Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Grief

in the two weeks since Pinko left my life, i’m sad to say i haven’t dreamed about her once. i keep wanting to and asking her to visit me, but she hasn’t yet. maybe that’s because i’m sleeping poorly and there hasn’t been many solid stretches of time when dreams can happen. i’m hoping both these things will change soon, because i’m chronically tired from the lack of sleep and chronically sad from missing her.

i get that she is not coming back. there is no “magical thinking” happening where i’ve saved her things with the expectation that she will need them when she returns home. wherever home is for her now, it’s no longer with me. accepting this has made the grief more manageable. i don’t come home expecting to see her sweet face, despite thinking about her all day long. of course, the house is hollower without her. of course, my life is, too.

but once i made my way through the initial devastation — when i cried until i ran out of tears and drank until i felt numb — the dull, familiar ache of heartbreak settled in. i realize it will dissipate with time, as all my other heartaches have, flaring up intermittently when triggered. sometimes, it’s by my memories of her, like how she had one floppy and one upright ear and how she would put her face on the edge of the bed to greet me every morning. other times, it’s the realization that i’ll never see that face or hear her howl again. 

a few friends suggested i get another dog right away. i know this is good advice and there will certainly be more dogs in my future, but a new dog can’t fill the void of wanting my old dog back. i need to heal first and prepare myself to appreciate a new dog’s unique personality and idiosyncrasies instead of searching for one that reminds me of Pinko.

at least i have Juice. this is another refrain i’ve heard, and it rings exceptionally true. i couldn’t imagine walking into or living in a dogless house, now or ever. i need to see a tail wagging daily and have access to a furry face i can nuzzle. it’s good for my mental and spiritual health. Juice has delivered, though she’s less affectionate than Pinko was, so i find myself following Juice around the house and trying to coax her into giving me love and attention, as Pinko used to with me.  

if there is any bright side to this, it’s that i now have more opportunities to connect with Juice — and in many ways reconnect. Pinko’s rough origins made her slightly needy and insecure, while Juice has known no other life than the one she’s been living with me since she was six weeks old. rightly or wrongly, i gave Pinko more attention, sometimes at the expense of Juice, who has become more solitary over the years. but now, Juice has begun falling asleep with her head across my lap more, something she used to do regularly as a puppy.

i keep wondering what she is thinking through all this. i worry that she is lonely and bored without Pinko. i know i shouldn’t project my human sensibilities onto her, but there have been several times when we’ve locked eyes for a good while and i recognize a certain sadness in her, the same one that lives in me now. after these moments, i’ll always kiss her head and whisper, “i miss her, too.”

i know Juice understands that Pinko is gone. she stayed in the room with me and smelled Pinko’s still body when it was over. sometimes, Juice smells whatever remains of Pinko’s scent on my clothes and begins wagging her tail and pawing at me. she also seems far more interested in her dog toys, which Pinko routinely stole out of Juice’s mouth, but they are now carried around the house and brought onto the couch to snuggle with.

then there is Tico and his grief. in the days following Pinko’s death, he painted the basement, planted much of the front yard, vacuumed and washed my car, built a shelf for the hallway closet and reorganized the spare bedroom and bathroom cupboards — all while i sat on the couch, drinking, crying and looking at old photographs. i guess this sums up the difference between how men and women grieve. thankfully, he also slowed down plenty to offer his comfortable arms when i needed them most, cushioning this journey for me immensely.

i’m also indebted to my friends and family, whom i’m convinced are the most amazing people in the world. from them, i received money for vet bills, condolence cards, flower and food deliveries, a spa certificate, and several personal messages of love and support. i take none of it for granted and vow to absorb these inspirational lessons in friendship and pay them forward.

and even though i’m brokenhearted and going into the holidays with a member of my family missing, i still consider myself lucky for the many remaining blessings in my life — and for the six years i had with a cuddly creature that howled in my ear, warmed my side, brightened my world and grew my heart with her limitless love. i would do it all over again.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Pinko/Cheddar (2007-2013)

my favorite photo of her

when i first began drafting this blog post several days ago, the first sentence read, “a week ago, i thought this post would be an obituary.” after considering whether it would have been better if she went right away instead of lasting that extra week — a week that kept her alive needlessly, in pain and in vain — i’m certain that right away would have been better.

of course, i have the gift of hindsight and the scourge of jewish guilt that makes me think that everything i’ve done i could do better if given another chance, but reality is a merciless beast and my reality is that my dog is dead and the well-meaning chorus of “you did everything you could for her” rings hollow for me and will never remove the feeling i have inside that i didn’t.

i don’t say this to evoke sympathy or soothing words, just to state a fact that i would have done many things differently. i realize that none of it matters now. i realize that she’s gone and i’m tormenting myself with options i no longer have. i suppose it’s part of the grieving process and i will get through it. but still, there remains a secret hope that we all get one do-over in life. i would choose the past week as mine. 

at four months 

like the cliche, i never saw it coming. when my little Pinko (whom i call Cheddar nowadays) started walking funny on Thanksgiving, i assumed it was just a sprained muscle that would resolve itself in time, like it has in the past. so i continued on with the long weekend, visiting with friends who were in town and enjoying a daytrip with Tico to the Salton Sea. in other words, i stayed out of the house most of the weekend and didn’t notice that my dog’s health was in a freefall.

this was my ultimate mistake because by sunday night, Pinko stopped eating and seemed feverish and weak. by monday morning, when i took her to the vet, her nose had begun bleeding. the vet put her on an IV, took chest x-rays and drew her blood, which showed that all her organs were failing and producing enzymes to shut her body down for an imminent death. her temperature registered at 105.8 degrees (106 is fatal in dogs). she also had blood in her lungs.

with no time to waste, he sent me over to Animal Specialty Group in Glendale, a referral-only hospital staffed 24/7 with animal oncologists, internists and surgeons. more x-rays were taken there and ultimately an ultrasound that couldn’t locate a tumor in her body, ruling out the possibility of cancer. instead, she was diagnosed with thrombocytopenia, a blood disease that causes one’s body to attack its own platelets as though they were pathogens. at intake, Pinko tests showed 11,000 platelets (150,000-300,000 is normal), and she was bleeding internally.     

after i hastily signed some paperwork, she was admitted to the hospital’s intensive care unit and given a drug used for chemotherapy that tells her bone marrow to begin reproducing new platelets, a high dose of the steroid prednizone to shut down her body’s immune response so it would stop killing her platelets, and antibiotics to fight off any developing pneumonia or other infection she might catch because of her newly compromised immune system.

that day was a fast-moving blur and i know i didn’t ask all the right questions or understand all the details, but there are a few things i will always remember about it, such as watching my dog’s legs buckle from weakness on the slope in my front yard, almost causing her to slide downhill until i caught her; the sensation i had when she expelled a mighty sneeze that covered my face and white shirt in her blood; and the way Tico wiped the tears off my face after i cried hysterically on his shoulder once we left the hospital.

right before i left her at the hospital

the emotion that best characterizes that day for me was bewilderment. not that there is some ideal time for all of that to happen, but the surprise and urgency of events left me in a fog that had me wondering if the day actually took place. surely, i would wake up at any moment. surely, i would open the door of my house after leaving my dog in the hospital and find her waiting there for me with a wagging tail.

but as reality set in, the vodka flowed and tears blurred my vision, the only thing i could do was wait for news with a heart full of hope. i talked to the vet twice a day and visited her at the hospital every night after work. and every night, she would walk over to me with a wagging tail, collapse against my body and fall asleep with her head in my lap while i petted her through rubber gloves and cried.

hospital blues

most days, she looked horrid, her half-dead eyes barely registering the life happening all around her. she shook constantly and gagged often for no reason. one night, she burrowed her head under my arm and scratched at my pants when it was time to part, making for an extra difficult goodbye. that was the same night she had a seizure and i ran out crying from the ramen shop where Tico and i were having dinner after leaving the hospital.

the nightly scene

every day seemed to bring both good news and setbacks. she had more energy but her stool was bloody. the platelet count was still too low (14,000 two days after intake) but the pneumonia cleared up. i never knew how optimistic to feel from one day to the next, so i did the best i could to quell my anxiety, calm my pounding heart and reduce the grinding of my teeth. sometimes, my best amounted to very little food and sleep. other times, i got very zen about it and resigned myself to dealing with news as it came instead of fretting over the fact that i couldn’t control the news. (but mostly, i didn’t eat or sleep.)

my rock. he came to the hospital with me every night.

five nights after Animal Specialty Group admitted Pinko to its ICU, i received word that the platelet count was at 56,000, a number that exceeded everyone’s expectations and caused an eruption of joy with requisite happy dance in my kitchen. with that, she was released to convalesce at home with a bag full of medicine, detailed instructions on monitoring her eating and stool, and appointments for future visits when her platelets would be tested.

her first night back home

she was at home for three nights, also a fast-moving blur of hope and despair. she refused all food, even her favorite ones, and the force-feedings through a syringe felt like abuse, especially after the trauma she had endured. her backside was leaky, causing me to line the furniture with puppy pads as she had frequent accidents.

the first day at home, i could do nothing but cry my eyes out. i think i began the grieving process then with the instinctive knowledge that there would be no bouncing back from this and that my dog was already gone. i asked Tico to handle all the syringe feedings that day while i sat on the couch, overwhelmed by helplessness and in tears, apologizing. 

all the meds that i’m convinced did more to harm than help her. after i called the hospital complaining that her body was not handling them well, they told me to stop giving her half. i was incensed i wasn’t advised of this option before.

she had to take 15 pills a day — an immune-suppressant steroid, anti-vomiting drugs, appetite stimulants, antibiotics and antacid — all of which she resisted, creating another struggle. her skin smelled of chemicals, and she spent most of the day shivering, drooling, droopy-eyed and immobile in a zombie-like state, a shell of her former self, looking as though she would pass out at any moment, though never actually falling asleep because the medication made her wired. she didn’t howl or bark once and her tail never wagged.

one of the few good moments at home as a reunited pack. as expected, Juice was an incredible support to both me and Pinko through this ordeal, staying by her sister’s side through the difficult nights and feedings and often licking tears off my face. 

the second day at home started better, with a visit from my mom, before taking a nosedive when the baby food i fed Pinko at lunch, thinking she would like it more (which she seemed to), came back up. i saw blood in her vomit. after that, she had trouble getting comfortable and seemed weaker than before, so i laid down next to her, stroked her ears and kissed her face, while Tico called the hospital for advice. i apologized for feeding her the baby food and asked her what i should do. i listened to her breathing, which sounded labored. i worried she had blood in her lungs again and was becoming dehydrated.

that night was her last on earth.

glad my mom got to see her a final time.

i spent that last night lying awake in bed, grappling with the thought of ending a life i loved so dearly. i didn’t think i could do it. i considered taking her back to the hospital, but was worried about the bill, which was already over $5,500 (all on my credit card). i told myself that i could make more money in my life but i could never make another Pinko and the expense would be worth it if i had a healthy dog at the end of this.

at 5 am, after staying up all night with my stomach and heart in a knot, i meditated and asked for guidance. my maternal grandma came to me, as she has many times before in moments of crisis, and said only one word: rest. i fell asleep for two hours and awoke understanding what the day would bring. i went to Pinko and kissed her face. she looked as though she had been awake all night. she put her head on my arm and sighed, her eyes exhausted and resigned. i told her to hang on, that we were almost there.

Juice held vigil next to her sister all day and night. this is the last photo of the two of them together.

an hour later, Tico and i were dropping her off at the hospital so she could get her medicine and nutrients from an IV. i told them to give her something for the pain and call me after they ran their tests. they told me they wanted to keep her in the ICU another two nights. i told them one at the most and then began calling around for a holistic vet. i went home and laid on the floor next to Juice, asking the universe to make it very clear for me: either make this manageable and i’ll manage it, or make it impossible and i’ll do the impossible.

the vet called back in the afternoon and gave me every diagnosis imaginable — diabetes, hepatitis, anemia, pancreatitis, liver failure, GI tears and blood in the intestines. she suggested more medication, a blood transfusion and a feeding tube. i thought about calling her a cunt for never suggesting euthanasia, but instead handed the phone off to Tico so i could regain my composure. once i did, i told her to get the shot ready. i would be there in under an hour. i had no doubts anymore.

at six months, with the love of her life.

i want to state now that i don’t see my dogs as my actual children, despite referring to them often as “my furry babies.” i imagine that once i’m a mother (which i very much hope to be), i will feel differently about my child than i do about my dog. more to the point, there is an understanding when a pet is adopted that the pet will never outlast us and that we’ll one day have to make that decision we refuse to entertain until circumstances force us. i knew that day was coming, but given that Juice is 11 (almost twice Pinko’s age) and has begun having issues with her bladder, i never considered that day would come for Pinko first. not even once.

she was a deep thinker.

but still, love is love, and the nature of my love is protective. through this ordeal, i wanted only to shield Pinko from pain above all else, even at the expense of her recovery. every instinct in my body told me to toss aside the pills that were making her sick, to stop with the demoralizing force feedings and to find another, perhaps more natural approach. yet i did none of these things and instead marched toward a false promised land that filled us both with anguish, hers more excruciating. these are regrets i will need time to process, along with my grief. i’ve made promises to Juice that i won’t repeat these mistakes.

she was a cuddler.

the last few moments with her were far more beautiful than i thought they would be. i brought Juice along so she could understand what was happening and find her own closure. when the two of them saw each other, they touched noses briefly but purposefully in what i took to be their final goodbye. Juice then sat by Pinko’s side while i sat on the floor and brought Pinko’s head and chest across my lap.

me & my pinko
her first time in the snow.

i talked to her for a few minutes, praising her for brightening my life in infinite ways for six years. i thanked her for being a difficult dog initially so i could learn about unconditional love. i apologized for extending her life that extra week, asked her to forgive me for yelling at her when she misbehaved and said i hoped she could reincarnate as a future dog of mine, to be adopted at an undetermined time, so i could see her again. i also told her that i put her name tag on my keyring and would keep her collar in my purse.

then i went through the list of all the things i loved about her — how she howled when she wanted attention, herded me toward the dog treats, sat on me when she didn’t want me to leave, jumped on me so she could stretch her back, pushed my legs apart so she could sit between them while i stood, and ran ahead during our hikes, though not too far, before running back to jump on her sister’s head. she was a funny dog, both sassy and sweet, equal parts fire and sugar, sometimes needy and always loving. i told her i hoped her sister and i gave her as much love as she gave us.

she had soulful eyes.

then i put my hand over Pinko’s heart so i could feel its final beat, leaned back into Tico’s arms, told the vet we were ready, and let my tears roll off my face and onto hers so she could take some of me with her. less than a minute later, i felt her heart and breathing stop. i kept petting her tan fur until her body began getting cold. then i kissed her still face goodbye and told her i would miss her every day for the rest of my life. she passed on Tuesday, December 10, around 4:45pm. she was a month shy of her 7th birthday.

goodbye, sweet girl. you live in my heart now.

Related Posts
please consider making a donation to help with the vet bill (roughly $6,600): Help for Pinko’s Medical Bills 

Saturday, November 23, 2013

My First Half-Marathon

i suppose the title implies that there will be others and i assume this much is true, though i still can’t seem to click on any Sign Up buttons just yet. my fingers always navigate away from the webpage before it can happen, likely encouraged by the lingering pain in my foot, the soreness of my shins and tightness in my hips that my body still feels almost a week after the fact. i guess this is what “muscle memory” is all about. but let’s go back to the beginning.

Vegas, baby.

my cousin, Gitella, and i had been talking about a girlie getaway for ages, finally solidifying plans this past spring to meet in Las Vegas for a weekend. i’m not sure how the Rock ‘n’ Roll Vegas Half Marathon made its way into our plan, which was, in her words, “to get away from men and children,” but it did. i agreed to it because i wanted to get into better shape, and a half-marathon seemed just the push off the couch i needed. so we signed up and started training.

about an hour before the horror show began.

well, her training started and (smartly) consisted of completing a few other half marathons in addition to the full Portland marathon. my “training” consisted of weekend hikes at my local trail with my dogs and intermittent jogging, but mostly walking, around the Rose Bowl. at no point in my training did i complete the full 13.1 miles involved in a half-marathon. the greatest distance i ever traveled at one time was eight miles and that was only once, with a handful of six-mile walks also completed.

view from the hotel room makes it look like i’m in Paris — if Paris had obese Americans eating at buffets in every hotel.

casual friday on the Strip

let the record reflect that i really hate Las Vegas. everything about the place reeks of unhinged gluttony and douchebaggery to me. the hotels are overpriced, gaudy and smoky, and the visitors seem hell-bent on creating a “whatever happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” secret they can recount among their friends and future offspring to prove they had a crazy youth, when the reality is closer to a visit that produced more empty pockets and hangovers than wild tales (with the occasional side of VD). 

nothing like a saturday night in Las Vegas to remind me why i never visit.

trash-talking aside and included, it had been roughly 13 years since my last visit to Las Vegas, a long enough time to ease my hatred and make another trip palpable. more importantly, the half-marathon (and also full marathon scheduled for the same day) took place on the Las Vegas strip at night, a huge draw for my non-morning person self who didn’t want a 7am start time.

seen on T-shirts at the local fitness expo, where we picked up our runners’ packets and stuffed our pockets full of Power Bar samples. 

incredible dinner with the most tender filet mignon cooked medium rare to perfection.

we went to CraftSteak, the restaurant of famed Top Chef head judge Tom Collichio. the service was impeccable, wine amazing and portions giant. we left with stuffed bellies and several to-go containers after enjoying a night of girl talk and giggles. then we fell onto the hotel bed with pants unbuttoned and complaints about how much we overate. it was an incredible dinner, to be sure, the type you want to have on a Saturday night in Las Vegas, but probably not the type you want to have the night before a half-marathon.

the point in the weekend when i should have said, “how about we just go drinking instead?”

this will surely sound stupid but i’ll put it out there anyway: completing a half-marathon was a lot harder than i thought it would be. it’s not that i thought it would be effortless, but i did think that having two working legs would be enough to get me to the finish line. in theory, this proved true. but in practice, i grimaced through every mile and felt every step.

some of the colorful characters who raced alongside us.

in my “training,” my shins always hurt the first mile, and in this half-marathon, they decided to nearly cripple me during the first three miles, rendering me wobbly-legged, expletive-laden and slightly panic-stricken, as i worried i would have to bow out of the race during mile two. if only i had done my research and discovered a miraculous product known as a shin support, which runners often use since shin splitting is a common issue.

another T-shirt from the fitness expo that sums up what i was feeling throughout most of the half-marathon.

after i (heroically) Pushed Through the Pain of the first three miles, my left foot went numb, which was a blessing as that meant i no longer had to deal with the shin issue. naturally, i decided to start running because, at that point, i figured i was already tampering with my body’s wellbeing so why not just go for total annihilation?

the running was intermittent but helped us make up for lost time, taking our initial and pathetic 20 minutes/mile average to a slightly less pathetic 18 minutes/mile. clearly, my Cousin the Marathoner could have smoked me during this race but kindly stayed near my side offering encouraging words aimed at moving me the hell along.

Elvis greeted us at mile six with offers of a quickie wedding. i think we disappointed him when we told him we were cousins.

at mile seven, i ate some Power Bar booster thingy that tasted like apple sauce, hoping it would help me combat the nausea that seemed to intensify after every sip of Gatorade and water i took from nearby well wishers. (it didn’t.) instead, i enjoyed renewed energy likely due to a placebo effect. by mile ten, the energy had worn off, leaving me newly tired, still queasy and suddenly mute.

almost to the promised land.

though counter-intuitive, the last mile zoomed by. at that point, we had been making our way back toward the busiest and most lit up part of the strip, where crowds cheered us along, speakers blasted songs like “Bust a Move” (which now holds a new meaning for me) and the finish line was in plain sight. i felt a light-headedness bordering on delirium and let out a howl that sounded very much like a dying donkey when i crossed that finish line.

only in Vegas: medals modeled after poker chips.

four hours were given to complete the half-marathon (full marathoners got five hours), otherwise some shuttle of shame was said to drive by and pluck you off the path. i’m happy to report that Gitella and i made it in 3 hours and 56 minutes. {crowd applause} this averages to 18 minutes per mile. i realize that seasoned runners can complete a mile in a third of that time. whatever. 

the finishers area held a multitude of free treats that are commonly found at the end of such races, i learned, such as chocolate milk (oddly refreshing), apples and bananas, six packs of bagels, pretzels for nausea, bottles of gatorade and space blankets. we loaded up as much as we could carry and started the slow hobble back to our hotel room, where i proceeded to drop to the carpet to stretch my spasming muscles through gritted teeth. at that point, i felt a blend of pain, pride, foolishness and euphoria. (but mostly pain.)

thanks, Vegas. (sorta) 

i assured Gitella that i wouldn’t need to eat after the half-marathon, given my continued nausea and the bewildered state of my body that rendered a normal activity such as eating too complicated to imagine. she chuckled briefly before excusing herself for a half-hour — a time when i took a hot shower, put on my pajamas and collapsed onto the bed — and returned with pizza and ice cream, which we devoured quickly.

lying in bed afterwards, i’ll confess that whatever sense of accomplishment i felt was not overwhelming enough to offset the pain in my body. i probably could have spent my life never knowing what it felt like to complete a half-marathon and died just as happily (or sadly, depending on how things go).

a week later, i’m not sure my sentiments have changed. i keep telling myself i’ll do another one, one i actually train for so it won’t hurt as bad during and after, yet i still can’t manage to click that Sign Up button. maybe i need a few more weeks to help me forget because, right now, everything about it sounds like a masochistic idea. in the meantime, i’ll fit my workouts in between trips from the couch to the refrigerator.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Costa Rica 2013

when my new boything told me he would be going to his native Costa Rica for almost a month, my first response was, “great. i’ll come visit.” i’m not sure that i let him reply before i reserved the days off from work and bought my ticket. i wanted to go not only for the obvious romantical nature of such a trip, but for the nature itself. i had a few friends go to Costa Rica and rave about it and, of course, the photos of the place looked beautiful, so i packed up my most jungle-friendly attire and spent the first week of september there, taking my own photos of this beautiful place so i can rave about it here.

me in the nature
me with the nature

to summarize, i had an amazing time. like super-duper epically amazing. i know i sound like a shameless braggart, but whatever. the truth is the truth. and the truth is that this trip exceeded my expectations, delivering on its promise of nature and romance in memorable ways. that’s not to suggest it came and went without a single issue, as the lost ATM card, dented rental car, 40 mosquito bites, worst blister of my life and mystery rash will attest to, but none of that deterred from the awesomeness that comes with traveling through rain forests and playing with monkeys alongside a new sweetie. among the awesomeness was the fact that i managed to swim in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans just days apart without the use of an airplane. this must be one of those only-in-Central-America-type things.

hey, paradise!

the adventure began just moments after i stepped off the plane at 6am in the capital city of San Jose. Tico (new blog name for the boything formerly known as the Costa Rican Cutie and self-appointed slang of what Costa Ricans call themselves) and i grabbed a rental car and headed northeast toward our first destination: Puerto Viejo by way of Limon. but first we stopped to caffeine-load at Dennys, known to be one of the more expensive restaurants in the country. (i don’t get it either.) i’m happy to report that Dennys coffee tastes disgusting in Costa Rica as well.

first stop: Limon
streetside in Limon, Costa Rica 

time in Limon was limited, as we stayed only for lunch and to meet up with a friend of Tico’s. to me, Limon appeared like a typical working-class Central American neighborhood, with its streets crowded and storefronts bustling with commerce. it felt very much the community where everyone knew everyone — and their business. but what struck me most was how many baby bumps i saw. it seemed as though half of the fertile female population was carrying a child either inside or outside of their bodies. it seems there is something about tropical heat and humidity that makes people want to bone, and i’ll confess the sentiment appealed to me as well, more than it usually does. when one is already hot and sweaty, getting hotter and sweatier sounds like a good idea.

streetside in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica

we spent two nights in Puerto Viejo, making it the place we stayed the longest, as the rest of the trip found us sleeping in a different city every night. Puerto Viejo is a lazy seaside town with perfect weather and a very Caribbean flair, given its location on Costa Rica’s northern coast. i saw plenty of dreadlocks and Rastafarians here, smelled weed everywhere, heard dancehall in the bars, and ate a lot of rice, beans and plantains. of all the coastal cities visited during this trip, Puerto Viejo was easily my favorite, probably because of this diversity, which made it feel as though i were visiting multiple places at once.

hey, hammerhead shark.
though it’s illegal, hammerhead sharks are still caught in Costa Rica, mostly to make sharkfin soup for the wealthy ones who can commission the catching. i managed to snap only a couple photos of this one before it was scuttled away.

the highlight of Puerto Viejo was Jaguar Rescue Center in Playa Chiquita, which had no jaguars but plenty of other animals that needed nursing before being released into the wild. and the highlight of the highlight was playing with baby howler and spider monkeys. i must admit that Tico and i were the most obnoxious people in our tour group in the way that we pandered to the monkeys and begged for their attention with food. he had more success than i did, unfortunately, but i still managed to touch them and one even climbed on me. ok, maybe climbed over me in an effort to get away is more accurate, but i’m sure our connection in that moment was genuine.

i had a harder time getting their attention.
take my fruit, you damn monkey! this little spider monkey was such a jerk, not only for ignoring me when i tried to feed him, but also in the way that he crossed the room to slam into any other monkey that was getting attention.

this baby howler monkey was usually the one getting slammed out of the way. he was much sweeter (and more fearful) than the spider monkey, having just lost his mother in the wild. 

Untitled Untitled
this was the baby howler monkey’s surrogate mother, one of the owners of the rescue. as soon as she walked in, the baby jumped into her arms and began cupping and kissing her face, while we all stood around taking photos like the dumb tourists we were.

this is, without question, the best selfie of my life (even though it’s grainy). all other selfies will now be judged against this standard.

i’ve long considered sloths to be one of my spirit animals (though Tico says i’m more sea otter mixed with pterodactyl, but those are stories for another time), so imagine my thrill of getting to witness one up close. just as i’d seen in countless Youtube videos, sloths really are that cute and lazy in person. they were also, i hate to admit, really boring. spending five minutes with them was more than enough time to get my fill. afterwards, Tico and i headed back toward the monkeys and begged the handlers to let us play with them some more but, alas, we were denied additional monkey love and left town soon after for our next destination: Tortuguero.

i just can't. the cuteness overwhelms.
if there is anything more zen-making than a sloth sleeping among leaves, please bring it to my attention. until then, this image will win every cuteness contest worldwide.

animal magnetism the beast master makes it look effortless.
this is Tico, by the way, also very cute and winning every animal magnetism contest worldwide. it’s no exaggeration to say that he has a way with animals, who seem to flock to him just to say hi. this has earned him the name of Beastmaster.  

hey, toucan sam.
shoutout to this toucan, who shadowed our group as we visited the other animals at Jaguar Rescue Center, making sure we wouldn’t forget him by dropping flowers, branches and leaves on our heads periodically. he was clearly messing with us while also posing perfectly for pictures as though he had watched every episode of America’s Next Top Model to make sure he knew his angles. hats off to you, cool bird. i named him Sam, since, Fruit Loops. 

approaching our hotel, Tortuga Lodge    
“streetside” in Tortuguero, Costa Rica

when Tico first told me there were no roads in Tortuguero and the only way to get around was by boat, i imagined it looking something like Venice, Italy. then i remembered i was in Costa Rica, which meant there would be no canals or gondolas on this trip, only a vast rainforest separated by deltas and navigable by motorboat, which meant i’d have to save my rendition of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” for another trip. we spent one night in town at the Tortuga Lodge, a gorgeous hotel way out of our budget despite Tico getting the local rate, but we allowed this one splurge since all our other hotel rooms cost far less. worth it? absolutely.

taken at the end of the hike. note the back sweat and mud boots.
me with the nature at the end of a jungle hike. note the mud boots and obscene amount of back sweat.

there are two standouts from the Tortuguero trip, neither of which was caught on camera, making them slightly more special since i could be fully present while something super-cool happened instead of preoccupied with taking a picture. the first standout happened in the middle of the night when i awoke for a bathroom break. the room was pitch black, and the open windows brought in a cool breeze and the hum of cicadas, which i will now forever associate with Costa Rica (they are the country’s soundtrack). then a howler monkey howled, followed by another and another until every troop awoke and performed a call-and-response symphony that reverberated through the entire rain forest — with the cicadas handling the harmony. it was raw, discordant and melodic all at once, the music of nature. i lay there listening to it in total darkness for several minutes while Tico snored gently beside me. it was a perfect moment.

nicest hotel of the trip because Tico misheard the price on the phone.
where all the magic happened

hasta luego, Tortuguero. Arenal Volcano awaits.
“bus” in Tortuguero

the other perfect moment involved green sea turtles that weighed around 400 lbs. each year, these turtles make their way onto the beaches of Tortuguero to lay their eggs. of the several hundred eggs laid, only a handful will turn into adults, with the rest eaten by predators. fortunately for us, the egg-laying was a nightly event in september.

i didn’t think much when Tico made the suggestion to see it, but it turned out to be quite compelling to watch these giant ladies wash onto shore, dig a hole with their flippers, lay their eggs, pack sand over them and lumber back into the sea. we watched four turtles in various stages of this process, which lasts hours. cameras were not allowed, as the flash could disturb them, so we had to move around the beach in extremely low light.

a group of us was standing near our guide, watching one turtle head back after finishing up. something about them seemed so majestic, even dignified, to me. huge yet gentle and most likely older than i am, these turtles took their time going about their business, doing what they needed to and disturbing no one in the process.

at one point, i threw my head back to see a sky unlike any i had ever seen before. no roads in Tortuguero means no streetlights, so the sky appeared overrun by stars, more than i thought could be possible. i stood and stared at it, awestruck. a moment later, Tico walked up behind me and wrapped his arms around my waist while i rested my head against his shoulder, my eyes filled with happy tears. we stood there, looking up in silence while listening to the waves crash against the shore. 

vacations are awesome.
vacations are awesome.

streetside in La Fortuna, approaching Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica

from one national park, we headed toward another, this one in the center of the country. admittedly, Costa Rica feels like an endless national park, as most of the land is occupied by wildlife reserves and refuges, peppered with the occasional, densely populated city. Arenal National Park, home of the same-named and famed volcano that’s known to spit up dust and smoke for gawking tourists, makes most travelers’ must-see lists. this is the part where i should say that’s for good reason, but i really wasn’t feeling it. i’m sure my perception is clouded, pun intended, by the fact that the cloud cover and eventual rain made the dust and smoke virtually indiscernible.

finally a sport i can excel at: drunk swimming.

the highlight of Arenal, and another favorite on must-see lists, is Tabacon Hot Springs, which is part of a fancy hotel that sits at the base of the volcano and features about a half-dozen thermal pools. from the pools, one can look up and see the volcano sputtering, though we were treated to a thunder-and-lightning show the night we visited (see aforementioned complaint). still, sitting in a pool during a thunderstorm has its moments, such as anxiety about getting struck by lightning.

the grand spa
easily my favorite pool at Tabacon for reasons that should be obvious. i spent an hour here letting the waterfall give me a much-needed massage.

how to stand in a waterfall and have a zen moment.
having a zen moment at Tabacon.

hey, tourists. let's zipline.
hey, tourists. let’s zipline.

i’m not going to lie. i was scared shitless to zipline and had a few moments when i felt a fever about to overtake me while on our way to the first lookout, a short drive from Arenal. i could feel my heart pounding through my head while climbing the wobbly stairs of the tower and almost choked when the guide announced that one of the six lines we would be “zipping” was half a mile long. but i refused to look like a baby in front of Tico, who had ziplined before and assured me i would feel calmer after the first line and likely bored by the fourth (while also inventing a few stories about faulty cables and dismemberment by tree branches).

wheeeee! though after the fourth line, novelty wore off.
as predicted, i was pretty much over it after a few lines. still a reasonably good time, but not one that requires repeating. (that sums up all of my internet dates as well.)

after ziplining, Tico and i began the lengthy drive toward the Pacific, battling rain while searching for the phantom roads noted in Google maps, our (un)trusty navigator during this trip. we headed south to the coastal town of Puntareanas, where we drove the car onto a massive ferry that took us across Nicoya Bay and closer to our next destination: the coastal town of Montezuma.

the rain pounded the bay throughout the ferry ride and even flooded the floor of the boat several times. in response, we decided to take dramatic selfies while singing that theme song from “The Titanic.”

typical tico breakfast of gallo pinto (rice and beans), plantains, fruit and an omelet.

one downside to this particular paradise is that the food sucked major monkey poop, save for the always-delicious plantains, and the coffee tasted ridiculously weak, which is odd considering the place is known for its coffee. (i learned later that the best beans are saved for export.) the fact that Anthony Bourdain never visited Costa Rica for “No Reservations” should have tipped me off to this fact, but i remained hopeful prior to every meal, only to declare it unremarkable when the check arrived. one brightish side was my discovery of Salsa Lizano, a ridiculously salty condiment that i drowned most of my meals in. i even smuggled out a bottle of the stuff before promptly ODing on it at home. nowadays, i am barely able to stand it. (i have half a bottle left if anyone wants it.)

Untitled Untitled
hey, monsoon. let’s party.

i never really understood the expression “sheets of rain” until Costa Rica, having rarely experienced much beyond the standard drizzle and occasional storm that falls on Los Angeles. but this rain seemed almost violent in its ferocity, like it had something to prove. and when combined with nighttime driving on poorly lit, winding, pockmarked roads, let’s just say i almost found religion on this trip.

olé, olé, olé, olé.

the rainstorm knocked out the power in Montezuma on the same night as the Costa Rica-USA soccer match. (imagine the horror!) this must be a common occurrence since we readily found a bar with a generator and big-screen TV where we watched the game by candlelight among ticos who hollered whenever Costa Rica scored a goal. i sat quiet, the lone gringa in the bar, drinking the local brew and watching my team lose to these rowdy Latinos (3-1), while my Tico joined the revelry and gloated beside his tribe all night.

hiking into Montezuma waterfall over a rocky trail.
rapids at Montezuma, made muddy by the rain runoff.

at this point in the trip, i understood that visiting Costa Rica during the rainy season (May-November) meant that we needed to maximize the first half of the day, when one could expect decent weather, before the monsoon started rolling in at 2pm. with this in mind, we had one objective in Montezuma: wake early, hike to the waterfall and hike out before 2. in short, we accomplished this.

the longer story is that i hated every second. the hike involved crossing slippery rocks and occasionally sinking into waist-high water. i prepared for this by wearing flip-flops. expletive-laden words may have been spoken. plus, the strong current made swimming impossible, so we ended up half holding onto/half sitting on mossy rocks near the waterfall while algae worked its way into our butt cracks.

worth it for the photo opp? maybe.

Tico making kayaking look glamorous.

another of the many sporty firsts i attempted on this trip was kayaking. i think i did a lousy job at it, but Tico said i did OK. no capsizing is a win, i suppose, though we had a few close calls. beyond the physical difficulty of all that paddling, i kept hitting my oar against the kayak and my brain had trouble processing how to move in reverse and make turns. but unlike ziplining (and internet dating), i would totally go kayaking again.  

ran into some white faced capuchin monkeys. they weren't as friendly as the baby howler monkeys.
we ran into a troop of white-faced capuchins after kayaking because Costa Rica. these guys did not seem as friendly as the howler and spider monkeys from earlier in the trip, though one did take a banana from me. still, Tico cautioned me not to get too close, as “these are the poop slingers.”

sunrise in Heredia, Costa Rica, taken after a sleepless night, thanks to a rooster’s incessant crows. (seriously, we slept near jungles and beaches almost every night and never once heard a rooster, but the moment we sleep in a city, we meet Foghorn Leghorn.)

after Montezuma, we made our way back toward the capital as my trip was nearing its end and we hadn’t yet spent time with Tico’s family. to clarify, he was born and raised in Los Angeles, but spent his summers in Costa Rica and lived there for 10 years as an adult, five of which he spent running his family’s wildlife refuge, Cerro Dantas. i had heard so many stories about this place and his adventures there that i insisted we see it. so on my last full day in the country, Tico’s 35th birthday, we made our visit.  

these boots are made for... sliding into mud.

Cerro Dantas is a short drive from Heredia, a major city outside of San Jose, the capital city. the 1.25-mile hike into the refuge involved muddy trails and suspension bridges. sometimes the mud acted like quicksand, sinking my entire boot unexpectedly until i was knee-deep in mud and needed a walking stick to extract myself. all the while, Tico told me excited stories about his time building out the refuge, which was in its infancy when he took over, adding a few tales about jaguar attacks that he timed with each rustling in the trees. i replied with my standard refrain, “si, mi amor,” which he asked me to say whenever locals abounded and he needed to haggle for a better price.

appreciating the nature while sweating profusely.
appreciating the nature while sweating profusely (again)

and it was beautiful.
40 minutes later, Cerro Dantas greeted us with beautiful weather.

kitchen at Cerro Dantas
kitchen at Cerro Dantas, with art featuring pretty much every animal i saw on this trip.

we spent half a day at Cerro Dantas, where i met Tico’s awesome father, who still runs the place (and has quite a thing for Jennifer Lopez), in addition to french biologists, an australian volcano hunter and a steady stream of local tourists. i also played with the resident dogs, explored the grounds, hiked into a waterfall, hunted for tapir trails, helped make food for the visitors, ate food with the visitors, tasted the most delicious water, and witnessed the worst blister of my life forming on my heel. all the while, Tico told me more excited stories and expounded on a few i had already heard before. “si, mi amor,” i smiled.

San Jose at dusk
streetside in San Jose, Costa Rica

that evening held a small birthday celebration for Tico, where i met his awesome mother and a few aunts, and finally ate some decent Costa Rican food (homemade). we ate cake and sang a rousing rendition of “cumpleaños feliz to Tico, who seemed embarrassed by the whole spectacle (though i suspect he was also secretly pleased). the night ended calmly and early, so i could indulge in some much-needed sleep before waking at 4 a.m. to catch my flight home with tired and sad eyes, leaving Tico and my new favorite country behind.

can someone photoshop cheesy little hearts around us? kthx.

is it the most amazing country i’ve ever visited? probably not, but i enjoyed my visit tremendously and would gladly go again. (if the cuisine showed a dramatic improvement, it may move higher on my Love List.) what i did appreciate about Costa Rica is its national attitude of pura vida (“pure life”), which i most often heard used as a greeting and in response to “how’s it going?”

along with the cicadas,  pura vida will forever define Costa Rica for me. i saw it in the people, the decor, the animals (the sloths especially and maybe even the turtles at Tortuguero), and heard it in the music. it’s an attitude of tranquility that appreciates simplicity above everything else. life seems mellow in Costa Rica. the country never goes to war or bothers its neighbors. in general, the people appeared relaxed and generous, always willing to help and ready to laugh. i guess that’s the upside to living in paradise.

of course, i realize this is a very romanticized conclusion made by a tourist who only spent a week in the country — and Tico is quick to point out that it’s more like that South Park episode where the kids go to Costa Rica expecting to see natural beauty and instead witness drug trafficking, prostitution and their tour guide being eaten by a snake in the rain forest — but whatever, i’m still rolling with my theory.

pretty sure this guy said “pura vida” as i took the photo. (and if not, im still rolling with it.) 

jungle man
jungle man with an oar, or maybe a machete. 

unlike last year’s trip to the Amalfi Coast in Italy, when i spent hours sitting on a chaise lounge while watching the horizon, this vacation afforded me no such downtime. sure, there were plenty of beaches visited and horizons available to stare at, but the early wakeup calls, overscheduled days and daily commutes to a new city colored this trip with a frenetic energy that rivals the pace of my visits to New York. in the end, i had never slept so little or sweat so much during any vacation.

not that i’m complaining. i wanted to see as much of Costa Rica as possible, and Tico and i agreed to make the theme of this trip “adventure.” i’m pretty sure we delivered on this objective. i don’t remember the last time i had so many firsts jampacked into a week. from ziplining to kayaking to playing with monkeys and even just wearing mud boots, the week in Costa Rica did much to turn this urban snob into an adventure-loving nature girl.

i learned so much during my week there, especially from Tico, whose longstanding interest in biology and former life conducting nature hikes at Cerro Dantas, made me subject to lectures about frogs, snakes, insects, birds, primates and plants. given that i know very little about these things, i listened attentively and asked lots of questions. and, of course, the trip provided plenty of kissy-face romance, which we wanted to avoid at all costs, but given the pristine settings we found ourselves in, it just couldn’t be helped. so we went with it and allowed ourselves to laugh and eat and enjoy some tropical loving, once even in the rain forest. happy to cross that off my bucket list.

gracias por todo, Costa Rica! espero volver muy pronto.