Seasons Greetings 2015

 Famiy and Friends, Fun, Politics, Travel  Comments Off on Seasons Greetings 2015
Dec 172015
 

At a post-election party just after the November election Al was talking with Kelly Linville, the mayor of Bellingham. They were discussing the fate of our new jail after a funding plan to utilize sales tax was defeated by voters. At the end of the lively discussion the mayor said, “I don’t know you; what is your name?” Along with his name Al said he is married to Ruth Higgins. “I know about her,” said the mayor. This defines our 2015, a very political year.

Al, at 85, is slowing down; Ruth, only 77, is a dynamo. She is membership chair of the Whatcom County Democratic party who helped recruit precinct committee officers and organiz community teams to increase turnout. She made many phone calls (a computerized system makes possible as many as a hundred calls an hour). Al made a few phone calls, knocked on some doors and answered the phone for Ruth. Now she is part of a team organizing the presidential caucus for our area to early next March.

That post-electiSG '15 Winners' SignsSG'15 Mountain Cloudson party was at a “locker” in the Bellingham dock to celebrate the victory of Bobby Briscoe, a dark horse fishing boat captain who was elected port commissioner, an important office in coastal Whatcom County. Also at that party were two newly elected county council members. One is Todd Donovan, a political science teacher at Western Washington University who was quoted by Ruth Bader Ginsberg on voter district fairness in a recent Supreme County decision. The second is Satpal Sidu, the first Sikh to be elected to public office in the Washington State and he believes only the second in the U.S. We have known him since 2005 when we interviewed him for an article about Sikhs in Whatcom County. Then he was dean at Bellingham Technical College

When not politicking, we managed to escape twice this year. In the Spring we drove down the Oregon coast to California staying close to the water all the way. After a short stop in San Francisco we drove south to Big Sur and our beloved Deetjens. Then across the state to Reno where we stayed with Affordable Travel Club friends who we had yet to meet. In the Fall we made a shorter trip to the Olympic Peninsula, a remarkable place where we hiked through the mountains and river valleys. These trips refreshed us.
SG '15 Redheads on Feder

When we are at home we enjoy watching the wildlife that comes to our deck. And the tidal stream that flows past the deck is alive with migrating waterfowl. We continue to feel blessed to live in the Northwest, despite the fact that Birch Bay at this time of year is zinth. At the 49th parallel dark comes just after 4:00 p.m. Most of the neighboring houses are dark. A marvelous exception is the hoSG Neighbors Houseme across the road, where folks have beautiful lights. A lot of the residents go to Arizona and California for the winter. Those who usually come for weekends and summer vacations – mostly from Canada – stay home. But our cottage is warm and cozy – we very much enjoy being here all year.

Yes, we are making our annual pilgrimage to Ohio to be with Ruth’s son, Geord, and his wife Mary. They both have good jobs they like. She is a writer at Nationwide Insurance. He is the “Mac Man” on the computer help desk at Big Lots. Both companies are headquartered in Columbus. Mackenzie is at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington and just moved into a new apartment where she walks her dog past the neighbors at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Ryder is on an extended gap year from college in Chicago, working at Nordstrom, planning a return to higher education.

This has been more about our year than greeting you. We hope you have read this far and, like us, are looking forward to the New Year.

WOW! – it will be 2016.

With best wishes,

 

 

Holiday Greetings!

 Family and Friends, Travel  Comments Off on Holiday Greetings!
Dec 202014
 

Unlike last year when were celebrating victories by our four County Council candidates as well as our candidate for the U.S House of Representatives, this year we were demoralized when our three candidates for the state legislature lost despite our concerted efforts in door-belling, phone-calling, parades and festivals. Our only winner was our Congressional representative’s re-election.

HG 2014 - Ruth with horn web 2One positive aspect of this year’s politics was Ruth’s growing involvement in the Whatcom Democratic party. She organized a series of Progressive Forums where candidates presented themselves to voters and issues such as smaller class sizes and the legalization of commercial hemp were discussed. (We now blend hemp hearts from Manitoba into our morning smoothies.) We are both active with the Outreach Committee, walking in parades and staffing information booths. Ruth also serves as a recruiter and mobilizer of precinct committee officers with mixed results. Nonetheless she is looking forward to more responsibility in the future.

As a reward for what we had hoped to be an election victory, we scheduled a November bonus week in our timeshare at Fairmont Hot Springs located in the British Columbian Kooteneys. We had a long and hard journey there with rain and sleet and snow, reaching our destination after 10:00 p.m. Fortunately, the office was still open and a cheerful, efficient host greeted us warmly.HG13 Fairmont Mountains

The next morning we woke to a golf course blanketed with snow. The sun was shone on snow-topped rocky mountains. Magnificent! A  perfect contrast to Birch Bay.

Our first day we just nosed around. This was Monday, Armed Services Day, Canada’s Remembrance Day, and there were a lot of people in the misty pools, a mile up the road from our timeshare in a related resort. When we went up for our soak on Wednesday, the outside temperature was 3 degrees Fahrenheit. We changed into swim suits, suffered cold showers, and then walked down an outside boardwalk to the pools. When got out, Ruth’s towel was frozen stiff. Our soak was very much OK, but we decided once was enough. Happily, our timeshare complex had an indoor heated swimming pool and a small soaking tub just outside the door (also 3 degrees F.) However, we skipped the latter after the first dip, and enjoyed the jet tub in our unit.

On the way back we stopped in Cranbrook to visit with two of Ruth’s nieces and their families. Barbara has recently opened the Roadhouse Grill with her partner Tod and Sheila and family are in the modular home business. They advised us to drive home through Idaho. The highways were clear and bare but we didn’t want to wear ourselves out again, so we spent the night at a motel in Couer d’Alene, Idaho.

HG 14 - Totem at Masset House web2

This was our second holiday to British Columbia in 2014. In May we traveled through Prince George and Prince Rupert to Haida Gwaii, the aboriginal version of the Queen Charlotte Islands’ name. The journey to the island looks short on the map but winds and currents make it a seven hour crossing. We had to hang on to walls to get from one section of the ferry to another. While the northern end of the island has many Canadians of European descent, the southern end is entirely aboriginal. We had lunch with the Chief who made us vegetable soup (he operates a small restaurant.) He complained that native fishing rights were curtailed but was pleased to point out that roofs of all of the homes were replaced in a government program.

Geord (Ruth’s son) and his wife Mary, exercising their empty nest freedom, came for a week’s visit in October. A side trip to Vancouver Island squeezed in a visit with Sylvia (Geord’s step-mother) and other family and friends. Geord has just taken a new position in the IT department of Big Lots, and Mary celebrated her fourth anniversary with Nationwide; both companies are headquartered in Columbus. We’re looking forward to seeing them in their new condo over the holidays.

In July we encroached on the visit of Lucy and Gary’s third daughter, Sharon, and her family. There Al took a tumble and broke his collar bone, which healed well despite postponing treatment until after we spent a week on the Oregon Coast with our friends the Murphys. Ruth had San Francisco reunions with her Chinese Hospital Survivors Club and Broad Slice of White Bread writing group in March.

This year our combined ages equal 160 years. Over our Thanksgiving turkey and sweet potatoes we talked about the things for which we are grateful. We continue to enjoy the cottage that we renovated prior to occupying in 2003 and the beautiful community in which we live. We are particularly thankful for good health, satisfactory finances and our love for each other. With these thoughts, we hope you, too, are looking forward to the years ahead.HG14 - Sunset web2

The Wild Pacific Trail

 Environment, Miscellaneous, Travel  Comments Off on The Wild Pacific Trail
May 092014
 

Wild Pacific Trail 2b Wild Pacific Trail 4b“The earth is not inherited from our grandparents, it is borrowed from our children [and grandchildren]” – a quote (author unknown) defining why The Wild Pacific Trail is so impressive.

The Wild Pacific Trail is on the west coast of Vancouver Island. The three completed sections of the five section plan start with the Lighthouse Loop that surrounds the lighthouse in Ucluelet and travel north along the coast. See www.wildpacifictrail.com.

Photos were taken on my iPhone, with gratitude to Mark Turner, Bellingham photographer and Whatcom Community College instructor of a course on getting the most out of one’s iPhone, and with apologies to him for not applying everything I learned–www.turnerphotographics.com.    rah

 

 

Wild Pacific Trail signWild Pacific Trail 3

Wild Pacific Trail 1

Holiday Season Summary

 Birch Bay Issues, Food, Travel  Comments Off on Holiday Season Summary
Jan 192014
 
Thanksgiving - Flags at Lodge

Art installation at Thanksgiving Lodge

 

We had a new experience for Thanksgiving 2013, traveling to eastern Washington with our friends Roger and Naomi Murphy to join their group of extended family and friends. The Methow Valley log lodge and bunkhouse accommodated 16 adults and nine children (including a ten-week old baby) comfortably.

 

 

IMG_20131226_200919

Ryder, Mackenzie and Geord mugging at the Brazilian steakhouse

 We spent Christmas in Ohio with Ruth’s son, Geord, his wife Mary, their son Ryder and daughter Mackenzie, and Mary’s father. We flew Allegiant Air from Bellingham to Las Vegas, as explained in the previous post.  Taking Southwest Airlines to Columbus got us in late on the 23rd. The tree was already up and glowing, thanks to Mackenzie’s pleas. The custom had been to get the tree and decorate it Christmas Eve, but she wanted to enjoy it for a few days prior; such a wise young woman.

After a fine, food-filled visit including another new experience at a Brazilian steakhouse, we made our Southwest-Allegiant Las Vegas connection smoothly and were home the same day we departed Ohio.

 

New Year’s Eve in Birch Bay is marked by the Ring of Hope and Fire when people place flares, lights, and added this year–Chinese Lanterns. We had thought the latter were a great idea after seeing them last July 4th. However, after finding the remnant of one, our concerns for marine life hazard dampened our enthusiasm.

New Year’s Day 2014 Broom Hockey players

New Year’s Day celebrated the 32nd Annual Polar Bear Plunge, followed byBroom Hockey Scoreboard scaled the 2nd Annual International Broom Hockey Tournament in the Birch Bay WaterSlides parking lot. A lot of hilarity, some skill, and a VERY lopsided victory for the Canadians!  

We wish everyone a happy, healthy, vigorous 2014!

Vegas on the Cheap

 Miscellaneous, Travel  Comments Off on Vegas on the Cheap
Jan 072014
 

Most years since we came together we have flown at Christmas to visit Ruth’s son and his family in Bexley, adjacent to Columbus, Ohio.

Sometimes when we fly east we drive down to SeaTac. Often we can get an early, and cheaper, flight so we go down the night before and stay in a motel that provides free parking while we’re away. An alternative is to take the airport bus that now goes more often and more regularly.

More enjoyable – this is a holiday – is to fly from Bellingham on Allegiant that does not fly direct to Columbus. So we fly Allegiant to Las Vegas, then take Southwest to Columbus. This costs a little more than flying the whole way with Southwest (from Seattle) but we get a couple of days in Vegas with Casablanca Express providing a hotel room. Casablanca is a front for companies that sell time shares; we sit through sales presentations and hard sell for an hour and a half in return for two nights lodging. We’ve done this before, and we are confident that we can resist hard sellAirport Parking


This year we saved at a bit more by parking at the $2.00-a-day lot on I-5, just south of Ferndale. You have to balance the number of days you will be gone with the “cut-rate” taxi fee to get to the airport that is $15.00. This is two businesses with one owner. The taxis have been operating in Whatcom County for some time. All the vehicles are Lincoln Town Cars, all white. The owner buys used – there are no new ones – with low mileage as he can find. You pay in advance with a credit card for the parking and the driver at the time of your trip to the airport. The drivers could teach seminars on customer care – and earning tips.

 The day we were prepared to leave, December 20, was the day it snowed. Our flight was scheduled at 8 a.m. and we were told to be at the parking lot by 6 o’clock. Even though we were all packed the night before and got up before 4 a.m., we were late because of the snow. A little after 6 a.m., with us still on the highway, our driver called to ask where we were. When we reached the lot he had a space for us near the office, and quickly pulled his Lincoln up to load our bags.

 But through Check In and Security we soon learned that the airport was closed and what snow removable equipment was available needed repair. After boarding once and then disembarking, we were told that our plane couldn’t take off in slush. After the snow plows started working, all we could do was watch out the windows. About 3 o’clock we were told our flight was canceled. While our baggage was unloaded from the plane, we called the parking lot. Bags in hand we found our car waiting across the road, parked at the head of the taxi line. The driver – this time a woman – saw us and came to help with our bags. A little after 4 o’clock we were eating an early dinner at CJ’s Beach House Restaurant in Birch Bay. That evening an e-mail from Allegiant advised that our flight was re-scheduled for 12:30 p.m. the next day. Everything that day was routine.

Allegiant really understands Cheap. Everything costs extra, even water. But we weren’t complaining, although Ruth says she fears they will soon start charging for the air we breath. We were pleased to be able to buy a $14 round-trip bus ticket to our hotel on the plane In previous years we had paid much more for cabs.Binions in Dome sm

Casablanca put us in the Plaza, two relatively-new towers downtown. That is where Las Vegas began. The bus driver, whose patter suggested he was a moonlighting standup comedian, told us about Oscar Goodman, “the former mob lawyer,” who became mayor. After Oscar retired his wife of more that 50 years was elected mayor. Downtown is the focus of their passion. Fremont Street has been covered over with a dome where brilliant light shows are projected. There is no vehicle traffic and that first evening we walked the distance of about three blocks seeing open – and free – stage shows and a variety of individual buskers. One saxophone player used a variety of instruments from bass to alto. The whole scene made for one big party – and free!

A short distance from the end of the dome we found an Hennessey’s Irish pub. The house beer was Guiness, very Irish, tasting a little bitter. Yet a perfect match for Al’s Ahi Poke, made with raw tuna. Ruth enjoyed hers with Jameson’s short ribs. We stayed there for a trio that we had watched for an hour getting ready but left after the first set – too noisy (but then, all of Vegas is raucous).

Our first morning we had breakfast at the Plaza’s Hash House, too many carbs and too much money. (The second morning we went to a Mexican place in the Food Court where the food was OK and the cost economical.) We walked around the hotel looking for a comedy club. Only possibility was a pudgy guy who appeared only on weekends and whom the front desk wasn’t enthusiastic about. The casino was mostly slot machines. We didn’t touch a one during our stay, even though the hotel desk had given us both $100 chits on check in.

Now it was time for our session with Casablanca that was on the third floor of the hotel. On the way we sniffed at Oscar’s, the ex-mayor’s fancy restaurant on the second floor. Very high prices; we figured our budget could handle appetizers and a glass of wine or two.

Casablanca turned out to really be TLC, Timeshare Liquidators Company. We drew Thierry, a Frenchman who had visited his grandfather in San Diego 30 years ago and decided to stay for college. He was well dressed and well groomed and, of course sincere. Thierry (pronounced Terry) explained that many timeshares owners were forced to sell their properties when the real estate bubble burst. TLC’s business is taking those timeshares off the hands of banks. Each morning the Las Vegas office – there are nine others – gets a fax with the properties available that day. We liked Thierry and our resistance was working well until Mike showed up. We laughed, “Here comes the closer,” and assured Mike that Thierry was great for us. But Thierry was quick to beg off that Mike had an important role. And indeed he did.

When we went into that meeting we owned 6,000 time share credits, enough for a good holiday every year or so. Now we own 24,000 points attached to a complex in Olympic Valley, California, where the Winter Olympics were held near Tahoe 50-some years ago. We will never need to go there. We can chose destinations from the RCI directory that has locations around the world. We will spare you the details until we publish our article: “Why your retirement planning should include timeshares.”

Mike was irresistible, a smiling bundle of TLC. When we finished signing all the papers, Mike took us to a small machine with three knobs. “Punch them quickly,” he said. Out came a hundred dollar bill. It covered most of our tab at Oscar’s.

Altogether in our 43 hours in Las Vegas we spent $175.17 of our money including $3 for the hotel maid in addition to the two hundred dollar chits that we left for her by the TV

About how much we spent for more points with TLC, you need to wait for another article.

 

ak

 

Holiday Greetings

 Birch Bay Issues, Fun, Travel  Comments Off on Holiday Greetings
Dec 162013
 

Birdhouse in Snow - Reduced sm

Last year we were celebrating the President’s re-election and the victory of our candidate, Suzan DelBene, in a new 1st Congressional district. This year we are celebrating the victory of four progressive candidates to take back control of the Whatcom County Council.


Last year most of our effort was with an OFA (Organizing for America) state campaign; this year our work was with Whatcom County Democrats, participating in Outreach Committee activities by marching in parades and staffing booths.
 

Our team on parade sm.

 We also worked for voter approval of a levy to support the Northwest Park & Rec that had failed in two previous elections. This was partly the result of a well organized campaign and, more importantly,  programs that involved many participants in Zumba, basketball, yoga, and pickleball.

Ruth, new as a precinct committee officer, worked to find and organize other PCOs and interested progressives with a series of  “Tipple & Talk” events in our community. But Birch Bay failed to provide the winning votes. Progressives won in Bellingham, the liberal center, while losing in the smaller cities and rural areas of the county.

In February we enjoyed a winter vacation to the Pacific Coast of Mexico starting with Puerto Vallarta, which we had visited before.

Mermaid on Sea Horse sm

 Beach Scene sm

After a week there we went to a small, less-developed town up the coast, Sayulita. 

 

 

We settled into our beach-front bungalow and explored the town, then Ruth went swimming. Al, standing on the beach, admired how much she enjoyed the water, alternating swimming breast-strokes and back-strokes, but wondered why she was drifting further out. Then he saw a life guard rushing into the water and pulling her out. She was tended for her near-drowning by a vacationing Friday Harbor EMT. She continues to experience some post-traumatic anxiety, unable to enjoy high waves in Birch Bay, but is otherwise well and thankful.

Other trips included a short visit to San Francisco to celebrate Ruth’s birthday in March and to Tofino, B.C. to celebrate Al’s in April. Ruth ferried to Vancouver Island to visit her sister and bro-in-law and flew off to Ohio for a few days in August to check in with her son Geord, his wife Mary, and son Ryder (experiencing a Gap Year after his freshman stint at Columbia College in Chicago). Daughter Mackenzie (currently managing at the Olney Theatre Center in Maryland), was unable to join us.

During the summer wKite Makers sme worked as cadre in Chamber of Commerce events that included Sandcastle & Sculpture Contest, the Discovery Days parade and Ducky Derby Race. This year Ruth proposed a new event, a kite flying festival that was combined with skim boarding.  Heidi Holmes of Park and Rec found a father and son who taught kite building to 40 young people who went out on the beach and flew their custom-built kites. Gail Walker of Paddle and Pedal organized paddle boarding and beach games for what became the 1st International Sea and Sky Festival of Birch Bay.

One of the benefits of the Pacific Northwest is the abundant seafood. When we lived in California and again after we moved to Washington, we invested in CSAs, Community Supported Agriculture that provide weekly baskets of vegetables in return for money provided a the start of the season. This year we invested in a Community Supported Aquaculture program, the Drayton Harbor Community Oyster Farm.

 Baby Oysters at CSA farm sm

 For $100 we get 13 oysters a week for 13 weeks (restorationfund.org/projects/csf/draytonharbor). While the oyster beds in Drayton Harbor have existed for 40 years, Steve Seymour, a retired state wildlife employee, is expanding operations with the help of instructors and students at the Bellingham Technical College.Living Room Scene with Kids sm

This year we were invited to a special Thanksgiving with two extended families — 16 adults, 8 kids and a 10-week old baby. Location, log  lodge located in mountains above the Methow Valley, east of Winthrop.

Tuna Canning, best sm

Tuna canning has become a tradition after Thanksgiving. A veteran fisherman, Jeremy Brown, obtains a large amount of tuna — this year some 2,300 pounds — that he cuts into rounds suitable for trimming and canning. Al is a trimmer, Ruth fills jars. This year we worked four-hour shifts which entitled us to buy a case each, 12 containers for $60. We ration during the year for the very best salads.

 

A big adBat House smdition to our home this year was a bat house, the gift of Sylvia Douglas. Bat houses need to be at least 15 feet off the ground, which  we achieved with a long piece of PVC pipe. Despite our lack of engineering skills we were able to mount the house. In sSquirrel at Bird Feeder smtrong winds it  waves back and forth, but has stayed up. We have yet to see any sign of bats, but a squirrel did raid our bird feeder. 

                                                                                                               

We wish you all the best for this Season and a GREAT 2014.

                         – Al & Ruth

Holiday Greetings from Birch Bay

 Birch Bay Issues, Travel  Comments Off on Holiday Greetings from Birch Bay
Dec 202011
 

The time has come to tell you how and what we have been doing in the past year. While we want to be humble, we are enjoying our life very much these days, so please excuse it this reads as “all about us.” Continue reading »

We Went Whale Watching

 Environment, Travel  Comments Off on We Went Whale Watching
Sep 022011
 

Ruth’s work with volunteers atthe Birch Bay Chamber of Commerce Visitors’ Information Center earned us a certificate for a whale watching tour that we used last week. The San Juan Cruises boat is the one that previously made daily trips from the Fairhaven Cruise Terminal to Victoria, B.C. and back. When we took that trip a couple of years ago, we saw some whales on the homeward leg. This time we got to see two pods of resident Orcas.

It took two and a half hours to get to our destination, off the northern tip of San Juan Island. Captain Grant broke up the time by describing the history and features of the islands we passed. Abundant coffee, tea, soda, beer, wine and snacks kept everyone happy. When we found the whales, the captain identified the members of Pod K and L, giving their names, relationships, and ages. Some are very old; some were born this year.

Getting good pictures was difficult. One reason is that the whales are not publicity seekers. They make no effort to help picture-takers by coming to the surface consistently at the same points. Another reason is they don’t stay up long enough for photographers to focus.

Outside the cabin on a narrow walkway, we found a vantage point with a railing against which we were able to hold our cameras somewhat steady. We considered ourselves lucky to get this picture even though the focus is not sharp.

These tours are important business. There were three other tour boats in the area, a few fishing boats and several individual recreational ones. Captains of fishing boats radio to other boats – including tour boats – the location of the pods. Adult whales eat about 250 pounds of salmon per day and fishermen follow the whales to find the salmon.

After about 90 minutes of looking for and watching the whales, we had a two-hour break in Friday Harbor, which was crowded with tourists.

Meanwhile, the hard-working crew – one young man and two young women – were preparing food for the trip back. Being small eaters on a diet, we chose only salmon and salad. Others piled their plates high with rolls, rice, chicken and salmon. (What prompts people to select chicken rather than salmon?) Dessert, including brownies and cheesecake, came later.

We decided this was one of the best days we’ve had since moving here eight years ago. Well worth the $89 other people paid.

San Juan Cruises, Fairhaven Cruise Terminal. 1-800-443-4552

Whale watching trips are available daily until after Labor Day, then Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays until September 25, 2011. The season starts again in mid-May 2012.

 

ak & rah

 

2010 Olympic Shuttle Service – update

 Travel  Comments Off on 2010 Olympic Shuttle Service – update
Feb 152010
 

You can get there from here.

Birch Bay Square management, Bob’s Burger and Brew and the 2010 World Games Souvenirs and Museum have joined to offer shuttle service from the Square to the SkyTrain King George station, said Mike Harward, general manager of the Party Shuttle at the Square.

Vans take U.S. passengers to the border at the truck crossing, where they disembark for customs and immigration processing. They walk across the border to vans waiting on the B.C. side that drop passengers off at the King George station for SkyTrain with service to Vancouver. The trip from the Square to Vancouver takes a little over an hour, Harward said.

Currently, vans depart hourly from Birch Bay Square from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m., then every 2-3 hours or on request. Return runs depart from the SkyTrain station at 10 p.m., 12 a.m., 2 a.m., and 3:30 a.m.This schedule may expand if demand increases. Make reservations online at www.BirchBaySquare.com.

“Over the last three days, 45-50 passengers rode the shuttle,” said Harward on February 15.

The fare is $50 per person for the round trip, including secured parking in a lot west of the Jack in a Box restaurant. This space is outside the paved parking area of the Square.

                                                                                                Photo by Al Krause                                                          
Greg Murphy and partner work the 2010 World Games Souvenirs and Museum booth 
at Birch Bay’s Polar Bear Plunge, on a windy Jan. 1, 2010
  

Parking in the Square is intended for shoppers and will be closely monitored, said Greg Murphy, owner of 2010 World Games Souvenirs and Museum store in the Square.

For more information, call 360-303-9272 or check the Web site. Be sure to check before you go, as the details are frequently updated.

rah; edited 2/15/10

OUR THIRD WEEK

 Miscellaneous, Travel  Comments Off on OUR THIRD WEEK
Apr 182009
 

We were in Costa Rica for three weeks, the first two on an Overseas Adventure Tour (OAT) with our good friends Naomi and Roger Murphy and 10 other people. We are publishing the third week first for the benefit of our fellow OAT travelers. (Hand written notes indicate sequence of accommodations over the OAT tour; San Jose and Santa Ana are near the “Airport” label – click to enlarge).

San Jose and Santa Ana

March 8 – The rest of the tour group has left the hotel by the time we go to breakfast. Now we are five. Eleanor made her own flight arrangements and is flying directly to Newark. She will be home in Scarsdale this afternoon. Roger and Naomi are going to visit an ATC (Affordable Travel Club) member in the mountains near Lake Arenal and then going to Monte Verde. We are off to our interview at Hospital Clinica Biblica and then to our ATC hosts in Santa Ana before venturing down south.

Alberto, the hotel van driver, drops the Murphys off at the Coca Cola bus terminal. We want to walk to the hospital, but Alberto tells us we would be in danger of losing our cameras and our wallets. He takes us to Clinica Biblica, the largest of three private hospitals in the San Jose area. It is a complex of historical and modern buildings that covers most of two blocks. Founded in 1921 as part of the Latin American Mission, it is now active in medical tourism, the subject of our interest.Brad Cook is the head of the International Department; Bill Cook, his brother, is the international patient coordinator. They attract patients from many countries – particularly the U.S. and Canada – for reduced-cost, high quality treatment. Early on, face-lifts were popular; now there is a wide variety of procedures including joint replacements and prostate treatment. Recently added is bariatric surgery, originally designed for weight loss, but found to result in lower blood sugar levels for Type 2 diabetics.

The hospital was the first in Costa Rica to win accreditation from Joint Commission International, which is associated with the Joint Commission on the Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO) that evaluates hospitals in the U.S. (Ruth coordinated JC surveys during her career in hospital administration.)

A network of medical tourism facilitators (akin to travel agents) in the U.S. arranges for patients to go to other countries for hospital treatment and recovery facilities. India, Thailand, and Mexico are other potential destinations, but Costa Rica boasts the best level of quality, falling one slot higher than the U.S. in the World Health Organization’s ranking of healthcare performance of their member countries.

Quality of care, proximity to the U.S., stable society and natural beauty of Costa Rica are advantages of Clinical Biblica touted by the Cook brothers. Both of the Cooks, sons of missionaries, were born in this hospital, raised in Costa Rica, attended college in the States and returned to Costa Rica. Both are married to Ticos (Costa Ricans) and speak mostly English with their children and Spanish with their wives. Bill, an amateur archeologist, spends his vacations on digs in Israel. Brad and his wife go to Houston where Argentine cousins have settled – his mother was from Argentina. “My wife,” Brad explains, “fits right in with their music and boisterous conversations.”

After a tour of the hospital, which is continually being upgraded with state-of-the-art medical equipment, inviting public food services and wi-fi connectability, we meet an American who is being discharged this Thursday afternoon.

Day before yesterday, Andrew L. had a hip replacement. His wife stays with him in his room (companions are encouraged). At night, an attendant makes up the futon into a full-sized bed for her.In 2001, Andrew had a major operation at Massachusetts General Hospital, removing and reconstructing half his pelvis. This surgery is a consequence of complications of that one. Although he and his wife now live in Costa Rica, they chose the medical tourism route for the transport and coordination services. His doctor is a “miracle worker” and the staff has “no complacency whatsoever,” says Andrew.

After two and a half hours at the hospital, we walk 10 blocks through the scuffy midtown past a photogenic church to Central Park near the National Theater and the Gran Hotel Costa Rica.

We sit on the hotel’s outside terrace, browsing copies of today’s New York Times and the Miami Herald. These are transmitted by some type of facsimile – perhaps e-mail – then reproduced and bound in tabloid size. Together they cost $17, a lot to pay anywhere but we are “international writers of medical tourism.” Then comes a good bottle of wine and the “surf and turf for two.”

Alberto said he would meet us in front of the theater at 4 o’clock. “Keep your straw hats on,” he said, “I won’t have trouble finding you.” He pulls up in front of us at 3:59 p.m.

Back at the La Condesa, we have two hours to spare before going to our ATC hosts. We had told them that we would arrive between six and eight o’clock (guests are encouraged to vacate premises during the day). We ask the Condesa reception clerk to call us a taxi and inquire what a fair fare should be. “Don’t worry, he works for us,” is the answer.

A little brown car (not the regulation red taxi) arrives with a strippling youth at the wheel and we embark on a wild ride around hesitating cars, through narrow alleys, over green hills and across wide valleys. Our driver takes many cell phone calls, some with a musical tone, others in Morse code: ditty dum dum ditty. Al, who hasn’t read code since leaving the Army Security Agency in 1955, recognizes SOS. Whoever that is seems to be in a lot of distress.

When we all realize we are lost, our driver refers once again to our hosts’ email directions in English and Spanish. He calls their number and gets further instructions. He needs to turn around with lines of cars rushing in both directions. Just as he’s about to poke into the oncoming lights, comes ditty dum dum ditty. He picks up the cell with his right hand and makes the turn by spinning the wheel with his left. Overshooting the address again by a block or so, he makes another high-traffic u-turn. Not until he stops at the heavy, polished wooden gate of the destination condo are we able to breathe normally.

Host Bill Vorih meets us at the door of his building and haggles with the driver over the fare, settlling at $30, saving us a few thousand colones (exchange rate is about 560 colones to the US dollar). We know Bill and his wife Cindy only from e-mails exchanged before we left home.We often quote an ATC member from Florida who says, “Tonight I am staying with friends I haven’t met yet.” Our new friends, the Vorihs, have been ATC members since 2004.
Started by a couple in Gig Harbor, Wash., ATC lists members throughout the world. We pay $60-70 a year depending on the directory format. A single guest donates $15 per night, $20 for couples. Some hosts add an additional $10 gratuity. Hosts provide a bed, breakfast and an hour of their time to explain their community, provide directions, and discuss other tidbits about the locale.

The Vorihs, who have lived in Costa Rica for 16 years, are very proud and appreciative of the country and the people. Their home, high in the hills, is in a complex that includes 16 condos. Theirs has 2700 square feet, three bedrooms, a large living room, three bathrooms and other rooms including an expansive kitchen. A second refrigerator houses a keg of Bill’s home-brewed beer and Cindy has two stoves for use in teaching a monthly cooking class for as many as 30 people.

Their hospitality starts at the door and continues over our two days at this end. We will return for our last day in Costa Rica. After a leisurely breakfast on Friday, Cindy points out the features in the view below, including a large business center and the airport in the distance.

The Vorihs offer to drop us at the shopping center on their way out to lunch with friends, saying that the narrow, deep ditched roads are not safe for us to walk.

The two-story covered shopping center is very chic, with elegant window displays in upscale shops – many with familiar names such as Guest and Nike.

Al gets a haircut and beard trim from a young woman who knows no English, but the man working next to her does. Al holds up two finders pointing to his head and three fingers to his beard and they understand that he means clipper blades. All goes well until she wants to trim his eyebrows. Al wants his to grow like Andy Rooney’s.

Next on the agenda is lunch. On the lower floor is a food court with representatives of most of the world’s fast-food purveyors. We are thinking Mongolian barbecue until we realize that all of the seats are taken. On the upper floor are sit-down places. We pick out one for fish and chips and wine. It is well situated for intense people-watching. Most of the people coming and going are young and well dressed.

One young woman walking with two young men has on a yellow vest and yellow shoes that demand Al’s camera. He asks her permission and she reluctantly agrees to a picture. But when Al returns to the table, he sees that the shoes are cut out of the picture. He runs down the mall, catching up to explain the need for a retake.

A regulation red taxi takes us back to the condo in a sedate, efficient style in sharp contrast to yesterday’s trip. After a good visit with our hosts, who arrange for an early morning taxi to take us on our next phase, Cyndy packs a brown bag breakfast for us.

We’re up at 3:30 a.m., tip-toeing around, but Bill is up to wish us well on our way.


Golfo Dulce

Our taxi is early and we arrive at the low white building some distance away from the international terminal with time to spare. The café isn’t open, but we have our bag breakfast. Eventually, we check in and are led to a flock of little white planes parked in rows on the tarmac. We crawl on-board, crabbing our way along the narrow, low-ceilinged aisle to one of the double seats on the right side. The left side has single seats contributing to the 12-passenger capacity.

Our co-pilot straps us into our seats with belts tight across our chests and laps. Two other passengers share our craft. The pilot guns the engine long and hard before starting up the runway. It feels shaky but we make it up over the mountain past the Vorih’s condo. We see water and a lot of forest without evidence of any human life. Less than an hour later the plane swoops down onto the Golfito airport. We are on the ground only minutes before another Sansa plane lands and ours takes off.We resist the cajoling of taxi drivers and, pulling our wheeled backpacks, start down to the road. Soon we realize we see no sign of the promised town and have no idea which direction to walk. A dusty red taxi comes along and we accept the ride. We stop first at the bank, on advice that this will be our last chance for an ATM in this area. Then, we ask the taxi driver to take us to Buenos Dias restaurant, which Lonely Planet says is a “cheerful spot”. And indeed, it is. The manager speaks passable English and the waitress tries hard. A couple of Gringo customers advise us that the manager will be happy to store our bags while we venture out.

We want to visit the Paradise Tropical Garden, which is near Rio Claro, a bus ride away. We explore just a little and find the dock where later we will get the water taxi to Zancudo. We learn that our bus travels south on the waterside of the only road and stops near the dock. Boarding the bus, we see no fare box, so we sit in one of several available seats. A “conductor” collects fares and attempts to help us figure out where to get off. He and many passengers – none of whom speak English – assist us in staying on the bus until the right stop, which is at the juncture of the Pan American Highway. Another red taxi driver knows where to take us, which is fortunate, because no signs appear to point the way.

At the entrance to the Paradise Tropical Garden, the legendary proprietor, Robert Beatham, meets us. He has not been back to Maine since 1985, yet he remains the quintessential independent “down Easterner.” Originally a maintenance engineer with United Fruit, he stayed after the company closed its Costa Rican operations. On a cruise, the woman who cut his hair later became his wife. Her death a few years ago has left a painful void in his life.

Robert takes us to a group of picnic tables, covered to protect from the sun. On one table is arranged a display of plants with descriptions of their medical properties. On this Saturday, about 30 kids and their teachers are exploring and waiting for explanations by Robert. His middle-aged son – one of four adopted sons – and the son’s wife are cooking a meal for the visitors in an outdoor kitchen. Robert leaves his young visitors to escort us around his garden. His first demonstration is to take off his straw hat and show us how he is treating a pre-cancerous sore with “black salve.” He tells us that in about two weeks the tumor, about the size of a thumbnail, will pop out and he will bath the spot with hydrogen peroxide.

We are most interested in Wandering Jew, as we have heard of its use to control blood sugar. Robert tells of a lodger in his wife’s boarding house, a salesman connected to the Duty Free zone, would put his insulin in her refrigerator. One trip, she found a bag of dark red leaves in place of the insulin. The salesman was putting a leaf in his morning tea or chewing a leaf three times a day to control his blood sugar.

We admire the large bush with burgundy colored leaves, which Robert tells us is Commelinaceae Tradescantia zebrina. He labels all the plants in Spanish, English and Latin. Back home, the owner of one of our favorite nurseries said she often carries Wandering Jew. ‘It is an old-fashioned house plant,” she said, “but it doesn’t thrive outdoors in this climate.”

Robert asks one of his helpers to harvest a coconut palm for us. Wielding a 15 foot to 20 foot pruning tool, he clips off one of the multifruited clusters and it drops to the ground at our feet. Then we start our tour with Robert’s brief descriptions of dozens of medicinal plants on the 50-hectare garden.Returning to the tables, we find the children and their teachers, finished with their meals, drawing, writing and playing games while waiting for Robert’s talk. He lets them wait a little longer while he drives us in his truck back to the junction. As we start to leave, a handsome little girl runs up to the truck to give him a message. He says she is five, was abused by her parents and taken away from them by government authorities. Now, at 85, he is planning to adopt her as his fifth child.

We ask a taxi driver about his fare to Golfito. Robert said it should be about 1000 colones; but this driver wants 10,000. No, gracias, we’ll wait for the bus. When it arrives just minutes later, we get our trip for 500 colones each.

The manager and waitress at Buenos Dias greet us like old friends. We order chicken salad for lunch while the manager calls the Los Cocos water taxi for us. Our trip to Zancudo was scheduled for 3 o’clock and it is just past noon. We can have a 1:30 p.m. pickup. “Look for the red Los Cocos boat,” we’re told.

At the muellecito (dock), a handsome young Tico with curly black hair starts talking to us. When we shy away, he says he is not about to scam us; he just wants to practice his English. He tells us he is caretaker at a home on a beach, reached only by boat. A young woman from the U.S. owns the place. Her grandfather left her with a monthly “pension” and her mother gave her the money to buy the home. “And I sleep with the owner,” our new friend says slyly.

Our Los Cocos captain, a young Robert, maneuvers through the anchored boats to the beach and helps us aboard. He zips the low outboard down the bay to a river surrounded by mangroves.

Zancudo is on a long narrow isthmus, with the Golfo Dulce on one side and rivers on the other. Traveling from Golfito by land requires a four-wheel drive vehicle and three hours time. By boat, it is a half hour and $60.

From the Zancudo dock, Robert leads us to a clearing, saying, “Susan will come.” Soon Susan does come in a four-passenger Toyota pickup. She is a handsome, well-tanned woman who first came to Costa Rica in 1977. She goes to the States only occasionally to visit her father in Boston and a sister in Utah. Yes, she knows OAT. She and her sister had taken their father on an OAT trip several years ago. “With the tour organized, we eliminated the power plays that make for bad situations,” she says.

Susan and her husband, Andrew, operate Los Cocos that includes a rental houses and cottages in additions to tours. They are next door to Sol Y Mar, where we have reservations. That open-air bar and restaurant is the community center for some 40 Gringo couples who live on Zancudo part of the year. Owners Rick and Lori also have a five cabinas, with rates $15 to $35 a night less than Los Cocos.The bar and restaurant strikes visitors as the perfect paradise business. In our brief experience the place is filled every afternoon and evening. They are open every day of the year, but Rick and Lori are there only in the high season from November to March. In the photo above, Karla is standing second from the left with Rick, seated, his back to us, without a shirt. She and Willie are the relief managers. Every spring, Lori, goes to Thailand to buy clothing that she and her sister sell at fairs in California during the summer. Their base is Chico, California where Rick studied forestry at the university. Before Thailand this year Rick and Lori are going to London and Ethiopia that they hope will be less crowded than Egypt last year. We walk on the beach, drink beers with shrimp cocktail snacks and, feeling the effects of our 3:30 a.m. wake-up call, go to bed.

The next morning, Sunday, Rick tells us about the regularly scheduled afternoon horseshoe tournament. We are there early with our cameras. It is like the NFL – the players take turns warming up. The contest goes on far into the evening with the well-lighted pits.

Monday morning, per arrangement, Susan comes to take us kayaking. The tide is ebbing, making the dock ramp down to the water steep. After Al and Ruth struggle to get one kayak in the water, an angler comes by, picks up the remaining kayak and walks it down the dock. These are single sit-on-tops. We’re used to a double ocean kayak where we sit in a cockpit and we can spell each other off during long stretches. We also miss life vests and mooring ropes, but, it was a nice day, paddling is our favorite sport, and Susan is charging us only $5 an hour. With a laminated map, she explains a route – out around a sand bar and into the river where we will see abundant birds and maybe monkeys.

The short of it is we don’t get around the bar. Al finds he is stuck and the tide is still running out. (This is not the first time. See Ruth’s article, “A Day in the Mud,” at www.prudentventures.com) “Sand bar” sounds nice, like on the beach. This is a MUD bar. Ruth has no rope to throw to tow Al off. He realizes he is firmly stuck and his best hope is get out of the kayak and push off, but his feet get stuck and he recognizes that his new water sandals are being sucked off and these are the only shoes he brought, so he tries not putting weight on his feet, which helps a little but he is running out of energy until he leans on the edge of the kayak, making it a little easier for his feet to come free without losing the sandals; finally he pushes the kayak into deeper water and with a burst of new energy is able to slither back into the kayak.

By the time we make it to the dock Andrew, Susan’s husband, is there. He helps us to his truck. We are relieved to be in his hands. He tells us he and a Los Cocos tour group passed in their boat and watched us laboring. He asks, “Did you know there was a crocodile between you and the shore?’ Wonderful!

In the bar at Sol Y Mar, Andrew is a joker, but on Zancudo’s only road he calls out or hits his horn for everyone we pass. Most wave or call back. One girl, running across the road and into her property doesn’t look back, but does a dance, waving her hands above her head.

Andrew says he knows Robert Beatham. “Is he a seer or a nut?” we ask. Andrew says that Robert is a “serious person” who knows a great deal about plant cures. “But,” he explains,”now only older people are interested in what Bob knows. With government funded health care, it is easier to go to the hospital pharmacy and get pills.”

As non-citizens Andrew and Susan are ineligible in the government health plan; they pay $1,500 a year for private coverage and get their care at Clinica Biblica. Andrew tells us how, when he blew out his back, he was flown to San Jose and the hospital on a stretcher. Soon, he said, he was back home whole, and his private plan covered everything, including transportation.

Andrew delivers us to Sol y Mar, where we find only a trickle of water in the shower, so we de-mud at the outdoor faucet. Electric power is out, affecting the pump and all other electrical equipment. The staff struggles to find something for lunch.

We walk the shaded path over to Los Cocos to ask Susan about a tour of the Osa Peninsula, said to be the most beautiful and unspoiled jungle in Costa Rica and home to the most renowned (and expensive) eco resorts. She schedules Robert to take us in the boat to Puerto Jimenez, where we will meet a taxi driver who will show us around.

“Does he speak English?” we ask. “No, if he spoke English, he wouldn’t be a taxi driver, he’d be a guide and earn more,” Susan says. As it is, we are spending $60 for the boat trip each way and $80 for four hours in the taxi.
Dennis, the taxi driver, waits at the dock to help us off the boat. He has a shining red four-wheel-drive Toyota. First, in perfectly acceptable English, he gives us a tour of the dusty town, the gateway to the Osa, with a paved airstrip in addition to the dock. He points out a few simple hotels and restaurants.

But what he’s proudest of is a flock of scarlet macaws. One perches at the top of a tree in the sun to provide the best picture of our three weeks in Costa Rica. On the way out of town, he stops to show us a family of monkeys.

The road through the jungle is bumpy. A Gringo woman on a motor bike stops to share a few words with Dennis. She is Nico Fischer from our first eco-resort, Ojo del Mar, and author of “Living in the Jungle – A Handbook for Sustainable Living on the Osa Peninsula, in the Golfo Dulce Area and for Anywhere Else you Care.”

Ojo del Mar is a small lodge, featuring the beautiful woods of Costa Rica. A young woman meets us and offers a cup of good Costa Rican coffee. Emily Carson is from Vermont where she went to college and worked at a coffee shop whose proprietor knows the Ojo owners. She tells us that Mark Heubner, the German co-owner, designed and built the “main house” without use of power tools.

Touring the lush grounds, we ask about the yoga platform. She says she doesn’t know much about the yoga because she is cooking breakfast at that time.

Ojo del Mar is certified in the nation’s sustainability program. Solar power provides electricity in the main house.

Standard rooms are $55 to $90 per night including breakfasts. Dinners are available for less that $20. Meals are communal and offer organic produce, mostly vegetarian, but some chicken and local fish are available.

As we continue on our tour, the road gets rougher. Several times, we forge streams with no bridges. There are 14 such river crossings, which can be difficult to impossible in the wet season, Dennis tells us.

Our second stop is at Encanta La Vita (Enchanted Life), developed by a surfer from Santa Barbara. Brian Dailey tells us he built this beautiful house first for himself, then other buildings and soon he had a lodge, and his enchanted life. He is proudest of the pool. This resort isn’t listed in The Lonely Planet nor in the country’s sustainability program (www.turismo-sostenible.co.cr/).

However, Brian says, “We value the wonders of the jungle and the Costa Rican culture. That’s why we’re here.” Rates per person per night range from $85 to $175, including three meals a day.

Our third stop is at Lapa Rios, the most renowned ecolodge in the area, which has earned five Certified Sustainability levels. Sixteen “spacious” thatched bungalows dot the 400-hectare “reserve.” The rate for a single, including all meals, is $350 in Green (wet) season and $460 in High (dry) season. Karen and John Lewis from Minneapolis built Lapa Rios, and have signed the property over to the Nature Conservancy for preservation. Here, as at the other lodges, Dennis is greeted as a friend more than just a driver who transports customers to them. The front desk receptionist, Eusebio Martinez, takes Ruth on a tour that starts with a climb up the spiral staircase to a platform overlooking the treetops to the beach and water and ends at the fresh salt-water pool.

That evening back at Sol Y Mar, regulars at the bar ask us how we enjoyed the afternoon on Osa – information travels fast in Zancudo.

The next day, our last, we take a long walk on the beach, celebrating that we are going to another beach where the waves are just as beautiful. We peer through the trees to look at houses. Most are simple; however, we find one palace that looks like a page from Architectural Digest. As we’re packing to leave, our cabin shakes. We know EARTH QUAKE! At the restaurant, the TV is tuned to a news broadcast reporting the six plus temblor was centered in the middle of Golfo Dulce.

The boat trip back to Golfito and the plane ride – six passengers this time – to San Jose are uneventful. The Murphys greet us at the Vorihs’ condo. We hug as if we had been away six months.

The Vorihs invite us to share their “boca” (cocktail party), welcoming friends from the States. A blazing sunset floods through the wall of windows as we say farewell to our Costa Rican adventure.