A long, long time ago, in a life that no longer feels like it was mine, I made a couple of trips to Central America. The first time I went, I was eighteen, and it was to Costa Rica with a girlfriend. We spent something like fourty-five days touring the country, seeing the sights, and enjoying what seemed to us to be a different planet. The second trip was all over Central America, save for Belize and Panama, and I went with a buddy so it was way crazier, and for the first two months, it was way more fun. Then he went home, which seemed to be the start of a trend, for soon after, all of the friends I made while travelling returned to their homes too. Then I ran out of money and spiralled rapidly into a sinister abyss of toxic negativity and depression.
I have tales to share from both of these travels, but I want to start off with a near-kamikaze adventure from the second trip south. At that age, almost everything my friends and I did was a kamikaze adventure, yet somehow I am still here to recount many of these chaotic tales. Many of my people from those days didn’t make it.
This one is in memory of Tommy.
* * *
Picture it. Sicily. 1922. A beautiful young peasant girl heads off to market to buy a loaf of bread and some fish for dinner. The sun warms the cobble streets, the sounds and smells of the ocean-side village dance down the narrow lane, filling an innocent heart with carefree dreams of romance and adventure. You there? Well that’s probably the nicest image you will have in your head for the rest of the story, because nothing that happens next has anything to do with her. Or Sicily.
Now picture this, San Jose, Costa Rica, 1996. Two barely twenty-something, hard-drinking bumpkins arrive in the city, set to party in celebration of your author’s day of birth. That night will go down in personal history as miraculous. Miraculous that nobody died, got arrested (for too long), or woke up shanghaied and enslaved in a Colombian cocaine-factory.
Celebrations begin with as much alcohol as my dear (now deceased) friend and myself can possibly guzzle down, in as little time as possible. Nothing new there. We hop from one establishment to another and somehow end up in the red-light district; two mostly-white guys, after midnight, in the shadiest part of town. Upon leaving one such watering hole, I hit upon the brilliant idea that we should arm ourselves with large stones in case of attack. We locate satisfactory weapons and continue toward the next, yet undetermined, destination. En route, two local policia find something a little amiss about seeing the two of us in the area they find us, very drunk, and lugging rocks down the lane. Off to the station.
At police headquarters, my good buddy, who speaks absolutely none of the local language, is escorted to a terrifyingly dirty third-world cell, while I sit in the front office emphasizing, in very rudimentary Spanish, an imagined set of rights that I clearly don’t have. After a short time we are released, with now very light wallets, and a thirst for more liquor and more trouble. To the next Tequila bar. Oh, don’t ask why. Oh don’t ask why. We drink, and drink, and drink. And forget.
Next hazy memory: our hotel gates, opened by someone I must have known. I Stumble to the room, which my dear friend has already passed through the door of and then locked behind him. I knock, he doesn’t wake. I pound, he doesn’t wake. Forced entry by foot. He wakes. We have some laughs and drunken babble and then… is that somebody calling my name and rattling the gates? It is. Better go see what the fuck is going on.
Apparently I had made a friend in our last round of travels. And apparently I had his crack-cocaine, his crack-pipe, and some other paraphernalia, in a bag somewhere. I agree to go locate it and meet with him at a location I can’t recall to this day.
Back out into the wild. Too young and too drunk to know I should be very afraid. Cuz I’m not. More afraid now, years later, recounting the tale, than I ever was then.
I had stashed the bag by an old concrete bridge over a muddy stream. On the other side of the sluggish brown water was an old prison. How fitting. A beautiful yellow building that looks like a Spanish castle, now a museum for children. I have no idea how I remembered where the bag was, as I don’t remember the person it belonged to, or how it came to be in my possession. But remember it I did. Pick up bag and start heading to the rendezvous. Oh yeah, I had a real weapon with me this time out. Somewhat less conspicuous than a rock: an eight-inch hunting knife hidden up the sleeve of my right arm.
Walking up the street now, the first promises of a new day beginning to overcome the night’s darkness. Still deep in the worst part of town, still very white, and still very wasted. Footsteps behind me. Look over the shoulder. Damn! Two cops. Now I am scared. Why does it take getting this far into a shady situation to make me realize I should’ve stayed at the hotel? Oh well, too late now. Must make a decision. And fast. I think they’re walking faster now, so I do too. Duck into this street-side shop stall, the only one without a gate in front of it. Thank Christ for this dank, dirty little cave, placed here to rescue me from my own foolishness. Drop the bag of drugs and paraphernalia into a very conveniently located steel drum and nip right back out onto the sidewalk.
The empty shop sits at the top-right of the horizontal part of a “T” intersection. If I can hurry across the street before these cops get to me, I will run like hell as soon as I’m around the corner, out of sight. Almost there, when, “I can’t fucking believe this”, two more cops come around the building directly in front of me. Head down and carry on, knife ready. They don’t clue in to how out of place I am until I’m about ten feet past them. Then they turn and call to me. Instant decision: knife work now, or run like hell? The thought isn’t even finished by the time I’m halfway down the block.
I don’t know if they even tried to give chase but it wouldn’t have mattered. I run so fast normally it makes my eyes water, and the sheer terror I felt in that instant was like nitrous to something already flying faster than the years of a life wasted in prison. I drank in the sweet smell of freedom with every supersonic step, and it was delicious.
Run all the way back to the hotel, get inside, and ignore my crack-buddy’s gate-rattling threats when he comes back for me because I never showed. Eventually the desk-help tells him to beat it.
Now I lay me down to sleep, and pray the devil doesn’t take me in my troubled dreams, which are probably less disturbing than my waking life. Happy Birthday Bud! It will be against all odds if you see another one.
* * *
Well, that was the ice-breaker. A memory I would almost prefer to forget, and one still exhilarating enough to get my heart racing. I almost died! All the time! I tend to indulge in less suicidal escapades as I age, I've got a wife and kids to consider now, plus I’m a bit of a pussy compared to then. I want to see tomorrow. Many tomorrows. Costa Rica is an insanely beautiful country. Crazy misadventures aside, I would go back in a heart beat.
You can book your next trip to Costa Rica here:
Next time, please join me, my wife, and her parents, in the not-so-distant past, on a hare-brained tear from La Peñita, Mexico, to Mazatlan and back. It’s a happier tale but one that does again beg the question of how none of us ended up arrested or dead.