NOTE: This post is sort of the blog equivalent of inviting you over to watch my home videos. So, lo siento mucho and you've been warned.As has been said, sometimes the travel gods are with you, which is always nice, and then there are those times when they check to make sure you're paying attention, that you're not taking providence for granted.
The night I posted Pura Vida, the plan was to try to get to sleep early enough to snag a little rest before rising at 3:00 AM to catch the early flight out of Atlanta to Ft. Lauderdale and then on to Costa Rica. It almost worked. I hit the sack around ten, after hours of obsessing over whether or not I had wrapped up every last tiny detail before leaving the U.S., possibly forever. Exhausted from preparations yet buzzed on anticipation, I fell asleep sometime shortly before midnight.
At 12:30, there were firetrucks and police cars, and I mean dozens, sirens a blastin', converging right outside my window. I got up, looked outside and saw an apocalyptic vision of the house behind the house directly across the street fully engulfed in hellish flame. It was a huge house, 4,500 sq. ft., but still it took a while to grasp that a mere house fire could account for that enormous conflagration. The flames were leaping a hundred feet in the air and all the surrounding trees were ablaze. It looked like some kind of napalm horror straight out of Vietnam. And there was something cooking off. I don't know if it was ammo, gas lines, electronics or what but it was popping. Sounded like a gun fight. Suffice it to say I slept not at all. No one was injured but the house and half a dozen or so cars, including cars next door on either side, were a total loss.
I decided not to take it as an omen for I couldn't imagine how it might be a good one and I was in no mood for bad ones.
So come time for my 4:00 AM taxi pickup, I realize that the police still have all roads blocked and that huge fire-hoses snaked across the surrounding roads by the dozen...no way for a cab to get through. Nonrefundable ticket.
So, long story short: giant pain in the ass getting out of Dodge. Sometimes the travel gods are with you, sometimes they check to make sure you're paying attention, and sometimes they smite your dumb ass - or my dumb ass, rather.
Flew first to Ft. Lauderdale. The airport there sucks and the TSA torture was awesome, just not in a good way. Both legs of the journey were blessedly short, considering the ever-shrinking size of airline seating. Most of the real pain was in the TSA cattle cues, which were truly unbelievable. Bin Laden had the last laugh in that respect. He ruined global air travel, probably forever.
Flying into San Jose, the mountains are striking: tall, steep and green. San Jose is nestled in a high altitude valley called the Central Valley. It boasts year-round spring-like weather, not too hot usually (compared to the rest of the country) and with a strong breeze most of the time. Nights are often quite cool. It's very nice.
A cute little church in San Jose
A driver from the hostel where I was to meet Daniel picked me up at the airport and drove me to the place, Costa Rican Backpackers of San Jose, which I recommend. Nice bunch of folks and a nice place. Private rooms or dormitory-style – your choice.
Daniel cooking at the open air kitchen at Costa Rican Backpackers hostel, San Jose
We had a fine reunion and stayed at that hostel a couple of days while Daniel showed me around San Jose. Contrary to numerous reports, I found it a fairly interesting place. It's certainly lively. It's sort of a downscale third-world metropolis but the people are friendly as can be, though petty theft is rampant. And that is true pretty much countrywide. I guess that goes with the poverty, which is not as bad as that seen in many places in the world at large...but bad enough.
On the street in San Jose
Costa Rica is special in a number of ways. It abolished its army permanently in 1949 and is the oldest democracy in the Americas other than our own, which is of course no longer in the running. They are one of the most environmentally progressive countries in the world with formal plans to be carbon neutral by 2021, yet they litter like crazy and still spray tons of pesticides. Go figure. Literacy rates are said to be very high but many schools have no books. How they manage that, I don't know. There is a strong middle-class here but wages tend to be quite low, certainly for the lower classes - two or three dollars an hour for laborers I'm told. So, don't leave your stuff lying around. It will vanish in a hurry...but they will probably be very nice about it. Pura vida.
(Billboard in San Jose: “Without asking anything in return, simply help others for the love of humanity.” Alejandro Jodorowsky)
The Mango Lady
BTW, we've had nothing stolen but everybody warns you about it. Everybody.
I thought it interesting that the Arias Foundation for Peace and the Progress of Humanity looks like a prison. But then most places in San Jose do.
After two nights in the hostel we met up with the owners of the rental property we'd found on Craig's List. They were in San Jose on business and kindly offered us a ride to our new digs in Playa Avellanas on the Pacific coast. We took a taxi to the meeting spot. I learned a number of things from San Jose taxi drivers: the horn is the most important part of the automobile and crossing yourself and slowing slightly when approaching a stop sign is nearly as good as stopping and looking. There's also a flying around a blind curve corollary, cross yourself and hope for the best. Also, automobiles can be squeezed, at speed, into much tighter spaces than you'd think. Another observation is that they seem to have imported our speed bumps but without the speed bump warning signs. Those two things really work together. Without the signs, speed bumps are a whole new thing, hard on cars and vertebrates.
What was advertised as a three or four hour drive turned into a seven or eight hour drive including time for one tire repair and a meal at an outdoor restaurant, which was wonderful. The ceviche and the seafood here are remarkable.
The roads were quite good, part of the way. We rode on the only toll highway in Costa Rica and crossed the famous Taiwan Friendship Bridge, built as a “gift” by the Taiwanese...who were soon dumped for the Chinese, which is both a bit funny and a tad troubling. You know, to the extent that you find superpowers mucking about in other countries troubling. I mean building someone a bridge is a nice thing to do if it's out of the goodness of your heart. I guess I just distrust superpowers in general...at least as we have known them.
A portion of the Taiwan Friendship Bridge as we go flying by
So then we left the good roads. And the bad roads in Costa Rica are what Ticos (the Costa Ricans) think of as roads. We spent the last half or so of the journey riding a bucking four-by-four. Cars don't last long down here – new tires every 15 to 20,000 miles, and front-end alignment is either big business or non-existent/not worth the trouble - I've yet to figure out which. Also, cars are quite expensive because of a huge import fee. As useful as it would be to have one, it's not likely in the near term, which lays the groundwork for what comes next.
On the road to Avellanas
Our abode in Avellanas was nice. It was in a very rural compound consisting of a half-dozen buildings: two or three small homes and several cabinas like ours. It was spacious as cabinas go with high ceilings and a tin roof. It also had a steel-doored strong room called a bodega for locking up our laptops, cameras, passports, etc. whenever we went out.
Our messy cabina in Avellanas
A Magpie Jay outside our cabina
Those Magpie Jays look like giant mutant Blue Jays with alien antennae. They'd make three or four of the common Blue Jay.
The only trouble with the tin roof was that when the wind blew, as it did like all holy hell our first night there, it blew tree branches scraping across the top of the roof making a godawful screeching noise unlike anything I'd ever heard before. Sounded like banshees from beyond. The howler monkeys were nothing by comparison. I was cool with the howler monkeys.
A howler monkey looks at me with ill-concealed disdain
A howler monkey in full howl
We met a nice young couple who were staying in the cabina next door who had rented a car, which wasn't cheap, and took a jaunt into Tamarindo with them. It was 40 minutes or so away on some seriously atrocious roads. That's where I lost my kidneys. I'm pretty sure they were pulverized or vaporized or something. I seriously doubt they'd show on an x-ray, but I could be wrong. If they did show, ten to one they'd be waving little white flags.
Tamarindo was a highly commercialized little beach town, resort area and tourist mecca. It is crawling with gringos, so much so that it is sometimes referred to as Tamagringo. It was nice enough for what it was but too touristy for our tastes.
At a restaurant in Tamarindo
View of the beach at Tamarindo
We had been told that the place in Avellanas was rural, which we didn't mind (theoretically) provided there were some restaurants and groceries within walking distance, and as long as there was bus service so we could get into town. But, as Yogi Berra famously said, in theory there is no difference between theory and practice but in practice there is. There were all those things that we required and pretty much within walking distance for Daniel who is 23 and hyper-fit. Two or three miles each way in the tropical sun is no big deal for him. For me, with my bad back, bum knee and general decrepitude, and given the horrendous quality of the roads, it was the Bataan Death March. The hilly, deeply rutted roads made the walking more like mountain climbing, in places. And the bus ran twice a day, 5:30 AM into town and 5:30 PM back...so not exactly what we had in mind. We were pretty isolated. If only we had a car we could have enjoyed it there...except for the screeching roof at night of course.
One of the nicer stretches of road in Avellanas
So we decided to cut our losses and bug out.
We'd made plans to go visit with kossack, Alice Olson in Nosara, an hour and a half or so south of Avellanas. She had very kindly extended an invitation in the comment thread of Adios Gringolandia, which we were happy to accept. We were looking forward to meeting her and mining her 20 years of accrued local wisdom. We had no idea how we were going to get there though. We were thinking chicken bus. I had a 90 pound suitcase.
Stay tuned for the next installment: Kossacks in Paradise – Mike and Alice Olson of Nosara.
But be patient. We're on Tico time down here. :-)
Daniel in his natural habitat