Jungle Extraction

Once we have made the decision to go to hospital it all becomes a race. We bundle everything into our bags, wolf down a coffee and say a hurried goodbye to a worried Josh, Meg and Marlowe who we are now abandoning alone in the middle of nowhere.

Felipe our hotel manager is full of exciting options: a helicopter airlift out of La Leona perhaps or a private jet charter from that little disused jungle airstrip over in Carate? We are carried along by this for a while – (Menna thinks I’m about to haemorrhage and wants a speedy extraction) but we lose enthusiasm when we understand that this will run to several thousands of dollars which we cannot claim back. There is always the internal flight from Puerto Jiminez to San Jose this afternoon, offers Felipe, a little deflated, I could fly ahead while the rest of the family follows by car. We work out timings and see that although the drive to San Jose will take nearly twelve hours, if we set off now we can arrive about the same time the flight does anyway. It will cost considerably less and we will all be together.

Felipe is disappointed but like a trooper he guns up the quad bike, hitches on the baggage trailer, and drives us back along the beach to Carate at full throttle. It is a hot and exhilarating ride and I forget for a while that I am supposed to be ill, taking selfies and spotting hawks along the way. We then clamber into our car, finding it hot and humid with a strange smell after five days parked in the jungle rain.

We drive three hours back to civilisation, jolting our way through the Osa peninsula over mud-drifts and trenches, fallen branches, rocks and rivers. We make it to Puerto Jiminez by midday and pick up a paved, though heavily potholed road. We then settle into an eight hour drive up to the capital, made much longer by the weekend traffic clogging up the roads into the city.

As long as I am upright I am able to breathe fine. I do much of the driving in a tripped-out half-awake state, while Menna taps up a network of medical contacts, gets recommendations for doctors, digs out insurance details (for several horrific hours we can’t find any record of my policy at all. Did the transaction not go through?). She evaluates hospitals, chats with specialists, books accommodation, checks my stats.

Menna is amazing in a crisis, I think to myself as I sing along to eighties hits on the radio, occasionally spitting blood out the window. The kids are unusually quiet and well-behaved throughout the long journey.

When we walk into Emergencias there is a nurse waiting for me and I am able to sink into the torpor and passivity that hospitals are designed to create. The check-in is like arriving at a hotel chain, they copy passport details, fill out forms, give me a smiling welcome and then take a large dollar deposit on my credit card. Then I get a blood pressure cuff on my arm, thermometer in my mouth, COVID swabs up my nose, cannula into my wrist. Blood goes out, pills go in, radiation goes through. X-Rays and CT Scans show a cloudy view of my inner landscape. Doctors mutter and confer and tell me half the story. Menna asks probing medical questions and they open up fully to her.

This is a well-rehearsed drill that I am familiar with, and as I am poked and punctured, I am able to lazily rate this hospital against various other ones I have stayed in over the years. NHS hospital have a certain flavour: they are bustling, full, usually slightly tattered but with an underlying sense of heart that I always find touching. They have cream walls with scuff marks, overworked stern nurses, those ancient iron wheelchairs, eclectic art, hidden interior gardens, children’s wards with peeling underwater murals.

I once stayed some weeks in an Italian hospital after a road accident, and it had a unique sense of Latin verve – constant bubbling volume, flamboyant and inefficient doctors, crowds of relatives chatting and eating pasta round the bed where grandpa lay dying, barely suppressed chaos everywhere.

The CIMA hospital in San Jose, on the other hand, is silent, clean, new, empty. Its spotless white and grey palette doesn’t seem to reflect the diverse and colourful country of Costa Rica. Everyone here speaks quietly and deferentially and you can’t see any of their features behind the layers of PPE. It feels like a hospital in a sci-fi film.

Eventually I am moved into a room on the top floor, overlooking the mountains. I am given a fetching set of yellow pyjamas. The doctors agree that my lung is full of blood, but they don’t know why, so I stay overnight and go into theatre the next morning for a bronchoscopy: a probe with a fibre optic camera is sent down my throat, deep into my lungs to investigate further.

It turns out that I have ruptured a blood vessel deep in my left lung and it is leaking like a burst pipe. The diagnosis is haemoptysis caused by extreme coughing. The surgeon removes the clots and hoses it all down to stop the bleeding, he squirts in some antibiotics to prevent infection, all while I slumber peacefully on the operating table.

I wake up a few hours later in my room, feeling surprisingly good. I have not eaten for 24 hours and when a nurse brings me a steak and ice cream I nearly burst into tears. It must be the cocktail of anaesthetics and sedatives still washing around my system I tell myself. My room is peaceful, the view is good, I am well rested, I can breathe again. Menna and the kids pop up for a visit, we do some homeschooling but then they disappear again on a mission to the skatepark. I settle back into bed and find a superhero movie on TV.

I ask the doctors if they will let me stay a couple more nights.

A most malicious cough!

Oliver Twist. Charles Dickens.

Welcome to Gran Hotel Costa Rica

For the first two nights of our trip we stay in the Gran Hotel Costa Rica, an old haunt of ours in downtown San José.

This place is full of nostalgia for us; it is where I took Menna straight after she landed in September 2005. I had already been in country for three months at this point; wisely using that time not only to tour the land and find us a house to live in, but also to shave off all my hair, turn brown, lose ten kilos, lose my shoes, lose my manners, start wearing vests with local beer slogans and generally go native. Menna found it difficult to recognise me as I stood grinning at her in Arrivals, she later told me. She felt uneasy and lost. She imagined she had been kidnapped by a Mexican refugee.

¡Hola muchacha! Hey, you real pretty… Wanna ride in my car?

It was also here where we spent our last night in Costa Rica – happily restored by this point to a state of harmony and mutual recognition – and where we returned one set of good quality cotton sheets, now slightly frayed, which we had borrowed a year before and used in most of the cheap hostels throughout Central America.

The Gran Hotel Costa Rica has now been taken over by the Hilton chain and is recently refurbished. There is a slick new cocktail bar on the top floor now, but I’m sure it is the same tired old pianist who sits in the background, coaxing out another mournful rendition of Yesterday. The hotel is a lot smarter but I feel it has lost something of its ramshackle colonial charm along the way. I wonder if this is a sign of things to come, whether the fifteen years since we had last been here may have brought a kind of progress to Costa Rica that we might not find entirely welcome.

I look out of the window of our hotel room as the sun sets. At this moment the city is painted in a soft, forgiving light. The mosaic floor of the Plaza de la Cultura stretches out in front of us, then an ornate church, the Teatro Nacionál, a concrete tower block. I look past the shop lights and neon, beyond a sea of corrugated iron roofs, through barbed wire and electric cables and away to the cloud-topped mountains that surround the city.

I know the forests out there are teeming with nature in all its many forms. I can imagine the shifting, slithering, scuttling aliveness of it all. There will be furtive movements in the shadows, swinging shapes in the canopy, sudden bird calls, huge strangler figs silhouetted against the sky. Exotic bacteria are fizzing in the waters; snakes, frogs, sloths and howler monkeys hide among the leaves; jaguars slip through moonlit clearings; leeches wait to suck out our blood. It will be humid. There will be ancient layers of fungus and mud and leaf silt underfoot. All the sludge and the glory of the tropics is just there, outside our window, on the horizon.

After a couple of days in the city we all feel that it is time to head into the wild. Artie straps his new bush knife to his belt. We pick up a hire car, buy a map, pack up our room and check out. Wanting to set a good example for the children we do not borrow any sheets this time.

The jungle looked back at them with a vastness, a breathing moss-and-leaf silence, with a billion diamond and emerald insect eyes.

Ray Bradbury

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…