Perils of Polly: Should have known -- dangerous way to San Jose

Posted: Friday, January 14, 2011

Editor's note: Polly Crawford was a reporter and associate editor of The Peninsula Clarion from 1985-1988, when she wrote "Perils of Polly." She also wrote a series of "Peril" columns in 1998 about her Australian adventures. Her perils continue in Costa Rica and Nicaragua.

Whenever the country Costa Rica was mentioned, three things popped into my mind: monkeys, toucans, and zip lines. It was on my list of "to go" places. So when I discovered that a friend of mine was going to spend six months there studying Spanish, it was a no-brainer. I had to go.

But going to Nicaragua was a little more convoluted. It wasn't one of my "to go" places, and I only knew it as a hot-bed of controversy and political unrest, having grown up with the Sandinista/Contra revolution. Plus, I knew the infamous Sandinista, Daniel Ortega, had come back into power. That meant the communist mindset, with its accompanying shortages and occasional violence, could be on the menu for visitors.

On the other hand, I just so happened to be the president of the board of a ministry, En La Gloria, headquartered here in Nikiski, and my friend, Maria Pedro, had been a missionary to Nicaragua. She still had a farm there, and we, as a ministry, had just sent a container to the country. It was full of goods and medical supplies to be given away to the poor people there. Unfortunately, it had been seized by Ortega, and was being held hostage in a container parking lot with a lot of other goodwill containers, waiting for someone to get tired of looking at it, steal it, and sell all the goods on the black market.

Maria wanted to see if we could get it moved out and truly given to the people who needed it, and she wanted someone she trusted to look in on her farm and give her an update as to what was happening there. I looked at a map. In my mind's eye, it was hop, skip, and a jump from Costa Rica to Nicaragua. They were neighbors.

I started researching. I discovered they weren't exactly friendly neighbors. My nave thought was that I could rent a car in San Jose, drive around Costa Rica, and then drive up to Nicaragua, cross the border, and continue on to Managua, Leon, and ultimately the tiny village of Posoltega, Maria's village. I'd stay at her farm, and then from there I'd do a mission trip up to the tippy top of the country, just south of El Salvador. Maria said the roads were pretty bad, but since I wasn't going in the rainy season, I should be able to make it. She wanted me to touch bases with the villages where she'd been ministering.

I tried every car rental agency known to man. Not one of them would rent a car in Costa Rica and allow it to be driven into Nicaragua. That should have given me a clue. So I changed my tactic. I started looking up bus routes. Sure enough, I could get a bus from San Jose right to the border. Problem solved, at least from my dry, safe chair with my laptop. This all began in January -- my restless, I gotta go somewhere season. A quick call to my friend, Maralee, confirmed a time we could get together in Costa Rica -- only for a weekend -- so I bought my ticket. I was as good as there.

Using price as my guide, I chose Budget car rental agency in downtown San Jose that advertised a free ride from the airport. They also had an office near the airport, but it cost more, so I booked with the downtown office, always trying to save a buck. It came back to bite me.

The plan was that I'd meet Maralee at the rental agency, and then we'd head to La Fortuna where we'd kick around for the weekend, making sure to hit the zip lines and see the active volcano, Arenal.

We'd drive back together, drop off the car, she'd take a bus to where she was staying, and I'd head to a hostel. The next day I'd catch the bus to the border, meet Maria's contact, rent a car and drive to Posoltega. After the ministry part, I'd drive back to the border, take a bus to Liberia, rent another car, and head to Manuel Antonio National Park for monkeys and toucans, and then drive back to the airport.

Sounded like a plan. I'd be gone two weeks, well before Alaska's summer season began full swing.

Two weeks before takeoff, I saw the news on the internet: riots in Nicaragua over the price of gas. All commercial drivers went on strike. They were setting up roadblocks with tires and burning them. I contemplated. Oh well. I wasn't going to cancel. I was driving myself, not taking buses or taxis while in Nicaragua. Whatever comes, comes.

I left the last day of school -- literally. I threw my bag in the car before going to school and as soon as my room was clean, I drove to Anchorage, pumped for a new adventure.

It was a long flight, routed through Houston. I was traveling a little heavier than normal, with extra goods for people in Nicaragua. Everything was stuffed into two carryon-sized bags, both on rollers, one also with straps as a backpack. As soon as I exited the airport in San Jose, I was blasted with the humid heat that makes Costa Rica what it is. I also noticed it was starting to rain. By the time I got on the Budget minibus, there was enough water coming down that breathing was hard. A little neuron in my brain made note of the advertisement that said the rainy season didn't begin until later in June. This was May 23. Hmmm.

When I got to the Budget office, they said I'd have to go to the downtown office. I knew that, but I got on the only bus there was. I informed them their website said transport to the downtown office was free. They informed me it would cost $50. It was an hour drive by taxi. So much for saving money. Since I was late, I had them call the downtown office to tell Maralee to sit tight, that I'd be there in an hour. She wasn't there.

That piece of information caused my heart to skip a beat. Neither of us had phones, or any way of contacting each other. What would I do if she weren't there? Had I told her the right agency? Had I told her the right office? My heart raced as the driver raced through the sheets of rain and streams of traffic toward downtown San Jose.

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