Sunday, July 5, 2009

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Mal Pais...

So let me tell you how this happened. Let me tell you how WE spent our Fourth of July. We checked out of Villas Sol in the morning, picked up our rental car from Liberia, and started driving south to Mal Pais. The paved roads were scenic, lovely, and very relaxing. Then the GPS told us to go on to some gravelly roads, which we did. They were still marked, but pretty hairy and bumpy, even for a 4WD vehicle. Then the GPS told us to go on an unnamed road, simply called “unpaved road,” which again, we did.We went up and down and were jostled around but the scenery was phenomenal. We were completely on our own in the jungle. This was the real Costa Rica, we told ourselves. Ever see that Eco Challenge show on the Discovery Channel where they race Land Rovers through the jungle? That’s exactly what this was: exhilarating. Would you be surprised if I told you that Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” was blasting through the car stereo? Probably, not, right? (it was).
And then, somewhere about 50 kilometers South of Jicarel, at around 5PM, we got stuck in the mud. The worst mud I’ve ever seen in my life. It was my own damned fault—the 4WD was engaged, but I didn’t have enough momentum to make it up that lousy soggy hill. And I don’t just mean a little stuck, I mean the entire right side of the car was sinking into a pool of reddish clay mud and the car was tilting at a 30 degree angle. A trickle of mud was running down the road, making digging out the car pretty much impossible.

Now let me tell you something about being stuck in the mud in Costa Rica—it isn’t like back home. There, you pull out the cell phone, make a call, and a bit later some schlub shows up and pulls you out. Things were a little bit different for us. All Frommers says about getting stuck in this part of Costa Rica is “good luck asshole.” We were absolutely in the middle of nowhere, rural Central America, 50 kilometers from any vestige of civilization sitting in an immobile rental car, we speak barely any Spanish, our phones don’t work, nobody was coming, and oh yeah, it’s getting dark and we’re in a freaking jungle. Suddenly, that “charming and rustic” side of Costa Rica that you’ve been searching for doesn’t seem all that great.

Now by the sheer grace of god, we just happen to have gotten stuck right in front of a farm. So I yell for help. A farmer and his wife and child approach us. So does their pig. I remind myself to stay respectful and that I am not only a stranded traveler, but also an ambassador for my country. I also try to remember the Prime Directive from "Star Trek."

Now our basic Spanish is absolutely worthless, and to make matters worse, the farmer, his wife and kid speak an entirely different dialect. Using hand gestures, it is communicated to us that the farmer will attempt to pull our SUV weighing a bazillion pounds out of the mud using his horse. Shockingly enough, this proves fruitless. We try digging out, the farmer and I taking turns shoveling while Erika is up to her knees in mud scooping it out with her hands. We’re completely covered in mud. The pig comes over and watches us. That fat bastard is the only one enjoying this.

When it finally dawns on everyone that our medieval era equipment isn’t suited to remove the behemoth from the muck, we decide to split up. I convince the farmer to let me borrow one of his horses while Erika waited inside to their small shack with the farmer’s wife. Yes, you're reading this correctly, I left my wife as collateral for a horse on our honeymoon. Erika spent the next few hours awaiting my return while I rode 4 kilometers down the road to get help. Before departing, Erika asks me “can you even ride a horse?!” I coolly nod yes, say ‘hiyaa’ and head off down the darkening road to get help.

Yeah, it turns out I have absolutely no idea how to ride a horse. The bastard is all over the place and naturally, he’s been trained to respond to a Spanish dialect of which I have absolutely no knowledge. If not for the farmer riding next to me guiding the horse, I’d probably have ended up in Venezuela. I would have had time to enjoy the scenery and the sun setting behind the mountains if I wasn’t freaking out of my mind about the variety of bad shit that can happen to some jackass gringo riding a horse down a dirt road in the middle of the jungle at night.

Now I’m separated from Erika at this point and wasn’t around to witness her awkwardly sitting in a tin roofed house with the wife and son who she has no means of communicating with. There are Winnie the Pooh and Jesus coloring books. There’s an outhouse. There’s a wood-burning stove. Erika washes off her feet in a barrel of rainwater. The pig comes into the house and is yelled at and chased off with a stone hurled by the wife. Apparently, this pig has a knack for getting into trouble. Somehow, the wife asks Erika if she has kids. I’m assuming that the insinuation here was something along the lines of “you morons need to get your shit together before you even consider spawning offspring.”

Meanwhile, the farmer and I get to the house of a guy with a pickup truck and things are starting to finally look up. This fellow not only can tow us out, but he speaks passable English (a shitload better than my Spanish). And so we hop in his pickup and head back to our car, my spirits decidedly lifted. Then HIS car breaks down. So he tells me he’s going to get another one from a nearby farmer and that I should hoof it back to our car. Alone.

So it’s completely dark at this point and I’m walking solo for about a kilometer trying to find my way back to the car. The moon is out, but it doesn’t do very much to light up the road. The jungle makes weird noises. Things rustle. I hear monkeys in the trees making hooting and growling noises. It's pretty intense stuff. Fortunately, I'm carrying an extra pack of cigarettes with me.

Finally, I find my way back to the farmer’s house and call for Erika who comes out, looking very relieved to see me. Now I’ve got to give credit where it’s due—the girl really kept it together the whole time. She’d later tell me that she was seriously freaking out, but you wouldn’t know it looking at her. While stuck in the mud for three hours, in sweltering heat with flies buzzing all around us, I learned more about Erika and her determination than I did during an entire year of wedding planning. She’s an incredibly strong person and I'm a lucky bastard to have her. I would have taken some photos of this whole ordeal, but in situations like this, you’re usually more interested in resolving the harrowing experience rather than snapping a few photos for the blog. Sorry folks.

As promised, the guy from down the road shows up with a new truck, we hook it to our car, put both of ‘em in reverse, and give it a shot. Erika guns the engine while we push from the front. No dice. The car still doesn’t budge. We try pushing, rocking, pulling, pretty much everything. Mud goes everywhere. The car headlights make it seem like it’s raining mud.

Suddenly, everybody looks at me with a “what now?” expression. I honestly have no idea. If possible, I’d rather not spend the night stranded in the jungle. All I can think of is ask the guy to back the truck up and have it pull our car in drive rather than reverse. I guess the phrase “more torque!” popped into my mind. So we do it, and holy fucking shit, on the first try, it works. Our car pops free leaving a massive crater of mud 7 feet deep where it was trapped. We are officially un-fucked.

The only way I have of thanking the farmer and his friend with the pickup truck is a few thousand colones. Was paying them for their help rude? Probably, but it was the only way I had of thanking them. The farmer’s name is Renaldo and the pickup truck owner’s is Freddie. If they hadn’t been around to help us, we would have been absolutely screwed. Money and internet praise is the only thing I can offer as a means of thanks to these kind generous people.

After much handshaking, we hop back in the car, pretty much in shock at this point, drive back the way we came, and navigate the dark bumpy road until we find a tiny hotel in Playa Coyote to crash for the night. The hotel manager sees us caked head to toe in mud, is horrified to hear our story, and brings us water and food. Ice cream and flan never tasted so damned good. We wake up the next morning, walk out to the deck to this view:
Pretty damned miraculous if you ask me. Having regained our courage, we make a second effort to drive to Mal Pais, using a hand drawn map provided by the hotel manager. Things are looking good until we stumble upon this:
Well, OK, that’s a naked dude bathing in a river. Erika took that photo, not me. Apparently she's unfamiliar with the belief held by many folks around here that photos steal their souls. But just 10 feet to the left of the guy bathing, we saw THIS:
See that small dirt area on the other side of the river? That’s the other side of the road. What I estimate to be a 6 foot deep river stands between us and Mal Pais. Now I’ll freely admit that I’m a bit of a crazy guy. I bite my fingernails a lot. I walk up stairs two at a time. Sometimes I wear my socks two days in a row. But there’s harmless crazy, and then there’s the kind of crazy that tells you it’s a good idea to ford a 6 foot river in a car that has a 3 foot engine block clearance. 4WD SUVs don’t cut it on these roads, you need a goddamned Sherman tank to get around this country.

There’s another way to Mal Pais, but it’s on equally poor roads and lest we forget, this is the rainy season. I loved the idea of big surf in Mal Pais and having a free place to crash for four nights at our friend's place, but I know when to call it quits. So we got the hell out of this part of Costa Rica. We’re driving North to the volcano in Arenal. Looking at the map, the roads are paved there. They’d better be anyway—I’m no mechanic, but I’m guessing there’s only so much more a rental car can take.

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Haley said...

Good god.

You guys are going to need a vacation from your honeymoon. Maybe a nice Holiday Inn in the Tristate area? Slightly less mud.

I'm glad you guys are OK -- I think I would have have bawled my eyes out at some point during that ordeal.

And I hope this hasn't affected E's feelings toward pigs...

Alex said...


Ms. Henderson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rickey Henderson said...

Good god is right. We also would have accepted "mother of god," "saints above," or "jesus h christ on a pogo stick."

Haley, no worries, Erika's affection for pigs has been in no way tarnished by the experience.

But yeah, wow pretty much sums it up. You guys would be even more shocked if I'd taken photos of the experience. It was absolutely insane.

We're in Arenal now, and heading off to a nearby park to take a sky tram up a mountain and zipline back down. TTFN.

Adam said...

I had visions of Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner chasing down some treasure in the jungle while reading this epic narrative. You two should have totally made love in front of the farmers- hot, muddy, "holy shit we're not dead" love-making.

But seriously, I'm fucking glued to this blog now that we have pigs and danger mixed into the proceedings. Erika, you are like a nurse out of an Ernest Hemingway novel- your spirit is indomitable. Rickey... you're a chain-smoking soldier.. on a goddamned horse no less. Get some R&R the two of ya.

I miss you both.

Toasty Joe said...

This is unbelievable. If you had not gotten stuck in front of a farm, then what? I'm guessing spending the night inside a tilted SUV in the middle of nowhere would have been on the agenda. Sweet jesus.

Toasty Joe said...

By the bye, at what point in this process was Rickey thinking "we should've fucking gone to Hawaii like everyone else"?

Smitty said...

That. Was. AWESOME!!

1) What a way to test the power of your marriage. Mrs. Henderson will most assuredly use this with you AND against you multiple times in the future. Let's say you're freaking out about the Mets or something. All she has to do is lean over and say "remember when you left me alone with a stranger who spoke no English IN THE DARK and I kept it together?? Keep it together."

2) Your prose actually made me *feel* your fear and frustration. My only honeymoon tale of a similar sort happened on my honeymoon in Ireland. And if you think there was no language barrier, then you have never visited small towns on the western side of Ireland, where Gaelic is still the common tongue. I took Spanish classes in college. I think I skipped Gaelic day.

3) It all worked in the end for you didn't it? You two are bound for a wonderful marriage.

George said...

Glad you found your independence of the mud!

Bob Melonosky said...


I remember that green hot sauce. It was really good. How about bringing me back a bottle of the stuff?


Adam said...

Just realized this post was more entertaining than last year's "Indiana Jones" movie. Of course the 2 hrs I spent at the DMV to register my car was more entertaining as well...

But in an action-adventure context, this post wins big!

Rickey Henderson said...

Glad you folks enjoyed it. By no means will the next post be as entertaining. Just lettin you down easy...

Bob: two bottles of the tasty green stuff have been procured. One for you, and one for the miscreant sitting to you left.

Bob said...

I would have likely shit myself. That's why adventurous vacationing will only lead me to the rural areas of Michigan's U.P.

Next time rent a Jeep or Hummer with a snorkel kit and you would have made it across that river to Mal Pais.

eddie brown said...

The real way to enjoy God's beauty.

eddie brown
Free Satellite TV

Anonymous said...

That sounds like a typical day living in Costa Rica. Too bad you didn't get a 4/WD with clearance to cross the watery divides. It would have been worth the trip to Malpaís :)