Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Permanent Vacation

Two weeks in Costa Rica.  Two weeks to go.  The Spanish Language program that I'm enrolled at - AEC - has a relationship with a guide and tour operator called Explornatura.  AEC provides fresh gringos on a weekly basis and Explornatura provides the "Adventure" in Adventure Education Center.  Two separate entities in - symbiosis.

It's a great way to spend time out here.  My mornings are all classroom and my afternoons are hikes, activities and tours.  There's a distinct "summer camp" feel to it which I simultaneously like and dislike.  "Like" in that all the work is done for me  - all the scenic destinations picked out, all the logistics planned, all the lines rehearsed to perfection.  "Dislike" in that activities whose audience varies from nubile adolescents to elderly retirees tend to be overly sanitized.   For goatee wearing extreme sports engaging Mountain Dew drinking Gen-Xers like myself (I'm very popular among the 12-60 male segment) it's "dizzle" but it ain't "gnarly". 

That said, my no-medical-insurance-until-April-ass recognizes the compromise and am pretty content with scenic tours of butterfly gardens, snake farms, canyoning through the rain forrest, and river rafting down the Pacuare river in a giant inflatable mattress. 

The other big plus is that during my stay in Turrialba I came to have an appreciation for the people who work at Explornatura.  On top of letting me use their wireless internet connection free everyday (thanks Erin), I hung out with a number of them and they all seem like really cool people.  The guides are multi-lingual outdoor enthusiasts who have developed their passion into a touristic trade.  When you're repelling down a waterfall and it takes you 20 minutes to do so, and then you see this dude climb down ninja-style down that same water fall in 5 seconds you get that "what the hell" feeling and this normal seeming guy suddenly doesn't seem so normal anymore.

But then again, that's the whole pro vs non-pro thing.  You do something, you think you're cool then BAM, someone's there to show you just how not cool you actually are.  

Then go out and have a couple of drinks and suddenly it's like your friends with a minor celebrity.  I admit I'm jealous.  Here you are, you basically do the thing you love - kayak, zip-line, river raft, hike - in a beautiful rain-forest and you make a life for yourself.  The thing is I talk to these guys and everything I envy seems so easy to grasp.  It turns out a lot of these guys just travel from place to place and learn something new along the way.  They pay the bills to do mostly the same stuff they'd be doing anyway.  Permanent vacation.

"I'm not in it for the money" one of the guides told me.  I've definitely uttered these words in my lifetime.  I've heard other people say it too and I'm not saying they're lying.  It's just that when you're hitting that class 4 rapid and fresh water sprays in your face and you're paddling like a madman, suddenly those words seem truer than life.  So it goes.

My time in Turrialba is up.  Up next Dominical.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Puerto Viejo

I am in Puerto Viejo, a small beach community near the Panamanian border of Costa Rica.  English is ubiquitous due to the high concentration of American and European residents, drifters, and tourists who make their way out here.  It is home to a black sand beach, a white sand beach, a litany of coral reef, and some of the biggest waves in the world.  It has miles of shoreline where thick lush jungle kisses the ocean and tide breaks against steep distinguished rocks.

I arrive in town on Friday night exhausted after a 5 hour 3 bus journey roasting in the central american heat.  Like the sheltered gringo that I am, I feel woozy from too many hours breathing in a mixture of road dust, car exhaust and B.O. 

Unsuccessful after an hour looking for a hotel, I give up and book myself into a Canbana - the central american equivalent of a bed and breakfast sans the bed and the breakfast.  I can't complain though, for $10 a night I get a nice clean cot and my own private bathroom.  Not luxurious but compared to the "Backpacker heaven" renting out warehouse space with a shared bathroom and space to pitch your tent - think Katrina Superdome refugee center - for the same price it turned out to be quite a steal.

Plus I get roommates, and that's where the real adventure begins.  My immediate neighbor is Mike a retired Canadian from Vancouver.  I find Mike to be extremely nice and knowledgeable of the area.  He is also perhaps the laziest Canadian I have ever met (which is saying a lot).  I ask him what he is doing in Costa Rica.  He tells me he's been living in Puerto Viejo since the beginning of last June, that he used to work on the stock market while simultaneously taking care of his dad descending into Alzheimer's.   Sometime last year he decided enough was enough.  I ask him what he does all day.  He contemplates, then lifts  his self-made bamboo bong and tells me

"yeah, i don't know.  I guess you can say I go out of my way to do as little as possible you know ... because that's all what Canada and the U.S. is all about ... all that stress you know ... and all i want is to chill out and live my life ... living off the earth you know ... not eating all that crap ... and if you think about it its all very zen"

Being Japanese, my father a lifelong buddhist and having studied the works of Shinryu Suzuki, I'm a bit skeptical Mike knows what Zen Buddhism is about.  I let it slide.  Turns out he's a lot of fun to talk to and we become good friends.  He puts on some of his Barenaked Ladies collection onto my ipod and I in turn fill him in on the latest presidential election news.

In the next room over is Stephanie and Josh, also Canadian, also from Vancouver but that's where the similarities end.  Back home they are live-show promoters focusing on hip-hop.  These are the guys you talk to if you were say, Snoop Dogg's manager and wanted to tour Vancouver.  I learn that even the biggest, most established hip-hop acts rarely turn a profit on a show.  That the majority of the acts they promote end up smoking, snorting or dropping all the ticket proceeds.  It turns out that in the hip-hop world no one does any work or bears any risk save the show promoter.  I ask them what they are doing in Costa Rica and they go quiet. 

"well, we're not doing so well financially so we're hiding out for a bit" 

Stephanie says.  I nod, careful not to prod.  Stephanie and Josh look like really well meaning people my age.  I get the feeling that they went into the music business for the glamour, excitement and chance to own their own enterprise.  What they got instead was a slap from the revolving door of entertainment industry crap.  I hope it's the tax man that's chasing them, not some shady club owner.

On Saturday I ride about 11 km to the next town called Manzinilla.  Considering the heat, the mountainous incline, the bad roads, and the fact that my crappy bicycle is stuck on 7th gear, it feels more like 20.  Along the way I take in a number of beaches including Cocles known by surfers the world over for killer waves and Punto Uva a mountainous lookout point. 

Dread-locked hippies roam around while chiseled surfers and their bikini babes paddle and disappear into the big blue ocean.  Blackened roaches from marijuana joints litter the sand where Costa Rican children play.  I see bearded men sitting on dried out wood stumps staring blankly out into the sea, their faces cracked with wrinkles hardened by sun and sea air. 

I sense a trend.  I get the feeling the residents of Puerto Viejo are escapees of a colder, harsher place. 

I meet probably the only other Japanese guy in a coffee shop down the road.  The store owner tells me I should hear this guy play sax.  Turns out he's a jazz player, he's lived on 4 different continents and married a Canadian girl.  Their kids are all grown up.   She's in Canada while he's living down here.  They don't get along too well.  They're not divorced ... just separated.

On a recommendation by Mike I stop by a small coffee shop.  Outside is a poster saying "9-11 was an inside job".  I meet a skinny guy named Cliff with dark sunglasses and curly white hair that go down to his shoulders.  He is lecturing a paunchy hippie girl on the merits of Colloidal Silver.  Colloidal Silver it turns out has been scientifically proven to cure any disease known to man.  The reason that no one knows about it is because the medical community has conspired against the public to keep it's amazing curative powers a secret.  Why?  In order to fatten their pockets of course. 

I also learn that the same medical community have regularly been introducing viruses - i.e. AIDS, Ebola, Heart Disease etc - into the public in order to control, frighten, and make themselves rich.  I thank Cliff for the coffee and make my way. 

"When you go Neo and wake up from the Matrix, I'll be right here with the knowledge you need" he says as I walk out.

On the bus ride home I think that I - Bschool, management consultant, prompt tax payer, and computer geek - am nothing like these people.   The fact is though, I'm not.  I'm like these people too.  Hadn't I gone abroad to study in South East Asia?  Hadn't I chosen to restart my career in Germany?  I'm in Costa Rica to get away too but just in a different way.  I think we're all like that.  We're all looking to escape somewhere where the sun is shining and people are kind a polite to one another.  Puerto Viejo is fun.  I meet a lot of interesting people there, but where I'm trying to go is not like this.  I still don't know where my Puerto Viejo is.  Maybe I'll never know.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

America! - the gift shop

Apolgies, a small tangent from the Costa Rica trip for an amusiveration (an amusing observation)

I have a secret infatuation with tacky gift shops.  In New York, this is the shop that sells the ever-popular "I (heart) NY" tshirt.  In Paris it sells cheap Eiffel Tower replica statues.  You get the idea.  I like tacky gift shops because the merchandise in most of these stores do an insanely horrible job of reflecting the spirit of the people who live in the city.  Rather they do an excellent job of reflecting the spirt of the tourists who visit. 

I have never seen a New Yorker wear an "I (heart) NY" tshirt ... ever.  

It came as a surprise to me when I flew out of Newark Liberty airport that there is a gift shopped simply named "America!".  Imagine my giddy excitement when I saw that on the departure terminal store directory.  How do foriegn tourists who visit, not just New York, but AMERICA see the country?  What does an Italian who drives cross-country throughout the great continent buy to commemorate his long journey through America?  What does he take back to Italy to say (heavy Italian accent.  lots of hand gestures) "See Mama!  See Papa!  Your son.  He a gone to America!"  Not just Chicago, or L.A. or New York - but America!

I look upon "America!" the gift shop and it is exactly as I would imagine it to look like.  Fake, really fake, facade full of eagles and red white and blue.   However, I go inside and I am a little dissappointed.  Sure they have the American flag leather jacket displayed prominently out in front (all the rage in Europe, I'm sure), but most of the gift items have a decidedly NY-NJ theme to them.  The store defintely appeals not to foriegners but to other - namely midwestern - Americans looking for an east coast experience.  Also prominently displayed in this Newark NJ airport - you guessed it - the "Bada Bing" shirt. 

There are a few saving graces to the gift shop including a presidential mouse pad and replica copies of the "Declaration of Independance" (what Brit wouldn't want a copy of that?) but all in all "America!" dissappoints.  In fact I told the cashier explicitely that the exclamation point at the end of the name - dude that has got to go!

I travel to Puerto Viejo tomorrow.  Nice.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Life in Costa Rica

Day 4 in Costa Rica.  No cellphone and limited internet access.  I am in a small town in Costa Rica called Turrialba about an hour and a half bus ride away from the capital city and my port of embarkation San Jose. 

The weather in San Jose is sunny with a mild hotness to it which is almost never a problem because of a soft omnipresent breeze.  Turrialba is high up enough in the mountains that you always see low hanging clouds in the horizon.  The air is cool and fresh and all around there is nice relaxing green.  The people of Costa Rica are a laid back people with a sunny disposition.  Most books I've read about Costa Rica point to a mostly egalitarian social structure and hence a lesser amount of economic disparity compared to it's central and south american neighbors.  Crime occurs but not at the rate of say, a Sao Paulo or Mexico City and it certainly feels that way.  No one seems to live an extravagent life, but everyone seems decently well off and "tourist beggers" - pandemic in most developing countries - are pretty much nonexistent.  But then again, I haven't been to too many places in Costa Rica.

I live with a host mother and father which the American students refer to as their "'Rican parents" as will I.  Their names are Carlos and Anna.  They wake me up at 7 am for a simple central american breakfast including cereals, eggs, pineapple and possibly the best coffee I've ever had in my life.  They speak no english whatsoever and hence are a blessing for someone like me who is looking to learn spanish.  I go to class for 8 hours a day by two cute Costa Rican 23 year olds who are mostly patient and are willing to go on interesting tangents about a number of topics.

Yesterday we had a discussion about how the citizens of the U.S.A. like to refer to one another as "Americans".  Personally, the two Costa Ricans considered themselves "American" as well as any of their friends who lived in South American.  They felt that the fact that we used the term "American" as a national identifier rather than a locational descriptor was a sign of U.S.A. arrogance.  I felt it had more to do with U.S.A laziness.  Shit man, we can be bothered to say the whole damn thing every time.

After 12:30 we pretty much have time to ourselves unless there is a planned activity.  The other day we went river rafting on a class 3 rapid.  Tomorrow we have a cooking class at a restaurant which would be taught in Spanish.  Considering that the other students are middle aged or children its mostly pedestrian activities but I haven't gotten too bored thus far.  Actually I can't complain. 

I get home around 7:30pm dead tired from using Spanish all day long.  I say hi to Carlos, and play with the super-cute dog they have Pusco and the two birds.  I go to sleep and do it all again the next day.  More updates to come...

Monday, January 14, 2008


My family used to live in Dallas before moving to NJ when I was 3 years old.  When we moved over from Japan everyone in my family cut their teeth on Big D, while I grew up to Bill Parcells, Phil Simms, LT and Otis Anderson.  This means that Dallas-Giants has been an inter-family rivalry for as long as I've been alive and it's always been 4 against 1.  The Emmitt Smith, Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin 90's were a very dark time for me.  Think about that.  Your mom, dad, brother and sister have been talking trash for 28 years.

This win is sugar at the bottom of your coffee sweet. 

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Costa Rica for 4 weeks

I will be flying out to Costa Rica in about 7 hours.  I'll be there for 4 weeks to study Spanish as well as enjoy one of the most pristine ecosystems in the world.  For the first two weeks I will be staying with a host family in a town called Turialba.  The next two, I'll be in a beach town called Dominical.  I'm going to try to update this blog during the next couple of weeks but considering that my only opportunity to do so will be at the odd internet cafe, I don't expect it to be easy.

Anyway, wish me luck.  Hopefully the diarrhea I am certain to contract won't be TOO explosive.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Who's the man?


Yes I made a plastic model.  No, I'm not ashamed.  Basically the Japanese version of the US Hummer.  Art.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Ban Babies from Planes

I know I've written about this before but I'm compelled to write about it again.  I think children under the age of 5 should be banned from long-haul airline flights.  In the case that a child absolutely must be transported this distance the baby should be put in a cage and transported along with the luggage.

This might seem like a crazy idea but hear me out.  You would not allow a person to bring a loud uncontrollable noise machine into an airplane cabin.  In essence this is what a baby is - a noise producing machine that has the added bonus of producing shit and piss.  Sometimes it is a necessity to bring your baby.  I agree.  The airlines and regulatory bodies have come up with a solution for pets that works pretty well.  Why not extend the same treatment to little children?

Here is my problem with babies on planes.

When I am on a 13 hour flight from New York to Tokyo and there is a baby who is ruining the peace and quiet of everyone in the plane I am a ball of resentment which gets bigger and bigger every time the it wakes me up bleary eyed throughout the flight.  I remember I was on a flight from Singapore to England and a little baby was sitting one row in front of me wailing away for at least 12 of 16 hours.  I am not proud of this but all I thought about during this flight was to take this precious little baby and bludgeon it to death. Seriously.  I wanted to take this child by the head and smash it repeatedly into a hard jagged rock until its skull cracked.

But, because I'm a nice guy (and there are no jagged rocks on an airplane) I sit there and accepted the fact that I will be stressed and exhausted for the entire flight as well as the next two days thereafter.  Of course, my anger is misplaced.  An airline flight is an extremely foreign environment for a baby.  It is a cramped space with wild fluctuations in cabin pressure.  Often it is bumpy because of turbulence.  The real assholes are the parents.

Why are parents subjecting their child to such an environment?  For that matter, why are they subjecting me to their child?  We live in an era of supreme bureaucracy and regulation.  There was once a time in airline travel when you could pull up to the curb of an airport, check your luggage, get into your plane, eat a meal and then relax with a cigarette.  No more. These days you basically have to undress yourself for the security and you can't even bring a bottle of water with you.  All the rules and regulations have made airline travel suck harder and blow bigger every year, year after year.

If I sound bitter, it's because I am.  I travel a lot.  I have taken a job where I will be on a plane at least twice a week.  Regulations and rules have made what was once a pleasant experience into monster sudoku.  For once, I would like to see a regulation put up that would actually improve my life. 

I have petitioned my Congressman to create legislation to ban babies from planes.  Realistically I don't think it'll ever happen.  The past century of legislation in America has been to make life easier for mothers and children.  This is because family-oriented pandering is like crack-cocaine on the campaign trail. 

People have told me that the nano-second my future wife passes a child through her vaginal canal I will see things differently.  I don't.  I hate babies on planes.  What's more, I am a considerate person.  I am terribly self-conscious of disturbing complete strangers.  I don't think having a baby somehow entitles me to be obnoxious and annoying.  That's the thing.  I get the feeling that parents who bring their children on planes feel entitled.  That pisses me off. 

Something needs to be done.  End babies on planes.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Couch Surfing

I've spent the last week or so couch surfing in Manhattan.  For those of you who are not familiar with the term - couch surfing - refers to the act of sleeping on a different friend's couch every night of the week.  I'm not one of those people who feel comfortable staying at a friend's apartment for too long.  One night is almost never a problem and it's something you can do on the spur of a moment.  Plus I like the idea of spending a night at a different person's house, so it works out.  I'm going to petition the IOC to make it an Olympic sport by 2012.

Couch surfing is something I do in cities that I've lived at before which I come back to visit and I still have lot of friends who stuck around.  That would include New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Tokyo, Fukuoka, Singapore, Baltimore, Washington D.C. 

As fun as it is there's a sad feeling associated with couch surfing.  You're in this town which you used to call home and you visit the home of all these friends who still call it home.  There is a feeling of nostalgia and sometimes there is this unbearable desire to get back the life that you used to have.

I am one of those people who has lived in New York City for 5 years and have never gone to the statue of liberty or skated in Rockefeller center.  I am also one of those people who when I go to another city don't have any particular desire to go to their touristic equivalents.  Mostly it's because I don't know how to appreciate shit.  This is absolutely true.  For example Jonathan drove me around Paris and showed me around.  Our conversation went something like this:

Jon:  "Ok ... so that's where the French national assembly meets.  I believe that building is over 500 years old.... Dude!  Are you even looking?"
Toshi:  "Yeah, yeah... that's great"
Jon:  "Ok... here is the Opera building.  The architecture is amazing right?"
Toshi:  "Dude, check out that girl!  She's hot!"
Jon:  "Uh... is there anything else you would like to see on your last day in Paris?"
Toshi:  "Let's go catch a movie.  I wonder if 'I am legend' is playing somewhere in English?"

And yet I love couch surfing when I visit a city.  I like the idea of witnessing the daily routine of a person who lives there.  Anyway, the great thing about going to a school as international as INSEAD is that whatever the city, whatever the country, chances are I'll know someone there.  There's definitely a chance you'll see me on the couch pretty soon.


For Geeks: All the emails in your Outlook in Gmail

For you geeks out there.  I successfully backed up all the INSEAD emails I accumulated over the year (all 4,406 of them) into my Gmail account.  Not only does it save me about 1 gig of space, but it makes all my emails Google Searchable too.  Instructions here from a very smart guy named Ben Shoemate

Not for the faint of heart ...

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Status Update - Back in New Jersey

Very few posts this past week due to traveling and limited connectivity.  My last week in France I chilled out and explored Paris.  I also caught a straight-NASTY cold which I still have.  Currently at my parent's place in New Jersey - a fact that they like to remind me every 10 minutes.  I spent last night mesmerized by the size-of-the-wall HD flat panel television they bought.  The 3D graphics and sounds from the opening sequence of SportsCenter HD drive me crazy with sensory overload.  Now I know how dogs feel when the fire bell goes off.

My tentative plans for the next month: 

January 13th - February 11th   - Costa Rica - Learn Spanish, Surf, Explore one of the most pristine eco-systems in the world
February 11th - February 18th   - Hawaii - Jerry's wedding

More posts to come.  In the meantime, for all you 1970's Bollywood Fans (I know you're out there) here's little something to get you going ...