Monday, February 15, 2010

Valentine's Day, Costa Rica!

(On our way to a recent Valentine's Day celebration.  Sometimes it just doesn't pay to dress for dinner.)

It was about as romantic a day as you could ever expect.  Yesterday was Valentine's Day, 2010, and my wife and I are in Costa Rica.  This is the only place I have ever been, other than my home in Ithaca, where I feel true homesickness when I am not here.  There is something special about the country that stays with you long after you leave, especially if you have experienced the richness that the place and the people have to offer.  Maybe there are dozens of other countries about which I could say the same if I knew them, but this is the place where I have a professional and a social history going back nearly 25 years.  I have memories of friends and family and habitats and organisms here that run wide and deep, and that is not easily duplicated in another place in a short lifetime.

In the morning, Robin and I met the guide from Southern Expeditions at Playa Pinuelas (pretend there is a squiggly accent over the "n", and pronounce accordingly) near Uvita.  We received our nautical instructions, along with four other couples, and we boarded the smallish skiff for our tour of Ballena Marine Park.  I awoke the night before almost regretting that I had agreed to this trip.  I am one of those who suffer from motion sickness; I don't have a pretty history of being on boats in the ocean.  Twice I went salmon fishing off the coast of Oregon years ago and I was the only one who got sick out of 20 passengers--both times.  I must be in the tail of the statistical distribution with respect to this particular affliction.  It is simply no fun vomiting for four hours in front of perfect strangers, and it is embarrassing.  I wanted to see this park, I needed to do it, I dreaded doing it, and I felt like a coward all at the same time.  It is like seeing a bare section of electrical cord leading from a wall outlet to your table lamp.  You just want to touch it to see if you get shocked.  And when you feel that ZAP!, you have your answer and you are good to go for another 20 years.

The skiff sped away from the beach and we headed for the open ocean to look for whales and dolphins.  I had tried medications before, and they never helped, so I didn't even bother this time.  I couldn't remember what the sailors advise to avoid sea sickness---watch the horizon, don't watch the horizon, focus on something in the boat rather than on the water.  I decided I would keep my eyes closed as much as I could.  With sunglasses on, no one would notice.  Even my wife, who was holding my hand, must have assumed that she and I were enjoying the same view of the ocean, and the sun, and the islands.  Wrong!  I wasn't seeing a thing.  From past experience, I would know soon enough if this was going to work, or if I was going to spoil the trip for that German couple who was sitting downwind of me.  Gott in Himmel, let this "eyes closed strategy" work.

I don't believe in the American god, but I guess the German god really exists, because an hour passed on the boat and I still felt fine.  I decided to open my eyes and look around.  Pretty nice.  We saw no marine mammals, but we did some snorkeling, looked at some sea caves, and learned something about coastal topography.  At the end, my wife was happy, I was happy, and the German couple sitting behind me was happier than they could have possibly realized.

But the creme de la creme was later that evening at the Villa Leonor, where I had made reservations for a Valentine's dinner.  The place is nothing fancy and, frankly, I wasn't expecting the evening to flip my wig.   The place is run by Cliff, an ex-pat from Colorado, and his tico wife Anna.  The original plan was for the guests to come at 5pm for drinks on the beach, and to watch the sunset.  Then, we would all retire to the open-air restaurant of theirs about 200 meters back from the beach for live music and dinner.  We had preordered our dinners the day before.  The formula was as romantic as one could construct on paper for this day of days for sweethearts.

But about an hour before we were to leave the house to go to the Villa, it started to rain, really, really hard.  It rained so hard that a large tree fell down near our house, knocking out the electricity for the next 12 hours.  But we had ordered our dinners already, and we thought we owed it to Cliff to show up for the food he had probably gotten in specially for this night.  We drove in a pounding rain to the place.  When we got to the parking lot, Cliff greeted us with an umbrella and escorted us into the bar area.  He obviously had to cancel the beach soiree (pretend there is an accent aigu over the first "e", and pronounce accordingly, but this is French, not Spanish, like the last word I provided instructions for).  Cliff brought us a complimentary cocktail, and we then realized that his electricity was also off.  About ten couples are coming for a rather elegant dinner on a special day and the guy has no electricity just as he is about to prepare a 3-course meal.

But Cliff is laughing and seems totally calm, and says something about making do when in Costa Rica, and my wife is trying to make him feel relaxed during a probable tense time like she usually does, which makes me feel less relaxed because her ruse is so obvious to me, because I have known her for so long and I have seen her do this a thousand times before.  Basically, Cliff's message was, "we have no electricity, so let's party".  Guests kept arriving, and we all sat around while it poured like the devil only a few feet away, and I could hear frogs calling in the rain under the eaves of the open structure with the thatched roof.  Candles were lit everywhere, and it was wonderful!  Cliff went around to each guest and asked them how they wanted their food cooked, not one person complained about anything, and the orders were sent to the kitchen.  Turns out they cook with gas, so the kitchen was lit up with flashlights and candles and they proceeded.

At about this point, a young man from San Isidro picked up his guitar and began to sing.  He continued for about two hours with a fantastic collection of old and new ballads, some in Spanish and some in English.  He was surprisingly good.  Our dinners came, the music continued, and about this time, the electricity came back on.  I realized that my first impulse was one of disappointment.  We were eating my candlelight before the power came back, not because we chose to attempt to strike a romantic mood, but because we had to eat by candlelight to see our food.  To me, that REALLY was romantic.  Cliff caught the change of mood immediately and turned off the incandescent lights that had just flickered on, and we continued almost seamlessly.

I don't consider myself a romantic, mushy kind of guy.  My wife says she would like me to be, but I doubt that really.  Last night's dinner was as romantic, in the fullest sense of the word, as it gets.  My wife did look fantastic, but it was so much more than that.  It was romantic because it could have turned completely sour if the attitudes in the room had been different, but they were not.  The ambiance was perfect, but not so much out of purposeful design, but because the guests and the restaurant staff went with the flow, improvised, laughed at the inconveniences, and were dissuaded from the idea that weather or power outages would keep us from enjoying the moment.  It was also romantic because Robin and I fully recognized the experience as yet another memorable Costa Rican evening that enfolded in a way not quite expected.  And OK, it was also romantic because we held hands for most of the night.  Some mush is allowed.


  1. Jeeze,I slog thru that and you still don't say if you got some.

  2. Wonderful story as usual, I imagine you have wonderful plans for this Valentines day also, if you do have fun, if you don't then join the rest of us who don't have any plans either! grandma sam

  3. Anon: I don't have sex any longer because of the motion sickness from which I suffer.

  4. Hopefully this year will be better :)

  5. Great story, Dr. Tom.
    Sounds like a great Valentines Day experience. What about 2011?

  6. Jason: for 2011, we are staying home, making dinner, and drinking martinis.