Friday, May 30, 2008

Snapshots of Costa Rica (4)

Golfing tips from Geraldo
The Cariari Country Club had every reason to look concerned when Howard and I turned up to play golf on Tuesday morning. For a start, the Cariari is Costa Rica's premier golf club. Also it's members only. And also - and I think this might have been the clincher - Howard was wearing a Dad's Army outfit.

The security girl looked very dubious. Ditto the pro shop. But we stuck to our guns and dropped PokerStars' name in it at every opportunity. This got us down to the payment area. "You will have to have a caddy", said the club manager, hoping this would throw us off the scent. "Or two caddies if you don't take a cart". We opted for one caddy and one cart and handed over our crumpled colones.

Enter Geraldo, our caddy. He looks utterly miserable and then he spots Howard and looks suicidal. At the first tee, things go pretty well. We don't hit the club house, each other or Geraldo. Luckly Howard has chosen tees which are about a foot long so we blame them for the first few slices.

Howard is, of course, actually pretty good at golf and I am a disaster. Geraldo therefore leaves Howard to his own devices (which mainly involves getting out of bunkers) and focuses his energies on me. It turns out there is absolutely nothing right with my game at all. I lift my head, I swing wildly and too fast and I don't use my shoulders. "Have you ever played golf", Geraldo asks me. I tell him I was course record holder at Portal del Roc pitch-and-putt for over a year. He nods wisely.

By the end of the first hole (10 for me, 7 for Howard) Geraldo has realised what he's up against. He decides to shake Howard up a bit by taking him off-piste in the golf buggy at high speed down a cliff. Howard notches up a 10 on Hole #2.

Geraldo then focuses his attentions on me. Some of it is personal "Do you have a husband? Do you have children? Is Howard your boyfriend?" and some of it is golf-related: "Don't lift your head. Straighten your arm. Use a wedge."

Howard gets a little petulant that Geraldo is giving me so much attention but cheers up when he spots a kingfisher and an iguana, thus augmenting the Attenborough credentials he gained on our raft trip for spotting a frog.

Nevertheless, the front nine is basically a disgrace for us both.
Howard: 7 - 10 - 6 - 4 - 6 - 8 - 4 - 6 - 10 (61)
Mad: 10 - 8 - 10 - 10 - 10 - 9 - 8 - 8 - 6 (79)

By now it is pouring with rain (when is it not in this blasted country) and Geraldo is in despair. Luckily we spy a drinks trolley. Geraldo has a coca cola and Howard and I have coffee and a whisky. Geraldo looks sceptical but things can't get any worse and he's right. Hole #10 is a cracking 5 for us both.

A word at this point about the course. For a start, it's totally stunning. A tropical Sotogrande with iguanas thrown in. Wildlife, exotic trees, acres of manicured fairway. It's beautiful - and one of the water hazards is a full-on ravine with Grade 5 rapids! You don't get that at Perivale Municipal.

We plough on (often quite literally) and Geraldo starts to cheer up. For a start his tips are paying off and I'm beginning to play some decent shots. I even take a couple of holes off Howard. At last we are playing some good golf. It's still raining but it's beautiful and we don't care. We love golf and we're beginning to love Geraldo.

Geraldo, for the record, plays off 3, came 3rd in the Costa Rica Open and has worked as a caddy at the Cariari for 15 years. If I hadn't left my camera in San Remo, you'd even be able to see what he looks like.

The game draws to an end and Howard and I are almost grieved. It's been heaven. Geraldo has been great. Final scores: 109 for Howard; 136 for me.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Snapshots of Costa Rica (3)

Ramada ramblings
I'm still here at the Ramada, the last survivor from a starting field of over 200. One by one they've thrown in their chips and headed home. I have won by default. Yippee.

You should never trust a hotel which uses maroon as a theme "accent" colour. A hotel which is actively paying tribute to maroon is a no-go area.

But maroon is everywhere at The Ramada, thoughtfully cheering up the background beige with splashes of 70s joie-de-vivre. Occasionally these sprightly tinges slip into crimson and burgundy, but on the whole it's maroon.

The Ramada has been my home for ten days. I know lots about the Ramada. I know the shift patterns, the name of my cleaning lady and how long it takes to get served at the hotel bar, which is called "Fiesta".

A more inappropriate name I can't really think of. Fiesta is the kind of bar where airline pilots and travelling salesmen come to slump and get drunk after a hard day at the wheel. Except they can't get drunk because it takes too long to get served. Maroon is everywhere.

Every night we do our best to get a beer and the staff do their best to master the till. They peer down at the display screen as if they've never seen it before in their lives and struggle to find the enormous button saying "beer". On Day 8 they tell me I can't put my beer on my room because I haven't got a ticket. I've never had a ticket. I have no idea what they mean by a ticket and I certainly didn't need a ticket on Days 1-7.

I have a mini-tantrum and the manager agrees that just this once I don't need a ticket.

My room I quite like. It has a view of the swimming pool and also a derelict 1970s amphitheatre. There is hardly any maroon and the mini-bar is the best I've ever seen - truly useful items such as toothpaste + toothbrush, razor, Doritos, Snickers bars, Alka Seltzer and M&Ms. There is a coffee-maker, a large desk and 97 cable channels. Pretty dammed perfect.

Money is an alien concept at The Ramada. Simply put, they haven't got any. The cash machine busted early on Day 1 and hasn't been fixed since. Reception never has any money. Nor does the casino. Howard tried to cash out $200 from the casino the other day and threw the whole building into a subprime meltdown.

I check out in a few hours and in many ways I'll be sad to leave. The Ramada runs at its own gentle pace, lulling you into a rhythmn of inactivity that is strangely addictive. And I will miss the maroon.

Snapshots of Costa Rica (2)

Costa Rica and its rich natural resources
Day 1 of LAPT San José was a filming trip with Siktilt. We got up at 6am, piled into a mini-bus and headed up-country. Costa Rica is famed for its nature; it treasures it. It has more National Parks than anywhere else (pretty much) and a vast range of indigenous species.

Siktilt's mission was to capture the essence of Costa Rica so that had to mean wildlife - in all its resplendent and endangered glory.

Stop 1 on the tour was a bridge where, many metres below, we could see some large logs nestling on the river bank. "Those are crocodiles" said our guide. We peered at the logs, Siktilt filmed them for a while and then we toured the gift shop looking for hand bags.

Next stop was the Aerial Tram. In the car park, Rury spotted an iguana and filmed it. Then we watched a video which told us lots about all the animals that dwell in the rainforest and a little bit about how erecting giant pylons up the mountain-side hadn't affected the eco-system one little bit.

We piled into the tram and set off, eagerly scanning the trees and undergrowth for wildlife. "Look, there's a spider" said our guide, pointing out a web spun across the struts of a pylon. "Look, there's a bird" said Rury, pointing out a sparrow.

We marvelled at the sparrow for a bit, then continued upwards. Not a dicky bird. Nada. Wildlife-free, in our opinion. As we descended back down the mountain-side, Carles had a mini-tantrum about the lack of animals and Rury said he'd seen more bio-diversity up his bum.

We headed for the beach and saw some storks. Then we headed to a marina and spotted a Komodo dragon scampering across the lawn of a gated community. Rury filmed it out of the window.

On Day 2, we insisted our guide do better on the animal front. "We need guaranteed parrots", said Hass. "I have a plan" said the guide, and took us to La Paz Waterfall Gardens. Here they have plonked wildlife inside giant cages so you can have a good look and capture the essence of Costa Rica on film. That said, La Paz was truly amazing. Heaving with stunning birds and other animals. Wonderful.

Rury filmed a marmoset which is native to Brazil. "I know Conrad is going to spot that", he said. "Hey Rury, nice work trying to squeeze in a Brazilian monkey in a film about Costa Rica". We discussed slotting in subliminal shots of other animals not native to Costa Rica, such as pandas, polar bears and penguins. "We'll just put in the happy feet", said Hass.

Next was the butterfly farm. Uh oh. Problem. I have a lifelong moth phobia and so, it turns out, does Rury. Our phobia includes butterflies. We stood outside the insectivorium and quaked with fear as the others strutted around inside.

The air was thick with giant and very beautiful blue butterflies. They looked like fairies. "This is like heaven" said Carles. ""I'm not going in there" said me and Rury. "You have to", said the guide. "It's the only way out".

Rury and I then did the bravest thing we have ever done in our lives (and that includes eating from the player buffet in Dublin) and went in to the insect tent. We hid behind each other (which doesn't work) and then tried to hide behind the guide, screaming like banshees if a butterfly came within ten metres. So much for aversion therapy. With our backs to the walls, we inched our way towards the exit sign.

Next stop were the waterfalls. Totally stunning. Reminded us of Indiana Jones. "Actually it was Jurassic Park" said our guide.

Back at the ranch (the Ramada Plaza Herradura Motel), Rury and Hass then created a truly wonderful promo video for Costa Rica which was brimming with stunning shots of beautiful birds and other wildlife. "Nice library shots" said Con.

Snapshots of Costa Rica (1)

Weather Report
There are two things that I am not very good at: weather and relationships. The latter is well-documented (permanently over-cast with occasional outbreaks of sunshine or thunder). But my Rain King skills are less familiar.

Basically, I can make it rain anywhere, anywhere at all. And I'm not just talking drizzle.

On a trip across the Sahara, I tipped up in Tamanrasset. Middle of nowhere. Hadn't rained for 25 years. But as soon as I approached, small cumuli nimbus started blotting the skies. In minutes it was bucketing down and didn't stop for three days.

Camping once in the Basque Country, it rained so hard that the Red Cross had to be called in to run soup kitchens for people who had lost their homes in the floods. Bilbao was under water. The National Guard were out to shoot looters.

At LAPT Rio, it rained non-stop. Desolate qualifiers, busted out of the main event, roamed the Intercontinental looking for something to do or locked themselves in their rooms to wait out the storm. What they didn't know, and which I thought best not to tell them, was that they would have to wait for me to leave for things to get any better.

So too in Costa Rica. Prior to departure, I checked the weather forecasts obsessively to see if there was any way round what I was seeing on screen: a plethora of icons which meant anything from "heavy rain" to "thunderstorms". Just before catching my flight, I had one last look (I have dozens of weather pages book-marked in the hopes that at least one is being optimistic). First up was the BBC with a news story saying that it had rained so much in Costa Rica that people were dying in mud-slides. Red Cross back in. More soup. The Rain King does it again.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Rio Scenarium blows our minds

The lack of a Day 1b came as something of a shock in Rio. Obviously I did know that we weren't having a Day 1b - and so presumably did the players. Nevertheless almost everyone at the welcome party acted as if they were taking Day 1a off. And my plans to ease myself gently into Day 1a - and then really take things by storm on Day 1b - were similarly skuppered.

The numbers also took us by surprise. More than 150 Brazilians shelling out $2,500 (or three gazillion reales) thus bringing the total to 314 - a sell-out event. So Day 1 went in a blur, but ended in a spectacular visit to Rio Scenarium. This was the place that Hass and Rury had said was the best they'd ever been to in their lives apart from Dortmund. This set the bar fairly high and I was prepared for disappointment. Sooooo wrong.

Rio Scenarium is a stunning colonial-style three-storey building, beautifully-lit which reminded us of New Orleans. Crowds thronged the streets. Couples on the first floor balcony were swaying and snogging like a Southern Comfort ad. Hedonism and headiness filled the air.

There were a lot of us but, once our VIP-ness had got us past the massive queue, Sarne led the charge to the bar. We lost the French early on (they've surrendered, said Sarne) but otherwise the group stayed/clung together and partied en masse. Sarne managed to bypass the samba-ing snoggers and slung 15 caiparinhanas over so we could start getting drunk. This took approximately three seconds and then we were so totally and utterly smashed all we could do was grin at each other and try to avoid getting snogged.

In Rio Scenarium, and possibly everywhere in Brazil but not the Intercontinental Hotel, snogging is a way of saying hello. It also appears to be the way to say "do you want to dance?", "do you want another caiparinha?" or anything else that needs saying. Couples were snogging everywhere, coming together and parting like waves lapping, skinny tanned backs dipping and diving and blowing our tiny little European minds in a tidal wash of sexiness and samba.

"Let's go this way" shouted Sarne (using actual speech rather trying to snog all of us) and we headed off to another room where the samba was faster and the bodies pressed even more tightly together.

I was starving so my next task was to be-friend a birthday group which was celebrating with a giant cake. Not hard to make friends at Rio Scenarium. In fact, hard to avoid making them. "Target the birthday girl" said my new friend Jenny. Jenny was with her fiancee Micah, who had bust out of the tournament early in the day. "You could do better" I told her, eyeing up Micah's ear jewellery. "I know," laughed Jenny (who looked like Nicole Kidman but better), "but I've already bought the dress and it was $5,000."

At one point, Tori and I got stuck in a queue in the bathroom and easily had as much fun there as anywhere else. Stunning Brazilian girls practised their English on us for hours. "Very good", we said "you can go in next". Well, it felt like hours, or days, or even weeks. The whole Rio Scenarium experience was totally trippy.

Eventually the French reappeared (pretty sure they had lost us deliberately) and we decided to call it a night. This was surprisingly tricky as Rio has a bizarre system of making you queue to get out as well as in.

Once back in the armoured truck, we headed for home. It was 5.30am but this didn't stop most of the group decanting at "Discoteca Help" on Copacabana Beach. Help's unique selling point is that every single girl in there is a prostitute. Obviously this was incredibly tempting and if I hadn't decided to get at least some sleep before Day 2, I'd have jumped off with everyone else. But something just has to give.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Samba on

Reception agreed that I had come very close to death.

Following an exciting night dancing the samba with Greg Raymer, I came back to my room to find it infested with a swarm of dengue fever-ridden mosquitoes.

Dengue fever is a serious worry here at LAPT Rio. None of us really knows what it is but, much like the impetigo we narrowly avoided catching in Venice, it sounds revolting and we don’t want it. Statistics vary but the one I tend to roll out is that in Rio alone more than 50,000 people have died of dengue fever since lunchtime. Apparently there is a Second Chance aspect to dengue fever – you’re allowed to catch it once, but the second instalment is fatal. Sarne has already had dengue fever so his presence here is an act of fearless dedication to his new role as Latin America marketing manager. Also, Tori has a bruise on her leg which we think might be dengue fever but we’ve decided to see what happens over the next few days.

As it has rained non-stop since we got here, our tales of “outside the hotel” are a little on the paltry side. Also we have had to WORK which certainly took Tori and I by surprise. However, on Thursday we did venture out in a local taxi. I’m now totally fluent in Portuguese but our taxi driver had a very strong accent which meant we understood absolutely nothing he was saying and vica versa. Our request to visit the “historic centre” – picture No. 2 on Howard’s one-page guide to Rio – meant a visit to Rio’s business district. Monolithic, grubby high rises. Not a bar in sight. None of us wanted to get out so we put in a request for Copacabana beach.

With Tori working through her Barry Manilow repertoire, we pulled ourselves out of the taxi leaving Howard to negotiate the $300 fare. Copacabana is – in a word – horrible. Apartment blocks line the boulevard and reminded me of the Communist-era housing estates I saw in Moscow. I don’t know which bit of Rio they modelled Vegas’ Rio on, but it certainly wasn’t Copacabana. As Thursday was a national holiday, the beach was full of Brazilians trying to have fun but it was pouring with rain and no one was pulling this off with any real conviction. After pretending to have fun ourselves, we eventually gave up and headed for a bar. Howard, Tori and I ordered caiparinhas and Carles – still in shock after getting totally hammered on one sip the night before – had a beer. We rejected the “chef’s suggestion” for the “plato do dia” – bull testicles.

Back at the Intercontinental, we bumped into Siktilt. They were heading off to a samba bar in a bullet-proof, armoured tank. Our Brazilian blogger Maria suggested we go too, and ordered a second tank to get us there. Sadly it never turned up – a real shame as Hass and Rury said the samba bar was the best place they’d ever been in their lives apart from Dortmund.

The next day we had to do some MORE work. Tori and I are in slight shock about this but spent an amusing day walky-talkying each other on the radios and writing superfluous press releases.

EPT Welcome Parties are great. We get magic tricks, hoola hoop girls and even semi-naked trapeze artists. But nothing prepared us for the LAPT Rio Welcome Party. The missing ingredient is, of course, Brazilians. My god, they know how to party. By the end of the capoeira show, they were in a dancing frenzy. A samba band had turned up dressed like exotic natives from Star Trek and by the time I came back from the bar, the entire room was bumping and grinding. Tori swept past me in a conga; Mick from Galway was up on stage. Everyone had gone mad. It was awesome.

I woke up today (great news; obviously death isn’t instant with dengue fever) to find the sun shining. Staggering view. There’s nothing at the Vegas Rio that’s anything like this. I don’t think there is anywhere in the world that’s like this. Rio is amazing.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Rio de Janeiro - de verdad

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil!!! Here for the Latin American Poker Tour or, more importantly, my 78th holiday this year with Hass and Rury.

I arrived late with Carles Rodriguez – our Spanish blogger. Carles and I had already managed to fit in a mini-break in Madrid and saw Plaza Mayor, the Changing of the Guard and gorgeous, wonderful Tiago.

Twelve hours and two crap films later, and we’re in Rio. All that remains now is to get the Intercontinental Hotel which we manage in a record six minutes as our cab driver is on speed. There - to my delight - are Siktilt, lining up the Caipirinhas and listening to the hotel band singing Girl from Ipanema

None of it looks anything like the Rio in Vegas but the next morning I wake to a stupendous view which makes up for this initial disappointment – pounding Atlantic surf, a favela and someone chasing a chicken.

On further inspection, the chicken chaser turns out to be a jogger. The favela looks fun though and I aim to check it out later today – a scrappily-built shanty town clinging grimly onto the side of a steep mountain. It’s a mere chicken’s throw from my bedroom balcony and dripping poverty straight onto the hotel lawn.

By breakfast, there are armies of chicken chasers dressed in jogging shorts running along the paseo. They’re a determined lot, these Brazilians – there’s a tropical rainstorm going on, the heat is clammy and there are no chickens. Marta takes us on a tour of the hotel to view the tournament facilities. Thrillingly, we are getting real life, armed police as our security plus samba lessons during the welcome party. This is one-up on the Dortmund hoola hoop girl, and may even beat Jan Heitmann’s card tricks.

More to follow....