29 November 2009

Geocaching: Costa Rica style

For those of you who we haven’t bored to tears with tales of our geocaching hobby, here’s a quick description:

Thousands of participants register at and become Geocachers. Geocache people take little containers, filled with everything from trinkets, coins and other tchotchkes, if the container is large, or just a little slip of paper to write your name and the date upon if the container is small. Then the Geocacher takes that container out in the world and hides it. (S)he takes a GPS reading on the exact hiding spot and then publishes those coordinates on the website. Other Goecachers then run out and try to be the first to find a new cache – or, in the case of us slower folk, just finding the durn things, period. Once found, you proudly log your find at the website. There are about 900,000 caches currently hiding, around the world. It’s addictive.

Costa Rica is a new geocaching experience, however.

In the States, thousands of caches are simply plastic 35mm film canisters, stuffed with a log sheet and shoved under the base-shroud of a shopping mall parking lot light. A little boring at times.

It seems that’s not how they do things here in Costa Rica.

Our first shot at a Costa Rican cache was supposed to be one of the most famous ones in the world. This baby is stashed in Manuel Antonio National Park, out along a jungle trail, allegedly far from the maddening crowd. We’d never been to the park, but, hey … no biggie. We’re semi-professionals.

“Where’s my back pack?”
“You left it at the house.”
“How can I carry water and “stuff”?”
“Here’s a cosmetics tote. Put some in there.”

So, we put on our protective long pants, shirts, hats and best hiking boots, grabbed two liters of water, bought our tickets into the park and headed out.

Kind of a disappointment right at the start. The “trail in the jungle” is as wide as most Costa Rican roads; and, it’s flat and nicely graded with fine gravel. On top of that, there were several large tour groups being noisily led to their great adventure by paid guides.

None of that for us! We’re world-famous wilderness explorers!

We got ahead of or behind most of the chattering Germans & Canadians & Americans and finally got to a place where the road-like trail looked like a real trail. Just dirt, roots, bugs, plants and you.

After a short time on the trail, we were sure that none of the tours seemed to be following us. Then, we came up to a very decayed, barely readable Park sign, showing the layout of the trail (a loop) and where the main attractions were along that trail, all marked and numbered. We studied the sign but couldn’t make much out due to severe jungle rot and weathering. Another tour couple came up and headed to the right side of the loop.

“We’re going left,” I declared.

Off we went into the deep rainforest jungle. No fears. The brave Pirate Juan was fully armed with 15 knives (surprised?) and, heck, the whole loop was only 2.5 kilometers. Piece of cake. Pat is in great shape, having been riding her bike 5 to 10 miles a day; and, I’m, well, “Arrrrrgh!”

Climb climb climb climb climb. Damn! Don’t these people know about the proper angle of construction for a trail, or about trail switchbacks? Climb climb. Wow, a body really works up a sweat out here in the jungle, but with 100% humidity, there isn’t much cooling-by-evaporation going on.

Fortunately, I’m wearing one of my best “Coolmax® Moisture Transport™ tee shirts which mechanically pulls the perspiration from your skin and moves it to one of your outer clothing layers, thereby keeping your skin dry and cool.” Unfortunately, my outer clothing layer was some crappy cotton button-down shirt that I grabbed out of the closet. Guess how fast Coolmax can saturate a cotton shirt?

Climb climb. Whoops. We’re over the top of that canyon and now we have to drop down to its bottom.

Drop drop drop drop drop. Huge steps down – the kind where your boot heel is almost touching your butt by the time your other toe touches the next lower trail surface.
Drop drop. Whoops. Down in the bottom. Gotta climb up the other side. Gee, didn’t these people ever hear about how to construct steps so that a normal person can negotiate them?

Climb climb climb. Whoops. Drop drop drop. Whoops. Climb climb climb.

Climb till you can’t breathe. Drop until your knees hurt. Climb. Drop. Climb. Drop.

Damn! Gimme some water. Gimme a GPS reading. Where the hell are we? Whataya mean the jungle canopy won’t let a satellite signal through? They told us that durn Garmin thingy would get a reading inside the Bat Cave even while The Joker jams the signals outside.

Ever sweated so much that your SHOES soaked through? Ever sweated so much that your wallet was so soaked through that the leather softened and your credit cards permanently debossed your name into the leather wherever they touched? Sheeeeit!

Guess how fast we both went through our liter of water, sweating that much? Think we were to the geocache yet?


We must have looked so bad to other people we encountered (all going the other way, coming from the right side of the loop) that we convinced several of them to turn around without any explanation.

This went on for 3 hours.

Know what happens when you run out of sweat? That was just about when we reached the approximate cache site and we drank the last swallows of water. I stopped sweating. Very very bad symptom.

Pat was not quite as bad off as me (remember, she cheats by riding her bicycle back at Houston.) While I meandered around in my heat stroke daze, she tried her best to decipher the hiding place clues and get a reading through the jungle canopy on her GPS. No luck. We decided to bail.

About a (flat) hundred yards down the other side of the loop we ran into one of the tour couples.

“Is it flat this direction or is it all up and down?”
“Uh, its flat and the beach is just over there.”

Another hundred flat yards of staggering and we came out into the shade behind one of the legendary Manuel Antonio beaches. Sun worshipers were frolicking in the surf. Tourists were playing with the monkeys. Fat old Germans were kicked back on their beach chairs, swilling water and eating bratwurst sandwiches (or whatever fat Germans eat.) I’d say, FUCK right here, but this is a family blog.

I plopped down on a beach bench and sloshed sweat from my saturated clothes all over the place. I think I looked pretty wonderful to the tourists. Pat must have looked pretty concerned that her “famous Pirate” was about to croak on some Park bench in the middle of the Garden of Eden for want of a drink of water. Anyhow, she was so convincing to some passers-by that they popped out a full liter of their water and gave it to me. I downed it like a fraternity kid downing a beer.

Thirty minutes later, I could walk. I got over to the cold fresh water showers (?!?) and drenched my head. I was ready to go again – as long as “again” didn’t involve any climbing.

A great first geocache in Costa Rica.

28 November 2009

You think you’ve gone through a safety inspection of your car? Think again.

If you follow any of my ramblings on the other blog you know a little bit about our old truck that we use to bounce down the roads of Costa Rica. The truck has a name. Pat calls her “Suzie.” I call it “That %$!#&@ car.” Any-hoo, at this time of year in Costa Rica, EVERY car and truck in the country has to pay their annual license plate fee. Oh, but there’s a slight catch. They won’t accept your payment unless you have a new safety inspection certificate. No biggie? Yeah, right.

We made an appointment for one Friday evening because smart Costa Ricans know that not many people want to put up with government inspections when they could get an early start on the weekend, at a time that probably interferes with the first cocktail.

We were forewarned that Suzie’s lights all had to work, as well as the wipers, brakes and … electric windows? Damn. The front passenger window had a bad switch. Ever try to find an electric window switch for a 1994 Isuzu, in a little town in Costa Rica?

Amazingly, the local auto parts purveyor “had a friend” that could come up with a useable switch for “only $90, U.S.” Greeeaaaaat. We placed the order and some little courier boy, on a motor scooter, had it to our local parts shack within hours. These are resourceful people.

Anyway, after 10 minutes work, the window was operating just fine and we headed for the inspection station.

The Costa Rican Vehicle Inspection Station ain’t some ratty gas station or mechanics bay in a back alley. These places are huge, with efficient processing offices to take your fees (up front) and set up your “work order.”

Work order?

We trip-trapped around the back of the monster building and came up to 8 drive-through bays, wide and tall enough for a semi tractor and as long as a football field. The bays are each lined with blinking winking computer screens and control panels for (erk!) real testing equipment.

Our first “agent” did a walk around on Suzie and then started in:

High Beams
Left Turn Signal
Right Turn Signal
Wipers (wipers?)
Windshield washers (washers!?!)
Pop the hood and shake the battery and hoses (geez!)

Open my door and inspect the control panel; my seatbelt; the general interior

Open all the doors and check each seatbelt, buckling it in place.

Walk to the back and repeat the entire “lights routine,” including the brake lights.

“You have a very serious problem.” Damn.


“Your rear license plate light is out.”

“Oh, don’t worry, I’ll get it fixed.”

“You’ll have to get it fixed before I continue with this inspection.” Continue?

Aw, geez.

I’ll spare you the details of racing all over creation trying to find a light bulb for Suzie with little luck. By the time we finally found one and got the light working, the testing facility was closed.

Next day, at the crack of noon, we were back over to the testing station. Pray that the damn light works and that none of the others have shorted out in the mean time (Suzie likes to play that “works today but not tomorrow” game.)

Fortunately, all of the lights worked and we were motioned down the testing bay to the first “station.”

While a Technician stuck the familiar gas sensor rod up Suzie’s tail pipe, another motioned us up a few inches until the front wheels fell several inches into a pit. All of a sudden we could hear the wheels winding up. Then the left side started to rumble and bounce like we were running at high speed over a typical horrible country road. On a plainly visible computer screen, a graphic representation of a front suspension, left side, was bouncing all over the place and registering performance numbers. This was repeated to the right side. At this one station, they had tested the wheel bearings, shocks, springs, tires and ball joints.

Then we were moved up until the rear fell into the pit. Same story but now we were also on a dynamometer. Talk about a test!

Next we roll down the bay to the brake testing station (both front and rear, individually, plus the parking brake.) Then it’s on to the wheel alignment station and the headlight alignment station.

Unbelievably, that %$!#&@ car passed everything.

How many hundred thousand cars in the U.S. would fail this test? We could get all of those wrecks off the road if we had safety inspections like this.

But, then, again, what fun would that be if the Feds took over vehicle testing? All of those crooked cousins that own crooked inspection stations at their crooked gas stations would be out of business. Our economy would be in the tank.