What to Do When You Miss the Bus

How did it happen? I arrived at the bus stop 15 minutes early. It´s a small town, and it´s impossible not to see a bus go by. Perhaps I mistook a word when told the schedule. Perhaps I will practice Spanish more rigorously before I visit again.

So what do you do at 7:30am and the next bus doesn´t depart until 3pm?

1. Don´t panic. If I learned nothing else from The Hitchhiker´s Guide to the Galaxy, knowing this was worth the reading.

2. Ask around about other options for getting to Libería before your plane leaves tomorrow.

3. Yes, you woke up at 6:30am for naught. Get over it.

4. Return to Casa Tranquilo, possibly the best hostel in Costa Rica. With a name like Tranquilo, how can you be otherwise?

5. Talk with the owner about options for later. Graciously accept his offer to call a hostel in Libería so you don´t end up trying to find a place to stay in the dark in a strange city.

Coffee improves many situations.

6. Have a cup of coffee. Chill.

7. Since you left too early for breakfast, enjoy a slice or two of David´s famous banana bread, baked fresh daily. Truly, it´s worth missing a bus for.

8. Blog entry!

9. Chat with other travelers and the people who live here about other places in Costa Rica to visit when you return.

10. Realize your good fortune to have to spend an extra half day in one of the loveliest places on the planet as opposed to a noisy city-ish city.

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It’s A Shore Thing

Ice cream is a crime of opportunity for me.  I don’t think about it often, but if it slinks around in creamy sweetness, I can’t resist.

Since Soda El Crucero kicked me out before I could indulge (silly me for having dinner before dessert, that’ll teach me) I wandered along the beach and found Dos Pinos.

Ice cream joint, Central American style

The smell of this place, like the rest of Puntarenas, is unique. Imagine the scent of a Friendly’s Ice Cream shop combined with backed-up sewage; add delicate Lysol undertones. Yum.

The interior is very New Jersey shore: white tile tables, clanking and clinking prep area, blenders blending, loud soccer game on tv, sun-kissed people chatting happily, the moon’s silvery fingers reaching over from the ocean. All we need is a Springsteen soundtrack.

To order I pointed to a sign featuring an ice cream sundae. Arriving at the table, it’s a lovely thing, with layers of soft, fluffy pink and frothy white goodness, whispering sweet promises of indigestion and stuffed sinuses later in the night. There is a can of condensed milk on the side, possibly a joke on this gringa. However, other patrons have indeed opened their cans and poured it over their ice cream.

El Churchill and a blog entry, por favor. Don't forget the condensed milk.

Vanilla ice cream is on top — perfecto. Smooth and rich, with no need to condensed milk topping. The next layer is a strawberry slushie. A slushie made with large chunks of ice. Okay…an interesting contrast of textures. Which continues with the next excavated spoonful. A lab test might identify this as dried milk, but it could be residual sugar from the higher sedimentary layers.

A theme is developing: a concoction of milk in all its forms. I’m about halfway through, but I can’t go on for fear of a surprise of cheese. Turns out this thing is a local favorite called a Churchill. The Costa Rican substitute for salt water taffy, maybe.

Time to continue down the pseudo boardwalk, checking out the souvenir and tasty treat vendors. Then I’ll head back to my box room and listen to the boss and fall asleep, too full of shore.

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Jersey Shore, Costa Rican Style

All views suck when hungry, tired and in search of the bathroom.

A Puntarenas taxi angel appeared to me to direct me to a good hostel near the bus station, which I need at 7:30 am to get to Monteverde in the morning. He gave the instructions in Spanish, which I actually understood. El señor warned me not to go to Hotel Hellen on the way, it is a chortim hotel. He repeated chortim several times, stressing the importance. Then I realized he was saying ¨short time¨; the light came on. I nodded enthusiastically and he let me go.

Really, what more do you need?

My room is reasonably clean and four blocks from the station. It is an efficient 5 feet by 8 feet, just enough room for a bed, a table, a tv, and a fan.

Puntarenas could be the love child of Newark and Atlantic City, a summer romance with a daring foreign ending. Like New Jersey, there are no genes for street signs. Smells change with every step — cotton candy, garbage, sea breeze, rotting fish, tanning oil, diesel fumes.

Puntarenas Shore, a new reality series on Fox

The sounds shift too. Waves crashing, children laughing. Angry beeps of dueling buses. Slushy vendors tempting overheated beach-goers. Boom boxes drowning out a group of chattering teens.

Soda El Crucero, a la noche

A little eatery across from the beach on one side and opposite the bus station on the other is a magnet for families and young couples before they head home. Small children fall asleep on mama´s shoulder, faces sticky from greasy fries and ice cream.

There´s a mafioso-type vibe at the table next to mine. Two tough guys in matching yellow shirts have a cash box and take care of the waitresses checks. I suspect there is no problem with disappearing silverware here.

The colorful walk to room #28

Upon arrival in Puntarenas I made a hasty judgment about the town. I was hot, tired, headachey and nauseous from eight hours of travel. I hadn´t eaten since breakfast and not seen a bathroom since then either; a blessing in a way, because I miraculously caught each mode of transport for the day in an impossibly seamless way, boat to shuttle to bus.

By minutes I missed the last bus of the day to Monteverde, a cool oasis in the mountains of the Cloud Forest. Which is okay, because otherwise I would have passed right through this home-away-from-home without discovering its charms.

Born and raised in the state, I never became much of a Jersey girl. I may get to the shore once every year or two. But when there, it´s a fine place. Playing in the ocean, walking along the beach, drinking copious amounts of sea water, what could be better? Ah yes, I know, eating fresh seafood with a noseful of ocean air. Heading home exhausted and happy, filled with shore afterglow.

But I never remember these times when the choice comes between ocean and mountain; the latter wins most times.

Puntarenas succeeded in charming me today, although it is, alas, a short enchantment. Tomorrow I head for the mountains.

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The Siren Call of Plans, the Reality of Maybe

Deep in my heart, I know, from experience, that planning is futile. You can have a general idea, but grip too tightly and the pressure turns that which is lively and light into a cold, hard, useless thing.

Yet part of me still wants to create plans, believing they´re diamonds. A shining, glittery plan has as much value as a sparkling gem in life: none. There is no nourishment, no shelter, no companionship, no comfort. It is pretty, but has only false value.

You can leave your plans on the bus, since they do not matter.

Sunday morning I left my jungle retreat on the Osa Peninsula with only a promise of a ride to Quepos, back near Manuel Antonio. Maybe the shuttle would continue to Monteverde, maybe no. Investing energy into plans A and B was for naught: when we arrived in Quepos, the shuttle driver, Alex, pointed to a bus to Puntarenas, and from there I could catch another to Monteverde.

Maybe. He spoke little English, and my ability in Spanish has plateaued at confident misunderstanding.

Kids don’t care about plans, do they?

As long as my nose points north, all is well. This bus is super deluxe: cushioned, reclining seats, wide-open windows, and Funky Town playing on the radio, as good an omen as any for traveling. It´s burned in my brain now, a soundtrack for the afternoon, to use as an antidote for the siren song of plans.

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Remember my impromptu stream crossing after leaving Manuel Antonio National Park surreptitiously by the back gate last week, shunning offers of a ferry ride?

Turns out that dusk is a particularly good time to meet a hungry crocodile at the mouth of the river.

One is always glad to live to see the sunset.

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Viva, Las Vegas!

One of the entries to the magical land of the Osa Pennisula is Las Vegas. It is on the crocodillo-rich Rio Sierpe. The town of this gateway, Sierpe, consists of a pharmacy, a little market, and a few adventura vendors. Las Vegas has the feel of airport-meets-frontier town. Tourists pour in by taxi, bus, shuttle and boat. Coffee and fruit drinks settle the looks of confusion. Which boat? When? Where am I? Why am I doing this?

I´m disappointed in myself. I´ve had enough travel days to know everything sorts itself out: the boat captain knows the routine, the shuttle driver wants to pick up his fare and be paid. There is a system, just one foreign to my experience. If the shuttle goes without me there are other ways north, by bus or thumb.

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Tortilla Flats

My own little place in the world for a moment.

From whence comes a soothing breeze.

$30 for a private room. 10 feet x 12 feet, enough to salsa in the middle if the mood strikes. A huge window overlooking the beach. A fan to catch the salty breezes and send them directly to my nose. A double bed, comfortable, with no bunk above; I can and will stare at the deluxe wood ceiling for quite a time. Added bonus: I can sit up without bumping my head.

Complete with warm water!

And that’s not all. A private bath. A hot water shower (this I will believe when I feel it — show me the hot). No noisy flocks of 20-something girls, not Brazilian, Argentinian, Swedish nor American. Nothing against this demographic, but after so many days of it I need a break.

I feel like this is a reward for every good thing that I have managed to do in my life.


Mi casa en Dominical. Ahhh...

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Always Room for One More…

…Or, Travel Globally, Sweat Locally I must have passed introductory sweating and graduated to intermediate. The bus from Quepos to Dominical takes about and hour and a half. It left at 11:30, the beginning of the hottest hours.

The bus was manufactured by Marcopolo, a popular school bus designer in the US. I recognize their work. Stained, dirty green upholstery. The money the saved by not using shocks was not spent on a/c. But the windows open. Where people have chosen to do so.

It´s 90-frickin´-degrees, the smells alone in this thing could fuel a rocket, and you don´t open your window?!? The official seating capacity is 55 people. Standing room: everyone else in the world! Okay, that´s an exageration. I rummage for my glasses to do some research (only the highest quality writing for you!) 35 passengers on foot are permitted. We started with that many, with several stops in the last half hour. It must be a Costa Rican flash mob alert: “¡Amigos! ¡The bus is full and hot! ¡Vamos!”

Crying babies are endearing in any culture, are they not?

I hope it doesn´t sound like I´m complaining. I signed up for this. Have a local experience and all that. Things have eased up over the last few stops. Enough people got off that everyone is seated. Or there are bodies collapsed on the floor out of my range of vision. We´re on a highway and going fast enough to create something of a breeze. The scenery here is astounding. Jungle-swathed mountains form the background and plantations of palm oil trees line the road, intercepted by maize, banana trees, and other farms.

I am incredibly sleepy. Late dinner, early morning writing. The warmth and swaying of the bus lull my senses. If I sleep there´s no telling where I´ll be at the end of this trip — not terrible, but I´m so looking forward to Dominical, a recommended beach town. A private room for tonight is tempting.

When I went from Playa del Coco to Tamarindo there were a series of transfers to negotiate. Leg 1: Perfecto. I saw a sign toward the next stop, Santa Cruz. Other people at the stop — a dusty, sunny shelter on a highway — confirmed the direction.

Leg 2: Fun. I asked around as we boarded the bus about when to exit. A young woman in front of me spoke excellent English and offered to help. We sat together and chatted for half and hour. Ariela had just graduated and is an English teacher at an elementary school. She spent a year in California as an exchange student in high school, going from zero English to relative fluency in three months. She shared about the frustration of acclimating to a new culture while having limited communication skills. I´ve read numerous accounts of the three-month immersion method to reasonable fluency. You abandon your native language. Study like crazy. Strive to find stituations in which to practice. Voila, you have another language. My new amiga said she had an unusual upbringing  for Costa Rica. It´s not unusual for kids to live with their parents until the elders pass. Not only is there no stigma to it, it´s rather expected. Her parents encouraged her independence and education — her plan is to return to school for an advanced degree, eventually earning her PhD. She told me of her boyfriend, who wants to start a family in the next year. Ariela is in her early 20s  and doesn’t want kids. She said all men in Costa Rica want children; they’re not even engaged and his mother constantly tells her that she needs grandchildren while she’s young enough to enjoy them.

****Bird alert: a toucan just flew by my window!****

This chica displayed a sureness in herself that is rarely apparent at home, and I know it’s not encouraged in women here.

Leg 3: Efficient. Ariela knew a shorter bus route. We deboarded near the middle of nowhere to wait for the next connection. A man informed us it was at least an hour wait. However, one’s friends often drive past the stop and would offer a ride if they did, which occurred as the words left Ariela’s mouth. We went as far as her boyfriend’s mother’s restaurant, where I could catch another bus to Tamarindo.

Leg 4: Rapido. It came along in about 15 minutes, just as I had decided to hitch a ride. And this is why I want to learn to sweat.

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Learning to Sweat

One of my goals for this trip is to learn to accept the heat. When the temperature rises it takes me extra effort to do things, whether it´s using white-knuckle willpower to get out in the midst of the day, or super-human effort to get up early and start the day before roasting time.

Manuel Antonio National Park was the destination today. I did get up reasonably early, on time for make-it-yourself pancakes at the hostel. But then the trees needed a good staring-at (somebody has to do it) and I just started reading a good book last night.

When you get to the park later in the morning, the admission cost increases by a quart of sweat. Much as I´d like to stay here longer, the road beckons and I leave tomorrow; it is essential to go to the park today. Monkeys await.

This is the most popular park in Costa Rica. Meaning it is an excellent park with high ecodiversity, but there are crowds. Loud crowds — the wildlife must need earplugs.

I signed up for a guide, but the tour company had a problem with my ticket to the park, which seemed like a hint to just enjoy it on my own, with my heart instead of my head. Good call — the guide groups were cumbersome and chatty. Solo I could head down interesting trails and stand still for a time, letting the jungle happen around me.

At one point I was warned back from yellow caution tape blocking a trail because of snakes ahead near the stream. But I want to see snakes! Especially a fer-de-lance, a poisonous little pit viper. Sometimes they´re bright colors and easy to see, but they can blend into the leaves on the path. They´re territorial and not afraid of anything. And you´re pretty much toast once bitten, slow-dying, miserable toast. I´m not sure what I would do if I saw one. Ask it to pose for a picture, I suppose.

No such luck on the vipers, but there were many other interesting creatures on the hike. Off the main path to wait. It was like being in Avatar. Many impossibly-colored butterflies flitted past. One had to be five inches across sporting electric blue wings. There were several types of ants of strange shapes, plus jumbo-size wasps and bees.

I went to the end of a trail that had a platform overlooking a cove far below the jungle. It was surrounded by bushes of big red flowers. No one  else was there, and I rested for a while, watching raptors overhead, including a trio of birds with flying silouettes like pterodactyls. Jurassic Park meets Avatar. After a while I was joined by an irredescent hummingbird, who ended up parking on a branch near me. I never saw one sit still so long.

A group came along, scaring away my buddy. But a troop of white-faced monkeys came our way, probably looking for food. Don´t smile at monkeys, because showing your teeth is aggressive. Don´t feed them, because it is dangerous to them. And don´t stand under them, it is potentially disgusting to you.

On my way back there was a younger kid walking in front of me. He was finding wildlife along the way, including a snake escaping into the undergrowth! I only caught a glimpse, not enough for an id. Which is okay, since I don´t really want the last sight of my life to be the open jaws of a fer-de-lance.

The park closes at 4 pm, and I managed to slip around to a cove while everyone else was leaving. I hung out on the deserted beach, watching the hermit crabs´version of fashion week. There were thousands of them scurrying across the sand. There was also a slender crab about an inch and a half across dressed in sand-colored and textured armour.

I found a back way out of the park. Unfortunately, it was high tide and the way out was underwater. So there was an actual reason for the closing time…

There were a couple guys in flat boats offering rides back to the public beach. I figured I could wade across, it was only a foot or two deep. Well, until it wasn´t. But I was planning for a swim before heading back to the hostel.

I lazed in the lukewarm ocean water for an hour, watching the sun set, telling myself that I´d stay just one more minute. The minutes stretch and warp here, twisting around you, rendering walking impossible. Eventually darkness hit, the minutes unwrapped, and it was off to the bus stop and a much needed shower. Sweat is fine and good, but not a great dinner companion.

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Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

The money here is crazy. One colon is worth 1/5 of one cent. 10,000 colones is $20. It takes relatively little to be a millionaire.

So far I’ve been able to keep accommodations to $15 per night. The dorm room at Pura Vida hostel in Tamarindo sleeps 8, is co-ed, and is a 5-minute walk to the beach. There are two kitchens and a covered common area with rocking chairs, games, hammocks, and books. This is one of the tamer hostels in town, with quiet time after 11 pm. It can be interesting: one of my dorm-fellows said she was the only girl a couple days ago with a roomful of party guys. One of them came back one night and proceeded to walk around naked and drunk. I’ll be sure to get pix if that happens. Last night a group came in late late, one of whom spent a good deal of time praising the porcelain god, conveniently located in the bathroom next to my bunk. Sometimes $15 a night costs in other ways.

If you’re into normal hotel rooms, they can be had for $40 to $50 each night for basic services. The resorts are $150 and up for lux digs. I suspect these people enjoy hot showers, which I have not been.

Restaurants, at least in the beach areas, have been pricey. $8 for breakfast, $10 to $15 lunch, and $20 to $25 for dinner. The food has been great — last night was beautifully seared tuna over crisp veggies.

Guatemala spoiled me. The first three weeks were $60/week, private room plus 3 full meals six days a week.  A good resto meal would be $5 and bring enough food for another couple meals. $2 at the open air market would yield salsa fixings for four servings.

The supermarkets here are fun to visit and give a break from heavier meals. Yesterday I bought a banana for 20 cents and an apple for $1 — lunch on the bus. Breakfast this morning featured a $1 papaya.

Entertainment at the hostel is varied. Lots of people from many places, and no lack of conversation: recommendations of places to see, places to stay, activities not to miss. Once everyone is introduced and warmed up, stories come out. Adventure, pathos, love, life. Last night a group of musicians gathered and jammed all evening, and there is someone playing guitar off and on throughout the day.  Sleep seems optional, but eventually I’m tired enough to ignore everything.

Mirrors abound. It´s easy to get annoyed at certain personalities or behaviors, or at the slow pace when you’ve a plan in mind. This could be the most valuable part of the exploration — much information, and much time in which to process it. If I can recognize some behaviors that don’t serve my life, it’s possible to return with even less baggage than I came with.


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