Sunday, June 12, 2005

Honeymoon: Escape from Malpais

[Previously: Malpais, home of the disgruntled expat]

On our fourth day in Malpais, we were once again woken up at an ungodly hour by hammering and a poorly-executed, but nonetheless very enthusiastic, vocal performance. While lolling around listlessly a couple of hours later [it was, once again, raining], we finally vocalized what we'd both been thinking: that staying in Malpais was a sure-fire way of dooming the rest of our honeymoon. Once we'd agreed that this particular elephant was in fact in the room, we started hatching schemes to rescue the week we had left. After thumbing through our guidebook for a while, we decided that the safest bet would be to go back to where we spent Christmas '02, and had a great vacation, namely Matapalo, on the Osa Peninsula. This triggered a round of frantic phone calls, as we tried to arrange accomodations in Matapalo and a flight from San Jose to Puerto Jimenez for the following day. Once we'd arranged all that, it was time to scramble to catch the next ferry. While Christina quickly packed up our stuff, I had the unenviable task of telling the lady running The Place that we were going to depart as abruptly as we'd arrived, and that she'd only be getting 4 days' worth of money out of us instead of the 8-10 days she was probably counting on. [To her credit, she took it reasonably gracefully and was quite prompt about refunding us the extra money once we got back to the US].

We left Malpais at 1pm. The next ferry was at 2pm and 40 miles away, over mixed dirt and asphalt two-lane roads, which meant that I had the perfect excuse for driving like an absolute maniac, especially on the dirt part of the stretch, fishtailing our car around corners in full-on rally style and leaving a mile-long trail of dust behind us. Christina, meanwhile, grabbed the "oh sh!t" handle, held on for dear life and only occasionally whimpered in fear.

We got to the ferry at about 1:55pm, so we thought we'd made it. Unfortunately, we'd neglected to take into account the fact that the ferry had a rather limited capacity for cars, so there was no more space for our car [or the 30+ other cars that had arrived before us and run into the same problem]. The next ferry wasn't until 6 pm, so, there we were, sitting on a ferry dock in the humid Costa Rican heat, with 4 hours to kill and nothing around except a little cantina. Let me tell you, 4 hours is a looong time when you're sweaty and sticky, have already read most of the books you've brought along [and are sick of reading anyway], have had a crappy few days, and are generally disgruntled. As a minor comfort, the cantina did sell cold drinks and ice cream, so we were at least able to gulp down something cold in between periods of sitting around sweating and staring into the distance morosely.

At some point while waiting for Godot, we decided it'd be good to make a reservation in a hotel in San Jose, so we'd at least know where we were going to sleep that night. After consulting our guidebook and carefully picking out a hotel that was supposed to have hot water [a rarity in Costa Rica], I set out to navigate the intricacies of the Costa Rican phone system and make our reservation. This apparently simple task had me stumped for a good 20 minutes because a) I don't speak any Spanish beyond "los pantalones del gato" and b) the notion of a phone menu that allows you to choose what language you want instructions in hadn't quite caught on yet. I'd call the 800 number on the phone card, listen to the instructions [in Spanish, hence totally unintelligible to me], get to the bit where the instructions stop and there's that sort of "Ok, your turn, press some buttons now" expectant pause, key in the phone number to the hotel and be rewarded by another stream of Spanish telling me that I'd done something wrong [at least, I assumed that's what it was telling me, since the call clearly wasn't going through]. After trying that out a few times, I started to slowly do a bit of poor man's cryptanalysis and look for what seemed like significant phrases in the instructions and one phrase that kept coming up was "tecla numero ". I guessed that meant they wanted me to press some magic number, but I for the life of me couldn't figure out what it was. Finally, in defeat, I called the number listed for help and, lo and behold, there was somebody there who spoke English. After I'd explained my problem, she told me the, in retrospect, blindingly obvious answer: I had to press '#' after entering the phone number. That, of course, was the one button I hadn't pressed, being misled by the word 'numero' into thinking that I was supposed to enter a number, not a symbol. The moral of the story: if you don't understand a language, don't assume anything. Alternative moral of the story: when in doubt, press every button you can find until something happens. Unless, of course, it's the Big Red Button.

When the ferry finally arrived, we got on with no problems [it was actually possible to buy tickets in advance this time] and had an uneventful ride over to the other side, arriving around 8 pm. We now had an 80 mile drive back to San Jose in front of us. Under normal circumstances, this wouldn't have been a problem, but of course the circumstances were not normal. It was dark, we had to go over a mountain pass, there were lots of trucks on the road and the road only had 2 lanes. What this meant was that we basically spent 2 hours stuck behind trucks going 15 mph, belching out insane fumes, crawling up the mountain. Overtaking was impossible -- there was a lot of traffic coming the other way, hurtling down the mountain insanely fast, the road wasn't illuminated and there were always several trucks in front of us. I did overtake a couple of times but realized that I was toying with our lives, and that it wasn't really worth it, but that didn't lessen my frustration any. At one point, I got so frustrated that I yelled "F!ck" as loudly as I could, with no warning, totally startling poor Christina, who then had a minor breakdown of her own and demanded that I stop the car and let her out. Since we were in the middle of nowhere, it didn't take much to persuade her that this was an unreasonable request, but the upshot of all this was that our tempers were pretty damn frayed when we finally got to San Jose.

When we arrived at our [very small] hotel, around 11 pm, it looked like it was closed for the night. However, hammering on the door for a while finally resulted in the appearance of a frail, elderly man who'd apparently drawn the short straw and gotten night duty. After dropping off our luggage in our room, we headed out to find something to eat, since we hadn't had a decent meal all day. The only place that was still open was a little dive decorated in rather eclectic fashion, with a mixture of surfing and football [ie soccer] posters enlivened by the occasional wildcard Shakira poster. At this point, though, we were so hungry and tired that aesthetics weren't high on our list, and even hygiene had lost some of its importance -- while we were eating, a cockroach scuttled across the floor and our sole reaction was to look at it bleakly for a couple of seconds, look at each other, shrug and go back to eating.

After wolfing down some greasy arroz con pollo, we headed back to our room, anticipating the pleasures of a warm shower. Ever the gentleman, I let Christina go first. Two minutes after she'd gone into the bathroom, I was treated to a flow of invective that had approximately the following canonical form: "@@@#$!@# piece of sh!t #@$@# shower, the @#%$#%!# water is !@#$!@#*&(^& cold !" When I went in to check on her, it turned out that not only was the bathroom another monumentally idiotic construction that resulted in water all over the floor, but that the @#$@#$%# water was indeed $@#$@ cold. Sighing, I went downstairs to fetch the guy who'd let us in and informed him of our problem. He came upstairs, tried some percussive maintenance by banging on a couple of things with his flashlight, attempted to communicate with the hot water gods by dint of a complicated Morse code sequence of opening and closing the cold and hot water faucets for varying periods of time, held his hand under the water with a hopeful air and then finally informed us with a resigned shrug that there was no hot water, only $@#$@ cold water.

We were starting to feel a bit ... unlucky.


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