Tales of Travel

“Getting Off the Ground”

Teaching at a middle school was an adventure in and of itself. But sometimes opportunities came knocking to take that adventure on the road, or on a plane, for a bigger kind of field trip experience, like our excursion to Costa Rica in 1993. It was both exciting and nerve-wracking to think about escorting and living with twenty-three preadolescents in a Central American country for a week.

The week prior to blast-off resembled a track and field event with the hurdles and pressure of time bearing down on the psyche and stamina of the runner. I was that runner. It just so happened that this week was overloaded with extra things to do. Report card grades were due before spring vacation. But before grades could be calculated, the essays needed to be read and graded. Where were those essays? Next, I had decided to apply for a supervisory job, and the deadline to submit my cover letter and resume was…you guessed it…before we departed. And then there were realtors, bankers and lawyers conducting a financial strip search in order that my wife and I might obtain a mortgage for the purchase of our first home. Was today really my mother’s birthday? And I just accepted that those Easter gifts for my niece and nephew sitting so prettily wrapped on our dining room table would still be there when I returned. Somehow, I would have to find some time to throw some clothes in a bag for the trip.

You get the picture.

No matter what, things have a way of working out. At least that’s what my mother says. My alma mater’s motto Hazard Zet Forward – Latin for, in spite of adversities, we move forward – spurred me on. But how? Do I call in sick for a couple of days? Like that’s not too obvious right before a vacation and a trip. No, I would conspire and perspire to get where we are all going, and try to get there in one piece. Well, in this case, four adult pieces and twenty-three little pieces.

A friend agreed to chauffeur me to the school parking lot on the morning of our flight. Some students had already gathered with their families. But already there was one conspicuous observation that could not be ignored: there was no bus. When the bus did arrive…late…and despite my confirming phone calls to the bus company and my insistence that we were a large group carrying a large amount of large luggage, to my dismay a minibus rounded the turn into the parking lot. The excursion’s fearless leader called the bus company to inform them of their mistake and to request a second bus which did arrive shortly thereafter. 

Somewhere in the back of my head I knew that this omission was just the first. My palpitations do not lie.

The second bus driver must have had a hot date waiting. (He did say he had another pick-up.) He just about pushed the remaining adults and kids into his bus. I admired the way he moved people, though, and in my head I thought about nominating him to chair any committee in the educational establishment. Tom, a teacher on my team and my travel roommate, and I counted heads. Before we knew it, we were at Newark Airport.

The kids and I debated about whether to check our luggage at a kiosk outside of the terminal or inside at the check-in counter. We collectively decided to check our bags inside. It just somehow seemed safer to wait your turn as a group inside the security and shelter of the airport. And wasn’t it more likely that the conveyor belt just behind the check-in desk would drop our luggage right down to our very own airplane? Despite whatever seemingly logical claims guided my own thinking, I still wholeheartedly believed in Murphy’s Law, especially a corollary that clearly stipulated that when teachers escort students on a field trip to Central America, the likelihood of most, if not all, of the luggage traveling first class to Miami, not to Texas where we had to change flights, was directly proportional to the number of girls on our roster. I could also sense the resentment of the employee who was yanked off of her coffee break to expedite our group’s check-in. She knew how to get even.

There we were, sacrificial lambs, ready for a journey to a world not yet discovered. Little did our darlings realize that this waiting period to board our plane was their last opportunity to hoard the sustenance of their lives which they so cherished, their Wise potato chips, their bagels with butter, their iced teas and Diet Pepsis, and their candy bars. Little did they know how much they would miss the comforts and the processed comfort foods of their suburban teen existence as they sojourned to the lush tropical forests of Costa Rica.

“Up in the Air”

Reginald was a typical eighth grade boy.  He was smart (we surmised), very clumsy (his feet were enormous), talkative, and disorganized. He was usually likable, but sometimes could be a pain in the class. At the airport a man out of breath was scouring the people in our boarding area looking for us. It was Reginald’s father, who had to race to the airport to deliver Reginald’s carry-on bag which contained his passport, traveler’s cheques, cash, and medication. Just a few trivial things. This was not really a surprise; we all expected Reginald to forget something. He did remember to wear his glasses and his sneakers, though. And while the passport was the key to getting us into another country and back into our own, the cash would come in handy because banter among the kids revealed that Reginald hoped to proposition a prostitute in Costa Rica where he and his friends discovered that the so-called “oldest profession” was legal. Who says middle school kids don’t take an interest in their travel destinations?

Our seats on the plane were somewhat scattered. I sat next to a woman named Althea from Jersey City, located right next to my hometown of Hoboken, New Jersey. We became soulmates when she gave me her chocolate chip cookie. The flight to Texas was smooth. I wore my Saint Christopher medal around my neck as a sort of travel insurance.  St. Christopher had been the Catholic patron saint of travelers for centuries until the Church questioned his very existence. Since no replacement was named, I decided to stick with him. I’ll take any help I can get.

This flight to San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, was equally enjoyable. On this flight I sat next to a couple from Texas who inquired where my group and I were heading. I believe they did this so that they could rearrange their itinerary around the now-screaming eighth graders who were quickly becoming claustrophobic, as was I. When I revealed our destinations, two young ladies seated in front of us whirled around to face me and said they were going to the same places on their school trip. My eyes began to scan the aisles for the matronly marm or fatherly face who was escorting these young charges from Massachusetts. I nominated three candidates and then took the plunge: “Take me to your leader.” 

I was shocked to find out that their leader was a young man who I thought was one of the students. I introduced myself and the baby-faced teacher informed me that if it weren’t for us, he and his group would not have been able to travel to Costa Rica. Our travel organization sensibly combined small groups with larger ones on the same itinerary. When his students asked me how old my kids were, and I told them, they continued to smile that phony smile that cheerleaders use. Who could blame them? There is an extra tax people pay, in this case a small group of high school students, when they hook up with an unknown larger group now revealed to be eighth graders, i.e., adolescent boys with huge feet making their mothers proud by looking for prostitutes in a foreign country. Meet Reginald and Company, Inc.

When we finally stepped off the plane in Costa Rica, I fought off the urge to imitate the Pope when he kneels and kisses the terra firma of his arrival. I began to wonder if there was a patron saint of air-conditioning. Obviously, this humidity did not bother the natives, but if we moved quickly we could find cool refuge inside the surely air-conditioned bus that would transport us from the plane to the terminal. 

Or not. 

Passage through immigration was fairly easy. A lot easier than the luggage area. All of the luggage was now off the plane, or so we were told, and guess what? Now the only luggage left on the floor was unclaimed. It is only logical that this unrequited baggage was enduring a hot, muggy stop in Costa Rica while its owners were probably on an Alaskan cruise ship. 

But what of our current situation? Where were OUR bags?

¿Dónde está el luggage? 

Our kids, fairly well-behaved until now, could not abide “no” for an answer. Frustrated in their attempts to communicate in Spanish, they took it upon themselves, in their wealthy suburban princess fashion, to accost the Costa Rican Luggage Removal Crew to demand not just any answer, but the one they wanted. The girls used hand motions and began raising their voices as though their listeners were deaf. They persisted with their bastardized Spanglish. No one was successful in this communication misadventure. The bags abandoned us for Miami, and it seemed like only a miracle could deliver them to Costa Rica by the next morning.

The crew started to talk to each other and smile and point as they checked out our girls. Apparently, our eighth grade boys were not the only ones having fantasies. It was time to get out of here.


Everyone into the air-conditioned bus.

Or not.

“Reunited and It Feels So Good”

The girls in our group threatened that they would not leave the hotel the next day until they were in possession of their luggage. We advised them to wash out their clothes and hang them to dry overnight, just in case. Our eyes were met with a glare of indignation. Maids and mommies were not allowed on this trip. It was suggested by someone that they wear the same clothes and just turn their underwear inside out. The boys were good with that.

Checking into the Hotel Europa in San Jose was like exploring the inside of a dark, winding cave. The hotel was decrepit looking with air-conditioning units hanging out windows. Since it was a rambling building, so it seemed predestined that our group would be split up and assigned rooms around the hotel, rendering it nearly impossible to supervise the kids. Or so we thought.

Not all of the rooms had air-conditioners that worked or worked well, like ours.

The girls griped because the boys, all seven of them together, were assigned to a huge apartment complete with kitchen, dining room, living room, sitting room, three bedrooms, and two bathrooms. Of course, it also had a balcony from which they could scream epithets at passersby so as to confirm the world’s contention that Americans are rude, spoiled, and inconsiderate of others. The other big window in their living room was located over a courtyard which was adjacent to none other than, you guessed it, our room. Even with the grinding of our wall air-conditioning unit working double-time to NOT cool off our room, every shriek from the boys’ suite was heard.

At 11:30 I invited myself into their apartment to chase out the womenfolk and “suggested” that the guys go to bed (sans the womenfolk). I also asked them to take the lampshade off the back of the living room door where it had been transformed into a basketball hoop. Yes, middle school kids can be industrious. I returned to my puddle and labored to enter the land of slumber, pretending all the while that the air-conditioner was doing its job as I was trying to do mine.

Dinner on the evening of our arrival had consisted of some sort of rolled mystery meat. It might have been chicken, but I kept thinking about the pigeons in the square. The fruit drink served was delicious, but the papaya ice cream not so much. As I took in the collective frowns of our young travelers, I fervently hoped that the quality of meals would improve, or at least contain discernible ingredients. 

Please, dear God, let the luggage make its way to Costa Rica. If it did not arrive tomorrow, we would probably never see it because we were leaving for the clouds of Monteverde. Perhaps Continental Airlines could open a hatch as it flew over Monteverde and let the bags rain down upon us like manna from the heavens. Our kids could rejoice in their reunion with their cherished clothing and trinkets. Otherwise, we are screwed. St. Christopher, are you there?

God smiled upon the weary travelers of Millburn, New Jersey, the next morning. The luggage arrived before we departed. Everyone changed into fresh clothes that quickly wilted in the heat and humidity. After paying for the damaged lampshade, we boarded the bus which in a very short amount of time made a stop in the city at which all of the girls disembarked from the bus. When I inquired from the tour leader, she explained that the girls needed “supplies” from the drug store. Okay, I get it. I think. Wait. All sixteen of them? I thought things were getting better.

It was a blessing to leave the congested and polluted city environs of San Jose. We began to experience the magic and wonder of this undeveloped country as soon as we reached Monteverde.

“Paradise Found”

For our young American charges this was a very different, perhaps even very difficult, kind of travel experience. We did not stay at four-star hotels. We stayed in travelodges. Lodges carved out of wood, beautiful rich wood. The rooms were comfortable, not luxurious. In other words, the boys thought the rooms were okay while the girls longed for the Hilton. Where was the pool? Room service? Afternoon tea? The spa? TV? Lodges were constructed to complement and co-exist with the natural surroundings.

Air-conditioning was unnecessary in the rain forests, especially in the evenings. Even if there was air-conditioning, you could not run an appliance if you did not have electricity. And we found ourselves without power several times during the trip. It did not seem to bother anybody but the demanding energy-consuming Americans. That little Eddie Bauer pen light I brought with me proved to be a big asset, first for finding our way to the bathroom in the dark, and then for finding our way inside the bathroom.

Days were spent touring the rims of volcanoes, searching for black and white monkeys in the rain forests, observing the leaf-cutter ants, finding sloths, horse-back riding, visiting a butterfly garden, and taking in the scenery of virgin countryside not yet marauded by developers. But you kinda knew it would not be long before they paved paradise. During our time in Costa Rica we met people from Europe, Australia and the U.S. who retired or relocated here because it was so beautiful and inexpensive. They were opening cafes and B&B’s and advertising and encouraging their friends to come on down.

Large portions of the Pan American Highway had not yet been paved, making the ride on Costa Rica’s main thoroughfare a bumpy experience at times. On one afternoon that was hot as hell one of the bus tires blew. The short, thin bus driver asked all of us to leave the bus so he could change the tire. Luckily, Tom could help him change the tire while the tour leader stood next to them with towels wiping the sweat off of each like an operating room nurse attending a surgeon, alternately dousing them with bottled water. The side roads were also sometimes difficult to navigate, resulting in our bus being stuck in a puddle the size of a pond on one occasion.

Middle school kids are as nocturnal as the wildlife that inhabited the woods around our lodges. They often slept on the bus during the day even in a place where at night there was no light, no TV, no game room, and no hope of escaping the confines of the property. Even so, on one evening an option was offered to the group to go on an after-dark walking tour to try to see animals in their natural habitat. An experienced guide would lead the way, for an additional nominal fee. Only three students cared to participate. I wanted very badly to go as did the other chaperones. However, this was a student trip and students were afforded the opportunity to decide.

After our meal on the night in question, I gave what apparently became a memorable soliloquy in the Marc Antony fashion. “Friends, Kids,…Hey, would ya shut-up for a minute?” I explained about the optional excursion and told the kids that if they were truly too tired to go, I expected them to retire to their rooms and get the rest they lacked. This generated more indignant looks and some huddling. Would they be able to walk around after dinner?

Where would you go?

To the discotheque up the road.

Ahhh, I see. No. Fourteen-year-old American kids have no place in a Costa Rican bar after dark.  

Are there any other questions?

While the tour leader accompanied the trio of daredevils on their nocturnal quest, the three male chaperones literally guarded the compound outside the lodge while keeping an eye and an ear on what was going on inside. The consolation prize for our own restricted freedom was Imperial brand Costa Rican beer.

It was amusing to hear songs like “Lady in Red” blasted in English from the club. For most of our kids, and the adults who came to this country with them, there was not going to be any type of wild nightlife this evening.

Kids don’t ordinarily eat healthy and nutritious foods, but their unwillingness to even try new, exotic dishes made with the freshest vegetables and fruits caused us embarrassment. Since we were THE group residing in the lodge or sitting in a restaurant, it was hard to disguise who left the plates full of food untouched.

The adults on a student trip become substitute parents, and sometimes disagreements surface about who is going to do what or how to discipline an errant youngster or when to provide options for students. For example, not going on the nighttime excursion was a waste of time and a missed opportunity. In the middle of the rainforest there aren’t many options.

Kids did not understand that this journey was not a vacation. They wanted to swim in a pool and to sunbathe on a beach. These were not possibilities available to them until the last stop on our itinerary. We all spent some time on the beach, and the kids enjoyed the pool. But it was not enough. During our last uphill trek where we were hoping to see the monkeys we could all hear, the kids whined about wanting more time on the beach just below us. I lost the toss and had to accompany the kids down to the beach where they broke out their Bain de Soleil. I had almost all of the kids while the other three chaperones continued the communion with nature that defines this tropical land. In about an hour everyone would have found themselves on the beach anyway.

“The Terrorist Threat”

When we returned to San Jose, I called the airline because I was concerned about the difference in the travel time on our return flight tickets.  Why was it going to take us two additional hours to return to Texas? I told you my palpitations do not lie. 

I was informed that our flight was scheduled to land in Nicaragua.


A country known for its civil wars, violent guerillas and bloody massacres?

Calm down, Mike.

I was told we would refuel and allow passengers to board.

Okay, so now a terrorist can board the plane? If he sat next to Reginald, he might be sorry. But what if some wacko did get on the plane with a gun or a bomb? What if he wanted some hostages? Wouldn’t kids from Short Hills bring a handsome ransom?

As our plane descended into Nicaragua, I clutched St. Christopher. I saw armed military patrolling the runways of the airport. I carefully scrutinized everyone boarding our plane and deemed them all suspicious-looking. And I didn’t relax until we returned to Texas.

We did return to Texas safely. We were, however, running late. We needed to boogie off this plane and across a huge airport. We were speed walking and going up and down escalators between buildings hoping to meet our connecting flight to New Jersey. When we were very close to our boarding area, one of our young men told us that he forgot his jacket on the plane. 

Unlike Reginald, this young man possessed an arrogance about him most of the time, and after a week together patience and nerves were tested. One of the chaperones said, “Too bad!”

But it was “too bad” for us because the student explained that the jacket left behind contained his wallet and passport. An adult and the student had no choice but to return all the way to the previous aircraft and back again. I was glad it wasn’t me.

It is said that if something doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger. I hope someday to return to Costa Rica, with just my wife and my kids.

But if kids are not ready for the outdoors, panoramas of mountains, volcanoes, and sea, the flora, butterfly gardens, lush rainforests, and the exotic foods of a magical place like Costa Rica, I believe it is better to give the people what they want: the Magic Kingdom and McDonalds.

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