Now I Know The Way To San Jose


MOMENTS BEFORE LANDING IN DENVER, COLORADO I real­ized with stunning clarity that I had acci­den­tally put the four of us on a plane to San Jose, California instead of San Jose, Costa Rica.

It was a horrifying realization, the scope of which I could not fully take in, but which My Royal Consort, always the logistician, immediately took hold of. Once we had touched down, he and Youngest galloped off to the baggage claim to capture our backpacks before they went even further west, while Oldest and I found our way to the first sympathetic United Airlines agent we could find.

When I sheepishly confessed my colossal error to the agent, she deemed our sit­u­a­tion so seri­ous that she quickly ushered us behind the desk into a spe­cial inner sanc­tum called, ominously, The Recovery Room.

Initially, I remained on my feet in the Recovery Room, feel­ing like a short-term vis­i­tor who would soon be on her way, but as time passed, I real­ized that my stay there was going to be a long one involving great personal sacrifice, so I took a seat on a worn out office chair and tried to truly take into my heart the wisdom of the inspirational posters that festooned the walls.

As I meditated on “Patience” and “Attitude” while the agent fever­ishly worked the phones on our behalf, the full mag­ni­tude of my care­less­ness began to coa­lesce around me. At that time, I still didn’t know if My Royal Consort and Youngest had been suc­cess­ful in cap­tur­ing our back­packs. It was Christmas week, but more urgently, we were fly­ing Continental, which was once a great air­line before it merged with United to form an unholy alliance that has ren­dered both airlines barely functional.

It would seem counter intuitive that the moron who booked a flight to Central America via Denver would have the nerve to criticize the airline, but I can explain.

In the past, I have performed dazzling feats of trip planning. From my office, I have rented cars and booked hotel rooms in Spanish, secured puddle jumper flights through Panama, organized bus rides, and planned expeditions that have all gone off without a hitch, but in this case, my downfall was caused by multitasking. To my credit, I had tried to interest my friend, who is a travel agent, in booking our flight, but she was unavailable. Her words to me were, “you are more than competent to book the flight yourself.”

Knowing that I was more than competent, I got to work searching for flights, found some that were within the price range my friend had mentioned, entered all our passport information, and then took a break to pull something out of the oven and feed the horse. When I returned, the page had expired, so I started over without realizing that all flights default to the United States.

The fares to California were within $10 dollars of the fares I had seen to Costa Rica, so I kept on going, attributing our weird trajectory south via Denver to the vagaries of airlines. The fact that I had entered our passport information reinforced my perception that I was booking an international flight. This was in September. After purchasing the tickets, I saved them all into a folder on my desktop and didn’t look at them again.

It wasn’t long into my tenure in the Recovery Room when my sus­pi­cions were con­firmed. The path lead­ing the four of us out of this mess was going to be paved with money. Lots and lots of money.

Linda, the woman who was try­ing to help us, care­fully laid the ground­work. First, I was made aware of the scarcity of flights to Costa Rica over Christmas, a phe­nom­e­non commonly referred to as supply and demand. Then, the cost of replac­ing the tick­ets was sort of hinted at, the expla­na­tion for the insanely high fare being that United and Continental were “as one” except when weren’t.

I con­sid­ered my options and found that I did not have any, so when the time came for me to pay, I offered up my credit card and then put my head between my knees to keep from passing out. Suffice it to say, that the charge to my credit card could have covered a semester at SUNY Plattsburg where Oldest is a student.

After Linda dropped the bomb about our new fare, I became tran­scen­dent and thought about all the hor­ri­ble things that go on every day all over the world. “tragic,” I thought to myself. #firstworldproblems.”

Before we left the Recovery Room, Linda reached into her desk drawer and gave me a paper enti­tled “Voucher For Reduced Rates For Distressed Travelers” so that we could get reduced rates for accom­mo­da­tions in Denver. We had begun our jour­ney at 3:30 am in Boston and by the time we left the Recovery Room and were reunited with My Royal Consort, Youngest and our backpacks, I would hap­pily have paid any price to lie down on anything horizontal.

When we finally got to the Hotel for Distressed Travelers a full 12 hours later, the only thing on my mind was getting drunk. Being the Hotel for Distressed Travelers, the staff had anticipated this need and gen­er­ously offered a free 2-hour happy hour. Before I could fin­ish my first free drink, the bar­tender had thoughtfully poured another. By the end of the ses­sion I was resigned, philo­soph­i­cal and even a lit­tle cheerful.


The fol­low­ing morn­ing, we awoke to a nice Colorado snow­storm, which when com­bined with a few other mys­te­ri­ous air­line fac­tors, made us miss our flight to Costa Rica.

At this stage, my blunder had been corrected by the blood letting in the Recovery Room, and everything that conspired to screw us up following the snow storm was solidly the fault of the airline.

Throughout this saga, the four of us had adopted a Zen-like, if not bovine, atti­tude about every­thing, but when the agent in Houston told us to tell our trou­bles to cus­tomer ser­vice via their “online por­tal,” tem­pers flared. As he was recit­ing his litany about how this messy mon­e­tary busi­ness was just too rich for his blood, I was busy for­mu­lat­ing my part­ing shot which went some­thing like this: “I sug­gest you go look for a job with Southwest because this fucking air­line is going under.”

I’m pretty sure I said “under,” but My Royal Consort swore I said “down,” which, given the state of airline security these days might have been a poor choice of words. I deliv­ered this pro­nounce­ment and then huffed off to shoul­der my back­pack while My Royal Consort pre­tended not to know me.

On the third day after departing Boston, we finally boarded the Continental flight for Costa Rica. Because the plane was packed, we were sep­a­rated from each other and I found myself seated between Mr. Creosote and a Costa Rican gentleman with a more mod­er­ate body mass.

The gigan­tic man to my left, who already had the aisle seat, had lifted the armrest between us so that the bor­ders between our two seats were unde­fended. Unless I wanted to press my leg against his hairy, sweaty leg, I had to keep my knees primly squeezed together and my hands folded in my lap. I exco­ri­ated him in my head as a meat guz­zling, glut­to­nous, Texas Republican.

As it turned out, we soon faced a common enemy and we became allies.

There were many, many planes ahead of us wait­ing to take off. In the forty min­utes or so that we taxied around the run­way I began to detect a dis­tinctly fecal odor. At first it was sub­tle as it mixed with the other odors that tend to accu­mu­late on a packed 737.

By the time we had taken off, I was fairly cer­tain that the odor was of the intesti­nal vari­ety, and with my lim­ited mobil­ity I tried to spot the likely cul­prit. I assumed it was Mr. Creosote, yet despite my fully blos­somed hatred of him, I was forced to exon­er­ate him and impli­cate a more likely suspect.

What ulti­mately lad me to the sus­pect was the fact that the Costa Rican man to my right had squeezed him­self into a ball so that the col­lar of his pull over could cover his mouth and nose. Clearly then, the smell had to be com­ing from the seat behind us. A furtive peek between our two seats con­firmed my sus­pi­cions. A beau­ti­ful, wide eyed lit­tle boy, maybe 4 years old, stared back at me angelically.

His assault was sus­tained and sys­tem­atic to the point where the gen­tle­man to my right was audi­bly whim­per­ing, and the Texan to my left was just heav­ing him­self out of his seat and stand­ing in the aisle each time the little angel unleashed a fresh volley. I had no other option than to fetch out an extra shirt from my pack and tie it over my nose and mouth ban­dido style.


We did even­tu­ally land in Costa Rica and were thrilled to see our back­packs on the carousel. Our jubi­la­tion was short lived how­ever, when mine failed to appear.

Our final des­ti­na­tion was the Caribbean coast near the Panamanian bor­der. Our friend, Saskia, had hired a dri­ver to take us those last 200 kilo­me­ters. By the time we actually set foot in Costa Rica, the dri­ver had made two fruit­less trips to the air­port over the previous three days. We no longer knew if he would still be there once we cleared cus­toms, so our plans for get­ting out of San Jose to Punta Uva were a work in progress. Incredibly, he was wait­ing for us, so we aban­doned the back­pack project and piled into the car.

The prospect of spend­ing vaca­tion with­out the few crea­ture com­forts that I had so care­fully packed just killed me. I hadn’t brushed my teeth in two nights, and my jeans were so filthy they could have walked to Punta Uva on their own. The idea that my pack would find its way to me on Christmas Eve day strained credulity. Tears were shed.

Our dri­ver, Ernesto, got us through rush hour traf­fic in fairly short order with only one set­back caused by a drunk man who was nap­ping in the mid­dle of the street. This wasn’t a sleepy one-way city street. It was more like a major artery lead­ing out of the city. A cop and a few other guys stood pro­tec­tively above him, chat­ting fra­ter­nally, while rush hour traf­fic wended its way around them. This is why I love Central America and the Latin American ethos. By the time we had cleared that snarl, I had for­got­ten about my miss­ing back­pack and was jok­ing around with Ernesto.

Initially, Ernesto seemed like a rea­son­able fam­ily man who was fully invested in his life and the idea of see­ing his off­spring grow up, but as soon as we had navigated through the pea soup fog of the moun­tains, his true col­ors emerged.

I have done a lot of dri­ving in Central America and have been thor­oughly ter­ri­fied, but this drive was the most fright­en­ing expe­ri­ence I have ever had in a car. This jour­ney had all the ingre­di­ents for dis­as­ter: fog, rain, cav­ernous pot­holes, ane­mic brakes, non-existent sus­pen­sion, machismo, trac­tor trail­ers, exces­sive speed, and game after game of chicken. As I reviewed our estate plans in my head, I won­dered where our assets would go if we all perished at once.

As I have learned on other trips in Central American, it is best, when dri­ving, to go into a tran­scen­dent state. We have endured 9-hour bus rides through the moun­tains in Mexico where the roads are dotted with crosses, and the wrecked skele­tons of cars are strewn in deep gorges.

After a few trips through Mexico using pub­lic trans­porta­tion, we even­tu­ally upgraded to VW Bugs. There is noth­ing like cruis­ing along at 120 kilo­me­ters an hour in a VW with four peo­ple in it and hit­ting a pothole, or, stand­ing on the brakes to avoid a don­key. Mexican dri­vers favor dri­ving with­out head­lights because the say they can see bet­ter at night with­out them.

In Panama, there are no signs and no traf­fic lights, but the roads are fairly decent.

In Costa Rica, the roads are mis­er­able and the ter­rain dra­matic. There are moun­tains, curves, and nearly all the bridges are sin­gle lane. When we were there seven years ago, My Royal Consort had to tra­verse a steep gorge using only two par­al­lel wooden planks while I cowered in the passenger seat.

There is only one crappy road from San Jose to Punta Uva and the Panamanian border; there­fore, every­thing from hot sauce to toi­let paper has to take this route. Truck after truck arranges itself into a hell­ish car­a­van along the nar­row road, which inspired our dri­ver to spend the bulk of his time hov­er­ing in the cen­ter line, wait­ing for a chance to move up a few spaces with­out hav­ing a head on crash.

There is no doubt that the drive from San Jose to Puerto Viejo is a drag, but it is hardly an excuse for vehic­u­lar homi­cide. In addi­tion to my fear for our own safety, I was wor­ried about our role in a Christmas tragedy. We passed per­ilously close to chil­dren on bikes, entire fam­i­lies on foot, hap­less dogs, and a few drunk peo­ple who hap­pened to be on the road, yet mag­i­cally, we all sur­vived.

There is some­thing completely incon­gru­ous about the gra­cious Costa Rican ethos and the fero­cious reck­less­ness of the drivers.

In the end, we did make it to Punta Uva and were greeted by our friends and some of their friends who had been fol­low­ing our saga on Facebook. They plied us with food and wine until we set­tled down enough to fall asleep in our beds with the sound of the surf a few steps away.

Falling asleep in our comfortable bed, in the breezy, Caribbean-style house by the sea made everything so much better after our hellish journey. I slept like a baby and didn’t wake up until I heard My Royal Consort whisper in my ear “wanna see an eagle eating a toad?”

Of course I wanted to see that.

I was getting myself ready to go into town to buy some clothes when the Christmas Eve Miracle occurred. Almost as rare as Immaculate Conception, blue moons and shooting stars, a dusty pick-up truck appeared at our house, and in it was my backpack. My wonderment and joy was limitless as I danced a wild fandango in the road and hugged the startled driver, stopping myself just before giving him a big kiss on the cheek.

None of us had the fortitude to get into any kind of vehicle or attempt any kind of excursion, so we took it easy and entertained ourselves by walking the beach, drinking beer and playing card games with our friends, Los Dos Terries who manage the house we were renting. This was really the ultimate in Christmas Eve fun.

We had a vague idea we were going to a buffet for Christmas Eve dinner but we were not prepared for what we actually ended up eating. The owner of the restaurant was a South African expat by way of England, so he really understood the idea of Christmas comfort food and calories. I had no idea how he managed to pull it  off, but somehow, he and probably a lot of staff, managed to conjure up Brussels sprouts, creamed onions, and stuffing, platters of turkey, beef, chicken, and ham. He  and his staff made real cranberry sauce, bread, and salads, as well as a few local favorites like plantains. It was a masterpiece. I felt like I had been invited to a potluck supper thrown by very talented home cooks.

Before we left I had been subsisting on a diet of crackers. This wasn’t intentional and had everything to do with a vicious case of nerves. I no longer remember what had me so worked up, but the lead-up to the trip, and then the journey itself, conspired to keep me from eating anything more challenging than crackers for about 6 days. Having someone prepare a Christmas feast for us was heaven sent.

Our friends introduced us to their  neighbor, Wendy, who is from Wales and has lived in Costa Rica for many years. She joined us for dinner and graciously invited the kids out for  a Christmas Eve pub crawl through the town of Puerto Viejo.

As parents, it is best that we simply assume that Wendy and her lost boys went to Midnight Mass and then went caroling and had hot cocoa. As we know, sleigh rides without snow can get out of hand which explained why Oldest came home, minus his shoes, and slept until 3 in the afternoon. Those of us who weren’t poisoned spent another quiet day playing cards, swimming and looking at birds, which was just the right thing to do on Christmas day.

If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to share it on the social media of your choice. We are having a new Christmas adventure far from home and awaiting the end of the world. See ya’ll in 2013!

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2 thoughts on “Now I Know The Way To San Jose”

  1. Do you think humor writers attract this kind of adventure, so that they will have an interesting story to tell? Anyway, this is hilarious and I’m glad I was am to read about it and not have to endure it myself! Merry Christmas!

    1. Such a good question and thank you for the kind words. Right now we are preparing for this year’s trip, and well, I did something illegal. Concern about unpleasant interaction with the law was expressed by My Royal Consort, but then he remembered that a stint in an Arizona prison would, at the very least, give me writing material.

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