The Island Life

I remember watching the flames oozing out from the storm sewers as we drove along in our cab to the small grid of streets in Managua that were considered safe for tourists — safe because of the heavily armed police and guards at every corner. This trip, roughly seventeen years ago, was not my idea.

Due to the fact that so much of my former life as a professional type was spent in rental cars, flights and hotels, the last thing I ever wanted to do with my free time was head back to the airport. My travel for work was not exotic, unless your definition of that term includes destinations like Elk City, OK or Baton Rouge, LA. It was, instead, a lot of waiting, short flights in small planes and more driving than I care to remember.

So why was I in Managua, Nicaragua? The answer is simple. My bride tracked two things very closely: 1) my frequent flier balance, and 2) any specials to exotic (no, actually exotic) locations where we could use those miles. We were in Managua for the night because our connecting flight to the Caribbean coast left in the morning.

As I sat in the cab, watching the flames reaching out from the storm sewers, I tried to remember what I knew about this trip — a personal / vacation trip where I had, as usual, not participated at all in the planning. I remembered a few things:

  • We were going to an island.
  • We were flying to Nicaragua because Continental had a special involving frequent flier miles.
  • Whatever went wrong was going to be laid squarely at the feet of my bride as this was all her idea.

I leaned forward and asked the cab driver, in broken Spanish, “Why are the sewers on fire?”

Without missing a beat, he replied, “The sewers are full of methane gas.”

I squinted at the rubble all around us where a city used to be.

“What happened to … everything?”

He again replied matter of factly, “Well, there was the earthquake, the civil war and, of course, the hurricane…”

I rested back against my seat and turned to my bride, who only smiled as a reply. I was in deep, and in reality I had only myself to blame.

With this as a backdrop I can attest that I do empathize with people visiting Pura Vida who seem to have no idea where they are, or why they are here. I have, particularly in the past, been that person.

On the other hand, technology in general and the internet in particular has made some giant leaps in the past twenty years. It’s no longer necessary to force yourself to read a guidebook. A quick search for your destination on a search engine will provide no end of information, including basic geography.

It’s with our latest and greatest technology in mind that I find myself wanting to document some of the queries and statements I have received over the past couple of years from tourists regarding Costa Rica. Some of these have come face-to-face. Others found their way to me via e-mail. In they order they occurred to me, they are:

  1. Do you ever get tired of living on an island?
  2. Is it really cold since you’re so close to Peru?
  3. Do people speak Spanish there?
  4. You must get really good Mexican food.
  5. Can I use Mexican pesos there?
  6. Do they accept credit cards there?
  7. Is Guanacaste open?
  8. Can you get in touch with my sister for me? She lives down by Los Quetzales National Park.

I believe a quick look at a globe or any map which includes the Americas quickly resolves the first couple of queries. No, Costa Rica is not an island and, no, we’re neither all that cold, or terribly close to Peru (I think people asking this question, which has been posed in several variations, have confused Costa Rica with Chile because both start with a c).

I have received the Spanish question a number of times. I usually just go with a quick “yes” and leave it at that, fighting the temptation to ask follow-up questions.

No, we do not get good Mexican food — mostly because San Jose, Costa Rica is about 1,200 miles from Mexico City as a crow flies, and over 1,600 miles and numerous border crossings if you feel inspired to make the drive. This, minus the border crossings, is roughly akin to the distance between New York City and Dallas. And, while both NYC and Dallas honor the US dollar, neither city (much like the country of Costa Rica) is likely inclined to accept your cache of pesos left over from your last trip to Cancun. The differences in the cuisine between NYC and Bid D are best left to those who opine on such things, but I would sum it up by saying one of these things is not like the other.

I am sure that there are many remote places where credit cards can only be used to pick a flimsy lock. Here in Pura Vida we have a population of roughly five million people hosting, officially, over 2.5 million tourists each year. Yes, your credit card is accepted — though you can often strike a better deal with cash.

I received the query regarding Guanacaste after Tropical Storm Nate. To be clear, Guanacaste is a state. This is the equivalent of me asking someone if New Jersey is open (I think it is, but perhaps someone can check for me and report back).

The last one was also inspired by Nate. I had to look up the park, which I had never heard of, and found that it is roughly a five hour drive south of me. This phenomena is, I believe, linked to the perception that all of us in this small country know one-another. In this particular case I pointed the questioner to the Park office, and silently wondered if the sister was deliberately hiding from her kin.

I have no doubt that I will continue to underwhelm on the advance knowledge front when it comes to our travel. I can’t quite balance the fact that I took the time to read Mr. Rutherford’s 1,000+ page tome on London, a city I have yet to visit, yet still find myself much happier letting my bride handle all travel research and planning. I suppose that it could politely be termed a personality quirk.

I also confident that I will continue to receive odd queries about Costa Rica, how our olympic downhill ski team is faring, and whether or not the chimichangas here are as good as the ones back home. I will do my best to answer these questions, reminding myself that he who was surprised to find himself in Managua does not have the moral high ground in terms of tourist questions.

P.S. I quite like Nicaragua, though I’m in no hurry to get back to Managua.