Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Letting Go…

…is easy, but having it all yanked from under you is another story. A story that will come a bit later…

The day’s adventure began with the manager of our seedy hotel shouting something at us from outside our door. Again, we hadn’t a clue as to what it was, but he shut up and disappeared when Big Dog asked “Que hora?” It’s hard to believe I do so well with my nearly nonexistant Spanish in Mexico!

The streets of Alajuela were buzzing with activity. Shops were opening, sidewalk vendors setting up… Too many belching diesel vehicles were a blot against the “pura vida” touted by the tourism board.

We cabbed back to the rentacar office, got our ugly Toyota Yaris with manual shift, and hit the highway with only a rudimentary map of the country. But, if Big Dog is the Natural Born Driver, I am the Natural Born Navigator. I don’t need no stinking map! My built-in GPS will find our way!

Getting the car on Highway One was a feat in itself – forcing ourselves into a roundabout with no traffic signs and buzzing vehicles everywhere – but once on the road, you could, potentially, drive all the way back to California. We were not going that far north, but Guanacaste, the region we were heading, is near the Nicaraguan border, so north we went, traveling on the “spine” of Central America. It’s the continuation of the Continental Divide, nearly the narrowest point, here.

The hills of San Ramon, outside of Alajuela, were verdant with coffee plantations, banana tress, ferns, vines and lovely tropical plants. Green and shrouded in mist, it’s a coffee commercial come to life! You expect to see Juan Valdez emerging from the bushes. It was all making me salivate for a good cup of joe.

CR was just shimmying out of her rainy season, small drizzles coming down here and there. It’s cool but jungly and I am captivated by trees I have never seen the likes of. Trees with long, wavy, shiny-smooth trunks and branches that looked like Grace Jones and Naomi Campbell, dipped in silver, engaged in a slow, sensual dance.

I was surprised and a bit disappointed to see the sides of the road cluttered with billboards. It’s a very commercial country, I guess. But the houses are similar to those I’ve seen in rural Mexico: brightly painted cinderblock homes covered in corrugated sheet metal. The sheet metal moguls must be rich men in this country! Almost every roof is corrugated metal. What must it sound like during the rainy season?!

Just before noon, we pulled into a roadside restaurant for coffee and an early lunch. BD got a casado with “beefsteak” and I had an arroz con pollo. The casado was a not a casserole as we thought, but a giant plate with fried steak, fried egg, white rice, steamed squash and fried plantain. Mine was a surprisingly bland, greasy chicken fried rice with french fries and a macaroni salad.
“Mmmm. Carbo load!”
The coffee was, disappointingly, instant coffee.
“All over Central and South America, if you order coffee, you usually get instant. Probably Nescafe,” explained Big Dog. No wonder he bought stock in Nestle long ago!
“But why? When they have all this great coffee?”
“It’s all exported.”

I’m sure there are places now that serve real coffee, unlike when BD was last here (in the mid-70’s) but it wasn’t at this roadside rest stop.

As the road descended further, it got a whole lot steamier. And there were more and more billboards for condos and resorts. We’re ruining the country! I wailed. We, meaning visitors from industrialized nations. We’ve seen all too many idyllic tropical paradises destroyed by rampant, careless tourism. First, backpackers and others “discover” a place. We don’t think we’re responsible for the destruction of a beach or an island because we travel “within” the economy. We don’t need tourist class hotels or restaurants, don’t need silly tourist oriented “activities.” But I’m beginning to think we’re really to blame because we spread the word and then more and more people appear. The locals begin making money from the visitors. More and more money. More money than they could imagine. $$$ signs light up in their eyes. Peaceful relationships become strained – between the locals and visitors, and among the locals themselves because some will be better able to cash in on tourist dollars than others. Next, they start building more and more upscale accommodations, followed by “resorts.” They put in airports so people can fly directly – no more long, hairy bus rides! It really goes to hell when foreign development appears. Foreigners appear with money to buy property. Prices skyrocket and while some get very rich, others can no longer afford to live here. Resentment, bad vibes and crime usually follow.

“It was great here in 1973,” Big Dog kept saying.
I’ll bet! When anything south of Mexico was a big unknown among most North Americans. When most people couldn’t imagine going south of Acapulco. Those days are long gone. The coastal areas of this country are all overrun with gringos of all sorts – from the dreadlocked kids to the geriatrics. There are resorts for every sort of gringo and gringa.

At the Liberia turnoff, we found a shopping center with banks and stores and a Jumbo Supermercado. It was busy, packed with cars getting in and out. We slid into a slot nearly vacated and wandered into the supermarket. For the number of cars in the parking lot, there were few shoppers in the supermarket. Odd.

Loaded with staples and goodies for our six week stay, we came out to a giant downpour. It was raining so hard you could hardly see. People were jammed underneath the awnings and there was confusion everywhere. We quickly threw in the groceries onto the back seat and continued toward the coast. Now, there was even more new construction. New buildings, lots of real estate offices, billboards advertising so much more to come – all signs of a tourist induced land boom.

As you get closer to the coast, the road narrows and gets kinkier. Little shacks and shops pop up. It looked like rural Philippines.

You can tell the locals are trying to cash out on the land boom. People with large lots have already sold out to developers, but now, even the local schmo with a tin roof shack is selling his tiny plot because none of them can believe these tourists are crazy enough to spend that kind of money, but, hey, while the insanity continues…let’s get our hands on some of that crazy money!

“Juan! Dump those pigs! We can sell that pig sty to those loco tourists!”

We didn’t realize we passed our condo until we spot a sign further up for Phase 2 of the development. It’s a strange little complex with a strange ghost town feel. Strange, because it’s not the ghost of days gone by, but the ghost of what’s yet to come. A handful of workers are working on a building next door and the hills are littered with construction projects.

Are we hanging out here for a month and a half? I’m not feeling very confident. Six 2-story buildings, each with 4 units, corral around a pool like a circle of covered wagons. There was no one in the pool and aside from a couple of security guards, the complex looked deserted.

Inside the unit, it’s not bad. Modern kitchen, all new furniture…not at all the funkiness we were used to. The whole complex felt very sterile, except for strange insect casings on the floor. We wondered why our friend bought this place.

We hauled in our groceries, first. While I got those in the fridge, Big Dog went out for the luggage in the trunk of the car. He was already on the way back, empty handed, when I went out to help.

“Did you already bring in our stuff?” he looked at me quizically.
I didn’t understand why he’s asking. “No… I just brought in the groceries…” Like, duh?! Like, you think I can haul up the other stuff in one go?
He opened the trunk for me. It was clean and…absolutely empty. Say what?! That’s impossible!
“Gone,” he said.
“Everything? Even the spare tire?”
“No, the spare tire and jack are still there.”
How could it be? The car was always completely locked or within our sight! In fact, even as we took in our groceries, after pondering for a brief second, I locked the doors. But, there it was. The trunk, as empty as when we inspected it this morning.

So now, EVERYTHING. And I mean EVERYTHING…except for the clothes and shoes we were wearing, Big D’s wallet (in his pocket) and my little purse (slung across me) was gone. G-O-N-E. Gone.

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