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A Recent Trip to Costa Rica and Nicaragua (Part 3)

Recently I spent a couple of weeks traveling in Costa Rica and Nicaragua. It was my first land border crossing in a while, and I think my second ever on a bus. I got to see tons of great things, learned a lot about Central America and myself, and got to relax and enjoy the world. All in all I’ll give it a 9/10. If you missed any of the previous pieces, catch up starting with part 1 and part 2, then continue to part 4 and conclude with part 5.

After taking a bus from San Jose, Costa Rica to Managua, Nicaragua, then having myself an authentic Nicaraguan taxi experience I was happy to meet up with my friend. We caught up briefly then packed into the car taking us to our hostel for the next couple of days, Hostel Paraiso on Laguna de Apoyo. We arrived in the dark so didn’t get much of a chance to see the place. The kitchen was closed but they opened it up again to make us some crepes. They let us know the bar was going to close in about 2 hours but that the beer fridge was 24/7 – just write down what we’d drank and we’d settle up at the end.  Paradise Hostel? If not it’s damn close.

We hit the sack early so we could get a fresh start. Rumor had it swimming at dawn was not to be missed. In spite of my hatred of mornings I determined to do that. It was worth it in the chilly water and watching the sun come up over the rim of the extinct volcano in which we were swimming. Grabbed some breakfast to start the day. After an appropriate period of rest and caffeinating we grabbed some sunscreen and a couple of kayaks to paddle around.

After half hour the sun and exercise had us feeling warm but the water was cooling us down and helping us stay strong. So I challenged us to paddle around the whole lake. I figured it’d take another 1-2 hours and we’d be back in time for some rest and a shower before lunch. It wasn’t until halfway across the lagoon, a couple of hours in that I began to realize my sunscreen apparently hadn’t worked, and in the tropical sun on the water I was very exposed. We got back 3 hours after we’d left and my skin was already starting to look like a sunset in patches. Ah well, it’s the price of a good day’s exercise.

The rest of that day and the next I took it easy, just relaxing by the water’s edge in the shade. The bar/cafe area was perfect for that, attracting a stream of hostel guests, lake visitors and expats living on the shore. It was a great place to be and I enjoyed it thoroughly. My skin responded to the harsh treatment predictably, but the cool of the shade and the good times helped to soothe the pain. The aloe helped as well.

All things end, and so too my time at this lake paradise. The next week would see me reuniting with, working alongside and saying goodbye to old friends and colleagues. Doing humanitarian work in Nicaragua, helping to bring fresh water and sanitation to those who don’t have it. Humbling and inspiring work.

A Recent Trip to Costa Rica and Nicaragua (Part 1)

Recently I spent a couple of weeks traveling in Costa Rica and Nicaragua. It was my first land border crossing in a while, and I think my second ever on a bus. I got to see tons of great things, learned a lot about Central America and myself, and got to relax and enjoy the world. All in all I’ll give it a 9/10. This is a series so continue reading with part 2, part 3, part 4 and part 5.

When I first got to the San Jose airport I found myself dumped out into a sea of taxi drivers, without so much as a welcoming terminal to walk through. There were no ATMs I could find so I pushed through the waves and went to the calm harbor of the departure terminal where there were a few ATMs.

Unfortunately my ATM cards didn’t work. On the cafe wifi I called my bank and they couldn’t figure out why but asked me to try tomorrow. Not a good answer, I’ll be changing banks soon. I managed to take out some expensive money on my credit card and off I went to find the bus.

To take the local bus into town you have to walk around the parking structure out front. The cost was at the time 530 colones – about a dollar. And they take dollars, so if you can’t use your ATM card you’re not totally out of luck. A taxi dispatcher was helping folks find the bus to San Jose and helped me. Kind of him.

2-3 stops in a guy got on the bus. A man got up and offered the window seat but the new arrival begged off, saying his leg was bad and he needed to stretch it. Then he pulled out the cup and balls game. He took some money and gave some money in the first few games. But swiveling your head to engage people in the back leaves you open to someone lifting the cups and exposing where the ball is. One of the guys who’d lost a few dollars did just that. Lesson here is keep your friends close and your enemies in eyesight. Or don’t make enemies of the guy behind you.

I got dropped off in the center of town. Walked around the main pedestrian street. Not a lot to see and to do in San Jose. Great views of the mountains around though. Very few places have wifi.

Got a bus ticket for the 7:30 SJO-MGA. Will arrive at 4:30pm if it’s on time. Tickets aren’t sold on the bus apparently so if you want to get on one of the early AM busses you have to buy the day before. Otherwise no ticket, no ride. (This isn’t strictly true as I found out later in part 2.)

Ended up at a cool hostel in an old looking building. Not sure if its actually old or made to look like it. Decent bar and cafe with lots of places to juice up your tech gear.

Dinner at a Lebanese place. Got the schwarama and Lebanese cheese. The schwarama was described as two tacos but it was actually a more traditional wrap. Interesting that the dish wasn’t described as burritos. Maybe they don’t have those down here. Incredibly flavorful. Way too much food, but it fit nicely into a to go box. Hope the folks on my bus tomorrow don’t get too jealous. 😉

A Departure Delayed in Paris

The first time I visited Paris was my first real trip abroad unchaperoned and fully in control of my own destiny. That journey helped start me on the path to who I am today. I have a lot of great memories of that trip. Now I’m back for a few days and I’ll try to find out what’s changed – both here and within myself – and rediscover my younger self in the process. This is part of a series of my reminiscences of Paris.

After the night of reminiscing in my old Paris neighborhood I woke up relaxed. I lazed around a bit and ran a couple of errands before heading out to the airport. Life was good and I was in no hurry. But my last errand took a bit longer than I’d planned. Not too bad and I’d still have plenty of time, just not enough to take the Metro and train. I’d have to grab a cab instead.

Read the rest of this entry

My Worst Flight Ever?

I’m on the worst flight of my life. I have traveled a lot and am happy to report things have never been this bad. It’s exciting in a way! I shall report on my situation in excerpts from my mental travelogue. My hope is that either posterity will know what was my woeful fate or that we’ll all have a laugh together.

I had an inkling things might be not go so well when the majority of people at 6am were checking into last night’s 10:30 flight that had some delays. And on the board every flight since that one proudly called out that it had been delayed before it departed. Why display flights that are gone already, especially when they make you look bad? I dunno. But they did. Luckily mine checked in and started boarding on time. Well, on Armenian time which is to say nobody was in too big a rush to be punctual.

Some things are not the airline’s fault. I mean this Armenia, which is more European than Europe in its people’s befuddlement of the winged train-like object that makes the ground shrink and move underneath you. Using manners perfectly alright for train travel like getting up to walk around as the mechanized wonder is departing, so they can grab the stinky cheese and meat from the overhead, meanwhile the cart of apples spills down the aisle picking up nearly enough speed on the plane’s ascent to breach the back. Things that work on trains just don’t work on planes though. I’m half wondering if there haven’t been more than one confused European who tries to open the door at 30,000 feet to smoke or to find the restaurant car.

There is the old guy who’s never been on a plane next to me. He is testing everything to see if it does something and how it works. That includes the armrest, pulling it up, finding that it lifts and putting it down again before trying the one on the other side. Sure enough it lifts too. On to the tray table for a while then back to the armrests. I can only imagine his sense of wonder when yet again they lift.

Every drink or food tray that comes down the aisle he anticipates and times to make sure he will be served. Leaping towards the aisle to grab at whatever Precious resides within the steel contraption. He reserves the same zeal for darting toward the window to peer at the sea of clouds below.

Then there are your standard bad mannered airline folk on board as well. Like the prototypical screaming kid right behind me. He starts with “I’m MAFIA” and banging his tray table (my seat back) up and down. After a few minutes of this civilized behavior he gets bored and starts kicking the seat and yelling louder. Then his mother says something at him (not to him) in a loud tone enough times that he starts screaming, alternating between shrill bursts and wailing. Then he quiets himself briefly, talks calmly and starts again. The cycle is about 30 minutes long so it should be easy to time the flight.

And once again my arm is crammed into my shoulder before my elbow slides off. It’s more of a yanking upwards than I described above I guess. The way only old men who have done manual labor all their lives can manage. With strength that comes from sinews tightened from years of wrenching loose rusted bolts, plowing fields or maybe pulling locomotives. I don’t know, but the motion is spastic and strong.

But this strength and dexterity fail him when they hand the hot goupy tray on top of the slick box of food. This soon becomes a hot goupy lap full as you might imagine. Two laps full because he has shared his lunch with me. Now I can’t fully blame the old guy for this maneuver, I mean who puts a nuclear hot metal tray on top of a slick paper box and hands the whole contraption over a row of people in a sardine tray?

Armavia, that’s who. The national airline of Armenia would probably be the envy of the 1957 TWA with their modern jets, bulky stewardesses and ability to skillfully save space. Cram six seats in a space most airlines waste on five seats. So much room is wasted on the aisles on other airlines that the carts luxuriously parade up and down the plane, hardly banging anyone on the knee or elbow. Not so Armavia. And why pamper baggage with a regular size overhead compartment? I’m sure on a full flight all the bags will fit in sideways…oh nope I guess they didn’t. Delay while we put check some luggage, hopefully to reemerge either plane side or at the carousel at the destination. Their one luxurious row of first class is protected by a curtain that sits in the chair of a row of cattle class, making it unusable. And the announcement in French sounds like somebody held their phone up to the speaker during an air France announcement and recorded it.

So in my cramped seat I sit, wishing that the air vent worked. Listening to the sweet serenade of “I’m MAFIA” and commiserate with my seat which is taking punishment from as many sides as I am today. The aforementioned hot meal served was hardly a respite, with a date carved into the foil of a week ago exactly. I wasn’t sure if it was the date it was made, supposed to be served or when it would go bad. In any case it was an indicator that I should adopt my strategy of staying alive at third world restaurants and become a vegetarian. So I was able to eat one slice of cheese and one of cucumber, as well as the mint. The chocolate snack looked like the Baby Ruth bar in Caddyshack – slimy and turdlike so I avoided it and withheld my urge to yell “doody!”

Perhaps an ill choice of words. Not more than two hours after lunch it smells as if one of my nearest neighbors has shit himself. I’d blame the kid but he hasn’t let up in his game of trying to snap his tray off. Whereas the old man has gone very still all of a sudden.

Well it turns out to be the kid behind me. What I felt as the pulling on the tray was just his mother changing him on it. He didn’t quite fit – you know they don’t make those trays as big as they should to change your 2 year old. I was suddenly worried that my decision to even eat the cheese and cucumber might have been a bad one.

We circle the city for a while. This is always the worst. Like when the person just in front of you in line takes an interminable amount of time owing to some complaint or error on their part. Or worse over a small amount of money thy are trying to talk the cashier out of. We finally come to the ground and applause erupts as if Nadia Comaneci has just won the gold. Really, planes and pilots do this several times every day. Not once every four years. It’s not an amazing feat of heroism.

As soon as the cheers die down we pause briefly on the tarmac awaiting ground instructions. And we are nearly bounced back into the air by the force of the humanity jumping out of their seats. As per standard practice someone comes on the intercom – Armenian only, they know who it is jumping up. That does nothing except to make the standees talk louder to be heard. And a stewardess walks back as far as the first bunch, telling them to sit again. They look at her, dismiss her with a motion and she returns to her post. Their surprise is audible as the plane lurches forward again to continue to the terminal. Their faces seem to say “How rude to move the plane like that after you’ve stopped it. Don’t blame us if you parked so far away the first time.” The former hero captain now reduced to an idiot in their eyes.

And that is the end of my journey. I have lived again. And with story in hand I head to print it for all the world to read. And maybe to clap at my own feat of heroism and restraint.

Delayed at Borispol in Kiev

So there’s apparently a delay at Borispol airport in Kiev. Nobody at the airport seems to know why. But according to the Kyiv Post, the massive delays at Borispol were caused by an unpaid bill. According to the article, the billionaire oligarch who runs Ukraine’s largest airline failed to pay his airport bill for so long that they cut the airline off and shut down operations.

I can’t verify this, but I have some theories. First theory is that it was an honest mistake, the digital check got lost in the electronic mail, and that everything will be resolved quickly and amicably. Second theory is that someone on one side or the other is relatively incompetent and just didn’t do what they should have. Third theory is that this is a broader social issue around oligarchy in the region. Fourth is that this was a move to make money.

The official story is that there was a systems glitch. This caused payment not to be sent or applied. And everything would be straightened out quickly. But given that shutting off an airline would take a positive action on the part of someone, and that it would be guaranteed to cause massive disruption and frustration, it seems like it’d have to be a huge glitch that persisted over months with nobody’s common sense kicking in to fix it. Otherwise the organizations would work together to get it figured out and there would be no disruption. So that leaves us with one of the other two theories as being more likely.

What if some incompetent bureaucrat caused the shutdown? Given the region’s reputation for incompetent bureaucracies that seems like a likely candidate. Maybe the check or paperwork sat on somebody’s desk too long. Or maybe somebody went on vacation without approving whatever needed to be approved for continued service. Or somebody was just obstinate about process, paperwork or whatever and didn’t do the right thing by the passengers. That’s believable.

What if this were an oligarch fight? Aerosvit is owned by an oligarch, according to the article. But it’s not clear who owns and operates the airport. That may be another oligarch. So maybe this is a feud. Or maybe someone at the airport decided to stand up to an oligarch who refused to pay for services. Or maybe the airport was trying to squeeze the oligarch for more money or power or some other reason. That’s fairly likely as well.

But a complete shutout of Aerosvit isn’t exactly what happened. Instead, flights were coming in on time, but not allowed to leave for hours. So peasants passengers were forced to spend extra time inside the airport itself, not just backed up at other airports. And therefore they were more than likely to buy stuff – food, drinks, souvenirs, cigarettes, whatever. So really there was an economic incentive for the airport to keep people there longer than need be. Maybe not enough incentive to offset the loss of goodwill by the passengers and airline, but who knows. This would be just the thing to increase revenues in the short term – perhaps to pay for things like makeovers for security agents or ongoing expansions in advance of the European Cup?

Haggling Indian Style

I’ve had quite a few haggling sessions with local vendors, cabbies and others. But a technique I saw used in India is different than those I’ve seen elsewhere. It’s pretty effective though.

When hailing an autorickshaw (also called a tuk-tuk) from one Mumbai airport to the other, one of the police officers told me that I shouldn’t pay any more than 100 Rupee – but that the drivers would try to charge more because of time of day. Good information. So I flagged down one of the drivers and he started me off at 150. I countered with 80, he went to 120, but wouldn’t go lower. “Ni-time cost moah.” He continued, “Eet ees not pah-mitted to peeck ahp heeah. Beeg fine.” “Mahch chiper dan taxee.” I went to another driver and he started at 180 INR and gave me the same lines about higher cost for night time and being the wrong area for picking up customers.

I walked away from him too and the first guy came back and told me OK, he’d take me. For 100, I asked? 120. Back to where we left off – that’s not a negotiating technique. So I turned and started to walk away. He said OK 100.

In the vehicle he told me why he wanted more. Night time. Wrong area. Taxis cost 2x. Yeah I got it. A few short minutes later we’re at the other airport. I hopped out and went for my wallet. “Plis sah. 150.” I handed him 100. Again he told me of his woes. Night time. Big fines. He looked at me with big brown eyes. “Plis.”

That’s a similar technique some of my neighbors use when I have them do yard work. We negotiate to a rate I’m happy with, then after they’re done ask for more because it was bigger than they’d thought. I turned away the tuk-tuk driver. I usually give in to my neighbors.

It’s not that I’m a softie for Americans, it’s that the situations are different. I’m never going to see the tuk-tuk guy again. My neighbors know where I live. And a lot of the times they’re looking out for me when I’m not around so it pays to keep them happy. And if I know their tactics I can get to the real rates for things and not get suckered. Well not too bad anyway. And each negotiation becomes a reference point for the next one. “Last time you came back and asked for more – are you going to try that this time?”

Just beware this haggling technique when in India and understand you may get hit up for more after you get what you want.

Athena And The Fates Intervene

See more posts in the Mystery Trip saga!

The Greeks begged me to stay another day here. Technically I guess it was Delta, but the people who asked were Greek. Apparently the flight was over weight so they were looking for people to take the one the next day.

So here’s the package they gave me. $1,000 in Delta credit. I’ll probably be in First Class tomorrow. 1 night at the Sofitel Hotel – a nice place 50 yards from the terminal. And an extra day of travel. How could I say no? So I said yes!

See you Atlantans tomorrow!

NASA Im Munchen


False Security


Security Line