Tropical Thunder

The thing that really hits you when you arrive in the tropics isn’t the crazy sights and sounds so much as the feeling of the place. A warm damp blanket wraps itself around you the moment you step off the plane. The air is thicker; it sits heavy on your skin. There is a smell too: musky, humid, slightly rotten perhaps. It says that this is a place of fertility but also of decay. The very atmosphere is teeming with life, but it will sap you and make you lethargic. You move slowly here, you must fight your way through an environment laden with micro organisms, with heat and entropy. You must live out the dog days.

We are already dog tired when we arrive. The lead up to this trip has been a nightmare of logistics, planning and bureaucracy; skills that don’t come naturally to us. We flew from Madeira to Lisbon, holed up in an airport hotel for 48 hours, disgorged our life possessions into our budget family room. We made piles of things to come and things to leave and like shifting sand dunes they rose and fell by the hour.

We did bag-loads of laundry. We disposed of clothes, pots, pans, shoes, a spare surfboard, packs of pasta, half-full bottles of chilli sauce, olive oil, whiskey and aftershave. We struck a deal with a guy called Pablo to store our car for six months in a marine warehouse among the unsold speedboats. We conducted hushed phone conversations and tapped laptops late into the night while the kids slept beside us. We had a sudden panic when we realised Costa Rican immigration would require proof of onward travel and we only had a one-way tickets, so we spent frustrating hours on a badly designed website trying to purchase cheap coach tickets to Nicaragua. We spent more hours trying to upload insurance policies to a Costa Rican immigration portal, fill out covid declarations on a Spanish health portal, book our surfboards onto an Iberian travel portal.

Then came the trip itself. A 4AM rise for our first flight from Lisbon to Madrid. Then the layover – eight dull hours in a deserted airport where most of the shops were shut down. Arthur and I were carrying our skateboards in hand luggage so we amused ourselves by buying a Go-Pro camera and filming an epic skate video until we got busted by security and threatened with ejection from the airport. The twelve hours from Madrid to San Jose really dragged, we were stuffy under our masks, trapped on a decrepit Iberia plane that offered no hot food, alcohol or anything much really.
“No hay cerveza señor. Es por Covid” bored shrug. We heard that a lot. Es por Covid – a catch all term for anything unwilling or unwanted, anything you can’t do or can’t be bothered to do, a conversation killer.

But now we’re here: San José, Costa Rica. A rambling, unlovely, low-rise town that has all the energy, diversity and frenetic activity that you would expect from a Central American capital. Our hotel sits above Avenida Central and here we can see the region in microcosm. Most the business happens out on the street: there are lottery sellers with their talismans and lucky numbers; touts with bus tickets offering routes anywhere right up to Mexico City and beyond; street artists clowning around; clusters of mestizo women in traditional Guatemalan dress sitting with their textiles laid out in front of them on sheets. Old Indian men with creased faces squat down, trilling bird calls on ceramic pipes; sellers of plantains and pig hide stroll around shaking packets in our faces. Behind the action there are shady guys with missing teeth and prison tattoos who sit on doorsteps and stare at us.

The shops here are open-fronted and amazingly eclectic or amazingly specific – one store seems to specialise in a mix of flip-flops, car radios and push chairs, while another sells only watch straps. We go into a hunting shop to buy Arthur a bush knife and are offered tazers and pepper spray, ‘perhaps a machete for sir…’. Many shops have a DJ in the doorway, mic in hand, blasting out pop and static, shouting at ladies and crooning the high notes. Everything is loud here, everything is bright. People grab you by the elbow as you try to walk. There are butchers with tinsel entwined around cuts of meat. There are grocers with mad fruits that I have never seen before.

There is one thing that unifies this chaos: Christmas is coming to San Jose and it is a serious matter. From the nut seller with the dirty Santa hat to the giant inflatable elf above the auto store, everyone has made an effort. Garlands, streamers, tinsel, fairy lights, Santas and festive skeletons are out on display. While the decorations are varied and extreme, it seems that everyone agrees there is only one Christmas song that is worth playing, so one may as well put it on repeat. It is José Feliciano’s Feliz Navidad, a catchy jingle approximately five minutes long and with a grand total of five different words. After a few minutes the kids are swaggering down Avenida Central belting it out. We have arrived.

Feliz Navidad

Feliz Navidad

Feliz Navidad

Próspero año y felicidad

Feliz Navidad

Feliz Navidad

Feliz Navidad

Próspero año y felicidad…

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