Getting high in Central America

A clammy equatorial fug hit me as I sloped out of Juan Santamaria International Airport with the ink of a three-month visa still wet in my passport. Fug this, I thought. Worse than Durban in February. But there was no turning back. Loinfruit and Bloke had booked me a hotel room and promised to fetch me in the morning.

I was savagely jet-lagged and in no mood for plans to go awry, as they usually do when my family is involved. I came close to causing an undiplomatic incident when I discovered the minibar in my room was empty, but then let is slide when my brain reminded me it was still operating on SA time and that it’s probably not the best idea to start drinking at 4am. Stupid brain. It knows nothing about such matters.

The hotel was near the airport and the roar of outgoing flights had me thrashing about in sweat-soaked sheets shouting, “No, no! Not seat 38C!”

Loinfruit and Bloke arrived late. “Pura vida,” she said, pushing a cold Imperial beer into my sweaty paw. “Let’s roll, daddy-o.” The sides of her head were shaved and she had new tattoos. They were driving a modified Suzuki Samurai with tinted windows and raised shocks. It was like being on a jetski in choppy seas. I was told to stop squealing like a castrated goat every time we went around a bend. In Costa Rica, there are no roads without bends. This is serious hill country.

Bloke seemed at ease driving on the wrong side of the road and was amused by my repeated flinching. He told me to relax and claimed that countries with suicidal drivers have the fewest accidents. When pressed for his sources, he changed the subject and opened a beer. It sprayed his sunglasses and there was a long moment when nobody was driving the car.

“Jesus, take the wheel!” I shouted, assuming the brace position, which isn’t easy in the back of a Suzuki.

We wound our way down to the coast while I shouted and gestured at other drivers who were clearly out to kill us. Loinfruit and Bloke seemed oblivious. They live in Namibia, came here for a short holiday and got trapped by the lockdown. That was nine months ago.

They’ve since bought a house and show no signs of ever wanting to return home. Flexible generation, the Millennials.

I spotted a turnoff to a beach town called Jaco and suggested we check it out. Bloke said it was full of seedy bars, hookers and hustlers. Sounds fantastic, I said, bouncing up and down like a hyperactive child. Loinfruit gave me the lazy eye and Bloke kept on driving.

Their house is in the mountains. It’s probably about 3km from the coast as the pigeon flies. I mean a local pigeon, not one of our idiots that would get lost or forget where it was going or get distracted by a girl pigeon who might be up for a bit of a shag.

In a car, it takes thirty minutes to climb 900m. There are so many switchbacks that I lost track of which direction we were travelling in. Hemmed in by the jungle, we went through several climate zones and I soon began to feel like Edmund Hillary trying to summit Everest in a Suzuki.

“Hypoxia is setting in,” I whined. Loinfruit and Bloke glanced at one another. She turned around and frowned. “Do you think you might have the Rona?” I know these people. If they thought there was any risk of them catching something nasty, they wouldn’t hesitate to leave me on the side of the road.

“I’m fine,” I said. “You can’t even catch the attention of a cabin attendant on Lufthansa, let alone a disease.”

At the top of a misty hill, we took a sharp left and went bouncing down a dirt track in such appalling condition that we were all drenched in beer by the time we finally reached their house. We were deep in Tico turf. The locals are called Ticos. We’re called gringos. I’m sure there are less polite names for us. Well, for the Americans anyway.

The house looked like something Pablo Escobar might have used as one of his holiday homes while on annual leave from the Medellin Cartel. Mind you, the man who built the villa was a general in the Ukrainian army. He probably made Pablo look like a Boy Scout.

I didn’t want to ask where they got the money to buy a place like this. It’s unlikely I would get the truth. If they do turn out to be running guns or drugs, well, there are worse people to have in your family. In a best case scenario, I would have had a second kid who became a lawyer.

Christmas was fun. Bloke found a plastic Christmas tree left behind by the general. It’s probably still broadcasting to the Ministry of Defence in Kiev. Good luck deciphering those conversations, comrade. I barely understood them myself, largely because everyone was drunk by 10am. Which, I imagine, is standard operating procedure for the Ukrainian military.

Bloke gave me a razor-sharp machete as a gift, which was fantastic because I’ve always had a thing for blades. I showed them a couple of moves I’d learnt with a panga in Durban’s cane fields when I was younger. Loinfruit threatened to take it away from me after Bloke narrowly missed losing an ear.

“We thought you might be old enough to have one of these, but apparently we were mistaken,” she said, sucking on her 10th beer of the morning while swaying gently in the tropical breeze.

They warned me about the dangers of the jungle but I couldn’t wait to get out there. Fer-de-lance? Please. You speak with forked tongue, señor viper, and you shall feel the sharp edge of my weapon. Bloke told me about the Brazilian Wandering Spider whose bite can cause an erection lasting for up to four hours. Bring it on. The worst thing that could happen is that I’d have to join Tinder.

Apparently it also causes cramps, hypothermia, vertigo, blurred vision, intense sweating and convulsions, all of which are normal side effects of sex anyway, if you’re doing it properly.

I watched Cyril’s family monologue last week and it’s clear I got out just in time. Here, I can go to the beach and buy beer in the local supermarket whenever I want. The sea is 28ºC and there are no power cuts. The towns and villages are clean and the government takes good care of its citizens. There is no army and protected national parks everywhere. There are sloths and toucans and nobody wants to break into your house and iron your face just for the hell of it.

If anyone can think of any good reasons why I should come back, do let me know.

 

Welcome to Pandemic Air

I am sitting under a tree in the northern hemisphere in the middle of winter with barely any clothes on. Before you start feeling sorry for me, I should add that hypothermia is not about to set in any time soon. In fact, if I weren’t guzzling cold beers, it might very well be dehydration that finishes me off.

A couple of weeks ago, I woke up and realised I was in the wrong place altogether. Where I should be, I said, pushing the neighbour’s cat off my face, is in Costa Rica. The cat sat up, half closed its eyes and nodded as if to say, “Obviously, you idiot.”

A few days later I was shambling around a deserted Cape Town International Airport, hungover, dragging a suitcase held together with packing tape, facing not one but two 12-hour flights, and trying to find a way to blame the cat.

Was this a good time to be flying to the other side of the planet? At a time when a layer of pestilence has formed between the troposphere and the stratosphere? Inside a metal tube with the virally tainted for company? Of course. There is no better time to travel.

A friend had offered me one of those weird semi-prosthetic neck cushions for people with heads that flop around like beached sardines every time they close their eyes. I was having none of it. It’s not the risk of floppy head that keeps me from sleeping on a plane. It’s the trying to fit a 1.9m body into an economy class seat. Bits of me have to take it in turns to sleep. A foot here, an arm there. Never the brain, though. The brain thinks only murderous thoughts all the way through.

I glanced around at the masked vectors of infection and tried to pinpoint who would be the one to kill me. They all looked like attempted murderers escaping the country ahead of consequences. Not that we have those in South Africa.

Some were dressed for summer. Had these people never flown before? You dress for the climate at your destination, surely. What kind of monster gets on a long-haul flight to Frankfurt wearing shorts? Didn’t they know it was winter in Europe?

The plane stood on the apron for ages because there was something wrong with the machine that charts the route. You’d think the pilot would know the way by now. How hard can it be? Swallows do it every bloody year and they don’t need a machine.

The flight was half full but I preferred to think of it as half empty. A flight attendant with a disturbing resemblance to Charlotte Rampling in Night Porter said if I was quick enough I could snag myself an entire middle row after takeoff. I was nowhere nearly quick enough, even though I wanted this more than I’d ever wanted money or women. Germans are supernaturally good at grabbing things for themselves e.g. pool loungers, tables near the buffet, Poland etc.

By the time I got my seatbelt off, the only empty seats left were a window and aisle, both of which are useless for sleeping because the middle armrests are welded into place to prevent South Africans from stealing them.

We landed at dawn in a heavy fog. As we touched down, Charlotte clapped once, shouted “We made it!”, looked across the aisle at her buddy in the other jump seat and gave a double thumbs up. Bit worrying.

Security at Frankfurt airport was tighter than Jupiter and Saturn were the other night. I am partial to a girl in uniform, but not when she’s my height bulked up with kevlar body armour and an automatic weapon slung across her substantial chest.

It’s roughly at this point, after my stuff gets sent down a conveyor belt and into a darkened tunnel, that I expect to be arrested. It happens every time I fly. I almost assume the position to save them the trouble. Actually, there was a position to be assumed, beneath a moulded plastic arch. Some kind of X-ray device that sees through clothing. Feet in the footprints place, ja. Hände hoch!

A woman with the eyes of a jumping spider kept me in position for longer than necessary. Getting a good look at my willy, no doubt. I wiggled my hips suggestively but she seemed unappreciative and ordered me to move on to the next step, which involved a young deviant with obsidian eyes giving me a full-body frisk. It didn’t feel as unpleasant as it should have.

Everything was foreplay up to that point. The real heavy duty stuff, or in my case, duty free stuff, came at the end of the process. You’ve passed the body test, but you don’t know what they might have found in your belongings. I was almost home free when a gloved hand shot out. He picked up my Tanqueray and Havana Club and told me to come with him. He unlocked what looked like a broom closet. I baulked. No way was there room for both of us in there. What did he have in mind? A bit of my brandy and a little heavy petting? Instead, he put the gin into a scanner. I asked what he was looking for. Explosives, he said. I laughed and said I’d had some pretty explosive evenings on that filth but I sensed he wasn’t interested in hearing more.

Ten hours later I boarded the plane to Costa Rica. It was packed with Germans fleeing their country’s hard lockdown.

I had a window seat and a vial of Xanax and intended to make full use of both. The plan changed almost immediately when a hefty fräulein hove into view and began making moves to wedge herself into the aisle seat. The fear of being trapped between her and the aircraft was overpowering. I suggested we swap seats. Little Lotta grunted in what I took to be agreement. The way she carried on after that, it was as if we had exchanged bodily fluids, not seats. Everything I had potentially touched, she wiped down with sanitiser. She also flinched every time we inadvertently made contact. It was horrible.

I couldn’t even risk taking the Xanax because I would have slumped unconscious into the aisle and it would have taken four strong men to haul me back into my seat and strap me in place. I would wake at 3am two hundred miles above Haiti and find myself in restraints. It would get ugly. Someone from the cockpit would be summonsed to stab me in the neck with a tranquilliser dart and police would be waiting when we landed.

Despite asking the man-child in front if he wouldn’t mind not reclining his seat on account of me not having anywhere to put my legs, he did it anyway. My headphones weren’t working properly so I couldn’t even watch a movie. And I certainly couldn’t risk falling asleep on Little Lotta’s shoulder.

Costa Rica seemed a long way off. It’s unlikely I will be returning home any time soon.