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Onward to Costa Rica!

Volume 18: Tue Jul 30, 2002

This is the view of San Jose, the capitol of Costa Rica, as seen from the Jade Museum

After writing my mind's wanderings last week, I sat down overlooking Lake Atitlan and this fairly old-looking man starts talking to me, in Spanish, asking where I'm from and so on. I'm waiting for the pitch. They ALWAYS have a pitch. It took me awhile it get it out of him, but his wife is in the hospital. "Fortunately," he tells me, "the operation is free." That's good I tell him, and FINALLY here comes the pitch—he has to pay 300 quetzals for blood for the operation, but he's only got 200 so far (then proceeds to whip out a wad of money to prove it—this guy actually has more money than I do!)

In the end, I finally give him a few quetzals. Not really because I believed his story (I don't), but I spent a good 15 minutes or so practicing my Spanish with him and he was a nice sort of fellow I enjoyed talking to. So I figured the change in my pocket was well worth his entertaining story. =)

Anyhow.... the next morning, Thursday, I woke bright and early and jumped on a bus direct to Guatemala City. It was a rather uneventful ride. From the bus station, I took a taxi to the airport where the driver was very talkative and nice.

At the airport, I found some food (a Duncun Donuts donut, a ham and cheese sandwich, fruit yogurt, and a Pepsi). I hadn't had breakfast yet—getting up so early to catch the bus and all—and I was pretty famished by this time. In addition, I wanted to use up the rest of the quetzals I had in my pocket since they wouldn't be of much use to me in Costa Rica. Then, to my horror, I realized I hadn't bought a bottle of Coke from Guatemala to take home as a souvenir yet! Fortunately, I found the perfect bottle and paid for it leaving me with a whopping Q15 (about $2) unspent. Not too shabby.

I said my goodbyes to Guatemala, boarded the plane for Costa Rica, and I was off. A nice gentleman named Jose sat next to me, a resident of Costa Rica. He offered me his Duncun Donut. Me: "Really? For me? Are you sure? Are you REALLY REALLY sure? REALLY? You—are giving ME—your Duncun Donut?" Finally, I ate the darned thing, and it was delicious. =)

Jose started to speak to me in English when he learned I was from the United States, so I started speaking English thinking he must have gotten tired of listening to my Spanish, but then he chastises me saying I'm only to speak Spanish if I'm really intent on learning it. So I point out that he should be speaking to me in Spanish so I can hear it too, but he says he wants to practice speaking English. So the rest of the trip I spoke in Spanish while he spoke in English, and it worked out well. =)

I didn't make use of the facilities on the plane because, well, I didn't really feel the urge to. I would have felt pretty silly throwing unused toilet paper down the toilet just for the sheer pleasure of watching it flush, and I couldn't bring myself to wasting perfectly good toilet paper.

Amanda and me, posing for a picture together in the jungles of Costa Rica. Since no one else was around, I had to take the picture myself.

Speaking of toilet etiquette, it has come to my attention that if you are one of those persons who like to flush while they sit, this may be a bad idea on an airplane. While this is totally off subject and has nothing to do with the plane I was on, I've heard reports of the vacuum caused by flushing toilets sealing persons to the toilet seat better than any superglue could have hoped to have done. After alerting a flight attendant or whoever of their problem, they typically have to land the plane and get a mechanic aboard to release their bottoms from the toilet—a situation sure to embarrass even the most unembarrassable people. I swear I've read this on the Internet, so it must be true.

But back to our regularly scheduled programming.....

The plane landed briefly in Managua, Nicaragua, in order to off-load some passengers before continuing on to Costa Rica. I was never able to get off the plane, but it's always exciting to be "in" another country, even if you never got off the plane. Some of the volcanoes (extinct, by the looks of them) in the area were pretty impressive-looking from the air.

Upon landing in Costa Rica, I discovered I had an orange loose in my luggage. Actually, the nice girl from Customs informed me of this man-eating orange that needed immediate destruction for the safety of Costa Rica. I was completely oblivious to its existence, long forgotten from back in my days in Xela.

After getting through customs, I landed directly outside of the airport. If you've traveled much, this is a rather surprising thing to happen. You expect to be dumped out in a "lounge" where people check-in, banks are clicking, food establishments catering to the hungry people waiting for their planes, but I was dumped into the waiting hands of taxi cab drivers, which was rather disturbing because I wasn't READY for them yet. I needed some local currency first. I needed a bank or an ATM first. So I ask around, "Where's the bank? Where's the ATM?" I figure it had to be close because, well, I was at an international airport. Banks and ATMs are ALWAYS at international airports. And I was following signs for "Bank" all the way through customs where the signs mysteriously vanished in place of taxi cab drivers. It was very bizarre.

Zip lines allow people to fly through the forest canopy like superman. We watched this fellow zipping along while waiting our turn to zip!

Taxi cab drivers continue to pester me about if I need a ride and where they can take me, but I insist that I need money first. "Not to worry," they assured me, "we'll take US dollars too!" I smiled sweetly and said that I didn't have any US dollars, I needed an ATM or a bank! They were amazed. How could I not have *ANY* US dollars?! I asked if they took quetzals, but naturally, they didn't. As it turned out, I wasn't totally honest. I had a grand total of $19 on my possession. US currency. The envy of the world. It would cost $12 to get into town, leaving me with about $7 to find a hotel and get something for dinner.

Actually, I didn't think it would come to that. My taxi driver dropped me off at an ATM where I could get some local money, but the ATMs weren't working. Ho hum, ho hum....

Then we continued on into San Jose.

My first impression of this drive was that it felt like I was in a foreign country! Maybe even a second-world country instead of a third-world one. We were traveling on an actual freeway at freeway speeds. The taxi was NICE. Looked brand-spanking new. The seat belts actually worked. Yep, folks, this was the first time I was able to use a seatbelt since my arrival in Honduras, and it felt GREAT! (I can mention the seatbelt situation now. Before I couldn't because my mom reads these reports like everyone else, and I couldn't say none of the seatbelts in Honduras or Guatemala ever worked or she'd worry about me that much more. I can only tell her about dangers such as that AFTER they happen.) The houses I saw had REAL roofs to them, not the ruffled aluminum siding so common in Guatemala and Honduras. Off the freeways I could see the usual fast-food places like McDonald's and Burger King, but also places I had never seen before in Central America including Denny's! I felt like I was in a nice suburb in the United States, not Costa Rica.

I checked out the view near Monteverde, and I declared it impressive. Notice how thin I've become after nearly four months in Central America. I lost a lot of weight out here!

I asked my driver to take me to a cheap hotel near downtown San Jose. His idea of cheap wasn't the same as my idea of cheap. His idea of "near" downtown didn't agree with my idea of "near" downtown either. In any case, I had gotten up at 4:30 in the morning, been on buses and planes all day, and by the time I arrived at this hotel at 5:30 in the evening, I was tired and would take anything I could get. The woman running the place said I could pay in the morning after I got more money. This was very important, because I still had $7 to my name and the hotel was $35. It was a very nice hotel, though. The room was absolutely spotless and even included a small balcony overlooking the back. Compared to all the other places I stayed in Central America, this was by far the nicest of the lot.

And I promptly went to sleep for a couple of hours. But finally, I had to get back up in search of Amanda. Once again, she decided to come out, this time to hunt down two letterboxes placed in this country. (In Guatemala and Honduras, there are no other letterboxes except for those we placed.) So I navigated the streets of San Jose to our agreed on meeting place, which kind of made me nervous. It was dark, and some of the locals didn't look entirely friendly. It was with some degree of nervousness I walked the mile or so into downtown San Jose.

Amanda and I were both flying out the same day, and not knowing much about San Jose or where we'd be staying, we agreed to meet at an Internet cafe that night. Amanda's flight was supposed to come in about four or so hours after my own arrived, so I'd see about finding us a room and surprise her with where it was when we met at the Internet cafe. This way, I could also check my e-mail to make sure she was actually ON the flight. (Flying standby once again.) And then I'd have plenty of ways to kill time while waiting for her.

But I was still down to that $7, so after ensuring the place would take US dollars (they did), I plopped down and started surfing the web. After 59 minutes, I quit. (They charge by the hour, and if you go even one or two minutes over, they'll charge you for a full two hours—very unfair in my opinion, and with $7 to my name, I needed to save every cent I could!)

I laid around on the floor just outside of the Internet place waiting for Amanda, until a security guard or someone kicked me out. Very rude, I might add, and I made a point of never visiting that Internet cafe again. After waiting another fifteen or twenty minutes, here comes Amanda walking up the street with nothing more than a backpack.

Wow, she packed REALLY light! Then she told me her whole miserable story about not being able to change any money at the airport because there was no place to change money. (Yep, been there, done that!) The taxi driver didn't have change for her $20, so she ended up paying more than necessary which she wasn't too happy about. (Three dollars more than required.) Then the taxi driver took her to the WRONG Internet Cafe, where naturally I wasn't waiting, so she was wondering what happened to me. And the taxi cab driver refused to leave her there by herself (too dangerous!) and made her get a hotel room for $25 per night. And finally when she realized the cab driver had taken her to the wrong Internet place, she walked off to the right one hoping I would still be there, and thank goodness I was because she was going out of her mind! =)

We walked to her hotel since it was closer where we swapped war stories and such until about 11:00 when a hotel employee knocks on her door demanding another $25 for ME to stay the night or it was time for me to go. Looking at her room, it was a decent room, but for the both of us to pay $50 for the night was clearly highway robbery! Even my hotel room, clearly nicer, didn't cost that much for two people. So I left my backpack there (if I got robbed, at least nothing can get stolen!) and left for my own hotel room. Amanda lent me money so I could pay for MY hotel room, then I left and navigated the streets back to my own room.

A waterfall at Finca Ecologica

It was irritating to be paying for TWO hotel rooms when splitting the cost between us had been the goal, but at least we had found each other that night and I agreed to meet her the next morning at her hotel seeing as I knew where it was but she didn't know where my hotel was.

Friday, we decided we'd stay in San Jose for the day since we hadn't figured out where we actually were going to go in Costa Rica, and neither of us had explored the Costa Rican capitol. However, we checked into yet another hotel that cost $10/person (or $20 for us both) that was even closer to downtown than either of our hotels. Then proceeded to explore downtown San Jose.

One place we visited was the Jade Museum, San Jose's most famous museum according to our guidebooks. I'll admit, I went mostly to humor Amanda, but it was kind of interesting. There was more than just jade objects on display. It had ceramic tools, musical instruments, and other objects of everyday life among the natives. Some of the musical instruments looked rather like, well, a penis. A very long one, with a hole in the end one could blow into and holes on the side for playing like a flute. But it was clearly shaped to look like a large penis, and I could only imagine the jokes the natives had made regarding it. "Oh yeah? Well—BLOW THIS!" =)

That evening, we went to the movies: Men In Black II (or, in Spanish, Hombres De Negro II). It was in English with Spanish subtitles, like normal, and we enjoyed it. (Cost about two or three bucks each—we missed the matinee showings.)

We also decided that the letterboxes just weren't practical for us to get. The hotel they were near was an expensive hotel—probably making the two we checked into that first nice look cheap in comparison—and the boxes really weren't easily accessible except by people who actually rented a car in Costa Rica (rich SOBs!) or stayed at the hotel (even richer SOBs!). So we decided not to get them at all, and caught ourselves a bus to Monteverde, about a 4 1/2 hour bus ride northwest of San Jose.

We did not stop at this restaurant, but we liked the sign enough to take a picture of it =)

Amanda's guidebook is pretty amusing describing the area and its history: Monteverde was founded by Quakers after being jailed in 1949 for refusing to register for the draft in the United States. Eventually, they decided to move to Costa Rica since it had no army and the national philosophy matched their own. In 1951, they founded Monteverde where they bought 1500 hectares and began dairy farming and cheese production. They preserved a third of their property to protect the watershed above Monteverde, and later 2000 more hactares were added which eventually became the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve. "Most visitors are delighted with their stay, but a few complain about how muddy the trails are (you have to expect mud in a cloud forest), how boring the nightlife is (Quakers traditionally don't do much night clubbing), or how difficult it is to see the quetzal (this is not a zoo). Monteverde is not for everybody—if clouds and Quakers, cheese and quetzals do not sound like your idea of fun, head for a resort more to your liking."

On the contrary, Amanda and I thought it was the perfect place to visit. =) We arrived Friday night where we stopped at a pizzeria across the street from the bus stop. Amanda ordered food for us and watched our luggage while I went out looking for a cheap motel, which I did. I came back. We ate dinner, then I showed her our amazing hotel costing us about $15 per night. As far as hotels went, this is pretty normal by our standards and perfectly acceptable.

We discussed the difference between a "cloud forest" and a "rain forest", and decided they're the same thing except "cloud forest" is a term used by the tourist industry while "rain forest" is a term used by everyone else. And it rained all night long. Most of the next day. And most of the day after that. Yeah, there were clouds in the forest—RAIN clouds.

On Saturday, we decided a canopy tour would really be fun, so we signed up with Sky Trek (http://www.skytrek.com). I can't really explain it very well in words, but if you visit their website, the pictures says it all. You go racing over and through the jungle at speeds up to 30 mph with nothing separating you and the ground 400 feet below except a couple of ropes and a pulley. You can't expect to see any wildlife this way, but darn it is fun. This company brags they have the fastest, highest, and longest lines in Costa Rica to date. How could we refuse? =)

It was a thrill and worth every cent! The type of stuff James Bond would do to run from the bad guys or chase a girl—or both at the same time. It was drizzly and wet, and afterwards we headed back to our hotel for a change of clothes.

Amanda models in front of a waterfall

Sunday, we decided to really see the area. First with a walk to the cheese factory where we were able to watch the cheese being made—much like the Tillamook Cheese Factory for those who have visited there, except you couldn't see as well or as much at this place.

Then we wandered down to Finca Ecologica in search of two-toed sloths and other rare and exotic creatures. All we saw were some butterflies, a squirrel or two, and an ugly looking rodent of some sort. Kind of boring when you get right down to it, but we hid our letterboxes doubling the number of letterboxes in Costa Rica with a single visit.

And eventually we wandered back to the bus station where we caught our bus back to San Jose since Amanda had to catch a flight back to the United States today (Tuesday). Presumably she's there now, although I haven't heard from her since she left the hotel this morning.

And once again, I'm traveling alone, with no idea where the winds will take me next. =)

— Ryan

PS: For those keeping track, the Pope arrived in Guatemala yesterday to much fanfare. And today, he canonized Central America's first saint, a fact that ALL Central Americans are proud of, and Guatemalans are even more ecstatic about. Read all about it on the front pages of papers all over the world. My only comment is I'm SOOO glad I'm not in Guatemala City right now!

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