A Trek through Costa Rica: Part II: A Day and a Night at Rudolfo’s (1)

Costa Rica: Part II:  A Night at Rudolfo’s.

We four travelers stumble through the departure gate and into the ramshackle customs area of the Juan Santamaria International Airport. This airport is located in the San Jose suburb of Alajuela, a likewise ramshackle collection of low white houses and white stone streets that snake up into the green hills.


Alajuela (Image courtesy of ds-lands.com)

Chaos reigns in the customs queue, which stretches back almost to the gates and which random people weave through as if it were a chorus line. The world blurs by in flashes. I realize I left my consciousness back in the plane cabin.

Wearily we take out our declarations for the inspectors to view. How long will this take so that we can sleep? Will they mind if I nap while they rifle through our underwear? That conveyer belt looks comfortable enough. And so on.

Suddenly over the cacophony I hear a voice clear as a bell: “Christofer!” Which is my little brother’s name.

A burly middle-aged man past customs waves a sign and gestures for us to come right through. It turns out, this is our man on the inside. He is Rudolfo, a friend of a friend of my mother’s church group – shadowy Catholic connections best not investigated too thoroughly – who works as a customs inspector at this airport.  He’s arranged to whisk us through customs and provide us a place to sleep that night at his house in Alajuela. I’ve never met him before and have no idea who he or his family are. But in travel you have to roll with things.

We hurry our ridiculous big-ass bags past the people in line, shaking our heads slightly toward them – the poor saps! Guess they don’t have an “inside man”. And then we burst out the big glass double doors and into the bright humidity of the pickup area, where Rudolfo’s best friend, Wile, is idling in a beat-up work van to pick us all up.  \


Juan Santamaria International Airport (image courtesy of anywherecostarica.com)

Wile is a man of few words and a fast driver. Still, in my paltry Spanish I secure a few pieces of information. He and Rudolfo live right next door to each other on the same block and have raised their respective families essentially together.  When we pull up in front of Rudolfo’s small bungalow, Wile jumps out and then opens his friend’s door with his own key.

We haul our packs into the dim house and dump everything on the floor. The couches beckon. Wile, correctly reasoning that the time zone shift will kill us unless we stay up and adjust to Costa Rica daylight, has other ideas. He’s gotten a wild hair to try on a role as a tour guide and drive us around his neighborhood, show us the sights.

These sights include an elementary school (“Escuela?” I ask as he points.  “Escuela.” he confirms),  a statue of some female saint in a park (captured by the sculptor in a degree of apparent torment) and a store. Compounding the scarcity of interesting features is our lack of serviceable Spanish with which to comprehend Wile’s thoughts about them.


Alajuela and suburban San Jose (image courtesy of Mario Valerio via Wikimedia Commons (c 2011)

Wile drives us back after he notices my brothers snoring away in the back seat. Finally, we’ll get some shut-eye.

This fantasy is soon snatched away. Rudolfo’s just gotten home. He’s gone through a lot of trouble, missed work, effort to host us here. It wouldn’t exactly be a grateful gesture to collapse on his couch for 12 hours, wake up at 3am starving and lumber around raiding his cupboards like a bunch of bears while his family tries to sleep.

He and his wife insist on making us some food – after all, here in their plane of existence, it is mid-afternoon. The fact that I and my companions currently occupy a separate, funhouse existence of hellish delirium escapes them. But I know they are just trying to be hospitable to their guests and ease us into the time change. So we sit at the table and try to make conversation while Rudolfo’s wife cooks a dish of rice and beans and some sort of meat.

The next thing I know we are fully immersed in what might be just a serious back and forth, but feels a hell of a lot like an argument. about where we are headed next.

Of course, when you’re exhausted and can’t understand 80% of what someone is trying to tell you, and you just need to go to the bathroom and sleep for 15 hours, it’s hard to distinguish between a disagreement and a spirited exchange.

I tell him of our plans to head East and visit Turrialba (for rafting), Limon (a West Indian seaport town) and Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean coast, he shakes his head adamantly. We should correct our course to the east coast , he says, and head south and west, as it is much nicer than Limon and there are plenty of places that turistas like to go.

Limon and much of the Caribbean side, he explains, is crawling with “negras” – black people of West Indian descent – who will beat us up, steal what we carry, and leave us for dead.

I am dismayed but not surprised at this argument, because I have heard that the mestizo Spanish class, which comprises most of the population, harbors much prejudice against the poorer islanders (the West Indians the Spanish themselves, of course, imported to work the banana plantations – a task they imagined themselves too high and mighty to stoop to.) Also, having grown up in a small agricultural town in rural Oregon with a 30% former Mexican migrant population, I’m used to hearing these generalizations.Still Rudolfo is our host and so I let the matter rest. Definitely, I tell him, we’ll go south and west.

Satisfied, Rudolfo steers the topic of our half-conversation to the glories of Costa Rican bananas – so much better than U.S. bananas, so ripe and sweet. I devour the one that he proffers to me, and damn if he isn’t right.

The foods that taste vastly superior in Costa Rica don’t stop at bananas, I will discover. The chicken here is crazy good – it has flavor and nuance you will never get from a U.S. store bird, because it’s mostly cooked still fresh from plucking, from birds that were strutting around in the restaurant’s back yard just hours before. The Coca Cola is more mellow and flavorful because Costa Rican bottlers use real sugar (not shitty corn syrup) delivered fresh from sugar plantations. And the black beans here – don’t even get me started on the wonders of Costa Rican frijoles negras. Hot damn.

And most importantly for a caffeine addict like myself, a cup of coffee that starts its week as dried beans on a table on an organic finca forty miles away – and has just been roasted yesterday –  tastes vastly superior than coffee made from beans that spend months piled green on ocean freighters before being roasted in some factory 3000 miles away.

The rest of our couple of days with Rudolfo flies by. Wile’s high-school aged daughter regales us with tales of her friend’s rafting misadventures – a choice of anecdote that eerily foreshadows what is to come for us. Rudolfo’s nephew, an EMT in San Jose, stops by to offer us fresh goat cheese from his grandmother’s farm, which I try – and try immediately not to spit out. It’s warm and quivering, much like it just dropped out of the goat and into my mouth. But it’s a nice gesture.

And when it’s time to part, the whole family drives us into San Jose to drop us off at the hostel, the Dunn Inn,

masthead_locationDunnInnDRBARHotel Dunn Inn, San Jose. Images courtesy of allcostaricatravel.com

and they are genuinely sad to see us go, even though we did little more than scarf their food and drool snoring on their couch.

With the possible exception of Portugal, I’ve never experienced the level of hospitality displayed by our hosts in Costa Rica, wherever we go in the country. They are truly proud of their country and like to show it off to their guests. Lucky for us, because our adventures are just starting.



12.27.2011 – Conspiracy Roundup: Border Fence Chaos (for TruTV.com Conspiratorium)

Conspiracy Roundup: Border Fence Chaos

Benjamin J Spencer
By Benjamin J Spencer
December 27, 2011 2:24PM

BorderAuthorities in Finland have allegedly discovered 69 smuggled U.S. Patriot missiles and 150 tons of explosives bound for China in crates labeled “fireworks.”

Controversy over the National Defense Authorization Act, which some civil rights groups thinks will legalize indefinite detention of U.S. citizens, is heating up on the internet right before Obama is set to sign it into law.

In related news, Twitter is again accused of censoring news about SOPA, OWS and the National Defense Authorization Act. The company has denied all previous conspiracy theories about coverups.

Some will try anything to conquer an annoying cold. But brain-eating amoeba might be a bit of overkill…

Some suspect these overwhelming displays of grief from North Koreans over the death of dictator Kim Jong Il to be mass-staged for state television. But it’s not like he’s still watching them… or is he?

How did a former British paratrooper manage to run a thriving bar in Baghdad right next door to the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq? Apparently, they had one great Iraqi fixer.

These former Texans now living on the Mexican side of the border fence insist they are still U.S. citizens.

On a related note, it looks like the only immigrant population the Arizona border fence has succeeded in reducing are black bears. To be fair, the bears admitted they were here to take our jobs.

12.3.2011 – Martian Probe: Failed Alien Bio-Weapon? (for TruTV.com Conspiratorium)

Martian Probe: Failed Alien Bio-Weapon?

Benjamin J Spencer
By Benjamin J Spencer
December 3, 2011 12:23PM

ProbeEarth has plenty of reasons to worry when the failed Russian probe Phobos-Grunt eventually hurtles, flaming, out of orbit and crashes onto our planet. On Friday, the European Space Agency gave up trying to contact the craft, and even Russia appears ready to abandon hope a month after they mysteriously lost contact with it.

Not to worry, you might say. After all, didn’t German and U.S. satellites hurtle out of orbit much the same way earlier this year? That turned out fine. After which I would reply: you poor, deluded fool.

Phobos-Grunt, which could crash land as soon as January, is far deadlier than any hunk-of-junk satellite. First, it is loaded with tons of highly combustible rocket fuel intended to propel the craft on a course to the tiny, mysterious Martian moon Phobos (which, incidentally, may not be a moon at all, but a hollow satellite built by the Martians to house the remains of their dying civilization – or even a ship).

Compounding the insanity, a California lab decided to infest the probe with live microbes before sending it on its way to Mars, to the unease of scientists everywhere (the microbial morons also apparently forgot that deadly microbes become even deadlier in space.)  The only explanation for this move: it was a naïve college experiment to test the plot believability of Grade Z 1980s zombie movies.

Now to the real question: Was the probe even designed for space travel? Or was it intentionally prepared by Russia and China to become a giant flaming biological weapon and wreak havoc among Western governments? Or even worse: wage interplanetary biological war against Martians? (A dedicated YouTube researcher has laid out just such a chilling case.)

Ah, an alien nemesis. We knew it couldn’t have been just a coincidence that so many Mars probe missions have been mysteriously cursed.

But wait, there’s more. Now the Russians themselves have suggested that HAARP – the remote and high-tech Alaskan U.S. radar site that America claims is innocently studying the ionosphere – disrupted their communications to the probe, causing the failure. The HAARP project, well-known to the Conspiratorium, has been blamed for deliberately unleashing deadly storms and earthquakes. Could it be a giant weather weapon that took down little Phobos-Grunt?

So much intrigue surrounding one dead probe circling the Earth. No wonder that in Greek and Russian, Phobos-Grunt means, literally “fear soil.”
Photo by MKonair.

11.22.2011 – Conspiracy Roundup: Aliens, Yeti and Dolphins (Oh My!) (for TruTV.com Conspiratorium)

Conspiracy Roundup: Aliens, Yetis and Dolphins

Benjamin J Spencer
By Benjamin J Spencer
November 22, 2011 7:14AM

Dolphins photo by Jesslee Cuizon
Those smelly Yeti are leaving their tree-nests all over Siberia again, angering environmentalists with their wanton destruction. Patience, tree huggers. Give the Yeti time to develop ecological consciousness.

In Southern Ranches, Fla, elected officials secretly kept their plan to let the federal government build the nation’s largest illegal immigrant detention center from their own constituents for a decade. The town’s immigrant activists and immigrant-fearers now agree on something: they’re pissed.

The U.S. military may soon be able to identify you – yes, you there, hiding in that crowd – by your heartbeat, with Star Trek-style life-form readers.

Could this bizarre skull, mummified in a Peruvian city, be an alien?

After receiving an unspecified number of death threats, Herman Cain is officially the first Republican candidate to request and receive permission to employ the Secret Service as security.

Egad. Do we have yet another foiled New York City bomb plot?

Bored with simply smuggling us blow, Sinaola, the largest Mexican cartel, has been plotting to deliver major strikes to U.S. targets,in Mexico City.

Meet America’s elite marine mammal fighting force!

Italian scientists conducting experiments in what resembles the Galactic Senate Chamber from Star Wars (sans crappy CGI) thumb their noses at Einstein and conclude that neutrinos are faster than light.

11.18.2011 – Conspiracy Roundup: Goodbye Monkey Crotch. Hello Censorship (for TruTV.com Conspiratorium)

Conspiracy Roundup: Goodbye Monkey Crotch, Hello Censorship

Benjamin J Spencer
By Benjamin J Spencer
November 18, 2011 2:56PM
Gobi desert
Could the Congress-proposed Stop Internet Piracy Act result in censorship of the World Wide Web? Google, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, AOL,  and eBay seem to think so.

What are the gigantic, mysterious patterned structures spotted by Google Maps satellites in China’s Gobi desert? Messages to alien visitors? Target practice for missiles? Or simply an innocent tool to calibrate China’s spy satellites?

If upstate New Yorkers didn’t have enough reasons to distrust hydro-fracking, here’s another one: it’s suspected to have caused hundreds of small earthquakes in the Midwest.

Well, perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to follow Pakistan’s lead and ban “monkey crotch” on the internet and in text messages. No good can come from that phrase.

Why have the Feds suddenly become reluctant to continue declassifying decades-old spy satellite imagery? (And did anyone even know we have something called a “National Geo-Spatial Intelligence Agency”?)

And  Russia’s military chief warned that NATO expansion to its former satellite republics could provoke nuclear wars.

11.11.2011 – Conspiracy Roundup: Satanic Rituals? (for TruTV.com Conspiratorium)

Conspiracy Roundup: Satanic Rituals

Benjamin J Spencer
By Benjamin J Spencer
November 11, 2011 4:49PM

Poster_363px_REUTERS-LandovThere’s a new drug war brewing. This time, it’s between Anonymous and the Mexican cartels, as their campaign of terror against bloggers and social media continues.

Conrad Murray, Michael Jackson’s “doctor,” speaks! We still want to know if MJ actually faked his death.

The mysterious (and very, very obscure) Lake Ogopogo Monster – revealed? This guy with a video camera seems to think so.

Was a “Satanic ritual” (and threesome) behind the alleged sexual assault and stabbing of a man?

How much does the internet weigh? About as much as a strawberry, according to this dude. (Here’s another ridiculous fact, courtesy of yours truly: if all the sites on the internet were a strawberry, the non-pornographic sites on the internet would only comprise about the stem and maybe a couple of those leaf thingies.)

And Japanese researchers have taken a giant robotic step toward our inevitable future subjugation by… robots, of course. Asimo, the world’s most advanced robot, has been vastly improved.

05.02.2011 – Joy, Caution Mix in Bin Laden’s Wake – CRAIN’S NEW YORK BUSINESS

Joy, caution mix in Bin Laden’s wake

Security tightened at key sites while jubilant mood breaks out all over town; down at Ground Zero work goes on. Bin Laden’s killing to be museum exhibit.

(my contribution is the on-the-ground reporting from Ground Zero – about the last third of article)
May 2, 2011 12:29 p.m.
Osama bin Laden is dead

Elisabeth Butler Cordova
A few revelers gathered early Monday morning in Times Square to mark the death of terrorist Osama bin Laden.
Updated: May 2, 2011 5:06 p.m.

While crowds gathered at Ground Zero and other places around town to celebrate news of the death of Osama Bin Laden, public officials and others quickly moved to tighten security at key locations around the city.

At an afternoon press conference at Ground Zero, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said that while the city has not received any specific threats in response to the killing of Bin Laden, the police, along with the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, have increased security throughout the city.

Additional national guard troops have been stationed at Grand Central Terminal and Penn Station. Similarly, police and K9 units have stepped up searches throughout the subway. There are also more helicopters flying patrols over the city and harbor police units are monitoring boat traffic.

“We cannot take any chances,” said Mr. Kelly. Bin Laden’s “disciples would like nothing better than to avenge his death.”

MTA Chairman Jay Walder said the heightened security measures would remain in effect “until further notice.” He encouraged New Yorkers to contact authorities if they see suspicious activity.

The Port Authority directed its police force to increase its presence at all Port facilities, including the World Trade Center site. Meanwhile, security was also stepped up at hotels and other facilities.

Security personnel at all Marriott properties in the city, for example, were told to be “extra alert because of the news announced last night,” said Kathleen Duffy, a spokeswoman for the nearly dozen properties in the city. She added, however, that at this point: “We don’t see a cause for concern based on what’s been communicated to us.”

Meanwhile, hotels that tend to attract high-level dignitaries, such as the Waldorf-Astoria and the St. Regis are getting extra protection from the New York Police Department, according to Anthony Roman, chief executive of Roman & Associates, a security consulting and global investigation firm.

“The Waldorf Astoria has more undercover NYPD officers watching it today, and they may put a uniformed officer in front of its entrance to act as a deterrent,” Mr. Roman said. Other hotels may assign additional security to a particular shift.

These reactions to the heightened alert in the city will likely last several days or up to two weeks, Mr. Roman predicted.

Officials at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum said they would now begin work developing an exhibition on the killing of Bin Laden for the museum that is scheduled to open a year from September. It was, of course, too soon to know what shape the exhibit would take.

“It’s our responsibility to tell the full story of 9/11 as major events related to it unfold,” said Joe Daniels, president of the memorial and museum organization. “There’s no question this event requires a significant and important addition to the exhibitions.”

Mr. Daniels also said the fact that Bin Laden was killed before the important tenth anniversary of the attacks—on which the long-awaited memorial will open—was a huge relief to the victim’s family members. It also put the terrorist attacks back front and center into the public’s consciousness, just in time for the memorial opening.

“It shows you that 9/11 and its unfolding story is a part of our lives right now, and it’s great when people remember what happened that day,” Mr. Daniels said.

Down at Ground Zero, officials faced a potential disruption of another sort Monday morning as the news of Bin Laden’s death quickly touched off an avalanche of requests from media organizations clamoring for access to the site. In the end the Port Authority, which owns the site, had to bar all news organizations.

“No work would have been able to progress,” said a spokesman for the Port. “We didn’t want to pick and choose (among the media).”

Media were allowed on the site, however, for a 1 p.m. press conference held by Mayor Michael Bloomberg at the site where 4 World Trade Center is going up. He was accompanied by Mr. Ward, Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Mr. Kelly, Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano and other public officials to address Bin Laden’s death.

At Ground Zero, each day about 2,000 construction workers enter the 16-acre site where work is progressing on the memorial, museum, One World Trade Center, 4 World Trade Center and the Calatrava transit hub.

The memorial is supposed to be ready by the tenth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and the museum is scheduled to open a year later.

One World Trade now stands 64 stories tall and is expected to reach 104 stories by the end of the year. The 3.1 million-square-foot tower is expected to be completed by 2013 and publishing company Condé Nast has been negotiating to lease 1 million square feet in the property. That lease is expected to be signed this month.

At the same time, 4 World Trade, which is owned by Larry Silverstein, is up to 23 floors, and the 72-story tower is expected to be competed by the end of 2013.

One organization that was quick to praise the killing of Osama Bin Laden was Park51, the proposed Muslim community center downtown. A posting on its Facebook page Monday read: “Park51 welcomes the news that Osama bin Laden has been brought to justice. An international terrorist and mass murderer, his killing is a milestone in the fight against terrorism and violent extremism.”

For Nelson Telfare, wearing a U.S. Army veteran’s baseball cap as he sold small American flags around St. Paul’s Chapel across the street from Ground Zero, Bin Laden’s death was a bit of a let down commercially anyway. Despite the unusually large number of people filling the sidewalks Mr. Telfare said he’d sold only about 40 of the small flags as of Monday morning for about a buck each–he says he bought them in Koreatown for 15 cents each.

“It’s not brisk sales,” he said, blaming the fact that many of the people were European tourists.

“A lot of them just smile at me,” he said. “I’m selling, but I would say 90% of the people here are foreigners. And they’re not really feeling that American pride, you know what I mean?”

Brandon Neumann of Melbourne, Australia, was visiting the city when news of Mr. Bin Laden’s death broke last night. He said he remembered vividly when the Twin Towers were attacked, and he felt the need to “join in the celebration.”

“America’s pretty much our closest ally,” he said. “What they feel we feel as well.”

Next door at the Stage Door Deli, business boomed. At least a dozen employees milled behind the counter to help the throngs. Manager Vicky Tavlos said the scene was reminiscent of a 9/11 anniversary, with crowds gathering “straight through from midnight to 7 a.m. this morning.”

The Stage Door shut down for six months after the attacks, and for a year after reopening the place served mostly clean-up crew workers, Ms. Tavlos said. “In the years after, it became sad and slow,” she said.

Since rebuilding started in earnest during the past two years, however, Ms. Tavlos said she has seen signs of a renaissance: “The dynamic is changing, with the Downtown Alliance [promoting local development], even residential and commercial projects. Every little bit is helping.”

Dozens of World Trade Center construction workers, both for the buildings and the memorials, gathered Monday for a lunch break at Zucotti Park.

“Everybody’s got a little bit more bounce in their step today,” said W&W Glass project manager Bruce Hernsdorf, in charge of exterior glass and stainless steel façade work on the Memorial Pavilion.

When finished, the Memorial Pavilion will rise three stories over the entrance to an underground museum between the memorial fountains—“basically equivalent to that pyramid over the Louvre,” Mr. Hernsdorf explained.

Work didn’t slow down Monday, he said. Construction deadlines are short and security at the site already is very tight.

“We go through a retina scan, just like the movies,” Mr. Hernsdorf said. “You’ve got to go through a three-week background check to get a card just so they’ll let you on site.”

Miriam Kreinin Souccar, Jeremy Smerd and Benjamin J. Spencer contributed to this article.