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!