Sunday, February 28, 2010

COSTA RICA: Getting there is NOT half the fun (Sabado)

Jean and I have traveled quite a bit; in fact, traveling is one of our favorite activities. However, no matter how hard we try to be ready, I don’t think we’ve ever had a trip that didn’t require a flurry of late-night packing and preparation the night before a seemingly MANDATORY “way too early” wake up call. This always means that we usually start our long days of travel on 3-4 hours of sleep.

This trip was no different. Despite starting our packing days in advance, we were still arranging and rearranging stuff, pulling out extra clothes, and otherwise checking our lists until about midnight. Four in the morning, came without a warning, and we were in the car and on the road a little after five. 

The drive to the airport, the checking in process, and getting on the plane were all uneventful. After the flight attendant passed out beverages, I thought I’d close my eyes for a little bit. BIG mistake. I think I was asleep for maybe 15 seconds before I was rudely awakened by the sensation of ice cold orange juice in my lap. The cup, which looked tiny on my fold-down tray, must have contained at least a gallon. I had orange juice ALL over my pants and even a small puddle in one of my shoes.

To put this all into perspective, I had a huge stain on my pants that made it look like I had wet myself, my crotch was soaked with sticky sweet orange juice, I was wearing heavy denim jeans and cotton skivvies, and I still had about six hours of travel ahead of me. Six hours of sitting on a vinyl seat cushion. I was not a happy man. I had hoped that I’d be able to pick up SOME kind of pants or shorts while our plane stopped off in Charlotte—I suspected that I’d at least be able to find some NASCAR sweatpants—but that was not in the cards. At one of the men’s clothing stores, I was told, there were no pants in the airport. Can you imagine, a pantless airport! I couldn’t wait to land in Costa Rica so I could grab some clothes out of my bag. Oy!

I don't know if the airport in San Jose, Costa Rica was also pantless, but I can tell you that the line to get through customs was as long as the airport was. In other words, it was a LOOOONG line, and we were at the end of it. Multiple flights must have landed at roughly the same time. Oy, again.

Now, the other part of preparing for our trips usually involves lots of research on directions and maps, language books and local phrases, currency exchange, etc, you know, all the things foreign travelers need to know when making their way through a different country. We landed in San Jose without any of that. We picked up a Spanish-English phrase book at the airport and then went to an ATM to get some money. The currency in Costa Rica is the colon (colones), which has the current exchange rate of 1 Costa Rican colon = 0.001807 U.S. dollars. I took out 100,000 colones which is, I think, about $12.

Anyway, from the ATM we made our way to the rental car desk, and then via shuttle, to the actual car lot. After a long and arduous process, we were finally on the road in our tiny, hamster powered, BeGo. We also decided to rent the optional GPS unit, and you have NO IDEA how glad we are that we did.

Our drive out of San Jose was uneventful, and then we started meandering north on some fairly narrow, twisty, roads. By the way, there are virtually NO road signs… there are a smattering of faded signs once in a while, but certainly not enough to navigate with any level of confidence. Still, I had some directions from the rental car place, and I wanted to make the drive, at least in theory, without the aid of the GPS unit. Then it got dark. And foggy. Then, if there is such a word, foggier.

I am now going to struggle for a bit as I don’t think words, or even photos could ever convey the lack of visibility that we drove through. It was the worst driving conditions I’ve ever experienced. The fog was so thick, it goes beyond any cliché such as pea soup or cutting with a knife. We literally, could barely see beyond the hood of the car. The headlights were no help and the high beams made visibility worse. You might ask, “why not just pull over?” And again, without being there, you can’t understand, but the road was so narrow, and there was no shoulder, there was no place to go. Add to this already challenging drive the fact that there were locals out walking on the road, and a fair share of oncoming traffic, and it was bizarre. Imagine driving along, focused on the elusive yellow lines in the road and the occasional reflectors, when all of a sudden there are people walking on the side, and also, suddenly headlights appear on your left. I could go on and on, but let me just say, again, it was unbelievable. Here’s where the GPS comes in… I was actually making real time turns partially by having Jean co-pilot me via the GPS (turn more, turn more), because I might was well have had my windshield painted white.

I don’t know if this fog was a common occurrence or an aberration, but I would not want to have to drive through that again—and I’ll typically drive through anything.

Another interesting part to the drive from San Jose to Fortuna was that the traffic going the other way consisted of hundreds of cars (unfortunately, only coming in spurts) with mountain bikes on them, including MANY vans with easily 15-20 bikes on the roof. I was in a perpetual state of WTF during the white knuckle drive. It turns out that there was a HUGE race going on, but more on that later.

After a couple of hours of inching along in the car, the fog finally cleared and we were finally able to make some good time. We rolled through La Fortuna (a city over-run with mountain bikers), grabbed a quick bite, and, at last, found Hotel El Silencio Del Campo at about 9:00pm (10:00pm to us). It was a LOOOOONG day of sticky, treacherous travel.  We were asleep in no time.

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