Costa Rica: Fresh mountain air, exotic locales

The clean-smelling, fresh mountain air.

I never realized I had been deprived of its uplifting effects until I stepped off the narrow steps of a small jet plane and embraced Costa Rica’s cool mountain air with the wind.

Only one other time have I had that sensation. It, too, was from stepping off a plane in a small coastal town in Coos Bay, Oregon; the two times in my life that I’ve experienced the cleanest air.

San José, Costa Rica, sometimes gets a bad rap with tourists preferring to fly in, skipping over the metropolitan area, to head to the beautiful beaches, volcanoes, and mountains. Like any city, San José has its gritty parts, but there are some beautiful, quaint, historical neighborhoods with art, culture, and an eclectic food scene dotting the city.


From fuchsia fuzzy flowers, to lemon basil drinks served in vegan cafés, to funky street art, and mom-and-pop restaurants called “sodas,” the hip Aranjuez district has plenty to offer.

Costa Rica is reminiscent to some of California, if it were to float away and grow a tropical rainforest. It also has a European vibe, a laid-back, friendly, sophisticated feel in this tropical Latin country known for its exotic vegetation and wildlife.


Experiencing Costa Rica, even its inner city, is to get a taste for, as Costa Ricans say, “pura vida,” which translates to the “pure life” and takes on multiple meanings including, “thank you,” “you’re welcome,” “take it easy,” and “living amongst nature,” to name a few.

San Jose was just the beginning of my exploration into this fascinating country.

Story originally published in the Citrus County Chronicle.


Campers Grateful For Second Chances

Light danced across old pine trees under a vibrant, starry sky, while a great bonfire and its’ thousand embers left a night’s worth of ash and coal.


In honor of Thanksgiving, about 100 people gathered at E-Nini-Hassee to express their “gratefuls” during a community pow-wow, reflecting back onto a year’s worth of life lessons.


E-Nini-Hassee (ENH), or “camp” as the girls call it, is a therapeutic residence set in the wilderness where at-risk teenagers are taught life skills on 840 acres of land in Floral City.

Every Sunday before Thanksgiving, their alumni, crew and residents gather together for a special night they call Turkey-In-The-Hole, where turkeys are cooked in the ground, for something many describe as the best turkey they’ve ever tasted.


Some of the camp’s best-behaved girls got a chance to stay up all night, tending to the fire, taking turns adding wood, playing games, singing songs, watching movies under the stars, with an array of snacks to help keep them going through the night.

Samantha, an ENH camp resident, sat on a soft hill of mud-colored sand dug up for Turkey-In-The-Hole, then walked past the burning embers to throw another log in.

Before coming to camp, she was a good student, a gymnast with aspirations and dreams to continue as an athlete into college. Then she fell in love and found herself a victim of teen dating violence.

“I didn’t understand I was in an abusive relationship,” Samantha said. “I’ve learned how to cope with my trauma without substances, so that’s something I’m really grateful for.”


Samantha believes she has better communication with her family now, something she has learned with consistent practice of assertive communication while living at ENH with 12 other girls.

“I love taking it home with me,” Samantha said. “I feel at camp, I got a sense of purpose and meaning back my life. I feel more alive. I felt like I was wasting my life before camp.”

Megan, also a resident at E-Nini-Hassee who helped tend the Thanksgiving fire, was brought to camp 14 months ago. She was failing out of school, a habitual runaway, who had lost relationships. She got into heavier drugs, wasn’t able to manage her life. During home visits, she would run away, then survived a sexual assault, and was eventually transported back to E-Nini-Hassee by a private investigator.

“I had a lot of rough patches,” Megan said about living at ENH. “The first three months were a blur.”

Megan has been sober for almost a year, and said she’s had a complete transformation since coming to the camp. She has successful home visits now, is learning to cope with challenging relationships and is asked to give testimonies through public speaking, where she gets to share her message of hope.

“I was miserable with the life I was living,” Megan said. “That’s when I realized something had to change. It took awhile to build myself back up.”

Megan is about to graduate and has a scholarship for an outpatient program when she leaves. She says she knows her recovery and growth continues.

“I”m grateful for second chances, gaining healthy relationships, for unconditional love,” Megan said. “I really messed up and they accepted me with open arms.”


To view story at Citrus County Chronicle:

Thailand: Home of Sacred Landscapes

Outside, the sweet smells of lemon grass and green basil emanate from a vast and beautiful garden. The sound of motor bikes cruising down dirt paths pierce the silence as a cloud rolls in and comes to rest on the edge of the mountain. Colorful long-tail boats float down old river canals, passing ornate and ancient temples.

Tailand is known for its’ sacred landscapes, fresh local and international cuisine (little-to-no frozen food is consumed by Thai people), golden shrines, forested mountains, friendly Buddhist culture, and is home to some of the world’s most beautiful beaches.

While it’s typically an expensive and long flight to get there, once there, Thailand is extremely affordable.


The famous Reclining Buddha statue at Wat Pho in Bangkok weighs 5.5 tons and is almost 50 meters tall and over 150 feet long. The Buddha’s feet have auspicious images inlaid with the mother-of-pearl with the center of the feet containing a symbol for the chakra or energy point. Reclining Buddha represents his entry into Nirvana, hence his end to all reincarnations.


A vendor from a floating village in Bangkok paddles up to to sell Buddha statues, souvenirs, snacks, and chilled refreshments.


A colorful wooden long tail boat passes by on Klong Saen Saeb, a canal located in Bangkok, Thailand’s largest city. Boat’s can be hired for about $35 US, for a one hour boat ride, and an up close look at how Thai people live on the river.


International cuisine, Japanese sushi, is sold by vendors at Chiang Mai’s Sunday night market.


Monks stand outside of their temple Wat Maharan in the early evening on the last day of Buddhist Lent, where monks retreat on the temple grounds to meditate during rainy season.

A pdf version of this article, thanks to The Chronicle.

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Man Gifts Time Daily Aiding Wildlife

A man called Hawk leans against the wooden grooves of the aviary barn. He wipes the sweat from his face, and blood from his arm after enduring a gash while capturing a rescued blue heron to be released back into the wild. He’s committed to helping the animals have another chance at life.

“That’s the best part of it all, when you turn them loose, and you watch them fly off,” Don “Hawk” Ross said. “That’s when you know you’ve done your job.”


Nature World Wildlife Rescue (NWWR), a rescue and release sanctuary, is currently caring for about 50 animals. Last month it released 15 animals back into the wild; so far this month, it has released seven more.

The job goes unpaid, though. Ross volunteers his time seven days a week at the sanctuary, caring for and transporting animals using his own gas. Days spent volunteering easily turn into nights.

HawkAS_04HawkAS_01On his way home after releasing the blue heron and an osprey, Ross received a call to pick up another injured animal.

“Sometimes I don’t get out of here until 10 o’clock at night,” he said.

Mary Opall, director of NWWR, believes Don Ross is the answer to her prayers. She, too, was volunteering her time seven days a week running the facility — until Ross walked in. His help has allowed Opall to have a day off each week.

“We couldn’t get along without Hawk,” Opall said. “He gives so much of himself … his time, his energy, and knowledge as well.”

Ross says wildlife has always seemed to like him, ever since learning to track and handle animals on his grandfather’s farm.

“It’s not just a sanctuary for the animals,” Ross said of Nature World. “It’s a sanctuary for me, too. I can be out there with the animals, and everything just goes away.”

Nature World is a nonprofit run entirely by volunteers. They are relied on for rescue by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Citrus County Animal Services, yet receive no government funding. They get calls to transport and care for animals in multiple surrounding counties.

They desperately need the help and support of the community, Opall said. They are accepting volunteers, monetary donations and supplies. Monetary donations can be made at Donations of medical supplies, towels, laundry items, gas cards, cleaning supplies, carriers, newspapers, etc., can be taken to a veterinary clinic with “Nature World” clearly marked on the container. Donors can also call 352-621-5575 to schedule a pickup.


Swimming with the Manatee

These creatures are immensely special. It was such a privilege to observe and even interact with the manatee in Crystal River, Florida.

Although, I’m torn about how I feel about people swimming with them, as this has become increasingly popular in recent years.


On the one hand, I think it connects humans to animals, and thereby increases empathy and compassion for these incredibly special creatures. On the other hand, I think we should leave them alone (at least in the masses), or at the very least have an incredible and immense respect for them when visiting their home underwater by observing them more than touching. It’s important to be incredibly quiet out there on the water. This is where they are nursing and feeding.

Yesterday I watched humans pet manatees that are nursing their calves, or petting sleeping manatees. I don’t believe this is necessary, or even wanted by the manatees. It’s absolutely incredible just to watch them.

Photo by Amber Sigman

Photo by Amber Sigman

Let them come to you for interaction and touch, but please don’t chase them if you choose to visit their home. It’s illegal to chase them, but people do it anyway. They are incredibly curious and playful creatures. Please respect them in their natural habitat. It’s a privilege to be there.


Try not talking when you’re out there with them in their territory. It’s beautiful to be quiet for awhile with these beautiful creatures in a simple paradise. I hope it remains that way.

They deserve our protection. We are their guardians.

According to animal symbology, manatees are symbols of peace and non-violence. Instead of talking, try listening to the manatee when you’re out there, with your eyes and your heart. Listen to the quietness of the manatee compared to the loudness of humans. Maybe we can be more like the manatee. I believe they have much to teach us.

Manatee2016_001Manatee2016_002Manatee2016_007Manatee2016_005Photos and words by Amber Sigman