Wednesday, January 26, 2011

the urban jungle

We'd been waiting for the bus for almost an hour and it was right on time. The only bus bound for San Jose came by at 2pm. We were told by staff to be there at 1:30. Deb thought we should be there at 1pm, just in case. Normally, I may have argued the logic of such a long wait, but not in rural Central America. Our flight left early the next morning in San Jose. We needed to catch our bus. And we did.

We put the bags on some shelves above our seats and settled in for the long ride. I'd been so in and out of sleep during the voyage in that I had no idea how long it was going to be. The bus stopped every now and then to pick up riders, while others would disembark, grab their bags from under the bus and walk away. The only system in place was the honor system. Deb kept a vigilant eye on our bags whenever we stopped while I tried to take some in focus photos out the window. There didn't seem to be any system to the stops either and sometimes they were surprisingly close together. This bus stopped frequently while traveling a great distance and did not adhere to any American concept of what a bus ride should be. The riders, however, were very familiar and a surprising number of them were teenagers with Jansport backpacks texting away intently on bedazzled cellphones.

The countryside was dotted with small houses, bigger resorts, tree farms and grazing cattle. Everything was green and lush and there were a surprising number of lots for sale. There was also a very cool technique that multiple lots utilized for fencemaking. They'd plant a row of trees in a row, then supplement that with branches from similar trees stuck in the ground, all tied together with wire to create a semi-natural fence. The bus had been following the coast for some time and finally turned inland toward the capital just as the sun began setting behind us. The ride had worn out its welcome as it entered its fifth hour and we were anxious to get to San Jose, our hotel, a hot shower, and a delicious meal.

The hotel Deb had booked was near the airport, so it made sense to get off at the airport stop rather than riding all the way into the city center and taking a longer cab ride. We stood against a wall and, before we could even exhale after the long ride, we were set upon by cab drivers wanting our fare. One especially persistent driver wore Deb down to the point where she told him our destination. He reacted with horror and told us a ride to that hotel would exceed $30. The good news was that he knew of a much better hotel that was very nearby and he'd take us there for $5. It even had a pool! I was keen to go to our original reservation destination, but Deb was more open to this new place and since she hadn't given a card number to the first hotel, we had nothing to lose. So we got into the cab and headed toward the unknown.

It didn't take long for us to realize that maybe we'd made a mistake. The streets were dark and nearly deserted. All the businesses, save a few here and there, were shuttered for the night. And I don't mean closed, I mean shuttered, with heavy wooden shutters. Even the narrow streets seemed oddly devoid of cars, making it easy to see the deep canyons that had been dug along the edges of the sidewalk to accommodate all the area's rain. We pulled up to a dingy city motel and got out. The cab driver carried our bags into the lobby and I gave him his fare. Deb checked us in while I paced in the lobby, looking out the window at the neighborhood's denizens. The owner took us to a room on the main floor, conveniently adjacent to the front desk actually. I caught a glimpse of the pool and realized no one would be going for swim in that bacteria factory. Then, speaking of bacteria factories, we were shown our room. After our first fight of the trip we emerged from the room fifteen minutes later and checked out. The owner called us a car and our old cab driver reappeared five minutes later (what are the odds? it's like they know each other). We got back into the cab and asked to be taken to our original hotel.

"How much is it going to be?" I asked our familiar friend.

"About $25," he said as we pulled away from the curb.

"Can you turn on the meter please?" I asked before we'd gone a block.

"Broken," he informed me, "it no work."

I'd dealt with this problem before in New York. Cab drivers are always trying to pull this sort of thing. I made up my mind right then what to do and enjoyed the rest of the ride, especially the sight of our new hotel. It was nothing fancy. Like a Hampton Inn, maybe. Bit still a welcome improvement. We got our all our belongings and Deb took them inside. Then I gave the driver the equivalent of $20 and said "Gracias."

"It's $25," he said.

"I already gave you five. Remember, from before? So you have $25 of my money which is more than you deserve. You aren't getting one cent more. No mas. No mas." Admittedly, it was stupid to go through all this for $5, but I was annoyed, I didn't like this guy, and I didn't like getting ripped off.

"You pay me $5 more," he insisted.

"No mas," I told him, "Call the policia, I don't care."

He looked at me and frowned, not knowing exactly what to do next. When he went back to his car and reached into the glove compartment, I suddenly began to question to wisdom of my stubborn behavior. But when he emerged with nothing more than a calculator, I breathed a sigh of relief and kept on shaking my head. He showed me his math and I showed him mine.

"You're trying to rip me off and I'm not giving you any more money. Your broken meter is your problem, not mine. Call the policia if you don't like it. Call the policia and we'll see whose side they take." I don't know how much of what I was saying he could understand, but I know he knew "policia"and I know he was in no hurry to get them involved. At this point, I knocked on the door and got buzzed into the hotel.

I explained the situation to the desk clerk and he could not have been nicer. He was another one of those folks we met on our trip who arrived at just the right moment and helped us deal with a stressful situation in a friendly, yet professional manner. His demeanor really helped take the edge off the cab driver situation. The cab driver situation, meanwhile, was still waiting outside. He banged on the door and honked his horn, waiting for us to come back out.

"Are there are restaurants nearby that deliver?" we asked, realizing it might be better to stay in tonite.

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