You can’t talk about the history of Costa Rica without mentioning coffee. In fact, if it wasn’t for coffee, Costa Rica may have suffered the same fate as The Mosquito Kingdom, a place you may have never even heard about! Fortunately, Costa Rica possessed all of the natural ingredients for producing the savory bean we know and love today.
As with just about any “first” in
history, there is still much debate about how the first coffee bean
arrived in Costa Rica. Some say that the first seeds were brought from
Jamaica by a sea captain under orders of the Costa Rican governor.
Others, insist the bean emigrated from Panama or Cuba at the end of the
18th century. Still others argue that the bean was
transported directly from Ethiopia in 1779, the theory of which I am
personally least convinced. You can be the judge of which story seems
most probable. Regardless, it is well known that in the beginning of the
19th Century, the Costa Rican government saw the potential value that the coffee bean had and highly encouraged its production.
After Costa Rica’s (read: Central America) independence from
Spain, the government began offering plots of land to anyone that was
willing to grow and harvest the plant. With fertile volcanic soil,
favorable temperatures year round, a varying elevations, the crop grew
quite easily in the country. By the end of 1821, there were over 17,000
coffee plants in the nation, producing a crop that, for the most part,
was still not being exported. In 1825, in an effort to promote growth in
coffee production, the government exempted coffee harvesters from
paying a tithe. Four years later, coffee became the leading crop in
production, easily surpassing cacao, tobacco, and sugar.
By 1832, Costa Rica finally began “exporting” coffee. The bean was sent to Chile, where it was re-bagged and renamed “Café Chile del Paraiso” and then sent to Europe. After learning of “Cafe Chile del Paraiso’s” coffee bean’s true origin, an Englishman by the name of William Lacheur arrived in San Jose, Costa Rica to negotiate the purchase of Costa Rican coffee beans. Don Santiago Fernandez Hidalgo, the owner of the farm prospective exporting farm, was suspicious of this Englishman and his “promise to return with silver” in exchange for his coffee beans. In 1843 he allowed Mr. Lacheur to take over 5,000 sacks of coffee and set sail for England under the watchful eyes of a Costa Rican trade specialist. Six months later, both men returned, paid the coffee growers in pounds in sterling and fully loaded another two ships for export. England had acquired a taste for Costa Rican coffee and a new market had been discovered.
Cultivation of coffee in the early
1800s had transformed Costa Rica from a remote, struggling country to a
leading exporter, allowing a stable middle class and a wealthy coffee
oligarchy to form. By 1850, coffee comprised over 90% of Costa Rica’s
exports. The coffee industry transformed the economy and modernized the
country. The revenue generated funded the first railroads connecting the
capital to the Atlantic coast in 1890. In 1897 it funded the building
of The National Theater in San Jose (modeled after a Paris Opera House).
Thanks to the revenue brought in from coffee, Costa Rica was one of the
first cities in the world to have an electric lighting system in 1884.
After World War 2, the demands for Costa
Rican coffee was steadily increasing and productivity was falling short.
The Typica and Bourbon varieties of low productivity, were replaced
with small caturra and catui varieties. This led to an increase from
just over 10,000 coffee plants per hectare to an average of over 30,000
plants per hectare. By the late 1980s, coffee production had increased
from 158,000 tons to 168,000 tons.
Today, coffee is the third largest export
in the country, behind Medical Equipment and tropical fruit. It
accounts for 3% of exports at an export value of $308 Million. The top
importers of Costa Rican coffee are the US (52%, $161M), Belgium
(14%,$44.2M), Germany (4.1%, $12.5M), Italy (3.6%, $11.2M), and
Australia (3.5%, $10.7M). Japan is 10th on the list at 1.8%,
$5.63M. Still, with so much revenue generated from coffee exports, Costa
Rica provides less than 1% of the world’s coffee production! However,
the per capita consumption of coffee in Costa Rica is the highest of all
coffee producing countries in the world.
If you find yourself in Costa Rica and
would like to learn more about Costa Rican coffee, there are plenty of
coffee farm tours available throughout the 8 coffee producing regions
(Central Valley, Tres Rios, Tarrazu, West Valley, Guanacaste, Turrialba,
Brunca, and Orosi). Or you could take a coffee tour at Britt Coffee in
Heredia, a quick 20 to 30 minute drive from San Jose, depending on
traffic. If neither of those sound interesting to you, then head over to
Barrio Escalante and check out some of the new, up and coming 3rd
wave café’s that have coffee from all over Costa Rica in different
plant varieties, washes, and roasts. The coolest part about Barrio
Esclante is you can still see some coffee plants on the sides of
buildings and restaurants, remnants of the first coffee farms in Costa
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I met Arturo at the Cafe Expo Tarrazu 2018. The first thing he said to me, “Yoroshiku Onegaishimasu,” went completely over my head. I was still rather new in Costa Rica, and getting adjusted to hearing Spanish all the time that the Japanese didn’t even register. It wasn’t until my wife, who knows a little Japanese, replied in Japanese that my mind finally picked up on the language shift.
The son of a rather large coffee farm owner (obviously the farm is large…the father is in great shape), Arturo dedicates his free time to helping around the farm. Whether that means harvesting, processing, or giving tours, it seems like he’s all over the place and is obviously very knowledgable about Cafe Sol Naciente’s operations. When he’s not helping his father produce quality coffee, Arturo spends his time at his 9-5 as an accountant for the local electric company, coaching professional woman’s soccer, teaching himself Japanese, or, supporting his wife at her professional hand-ball games. Fortunately for us, Arturo was able to set aside some time and give a tour of his father’s coffee farm, Finca Sol Naciente.
Cafe Sol Naciente literally translated comes out to Coffee Rising Sun. It’s no surprise then that Japan, Land of the Rising Sun, is this farm’s target consumer, and, fortunately enough, their leading importer.
The farm itself sits just outside of the small town of San Marcos, Costa Rica. After a nerve-wracking 20 minute drive through near vertical mountain “roads” (I will never take a FWD sedan again), we arrived at the entrance to the Finca, where a welcoming sign in Spanish, English, and Japanese invited us to the farm.
The day we arrived, even though towards the end of season, Arturo and his family were in the middle of processing some recently harvested coffee fruit.
The coffee fruit is picked, boxed, and driven to the processing plant, where, depending on the finish, it is stripped of its outer layer, dried, and finally bagged.
Since some fruit sneaks by with its outer layer still intact, as seen above, the selection is sent through again, sometimes three times to ensure uniformity. It is absolutely crucial, when coffee farms are producing a certain wash, or aspiring for a certain taste, that there is uniformity among the beans. One bean picked too early, not processed enough, or dried too little, can completely change the taste of a cup of coffee. Although some coffee defects, such as Shells or Floaters, are nearly impossible to prevent, and even harder to detect, specialty coffee farmers must go above and beyond to prevent and detect what they can, in order to provide a quality cup.
Cafe Sol Naciente has a goal of repurposing 100% of their waste. As a result, they dry the stripped outer skin, and re-purpose it as fertilizer on the farm.
Natural finish coffee, as seen above, is dried with the outer layer still attached to the coffee. This gives the cup a much fruitier taste, compared to other processes.
“Honey” processed coffee, what Costa Rica is known for in the coffee industry, is dried with its mucilage still intact, as opposed to “washed” or “full wash” coffee where the mucilage is removed. The coffee dried with the mucilage still attached provides a much sweeter cup. To make matters even more complicated, there are varying levels of “honey” finish, with gold honey, red honey, and black honey. As the level of honey intensifies or “darkens,” so does the sweetness of the cup. However, black honey, dried slower using more shade to leave more mucilage intact than gold and red honey, requires much more maintenance and care as the risk of “souring” or undesired fermentation increases drastically.
Cafe Sol Naciente experiments with different fruit planted next to coffee plants. The fruit, in this case, banana, mango, or lemon trees provide natural shade for the coffee. Arturo Sr., also wants to see if the byproducts of the fruit trees will have any effect on the taste of the coffee. Very excited to try the results.
As the tour winded down, Chris, Arturo’s nephew who accompanied us on the tour, was our saving grace as he asked all the questions I hadn’t even thought of. My personal favorite, “Why does coffee taste so good?” has stayed with me to this day. Some people say it’s the phenolic lipids in the coffee, but I’m more interested in what Chris has to say on the matter the next time we visit.
We couldn’t be more thankful for the tour. Hopefully one of these days, I’ll be able to taste the results of the “fruit tree” experimentation or, equally as enticing, see my first professional handball game. Until then, I wish Cafe Sol Naciente and family the best of luck.
Ah Colombia. The country I caught the travel bug from. When I was about 10 years old, my Father and I would go for 3-4 week long trips to Bogota during the summer. A child, armed with the knowledge that such a different culture exists, in such a different part of the world, will become immediately and immensely more curious about what else the world has to offer. Now, at 28, having been so deeply affected by a country that I never really called home, I was finally able to go back and visit, thanks of course, to the amazing hospitality of the Jordan-Cetina family. From the little knowledge I had when I was 10 years old in 1999, it seems that the country has come a long, long way. A modern, internationally in-tune youth, a promising Democracy, a well established economy, and, not to mention the all too efficient public transportation system, El TransMilenio, Colombia has effectively transformed itself into a 21st century nation.
Of note, Bogota is situated at an altitude of 2640 m (8660 ft). Some travelers may experience some soroche, or altitude sickness as I did my first night back in town. Symptoms could include headache, upset stomach, dehydration, loss of appetite, slight depression, insomnia, difficulty breathing, and/or nose bleeds. To combat this, hydrate heavily, don’t train or workout for the first 3-4 days, carb up, and realize that symptoms will probably dissipate soon.
A good friend of mine had just gotten back from deployment and contacted me. “I’ve been around people 24/7 for the last few months, I just need to get away from people for a few hours.” I knew the perfect solution. My recently newfound hobby, hiking.
“You got any hiking gear? Boots, pants, packs?” I asked. Andrew responded, “Nah, but I should be fine with my running shoes. You think there will be a lot of snow?” The next two sentences would stick with us throughout the entire hike.
“Shouldn’t be that much, I went hiking last week, not that much snow. Plus its a whole ten degrees warmer this weekend, I’m willing to bet it’s all melted by now.”And with that, I convinced him that running shoes would be perfectly suitable for a spring hike.
We set off by car the next morning at 0600 en route to Mt. Kinpu. After about two hours of good conversation and empty (yet still expensive) highways, my buddy looked off into the distance and made an alarming observation.
“Are those mountains ahead of us where we’re headed?” I looked at my phone, “Yeah, they have to be…”
“There’s umm…it looks like there’s quite a bit of snow on those mountains…”
“Yeah…I guess we’ll see a little snow after all. You think your running shoes will be able to hold up?”
“Meh…not much I can do about it now I suppose.”
As we got closer to the mountains and left the city behind us we felt what must have been a ten degree drop in temperature. The car took its first wind up the side of the mountain, and just as it did, we saw just how much snow there really was. “There shouldn’t be that much snow” had quickly turned into “Will my car be able to make it out of here with these abysmal tires?” I looked over at my friend and I could tell he was of the same opinion as me “We drove out this far, there’s really no turning back” although I sensed his level of thrill was not quite as high as mine, given the running shoes situation.
I followed the course on my phone that the lovely British voice was directing me towards and we came to an unexpected stop. Before us was a small white truck with an older Japanese man, in what appeared to be his maintenance uniform, closing a large yellow gate that blocked the road. I knew I was in for some exhausting and confusing Japanese.
“すみません、 あの、 行けませんか？” Now, this guy, was either a complete asshole or gave me too much of a benefit of the doubt. He replied, in full blown, fast paced Japanese. The only part I caught was 4PM. So of course I replied, “ああ、そうですか。えとね、いつに入られますか?” His next set of actions led me to believe he was leaning more towards being an asshole than the alternative. He looked at my friend, then back at me, then simply replied “明日.” And with that, he turned towards the gate and proceeded to close it as if we had simply vanished into thin air.
“Sweet. Whelp, I guess we’re not going up that hike today…” My buddy, being the sharp Naval Officer that he is, responded without hesitation, “I bet if we can find a visitor’s center around here, we can make our way to a good hike. In less than a minute, he had one pulled up in his phone and we made our way, set back but undefeated.
After thirty minutes in the tourist information center, the employee there kindly recommended we check out a trail just south of there, Mt. Kayagatake. “But,” he warned, “It will be dangerous for your friend because of his shoes.” I looked Andrew inquisitively and as he gave a thumbs up saying, “Lets get this show on the road.”
We drove off and found ourselves at the start of the trail within the hour. Stepping out of the safety of our car into the cold forest with its makeshift parking lot, we could not see any snow and were both slightly relieved. That sense of relief lasted all of thirty minutes until we left the parking lot and saw nothing suffocating, blinding white snow in every direction. In fact, the only indicator of where the trail went was the absence of trees and slight indentation into the earth.
I have to admit I began to feel bad for my buddy that was about to hike this entire mountain overtaken by snow, in Nike running shoes. Even though it was fairly warm outside for April, every step had us shin deep in snow. And a wrong placement of the foot, could easily mean slipping and falling over onto the snow, or worse, a hidden rock.
The tempo of our conversations were timed by the focus, or lack thereof, on our foot placement. “This would be right around the time bears would be waking up,” Andrew pointed out, “I bet they’re going to be rather hungry.” Both lacking a bear bell, we attempted to keep a steady conversation, only when the snow was thinner and the ground, relatively flat. We did this to not inadvertently sneak up on any bears, and to try to keep our thoughts away from the subject of bears; however, that seems to be all we talked about. “What does bear piss smell like? Can you smell if a bear was recently in the area? Can you accidentally wake one up early from a hibernation?”
Pushing on with our bear talk, we came through this beautiful snow covered valley of trees, with an incline at the end. The bright white snow and thin white trees for hundreds of feet in every direction really made you feel like you were on another planet. It was absolutely stunning to see, but, you could only see so much of it as you made sure you didn’t slip and fall off of the trail.
The more we ascended, the more the snow seemed to thin out. We could feel earth beneath our footwear and the stress of foot placement eased tremendously. You’d be surprised how much brain power making sure your foot steps in the exact spot takes. We were both pretty relieved to be able to concern ourselves with other things. Like taking pictures, stopping to hydrate, and bears of course.
The rest of the hike was rather straightforward and uneventful, although challenging. The last 1/3 of this mountain saw the greatest amount of elevation change. Although the snow never died away, it did become small enough of a problem that we stopped paying attention to it. My buddy fell a few times of course, but that was mostly on the descent. Mostly.
I’m sure he will hate me for bringing this up, but during the descent, we decided to “run” down the mountain. Looking back it wasn’t the greatest idea, in fact it was more of a slide, but it was pretty entertaining. During one leg of this “run” I was leading and all of the sudden I stop hearing the sound of Andrew’s foot steps behind me. I assumed perhaps he was in the middle of a really long, quiet slide so I didn’t think much of it. After a good minute or two of silence behind me, I turn around to find, Andrew, laying flat on his back about 200 feet away. I double back and find him sitting in the snow, with a dirt streak all along his left pant leg. I stupidly remember asking him “What happened?” Even a West Point graduate could have pieced this one together. “Are you alright?” I asked, trying to deliver more purposeful questions. As soon as I realized he was ok, I was dying with laughter. He had, not even five minutes prior, bet me that he would slip fewer times than I would, running shoes and all.
What separates a good cafe from a mediocre one? What motivates loyal customers to continue choosing your cafe instead of the competition just down the street? What encourages new customers to give your spot a chance? Is it the atmosphere, the customer service, or the quality of the coffee? These were the questions that I came down to Costa Rica to have answered in my crazy pursuit to one day have a cafe that I can call my own.
I’d been in Costa Rica for a little over a month, and I still couldn’t find any real work. I applied to every, single, cafe in San José (That is no exaggeration) and even to a few outside of the city. Every interviewer always immediately asked me, a bit arrogantly it seemed, “Well what cafe experience do you even have?” I’d reply, “My five years in the Navy has not given me much direct experience with hospitality, or coffee for that matter, but I can assure you that what I lack in experience, I can more than make up for in dedication and willingness to learn…” Didn’t seem to matter.
Tired of waiting for so many 2nd calls or emails that never came, I began thinking that coming to Costa Rica, the source of quality coffee, to learn about coffee maybe wasn’t such a good idea after all. Looking back, I was carrying a decent amount of stress with me and I was losing a good amount of weight. I began toying with the idea of getting a job outside of coffee. Get something that wouldn’t have anything to do with specialty coffee, or even hospitality for that matter, but could afford me the opportunity to survive financially and volunteer after work or on the weekends at a cafe since I “lacked experience.” Swallowing my pride, I accepted a volunteer position (via a good family friend) at Cafeoteca, one of the previous cafes that more or less scoffed at my inexperience. They just happened to be one of the best specialty coffee shops in Costa Rica.
I began volunteering there just about every day from 8AM to 3PM and would use my downtime to search for a paying job. Luckily, I was able to learn quite a bit while “working” from how to use an espresso machine, to how to prepare “Metas” or brewed coffee (Chemix, Aeropress, French Press, V60, Gondola), how to properly steam milk for a Cappucino or Latte, and, most importantly, how to provide great customer service, all in Spanish mind you (It had been a quite a while since I had spoken Spanish daily). After about three weeks of what seemed like indentured servitude at best, I had finally been accepted as an English teacher at a learning academy. The pay was absolutely atrocious, but I could work nights, keep my day schedule at the cafe, and afford to buy food without much stress (Costa Rica is an expensive country contrary to popular belief, its just the salaries that are low).
The English Academy had planned to send me to a “teacher prep course” a month after I accepted the position; however, about two days after I officially accepted the job, one of my “co-workers” had gotten pretty irritated that the cafe wasn’t paying me, but still expected me to work so much. He recommended that I talk to a friend of his, an owner at another cafe, after he put in a good word for me. Not even a day later, I found myself face to face with the world famous Manuel Dinarte, Costa Rica’s 2008 National Barista Champion, and owner of Cafe del Barista. After a brief conversation and demonstration of my recently learned skills (I’m sure the recommendation helped more than anything), I was offered a position as manager at one of his cafes. And that was that. I immediately called the English Academy and regretfully informed them that I was no longer available and got to work.
I quickly fell in love with everything about the cafe. The employees were all a part of Costa Rica’s budding 3rd Wave Coffee scene. Eager to both teach and learn anything and everything there is to know about coffee. The repeat customers were in love with the customer service that they received at the cafe, and that showed not only through their repeat business, but more so with how they interacted within the cafe. Nothing but laughs and smiles the entire hour or hour and a half in the shop. Only once had I ever seen a customer have a bad experience and that was because we closed at 530 PM, but they hadn’t taken the hint by 615. The kitchen, bakery, and baristas all loved what they did and that was easily reflected in the products that we delivered to the customer, be it a delicious, glazed cinnamon roll, mouth watering white wine sauce chicken with rice and beans, or our coffee, at the time, a natural processed Geisha from Herbazu, Costa Rica.
My coffee knowledge seems to have quadrupled, luckily, while working at Cafe del Barista. I was fortunate enough to go directly to the farms from where we bought our beans and see the (sometimes manual as seen above) 1st, 2nd, and 3rd selection process that dictated how much a sack of coffee would ultimately cost.
I was able to, under the guidance of owner Manuel, get hands on roasting experience. Seeing first hand, what it meant for a coffee to “Yellow,” how the official first crack was noted, and what parameters to use to determine when to stop a roast depending on coffee variety, process, and desired taste.
I even got some hands on experience baking. Although, as Cindy, our baker below, can tell you, I have much to learn in the art of baking, and it may just be that I’m not cut out to be a professional baker.
Our cafe was even featured in a TV program on best cafes in Latin America. Guess who the only other cafe was in Costa Rica that made it onto the program…..Cafeoteca.
And in everything that I’ve learned through my experience at Cafe del Barista, I’ve finally figured out what the secret is to running a great cafe. Its not how well the beans are roasted, nor is it the quality of the coffee beans, or the baked goods, or even the food. What turns a good cafe into a great one, is, as you’ve probably guessed, the people. The basic essence of what a cafe is, a place to escape the stressors of life and relax, a place to enjoy good company, share a cup of coffee, and laugh away your thoughts. The baristas serving your cup of coffee, with care and attention, take it from a mediocre cup, to an excellent one, and the difference is easily tasted. The chefs eliminate your growling stomach, with carefully prepared dishes from the heart. And, cafes fortunate enough to have an in house baker like ours, the baker provides the perfect, mouth watering complement to your great cup of coffee.
I’ve heard stories of cafes, in Costa Rica at least, that seem trendy, seem hip, seem like a great place to relax, but the owners treat the employees like trash. I’ve visited these cafes myself. Sure, they have great coffee, good food, and everyone greets me, but each time, there is something that is just off. I’ve never felt a burning desire to go back to these places, to waste away my quiet Saturday afternoon enjoying their coffee, or even support their organization with my money. I strongly believe that is because the people were not taken care of, so how could they possibly fully take care of me.
“You can smell it. The warm subtle notes of fresh Costa Rican coffee calms you as you breathe it in. The steady drip from the pot reminds you of when mother would pour her coffee early Saturday mornings. As you bring the warm cup to your mouth, your taste buds expand, anticipating the beautiful embrace of perfection. Come join us for a cup of coffee.” -Cafe del Barista, written by yours truly.
I had just gotten back to Japan from Christmas vacation in the United States, and I was bored out of my mind. I had regrettably finished all of my Netflix shows on the 22 hour commute to and from home, and I couldn’t find many people that wanted to go surfing in negative degree water (myself included).
Deciding to get off the couch and sweep away my suffocating boredom, I put my morning cup of coffee down and picked up my iPhone. I opened Google Maps (highly recommended app for living in Japan) and looked for a mountain within driving range. I found one just south of Fuji-san, three hours away. Afraid of losing any more daylight, I threw on my favorite pair of hiking pants and was out the door within a matter of minutes.
Absolutely nothing remarkable or exciting happened on my drive to the mountain. I listened to a few podcasts from SYSK (highly recommended podcast, great content, outstanding presentation) and safely arrived about 15 minutes ahead of schedule. I parked my car, grabbed my gear (camera and backpack full of one rice snack due to poor planning) and I was off.
About 100 steps up the trail, I kept getting this nagging feeling to turn around. I knew Fuji was close, but even from the parking lot, I had somehow missed the fact that it was this close, and this visible.
I turned back around, and continued on with my hike. You can see all of the cars in the parking lot in the picture above, but I had yet to see any hikers on the trail. It could just be me, but I’m always a little unsettled when I don’t see at least a few souls enjoying the hike. I use a similar rule when visiting foreign bodies of water. “If none of the locals are swimming, there is no way I’m getting in the water.” Well, I didn’t have that option here after a 3 hour drive so I tried to just put that thought away.
About halfway through the ascent, I finally came across another human being, a group on their way back down the mountain. Solo hikes are fun because you don’t have to worry about too much talking, too little talking, pace, or burdens of injuries, but, too much silence is rather unsettling. Overcome with excitement, I had failed to realize that it was too early for anyone to be making a descent.
As I passed by and greeted them, the leader of the pack stated “Be careful, its dangerous.” I asked why in Japanese and I’m not sure what startled him more. The fact that I understood his comment, or replied in Japanese, but shock and confusion was well written all over his face. “There’s too much snow ahead, you need (word in Japanese that I did not know).” “Eh” I replied “what is it that I need?”
His face shifted back to calm and collected. As if me not being fluent and able to understand Japanese completely put his world back in order. “Cramp-onzu.” “Cramp-ons,” I thought, “Hmmm….that is definitely a thing that I do not possess.” Slightly defeated, I asked if he thought I could still continue. Unsure whether to use English or Japanese he replied “Ah….maybe ok because…..” The words had escaped them. “強いので、その大丈夫です,” he proudly stated, “気を付けてね,” waved, and continued his descent.
I thought to myself. “I’ll be ok because I’m strong?….What does my strength have to do with the snow?….It must be pretty bad if they all decided to turn around….I wonder if this is going to be one of those situations where I wish I made THE OTHER choice….Well, no turning back.”
It took me at least another 20 minutes of hiking before I even saw snow. I had started to think maybe that guy was just messing with me. When I finally did see the snow, I was naively unimpressed. I distinctly remember thinking “Locals here always over-prepare and err too much on the side of caution.”
And then I was alone again. Not a single soul. “Where are all of those parking lot car owners?” I thought to myself. The snow on the trail began picking up, but nothing worth worrying about. It was so thin that I could “feel” the dirt beneath each step. I told myself I was really glad I didn’t quit.
And that’s when the snow reared her subtly irritating head. It wasn’t so much the thickness of the snow, but the “challenging” aspect to it. I now found myself on angled trails, with no real grip on my boots and no cramp-ons of course. I alternated between trying to shimmy up this trail, not fall off, and grab trees to pull myself through when I could. I, hated, myself. Why was I so stubborn? Why did I decide to swim when none of the locals were swimming?
The snow never gave way to dirt, it was always ice. Ice, ice and more ice. My boots couldn’t grip to save my life. If I wasn’t holding on to a tree, I was sliding, or on hands and knees, digging into the snow with my shivering hands, and planting my legs to prevent myself from sliding backwards. I was slightly comforted in the fact that there were so many trees all around me that if I fell, it would be a short “slide” into a tree nearby. However, I would lose all sense of direction and would be in some serious trouble.
I had decided by now two things. 1. There was no way I was going to let this snow defeat me. And 2. I need to invest in some hiking gloves. Sliding up the mountain, I found a new drive to not let this mountain beat me. I would allow my hands to go temporarily numb to the point where I could no longer grip the trees and then curse myself as I warmed them back up. I’m sure, if you could have been there with me, you would have died of laughter. The funniest part, I think, was in the thickest part of the snow. There was a small gap where no trees could be reached. My hands were numb and my legs were killing me at this point from digging so deep into the earth. I tried to “hop” in between the gap of trees in order to grab the next tree. Well, I successfully “hopped” in between, but when I went to grab the tree, my hand was too numb to even feel for anything, let alone grip it. I lost my balance and fell hard on my right knee. I was livid. This damn snow. I went to stand up, but I realized, that any significant shift in my center of gravity would have me back on the ice. So, I slid back, using my hands to shuffle me along to the last tree. My “weather resistant” (read: non-waterproof) camera had snow all over it like it was about to be in an Old Navy Christmas Display. I finally reached the previous tree, hands burning, and I just sat there, trying to wash away my frustration.
About five minutes later, I finally got back up and attempted to “hop” again. This time, I wrapped my fleece around my hands for added grip. Successful, I continued my ascent and was graced with a marvelous sign. No, more, snow. I’m not really sure the science behind it. I had always assumed that, the higher the altitude, the stronger the snow, but I wasn’t complaining, neither were my hands.
I finished out the hike energetic but grumpy. Once I got the top, I finally saw another person. A friendly lady that asked me to take her picture. I did of course, and in return she offered me a Japanese snack. I was deeply embarrassed as all I had to offer in return was a rice snack that had, without a doubt, been crushed from all of my falls on the trail. I thanked her and realized I hadn’t eaten anything all day. I laugh at it now, but all of my irritation, frustration, and pain suddenly made sense. I ate her delicious snack and began my descent. My first thought, “I’m going to have to get to that damn point again, and I’m really going to lose it.” Fortunately, gravity would be on my side this time.
But seriously, where were all those people who parked their cars in the parking lot? I’m still pretty creeped out by that to this day.
If you know absolutely noting about China and her history, you’ve probably at least heard of Beijing. If you haven’t, no worries, I’ve got you covered.
Beijing, meaning quite literally, northern capital, was given that name in the 15th century to distinguish it from Nanjing (南京), Southern Capital. With a population of 19 million, it comes in 8th place for Most Populated Cities, just behind Osaka, Japan and ahead of New York, New York. Popular attractions include The Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, and the Forbidden City.
“The air is so terrible in Beijing.” When I told people I was headed to Beijing to visit a family friend, this was their response 75% of the time. And 10% of the time it was “Oh nice, The Great Wall.” Not to forget the 5% of the time where it was simply “Ha, Communism.” As I boarded the plane headed East, I really had no idea what to expect from China. As an American, and more importantly, an American in the military, I was raised to fear China, to distrust anything Chinese, and to view anything they touched as inferior. I can honestly say that in the “Chinese Visa Acquisition Process” I definitely held these views. The number of times I was told simply “not today” or “this isn’t good enough” when just last week, the SAME LADY at the Chinese Embassy had said “this is all you will need next week,” was very trying on my open mind. When asked to surrender my passport for a week so they could “process it” I naturally assumed that it was now being shipped off to some black market or a tracking device was being added so they could “watch me.” I had heard of stories of cameras hidden in hotel rooms in China, and of people just disappearing after their visit.
As the plane took off I remember thinking “Welp, no turning back” as I mentally increased my personal vigilance and security posture. All around me there was nothing but a strange Asian dialect my ears had not yet been accustomed to after a year in Japan. After 4 very quick hours, the plane landed and we debarked, grabbing our luggage and heading to customs.
My first official interaction with China went smooth enough. “Passport!” The stern looking Chinese customs official barked as I fumbled through my bags. “How long are you here!” He ever so gently screamed. “Just 5 days,” I replied, trying to speak gently enough to calm the situation that seemed to be getting out of hand. There was the awkward pause that I always seem to find myself in at international airports where, they’ve already scanned my passport, but continue searching. Leaning against the counter, bags at my feet in disarray, and fearing that they will somehow find out, that one time, when I was 11, I once thought of grabbing an extra packet of BBQ sauce from Chic-Fil-A even though they said the limit was 2, and throw me in jail. Luckily, that didn’t happen this time and he gently ushered me through, “Ok, go!” Maybe it was just when he spoke English, but I really hope, for the sake of his family, that his Chinese Bedside Manner was better than his English…
As I successfully walked through customs, I approached a line that scanned everyone’s bags. I waited, patiently, as the line proceeded. There were two airport officials, both Chinese of course, and about, 40 or 50 passengers that had already made it through customs. They were there, working the line through, and randomly inspecting passports. “China doesn’t play around,” I thought. The longer I waited in line, the more I started to notice. “Hmm…they are only asking a particular demographic for their passports…” I thought. There were three African men a few people in front of me, and almost systematically, when they got to the scanner “Passports!…” “Maybe they’re asking more people and I’m just not realizing it…” I continued to optimistically tell myself. I kept watching. A family of Argentinians went through, speaking their Argentinian Spanish loud and proud as they are known to do (much love) and no passport check. A Chinese man went through. No check. A Japanese couple just ahead of me went through. No. Check. Finally it was my turn. I almost bet myself $50 that they would check mine, due to, you know, security reasons. I should have taken myself up on that. “Passport!” The “extremely friendly” Chinese security woman barked. I smiled, looked behind searching for some support in how ridiculous this was, handed her my passport, and she shoved it back like she had been on this shift for too long now.
Ignoring the “passport selection process,” and trying to remain optimistic about the People’s Republic, I marched on through the airport, finally being picked up by the family friend around midnight. We drove through the night, passing utterly insane drivers, enormous skyscrapers, and people on the side of the road, offering to wash the insane amount of dirt off of your car that every single car on the road had.
The next morning I awoke to an absolutely gorgeous view of the city. The sun was just rising, and this panoramic view made for the perfect addition to my morning cup of local tea. Without skipping a beat, we left for The Great Wall. Everything about Beijing seemed normal enough. The people were there. The buildings were there. Sure it was a little dirty, but what major city isn’t?
This is right about when Beijing’s charm started to hit me. The locals, for the most part, had no idea what I was saying, and I, of course, returned the favor. But communication is always more than words, and I could tell that these people weren’t the cold barbarians I had been made to believe. Our driver, a Chinese man whose name I will NEVER be able to pronounce, kept making sure that we were at our highest levels of comfort. Every time we almost got in an accident, which happened more than a handful times, he looked back and gave a thumbs up with questioning eyebrows. The men and women at the produce and meat stands gave free samples, and said something in Chinese which I translated via body language and intonation as, “These are great, you are great, you deserve these.” And when we declined to buy, “Have a marvelous day!” I’m guessing of course.
Finally arriving to The Great Wall, we purchased our tickets, took the cable car up and saw, with our own eyes, one of the great wonders of the world. I was pretty taken aback. My friend had probably been here numerous times and was probably tired of bringing every visitor here, but you can’t go to Beijing and not see it at least once. Unfortunately, there is quite a bit of graffiti on the wall, along with stolen breaks and general decay.
After The Wall, our hosts took us to a local grocery store. There was a VERY STRANGE smell that permeated throughout the store. If you took a plastic water jug, heated it, and added raw chicken to it, you could possibly mimic the smell. If that isn’t enough to make you uncomfortable, there was, so, much, raw, meat, just hanging out.
If you’re a savvy reader, or are irritated by mistakes, as I am, even though I make them myself, you probably noticed the percentages in the beginning did not add up to 100%. If you didn’t catch that, no worries. The remaining 5% of people, when made aware of my trip to Beijing, commented “They have amazing food there.” These wise 5%, were absolutely correct.
After getting back to the house, resting up, showering, and heading back out, we made it to a authentic Chinese restaurant. American me expected to see, Kung Pao Chicken, General Tsao Chicken, or any other popular Chinese food item. I was, blown away. Our host ordered this fried duck for us. I have no idea what part of the duck it was, but, the way this meat literally melted in your mouth, as the sugar coating broke apart and gave you a caramel sensation followed by succulent protein made me completely fall in love with China. There was this spicy chicken dish, seasoned with all kinds of herbs and spices. I not only ate my serving, but I had the audacity to ask my host “How hungry are you reaaaallllly?……” It was that good. If you ever get the chance to travel in Asia, go to China, find yourself in Beijing, and try real Chinese food. You will be blown away, or discover that you really don’t have any taste buds.
The next day we were arranged to meet with a Chinese tour guide that would take us around the famous Square, and forbidden city. She was a nice enough women, late 20’s with great English and a great depth of knowledge about China. She pointed out almost every building and gave its history. Right around now, I looked around and noticed the air looked quite odd. I thought it was just the way the sun was rising, but the “filter” didn’t leave once the sun had completely risen. “This is the smog we are famous for,” our tour guide explained. I honestly cant remember if she said that the fog was worse in the winter because everyone was using their heaters and increasing energy consumption…or better in the winter because the air was less humid and thin (if you know please inform me, I’m pretty irritated with myself that I can’t remember).
After arriving at all the tourist traps, she started getting pretty political. Really all I care to say about that, but I was worried a passing guard would hear her rhetoric and throw us all in jail. I was happy when she switched from politics and current events to history. Did you know the Emperor of China had a whole city of concubines for him and him alone? I hadn’t. I looked at my girlfriend and made the facial expression for “That would be pretty cool huh?” She wasn’t as amused by this fact, and even less so by my stupidity.
I was really pleasantly surprised by Beijing and China as a whole. They weren’t these savage monsters that knew nothing but how to be rude and untrustworthy. I’m sure they have that, hell, name a country that doesn’t. And although their customer service may not be as crisp as Japan’s, there certainly is something to be said about Chinese hospitality. Of course, I got strange looks in certain places. This really old guy just came up to my face and looked at me. I looked at my tour guide searching for an explanation, and she just shrugged. But people, for the most part, were just as friendly as I had been experiencing back “home” in Japan. Hell, the customer service of these “rude and backwards people” definitely beat some of the restaurants I frequented back in the States.
Right after this “old guy incident,” my tour guide gasped as she looked at her phone. “Trump just won…” she let out in despair. I chuckled as I realized I found out about who my next President was from a Chinese woman in Beijing.
First and foremost, let me apologize for the pictures. The quality is terrible, the creativity is minimal, if existent at all. At the time, I was sporting an iPhone4. That is not a typo. As a result, I hope these will be the poorest images on this site; however, they are the only ones I have of a very significant hike for me.
I had been in San Diego for about a month now. A friend decided they wanted to come out to visit, and had also decided that it would be a great time to hike the Mojave. I knew absolutely nothing about hiking. I knew nothing about trails, gear, conditioning, but I knew I was interested. After hours spent watching videos of people getting lost in deserts, mountains, and jungles, I knew I would love it, I just didn’t know how to start.
I went to the local REI and asked the poor guy working there probably close to a thousand questions. “What kind of boots should I use? Do type of socks matter? How much food should I bring? Do I really need these water purifying tablets?” After 3 or 4 trips, of lengthy question and answer sessions I had my gear. I had previously purchased a Mountaineering Book so I had somewhat of a baseline level of knowledge, but book knowledge is quite different from experience. Luckily, the staff at REI could provide that.
With my boots, socks, pants, backpack, tent, sleeping bag, and recommended food (and water of course) I was ready to go. I picked my friend up from the airport in a rental car and we immediately set off. The trip to the desert wasn’t bad. We only encountered one minor scare. I decided to chance it on the gas and just get some when we got there. Dumbest idea I’ve had. A gas station in the desert. No idea why that sounded like a good idea. After pulling up to the “Mojave Desert Information Center” and not seeing a gas station, we realized this could be a problem. I asked the information guy where the nearest gas station was. 15 miles?!?!? I had 8 in the tank. An ever re-occurring mixture of fear and excitement met me when I got back in the car. “Well, this could either end up in one of two ways,” I thought. The sun was pounding onto the gravel road. Unfortunately, we saw no tumbleweeds, as would have been indicative of even a slight breeze. All we were met with was the wavy haze of an overheated road far off in the distance.
“Just let the car coast,” I kept thinking. I kept checking the gas, and kept looking at my friend, who did not seem as worried as I did. We crept forward, looking at our phones every few minutes praying we would come across some cellular phone signal in case the worst happened. “Well, we do have enough food and water for a few days, worst comes to worst…” I was the only one that laughed. We spent the next 30 minutes, going just under the speed limit, killing daylight and our adventure, creeping towards the gas station. We finally arrived, somehow, with no gas. I popped open the tank, and it let out a breathe of air, almost as if it was exhausted, giving us all the fumes of gas it could muster up to get us to the gas station.
We filled up, let out a sigh of relief, and got back on the road, racing back towards the parking lot trying to save daylight. After finally arriving, we hopped out of the car, excited to have a full tank of gas, and, although a shortened one, a whole day of adventure ahead.
The trail was absolutely beautiful. It was hot, very hot. Temperatures here can get up to 49C (120F) incredibly enough. But the further away from the visitor center we got, the more breeze we were able to catch. We saw small rodents, rabbits, and even cows grazing and I kept thinking “How awesome is this!” And then of course, as if perfectly times to ruin my carefree, adventurous mood, we saw “Caution: Mountain Lions. Don’t hike with small children, don’t hike alone, be cautious of your surrounding.” Ha….well wow. “I doubt this pocket knife will do much to this mountain lion. Umm…was anyone going to mention these vicious killers to me before we decided to go on this hike?” Silence. I quickly learned that it was better to not speak of the potential danger, and just enjoy the journey, whether it be a bear, a lion, or a shark. You can’t control when and where you see them, you can just better prepare yourself.
Tough chance. The entire hike, the thought of a mountain lion leaping 60 feet in the air and pouncing down on my lingered in the back of my head. Fortunately, the further along we went, and the less energy I had, the quieter this thought was, although never silenced.
The hike up to the site where we decided to set up camp was pretty fun. Between wild animals, rocks to climb over, and jaw-dropping views, I was having the time of my life. I felt so disconnected with the city and the rest of the world. In that instance I felt alive, free, and refreshed.
It was right around when we decided to set the tent up that we noticed two things. Its starting to get really cold. And. Where did all of this wind come from? As the sun went down, the wind picked up, almost as if it was the very thing pushing the sun back behind the mountains. If you’ve never set up a tent in 20-30 knot wind, I’m pretty envious of you. Setting up one side of the tent, only to have a piece on the other side blow up, or an item roll down the hill was by far my least part of the hike. But looking back, it made it that much more memorable.
The sun finally set and it. was. freezing. I knew from high school that it can get cold in the desert at night, but I had not anticipated needing a jacket inside my sleeping back inside my tent. The same tent that was constantly at risk of being blown to pieces by the howling wind that was determined to not let me get any sleep. On top of that, in my head, I envisioned a mountain lion just circling our tent, waiting for one of us to step out and go to the bathroom or peak out for a view. Fortunately, the wind did its best, but did not damage to my tent, and the mountain lion, if she came, never bothered us.
We awoke, with little sleep, and started our journey back to the car. I was completely exhausted. The views were amazing, I could recharge away from the city, and really turn inward to my thoughts and where life was going. However….my joints were killing me, and I was tired of eating jerky and trail mix, I wanted real food. Still, with all the self-induced suffering caused by a weak frame of mind and no conditioning, I caught the hiking bug. It was quick, it was easy, I hadn’t even noticed it. On the car ride back I thought “That was cool, but I’m not really sure I’ll do it again…” And here we are…
So this may just be my most memorable hike in Japan. It was late fall and I had only a few days left in Japan before I would head back home to the States for Christmas vacation. My girlfriend at the time and I wanted to do something memorable for my last weekend in Japan. She knew that I loved hiking and thought it would be a great way to end 2016 and send me off. Well, that was my first mistake.
Rule #1 – Always let the first time hiker choose the altitude of the mountain and the hike length.
Check, I had known about rule number one for quite some time now. As soon as she, my GF at the time, had mentioned that she wanted to go hiking my immediate response was,, “perfect, well, choose the mountain and the hike and I will take care of the rest.” About three question filled hours later we had made a decision, Mt. Tanzawa.
Fortunately for us, on the day of the hike, we were initially greeted with no clouds and reassuring, constant beam of sunlight that took some of the chill out of the autumn air. It was at this point in time, that my hiking partner today decided to let me know that she had sprained her ankle a few weeks prior. Lovely.
Rule #2 – Don’t attempt a hike if you’re not feeling 95%.
I would chalk up a recently sprained ankle as significantly detrimental. What’s worse, I was not naive enough to not realize, that the previously unmentioned sprained ankle would at best slow my down and at worst possibly jeopardize our ability to finish the hike unassisted.
I ever so calmly asked her, “why is this the first you’re mentioning this?” “I saw how excited you were to go hiking and didn’t want to disappoint you,” she responded, “plus, I want to try to start hiking myself,” perfectly un-equipping me of any anger I could have felt towards her “delayed notification.” “Alright well…I guess just be careful,” I told her, knowing all too well of what lay ahead of us and how impossible it would be.
We pushed off and I found myself in my element once again. She began asking me questions like, “What do you do if you start sweating a lot?” “How do you know how much longer you have to go?” “What do you do if you see a bear?” I easily answered all of them except for the last one where I simply smiled and replied “Ganbatte ne” (Best of luck to you should you ever find yourself in that terrible situation you poor soul) Loosely translated of course. The truth is, that I naively didn’t know much about bears at the time. I simply thought that they were farrrrrr away, out of reach from the casual hiker. I truly miss those days of ignorance. Hikes were much freer, more enjoyable without the constant scan for a curious bear. I know feel the same way about hiking as I do getting in the water at the beach, “I know I’m screwed if I see a shark so I damn well better not see one….”
Anywho… As we began gaining some altitude I was pleasantly surprised by how well my hiking partner was doing. She hadn’t complained once about her ankle and was actually keeping a solid pace. The crisp autumn air ran through the mostly barren trees and made a whistling noise as if the mountain were inviting us further.
We climbed a few sets of natural stairs and scaled a few boulders, and before we knew it, we were a solid two hours in to the hike. This was when I made another mistake… “You want to stop for a water break?” I asked, and as soon as we stopped, whatever magical power that had been pushing my girlfriend forward must have tumbled down the side of the mountain.
We finished our water and I looked at her with raised eyebrows and my head pointed upwards implying movement. She responded with minced eyebrows and a quick hand to the ankle. “It hurts a little..” she said. “Yeah I’m actually surprised you made it this far without mentioning it, can you go on.” “Yeah!”
We continued our upward cut through the mountain but nothing was the same. Our pace had been halved, if not quartered, and her face was full of sweat and pain. I painfully watched as Japanese grandmothers passed us on our left and right, decked out in their 1980s mountain climbing gear and ever loud, ever proud bear bells. “Hey, if you need to stop, just let me know” I reassured her.
She pushed on, and I could smell the resentment in the air. “Why the hell am I on this stupid mountain…” I just KNEW she was thinking something along those lines. The constant, engaging conversation had devolved to a mere one word answer with her frustration increasing in every response.
Fortunately for us, mostly me, we stumbled across these bunny/deer hybrids off to the side of the trail. The mama bunny/deer (bdeer) kept a watchful eye out as her offspring fed. It was rather entertaining and my hiking partner kept commenting on how cool it was. Hell, I had never seen any big wildlife on any of my Japanese hikes, this was really cool. “She’ll probably be in a better mood now because of this” I thought to myself as I thankfully watched her cheek to cheek smile materialize. A crowd quickly began to gather around us taking pictures of the bdeer and we decided it was time to move on.
I kid you not, the very first step off from watching the bdeer, I sadly watched my girlfriend’s cheek to cheek smile turn into a hatred filled frown. I rotated my palms inward and up and asked “Wh…what just happened??….” “Nothing, how much further do we have?” she ever so pleasantly (sarcasm) asked. “I really have no idea, I plan my hikes based on a relatively constant pace and…we’ve stopped a few times…” Silence…. “Maybe 90 minutes left?” I tried to reassure her….Silence….
The rest of the hike up was enjoyed by me internally, as I did not say or hear a single word. Finally, about an hour and a half later, we got to the top. The view made it all worth it of course, but even better, there were some benches to sit on. A little ramen shop stood off to the side and we ordered some Japanese curry and ramen of course.
I asked my hiking partner to show me her ankle, this being the first conversation we had since the bdeer sighting. “Whoah” I breathed with eyes wide open, “That’s pretty swollen…” “Yeah, I don’t think hiking was a good idea today…” she casually responded “sorry for getting irritated at you, it’s just pretty bothersome.” “No kidding, should we call for help?” I asked. “Let’s wait an hour and see how it feels. Knowing that without ice and an aspirin, and only an hour of rest, her ankle would feel exactly the same as it did now, I agreed and decided to fill my mind with other, less guaranteed things.
Well the hour was up and so was my jovial mood. I knew for a fact that I would not want to descend any mountain over 300m on a sprained ankle, and here we were, faced with this difficult task. I say we, but really it was her duty to fulfill, all I had to do was absorb any of the “I have a sprained ankle, what is the point of hiking, its freezing cold” attitude coming my way. Easy enough, I thought, how hard could just being quiet be?
About an hour in I casually asked, “so…really…why didn’t you say anything about this ankle beforehand, I mean, this could be pretty dangerous?” Which brings me to rule number 3.
Rule #3 – If you ever find yourself on a 1500m mountain, hiking with a first-time-hiker-girlfriend who is beyond irritated with a sprained ankle, there is never a good time for logic driven questions. Hell, there is never a good time for questions.
Fortunately for me, she wasn’t a quitter and we kept moving. We did have to take numerous stops, which I completely understood, but, as I watched the sun fall closer to the horizon, my patience for waiting was quickly turning into a rush to get off this mountain before nightfall. During our last “stop” I tried to explain how crucial it was to not be on the side of a mountain after sunset. She understood of course, but all that was reverberating through her ears was a beating ankle.
We finally arrived at the trail head and just as we stepped off the trail and onto the road, we saw three Japanese men in blue uniforms with a stretcher run past us. “That was an option?” my intrepid hiking partner jokingly asked. I started to reply “Well actually there were many options that we could have taken today…one of which including not hiking on a sprained ankle,” but….I decided that wouldn’t do anything positive. Plus, she had just done a 1567m hike at less than 95%, easily earning my respect. “Thanks for coming with me,” I said as I gave her a hug. “Yeah, it was interesting” she responded, “thanks for guiding…..I’m never going hiking again.” “Believe me I know,” I smiled.
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