Souvenirs from Costa Rica

When you go on a bus tour you think you are told you’ll be traveling with a group. But that’s not how it starts out. Initially, these are individual travelers, all there for their own reasons with their own needs and agenda. It takes time and shared experience for these individuals to coalesce into one group.

I am not a shopper. When I travel, I try to get something for my mom. If I see the right thing, I’ll get a gift for my brothers or nieces. For myself, I try to only buy one thing, as a memento. I save my money to get the one piece that really speaks to me. In Turkey, I bought an amazing rug. In Prague, I got a clock that was a replica of the Astronomical clock in the Old Town Square. Ideally I want something useful and beautiful to remind me of my travels when I get back to the day to day grind.

But some items are more memorable than others.

One of the first trips I took was to New Orleans. I was practically penniless, and arranged the trip during July because it was the cheapest time to travel. Despite 100 degree weather and relentless sun and humidity, I was hooked on travel for the rest of my life. At the time, I was limited to window shopping, but I fell in love with the leather masks. They weren’t unreasonably pricy, but I didn’t even have a credit card then and I certainly didn’t have the cash. I left them in the shop. Years later, I was still thinking how much I loved the molded leather female faces. I vowed that I’d eventually own one.

More than a decade later I was in Costa Rica. It was day three of a nine day bus tour. We’d stopped to stretch our legs on a mountain top. Naturally, there was a gift store. There always is. And just as naturally, we all took a look. Inside were the usual trinkets for tourists: T-shirts, sarongs, mugs. Nothing I wanted. But then I saw her from across the room. This was more than just the leather masks I had seen in New Orleans—this was a sculpted female torso. The molded leather was a partial nude, almost life sized. Her face and shoulders were covered by a leather “wrap” that parted to expose both breasts and stayed opened rather lower than the belly button. It was more than I usually spend, but 5 minutes of haggling brought the price within reason. Because the figure was so, bare, I also discussed packaging. They assured me it would be “no problem” to put the nude in a bag. This was a family tour and I didn’t want to shock anyone.

They took the figure to the back room to package her while I went to ask the driver, Jorge, if he would let me store the figure under the bus. It all seemed like such a simple transaction. What could go wrong?

I realized later that I should have been more specific about what I meant by “packaging.” When the leather nude was delivered to me, she was in a bag as promised. The bag was a completely clear and hid absolutely nothing. In fact, the plastic, pulled tight across the bare breasts, made them even more exposed. No problem, I thought. She’ll be stored under the bus, no one will see. I can just pick her up at the end of the trip and have her boxed to send home.

But I hadn’t accounted for the passionate, hot blood of our driver. Jorge instantly fell in love with the form. He changed from a humble bus driver to a Latin Lover. He was enchanted. Such a beautiful piece of art should not be kept below with the luggage. “The bus is not full!” he exclaimed. “She must ride with us!” He would see to her personally. He swooped her lovingly into his arms, carrying her like a bride over the threshold, and carefully secured her in the empty jump seat beside him. I was too stunned to protest.

Our rest stop was over and people returned to the bus. It was nearly impossible for to miss the new arrival, but the driver personally pointed her out to every passenger, as his “novia.” He petted her. He smiled and winked. He stroked her. It was obscene.

What had once looked like art to me, now resembled a leather, sex doll. I was mortified.

The retired couples took the figure in fun. They chuckled and moved on to their seats. Maybe this wasn’t a big deal. We were all adults, right?  Well, no, we weren’t all adults. The tour had two children, Josh a boy of 12 and his 9 year old sister Megan, both home schooled and presumably sheltered. They were the best behaved kids I’d ever seen, not to mention polite, intelligent and likeable. Even during long days on a bus, they never complained. What most amazed me was that, unlike my brothers and me, they actually seemed to like each other. What if I scarred them for life?

And now they were climbing the stairs. Jorge was introducing Josh and Megan to his new girlfriend. I wanted to hide. Maybe if I just acted cool about it, it would all blow over?

But I’m not cool. I mouthed, “I’m so sorry” to their parents who stood behind the children, eyes wide. It was hard to know how they would react. It could go either way.

Josh finally left the front of the bus and began walking to his seat, looking right at me. “So that’s yours?” Josh asked, wide eyed.

I shook my head, “yes.”  But what I thought was, “Guilty”.

“She’s NAKED!”

The entire bus burst into laughter. Jorge spent the rest of the trip leering at her.

I don’t think Josh was scarred. My leather form is a lot less revealing that prime time television. Though I was bothered when Jorge insisted on personally keeping the figure in his room each night, “for safety,” he said. I don’t even want to know.

The incident turned out to be the thing that united us into a group. The bus would be rolling along through endless cloud forests with poor visibility, or we’d be standing in a long line waiting for dinner. And someone would break the silence with, “She’s NAKED!”  And we’d all laugh. I mostly stopped being mortified and enjoyed it along with everyone else. As a group, we decided to call her Costa Rita.

It was the two little words and a shared experience that united us into a group. And it was funny every time. Even if the joke was on me.

There are no stupid questions, and other lies

If you’ve ever been on a group tour, you know you can count on some things. You will spend a lot more time on a bus than you’d hoped. The food will be relatively safe, but relatively bland to appeal to a wide range of tastes. You will be taken to one, if not several, tourist traps where the items are priced way too high and the tour guide is getting a cut of the business.

And you can expect to see the same category of travelers, though their names will change from tour to tour. There will always be one person who will be late for everything. By the end of the trip no one will be speaking to them but everyone will be talking about them. There will always someone who will complain about the food at every meal. This is usually the same person who complains about the accommodations and constantly uses the phrase, “well that’s not how we do it at home,” as though their home was somehow a universal standard. And there will be one pair of travel companions, formerly best of friends, who will not be speaking to each other by the end of the trip.

There is also one other indispensable member of any large travel group, a member so important that he or she actually engenders solidarity to the rest of the group. This is the person who everyone makes fun of because they ask very, very stupid questions. You remember back in school when they told you there were no stupid questions? Well… they lied. There are. And this person will ask them all.

On a bus tour of Costa Rica, our resident stupid question asker was a small Jewish, New Yorker. He was also hard of hearing, which meant that he often yelled his stupid questions, making it worse for him. And for us. He refused to wear a hearing aid, a fact his wife repeatedly told us all. If your room was next to them you could hear their shouting matches. He yelled to defend himself from her insults and she yelled just to be heard.

This man had a knack for asking for information that had just, just been explained. It was a gift! Not a talent you’d want, but still, a talent. He became our comic relief.

We were on a walking tour of the rainforest along the east coast of the country. Quite unexpectedly we came across a family of Howler monkeys. All of us had been introduced to them at about 4:00 that morning when they began the distinctive howl that gives them their name. He had slept through it, naturally, so he’d missed the show. Honestly, it was fascinating, even cute. The first morning everyone (except Stupid Question Man) ran out in their pajamas to see a family of monkeys mugging for the camera and stealing anything within reach. By the second morning, it was just loud and annoying. We were on vacation after all.

During this walking tour, Stupid Question Man asked our guide which were the males and which were the female monkeys. I suppressed a snicker. I was raised on a farm, so I’ve had up close and personal experience in telling male animals from female. When you are dealing with a primate, an animal who arguably sits beside us on the branch of the family tree (and in this case actually hopping skipping and jumping on a nearby tree) it’s not that hard to tell the difference. Frankly I had been trying to avert my eyes from the obvious…well…indications of maleness.

Our tour guide, a professional, was not fazed. He treated the question with professionalism and gave a forthright explanation. Speaking slowing and enunciating in his lilting Hispanic accent, he explained, “Zee feeemall, she eeees so small. Her face, ees so rrrrround and she carry the baby to her brrreeest.” He pointed at a female who was suckling a young baby. “Zee male, he so much beeeg. Heees face is flaaat. And he has the whaaot boolls.”

“The what,” Asked SQM?  He cupped his ear.

“Zee male. Hee has the whaaaaeeeet booooolls,” the guide enunciated.

“What?”  SQM was completely lost. The rest of us were about to pass out from holding back the laughter.

The guide was getting frustrated. The rest of us were turning blue.

“The booolls man!”  He grabbed his pants in the area of the zipper. “The booolls!!! All the mans, zey got the boooolls! Where you from you don’t know dis?”

SQM  had actually heard and understood only the last part of the question. “I’m from New York.”

Our tour guide visibly brightened, “I go to New York then. Zey needs the mans! Zey needs ME!”