Travel Log: Costa Rica

Tue, 31 March

Evac day. As Jon proposed, our mission patch will be reading #EvacCR2020. So far, this mission consists of chilling by the pool for a last hour or two before heading to the airport, where presumably we’ll be handled: so far we don’t even know a flight number.

Also, this means we’re now all sorted. After a first call with the embassy got us on the wait list, a second call confirmed very briefly and concisely that we’re booked and will receive details via email, which we did.

Ever since that second call two days ago, it’s like something was lifted off of our shoulders. We hadn’t been worrying much, but we were in this limbo with very limited agency. Now we knew we’d just have two days to kill, meaning we could much better enjoy the very robust routine we’d fallen into. The walk to the coffee shop, little K playing in that fountain, our hotel lunch, an afternoon pool session with K, the late afternoon doldrums, dinner, reading time. Rinse, repeat – but no more. Now, we’re on the way out, enjoying the sun and filling our summer buffers for the weeks to come.

We’re going home.

Fri, 27 March

It’s been a few slow days at San Jose, bunkered down in our hotel near the airport. We’re safe and healthy and reasonably relaxed and frankly just a bit bored.

Our days consist mostly of child entertainment activities: drawing, football, walks. Some reading for us, the occasional bit of Netflix. It’s all good.

If we weren’t so keenly aware to never leave the phones out of arm’s reach so as not to miss the embassy’s expected call, it’d be all good.

Then, late at night, I check the embassy website and discover that they ask everybody to re-register all their data for evac — if you haven’t yet received a phone call.

What I’m taking from this is that the evac registration website — built by SAP to replace the former registration website that couldn’t handle the demand — probably lost our data. And it’s built, against all best practices, without essential features that would inspire any trust: While it requires signing up for an account, there is absolutely nothing this account allows me to do. I can’t check if my data is correct, or saved at all. I can’t update it. I can’t tell if my kid’s data is in the system, or if it overwrote my own (the identifier is an email address, which my 2 year old doesn’t have).

All of a sudden, we don’t know if we’re even on any evacuation list at all, and if the embassy’s estimates of how much flight capacity they need to get everyone out is even remotely correct or off by an order of magnitude.

Days 19-23 (Thu-Mon, 19-23 March): A highly dynamic situation

The last few days were a bit of a blur. Our little hustle before had provided us with everything we’d need — a house, a full fridge and a solid supply of water, and a couple of good bottles of wine. Mobility with out little golf cart, and for entertainment purposes a surfboard and a body board as well as more toys for little K. In the absence of flight options back home, we were ready to settle in.

Then the closures started for real. Schools, bars and clubs had long since been shuttered. Next up were restaurants and cafés. Shops were still allowed to be open, but many closed anyway: the double punch combo of Corona and no tourists was enough reason not to keep going. But again, we now had a kitchen and a fridge, so we’d be ok. Not just survive ok, but actual this could be enjoyable ok.

Then the country started to close off the beaches. Not all, but many. The situation had turned, as they say, highly dynamic.

For us, that meant a new reality. Our trade-offs now were:

  • Costa Rica had low numbers of infections, and good measures in place to slow down the spread of the virus. It was sunny, and food was good. Unlike in Germany, toilet paper and soap supplies were plenty. But we didn’t know how things would escalate here, nor how robust the health system would be if push came to shove. More than that, with the beaches closed, our radius had just shrunk to our little house: Outside it was mostly too hot to do anything outside except very early in the morning. So we’d be entertaining a 2 year old from our rented house — quarantine with a good view, but still quarantine.
  • Berlin is our home, we have plenty of friends there and our own place. It’s a known entity. The health system would be overloaded, no doubt, but presumably at a higher baseline. But it’s an infection hot spot, essential supplies had been running low for some time now, and we’d be stuck in an apartment without a garden, which with a 2 year old can get pretty intense. To be frank, by the news and stories related by friends and family about the situation in Germany and Berlin, I kind of dread going there; but in the end, it’s home for us. So we’re better equipped to weather a storm there than elsewhere.

That’s when Germany’s state department, Auswärtiges Amt, announced an evacuation program to get Germans abroad back home, if they so wish. This program first focused on high-risk areas with a high number of German travelers, but was eventually extended to Costa Rica (low risk, low numbers of Germans).

We decided to go for it, and trade the paradise with an uncertain future for our home with a certainly worrying present and future.

The website that Auswärtiges Amt (AA) uses to register Germans abroad was down, constantly, the servers overloaded with requests. In a surprising act of agility, AA had SAP build a new, dedicated site just for this Corona-specific evac program, rueckholprogramm.de. This site was much more contemporary and also worked on mobile browsers, but it too was overloaded.

In the end, by Friday night we managed to register our family there. (You will not receive a confirmation email, the site warned, and please don’t call us.) It’s now Monday afternoon; we’re waiting for a call from the embassy confirming that we’ve made it onto the evacuation list.

In the meantime, we try to enjoy the last few days of our vacation, at an arms length or two from everyone else. Since the town is mostly empty, that’s not too hard.

Days 17-18 (Mon-Wed, 17-18 March): Settling in for the long haul

As Covid-19 spreads, and with it closures of schools, bars, and airports, we face a simple question: Stay or leave? Evac out on the next plane, into a high-risk region; or settle in and isolate (pardon: socially distance) in Costa Rica.

Here in CR, the situation has been quiet and under control. The government reacted swiftly, right when only 5 cases of infections were known. By now, a few days later, no tourists are allowed to enter the country. Schools are closed, and overall it’s been a lot quieter.

Given the uncertainty back home and the overall guideline to try to stay put rather than travel, we decide to stay – so we had to act quickly as all around, everything was in flux.

Through our surprisingly extensive local network of landlords, restaurant staff and others, we sort out the essentials: a house, mobility (an honest to god all-terrain golf cart), and internet. Everyone has been incredibly helpful and there’s a real sense of community – we’re all in this together. It’s an incredible demonstration of solidarity and the strength of weak ties.

Day 15 (Sat, 15 March): Should I stay or should I go?

Corona impact is growing around the globe. We follow the news of its spreading, of shutdowns, of cancellations.

The wedding we were traveling for is cancelled; sad, but certainly a good call.

Italy is shut down. In France, shops and restaurants are closed. The US banned travel from Europe. Most countries cancelled all events – first of 1000+ participants, now increasingly also sub-50. Berlin just shut down all kitas and schools.

So now we’re looking at options. Stay in Costa Rica and work from here? Go home? Working without daycare is barely realistic. All options are on the table. There’s a distinct feeling that things are going to get worse before they get better. (And that’s a pandemic that isn’t even that aggressive!)

Meanwhile, we’re in vacation mode in relative isolation, in a remote location.

Day 10 (Mon, March 9)

After a healthy & delicious breakfast we want to head to a beach past El Pais, meaning the end of the peninsula just before a nature reserve. It’s not far, but requires a ride. Which means we engage with the local transport system, which here means: taxis.

Prefering official over pirate, we find out there’s one in town, and a bunch of what appear to be varying degrees of less official ones. The ride there, smooth. The ride back never shows. After a half hour to allow for rubber time, we find another number to call, get a lady who sounds competent and helpful – and never shows. In the meantime, some rando showed up – probably a side hustle of the first official taxi driver, we turn him away. In the end, someone who was here to pick up another family is helpful and friendly and takes us back into town.

The beach was super remote. Snorkeling didn’t show many animals but the beach was gorgeous and the iguanas and crabs plenty: a success in K’s book for sure.

Day 9 (Sun, March 8)

K has long since befriended the local 5 year old neighbor, getting bike riding lessons and not caring about language barriers.

In the meantime, more relaxing ebb & flow, starting with a 6 o’clock surf, breakfast, some casual beach play time, then lunch, siesta, sunset, dinner. That’s about it.

As the news trickle in, we start wondering if by the end of our vacation planes will still run to take us home, or what alternatives we see. If push comes to shove, Costa Rica (good medical services, sparsely populated, no density of people anywhere) seems a better place than most.

Day 8 (Saturday, March 7)

A week just went by, with some surfing and some chilling and exploring and eating and really very little else. Long sleeps of 9h plus (unheard of!). It’s all very good.

We whiled away a few days at Playa Grande, then took a bus down to Santa Teresa / Playa Carmen, where we’ve fallen into the same easy rhythm: get up early (I do a round of surfing), breakfast, some beach or activity time. Then after lunch, a long-ish siesta with a bit of swimming or napping for little K. Then sunset, dinner, playtime.

It’s the easiest, most minimale schedule of all, and it works a charm.

Ps. I love, love, love having a board sitting here and to just be able to run out to the beach with it. There’s nothing like it.

Days 0-1 (Fri/Sat, Feb 28-29)

The trip starts as a bit of a blur. During the flight, little K’s fever returns, as does my own. We spend the flights dozing, and the airport times chasing pharmacies. This little 2 year old is an amazingly resilient travel buddy.

We arrive in San José at night and spend a few hours at a hotel near the airport, where in the morning a bus to the Pacific coast picks us up. Even during these first few hours, the good natured mellow vibes we get in every interaction with the ticos we talk to – it’s like a contact high, but for relaxation.

Half a day of driving later, we’re on the coast, in our hotel. Playa Grande, our town, was described as built up and touristy. We almost skipped it because of that. But also I’d forgotten to adjust for Costa Rican standards. Yes, it’s a town mostly for tourists: In the off-season, something like 70 residents remain, as one of them explains. But it’s also essentially a small gravel road next to the beach and a little… Shall we say market place? Town square? A little round-ish baked-mud opening off the street with a restaurant and a mini market and some other services and the local 24-7 emergency clinic.

Which I now know because that’s where we headed after mid-day, K’s temperature spiked to somewhat dangerous levels. (Outside temperatures of 37C didn’t help either.) And while the clinic was closed and the doctor MIA, the locals sprang into action, making calls, and arranging a ride to take us to the (open, very good) clinic a few towns over, where we got extremely competent and friendly help.