The Wandering Scot

An occasional travel journal.

Costa Rica: Starbucks Farm

Costa Rica is home to the one-and-only Starbucks Coffee Farm, Hacienda Alsacia. It’s a real working coffee farm, but it’s main purpose is as an agronomic and educational center. Starbucks has a set of farm support centers around the world that provide improved hybrid varieties plus production and environmental advice to small coffee farmers. Hacienda Alsacia is at the center of that.

Interpreting a little: Starbucks seems to have decided that (a) it will benefit from upgrading coffee varieties and production methods among the thousands of small farmers it buys from and (b) as a business issue it wants to be able to label its coffee at 100% “ethically sourced”. To meet those goals it is working to educate the small farmers and to get them to meet the various “ethically sourced” guidelines, so the farms will meet certification standards. The farmers will get better prices if they meet the various quality, environmental and “ethical” requirements, so they do OK too.

Note, however, that while the tour guide talked a lot about ethical production, this did not prevent him exploiting visiting tourists for purely nominal payment-in-kind. We got to plant seeds, harvest a few beans and rake drying beans. Then we got an elaborate how-to-drink-coffee-as-a-connoisseur session

I’ve been on a couple of coffee farm tours before and this was by far the best, both for activities and for information. Next time you’re in Costa Rica make sure to drop by.

Poas Volcano: A smoky crater lake

I had visited the nearby Poas volcano just before, so I combined my two trips by visiting the Starbucks Farm Cafe and offering up a slice of Starbucks’ Carrot Cake to the Volcano God.  After the god had consumed the essence of the sacrifice, I dutifully disposed of the physical remains.  It was delicious.

Nicaragua: Masaya Volcano

Nighttime Glow
Nighttime Glow
Lava Lake
Lava Lake Close-up

I was out viewing the lava lake at the Masaya Volcano in Nicaragua.  The lake is deep inside the crater, but part of it is clearly visible. And the lava isn’t just sitting there placidly, it’s continually swirling and bubbling and frolicking to and fro.

It was very cool. Not as good as my helicopter view of the Kilauea eruption, but also much more close and personal, from an observation platform on the crater ring. (The Nicaraguan authorities aren’t quite as brave as the Ethiopians at Erte Ale, but they are a lot braver than the US National Park Service.)

The best time to visit is in the early evening, when the lava shows clearly through the smoke.  I also visited during the day, but the gases from the volcano block most of the view and you only get occasional smokey glimpses of the lava.

Masaya is only a half hour taxi ride from Managua, so it is really easy to visit!  If you want to see some live lava at ground level, this is a great opportunity!

Saudi Arabia: Madain Saleh

I’m at Al Ula in Northern Saudi Arabia. The main local attraction is the ancient city of Madain Saleh. This was the second city of the Nabateans, whose capital was at Petra, and there are many similarities to Petra.

There is nothing as grand as the Treasury at Petra, but there are scores of imposing and well preserved rock cut tombs.

Overall the site is very impressive and well worth visiting.

Al Ula is also set in a very scenic area, with stark rocks crags and pinnacles everywhere.

My Madain Saleh tour also included a stop for an “immersive” play. This was unexpectedly interesting: traders dressed as Nabateans gaped in surprise at us weird-looking foreigners and then tried to sell us things, then soldiers appeared, a fight broke out, etc. But the highlight was the reconstruction of a death scene and Nabatean funeral, including wrapping up the “corpse” of an actor and carrying him into an authentic Nabatean rock cut tomb!

I’m enjoying visiting Saudi Arabia. I hope the current social thaw persists.

Note: The Madain Saleh site is currently undergoing restoration and won’t be generally open to tourists until “later in 2020”. I was able to visit on one of the special tours running during the annual Winter at Tantora festival.

Riyadh: Segregated Starbucks

I’m in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, a land where much is changing.  There are sparkling skyscrapers, Starbucks, Uber, all mixed up together with traditional conservative ways.

Here’s a photo of a typical Riyadh Starbucks. Note the two entrances, separated by a wooden wall. The entrance on the left is for “singles” (unaccompanied men) the one on the right is for “families” (one or more women, possibly with attendant men). The wall continues inside, all the way across the store to the counter. Woe betide a single man who enters on the wrong side.

As a single male, it was of course a great relief to see this sensible arrangement and to know I could drink my mocha in peace, safe from the predatory gaze of lascivious women.

But this is all about to change. The government is currently updating the law to remove this requirement. I’m curious how that will play out – it’s possible that some women will still prefer to use traditional family sections where current social norms allow them to relax and unveil.

Another Starbucks issue is prayer times. Yes, they roll down the blinds and lock the doors for 15-30 minutes or so at the mandatory prayer times. If you arrive at the wrong moment you have to wait patiently until they reopen. (But if you get inside in time, it’s OK to keep sipping.) 

Of course it’s not just Starbucks that’s segregated:


Burger King

Texas Chicken

Buffalo Wild Wings

Oslo: Norse Gods

On the outer wall of Oslo City Hall are a series of sixteen carved scenes from Norse Mythology. They are one of my favorite sights in the city!

Odin rides out on eight-legged Sleipner, with his ravens Huggin (Thought) and Munin (Memory) flying overhead.

Opposite is hammer-wielding Thor, riding on his goat-drawn chariot across the sky, high above the peasant huts.

Nearby are Ask (the First Man), Embla (the First Woman), Balder, Loki, Frigg, Fenris and many more.

I was amused that there was a long queue of tourists waiting to take the interior tour of the City Hall, but very few were stopping to look at the exterior carvings – which to my mind are much, much more interesting than the placid interior murals!

Here’s a link to more photos of  the Oslo City Hall Norse Carvings.

I’ve been visiting the old Soviet nuclear test site at Semipalatinsk, aka “the Polygon”. The site isn’t actually as bad as its rather dire historic reputation – the last 25 years have seen a lot of clean up and containment. The worst areas have either been scraped off and buried, or are fenced off.

To my surprise, driving around the test area, there was mostly only normal low background levels of about 0.1 microSieverts/hour. But we did visit a couple of highlights:

The Epicenter for the First Soviet Nuclear Test

Ground zero for the first Soviet A-Bomb test is marked by a small pond. It is surrounded by an array of weird concrete observation towers, increasingly ruined neared the center. It looks like what it was, the center of an enormous occult engineering effort that “succeeded”.

At the epicenter the levels are up to 30 uSv/hr or even 60 uSv/hr at points on the ground. Nothing to worry about for a short visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there.

Atomic Lake

The Soviets were interested in using nuclear bombs for civil engineering, so they tested a 140 kiloton bomb to create an artificial lake. Well they got themselves a nice 400 meter diameter lake, but they also got residual radioactivity around the rim and in the sediment at the bottom of the lake. My guides assured me that “the water is safe”. There are fish, and they have been tested and declared safe. (“Except for the bones and nobody eats the bones.”) Local fisherman are known to visit.

Radiation even on the crater rim was only up to about 1-2 uSv/hr.

Overall Safety

At both the epicenter and Atomic Lake, the guides were mainly concerned that we might inadvertently pick up small fragments of higher radioactive material and carry them out with us. Hence the need for face masks, shoe covers, etc. And we all got carefully scanned on our way out.

The local Kazakh farmers are allowed to graze their cattle around most of the test site area, but they are required to have the meat tested when the cattle are slaughtered. This sounds a little scary, but is probably a smart pragmatic compromise: the farmers were sneaking in anyway and this way they don’t try to hide anything and the meat gets properly checked.

It was an interesting short trip!