Yes, they are real.
And yes, they are execrably foul.
A son's minivan becomes a hearse.
Nephews and grandsons bear the pall.
Grandsons deliver her to her final appointment.
A lot of closure, done the family way.
On Saturday I sat with my Gran for two hours by myself, a peaceful interlude that fortune had granted.
I held her warm hand tightly in mine for a long time, and spoke into her ear, telling her of my love for her; telling her of my sister's love and affection and sorrow; reading Gran a letter from my sis, and describing the outrageous curls that have sprouted from my nephew's head.
I read her the paper - the Globe and Mail - choosing stories that I knew in another time would spark interest or scorn; stories of the Canadian military in Afghanistan, of the new books from Canada's best authors, of the increasing cases of teen violence in Canada.
I kissed her forehead and encouraged her to cough to clear her throat, the way my Uncle and Father had taught me. I gazed at her with the care worker on his hourly visits, standing silently together and watching her laboured breathing.
Sitting in the sunshine beside the bed, I thought a lot about my incredible Uncle and Aunt who cared for Gran with such humanity and humour, such selflessness. I pondered on the hundreds of hours of their lives that they committed to Gran's comfort and health. I thought of my father who had lost his own father, then his eldest brother, and now faced the loss of his mother. I thought of my mother, who lost her father, mother and sister in a cruelly-short span of time. I put myself into her shoes and the enormity of such loss weighed my head so that it hung dead weight between my shoulders.
I thought of my other grandparents, amazing people each, all unique individuals whose personalities have entered me through my parents, all of whom have been gone for so many years and whom I suddenly missed so terribly.
Then I took a picture to remind myself of these moments, of Gran's snowy head lit by the sunshine in the still room, and the chair where I, and my family members had rested at her side.
I watched her until my Father returned and we sat together, watching a hundred years of life at final rest. We watched her until my Aunt and Uncle returned, and then we took our leave, with a final kiss and a last "I love you" spoken into her ear.
Hours later, my Uncle and Aunt having sat at her side for the rest of the day, and while I stood on the deck of a retreating ferry - gazing at the remnants of a spectacular sunset over her beloved Vancouver Island - my gran breathed her last.
Years later, with the Ninja aging, I traded her in one day for a brand new 2000 Ninja ZX-9R. And yet again, the future collided with me in one blinding instant. As I watched the odometer click from zero to one kilometer, zipping along even at sedate pre-engine-break-in speeds, the solidity and poise of another decade of motorcycle handling progress was injected into my brain. A few days later, break-in period elapsed, I watched in disbelief as one hundred kilometers per hour arrived from nought in under three seconds, 130 horses barely ticking over. I knew, in those moments that never would my riding skills be on par with the technology to which the bike gave me access. From one era's superbike to another's, I had crossed a chasm. Cornering speeds, outright straightline performance and acceleration that no production car driver has ever experienced, all for a few thousand dollars.
Needless to say its been a while since I experienced a technology shift that abrupt. Home electronics like TVs and DVDs and computers and mobile phones all progress and evolve at a more sedate pace, no matter what the marketers would have you believe. Buying the next greatest thing these days rarely provides one that sense of "fast-forward" anymore. Upgrades are less aweinspiring and, at best, eyebrow-raising.
However recently I was the stunned recipient of a fabulous gift from my wife and one of my oldest and closest friends.
As you may have read elsewhere in this blog, I am a cyclist, for reasons of health and recreation mainly. And since I live in Canada's leading centre for bicycle-theft, I have always had an aversion to expensive bikes. For years I rode an old clunker donated by a friend, which served me for many years before finally disappearing one night from a locked storage room. That was followed by a hardware store special which I bought for about $150 and which lasted less than two years before being taken from a locked bike rack in our parking lot. And to replace that I bought another hardware store special at the end of the season for the bargain of $89 that even had an aluminum frame. And it's this last gem that has carried my groaning and flabby bulk over 600km on its trusty knobbies. Rain or mud, snow and hail, its performed well, albeit with a rattly and squeak-heavy presence.
But, you see, my friend quit his job a few years ago. Left the rat race. Traded a city condo for a mountain chalet. Traded urban canyons for wooded trails. Moved from the metro to the sticks. Traded his blossoming stomach ulcer for a tan and skinned knees. In short, he packed up his life and, with a partner, bought a mountain bike shop in the Canadian Rockies.
For years now he's been promising to hook me up with the latest technology. Get me off my clunker and onto some lean, mean, full-suspension track-whacking machine. Since I live within spitting distance of the most amazing mountain bike terrain in the world, it was bit galling to J that I shunned such bike porn for things like rowing, or running the seawall. Oh, sure, I'd thought about dropping some dosh at his shop and getting kitted out proper like, but you see, my friend is a man who rode the Trans Alps mountain bike race on a piece of machinery that would have cost more than my Ninja (my Y2K Ninja, no less) had he purchased it outright. I knew that my pocket book would never stretch to the kind of titanium and carbon fibre wizardry that he'd really like me to buy. Hell, there weren't even any adult bikes in his shop under $700, and even those at the obtainable end of the scale were the kind of embarrassing tractor-seated cruisers on which white-shoed retirees shred the remains of their prostates.
No, I amused myself with the odd accessory when I was in his neighbourhood, and was the recipient of no small number of great cycling clothes, but my friend J was clearly disappointed with my reticence at joining the mud-spattered and grated-shin brethren that regularly came in and bled all over his shiny inventory.
Well, all that came to an end this month. As I made serious noises about upgrading my old clunker to something more respectable, it generated some inquiries to J upon the eve of one of his trips out to visit us. He started sending me pictures and links to an increasingly more expensive array of unobtanium anti-wobble shift linkage micro-thrusters and all-mountain air-charged remote shock-lockout thumb-shifters. Finally, when one bike stood out clearly above the others, I realized that he had climbed way beyond my price range, and our exciting but all-too-brief email exchange ended rather limply with me asking him to, well, pick me out a new helmet and maybe some bar ends for the clunker, if he wouldn't mind.
Well, I'm sure you can guess the rest. Wifey and J conspired to buy me a piece of two-wheeled cross-country mountain bike totty that puts anything I've ridden before to shame.
Climbing off my hardware-store rattletrap, faithful though it may have been, and climbing onto this new bike has once again thrown me a stunning mental shift. Light, solid, smooth, strong and bejewelled with more technology than my first motorbike had: hydraulic disk brakes, single air-charged rear shock with remote lockout to convert the bike to hardtail at the flick of my thumb, front fork with 110mm of travel and its own lockout for hard climbs. It truly was like stepping out of the 1950s and into the next century. My old v-brake bike with no real suspension to think off and badly mismatched gears is simply light-years behind this. Riding through the modest forest trails in Stanley Park on Sunday, I suddenly found myself riding up onto downed trees and leaping three-foot drops into mud. With the bike suspension set to full "boing" I was hurling it off 6-step concreate staircases and frightening grannies in the new construction zone around False Creek. And as I sat panting slightly in awe, looking back at the admittedly-modest four foot drop that I'd just landed, I found myself idly wondering:
"Gee, I wonder if I should upgrade to the LC-R shock or whether I'll be able to stay beneath the blow-off valve ceiling of this one?"
"I bet it wouldn't be too hard to bust one of these wheels on a rock after dropping eight feet. Wonder if carbon fiber wouldn't be a good idea?"
And then it hit me.
This wonderful gift, from two of my most favourite people, is actually my first hoot on the crack pipe.
And somewhere deep in his echoing mountain lair, my buddy laughs cruelly and with great satisfaction: "Ye-e-e-e-s-s-s. YESSsssssss."
Then right in my ear, as if he was standing beside me on the concrete steps:
"First hit's free", grins the pusher man, evilly. "Next one's gonna cost ya."
That's just a fact.
I respect horses, and I fear them, but I don't like them all that much. Tolerate them, I suppose. Treat them with the deference that larger mammals warrant, and all that.
But I don't particularly like looking at them, patting them, sitting behind their noxious rumps in a wagon being towed interminably around some landmark; marching behind them in a parade waiting to tromp in their voluminous excrement; watching them prance over fences with some stupidly-dressed twat on their backs; thrilling as they tear madly around a race track, or for that matter seeing them buck some hapless redneck and trample him into the rodeo mud.
I was once kicked by a horse in the distant past, owned by a foul little bitch named Nicola Kerslake, who kept it in the fields below our farmhouse when I was eight. The fact that I can remember the girl's name who owned the damnable creature should give testament to the fact that such events do tend to stick in my craw. (Ed note: Can dogs actually own horses?).
Anyway, in subsequent years I have been propped on the back of horses a couple of times, and although growing up in the British and Canadian countryside meant easy access to them, I have never become comfortable on the back of a giant smelly, snorting, farting, beast that outweighs me by a million pounds, has been trained by a sadistic and ritualistic bastard, has a large brain perfectly capable of making up its own mind about anything, and cares nary a whit for the hapless and terrified stranger saddled to its spine.
Needless to say, like the proverbial cat-hater smothered by felines, I seem drawn to people who love horses, including my wife and many friends.
So here we are in Costa Rica, and our friends with whom we've reunited on this trip have been regaling us with tales of idyllic moseying through this country's lush rainforests on not one but two horseback trips they've completed.
Knowing that it would be really fun to go on a day trip with them and their two small daughters, we ruled out ziplining (not too much fun for the wee ones), ATV tours (not ecologically friendly in this bastion of eco-tourism), boat cruise (unfortunately not gastrointestinally friendly to this writer's queasy stomach) and nature walk (we already took our own hike through Manuel Antonio).
Knowing that my wife would love it too, and thinking that not only should one face one's fears now and again but that perhaps one might have changed enough in one's adult years to actually enjoy such a ride, I booked the six of us onto a five hour horseback-riding daytrip in the country inland from Puerto Quepos near Manuel Antonio. We would be spending at least two and a half hours on horseback, interspersed with a swim in a waterfall and a stop for lunch.
We were picked up promptly (by Costa Rican standards) by Valentin, the ranch's dour and self-important General Manager. Along with four others we were taken on a bumpy thirty minute van ride into the highlands. The roads got progressively more and more decrepit and plunged us into a lush valley buzzing with the deafening racket of crickets, at the bottom of which we were dropped off in front of a row of ten steeds of varying sizes and colours. After a brief intro to our guide and to the tour itself, we were one-by-one paired up with a mount.
My heart rate had been slowly climbing as I watched all of the party get saddled up onto their horses. Each one of them, men women and children, looked as comfortable as if they had been born in the saddle. I was last to be paired up with my horse, "Sargeant".
Unfortunately, in one ear our guide was giving further instructions to the group while Valentin was giving me life-preserving instructions in the other, both of which were drowned out by the deafening pounding of blood in my ears. My pulse rate spun up into the thousands of beats per minute, and the reins shook in my suddenly palsied and sweaty palms. As I tried to remember wifey's sage and experienced advice, Valentin mumbled a question about whether or not the stirrup thingys were flooged out proper, or if the doodly-punk straps should be scranshed up gripperly, or some other horse-and-tack terminology like that - couldn't quite hear him properly - and so I nodded stupidly and gave him the thumbs up which required me to let go of the saddle horn thingy which of course left me teetering precariously on the brink of an undignified tumble into the manure below. It was at that point that I remembered I was supposed to grip the horse with my thighs and so I did. And that's when I discovered that the nagging pain in the inside of my thighs was a viciously exposed strap that, when gripped harder between my untoned and flabby legs, became a cleaver's edge, slicing me to the bone (or at least, protruding uncomfortably).
And then with a muffled order from somewhere up ahead, and a "tschk tschk tschk" noise soming from The Evil Valentin behind me, my horse lurched to a walk without any instruction from me.
Once I became used to the total discomfort, and the feeling of being completely unable to control my destiny, I settled into a comfortably subdued panic, and grinned stupidly when anyone looked at me. Thankfully they were all pretty focussed on their own steeds to worry about me, and so I was left to plod along at the horse's chosen pace.
As we sauntered slowly up out of the valley, the guide up ahead stopped to let us all sniff the sweetly pungent leaves of a cinammon bush, and I got my first taste of "whoa-ing" Sargeant. We juddered to an uneasy stop, with Sargeant tossing his head back and forth alarmingly. Valentin ventured that I was using too much force on the reins, and suggested I just give a light tug to stop, and a very light flick to slow. I personally felt that I was barely moving the reins and old Sarge was pretty much doing whatever the expletive he wanted to do, but I bit my tongue. Valentin went on: Turning left or right also meant a gentle pull in the desired direction. He said that I'd find my horse didn't like to walk slowly and liked to be at the front of the pack. But I wasn't to let him advance through the pack, and I was to keep him near the back with his brother.
OK. So off we trod. After a few hundred yards, I felt I was getting the hang of things, and despite the pain in my thighs, and the unpredictable swaying of the horse, I was able to steer him and stop him with what I felt was a light touch.
Our guide was sharing nuggets of information about the passing village, the flora, and some Costa Rican history. Only a few detached words wafted their way back to me, but I figured that my wife would fill me in.
After a short time spent walking through a village, we turned off the gravel road and onto a smaller track heading north into the jungle. It was very hot and humid, and the crickets shrilled deafeningly in the surrounding palms. We passed a "paper tree" plantation (aren't all trees paper trees, said the British Columbian in me?), and other vegetation of note, and then began a little climb back down into the valley. We were instructed to lean back on the way down, and to lean forward on the way up. But on the descent, Sargeant decided that he had had enough plodding along at the back of the pack with me, Cowboy Slow, on his back, and began to pick up the pace, butting up against the horses in front of him and charging ahead. Valentin had warned us not to let the horses "bunch up", and so I vainly tried to rein-in Sargeant Stubborn, but he was having none of it, and plowed on forward. By now we were starting to make our way through the pack of riders, and I could hear Valentin yelling orders at me, but I was too busy hanging on for dear life with one hand, madly pulling the reins with the other, and fending off the crush of other riders and horses with my knees. The more I pulled on the reins, the more Sargeant shook his head in complaint, and forged ahead. Finally, sweating and fearful, I got him to stop, and we let the pack walk a little ahead until Valentin was even with me again.
"Choo muss not pull so harrd on dos rayns, he duss not like eet," he said.
"Yes, I can see that," I replied testily, "but he also doesn't respond when I pull lightly, shakes his head madly when I pull harder, and doesn't want to stay at the back."
"Thees ees one of da mose easy goin' horse we haff, mayn. He is veree goo nayturred. You shood haff no problems weeth heem."
My friend Cathy trotted by on her high horse and mentioned breezily that horses tend to adopt the personality of those riding them. I glowered at her moodily, and "tschk"ed Sargeant back into the group riding down into the valley. At the bottom we forded a small creek and resumed the trail up the other side. Then things really started to go wrong. It turns out at all the horses like to run up the hill, or at least canter. And no matter what the rider's intention is, they are going to run. And when one horse in the pack started to pick up the pace, Sargeant got a whiff of the race. Suddenly he bucked underneath me and we were off. And it was and this point that I discovered that my stirrups were painfuly short. Remembering my wife's instructions to stand up a little in the saddle, and take the bumps with my thighs, I leaned forward as the horse undulated beneath me, and stood up on the stirrups. But I didn't lift up at all. The stirrups were too long. And then I realized what Valentin was trying to ask me about the stirrups back at the start, but of course I didn't understand what he was saying, and hadn't understood the importance of properly adjusted stirrups until this moment. Every time Sargeant took a leap, the saddle bucked underneath me and I took a vicious shot to the balls. Over and over, the saddle came up to meet my boys with a dull and mindless violence that quickly laid me to waste. Frantically I pulled on my reins as we struggled through the pack until, breathlessly, I was finally able to slow the horse, his head tossing angrily. We were now walking up the hill in the middle of the pack and I was taking all sorts of advice and instruction when suddenly the horse to our right, skittish and not liking Sargeant's presence on his left rear flank, struck out and kicked my horse in the stomach. Sargeant reared up and whinnied in protest, and I pulled vainly on the reins until he finally stopped. By this point I was in agony. My testicles had been pounded into mincemeat, my thighs were bruising due to the pain of trying to grip the saddle and its protruding straps, I was terrified that Sargeant was going to buck me right off, and he was snorting and shaking his head in annoyance; likely both at me and the horse that kicked him. We stood there as the pack slowed at the top of the hill, and Sargeant settled down and started eating the roadside hedgerow while I gathered my wits.
As I looked around in a daze I realized that, joy of joys, our host had suddenly decided that it was time for a photo op.
Although I would have given anything to be lying on the beach sifting the sand between my toes right at that moment, I let myself get cheered up by the good-natured ribbing of my wife and friends, and we rode off down the other side of the hill. Sargeant and I got kicked again when we got a little too close to the kicker again, this time catching me on my foot, but doing no permanent damage. And soon we arrived at a little pool where we could get off the horses and go for a swim.
After a drink of water for us, and a dip in the bracing water, we dressed again for the ride home. I approached the dreaded Valentin and got him to raise my saddle's stirrups by three notches, and when I mounted Sargeant for the thirty minute ride home, it was like riding a different horse. He sensed my new comfort, and settled down. Valentin stayed with my buddy and I at the back of the pack, and showed how his presence calmed our two horses (he was their trainer). Giant irridescent blue morpho butterflies fluttered from the bushes along the creek through which we were riding. Little spider monkeys bounced through the canopy above our heads. The horses stopped periodically to drink, and Sargeant let the pack get far ahead of him as he ducked his head to drink frequently from the stream. When he saw that they had rounded the corner ahead of us out of sight, he'd leap into a trot, and I'd have to pull and pull on his reins to get him to stop, but at least the saddle wasn't slapping my nuts any more, and I was less fearful of an imminent demise.
At the end of the ride I dismounted gratefully, patted Sargeant's neck, turned my back on him for the last time and collapsed into the waiting van. We stopped on the way home for a light lunch of traditional Costa Rican cuisine, and sampled the cashew wine.
While the others moseyed through the gift shop, I sat out in the sun, on the dusty road opposite the cafe, and sighed happily. I'd made it through without a broken spine, and with both my 'nads intact, if a little bruised. I'd faced a fear, or at least an apprehension, and survived with a couple of shreds of my dignity remaining.
All in all, it had been a good day.
Well, lookyhere. A spot for wifey to partake in her favourite pastime.
Casa Alta is a great house not far from the sights and beaches of Manuel Antonio. However as we were to find out it was slap bang in a dubious neighbourhood of mixed houses that required, of all things, an armed guard sitting outside our locked driveway gate.
Just for precaution, we are told.
Comforting? In a way.
The main thing we wanted, however was for the guard to drug the neighbourhood dogs to sleep. Here, they bark from sunset to sunrise. Non. Stop. Only the sheer fatigue of two nights without sleep, combined with earplugs and the fans turned on high, gets us to sleep on the third night.
(sent wirelessly from my phone)
Wait til I post a picture of the security hut.
The whole place looks like they suffered a brutal tsunami, looked over the damage, shrugged their shoulders saying "ehhh, whatever" and reopened for business.
But, nonetheless, quiet, peaceful, and locals-only due to the steep and shaggy climb down through monkey-infested rainforest.