April 11, 2012

Surviving Costa Rica

My sister's going to Costa Rica over her daughter's April school vacation. Whenever anyone in my family contemplates a trip they ask me for advice as chances are high I've been to wherever they're considering going. My feedback on Costa Rica was not positive, but my sister's going anyway because my experiences in that country were almost certainly aberrations. It's a safe bet that my sister's week will revolve around typical Costa Rican vacation things like horseback riding, rainforest hiking and ziplining rather than the robbery, hypodermic needles and other random unpleasantness that marked our long ago Costa Rican sojourn.

My money belt containing a thousand dollars in travelers checks was stolen while we stood in the immigration line five minutes after landing in San Jose at 9 PM, a time by which the American Express office was, of course, closed. Welcome to Costa Rica.

Also closed was the airport location of the rental car company from which I'd booked a vehicle with a car seat for then three-year-old Adam specifically because the company advertised being open until 10. I waylaid a worker who'd just finished locking the door to a competing agency and begged him to reopen and rent us a car. He had one car but no car seat, so we drove off with tiny Adam strapped into an adult seat belt and sitting so low on the rear seat that his head didn't reach the window. We'd travel throughout the country in the next week, and Adam couldn't see outside the car. He napped a lot as we drove, wisely figuring that a better use of his time than staring into the velour back of the seat in front of him.

We spent a day negotiating the chaotic mess that is San Jose to locate the American Express office for replacement checks and standing in special "foreigner" lines at a downtown bank to change small American bills into Costa Rican colones so we could call American Express from pay phones each time we thought we'd found their office then found we hadn't. (This 2005 post from the archives takes you on our quest to decode San Jose's arcane street address system.)

I was three months pregnant with Dana and had to eat constantly to battle debilitating nausea, one night eating my gut-calming midnight loaf of bread in a hotel bathroom while staring down a gang of cockroaches. (Another post from the archives takes you to the scene of that showdown.)

In a hill town where I'd parked for five minutes to run into a grocery store for emergency snacks, I got a parking ticket that would have required a mandatory court appearance had I not bribed the ticketing officer with baksheesh sufficient enough to make the citation disappear.

When Adam developed a flaming case of bronchitis in a small beach town, we took him to a clinic with mint green wooden siding where he received shots of penicillin delivered through a needle the size of a turkey baster.

We got a flat tire while driving a dirt road through a vast jungle of banana plantations and spent several hours at a ramshackle car repair shed that sat -- a miracle wrapped in a week of mishaps -- on said remote road.

I recounted this series of unfortunate events to my parents today as we sat sipping coffee, talking about my sister's upcoming trip. "Oh my!" chuckled my dad. "I see why you couldn't give Costa Rica a good recommendation! Was there anything good about your trip?"

I thought for a moment. "Yes. The smile on the face of the pint-sized extortionist in the tourist parking lot at Manuel Antonio National Park was good, great even. I will always remember that smile. This boy ran to our car as soon as we'd opened the doors to get out and said, 'Senora, give me money and I will watch your car for you.' When I asked why we should pay him to watch a car that was properly parked in a designated lot he said, 'Because if you do not, your car might be stolen.' "

But he said it with a smile, a really good smile.