Monthly Archives: July 2010

Wandering the Treetops

Saturday morning we discovered there was no hot water.  The cool mountain air was accompanied by freezing cold water that made showering an affair reminiscent of Pipi Camp, though not quite as bad.  After rinsing all the shampoo out of my hair and waiting for the resultant brain freeze to go away, I went out to the dining room where they served us pancakes or eggs and toast for breakfast.

After quickly eating, we all got in the shuttles sent from Selvatura Park and headed out for that day’s main activity.  The first stop when we got to the park (other than the bathroom that is) was the hummingbird garden.  There were hundreds of humming birds, of many different varieties flying everywhere.  They would zip right by you, drinking from feeders and zooming back into the forest or to a different feeder with less competition.  I’ve never seen so many humming birds in my life, it was really cool.

We then set out on the leisurely hike/walk Fernando had planned for us.  It was basically a giant loop around the park but it included 8 different bridges across the cloud forest canopy.  According to the park:

Selvatura’s Treetop Walkways is a 1.9 mile (approximately 3 kilometer) trail that crosses through Monteverde’s Cloud Forest . Here our visitors will walk on eight different bridges with various lengths ranging between 150 feet ( 50 meters ) up to 510 feet ( 170 meters ) and altitudes ranging between 36 feet ( 12 meters ) up to 180 feet ( 60 meters ).

One of the many long bridges

It was really cool.  Some people had issues with the height in some places but the bridges were pretty sturdy (though they did move) and everyone made it through the whole hike fine.  They said there was an opportunity to see the Resplendent Quetzal from one or two of the bridges, but we never saw any.

When we were through hiking, wandering, and collecting souvenirs and gifts, we took a shuttle back into the main part of town.  The majority of the town consisted of one street (I’m telling you, this place feels more and more like home every day) but we soon found a good place to eat that would give us a group discount.

Our waiter at Don Juan’s was really helpful.  He gave us lots of information of things to do and places to go in the area and we were happy to find that it matched what our guide Fernando had mentioned.  When we finished eating, a small group of us wandered the town a little bit more before heading back to the hotel.  I then took a quick nap before we met at 4:45pm at the hotel to go on a night hike through the forest.

We hiked through the BEN Reserve (Bosque Eterno de los Ninos)

The “hike” wasn’t amazing.  We saw some cool tarantulas and sleeping birds, along with a lot of rainforesty plants (some of the strangle figs were amazingly ginormous) and firefly larvae but it wasn’t much more than a walk in the dark with flashlights [remind me later to recount the story of a REAL night hike through the rainforest in New Zealand with two young kids, no flashlights, and lots of slippery slopes].  Our guide Juliano was nice and very informative though, I heard some of the other guides weren’t very good (we had to split into 3 groups).

As soon as everyone was finished with the hike, we all piled back on the bus to go to dinner at the Tree House.  As we entered the bus however, we realized some of the people who had gotten on before us had let in a giant hornet, which was hiding in the lights along the ceiling.  It had to be at least 3 or 4 inches long and Fernando had to push it and chase it down the lights from the back of the bus toward the door trying to get it out.  Eventually, he succeeded and we got it out without anyone getting hurt or stung.

The Tree House where we ate dinner was an interesting place.  I really liked the ambiance; it was a really nice environment.  We all ate at tables made from polished tree stumps while listening to live music in the tree top.  Everyone was exhausted but the food was good and we got a couple of pieces of cake for Alex and Danielle.  Their birthday was coming up so we all sang to them and gave them funny party hats to wear.

After returning to the hotel, about half of our group went out to Bar Amigos in town but most of us were exhausted from the day’s activities.  Tyler claimed to have figured out how to work the shower to get hot water but his “special trick” didn’t work when I tried it.  I just took another cold shower in the morning before we headed out to go horseback riding.

They're ready to ride

We all got up early and took our bus to these stables where we signed a rather questionable waiver (it was just a list of your name and signature, no information), put on helmets, and were paired with horses.  I had the most riding experience out of the group (other than maybe Fernando) and so was paired with a horse named Dorado.   He was a nice horse who loved to be at the head of the line and jumped at any opportunity to trot quickly across open fields (which is why they gave him to a more experienced rider).  I really enjoyed my time with him though it made me miss my old Arabian gelding Bass (short for Ambassador).  Everyone had a fun time and we were soon on the road back to San Jose.

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Cars, Coffee, and Volcanoes

The Biodiversity had a special field trip on Friday, but everyone else was free.  While they were gone, we decided we would go see some cool stuff without them too.  We met our driver for the weekend, Ermenio, packed our stuff on the bus, and headed out to see Poas Volcano.

"Juan Dollar" and his Ox Cart

We stopped on the way at the Casa del Cafe, viewing the coffee fields, buying coffee for family and friends, and visiting “Juan Dollar”‘s ox cart.  We learned that there are two coffee beans per cherry and it’s mostly the Nicaraguans that work the fields.  Coffee has a 5 month harvest, so when that’s finished, they usually move on to work with sugar cane or then construction to stay employed.  The sentiments between Nicaragua and Costa Rica are unfortunately very similar to those between the US and Mexico.

The Crater

After the Coffee plantation, we went to Volcan Poas, one of the four volcanoes int he Central Volcanic Mountain Range.  We all got off the bus and headed towards the crater.  The sulfurous steam filled the air through the entire area (kinda like in Rotorua) but watching it billow out of the crater of the volcano was amazing.  After watching the crater for a while, we took a short hike over to the small lake on the other side of it.  At 2500 meters (about 7500 ft) elevation, some people found hiking a bit more challenging than they expected but it wasn’t that challenging of a hike and everyone that went enjoyed the gorgeous view before heading back down to the bus.

We met up with the rest of our group (those who had gone on the Biodiversity field trip) in Ciudad Colon, and everyone grabbed sweatshirts out of their bags.  Yes, that’s right, people were actually cold.  It was so nice to not be in stifling heat and humidity.  I love the mountains.

We then drove several hours to Monteverde.  We had to walk to our hotel in the dark because the bus couldn’t go down the road.  When we got there, we found it looked quite nice but came with lots of extra company.  I’m not talking about other people.

In the first 10 minutes of having been check in to our rooms, people had found spiders and roaches on their bed, giant spiders on the walls, strange bugs in the showers, and all sorts of other friendly critters.  Gloria and I had a room together and thankfully we didn’t find any extra guests in our room but we were one of the only rooms that didn’t.

Everyone walked down the road to Johnny’s Place for dinner (with a few quips about our group-member Johnny’s food on the way) and I thoroughly enjoyed the cool mountain air.  The lack of humidity was a literal breath of fresh air in comparison to most of our other weekend trips.  Everyone else was cold but Alex and I reveled in it (she’s from Utah).  As we walked back to the hotel, we all knew that whatever was in store for us this weekend would be different from any that came before it.

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Week 3: School and Field trips

I can’t believe the program is already halfway over.  It has gone by so fast.  We only have two more weeks left.  Some students have their final exam next week.  Time always flies when travelling, and of course, when having fun.

Rachel and big old Costa Rican maps

I had two field trips this week, both for the Ecosystem Health class. Though Monday was a regular school day, on Tuesday, the entire group headed to downtown San Jose to go to the National Museum.  When the Ecosystem Health teacher, Bernardo, arrived, he gave us some background information on the museum and told us what to think about as we perused the displays.

It turns out that the museum wasn’t all that great.  It wasn’t large, but they didn’t make very effective use of the space and clearly directed your attention to the parts of history they wanted to emphasize.  There was a lot on pre-Colonial, and Colonial times but everything leading up to the present was crammed in one giant room filled with succinct displays.  Anything conflict- or struggle-related was pushed to the side, and much of the important information went unnoticed by anyone not explicitly looking for it (unless you’re a local).  Some of the displays were interesting, and I learned many random facts about Costa Rica but I don’t feel I learned much from the experience itself (other than a little bit about how some people want Costa Rica to be presented and why our teacher hates the museum).

On Wednesday, I had double classes.  Alternative Medicine was in the morning, as usual, but we had a guest speaker and a make up class for Healthy Ecosystems in the afternoon as well.  It was a long, tiring day.

Larvae Carnage

Thursday I didn’t have class in the morning but did have another field trip for Ecosystem Health in the afternoon.  We all headed over to the university for lunch beforehand and found that the Biodiversity class had brought us some special snacks to go with lunch: beetle larvae.  There was a huge plate covered in the (thankfully) dead maggot-like edibles.  They were spiced and served with Fritos.  I found them surprisingly delicious.  After munching on those and the meal provided by the university, we hopped on a smaller bus and headed out to meet our professor at Fundacion Neotropica.

Stream as it exits the Protected Zone

This field trip was only for the students in the Ecosystem class, so after we headed out, the rest of the group went back to the hotel.  After picking up Bernardo, the 15 of us headed to La Carpintera, We made several stops around the area of the protected zone, examining social and environmental factors that affect the health of the watershed and the area.  At one of the stops, Bernardo showed us a Targua tree and got some sap from it.  The sap has regenerative properties and is especially good for your skin but looks kinda like blood.  After visiting all of our stops, from forested areas, a town started by a dump, the area squatters started a town, to agricultural areas and a high/mid class mall, we headed back to the hotel to meet with everyone else, eat, and pack for the weekend’s excursion to Monteverde.  Our take-home midterm exam will be on this trip so we’ll have to think about all the issues brought up, but it was interesting to see everything out in the field.

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Water: Sweat, Oceans, and Rivers

Manuel Antonio Via Viewpoint

After eating an early breakfast Saturday morning, everyone headed to the small bakery in town to grab some drinks or snacks for our hike through Manuel Antonio National Park.  We set off through the park, walking the Sloth Trail (“El Sendero Perezoso”) and examining the rainforest around us.  We then hiked up to a lookout, spotting a two-toed sloth, monkeys, iguanas, and lizards along the way.  Some parts of the path were made of raised cement whose moss-covered surface made it incredibly slippery.  Everyone was drenched in sweat by the time we reached the viewpoint but the view at the top was worth it.  We looked out over a gorgeous bay surrounded by rainforest, with waves crashing on rocks and the coastline extending behind the peninsula.

La Playa (Beach)

We then returned to the trail head and took a different route down to one of the park’s private beaches.  The beach was absolutely gorgeous and everyone had a great time riding the waves, swimming, having sand fights, or trying to save their food from the monkeys, raccoons, and iguanas.  The park closed at 4pm so we gradually filtered out the last hour or so and headed back to the hotel to shower.  I was staying in a room with Sam and Parul and when Sam and I returned, the power went out on us.  There was no water, AC, light, or anything else related to electricity.  Costa Rican power is notoriously unreliable but this was the first time we had had any problems with it.  Everything came back on about 10 minutes later and it was fine.

We had planned to take the bus to the ATM late that afternoon but we missed it so we headed back down to the town to barter at the small stalls lining the road and see what souvenirs we could find in the shops.  I then returned to take a nap (I was exhausted) before dinner.

Sunday morning, everyone got up early except Frank, Nohemi, and Professor Bic.  Everyone else wanted to go river rafting and had to check out of the hotel and load our belongings on the bus before we left.  After a quick stop at an ATM on the way, we went to Iguana Tours rafting office to get on “the magic bus” and pick up our equipment and guides.  We then drove for about half an hour on the most pothole-filled road I have ever seen to the put-in.  After a quick safety demonstration, explanation, and gearing up, we all got into our rafts for some quick practice before we headed down the Naranjo river.  I was in the front of the raft with Jenny Chou, along with Indira, Gloria, Sam, and Brianna behind us.  Our guide’s name was Orlando and we later found out that he was 17 years old and had been a guide for 2 years already.

Briana, Orlando, San, Gloria, Jenny, Indira, and Me after rafting

The river was fun; class II-III-IV rapids.  Robin Hood was my favorite rapid, it was probably the hardest I’ve ever done (I’m sure it was class IV), with a big drop.  Everyone was instructed to lean in to the raft and even secure themselves inside it.  I loved the rafting, but it was too short.  There was only about 2 hours spent on the water, with a small snack break halfway through in which they gave us pineapple, cookies, and tea.  Brianna fell out of our raft twice, but everyone was fine.  Our guide even fell out once, and we had to pull him back in.  Everyone had a lot of fun and we all took pictures before getting back on the bus to meet our bus back to San Jose at the rafting headquarters.

We stopped once to have lunch.  It turned out to be the best meal I’ve had in what feels like a long time.  It was usual Costa Rican fare but it was a really good buffet that included seafood soup, plantains, cucumber and tomato salad, and avocados.  Everyone was absolutely exhausted (and at least a little bit sunburnt) and all but a few of us slept the rest of the way back to San Jose.  The weekend was a great, but exhausting, success.

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Monkeys, Iguanas, and Crocs, Oh My!

Mornings are not my friend.  Alarm clocks are not friends either.  They don’t like me, I don’t like them.  We don’t get along very well in the best of circumstances but the earlier the hour, the worse.  This last Friday was no exception.

The plan was to have all of our bags packed and locked up, breakfast eaten, everything out of our hotel rooms and everyone ready to get on the bus at 7:30am.  We had a 3-4 hour bus ride ahead of us and we needed to get as early of a start as possible. Alex and I planned to wake up at 6:30 in order to do this.  I miraculously somehow blurrily opened my eyes at 7:15 to a quiet room and a sleeping roommate.

Luckily, we had both packed the majority of our belongings up the night before so we were able to rush and grab the rest as quickly as possible.  Though we were one of the last few people to carry our bags down the stairs from our building and back up the stairs of the back building of the hotel to our little locked room for luggage, we managed to make it before 7:30 and even were able to grab a few nibbles of breakfast before running to the bus.  Thankfully, I was able to doze most of the bus ride.

Croc below the bridge

The road was windy and some people got car sick but my West Pointian upbringing allowed me to sleep soundly, if not entirely comfortably.  We stopped on the way at a small souvenir shop for bathrooms, browsing, and snacks.  Then again just before a bridge.  The bus pulled over and let us off so we could walk across.  There was an iguana in a tree about 1/3 of the way across, and several American Crocodiles in the water below.  After looking at the crocs on both sides of the bridge for a while, we continued to the far end of the bridge to get back on the bus.   We continued on through Jaco (pronounced ha-ko), a small town known for surfing and watching humpback whales in the mid-Pacific.

“Suavemente” played on the radio, and we even heard a Spanglish version of Justin Beiber’s “Baby”.   Instead of starting with “You know I love ya…” it was “Yo te quiero…”  While listening to these songs, we passed by millions and millions of African Palm trees, the main crop of the area.  Apparently they use the small red and yellow fruits from the palms to make vegetable oil.  Fernando paused on the side of the road by a factory to grab a few to show them to us.

Manuel Antonio

Eventually we rolled into the town of Quepos, the main center for the area around Manuel Antonio, and the closest real town, with banks, grocery stores, and gas stations.  Then it was just a short drive over the hill and down to Manuel Antonio.  We passed a restaurant called El Avion, which was held up by a plane shot down in Nicaragua that a man purchased for $3000, and another restaurant with a banner over it telling you to “Act British, Think Yiddish”.  We drove all the way through the town, down the beach and past the few small stores to turn around in a traffic circle at the end and head to our hotel.

Hotel Sign

This weekend we stayed at the Hotel Coco Beach, an interesting place proclaiming its hot water, pool, wifi, and AC through the office window.  The water and AC sounded especially promising.  All of our rooms however, were in the second building, up the hill from the office and road.  We had to hike three and a half flights of stairs to get there, and then found most of the rooms were on the second story.  After dumping all of our stuff in our rooms, everyone headed out for a late lunch in the town and to visit the beach.

The beach was beautiful, and though we weren’t allowed to go in farther than up to the waist due to strong currents, everyone had fun body surfing and just hanging out.  A few people used some surf boards and a small group of us (myself included) worked to bury Johnny in the sand.  There was a really cute kid everyone enjoyed playing with, he was half Costa Rican and half Japanese and loved the water like no other.  His brother would throw him into the air so he would land in the waves over and over again.

Alpha Monkey

After a while, we headed back to the restaurants across the street from the beach because happy hour was 4-6:30pm and drinks were 2×1 (two for one).  After picking a restaurant, we headed up to the open second floor to find trees full of squirrel monkeys at the top of the stairs.  There were dozens of them of all ages.  One man came up and gave them some banana and they went crazy.  After watching them and taking pictures of them for a few minutes, we continued inside and ordered drinks to share and trade among our large group.  The person in charge of music, with Fernando’s encouragement, played the Macarena and Fernando encouraged us to get up and do it with him.  A mini dance party ensued with both American and Latin music.  We did trains and circles, people played the drums along with the music, even Zuzana (Professor Bic) danced with us.

Some Costa Ricans joined in and everyone had a great time.  I got a dance partner that actually knew how to dance and could lead well for once!  It was great!  We did some swing dancing, Latin dancing, and random dancing just for fun (running man was a huge hit for everyone).  Eventually, we had to leave so we could head back to the hotel and shower before dinner.  Dinner was unexciting, more casado: rice, beans, and chicken.  No one tastes anything anymore; we just eat so we don’t starve.  It’s not bad, just bland.  Tasteless.  Parul, Nick, Baxter, and I tortured ourselves talking about Indian and Thai food; I can’t wait to find something delicious.

The Band

After dinner, we met the bus at 9:30 to go to a club/restaurant someone recommended us at happy hour.  It was a neat place, with a live band and loft up above, but filled with tables and people.  Everyone wanted to be there, but most of us had a good time.  Danielle had the misfortune to catch the eye of one of the singers in the band.  He brought her on stage to dance a little, which was fine, but then tried to make out with her, which did not go over so well.  Most of the rest of the evening was fine for the rest of us though.  Fernando was declared a party animal, and everyone had a good time.  Eventually, we all crammed into taxis to head back to the hotel and sleep.  It was interesting to note how different the experience turns out to be every time we go out.  Every place we go is unique and has a different atmosphere.  It’s pretty neat, and this turned out to be quite an eventful day.

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Friends, Food, and Fun

This is the second week of school for all of us.  Most school days aren’t too exciting, but we’ve managed to keep this week relatively lively.  Monday, everyone in the Alternative Medicine class went to the university thinking we would have an entire day of class in order to make up for the week that we had missed.  The teacher was interesting and went slow enough that everyone was able to actually process the information as he went along.  He did not, however, have any intention of teaching the entire day.  When he found out the administration was expecting him too, he decided to teach until 11 or 11:30am and then make up the extra 3hours another time.  The class was at least interesting, as the teacher stuck some of the students with needles, demonstrating acupuncture.  Thankfully though, we did not have 6 hours of one class that day, and Fernando arranged a bus for us to all go back home after lunch.

Tuesday was another early day for us, though I wish we had known sooner.  I spent the morning on my laptop at the university, waiting for the morning class to finish to go get lunch.  After lunch, we came back and waited for the professor for the afternoon class.  Everyone was confused about a field trip to the national museum.  The professor had mentioned that it would be that day, but the schedule listed the trip as Monday of the following week.  Just after 2:00, when the class was supposed to start, Fernando came and told us that he had a bus back to the hotel for us.  We would not be having class that afternoon after all.

Other than these few misunderstandings and examples of disorganization, the week has gone by pretty smoothing and extremely quickly.  Tuesday night, I met my friend (from UCSD) Emily and her family for dinner.  Her aunt and uncle brought her with them to visit their parents here in Costa Rica.  JJ had lived here for a few years after college and his parents moved here 16 years ago both to save money flying back and forth from California and for the health care system (his mom has cancer).  I thoroughly enjoyed eating and visiting with them in their home in Escazu (near San Jose).  They have all traveled all over the world and had great stories to tell.  From their plans, it seems they might be at Manuel Antonio at the same time as me this weekend so we might have a chance to meet up again.

Though Tuesday had been a late night (I hung out with friends at the hotel after I got back, too) I got up early Wednesday morning and had breakfast with Fernando and Professor Bic.  Fernando mentioned that his friend was turning 40 and had invited him to his birthday party that night at a bar in town.  I told him he should go but he felt that his job required him to remain with us.  Instead, he decided to invite us to go with him and take part in a typical Costa Rican birthday party.

Traditional construction

Everyone had the school day to mull it over and after the morning class was over, Fernando took a small group of us to Heredia via public transportation.  He gave us a small tour of the town and we wandered trough the main market, eating homemade ice cream bought at a fruit stand.  We visited the post office (Fernando mailed all the postcards and letters everyone had given him) and a church off of the central park.  Fernando demonstrated the typical building made of mud bricks and enforced with sugar cane reeds (today they use rebar).

After wandering for a while, we took the bus back to ULatina to wait until the afternoon class was finished and ready to go back at 4:30.  I utilized the computers in the library for the first time (typing was difficult when it came to some characters and punctuation) and used my Spanish to check out a book from the library.  That was an interesting experience because apparently, you can only have a book for 3 days, so it’s due on Saturday.  The lady told me I had to call on Saturday so that I could keep it an extra couple of days to turn it in on Monday, or else I had to pay.  I understood what she was saying though, so after some confusion I just took her word and decided I would call.  It was only later that I realized the source of my confusion.  I didn’t realize that July 3 (the day the book is due) was this Saturday (where did June go?) and thought she was having me call on some random day to let them know I had the book, when she already put it in the computer system.  Getting in that computer system required some improvisation as well.  Since I didn’t have a phone number, I gave the lady my email address but does anyone know how to say “@” in Spanish?  It took us a minute to understand each other, and I have no idea what she said it was called, but I managed to successfully check out a book from the library.  I went home with another copy of The Alchemist, this time in Spanish.

When we arrived back at the hotel, Fernando told us to meet him at 7pm to go to the party.  Though most people were undecided about going, most of the group went, including Professor Bic.  I went with Deanna, Jessica, and Michelle to the DeliTaco across the street to grab something to eat real fast before we left.  I got a hamburger, which thankfully was a billion times better than those found in the US.  The place was cute, with a small convenience store on one side where you paid and received a ticket to bring to the lady’s working at the counter and cooking your food on the other.  Passing by, one would probably think they were entirely separate but you needed to hand over your ticket to get your food.

We took two taxis and a shuttle to the party.  The shuttle had seats for 14 people, with plenty of room to squeeze more in, but the driver did not like that idea so everyone else took taxis.  We drove through downtown San Jose (which I have yet to explore) to get there and soon arrived at a small “Restaurante Bar” that did not stand out or look special in any way.  We could see through the window a few tables set up with a group of people there, presumably for the party.  Our arrival was accompanied by a chorus of “This is it?” but everyone got out and decided they’d give it a shot.  After paying the driver and waiting for the rest of our group to arrive, we entered the bar and set up tables for our group.  There was a huge line of us waiting to greet and congratulate the Birthday Tico.  After settling down, we all ordered some food and drinks to sustain us through what would probably be a longer evening than we had expected.  I split some ceviche de pulpo (i.e. octopus) with Jenny, which turned out to be a bit too chewy but alright.  Everyone enjoyed themselves talking and playing games at the table though.

Costa Rican Cimarrona

Then the Cimarrona arrived.  Fernando announced it, going back and forth between Spanish and English, and in marched a traditional Costa Rican band with drums, trumpets, touba, and all.  It was a surprise for Fernando’s friend for his birthday.  They brought in four different masks that people wore and danced around in and soon everyone was dancing.  The whole group did a conga line around the room a few times and we spent over an hour dancing.  Everyone concurred that Ticos know how to party.

It was a fun evening.  On the way back from the bar, we had the first prostitute sighting of the trip.  She was standing on the street corner and everyone in the shuttle turned to look at her.  Before she started walking, Deanna said she thought the woman was a mannequin.  For the rest of the ride, everyone kept watching the alleys and street corners but no one saw anything else.

When we got back to the hotel, Alex and I watched part of a really weird movie (Susan Sarrandon, Penelope Cruz, and Robin Williams in a bizarre and depressing Christmas movie).  Alex hadn’t gone out because she didn’t feel very good and everyone decided we should surprise her on her birthday (which happens to fall in the middle of our trip) with a party like the one we went to, complete with cimarrona and everything (Tyler also wants to have a birthday party like that next year and for us all to come but that’s almost another year away).

Today, Thursday, is our last day of school this week.  I spent the morning tiredly dozing, reading, and using the computer.  Everyone is picking up laundry this afternoon, its expensive (1400/kilo, plus more if you want it done in anything less than 3-4 days) but we all need clean clothes (though I’m sure a lot will be done in the sink from now on) before we leave for the weekend.  No one really knows what we’ll be doing tonight (besides packing) but we’re all looking forward to the weekend (well maybe not being ready to leave at 7:30am, but everything else should be great).  The trip just gets better and better.

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