It was raining when I arrived in Costa Rica. The rain engulfed everything; only the glimmer of headlights and the sound of car horns could penetrate the downpour. The presence, or absence, of anything else was left to the imagination.
“Mucho lluvia,” I said assertively to the taxi driver as he wound his way through the sodden streets of San Jose. This was my second time in Costa Rica, and I’d been hitting Duolingo hard in preparation. The green owl had informed me I was 52% fluent, which had done wonders for my linguistic ego.
“You are English?” the taxi driver replied, in English.
“Sí,” I replied, a little affronted. I had thought my pronunciation had been spot on.
It didn’t take long to get to the hostel.
“Mucho lluvia,” I said to the guy behind the counter.
“Do you have your reservation?” he answered in annoyingly perfect English. Nobody wanted to talk to me about the rain.
Jetlag caught up fast as soon as I sat on the bed. Well, it was 6pm, and the outside world was too damp and dark to venture out again. Might as well call it a night.
I did a spot of retrospective internet translation just before turning off the light. It was ‘mucha lluvia’, it turned out. I’d forgotten my gendered articles like a fool.
I got to the bus station bright and early the next morning. The rain had eased off to be replaced with a fearsome wind, sweeping debris from the kerbs more efficiently than any street cleaner.
There weren’t many people around at the depot, which was odd. I approached the person at the ticket office.
“Una balleta para Golfito, por favor,” I said. “One ticket for Golfito, please.”
“No hay autobuses hoy,” she replied. I took a moment to process – embarrassingly, it caught me by surprise that she hadn’t answered in English. No buses today? At all? Maybe I’d misunderstood.
“¿Cuándo es el autobus?” I asked. “When is the bus?”
She stared at me.
“No hay ninguno. La tormenta, ¿sabes?”
I was lost. ‘Tormenta’ was a new word to me, but it didn’t sound very friendly.
“Pero, er… quiero una balleta.” “I want a ticket.”
She gave a frustrated gesture. “¡No hay ninguno! ¡Nada! ¿Entiende?”
I did not ‘entiende’, but I felt I was getting the gist. Seemed like perhaps there weren’t any buses running today.
“¿Mañana?” I asked hopefully. “Tomorrow?”
She shrugged and muttered something that I couldn’t catch. I suspected it wasn’t especially polite.
With little else to do, I sought out breakfast. It was whilst I was munching on a cinnamon roll in a cafe that I glanced at a TV set in the corner of the room. The news showed roads running with mucky water, mudslides, flattened trees. The words ‘TORMENTA’ and ‘HURACAN NATE’ scrolled at the bottom of the screen beneath dripping reporters.
It was beginning to click. There was some serious weather going on, and looked like the roads might not be at their most passable. As if on cue, as I left the cafe it began to rain again. In Costa Rica, rain does not start with a little drizzle and gradually build; it’s more like suddenly turning on a power shower. Despite my raincoat I was drenched within minutes. It was going to be a soggy sort of day.
Once I had retreated to the hostel and was back in the blessed realm of WiFi, I brought myself more up to speed. Hurricane Nate had passed through the country the day I had landed, and had not been subtle about it. Even though San Jose suffered barely a scratch, I later learned that it had been the costliest natural disaster in Costa Rican history. How lucky I was, in retrospect, and how ungrateful; moping about a disaster that had taken livelihoods and lives, and to me was only an inconvenience. Yet in the moment I was ignorant of this, and was only looking out for number one. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
The next morning, the woman at the bus station gave me much the same answer as the day before. It did not put me in a good mood. I had places to be. I could hear the ecolodge calling: the incredible and intricate rainforest, the wonderful beach, and most of all people I cared about that I had not seen in a long time. To have travelled halfway across the world and be stuck here felt very frustrating.
It was when I was in the hostel dorm venting to a fellow stranded traveller by the name of Dorian that an opportunity presented itself. Dorian was Costa Rican, but had been visiting family in Mexico and was now trying to get home. His cousin was going to pick him up that night and take him home to the city of San Isidro, which was a lot closer to where I wanted to be. Apparently the roads were sufficiently clear now that cars could pass, even if buses could not. There would be space in the car, if I wanted a lift?
I very much did want a lift. This seemed ideal. The only catch was a 1am start, and the drive would take a good four hours, but hey, I was jet-lagged anyway. And Dorian seemed like a lovely guy.
At 3am, I, Dorian, and two Costa Rican women to whom he had also apparently offered a lift were standing on the kerb. Having dutifully set my alarm the night before, I had been awake for two hours for no good reason and was a bit grumpy already. Then our lift turned up.
Dorian and his cousin – and Dorian’s cousin’s friend, who had for some unknown reason come along for the ride – greeted each other jubilantly. My attention, however, settled on the car. It was a small four-seater hatchback and there were six of us, with bulky bags in tow. There was no way we would all fit.
“We will, we will,” said Dorian dismissively when I voiced my doubts. “Easy.”
We did all fit, sort of. Me, Dorian and the two women ended up crammed into the two back seats. It was not comfortable, and it was certainly not safe. This was a stupid idea, I told myself. But I really did want to get to the ecolodge. I could grin and bear it for four hours.
Once we were all in, we roared away from the kerb. The streets of San Jose are not hugely welcoming in the small hours of the morning: we drove past huddles of hooded men, packs of feral dogs, and pairs of short-skirted women invariably accompanied by a huge tattooed pimp. At one point we had to come to a screeching stop as a skeletal-thin, wild-eyed man staggered across the road.
Then before we had got anywhere close to leaving the city, we stopped at a gas station. I could see the dials on the dashboard; we did not need fuel. Dorian’s cousin’s friend – they had all told me their names, but in my sleep-deprived state I had forgotten then immediately – got out of the car and vanished.
“¿Qué pasa?” I asked Dorian. “What’s happening?” The scary junkie had only been one street away and I was nervous.
“Cervezas,” he grunted in reply.
Dorian’s cousin’s friend returned shortly with two twelve-packs of Imperial, Costa Rica’s favourite beer, in his arms.
“¡Cervezaaas!” he said with great delight and handed them round. I felt I might need my wits about me, so I politely declined. The driver had no such reservations. As the alcohol began to flow freely, we tore off into the night once more.
The direct route to the south of the country was still impassable, so we were taking the coastal route. It would take a bit longer, but not too much, said Dorian with great optimism. Despite having driven all this way already, Dorian’s cousin and Dorian’s cousin’s friend were in great spirits, undoubtedly aided by the tinnies. We left the city limits and sped down the highway towards the Pacific coast.
“Vale, Jacob,” said Dorian’s cousin, catching my eye in the rear-view mirror. Uh-oh. Small talk.
“¿Tiene una novia?” he asked.
No. I didn’t have a girlfriend.
“Ah.” He mulled over this for a moment.
“¿Tiene un novio?”
Nope, no boyfriend either.
“Soy solo,” I said. “I’m alone.” This brought great hilarity. I wished I was alone, I thought bitterly, as my leg room reluctantly yielded another inch to my companions.
It did not take long for Dorian to fall asleep, which I thought was pretty amazing given our cramped conditions. Dorian was built like a rugby player, both in strength and width, and although he was perfectly affable when awake, it seemed that sleep brought out his violent side. He started getting aggressive as soon as his eyes closed. I battled against him to no avail as he unconsciously fought for extra room, finding myself pushed forwards until I ended up more-or-less sitting in the footwell. Only three hours to go, I told myself.
Three hours later, we were about halfway. On the bright side (quite literally), dawn was approaching. As the sun rose above the forest to our left, it slowly illuminated the Pacific ocean to our right, bestowing a shimmering crimson tint onto every wave. A trio of brown pelicans flapped languidly away from us, the tips of their wings almost brushing the water’s surface. The sky was a delicate shade of tangerine. There was no denying it. The scene was beautiful.
“Nuestro país es el más bello del mundo,” said Dorian’s cousin proudly. “Our country is the most beautiful in the world.” There was a fair chance that he was absolutely right.
Then we stopped in a lay-by and the three men shovelled the now-considerable collection of empty beer cans out of the car and onto the verge. I wondered if now was the time to plug the virtues of recycling. I looked around; there was no sign of civilisation as far as the eye could see, apart from this tiny car and its boisterous inhabitants. Probably not the time.
Not much later (an hour and a half later), we turned off the coastal road towards the interior. We were passing the odd settlement now, a farmhouse here or a little hamlet there. There were even sometimes people by the road, an invitation – especially if they were a cyclist or, even more excitingly, female – for Dorian’s cousin to lean on the horn and shout something rude out the window. I sensed the two women sitting next to me grow tenser. We were all hoping that the city of San Isidro wasn’t far away.
Then, as the road began to gather gradient, we became aware of an unsettling sound. It was soon accompanied by an acrid odour and a thin plume of smoke issuing from beneath the bonnet. Dorian’s cousin swore softly and we pulled over.
We all gathered round the open bonnet and pretended to know things about mechanics. Dorian’s cousin’s friend gave one component an experimental twist, resulting in a jet of boiling water spurting past his ear. We all took a collective step back.
I couldn’t understand much of the discussion so I wandered away to look at our surroundings. We had stopped by a big dilapidated barn which looked like it might have been some kind of venue at one point. A noticeboard displayed some tattered posters; the most recent, an advert for a beginner’s class in Tai Chi, was scheduled for two years ago. I became aware that the discussion behind me was getting heated. Dorian saw me looking worried and came over.
“They do not want to pay,” he said to me. The two women were arguing emphatically with Dorian’s cousin and Dorian’s cousin’s friend.
“Pay for what?” I asked.
“The car. We wait until it is cool and it will work, I think, but it will need repairs. You can pay fifty dollars?”
I winced. I had not budgeted for this.
“I am sorry,” said Dorian. He did seem genuinely apologetic. The cynical part of my mind suddenly wondered if this had all been a scam; but no, it would have been a ridiculously elaborate scheme just to dupe a naive foreigner. Not even a hardened con artist would willingly subject themselves to such prolonged discomfort.
I grudgingly coughed up and once the engine had cooled, we carried on, slowly and cautiously. The mood in the car was now decidedly frigid. I silently pleaded that we would get there soon.
The traffic began to build as we approached the river that wrapped around the city, and I noticed Dorian’s cousin looking increasingly concerned. When we rounded a corner, the problem became clear: the bridge was out. The storm had seen to that.
Fortunately there was another bridge over the river, but it was about a mile downstream, made of wood, and with a width of about eight feet.. The road to get to it was a single dirt track past a row of small houses. It must have usually been a very secluded spot, but now it was filled with crawling traffic and clouds of exhaust fumes. Every yard contained a frenzied dog barking wildly, and plenty of the irritated drivers were shouting back.
Eventually, just after nine o’clock in the morning, we made it across the bridge. We dropped the two women off on a street corner, where they grabbed their bags and left without a word. I wasn’t complaining; Dorian and I now had an entire seat each to ourselves. It felt like luxury.
The hurricane hadn’t hugely affected the roads this far south, so my plan was to catch a bus towards my destination. The three men took me to the bus station, and Dorian even came in with me to help me get a ticket. After talking briefly with the woman behind the counter, he came back looking glum. I had missed the last bus of the day by ten minutes.
Deflated, I walked back to the car. Dorian immediately hatched a new plan: the three of them knew a motel in the area, and they were going to get a room just to freshen up before reuniting with their family, so why didn’t I take the room after that – for free?
It sounded good to me, so I got back in the car. We arrived at the motel, which was the definition of seedy, and it soon turned out they had raised their prices. I would need to contribute thirty dollars. I died a little inside, but I was too tired to argue, so I handed over the money.
I waited in the windowless motel room with the three men as they each had a leisurely shower. They were in no hurry, and kept on trying their best to cajole me into conversation. How they still seemed lucid was beyond me. I had stayed awake with nerves and discomfort for the entire journey and could barely form a sentence in English, let alone Spanish. I certainly didn’t feel 52% fluent.
Eventually they were ready to leave. I tried to hide my relief. I felt I owed them a proper goodbye – we had been through a lot together, after all – so I went down to their car with them. It was at the point that I was leaning in the rear window to shake Dorian’s hand, that Dorian’s cousin’s friend pressed down on the accelerator and ran over my foot.
For the first time, I was grateful for the car’s tiny size. Somehow, I barely felt a thing. My foot was not even bruised. The three men were horrified and deeply apologetic, but for once everything was alright. When I finally managed to communicate that I was not hurt at all, they finally waved goodbye and were gone.
What an awful journey, I thought to myself as I flopped onto the motel bed. Although, I reflected, it might make a good story. Maybe I would write it into a blog someday.
The next morning, I was at the bus station way before the bus was due to leave. I was taking no chances. From there the journey went uncannily smoothly. The bus driver overcharged me an outrageous amount, but money had taken on a sort of abstract quality by then. I hardly remember the journey from then onward, but it started raining at some point, and by the time I had arrived in Golfito it had developed a grim persistent quality. The rain was not stopping any time soon.
I knew this town well. The only way to get to the ecolodge from here was a twenty-minute boat journey along the coast, but the weather was not looking up to it. I headed to a bar I knew on the shore, and messaged my friends at the ecolodge. It was as I feared; sending the boat out in this weather would be unwise. It looked like I would be spending a night in another extortionately priced hotel.
I bought a pineapple juice and glumly looked out over the sea. It was grey, more reminiscent of the Norfolk coast in February than the tropical paradise I remembered. But then – I saw something through the rain, something on the water and getting closer. At first, just a slightly darker grey smudge; then, becoming larger, becoming more distinct, I could tell what it was. I downed my pineapple juice and grabbed my bags. My friends had come to get me, and it was all going to be alright.