Adam and Abigail dropped me off at Jacksonville airport (Jax) Monday night after my last meal in America which was Thai food.
Jax was the first airport I had ever flown from back in 1996 on the way to London.
I had a 6:00 a.m. flight. It wasn’t worth the hassle or cost of staying in a hotel for a few hours, so I just waited overnight at the airport.
I made some last minute travel preparations online and watched my favorite podcast Tuesdays with Stories. I drank some sleepy time tea in the hopes of getting some rest. The tea made me drowsy, but I never slept.
Overnight, Jax airport was mostly quiet with occasional PA announcements, vacuum cleaners and a young traveler playing Dr Dre and Beethoven on a grand piano in the waiting area.
The American Airlines ticket counter opened at 4 a.m. and that’s when the airport started waking up. On first opening, the ticket counter was a little chaotic, but everyone was calm and it didn’t take long to get checked in and through security that early in the morning.
My first flight was from Jacksonville to Charlotte, which is the opposite direction of my final destination. There were no major problems, but the overhead bin above my seat was full, so I had to go back about 10 rows to store my bag. It was a pain when we landed and I had to go against traffic to get my bag. But everyone was patient and accommodating, unlike all the news reports about unruly airplane passengers.
I was stuck with the middle seat on both flights, which as a long legged person is no fun. I prefer the window seat so I can look out or the aisle seat to stretch out my legs.
Charlotte airport was very busy. I had a short 90 minute layover, so I found the departure gate and looked around the shops.
My second flight was from Charlotte to San Jose, Costa Rica. About halfway through the flight I could see a shoreline and beaches. I let the young lady sitting in the window seat know about the view. She said “cool” and went back to her phone. Young people are so vacuous. It’s such a waste to have the window seat and not enjoy the view.
Just before landing the flight attendants passed out an immigration form to fill out and present to the immigration official at the airport. Travelers online recommended bringing your own pen for this, which I did. But the font was so small, I could barely read the form. I filled it out about half way. The teenage girl next to me completed it quickly, so at 44 it might finally be time for me to get some reading glasses. When I got to the immigration official at San Jose airport I explained that I wasn’t able to read the small font. I thought he would make me finish filling out the form, but he just pushed it back across the counter to me and let me enter the country.
I also read online it’s a good idea to go to the ATM at the airport to get cash for the bus and other incidentals. The currency in Costa Rica is called the colón, ₡ or CRC and the bills are made of plastic. The current exchange rate is 650 colón per dollar. So when you get money out of the ATM and see a lot of zeroes, you think you are withdrawing enough to buy a house and feel some sticker shock. I remembered the same situation when I was in South Korea where the conversion was 1200 won to the dollar. I would get paid two and half million won a month in a stack of cash you would expect to see in a briefcase in a crime movie, but it was only about $2500.
After getting through immigration and making my way through all the taxi drivers trying to get my business, I found the bus stop. The first bus I took was crowded, so I was standing at the front by the driver holding these two heavy bags and dealing with the changing momentum of the bus.
I noticed there was a man about 25 years old sitting behind the bus driver giving me the evil eye. After a few minutes some people exited the bus and an old lady in the front seat offered me the seat next to her. When I tried to sit down my arm got tangled in my bag straps, I almost dropped my bag out the window of the bus and my metal water bottle fell on the floor with a loud clank, all at the same time. Since I was at the front of bus, I’m sure half the people on the bus saw all of this. After I settled down the old lady tried some small talk in Spanish. I told her that my Spanish was basic. I said it is hot today. She said something about the sun.
About 15 minutes later the old lady got off the bus. I asked her if this was downtown. There was a communication problem because she nodded yes, but when I got off the bus I found out it wasn’t downtown. As I was getting off the bus the guy that kept giving me the evil eye called me gringo and I said sí, gringo.
My GPS app said I was still 30 kilometers from downtown. I went into a bread store so I could put my bags down for a minute and get something to drink. The clerk showed me where to catch the next bus to downtown.
The second bus was mostly empty, so I was glad I made the mistake. I had plenty of room to sit my bags down beside me and really get a good first look at Costa Rica. I was surprised how messy the city was. Costa Rica markets itself as an eco-friendly country for tourism, but it isn’t. Sometimes the bus went over a bridge that spanned a sudden canyon filled with tropical plants and plastic debris. I was also keeping watch on the GPS to make sure I didn’t get off the bus early again.
Once we arrived in the Coca Cola barrio of downtown (yes, there is a neighborhood called Coca Cola) I got off the bus and followed the GPS directions about a kilometer to the Maragato Hotel and Hostel. It was a little hard to find the front entrance, so I had to walk around for a few minutes before I found it.
There was a guy checking in just in front of me. The front desk clerk named Ricardo, whom I later nicknamed 80’s movie cocaine dealer guy and his coworkers called him Seagal because of his long ponytail and shite attitude, told me the guy in front of me was American, but he couldn’t hear or speak. I thought if more Americans couldn’t express their narrow minded, uneducated opinions out loud, I would like the country a lot more.
I told 80’s movie cocaine dealer guy I couldn’t believe how busy the streets were at 2pm on a Tuesday afternoon. It felt like a holiday or festival day. He said “you should see the weekend.”
I came to realize and appreciate that downtown San Jose is very walkable. Citizens walk very quickly here and even though I am a runner, I often struggle to keep up with them.
Maragato is located in the center of downtown on the main walking street, Avenido Central. These are the first photos I took in Costa Rica from the dining room balcony.
Because the dorm was already mostly occupied, I had to take a top bunk my first night. My back was hurting from hours on the airplanes and schlepping my bags around, so getting up and down from the top bunk was a painful challenge. Luckily some people checked out my first morning and I was able to move to a bottom bunk.
I was tired from the trip, so I took a short siesta and let the sun move to a more comfortable angle.
When I woke, the first thing I needed was a lock to secure the hostel locker. Seagal first told me my belongings were safe without a lock. But I had read too many accounts online of people having their bags stolen in central America. So 80’s movie cocaine dealer guy finally told me where a lock store was just around the corner.
While I was buying the lock, I told the store owner “es mi primer dia en Costa Rica,” which means it’s my first day in Costa Rica. He was so happy and proud to welcome me to his country. I tried this a few more times with other people because it was the only day I would be able to use that sentence. I always got the same positive reaction.
With my bags secured, I walked seven blocks to Clinica Biblica Hospital where the next morning I would have my first eye exam in preparation for lens replacement surgery the next week. I wanted to make sure I knew how to get there and exactly where the ophthalmologist’s office was so I wouldn’t be late.
On the first floor of the hospital near the elevators I found a man dressed in a sharp suit waiting to help. First he used an infrared thermometer to check if I had a fever. Then he told me the doctor’s office was on the fourth floor and opened the elevator for me. Try to get service like that at a hospital in the Divided States of America.
After finding the doctor’s office, I left the hospital and with the sun setting, I walked to San Jose Backpackers Hostel. It is a little further from the hospital than Maragato, but I had seen photos online which made me want to visit. Their website also said they were looking for a volunteer to run their social media. Unfortunately the volunteer position was already taken. But Maragato ended up being a really good place to stay for the next six weeks while I healed from multiple surgeries. San Jose Backpackers is a party hostel and would not have suited my purposes at the time. I did stay there for a few nights after I started traveling in Costa Rica, but Maragato was like home.
Now that it was dark out, I started looking for a barber shop for a badly needed haircut. I walked around some rough looking but safe barrios and found a young man that gave me a very good cut for $7, which is less than half of what I usually pay. I gave the cut instructions to him using the Google Translate app as my Spanish vocabulary doesn’t include haircutting words.
On the barber cape I was wearing, I saw a drawing of a double edge safety razor blade I needed. I wasn’t allowed to bring them in carry on baggage, so I asked the barber where I could find them. He pointed at a store across the street and I bought five razor blades for a dollar.
I was starting to hungry and I found out my first night in San Jose that everything closes early. I found a Mexican place still open and ate tacos. I never ate there again because the food was overpriced and I found cheaper places to eat, including a Taco Bell a block from Maragato.
With everything closing early, I went back to Maragato for bed. I slept on and off, thinking about what I was going to write about. If you’ve read this far, you can see I haven’t left out many details.
Some first impressions I had of San Jose were that there were many holes in the sidewalks. Places meant to access utilities are often missing their metal grates. So it’s a good idea to watch your step at all times.
The abundance of meat and bread stores (carnicerías and panaderias) was surprising. Almost every block had one of each.
With photography, I tend to focus on beautiful things. It may seem like a place is more beautiful than it is. There were lots of ugly things about San Jose, including trash everywhere. I later found this is a common theme in Latin American countries. Usually I choose not to photograph those things.
On the walking streets there are many barkers selling fruit, clothes and even umbrellas when it rains. They all have their own way of singing their inventory. The guy with the best voice was the cigarette man. He had a way of singing cigarrillo with triplets that I thought he should be a professional singer.
It took me a while to realize the avenues in San Jose are laid out with odd numbered avenues to the north of Central Avenue and even numbered avenues south of Central. So I thought I was walking 14 blocks to the hospital when it was really only 7.
Costa Rica uses the same green, yellow and red traffic lights, but the green light flashes a few times before it turns yellow, almost like a pre yellow light. I like the extra warning it gives before it turns red.
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