Saturday, August 9, 2008 - Today was to be the worst day of all - time to go home. Looking back, this was a remarkable journey to me. We would awaken to the rolling surf of the warm Pacific and close our eyes for the night while nestled in the bosom of the Great Lakes. The time in between would fly cross the Great Divide, straddle continents, and see into the black, cold waters of the Atlantic from a jet-speed perch in the clouds. And all this would be accomplished inside of 14 hours. What amazing times these are!
Breakfast was at 6:30am and, keeping the streak alive, we were the first to arrive - followed shortly by Fico. Because the restaurant staff weren't prepared for early birds such as ourselves, it was nigh onto 7:00am before we were eating our final Costa Rican breakfast. For old time's sake, I made a point to order rice and beans.
By 8:00am we were loaded into the 2nd of many cart trips that would bring The Gang to the waiting buses at Arenas del Mar's topside entrance. From there, we made the short trip to the Quepos airstrip, where our Twin Otter's would be taking us across the mountains back to San Jose. 35 scenic minutes flew by (pun intended) before our plane was taxiing into the 'regional' side of Jan Jose airport. And there, in front of our hangar, was our old friend Andreas with his bus. He would be taking us the rest of way to the international side of the airport. Since we were on the first plane to arrive, we waited another 20 minutes for Otter #2 to coming rolling in. We passed the time posing for pictures in front of our plane and enjoying our dwindling time in the Costa Rican Sun.
Andreas' bus made the trip in record time - all of 5 minutes! With the exceptions of Rae, Fico, and Andreas, no one expected such a short ride. Judging from the total silence on the bus, we were wholly unprepared to say good-bye. Rae got us all laughing by telling us with mock sarcasm that this was the end of the line and that a new cast of ABD tourists were waiting for their trip to start. Still, it was a jarring moment. At that, we exited our coach and claimed the luggage that Fico and Andreas had kindly unloaded and sorted for each family. Many of us, there on the sidewalk in front of the terminal, made a point of seeking out special friends from our week together. I always hate goodbyes since I never think of anything memorable to say until long after the opportunity has passed. Suffice to say that I was going to miss a few people, and I was glad that someone had made a point to take every family's name, address, and email address. I hoped we would keep in touch.
Now was the time to screw ourselves to the sticking place and dive into the crowded San Jose terminal. With our passorts and pre-paid 'exit tax' forms at hand, we got in line at the Air Canada counter. With a little more than 3 hours to spare before our flight, the line-up was quite short - and stationary. It turned out that Air Canada would not service any Customers until 3 hours before a flight. We had 15 minutes to wait. I could tell that we were in for problems somehow.
As Air Canada staff made their sleepy transition to 'on duty', the airport security officers had set up their own table in front of the counter. The process: talk to the security people, then proceed to the ticket counter. All I can say is that I've never seen such a thorough passport check by any security officer anywhere. Out passports were twisted and prodded and scrutinized under magnifiers for what seemed an eternity. They did every kind of check they could, short of waterboarding our passports. We passed, but I somehow felt like I shouldn't have.
Soon we had our boarding passes in hand and we set off to brave the next security gate and gather some food. The security check was a breeze, but we were disappointed to find that the airport had no sit-down restaurants. There were kiosks here and there selling fast food, but we opted to buy (very good!) chicken dinners at a little food court affair and take them to our departure gate for a picnic.
At some point I grew restless and went in search of a gift shop (there are many) in order to find some Costa Rican music CDs. I love to make home movies and I was hoping to find some traditional music with a local flavour to provide some soundtracks for my Costa Rican opus. As I browsed the racks in one of the shops, a young security guard struck up a conversation. I told him I wanted something 'local and with lots of guitars' and he was kind enough to make some recommendations. That small act of friendliness and kindness pretty much summed up my experience with Costa Ricans all week. The pangs of sadness grew a little more acute, I think.
Our flight was on schedule. As we boarded the plane, we were subjected to one more security check - literally on the jetway at the aircraft's door. A long table had been setup, behind which 6 officers were stationed (including the 2 who felt up our passports). The rest of our trip to Toronto was without incident (ignoring Air Canada food, of course). We landed at Pearson in darkness under a very light rain. How fitting, I thought.
We negotiated the spanking new inefficient hairball known as Terminal 1 in the hope of finding our next (and final) flight. We proceeded through Immigration and produced our passports. They let us back into Canada, but the scowls on the officers' faces were anything but welcoming. We collected our suitcases and handed over our Customs declarations without having to stop for anything. This was feeling too easy. We loaded our luggage back onto a conveyor for it's own secret journey home (a totally inefficient system) and headed into another security check (did I say totally inefficient system?).
Here was Problem Number 1. The line was short (good), not moving anywhere (bad), and staffed by at least 6 people (very bad). This could only mean 1 thing: there were security trainees here. Sure enough, the line moved at a glacial pace with much squinting and consulting behind the x-ray machine. I proceeded through the metal detector with my practised air of nonchalence that would allow me to (1) avoid a pat-down and (2) casually grab my carry-on from the conveyor.
It didn't work. My carry-on backpack was not where it was supposed to be, which was Problem Number 2. Instead, it was trapped in the guts of the x-ray machine while 2 officers stared at their screen with puzzled expressions. They called over Senior Guy for a conference. 30 seconds went by before Senior Guy called me aside for a hand-check of my bag. I could feel my temper rising, but I maintained my exterior calm. I could not even guess at what he thought he was after.
He began pulling things - my things! - from the bag. And then he found it. I have a Leatherman multi-tool that has travelled with me for years. It always goes into checked luggage, but on this trip I screwed up and left it in my carry-on. I laughed and explained my mistake to Senior Guy. I also pointed out that the Leatherman has passed 2 miltary-style searches in Costa Rica. We both knew this was going nowhere, of course. Leatherman would not be finishing the trip with us lest I use it to hijack a 30 minute flight to London, Ontario. It is to laugh, although Dee recognized that look I get when I'm about to shoot my mouth off. She quickly guided me towards the Tim Horton's kiosk as I was explaining to Senior Guy how enjoyable I found the process and just how darn safe we all felt.
My mood was mellowed by a large double-double and a sandwich at Timmie's. With that bit of body fuel in my system, I barely raised an eyebrow when we found that Air Canada had inflicted one last 'screw you, Customer' in the form of a 30 minute flight delay. But it was inevitable that our flight would take off sometime, and we did make it home. By 1:00am, all our heads were back on familiar pillows.
The next few days would bring the usual post-vacation adjustments - fatigue, disappointment, and outright bitchiness. We retreated to our usual apres trip corners - I to my video-editting, Dee to her 'next trip' planning. My final analysis is this: the world is much bigger place than I sometimes imagine. It's full of possibilities and realities that I could never imagine. Why Costa Rica should evoke these kinds of feelings - it's hard to say. Perhaps the reason lies in the fact that I had never considered travelling to such a place even just a year ago. Maybe it's because it is a place still 'foreign' and 'exotic' in the way places are when they've only been lightly kissed by North American cultural sensibilities. Whatever the reason, it all makes me want to see more of this world before my time is up. I can't wait.
As a fitting post-script to the day's events: Dee and the kids found the time to surprise me with a new Leatherman. When I saw it propped on my pillow one afternoon, I couldn't help but wonder about the journies ahead for this one. We'll see.