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Costa Rica, Day 4: Ziplines and blasphemy

SUNDAY, APRIL 27

(For pics, click here.)

Zip-line day is here! S and I jump in another bus, headed for the canopy. This is a prime tourist area, both for foreigners and Costa Ricans coming in from the big cities. We sit through orientation with our fun-loving zip-line guides with a bewildered Asian guy who is clearly having trouble keeping up with the Costa Rican English accents. Press down on the line with your hand to slow down, when you get the hand signals from us, they say. S isn't taking any chances - she'll do tandem zips with a guide so she doesn't have to pay attention to anything.

Not me - I whoop, holler and otherwise make a hullabaloo as I zip through the canopy at what's probably 35 miles per hour. We're all wearing leather gloves so we don't completely bloody our hands when pressing down on the line to slow down. There are both stretches where we're in the thick of the forest, with trees a few feet away on either side, and long, open stretches where you can look around before remembering in a panic that you're supposed to be watching the guy at the end for his hand signals. They also have another line at the end that they can whip out to halt your momentum about 10 feet before you hit the tree at the end of each line. I have a couple close calls, but it's all fun.

Then there's the Tarzan Swing We're maybe 50 feet in the air, from what's basically a little lookout tower, and you just grab the rope and jump. It's a hoot, and I made a Howard Dean-esque noise similar to "YEEEEAAAAHHH" when I did it, but forgot that I'm supposed to keep my legs tucked in so I don't accidentally kick the crap out of the guys at the bottom who need to slow my momentum after the first swing so I don't hit the platform. Hence the yelling at me for keeping my legs down. All is forgiven, though - they like my brazen attitude, especially in contrast to S's creampuffery.

From the hostel it's another shuttle bus, this time to volcano country. We pass through the bumpiest road yet, running through several mountain villages - they all have pubs with the standard Imperial and Pilsen logos, regardless of the remoteness - and at one point pass by a motorcyclist who fell off and bloodied himself something awful. All the villagefolk were hovering over him and a doctor was an hour away. The terrain reminds me of Eastern Oregon, where my folks grew up, but the bright-red parrot on the pole in the middle of the general store reminds me this is Costa Rica.

This is beginning to feel like U.S. Marshals as we get to a bunch of little speedboats that will take us across the lake to Arenal, the volcano and town. It's all very picturesque, especially as the volcano gets bigger as we approach. But the boat guys are the least helpful of anyone yet, making us lug our own bags on and off the boat, and not being especially helpful for knowing where we need to go. After dropping off the others in the center of town, our boat/van driver says he doesn't know where our hostel is. We drive around until we find a guy who knows where it is, and head there, a couple miles from town, down a bumpy road (get out!) where the volcano is only a field away. It's not customary to tip drivers in Costa Rica, but this guy went enough out of his way to justify a couple bucks, and he said no worries.

Our hostel manager is the most colorful yet, sporting a giant mustache and probably in his 50s. The first actual Costa Rican we've met who runs a hostel, he could pass for a slimmer Eliot Gould from Ocean's Eleven. His wife walks by outside and he says she's just getting back from church. My curiosity piqued, I ask which one, and he says Catholic - "but I myself am an atheist." O-Kay, I think and awkwardly smile. We found the one out-and-proud atheist in Costa Rica. But he's friendly to a fault, and gives us several detailed dinner recommendations. No point calling a cab (which are still only $4) when you can walk, so we stumble down the gravel road in the darkening sky, trotting past a weird-looking cemetery and into the Costa Rican equivalent of outer Vegas.

We settle on a meat, meat and more meat grill with all outdoor seating. It's practically empty when we arrive, though a few parties come in later. Our waiter is the most sycophantic person I have ever met, theatrically recommending everything and telling us everything we order is excellent, as if our tip will put his kids through college. The act is a bit much, but I fight the urge to tell him to tone it down. Plus the margarita is strong, so no point ruining a good thing.

This place ends up being a souped-up Sizzler, and the most expensive of any restaurant we try, with a bill in the mid-$40s (U.S.). Later regretting my naivete in ordering the Costa Rican surf and turf, these heaping piles of steak and fried seafood are mocking my stomach's reticence. Happily, God sends us a scrappy little street dog, who scrambles up to the table, waiting expectantly for food to fall. There's no way I'm finishing thismeat, so over S's protests, and considering I'm not biblically starving the kids to feed the dogs, I shave off pieces of steak and feed the little guy. The servers couldn't care less. But I had to make slow motions - if I brought the steak down too quickly, the little guy would hastily retreat, as if I were going to beat him. After I went to the restroom, S said he ran off, evidently thinking I was gone forever.

We return to the hostel lugging a (figurative) ton of meat from dinner, only to realize there was no communal fridge (this place does separate cabins instead of dorms). Costa Atheist offers to make space in the beverege fridge in the office, so our styrofoam containers join the bottled water and Imperial. Then it's off to bed before our big day - myself rappelling down waterfalls, and the risk-averse S opting for horseback riding.

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