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Volcan Arenal Parque de Nationale, Costa Rica, May 5 & 6, 2001

Volcan Arenal, Costa RicaThe great mountain belches smoke and spews small rivers of lava down its northern and western flanks. Steam rises as the molten rock hits the cool, damp air. At night the lava flows produce eerie red streamers slowly falling as Mother Nature continuously reinvents herself. I have a ringside seat, as the summit of 5500-foot Arenal Volcano is just five miles away. The last major eruption was in 1968, but Arenal belches lava and smoke almost continuously. The rumble of its ferocious power is clearly audible. The danger to the local population living in its shadow is severe. I'm mindful that when Mt. St. Helens in Washington State blew in 1980, it obliterated everything for twenty miles from the blast zone. It is a beautiful sight, but secretly I'm glad that I'm only here for two days.

Federal Express doesn't deliver on either Saturday or Sunday in San Jose, so the voltage regulator that Moto International, my Seattle Guzzi dealer, sent on Friday won’t arrive until Monday. There’s no use wasting a weekend, so I hop a bus for Vulcan Arenal, one of this small nation's many national parks. I planned to ride this way as I headed north to Nicaragua, but this will have to suffice as the motorcycle breakdown has made a shambles of my itinerary.

The autopista (freeway) quickly narrows to a well-paved, heavily traveled road as we leave San Jose. The traffic is maniacal - a not uncommon situation when you leave the US and Canada. In spite of almost constant double yellow lines, a result of the continual curves, cars pass at all available spots. A blind curve is fair game. I make a mental note to stay far to the right on curves once I’m on the bike. As we slowly ascend the mountains just a few miles west of the city, the air cools and coffee plantations give way to dairy and vegetable farms. The road twists and turns, hardly a straight stretch of more than a half-mile, in our three-hour journey. Sprouting fencepost, Costa Rica

We pass through Naranjo, Zarcero and Cuidad Quesada, towns that although poor by North American standards, are prosperous as a result of the excellent soil and growing conditions. As we crest the mountains, the perfectly cylindrical cone of Vulcan Arenal appears. It is a magical sight. Past Quesada we are on the flat, Atlantic coastal plain. It's obvious the soil is very rich, because even the fence posts are growing; vegetation sprouting from many of their tops.

Trabacon Resort, Costa Rica

Our destination is Trabacon Resort, a well-developed hot spring at the foot of Arenal, where we bathe in the tepid water for hours before eating a scrumptious buffet. I spend the night just down the road at aptly named Volcano Lodge, managed by Jean Paul and his assistant Anne. Jean Paul is a consultant who lives in San Jose, and is managing this property while plans go forward to build a new lodge in the rain forest. We spend several hours both talking about his business and my trip. He is a great guy. Anne grins at my feeble attempts to speak Spanish, but seems genuinely appreciative of the effort.

Monday morning finds me pacing the lobby back at the hotel in San Jose, waiting for my voltage regulator. In my extreme naiveté about all things Latin American I half expect it to show up to today. I can hardly wait to get on the road.

A Brief Glimpse of Alajuela

When it hasn’t showed up by noon, I realize that the chances that I’ll get my part today are dwindling, and I need a way to pass the time, so I consult my map for the closest point of interest and catch a cab.

Streets of Alajuela, Costa RicaI walk the streets of Alajuela unmolested, unintimidated and unconcerned. Alajuela, Costa Rica’s second largest city and a San Jose suburb, is a pleasant town now, not the dirty, crowded city with pothole-filled streets I remember from just four days ago, on my way with Frederico to Securidad de Internationale. It reminds me again to what a great extent that our perceptions are shaped by our circumstances.

The taxi ride here that would have cost $9 then is now just $2. My Spanish is improving daily, although it is still barely at survival level. I rely on the many English-speakers for anything more complicated than food and transportation. “Donde esta el centro parque” I ask in my best, broken Spanish, knowing that the park (or square) is always at the center of Latin cities. I'm sure Alajuela will be no different. The reply is returned in mixed Spanish and English, but I easily find my way.

The central park and adjoining cathedral are filled with people going about their daily life. Old men sit on park benches and share stories, as they seem to do in every culture. Women attend to young children playing, careful to keep them close at hand. A dog lies in the shade, avoiding the afternoon sun and taxi drivers wait for fares. A meter maid walks purposefully by, her uniform two-tone blue, perhaps a universal symbol of officialdom. It is well pressed. Young men hang out and merchants sell their wares.Cathedral at Alajuela, Costa Rica

For three hours I walk the streets, always staying fairly close to the square so I don't lose my way. The flagstone is well worn, but clean, although stained from many years of frequent use. Paint peels from busy storefronts. Small motorcycles roar by, filling the air with both the high decibels of their ring-a-ding-ding two-stroke motors and the chemicals of their putrid exhaust. Mitsubishi, Hyundai, Toyota and Nissan cars, many new, fill the streets as they forge ahead in mad abandon. This is a busy little town.

McDonald's and Radio Shack are here, as is strangely enough, Scotia Bank [the Bank of Nova Scotia,] but most store names are unknown to me. Photo shops, bakeries, ophthalmologists and shoe outlets are in evidence, as are an abundance of pharmacies. Even on a Monday afternoon the stores are busy. The citizens of Alajuela, well-dressed in Levi's and Reeboks, sip their Cokes. Cell phones are ubiquitous. Western commercialism has certainly found Costa Rica, and it has been welcomed with open arms. Surprisingly, prices for hard goods appear to be on par with Seattle, and I wonder how people afford their relative affluence, although at $1 [US] an hour for using the computer at the internet cafe, I take my time.

Waiting for FedEx

By now I’ve confirmed that the voltage regulator was actually turned over to FedEx last Friday as expected. Although I'll skip most of the details, in a nutshell here’s the story. FedEx doesn't deliver on Saturday or Sunday. It turns out that it takes a day to clear Costa Rica Customs, so there goes Monday. FedEx will not let you speak to a representative in Costa Rica so instead I repeatedly call their district office in Mexico City. Six times a day I am assured that it is coming - but it never arrives.

Late Tuesday afternoon Federal Express announces that the package was delivered to the hotel at nine o'clock this morning. Now I'm stuck to the hotel lobby like a fly on flypaper, and I never see a FedEx truck. The desk staff, equally skeptical, assures me they have not received it. FedEx will start an investigation. Mañana, I am told.

Wednesday morning arrives, unlike the voltage regulator, with FedEx still promising that they are investigating. The hours and minutes fly by with all the speed of a three-legged race. More calls are made, both by the hotel desk staff and me. To overstate the obvious; no part, no bike, no motorcycle trip.

San José, Costa Rica May 9, 2001 
Back on the road tomorrow - maybe

Please excuse my writing style as I provide an update. My voltage regulator blew out last Thursday, as you will know from prior updates. I ordered the part from Seattle on Friday morning, and it was turned over to FedEx at that time.

I'll skip most of the details, but in a nutshell, here is the story. FedEx doesn't deliver on Saturday or Sunday. Then it turns out that it takes a day to clear Costa Rica Customs, so there goes Monday. FedEx will not let you speak to a representative in Costa Rica so instead I call repeatedly to their district office in Mexico City. It is coming, I am told - six times a day. But it never arrives. Yesterday for sure, though. It was through customs and would be delivered on Tuesday - before 7pm. 

Late Tuesday afternoon they announce that it was delivered to my hotel at about nine o'clock this morning. Now I'm stuck to the hotel lobby like a fly on flypaper, and I never see a FedEx truck. I am very skeptical and the desk staff assures me they did not receive it. FedEx will start an investigation mañana, I am told. 

Wednesday morning, still no voltage regulator and FedEx still promising they will investigate. The hours and minutes fly by at the speed of a John Deere tractor. More calls, both by the desk staff and me.

Jan and I are in the middle of making reservations for me to fly to Houston (yes, that's Texas) tomorrow to pick another one up personally. (Although I was mighty concerned abut customs´ reception - on both side - when I leave Costa Rica, and come back the same day. Does the word courier mean anything to you?) A Houston dealer has the part and would be glad to ship it to me, but it likely would not have gotten here until next Monday.

My new voltage regulator finally arrived today at 3pm. If the part is correct and there is nothing wrong with the bike, I am on the road tomorrow. Since I've burned off a week in San Jose, I'm not sure that I can still make Panama. I'll make that decision tomorrow after the bike is running.

The moral of the story? There are two. First, don't ever hook up a battery backwards. Second, use DHL or UPS for all your future packages.