Costa Rica Blog
April 28, 2008
Costa Rica Part I
I have returned to the flow of information and I have come to the conclusion that you just recycle old news here in the States and the focus is on trivia while real and substantial problems get ignored. Well they don’t get ignored, but the pandering solutions offered are only intellectually satisfying to a 4-year-old, blue-collar workers, or Republicans who are already rich and think the marketplace is working just fine. When I left for Costa Rica the Reverend Wright thing was dying out. When I came back it was déja vu. But with my mind refreshed from no politics or news for 6 glorious days, I wondered what political office Reverend Wright was running for and what do his views have to do with anything? It is like a giant distraction to the real issue of who is more likely to defeat John McCain and bring real change to our political scene. This is really the only issue for Democrats since on policy, Barack and Hillary are almost twins. But that is what a trip to a place where access to the phone, Internet, and newspapers (not to mention TV) are unavailable. What they care about down there is their community, and living in a sustainable environment. What an interesting concept.
My trip was to the Osa Peninsula (Península de Osa) on the Golfo de Dolcé which is in the far southwestern part of Costa Rica jutting out into the Pacific Ocean. You get there by flying to the capital of Costa Rica, San Jose, and then either driving (8 hours on very difficult roads) or flying into a little jungle runway strip (gravel) at Puerto Jemenez, a small town about 18 km from where we stayed. Either way is an experience in itself. Most of the accommodations down there are either eco lodges or in my case, Tierra de Milagro, a yoga retreat. This was once a very isolate area that supported little commerce so there was limited Costa Rican (Ticos) population. Back in the heyday of stupidity, entrepreneurs slashed and burned the area (beautiful rain forest jungle) and as one of the older immigrants down there said, “planted cattle”. There are still some cattle farms up toward Puerto Jimenez, but most of the jungle has been restored. The area is settled mostly by Americans, Austrialans, Europeans who have either bought land for a vacation home or to set up some form of eco-tourism business. Ticos are finding jobs down there and slowly moving in, but most live up in Puerto Jimenez where there is power and more services. Dollars and Colones (Costa Rican currency) are used interchangeably anywhere in the country. It is still one of those places where one dollar is worth more than one Colones (about 1:500).
My express purpose for going down there was to enjoy the friends I had meet down there last time, take my son, Andy, down there to experience both the jungle and the surfing, and to just have a wonderful visit with my daughter who also met us down there and is the one who found this wonderful place. Living accommodations are sparse by American standards yet wonderful by atheistic standards. We lived in a small cabana with jungle all around. There is no hot water, and communal bathrooms. It gets dark there at 6 pm so a headlamp is a must. The main lodge has light, but limited as all power is produced usually by solar power with a backup biodiesel generator when it is necessary. Food is prepared at the large main meeting place (Casa Grande) with fresh fruit in the morning (Costa Rica is the primary source of pineapple and bananas for the United States), Costa Rican coffee from 6 till 9 in the morning, breakfast at 9:30 (eggs, salsa, bread, beans and rice, fruit, granola), and then lunch is at 12:30 with dinner about 6:30. A typical day for me is to get up at first light (5:15) after the howler monkeys had finished their serenade and the birds had taken up the melody, walk down to the beach to see what flora and fauna there was to see, get some coffee, read my book, and then round up my kids (to adults who can really surf) head to the beach at about 7 for a couple hours of morning surfing. Then breakfast, some exploring or a long hike, lunch (if you were hungry), then a nap in the hot part of the day, and then surfing till about 5pm, shower (cold water was so refreshing), take the beach route to Martina’s (local bar) for a few beers, then dinner at 6:30 with whoever is there, conversations and bed by about 9 pm. For those who come there for the yoga there are usually two sessions, one in the morning and one in the late afternoon. We were between groups so we just visited with owners, Brad and Nikki, who are probably two of the nicest and most interesting people in the world, the staff who comes from all over the world, and the locals who drop by all the time. There is a spa, masseuse, along with the yoga so you can get a total body experience if that is your thing. Mine was proving I wasn’t 62 and could surf and the verdict on both is still out.
One of my favorite people down there besides Nikki and Brad is Angus, the cook. Angus is a Scot who was training to be a chief in Europe, decided to take a break before taking the plunge of owning his own place and the 18 hour a day, 7 day a week grind of the restaurant business, and as he put it, that was 7 years ago. Now he cooks and surfs (everybody surfs). He uses all local and healthful ingredients, and everything is fresh and wonderful. I never ate so healthy. Angus is like almost everyone you meet down there who lives there. They were just adventuring around and they found a life style and place they just couldn’t leave. Everyone is focused on sustaining the environment and making as little impact on their surroundings. They care about the earth and they do something about it. The wear down there is quite formal, with board shorts and sandals, nothing else. When you are packing, you need two board shorts (one to put on that is dry after surfing), sandals, some T-shirts for special occasions, and two pair of shorts, one for coming and one for going. Also bring a pair of sneakers (you can wear them on the plane) for hiking up the stream to the waterfall. That’s it. Well, a hat, sunscreen, and a rash guard wouldn’t hurt. Now you are starting to get the drift. It is a beautiful place where you can just let the serenity of your environment soak into your psyche. More tomorrow on flying in and out of there, or said another way, should we use air travel instead of water boarding to torture enemy combatants.
April 30, 2008
Costa Rica Part II
The onslaught of the news was again just too much for me as the reporting focused on the same minutia of the campaign that has no relevance to the dire straights this nation is in. Hillary was riding around with some blue collar bozo in his truck touting her approach to waving the gas tax for the summer, while John McCain was explaining to us how the free market is going to solve the healthcare cost issue. Meanwhile Michelle Obama was on the airways discussing Reverend Wright and his looney tune comments. Any of this have any thing to do with our real problems? I would dedicate this whole blog to how Hillary is pandering to the lowest common denominator with her and John McCain’s plan to suspend the gas tax for the summer, but Tom Friedman, in his column on Wednesday, did a superb job (Dumb as we want to be). This kind of pandering to America’s lack of a backbone to look trouble in the eye and tighten our belt is why we are becoming a 3rd world country. And nothing demonstrates our descent to this status better than the state of air travel in this country.
Consider this: Would it be more effective to water board an enemy combat for vital information or threaten him with a long flight across the country in a middle seat with a couple of our weight challenged citizens on either side of him. If that were my choice I would spill my guts immediately. “Yes I shot Lincoln at the Ford Theater, I just look young for my age. Please don’t make me sit in that torture chair while the person in front crushes my knees by reclining their seat. I’ll say anything you want me to.” As I prepared for my trip to Costa Rica, one has to plan very carefully to avoid the pitfalls of air travel. The trip out was fairly routine. I had my noise canceling headphones at the ready, appropriately plug into my Ipod which for some inane reason has to be off when you really need distraction. As I waited to board, I scan the crowd and became incredulous at the size of many of my fellow travelers. I am not talking about just a few, but the majority were obese. You know that box they have to put your bag in to see if it will fit in an overhead bin? Shouldn’t they have one for people’s butts so they don’t spill over into your seat? Then there was the array of carryon that you know was not going to fit into the overhead bin without serious pounding, not to mention the damage to your stuff that was the proper size. By the way, do some of those baby strollers people have now-a-days come with power steering?
This flight was a red eye (departed at 12:15 am). So the plan is to get some sleep. Fat chance. The announcements went on forever, lights on, and a few fellow travelers gaily talking at the top of the their voices. My fellow row mate who had the window seat had a brilliant solution. She asked for a blanket and then put it over her head like a burqa and that was it for her until we landed. Maybe she was Muslim. Reminded me of when I was in survival training in a simulated POW camp. They put a bag over my head for hours breathing my own foul breath and tolerating my own insufferable body heat while putting me in uncomfortable stress positions. Welcome to airline flying.
But the real fun began on the return journey. First we had to catch a puddle jumper from Puerto Jimenez to San Jose in Costa Rica. Now for these flights they weigh all your luggage, ask your weight, and then make you get on the scale (so don’t lie). After takeoff we had an engine problem and made an immediate landing back where we started meaning I was going to miss my connecting flight to the States. Airlines don’t talk to each other anymore so you had better be ready to deal with your problem directly. I called Continental and got a recording in Spanish with the one instruction to push 9 if you wanted to hear the conversation in English. Nothing happened. I guess they put that instruction in there just to make you think this was going to be an intelligible conversation. I finally got a person on the line who agreed to speak English but apparently could not hear in English. To make a long story short, because I missed my flight I would have to pay a $400 penalty and would have to resolve it at the San Jose airport when I got there and I will need to bring proof that my flight was delayed. So I asked her if she wanted me to lug in the engine and she hung up on me. So finally after a three hour delay it was off to San Jose.
As we landed in San Jose, I said “Let the games begin”. I had no idea how true this was going to be. We raced into the terminal, paid our airport tax only to find that at 4pm there was no one from Continental either at the counter or in their offices. So I called the Continental number again and they knew nothing about my problem or the first call, that staff was surely at the airport, and I would have to go through the whole thing again, and oh by the way the flights for tomorrow were fully booked. But the bottom line was the same that only the airport staff could resolve this problem. I found out from another airline agent that they are all gone until 7pm. Let’s see, you are in a foreign country, have missed your flight home, and there is no one to talk to about options. I wasn’t going anywhere until I could get this resolved.
When they did finally return, they told me it wasn’t their problem and the delaying airline was responsible, $400 please and no flights tomorrow. So I went to Taca, which is a major airline down there that owns the regional service (Sansa) that delayed us and pleaded my case. They said maybe they could put me up for the night. I persisted and they said they would take it up with Continental. I assumed that meant today, but I think I was mistaken. Meanwhile my trusty son was negotiating with the Taca agent to see if there were any seats available for their direct flight to Los Angeles. Well there were, but only in 1st class, and that would be $1900. Now this nice lady must have either liked my son or me or was just sick of the both of us, so she called her supervisor over and would sell us the seats at the coach rate for $800. I figured it would be two days to get out on Continental, and with living expenses, and the $400 fee, we were in the break even range, so they ticketed us with minutes to spare and we left Costa Rica after a mad dash through the airport to make our gate. Thankfully the customs guys quickly processed us through. I wish I knew that Taca agent’s name because she was the only bright spot in what was becoming a long day.
Now getting to LA was good for Andy, since his car was parked there and he could drive on down to San Diego, but I still had to get to Sacramento. I texted my daughter (do you know what roaming rates are in Costa Rica?) and asked if she could arrange the earliest Southwest flight for me in the morning. So when I got to LAX she had me on a 6:25 flight the next morning. I was so excited, another night in an airport sleeping at the ticket counter in those really comfortable seats with your baggage draped all around you so it can’t be stolen. Now LAX has added an extra-added attraction to their torture routine called customs. When you arrive in LAX they pack you like sardines into a bus and transport you to customs. It negates the whole advantage of flying up front in First Class so you can be first off and into customs. Must be their idea of socialized immigration processing. So there you are lined up with hundreds of others, but the others all have some sort of special problem like no knowing the name on their passport or failing to get the information on the customs form filled out. The line moves inexorably slow. Added to that were computer problems or what appeared to be computer problems. You usually know they are having a computer problem when the immigrations clerk and two others stand around staring at the screen each taking turns trying to make something happen. Finally you get in, but you still have to pick up your luggage for screening, which after all this time had not arrived. It finally did, but not on the carousel they were announcing. I think it was an intelligence test. If you figured out where your luggage was you would be allowed into the country.
There was one final treat. I decided not to check my bag with Southwest so I could make a quick get away in Sacramento when I got there (Their baggage service is notoriously slow). Okay, I admit it. I was tired and I had forgotten that I had lots of stuff in my bag that was not going to pass muster at security screening. But what they made me throw away still puzzles me. Of course I had a full shaving kit, so they took out everything over 3.5 oz and tossed it along with a great hot sauce I bought down there called “Sweet Jesus”. I just didn’t care at that point. I just wanted to go home. But when I got home and unpacked, they left me two knives and a wine bottle opener. Let’s see, lathering up the flight crew with my shave lotion, or incapacitating them with habanera hot sauce on corn chips is a threat, but using a knife or corkscrew to do physical damage is not a threat? But we haven’t had a terrorist incident since 9/11 so using Bush logic, this must be working.
So flying has descended from an experience to a trial by fire. Our country has descended from a can-do nation, to a can’t do place unless it’s free. And the focus in both is on all the wrong things. It was a perfect reintroduction to how things are going in this election. I am now ready for incompetence and the candidates and the media are not letting me down. “Let the games begin.”
May 2, 2008
Costa Rica Part III
One of the things that a trip to a remote tropical rain forest does is that it clears your head and opens up your eyes to what is around you. We in America think we are somehow special, that we have a manifest destiny. In the past we have used this belief to focus our energies and to motivate ourselves to do great things. Lately we have used that belief to rest on our laurels and do nothing expecting great things without sacrifice. We are involved in a war in Iraq that requires no sacrifice from the average citizens either in serving in that war or paying for it. We effectively have no energy policy and we decry $4/gallon gas when average gas prices in Europe and the rest of the industrialized world exceeds $8/gallon. We have no plan for healthcare in the future. We have a Congress and a whole Washington elite that is totally our of touch with America’s problems and is subservient to money interests. We have no plan to revitalize our infrastructure, or for that matter a vision for our future. What we do have is some minor tinkering around the edges while promising no new taxes. What ever happened to no pain, no gain? We are a country that so presumes our natural superiority and expects everything for free that we have gotten in the habit of thinking small.
Consider this about what we in the United States consider a little third world country (the Ticas would challenge this assertion): Costa Rica has the highest standard of living, highest literacy rate, longest life span of any Central American country, and they have been a democracy since the 1800s. Their average life span is 77 years, same as the United States and they have universal healthcare. The literacy rate in Costa Rica is 96% with compulsory schooling through secondary education. The primary language is Spanish, with a large portion of the population speaking English. They disbanded their army in the 1950’s and have developed a vibrant economy based originally on bananas and coffee, then adding pineapples, and now transitioning to manufacturing and ecotourism. Sure Costa Rica suffers from some inefficiencies and corruption, but I ask you, what do you think our own Congress is when it passes a Farm Bill that in a time of food shortages, pays rich farmers not to grow and hurts small farmers? What is really astounding about Costa Rica is their concern for their natural resources. They produce all their own electricity using hydroelectric plants (no petroleum) and are a net exporter of power. They have potential oil resources off their coast but have chosen not to develop them to protect their fragile and unique environment.
Costa Rica has some of the most beautiful rain forests in the world that abound in rare and endangered species. The Costa Ricans know this and they have taken major steps to protect their rain forests. What really amazes me is how eco-sensitive everyone is down there. Everyone is focused on carefully managing and preserving the natural beauty around them, growing their own food, and minimizing their carbon footprint. After you have been down there awhile you start thinking like they do and you start wondering what happens to even that candy bar wrapper you brought with you. Almost everyone I met and spoke to had this passion for the environment and the beauty around them. They were all focused on creating a life style and businesses that were environmentally self-sustaining while creating opportunities for the whole community. We could learn so much from them. And in this environment was one of the things that we in our business first lifestyle could learn, they all depended on each other and live in real communities. They all understood their interconnectiveness and it was fun being in a real community. Sure there are problems and problem people, but they all knew that in the end, they depended on one another and it was like a breath of fresh air. You pull up one and you pull up all.
We in the United States have become a me-first community and the reality that we are all in this together is lost in the complexities of our lives. So we eschew taxes if we can’t see a direct and immediate benefit for ourselves. We have a two-thirds majority requirement for bonds and funding bills so that the one-third me-firsters can immobilize our society. But reality is a tough master and slowly the impacts of our selfishness are starting to come home to roast. We have had some of the cheapest gasoline prices in the world (except for the Middle East and other oil producing nations) and our refusal to tax those costs appropriately is coming home to roast when we have no energy policy for the future, out infrastructure is crumbling, and we have no real alternate rail system which we could have been investing in.
I could go on and on, but the Ticos are teaching us something and we ought to pay attention. Our world is a very fragile place and if we love it, we need to invest in it to preserve it. We have waited so long that now the required sacrifices are going to be large. But the reality of global warming and our impact on our natural resources is becoming too hard to ignore. Ecosystems are collapsing around us and they are starting to impact our daily lives. What we need now is leadership that will tell us the truth and challenge us to make the sacrifices for the future. If we don’t get that, Costa Rica, here I come.