Costa Rica

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Costa Rica is located in the middle of the kettle spout which pours the water into the Panama Canal. Nicaragua is closer to the body of the kettle which is North America – where the water and the thieves come in from. Panama is at the tip of the spout where the water comes out, leaving the thieves. In the other direction Panama is where the killer bees come in on their way from Brazil to California. Unlike its neighbors, Costa Rica is a nice quiet country. A road runs through it and everyone is by the side of this road waiting for you to stop in and eat ‘Casado’ a local dish of rice, beans, chicken, vegetables and half a fried banana. It makes you wonder what they do with the other half of the banana, or whether yours is the half that could only be served fried.

We flew into Juan Santamaria International Airport in San Jose (the one Jordan does not live in). We rented a car which was designed for seven small people with no luggage and forced it to accommodate six larger people with a lot of luggage. We spent our first drive to Arenal-La Fortuna getting accustomed to the road and car conditions. Yeela who was fresh out of the army volunteered to cram into the back seat with the luggage, thinking nothing of it. Tintin, who over the course of his life, had come to know much higher standards of living bemoaned his pitiful condition as he sprawled over Osmo and Tal rather than cram between them in the middle seats. Tal spent a lot of time looking out the window at the views, deep in thoughts about the future. Osmo spent a lot of time looking at Tintin deep in thoughts about the past. I spent my time between the view and searching for a gas station. Ima spent her time between the view and the kids.

Tintin’s troubles came to an end when we checked into hotel Los Lagos, located on the road between La Fortuna and Arenal, on the northern slopes of the famous Arenal Volcano. In simplified terms this volcano is a geological cigarette which has all but burned itself out. Naturally the last seconds of a volcanic cigarette can span a few years so the mountain is still spewing a steady plume of smoke, but not much more. The locals tell tourists about ‘last weeks’ lava flow, knowing that most tourists stay for only a day or two, so their fairy tale is safe. Reality is that it’s an impressive mountain which is also a once glorious volcano that fried the valley we were staying in back in 1968 which is in our lifetime, which is very close in ‘geological’ terms Tintin cared for the volcano as much as the volcano cared for him. His interest focused on the two enormous rooms which we checked into with all the amenities he had grown accustomed to since the dawn of his existence. The combination of a Shower, a pool, a steak-house, a TV, air conditioning and a large double bed put him back on his feet.

We spent the next two days driving around the volcano. Our first destination was the national park which was supposed to be at the base of the mountain somewhere to the south. Like many other attractions in Costa Rica you find it by turning where the sign isn’t. Right after turning off to an anonymous dirt road we pulled over and decided to make sure we were headed in the right direction by asking the policeman whose booth was conveniently stationed on the other side of the road. The lawman was lawlessly protecting himself from nature by killing the wasps in his shack with the daily news paper which did not interest him otherwise. I walked up to the friendly officer who was gingerly lowering the rolled up newspaper to the pavement. There was a wasp on the tip of the paper and a collection of wasp carcasses on the road. The policeman removed the wasp from the paper with the tip of his shoe and then gently stepped on it so that it looked just like its companions on the road. ‘I guess he’s trying to make it look as if the wasps were run over’ I thought to myself. ‘Buenos Dias’ I greeted the murderer who smiled back at me going about his gruesome business, ‘, ‘Donde esta el-parque nacional?’ The policeman smiled and pointed the paper bludgeon in the direction of the dirt road which we were on. ‘Gracias’ I thanked him from the bottom of my Spanish and returned to the car along with Osmo who came with me in case the officer actually said something of value which needed interpretation.

The national park is really a small fenced in glorified neighborhood park with a ticketing booth. We got even by paying for five people rather than the six that we were. Slanted but it’s satisfying. We stopped to take a few pictures with our backs to the volcano, then we turned around and took a few pictures with our backs to Lake Arenal and then we turned one more time and went back to the car and drove out of the playground. I challenged the elements by drinking from a water tap not much of a risk given that the water in Costa Rica is safe to drink.

Where there are volcanoes there are hot springs. The Arenal geothermal heater warms up an entire river which the locals have cleverly cordoned off into two resorts where you are welcome to soak yourself down hundreds of yards of ascending pools filled with hot water, overflowing from one to the next. One resort is world famous. It’s called Tabacon and is priced accordingly. A few hundred yards down the road there is another set of hot pools which, having forgotten its name, I will refer to as the ‘Sah-neh’ which implies that its for the locals and us. Ima was very eager to get into the water. I found this somewhat hard to reconcile with Ima’s cat-like loathing of water. The look on Ima’s face as she eased herself onto a rock bench under a hot waterfall was one of divinity. Osmo and Tintin found a local spout which was spewing cooler water into a side pool and took to taking turns at trying to cork it with their hands. I knew that both Ima and they could go on for hours; however I did have some concerns regarding how long one could remain in the warm water without cooking themselves silly. We compromised by taking a break to eat some real cooking and then came back for more. After dark it started raining. The sight of the family bobbing in the pools, in the dark and in the rain was an abomination of everything from which a Jewish mother protects her young but like I said we were all delusional at the time.

From Arenal we drove to Hotel La Finca Que Ama in Turrubares going through Palmares, Atenas, San Mateo and Orotina. All the way Ima stopped locals asking where the crocodiles were. None of them knew what she was talking about because there are no crocodiles along the road from Arenal to Turrubares. Turrubares is the closest landmark to Tura-Ba-Re national part where one is mesmerized into taking a ‘canopy tour’. A ‘canopy tour’ is designed to let you view of the forest from above, dangling from harnesses attached to pulleys that ride on cables stretched between tree tops.. The cables are anywhere from two hundred yards to over three quarters of a mile long. There are seven or eight such cable sections. You drift above the trees safe from the venomous forms of life crawling on the forest floor or up its tree trunks. In concept this is very nice. Reality is a tad different. You spend the first two or three cable section traversals focusing on life preserving activities such as keeping you body pointing in the direction of the cable. Over the course of the forth and fifth cable section you give up finessing the impossible posture control and allow yourself to spin slowly as you hurtle down the cable focused solely on the life saving platform on the far end. It is during the course of the final sections that you let yourself look down and enjoy the view which is pretty much the same as what you see from the cable car which took you to the beginning of the cable tour, only uses a much sturdier cable and improved seating technology.

Knowing how exposed we were to the unrelenting hold of gravity, we were all impressed by the attention our guides had for details regarding safety. At all times we had redundant attachments to life preserving harnesses. Not once did our hosts circumvent safety procedures. Clearly they had the best interest of tourism well figured out. If any one of us fell from the cable it could really hurt the season…

No sooner were we done with the ‘vanilla’ seven-section cable tour that Osmo asked ‘do you want to ride the Superman?’ ‘Of course’ I lied immediately. The ‘Superman’ is a mile long cable across a gorge of a crocodile infested river. The turkey vultures (called so because they look like turkeys but are vultures) in the sky improve the ‘Jurassic’ aura of the setting. I felt like a condemned man climbing to the gallows as I ascended up the stairs of the tower where the cable was attached. ‘as though the cliff of the gorge was not high enough’. ‘Cables have a half-life too Shit does happen.’ The first two seconds off the tower are quite terrifying to the non-suicidal, but then you quickly settle into a nice flight down the cable, traveling at fifty miles an hour. The flight along the cable is done face down in a ‘Superman’ position hence the name of this petrifying activity. The ride lasts a little more than a minute, depending on one’s weight. Somewhere in all of this there is a relationship between gravity, friction and wind resistance which slows down the lighter people. Consequentially Tintin had the longest ride. I had the longest braking distance contributing to what was my most significant test of nerve in the past decade. The boys being veterans of drop zones, magic mountains and bone-crushing-hang-by-your-feet roller coaster rides, were moderately thrilled. As for the rest of the family, while we were crossing over the jungle like human bullets, vultures, crocodiles and all, Ima and the girls had no choice but to have another cup of coffee at the bar. Yes, they definitely know how to accommodate everyone’s needs in Costa Rica.

It was time to balance four days of braving volcanoes and jungles with the serenity of a beach side resort so off we went to Manuel Antonio-Quepos. On our way, about fifteen minutes after passing Orotina, we found the crocodiles where they were supposed to be – under the ‘Crocodile Bridge’. Most of the bridges in Costa Rica look and sound like they were taken from the movie set of ‘Lord of the Rings’. They moan when your car mounts them, they tremble and sway when you drive over them, and the chains that hold them at both ends creek and strain to keep the roadway attached to the decaying concrete anchors on the banks of the particular river the bridge is charged with bridging. One cannot avoid thinking that your well being in Costa Rica is ultimately determined by cables and chains.

‘Crocodile Bridge’ is somewhat better built than most other bridges we crossed except for random gaps in its railing which I guess they put there just for giggles. If you are careful where you don’t lean you should be fine, otherwise you join the crocodiles for what is sure to be a wonderful tourist fable for years to come. Come to think of it, someone might have removed the railing on purpose. You cannot explain a fall from a canopy cable, but people dropping from bridges is accepted world wide as a tragic-yet-prevalent phenomenon which people blame of the ‘jumper’ rather that the ergonomics which were supposed to prevent the fall.

At the foot of the bridge we saw a dozen crocodiles doing what crocodiles do best – absolutely nothing. What can you expect from an animal whose metabolism can slow down to the point where it can go for months without food? Tourists tend to add more meaning to the crocodiles doing nothing so as not have their trips be for naught. If the crocodiles are not doing anything visible why not focus on their insides? ‘They are digesting’… When all else fails one can attempt to dramatize the situation by letting imaginations run rampant. ‘Look at how the little one is keeping its distance from that huge croc.’ The truth is that the little one kept its distance a long time in the past when both crocodiles came to this spot to do nothing. Since then nothing has changed so the distance will remain kept, unless both crocodiles are on different tectonic plates which happen to be sliding past each other. The crocodile attraction had us all moderately thrilled. We got back to the car which the alleged thieving locals contrary to Ima’s warnings – did not break into and drove on.

Two hours and lunch later we got to Hotel ‘Costa Verde’ which overlooks the jungle that covers the beaches of Manuel Antonio National Park. The hotel rooms are set close up amongst the tree tops as so are the pool decks. You sit and watch the colorful blooms of dozens of types of trees and shrubs, and wait for the monkeys to come and give their daily auditions. I found it fascinating and all the more so while reading ‘The Drunken Forrest’ about the adventures of Gerald Darrell in the ‘Pantanal’ (the massive inland flood plain that spans wide areas of Brasil, Uruguay and Argentina). While the flood plain was four thousand miles further south, I was sufficiently deep into the jungle with my face to the sea, to relate to chasing after Anacondas in tepid waters of mosquito infested swamps. Osmo and Tintin also sensed the proximity of nature and compensated with frequent visits to the bar. Once they had their drinks in hand they waded back into the pool a civil version of the ‘Pantanal’ I was reading about. ‘It’s ok Bushy, we took the ‘virgin’ (alcohol free) Pina Colada they comforted me as if I would have known the difference.

The next day we took the main path into Manual Antonio National Park, staying close to groups with guides so we could get to see the real attractions without having to pay for a guide of our own. We had no choice when it came to not paying for a guide because Ima had decided based on ‘very reliable’ rumors that all Costa Rican guides were thieves (very much like the ones on Crocodile Bridge) that wish nothing but evil upon their followers. This being the case one should only follow others that have decided to follow a guide not bound by the need to receive guidance services in return for funds paid. At some point I wanted to wander from the main path into the jungle but three yards down the new path a small warning sign said ‘if the snakes don’t get you then the spiders will’. ‘Bushy, we’re not going there’ Ima declared. ‘But the waterfall’ I protested feebly, upholding my responsibility to promote the wonders of nature during this trip; while not so deep inside me I knew that my reserves of courage had been severely depleted on the cables. This being the case, I was in no shape to put up a fight for an expedition to a waterfall along a path that might have been guarded by a poisonous bug or reptile. The kids did not seem all too enthusiastic either.

Without much ado we found a path without warning signs and wandered through the jungle to the parking lot. I have to admit that walking with sandals through the habitat of killer-everything keeps you on your toes, and I mean everything. They even have little colorful frogs which could fit snuggly into a matchbox (the small kind) which have such toxic secretions on their skins that it can kill you if you so much at touch them. Of course it’s not the little frogs fault. Since bigger frogs tend to eat smaller frogs the whole idea is to have whatever attempts to swallow the little reptile spit it out immediately and die shortly thereafter so it does not make the same mistake twice. It is one of nature’s clever ways of cleaning up after its own mistakes.

As we began the two day journey back Ima was still determined to prove that the Costa Ricans wished upon us nothing but evil. She tried attracting a policeman to give us a citation by hanging her pants to dry over the front windshield. We had just returned from an ATV ride with a guide that was ‘out to kill us by drowning in mud’ – his attempt foiled by Ima who was the only one to drive her ATV straight through the killer mud without being sucked in. With one survivor to tell the story the guide had no choice but to bring us all back. At the end of the course we washed our clothes in the river that flowed alongside the ATV station, which raised the question of how we would dry them. The solution was to hang them from the car windows rolled up and trapping the ends of the cloth between the glass and the window frame.

Obviously the first policeman that saw the car was concerned that the driver had an obstructed view and waived us down to the curb. ‘I’ll handle this’ Ima told me, convinced that all police officers in Costa Rica bode nothing but evil to tourists. I rolled down the window to greet the puzzled officer. Ima, sitting in her knickers, immediately took over the conversation, and in fluent Spanish (which she staunchly claims not to speak) praised the officer on behalf of all his countrymen for their hospitality and the joyful time we had in their country up until now that is. The officer, somewhat embarrassed by the unintentional peep show he had stumbled upon, smiled broadly and waived us on. It was too easy. Ima felt cheated.

With time running out Ima found one more glorious opportunity to expose the locals’ true face. It happened in the late afternoon hours when we stopped in Puriscal for a disappointing visit in the local tobacco factory. Ima slyly asked me to watch over her backpack as she went to inquire about the visiting hours. The visiting hours were all but over, so we quickly walked through a dimly lit long room with a concrete floor, and tables with benches aligned in two columns forming what looked like a shabby classroom for adults, with tobacco leaves instead of books on the tables. A few cigars gathered in bins at the edge of the tables alluded to the purpose of the facility. Since the workers had already gone home there was not much more to see. We walked out and drove away, Ima shrewdly not asking a word about the backpack she had asked me to watch. Twenty minutes out of Puriscal Ima looked down to the floor where her backpack had spent the past week and asked ‘where is my backpack?’ ‘In Puriscal’ I answered realizing that I had left it lying on top of the spare tire attached to the rear of the car. It could not have possibly stayed in place for more than a few yards after we started driving away from the tobacco factory. ‘I had everything in that bag, credit cards, money, camera, everything’ Ima moaned. ‘There is no way in the world we’ll ever find it in this country of thieves’ Ima exclaimed as I turned the car around to prove Ima right.

As long as the day’s drive had been, the kids’ survival skills told them that this was not the time to complain about having to go back the way we came, in spite of the seeming futility of the ride. When we got back to the tobacco factory it was closed, the unpaved parking lot was empty, not a sign of the backpack and no tracks in the dirt to follow. Ima stepped down from the car to talk to the merchants in the small shops across the street from the factory: ‘Perdi un Mochilla Azul’ (I lost a blue back pack) she explained in perfect Spanish (which she does not speak). The first two merchants had no idea what she was talking about, but the third went into his shop and returned with the backpack (!). Ima was devastated thing such as this did not happen in a third world country of bandits that prey on tourists. In her desperation Ima reached for the wallet which was in the backpack hoping to find it empty no such luck. At this point Ima had to deal with the evidence at face value. Checking the contents of her wallet in front of one of the most honest men she had met since we moved to the western hemisphere was a very rude thing to do, so she offered to pay the man. The merchant refused to receive anything, satisfied himself by Ima’s gratitude. Ima humbly thanked the man.

In the car Ima started a heated debate regarding how she could repay the man for his kindness. Yeela and Tal were all for putting it behind us ‘There’s nothing you can do Ima. He sealed his fate once he returned the backpack.’ Osmo and Tintin agreed immediately understanding that it would spare them on more trip to Puriscal . All in all it was a wonderful experience. Ima realized that she had come out ahead. The accuracy of her Spanish far exceeded the accuracy of the rumors she had been hearing. She had all her money and Spanish which she apparently got for free. In spite of it all something in the back of my mind told me that Ima’s crusade to expose the crooks on our only planet was not over.

We spent the last day at the La Paz Waterfalls. It was pouring that day. It also was the only day which we did not take our ponchos with us. We bought ponchos and got just as wet anyway. The La-Paz waterfalls are perhaps the ultimate form of wrapping up nature in Tourist traps. On the way to the waterfalls which are located half a mile from the park’s entrance there are butterfly gardens, hummingbird enclosures, restaurants and souvenir shops. The waterfalls are a backdrop to everything else. Indeed I must confess that the bio-mechanics of a hummingbird are more fascinating than a waterfall. Did you know that that tiny animal’s heart beats five hundred to twelve hundred times a minute? Its wings beat sixty times a second and it visits thousands of flowers a day? Can you imagine what it means to a hummingbird mother when its children don’t agree on which thousands of flowers they want to go to? Can you imagine what a crocodile with a Hummingbird’s metabolism would be doing under the bridge?

We flew back the next day.