Costa Rica – My Sanctuary

6 Nov

The cry of the howler monkey wakes me at 5 am. It’s his warning call to potential intruders. To me, it’s “Welcome back to Costa Rica.” I have returned to our house in Playa Penca on the Pacific coast.

I step out on the balcony and am greeted by the only cool air of the day. The blue jays stare at me demanding to be fed. I carefully place tiny bits of bread evenly spaced along the rail for all to enjoy, but a few greedy jays swoop down, gather up three, four, five pieces, cock their head as if to say “so much for sharing,” and fly away.

I go down the stairs and walk to the estuary at the end of the property.  I feel the dew on the grass. In a few hours, it will be gone as the sun’s path crosses the house. Iguanas scurry up the trees to avoid me. I step on a half-eaten mango the raccoon harvested the night before.

I spend the day pondering the various shades of green of the mango, avocado and lime trees. The branches of the tree the monkeys nest in almost touches the balcony. Mothers with babies and juveniles occupy the lower branches. At times they are only a few yards from me.  I feel like I am part of their family.  The dominant male of the troop naps high in the tree. The slightest disturbance sets off his distinctive howl.

The sun is setting. The white herons are a contrast to the dark green of the mangrove trees at the edge of the estuary. In the distance, the fishing boats return to town. The Howler monkey gives his cry claiming this territory for the night. The day is gone. I haven’t accomplished a thing, but it doesn’t bother me. I am filled with the joy and serenity I always experience when I come here. As they say in Costa Rica, “Pura vida.”

Howler monkey

Article selected as one of the top twenty finalists in International Living’s “Best Job in the World” contest (November 4, 2015).

Kiev: A Vibrant City with Soviet Undertones

6 Nov

My article published November 12, 2012 in covering my trip to Kiev in July 2012.

High Points: Picturesque old Kiev is set in the hills, overlooking a river with many parks. The Old Town has numerous cathedrals worth visiting and can easily be covered in one to two days. A good circuit is to begin at Independence Square and walk up the hill to St. Alexander’s Church. Note the different facades on the houses along the way. From the church, turn left and walk along the park to St. Michael’s golden-domed cathedral. Then, cross the square and continue on to St. Andrew’s Cathedral and the beginning of Andriyivsky descent, a winding cobblestone street lined with colorful local vendors.

Kiev has two UNESCO sites, which should not be missed. Both date back over 1000 years. Sofiyivsky Cathedral in Old Town is worth the visit for it’s original murals. Be sure and note the Madonna’s eyes as they follow you from the first to second floor. Take the metro to Pechersk Lavra Monastery, the other UNESCO site. The grounds of this monastery are extensive, so allow at least four hours for your visit to cover everything.

On the weekends, Khreshchatyk, the main thoroughfare, is closed to traffic and the six lanes become a pedestrian walkway filled with musicians. In the summer, it’s light until 10 p.m., so there’s ample time to stroll, explore the side streets, and enjoy the numerous cafes.

Low Points:  While the catacombs and mummified saints are the main attraction of the Lavra Monastery, we found them disappointing. Thousands of visitors wait in line to make the pilgrimage, but hot and stuffy quarters with what look like newly plastered walls was not particularly impressive.

Savings Strategy: Restaurants along Khreshchatyk tend to be overpriced.  There is inexpensive bus transportation from the airport to the railway station in the city proper. The information desk at the airport that can direct you to the bus stop. To get to Old Town from the railway station you will need to negotiate a taxi or take the metro. There are three rail lines, stops are numerically labeled, and signage in English makes it easy to use. At 2 UAH (about $0.25 US currency; see for current exchange rates) per trip, it’s a bargain.

Where I Stayed: I used TripAdvisor to locate a hotel that was centrally located.  The Ukraine Hotel, included a full breakfast, was right above Independence Square, and close to two metro stops.  For the budget-minded, there are hostels located in the Old Town.

If You Go: Definitely take the free walking tours which are offered daily at noon and 4 p.m. from Independence Square. The tour at noon covers the Old Town and the afternoon tour explores the numerous parks.  Consider a side trip to Chernobyl for an up-close view of Reactor Number 4, which exploded on April 26, 1986. A trip to Chernobyl must be organized by an approved tour operator 10 days prior to your visit. It is relatively expensive (approximately $150 US dollars) and will take the entire day, but is a fascinating experience to visit the area where no one will ever be able to live.

Belarus – Still Tied to Its Soviet Past

4 Oct

This is an expanded version of my article published in October 2, 2012 and includes photos taken during our trip.

As you travel across the country, a plain lined with forests and small villages, you see perfect white clouds like those observed in a Marc Chagall painting. You do NOT see the post soviet era of prosperity that you see in other ex-soviet countries.  There is little advertising or glaring neon lights, no graffiti, and very little litter. All a very welcome change and pleasant experience.



Arrival in Minsk

Minsk, the capital of Belarus, is in the center of the country making it a central location for excursions to other cities.  A visa is mandatory for most visitors (US and EU residents). When applying for a visa you need to state the hotels where you will be staying and have the agency that booked your hotel prepare an invitation letter to accompany your visa application.  The visa will only be issued for the days of a documented hotel reservation.  No extra days allowed. Upon arrival at the Minsk airport you need to purchase mandatory medical insurance which costs $5/person/week. English is not widely spoken, but people are friendly and willing to help.

The Country

Belarus is known as “the lungs of Europe” because of its incredible amount of forest (over 30% of the country is forested) and marshlands.  Belarus lost over 30% of its population during World War II and remains very patriotic.  They celebrate  Independence Day on the date they were liberated from the Nazis by the Red Army, not independence from Russia. It is not overrun with tourists and offers a look into remnants of its Soviet past.





The exchange rate as of this writing is 8799 ruble/USD.  Our 270,000 ruble taxi from the airport to the hotel (approximately 30 minutes) which sounded astronomical, was only $34. We stayed at a 4 star hotel in Minsk which was expensive, $220 per night, and was certainly not up to 4 star standards. Hotels in Vitebsk and Grodno were much more reasonable ($100 per night for a 3 star hotel located in the center of the city). Hotels further out are less expensive. We found the food good and very reasonable. Draniki, potato pancakes, is the traditional Belarusian dish. From Minsk we traveled to Vitebsk (northeast) and Grodno (west) by bus. The cost was around $10 for each four hour ride, but be warned the minibuses are not air conditioned.



Minsk definitely reflects the Stalin style with its broad streets and numerous monuments.


Minsk has several large parks and numerous war memorials. The Victory Plaza is a memorial to World War II. The Isle of Tears commemorates the 771 soldiers lost during the Afghanistan war. There is a very impressive holocaust memorial with 29 naked figures descending steps to be executed. It’s a bit hard to find (not far from the hotel Europe), but worth the effort.

Our favorite restaurant in Minsk is Gurman at 7 Rypmah Street right behind the Opera House. We had the famed Gurman fried ravioli with Gurman sauce and cold borscht with cucumbers, potatoes, and egg. The bill was 176,000 or approximately US$ 18.


Vitebsk is the childhood home of Marc Chagall. The museum of his home and the Chagall Art Center, which displays some of his early work, are both worth a visit. Old Town runs along the river with cobblestone pedestrian streets  filled with restaurants and beer gardens. Several Russian Orthodox churches are located in the Old Town area.



Large, lavish weddings are not typical in Belarus. On Sundays during the summer, you will find wedding parties celebrating in the parks.




Grodno, on the western border, was not destroyed during World War II so you can experience old Belarus.


Grodno is a very old historic city. In the XVI century is was mentioned as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. In 1862, it was the railroad hub between St Petersburg and Warsaw. Next to the Catholic Cathedral, located on the main square, is a picturesque pharmacy museum. The building was constructed in 1709 by the Jesuits for pharmaceutical research and functioned into the 1950’s. The restaurant Kampas, located in the older section of town, is great for pancakes with caviar.

Many of the villages have brightly painted houses and make a colorful setting against the green scenery along the main roads.


 In the small towns, you will find local women selling fresh produce, berries, flowers, and herbs.



Belarus has four UNESCO World Heritage Sites . Mir and Nesvizh Castles are a day trip from Minsk. The Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park is near Brest, in the south west corner of the country.  Brest is worth a visit if you are a World War II history enthusiast.

Belorussians are not affluent, although I did see a Porsche car dealership in Minsk as we were walking to the bus terminal.  There are few ipads, but everyone has a cell phone. You don’t see high fashion in the malls, but young women are well dressed and tottering in high heels. Definitely, a trip to Belarus gives you a glance backward into Soviet times, so enjoy!

Hello world!

2 Oct

Yes, it’s true, when I was a small child, I used to pack a suitcase and after my parents had retired to their bedroom, I would sneak out of my room and sit in my father’s recliner pretending I was on an airplane headed to some far off destination. Fortunately, I landed a career in international marketing which allowed me to travel and live abroad. My passion for travel is not satiated, so join me on my travels to new and wonderful places.