Only The Dates Have Been Changed

Costa Rica, Year 3, Day 1: It’s like we never left, only more so.

I’ve been reading The Best American Travel Stories 2011, edited by one of my favorite authors, Sloane Crosley. In her introduction essay, she states that she never wants to go back to the same place twice because the world is so big and wonderful. I used to agree with her, and in many ways I still do. In a previous life (about 15 years ago, I suppose) I spent 10 days on the island of Mustique. Mystical, to be sure. Ah, Basil and his friends (rock stars, clothing designers, European royalty, entrepreneurs and trust fund babies). What’s not to like? The beaches, the views, the restaurants. Ok, there was only one restaurant, but it was fabulous—a lively lobster once scampered across the dining room floor trying to escape his devilishly hot fate—heaven on earth for us humans. And here is where Ms. Crosley’s point is valid: my return trip the following year had none of the awe and fascination. I went back hoping to repeat the wonderment. Alas, it was, “Oh, yeah, I remember this beach.”
But this spot in Costa Rica where we (my hubby and I) have found… We love it more each year. We’ve met people here, found the best places to eat and buy good meat (organic beef and pork from Nicaragua), my Spanish has greatly improved, and I am over the culture shock that overwhelmed me on my first visit. But I post this post as a marker, taking my emotional temperature, if you will, so I can compare how I feel about it at the end of our trip.
Here’s my Costa Rican recap:
First trip to CR: 1 Week in Tamarindo: Fabulous. Me, hubby, 4 sons. Great time, great food, great town, great house though it didn’t have an ocean view.
Second trip to CR: 1 month near Coco Beach: Not so fabulous. Hubby and I land after dark; by the time we got our rental car and found our house, I was depleted of all positive emotions. An afternoon wildfire had scorched the hilltop just below our house, but our host insisted they’d hosed everything down so we’d be fine. The house was in disrepair, though the ants and geckos didn’t seem to mind. The tarantulas loved our pool, but they can’t swim so it wasn’t that scary to scoop them out in the mornings. But by Week 3, when 5 (grown) kids arrived, I had adjusted and relearned to sleep at night out of pure exhaustion from all the local adventures we mastered. This is how I felt about it at the time!
Then we moved to another house for 1 month: Ah, much better. Clean, airtight, no bugs inside. Wonderful. Enjoyment! A writer’s dream. Lovely. Until our final night here. That night, sound asleep, pure bliss, and then BANG! Ouch! OMFingG! My husband was stung by a scorpion who had crawled into our bed! After we killed it, we wondered if it had a nest of friends nearby…
Year 2: Back to the Scorpion house. (yes, I agreed to this… hey, it wasn’t me who got stung!). (We did have 10 scorpions in the house during our stay, but no stings. They were mostly dead due to perimeter fumigation by the time they snuck into middle of the rooms.) This year, no kids, no adventures, only peace, quiet, calm, happiness, and writing: 45,000 words on my “third” novel, The King of Liars. I also did a lot of blogging about our time here (See January 2011 archives). Some of it’s worth reading. Most of the last 20 or so entries relay our adventures. (Note: This link is to my “old” blog via Apple. I have since moved my blog to where you are reading now.)
Year 3: Now here I sit, in the Scorpion house again, in my “writing studio over looking the Pacific Ocean.” I wonder what lies ahead for us over the next 11 weeks. We’ll have most of our kids visiting for parts of 3 separate weeks. With any luck, our children will outnumber the scorpions, although that still leaves room for too many scorpions! This year, I’m working on a new novel—my “breakout” novel? Yes, this is the one!—A Reasonable Price. I’m at 35,000 words now (125 pages), but no telling how many of those I’ll scrap in the next 11 weeks. My current friends—I mean, characters—have different names from last year, but my intensity persists.
So, friends, I hope to entertain and inform you in the coming months. I’d love questions or comments from you along the way so don’t be shy. Take care and I’ll write more soon! Hasta luega!

A Reflection for Sloane Crosley

I’ve recently begun reading The Best American Travel Writing, 2011, edited by Sloane Crosley, whose work I adore. She wrote, among other things, I Was Told There’d Be Cake, a collection of essays that I have often referenced for its humor and poignancy. I follow her on Twitter, and I always read anything I run across with her name on it. This post is in no way a criticism of her; this is my thirst for literary discussion in blog format. Oh how I would love to have a cup of coffee with Ms. Crosley and talk about this (and hope that she would start by saying, “Oh, please, call me Sloane.”)

I’m about one third into the Travel the stories so far, but I keep coming back to something Ms. Crosley said in her introduction. In her explanation of her selection process, whittling hundreds of stories down to the 18 that made it into this year’s book, she talks briefly about her own travels. Here I quote:
“As we grow up, most real experience is increasingly hindered by two factors. One is the infamous prism of our own perspective (the real terrain of exploration is seldom external). I would argue that the second, equally intuitive but less discussed obstacle has to do with a kind of virginity of the mind. We can only learn something—I mean really be introduced to it—once… I will say now that I’ve been to Puerto Rico three times in my life and won’t be returning. Because Puerto Rico is a terrible place? Well, it ain’t no Bali, but no, that’s not why. It’s because of the other 30 percent of the planet Earth covered in landmass. I have the one life and the one brain to match it, and I’d rather not waste either on knowing a foreign locale like the back of my hand unless the front of my hand is singing a lease there.” 
(Ms. Crosley goes on to add a few disclaimers to clarify.)
In any case, here is my thought: What about getting past the “wow factor” to experience the authenticity of a foreign locale? How can someone from the Midwest (or anywhere for that matter) not be overwhelmed on their first visit to the ocean, waterfalls, volcanoes, mountains, cocktails, and everything else that people seek out on trips to vacation locations? If vacation time is limited, of course one wants to see the highlights. But, I would argue, to really get to know the best of any place, one either needs to know a local, or spend enough time there (in one trip or multiple trips) to get past the awe of salmon-colored sunsets, warm, white-sand beaches, jagged, snow-capped mountain tops, and the 4-star restaurants with an English-speaking waitstaff, to find the family-run “restaurants” where the locals go for breakfast, find the hidden waterfalls, and meet the native with the juiciest mangoes on the beach.
Over the years, I have known many people who have “vacation homes” around the world, and I have said repeatedly that I never wanted to own a second home for exactly the same reason that Ms. Crosley gave above. Why would anyone want to limit herself to one (primary) vacation spot? Once a person owns a vacation home, they’re often either financially or “common-sensically” bound to spend the bulk of their time there over traveling to new places.
However, I can say from experience that my travel experience has been deepened by leagues because we’ve gone back repeatedly to one location. I’ve been lucky enough to spend 19 weeks in Costa Rica in the past two years, and my husband and I are about to head back there for an additional 11 weeks.
The first time I went to Costa Rica I was a “victim” of culture shock . (The scorpions in our house were difficult to get used to.) The second time I went to Costa Rica, I was enthralled by the beauty of the ocean, the volcanoes, the zip-lining and hiking through the rain forests. It wasn’t until the end of our last trip that we began to venture down gravel roads (on purpose), talk (in broken Spanish) to the locals, eat food from roadside vendors, and explore beaches off the “monkey roads” instead of those listed in the Lonely Planet Guide Books.
Now, whether or not one likes scorpions, the first visit to a new location (generally, I would think for a week at a time, maybe two) is often dominated by the wow factor; only upon additional or extended trips can one really get to know a place—and discover a different sort of “wow.”

Publishing Dilema #GN/BN

(My new hashtag: #GN/BN: Good news/bad news)

On Sunday, I was sipping my coffee, watching Sunday Morning on CBS, lounging with my husband, reading the paper, minding my own business. I opened up the Life section of Sunday’s Des Moines Register and screamed! My travel essay and photos from a recent trip to Panama were published in full color for God and everybody to see. I had submitted my story about 10 days before, but hadn’t heard a peep back from them so I had no idea it would be printed so quickly—or at all.

I jumped, I danced, I squealed, I Tweeted, I Facebooked, I called Mom, I called Dad, I texted family from out of town.

Then… I read the printed version, the one I wrote and knew by heart. Five hundred and six words, carefully chosen, carefully edited, carefully reviewed. But lo and behold, there were beaucoup errors! What? How could that be? Embarrassment silenced me. Half the verbs in the printed version are in past tense, half in present tense. HELLO!

My husband insisted that no one except writers would even notice. But… who else matters?

I’ve written 3 1/2 novels, all in past tense. That’s normal for me. But travel essays are often written in present tense, so I challenged myself. It’s not that hard, but it does take concentration to tell a story that happened 10 months ago in present tense. I consulted my best editor (yes, my son, @Elliott_Krause (as I now refer to him) on the finer points of non-fiction writing (he’s in the NF Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is an editorial assistant at the Iowa Review), and soon I had an essay I was happy with. Attach photos. Polite email. Send.

So the GN/BN: My essay was in print—nearly a full page!—but all those errors are so embarrassing that I don’t even want to frame my first hard-copy publication. I was ashamed that I let all those errors slip through. Shocked, even. Until I consulted my advisor again, (yes, Elliott) and he said, “Blame the paper.” I said, “I can’t do that. If I made the errors, I need to be responsible for them.” He said, “They may have transcribed it incorrectly to put it in their required format.” I said, “What? They don’t just Cut and Paste?” He said, “Probably not.” So I ran home and checked and, sure enough, my copy is clean, theirs has errors.

I can’t (won’t) complain to the newspaper editor because a writer does not want a black mark by his/her name with the local newspaper. But, still… how discouraging. What would any of you writers do? Does this happen often? How do you promote your accomplishments when someone else screws them up in the printing/publishing process? I suppose, **it happens, so you just deal with it and move on, right?

One thing I know for sure: This will not stop me from submitting a thousand more articles in the near future.