March 30 to April 18, 2010
Laying in pig shit under the truck, deep in the Costa Rican jungle, I knew we were screwed. The transfer case was locked in neutral, we were sixty miles from the nearest highway and I was down to my last beer. To add to the drama, it was pouring rain and a pig was chewing on my baseball cap. This wasn’t going well at all. Yet, I was surprisingly upbeat. As I sipped my beer (a challenging feat while horizontal), I thought of a bumper sticker I’d seen about fishing and modified it appropriately: A bad day in Costa Rica is still better than a great day at work. With a smile, I shooed the pig away from my soggy cap, put it back on my head and began to remove the transfer case. Yup, it could be worse.
But Costa Rica wasn’t all pig shit and rain. In fact, it had been a tranquil dream up to now. A few weeks earlier, Roz and I had entered the country from Nicaragua and were pleasantly surprised to discover it was unlike any other Central American country we’d seen. The roadsides were clean of garbage, we saw very few stray dogs, nobody was armed, and doG help me, there were road signs! We didn’t see any tin shack hovels, no beater cars and no pick-up trucks full of people in the back. It was like a Swedish, law-abiding version of Mexico – without the blondes or Abba. What a nice change of pace.
After crossing the border, we went looking for a national park called Barra Honda near Nicoya. As usual, we got lost and didn’t find the park until long after sunset. Once we finally arrived in the dark, we were greeted by a very friendly and helpful ranger who led us to the camping area, which we had all to ourselves (again – man were we getting spoiled!). The next morning, we awoke to the sight of a monkey swinging through the trees above us. Wow! Then three huge prehistoric iguanas came slinking through our camp. I offered them a pan of water which they gratefully accepted and slowly drained (these guys don’t do anything fast). Later that day, we checked out the nearby town of Nicoya where, after a $40 oil change and a $5 Pizza Hut slice, I discovered that Costa Rica was about a third more expensive than the rest of Central America. Ouch!
(ROZ: And I discovered that I’m a “legist” – I LOVE any animal with four (or two) legs, but as soon as they have six or eight (or more), they creep me out and I want to kill them. I couldn’t believe how enamored I became of our three iguana visitors (although I suppose we were the visitors on their terrain). This love affair extended to all reptiles we encountered in Central America (except for snakes, since they don’t have any legs). As Trond noted, those iguanas were fortunate to have only four legs, otherwise they probably would have been squished to death by me, or more likely, by Trond on my behalf.)
While packing up the next day, I found the first scorpion of our journey – a little fellow named Hank that was hiding under our stove. I believe I shrieked like a little girl, but I’m not sure. I was too busy leaping back in a frenzy. (ROZ: It was kinda like a Ned Flanders squeal, which scared the *@*!* out of me, cuz I rarely hear that noise out of Trond’s mouth.) Later, composed and packed, we got back onto the highway and headed south. We were surprised by the large volume of cars passing us heading north until we remembered that it was the Semana Santa weekend – the holy week holiday that drives up hotel prices all over Latin America. Partly because of the holiday crowds, partly because of the inflated prices, and partly because we were now itching to get to South America, we decided to race through most of Costa Rica to get to Drake’s Bay on the Osa Peninsula where a fellow named Bird Bob was housesitting a place on the beach. We had met him at the Saline Valley Warm Springs in Death Valley, California back in October and he had invited us to stay with him if we ever got to Costa Rica. It was hard to believe that was over five months ago, but now that we were here, we were grateful for his generous offer and looked forward to hanging with Bob in the southern tip of Costa Rica. But first, we had some mileage to cover.
We drove through lush green forests to Alajuela, Costa Rica’s second biggest city, where we stopped for some groceries. But since this was the Thursday before the end of Semana Santa, most of the residents had fled the city for the beaches and the streets were strangely deserted. I felt like Charlton Heston in “Omega Man” – without the zombies. We stopped by a book shop run by an American, bought some maps and then continued our journey up into the mountains. Mountains over 10,000 feet in Costa Rica?! Who knew? As we climbed to almost 11,000 feet, we realized we were underdressed in shorts and sandals and for the first time in months, I turned on Yuki’s heater. Despite the chill, the scenery was stunning and we stopped often for photos. We eventually dropped out of the stratosphere and descended into the blue collar town of San Isidro del General, where we spent the night in a hotel by the central square.
The next day, Good Friday, was the worst day of my life. No matter what I offered, no store would sell me a beer. Turns out that booze sales are prohibited on this “Holy Day” and I didn’t stock up beforehand – d’oh! So with a brave front, I drove sober and grumbled to myself that Good Friday should be renamed “Horrible Friday”. As we descended to the coast, we were quickly hit by the humidity of the sea. We were also hit by a thousand shades of green. I couldn’t believe how fertile this place was. After breakfast at a roadside coffee house, we stopped at Playa Uvita within the Marino Ballena National Park, which was packed with Costa Ricans holidaying in the sun. As much as we didn’t want to love Costa Rica after Nicaragua, we had to admit this was one of the most beautiful beaches we’d ever seen. Right out of a tropical fantasy postcard, the long and wide white sandy beach was fringed by palm trees and gorgeous green hills. Why do the most beautiful places also have to be the most expensive?! Dang, I’d love to live here.
Our journey continued to the little town of Palmer Norte where we bought groceries (but no sweet nectar of the doGs) and filled up Yuki’s tank and jerry cans in preparation for our long jungle drive to Bird Bob’s. There are no gas stations in Drake’s Bay, so you better have enough gas to get you there and back. Full of fuel and food, we turned off the the Panamerican Highway and headed down a two-lane black top called 245. An hour later, it turned into dirt, so I stopped and aired the tires down to a more appropriate off-road pressure. We passed by the dinky town of El Rincon on Golfo Dulce (Sweet Gulf) and then with the help of some M-16-carrying cops (the first real guns we’d seen in Costa Rica), were directed to a small dirt road that would take us to Drake’s Bay. The road wasn’t too bad, but the bridges crossing various creeks looked a little weak, so I opted to drive through the adjacent water crossings instead. Luckily, the water wasn’t too high and Yuki did fine. I later learned that the bridges were used by buses and trucks every day.
We climbed a steep little mountain and then, while descending, almost got side-swiped by three little trucks barreling up the other side. The road was narrow, but so is Yuki, so we managed to squeeze past the trio unscathed. We finally arrived at the Pacific Ocean and a few miles later, we drove into the quiet community of Drake’s Bay, the end of the road before the start of Corcovado National Park. Because of its proximity to the Park, Drake’s Bay is filled with eco-lodges and hostels ranging in price from relatively expensive to stupidly expensive. Local activities include scuba diving, deep sea fishing and jungle walks. But not for us intrepid travellers. Instead, we found Bird Bob’s house and after big hugs, sat down for two weeks of doing nothing. Big fat sweet nothing. Except reading, eating and drinking beer. As we travel, I’m beginning to think that all Roz and I really do is look for different places to read.
(ROZ: Hey, we were living the Pura Vida in Costa Rica. Pura vida literally means “pure life”, but as Bird Bob told us, the meaning is closer to “full of life”, “this is living”, “going great”, or “cool!” Our English slang equivalent would be “it’s all good”, “no problems”, “chillout”. It can be used as a greeting, as a word of farewell, to express satisfaction, or to politely express indifference when describing something. Costa Ricans use the phrase to express a philosophy of strong community, perseverance, resilience in overcoming difficulties with good spirits, enjoying life slowly, and celebrating good fortune of magnitudes small and large alike. That’s a lot to pack into two little words!)
To be truthful, we did do a few things. Like learn about birds. The steaming humid jungle of Drake’s Bay is filled with a huge variety of birds, so Bob was constantly teaching us the names and habits of the various flying critters that filled the sky. The most beautiful looking, but awful sounding, were the Scarlet Macaws, which sounded like grumpy old men arguing with each other. The other thing I did was pay Bob’s worker, Chinte, to build me a roof rack and an inside shelf that I designed for Yuki. By the time they were painted and installed, Roz and I had read a half dozen books and were finally ready to leave the heavenly tranquility of Drake’s Bay.
(ROZ: On a more somber note, I received an email from my sister while in Drake’s Bay, which shattered my tranquil bubble for a few days. My Dad had suffered a heart attack while in Florida, but was already recovering in a hospital in Toronto by the time she sent me the news. Thankfully he’s a tough old guy with a great sense of humour and an optimistic attitude, all of which contributed to his almost full recovery at the time of this writing. I love you Dad. Don’t scare me like that again!)
With big hugs and thanks we said goodbye to Bob and drove off. We made it 14 kilometers when Yuki broke down. After crossing a creek in four-wheel drive, I tried to put the transfer case back into two-wheel drive, but it wouldn’t go. Locked in neutral. Crap. The engine ran fine, but no matter what I tried, I couldn’t get Yuki to move. With dread in my heart, I knew we were in trouble. An old fellow with no front teeth walked by and introduced himself as Jimenez. He offered us his nearby yard to work in, so we accepted and pushed Yuki down the road into his driveway. Gotta love a light truck. Under the watchful eyes of the Jimenez’s horse and three pigs, I crawled under the Suzuki Samurai. Pretty soon I deduced it was the transfer case at fault and that it would have to be replaced. I suspected that no tow truck would come this far to get Yuki, so I was resigned to removing the transfer case myself and finding a replacement – from where, I had no idea. As the day wore on, we decided that we would have to take the bus back to Bob’s place, so while waiting for its 5:30 arrival, I decided to get a head start on removing the transfer case. That’s when the rain began.
I worked for a couple of hours draining fluids, removing the drive shaft and fighting with the stick shift because it didn’t want to come out. Frustrated, I eventually cut it off with a hacksaw. With the bus arrival imminent, I packed up Yuki and moved it closer to Jimenez’s house because, as he put it, he could keep a better eye on it with his pistol. Impressed with his gun-totin’ logic and grateful for his offer to help, we pushed the truck closer to his home. We waited in the rain at the side of the road under a leaking umbrella for an hour before the bus finally arrived. When we got on the packed vehicle, we were absolutely soaked. Roz found a seat, but I had to sit on a bar. As the bus began to wind its way along the jungle road we looked at each other and laughed. Despite the circumstances, it was pretty fun. Our first Central American bus ride! An hour later, we were back where we started at Bob’s place. Ever the gracious host, he happily welcomed us to stay as long as we needed.
The next day, Bob and I went for a walk around Drake’s Bay to find some locals he knew who might know where I could find a transfer case. I had seen scores of Suzuki Samurais in Costa Rica – the most I’d seen in Central America – so I was fairly confident that we’d find something. Bob and I walked for a half hour along a road carved out of the hot jungle when we finally got to his friend’s place, but alas, he was not there. So we turned around to check out friend number two. But instead of taking the road back, Bob suggested we take the river instead. I said sure, and we were soon up to our calves in a shallow river walking through the jungle. It was magnificent. As a snake, lizard and bird lover, this river is Bob’s favourite place to explore, so I felt privileged to share it with him. On our walk we saw two Jesus Christ lizards that ran across the river – on top! He also showed me sites where, in the past, he had seen deadly Fer-de-lance snakes, a crocodile and spider monkeys. Before we left the river, we had a refreshing dip in a deep section, which cooled us enough for a return to the bush.
As it was, friend number two was also absent from his lodge, but Chinte was working there and gave me some advice on where to find car parts. Unfortunately, it would involve a day of bus rides to the Panama border, but there was a good chance I’d be successful there. Bob and I parted, me for some internet research and he for more jungle walking. Back at an internet place, I made the most amazing discovery. On a website dedicated to Suzukis called “ZukiWorld”, I learned that the dreaded locked transfer case issue was a common problem and easily fixed with a ten dollar bushing. Better yet, I learned how to remove the gear shift lever and how to shift the transfer case into gear with a long screwdriver. I couldn’t believe it. Back at Bob’s, I gave Roz the good news. We celebrated by making a final pasta supper for Bob.
The next morning, we rose early hoping to catch the 6:30 a.m. taxi that sometimes drove past Bob’s place, taking passengers to the nearby airport. It was a long shot, but since the buses didn’t run on Sundays, it seemed like our only chance. After waiting for an hour, we concluded that no taxi was coming our way this quiet Sunday morning. We decided to walk to the nearby internet cafe and use their phone to call for another taxi to drive us to where we left Yuki. But of course, the internet cafe was closed. So while we stood by the side of the road, wondering what our next plan of action would be, Roz asked a guy on a passing motorcycle if he knew where we could use a phone. He pointed to the house behind us, which was the Casita Corcovado. Before we knew it, we had been warmly greeted by the American owners, Greg and Jamie, who arranged for a local man to pick us up and drive us to Yuki. An hour and $45 later, I was under the trucklet again, putting her back together. Three hours after that, Yuki was mobile again – all praise the Internet! I gave Jimenez ten US dollars for his help (he’d never seen a US bill before), thanked him again for the use of his yard, then with a “beep beep” and the biggest smiles ever, we roared off towards the Panamanian border.
(ROZ: Watching Jimenez’s confused, but smiling, reaction as Trond tried to give him money was a rather humbling experience for me. Perhaps he may have more eagerly taken Costan Rican colones, but since we only had US dollars, that’s all we had to offer him in gratitude. Regardless of the currency, his surprised reaction made me think that he hadn’t expected any compensation for his help. He and his wife had helped us unconditionally. They were very simple “country” folks with simple needs. They had their horses, pigs and chickens, and a very basic wooden shelter. By Western standards they had little, yet they were friendlier and more generous in spirit than many people in the US or Canada who have so much more. As we drove away from their smiling faces, I reflected upon my former life in Canada, where I had fallen into the consumer trap of buying some new product or piece of clothing that I hoped would make my life easier or happier. It was an insane process, basing my temporary joy on material stuff. The old man and his wife were gentle reminders of the pleasure to be found in the simple gift of unconditional giving.)
A couple of hours later we were back in the chilly mountains, where we found San Vito, a small town settled by Italians. We celebrated our good fortune with a pizza dinner that was actually damn good. Back in the hotel, after three weeks of reading, I once again embraced television and watched wrestling and Project Runway, my new guilty pleasure. That night I dreamt that I was crossing the Panamanian border in a Versace low back organza gown. Do you think that means anything?
Costa Rica was a blast. While expensive, it’s beautiful, clean and lush beyond words. We didn’t want to love it, but couldn’t help ourselves. Too bad we can’t afford it. Oh well – there’s always Nicaragua.
END OF PART 19