A tip to keep in mind when you’re next traveling in Costa Rica. If possible, after your adventures driving through the mountains, coting the coast, navigating the tourismo buses through Quepos and Manuel Antonio, do not return to San Jose on Maundy Thursday for a Good Friday flight back to the world where rituals never conflict with departure schedules, restaurant openings, available Starbucks, Super Mercados, or museums.
Traffic approaching the city at dusk on Thursday was merely challenging; inside the city it appeared that only ghosts of pre-liberation days stalked the streets. Since our Air BnB hosts were not at home, we parked on the street in front of the house, walked many blocks in search of a coffee, called again, left voice mails, emailed, walked back, pounded on the six hundred pound door (really, it is) until another guest showed some holy week mercy and let us in.
The next sign of the Easter mystery came at midnight when the cathedral on the square chimed all its bells and rang out its twelve fateful solemnities. Except for the two hot rod racers roaring round the square, a deep silence cooled by wonderful breezes coming down from the mountains fell over the city.
Friday morning made Thursday look like a parade day. We slept in, packed, and set out for breakfast by ten. The Holiday Inn had stopped serving; Starbucks (Starbucks!) was closed; McDonald’s was open, but who cares. The Museum of Fine Arts: closed. The Museum of Gold: closed. Two or three other museums: all kowtowing to the Catholic powers that argue that resurrection may be fine for the Messiah, but resurrection-by-breakfast (now, brunch) was too good for these gringos—my hungry daughter, my two starving granddaughters, and my famished self.
Then, an undreamed of salvation appeared: the Gate of China Town beside which loomed a dim sum restaurant worthy of Saturday morning in Hong Kong, a vast, open, football-field-sized room with Lazy Susans at all the round tables, Mason jars full of chopsticks, loose-wheeled carts laden with shrimp dumplings, veggie dumplings, pork dumplings, platters of bok choi and choi sum, fish balls, gooey rice balls, noodles with chicken or pork or beef or tofu, beakers of oyster sauce, soy sauce, chili garlic sauce. In short, though it was barely noon and though we were not due at the airport till ten, there was some question whether we’d make it on time.
This is why I am a strict relativist on all religious questions. Just what god is moving mysteriously through Latin America, pushing a dim sum cart?
Tip Number Two: if someone offers you a guide—and someone will—to lead you through the steamy, sunny, shady, humid Manuel Antonio National Park, take the offer no matter the price. Yes, it is true that I saw a deer and her faun without Tony’s aid, but she wandered out of the forest to see if I had jelly beans in my pocket. And I saw all 30,000 monkeys without anyone’s help because the breeze-blessed beach at the very end of the jungle walk appears to be paved with monkeys. Your camera may not be altogether prepared for the sexual confusion of our simian cousins: the show contrived for my family had two brothers pose, then wrestle, then try to decide who would dominate the sexual encounter which was opulently narrated by both parties. But aside from these two exceptions, there is no discovery of any animal in the forest unless Tony spots it for you.
Tony carries a powerful telescope on a tripod. Somehow—because he knows where all the animals hang out, or by some careful pre-arrangement with the sloths, or by fine eyesight and a talent I cannot speak of—he sees everything. He walks along the path seemingly unaware of his surroundings. Suddenly, be sets up the telescope, points it into the green canopy a hundred yards away, focuses, and says, “Mama sloth and baby. Two-toed sloths, as you can see.” My naked eye sees trees. I create the same sight lines with my Nikon and zoom out to a 300 mm setting. I see the sharp crenelations of spiky leaves on the trees, but no large mammals. Alexa, Zoe, and Graylin all take turns at the telescope. “Awww,” says Alexa, charmed with cuteness. “Right,” says Zoe, who apparently has seen it all before. “I see them,” squeaks Graylin who has not quite yet mastered cool. “Where?” I lament and let my camera drop to my side. Thus it was with the three-toed sloth, the toucans, a lone howler monkey who should have been locatable by his screeching, but Nikon is too civilized for that. The apotheosis of Tony’s skill came when he set up his telescope, pointed towards the distant horizon, and said “Rainbow grasshopper.” I looked, and indeed there was a striped, multi-colored bug filling the lens. “Must be a huge insect,” I said, “for you to find it before you set up the telescope.” “’Bout an inch,” Tony said and leered, I swear, at my camera.
In the evening, when I transferred photos from camera to computer, hoping that the larger image on the screen would reveal a critter or two, I ended up tossing maybe 70% of my pictures. (I could rescue two or three if you wholly desire to see vacant branches where life abounds just on the opposite side of the trunk.)
Tip Three: when you visit the volcano region near La Fortuna, you absolutely must rent a cottage a few miles out of town and two miles up a dirt road. Here you will discover a challenging trail that zooms up and down steep mountain sides, and you will learn that being 30 years older than your expert hiker daughter means something. But you’ll also learn that toucans sometimes travel in packs, or flocks, or herds, and that they light on a single jungle tree branch and make the world so beautiful that you drop your daughter’s binoculars in wonder. You’ll also learn that hummingbirds are quite happy with non-flowering green plants. And you will be adopted by Tumbleweed (Graylin’s name for her, and she gets to name all animals because she is a Mammal Whisperer), the neighborhood cat who marches right into the house and, scrawny as she is, eats an entire bag of Cat Chow in two days. She is a calm and confident purrer, undeterred by the dangers of the jungle or the neighborhood dog who insisted that he had a prior claim to adopting us because he dances, frolics, beeps, catches and tosses a huge grasshopper the way Tumbleweed plays with a catnip mouse.
Tip Four: Be alert. Someone in your family is going to start looking at real estate prices. Dinner conversation will center on the relative merits of a house in the mountains or a house on the beach. The issue of finding work, or starting a business, or simply retiring will be debated by people who should be having this conversation twenty years from now.
And someone will want to know where to find the best dim sum.