About halfway to Costa Rica a week ago Sunday on a nonstop TACA Airbus, we ran into some turbulence that lasted a good hour or so. During the worst of it, my wife clutched my arm and said that she hoped the plane would not go down. In my all-so-knowing manner, I told her that most accidents occurred during taking off and landing. She replied that planes do go down in severe turbulence. Not wanting to prolong a stressful conversation, I changed the subject.
After we arrived at our room in the Ramada Inn, about 15 miles from San Jose, I connected my Macbook to the hotel’s excellent wireless network to check my mail and browse through the usual websites, including The Daily Beast.
There I read a story that made my blood run cold. Apparently my wife was referring to an incident in which turbulence brought down an Air France plane over the Atlantic Ocean en route from Brazil to France on June 1, 2009, just about two years ago. An aviation expert by the name of Clive Irving wrote:
It took only four-and-a-half minutes from the moment that the pilots of Air France Flight 447 attempted to fly the airplane manually to the moment when it hit the ocean, falling at the huge velocity of nearly 11,000 feet a minute. The picture of those four-and-a-half minutes as disclosed Friday by French investigators confirms key points:
The Airbus A330 flew into storm-generated turbulence at its cruise altitude of 35,000 feet;
The three instruments relaying the airplane’s speed to its flight management computers and pilots were giving conflicting and false readings;
With the autopilot disengaged and the pilots attempting to regain control the airplane gyrated wildly and then soared from 35,000 feet to 38,000 feet, reaching a fatal stall condition in which the wings were no longer able to provide lift—at one point the nose pitched up to the extreme angle of 40 degrees and at the same time the wings were rolling violently from side to side;
When the emergency began the captain was not on the flight deck but resting. The crisis was being handled by two copilots. The captain reappeared on the flight deck one and a half minutes after the copilots took over manually but was unable to save the situation.
Now I could rationalize all this to myself by looking at it statistically. That’s one accident in two years. In 2010 there were 9,413,000 departures from American airports. Out of all these, there were only 26 accidents and none of them were fatal.
When I was coming back to New York yesterday, I read the superb new biography of Bobby Fischer written by Frank Brady. Brady recounts that after beating Spassky in 1972, Fischer received all sorts of lucrative offers to capitalize on his fame. When a car company offered him a car for life and hundreds of thousands of dollars if he appeared in a commercial, he turned them down. His reason? He said that there were 56,000 fatalities involving auto accidents the previous year and that he did not want to be associated with such an ad campaign, even if he drove their car (he actually was an owner.)
As air-tight as all this logic is, there is nothing more stressful than sitting in an airplane hurtling along at 600 miles per hour 30,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean as violent air currents toss it around as if it were made of paper. This is not to speak of the uncomfortable seats and the general feeling of confinement. The problem, of course, is that it is simply not feasible to take a bus to Costa Rica. But I am slowly reaching the point where I will fly only when absolutely necessary.
Despite the presence of tropical flora all through the Ramada Inn, each with signs indicating the Latin name as if you were touring a museum, my general sense was that of being in the same kind of hotel I have stayed in a dozen times or more when I was getting computer training in the 80s and 90s in places along Route 128 around Boston or in the outskirts of Washington, DC. These hotels are generally located in the suburbs to save money and have absolutely nothing to offer except a clean room, air conditioning and a restaurant. Like its counterparts in the U.S., the Ramada Inn was across the street from a shopping mall that had a food court. If you were looking for a tipica Costa Rican meal, you had to look elsewhere. All you could get there was Burger King, Taco Bell and Kentucky Fried Chicken, etc.
Fortunately, the hotel offered free breakfast that included lots of local fruits and gallo pinto, a rice and bean combination that was served with any meal, including breakfast. I had eggs and gallo pinto each morning and was in heaven. This was the kind of dish that I used to have in Nicaragua in the late 80s and grew to love, just as I developed a great affection for grits in Houston a decade or so earlier.
Gallo pinto is considered the national dish of Nicaragua and Costa Rica and means “spotted rooster”, words meant to convey the appearance of red or black beans in a bed of rice. Rice and beans, of course, tend to be the fare in poverty-stricken nations where the cost of meat is prohibitive. This does not mean that it is not delicious. Like grits, a humble dish that is based on corn, it can be truly soul-satisfying when prepared right. And so it was at the Ramada Inn.
Costa Rican gallo pinto
On our first night at the hotel, my wife and I took a bus into San Jose to check things out. The Frommer guide says:
At first blush, San Jose comes across as little more than a chaotic jumble of cars, buses, buildings, and people. The central downtown section of the city exists in a near-constant state of gridlock. Antiquated buses spewing diesel fumes and a lack of emission controls have created a brown cloud over the city’s sky. Sidewalks are poorly maintained and claustrophobic, and street crime is a serious problem. Most visitors seek the sanctuary of their hotel room and the first chance to escape the city.
This jibes with the advice I got from Stan Goff before going down:
Get out of San Jose if you can. I think SJ is boring. Best way to travel is by bus. Get a cab and ask for the “terminal” (tear-mee-NAHL) at the “Coca Cola” (no shit, a zone called the Coca Cola). Buses there leave every half hour for pretty much anywhere. If you want to go to the Atlantic coast (highly recommended), ask the cabbie to take you to Terminal Caribe (not far from the other bus station).
Stan and his wife had been living in Grecia, Costa Rica, a mid-sized town north of San Jose, until recently when her father’s failing health forced them to relocate to northern Michigan. When I asked Stan why he chose Grecia, he told me that it was a question of ecology. All of Costa Rica is on the leading edge of environmentalism and Grecia is apparently on the leading edge of the leading edge.
I recommend that you take a look at Stan Goff’s blog post on Grecia, which is a model of social analysis and personal narrative. It starts off with an epigraph from Sidney Mintz, one of my favorite scholars:
Sugar – the short biography of a commodity
26th August 2010, 07:40 am by Stan Goff
The first sweetened cup of hot tea to be drunk by an English worker was a significant historical event, because it prefigured the transformation of an entire society, a total remaking of its economic and social basis. We must struggle to understand fully the consequences of that and kindred events for upon them was erected an entirely different conception of the relationship between producers and consumers, of the meaning of work, of the definition of self, of the nature of things.
— Sydney Mintz, “Sweetness and Power”
In Grecia, Costa Rica, where I now reside, the mountains are checkered with vast coffee and sugarcane fields. The cane has long leaves like corn. It rattles in the wind, and the fields go dark then light again as clouds pass over.
I had my first taste of raw cane in Vietnam, when a local man offered me a stick to pacify my imperial hatred. I still love cane, like a child, the crisp biting off, the chewing out of the melony sweetness, and spitting the bagasse. I still carry the guilt that man’s kindness stamped on me.
Nicaraguans work the cane fields here in Costa Rica. 90 percent of the laborers are Nicaraguans. Nicaragua is Costa Rica’s poor neighbor, and like the US – where our poor neighbors from Mexico and Central America are employed to lower the wage floor – Nicaraguans are the grunt workers. Like the Hispano-Latinas that work in the US, the Nicaraguans here – some working only for food – are reviled by their hosts.
It’s the one ugly aspect of Costa Rican society that contaminates a people otherwise cordial and peaceable in my experience, this national emity against los Chochos.
People seem compelled to strip away the personhood of a lower caste, much as I stripped away the personhood of Vietnamese, because I was obliged by circumstance to control them. It inoculates us from responsibility. We are no longer our bothers’, or sisters’, keepers.