Friday, July 24, 2015

Pura Vida - Costa Rica Honeymoon

One of our first proud savvy-traveler decisions was to rent a car our second day in Costa Rica. She waited for us patiently in the garage of the run down car rental in downtown San Jose as a tired agent recited the well-worn facts about the famous beaches or lush rain forests in his country that he had never been to. She was a gleaming white automatic, nicer than either of us were accustomed to driving, one that promised adventure and freedom. A terrible decision considering the rocky gravel paths awaiting us and the supposedly shady insurance charges that many online reviews warned about. But in the afterglow of our recent wedding, it seemed the only logical choice for our honeymoon, a beginning to all cliched and yet much anticipated beginnings, a gap in between wrapping up our stressful job/ school and packing up our lives to move across America to adulthood.

After navigating the crooked alleyways, chaotic highways and dim neighborhoods of San Jose for beef empanadas and fresh hot churros drizzled with dark chocolate and condensed milk, we set off for the famed Pacific coasts of Guanacaste. We whizzed along the highway, singing along the random fragments of latino radio songs I memorized in my brief college flirtation with Spanish, while google translating the road signs (Oh, that meant that the lane will merge and disappear - Yeah, I figured! Austin retorted as he slammed on the brakes to allow two cars into his diminishing lane). We munched on the endless supply of energy bars, gifts from winking bridesmaids meant to refuel us for more bedroom stints, and marveled at the lush greenery that surrounded us. Costa Rican highways seemed to be hacked from the jungle, tickling the underbelly of the all-encompasing rainforest. We couldn't help but imagine a pedestrian dinosaur crossing, casually tossing an unfortunate car out of its way. Incidentally, Costa Rica was actually the backdrop of the Jurassic Park series, but none of the scenes were filmed here because Steven Spielberg thought the roads were too unpredictable - a big pity since if he came, he would realize that unlike how it was portrayed in Jurassic Park, Costa Rica was not an island and San Jose was not a dusty beach town.

Anyhow, Hollywood facts aside, the drive revealed an ordinary slice of Costa Rica, served without any glamorization or top 10 must see!  exclamations. Villages sprang up all along the lip of the crooked highway but did not venture very deep into the jungle. Kids crossed the two lane highway toting their school bags in between the whizzing cars. Cows grazed nonchalantly in the noon day sun, always just a fragile fence away from the traffic. The sodas, rickety local diners, served hot fried chicken that would rival any Southern state in America.

One of the many fantastic sodas (local diners)

Standards of beauty

After five hours, we pulled into the beach town Tamarindo. Stoned surfers gave us the nod, welcoming us to the place that best embodied pura vida, literally translated as pure life, or the Costa Rican version of Hakuna Matata. We saw backpackers who were lulled into staying here for a whole month, just waiting to shred the next wave. We heard of Americans who quit their jobs and moved to Costa Rica after swimming in the turquoise waters of Playa Conchal, where ivory sea shells carpeted the ocean floor.

We were also drunk on the honeymoon high. We kayaked and snorkeled, holding hands under water as we chased rainbow fish around the corals. We took surfing lessons and kept congratulating each other even though I was pretty terrible on the board. We beach hopped after lazy afternoon naps, driving to whichever beach sounded fancier. And for a while, I was even tempted to persuade Austin that we should just abandon our plans and stay. Open a hostel. Learn Spanish. Surf every day.

But after a week or so, we started to tire. Sand spilled everywhere. We averaged three showers a day and still got our beds all sandy. Paradise was surprisingly claustrophobic too. We walked the entire town every times on some night and could probably write a restaurant review by the end. Everybody was frenetically trying to relax, booking endless tours by day and bouncing to different clubs by night. People were too loud and predictable at happy hour. Pura vida just seemed so . . . commercial.

On our last day, we rented stand up paddle boards and paddled out to sea. We floated aimlessly around and watched the seagulls land their catch. We talked about everything and nothing, our thoughts blending with the rhythm of the water. All of a sudden, Austin looked behind me and yelled for me to jump because of the big wave that was about to crash on us. I whelped and plopped into the water. But there was no wave, just a laughing husband. I climbed back on, swearing revenge.  Then he shushed me and gestured at the setting sun and its soft plumes of blush and purple. We sat in comfortable silence, watching the dimming light, soothed by the gentle tug of the waves while we got washed back to shore.

As we pulled our heavy board across the beach, I wondered if maybe this was what pura vida really was. Just a simple awe at the natural wonder around us. Just breathing that in and knowing you were in the presence of something divine.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

#Driving Fears

Two months ago, Austin joked about how it would be so great if I could get my driver's license before we got married. 

Yeah. I know. I was 25 and I didn't know how to drive. I had always been afraid of the road and there had always been a boy(friend) with a car. 

In the heat of over-optimism and an eagerness to be the perfect fiance, I signed up for a driving class. The online one. 

Sometimes when I was staring at the computer screen, trying to memorize how many feet of distance you're supposed to leave when parking away from the fire hydrant (15!), I felt my heart beating down on my ribs, demanding to be let out. 

What if I remembered all the facts and passed my online test? 

Then I would actually be on the road. 

The big day came. Austin randomly pulled into a church parking lot after errands one day and waved the keys in my face with a large grin. Your turn, babe. 

I swallowed and managed my sweetest smile. Why don't we do something else? Like catch a movie? Go grab drive through? Make out? No go. I dragged my feet over to the left side of the car. Austin explained the mechanics of the stick shift in way too logical terms while I anxiously scanned the parking lot for stray dogs. Ok go. 

Clutch. Gas. Clutch. Desperate brake. I cried the first four times I was behind the wheel. Story of our drives.

Anyhow, Austin kept asking me what I was so scared of. So I finally made him a list:

Random dead body in my trunk. 
It happens.

Proving the Asian female stereotype true.
I asked my driving instructor whether this was true or not -
his hilarious answer is for the next blog post. 

Oh dear. There's a deer so near.

The stick snaps.

Run out of gas in the middle of the desert.
And water.

Broken brakes.
During a classic car chase scene.

Jack falls on me when changing tires.
After all, Jack did fall down the hill. 
And he dragged Jill with him.

The text that got me in an accident was a lame one.
Sometime like "hey sorry. Can't text. Driving now"

My fiance would reconsider us when he sees me drive.
Others warned us not to risk our relationship on 
having Austin teach me how to drive.
We should have listened. 

Ultimately, I am just afraid that I will hit somebody and kill them. On a Christmas eve. When his wife is giving birth in the hospital .... yeah. Too complicated for a sticky note.

At the end of the day, I am learning. Not very well, but I'm making progress. And we're still getting married. Miraculously (#6 days!). 

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Umbrella - ella - ella- eh -eh -eh

8th grade. Life Skills class. Probably the most useless class ever. Except the class in Senior Year where they taught us how to iron a shirt and make guacamole for a beer party to order to prepare us for college.

This particular class was about strength in diversity. Good topic since we were in an international school where kids hailed from all corners of the world. In order to get us interacting, our British teacher called out different countries and asked the kids to stand up when their home country was called. 






The cheap black chairs were screeching from kids standing up in a hasty attempt at patriotism, a brief moment of solidarity with their motherland, which they have long since abandoned for the metropolis of Hong Kong.


Only one chair was pulled back. And one girl shakily stood up. That was me.

Our teacher looked around the room, dumbfounded. He pointed to nearly half of the class. "Aren't you . . .  aren't you all . . .  Chinese?" The group of black eyes stared back at him. 

A tall boy from the track team, my neighbor who I had had a major crush on since forever, shook his head emphatically. "No. No. We're Hong Kongers. We're not like those Mainland Chinese."

After class, I was surrounded and taunted. "Sisi, you have to pick a side. You're one of us. You were born here. You're lucky. So why did you say that you are Chinese?"

Maybe they did not know, or maybe they did know, but my mom was from Mainland China.


Around a month and a half ago, the world watched as tens of thousands of people spilled into the busiest main streets of Hong Kong and demanded universal suffrage where they can freely elect their Chief Executive (equivalent to city mayor) without any pre-selection from the Communist Party which runs the PRC government seated in Beijing.

The protest was started by a group of high school and university students, but when the police used tear gas on them, tens of thousands of Hong Kong citizens joined in a rare moment of solidarity and indignation. A movement was born. The propagandistic China Daily newspaper angrily called it a "bad Color Revolution" that the United States conspired to spark. The Hong Kongers proudly labeled it the "Umbrella Revolution" - a nod to the umbrellas that protesters brought to protect themselves from the tear gas. People were chanting "Our Hong Kong. Ours to Save." and wearing pollution face masks in lieu of gas masks.

There's something powerful in that statement. It is not "Our Hong Kong - because we don't want to be  Chinese." But rather, now it is "Our Hong Kong - because we are willing to fight for our democratic rights."

Magic happens when the young are galvanized enough to take action. Now my generation is increasingly well-versed in the Basic Law, our "mini-constitution" that governs Hong Kong after the handover from China. We are no longer apathetic and only concerned about buying the iPhone 6. We are finally awake and aware.

I cried when I first read about the protests on the news. I was in Greece and felt like my childhood home was calling to me to return and take a stand. I followed all the major news thread about Occupy Central and imagined myself on the streets with my rainbow umbrella.

After six weeks, A. and I finally went to Hong Kong this weekend and walked around the Occupy Central zone. The protesters still have the major highways and roads under hostage, stacking makeshift fences to delineate their territory. Whenever the police have tried to storm in and retake control of the road, more crowds will rally to the cause and push the police back. So that's how Hong Kong is stuck in this uneasy impasse, the police always alert to an opportunity to move in and the students and protesters at large carry on life within the bright tents that line the highway.

The protesters do not show signs of letting up. Many have brought their sofas, clothing racks, and juicers. They erected a study hall with wifi access and wooden tables so students will not fall too far behind their studies. Most leave during the week days to go to school or work and return on the weekends to continue the sit in. Parents bring their children to the tents on the weekends and eat McDonald's together while leaning against a road block.

While the society at large respects the patriotism underlying the cause, not everybody appreciates the inconvenience caused by the protests, cutting off a major traffic artery to the heart of Hong Kong. The taxi drivers grumble at the lower demand for taxis because of traffic and the nearby small shopkeepers also feel the pinch in their business. The local mafia (first time I knew that they existed outside of Jackie Chan movies) even incited a group of anti-protesters to go and tear down the barricades because they couldn't operate in their usual under-the-radar zones with all the students camped there.

I am mixed. Sometimes my chest burns with youthful idealism and hope that somehow all the umbrellas will be enough to bring democracy and solidarity to Hong Kong. Other times, I am worried that this will just deepen the fissure between Hong Kong and Mainland China for a pipe dream of true democracy that logically the PRC Chinese government will never relent to. And if universal suffrage will never happen, then maybe we should just let go and try to mend our fences with Mainland China so we can build a unified country?

. . . What was that line I learned in American politics 101? "Give me freedom or give me death" - Americans always made the pursuit of democracy seem so natural.