I opened my eyes and checked my watch – it was 9AM, and it was already hot in my little concrete room. The fan above my bed was spinning at top speed, wobbling chaotically back and forth like it was ready to uproot itself from the ceiling and buzz around the room like a giant mosquito. Despite the thick concrete walls of my room, and the fan’s best efforts, the sun shone through the thin curtains and boiled me awake. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and sat up in bed to get my bearings.
I pulled some semi-clean clothes from my bag and showered in the half-finished bathroom. It was basically a concrete box with a water-spewing tube jutting out of the wall at head height. The hot water knob let loose a dry growl from the tube; The cold water knob delivered as advertised. Standard.
I carried my bags to the open living room of the main house, where I was able to plug my laptop into their modem and get online to check my email. My friend Joel was flying in to Costa Rica from New York and I was supposed to meet him that afternoon in Jaco, but I needed to find out where our accommodations were.
I knew Jaco was a couple bus rides away, but I didn’t know how far it was. I’d never been before, but I knew it was a popular tourist destination for American travelers who wanted to see Central America, but preferred the beaches and modern amenities of Costa Rica to the grittier realities that the rest of Central America has to offer. I’d been living in that grit for a while now, and I thought it’d be nice to hit the beach for a while with an old friend.
I had an email from Joel in my inbox. His only directions were to find an intersection in Jaco, then walk 200 meters East of the KFC. Yes, the directions used Kentucky Fried Chicken as a reference point. That didn’t sit too well with me. I’d been traveling so far off the tourist track for for so long that KFC seemed like a foreign language to me. There’s no shortage of fried chicken in Central America. On the contrary, it seems to be the national dish of many Central American countries, and I’d definitely eaten my fair share in my travels. But multinational fast food restaurant chains hadn’t been on my radar for a long time. I wondered just how Americanized this Costa Rican beach town had become.
This should be interesting, I thought.
I found a scrap of paper in the desk and wrote a quick note for my friend Santiago, thanking him for his hospitality and letting him know that I caught an early bus out of town. Then I grabbed my bags headed into town to see about catching that early bus.
I found the parque central and the bus stop easily, and within a few minutes, I was on the bus to Liberia. It was a commuter bus, and most of the other passengers were either going to work, or going to school. Everyone was well dressed, with backpacks and briefcases. The public buses in Costa Rica are very different from other Central American buses I’d been riding. They aren’t old American school buses, and they aren’t tricked out with custom paint jobs, speaker systems, flashy lights, and shrines to Jesus. They are clean, new, and not over crowded. They certainly are not Chicken Buses.
I rode this clean, comfortable bus all the way to the last stop at the main bus terminal in Liberia. At the terminal, I grabbed some snacks for the next leg of my journey, and found a bus heading to Puntarenas, a beach town about 3/4 of the way to Jaco. It was a standard Costa Rican bus — nothing fancy, but it was still a big step up from what I was used to. I stowed my bag under the bus, and hopped on board. The ride was going to be 3 or 4 hours long. I opened my window, reclined my seat as far back as it would go, plugged my headphones in, and let the Costa Rican countryside blur by for the next few hours. The wind in my face, the sun on my skin. Compared to my last 5 days of travel, this was paradise.
We rolled down well-paved and pothole-free roads. Past modern buildings, interspersed with clusters of more modest dwellings. A tree in front of a hotel was painted with the colors of the Costa Rican flag, and it read, “Yo soy Costa Rica.” I am Costa Rica. There were long stretches of dry fields, and of lush greenery, and of concrete buildings with rows of glass windows. The varied landscape sped by as we cruised south on the Panamericana Highway towards Puntaranas.
In Puntaranas, I had an hour to kill before the next bus to Jaco. There was a couple from Denmark hanging around the terminal, waiting for a bus to somewhere else. We struck up a conversation in English and I realized that I hadn’t spoken to anyone in English for a few days. It felt at once comfortable and foreign. We decided to grab a bite to eat together. Just down the road, we found a little food stand with seating near the beach.
I ordered the pollo casado, a traditional and hearty Costa Rican dish with rice, beans, and grilled chicken. The word casado means married man, and some people think the meal earned that name because men who went out to restaurants wanted to be fed like they were used to when their wives cooked for them at home. I’ll have the married man’s special, they’d say, the casado. It’s a typical meal, and you can get pretty much the same thing (under a different name) anywhere you go in Central America. I’d eaten something very similar just a few days ago in Nicaragua. In Nicaragua, the rice and beans are mixed together and called gallo pinto. That meal, pollo con gallo pinto, typically costs about $2 in a restaurant in Nicaragua. Here, the rice and beans were separate, and the meal cost me $8; about $4,000 Colones in the local currency. I was shocked when the waiter brought me the bill.
“4,000 Colones?” I exclaimed in Spanish, “I had the same meal 3 days ago in Nicaragua for less $2!”
“Bienvenido a Costa Rica,” He said, happily snatching the money from my gringo hand.
Costa Rica was a lot more expensive than the rest of Central America. The higher prices were almost certainly a direct result of the higher levels of gringo tourism. It’s easy to squeeze a couple extra dollars out of a foreign tourist. When I was living in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, I used to take a collectivo taxi from the beach town to the nearby city of Rivas for $2 from drivers who knew me. On the way back, I’d routinely get quoted $25 for the same ride from taxistas who thought I was just another rich gringo tourist, fresh off the Ticabus. You’d be surprised how many travelers will actually pay that price. In Costa Rica, years of ripping off gringos had set the new standard quite high. Nicaragua isn’t far behind, I fear.
After paying for my overpriced (but delicious) meal, I left the Danish couple at the restaurant and walked back to the bus stop just in time to catch the bus to Jaco. I had another hour and a half to go, and much of the ride was through the hinterland and along the beautiful coast of the Gulf of Nicoya. The bus drove along the Bahia Herradura, and then climbed a pass before descending into Jaco. The sun was setting, as we drove through a stretch of jungle, with ocean views peaking thought he palms and ferns that lined the road.
As we came down the hill, the winding road and green foliage quickly gave way to the streets of Jaco. It was a stark change. There were tall, resort-style hotels along the beach, and there were bright lights, advertising bars, clubs, and restaurants. We rolled slowly though town, past a bar that had a congregation of prostitutes outside, leaning against the wall in high heals and short skirts. Soon after, I saw the unmistakable red and white image of The Colonel on a billboard above a restaurant proudly displaying its brightly lit KFC sign, and I called to the driver to stop. He obliged, and stopped in the middle of the road, blocking traffic while he hopped off the bus with me to pull my backpack from the luggage storage compartment.
The bus pulled away and I was left standing face to face with The KFC Colonel. He was staring down on me like Big Brother from his perch above the KFC sign, always watching, it seemed, no matter where you were in the world. As per my directions, 200 meters up the street to the East, I came upon a complex of condos with a security guard standing out front.
The place looked fancy, too fancy for me, but Joel is a successful guy, and there was a good chance he had rented a place for us in this swanky condo complex. I asked the guard, he checked his list, and indeed, my name was listed. He told me that I was the first to arrive, and he gave me a key and waived me inside. I found the condo, turned the key in the lock, and pushed the door open.
It was spectacular.
The apartment had an open floor plan, so when you opened the door, you were standing in a massive room with a kitchen, living room, and dining area. The kitchen was all stainless steel appliances and granite counter tops. There was a stove, and an oven, and a microwave. I hadn’t seen a real kitchen months, and it made me almost instantly homesick. The feeling caught me off guard.
Dios Mio, I whispered to myself.
The whole place clean and bright, with spotlights in the ceiling, illuminating the modern living room. There was a sectional sofa, and a flat screen tv, and art on the walls. A big curtain on one wall hid a sliding glass door that led to a balcony with a view of the manicured garden of the condo complex. The place was clean, and beautiful, and unlike anywhere I’d stayed in a very long time.
And there I was, still standing in the doorway and feeling very out of place, with my backpack slung over my shoulder, covered in sweat and dust and the general filth of the road. This was a place for successful, wealthy, well-groomed vacationers. It certainly wasn’t a place for a dirty backpacker. And as I stood there, I felt dirtier than ever. I didn’t even want to touch anything without taking a shower. I found the bathroom, and it was equally well-appointed. Bright lights, huge mirror, and a towel rack with thick, bright white towels.
I turned on the water. The hot water. And it came out of the shower head nearly boiling. I ran my hands under the heavy stream of water and smiled. This is going to be nice. I stripped down naked and looked at myself in the mirror. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been able to look at myself in a mirror. My naked body looked frail and foreign under the bright lights. I had tan lines on my shoulders from my tank-tops, and at my waist and thighs from my shorts. My face was dark from the sun, and from the dirt of the road. Weeks and months of cold showers never really get you clean. I was gaunt, underweight, my ribs strained against my skin as I breathed and the I had dark patches of exhaustion under my eyes. My hair was greasy and matted, flat on to top from my hat, and a tangled mess at the ends from neglect. I stared into the mirror for a while, looking into my own exhausted eyes and breathing slowly, meditatively, until the hot water from the shower fogged my reflection into obscurity.
I stepped into the shower and let the hot water run over my body. The water shocked my skin and held me like an unexpected hug. I closed my eyes and stepped into the stream of water, feeling it on my face, hot and cleansing, running over all of my skin, taking away the exhaustion and filth of so many day of travel. I exhaled ragged and deep, like a man who’d been holding his breath too long, waiting for something that he thought might never happen. There was a bar of soap on the ledge. I unwrapped it and scrubbed my whole body, rinsed, and then scrubbed again. I washed my hair with shampoo from a miniature bottle. I conditioned my hair, and then sat on the floor of the shower and washed my feet, massaging the soap in between my toes and pressing hard on the soles, as the still-hot water beat down on my body from above.
When I was sufficiently clean, I pulled a towel from the rack and wrapped myself inside of its comforting, soft folds. I stepped out of the shower, onto the the plush circle of carpet, and grabbed another towel to wipe the fog from the mirror. I looked at myself again in the mirror, under the bright lights, and it was like looking at a different person.
I smiled. And then I laughed. I laughed so hard that I doubled over and had to rest my head against the counter top. I caught my breath and looked back up at my reflection in the mirror and laughed again – I couldn’t stop smiling, and I couldn’t remember the last time something that simple had made me that happy.
There was something hilarious about the extraordinary level of comfort that this luxury condo afforded me. The clean surroundings, the giant mirror, the hot shower, and the soft towel. I’d become so used to the sweat and filth and discomfort of daily life in Central America, that this little microcosm of luxury was like another planet to me.
After nearly a year of living in Guatemala and Nicaragua, I’d grown accustomed to cold showers and a no-frills lifestyle. After 6 days on the road, and some of the most difficult travel I’d ever experienced, I appreciated the simple pleasure of a hot shower more than ever.
I’ll never forget the overwhelming, laugh-out-loud, full-body bliss of that hot shower. It was the kind of shower that made me realize I hadn’t really showered in months. And it felt damn good to be clean again, if only for a short time.