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Familiar Faces : Foreigners Traveling on Costa Rican Roads Bump Into Knowing Smiles

<i> T. Jefferson Parker is a novelist and writer who lives in Orange County. His column appears in OC Live! the first three Thursdays of every month. </i>

After a day of driving through a nation notorious for its bad roads, your muscles ache, your joints revolt and your nerves feel like they’ve been stroked by a wire brush. If you are the driver, you clutch the wheel at 10 and two, gritting your way up the next rock-studded grade. If you’re a passenger, you slip into that dreamy state where you imagine a dinner, drinks and clean sheets, but every minute or so your chin bounces off your chest and your eyes open again to the dire exigencies of the road.

And so it was while our two-car caravan strained toward the Arenal Observatory Lodge somewhere in the mountains of Costa Rica. Until, that is, our rear party of four--packed into a Hyundai four-door--stalled in the middle of a washed-out section of the dirt road, water cascading over the tires, headlights illuminating their stasis, starter grinding away with vanishing energy and no effect.

Always willing to imagine the worst, I stood on the far shore and watched, wondering what would happen if the starter just died and the Hyundai wouldn’t move. We had a chain in the vehicle that had already made it across the water--a four-door truck with a small open bed in the back and a power train apparently comprised of two small squirrels. The idea that this truck and a chain could actually pull out the sedan was bad comedy.

I tallied up the provisions, should we be stuck there for the night. We had four half-empty bottles of water, a plastic bag of blackening bananas, and I owned a three-pack of breath mints courtesy of Continental Airlines. Pretty thin cuisine, considering our last meal was at least 100 miles and 1,000 hours ago. Could we eat the upholstery and still get back our damage deposit, I wondered?

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As duly noted by songwriters and poets, the darkest hour is just before the dawn. Which is to say that just as the Hyundai appeared to shiver its last, the plucky little engine caught and roared (the verb is excessive) to life, sending a plume of victorious white smoke into the dank Costa Rican night.

We on shore cheered. Those in the Hyundai waited until the sedan had crossed the water and dragged itself onto dry land before doing likewise. We were on our way again!

A few minutes later a heavenly sign appeared on the road ahead of us. A truck came down toward us from the dark infinity of jungle above, trundling past with a friendly nod from the driver. And not just any truck, but an Imperial Brewery truck, having just deposited--we could only assume--a cargo of cold cervezas to the Arenal Observatory Lodge. We were clearly the chosen people.

A few arduous kilometers later, we rolled into the parking area of the lodge. We got out, stared toward the dark mass of Arenal Volcano in the distance, stretched our tired bodies. We could smell the food in the restaurant. I was already imagining the next day’s hike, which would lead us partway up the grumbling cone of Arenal.

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We felt the pressure of the day begin to release, the anticipation of the night calling. Then we went to claim our reserved rooms at the open-air front “desk” and discovered that we were at the wrong lodge.

“You want the Arenal Lodge,” the clerk explained. “This is the Arenal Observatory Lodge.”

He gave us the same conciliatory smile that the car lease agent had used on us, and I wondered if this was the national expression. But he gave us directions, pointing out through the darkness to the way we had come. Yes, we would have to cross the washed-out road again, yes we would have to backtrack across the brain-scrambling rocks and ruts.

“He’s kidding,” someone mumbled.

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“No, he’s not. Forward, ho!”

The sedan didn’t stall in the water this time because Tom went through it at about 50 k.p.h. Our little squirrel-powered truck scrambled to keep up. We bounced back through the darkness at an accelerated pace, each driver seeking that mythical speed where tires are said to “just hit the tops of the rocks,” resulting in a smoother, faster ride. We achieved the faster part, anyway.

As luck would have it, the road to the right lodge was even worse than the one to the wrong lodge. Stretches of it were so vertical that snippets of concrete had been thrown in--either so the tires could find purchase in the mud, or perhaps as a simple affirmation that this was truly a road--and for this concrete we were grateful. We ascended from darkness into blackness. We passed a four-wheel drive Land Cruiser stuck in a roadside ditch. Finally, just this side of eternity, a sign welcomed us: WELCOME TO THE ARENAL LODGE--YOU MADE IT!

We spent two days there, hiking the volcano and climbing down to a waterfall, both rather boring activities compared to Third World motoring. During this peaceful hiatus, we geared up for our next outing on the Costa Rican roads.

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Early on our day of departure we ate a grandiose breakfast and headed out. Our goal was the Monteverde Cloud Forest, a national park high in the mountains that was, as the crow flies, not that far away. But crows don’t take the road. We did, though it made the road to the Arenal Lodge look like the Autobahn.

We careened around corners featuring sheer drops of 500 feet; we slid around lumber trucks and herds of Brahma cattle; we zoomed through the terraced fields of coffee from which the workers paused to give us--you guessed it--that minor smile so pregnant with wonder and condolence. Upon entering the village of Monteverde we noted that in the billboards left standing from the last election, the winning presidential candidate smiled down on us with this exact look on his face. Everybody knew us!

We arrived at the cloud forest after driving some 8 1/2 hours. Out of curiosity, perhaps masochism, I hauled out the map to see how far we’d gone and was somewhat disheartened to learn it was less than 90 miles. Our cloud forest guide pointed out the Arenal Volcano in the distance and told us that using a perfectly good footpath running between the volcano and the forest, she had easily made the walk in a little more than nine hours. All eight of us gave her the look that we were getting pretty good at--the undertaker’s smile, the knowing little smirk, the billboard grin.

“I know,” she said. “The roads here aren’t great.”

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A week later, back in the capital of San Jose, we stopped to run our rental cars through the wash. Deltas of mud ran forth. We then wiped the seepage from the Hyundai oil pan, which looked like a fresh Jiffy Pop dome might look if you dropped baseballs on it.

While we waited for the rental company representative to come pick up the vehicles, a couple of us loitered outside the hotel, practicing “the expression” in the windows. We were fluent in it by now, almost as good as the locals. So by the time he got there we all gave it to him, laying it on pretty thick. He studied our knowing, tragic, bemused smiles. He gave us back one of his own. He didn’t look at the oil pan, generously overlooked the new dents and signed us off.

“I see you enjoyed driving in Costa Rica,” he said.

“It couldn’t have been better!”

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