Walden World

The wacky and wonderful tales of Beth's and Catherine's global adventures. And all things Walden too.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Death and the Loofah Sponge

Anyone who travels Costa Rica knows that distances therein are strangely deceptive. It may be "only 20 kilometres" but, in 'time reality' it will take one many hours to reach the said objective.

In the future, physicists may study Costa Rica as a "time/space" anomaly which can only be explained by advanced string theory.

Samara Beach was the last stop on our journey before we were to fly home. It is 140 km from San Jose, but, on a good day, it would take 4-5 hours to reach San Jose by way of the 'direct' 'express' bus.

Catherine therefore suggested we take a plane back to San Jose: same price as a bus; gets you there in 1 1/2 hours (again note the weird time vortex) and, as our flight to Canada didn't leave until 2:30 pm, this would leave us a whole extra day to enjoy the beach.

When he found out we would be flying to San Jose, our hotel proprietor, a very nice German fellow, generously offered to drive us to the local airport on the morning of our departure.

The night before we were to leave, we packed up our belongings so as to be ready to go the first thing next morning.

Now Catherine's idea of how to pack is that you put all used clothes and anything she feels is 'dirty' (ie: books, souvenirs, collected beach rocks, first aid kit, shoes) in one pack and neatly place clean 'things' (her few light dresses) in another.

This meant her pack weighed about that of a small girl's "Dora the Explorer" school bag, whilst mine weighed close to something that a well laden and stocky Ranger took with him onto Omaha Beach on D-Day.

The next morning we slugged our stuff down the spiral staircase only to find that our host had had too much Pilsener the prior night and was now too hung over to drive us.

This left us in the clutches of his surly, sulky Italian wife who resembled the archetypal Roman 'woman' from a Fellini film.

Her job at the hotel appeared to consist of sitting, chain smoking and drinking cup after cup of black coffee while screaming orders at the ill-used Tica maids who actually did all the work at the hotel: "Ah Maria!!!..Ah Maria..Donde est...!!!"

Clearly unhappy about the promised service she now had to provide in lieu her husband, she sashayed in her sarong to the couple's SUV, leaving Catherine and I, in 100 degree early morning heat, dragging the giant pack, the "lite" pack, two carry-on knapsacks, a hammock and Catherine's purse, to the car.

Irritated at my slowness in trying to load the "great pack" into the SUV, our hostess began to drive away as I ran alongside the moving vehicle, banging the side while atttempting to throw myself and the pack in.

We arrived in Playa Carillo some 10 minutes later. Here our hostess deposited us at the side of the road next to a field.

All that Catherine and I could see (other than the field) was a Costa Rican bus shelter: a small wooden shed/stall covered by some dried out palm fronds.

Catherine and I looked at one another: "Umm...is this the airport?" "Yes! Why not!" the hostess spat back and sped off in a trail of dust.

C and I then sat on the side of the road...wondering where we, in fact, were.

The ticket office had said it was imperative that we show up "at the airport" 45 minutes before the flight.

We looked around: beautiful beach across the road, wonderful sand, gorgeous surf, no hotels, no stores...nada. Just ocean, a road, a shelter and this... field.

So we sat, and sat and sat and sat under the blazing sun. The plane was supposed to take off at 9:30 am. It was 9:10 then 9:20 then 9:30 then 9:40.

Finally sometime about 10:00, a figure appeared through the wobbly heat glare of the road: a woman in a bathing suit, sporting an orange reflective safety vest, ambled along towing a broken down bundle buggy.

The buggy contained the following items: i) a clipboard ii) orange construction cones and iii) a small rusted fire extinguisher.

She walked up to C and asked if we were taking the plane. She then officiously checked my "voucher" (a handwritten piece of paper) and advised us that the plane would arrive shortly and then promptly disappeared.

Again C and I waited and waited and sat and sat...I began to wonder where the plane lady went. C suggested that, as she had been wearing her bathing suit, maybe she went for a swim.

Finally out of nowhere a little plane appeared and began to fly alongside the beach. Just before smashing into the cliffs that surrounded the beach oasis, it made a sudden 180 degree turn and descended down to the field like a Stukka dive bomber.

The "airport" authority figure once again appeared out of the ether, and bundle buggy in tow, dutifully placed the orange construction cones in a line to lead us to the plane.

The plane could fit 8 passengers. The pilot and co-pilot sat in front. Two Americans on their honeymoon sat behind them. Their Tico guide next and then C and I.

We taxied back across the field, small rocks smacking the bumping and grinding plane that became airborne just short of hitting the road and the tall palms which lined it.

We then began our flight along the coastline toward San Jose. I finally figured out how the seatbelts worked and then, C and I started to relax, looking down at the mansions hidden in coves along the coastline.

Suddenly the plane dropped like a stone. The stomach churning plummet was accompanied by the sound of a loud alarm which can only be described as 'the siren thing' in "Alien" which told you that "Mother", the ship, was about to self destruct.
The pilots did yet another 180 degree turn and began a dive descent which would, if continued, land us in the ocean.

C behind me, grabbed my hand and began plaintively repeating: "What's going on?! What's going on?!" in a panicked shriek.

I thought it best not to say anything, lest I panic her more.

My reaction was to this particular situation was, how can I say, 'odd': I lulled myself into willing suspension of "belief". I, who usually imagines the worse possible scenario in every situation arrived at the startling conclusion that the pilots must be playing a practical joke on us; they were making us just think that we were going to crash.

I even envisoned the moment where the tension would be relieved: the pilots would guffaw and say: "ha ha ha...this just a little joke we like to play on tourists here in Costa Rica"...

Barring the fact that such "Punk'd" hijinks would swiftly put an end to any airline business, my 'fantasy explanation' was also not borne out by our continued and uninterupted descent.

At the last minute I realized we weren't in fact ditching in the ocean ("Where the hell are those personal flotation devices anyway???!!...Dammit Beth, why don't you ever pay attention to important safety instructions!?) but instead another field. This one appeared to have a semblance of a mud landing strip.

We finally came to a stop next to a very upscale version of a Costa Rican bus shelter: hammocks, swinging chairs and a small fridge full of beer and cold drinks. On hand was "Miguel" , a Tico whose job it was to welcome touristas to the small private air strip which was affiliated with an exclusive high end resort some 25 kms away. The pilots advised us that they had to "check the engine"

The American woman immediately deplaned and quite sensibly advised our pilots that she was not getting back into that plane unless a) an actual mechanic looked the engine in question or b) they sent another plane.

So we sat in the posh bus shelter, sipping cool cokes and waters (it was too early for beer despite the near death experience) and waited for another plane to be sent from San Jose to fetch us.

To wile away the hours, Miguel took us about the hedgerow surrounding the airstrip and there he showed us "loofah sponges". They are a gourd that grows wild in Costa Rica and we spent our time clambering about thorny bushes collecting loofahs to use in our bath and as thoughtful souvenirs for family and friends.

Finally, our "rescue" plane arrived, the sight of which caused us greater trepidation than if we had flown our original 'death plane' back.

The inside of the tiny single prop resembled the interior of my father's 1970 Volkswagon Beetle that our family had driven through Europe, if the family had, in fact, continued to drive said Beetle from 1972 to present day. The fact that the passenger side airplane door would not shut also gave us cause for concern, particularly as it was still unclosed as we began our taxi down the "runway". Finally our uniformless pilot appeared to be some guy they grabbed out of the local cantina, mid-cerveza, and pressed into service to rescue us from our air strip exile: (Ola!...anyone ever flown a plane? Yeah you, Jorge...didn't you use to run drugs?")

Our pilot's pre-heart attack flush colouring, large beer belly and gin blossomed face did nothing to reassure us that he was not going to drop dead mid-air.

Up into yonder again, C and I clutching hands the entire way. We spent the next 20 minutes thinking about the meaning of life, lost in thoughts of our probable doom, our musings punctuated by seconds of sheer terror when we hit turbulence, clouds and at last, the San Jose runway; an experience I can only describe as akin to being in a flight simulator, wherein you the "pilot" fight wind sheers to land your violently listing and banking craft and try to bring it to a halt on the ground.

Now I can see why Costa Ricans always take the bus.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

White Water - White Knuckles

La Fortuna is a small town at the base of a giant, active volcano that looms over the village like Mount Doom. 'Volcan Arenal' smokes, puffs and spews out lava flows nightly. The volcano may well, again, lose its top in an enormous and violent eruption and take out the town (and Catherine and I with it) as it did when it awoke in 1964.

Not content to settle for this remote but possible danger, Catherine decided that we should try our hand at 'white water rafting'.

Off we go to the the San Jose River to kayak rapids in tiny, single rubber boats. I was somewhat concerned as the San Jose River was widely known as home to many, many crocodiles. Each time I would ask a local about crocodiles (which are endemic in Costa Rica) they would assure me: "Not here, but in the San Jose River..."

When I found that we were to be kayaking the San Jose, I asked our guide if any tourist had been attacked, eaten etc. In true Tico fashion, the guide averted his gaze, smiled slightly and replied (with an arched eyebrow): "Not yet".

The guides, rough and ready tattooed Tico men who liked nothing better than adrenaline pumping, near death adventure, were thrilled that we could start our journey on a tributary adjacent to the more sedate, crocodile ridden waters of the San Jose: As luck would have it, the authorities were releasing water from the giant hydro electric dam upstream resulting in a torrent of white water perfect for those who like to live 'large'.

Adding to the sense of impending doom, was the Peter Weir-ish ear-splitting drone of thousands of cycaidas who were drowning out the "very important safety instructions" being shouted at us by our guide in broken English.

As she had failed to comprehend any of the instructions, and, after taking one look at the river, Catherine advised our guides that she was too afraid to go by herself. One guide quickly and chivalrously offered to sit in her seat, behind her, and do all the paddling and steering.

I, in my decidedly unfetching bathing suit, purchased from the bargain bin at "Bikini Hut" in "Shoppers World Brampton" circa late November, was not offered similar assistance.

We carried our craft to the water's edge after using the "facilities" (tall grass) all the while walking cautiously in light of the warning from our guide to "watch out for snakes".

A guide then put my kayak into the drink and, while bracing his entire body against the current in order to remain standing, asked, over the roar of the the water, whether I was "ready to go".
I shouted back "yes" and was released.

I immediately shot down the rapids wildly spinning in circles like a top. All I could recall of the "very important safety instructions" was that, should you fall out of the boat (a very real possibility at this point) never try and stand up or grab anything as you will shatter all your limbs. Instead you are to keep your body ramrod straight and, like some stolid corpse, let the rapids pull you along whilst you wait for the the guides to find you and then throw you a life line.

I soon realized that the "thrill" of shooting rapids is somehow lost when one is backwards the entire time. As I spun down the river, furiously paddling, all I could hear was the sound of rushing water and my very laboured breathing. It brought to mind the scene in "Deliverance" wherein the hapless city slickers flee down rapids under hillbilly shotgun fire, only to find a very dead "Drew" smashed against the rocks in a disturbing position.

At a more calm junction in the waters, I espied Catherine and her helpful guide in their boat resting peacefully against the shore. The guide was piqued that I had not followed him to the side but rather was spiralling rapidly past them, down the river. He shouted at me to turn my kayak around and come over to the side. I, in a panic, shouted back, with some choice expletives, that it was not for lack of trying that I was continuing on my way down the river.

After finally reaching the shore, shaking like a leaf, I was assured that the worst (or class 3) rapids were over.

Later as we rounded a bend, we were greeted by the sight of the bloated carcass of a dead cow, surrounded by a flock of munching vultures. I could only conclude that the hapless cow had been on an earlier bovine "white water rafting adventure" and had failed to pay attention to the "important safety instructions".

While I survived this, our first foray into "adventure tourism", it ruined me for any further such ventures.

Travelling to Monteverde a few days later, Catherine was excited by the prospect of enjoying a famous "zip line tour". Here tourists put on a small harness, atttach themselves to slender wires and race high above the forest canopy from platform to platform without regard to the clear and present danger they face.

Catherine, brave and stalwart woman that she is, did indeed take the canopy trip, even amid gale force winds, all the while securely tethered to an instructor, who did the braking for her, as she was too afraid to go by herself.

I instead, had elected to tour the local cheese factory which, incidentally, is run by pacifist Quakers.