Monday, August 24, 2009

Family Vacation in Costa Rica - Pura Vida

I’ve been asked several times for suggestions on foreign travel with children. There’s one easy answer - Costa Rica - our family’s favorite trip together.

Because of its beauty and neutral government (they have no army), Costa Rica is the Switzerland of Central America. Their former president, Oscar Arias Sanchez, has negotiated the end to civil war in Guatemala and is currently trying to resolve leadership problems in Honduras. Jammed into this small country is an incredible variety of botanical and geological wonders - rain forest, cloud forest, active volcanoes, and beautiful coasts, all within 120 miles of each other.

Costa Ricans pride themselves on being “muy sencillo” (very simple) and often greet you with “pura vida”, the national philosophy of life. This can be translated as “it’s all good”, “full of life”, “have a good day”, or on a deeper level “enjoy life slowly and with perseverance”. Because of their high literacy rate and the country’s early recognition of eco-tourism, visitors feel welcomed and appreciated. It is loaded with language schools and has become a popular retirement country.

Renting a car is easy and fun and you should try a Toyota Forerunner or a jeep. The roads are mostly good and easy to maneuver. The jungle area to the northeast of its capital, San Jose, is a good beginning point. At Selva Verde Lodge in Chilamente, ( are greeted with hammocks, balconies, and mosquito netting. Turn in early. The birds will wake you up. I’ve never heard such an early morning din - a mixture of thousands of birds greeting each other all at once. Experts will name them at the 6 a.m. birdwalks. A guided jungle walk can reveal the poison dart frogs (actually quite beautiful) and occasional monkeys. Kids will love the raft trip down the near-by Sarapiqui river. The guides are young but knowledgeable and the water lively.

On to the active volcano, Arenal. This is always a little dicey. Do you want it to be really active and spew out lava or are you satisfied with it just warming its neighbor, the Tabacon baths? Actually, it doesn’t matter what you want. You are totally dependent on Arenal’s whim. If it’s too active, they won’t let you near. But usually, one can enjoy the smoke puffing out of the cone while sitting in a leisurely hot bath, warmed by volcanic underground energy. The Tabacon’s hot mineral springs and waterfalls provide a Disneyland feel with 10 pools ranging in temperature from 80 to 110 degrees and lovely paths connecting them. Massages are available as well as a swim up bar.

The Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve in Monteverde is famous and worth traveling the rough roads to arrive there. A rain forest is designated as such because of receiving 100 inches or more of rain a year. But a cloud forest is one in which much of the moisture is received from the mountain’s clouds settling on the forest. Both are Wet with a capital W and our day there was no exception. But it is at Santa Elena that we all finally understood ecosystems. Our wonderful guide, a PhD candidate from Cornell, could stop at any tree, ant mound, or stream and explain who fed on whom and what attracted what. He spotted the beautiful quetzal for us and helped us hear the three waddled bell bird. We were treated to an amazing show when a group of raccoon-like coatimundis arrived, followed by a troop of white faced capuchin monkeys looking for dinner. This area is also the first in the country to have a zip line, where you are harnessed to a cable and zip from one tree to another - guaranteed to be the kids favorite activity of the trip.

A final stop would be on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica at Manuel Antonio, south of Quepos, a place for relaxing with beautiful views. Howler monkeys woke us in the morning (think Tarzan movie) and tiny titi monkeys walked the wires outside our room. The Manuel Antonio Park has a great beach where you can belly board or simply check out the nearby iguanas, lizards, sloths, and monkeys.

Costa Rica pleases the birders, outdoor enthusiasts, botanists, curious, and even the lazy beachcombers who just want to relax. It is safe, welcoming, and perfect for opening a child’s eyes to the wonder of nature.

Friday, August 7, 2009

TAG - The World's First Graffiti Exhibit in Paris, France

I first noticed the graffiti on the train ride into Paris (France) from the DeGaulle airport. Curvy bubble letters were everywhere - on apartment buildings, overpasses, warehouses, stores, and even the trains themselves. The combination of letters made no sense in French or English. KERS, RIZOT, FUMI, TRANE, TAKE, SEYA.

Once the graffiti caught my eye, I saw it everywhere. The booksellers’ stalls along the Seine were a target as was the canopy of our favorite restaurant. Initials were painted on the bottom of a lovely fountain in the Pompidou Museum. Heartfelt comments decorated the stone above the tunnel where Princess Diana had died. White vans were irresistible targets. A French friend of ours called it an “infestation of graffiti”.

Graffiti originated as an American art form in the streets of New York four decades ago. Gang members used a “tag” or name to mark the boundaries of their territory. Soon, individual artists developed their own style and signature. Most were young, poor and used the concrete canvases available to them. In the graffiti world, the tag of Taki 183 is equal to the names of Rousseau or Degas in the Impressionist movement. This art form gave herds of energetic adolescents the power to rise above the force of their urban poverty. They loved the fleeting nature of their art and that thousands saw it from subway trains. A special paint was even developed for graffiti use. The movement spread world wide and became an element of Hip Hop.

France can’t decide what to do with this art form or even whether to call it art. They use the English word, Tag, to name it. Pierre Cornette de Saint-Cyr, president of the Association of Palais de Tokyo, feels “99% of the taggers are cretins who only want to foul walls”. The French spend millions cleaning up the painted walls and at the same time have authorized certain walls in town to be used for this expression. Jean Philippe Domecq has said in Le Point Magazine, “the state is punishing these people on one side and welcoming on the other. The state is so afraid of missing another Van Gogh, it throws money at every fad. This is subsidizing subversion”.

After recognizing graffiti’s presence in the City of Lights, we learned the world’s first Tag Exhibition had just opened at the Grande Palais, the same beautiful building where Yves St. Laurent’s art collection had recently been auctioned.
Posters for the exhibition were placed around the city, all appropriately covered with real graffiti. One hundred and fifty of the world’s notable graffiti artists were represented. Each produced two canvasses, one based on the graffiti idea of the name or tag and the other a work that symbolized love.

Colors, movement and large figures dominated the exhibition. EZO of the United States painted comic book like characters while LADY PINK’s faces could have graced a Tommie de Paulo’s children’s book. The French BANDO’s tag tilted as if being read in motion. Both the French FIST and the American FAUST placed their oversized tags on subway cars. Some artists used the medium for philosophical comments such as“Love and Hate have the Same Address” from the Swiss NASTY. And what would an exhibition be in France without a thick lipped, naked woman? France’s UNO provided one with a spray can under her arm.

The subject of the pieces as well as the bold techniques stimulated much conversation among the mostly young and often tattooed viewers. But the paintings were a far cry from the simple tags of letters that were painted on too many surfaces in the city.

So, was the Tag show the “impressionist” exhibit of our times? Many Parisians were outraged at the Salon des Refuses that first presented Monet, Manet, and others. Modern day Parisians were conflicted at the Tag show and even those who like the idea of graffiti don’t want it on their walls or bathrooms. But they did attend in large numbers.

The show’s producer, Alain-Dominique Gallizia had to promise his artists that he would never sell or divide the collection. Most graffiti artists are not ready to sell out although a market has recently developed for tag posters and t-shirts. They continue to enjoy the adrenaline associated with the fast nature of their art and the rest of us will continue to be divided on the worth of their expression.

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