Archive for February, 2009

Train Ride from Caldera

A couple of weeks ago, Ileana asked me if I wanted to take the train to the beach in Puntarenas. The Costa Rica rail system is being refurbished after being out of service for many years. Ily remembers taking this train to the beach as a child, sharing the ride with chickens, ducks, and sacks of vegetables, as well as the maximum number of passengers that could be crammed into the coaches. Of course I said yes, even though there would be no chickens on this train.

Back in the day, you could just show up with your family, chickens and whatever, and buy your ticket. Not anymore. We had to get tickets two weeks in advance. The ticket person on the phone said several times that the train left at 8am. Ileana questioned this, saying that departure time was 6am when she rode it as a child, but the agent stuck by her story. She said it departed San José at 8, then left the beach at 5pm to come home.

The agent also called Ily several times to say there was a seat available immediately on a Saturday train. They just couldn’t seem to comprehend that Ily couldn’t go on Saturday because of her class at the university. I guess they figure most Ticos would just ditch class and go.

We got out of bed at 5 the morning of the trip, had coffee and walked down to the busstop for the trip to San José. A waning five-eighths moon was high in the clear sky. As our bus driver struggled to return change for two fares, it appeared that he might be having his first day on the job. As he struggled to leave the bus stop, it appeared he might be driving very slowly and carefully to nurse a vehicle on the verge of expiring. At another point he started to drive away from a stop before some passengers had debarked, so we figured it was the former. A little bit later it seemed the bus was barely making it up a hill. I decided it must be an unlucky confluence of both factors. When we left it in San José, the bus gingerly limped away, pouring out black smoke behind.

We caught a taxi to the train station. As we made our way through the now-light streets, Ileana chatted with the taxi driver. Ily seemed surprised that so many ordinary people were out and about at this time. She asked “Is it my idea, or is this a very dangerous neighborhood?” The driver responded with a bright and matter of fact, “It’s your idea!”

Arriving at the station we saw the little antique train cars from the past parked in the yard, painted with shabby, complementary advertisements for chocolate and toothpaste. The station turned out to be closed, the bars were rolled down, no one was around except some street people. Ily still seemed nervous about the neighborhood, saying that we couldn’t stay here. She went to ask a kid on a stingray bicycle if he knew anything. A white haired old lady with string bracelets on came to help. A jackbooted, black-clothed punk-rocker ambled over and asked if I spoke English. He recommended that I kick the metal bars of the train station door. Ily spoke with everyone in Spanish and thanked them. I went over and kicked the bars, making an echoey crash in the empty station.

Ily came over just as a security guard emerged from the train yard into the barred station. He said the train had left at 7am, right on time, and implied that Ily was late just because she’s a Tica and likes to be late. Ily told him off and we left him talking to the air.

We caught another taxi and went to the bus station. A kid who opens taxi doors for a living asked me for money and looked disappointed when I gave him 20 colones (three-and-a-half cents), but it was all the change I had. I guess 100 colones (18 cents) is the standard, but he probably expected more from a gringo. Little does he know I’ve been here a year already.

Tips are added to the check in restaurants. Hardly anyone tips taxi drivers. They always seem very pleased when I give them 60 cents, a tip that would elicit derision in a U.S. taxi. But then again, they don’t drive Crown Victorias that get 10 miles to the gallon. They drive small Asian 4-door stickshifts. They make hundreds of short trips per day, probably averaging less than $2 dollars per trip. I don’t know how long their shifts are. I need to learn more Spanish and/or have Ily grill one for me someday. I think they are doing okay. They almost always have shiny new cars.

We caught the bus and it sped to Puntarenas, getting there in less than two hours. It seemed like record time. The weather was warm and clear with no wind. I saw Natacha and Elías and their kids from the window as we pulled into the bus station. They saw me and waved. We disembarked and went over to their car and put our backpacks in.

I had no idea what the plan was. Ily and the family were all talking in Spanish and I had a head-cold lingering on from the previous Thursday. I thought we were going for a ride in the car, but we just locked up the things and crossed the street to the sidewalk under the palm trees by the beach. We walked north past many little open air restaurants, cafés and bars selling all the local specialties, Imperial beer, Vigorón with yuca, different flavors of ceviche, chicharrones and chicken parts glistening in warm glass boxes, pipa and other juices and drinks, lots of seafood, shaved ice drinks, and Churchills (shaved ice with syrup and condensed milk, sometimes ice cream and whipped cream). It was also possible to buy hats, clothing, posters of Bob Marley, hats with fake dreadlocks attached, wooden keychains carved in the shape of your name, coconuts carved to look like monkeys, bobbing headed bird mobiles, giant inflatable squeaking hammers, and plenty of other things.

We walked past the pier where a cruise ship was anchored. Many gringos swarmed around, speaking different Gringo languages, wearing gringo sandals with socks, turning red in the hot sun. Ily and Natacha remarked on the latter, and I said “gringo frito” (fried gringo), making them laugh. Out on the crowded beach, people swam, others rinsed off in the public showers near the sidewalk. All the shady places under the trees were right next to the sidewalk. People had claimed these areas by laying down bundles of beach-going items.

We continued on past the Maritime School and a new restaurant that hadn’t been there last time we came here. Even though the restaurant was now open and serving food, the building was still under construction, with rebar sticking out of the roof for the next story. We finally stopped across the street from Hotel Tioga, where Ily and I stayed several months ago. Ily went over and asked the proprietor if we could come in and use the pool, restrooms, etc. He remembered us and kindly agreed.

I layed on an uncomfortable plastic deck chair while everyone swam in the pool. After an hour or so, we left and went to have lunch. I wanted pipa (green coconut juice), but the restaurant didn’t have it. Elías, loving a challenge, as well as being obsessed with finding the best of whatever, insisted on going back out to the beach area and finding me some pipa. He returned after about 20 minutes with two little plastic bags of it. I poked a hole in the corner of one and squirted it into my glass, getting a lot of it on the table cloth. We waited a long time for our food. It was pretty good. Ily and I had shrimp with rice. David had a whole fried corvina. There were lots of french fries with everything.

Across the street, people in a tent danced to disco music. Natacha said you could dance there from 10am to 5am.

After lunch, we walked back the way we had come, passing all the same things. Near another disco tent, I saw someone’s black underwear sticking up out of his waistband. On the elastic was printed “Chain Gang Soldier,” bringing to mind an absurd image. Later I found in Wikipedia the pro wrestler who goes by the name.

At one point Elías and Irina were separated from us. We stopped and I looked across the street. People were folk-dancing in a huge warehouse with bars on the front. I pointed it out and we all went over there to look. Natacha teaches Costa Rican typical dance at an arts high school, so she was interested. It turned out she and Ily knew the guy who was running this dance practice. It was the Puntarenas folk-dance troupe, getting ready for a show. It turned out the “warehouse” was actually the old train station.

Costa Rican typical dancers in the old train station

Costa Rican typical dancers in the old train station

Elías and Irina caught back up with us and we walked toward the center of town to look for some special bread for Elías’ friend. We didn’t find it, but we did see a couple of ordinary chain bakeries, Musmanni and PPK (Pan Por Kilo / Bread by the kilo). Elías always insists on the best, especially for his friends.

Back at the car, I still didn’t have a clue as to what the plan was. Ily hailed a taxi and told it to follow Elías’ car. We drove south to the town of Caldera, where the container ships unload. Just before Caldera is a beach, where we stopped.

It was hot and dusty, with gauzy little trees providing scant shade. My sandals were giving me a heat rash on the tops of my feet. I was itchy and hot, getting kind of crabby. Elías and Irina went down to the water. Natacha and Ily put a blanket on the burning sand. They sat on it in the nearly-non-existent shade. I stood, to present less of my surface area to the sun. We were lucky even to have this spot, since the people who were there had left just as we’d arrived.

This mild suffering lasted for about 15 minutes. Then, from the highway, Ily heard a honking blast. It was the train! We bid a hasty farewell to Natacha and David, then we ran across the highway, and over to the train. This train was painted red, white and blue, the colors of the Costa Rican flag. It was old and the paint was faded. Shaved ice and juice and fruit vendors crowded around.

Ily began talking to some train personnel, telling the story of the wrong information she was given on the phone. They were very understanding and willing to help. They gave us a ticket and found us seats. The conductor gave us his card and told us to call him personally when we wanted to take the train again, and he would make sure we got a free ticket.

Train at Caldera, bound for San José

Train at Caldera, bound for San José

Our First Class coach

Our First Class coach

Soon after we sat down, someone in the seat ahead of us spilled a Churchill. It dripped through the crack onto Ily’s foot, and threatened her backpack as well. A train person brought water and a rag, and moved us to another seat across the aisle. Soon the horn blew again, and we chugged away out of Caldera.

Churchill vendor, recent grass fire in background

Churchill vendor

The train people were happy and outgoing, natural performers. Paola, the girl assigned to our car, made announcements all during the journey, pointing out and naming the features of the landscape as we passed, such as a melon field (fruit for export), the new highway being built by the Chinese for Costa Rica (started eight years ago), and the upcoming Carnival coming to our coach. The way she said it sounded like a joke, but it wasn’t. Someone danced in with a radio in one hand, followed by others in costume. They got a few people to get up and dance with them in the aisle. After a few minutes they went on to the next car.

The train ascended into the mountains, even though it never felt like we were going uphill. The air smelled good and a light rain fell. We saw cows and horses in the pastures, and we glided, swaying and clacking, through the backyards of little shacks and big ranches, seeing the people sitting in their yards enjoying the warm late afternoon and evening. People waved and dogs barked.

We stopped in the station at Orotina. Ily thought there was supposed to be a lady coming on the train with fresh home-made snacks for us, but it didn’t happen there.

One area, called Balsas de Atenas, had a lot of big classic-looking trees and neat, seemingly manicured grass, without too many houses visible. It was like a dream.

We went across a bridge over the Rio Grande, looking down into the river in the night. We could see the lights of San Ramón not far away. We were almost home. At one point we slowed down, the train blew its horn, then we stopped. There were cows on the track. The next minute we were in a town, passing a bar full of hooting and waving party people.

We got to San Antonio de Belén and got off the train. We took the bus back to Heredia. We got home about 8:30pm, put away our things and got ready for bed. The next day was the first day of school in Costa Rica, Ily’s first day back at work in two months.


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