Excerpt from Chapter Three:
Breathing in Another Language
World travel is both exhilarating and personal. Each of us seeks something unique from the undertaking, something that adds to our self-perception and understanding of other ways of life. If our purpose is the quest rather than the escape, it’s not sufficient to merely visit a country. We must be willing to immerse ourselves in its unique customs and explore places that are more off the beaten track.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. Not too long ago, Fe and I joined a group to Morocco. In Marrakech, the tour guide took us to visit the famous medina in the early afternoon. In the main square, called Jamaa el Fna, there were a few entertainers and merchants selling souvenirs, but the air was hot and the mood sleepy. That night, most of our group chose to eat at a restaurant, but a few of us took taxis and returned to the square. What a transformation! People who have been there at night use phrases like “assault on the senses,” “going back in time,” and “absolute mayhem” to describe their experiences. The medina and Jamaa el Fna were all of that and more. Every inch of the square was contested by snake charmers, wrestlers, t-shirt vendors throwing samples into the crowds, henna tattoo artists, performing monkeys, street entertainers, and stalls filled with oranges, snails, and various kinds of nuts. Best of all, tiny food stalls had magically sprouted around the square. The stalls consisted of low counters with chairs surrounding a small cook stove. Young men behind the counters pushed menus at customers and spoke rapidly in broken English. Fe and I took seats at one of the counters and chose food items at random. The food was hot and quite tasty. The night air was charged with the frenzied voices of waiters calling to customers and vendors hawking their wares. It was a carnival atmosphere that spiced our food and stimulated our senses.
When we had finished our meal, our waiter brought our bill, which was very reasonable, and I pulled out my dirham to pay him. He claimed he didn’t have the right change, so he took my dirham to another food vendor and brought back smaller bills, which he returned, minus the amount for our dinners. At that point, he began to shout “teep, teep, teep” which I understood to mean tip. I was perfectly happy to include a “teep,” but first there was the matter of the money he’d given me. It wasn’t enough. He’d short changed me. It was only a few dirham, but I wasn’t about to let the man con me. I showed him his mistake, but he waved his hand and said “no, no, no,” the change was correct. I showed him his error a second time, but he continued to deny it and asked for a “teep,” once more. I finally looked him in the eye, pointed at the money in his hand, and said: “Guess what. The money you shorted me is your “teep.” With that, Fe and I got up to leave. The waiter quickly realized that he had just short changed himself (he would have gained more from a reasonable tip) and tried to make amends, but it was too late. I smiled as we left, not certain which had been more fun: eating at the food stall in the square, or matching wits with the waiter over the change and his “teep.”
This book is filled with places and experiences that have helped Fe and myself learn to breathe in new, unexpected ways. Sometimes, it’s not so much the adventure as the destination itself that stands out. Here are a few places that had an uncommon effect on us. They are places that, in some small way, have altered our perspective on life just by being there.
China's Great Wall in Winter
Snow obscured my view as my driver slowed the car on an icy curve. The road normally used to reach the Great Wall was closed due to winter storms, but my guide had suggested we try an alternate route to a newer section of the wall. We were close, he told me, but the wall was not yet visible through the white haze of snowflakes tumbling from an endless expanse of clouds that hung like sodden laundry over the winter landscape. And the driver was in no hurry. Not on that slick road.
My mind whirled through mental snapshots of large crowds crawling in ant-like fashion along the Wall, and nearby vendors hawking postcards and souvenirs. Those were typical summer scenes when thousands of people visited the Wall each day. It didn’t seem likely that I would have to worry about such crowds now. I had arrived in Beijing in January. Not the best time of year to go sightseeing, but there I was. Snow covered everything. Soft, fluffy snow that reminded me of fields of rabbits’ pelts. Trees stretched their skeletal branches across a bleak sky. Local people bundled themselves in old, blue-grey Mao jackets to protect them from the cold. And it was cold! Still, my hosts wanted me to see their important landmarks, including the Great Wall.
Not that I was complaining. The Great Wall had always been on my “must visit” list, and the prospect of finally seeing it sent fireworks of anticipation bursting through me. This was a structure that had first been built in the 7th century B.C. It was originally designed to protect independent warring states from one another. Later, it protected a unified China from Mongols and other invaders. Astronauts could even see it from space as it snaked in serpentine fashion four thousand miles across China’s verdant, rolling hillsides. To them, it must have looked like a giant reptile in search of its next meal.
At last, we approached a small parking area near the base of a rocky hill, and I got my first look at the wall. It loomed above me in the snowy light like a timeless frigate riding atop a rocky wave. The popular section of the wall visited in the summer required visitors to ascend only a few steps to its ramparts. Not so here. I was going to have to climb a steep stairway the equivalent of three football stadiums to the cheap seats.
Or not. Two guides with donkeys were waiting for me, and each offered to carry me to the top for a small fee. I had to admit the idea was appealing, but riding a donkey up to the Great Wall clashed with my sense of adventure. The Wall was something to be conquered, not served up on the back of a furry animal. I waved them off with a polite shake of my head, and began the steep ascent on foot.
As I neared the halfway point, my legs were beginning to tire and my breathing was coming in more frequent puffs. My thoughts drifted to the two donkeys I had so cavalierly dismissed at the bottom of the hill. Maybe, riding to the top hadn’t been such a bad idea after all. Can you guess who was waiting for me around the next turn? Of course you can -- those same, eager guides with their donkeys. How tempting those beasts of burden looked to me now! I flirted with the idea of asking how much they charged for the remainder of the journey, if for no other reason than to confirm my suspicion that their rates had probably risen, now that I was tiring and out of breath. After a brief inner struggle, I resolved not to give up. I smiled at the men’s enterprise but resisted their urgent entreaties. I’d be darned if I was going to quit now. I kept climbing.
When the top finally hove into view, I knew I had made the right decision. Rarely have I been so rewarded for my perseverance as I was that day. I stepped onto the Wall’s ramparts and was greeted by a deep, unfathomable silence. It was a top-of-the-world kind of silence. A silence that stretched back for centuries. Nothing moved in the falling snow. I was peering through a lace curtain of fluffy snowflakes at a world without a trace of mankind. Not one footprint could be found. Not one figure was visible.
The air was as crisp as freshly harvested lettuce, and I inhaled several deep breaths to clear my mind. This must be what it’s like to summit a famous mountain, I thought. The Great Wall had become my Everest, and while my conquest was small, the exhilaration was just as real. In both directions the abandoned Wall undulated away from my vantage point across a landscape of ghostly foothills. Close up, its roughhewn, stone features stood in sharp contrast to the snow, but in the distance the ramparts blended with the gauzy hills and valleys until details grew vague, then disappeared altogether.
Below me, a guard station had been built into the wall. Centuries ago it would have housed soldiers armed with swords and bows and arrows. Theirs must have been a lonely vigil, their days filled with boredom and tedium . . . until the enemy appeared. Imagine what it must have felt like to suddenly see marauding bands of Mongolian invaders swarming through the valleys towards the wall. Warnings would have sounded, alerting soldiers who hastily raced to the parapets and fit arrows to bows in anticipation of battle. Messengers from the guard house would have been dispatched requesting reinforcements.
The longer I stood there, the more time bent away from me. I could hear the thundering hooves of the intruders’ horses, the heavy breathing of both rider and animal, and the bloodthirsty cries of would-be conquerors seeking pillage and glory; I could feel their consternation when they reined in their horses before those massive walls. What would have been their reaction, I wondered, when presented with such an impenetrable barrier? Bewilderment, surely . . . followed by frustration . . . then anger. Stomping horses churning the snow beneath their feet, defiant voices echoing off the massive wall, and raised weapons shaking in broad-knuckled fists would have had no effect.
The leaders most likely gathered beyond the range of the defenders’ arrows to discuss options and plot strategies. War parties would have ventured forth to inspect the wall for weaknesses that could be breached. When nothing presented itself, scouts were likely sent off to search for less protected ramparts or a way around the wall. How many days would they have ridden before they returned with the discouraging news that the wall stretched into eternity? How long would it take for the marauders’ leaders to realize their only option was to turn around and ride away, defeated?
Excerpt from Chapter Four:
The Sun Never Shines in Prague
Fe and I had decided to try a river cruise in Europe. No photo assignment. Just a great time eating too much and visiting all the “ias” in Eastern Europe . . . Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Serbia, Austria. You get the idea. The only exception was Hungary. I’m not sure how that one got in there.
There had been some devastating storms that had flooded many parts of Europe before we arrived for our trip, but we were fortunate. We boarded our boat at Constanta on the Black Sea, and we quickly grew accustomed to one of the ship’s little touches of hospitality. Each time we returned to the ship, crew members were waiting for us in the lobby with refreshing fruit drinks. Everyone agreed it was a nice gesture, and we all lined up as we came aboard to enjoy the refreshments.
There were still a few remnants of the recent storm systems lingering about, and one of them caught up with us in Bulgaria. It came in the form of a deluge that was so intense it reminded me of Iguassu Falls. The storm battered the roof of our bus until I thought it would cave in, and the roads quickly became flooded. Thunder boomed over our heads and lightning lit the dark skies with brilliant bolts of angry energy. My first thought was . . . could we make it safely back to our ship? Water was quickly gathering in the saturated fields where peasants could be seen frantically herding their few precious cows and donkeys into shelters. The livestock was saved, but there was little they could do about their crops of sunflowers, which were flattened by the intense wind and heavy rain.
Fortunately, our driver knew the roads and demonstrated great dexterity in navigating the flooded terrain. He brought us back to the ship without incident. Those of us in the front of the bus got off first and made a mad dash for the boat. The wind nearly blew us sideways, and the rain pummeled us until we felt like those sunflower stalks in the peasants’ fields. We burst onboard with wet faces and heaving chests, thankful that we had reached our shelter without getting completely drenched. And there were our fruit drinks waiting for us on trays held by our smiling cabin crew. We all stopped inside the doorway and accepted the offered refreshments, not realizing the chaos that was about to unfold behind us. By now, everybody had exited the bus and was making a frantic dash for the boat, but the line for the fruit drinks blocked the doorway.
Imagine sixty people arriving late for church and everybody trying to forge a path inside, only to discover that the doors were locked and someone was standing on a ladder pouring water on their heads. That’s pretty much what it was like. Bodies slammed into one another as they came to an abrupt halt in the rain. Voices cried out in consternation. People pressed forward in a desperate attempt to push their way onboard the ship. By the time the crew realized what had happened, several dozen angry vacationers were ready to mutiny. Space was quickly cleared, and the bedraggled troops stumbled onboard where they stood shaking themselves like over-watered terriers. Those of us who had caused the melee slunk away to our rooms in hopes that no one had recognized us.
Sometimes our travel guides misjudged the weather. That’s what happened to Fe and me when we went bowling in the Chitwan Jungle in Nepal. Since I doubt there are any bowling alleys in Nepal, an explanation is in order. I should begin by mentioning that Chitwan is more of a forest than a jungle. You’ll see why that’s important in a moment. We were staying at a lodge and having a great time. One of the highlights was riding elephants through the savannahs and forests looking for rhinos and Bengal tigers. Saw lots of rhinos, but no tigers. The relationship between the elephants and rhinos was interesting. They tolerated each other as equals, and more or less ignored one other. That allowed us to approach to within a few feet of these fierce, horned animals and observe them up close from the backs of our pachyderms.
On the last afternoon, our guide suggested a ride in an open jeep into the forest for one last attempt to spot the elusive Bengal tiger. I should point out that these beasts are nocturnal, so the odds were slim. Still, we approached the ride with a sense of adventure. Perhaps, we would see another rhino or a bear. We were joined by the guide’s sister and an Indian couple. As we were about to depart, I heard the sound of rolling thunder in the distance. It sounded like somebody was bowling strikes up there, and I asked our guide about it. No problem, he assured us. The storm was a long way off. Being the gullible traveler that I am, I took him at his word and left the protective rain gear for Fe, me, and my cameras back in our room.
As our jeep probed deeper and deeper into the forest, clouds formed overhead. They grew steadily darker until a light rain began to fall. The driver shifted from a leisurely pace to a faster gear. I placed my cameras under my shirt and tried not to look worried. Soon, thunder and lightning joined the melee, and the light rain turned into droplets the size of golf balls. We were quickly drenched, and the only thing that saved my cameras was a small hat that Fe had brought along for protection from the sun. What irony! The driver’s pace increased from faster to frantic, and we weaved around trees along a road not much wider than a deer trail. Then it happened. No, we didn’t see a Bengal tiger, although that would have been far less exciting. The wind suddenly whipped into a frenzy, thunder banged overhead, rain pelted us with the consistency of a waterfall, lightning snapped at our heels, and fifty foot trees began tumbling down around us like bowling pins.
We leaped from the jeep and huddled beside it while the guide’s sister began screaming that we were going to die. I thought it strange that she screamed in English, but I knew she might be right. Trees continued to crash to the ground all around us; one thumped down not twenty feet away. Thankfully, the wind quickly dropped from gale force to a level one associates with hats flying through the air, and the rain settled into a steady downpour that no longer seemed intent on drowning us. Best of all, the guide’s sister stopped screaming.
We found ourselves surrounded by downed trees and pools of water. Our forest had become a swamp, and our deer path was hopelessly blocked by all the fallen timber. Despite the threat of more falling trees, the guide urged us to begin walking as quickly as possible towards a ranger’s station that was located about a mile away. I could tell from his furtive glances and worried frown that it wasn’t falling trees that concerned him. This puzzled me until I remembered that we were in the middle of a forest filled with wild bear, rhinos, boars, and Bengal tigers. This was not the time to meet our first tiger!
We slogged through the water and mud for a good twenty minutes before we caught sight of the ranger’s station. At that point I spotted several large boar staring at us from a nearby clearing. I supposed they were too surprised to attack us, but I wasn’t going to stick around to find out. Miraculously, we all came through the ordeal, which I likened to survival training. This took place in the days before reality television programming, but I have a pretty good idea what it must be like to be on one of those shows. One thing I knew for certain. I would never again believe a guide who said “no problem.”
Excerpt from Chapter Eight:
If I Am What I Eat, Who Am I?
One of my fondest dining memories took place at a hotel in Pontorson, France. Why was I in Pontorson? Because the town was near Mont-St.-Michel, a great rock that Mother Nature had thrust into the air like a giant fist along the western coast of France. It wasn’t just the rock that made the place so special. It was the flat expanse of sand that surrounded the rock and stretched for several miles towards the horizon, where the English Channel lurked just out of sight. During high tides, ocean water flooded the landscape and surrounded the rock.
As I approached Mont-St.-Michel, I noted an abbey adorned with stone cloisters and secluded sanctuaries seated majestically atop this rocky throne observing its realm. Below, a tiny village of tourist shops wound its way up the lower portion of the rock, and three wooden fishing boats lay on their sides in the sand. The boats looked clumsy and helpless. They reminded me of beached whales waiting for the tide to rescue them, and when I saw two fishermen approaching, I suspected they would soon be set free.
I turned my gaze to the horizon in time to see the sand begin to shimmer with the seductive dance of a desert mirage. Was it my imagination, or was there now a hint of blue water where land met sky? My question was soon answered as fingers of water slithered across the porous surface towards me. The mirage had been transformed into a blue veil, its leading edge hissing as the sand tried in vain to absorb the advancing tide that marched relentlessly towards the shore. It reminded me of an alien creature in a horror movie that would not be stopped. At first, the water could be measured in inches, then feet. It wasn’t long before I had to retreat to the causeway that connected Mont-St.-Michel to the mainland. Water surrounded me; the fishermen’s boats had been joyfully released from their sandy bonds; and the massive rock known as Mont-St.-Michel had become an island.
The unfolding drama helped me work up an excellent appetite, and I returned to my hotel in anticipation of a fine dinner. There was a small problem, however. I had taken a few French courses in school, but the words I’d learned for different kinds of food -- poisson for fish, poulet for chicken, beouf for beef, legume for vegetable -- did not appear on French menus. Nothing looked familiar, with the result that I rarely got what I thought I was ordering. A plate of ham turned out to be a pork sandwich, and so forth. It was the same everywhere I went in France, and by the time I arrived in Pontorson, I was quite wary of French menus.
I had taken most of my meals at my hotel and always had the same waiter. He was a young man who seemed determined to become the finest waiter in France, if not all of Europe. His service and attention to details were impeccable, right down to the towel he hung with such precision over his left forearm, and the way he smartly kicked open the swinging doors leading to the kitchen when he left the room carrying a tray of dishes balanced on his right hand above his head.
This would be my last dinner at the hotel, and I opened the menu with as much hope as temerity. My eyes were instantly drawn to the dinner special, which I was certain translated into duck l’orange, one of my favorite dishes. After so many disappointments, however, I didn’t want to take any chances, so I tried in my faltering French to confirm this translation with my young waiter. He couldn’t speak a word of English and had no idea what I was saying, but he was so determined to understand me, his smile morphed into a grimace and sweat broke out on his brow. The tension in his face was palpable, and I could see that my line of questioning was going nowhere. In desperation, I tucked my hands under my armpits, looked up at my waiter, and flapped my elbows up and down in a flying motion. Then I quacked at him. The busy dining room became noticeably quieter; many eyes turned to stare. Mostly French eyes, I might add. I knew what they were thinking. There’s another one of those strange American tourists making a fool of himself. I had to admit that they were right. I mean, how would you react if you saw someone holding his armpits and flapping his elbows while quacking like a duck?
The effect on my waiter, however, could only be described as therapeutic. The tension lines fled from his face, and his grimace returned to a smile. Vigorously, he nodded his head up and down to signify a “oui.” I may have set back French impressions of Americans for another fifty years, by I got my duck l’orange!
Excerpt from Chapter Ten:
The Highway Code of India
This chapter is about surviving the traffic and driving conditions in the countries we visit. Survival is definitely the operative word in India. Shortly after we arrived, our guide, Shailesh, shared his Highway Code of India with us. The code was developed by Shailesh and some friends to provide humorous insights into how people drive in his country, and Fe and I found it terribly amusing . . . until we ventured out and actually immersed ourselves in the sea of honking horns, sacred cows, two-stroke tuk tuks, taxis, cars, trucks, buses, rickshaws, and camel-drawn carts that seemed to occupy every square inch of the roadways. It was then that we began to appreciate Shailesh’s code, and it seemed like the perfect introduction to this chapter. So here it is.
Article I: The assumption of immortality is required of all road users.
Article II: Indian traffic, like Indian society, is structured on a strict caste system. In descending order, give way to cows, elephants, camels, buffalos, pigs/goats/dogs, heavy trucks, buses, official cars, pedal rickshaws, private cars, motorcycles, scooters, auto-rickshaws, handcarts, and pedestrians.
Article III: All wheeled vehicles shall be driven in accordance with the following manifesto: to slow is to falter; to brake is to fail; to stop is to be defeated.
Article IV: Use of the horn.
Cars: short blasts (urgent) indicate supremacy for clearing dogs, rickshaws and pedestrians from one’s path. Long blasts (desperate) indicate impending disaster. (I am going too fast to stop, so unless you slow down we shall both die.) In extreme cases, this may be accompanied by flashing headlights. A single blast (casual) may mean “I have seen somebody I know” or “I haven’t blown my horn for several minutes.”
Trucks and buses: all horn signals have the same meaning. “I weigh up to 12.5 tons and have no intention of stopping even if I could.” This signal may be emphasized by the use of headlights.
Article V: All maneuvers, use of horn, and evasive actions shall be left until the last possible moment.
Article VI: Traffic entering a road from the left has right of way. So has traffic entering from the right, and also traffic in the middle.
Article VII: Traffic islands in the middle of crossroads have no traffic function and should be ignored.
Article VIII: Overtaking is mandatory. Every moving vehicle is required to overtake. This should be done under suitable conditions, such as in the face of oncoming traffic, on blind curves, and in the middle of villages/city centers. No more than two inches should be allowed between your vehicle and the one you are passing. In the case of bicycles or pedestrians, allow one inch.
Article IX: Nirvana may be obtained through the head-on crash.
Article X: Putting your car in reverse is almost unheard of and against the driver’s mantra.
In Costa Rica, I should have followed Article X from India: Never back up. Fe and I had decided to rent a car and drive around Costa Rica for a couple of weeks. It seemed like a good idea until we hit the road, literally. It turned out that Costa Rica had some of the worst roads in the world. All the cars had four wheel drive, and even that didn’t help much at times. Why the rough ride? Not only were most of the roads unpaved, they were so primitive it felt like the Jolly Green Giant had taken a jackhammer to the place. In fact, the roads were so bad insurance companies refused to offer auto coverage. Instead, we were required to put an $800 deposit on our credit card to cover potential damages. As long as there was no damage to the car, we wouldn’t be charged anything extra. Otherwise, we could most likely say goodbye to our $800. My hands twitched a bit as I handed over my credit card, but what the heck, it had been years since I’d had any rental car problems. What could possibly go wrong . . . go wrong . . . go wrong?
Off we drove, and at first things went smoothly. Well, not smoothly, exactly. The paved roads out of the country’s capital, San Jose, quickly vanished, to be replaced by teeth-rattling beds of volcanic rock that seemed determined to tear our little car to pieces. The car held together, however, and we rolled through the countryside without incident . . . until I saw some fieldworkers and decided to photograph them. I slammed on the brakes, put the car in reverse, and backed up, unaware of a stone bridge hidden from my view by foliage. I plowed into the hidden bridge with the force of a bull elephant during mating season.
When I jumped out to inspect the carnage, I instantly thought about the $800 on my credit card and imagined it flying away on tiny wings. The rear axle was bent at an angle that reminded me of a badly broken leg, and the back bumper was jammed so tightly against the tire, it wouldn’t turn. The car wasn’t going anywhere, and I feared it might be a day or two before help arrived. Most of Costa Rica consisted of back roads such as the one we were on. There were few villages. More to the point, I hadn’t seen any sign of a towing service since we left San Jose. The Auto Club wasn’t going to come to our rescue.
As I stood there mulling over my options (or lack thereof), an elderly man who had watched my saga wandered over to have a look. He tsk tsked at me, mumbled something I couldn’t comprehend, and wandered away. I figured I had given him a good laugh and would never see him again, but he returned a short time later with a crow bar. After considerable exertion, I managed to pry the bumper just far enough away from the tire to allow the wheel to rotate. After I thanked and tipped the old man, we hopped into the car and limped away.
We weren’t going to get very far, however. The bumper still rubbed against the tire, creating a shrill chafing noise that assaulted our eardrums and so much white smoke from the tire, it looked like we were sending smoke signals home to the States. Things didn’t look promising; it wouldn’t take long for that bumper to tear the tire to shreds.
The nice thing about foreign travel is that little miracles do happen from time-to-time. Our miracle appeared in the form of a small town that sprang out of nowhere. The town didn’t look like much, but as we approached in our cloud of smoke, we saw what looked like a service station. There was a rusted gas pump leaning in Tower of Pisa fashion by the side of the road, and a garage with a large truck parked inside. The truck was listing as badly as the gas pump and looked like it hadn’t been moved in months, if not years. It was a stretch to call the place a service station, but I was desperate.
When we stopped, a wiry man in overalls promptly emerged from the garage wiping his hands on an oily cloth. He introduced himself as the owner/mechanic of the fine establishment and quickly inspected the damage. When he was done, he mumbled something just as incomprehensible as the old man on the road and waved me over to the truck, from which he produced a long chain with a large hook on either end. Sound familiar? Images of Tibet and that lorry caught in the glacier instantly sprang to mind. The owner/mechanic attached one end to the axel of the truck and the other end to my bent axel. Next, he positioned my car so there was about ten feet of slack in the chain. Finally, he told me in broken English to start the engine of my car and accelerate as fast as I could from a standing start. My mind quickly reeled through the possible outcomes of such a violent action while my inner voices screamed at me not to do it. However, the man seemed pretty sure of himself, and what the Hell, I had nothing to lose. The car wasn’t going anywhere in its current condition, and I wasn’t going to see that $800 deposit again anyway. How much more damage could I do?
I floored the accelerator, popped the clutch and charged ahead. Bam! My teeth rattled and my head bounced off the head rest as the car leaped at least a foot off the ground and stopped. The mechanic inspected the axle and signaled for me to go again. Bam! Now my ears were ringing, and I was beginning to question my sanity. The mechanic gave me a thumbs up and signaled for me to go one more time. Bam! Little birds started flying around my head.
The mechanic grinned as he continued to wipe his hands on his oily rag and told me the problem was fixed. I didn’t dare look under the car. I smiled weakly, instead, and asked how much I owed him for the repair. He shook his head. No charge, he said. He was glad he could help. I suspected he’d had so much fun watching me beat my brains out that he didn’t have the heart to take my money. It was a nice gesture, however, and I thanked him.
Off we went again. The billowing white smoke had disappeared, and the shrill chafing sound had been replaced by a thin whining noise that sounded like we were being pursued by an angry mosquito. I never backed up again the rest of our trip, which thankfully proceeded as planned. By the time we had returned to San Jose, the rear tire was torn asunder. I knew we’d experienced a little more excitement than planned, but thanks to that auto mechanic our trip had been saved.
You can imagine my trepidation when we returned home, however. That $800 credit card charge loomed over my head each day as I opened my mail box and looked for my credit card statement. When it finally arrived, I left it unopened on the dining room table for more than an hour before I mustered the courage to look at it. The charge was extraordinary, but not in the way I expected. The total due for all the damage I had done to the rear end of that car was only $187. I could have spent that much changing a tire in Germany. Costa Rica was an amazingly inexpensive country and a delightful place to drive, even if the roads are nearly impassable in places. But take my advice and don’t back up!