I was enroute to Costa Rica to see if I could make a living writing for the Tico Times, an English-language newspaper in the capital city of San Jose. Eight years earlier I spent a long vacation in Costa Rica and enjoyed some wild adventures. It was the only country in central America with a long tradition of democracy and the Ticos (as the local people called themselves) were friendly to Americans -- an extremely rare combination anywhere in the world. This time I wanted to try actually living in the country instead of playing tourist.
I stopped over to visit my mother near Orlando, Florida. She was in a little town within a very short drive of tacky tourist attractions like Disney World and Cypress Gardens, but she had never seen the inside of those places. I wouldn't be caught dead in either place myself.
I never visited my mother for more than a week. That was as much as I could stand, considering she had remained close friends with my ex-wife and her mother years after the divorce. I was her flesh and blood, but women always stick together.
One night I managed to escape from my mother's house to a movie theater. The film I saw was "Fearless" with Jeff Bridges, one of my favorite actors. I had never been afraid of flying since my first airline trip at the age of 21 and in the Air Force I had flown tens of thousands of miles on every kind of aircraft imaginable. But "Fearless" contained an airliner crash scene that seemed so realistic I felt like crawling out of the theater on my hands and knees.
I described the scene to my mother and she mentioned casually she had recently seen a TV documentary about an airliner crash in central America.
"All those bodies and luggage scattered in the jungle," she said, shaking her head. "Is that where you're flying tomorrow -- central America?"
Thanks a lot, Mom.
The next morning at Orlando airport she said: "Now you be careful during the flight. Good luck."
What had I ever done to her?
My flight was scheduled to make stops first in Tampa and then in Miami to pick up more passengers, but I soon noticed from the position of the sun that we were flying south instead of west toward Tampa. I reasoned the pilot had decided to forego the Tampa stop (why?) and proceed directly to Miami. I skipped the breakfast meal and ordered a Screwdriver, the breakfast of champions. The vodka would calm my nerves and the orange juice would provide my daily dose of vitamin C.
Some time later I was startled to notice we were over the Florida Keys, which meant Miami was well behind us. Had the plane been hijacked to Cuba? I summoned a flight attendant.
"Why didn't we stop in Tampa or Miami?"
"This is a direct flight to San Jose," she said.
"That's not what they told me when I bought the ticket."
"The flight only goes to Tampa or Miami if we have a minimum number of passengers to board."
"Why didn't you announce the schedule change to passengers so we didn't think we were being hijacked?"
"Please calm down, sir."
"You calm down. And bring me another Screwdriver."
She refused to look at me when she delivered the drink. I didn't care as long as she didn't spill it. In the back of my mind I could hear my mothers words like a mantra of doom. "All those bodies in the jungle ..." And good luck? What a rotten thing to say to a man boarding an airliner. My mother was finally getting even with me for divorcing one of her best friends.
Later I ordered another Screwdriver from a different flight attendant. If I was going to hit the jungle canopy at 300 miles per hour, I intended to do it feeling no pain. Or maybe I would walk away from the crash without a scratch on me like the Jeff Bridges character in the movie. Of course he was psychotic afterward, but that's a small price to pay for beating the Grim Reaper.
A few drinks later I was babbling to myself when I spotted San Jose airport through the window. As we made our final approach, the plane lurched and shimmied in a strong crosswind. Then I heard a loud creaking noise. Was it time to put my head between my legs, pucker up and kiss my ass goodbye?
The airliner hit the runway hard and bouced twice, veering to the right. The pilot applied the brakes and powered up the reverse thrusters, tossing us passengers foward against our seat belts. The plane finally rolled to a stop about 30 feet short of the end of the runway. Nobody clapped.
I disembarked by running down the moveable staircase. In my drunken state I tripped at the bottom and nearly fell flat on my face. I wanted to kneel and kiss the tarmac, but the surface was covered with patches of greenish slime. Welcome to the tropics where algae grows on runways.
After clearing customs and immigration, I was whisked away on a wild taxi ride to my hotel on the outskirts of San Jose. The scenery passed by in a blur -- all those Screwdrivers were playing hell with my vision. The taxi driver kept asking questions about "Nuevo York." In funny money I paid him what I thought was $2US and later realized was actually $20US. I made a mental note to myself: learn Costa Rican currency and decimal system.
I fell into the Sleep of Death in my hotel room -- a nightmare of bodies scattered in the jungle. The next morning I had a brain-damage hangover and nearly upchucked when I tasted the breakfast orange juice. No more OJ for me.
I rented a furnished apartment a few blocks from the hotel where I stayed the first few days. It was in El Jardin (The Garden) neighborhood, a suburb of San Jose where Hospital Mexico was located. El Jardin was a hodgepodge of middle-class homes and apartments, a few converted into shops selling items like pirated movie and music tapes; a small farmacia (drug store), a shopping center and a patch of the original red-dirt bush country with lean-to shacks and banana trees. Costa Rica's only freeway was a couple hundred meters from my apartment. The country's only "supermarket" was within walking distance. It was about the size of an American country store with the same limited selection. Ticos grew their own fruit and vegetables in their yards and raised chickens for eggs and meat. The majority couldn't afford shopping for food at the supermarket.
My apartment had one large bedroom, a bathroom, a combined kitchen/living room, and English-language satellite TV from Venezuela. I boiled the tap water when I noticed a chalkiness in it, but the boiling only made it less clear. Later a neighbor told me the tap water was treated and safe to drink without boiling. The chalkiness was harmless dolomite lime.
The first shock was discovering that prices had doubled or tripled since my first trip 8 years earlier. The country was in the grip of runaway inflation and this did not bode well for my plans to make a living. The apartment rented for $400US per month and I was told it went for half that much just a few years earlier. My favorite local beer, Imperial, used to sell for 25 cents a bottle in any bar and now it was 75 cents. To save money, I ordered cases of Imperial directly from the brewery and delivery was free.
The second surprise was the fact that hardly any local I dealt with in San Jose spoke English. This was mystifying since literally every Tico I met on my first trip spoke English. My bad Spanish was basically baby talk and this led to problems with communication. Nothing will make you feel culture shocked quicker than not being able to communicate with locals you must depend on to survive.
The final shock was the pay offered by the Tico Times. I received $15US for the first article the newspaper published. At that rate of pay the money I brought with me would be gone in no time.
The Tico Times was housed in a hole-in-the-wall office in an old section of the city. I met an attractive middle-aged American reporter who had worked at the newspaper for years. Over lunch one day I picked her brain about how she had managed to make a living on the measly pay at the Tico Times. She explained she had bribed a government official to obtain a work permit that entitled her to a full-time salary at the newspaper. She shared an apartment with two other women to save on rent. She ate like a bird at home except for times when "rich" gringos like me sprang for a restaurant meal.
It all sounded depressing to me, but Elizabeth seemed to be enjoying her ex-patriate life in Costa Rica. I envied her spirit of adventure even though I was a little frustrated when she refused to tell me who she had bribed. Work permits were extremely difficult to get and without one, I was doomed to be a freelancer on the short end of the pay scale. Much cheaper apartments were located downtown, but they were hovels in high-crime neigborhoods where a gringo would have to be crazy to live.
After I wrote a couple more articles for the Tico Times, I decided to look for a cheap old house to buy. If the price was right, I might be able to afford a small downpayment and monthly installments to live in a place of my own. Eventually, I found an advertisement for a one-bedroom house with 5 acres of land for $30,000 on terms. It sounded quite reasonable, so I telephoned the seller.
When I asked if he had clear deed to the property, he paused for a long time and then said: "Why do you want a deed?"
I hung up, exasperated. Land scams are big business in Costa Rica. Some friends of mine thought they had purchased rainforest property near Golfito in the southern part of the country. As things turned out, they never received a deed because they had actually purchased shares in a company that owned the property. The company president sold the land without notifying shareholders and absconded with the money. In another case the revenue-strapped town of Golfito used eminent domain law to seize tracks of land where gringos had built vacation homes. The Americans were paid pennies on each dollar they had spent in developing the land. The most tragic land scam involved a troubled Vietnam veteran who was cheated out of the place where he wanted to retire in peace. He poured gasoline over his clothes and set himself on fire, suffering fatal burns.
A month after I arrived in San Jose, I was low on money and ready to give up. I telephoned my mother and asked if she would like a visitor for Christmas.
"Me," I added.
"I thought you intended to stay for a long time," she said.
"Things haven't worked out like I hoped. I'll explain when I see you."
"Be careful on the flight to Florida."
"I know, Mom. All those bodies in the jungle."