Costa Rica Travels Part Four: Upriver with Jungle Tom
CC and I are arguing about whether we are on a sand spit or on a peninsula. We could both be right. What is absolutely certain is that we are further from civilization than I have ever been – a couple hours on paved roads from San Jose, then another hour plus on unpaved roads, then 45 minutes up a muddy waterway to the riverfront village of Tortuguero.
I mean, it’s not exactly the heart of darkness, given that there are both Canadian retirees and goat cheese pizza here, but on the other hand, you can walk the beach 22 miles and not run into anything the whole way. As in, nothing.
This is a sweet sign, no? And behind it, Tortuguero’s one and only street. No cars at all. There were usually just some street dogs and cute kids riding bikes.
The little river village of Tortuguero is would be where I would come to write my novel. It is about half a mile long and on about 200 yards of dirt wedged between a river and the Caribbean. The people are a gorgeous mix of Black and Latino, Costa Rican and Nicaraguan.
I would sit out on the dock at Casa Marbella and write and write like Hemingway. Except better. (Snort). I would drink semi-frozen ginger ale in the wet heat and listen to the howler monkeys and write the hell out of that thing. I would.
When we had to go back to civilization, we caught a ride with Jungle Tom. We had heard tales of Jungle Tom from some Dutch guys we met the night before when we were drinking bad white wine and playing Crazy 8s on the dock with Roberto, who ran the hotel.
Tom’s boat arrived first, at our dock, where his skinny, silent driver picked us up. The boat driver took us over to the public dock, never saying a word. We waited and waited, until a large, sweaty man, who looked for all the world to be the victim of a very bad hangover (i’m not saying he was hungover. But he really LOOKED hungover), showed up and climbed aboard.
The public dock, where people just hang out in the shade.
We began speeding up the 32 km of canal, flying along the glassy water in our flat little tourist boat. Jungle Tom made a pile of life vests, put his head down on them, and fell fast asleep.
He awoke only to harangue some German ladies about switching seats on the boat and throwing off the boat’s balance, and later to bolt awake to point out exotic animals inhabiting the river banks, like the Jesus Christ (because it walks on water) lizard.
Once Tom spotted some animal, he would gruffly demand – not ask for, demand – people’s cameras to take photos. People were starting to get a little freaked out by Jungle Tom’s behavior.
After about an hour speeding up the river, we came to a landing. We got off the boat and in to a Mercedes 14-passenger van. We had been told that we were returning to to San Jose, with a stop for a prepaid dinner along the way.
We drove for about 90 minutes on unpaved road through the banana plantations, the stones in the road sometimes as big as basketballs. The van made this weird bubbling sound from the suspension or maybe the brakes, and we had Bob Marley blasting on the stereo. We lurched and bounced along slowly over the rocky road. When we finally got to the paved road, everyone cheered.
Jungle Tom opening a gate in one of the banana groves
We arrived in Liberia, a town with an airport, and let the German ladies off. When Jungle Tom got back in the van, he asked a passenger, “Are you going to San Jose, or Cahuita?”
My heart seized up a little. San Jose was one direction. Cahuita was in another, about an hour down the road or more.
“San Jose,” the man replied.
“Oh, good,” Tom said. “That sounds right.”
Great. It seemed like he had no idea where he was supposed to be taking us. At this point, I realized that the chances of us stopping for the prepaid dinner were slim. I gave thanks for the fact that I had wisely stashed some Clif Bars in my bag. (Word to the wise: Clif Bars are a traveler’s best friend and have saved me many times).
We caught traffic and crawled along for hours. It would not have been so bad except that Tom continuously honked at the traffic in front of us and tried to pass anywhere he could, stupidly, impotently, dangerously, gaining a few feet of ground at the cost of many grey hairs among the ten of us left on the bus.
At the pee stop, the French women hissed in the bathroom “C’est horrible!”
“Oui, oui,” was the only thing I could think to say.
As we reboarded the bus, Tom told us in Spanish “When we get to the mountains and it is raining and dark and you can’t see the road, don’t scream “We’re all going to die!” because I can see the road and I’m a good driver, so sit down and be quiet and let me drive.”
I began praying then. I had been annoyed and amused before, but now I was afraid of this madman. The darkness fell and the rain began to hammer down and we were in the mountains and I don’t know how it was because I had my eyes closed and was breathing four counts in, hold four, four out, hold four…trying to keep a grip on my sanity.
Until we came to the bandits. A car was parked in the middle of the dark mountain road, flashers on, rain pounding down. A lone man stood in the road, waving us down. I thought “This is exactly like they say in all the guidebooks where they tell you not to stop because you’ll get robbed or kidnapped.”
Of course Tom stopped.
The man told us his wife was sick, they couldn’t get a cell signal because of the mountains, the car was broken down.
Tom invited them to ride with us. He didn’t even know what the woman was sick with, and he invited them to ride with us. Could have been anything – something highly contagious – who knows. Thank God the man said no, all he wanted was for us to report the breakdown at the police station on the top of the mountain, past the tunnel. So he was not, in fact, a bandit. Whew.
It was about 6 hours total on the boat and in the van. Finally the rain stopped and we saw the lights of San Jose in front of us, and all of us, French, American, Argentinian, every one, clapped and cheered just to be alive.
As we saw the city grow closer, the Eagles came on the radio. I don’t even like the Eagles, but CC and I didn’t care. We didn’t care if people thought we were insane American middle-aged ladies.
We both started belting out “So put me on a highway, and show me a sign…take it to the limit, one more time.”