November 27, 1999- Escazu, San Jose, Costa Rica
Our flight arrived at 1:00AM after traveling for 13 hours and stops and plane changes in Dulles (Washington, DC) and Mexico City. (We have since learned that there are 3 1/2 hour flights on Delta from Atlanta!!) We are met at the airport and relearn lessons we already know – after paying $19/person for prearranged airport transfers rather than $15 total for a 15-minute taxi ride. With an hour and a half to get luggage, clear customs and get to our hotel, we finally go to sleep at 2:30AM. Katie, all excited, woke us up at 6:00AM to go out for breakfast and explore, and we begin our amazing and exciting adventure. We find a bank (the Costa Rican Colon is valued at 297 to the US dollar) and my Spanish of 20+ years ago starts to return.
Our hotel, the Aparthotel Maria Alexandra in Escazu, a relatively affluent suburb of San Jose, is certainly not the true Costa Rican experience we are seeking. Our driver from the airport proudly pointed out last night (or was it this morning) the plethora of available McDonald’s (which delivers), Burger Kings, KFC (with a life size statue of Colonel Sanders), Taco Bell and even Dominos. However, this is not totally surprising – we had planned Costa Rica as a safe and “tame” beginning for our trip – a relatively developed developing country. The water throughout the country is fully potable. (Our kids reacted with shock and horror last night to the thought that they would not be able to use ice for the next 9 months – a form of ‘home schooling’ in the physics of different states of matter.) The electric power and telephone outlets are the same as in the US (allowing us to temporarily leave behind our huge collection of international adaptors). I even saw a large cellular tower, which my cell phone reports getting a strong signal from (a technologically auspicious beginning), although I am unable to get a line. (There is a single cellular monopoly and long waits for being assigned a telephone number – a black market has arisen in providing lines, but we determine that we are only in the country for a month and the land-line service will have to suffice.) Costa Rica is also known for being non-militaristic, having no standing army, a democratically elected government and 21,000 US expatriates living in this country of three and a half million.
The Costa Ricans (locally called Ticos) we meet in our first few hours are universally friendly. We have also heard that Costa Rica is very “safe”, but notice many private residences have barred windows, security cameras, armed guards, guardhouses and anti-personnel razor barbed wire fencing atop ornamentally clad secure gates and fences. As we walk around, we are faced by a challenge – How to explain to children in non-disparaging manner why people litter and there is so much trash in many developing countries – they didn’t grow up in the 50s and 60s and experience the mess we had before Lady Bird Johnson’s anti-litterbug highway beautification program which was so successful in changing US habits. In fact, one hazard to be avoided is walking by open bus windows as empty Crystal beer cans come flying out, even at 9:00am.
We also witness “recycling”, developing country style, with a man pushing around his card laden with folded cardboard boxes to resell, and see slash and burn clear cutting of a field in the suburbs. The kids enjoy their first morning in Costa Rica in the hotel pool.
The frenetic blur of activity over the last few weeks will take a while to unwind from and dissipate. We worked to finish home schooling preparation, complete a major real estate transaction (which finally closed at 2:30PM on the Wednesday we left Newton), mass e-mailing and updating databases with new and corrected addresses and trying to get website fully functional. We were incredibly touched by all of our friends and family. We were treated to what will be one of my life highpoints, a fantastic good-bye party with 50 friends (which we choose to believe did not come just for the fantastic food graciously hosted by the Levitts), and many farewell dinners. (We really should make this traveling an annual event!). We had a wonderful Thanksgiving in Temple, New Hampshire with our great friends Lisa, Dennis, Molly and Bridget Ferrill, which was a perfect final pre-departure goodbye for the trip.
Our Friday morning departure began for me at 3:00AM with final e-mails, to do lists, e-faxing documents to store on the computer rather than carry around as paper (saving that last 3 ounces of weight), and other pre-departure logistics and organizational challenges. There was a drive to and quick stop at my office to receive several 8AM FedEx packages of last minute technology paraphernalia for our trip, sign documents and checks, and deposit packages sorted out to be left behind or forwarded to us en route, all the while talking on both cell phones. (Our children kept protesting, “Daddy, you said you wouldn’t be so busy on the trip.” I try to get by on the technicality that we are going to the airport, but not yet “on” the trip until will leave on the plane.)
Our luggage tally is a rolling backpack/suitcase and daypack each to suffice3 for 9 months, with replenishment boxes of books, school supplies and other gear, which will be meeting us at various destinations enroute. The children’s’ books in particular are a challenge as we are fortunate that Alex and Katie are voracious readers (and Ben a good listener). Our challenge is to keep them supplied with age and interest appropriate English reading material – which has single-handedly led to a spike in the stock price of Amazon.com and many happy faces at Newtonville Books. Given a choice of encouraging the reading and carrying the weight vs. one more Gameboy Pokemon Gold cartridge, we make the weightier decision.
With all of our hours of training our children and ourselves in basic travel safety – always carry a hotel card and some money, always take the walkie talkie – I, of course, carry nothing and get lost during my first jog of the trip. Fortunately I vaguely remember the name of our hotel and, after a few false starts (everyone wants to be helpful, whether or not they have a clue of the correct answer), I return an hour later.
We rent a car and by 3:00PM are on the road (in a horrible traffic jam getting out of San Jose) heading for our first Costa Rican destination, Manuel Antonio National Park on the Pacific Coast.
As we descend from the mountains to the lowland coastal area, the guardrail protecting us from a precipitous drop of the hillside cliff is made up of fenceposts which have sprouted and grown into trees. Everyone has their own observations – Ben points out the “dead cars” by the side of the road, Katie is fascinated by the brightly colored flowers, and Alex focuses on the narrow, sharply switch backed winding roads cut into the side of cliffs.
November 27, 1999 – 5PM – The Tarcoles Bridge Incident
We said we would have adventures and misadventures; and only 16 hours after arriving in Costa Rica we experience one of the latter. At 5:00PM with only 30 minutes of daylight remaining, we cross the bridge over the Tarcoles River and see a dozen crocodiles in the water, as well as over 50 people who have stopped to watch. We also park by the side of the road, and as we try to use the automatic door locks realize that the car’s power system has somehow failed. We lock the car doors by hand, decide to deal with the electrical problem a few minutes later, and watch the sleeping reptiles warming themselves in the setting sun.
We return to find our back window smashed in and all 3 kids’ daypacks and 2 hip belts stolen. The alarm, which would have alerted us and scared off the thieves, was not functioning because of the electrical failure. We are in shock! Ben is wailing uncontrollably over the loss of Timber, his new stuffed bear given to him by his kindergarten teacher, Lynda Cain. (Timber is Jesse Bear, the class mascot’s, brother.) Katie is crying because of the loss and the fact that the mosquitoes were devouring her. (Crocodiles like stagnant water and swampy areas.) Alex is mostly dumbfounded and concerned about having to sit on the shattered glass in the backseat. Patty is trying to console the kids, clean out the back seat and loudly reminding me that it was getting dark, everyone was leaving the area, we have a car that will not start and DO SOMETHING.
I was dealing with all of this, and my own guilt and concerns over the break-in. (We are very seasoned travelers, how did we ever let this happen? Would this so increase the paranoia level as to kill the trip? Would our own self-doubts be apparent to the children, rather than the self-confidence over travel which we hoped to radiate? Had we waited too long to start the anti-malarial medicine so that there were only a few days, not a full week before the exposure we were presumably receiving as our blood was being feasted on? Was I sure that Costa Rica is “safe”, and that it is only on Guatemalan roads that one worries about bandits after dark?) Meanwhile, I had to figure out what to do about starting the car. The battery seemed clearly dead, absolutely no lights or power to the starter engine. My last automotive maintenance experience was as a Senior in high school 29 years ago, and most recently when purchasing a car I assured the salesman that I didn’t have to look at he engine, I believed him that there was one under the hood.
I resorted to my own method – begging a Tico tour guide to desert the group in his minivan and help us as we were alone and had a broken car and crying children and were totally helpless. (Absolute sincerity really helped!) He had no jumper cables but opened the hood. (I know there was a trick to this car repair stuff!) We saw that the support securing the battery to the car had broken, one of the battery cables had become disconnected from the post and the battery was only being held by the remaining cable. Under the light of our nifty mini-mini key chain lithium light, we used a mix of string from his van and duct tape from our supplies (I knew there was a reason we packed all this stuff) to rig a support “box”, cushioned in place with a bag of half a loaf of fresh bread.
We thanked him profusely and spent the next hour and a half driving through the Costa Rican countryside in the dark with a marginally functional car with glass shards in the back seat and no side window. We drove 30 minutes to Jaco, learned that the hotel we were looking for was only 2 miles from the “scene of the crime” bridge, drove back, and eventually arrived at our destination, Eco Hotel Villa Lapas. As we are checking in we see a sign for “Emergency Fire and Earthquake Instructions, 1 – Please control yourself (Calm), 2- Open your door and leave the room, 3 – Go to the front desk or an open field. Be careful with electrical cables and big trees”.
It’s time to call it a day and go to sleep.
November 28, 1999 – Hotel Villa Lapas
By the next morning much the “shock effect’ seemed to have already worn off, and we wake up to 4 toucans playing high in the canopy above us, watch iridescent blue Morpho butterflies with 4” wingspans, and observe huge lizards scurrying over the red clay roofs.
The thieves had only taken immediately accessible items in the back seat, and did not have the time to go after all of the exposed bags in the open back storage area. We learn from locals that there is an armed guard until 5:00PM to deter the thieves, which are a major problem at the bridge. (Thieves sometimes feed the predatory crocodiles to encourage tourists, their prey, to stop.)
We were missing most of the children’s toys, their journals which had been given to them and lovingly inscribed by their teachers and friends, a week of their home schooling curriculum materials, school and art supplies, the children’s camera, 3 walkie talkies and emergency safety whistles, photo albums of friends, family, home and school, Patty’s tin whistle flute, Alex’s Gameboy and Pokemon cards, Katie’s hand sewn silk purse, harmonica and list of 10 Spanish words per day she is learning, and Timber, Ben’s special bear.
On reflection there were some silver linings. Most importantly no one was hurt, there was no actual threat of physical violence (we are probably at more risk in NY subways), and we were not so shaken by the experienced as to really impact the trip, although we are temporarily deflated. (Alex did suggest that we get cars with 5″ thick windows in the future, Katie says that the thieves stole “the stuff that we took on the trip to make sure we have a good time”, and Ben wanted Mrs. Cain to buy another Timber, but not send it to him so that it would not be stolen.). Most of the kids’ books and schoolwork was not taken. The thieves certainly did not get what they were after – none of the “valuables” including the two computers (which also have hundreds of hours invested in setting them up), the Elph, Elan or digital cameras, or the passports, tickets, travelers checks and cash (all of which I keep in my hip belt and had decided at the last second to take out of the car) were stolen. We were also fortunate that the kids had only started to write in their now missing journals. With the help of good friends back home, who had offered to help us in an emergency, we will replace most of the missing items. In truth, my car was broken into in our driveway in “safe” Newton one night this past May – and we don’t have iguanas, coatis, amazing scenery, or monkeys frolicking in the trees to compensate. The rental car company even decided to waive the charge for the broken window – I would like to believe that was due to their pure good natured concern and kindness, but there may also be an element related to my comments that nothing would probably have been stolen if the battery had not come lose and disabled the alarm system. We post 10,000 colones rewards (“recompensa”) with guards, restaurateurs and two local policemen manning a speed trap. A Tico from San Jose suggests that the rewards might work. His family had a puppy stolen last year, and when a reward was offered, the dog reappeared the next day. As he explains it, everyone knows everyone, including who the thieves are, and if the reward is attractive, you will get your goods back. We post one of our rewards at the Eco Restaurante, where we see 2 drunks “recycling” the excess beer they have been drinking into the plant pots behind the bar
Perhaps the backpacks were thrown into a river and eaten by the crocodiles, converting us to indirect eco-terrorists and not appropriately ending the circle of life for Timber.
We revise some logistics and packing arrangements – copy and ship journals home weekly, pack the computers separately – and continue on our adventure. This experience will definitely help us be more vigilant for the rest of the trip, as we continue to try to create a safe and secure environment in foreign lands for our family.
November 28 – December 2, 1999 – Manuel Antonio National Park, Quepos, Costa Rica.
We trade in our damaged Four Runner for a Corolla station wagon, (a very BAD decision as we almost pull the bottom off the car many times over the next few days) and we drive to Manuel Antonio National Park and our hotel in Quepos.
Tulemar Bungalows consists of 20 hexagonal open air two bedroom cottages set on pillars and wonderfully sited cut into a hillside with fantastic views of the Pacific Ocean. The Bungalow community is growing with new roads through the hillside and down to the beach. (This rapid pace of development is very controversial as it is reducing available habitat. There is an article in The Tico Times, the English language weekly, about over development around Manuel Antonio National Park, which cites a graphic description of a spider monkey electrocuted by high tension lines.) The six San Jose investors who own the development are subdividing and selling off sites, and are planning to build their own vacation homes on the property.
My only “complaint” about our bungalow is that a troop of White Faced Capuchin monkeys frolics loudly outside of our window, so we wake up at 5:30 to a beautiful sunrise!!
A highlight to our visit to Manuel Antonio National Park, located on Costa Rica’s central Pacific coast is a flat-bottom boat ride through the mangrove swamps surrounding Isla Damas (Island of Women) with our Tico guide Leo and his 6-year-old son Leo Jr. (who was too ‘sick’ to attend kindergarten that day-so went out with his dad). We rode through the narrow channels in the tangle of the mangrove tree roots and, in an environment that was eerily remote and primordial, see Jesus Christ Lizards, (so named because it walks on water), a 7 foot boa constrictor coiled in a tree high above us in wait for prey,
We see 5′ diameter termite nests with tunnels criss- crossing the area. (The kids become very good at detecting termite trails up the trees to their nests – maybe we can use them at our house!). We are told that termites generate methane gas, which damages the ozone, but that the termites are not a big problem because predators keep them in check. (Pardon my cynicism regarding Eco PC on an Eco Tour, but last I checked decomposition of leaves and wood (or other organic material) generates methane, as does the much-studied issue of cow flatulence)
We feed White Faced Capuchin monkeys bananas from our boat (not ecologically correct, but a widespread tourist practice in the area-and very exciting.).
In the afternoon we go with the Leos to visit a magnificent waterfall and swim in its deep pools. We pass date palm orchards, and learn that the trees have a 25-year productive life, and then injected to kill them and make room for the new crop. The 1¸-hour drive takes us over many single lane metal deck bridges, converted from single-track railroad bridges originally built in 1934, and never replaced when the railroad bed was replaced with the vehicular road. The bridges have no markers of the edges, many loose planks, no guardrails of any sort, and a little chain link fence 5′ below to theoretically capture a 2000 pound car hurtling into the gully below. We learn about 20 deaths in the last 5 years on one of the more treacherous of the bridges. As Ben says, “Dad, you’re freaking me out”
Leo told us about the time when he was returning with a couple and there were already 12″ of river running over the top of the road surface on the bridge, with the current trying to push him off the side!
We pass a one-room jail which Leo explains is very conveniently located across from the community recreation hall so drunks can dry out overnight. On the local news front, we hear that the body of a murdered Tico was found the night before under a bridge, and Leo explains that the killing was probably a “mistake”.
We have an opportunity to learn about Leo and his family. He has been a guide since 1984, and now plans to sell his land in town (30 meters x 150 meters) and use the proceeds to buy a tractor and cart wagons to be outfitted for tours He has 5 brothers and 4 sisters – and there is a definite ‘brain drain’ going on – 3 have emigrated – a sister married into a wealthy family in Spain (her first airplane trip was from San Jose to Madrid, unaccompanied), a brother is now in North Carolina after 4 years in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and another brother is in Germany.. Leo has been estranged from his wife, who is a paramedic, for the last 4 months, which may help to explain Leo Jr’s presence. (Ticos, in general have a different approach to marriage – men publicly maintain one or more mistresses and their wives will sometimes, albeit more discreetly, have boyfriends.) We also learn a lot about Tico parenting by listening to Leo talk to his 6-¸ year old son. When Leo Jr. complains about something and doesn’t obey we hear “Don’t you understand Spanish!” We also see Leo Jr’s incredible machismo bravery after he steps on a spiny burr and embedded over a dozen needles in his foot. With barely a whimper, he allows his father to remove them with a sharp needle.
We pay 1,000 colones to park the car and for access to the private property. (This certainly represents capitalistic profits for the landowner relative to local living standards. Incomes in Costa Rica are very modest, only 1,500 colones ($6.00) per day for manual laborers and farm workers, and $10-15 per day for skilled tradesmen, clerical and office workers. The official minimum wage is 280 colones (approx $1.00) per hour. Office or hotel management personnel (who generally come from the more sophisticated San Jose) receive $400 – 500 per month.
We learn that this several hundred acres of good cattle land and a 100-foot double waterfall with 3 pools is available for only $180,000 (asking price) – there is no beach access, but you do have your own private waterfalls – in a lush tropical paradise.
The next morning we take a 3 hour guided walk in Manuel Antonio, which has approximately 400 people per day now visiting the park, expected to go to the maximum permitted capacity of 800 at any one time in early December through April, the high season. Those capacities aside, we find a chart in the visitor center indicating visitors per year from 1979-1998, beginning in 1979 at 20,078 visitors, peaked in 1992 at 191,493 visitors and in 1998 had 112,121 visitors. The guide explains that this is partially the result of Hurricane Joanna in 1993, doing damage to the park
We are told the names of dozens of trees in Spanish and barely discernable English. (The names don’t matter – I never remember them anyway.) The experiential learning and garnering an understanding of the interrelationships in the ecosystems is wonderful, as is the fascinating nature trivia. We learn about the Manzinillo Tree, which grows on the beach with its small leaves -highly toxic, making poison ivy seem tame. There is the 2 – 3 foot long Ctenosaur lizard, an omnivore which lives to 15 years old and is also called “chicken of the tree” (even though it mostly live on the ground) because it tastes like chicken. We see mangroves with roots like spider webs, and other roots like duck webs and dinosaur feet. We see “sleeping plants” with purple flowers whose leaves fold up to the touch (even the stems’ vascular system completely collapses to a hard touch.) We learn that the plants close up completely at night and are called sleeping plants not because they appear to go to sleep, but because their leaves are used to make a tea which functions much like Novocain for toothaches and minor surgery. (Alex had watched a video in his class about the plants, and now was seeing them in a natural environment.) We also observe the 4″ Golden Spider – The US Army has done a study which determined that the strands in the Golden Spider’s web are more bulletproof than Kevlar and they are now they are trying to find out how to reproduce it.
We see many huge vines hanging from trees, reminding us of Ben’s comments when he was trying to understand the concept of home schooling on the trip, how mommy and daddy could be the teachers and you could have school without even going to school. Finally he had an inspiration – he asked if we would be going to jungles with vines, connected that to the ropes in his school’s gymnasium, and decided that it would all work out because daddy could be Mr. Carmichael, the physical education teacher, and Ben could climb the vines.
We see two three-toed sloths as barely visible gray masses slowly moving high in the tree canopy. This leads to much binocular shuffling and frustrated children. Half an hour later we happen upon one far below the canopy – very close and very visible, and spend a while watching it ambling slowly up the tree. Our guide explains that three toed sloths approximately 15-20 pounds and 2 feet long, and are diurnal, as opposed to their nocturnal two toed relatives. Three-toed sloths are omnivores preferring the leaves of the Cecropia tree, which looks much like a fig tree, but has a hollow trunk, which fills with water. They and almost always stay in the top of the canopy because they are slow and relatively defenseless against predators on the ground. They only descend to the ground once weekly to defecate. We also learn that they descend to give birth after a 6 month pregnancy, with the mother letting gravity drop the baby 3 feet to the ground as the final “push”, and then goes down picks up the baby and returns to the canopy.
We find and play with “sticky ball” plants, with small pellet like seeds which are covered with a Velcro-like material and used as cheap earrings.
We see hundreds of monarch and other species of butterflies, and look for Bob and Venamoth who were released by Katie’s class after metamorphosing from caterpillars. (No problem with ongoing science education in the rainforest – and I learned something too – Venamoth is apparently a metamorphosed Pokemon character.)
As we watch all of the above as well as leafcutter ants, ginger plants, balsa trees, and innumerable other species of flora and fauna, we deal with our first real “children problem” of the trip – we have to do something about children whining and complaining because it is ‘hot’ in tropical jungles. We keep Ben interested by having him study and chase hermit crabs, but suffer one major melt down. (In fact, our guide points out the word “ben” in Spanish is the imperative for “come on”, a phrase we are using all too frequently on this walk.) We try to rationalize and keep perspective – it is hot and humid, they are hungry and maybe we have been pushing them too hard after the very full previous days – but having children complaining about boredom in a fascinating natural environment doesn’t fit my idealized version of this trip. Activities can work well in keeping our children’s’ attention – but we may all need a poolside break for the afternoon.
An otherwise friendly and nice Atlantan talks about the road situation and suggests that people are “stupid” in developing countries because of their apparent disregard for their own safety walking and bicycle riding on dark roads at night without reflectors or lights. (We are told that the law requires reflectors on bicycles used at night, but have yet to see one reelection of compliance.) Patty lights into him, and I wonder about our society’s self destructive habits of smoking, working too hard under too much stress, and even flying to tropical destinations and basking/baking in the sun despite overwhelming evidence of carcinogenic effects.
We visit Quepos just outside the park, which has “real Costa Rican stores” as well as an excellent fresh pasta shop but far too many pizza restaurants, bars, travel agencies, real estate offices, tour companies, and t-shirt, souvenir and other shops which are the flotsam and jetsam of tourism. There is a tremendous discontinuity in pricing between goods for Gringos and Ticos. We have a $35 pizza lunch, and then stop at a local market for 5 bananas and a fresh pineapple for less than $1.00.
I must comment here about “ECO”. Costa Rica clearly is a naturalist’s paradise, a fact that the Costa Rican government and tourism authorities capitalize on brilliantly. This has the additional benefit of providing strong economic incentive to protect the environment, which is also great (and demonstrates that free enterprise can deliver positive environmental benefits). The overuse of the term “eco” however, is almost comical. Every hotel is eco-something, and then there is the Eco-Fan Travel Agency, the sign for “Hand Painted T-Shirts – the best collection of Ecological Designs in Costa Rica”, the “Canopy Safari, the Ultimate Eco-Adventure”, “Eco-fun” from Estrella Tours, and the television crews we see covering the Eco Challenge – a race from san Jose involving mountain biking, kayaking, swimming a river and racing up a mountain. (We still haven’t found the slogan which is surely out there somewhere – Eco-Sex-do it in the Canopies with the monkey). There is an article about a lawsuit in The Tico Times by a company who is claiming ‘ecoturismo” as its trademark and trying to force Yahoo and other search engines to screen out sites which “violate” its copywrite.
The summary of the first 5 days of our trip – fantastic and intense. We have had incredible fascinating experiences in this brief time – I have been capturing my thoughts on a cassette recorder, and then transcribing and organizing (only somewhat, obviously) into this journal. I have been so busily dictating into this machine that the kids are teasing me that it is my girlfriend and I must “love it” – Alex accuses me of going on a date each time I use it. I may not be able to write well, so I will write a lot. I will leave to Patty timely (which must be a first) updates; I will try to fill in my own impressions and details.