For the Birds Radio Program: Costa Rica Expectations vs. Reality

Original Air Date: Feb. 2, 2001

Laura had big hopes for her Costa Rican trip. How did they compare to the reality?

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Have you ever yearned for something for many years, and when you finally got it, realized it wasn’t quite as good as you’d thought it would be? I’ve wanted to see a Resplendent Quetzal since I was four years old, and wanted to go to Costa Rica since I was not much older than that, so as the time grew near for me to actually go on my trip in January, I started bracing myself for disappointment. Of course the anticipation would exceed the actual event-at least a little. How could Costa Rica possibly meet all the lovely fantasies and expectations I’d had for it?

Two weeks before I left I’d already had my first disappointment–I’d scheduled a flight that was supposed to leave early in the morning so I’d arrive in afternoon, in plenty of time to see my first Costa Rican birds on January first–that is, 01/01/01. But Continental cancelled that flight, so I wouldn’t get in until well after dark, and couldn’t see my first tropical bird until January second. I did start the year with a chickadee and a Blue Jay that Russ and I picked up on our way to the Twin Cities airport. Without the rescheduling, I would have had to wait until January 28 to see my two favorite birds for the year, which would have messed up a tradition I’ve kept since 1975. So the minor disappointment of not seeing my first Costa Rican bird on the first was offset by the unexpected relief of starting the year with my two favorite birds.

There was a long layover in the Houston airport, and by the time my plane got over Mexico it was too dark and cloudy to see the difference between continent and ocean. I couldn’t make out mountains or lakes–nothing except where the clouds broke up enough to reveal city lights.

Finally my plane touched down and I was in Costa Rica. I’d been dreading dealing with a foreign airport– I’d heard horror stories about lost luggage, endless lines and Customs officials rifling through luggage, leaving a disorganized mess. I’d packed my suitcase to capacity-if my stuff got messed up, it would take a long time to get it organized so I could close my suitcase again.

But the brand new San Jose airport is easy to negotiate, my luggage was safe and sound, the lines for arriving tourists went by amazingly fast, and the Customs official asked me a couple of quick questions and waved me right through.

I was thrilled with my first cab ride through the city. Every city I’ve been to in the US has the weary sameness of franchises and malls and identical interstates. Here in Costa Rica everything looked foreign–the buildings, the billboards and signs, the narrow winding streets. There were some familiar things, too–even a huge 3M factory or warehouse not far from where my hotel was.

People in Costa Rica drive like maniacs–this is a country with no military at all, and I think all the testosterone in the country gets diverted to the highways instead. But that was the cab driver’s job, and I didn’t feel the least bit nervous seeing cars crossing double yellow lines, running red lights, and even jumping up on curbs. I figured if there were any real danger, the driver would appear uneasy or stressed, but he was smiling and jocular. Costa Rica’s highway fatality rate is something like 8 times that in the US, but that was one statistic I was mercifully unaware of. I simply trusted that everything would be fine, and it was. I woke up the next morning to pouring rain, but that seemed a necessary component of rain forest. I saw a half dozen lifers in the hotel garden before even sitting down to breakfast, and saw more as I ate, since the hotel has feeders outside their dining room picture windows. I didn’t know how the rest of the trip would hold up, but so far it was as good as I’d hoped.