Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Costa Rica Alternative Spring Break Trip (part 1)

Last Thursday evening I had a sudden craving for airport sushi. By a lucky coincidence I was AT the airport. Eleven intrepid adventurers from Caltech were off to Costa Rica for a week to look at strange animals and do some volunteer work as a Caltech Y Alternative Spring Break.

As I munched my slightly stale imitation crab California role and stared across the cavernous check-in hall of the Tom Bradley Terminal, I made eye contact with a strikingly glamorous face. About 40 feet tall, she seemed to be spruiking diamonds or perfume or something. All at once, I was struck with a familiar feeling of 'forever again', or almost oppressive nostalgia for the timeless present. For some reason, airports are a really good place to feel stuck in a time warp. They have not changed as far as I can see in the decade or so I've been aware of them, and in that moment I could have been 100 years old, eating the same food, breathing the same air, wondering if I needed to purchase some expensive perfume.

Fortunately my tiny travel bag was already completely full, the feeling passed, and somehow I had slipped smoothly back into a travel frame of mind, and correspondingly became extremely grumpy as I realised I was once again in for disorientation, exhaustion, weird food and yet more experiences that are difficult to integrate into my own psyche, let alone anyone elses. Incidentally, that's why all my travel stories (this one included) are complete fabrications. ;P

That's not to say travel isn't overflowing with opportunities for amusement and hilarity. As an example, years and years studying science has allowed me to perfect the art of sleeping while seated, my head motionless while hovering uncannily in space. We scudded along the edge of a different sort of space as we followed the great circle south over Baja California and past a series of perfect volcanic cones. Sadly, none of them were erupting. 

After a short break at El Salvador, we reboarded the same plane. The previous crop of mainly hispanic passengers was replaced by a new bunch of mostly moneyed and liquored American holiday makers, new decor, and a new smell. If the television advertisement for the attractions of Guatemala had not lagged at precisely the same points as on the first leg, I might have been fooled despite being in the same seat.

Landing in San Jose (Costa Rica, not Silicon Valley), our token responsible adult C found his old friend and driver extraordinaire J, who pulled up in a shiny new Toyota minibus. The buses passenger door opened on the wrong side, however, so we loaded our luggage through the window. We requested a lunch sufficient to cancel out two previous airline meals and J did not disappoint. We parked by an unassuming ramshackle roadside diner in Alajuela, an affluent suburb to the west of the big smoke. We unholstered our Spanglish dictionaries and cast caution to the winds and were duly rewarded with an extraordinary selection of food, including some of the best beans I've ever eaten. 

The bus zoomed south towards the Pacific coast. The road twisted like a shoelace between impossibly lush fields, over crags, and through canyons. On one side, the 'old' road, one lane wide, was at least twice as wild and three times as narrow. On the other side, an old narrow gauge railway followed our progress to the surf. Later I was saddened to learn that the railways are largely defunct. The corridors, however, are still extraordinary. In between these sights paddocks were marked by a dense thicket of fence posts, all of which had sprouted. Unlike Pasadena, where a faulty sprinkler is the only difference between green and desert, tropical growth was everywhere. Locals shook their heads and said it was drier than it had ever been.

Friday afternoon, the banks close for the weekend, and some for the whole following week of Easter. We piled out of the bus in the perennially rough town of Quepos and went looking for a place to change our greenbacks. I joined a queue for an ATM and giggled hysterically as the Australian exchange rate poured colones by the thousand into my lap. With an exchange rate of 500 colones (ie Columbuses) to the US dollar, I anticipated spending somewhere between Vietnam and Mongolia. I was in for a rude shock. I rounded a corner and after smiling my ultra-innocent smile to two heavily armed guards was ushered into a spacious and air conditioned bank where a few of my companions were avoiding using their credit cards on dodgy foreign networks by exchanging cash directly.

We managed to dodge half a dozen glassy-eyed meth addicts (both local and imported) and drove a few more miles into the park, where a few pre-existing and quasi-pre-existing hotels existed to cater to the foreign and affluent domestic tourist market. We checked into our hotel, an expansive beach side low rise with an even more expansive fellow at the desk, and as one mind switched to beach clothes. For me this amounted to switching to my other set of clothes. When you have only two pairs of pants, choosing your clothing is really straight forward. The beach was a perfect arc of warm sand and warm water about 2km long. For whatever reason, the students in this trip were mostly fitness obsessed undergrads who immediately decided the best thing would be to run to some exposed rocks pummeled by the surf and to climb them. We spent the remainder of the day clambering on stuff, looking for crocodiles, and running along the beach until finally it was time for dinner.

The next day, C, with whom I was sharing a room, thoughtfully woke me at about 4 with the alarm-o-snore. Not wanting to lose a single minute of precious time, I went back to sleep only just long enough to get to the park entrance at the moment it opened. This day I went alone - the rest of the crew opted for horse riding on a ranch in the mountains. Walking into the park, I struggled to see the animals therein for the crushing presence of one particular 'advanced' species of monkey. Their distinguishing characteristic was a peculiar custom of wearing shoes...

Fortunately, they were organised into tribes of about 20, each arrayed around a sacred optical device. Each sacred optical device had a high priest, to whom tribute was duly and frequently paid. His job was to locate the sacred objects of desire with his telescope and then allow his acolytes a quick peek. In such a way I was able to spot the arm of a sloth a few hundred meters away before fleeing the noise. A side track branched to the left. I took it. It branched again, I took the less tracked one. Soon I was almost alone in the jungle. The humidity condensed on my eyelids. Not to worry - walk for a few minutes, then sit quietly until the cool returns. If you sweat too much, you'll ruin all the fun. Before long I came to a sign in Spanish that I think said "only fearless and highly competent hikers past this point". After checking over my shoulder I ducked onto a series of paths with a soft bed of leaf litter. Before long I was alone in the forest, with only the sounds of the surf and lizards skittering along the floor for company. At once I slowed down and relaxed. I opened my eyes and looked around. I followed trail after trail through the wilderness. In such a way I crisscrossed the park several times through the course of the day, while keeping contact with the maddening crowds to a minimum. I saw many, many awesome animals. Monkeys, sloths, a paca, a coati, innumerable lizards, geckos and iguanas, a bright green snake, dozens of birds, fish, frogs, hermit crabs, raccoons, and so on. 

In the heat of the day I made my way down to a beach with a family on it. After emerging from the brush, I took a group photo for them and then settled down to eat my balanced lunch of corn chips and water in the shade of a lemon tree. I counted the period of a seiche wave that periodically flooded the beach or else completely exposed it. From where I sat I could see a beach closer to the park entrance completely infested with people, though for the most part well behaved. A couple of American blokes showed up and one told me that this was the unofficial nude beach, especially in the off season. Noted. At some point I felt a few lemon leaves brush my perfectly coiffed hair and looked up to stare into the face of cheeky monkey who was just dropping in to share my lunch. Fortunately I understood that processed food is poisonous, only I had access to the sort of medical help necessary to survive eating it, and thus kept it all to myself. On my way out, I saw a family of monkeys drop in from a palm tree onto a branch and start grooming each other. Later I saw one catch a lizard and proceed to eat it.

Sooner or later the beaches emptied and I supposed it time to leave the park. I took a dip in the ocean and returned to the hotel to meet the rest of the crew, who had been horsing all day. We all rushed to take photos of the incredible sunset that shifted through an exponential number of shades of pink. B, K and I then exploited a small window of time before dinner to sprint back up the beach and, unable to read in the dark, sneak back into the park to look at some animal eyes with my flashlight. Just as B and I reached the part I knew there'd be raccoons scavenging stuff, we heard and saw some people through the dim light. I didn't want to get busted by rangers, so we slunk into the shadows and kept an eye out. They were speaking Spanish and walking our way. They didn't see us until they were right on top of us, at which point they thought WE were rangers, after which we had a good laugh. Turns out they were camping in the park to avoid paying a fee in the campground on the outside! I was surprised so few people did this, seeing as there was zero enforcement.

The next morning I had a look around town before breakfast and leaving. There was an alley full of tourist trap shoppes, stuffed to the rafters with caramel coloured wooden trinkets, epoxy sculptures of lizards, engraved stuff, and of course thousands upon thousands of pipes - nearly as much variety as Venice Beach, and considerably more tropical in aesthetic. I've seen a LOT of tourist souvenir shops but nowhere have I seen a greater disconnect between the wares (which clearly echo the expectations and preconceptions of the customers) and the actual lifestyle and aesthetic of a place. I nearly expected to see lizard themed babushka dolls. They would have been cool, actually.

We left the Galapagos air and returned to the big city. For a country with 92% hydro electric power and a real shot at carbon neutrality by 2020, Costa Rica has a real problem with vehicle emissions, to the point where, taking a photo, you had to wait a few seconds after a bus passed before attempting to focus the shot through billowing clouds of smog. We were ushered inside the structure of our voluntourism organisation, Maximo Nivel (or Maximo for short). A slick operation that did a mix of teaching, teacher education, and volunteer organisation of all stripes, and a decent side of organising tours through their sister company Transleo, it seemed to be staffed exclusively by incredibly chipper foreigners from all over the Americas. One of them pointed out, positively bursting with excitement, the presence of not one but two staircases to the second floor.

After three hours of mostly pointless briefing we were ushered onto our courtesy bus for the 3k drive to our host families. Five of us were greeted by M, our host (grand) mother who ushered us into her guest wing, complete with laundry area, separate kitchen, and multiple bunk-bedded bedrooms. I inverted my bag and terrified my companions with the spontaneous generation of a full closet of clothes and gear. I took advantage of the distraction and fled to the bathroom with my towel and a supply of impossibly viscous shampoo that sometimes took hours to pour out. 

In a foreign country, one often has no idea what to expect when one enters a bathroom. In Britain, there is no such thing as a hotel with a functional hot water system. In Mongolia, there is no such thing as a bathroom. In Japan, you have to open the shower door to bend your knees enough to wet your head. Costa Rica seemed reasonable. Inside, the shower, however, there was only one tap. Looking upwards my slight trepidation at a week of cool showers was obliterated by the most visceral fear I've felt since breaking a hold while free-soloing on the 28th of December 2005. Armed with the knowledge that I'd since listened to the complete recordings of Enrico Caruso, and therefore had substantially less reason to live on, I took a deep breath and appraised the situation. A metal pipe jutted from the wall at head height. On the end of the pipe, a giant plastic pear covered in occult symbols had been attached. From the top of the pear emerged two thick electrical cables. These in turn vanished into twin blobs of disintegrating electrical tape, from which emerged another set of cables. These ran back down the metal pipe before disappearing inside a 110-240V transformer on the wall. I could assess the relative current because the number of windings was directly visible. The transformer in turn was wired into the lighting circuit. This fact I acertained when, standing outside the shower with one hand behind my back, I turned on the water. At this point the transformer's hum underwent an abrupt change in pitch, like a semi-trailer shifting gear. The lights in the whole house dimmed and flickered but, incredibly, stayed on. From the pear came a sound like a boiling kettle, and from its bottom dribbled a stream of luke-warm water. Seems legit. 

I got on with showering. At the point where I had completely lathered up, the water pressure dropped abruptly, the water flow cut off, and the heating element cut out to avoid boiling dry and catching fire. The lights went back up, the transformer went back to purring. This, of course, I figured out later. At the time, I was certain I had finally experienced the functional equivalent of electro-convulsive therapy and my only thought was whether patients in mental asylums were similarly covered in soap before procedures. Oddly enough, the following day I got an opportunity to find out.

To be continued...

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