Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Alajuela, Costa Rica

When the taxi finally rolled up to my hotel in San Jose’s garden suburbs, I was slightly taken aback to see the place surrounded by bikers. They were all 15 and unfailingly polite, this is Costa Rica after all, but still. I was hoping they’d offer to help with my bags, but they left me there in a cloud of two stroke exhaust to fend for myself.

Morning came and with it my rental car. In my experience, Costa Rica, for all its eco-friendly delights and solid middle class values, has never seen fit to make road travel easy.

Maybe that’s a good thing. In the absence of their own army, they plow the savings into health care and education for the populace. My guess is the impossibility of convenient road travel is the first line of defense. Nicaragua’s tanks might breach the northern frontier with ease, but they’d be driving in circles weeks later while finding nothing more strategic than the same roadside souvenir stand to pulverize.

And while I am no great fan of the United States military machine, they have made at least one contribution to making the world a better, or at least more easily navigated place. That is the GPS. My abysmal sense of direction made me an early adapter of this technology, but my latest purchase actually talks to me. She sounds kind of cute, in a stern sort of way. And Lord knows, I need the discipline.

I type in my destination, be it ocelot petting zoo or lava spitting volcano, and she guides me through all the hairpin turns and inexplicable detours of the Tico landscape.

I drove north from San Jose toward Volcan Poas, an active volcano that looms above the city like a curled fist. Last week it punched out a 6.2 earthquake, setting off landslides that further crippled the road network and killed more than two dozen. The volcano itself was wrapped in mist, and as I drove along it’s flanks I dodged bulldozers and cranes scrambling to clear the wreckage and mud.

Some vestigial journalistic urge bubbled up from below, suggesting that I go find some picturesque refugees huddling in their destroyed village. But the urge to profit from other people's misery isn't what it used to be. After an hour of driving through the muck and devastation, I turned around and settled on some out of focus leaves instead.

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