(A Trip Planning Guide)
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September 5th, 2002 - Dominical, Costa Rica
Our adventure began in Dominical, a small surfing village on the southern Pacific coast of Costa Rica. After a typical morning of fighting to paddle out against the waves only to be pounded into the ocean floor when attempting to ride them in, I finally decided to take a break. On my way back to shore, I stepped on some sort of pissed-off marine wildlife who thanked me by delivering a punishing blow to my left foot. I stumbled to the beach, fighting to retain consciousness, and crashed on the sand to assess the damage. At that point, it was hard to tell what had happened. There was too much blood and grit to find the actual wound. As I crawled back towards town, I was approached by a lifeguard who determined the culprit was “una raya”—a stingray. He helped me back up to my beach bungalow and whipped together a concoction of hot water and local plant leaves. He soaked my foot in the herb juice, and I helped myself to about ten aspirin as Dorothy watched the whole thing with one of those looks that said, “I told your ass you should have been taking Spanish classes, not surfing lessons.” As things calmed down a bit, I asked the lifeguard, who had surfed every day for seven years, and my instructor, who had surfed every day for eight years, if they had ever stumbled across one of these bad boys. They both assured me they hadn’t, and that I was extremely “lucky” to have such an experience in only five days.
Now, for those of you who don’t have fifteen years to randomly roam the beach all day in the hope of experiencing the wrath of a stingray for yourself, never fear. I will describe a few simple, easy-to-follow steps to replicate the experience in the comfort of your own abode.
The next day I traded in my surfboard for a fishing pole. I was determined to have my vengeance—for dinner.
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To Grandmother’s House We Go
September 21st, 2002 - Monteverde, Costa Rica
Well, I never caught that stingray, and before long it was time to pack up our bags and head inland to Monteverde, Costa Rica. I started to get a little worried that my run-in with our ferocious, fishy friend might prove to be the highlight of my travel humor, leaving me with very little material for the rest of the trip. But never fear, for I would soon get myself into another situation worthy of sharing with the audience at home.
I’ll start with a bit of background: Dorothy studied Spanish for about five years in high school and college. Since the beginning of the trip, she has attended intensive private lessons for about four hours a day. She has taken her learning very seriously, spending two to three hours a night studying and doing her homework. By the time we arrived in Monteverde, Dorothy’s Spanish was fluent enough to strike up a conversation with the locals about almost anything.
I studied Spanish for two years in high school and specifically chose an undergraduate degree in business to avoid having to take it in college. In Dominical, I sat through one week of group lessons with a surfer who I believe was stoned most the time. I copied the assignments from some other girl in my class and took long naps while pretending to study as Dorothy did her homework. Needless to say, my Spanish never quite evolved past the spring-break-college-student-in-Cancun proficiency. This pretty much limited my conversations with the locals to a big smile and replies of pura vida, which directly translates to ‘pure life’ and can be used in Costa Rica as an upbeat greeting, farewell, adjective, or exclamation.
That pretty much brings us up to my second morning of Spanish classes in Monteverde where I was staring blankly at my professora as she rambled something in Espanol that lost me in the first five seconds. Suddenly she stopped, and with a look that could be interpreted as either determination or disgust, said to me, “Jeremy, if you are going to improve in Spanish, you have to practice speaking. Why don’t you start with your host family?”
Great, I thought. Finally something in English. This sounded like good advice. So far, my involvement with the family had been limited to watching soccer with the dad and winning the son’s lunch money in arm-wrestling competitions (he is five), neither of which required much verbal interaction. So it was decided—I would make an earnest attempt to strike up conversation with the family.
After dinner that evening, Junior, the father, stepped out on the porch for an after-dinner smoke. I decided this was my chance to practice speaking without having Dorothy, our host mother, Maria, and all the little children around to laugh at my eager but meager attempts to throw together a conversation using my twenty-word vocabulary.
I came out swinging, “Hola, Junior. Que pasa?” (Hello, Junior. What’s up?)
“Nada. Y usted?” (Nothing. And you?) He was testing the waters.
“ Nada.” Hmmm…was about fresh out of things to say…had to stay with him. “Sus padres viven cerca de aqui?” (Do your parents live close to here?) Not exactly the same as discussing sports, but it would do.
“Sί, mi madre vive muy cerca de aqui. Manana, usted quiere ir a su casa?” (Yes, my mother lives very close to here. Tomorrow, do you want to go to her house?)
Wow, I was unstoppable. My Spanish was gold. He had taken me in as one of his own. “Sί, me gusta mucho, pero yo tengo escuela a las ocho de la manana.” (Yes, I would love to, but I have school at 8:00 in the morning.)
Off came the gloves and he hit me with a powerful right hook—two minutes of blindingly fast Spanish. I understood nothing, but I assumed by his smile and good humor that he had said something to the effect of, That’s fine. We will go in the afternoon. I fell back into the safety zone…big smile. “Pura vida.”
He then stood up and went inside. About the time I had convinced myself that I had offended his mother and that he had gone to get his gun, he returned, still wearing a smile, but also wearing a rain jacket. OK, I might be a little slow, but I was starting to get the picture, or so I thought. He had asked if I wanted to go to his mother’s house right now. Well, I supposed now was as good a time as any, so I went inside, grabbed my rain jacket, and met him back on the front porch.
I headed down the steps of the porch and into the street, only to look up and find no Junior in sight. For the second time in five minutes, I stood there wondering what I was missing. Then, the situation became crystal clear. Out rolled Junior on the 1982 Yamaha 200DT motorcycle, with all-terrain tires and off-road suspension.
Monteverde is located in a very tropical zone that receives about two hours of heavy rain every day. It sits at 5000 feet above sea level and is literally in the clouds. Most evenings, cloud cover is so dense that visibility is reduced to about ten feet. This night was no exception. Most roads outside the town center are a slushy mixture of mud and gravel, with plenty of water-filled potholes and obtrusive large rocks. Since this is a very mountainous region, most roads are quite steep. The closest thing to a streetlight is the soft warm glow of the Imperial Cerveza sign coming from Amigos Bar, which is about a mile away. Monteverde is one of the most beautiful places on earth, but the last place I would want to ride a motorbike at night.
Well, what to do? Motorcycles are the normal means of transportation for everyone who lives around here, so Junior would definitely not understand my turning down his invitation at this point. Plus, he said her house was very close. So I jumped on, and off we went.
Now, I have done my fair share of dangerous activities (skydiving, bungee jumping, eating sushi in Texas), but I have never known fear like on the back of that bike. After a death-defying one-minute ride, he pulled into the supermercado. We both got off the bike, and he headed into the store while I stood there with my heart pounding. Then, for the first time in my life I truly appreciated that any bad situation could always become worse—it started pouring.
It was not fifteen seconds later that Junior emerged from the store, and I was reminded again of this new lesson in life. He was holding a bag of pastries, a common token gift when visiting someone’s house in Costa Rica, and he passed them to me to hold during the ride to his mother’s.
So, off we went again, in the dark of the night, at the mercy of the pouring rain, me hanging on with one hand for ten minutes of sliding through mud, bouncing over rocks, and flying down steep descents. I was praying in both Spanish and English.
Junior seemed none too concerned, and even kept some friendly dialogue flowing. “Hay mucha neblina, sί?” (There is a lot of fog, isn’t there?)
Yeah, there is so much fog that I can’t see the back of your head, which doesn’t do a lot for my confidence in your ability to see those big rocks in the road. “Sί, hay mucha neblina.”
He knows he’s got me. “Hay mucha lluvia, sί?” (There is a lot of rain, isn’t there?)
Yeah, there is so much rain that I can’t tell if I have pissed myself or if I am just soaked through. “Sί, hay mucha lluvia.”
He goes for the knockout punch. “Espero que nosotros no chocamos! (I hope we don’t crash!)
What the hell did that guy just say? Oh, forget trying to speak Spanish, I am just going to worry about holding on. With no smile I replied, “Pura vida.”
His mother turned out to be a gracious host, and on the ride back I was considerably less nervous than on the ride out…until we arrived home and I saw Dorothy, whose expression was saying (in English), “Don’t you ever attempt to utter one word of Spanish again when I am not with you. Now get inside and do your homework.”
I looked at her, big smile. “Pura vida.”
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