Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Not Puntarenas

The plan, of course, was that the new car would enable the whole family to take trips to the beach together.

"The Beach," to my in-laws, consists most especially of Puntarenas, which is the closest water to where we live. Puntarenas (which means "Sandy Point") is not known as an especially attractive place, but it's nearby and it's what they think of when they think "beach," so it was chosen as the first destination.

The new car performed like an old pro. The old car, however, felt that it was overdue for some mechanical attention and threw a belt before we were even half an hour out of town. The brakes and power steering both went out, but Alex handled it so well that the only reason I knew something was wrong was that I heard him apply the emergency brake, which one doesn't ordinarily do when driving at full speed on a busy highway.

We were just reaching a two-lane bridge, after which the highway widened back out to four lanes, so he was able to pull over into the extra lane, where there was no danger from oncoming cars not noticing us in time. This is fortunate, as most Costa Rican highways have no shoulder to speak of.

We called the others (huzzah for the inventor of the cell phone!), and they turned around and came back to hem and haw over the engine trouble with us.

I called my friend (huzzah!), who lives fairly near to where we broke down, to ask her for her mechanic's number. She got us in touch with him (huzzah!), but before he showed up, we attracted the attention of a traffic cop. He seemed happy to help us tinker, and stayed until he, Alex and Alex's cousin Randall had managed to re-seat the slipped belt. It was frayed and clearly needed to be replaced, but they clipped off the strands that had split off, and we hoped it would get us a mile or so to the nearest service station.

(The cop had the same last name as Alex's mother, and had a small injury to his left ear that I recognized as a parrot bite. In one of the brief lulls in engine tinkering I asked him if he had parrots and we spent a moment comparing scars and defending the birds that gave them to us.)

The re-seated belt held long enough to get us off the highway (about 500 yards), but slipped off again at the exit. There is a plant nursery at the exit, and Alex parked there.

Randall took all the others a few miles down the road to a sort of inexpensive public country club that we've been to before, where they could all have breakfast and the girls could swim. It's no Puntarenas, but given the circumstances, it would make a worthy substitute. They also stopped at a grocery store and bought beer, whiskey, soda, and a cake.

Meanwhile, Alex and I walked across the street for our own breakfast, which was served in Ye Olde traditional Costa Rican style, with the coffee in enameled tin mugs and the food on a wooden board covered with fresh banana leaves. The tortillas were homemade and, having been unnaturally fatigued the day before, I felt it was only prudent to ask for a big honkin' order of bacon with my breakfast. You know, in case it was anemia. (I don't know if that's what made the difference, but I had plenty of energy all day long.)

After breakfast we updated the mechanic guy with our new whereabouts (huzzah!) and then wandered around the nursery looking at beautiful plants.

And some with monkey arms.

Then the mechanic showed up, having gone to three different shops to get the appropriate belt, and fixed our car.

He charged us the cost of the belt ($8) plus $15 for his time. We paid him and then joined the others at the park/club.

Once we pried the children out of the pool, we all sat around in one of the picnic shelters and let Robin serve drinks to whoever would accept one.

Alex's elderly grandmother María was with us. More about her in a minute.

When the drinkers were tired of drinking and the sunbathers were nice and toasty and everyone was about ready to move on, we got out the cake and sang Happy Birthday to Alex's mother, who asked me to confirm the math and then agreed that she was turning 59.

As the afternoon wound down, Yolanda reminisced about where she and her mother had lived when she was a child. It was not the first time that I had heard about how nice it would be to take the grandmother back to her hometown for a look-see, but for some reason it was the first time that I consciously heard the name of the town.

It's just a couple of miles off the main road from where we do the Quilt Retreats, and I had even been there myself once, to buy a last-minute cake when one of the ladies at a retreat mentioned that it was her birthday. It was also no more than 15 minutes from where we were sitting at the time.

So once we packed up the extra cake and drinks and wet bathing suits and folding chairs, we all piled into the cars and I showed them the way to the itty-bitty town of Turrúcares. Yolanda had mentioned the train tracks, so we stopped at the old train station.

Costa Rica's rail system was abandoned completely for several years, then revived, then abandoned again. At the moment, there are a couple of tourist trains on the main routes, and one of them comes through here on the weekends, but I'm sure it doesn't stop.

We drove down to the town church, where María used to come to Mass on the weekends. Yolanda took her into the church and said that María said that everything was different - the pulpit, the confessionals, nothing was where she remembered it. Someone overheard her, and said that the church had been rebuilt in the 80s, and that María was correctly describing the way it used to be set up.

She said the town where they actually lived was called Cebadilla, and was far from Turrúcares. Knowing that "far" in the days of foot and train travel might not actually be that long a drive, we asked some guys for directions and found it just a mile or two down the road.

We again stopped at the train station (now just a concrete platform) and Yolanda and María began talking about which way it would have been to their old house, which was near some large concrete troughs used for watering cattle. A man overheard and suggested we drive around a block and up along the tracks, rather than trying to walk there.

We found the place he said, but when we asked someone else, he didn't know the way to the troughs. We walked a ways up the train tracks anyway. We didn't find the troughs, but we apparently would have found them if we had gone farther down the tracks. Yolanda and María felt that they had revisited the old homestead in any case.

I would have liked to end on that picture, but actually we stopped for coffee and chorreadas on the way home. Chorreadas are a sweetened pancake-like food made with fresh corn in the batter. They're served with sour cream and grated cheese on top and this restaurant specializes in all things corn, so they were really good.

Best. Breakdown. Ever.


meredith January 18, 2007 2:39 AM  

What an awesome day!

Julie January 18, 2007 9:49 AM  

There's something to be said for destiny moving you like a dandylion seed on the wind. Can we come on your next "beach expedition"?

Lainey-Paney January 18, 2007 10:28 AM  

There's ice on the ground here in Dallas,TX (which of course, is very rare).

...I want to go to the beach!!!!!

Dad January 18, 2007 2:06 PM  

What a wonderful day! And probably the very best part was taking Maria on a sentimenal journey.

So who's the woman with four hands (in the Robin-serving-drinks photo) sitting next to Alex?

Thanks for the picture show!!

Erin January 18, 2007 2:22 PM  

Sounds like a good time. I'm with Lainey-Paney though. It's um ... (gets up to go look at the thermometer) 28 degrees here. Can I come to the beach and have a picnic at a pool instead, too? :)

Jennifer January 18, 2007 4:33 PM  

To Dad: She's with Randall (owner of two of the hands).

To everyone else: Sure! Come on down!

charlotte January 19, 2007 12:33 AM  

I really liked this series of a family's day out (despite the car trouble!). I especially loved how grandma Maria is so much a beloved part of the family. And I also liked that photo of one of your daughters leaping into the pool ... I could do with some pool leaping myself.

Carroll January 20, 2007 12:34 PM  

Very excellent story, Jennifer. I felt like we were right there along with you for the ride, except you left out the part about any expletives that might have been uttered when the car broke down, and anything about stress related to the second breaking. On the other hand, maybe you just have an exceptionally calm family and it was a full report after all :)

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