Travels with Lois and Jason

Costa Rica

October 21 - 30, 1996

Costa Rica facts:

From October 21st through the 30th, we were visitors to a beautiful, quiet, and peaceful country -- a country that distinguishes itself by being the oldest democracy in Central America, a country of so few natural resources that explorers and later exploitators, ignored its jungles, its rain and cloud forests, and pristine beaches. Today the country is committed to maintaining these natural ecosystems and welcomes the tourist to these preserved areas.

And yet we found ourselves faced with a mystery, a conflict in our minds -- based on our scant observations -- between the way the people behaved and the way they lived.  Jason had a conference in San Jose, the capital city, the 25th - 27th, so we went a few days before and stayed a few days after. This was our first trip to a Latin American country.

When taking a cab the custom was to settle the price before entering the cab, usually through a process of bargaining and negotiation. This was done in a business like and gentle manner, with the exchange positive and friendly, and never any sense of hard feeling or pressure which we've experienced in other countries. People stood in lines, courteously awaiting the bus. When it arrived, they boarded in a carefree and pleasant manner.

But for a people who were so gentle, so totally patient and non-confrontative, it seemed to us to be a country of tremendous hidden fear. Every home in San Jose and in the countryside, was completely enclosed in wrought iron bars. Not simple bars which may extend a few feet in the air as a fence, but totally enclosing the space. Porches would be completely encircled, with the bars going from flush with the ground to flush with the roof. Door ways and windows would have the bars covering every square inch. Rich homes, poor homes, modern stucco with fresh paint, and tin roofed shanties, protected by wrought iron facades.

On one tour we asked our guide why the bars, and we were told "to protect the people from the Nicaraguans" -- those who came over the boarder from the north in poverty seeking whatever they could to have. But this didn't make sense in the southern part of the country. One American who has lived in Costa Rica for many years told us that the people viewed the bars as decorative ornaments, irrespective of the safety aspect. Another friend said this is common throughout Latin America and reflects their desire for privacy. On Lois' tour the guide said because of the stealing. Regardless of the reason, we found it greatly disturbing that everyone lived "behind bars."

And behind those bars, electric power lines (running 110 same as in the U.S.) were seen going everywhere, and TV antennas were ubiquitous, clearly independent of class status. Some outhouses were seen, but they seem to be the exception rather than the rule.

We were told not to go out at night and to be extremely careful when walking the streets. People didn't wear jewelry or other items which could be taken. We were told that the people who stole wanted your things, but not to hurt your person. Robbery would not occur as the "stick um up" kind but rather of pick pocket, grab and run, cut the fanny pack and slip away, or as in my case, open my back pack and slip stuff out (my eye glasses and my sun glasses for whatever they were worth). Fortunately it was the last day, and I had extra pairs of each so I wasn't totally at a loss.

This was clearly a third world county, but we drank the water almost everywhere and never had a problem.

The roads were the single major on-going challenge of the trip -- potholes abounded. Most were a foot or two across, but a non-trivial number were to be measured in yards. In San Jose we frequently saw old tires thrown into the potholes, suggesting that that was the long term solution since we never saw road crews working to fill them.

Driving in Costa Rica could qualify as an Olympic event of swerving around potholes while dodging on-coming traffic. And, of course, added to this was the concept of non-linear highways: in the mountains, the old donkey cart roads were now supposed to hold two motor vehicles side by side. Buses (always crowded) passed 18 wheelers, even when blind curves and potholes were the only certainty.

We encountered one exception to the rule "you can never go more than a 100 meters without a pothole" when we traveled a 10 kilometer stretch with high quality roads running through a palm-oil plantation on the way to Manual Antonio. We were told that the local municipalities were responsible for the roads, so the company which owned the plantation maintained the road for its own use.

Another area of confusion for us was the guns that we saw everywhere: when you pulled into the hotels, there were guard gates with guards wearing a six shooter. At the bank, there were guards, one with a machine gun, and another with a six shooter. And everywhere we saw policemen (at least we think they were since they never wore uniforms but shorts and shirts) with their six shooters. But we were told with the exception of the police, the guards, and most of the people with guns couldn't use them since they didn't have any bullets. Furthermore, Costa Rican laws says that if you draw a gun on another person, even if its a toy gun, that is a criminal offense and you can be tried for attempted murder.

So, our peace loving country has everyone behind bars and the men carrying guns, and people driving like there is no tomorrow on pothole infested roads.

But all these challenges were overshadowed by the exciting touring and spectacular time we had. Our plane arrived at 7:00 AM on Saturday morning, and after picking up our car we headed north east for the Arenal Volcano area. We planned to have breakfast in the town of Alajuela, just a few kilometers from the airport. Driving through town, up and down the streets, we saw nothing open and were feeling both hungry and frustrated when we found an open super market. The shelves were well stocked with a rich variety of packaged goods. We purchased bottled water and crackers (our emergency food), and tried to ask about where we could get some breakfast. The manager -- a youngish woman in her late 20s or early 30s -- tried to help us, and this was our first time trying to really use some Spanish. But when something has been gathering cob webs for almost 30 years, you don't just pull it out and use it. Oh, what joy. We pointed to our map, to the streets, to our stomachs, to the sky for what that was worth. Our want-to-be helper went to the book shelf and got a book "English Made Easy" and started to break the shrink warping so that she could help us out. All in all, we succeed in gathering that a "soda" (small restaurant) was open a couple blocks down and that we needed to go "that-a-way" to get to Arenal.

Breakfast was even more fun. The proprietor of the soda spoke some English (he was studying in school) which helped us tremendously this first morning. He was probably in his 20s, and owned and operated the soda. For breakfast we got our first and best gallo pinto, a combination of rice and beans which is served everywhere as the standard (and I guess) basic food stuff for breakfast. This came with scrambled eggs (and later in the trip we had it with fried eggs). With our map in hand, we obtained directions regarding how we should proceed. Arenal was about 30 miles as the crow flies, 90 via the map, but five hours for us! The return drive to San Jose only took about 3 1/2 hours (with 1/2 hour sitting on the road waiting for the construction crew to clear a landslide area) since this time we knew where we were going!

The drive was eventful, with road signs on 3x5 cards, covered with dirt -- it was a challenge to know where we were and where to turn. The map showed "bad" and "worse" roads and we selected the "bad" ones, but given their condition, we wondered how anything could have been worse. Through endurance and perseverance (and luck), we arrived, quite by surprise, at the Tilajari Hotel near Fortuna which had come highly recommended by Lois' students. Lois skillfully negotiated the price from $60/night to $50. We stayed two nights. It was a relatively new hotel on an 800 acre forest preserve with a river running outside our door. When we went walking we saw iguana, a crocodile, toucans, and lots of parrots and other beautiful birds -- red and black, blue, and yellow. The environment was lovely.

That evening we took the Arenal Volcano tour. It was about 30 km to the base area where the Tabacon Hot Springs was located -- this has large pools and a river with a water fall, all at about 85 - 95 degrees with the water coming out from the volcanic springs. We hiked up from the hot springs toward the volcano and our guide told us that when we hear a roar like a jet airplane, that was the volcano erupting. Even though the peak was covered in clouds, we could feel the presence of the volcano. After hiking perhaps a half mile up the make-shift trail (it was getting dark) the clouds cleared from the summit, the volcano roared, and Lois and I were treated to the plum of smoke, steam and ash ejected high into the sky. It appeared as a mushroom cloud, and floated off on the wind merging with the clouds and night sky. Later, after returning to soak in the hot springs, we again hear the roar and this time Lois saw the red glow of the lava at the top of Arenal.

The next couple of days were uneventful and relaxing, including a day of white water rafting down the Sarapiqui River. The drive to the river took us through the Braulio Carrillo Cloud Forest National Park and the flora was extremely different, with plants with leaves that could be measured in meters across, vines and trees which reached to the sky, water falls cascading down the mountain sides, and clouds covering it all.

When we turned in the car in San Jose, we had our only really negative experience of the trip (aside from the backpack snatching incident). We were told that the car rental people would check over your car for damage. Well, the Avis lady did, and finding nothing on the body, she told us that the inside of the back light was broken. It was impossible to see this broken part, but she assured us that it was there and that we'd have to pay for it. Lois told her she was trying to rip us off, that we heard about this scam and discussed it when we rented the car and were told "Avis doesn't do that!" Anyhow, we refused to pay so the lady agreed that she'd have it checked. When we returned, she told us that the mechanic said it was broken before we took the car so we didn't have to pay. Ha, there was no way we would have paid!

Notes on the conference

The conference was very interesting and Jason's first in a third world country. The Costa Rican's refer to themselves as Ticos, and everything ran on Tico-time (AKA as JST, CPT, WASPTime, etc. etc.). The first session was to begin at 8:30 Wednesday morning, and the bus from the hotel was to leave at 7:00 for the 15 minute trip. Jason decided to take a cab later in the morning so showed up at 7:40 and since the bus was still there, boarded and waited only 15 minutes for departure (unlike a few who waited almost the full hour). The conference did begin more or less on time.

The keynote speaker was the Minster of Science and Education for Costa Rica, Dr. Morales. He was given two hours for his presentation, and took one and one-half for his remarks followed by a few minutes of questions. His speech seemed totally out of context for such a poor country. He nicely summarized the many writers of the digital age, beginning with Toffler's 1970 book Future Shock right up through the recent Davis and Davidson book 2020 Vision. He called for a strong educational program in technology as a necessary priority for his country to not just participate, but compete in the 21st century. Although these words made sense in the lecture hall, the broad face of poverty everywhere in the country made me feel that his priorities were misplaced. In response to a question of the impact of technological automation in the work place, he responded that even though a mechanical sugar cane harvester would replace 15 workers, introducing these was necessary for the country's overall well being. At the coffee break Jason discussed the ministe's ideas with participants from Mexico, Venezuela, and a professor from Ghana. The question of displace workers and whether the overall sense of the culture being positively impacted by technology was raised over and over. There was no clear consensus on the role of technology, but disrupting the old cultures of the rain forest and native parts was recognized as an issue.

Touring after the conference

The conference ended Thursday at noon and we rented a jeep to try our hand at traveling to Manual Antonio National Park, located on the Pacific Ocean, and known for its rain forest full of monkeys. We were told that four wheel drive vehicles were necessary for this treacherous trip as these were some of the worst roads in Costa Rica, but well worth traveling to the national park where the forest and ocean come together. The funny part was that we found most the roads to be the best encountered during the entire trip.

In Manual Antonio we found a splendid new (3 month old) hotel, the Parador, (my turn to bargain and we got the hotel for $70/night, down from $88, and that included breakfast!). We were so glad to have our jeep as we had to travel 2 km on a very steep dirt road to get from the main road to the hotel, located high on a bluff overlooking the ocean. While at the hotel, we watched the sunset from a verandah, sipping Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon, and had long leisurely breakfasts on the patio watching the clouds float over the sea. We met the American hotel manager, Chris Dobbins, with whom we had three hour dinners both nights, and learned much about the building of the hotel in a foreign country. We also spent a couple of hours speaking with Gabriella, the owner's secretary, from whom we learned much about the challenges of being a well educated women in an isolated area of the country.

We were told that the best time to see the monkeys was early in the morning, so Lois and I left for the park at 6:00 Saturday morning, arriving about 6:15. The parking area was deserted, very different from the afternoon before when we scouted the area. We walked the trail where we saw people leaving the park to get to the entrance, but the trail abruptly ended in a lagoon, about 100 meters across. Exploring around, we found a man with a boat, and for 200 colons (about $1) we were rowed across the lagoon to the park entrance. We spent the next two hours looking for monkeys, but only saw some strange animal we had never seen before, lots of crabs, iguanas, gorgeous butterflies, but no monkeys! As we were leaving the park we met a "ranger" who escorted us back to the entrance (we were about one mile in on the trail) and Lois and I had the most wonderful conversation using our extremely poor Spanish, but we made ourselves understood.

We were hoping the man with the boat would be there to take us back, but when we got to the entrance, the lagoon was gone (as was the man and his boat) and instead was a shallow stream. The tide had gone out, and so, we rolled up our cuffs, and waded across the rocky steam.

We returned to the Parador Hotel and had a fabulous breakfast overlooking the Pacific, and then about 11:00 returned to the park to continue our monkey search. We waded the stream and then hiked the vista trail and the beach trail, but no monkeys. Everyone we saw told us of monkeys on the trail, monkeys in the trees, monkeys to the left of us, and monkeys to the right of us, but Lois and I only got a two second glance of a pair racing up a tree. We did see other strange animals we've never seen before, but the monkeys didn't like our BO or something, so we had to settle for just the stories others would tell. When we returned to the entrance, the tide was in so Lois rode across in the boat and I waded taking pictures.

The next morning we returned to San Jose on a very pleasant drive, slow and relaxed, followed by walking and shopping on the street (and being back pack picked). Early the next morning it was off to the air port for the flight home.

All in all, Costa Rica was a pleasant business trip, surrounded by wonderful relaxed time in a very hot, humid, but marvelous environment. In our various travels, the "Ticos" were some of the friendliest and most patient people with which to interact, and who really appreciated our trying to speak Spanish. They truly made us feel welcome in their country.

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November 12, 1996