driving to a point on a map
Friday, January 25 2019
location: Howard Johnson Jamaica JFK Hotel, Queens, New York, USA
I was up before the alarm a little before 3:30am. When it came time to go, it took only three or four minutes to get our shit together and leave the room, partly because Gretchen had slept in her clothes.
Our cab to JFK was technically a gypsy cab driven by an affable gentleman from Guyana. We were nice and didn't tell him that the only thing most Americans (including us) know about Guyana is that it was the country selected by Jim Jones for the final setting of his suicide cult. As our driver pointed out, people from Guyana have a bit of an advantage in the United States, since they are an English-speaking people. The job he'd had the longest had been in the airport, turning off fire alarms that idiots had pulled (either accidentally or out of malice). He'd never actually dealt with a fire alarm legitimately pulled due to the presence of a fire.
Today was the 35th day of the largest government shutdown in American history, the result of Donald Trump's demand that 5.7 billion dollars for his unpopular wall along the Mexican border be put in the federal budget. Since this is a trollish demand that would, if met, lead only to further demands (don't feed the trolls!), Nancy Pelosi has been wisely refusing to yield. Thus the continuation of the shutdown. We were concerned that the shutdown would snarl lines leading through security checkpoints, as TSA employees are all federal workers who, today, would still be working despite not having received a second paycheck. Obviously, it not being a good time to be working for the federal government, plenty of these people would either not be showing up for work or working at something less than peak efficiency. But the security checkpoint for JetBlue seemed to be moving reasonably quickly, at least at this early hour. Gretchen thanked one of the TSA employees for his service. He indicated that people have been going out of their way to show appreciation. These poor folks never make more than about $44,000 year.
As usual, Gretchen had arranged for us to have window and aisle seats on either side of middle seat. Often when we do this, we get the middle seat as well, though on the flight to Ft. Lauderdale, an optometrist was seated between us, so I gave him the window seat.
JetBlue provides free WiFi, though it tends to peter out somewhere over the Caribbean. For a time I watched a crappy made-for-airplane movie entitled Thirteen Going On Thirty, about a desperate-for-popularity tween in the 80s who gets her wish of being transported to her 30s, suddenly finding herself an attractive (and no longer awkward) youngish woman with a great career and a hunkish boyfriend in the year 2004. The movie was crammed full of nostalgic triggers, starting with the scenes (and soundtrack) set the in the 1980s and continuing into the early 2000s, when it was made. Oddly, the early-2000s take on the 1980s seemed less garish (and realistic) than later takes, such as the temporal setting of Stranger Things.
I'd never been in the Ft. Lauderdale airport, and I can't say I was impressed. Somewhere Gretchen scared up a bean wrap for me. I knew it would be flavorless and went looking for hot sauce, but I couldn't find any, not even at the damn Chilis near our gate. The presence of a mainstream restaurant named for a flavor that couldn't be obtained made perfect sense, in a Florida sort of way.
We got lucky on our flight to Costa Rica and nobody was seated in the middle seat between us. On this leg, I was drinking booze I'd mixed into an overpriced airport orange juice. (As much as my financial position has improved, I still haven't reached the point where I am willing to pay for alcohol on an airplane). This caused me to doze off for an hour or so, though I also had enough time to watch the ending of Thirteen Going On Thirty.
As we went through immigration in the San Jose airport, Gretchen managed to get free WiFi, and quickly learned that, while we'd been in the JetBlue WiFi dead zone, over the Caribbean, Donald Trump had capitulated on his demands for wall money in the budget. What had done him in was a general seizing up of the American air traffic control system. Delays in the New York airspace had caused backups at other airports, which threatened to grind the whole system to a halt. In the face of a generalized uproar, Trump had been forced to back down. Somehow we'd made it out of American airspace just as the system was beginning to fail.
As always when landing at a Latin American airport, it wasn't long before we'd made it through immigration and customs and were dumped out onto the street. We'd been expecting someone from Vamos, our rental car company, to be holding a sign, but of course that didn't happen and so we were hassled by a rabble of cab drivers and men offering ad hoc transportation. Eventually some thick sweaty guy found us our Vamos guy, who drove us to the rental car place. I had us opt out of all but the required insurance, since it's statistically most cost-effective to self-insure unless you cannot pay should the worst happen. The Vamos guys seemed disappointed by this decision, as that insurance is likely the largest source of profit, since it benefits so much from asymmetrical information.
That said, we did almost have two or three accidents soon after driving out onto the main road. Gretchen was doing the initial driving, and she had to account for a number of unusual driving conditions. Additional lanes had a way of appearing and then disappearing well before they should've, and other drivers tended to be both hyper-aggressive and not especially indulgent. They wouldn't let you in even if you had nowhere to go, while big trucks would take advantage of the reality of their own inertia to get where they needed to (still, we did see a few of them come to stops so quickly that they seemed to defy Newtonian physics).
That was the "big road," though it didn't last for long. Soon we were on narrow roads that wound through the countryside, occasionally passing through small villages. People and dogs tended to be out in the road, often in ways that required us to stop, as there might also be some big truck barreling towards us. Then there would be a bridge, and it was rare for bridges to be wide enough to accommodate more than one lane of traffic. This was all pretty harrowing in the daytime, but eventually the sun dropped straight through the horizon and the sky quickly went black. After that, oncoming headlights tended to blind us to the presence of zombie-like pedestrians. Somehow we avoided hitting anyone, though I'm not quite sure how.
We'd been warned that the roads in Costa Rica are terrible, so the vehicle we'd rented was a white Suzuki SUV. So far, though, the pavement we'd been driving on hadn't been anything a Prius couldn't handle. The SUV also came with an Android cellphone with a local cellphone plan, giving us internet access wherever we could get a cellphone signal, and this was what I was using to help us navigate. But I was handicapped in multiple ways (a problem I often feel when using Smartphones, where things that are just effortless on a laptop are complicated by differences between OS versions, excessive dumbing-down, and limits of the available interface). One example of dumbing down is the spotty support for latitude/longitude in mapping applications. I don't know about you, but I find the concept of latitudes and longitudes the most straightforward and concise way to quantify locations on the surface of a planet. To try to abstract that away somehow isn't just unnecessary, it introduces unwanted complexity. But Ways, the mapping application I was using, didn't seem to know what to do when given latitudes and longitudes. Google Maps does know what to do with that information, though it often likes to present this information as degrees, minutes, and seconds, a format that makes no sense unless you are navigating the high seas in the year 1710 or comfortable with a Sumerian base-60 numeric system. When copying and pasting numeric information (something one really wants to do with latitude and longitude information so as not to introduce errors), it's best if it's just provided as degrees in decimal numbers. So I kept switching between phones, only one of which had the map marker of our ultimate destination. Being unfamiliar with the loaner phone, I found using it difficult. It also lacked apps I needed. I was able to install Facebook messenger to communicate with Chris, the woman whose house we were driving to, to tell her about when we would be arriving. But soon after that, the loaner phone seemed unable to find a cell signal and became pretty much useless. This made Ways crap out completely as it began throwing errors every time I tried to search for villages (such as La Fortuna) that lay on the way to our destination. Meanwhile Gretchen, who was freaking out from the demands of driving in these unpleasant conditions, was wondering why I couldn't just produce a map with driving instructions. She didn't find my claims of technical difficulties especially convincing.
Ultimately, though, I was able to bring up a map (on Gretchen's now plan-free phone) showing the area and what roads were available. Using this, I was able to make decisions about where to turn. Once we got to La Fortuna, the road because much less curvy and we started making much better progress towards the pin on the map. But when we got to Lake Arenal, the road became curvy and scary again and there was even a patch where the road had been washed away in a flood and then patched back together enough for us to get through. Fortunately, though, there were almost no other cars (or pedestrians) in this area.
Our plan for Costa Rica was to stay for a month in a casita Gretchen had rented on the Nicoya Peninsula just outside the beach town of Montezuma. Before going there, though, we would be spending two nights at the house of her friend Chris (whom I just mentioned) on the north shore of Lake Arenal (a natural lake that was enlarged in the 1970s to make a hydroelectric reservoir that at one point supplied 70% of the country's electricity). Gretchen had met Chris a couple years ago in back when she and Chris were both visiting high schools all over Upstate New York to present course material hoping to get kids to adopt a more plant-based diet. Since then, Chris and her husband Steve (who is retirement age) had built a house in Costa Rica and moved there with their dog and all their worldy possessions, perhaps in response to Donald Trump becoming President. Chris had claimed that "there are no addresses in Costa Rica" and that locations are now typically given as Ways locations or Google Maps URLs (Which begs the question: how were locations presented before the arrival of existing smartphone technology?) And she'd only seen fit to give us a Google Maps URL describing a pin location, and that was the pin to which I was guiding us. As we grew close to that point, I began to wonder what driveway from the main road would take us to Chris' house; Chris had provided no guidance.
The road was very curvy in the place where it passed closest to the map pin, and in this region there was only one driveway. So after passing it once, we doubled back and used it to head off the main road. The driveway started out absurdly steep, in a way that would be impossible in any region susceptible to snow. Eventually we saw a house on a hill and it was lit up like a UFO. It looked to be exactly where the map pin had been dropped. As we drew closer, Gretchen saw a blond woman at the house, and when we arrived at the gate, an unseen motor pulled it open for us. We'd made it!
To our delight, Chris was with three mutt dogs (two of them native Costa Ricans) when she greeted us. A little behind them was her husband Steve.
Soon we'd all sat down to a meal of homemade vegan manicotti, bread with vegan "butter," and glasses of red wine. Over dinner, Chris and Steve told us about life in Costa Rica, where they've been living only since this summer. Not being proper residents, they are forced to cross the border to Nicaragua and come back in every few months. They had a few personal stories of Costa Rican crime, including one where the workmen who built their house had tampered with the installation of their windows so that confederates could later break into their house and steal expensive things such as laptops, a fiddle, and a huge jar of cashews (necessary for vegan survival, particularly in a place like Costa Rica). This had led them to install a comprehensive system of alarms and surveillance cameras as well as a room with an iron door and iron bars on the window, a place to put valuables whenever they go somewhere. As bad as all that had been, it hadn't been as bad as what one of their hippie gringo friends had gone through. Some drug-addled "tica" (the term for native Costa Ricans) had grabber her at nearby Toad Hall and put a knife to her throat and made her drive him somewhere to get money. (Later when the police caught the guy, they beat the hell out of him, because that's how it's done in Costa Rica.)
Another piece of conversation concerned the many ex-pats they know in the area. Interestingly, they arrived in several waves, depending on who the President of the United States was at the time. An older wave of liberals fled under the regime of George W. Bush, while a more recent wave of liberals fled Trump's America. But there is also a community of conservative Americans in Costa Rica (some of whom are "nice") who fled Obama's socialist hellscape. Amusingly, Costa Rica has a much more highly-socialized healthcare system than does anything Obama could get through Congress.
Chris and Steve told us that since moving to Costa Rica, they've adopted a schedule of going to bed early (like 7:00pm-9:00pm early) and getting up early (like 5:30am) and that this is common for ex-pats here. And that was what we did tonight. When you're in the tropics and nature is all around you and you're not watching television, being synchronized with the sun makes perfect sense.
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