Make a difference in December (in warm Costa Rica)

Those of you living in southern states, granted, may not feel the need to disappear when the December winds start to blow. I hear it all around me in New York every winter: it’s cold, it’s wet, it’s awful. Frankly, I dig winter, but I realize I’m in the minority, especially when the temperatures hit rock bottom. And New York’s got nothin’ on the likes of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Maine. Well, if you yearn for a warm place when the frigid temperatures hit, Holiday Project 2009 will make you warm on the outside and on the inside.

For nine days, you can soak up the sun in Costa Rica with Tropical Adventures. Raft down a river, feel unfettered freedom on a zip line and make a difference in a local community. This new program costs $1,595 (for adults, $985 for kids) and includes all on-the-ground transportation, two nights at a hotel in San Jose, four nights with a host family in Puerto Viejo and two nights on the indigenous reservation. You’ll mingle with local children and seniors at three holiday parties and take three adventure tours. It’s a packed itinerary that includes thrills and a chance to make the world a better place.

So, when you start to plan your winter escape, maybe you can mix in a bit of holiday goodwill. The trip runs from December 19 – 27, 2009, and you have to book by November 30.

Tips for traveling to Costa Rica (or anywhere) in rainy season

When I heard that flights from Chicago to San Jose, Costa Rica were going for just $260 per person this Fall, I immediately called my husband and asked if we could go for Labor Day weekend. Despite the fact that neither of us has ever expressed a burning desire to go to Costa Rica, he agreed. What can I say – we’re suckers for a deal.

We knew that prices were so low for a reason. May to November is rainy season in the country, but we figured “rainy season” just meant a few showers each day. We also assumed it would mean not just cheap flights, but also cheaper accommodations, deals on tours, and fewer tourists. In some ways, our assumptions were right on. And in others, we couldn’t have been more wrong.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t consider a trip to Costa Rica, or anywhere for that matter, in rainy season. Just take into account these tips to make the most of your time during wet weather.

Know That It’s a Crap Shoot
You could be there during one of the weeks when the rain is unseasonably light or perfectly predictable, with light showers covering the area each day in the afternoon like clockwork. The week before our trip (and, as this video shows, the week after), we were told, the area we stayed in (the small town of La Fortuna, at the base of Arenal volcano) enjoyed near-constant clear skies, warm temps and low humidity. For the three days that we were there however, it rained several times each day. It rained in the morning, it rained in the afternoon, it rained at night. Just when we thought the clouds would clear completely, they would descend again and obscure any traces of sun. One day, powerful thunder storms shook our hotel and we watched lighting illuminate the darkness through our skylight for hours before the rain finally reduced to a slight drizzle that lasted until 10pm. You might be there for a week of perfect weather, or you may wind up getting soaked like we did. More likely, you’ll experience a bit of both on your trip.

Rent a Car
With such a short amount of time in the country, we couldn’t rely on public buses or shuttles (though they are normally a great budget option). And since we’ve given up our credit cards (a move we only regret one the very rare occasion when we want to rent a car outside of the US), our options were to hire a private driver as we did, or to fly from San Jose to Fortuna. Given the torrential rainstorms we saw, I was very glad that we didn’t opt to fly on Nature Air. We would have spent hours waiting for the weather to clear for our flights or, even worse, had to fly through the downpour.The small prop planes are scary enough to me. Renting a car is the best option, especially if you choose to stay in a small town like Fortuna. There’s not a whole lot to do in town and if you don’t have a car, you’ll need to book organized tours to do most activities, many of which may be a bust due to the weather. Which brings me to my next point. . .

Don’t Book Activities in Advance
We only had three days in Costa Rica, and we wanted to make the most of it, so we opted to book some of our tours in advance. We really shouldn’t have bothered. By my rough count, there are at least three tour operators for every house in Fortuna. There was a tour agency on every corner, in every hotel, at every restaurant. And most offered the exact same services or trips to the exact same places at the exact same prices. And every single one wants your business. Waiting to book activities until we had arrived might have given us the chance to negotiate prices, and it would have allowed us to change plans when the weather didn’t cooperate.

One night, we’d booked an evening tour to Arenal, our chance to see the lava flowing against the darkened sky. As we hadn’t seen the top of the volcano for more than five minutes (on our first afternoon in town) in three days, we should have known the tour would be a bust and tried to cancel. Instead we held out hope. Maybe the sky was clear on the other side of the volcano, where the lava flowed. Maybe the clouds would part just in time. Maybe the tour guides knew more than we did, and knew that every night at 7pm the clouds did lift and Arenal was visible from the one place we’d be. As it turns out, the guides did know better than us. They knew that there was no chance in hell we’d see lava but that we didn’t know that, and would still pony up $30 each to go look at a volcano shrouded in gray. After standing there for 40 minutes among a crowd of 50 people, looking at a solid wall of clouds, my husband and I were pretty annoyed. We realized that we should have just canceled the tour when we had the chance, and that if we’d had a rental car, we could have driven out there on our own.

Choose Your Hotel Wisely
My husband and I attempted to tough it out during much of the rain. We wandered around the town during even heavy precipitation, but when pouring rain combined with booming thunder, we retreated to our hotel, the lovely Las Colinas. I’d debated between booking a more expensive place with a pool or going for an ultra-basic hostel with little more than a bed. In the end, I’m so glad we settled on the $70 per night honeymoon suite at Las Colinas. Though we never saw the whole volcano from our deck (as the website promised), when we were stuck in our room for hours due to storms, we were so grateful for the extra amenities. We popped a few Imperial beers in the mini-fridge, pointed the TV towards the giant jacuzzi tub, and sipped and soaked while catching up on Spanish MTV and English-language episodes of “Keeping up with the Kardashians” as the storm raged outside. Had we booked the fancy hotel, the pool would’ve been wasted on us; had we gone the cheap route, we’d have been bored cooped up in our room with nothing to do. So, choose your hotel knowing that you may be spending more time in your room than you would have liked.

Pack Appropriately
I’ll be the first to admit that, while I have my city-trip packing down to a science, when it comes to packing for less urban destinations, I kind of suck. This is how I’ve ended up caving in Iceland in skinny jeans and knee-high boots, and how I found myself hiking a muddy trail in Costa Rica in 90 degrees temps with smothering humidity in jeans and running shoes. Rainy season means rain. It means mud. And it means you will get wet. Pack a rain parka, lightweight and waterproof or quick-drying pants, sturdy boots with good traction for hiking, and sandals with a bit more structure than my Old Navy flip flops. Ladies, definitely bring a dress or skirt for hot nights, but leave the heels at home. Don’t bother with a blow-dryer or make-up (your hair will frizz no matter what and make-up will just run off your face), but don’t forget extra hair ties, a hat, and an umbrella.

Do Your Restaurant Research
My tried and true method for finding a good restaurant on a whim is to look for one that is busy (and not just full of tourists). It’s a strategy that has worked well everywhere I have gone, but in Costa Rica, it failed. Not because we went to a busy restaurant that wasn’t good. But because no restaurants were busy. Every place we walked by, from the center of town to the outskirts, was dead. We never saw more than 2-3 groups in any given place at once. When we talked to the owner of Lava Lounge, our favorite bar, he said that we were there in the few weeks when the town was totally empty of tourists. He said things would pick up a little in the next few weeks, but not much. So, if you are looking for nightlife, look elsewhere. We also found that, as we’d heard, the food in Costa Rica wasn’t much to rave about. We had a few good meals, but nothing stood out as mind-blowing. One waitress we talked to said she preferred to eat at home; the food her family made was much better than anything served in a restaurant. We should have asked to come over for dinner.

Accept that You Will Get Wet
The first night, my husband and I tried to wait out the rain. We quickly realized we’d be spending our entire trip inside if we did that. Bring good rain gear and resign yourself to the fact that you will get wet. We got rained on while walking around town. We got rained on while horseback riding. And we got rained on while zip-lining. And…we survived. Actually, we had a great time. The sooner you accept the fact that you are going to get wet, the more fun you’ll have.

Resolve to Make the Most of It
This goes for a trip to Costa Rica or a trip anywhere around the world. Sometimes, trips are perfect. Most plans go smoothly, and the ones that don’t end up adding a new, and often better, dimension to your experience. But sometimes things just don’t work out the way you’d dreamed. In those times and on those trips, try to make the most of it. Sure, I would have preferred a little less on rain on my trip to Costa Rica, but zip-lining through the canopy as fat rain drops plop-plopped on the leaves around me was an unforgettable experience. And over the course of three wet days, I learned a lot of valuable lessons about traveling (anywhere) in rainy season.

Galley Gossip: My Bollywood Valentine’s Day

There we were, the husband and I, standing up in a dark movie theater with a huge smile across our faces. We had gone to see the movie Slumdog Millionaire and were just about to leave, but when the credits began rolling the Bollywood dancers started to move their bodies in sync.

“Wait, I want to see this!” my husband exclaimed as I began to walk up the aisle.

“Really?” I asked, even though I already knew his response would be, yes, really! What I didn’t want to see was my husband doing those same Bollywood dance moves later that night. He can’t help himself. That’s why I love him.

As I stood there watching the dancers perform the “go away” dance move, as my husband calls it, a move that requires one hand to flutter from the front of the face to the back of the head, I immediately flashed back to another time in my life, back to the days when I was single and used to work the New York – San Jose route.

Why would an amazing film like Slumdog Millionaire remind me of a San Jose trip? Because we used to layover in Fremont, California – not San Jose, California. It was cheaper, I guess. Have you ever been to Fremont? Let’s just say I spent many layovers eating wonderful curries, drinking delicious chai tea, and checking out the local video store for a Bollywood movie I once worked on eight years ago called Mehbooba starring Sanjay Dutt, a movie I never did find.

Oh yes, that’s right, yours truly is not only a mother / flight attendant / writer, but also a not so famous ex Bollywood actress. In the movie Mehbooba, a film that was shot in New York City and other amazing places around the world, I’m just an extra. I’m the girl wearing the red dress on the boat, which is actually the same boat that was used in the movie The Mosquito Coast starring Harrison Ford. While I lounged on the wooden deck, Sanjay Dutt actually kissed me on the cheek. I do hope they didn’t cut that part out.

For the record, Mehbooba means my beloved. My husband actually had it engraved on my wedding band. Only he spelled it wrong – Mehabooba. Just a random fact about me.

Another random fact about me, I don’t like Valentine’s Day. There’s just to much pressure to have fun and fall in love and spend too much money doing so – just to be let down in the end.

My dislike for Valentine’s Day began in elementary school. That’s where, each year, I was forced to decorate a tissue box with construction paper in shades of red, pink and white on the day of love. A person can’t help but get excited about what they’re going to find in their box at the end of the day, even if that person is only ten years old! Of course my box never overflowed with hearts and candy the way those of my classmates did.

Then, years later, I gave my college boyfriend a special gift. I don’t remember what it was, but what I do remember is what he gave me. Nothing. He was too busy breaking up with me – not just once, but twice, on two different Valentine’s Days! What can I say, some people just have to be slapped in the face with rejection!

After college I dated an engineer who wanted to celebrate Valentine’s Day the day after – on the 15th. Or the 13th would’ve worked, too. “It’s cheaper that way,” he’d said matter of fact. Of course now that I’m older and wiser I see the logic in that, but back then it only made me hate the day even more.

Though I do have many bad memories, there was one Valentine’s Day I did actually enjoy. It happened in Fremont, California of all places. And it may even have to go down as one of the most fun nights of my life. My date that night at the Bollywood disco after a scrumptious dinner at an Indian buffet was Katherine, the flight attendant working in first class with me that month of February in 2001.

I had just planned on having another not so great Valentine’s Day, which is why I had opted to work that day, but Katherine decided to take matters into her own hands. She started asking passengers if they could fix us up with someone – anyone! Who lived in Fremont. You have to understand that Katherine was the kind of person who could say anything and get away with it. I think the British accent had a lot to do with that. While we did make quite a few of our passengers laugh, we never did get set up, and eventually found ourselves alone drinking chai tea as we celebrated together in a coffee shop across the street from our Fremont layover hotel.

“Why don’t you two come along with me!” said the owner of the shop. He’d been eavesdropping in on our conversation. “Just pay me gas money.”

So that’s what we did. We paid our new friend gas money and he took us to a private party not too far away. Katherine and I danced the night away to music we’d never heard before, nor have I heard since, and we learned dance moves that only my husband could appreciate. Of course back then he wasn’t around to appreciate them. No one was. Just Katherine.

On the flight back to New York Katherine stood in the first class galley wearing her pin striped apron and looked me square in the eye, and said, and she said this very seriously, “Heather, you were the best date I’ve ever had.”

Of couse I felt the same way about her. The sad thing is I never did see my special Valentine’s date again after that wonderful month working together. I heard Katherine quit flying shortly after 9/11. A lot of flight attendants did.

So now that I’m married to a wonderful man who has spectacular dance moves of his own, a passenger I actually met on a flight from New York to Los Angeles just a few months after 9/11, and now that we have a beautiful two year-old son who travels so often he calls his belt a seatbelt and prefers to keep it fastened at all times, things have changed for the better. Valentine’s Day is no longer about me. It’s about us.

This year the three of us will be celebrating together at home. I don’t know what we’re going to do, but I do know that mommy and daddy will be spending a romantic evening out alone on the 12th instead of the 14th this year. You better believe my husband will be getting a copy of the Slumdog Millionaire CD, as well as the just released Mehbooba DVD! Yes, it took eight years, but it’s out, the movie is finally out, and my poor husband will be forced to watch it!

Photos courtesy of (Bollywood dancers) Fikirbaz (Mehbooba) the official Mehbooba website (Valentine’s box) Msabcmom

San Jose to Spend $1.1 Million on Mural at Airport

The San Jose city council recently approved an art project with an $1.1 million dollar price tag. A huge mural will be installed at Mineta San Jose International Airport on the side of a newly constructed parking garage. Impressive? It will be San Jose’s largest piece of public art (62 feet high, 76,000 square feet). The mural is inspired by a high resolution photograph of different hands making different gestures. (No, I assume the gesture you are thinking of right now is not a part of the picture. But I can’t say for certain).

San Jose is not a new city, but its growth over the past couple of decades has been explosive. While it might be a nice place to live, many visitors find it sterile and lacking in atmosphere. This is especially the case if you compare it to nearby San Francisco. Perhaps a mural, even a million dollar one, is a good idea. At the very least, you’ll be able to chuckle as you try to find double meanings for those hand gestures.

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San Jose’s Winchester Mystery House

This past weekend I found myself in San Jose, California. As far as Bay Area tourism is concerned, San Jose has always been the red-headed stepchild to more well-known destinations like San Francisco, the Napa Valley and Berkeley. However, during my stay I discovered a great reason to make the hour-long drive down to San Jose from San Francisco – the Winchester Mystery House.

This sprawling, ornate Victorian mansion sits just a short distance from the city’s downtown. Spanning a property of over 4 acres, the mansion contains more than 160 rooms, 40 bedrooms, 2 ballrooms and 3 elevators. But it’s not just pretty to look at – the Winchester Mansion boasts a mysterious history thanks to its late resident Sarah Winchester, heiress of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company.

Sarah’s husband William Wirt Winchester amassed great wealth through the sale of his company’s most famous product – the Winchester rifle. The gun was responsible for many deaths in the late 1800’s, which weighed heavily upon Sarah. She was convinced she was being haunted by the spirits of those killed by Winchester rifles. In an effort to confuse these spirits, Mrs. Winchester began construction on a massive estate near San Jose. From 1884 until her death in 1922, the house underwent 38 years of continuous, non-stop construction, taking on a confusing and labyrinth-like floor plan. Stairways were built that led to nowhere and many doors open onto blank walls. All of this a tribute to the madness and persistence of its reclusive owner, Sarah Winchester.

The next time you’re in the Bay Area, why not swing by San Jose for a visit? For what you paid for that bottle of Napa Cabernet you’ll get to experience a real piece of Americana and a house that truly has to be seen to be believed.