This Is Not a Postcard

Tales of 2 people on 3 continents

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Pop Math/ Pop Sociology

The emotional pull of Athens is inversely proportional to the cube of the distance you are away from it.

> Part One – First the bad news… a lost opportunity

I’m still in here in Costa Rica now.  Sonia went back to the U.S. four weeks ago to represent us at our friends’ wedding.  If you’d have asked me soon after we arrived at the beginning of October what I thought I might write in this post about Costa Rica just before going home, I would have said  “I’ll probably talk about sea turtle nests on the beach, or close encounters with sloths and monkeys, or amazing food,  or snorkeling over the beautiful coral reefs and hikes in the jungle, or maybe the nice couch-surfing hosts we would meet here.”   While I did see the sloths and monkeys up close, none of these other things happened.  It’s not because those other things aren’t here.  They probably are.

Playa Chiquita

I will tell you about what I did experience – a strangle little roadside community named Playa Chiquita.  It’s a stone’s throw from the Caribbean about a half an hour’s drive north of Panama.  A surprisingly large number of North American and European expats that I met there told me that they came for their retirement and now were in the process of building homes.  Most of the businesses (hotels, restaurants, etc.) appeared to be owned by Central or South Americans who were not from Costa Rica with just a handful of businesses owned by North Americans or Europeans.  Meanwhile, all of the native Costa Ricans were mostly behind the scenes cleaning the hotels, cooking the food, mowing the grass, etc.

In Playa Chiquita, there is a real siege mentality among the newly arrived expats settlers.  They talk anxiously about the latest crimes: break-ins, robberies, etc. the night before.  They share tips about how to burglar-proof your home, organize neighborhood watch patrols, and give out handy raffle prizes such as this one at the expat beach party:

Product "creates a force field" to protect your laptop from theft!

The non-native business owners in Playa Chiquita have been there longer – and maybe since they employ many of the “locals” they feel less threatened by crime.  I don’t know if that’s true.  However, everyone you talk to acknowledges that the newcomers are preyed upon by the locals .  The explanation for this behavior is usually summed up with one phrase “they’re looking for money for drugs”.

However, I never saw or felt threatened by the presence of “drugs” during my time here.  I was never robbed or my house burglarized.  Regardless, with all of these warnings weighing on my mind I found myself increasingly staying at the house,  rationalizing strange noises in the night,  and before long feeling stressed out just like all of the other expats.  As a result, I didn’t get to experience Costa Rica in the manner I had hoped.  I got to experience the inside of my house.

Tin cans + tripwire + large spider = burglar alarm

Why did this happen?  I thought about blaming Costa Rica for my lack of touristic fulfillment.  Was it like this everywhere in this part of the country?  Then I thought that maybe I was really to blame for not wanting to enjoy the visit enough.  It is true that I wanted to stay here mainly because we didn’t have a house to live in when we returned home and I thought that I could use the time here to put together a plan for life and work after a year travelling around the world.  But I did want to get out a little and experience the place.

Everything's beautiful in Coccles!

I recalled my visit to the nearby town of Coccles during my first week in Costa Rica.   Coccles is immediately next to Playa Chiquita – an easy walk about a mile away.  In Coccles there were just as many or more expats building their homes as in Playa Chiquita.  However, the feel of the place was completely different.  The expats actually knew their local neighbors by name.  They stopped to talk with each other on the street.  Families who had lived in Coccles for generations still lived there along with their relatives.     Most of the businesses were owned by native Costa Ricans.  There was still crime – but nowhere near the levels of Playa Chiquita.  The Coccles community felt so much more whole.

It was then that I recognized the essential difference between Playa Chiquita and Coccles.  In Playa Chiquita I observed an enthusiasm by the community for maintaining the segregation between their respective groups and the apathy within each group toward offenses/ crimes committed against the other groups.   Within the community of Coccles everyone had the sense that they were in the same group.  It didn’t matter where you were from or what you looked like.  Who should I blame for my miserable time in Playa Chiquita?  I believe that the community – or lack of community – is responsible.

From the many conversations that Sonia and I have had on this trip, she’s convinced me that when people lose their sense of community, the resilience of the community is weakened and members suffer.   I’ve heard it said before that “crime is a disease.”  Not surprisingly, weak communities are at greater risk of coming down with a bad case of crime.  Playa Chiquita is sick with crime.  While right next door, Coccles is healthy and looks to stay that way.  Drugs weren’t the difference – they’re an easily recognizable part of the background noise and odor everywhere in Costa Rica.   In Coccles the strength of the community was the difference.

> Part Two – Now the slightly better news… the things we saw outside of Playa Chiquita

I’ve now left Playa Chiquita and am staying in Coccles.  It is such a relief – I love it here.  I’m staying with a wonderful couple, Mary and Russ.  After a couple days with them I’ve managed to recover (nearly completely) from the stress of the previous few weeks.  I’m just now beginning to remember that Sonia and I did have some fun here together before she went back to the U.S.  Here are some of the highlights:

Three-toed sloths outside our hotel room!

Two-toed sloth at the animal rescue center!

Sleeping baby howler monkey!

Panama ahead, Costa Rica behind!

New friends Russ and Mary on boat ride to Panama!

Poison tree frog!

Ants drinking a spilled drop of orange juice!

Plumeria flower in yard!

Sonia on the beach!

James on the beach!

Grasshopper made from blades of grass!

> Part Three – Now the really good news… coming home to Athens

I’ll be flying back to the U.S. and then to Athens this Saturday.   I didn’t miss Athens all that much for most of this year.  But the closer we get, the more I miss it.  We were in so many different places and met so many wonderful people and their communities.   When asked whether I liked a particular place – I would try to recall the “feel” of the place.  I believe that  the warmness of this “feeling” depended mainly on my perceived strength of the community.   I have that warm feeling for Athens and that’s why I will be happy to be back.

The entire trip was not something that we planned very far in advance.  Sonia first proposed the idea last December – after I had already decided to leave my job.  We did not leave our jobs in order to travel.  Over the years I had often felt that if I ever reached the point in my professional career where I had exhausted all the reasonable options for interesting work in Athens – that then I would have no problem leaving.  Following my one and a half year stint commuting 70 miles to Columbus and back each day – I thought that my days in Athens were likely numbered.  It didn’t occur to me until very late in this trip that maybe Sonia knew that it was only by being away from Athens for so long that I would realize again what a special place it was.  Sonia’s never forgotten that.  I’m extremely grateful to her for helping me remember.

This post was supposed to be about my relationship with Costa Rica.  But I think it might actually be more about my relationship with Athens.   Athens, I’ll see you soon.


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Bangkok is full of liars and other Truths

One of the funny things that happens to your brain when you’re traveling is that it becomes receptive to Truths which clamor to be Declared:

  1. Bangkok Is Full of Liars.
  2. Visting the Killing Fields is a Gruesome and Strange Thing for a Tourist To Do.
  3. Dragonfruit Are As Beautiful Inside as Outside, But They Don’t Taste Like Anything.
  4. Cambodia Is Extraordinary, No Wonder Everyone Loves It Here.
  5. It Is Hard to Look at a Rural Landscape Here and Not Imagine Bombs Exploding Over It.
  6. Cambodian People Seem Amazingly Happy and Relaxed*
  7. Visiting With Friends (Or Friends-of-Friends) Really Enhances One’s Experience of a Place.
* Tuk Tuk drivers being the notable exception to this Truth.

In order for a statement to be a Truth, and not just true, it must conform to all of the following conditions:

  1. It was discovered/confirmed through first hand travel experience
  2. It enjoys wide agreement among all travelers “in the know”
  3. It has the capacity to spawn discussions on the statement’s deeper significance and/or its corollaries
  4. Voicing it out loud (particularly over a glass of wine) leads to a feeling of calm self-assurance, a self-assurance born from the knowledge that the world is both simple and complicated, and more importantly, that it is in fact knowable.
  5. You never tire of revisiting it
On Cambodia: It seems to both me and James that one of the reasons that this country is so appealing is that the experience of being a tourist here conforms to backpackers’ expectations of what Southeast Asia “should” be: steeped in traditional culture, primarily agriculture-based economies, relatively inexpensive, small-scale and unique accommodations, low tourist to local person ratio, outstanding food, untrammeled natural areas, happy faces.

Glorious ancient architecture might also be added to that list, though we have yet to travel to Angkor Wat, so I’ll get back to you on that.

Phnom Penh itself is a really accessible and lively city with delights at every corner. To wit:

Traditional handicraft demonstrations, including silk weaving

Traditional handicraft demonstrations, including silk weaving

Evening aerobics classes in the public parks, open to all

Evening aerobics classes in the public parks, open to all

Sampling herbs at the market with your cooking class teacher

Sampling herbs at the market with your cooking class teacher

Iced coffee and super fast internet at the Foreign Correspondents' Club

Iced coffee and super fast internet at the Foreign Correspondents Club

Nighttime DIY booze cruise on the Mekong

Nighttime DIY booze cruise on the Mekong

If you’re having trouble seeing these images in a larger format, just click on our “More Photos” link on the blog where they are all uploaded in full format glory.

It is Khmer New Year right now, so I will wish you all a happy new year! If you want to do it the Khmer way, then go douse someone you know in water and flour, then swing a big stick at a clay pot (see photo below).

Love to you all! Don’t forget to request postcards!

Sonia & James

p.s. I’ll tell you about the Bangkok liars when we go back to Bangkok. Bangkok is also full of wonderful people and things, hopefully that goes without saying.

p.p.s. In case you hadn’t already heard, our dog Annie is now residing in doggie heaven. Thank you for your condolences.

Sonia playing Khmer piñata, a new year's tradition in Cambodia

Sonia playing Khmer piñata, a new year's tradition in Cambodia

State of travel

The state of travel is not categorically different than the state of being at home. It is, rather, an exaggerated condition in which small movements become large ones.

I am reminded of the fact that we are constantly in a state of motion every time I take out our camera’s monopod to stabilize a shot. No matter how hard you try – how long you hold your breath, how firmly planted your feet are, the extent to which you brace your elbows against a solid surface – your body is always moving, if ever so slightly. Even when you’re sleeping you’re moving. For all the seconds, minutes, hours and days of your life, you move. It’s the surest sign you’re not dead, in fact.

When you travel, you deliberately amplify this movement. Instead of shaking yourself from one room to another in your house, you essentially shake yourself across the state, across the country, across the world. Shake hard and you end up in India.

This state of perpetual motion also applies to your mental condition. It’s not that we don’t meet new people or explore new places or consider new ideas at home. It’s just that the explorations may have a more intimate scope. They are generally presumed to be less risky because many of their basic parameters are either known or thought to be understood.

Are they?

When you encounter a person in Athens, Ohio (as opposed to, say, Kodaikanal India), you take certain things for granted about them. Ninety nine times out of a hundred, you share the same mother tongue; you can assume familiarity with many of the same places and people; you engage in similar customs (dress, food, pets). You may even participate in similar activities, like gardening. This person could even be a very close friend of yours, or a family member with whom you have a long shared history.

No matter how much you have in common, though, your relationship with that individual involves reaching across universes. Who among us has not found ourselves marveling over the communication chasms that can grow between people with so much shared experience and shared values? Similarly, who among us has not been amazed by the closeness and familiarity that can emerge in the company of a person we’ve just recently met?

Travel is not a temporary state of mind, or state of being. Travel is our only state.