Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Getting Out (of LA)

There’s a light drizzle as we touch down in San Jose, Costa Rica, after two long but uneventful flights. Since we waited til the last minute to book these flights there were no more aisle seats and Big Dog’s been fidgety even before we board.

We’d been able to pack our supplies and clothes for our six-week stay into our respective backpacks and computer bags. They were stuffed and heavy with books and clothes and graphic supplies and my little traveling kitchen (never leave home without those long cooking chopsticks!) and my “studio-in-a-box” – a tackle case with recorder, digital converter, cables, professional mic and great headphones. No, we weren’t traveling light, at least not for us, but we packed well. So, instead of a shuttle or a cab, we were able to take the city bus from our condo to the LAX transit station, then a short shuttle to the airport.

The immigration process in Costa Rica is simple but long. There are planeloads of tourists, after all. I am a bit taken aback by 1) Russian Blondie who tries to cut in front of us – I have to belt her back, and 2) all the posters telling tourists that “It’s illegal to have sex with people under 18.” What kind of country is this? I never knew it was a magnet for pedophiles!

Once outside, there is a bit of Manila. Lots of people hustling. Hotel? Taxi? Hotel? Taxi? And as many stinky diesel vehicles as 20th century Bangkok.

We had befriended a fresh-faced young lady from Nebraska on the last flight – a film major grad, no less – and offered her a ride to her hotel in Alauela.

“My parents made me book a hotel since the plane was arriving late.”
Smart parents.
“I found this really nice place. I’ll bet they still have room there, too, if you want to try it,” she added.

We shuttled to the rentacar office, in a gated, security-manned complex shared by Denny’s and the Hampton Inn. I was surprised to see the thickness of American influence here – from the planes filled with Americans, to the chain hotels, fast food franchises… Quite a change from Mexico, where you’d expect to see more, not less, because of geographic proximity. I guess geographic does not equal cultural, social or political. Just look at how different the Japanese, Chinese and Koreans are from each other!

As I suspected (and told Miss Nebraska – “we have a rentacar booked, but we’ll see if we actually get it…”) Big D got angry at having to pay “mandatory” insurance on top of the daily rate and when he found out it included TODAY (already close to midnight) he told them we’ll be back in the morning – maybe – and we piled into a cab.

“Too bad it’s after dark and you can’t see anything,” Miss Nebraska commented, as the taxi wound through tiny streets, rollercoastering up and down some hills.

When we finally got to the hotel, Miss Nebraska’s friend and the hotel staff herded her in, eying us suspiciously. There were apparently no more vacant rooms here and when Big Dog asked where there might be another hotel, the staff just waved to his right. Crap. We quickly waved goodbye to Miss Nebraska and pack muled down the dark and deserted streets of Alajuela.

This was not Asia. There were no lit up signs anywhere.

“Aren’t you glad we opted for backpacks?” I asked Big D as I jumped off another steep curb, making sure I missed the deep puddles next to it.

He’s carrying the same green backpack that’s traveled the world since the late 70’s. Mine is the one he bought for his pre-teen daughter around the same time.

After several blocks, we stopped.
“We can’t just wander around aimlessly like this! We could be walking forever!” huffed Big D.
“Look! There’s someone!” I pointed to an old man, coming down the empty street.
“Donde esta un hotel?” we asked. Big D had to repeat it a few times.
“Hotel!” He finally got it and began rattling off in soft, slurry Spanish that was impossible for me to understand. I am used to the Spanish that people in the state of Jalisco, Mexico speak. It’s a crisper, better-enunciated Spanish. This Costa Rican slush was difficult for Big D as well, and he actually SPEAKS it. So, after asking Old Man several times, he only had a vague clue as to what the guy was saying, but we followed that clue into the darkness.

“Are you sure he said ‘this way’?”
“I could hardly understand what he was saying!”

Several blocks later, we found a slightly younger man, but by the time we realized what state he was in, it was too late. He’s as drunk as a skunk, making no sense (in any language, I’m sure) and now has enlisted another drunk buddy to help us by following us and shouting incomprehensibly.

Sheesh. Wandering around cluelessly in a strange town, stalked by drunks. Great.

After a while, we were at a park (good sign! Lots of things are around parks!) and even better, there was a small police station at one end.

They point us in another direction, but this time, several blocks later, voila. A “hotel” sign.

The door led to steep slippery steps that took you up to a grated window. Only when we got there did we realize what kind of hotel it was. Ladies of a certain profession were in varying stages of intimacy with their respective “friends” in the lobby. THAT kind of hotel. But did we care? Not at midnight in Alajuela, that’s for sure. The price was right, the room way in the back that the toothy manager showed us looked bug-free enough and it was quiet. No blaring mariachi music here! No roosters or televisions either. So, we plopped down our bags, went to the lobby to buy a couple of beers (ladies and their friends were all gone by then.) We were tired but it looked like the beginning of a fine adventure. I was happy to be in a new place.

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