Can do wrong now

You know that period in your child's life when you could do no wrong?  That time is now only a memory. Conversation at home yesterday:

Wife: So how many students are in your class this semester?

Me: Six, all graduate students.

11yr-old son: Only six? Wow. The class must be boring!

8-yr old daughter: Maybe the class is not boring. Maybe Appa just teaches it in a boring way.

Where the streets have no name

Over Christmas break, we flew into San Jose, Costa Rica, rented a car and drove around the country. This is quite an adventure since in Costa Rica, roads and streets have no names. Hotels give out their address as "200 meters from Bank of X" and you have to somehow figure out how to get to X and then look around in all directions.  Maps (both the paper one that we got from rental agency and offline Google maps that I downloaded before I left) are quite unreliable.

Just past Santiago de Punscal, in the mountains in the central part of the country, the paved road (a numbered national highway according to both maps) turned into a gravel one and soon deteoriated into a dirt road. Several hours later, we finally ended up on a paved road running along the coast, but we were seriously worried by then.  Roads have no names, so it is never clear if you are on the right road or not. GPS worked even with no data connection, although because the terrain was mountainous, and the map locations terrible, we often seemed to be traveling parallel to marked roads. Something that happened quite commonly was that we would drive past a fork and then turn back when it appeared that our location error was beyond the common GPS/map errors. Still, the trip would have been incomparably harder without the offline maps on my Android phone. I don't know if we could have done it as easily with two young children in the days before GPS and offline Google maps. Thanks, Google!

In San Jose, we stayed in the guest house of a coffee estate. This was the highlight of our trip, accommodation-wise.  The host family immediately adopted our kids. Hearing that the kids played the piano, they dug out their old keyboard and had the kids play Christmas tunes. We also got treated to the traditional tamales and smoky-banana cake.  After this, the standard hotels we stayed at in Manuel Antonio or Monteverde seemed rather mundane. This was our first experience with, and it was very, very good. I will look at them on family vacations before I book any hotels.

But you probably don't want my unsolicited testimonials about internet companies.

First full day in Costa Rica, we went to Poas Volcano. This is the largest active crater in the world, but it lies in a cloud forest. Meaning it is very unlikely that you will actually see the crater. And indeed, when we went in the morning, this is the sight that greeted us:
We saw nothing beyond a dozen yards.  Having nothing better to do the rest of the day, we decided to stick around, have lunch and try again in the afternoon.  As we were hiking towards the crater in the afternoon, a strong wind parted the mists and we got treated to this sight:
A crater, a sulfurous crater lake and a fumarole.  Just saying.

"Second time lucky," I gushed to the German tourist standing next to us.  "For me, it is the third time lucky," he told me in crisp language, "I came here 4 years ago and again last year and did not see the crater."  I did not clarify that this was simply our second attempt the same day.

The second day, we got on the road to Quepas. Instead of taking the major highway, I decided that we would take the scenic route through the mountains. What could go wrong? This was a numbered highway, similar to the one we took to Poas. Boy, was I wrong! The trip that we thought would take us 3 hours (at 50 km/hr) ended up taking nearly seven hours.  Still, we arrived in time to hit the beach.

The beach was accessed by parking the car by the side of the road and taking a steep trail through thick jungle to a tiny strip of beautiful white sand flanked by massive volcanic rocks. The beach was awesome, in the original sense of the word -- it inspired awe.

Manuel Antonio National Park was Costa Rica's first national park, and it was modeled quite self-consciously around the Smoky Mountain park.  The smokies is my least favorite national park -- to me, it was sad that the absolutely stunning natural landscape had been marred by a Gatlinburg-like vibe. Still, the hikes, wildlife and waters within the park were breathtaking.

That's a sloth in the picture. Look carefully.

Having learned our lesson about Costa Rican roads, we left quite early for Monteverde. There is no paved road access to Monteverde -- the last 20-30km are quite terrible.  It rained all the time that we were in Monteverde, but we still hiked nearly every trail in the park and saw all the sights. We even saw a quetzal.

From Monteverde, we drove around Lake Arenal to La Fortuna. It was in La Fortuna that our luck ran out. Arenal volcano is supposed to erupt 41 times a day and we'd booked 3 nights there. What we didn't know -- because the guidebooks are quite coy about this -- is that Arenal volcano went dormant in 2010. Nobody has seen anything in the last 2 years. And worse -- the volcano is constantly enveloped in clouds. When we went, it had been 45 days since the last time that the top of the volcano had been visible. La Fortuna and Arenal volcano should be dropped off visitors' itineraries. If you are going to Costa Rica and want to spend your time wisely, skip Arenal.

Still, La Fortuna was where I saw the prettiest waterfall I have ever seen. I think what made it stand out is that the area has two waterfalls. The one on the left is a powerful, thundering waterfall full of stones and mud. The other skips from rock to rock with a silvery sheen. The contrast is probably what makes the one on the right look so pretty. Pictures do not do it any justice.

Another cool thing we did in La Fortuna was to laze around in the Tabacon river. The river starts out in the area of Arenal volcano, and so the water is hot as it flows out. Wonderful feeling, to sit amidst rocks as hot water gushes all round. We had three days in La Fortuna, and with nothing much else to do, we lazed around quite a bit in the hot springs.

Costa Rica is a gorgeous, gorgeous place. But they should absolutely give names to their streets.

Types of epidemics

A very interesting, and counter-intuitive, article on the cause of the crime epidemic of the 70s:
Experts often suggest that crime resembles an epidemic. But what kind? Karl Smith, a professor of public economics and government at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, has a good rule of thumb for categorizing epidemics: If it spreads along lines of communication, he says, the cause is information. Think Bieber Fever. If it travels along major transportation routes, the cause is microbial. Think influenza. If it spreads out like a fan, the cause is an insect. Think malaria. But if it's everywhere, all at once—as both the rise of crime in the '60s and '70s and the fall of crime in the '90s seemed to be—the cause is a molecule.
Turns out the culprit is lead in gasoline. As we have switched to unleaded gasoline, the crime rate has subsided. I was skeptical, but the article is quite convincing.