Observations on Costa Rica life
It is 5:59 am and 50 seconds as I open my Internet Explorer the day before my 6 am flight back to Florida.
10.. 9.. Copa Air.com
8.. 7.. Web Check-In
6.. 5.. Reservation Number
4.. 3.. 2.. Seat Assignment
1.. GOT IT!!!!
Emergency Exit Row / Seat EIGHTEEN CHARLIE (18C). The Stalker is back!!!
There is a famous saying, “Traveling the world makes you modest. It forces you to realize how tiny and insignificant you really are.” As you experience different cities, states, countries and cultures, you learn to “go with the flow “because it is just that; different. Costa Rica teaches you a lot about patience, because as you have heard from me before, nothing happens very fast here. I always find it humorous when tourists go out to breakfast and order something strange or special. “I want my eggs poached, bacon extra crispy, and my toast lightly buttered. Can I get De-Caf coffee with skim milk? Do you have hash browns or just the home fries? How about Orange Juice with no pulp? Ha ha ha. Boy are they in for a wake up call. I always tell them; WHATEVER shows up on your plate just shut up and eat it. It’s desayuno man!!! Most likely they will end up with scrambled eggs, a slice of sandwich ham meat, tortillas, coffee strong enough to fuel a drag racer, beans and rice, French fries and whatever fresh fruit they squeezed that day. Enjoy it baby!!! That’s Costa Rica life.
You want to really test your patience? See what happens when you get stuck behind a funeral procession. You see in the USA, you have 50 cars, all with their headlights on and a private police motorcade to block the traffic as you wiz across town. Not in paradise. They load the coffin on the backs of 6 strong, buff men, and everyone walks behind it from the town to the cemetery. They actually take up the entire street, both lanes, so no traffic can pass in either direction. Cars are backed up for half a kilometer, crawling along at 2 mph, all hoping there is a ditch coming up where they can 4×4 around the cadaver, and get on with their day, without kicking any rocks up into the face of the deceased ‘s family. The street peddlers are having a heyday, selling Pipas and coconut water, bags of fruit and nuts, knock off CDs and DVDs to everyone stuck in line, because it takes about 45 minutes to get to the grave. I mean, I am really sorry Grandpa bit the dust, but come on already, I gotta get to work!!!! Can you just take up only HALF the road?????
It is one of the only countries in the world, where people drive like a bat out of hell to get where they are going, only to never be in a hurry once they get there. Patience is a virtue in Costa Rica life. Whether you like it or not, you have no choice. So relax, get used to it, you will actually learn to enjoy it.
I try to fly back to the USA 4 or 5 times a year, mostly for sports, but also to remind myself how fortunate I am to live in paradise. Latin America is the way we used to be many years ago. People generally show a lot of class: they are friendly to each other, open doors for ladies, spend time with their families, go to church on Sundays, always dress as nice as they can and tend to have amazing work ethics. They don’t buy things they can’t afford by maxing out their credit cards, and don’t look to the government for handouts or entitlements. The USA will never be the same as it used to be, because we have lost our pride, our work ethics, our class and we will never recover. You especially notice this when you fly on an airplane from Costa Rica back to a big city like Miami. The Americans are dressed like they are going to the annual 420 pot smoking festival in Denver, while all the Costa Ricans look like they are showing up for the biggest job interview of their life.
I was always taught that when you get on to an airplane, you look professional. You wear a nice collared shirt, pressed pants and take the time to shower and shave before you check in. Unfortunately, most Americans didn’t get that memo. There are back packers and surfers who arrive at the gate, wearing the same stinky clothes they have been sleeping in for the past 15 days. You would think they could have found a hostel for the very last night so they could have at least taken a shower. Most of the College kids are in footed pajamas, and they still have Bed Head from the night before, they didn’t even find time to comb their hair. They usually have a dirty blanket in their hand, along with those U shaped neck pillows and a 15 year old Teddy Bear and they move in a trance as if getting up at 5 am was such a serious chore. One of the last times I flew, I saw a person that literally blew my mind. It was this young woman, probably in her early 20s, and she looked like she should be on tour with KISS. She had on these massive steel boots that went up to her knees, about 15 facial piercings, some of them were mini spears, a metal belt buckle and more “armor” for jewelry than most knights wore hanging out at the round table. I am not exaggerating; it took her 15 minutes to undress just to get through the metal detector. Even most of the back packers still had on their hiking boots. Can you imagine, sitting on an airplane for half a day wearing 5 lb. Timberland boots let alone Gene Simmons Demon Boots? No thanks, sounds terrible, I’ll stick to my flip flops thank you very much. This is the future of your great nation, people. Wake up.
The other main reason I try to fly every couple months, is so I can keep my Elite Status with United Airlines. As a Gold Member I get many privileges, from extra luggage, to a private lounge where I can check my emails during my layovers. But the best part is that I get to board first, and every so often I get bumped up to Business Class on any of the affiliated airlines. I gotta tell ya, if you have never flown in the front cabin, it is awesome, and it spoils you for the rest of your life. Now, if I don’t get upgraded, I feel like such a loser, being forced to sit in the back with the rest of the working stiffs LOL. But at least as a premiere member, I get to sit in the Emergency Exit Row, which has a tremendous amount more leg room than your average seats. To get these prized locations, you have to get on line the second the Web check-in opens, which is exactly 24 hours before your flight. Remember, every other Premiere Member is doing the same thing; there are upwards of 50 of these people on each flight, but only 12 of these valued commodities exist. It takes a real Emergency Exit Row Stalker to grab one, trust me. Plus, there are no children allowed in this row and you must be physically fit in case of an emergency, so I am safe from the screaming little pukes that terrorize so many flights and the man that needs two seat belt extensions, and his hips end up half way in your lap. Ahhhhh. I can relax.
Copa Airlines is my favorite company to fly with for a multitude of reasons. They are Latin American based and have the same customer service that we used to see in American businesses back in the 1970’s. All the planes are brand new, with huge leather seats and TVs on the back of every head rest. Everyone is served a meal, even in coach, and all the alcohol is FREE. The flight attendants, both male and female, are smoking hot, right out of a 1960 Pan Am advertisement; the way it should be, and the pilots and navigators are all young, professional and friendly. Everyone is allowed to check two bags, even on the basic fare, and the entire team of ticket checkers and baggage handlers are positive and motivated. Wow, what a concept huh? You NEED to fly on this airline and you will WANT to do it over and over again.
Just recently I was on a flight back to San Jose, with a boarding pass for my favorite seat. As I arrived at 18C, this stunning flight attendant was standing in my row, like an angel guarding my spot. After a brief awkward moment, she moved on to the back and allowed me to take my designated location. I tried flirting with her, but she had seen and heard it all, and politely told me to have a nice flight. Heh, can’t beat a man up for trying. Since I was one of the first ones on the plane, I had plenty of time to take out my trip necessities; Non Fiction book, reading glasses, beef jerky, computer, and tons of room to store my carry on in the empty stowage container above. As I sat there for the next 20 minutes during the boarding routine, I was reminded again, why I love being a Premiere Member. You see all these people, barely moving along like they are stuck behind a Costa Rican funeral, one step; stop; one step; stop. They have that zombie look on their faces, knowing that there isn’t even the slightest chance that there is any room left in the overhead bins, and they will be forced to shove their prized fake Louis Vuitton travel bag under the aisle in front of them. Welcome to hell, and I had a front row seat.
As I sat back and enjoyed the people watching fiasco, it was a piece of cake to pick out the USA travelers from the Latin Americans, strictly by analyzing their outfits. The tree huggers were in full force that day, as the cabin started to fill up with that moldy carpet smell known as B.O. and you could easily spot the baby boomers on their way to their first vacation in Costa Rica. What is it with tourists, who feel like they need to dress like they are on an African Safari when they visit our little country? It’s not like they are going to be camping in the jungle, they probably have a reservation at the Papagayo Hilton, yet they have on every piece of outdoor wear that Cabela makes. They have the breathable Columbia shirt; their North Face fishing pants with 8 different pockets; Merrell water shoes: Luminox Navy Seal watch; Lumbar waste pack, with two canteen water bottles; and their Magellan Bora Bora hat with a big bandana covering their neck and Oakley camo sunglasses hanging from their chest. In one hand, they are holding every possible book you can buy on Costa Rica life, from bird watching to reptiles, Lonely Planet and a waterproof travel map and in the other hand they even have their own homemade snacks of trail mix and raisins.
They had completely lathered their entire body in Coconut flavored sun tan lotion and you could literally taste it as they walked past. They went to all this trouble, FOR THE PLANE RIDE DOWN!!!! This stuff kills me every time. If you were traveling to Pura Vida land, and didn’t even know your gate number, all you had to do was walk around for a while in the terminal and look for the geeks dressed like they are trying out for a part in the next Allan Quartermain movie. I called the hottie back over, her name was Ileana, and I asked her how long I had to wait to get a cocktail because I needed a drink after this Gong Show. All the Costa Ricans were of course dressed to the T because they always look their best. Even when they go to the grocery store they put on a fashion show, there are none of those Wal-Mart photos circulating here, that’s for sure. Why? It’s called PRIDE. Costa Ricans are very proud people, and they would never consider being seen in a public place without checking the mirror first. You see people going to work in the morning, and their shirts are perfectly pressed, not a wrinkle in sight, even if they come from very simple means. My maid shows up to clean my house, I am not kidding you, looking the best she possibly can. As our grandmothers used to say, “You can be poor but you don’t have to be dirty.” That is what I admire most about this incredible culture. They have their priorities set straight; family, God, and country pride, and they very rarely ever stray. If there is a wedding, birthday or a funeral, they will get on a bus at 4 am, travel half way across this nation for 7 hours and be back the next day for work. I love Costa Rica life.
After the plane took off, I enjoyed a nice meal, a few chapters from the new book I was reading and had a couple Vodka Tonics. About half way home, I found myself a little sleepy and decided to take a little snooze. I have always loved naps, so I put my seat back, closed my eyes and found myself thinking of the petite flight attendant. Maybe if I write her a little note, I thought, and slipped it into her apron, she might give me a call and who knows where it could lead…
An integral part of Costa Rica life is Semana Santa. It is the week long holiday celebrating Easter and Good Friday. They call it Holy Week but it really should be called Hell Week, because it actually is the only time where you want nothing to do with the beaches. Over one million Costa Ricans flock to the shores from the city, for a celebration that matches anything you would see on Spring Break MTV. So for many of the permanent residents, this is our chance to go to the capital because it isn’t nearly as crowded as normal. Personally, I could never live in San Jose; I didn’t come to paradise to deal with a big city. But there are some amazing sites just outside of the Central Valley, and I decided this was a perfect weekend to see them. I have this bucket list of places to visit, and I continue to try and check them off it any chance I can. Besides, it is good material for my Newsletters.
We set out on Good Friday and headed South, into the mountains of Cartago, one of the oldest cities in Costa Rica with ruins dating back to the 16th century, and there is an incredible Botanical Garden there called Lankester Jardin Botanico. The 27 acre oasis is named after British botanist Charles H. Lankester and has over 3000 plant species, including one of the world’s most recognized collections of epiphytes (these are plants that grow on top of other plants or trees and use them for support. In other words, they mooch off the system; like ticks; or unfortunately, kind of like welfare recipients too). Of course, like most places in Costa Rica, there are no street signs or names, so it was a little bit of a cluster nutt to find it, and when you finally arrive you aren’t quite sure you are at the right place. It is surrounded by what we would call a warehouse district back home, along with body shops, car dealerships and everything else associated with a large business and industrial community. And right in the middle of it all, is this magical, lush haven. As you enter the grounds, you are immediately taken through a series of well-kept pathways and trails that lead from one incredible section to another. Now, as you can imagine, I am not exactly a “flower” type of guy, yet I was completely blown away at how spectacular this nature den is. The first area is the orchid section, and there are over 800 in bloom, and you could spend half a day in there alone, smelling the different shades of the rainbow.
As you continue down the path, your next stop is the Japanese Garden. There are 4 or 5 adorable Asian huts, surrounded by little ponds and lakes, and the tallest bamboo trees I have ever seen in my life. They are at least 80 feet tall and tower over the Gardens. As you cross these little walk bridges, you see schools of Koi fish below surround by a Zen Garden and Budha looking statues. I half expected Tom Cruise to jump out in a Kimono with a sword as they were filming The Last Samurai part 2.
Making our way around the property, we went through a secondary forest, a succulent Cactus farm and multitudes of other plant and flower species. Other families that are well represented in the garden are palms, heliconias, bromeliads and conifers. The surrounding tropical forest is some of the best preserved in the area, and it attracts animals, birds, and insects to this protected haven. Hummingbirds in particular frequent the garden, and especially the nectar rich flowers in the butterfly enclosure. I have to say, I left very impressed and would recommend this as a day trip to everyone. I used to make fun of guys, who went to plant farms, but this experience opened my eyes, I have to be honest, and it truly was an amazing day.
Next, we went to the center of town and visited the famous Cartago church, Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Los Angeles. The massive grey and white Byzantine church is home to Black Madonna (La Negrita), Costa Rica’s patron saint, who is honored by a stunning spiritual procession each August. Pilgrims from all over Central America visit this sacred site to pay homage and receive La Negrita’s miraculous healing powers. While I wasn’t “healed” on this particular visit, I was humbled in the presence of such a powerful structure, with massive stained glass windows, Colonial Architecture and towering biblical statues and I found myself at peace. Since I was now so relaxed, I figured it was time for lunch. As you can imagine, directly across the street was the Los Angeles Soda, known for their ceviche and tortillas, which were outstanding, and we chased this down with a couple of frosty cold Pilsens. We spent the afternoon stopping at various fruit stands along the road, as some of the surrounding areas of Cartago produce vast quantities of agriculture and it is still one of the main sources of revenue for the city. All in all it was a very fulfilling day.
Since we are on a roll with churches, I decided to go to my favorite restaurant in San Jose, Le Monastere located at the top of a mountain in Santa Ana for dinner. Originally the home and chapel of an elite family in the 1900’s, it was converted to a Monastery for religious novitiates. This magnificent place is now a 5 star restaurant with 270 degree views stretching from the Central Valley all the way to the Gulf of Nicoya. The interior is decorated with European marble statues and exquisite antiques and there is a grand piano in the middle, which is played by a creepy looking Darth Vader type dude, and all the waiters are dressed as French Monk Frocks. The food is INSANE, but the coolest part is when you check out the actual chapel itself. You literally feel like you are traveling back in time and you can almost imagine real Monks giving a Sunday service. There is also medieval style rustic tavern downstairs, where you can enjoy live music while soaking up the view after you are finished with your meal. It took the taxi about 8 minutes to get to the top of this hill, it literally just kept S turning UP and UP and UP, and I found myself wondering how a real Monk would ever have made it. Mountain climbing and I go together about as well as oil and water, or dogs and monkeys. If I was a Monk, I thought, my Monastery would be at the bottom of the hill, next to a cantina because there is no way on God’s green earth I would hike up that puppy every day. You can lead this old horse to a bar and you can DEFINITELY buy me a drink.
This country has a lot of history that is for sure, but Costa Rica has come a long way from these old churches, as it was just recently voted one of the top 10 countries best prepared for the future of energy. It is incredible the mix of old and new, history and technology, nature and modern conveniences.
The next morning, of course, we made the biggest fruit plate you have ever seen for breakfast; I can never get tired of it, and my usual mug of 1820 coffee, spiked of course with Café Rica, and headed out the door. After spending so much time in these places of worship the day before, I guess I felt I needed to be a little closer to the heavens. So we decided to visit Irazu Volcano, the highest active volcano in Costa Rica, at over 11,000 feet.
I wasn’t quite sure how much work I was going to have to do to see it, as many of these sites have hiking trails that can kill a pack mule, but this one was about as easy as it can get. The drive up was one of the most spectacular 60 minutes of my life, as we passed hundreds of old farms, colonial houses and scenic stop areas. Many of the little towns hadn’t changed at all since they were first congregated decades, maybe centuries ago, with the exception of an IMPERIAL beer sign every few hundred yards or so. I have told you time and time again, these guys love their cervezas. As is the norm in this crazy little land, you see some of the wildest stuff; things that make you stop and scratch your head. We saw this man walking a goat, literally, or maybe the goat was walking him I don’t know. He had a leash around its neck, like a dog, and they were just trucking along, having a dandy old time. Since the volcano is located in the rain forest, it seems every plant and tree had been injected with steroids, and they were absolutely massive. I saw one palm leaf looking plant, and the leaves were taller than a human being, at least 6 to 7 feet long. INCREDIBLE. There is even an old Insane Asylum that is now a relic of its previous past, and you can stop and pay a couple bucks to tour. Talk about freaky; this would be the perfect place for a horror movie and you could almost feel the ghosts staring at you from beyond. We didn’t stay long, as I am a real chicken and that stuff gives me the willies.
As you enter the National Park, you stop at the Ranger Station and pay a small entry fee. Again, this is where I appreciate being a Permanent Resident as it was only $2 for me but $10 for tourists, which overall is still a bargain. You can literally drive right up to the highest point of the peak, assuming you are in a truck or 4×4, as the pot holes are champion sized Costa Rican, park your car, and walk to the viewing deck. You are literally at the top of the world, as you are higher than the clouds, and you practically expected a COPA airline flight to buzz by with my little flight attendant staring out the window waving. On a clear day you can see all the way to the Caribbean coast in one direction and the Pacific Ocean in the other. I don’t know if it was the view or the thin air but it definitely took my breath away; you can’t get much closer to the heavens than here. There is of course the usual tourist center, for the purchase of T-shirts and other goodies, but for the most part it is very NON tourist trap and was not very crowded at all. The volcano is over 854,000 years old, and has had some massive explosions in the past, a total of 23 times since 1723. The most famous eruption came on March 19 1963, which was the day President John F. Kennedy started a state visit to the land of Pura Vida. I wonder if Marilyn was with him on that trip. You can walk around the main crater and view the lake below, steam rising off its surface, and there is a total of 5 craters all together. One of them is named Playa Hermosa, which is quite ironic of course, and you can walk across this one for some killer photos ops.
“Sir. Wake up. Sir, please wake up.” I opened my eyes from this very nice dream, and there was my angel, staring down at me smiling. “Take this sir! Sir! Take this!” and she shoved a piece of paper into my hand. Could this possibly be her phone number or email? Maybe it was her room number at the hotel where they layover in San Jose. “We are getting ready to land Sir, please put your seat back and tray table up and get ready for landing.” As I scrambled to pull myself together, I glanced down at the paper, giddy with anticipation. Unfortunately, it was just a customs form, no secret number on the back, no map to buried treasures, any address or phone number, or email or hotel room. It looks like I am going to have to plan another trip very soon and hope I get her flight again; the Emergency Exit Row Stalker WILL RETURN. Keep my seat warm honey. The plane landed and we exited and down the ramp I went, and that familiar sign was there waiting for me again; WELCOME TO THE HAPPIEST COUNTRY IN THE WORLD. Glad to be home. Costa Rica life is Pura Vida.
P.S. I feel it is important to mention something that bothers many of us here in Costa Rica, and I believe is one of the turn offs to this magical land. The restaurant at the Liberia airport, inside the terminal, is called Players Club. I imagine they named it this because the only person who gets “played” is you. The food is atrocious, the service is pathetic and the prices are some of the most expensive in the world, and they hardly have anywhere to sit. I have had countless people tell me that after the best vacation in their life, they left this great country with a little bit of a sour taste in their mouth after paying exorbitant prices for food or coffee as they waited to board the plane. I have a little secret I will share with you. Before you go to the airport, stop at the Subway sandwich shop in Coco and pick up a couple sandwiches to go. Make sure NOT to put the mayo or mustard on as the bread will get soggy, but ask for some of those little “to go” packets and apply it later, when you are on the plane. This way, you won’t be forced to buy something to eat at this horrendous restaurant that gouges the tourists, and if enough people spread the news, maybe the airport will give the concession to someone with a little better customer service and business sense. If nothing else, maybe they will go broke.
P.S.S. It seems I really upset a nice woman with my newsletter last week, as she was from Fresno California. I have officially pissed off 4 people now that I am aware of, with someone from the city of Buffalo; which I bashed in my Niagara Falls report; a Canadian from Alberta; whom I insulted with my igloo comment and an NFL season ticket holder. I would bet that I have upset a few dozen more fans actually; it’s just that most people won’t admit that they even root for the Cleveland Browns because they don’t want the humiliation or the embarrassment. I have found that people tend to love me or hate me, there isn’t much in between, and overall I am ok with that. I am not running for public office and this is not a popularity contest, there is no Homecoming dance coming up anytime soon, so if you can’t take a little dark humor, you should probably unsubscribe from this website. Seriously though, if anything I said truly offended you, I apologize, this is all just for fun. Pura Vida.
One final sad note; Last week, our area lost an amazing man, Eric Lang. He was the local mechanic, used by everyone, and we all considered him a great friend. He was one of the sweetest, most honest people you have ever met, and he died way too young. God Bless you Eric, you will be missed tremendously. At least now all the cars in heaven will be running smooth.
Tank Tops Flip Flops Newsletter edition no. 46