A Floridian Discovers the U.S.

I’m a native Floridian. Never lived anywhere else. This may be fueling my need to trade the beach for the mountains. I live a mile away from the beach and haven’t been there to go get a tan or swim in over two years. This probably sounds pretentious.

The Mr. and I have driven through the 48 contiguous states here in America, which has forced me to come to grips with the fact that I live in a sunny, winter-free bubble devoid of the work and pleasantries that come from living somewhere with actual life to it. The following is a series of moments from the road trips where I felt my true Floridian showed its bright, naive colors:

1) Driving through Wyoming in the middle of the night. A road construction sign blinked “Caution: Elk ahead.” I wondered to myself, What does an elk look like? This highway had a speed limit of 70, but I slowed to a crawl of 25. Just as I go to pass the sign, multiple giant deer-looking animals with huge antlers start traipsing across this lonely (read: pitch black) road. I pull over the side and give Mark a sideways glance that means, You’re driving.

2) Driving through South Dakota on another night mission and I see this sign:

deer

I spend the next two hours convinced that reflectors on the side of the road are beady little eyes belonging to an animal just waiting to jump out in front of the car. (Squirrels do this all the time in Florida; why would deer be any different?)

3) Losing my mind because there was snow in Georgia in February. February is basically summer, no? It was also hot in Georgia. Hotter than Jacksonville. Why in the world was there snow still on the ground?

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4) Traveling to Connecticut in April, excited to see the fresh green of spring and instead seeing dull, brown trees everywhere. Isn’t April spring? Where is all the foliage?

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5) Taking a picture of cracked dirt. A novelty. There is no dirt in Florida. It’s limestone. And coral. And some ground up seashells. Also, it rains almost every day in South Florida so why would there be any cracks like this? True Texas style.

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Bonus: In true Florida fashion, apparently my entire body is cold except for my toes. Because wearing close toed shoes isn’t a thing.

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Traveling to Costa Rica? Read This First (Updated for 2015)

Costa Rica is a haven for adventure lovers, thrill seekers, and romantics. When we visited earlier this month, we were burdened again and again by some information that, well meaning, is not entirely true. Here to debunk some of the most popular “advice” of Costa Rica.

MYTH 1: You can’t drive the country alone.

FACT: The country’s roads, though still largely created by boulders and rocks of many sizes, can be driven without hired help and you definitely don’t need a tour bus. A 2WD vehicle is not necessary if you are staying on paved roads.

Please note that the roads to Volcan Arenal (Arenal Volcano), La Fortuna (city, and La Fortuna Waterfall) and the surrounding hotels are largely unpaved. The road from La Fortuna to Monteverde is also unpaved (even if you take the ferry across the lake, much of your travel is going to be on unpaved road.

MYTH 2: It’s unsafe to drive at night because of thieves.

FACT: The danger lies in the complete inability to see axle-breaking potholes in the road at dark. No street lights line the unpaved roads. Seldom you will have a fence between the road and the cliff, but rarely. Please don’t drive once the sun completely sets.

MYTH 3: San Jose is like any other capital, easy to navigate.

FACT: Wrong on so many levels. San Jose is rife with very narrow roads and two-lane roads that abruptly become one-lane. We got lost (several times) even with the Costa Rican GPS.

MYTH 4: My iPhone GPS or Google GPS will navigate me through Costa Rica.

FACT: Yes, the Costa Rican GPS is expensive, but I promise you that you will use it and you will love it. The Costa Rican GPS alerts you of school zones, dangerous bridges (often one-way), and reduced speeds.

Google satellites are extremely dodgy in the mountains and the instructions are delayed by three to five seconds. This doesn’t sound like a lot on paper, but Costa Rica driving instructions involve a lot of “Turn right, then make a sharp left, then turn right again” in a second’s time. The lag from your standard GPS will prove frustrating at the very least.

MYTH 5: Rental car insurance is a waste and I should get only the minimal coverage.

FACT: The majority of domestic car insurance companies limit their liability on rentals abroad. Even if you call your insurance company and are advised otherwise, some information is bound to be omitted. We opted for the insurance that gave us ZERO liability; the agent literally said, “You can bring the car back in pieces, and no charge.” Yes, this almost tripled the cost of the rental car, but having that green light to be as rowdy on the rocky roads as we could be, well, was a treat.

MYTH 6: Sodas are the cheapest place to stop and get food.

FACT: Food prices in Costa Rica have tripled over the past three years. Formal restaurants will still be the bulk of eating expense, but the sodas we went to in the highlands cost us $6 for a heaping helping of chicken and rice.

Bonus:

If you want to drink Costa Rican beer on the cheap, head to the closest supermercado, or market, where you can still pick up beers for less than $1 each.

Why the TSA’s Recommendations are Ridiculous

We’re aware that, per TSA recommendations, we are supposed to arrive at an airport about a year before the plane takes off. Last I was told, it was two hours for a domestic flight and three hours for an international flight. This is nothing more than a nefarious plot to get innocent air travel patrons to pay obscene prices for food, drink, and entertainment pieces. If you arrived at the terminal five minutes before boarding, you would have no time to shop!

My theory regarding this silliness proved true when I received a text from my beloved stating his wallet was missing. He was driving a newly purchased car from New Jersey to Florida, and was driving somewhere around Maryland; he reaches for his wallet to find it’s not there.

Big problem. No plastic money. No driver license. Limited cash. He couldn’t stay in a hotel even if he wanted to, because hotels require ID now… It’s Saturday afternoon. Banks don’t open until Monday, and even then, have you ever tried to prove you’re you at a bank with no ID or any evidence of it?

Cue text to me. I’m headed to tutor another student; he has enough gas to travel another hour and a half.

Solution? I whip the quickest U-turn and head straight for the airport. No going home to pack. No changing clothes. No time to bring a charger. Nothing. Everything in my purse is what I could bring. As I’m waiting feverishly at a light, I’m using the hotels.com app to determine whether to fly out of Fort Lauderdale or Miami. The chosen flight was departing exactly one hour from the time I whipped the U-turn. I had about 25-30 minutes travel time to the airport. I couldn’t book a ticket online or over the phone; I had to take a shot with the Jetblue reservationist at the airport.

I’m pretty sure, in this afternoon, I clocked the fastest speed for a Toyota Corolla. I made it to the airport; the flight departed in 30 minutes, which means the gates closed in 20 minutes. I had to park. No time for economy parking – it’s a ten minute bus ride. Can’t risk it. $36/ a day parking? That will have to do. I park my car. I run to the Jetblue reservation desk. A woman calls me over; completely out of breath I say, “I need to be on the flight that’s leaving in 20 minutes.” She gives me a “Are you $% kidding me?” I say, “Can you do it or not?” She makes the reservation. I’m dancing around like a cat on a hot tin roof.

What is taking SO long?

Finally she hands me a ticket. She asks, “Do you know where you need to go?” Before I can answer, she says, “Make a left here.” And I say, “Then what?” And she says, “Then you run.”

And you know what? I ran like hell. Fort Lauderdale airport is not small. There’s a distance to traverse. My lungs were on fire. But it was the most movie-like scene I have ever been a part of. This was an exceptional moment. I’m running, I’m sweating, my lungs are burning. People are letting me skip them in the security line.

I get to the gate, completely winded, feeling victorious, like I had just crossed a finish line.

All of that running, and for what? Did I miss anything? I didn’t miss anything. The plane was boarding on time, but not one person felt compelled enough to form a line. No Mosaic members had boarded. No priority. No parents and children. Nobody.

With my spare minutes, I had enough time to go buy a $12 pack of Twizzlers and text my beloved that I was at the gate, ready to go.

Everyone boards. It was as if I had been there the entire 2-hour pre-board window of time. The only difference in my experience and everyone else’s is that I got a damn good cardio session from it.

#5: Depart, Connect or Land at 10 New International Airports

The Day Zero Project is a platform where people everywhere create a list of 101 things they would like to do in 1001 days. It’s just shy of three years and can be anything from learning a skill to completing an old goal or something like finishing the Krispy Kreme Challenge (eating a dozen Krispy Kreme donuts and then running a mile!)

One of the things on my list is the title and purpose of this blog: depart, connect or land at 10 international airports that I have never been to. As of today, 10/15/2014, I have been to the following:

Louisville: 07/07/2013
Denver: 09/02/2013
Baltimore: 09/22/2013
Houston Hobby: 01/31/2014
Austin: 01/31/2014
Nashville: 02/02/2014
Seattle: 05/21/2014
Chicago O’Hare: 09/06/2014

There is something very magical that happens at airports; I frequently get odd looks when I mention this to someone as, for the average Joe, an airport brings about a lot of stress: waiting in line after line, sitting in uncomfortable airport seats, paying $12 for a pack of Twizzlers, sick people everywhere, and the jostling and general annoyance when people begin to board the plane and insist on sitting in their designated seat even though it makes absolutely no difference where you sit. This is why I like Southwest’s style of “sit wherever the hell you want. We just have to get this plane in the air.”

I digress. A life of a person reads much like a chapter book. Some chapters are better than others, but an airport is a platform for a serendipitous moment, an exchange, an opportunity to meet someone who resides thousands of miles away from you but is a kindred spirit. It’s a platform where sharing the armrest and asking someone “Are you visiting or going home?” establishes a long-forgotten human connection. It’s almost liberating. The odds of seeing that person again are slim. Something is weighing heavily on your conscience, and here you are in a plane with infinite non-biased third party perspectives. Each story a person tells me is akin to ripping out a page from his or her book and handing it to me.

Here you are. I won’t see you again. Here’s where I am right now. Here’s what I’m thinking. What I’m worried about.

How beautiful that is. You’re now in that person’s book. A guest star. 5 minutes. 5 seconds.

So many things happen before you get to an airport. You pack. There’s feelings of enormous intensity both good and bad. Some people are leaving home; some people are in search of it. Some people are reuniting with their beloved. Some are running away. Some are pursuing an opportunity. Others are leaving one behind. Some are moving away. Some are moving back. Some are ending relationships. Others are trying to fix them.

All beautiful stories. All honest scripts of the human condition. Together in a stew that is an airport.

I wanted to depart, connect or land at 10 international airports for this reason. Seattle passengers were more outdoorsy, down to earth, and more liberal than the people in Miami. People in Austin were fun-loving, food-loving, beer-loving people. Nashville was rife with that famous southern hospitality and amazing sweet tea.

A follow up to this blog, Airport Moments, will be crafted shortly after I post this.

Maybe this makes sense. Maybe it’s poetic. Maybe it’s far out and I’m seeing a disaster area through rose colored glasses. I won’t deny any of these sentiments. But an airport is one of the places that excites me: a raw hive of half-written stories.

MM.

State Signs Tour: Part III – The West in a Weekend

The west has some undeniably beautiful landscape – from Colorado to California to Yellowstone National Park. As a duo coming from Florida we witness no seasons (unless you count VERY rainy and LESS rainy seasons) and no real topographic change. This is the foundation for the dash to drive the entire west in a weekend.

Remember that we are your corporate employed 9-5 day jobbers. We gave ourselves three days to drive through America’s largest states. We dropped ourselves into Denver at 11pm straight from Miami. Landing at a new airport always gives me such a rush (see blog post: #5: Depart, Land or Connect at 10 International Airports) and Denver was new to me. We walked straight to the rental car kiosk, picked up the car and drove straight through the night from Denver to the Four Corners Monument.

The timing couldn’t have been better. We pulled up the Four Corners Monument right as the sun was coming up. It’s a beautiful, humbling sight to see this giant orb of light awaken a desert where no concrete jungle resides for hundreds of miles.

FRIDAY:

Good Morning Colorado!
Good Morning Colorado!

At this point we had been up for more than 24 hours. After visiting the monument, we head to each of the states that make up the four corners and collect those signs like Mario collected gold coins on Super Nintendo.

The sign says it all

Apparently someone was not fond of the slogan, "Land of Enchantment."
Apparently someone was not fond of the slogan, “Land of Enchantment.”

BONUS: Navajo Nation!

A land of artists, it seems. We stopped in a grocery store in New Mexico and found that most other shoppers were speaking Navajo or other dialect.
A land of artists, it seems. We stopped in a grocery store in New Mexico and found that most other shoppers were speaking Navajo or other dialect.
Arizona's humble greeting, considering it houses one of the most iconic destinations in the US.
Arizona’s humble greeting, considering it houses one of the most iconic destinations in the US.

And last but not least, Utah!

Nearly a mile up, we made sure to drive across the state border so we can honestly say we drove in Utah.
Nearly a mile up, we made sure to drive across the state border so we can honestly say we drove in Utah.

We had a limited amount of daylight hours, so we wanted to be sure to get to the Grand Canyon before the sun set. It was an afternoon well spent, and Mark spent a considerable amount of time off the park trails.

Hint: You're not supposed to be over there! But we've never been the type to stick only to the trail.
Hint: You’re not supposed to be over there! But we’ve never been the type to stick only to the trail.

The sun began sinking into the horizon shortly after we left the Grand Canyon, bound for Nevada. It’s now Saturday evening, and we’ve been up for nearly 36 hours without shut eye. I’m starting to get tired – seems reasonable, right?
We make Nevada, and every time we cross a state line I get another surge of energy.

Arriving in Nevada atop the Hoover Dam
Arriving in Nevada atop the Hoover Dam

We decide to stop in Vegas.

Incredible sunset as we make our way to Nevada.
Captivating sunset greets us in Vegas

We grab In-n-Out (a must do, right?) and set up camp at Bellagio (more on that experience later). We decide to lay on the bed and give our bodies a well deserved stretch and…
That’s all I remember of Vegas.

SATURDAY:

We woke up and left Vegas at 11am. A quick 45 minute loop west welcomed us to San Bernandino, CA.

Good Morning California! Wish we could have stayed longer.
Good Morning California! Wish we could have stayed longer.

At this point we plugged in the GPS our destination for the night: Walla Walla, WA. What did the GPS say? Continue straight for 500 miles. US-93 is dubbed the Great Basin Highway and is the lonely two-lane road that gets people from Vegas to Idaho.

Cutting straight into the Rocky Mountains, the drive from California/ Nevada border to Idaho took about 10 hours to complete.
Cutting straight into the Rocky Mountains, the drive from California/ Nevada border to Idaho took about 10 hours to complete.

By the time we reach Idaho, it’s just about midnight. Mind you, we did this drive in September, when it’s still blistering hot in Miami, so I did not pack jackets or close-toed shoes or really anything to keep warm. But when I stepped out of the car to get a snapshot of Idaho at midnight, I surely wish I had packed differently.

Sometime around midnight, we reach the beautiful Glacier country of Idaho.
Sometime around midnight, we reach the beautiful Glacier country of Idaho.

We cut over to Oregon because there was no stopping now. We were armed with energy drinks and super unhealthy snacks. I lamented driving through Oregon at night ( and I’m sure most Oregonians would agree with this sentiment) as the countryside in the Pacific Northwest is some of the most beautiful (in my completely biased opinion). However, the goal was to collect state signs like gold coins in Super Mario, so that we did do:

We will return, I promise!
We will return, I promise!

Our intended destination was Walla Walla, but we’re overachievers and we drove the extra couple of hours to Spokane. This is where my energy exploded everywhere because I absolutely love Washington. It’s probably my favorite state. I’ll probably write an entire piece decided to Melody’s love of Washington state. For right now though, we’ll stick to just the state welcome sign.

SUNDAY:

OK, so maybe there's two things I love about this picture. Washington and that handsome man. OK, maybe three, because I do love sunrises too...
OK, so maybe there’s two things I love about this picture. Washington and that handsome man. OK, maybe three, because I do love sunrises too…

Mark also decided that a night picture of the Idaho wasn’t good enough, so he took a beautiful capture of the sun peeking through the Idaho sign at the Washington border.

This sign began a chapter of unbelievable glacier crafted scenery.
This sign began a chapter of unbelievable glacier crafted scenery.
Good Morning Idaho! Lovely mountain range you have here.
Good Morning Idaho! Lovely mountain range you have here.

Not an hour later do we cross into Montana. At this point we begin wondering how far it is to Glacier National Park.
… It was too far. We wanted to do Yellowstone slightly more.

Such a tiny little sign for such a large state!
Such a tiny little sign for such a large state! =)
Beautiful glacier cut mountains, beautiful water.
Beautiful glacier cut mountains, beautiful water.

When we arrived to Yellowstone, we had just a few hours to explore the park. This is easily a place to spend a week but we managed to see Old Faithful, which is incredibly timely, several mineral springs, bacteria pools, and a buffalo.

BONUS: Yellowstone National Park sign.
BONUS: Yellowstone National Park sign.

We did find a little gem of a waterfall, Lewis Falls, upon exiting the park (headed south toward Colorado).

Tucked away as you leave Yellowstone with paved trails that allow for a much closer viewing.
Tucked away as you leave Yellowstone with paved trails that allow for a much closer viewing.

It’s about 8 hours from Yellowstone National Park to Denver, CO where our flight was scheduled to depart the following night.

MONDAY:

We departed Yellowstone just as the sun was going down and drove through Wyoming. We collected our last sign, our last gold coin, at the Wyoming/ Colorado border.

Our final state, our final sign! Our state sign collection is complete!
Our final state, our final sign! Our state sign collection is complete!

MONDAY NIGHT: We took the redeye from Denver to Miami, arrived in Miami at 5am and were back to work by 8.

Our whirlwind trip can be summed up like this:

West Map

Getting the Best Experience at La Fortuna Waterfall

A trip to the mountains of Costa Rica is incomplete without a visit to La Fortuna Waterfall, and for good reason. It’s a beautiful sight. You can swim in front of it and get an awesome picture of yourself with the waterfall thundering behind you. The hiking trail is well traveled, though it’s much easier to walk down the hundreds of steps than it is to come back up. There’s landings at regular intervals to rest.

In front of La Fortuna. Difficult to get a shot of just the waterfall.
In front of La Fortuna. The lifeguard watched me closely to make sure I did not climb over too many rocks.

However, in the last few years tourism to Costa Rica has exploded. The well traveled tourist trail is getting even more, well, traveled. What once was a waterfall that one could spend uninterrupted hours at is now a lunch stop for tour companies operating in the Arenal region. This makes alone time with La Fortuna rather difficult. We arrived at 11am to find a few couples swimming at the base of the falls. In the next half hour, Desafio Tour Company and their group of 30-40 people arrived and tourists sprawled out over the rocks in front of the waterfall to eat lunch. Unless a person is sitting perfectly still, the long exposure shot of the waterfall (like the type we were trying to get, above) becomes completely distorted.

There’s a lifeguard of sorts at the entrance to the waterfall now. You used to be able to swim behind the waterfall (a sublime experience) but this lifeguard does not permit that. In fact, if you get too close to the waterfall you get a whistle blown and a hand waving you back to shore. It takes the “unadulterated nature factor” away.

Regardless, the waterfall is still worth a quick visit. Here’s how to get your best experience:

1) Make sure you are down to the falls before 10am. In order to do this, you’ll have to get your ticket to the waterfall by 9am (tickets are still $10 USD).

2) Carry a small backpack with drinking water, a light snack, flip flops/ water shoes, and a towel. 

3) Wear your bathing suit. There are no stalls to change in. 

4) Leave before the lunch crowd, which trickles in about 11:30am. (It pains me to say there’s a lunch crowd at a waterfall, but there is). 

#MarkandMelody

New US Customs Procedure for International Flights: 2014

The customs procedure when landing at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport has changed quite a bit. Our experience was unpleasant because five or six international flights landed at FLL at the same time. This increased a typical 5-10 minute wait at customs to over an hour.

There are two lines for customs: one for visitors to the USA and one for residents. So far, pretty standard. There are two rooms where lines form. The line for the visitors goes much faster but that’s likely because there are well, a lot less visitors than US citizens.

The most surprising advent in the customs procedure is the passport check is completely automated via a kiosk. The customs agents are of no help, but this is to be expected. The prompts on the kiosk are less than clear, also. To pass the kiosk, you must put your passport over a scanner. The machine scans the document page of your passport (document page has your name, picture, birthday, issue date, et al) and shows a picture of the scanned page to you. You verify the information and then…

You look directly into a camera on the kiosk and take a picture. If you do not look straight into the camera, the picture will not take. Once the kiosk takes a picture of you, a receipt prints out with your picture and the same information that’s on your passport plus your arriving flight information.

Once you get to the customs agent, the agent compares the photo you just took at the kiosk and the photo on your passport. I did not see anyone get pulled aside for discrepancies, but I imagine it’s a more…investigative look into why the two pictures do not match to the liking of the customs agent. The agent then finishes the routine questions: “What countries did you visit?” “Are you bringing any fruit, firearms, tobacco, etc?”, stamps your passport and you go to baggage claim to collect checked bags.

People were very confused by this entire process. I imagine once an agent or two comes in that actually assists first time international travelers with the kiosk, the procedure will go a lot smoother. People who travel frequently will find that this procedure more closely matches the customs process of say, China.

Have you traveled internationally and experienced a similar customs process? Or was yours completely different? We’d love to hear from you!

#MarkandMelody