eyes. I sit up, the boys are still fast asleep, unaware of the hangover that awaits them. I feel exhausted, the past few days were beautiful, toured along beautiful bounty uninhabited islands, San Blas and ended the trip in beautiful Capurgana, Colombia. However, I was so tired and busy in my head that I found it difficult to create space for enjoyment during the tour. At the beginning of the trip, Dave, the guide approached me if I had any interest in taking over his position. He would stop in three trips. We discussed that I would make my final decision at the end of the tour. Yesterday I had said yes, yes to guide groups for four days along the islands and then drop them off in Panama City. Stay there for five days and bring a new group to the islands and drop them off in Capurgana, Colombia. “What a dream job. You`ll never get such an opportunity again.” People from the group had replied. They were certainly right about that, but such a job…… I can not do it ....it`s too heavy, away from home from a longer period of time, and my clumsy Spanish .....” “That`s enough Sanne!” I think to myself. “Falling into old habits, aren`t we? Missy gets an awesome job opportunity and fearing that it will lead to a failure, you`ll look for some stupid excuses not to do it; too far away, you're not ready, etc. Now stop pulling yourself down and jump into the deep. You`ve survived the last 4.5 months on your own with your backpack. I`ll promise you, this will be okay." And with a little doubt in my mind I had shaken hands with Fabio, the owner of Slan Blas Adventures, until October the 1st, I would work as a tour guide for them.
Now in my bed, beneath the squeaky fan and one night later, my doubt has now been converted into blind panic. My thoughts and doubts had worked overtime during the night, "What an imbecile I was, this surely was not for me, I'm not nice enough at all to be a tour guide, I don`t have the energy to entertain a group for four days for a period of 4.5 months?” Actually I just wanted to go home, I missed my friends, my family, my room. I was tired of looking a place to sleep every night, figuring out what bus to take, haggling for taxis. I just wanted to go home! The boys had already risen and went on the hunt for breakfast, I'm alone in the room. I burst into tears, feeling deeply alone. “Okay, take it easy Sanne, how are we going to deal with this situation?” I think to myself ...”Corine” shoots through my head, my therapist from back home (see my blog in a `Country far, far away`), if anyone can help me, it's her. Since there is no descent internet throughout whole Capurgana, I decided to grab my phone and call her. Thank God she answers. “Corine, it is Sanne ....”.... it remains silent for a while ... 'Sanne, you must help me, Sanne who? " "Sanne of Ymke, the huge Friesian mare" I reply as I try to restrain my tears.
"Hey Sanne" she replied enthusiastically, with a generous portion of surprise. “Are you back in the Netherlands?” "No" I squeak, even though I really can no longer control my tears, and throw all my dilemmas on the table. Luckily Corine remains calm, she asks how long I already feel like this, where it started and why. "What do you now need to calm down?" she asks finally. “Peace” I reply directly. "Ok, take your rest. Find a place or a beach with no other people, read a book and do nothing. In four days you do your first tour. Dave is still there, so you do not have any full responsibility, then you have another tour with him. If you`re still not ready to do it yourself by then, well then tell them that. If they don`t accept that, you'll just quit.” I smile, loving the way Corine always pulls both of my feet firmly back on the ground. I could kiss her. We hung up and I grab a book and find a deserted beach and decide to go there every upcoming day. All day, doing nothing.
Good stories had reached my ears about the hostel 'Lost and Found'. A hostel in the middle of the forest, with several hiking trails and a great atmosphere. After two weeks of studying hard, I wanted only one thing: peace! So this hostel just seemed to hit the spot. Once I arrived in David I bought a bus ticket in the direction of Bocas del Toro and told the lady at the counter that I wanted to get out at `Lost and Found`. That wasn`t any problem and the price on the ticket is crossed out after some negotiations and replaced by the amount of $3.50. My backpack is definitely overloaded and I creep through the crowd for a place in the back of the bus. The air conditioning brings a cooling relief after an hour in an overheated bus from Boquette to David. My loyal scarf warms me like a blanket and quickly my mind enters sweet dreams.
"Perdon Siñorita!" I jump up and with a sleepy mind I look around in the bus. All passengers curiously turned around observing that weird tall Dutch girl in the back of the bus. “Slept well?” the luggage boy askes teasingly. I nod a bit languid and climb over the baggage and legs to the exit of the bus. The bus driver takes my backpack from the rooftop and waves enthusiastically as he drives off. Here I am, in the middle of nowhere, on the side of the highway. Apart from a small shed which is supposed to represent a local restaurant, I see nothing but forest, forest, forest and in the distance, Volcano Baru. There no sign to be seen of the hostel, so I decided to go to the local restaurant. I ask the lady for directions. She points to an overgrown wooden board, painted with the words: 'Lost and Found'. The path leads through the woods, up the mountain. Quite a climb with 13 kilos of luggage. In between, there are encouraging signs with slogans like “you're halfway, " "sit on the bench and enjoy the view” “the last steep hill” “you're just five minutes away from a cold can of beer.”
A physically intense 20 minutes and a lots of sweating and panting later, I finally reach the hostel. The view is spectacular and the birds fly merrily back and forth. The hostel does not appear to be busy, but the people who are there are nice and friendly. I dump my rucksack at the dormitory and subscribe for supper. That evening we all sit at a long table enthusiastically sharing travel experiences. In the evening it's time for a beer, a game of Jenga and the necessary card games. The next morning we all go on the famous `treasure hunt`. We get a map along with the first clue, which takes us to the highest point in the clouded forest. We walk six hours from clue to clue (including some wrong turns), cross a river 4 times and come to the final clue revealing that the solution can be found in the hostel itself. Tired, but satisfied, we take shower and cook all together. We solve the last puzzle after which Nico, the manager, rewards us with a well-deserved beer.
The following days, I spend mostly with reading, walking, enjoying the peace and above all; the coziness! I meet so many nice people here and postponed my departure here three times. Since we're not able to say goodbye to each other, we decide to rent a van and head for Bocas del Toro all together. A tropical archipelago in the Caribbean Sea.
The days are filled with self-picked coconuts, rum, good music, a game of pool, table tennis or volleyball, but above all, a lot of beach time! Funny to see how close friendships can develop in such a short time. So close that we all wipe away a tear when it comes to our farewell. I am leaving with the night bus to Panama City so I can see the city one day before I take the boat to the San Blas islands. Via which I`ll make my way to Colombia.
While I`m waiting for the bus, I think of all the wonderful days I've had with the group. How many great people I have met, but I also feel very alone for a moment. Although I found traveling amazing, it sometimes is very tiring. Every day finding a place to sleep, all the problems that you encounter, correct yourself, constantly remember new names, packing and unpacking your bag. I feel very tired and decided to take it easy, put my backpack down and treat myself to the dinner that we cooked the day before. My pleasure does not last long. Behind me is a girl at the counter and the tears are appearing in her eyes. She obviously does not speak Spanish and the wife of the desk clearly does not speak English. The girl wants to take the bus which departs within 15 min. I get up and walk to the counter. I put my hand on her shoulder and give her a wink. “I'll help you” I say and ask the woman at the counter what the problem is. The girl has a legitimate ticket in her hand. After some heavy discussion spiced up with Carribean temperament, the lady of the counter finally gives in and allows the girl to get in the bus. “Thanks, I'm Sabrina.” “I'm Sanne, but you may also call me Sanza.” A nickname given by the group of Lost and Found. We get in the bus together and with my new friend, I explore Panama City the next day.
It takes over 12 hours before I finally reach my hostel in David, Panama. The border crossing seemed to take forever but when I finally got the necessary stamps in my passport and the dogs didn`t sniffed any drugs in my backpack, I may finally enter Panama.
In my hostel I was warmly welcomed by a girl from London. I get a bed in the dorm, dump my bag on the bed and grab my last bit of oatmeal, which I`m already carrying around for two weeks. I`m dying of hunger and make a big pot. While I'm in the kitchen, I`m suddenly embraced by two people: “Sanne !! So awesome to see you again!” I turn startled and look straight into the eyes of Jennis and Jack an American couple I met at Flutterby (see blogs `On the road again` and `Judgements and prejudgments`. I give both of them a big hug in return and with compassion they look at my pot of oatmeal. “Is that your dinner?” she asks. “Well it's really not that bad. I have spent the past two weeks eating soooooo well, so it's time for some `back-to-basics'” I reply. “Are you crazy! Come we have some leftovers tonight” says Jack. 5 minutes later I'm sitting with a pot of oatmeal, a plate of rice and vegetables, an ice-cold beer and 10 other backpackers at the table. Everybody`s making friends by sharing the small amount of food and drinks they have left. I cut my apple and banana in pieces and put it on the table to share. Panama appeared to be literarily a bottleneck of travelers going south crossing the ones going north. We enthusiastically exchange hostel addresses, must-sees and of course good stories.
When I am walking towards the cold shower the next morning, I laugh spontaneously. What a contrast with my last two weeks, I am happy and feel happy that I`m able to enjoy both modes of travel so tremendously.
The cold water is dripping down making its way into the drain. Suddenly, somebody knocks on the door of the shower. “Sanne, you`re taxi to Boquette is waiting for you.” Quickly, I jump into my clothes, make a sandwich and grab my backpack. It's time to learn Spanish in Boquette! During my trip I have now picked up quite a bit of Spanish, but real conversations with the locals was still a bridge too far. In addition, grammar is still one big question mark, so two weeks Spanish course in combination with a homestay seemed not to be such a crazy idea.
At the school I was warmly welcomed by one of the teachers. From now on everything will only be in Spanish. But first passing an oral exam to see in which class to put me. My level turns out to be better than I thought and I may start in class 2+. My classmates appeared to be in class for over 6 weeks! With a sense of shame I admit that I didn`t had any lessons before, but that I will work my ass off to catch up. My vocabulary appeared to lack a lot of words, so I get a whole list to take home which I need to learn by head before tomorrow + regular homework. “Ok, we're really back to school” I think to myself.
With my head full of information I get into the car which takes me to my Panamanian family. They appear to live just outside Boquette. About 20 minutes walk from the school. I am warmly welcomed by my host mother and her two sisters, I get a high five and a box from my 16-year-old host brothers and my six-year-old host sister shyly reaches out her hand. We sit down for dinner and the question firebombing is going loose. Especially my brothers prove to be extremely interested in the forbidden `fruits` of Amsterdam and my sister was particularly fascinated by my long, blonde hair.
After a four hour bus trip I'm back in San Jose. It's late and dark so walking to the hotel does not seem such a good idea. I decide to take a taxi. The driver laughs when I say that I need to go hotel `Grano Oro`. Apparently I'm the first person he ever picked up from the bus terminal that comes to this hotel. I chuckle when we arrive and the employee stares amazed at my backpack when he opens the trunk of the taxi. I’m sure it’s something different from the usual luggage trolleys he needs to bring to the reception. Behind the counter is the same staff as when I left to Uvita (see my blog `On the road again`). "Good evening miss. de Groot, how was your stay at Flutterby?" I tell them stories and that I like it so much to sleep in a place which is completely the opposite of where I spent my last couple of days. I get a key from reception and the porter carries my luggage to the room. The moment we walk in the room, I can`t help but laugh. The porter asks if anything is wrong. "ON THE CONTRARY" I say “Could not be better." I flop on one of the king size beds, made with silk linen. Still giggling like a little girl, I jump in the shower, a clean, hot shower! With a sink to lay out my clothes and toiletry stuff and when I step out of the shower, my clothes are not splashed because the shower is too small. I put on clean clothes and not much later Jean Sebastien knocks on the door. We catch up on my days at Flutterby and his flight from Paris. "Shall we order room service?" he asks "The company pays," he says with a wink. After four days of condiment-free rice with vegetables, I can’t refuse this offer. We eat on the balcony and talk about Costa Rica. This will be a fun 12 days!
We drive off to Arenal, a volcano, which is no longer active since 2010. The area is supposed to be great for hiking, horseback riding and the famous hot springs providing the necessary relaxation after a long day of outdoor. The first night we immediately kick off with one of the many hot springs. We jump in our swimwear and park our butts in one of the baths. The spa features several pools, which are warmer the further you go up. The waterfalls provide the necessary foot, neck and leg massages. Once our hands and feet reached an unacceptable stage of wrinkles, we concluded that it is now really time to go back.
Fortunately we had two more nights at this lovely place. We move to another resort which lies at the foot of the volcano in the middle of the woods and stunning view over a lake. Since we, as journalists, can make good advertising for the hotel, we get the best room. Our balcony overlooks the volcano, the forest and the beautiful lake, where every evening the sun creates a spectacular sunset. From the hotel depart several routes through the park and the days we spend mainly with hikes (eg a non-active volcano whose summit with every step turned out to be even further away than the step before). We see beautiful birds, monkeys, all kinds of amazing wildlife. At night the forest is filled with fireflies. In short, a true paradise.
Unfortunately, all good things come to an end, and so did our stay at `Arenal Observatory Lodge`. We choose a route around the lake so we can stop for a picnic and photos on the way. Slowly but surely, we would make our way towards Puntarenas and make a stop in Monteverde or Santa Lucia, one of the largest and most famous parks Costa Rica. We did not have a 4x4, so we decided to stay on the main roads. Everything went according to plan, until we came towards Monteverde on the 'highway'. This proved to be no more than a winding gravel path which let us through the mountains. The car chugged bravely and every truck driver we encountered, confirmed that this is really the 'main road' to Monterverde / Santa Lucia. We are both not a mathematician, but it did definitely was going to take us longer than the GPS and the locals were explaining to us. Luckily the landscape was stunning and it was not hard to make the most out of it. Luckily Sebastien used his flight certificate skills and as a true pilot he firmly steered us around all the holes and deep ravines bringing us to Puntarenas safe and sound before sunset.
We arrive at nice resort. It feels like a time machine took me out of the green fields of the fertile volcano grounds and dropped me off at the yellow grass savannas in South Africa. A deserted area with the nearest village a 15 minute drive away. The pastures of the resort were filled with herds of cows and horses forming a peaceful scenery with the patches of trees. The small cabins all had a veranda with hammock and if you walked towards the dock, you can enjoy great views over the sea and across the peninsula of Costa Rica.
Sebastien is an avid horseback rider and this resort had to be one of the best places to go for trail rides in the whole of Costa Rica. The next morning we rose early to beat the hottest part of the day. We have a quick breakfast and pull on our uncomfortable, hot, long pants. The guide, Lucardo, is already waiting for us with three saddled horses. We put our foot in the stirrup and swing the other one over the back of the horse till our bum softly lands in the saddle. It feels like a home coming, only now I realized how much I had missed horseback riding. Lucardo talks about the resort, the cattle ranch which is still running and of course about all the reptiles, birds and mammals that we encounter along the way. We reach an open field and Lucardo proposes to put the horses in canter. He didn’t need to make that offer a second time, as soon as Sebastien had his telescopic camera securely attached to his back, we give the horses a small kick to the side and away we go. They were definitely looking forward to this sprint. With one hand I hold the reins and with the other my baseball cap which was threatening to fly from my head. We arrive at the top of a hill and enjoy the views over the sea and the peninsula. Lucardo explains all about the sea, the fish, the islands in the middle and the people who live there. We gallop a few more times, spot a young pair of owls with their chicklets and return after a three hour ride back to the hotel. We put the horses in the shade where they can drink the cold and refreshing water they so well deserved.
This place was definitely worth a visit.
After an hour-long drive from the west to the east coast we arrive at the port of Tortuguero. A 31,000 hectare mangrove and rain forest which adjoins the northeast coast of Costa Rica. The boat to our hotel proved to have left already, but the parking attendant still had a boat that he provide to us as a means of transport The boat was filled with other locals, our bags were loaded and the local dog appeared to be in a need of a hitchhike too, of course. The boat driver deftly steered the boat through all the twists and turns of the river and floating logs that bobbed up in our way. On the riverbeds were crocodiles and iguanas warming themselves in the sun. Birds fly back and forth and the river is bordered on both sides of the dense rain forest. Our lodge appears to be the last of all the lodges that are in and around Torteguero. It is quiet, spacious and the rooms are beautiful! There are several possibilities to explore the park by boat or canoe, or take a walk in the private reserve behind the hotel. However, rubber boots were a must to keep your feet dry from mud and protect against passing snakes. We make a small tour through the reserve and are quickly greeted by a family of howler monkeys. It's great to see how the men guard the group, the mothers carry their babies around and the young jump from branch to branch, pushing the limits of the adults in the group. We see so much wildlife, many animals, sloths, birds, monkeys, etc. The area is beautiful and reminds me of the Amazon (which I've seen only on TV. I have not yet had the honor to visit).
The last morning we have to leave early. A long trip to Puerto Viejo in southeastern Costa Rica was waiting for us. We spend our last days on the beach (a break from the ‘busy’ schedule), enjoying a delightful Caribbean cuisine, even having time to visit an animal shelter.
Time flies and before we know it's time to go back to San Jose. Sebastien, is flying back to Paris and I need to grab the bus to Panama. Our last hotel appears to be a combination of hotel, spa and health center. They offered to open the spa for us, which we find a nice/convenient. What exactly is relaxing about a 40-degree steaming hot room, I still do not know, but it was an experience, especially after a cold shower.
We return our trusty little car back to the car rental and get a taxi to the airport. Sebastien and I say goodbye and thank each other for the nice two weeks. One last wave and then I grab my backpack and leave for the bus terminal. “Back to basics now Sanne” I murmur to myself as I leave for Panama.
With a somewhat disappointed face I look down at my plate. Despite all the free condiments that are available in the kitchen I did not have the powers to turn my budget meal into a culinary delight.
It's been over a day since I waved everybody from the Coffee Ranch goodbye and took the bus to Uvita, a peaceful hostel on the Pacific coast. The hostel is on the beach and consists mainly of wood timbered treehouses. I sigh deeply, grab my plate and decide to make the best out of the brown mash that patiently waits on my plate, ready to kill the taste buds on my tongue. I slide towards the long dining table and sit next to a group of American teenagers. They talk about all the hot `chicas` that they met on the beach and in the hostel and how their surf moves would clearly make a deep impression on the ladies. I smile, pleased as I am that I, with my 25 years, are wide beyond their category and thus do not have to come up with creative rejections. Opposite of me sits a boy of my age. He rolls his eyes sarcastically, clearly showing his displeasure of the behavior of the teens. He looks at them and then at me, while he lifts up his right hand as if he shoots himself in the head. I chuckle. "I hate Americans" he says, "and I am one myself. So I can say it." I peek at the guys next to me, but they are so full of all the beautiful women that they don’t hear a thing. I raise my glass of water and while my tap water cheerfully touches his beer, we introduce ourselves to each other. "Enjoying your meal?" He asks. "It is food." I reply with a nod. He laughs: "I like you." Dennis appeared to be on the road for more than three month, much like myself. After more than a year, 70 hours per week working in the psychiatric ward, his battery was depleted. He resigned and bought a one-way ticket to Colombia. “The only thing that I have done since is going to the hostel, to the beach, to the hostel to the bus, to the next place. I do not care what kind of park, what kind of volcano, whatever godforsaken mountain ... nothing! The only thing I do is parking my butt on beach and let myself float around in the sea.” He concludes his story with legs and arms outstretched, as if he imagines himself on the spot in the ocean. I just piss in my pants with laughter.
There's a guy passing behind me and Dennis follows him with his eyes. That gives me the green light to further questions about the conclusion that I had drawn from the moment our conversation started; "Is it difficult to travel alone when you bat on the other team?” Dennis looks at me with admiration. "You're a smart girl." He sighs deeply, "Yes it is hard, the girls are often looking for someone who wants more than just a good conversation and the men, well... they are scared that you want more than just a good conversation.” I understand him, but I also confront him with the fact that he himself places people in a cubicle as well. We all do it. It creates order in our heads and as long as we do not express an opinion on to it, I do not see what's wrong with it. “But people judge me, I feel it” and the tears begin to stream down his cheeks. “I think you only see a mirror of your own judgment” I reply, and we stare at each other. “Are you the new Oprah or something?” He asks and we both burst out with laughter. “But you have a good point.”
Anna, my German roommate suddenly jumps on my back and put two beers in front of us. “Come lovebirds, let’s go to the beach! Time for a campfire.” Dennis and I give each other a big wink and follow with beer in hand, firewood and guitars, ready for the beach.
Everyone I speak to that night has issues, uncertainties. That does not matter. Certainly not now. The fire is high, the beer is cold, the stars shine and we sing songs. And Dennis.... he is making friends.... with the American teenagers. Yet this turned out not so bad after all.
As you probably noticed reading my travel diary; I`m having an absolute blast over here! I`m nowhere ready to go back home. However, this does require making choices and sacrifices; whether or not going back for a funeral of your grandmother (see blog `Bye grandmother`); whether or not to going home for a wedding, etc. But one of the most difficult decisions until now, I still had to make; whether or not sell Ymke, my horse. After much deliberation, I decided it would be the best for all parties to sell her. I crawl behind the computer and put an ad on the internet. I calmly fill in all the blanks, until the moment I complete the ad and see the draft appear right in front of my nose. "My Ymke is for sale on the internet ...." I think to myself. Although I've placed the ad myself, my stomach starts to churn. I close down the laptop and abruptly decide to go to bed and calm myself with some music. Rodelle jumps next to me on the bed and asks with big puppy eyes and a low, wagging tail if it`s ok for him to join in. I agree and overjoyed he curls up beside me. I stroke with my fingers through his white curls and tears begin to roll down my cheeks. Rodelle looks up and puts his front paws on my chest to lick my tears. We look at each other affectionately. “I know it's the right thing to do, but it's so dam difficult” I tell him. He whimpers back, licks me one last time on the cheek and goes back into curled up position. “Yes, sleep is indeed the best remedy” I think to myself. I put my iPhone on the side, turn off the lights and eventually fall asleep.
At night I wake up, I look at the clock. It's 2 AM, 9 AM in the Netherlands. Would there have been a reaction to my ad? I look at my phone. 25 responses.... “It`s like the bloody sign-up page of the bachelor” And that after only a few hours. I read them all and to some I write a response.
After a week, a number of skype calls and a lot of mulling over my decision, Ymke is sold. To a man from the Beemster region, 10 minutes by bike away from my parents place. I would be invited to visit her whenever I want and ride her once I'm back in the Netherlands.
The day of the pick-up, I Skype with Lienke, my former sister in law, who takes care of Ymke now I`m gone. The loading went well. A WhatsApp message pops up. It is the new owner. Everything went well. 3 pictures of a cheerful Ymke enjoying delicious, fresh green grass. Rodelle looks at me. “Yes, you were right, everything is gonna be ok” I say with a smile and together we make a detour on the plantation.
It's Tuesday and I'm super excited. Today Mariel comes to see me. A half German, half Spanish girl I traveled with during my last days in Cuba (see blog "Hasta la Victoria Siempre'). She is expected to arrive around 5 PM by bus in San Isidro, so plenty of time to do some shopping with Kalina in the village. We drive our standard route along the local shops and suddenly I spot a tall, redheaded girl, with an unmistakable blue dress. Quickly I park the car on the side, and leave Kalina in total amazement behind in the car. “Mariel!” I shout with both hands in the air, “What are you doing here so early?". We jump into each other's arms. Her bus drive was much faster than expected and after several phone and SMS attempts, she decided to wait patiently at the church until I would appear. I quickly explain the situation to Kalina and introduce the ladies to each other. We do some last minute shopping and spend the rest of the day catching up on all our adventures. Mariel had left Cuba for Guatemala and made her way through Central America all the way to Costa Rica, so more than enough adventures to share. Mariel already was an enthusiastic vegetarian but since her arrival in Central America she started following a vegan diet. Which was surprisingly easy to sustain in such countries. She offers to cook that night and we of course don`t decline that offer... She dishes up a delicious meal what doesn’t lack of anything. It is delicious and the following days we enjoy much more vegan food. The famed Wednesday has come again, which means no obligations after 12:30. Mariel and I pack the car and drive onto highway 32 towards one of the entrances to the national park. Once we pass the first mountain, we gaze into the distance in utter amazement. Mountains, green mountains, as far as our eyes can see. It is difficult to comprehend how vast and green it is, let alone to capture a photo. Tracy Chapman sings on the radio: "You've got a fast car..." Everything is perfect. We arrive at the park. Again, green, green, green. Suddenly we hear rustling. It gets louder and louder and the trees begin to move wildly up and down like a Dutchman who is trying to dance salsa in Cuba. "Is it a puma?" Asks Mariel. "No, it comes from the treetops. It must be monkeys" I whisper. We gaze carefully down the tree tops and then they appear; a group white faced capucin monkeys. We try to capture a picture and follow them slowly. A thing that is not appreciated. The group armed themselves with some fruits and then starts attacking with precision artillery. We decide it was for the best to just leave them alone and slowly make our way back to the car.
Time to say goodbye
Sebastien, a friend whom I had met at the Dominican Republic, is coming to Costa Rica to make a travel reportage. And me, lucky bastard that I am, am invited to join in. “But I don`t have the budget for your type of accommodations!” I say during one of our skype calls, knowing Sebastien will not be pleased with anything less than 3 stars. “No worries Sanne, the company pays.”
And so my last days on the coffeeranch are coming to an end. I drop Kalina off for a last time at school. Give all the employees a hug and thank them for the great time. Cuddle all the cats and dogs and catch up with Phill who just came back last night from the States. He offered to give me a hitchhike to the bus terminal with a pitch stop at hotel Grano Oro. The most luxurious hotel in all San Jose and the first night of my trip with Sebastien. As I had 5 days’ time between Sebastien`s arrival and my last working day at the ranch, I decided to give myself a little holiday at Flutterby house hostel in Uvita on the southwest coast of Costa Rica.
Once we arrived in San Jose I get on the bus to Uvita. I'm the only non-Tican in the bus, which generates the necessary curiosity. When everyone is finally finished asking questions, I stick my head out the window and smell the lush green rainforest we are driving through. What a delight! I feel completely free.
I get dropped off at the bus station in Uvita. The rumors of Uvita prove to be true. Except highway, a roadside restaurant and a gas station, it does not seem to be much around. My backpack is removed from the cargo and I decided to ask at the station how to make my way to the hostel. This appeared to be too far to walk, but the friend of the owner was more than willing to give me a hitchhike for a small price. The closer we get to the hostel, the more trucks we pass, loaded with surfboards. Surfers on bicycles with their boards under their arms. It was like a pilgrimage towards the beach. The hostel was a reminiscent of a children's playground for adults. Everything was constructed of wood, painted in different colors and all the rooms were large treehouses where you had to climb a ladder and through a pulley get your backpack up.The hair length of the boys were on average longer than that of the girls and I think I was the only person without a tattoo. It was clear that the highest effort that was delivered here was surfing, cooking and possibly.. if you were a real fitness fanatic.... a walk to the falls. I choose a bed in the treehouse, get my stuff up with the pulley and head for the kitchen to prepare a meal. (Want to know what happened that night? Read my blog `judgements and predjudgements`). It did not take me long to settle in the hostel and with the other travelers. I met a couple who had been on the road for two years on second hand bikes. They started in Chile en route to northern Canada. There is a half burned-out musician, a former teacher who does not know what he wanted to do with his work and has taken a break, a group of friends who are on a month long holiday, a group of teenagers who have spring break at Flutterby to surf all day and many more. I take long walks on the beach, drink out of a coconut, see howler monkeys and take the odd dip in the sea. I get a hitchhike to the waterfalls from a Portuguese couple and spend the day in the cooler climate of the mountains, which provides a lovely relief after the cramped and muggy climate of the beach. At night, we eat together, drink a beer and when quiet time at 22:00 kicks in, we all go to the beach, make a campfire and drinking water, beer or rum (mainly depending on everyone's travel budget). They were really five days to never forget and before I knew it, they were already over. Time to catch the bus back to San Jose. I give everyone a hug and hope to find them all again one day.
Filled with joy I get in Jayden’s car. It's Wednesday, which means that Kalina's got the afternoon off from school and I have the whole afternoon for myself. Jayden is one of our happy campers since Monday and, like me, traveling alone. We seemed to get along really well, so a good excuse to go on the road together. Once my bum touches the passenger’s seat I starred at his gearstick. "Do you have experience with driving a manual transmission?" I ask, as the vast majority of Americans drive an automatic. "Do not worry, my first car was a manual transmission" laughs Jayden and ends his sentences with a big wink. "And that's how long ago?" I ask with wide eyes. "Sometimes it's better not to know everything Sunny (since nobody here pronounces my name in a decent way, I’m renamed Sunny). With a sudden release of clutch and too much gas, we leave hopping and jolting into the direction of Irazu National Park. A lot of engine failure, wrong turns and vague directions from several locals later, we finally get to the borders of the national park. The roads become narrower and steeper, but the surroundings more and more beautiful. The Daihatsu chugs. If a car could get a burn-out, then you could definitely sign this one up for a yoga retreat. To complete the party, we had to cross a bridge which pretty much was in the same mental state as the car. Jayden quietly chugs the car over the bridge and we both let out a sigh of relief once we make it to the other side. Jayden taps me on the shoulder and points into the distance with a blank face. I look forward and cannot ignore the immense gate sign, labelled with the letters "CERRADO", which means nothing less than `closed`. We seem to have taken the wrong entrance. The main entrance is on the other side of the mountain and three hours away. “What do we do now?” Jayden laughs; "Then we’ll just hike around there." Indeed, it was very beautiful here. We get out and armed with our cameras we go in search of beautiful plants.
Jadan is a pretty avid gardener and moves his head and camera back and forth, up and down to capture the scenery in every possible dimension. The trees in Costa Rica are small habitats in themselves. Often overgrown with all shades of moss, orchids and other beautiful flowers. We come across a flower which looks like cosmetic inflated lips. Jayden says that it is the Psychotria Elata, generally known as "Hooker's lips' (whore lips). I smile: "Am I not in Amsterdam and still I can’t avoid prostitution.
Jayden suddenly pulls out his pocket knife. 'What are you doing?' I ask. "I'm taking some cuttings along for my garden." "But it is forbidden to take plants or seeds out of the country!" I respond surprised. "Oh, with the right approach, you’ll soon discover that there is very large gray area between what is legal and what is illegal" laughs Jayden. I tell him that I'm surprised that he has got his knife on the plane. "As a traveler you cannot live without a good knife. Certainly mine, I couldn’t be without it. “It's a wingman” he explains the brand of the knife as he hands it to me. Impressed, I look at the knife. It has more options than my Iphone3.
Days go by and it's time for Jayden to go back to the 'States'. He returns me the keys of the guest house and we thank each other for the nice days. He gets into the car and quickly lowers his window; “Ow something stupid, completely forgot to turn off the light." "Does not matter. I still need to get the dogs out, I'll pass along the guesthouse to switch of the lights" Once upstairs I actually see the light on in the bedroom. I turn on the light in the living room and see that one of the bar stools is parked in the middle of the room. A small box is placed on top of it. 'For Sunny', it says scribbled on a post-it. I open the box and smile. His wingman is polished and neatly placed in the box, covered with a note:
Thank you for the wonderful week in Costa Rica. I hope you make it to the states someday. Here a little treasure. I'm sure it's going to be of good use during your travels.
I wipe of a tear hoping I will meet many more awesome people on the ranch.
Ada en Alex
The bell rings. I walk outside into the pouring rain. "Sunny, we're back!” I hear a young man shouting. Lifting up my heels to sneak over the fence and see Ada and Alex, a young couple whom I had welcomed on the ranch six days earlier. I open up the gate and jump into their arms. “Ow I am so intensely glad to see you guys again!" "Yeah, we couldn`t handle it anymore. We had to return to this place."Alex said, closing his sentence with a wink. " And….. we have brought a surprise for you." says Ada. Before I could even toss up a guess, she conjures a large pizza box from the trunk and a crate full of Imperial (the national beer). I invite them in, and while enjoying pizza and beer, we talk about their adventures on the coast illustrated by their pictures. As they wanted to spend their last day in beautiful Costa Rica wisely, they asked me on advice for a good hike and tossed an invitation to me to join them. National Park Braulio Carrillo seemed to me the best pick. Known for its bad and steep dirt road leading to the park, makes the park hard to reach and therefor really peaceful. Alex and his 4x4 rental don`t mind a bit of a challenge, so Braulio Carrillo it would be.
Completly matching its reputation we encountered an almost inaccessible dirt road the next day. As a true captain decorated with beads of sweat on his forehead, Alex steers around the lustful holes and boulders. Once in the park, the surrounding area is beautiful. Greener than green. We enjoy the forests and the beautiful lake that fills the old crater of volcano Barva. The next morning one last breakfast together and then it's really time to say goodbye to each other. I wave to them till their car totally disappeared from the hillside. I go back inside and grab my phone. A message from my father, "Grandma is sick, hospitalized. Can you contact us?". I immediately call back. Talking to my parents I stay reasonably calm. They have to go back to granny and hang up. I crawl into bed, I press my pillow close to me. For the first time since my departure I feel truly alone.
It's Saturday morning and I`m in the need of fresh air. The 'La Paz' waterfalls always had been on my wish list to visit, so I decided to take the car and head east to ride in the mountains. After surving the horror four-lane road to Heredia, I run into a road block. There is no signs of any kind for an alternative route (pura vida Costa Rica). Enlisting my own gutfeeling seemed to be the best and only option. I decided to make a U-turn and take the first reasonable turn that would come up to the left. The road leads up and appears to take me in the right direction. A few minutes later the road becomes narrower, turns into a gravel path and the steeper the incline the more my gut feeling increases this is not the way to go. Turning the car was, with a ravine on one side and a wall on the other hand, not a solution, into reverse either, the slope was too steep. While settle down my respiration I continue going up, hoping to find a spot to turn the car around. I finally find one. Just wide enough for the length of the car. I stop the car and bump a few times with my forehead on the steering wheel, while the horn forms a rytmic base for my just as rytmic Dutch swearwords. "Ok, San, we`re just going to steer the car back and forward till it`s in the other direction. Just do not end up in the ravine and you`ll be fine." I tell myself. Quietly I cross the car forward and backward, cm. for cm. The slope is so steep that the car at some points slides down along with the gravel. Quietly and as calm as possible I continue going forwards and backwards ... and then the moment had finally arrived. The car was reversed. I sigh deeply and wipe my sweaty hands with my pants. La Paz wasn`t my end destination that day, it was raining too hard. But a thick chocolate cake and hot chocolate with views over the mountains, I had definitely deserved. I park my bottom on a bench in the sun and catch the sunlight with my face. I chuckle when I take a bite of my pie. "Well done chick, you`re badass", I think to myself.
A new guest
Days pass by and guests are coming and going. In the morning I get the gardener in, prepare breakfast for the guests, Kalina and myself, bring Kalina to school. Give instructions for the day to the staff making sure everything is prepared up to every detail for any new guests. New guests are welcomed with a cup of coffee from our own beans, and guided around the property to show and teach them everything about the coffee they just drank. Some seek peace or are more on themselves, others stay until late at night at the kitchen table or take me out to dinner or to the bar. Every time I enjoy the stories and conversations.
On a Monday we welcomed Jadan. Like me, traveling alone and quickly appeared that we could get along really well (wait for more adventures with Jadan on my new blog). Together we visit La Paz waterfalls, go hiking in the mountains, visit Irazu National Park and in the evening we end the day with an Imperial on the balcony. "Too bad you're so tall”; Jadan quips, "Otherwise I might have fallen in love with you." (Jadan is over 1.5 foot shorter than me) "Yeah, sorry," I laugh, “If only you had been with 6 others of similar hight, it could have led to a beautiful fairy tale wedding." Jadan puts his brains to work for a moment, and once the joke then finally sinks in, he roars with laughter. “Salut”', we both say in unison, tapping our cans together.
We come back from a walk, and once home I grab my phone to see if there has been news from back home. To my horror, I see several missed calls on skype and then eventually the message "Grandma died. She passed away quietly. Marcel and Wim were with her. We`re now on our way to grandma. We are only reachable by mobile phone." I throw my mobile on my bed and feel the tears appearing in my eyes. Kalina shouts from her bedroom: “Sunny let's go, we're going to be late." "Bloody school" I think to myself. Kalina needs to go to the village for some school project. I wipe my tears from my face and put my pokerface on. "Ok, let's go chicka.” Once arrived at destination, I feel like a zombie. I smile and nod if necessary, propose a few questions here and there, and I'm very excited for Kalina. But my mind is back home, back in the Netherlands.
When we arrive home it's already 19:30. I reckon, in the Netherlands it is now 2:30. Too late to make a call. I crawl into bed. Mister Rodelle, one of the dogs, jumps on the bed and rolls up next to me. I put on some music and wrap my arms around Mister Rodelle. Slowly I fall into a deep sleep.
Jadan had invited us to join him to to the beach. Kalina could bring one friend (more did not fit in his Daihatsu). As a true teenage girl, she could not choose. We could go with our own car, then she could at least take two. Makes the rigorous selection a bit easier. "Ok Kalina, this is the deal. You put those convincing charms of yours at work with your father so we can take the car to Playa Jaco, then I put my spell on Jadan to convince him that it's a lot of fun to spend over 12 hours with 3 giggling teenage girls." "Ok deal” and we seal the deal with a high five.
To make the most out of the day we want to leave early, so Laura and Manduela (two girlfriends) stay for a sleepover the night before. Somewhat half asleep, we leave the next morning to the Pacific coast. Laura needs to pick up her bikini and I get the instructions needed to get acquainted with her parents. During the drive to her house Laura and Kalina bomb me with instructions. "Be as mature as possible. Do NOT mention that Jadan is coming along. Laura's father works for the CIA, so no smartass comments! "Entering the apartment, I`m invited to sit down on the couch for a cup of tea. Her parents sit opposite me. I feel like a boyfriend meeting his parents-in-law for the first time. “Sunny Ok, there are some things you should know.” says Laura's stepfather and together with his wife they start, each alternately, with the list of requirements. "Take care on the highway, people overtake on every possible side. Do not drive too fast, nor too slow. Do not overtake on a bend. Keep an eye on your mirrors for motorcycles. There are drugs on the beach, so keep an eye on the girls. Park the car in sight. Do not leave valuables in the car. The waves are high, so don`t let the girls go in deeper in the water than their waists. " ….. a long pause of silence kicks in decorated with my blank face. My eyes suddenly catches a wild gesticulating Kalina. She gestures that I must come up with some kind of respond. I blink a few times with my eyes and tell him I will personally ensure that everything will be fine. Laura's parents smile satisfied; "But besides all the warnings, have a very lovely day." says her stepfather with a smile. And with a head that still twists around after all the information, we get in the back in the giggle express.
If one conclusion can be drawn, it is that the outbound traffic in Costa Rica and three 15 year old girls who have to lead the way, is not a good combination. Driving on the left when suddenly the girls scream from behind; "You have to take this turn! You have to take this turn!" While traffic is passing by from all sides. It takes a lot of mindfulness to remain calm in those type of situations. Luckily we were soon on the last highway that led us to Playa Jaco. The teenagers were giggling quietly so Jadan and I (as the sound frequency of the back allowed it) good finally have a conversation. It was delightful to drive around here, to whiz through the mountains. With finally appearing, two hours later, the beach. We take our clothes off and run all together in the refreshing sea. Like little children we play in the waves. We dive in, let us rewind to the beach and run back into the sea again. "Shit who is actually taking care of the stuff" I suddenly remark. We look at each other and start laughing. I offer to take the first shift and flop on my towel. It is a wonderful day and tired but satisfied, we return at the end of the day back to San Isidro. Less than 10 minutes after departure, the first head starts to nod off and not even 5 minutes later, everyone is asleep. I put my sunglasses on, turn the radio on my favorite channel, turn the window down and enjoy the scenery that I can now observe in peace. Once everybody is dropped off, safe and sound, I get a sense of relief. Everything went well, no accidents, kidnappings, nothing. Just a nice day. I plop on my bed and fall into a deep sleep.
It is the day of the funeral. I prepare breakfast for the guests and look at the clock. It shows 6 AM. The funeral has just begun in the Netherlands. I throw some coffee beans in the grinder and put oatmeal on the stove. Meanwhile I make toast ready for Kalina and me. Kalina is late again, so I quietly bring the breakfast to the guests and give the dogs their morning hug. When I dropped Kalina off at school. I get Daniella, the cook, on the go and check out the guests. I give them some fresh oranges for the road, from the orchard, and wave them goodbye while their car drives down the road.
First I call my brother. He is at Schiphol Airport for his flight back to London and we talk about the ceremony. This was nice. I had recorded a speech through whatsapp and this all worked out well in the church. I am relieved. We hang up and I try to catch the rest of the family. They're all out for dinner and I get passed from hand to hand through the Ipad. We talk about grandmother, about the funeral. "It was beautiful, like grandma had wanted it." Here and there a joke is made, what lightens the conversation. The atmosphere is good and I'm glad to see and speak to everyone again. It's good. A nice farewell and yet so close from the other side of the world. For a moment I'm very grateful to Mr. Skype.
When I hang up, it's good. Thanks for everything grandma! Fortunately, we still have the good memories......
At the moment it is very busy at the ranch. The B & B is fully occupied, the coffee plantation needs to be turned upside down and the owner flew to the States for a month. We produce Arabico Arabica, a rare species of coffee. The beans are of very high quality, but the plant requires more attention, making it unsuitable for commercial use. Fortunately, this coffee plantation is more hobby, and this plant has all the time on his side here to fully blossom and grow.
As with any plant, there is also a time for the Arabico arabica to prune and a time to blossom. At this time, all plants are pruned back to the trunk. This disastrous pruning needs to be done every three to six years, and keeps the plant small, strong and rich in coffee beans. At the time of pruning the plants are particularly vulnerable. Somewhat of wrong timing as there is severe plague of algae currently among coffee farmers in the valley. Day in day out, every staff member gives everything they got tho scrape the algea from the trunks, turning the once vast green plantation into a desolated place. Long lines of short bare stumps.
At first it made me sad, this bald look. But suddenly I realized the similarity to my own life. A few months back it was time for me to cut and scrape (see my blog `In a country far, far away`). I felt desolated, but now I'm in full bloom. Traveling independently and finally living the life I want to live.
Sunlight is making its way through the small opening between the curtains as it arises above the green mountains. I`m wide awake. I take the dogs to the plantation and take a close look at the coffee plants. Suddenly something in my left corner of my eyes gets my attention. I walk over to one of the trunks and kneel down. There it; a new leaf. It is small and fragile, but still .... it is a leaf. The plant survived the algae. My lips started to form a smile. The plantation smiles back. Suddenly everything looks like a new beginning. The plants and I, we will get into bloom.
The next adventure
Surprised by the sound of bouncing tires I’m shaken out of my dreams. The plane just touched Costa Rican ground. The impact made me sit up straight like a Russian ballerina. I didn’t notice anything from the flight, my dreams had taken me to another place. In a state of being half awake and half still in dreamland I grab my stuff and follow the rest of the passengers out of the aircraft.
Once out of the airport I don`t see anyone who looks like the picture Phil had send me of him and his daughter. Phil had approached me at the beginning of January through workaway.com, a website for backpackers and business owners who are looking for a temporary volunteer. Phil has to go to the States for a couple of weeks and needs somebody to take care of the B&B, garden, coffee field, animals and his 15 year old daughter. It didn’t take me long to say ‘yes’ to this challenge.
I decided to sit down on my backpack and just patiently wait while enjoy the comfortable strays of sun. A short 15 minutes later I saw him approaching. More than a head shorter than me and best to describe as mixture of Santa Claus and a Hells Angel member (use your imagination).
During the drive we mainly talked about Cuba. Phil appeared to have lived in Cuba for a couple of years (quite special for an American), bringing in car parts from the States every three months and filling up his empty suitcases with cigars when going back (I didn`t dare to ask about the extent of legality in this activity).
On the ranch we are enthusiastically greeted by 2 massive dogs and a small white poodle, named mister Rodelle) running in between. I’m introduced to the housekeepers Helena and her daughter Danielle who are sipping a fresh fruit juice. Phil takes me outside and shows me around the property. The house, studio and guesthouse are surrounded by a beautiful green field with orange trees, tropical flowers, bushes and a breathtaking view over San Jose valley and the Cloud forest Mountains of National Park Brauillo Crauilo. Behind the garden lies the coffee field and a meditation garden. Eric the gardener quickly comes to say high and then the clock tells us it`s time to pick up Kalina from school.
Kalina is half-Cuban and somewhat a shy girl. Luckily when I tell her I`m just back from Cuba, she slowly starts talking. There’s a click, I feel at home and at ease with the area. This is going to be fun.
Driving in Costa Rica for Dummy's
Considering the fact that one of my most important tasks is going to be dropping off and picking up Kalina from school, Phil wanted to put my driving skills to the test. A few beads of sweat are slowly making their way down my forehead as I jump behind the wheel. The inclines so steep I would have trouble walking up, sharp turns, bikes, pedestrians, dogs, no traffic rules, just `guidelines`)… “How much insurance do you have on this car?” I ask. Phil laughs; “Full comprehensive insurance Dutchie, so no worries.” After a few laps around the neighborhood I appeared to be better than I expected. It seemed to be a matter of checking your mirrors regularly, go with the flow and change lanes once you have enough space to squeeze the front of your car in between. Communicating with your horn is another very important feature:
Two weeks have past and I settled in quite well on the road. I`m honking like no tomorrow. I’m even becoming accustomed to zig zagging in between cars on the highway.
A walk around the block
Neighbour Mario wants to start his own company in organizing jungle tours. The honor was all mine to be the first tourist to join him on the condition to write a promotion for the information folder we provide to our tourists.
Mario, armed with a large knife ‘what they use in the jungle’ and me with a camera, pen and paper, hit the road. It appeared to be quite an incline, making our way to the top of the mountain, fields, bushes and finally, it begins… the jungle! Considering the fact that there were no street signs nor roads or paths in general, Mario needed to swipe his knife firmly from left to right to clear a path for us. Every couple of meters he marks the way by cutting a piece of bark on a carefully selected tree. Even though he has grown up in this area, the jungle stays a tricky place and is not a hard place to get lost. After every hour we take a small break enjoying one of the tasteless roots, plants or leaves Mother Nature has to give to us.
After a bit of hiking, climbing and crawling we finally get to the river that will lead us to the waterfall. Recent rainfall and high rock faces make going into the river our only option. We leave our gear at a tree and with my camera above my head I let myself slide into the freezing cold water. Mario can`t stop laughing about my semi-retarded sea lion way of swimming, desperately holding my camera up in the air, wildly expressing how cold I am by screaming and shouting. He explains that the water originates from the clouds hanging above the mountain and it rainfall has barely any time to warm up before it hits the stream. Luckily we`re both good swimmers and quickly we make our way to a beautiful oasis. With the high cliffs surrounding us, decorated with beautiful ferns and orchids which all plays a part with the light that`s beaming down from the sky. Around 15 meters above us, I see a beautiful, thin waterfall which is elegantly making its way down the cliff face. We can’t stay long as the water is way too cold, so quickly we make some pictures and enjoy this little slice of paradise. Once we return to the riverbank we dry off and warm ourselves by looking for some rays of sunlight. Mario goes out to gather food for lunch and after another tasteless, superfood meal we start making our way back.
Helena waits for us with a big plate of warm spaghetti which I proceed to attach like a goat on grass. Mario starts to make his way home and I’m starting to make my way to my warm and comfy bed. Effortlessly, I drift off into deep and sweet dreams.
The world at our feet
Funny how pavements have changed. Before I was the one travelling around the world and now I`m the in the center of other travelers passing through. I meet people and make friends from all over the world. It seems like the next story is bigger and more interesting than the last.
I open up the gate and park the car in the carport. A new guest awaits at the entrance, a girl my age. Her boyfriend recently had a job offer, making it impossible to join her on vacation. That`s why she decided to turn it into a challenge and go on her own. The next two years she wants to travel around the world, so this would be a good exercise. We drink a cup of tea together and talk like we’re already friends for years. The next morning I prepare breakfast as usual. Ellen my new friend told me she loves animals (I`m sure that`s a big reason why we can get along so well). She had turned her hobby into a profession and had her own dog washing service. While I`m preparing breakfast I gaze outside the kitchen window. My eyes catch the rental of Ellen, a massive 4x4 Chevrolet. Ellen walks in, we give each other a hug and she gracefully sits down the kitchen table. She’s a good looking girl, not like one you would find in the magazines, but she`ll definitely do good with the men when hitting the night clubs. She has this permanent flirty flow in her armour. Observing her perfectly completed hair extensions, manicure, pedicure and carefully selected outfit. I try to measure if she`s up to the next question I no longer can keep for myself. “Ellen, what do you really do for a living?” Somewhat shocked she looks up and looks me straight into the eyes. She looks around making sure nobody else is in the room and then let`s a grin appear on her face. “You’re a smart girl Sanne. I work as a High-class-escort”. “Don’t worry your secret is safe with me (her real name is not Ellen). I’ll tell you what, I state, you’re not fond of driving and I could use a day of fresh air. Pick a spot where you want to go, I’ll bring us there. Let’s have a girls-day-out!”
Resembling two teenage girls, we drive around the valley, through the mountain, singing along with the radio. We decided to finish the day with a dinner and I drive us to the best restaurant in town. As curious as I am, I bomb Ellen with all kinds of questions about her job. The most hilarious, embarrassing and amazing anecdotes come to the fore. We both can`t stop laughing. Suddenly Ellen’s expression changes while she points at an old, chubby men a couple of tables further, presumably around 65 years old. “That’s how by far most of my customers look like”, she whispers while holding her right hand close to her mouth. “How in earths name do you do it?” I ask her amazed, although I’m far from fully surprised. “It’s an illusion, I create an illusion. One of my customers bought me exclusivity. Working 2 nights a month I make more than $120,000 a year. I want to quit, but I can’t. I’m too addicted to the money. The financial freedom I’m experiencing now is unknown. Once you start, it’s almost impossible to get out the illusion.” She looks straight into my eyes and grabs my hand. “Please Sanne, promise me, you’ll never get yourself into this madness. Even though the money is so tempting, whatever offer they make you, don’t do it.” I gently smile back at her, knowing it would never be so easy to keep a promise.
After saying goodbye to my divine and heaven alike bed and bathroom (with hot water, including water pressure!), returning the charming cocktail dresses to Jorien M, I give Arturo a big hug and thank him for everything. I give Max the dog a kiss, wrap my arms around Jolanda, thank her for all the delicious food and then take once last look at the pool. I put my backpack on the back and change my charming slippers for my Teva sandals. The true adventure is about to begin. Off to the airport! After a 14 hours delay, my Cubana Airlines finally arrives in Havana. It is three o'clock in the morning and after some bargaining with several taxi drivers I finally found a good one. Havana is sleeping, but I'm wide awake. I instantly love this country, old buildings and old cars along the side of road. After half an hour we arrive at the address of the Casa Particular (Cubans are able to rent out a room or part of their home to tourists) where Luz is staying (an old colleague from Emmen Zoo, whose time in Cuba is overlapping with mine. The bathroom was no larger than 2x2 meters, the shower was cold (with a touch of warmth) and the bed had such hard springs that I woke up the next morning with a circle shaped pattern on my bottom. Yup, the adventure had indeed begun.
As Luz already discovered the streets of Havana, we decided we would make our way to Ceinfuegos the next morning (3 hours later), a small former French settlement 250 km southwest of Havana. The bus played a concert by Marc Anthony. I gazed at the video and couldn`t prevent a smile appearing on my face. 24 hours ago I was still sleeping in a `house` opposite to his, now I'm packed in a bus with my old togs and everything squeezed in a backpack, watching his concert.
After arriving in Ceinfuegos we walked towards the city center and knocked on the door of the first beautiful Casa Particular we encountered. A Siñora named Sandra opened the door and she stated that we were more than welcome to stay a few days at her place.
After we ticked of all the sightseeing’s inside the city of the list it was time for the beach to reveal its beauty. Jennifer, a girl from London who we had met on the bus, stayed with a young Cuban. He was more than willing to give us a hitchhike to the beach, if we would pay for the drinks. Fair deal! Never judge a book by its cover and that definitely seemed to occur for the cars of Cuba. The old rotten green FIAT looked more dead than alive, but from the inside it was equipped with a pounding stereo (he was a technical engineer) and colourful TV screen.
The beautiful palm beach was enriched by a coral reef, which was located around 500 m from the coast. Jennifer and I had both brought our snorkel and started the fight against surf. The coral was beautiful and so was the marine life. Tired but satisfied we swam back to shore.
Gratefully resorting to my towel it did not take long before I began to feel queasy. Luz took me to the toilet (well, I have been to toilets in India that would win any beauty pageant compared to this smelly hole in the ground) and after some proper inhalation of the local air my entire breakfast went return to sender. Food poisoning and sunstroke didn`t appear to be the best combination.....
The following days, Siñora Sandra spoiled me with delicious soups and cups of tea. "Your mother is far away in the Netherlands, so I'm now your Cuban mother," she said every time. After three days I could finally eat and drink normally and it was time for the next stop.....
Once settled and the city was explored through the day, it was time for: NIGHTLIFE CUBA! A fundamental rule, it’s important to keep up with Cuban rum, so first stop was to head to a ‘Palandar’ which are local family restaurants and are often cheaper than state restaurants. Soon we were approached by a young man with such bleached hair that he must have taken a bath in pure peroxide for two days. He offered to bring us to the restaurant of his mother. The menu looked good and so did the price so Vamos (we go)!
Warmly welcomed by the Cuban version of the Backstreet Boys (just a bit older and a bit…well…it`s the inside that counts right?) it seemed the family were happy to finally receive an audience. Luz isn`t shy of joining in when it comes to music making and soon we sung along loudly and maracas were shaken up and down. And yes, if you're in Cuba, your feet and hips can`t stay behind. The night and beats passed and the restaurant closed down. The band invited us to join them for a concert in the city. There I was with the illusion that I could dance quite reasonable. Everyone was dancing, small, young, old, fat, thin, whatever. So what would happen to you if you do not feel like dancing? There will be a Cuban who grabs you by your wrists and twists you around like a spinning top. The rum went around and we danced until the early hours of the morning. Tired but satisfied we went to bed. Tomorrow, we would spend the day hungover, on the beach. To thank the band for the wonderful evening, we gave two of the band members a lift in the taxi. It was a lovely day!
Santiago de Cuba
It is already late at night when we arrive by bus in Santiago with no place to sleep. Soon, we are approached by a man who knows a Casa Particular for us. We get in his ‘car’ AKA rotten can on wheels, which takes us to one of the suburbs of Santiago. There we are warmly welcomed by Lucia, an old grandmother that was so sweet she could even make peace in the Middle East. The Casa was old and not very fancy, but since Lucia had stolen our hearts, we decided to stay. We had three wonderful days completely pampered with her cooking and she always waited for us until we were back home safe and sound. It didn`t take us a long time to realize that everything Santiago lacked during the day, it made up for it in the night. There was music everywhere, the city was buzzing. After a night rebelling in the touristic part of the city, we wanted to try a club just around the corner of our casa. It was a small club. The light blue wall was covered with pictures of various Cuban music legends. Several couples rocked their hips gracefully among the tables, while the 1.50m in height singer sang his little lungs out of his body. We were invited by a group of Cubans to put in 1 CUC so we could share a bottle of rum and we were soon pulled on the dance floor. Slowly but surely the prostitutes began to flow inside the club. Girls my age, spicy dressed, trying to avoiding communistic life by earning a little extra. The white single men were carefully wrapped around their dark fingers. Once the club started to close down, Luz and I decided it was time for home. As we exited the club we notice the white men taking out their wallets to join their nocturnal girlfriend back home. I glazed at the sky, grateful I could go to my own bed .... alone!
“We'll catch up sleep in the bus” Unfortunately .... that intention more or less failed while we were in the bus from Santiago to Baracoa. Not only did we had great fun with Alex and Jennifer, two other backpackers, we could not keep our eyes from the stunning view. The brown dead grass plains began to turn into green mountains and the old stone Spanish houses were slowly exchanged for wooden, brightly colored huts covered with palm leaves.
We agreed after arriving with Jennifer and Alex to meet up for dinner that night. First we explored the town and started looking for the famous Baracoa chocolate which the town is known for.
Night falls, and after a nice dinner with the four of us, we head for Casa de Musica. We raise four Mojitos in the air and bring out a toast to the good life. After a lot of salsa, we have become friends with half the village and the rest of the backpackers. And as the music goes, we realize that we must quickly go to bed, in order to sneak in 3 hours sleep before our trip to Humbollt national park.
With somewhat heavy heads, we hop into the bus the following morning with Alex and Jennifer. Soon after arriving we are awakened by our guide. Time for a 4.5 hour hike through the mountains. Starting was an uphill battle, however it was more than worth it. The scenery was breathtakingly, the rainforest simply beautiful. At the end of our adventure we were reward with a refreshing dip in a waterfall. Pura Vida!
A fortunate hitchhike with an Australian couple to Camaguey brought me to the point where I had to say goodbye Luz. She continued with the Aussies to Havana and I would stay in Camaguey. I was nervous, for the first time I would truly be by myself… I threw my arms around Luz, providing me with the last hold of somebody I knew and then it was over… I was on my own now.
I grabbed my camera and went into the city, a dense mesh of maze-like streets. Wandering from street to street, somebody suddenly grabbed my arm. With a sense of angriness I look aside and look straight into the eyes of a boy with Down's syndrome. Enthusiastically he shouts in Spanish that they have a party and he wants me to come. I walk with him to the other side of the street where a group is doing a sound check. I settled myself down in the crowd surrounded by parents and relatives when the music explodes. A true spectacle singing, ladies in Flamingo dresses and men with big sombrero hats begins. Everybody enthusiastically claps along. People started dancing which made time fly like a spitfire. Luckily at the end of the show all the stars made time for their fans and handed out photographs and posed professionally for pictures. Slowly people started to return to their homes and I decided to don my backpack on and continue exploring the streets of Camaguey.
Playa Santa Lucia
The beach is calling me, it is time to head off to one of the most famous diving and snorkeling destinations in Cuba; Playa Santa Lucia. The bus isn`t busy, so I start a conversation with the other passengers asking them if they might know a place for me to stay. The bus driver seems to know some people with a ‘Casa’, but on arrival they all appear to be full. The driver suggested I would ride along with him to his hotel, where he could negotiate a good price. It turned out to be the oldest and cheapest hotel in Santa Lucia and largely filled with Dutchies (gee ... can that be right?). Because there were only all-inclusive resorts in town and the casas were far out, everybody had to rely on the local snack bar for lunch and dinner. While I try to enjoy my spaghetti like ‘papas fritas’ as much as possible, I gaze at the five-star resorts in the distance. “We can do better than this Sanne,” I tell myself.
The next morning I pull to the most fancy beach outfit I have out of my backpack, put my sunglasses on my poker face and leave for the seaweed-strewn beach. The beach was engulfed with luxury sunbeds, umbrellas and cocktails. I found one resort, exactly matching with my wishes and park my bikini bottom on the blue cotton lounger. It didn`t take long for one of the staff member to noticed the lack of a wristband. "Sorry, miss, but you're not staying at this resort.” I slide my sunglasses down, give him 1 CUC, a wink and say, "Neither do you, right?” He smiles like a lottery winner. “Welcome to Hotel Club Amigo miss, if there's anything we could do for you, let me know.” “Uno coco por favor.” I say with a smile, and with a fresh coconut in hand, I look out over the Azure Sea. From all the days I had- and would spent in Cuba, I never been served so well as in Playa Santa Lucia.
For everything Cuba stands for, Havana has it times 10 over. It’s amazing to wander around with my backpack through the streets, taking pictures, here and there a chat or a dance and again back to continue my path. I decided to visit the cemetery (one of the largest in the world), the plaza revolution and then continued walking to Hotel National, the most expensive hotel in all of Cuba. The reception and the hotel staff seemed copied from an old black and white movie. I hear a Dutch couple coming out of the elevator and ask them where I can find the bathroom. Surprised as they were to hear Dutch, they asked about my trip and why I was alone. When I told them I was just traveling around, the woman puts her arm around me. “Girl, let me buy you drink. We are very curious about your stories.” They turned out to be cigar distributors, and with a whole delegation of BENELUX, they were invited by Cubana Cigars to come for two weeks to Cuba. Somewhat uncomfortable I follow them on my old Teva sandals and sun-bleached shorts to the upscale terrace, where the rest of the cigar company looks up, somewhat surprised by the new addition of the group. After a short introduction, I was inundated with questions: “Is it not dangerous?” “So you really sleep in people's homes?” Etc. The noon started to change into nightfall, the cigars shortened and the level of wine in the bottles dropped quicker by every passing second. Suddenly my phone rings; it`s Mariel, a German girl I met in a taxi in Cienfuegos. We agreed to meet in Havanna and travel together to Viñalles. Her train would arrive in about 2 hours and if it was ok for me to bring three Englishmen with whom she had met on the train. The more people, the more fun ... so of course, no problem. I said goodbye to my new cigar friends and began the walk of 3.5 km back to my Casa through the streets of Havana.
I turn off the beaten track and go to the slums of Havana Vieja, making a shortcut towards my Casa. Suddenly I my ears catch the sound of drums and singing coming from one of the houses. I follow the sound and suddenly stand next to a living room filled with dancing and singing people (in Cuba it`s common to have the front door open, the living room is usually right behind). A young, dark girl of my age waves me inside. I must bow to the altar, my hands and feet are getting washed and an old man sprinkles water on my forehead while he mumbles a prayer. He nods and the girl pulls me onto the dance floor. A row of four men create music by tapping on cardboard boxes, an oil drum and a wooden box. The dance seemed similar of an African tribe, I (as best as it can with my 1.86 m long Dutch frame) tried to imitate as closely as possible. I glance at my watch, it's time to go. I embraced and kissed my new friends and walk the last two blocks to my Casa. Still half an hour to go before Mariel and her three new English friends arrive. I flop on the bed and fall into a deep sleep.
“Oh dear, did she die?” sounds with a charming English accent through my dream. I open my eyes and there is Mariel, with three men, all bent over my bed. They appeared to between 40 and 50 years old and copied from a Monty Python sketch. “Thank goodness she's alive.” I rub the sleep out of my eyes.... did all of this really happen within the last 24 hours....?
We exchange the bustling Havana for the green hills of Viñalles. A small village in a green oasis south west of Havana. Mariel also appears to be a big fan of horseback riding so as fast as we could we tried to find a good guide for the next day. At a local travel agency they seemed to know a good address with healthy horses where we could go the next morning.
The next morning we knock on the door of Yuri, a horse owner, just outside the village. He grins when we tell we both can ride. “Good, Rambo and Diego could use a good ride.” We saddle the horses and ride off into the valley. We pass endless tobacco fields and farmland. Here and there we have to pass a bullock cart or an old farmhouse. We stop in between at friends of Yuri to water the horses and get ourselves a fresh coconut and cigar. Once in a quieter part of the valley, we put the horses at a gallop. They seemed to have looked forward to this moment. All of us lift up our nose and rush through the valley breathing in the fresh smell of flowers and grass. We gallop climbing a hilltop, enjoying a beautiful view.
We return slowly back to Yuri’s ranch and meet up in the evening to go to a concert in the center of the village. We bump into two German ornithologists, a Swiss banker and an Australian dentistry student. Together we put in a CUC for a bottle of rum and a Cuban variant of Coca Cola. We danced the night away until blisters start forming on our feet. Viva la vida! Viva la Cuba!
Forget the first party I was telling you about. That indeed proved to have been a modest house party. It didn’t take me a long time to discover that here, in ‘Casa de Campo’, the people embrace the saying 'the more, the better', and that definitely results in a well-to-do party scene.
We were invited to a dinner in the harbor ‘La Marina’. Here, the table setting appeared to be in fashion. I was placed next to a gentleman whose Latino name I cannot record, in any case I´ll call him "M" (I’ll just use the first letter of the peppermint candy that he produces). From the first night on, Jorien had a successful businessman from NYC under her spell. She was strategically seated between me and Jorien M. This way she would not be tempted to talk to any other men. After all, once a Latino has spot his eye on you, he will not let you go. The food was delicious, the people friendly and when someone said something inspiring or funny, it was tradition to all raise our glasses and grown the remark with a “salut” (cheers).
The party continued in the former garden of ‘M’. Although ‘garden’ clearly was an understatement (think Billy Madisons mansion). With a 500 m private beach, four garden houses, several swimming pools and fountains (yep definitely Billy Madison style). I needed to squeeze my eyes in order to prevent them from popping out my head. This was a far cry from the barn parties I would go to in the Netherlands…...
We were gracefully making our way to the 31th of December. After sleeping in every day, it was an early bird activity to hit the road at 11:00 AM. Supplied with food-gasmic snacks from Johanna and bottles of wine and champagne, we made our way to the boat. It seemed a place of pilgrimage. All kinds of yachts (big, bigger, biggest) sailed south, where, just before a Palm Beach, all boats were parked side by side. The middle boat had a DJ boot and around the boats you could take a refreshing dip in the crystal clear, sky-blue waters. We partied deep into the afternoon until there was a slither of sun on the horizon. We raised our glasses of champagne for one last time (uh well for that moment) and headed back to the port once the last glimmer of light disappeared behind the horizon.
Once back at the mansion time management was of the essence; shower, change clothes, freshen up our faces with make-up, eat and go to the beach party. Here we danced until we could no longer stand on our feet, cheered until we couldn`t lift our arms anymore and laughed until our jaws got stuck in a cramp. The sun returned for her first appearance in 2015 telling us our soft and comfy beds were calling. With a pounding head I slumped on my bed, staring at the clock on the wall; 8:30 AM. ‘Awesome, my first good intention for 2016: sleeping until January 2nd.’ That intention more or less was succeeded.
The parties were over and peace had somewhat returned here at Casa de Campo. We decided to go north for two days. Here lies one of the biggest nature reserves in the DR; a huge mountain area bordered by a mangrove forest and hundreds of small islands and caves. I was delighted we finally had something on the itinerary which matched up with the clothes I had in my backpack. Waiting in the hallway with my green shorts, sandals and binoculars I suddenly hear Jorien calling from the bedroom; 'Sanne do you think that this combination is suitable? ". There stood Jorien perfectly styled from head to toe, wrapped in a beautiful blue top with matching skirt and shiny flip flops on her feet. We looked at each other for 2 seconds and both burst out laughing. "Come Posh Spice, we going bird watching," I said. "Listen Sanne, whatever I do, I do it with style." And arm in arm we walked to the car. Diversity in life, I love it!
It was a beautiful trip by boat crossing mangrove forest, passing along islands and caves where we admired stone-age drawings.
“Sanne, we're living the dream” said Jorien while we marvel at the green hills that raise above the heavenly blue sea. I agree with her, 200%.
After a long journey, Jorien and I arrived at Santo Domingo airport. We decided that I would take responsibility of the luggage while Jorien would give it her charming best to get us through customs assisted by her never ending legs, blonde extensions, and gleaming smile.
‘Mission completed’ I sigh with relief as I fly into the arms of Jorien M. (a friend of ours who we met during a beauty pageant) and greeted her driver. The next two weeks we would be living among the rich and the famous at her home in Casa de Campo.
Arturo, her fiancé, gave us a tour through the house. "Here's your bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, swimming pool, jacuzzi ...” “Well I can definitely see myself having a good time here!” I thought. There wasn`t a lot of time to relax as the neighbour had organized a 'house party'. When I asked what the dress code was, Jorien chuckled; "Well Sanne, maybe you should consider leaving your hiking boots at home." Closing off her remark with a wink. There was no other option left than to get into make-over mode. 45 minutes later, I had squeezed myself into a tight green dress I borrowed from Jorien, braided my hair and wiped away every sign of jetlag with a thick layer of makeup.
Once we arrived at the party venue, I could not believe my eyes. Ladies dressed in beautiful outfits with high heel super-smooth legs underneath. Here and there a doctor-Rossi-cleavage worth a few thousand euros. There were even some faces I recognized from tv! They didn’t serve pieces of cheese or bowls of chips, but toasts with caviar. And to drink? No BaCo, but champagne, which was served elegantly by one of the dozens of servants, dressed in black and white. The dance floor was lit and the garden was resembling a laser show, whilst the DJ seemed to support every activity with his smooth mixed up beats from the latest tunes.
The guests had their own businesses, good jobs, were born rich or simply charming and beautiful enough to strike a match with a rich man. So, how does one tell these elegant folks that you are jobless and ready to explore the world with nothing more than a backpack? Fortunately, I soon came to the word 'Sabbatical'. While it was not always understood, a warm smile and nod was usually its response.
Tired, but satisfied, after a 32 hour day, we crawled into our luxurious beds. The next day I was woken early to the tune of singing birds. I jumped into my bikini and snuck through the living room to the garden, where I swam in the refreshing pool. Leaning with my elbows on the pool edge I gazed across the field. There were horses galloping past with their riders flailing polo sticks. My thoughts are suddenly interrupted; "Perdon, sinorita Sanne, would you like to have some tea?" It's Jolanda, the housekeeper. I answer back with a grateful smile, "Si, gracias Jolanda.
After the swim, I slumped into a sofa in the garden whilst sipping my tea. "I think I might survive out here till January the 11th."
All best wishes for 2015!
My coach, Corine, sits in front of me at the kitchen table. "Well Sanne tell me, what are we going to talk about this week?" A few weeks before, I had contacted her. It has been several years since I had felt ‘balanced’, which eventually resulted in burnout. I decided that things had to change. I contacted Corine so, together with her, I could get my life back on track.
"I booked a ticket to the Dominican Republic. I want to travel for four months through the Caribbean, Central and South America". I state proudly, pleased with the feeling that I finally got my life back on track. Corine looks surprised; "Wow, you`re really jumping in the deep end aren`t you? So you are taking a nice four-month break, recharge your battery, and then back to your old life?" I lean back in my seat, contemplating this view point. To really change my life I had to take drastic measures.
I look at the customs worker, he looks at my passport, then glances back at me. I smile as friendly as possible. Jorien's gone through customs and waits with her perfect Barbie-figure and her perfectly styled outfit. I look back, my parents are behind the fences together with my good friend Isabel. They wave and are throwing air kisses. Now it's really happening. I quit my job, all my belongings are sold or given away. Only my dearest possessions are now stored in cardboard boxes in the attic. I'm single again, after seven years. Here I am, standing with a backpack and a plane ticket to the Dominican Republic.
"Ms. de Groot ... Ms. de Groot!" terrified I look up, it's the sergeant. “You may proceed.” I put my ticket in my passport, and step across the border towards Jorien. One last time I turn around and wave to my parents and Isabel. The adventure is about to begin!
After a burn-out it was time for a change. I quit my job, sold my stuff and bought a one-way ticket to the Dominican Republic. What was supposed to be a 4 month adventure turned into 2,5 years and counting......
Photo by: Vanessa Marques Barreto