The Amtrak Trilogy Part 1: Costa Rica to New York

timthumbI yawned deeply amidst the luxury bedding of the boutique hotel on the slopes of the volcano in Costa Rica, and prepared to go back to sleep. It was 5.45am, December 21, 2012. I know the date because I just (now, in 2017) double-checked the details of my flight from San José to JFK. This is something I’d been oddly reluctant to do for the previous ten days, which my then-girlfriend now-wife and I had spent enjoying the resplendent flora, abundant fauna and disappointing food of the ‘Switzerland of Central America’*. Occasionally Chiara had reminded me to look up the time of my return journey, which was different from hers because I’d bought my ticket as a special surprise present for her birthday (er…) and the flight I’d booked was half an hour later and (inevitably) on a different plane. I knew that my flight was in the evening, as was hers to Madrid, but whenever the subject came up I didn’t happen to have my phone to hand, or was too busy looking up names of birds, or just trying hard to ignore a muffled thought I’d locked in a cupboard in my head which was saying something that sounded a bit like, Richard, your flight isn’t in the evening, it’s actually first thing in the morning. So I didn’t get round to checking until once again prompted by her on the morning of the very last day, which we had planned to spend eating a big boutique breakfast followed by a stroll to look at the innards of the big farty mountain with the hard-to-pronounce name. When I looked at the details I “gave a start”. Although I’d never consciously reflected on what that phrase means, I now know it means “to run round the room of a boutique hotel shouting fuck! Fuck! FUCK! and trying to find one’s glasses while also having a shower and packing one’s bag. And apologising. A lot.”

The friendliness of the South African couple who ran the place turned out to be able to withstand having their bedroom door banged on loudly at 5.52am, especially when it became clear that the English guy from Room 4 was too lost in panic to understand the value of money. $100 and forty-five minutes later, I was at the airport.

On the plane I had something of a epistomological crisis. What did I really ‘know’? Could I trust my own ‘knowledge’ of the world? Is our perception of reality based purely on choosing to believe that which suits us and ignore everything else? What other blindspots were there in my worldview? What did this imply about our ‘awareness’ of Climate Change? Like, if I was really as worried about global warming as I told myself I was, what was I doing on yet another plane? And what would my girlfriend’s parents and friends say when they found out how stupid I was? Could I even trust the evidence of my own eyes? The ticket before me, for example, clearly indicated a four-hour gap between my arrival at and departure from JFK. That suggested I could go to the centre of New York and walk around for a bit, right? But who was I to judge such a thing? I would need to ask another human, anyone who wasn’t me, to make the decision for me.

Once deplaned at JFK that’s what I did. I asked a nearby baggage handler to confirm that I could safely set foot in Manhattan or The Bronx or wherever and be back in time for the connection to London. I’d never been to New York before, I explained. She peered at the ticket. No, she said.

Twenty minutes later I was walking down a street in Queens. In New York! It was just like in the films, although not so much ‘Mean Streets’ or ‘Annie: The Musical’, more like ‘Frozen’, ‘My Fingers Just Fucking Fell Off’ or ‘300 Degrees Below Zero’. I reckoned I had enough time to eat some pizza pie, grab a beer in some nondescript bar, shoot dead Donald Trump and maybe track down Thomas Pynchon before heading back to the warmth of the airport.

How does one order pizza in New York? By the slice? How big are the slices? These were the questions I didn’t want to ask as I stood in line. I wanted to feel like I belonged, like a Native New Yorker, but I didn’t, like the song says you should, ‘know the score’. The guys behind the counter seemed to be Middle-Eastern,  but I could hear some proper sweary Italo-American voices coming out of the kitchen. I confidently ordered enough food to feed the entire population of San José for two months and sat down unobtrusively in the corner to peruse some sports magazines which may as well have been written in Patagonian Welsh for all that I could understand of them.

It was technically my first visit to the US but in a sense I’d been there for the previous ten days. Costa Rica sometimes felt a bit like a Disneyland version of Latin America. We’d met so many North Americans even I’d started pronouncing it Coaster Rica. The first was Darylle, whose Airbnb place we stayed at in San José upon arriving. I hadn’t known much about the country we were visiting except that it once had a President who thought it was sometimes okay to spit on people and that it didn’t have an army. (I knew those things because I’d written about them here.) Having breakfast with Darryle was like doing a Master’s in Costa Rican history, society and politics. (It was also the best meal we would have in Costa Rica.) He was an expat lawyer who, after a spell in the Peace Corps in the ’60s, had moved to San José and was very much part of life there. He also sponsored a school in Nepal along with a bewildering list of other laudable activities.

In a blues bar in Quepos we talked to and danced with exiles from Reagan’s America who’d decided to stay for good; just up the road there was a reminder that Costa Rica had been friendly to the US in more disturbing ways, another remnant of the Reagan years in the form of a plane used to transport ‘aid’ to the Contra death squads in neighbouring Nicaragua. Also in Quepos we came across the remains of a banana processing factory – Costa Rica was for almost a hundred years used as a massive banana plantation by US corporations. On the last night, in that boutique guesthouse on the volcano, we had dinner with a New York couple who talked in quiet tones with immense sensitivity and intelligence about the suffering inflicted by Hurricane Sandy and what we as a species could do to prevent it happening elsewhere. In all the personal encounters I recognised and admired that particular openness and readiness for conversation, that effusive volubility that characterises pretty much all the US citizens I’ve ever met. As I munched on my mountain of pizza pie and worried about missing my plane I had the feeling that this was a country where anyone could start to feel like they belonged.

I’d be back.


* We spent the first couple of days in Cost Ric puzzling over why there were so many Argentinians employed in the tourist industry, but then we realised that Central Americans also go in for that whole voseo thing. Another surprise came at about 4am in a hammock, when I heard this sound from what seemed like less than a metre away. Our favourite animal of the holiday, though, was the local version of the sloth, which apparently only comes down from its tree once every two weeks to take a dump. Pura vida!

6 thoughts on “The Amtrak Trilogy Part 1: Costa Rica to New York

  1. Just wanted to say I’ve really enjoyed reading your blog recently; your posts are always well written and I enjoy the “interior monologue”, reflective style of your travelogues. Meeting new people has always been one of the most interesting and rewarding aspects of travelling, and I think I share your assessment of Americans in general.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Your blog is great! I really like the fact that each post has a clear purpose and is genuinely informative. I look at so many other blogs and I have no idea why they exist. Even though I’ve only ever been to Oxford very briefly I thought your description of it was extremely insightful, I was talking about some aspects of it last night with some people who’ve lived there.

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      2. Yeah, from Sheffield, which I keep on meaning to write about but Owen Hatherley did it so well ( I’m not sure there’s much of a point. (Actually you can read a bit of what he wrote about Oxford here: We live in Rome now but may well be back in London after the summer.

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